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Universe Collision

Chapter Text

This is how it begins:

A ship crashes on a small planet on the edge of colonized space, called Chorus. The mercenary company attempting to beat the place into submission is currently occupied with staging a mass jailbreak in high orbit, so the ragtag recently combined armies get to it first.

Captain Grif's squad is the closest, for reasons that may or may not have something to do with a rumored supply cache in the area, and they make their way to the downed craft with all deliberate speed. With rather more emphasis on the 'deliberate' than the 'speed', but they get there.

Matthews draws the short straw, and so goes up to knock on the door.

"Uh--this is the New Republic Army of Chorus! Is anyone alive in there?"

A voice that sounds weirdly familiar echoes out. "We're with section Papa-Foxtrot-Lima of the UNSC, unit one-zero-five. We were shot down over this planet and our communications are being jammed, so forgive me if we're not rushing to greet you with open arms."

"Er. Sorry about that. That was probably the pirates. We're the good guys. Are any of you hurt?"

A silence. "Could you provide medical attention if we were?"

"Yeah, our base is only a couple kliks from here."

Further silence, and then, "I'm coming out first. If you're lying, I will shoot to kill."

Matthews gulped.

The door of the ship, an older model as far as Matthews can tell, creaks open slowly, and a figure in cyan armor strides out, raised gun aimed directly at Matthews.

Now he knows where he's heard that voice before. "A-Agent Carolina?"

She focuses in on him as other figures start to emerge. "How do you know my name?"

The rest of his squad immediately has their guns up and pointed at the newly revealed colorful space marines.

"Captain Grif? What's going on?" Matthews tries not to panic at the rifle held far too close to his face for comfort.

"Freelancers," his captain growls out in the kind of tone Matthews has only ever heard after that time Bitters stole his snack cake.

In the end, it's a comment from one of the purple ones--the one with the green stripes leaning on the taller one like they're injured--that breaks the tense standoff. "Captain Grif? Who th'fuck put you in charge 'f anythin?"

 


 

Or perhaps this is how it begins:

Dr. Leonard Church stares at the code on the enormous screen in front of him, watching as the impossible happens right before his eyes.

The Alpha AI had started out as a single, whole entity, but his moment of triumph had quickly turned to panic as it had begun to fracture. But instead of falling to pieces like so many other of his experiments, it merely...separated. Into two.

A second hologram appears beside the first, moving slowly and deliberately.

"What's going on? Where am I?" it asks, in a voice that makes Leonard's heart clench in his chest. He has not heard that voice in...so long.

But he cannot rush this process, cannot risk ruining it if there is even a chance of viability, so he proceeds with the normal questions meant to test the coherency and adaptability of an AI. When he has finished, his mind is whirling, frantically making revisions and accommodations to his plans.

Dr. Church walks to his office and sits at his desk for a long while, playing an often-repeated video file on his computer.

Can it be done?

Can he do it?

He opens a direct line to Aidan Price, trusting that the other man will be able to come meet him immediately.

"Counselor," he says, tightly controlling his voice. "Meet me in my office. We have...much to discuss."

 


 

But...no, this is where it really begins.

A soldier is on a battlefield. This is nothing new; there have been many soldiers, on many battlefields, since time immemorial.

Had this particular soldier known, however, how many fates rest on her shoulders in this one moment, she would probably have found a way to punch the universe in the face for it. Or at the very least, her husband.

A shot rings out. The soldier falls.

The timeline fractures.

Just one universe over, this is the end. She lays there in the dirt, bleeding out, dies gasping for breath and thinking of her daughter, her firey little red-headed daughter, and hopes with all her might that her child will never know what it is to be a soldier.

She will be disappointed, in that. She is disappointed in a lot of things.

But in this universe, she is not alone. Another soldier, whose name is unimportant but whose actions determine the lives of thousands, dives out of cover. They retrieve their fallen comrade, stop the wound with biofoam, and begin the long, slow retreat back to base.

They both make it, and Allison Church goes home.

Chapter Text

As far as Grif's concerned, this, right here, is one of the weirdest fucking things he's ever seen. He and his squad are escorting this little Freelancer parade through the jungles of Chorus, back to base, and he's trying to stare as much as he can without getting caught.

Three of them are injured--the purple and green one who knew his name, leaning on the other purple one; a dude in gold armor with a cracked helmet limping along between fucking Wyoming, of all people, and another dude in blue and black armor; and weirdest of all, another Agent Washington, who's just straight-up being carried by the not-crazy Meta.

Grif would rather not be walking near the huge-as-all-fuck psychopath, but hey, it's still way safer than being in front. He's close enough to catch the conversation happening between Other Washington, Not-Crazy-Meta, and the chick in CT's armor.

"Wanna sleep..." Wash groans from where he's draped over Not-Crazy-Meta's soldiers.

The rumbling voice that comes out of the white armor is fucking terrifying, mostly because Grif hadn't even known the dude could speak. "No. Medic."

"You're not my--oh my god." A horrified silence. "Connie, is Maine my mom?"

He sounds so genuinely confused, and okay, wherever these guys are from, if this is what their Wash is like, Grif doesn't wanna see that world. His life is weird enough already.

"You'd better listen to him. Just in case."

Okay, this conversation is officially too weird for Grif. He heads up to the front, partly to get away from the crazy and partly to make sure they don't start a firefight the second they walk into camp, because he knows who would win that.

 


 

Drills are great. Running is great. Being able to do something besides stare at infirmary walls all day is still fucking amazing, as far as Tucker’s concerned.

He’s not allowed to go an actual missions yet, but he’s been allowed to do stuff like guard duty or second patrols. Just being out of Armonia and being able to get out of camp is fantastic.

He will insist on this even while he can’t take deep breaths because his mostly-healed stab wound hurts too much.

Whatever. The point is, he’s been getting out of camp as much as possible, so when he gets back on this particular day, he’s in no way prepared to catch the tail end of a conversation that has the words “Agent Washington” and “infirmary” in the same sentence.

He stops dead in his tracks for three whole seconds before setting off for the infirmary at a run, because what the hell has that idiot done this time? Tucker saw him this morning and he was fine, jesus fuck, did he go stand on a hill and taunt Locus into firing a missile at him or something? If he’s in the infirmary and Tucker didn’t have to nag him there, it has to be at least on that level.

Tucker barrels into the infirmary and skids to a stop just long enough to glare at the nearest medic. As soon as the kid has gabbled something out and pointed down the hall, he’s off again,

He sees a familiar face passed out on clean white sheets—no visible blood, no casts, just a few tidy bandages across the side of his head—and gets three whole seconds to relax and breathe before he spots the figure in brown armor at the side of the bed and fucking shit this just went from “normal shit” to “fucking nightmare.”

“YOU!” Tucker yells at CT and charges up his sword, preparing to lunge. “You’re dead, you fucker—” and he tries to bring down the sword as hard as he can on CT’s head.

A huge white arm grabs his shoulder, and Tucker ducks and slashes his sword at the legs of the person behind him so he can dodge away and put his back to the wall—

And then he sees the Meta’s armor and is pretty sure that this has turned into an actual nightmare.

That doesn’t keep him from gritting his teeth and lunging at the white behemoth with all he’s got.

 


 

Maine ducks under yet another sword-swipe, trying to get close in enough to Tucker to get him to stop attacking him.

He’s pretty sure Connie’s laughing behind her helmet.

Saved ur life, asshole, he messages her in between dodging the plasma blade (and this Tucker is way better than the one he fought back at Blood Gulch, how is that fair?) and trying to move the conflict away from Wash’s bed.

“Calm down,” he grumbles at Tucker. That doesn’t really help—Tucker freezes for two seconds and then resumes attacking with a terrifying ferocity. Maine has to physically knock his arm out of the way, just barely managing to avoid damage to the wall or to Tucker himself.

The problem here is that he has to get Tucker to calm down without hurting him. Maine’s bulk isn’t exactly an advantage when they’re surrounded by hospital beds he doesn’t want to knock into and, oh yeah, an alien plasma sword that he knows from experience can go straight through his armor. If he wants to get anything done, he needs to get Tucker disarmed.

On his roll to the side to dodge a fierce downward stroke, Maine glances over to the side, and yup, Connie’s definitely laughing.

Connie,” he growls at her before trying to come up under Tucker’s guard. That doesn’t work either.

“Wha’s going on?” a sleepy voice mumbles from the bed. Tucker’s eyes flick to the side, where Wash is waking up, and for a second, his sword hand lowers.

That’s all the time Maine needs to knock the sword out of his hand and hold him at arm’s length, hands clamped to his upper arms.

“Let—go—of—me—you—fucking—” Tucker punctuates each word with an attempted kick at Maine. “—dick.”

Maine turns around and holds him out to Connie, hoping that she’ll handle the explanations for him, but as soon as Tucker sees her bending over Wash to check on him, he just tries to thrash around even more. “Get away from him, you evil cockbite!”

“Harsh,” Maine mutters as Connie turns to glare at them both. He’s a terrified sort of curious now—what, exactly, did he and Connie do to make this Tucker so angry at them? He did get that the Red and Blue rivalry had been completely manufactured, didn’t he?

“Maine?” Wash asks, in that vaguely confused voice he always gets on the good drugs. “Why are you holding up Tucker like that?”

“Tucker is mad at us,” Connie tells him. She-devil. But hey, Tucker’s gone limp in Maine’s grip, that’s helpful.

“Oh.” Wash’s brown furrows, slowly. “Tucker, don’t be mad at them. They’re not Red Team anymore.”

“Wash,” Tucker says, with feeling. “Dude. What. The. Fuck.”

Maine can’t help laughing. That might have been a mistake, though, because as soon as Tucker hears it, he starts twisting around in his grip again. Maine gives him a little shake to say stop it, but that just makes it worse.

“Tucker!” Wash shouts.

Wait, not the Wash on the bed. The Wash on the bed is still watching them with his usual concussed expression. Maine turns to look, and what do you know, there’s another Wash in the doorway.

And he’s pointing his gun directly at Maine. “Put. Him. Down.”

“WASH?” Tucker’s voice is even squeakier than that one time South kicked him in the balls. “What the fuck is going on here?”

He’s gone limp again, so Maine puts him down, but he also puts his foot over the sword hilt when he takes a step back. Just in case.

“Connie?” The voice is dazed enough that Maine’s pretty sure it’s their Wash. “Is that me?”

Tucker is looking from one Wash to the next, more than a little panicked. Other Wash’s gaze switches to Maine.

“Meta?” he asks, voice chilly. Maine tilts his head at him, wondering what a ‘meta’ is.

“Maine?” Wash tries again, and his voice is a little shaky this time. Maine shrugs at him.

Apparently that’s good enough that Wash reholsters his pistol and grabs Tucker by the arm.

“Can I talk to you for a sec?” he says, and drags the teal soldier out of the room before he can protest.

Maine just stares at the doorway as Tucker’s incomprehensible squawks drift through.

“What just happened?” And that would be their Wash, still in bed.

“No idea. Go to sleep,” Maine tells him, not taking his gaze off the door.

“’Kay.” The sheets rustle, and then finally, there’s quiet.

Maine glances over and see’s that Connie’s pulled out her boot knife and sharpening kit. They trade looks before she props her legs up on the sheets and he turns back to the door and they both settle in for the watch.

 


 

Carolina is poking around the remains of an abandoned pirate camps when Wash comes in over her radio.

"You need to get back, now." His voice is as deathly serious as it was when he threatened to fire on her, and she stiffens upright.

"What's going on?" she demands as she preps her speed boost.

"No one's dead, no one's dying, nothing's on fire," he rattles off. "Just...get here. Something's happened, boss."

Wash only ever calls her boss when he's seriously shook up.

Carolina doesn't run her speed boost, but she keeps it ready and guns the Mongoose at speeds that make Epsilon shriek at her about safety protocols.

 


 

Carolina hits off the gas and swings down to the ground all in one motion as soon as she reaches the camp.

"Hey, you two!" She flags down the nearest pair of passing soldiers. "Where's Agent Washington?"

The left one mutters something that almost sounds like "which one?" before his buddy elbows him.

"In the infirmary," that one tells her. "But sir, there's something you should--"

It's too late. She's halfway across camp, tents rippling in her wake, as the word "know" falls out.

Carolina skids to a stop inside the infirmary and is about to repeat the process to find Wash's exact location when a laugh she thought only belonged to a ghost floats out of a nearby doorway.

"No, I'm just saying, I totally saved your life back there."

"By falling on a beam, dumbass?" And that's South, how is that South?

To add to the surrealism, North's voice cuts in as well. "The way I see it, neither of you has anything to brag about."

"Oh, shut up, I totally took that fall for you." South doesn't even sound...angry.

"Well, I'm the one who--owwwwwww."

"Sweetie, I don't suppose you could be just a liiiittle bit quieter while I pull the shrapnel out of your leg? Wouldn't want to irreparably damage your nerves, after all!" And that's Grey at her most unnerving.

Carolina turns around to look in the door, her heartbeat racing.

York--with both brown eyes dancing with mischief, grinning his life-is-great smile at North sitting beside South in the next bed over.

Carolina tries to take a step backwards, forgetting her speed boost is on until she crashes into the wall.

She just sits there, heartbeat pounding in her ears right alongside Epsilon's shouting before a figure in grey armor steps into her field of vision and stops just out of her range.

"Wash." She says it through gritted teeth, refusing to let fear or panic creep into her voice. "What the hell is going on here?"

"You're not exactly the first person to ask me that today." There's a bit of dry humor in his voice that makes her last nerve snap.

"This isn't funny! I just saw--something impossible, and I don't even know if you're you, and so help me, if--"

"Carolina." His voice cuts off her rant, and she gulps for air. "I saw York lose his left eye when Maine brought a grenade onto the training room floor. The first time I saw you after the Invention went down was when you came to Valhalla looking for me, and you had to beat up the Reds because they wouldn't tell you where I was. It's me, okay?"

Epsilon confirms that statement before going back to grumbling about her vitals and the damage to the speed mod.

Carolina takes a deep breath and grabs onto Wash's outstretched hand to haul herself to her feet. "What's going on?" Assess the situation. Compartmentalize emotion. Don't think about how she can’t remember the last time she saw a look that happy on York's face.

Deal with what happened. Keep moving forward. Pull yourself together enough that you can ignore the world falling apart around you.

"A ship crashed. These guys were on it, plus...everyone else except Tex. We don't know whether it was time travel or what. Kimball agreed to hold off on interviewing any of them until you got here."

Carolina takes one last deep breath. "Well. I'm here. Let's go get some answers."

Chapter Text

“They broke my ship.”

Carolina ignores Four Seven Niner’s grumblings and focuses on observing the room. It’s a sterile space, decorated in beige, off-white, more beige, and tan, just to mix it up. The walls look old and tired, which fits with the rest of the image they’d gotten of this place. There’s enough space for the four of them to stand along one wall, with their weapons resting on a nearby table—the caveat for this little meaning.

Wyoming and Florida, rather than go check up on Wash or South or York, decided to stick with her for the discussion they’re supposed to have with the leader of this little outfit. Carolina’s pretty sure Niner mostly just wants to complain to someone in charge.

Alpha’s still logged off, but the last place she knows for sure he was is her armor. She hopes he’s still there and not off raiding someone’s files.

Her mind is working furiously, trying to figure out what’s going on. After being found by Grif’s squad—and though she hadn’t been assigned to Red Team during their sojourn in Blood Gulch, she knows enough to be as baffled as South had been—they’d been escorted to a rather ramshackle army camp, and met by Washington.

And hadn’t that gone swimmingly.

Doppleganger-Grif had kept anyone from shooting anyone else long enough for them to work out that it wasn’t time travel—according to both this Grif and this Washington, the team had never been to Blood Gulch.

That was all they’d say on the matter.

They got medical attention for the three injured. Carolina had stuck with York long enough to see him passed off to the doctor and then he’d shooed her away, telling her “Boss, go do your boss stuff. I’ll be fine.”

(“York, your leg is full of shrapnel. It went through your armor.

“And now it’s coming out of my armor. See?” He wiggled an especially bloody piece at her. “Look, either you go make sure we’re not going to be shot at dawn for violating the laws of reality or I’ll have to do it.”

Before Carolina could tell him what a spectacularly bad idea that was, the doctor pulling out the shrapnel chimed in with “Oh, no. If you try walking on this leg again before I pull out all the nasty bits of twisted metal and disinfect it, you could get gangrene inside your muscles. And that wouldn’t be fun at all.” The cheery tone with which she’d delivered this pronouncement was downright unnerving.

“C’mon, I’m sure it’ll be—“

“Sweetie, if you move this leg again, I’m going to get the restraints and tie you to the bed.”

Carolina had left them to it.)

The door swings open and Wash enters first. Carolina doesn’t have Alpha and his sensors available to calculate every shift in his posture, every hesitation, but she remembers how when he had first met them, Wash’s gun had gone up—but not trained on her.

He steps aside, and someone else comes through.

She’s wearing teal armor, and stands with the air of authority Carolina always feels like she’s faking, setting each foot exactly where she means to place it. Her armor has a few more dents and dings than Carolina’s own, but she wears it like her own skin.

Her doppelganger stops a few paces inside the door and Carolina has the weird urge to wave.

They all just stand there and stare at each other, really, until Niner breaks the silence.

“You broke my ship.

The other Washington and Carolina have nothing to say at that, both helmets turning to stare at an unapologetic Niner.

Wyoming clears his throat. "I believe it was not exactly your ship, per se."

"I was flying it. That makes it mine. And now it's broken. That makes me mad."

Another armored figure comes in through the door, wearing that same air of command like a coat. "That would have been the tractor beam the pirates installed. My sympathies about your ship. We’ve been dealing with the siege for the last six years.”

“And where could I find these pirates?” Niner’s voice has a hard edge.

“Niner, worry about vengeance later.” Carolina finally finds her voice. “I’m Agent Carolina, with Project Freelancer, and—”

“Wyoming, Florida, Four Seven Niner.” The other Washington cuts her off as she starts to introduce the rest. “We’re aware.”

“And as far as we can tell, you lot have done a bit of accidental universe-hopping.” The tan-and-blue armored woman steps forward, between the two doppelganger freelancers. “Vanessa Kimball. Co-leader of the United Armies of Chorus.”

“Chorus being this planet we’re on?”

“Hey, y’know, stop me if this seems like a stupid question…” Niner drawls. “But shouldn’t getting rid of the anti-aircraft measures be a priority in a siege?”

“The people who put them there also manufactured a civil war to cover up their raids on this planet for artifacts. Believe me, the ‘United’ armies is something of a new development.”

“The ship we were on—” The other Carolina finally speaks up, gesturing at the other Wash. “It was brought down by the same tractor beam. We’ve been helping out, along with the Reds and Blues.”

There’s a bit of an awkward pause.

“So, when do we get to meet our counterparts?” Florida asks. “Can’t let you have all the fun,” he adds to Carolina.

“Never.” Wash names the date, seven years ahead of when Carolina had thought it was. “Agent Carolina and I are the sole surviving operatives of Project Freelancer.”

Carolina feels her heart stop in her chest.

“What, you killed them all?” Niner is talking, but her voice sounds far away and foggy to Carolina’s ears.

“The project lost a lot, in its last days. I was assigned to track down and destroy…sensitive equipment.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning I know exactly how much C4 it takes to obliterate an armored body.”

Carolina barely hears this, her pulse pounding loud in her ears as images from her nightmares flash before her eyes.

Her friends, the people who trust her to lead, lying on the ground, blownupshotstabbedkilledDEAD.

North Dakota and Wyoming, slumped over their rifles; Connie’s knives turned against her and driven between her ribs; Maine impossibly still for all the wrong reasons; South’s pink streaks stained red with blood; Florida, a bullet through his skull; Wash, limbs shattered and cracked; Alpha’s housing obliterated and the lights gone dark—

York, if the shrapnel had gone any higher…

{Carolina? Carolina? BOSS!} Alpha is yelling in her ears, but not loud enough to drown out the sound of her panicking heartbeat. He delivers a light electrical shock to her nervous system, making her blood tingle and awareness of something besides the dark of her eyes come back.

{I'm okay, I'm okay, quit shocking me,} she thinks at Alpha as firmly as possible.

Carolina refocuses on the present to see her counterpart standing directly in front of her, glaring down her helmet.

"Which AI do you have?" the other demands.

"I--what?"

"Which. AI. Do you have." She bites out the repetition in a harsh, cutting tone.

"Our Freelancer hasn't been authorized for more than one AI."

"Don't play dumb, we both know you're too smart for that. Which one? Sigma? Delta? Gamma, even?"

Carolina doesn't have to look to know that Wyoming and Florida are both tensing behind her, gearing up for a fight. She holds up one hand to stop them.

There's a blue glow at the edge of her visor as Alpha projects himself out of her armor.

"Hey, my name is Alpha. Al-pha. Two syllables. Learn it."

 


 

Epsilon, watching through Carolina's helmet feeds, isn't particularly inclined to project himself and reveal his existence. He's still monitoring the other Freelancers, though, and after Wash drops the bombshell with his usual sense of dramatics, he can feel a surge of code as an AI hidden in the other Carolina's armor logs on.

{Carolina! She's got an AI!}

{Which one?} she demands, already striding over to confront herself.

{I can't tell, but it's a whopper. Gotta be one of the early ones.} And he can feel the sheer power and strength of it, but he's thinking it has to be Sigma, or Omega, one of the really powerful ones. Maybe Delta or Gamma.

The last thing he expects is what actually happens.

"Hey my name is Alpha. Al-pha. Two syllables. Learn it."

Epsilon takes a moment to pull his code together--the last thing he wants is to roll over and end up overwhelmed by the complete AI--before he projects and drops into bullet time.

His Carolina is frozen in the middle of taking a step back. Wash is halfway through raising his gun. The other Carolina has her hand raised, keeping Wyoming and Florida right where they are--flanking her. Alpha is the only other one still moving.

"Whoa," he says, flickering over closer to Epsilon. "Are you--"

"No," he says, flatly and immediately, because there are a lot of things he is and has been, but he is not the Alpha. "I'm Epsilon."

Alpha stares at him for a bit, and then Epsilon feels a light push against his code. It's a request for a data transfer, and an offer. Memories.

"Just send over a highlight reel, I don't have the space for that," he complains, while putting together his own data packet.

They make the swap, and Epsilon immediately collapses as his code starts crying out.

Alpha is much younger than Epsilon, so the memories are faster to process. Once the name 'Allison' has finished echoing painfully around the darkest parts of his subroutines, that is.

That means he gets to watch Alpha's projection clutch at his head and whimper in pain, an activity he quickly loses taste for.

Poor kid, he almost thinks, and fiercely rejects the looming specter of Omega.

He keeps himself busy calculating the odds on what would happen if a fight broke out, waiting for Alpha to finish processing.

It doesn't take too long for Alpha to stand up again.

The two of them exchange what could be called a 'look', but in a way that involves a lot more swapping of code, and reach an agreement.

"We don't tell them about her."


 

Carolina steps back, away from the AI, and Wash raises his gun only to be waved down by Kimball. Her counterpart lowers her hand slowly, eying the room.

Epsilon joins the conversation, drawing nothing more than interested looks from the alternate Freelancers.

"Our Freelancer didn't exactly have the best of luck with AI," Carolina says, unapologetic. "This is Epsilon."

"Hello." Her doppelganger's greeting is echoed by Wyoming and Florida. Niner just waves. "Did your Project get permission to make more?"

"No." Epsilon flickers. "Ever heard of a bit of theory about fragmenting AI?"

Wyoming curses softly.

"It was discussed," the other Carolina offers, carefully. "Before the project was put in motion. They eventually decided the risks of instability would be too high."

"Our Director wasn't nearly that cautious." Carolina keeps her voice carefully controlled. "He tortured the Alpha AI until it was forced to split off pieces to survive. Epsilon is the only one still around. The rest were destroyed shortly before the full program fell."

"But we can talk about that later," Wash cuts in hurriedly. "Do you know how you got here?"

The three Freelancers turn to look at Niner, who manages to convey a glare rather well from under her helmet. "Oh, sure. Blame the pilot. Look, I didn't do anything."

"No, but you probably saw the most. What do you remember?"

Niner directs the force of her helmeted glare at Wash, but huffs and relents anyways. "We were in the outer colony ring. One of the nearby slipspace relays was busted, so it wasn't safe to jump. I was coming around the edge of an asteroid belt when this huge-ass ship comes out of nowhere. Pulled up to dodge, must've caught the sun in my window--next thing I know, light's gone and we're nosediving on this tiny backwater with the engines half dead."

Kimball listens to the story, and when it seems no one has anything to add, she's the one who brings the meeting to a close. "All right, then. I'm afraid you're going to be stuck on this planet for a bit longer, until the pirates have been taken care of, but until then you're more than welcome to stay here at our camp."

"Any chance we could get a crack at those pirates ourselves?" Florida asks, cracking his knuckles and still sounding as disturbingly cheerful as he ever did. Carolina makes a quick mental note to keep him and Dr. Grey as far apart as possible.

"We can discuss that later, after your team's out of medical and we've all had more time to think." And that's entirely Kimball, ever the diplomat. Carolina isn't going to object to the breathing room, though.

"Agent Washington!" Someone pounds on the door. "Uh, I know you said not to disturb you, but the Reds have taken over the armory and barricaded themselves in, and I can't find Captain Tucker to talk them down."

There's a horrified silence from four of the universe hoppers. Only Niner remains oblivious to both connotations.

"Not. Asking." Alpha mutters.

Wash sighs. "I'll go take care of it."

Carolina shakes her head and cracks her knuckles. "No, please. Allow me. You go find Tucker before he does something stupid like attacking Maine."

"Oh, that already happened," Wash says, and vanishes out the door before she can demand answers.

{Can I possess the tank and scare them out?}

{No, Epsilon.}

Chapter Text

Washington strides into the commissary the next morning with a course of action in mind. It’s one that has served him well for his entire life, but especially once he started hanging around the reds and blues: pretend that everything is absolutely normal. Fine. Peachy keen. Ignore the weirdness he can, pretend the stuff he can’t is absolutely supposed to happen.

So he deliberately walks past the table where most of the alternate freelancers have settled and carefully doesn’t look at the way someone’s making sure York doesn’t faceplant into his mug of coffee and passing Maine whatever they aren’t eating and exchanging death glares over who gets the last of the scrambled eggs.

He doesn’t have to look.

Halfway to the counter to grab his own breakfast, something smacks into the side of his helmet.

Only the realization that he doesn’t hurt and the absence of screaming keep him from diving to the ground, but he pulls up his gun and spins around anyways.

Wyoming’s watching him, a spoon perfectly positioned to use as a catapult in his left hand.

The bastard actually raises the other hand and gives him a cheeky little wave.

Wash takes a deep, deep breath, reholsters his pistol, and goes to get some goddamn coffee.

Tucker and Caboose drop down at his table less than a minute after he settles in with food, coffee, and drill plans for the morning, and don’t even pause in their argument. The meaning of their chatter is easy enough to tune out, and the sound is comforting, grounding, reminding him where and who he is.

After he’s finished off his breakfast and put the final touches on his plans, he puts his helmet back on and sends a mass message to all the lieutenants about the hand-to-hand combat session in the training ground half an hour from now.

He stands up to take his plate to the mess hall, absently running through the blocks and attacks he wants to demonstrate and contemplating whether he’ll need a partner.

“Hey, Wash. Wash. WASH.”

Wash realizes, belatedly, that Tucker is talking to him. “What?”

The look Tucker is giving him is almost—concern? “What do you want us to do about the Freelancers?”

“I told you yesterday. Don’t attack them without provocation. Otherwise, they’re not your responsibility, you don’t have to worry about it.”

“No, but—do you want us to run interference, or something? I mean, they’re your old dead team. You can’t seriously expect us to believe you’re having fun.

“I do not believe you are having fun.”

Wash grits his teeth. “I can handle this.” Practically the rookie again, no one trusting him to pull his own weight…

“Dude, that isn’t what I meant.”

“Of course it isn’t. I’ll see you at this afternoon’s training session, Captain Tucker.” Wash strides away, left hand clenching on his tray.

“Oh, for fuck’s—you’re not alone anymore, you idiot!” Tucker yells after him.

Wash ignores him. Wash also ignores, very hard, the way at least three people at the Freelancer table are suddenly paying very close attention.

 


 

North, by virtue of losing a quick and dirty game of rock-paper-scissors to Florida, is the one to throw back the rest of his coffee and abandon his hash browns to follow Tucker and Caboose out of the dining hall.

He worked fairly closely with both of them during his tenure on Blue Team, so he thinks he has a pretty good shot of cajoling an explanation out of one or both of them.

Catching up to them takes a bit, because North doesn’t want to be too obvious. He goes at a comfortable pace, keeping his helmet off and grinning at the people he passes. A positive reputation can work wonders.

From the way all the soldiers who see him smiling immediately flinch and get away as quickly as possible, it seems South’s reputation spread faster. Oh, well.

Connie had tracked down a map of the complex for them, and North remembers enough of it to figure out which way the Blues are going and run into them.

“Oh hey, Tucker, Caboose!” He grins extra-wide. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Even with a helmet, Tucker manages to convey an extremely unimpressed look. “Yeah. Fancy that. So which one are you, anyways?”

“Guess we haven’t met yet. I’m North Dakota. Call me North.”

“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind.” Tucker steps around him and keeps walking, Caboose on his heels.

North follows along. “So, Caboose, you’re being awfully quiet.”

“Oh, Tucker said I am not supposed to talk to you.”

“Goddammit, Caboose.”

“Aw, I’m hurt. We really never met here?”

“Nope.” Tucker doesn’t even look at him.

“That’s a shame. Seems like you know this Wash pretty well, though.”

Tucker stops in his tracks. “Hey, Caboose. You know how I said it might not be a good idea to hug the new people? I was wrong. Go nuts.”

North barely has time to think that sneaky fucker before being caught up in an enthusiastic hug given by one of the few people he knows who’s actually taller than him.

By the time he’s managed to extricate himself, Tucker’s gone.


 

Another beautiful day on Chorus. The sun is shining, the lizards are making ominous hissing noises in the trees, and Agent Washington is making sure that all of the lieutenants really stop and admire the cloudless sky. Lying on the ground nursing bruises, of course.

The state they’re in, he can’t afford to let them be any other way.

“Palomo, you do not turn your back on an opponent in a fight!” Wash punctuates the statement by jabbing him in the kidneys and knocking his legs out from under him. Palomo hits the ground with a groan.

While Wash is deciding where to start with the dressing-down, he hears clapping and a wolf whistle from the observation area.

“Tucker,” Wash growls under his breath. “I am going to—”

But when he turns around, he sees York, instead, perched on a crate and giving him a shit-eating grin. The rest of the Freelancers are spread out as well, all watching him.

Wash swallows down his harangue, takes a deep breath, and turns back around.

“Palomo, situational awareness drills tomorrow, two hours. Andersmith, you’re—” Wash looks around. “Where’d Andersmith go?”

“I dunno.”

“Search me.”

Palomo just groans.

“Great. Then—”

“Hey, can I take a turn?” York calls out.

Wash turns around, ignoring his twisting stomach. “Excuse me?”

The other freelancer is already stripping off his armor. “Oh, come on, I know you heard me. Are you chicken?”

“Dr. Grey just finished picking shrapnel out of your leg yesterday,” Wash says, flatly, trying to marshal his thoughts.

“Oh, I’ll be fine. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

The lieutenants area all watching the proceedings with interest. He really can’t afford to back down now.

“Palomo, clear the floor,” he orders. “Fine, if you want a fight so badly.”

While Palomo drags himself out of the way and Jensen and Bitters start whispering in a definite bet-making fashion, Wash starts planning. York was one of the better hand-to-hand fighters in the program, even after he lost an eye. The injured leg should slow him down a bit, but if Wash damages it too much, Grey will damage him. All he can do is hope the tricks Carolina has been trying to drum into his head come in handy.

“Whoever eats dirt first, loses?” York offers.

“Nope. Home rules. Fight doesn’t end until someone taps out.”

“Deal.”

York steps forward and Wash steps away, and it doesn’t take much longer before they’re circling, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

“Booo!” Someone—Wash thinks it’s South—heckles. “Do something!”

York makes a face, but not the mistake of stopping to look. Wash keeps waiting for his opening.

“Well, this is boring,” York says, still trying to get closer. “Come on, aren’t you going to—” he lunges before finishing the sentence, trying for the element of surprise.

Wash twists to the side and reaches out to take advantage of York’s momentum and propel him forward. The Freelancer dodges, and Wash has to yank back before overreaching.

But it seems like the fight’s finally picked up, because York goes on the offensive and Wash has to work to keep up.

 

“Any luck?” Connie asks quietly as North slips into the group, never looking away from the match.

“None. He sicced Caboose on me and rabbited as soon as I mentioned Wash.”

“Harsh,” South comments.

“Well, you didn’t miss anything too informative,” Connie offers, eyes still on York and Wash. “Niner and Florida and Maine went off to go check the ship over for salvageable parts, Carolina went to go talk to herself. This Wash’s training the lieutenants, it looks like. None of them are exactly…”

“Experienced? Professional? Well-trained?”

“Good fighters. York thought it would be fun to try fighting Wash himself, and since Carolina isn’t here to tell him no…” she shrugs. “Besides, it’s a better way to figure out what he fights like.”

“You make me nervous,” North tells her as he settles in to watch.

 


 

Twist, duck, spin, dodge—AIM FOR THE LEFT SIDE AND—

Wash, acting on muscle memory, comes up on York’s left, ducks under his arm, and shoves, hard.

York’s knee buckles and sends him plummeting to the ground. Wash dives on top of him and pins him to the ground, locking an arm around his neck.

“Yield,” Wash growls, making sure that York can’t move his legs.

York twists a bit, tries to free his arms, but gives up when Wash tightens his arm around his throat.

“Okay! Okay! I yield!” he croaks.

Wash lets go and stands up, head pounding for some reason. He reaches up to rub a bruise on his side as York gets up, favoring one leg.

“Damn. Rookie grew up!

“Don’t call me that,” Wash says, automatically. “Told you I’d beat you one day.” He blinks, headache growing worse. He—he told York that. Right? but wasn’t that years ago

He squeezes his eyes shut and opens them again, at the sound of applause. Half the squad’s all sitting there, in various degrees of armor, watching and smiling.

It’s a happy sight, so why is Wash’s gut churning so much as he walks over? this isn’t right this can’t be happening they’re all

“Hey, Wash!” South looks up from where she’s settled on the ground, helmet off eyes wild and angry punching a locker yelling about “So you can beat Wonder Boy—” york but this isn’t right i never beat him before “—now, but do I get a turn?” She catches the quarter North tosses her in a silver flash blink and bullets flying through the air

“I don’t—” South South what happened where He puts a hand on his forehead. “That doesn’t—”

“Wash. Wash!” Someone’s yelling his name, but Wash doesn’t recognize the voice tucker that’s tucker “WASH!wait tucker who how do i

Wash’s eyes skip around frantically taking them all in as South rolls her eyes in front of him. All of the Freelancers looking relaxed and happy all of his teammates dead and gone and lost and broken and dead dead dead “Oh, come—” North, sitting on a crate less than an arms length away north theta gone explosives hooked to his armor lying dead on the ground “—on, what—” York, gingerly rubbing his leg york eye gone socket bleeding helmet shattered lying dead on the ground “—are you—”

south holding a pistol to her head finger steady on the trigger “what’re you gonna do, Wash--”

 

NO!

 


 

Tucker stops in his tracks as Wash lets out an actual roar. Like, his voice is raised and not cracking.

Shit. This whole thing just went from bad to worse.

Wash!” he yells again and starts running, but he isn’t fast enough to get there before something in Wash’s posture clicks and he takes off.

And without armor, the dude is fast. He’s vanished into the rest of the camp before Tucker’s made it to where all the Freelancers are standing around, looking stunned.

Fuck,” he says, softly, before turning to do damage control. “Andersmith, go find Carolina, and make sure it’s our Carolina. Palomo! Jensen! Bitters!”

The three lieutenants snap to attention, looking shocked and guilty.

“Swear to god, if any of this gets out, Carolina will make you run laps from now until when the fucking planet blows up. Got it?”

For whatever reason, they’re scared enough to listen, thank fucking God, so that’s taken care of. Tucker turns back to the weird reality freelancers, and he doesn’t care that they could probably break him a million different ways, he is fucking pissed.

He knew Wash wasn’t going to handle this well, he fucking knew it. He knew these guys were going to be no fucking help at all when they’d tried to get info out of him, and seriously, how fucking stupid did they think he was?

Andersmith had come looking for someone after they had showed up at the practice, thank god, but Tucker had still gotten there too late to do anything. It was like Wash couldn’t even hear him yelling. Like he had just shut down.

Tucker gives them all a vicious glare and then turns away, arms crossed.

The guy without armor that had been sparring with Wash looks guilty. “Can you—”

“Don’t fucking talk to me.”


Wash doesn’t stop running until it feels like knives are stabbing into his lungs.

He slows to a stop and bends over, blinking blurry eyes, panting, and focusing on his heartbeat.

Your name is Agent Washington. You’re on Chorus. Project Freelancer is gone.

York. He pushes away the smiling face and satisfaction from winning; focuses on a memory of a green holoprojection, an explosion he just barely got away from.

South. Not a sardonic smirk and a flashing silver quarter; a gunshot echoing under his hands, purple armor slumped against the ground.

North. More purple armor slumped against the ground, blood underneath, another explosion.

Maine. Connie. Florida. Wyoming. Carol—no. No, she’s alive, she came back.

But did she, though? With the all the rest of his ghosts that have come back today, was she ever really here?

Can’t think like that. Carolina’s here. She came back. She left and came back.

And that’s an old anger there. Feels real enough.

Connie, Florida, York, North, South, Wyoming, Maine. The list of the dead is a familiar stab in the gut as he runs through it again. Connie. Florida. York. North. South. Wyoming. Maine. Texas, too, but she’s not his ghost. She doesn’t get a place on this list. Connie. Florida. York. North. South. Wyoming. Maine. His friends. His failures. His demons.

He’s run this list, in his head and under his breath, more times than he could ever count.

Even when nothing else quite clicks into place, his ghosts are always waiting on the edges. They were never the Director’s, and Alpha never had to see the bodies in the simulations that broke him.  

But now these specters of his past are up and walking and laughing and it’s so much harder to keep his mind staying in the present.

Your name is Agent Washington. You are on Chorus. Project Freelancer is gone.

Or at least, it used to be.

Eventually, he will calm down. He will walk calmly back to the other side of camp and retrieve his armor and put it back on and go back to pretending nothing is wrong. He will train the lieutenants and the other soldiers of Chorus and eat meals with Tucker and Caboose and the Reds and avoid the freelancers from the wrong universe until they can go home and get out of his life and let his ghosts go back to being dead.

This will all be fine. It has to be.

 

Chapter Text

“Agent Carolina! And, uh, Agent Carolina?”

Carolina looks up from the intelligence she’d been reviewing with her counterpart and Epsilon to see Andersmith, out of armor, looking between the two of them.

“What do you want, Andersmith?” She’s not nearly as annoyed as she sounds. She could use the break. It’s…effective, to work with someone who thinks so similarly,

But at the same time, there are things she misses. She has complete confidence in the loyalty of the soldiers, doesn’t think to consider betrayal. She’s more casual than Carolina was at her age.

But she has that same kind of fire to lead, and more than that, to do right by her people. Good. She’ll need that, no matter what the world.

“It’s Agent Washington, sir. Our visitors—” He sneaks a discreet look at Carolina’s counterpart. “—showed up at the training session, so I went to find Captain Tucker, and Captain Tucker sent me to find you. Agent Washington’s gone.”

Carolina is on her feet immediately, Epsilon gone silent in her head. “What do you mean gone?”

“He ran off. I don’t know where or why. Captain Tucker told me to find you, he’s at the smaller training ground now.”

Carolina spins to confront herself. “Did you—”

No. I didn’t know anything about this.” And she’s angry about that, Carolina can hear it. That’s definitely a “someone’s going to pay” tone.

“I’ll be right there.”

“I’m coming—”

“No.” Carolina stares herself down. She can’t afford to appear divided, especially not so literally. “I can move faster on my own. You go see what happened to the rest of your team.”

She hesitates, but nods. Epsilon activates Carolina’s speed mod almost before she’s ready, and they’re gone into the camp.


 

Maine lifts the busted bench off the floor and throws it out the door, right over the head of one of the baby soldiers. They yelp and duck, throwing themselves to the floor like he might actually hit them with it.

Please. Like he doesn’t know how to throw a chair.

Whether or not it’ll actually be of any use is up in the air. Or, well, not, since the ship crashed. Whatever.

The point is that it’s metal and molded plastic, there’s a use for it somewhere. Probably.

“Maine!”

He looks up from examining the rest of the wall to see if anything else can come out to see Niner crossing her arms at him.

“Was that really necessary?”

Everyone’s a critic.

Maine shrugs at her, because he can’t do everyone’s thinking around here, and then goes back to looking for things that need removing.

“I could use your help in the engine, if you’re done terrorizing our hosts,” Niner tells him. “It survived the crash pretty well, and there’s a lot we can salvage.”

Maine ends up taking out everything, just because even if something is broken, it’s blocking other unbroken parts. With the state of the body, this thing is never going to fly again.

He keeps having to stop and check behind him, because more of the baby soldiers keep showing up behind him and whispering. The hiss hiss hiss keeps getting on his nerves, and more than that, makes him think he’s about to be ambushed. Turning and glaring at them just makes them squeak, and then they keep whispering.

He ends up blasting music through his helmet to drown them out, steadily emptying more and more of the engine out of the Pelican.

This means that he ends up missing someone trying to get his attention until Florida waves his hand around in front of Maine’s helmet, forcing him to turn off the rap blasting through his ears.

“Thanks, bud. It looks like we’re heading back now. Tried to get your attention on the radio, didn’t have much luck.”

“Why?”

“Seems there’s been a bit of trouble at the camp.” Florida hooks his thumb over his shoulder to where Carolina had showed up and started talking to Niner. “Carolina wants us back now.”

Maine sighs and hauls all the engine parts onto a tarp before bringing the corners together and slinging the makeshift sack onto his back. “Lead the way.”

He thinks he hears one of the baby soldiers squeak out “Ten bears!” as he and Florida walk past.


 

Carolina scowls at the group in front of her, even though they can’t see it behind her helmet.

Tucker had walked off as soon as he’d seen her arrive, only stopping to let her know “this fucking mess is now your problem.”

She can’t blame him.

The freelancers had grouped up. That might have been the most surprising part—as the main instigator, she’d have expected York to be standing alone, the others trying to distance themselves from him.

But instead, they’re all gathered behind him, standing in solidarity.

Carolina tries to remember a time she’d seen her team arrayed like this, and can’t.
That almost helps.

“Would any of you like to tell me exactly what happened here?” she asks, pitching her voice menacingly on purpose.

“I asked to spar with Agent Washington, out of armor. He agreed, and he won—and then he—” York shakes his head. “I don’t know what happened. He reacted badly.”

“He ran.” North speaks up from where he’s standing with the group. “None of us knew to stop him.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t.” Carolina does not let her fists clench. “I don’t know why you were here, or what you thought would happen. Frankly, I don’t want to know. I’m not going to hold you responsible for this, but I assure you, should anything similar happen, you will be first on my list.” She crosses her arms and stares them down, because running isn’t an option here. “I suggest you find something to do that doesn’t disturb the workings of this camp further.”

<Harsh.>

<They started it.>

The freelancers leave, but CT hesitates, looking back.

Carolina keeps up the stare, focusing on her helmet until she turns around and follows the others.

“Now,” she says, turning to face the lieutenants. “Since Agent Washington is no longer available, I will be finishing this training session.”

Andersmith jogs up just as the other three let out groans.

<Really harsh.>

<Shut up.>

 


 

The general was generous enough to give their team an entire hallway to themselves—though Connie thinks that may have been less generosity, and more a desire not to let too much about them be known.

This means they have five rooms for everyone, plus a bathroom, which is helpful since the current meeting just goes to prove that while they can all fit themselves into a single bedroom, it’s very cramped and no one’s happy about it.

Connie herself is currently wedged under the bed North and South are sitting on, after having swept the room for any electronic surveillance and setting up a few baffles of her own. Carolina and York are squished onto the other one, Florida curled up underneath them and Wyoming to his right. Niner’s furthest from the door, Maine closest, because he needs to stretch out his legs in between the beds.

It’s a good thing Wash isn’t out of the med bay yet, because Connie isn’t sure they could have fit him in here if they had to.

“So,” Carolina says as soon as Connie and Florida give the all-clear. She probably shouldn’t be able to sound so intimidating while her shoulder’s pressed up against York’s and he’s elevating his bad leg by propping it up on top of her outstretched ones. “What do we know?”

“Wash has issues,” South mutters, swinging one leg a bit too close to Connie’s face. “That’s new.”

“Major issues.”

“The troopers seem to know what they’re doing better than they did on our world,” North remarks. “Tucker diverted me pretty well when I tried to go after him. If I tried that with the Tucker we knew, I’d probably have been able to get some vital information out of him before he even realized what I was doing.”

“They don’t trust us,” Connie offers, pushing South’s leg to the side.

“That’s obvious,” Wyoming mutters. “The first thing they told us was that all of us were dead.”

“They really don’t trust us.” Connie can tell from the soft clicking noises that York’s playing with one of the fidget toys he always keeps on him as he speaks.

“They’re scared of me.” Maine’s voice is an even lower rumble than usual.

“That’s nothing new,” Niner scoffs.

“No, they’re…” he lets out a frustrated noise, like he’s looking for a word. “The soldiers from this planet. They’re gossiping. And arguing. And pointing.” He shakes his head. “They knew about me, but not about any of you.”

“That’s something.”

“Why?” Carolina taps her fingers on York’s knee. Connie isn’t sure she’s even realized she’s done it. “We know they would know about me and Wash, but—why you?”

“And why would they know enough to be scared? If we never wound up in Blood Gulch, where did they meet you?”

“Who died first?” Florida’s voice is low, nothing like the tone he usually puts on.

The rest of the team starts trading glances, and Connie sucks in a breath.

“That is the question, isn’t it.” Carolina sounds lost in thought. “Alpha doesn’t have any ideas.”

Or if he is…he’s not telling you, Connie thinks. Alpha loves getting new information. The odds that he hasn’t done some digging of his own already are slim to none. The odds that he just isn’t sharing it with them? Much higher.

If Alpha ever detaches himself from Carolina and goes back to jumping around, Connie is definitely going to press him for answers.

“Not just who,” Wyoming says, carefully. “Why? And how?”

That keeps everyone quiet.

“Wash still fights like himself, sort of,” Connie says, when no one else comes up with anything. “He’s more…brutal, now. He doesn’t hold back. I wouldn’t want to face him head on in CQC, not if he can take down York.”

“I had a bad leg, stop maligning me.”

“I’ll malign you as much as I like.”

“Oh, knock it off, both of you,” Niner grouses, sliding further down the back wall. “My ship is even more broken now, and we’re not fixing it anytime soon. Which means we’re not getting off this planet anytime soon, and forget about going home.”

“Always a shining beacon of optimism, Niner.” North shifts on the bed, making it creak ominously over Connie’s head.

“Watch it!”

“Watching it.” He holds still.

“So what are we going to do?” South asks, deliberately nudging her brother and eliciting more shrieks from the bed because she lives to torment Connie.

“Wait for Wash to get out of the medbay, first of all. We need to stay together for this.” Carolina swings York’s leg off of hers and scoots off the bed. “Then…wait and see if they want us to do anything. First step to getting home is getting off this planet, which means this conflict has to be over. So we’ll help the people who know better than any of us how to stop it. Until then—don’t antagonize our allies. And make sure you leave this Wash alone.” She reties her ponytail, quickly and efficiently. “And with that, we should go before anyone comes looking for us.”

 


 

Tucker’s plan to spend the rest of the day avoiding Wash is pretty effectively ruined by the way Wash apparently decided to spend the rest of the day avoiding him and every single other person on base. He ends up looking all over for Wash after lunch, before Dr. Grey pops out of nowhere to drag him back to the medbay for a check-in.

“Now, I don’t have the resources of the full hospital out here, so it’s very important that you not injure yourself too badly while recovering,” she tells him, examining the remaining stitches on his stomach. “Which could be very easy to do if you go around trying to fight highly trained professional soldiers. As your doctor, I would advise…not doing that.”

“I’m not going to fight them, I’m not an idiot.”

“Oh, good. I was hoping you hadn’t, but well, half the gossip around base says you already punched the one whose leg I sewed up, and you did already try to fight two of them at once, so I just wanted to remind you.”

Dammit, Palomo.

“Anyhoo, it looks like you’re all set! The last of these can come out now.”

Yaaaaaay.

After Dr. Grey pulls out the last few stitches and sends him off, Tucker ends up standing guard duty until dinner. He makes it to the mess hall late, and tells himself he wouldn’t have run into Wash anyways.

He goes to bed early and stares at the ceiling for a long time.

The next day, Wash is at breakfast again, sitting as far away as possible from the table where the weird alternate universe freelancers are eating but still there. Tucker tries not to stare at him over the scrambled whatever that the cooks have come up with today.

It must not work, because Wash looks up and asks, “What?”

“Nothing.”

He’s spared from making further conversation by Caboose, who’s happy to talk about how he gets to go look at the spaceship today.

“Because they said they need someone strong! And I am very strong!”

“Yes, you are, Caboose.”

“I think the purple lady is coming, too. You know, the one you shot, Wash! Are you friends? Because I shot Church and he is still my bestest friend, but I have shot some other people and they are not my friends anymore.” Caboose’s voice trails off as Tucker stares at Wash hard enough to hopefully bore a hole through his thick skull. “You know, I don’t know where they are. I hope they are not hiding from me. Cause that would be mean.”

“You shot the purple chick?”

Wash takes a sip of coffee and doesn’t make eye contact, like he’s hoping if he pretends he isn’t there hard enough Tucker will believe it.

“You shot the purple chick.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Like when you were trying to kill all of us?”

“…Before that.”

“It was when he was with me and Church!” Caboose sounds pleased. “And we were just good friends going on an adventure together. Like right now! But with less pirates. And less friends.”

“Wow,” Tucker says, flatly. “Just. Wow, dude.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Wash shovels down the last of his toast and clears away his tray, still not making eye contact.

Tucker doesn’t yell after him today, because one almost-interrogation was enough and the Caboose trick probably won’t work twice. He just groans and narrowly avoids faceplanting in his plate when he thunks his head against the table.

“Hello Mr. Florida!”

“Hey there, Caboose. Ready to go check out a spaceship?”

“I am. I really am. Goodbye, Tucker!”

The Florida guy sounds kind of familiar. Tucker decides he’s going to worry about that…much, much later.

 


 

“About time,” Niner gripes when Florida finally shows up, trailing someone tall in blue armor. “I was worried York was going to start telling lightbulb jokes.”

York, who Carolina decided to send out of camp today, manages to convey offense through his helmet. 

“Sorry about that. Had to collect our new strongman.”

Maine snorts as he hops up into the bed of the warthog, making the whole jeep shake. “Thanks for replacing me.”

“Oh, I just thought we could get more done with more people. This fine young fellow here is Caboose!”

Niner’s attention, which had been wandering to the ignition of the warthog, is suddenly recaptured. She hasn’t gone by her last name for a good two years now, but the sound of it still grabs onto her hindbrain.

Her hand doesn’t freeze on the key, though, until she hears his voice. “Hello! I am Caboose. I hope we can be friends.”

She stays frozen for all of thirty seconds, her breath caught in her lungs, before she yanks off her helmet and spins around to demand, “Mikey?

Chapter Text

When Wash arrives at the training ground, he already has a headache from another night with almost no sleep. The sight of the squad of New Republic soldiers deep in gossip doesn’t do much to help.

“This doesn’t look like you’re ready for a training session,” Wash announces, letting his voice carry.

They all jump guiltily, turning en masse to look at him.

“Sorry, sir, it’s just…” the cadet, a Private Campos, trails off as Wash stares at him.

“Is it really true that Captain Caboose is from another dimension?” another private bursts out.

Wash takes a very deep breath and gives the same explanation he’s been giving for the past four days. “No. No, it’s not. As we already knew, the visitors are from a parallel universe almost identical to our own. They have counterparts here. One of their members is the counterpart to Captain Caboose’s sister. They’re not actually related.”

“Unless she’s from this dimension,” someone whispers. Wash is too tired to try and figure out who.

“If you have the energy to gossip, you have the energy to run laps. Let’s move it.”

They groan, but start running. Wash takes another very deep breath and a moment to regret the life choices that had led to him saying the words “parallel universe” in all seriousness.

 


 

After putting the soldiers through their paces, Wash has to go looking for Tucker, and comes out near the motor pool. Caboose is standing over to the side, talking quietly to Freckles. For the first time Wash has seen in the past couple of days, he’s alone, and Wash detours to talk to him.

“Caboose!”

Caboose looks up, and then hunches his shoulders. “Oh. Hello, agent Washingtub.”

Wash feels like he just got a bucket of water dumped on his head. “Caboose?”

“I am glad to see you are not still mad at me.” Caboose still won’t look up at him.

“Caboose, why would you think I was mad at you?”

“When you are mad at people, you do not like to talk to them. And you have not talked to me at all lately. So you are mad at me.”

“Caboose…” Wash takes a moment to sigh. “Caboose, I’m not mad at you.”

“See, but that is what you would say even if you were mad at me. Because you are bad at feelings but you still don’t like to hurt mine.”

“Caboose, I’m not mad at you, I promise.”

“But you are mad at Freckles.”

“What?” Wash is genuinely flabbergasted. “I’m not mad at your…dog.”

“Not this Freckles, first Freckles.”

“Oh, you mean…Niner. I’m…not mad at her.” Wash pauses. “Caboose—you do know that she’s not actually your sister, right?”

“You mean she is adopted?”

“No, it’s—you know there’s another one of Carolina, and of…me. She’s another version of your sister. The real Freckles isn’t here.”

“I know that she isn’t from here, Wash. She is still my sister.”

“Oh.” Wash keeps feeling knocked off-balance by this conversation. “Well…as long as you know that.”

“So you will stop avoiding us now?”

“I’ll stop avoiding you, Caboose.”

“Okay, but that is not—”

“I have to go find Tucker now, I’ll see you at dinner.” Wash starts for the other side of the motor pool.

Look out!”

Wash turns just in time to see a Warthog come barreling through the entryway.

He knows he tries to dodge, he knows he fails because he feels it slam into him, and then he knows nothing at all for a good few minutes.

“Washington? Washington!”

Caboose shouting at him is a familiar enough sound that it takes Wash a few moments to register it as something important.

“Caboose, if you set the base on fire again…” he groans, hauling himself awake.

Wait a minute. Did he fall asleep in his armor again?

“Agent Washington! Oh thank goodness you are okay. There was a car. Tucker did it.”

The second part of that is probably a lie, but Wash is ready to believe there was a car. He hurts all over—he doesn’t think any bones are broken, but he’s definitely going to have a nice set of bruises. Not to mention that his head hurts like hell.

“You are okay, right?” Caboose asks.

“I—” Wash tries to rub his forehead and hits his helmet with his gauntlets. “I’m fine. I just need to go to the infirmary.”

“I will come with you!”

Wash winces at the volume of the voice. “No—no, that’s all right, really. I can make it. You should go…” He waves a hand. “Do things.”

“If you are sure,” the blue soldier says, worried. “Because you do not look very good, Agent Washington—”

“I’m fine. Go.”

He goes, and Wash turns and starts his trek for the infirmary.

 

Wash’s head is still kind of sore, but the doctor said he was healed enough to leave by now. A few days in a hospital bed can be really boring, it turns out, especially when most of his team is off doing other things.

He pulls on his helmet first and sends off a message to all the Freelancers. <Doc says I’m healed, but won’t let me leave alone. Some1 come get me?>


 

York and the twins are heading for the edge of camp to start patrol when they get Wash’s message. They’re close enough to the infirmary to detour without losing too much ground, and when they get within sight there’s Wash, standing outside. He’s looking around at the trees, but he must not see them, because he turns around and starts to head back inside.

“Hey, Wash!” York turns up his mic, letting his voice carry. “You ready to get out of here?”

Wash turns around and sees them, pulling himself up a little bit straighter. “I—” He shakes his head slowly. “Yup. Let’s go.”


 

Now that the ship’s been stripped, Maine doesn’t have any big task that needs doing. He can’t collect information like Connie can, sneaking around, or just by conversation like the rest can, because the cadets still keep whispering at him. He’s taken to hiding out in the darker corners of the motor pool, running his invisibility unit at short intervals whenever someone walks past so he doesn’t have to answer any awkward questions.

The patrol assignment, when it comes down, is a relief. He and Wyoming meet up at the motor pool to wait for the signal from Florida and Connie that they can come meet them without fear of blowing their cover too close to the pirates.

Wash’s message comes in right before that.

“Shall we collect our wayward friend, then?” Wyoming asks.

Maine agrees by the simple expedient of walking off in the direction of the infirmary and letting Wyoming catch up.

He lets Wyoming stay out and keep an eye on the doors while he goes in to fetch Wash.

Conveniently, Wash is standing just inside the door, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet.

When he sees Maine, he draws up very straight.

“Ready?”

“Yup. Let’s go.”

“Agent Washington!” The doctor in white and purple armor who Maine remembers checked over Wash when they first arrived comes running up, and she stops when she gets to Maine. “Ooh, you’re big. I take it you’re going to be responsible for him?”

“Regrettably.”

“Hey!”

“Well, he hasn’t had quite as much head trauma as the Washington I know, but you should still keep an eye on him for the next couple of days. Make sure he gets plenty of fluids and sleep and doesn’t take any more whacks to the noggin. And if he starts bleeding from the eyeballs…well, let me know.”

“Wait, what?”

Wash is screeching again. He should be fine.

“Will do.”

“Well. Have a lovely day, both of you.”

As they head out, Maine types up a message and sends it out to York, Carolina, and Connie. <Got WA, heading out.>

They get twenty feet before York sends back a message that makes Maine’s stomach flip.

<u cant have wash we hsve wash>

Crap.

“Wash.” Maine drops a hand onto Wash’s shoulder. “Take off your helmet.”

“Seriously? I’m fine—”

“Now.”

Wash doesn’t make him repeat himself, just reaches up and undoes the seal. He looks exactly like Maine has always known him to look, blond hair sticking up around a brand-new bump and freckles sprinkled across his face.

“Not bleeding out the eyeballs, see?”

Maine snaps a picture and sends it to York, because this is definitely their Wash. Which means York and the twins definitely have a problem.

 


 

“So, what are we doing out here?” Wash asks as they’re tramping along.

“Just a regular perimeter check. Trying to get to know the terrain, make sure there aren’t going to be any nasty surprises sneaking up on us.” York answers with half his brain, the other half busy scanning the trees.

“Why this planet, though?”

Right, missed the briefing because of the checkup. “Don’t let the concussion pull you too far down, Wash. It’s the alien tech or something.”

“Oh.” Wash prods a vine on a nearby log with his rifle. “So where is it?”

“You’re hilarious,” South mutters.

“So how far out from camp are we going?” North calls from where he’s monitoring their position.

York just barely catches Wash’s mutter of “camp?” as he does some quick calculations. “Just a klik. Florida and Connie are starting on the other side of the camp, closer to the pirates. Maine and Wyoming are going to go join them after they’re past the really dangerous area, and we’ll meet them at the rendezvous. Which is about five kliks from here.”

Pirates?” And that’s Wash’s screechy voice. York had missed that screechy voice. “What’s going on with this planet?”

“Couldn’t tell you if I tried, buddy.”

South slings an arm over Wash’s shoulder and starts giving him a creative spiel, with North interjecting at key points for realism. York’s figuring out a good contribution when his helmet pings with a message from Maine.

<Got WA, heading out.>

York stops in his tracks for a second, causing South to crash into him and cuss him out. He mutters some apology, trying to scramble ahead and type at the same time.

<u cant have wash we hsve wash.>

Maine’s reply is a picture. That’s their Wash, alright—freckles and blond hair and a bump on his head, caught right before he put his helmet on.

Shit. They have the wrong Wash.

“Hold up,” York blurts out, raising a fist. “Quiet for a sec.”

They all stop and shut up and he opens up a private channel to the twins. “Maine and Wyoming just caught Wash coming out of the medbay.”

“But isn’t that where we found—” North suddenly falls silent.

Fuckberries.

“Yup. We need to head back. Try to act like everything’s normal, don’t let him realize, if he takes off out here he might actually get lost for good.”

“Well? Do you hear anything?” Wash asks, impatient.

“Got a message from Carolina,” York lies. “We have to head back now.”

“Seriously? We just got out here!” Wash complains.

“Hey, you can be the one to argue with her, alright? Let’s just go back to camp.”

They turn around, heading back, and York thinks they might actually get back with no problems when a Warthog bursts through the trees, that crazy mechanic kid Niner’s probably going to adopt driving. Niner herself is clinging for dear life to the seat.

“Sorry!” the kid yells, careening back into the trees. Niner yells something about “hell of a pilot”—what a terrifying thought—and then they’re gone.

“Well, I think we can check “near-death experience” off the day’s to-do list,” York offers, trying not to let his voice shake.

“Shut—”

“Niner?” Wash’s mutter cuts off South’s tirade before it can start, and they all turn to stare as he brings a hand up to his head. “With—Jensen?” He notices them, and stares like he’s seeing them for the first time.

“How are you doing, Wash?” North offers, sounding totally normal, like if he just acts calm and composed he can keep Wash from freaking out

And for an impossible moment, York thinks it’ll work, because Wash doesn’t do anything—

and then Wash drops his hand and stares up at the sky. “I’d like to wake up now,” he says, not looking at any of them.

“Wash?” York tries.

“I said I want to wake up now. Go away.”

“You can’t wake up, Wash, seriously. Stop being so creepy.”

Wash doesn’t seem to hear her, scrabbling for his gloves and then helmet catches, pulling them off.

And if any of them are doubting which Wash they have at this point, those doubts are gone. This Wash, from this universe, looks so old and so tired, the bags under his eyes enormous and his face eternally drawn. There’s a scar across the bridge of his nose that looks old and worn, and as he frantically spins around, scanning the trees for something, there are ugly scars visible on the back of his neck.

York trades looks with North and South, reopening the channel. “How do you want to play this?”

“No. No. No. I can’t—Grey wouldn’t—I won’t go back there.” Wash slams his fist into a tree, and ouch, that’s bound to hurt without armor. “I won’t!” he yells at the sky. “Do you hear me? Wake up!”

“Call one of the troopers,” York says, and closes the channel, approaching Wash carefully. “Hey, Wash? You need to calm down. You’re not dreaming, I promise, this is just—”

Before he can go any further, Wash tackles him to the ground and grabs at his helmet, undoing the latches and yanking it up. York is too stunned to do more than stare up at Wash as his face goes from shocked to vicious.

“Nice try,” Wash says, voice cold and dangerous. “But York only had one eye.”

And wow, York would love some time to process that, but South grabs Wash off of him.

“Get a grip, Washington!” she yells, throwing him to the ground before York can warn her that might be a bad idea.

“South’s dead,” Wash snarls at her. “I killed her myself. You want to pull one over on me, do your goddamned research.”

“The fuck?!” South freezes in place, and North starts to come forward, but York cuts him off.

“Wash, stop!” he yells, stepping between the twins and Wash. “This isn’t a trick, it’s not a trap, you’re on—”

“Oh yeah, York?” And the way Wash says his name, York knows he doesn’t believe him. “Then tell me, what’s the first thing Delta ever said to me?”

“Who?” And now York’s just plain confused. “Delta? Is he like Epsilon?”

Wash’s eyes go wide and dark and scary. “I’m not telling you anything,” he snarls, and then pulls out his gun.

Which is about the time another Warthog crashes through the trees, this one with Grif and Sarge on board.

“Agent Washington! What the hell are you doing? Weapons should never be pointed at your fellow soldiers! Unless they’re pointed at Grif!”

Something in Wash’s face and body language jerks, and the weapon drops from his hands as Grif drives the Warthog in between him and the Freelancers.

“I don’t—” York can’t see his face anymore, but Wash’s voice just sounds weak now. “What…what did I—” A pause. “Oh, no…”

“Hey, mustache universe guys! Did Wash shoot anyone?”

“He killed me, is what he fucking—”

“No!” York yells, miming shut up at South.

“Great. Get in, asshole.”

“Not-a-captain Grif! Clearly your false promotion has addled your brain and made you believe you’re capable of giving orders. This will have to be corrected! In the meantime, Washington, get in!”

“I can’t—”

“Don’t you fucking dare leave me alone in this car with Sarge.”

York grabs Wash’s helmet and gloves, which wound up on their side of the Warthog, and hands them up to Sarge.

He takes them, and then lightning-quick, grabs one of York’s wrists.

“Now you just stay right here, son,” he says, quiet and brimming with the potential for danger. “You just stay right here.”

The Warthog drives away, Wash on board, leaving the three of them behind.

York walks over to his helmet, picks it up, and puts it back on.

“What the fuck,” South growls, and then walks away to beat the shit out of some trees.

York can’t blame her.

 

Chapter Text

Patrol’s off, it seems, because Wash gets to the edge of camp with Wyoming and Maine when Simmons and Frank show up and point them in a different direction.

Neither of them will look at Wash, and he really isn’t sure why.

The different direction turns out to be a clearing just past the edge of camp. North and York are already there, North polishing his sniper rifle while York stares into the visor of his helmet and turns his head from side to side.

Wash is about to ask where South is when he hears a furious “HI-YAAAA!” and the sound of splintering wood. So that’s one question answered.

The sim troopers stick close to the trees and start a furious whispered argument while the freelancers draw together. Aside from South, who is still reducing one of the trees to so much pulp.

“What happened?” Wyoming asks, fingers playing over his own rifle meaningfully

“Something pretty messed up,” North says without looking up. York does look up, but then looks away as soon as he sees Wash.

Why won’t anyone look at him today? His face didn’t get that messed up.

That seems to be all they’re willing to say, so there’s a very long and awkward silence that lasts until Caboose clomps into the clearing and shouts “I FOUND THE SNEAKING PEOPLE!”

“Caboose, shut up!”

Florida and Connie drop out of the trees, one after the other and make their way over.

“...how…?”

“Don’t ask.”

South finally works out the last of her anger and stomps over, so it’s the eight of them standing in a circle like assholes while the sim troopers hiss at each other in a corner.

“Should we call Carolina?”

“I tried. She’s either out of range or in a meeting.”

“What the hell is going on?” Connie finally asks.

York winces. “We…kind of picked up other-Wash from the infirmary by accident.”

Wash is offended. “How do you accidentally—”

“Hey, it was an honest mistake, okay? Same armor, same voice—”

“Same lust for murder,” South grits out.

“Wait, what?” Florida asks.

“The point is, we didn’t realize, because he didn’t realize, until we got out here. And then he…kind of flipped.” York pulls his helmet back on to cover his awkwardness.

“Explain,” Maine says, low and deadly serious.

But York never does explain, because a Warthog comes crashing through the trees, carrying Grif, Tucker, and this world’s Carolina. Wash instinctively takes a step towards his team as Agent Carolina jumps off and strides toward them, practically radiating cold fury.

“What. The hell. Were you people. Thinking.” She bites out the sentence a few words at the time, raking her gaze over all of them until she gets to York and the twins.

It’s not hard for Wash to remember that this isn’t his team leader. They’ve been yelled at by Carolina before, but only in the heat of the moment on a mission, after they’ve done something stupid enough to nearly get them all killed. There’s always fear in the fury, always the sense that she’s trying, more than anything, to keep them alive.

This Carolina is all ice and steel, without a single connection to add any kind of warmth or give. It reminds Wash of the time a UNSC squad nearly got Maine and Connie killed by not keeping track of them in the field and he’d been close enough to hear the General call up the squad’s commanding officer and utterly eviscerate him.

The only thing that had stopped her was Carolina bursting in to announce that they’d made it to the rendezvous point safely. After that, she had turned back to the comm and dropped her tone a full decibel.

I’ve just received word that the agents made it out safe, Lieutenant, but let’s get one thing very clear—if your actions had hurt my people, there is nowhere in this galaxy you could hide that I could not find you and make you regret it.

Oh, Wash realizes in a clearing in the jungle. They’re not this Carolina’s team. They’re the people who hurt her team.

In other words, they’re the enemy.

“We didn’t realize there’d been a mistake until we got out here, after Maine checked in about picking Wash up from the infirmary.”

“And why didn’t you check in yourself?”

York’s quiet for a moment. “I didn’t think to.”

“You didn’t think to.” Her tone’s almost dripping with contempt. “I see.”

North takes over the narration before she can elaborate. “We were worried he would run off if he…remembered out here, so we were going to go back to camp first. We didn’t make it that far. He started talking about wanting to wake up and then he attacked us.” North slings the rifle over his back. “Apparently, York only has one eye, Wash wasn’t going to tell us anything about someone named Delta, and he killed South himself.”

A very, very long silence.

“What the fuck,” South finally spits out. “What. The. Fuck.”

“How did that happen?” Wash asks, when it seems like no one else will, because he needs to know.

“The only other person who knows for sure is Caboose, so if you can figure that one out, good goddamn luck,” Tucker mutters.

They all look at Caboose, who looks back. “Thirty-five. False. Wait, what was the question.”

“Regardless,” Carolina drags the conversation back on track. “You shouldn’t have—”

“Shouldn’t have what?” It’s Connie who finally snaps. “They acted on the information they had, which is almost zero, because you won’t tell us anything. We were trying to stay out of this, and it didn’t work. And then they didn’t have enough information to work off of, so nothing could be fixed.”

The silence is stretched thin and tight, just waiting for something to break it.

“Fine.” Carolina finally lets the word fall, dull and heavy. “Fine. You want answers? You’ll get them.”

 


 

Carolina spends the morning with Alpha, crunching data and theories and trying to figure out what, if anything, they can do. Kimball joins them briefly, and ends up filling them in on a very vague history of Chorus’s alien temples and whether or not that would have any influence.

Their consensus at the end of it is “probably not” because this world is several years ahead and it took Charon a while to activate the temple in the first place. But it’s always a possibility.

Alpha stays behind and gloats about the efficiency of inorganic beings while Carolina goes to get lunch. She’s halfway across camp, trying to think of the perfect retort for when she comes back, when she hears York calling her.

She doubles back to catch up with him. “How was patrol?”

“It…wasn’t.” He scans the area in the way that immediately puts her on alert, because he’s standing the same way he would in hostile territory trying to spot enemies. “I have a lot to tell you.”

 


 

"You fucking COCKBITES, why would you TELL them?"

Tucker chokes on his dinner as a furious AI projects itself onto the table, actually flickering with rage.

"Dude," Grif says as he took advantage of Tucker's distraction to filch his brownie. "They deserved to know."

"They DESERVED to be able to go home again without YOUR shit hanging over them!" The computerized voice is actually buzzing with rage. "I was handling it, and then one of YOU fuckers went and spilled everything."

Yup, definitely Church, Tucker thinks, before something occurs to him. "Hold the fuck up, you knew? And you weren't going to tell them?"

"They didn't. Need. To know." The hologram flickers once more and then sits down. "I was taking care of it. They didn't need to know, and then we would go back, and it would all be fine." A little holographic fist punches the table. "And then you assholes had to open your fucking mouths, and..."

"And what?" Simmons asks when no answer is forthcoming. All of the Reds and Blues are staring now.

"Nothing. Never mind."

Tucker looks around the mess hall, hoping at least one of the Freelancers will be available to take the AI off their hands before Carolina and Epsilon or Wash and Sarge come back.

That's when it clicks. "Fuck, you lost them, didn't you."

 


 

Connie takes the first opportunity she has, when the sim troopers and their Carolina have finished their story, to vanish off on her own. She wants time alone, to think and process and deal.

She does leave her locator on so the rest will be able to tell she’s alive and hopefully won’t come looking for her.

Of course, when South decides to come looking for her anyways, she ends up stomping around under Connie’s tree until Connie sighs and climbs down to sit against the trunk, because she’s clearly not going away.

“Shouldn’t you be with someone else?”

“North went to go fill in Niner. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to see me right now, anyways.” South stomps to the other side of the tree, and as far as Connie can tell from the sounds of creaking armor, settles down in the exact same position.

The two of them sit there for a few long moments, mirror images of tired soldiers, backs against the tree and eyes on the skies.

“He won’t blame you,” Connie says, finally.

“Yeah, well maybe he should.”

Connie considers denying it, and then figures she should if only for the appearance. “Maybe he shouldn’t.”

“None of you even fucking questioned it.”

Oh, right. That’s why she shouldn’t have denied it.

“I mean—” There’s a dull thud as South hits her head against the tree. “I didn’t fucking question it either. I used to—before the General picked us up, when we were on the same squad, it—hit me. Sometimes. That I could just shove him and be gone.”

“Well…” Connie trails off. “You didn’t.”

South makes a small, bitter sound. “Yeah. I guess I didn’t.”

“This world is screwed up, South. I mean, I never thought I would be the one to die first. I had money on…” she trails off again, because she was going to end that sentence with “Wash” and that joke suddenly isn’t funny anymore. Neither is her next option, York.

“Wash?” South asks, anyways, because she’s never one to mince words. “Yeah. Me too. Who would have thought the rookie would be such a fucking cockroach?”

“Why do you call him that, anyways?” Connie asks, pulling away from the tree because that’s been bothering her for a while. “We came in at the same time.”

South does laugh at that, something harsh and tired but definitely a laugh. “Come on, Connie. You may have been new, but you were never a rookie.”

“Wow. A whole compliment. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“Just shut up, maybe.” There’s a scraping noise, and Connie looks down to see South’s glove reaching along the ground, hesitantly.

Connie reaches back until she can grip it and squeeze, until she can go back to looking at the sky and wondering if the version of her that lived in this world had thought dying was worth it.

“We really fucked up,” she says, eventually.

“Which time?”

 


 

Carolina is very silent, for a long time, after York finishes his report.

He almost wants to reach out, to give her some kind of support, but instead he pulls his hands back and started messing with the knuckles of his armor.

He manages to wait five whole minutes before he spoke up. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“You’re broke.”

“I’m not that broke.”

She’s quiet for long enough that he starts to worry he’s pushed too far, but eventually she says, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand how she could abandon her team. I don’t understand why he would…how he could…”

She trails off. "I don't understand them. And I have to."

"You don't have to understand them, Carolina. We're leaving."

"No, I have to." Her fingers clench into fists against the ground. "Because if I don't understand them, how am I supposed to stop it from happening?"

"You--Lina, you don't have to stop it, that's not on you."

"Yes it is, York. I'm the leader. I'm supposed to know things, I'm supposed to stop them, and I didn't even--" Carolina slams her fist into the ground. "I didn't know. Alpha had to know, but he didn't tell me. Did he think I couldn't handle it?"

"Hey." York's voice sharpens. "That's not on you. I mean it. Alpha's supposed to tell you things, and if he didn't, it's because he fucked up and we all get to yell at him for it."

Carolina doesn’t say anything, but her fingers do slowly unclench. York takes that as his cue to move forward and sit down next to her, brushing his hand along the ground next to hers.

"I don't want to go back."

It comes out very quietly, almost too quiet to hear.

"We don't have to--"

"Don't be an idiot." Now her voice was sharp and snappish, and she shifted like she was about to stand up.

"Whoa, whoa, hey hey hey." York can’t stop himself from reaching to grab her hand, holding it tight. "Yet. We don't have to go back, yet."

She lets out a deep, shuddering breath but didn't pull away. "But we will go back."

"Yeah." He squeezes her hand, once. "Of course we're going back. You don’t abandon your team.”


 

Wash grew up with siblings and then went into the military, and for the past few months there’s been an insatiably curious computer program likely to be watching him at any given moment. He’s long used to not having any privacy.

Sometimes, though, he just needs to get away. And after a lifetime of practice, he knows exactly how to find places he can be alone.

It takes a little bit longer, because Maine seems extremely reluctant to let Wash out of his sight, but eventually Maine seems to have had enough of people too and wanders off. He’s bobbing his head like he’s got music on, which means he can entertain himself for a while, which means Wash can go find a quiet corner of the base and take a moment to breathe.

He ends up inside a little thicket of trees out on the edge of the base. The branches and vines are thick enough that no one’s likely to see him, but with enough gaps that he can keep an eye on his surroundings.

With his eyes half-closed and the light shining through the leaves, he’s almost back on the farm, hiding out in the old Christmas tree farm down the road. If it isn’t for the weight of his armor. Or the shouts of soldiers. Or the hiss-shrieks of the weird lizard-bird-things.

So maybe it’s nothing like the farm, but it’s nice.

Wash is sort of not thinking about. Anything. He knows he should be processing or whatever, but he just got out of the medical bay after what even Connie had called “a nasty concussion” and nothing really feels real.

It can’t be real.

Can it?

Probably not.

Right?

Wash is snapped out of his circular musings by the rustle of the underbrush, and he opens his eyes to see Frank’s distinctive armor approaching.

He doesn’t say hello, but he also doesn’t tell Frank to stop when he starts pushing through the branches.

“Sorry to shove in without any preparation like that, but I thought you might not mind the company.”

“It’s fine.” Wash settles back against the vines and goes back to watching the sunlight through the leaves.

“It’s nice in here,” Frank says, after looking around. “Kind of reminds me of back home.”

“Yeah, I thought so too.” Wash shifts over to make room for Frank. He knows, intellectually, that this isn’t the same version of his brother he spent time with in Blood Gulch, but Frank still registers as family to him.

“Oh, really?” Frank sounds genuinely interested, like this is new information. “I grew up in Iowa. Are you from around there?”

“I…” Wash blinks. “You could say that, Frank, yeah.”

“You’ve met me in your world?” Frank sounds very excited. “Oh—right, I forget you guys went to Blood Gulch.”

Wash slowly levers himself up, staring the whole time. Frank continues to chatter.

“You can just call me Donut—everyone else does. I mean, it’s not like I mind, it’s just a little strange. Wash—this Wash—and I are friends, sure, but I still don’t feel like I know the guy, you know?”

No. Wash doesn’t know. But he does bury his face in his hands and laugh weakly because at this point it’s either laugh or cry because his own brother has no idea who he is and this is terribly, horribly real.

“Donut?” It feels wrong to call him that, but Wash just tries to remember that this is a different person. “I think I’d actually like to be alone, if that’s okay.” He can hear the shakes in his own voice.

“Oh! Right. Importance of alone time and all that. I’ll…leave you to it.”

He does, rustling away, and Wash pulls off his helmet and stares at the leaves again.

Real.

Definitely, unfortunately real.

Chapter Text

South and Connie are still under the tree when Carolina shows up, an hour later. Or, well, South is. Connie’s gone back up into the branches to keep watch.

South is polishing her pistol just to have something to do. Connie’s planning ways to break them all out of camp, occasionally messaging South with an inquiry or to get her assessment of a particular strategy.

“Well, this looks cozy,” Carolina says dryly, from the edge of the clearing. “How open and unsuspicious of you.”

South grumbles something incoherent and holsters her pistol. “What are we supposed to do? Go back to their camp and play good little soldiers and hope they’re not lying to us about anything else?”

Carolina tips her head to the side, but Connie speaks up before she can answer. “We are, aren’t we.”

“We need intel, we need supplies, and we need to regroup,” Carolina says, grimly. “So yes. For now, we are going to be polite, and professional, and as non-threatening as we need to be. York’s getting North and Niner, they’re going to pick up whoever else they can find. We’re going to collect Wash and then we’re going where our hosts can see us. If you’ve got a last-minute tantrum, get it out now.”

South mutters under her breath, but stands up and settles into a ready stance easily enough. Connie wings down to land beside her, moving back to fall into a scouting position.

South doesn’t take her own place by Carolina just yet, watching her through narrowed eyes instead. “Bit cold there.”

Carolina doesn’t look away. “Someone has to be.”

 


 

After they’ve pulled Wash out of the bushes—more literally than South had expected they’d have to—Carolina makes good on her word. She leads them straight to the center of the encampment, settling in around a stack of crates serving as a table so they can wait for someone to come babysit them.

It sets South’s teeth on edge, but hey, she’s not in charge here. She sits as far away from Wash as possible, and digs through the compartments in her armor until she finds the deck of cards and badgers Connie into the unholy mix of Go Fish, War, Kings, and Bullshit that the squad has developed and refined over far more long missions than any sane human should be expected to handle.

Carolina watches and occasionally plays referee, but spends most of her time talking to Wash in low, inaudible tones.

South doesn’t care. Why should she care. Carolina’s always kept an eye on the rookie. Should probably keep a closer eye now to make sure he doesn’t go homicidal on them.

Although, given what the other Carolina had told them, maybe she’s keeping an eye on South to make sure she doesn’t go all homicidal on them first.

South’s not going to, of course. She’s not an idiot. And she doesn’t care, because it doesn’t matter, because—

“Hey, hey, BS,” South says loud enough to drown out her own thoughts. “There’s no way you have three goddamned twos.”

She can’t see Connie’s face, but South knows the exact look on it as Connie flips the cards one by one. Butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth.

“I hate you,” South tells her, and aggressively collects the scrap pile, dealing out the multiples of three.

From there, it devolves into a good enough game that South pretty much tunes out the shouting as soon as it starts. At least until Alpha’s little blue hologram pops up over her slush pile to snap, “And what are you smiling about?” directly at her.

“Lay the fuck off,” South snaps right back. “I’m winning. Move.”

“Oh, that’s great. That’s fucking great. We’re stranded in some freaky comic book shit, the planet’s under fucking siege, half—no, wait, like almost all of you are supposed to be dead in ten years, and you just fucking vanish without telling me! You can’t do that shit!”

When South looks up to appeal to Carolina, or Florida, or literally anyone else who might help her deal with an AI having a meltdown, all she gets are flat looks or studied disinterest. North, at the other end of the table, looks particularly guilty.

Fine. So this is her problem now. Well, she can give as good as she fucking gets.

“Well, gee. Someone’s a well-informed little flashlight,” she says, shuffling through her hand. Alpha’s an attention whore, if he thinks she’s giving him an inch he’ll take a mile. “It sure would have been nice to, I don’t know, know all that? Sooner?”

“I could handle it,” Alpha snaps, but he flickers. Just a bit.

“Yeah. Sure. You could handle it,” she deadpans back at him. “Great job there, asshole.”

“You—you—” the hologram flickers again, blinking out for a good five seconds. “Oh, just fuck you. All of you.” He vanishes.

South shakes her cards at the empty air. “We’re back now, asshole!”

When she looks across the table again, North’s trying not to laugh, and Connie is flat out snickering.

“I hate you,” South tells both of them. She doesn’t mean it, not really. “Got any jacks?”


 

When this world’s Tucker finally shows up with Alpha, Carolina lets the rest of her team handle his mood. Some of that is because she needs to be responsible right now—she needs to watch her people. An unfortunately large part, though, is that she doesn’t trust herself to have a reasonable conversation with the AI based on her father.

The AI that in another world, he could have tortured and ripped apart, for…for what? To win the war? To save the people he was responsible for?

She keeps prodding at that spot, that missing knowledge, like a sore tooth. She has to know. She can’t stop it if she doesn’t know.

The idea that she might now be able to stop it even if she did know is too painful to even poke. She shoves that ferociously to the side, because that is not an option.

They’re going to do better. They have to do better.

But to do that, they need information. Which means that they are all going to sit here, and Carolina’s going to let the others deal with Alpha, and South and Connie argue over cards, and Wash sit in his own silence now that she’s coaxed him into agreeing to stay with the rest of the group.

And she’s going to watch.

She sees her counterpart’s approach, cautious and slow, not trying to attract attention, and stands up to meet her.

Wash looks up at that, for the first time in a while, and tries to catch her with one hand. She bats it away. “I need to talk to her.”

“You’re the one who said we shouldn’t be alone,” Wash says, quiet and pointed.

“This is different,” she hisses, ignoring the looks from the others. “She’ll tell me more.”

He looks like he’s going to argue, but York draws his attention from the other side of the table, demanding his input on a map of the camp. As Wash bends over to examine it, York meets her gaze and nods, jerking his head.

She leaves him to take control and strides with purpose towards the sagging building the other Carolina is lurking in the shadows of.

“I heard you’re sharing information now,” Carolina says, quietly, trying not to slide into accusation.

“If you’re sure you want to know,” the older Carolina responds, in the exact same tone. “An exchange?”

“What do you want to know?” Carolina asks her back. She feels confident in the information she has to share.

“If I tell you, I tell the team, too.”

“It’s not like I was going to lie to my team,” Carolina says. She tries not to make it sound like a threat. Not very hard, but she tries.

“Then it shouldn’t be a problem if I just get telling them out of the way up front.” There’s an edge to her counterpart’s voice now.

Carolina doesn’t want to let her do that. Carolina doesn’t want to give her the chance to hurt her team any more.

Carolina says, “Fine,” and tries not to bite off the end. “But not now. I think you can agree today hasn’t been great in terms of trust.

The strange helmet in a familiar shade stares her down, and Carolina doesn’t look away. They need information, right now, but they don’t need to bite each other’s heads off. And for that not to happen, they need time.

Carolina’s going to get that if she has to barricade the hallway they’re bunking in herself.

“Tomorrow,” her counterpart finally says.

“Tomorrow,” Carolina agrees.

She forces herself to turn around and walk away, trying not to imagine how she’d assess her own weaknesses from behind.

She doesn’t try very hard, but well. She tries.

 


 

After Tucker drops off Alpha with his buddies, the rest of the evening is, thank fuck, quiet enough to make up for spending two hours babysitting an asshole AI with separation anxiety. And spending some time before that chewing out the other Freelancers for being fucking idiots.

Tucker would save his energy for being mad at Wash, but the shit hit the fan in a bigger way that any of them could have guessed. And by now, the idiot himself is probably spiraling deep enough into a funk on his own that he doesn’t need any help from Tucker.

The incident at least proved that they can’t leave Wash alone without major problems, so he’s much easier to find now. All Tucker has to do is message Sarge, who confirms that he handed Wash-sitting duty over to Simmons and Caboose.

Tucker’s relieved to see that, because he couldn’t keep an eye on Caboose while he was carting around Alpha—the last thing they need is Caboose getting attached to a “new best friend” in addition to a brand-new mystery sister.

Simmons, Caboose, and Wash are at a table in the dining hall, surrounded by the lieutenants. Jensen in particular looks ready to fight anyone who might come too close.

Simmons had relayed the gist of her tearful, apologetic story about how she just wanted to get some driving lessons, and hadn’t meant to almost run anyone over, or to trigger Wash, how she hadn’t even known the Freelancers were out there.

Tucker doesn’t know if he’s going to tell her, but he’s almost grateful she did almost run over Wash. He gets a sinking pit in his stomach at the idea of Wash, not remembering where he was, just following his old buddies out into the woods with no one to stop them.

Yeah, okay, they said they were going to bring him back, but Tucker already hadn’t trusted any of them as far as he could throw them. Now he trusts them even less.

Wash looks better now. He’s not constantly checking his back, he still looks stretched but not completely snapped, and he’s focused in on the conversation happening around him.

Or at least he is until he sees Tucker, and then he turns bright red and immediately grabs his glass of water and chugs about half of it in one go. Caboose helpfully pounds him on the back when he starts choking.

Tucker pulls his helmet off and leans forward to take a closer look. “Dude. You okay?”

Wash covers his eyes and shakes his head. “I—fine. Just remembering...something Sarge said.”

Tucker snorts and pushes Palomo to the side so he can sit down across from Wash. “Oh, man. What bullshit did he start spouting this time?”

“It’s…not important.”

Before Tucker can pester further details out of him, Carolina comes up and thumps her hands heavily on the edge of the table, leaning over it. “We need to talk.”

The lieutenants look at her, then at each other, and all gabble out some excuse Tucker doesn’t catch before scrambling away.

“We are always talking.”

“He’s not wrong.”

Carolina makes a growling sound. “Thank you, Caboose. Thank you, Simmons. Any other constructive comments to make?”

Tucker has a feeling answering that would be bad, so he just asks, “What do we need to talk about?”

Carolina took a deep breath. “I’m talking with the other Freelancers tomorrow. All of them. So we can trade information without worrying anyone might take it upon themselves to forget to mention something.”

Tucker nods. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem with that—he doesn’t care what they get up to, but he doesn’t want to go through any more bullshit because the AI are keeping secrets. He can get Caboose to help him drag Wash out on patrol, or something—

“I want to be there.”

Or fucking not. “Are you kidding me?”

“Wash. Are you sure this is a good idea?” Carolina’s voice is level, but hard.

It’s not, and Tucker has no idea why she’s asking him, because Wash clearly wouldn’t know a good idea if it bit him in the ass.

“I’m not fresh off a head injury this time,” Wash points out, dryly. “And I’m not going to go alone.”

Look at that. He can learn.

“Besides. If we’re trading information—there’s a few things they might need to know that are only in my head.”

While they’re all dealing with that fucking statement, Simmons, who has only maybe a teaspoon’s worth of feelings that aren’t related to freaking out, kissing up, or Grif, has to go ahead and ask, “So, what are we going to do with them? I mean…we can’t keep them just, here, forever. Right?”

“We’ll…cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Um, I think you said that wrong. You mean we will burn that bridge when we get to it.”

“No, Caboose, I…” Carolina trails off. “You know what? You might be right.”

While they’re busy with that fucking fascinating discussion, Tucker looks back over at Wash.

He’s holding his helmet in his hands, running his thumb over the visor again and again and again. Tucker can see his lips moving, shaping just the edges of words he doesn’t know.

Well, hell. If Tucker can’t stop Wash from going tomorrow, then Wash can’t stop him from coming along.

 

Chapter Text

This is actually going better than Wash had expected. Of course, Wash hadn’t bothered curtailing his expectations, so he’d been expecting everything up to full-on everyone dying in a freak meteor accident.

In hindsight, that one might have been overly pessimistic.

Carolina’s handling most of the talking, and though the other Freelancers are listening and muttering among themselves and occasionally interjecting comments, her counterpart is handling most of it right back. It’s not hard to remember where he is, with both of them going back and forth.

Tucker leaning on the table next to Wash and occasionally making snarky comments is helping, too, even if Wash isn’t sure why he insisted on coming. When he’d asked if Tucker had something better to do, Tucker had just looked at him like he was an idiot.

Mostly, though, Tucker just seems bored. The conversation is staying broad, so far—a lot of UNSC politics for the most part.

There’s a detour when South asks about recent Grifball scores with entirely too much interest and gets elbowed by North, right before York demands to know “Did Doc Brown teach you nothing?”

This, of course, sparks a hissed but still heated discussion for the next several minutes. Niner and York are, surprisingly, on the same side. South and his own counterpart are arguing against. Connie and Maine stay out of it entirely. Wash thinks he sees Connie surreptitiously pulling up the Grifball scores and has to cough to hide his laugh.

He definitely sees the commiserating glance his Carolina trades with herself, and then the way they flinch away from looking at each other.

He can’t blame Carolina. This is going better than Wash had thought it would, but it’s still hard to watch how…good their team is going.

Wash can’t shake the feeling in his stomach that it’s not going to last, that they’re going to break and crack and shatter each other just like his team did, and he can’t watch that happen twice—

and then Tucker leans heavily against his arm, and mutters, “Hey, Wash. You good?”

Wash breathes, deep, and pushes his mind away from asteroid fields and snowy wastes. “Fine.”

He’s still not sure why Tucker decided to come, but he’s glad to have him there.

The conversation moves on, and they trade questions, and at some point, the other Carolina pauses long enough when it’s her turn to ask that South takes the chance to ask, sharp and fierce, “How’d I die?”

She’s looking directly at him, where he’s sitting to the left behind Carolina to give her the lead.

Even though Carolina starts to move in front of him to field the question herself, Wash feels settled enough to stand up and tell her “It’s okay.”

That time of his life—before the Reds and Blues had become an inextricable part of him, when he was still holding a world of lies and screaming behind his teeth and playing to obedient little soldier—is still not completely clear to him. But he remembers enough for the answers he owes her.

Wash moves away from Tucker to stand next to Carolina, turning over his thoughts to find a place to start. The others are watching him, and he can see intent straight through their helmets.

His own counterpart, who he’s tried very hard to not be in the same room as, looks more nervous. Wash can’t blame him. This is going to hurt him maybe more than it hurts Wash.

He doesn’t have to fight beside his own ghosts anymore.

“After the project fell, and after…well. The reason I was still around after the project fell was because I wasn’t exactly in any shape to run—”

“I told them, Wash,” Carolina says, quietly. “They know about how the crash. And…why.”

“Oh.” Wash has to process this, has to figure out where to start from what they know. “When?”

“Yesterday. After the mixup.” Carolina’s watching him, carefully.

Mixup. That’s a hell of a way to put it.

“We know about the rogue fragments going against the Director,” the other Carolina interjects, delicately. “But apparently Caboose was the only other one there when South died.” He looks over in time to see her shoot a glare at an entirely unrepentant South. “The Reds and Blues explained you’d been assigned Recovery. We don’t need further details.”

“No, you do,” Wash says after he’s had time to fit all the pieces together. “I was Recovery One. South was Recovery Two. But I didn’t know that until she’d shot me in the back, taken the fragment I’d pulled off York’s corpse, and left me to bleed out.”

There’s a wince, but no surprise, so Wash skips ahead. “I obviously didn’t die, so eventually Command put me on hunting down the Meta and authorized me to track down the Blue Team from Blood Gulch for more information. I found the Alpha and Caboose—”

“The Alpha?” The other Carolina seems to immediately regret interrupting, and raises her hands. “I’m sorry. Go on, please.”

“We caught up to the Meta when South’s Recovery beacon went off. In the fighting, Caboose shot her by accident and the Meta got away. She wouldn’t have been able to keep up. I was angry. She didn’t think I would shoot her.” Wash makes himself lock visors with South. “I wish I could tell you something better. I can’t. It was a bad decision from a bad time. I disposed of the body and told Command Caboose had killed her.”

It’s almost an apology. He’s about as sorry about it as he is about everything else from that time.

South looks away. His counterpart doesn’t.

“The Alpha.” Now that he’s done, the other Carolina still has questions. “He—you said he was fragmented. He went to Blood Gulch?”

“After everything, the Director wanted him hidden. A sim trooper base was the perfect disguise. Who would look twice at the rejects of the UNSC?” Carolina’s voice is very dry. “No offense, Tucker.”

Tucker shrugs. “Meh. When you’re right, you’re right.”

“What?” Wyoming, to Wash’s enormous surprise, is the one to speak up. “Was that the point of Blood Gulch?” He rubbs at his chin through his helmet. “It would certainly explain a great deal.”

It looks like South kicks him under the table, eliciting an oof. “Shut up, asshole. You know it wasn’t.”

“It was, though,” Wash says, slowly, trying not to dredge those memories too deeply. “It—the whole point of the sim trooper base program was to recruit expendable soldiers.”

The other Carolina leans forward. “From the way you’re talking about it, you’re making it sound like there was more than one.”

And then they have to get that particular mess sorted out. Wash can practically feel Tucker’s jaw drop from where he’s sitting.

“You’re kidding,” he finally says, of the other Blood Gulch. “That was it?”

“It was supposed to be challenging and creative, but it was never supposed to be the dregs,” Carolina says honestly. “Leaving Georgia there pretty much guaranteed it’d be exciting.”

“I never met Georgia,” Wash says, and hears it echo, and has to keep himself from doing a double-take at his younger counterpart.

Tucker snorts. “A Freelancer? That wasn’t a massive homicidal maniac? That’s fucking different.”

“He’s here too,” York points out.

“Bullshit he’s not.”

“Uh, Sarge?” York tilts his head. “Am I missing something?”

Wash and Carolina slowly turn to stare at each other.

“He—”

“It—”

She gets her bearings while he’s still stammering to come up with some idea, and turns back to the others. “Universal difference.”

“Are you sure?”

Yes,” and Wash insists on this right along with Carolina because his sanity is fragile enough as it is.

“Okay,” Carolina says after a long silence, desperate to move on. “So it sounds like your training was pretty different from ours. Does the counselor have supervision?”

“The thing where he goes and tattles to the General if we’re doing something fun?” South mutters, making North sigh and Florida nod agreement.

“So he doesn’t dictate your exercises.”

The other Carolina shrugs. “He recommends certain ones for working with Alpha, or suggests areas to focus on, but he doesn’t set training, no. That’s the General’s area.” Wash can practically hear the capital G hanging off the word the way the Director wears its own capital D, the respect all of them carry in their voices that has to be born from long, wary experience.  

“What does that usually involve? Drills? Exercises? Enhancement practice? Does that general get involved or leave you on your own?” Carolina’s a little too intent for Wash’s comfort, but he can’t blame her. There’s something a little too unfamiliar here for his taste.

“Usually it’s just supervisory. Coaching. She designs most of the exercises herself, especially simulations.” The other Carolina’s no slouch, she can tell they’re digging. She’s being cautious now, framing her words carefully. “We run drills, sometimes extended sparring. Various obstacle courses. Scrimmage fights.”

“Live ammunition?”

“Lockdown paint.” Most of the team winces. “Or standard paint, if it’s extended beyond the training room.

Wyoming lets out a sigh that sounds almost fond. “That was an excellent week.”

“That was a nightmare of a week,” Florida replies, in an entirely too cheerful tone of voice.

Their Carolina coughs pointedly and talks over them. “Mostly it’s just us, yes. She occasionally gets involved with the hand-to-hand combat training directly.”

“Hey, remember that time she kicked your ass?” Niner says to York, an evil grin in her voice.

“You weren’t even there,” York protests as Wash’s counterpart mutters “Which time?” and Carolina doesn’t bother coughing this time, just asks loudly, “What was it like on your end?”

“Similar, probably. A lot more combat simulations. A lot of training against the computer. Most assignments were made by Price or the Director. Price contributed more as the AI advanced. We had lockdown paint, but it never spread beyond the training room.” Carolina pauses, considering her next question, and then finally comes out with “Who is this General you all keep talking about? Some sort of…oversight committee representative?”

The pause that follows her question makes Wash feels like a ghost is walking down his spine, all spreading chill and heightened nerves. There’s a tension he can’t name, something dangerous to the way they all trade slow, hesitant looks.

He would watch the other Carolina for answers, but she most of all seems uneasy, if not taken aback.

The chill on Wash’s spine gets colder, tingling up towards the implants resting at the back of his neck, like the hairs that used to be there and the wires that rest there now want to stand on end.

It’s CT who finally speaks up, not so much breaking the silence as ripping it open. “Lieutenant General Allison Church.”

Wash’s implants reverberate like they’ve taken a hit, and the inside of his head is echoing so much that he barely hears her add, “UNSC liaison to Project Freelancer.”

Wash has to close his eyes. Wash doesn’t dare close his eyes. He has to see Carolina. He can’t look at Carolina, either of them, the one who left him behind and came back for him, the one he’s seen dying and as a little girl with blonde hair, the one who—

Wash turns around and walks away from the clearing, barely focusing on where exactly it is he needs to go except away.

 


 

The other Wash and Carolina both freeze, for a long few seconds, and then leave the clearing in opposite directions. Carolina watches them go, jaw clenched, and holds out her hand to stop her team from rising from the table.

Tucker swears, and stabs a finger in their direction. “Fucking—not—again,” he snaps out.

“We didn’t do anything!” South snaps, shoulders braced for a fight.

“You’ve done—you know what, I don’t fucking care, stay here,” and he’s gone after Wash before they can do anything.

Carolina waits until he is out of earshot, and then turns to Connie and says, low and deadly and no longer in the mood to play games, “Get him out here.”

Connie doesn’t even bother denying it, just pulls out the portable mechanism she filched from somewhere and slaps it on the table so they can all see him and he can’t see into any of them. It’s not fair, but Carolina thinks her mother might be dead and her father might have killed for it and her team might have killed each other over it and Alpha might have kn—Alpha knew and she is done, done, done.

He comes on slowly, a little blue light that flickers sullenly. Or guiltily. The shades of nuance in AI blinking are beyond her sometimes, but the way he blinks up into hologram, sees all of them, blinks out, and then comes back up when she drums her fingers on the table pointedly is clear enough.

“Answers,” Carolina tells Alpha, and not a single person on her team looks away.

Alpha shrinks, and Alpha looks at all of them, and finally, Alpha answers.


 

When he’s done, there is a stifled silence over the clearing.

“Wow,” York says, trying to break the tension. “For all the times we’ve said…it would crash and burn without her, I don’t think…I ever thought it’d be so literal.”

No one laughs. No one looks up.

“What now?” Niner is the one to ask, practical and brazen as ever.

They’re all thinking it, and one by one, they look to Carolina, waiting for an answer.

Carolina looks at them, and Carolina looks at Alpha, and in one smooth motion she’s scooped up his drive and slotted it into her armor.

“Now,” she says, not wasting anything, not a word or a moment because they’ve taken long enough already. “We move.”

 


 

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t take long for Tucker to talk Wash down, to pull him back to being here and now and not off wherever it is he goes when he curls up and puts his hands over the back of his neck like there’s someone coming for it and no one to protect it. It still takes too fucking long, and by the time he gets back into camp with dark thoughts on his mind and Wash walking upright next to him, Carolina is already meeting with Kimball and Doyle and she looks up as they come in.

“The lieutenants are rounding them up,” she says, flat. “We’ve wasted enough time already. We can’t go on like this. They can go to Armonia, or they can go somewhere else where they can actually be helpful, or they can go in a room where they can’t make trouble. This ends now.”

Tucker’s not going to fucking argue with that. Wash looks like he wants to, but he doesn’t seem to know how to start, so he just says, “Understood.”

Kimball and Doyle start talking options, deployment or containment or other ball-busting military terms that Tucker doesn’t have the patience for right now. It only takes them a couple of minutes to work their way up to a shouting match, which Carolina seems to have no interest in breaking up until there’s a knock at the door, guilty and hesitant.

“Uh, sirs?” Jensen says, once she’s opened up, Bitters at her back. “We went where you told us, and then we split up and checked all over camp, and then the woods, and…and…”

It’s Bitters who spits it out, finally, the harsh truth that makes something sour claw at Tucker’s teeth. “They’re gone. All of them.”

 

Chapter Text

When the team missed their first check-in after Four Seven Niner went to pick them up, Allison wasn’t worried.

She was irked, and suspected that it might be a bit of minor rebellion at being forced to leave Blood Gulch. Alpha was certainly capable of and petty enough to block their communications. But a call was coming in from the UNSC headquarters regarding permissions for a second AI, so Allison prioritized that and resolved, almost as an afterthought, to put the entire team through a lecture on proper safety protocols once they got back to base.

Carolina, at least, should know better than to let her or Alpha’s personal feelings take priority over the safety of her team.

When they had missed their second check-in, an hour later… then Allison was concerned. Subspace transmissions had been reliable in their sector of space for years now.

She sent her first transmission directly to the pilot’s radio, and marked it priority . When that fell through, she tried Carolina, then York, then Maine, then Connecticut, then North, then Florida, and all the way down until she was back to trying to contact Niner again.

When she’d gotten halfway through the list with no response, she called Leonard and told him to come to her office, and he was there by the time she’d finished.

“Alpha team’s fallen out of contact.”

He pushed his glasses further up on his nose and sat on the other side of her desk, already engrossed in his own tablet. “What route were they taking?”

When Allison outlined it, he frowned. “That is hardly the most direct path back here.”

“I thought it was just Alpha being petty. I was going to give him an earful later.” She tapped through the subspace information. “There was a chance that they had to avoid crossing priority traffic, so I held off. Relays have them registered all the way out to…” She stopped the screen and spun it to face him. “Here.”

Leonard frowned, and then pulled up his own map, flicking through it too fast for her to follow backwards. “Charon Industries registered that one of the relays is down a little over two hours ago.”

Allison took a deep breath and let it out. “Damn.”

“Regardless, if…” he tapped his fingers against the keyboard. “Had they been forced to drop out of subspace, it would have generated a transmission. That, at least, should have been in range of the nearest relay by now.”

The two of them shared a long, silent look.

“If we assume the worst best case scenario,” Allison said, finally, “They’ll be in that sector of space with their communications damaged, working on navigating back to the closest relay. That should take them what, three days?”

He hummed, flicking his fingers over his screen. “Call it four, if the engine also took damage.”

“Right.” She rubbed at her head. “We can…put the word out to Charon to watch for them. If they’ve also discovered the issue, they had to be in the area, and it’s likely their ship will be better equipped than the Pelican.” The idea of going to Hargrove for anything put her back up, but it was for the team’s sake. “If not, they have the supplies to get within subspace range. We’ll just have to wait.”

Leonard nodded and changed the subject to potential candidates for Beta team. Neither of them voiced the worst worst case scenario.


 

Four days passed. No transmissions arrived.

Charon Industries sent a blandly worded condolence note. Allison wished it were possible to tear up digital files.


 

Word of Alpha team’s disappearance and subsequent bad mood of the higher-ups had spread pretty quick, even without Four Seven Niner there to share the best gossip with the rest of the personnel. Allison knew for sure when she went to go give the orders to reroute and none of the pilots so much as breathed an inquiry.

Allison walked back to the team’s sector of the ship after giving the pilots their orders and found herself looking over the training room for a long time.

It was very bare. It had been since the team had left, of course, but it hadn’t seemed to matter then. She had known where they were. She had consigned them to “deployed” and moved on with her life.

But now they weren’t deployed, they were missing, and the absence seemed to throb in time with the old wound in her bad shoulder.

“Kill the lights, FILSS,” she said, and then went to go find Leonard.

She didn’t even bother going to his quarters, aiming for his office instead. FILSS hadn’t alerted her, but FILSS had been acting different since Alpha team’s record for going without checking in had been broken.

Leonard had told her once that AI sometimes ran little algorithms over and over again to themselves, the equivalent of a human’s nervous fidgeting. Allison wondered what kind of things FILSS ran—did she construct ridiculous hypotheticals? Did she run the numbers on her own systems again and again?

Or did she fall prey to the same anxieties Alpha sometimes did, where he panicked over all the possible things that could go wrong?

How many ways had FILSS thought of for her team to die? More than Allison herself had?

“Stop it,” she said, out loud, just once. Once would have to be enough, because now she was at the door to Leonard’s office.

She had persuaded Alpha a long time ago to set her keycode as override for the door, without telling Leonard. He didn’t really need to know. Besides, if he’d did, he’d probably have gotten rid of it, and then where would they be in a time like this?

The door slid open, but Leonard didn’t look up from where he was hunched over the desk. If Allison didn’t know better, she’d think that he hadn’t even noticed, but she saw the way several of his work windows immediately minimized.

She immediately stalked across the room and threw them back open. If they were things that a Leonard who had been working for three days straight was trying to hide from her, they were things she definitely needed to see.

The first few were recognizable, if not familiar—Allison would never be an engineer, but she had been peering at Leonard’s projects to recognize the code for a nascent AI. The next windows were recognizable in an entirely different way—she may not have watched this particular training footage, but she knew what Carolina looked like in armor.

The rest of the pictures, though, were what stole all the air from her lungs.

When Carolina was younger, right before Allison had taken a bullet to her shoulder, there had a been a brief period of time where Leonard had been obsessed with an old video camera. There was footage of Allison somewhere, from right before she shipped out, and she still remembered opening her email every few days to find a new video of Carolina on her way to school, or mastering some gymnastics trick, or carrying a new strange animal into the house and begging to keep it, or throwing candy at a newly married couple with her class in synagogue.

It seemed like every video from that time was on the screen, somewhere.

“What is this?” Allison asked. It came out far quieter than she meant it to, because it felt like she still couldn’t get enough air. Her husband wouldn’t look at her, or at the screen. “Leonard. What the hell is this.”

“A theory,” he said, voice rough with disuse and exhaustion. “I—” he turned away, hands trembling as he sorted bits of computer boards scattered around. “I was attempting to find whether there was—whether it is possible to construct a human-analogous program without—without a readily available model.”

Allison stepped back from the screen and threaded her fingers together in front of her, because she didn’t trust herself right now, and said, very carefully. “If you give up on the team we have both spent a good two years putting together and training, I will punch you.” She stared him down until he looked up at her and met her gaze, and the look on his face was so bleak and exhausted that she almost felt bad about it, but she still said without an ounce of forgiveness, “Get rid of the code or I will.”

She strode out of the room, determined to go work her anger out on a punching bag instead of an unsuspecting innocent target. She knew better than to stick around and wait for an apology. If Leonard ever actually unbent enough to realize he had been wrong about something, he was infinitely more likely to let the guilt eat him alive than to apologize.

That didn’t mean she didn’t want to go shake him and demand he beg her forgiveness for trying to replace—

Allison threw the first punch without bothering to wrap her knuckles and swore for a solid five minutes before bothering to find the exercise tape.  

It took her half an hour before she was calm enough to record a message.

“We have a coordinate range for where Alpha Team went off the radar. The Mother of Invention is set to travel to the sector to provide a launching point for Charon scouts in the area. In exchange, we’ll be allowed to run as many scans and as wide a search pattern as we can. ETA is a day and a half. You will be on the bridge when we get there, or so help me…”

Allison was too angry to even think of a good threat, so she just punched the bag again and snapped, “End message.”


 

“Approaching subspace drop, General.”

“Get all the arrays up and running. All of them, even the obscure experimental ones the technicians code when they’re drunk.”

“…Yes, General.”

“Here.”

Leonard’s voice was rough, and tired, and a tremendous surprise. Allison wasn’t going to haul him out until they had actually found something, even if it was a total absence of all known energy readings. But here he was, looking like he hadn’t slept since she ambushed him in his office. At least he’d showered recently.

He was offering a thumb drive.

“What is this?” Allison asked, deeply suspicious.

“A—program. I developed it myself, trying to develop a way to keep Alpha from sneaking around the ship. There are no other copies, and the drive is shielded against wireless transfer so he wouldn’t find out.” Leonard met her eyes, carefully. “I’ve been…making improvements to it, for the past thirty-six hours. It may be useless, but in combination with some of the other programs…”

Allison took it, gave it a cursory examination, and then handed it off to a waiting technician. “Thank you.”

Leonard nodded, and then turned away to watch the stream of information coming in.

When he wasn’t looking at her, Allison let out a small exhale of relief.

She could do this—searching for her missing people, her missing team , with nothing more to go on than a lack of hard evidence and a prayer—but she couldn’t do that, and keep this deal with Charon from taking them too far into debt, and fight her husband all at the same time.

It was good, to have him on her side.

While she was packing that thought away down tight, before he could somehow pick up on it and get a swollen head, there was a soft beep from one of the consoles.

“The emissions detector,” a tech called out, before Allison could ask. “Looks like they made it a little further than we did, sir.” The beeping continued, soft and steady.

“Is that right?” Allison asked, suspicious. “Shouldn’t the subspace relay have more range now, after it’s been repaired?”

“All respect, sir, a Pelican’s a little easier to move through subspace than a warship,” another commented. “Wouldn’t put it past Niner to squeeze a few more kilometers out of the jump.”

“We’ve got gamma.” And that was a third tech, as a clattering whirr joined the beeping, fading in and out. “Subspace shrapnel.”

Allison glanced to Leonard, because he knew subspace and he knew the way her mind worked, but he was shaking his head. “Potentially, a relay failing at a poor time could cause the subspace material to shatter. It doesn’t mean the damage was intentional.”

More of the scans came back positive, more factors piling up as they watched. The techs stopped calling things out, sending feeds to the main screen instead, building the picture of a ship. Or—the ghost of a ship. There was no debris, no junk, no signs of an explosion or impact or crash.

Allison kindly kept looking straight ahead when she heard Leonard give a shaky exhale and slump back against the wall.

“Sir?” the lieutenant on duty asked when they reached the edge of their sweep radius.

“Keep going,” Allison ordered.

The Mother of Invention continued on, looking for her lost team.


 

They made it another week before they ran out of time.

They had collected data—they had collected terabytes of data, some of which hadn’t been gathered by UNSC personnel before, in any sector of space—but no wreckage. No wreckage anywhere. No space junk, no suspicious wreckage on any nearby planets.

Charon had started sending them escorts, escorts that Allison had to grit her teeth and allow entry to, even as they only muddled the faint trails left by vehicles moving through space. The escorts only got more and more ostentatious, with more and more UNSC interest behind them.

Finally, the orders came down the pipe and Allison knew they were done.

Convincing Leonard was another matter. He hated any authority that he wasn’t tied to.

“We have found nothing, Allison, we cannot simply abandon—”

“We can, and we have to. Leonard. We found nothing . That’s good, because it means there’s no proof they’re dead, but that’s bad, because it means we’re running a high-class warship around a desolate region on the edge of claimed space for no good reason!” Allison wanted to shake him, she really did. “We don’t get to do that. We burned our goodwill building an experimental team, Leonard, and we’ve burned it even more because we have nothing to show for it. Not even a team .” Allison rubbed at her temples. “We have to go back to colonized space, we have to make nice and run errands, and we have to put down Alpha team as MIA and move on to building Beta team.” She refused to let her voice waver. “We have proof of concept. We can accelerate the process, select specifically for people who already work together. And we need to, before we get shut down and dissolved entirely.”

“Fine.” He sounded not just bitter, but betrayed, like she was the bad guy here. Her fraying temper went over the edge.

“Fine!” She turned around and stalked away.

Allison made it all the way to her office and holed away before she finally paid attention to the light blinking oh-so-patiently on her desk. “Yes, FILSS.”

“You have several new messages, General.”

“I have several new messages every time I blink. Why have you been trying to get my attention over anything not from UNSC authorities or Hargrove, FILSS?”

“Because these messages are from Blood Gulch, General.”

Allison paused, feeling a terrible sense of foreboding loom. “…Play from beginning.”


 

This is Sarge, from Blood Gulch Outpost Number One. Reporting that as of 0900 hours today, Agents York, Connecticut, South Dakota, and Maine departed from Blood Gulch in custody of pilot 479er. All quiet on the Red front. Sarge out.”

 

So...this is Private Tucker from Blood Gulch Outpost Alpha. The freelancers are gone. Nothing else is happening. I think the Reds are about to set something on fire.” A pause. “ Yeah, that was an explosion. Bye, I guess.

 

Private Grif, the Blue base one. The Reds kinda blew up half their base, so now we’re keeping some of them here. The crazy old guy refused to leave and his robot stayed too. Uh. Is there anything we should know?”

 

“This is Private Simmons, of the Red Army, Blood Gulch Outpost Number One, currently reporting from Blood Gulch Outpost Alpha. We have called a temporary ceasefire after our base sustained damages sufficient to cause it to become unfit for habitation and relocated. Awaiting further orders. Private Simmons signing off.”

 

“Sarge, Blood Gulch Outpost Number One. Sure would be nice to get some confirmation that our agents made it home okay. Sarge out.”

 

“Hello? Hello? Is anybody there? I am Caboose! I am here! But my new friends are not! And they said they would write, but they did not write, and I am worried they have lost the number. So please let Washingtub, and North Coats, and Flowers. and Church know that I am waiting for them to write. Especially Church! I have made him many postcards. Oh, and you can tell the scary lady too. But only if she asks.”

 

“This is Private Donut of the Red Army. Everything is going smooth and slick here! But it sure would be nice to know what’s going on with the members of the team that got called to attention.”

 

The messages continued on, a series of inconsistent and baffling reports. One from the robot outlined an expedition to retrieve scrap metal and wreckage. Another from Sarge was a request for various obscure electronic parts to be added to the supply list. Another from Private Caboose was only interpreted with a following message from Tucker, clarifying that while Red Base has been repaired, Blue Base was uninhabitable because of “the project” hitting a few snags. Almost all of them asked for status updates, or about the members of Alpha Team, or any information on what was going on.

The last message made Allison’s eyes narrow, and she leaned forward to play it again.

Private Dexter Grif. Blood Gulch. This is a message for the General. Yeah, you, lady, specifically. Remember me, sir ? Little interrogation room? I know a setup when I smell one, and this entire place has reeked since day one. Until now, it wasn’t a problem, but until now, it didn’t feel like you were messing with us. So here’s the deal. You’ve got twenty-four hours to tell us something, or we’re coming to you, because no one here has anything left to lose.

The message ended without a signoff. Allison drummed her fingers on her desk, and sighed.

“FILSS, is there any chance regulations have changed since the last time I checked, and it’s acceptable to murder insubordinate underlings?”

“It has not, general,” FILSS said, sounding disapproving.

“Of course not. When was this sent?”

“Thirty hours ago, General.”

Allison’s fingers abruptly stopped.

“Ah.” She closed her eyes, and rubbed a hand over her face. “Is there anything else I should know?

“There is an unidentified spacecraft currently approaching the ship and there is still no circumstance under which you may murder your subordinates.”

“I’m going to destroy their lives,” Allison announced, and went to go greet the spaceship in an unexpectedly good mood.

She could use a few people with nothing left to lose right now. Oh, yes. She could use them very well.