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Who Was I To You

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The air here isn’t how she remembers it. It’s softer, deeper, broader and wider – Like fabric softener, thick like molasses and the definition of earthy. With each breath, the air seemed to expand inside Carolina’s lungs, filling her chest to the capacity with something that could only be described as clean.

You get used to breathing stale air after years of space. On a shuttle, on a command ship, the air is recycled; you share it with everyone else. Carolina quickly discovered that it’s ony possible to breath the same three molecules of oxygen for so long before you start to feel something close to sick crowd your lungs. Worse than the fine layer of dust coating an unused room and better than stuffy biofoam in a gaping wound.

But just barely.

On-world, most environments Carolina came across required her to keep her helmet on at all times (even if they didn’t, Carolina still found herself hard-pressed for a reason to actually part with it), and the built in filters take out everything new from the outside, leaving you to sit with the rotten smell of your own breath and unwashed, sweating body. For days on end. Weeks on end. Months.

You get used to the uncleanliness though. There was a learning curve, sure, but you don’t take many showers while fighting a war, so Carolina learned to adapt. She stopped shaving during Basic, learned to rely on quick scrubs, and less tangle-y short hair; and when she became an ODST, Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, one of the elite, her only serious concern with cleanliness was when dressing and re-dressing a wound. Yes, by the time she retired, Carolina was well acquainted with all the different ways people could look or smell, alive or not. Or not. Not.

Carolina steps heavily off the bus, her body still trying to adjust to gravity on earth, and yes, yes, the air is definitely not how she remembers it. It’s not surprising though, because she never really paid attention to how the air felt in her mouth or how it filled her lungs before unless it was particularly miserable outside.

The military standard duffel bag Carolina is carrying hits the backs of her thighs as she begins down the street, her eyes scanning the skies, the alleys, the doors, nooks and crannies, and finally, the streets. Her footfalls are rhythmic, a low tock – tock – tock as her thick-soled boots hit the cement with each step and she finds herself being lulled by the suddenly intense calmness of the situation. There are no people out. After minutes of walking, the sweat starts to lick at Carolina’s hairline underneath her cap, and the reason as to why there are no people out becomes painstakingly obvious. Carolina hails a cab.

The air is softer than she remembers. Deeper. Broader. Wider.

Carolina’s uniform feels like thick paper against her skin, scratchy, and closer to an envelope than clothing, but it’s still softer than the Kevlar body suit she’s used to. It’s thinner too, the breeze touches her skin and sends Carolina into a frenzy of goose bumps.

The air here isn’t how she remembers. Even in a cab, the air tastes fresh – less fresh than outside in the open, granted, but fresh nonetheless. Carolina is wearing her uniform. It has minimal armor, there’s only padding on her back and one shoulder, and it’s grey and darker grey, and it makes her stand out more than she already would.

“You – uh – active duty?” Riding in the taxi isn’t loud, but it’s filled to the brim with background buzzing and whispers of conversation. The wheels on the pavement, the cars whistling as they pass and are passed, the sound of the engine whining when it’s pushed – no honking though, she’s been out of Houston for a couple hours now. Every sound and sight, ever distraction, is there and pressing against Carolina, but none are more present than the cab driver’s talking.

Carolina glances through the rear-view mirror at the cabbie’s eyes, but they’re turned away from her and scanning the road, taking a bit of the pressure off of her. “No. Just retired.”

“Huh.” The cab driver shrugs as he slows to a stop, then cashes in his free right turn. “Thank you for your service, then.”

Carolina nods, wanting to lose herself in the rows of buildings that are melting away into house, driveway, house, driveway house tree driveway, but the cabbie has other plans.

“Were you deployed?”

“Yes.”

She doesn’t feel like talking, hasn’t felt like talking much for the past year.

“You glad to be home?” At least the cabbie has enough wit about him to not pry.

Finally, Carolina offers a small smile, and she can see the cab driver visibly relax as his gaze flits to her expression, then to the meter and back to the road. “Yes.”

There are a great many things Carolina is afraid of, and over the years, she’s learned to accept them, to accept her fear and move on because she is stronger than it; but Carolina is not afraid to admit that she is glad to be back. That she’s glad to be back in the deeper, broader, wider air and underneath the blue, blue, blue sky with the soft, soft, soft clouds and the sun that is never too hot and never too far away.

Deeper, broader, wider, blue. Blue. Soft and warm – Home.

You learn to appreciate just how perfectly, perfectly balanced earth is after spending years in space, armored to the teeth in the most literal sense and scraping by to survive.

The houses are familiar. The road is familiar. Carolina is different, she’s broader and heavier, more tired, more wary, but here is the same. Untouched. She used to find so many faults in her neighborhood, used to gab and complain and keep her eyes focused steadily on a future that didn’t include this supposedly stale scenery, but now, she welcomes home. Her seventeen year old self would kick her.

five years is both a long time to be away and nothing, because it feels like Carolina has lived a lifetime fighting, when in reality it’s only been sixty months. Sixty. Five years.

Regardless, there are facts, and Carolina has learned to stake her existence on facts. Carolina has been gone for Five whole years, and now – “Just up here.” Carolina leans forward and points a little to the right, directing the cabbie to her childhood house. She hands him his money, wishes him a good day, drags her duffel out after her, and then takes each step up to the front door slowly and deliberately – Now, Carolina is home.


 

In the military, you become very used to routines. As a cadet, Carolina woke up, had her bed made and training armor pressed and polished each morning. She’d stand at attention, her shoulders squared and her heels clicked together, when a superior officer was on deck. Her patrols were routine, the way she stored her armor as standard and obligatory, everything was nitpicked and scheduled down to Carolina’s breathing (which was monitored by her helmet very helpfully).

Yes, in the military, you become very used to routines because there are many, many routines; but sleeping, is not one of them. There is no day and night in space. On planets, the cycle is stretched and shortened depending on planetary rotation speeds and the distant from it’s systems star (or stars), and life for a soldier who constantly migrated through space becomes a never-ending cycle of sleep-eat-patrol that is only ever interrupted by an occasional ‘attack’ or ‘espionage the fuck outta that planet’.

In the military, you become very, very used to routines because your entire existence is built off of following and obeying (unlike how all those propaganda movies advertise it as leading and defending), and Carolina’s sleep routine consists of having no sleep routine. So when Carolina is re-introduced to her home planet, where she lives in her home town and lives in her actual, honest to god, home, her body has a difficult time adjusting to the whole ‘sleeping when it’s dark and staying awake when it’s light, consistently’ thing every other normal human seems to subscribe to. Just like how she has some trouble adjusting to the gravity, the naked feeling of not having body armor or a heads-up display blinking in the corner of her eye or the absolutely insane abundance of clean and fresh oxygen. Deeper. Broader. Wider.

The nights stretch, and the days disappear with frequent naps, and Carolina is trying, alright? She really, really, really is.

The Church family kitchen isn’t bustling, but it’s not quiet either. At six in the morning, the sun is just barely out, painting the sky a pale purple and making it just dark enough so the overhead lights have to be turned on. Leonard, Carolina’s father, is hovering over the stove with a spatula, nudging the scrambled eggs in the pan every so often as he chats idly with Allison, Carolina’s mom. The fan above Carolina laps lazily around the three yellow light bulbs, and the kitchen is slowly (slowly) beginning to heat up with the use of the stove. The warm and thick air from outside is already leaking in through the cracks under the doors and window seams.

Softer.

Carolina’s parent’s conversation smooths over her in gentle waves, their voices clear as day and ringing through the halls. She’d heard them shuffling around from her room, and then joined them in the kitchen at the small wooden table there, where she’s eaten breakfast for years, years before. She’s been awake for three hours, but that doesn’t mean she slept for any considerable amount of time.

“- and we need more milk – we’ve run out – and eggs.” Leonard flicks off the stove, and moves away to get plates, only to be waved off by Allison.

“I’ll go to the store after school.” Allison carries the stack of plates as Leonard sets the silverware down on the table, then takes his own seat. “But if I get rung up by that one guy again, I won’t be nice.” She continues.

“Honey.”

“Leonard, he tried to give you a senior discount.”

Honey.”

Leonard, I’m defending your honor.” Allison mumbles as she shoves equal proportions of eggs onto each plate. She adds sausage and buttered toast, then carries each plate to the table and sets one down in front of Carolina. Carolina catches her mom eyeing her – her obviously sleepless eyes and tired expression – and Allison quiets.

The three of them eat in silence. It’s rhythmic, the scrape, scrape, scrape of silverware on plates and the clinking of glass against glass, and Carolina feels out of place, but lately, that’s how she always feels, so she ignores it.

She closes her eyes slightly and rubs at her temples. Carolina is afraid of a great many things, but admitting that she needs sleep is not one of them. But just because she knows she needs sleep doesn’t mean she will sleep. She’ll keep pushing, telling everyone she’s ok even though she knows she’s not, and it’s sick and it’s wrong, but it’s how she pretends to deal, so she does just that. Deal.

Suck it up and move on.

Suck it up.

Move on.

“You know, sweetie, it just takes some getting used to.” Allison finally tries to speak as she stands, gathering her dirty dishes, and makes her way over to the sink. Carolina has barely touched her own plate. “The regular day-night cycle, the bed, the food and sounds – it just takes… Time. Just time, and effort, and if you ever need to talk, well, we’re here.”

Living with her parents again was defeating, hearing people coddle her was close to insulting, and Carolina can’t help but feel utterly bitter everything because she feels like she’s been wronged even though she knows she hasn’t. It was her choice enlisting, Carolina made that choice and on her own; to serve her planet, follow in her mother’s footsteps, and yet, she can’t help but feel as if five years of her life have just disappeared into thin air, like they were ripped from her clasped fingers even though, in reality, she willingly gave them up, false advertisement or not, false bravado or not. Somewhere along the line, she changed. It wasn’t a like a switch flipping, it was drawn out and a long time coming, and some time when she was out in the galaxy, she took one step farther than she ever meant to and changed and she can never go back.

Carolina nods absentmindedly in response to her mom, too busy watching the juice in her glass jostle, and her mom doesn’t try to force anything.

“Well, either way, sweetheart, have a nice day.” Allison grabs her backpack, slings it over her shoulder, and meets Leonard at the door. “Call us if you need anything.”

Carolina watches as Allison gives Leonard a pointed look, nodding her head towards Carolina, then back again and… Silence.

“So, ‘Lina,” Carolina’s dad claps his hands together and turns toward Carolina after shutting the door behind Allison. “How’ve you been holding up?” There are more lines on his face, his jawline juts out more and there’s a sharpness to his movements, like he’s walking on ice over a river and it’s fragmenting, slowly, but surely. One wrong move –

“Fine.” Carolina says levelly, and she’s not exactly sure why anybody expects any other answer from her. She’s fine – As fine as she’ll ever be: A little tired, a little confused in the mornings, a little… run down, but she’s had worse. Much worse, so if everybody could stop worrying, that’d be great. So great. So fucking – Deeper. Broader. Wider. Carolina sucks in a deep breath, letting her eyes flutter shut, and then open again as she exhales. The air here is different.

“You’ve been quiet lately.” No shit.

Resentfully, Carolina glances down at her plate, and idly forks at what’s left, which is most of the food given to her, truthfully. It’s what happens when you’re used to being on rations, you learn to only seriously eat dinner, and so her body’s adjusted accordingly. Always adjusting. Always adapting. “I’ve always sbeen quiet.” She doesn’t mean to be so difficult.

Carolina hears her father breath out sharply through his nose, but is otherwise thankful for the silence that follows her words.

The silence doesn’t last long.

“Have you thought about seeing any of your friends? I know a lot of them are still in the area.” He’s only trying to help, Carolina has to remind herself, get yourself together.

Slowly, Carolina sets the fork down on her plate, then stands up, bringing her dishes with her. “I’ve thought about it.” Carolina sets her plate down next to the sink, not wanting to just throw away the food she’s failed to eat. Maybe she’d put it in a Tupperware later.

“Do you think you’re going to?”

Finally, Carolina looks back up at her father, and finds him looking painfully out of place against the light blue walls of the dining room. He’s almost lopsided, like he’s not exactly sure how to hold his weight up, and his eyes follow her movements, worry etched across his angular face.

Carolina knows she’s not going to call any of her friends. She left so abruptly, she hardly believes any of them still consider her a friend; Especially after she dropped contact with all of them for the better part of the last two years.

In any case, fair’s fair. “I’m not sure.” She says, voice even and promising nothing.

With a sigh Leonard glances at his wristwatch, then turns to grab his bag off the hooks near the door. “I’ve got work.” His face is riddled with emotions that Carolina doesn’t ever remember seeing there. “Your brother’s coming with his laundry at lunchtime.” A lot has changed, but Church is still Church.

Carolina nods, and her father leaves. She hears the car start, hears the engine spark to life, putter out of the driveway and off down the street, and then quiet engulfs the house.


 “Tucker, I don’t know what to do. What if she-”

“Dude, she’s your sister.”

It's Sunday now, Church skipped out on doing laundry both Friday and Saturday, so now, pushed to the absolute limit of re-wearing dirty clothes, Tucker's babysitting him to make sure he get's this shit done. Church's parents didn't give him too much shit, though, his dad dropped a few passive-aggressive comments, Church fired back angrily, and Allison decided that it'd be best to take Leonard to the school with her while she set up for Field Day.

“I know, but-” It’s not the same, he wants to say. And he’s right. It isn’t. She’s different. Church hasn’t spent any amount of time with his sister since she’s gotten back; He’s busy with work, babysitting, and his own life – he just… He saw her when she got back, stayed for dinner once or twice, but Christ, man, what’s a guy supposed to do? It’s not like she wants to see him.

And she’s so different. He can see it in her eyes, despite how disgustingly cliché that sounds, and in the way she moves, the way she stands and sits and holds herself – Hell, it’s literally sprawled across her face and arms and any skin he can see or she’ll show. The scars run deeper than what’s on the surface though, and he can only imagine how changed she is.

Church won’t admit it out loud, but he knows Carolina. He’s spent years watching her, idolizing her, he fucking – he really, really loves her, alright? She’s so confident, she walks and talks with grace, and it’s fucking ingrained in her very core, and now she’s… If she can’t deal, how can he ever do anything?

First child. Favourite child. They’re facts and he’s never ever held it against her. “It’s just not….” Church’s voice is weak, to say the least, barely above a whisper. “It’s just…”

“Look, dude, suck it up.” Tucker cuts in, and he doesn’t leave Church any room to argue with him. “She’s your sister, and she’s probably, like, all kinds of fucked up. So you go in there, and we do the fucking laundry, then you talk to her, and you invite her out like we planned, and then you buy me food and then we go home and you don’t talk to me again for the next fifty years because Grif will only babysit Junior for so long and you’re driving me fucking insane with your melodramatic brooding.”

“I do not brood.”

“Yes, you do. Your room’s fifty shades of emo black, the curtains are always closed, and you spend all your time in there. Alone. It’s fucking prime brooding location, Church – Fucking, Hades has cheerier interior decorations than you.”

“I don’t brood.” Church repeats fruitlessly.

“Whatever, man. Just get up there and talk to your fucking sister – Jesus Christ – You don’t gotta make a scene out of everything.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you!”

After a shared ‘humph’, the two boys open their car doors simultaneously and swing them shut behind them. They approach the door, Church grasps the handle, then pauses.

Tucker’s voice softens, and he sets a hand on his best friend’s shoulder. “Look, I’m not saying you’re wrong, there’s no doubt that she’s changed. And it’s going to be awkward, and weird, but the longer you wait to reconnect, the worse it’ll be.”

Tucker gives really good advice when he doesn’t have to take it himself.

Church sighs, studying his feet for a good long moment, then nods, “Alright”, and opens the door.

Chapter Text

A lifetime ago, Carolina, ironically, had a life. She realizes this as she stares down at her old phone in her hands. It’s a relic of some not-right quasi-reality where she was fresh and clean and her biggest concern was what her future held: college or not, Texas or not, job or not, car or not. She gave it up, her life – and you know what? Maybe she shouldn’t be so melodramatic about it. It’s fine, s’okay, she’ll live, she is living, and she’s… she’s doing alright for someone in her position.

Outside, it’s blue. There are clouds peppered against the sky, leaving shadows across the town. The dull roar of the highway is ever present, along with the occasional siren, and even though this is supposed to be a nice town, sounds like that are still heard. Carolina can see seagulls circling in the sky, tiny black bows soaring in the blue, and she isn’t fooled by the peaceful appearance one bit.

Carolina knows it’s hot as hell outside, clingy and sweaty and disgusting, because it’s August, and the summer isn’t leaving without one last wicked heat wave. Thanks global warming. If only people had done something in the 21st century instead of waiting for future generations to solve that shit.

Still, though, Carolina finds comfort in the familiar view. She’s spent her entire life looking out this window, watching the clouds from her bed, being woken up by the sun on the days she forgot to close the curtains.

Sunlit days underneath the aforementioned window were in the forefront of her mind at the moment, the memories fuzzy with age: Blonde hair reflecting the rays, a crowded room, laughter and crumpled Capri Sun pouches strewn about her desk, a tanned face staring at her from her bed, his hair swaying with the air conditioning as he hangs upside-down.

She used to think the blue was boring, that the clouds were too bland, too predictable, that it was too normal the way they contrasted on the ocean or sent the streets sprawling into startling darkness, but now, she accepts the calm.

There’s nothing like Earth blue. There’s nothing like Earth clouds – fresh and fluffy and not poisonous to breath in.

The bed’s warm and soft in the sunlight, the comforter, fuzzy with use, and Carolina’s pillows still have the same pillowcases she left them with: Glossy grey against an orange comforter. Slowly, Carolina feels herself beginning to grow uncomfortably hot in the sun, even though the air conditioner is pumping cool air profusely from the vent to her left.

Five years.

Honestly, it’s not that long, so why does it feel like a lifetime? A lifetime ago she had a life? What about the one now? Why can’t she live now?

Carolina feels older, more tired.

It’s to be expected.

Carolina replaces her phone in its proper spot in the drawer on her nightstand, next to some of her pills. It’s better not to think about that stuff right now. She has to – She has to get to the DMV, renew her license, go shopping for clothes that actually fit her, find a job. She has a lot of stuff to do, and she reviews it all in her head with a muted sense of loathing and dread.

She has to be functional again, she has to be self-dependent and she has to move on, so Carolina picks up her datapad and – Instead of going through the listed job openings she plays Angry Birds.


 “Caroline!” Carolina jumps as the front door swings open, the familiar sound of the curved handle hitting the inside of the entryway registering loudly in her mind, along with her brother’s voice and the use of her real name. Church stomps through the house, detouring to the kitchen to presumably set down his laundry. Carolina can tell there’s someone with him from the multiple footsteps, and, also, the not-as-quiet-as-they-think bickering.

“In my room!” She calls back, and the words seem exceedingly juvenile to be coming from her own mouth. Carolina sighs as her brother and his friend bound up the stairs, and sets her datapad down on the nightstand.

“Hey, Len.” She smiles as Church appears in her doorway, and he offers a small greeting in return, before stepping through the threshold onto the carpet and gesturing towards his companion.

“You remember Tucker, right?”

“’Course I do, it’s been five years, not fifty.” And the careless words are said before she can think too much about it. Stupid.

Church flinches, his eyes widening, then narrowing as he gulps down whatever emotions he’s just let stir. “Right…. Well,”

“Hey, Carolina.” Tucker lets an easy smile dissipate the tension and lifts his hand in a halfhearted wave. “How’ve you been?” Tucker’s no bell, but he’ll do when it comes to saving Church’s ass from unsavory situations.

Carolina shrugs and stands up, stretching her back discreetly. “Good.” Taking a moment to breathe, Carolina glances around her room as she speaks, letting her eyes linger on the windowsill and desk. “Gettin’ used to living in a house again – This house again,” she amends. “You two’ve got your own place now?”

“With Grif.” Church corrects. He fiddles with the undone zipper on his thin sweatshirt that’s frankly not weather appropriate, and casts an uneasy glance around the room, presumably avoiding eye-contact with Carolina. “Us, Grif, a friend from high school, and Tucker’s kid.”

“Junior?” Carolina hums curiously, “How old is he now? How’s he doing?” She remembers Junior, got to see a picture of him once when he was just born, but she mostly just remembers how touch and go it was when he was born with a couple holes in his heart. She was already deployed by then, fresh out of basic, labeled ‘Rookie’ at Sidewinder, and still actually talking to most of the people she left behind.

“Oh, don-”

“Four,” A smile breaks loose on Tucker’s face as he immediately goes to paw at his pockets, “I got pictures, you want to see him? He’s in preschool, top of his class, an-”

“Can you even be top of the class in preschool?”

Tucker opts to pull out his phone and unlock it instead of paying Church any mind. His smile is contagious as Church falls silent behind him, and Carolina finds herself holding Tucker’s phone and, at his approval, swiping through the album labeled ‘Junior’ in the photos app. It’s the only actual photo album on his phone, she notes; the rest of the pictures are just in the camera roll.

Carolina’s nail taps hollowly against the screen as she’s met with smiling face after smiling face of the same boy, big, brown eyes, chubby cheeks, and wild, coily hair springing in a million and six different directions.

The pictures are all taken from a range of dates: Just born, all wrinkly and so, so, so small in Tucker’s arms, breathing tubes and all – Tucker looks like he can’t decide if he’s going to cry, puke, or burst out laughing – then maybe a couple months old in one of those bouncy baby chairs with the rattles and chewy rings. Church is in a lot of the pictures, playing and feeding, and so are a lot of other, presumably, friends: A boy with bright blonde hair and a scar (something Carolina is used to seeing) marred across the right side of his face, red and angry; a red headed boy with freckles on his cheeks and wire-rimmed glasses; a grumpy guy with shaggy hair and rounded cheeks (He’s napping with Junior sprawled across his chest and stomach, and Junior’s hands and face are coated in Cheeto dust, presumably from the open bag on the floor next to the couch); a girl with wavy, dark hair and a crop top, and a handful of other colorful characters.

First day of school, cute backpack shouldered high on Juniors back, each picture is more endearing than the last, and Carolina smiles all the way through the most recent picture: Tucker’s holding the phone out in front of him and Junior, smiling, as the four-year-old slurps happily away at a slushy. “He’s grown up fast.” The remark is overused and meaningless, but Carolina says it nonetheless to make conversation, it’s out of her mouth before she can think better, and Tucker smiles good-naturedly.

“You don’t know the half of it, I gotta start thinking about kindergarten next year, and then first grade, and second – He’s gonna be old one day.” Carolina hands back Tucker’s phone, and he pockets it as he continues to chatter. “Like, fucking old – well, I mean, hopefully.”

“That’s generally what happens to people, Tucker, they age.”

“Shut the fuck up, Church, dude, nobody even asked you.”

Yea, well-”

“You guys have laundry to do?” Carolina chirps, attempting to quell another bout of bickering, and it seemingly works because Tucker falls silent, getting the hint. Church is much less graceful about it.

“Jesus, why does everyone keep interup – Yes, we have laundry. Are you offering to help?”

Carolina did not mean to give anybody the impression that she’d help. Ever. She just wanted them to quiet down, stop grating on her nerves. She’s gotten too little sleep to want to try and deal with them again. “Yea, I guess. Whatever – Sure.” 


As it turns out, Tucker and Church have a lot of laundry, so now the ex-soldier is sitting at the kitchen table while Tucker shovels the dirty clothes into Carolina’s parent’s washing machine and Church whines about colors, and darks, and whites, and how they all have to be separated otherwise you get pink fucking underwear and only Donut likes that shit.

The fan is still lazily turning, one setting higher and it’d take someone’s head off, but now, unlike in the dull morning, the sun is bright and relentless, even through the drawn curtain. The sun rays hit the silver faucet and it reflects annoyingly in the corner of Carolina’s eyes.

“It’s a fucking color, Church.” Tucker deadpans as he proceeds to not separate any of the clothes.

“Yea – I fucking know that, thanks – It’s a color for girls.”

Carolina scoffs louder than she intended to, and Church’s voice dies at he looks over at her, dread written all over his face. “I – uh – I mean…”

Jesus, I’m glad I’m not that insecure about my masculinity. ‘Can’t imagine going through life like that.” Tucker continues without missing a beat.

“Oh, up yours, Tucker.”

Before Tucker can say something snarky back, Carolina forcefully sighs loud enough for both of them to hear it, be affected by it, and they shut up. Quietly now, Tucker tosses in the laundry detergent and fabric softener, closes the lid, and starts a load as Church grumbles under his breath and pretends to thumb through whatever feed on his phone.

Carolina continues to stare at the table, Tucker toes at the half-full laundry basket, and it’s quiet. Tense, weird, but quiet. The AC is running, occasionally, a zipper hits the metal of the washing machine, and Carolina lets herself sink into the silence and breathe.

“Hey, ‘Lina, you got a phone yet?” Church’s voice rings slightly in the kitchen, and everything comes back, screaming, all at once.

“I need a new SIM,” Carolina mumbles, fingering at the placemats, “figured I could use my old one.”

“Now, that’s a fucking crime, if you ask me.” Tucker remarks dryly, “That thing’s, what, six – seven – years old now?”

“Yea, so?” Carolina shrugs, and Church straightens.

“I’ll take you to the store later.” Church supplies absentmindedly, and since when has he ever volunteered for anything?

“Church, I can’t pay for it. I don’t have a job.”

“We’ll find you one-”

“Dude, you could totally be a bouncer, or a body guard, get your license to carry and everything. It would be so badass – and you could let us into all the clubs.” Tucker says gleefully.

“Hey, dipshit, you do know there aren’t any clubs around here – and I don’t think you understand how bouncers work.”

Yea, ok, fuck you, but in Houston-

“Ok, listen, you’re not going to make my sister work at a-”

“Nobody’s making anybody do anything! Look at her! She’s fucking badass – and they’ll take her! A vet? Fucking cool!”

Carolina lets them talk, she finds it easier than trying to add to their conversation herself, and it’s annoying, and grating, and the fucking worst, but there’s some comfort in being surrounded by arguing idiots, so she lets them continue on and on until the argument settles down into conversation; and then silence; and then, she’s addressed by Church again.

“Hey, Carolina,” Church says after a pause, “Me and Tuck were gonna go get some burritos. Wanna join?” Yes, Church thought this seemed as good a time as any to bring up the main reason of his and Tucker’s visit here. He was cheerily checking off his boxes. Enter the house? Check. Do the laundry? Half-check because that shit takes time and there’s still a load left – fuck Grif and his indecisiveness in choosing outfits and Junior’s tiny ass baby clothes. Talk to Carolina? Check. Invite her out for lunch for some super fun sibling re-bonding time (plus one: Tucker)? Check pending.

Carolina huffs. “You don’t gotta babysit me, Len.” Of course. Everyone’s gotta linger, and worry, and hover, treat her like she’s a baby, brand new to the world and completely incapable of anything. The helpless, war-torn vet. Nothing will ever work out for her. She-

“I know I don’t.” Church rolls his eyes and crosses his arms in front of his chest, “guess I should apologize for inviting my favourite sister out for lunch?”

“I’m your only sister.” Carolina raises an eyebrows and stares at Church like he’s the biggest idiot in the entire galaxy and should begin questioning whether or not he should ever open his mouth again – a look she’s perfected.

“My original question still stands.”

Carolina rolls her eyes and scoffs, but there’s a slight nod to her head as she does so, and Church takes it as his queue to get the hell going; so he does. With a second’s hesitation, Church ushers Tucker out, followed loosely by Carolina, to his satisfaction, and nearly trips on the front steps as Carolina turns to lock the door on the way out.

“Roberto’s?” She asks.

Carolina honestly hasn’t said a single thing out of line, but there’s something wrong, and – of course there’s something fucking wrong she’s just spent the last five years in the army what the fuck, Church?! He’s not used to any of this, her tone, her movements, something’s so fundamentally off, and unnerving, but he doesn’t mention it, because it’s to be expected, and Tucker doesn’t either. This is a situation to deal with later. Naturally.

“Where else?”

God, how is he supposed to fix this?


 Spider Lily Baytown is a mouthful, and close to two hours out of the nearest big city, so when people ask where Carolina is from, she just tells them Houston, Texas. It’s easier that way, lets her avoid unnecessary conversations or drawling explanations, and it helps her avoid thinking about home. Houston, Texas is dirty with crumbling apartment buildings and rolling suburbs rolled into one, not her town. Her town was shitty, but it was a smaller-scale shitty and more importantly, her shitty.

Tall, tall, tall, arching, arching, arching, the stone outcroppings, buttes, and arches tower over Carolina and her squad indefinitely, stretching up, up, up into an endless sky that bleeds easily into the vacuum above. The stars are there, even though it’s technically day, and the moons are a constant presence, strong and bright against the crowded mist. There is little to no atmosphere here on Teggo, and the sky is a foggy blood-orange, open and wide and waning, at all times.

This is a planet for giants, everything is long and light: The flora, outstretched towards the sun and wispy in the breeze; and the fauna, huge and pays no mind to the group of soldiers pressed against the rock side, casting wary glances through the thick and up at the heaving sky. Though nothing seems harmless, there is a general rule Carolina has learned to follow, and that is if it moves, don’t go fucking near it or you’re dead, asshole.

Tall, tall, tall, arching, arching, arching, the butte stretches on and on above Carolina, but it looks relatively stable, and she’d rather chance a rockslide than being spotted. This world is infinite.

“And you? Carolina?” Skidgel asks, turning towards Carolina. His visor glints in the faint sunlight, and then is shaded again as the giant grass blade-like plant shifts, and Carolina catches sight of his eyes, forward and easy. He’s always had kind eyes, which was the opposite of what Carolina’s come to expect from someone within their ranks.

“Houston.” Carolina replies tersely, more focused on the situation than the soldiers around her. They all know her as Carolina, she’d introduced herself as such, and she’ll cling onto the name for the rest of her life.

“On Earth?” His voice is filled with wonder, and Carolina takes a moment to remember that he’s never been. Not yet, at least, his shore leave request hasn’t gone through yet. Skidgel is from New Earth, one of the first colonies settled. Along with the tradition of colonization, Humans seem to be keeping to the norm of boring and uncreative names.

“The one and only.” Carolina shifts in the dirt, and flinches as some rocks scrape against her armor; it’s a loud and dull sound, and she knows there will be marks. There are too many chips and scratches to count, but she still feels the urge to keep it clean. Your armor is your life, She remembers it being drilled into her during basic, and now, she believes it; She spends every second of her new life in it.

Skidgel turns his attention to the woman in tan armor besides Carolina. “Kimball?”

“You’re lowering the morale of everyone here.” Is the only reply he receives. Everyone is in a bad mood, it seems.

“You must be from Earth, then. People from the colonies are so much nicer.”

Kimball frowns. “That’s because you guys have to be. All squished together and lacking basic amenities on metal death rings-”

“I’m pretty sure that’s racist – or… or something-” Rhodes cuts in, absentmindedly fiddling with the specs on his sniper. “–I don’t fucking know. Stereotyping at the very least, -” A sharp glare from Kimball shuts him up.

Carolina is content to sit back and let the conversation dwindle till it’s only a thread. There’s an itch on the back of her neck, where her hair’s starting to grow too long, but she can’t get at it, and the rub of where her Kevlar suit ends is making it worse. She wants to ask how much longer, but she doesn’t. Instead of doing anything, Carolina shifts against the rock wall, settling her weight lower, brings her rifle closer to her chest and knocks her head back so she’s facing the sky. This planet is so much bigger than Earth; the sky is so wide, like it is back home in the desert, but even more so.

“Hey, Johan, any sight of them?”

“Not yet, boss.” The radio channel crackles with Kimball and Johansen’s voices, and then goes dead again. More silence and more waiting.

“Johansen, where are you from?”

Chapter Text

Spider Lily Baytown is a mouthful, and close to two hours out of the nearest big city, so when people ask where Carolina is from, she just tells them Houston, Texas. It’s easier that way, lets her avoid unnecessary conversations or drawling explanations, and it helps her avoid thinking about home.

Tall, tall, tall, arching, arching, arching, the stone outcroppings, buttes, and arches tower over Carolina and her squad indefinitely, stretching up, up, up into an endless sky that bleeds easily into the vacuum above. The stars are there, even though it’s technically day, and everything is fucked up. Really, really, really, fucking fucked up.

Oh god, Oh god oh god oh god oh god how does someone have this much blood? And more importantly, how does someone have this much blood on the outside of their body, and still be talking – well, babbling?

Bright blue stained red, Carolina cradles Skidgel to her chest as the warthog continues to jostle along. Johansen is gone, Kimball is driving, and Rhodes is panicking, spitting up a storm, but at least he’s understandable. Skidgel is moaning and talking and coughing and he really, really, should not be doing any of that.

Rhodes’ helmet was lost somewhere in the tangle of explosions, and he’s got a good bruise forming around a bleeding cut on his forehead, and Carolina is so, so, so worried, but all she can think about is how hard it’s going to be to get all this blood off her armor. Fucking Insurrectionists – she survived the covenant for this.

Aquamarine, light blue, turquoise, it’s a light color, alright? She’s not really sure why she chose this particular armor color, or why in god’s name command allows such bright colors, especially for highly trained operatives such as herself (maybe it has something to do with her camouflage enhancement); but it’s her color, has been for a very long time, as long as she cares to remember at the moment; and blood’s really, really dark. Especially human blood. It leaves gross stains that turn brown and sometimes black and it defaces Carolina’s armor.

“Oh no no no no no no no, Skidge, Skidge, the sky. Look at the sky. S’so pretty, right? Red, it’s red just like Earth’s – wait, no.” Rhodes is leaning over Skidgel as Carolina holds the soldier in her lap, her own wounds forgotten. He’s dying, Skidgel is dying and his blood is all over Carolina’s armor. “No, Earth’s sky is blue. Like… Like, Mars. Did you know sunsets on Mars are blue, and sunsets on Earth are red, and orange and pink and yellow, warm colors. Warm colors, just like how the sun feels – buddy, buddy, wake up. Stay with us.” Rhodes presses against Skidgel’s shoulder helplessly with a greasy rag to try and stop the bleeding, but the rag can’t cover the gaping scrape on Skidgel’s stomach, the one that Rhodes is pretending doesn’t exist, where you can see his –

Carolina doesn’t wretch like the new recruits, but – god – does her stomach fucking drop at the thought of Skidgel’s wounds. How much is it gonna take to scrub guts off her armor? Her perfect armor. Her clean armor. Your armor is your – The warthog jostles and Kimball, who’s up front driving, swears over the ruckus as something explodes in front of them, just off the path they’re taking.

Skidgel won’t make it.

Johansen’s gone.

It turns out Skidgel’s life is his life, not his armor, which is tangled and mangled and missing quite a few different pieces – and it resembles his life, she supposes.

“Don’t fucking say that.” Rhodes looks up sharply, shouting at Carolina’s face as he tries to glare through her visor.

“Wha-”

“He’s going to fucking live.”

She said it out loud, didn’t she? How cliché. Like scrubbing blood off armor after a battle. She saw a show once –

Skidgel’s mumbling quiets suddenly as he coughs up blood, and it splatters crudely across Carolina’s visor and Rhodes’ face. God, scrubbing blood off visors is worse than scrubbing it off armor because it smudges. Without warning, Skidgel quiets, his eyes sliding shut and he’s – BANG!

Rhodes falls off the warthog, his body tangled and limp as it hits the ground and rolls away, and Carolina has just enough mind left to shout – Sniper! – at the waning red laser trailing aimlessly in the space Rhodes’ head had just occupied, and scramble forward so she’s shielded by the back of the passenger seat next to Kimball.

It’s just her and Kimball. Her and Kimball. They’re all that’s left, all that’s alive – Another shot rings out, and the tire blows. It jolts Carolina from her spot, she looses hold of her gun as she is bodily slammed against the side of the warthog and nearly falls out.

Kimball.

“Skidge and Rhodes-” Carolina tries to tell Kimball what’s happened, but she’s cut off by the woman in question.

Kimball is just barely audible over… Over everything that’s happening, and Carolina wonders for a moment if her voice sounds the same to Kimball. “I know.” Kimball glances at Carolina as the warthog begins to wobble. It’s a desperate, pleading sort of glance, and Carolina barely catches it as she returns fire with Skidgel’s rifle. Three-shot burst. Reload. Point. Aim – at what? The engine? The insurrectionists? At – BANG!

It’s normal, when one person looses focus, begins to hyperventilate and overthink (or not think at all), the next person steps up, and Carolina knows this is the only reason why Kimball is driving: Because it’s something she can do, it’s something she knows, and if she’s driving, focusing on not hitting the dips or boulders, then she can not focus on the fact that they’re all probably going to –

BANG!

Sniper.

Carolina ducks, Kimball keeps her head as low as she can while still flooring it, and Carolina shoots the fucking asshole that’s just killed Rhodes. She hears the distant tap, tap, tap of her bullets on the enemy vehicle. Reload. Tap. Tap. Thud. The red laser disappears, the armored body rolls unceremoniously off the vehicle, and Carolina grins. Now they’ll have to wash blood of their armor.

“What are we gonna do?” Kimball doesn’t shake. Neither does Carolina. But that doesn’t mean either of them aren’t having trouble breathing or swallowing. “Radio’s jammed,” Kimball continues, “tire’s blown, three more – at least – pursuers with more weapons and ammo than us, three to a warthog – which makes twelve, give or take-”

Carolina shoulders Skidgel’s – her – rifle, and makes as much of a running leap as she can in a stupid, fucking, good-for-noting standard jeep for the turret as the jeep wobbles and slows.


 

“Church, seriously, just take off the fucking jacket.” Carolina grumbles from the passenger seat of Tucker’s car. It’s a lot smaller than a warthog, more closed in, fighter jet-esque, but clearly lighter and visibly less sturdy. There is no steal beam framing, hook and tow, turret on the back. The windows are opaque, a mix of sand and salt brimming the bottom edges, but the centers are see-through, like someone took a rag to them but forgot to use any cleaner. The AC is set high, not as high as Church would have it, but high enough to be easily heard, and it made Carolina’s exposed skin prickle. It was completely welcome at the moment.

Outside, familiar, familiar houses flicker past, one melting into the next, and the view is the same one she got from inside the taxi weeks prior, the same one she got from her spot perched in the window of a yellow bus, sitting on ripped plastic-leather seats, from a small, purple car with tan detailing, a light blue car, shiny and clean – but that’s not what she’s focused on.

It’s the squabbling.

The “I’m not taking my jacket off, I like my jacket, just turn up the AC, for Christ’s sake.” and then the “The rest of us are in tank-tops and shorts, asshole, die of heatstroke or take the goddamn death-trap of a jacket off. It’s in the high nineties today, do you even still have half a functioning brain-cell?”

Church makes a face at Carolina, but still doesn’t take it off. Instead, he bunches up the sleeves around his elbows, and crosses his arms over his chest like a child, glaring out the window and moodily adjusting his glasses.

Some song is playing on the radio, a new pop song that’s catchy, but not memorable. Tucker’s mumbling the words as he taps the steering wheel, eyes darting across the road and hips wiggling off-beat ever so slightly. He, unlike Church, is dressed for summer. A broad-strapped tank-top with black and white stripes, cargo shorts and bright blue sandals, dark wire-rimmed sunglasses perched on his nose and most of his dreads pulled back into a short ponytail with a purple hair tie. The dreads that don’t make the cut fall around his face, bobbing and swaying against his forehead and temples as he glances around and nods his head along.

Carolina feels naked in her clothes. Just jeans and a quarter sleeve. Honestly, she’d rather sweat out like Church than wear any less, it’s just too…. Exposed. Vulnerable. It’s a learning curve. There’s a learning curve to not being in armor twenty-four/seven. A learning curve a learning curve a –

Carolina longs for her built-in coolant systems and a Kevlar suit that doesn’t let the heat or cold get to you. The Kevlar was course and rough against her skin where her underclothes didn’t cover, or rode up, made it goddamn near impossible to get at that one itch just under her right shoulder blade that seemed to resurface every time she even though of it, but it was security. The suit, not the itch. The itch was just familiarity, but the Kevlar, the armor and all it’s clasps and pockets; it was safety. Carolina’s not too confident her skin would be able to stop bullets the way her armor usually did, even though she’s been told on multiple occasions that it was rather tough.

On a whim, Carolina lets her eyes flutter shut, and she sucks in a deep breath through her nose. The air tingles, it’s thick still, even with the AC, and it’s cold. Deeper, broader, wider, it’s got that AC coolant smell as it circulates throughout the car. The radio is still on – Tired of sleeping but never feeling rested? Tired of cramps and joint pains? Stop compromising! Stop selling yourself short! You don’t even have to splurge with our low prices if you come down to Mattress King! Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back! – A stream of sponsored ads, a couple song previews, and Carolina oddly resonates with that stupid advertisement. Well, all the way up to the buying a mattress and satisfaction guaranteed part. Oh well, who knows? Maybe buying a new mattress would solve all her problems? She certainly has the aches to justify it.

Before anyone could properly sink into the gap of silence left by Church’s pouting, Tucker’s phone rings – some loud rap song – and he scrambles mid-gear shift with his left hand to answer the call, before returning his focus to the road. “Yea? Yea? Grif? Is everything – Simmons? What the fuck are you doing there?” Tucker passes the phone to his right hand and kinks his head to the side, his eyebrows furrowing. On the other end of the call, there’s feedback, two distinct voices talking over each other as Tucker tries to nod along, react, then cut in. “What the fuck? Simmons, listen to Grif! Milk will not poison Junior.”

There’s a short response, then Tucker scoffs. “My kid’s not vegan, dude, and yea – Yea. Ok. Ok! I know! That shit’s too expensive, you know – Ok. Yea.” Carolina can’t make out what’s being said by Grif, or Tucker’s other friend, Simmons. “Whatever, dude. Dude. Get a life – And tell Grif I’m not paying him! No! I’m really not!” More talking, talking over each other, static, and then Tucker’s voice looses its edge and he snorts. “Ok. Ok, bye.”

With an eye-roll, Tucker hangs up, tosses his phone into the console, then pulls into the parking lot. “Fucking assholes can’t even feed a kid cereal.”


 

North’s air-conditioning is broken even though Washington swears up and down the block he fixed it. Really, nobody should expect anything else, because no matter how Washington acts, he can’t fix shit for shit. North and South’s toaster – almost caused a fire, York’s sink – kiss that security deposit goodbye, Washington’s own car – Well, that thing was a shit show anyways, but South’s blaming Washington for that too, goddamn it, she’s allowed to have this.

“And he just… Walked in?” North’s voice is confused, a hint of anger for his friend and his family edging into it, protective, but he’s otherwise still, sitting back in his seat and letting his left hand tap aimlessly against the window sill.

Washington, on the other hand, is seething, fists clenched tight as he glares down at his lap from the back center seat. “Yea, just stormed through the door like he owns the place, left his shoes right in front of the door for me to trip over later that night, and fucking sat down at the table while Lauren was dishing up, and they let him.” Washington’s knees bracket the center console, and South grimaces, but is otherwise quiet.

“Wash-”

“I know. I know. I just don’t want to talk about it.”

North heaves a sigh, loosening the tension in his shoulders. “If you ever need our help, if you ever want him out-”

“Of course I fucking want him out, it’s just… My mom…”

“I know. I know.” North consoles, shaking his head slightly as he spares a glance back at his friend. “Well, I mean, I don’t know, but…”

“It’s ok, man. I just had to get away from all that.”

North nods. “You know you’re always welcome to stay. For as long as you want.”

Washington laughs, the sound raising in pitch near the ends, and it’s breathy and he shakes his head like he either doesn’t believe what he’s hearing, or doesn’t believe North really means it. He sits up and presses his back into the cushions of the seat, allowing his arms to rest lightly on his thighs.

It’s stupid. It’s so stupid. Washington’s more welcome, more accepted, more appreciated here. Here instead of his own home. His mom and younger sister, they’re all heart-eyes over his dad, ready and willing to take him back into their lives whenever he decides to fuck around with their heads again, and every time he does, they push Wash away.

It makes South’s stomach churn unpleasantly.

“Thanks.” Washington smiles something bright, and the subject is dropped.

Coincidentally, Washington’s lack of vehicle is one of many reasons why he’s currently in the backseat of North’s car, sitting in the suffocating heat, which is only bettered by the two front windows, which have been rolled halfway down. North would have rolled all the windows down, but the two back ones are notorious for not ever really rolling back up, so they’re left in place, gathering dirt.

The sun is filtered through the windows, and dances with Washington’s hair, creating shadows and highlights that are frankly too complicated to ever be considered natural. Well, South guesses, technically Washington’s hair isn’t natural, but the sun is and goddamn does it make Wash’s situation all the more shittier because now he looks innocent, and when people look innocent, you want to see them happy.

It’s a nice Sunday, South got to sleep in, then wake up to North and Wash lounging on the couch, watching some early morning news channel. North was still in pajamas while Washington was dressed, but both of them were lounging, Washington’s feet propped up on North’s stomach as he scrolls through his phone, and North yawns tiredly at the newscaster.

There were plates on the coffee table, still syrupy, and two glasses of milk stacked, probably by North to make more room for his own legs as he slowly sunk lower and lower down the couch. It’s surprising he hasn’t fallen off yet.

York was in the kitchen, music was playing on his phone as he hummed along and continued to make pancakes. Like North, York was in pajamas, and he twirled easily in his socks on the tile as he grooved. It was quiet. It was calm.

The carpet dragged against South’s bare feet, the constant AC hummed, the lights flickered when it cranked on and surged when it shut off, and the sounds of the crackling television and plates clinking had put her at ease. It was slow. It was easy.

The rest of the day was spent hanging around, occasionally speaking, but mostly humming and fighting over the TV remote.

South yawns, running a hand through her hair, dragging her fingers all the way through to the purple tips as they catch on what would be knots, and blankly stares out the window, not really paying attention to what she’s seeing, but appreciating how the movement lets her mind concentrate enough to leave her be. North and Washington are still talking, errands needing to be ran, some stupid thing Wash’s older sister said and how it made his mom angry, Theta’s baseball game and how he tripped but still made a homerun.

“York’s missing strings, right?”

“Yea, and I gotta pick up a packet of picks.”

“Alright, meet us at Safeway.”

There’s not much in Baytown, or at least, this side of Baytown. South’s home is by no means an anomaly, situated on the coast, a couple hours out of Houston, its only real source of income is tourism, so there’s a nice water front, a nice front, but underneath, the town’s less than crumbly. Boardwalks and hotels, cafés and lakes of umbrellas and towels and beach chairs; The downtown is a long avenue with smooth sidewalks and nice storefronts, palm trees line the grassy median between the two directions of traffic and parallel parking spaces accompanied by parking meters and signs dictating acceptable parking times line the curb.

The farther away from the center of town you get, however, the steeper the drop-off from wealth gets. Buildings become more stand alone, less maintained; peeling paint and weathered graffiti, the concrete boxes serve as convenient stores on the corner of streets. Neon signs become brighter, more prone to flickering, and the sidewalks are cracked and less travelled. Bars, bars, and more bars. Smoke houses, diners, and plastic chair restaurants, this is where the locals stay.

Even farther out are the houses, some neighborhoods are clearly defined, gated communities and pockets of slightly higher than low-middle class wealth, and others meld into the next. There are still palm trees, mostly planted on purpose, but most of the foliage is the natural poplar and pine, needle trees that leave a mess on the sidewalk and lead to pinecone wars and jeans stained with sap. The houses are wood, chipped paint and fading trim, scraggly bushes and sad attempts at fences, mostly chain-link with hook gates, and the scrappy yard grass ranges from an off-green to autumn leaf yellow at all times of the year.

And, then, even farther, farther out still, is the golf course, the country club, and suburbia. Copy-cat houses with regularly washed cars and oddly unkept pavement, dry and cracking that stands out against the rest of the wealth. Community pools and fast marts and a private kindergarten/preschool/daycare. But the grass is green, the trees are tall, the mailboxes are straight, and the people all have big, white smiles that leer over you like they think they’re better. That’s where South’s from, and that’s where she left.

Just down the road from Safeway, is the strip mall; It’s big, the ceilings are high, the walkways are crisscross and wide. There are a handful of fountains and a whole outside proportion that’s misted when the sun’s too overbearing and the heat’s too suffocating, but that’s not where they’re going today.

North pulls into the Safeway parking lot easily. This particular shopping center isn’t as big as the mall, but it’s got a grocery store, a few restaurants, frozen yogurt, and a music shop that just opened it’s doors last year. Everything they could ever need.

South steps out of the car, her feet touching the floor at the same time Wash’s door slams shut, and she instantly feels the heat on her. If she were in a better mood, wanting to sleep and be calm, it would have soothed her, the sun, the warmth, she could take a cat nap, but right now, she’s got something stirring and building in her gut, and she’s not excited to find out what’s wrong.


 

The paint on the walls is the spikey sort, and Washington doesn’t enjoy it. It’s too rough, too cream. He avoids touching it as he enters the music shop, not liking the emotion it forces up through his throat.

Immediately, it’s cool, and immediately, it’s loud. The talking is hushed, prices are thrown around as a salesperson walks down the electric guitar aisle suggesting different instruments, her and the customer disappearing into the wooden shelves and stalky instruments, but the people trying out instruments are loud.

Someone’s in the back corner with a bass, the volume turned on high, and they’re strumming out tentative chords that vibrate in Wash’s chest as he approaches, but their fingers are practiced as they press on the frets, and it becomes obvious that though they’re a weathered player, this particular bass is new to them. This place is more commercial than Wash’s dream shop, but the sentiment is still there, and the quaintness and sense of community is still there, lingering, pulsating, and he decides to stay wander instead of making a beeline for the repairs section.

Washington runs his hands across the glossy electric basses, reveling in the softness and smoothness of the bodies, and the catch of the strings, the inputs. He skims over the pianos and keyboards, pressing the keys and receiving smooth notes in return, and eventually, he finds himself sitting alone in the tempered acoustic room with a nice black parlour in his lap, aimlessly going through the chords he’s memorized and toying with melodies as he finally lets himself breath. Alone.

Chapter Text

North and South have a system. Not, well, a system of checks and balances, per say, but a system, and the system worked. They enter Safeway, North shakes a cart loose, South pointedly ignores the claw machine she’s lost way too much money on to be socially acceptable, and they go through the second set of automatic doors. Then, they immediately hang a right towards the dairy section, and they don’t dawdle. No staring longingly at all the different kitchen utensils you’d like to buy because you have a diagnosable problem, no stacking increasingly bright and oddly colored hair dyes in the cart, no buying silly straws just because, and definitely no bubble guns.

Walk in, buy shit, and leave. Short. Concise. Easy.

North just wants things to be easy. Easy and nice. Nice and Easy, and so even though North adores shopping, South doesn’t and he hates it when she doesn’t like things.

South hates shopping, she hates the tall aisles and the drafts and how every cart ever seemed to be inclined to veer off to the left no matter what she did and the way the conveyor belt at the check out moved too fast then too slow and how people were always blocking the stuff she wanted to grab off the shelf and so South tried to get the shopping done as quickly as possible without cutting any corners because one – getting your cart stuck on the corner of an aisle was hell, and two – god knows they need to save every penny they’ve got.

North’s got the coupons, he’s hunched over the cart as he digs through the envelope he keeps them in, passing a few to South for her to inspect, and South shivers in front of the milk. It’s too cold in this aisle, which, frankly, is infuriating because it’s too hot outside, too. North and the cart, it’s a familiar sight, and seeing him calms south.

“Get the red one – the whole milk, two jugs.” North gestures towards the milk as he picks through the different brands of cream cheese and butter. After yogurt, sliced cheeses, and too expensive smoothies that North can’t seem to function without, they make their way out of the dairy section. The cart squeaks as North wrangles it down another aisle, and his shoes have an annoying squeak to them, making him take him take an awkward, almost self-conscious, step to try and avoid the sound every few paces.

“We probably shouldn’t buy ham and chicken, unless you want to skip out on your freak foods.” North frowns in front of the sandwich meat.

South shrugs. “Chicken then, Flo always said red meat was bad for you.”

“Alright.” North pops the pack of chicken off the hook and tosses it to South. He pauses, then, going through his mental checklist, and South feels her phone buzz.

            Wash: I’m leaving now.

South swipes left and fires back a response, then flicks through some more of her unread texts and emails. York’s arguing with her over some old TV show she refuses to watch, and Connie’s complaining about some training she’s being forced to take at work. South can’t relate, she’s never held a job like Connie’s.

North hums, and South looks up, hair falling in front of her face with the movement. North’s got a thoughtful look on his face as he compares prices, and reads the ingredient list on whatever thing he’s holding. Unlike South’s carefully cared for hair, North’s is curly and mostly shaved for convenience if nothing else.

“Wash is done. I’ll meet him by the bakery.” South pockets her phone non-committedly and continues to watch North, enjoying his concentration with shallow interest.

“Ok.” North murmurs, and he’s relaxed in his own skin, for once, and passive. “I forgot to grab cookies.” He says, replacing the chicken already in the cart with the one in his hand.

“Don’t forget the Nutter Butters.”

“I won’t forget the Nutter Butters.”

“Meet in the produce section?”

“Don’t get too much spinach again.”

“I won’t get too much spinach again.”

They split, Washington finds South in the bakery section as she picks through the bagels, and then, after a quick search over the stands of vegetables and fruits, they find North buried in the boxes of bananas not on display for the perfect bunch. With the punch of the cash drawer, North’s given back his change and they’re off to their next stop, Roberto’s.


The glass door swings open with a shrill ring, and the tinted glass bounces, bends the light, with the force of the door hitting the frame behind the two siblings and Wash. It’s plain, the tiled floors are clean scuffed up with shoe marks if anything, but clean, and the leather bench seats are riddled with tears where the stuffing peeps through. A local favourite, the perfect middle ground between fast food and not, Roberto’s Burritos. The groceries are in the car so they have to be fast.

North used to come here al the time in high school – with South, York, and Carolina, Wash and Connie, Wyoming, everyone. Skipping or not. The corner booth was theirs, and North’s certain it still has their name scrawled across the wall there. It would feel wrong to sit anywhere else, like he’s cheating on his favourite booth, and North would never cheat. (Except for on that one Spanish test because come on how was he supposed to know the past tense to all the verbs he barely remembered the present tense to? Besides, South and York were practically shoving their illegal answers onto him, so yea, ok, he might still feel a little guilty over it, but he’ll live.)

North doesn’t sit down here much anymore, life’s taken off, he’s got technically two jobs and between that and relaxing, he doesn’t have enough time to dawdle twice a week at a restaurant that has more nostalgic value than anything else these days, so North, South, and Wash approach the counter.

North speaks first, stepping forward and tugging out his wallet, easily taking the lead because Washington hates talking to people and South’s South. “Carne Asada, one mild, two hot, and – uh, a bean and cheese burrito, and… Nachos, please. With guac.” He smiles easy, hands over the twenty dollar bill easy, and the cashier confirms his order easy and returns his politeness along with an order number to respond to.

North turns, South and Wash both take a step back with him so they’re not right in front of the register, but off by the empty wall of booths, and he hears his sister scoff. “Bean and cheese?”

“What?”

“You’ve got the diet of a five year old.”

“We do this every time.” North deadpans, but not unkindly. It’s a filler conversation, something to ease and sooth and to not be remembered. It’s like when there’s two words in in a row and your mind glosses it over. He conversation’s been had, South’s remarks have been heard, and it’s easy.

North likes things when they’re easy, and he supposes that most people do, but easy comforts him, soothes him to the core. It means things are ok, it means things are fine and nice and everyone is happy.

South ignores North’s remark with a casual shrug. “Even Theta’s more adventurous than you. He eats tacos.”

“Theta’s ten, not five – and I eat tacos, too!”

“Same difference.”

North huffs a chuckle, a lopsided smile wearing on his face as he searches South’s for any crack in her act, and the air conditioning kicks on. The lights flick off, then on, then off, then on, and a dull roar fills the room just like every other room in every other medium-ish town that’s half falling apart and only has access to shitty air conditioning units and swamp coolers.

There are other people in the restaurant: Kids picking away at their meals – one girl is at the gumball machine by the door, rattling it; teenagers laughing, shoes propped up on the chairs opposite to them; adults talking over their tables, a few animatedly with hand gestures and loud facial expressions. The faint smell of oil and stale hard-shell tacos drifts out from the kitchen, the clatter and laughter melts into the scene, and it breads something of intense familiarity in North.

Though, admittedly, it is hard to feel much else other than familiarity when in this town, the town North’s lived in since forever and forever ago. Since the beginning. Born and raised and here to stay, he supposes. North’s not picky, he just wants to relax and be happy and in turn have the people he cares about be happy as well. It’s all simple, it’s all easy, and it’s all good.

Yes. Yes, North’s been here many times before, and familiar. Everything’s familiar. The voices, the laughter, the Spanish and the English, the light from the windows, the backwards glow of the neon sign, the salsa, the crunch of chips, the red hair, the –

The red hair.

Red hair.

Orange and red and the freckles and the green eyes – It’s shorter, yes, the hair is shorter and there are scars, some wide, some thing, but that laugh. That –

“North.” North feels South slap his chest with the back of her hand, and then in the corner of his eye, he sees her finger pointing at the exact same thing he’s looking at. The exact same person he’s looking at.

It’s Tucker and Church, North never really talked to them all that much, but he recognizes them, and the person they’re with has got their back turned towards him, facing the window and door, feet planted firmly on the ground, but there’s nobody else that looks like her. Nobody else that has that combination, the hair, the mannerisms, the freckles – but the differences.

“Wash.” South shoves Wash’s phone down and points towards who North’s already looking at, been looking at, squinting at, trying, trying to decipher because there’s just no way. There’s no way she’s here, she left.

Church looks up, green eyes matching his sister’s, deeper, darker, yes, but matching and his dark hair falls across his forehead, over his eyes in a way that North’s parents would never allow, and Church catches North, South, Wash, the three of them, staring, and Church freezes. Unsure what to do, unsure how to react, how he should proceed, whether he should smile or shoo them away before his sister could see them and –

His indecisiveness takes the decision right out of his hands.

“Carolina?” Wash raises his voice over the clatter before North or Church or anyone could do anything about it, and Carolina turns, jumping at the sudden exclamation of her name, and then she sees them, and then she freezes, eyes wide and arm still half on the back of her bench seat as she twists and looks. And looks. And looks. Stares.

Chapter Text

The air is starting to turn.

The summer breeze is molting, the withering heat left behind, and, now, Carolina’s wearing a jacket.

“You’re leaving?”

Washington.

“Yea.”

Carolina would like for her voice to be surer, steady and confident and the exact opposite of what she’s feeling at the moment.

“When?”

North.

“A couple of weeks.”

North’s face is shadowed, he’s taller than Carolina, blonde hair and blue-grey eyes and next to him, always, always next to him, is

“That’s bullshit and you know it!”

South.

Carolina frowns, and doesn’t reply.

North sets a heavy hand on South’s shoulder, and she shakes it off, but looks down at her feet anyways. Bitter.

“Sorry.”

Nothing.

“It’s ok.”

Nothing.

“You’d kick ass in the army.”

Nothing.

“…I hope so.”


Deep breaths. Deeper breaths. Deeper, broader, wider. In and. Out. Out. Out. She has to breathe out, too. Out. Out

Ok.

Good.

Good.

 

Stop staring.

Stop staring.

Stop staring.

 

It’s not her fault.

 

This isn’t that big of a deal.

 

Breathe.

Ok, good.

Breathe.

Breathing is good.

 

 

Good.


Carolina’s different. Here is the same, but Carolina is different. She’s broader, heavier, more tired and more wary. She’s got scars like freckles on her skin, one broad one across her cheek, pink and indented ever so slightly. She runs her fingers along that one often. It reminds her of events she’d rather not remember, it’s true, but it’s a part of her face, it’s proof of her, and so she runs her fingers along it anyways, feeling the rippled skin and knowing it’s light pink and broad.

Carolina’s chin is nicked too, but it’s smaller than the mark on her cheek and it came from her helmet. It’d been busted, and in a panic, she ripped it off only to have it cut her. It didn’t hurt when it happened, she barely noticed it, and even now, it’s not that big of a deal.

Another scar sits on her right shoulder, right at the junction of her neck and collar, and it terrifies her when she thinks about it, about the pressure, the beam cutting down into her as the ship burns, as she’s trapped, her armor dented and helmet thrown off, visor cracked and reflecting roaring flames. Hot and oppressing. The burns are a reminder of the crash, too, the skin on her palms and up her arms as she braced herself are there and won’t ever leave. It’s rippled and some might say it’s ugly, and Carolina definitely does sometimes think that, but when she’s alone, the mottled skin brings a small (small) smile to her face and she is reminded that she’s a survivor. Rhodes always said it was in the little things.

There’re many more scars, and all are medals in their own right. Reminders, proof, trophies. It’s what happens when you succeed in the army.

Carolina’s more defined, reaching an equilibrium between starved and muscle wound thick due to years of lugging around heavy armor and equipment, and Carolina knows she’s got bags under her eyes and short, choppy hair that could quite honestly be better groomed, but they’re different, too.

South is broader, heavier, she’s got more muscle than she did in high school, obviously proud of her title as head gym rat. Her left arm is covered in tattoos, mostly flowers and vines with thorns and small leaves, and it al intertwines and works it’s way up from her wrist to her neck, the last bloom peaking out from the collar of her shirt and splaying across her skin in an intricate spiraling flower, the petals thick at the base, growing wider, then curving off in delicate tips dipped in gold at the ends.

Her hair is the same, though, chin length and dip-dyed bright purple, just like how Carolina used to help her do it. If she concentrated, Carolina could still smell the dye, see the stains on her fingers and the odd sliver on her forearms. For a second, Carolina wonders if she still has that shirt she always uses when she dyes her hair, if her and Wash still make a party out of it and try to get others to join in.

Do they still like the same music? Does – no. Her face falls even more.

Like South, Washington’s kept up his hair-care routine, the roots of his hair carefully kept it’s natural brown while the tips are bright bleached blond and Carolina knows the story behind it, his need to distance himself from his father in every way possible. She knows a lot about Washington, and she feels like she doesn’t have any right to that information anymore.

Wash’s mouth is hanging open, bottom lip jutted out in a confused and lingering question. Freckles dance across his face, he has more than Carolina, always had and always will with the amount of time he spends outside, and he’s still wearing grey. Grey, grey, grey and it’s such a Washington color – it’s surprising he doesn’t dye his hair grey instead.

And North, North’s taller than Washington, and still taller than South (but just barely). With shaved sides and a mop of curly hair, he barely looks any different. More filled out, maybe, less lanky and the lines in his face are set deeper, but they’re from smiling, Carolina can see where the corner of his mouth traces up, where his lip curls and where his eyes crease in happiness.

North, like South, has tattoos that he didn’t in high school. Two bands on his right forearm, one slightly smaller than the other, and it matches the bands on South’s right arm.

They blend into the scene at Robert’s because they belong. The cream walls serve as a natural backdrop for their frames, older, taller, but still theirs, the same way Carolina looks like she belongs, yet, doesn’t at the same time. Perspective, she thinks. It’s all about the perspective. One small thought, detail, can change everything.

“Carolina?” Washington had said, his voice confused, gaining that high-pitched lilt it often does when he gets emotional – and she’s the fucking cause of that. And not in a good way, not in a round of who can make Wash the most embarrassed way.

Carolina turned in confusion, then fear washed over her, quickly replaced by recognition paired with shame, and now they’re here, staring without action and daring each other to break whatever the fuck silence this is with nothing but their eyes.

“Ok… Well, uh-” Church’s voice is too loud compared to the icy silence from before, and it shocks Carolina. “I’m gonna – We should-”

Dude.” Tucker hisses.

“How… Long have you been back?” It’s not accusing, North keeps his voice level as he smiles, but Carolina knows better, and the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. There’s no crinkle, no sparkle, that happiness and calmness that always stirs in her when she’s around North doesn’t start and she knows why and she doesn’t blame him. This is treacherous terrain that she has to navigate carefully and… And she doesn’t quite know what she wants yet. At least it’s just them. They’d understand, they’d know, they’d be considerate. Or…

“A month.” Simple, easy, but not curt, she’s got this. It’s like cleaning her pistols, there’s a method and a rhythm to it and you just have to find the right way to unclick and slide things. Help it along.

Nobody seems to know where to pick up the conversation from where Carolina left it, and she finally looks towards Church and Tucker, peeks at them from the corner of her eye and a slight tilt to her head. Church is visibly withering away from the awkwardness, he’s all but curled into himself while Tucker glances blankly from Church, Washington and the twins, then Carolina, then Church again.

“Where’re you living these days?” North speaks again, but this time, he scratches at the back of his head, a sign of nervousness, while South looks at Carolina like she’s spilled her chocolate ice-cream all over her shorts and the shops closed so she can’t get anymore. But there’s something more to South’s look, something deeper and sadder, indignation and confusion and a hint of excitement that peaks in her eyes but looses its spark with her downturned lips.

“At… Home.” The words burn of embarrassment and leave a bitter taste in Carolina’s mouth. She feels like she should be more, especially in front of them. She shouldn’t be having trouble sleeping, she shouldn’t not know how to talk to her friends – are they friends? What’s happened?

That’s a stupid question. She knows what happened. She happened. Though, she’s obliged to believe that this isn’t entirely her fault. She was just… She broke a promise, but she was young. She –

“Cool. Us, too – I mean, me and South have got an apartment, but we all… live… here. Too.”

“… Yeah.”

“Where’ve you been this whole time?” South finally finds her voice, and it’s indignant and angry and really fucking ignorant, but not surprisingly so. Washington, besides South, is still quiet, like he’s thinking every detail over in his head deciding how and when he should react and it makes Carolina uneasy.

“Fighting in a war.”

South breaths out sharply through her nose, and as always, North touches South, a hand on her forearm, placating, placating, placating.

Number 16.” The cashier cuts into whatever is going on between them, silence, mostly. Tense and ugly and unfamiliar in a familiar place. North glances down at the receipt, then presses South back, hand splayed above her heart before she could do anything more, and South sulkily complies, stalking over towards the counter with the receipt and scooping up the paper bag. South nods her thanks to the cashier, then marches out of the restaurant with North trailing behind her.

Washington stays for a moment, staring and watching, curiosity and hurt in his eyes, and then he looks sharply to the door slamming shut, realizes he’s been left behind. “Nice – uh – seeing you again, ‘Lina – Caroline.”

Carolina says nothing as the door shuts with a clatter behind him.


Deep breaths. Deep, deep, deep. Deep. Deep deep deep deep deep breaths. Breathe deep. Let it touch the bottoms of your lungs, let it stir whatever the fuck chemicals that have been sitting in there for too long, molding, let it fill your chest, let your eyes close, let it give you life and –

Breathe out.

Breathe out because, honestly, if you breathe in you have to breathe out, too. It’s the rule. It’s the rule. Carolina, Carolina, Carolina, breathe out, too. Breathe out, too.


The folding is quiet and nice, it’s slow and calm and all the different articles of clothing make it so Carolina has to concentrate on how to fold what she’s holding instead of other things. She can shelve those other thoughts, really, she doesn’t have to deal with them right now. Place them gently, one after the next, in a worn cardboard box and set it too the side.

Don’t think about those other things. Those other people. Blonde hair, dyed purple at the ends, curly hair, shaved sides, bleached hair, dark and blue eyes and grey eyes, bright and curious, watching her, scrutinizing her. Tattoos and muscle T-shirts and deep, friendly voices.

Fuck.

With them, comes York. And with York, comes them and Carolina does not want to see York. Not after…

York.

She doesn’t want to fucking think about anything but folding laundry.

Don’t think.

Don’t think.

Don’t think.

She can’t stop thinking.

A small T-shirt. It’s teal, a color that’s very, very, close to her favourite color, and it’s got little kid sleeves and cute, dark blue trim, and Carolina tucks the sleeves in, then folds it in half and sets it on the pile holding all the other little kid clothes: Shorts and tank tops and little white socks with brightly colored toe and heel pieces.

There’s a lot of other clothes, too, jeans and T-shirts and socks with holes in them and Carolina definitely stays away from the underwear because that’s awkward, but she helps fold the rest. There’s a lot, and even now, the dryer is still going with the last load.

Carolina’s parent’s living room is quiet, and small. It’s got two couches in an ‘L’ shape and a TV. There are pictures on the wall, of Carolina and Church’s childhood, of her parent’s when they were younger, of her parents now. A lot of her friends are framed, too, they could be considered her extended family, and everyone’s smiling except for that rare picture where one person is miserable and the rest are laughing at said person. Usually that person is Church.

Her parents are going to be back soon.

“Dude, it’s totally overrated. There’s no way that many Jedi just flop like that. No fucking way!”

Church scoffs at Tucker and crumples more than folds the big orange shirt he’s holding. “They didn’t just flop, they fought an army of sith to the death!”

“Alright! Alright! That right there’s another thing! What ever happened to the rule of two?!”

“There were tons of sith before the Republic era, the rule’s only a new thing.”

“Bull, dude, there’s always two.”

“What about the inquisitors then?”

“They’re inquisitors, not sith, and don’t tell me all those dudes were inquisitors because there’s no way they beat that many fucking jedi at once.” Tucker’s phone beeps, and he glances down to read his screen, but it’s not enough to make him react and he quickly turns back to Church, casually continuing to fold the pair of green boxers in his hands. “So… uh – Anyways, was that Washington at Roberto’s?”


He’s the last person she told.

“You’re leaving us?”

He didn’t take it well.

“Look, I just want to do my part f-”

“You’re abandoning your friends!”

She can’t understand why he’s acting like this.

“That’s rich coming from you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He asks, voice raising in pitch slightly.

She seethes. “I think you know exactly what that means.” It means he’s off in college while accusing her of abandoning their friends.

“Wow. Excuse me for wanting to broaden my horizons.”

“What the fuck am I trying to do, then?!”

“It’s different.”

“It’s really not!”

“Listen, Carolina, I’m just saying that-”

No.”

“- That you’re going off to gallivant across the galaxy for shits and giggles while the rest of us have to-”

“Gallivant?! I’ll be fighting in a fucking war.”

“You’re not-”

NO!

“ – See, that’s you interrupting me again-”

“It’s my life!”

“ – And again.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“Carolina-”

“Goodbye, York.”

Carolina hangs up, and stares down emptily and confused at the phone in her hands. She’s not exactly sure what just happened, why he acted like that, why – The phone rings. It’s York, the stupid picture of the cartoon dog he put on her phone filling up the screen, and she doesn’t pick it up. Why should she?


The bus is moving. It was stopped, Carolina sat at the window, staring out blankly at the sea of grey uniforms and duffle bags and ducked heads, and now, it’s moving. The engines puttered on, the bus shook, then lurched, then rolled forward with the squeaky release of the breaks and something’s happening. Someone’s shouting outside, she can’t make out the words but she can hear the raised voices, the crowds parting, and…

Carolina jumps in her seat, knocking into the person next to her as she sees York being chased by armed guards. It’s dangerous. Really, really, really dangerous – at a fucking bus station filled with soldiers on high terror alert – why would he do this?

He leaps over a duffle on the floor, then somehow sees Carolina through the tinted window, but the bus is already leaving. Already going. Already gone. He shouts again, something awful written across his face, distraught, angry, sad, - bad, bad, bad emotions that Carolina’s not sure whether she wants to wipe them off or let him sit in misery, and then York’s gone.

Chapter Text

York’s always had a feeling in his gut. A weird feeling. Emotions, stuff, everything just always seemed to hit him real hard, and it made him feel sick to his stomach. The stuff just takes over his body, makes him shake and clench, and hiding it comes easy to him. Put on a smile, make sure it hits the eyes because that’s a big tell on anyone, then say something stupid and laugh at your own joke.

It’s not constant, but it’s there and it’s something York’s aware of.

College is a big deal. School, is a big deal – Education, it’s just… It’s important and it’s… York despises it. He hates it. It makes his gut twist, like he’s on the verge of throwing up and he’s not sure what it is, what it means, but he fucking hates it. It’s ugly and grey and it starts low in his stomach, then leeches up into his chest and then finally, like black, black scribbles, smudged and dirty, it shoots down his arms and legs, making his nerves feel frayed. It paralyzes him, makes him feel mindless and he doesn’t know what it is or why it is, but he hates it.

But, it could be worse. He doesn’t feel like that all the time.

York hates school. It makes him… Sometimes he feels like crying, and honestly there’s nothing wrong with that, but he hates crying. And he hates school. He hates it He hates it He hates it.

After high school, York was relieved because it was all over – at least for the summer. The summer following his graduation was the best summer of his life. Sure, a lot of his friends were leaving, but the fact that he wouldn’t be going back to high school made him practically float. It was all so calming, waking up when he woke up, eating when he ate, wandering outside and going to the beach, driving up and down the coast and buying snacks at Safeway.

Summer’s always been his favorite time, Summer break has always been his favorite break, but, man, that summer in particular. The way the sand felt on his skin, the way it stuck to has calves as South chased him out of the sea, North’s smile, Carolina’s eyes and how the sun hit her cheeks just right, the relief the shade brought on, that time Connie dropped ice-cream when South took off her shirt, everything was perfect. Warm and light - It wasn’t even too hot that summer!

Then, York went to college, but stuff was still ok! Sure, he felt… constricted, but it was a new environment, a whole new state, so what else was he supposed to feel? And besides, there’s not much point in arguing about something that he has to do. College was just another thing everyone does, or at least, a thing he was always going to just do. So it was ok – and he wasn’t the only one that left.

Wyoming and Florida disappeared to god knows where in the shitty creeper van Florida bought Junior year, Maine… fucking… went off to do whatever that guy gets up to, and Connie, like York, left for the grand gift of higher education.

University of Boulder, Boulder, Colorado is where York went. Sure, he was an out-of-state student, but it’s the college his mom went to, and it’s where his grandparents live, so it was the logical choice.

York didn’t feel very strongly about it either way, he went to college because it’s what his parents did, what they wanted him to do… and just… Jesus, that’s it. He has no drive in life – no reasons to do the things he does – no –

He doesn’t need a reason. Now, York does the things he does because he wants to. Or… Alternatively, he does the things he does just for the sake of doing them.

Lazily, lethargically, York stretches out across the ratty couch in North and South’s shared apartment, and fiddles with his guitar, plucking here and there, but not coming up with a definite melody. It’s something he chases, or rather, trails after. One high note, one lower one, a chord, plucking rather than picking for once, strumming. He’s missing two strings, another one has a twang to it because of how it’s frayed, hindering him from tuning it properly, but he’s having fun, and right now, right now, that’s all that matters.

Back then, choosing to go to college was so simple. Such a hands off and obvious decision. All he had to do was get a degree in something mediocre and boring, get a job and a house and a spouse, then have two kids (one boy and one girl) so his mom could fawn over grandkids. Then he’d struggle financially for a bit, then he’d send his kids off to school and fail at having a relaxing retirement because it’s close to impossible for anybody to actually save up enough, and then at the end of everything, he’d die and be buried in the same cemetery as his parents, but not anywhere close to them because he wouldn’t be able to afford it. And sure –

Sure.

Sure that sounds dull and all but –

‘Course he couldn’t do that. A year after he left, Carolina threw a big, heavy, ugly wrench in his plans and enlisted. What’s he supposed to do when something like that happens? Go on like he wasn’t loosing everything?

He was gonna come back for summer after that first year – she’d be working at a café or some shit , and he’d strike up a conversation because of course they grew a little bit apart after a couple months of –

It was his fault.

He’s accepted that.

He shouldn’t have said the things he said or done the things he’d done, it’s just – he had so much on his mind – he shouldn’t have –

It’s motherfucking hot outside. His title as Native Texan be damned, the awful heat is all York’s going to be talking about. God, his sweat has sweat of it’s own. It’s one big, gross party on his tanned skin. On another, yet not unrelated note: Less sun would probably be a good idea, unless he wants to get skin cancer in his fifties like every other adult he’s ever known.

He should buy some more sunscreen, or just steal South’s and pretend it’s lost so she’ll buy some more. She always gets the good stuff, fps whatever’s the good fps to get.


 

North, South, and Wash come through the doorway like a freight train, bumbling through with too many plastic bags that are leaving red dents in their forearms and hands; and it scares York, the ferocity they slam the door with.

North huffs as he sets everything down, and South immediately starts grabbing at the paper food bag, tossing the burritos and Styrofoam box of nachos onto the counter until she finds her own order. They all avoid York as they mull about, not so much as greeting him, and they fall into a well-practiced routine as they take up their respective seats at the small, rickety table and in their mismatched chairs.

York, slowly, rises from the couch, setting his guitar down where he used to be sitting, and makes his way to the table. North had set all the food down in the center, the heat leaving little condensation marks on the wood and York has half a mind to go find a placemat to save the table, but doesn’t because they honest to god found this piece of crap at one of the yard sales North insisted on going to.

“Beer?” Washington asks from the fridge, the door halfheartedly held in his hand as he stares blankly at the contents inside.

“Beer.” South confirms.

Other than that, there’s no more talking as York hesitantly goes to grab his own burrito, then dip into the nachos near the center of the table; and York’s seen South angry a lot, sure, but he’s not sure he’s ever seen her eat a burrito quite as furiously as right now.

“You want one, York?” Wash holds a beer bottle behind him as he continues to dig through the fridge.

“…Yea.”

Wash tosses the bottle to York, and South wordlessly slides the bottle opener over.

“So…..” York starts, fiddling with the bottle opener a bit before popping the cap off. As always, he thumbs the cap over in his hands, running his fingers gently over the crimped edges then the languid bend from the bottle opener, before setting it down next to his food on the table. “You guys gonna tell me whats up? Or…”

“Carolina’s back.” North says bluntly, not really eating his food. South glances sharply at her brother while Wash continues to stare off into space in his chair, thinking, thinking, thinking, but not sharing, and York’s not sure if he heard right.

“Did you…”

“Carolina’s back.” North repeats, confirming what he said before.

York swallows – or – chokes, and sets his bottle down. “…What…”

Jesus Christ – Carolina’s fucking back.” South cuts in sharply, setting her burrito down in disgust. A few pieces of meat and onion comically fall out from the side she’s bitten into onto the paper in a greasy pile. “What – Did you suddenly forget what words are? Do I need to get you a fucking dictiona-”

“Cool it, South.” North frowns from his chair, but his posture stays lax, as always.

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do. You’re not my mom.”

“You never listened to mom anyways.”

“What – the fuck – ever, asshole. Doesn’t change the fact that you can’t tell me what to do.”

This isn’t unusual, and North sighs, but it’s got that threatening quality to it, the edge it gains when he’s starting to get mad, and he folds his arms across his chest but doesn’t say anything more. York’s careful to avoid North when he’s like this – especially when it involves South; North’s got a dangerous holier-than-thou complex and when shit like this happens, it gets ugly; but he can’t seem to care about any of that right now.

The silence sits, sprouts horns and grows violent after a second, and then York cracks. “Ok, What the fuck do you guys mean Carolina’s back!?”

“She’s fucking back, York, there’s nothing-”

“No, She was off – fucking – off, in the war and now she’s just – What do you mean she’s back? Where did you see her?”

“At fucking Roberto’s!”

“What, she was just hanging out, eating a fucking taco and then you guys showed up?!”

“She was with her brother.”

Church?!

“Yea, and his friend.”

“I –“ York can’t finish the sentence. He shoots up, his chair screeching in protest against the hardwood and he scrambles with North’s car keys on the hook by the doorway.


York feels really, really stupid. It’s a feeling that most everyone knows, and most everyone hates; and it’s a feeling that settles deep, deep in York’s belly and he feels like an utter, complete idiot, standing in the doorway of Roberto’s Burritos, panting like he’s just run a marathon and simultaneously hasn’t had any water for days.

He hadn’t even thought about it, what he’d do when he saw her, he just ran, and then drove, and then ran again. He’s in his pajamas, dishelved and it’s two in the afternoon for god’s sake and Carolina is not there.

The patrons are staring, he made quite the entrance with the whole ‘ripping the door open and kind of falling/tripping/flopping over the door jam’ thing, and she’s not fucking there. She’s not there. Too late (or they lied).

Too late.

York feels embarrassment start to creep up his neck, hot and shameful, and for a second, his mind entertains the idea of going to her house – but like this? Right now? It has to be perfect. He has to be perfect. He has to make it work this time.

So just as mysteriously and suddenly and violently as he stammered in, York drags his feet out, back into the heat, and steps into the still-hot car and pulls out of the parking lot, heading straight back to North and South’s apartment, not knowing what to do.


His dinner tastes bad, the food tastes bad just like how everything tasted after his overnight at the police station for chasing after Carolina’s bus. Nobody says anything. Nobody has to say anything.

Washington gravitates to the TV, it flickers and he starts watching some show on History Channel about auctioneers, South disappears into her room, North… stays at the table, and York decides it’s time to go back to his own apartment.

He trudges down the stairs in silence. They’re outside and metal and concrete and bleak. The ever-present breeze tugs his shirt back towards the building, ruffles his hair, and the heat surrounds him. Below him, someone in the parking lot shrieks, then laughs, and far off to the right, the sun is dipping below the horizon and the sky is swathed in that dark grey-purple glow it gets when there’s light pollution. York likes to think he can see Houston around the natural curve of the earth, where the light never seems to fade.

His shoes pick up gravel on the steps as he clambers down the stairs, and his apartment door gives with some coercing. It’s dark, his shutters are drawn, and the only thing York can make out in the darkness is the vague lump of where his couch is, and the doorways to the two bedrooms, one he knows is empty, one he knows has an unmade bed, a shabby dresser, and a mirrored closet with doors that slide, but never shut.

He doesn’t bother flicking any of the lights on. York locks the door behind him, slides the chain lock into place, then drags his feet over the matted carpet into the bedroom.

The bed squeaks as he crawls onto it, and the covers catch uncomfortably on his socks and felted pajama pants, but he does the best with what he has and closes his eyes, but doesn’t sleep.

Chapter Text

“So, how was your day, honey?”

“Fine.”

“You do anything?”

“I went to Roberto’s with Church and Tucker.”

“Lenny?”

“Yea.”

“You relax at all?”

“The silence was nice.”

“…good.”


When Carolina told her family of her decision, they said nothing. It was dinner time, they were all sitting around the table, Church, as he liked to be called, was complaining about something that had happened at school that day, and she just said it. Outright. Plainly. Just… She just opened her mouth, told them she wanted to enlist, and they all fell silent.

It took a few moments for them to recover. Her dad just pursed his lips as quietly as he could, and looked away; her mom stared straight at Carolina, eyes narrowing slightly as if she was trying to size up her daughter; and Church nearly died choking on his meatloaf.

“You serious, sis?” Church pounds his chest a couple times with his fist to try and swallow the rest of his bite and then sets his fork down. “When are you planning on going? Before I graduate? How lo-”

Why?” Her father says, face turning stony.

For you, is Carolina’s unspoken answer. Very unspoken answer. She feels indignation spark in her chest, the tone of her father’s voice grating on her nerves in a way that only usually happens to Church, and so, her voice belongs more to a twelve year old than her. “What do you mean why? To serve my planet, protect my friends and family from invaders. You wouldn’t join if you had the chance?”

“No.”

The air is buzzing and hostile, and Carolina isn’t sure what to do with herself. Should she keep eye-contact? Look away? Argue back? Shut up and –

“Well, I did.” Her mother tries to scoop up what’s left of the lighter tone from a few minutes before. “And I’m proud of you, you’d make a fine soldier.”

Chapter Text

It’s a Thursday, a couple weeks after Simmons last babysat Junior.

Heh, babysat, what a weird word to exist.

It’s a Thursday and Simmons should be sleeping because he has class in a couple hours.

Actually, scratch that, sleep is for the weak, Simmons should be studying.

But he isn’t. Simmons is most definitely not studying. In fact, Simmons is doing something he shouldn’t be, but can’t seem to stop himself from doing it because he thought about it, then he moved and an inch was all it took because now he’s standing up.

Simmons spares a glance at the glaring red letters of the alarm clock on the ceiling (4:15) and then runs a tired hand through his hair. He should really go back to sleep, but he’s got ants in his chest and his limbs are quaking (even though one of them should be less able to do that than the other three). Stupid arm. It’s all in his head, he knows – Stupid head – but that’s the problem, isn’t it? The anxiety and crazy stuff is in his head, and so is he. The school year just started a couple weeks ago and he’s already feeling the sadness and the pressure catch him. Stupid, weak heart.

His hip pops as he stands up, and he takes a moment to reevaluate his decision and – yep. Yep. Ok. He’s going.

Simmons palms at his desk blindly until he hits the stack of textbooks and papers from a couple hours ago, and he uses the light from his lock screen to try and read the titles and labels. He’s careful to not use too much light or make too much noise in order to not wake up his roommate. Lopez was still sleeping, doing the thing Simmons should be doing.

But Simmons has a bus to catch, he has to ride this wave of impulsiveness and get up and go. It’s not unusual for him to do this, but he still feels guilty and his parents would most definitely disapprove. He just needed a break though, and he swears (he swears) he’ll be back for his afternoon classes. He always, always is.

Ah, Yes. Alright. He’s found is AI Theory textbook. There’s the binder, he can tell from the little label on the spine, and ok, Robotics textbook and – good.

As quietly as he can, Simmons slips his books and notes into his backpack, next to his wallet and datapad and various free pencils and pens and screwdrivers.

He makes a mental note to buy a pencil case for once in his life. For someone so prided on being put together, he’s awfully messy in random aspects of his life. Forgetful.

A tool kit would probably be useful too.

The rubber of his shoe catches on the corner of Lopez’s desk as he tries to tug on the other shoe, and then he grabs the keys, slowly opens the door, and just as slowly, closes it behind him. Lopez won’t wonder where he is.

It’s quiet in the hallway, the lights are on, but dimmed, and from somewhere far away, he can hear the sounds of the washing machines chugging, along with the occasional clang and hum of the elevator.

Simmons walks, feet padded against the scratchy carpet, then jogs down the stairs and pushes the double doors open with a practiced struggle. It’s muggy outside, but he doesn’t have to walk for long because the bus stop is just at the edge of the campus. The bus comes at four twenty-five. The first bus of the day.

The trees are black against the dark sky, the leaves rustle with the breeze, and Simmons catches a whiff of something awful, before it’s brushed away again by the wind. Above him, the stars are just barely there, summer nights always appearing to be brighter than other nights in other seasons, and it’s peaceful. The four in the morning kind of peaceful – When no one’s out and the world is alive but dead at the same time.

It makes more sense in Simmons’ head.

The streetlamps are on, and Simmons follows the trail of glowy, shaky, light like breadcrumbs until he reaches the lonely metal box of the bus stop. There’s a whisper in his head to text, or call ahead at least, but he doesn’t because he knows he doesn’t have to. He’ll get there after Tucker leaves for work, so the doors will be unlocked. And if not, Junior will let him in, he’s got a stool for the peephole and everything. Smart kid.

Normally, Simmons would be standing here, waiting, on a Friday afternoon, preparing for a weekend of stifled emotions in the house he grew up in. It was awful, but it made his mom happy and his dad expected it, but he wasn’t feeling it. Simmons was feeling odd and fitful and a tad but confrontational so he had to get out because – because…

He doesn’t do well under pressure, and it was all getting to him. Growing and growing and growing and creeping and creeping like a black vine with thorns that pierce his skin and he knows he just has to get away for a couple minutes and breathe because Donut always said that it was healthier if he did it and –

The bus stop is empty, the chairs are cool, but there’s dew so Simmons doesn’t sit down.

Everything has the odd quality of being warm, but chilling at the same time. The mugginess sticks to his skin and clothes, making him feel damp and trapped, but then the breeze picks up and he shivers. Thankfully, he got his prosthetic outfitted with a gel coating years ago; it helped with the rusting and kept the metal and plastic a level temperature throughout the year.

Simmons should have brought a jacket – but it’s odd wearing a jacket in September. Honestly, classes have just started and he’s already freaking out. The thought of quitting never crosses his mind as acceptable, however. Simmons is doing this for himself, yes, this what his father wants, what his mother wants (because his dad wants it), but he’s studying something he’s interested in, something he could quite happily dedicate his life to, and so it’s ok. He’s allowed breaks, Simmons reminds himself, but he’s not sure he really believes it.

That’s ok, though, the internet says, It’s ok to not always believe it – as long as you’re trying. Fake it till you make it. It will get better.

Simmons leans back against the pole of the bus stop, growing tired, and his backpack awkwardly shifts against it before he gives the notion up all together and stands straight again, this time crossing his arms. His bag is starting to grow heavy, giving him an ache in his lower back that’s dull, but manageable, and that’s when the bus comes.

It’s a completely out of the ordinary and weird thing to have, but Baytown (And it’s surrounding area) has a rather extensive bus network. Simmons has always wondered why, but nobody else seemed to put much thought into it, so he shelves the query for later investigation, and calls it a day. Or morning. Early morning.

In a rather out-of-character manner, Simmons calmly waits for the bus to slow, then grabs the metal bar (that’s clammy as well, thanks humidity and AC working in tangent) and steps onto the bus. It’s empty and dark, and Simmons feels himself relax with the obvious lack of passengers.

There are glowing markers along the isle and windows, and nobody’s occupying the dark blue seats, so Simmons takes a row somewhere near the center, slips his phone out of his pocket, and begins the process of untangling his earbuds.

The streetlights flash by as the sky brightens, their glimmer fading, fading, fading so they’re no more brilliant than simple LED bulbs inside plastic against the light sky. It turns pink with dawn, then a desperate orange backed by lime-greenish teal, and then, finally, sky blue prevails. Simmons watches the transformation with mild interest. There’s so much to concentrate on and he’s always felt calmed sitting in a bus or a car.

He read an article on it once, something about how the motion reminds a person of when they were in the womb, the bob and ebb and motion of the turns. Another part of it must come from not being able to do anything. Simmons gets car sick so he can’t read or write or answer texts and it’s not very polite to receive or make calls so early in the morning in a public place so all he has to focus on (or not focus on) are the cars, the streetlights, and the bobbing of the road.

More and more cars begin to flash past and the dashed yellow lines become longer with speed, and Simmons lets all of it lull him into a half-asleep state. People have slowly been trickling into the seats on the bus, and over the forty minutes Simmons has been sitting in his seat, only one person has sat anywhere in front of him.

It’s a long ride, but it’s worth it, and hopefully he can force Grif to drive him back to college near the middle of the day so he’d be on time.

Simmons begins to get nervous a couple stops before his, he can feel the anticipation building up, and by the time his arrives, he’s already standing so he jerks forward when the bus stops, resting a quick, heavy hand on an aisle seat near him startling the girl sitting in it. He flushes red, can feel it rush his ears and cheeks, and he mumbles a high-pitched and strained ‘sorry!’ before stumbling off onto the ground, the gravel and dirt fluffing up around his shoes in a cloud. The sky is bright but stale above him, still a morning blue and struggling, and he has a long walk on until he gets to where he’s going.


It’s a Thursday, and Tucker’s late.

Church is still ‘job hunting’, Grif has a job at a garage somewhere, he pays his fair share, and Christ Tucker really, really needs this job. Sure, they don’t have to pay rent or anything because this is Grif’s dead dad’s house, but they got bills to pay – Mostly Internet bills, but bills nonetheless.

And he’s got that shitty one hundred dollars to pay for Junior’s participation in this year’s basketball little league.

Tucker fucking needs money, so why can’t he seem to stop sleeping through his alarm??

It is six in the morning, and Tucker wakes up to his son slapping his tiny, adorable hands on his face.

“Daddy, I’m hungry.”

Tucker groans, pushing himself onto his elbows so he’s face to face with Junior, and can’t help but huff at his unruly hair and sleep-filled eyes. “Dude, I don’t think you should be awake right now.”

“Daddy,” Junior repeats, pushing his face closer to Tucker’s so they’re nose-to-nose, and Tucker’s at a loss for what to concentrate on: Junior’s horrible breath, his horrible breath, or the little freckles his kid has got on the bridge of his nose, faint and pretty. Reminds him of her though, and she’s sort of a bitch.

But it’s cute on Junior.

“I’m hungry.” Junior whines again.

Tucker yawns, and pushes himself up so he’s sitting with his comforter scrunched up around his waist, and then he freezes because that’s the exact moment he realizes it is, in fact, a Thursday.

“FUCK!” Tucker jumps out of bed, and with a quick look at his clock, he realizes that it’s just past six in the morning and he’s got to get to Safeway before his shift. “Make sure you pick up your toys before school.” Tucker trips over a pant leg as he tries to get his jeans on. “I stepped one last night and-”

Junior gasps, and immediately drops to the floor, looking over his carefully arranged animal figures. “You killed my dilophosaurus!”

“Your what?”

“My dinosaur!” Junior holds up a skinny, velociraptor-looking thing with fans on the side of it’s head. Well, one fan thingy, the other one is cradled in Junior’s other hand. “You owe me now.”

“Dude, I pay for everything. If anything, you owe me.”

“I need more dinosaurs!”

Tucker mentally slaps himself for getting sidetracked by arguing over dinosaurs and continues to get dressed. Quickly, he tugs a T-shirt over his head and scoops Junior up on his way out the door. He’s met with a bright house, all the lights on and fans running.

“Why didn’t you just ask whoever’s up for breakfast?”

“Simmons doesn’t give me the right cereal.”

“Simmons?”

“He smells.”

Tucker laughs. “True.”


Tucker finds Simmons sitting at the kitchen table with his cat, Hog, pawing at his legs. As per usual, Simmons is buried in a slew of textbooks and papers, and has half a prosthetic across his lap as he flips between the same three textbook pages. He’s frantic in a subdued way that’s completely normal for Simmons, and Tucker’s become desensitized to his odd behavior. It doesn’t make it right though. Dude’s got problems and would probably be on meds if his asshole father didn’t guilt trip him into not taking care of himself.

Tucker sorta sees a bit of himself in Simmons, well, in the parents aspect. They both got the rotten lottery tickets to horrible childhoods filled with emotional abuse, but Simmons can’t break away yet, and Tucker’s still in a sick sort of power struggle with his own parents, but a different sort that involves Junior and sends his stomach into knots and knots and knots.

Simmons looks close to tears and Tucker knows the only reason he’s here is to catch a break, so he steps in. “Hey, dude, can I get you anything?”

Simmons jumps, and then hisses when Hog digs his claws in at the sudden movement. He shakes his head ‘no’ while rubbing his tired eyes, and Tucker lets Junior slide down his side before moving past Simmons to the pot of coffee said redhead started. “Maybe Junior can help you.”

Junior bounds enthusiastically over to Simmons before Simmons can object, and soon, the university student finds himself explaining the theory behind what he’s working on to the four year old, voice slowly gaining more eagerness with each question Junior asks. By the time Tucker sits down at the table with three bowls of cereal, Simmons has got a blank sheet of notebook paper out as he draws diagrams.

That’s good. Get Simmons talking. Simmons likes talking. Tucker wishes Grif was here instead of sleeping. Since when did he become such a mom?

Tucker eats fast, he smiles and nods as Junior talks about stuff and stuff and more stuff and tries not to look at Simmons, who’s back to fiddling with whatever he’s got in his lap, taking few bites of the sugar cereal Tucker wordlessly placed in front of him.

With a quick glance at the time on his phone, Tucker stands, presses a big, sloppy kiss to Junior’s forehead that sends the kid sputtering with laughter and whipping at the spit, and steps out the door.

It’s going to rain later.


It’s odd yet completely normal to be in this house. He got here little before six, Junior let him in then quickly went back to watching cartoons on TV, and Simmons set up in the kitchen with his books and class work and stupid son-of-a-bitch class project due next week; and it was quiet (save for the static-y cartoon voices), and it was nice.

Then Simmons got frustrated, then he got angry, and then Tucker came and went and seeing as Church put him in charge of getting Junior ready for school, he forced himself to take a break from his break. It was great. It was all great. Everything was great. He didn’t feel like crying because crying was for girls and no matter how many times his father called him that, he was not a girl. Not that there was anything wrong with girls, per say, it’s just… He’s not one. And most of the girls he’s known aren't the nicest.

Except for Kai, she’s… odd, but one of the best people he’s ever met. Second family. (First?)

Junior seems to pretty much know what he’s doing, so Simmons leaves the boy alone to get dressed and only intervenes when he comes out with the waistband of his pants all twisted. Simmons doesn’t agree with the method, but Tucker definitely did a good thing for Junior when he got him into Simmons’ church’s preschool/daycare program.

Simmons himself isn’t religious, but he’s been raised to respect the authority of the church, and there’s just a certain integrity that comes with things like that. A part of him hates the ingrained reaction, but another accepts it and like everything else Simmons is facing, it’s confusing and honestly, he’d rather just not deal with it.

Not dealing with things hasn’t technically gotten him anywhere in life yet, but he’s got a good couple of years left in his life and he’s willing to try some more. Besides, you can only get true results by doing the same thing over and over and over again otherwise there’s too much space for errors, human or not.

Repress it. Just like everyone else. Step outside and take in the smell of fresh repression.

Junior grabs Simmons’ hand and smiles up at him, never really shying from that sort of thing, and he walks with Simmons to the front door. He’s small and has the chub that every kid should, but his footfalls are oddly confident for a toddler and his curious eyes are humbling. His quiet used to unnerve Simmons, but now, it’s oddly companionable. Not that he’d ever admit enjoying the company of a four year old. Simmons can only begin to imagine all the different wisecracks Grif would get in if he was privy to that information.

Simmons wonders for a moment if the self-confidence Junior embodies will last, but quickly steers his thoughts in a different direction because Junior losing what makes him him is not something he wants to think about. Ever. There are certain things that Simmons depends on to be the same, to be constant, and as silly as it is, Junior being Junior is one of them, just like how Church being Church and Donut being Donut stabilize him, ground him, Simmons needs Junior to be Lavernius Tucker Junior. Simmons needs grounding.

Simmons sits with junior on the front steps for a few moments, aimlessly watching ants trail across the cracks and weeds, until a beige van pulls up in front of the house, the church logo plastered onto the wide, sliding door. Junior easily settles into one of the many car seats and boosters provided and then Simmons waves goodbye with an always-awkward smile and Junior returns his gesture in a fast-paced and unpracticed wave that’s more jazz-hands than farewell. He trails back into the house moments after the bus pulls away.


Grif wakes up to a dark, hot room. The sheets are pulled up to his chin, and his body is heavy with sleep, but his brain’s ahead of the program. Not for the first time, he decides to listen to his body and try to fall back asleep. He deserves it, and judging by the clock, he’s only gotten maybe four hours of sleep.

Faintly, he hears what sounds like the church bus drive off (it’s a sound he’s memorized because no other vehicle he’s ever encountered has breaks as squeaky as that beige piece of shit), followed by the front door being closed and locked, and then the screen door slapping against it’s rickety metal frame moments after. The screen door bounces, the edges never quite slotting properly into place, and then it quiets.

Grif falls asleep again.


Simmons lounges for a few more hours on the couch, a respectable distance away from Church, who’s quietly nursing a cup of coffee. Simmons shifts, restlessly and guiltily sending glances towards the kitchen, where his homework is sitting, but a quick glare from Church has him locked down and focused on the shitty home improvement show that’s on and the couch stops squeaking with his movements.

Eventually, he’s the one to wake up Grif. Simmons gathers his stuff first, shoving it less enthusiastically into his bag than earlier in the morning, and then he steels himself for what’s to come.

Simmons creaks up the thin slivers for stairs, and then slowly opens the first door on the left. It’s jammed. It’s always jammed, and the sound is louder than he’d like. He’s met with a dark room that smells like dirty clothes and person. Grif.

He makes his way to the blinds first, tugging them up with a satisfying clack-clack-clack, and the rips the sheets off Grif’s curled up body before thinking of the consequences.

Grif groans pathetically and curls into himself more, covering his eyes with an arm, and Simmons bites down the flare of embarrassment as he’s met with Grif’s bare torso. The jerk’s only in his boxers.

It’s hot, though.

The Weather!

It’s hot outside so of course he’s wearing just his boxers!

Simmons forces himself to stare steadily at Grif’s head as he mumbles something else, then settles with grumbling. “Go away.”

His embarrassment is quickly replaced by the familiar annoyance he’s learned to associate with Grif as he bends over and scrounges through the basket of clean clothes laying topped on the floor near Grif’s bed. He tosses a shirt and some shorts from the wrecked pile at Grif, then straightens, eyes still trained on where Grif’s face should be (It’s currently under a pillow) as he crosses his arms over his chest, mechanical one on top. “You gotta drive me back.”

“Simmons?”

“Yea.”

“What time is it?”

“Uh..” Simmons pulls out his phone. “Twelve forty-six.”

With a dramatic sigh, Grif rolls onto his other side, now facing the wall, and brings up the still folded shorts so they’re resting on his shoulder like a pathetic excuse for a planket. “Too early.” He says simply.

“Grif, I have class.”

“You already skipped the others so why bother.”

Simmons purses his lips and opts to just glare at Grif until he moves. Maybe the lazy asshole can feel his hatred from where he is, hotter than the fire of a thousand suns and –

“Drive yourself.” Grif ‘s arm moves in what Simmons assumes is some sort of lazy waving gesture.

After a second, Simmons relents, and then grins a bit because Grif screwed up. He really screwed up, and judging by the way his body suddenly seizes up he knows it, too.

“Ok.” Simmons says a little too gleefully, as he snatches Grif’s car keys off the dresser. He makes it two steps before Grif is up and shouting.

“No! No! Ok! I’m going! Look –“ Grif trips over his comforter, which is also crumpled on the floor, as he tugs the shirt Simmons threw at him earlier on. “I’m up! I’m up! Don’t you fucking dare touch my car!”

Simmons shrugs, but still holds onto the keys as he walks down the stairs towards the living room. Grif trails after him a few moments later, subdued, and veers off towards the kitchen for breakfast before Simmons returns to harass him until he’s out and sitting in the driver seat of his car. His car. Not Simmons’. Nobody else’s but his.

Chapter Text

Simmons wasn’t paying attention. Like it was said before, he tends to zone out when he gets into a car, stare aimlessly at the windows and maybe follow the telephone poles and lines with his eyes in and endless dip, then incline, peak, then dip; but when he hears the sounds of a wrapper crinkling, he’s pulled back into reality.

Grif’s got his eyes firmly on the road, but both his hands are being used to open a popsicle packet. It’s clear, and Simmons can guess that it’s maybe orange flavored, but none of that matters as he feels the car drift off to the left, towards the lane of incoming traffic.

“Grif-”

“Relax.” Grif drawls as he leans forward so he’s driving with his elbows. After some coercing, the wrapper is peeled away and Simmons feels a different type of annoyance wash over him.

“That’s not healthy.” He side-eyes his best friend before frantically adverting his eyes when Grif brings the popsicle up to his lips. Asshole.

“We’re all gonna die sometime, Simmons.”

“I don’t think that’s a very valid excuse.”

Grif only shrugs before returning to eating his frozen snack.

“You want some?” Grif asks after a few moments.

Simmons does, actually. Simmons has wanted a popsicle since he caught a glimpse of them in the freezer in his search for some microwavable snacks, but he denied himself. Stupid self-consciousness.

Grif wordlessly holds out the popsicle for Simmons to take, and with some wrangling, Simmons manages to grab it with minimal amounts of melted sugar-water on his hands. He takes a small bite, then passes it back to Grif. It’s as syrupy and sweet and cold as he imagined, though, he’s never been a big fan of orange flavored stuff, it just doesn’t taste the same as the actual fruit. He’s been told that that’s the reason it tastes so good, but he can’t agree.

“Nerd.” Grif huffs before taking a pointedly bigger bite than Simmons and the silence returns.

The trees and fields roll past in uneven intervals and the sky’s clouded over, grey and white, but still bright. Simmons can feel the cool air settle in his bones, and after a while, a big, fat raindrop touches down in the windshield. The sky darkens as thicker clouds replace the light gray ones from before.

“It’s raining.” Grif says conversationally.

“Yea.”

Soon, the pitter-patter melts into an onslaught of rain and wind and Grif holds fast to the steering wheel to keep the car in the lane, but everything still has that trance feeling and Simmons melts back into not paying attention to what’s happening in the car. Here, he can relax. Here, he can ignore because he can’t do anything in a car, so Simmons settles, and lets the lingering heat in the car roll over him.


Carolina’s been here before, and like every other thing she’s gone through in the past couple weeks, it makes her feel incredible juvenile. The DMV is as dreaded as it’s made out to be. Her chair wobbles under her as she unconsciously clicks it from side to side and patiently fills out the forms in front of her. The clip-board feels greasy in her hands, and the pen’s grip is worn and fuzzy in her fingers.

Next to her, is her mom, and she’s completely still and regal, so Carolina sits a little straighter and stops her shifting.

She always got disciplined for fidgeting anyways, and she’s not sure why she’s doing it now. Maybe she’s unconsciously filling a roll; she’s always sat next to someone who’s restless and been the one to calm them, so in their wake, she makes the noise.

One-seventy-one” a voice over the loudspeaker drawls, and Carolina looks up sternly, looks for the free attendant, and then stands and trails after her mom towards the slightly private counter-area designated.

“You’re here for…”

“License renewal.” Allison sets the folder of necessary documents on the flat surface in front of her, and the rest of the ordeal goes a lot like that. One awkward picture later, Carolina is strolling out with her new, fancy, landscape-style license and Allison throws her the keys.

Juvenile.

Pointless.

It’s raining.

Hard.

Allison pushes open the double doors to the DMV, Carolina right behind her, and then, through a unanimous consensus, they both take of sprinting to the car through the parking lot. Her hair’s wet and small drops of water drip down the sides of her face as she slams the driver-side door shut, but it’s ok.

It tickles. 


Lopez stares out the dorm window passively as Sheila continues to talk about how someone cut in line at the cafeteria. He relishes the time spent without his dorm-mate in the room. It’s chilled in the building, the AC running while the temperature outside drops, and he tugs on the sweatshirt hanging off his desk chair.

He nods when he has to, smiles and shakes his head and Sheila keeps talking and she looks so pretty like that, when her eyebrows scrunch and she concentrates on her story. She should talk more often.


A flash.

Then thunder.

Donut feels it in his soul.

The wind picks up and then a hail of raindrops hit the side of the house.

Downstairs, he can hear the familiar clatter of pots and pans and cookie sheets as mom-number-two (Donut loves them both equally. Obviously.) bakes for tomorrow’s sale. His other mom is in town running errands.

The wind picks up once again, and Donut decides to go outside and feel the rain. They haven’t had a good storm in a while, and the sky’s still wide and the ground’s light even though the heavens are dark. The rain would normally promise life, means extra blooms, a healthy crop and fresh, damp, new starts, but right now, it will only set back their harvest. Hay needs to dry properly before being baled, otherwise mold grows, and this just won’t do.

Donut steps away from the computer, he was working on logging their most recent expenses, and makes his way out of the room and down the stairs, the wood paneling only just barely creaking under his light footfalls. They should call Simmons over soon to make sure everything’s in order with the books. Donut’s never been especially good with that sort of thing and Simmons seems to enjoy the rhythm of numbers and boxes and expense reports, and he hasn’t seen Simmons in a couple weeks. He’s always off so busy off at his fancy school getting his fancy, genius degree. What a man, reaching for the stars, never on his knees. It’s inspiring.

The smell of Sourdough Bread and butterscotch permeates through the house along with the smell (and sounds) of rain, one warm and soft and wafting gently and the other fresh and heady.

“Caboose is still outside.” His mom calls after she sees his figure in the doorway. They both know what that means.

There’s soft light in the kitchen, and all the windows are open so you can hear the full roar of the storm outside. The windowsills are wet and shining and a sudden gust of wind takes the baking sheets with it across the room, making Donut jump.

“Oh! Shoot!” Mom-number-two smooths her hair back over her forehead with both hands, cringing, before running after the now scattered sheets. “Franklin, darling, help me with the windows.”

“My pleasure!”

After the kitchen is put back in order, Donut walks through all the rooms in their house, closing the windows as he goes. The storm comes in waves, raining and thundering, then evening out to a gentle breeze and drizzle before it’s ferocity returns once more.

Donut wades through the yellow light coming from the various patchwork of lamps in the house, some hanging off the wall, most crammed onto whatever flat surface is available, and then he makes his way to the mudroom, tugging on his work boots over his dark jeans.

He eyes his rain jacket.

He always looked pretty goofy in it, it fans out near his waist and it has no form whatsoever, so he decides to leave it. Besides, the rain will feel nice on his skin, and the cold is welcome, even though, generally, it’s bad for business. With the first step outside, his boots sink into the mud.

“Caboose!” He cups his hands at the side of his mouth as he squints through the torrent, and he’s already soaked to the bone. It feels fresh. Skin slick with cold and hair flattened down, not that there’s much to flatten down, he’s only got a short Mohawk.

The wind picks at the storm door, tearing it open, then clapping it back against the walls of the house, at the same time lightening flashes, and Donut startles. He turns around, and re-latches the fickle door as the subsequent thunder from the flash rolls through the air.

Sound is so weird.

“Caboose!” He shouts again, this time venturing farther from the warm house. Comforting light shines from the windows of the house and it’s a stark contrast compared to the suddenly brought on chaos outside.

After a few moments of more rain and more trudging towards the baler sitting in the middle of the nearest hayfield, where Caboose should have been working, he hears Caboose returning his call from the direction of the barn.

“Over here, Biscuit!”

“It’s a little wild outside, Caboose! Come back to the house!” Donut jogs towards the barn, then bodily shoves the wooden doors open, struggling against the wind to close them, after. The overhead lights are on, but unlike in the house, these are white and bright and all too distasteful. They’re economic, though, go Earth!

Donut searches through the rows of drying bales until he finds Caboose near the center of the room, sitting with his wet back pressed against a stack of hay and Freckles in his lap.

“Freckles doesn’t want to go outside.” Caboose says, cradling the large Cattle Dog closer to his chest. “He doesn’t like thunder.”

Freckles, in fact, looks fine. It’s Caboose that’s shaking, his large form unnaturally small as he stoops over, dark, wet hair plastered to his forehead and eyes fearfully flickering up at Donut, then squeezing shut every few moments as another loud clap of thunder sounds out.

“I’m sure I can help Freckles get back inside.” Donut slowly approaches Caboose, then kneels down next to him, one hand scratching at Freckles’ head and the other resting comfortably on Caboose’s wet back.

Caboose doesn’t respond.

“It’s warm in the kitchen, the oven’s been going for a while and mom is making cookies, Caboose. You and Freckles want cookies, right?”

“…Yes.” Caboose buries his nose a little deeper into Freckles’ thick fur before sneezing. “Yes, I think I would like some cookies.”

“Alright.” Caboose stands with Donut’s hand on his arm, unfolding himself so he’s towering over blonde in the artificial light, and then they make their way out of the barn.

Caboose has an easier time closing the barn doors than Donut, he firmly holds them shut while Donut makes sure the bolt lock catches, and then they make they jog quickly through the downpour to the house. Caboose is shaking, with cold, with fear, and as they duck through the doorway of the mudroom, Freckles shakes and water gets everywhere. The other two of today’s farmhands are already sitting around the table, warming up by the heater.

Donut runs through the house, leaving watery footprints behind him, and then he returns with an armful of towels, and his mom delivers on the promised cookies a couple minutes later.


Sarge is cold without his armor, but it’s a dry cold that just barely dusts his fingertips as he stands at attention out in the frigid air. Where Sarge is stationed, there is no rain. This planet has no rain, no form of precipitation at all only a smoky fog that rolls in like dry ice around dusk and clears out by dawn. It’s choking and fills the landscape smoky white so it looks like something straight out of a horror game. It’s chalky too, the fog, it clogs the air filters in his armor and it only exists to try and lower his moral, Sarge is sure. His moral, and the moral of his men.

Jokes on this planet, though, his moral is at an all-time high! He’s high on life! Never coming down!

Sarge is waging war on this planet. He’s both fighting other people on this planet (damned Insurrectionists), and every once in a while, he’ll give the ground a good stomp because the dirt sucks. The fog sucks, everything here fucking sucks.

The pelican lowers to the ground, shifting in the air, gliding across the currents, until it finally touches down and the ramp lowers. Around the tarmac, soldiers are watching him as he boards, and he feels indignation and embarrassment begin to surface, but it’s easier to deal with anger, so he sticks with that.

Sarge whips around on the ramp and brings both hands up, effectively flipping everyone on the tarmac off, “Later, you sleazy, good-for-nothing dirtbags!”

The pelican begins to lift off, and Sarge was to pat himself on the back for this one, perfect dramatic timing and absolutely flawless execution. He’ll definitely be remembered.

“You’ll all rot in hell, you backstabbing cowards!” Sarge shouts angrily over the pelican’s engine as the ramp begins to shut behind him. They probably didn’t hear that but it sure made him feel better about himself.

Sarge watches through the back window for a bit, watches as the planet begins to slowly melt away into nothing, and the icy fog begins to cover the ground way, far below him. Simmons would like it, he was never especially fond of rain, but Donut and Grif would miss the rain.

Sarge supposes he would, too.

Sarge does, too, he misses the rain and Earth stuff, but just he wishes he wouldn’t be seeing it so soon.

Chapter Text

It’s been raining all day, and finally, Wash is off work. He’s the one closing shop.

The garage is empty, there are a couple cars lined up on the concrete, but most of the tools and working stations are clean and put together. The smell of oil and grease mixes with the smell of rain, and Washington feels the spray of the droplets on him as he stands just inside the open garage doors. He takes a few moments to let the wind buffet him, the front of his shirt begins to darken as the drops turn to splatters and then he flicks the switch and the garage doors begin to climb shut, lowering slow and steady. The sound is loud and would normally fill the otherwise quiet street, but the storm outside, at the moment, is louder than the doors could ever be.

Across the street, Washington can just make out the lights from the other shops, most are yellow and white, and filled with the occasional shadow of a person walking past the window.

After securing the metal garage doors shut, Washington wordlessly makes his way into the office, glances over the reception desk to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything, he’s got terrible memory, and then turns to face the door. He’d have to be fast if he doesn’t want to get soaked.

Then again, a little rain never killed anybody and York’s always on his back about stopping and smelling the flowers.

For a few moments, Washington stands in front of the glass door; watching. Through the white letters advertising opening and closing times that are honestly never followed, the torrent outside shows no signs of letting up. He’s got to make a decision. Home or North and South’s, his only two places to go. Unless, of course, he decided to kick himself to the curb and live on the streets.

That outcome, however, is quite an unfavorable one.

Washington weighs his options.

His father is home, but it’s starting to become obvious that he’s avoiding him and he’d rather not look weak, because that’s how he’s acting: Weak. Pathetic.

Lightening crackles across the sky in an eruption of jagged electricity followed by thunder that makes the chain security doors rattle ominously. This was a big storm, but it’d relent by tomorrow’s daybreak, it always does, and by morning, the ground will be hard, branches will be strewn across lawns and streets, and everything will smell spectacular. Wet patio tiles under bare feet is such a distinct feeling, especially when the tiles are just starting to bake in the sun. Warm and wet but also cold in the breeze. Awesome.

Washington has stuff to look forward to.

Washington decides to go home.

He shoves the door open, drags down the security door behind him, locks it, then closes the actual front door and locks that too, all the while becoming increasingly more soaked and cold. The wind hits him, he wobbles a bit, and then he rushes through the small parking lot to his car.

Home. Home. Home.

Call North and let him know.

Home.

Great.


“Awww, crap! I’m gonna have to walk home in this!” Kaikana slumps over her desk, cheek pressed into the clammy plastic as the rain picks up, pelting the window behind the blinds. Somehow, though, the hot air of the classroom is still trapped, and it makes the room feel cut off from the rest of the world, like this building exists on a completely separate plane of existence. Probably does. And that plane of existence is hell.

“At least it won’t be so hot?” Katie tries, half-heartedly patting Kai’s head as she watches the rain outside.

“I’m so glad that instead of sweating, I’ll be shivering and wet.”

“Take the bus?”

“I’d rather shoot up the school, then kill myself.”

“Heh, same.”


Tucker always goes out to the beach at times like this. He picks up Junior at the church after work with a bag of good fast food, and then they go out to the beach. The parking lot asphalt is cracked, and storms only makes it more and more weathered, but it’s protected from the waves by a gentle swell of sand and scarce beach grass and far enough away from the high-tide line so it barely ever floods.

Tucker backs into his chosen parking space with ease, seeing as nobody else dares to go out in weather like this, and Junior bounces in time with the song he’s got on. Shift into park, twist the keys so the car turns off, then Tucker’s leaping out of the car, running around the back of the car to pop the hatchback window. He dives through the small opening, his shoulders and hair a little wet, just as Junior clambers over the back seats.

Junior reaches back over the seat for the food as Tucker spreads the blankets out, and he’s got a really fucking smart kid. Junior’s so great, always thinking ahead and he just knows things – Tucker and Junior sit, wrapped up in blankets, in front of the open car window, eating Burger King while the waves crash like runaway trains onto the shore.

“Yea! And then the dude fucking – shit – sorry, don’t say the bad words, dude.” Tucker shakes his head helplessly as Junior giggles, then returns to his recounting of his day. “The guy asked me for a refund and free groceries because his refrigerated goods were cold, said he didn’t like his butter cold!” Tucker takes another bite of his burger as Junior shoves a handful of fries into his mouth, woefully missing sauce.

“What, no ketchup?” Tucker scoffs.

Junior shakes his head. “No, it’s gross. I don’t like it.”

“I will never understand you.”

A rather harsh gust of wind whips past the car, blowing the blanket off Tucker’s shoulder, and the pushed-open window shakes and bends a bit with the force. “So what did you do today?” Tucker tugs the blanket tighter and wipes at his cheek with the back of his hand. The wind’s changed directions, and now the rain’s starting to come into the van.

“We painted with our fingers!” Junior grins and holds up his hands as proof. “See, it won’t wash off! I tried!”

Tucker’s eyes are drawn to Junior’s white shirt. “Aww, dude, you got your shirt stained.”

“…Oh..”

“No! No! It’s ok! It’s cool, looks like a painting by… by Picasso or Da Vinci!” Tucker mends after Junior pulled back slightly, “We could sell it, you’d be one of the greats, like a super famous painter dude – Like the guy with one ear… Van Gogh!”

Junior snorts and turns back to eating like he doesn’t believe Tucker.

“So, what else did you do today?”

“…”

“Did you get in trouble?”

“Ms. Reynolds said I ask too many questions.”

“Psshhh, whatever, you’re perfect.” Tucker leans down and presses a big kiss to the top of Junior’s head, Junior’s hair tickling Tuckers nose and making him close his eyes. It looks so adorable long, Junior’s hair, all coily and fluffy and crazy tall. Kid’s got great hair.

Junior smiles and giggles and then pushes Tucker away. “You smell bad!”

Tucker gasps, leaning back with a hand to his chest like he’s been shot. “I – What?! I though Simmons smelled bad, not me!”

“You do, too!”

Tucker breaks, his smile being too strong, and he nicks Junior’s cheek with his knuckles before straightening slightly. He balls up his wrapper, shoves it into the paper bag, and then turns to watch Junior.

“I love you, kid.” Tucker says, a smile crawling across his face that’s beginning to make his cheeks hurt.

Junior turns to tucker with a small smile himself, and huffs. “I love you too, daddy.”


Caboose likes rain. He likes the way it’s wet and how it makes his hair go all flat and his clothes stick to his skin. He likes the puddles, he likes jumping in them and making Church yell when he got his pants a little wet because that’s just how Church shows he love. Caboose likes rubber rain boots, he likes how they squeak, and he likes how his sisters love the rain, he likes how they run outside and dance and how they put on music on and grab his hands and how they all twirl around in the front yard as the sky cries.

Caboose loves rain. He loves how flowers come out and how worms wriggle on the streets, so he has to go out and save them all from the sun with Donut, he loves how everything outside gets wet, how plant pots have little pockets of water on them and how the sand on the beach gets little, tiny dots everywhere that make it look like a thousand tiny crabs had a dance party.

Maybe the crabs like to dance in the rain like he does with his sisters.

Caboose does not like thunder.

It is loud, and it is scary.

Lightening is bright and it blinds and scares him, and then thunder is big and loud and it hurts his ears and reminds him of the lady. The tall lady with short hair and glasses that stood over him while he lay, motionless, on the table. She wore white, she cut him and poked him and made him cry so, so, so much and he does not like her. He does not like the thunder she caused in the big room, when the walls would disappear and mean people would show up and make him and his friends run and shoot guns.

Caboose does not like thunder.

It was raining, but just a little bit. Terry and Jones, the other farmhands on duty, are by the baler, which is sitting motionless in the field, and Caboose was getting… Something from the barn, he can’t remember, and then it starts raining. A few droplets at first, in odd bursts, and then a solid sheet of water, and Caboose couldn’t help but smile as the rain hit his face, tickling his nose and forehead. He blinks up at the sky, and Freckles lets out a little ‘boof’.

Right!

“Thank you so much, Freckles!” Caboose leans down and pats the dog on the forehead, before continuing on to the barn with renewed vigor. The toolbox! He was looking for the toolbox! The baler’s broken and they need tools to fix it.

Caboose opens the barn door, lets Freckles in first, then secures it shut. He has no idea where the toolbox is, but Freckles seems to know, because the Cattle Dog immediately heads off along the left wall, so Caboose follows.

Then, thunder rattles the roof, the metal beginning to bend and flap with the wind and the rain pelting the sides in a flurry of angry, heavy, droplets and Caboose drops to the floor, leaning to far forward and ending up on his knees as he brings his head in, close to his chest.

It’s too much. He sees her. He sees people in big armor. He sees needles. He sees –

Freckles. Red and white, little and big, Australian Cattle Dog freckles as Freckles nudges his wet nose against Caboose’s cheek.

“It’s ok, Freckles, the rain can’t get us in here.”

Freckles doesn’t seem to be very comforted because he keeps pushing his snout into Caboose until the farmhand teeters backwards on his heels, and then his sitting on his butt with his back against a bale of hay. It itches, pokes at his skin through his shirt, but he doesn’t pay too much attention to that as Freckles climbs onto his lap and nudges his nose under Caboose’s arms.

“Oh…” Caboose allows Freckles to adjust him where he wants, “You want… hugs?” Freckles lets out a pleased ‘mrrp’ and Caboose hugs Freckles, brings him in close. His legs curl in, his arms tighten, and he shakes a bit, but he has to protect Freckles from the lightening, so it’s alright.

“It’s ok, Freckles. You don’t have to be scared.”


Church is stretched across the couch, face half-pressed into a pillow he dragged from his room, and knees bent, feet against the back of the couch. Somewhere on his back, wedged between the couch and a second pillow, is Hog, warm and snoring and his little heartbeat flutters against the material of Church’s shirt. He’d never let anybody catch him doting on Simmons’ stupid cat, but the little guy was cute in an angry, mean sort of way.

Church is in a heat-induced, drowsy state, eyes lulling as the contractors on whatever show he’s watching (that’s a lie he knows exactly what show he’s watching. Atlanta Architects for life) begin to argue with each other, and as his body relaxes, the storm outside picks up until it’s loud and pressing against the flimsy walls of the house and bendy, cheap glass of the windows. There’s creaking, but the house has been through a lot, so Church decides to place his trust in the old walls and finally falls all the way asleep.

Chapter Text

Simmons woke Grif up, and it was fine. It was normal.

What made Grif, regrettably, begin to worry was the silence in the car. The fact that Simmons actually took a bite of his popsicle without blabbering, the fact that he just dismissed Grif’s attempts at a conversation. Grif hates worrying, he hates caring, and he hates that there are people who make him do both. Bastards.


Grif doesn’t ask about what drove Simmons to skipping class to sit at his dining room table, he never does, and Simmons is grateful. He doesn’t want to talk about it because everyone already knows what it is. It’s the same stuff that it always is and he’s dealing with it. Grif just takes it in stride and calls him a kiss-ass.

Grif drops Simmons off without a hitch, he pulls right up to the building his class is in and everything, without a word, and Simmons says nothing as he walks into his dorm little over an hour later, and Grif’s laying in his bed on his side, phone resting a couple inches from his face as he thumbs through whatever he’s looking at.

Sheila and Lopez are working on their Robotics Club project, they’ve pushed Simmons’ and Lopez’s desks together into a super-structure, and have their papers and parts spread out on the work area. Sheila’s taking notes in a blue pen and Lopez, in between consulting with Sheila and screwing parts in, looks up and glares at Grif.

The rain still hasn’t let up, it’s pouring and pouring outside, the clouds roll like the sea in waves of matted cotton and the room is lit by damp light, the overhead is struggling to stay lit in all it’s faded glory, and two desk lamps hover inches above the desktop. Rain hits the window with waning intensity, and the AC continues to run.

Simmons nudges his shoes off, lets his bag slide down his arm until it touched the floor, then takes a seat on the carpet, back resting against his bed in front of Grif.

It’s quiet for a few moments, nobody really talks, and Simmons begins to feel his nerves bundle and knot at the silence; but instead of letting his anxiety get too far, he lets his head fall back against the mattress and swallows it down.

The ceiling is white, the same color as the walls in his old bedroom, but there’s hints of stains, and some parts of the ceiling are a little more yellow or gray than white. Lightning flashes in the window, followed by a short wave of thunder.

Simmons hears Grif suck in a breath, like he was going to speak, but nothing comes. It’s tense, grows weirder because Grif never hesitates; and then, “You should skip church this weekend.”

Both Sheila and Lopez suddenly become quiet, either letting them have their space or trying to listen in. Either way, it makes Simmons uneasy.

“…what?”

“I mean… You should – Like, you should tell your parents you’re sick, or something, and just come over and hang out.”

“I’m gonna go get some snacks. You wanna come with?” Sheila turns to Lopez, interrupting Grif and Simmons’ conversation enough to speak up.

“Sí.” Lopez drones, and the both get up and quietly close the door behind them, leaving their work, Grif, and Simmons behind in the room wrapped in semi-darkness.

“I mean,” Grif persists, “Seriously, you could just call Friday or some shit and say you’ve caught a cold, or you need to study for a test…”

Simmons snorts, and twists around to face Grif, “Yea, like I could –“ The words die on his lips as he see’s Grif’s face, serious, and calculating. His eyebrows are set, lips thin, and eyes lilted and catching the light as he watches Simmons. Grif is sitting upright now, back against the wall and legs crossed “Like I could just…”

“I’m serious.” Grif says, and then he seems to realize what his expression must be because he forces himself to relax, to slink down and play at an easy, teasing grin, “I’ve been dying to go to the beach before it gets too cold.”

Simmons knows Grif knows that what he just said was bullshit and completely irrelevant. “Grif, I can’t… just… not go. Not this early into the school year.”

“I mean… It seems like a pretty easy thing to do, like, all you have to do is just get in my car when I come to pick you up Friday…”

Simmons scowls up at Grif from the floor, now scooted back so he’s sitting with his back against Lopez’s bed and his feet pressed against the bed Grif is on. The carpet catches on his jeans as he shifts, and it makes his socks stick to the floor like Velcro.

Grif is being an asshole and he knows it.

“Yea?” Simmons says incredulously, “What would I… How… How could I… I have to wait until…”

“What? You deem yourself worthy of a break? Dude, if you need one, you need one.”

“It’s not… I-It’s not… I -” Simmons started off strong, started off defensive and frantic but he looses focus and the will to keep talking and then he stutters once, twice, and ends up angrily glaring down at his feet, arms wrapped around his folded knees.

“We have this conversation a lot.” Grif says. Just says. Nothing special, not stressing any words, not changing pitch, he just says it, tired, even, uninterested, and Simmons purses his lips, tightening his hold on his knees, before letting go and looking up, making eye-contact with Grif for a few seconds before he looks away again, at the desks, at the door, out the window, the rain. It’s dulled out, less of a raging storm and more of a consistent bad day, dark grey but nothing special. Simmons has never especially liked it when they have conversations like this, but Grif has always had a breaking point, a set line drawn in stone, not sand, and on one side, was shit he was not willing to put up with, and on the other was… everything else. Not Simmons. Simmons has always played the testy game of ‘how deep can I shove this in my box-of-thoughts-I-don’t-think-about before it kills me’ It’s not very effective, but again, he’s got a good few years left in his life and he’s willing to keep testing out his not-dealing-with-bullshit theory for the good of humanity ‘till his day comes.

Grif is watching him, Simmons knows, he’s shadowed, intimidating as his unreadable expression tracks Simmons’ every movement, and it’s Grif, just Grif, but just-Grif fucking terrifies Simmons.

Too fucking intuitive and intelligent for his own good.

Stupid Grif.

Grif knows.

Simmons isn’t sure what exactly Grif knows, but Simmons is sure he knows, and so Simmons swallows, lets his tongue settle back in his mouth, he’d been teething it, making it sting, and then he tries to make eye-contact again with Grif, but settles for staring Grif’s feet. Jerk’s… Jerk’s got his shoes on. He’s gonna have dirt on his bed now. Asshole.

“Yea…” Simmons honestly had a lot more words planned, and it doesn’t seem to be enough for Grif because he shifts on the bed, and sighs.

“…Yea to what?”

“To – everything.”

“You’ll take a break?”

“I mean…”

“Simmons.”

“Fuck you.”

Dude.”

“Yea, ok, whatever, bitch. Fine. Yes.”

Grif leaves shortly after, Simmons watches him absentmindedly through the window as he sloppily jogs across the courtyard towards his silver car, and Lopez slinks in an hour later, a stupid knowing smirk on his face when he looks at Simmons. Lopez doesn’t actually know anything, though, fucking asshole.


Over the sound of the rain, there’s knocking, and it’s kind of starting to get old.

Church is still laying across the couch, but Hog’s wondered off somewhere, probably sleeping Tucker’s bed. He feels like one those Polar bear moms that hibernate through the winter in their dens, warm and protected under his snow-substitute, Junior’s big, fluffy, downy fleece blanket. There’s another round of knocking, and Church sighs loudly through his nose, before turning the volume up a bit.

He’s not in a people mood, and seriously, who stands out there and knocks for this long? In the rain?

“Church!” Church scrambles with the remote a bit and glances warily at the door. “Jesus, dude! I can see you!”

…oh.

The blinds are open.

Is that…?

“Dude?! What the hell?! Let me in! It’s cats and dogs out here!”

York?

Curiosity getting the better of him, Church turns down the volume and sits up on the couch, so his legs are dangling over the edge, bare feet on the carpet, and the blanket’s stretched shoulder to shoulder across his front. “It’s open!”

“Oh!” York jiggles the handle, the door tends to get stuck, and then the stupid thing gives away and the wind forces the door out of York’s grasp as the screen door closes on his heels. Church watches, unimpressed, as York fights with the door for a few moments, swearing under his breath as he shakes in his damp coat. The struggle ends with the York’s back pressed against the door, after which he quickly straightens and glances around the room. Church is still sitting comfortably on the couch.

“Thanks – uh, thanks for the help, buddy.”

“You never asked for help.”

“I mean….”

“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have helped even if you did.”

York lets out a pent up breath, and averts his eyes suspiciously, tugging down the zipper on his jacket, fighting when it gets caught, then sighing and letting it be. “Yea – uh… I guess so.”

Church watches York for a few moments as the other man stands awkwardly in the doorway. York’s quiet, fidgeting, maybe, as he takes in the dark room, but he doesn’t say anything and it’s starting to annoy Church more than the knocking because now he’s got a semi-stranger in his living room standing and staring in the middle of rather intense and silent battle that takes place entirely in his weirdo mind.

“Did you want something… or?”

“Oh.” York’s seemingly ok with Church’s bluntness. It’s a flat ‘oh’, acknowledging, but nothing more. “Yea… I?”

“Dude.”

“Ok, I was just… Wondering… If…” York, for the life of him, can’t figure out what to say or how to start the conversation, how to bring up the topics he came here to discuss, well, the topic because let’s face it, there’s only one. “I was… You know, just wondering if…”

“Are you gonna repeat the same four fucking words or get on with it? – Because, like, the commercial break is almost over and…”

York shuts up, closes his mouth and repositions himself where he stands, takes a shallow breath, and, then, “How’s Carolina?”

“…Oh.”

“… I mean…”

“No, no. I… I get it – uh…”

“…You don’t have to, you know, if it’s like, sibling confidentiality… Or… Whatever - ”

“She’s… uh…” Church swallows, completely forgetting whatever bullcrap he had on the TV, “She’s doing good, you know…”

“I… don’t?” York says, and he made it awkward. I mean, it was already awkward but now it’s really awkward because the words have Church reevaluating what he was going to say and now it’s weird. Totally weird. Oh, god, what if he tells Carolina he came around? That would not work out in his favor. Or… Maybe it would? Jesus, fuck, he has no clue.

“Yeah, well, it didn’t really seemed like you cared, you know, after you never emailed or called her, so…”

Yeah…. He kind of deserved that. A bit. Maybe. It wasn’t entirely his fault, but he did never respond to those two messages he got. He was just… He… York doesn’t know. He never has and he’s not sure he ever will. He just… He did… that shit…

This was a mistake.

“She hasn’t asked about you.” Church says offhandedly, and York cringes.

“…Thanks.” York’s not sure if he’s thanking sincerely thanking Church for his time or not, and he doesn’t want to stick around to find out, or think about it. York turns to leave, and his hands on door handle when Church speaks again.

“Wait! I didn’t… Whatever, ok? Fuck you, she missed you. She misses all of you guys. She’s just… She’s just Carolina, you know? She doesn’t want to say it, and she’s a little afraid, she’s always been… it’s weird for her and she doesn’t want to... Mess it up.”

York knows the feeling.

York trusts Church’s opinion on Carolina a lot, like, ‘no questions asked’ a lot. He bites back a sentence or two, mulls it over in his head, revises the silly, childish words, and then scraps the whole thing and ends up nodding thankfully towards Church, before turning the handle and then catching himself again.

“You won’t… Could you not… tell her I came? Please?”

“You’re going to try, right? With her?”

“Yea.”

“Then, no. I won’t. Just-”

“Ok.” York nods, “Thank you.” And he leaves.

The door shuts behind York, and Church is left staring after him for a few moments, alone in the quiet again. It’s not as comfortable as before. It’s not… ok, well, it is bad, but it’s mostly just weird, kind of unsettling. Church isn’t entirely sure what’s just happened, and though he certainly is curious, he doesn’t have it in him to actually sit and think and mull over and take apart what just happened. So, instead, he lets the damp silence sink back into him. He greets and scratches behind Hog’s left ear as the cat jumps up onto the couch next to him, and goes back to mindlessly watching his show.

Tucker and Junior come crashing through the door a couple minutes later, arguing.

“Dude, you have to take a bath, you skipped your last one.”

“I was just out in the rain! I got all wet!”

Tucker runs an exasperated hand through his hair, wiping away the droplets of water on his forehead. “That’s not the same thing!”

Junior scowls. “Well, I think it is.”

“Well, I’m the dad, so I’m right and it’s not the same thing and you’re going to go take a bath now before you lose your dessert!”

Church can see Tucker’s mind ticking away as the words are being said, then Tucker cringes, like he can’t believe how boring he just sounded, and Church decides to stop paying attention to the stern scolding right around there.


His phone rings, and Simmons answers, ignoring Lopez’s glare, because, honestly, Lopez is always glaring and he never retaliates with anything more serious than maybe tripping you up the stairs or stealing all your laundry detergent. “Simmons.”

“Oh, Heee-“ Simmons jerks the phone away from his ear, frantically turns the volume down a few notches, then returns to his previous position, “-eyy, Simmons. How are you doing?”

“I’m – doing fine, Donut.” He tries to smile to mask his faltering voice, even though Donut can’t actually see him.

“Oh… Well… That’s just great! I’m so glad you’re having a fun time at school! You know, me and the moms were wondering if I should get a degree, because it seems like a good idea and all, but I don’t really feel like-“ Donut keeps talking for a while, and Simmons interjects with a detached ‘uh-huh’ or ‘oh, really?’ when needed until Donut seemingly re-discovers the reason behind his calling.

“So, anyways, I was wondering if you’d swing by and really take a hard look at our expenses and journal entries. It’s driving me nuts! But I’m sure the two of us will be more than enough to pound the books back into shape!”

Simmons sighs, bringing his hand up to rub at the bridge of his nose as he does often, and ends up dislodging his glasses. “Yea, sure, Donut.” Well, he’s not going to actually be doing much this weekend anyways, thanks to Grif’s insistence, so might as well line something up for himself. “How about sometime Saturday?”

“Ooh! Join us for lunch! I’ll make shepherds pie, just for you!”

This, makes Simmons smile. It’s small, but genuine and appreciative, and so he laughs, something that’s more of a breathy exhale, and closes his eyes. “Sound’s great, Donut. Thanks.”

“No, thank you. See you then!”

“Bye.”

“Bye!”


“York came over.” Church says vaguely as Tucker collapses onto the couch after putting Junior to bed.

“What?”

“York -“

“Why?”

Church shrugs. “He asked about Carolina.”

“Ooh,” Tucker sits forward giddily, suddenly into what’s being said. “Really? What’d he ask?”

Tucker’s enthusiasm over getting into other people’s business doesn’t faze Church in the slightest, and apathetic as always, he continues talking while still looking through his Instagram feed. Sheila was studying with Lopez. “How she was doing and stuff.”

“That’s all?”

“Yea.”

“Huh.” Tucker sits back, and Church shrugs instead of responding.

“Was Wash with h-”

“Oh my god, please tell me you’re not starting this again.”

“… I mean…”

Chapter Text

Here, they are Butch and Reggie, and here is nowhere.

Dramatic, Butch knows, but you have to have fun somehow, and Butch has decided that he gets his kicks by screwing with people, and being as eccentric and dramatic as possible; has since his teenage years, and probably always will. He can’t say for certain though, he’s not one to proclaim to know things he doesn’t, and the future is an elusive concept that Butch isn’t all too sure actually exists. He’s decided to just live in the present, both metaphorically and literally because technically, that’s all technology has been able to achieve so far.

And, actually, if he thinks about it, even if someone does invent time travel, and then travels to either the future or the past, it would technically still be the present for that person, their time line just zigzags a bit compared to the main timeline. Or does it? Does time work in lines? Butch thinks not.

It’s flat and open on the Colorado Plateau, one of the two true flatlands on the North American continent, and the altitude makes the air thin, while the time of year makes the it cold, crisp, but not exactly clean when you’re sitting, ass on gravel in a parking lot with your nose and mouth right at exhaust pipe level. The cold nips at Butch’s cheeks and the tips of his nose, but Reggie is far worse off, coiling up almost-unnoticeably so into his wind breaker bravely staves off the breeze.

The grass is green, but pale, nothing like Texas or the Great Plain states where it’s languid and tall and seemingly endless. It barely dances in the wind, offers no shimmer in the dying light, and it makes Butch, not homesick, but, rather, nostalgic. He always had a dusting of hay fever, but he remembers running through fields and across beaches and bonfires and barbecues. He still experiences those, just once or twice a year now.

The sky here, though, it’s paler, like the grass, but just as wide and just as infinitely tall, old and calm like some ancient entity that demands quietly and pleasantly to be respected.

Like the sky, but not nearly as extreme, the parking lot is large. Larger than the diner it belongs to and larger than it actually needs to be, but it’s gravel, and there are no lines drawn in. A single lamppost juts out from the middle, industrial grade and strong.

Semis are parked at angles, some spilling out of their implied parking spaces, and off to the far left, cars are parked in rows in front of the diner Butch and Reggie just ate dinner at. Right now, they’re sitting on the ground against the side of their van. Butch’s hair catches on the peeling paint and Reggie’s coat makes a loud noise as it rubs against the van, plastic-y fabric on paint and metal. Though the scene would seem less than ideal for most people, the good and the bad come sandwiched as one with Butch and they stay, waiting for nothing and watching the pink sky play coy with the mountaintops.

Somewhere behind them, gravel crunches under the wheels of a red Sudan as it pulls out and onto the barely visible road. Butch watches the car drive off, watches it become less and less visible in the rosy light, and then turns back to the sky. There’s a couple wisps of clouds now, unsure whether or not they’re going to actually form.

Slowly, the sun, brighter and more melty than it’s ever appeared before, hollows as it sinks behind the mountains, and Butch is only torn away from the view by his phone buzzing. He lets out a slow, breathy laugh, and doesn’t bother responding to the text as he turns to Reggie.

“What is it?”

“Carolina’s back.”


“Really?” Connie titters and readjusts the phone in her hand, smile evident even though she’s nearly a country away.

“Well, don’t sound too upset about it.”

“South…”

“Yea, yea, alright. I get it. Whatever. Not even you is gonna be on my side.”

“I’m always on your side, I just don’t agree with you.”

“Whatever.”


Maine doesn’t like phone calls, they tend to drag on too long as people end up talking endlessly while they wander around their house, but he mostly doesn’t like them because he’s fucking mute and people still insist on fucking calling him.

Seriously, you’d think people would get the memo, mute guy, can’t talk, phone calls rely on talking, but no. People still call him, and it takes them an embarrassingly long time to figure out what they’ve done.

Wash Facetimes him, and Maine always answers. Wash talks and talks and signs occasionally when he wants to emphasize a word or he has to be quiet and Maine signs back.

“C?” Maine signs, eyebrows quirking up in surprise.

“Yea, she was – she was there, eating tacos like everything was completely normal!”


“C’mon, punch it, it’s like a wooden fucking plank, dude. Rock solid. Won’t even hurt,” South goads with a grin as she gestures enthusiastically towards her abs.

“You always fucking do this.” Wash huffs, not sure if he’s amused or not.

“C’mon, I’m serious! Rock hard!” South continues to laugh despite Wash’s tone, and smacks an open palm against her stomach, making a dull, flat sound.

“I swear to god, one of these days I’m gonna seriously punch you as hard as I can and-”

“It wouldn’t even hurt these rock hard abs.” South cuts Wash off.

Wash groans loudly and dodges South’s attempts to keep him cornered, then flees to the relative safety of the living room. Maybe North or York would just punch her so she’d leave him alone. It’s a matter of principle, he said he wouldn’t punch her absentmindedly five minutes ago and if he did now, he’d just be giving in to her stupid demands. She’s such a loser.

“And? What’d he say?” North is talking to York, he’s sitting on the arm of the couch, feet resting on the cushions next to York, and he looks funny there, too big and hunched over as York mirrors his posture, but, instead, looks small.

Nothing.” York says a little too quickly, looking down at his lap, “I mean, he sad she was good – okay,” He amends, “You know? And that she hasn’t asked about any of us.”

North rolls his eyes, but the action is contradicted by his quiet huff, denoting amusement or disbelief or something that’s not all that bad. “Figures. She’s too stubborn.”

“Not stubborn enough for the navy, apparently.” It’s bitter sounding, especially coming from york and Wash realizes who they’re talking about.

“Carolina? He asks.

“York went to Church’s house.”

“What-”

“Pshh, whatever. If the bitch wanted to see us, she would have called.” South hisses and folds her arms in front of her chest before Wash could reply, leering over the others slightly , tensed and pissed and acting louder and bigger than she maybe feels.

“South…”

She waves her brother off, “I’m serious. She would have called or said something and you fucking know it. Carolina isn’t like that.”

York doesn’t say anything, he just stares at his feet until everyone shuts up because Carolina is like that. She’s in a constant cycle of panic-calm down-panic and she cares so much about everything, but tries to convince herself she doesn’t, and it stops her from doing a lot of the stuff she really wants to do because she’s convinced herself that she’s not good with people even though she really, really is. She’s so fucking stupid but not at the same time and it’s infuriating, but also, kind of okay because it makes Carolina Carolina, and Carolina is great.

“…Yea..” He breathes out before standing up, either agreeing with South’s statement or beginning his closing statement as casually as he can. “I’m gonna go downstairs now.” And he does.


York can’t play the damn bass. He’s got it in his lap, plugged into the amp and the volume turned down low, and he’s trying to remember the beginnings of a riff he was toying with a couple weeks ago, but it’s not there; everything’s coming out in not-right sounding flats and each chord grates, choppy and frustrated, into the next because they don’t work. They don’t work. York seethes, breathes out low and angry through his nose and then he gets a text.

            North: You ok?

York deflates, eyes lidded and lingering on the meaningless, plain words that he knows North means sincerely.

            York: I’m just tired

            York: I’ll be fine

            North: Ok


Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep Beep Beep BeeP BEEP BEEP BEEP. Speeding, Speeding, speeding up and not stopping and Speeding and speeding and not stopping and speeding, and then –

Silence. Or rather, perceived silence, selective silence. Carolina doesn’t hear anything but, oddly, her own breathing and maybe the blood pumping in her ear, her heart: thud, thud, thud – but more quickly than what would be considered normal.

Time slows to a crawl, and each movement, each new happening is minuscule and only just blooming. The moment lingers, draws itself out to last a millennia and Carolina floats. She floats, but is tethered and everything around her floats, but is not tethered. There’s a beauty to the way stuff suspends in the recycled air, guns and ammo not faithfully mag-locked to someone’s side float like a synchronized swimming team, gauze and medical scissors bend and spin like ballet dancers, but in space, on a rocket ship shooting through –

Oh.

Carolina floats in her suit, she can feel her gravboots tugging the armor down, faintly remembers activating them, but her body floats in what little space is left between her and the max-elasticity of her suit. She’s just stood up, just clambered off her gurney and with sluggish notions of defiance, tugged on the pieces of her armor she knows Kimball made sure were by her side, and she arches. Her stubbornness and paranoia might have saved her, which is actually amazing taking into consideration the amount of times it’s just dug her into even deeper pits.

Everything’s stopped, everything was going straight, forwards, upwards, which ever direction because, really, there’s not a whole lot that makes sense when you’re not on the ground, but then everything stopped, and then –

The steel walls of the cruiser waver, or Carolina thinks they waver, it’s hard to tell because she’s probably making all of this up – but she did feel something because there has to be a reason why she activated her gravboots on impulse if not for –

Everything begins completing the arch, one side of the room tilts, elongated, downwards and the tug and pressure in her suit becomes stronger and the –

Oh. Oh. Concussion. The lights, the sounds. Oh. Concussion. Oh. Infirmary. Oh. The Ptolemy, the light cruiser she’s deployed on, then –

Beeping, then –

Oh. Oh. Oh no

The floating becomes a screaming upwards pull as Newton’s stupid fucking law becomes something too real to Carolina, but her boots are still working hard and she feels her shoulders and hips and tops of her ribs press and press into the bare-minimum cushion of the inside of her armor, and she feels her heart beat as her circulation begins to get constricted on the top of her head and the dips in her shoulders. Her ears pop, too loud, too loud, and her head’s going to explode, can you get the bends by falling from the sky? And then –

Where’s her squad? Are they alright? And then –

Carolina feels half the impact of the ship crashing into the planet’s surface, the metal folding like cloth, and then tearing away. Carolina’s conscious for half the hit, everything slowed, like she’d be stuck, suspended in that one moment before the actual moment forever, like the universe gave her time to watch, detached and emotionless as the people in the infirmary either hit the ceiling or wobbled as the joints in their armor and the seams in their suit worked to keep them tugged and tucked tight into one place and then –

Fizzly darkness that pops and crackles but is still dark and blacker than black.

Or… Whiter than white?

This time, it doesn’t stop. It usually does, but this time, for some reason, it doesn’t. The cameras keep rolling and Carolina is forced to keep watching. When it happened, the time between blacking out and then waking up never existed, it was instantaneous, like she was laughing with her friends one moment, then waking up drowning the next, but in the dreams, it lasts longer. It always lasts longer.

Carolina’s left to wander in the, well, now that she thinks of it, it’s not darkness, but, rather, nothingness, and she’s left to ponder and sit and marinate in her humorless and utter confusion.

Then, slowly, there’s a flicker of orange heat that licks at her toes and Carolina begins to feel the gritty feeling of dirt and ash on her face, the tenderness of the back of her head, and it’s agonizing. She wishes it was all at once: Nothing, nothing, nothing, then all the intense pain she remembers and knows is to come, but her conscience doesn’t seem to be that kind. Instead, she’s left to wait in the familiar pain that’s slowly growing in intensity, knowing just how bad it’s going to be in a few minutes or hours or days as the weight pressing and cutting into her shoulders and neck slowly becomes too heavy to breath under and the cracked, orange of her visor becomes more realistic when the blood splatters and glass shards come into focus.

Carolina begins to hyperventilate, she always does, she always has that panic one gets when in a life or death situation set in, fill her limbs with cold terror, and then she fights it back with the meat of her knuckles, and she breaths. In. Shaky, forced and through gritted teeth. Pause, let the oxygen settle, then out. Out. Out. Breathe out. okay. In again –

She wakes up in her bed, in her room, in her house, in her town, on her planet, gulping and clawing at the open air above her. She sits up, tears the blankets off her legs and hangs over the side of the bed, almost toppling to the floor, but the feeling of the jagged support beam pressing into her collar doesn’t go away. It never does.

Carolina starts the process of breathing over again now that she’s awake. In and out, out, out – Goddamn it. After a few agonizing moments of not being able to exhale, to work through, to process, Carolina tears her shirt off, it catches on her elbow with the jagged motion causing her to grunt and then when it’s off, she drags her hands over the deep lines in her chest, over and over again, letting her fingers sink into her skin, feel and acknowledge and try to move past the accident; but then feeling becomes scratching, digging her nails into her shoulders, hand stationary and fingers clamped, and then she forces herself to let go, swallows down the growing pain in her throat, and takes a dead cold shower to banish the heat.


York lives closer to the Church Family’s house than Church, himself, does, which is kind of weird. Well, not really weird, but it’s just… A fact, that someone wouldn’t necessarily just expect to be true. Situational irony? Maybe? Whatever, York barely passed high school English, and never actually attended any of his college-level English classes, so he doesn’t feel the need to be right or all-knowing in this particular subject.

The point is, York (and North and South) currently lives within walking distance of Carolina’s old neighborhood, and he’s decided to take a three-am stroll down the economically lit, small town streets in the vague (exact) direction of the Church Family household.

He’s not really sure what to expect, or a part of him is expecting something very specific and it just hasn’t spoke up yet. Either way, he has no reason to be doing anything he’s doing right now and he could try and think things through like he smartly decided he was going to, but York’s nothing if not emotionally driven; so here he is, hair unstyled and flip flops slapping loudly against the asphalt in the middle of the street, vaguely (not) wandering (not) towards Carolina’s house.

It stopped raining a while ago, and York knows that the downpour is probably going to return soon because that’s what storms here do, torment, then take their scheduled, fifteen minute break, only to return to work after twenty, and hey, York gets it, use it or lose it, but he’s still allowed to bitch about it because it’s annoying when you have stuff to do, places to go…

People to see.

That definitely wasn’t a beer bottle he just set down on the curb.

He’s not drunk, honestly, just lightly buzzed, or whatever Wyoming says he gets after a couple drinks.

Honestly, honestly, honestly, he’s not drunk. Yea, sure, okay, the alcohol is making him a little more reckless and a little more prone to listen to his heart, or some bullshit, but he knows what he’s doing enough to know about weather patterns and which turns to take so he’s fine.

The sky’s a nice lilac, and the clouds look less like cotton balls and more like an extra thick, cushy quilt made by someone’s grandma in her free time. It’s three-am, and in a couple hours, the sun will rise and in a couple minutes, the sky will weep and rage and York’s okay.

Not, well, okay emotionally, he’s a little sad, a little mad and a little guilty and a little disappointed and confused and all sorts of other little emotions that make up a less than ideal whole, but rather, okay with the world.

York’s okay with how it’s going to start raining, he’s okay with how the breeze feels on his face, soft and pillowy, and with how it tugs at his short hair (just like how she liked it). York’s okay with the weedy grass that grows and he’s ok with how little, broken up pieces of road periodically get sandwiched between the soles of his feet and his flip-flops.

Maybe, right now, York’s more than okay with the covered sky and the sand dried on his skin and the slightly dried and sunburnt skin around his shoulders. The world’s so big and great and there’s so much more beyond it and Carolina’s a part of his life, but so is everything else.

Maybe, maybe, life without Carolina wouldn’t be sadder, or not worth living, or something else that’s Hollywood-constructed and then driven on and written across big, glaring neon signs by society, but just that: Life without Carolina.

York would certainly prefer to have her in his life, have her there with her loud, cackle-y laugh that makes his cheeks hurt and her bright hair that he hears she’s cut, but he thinks he’ll live without her, too, with North, with Wash and South and even his parents.

When York reaches the medium sized home he’s been heading towards, all the lights are off. It’s not dead to the world, but just… Sleeping. Slumbering on until the peachy sun climbs above the flat, endless horizon off towards Georgia and Florida and Louisiana.

York’s okay with that.

He stays and watches for a few moments, breathes a few times, is sort of confused by what he’s feeling, but also not; and then turns and loops his way back to his slate red apartment building with the weird, dark green, metal staircases and the off-white doors that are always missing a few numbers and letters off the front just above the cloudy peepholes.

York’s done some thinking and he’s really okay with the world right now.

Chapter Text

Tucker wakes up, and it’s one of those rare occurrences when Junior’s still sleeping. He’s laying flat on his back, little arms pushing up his shirt, and chest rising and falling with each breath. Junior’s loud when he sleeps, his nose whistles and he mumbles throughout the night, usually unintelligibly. Tucker’s gotten used to it though, and it lulls and appeases him to walk into his already dark room and hear the sound of Junior sleeping in the other twin, right under the window so he can watch the stars.

It’s still dark in the room, but through the open window, Tucker can see the beginnings of the sunrise. He gets dressed quickly, jeans and his Safeway shirt, and then he carefully steps over Junior’s toys and some stray articles of clothing. So many little action figures, strewn about the room, on top of the dresser and in the drawers, Tucker needs to sort through them and cut their numbers; the kid’s spoiled.

Like yesterday, the kitchen is already on and Church is already up.

Tucker turns the corner and finds Church pouring himself a cup of coffee; but the carafe is already half empty… or half full… and it sloshes in Church’s unsteady hands as he tips it over and his mug nearly over flows.

He’s been up for hours, Tucker can immediately tell. The glasses hide it, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can spot the dark circles under his eyes with ease when he looks at you. Tucker feels something give way in his chest. Does the guy actually ever sleep?

Tucker’s known Church for ages, since grade school. He’s basically lived with Church his entire life, beginning with sleepovers, and ending with actually sharing a house with him, but there are some things that are just a mystery, and probably always will be. Things that Tucker notices, catalogues and plans around and for, but will never know the reasons behind. It’s not his place to ask, and, anyways, Church doesn’t seem to know the answer to Tucker’s theoretical questions.

Tucker ambles over to the fridge and jerks it open; it shakes with the force as usual; there’s the familiar sound of something shaking and clacking in the cupboards above it, and the cool air flushes over Tucker’s face like a delayed reaction. He doesn’t find anything appealing on the shelves, settles for toast, and turns around to find Church behind him, holding a steaming thermos in both hands and pressing it forward for Tucker to take.

Tucker accepts it, relishes in the way it warms his hands and it smells nice, not bitter, sugar and cream already added, and then Church turns, and wordlessly walks back to his room upstairs, slumped more than usual and slippers dragging along the wood paneling.

It’s one of those days, then, when he’s quiet and not angry. He’s probably been inside for too long, not talked to enough people or eaten enough meals. God damn, Tucker’s a fucking mom.


Caboose wakes with the sun, the smell of rain, fresh from his open window, and clean sweat already coating his forehead like dew. A nice breeze drifts in, tugging       the broken screen, and his room springs to life. His coat and overalls sway on their hanger, the pictures taped and pinned and sometimes glued to the wall flap and as Caboose sits up and sets his feet on the floor, over his crumpled sheets, the fresh breeze cards through his shaggy hair and makes the room smell nice, like tilled soil, even though they haven’t started doing that yet. Must be the rain that fell all through the night, padding down the earth and washing away the loose dirt.

Freckles is up too, he’s laying next to Caboose, but his stump of a tail is wiggling and wriggling and Caboose smiles. He likes to imagine what it’d be like if freckles had a tail, if he’d hit stuff and make the bed or tables go thump, thump, thump when he got excited. Freckles’ bit his tail off when he was a puppy. That’s why you shouldn’t let dogs chase their tails.

Caboose sends a good morning text to Church with an obnoxious amount of emojis, then lets Freckles out and chases him around until Donut comes out of the house with two baskets and in his underwear and flip flops; Caboose has flip flops on too, they stick in the mud as he walks, squelching and splattering mud up his calves. Donut quickly re-enters the house and then returns wearing boots.

The blond hands Caboose a basket, the blue one that was made special, just for him, pats Freckles on the head, and then they go out and collect eggs before breakfast.

The chicken coop is small; Donut has no trouble in it as he steps gently across the hay, but Caboose has to stoop over and Freckles isn’t allowed inside. Caboose is cautious and careful as he pets the hens and picks the eggs Donut tells him to, and Freckles sniffs around outside the Coop, definitely not pouting. When they’re done, Caboose follows Donut into the main house.


The breakfast table is a sanded and soft wood, the edges have little, weathered away chips in them that give with any pressure and a delicate circle tablecloth is spread right in the middle. The whole thing, chairs and all, sit in front of a wide-paned window facing east, so whoever sits in the seat farthest away from the wall, looking towards the window and across the expansive fields, is met with a face-full of sun each morning. The juice glasses shine and the forks and spoons and butter knives reflect the light against the ceilings and walls and sometimes, the window is open and a light breeze is let through. These are the beginnings of the good months, where it's never too hot outside, the work is hard, but rewarding, and the food is garden fresh.

Donut squints in the light as he chews his breakfast, taking one for the team the same way he does every morning by sitting with the sun in his eyes. He read somewhere that you're supposed to chew each bite twenty times to properly prepare your food for digestion, but it's kind of grueling and after a while, the sweet oatmeal looses it's taste and apples don't taste like apples anymore: Just crunchy obstacles in between him and more brown sugar pockets.

"I asked Simmons to come over tomorrow." Donut sets his spoon down in his ceramic bowl and wipes the corners of his mouth with a napkin.

"To check over our finances?" Mom-number-one, Ava, asks, sitting back in her chair.

"Yes, ma’am." Donut nods and glances over at Caboose, who's already on his third bowl. He's probably feeding some to Freckles, though. "Grif's probably coming over, too."

Ava nods, and it grows quiet again.

Donut helps collect the dishes from the breakfast table, he's got a stack of bowls in his hands; all the spoons in the uppermost bowl slide around and threaten to fall out, but he walks steady to the sink and wordlessly begins rinsing them off and putting them away in the dishwasher as his moms pack up the leftovers and wipe down the table.

At Donut's prompting, gentle and kind, Caboose and Freckles both disappear to the double-wide bunkhouse: It's a small building behind the Donut's home, past the vegetable garden but not as far out as the orchard that Caboose stays in. It's more for storage than bunking, they don't hire farmhands that need places to stay often, but sometimes Caboose gets seasonal company in the form of college students wanting to expand their horizons or migrants looking for periodic work. Three bedrooms, one for Caboose, two with twin bunk-beds, a fully functional kitchenette, a marginally furnished living room, and two bathrooms, Caboose occupies the smaller.

The living room is decently sized, two walls have lockers anchored along their entire width where most of the farmhands keep their work clothes or car keys or whatever needs storing in, and in the center, there's a fold up table with a collection of foldable metal and plastic deck chars. Next to the window facing the fields, there's an old armchair with a small coffee table and a landline shared throughout the buildings on the property. It's pretty cozy, plastic floors made easy for moping and nice, wood panels on the walls. There's AC too, and technically central heating, but that never gets used unless someone other than Caboose is in the house during a particularly cold day.

It's a good set up, having Caboose on the farm. It keeps him out of trouble, gives him people to help nudge him in the right direction and to remind him to take his medicine and drink water and he helps out in return, he does all the heavy lifting and he's surprisingly good with fixing tractors and cars.

Sometimes, Church especially, will refer to Caboose as a charity case, and Donut is always quick to correct because Caboose is most definitely not. He's sweet and helpful and there isn't another person Donut knows of that can heft up a tractor wheel into his arms, bending backwards a bit like a willow to keep steady, and carry it a good twenty yards before having to take a break.

Speaking of breaks, work on the farm has been halted due to the recent rainfall. The workers were still going to come in initially, but the moms decided to let them have a day off, and now them, Donut, and Caboose will be working in the vegetable gardens, picking the ripe vegetables and continuing the year-round work of picking and caning for sale and home-use.

Donut has made it a point to not think past the now, he finds he's much happier focusing on the soil supplements in his bucket and the patched garden gloves on his hands, so he's happy here. Things could always be better, it's a given fact in life that will never, ever change, but he's happy how things are now, in the sun with Freckles panting besides him as the dog sniffs at the tomato stalks.

At eleven, the mail comes without fail. Freckles catches sight of the white truck down at the end of the long, dirt driveway, and dashes along the garden fence and past the house until he comes to a halt at the gate, yipping but never barking because he's smart enough to remember that that's not allowed unless it's the most critical of situations.

Caboose takes after Freckles, bounding on long legs in long strides across the plots then through the tall grass, and he waits next to Freckles excitedly until the truck ambles off with a polite wave of the deliverer’s hand. Then, Caboose opens the gate and soon returns, Freckles in tow, with the mail. He hands it all to Mari, and she passes it on to Donut, who picks through until he finds Caboose's disability check. Right on time, every second Friday of each month. Donut leaves the rest of the mail, mostly flyers for local businesses and a couple bills, on the kitchen counter, and grabs the keys to the truck on the way out.

Caboose is already sitting in the middle of the bench seat with Freckles sniffing and pawing at the closed window. He’s good with routines like this, wordlessly acts out what he’s learned over the years. Donut thinks it has a whole lot to do with muscle memory. Maybe Caboose could get better than this, therapy could work, you know, with their fancy exercises and charts, it could do Caboose good. Caboose needs the structure.

Now, to mosey on down to the bank and deposit Caboose’s check. Frozen Yogurt is definitely in order on the way back, with extra strawberries and caramel on top.


Carolina's resorted to staying in her room in order to avoid her parent's optimism and cheer. She's sure they've never been this... emotive. Even just their voices, through the walls grate at her, make her teeth clench and fists curl and so she's hiding in her room.

She doesn't want to be told that it gets better. She doesn't want to be fed breakfast with her favorite juice and be given time and gentle words. She wants to sit and be angry and sad, even though she's not actually angry or sad because there's nothing to be angry or sad about. She went to war, then she came back and nobody's ever that messed up over seeing a couple bodies and losing a couple people. Humans have done it before she did, and they'll do it again. They all survived, and so can she. She just has to keep going on runs, keep using her mom’s punching bag in the basement, keep working and it’ll go away. She’ll sweat out all the anger she’s feeling right now as soon as whoever’s down stairs leaves and she can get to the basement without having to face another human being.

The feelings come and pass and within the hour Carolina is tossing and turning in her head, scrutinizing her actions and what her parents actually said and she might be wrong in this. She doesn't think she's wrong, per say, but maybe there might be a chance that she is, and that she shouldn't have acted so offended. Carolina remembers the way Allison pursed her lips, then shrugged.

You're an adult now, you can make your own decisions, I guess, she had said. Leonard looked uncomfortable, but he remained quiet as Carolina bit back her more explosive anger and stormed upstairs. She was very tempted to slam the door. She did not slam the door.

It was the 'I guess' that was the last straw, the remark revealed Allison's subconscious thoughts and that was what made Carolina seethe; but really, what made Allison get to that particular point of frustration was mostly Carolina's fault.

Church is here, this time with Junior instead of Tucker, and Allison coos and makes him chicken nuggets while he watches cartoons downstairs. Carolina is curious, she wants to meet the boy who's very much apart of Church's and Tucker's life, but she stays back. Held back. She's not sure how Junior will react to her, she's witnessed plenty of kids staring or clinging tighter to their parents and pieced together the notion that she should just stay away. Besides, right now’s not a good time to talk to her. She’s got no restraint and she’s not smart enough to know when to stop or take a step back.

Besides, she scares people. There's not a lot to do when you've got scar tissue wrapped around your face and neck and shoulders and arms and all the visible bits of skin. The hair probably doesn't help either, Carolina's still has to see someone about styling it before she gives up and buzzes it all again, and... As church kindly put it, there's always the haunted glare Carolina sports regularly. Lately, he's the only one she'll talk to - well, him and Tucker.

She can tell Church has his reservations, but him and Tucker lay it all out there, they fucking just say what they mean, what's on their mind, quick and easy, because they know it’s what she needs and also because they’re impulsive sons of bitches, but it gives Carolina some relief to be around that kind of honesty again. God, if they could hear her thoughts now, they'd accuse her of being a dramatic piece of shit. maybe she is just that.

Back to the hair, though, Carolina thinks she'd like to grow it back. She’s always liked her hair, it was decent and thick, with just enough curl around the bottom for it to appear styled. Sure, it got in the way, but it was hers and it was a nice color and it was normal. Her hair is something from before and she misses it.

Eventually, Junior finds his way upstairs, and Carolina startles to see him so quietly in the doorway, staring at her with big brown eyes and little fingers circled around the doorframe.

He keeps staring, watching her as she meets his gaze evenly, but with a conscious effort to appear less imposing, smaller and more welcoming. She doesn't want him to be afraid of her. She wants Tucker's kid to like her. She... She wants this.

"Who are you?"

Carolina tenses and untenses before settling into a fake-casual position in the chair set in front of her window. "Carolina." She says unceremoniously, making sure not to move forward or look too long at the kid.

"The scary soldier lady?"

Oh. Church told him about her? Or maybe Tucker. 'Scary soldier lady' definitely sounds like Tucker. "Yea."

"You don't seem scary."

Carolina feels scrutinized under the child's stare, he's off-putting and quiet, but not shy. "I'm not trying to be.”

He's quiet because he's in thought. He watches her from the doorway as he thinks over how to reply and it's off-putting but refreshing to have an almost-conversation with someone.

"Oh." he ends up saying simply, offering nothing more. Junior lingers in the doorway for a few moments longer, then wanders back downstairs with little, hollow footsteps and a hop when he reaches the bottom, absentmindedly leaving a 'bye' behind.

Carolina watches the now open doorway blankly, then glances back down to the business card in her hands. It's white and purple with looping swirls and bubbles that distract from the thick, bold text, too much thought's been put into the design, but it's functional and memorable and it means a whole lot to Carolina at the moment.

Chorus Counseling and Therapy, Dr. Emily Grey.

She's eccentric, but honest and straight forward in her methods.

Carolina doesn't need Therapy. She doesn't need someone to tell her how to feel or how to react or to tell her that she's worth it or should keep working or whatever therapists say because that's crap. She's had a couple nightmares and she can't sleep all that often but it's normal and it's just the lack of motion. She’s used to constantly moving and training and drilling and lazing around some bum town isn’t doing her psyche any favors. She’s always needed physical activity.

Carolina wedges the window open, sticks her arm out to feel the temperature, then stands and puts on leggings and a tank-top. She’ll sweat it out. She’ll just get it out of her system.

Chapter Text

Dexter Grif grew up in a car with his sister in her booster seat next to him, and his mom in the gas station they’re parked outside of. He grew up with the windows cracked, but never enough in a parking lot with faded lines, or pulled over on the side of a crummy road with the thick heat leaking into the car, waiting patiently.

At nights, when the grown ups would grow too loud and Kai would get too fussy, too teary-eyed and snotty, he would carry her to the door, quietly pluck the keys from the coffee table as the kitchen lights danced, and then go out to the car. The blanket they kept in the trunk was scratchy and too thick, it was meant to be laid out across grass or sand, but it was all they had, so Dex would give Kai his jacket to use as a pillow and he’d pull the blanket up to her chin and draw a hand through her hair a few times before climbing over into the passenger seat.

A lot of his life passed like that, in and out of cars, sometimes a house for a couple months, sometimes an RV – only two thing was stable and those were Kai, and the adults in suits and ties who’d knock at their door. Dexter was smart, he knew how to pick a pocket and hop a fence, and he knew how to sit out in the sun or wait in the dark under a blanket until CPS left, but it happened eventually, adults in blue with shiny badges came in and plucked Kai from the couch and dragged Dexter by the arm out into a police car, and they never stepped foot in that abandoned house again. Kai cried, and Dexter shouted and screamed and fought because there was no way he was letting these people split them up between homes, and maybe it ended up working because the next thing he knew, he was being ushered onto a plane with his sister clutched to his side.

It was dark when the plane landed, there were no stars in Houston, but as they followed the coast east, the sky began to sparkle in a way that Dexter’s only ever seen a few times in his life. The woman introduced herself when she approached them, and took Kai’s backpack off her shoulders. She was short and she spoke with an accent, but she looked like him, had the same skin and she was his grandma. In the car, she’s quiet as she follows the red line on her GPS, and Dexter draws Kai closer to his body even though it’s warm and there are seatbelts in the way, watching her carefully.

Then, Dexter became Grif, and Grif grew up in a house that always smelled like good food and was always a little too warm, even during the winter. He had a bed with a soft quilt and a small room with the memories of posters on the wall and a new car to sit and stay in, but this time it was small and beige and it had fuzzy fabric seats and beaded seat covers up front.

The beads took some getting used to, they rolled under him as he shifted and made his bare skin waxy after coming out of the ocean, but there were towels in that car, and a cooler full of snacks and sunscreen in the glove compartment and it’s where he was first allowed to get behind the wheel of a car, with his grandma in the passenger seat next to him swearing and grabbing at the oh-shit handle as he jerked the brakes and clutched at the steering wheel too tightly.

Grif has his own car now; it’s silver and a Jeep – not, like, a Jeep Jeep, but the brand ‘Jeep’, and it shines when the light hits it thanks to his diligent cleaning and buffing and it practically purrs when it starts, smooth and custom. Grif’s all for cutting corners, but when he does something that’s important to him, it gets done well.

Simmons tries to do everything well and tires himself out and stretches himself too thin and makes himself a big mess of stress in a frenzy to complete tasks he doesn’t actually have to. Simmons wants to, though, he wants to succeed, which to him means graduating and advancing science to help people, and Grif can respect that. He can respect that a whole lot. It’s just a shame the redhead can’t function when there are multiple things requiring his attention. Simmons needs to take a fucking break, if anything, for Grif’s sanity –

God damnit!

Grif stands up too fast and hits his head on the inside of the popped hood. He grumbles into the engine, splayed out in front of him, and forces himself to breathe through the pain, in through the nose, let it fill the diaphragm, then out through the mouth. Count to ten.

“Are you ok?” Wash asks warily from behind his clipboard. He’s near the wall, clear of work zone and probably doing inventory or some nerdy shit Simmons would be all over. Him and Wash the only ones in today, the bratty high school interns only come in after school and the other three mechanics are conveniently out. Grif would feel more bad about leaving early if it wasn’t so quiet today, this is that needs finishing today.

“Yea, I’m just – distracted.” Grif doesn’t rub the back of his head, his hands are filthy.

Wash nods, and looks back down at his clipboard, in between… something. Wash’s hovering around Grif and been fretfully quiet ever since Grif clocked in, twenty minutes late. Grif lets it sit for a couple more minutes, continues to wipe down the engine with a damp towel. Wash doesn’t move a bit for a whole ten minutes and Grif’s beginning to suspect that he’s not actually doing any work.

With a sharp sigh, Grif straightens, careful to avoid the hood this time, and turns to face Wash, arms crossed. “You good dude?”

Washington looks up again and flinches at how Grif’s body is facing his. He feels on the spot, without an escape –

“You seem like you want to say something.” Grif continues. He deals enough with reserved nerds to know how to act.

“Y-yea. I’m fine. I’m just… working. Because I’m at work. That’s what I do here.”

One train wreck after another; Grif doesn’t believe Wash for a second. Jesus, he’s even got freckles. Who’d be more offended at the comparison, Simmons or Wash? “You sure?” Wash definitely shouldn’t be offended.

“…Yea.”

Grif shrugs and turns away. “Alright.” Not his place anyway.


Carolina doesn’t end up jogging; she ends up standing in the driveway watching Church methodically and quietly pack junior into his car seat. He’s pale compared to the bright van, pastels on neon.

“Hey, sis.” He calls over his shoulder when he notices her, and his voice has less flare than usual, there’s no pitch change or challenge. There are no lines on his face and his mouth is downturned, but only slightly, and Carolina recognizes his tired glance and lidded eyes.

“You ok?” She asks quietly, refraining from reaching out and touching him because oddly enough, it’s her first reaction. She’s physical; too many miscommunications come from words. A punch or a hug get everything across just fine.

“Yea,” Church laughs, “Why?”

She stays quiet; doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but the gesture is implied and Church relents. “Just having a day.”

“A day?”

“Yea.”

Carolina deflates, standing in the middle of the cement driveway on a warm, fall day; The world’s only just gaining it’s dusting of yellows and oranges. “Me, too.”

After a moment of silence, a moment of staring at Church and Church staring at her, Carolina shifts on her feet, balancing her weight on her toes, poised. “You… You know, they say you’re supposed to catch some sun if you’re feeling down, a deficiency in vitamin D can lead melancholia.” Carolina says conversationally.

“I just think I’m going to go take a nap.”

“Alright.”

Church hops into the van, closes the doors and turns it on as Carolina turns to leave, but then she hears him calling her back, voice echoing on the streets. “Hey, uh, ‘Lina, you wanna come over and watch a couple movies?”

She stops on the sidewalk, and turns around. “I thought you wanted to take a nap?”

“You look like you need one too.”

Carolina finds herself changing and hopping into the passenger seat without much conscious thought about it.

When she closes the door and unfolds the seatbelt, Church turns to her, one hand resting on the steering wheel as he’s stuck in limbo. “We’ve got someone coming over tonight, a friend, just so you know.” He says, like she’d hop out at the news. “He’s… Not that bad, though. An asshole, but, you know…”

“’s fine, I don’t really mind.”


“Kai, shut the fuck up and be grateful to your big brother, over here, driving you home out of the kindness of his - my heart.” Grif swats at Kai’s hands, which are reaching for the AUX chord, which Grif’s phone is currently plugged into, “I could have left you to walk – Walk!

Kai huffs, “You’re no fun, Dex. I just wanted to show you some new music.”

“No thanks.” He deadpans.

“Asshole.”

Grif sighs, loud and dramatic. The breath in expands his chest and raises his shoulders and by the time he’s done acting exasperated, Kai is giving him a dirty look.

“Really?” She asks.

“You sigh when you’re tired, and I’m just really tired of your shit right now.”

The car bounces back between potholes and abruptly, the roads are thin and stretched and sun-bleached a light gray, and the grass sways as Grif makes the familiar turns from the high school to his grandma’s house, Kai’s house, their home.

“Kai…”

“Oh, shut up. You did worse. And besides, it won’t be that bad. I’m going with friends.”

Grif rolls his eyes and scowls, but he’s not in a position to really oppose Kai. He’s a firm believer in making your own decisions and she’s right, he’s probably done worse. “That makes me feel so much better.” Still, though, he can not be happy about it. “I’m so glad you have someone in your group of friends that can get you into a bar.”

“The booze’s just a plus; there’s live music.”

“There’s live music at a lot of places.”

“Yea, but this band’s good. Freelancer –“

“Wait,” Grif cuts her off, “Freelancer?

“Yea, they-”

“Dude. I know that dude, the guitarist – I work with him.”

Seriously?!” Kai slaps her hands down on the dash as she jumps, jaw hanging open, “How? What’s he like?!”

“I – No! Don’t change the subject! Does Gammy know? – Because I’m sure she doesn’t and I’m sure that if she did-”

“Does Gammy know about your tattoos?” Kai says smugly, folding her arms.

“That’s not the same. Stop changing the subject, here-”

“You can’t stop me, Dex.”

“I know, I just think it’s a bad idea.”

Conveniently, Grif pulls into their driveway as he finishes the sentence. Kai sighs and heaves her backpack up from the backseat. She unlocks the door and pushes it open, but Grif stops her, hand on her shoulder, before she can step out of the car. “Just… be safe.”

“Dex, I do this all the time.”

“Doesn’t mean I like it.”

Silence, then: “…Don’t embarrass the family.”

Kai scoffs at this, playfully pushing at Grif’s hand and stepping out of the vehicle, leaving him to follow her slightly, side digging into the center console. “Go get your boyfriend before he explodes.

“He’s not my-”

Kai shuts the door before he can finish.


It’s quiet in the dorm hallway. It’s a Friday; There’s the occasional shout and the muffled sounds of a TV show coming from somewhere down the hall, but it’s still early and it’s quiet compared to what Grif’s used to. The walls are paper-thin here, but the walls at his house are toilet-paper thin, the cheap stuff that’s practically see-through: Junior shifts from sleeping on his back to his side and the whole block knows about it.

Grif’s taken to sitting with his back on Simmons’s dorm room door, waiting for the nerd to get out of class. Students shuffle past, some carrying books, some with backpacks and projects, and they tsk at him as they step over his outstretched legs, but he doesn’t move. After a few more minutes of bored shifting, Grif’s ass is starting to fall asleep, and he texts Simmons.

            Grif: Hurry tf up dude. I’m outside your door

In reply, the door swings open behind Grif.

“Holy sh-” He falls backwards and lands half-supported on Simmons legs, who stumbles in turn and narrowly avoids falling himself.

“What the fuck, Grif?”

Grif grunts, and pushes himself onto his feet. “I thought you were still at class.”

With a sigh, Simmons steps back into the natural light of his room, and lets Grif pass. He closes the door behind the Hawaiian, and shrugs casually as he returns to his desk. “Teacher didn’t show, so I’m working on my report.”

“Oh.” Grif watches as Simmons pulls out his chair and takes a seat, one leg folding beneath him in a semi-comfortable position. “Got your shit?” He toys with the keys in his pocket, following the edges and looping his middle finger through the key ring.

“Yea, just… Give me a sec, I’m almost done.”

Grif hums, satisfied, and throws himself back onto Simmons’ bed as the redhead returns to typing and deleting sentences. He snickers when he catches Simmons glare; the bed was previously made, neatly, sheets tucked in and comforter wrinkle-free, and then Grif settles for staring up at the ceiling in companionable silence as he waits. He likes the quiet, and he was no qualms with waiting in it.

Simmons’ dorm is nice, low-key with a couple posters on the walls. Mostly, there are various textbooks and papers and weird mechanical bits everywhere, on the shelves, at the foot of the bed. The walls are white, the ceiling is white, his bed is maroon, and it’s nice.

“Alright, asshole.” Simmons stands and shrugs on his backpack, both arms through the straps. “’m ready.”

“You know,” Grif says as he stands, “You’re not the first person to call me that today.”

“I’m not surprised.”


“Ok, but like, Superman sucks.” Grif waves his right hand out, like the gesture is proving his point, “He can get taken out by a rock. A rock! From his own planet!”

Simmons scoffs, “Oh, what, and you can’t? Like, if I threw a big enough rock at your head, you’d survive?”

“Simmons!” Grif’s voice cracks with a little laughter, but he otherwise stays serious as he watches the road and passes cars along the highway, “That’s fucking ridiculous – You don’t have to throw kryptonite at Superman, you just wave it around, like, twenty feet away from him and he collapses all loser-like – And, are you planning something? Should I stay away from big rocks?”

“Ok, so, UraniumGRIF!” Simmons stops mid-sentence and shouts as they pass by a little too close to a Semi, “Watch where you’re fucking going! You’re not supposed to pass trucks on the right!”

Grif rolls his eyes at Simmons’ reaction, they were feet away from the truck; super safe and all belted in. He may not be a courteous driver, but he can fucking handle a car, Jesus. “Oh, shut up, we’re fine.” Grif gives the wheel a good wiggle to further prove his point, and Simmons scoffs, but relaxes back into the feeling of slowly accelerating.

“…Anyways, Uranium’s a rock: People die from being ‘twenty feet away’ from Uranium. Ever heard of cancer? Radiation poisoning?”

“My dad died of cancer.” Grif says seriously then, tone shifting quickly as he replicates a thousand-yard stare out the windshield.

“Shut the fuck up, you didn’t even like him.”

“…”

Simmons flushes, realizing how much of an asshole he just sounded like – but it’s not his fault! He just blurts things out, he starts talking and then he can’t always stop and before Simmons can say anything else –

It takes a second for Grif to break, he holds onto what pretend-heartbreak he has left in him, and then he looks over at Simmons’ shocked and appalled face, and then he breaks with a laugh that melts into a weak giggle, mouth drawn wide and eyes narrow. “You – I – Simmons,”

Simmons immediately scowls, ears lighted up red like a stoplight. “Oh, shut up. Pay attention to the road.”

Simmons,”

“I take it back, I’m sorry.” Simmons continues, face folding into more of a frown with every giggle.

“Your face-”

“Fuck off.”

I didn’t even like him” Grif wheezes, repeating what Simmons had just said incredulously.

“I didn’t mean it.”

“You did though!”

Finally, Simmons scoffs and scowls and turns away, arms crossed in front of him as he hunches over and stares out the window, like a child. “You didn’t even know him, so fuck off, stop pretending like you care.”

“Simmons, now you’re just being mean.”

“Well, you’re being mean by laughing at me!”

“Ok, ok.” Grif quiets down, “I’ll -” Grif snorts one last time and Simmons tries to not get too invested, “- I’ll stop. I’ll stop. It’s just-”

Simmons glares.

“Ok. ‘m sorry. I’m done…”

“… Though, I mean, my dad did die of cancer.”

“Nobody cares, Grif.”

“You’re so cruel, Simmons.”

“Shut up.”

“… My grandma cares, she birthed him.”

“Grif!”

Chapter Text

Junior doesn’t move even though the cool tile below him sticks to his exposed stomach, where his shirt has ridden up. Above him, the table shakes, glasses clink, and Carolina laughs; she rises up out of her chair to swat at Church before settling back in, one leg tucked underneath her. Something ticks, something hums and something clunks, but it’s all background noise and Sarge II pays no attention to it. He’s red, true to his namesake, painted that way fully, skin, hair, and all. The knight keeps his red gaze on the alien, Herk Blargh: Warrior, leader, and saboteur. His plots have yet to be foiled and put all of Raccoon Town in danger.

Herk prepares to strike, he bows back on his haunches and readies his sword, and Sarge rears back in defense of his friends, rainbow colored and posed in various degrees of fear and challenge. Sarge’s armor gleams in the overhead light, the light shiny and liquid on the tiny action figure where it’s soft and warm on Junior’s skin.

The alien is shadowed, his unreadable face unreadable as Sarge advances, a valiant running start, arm suspended behind him as he builds up enough tension to strike and then he punches Herk right in his jaws, sending him flying backwards into the light, away from Raccoon Town’s protectors. Donut II cheers, his newly taped on dilophosaurus-crest falling slightly –

“It’s just, they’re so overbearing.” Carolina intones over her beer. She points the half-finished bottle in Church’s direction, who nods sagely and sets another pair down. Junior’s sprawled out under the table, partly hidden by some festive plastic tablecloth. It’s black and orange, and covered in various depictions of skulls and pumpkins and witches, meaning it was probably meant for some Halloween party. Or it was the cheapest tablecloth they had. Carolina can only imagine how long it’s been on the table.

On top of the cloth, are cards; almost a whole deck’s worth either spread out to proudly display found pairs or sitting in a slowly diminishing stack in the middle of the table.

“Have any fours?” Church asks, leaning forwards heavily on his elbows.

“Fuck, you’re killing me, bro.”

“Fuckin’ sucks to be you, then.”

Carolina sighs, looks at Church, then his hand, and tosses her four out into the middle of his messy pair collection before continuing where she left off. “Seriously. They’re throwing all these self-help books at me – I swear, I find a new one outside my door each morning. It’s the never-ending – fucking – story up in here, but literally. Because, like, they’re giving me books.”

“Oh, ha ha. Good one, sis.” Church rolls his eyes, “I just ignore them, can’t bother you if it you don’t even notice it.”

“Yea,” Carolina gives Church an unimpressed look, which is something she does quite often now that they’re talking again, “and you also live in a different house. Across town. Which makes avoiding them actually an option.”

Ignoring. I said ignoring them, not avoiding.” Church is quick to correct, “I’m not avoiding anything… Except for maybe responsibility, but that’s all I’m admitting to right now. I’ll have to be more drunk for you to get anything out of this steel trap. I’m like a safe.”

“Because anybody with the right combination can get anything they want out of you?”

“Because I keep secrets safe with me, and nobody knows the combination but me.”

Carolina would argue more, say something about how he just admitted that the ‘combination’ was getting him drunk, but she doesn’t. He’s fucking ridiculous, especially like this. She hides her smile behind her hand of cards, expertly fanned and equidistant, and looks for any potential pairs in their very close and very important game. “Tens?”

“Go fish, dude.”

Day drinking certainly has its charms, and, hey: Five o’clock somewhere, right? That’s what her mom always says, anyways. She hasn’t drunk alcohol without a heavy heart for a while now, and it’s nice, with Church’s squinty, happy eyes as he laughs and the mellow sounds of the house settling around them. There’s the occasional honk, the occasional sound of engines revving that echo through the neighborhood, and it’s calm. Familiar and safe in a new place.

The time passes easily in the kitchen, the tiles acting as a kind of barrier between them and the outside world. The room offers a glow, maybe it’s the overhead fluorescent lighting, maybe it’s her and Church’s childhood shining through the cracks in their bodies and souls, but it glows, hums with a familiar life, and Carolina lets it be. She doesn’t tug at the strange feeling, she doesn’t question it, she lets it exist and feels better for it.

More time passes, and Church pauses. He lifts the tablecloth up slightly, the curve where it hits the edge of the table stays in tact, so his cards slide slightly, and he nudges Junior’s side with his foot. “You good, dude?” Routine.

“M’hungry.”

“Ok.”

They break, Church splits off to make a couple sandwiches, Carolina dumps the empty beer bottles into the recycling after figuring out where it is (by the back door, the smaller bin), and when they return, there’s food on the table and Junior sits up with them. They eat, they talk, and then they graduate from Go Fish to Gin and Bullshit.

“So, what’s up with you?” Carolina tries to prod again, but she doesn’t expect any real answers, Church is being surprisingly responsible and holding off on getting wasted, probably for Junior. Carolina notices, but doesn’t say anything, only feels a little smug over something she has no part in. She feels like she wants to say I told you so, but she’s not sure who to or if she actually has the right.

“Oh, you know, looking for a job.” Church plays it off casual, he shrugs and takes a swig and nudges Junior’s half eaten sandwich towards him with a pointed look.

“You getting unemployment?” Carolina asks.

“Fuck yea, dude.” Finger guns.

“Awesome.”

“Yea, I know right? I was gonna quit, but then was like, I’ll just make it so they fire me instead, and bam, money every month.”

“You seem to be good at making people hate you.”

“It’s a skill.”

“Yep, Church is the best at that.” Junior nods agreeably, eyes closed and little chin jutted out like he’s in the loop, and Carolina supposes he is. They treat him that way, here.

Church squawks something indignant, “Betrayal.” He seethes at Junior, and Carolina laughs along when they stare at each other, and then begin giggling. The happy sort, all wheezy and on Church’s part, a little maniacally; not drunk, but definitely buzzed at the very least.

“King.” Carolina says before she sets her card down fully. She looks smugly between Church and Junior, and draws her hand back casually.

Junior glances skeptically from behind his hand of cards at the pile and Carolina, and Church straight up glares at her. “Bullshit.”

Carolina lets the suspense hang in the air, she looks at Church, then Junior, and then, with a growing smile, Carolina flips the card over. King. She’s learned a good poker face. Carolina watches as Church grumbles and snatches the pile of cards he’d now have to integrate into his own, and he catches her look.

“Fuck it, we’re playing Go Fish again, after this. If I have to rely on your shit luck to win, then I will.”

It goes like that for some time, Junior gets bored and disappears into his and Tucker’s room, and he plays a few games as well, too small on the chair, shoulders crowding his ears so he can properly rest his elbows on the table.

Carolina feels her core warming, she stops the steady flow of beers she’s been consuming, but it doesn’t go away and pretty soon she realizes it’s happiness and lets it be. Church seems buzzed, he giggles and is agreeable and gets progressively worse at playing cards, but he’s home and he’s safe so Carolina doesn’t say anything other than insults directed at his horrible poker face.


A car pulls into the driveway; it’s smooth and the engine tappers off with the casual pull of a key. Two doors open, then close with a clack and the final sound of the lock mechanisms clicking in place. It echoes through the neighborhood, bouncing off front doors and windows, dented and asymmetrical roofs. The front door opens with a shove, but someone catches it before it hits the wall, preventing an even louder and jarring bang.

“I just don’t see how a polar bear would beat a gorilla.”

Carolina can hear he sounds of shoes being torn off and tossed against a wall, which makes her realize she’s still awkwardly wearing her own. Church had taken his off, left them by the door under a ledge, but she’d kept hers on, as glued to her feet as her armor’s boots were.

“Have you ever seen a polar bear, dude? They’re huge, scary ass looking mother fuckers with claws the size of Junior’s forearm.”

The voices grow louder, and Carolina watches as Church slowly downs the rest of his beer, which had been just over half a bottle, and sidles his head into his hands, face hovering barely an inch above the table cloth.

Carolina stays quiet, curious and a little perturbed at Church’s behavior. She opens her mouth to ask if he’s ok, but before she can speak, she’s cut off, the voices now right out in the hallway.

“Gorillas have opposable thumbs! They can use tools. Superior intelligence and the ability to rip a guy’s arms out without breaking into a sweat. No matter how many times you bring this up, the answer’s not gonna fucking change, Grif.”

Grif.

Simmons.

Carolina remembers them from high school, when they hung around her house, sitting up on the kitchen counters or sprawled across Church’s floor or that one time Grif stole Allison’s new car and took it for a joy ride with Simmons, Church and that other weird pacifist kid in the back seat.

They don’t look too different. Simmons looks substantially less out of place, but he’s still got glasses and freckles and knobby shoulders and he still suppresses a shiver when he sees Carolina; and Grif is still short and still fat but now his hair is held back loosely into a low, short pony tail and he’s grown scruff, what would be thick if he didn’t shave every so often.

They pause in the kitchen doorway, Church doesn’t look up, just flips them off with his head on the table and Grif heckles him, then greets Carolina, then realizes Simmons is frozen in face, deer in head lights, and rolls his eyes and pushes his friend towards the stairs roughly.

They continue playing, even after Tucker comes home and Grif orders pizza; and then, after Church spills whatever alcohol infused drink he’s been nursing, they stop playing cards all together and just talk.

Church leans back in his chair, balancing it on the back two legs with some skill, and then rocks back forward so he’s stable again. He’s careful to avoid touching the table, which neither of them have cleaned yet, sticky cards and all. “So, what has… What has it been like for you? You know, all these years?”

Carolina pauses and thinks hard, gives it her all. It’s hard to separate the emotions she’s felt, most of them are over shadowed by panic or a calm purpose, not a reason to keep going, but a goal. Usually, the goal’s to complete an objective, a task, sometimes, it’s to save a life, and then… Other times, on rare occasions, all Carolina could think about was to live. She was… She was never sure for what, exactly, but when she’s being pinned down by a support beam in a burning ship, she can’t help but push and push and scream for help. When she turns a corner and comes face to face with the sleek armor of an insurrectionist, she shoots. It’s a lot less thought and a lot more instinct. “It was… hard. I thought I’d die more than a few times... And, well, you know how long it takes for me to admit that I might not be able to do something.”

Church doesn’t answer at first, he just tries to play it cool, like he isn’t worried or scared, but so damned curious. When he finally works up the nerve to keep the conversation going, Carolina is mid-sip.

“Why’d you come back? Not that I don’t want you back, because, like, I’m glad you’re – you’re back here, but just… At first… I thought you’d come back, but then… Year three came around, and I’d just accepted that apparently cycling through troops and tours meant nothing to space marines, and that you weren’t coming ever back.”

“I… I feel fine, ok? Really, just… Just a few dreams, I spent a few months in the hospital a little more… Paranoid and I only lapsed back once, but…” Carolina pauses, wonders if she should really tell the truth, if this is the right thing, if it’s okay for her to… But, it’s Church. It’s Church.

This is Church.

“On my last mission, I lost my entire squad except for one, and a couple months before that I was in a pretty traumatic crash. Command just… Decided I’d had enough, wouldn’t let me decline an honorable discharge and… Well, basically, they kicked me out.”

“Oh…”

“Sorry.”

Church shakes his head, “I know.”

“No, for everything, for never calling or emailing, for never… If those things hadn’t happened, Church, I probably wouldn’t have ever come back.”

“I know.”

Carolina bites her tongue, refrains from apologizing again because Church… He knows. She understands that, it’ll just take some time for it to sink in and ease her. It’s not hard or easy with Church, it just is. He’s just Church, and she’s just Carolina and they may not have a whole lot going for them, but they can sit and drink with each other. At least, they can do that now, and really, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Right now?

“York came over yesterday.”

Carolina looks up, caught off guard, and her voice gets caught in her throat. Thankfully, though, Church doesn’t seem to need her response.

“He asked about you and he asked me not to tell you that he came, but… He’s not my fucking sister, is he?”

Carolina can’t help but snort at that, look over across the table at Church, and just… Love him. She loves him. Why did it take so long for her to remember that. She always, she always knew she loved him, he’s her little brother, the one who tried to hang out in her room and used to steal shit to make her angry, and she can’t help but regret her mindset even a month prior.

How could she have ever thought about not coming back? What was she… What was she running from? Was she trying to prove something? She was nineteen and had no purpose and was in a weird spot and she decided that she was going to make something of herself and ended up fighting for something that she didn’t care about on a personal level for… She doesn’t know.

It doesn’t matter.

“He seemed like he missed you.”

“Yea… I think I… I think I missed them too, all of them, too… He’s a fuck up, but…”

“Yea…”

“Do you know where he lives?”