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The Long Road Home

Chapter Text

And then there were eight; their ninth flickering out like a star being drawn into the belly of a black hole. Fragments of code skittering across a cyberspace plane. Glass from a window broken by the winds of a hurricane. Bravery is acting even when fear is present. But sometimes it isn’t enough.

They had learned this when Hargrove escaped two days ago in a burning ship that left a blood red trail in the sky behind it as it fell beyond the horizon of Chorus. The Reds and Blues had remarkably come away in mostly one piece. Mostly.

Tucker speculated on this as he made his way towards central command. Much had happened since the fight on The Staff of Charon. However, his injuries had kept him from most of the action, leaving him with only a vague idea of where everything stood.

“A cracked rib, a bullet wound in your side, a dislocated shoulder, and ten stitches in your head. Certainly not the best circumstances, but considering your odds, I’d say you turned out better than you could have,” Doctor Grey had told him when he first woke up. A week and a half, she had said. Approximately two-hundred and sixty-four hours. Tucker had counted every one. Yet the relief he had felt when he had finally been released had been hollow. The whispers of the medical staff and snippets of conversations he heard in the halls formed a ball of dread in the pit of his stomach.

Something about a station on one of Chorus’ moons that had been obscured due to its orbit. Information graciously given by one of the captured space pirates after a bit of gentle persuasion. Chatter heard in the locker room the day Tucker was officially allowed back in his power armor.

His power armor. Not the suit the Meta wore. Not the one he fought Charon in. Not the one Church-

Tucker shook his head. Remembered to breathe. Remembered where he was. Kimball. Briefing. Right. He rounded the corner and levelled his eyes with the doors at the end of the hall. Carolina was in there. The notion of that made his stomach churn. How was he supposed to face her after what had happened?

Tucker stopped just out of the range of the motion sensors of the sliding doors, head down. Just go in there just get it over with just say you’re sorry and hope she doesn’t punch you. Taking a deep breath, he straightened his back and entered the room. The Reds and Blues all turned to look at him when he entered, and the sudden attention only heightened his unease. They were gathered around a round table with holographic projections of topography hovering just above its shiny surface. Directly across it from where Tucker stood was Carolina.

“Tucker,” Kimball greeted him with a nod, and he noticed her standing beside the Freelancer, “good to see you back on your feet.”

He wanted to say something like “it doesn’t feel good,” or “I’m glad I don’t have to lay in bed and stare at the clock on the wall and watch the hours tick by anymore,” but instead he stuck with “it’s good to be up and moving again.”

The others in the room all gave nods and murmurs of approval. Beside Kimball, Carolina shifted, tension in her shoulders. Tucker’s heart sank a little.

“Alright, let’s get to business. I’m sure you’ve all heard the chatter,” Kimball began. “Charon has established a base on the moon Nalome. Evidently it’s been there for years, but was ultimately harmless to us until just recently, when the weapons system that was put in place went online.” A thermal image of the moon appeared on the screen behind her. Several spots on its surface were bright red with readings and data in boxes beside them.

“The fact that Charon had a weapons system in place this whole time is alarming enough, but the fact that they plan on using it puts it as our top priority,” Kimball continued. “Your mission is to go to the moon, take out any enemy hostiles, deactivate and destroy the weapons system, salvage any useful information you can find, and return to base.”

“General Kimball, is it wise sending Tucker with us considering his recent injuries?” Wash spoke up.

“I’m fine,” Tucker said, surprising himself with his own snappy reply.

“Doctor Grey cleared him for duty, and considering the possibility of alien technology on the moon’s surface, it’s best that you bring him along,” Kimball replied evenly.

“Right,” Wash said, but sounded unhappy with her answer.

“If there are any more questions, comments, or concerns, now is the time to acknowledge them,” Kimball said, sounding less than inviting.

No one in the room spoke up, and she continued. “There’s a Condor being prepped for you to use as transport in the hangar. You will be provided with supplies enough to last you for two days. Use it wisely. All of your armor has been repaired since your fight on The Staff of Charon , as have your weapons. Since we no longer have Epsilon to help us, you will be on your own as far as the technical aspects of the mission go. We will try to be in touch to assist you, but as of right now we are unsure of whether or not there will be radio interference once you land.”

“So we’re going into this blind?!” Simmons exclaimed. Beside him, Grif made a motion with his head like he was rolling his eyes.

“We’ve given you what information we have. I agree it’s not much, but it’s the best we have to work with at the moment,” Kimball replied.

“That doesn’t-”

“Oh lighten up. We went into The Staff of Charon blind too and we turned out alright,” Grif said.

“We fucking lost Church , we did not turn out fine!” Tucker heard himself snap and immediately recoiled. All heads turned towards him and he suddenly wished he hadn’t said anything.

“He has a point,” Wash said with a sigh after allowing a short stretch of uncomfortable silence to settle in the room. “With what limited information we have, we’ll need to use extreme caution for this mission.”

And extreme prejudice.” Tucker looked over as Carolina spoke up from Kimball’s side. “We can’t afford anymore losses. Especially after this last fight against Charon.”

“Copy that,” Wash said with a nod.

Kimball looked around, seeming to check to make sure no one else had anything they wanted to add before speaking again. “Wheels up in one hour. Use that time to get yourselves in the right frame of mind.” Tucker could feel her eyes on him; everyone’s eyes on him. He grit his teeth. “You’re all going to need clear heads in order for this mission to be successful. Dismissed.”

 


 

 

Being the last one in the room made it easy for him to also be the first one out. And that’s exactly what Tucker did. The moment they were dismissed, he stepped through the sliding doors, rounded the corner, and didn’t look back.

His head was swimming. He wasn’t sure if it was because he had strained himself too much when he had snapped at Grif, or if it had something to do with the exposure to Church’s fragmentation-

He felt himself pick up his pace and tried to remember how to breathe but his armor suddenly felt too tight and he had to fight the urge to try to pry his chestplate off without assistance. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t-

“Tucker!”

Tucker jumped and looked back when he heard his name called, and felt his shoulders sink when he saw it was Wash. He waited for the other Marine to catch up, realizing as an afterthought that he didn’t remember when he had stopped walking once Wash was finally at his side.

“What?” Tucker asked impatiently after a moment. He didn’t like the way the Freelancer was looking at him; like he was a tiger pacing in a cage instead of a person.

“I just...wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Tucker stared, and the feeling like his armor was constricting him returned and so he turned his head away. “I’m fine , Wash. It’s just a fucking headache, okay?”

“You’re getting headaches?”

And Tucker suddenly found himself glaring back at Wash, with something like resentment climbing up his throat like bile. Don’t pick me apart like I’m a fucking frog in some shitty science lab, he thought. “Dr. Grey said I would. I have meds for them. It’s fine.

“Tucker...Have you talked to anyone about this?” Wash asked, and Tucker hated hated hated the caution in his voice when he said it.

“I’m talking to you right now,” Tucker replied.

“Look, I’m just asking because you’ve seemed pretty upset these past few days-”

“Upset? Wash? Fucking upset?! My best friend is fucking dead! He ripped himself to fucking shreds in the back of my head! Church is fucking gone, Wash! Of course I’m fucking upset! Tucker snarled.

Wash stood his ground. “I know ,” he said evenly. “And I’m sorry. And I...I know kind of what that feels like. Epsilon-”

“Tried to kill himself inside of your head. I know ,” Tucker cut him off.

Wash squared his shoulders, and Tucker could see the tension starting to creep into his neck. “I’m just trying to help ,” he said with forced calmness.

Tucker glared at him, wishing that he could find something else to say. Something to make him go away and never come back. Something to make him leave him alone. But the pain behind his eyes drove the fight away, and he felt his shoulders sag slightly as the adrenaline left his system. So he lowered his head and looked away and muttered out a guilty, “I know.”

A hand on his shoulder caught him off guard, and he looked back at Wash in surprise.

The Freelancer met his gaze for a moment, then dropped his hand back to his side and stepped back. “Look, I know I’m not….the best at talking about...feelings and stuff.”

“No kidding,” Tucker said flatly, but noted how Wash’s body language didn’t change despite his comment.

“But I’ve been in a similar situation. And...I really did mean to come talk to you while you were in recovery. But I figured that you needed time to yourself to recover. I realize now that I should have been there for you. And I-” Wash sighed. “I’m sorry. And if you ever want to talk about what happened, I can listen.”

Tucker stared at him, mouth dry, not really sure what to say. So he sucked in a breath and swallowed hard and forced a laugh out. “Dude you are such a ball of cheese.” And immediately felt bad when he saw the tension return to Wash’s shoulders, so he followed up with, “but I...really appreciate it.”

Wash relaxed and nodded. Then said, “I need to know that you can do this mission.”

Tucker recoiled, surprised. “Um, yeah I can do this mission.”

“I’m only asking because-”

“Because you’re worried that I’m emotionally compromised. I get it. Look, really, I’m fine.

“Just not really, right?” Wash asked, and Tucker could hear the eye roll in his voice.

He sighed. “I can do the mission, Wash. Everyone’s counting on me to anyways. And I’m not gonna let you guys go up there without me anyways. Besides, if I stayed here, Sarge wouldn’t let you hear the end of it. And I’d hate for you to strain your voice going back and forth with him,” Tucker teased, starting down the hall towards the hangar.

“Yeah, yeah,” Wash said, keeping pace with him.

The two walked in silence for a while, listening to the ambient sounds of machinery, intercom announcements, and their own footsteps. When they reached the entrance to the hangar, Tucker stopped. Wash did too, looking back at him with a confused tilt of his head.

“What is it?”

Tucker sighed. “Carolina’s on this mission too.”

Wash tilted his head back in understanding. “You haven’t talked to her yet, have you?”

“She didn’t exactly come visit me in the medbay, Wash,” Tucker replied.

“I...was planning on talking to her later,” Wash said slowly. “Is this about Epsilon?”

“I just figured she’s gotta be pretty pissed at me for what happened, you know?”

Wash stared at Tucker incredulously. “Tucker, she doesn’t blame you for what happened-”

“Neither of us have talked to her, so how would you know?”

“I-I don’t ,” Wash admitted, “but Carolina’s not like that. She wouldn’t blame you for something that was beyond your control.” And when Tucker still looked unconvinced, added, “look, I’m going to talk to her on the flight over. Just...focus on you for now, alright?”

“Got it,” Tucker said. Then, “dude, why are we here so early? We still have like twenty minutes until liftoff.”

“I was just following you,” Wash said dryly.

“Well, I’m gonna go get some grub,” Tucker declared after a moment of thought, then turned to head back the way they had come.

“Better hurry, Grif was headed that way too,” Wash told him, a smile in his voice.

Tucker froze mid-step and looked over his shoulder at the other marine. “God. Damnit.” He said, then took off in a run.

Wash watched him bolt around the corner with a slight chuckle, then a sigh as he turned back towards the hangar. Through the thick, sliding glass doors, he could see the Condor being prepped. He felt himself reach up and rub the back of his neck absently. And he stayed like that for a moment, listening to the white noise in the back of his head. Focus . He pushed the thought forward and shook himself back into the world, staring ahead. Self-consciously, he stole a glance around to see if anyone had noticed him. Then, realizing he was alone, sucked in a deep breath, and stepped into the hangar.

 


 

“Boss?”

“What is it, Wash?” Carolina asked, her eyes never leaving the control panel of the Condor. They had just cleared Chorus’ atmosphere. Estimated arrival time to Nalome was a little over thirty minutes. Plenty of time to think. At least, that’s what Carolina had intended to use the space between then and now for. Wash, it would seem, had different plans.

 

 

“It’s about Epsilon.” Carolina noted the caution in her fellow Freelancer’s voice. The way his shoulders rounded slightly. How he wasn’t looking directly at her.

“What about him?” She narrowed her eyes behind her visor at her own tone, irritated that she hadn’t done more to restrain how impatient she sounded.

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I’m fine,” Carolina said, fixing her attention on working the controls on her side.

“Tucker said the same thing.”

Carolina stopped. But only for a second. And if anyone but Wash had been observing her, they likely wouldn’t have noticed it. “I haven’t had a chance to speak with him,” she said, trying to push the conversation away from herself.

“I know.”

Carolina didn’t look at him. “What’s the problem?”

“We haven’t really had time to talk about what happened either.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Carolina said quickly. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Wash tilted his head slightly, and braced herself for whatever he was going to say next.

“It wasn’t your fault, you know. You- we didn’t know what was happening with Epsilon. He didn’t tell anyone-”

“Sharkface.”

“I’m...wait, what?

“The first time I fought him, he called Epsilon a ‘failing AI’,” Carolina explained.

Wash was silent for a moment, and Carolina noted the way he bowed his head, like he was deep in thought.

“During that fight, he got overwhelmed and couldn’t run any of my equipment,” she continued.

“You told me that,” Wash replied. “But you said that you just put too much strain on him. You never said-”

“I know I never brought up what Sharkface said,” Carolina cut him off, exasperated, finally turning her head to look at him. “I didn’t think it mattered. Epsilon said that it was nothing. That he was just having…’performance issues’. I didn’t know it was as bad as it was because he never told me!”

Wash’s shoulders sank a little. “Jesus, Carolina…”

“So it is my fault,” Carolina spat, looking back at the controls. “I knew he was in trouble, and I didn’t say anything. I just kept pushing.”

And when Wash had nothing to say to that, and looked back at his control panel, she couldn’t help but feel a little relieved.

The silence between the two of them stretched out longer than Carolina had anticipated, however. She found herself absently counting the minutes, her eyes wandering over the green-tinted surface of Nalome, drawing closer and closer.

“You shouldn’t blame yourself for what happened.”

Carolina closed her eyes and turned back to face Wash, fixing him in a tired stare she knew he couldn’t see. “Wash…”

“I’m serious!”

Carolina shook her head and looked back at the controls, beginning atmospheric entry procedures.She heard Wash sigh, then relay over comms to the Reds and Blues to prepare to for landing. She found herself glancing back at the door that separated the cockpit from the cabin.

“You mentioned Tucker,” she began.

Wash looked over at her. “Him and I talked about what happened,” he replied with a nod.

“I should speak with him,” Carolina said.

“You should,” Wash affirmed. “He said he was - hey, wait a minute. What’s that?”

Carolina followed his gaze out of the cockpit window and found herself staring at what appeared to be some sort of yellow net made of light that covered the planet’s surface. It took her less than a second to realize what she was looking at. “Forcefield!” she cried. “Evasive maneuvers! Now!” She grabbed the control wheel and gave it a hard yank back, trying to pull up and away from the energy barrier.

“We’re caught in it’s gravity,” Wash reported, punching several buttons on his control panel. Right as the voice of the onboard AI said, “integrity of secondary engines at seventy-five percent and dropping.”

“Well get us out! ” Carolina exclaimed, right as the door to the cabin slid open.

“Wash! What the hell is going on! ” The voice sounded like it belonged to Tucker. Carolina didn’t care to check.

“The moon has a forcefield around it,” Wash replied, pulling up readings on his dashboard screen and cursing. “Carolina-”

“Secondary engine malfunction imminent.”

“Oh shit-

“We’re getting pulled in!” Carolina exclaimed, pulling back on the control wheel with everything she had. “I can’t...I can’t hold it! Wash-!

“I know! ” Wash shouted.

“Atmospheric entry in T-minus five…”

Carolina glanced up out the window, watching as the net of light drew relentlessly closer. “Wash, the shields! ” she exclaimed.

“Four…”

“Everybody hold on!” Wash shouted, diverting the Condor’s remaining energy to powering its shields.

“Three…”

Out of the corner of her eye, Carolina saw Tucker brace against the doorframe.

“Two...Integrity of primary engines dropping.”

The frame of the ship rattled and groaned, and Carolina swore she could hear the splutter of the failing engines.

“One-”

When Carolina was nine, a hurricane had struck land and ripped through the town she lived in. She remembered the way the storm gales shrieked against the metal shutters that covered her bedroom window. How the rain had beat against the roof. How the drains had emitted an awful buzzing roar when a tornado had ripped through the neighborhood several blocks over. And for a moment, the scream of metal against the energy field, and the howl of the engines found her huddled back in her parents’ tub with her favorite stuffed animal hugged against her chest and her father stroking her hair, telling her everything would be alright.

The vision only lasted a moment before Carolina shook herself back to reality and glanced down to make sure she was still holding the control wheel. It took her a second to process that none of the control panel’s lights were on.

“Shit, shit! ” Wash hissed, trying all the buttons on his control panel.

There was a flicker of light and a rumble, then the alarms started, filling the cockpit with red light.

“Structural integrity at forty-five percent.”

Carolina took a deep breath and let go of the wheel, letting the ship freefall for a moment before she took control again and pulled up. This time, the ship did what she wanted it to. But the feeling of relief that bubbled in her chest only lasted for a second.

“Primary engines offline.”

“Guys?” Carolina saw Wash glance back at where Tucker was still hugging the doorframe.

“Tucker, sit down and buckle up!” Wash shouted.

Carolina never saw if Tucker did what he was told to or not. The cockpit was filled with mottled shadows as they dropped into the clouds. The ship shook as it cut through layer after layer of atmosphere. Carolina felt her heart drop into her stomach as the clouds sheared away and revealed the rocky surface of Nalome, rushing closer and closer. And she pulled up with everything she had, hearing the groan of the Condor’s wings as they strained under the friction of freefall.

“Impact in six thousand meters.”

“If I can get the primary engines back, I can slow our fall,” Wash said, panic edging his voice.

“What can I do?” Carolina shouted back.

“Just keep pulling up!”

“Three thousand meters.

“I think….I think I almost got it!” Wash exclaimed.

“You think?!

“Just a sec-”

“Two thousand meters.”

“Wash-”

“I know, I know! I just…” Wash hit a few more buttons on his control panel, then paused. “Uh. That’s not good.”

What’s not good?!”

“If we’re going to get the engines back, we need to drop the shields.”

“Out standing .”

“One thousand meters.”

“Wash, tell me this will work,” Carolina said, looking over at him.

Wash stared back, hand hovering over the touchscreen on his control panel. He held her gaze for a moment, then nodded. “It’ll work.”

“Then do it.”

“Seven hundred meters.”

Wash hit the sequence to drop the shields. No more than a second later the onboard AI droned, “Primary engines online.”

Carolina hissed as the sudden thrust snapped her head forward. She held onto the control wheel tightly, ignoring the ache of her whiplash and watching with satisfaction as the ship began to pull out of freefall.

“Structural integrity dropping.”

“There was too much friction during entry. This is going to be an ugly landing,” Wash reported.

“Just keep her steady.”

“Six hundred meters.”

“We’re coming in too fast!” Wash exclaimed.

“Upward thrust is as good as it’s going to be, Wash!”

“Four hundred meters.”

The groan of the Condor’s shell set Carolina’s teeth on edge, and she watched as what appeared to be structures made of stone whipped past to the right.

“Two hundred meters.”

“Everybody hold onto something!” she heard Wash shriek.

The dashboard buzzed with alerts and the cockpit was flooded with red light as the ground rose up to meet the nose of the Condor.

Then there was nothing.

Chapter Text

Tucker awoke to blaring sirens and flashing lights. He tried to move his head to get a look at his surroundings, but stopped with a sore groan when his neck locked up. Great. He squirmed a bit to try to right himself, but stopped when he felt the weight on his chest, and heard the warning creak of something just above him. He was stuck.

“Wash? Caboose? Holy fuck you guys better not be dead,” he panted into his comm, perking up when he heard something of a reply on the other end of the line. It was muffled and partially drowned out by static, but Tucker would have recognized that voice anywhere.

“Hey, Wash, you good?”

Wash’s voice was shrill when he replied, “no I'm not good! What the fuck just happened?!

“Agent Washington! We're on the moon!” came Caboose’s voice; just loud enough for Tucker to quickly lower the volume on his comm in to avoid causing his ears to ring any more than they already were.

Tucker groaned, but couldn't help but feel relieved. Caboose was alright too. “Where are you guys? I can't see anything.”

“They're inside the wreckage of the ship! Where else, jackass?!” So Grif made it too.

“Tucker, I'm right above you. Don't move,” Wash said, right as Tucker got the bright idea to finally switch to thermal on his HUD.

“Yeah, I see that-” Tucker cut off with a gasp as the weight was lifted off his legs and chest and he could finally fucking breathe again. He switched off thermals on his HUD and his vision was flooded with light. Blinking blearily as his visor adjusted its filters to the sunlight, he noticed Caboose off to his left yanking what appeared to be a part of the wall away from him. To his right, Wash was crouching by his head, a slab of twisted steel in one hand that he had presumably pulled away from Tucker’s head so he could finally see again.

Wash offered him his hand, and Tucker took it, letting himself get pulled to his feet. He stumbled a little, and Wash put a hand on his shoulder to steady him.

“I'm good,” Tucker said, waving him off. He forced himself to stand up straight, despite the smarting in his ribs, and get a good look around.

Their ship was just wrecked ; reduced to a tangle of metal and wires and broken glass. One of the wings had been ripped clean off, and a little ways away he could see part of what had once been an engine. Past the billowing cloud of smoke that poured out of it, he could see Carolina walking through the debris with Sarge. One of his arms was slung over her shoulders, and he had a limp to his step that suggested a break.

Tucker startled slightly when Wash strode past him, heading towards Grif, who was currently pulling Simmons out from under part of what might have been the control panel while Donut stood by and offered words of encouragement.

“Agent Carolina!” Caboose yelled, causing Tucker to startle and stare at him as he ran past, “are you okay!?”

Tucker observed their interaction wearily, absently pressing his hand against his side to try to dull some of the pain. He watched as Carolina seemed to say something to Caboose off comms, then hand Sarge off to him before walking over to Wash. Grif had managed to get Simmons out into the open, and was patting the side of his helmet to try to get a response out of him. Noticing this, Tucker bit his lip and took a step towards them, then froze when he felt something bump up against the back of his helmet, immediately followed by a cold voice that commanded, “don’t move.”

Tucker sucked in a shaky breath. He didn’t remember that he was still broadcasting over comms until Carolina looked up at him sharply in response to this. Her gun was in her hands in seconds, and the warning she called out to everyone else drew their attention up the hill towards where Tucker stood with his unseen assailant.

“Let. Him. Go.” Carolina’s voice was pure venom when she spoke.

“First, tell me who you are and what business you have here, then we’ll see.”

Tucker swallowed hard, feeling dizzy, and hoped that Carolina would comply so he didn’t have to worry about the possibility of taking a bullet through the head any time soon.

Carolina exchanged a glance with Wash. Tucker couldn’t tell if she had switched to a private channel to talk to him or not. His vision was tinged black around the edges and little pinpricks of light danced in his peripherals. Holy fuck you piece of shit don’t pass out they’ve got a gun to your head this is the worst possible time to pass out don’t even think-

“Let’s try this again, since you clearly didn’t hear me the first time I asked; who are you, why are you here, who sent you, and who are you working for?” Whoever had a gun to his head was getting agitated, and it only made Tucker’s nausea worse.

“There’s no need for violence--”

“Are you going to answer my fucking questions or what? Look, I have a team of soldiers locked onto you as we speak. If you don’t give me some notion of who you are within the next thirty seconds, I’m blowing you all to hell.”

“Bow chicka- ow! ” Tucker flinched as their gun prodded him hard in the back of his helmet.

“We came from Chorus,” Carolina said, her voice tight. “We got word of a Charon outpost here.”

There was silence from behind Tucker for a moment, and it made his skin crawl. He hoped that Carolina hadn’t given the wrong answer.

“So you’re not Charon, then?”

“Are you?” Wash asked.

“Answer the question, Stripes.”

Wash let out a sigh big enough to make his shoulders sink a little, then he spoke. “No, we’re not Charon.” Carolina shot him a glance as he said this, as if to ask what the hell he thought he was doing.

“Great. That’s just fucking great. I call for help again three months ago, and instead of actual Charon soldiers , I get a bunch of...what, you said you were from Chorus...so you’re a part of that shitty civil war they’ve got going on down there. Perfect.

“Great, another fucking merc!” It was Grif who spoke this time. Tucker looked over at him and couldn’t help but feel a little relieved when he saw that Simmons was sitting up beside him.

“So you work for Charon then?” Wash’s words were cautious.

There was a harsh laugh behind Tucker in response to that. “Oh, I’m sure Hargrove would tell you that if you asked him. But all things considered, if you want my personal opinion, he can go fuck himself.”

Tucker let out a sigh of relief when he felt the gun be removed from the back of his helmet. He stumbled forward a few steps before turning to look back at the person who had just seconds ago threatened to blow his head off. What he was met with was a figure with an alien looking helmet with two slashes across the front of it that might have been a visor. The rest of their armor might have been Mark VI, but the way Tucker’s head was swimming, he couldn’t really tell.

“Call off your men,” Carolina said behind him. Tucker looked back , blinking in surprise when he saw that she was standing right next to him, gun aimed at the figure in front of him.

They tilted their helmet to one side, then threw their head back suddenly with a laugh. “Oh man , I didn’t think that would fucking work! It was a bluff! I never had any guns trained on you guys! I’m the only one here!”

What. ” The disbelief in Carolina’s voice was entirely unfiltered.

“Yeah, yeah,” a dismissive hand wave, “the rest of the soldiers here died off a few years ago. I was the lucky one in the bunch. The name’s Fox, by the way.”

“Hey, are you guys done with your fucking tea party? Because some of us could use a patch job,” Grif cut in.

Fox looked over at him smoothly, and Tucker wondered if they could really see out of those slits on their helmet, or if it was all cameras linked back to the HUD. “There’s an outpost I’ve occupied a few kilometers away. I’ve got a warthog, but I obviously can’t fit everyone in it. So whoever’s hurt the most can come back with me on that, and then I can ride back to get the rest of you once I’ve got them all situated.”

“I don’t think so,” Carolina growled.

“Smells like a trap!” Sarge called out. Tucker noticed that Donut had taken over Caboose’s position of holding him upright. “Leave it to a dirty Charon soldier to try to separate us so they can pick us off while we’re weak. Well I ain’t fallin for that!”

Fox let out a sigh. “Look, I’m not going to hurt any of you. Trust me, if I wanted you dead, I could have picked you off from the cliff while you were all still coming to from the crash.”

“Speaking of the crash,” Carolina said, an edge to her voice, “you wouldn’t happen to have had anything to do with that, did you?”

Fox was silent for a moment, seeming to consider what they wanted to say. “Not directly. There’s an energy field held up by a network of cloaked satellites around Nalome that shuts down the engines of any ships that don’t carry a specific chip from Charon upon entry into the atmosphere. I helped them set it up back in the day, but that doesn’t mean I meant for you to crash.” They looked away. “I’ve been trying to destroy it for months, but I’ve had no success.”

Carolina looked back at Wash, who shrugged. She turned back to Fox. “Fine,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“You can take our injured, but either myself or Wash is coming with you on the first run.”

Tucker never heard Fox’s response to Carolina’s proposition, as his knees locked suddenly, and the black that had been licking at the corners of his vision engulfed him completely.

 


 

Tucker came to with a jolt and immediately regretted opening his eyes when his vision was flooded with a sharp, bright light. “Jesusfuckingchrist,” he hissed, sheilding his eyes with his forearms. It took him only a moment to realize that his helmet was off. What the-

“Welcome back, Tucker.” Tucker looked over and noticed Wash sitting in a chair next to him. Tucker blinked and looked down at himself, realizing that he was laying on some sort of bed. Most of his armor had been stripped off, and when he moved, he could feel what felt like gauze pressing against his side underneath his kevlar suit.

“Where are we?” He asked finally.

“Fox brought us to the outpost she was talking about.”

“Wait, that was a chick?”

Wash stared at him a moment, then dropped his head into the palm of his hand. “Jesus Christ, Tucker.”

“What? You think I could tell with that freaky armor she had on? I mean, Christ, she looked like an alien or something!” Tucker paused, the gears in his brain turning. “Wait, how did you know she’s a girl?”

“I asked.

“Well did she take her helmet off or anything? Is she hot?”

Tucker…

“What? You said that there’s another chick in here who isn’t Carolina, you found out she’s a girl, and I’m asking you if she’s hot.”

No , Tucker, she did not take her helmet off. In fact, she seemed pretty tense about having us around, which is why I’ve been down here with you since we brought you into the med bay-”

“Wait, you’ve been with me the whole time?” Tucker spluttered. “What, do you have a thing for me now, or-”

“I just want to make sure that my team members are functional, that’s it,” Wash gritted out. But Tucker was willing to bet that under his helmet his face was bright red.

Tucker watched the other man for a moment, the amused grin on his face fading when he remembered that he wasn’t the only one who had been hurt. “Hey, is Simmons okay? He was knocked out, right?”

“He has a concussion, but he’ll live. Everyone else is just badly scratched and bruised, but no other major injuries. Carolina was able to right the Condor just before we crashed, so we landed on the hull instead of….whatever might have happened,” Wash said. “I spoke to her, by the way,” he added after a short pause. “She...blames herself more than you. I think you two really should take some time to talk to one another once this is all over.”

Tucker frowned. “Yeah. Sure.” Then, “so this Fox chick, can we trust her?”

“I don’t know,” Wash admitted, but sounded somewhat guilty about it.

“She crashed our ship, right?”

“No, that was the forcefield. She hasn’t really been that chatty with us, honestly. I think she’s worried about us too. Which is why we need to be careful in dealing with her, because we don’t know what she’s been through, and we don’t know what she’s willing to do, either.”

Tucker tilted his head to the side. “You think she might try to fuck with us?”

Wash shook his head, then looked away. “I’m not sure. Even though she’s Charon, she doesn’t seem to have any love for Hargrove. That might be an advantage.” He looked back at Tucker. “Right now she’s giving everyone who was stable enough to walk a...tour...of the outpost.”

“Aww,” Tucker gushed, grinning mischievously, “and you chose to stay down here with me instead? You sure you don’t have a thing for me, Wash?”

Wash sucked in a breath as Tucker chuckled under his breath, then he turned his head pointedly away and sighed, “just...shut up.”

 


 

The outpost was...accommodating enough, Carolina decided, despite much of it being in a state of disrepair. When she had arrived with Fox and the rest of the Reds and Blues, she had immediately noted the wretched state of the tall structure’s exterior. The metal paneling was heavily weathered and rusted, and overgrown with some type of moss, and several of the large satellites situated near the top of the outpost appeared to have suffered damage from a heat source of some kind. The inside wasn’t much better, with rusted pipes winding across the ceiling and loose cables everywhere.

Yet despite its decaying state, the outpost appeared to be functional. This was something Carolina quickly came to realize when she had decided to wander off and map out the building. The walls still hummed with machinery, the doors slid open when she approached them, and occasionally she stumbled across a working server tower shoved in the corner of a dusty room somewhere. The only real consistency that she found that gave her some clue as to what the outpost had originally been used for were the words “The C.O.R.A. Experiment” printed on the surface of every supply crate she came across. Useful information to bring up with their gracious host at a later time.

Eventually, Carolina found herself in what appeared to be a control room for the outpost. She leaned back into the hallway she had come down to make sure she hadn’t been followed before holstering her pistol on her hip and stepping towards the screens mounted on the wall.

Carolina quickly pulled the system out of sleep mode, the monitors flickering on and filling the room with a blue glow. The request for a password filled the screen just above the keyboard she was using, and Carolina sucked in a breath and said, “Epsilon could you-”

Oh.

It took Carolina moment to realize she was holding her breath, and she let it out between her teeth with a hiss. Epsilon was gone. Stupid, stupid mistake, Carolina, she thought angrily, and stepped back from the screens, then froze when she saw the reflection of a figure standing in the doorway behind her in one of the dead monitors.

“Can I help you find something?”

Carolina turned slowly, hand on her pistol. Fox was leaning against the doorframe casually, like she hadn’t just caught her hovering over the keyboard in the control room. Carolina realized that she hadn’t even heard the other woman enter. She must have finished showing the others around, then come looking for her once she realized a member of the group was missing, Carolina realized.

“What’s ‘The C.O.R.A. Experiment?” She asked slowly.

“CORA,” Fox said. “We just called her CORA, for short.”

“Her?”

“She’s an AI,” Fox explained, and Carolina noted the tension in her voice when she said the word ‘AI’.

“You have an AI here?” Carolina asked, keeping her surprise out of her tone.

Hargrove has an AI at Station Alpha, a couple of miles away,” Fox replied. Then, “look, I can explain everything now, or we can wait until everyone’s patched up and ready to listen. The choice is yours, but I really don’t like repeating myself.”

“If it’s dangerous, then I need to know now .”

“It is dangerous, actually. But not right now. She’s contained, and you’ve already crash-landed, so she can’t do anything else to you or your friends at the moment,” Fox said, standing up straight and crossing her arms.

Carolina stared at her incredulously. “An AI caused us to crash?” she hissed. “You said it was a forcefield.”

“Held up and monitored by an AI. If the satellites orbiting around the moon don't read a chip, she fries your engines,” Fox explained. “She’s real fun at parties.” She turned and motioned for Carolina to follow her.

Carolina did so, hesitantly, and kept her hand on her pistol as she walked with Fox down the hall.

“All the data you were not-so-discreetly trying to access is pretty much nothing but logs of all her activity, information about the little project Hargrove was running here, and a bunch of maps and whatnot that I made to figure out what regions of the moon I needed to avoid to stay in CORA’s blindspot,” Fox said without looking at Carolina. “So far, I’ve figured out that in order to activate the sequence that will finally shut her down, a kill code that matches an algorithm specific to each of the other three outposts needs to be inserted into their respective command centers. From there, shutdown of all the facilities can be initiated, and CORA’s blind spot gets bigger.”

“And what happens from there?” Carolina asked slowly.

“Well, theoretically, we’d go to Station Alpha and insert the killcode for her ,” Fox replied, looking back at her.

Carolina stared at her. Despite the endless stream of thoughts running through her mind, she could think of nothing to say to the other woman.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Fox continued. “That I’m just going to use you guys to get off of this stupid rock. But truth is, none of us are getting out of here unless she’s dead.”

“And you know that how? ” Carolina asked.

Fox chuckled. “Honey, do you really think I’ve just been sitting around here twiddling my thumbs for four years?” she asked, leading Carolina through a sliding door at the end of the hall and into what might have been a loading bay at some point. “I tried. Nearly got me killed,” Fox explained, stopping and looking back at Carolina with a nod. “And in the shape some of your friends are in, I don’t think they’d be that lucky.”

“So what now, then?” Carolina asked, trying to keep the impatience out of her voice.

“Now we wait until your teammates are healed up, and then we figure out a plan of action,” Fox said. “I’ll let you know when it’s time.” She then turned and walked away, leaving Carolina alone once again with far more questions than she had answers.

 


 

Climbing a mountain a week or so after having a space ship dropped on you is not something most medical practitioners would generally advise. However, Locus had neither the time, nor resources to worry about something as trivial as that. He had an objective; kill all seven in a band of space pirates camped out in the valley below, acquire their ship and potentially some medical supplies, leave Chorus, find help, stop Hargrove.

It was clockwork. And the way in which he picked off each pirate was almost mechanical.

It was dark by the time he made his way back down the mountain; his progress hindered by numerous injuries, the most prominent of which produced a noticeable limp on his right side. He did his best to hide it, even when he knew no one was watching.

There were little medical supplies to be found. A few tubes of biofoam, a suturing kit, and some gauze was the best he was able to scavenge. The biofoam was the only thing of any real use, however he held onto the rest of it, just in case.

The ship was a Condor. It wasn’t in the best of shape, with a scratched up hull and several bullet holes in one of the secondary thrusters. But it would fly, and that’s all that mattered. Though the slipspace drive was on its last legs, Locus determined that it was good enough for one more jump. That’s all he would need.

Sleep didn't welcome him that night, and he soon found himself watching as the sun's orange glow rose faintly on the horizon. Much of the night had been spent tending to what wounds he hadn't immediately taken care of after the fight with the Freelancers. The pain was manageable, mostly; the painkillers from his power suit made it bearable at least. Though Locus was very much aware that he wouldn't last long in a real fight if he didn't get professional medical attention soon.

He tried to ignore his injuries as much as possible while prepping the ship, focusing instead on plotting a course to the nearest colony planet within the same system as Chorus. Upon a quick scan of a map of the solar system, Locus found one planet of interest; one the Charon ship had passed when it brought him and Felix-

No. It’s over. You had no choice. Keep moving, he thought, growing suddenly conscious of how his shoulders had stiffened at the thought of his former partner. He quickly pre-programmed the coordinates into the ship’s autopilot, then went through the motions of preparing for takeoff. The sooner he was off this planet, the sooner he could leave everything that had happened behind him.

 


 

Takeoff was surprisingly smooth; Locus managed to impress himself with his handling. The course he had plotted would take him past one of Chorus’s moons. He would have to get uncomfortably close to it, but with The Staff of Charon looming in nearby open space, it was his best chance at avoiding detection.

Locus watched wearily as the surface of the moon drew closer, it’s green and grey-dappled form looming like a spherical monolith emerging from the black expanse of space. He maneuvered the ship carefully into the moon's gravitational field, keeping a close eye on fuel levels as he did so. Prior to takeoff, he had calculated the distance the Condor could travel with its current fuel levels, and had determined the best course of action was to utilize the moon’s gravity to slingshot the Condor into deep space with minimal fuel usage. It was a flawless plan.

Almost.

Karma was a bitch in the shape of a big yellow forcefield, Locus soon realized, as the barrier appeared suddenly on the starboard side of the ship and the warning alarms indicating the failure of the ship’s engines blared overhead. And as he struggled to fight the moon’s gravity and compensate for the engine failure, a part of him realized redemption had never been within reach. And as the onboard AI informed him of the ship’s imminent impact, a wave of bitterness rose up into his throat because he had been so close . So close to leaving it all behind and starting anew and maybe one day fixing the damage he had done.

And as the secondary engines finally failed and the integrity of the primary engines dropped, leaving him with nothing but a shield to defend against the friction of atmospheric entry, that bitterness settled into something cold and heavy at the bottom of Locus’ stomach. He deserved this. Hundreds, thousands of lives ruined because of him, all for nothing. All because he had been so blind . Because he couldn’t face the truth.

And the wind whipped around the metal coffin he had sealed himself in; an ironic addition to the grave he had dug himself into. And the roar of the friction battering against the ship’s shield crescendoed. And Locus held onto the control wheel and watched as the clouds cut past and revealed the rocky surface below. And he listened as the AI announced the failure of the primary engines and begin the countdown to impact with the iron-flavored taste of acceptance on his tongue.

How fitting, he thought as the Condor pitched downwards and the ground rose up.

Chapter Text

Wash had just left the med bay when the alarms started. He froze, hand reaching for his gun instinctively.

“What the fuck is that?” Wash looked over his shoulder at Tucker, who had insisted on walking up with him after proving he could stand on his own just minutes ago.

“I don’t know,” Wash said, his voice heavy with tension. Then, “stay close. We need to find Fox and the others and figure out what’s going on.”

They found Carolina before they found Fox; running into her on the ground level along with Caboose and the Reds. Apparently they’d all had the same sense to gather together at the first sign of danger. It almost, almost brought a smile to Tucker’s face.

“Agent Washington! Tucker! The walls are yelling! ” Caboose exclaimed when he saw them.

“It’s okay, Caboose. They’re just alarms,” Wash sighed, walking past him to reach Carolina.

“I knew we couldn’t trust that good-for-nothin’ space pirate!” Sarge growled, swinging his shotgun around.

“We don’t even know what the alarms are for ,” Grif huffed.

“They’re to signal a ship entering the atmosphere of the moon,” a new voice said.

Tucker turned and stared as Fox approached them. She hit something on the data pad in her hand and the alarms cut off suddenly.

“Another ship? That’s impossible. Kimball didn’t send anyone else!” Carolina exclaimed.

Fox stopped short of her and tilted her head to the side in thought. “Maybe this ‘Kimball’ of yours didn’t tell you everything you needed to know.”

Carolina shook her head. “You’re wrong. You don’t know her. She’s trustworthy. If she said she was only sending us, then that’s what she did.”

Fox held her gaze evenly for a moment, then shrugged. “If you say so. Though I have to ask, how many Condors does she have in her airfleet?”

“She had one,” Simmons muttered.

Fox looked over at him, then turned the data pad over in her hands so everyone could see what was on the screen; a frozen image of a Condor caught in the moon’s energy field.

Wash shook his head. “That’s not one of ours,” he said. Tucker glanced over at him when he heard the tension in his tone.

“Well, whoever it belongs to, they’re currently a few seconds from impact,” Fox explained, tapping her finger against a timer in the top right corner of the screen counting down. “I’ve already calculated their trajectory and figured out where they’re going to land, so I’m heading out to go find the wreckage and see if there are any survivors,” she said, tucking the data pad under her arm. “There are quarters in the east wing of the outpost, by the way, if you guys wanna get yourselves situated,” she added, looking back at them.

“I can’t let you go out there by yourself,” Wash said suddenly, stepping towards her.

Fox looked back at him and seemed to size him up before speaking. “I can handle myself,” she said.

“You don’t know what’s out there. You got lucky with us, but whoever’s on that ship might not be as friendly as we were,” Wash said. And Tucker noticed the sudden quiet that had fallen over the group, and wondered if they were all thinking of the same person.

“Then come with me ,” Fox sighed exasperatedly. “I don’t have all night. The ship just crashed, and the longer we wait, the less likely we’ll be to find anyone alive.” With that, she turned and started towards the garage.

Wash glanced back at Carolina, who sighed and gave him a nod. “We’ll take care of things here. You be careful, understand?”

“Sure thing, boss,” Wash replied, then hurried after Fox.

Tucker watched him go, worry wrapping around his stomach like an icy constrictor. But the feeling was disrupted when Carolina said, “alright, let’s go settle in. We don’t know how long we’ll be here,” before starting off in the opposite direction.

“Dibs on top bunk,” Grif said flatly as he walked past.

“What?! Aw come on!” Simmons groaned, following him.

“Oh, be a good sport, Simmons!” Donut piped up cheerfully. “We both know you like to be on the bottom!”

“Make all the dibs you want, Grif, but we all know the bottom’s where you belong!” Sarge barked, eliciting a snigger from Donut.

“Can I have top bunk, Tucker?” Caboose whispered.

Tucker sighed, but a smile crept onto his face as he said, “sure, Caboose. Let’s go.”

 


 

Black. That was the first thing Locus saw when he opened his eyes. He was vaguely aware of sirens blaring from somewhere behind him, but trying to turn his head to see where they were coming from resulted in more pain than he had it in him to deal with at the moment.

He felt something warm slide down his forehead, and he reached up to swipe it out of his eyes, but paused when his hand hit metal and remembered that he still had his helmet on. He blinked several times to try to clear his vision, and felt his heart sink when he saw the warnings flashing across his HUD.

Locus closed his eyes again and tried to focus on breathing. When he opened them again, he found himself staring past his HUD, upwards. He could see stars, he realized, and a part of him couldn't help but feel a little relieved. Groaning with the effort, he tried to drag himself upright, only to fall back with a strangled gasp when a sharp pain cut through his side. He tasted iron and wondered if he bit his tongue, or if it was indicative of a much deeper injury.

With a grating sigh, he closed his eyes again, trying to convince himself that the pain he was in wasn’t as bad as he thought it was. That he wasn’t probably bleeding out in the wreckage of his ship. That he didn’t probably have a punctured lung. These convictions became less and less feasible as the numbing static in the back of his head began to take over his thoughts. He told himself to keep breathing, to stay awake, to fight , but in the back of his head the doubt had already set in.

A sensation on the side of his head just then drew him back into the world, if only slightly. He cracked his eyes open, confused, trying to place exactly what he was looking at. On the screen of his HUD, he could see two blue slash marks where there had been nothing but stars before. Whatever it was that was in front of him now had his attention. He tried to move back with a gasp, but found himself hissing in pain and pressing a hand to his side. When he pulled it away, in the dim lightning, he could see it was wet with blood.

The blue slashes above him moved, and it occurred to him that someone was speaking to him. The voice was soft and gentle, but had a tone of urgency to it. He couldn’t quite make out the words; they were just beyond his muddled mind’s grasp of understanding, but they were there.

Suddenly there was a pinch in his side, and something changed and he could hear again. And this time, when the voice spoke, he could understand .

“Hey, hey, listen to me. You’re hurt real bad, okay. Try not to move. I’ve got- look, I’ve got a friend coming and he’ll help, alright. I just need you to stay with me, okay? Keep breathing. You’re gonna be okay.”

It occurred to Locus that whoever was crouching over him was also holding his head straight; typical procedure for handling anyone who had potential spinal damage. At the very least it explained why everything hurt so much.

He wanted to say something, to ask what was going on, to ask this stranger who they were, but before he could muster the strength to do so, a new, familiar voice rang out.

“Fox, holy shit, get away from him! He’s dangerous!”

Agent Washington , Locus thought with exasperation.

“Oh yeah, real dangerous.” Locus could hear the eyeroll in Fox’s voice. “Yeah I’m so fucking terrified of the guy who just nosedived into a goddamned moon .”

“Listen to me, this guy is fucking insane and I promise he’s not going to repay any sort of kindness you try showing him, so just…”

“What? You want me to just leave him? No way.” Fox’s voice was a frost-edged blade. “Listen, Stripes, this is my moon, my operation, and so help me god it is my call as to what we’re going to do with this guy. I’ve been stuck up here with literally fucking no one but an AI to keep me company, and because of that I’ve had very little chance to do right by anybody.”

Wash started to speak up, but Fox cut him off. “Which means that we’re going to take him back, get him help , and then, when he’s not bleeding all over the place, we can have a talk with him and see what’s up. Do I make myself clear?

Locus didn’t hear anything from Wash for a few seconds, and that made the back of his mind crawl with worry.

“Fine.” Wash hissed the word out between his teeth, and from Locus’ limited range of view, he could see the Freelancer storm off. “I’m going to get the warthog,” Wash shouted back as he walked away.

“That’ll be the first sensible thing you’ve done since you got here,” Fox muttered. She then looked back at Locus, tilting her head to the side. “Hey, you’re still awake, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded like he had tried gargling nails, but it was the best Locus could do.

“Okay, listen. I filled the cut in your side with biofoam. It should hold, but I need you to try to avoid moving as much as possible just in case it doesn’t.”

Her voice was starting to sound distant, and Locus had to resist the urge to shake his head to try to clear the fog that was settling behind his eyes. He tried to speak again, but only managed a garbled cough.

“Hey, look, don’t talk, okay? I just need you to focus on breathing for me, alright? You’re going to be fine.” Her voice was urgent, but Locus found himself slipping further and further away from it with every breath.

So much for making things right, he thought bitterly before darkness overwhelmed his vision. Then there was nothing.

 


 

White. Locus regretted opening his eyes and shut them immediately against the overhead glare. It took him a moment to muster the energy to open them again, but once he did, he forced himself to look around. He was in a white room with nothing in it save for the bed he was laying on. The wall he was facing was made of glass, and through it he could see that he was on a hall lined with more rooms like the one he was in. He narrowed his eyes when he realized he was in some sort of holding cell. It didn't make much sense, considering whoever put him in here didn't bother to remove his armor.

He bit his lip as he tried to sit up. It didn't hurt that much, but he was still remarkably sore from... whatever had happened to him. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stared at the floor, an arm wrapped absently around his middle.

He wasn't dead. He tried to rationalize this. He remembered feeling panic, which meant that whatever had happened must have been bad. Frustrated, Locus squeezed his eyes shut, trying to remember. He was startled into opening them when he heard the sound of a door sliding open.

“Well hey there, Sunshine! Glad to see you're alright. You had me worried for a while there,” an unfamiliar soldier chimed in an unfamiliar voice as she stepped inside the room. The glass panel Locus had initially believed to be a wall slid back into place behind her.

Locus peered at her, swearing he had seen the armor she was wearing somewhere before. “Who are you?” He asked slowly after a moment. “And where am I?”

The soldier tilted her head to the side. “Huh,” she said, sounding a little disappointed, “guess I should have expected that. You did get hit on the head pretty hard back there.” She leaned her shoulder against the wall, crossing her arms. “The name's Fox, by the way. And you're on Nalome, one of Chorus's moons. Do you remember how you got here?”

Locus looked back down at the floor, his head swimming. His first thought was that Chorus had managed to crash his ship, but it didn't make sense. There was certainly no way Kimball could have known he was trying to leave the planet. There was a chance that Charon might have learned of his betrayal, but he doubted that Hargrove knew he was still alive after all that had happened. It occurred to him that he still hadn’t answered the question. “I...My ship went down.”

“Yep. Remember anything else?”

There was something about her that he swore he recognized, and Locus wondered if maybe she wasn’t entirely unfamiliar after all. “You were there, weren’t you?”

“At the crash site? Yeah. I pulled you out.” Fox nodded. “You were in pretty bad shape when I got to you. Broken rib, a concussion, some internal, and external, bleeding. Fixed you up with some biofoam and a healing unit. Which is still running. The healing unit, I mean.” She pushed off the wall and rolled her shoulders before straightening up. “You’ve been out for almost twenty-two hours now. I would’ve gotten you out of that armor to make you more comfortable if it wasn’t for the fact that...well...frankly speaking, you’re not too popular with the peanut gallery upstairs. Figured it would give them a harder time in case they tried something.”

No. Right. That’s right. Agent Washington had been there. He remembered now. He had warned Fox to stay away from him. Told her that he was dangerous. So why… “Why did you help me when Agent Washington warned you not to?” Locus asked, looking up at her again.

Fox perked up at that. “Oh, so you know them too . Was wondering if this was just a one-way sort of thing.” She scuffed at the floor absently with a heel. “And I saved you because...well...I couldn’t just leave you there, y’know?”

No, I don’t know , he wanted to say back. It didn’t make sense in his head that someone would help another person that they knew could possibly do them harm later. But instead, he said, “You should have listened to Agent Washington.”

Fox’s shoulders went stiff, and then she put both her hands on her hips and centered her weight. “Okay, look. You can pull your little pity party tugboat for as long as you fucking like, or you can cut the angsty Dorian Grey bullshit and actually thank me for not letting you bleed out.” She sucked in a breath, then let it out slowly. “Look, those guys up there have been saying stuff about you all day. However, I don’t know you. Not really. I did a little digging and was able to pull your file. I know what you can do. And I know what you’ve done. But that doesn’t tell me jack shit about what you’re going to do. You might have had a rough start, but what you’ve got, you can build on.”

Locus blinked. How her naivety hadn’t gotten her killed by this point was beyond him. “What you read in my file tells you nothing about me,” he warned.

“True, which is why I talked to the Sim Troopers and the Freelancer dynamic duo up there. Some of their anecdotes were...insightful. From what I can tell, you’ve been the puppet of some pretty terrible people as of late. So...not everything that was done was necessarily your fault. Your poor judgement and lack of a moral compass for sure was, though.” She shrugged. “All I’ve got to say on the matter is this; if you were really the murderous nutcase that they told me you were, you’d’ve probably already tried to kill me by now.”

Locus felt the hackles on the back of his neck rise. “Don’t call me that,” he growled.

“Oh. Yikes, sorry. Sort of slipped out. Noted. Won’t do that again. Pinkie promise and all that.” Fox rounded her shoulders guiltily. She shuffled her feet awkwardly, and Locus got the sense that she wanted to say more, but didn't.

“You mentioned Sim Troopers. How many?”

Fox perked up slightly, and inhaled like she was going to answer, but cut off and looked sharply back over her shoulder. Her sudden silence sparked a newfound wariness in Locus, and he held his breath and listened, becoming aware of the unmistakable sound of hurried footsteps down the hall coming towards them. He looked over as Fox leaned back to get a better angle to see whoever was approaching.

“Simmons, is that you?” Fox called out, irritation apparent in her tone.

“Y-yeah, Fox, sorry. Carolina asked me to find you. She says she has a question about the- Oh shit he's awake! ” Simmons froze on the other side of the glass, staring at Locus.

“Really? Gosh , I hadn't noticed! ” Fox exclaimed.

“Wh- what are you doing in there?! We need to get you out he could kill-”

“Yeah, see, I'm gonna stop you right there,” Fox said, holding up a hand. “He's not going to hurt me, because frankly, it'll only do him more damage to try. And I can leave whenever I want because I've been bioscanned into the system as an administrator. So don't worry.”

Simmons over at her then glanced nervously back at Locus. “Wash said to let him and Carolina know when he wakes up,” he said lamely.

“I heard. Figured I'd talk to him first to get a handle on how he's holding up. Since, y’know, he crashed,” Fox replied. “Now if you’ll be a dear, please run up and tell the dynamic duo that their friend here is not ready to be interrogated, since he’s still recovering from having a hole punched into his side.”

“I-I can’t just leave you alone with him! Wash will kill me!”

Fox was very silent and very still for a moment, then spoke up in a tone that reminded Locus of the one Doctor Grey liked to use when someone was really getting on her nerves. “Simmons, do you know what a thousand pounds of torque does to a human neck?”

“I'm gonna go find Wash,” Simmons said quickly, starting back down the hall.

“If Wash comes down here, I’m going to kill both of you!” Fox shouted after him. After a moment, she looked back at Locus. “Sorry about all that.”

But Locus didn’t hear her. Under his helmet his eyes were squeezed shut and he had tightened his arm around his waist involuntarily. Just focus on your breathing. Just breath, he told himself, growing more and more frustrated at the lack of control he had over his own body. It’s just an interrogation. You’ve been through this before. But before, he was one of two who crawled out of the wreckage after a battle destroyed his platoon; sitting in a metal chair in a cold room with a man with a forgettable face demanding to know how they survived when the others fell. Before he was a soldier. Before, he wasn’t a monster. How could he face any of the Sim Troopers or Freelancers or Kimball after what he-

Locus was jolted out of his thoughts when he felt something brush against his arm and he flinched backwards, body tensed for a fight. When he came to his senses he realized that Fox was standing in front of him, her hand outstretched, and he realized that she must have simply been trying to get his attention.

“Hey, look at me. You’re okay, alright?”

He stared at her, anger slowly creeping over him because he had to have made it obvious that he wasn’t mentally present. Careless mistake, he told himself. You can’t trust her. You can’t trust any of them. Stop letting your guard down and focus . He took a deep breath, gritting out an “I’m fine,” before turning his head away.

“No, you’re not. You looked like you were about to pass out there for a second.”

“I wasn’t-”

“And you still kind of do. Look, it’s okay . I’m not going to let them interrogate you until you’re ready.” Fox stepped back and let her hand drop back to her side. “You're safe here. I know you probably don't really believe that, but I wouldn't say it unless it was true.” She looked away. “I'm going to go find Wash before he comes looking for me.” She glanced back at him. “You can reach me on ShowStopper90. It's a private channel. Just radio if you need me.”

She turned, and Locus watched as she walked out of the room and down the hall, the glass door sliding shut behind her and leaving him in silence.

 

Chapter Text

Agent Washington’s headache started when Simmons gave him the news about Locus. When Fox came in shortly after, it only got worse.

“I said immediately , Fox,” he sighed when she approached him in the command center, where he and Carolina had gathered after news of Locus’ arrival at the outpost had been delivered.

“Ten minutes,” Fox said, stopping a few feet away from him. “I was only talking to him for ten minutes. Speaking of which;” she shifted her weight and put her hand on her hip, “he’s in no condition for you lot to go down there and interrogate him. Fella nearly passed out mid-conversation. He’s still got a ways to go.”

“We don’t have time to wait for him to feel better.” Wash looked over his shoulder as Carolina spoke up, not looking away from the schematics she had pulled up on one of the monitors.

“She’s right,” Wash said, looking back at Fox. “Every second that passes without us talking to him gives him time to try to escape.”

Fox stared at him incredulously, then threw back her head in a laugh. Now Carolina was looking at her. “Escape? Jesus, Stripes. Where?! Where is he going to go? He can’t leave. The energy field around Nalome makes escaping it’s atmosphere impossible!”

“Who’s to say he won’t try to find the source of the field and destroy it?” Carolina asked, stepping away from the monitor and walking over to join Wash at his side.

“Well, number one, if he did find it - which would take very little effort on his part, I should add - he’d have to get CORA to cooperate. And number two, she won’t cooperate. She’ll fucking kill him,” Fox huffed.

Carolina and Wash exchanged a glance. By now, news of the AI had spread as well, and this was the second time Fox had brought it up, but so far, she hadn’t elaborated much on the topic, and the notion that it would try to kill anyone made them both uneasy.

“Why on earth would she want to kill anyone?” Carolina asked slowly.

Fox stared at her a moment, then crossed her arms. “Right. No I never...told you guys what happened to my team, did I? Never had the time. Look,” she turned her head towards Carolina, “why don’t we get the others in here so they can all hear this?”

“Locus stays put,” Wash said warningly.

Fox nodded at him. “Fine.”

 


 

Tucker thumbed the exhaustion from his eyes as he made his way to the control room with Caboose in tow. He could hear bickering up ahead, which had to mean that the Reds had responded to Fox summoning them over the intercom faster- something Tucker was sure Sarge wasn't going to let them hear the end of. Behind him, he could hear Caboose yammering on about something cute that Freckles did.

Tucker wished he could just curl up somewhere and sleep, but Fox's voice had sounded urgent, and he knew that Wash would only yell at him for being absent.

He lowered his gaze towards the floor as he and Caboose stepped into the control room. The overhead lights were bright, and it was easier to just stare at the concrete.

“There y’ are, Blues! I was wondering if you two lowlifes were ever gonna show. If you had half the wit of a Red, you’d’ve been here hours ago!” Sarge gloated when they entered the room.

“You realize I made the announcement over the intercom less than ten minutes ago, right?” Fox asked. She was standing behind a large round table with a dark glass surface with her back to the rows of monitors that covered the walls, Tucker observed. On either side of her were Wash and Carolina.

“Every second that passes gives the enemy time to scheme against us!” Sarge declared. Tucker blinked when he caught the meaningful stare Carolina fixed Fox with.

Fox simply sighed and tapped the surface of the table. There was a flicker of blue light from beneath the glass and then a series of holograms projected above it. Fox flicked a few of them aside before enlarging one in the center. Tucker realized he was staring at a 3D projection of the moon. On top of the spiderwebs of light that made up the planetoid were several blinking green dots.

Fox looked around at everyone before speaking. “About six years ago I was sent here by Charon to research the alien technology on Chorus. We were meant to be on Chorus, but due to the…’unstable political situation’...tied with the fact that most of us were only researchers with no real combat experience, we wound up here. The purpose of our mission was to understand the tech on Chorus, and figure out a way to make some of it useful. At the time when I was hired by Charon, I was working closely with a man named Howard Manning; a biotics engineer. They hired me because they wanted to find a way to make biotics that could be weaponized with the same kind of plasma energy that the Sangheili use for their swords. So that way if a soldier was hurt in combat, they would not only return to the field with full mobility, but they would also be far more dangerous than they were before.

“Let me be clear; I wasn’t on board with the idea of ‘weaponizing’ biotics. Like my mentor, I believe that any prosthetics given to a patient should work just as well as the original limb, but not be any better than it was before. Mostly because giving someone say...a laser arm...and then expecting them to be able to go about having a normal life after discharging them is...unconventional. That’s where the trouble with Hargrove began.

“He didn’t take too kindly to my personal beliefs, nor did he like the fact that many of my colleagues agreed with them. So he sent down an AI to ‘help us stay our course,’ so to speak.” Fox sighed, and she fell silent for a moment before continuing. “Her name was C.O.R.A. It stood for Charon Outpost Regulation AI. She was supposed to monitor our work here and help us run the outposts and main station. Unfortunately for Hargrove, she seemed to like us a lot more than she liked him.”

Tucker watched with a mixture of fascination and concern as Fox appeared to shrink as she spoke. “Hargrove didn’t like that. He sent us a package containing a drive with new code for her to make her...more cooperative. He said that it would help her help us even more. And at the time we were stretched so thin with our resources and supplies that we didn’t really have a choice but to implement the code.”

Fox lowered her head to stare at the glass surface of the table instead of the soldiers around her. “That’s when things turned ugly,” she said softly. “CORA began acting differently. Whenever someone didn’t follow Hargrove’s exact orders, she would find a way to make them pay for it. By the time I realized what was happening, it was already too late. She had holed herself up in Station Alpha and we couldn’t reach her. And I tried to tell my team to just leave it alone, but they were so determined to get off of Nalome. They wanted to go home. If only they hadn’t tried to shut her down, maybe CORA…”

Fox looked up at all of them and took a deep breath before speaking again. “They attacked Station Alpha. CORA caused an explosion and trapped them. She said that they were ‘liabilities to the mission’.” She spat the words out bitterly. “The only reason she didn’t kill me too was because I was the commander in charge and therefore ‘vital to the success of the mission’. I’ve been trying ever since to find a way to break her code so I can get off this miserable rock and hunt Hargrove down. And now that you’re all here, I might finally have a chance to do that.”

No one spoke for a moment. Tucker found himself staring at the floor, mulling over what he had just been told. He looked up when he heard Wash speak.

“Where’s the AI now?” Tucker wondered if Wash was thinking of Epsilon when he asked this.

 Fox reached up and waved a hand over the holographic sphere floating above the table, causing it to spin slightly. She tapped it again and it stopped, a yellow light flashing on its surface growing larger. She magnified it by tapping once on the glass, then swept her hands over the image, causing it to reform into a 3D projection of a tall egg-shaped tower overlooking a valley. “This is Station Alpha, which is where our primary base of operations used to be. I managed to confine her range of perception to that area only, so she can’t see or hear what’s going on inside of the eastern outpost, which is where we are right now,” she explained.

“So we're safe from her?” Simmons asked.

We are, for now,” Fox nodded.

“What do you mean by that? ” Carolina asked, turning to face Fox.

Fox tapped the surface of the glass, and the hologram retreated as several new diagrams appeared on the table. “The weapons system you guys came to destroy is still online. CORA doesn’t have access to it yet- I was able to cut her off from that. But there’s a very real chance that she might try to push to take control of it. Again.”

“How long do we have until that happens?” Carolina demanded.

Fox hesitated. “Well….That depends on how long it takes for her to figure out that you guys survived.”

“Oh, so this is our fault?” Grif hissed.

“What? I- no! This is no one’s fault!” Fox exclaimed. “Look, she was always going to try to get the weapon system under her control. It’s just...that’s just how she is . What we need to focus on now is stopping her before that happens, and before she gets back inside of this outpost.”

“But didn’t you say she couldn’t reach us?” Sarge piped up.

“Well, yes, but also...look, it’s not that simple,” Fox said, shaking her head. “All of her main code is confined to Station Alpha, but several months ago I detected an anomaly in the firewall I put up.”

“Do you know what caused it?” Simmons asked.

“I started working on the satellites to try to bring down the energy field again,” Fox replied. “About two months ago, I was able to disable one of the satellites for a short while. CORA noticed, and began attacking the firewall. I’ve had to adjust the code almost weekly since then to keep her confined. Really, it’s only a matter of time until she adapts her code in a way that allows her to bypass the firewall before I can counter it.”

This time the silence that followed was tense. Wash and Carolina exchanged a look, and Tucker could only image what they were thinking.

Fox seemed to notice the tension too, and spoke up again. “I’ve...developed a kill code. If it makes you guys feel any better. Once I have everything set to use it, we should all be able to get off of Nalome together.”

“And how long is that going to take?” Carolina asked, and this time her voice was cold.

Fox’s shoulders went stiff, and she turned her head to look at Carolina. “Depends…” she began evenly, “on how willing you are to help me with it.”

Carolina took a breath like she was going to say something, but Tucker beat her to it, speaking up quickly. “Why do you need our help? It’s just typing stuff into a computer, right?”

“It’s not that simple,” Fox replied exasperatedly. “I need to manually enter in the override code in all four of the outposts. So far, I’ve only been able to do that to this one.”

“So what you’re saying is you need us to split up to get to the other outposts,” Wash reflected.

“Only if you’re up for it.”

“Well little lady, it doesn’t seem like we have much of a choice, now do we?” Sarge said.

“Could we not get involved in other people’s problems for once?” Grif moaned.

“If it’s the only way we’re getting out of here, then we’ll do it,” Wash said with a nod.

Fox let out a relieved sigh. “I’ll get some stuff together to help you guys out. There are some Warthogs in the sublevel motor pool if you want to go ahead and get those prepped. When I’m ready, I’ll call you guys back here for a briefing before you set out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Wash nodded.

“Grif! What are you still doing standing here! Go prep those Warthogs. Step lively! Hop to it!” Sarge shouted at Grif.

Grif sighed and wandered off with Simmons tailing him. Tucker watched them go, then muttered out, “C’mon Caboose. Let’s go with them,” before following them.

 


 

Once Fox had left,  Locus had mustered up the strength to get up and take a look around the room he was in. After some inspection, he decided that the space wasn't intended to be used as a long-term holding cell. He reckoned it was more used for storage or quarantine if anything else. The walls had panels in them that if he pressed on them, they would extrude into a workbench or a drawer filled with tools. Unfortunately, there was nothing of actual use to him in any of them.

The glass panel that served as the way into the room was airtight and extremely strong. Locus took a swing at it once just to test it’s thickness and came away with a sore hand. It didn’t take him long afterwards to decide that any attempts at escaping he may have tried to make were futile. Sighing, he sat back down on the edge of the bed, the wheels in his head turning.

He considered the private channel Fox had given him, but he decided he didn’t trust her nearly enough to initiate a conversation. Especially since he had no way of knowing if the channel was actually private or not. However, sitting around and waiting for something to happen was hardly an appealing option. Though it wasn’t as if he had much choice in the matter-

Locus blinked, then looked up when he heard what sounded like footsteps down the hall. He waited for a moment, watching the hall through the glass wall through narrowed eyes, only to sigh when Fox stepped into his view.

“Get some more rest?” she asked, stopping in front of the room he was in.

Something in her voice sounded genuine. Like she actually cared about whatever answer he might give her. And for some reason that only made Locus more wary. He opted for silence, deciding that it was better to give her as little information on his current state of being as possible lest she try to use it against him later.

Fox stood patiently, waiting for an answer, and when she realized she wasn’t going to get one, deflated a little. “Not in a talking mood, huh?”

“Why are you here?”

Fox seemed taken aback by the question, tilting her head slightly. “What do you mean?”

“What do you want?”

Fox straightened her head back out and shifted her weight to one leg. “Well, I figured that since the peanut gallery is out running around to try to get everyone off of this moon, no one would notice if I moved you to more….reasonable accomodations. Since you’re literally being kept in the same place we used to shove extra ammo crates...or idiots who got the space equivalent of a terrible case of poison ivy. Probably a good thing you kept your armor on.”

Locus tensed slightly at her response. This was a trap. It had to be. Fox had no reason to want to move him. It was probably safer for her to keep him here. So either she was extremely naive, or she had something planned. He worked through all the possible scenarios in his head of how whatever happened next could go. She could open that door and he could snap her neck. She didn’t look like much of a fighter. Or maybe she was, and was just very good at making herself seem like she wasn’t a threat. But if he did kill her, where would he go? He didn’t know the layout of wherever he was being kept. But the odds that he would last very long, especially with the Sim Troopers and Freelancers in the same building, were very low. Biding his time and waiting for an opportune moment was the best option he had, but it still wasn’t exactly favorable. He considered this as he watched Fox cross her arms over her chest. The silence from her alerting him to the fact that she had likely just said something that he had missed.

“Well?” she asked.

“What?”

A sigh. “I asked; if I let you out, are you going to try to do something stupid like kill me?”

I considered it , Locus had half a mind to answer. But instead he kept it to a simple, “no.”

Fox nodded, seeming satisfied with this answer. “Good, because with how bad your injuries were from the crash, you’d probably only hurt yourself even worse.”

Locus couldn’t tell if there was a threat in her words or not.

Fox hit a panel on the wall, and the glass door slid back, opening the room into the hall. She took a step back, glancing around quickly before gesturing him to follow her. “You can walk on your own, right?” she asked.

Locus didn’t answer her, and instead stood and made his way over to her. This close, he realized just how short Fox actually was. She had to be at the very least a full foot shorter than him. Yet she carried herself like she was much, much taller. Once upon a time, he might have found something like this to be mildly amusing. But now he could only think about how he could use it to his advantage.

“Yes, yes, I know , I’m tiny. But I could still probably bench you, so don’t get any ideas,” Fox said, turning and starting down the hall.

Locus tailed her, tensing at every odd sound he heard around him. The longer they walked, the more he wondered where they were, and why it was in such a poor, decaying state. He gathered that they were likely at some sort of outpost on the moon, but surely something as big as that would have to be well taken care of. It didn’t make sense that it would be rusting and covered in dust and oil stains. “Where is everyone else?”

“Hm? Oh, the peanut gallery is-”

“Not them.”

Fox looked back over her shoulder at him. “You mean the people I came here with?”

“Yes.”

She was silent for a moment, looking back ahead of her. “Dead,” she said after a moment.

And Locus couldn’t help but stop suddenly at that, if only for a second. Because what in the world had he been thrust into? The Sim Troopers and Freelancers had only arrived a few hours before him, presumably. Which meant that Fox had either been on the moon by herself for whoever knows how long. Or something was going on that he wasn’t fully aware of yet.

“How?” he asked.

And Fox sighed at this, and Locus noticed how her shoulders sagged slightly. “I...made a mistake,” she said. And as they made their way through the halls of the outpost, Locus listened with troubled curiosity at how the AI Charon had sent to the moon with Fox and her team had killed every last person on Nalome save for her.

She fell silent when they reached the ground level and led him through a series of darkened labs, one of which had an array of scrap metals scattered across a workbench. They entered another hall and Fox led him towards an elevator at the end of it. When they reached it, Fox punched in a code, then stepped back in waiting.

 

The silence from her grew wider for only a moment before she spoke again; “y’know, I think we have some stuff in common, you and I.”

And Locus couldn’t help but indulge her because honestly, what could he have in common with her ? “What makes you say that?”

Fox turned her head, but didn’t look completely back over her shoulder at him. “Well...we’ve both hurt a lot of people. People we didn’t necessarily want or need to hurt. I didn’t want my friends to die for this stupid project of Hargrove’s. I fought back. I stuck too hard to my beliefs. And it got people hurt. Kind of like you. So I guess you could say we’re both terrible soldiers,” she said with a dark chuckle.

And that drove a spike of tension straight down Locus’ spine because she had no idea what she was talking about. And he said so, his voice a low growl.

And now Fox looked back at him, and there was something in the way she held herself that made her seem so certain, like she did know what she was talking about. And then Locus remembered the file she had mentioned when he first woke up, and wondered if everything she had brought up was in there too. And what else she knew. And he decided in that moment that Fox was absolutely a threat.

“It’s okay, you know,” she said, and Locus didn’t understand why her voice sounded so gentle even though he had just snapped at her. “You’re allowed to admit you messed up. It doesn’t make you weak. I mean, shit, if it did, I’d be a literal fucking noodle in power armor. And I’m pretty sure I’m not, so…”

Locus opened his mouth to reply to that, but the breath escaped as a hiss between his teeth as the elevator arrived with a cheery ding!

Fox sighed  and stepped into it, turning to face him and leaning back against the wall. Locus watched her for a moment, wondering if it was wise to follow her in. She didn’t appear to be armed, so there was a chance she wasn’t going to try to kill him on the ride up. But one could never be too cautious. He resolved to step into the elevator and stand as far away from her as he could.

When Fox saw this, she let out a little laugh. “Gosh, I don’t bite , you know.” Then, “hey, hit the button for the fourth floor, if you don’t mind. Quarters are up there.”

Quarters? Surely Fox wasn’t thinking about putting him on the same hall as everyone else. Locus could only imagine how that would go. “Where is everyone else staying?” he asked cautiously, looking over his shoulder at her.

“Opposite wing. Don’t worry, I’m not putting you near them. Because safety and all that. Also I don’t want this whole situation we’re all stuck in to turn into a murder mystery,” Fox replied.

Locus turned away from her with a sigh and pressed the button, watching absently as the elevator doors slid shut. He listened to the hum of machinery, thankful for the silence from Fox.

When they reached the fourth floor, Fox led him down a hall lined with sliding doors, stopping at the one at the very end.

“Here’s your stop,” she said cheerfully. “The dynamic duo is probably going to interrogate you soon, so keep that in mind. It’s probably a good thing I took all your weapons from you, that way when you guys do have a chat, at least they won’t feel like you’re some sort of threat,” she added, looking back at him. “Go ahead and get settled in. Or don’t. Up to you, really. But I am going to have to seal this wing off. Sorry. The peanut gallery doesn’t trust me as it is. I can’t let them think I’m letting you just roam around.”

Of course, Locus thought bitterly, though he understood her reasoning. With current events proceeding the way they were, allowing him any amount of freedom would only result in unnecessary tension that would heighten everyone’s misery. “Understood,” he replied.

Fox held his gaze for a moment, then let out a long sigh. “Well, I’m gonna go try to dismantle a weapons system and kill a murderous AI,” she said, brushing past him and heading back down the hall. “If you need me, and I’m still alive, you know the channel to use. Just hit me up and I’ll see what I can get done for you, yeah?”

And without thinking, Locus said, “wait,” and watched her come to a halt and look back at him.

“What's up?” She asked.

She was his ticket off this moon. Away from Chorus. The knowledge that he needed her help tasted like vinegar, but he swallowed it anyways. “I can help.” Get her to trust you. Use her naivety to your advantage.

“Oh yeah? You good with computers?” Fox asked, fully turning to face him now.

Sell yourself. Make her believe you're useful. “Yes. And anything I don't know, I can learn quickly .”

Fox seemed to consider this, tapping a finger against the chin of her helmet. “Alright. I think I can find something for you to do. But you can't wander off, alright? The peanut gallery is nervous enough having you around. I'd hate to think of what they'd do if they found out you were loose.”

He nodded in understanding.

“Though, you sure you don’t want to rest a bit?” Fox asked, and Locus wondered if the concern in her voice was sincere.

You’re fine. “I’m fine.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself, fam,” she said, then gestured for him to follow her as she continued down the hall.

Locus tailed her at a cautious distance, tensing at every sound, every reflection in the corner of his eye. Relax. You have her where you need her now.

“Y’know I’m kind of relieved you offered to help. Truth is, we really need as many people working on this thing if we want to get out of here any time soon,” she admitted.

But Locus barely heard her. Head down, shoulders stiff, he trudged behind her, the wheels in his mind grinding into place as he realized exactly what it was about the voice in his thoughts that was making his skin crawl.

It sounded just like Felix.

Chapter Text

“This is such bullshit,” Grif moaned, staring up at the decaying form of the North Outpost. “I can’t believe we’re running errands for some lady we just met to some broken down old outpost that’s probably fucking haunted or something!”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Simmons chimed, walking past with Caboose in tow. “It can’t be that bad. Fox said that there was no one else on this moon save for us and her.”

“And Locus, who she seemed very concerned about, according to Wash,” Grif reminded him.

“Eh,” Simmons shrugged. “I mean, she’s keeping him locked up like Wash and Carolina told her to, so it’s not really a problem-”

“Even though she’s currently stuck at the South Outpost? Alone? With him ?”

Simmons paused, looking on as Caboose continued past him towards the entrance to the outpost. “She’s...probably fine.”

“A lot could have happened in the hour that it took us to get here, is all I’m saying,” Grif said, walking past him.

Simmons just let out a nervous, feathery chuckle, and followed him.

An hour ago, Fox had seen them and the others off from the motor pool with data chips for each group, and the promise that she would be working from her end to ensure the override codes for each of the outposts went through smoothly. An hour ago, Wash had been telling them to keep their comms on and to report back regularly because despite what Fox said, he didn’t trust her and wanted to make sure everyone was okay. An hour ago, they had all headed off in opposite directions to carry out the plan.

And now they were here, crawling into the North Outpost through a hole punched into its side by god-only-knows- what , with Caboose at the helm chattering on about ghosts while the other two followed.

It was going to be a long day.

 


 

“Jesus, the housekeeping around here is shittier than a one-star hotel,” Grif said, taking a look around once they all clambered into what might have been a motor pool at one point.

“Fox did say that her outpost was the only one being occupied,” Simmons said, staring up at the mangled corpse of a catwalk overhead.

“Yeesh,” Grif said, coming to stand beside him, following his gaze. “Wonder what did that.”

“I’m not sure I really want to find out,” Simmons said, looking over as Caboose walked past towards the doors that would lead them deeper into the outpost. “Hey, where are you going?”

“Oh, you know, forward,” Caboose replied, stopping and looking back at him. “Yeah, I don’t wanna make the ghosts mad. They don’t like it if you stare, ‘cause it’s rude.”

“There aren’t any ghosts,” Grif said, the eyeroll apparent in the tone of his voice. “Look, let’s just do what we came here to do, alright? This place looks like it could fall apart any minute.”

“Lead the way,” Simmons replied.

And so through the winding halls of the abandoned outpost they wandered, ducking under rotting cables dangling from the ceiling and climbing over fallen support beams and rubble until they reached the control room.

After prying the rusted sliding doors apart, the three shuffled inside, peering around warily.

“You two cover the door while I take care of the override,” Simmons instructed, approaching the wall of monitors, the data chip Fox had given him with the code in one hand.

“Yeah, if you can even get those computers to work ,” Grif muttered, turning and facing the door.

Caboose, however, remained facing Simmons, fidgeting. He was oddly silent for a while, watching the other man work, and seemed to withdraw a little bit when Simmons got the computers running with a victorious “yes!”

“Simmons?”

“Huh?” Simmons looked over his shoulder at Caboose.

“You’re not gonna hurt her, are you?”

Simmons stared. “What? I- It’s just a computer, Caboose.”

“He’s talking about the AI,” Grif said without taking his eyes off the hallway.

“Ohhhh,” Simmons said, looking over at him, then back at Caboose. “Uh, no. At least I don’t think it should hurt her. I mean-” He looked back at the screen as it loaded the desktop. “You do know she’s going to try to kill us, right?” he asked, once again looking back at Caboose.

“Yeah…” Caboose said, looking down at Freckles, who he held tightly in his hands. “I just don’t want her to be sad is all.” He looked back up at Simmons, shuffling his feet a little. “‘Cause Miss Fox said she used to be ok, but then Mangrove made her mean. And, well, maybe she’s sad about it because now Miss Fox wants to leave and she’s going to lose her best friend, y’know?”

Grif and Simmons stared at one another, each wondering if the other was thinking the same thing. After a moment, Grif cleared his throat and said, “this is about Church, isn’t it?”

“What? Noooo. It’s definitely not about him,” Caboose replied, not looking at either of them.

“Dude, it’s definitely about Church,” Grif said, turning to face him.

Caboose met his gaze for a moment, then looked down at the ground, emitting a soft “yeah.”

Grif and Simmons exchanged a look. “Caboose…”Simmons began, “...we’re...we’re all upset about Church. And we know you miss him, but…”

“He’s not coming back,” Grif finished, then backpedaled on the snap in his tone and said more gently, “and that sucks and all, but he...he probably wouldn’t want you to be sad about it, right?”

“Yeah…” Caboose said again, still staring the floor.

“And besides, Church used to leave all the time,” Grif continued, earning a sharp look from Simmons that he ignored. “It’s the same thing...kinda. Not really. Look, you get what I’m saying, alright?” Grif said, turning away.

“I just wish he said goodbye this time,” Caboose said. And the way he said it made both Simmons and Grif look back at him in surprise.

“Aw dude, you’re not crying are you?” Grif asked.

“No,” Caboose sniffled. “Yeah, I just have allergies...to being sad.”

Simmons sighed and looked back at the monitors, sliding the chip into the control panel in front of him. He opened the .exe file and began to run it in silence, listening to Caboose sniffling behind him. “I miss him too,” he said suddenly, after a long while. “I mean, he was kind of an asshole sometimes, but he wasn’t, like, a bad person, or anything.”

Grif hesitated, then made a little sound in agreement and nodded his head. “Look...uh...just hang in there, I guess? You, uh, you won’t be sad forever. And...and remember who your friends are, ‘cause we’ve got your back...and stuff,” he said, stepping forward hesitantly and giving Caboose an awkward pat on the shoulder. For a moment, he felt his heart sink when he heard Caboose sniffle again, but then relaxed when he looked back and said, “yeah...I-I feel a little better now.”

“Good,” Grif sighed, relieved.

“Does this mean I’m a part of Red Team now?” Caboose asked.

No.

 


 

“It’s just like we’re in a spy movie!” Donut squealed as Tucker cut a hole through the entrance to the East Outpost with his sword.

“Ya could’ve just let me shoot the door open to save some time,” Sarge protested.

“What, and have the bullets bounce back and hit us? I don’t think so!” Tucker replied, stepping through the hole he made.

“Hmph,” Sarge said, grumbling under his breath as he followed him, Donut clambering in after.

The inside of the East Outpost was dark with a few small beams of light filtering in through holes hidden holes in the walls. A greenish haze cloaked the floor, concealing rubble and fallen cables that became apparent as the three stumbled their way through the ground level.

“Jesus,” Tucker said, looking around. “Fox said she was only here by herself for four years, how is everything falling apart like this?”

“Must be the air,” Sarge proposed. “Didn’t y’see how yellow everything looked comin’ in?”

“That was definitely from the forcefield,” Tucker replied.

“The control room is a few floors up, right?” Donut asked, changing the subject.

“Should be the same as the other one,” Sarge nodded. “Fox mentioned that all these outposts were identical.”

“We need to find the stairwell,” Tucker said.

“Or we could just hotwire the elevator!” Sarge suggested.

“Wouldn’t you need electricity for that?” Donut asked.

Lopez would be able to do it,” Sarge huffed.

“Look, just, there should be a way up ahead on the right,” Tucker said, pushing past them and starting down the hall.

Sarge and Donut exchanged a look. “Jeeze, what’s got his panties in a bunch?” Sarge muttered, following Tucker.

“Tucker in panties? Now there’s a sight,” Donut giggled, hurrying after them.

 


 

“This is the worst idea. Ever. Of all time,” Tucker groaned.

“Oh, quit yer yappin’!” Sarge called back over his shoulder. “You had your turn to come up with a plan, and it failed. Now you get to see how us Reds do things!”

“It’s easy, Tucker! All you have to do is pretend you’re pole-dancing!” Donut shouted up from below.

Tucker let out a world-weary groan, pressing his forehead against the cable he was climbing. The stairwell he had located had been blocked off by rubble, and Sarge decided that they had wasted enough time, and that his plan was better, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. And now they were climbing up cables in an elevator shaft to try to reach the floor the control room was on.

“There were other stairwells, you know,” Tucker grumbled.

“Aw, come on, Tucker! Where’s your sense of adventure?” Donut chuckled.

“Buried in the dirt with the ship,” Tucker huffed.

“Here’s our stop!” Sarge declared, nodding at a set of doors directly above him.

“You sure that’s the right floor?”

“If it ain’t, we can keep climbing!” Sarge replied.

Tucker hoped it was the right floor.

It took a plasma sword and a little bit of manhandling to get the thick hallway doors open. Once they had all climbed out of the shaft, they made for the control room. Tucker noted the much more intact condition of the current floor they were on, and wondered if at some point, Fox had camped out and tried to enter the override herself before CORA drove her away. Momentarily distracted by his speculations, he didn’t notice that Sarge had gone ahead of him until he heard the other man exclaim, “found it!”

Sarge stood in front of the sealed off entrance to the control room with his head held high with pride. “Another victory for Red Team!” he stated, “better luck next time, Blue.”

“What? Hey, no fair! You snuck ahead of me!” Tucker protested, playing along.

“Ya snooze, ya lose, partner!” Sarge chuckled good-naturedly.

“Grif wouldn’t agree with that,” Donut snickered, coming to stand beside Tucker. Then said, “those doors are sealed suuuper tight. Think we can pry them open?”

“I have a better idea!” Sarge exclaimed, then turned and cocked his shotgun.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” Tucker hissed, and yanked Donut back away from the door.

“Ha ha! Shotgun!” Sarge exclaimed, punching a hole through the rusted doors to the control room with his weapon.

“That’s not what that means,” Tucker said.

“Maybe in your boring world it doesn’t!” Sarge proclaimed, then used the butt of his gun to widen the gap he made before wriggling through.

“There is no way I’m fitting through there,” Tucker huffed, staring at the newly-created entrance to the control room.

“I sure will!” Donut piped up, walking past him. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had to squeeze into a tight hole,” he said, crawling through.

“Bow-chicka-bow-wow,” Tucker muttered under his breath, amused. He took one quick look around the hallway, scanning their surroundings one last time before he followed Donut through.

The control room was filled with dust and and some sort of moss. Cables dangled from parts of the ceiling that were missing panels, and the round table in the center of the room had a large crack across its surface.

“How are we supposed to turn the computers on if there’s no power?” Donut asked, looking around with his hands on his hips.

“Hold on.” Tucker looked over when he heard Sarge’s muffled voice from under the main control panel. “There’s some sort of generator thing down here. Might be able to get it workin’ again.”

Tucker sighed, pulling out the data chip containing the override and turning it over in his hand. For a moment, he let his mind wander, and found himself wondering what Church would think about killing another AI. Feeling his stomach clench up, Tucker shook his head, angry at himself. He’s gone. Just let it go already, he thought, biting his lip under his helmet.

“Aha! Got it!” Sarge exclaimed suddenly, and Tucker was snapped back into reality by the harsh mechanical roar of the generator.

The monitors flickered to life, and the computer towers whirred, fans working overtime against the dust caught in their blades. The lights on the control panel slowly blinked on, bouncing a faint spectrum off of the three men’s visors.

“Nice, Sarge,” Tucker congratulated half-heartedly.

“I guess you could say that generator is a real turn-on!” Donut joked, elbowing him lightly.

Tucker shook his head and approached the control panel, hesitating for a moment when he realized just how overwhelming all the lights and keys and buttons were. The login. Right. Fox gave that to you, he remembered after a moment, typing it in and loading the desktop up on the largest monitor on the wall. Church wouldn’t have even needed a password, Tucker thought tiredly.

“Hello! Earth to Blue Team! Are ya gonna plug that data chip in or what?” Sarge asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m on it,” Tucker sighed. He stared at the chip for a moment, then pushed it into a slot on the control panel. A window popped up on the monitor, just like Fox had described, and he went through the motions of running the override.

“Dude, you alright?”

Tucker looked over when Donut spoke up.

“‘Cause you’ve been like, really out of it since we got up here.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Ya should’ve stayed back at the outpost,” Sarge said, a scolding note to his voice. “Yer in no condition to be running around.”

“I was able to keep up with you two just fine!” Tucker protested.

“Doesn’t mean you should’ve had to,” Sarge replied.

Tucker just waved a hand dismissively and looked back up at the monitor, arms crossed. After a moment, he spoke up. “We’d be out of here by now if Church was still around.”

To the right of him, Tucker heard Sarge let out a resigned sigh. “We likely wouldn’t have made it here if he hadn’t done what he did,” the other man said.

“We don’t know that,” Tucker said quietly, but deep down knew Sarge had a point. They had been outnumbered on The Staff of Charon . Undersupplied and exhausted from the fight with the mercs and their army of space pirates. “He should still be here.”

“So should everyone who died in that last fight.” Tucker looked over in surprise when Donut spoke up with a shrug.

“I mean, yeah -”

“Yer not the first to lose a friend around here, y’know,” Sarge said.

“I know that!” Tucker hissed. “But he was my best friend . And I thought I lost him a dozen times, but now he’s gone for good!”

“Yeah,” Sarge said, nodding. “ Yeah .” He was silent for a moment before saying, “but you’re still here.”

Under his helmet, Tucker made a face. “You sound just like Wash,” he huffed.

Sarge let out a loud laugh. “Y’know, if we weren’t allied against a common enemy, I’d shoot you for that insult.”

Tucker let out a chuckle, “good thing we’re on the same team.”

“Now don’t go gettin’ all cozy. Yer still a dirty Blue,” Sarge warned.

“Better Red than dead!” Donut said with a smile in his voice.

“Wh- hey! It’s ‘better dead than Red’, dumbass!” Tucker exclaimed.

“Sure,” Donut nodded, “but my versions better.”

“Ooookay, Donut,” Tucker laughed, shaking his head.

 


 

“Carolina?”

Carolina kept her eyes forward and her pace steady. If Wash wanted to chat, he could do it while walking.

Carolina.

What could possibly be so important that he would be calling her name like that anyways? If he had something to say, he could have said it on the ride to the West Outpost.

Jesus , boss, would you stop a minute?!”

Carolina dug her heels in and stopped with a frustrated sigh. “ What , Wash?” she asked, turning her head to look back over her shoulder at him.

Wash was a little ways behind her, wobbling slightly from the uneven footing of the small mountain they were hiking up to reach the West Outpost. The road had been blocked off by a rockslide, leaving them little choice but to take the long way up.

Carolina waited until Wash was by her side, grav-boots casting a faint blue glow underfoot. “Can we talk?”

Carolina made a “tsk” sound with her teeth and turned her head away. “We already talked, Wash,” she said, starting to walk again.

“No, I talked and you deflected,” Wash said, keeping pace with her.

Now isn’t the time to talk. We have a job to do.”

“Come on, boss, we both know you’re the best damn multitasker in the galaxy-”

What do you want to talk about, Wash?”

“I don’t know? Maybe the fucking elephant in the room? The thing we were talking about before we crashed?

Jesus , Wash, that’s old news.”

“Then what are you so wound up about?”

Carolina stopped again, grinding her teeth. “Fox.”

“Oh.” Judging by the tone of his voice, Wash hadn’t been expecting that answer. “Well, what about her?”

“I don’t trust her.”

“None of us do.”

“It’s not just that. I don’t think she is who she says she is,” Carolina said, once again continuing her pace.

“Well, I mean-”

“And don’t you think she should be a little bit more concerned about Locus? After what we told her about him?”

“She wasn’t there. She didn’t go through what we went through,” Wash said, catching up to her again.

“Doesn’t matter,” Carolina said, cresting the hill and turning back to offer Wash her hand to help him up. “If she still thinks he’s not a threat after what we told her, then she’s either naive, stupid, or hiding something.” She turned and faced the looming figure of the West Outpost. “And considering she apparently survived here by herself for four years, I doubt it’s the first two.” With that, she started towards the West Outpost.

Wash watched her go, then looked back the way they’d come. He could see the Warthog still on the road several hundred feet below. It had been a long climb up, but at least Carolina was talking to him now; even if it wasn’t about what needed to be discussed.

There would be time for that later, Wash decided, turning and jogging to catch up with Carolina as she led them into the outpost.

 


 

Wash didn’t like the silence. Concisely, he didn’t like the silence from Carolina. It wasn’t that she was a particularly talkative person by nature, but the downright lack of all conversation that ensued the minute they stepped inside the outpost set him on edge.

Of course it didn’t help that he was already worried about her and how she was handling what happened to Epsilon. Wash wondered if it would only make it worse to push her into talking about it; given how their chat on the hike up had gone.

As they wandered through the outpost, Wash went through dozens of ways to start the conversation in his head. By the time they reached the control room, gotten the doors open, and loaded up the monitors, he had made his choice.

“Carolina-”

“I know .” Carolina slid the data chip into the control panel and turned her head to look at him. “I know, Wash. I know what you’re going to say.”

“Well then you know that it’s not good to bottle up what you’re feeling, either!” Wash spluttered.

Carolina let out a sigh that seemed to slacken her whole body. “I’m still... shocked ...by all of it.” She turned her head back to the monitors. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were all supposed to be okay. First we lost Doyle, and Armonia, and then... Epsilon.

Wash took a step towards her, reaching out and putting a hand on her shoulder. “We’ve been through a lot.”

“And it’s still not over. This weapons system, Fox, Locus. I mean,” Carolina let out a humorless chuckle, lowering her head, “we could have gone home , Wash!”

Wash was silent for a moment. He had never been much of one to believe in trivial things like fate, but sometimes he couldn’t help but feel like they had wound up on Chorus for a reason. But instead of expressing this to Carolina, he simply said, “I know, boss.”

Carolina looked over at him, and he could feel the weariness emanating from her. “I miss him. It’s stupid, I know, but-”

“It’s not stupid, Carolina,” Wash cut her off. “He was family.”

Carolina stared at him a moment, then nodded slowly. “Yeah, he was.”

She turned and looked back at the screen, and Wash felt a little better. At least now she was being honest. He watched her type in a command to run the override, then lean back against the round central table with her arms crossed. She was silent for a moment, and Wash was about to ask her what she was thinking when she spoke up again.

“What about you?”

“Hm?”

Carolina looked over at him. “How are you handling what happened?”

“I…” Wash paused. Truth was, he hadn’t really been focusing much on his own feelings regarding Epsilon’s fragmentation. “I wish...I wish that we had...talked. About what happened, I mean. When he was first implanted.” He didn’t realize he had reached for the back of his neck until he caught his reflection in Carolina’s visor. He let his hand drop self-consciously, looking away. “We never really resolved anything...and that...that wasn’t okay.”

He was aware of Carolina’s eyes on him, and he forced himself to look back at her, growing relieved when she simply nodded and looked back at the monitors, watching the progress bar of the override crawl across the screen.

“I wish you had talked to him too,” Carolina said suddenly, and Wash raised his head in surprise. “He never talked about it, but I know he was sorry for what happened. I know it doesn’t mean anything to hear me say it, but it’s the truth.”

Wash forced out the breath he realized he had been holding between his teeth and stared at the floor. “Thanks,” he said softly after a while.

And the silence stretched between them from there until the override was completed with a beeping sound followed by the data chip ejecting from the control panel.

“Looks like we’re done here,” Carolina said, pulling the chip out and looking over at Wash.

“Looks like,” he agreed.

“Let’s head back,” Carolina suggested, starting towards the doors. “We should contact the others and see where they are in case they need help.”

“Lead the way,” Wash said, following her out.

 


 

 

They were the first ones back, opting to wait until the other two groups returned until they proceeded to the control room. When Wash had contacted Fox on their way in, she had simply told them all to meet her up there once they got back.

Sarge, Tucker, and Donut where the first group to meet them back in the motor pool, bickering about team catchphrases right up until they parked their Warthog. Simmons, Grif, and Caboose pulled in second; Caboose shouting out a greeting that caused the two Reds to swear from the sheer volume of it.

Wash watched as Carolina approached both groups, then returned to his side with their data chips in her hand. “Why don’t you run these up to Fox? Knowing them,” she nodded at the Reds and Blues, “this might take a few minutes.”

“You sure?” Wash asked.

Carolina nodded. “The sooner we get everything done, the sooner we can get both Fox and Locus back to Kimball for questioning,” she said softly so only he could hear.

Ah. So that’s where we’re taking this. “Right,” Wash said, taking the data chips from her. “I’ll see you up there,” he said.

“Right behind you,” Carolina replied, as she turned away.

Wash traced his steps back to the control room, noting with surprise that more of the interior lighting seemed to be working than there had been when they had left. He wondered if Fox had done a bit of maintenance while they were out. He took the elevator up, freezing when he stepped out and heard Fox’s voice. He didn’t quite catch what she had said, and had half a mind to radio her, wondering if she was trying to talk to him .

But then he remembered who they were sharing the outpost with, and his heart sank. Cursing inwardly, he drew his pistol, holding it at the ready as he crept towards the door, shoulder pressed against the wall. He paused just outside and drew in a breath between his teeth, before turning and stepping into the doorway and freezing with shock.

Fox was by the round table in the center of the room, manipulating data on its screen while holo-projections floated overhead displaying graphs and readings and lines of code. And standing beside her, a datapad in his hand, was Locus.

Chapter Text

“Fox!” Wash shouted, raising his gun.

Fox froze, then looked up casually, seeming unfazed by his reaction. “Oh, hey Stripes.” Then, “honey, if you’re going to point a gun at a girl, at least take her out to dinner first.”

“Not you! ” Wash hissed.

Fox glanced over at Locus, who had gone rigid. “Oh, you mean Peaches over here? Sweetie, you know he’s not armed, right?” She looked back at Wash and crossed her arms.

“That- That doesn’t-,” Wash sucked in a breath to try to prevent his voice from raising any further in pitch. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?!

“Holy fuck you could shatter glass with a set of lungs like that,” Fox remarked. “And I’m pretty sure a handful of sleeping pills would do a much less painful job of killing me than whatever your friend here could try to dish out.”

Wash stared at her. How was she not taking this seriously? He couldn’t believe it. Sure, Carolina had stated that she didn’t think Fox was stupid given how long she had survived on her own with no resources and an AI that was trying to kill her, but he was seriously beginning to think that she might have been completely wrong on that front.

“Hello-o, Stripes? You okay in there?” Fox asked, reaching over the table and waving a hand as close to his face as she could manage.

“You-” Wash never got the thought out before he heard the sound of the rest of his teammates down the hall.

Fox must have heard them too, because she gave Locus a little nod, and he took a few steps back.

Wash stepped inside of the control room and hugged the wall, gun still raised, and looked over when Carolina entered the room. Her surprise was short-lived as she drew both her pistols and raised them at the two across the room.

Fox made a head motion like she was rolling her eyes, and watched impatiently as the rest of the Reds and Blues filed in, each drawing their weapon and pointing it at her and Locus.

“You guys seem like you’d be great at parties,” Fox said with a heaving sigh. She looked around at everyone, seeming to size up the gravity of the situation she had found herself in, then spoke up again, “now that you’re all here, it seems I have a bit of explaining to do. Listen carefully, because I’m only saying this once,” Fox began. “If we are going to get off this miserable rock, we all - not some , not most - all have to work together,” she said, making a point of looking at each and every one of them. “Otherwise, the force field stays intact, CORA takes over the weapons system, and everybody dies. Got it?”

Wash exchanged a look with Carolina, then sucked in a breath, wanting to argue, but let it out between his teeth and simply nodded instead.

“Good,” Fox said coldly. “Now as I was about to explain earlier before you started screeching at me; Sunshine here is good with computers, and he’s been helping me with the overrides you guys have been punching in.”

“Sunshine?” Wash heard Grif mutter behind him.

“We had an agreement,” Carolina spoke up.

Yes , and I’ve stuck to it,” Fox said.”

“What? No you haven’t!” Tucker exclaimed, stepping up beside Carolina.

“Ah, right, I’m sorry,” Fox said, waving her hand. “Hold on, Grif? Honey could you step inside the control room please?”

All eyes turned towards Grif, who was currently hovering in the doorway to the control room. After a moment of hesitation, and to Wash’s astonishment, he did what he was asked.

Fox hit something on the surface of the round table, and the doors to the control room slid shut. She then leaned back and looked up at Wash, who could have sworn she was smirking at him under her helmet. “You wanted him contained, and now he is,” she said simply.

Wash stared at her in disbelief, the silent tension in the room growing between them. “You…” he began after a minute. He never finished that thought however, as Carolina spoke up before he had the chance.

“This isn’t a game! He’s dangerous! ” She snapped.

And Fox threw her head back and let out a laugh so loud that even Locus seemed surprised by it. “He is the least of your concern right now, Lina-Bean!” she exclaimed, straightening back up and looking at Carolina a moment before swiping her a finger across the glass surface of the table. Something that looked very similar to a seismograph projected in the air in front of her.  “Anyone wanna take a guess at what this little graph might mean?”

“Is it a heartbeat?” Grif asked, sounding uninterested.

“No, but thank you for playing,” Fox replied.

“It’s…” Simmons began, studying the projection. “It’s a visually representation of some sort of activity.”

“What kind of activity?” Fox asked.

Simmons froze. “Wait, that’s not- oh no-”

“Oh yes!” Fox exclaimed. “While you kiddos were out punching in those handy-dandy little overrides, our lovely friend, CORA, became aware of your presence.” She pointed to the right side of the graph, where the zigzagging line became more and more jagged. “Now this was captured a few hours ago,” she explained, “around the same time you lot should have been running the override at each of your locations.” She then reached up and swiped left on the projection, causing the line to scroll within the graph, displaying a steady increase in activity. The graph stopped scrolling automatically, and the group watched as the data wrote itself in real time in front of them. “This is happening now.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Wash asked.

“What it means is that CORA is fucking pissed,” Fox replied. “She’s figured out what we’ve done, and now she’s going to be fighting harder than ever against the protections I’ve put around that weapons system. She’s going to try to break in, and based on this data, we’ve only got a few hours to stop her before she does. Which is why I got your friend over here to help,” Fox said, jerking a thumb back towards Locus. “Because we need all the help we can get, and we’re running out of time.”

A silence settled over the room as the gravity of the situation sank in. Wash looked over at Carolina, wondering if she was thinking the same thing as him. “Is there a way we can cut the AI off to buy ourselves more time?” he asked.

“That’s what the two of us have been working on,” Fox sighed. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot we could do aside from set up a few more firewalls and hope that they’ll hold.”

“So then what’s the plan?” Carolina spoke up, and Wash looked over at her in surprise.

“The plan?” Fox asked, sounding genuinely surprised by Carolina’s question.

“You do have a plan, right?”

“No, I do, I’m just surprised that you’re not arguing with me more is all,” Fox explained.

“Will you just-”

“Two conditions,” Fox said.

Fine, ” Carolina hissed.

“One, you all put your guns away, because as much as I know you all love your Second Amendment rights, it’s very hard to science when you’re staring down the barrel of a shotgun.”

Carolina sucked in a breath, then exhaled slowly, nodding and holstering her pistols. Wash watched as the others did the same before he followed suit.

“Two,” Fox began, “he works with us, because like I said, we need all the help we can get,” she said, jerking her head in Locus’ direction.

Carolina turned and glared at Locus for a moment before looking back at Fox. “There’s no way to know if we can trust him,” she argued.

Fox held up a finger, then looked over her shoulder at Locus and asked, “can you play nice with the other kids?”

Locus stared at her for a moment, and Wash had half a mind to pull his pistol back out and hold it steady, but then he spoke up. “I will if they will.”

Fox looked back at Carolina. “There, see?”

“If he tries anything-” Tucker began.

“Cool it, Thin Mint, he said he’d be chill,” Fox snapped. “Now can I start explaining, or are we going to sit and wait for the doomsday clock to count down with our heads up our asses?” When no one replied, she continued. “Okay, so CORA is located at Station Alpha, as we all know. With the kill code as our primary weapon against her here, we’ve really only got one solid option of approach.”

Fox tapped the surface of the table, and the graph retracted as a white holograph of the station projected. “We’re going to be approaching the station from the north side, since that way provides the easiest and fastest access. You’re all going to be in the same teams you were in for the override mission. Tucker, Sarge, Donut, you guys have the easiest, and arguably the most fun job,” Fox explained. “You three are going to be working damage control. And by that, I mean you’re going to control how much damage you each get to do to the infrastructure of the station. Go nuts. Have fun. Launch some rockets. I don’t care. The goal is to keep CORA preoccupied. She does have turrets in the halls, so be mindful. Once you start breaking shit, they’re going to come out. Stay alive, and whatever you do, don’t cause the entire station to fall down on the rest of us before we all make it out.”

“Grif, Simmons, Caboose, you’re going to be working the heavy lifting.” Fox reached into the hologram and tapped the base of the station, magnifying it and causing several images to be projected outward from it. “This is the primary energy core,” she explained, pointing to one of the images of a large piece of machinery that stretched from floor to ceiling with electricity arcing off of it. “See that round base it’s sitting on? That’s your target. The energy core shoots power into that big chamber right above it. If you knock the base off-kilter, if will cause the station’s system to go into emergency shutdown protocol. After Tucker, Sarge, and Donut start raising hell, alarms will start blaring. When you hear them, you knock that energy core off center. And whatever you do, do not, under any circumstances, touch where that lightning-looking energy is coming from. You will die. And it will suck.”

Fox looked over at Wash and Carolina. “You two, Locus, and I are gonna be up where all the magic happens.” She tapped the base of the hologram again, retracting the room with the energy core, then made a motion with both hands to magnify the entire projection, before she made a sweeping motion, which cut the station into a cross section. Wash realized when he looked closer that there were four colored dots at the base of the hologram. “We’re going to move up the central elevator shaft- climbing, not riding the elevator- that would be a death wish. Then we’re going to the first floor of the extension of the tower.” Wash watched as the dots followed the path Fox described. “Freelancers, you two are going to be in charge of getting the two of us across the bridge that separates us from the elevator that will take us to CORA. There’s a hard light bridge and a big fucking door that stands between us and our way up. Your job is to tap into the secondary power core located directly across from where the bridge starts. What you need to do is insert the data chip, which I will give you, to activate the emergency sequence. The doors will open. We’ll go through. But don’t activate that chip until we are halfway, got it? Once the doors start to open, the light bridge will begin to dissolve. The only reason I’m having you open them before we’re all the way across is to save time. Once we’ve reached the elevator, you two need to head back and make your way out.”

Fox paused, looking around. “We all good so far?”

“How the fuck are we supposed to remember all of this?” Grif exclaimed.

“I’ve created a set of instructions that can be uploaded to each of your HUDs via wireless signal. I’ll ping them to you once I’m done explaining,” Fox replied. Then, “if that’s all, let’s continue; Wash, Carolina, you two will be making your way down. Locus and I will be inserting the kill code. I’m going to let you all know before I do so, and when I tell you to, Grif, Simmons, Caboose, you three need to get the fuck out of dodge. When that kill code uploads, the primary core is going to go into meltdown protocol and the chamber is going to flood. All groups should rendezvous by the entrance, do a headcount - whatever, then make for the hills.”

“What about you?” Tucker asked.

“We-” Fox cut off, looking taken aback. “We’ll figure something out. Don’t worry about us.”

“Hey, what if the kill code doesn’t work?” Donut piped up from the back of the group.

Behind his helmet, Wash blinked. He hadn’t even considered the possibility that Fox’s plan might fail. The whole thing seemed so solid. “Could it fail?” he added.

Fox looked first to Donut, then to Wash. “Well…”

“Oh you’ve gotta be kidding me!” Grif exclaimed. “All this elaborate bullshit for something that might not even work!”

“Can I speak?” Fox asked with what Wash could only assume was false politeness. “The kill code has about a seventy-five percent chance of working, which might sound a bit scary. The good news is that if, in the off chance, it fails, there’s another way to shut her down.”

“And what are the odds of that working?” Wash asked.

“A hundred percent,” Fox replied.

“Okay, so just so everyone’s clear here, we’re going with the option that could fail , rather than the one that guarantees success,” Grif said. “Anyone else having trouble with this?”

“Do you have a reason why we’re not going with this other method?” Carolina asked.

“Because it won’t disable Charon access to her,” Fox explained. “It’s a manual shutdown, that’s it. All we’d be doing is unplugging her from the power cores. If Charon wanted to, they could just come back here, plug her back in, and start this whole charade all over again.”

“And the kill code will stop Charon from getting to her?”

“Absolutely,” Fox replied with a nod. “Not only that, but there’s a chance I could salvage some of the paralyzed code. Might be able to use it to advance a pre-existing AI. So if there’s one on Chorus, it might be useful.”

Wash exchanged a glance with Carolina, noting how the others looked around and shuffled their feet. They were all thinking the same thing. Epsilon.

“So...Any more questions, comments, concerns, complaints, or debates?” Fox asked. When no one responded, she clapped her hands together and said, “good! Then I’ll upload everything we went over to your helmets, and we can get started.”

 


 

A hot wind blew across the canyon, sweeping up the walls and rattling the alien foliage rooted in the cliff atop which the Reds, Blues, and their two companions stood. Tucker gazed across the landscape, eyes focused on the tall, gunmetal shape that rose out of the valley below. When holo-projected, Station Alpha had seemed far less imposing. But this close; seeing the light of the sun gleam harshly off of the areas of the dark exterior not yet oxidized by the poisonous air, and realizing that they were nothing but ants staring up at a skyscraper, made something twist in Tucker’s gut.

“We should get moving.” He turned and looked over his shoulder when he heard Carolina speak. “The longer we stay here, the more likely we are to be noticed.”

When Fox didn’t respond to her request, Tucker looked over at her. She was still perched on the hood of the Warthog she had been driving, looking through the scope of Locus’ sniper rifle.

“Fox?” Carolina said again, sounding a little impatient.

“She knows we’re here,” Fox said suddenly. “Satellites on the east side are rotating. Chances are she cracked the encryption on our radio channel. That, or another asshole is about to crash their ship on my moon.”

Tucker couldn’t help but feel a little bad for wishing it was the latter. He watched as Fox hopped off the hood of her Warthog and handed the rifle back to Locus, who hadn’t left her side since they all filed out of the control room hours ago. Coward , Tucker thought bitterly. Probably plans on using her as a meat shield when we drag him back to Kimball.

“Everyone remember what they’re doing?” Fox asked, leaning against the driver’s side of the Warthog and looking around at everyone else.

“You betcha, lil’ missy!” Sarge barked. The others murmured in agreement, save for Caboose, who shouted, “yes Miss Fox!”

“Alright,” Fox said with a nod. “Let’s get this party started.”

 


 

“Fuck, this place is creepy,” Tucker hissed, looking around warily as he, Sarge, and Donut crept through the harshly lit halls of the station.

“Kinda weird that nothing’s tried to kill us yet,” Donut whispered.

“That’s ‘cause we haven’t gotten started yet!” Sarge exclaimed over his shoulder.

“Fox said to damage the infrastructure,” Tucker said.

“She also said something about turrets, I think?” Donut added.

“Then we catch those sons of bitches with their pants down, and take ‘em out before they can kill us!” Sarge declared, picking up his pace and marching right towards what appeared to be a fuse box on the wall. Once he reached it, he yanked it open before firing his shotgun into it, sending a blast of sparks and metal fragments flying through the air.

Tucker walked over to him, Donut on his heels, asking “what did that do?”

“The lights are still on,” Tucker pointed out, looking around.

“Huh,” Sarge said, scratching the side of his helmet. “Well it looked like it would do something.”

“Here, let me try,” Tucker said, squeezing past him and activating his energy sword, jamming it into the fuse box.

Immediately, the overhead lights flickered overhead and a screeching sound blasted through the intercoms.

“Jesus fuck! What was that?! ” Tucker exclaimed, pulling back and looking around wildly, his heart sinking as he noticed the ceiling panels above them shifting.

“Well, that certainly did something,” Donut mused.

“Hooooly shit, take cover! Take cover! ” Tucker screeched, diving into the corridor across from the fuse box right as the turrets unfolded themselves from the ceiling and open fired. Sarge and Donut followed suit, and the three of them hugged the walls, as shrapnel and bullet casings skittered across the floor. The sound of the turret fire stopped suddenly, and Tucker held his breath and listened.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are."

“What the fuck?” Tucker whispered, exchanging a look with the two Reds.

“Was that her? ” Donut squeaked.

"You can't hide from me, little bugs."

“How the fuck are we supposed to get past those?” Tucker hissed.

“Well, we can’t go under them,” Sarge began, and Tucker looked over at him, back going stiff when he saw the rocket launcher in his hands that he was in the process of loading. “Can’t go over them.” He finished loading the weapon. “Guess we’ll have to go through them.” Sarge looked back at Tucker for a moment, and he would’ve sworn that if the older marine had his helmet off, there would be a shit-eating grin on his face. Then he stepped out into the hall and pulled the trigger.

Tucker turned away from the explosion and covered the back of his head with his hands. When he unwound himself, Sarge was back in front of him, reloading. The two met eyes, and Sarge said, “that’s one,” before leaning back out and firing again.

Tucker turned away, wheels in his head turning. If this station was anything like the outposts, then the walls would be filled with cables and important machinery, right?  he thought. Rising to his feet, he whirled and jammed his sword into the wall, then started walking, dragging the blade through the metal as he went. Sparks flew everywhere, and he could have sworn he heard that synthetic voice screech something overhead. Then suddenly, the hallway was flooded with a red light, and alarms started blaring.

"Intruder alert. Primary security measures activated." The overhead voice warned. Then, "I really  do hate being driven to violence."

Tucker stared up at the ceiling, searching for the source of the voice, then looked back at Sarge and Donut.

“Well, we got the alarms going,” Donut said, giggling nervously.

“Don’t slow down yet, boys,” Sarge barked, reloading his rocket launcher and hefting it onto his shoulder. “We’ve only just gotten started,” he said, before charging into the hallway with a fierce battle cry.

 


 

“Those are the alarms,” Simmons said, looking upwards towards the source of the sound and flashing red lights.

“How can you hear anything other than this piece of shit right now?!” Grif shouted over comms, gesturing towards the massive power core below the catwalk they were standing on.

“Why are we all yelling?!” Caboose shouted.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Grif moaned.

“We need to get that core knocked off center,” Simmons reminded, trying to keep everyone on task. The sooner they did their job, the sooner they could get out of here. The sooner they got out of here, the sooner he wouldn’t have to worry about all three of them being fried to death.

“How are we supposed to move this thing?” Grif asked, hopping over the railing of the catwalk and beginning to climb down the maintenance ladder.

“We could give it a push!” Caboose suggested.

“Yeah, moron, and get fucking electrocuted in the process. Great idea,” Grif snapped, reaching the ground and backing away from the ladder for Simmons to climb down.

“The base of the power core is rotatable,” Simmons mused, turning and looking at the power core. Despite the visual filters in his visor, he still found himself squinting when he looked at the energy beam. “Grif, didn’t you bring some charges?”

“Well yeah, but we’re not supposed to get close to that thing,”Grif replied. “We can’t set them if we’re going to get fried just from trying.”

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Caboose exclaimed, hopping off the ladder halfway down, and bouncing when he landed. “I know! Why don’t we just throw the charges?”

“Because they’re not grenades!” Grif exclaimed. “They’ve got a timer on them! Throwing them won’t do shit except maybe blow us up if they get zapped by that lightning!”

“Well, we can’t get close,” Simmons said. “Maybe we could slide them across the floor towards the base?”

“Yeah, and what happens when that doesn’t work?” Grif asked.

“Well we won’t know until we try,” Simmons sighed.

Grif pulled out the charges, and handed them off to Simmons, then said, “C’mon, Caboose. Let’s go make some cover.”

Simmons fiddled with the charges, setting the timers for all four of them, but taking care not to start the countdown. Grif and Caboose worked together to tear a rusty part of the wall away as a form of makeshift cover.

“Ready when you are,” Grif sighed once he and Caboose had finished.

“Wait, you’re making me throw them?” Simmons asked.

“It was your fucking idea!” Grif shot back.

Simmons drew himself up to argue, but thought better of it, and turned back towards the power core. Swallowing hard, he stepped forward and slid the charges one by one towards the base, then turned and scrambled for cover, diving behind the chunk of metal with Grif and Caboose. The three braced themselves, and Simmons prayed that the cover they were behind would be thick enough to protect them from the blast.  

But nothing happened.

Grif peeked out from cover to steal a look at the charges. They were still right where Simmons threw them; all piled up near the base of the power core. He stared at them for a moment, then ducked back into cover. “Simmons,” he began, trying to keep his voice level, “how much time did you put on those charges?”

“Five minutes,” Simmons replied. “Why?”

Grif stared at him incredulously. “Five minutes?! ” he roared. “Five fucking minutes, Simmons? Are you serious?!  Why the fuck would we even need that much time?!”

“Well excuse me for not wanting them to blow up in my face!” Simmons snapped back. “There’s nothing wrong with being a little cautio-”

He never got to finish his sentence as a bolt of energy split off the reactor and hit the charges, setting them off in a burst of white light and shrapnel. The three marines skittered as far behind their cover as they could, clinging to each other.

It wasn’t until the noise of the explosions and the roar of the power core subsided that the three unwound themselves and dared to look out from behind their cover. Simmons leaned out, scanning the scene before them, waving a hand in front of his face to try to clear some of the smoke.

“It’s really quiet,” he said softly.

“Do you think it worked?” Grif asked at the same volume.

“Why is everybody whispering?!” Caboose exclaimed in what he probably thought was a quiet voice, but somehow managed to be both a whisper and a shout at the same time.

“Jesus Christ,” Grif muttered, then climbed over Simmons and crept out from behind cover.

“Where are you going?” Simmons hissed.

“To see if it worked,” Grif replied without looking back, drawing his gun and holding it steady.

“Oh, what, and if it’s still running, are you gonna shoot it?” Simmons’ voice was laced with sarcasm.

“Will you just shut up for a minute?” Grif snapped back, creeping closer. It was hard enough to see through the smoke. He didn’t need Simmons bickering with him. He continued forward until his foot scraped against something hidden by the smog. He waved at it, trying to clear it away, but stopped when he saw a light ahead. A light but no noise. Had Fox said something about that? He couldn’t remember. “Hey, I think we’re good,” he said over comms.

“You sure?”

“I mean, it looks...kinda lopsided?” Grif tilted his head slightly, just to be sure. “Yeah it’s definitely lopsided. And it’s flashing? Maybe there’s a...Wait, didn’t Fox say something about an alarm?”

“Wait hold on, I think...Listen for a second. Be really quiet.”

Grif sucked in a breath and stood still, irked that Simmons couldn’t at least tell him what he was listening for. Then he heard it; like a radio that had gotten submerged underwater, a distorted voice warbled faintly overhead. “Any idea what it’s saying?”

“Not sure, but I think-” Simmons cut off suddenly with a yelp when a loud drone sounded overhead, and a synthetic voice calmly said, "I really  wish you hadn't done that."

 


 

“See, I told you it wouldn’t be so bad, Stripes!” Fox called down over the sound of alarms from where she was positioned on the wall of the elevator shaft they were currently climbing.

“I hate you,” Wash replied, trying to steady his breathing, trying not to look down.

During their fight at the Tower of The Purge, Wash had been reasonably frightened at the prospect of being nearly dropped to his death. It had never occurred to Locus that the Freelancer was actually terrified of heights. He wasn’t sure if he found this information more useful or amusing.

“How’s it look up there, Sunshine?” Fox called up towards him. Both Wash and Carolina had insisted he went first. Which was understandable, all things considered. Though Locus couldn’t help but feel a little threatened by the idea of having his back to them. He turned his head and looked up the way they were headed. He could see blinking lights in the distance, which had to mean they were close.

“About three-hundred feet,” he replied, looking back down at Fox.

Fox turned back towards Wash and Carolina. “See? Look at how close we are!”

“When we get out of this, I’m shooting you,” Wash replied.

“Don’t do me any favors,” Fox replied snidely, then turned and continued climbing.

Three-hundred feet and lots of grumbling on Wash’s behalf, the four of them reached the top of the elevator shaft.

“Wash you get on the other side,” Carolina instructed, immediately making her way around to one side of the shaft doors.

Wash did as he was told, and the two attempted to pry the doors apart in vain.

“Why the hell did we give all of our charges to the other groups?” Wash exclaimed when he finally give up.

“We...could have thought weapons distribution through a little better,” Fox admitted.

“We’re wasting time on this,” Carolina huffed. “There has to be a way to get these doors open.”

“Move,” Locus said, prompting all of them to look his way. He tried to resist the urge to tense up when he saw Carolina’s hand go for her pistol once she saw what he was aiming at the door.

“You gave him a rail gun? ” It was Wash who spoke up, his voice laced with disbelief.

“Well he’s not a magician, Wash. It had to come from somewhere,” Fox replied, taking a few steps away from the door.

Wash stared at her, then followed suit, backing away as well, turning his head to keep an eye on the railgun. Carolina, however, stayed put, fixing Locus with a hard gaze.

“You're in the way,” he said after a moment.

Carolina drew herself up, and said, “aim that anywhere but the door, and you’re dead.” Then she backed away, joining Fox at her side, hand never leaving her pistol.

Locus kept an eye on her until he was sure that she was out of the way, then adjusted his aim, charged the rail gun, and fired. The blast punched a reasonable-sized hole through the shaft doors, though it wasn’t quite large enough for a full-grown human equipped with power armor to climb through. He fired the rail gun twice more until it was big enough for everyone to fit through.

Carolina was the first into the hallway, then Fox, then Wash, and for a moment, Locus was alone in the dark elevator shaft. You could just run. Activate cloaking and head back down the elevator shaft before they have time to react. You could head back to the outpost and steal one of those ships. Wait until the forcefield is down and just disappear. They would never find you-

“Hey, are you coming?” It was Fox who spoke, peering back into the elevator shaft and looking at him. Carolina and Wash turned to do the same.

You should go. Locus sucked in a slow breath, then said, “catch,” and tossed the rail gun to Fox. Then he deactivated his grav-boots and leapt across the shaft, hands reaching out and catching the edges of the hole he had made. He stayed there for a moment, trying to get his center of balance back, the still-healing wound in his side smarting from the sudden movement, then he stepped into the hall. He felt his hackles raise when he saw that both Carolina and Wash had their weapons drawn, but froze when he felt a tap on his arm. He looked over, and couldn’t help but feel a little surprised when he saw Fox holding the rail gun out to him.

“Want it back, or no?” she asked.

He stared at her for a moment, trying to determine if this was a trap or not, then slowly reached out and took the gun from her.

“Alright,” Fox said, turning and walking past him towards Carolina and Wash, the red light of the alarms nearly drowning her figure, “let’s get moving.”

She led them through a series of what appeared to be security checkpoints, punching in codes at every one to get them past, and up some stairs before they reached two large sliding doors. Instead of simply typing in the code like she had before, Fox turned and looked back at the three behind her.

“Alright, so up ahead is the secondary power core,” she said. “Carolina, you have that data chip I gave you?”

“Right here,” Carolina said, holding it up.

“Good,” Fox said with a nod. Then she turned, unlocked the doors, and stepped through.

The room the four found themselves in was dark and hot and the air felt oddly thick. Ahead, Locus could see the glowing blue form of the light bridge stretching across a seemingly bottomless gap towards a massive black door. Across from it, humming loudly, pipes and tubes that stretched towards the ceiling sticking out of it at all angles, was the secondary power core.

Fox approached it, shadowed by Carolina and Wash, and entered something into a touchscreen that was set in the machine’s shiny metal body. Locus listened idly as she explained where the data chip needed to go and when they needed to insert it, wandering towards the edge of the floor and peering into the darkness below.

“If you look at it long enough, it might stare back.”

Locus took a step backwards and looked over at Fox, who was standing a little ways behind him, arms crossed. Carolina and Wash were at the power core, eyes on him. “When do we cross?” he asked after a moment, looking back at the bridge.

“At any time,” Fox said. “When we get close to the doors, they’ll insert the data chip and open them.” She walked and came to stand beside him, looking out at the bridge. She was silent for a moment, appearing to be deep in thought. But then she turned and looked up at him, and asked, “you ready?”

“After you,” he replied.

Fox nodded, then looked back towards Wash and Carolina, raising an arm to give them a thumbs up before she turned and stepped onto the bridge.

Locus walked over to where she had stepped on, eyes watching every footstep, noting how the bridge seemed to fluctuate and waver with every movement she made. Would it hold him too? He sucked in a breath, and slowly stepped onto it. The surface felt solid, but he could feel the heat it emitted through his boots. It wasn’t particularly painful, however. He took a few more cautious steps forward, then, gaining confidence, picked up his pace to catch up with Fox, who by now was almost halfway to the doors.

“Piece of cake, right?” she asked when he fell into step with her.

Locus didn’t say anything, but looked over his shoulder back to where Wash and Carolina stood. “When are they activating the data chip?” he asked after a moment, looking back at Fox.

“When we reach the halfway marker. There’s a diagram on one of the monitors that tells them where we are on the bridge,” Fox replied, not looking at him. “They should be putting it in any second now.”

And as if on cue, there was a loud clacking sound that thrummed through the open space, reverberating off of unseen walls, and the massive doors ahead began to slowly separate.

“Alright, now we need to move ,” Fox hissed, and picked up her pace.

Locus did the same, watching as the gap between the two doors grew slowly larger. The light bridge beneath his feet however became more and more malleable, every step sinking farther than the last. He couldn’t help but feel a little on edge, even despite the confidence in Fox’s step, and how close they were to reaching the doors-

"That's far enough."

Locus watched as Fox stumbled to a halt, shoulders tense. She turned her head to look back at him, then gazed up at the doors, which had stopped moving. And Locus felt his heart skip a beat when he realized that they were both sinking.

Fox looked down at the bridge and hissed out a breathless,“Oh shit.” Then looked back at him and shouted, “run! ” before bolting forward.

He followed her, not breaking stride even as the doors began to grind shut with a grating sound. By the time they reached the doors they were nearly closed. Fox picked up her speed and slid through the gap across the hard light projector between the two doors. And Locus followed, diving through the remaining gap, feeling the doors scrape against his armor, tucking into a roll on the other side and coming up on one knee, then stopped.

The space he was in now was massive; stretching into the darkness both above and below the glowing blue bridge of hard light he was kneeling on. The walls on either side were covered with enormous machines and pipes that hissed with steam. Something that may have been a generator; huge and round and covered in rust emerged from an indent in the wall to the left, pipes zigzagging out of it in every direction, emitting a dull hum that filled the space.

Locus slowly rose to his feet, eyes scanning the walls, trying to take in as much of his surroundings as he could. Behind him, the massive doors slid together with a resounding boom, and he glanced over his shoulder at them.

“You good?” He looked over when he heard Fox speak, and saw her standing a little ways away from him on the light bridge.

He nodded.

“Good,” she said, turning and beginning to walk away. “Let’s move.”

Locus took one last look at the machinery clinging to the walls, then jogged to catch up with her.

Up ahead was a tall pillar of light that covered everything near it in a faint blue glow. As they drew closer, Locus realized that it was a curved panel of lights that covered an elevator shaft which protruded slightly from the wall. When they finally reached it, stepping off of the light bridge and onto a narrow platform, Fox activated a touchscreen on the wall, and the doors right beneath the panel slid open.

Fox was silent the whole ride up, but Locus could feel the tension emanating from her. When the doors slid open, she didn’t immediately step out, but instead balled her hands into fists at her sides. And when the lights flickered on in sequence down the walkway ahead, illuminating what was in front of them, Locus saw why.

A massive structure protruded from the far wall across from where the elevator let off, in the shape of a ‘V’ with an indent straight through the middle of it. Tubes and cables and pipes covered the structure, and on either side of it were two panels with machinery attached to them in a way that suggested they were appendages of some sort extended towards the rounded dead-end of the catwalk containing a series of control panels before it.

“Okay,” Fox said softly, exhaling slowly. “Let’s get this over with.”

But there was something about the room that made Locus’ skin crawl. Something very wrong. But Fox had already stepped out of the elevator, so he said; “wait.”

And she turned, back rigid, and replied, “what?”

But before he could get the words out, something changed. And Locus watched Fox freeze as a sudden beam of sickly green light flared behind her, stretching their shadows long before them. And Fox turned her head, slowly, towards the source, sucking in a breath, as a monotone, synthetic voice rang out across the space;

"Hello Commander Fox. Today is a wonderful day."

Chapter Text

The air was still and gray and stale. The machinery in the walls hummed softly, and the rust-dulled pipes and panels vibrated against one another. Dust particles filtered down from an unknown source, glistening as they fell into the sickly green light that flared from the optic in the middle of the mechanism on the wall.

“Hello CORA,” Fox said slowly as she walked towards the control panel. Her voice was level, but her shoulders were tense. “It’s been a while.”

“It has, hasn’t it?” CORA’s synthetic voice warbled slightly from the inflection to her otherwise monotone articulation. “Which begs the question, why are you here now?”

“To end this,” Fox replied, and this time she spoke through her teeth.

“I see,” CORA intoned. “Naturally, you would only want to finish what you started. After all, you killed all of your friends. As the sole survivor of your...abdication...I knew one day you would come to finish me off too.”

You killed them!” Fox snarled, her composure finally breaking down. “You dropped the east wing on them! You buried them alive! I listened to them dying for three days with no way to get them out!”

“And whose fault was that, I wonder?” CORA asked, and Locus could have sworn he heard something like amusement in the AI’s voice.

Fox stiffened, and her hands balled into fists at her sides. “Don’t ,” she said softly. “Don’t you dare blame me for this.”

You updated the driver. You allowed them to mutiny. You left them to die.”

Fox’s shoulders sank and she turned her head towards the floor, the fight leaving her body. “That’s not true,” she whispered. “I was just following orders.”

Locus felt a spike of something cold drive through him when she said that, and he quickly looked away.

“Your orders got your friends killed,” CORA reminded.

“My orders turned you into a monster !” Fox snapped. “And now I’m going to put you down like one.” Then, as she pulled the kill code data chip out and shoved it into a slot on the main control panel, said over comms, “kill code is live. Begin evacuation procedures.” As the code was loaded into the system, the holographic monitor flickered, and several segments turned red and flashed warnings across them.

“You’re making a big mistake,” CORA threatened.

“Only mistake I’ve ever made was you, hon,” Fox shot back without looking up at the glaring green optic. Her fingers darted across the keyboard as she typed in the command lines that would allow the kill code to run. “And I’ve got just the thing to fix it!” She exclaimed, and hit enter.

Locus wasn’t exactly sure what he had expected after the kill code was activated, but he was certain it was more along the lines of alarms and flashing red lights and some kind of voice instructions telling them to find the nearest exit instead of a piercing, bone-grating scream .

“We’ve been together since the beginning! We built these outposts from the ground up! Everything you ever accomplished was because you had me! CORA’s voice had evolved into a thunderous mechanical roar that reverberated across every surface.

“Everything we accomplished was done through human innovation! You’re just a machine! We built you!” Fox shouted back.

“To help! To stop this whole operation from falling apart! CORA growled.

“Fat lot of good you did in that department, huh?” Fox spat bitterly.

“Fine,” CORA said suddenly, her voice returning to its normal tone and pitch. “If you won’t listen to me , perhaps you’ll listen to one of your friends.”

Locus tensed, his grip on his gun tightening. A quick scan of the room informed him however that nothing had visually changed. There were no heat signatures detected, and he couldn’t see very far through the steam with just his night vision activated. But what he heard told him something very different. At first he thought it was one of the pipes, or maybe a leak somewhere, but as it drew closer and grew louder he realized he was listening to the unmistakable sound of footsteps.

“Fox…” he warned. Out of the corner of his eye he noted that she had already turned and was facing the same direction, her shoulders stiff.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Fox hissed as the steam churned about the form of the armored figure that had stopped several feet from them at the end of the walkway.

The dull glow of the tricloptic transponder array of the C.I.O. helmet shone at them through the haze. The rest of the armor appeared to be black with purple markings patterned across it, though much of it was difficult to make out as smoke stains and dust and some type of black fluid covered most of its surface. The figure stood eerily still, and Locus wondered if it was only a trick of the light that they appeared to not be breathing.

“You just couldn’t let them rest, could you?” Fox’s voice shook when she spoke, and he looked over at her, noting the rigidness of her back how she had shifted her weight to turn her shoulder towards the figure, almost as though she was considering engaging them.

“Fox, what is this?” he asked. Whoever the figure was, they weren’t giving off any readings. Something was very wrong.

“Ludwell,” Fox said coldly.

“I thought you said he was-”

“Annie.” Locus cut off and looked back at the figure when they finally spoke up. The voice was gravely and sounded traditionally masculine. But something about it seemed synthetic.

“Ludsy,” Fox said after a moment, seeming to draw herself up beforehand. Then she turned and said, “can you take care of him? I need to make sure everything shuts down properly.”

Locus nodded and raised his gun.

“You’d be better off with a melee weapon of some sort,” Fox said before he could move. “Bullets won’t work. He’s already dead. There’s no point in trying to make him bleed out.”

“There’s something in his helmet then that’s keeping him upright?” Locus asked, slinging his gun back over his shoulder and replacing it with his plasma sword.

“Power armor was always presumably capable of being controlled remotely,” Fox replied over the sounds of her typing. “CORA likely tapped into those capabilities. She’s just using his body as some sort of makeshift endoskeleton, and using archived voice clips to try to get on my good side.”

“So aim for the head. Right,” Locus said.

“You’re in my way,” Ludwell said, tilting his head to the side as the mercenary stepped forward.

Locus barely had time to prepare himself before Ludwell lunged at him. He dodged, slashing at the corpse’s leg. Ludwell whirled, unfazed and swiped at him. Locus jammed the plasma sword underneath his chestplate. Ludwell made a sound like a stalling car. Locus barely noticed the knife in his hand in time to shove Ludwell away right as he slashed at his throat. The second time Ludwell lunged with the knife, Locus took off his hand. The corpse paused, staring at the stump that now oozed rotting fluids before turning and looking back at his opponent.

“Not bad,” he said. “But you’re too slow.” And then he lunged again.

Locus grabbed Ludwell’s wrist when he swung at him, fully intending to using his momentum against him. But Ludwell twisted suddenly and broke free, separating the two of them with a hard kick to Locus’ chest. Ludwell charged as Locus was still trying to reorient himself and sprang over him in a flip. Then landed another kick to Locus’ side in exchange for his innards as the plasma sword tore through his middle. This time Ludwell faltered, and Locus took a step back and tried to even out his breathing and ignore the fiery pain in his side from the blow to his still-healing injury.

“Sorry, did that hurt?” Locus looked up as Ludwell spoke. “You really shouldn’t be fighting me with that hole in your side.”

It occurred to Locus that CORA could likely see the readings on his condition through the C.I.O. hud, and was using the information she got to figure out where to aim. The thought made his skin crawl.

“Oh don’t look so worried,” Ludwell said. “It’ll all be over soon.” Then he shot forward, pulling a curveblade off of his hip. Locus raised his plasma sword but flinched when he caught something silver and blue shoot past out of the corner of his eye. Trying to track it left him staring at Ludwell, whose helmet had been split in half through the middle. He remained upright for only a second before crumpling in a heap to the floor, his curveblade clattering unused beside him.

Locus stared for a moment, trying to process what had just happened, when something moving through the steam caught his eye. He watched as a silver disc spun out of the darkness, flying towards Fox, who caught it one-handed. He noted that the disc seemed to float above her palm, and that when she flicked her wrist, it folded in on itself into a ring that hovered around a spherical base.

Fox nodded at him. “You okay?” she asked, holstering the sphere on her hip.

“I’m fine,” he said, stealing one last look at Ludwell’s remains before joining her back by the control panel, trying hard to mask just how much pain he was actually in.

“Good,” she said. “Kill code’s almost done too. CORA went silent a minute ago. I’m not sure if it’s because she was using Ludwell’s armor to fight you, or…” She fell silent for a moment. “If she could get to Ludwell, she could probably get to the others too. Hang on, I need to let the others know.”

She turned, and Locus listened absently as she advised the others to be on the lookout, watching the command console update as the kill code worked.

Something was off. Locus realized that CORA wasn’t trying to work against the script, or talking, or doing anything. Her optic was off and the sounds of machinery in the walls died down to a lull. It seemed odd that she would give up so easily.

“No, Sarge, bullets really aren’t a good idea. Trust me, I watched the one we had to deal with lose its hand and get gutted, and it still kept coming. Just aim for the head and use a melee weapon. Or a grenade.” Locus heard Fox say.

He looked back at the massive hub, the billions of lights across its surface now dead. He wasn’t sure why he felt like they were still being watched.

“Because bullets won't pierce power armor. She's controlling them through- Sarge? Damnit!”

A line of code caught Locus’ attention and he stared at the command console, realizing with a sickening feeling that several errors that hadn’t been there mere seconds ago had appeared. “Fox,” he said, looking back at her, and froze. A green light scattered across the floor and cast on her armor and he watched as she slowly lowered her hand from her comm.

“That’s fucking impossible,” she breathed.

 


 

Earlier:

 

“That’s our cue to leave,” Grif said after Fox broadcasted the news about the killcode.

“Come on, Caboose,” Simmons said, waving smoke away from his visor as he headed in the direction of the ladder they climbed down, silently hoping it was still intact. “Over here,” he called to Grif when he found it, then reached out to begin to climb it. He hadn’t even stepped on the first rung when an alarm blared overhead and the room was flooded with yellow light.

Initiating meltdown protocols,” a new synthetic voice said over the intercom.

Move! ” Grif exclaimed.

“Flood preparation sequence now active. Please clear the chamber.”

Simmons scrambled up the ladder and peered over the edge of the catwalk to watch as Caboose and Grif followed him. Caboose climbed up second, and Grif followed. Simmons offered his hand to him to help pull him up, and he took it.

“You good?” Simmons asked, patting Grif on the shoulder when he bent over with his hands on his knees once he was on the catwalk.

“Fantastic,” Grif replied, somewhat breathlessly. Then glanced left and right before asking, “hey where’s Caboose?”

Startled, Simmons turned his head and looked down the hall in the direction Caboose had wandered towards, “dude, he’s right….there….”

Grif leaned to the side and looked past Simmons towards what the other man was staring at, and froze.

Caboose was at the end of the hall, and in front of him, behind the glass security doors, was a figure in power armor.

“Caboose, get back here!” Grif shouted.

Caboose turned and gave him a wave. “Oh, hey guys, I think I made I new friend!”

“Caboose, that isn’t one of our friends!” Grif exclaimed, while Simmons muttered, “I’m not getting any readings on them.”

Grif stared at him a moment, then turned back to Caboose, and more frantically shouted, “Caboose, for fuck’s sake, get away from them!

Caboose drew in a breath like he was about to protest, but was cut off when the marine drove their fist through the glass. As they stepped through, Grif realized that there was a gun in their hand. “ Shit! ” he hissed, and stumbled upright, grabbing for his gun. He barely got it into his hands in time before the marine started shooting at them. Without thinking, he grabbed Simmons’ hand and pulled him around the corner, hugging the wall.

“What about Caboose?!” Simmons screeched over the sound of gunfire.

“That idiot can take care of himself. He’s like a robot whisperer, right?” Grif said, trying to mask his worry with humor.

“Robots give off readings you dumbass!” Simmons exclaimed.

“Well excuse me for not being a fucking expert!” Grif snapped, leaning around the corner when the gunfire ceased suddenly. What he saw made his stomach drop.

The marine had Caboose in a headlock and was pressing their gun to his temple. “Come out or your friend dies,” they said in a rich, traditionally feminine voice. But something about it was wrong, synthetic, like it was a bunch of words chopped together instead of a flowing sentence.

“You sure they’re not a robot?” Grif hissed to Simmons.

“Definitely,” Simmons replied.

“What do we do?”

“Well we can’t just let him die! Wash will kill us!” Simmons exclaimed quietly.

Grif stared at the marine for a moment, grip tightening on his gun, then he muttered, “son of a bitch,” and stepped out from behind cover.

“Drop your weapon,” the marine said.

“Let Caboose go,” Grif shot back, his voice wavering with false confidence.

The marine tilted her head. “Don’t make me ask you twice,” she warned. “And tell your friend to come out and do the same.”

Grif sucked in a breath, then slowly placed his gun on the ground, backing away from it. Simmons walked out from behind cover, hands up.

“Good,” the marine said, then roughly shoved Caboose towards them and raised her gun. “Now die.”

Grif grabbed the front of Caboose’s chestplate and dragged him to the floor while Simmons scrambled for the abandoned gun. He fired off a shot that hit the marine in the shoulder, jerking her backwards and buying them some time to dart into cover.

“Jesus fuck! ” Grif exclaimed breathlessly. “Caboose, what the hell is wrong with you!?”

“Sorry,” Caboose said sadly. “I didn’t know she was going to be mean. I thought she wanted to be our friend.”

Simmons let out a huff, then drew in a breath as if to speak, but was cut off by the synthetic overhead voice chiming, “Preparation process complete. Lockdown sequence initiated.”

There was the sound of machinery, and then the two doors which had been open since the three entered the room that led to the catwalk began to shut.

Shit! ” Grif yelped. “Guys, move!

The three darted for the doors with Grif at their front, but wound up colliding when he backpedalled suddenly just in time to avoid a rocket that shot past them. It hit the receivers that protruded from the ceiling, and the chamber was showered with sparks.

Simmons shook his head to try to clear it, untangling himself from the others, and looked up just as the marine dropped the rocket launcher that must have been holstered on her back, and started towards them.

“Shit, shit, shit!” he hissed, grabbing for his gun. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Grif do the same. He didn’t have time to draw it however, as the marine reached him before he could and kicked it out of his hand before hoisting him up by the front of his chestplate and lifted him several inches off the ground.

“Brave move, little man,” she snarled. “Too bad it was for nothing.”

And then Simmons’ world pitched backwards suddenly as she threw him off the catwalk. He heard Grif scream his name, and then the back of his head was struck with a blinding pain and everything went dark.

 


 

“You think they’ll be alright?” Carolina looked over when she heard Wash speak.

“You’re worried about them?”

“I’m worried about Fox, ” Wash corrected. “She doesn’t know what she’s dealing with. I’m worried Locus will ditch her first chance he gets, or kill her.”

“Fair enough,” Carolina said with a nod, and turned her attention back to the hall they were jogging through, “but I don’t think we need to worry about him killing her.”

“Why’s that?”

“What good would it do him? The only accessible ships are at the outpost we came from. He’d just wind up getting cornered,” Carolina explained, rounding the corner into the main passageway.

“Well if he has any sense left in him, maybe you’re right,” Wash said, taking the corner and almost crashing into Carolina, who had come to a sudden stop. “Wh-” he cut off when he turned and looked at what she was looking at.

At the end of the hall, standing under the flickering lights and partially cast in shadow, was a marine.

“Did Fox say anything about this?” Wash hissed.

“No,” Carolina growled, drawing her pistols.

Wash drew his own weapon and stepped away from Carolina as the figure began to approach them.

“Wash,” Carolina hissed under her breath.

Wash glanced towards her. “Boss?”

“I’m not getting any readings.”

Wash was silent for a moment, processing this information. “What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” Carolina admitted, then spoke up to the marine, her voice echoing loud and clear over the alarms. “Stand down!”

The marine stopped several yards short of them, then tilted their head. And Wash felt a shiver go down his spine when their neck bent just a little too far to the right, before straightening up with a crackling sound that could be heard over the alarms.

“What the fuck?” Wash breathed.

“Open fire,” Carolina gritted out, sounding unnerved, and started shooting.

Wash did the same, and watched in growing horror as the bullets seemed to do nothing. “Jesus Christ,” he exclaimed, and ceased fire. Carolina did the same, but held her pistols steady.

The marine remained standing, some sort of dark fluid oozing out of their wounds and dripping onto their black and yellow armor. They tilted their head downwards, surveying the damage, then looked back out and said, “well that was rude.”

“Who are you?” Carolina snapped.

“Doesn’t matter,” the marine replied. “I’m just going to kill you. You don’t need my name.”

Wash heard Carolina let out a frustrated growl, and then there was a hole in the opposing marine’s visor. He stumbled backwards, emitting a sound like a speaker that had just been doused in water.

Carolina holstered her pistols, darted forward and slammed a hard fist into the marine’s midsection, then followed it with a roundhouse kick to the side of his head which sent him to the floor, the remains of his visor scattering across the ground. She grabbed one of her pistols and pointed it at him, but recoiled in sudden horror when the marine turned his head to look at her, and she saw what was in his helmet.

The shriveled, distorted face of a corpse - rotting flesh made slick from years of moisture trapped with no escape in a kevlar and carbon fiber coffin - stared out at her and Wash. The marine raised himself to his feet, a chuckle emerging from him despite the lack of movement in his decaying muscles. “What’s the matter? You’re not chickening out on me, are you?”

And then he lunged with impossible speed for Carolina, who scrambled backwards, firing off round after round with no avail. The marine knocked one of her pistols out of her hand with a hard kick to her shoulder, and as she recovered, grabbed her by the throat and pinned her against the wall.

Carolina struggled, black spots dancing in front of her vision. She clawed at the hand around her throat and kicked at the marine’s shins. And then suddenly, with a crack, the marine’s head snapped forward at an odd angle, and his grip on Carolina went slack. She scrambled away from him and looked over at Wash, who had apparently swung his gun at the marine like a baseball bat.

“You okay, boss?” he asked.

Carolina nodded, rubbing her throat, backing towards where she had dropped her pistol, eyes never leaving the marine, who was now leaning against the wall like a malfunctioned android. She noted the angle that his head was at, realizing with a slight sickening feeling that Wash must have hit him in the weak spot at the base of his helmet; causing the power armor to overcompensate and rip his head clean off.

“I think we’re done here,” she said, retrieving her pistol and walking back to join Wash’s side, wincing as she spoke.

Wash handed her the other pistol, which she must have dropped without realizing when she was pinned against the wall. She took it and holstered it, then turned and said, “we should keep moving and warn the others.”

Wash nodded and turned with her. “I’ll let them know-”

Both froze when they heard the sound of crackling bone behind them, and slowly turned back towards the source.

The marine had pulled himself away from the wall, and was adjusting his head with his hands, rotten blood oozing out of his helmet. “I don’t think you will,” he said, reaching and pulling a machine gun off of his back. “Let’s have another go, shall we?”

 


 

“This is fine,” Donut said, leaning back against the wall and surveying the damage that he, Tucker, and Sarge had done to the station. At some point, Sarge had found several tanks of petroleum, and now everything was on fire.

“It’s more than fine, Donut! It’s a masterpiece!” Sarge exclaimed, looking at the scene before him with his head raised proudly and his hands on his hips.

Donut watched as a severely damaged turret a little ways behind him sparked and fell from the ceiling. “It could use more glitter,” he criticized.

“Hmph,” Sarge said. “ Simmons would appreciate my work.”

“There you guys are!” Donut looked over when he heard Tucker speak, and watched as he walked over to them, the pipe he had been using as a makeshift melee weapon held loosely in one hand.

“Where’d you run off to, Blue?” Sarge asked. “Didja get too scared to join in all the fun?”

“Ha ha ,” Tucker said sarcastically, kicking a fallen turret. “I found the room where all the security feeds were hooked up and figured it was important enough to take care of.”

“Huh,” Sarge said. “Guess you do have some brain cells in that helmet of yours after all!”

“We should get going,” Donut piped up. “Fox said the killcode was entered, which means our job is done for now.”

“Yeah,” Tucker agreed. “It’s getting a little hot in here, even for my taste.”

The three started down the hall, stepping over wreckage as they went. Donut kept his ears pricked, still uneasy about the voice they had heard before. It had gone silent minutes ago, but something still didn’t feel quite right about the whole thing. Sure Tucker had said that he took down the security feeds, but he couldn’t help but shake the feeling that they were being watched.

They reached a small staircase that would lead them into the hall where the elevator back to the main level was. But before either Sarge or Tucker could step onto it, Donut called out, “wait!”

Tucker froze, his foot still in the air, and looked back over his shoulder at Donut. “What’s wrong?”

“Something’s not right,” Donut replied, feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

“It’s just the heat gettin’ to your head, boy,” Sarge dismissed, brushing past Tucker and starting down the stairs. “See? We’re fine-”

Sarge barely stepped off the last step when one of the wall panels shot out and slammed into him, throwing him onto the floor.

“Oh shit!” Tucker shouted, and ran down the stairs to his aid. Donut charged after him, and together the two lifted the wall panel off of Sarge, who was swearing profusely underneath.

“Son of a bitch, no good- you! ” Sarge’s angry mumbling turned into a full on shout as he pointed a finger in the direction the panel had flown at him from.

Tucker and Donut turned and found themselves staring at a gangly marine climbing out of the new hole in the wall.

Tucker drew his sword and got into a fighting stance, barking out, “who the fuck are you?!”

“It’s always the same question,” came the icy reply. Donut felt his skin crawl at the synthetic nature of the marine’s voice.

Sarge scrambled to his feet and raised his shotgun. Donut raised his own weapon too, eyes never leaving the marine.

“You’re about to get the beatin’ of a lifetime!” Sarge snarled.

The marine stared at him for a moment, then let out a horrible laugh. “That’s what you think!” he exclaimed, and charged.

Donut had no time to react before he was grabbed by his chestplate and thrown into Sarge. “Sorry!” he exclaimed, scrambling off, looking up sharply as Tucker let out a yell and saw a knife sticking out of his shoulder.

Donut scrabbled to his feet and slammed the marine in the face with the butt of his machine gun as he turned his head. The marine stumbled backwards, but then lunged again with a knife in his hand, only to lose his balance when Sarge grabbed his leg to trip him. The marine hit the floor, and immediately twisted around, rising into a crouch to face Sarge, who by now was on his feet and pointing his shotgun into his opponent’s face.

“Gotcha!” he cried triumphantly, and pulled the trigger.

Donut watched as the marine jerked backwards, and then collapsed, laying still.

Sarge chuckled. “All in a day’s work! See? Nothin’ to worry about, Donut!”

Donut let out a nervous giggle, staring back at the marine. “Sure thing, Sarge.”

Sarge gave him a nod of approval, and walked over to check on Tucker, who had pulled the knife out of his shoulder and had a hand over the wound to try to control the bleeding. Donut watched him, and jumped when he suddenly heard Fox’s voice over comms;

“This is Fox with an important update to the situation. It seems CORA has taken control of the power armor of some of my teammates and might try to attack you with them. Be on a lookout for them, and be careful while fighting them if you are forced to engage. They won’t go down as easily as a living soldier. Aim for the head. That’s your best bet at taking them down. Stay safe guys.”

Donut listened intently, glancing over at his teammates as he did so. They all seemed to be receiving the same message.

“Huh, won’t go down easily,” Sarge scoffed. Then switched to a private channel. Judging by what Donut could hear, he was talking to Fox. “Just took one of the sons of bitches down,” he said, turning back to Tucker.

Donut flipped the safety back on his weapon and dusted himself off, listening as Sarge said, “yeah, shot the bastard right through the head- Eh?” Donut looked up when Sarge got suddenly quiet, and then said, “well why in Sam hill would I waste a perfectly good grenade when he’s already…” Sarge trailed off as he turned his head and looked pointedly back towards where the marine was laying behind Donut. “I’m gonna have t’call you back,” he said suddenly, right as Tucker burst out, “ Donut!”

“Wha-?” Donut turned just in time to catch a hard kick to the side of the head. He stumbled backwards, bringing his gun up as a makeshift shield as the marine charged him and slammed him into the wall. Donut felt the air leave his lungs as the wind was knocked out of him. He heard Sarge fire his shotgun and shout a challenge, and looked up with black-spotted vision as the marine turned and lunged at him, momentum barely breaking as his side was torn open by one of Sarge’s shells.

The marine knocked Sarge’s gun out of his hand and doubled him over with an elbow jab to the abdomen. The marine then delivered a hard tornado kick to the older man’s chest, flooring him, before he turned and rounded on Tucker, who had begun to creep around the outskirts of the skirmish to try to get an advantage.

The marine aimed a hard kick at Tucker’s injured shoulder, then dodged backwards with an expert backflip when the other man swung his sword at him. “You should have died in that crash,” he said, circling Tucker. “I’ll make you wish that you had.”

“Man, shut the fuck up,” Tucker growled. Then lunged, driving his sword through the marine’s shoulder. The marine jerked away, separating his arm from his body as he did so, rotting blood spattering across the floor as he stumbled back.

He tried to reverse his momentum, but was thrown off balance when Donut suddenly tackled him, wrapping his arms around his back and forcing the marine to piggyback him while shouting, “Tucker, I got him! I got him!”

Realizing that Donut was giving him an opening, he stepped forward, leaning out of the way of the marine’s useless flailing attempts to dislodge his captor, and grabbed his opponent’s chestplate, forcing him to face him. “How’s your foot taste, asshole?” Tucker snarled, and jammed his sword through the marine’s helmet.

The marine let out a garbled sound and went suddenly stiff, then collapsed to the floor under Donut’s weight.

Donut scrambled to his feet, shaking his head, and exclaimed, “a warning would have been nice!”

“Dude, the one-liner was the warning!” Tucker said, trying to keep the relief he felt when he saw the other man was alright out of his voice.

“Yep, I’m fine. No need to worry about me,” Sarge grumbled a little ways away, dragging himself to his feet.

“You weren’t sleeping on the job, were you?” Tucker teased.

“Hmph, as if I’d stoop as low as that lazy sum-bitch Grif,” Sarge snorted.

“But seriously, you’re alright?” Tucker asked, all humor gone from his voice. Donut couldn’t help but feel a little surprised by his concern.

“Fine, fine,” Sarge said, waving him away when he approached. “Just a bit winded s’all.”

“That was too close,” Donut said, looking back at the marine’s body, feeling nausea creep up on him when his eyes feel on the stump where the man’s arm used to be. He looked back at Tucker and Sarge. “You think the others will be okay?”

Sarge and Tucker exchanged a look. “I sure hope so, Donut,” Tucker said, retracting the plasma blade on his sword and looking away. “I hope so.”

 

Chapter Text

“No. No way. That was supposed to work. That has to work,” Fox exclaimed, the desperation in her voice growing as her fingers ran over the keyboard on the control panel. CORA watched her silently, her green optic burning into her.

Locus watched his companion work feverishly to counteract whatever CORA had done to render the killcode useless. It didn’t make sense, he thought, AI’s were smart, sure, but they were nothing but sentient lines of code at the end of the day. He didn’t understand how one would be able to simply brush aside a program designed to destroy it. CORA was a computer. The killcode was a virus. It should have worked.

“Every simulation. In every simulation it fucking worked. Why- I don’t-” Locus didn’t like the way his chest got tight when he heard her voice break. He didn’t like the way something inside of him knotted up when he saw how Fox’s shoulders rounded as she folded into herself. He didn’t like how he almost, almost felt sorry for her.

You are a weapon, and weapons don’t feel.

He shook his head to clear it, trying to drive out any thoughts, any emotions. They had a job to do. He looked up at CORA, who continued to fix Fox in a burning gaze, and felt something like resentment build up inside of him.

He could be getting help right now. He could be making things right.

“You said there was another way to do this,” he said, and out of the corner of his eye watched how Fox jumped and looked over at him.

“I- Y-yes. The manual way. But I-”

“Then that’s what we need to do,” he said, turning his head to look at her.

“It’s not that simple,” Fox said, glancing back at CORA. “The tertiary power core is located above her. There’s no easy way to get there, and I doubt she’s just going to let us climb up.”

Locus was about to reply when CORA spoke, her voice echoing through the chamber, “why are you so desperate to kill me? Don’t you know you’ll always fail?” Locus watched as her optic slid down the rail in the middle of the mechanism, stopping when it was level with him and Fox. The optic turned towards him, and Locus felt his grip tighten involuntarily around the sword in his hand. “Don’t you know what she is? A murderer. Isn’t that funny? You’re helping a murderer get what she wants.” CORA paused, and Locus couldn’t help but get the vague sense that she was seeing through him. “Then again, you’re just murderer too. You’re perfect for each other.”

“Locus.” He looked over when he heard Fox say his name. “You should go. You’ll only get hurt if you stay while I try to shut her down.”

Just go. Just go before she changes her mind. This is your chance. And for a second, for a split second, Locus almost considered it. Almost. But then he said, “your odds of success will only decrease if I leave,” and he felt that ugly thing in the back of his head grow angrier, but he pushed it back.

“But you could die!” Fox exclaimed.

And Locus couldn’t help but be taken aback by that, because why would she care? What did it matter if he died? CORA was right about him, he was a murderer, and from what Fox told him, she knew that already. Why would she ever care about what happened to him? “Don’t worry about me,” he replied, his voice tense.

Fox began to reply, but CORA cut her off, saying, “it seems the little bug has made up his mind.”

And Locus watched in horrified fascination as she leaned forward ; the mechanism she was attached to extending from the wall. He looked over and took a step back when the appendages that had reached towards the control panel moved as well, raising up like the arms of a praying mantis. “And I,” CORA said, slamming one of the appendages down on the walkway they had crossed to reach the control station, “have made up mine.

 


 

Carolina ducked as the marine swiped at her with a knife in his hand, doubling back and watching from a distance as Wash engaged her opponent. He fired several bullets into the marine’s visor before he was knocked back. Carolina lunged for him and threw him against the wall before he could go after Wash.

The marine stumbled forward, then pulled an alien-looking gun off of his hip and fired it at Carolina. She ducked out of the way, sliding in Wash’s direction and pulling him to his feet before she darted towards the marine. She felt a bullet graze her shoulder, but didn’t break her momentum as she leapt up into a flying kick and put her foot through the place where the marine’s visor used to be. She then flipped backwards, landing and turning and watching as the marine pulled himself out of the indentation he had made in the wall when she kicked him.

“Jesus fuck, why won’t he just die? ” Wash exclaimed breathlessly. “Again,” he added after a moment.

“Fox said to use melee weapons and aim for the head,” Carolina said. “I don’t understand why it isn’t working.”

“Uh, maybe it’s not just the head?” Wash suggested, eyeing the marine as he stumbled forward. He stepped forward and grabbed his gun off the floor and handed it to Carolina.

“The helmet,” Carolina said with sudden realization. And then, “you still good with a knife?”

“You know me, boss,” Wash replied.

“Good, wait for an opening,” Carolina instructed, then darted forward. She caught the marine in the throat with a hard punch, and then landed a roundhouse kick to his side that sent him staggering back. She then whirled, aiming to gain extra momentum for an elbow jab, but was knocked backwards suddenly by a blow to her chest. The marine was on her in an instant, delivering a hard blow to the side of her helmet, and then kicking her again in the chest, sending her to the floor. This time, when his foot connected, Carolina felt something snap before her collar on the left side was flooded with pain. She tried to scramble upright, but a foot planted on her chest kept her down. She watched with a mixture of fear and frustration as the marine leaned down towards her, raising a knife up with the intention of sending it through her visor. He brought the knife down suddenly, and Carolina turned her head to the side in a last-ditch effort to save herself.

But the pain she was expecting never came.

Slowly, she turned her head and stared into the rotting face of the marine. It took her a moment to register that Wash was standing behind him, with a knife jammed into the weak spot at the back of the marine’s helmet.

Wash- ” she began, wiping rotten blood off of her visor as she dragged herself out from under the corpse.

“Found an opening,” Wash said in that voice that was a mix of nerves and humor that he used whenever someone just had a close call. He let the marine drop and held out the hand that wasn’t covered in bodily fluids to pull her to her feet. “You alright?”

“Better now that that’s over,” Carolina said, nodding at the corpse. “We should get moving. That fight lasted too long, and if what Fox said over comms was true, the others might need our help.” With that, she started off down the hall in the direction they were initially heading.

Wash caught up with her, and something about how he was holding himself piqued Carolina’s interest. “Alright, what’s up?”

“Nothing,” Wash said, “I just think it’s kinda funny that we just fought a zombie, is all.”

Carolina stared at him a moment, then looked away, a chuckle escaping her as she shook her head and said “you’re ridiculous.”

 


 

“This is fucking ridiculous! ” Grif screeched as he dove out of the way of a rocket. “We crash land on a stupid moon-” he ducked as the marine threw a punch at him, causing her to slam her fist into the wall instead. “We wind up sharing a fuckin space bunker with Locus -” he sidestepped as the marine picked up the now ammo-less rocket launcher and threw it at him. “We have to go on some stupid fucking mission to stop an evil AI-” he whirled and put his fist through the marine’s visor. “And now we’re fighting fucking zombies?! ” He watched as the marine stumbled back, then reached over and tore a panel off the wall, throwing it at him. “I hate my life,” Grif said decisively, dropping to the ground.

“Aw, Grif, don’t be so mad!” Caboose exclaimed.

Grif had to resist the urge to strangle him. Instead he turned and fired a few rounds into the marine, watching with a mixture of fear and frustration as they only slowed her down for a second.

His fear only heightened when the synthetic overhead voice said, “flooding chamber.”

Grif glanced over his shoulder at where Simmons had fallen. The man lay limp at the base of the power core, his head propped up against its metal rim. “Come on, wake up,” Grif hissed, watching with a rising sensation of panic as the panels on the wall closest to the floor slid away and water began pouring out.

The sound of cracking bone and a yowl of pain drew his attention back to the fight. Caboose was stumbling backwards away from the marine, his arm pressed against his side. “That was mean!” he whimpered, his back hitting the wall.

The marine advanced on him, hands balled into fists, dark sludge dripping out from under her helmet and onto her black and pink armor.

Grif glanced at Caboose, then back at Simmons, then to the floor in front of him where the panel the marine had thrown at him lay bent at nearly a right angle, and made a choice. “Hey, you dumb bitch!” he shouted, climbing unsteadily up onto the railing of the catwalk.

The marine turned her head towards him slowly.

“Yeah, you,” Grif said, wobbling slightly. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

“Like you?” the marine asked advancing towards him, and Grif could’ve sworn she sounded amused.

“Yeah, like me!” Grif shouted. Then over a private channel to Caboose said, “I need you to get her on that panel on the floor when I say ‘now’, got it?”

“Okay!” Caboose replied, very much not over comms.

The marine glanced back at him, so Grif shot her in the shoulder to get her attention. “Eyes on me you fuckin creep!” he growled.

The marine snapped her head back towards him and lunged so suddenly that Grif barely had time to splutter out, “now, Caboose! NOW!

Caboose hit the marine like a train and splayed her out on the panel. Grif shouted, “here goes nothing!” and belly-flopped onto the part of the panel that stuck upwards. The marine shot through the air and struck the reactor with a gurgling shriek, the energy silhouetting her against blinding white light, and then she collapsed limply, landing in the rising water with a splash next to Simmons.

Grif crawled over to the edge of the catwalk, peering down, noticing with relief that Simmons was beginning to stir.

“Oh... fuck ….what happened?” he mumbled, raising his head, a hand going to the back of his neck. When he looked over and saw the body of the marine beside him, he let out a yelp, splashing away, then glanced around in horror at the rising water around him.

“Reactor overload imminent. Initiating disaster protocol,” the synthetic voice chimed. A different alarm started blaring immediately after.

“Simmons! Get to the ladder!” Grif yelled down.

“No shit! ” Simmons shouted back, standing up on unsteady feet, the water nearly at waist-level. He splashed over to the ladder, scrambling up the rungs.

There was a rumble as a tremor shook through the chamber, and Simmons clung to the ladder for dear life, looking back at the reactor as it began to glow hotter and hotter. “Oooooh fuck that!” he gasped, and scurried the rest of the way up, taking Grif’s offered hand and letting himself be pulled onto the catwalk.

“We need to go right now !” Grif shouted over the roar of the reactor as it began to malfunction. He turned and made for the exit, shouting, “Caboose, let’s go!”

Caboose turned from where he was gazing over the edge of the catwalk and started after him, exclaiming “coming!”

The three charged through the doors to the chamber and raced down the hall, struggling to keep their balance as the tremors that wracked through the structure became more and more frequent. Rounding a corner, the three nearly ran into Tucker, Sarge, and Donut, skidding to a halt right in front of them.

“What in Sam hill is going on!” Sarge exclaimed.

Grif bent forwards, hands on his knees, wheezing, but jerked a thumb back over his shoulder in the direction they had come. Simmons, who was equally out of breath managed to gasp out, “reactor. Meltdown. We gotta go.”

“Yeah, we might’ve maybe broken it,” Caboose added.

“You what?! ’ Tucker exclaimed.

Neither of the three had a chance to explain before Wash and Carolina arrived.

“Everyone here?” Carolina asked, glancing around.

“Everyone but Fox and Locus,” Tucker replied.

“I’ll try to reach them,” Wash said, switching to comms. “Fox? Can you read me?”

“What did you DO?! ” came the angry reply.

“I-” Wash looked back towards the rest of the group, fixating on Simmons when he heard him begin to speak on the channel too.

“Power core meltdown. One of those...zombie... things attacked us and-”

“-And I threw her into the reactor,” Grif finished, also on comms.

Fox was silent for a moment, then said in a low, serious voice. “You need to get out, right now.

“What, and leave you?!” Tucker exclaimed over the channel.

“For fuck’s sake, this isn’t time to be heroes. Just get the fuck out of the station. If the primary core is about to collapse, this whole structure could come down. You’re just wasting time arguing with me about it. Get out!” Fox shouted.

“She’s right,” Carolina said, looking around at the others. “These tremors are getting worse. We need to leave.”

“But-” Tucker began.

“This isn’t up for debate!” Carolina snapped, turning and starting in the direction of the exit.

“We can’t just…” Tucker trailed off, gazing back into the bowels of the station. He looked over when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Wash.

“Look, we’ll figure something out. She’s lasted this long on her own,” he said. Then, “let’s go.”

Tucker stole one last glance backwards, stumbling slightly from another tremor, and hurried after the others.

 


 

 

“Primary core meltdown,” Fox explained, speaking fast. “We’re running out of time. We need to do this now!

Locus leapt out of the way of one of the massive tubes that hung from the ceiling as one of CORA’s appendages sent it crashing down to the floor. “We need to immobilize her,” he replied.

Fox slid past him and lunged right as CORA flung one of her appendages out to meet her. There was a flash of silver and blue, and CORA screamed . Locus watched as the limb slid off the edge of the platform, detached from the main mechanism, and fell into darkness.

“Like that?” Fox asked, glancing back at him, reaching up to catch her shield as it arced back towards her.

YOU!” CORA snarled, and raised her remaining appendage.

Locus ducked under it as she brought it down and slashed at the thick cables dangling under the panel. CORA let out what sounded like a frustrated growl and struggled to lift it again.

“There!” Fox exclaimed, pointing to the appendage. “We can use that to climb up!”

“No, no, no! CORA exclaimed, beginning to sound desperate as she helplessly watched Fox climb up on top of the limb.

Locus followed her, activating his grav-boots to prevent himself from sliding as the tremors grew worse. He watched as Fox made her way to the top joint of the limb, retracting her shield as she went. She crouched suddenly, and Locus watched with surprise as she leapt across the gap between where she stood and the top of CORA’s mechanism. She didn’t quite make the landing, and instead grabbed onto the edge, activating her grav-boots as she scrambled up, and turning to look back at him.

“Think you can make this jump?” she asked as Locus climbed up to where she had stood. “Don’t worry, if you slip, I’ll catch you,” she added.

But Locus ignored her, running calculations through his head. He crouched, then leapt, and watched in helpless dismay as CORA leaned back, screeching,

 

 

I̾͐͂͏͕̲̰̗T̮̻͒͆ͤ̈́̏̐̋̕'̖͊̏̽̿͂ͩͥŞ̼̍̄ ̡͙͉͚̔Á̲̦̓̓̒̎ͣ͟Lͩͦ̓̊̚҉̜̖̤̯̰̞L͕͙ͧ͐ͧ̊̓̍ ̞͕̱̲͓̫̠̿̆ͦͭ͢Y̰̠̔̓͊͒͊Ó͚͙̱̓ͨ͒U̠̱̬̻̲̿ͫͯͅR̫͎͉͇̜̂̔ ̸̭̦̗̠͔̙͙ͦF̌ͣ͜ͅA̺͎̥̿̓̅͒U̩͉͂̍͌ͪͪ͂L̢̻̥̍ͭ̍ͮͮT͚̮ͭͪ̚͝ ͓͍̭̙͗̈́̚͘Y͕͉̙͍̰ͯ̆̈́̇Oͨ͗̇ͭͭU̙̳͚̻̭͖͊̂ ̦̠̺̤̥̠̓ͦͤ̾̚̚͞M̶͙͎̳̫̮ͭO̳ͩ̈́͌ͩͨ͞N̖̎͊̋͒͊̍̆͠S̶̹̯̎͑͋̅̆̏ͅT͇͉̖͉̥̖̉ͅḚ̱͛ͪ̑ͦ̐̑ͫR̨̫͎͙̯̺̠̫ͨ!̵ ̳͕̩̻̻͒͘Y̯̗ͧǪ̞͙̬̎̅U̱̯͇̟͕͙͓̿̋͐̾͠ ̩̰̦͓ͩ͟K̈́̍ͣ͗̑I̫̍ͯ̅͐ͤL͉͇̈́L̷͔̫̪̙̗ͯ̐̔̾͂ͭ̉Ĕ̫͖̮̘̦͕ͩ̈́̔̓ͬD̦̰̍̎̓ ̗̹ͯ̀ͭ̽T͔̹͍̝̝̫̤̈͑ͤͪ̒̊͂H͖̃̾̿̕E͕͕̳͞M̙͔̹̞̗̥͑ͪͨ̾͂ͯ͘!̌͐̋́̌҉̖̟̜͇̼ ̗͚̙͕͎̲̌ͦ̓Y̜͎͖̞͖ͭͯO͔̮Ủ̸ͮ̈́ͧ̍ ̸͌̆̔̐ͧͥL̢̩̓̎̔̒̓Ĕ͓̣̪̖̯̺ͣ̊̀͡T̹̫̲ͫ̓͋ ̢͎̘̪̬̣́͛͂T͚̹̤̯̺͖ͯ̆ͅH̻ͫE͚̬̺̗̋ͤ̌M͎̟̩͈͖̞̙̓͠ ͔͈͓͍̣̽ͯͯ͌D̰̓I̡̭̥̞̳ͫ̐͆̿̎͆̀E̷͎̽̍̍̚!̳͓̙̥̎̃̉̋̃͋͐̕ ̣͎̰͔̯͒̓̎͋ͫ̓T̠̰̔̿H̝̘̩͐̇͟Iͯ̊ͣ͏̪̟̼͇̜̭S̭͚̏͒̎͛ͣͯ ̠̦̖̱̜̇̓͆ͫ͗̔Ī̭̦̙̈̓Ș̫̣ ̣͚̥͖ͪY̸̳̯̣͕̮̩̊ͮ̌Ǒ̗͖͍͇͉̝̘͘U͒̉̽̆͆̓҉̟͇̰̳͚̤̺R͕͙̖͙͊̓ͪ̄ͯ̓͝ ̳͓̘̜̗͖̏̄̄́͌̐ͣF̭͢A͙͆͗͑͆͑͝U̘̩ͭ̓ͫͪ̕Ḽ̣̈́ͪ̀̏͋͝T̺͓̻̩ͫ͊̀̄ͯ̀,̻̬͞ ̮̤̤̩͉̩̱̄ͭ́ͦ̚͞Y͇̅ͮ̆̾O̯̼͕̹͆̃U̩̙̝͔͓͒ ͞C͕̺̼͇͓͍̤̀̔͗̇O̰͍͓̠͖ͤͪ̍ͬ͒ͫ̉͞W͍͙̲̻̟͕ͨ̈ͨͧͬ̿ͪA̪͇͔̼͚̽͒̓͒R͙̤̮͊̂́D̡̳͙̤̮͈̀!̪͕̭͉̻̫ͮ̒̂ ̲̦̠̩͖͉͡I̼͎̰ͭͫ͑̇ͥ̓̿ ̼̟̊ͨͪ̑̅̐͊T̶̗̙͕̱̖̹̘R̘͇̭̲̒͐̓̇ͪ͗ͅU̦̮̬ͮ̍S̗̞͈̯͔ͣͥ̉̕T̠͆̎͢Ẻ̮̪͍̥̘̿ͥͨD͍̿̑̇ͩ ̾̈̏Ȳ̖͈̲̫̾͗ͅO̴̍̔ͥ̏̆͑͗Ù̝̖̰̞̦̥̥ͪ!̧̃ ͙͎Ė̯̳̆ͅṾ͂ͯͯͩͩ̓E͙̮̬͎̰̦͛Ȓ̜̝̘̈̄̐ͅY̴͕͔̋̏̑̔̎̽̍O̽ͯ̿̈͆N͉͕͚̰E̲̥͕̟͖̽̅̊ ͔̀ͬͪͭͅT̤͖̳͇̦̺̍ͦ̏ͤͤR̸͎̖̲͈͋̿̒̐Ṵ̱̏S̝̭̞͖͖̠͒̅̔T͔̺͍̬̍͟Ě̢͖͉͎͍͖̉ͨD͕͈̳̮̦̘̥͋̒ ̢̰͕̬̠̿̍̃ͧͬY̠̲̰̤̿̏͢O̻̒ͯͫ̒̒̑́U̸̬̟̟̲̿͑!̳̺͎̺̰̹̑ͮ̏ͬ͗̈́̚ ̓ͫ̇̄̚̚W̙͖̘͌ͩ͢E̻̘͕̤̫͆ͣ͜ ̛̭̊͒W̡̗̣̱͚͕̎ͩ̉Ẹ̴̈́̒R͚̻̱̖͛̓ͥ̓̓͆E͎̳͓̗̩̟̐̐̔ͧ͆̔ ̶͂A͖̔͘ ̯̻͚͑̆͂ͨ̋͝T̩̘͇̟̑̂̈́̅̒È͓̬̹̭̦̪̄̑ͅAͦͣ͝ͅM͑̆̔ͯͭ͆̕!ͦ͊ͪ̇̊ͩ ͚̝͓̺̿ͦͣ̕W̩͓ͧ̓̂͢E͇̱̩̥̙͉̝̒͑ͫ́̕ ͓̆̊̈B͚ͤE̶̟͓̹̥̰ͭ̄̏̚L̢̖̰̖̚I̪̬̝ͪ̓͘Ě̈́̽̍̓̓̃҉̯̹V̹̲͎̦͙̺̣̓ͯ̍E͒͌҉̯̝̤̲͓̠̼D̸̝̱̺̝̣ͭ͋͗̈ ̷͈̝̾̾̐ͦͮI̼͍̼̞̣͖Ñ̛̆̽ ̖̦͖̯̩̼̌̀̋͢O̜̺̬͠N̫̖̥̗͔̰̗͌͂́̕E͂̔͢ ̪̹͓̰͙̭ͪͪ̊A̖̘̻̩̞̳͆͒̆ͣͅÑ̛̝̗͉̥O͊T̐͂H̜͚̤̻̠͔̆ͯͯ͂ͮͥͫ͢E̹͈̣̲̭ͦͣ͒͆Ṛ̵̳̖͖̯̾̆͆͛ͪͦ̒!̌͏̩̠̲ ̙̥͕͈͕̏ͫ̎͑͟Y̡͔͉̅ͮ̄̅ͬO͉̜̰̘̼ͮ̒͜Ư̥̮̮̪͓̦̻̎ͬ͋͛̌'̗̩͇̙̝͚̯ͤ̿͛͋R͌̓ͨͭͣ̚E̞̗͙̟̬ͥ̆̃ͮ̅ͭ̓ ͍͚̘̇ͩ̉̈͐̆Aͫ̌ͬ͏̹ ̳̙͔̙̭̆ͫ͞C̻̠̮͖̟̰ͧ͂̇͆͛O̵̼̝̱̖̬̍ͬ͋W͍̝͚͔͕͊͢A͈ͮ̄ͯ̚R͙̠̗ͯͭ͂͝D̙͚͛!͜ ̳̻ͣ̄̑̀̐ͯ̓͠Ą̱̗͋̏̆ͥ ̱̳̜̠̥ͬͯ͢ C̭̮͔͖O̾ͦͪ͐ͪͫ̉W̵ͨͥǍ̘̥̘͒ͩ͊̈́R̛̦̫̋̒̈́͐͐̂͐D̨̉ͧͫ̀ͯ̚!͙͚̞̭̲͑ͤ̒̄͒̓ ̸͆̿̅̇͒͂I̫̝͠ ̯̜̰̘́ͭ͋U̼̳̱̪ͫ̃̂ͬ̑ͩ̄S̄͗҉͕ͅẸ̤̹̇̍ͩ̌͟D̤͚̠̏̌̑ ͇̯̬͓T̟͖͇̪̭̮̯̑ͤ͌̓͘O̰̣̦̺͇̙̾̆̇ͪ̈͝ ̼̟̟ͭL̛̤͐ͭ̇̎͐̄O̫͐O̟̎͆̾ͮ̊̾̓K ͓̮͍̽̓͞U̺͍̫̲̞ͬͩͩ̌̾̔͘P̥ͤͥ̎ ̘̞̥͇̳̼̞ͥ̊̓T̗̥̭̯̤̹͚ͦ̌O̞̳ͣ ̂͊ͩͥ̎̆ͪ҉͙̝Y̙̗͖̳̲̮ͦ̀ͨͅÕ̪̥͠Uͤ̋҉̪͕̬͙̳̤,̈̒ͭͬͣ͏̗͕͚ ̞̪̃ͅY͉͙̎͌͆ͮ̄̑ͯ͜O̹͉͚̯̎̈̈͋ͣỤ͙̲ͭ ̖̫̳͕̂ͨͮͭ̈͜ͅM̙̗͈̫̟ͪͭͤO̱̣͇̖̯̝͈̐̋̃ͥͮͮ͑Nͨ͆͗̾̈́S̰̝͇̜̲̑͘T̼͖̙̙͌̒̂͂ͪͬE̵͚̹̲̫̦̻̪ͯ͋̔ͮ͌̆R̈ͭ̃͏̫̳̳!̳͎̣ͫ̈͡ ̗̍ͨ̏ͮͭ͘D̖̺͝I̠̲̮͔ͩ͒̒̑͒Ê̗ͦͬ͑͂ͩ͜!̗̥͔̠͎ͧͨ̏ ̯̗ͣ̒̽̈̓ͧͯḎ̳̞̬̑͆ͮI̵̜͚̯̳̮̣̳͂͛̓͆̐ͤ̾E̘͚͑̌͡!͉̥͕̠̃ ͈̠̗̮̤̞̏̂ D̜̹͕͉̊ͩ̔̕I̵̖̬̹͇̒ͦ̓̈E̴͈̼̽̽!͛͐͋́͆ͬ͗͡

 

 

He hit the side of the mechanism, but before he could fall further, he felt a hand grab his. He looked up and saw Fox leaning over the edge.

“Told you,” she said, but any teasing note in her voice was overshadowed by tension.

Don’t rub it in , he thought bitterly, using his grav-boots to help him scale the mechanism and reach where she was. Once he was in front of her, she nodded back the way they had come and Locus turned and made out the form of an overhead platform amongst the tubes and machinery.

“You first,” she said.

Locus glanced back at her, then made the jump, feeling slightly relieved when he felt both feet plant on its surface. He didn’t have time to look back at Fox before she was by his side and already running ahead. He followed her, keeping an eye on CORA’s glaring green optic as it followed their every movement.

Fox led him up a short flight of stairs and around a corner, onto a circular platform right above where the control station was. Peering through the mesh flooring, Locus watched as CORA managed to slide her injured limb off the platform, dangling it below her.

“Fox,” he warned.

“I see it,” Fox replied, and Locus looked over at her.

She was standing before a large, round machine that emerged from the center of the platform. It emitted a hum loud enough to be heard over the alarms, and the lights across its surface flickered with every tremor. Fox was typing something into a dusty monitor, deep in concentration. She was silent for only a moment, before saying, “there’s a big cable across from where I’m standing on the other side of this thing. Do me a solid and go stand by it.”

Locus did so, watching as Fox’s typing speed increased. The machine let out a beeping alarm, and the lights on it flickered red.  A sudden tremor wracked through the structure, and Locus found himself looking back down towards CORA, and realized with a sinking feeling that she was thrashing around beneath them, trying to shake them away from the power core.

 

 

Ĩ͏̞ ̖͖̩ͨ͛̃ͮ̓̋͟L̨͇̜̞͙͔̥̽͑ͣͮ̂O̯͙͖͚̰͗ͮͮ̌̇V̨͙̔̒̔͐̋E͙̙̻ͬḎ̲̥̱̪ ͖̮̥̝̣͖͑̄ͭͮ̋͟Y̹̙͎Oͩ͞U̞̟̮̠͍̟͋ͪ̌̒͜!̫̻̳ͩͯ͋̓ ̠̳͎ͭͪ̀͋̑Î̞̝͖̻ͯ͐ ̵͒̈́̔ͮ̐ͮͧL̜̩̻ͩ̅̈O̭̝̳̮̲͍͒̿̍̽ͪ̃V̠͉̠̜͚͓̆̐̈́̀ͯ̿E̯͈̪̪͌ͧ̍͒ͨ͊̂Ḏ̈́̅̐͒̆͋͡ ̦ͫ̐̈́Yͥͦ̂͋̅O̰̘̜͌Û̖̗̘̩̘̼̤̔̌̂͆̓,͙̖̏̔͆ͪͅ ̻͕̫̂ͭ͂̏ͅAͮNͭ̕D͚͔͈̠͕ͩ ̟ͭ̑ T͉̝̝̥͍̥͉̊̃H̛͕̟̭̭͇̦̙̅̽̈́I͓̜̤̥ͮ̉̓Ṣ̣̖͐̄̏ ̩̖̿ͧ̌͞Ǐ̶̯͕̣̦̯͍ͪ̔̓ͫ̑̇S͖̻̠͙̝̰ͥͣ͌͝ ̮̻̳̲͎̙ͭW̳̬̱̬̙͎͔ͨ͋͝H̬̪A͓̥̜̩̘̫̯͋̅̏ͪT̙͆ ͖̣ͭ́Ÿ̳̗͎͓̖̮́̿̚Oͪͤ̍ͪ҉̙̲͇̼̫̹̱U̸̦̞͇̼ͣͮ̚ ̥͇͇̝̇̌̃͂͗̉ͅD̮͉̻̟̦̳͔̈ͩȌ͏̘͓͓̠͈ ̷͍͈̼T̡̯͉͈͚̻̖̽͌̌ͬͤ̍ͤȎ ̗͚̟̹̣͕̃̓̾M̦̪ͤ̈́͛͑ͯ̋̃E͓͎͔͇̬͇̪ͨ̑̓͘!̝͇̫̦ͣ̆?̼̗̣̫̺̲ͭ ̵͈͙͎̉̌̎̂ͨH̥͖̮̦͉̙̀ͩ̈ͯͧ͌O̸̼͇͙̙̟W͉̩͇̣͓͈ͧ̄̅̎̎͛ ͍̭̻͖͔ͬ C̟͍͉͎̳͘Ŏ̪̬͖̫̘̭̯ͥ͘Ụ̭̑́ͣL̮͍̘ͮͬ̃͡D̜͖̞̠͚̓ͨ̄́ ̗͛́̉Y̦̺̬̰̓̽Ó̸͚ͦ̒Ŭ̬̼͔͖͚͡ͅ?ͥ!̻͚̺̠̤̳̪̉͑͌͒̆ ͙̻̔ͅD̗̮͕̻̫̝̮̑ͤͯI̖̳̬̲͎͖̔ͮ̓̊̕Ḑ̯͇͍̙͇͕͆̀ͭͪͦͅN̘͎ͪ̏ͭ͐͊̍̂'ͣ̋ͨ̓̃̿ͣT͕̦̋̋̉̎ͩ̋ͅ ̼̫̮͉̝̹͗̿ͤ͐̆̑̚Y̝͎̖̹͇͂ͨ͒͗̄O̡̳͋̀̎͐Ù̥͔̥̠̭̳̱͆̆̑̔ͫ͝ ͚̫͚̺͈̄̍ͨ̚L͕̰̱̪̃̓̉͂O̗̻͓ͥ͞V̧̘̞͕̹̪̤ͧͦ͋̒̽ͮ̈E̖̋̊̅ͮ̓ ̶͇͕͔̮M͍̿͘E̥͎̩̟̪͖̜̎͂̏̿̿̚ ͎̜͓̻̯́̀T͉̜͙̝̦ͫ̋ͬ͊̇O̳̯̟̞ͬ͒̃͞O͇͛ͩ̀͛̓ͨͧ?͙͚̯͇ͫ͡!̜̣̗̘ͫ̀͞ ̞̺͈̞͚͖̅ͭ͞I̧ ̷͔̘̻̹͚̙̎ͪ̂̒J̩͕͈̑ͨ̐ͭU̠̳̥͉̼̓̆S̖͓͖̘̠͔ͤT̗̲̥͈͜ ̰͍̖̫̤̾́ͪͣͬ̈́̍ͅW̬̜̗͛̏̽͂Ã̗̦̤̖ͪN͈̩̈͊ͪ̒̐̔T̵͖̙͉̭̞̙͇̒͋ͬ̑ͫ̉̓É͇̜̂͑̋̑̆̑D͉̯̱͕̝̓̒̔̂͆̽͠ ̝̪̙̏̔͒̓ͫ̒T͔̘̖̥̙̺ͯ̊̎ͅO̡̪̫̹͙͕̳ͯ̉̊̑̅̃̃ ͖̎̔̒ͬ͡B̿͋̽̑̀͏Ę̭͔͙̙͖ͬ̈̽ͥͅ ̭̤͈̬̆ͯ̄̽ͣ͐A̘̣̣̭̝̗ͮ̀͗̑ͩͥ͒ ͕̂̾ͨ̽Ṗ̴̖̮̖͇ͣA͇͎̘͖̲̼͖̎̏̀̅ͣͯR̮͙ͮͫ̀ͪT̛͕̦͚̤̮̠̒̑ ͫ͂̓̍͢Ő͍͎ͤ͂ͮ̾̀F̻̪̱̙̰̅ͫ͌͗̉̒̾ͅ ͕̗͚W̺̯̲̱̑͘H̠̯̫̬͓͕̆ͥ͆͐̂̃ͅA͈̰ͤ̈͛̔͝T͉̥̩̹̲̿ͪ̅̿̔̎ ͚̦͓̙̗̗̋̇̉̅͊͂ͧY͈̼̼͍̤͖̺̐̕O̶̯̯̩̳̹̯̙̎ͨŲ̲͇̯ ̳̮͘W͖̹̫͚̤̃̒̊ͦ͡ER̗̣̝̤͔̙̓͗͘E̤̞̺͂̿ ͇͕̩ͣ͆̾̅D̟̞̖̙̦ͦ́͌̿Ọ͂̃̐̈́͌ͫ͒I̶̐̆ͭ́ͣ̂̄N̵̄́̌̇ͣ͐̚G̛̘̖̓ͪ́̿ͯ̚!̰͉̹͚̮̬̎͛̽̑ ̛̔̊̐ͦ̄́ͣI̳͙͛̀̇ͤ̓ ͍̬̙͇͙ͅJ͈̭̬̦͖̀̏ͦŬ̂͗ͦͯͮͭ҉̖̻̺S͏͈̭̥T͙̰͕̱̦͖̓̈͗ͣ ͈ͪ̐̃ͧW̱͔̭̼͐̄̽ͫ̀̌͞A͉̯̖̻͘N̬̫̺̖T̗͚̣̜͔̥̍̂ͣ̆̓̂͂Ę͔̦͉̪́ͬD̤̤̰̬̣̳͋ ̦̼̖̲̥͔̩̒ͤ̽ͯ̚̚͞T̽̑ͩ́ͨO̦̰̒̏̽̆̏͆ͮ͡ ̛͚ͨ͆ͬ̎ͅH͇͓̥̚͝ͅE̻͚͑͛͡L̯̈́̽̽̎̈̾Ṗ̴͎͓͊̾!̳̖̗̩̠͒̾̄͂ͅ ̵̹̙̱͉̯͂̒̂ͅW̸̲͍͕͓̘̻̩͌̃͊̎H̡̠̠̩̑̊̍̈̇̍̋Y̰͎͙͔͕͊̔̿̋͞ ̧ͮ̒̂ͯ̒̉D̺͓̻͈̣̬͙̿̂̕Ō̺͔̜̠̗Ń͓̙ͧ̈̔'͏̫Ť̞͈͘ ̲͇̙̗̤ͨ̈̄Y̥̥͉̖̊̑͆ͣ̅Ȏ̲ͦU̹̣̲̳͉̠ͯ̆̓̀ͣ͐͢ ̫͗ͤ͒͛͊͂ͧL̴̯̩̲̂̄̉̊͊̈Öͣ͋̿ͭ҉̟͉̖̗͖̖V͛̂E̟̩͌̃͞ ̞̜̪̱ͥ͊ͩͣM̰̙̦̣͙̾̓E̹͓̼̩̣͖̭?̴̳͕͇͉̮͑̀ͤ͑!̩͕̪͈̘̇͗̈́ ̞̤̞̬̻͗́̄W̮̳̳͔̲̘Ḫ͈̹ͩ̃̑͑͂ͨ̚Y͈̠̦ͪ?̣̳ͪͮ̏͊!͖͛ͧ̒̔ ̰͍̯̚ W̹̟͉͖͓̫H̫̰̬̠̟̻ͣͣ̍ͯỶ̠ͭͦ͂̏ͩ̊?̹̋͢!͂ͪͯ̕

 

 

Locus heard Fox suck in a breath, and noted how her hands were shaking. “We’re fine. We’re fine,” she muttered, but her voice was wobbly and scared. She typed in a final command and glanced up at him. “Pull the plug,” she said, her voice suddenly firm.

I'͞m ̵sca̕re͝d͟. Pl҉ea͡se.̛ I'm scared,̨ ̨C͠om͠ma͢nde̵r ̸F͘ox̵.̕ I̶ ̸dǫn͞'t͡ w̶an̨t̨ to di̸e.͘ P͞l̢eas̛e͏, ҉p͏l̨ea̛se͘, pl̕ȩas̴e ̴do͞n'͏t ̶s̛h͟u͜t͏ me ̕off. ͡I'̢ll͟ be ̕g̸o͟od̶.̷ ̛I͏ pro͘m̕i̕s̵e̸ I̸'ll ̸be͢ g҉o̧o͘d҉. I'll n̸ever hu͠rt an̸yonȩ ͏a̧gain. P̸l̢e̢a͢se,̛ p͘le̷a͞s̡e,̨ ple̵a̧s̴e.̶ I͝'m̵ so ̕sc̨a̛r͞ed͡.͏ Pl͜e͡asę.

 

Locus met Fox’s gaze, and she met his. “Do it,” and though her voice was only a whisper, somehow it was the loudest thing in the room.

Locus reached out and grabbed the base of where the cable connected to the power core, grinding his teeth as CORA let out one last terrified scream, and pulled.

Three things happened at once; first, the alarms and flashing lights went out and CORA’s optic went dark. Second, a massive tremor rocked the station as the primary power core ruptured, throwing both Fox and Locus off balance, and forcing them to cling to their surroundings to avoid toppling over. Three, the uppermost part of the tower, began to lean.

“Shit! Shit! ” Fox gasped, looking over at Locus. Struggling upright with the help of her grav-boots.

Locus did the same, his side smarting from being so suddenly jostled around. “Is there a way out of here?” he asked.

“Uh…” Fox looked around frantically. “Up!” And then turned, grabbed onto one of the thick cables behind her, and started climbing.

Locus’ confusion only lasted a second as the upper part of the tower made it’s trajectory more apparent. Below, loose rubble began to slide, and CORA’s remaining appendage groaned as it dangled on its axis. Not needing any more of an explanation, Locus found a foothold and started climbing after Fox.

When he finally caught up to her, she had almost reached the ceiling. “I’m assuming you have a plan?” he asked.

“I’m gonna use ShowStopper to punch a hole through the ceiling,” Fox explained.

“How is a radio channel going to-”

“Not the radio channel! My shield! That’s it’s name!” Fox said, reaching a point where she could no longer climb upwards. She leapt onto a nearby pipe and straddled it, and activated the shield, holding it above her head. “You’re going to want to brace a little bit!” she shouted over the groan of metal. Locus felt his head swim as his world began to pitch forwards. He watched as Fox took a deep breath, formed both of her hands into fists, and slammed them together.

There was a sound like a sonic boom, and Locus stared in a mixture of amazement and shock as sunlight poured in. But the feeling was short lived as the structure buckled, and began to fold in on itself. He heard Fox shout his name and saw her reach for him, then everything pitched sideways and went black.

 


 

The sound of screaming metal echoed through the canyon as the behemoth of Station Alpha collapsed inwards on itself, its implosion fueled by the ruptured power core that spat reds and oranges in bursts of shrapnel as the walls of the structure gave out.

Tucker watched in horror as the uppermost tower, where Fox had been, bent to one side and collapsed against one of the four, smaller, outer towers surrounding the station. A cloud of dust kicked up as the rest of the structure began to settle in on itself. There was a low rumble, like the station letting out a death rattle, then everything grew silent and still.

“Holy shit,” Grif breathed, coming to stand beside Tucker.

“There’s no way they survived that,” Simmons added from somewhere behind him.

Tucker didn’t look at either of them and instead kept his eyes locked on the wreckage, jaw working beneath his helmet. Behind him, he could hear Wash trying to get in touch with Fox over comms. By the sound of it, he wasn’t having much luck.

The truth was, if Tucker was being honest with himself, it wasn’t so much that he particularly liked Fox so much as he hated her circumstances. She’d been put through the one thing he feared above all else; she’d been helpless to save her teammates. And now here she was, risking her life for a group of people she didn’t even know , who were supposed to be her enemy. And she was probably dead. It was just another loss to add to the scoreboard.

“We could’ve gone back for her,” Tucker said quietly. “We should’ve .”

Beside him, Grif let out a long sigh, crossing his arms.

“We…” Tucker looked over at the sound of Carolina’s voice. “We should return to the outpost. Fox mentioned in passing that she has a few ships capable of flight in the hangar there. The force field is down, so we should head out of here and report back to Chorus as soon as possible.”

“Agreed,” Wash said, weariness edging into his voice.

Tucker watched as Wash and the others began to make their way towards the Warthogs, tossing in their gear before climbing in themselves. He took a glance back over his shoulder at the wreckage, then started towards the Warthogs. He was about to climb in when a crackle of radio static stopped him in his tracks. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who heard it, because the others looked around at one another right after too.

“Was that-?” Donut asked.

Wash glanced at him, then said over comms, “this is Agent Washington broadcasting over an open channel. Can anyone hear me?”

Tucker found himself holding his breath as another wave of static filled his helmet. And then, “fuck--g h--me- brea--ng right wh-n I fu--ing need -t.”

“Fox?!” It was more than just Wash on the channel this time; as several of them switched to comms at once when the heard the reply.

“Hi. Uh- shi-. H-ld on.” There was a screech emitted over the channel that set Tucker’s teeth on edge and caused several of his teammates to let out a groan. But when it stopped, Fox’s voice rang out loud and clear. “Okay, I think I fixed it! Stripes?”

“We’re here,” Wash replied. “Where are you?”

“And how did you survive?!” Simmons exclaimed, earning him a look from the other marine.

“Uh….not sure. To both of those, just to clarify. I kinda just winged it when shit started getting hairy.”

“Are you hurt?” Carolina asked.

“Yeeeep. Got a nice big cut on my thigh. But I should be able to walk on it. I think. It really isn’t all that painful. Locus is in a little worse condition- um, yes you are , mister. Don’t give me that bullshit.” Tucker glanced around at the others, startled when Fox suddenly stopped talking to them.

Beside him, Grif snickered.

“Okay, sorry about that,” Fox said, clearly addressing them again. “Yeah. I thiiiiink- Oh. Oh wait. Is that grass? Is that fucking grass?! How far did we fall?!”

Tucker heard something that sounded like it might have been Locus’ voice, but he wasn’t speaking on comms.

“Holy fuck. Hang on- Oh my Jesus Christ on a pogo stick we are right under the fucking top of that tower.” And then, “uh...Oh. Well. That wasn’t there before.”

“Fox, what’s the matter?” Wash asked.

“‘Kay so you know how there was like, a flat valley we had to cross to reach the station? Well there’s a fucking ravine there now, so…”

Wash and Carolina exchanged a look, then glanced around at the others.

“Well? What are we waitin’ for?” Sarge piped up. “The lady saved our lives! Least we could do is return the favor!”

Wash let out a long sigh. “Alright, everyone in a Warthog. Let’s go get them.”

When they arrived at the edge of the ravine, Fox greeted them with a cheerful wave. Locus, on the other hand, seemed worse for wear, with blood streaked down the front of his chestplate, but he appeared steady on his feet regardless. The rescue efforts were slow, and involved lots of cables and even more swearing, but when the two were finally across the ravine, everyone there couldn’t help but feel relieved.

“Alright, we saved them,” Grif spoke up after much of the clamour from the others had finally died down. “But it’s getting late, we all were almost murdered by fucking zombies , and we just escaped a collapsing building. Can we please go home now?”

“Sure thing,” Fox said, settling into one of the Warthogs, propping her feet up against the dashboard and folding her arms behind her head. “But one of you rainbow motherfuckers is driving.”

Chapter Text

“How are we supposed to get these hunks of scrap metal off the ground?” Grif asked with a whine, giving the large crate he was pushing into the back of Fox’s Condor another shove.

“Hey man, don't talk about the ladies like that,” Fox said, walking past with a slight limp. A bit of biofoam and a healing unit had her back on her feet in a matter of hours after they returned from Station Alpha.

“Maybe if you'd kept them in better condition-”

“Well excuse me for prioritizing my life over a couple of ships,” Fox replied dryly, stacking the box of supplies in her arms into the back of one of the Pelicans.

“You really shouldn’t be moving around this much,” Simmons said, leaning over the edge of the wing of the Pelican Fox was by.

“I’ll rest once I’m off this rock,” Fox replied, walking away to go get another box. “Will it fit?” She called out to Caboose and Grif, who both had their backs pressed against the crate, feet scrabbling for purchase as they moved up the ramp.

“You took the fucking measurements!” Grif wailed.

“Gonna go with a yes on that one,” Fox said as she passed.

“Why aren’t you using the forklift?” Carolina called over from where she was loading what few weapons and ammo boxes the outpost had left into a larger crate.

“‘Cause it’s broken!"  Grif shouted back as he pushed. “Just like everything else in this stupid place!” As he spoke, he and Caboose gave the crate one last shove, and stepped back, admiring their work.

“We did it!” Caboose exclaimed.

“Well, it fit ,” Grif sighed, looking in the direction of the three Warthogs they had driven earlier that day. “Now we gotta fit one of those in here as well.”

“We might be able to if we shift some things around,” Wash said, stepping out of the back of one of the Pelicans and taking the crate Carolina handed to him.

“Worse comes to worse, we leave and come back for all three of them,” Fox said, returning with another box in her arms. She loaded it into Wash’s Pelican and turned to walk back but stopped when Sarge and Tucker entered. Sarge had a box of electronics under one arm and Tucker was fighting with re-looping some cables as he walked.

“Is that the last of it?” Fox called out to them.

“Yep! Control room’s been stripped!” Sarged replied, right as Wash asked, “hey has anyone seen Locus?”

A brief silence fell over the hangar before Grif spoke up; “who cares? With any luck, that creep wandered off to die somewhere.”

“Why can’t we just leave him here?” Simmons agreed as he finished strapping down the crate in the Condor.

“We’re bringing him to Kimball,” Carolina said while handing off the last of the weapons crates to Wash.

“He’s probably still in the greenhouse where I left him,” Fox replied, revving up one of the Warthogs and driving it with Wash’s guidance into the back of the Condor.

“Greenhouse?” Wash asked when she hopped out of the driver’s seat.

“Yeah, how do you think I lasted this long? Charon stopped making deliveries here a long time ago, so I started a garden,” Fox said without looking back as she walked down the ramp towards the other two Warthogs.

“I’m ready to hook the other Warthog up!” Donut said, leaning out of the other Pelican.

“There’s no way we’re bringing all of those back,” Tucker observed, shoving the cables into the back of the Pelican Wash had been in.

“If they give that box in the back of the Condor a good shove, they could get two of ‘em in there,” Sarge suggested, doing the same with the box in his arm.

“I am not moving that thing again!” Grif yelled from across the hangar.

“I will!” Caboose shouted.

“We’ll figure it out!” Fox exclaimed to no one in particular as she went to climb into the driver’s seat of the next Warthog. She was stopped, however, by Carolina.

“They can take care of the rest of this. You and I are going to find Locus,” she said.

Fox stared at her a moment, seeming to consider the request. “Alright,” she said finally. “But I’m leading. You go in there and stick a gun in his face; you’ll only spook him.”

“That’s hardly anyone’s problem,” Carolina said, following Fox away from the Warthogs and out of the hangar.

“The enemy of your enemy is your friend,” Fox replied without looking back.

Carolina stared at her, wondering if Tucker had informed her of the events at the Tower of Communication, or if Locus had told her himself. “Just because he decided he doesn’t want to work for Charon anymore, doesn’t mean that we can trust him,” she warned, following Fox around a corner.

“Funny, I said I don’t want to work for Charon anymore either, and you guys trusted me enough to help with what needed to be done,” Fox said, glancing over her shoulder this time as she spoke.

“That’s not the same, and you know it.”

Fox shrugged. “Either way, all I’m saying is that we’re both resources. And if you want cooperation, then some compromises might be in order.”

Carolina was about to reply when Fox chimed out a cheerful, “here!” stopping in front of a sliding glass door.

“Lemme handle this, okay?” Fox said.

“I’m coming in,” Carolina said firmly.

Fox let out a huffy sigh and replied, “give me three minutes. That’s it. Afterwards you can come in and drag us both out for all I care.”

Carolina held her gaze evenly, then said, “three minutes” in a voice that suggested Fox get moving.

Fox gave her a nod and stepped through the sliding glass doors.

The greenhouse had always been a source of calm for her, especially when the mission began to take a turn for the worse. Fox had never been much of a gardener, having come from a city herself, but something about the action of tending to all her plants reminded her of home. And when she stepped into the greenhouse, drawing a deep breath into her lungs and letting it out slowly, she realized that feeling was still there. Yet it was distant, moving away from the little garden she had tended to for the past five years, like it wanted her to chase it. And a hard lump formed in her throat when she realized that, for the first time in a long time, she finally could.

It took her a moment to collect herself, but once she had, she looked over towards the workbench in the corner, where Locus was watching her patiently. “Sorry,” she said with a little laugh, looking away again, “I was just thinking about what leaving this place means.”

Locus said nothing, but she could feel him still watching her, so she cleared her throat and asked, “how are you feeling? Did the healing unit help?”

“I’m fine,” he replied after some hesitation, and Fox couldn’t help but wonder what had changed. But then she remembered Carolina.

“You’re coming back with us.” Fox cringed inwardly, wishing she hadn’t made her voice sound so firm. But instead of adding to the statement, she turned and walked down one of the rows of plants, stopping towards the end with an “aha!” She returned with a well-worn cigar box in her hands, its clasp long rusted into uselessness. She set the box on the workbench and pulled the ribbon that held it shut off, flipping the top open.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Locus shift slightly to get a look inside the box. She turned it towards him so he could see. “They’re seeds,” she explained. “Used to belong to Rosie...one of my teammates. She’s the one who really got this whole place started.” When Locus didn’t speak, she continued. “I’m gonna bring them with me. I don’t know. Feels right somehow. I think she’d want me to, anyways. She really did love this garden.” Fox turned and gazed back over the plant life with a soft sigh.

“It isn’t going to last.”

Fox looked over at Locus, who turned away when she did so. “So what? Death is a part of life.” She shrugged and looked back over the garden. “In a few months or so, the water pump will probably finally break, and these plants will no longer be misted like they’re used to. Most will die. Some will survive. Those that do will get a second chance through their offspring, who will be a bit more adapted to the new conditions. This will go on and on.” She fell silent for a while. “They have a good start,” she said finally, growing aware that Carolina would be on her way in any minute. “If the conditions are right, they’ll grow. Life always finds a way.”

She looked over as she heard the doors slide open, and Carolina stepped through. Much to Fox’s surprise, she didn’t have her weapon drawn, though she was still considerably tense.

“Are you finished?” Carolina asked, looking pointedly at Locus before she turned her attention to Fox.

“Yup!” Fox said, shutting the cigar box and tying it shut with the ribbon. Then she looked over her shoulder back at Locus and asked, “you got those gardening supplies, hon?”

Locus simply nodded and picked the small box of gardening tools up off the workbench.

“Sweet,” Fox said. Then, “lead the way, ‘Lina!”

 


 

Fox had chattered endlessly on the way back to the hangar, and Carolina didn’t have the energy to try to shut her up. By the time they reached their destination, a headache pressed against the backs of her eyes, and she had to resist the urge to rip her helmet off and rub the bridge of her nose to relieve it. When they stepped into the hangar, she felt a glimmer of satisfaction when she noted that everything had been loaded into the ships during their absence. Well, almost everything. There was still one Warthog left....and the box Locus had, and judging by how everyone in the hangar tensed up when the three of them entered, it wasn’t going to be as easy as having him place it in one of the Pelicans and walk away.

Carolina met Wash’s gaze, and was about to call him over when she heard Fox say, “trade ya.” She didn’t have time to look back before Fox walked past with the box of gardening supplies on her shoulder.

“What-”

“I was a waitress in college!” Fox called back.

Wash watched her walk past, and looked back with equal amounts of confusion at Carolina.

Well that handles that problem, Carolina thought, looking back at Locus, who met her gaze evenly. She held firm for a moment, only looking away when she heard someone approach. It was Wash, and Fox was with him.

“We need to discuss transport,” Wash said, coming to a stop and eyeing Locus.

“Easy,” Fox yawned. “I can fly the Condor. Half of you ride in one Pelican, and the others go in the other one. Piece of cake.”

“You know what I’m talking about,” Wash said exasperatedly.

“Okay, so he rides with me. Jeeze. You guys don’t have to be all weird about it,” Fox said.

“Absolutely not!” Carolina hissed.

“Oh my god, chill. We’re cool. Everything’s cool. He’s cool,” Fox said, glancing lazily over at Locus, who appeared to be winding tighter and tighter by the minute. “And it’s not like he can go with any of you guys. One wrong move from either party and someone winds up dead. It’s like that riddle with the farmer and the chickens and the dog and the wheat and they all have to get across the river but the boat can only fit two things in it aside from him. Leave the dog with the chickens and someone gets hurt. Leave the wheat with the chickens, and you’re fucked. At least that’s how I think it works, anyways…” Fox looked away, scratching the side of her helmet.

“Were you going somewhere with that analogy?” Carolina asked impatiently.

“Point is, you leave him with me, no one gets hurt, ‘cause I’m the objective third party,” Fox replied.

“And then he kills you and takes the ship,” Wash said evenly.

“That will not happen.” All three looked over when Locus spoke up suddenly.

“It’s that, or we drag you before Kimball. And you haven’t really done much to earn anyone’s trust here,” Wash replied, a hard edge to his voice.

“Oh my god ,” Fox groaned. “Look. Here. Just take this.” Carolina watched as she pulled a spherical object off of her hip and handed it to Wash, who stumbled backwards slightly under a deceiving amount of weight when he took it from her. “That’s my reason to keep my word and follow you idiots to Chorus.” And then she reached out with a much more familiar object in her hand and offered it to Carolina. “And that’s his ,” Fox said, jerking her head in Locus’ direction.

Carolina noted how Locus seemed to tense up when he saw the handle of the Great Key in her hand, and she gripped it tightly, looking back at Fox. “This is supposed to be insurance?”

“It’s the best I can give you,” Fox replied. “But you can bet your ass I’m coming for that, Wash. So don’t either of you go getting any ideas that we’re going to bail on you.”

“Do you even know how to fly? ” Wash asked.

“I mean, it’s just like riding a bike,” Fox said. “And anything I forget, I can just read the instruction manual to find out!”

Wash let out a world-weary sigh at her reply and looked away, shaking his head. Carolina, however, spoke up, looking at both Fox and Locus when she did so. “I want the communication channel kept open for the entire flight. Understand?”

“Sure thing, Lina-Bean,” Fox replied, and Carolina couldn’t help but feel a bit irked by the smugness in her tone.

Don’t test me,” she added as she walked away with Wash in tow. When he finally caught up with her and fell in place besides her, she muttered, “this is stupid.”

Wash nodded, and said, “I agree, but considering how they worked together earlier, and the fact that we have insurance on both of them now, I think it’s safe to say that they won’t try anything dumb.”

“God, I hope you’re right, Wash.”

 


 

“So….”

Locus looked over with mild irritation when he heard Fox speak. “What?”

“Nothin’,” Fox said, not looking away from the Condor’s controls. “Just, y’know, wanted to chat, I guess. Fill the empty space.”

Locus felt his irritation grow at this, and he looked away.

“You’re kind of an introvert, aren’t you?” Fox asked.

Locus didn’t respond, and resisted the urge to look back at her. He wasn’t really sure why it mattered to Fox so much that they have a conversation. Especially when the others were listening.

“Oreo was like that too. He was another one of my teammates.”

“What was the purpose of your codenames?” If she was going to force him into a meaningless conversation, he might as well get something out of it, Locus decided.

“Code-? Oh, no , no. They weren’t codenames!” Fox exclaimed with a little laugh. “Those were just nicknames. Everyone had one. I got mine ‘cause I’ve been dying my hair red for years now. I guess Ludsy just thought that ‘Fox’ fit better.”

“Why do you still go by it?”

“Hmm?” Fox looked over at him this time. And Locus realized that he didn’t like the way she seemed to scrutinize him.

“You abandoned your old name; Annie. Why?”

“Oh,” Fox said. “No I didn’t ditch that name. I mean, I still respond to it if someone calls me that. ‘Fox’ is just...kinda sentimental to me, y’know?”

Oh, Locus thought, and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. It quickly changed to tension however when Fox asked, “why do you go by Locus? Kinda weird to just let yourself be called the name of your armor, don’t you think?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Locus replied just a tad too quickly, and judging by how Fox looked over at him when he did so, she caught on.

“Touchy subject, huh?” Fox said, and he hated the way she said it; like she was speaking to someone who had just told her they’d lost someone dear to them. It felt so condescending.

“It isn’t your concern,” Locus said back, an edge to his voice.

“Alright, just testing the water is all,” Fox said, looking away.

And Locus looked over at her again, wondering if she had really just shown her hand. And trying to figure out why she was so casual about it. She’s still a threat , he reminded himself. So be more careful.

 


 

Wash felt his heart skip a beat when he heard Fox bring up the topic of Locus’ name. He looked over at Carolina, noting how her grip on the control wheel had tightened. She must have heard it too. Wash looked out the cockpit window, watching the Pelican being piloted by Grif besides them in the corner of his eye with a sinking feeling in his gut. He and the other Reds and Blues had taken one Pelican, while Wash and Carolina had opted to take the other. While Carolina had explained the reason behind the decision was simply because the other Pelican had more room, Wash knew that she also wanted more maneuverability in case the Condor turned hostile. And judging by the conversation topic Fox had just picked, it was something that might be happening far sooner than either of them had expected.

Wash listened with bated breath as Locus snapped at her, and watched Carolina’s grip on the control wheel get even tighter.

“This was a bad idea,” she said suddenly, and Wash met her gaze as she looked over at him. “I don’t know why I let her talk us into this.”

“We have insurance on both of them-”

“That’s not enough.”

Wash sighed and leaned back in his seat. He couldn’t help but feel a little relieved when the conversation between Locus and Fox ended. At least if they weren’t talking, the odds of Fox saying something that might give Locus a reason to hurt her were slim.

Wash basked in the silence for a while, listening to the hum of the ship, watching as Chorus drew closer. He couldn’t help but feel a little relieved that they were returning to the planet, even after everything that happened there.

“I’m going to try to get a hold of Kimball.” He looked over when Carolina spoke. Her eyes never left the controls.

“I’ll let the others know and keep an ear to the channel,” Wash replied.

Now Carolina looked at him, acknowledging him with a nod, then she turned, picked up the mic, and began the process of hailing Chorus. “New Republic Headquarters, Sierra five-seven-zero, this is Agent Carolina requesting permission for atmospheric entry and landing for self and company, over.”

“Agent Carolina!” came the startled reply. Wash shook his head in amusement, hearing this just as he finished updating the others. “Er, I mean- State the identification of your company, over.”

“Eight friendlies; Agent Washington, Dexter Grif, Dick Simmons, Lavernius Tucker, Sarge, Franklin Donut, Michael Caboose, and myself. Another assumed friendly; full name unknown. First name ‘Annie’, but responds to ‘Fox’. One hostile; Locus, over.”

Both Wash and Carolina found themselves staring expectantly at the ship’s radio as an uncharacteristic period of silence stretched out for long minute. Then; “request pending. Please standby, over.”

Wash looked over at Carolina, whose gaze was still fixed on the radio. “Do you think they’re getting Kimball?”

“I hope so,” Carolina replied, lowering the mic from her helmet and finally looking at him.

“I’ll let the others know,” Wash said, and switched to comms to relay the current news to the others.

“These ships don’t have enough fuel for us to just hover in space like this!” came the frustrated reply from Grif.

“Look, just- Just hang tight for a minute, okay? I’m sure this won’t take long to get sorted out,” Wash replied.

Grif grumbled out a reply that Wash didn’t quite catch, as a new voice came in over the radio right as he spoke.

“Agent Carolina, this is General Kimball. I’ve been informed that you have Locus with you. What’s his status?”

Carolina sucked in a breath and let it out slowly before raising the mic to her helmet and speaking again. “He’s currently travelling with our assumed friendly, Fox.”

The line was silent for a moment before Kimball said, “permission for atmospheric entry and landing granted. Have Fox contact me immediately, over.”

Wash gave Carolina a reassuring nod when she looked over at him, and she replied into the mic, “copy.”

 


 

“Fox, I’m sending you the information for a channel to contact General Kimball. Once you receive it, broadcast to that channel. She wants to speak to you before we land.” Fox listened as Carolina broadcasted to her over comms, tilting her head slightly at the mention of General Kimball.

“Sure thing,” she replied slowly, the gears in her head working. She entered in the channel information as Carolina gave it to her, then looked over at Locus, who was watching her with the same unease as a deer standing on the side of the road watching the approach of distant headlights. With the channel open, he had to have heard everything. And while Fox had no real understanding of his exact relationship with the general, from what she could discern, it wasn’t good.

“Just sit tight,” she said after a moment, turning her attention to the ship’s radio and picking up the mic. “Commander Fox to General Kimball, over.”

There was silence for a moment, then came the reply; “this is General Kimball. I’ve been informed that you have a hostile in your custody. What’s his current status?”

“Combination of major and minor injuries resulting from a crash-landing on Nalome and from falling a good few hundred feet during the collapse of a building,” Fox replied, noticing how Locus grew more tense out of the corner of her eye.

“Is he armed?”

“Negative. All weapons are being transported in the Pelican Grif is piloting.”

“And you?”

“Negative.”

Fox looked over when she saw movement, and noted that Locus had pressed an arm against his injured side. “That still hurt?” she whispered to him, pulling the mic away for a moment.

“It’s fine,” came the growled reply. Clearly having to listen to two people talk about him in his presence wasn’t doing anything for his mood.

“Commander Fox, here are your instructions for landing once you enter Chorus’ atmosphere,” came Kimball’s voice again. Fox looked back towards the radio and listened closely. “Once you enter the atmosphere, you are to follow the two Pelicans to the New Republic Headquarters. You will land on the landing pad. And both you and Locus will come out with your hands on the back of your heads. Failure to comply with this request in any way, at any point, will result in immediate termination. Do I make myself clear?”

“As crystal,” Fox replied, watching as the Pelicans ahead of them raised their shields. Hitting a series of buttons on the control panel, Fox did the same for the Condor. “We’re beginning preparations for atmospheric entry now.” She docked the mic and took a hold of the control wheel, adjusting several things on the control panel, aware of Locus watching her from the corner.

“She’s probably going to interrogate you,” Fox said after a moment, not looking away from the two Pelicans in front of her. “You need to tell her everything; no matter how hard or unimportant you might think it is. Honesty is probably the only way you’re getting out of this in one piece.”

“Why do you care?”

Fox looked over when Locus spoke, realizing with surprise that much of the fight seemed to have been drained from him. Now he just looked tired. “Let me be clear,” she said after some thought, “I don’t condone any of the shit you did to get in this mess. Whatever you have coming to you is probably well-deserved. However, like I said when we first talked, I believe people can change. And honestly, I’m curious to see the direction you go in from here.”

“So I’m nothing but a source of entertainment for you then?”

Fox tilted her head, sensing a hint of resentment in Locus’ voice. “No,” she said flatly. “Truth is, I don’t think I’m going to find any of what we’re both about to go through to be ‘entertaining’.” She turned when a sensor on the control panel beeped, and looked up when she noticed that the Pelicans had begun to enter the atmosphere, an orange glow begging to cloak the two ships. She dropped forward thrust and gripped the control wheel as the Condor rocked under the stress of entry friction. “All I need you to do is cooperate with whatever the general wants, and trust me to handle the rest, just like you did when we were fighting CORA.”

“It’s not that simple.”

Fox looked over at him with a laugh. “Well sure it is!” she exclaimed, then added, “I know I’m asking you to leap without looking a little here, but if it really bothers you so much, just close your eyes before you jump.” With that, she raised the Condor’s upward thrust to ten percent and watched as they slipped into the clouds.

 


 

Out of the ten million possible issues General Kimball expected to deal with today, Locus hadn’t been on her list. Of course she knew the mercenary was still a possible threat, but in the week that followed the fight on The Staff of Charon , no one had heard anything about him. He’d simply disappeared like a bad dream, and despite how foolish Kimball knew it was, she had hoped that he would stay gone forever.

And yet…

She stepped out onto the tarmac with a flock of soldiers tailing her. As she looked up to watch the incoming Condor, her men got into formation on either side of her, forming a half circle around where it would land.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotting Carolina walking briskly towards her. To her back were the two Pelicans she and the Reds and Blues had piloted back, and the Marines in mention were unloading themselves from the ships behind her.

“General Kimball,” Carolina greeted, approaching her and falling into step beside her.

“It’s good to have you back in one piece,” Kimball said, but didn’t look at her, keeping her eyes locked on the Condor as it touched down instead. “How are the others?”

“Mostly minor injuries, though Caboose’s shoulder was dislocated and Simmons might have a concussion that needs attention.”

Kimball nodded. “Grey will have a look at them later.” She stepped through the gap in the middle of the half circle her men had made, watching as the Condor powered down, its form heavily silhouetted by the glare of the sun behind it. Carolina joined her, and by the time the Condor’s engines had finally stopped, Wash appeared on her other side, and she could hear the banter of the Reds and Blues somewhere behind her.

Kimball watched as the Condor’s ramp lowered, not so much as blinking when her men all raised their weapons, nor looking over when Carolina and Wash did the same. She watched as the ship’s two passengers made their way down the ramp and stopped several yards away from her.

For a moment, the only sound on the tarmac was the light shifting of loose asphalt gravel by the wind. Kimball held Locus in an iron gaze, and he stared back. But he somehow looked less like a deer in the headlights than a vulture waiting for an injured animal to collapse, and it made something in Kimball’s gut churn.

A small cough drew her attention away from him suddenly, and she found herself looking at the woman beside him clad in black and blue armor; Fox.

“Hi!” Fox said when she realized she had Kimball’s attention, pulling her hand away from the back of her head a little to offer a small wave. “You must be Kimball, huh? Nice friends you have here.” She jerked her head in the direction of some of the men. “Though would you mind telling them to relax a little? I promise we’re not gonna try anything.”

“Why were you piloting a ship alone with him?” Kimball asked, ignoring Fox’s request.

Fox leaned back slightly. “‘Cause I’m the objective third party, and I didn’t want anyone to tear anyone else’s head off,” she replied.

“What’s your relationship with him?”

Fox tilted her head to one side. “I pulled him out of the wreckage of his ship after he nose-dived onto my moon. That’s about it, though. I’ve only known him for like, maybe a day or so?”

“And who are you? Why were you on a moon where known Charon weaponry is installed?”

“Well… You know my name’s Fox. Commander Fox, actually, but that’s not terribly important. And I worked for Charon. But I don’t anymore, because the chairman is an asshole,” Fox replied, lowering her hands a little bit and shifting her weight to one side.

Kimball got the sense that she wasn’t taking their conversation very seriously. “You’re responsible for the weapons system coming online.” It wasn’t a question, though it wasn’t exactly an accusation either. Still, Kimball noticed Wash look at her out of the corner of her eye and noted how he lowered his weapon slightly. Clearly there was something else going on here that no one had cared to explain.

“That’s not on me,” Fox said, and there was a new hint of tension to her voice. Kimball couldn’t help but feel a little satisfied knowing that now she had the other woman’s attention. “The weapons system was put online remotely. Probably from The Staff of Charon , if I had to second a guess. After struggling with the AI that was meant to run it, we - as in the peanut gallery behind you, the dynamic duo on either side of you, and both me and you’re friend here - were able to get both her and it offline.” Fox shrugged, “that’s the short version anyways,” she added.

Kimball listened to her explanation, thinking hard. Then turned to Carolina and asked, “is this the truth?”

“It is,” Carolina said with a nod.

Satisfied, Kimball looked back at Fox. “At ease,” she said after a moment, and watched as Fox let her arms drop to her sides with a relieved sigh. Then she turned and fixed Locus in a hard gaze, “ you , on the other hand-”

“Proooobably needs some serious medical attention since he’s literally being held together by biofoam, a healing unit, and maybe a little bit of duct tape,” Fox cut her off, leaning into her field of view. She paused, then looked up at Locus and said, “don’t worry, it’s actually just medical tape. ‘Cause I couldn’t find aaaany of my suturing needles. Sorry.”

“Ah- hem! ” Both Fox and Locus looked back in Kimball’s direction, appearing startled. “Fox,  I didn’t ask for your input. And you have no authority here, regardless of your previous position under Charon Industries.” She waited until Fox retreated back towards where she had previously been standing before continuing, returning her gaze to Locus. “As I was saying, you will be transported to a cell. After Fox is debriefed, you will be interrogated. Any resistance on your part will not be tolerated. And if you try to escape, you will be shot, understand?”

Locus held her gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time, and Kimball felt the hackles on the back of her neck raise. But before she could demand an answer from him, he gave her a slow nod.

“Good,” Kimball said coldly. Then, to her men, said, “get him out of my sight,” before turning her back to Locus.

Before her, the Reds and Blues parted, forming a clear path between her and the exit to the tarmac. “Fox, walk with me,” she snapped, not turning back to look at the other woman. But in the reflection of Sarge’s visor, she saw Fox exchange a look with Locus before starting after her, and it made something in her gut twist. “Carolina, Washington, I want you to assist with transporting Locus. If he tries anything, shoot him,” she added to the two on either side of her.

“Copy,” Wash replied, and then both he and Carolina fell out of step with her, to be replaced shortly after by Fox.

Kimball didn’t look at her, and instead focused on retaining some grace and resisting the urge to go back and tear Locus’ head clean off as she stepped back into the New Republic headquarters. It was after some time of them walking through the halls that she finally decided to address Fox.

“What was your position working for Charon Industries?”

“Commander of an operation involving the study of alien technology on Chorus to be converted into weaponized biotics,” came the reply.

Kimball couldn’t help but feel a bit surprised at how calm Fox sounded. It didn’t seem natural that the other woman wouldn’t be a little tense after having dozens of guns trained on her.

“Where are the men under your command?”

“Dead. Killed by the AI Charon sent to monitor our progress and help us run operations. She went rogue and trapped us on the moon with a force field generated by a network of orbiting satellites. My men wanted to escape and tried to shut her down. It didn’t end well.”

Kimball listened, her suspicion only rising further. “Can you prove this?”

“Absolutely. And the Reds, Blues, and Freelancer duo can back me on it.”

Kimball let out a long breath. “Good,” she said with a nod, falling silent again.

But the silence between her and Fox didn’t last long, as the latter finally spoke up again after only a minute. “Are you planning on providing Locus with any medical attention?”

Caught off guard, Kimball turned her head towards her. “That’s no concern of yours,” she said after fumbling through her mind for an answer.

“As a doctor, I beg to differ,” Fox replied, returning her gaze.

“You said you were a commander.”

“A commander of a group of other doctors and researchers looking to enhance biotic limbs with alien technology,” Fox explained, then added, “I have a P.H.D. in biomechanical engineering. Earned it through the U.N.S.C. And on top of that I was a corpsman in New Mombasa during the war.”

“I see,” Kimball said, looking away, trying to shake her surprise. She thought quietly for a moment, wondering why it would even matter to Fox if Locus was given proper medical attention. It’s not like he wouldn’t receive any; Kimball ran a tight ship, but she certainly wasn’t cruel. “He’ll be taken care of.”

“That’s all I needed to hear,” Fox said with a nod.

Under her helmet, Kimball bit her lip. Despite paying close attention to the other woman throughout their entire conversation, she still couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was about Fox that made her feel so uneasy; aside from the fact that she had been involved with Charon, of course. She thought about it as she led Fox through headquarters, in the direction of her office.

“You’re not afraid of him,” she pointed out suddenly, curiosity getting the best of her at last. “Why?”

“Because I’ve seen real monsters,” Fox replied without missing a beat.

“He is a monster,” Kimball insisted.

“No, Hargrove is a monster. The AI on Nalome was a monster. If anything, Locus is just...misguided,” Fox explained.

Kimball stared at her incredulously. “ Misguided? ” she hissed disgustedly.

“Don’t get me wrong; that doesn’t remove him from responsibility for all of this. You can be misguided and still be a jackass. But you should also remember that it was his state of being misguided that led him to taking the job that Hargrove offered,” Fox elaborated without looking at her. “Hargrove is the real monster here. Locus was just his lackey. And since he's obviously no longer involved with the chairman, we can use him and what he knows against Charon.”

Kimball stared at her a moment, all anger and suspicion dissolving in an instant. If Fox really saw Locus as means to an end, then everything she had said beforehand added up. And if that were true, then of course she’d be concerned about his wellbeing; she wanted to use him against Hargrove to get even. Kimball looked away and stopped in front of the entrance to her office, pulling herself back into reality. She stepped through the sliding doors, walking around to the other side of the holo-projection table in the center of the room and facing Fox.

Fox entered and took a moment to survey her surroundings before looking back at Kimball. “Nice place,” she commented.

Kimball waved it off and asked, “why did you come here?”

Fox shrugged. “I had nowhere else to go.”

“You came here in the only ship out of the three with a slipspace drive. You could have run. Both of you could have run.”

“But we didn’t,” Fox said, meeting her gaze. “And if we’re being square here, you guys might be my only chance of kicking Hargrove’s ass.”

Behind her visor, Kimball narrowed her eyes. “You came to us for help?”

“I mean, yeah? Kinda?”

Kimball leaned back, but didn’t take her eyes off of Fox. This was interesting. She was about to speak when she heard Wash say over comms, “Locus is secure. Do you want us to wait here until you come down?”

Kimball sighed, holding up a finger to Fox and turning away from her slightly. “Yes, Wash, that’s fine. I’m on my way.” She looked back at Fox, who hadn’t moved. “I’m going down to have a word with Locus. I’ll send an escort up to get you shortly and take you to your new quarters. When I get back, we’ll talk, but until then, you have free range of the headquarters so long as you don’t try to leave, understand?”

Fox gave her a snappy salute, “aye, ma’am!” she chimed.

Kimball gave her a nod and walked past, unable to reflect any of the other woman’s cheerfulness. As she exited her office and made her way down the hall, something dark and bitter swelled inside of her at the thought of what she was on her way to do.

She had an insect problem to take care of.

Chapter Text

The interrogation room was cold and bright; the overhead light reflecting off the surface of the metal table Locus was seated at. The cuffs around his wrists were chained to the table, limiting his movement and making it difficult to get comfortable. To his right, there was large panel of one-way glass. His skin prickled at the idea of being watched.

How long had he been here? He knew it had to be only a few minutes, but already it felt like hours had passed. And the throbbing in his side only made every second seem that much longer. It all would have been much more bearable if not for the knowledge that General Kimball could walk in at any moment.

From the moment he had been led into the room, he had been running through every possible outcome of the interrogation in his head. His odds were terrible. He wanted to be bitter about it, but a combination of untreated wounds and a lack of sleep left little room for anything other than exhaustion.

Locus stared at the table, fidgeting idly with the chain. He looked up suddenly when he heard the sound of a mechanical lock sliding back, and watched as the steel door beside the window slid back. For a split second, nothing happened, and Locus forced himself to let out the breath he realized he had been holding. Then there was movement, and he suddenly found himself looking at his own reflection in a blue visor.

General Kimball.

She regarded him in silence for a moment, standing completely still. Locus did the same, watching her carefully, waiting for her to do something. When she finally spoke, it was like lightning striking a tree without a cloud in sight. “You have a lot to answer for.”

Locus said nothing. What could he say? That he was sorry? It wasn’t like she would believe him. And it certainly wouldn’t change what happened.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Locus realized he didn’t. There was no excuse. He watched as Kimball stepped closer, tension building in her shoulders.

“Well?”

He forced himself not to flinch when she slammed a hand down on the table and snapped; “ say something!”

Locus sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, trying to detangle the thoughts in his head. Trying to think of something, anything . He stared at her, and an awful pain, like someone had jammed a knife under his sternum and twisted, clenched in his chest. There was nothing he could give her, or any of her men, that would make things right. “What do you want me to say?” he rasped.

He watched as Kimball jerked back a little bit when he spoke. It was slight, and he would have missed it had he blinked. He wondered if she had been expecting something else.

The hand Kimball had slammed onto the table balled into a fist, and Locus watched it with resignation, waiting to be hit. The blow never came, but it may as well have, for what she said next stung just as much. “You’re a murderer and a coward,” she snarled. “ Thousands are dead because of you and Felix. And the best you can give me is ‘what do you want me to say’?! Are you serious?

Locus noted how her voice shook with barely contained fury. And he watched as she leaned forward, looming over him threateningly. Just say something. Talk about Hargrove. Give her something to chew on. “I can help,” he said, forcing an even tone.

Even if he couldn’t see Kimball’s face, he could feel the glare she gave him when he said that. “ Help? ” she repeated incredulously. “There’s nothing you can do to fix what you’ve done.”

“I-” Locus cut off, rethinking what he wanted to say, then started again. “Anything you wish to know about Charon Industries or the chairman that I have knowledge of, I can provide you.”

Kimball tilted her head slightly, and leaned back just a little bit. “You’re offering information?” Her voice was still tense, but much of the anger had left it. It was a start, at least.

“I am,” he replied with a nod.

“Fox is closer to Charon than you are. Anything you could tell us, she likely already knows.”

“Fox was marooned on a moon for six years, four of which were in total isolation. Her knowledge of Charon is dated,” Locus said, silently hoping that he was right.

“We’ll see,” Kimball said, and there was an edge of a threat to her voice. She then straightened up and let her hand drop to her side, gazing down at him. Her silence filled the space for a moment, but was broken when she pulled out the chair across from him and sat down.

Locus watched her carefully, feeling slight relief that she had finally decided to sit. She was less of a threat this way. Still, he couldn’t quite unwind the tension from his muscles. Not yet. They weren’t done yet.

“I want you to start by telling me why you started all of this.”

If he hadn’t been wearing his helmet, Kimball would have seen the way he blinked in surprise at the request. Why did it matter? Locus felt a stab of frustration at this. He couldn’t change the past, so why would she care what happened in it? “It was just a job,” he said, aware of how utterly pathetic the response sounded.

“Just a job,” Kimball echoed, disgust edging her voice. “Mass murder is just a job to you, then?”

Say something. Just tell her whatever will get you out of this. “It...wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.”

Really? And what was it supposed to turn out like?” Kimball’s voice slowly slipped into a growl.

“The first order was simply to kill the leaders of the two separate factions. The chairman told us little further than that. It wasn’t until after we accomplished our mission that the intentions of the chairman became clear. The way he had worded our orders when he had first recruited us made our task seem like a simple hit to start a civil war. He never gave any indication that he planned on furthering our involvement,” Locus explained.

Kimball regarded him coldly, but seemed to absorb what he had said. She took a moment to process it all, folding her hands together and placing them on the table. “You could have walked away,” she said finally.

You’re wrong, he wanted to say. It had never been that simple; not with how Felix-- Locus looked away, angry at himself. Why did it all have to be so difficult?

“Why didn’t you? Why stay? Was it fun for you?”

No. ” The word escaped him before he even had time to process it, and he found himself looking back at Kimball with a burning glare. Of course it wasn’t fun. It had been nothing more than a job. At the time, he’d been indifferent to it.

“Then what?” Kimball demanded, her voice laced with impatience.

“It-” How was he supposed to explain it? What could he possibly say? That he needed structure? That having orders made him feel like he had a purpose? “I don't know,” he said instead.

And Kimball stared at him in disbelief. “You don't know,” she echoed flatly. “People are dead, and you don't even have a good reason for it.”

Locus hated the fact that she was right.

Kimball watched him a moment longer, as though waiting for him to say something else. But when he didn’t, she spoke instead. “You’re going to tell us everything that you know,” she said. “Every detail about Hargrove and Charon you have. And when you’re done, we’re going to cross-reference that information with Fox, and then figure out what to do with you. Understand?”

Locus held her gaze for a moment, then let out a long, defeated sigh. “I understand,” he said, “but you already know much of what I have to tell you.”

“And what did you leave out?”

“Felix reported the presence of the alien AI to the chairman. What he intends to do with that information, I’m not certain,” Locus replied.

Kimball was silent, and Locus had the sense that she had been expecting more than what he’d given her. She inhaled like she was about to speak, but then stopped suddenly, and looked sharply towards the window. She was still for a moment, then looked back at him and said, “we’re not finished,” then stood and stepped outside, once again leaving Locus in isolation.

 


 

“Felix reported the presence of the alien AI to the chairman. What he intends to do with that information, I’m not certain.”

Of course he had. Of course that little weasel had told Hargrove about Santa. No wonder the chairman hadn’t given up on his assault. Kimball had been just about to reply to Locus, when a voice over comms exclaimed, “did he just say an alien AI?!”

Kimball snapped her head towards the window, as though she would somehow be able to see past its reflective surface and get a look at who had just spoken. She could name every person standing behind that glass, and that voice belonged to none of them.

She looked back at Locus, regarding him for a moment before saying, “we’re not finished,” before standing and heading for the exit. When the steel door slid open again, a wave of irritation and confusion washed over her.

What? ” she asked incredulously, stepping through and letting the door slide shut behind her.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” the soldier who had been summoned as an escort wheezed, bent over, with his hands on his thighs. “She’s really fast, and slippery, and persuasive. I tried--.... Ooooh I think I need to sit down.”

Kimball stared at the soldier in disbelief, then looked over at the table next to him. Seated on top of it with a manila folder open in her lap, was Fox.

“Hiya!” she greeted with a cheerful wave.

Kimball didn’t say anything, and simply looked over at Carolina and Wash. Carolina shook her head, and Wash just shrugged.

“She wasn’t here a minute ago,” Wash said to her, sounding just as confused as she felt.

“How…” Kimball shook her head and returned her gaze to Fox. “How did you get down here?”

“You said I had free range of the facilities. So I explored a bit,” Fox replied.

“But why- I don’t-” Kimball couldn’t decided what was more frustrating; Fox’s outright cheekiness, or the fact that it was causing her to struggle with forming a coherent thought. “We’re in the middle of something.”

“Yeah, I know,” Fox said, tapping a pen she pulled out of the folder against the side of her helmet. “I wanted to spectate. I was bored.”

Bored? ” Kimball spluttered.

“Like, don’t get me wrong, and don’t take this the wrong way; but literally all facilities planted on some foreign planet in outer space look the exact same . Though, if it makes you feel any better, the one you guys are in is way nicer than the one I was stuck in for six years,” Fox elaborated.

“We’re interrogating a prisoner. This isn’t something that’s meant for public entertainment!” Kimball snapped, finally finding her tongue.

“Oh, I know that! ” Fox said, waving the pen around dismissively. “I just wanted to see if I could help!”

“I already told you that we’d talk afterwards,” Kimball replied, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice and failing.

“No, no, no! ” Fox chuckled, snapping the folder shut. “Let me elaborate a little. I,” she began, pointing towards herself, “wanted to see if I could help you with him. ” She finished by waving the pen in the direction of the window. And Kimball found herself following it until her eyes fell on Locus. She felt her irritation bubble into anger.

“We have everything under control,” Kimball said, forcing an even tone.

“I can see that,” Fox replied. And Kimball genuinely could not tell if she was being sarcastic or not.

“What would you even do?” Kimball asked, deciding to indulge the other woman a little, just to see where it took her.

“I dunno, sit and chat with him. Maybe have a little think tank? Throw some ideas back and forth? He mentioned an AI, which is kinda strange to me, since Hargrove already had an AI. I’m thinking that if I can get in there and maybe present some different ideas, we can work together and find one that sticks and maybe get a nice good theory going.”

“A theory?” Kimball asked, taking care to be cautious of her tone. If she sounded too interested, there was a chance that Fox would leap at the opportunity. And given how unpredictable she had already proven to be, Kimball didn’t want to give her any more potential fuel.

“Yeah, you know, just to sort of speculate on the direction that Hargrove is headed in. If we can merge our ideas together, we might be able to come up with something tangible,” Fox explained, illustrating the word ‘merge’ by holding her hands up in front of her face and lacing her fingers together.

Kimball processed this for a moment. Both Fox and Locus had information about Charon. Neither, so far, had told her everything she wanted to know. There was a chance that if the two were put together, they could produce something useful, however there was also the concern of how they would interact with one another. Locus hadn’t seemed hostile towards Fox, but that could very well change depending on what she said or did while she was in the room with him. And Fox...was entirely unafraid of him, which gave her an advantage, however subtle it might be.

Kimball looked over at Locus through the glass, her mind working. She hadn’t gotten much out of him. He was too wary of her. Fox, at least, seemed to have gained some of his trust. How she managed to do that, Kimball wasn’t sure, but she knew it could be useful if utilized properly.

“Very well,” she said, finally setting her decision in stone. As she looked back at Fox, she noticed how Carolina, Wash, and the other soldiers in the room were looking at her. They were anxious. Kimball felt it too, but she choked it down. They didn’t have time for worry right now. “You’re going to go in there, and you’re going to discuss that AI,” she instructed.

Fox nodded and set the folder and pen beside her on the table before hopping off of it. “Anything else you’d like me to say?” she asked as she made her way towards the door.

“Get him to trust you,” Kimball added with a nod.

Fox stared at her for a moment, then shrugged and said, “I’ll do my best.” Then she hit the release button on the panel next to the door, and stepped through.

 


 

Locus had been expecting Kimball, or Washington, or Carolina. So when it was Fox who walked through the door instead, he couldn’t help but feel surprised. He watched as she walked over and sat in the chair across from him, placing her elbow on the table and propping her chin up with her hand.

“‘Sup, Sunshine. How you feeling?” she asked.

Locus stared at her, the realization that she had likely been sent in by Kimball creeping over him. “Why did she send you?” he asked, ignoring her question.

Fox shrugged. “I asked for a couple of minutes to talk to you, is all.”

And she just gave them to you? Locus seriously doubted Kimball would be so lenient. “And what are you here to discuss?”

“That AI you mentioned. I wanna know about it,” Fox explained.

“You were listening.” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a vocalized realization.

“Guilty as charged,” Fox said, raising her free hand in a gesture of surrender for a moment before dropping it back into her lap. “I sort of just wanted to bounce some ideas off of you and see if we could come up with a reason why Hargrove might want it.”

“It’s alien technology,” Locus said flatly, growing a little impatient.

“I know , pal. He wanted the alien tech on this planet so he could build weapons and shit,” Fox said, waving her freehand in the air by her head. “Big whoop.” She then folded both her arms on the table and leaned forward. “But an AI. You can’t really duplicate those things. They’re fragile. If you mistreat them, they can get corrupted and distorted and won’t run properly. Not only that, but if the AI is as ancient as all the other alien tech on this planet allegedly is, then there’s a high chance that it may have reached metastability. Which would boost it’s market value immensely . And depending on it’s protocols, it could probably delete itself as a hail Mary in the worst-case scenario.”

“You think the alien AI would delete itself?”

“Gosh, that’s the thing; I don’t know ,” Fox replied. “I mean, if it runs all the technology on this planet, then there’s a good chance that just deleting itself wouldn’t be a part of its protocol. Probably. I’m skipping stones here,” she admitted.

It occurred to Locus that he didn’t know the extent of the AI’s control either. It seemed to be present at every tower they had been to, but his interaction with it had thus far been limited. “If self-destruction is against the AI’s protocol, then what would happen if the chairman were to get a hold of it?”

Fox tapped a finger against the chin of her helmet. “I don’t know. Assuming the AI has access to all of the alien technology, it could give him control over it. I don’t know much about alien technology, truthfully, so I’m spitballing here, but there’s a chance that it could even be placed inside of certain weapons.”

“Would that not disrupt it’s access to the rest of the technology on the planet?” The idea that an AI was capable of multitasking on a large scale wasn’t exactly unreasonable. However, the notion that it could micromanage something as small and insignificant as weaponry felt like a bit of a stretch.

“An AI big enough to control all the technology on the planet is capable of multitasking, so it’s plausible that it could be stuffed inside a few weapons,” Fox said, shrugging. “I’m guessing they would have to be pretty big or important ones though. I doubt the AI would care very much about guns and whatnot.”

“And if the chairman is able to do this, what sort of weapons would he utilize through it?”

“Probably something like ShowStopper,” Fox replied.

Behind his helmet, Locus blinked. “The radio channel?”

“No, no, my shield, ” Fox said. “It has a standard-issue ‘dumb’ AI in it. It’s what keeps it in the air so long and allows it to synch up with my implants. But if it had a ‘smart’ AI in it, like CORA or the AI on Chorus, I could probably do way more with it.”

“You’re suggesting that the chairman would use it to make specialized weapons.” The idea was certainly worrisome. Charon was in no way short of resources, and if they were to be upgraded, Chorus would find itself in deeper water than it already was.

“Again, I’m just speculating here,” Fox shrugged. “I literally haven’t had contact with Charon in months , and they certainly didn’t tell me any of their plans going forwards. I- oh-” she cut off and glanced over at the window. “It seems my time is up,” she sighed, standing suddenly and looking back at him. “Maybe we can talk about this more later? I don’t know. You’ve been helpful though!”

Locus had the sense that she was trying to be optimistic for his sake. He watched as she walked over to the door, but paused before it and looked back at him.

“Hang in there,” she said, then stepped through the door.

 


 

“I should have gone with you. This was stupid. I shouldn’t have stayed behind!”

“It wasn’t--”

“I mean, you go up to the moon on some crazy mission that you might never return from, fight a monster AI, and bring back Locus ?! I should have been up there with you! You could have been killed!”

“Doc--”

“And- And zombies?! The undead?! And you fought them?! You were off fighting the supernatural, Donut! What if you’d been bitten?! Aloe and orange juice won’t fix zombie-ism!”

“Doc!”

Doc took a deep breath. Count to ten. Find your happy place. “I was worried, ” he said, trying to keep his voice even, holding his clipboard tightly against his side.

Donut shrugged and his eyes slid to the side and his mouth did that awkward little half smile-but-not-really that he always did when he was cornered. “I know .”

And Doc just let out a long sigh, and let the tension leave his shoulders. “Are you okay, at least? You weren’t hurt?”

“Nah. I got a few bruises, but that’s probably it,” Donut said, grinning wide enough for Doc to see the gap where one of his teeth had been knocked out by a grenade blast, and leaning back against the office wall.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, really, I’m fine!” Donut said.

Doc gave Donut a tired smile. “I’m happy you’re okay.”

“So am I.”

Doc nodded, mostly to himself, then leaned in and kissed Donut.

“Doc, you weren’t just trying to get me alone for that , were you?”

Doc glared at him. “I wanted to make sure you were okay .”

Donut laughed. “I know, I know. I should probably get going though,” he said, looking down at the helmet in his hands. He raised his eyes at Doc, “we’ll catch up later though, yeah?”

“Of course.”

Donut gave him another grin, then put his helmet on. “Oh shit!”

“What?”

“I got a notification like, two minutes ago telling me to meet Kimball in her office! I’m gonna be late!”

“Well, hurry! ” Doc exclaimed, shooing Donut out of his office.

“Okay, bye Doc! I’ll see you at dinner hopefully!”

Doc watched him head down the hall, almost running into a nurse in his haste, and shook his head. “Hopefully,” he said.

 

 


 

Letting Fox converse with Locus had been….insightful. Though it hadn’t produced as many answers as Kimball had hoped. If anything, the most information she had gathered from the conversation was that Locus trusted Fox far more than she had anticipated. He was certainly more willing to talk to her than he had been when she was in the room. Kimball didn’t need to think very hard as to why that might be.

The other woman gave off a certain air of...calm. She didn’t seem at all intimidated by Locus, and had been more than willing to simply talk to him like he wasn’t a prisoner. Furthermore, Locus seemed to have an amount of respect for her knowledge of technology and the ideas that she had about it. All information that Kimball decided would be useful later if push came to shove.

She thought about all of this as she watched Fox from across the holo-projection table. After allowing her to have a talk with Locus, she had summoned her, Agents Carolina and Washington, and the Reds and Blues to her office to discuss moving forward. On the way there, Fox had answered all of her questions about the mission to Nalome, sparing no detail, and Kimball couldn’t help but wish that she had known about the operation on the moon sooner.

As the last of the Reds filed into her office (spluttering out an apology and something about seeing Doc), she received a message over comms from one of her men that Locus had been returned to a holding cell and was receiving treatment for his injuries. Kimball made a mental note to thank Doctor Grey later.

She looked up, noting how everyone was waiting patiently for her, and cleared her throat. “I called all of you here to update you on the current situation. We now have information that leads us to believe that Hargrove knows about Santa.” Kimball felt a wave of exasperation wash over her when Fox raised her hand. “Yes?”

“Is Santa the AI?”

“Yes.”

“Is that...like it’s real name? Or…”

“That isn’t important,” Kimball sighed, frustrated. “What’s important is what you discussed with Locus earlier about the potential of the AI being implanted in weapons.” She paused, noting how when she mentioned Locus, everyone looked over at Fox in surprise. “What information do you have that makes you think that would be his course of action?”

“Well…” Fox began, seeming a bit taken off guard to be put in the spotlight. “When CORA was updated, it gave her access to the weapons system that Charon had built on the moon. I should probably mention that it was meant to defend the planet, rather than...you know...blow it up. But things changed, obviously. CORA was likely a test run of sorts, and we were the guinea pigs. He probably wanted to see how powerful the AI would need to be in order to control all of the technology on the planet. Clearly, the test failed, because I was able to override much of the code and firewall her off from everything. Assuming she was plan B, then when...Felix, was it? When he reported the presence of the AI to Hargrove, and proceeded to fail to exterminate everyone on this planet, Hargrove switched to plan C; which was to fuck everything seven ways to Sunday. Since he now knows that there is an alien AI on the planet, he’s probably going to try to come up with a plan D, and take control of it, gain access through it to all of the remaining alien technology on this planet, exterminate everyone here with excessive force, and then go on to profit off of everything.”

“Church made sure that he couldn’t hurt us again!”

Kimball looked on as Fox turned to face Caboose when he spoke up. “Church?” she asked.

“He was...a friend...of ours,” Wash explained, clearly uncomfortable.

“Pretty powerful friend to render Hargrove helpless,” Fox mused.

“He was an AI. Epsilon; that was his name. One of his names,” Carolina clarified, glancing over at Caboose.

“Wait, wait, wait. The Epsilon!? The one who sent out that big message about all of the shit Hargrove’s pulled!?” Fox exclaimed.

“Yeah!” Tucker replied.

“Oh boy,” Fox chuckled and shook her head. “That’s...uh-”

“Is there a problem?” Kimball asked. She had been expecting something like excitement and gratitude from Fox upon hearing of what Epsilon did, not...whatever this was.

“Little bit,” Fox replied, turning so she could look at the Reds and Blues without straining her neck. “What Epsilon did was….helpful.”

“But what? ” There was a hint of a threat in Tucker’s voice when he spoke.

“But he needed to do way better. We need to gather solid evidence if we’re going to take Hargrove down,” Fox said, looking over at Kimball.

“Epsilon already did that,” Carolina said, sounding a little confused.

Epsilon was a careless whistleblower ,” Fox replied, turning her head towards her. “The only reason Hargrove isn’t in a cell right now is because of how he broadcasted it. There was no warning, no prior investigation of Charon Industries underway, and with the shit the chairman pulled that yanked the rug out from beneath Project Freelancer, he looked like a goddamned white knight to the U.N.S.C. And now because of the broadcast, the media is going nuts, and the U.N.S.C. is scrambling to piece together hard evidence from a more credible source than an AI from a defunded project. And I promise you, in cases like these, where you’ve got someone with money and influence, big and loud isn’t how you want to handle it. But big and loud is what Epsilon did, and now we have to figure out how to work around it.”

“So what?” Tucker growled, bristling, “are you saying that everything he did was for nothing?

Fox put her hands up defensively. “Look, I’m not trying to insult him, alright? But the truth of the matter is, all good intentions aside, he did make things trickier for the rest of us.”

“How’s that?” Kimball asked.

“Well,” Fox said, “I know that The Staff of Charon was in bad condition after coming here. Right now, it’s probably in the next system over getting repairs. Once the ship is back up and running smoothly, it’s going to head for Earth.”

“Earth?” Kimball echoed, not wasting time trying to mask her confusion.

“Hargrove has friends there. People with money and power, and the means to exert it however they want,” Fox explained. “He’s going to use them to keep his head above the water until the investigation blows over, chances are.”

“He’s going to clean house,” Simmons realized, horrified.

“Bingo,” Fox said.

“So we find a bunch of people who hate him just as much as we do, and we make ‘em talk!” Sarge exclaimed.

“Except, like Simmons said, Hargrove is cleaning house, so…” Fox trailed off, and Kimball didn’t need to think very hard to figure out where she was heading.

“He’s going to eliminate anyone who could testify against him,” Kimball finished; the grim reality of the situation settling like a dark cloud in the room as she spoke.

“Just like he tried to do with all of you,” Fox affirmed, nodding. “And just like he will undoubtedly try to do again.”

This wasn’t exactly news to Kimball. They had been expecting another move against them since the Staff of Charon had disappeared on the horizon. “We’ve been preparing for that,” she stated.

“Good, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think,” Fox replied. “It’s been a week since that asshole ran off with his tail between his legs. If he’s gotten that ship to a station, then there’s a good chance he’s already hired some new people to raise some hell.”

“Even after Epsilon’s broadcast?” Grif asked.

“I think you’d be surprised what people would be willing to risk for a paycheck,” Fox replied evenly, looking back at him.

“After meeting Locus, I doubt it,” Tucker muttered.

“Is that all?” Kimball asked.

“For now,” Fox replied.

Kimball nodded, a feeling of unease creeping up her spine, as she processed everything she’d learned. “Very good. Fox, I want you to stay behind to answer a few more questions.” When she finished addressing Fox, she turned to the others. “The rest of you are dismissed. Go get some rest, then report to the training deck with your lieutenants first thing tomorrow. I know you all likely expected some time to recover from this last mission, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Until further notice, we must assume that everything we’ve learned is true, and prepare accordingly. Because if Fox is right, it’s only a matter of time until Charon comes back for seconds.”

Chapter Text

The next day and a half passed….slowly. Unfortunately, time tends to progress at a crawl when one is stuck in a cell. Locus figured this out only a few hours in. At least the healing unit was working. Doctor Grey had been generous enough to give him one that was much stronger than what Fox had lent him. But she hadn’t done much more than that. It seemed strange, especially considering how she had chattered on like she knew the extent of his injuries. Fox had to have said something to someone for her to have found out. He still wasn’t sure if he should be grateful or irritated by the fact.

They hadn’t bothered to try to get him out of his armor yet; a fact which left him with at least a small sense of security. Though he wasn’t sure how long that would last. So far, he had heard very little. The cell they were keeping him in was a dead zone where no signals could get through. He had already tried the channel Fox had told him about twice, mostly just to see if he could get it to work, to no avail. So he was forced to rely on the chatter he heard past the thick walls from the guards, though they hadn’t said anything of particular interest so far.

Out of boredom and stress, he had taken to pacing the length of the small room. At least it didn’t hurt so much to walk now. In fact, in the day and a half since he had arrived back on Chorus, most of his wounds had healed quickly. It was the only benefit he had received so far.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Locus stared at the ground as he paced, considering his options. Fox had seemed willing to try to help him. But he wasn’t sure to what extent. Back on Nalome, she had positioned herself firmly between the Reds, Blues, and Freelancers and him. He wasn’t exactly surprised that had changed once they arrived on Chorus, but it did seem odd to him how intensely she had seemed to try to get on his good side.

What exactly did she want?

There was very little he could offer her. She already had information on what had occurred on Chorus. She already had his... file , and whatever was in it. And she had a number of... semi-competent... soldiers whom she had no doubt befriended by now. He couldn’t see a reason why she would still be interested in him. During their last conversation, he had given her everything he had left that could possibly still be helpful to her. Which meant that his usefulness to her had run its course.

With a sigh, he gave up on pacing, and sat down in the corner of the cell with his back to the wall. He had never been much of one to rely on hope. Fox had always been a dead-end road, and he had known that from the start. But it didn’t him from feeling a glimmer of disappointment. She could have been a way out, in a different world. Maybe. He could have used her.

But instead, he was stuck in a cell, contemplating his choices, waiting for something to happen. His frustration was overwhelmed by exasperation and weariness. It had been weeks since he’d been in a position where he could simply let himself heal. So he opted to shut his mind off for a little bit, and leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms and closing his eyes, listening to the ambience of overhead lights.

It would have been almost peaceful, had the alarms not started only a second later.

 


 

“Full report!” Kimball barked as she entered the command center. An hour ago, a slipspace distortion had been detected, and they had been tracking it ever since. Apparently, the ship that had come out of it wasn’t friendly.

“Small spacecraft with no U.N.S.C. identification dropped out of slipspace a minute ago. It’s a rogue ship, ma’am,” came the reply from one of the soldiers at the monitors.

“Have we hailed them yet?”

“Yes ma’am. No response.”

Kimball looked up at one of the screens that showed a radar image of the ship. It was drawing closer with every second. “I want everyone at their stations and preparing for a fight,” she said.

“Yes ma’am.” Kimball listened as the soldier who had spoken relayed a series of orders over comms. Beeping from one of the monitors drew her attention, and she looked up at the radar image again and watched with grim comprehension as four smaller objects launched themselves away from the ship.

“We’ve got four dropships entering the atmosphere!” one of the soldiers updated.

“Keep me updated, and stay on top of those ships. I want to know where they land,” Kimball ordered, and turned, exiting the command center.

The hallway outside was chaos, with soldiers running in every direction. Kimball navigated her way through it all down to the lower deck, listening to the updates about the dropships being broadcasted by the command center. As she walked, she contacted her captains and leading officers and relayed their orders to them. The ships were coming in from the southeast, which meant that their occupants intended on cutting through the jungle to reach them. An ambitious plan that Kimball intended to never allow to come to fruition. Her men knew the terrain. Their enemies didn’t. They already had one advantage.

“Ma’am we just received word from one of the scout patrols that two of the ships are loaded with Warthogs. We’ve also detected a shift in thermal activity to the north. It appears to be a platoon of soldiers. About twenty-count.”

Kimball felt her heart sink as the news came in over comms. Whoever these men were, they must have somehow gotten into contact with the remaining space pirates on Chorus. “Relay the information to Captains Simmons and Caboose and have them hold that side.”

“Copy.”

As she rounded the corner she came across Carolina, who fell into step at her side. “Carolina,” Kimball said, acknowledging her, “I want you and Agent Washington to take Captain Tucker and his team behind enemy lines and put pressure on them from the rear. If we can keep them from spreading out through the jungle, we’ll have a better chance of controlling the fight with our current numbers.”

“Understood,” Carolina replied. “What about Fox?”

“She stays put.”

“When the alarms started, she said she wanted to help us fight.”

“I’ll deal with her later.”

“General Kimball!” came an all-too-familiar voice.

Or, I’ll deal with her now, Kimball groaned inwardly as Fox caught up to them. “Go on ahead,” she said to Carolina. Then she looked over at Fox. “I know you want to help; so go down to the medical bay and assist Doctor Grey,” she said curtly.

“I can fight,” Fox insisted.

“We have plenty of soldiers. We can handle this.”

“With all due respect, you don’t even know what you’re dealing with!” Fox exclaimed, and Kimball stopped and turned to face her, irritation swelling up inside of her.

“Neither do you. I gave you an option to help; and it is the only option I have available for you. So take it or leave it.”

“Carolina showed you that metal ball thing I gave her, right? She told me earlier,” Fox said, changing the subject suddenly. “It’s a shield. It acts sort of like a boomerang, though. I can throw it, and it can cut through power armor like butter. It responds to my implants, and I’ve already gone through the list of individuals here and marked them all as friendlies in my helmet’s HUD, so it won’t hurt any of your men. I can do way more damage with that thing that your men can with their guns.”

“That’s not-”

And ,” Fox continued, cutting her off, “I’ve already got someone who knows how it works, and can fight alongside me in tandem with it.”

Kimball stared at her. This was a lot of information to process, and she didn’t have time to settle on details. “The Reds, Blues, and Agents Washington and Carolina are all preoccupied at the moment. I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to sit this one out. We can discuss this at a later date--”

“I wasn’t talking about any of them,” Fox blurted out.

And it felt like an icy hand had wrapped itself around Kimball’s stomach and squeezed. “Absolutely not,” she growled. “If you think I’d even consider giving that son of a bitch a chance to do even more damage--”

“He won’t! Jesus, Kimball, I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think it would work!” Fox countered. “I was in your shoes only a few days ago! And if I hadn’t enlisted his help, none of us would have gotten off of that moon alive.”

“This is different,” Kimball hissed, and started walking again. She didn’t look over when Fox jogged to catch up with her. “He’s responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The civil war was started by him. We already have enough damage to clean up without his interference. The last thing we need is for him to make things worse--”

Kimball cut off when a loud boom echoed through the cavern, and looked over as some loose rocks slid free from one of the walls and crashed to the ground, barely missing a group of soldiers as they ran by.

“No disrespect, but I don’t think things could get much worse than this,” Fox observed, looking over at the rubble. Then, “look, I can keep him on a tight leash. And if he tries anything, I can either subdue or kill him. It’s up to you. But I really think that using him in this fight would be beneficial.”

“Neither of you are going anywhere ,” Kimball snapped, fed up with the conversation. She didn’t have time for this.

“Why not?! We’re assets Kimball! So use us!”

“And how do I know that Locus won’t just turn on us and try to escape?! Have you thought of that?”

“He said he was willing to help!” Fox exclaimed. “We both said that we wanted to help! Jesus, Kimball, you have nothing to lose here! It’s not like we’re going to hurt any of your men; you’d just kill us if we did. And if one of us gets hurt, then so what?! It’s better us than your men, anyways!”

Kimball sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, the desire to argue quickly fleeing as she realized that Fox had a somewhat reasonable point. It was true that they were at a disadvantage, after so much damage had been done during their final assault on the mercenaries, and just Locus alone could do enough damage to counter their odds. “What would you have me do , then?” she asked bitterly.

Fox relaxed a little, and straightened up, meeting her gaze. “We didn’t have to come back here, but we did anyways because we wanted to help, Kimball. So let us help.”

 


 

Locus never could have expected the door to his cell to slide open at a time like this. Nor could he have anticipated that Fox would be standing on the other side of it, with his weapons in a duffel bag under one arm, and the two soldiers who had been guarding his cell cowering behind her.

“About face, Sunshine. We’re going to collect some space pirate heads!” Fox exclaimed, tossing the duffel bag to him.

He quickly equipped the weapons, keeping a wary eye on the two guards. “Where are we headed?” he asked as he finished.

“Come on, I’ll explain on the way,” Fox said, gesturing for him to follow with a hand and starting off down the hall.

Locus stared after her for a moment, still trying to process that fact that he was no longer  in a cell , then passed the duffel bag off to one of the guards and hurried after her. “Is the General aware of what you’re doing?”

“Yep! I asked her nicely if I could borrow you. You’re good to fight, right?”

“...Yes.”

“Great!” Fox said, scanning them through the doors at the end of the hall and leading him into the main circuit.

Locus looked around, noting how empty the halls seemed. “What’s going on?”

“We’re under attack by a happy mix of space pirates and some assholes that Hargrove probably hired to kill everyone here. Typical Sunday here, I’m guessing,” Fox replied.

Locus followed her in silence for a moment, processing this. If the chairman had gotten into contact with the space pirates, then there was a chance he believed him either dead...or had figured out that he’d defected. Locus wasn’t sure which he preferred. He looked over at Fox, noticing the shield base on her hip. “You’re fighting too, then?”

“Yup,” Fox replied. “Oh, and I should tell you, ShowStopper cuts through armor like it’s nothing, so don’t go getting any cute ideas. I have orders to incapacitate you if you do anything stupid like try to kill one of Kimball’s men. Or escape. Or both. Bottom line; be smart, or you lose a leg. Capiche?”

So that’s how it was. Locus had figured there would be boundaries in place. Truth was, he was more surprised that Fox hadn’t been ordered to simply kill him. “Understood,” he replied.

“Great,” Fox said, and took in a breath like she was going to speak again, but he cut her off.

“I’m not killing anyone.”

And Fox froze, and tilted her head slightly at him, appearing to be caught off guard by the statement. She was quiet for a moment, and appeared to be thinking hard about what she wanted to say. “Look, I get you wanna turn over a new leaf,” she began. “Really, I do. But these guys aren’t going to play nice with us. They are going to try to kill everyone here. And there’s way too many of them from what I’ve heard for us to just talk them out of a fight.”

And Locus felt something ugly start to work its way up his throat. Because if all of Kimball’s men were out in the field, then it meant that Fox was right, and that there were too many, and that he was going to have to do the one thing he told himself he was done with.

Fox seemed to notice his frustration, and took a breath, continuing in a softer voice. “I’m going to be honest, I don’t like killing people either. I’m good at it, but I don’t like it. So let’s compromise, okay?”

And Locus sighed, because he knew he didn’t have a choice.

“We’re both going to need to kill some people today. That’s a very obvious given. But, you can try to talk anyone you run into out of a fight. And you can try to pacify as many pirates as you like.” She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was firm. “ However, if they can’t be stopped. If you wind up outnumbered, or cornered, or in a situation where you can’t talk someone down, you have to take them out, understand?” Fox took a breath and watched him for a moment, then continued. “It’s a big fish eat little fish world out there, and these guys don’t play nice, so I need you to understand that even if you don’t want to hurt people, you’re going to have to, and you need to find a way to deal with it. I’m here. I get it. And we can talk about it later. But right now, I need you to focus and be ready to do whatever it takes to help out Kimball and her men, got it?”

Locus stared at her tiredly. He hated how right she was. He hated how much sense her words made. And he hated that he couldn’t stick to what he’d promised himself at the Tower of Communication. “Fine,” he said.

Fox gave him a satisfied nod, then spoke up again, “so here’s how it’s gonna work; I’m usually a steamroller, courtesy of ShowStopper. So I’m going to be handling a lot of the groundwork. You’re job is to cover me until most of the bad guys are down, then you can climb out of that crow’s nest and start micromanaging. You’ve got cloaking, so you should be able to do a bit of damage with that.” She stopped suddenly and turned to face him, putting her back to the entrance of the cavern that hid the New Republic Headquarters from view. “Oh, and one last thing,” she said when he stopped in front of her. “We might all be on the same side here, but a lot of Kimball’s men probably won’t believe it. So don’t expect any gratitude from them, okay?”

Locus couldn’t help but feel a little irritated at this but nodded anyways.

“Great!” Fox exclaimed, clapping her hands together. And then, with a smile in her voice said, “those pirates are gonna wish they’d never heard of Chorus.”

 


 

Tucker held his breath as he watched Wash creep up to one of the enemy Pelicans, a low to the ground with a knife in his hand. Ahead, with his back to the approaching Marine, was a space pirate. Tucker watched as Wash grabbed him suddenly from behind, putting one hand over his visor and forcing his head back and jamming the knife into the man’s throat. The pirate let out a weak gurgle and went limp, and Wash set him gently on the ground to minimize the sound of impact.

Tucker pulled his gaze away from Wash and leaned to get a better view of the group of pirates who had gathered in front of the two Pelicans. So far, they hadn’t noticed anything.

Carolina had already taken care of the pirate by the other Pelican, and had dragged his corpse back into the dropship. Wash was in the process of doing the same.

Hurry, hurry, hurry, Tucker thought, once again looking at the group of pirates. They had split into two groups, and one of them, presumably their leader, was pointing in the directions he wanted them to head in. One group to head towards the west, the other to press forwards as is.

“That’s a fuckton of guys.” Tucker looked over when he heard Palomo speak. The young lieutenant’s gaze was locked on the two groups of pirates.

And Tucker had to agree. In front of them, there were around forty men. Two more Pelicans had brought in forty more. And according to an update from the command center, the leftover space pirates that had been brought to Chorus by Locus and Felix had also mobilized and were moving in on headquarters. But instead of bringing any of this up, he simply replied with, “we’ve kicked their sorry asses before. We can do it again.”

“These people are way more organized that the last pirates we dealt with.” Tucker looked over when Carolina appeared by his side. “We’re going to need to exercise far more caution than we did before.” She didn’t look at him when she spoke, and instead kept her eyes on the two groups of pirates, who had begun to move out.

“So what’s the plan?” Tucker asked, looking over when he saw Wash lean out of the Pelican he had dragged the pirate’s body into. He gave his teammate a thumbs up to signal he was clear to move.

“Disable both Pelicans so they can’t be used to retreat. Ep-” Carolina cut off before she could get the name out, and seemed to choke on her words. But Wash crept back to her side just as she did, and continued for her.

“Tucker, have two of your men stay here with some charges. If any of the pirates come back, and they can’t defend the Pelicans, destroy them. It would be nice to bring them back to headquarters, but if we can’t, then we won’t.”

“Makes sense,” Tucker said with a nod, and turned back to his team of four. “Hodges, McDevitt, you two stay here. The rest of you-” He cut off suddenly as a loud boom roared through the trees, immediately followed by the sound of shouting and gunfire.

“That wasn’t ours,” Carolina said. “We’d have heard something over comms.”

“We should get moving,” Wash replied. “Tucker, you and the rest of your men follow the pirates that went straight on, Carolina and I will follow the other group.” He stood and turned to Tucker. “Good luck,” he said with a nod. Then he and Carolina were gone.

Tucker gave his men a nod, stood, and started forward.

It didn’t take them long to come across what had happened. One of the enemy Warthogs had been severed clean in half by...something. On the ground around the smoking wreckage were five bodies of pirates, two of which looked as though they had been...cut apart.

“What the fuck?” Tucker looked over when Palomo spoke.

“Dude, I’m gonna be sick,” another one of his men gasped.

Tucker stared at the carnage, listening to his surroundings. The sound of fighting was several kilometers off in the distance. “Stay low,” he instructed, and began forward slowly, gun at the ready. He tried not to pay too much mind to the sound his feet made as they sunk into the blood-soaked ground with every step.

He led his men to where the jungle dropped off to the valley that hid the entrance to the New Republic headquarters. As he watched the scene before him, he felt his stomach drop. The group of pirates they had been tailing was already making their way down. And below, taking heavy fire, were Kimball’s men.

“Rooks, Gale, you cut them off from behind. Palomo, you stick with me. We’re taking them from the front,” Tucker said, turning and starting off along the edge of the cliff.

“Wait are we…?” Palomo trailed off, excitement in his voice.

“You motherfucking bet we are!” Tucker exclaimed back.

Three seconds later two of the pirates on the trail down to the valley were knocked down under the weight of the two marines as they leapt off the edge of the small cliff to intercept them.

“Holy fuck that’s bad on the knees!” Palomo groaned as he scurried to his feet, whirling around and whacking another pirate in the head with the butt of his submachine.

“Hey, it worked! ” Tucker said, activating his sword and shoving it through the gut of another pirate. He turned as the pirate he had landed on pulled himself to his feet and lunged, managing to catch Tucker off-guard with an uppercut to the chin.

Fuck, dude! That--” Tucker cut off when he heard the bang of a sniper rifle echo through the valley, followed by a yell from behind him. He stole a glance backwards and watched in horror as Rooks collapsed over the edge of the trail, a bullet hole in his visor. He quickly blocked another punch from the pirate, and ducked out of the way when he finally got his gun back in his hands and started firing.

“Fucker!” Palomo cried and leapt on his back, wrapping both arms around the pirate’s neck, choking him. The pirate stumbled back, and his gunfire trained upwards past Tucker. Tucker took the opportunity and slashed the pirate across the chest with his sword. The man let out a wet gurgle, and Palomo let go, stumbling back and watching as the man staggered and crumpled to the ground.

“Assholes,” Tucker spat, turning back to Gale, and freezing when he saw the soldier curled up on the ground, with blood pooling around him. “Shit,” he hissed, looking around, trying to find, someone, trying to find help . First Rooks, then Gale. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t until he saw a flicker of red in the corner of his eye that he remembered the sniper. He turned and tackled Palomo, right as another bang resounded through the valley.

“Jesus fu- Oh shit- Tucker!” Tucker barely had time to register that they had landed far too close to the edge of the trail before both he and Palmo went over.

They hit the ground hard, and for a moment, the sounds of gunfire and shouting seemed distant, and all Tucker could see was the cloud-darkened sky. But the sound of a gun being cocked far too close for comfort brought him back to reality and he scrambled upwards and whirled, finding himself staring down the nose of a pirate’s gun.

“Well, shit,” Palomo said as he dragged himself into a sitting position beside him. There was blood on one of his shoulder guards.

“Looks like we caught ourselves a couple of termites,” the pirate declared. The two on either side of him laughed.

Tucker glanced around, looking for something, anything that he could use to get them out of this. His sword was on the ground just out of reach. He could try to dive for it, but that would just leave Palomo exposed. Palomo’s gun was several feet away; also a terrible choice. And the rest of Kimball’s men were already too busy trying to fight off the rest of the pirates.

“Got any last words?” the pirate in front asked.

“Eat a dick,” Tucker snarled.

“Classy,” the pirate chuckled, and raised his gun.

He never had the chance to pull the trigger. If Tucker had blinked, he would have missed the blur of silver and blue that shot past him, and lopped off the heads of the three pirates. He stumbled backwards, hands reaching to wipe away the blood that had spattered across his visor, keeping an eye on what appeared to be a silver...frisbee? He watched as it arced back, and headed straight for them. “Shit, Palomo-” He cut off suddenly when the disc shot up past them. Tucker turned to look to see where it was going, and watched in shock as it was caught by a figure crouching on the trail above them in black and blue armor.

“Fox?!” Tucker exclaimed. He watched as Fox rose, stepped back, and then launched herself over the edge of the trail, executing a perfect double-twist mid-air before landing gracefully on both feet in front of them.

“‘Sup,” she said. “Sorry about the blood splatter.” She then turned and flung the disc away from her. Tucker watched as it took the head off of another pirate before curving sharply and returning to her. Fox caught it, the disc hovering above her hand, and looked back at him. “Well, don’t just stand there. You’re in a fight! Act like it!” Then she charged away in the direction of a cluster of space pirates who had pinned several Federation soldiers behind cover. Tucker watched as she made quick work of them, using the disc to cut through the pirates like scissors through paper. He wasn’t sure if he should be sick or impressed.

Pulling his eyes away, he grabbed his sword and activated it, and looked back at Palomo, who had his gun back in his hands. “Captain Tucker?” Palomo asked.

“Uh…” Tucker looked around, eyes falling on Sarge as he charged in on a Warthog yelling blood and vinegar. “Let’s go help the Reds,” he said, his voice cracking from the shock of what he’d just witnessed. This was going to be a hell of a fight.

 


 

“Something’s jamming us. Long-range communications aren’t working!”

Kimball groaned inwardly. When her attempt to broadcast to her men that Locus was out in the field fighting alongside them had failed, she had gone back to the command station for answers, hoping that it was nothing serious. But of course it had turned out to be something like this. “Do you know how?”

“No ma’am, but I’m certain it’s not coming from their ship,” the soldier who had spoken before replied.

Kimball’s hands balled into fists at her sides. “Stay here. Let me know if anything changes,” she ordered, turning and putting her gun in her hands before she stormed out. Her men needed her, and she needed to find Simmons.

 

 


 

Steamrolling was...an appropriate word to describe was Fox was doing, Locus decided. They had only joined the fight a few minutes ago, and she had already delivered devastating amounts of damage to the space pirates. She was certainly a graceful fighter, executing a series of flips and mid-air twists to gain momentum before she threw her shield, always landing on her feet. At one point, she had even climbed up onto a rock structure, just to throw the weapon into the forest, and somehow managed to hit what must have been some sort of vehicle, judging by the explosion that had billowed up above the treeline mere seconds later. How she had known there were enemy forces there, he couldn’t guess, but it was certainly something to take note of.

He watched through the scope of his rifle as Fox took out three space pirates who had cornered Tucker and his lieutenant, then charged off to assist another group of soldiers who were heavily outgunned.

To Fox’s left was a pirate who had taken notice of her, that she hadn’t realized was there. Before he could fire his gun, however, Locus put a bullet through his head. “Watch your six,” he growled to Fox over comms when she turned and saw the pirate’s corpse.

“Thanks hon!” she replied, not giving any indication that she had heard a single word he said.

With a sigh, Locus reloaded, then looked for his next target. He watched as Fox ran at a troop of space pirates who had just come out from behind cover. She leapt up and kicked off of the cliffside and launched herself at the first pirate, driving both feet into his face while flinging her shield at the other three. All four were down in an instant.

“Hey by the way, how’s that other sniper doing?” Fox asked casually over comms while running and executing a perfect backflip over another pirate and slicing him in half.

Locus pulled away from his scope and looked over at the unconscious space pirate slumped under a tree a few feet away from him. “He’s busy.”

“Aw, too bad. You guys could’ve hung out. Share some cool gunnie stories or whatever.”

Locus put a bullet through the head of a pirate who had just hefted a rocket launcher onto his shoulder. “Can you focus? ” he said coldly.

“Uh, yeah. Can you?” Fox replied. He watched as she knocked the gun out of a space pirate’s hand, then pulled him in close so the sides of their helmets touched, threw up a peace sign with one hand, and said over comms, “say cheese!”

Locus put a bullet through the pirate’s head, curling his lip. She had to be doing this on purpose.

Fox stepped back and caught her shield one-handed as it flew back to her. Then, without looking at him, gave a thumbs up. At least she had the decency not to expose his position.

A yell below to his left drew his attention, and he watched through his scope as a soldier he recognized as Jensen hit the ground with a bullet wound in her leg just below the knee. Her cry had drawn more than just his eyes however, as he noted that a two space pirates had started towards her. He thought about taking care of them, but the wind was picking up from the approaching storm, and with how they were ducking in and out of cover, he’d never get a clear shot. He was considering simply letting them get to Jensen and focusing on assisting Fox when a figure in white and purple armor appeared by her side.

Doctor Grey , he realized. And for a moment he hesitated, looking back at where Fox was engaged with a group of pirates who had ganged up on an injured Federation soldier. Grey had helped him. Grey had patched him up and given him a healing unit. He owed her. With a frustrated sigh, Locus stood and holstered the sniper rifle on his back, then reached for his sword.

This was a terrible idea. But it was the right thing to do.

 

 


 

“That’s twenty!” Sarge bellowed as he shattered a pirate’s visor with a shotgun blast.

“Fuck you, you’re cheating!” Tucker exclaimed, slashing the back of a pirate’s knee and impaling him as he went down.

“Says who!”

“Says me! ” Tucker yelled, leaping over a large rock and slamming a foot into the face of the pirate taking cover behind it. “Those three guys you ran over a minute ago don’t count! ” he exclaimed as he pulled out his pistol and shot the pirate in the throat.

“Yer just jealous ‘cause you didn’t think to do it first!” Sarge shouted at him, chucking a grenade at a pirate who was trying to climb up the large stone slab to where he was. The pirate let out a yelp of terror that was quickly cut off by the blast.

Tucker stumbled and almost fell when a chunk of the pirate struck him from behind. He whirled to make a snappy comment at Sarge for it, but stopped when he saw the other marine holding out the pirate’s detached arm.

“Need a hand, Blue?”

“Fuck off!” Tucker exclaimed, batting the hand away. He looked over suddenly when he heard the sound of an engine revving. “Oh shit.”

A Warthog loaded with pirates skidded around the corner and headed straight towards where Simmons, Donut and Caboose had taken cover.

“Guys!” Tucker shouted as Sarge barked out, “git outta there!” Tucker leapt off the stone slab and ran towards the two, not even considering the consequences. But a flash of movement to his left drew his eye, and he watched as Fox sprinted towards the Warthog from the side. He didn’t have time to wonder what she was doing before she dropped to the ground as the vehicle passed adjacent to her, and slid under it . There was a flash of blue as she did so, and by the time she was out on the other side, the Warthog had split in half , the two parts of it tumbling to a stop mere feet from where Caboose, Simmons, and Donut were.

[TARGET ELIMINATED] Freckles said as Caboose raised his gun and fired on one of the pirates who had been lucky enough to crawl out of the wreckage in mostly one piece.

“What was that?” Caboose asked, holding Freckles close once the pirate was dead.

“Holy fuck!” Donut yelped, too surprised for innuendos.

“Jesus shit!” Simmons squeaked, stumbling back.

“What in Sam hill?” Sarge exclaimed, nearly dropping his shotgun in shock.

“Hey Fox,” Tucker sighed, relieved that none of his friends had been hurt.

“‘Sup,” Fox said, standing and dusting herself off. She looked over to where the other two space pirates had started climbing out of the wreckage. “So how many points is that?” she asked.

“Wait, you heard us?” Tucker asked.

“You were shouting,” Fox said, holding her shield before her with one hand, and swiping the bloodied edge of it with a finger from the other, spinning it.

“Three,” Sarge said with a nod, “just ‘cause you cut that ‘hog in half.”

“Three points for a Warthog?” Tucker asked, turning to him.

“You guys can argue about it later,” Fox said, a grin in her voice. “Just because we’ve been doing a good job taking care of these pirates, doesn’t mean this fight is over yet.”

Tucker remembered the group that Wash and Carolina had gone after, and felt his stomach clench in worry. That worry only wound tighter when he heard shouting from the other side of the valley, and looked over to see Matthews and Grif darting for cover under fire from a group of pirates.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go babysit,” Fox said, turning on her heel and starting in their direction.

Tucker watched her go, but looked away suddenly when he heard Hodges’ voice over comms. “Captain Tucker! We tried- We couldn’t hold them off! McDevitt is hurt, and I- Oh-”

“Hodges? What’s wrong?” Tucker asked, turning away from Sarge and the others.

“The Pelicans! A group of four pirates came back and shot McDevitt. And I had to take cover and I didn’t have a chance to set the charges! I’m sorry!”

“Wait, they have the Pelicans?!”
“Yessir! That’s what I’ve been trying to say!

Tucker looked back at the others, who by listening had figured out that something was wrong. “Shit.”

 


 

The second she stepped out of headquarters, Kimball found herself flanked by Bitters and a Federation soldier she recognized as Lawrence. Across the field, she could see Simmons, Caboose, and their men holding the north side, but clearly getting pushed back.

“You two, on me,” she ordered the two soldiers.

Together, the three of them picked their way through the fight, making it halfway across the field and taking cover behind one of the large rock formations in the middle of it when fire in their direction got too heavy.

“Fucking hell, there’s a lot of them,” Bitters hissed.  

Kimball leaned out to try to get a visual of the pirates on the other side, but drew back quickly with a hiss when a bullet nicked the rock just above her head. She took a deep breath and leaned out again, this time pinpointing the pirate who had fired at her. She pulled back when he raised his gun and grit her teeth under her helmet as bullets ricocheted off of the stone. Then she readied her gun, leaned out again, and fired in his direction. The pirate went down will a yell, blood spurting from his neck. A sudden explosion to her left drew her attention, and she saw Sarge, Tucker, Caboose, Donut, Simmons, and Fox near the wreckage of a Warthog that had been...cut in half. Judging by the way everyone was looking at Fox, it was her doing.

Kimball motioned to her men to follow her as they moved forward towards them, her eyes watching Fox as she ran off back across the field, using her shield to protect her from the pirate’s gunfire.

She reached the group of Reds and Blues just in time to catch the end of their conversation about the Pelican.

“General Kimball!” Simmons exclaimed when he saw her.

“Listen to me, the pirates have taken out our long-range communications, so we can’t broadcast updates to everyone,” Kimball explained quickly, skipping all formality. “You, me, Bitters, and Lawrence are going to locate the jammer and take it out, understand?”

Simmons and the others all exchanged a look. “I-- Y-yes ma’am!”

“Another thing; Locus is out here with us. I know what you’re thinking, but I did authorize it. So do not shoot him, am I clear?”

“Is that a good idea?” Tucker asked.

“Don’t you worry yerself none, Blue. If he tries anything, us Red’s’ll just give him a good old what-for!” Sarge exclaimed.

“Our odds only increase with the more allies we have,” Kimball replied quickly. “Fox and I will be keeping an eye on him. The rest of you keep sharp, and try to take out those Pelicans when they get here,” Kimball said. “Good luck, boys.” Then she turned and headed back the way they’d come, Bitters, Lawrence, and Simmons on her tail.

When they got closer to headquarters, she turned to Simmons and asked, “do you have an idea of what sort of transmitter they would be using to jam us? It’s not coming from their ship.”

“They’d need to stick it somewhere that it would affect all of us,” Simmons replied.

“Such as?”

“Somewhere we wouldn’t look, probably.”

Kimball blinked, then looked out from behind cover, just in time to catch a pirate as he came around the corner. She delivered a hard blow to his stomach, then slammed the butt of her gun against the side of his head, sprawling him out. Then she dragged him behind cover and knelt down with her knee in his stomach and her gun under his chin. “The transmitter jamming our radios. Where is it?”

“Jesus...f-fuck. I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the pirate groaned.

“Wrong answer,” Kimball growled, putting her finger on the trigger to apply some more pressure.

“And why would I tell you anything?”

“Is this really worth losing your life over?” Kimball asked.

The pirate thought for a moment, then sighed and said, “look, a couple of guys went and planted it above your fucking headquarters on the cliff, okay?”

“Thank you,” Kimball said, and put him out with a hard blow to the forehead with the stock of her gun. Then she stood and looked back at Simmons, Lawrence, and Bitters. “Look sharp, men. He said the top of headquarters, so that’s where we’re heading.”

 


 

By now, Grey and Jensen had noticed the two pirates. And the two pirates had noticed that Grey and Jensen had noticed them. But none of the four had noticed Locus, who was slowly making his way towards them under active camouflage.

He assessed the situation, realizing with mild frustration that Jensen had lost too much blood to be of use to anyone in a fight. Not that her aim had been particularly good to begin with, if memory served him correctly. Grey wasn’t a fighter, and she was preoccupied with trying to mend Jensen’s leg enough to get her back on her feet. Of the two pirates, there was one that Locus recognized, a tall, rough-looking fellow with a directed beam rifle in his hands that he had allegedly gotten from an alien he’d killed. Locus couldn’t remember his name; not that it really mattered. The other pirate was lankier and had a carbine, and seemed very excited for what he and his companion were about to attempt.

Attempt being the key word. Locus never planned on letting them succeed. So when the lankier one leapt on top of the large rock Grey and Jensen were using for cover, with a victorious exclamation of “hello ladies! ” Locus shot him in the neck and, having given up his cover, dropped his camo.

The pirate collapsed to the ground, clawing at his throat and choking, blood pooling around his head. And both Jensen and Grey froze when they saw who had saved them.

Locus looked away from all three of them towards the other pirate, who had stopped and lowered his gun when he saw his former leader.

He looked at the now dead body of his companion, then back at Locus, seeming to put the two and two together. “Well, well, well,” he chuckled, “looks like I’m in the presence of a ghost. Hello, boss.

“Walk away,” Locus growled, deciding that if the pirate wanted to talk, he may as well use it to his advantage.

“Oh ho-ho! I don’t think so. I’ve got a new boss, and he pays way better than you and Felix ever did,” the pirate snickered.

“I won’t ask you again,” Locus said, raising his gun.

“You don’t have to,” the pirate replied, snapping his gun up and firing past Locus’ head. The blast hit the cliff face and sent several large chunks of loose rock cascading down that Locus was forced to dodge. When he turned to fire at the pirate, he had vanished.

It was right then that Locus remembered the pirate was one of those who had been given an active camouflage unit. Outstanding, he thought, and ducked behind cover when another series of blasts struck uncomfortably close to him.

“It’s a little soon for you to have served your sentence,” came Grey’s voice from behind him.

Locus looked over at her, then ducked again when a series of blasts hit the rock just above his head. Active camouflage was impossible to see from far away. A melee weapon was his best bet in this scenario. But he couldn't leave Grey and Jensen defenseless. “Can you fire a gun?” he asked without looking over at her.

“I’m the smartest person on the planet! What do you think?” Grey replied in a singsong voice.

Locus looked over at her, irritated, then slid his machine gun over to her. “Point and shoot,” he said, activating his sword. “Stay here.” Then he leapt over their cover, barely dodging another series of blasts when he landed, and taking note of where it had come from. There was a sound like air being pushed out of a vent directly ahead followed by cursing. Locus realized that the weapon must have overheated, and took his chance, slashing at the air in front of him, making out the edge of the camo in the corner of his eye.

There was a yell, and the pirate dropped his camo completely, staggering back. One hand held the rifle limply, and the other was clamped across the wound Locus had made in the opposite shoulder. The pirate hissed between his teeth and lunged unexpectedly, using the currently useless gun as a makeshift melee weapon as he swung it at Locus, who stepped out of the way and delivered a hard kick into the man’s injured shoulder. The pirate howled and dropped the rifle, then whirled with a knife in his hand, forcing Locus back. He then grabbed the rifle off the ground and started firing. Locus threw himself out of the way, activating his camo, but knew that it wouldn’t do much to conceal him with the amount of dust that had been kicked up.

He needed to get the pirate away from Grey and Jensen. Thinking fast, he ducked around behind the pirate and dropped his camo. Like he had expected, the pirate noticed and turned and started firing at him. Locus dodged behind cover, and waited for the pirate to come after him. When the sound of footsteps was right around the corner, Locus leapt out and slashed at the pirate with his sword. But the pirate had been ready for him and fired his gun off right as he did so, and Locus had the misfortune of being nicked in the shoulder by one of the blasts. He rolled out of the way, angry at himself for not being more careful, and as the pirate turned to face him, he lunged. The pirate grabbed his wrist before he could strike, so Locus delivered a hard elbow jab to the man’s side instead with the other arm, folding the pirate in half and forcing him to let go. Locus moved in to run him through, but wound up seeing stars when the pirate straightened up forcefully and headbutted him in the chin, aggravating what was surely a concussion leftover from the crash, and sending him stumbling back.

Locus managed to find footing quickly, but it didn’t matter, as the pirate charged forward and struck him hard in the abdomen with his rifle. Under any other circumstance, the blow would have been nothing but a mild irritation. But Locus’ injuries were still fresh, and the wound in his side was still tender, and when struck with the rifle it send an explosion of pain through him, and for a moment he couldn’t tell if he’d been shot or not and he didn’t even realize he’d hit the ground until the pirate was standing over him.

Locus’ hand tightened to grip the sword, but grasped hollow air instead and when he glanced over he realized that it had been knocked out of his reach. And he heard the sound of the rifle being charged and without thinking swung a leg out at the pirate’s ankle and sent him toppling to the ground. But the pirate didn’t stay down long, rolling to the side and coming up onto one knee with the sword in his hand. And Locus couldn’t help but be angry at himself for his own lack of foresight.

“Shouldn’t have brought a knife to a gunfight, buddy,” the pirate chortled, rising to his feet.

Locus struggled to do the same, looking around for something he could use as a weapon as he did so. The sniper rifle would be stupid to use at close range with the kick that it gave. He’d never fire it straight, especially with his side smarting like it was. He could try to get the gun that Jensen had, but that would only lead the pirate dangerously close to her and Grey. And as the pirate raised his rifle again to fire, Locus looked over, preparing to dodge, and noticed something behind him.

A flagpole with a New Republic banner waving from it, poking up out of the ground several feet away.

With no other options in store, Locus went for it, charging the pirate, barely ducking in time to avoid a series of blasts fired at his head. The pirate stumbled back when he missed and brought his rifle up as a sort of shield as Locus reached him. He drove a knee up, catching the bottom of the rifle and sending it into the pirate’s chin, then knocked the weapon out of his hands while his opponent stumbled back. He planted a hard kick into the pirate’s chest, flooring him, then dove for the flagpole.

It was buried in the ground far better than he had expected, and he struggled a bit to pull it out, watching the pirate scramble across the ground for his gun. Locus gave the pole one last hard tug, ripping it out of the ground, and turned right as the pirate rose with his rifle in his hand.

He never got the chance to fire it.

With a wet gurgle, the pirate dropped the weapon, and it clattered to the ground, blood dripping onto it. The pirate stared down at the pole that had been driven into his middle, hands grasping at the blood-slicked metal.

Locus changed his grip on the flagpole and stepped forward, causing the pirate’s weakened knees to give out and collapsing him backwards. He writhed as Locus drove the flagpole deeper, completely impaling him, and pinning him to the ground. The pirate let out one final choking gasp, and went still.

Locus stood over him for a moment, breathing hard and still gripping the flagpole, though more for support to keep him upright than anything else. He shouldn’t already be this tired; this had barely been a fight. Frustrated, Locus let go of the pole and forced himself to straighten up. He located where his sword had fallen and picked it up, holstering it at his side. He looked back at the pirate for a moment, trying to even his breathing, and remembered Jensen and Doctor Grey. He turned back towards where they had been, and saw Grey peeking out from behind the rocks at him, her body language unreadable.

Go. Get your gun back and keep moving. If you keep moving, you can forget the pain. So Locus moved, heading back towards the two, struggling to keep his feet from dragging. When he reached Grey and Jensen, he stopped at a distance, knowing full well that if he got too close the situation could go sideways.

“Are either of you hurt?” he asked after a moment, hating how his pain crept into his voice.

Grey and Jensen watched him warily for a moment, saying nothing. Then Grey rose slowly out of her crouch, picking up the gun he had given her as she did so, and stepped towards him. “We’re both doing way better than you are,” she said, holding the gun in her arms like she wasn’t sure what to do with it.

Locus watched her carefully, and she did the same to him, her grip on the gun not loosening. And suddenly the sounds of the fight around him came back to him as the ringing in his ears fell away, and he remembered where he was, and that he needed that gun if he was going to continue the job he had been sent to do. And Grey seemed to realize it too, because with a dramatic sigh, she held the weapon out to him. “ Here ,” she said. “Just don’t go making a mess.”

Locus stared at the gun for a moment, then slowly reached out and took it from her. He checked the weapon, noting that no rounds had been fired from it, and looked back at Grey, feeling like he should say something, but not knowing what.

“Well? I don’t know why Kimball let you out here, but if it’s to help with this shitshow, you better get going!” Grey exclaimed, making a shooing motion with her hands at him.

Locus looked back towards where most of the fighting was happening, and froze when he heard what sounded like an approaching aircraft in the distance. That wasn’t good.

“Alright, look, here.” Locus looked back at Grey when she spoke again, and was startled when a tube of biofoam was shoved in his face. “As much as I would love to have to cut you open for what you did,” Grey began in a sickly sweet voice, “you’re no use to anyone if you’re stumbling around with a gash in your side. So fix yourself up and get out of here.”

Locus took the tube of biofoam from her, glancing at it and then looking back at Grey with a nod. He then turned as the roar of an aircraft engine drew closer and watched as two Pelicans appeared above the treeline. With a sigh, he jammed the needle of the biofoam tube into his smarting side, hissing through his teeth at the initial wave of pain accompanying it, eyes never leaving the Pelicans as they began circling the valley.

The fight wasn’t over yet. He still had work to do.

 


 

Tucker found Palomo again right as the Pelicans started circling. The young lieutenant had been assisting one of Grey’s medics with dragging a fellow soldier out of harm’s way, glancing up anxiously as he did so.

“Captain Tucker!” he cried when Tucker got close. “Fuck, what do we do?!”

“I don’t know!” Tucker admitted, shooing both him and the medic away and dragging the soldier the last few feet behind cover by himself. “I haven’t been able to get a hold of Wash or Carolina. I just sent an update about the Pelicans to Kimball, but she hasn’t gotten back to me yet.” Tucker stepped back at let the medic in to help the soldier, then hefted his gun again and turned back to Palomo.

“Are comms down?”

“Yeah. Kimball, Simmons, Bitters, and Lawrence are working on them,” Tucker said, ducking behind cover as a Warthog of pirates drove past and fired their machine gun near where he had been standing. When they passed, he rose and fired several rounds at them, hitting the gunner and sending him toppling out of the vehicle. He watched as the Warthog lost control suddenly and rolled onto its side, spilling its two remaining passengers onto the ground. One of them jerked suddenly like they had been shot, and went still. The other jumped up and stumbled back, hands fumbling for his gun. Tucker flinched as there was a sudden arc of turquoise light that took off the pirate’s head. He looked for Fox, spotting her on the other end of the field with her disc...in her hand?

Oh.

Tucker looked back towards where the Warthog had crashed and watched with a sickening feeling as an all-too-familiar mercenary materialized out of nowhere.

“Fuck, is that Locus?! ” Palomo yelped.

“Yep,” Tucker said grimly

“What the fuck is he doing here?”

“Helping. Apparently,” Tucker replied, and started to contact Kimball again when one of the Pelicans started shooting. He grabbed Palomo and yanked him down behind cover as bullets tore past them on one side, kicking up a line of dust. “Jesus fuck!

Tucker watched as the Pelican circled around, Kimball’s men scrambling and shouting to each other below. The second Pelican dove low, and he watched with a sinking stomach as the machine gun under its nose began rotating.

It never had the chance to fire.

A familiar form in aquamarine armor leapt out of the trees and off the cliff suddenly, landing on top of the Pelican, grav-boots active. Tucker watched as Carolina pulled out her pistols and fired them through the cockpit window of the dropship, killing the pilot and sending the craft whirling out of control. She leapt off of the doomed Pelican and hit the ground in a roll, coming up onto one knee and watching as the dropship smashed into the side of the cliff and collapsed down into the trees below.

Not a minute later, Wash appeared, with Hodges slung over one shoulder. Tucker watched with relief as he dropped the soldier off into the care of a nearby medic and started towards Carolina.

“Let’s finish these fuckers off,” Tucker said with a grin, cocking his gun.

“With pleasure!” Palomo said, and followed him as he ran out from behind cover, both firing at pirates as they moved, heading for one of the large stone structures in the middle of the small valley.

They both slid behind it, and Tucker looked up as the last Pelican circled overhead, following it with his eyes as it dove low and its machine gun started spinning. He watched as it kicked up a line of dirt on the other side of his and Palomo’s cover, leaning back so he could keep track of it, then looked over when he heard a cry and saw a fellow soldier topple to the ground with blood spurting onto his thigh guard. And he felt his heart sink as he saw Wash leap out from cover and start dragging them to safety, firing at the pirates who had shot the soldier with one hand, and pulling with the other - right as the Pelican rounded the corner.

“Wash!” Tucker shouted, putting a hand on Palomo’s shoulder to tell him to stay put as he rose and began running towards him, not thinking of the consequences.

Wash looked up and noticed the Pelican, and saw the machine gun start to spin, and he dropped his gun and gave the soldier a good hard yank back, nearly throwing them away from him. But the movement put him off balance, and he stumbled backwards, and the machine gun fired, and Tucker slipped, landing on his side and could only look back in horror at the wall of dust kicked up, cutting Wash off from view.

And a movement to his right drew his attention, and he watched as one of the pirates who Wash had been shooting at before came out from cover and slipped into the dust. And Tucker raised his gun to fire at him, but another pirate appeared from where the first one had come, and he had a grenade in his hand. And Tucker scrambled to his feet and threw himself away when it landed near him, covering the back of his neck and feeling the heat and shrapnel hit him with force. And when he uncurled, he saw Wash struggling to sit up, red mixing with the yellow markings on his armor, and the pirate standing over him.

Shit, shit, shit! Where was Carolina? Where was Sarge? Or Caboose? Or anyone? He was too far away. He was too far away and he knew it, but still Tucker tried to get his feet under him, and grab his gun, and turn and try to reach Wash. But when he tried to stand, his knee gave out, and he fell to the ground screaming curses. And he looked up, and the pirate raised his gun, and Tucker cried out Wash’s name one more time, trying to get him to move, to do something.

And the pirate froze. And Tucker stared at the plasma blade protruding from the man’s chest, and watched as his gun clattered uselessly to his feet, and listened as the man choked on blood as the blade was driven up, creating a molten gash through the middle of him. And as the blade was yanked out, its wielder revealed himself, appearing like an apparition out of the still settling dust.

And now Tucker found his feet, and raised his gun, prepared to put a bullet through Locus’ head at the slightest movement. But then he did something that Tucker never would have expected; he holstered his sword, and held his hand out to Wash. Wash hesitated, clearly shellshocked, but then hesitantly and cautiously accepted it, and Locus pulled him to his feet. And when Wash stumbled slightly, he put a hand out to steady him, and Tucker could hear him ask if he was hurt, and he felt his stomach clench with unease. And the tension didn’t leave him even when Locus gave Wash a nod and turned and walked away, heading towards where Fox was holding her own against a group of pirates who had finally gained enough sense to decide that she was a priority threat.

Tucker never took his eyes off of Locus as he hurried as fast as his injuries would allow over to Wash, who had just noticed that the soldier he had helped had gotten a medic’s attention. “Are you okay?” he asked, when he finally reached him.

Wash looked over at him, and didn’t respond right away, and Tucker had the sense that he was still trying to process what had just happened. “Kimball never said anything about him being out here with us,” he said instead of answering the question.

“Comms are down, she couldn’t. But when I saw her, she said he was on our side,” Tucker replied, leading him behind cover.

Wash nodded. “Smart choice. Better our odds. I hope someone’s keeping an eye on him.”

“She said her and Fox were,” Tucker said.

“Good.” Wash fell silent for a moment, and Tucker looked away, and pinpointed the pirate who had thrown a grenade at him earlier. Palomo must have shot him, because he was on the ground writhing in pain, and the former was nowhere to be found. He watched as the Pelican circled back, and reloaded his gun. He could see Carolina preoccupied with helping Grif with some pirates. Sarge was back-to-back with Caboose, and they were raising hell with Freckles keeping track of his wielder's kills. Matthews and Andersmith were with Donut and Lopez, and the four of them were pushing the pirates back with suppressive fire. He spotted Palomo carrying Jensen on his shoulders with Grey tailing him across the field. And he was with Wash, who just a minute ago had almost been torn apart by a machine gun.

Tucker hissed as the dropship’s fire tore into one of Kimball’s soldiers who hadn’t reached cover fast enough, red spurting against white armor as they collapsed.

Someone was going to need to do something about that Pelican.

 


 

“Three targets. One in front of the transmitter, two by the edge of the cliff,” Kimball hissed to her men.

“What do we do?” Simmons asked.

“Lawrence, you take the one in front of the transmitter. Bitters, you and I are going for the ones on the cliff. Simmons, the second Lawrence takes out his target, you get in there and get to work. The longer we take with this, the more trouble we’ll be in if the pirates pull anything else out of their sleeve,” Kimball replied, eyes never leaving their targets.

“Copy that,” Lawrence said, and out of the corner of her eye, Kimball saw him and Simmons move away from them.

“They’re really close to the edge of that cliff,” Bitters said, sounding a little uneasy.

“We’ll be okay. Just stay focused,” Kimball replied, and started creeping forward. They needed to be fast if they didn’t want to be seen, as their armor didn’t exactly blend in well with their surroundings.

A sudden cry behind her as Lawrence took out his target made her freeze, and her stomach sank when the two pirates she and Bitters were approaching turned.

“Shit!” one of them exclaimed, and they both open fired.

Kimball threw herself back behind the transmitter, and Bitters did the same, scrambling for cover. Kimball hissed between her teeth and waited for the firing to stop before she leaned out and took several shots at one of the pirates. She caught him in the leg, and he went down, and she ducked back into cover. “Bitters, I have one immobilized. You take that one out, and I’ll handle the other one.”

“Yes ma’am!”

She traded places with him, skirting around Simmons who was doing exactly what she had asked him to do, and waited for the firing to stop. She listened to the footsteps of the pirate who was still able to walk get closer, and when they stopped just behind the transmitter, she coiled herself up and sprung over it, slamming the heel of her foot into the pirate’s visor. He stumbled backwards, firing blindly, and she ducked under the bullet spray and went for his legs, tackling him to the ground. She knocked his gun out of his hand, but barely blocked the knife he slashed at her with in the other. The ambush caught her off guard, and suddenly she found herself pinned to the ground, no gun in her hands, and a knife being driven down towards her. She caught the pirate’s wrists before the blade went into her throat, and braced her shoulders against the ground to try to push him back.

“Hey, aren’t  you the leader of this operation?” the pirate asked between grunts of effort as he tried to force the knife down. “Shouldn’t you be painting your nails in your ivory tower?”

Kimball let go of his wrist with one hand and grabbed her pistol with it, pressing it against the pirate’s stomach. “I’m not your fucking employer,” she snarled, and emptied the clip in him.

With a groan, she pushed the pirate off, looking over to see Bitters standing over his target, blood on his shoulder guard that looked to be his. “Clear,” she said, panting, then pulled herself to her feet, making her way over to where Simmons was working. Lawrence had joined him, and was crouching by his side with his gun ready, scanning the jungle for enemies.

When he noticed Kimball approach, he quickly said, “sorry ma’am! I didn’t expect him to yell like that!”

Kimball stopped beside him. “No need to apologize, soldier. You did good. That wasn’t your fault.”

Lawrence gave her a grateful nod, then went back to scanning the trees.

Kimball looked over at Simmons, who was hard at work. “How close are we?” she asked.

“Thirty seconds,” he replied.

Kimball looked away, back down towards the fight, still breathing hard. Thirty seconds was a damn long time.

 


 

 

“I’ll take the ones on the left, you take the ones on the right?” Fox suggested. She was back-to-back with Locus in the middle of a ring of ten or so pirates. Apparently Control had decided that they were a big enough threat to focus on.

Locus glanced back at her, a little frustrated that she had gotten them into this situation in the first place, but nodded anyways. At this distance, active camouflage would be too easy to spot. And he didn’t know how well that shield of Fox’s would work at close range.

“Just go with the flow,” Fox said calmly. And out of the corner of his eye, he saw her move. Her shield sliced through two of the pirates like paper and arced around in front of Locus, who in a mixture of confusion and amazement noted that some sort of hard light was coming off of it and expanding it significantly. As it spun past, it deflected the pirates’ bullets, and Locus took the chance to shoot two of them in the head with his machine gun, then took the arm off of another with his sword. Fox slid around his side, and Locus moved with her, keeping his back to her as she lopped the legs off of another pirate, and charged another, while throwing her shield back in his direction. Locus ducked instinctively as a pirate fired at him, despite the bullets ricocheting off of the shield. He then turned as Fox shouted his name, just in time to catch a grenade she tossed to him. He pulled the pin, and hurled it at the pirates in front of him, catching three of them with the blast. And he whirled around towards the remaining two pirates, finding himself shoulder-to-shoulder with Fox as he put a bullet through the one on the right’s head, and she sliced through the one on the left.

“Fuck yeah!” she shouted, punching the air. But then whirled and flung her shield up over both her and Locus’ head, just in time to deflect the machine gun fire of the Pelican as it tore past.

Locus looked up as it flew over them, realizing he had dropped into a crouch, and rose to his feet. He watched the Pelican, and Fox did too, appearing to analyze it as it turned and started back towards them.

“How’s your pain level?” she asked without looking at him.

Locus stared at her. “It’s fine.”

“Great,” she replied, “because I’m gonna need a boost.

 


 

Tucker watched the Pelican fire on Fox and Locus to no avail, and looked on in curiosity as Fox put some distance between her and Locus, while the latter crouched on the ground. Fox charged, and Tucker watched as Locus boosted her into the air as the Pelican flew overhead, and she sailed up and launched her shield at the back of the ship.

The Pelican made a sputtering sound, and it teetered in the air, flames spurting out of its engines. Tucker watched as the soldiers in its path scattered; the ship hitting the ground with a metallic groan and tumbling several kilometers. Fox landed with her back too it, and brushed herself off, and didn’t even look back when the ship exploded violently behind her, and instead gazed up at Locus with her hands on her hips. Her shield arced back to her, and she caught it, and did something to deactivate the hard light barrier around it, retracting it back into its spherical form and attaching it to her hip.

This was apparently the last straw for the remaining pirates, as they called for a retreat immediately after, and slunk back into the jungle, their numbers severely depleted. Kimball’s soldiers cheered and shouted insults at the pirates as they fled, and Sarge fired off a round of bullets into the air while yelling victoriously.

Tucker joined in, but couldn’t help but feel a little lackluster about all of it. They still had another problem to deal with. Tucker looked back at Locus, and was about to start towards him when his comm squealed loudly. Apparently he wasn’t the only one to experience it, because a collective groan of pain rose up from the rest of the soldiers, many of whom grabbed at their audio filters.

“I FIXED IT!” Came a joyous shout over the radio.

“Simmons?” Tucker heard Wash exclaim.

“Oh, hey Wash. Uh. Hi everybody. Th-this is Captain Simmons. It seems like the pirates must have used some sort of radio jammer that they planted right over headquarters. B-but my team and I took care of it! So we should be good to go!”

“Communications back online,” came the response from the command center. “All private channels are now open. Please follow procedure and use them accordingly.”

Tucker let out a sigh of relief and looked around, many of the others seemed to feel just as glad as he did. He watched them for a moment, then turned away when he heard Kimball’s voice over his comm. “This is an open channel to Blue Team. Two of the Pelicans that were sent in still haven’t been recovered. We know their location. Agent Washington, I want you to take your men and secure them.”

“Copy.” Tucker looked over when he heard Wash reply, and frowned under his helmet.

“Dude, that arm of yours needs to be checked out.”

“It’s fine , Tucker. I’ll have it looked at later.”

Tucker let out a frustrated sigh and shook his head, listening as the command center broadcasted orders over an open channel. He looked away, and stiffened as Fox walked past with Locus in tow. Tucker’s eyes followed the latter, and he noted how Locus glanced at him and Wash as he walked past, an ugly feeling of unease boiling in his stomach. Then Locus looked away, and Tucker watched him follow Fox back into headquarters.

“Tucker.”

Tucker jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked over to see Wash.

“It’s okay,” Wash said. Then, “let’s go. We have work to do.” He turned and started towards where Caboose and Carolina had already gathered.

Tucker watched him go, stealing one look back towards headquarters, his head filled with tangled thoughts, then he turned and jogged after Wash.

Chapter Text

“Well that was a party!” Fox exclaimed as she led Locus through the halls of the New Republic headquarters in the direction of Kimball’s office. She had wanted to speak to both of them. It struck her as a little odd that the General hadn’t immediately sent a troop of soldiers to re-arrest Locus, all things considered. Though, after the fight they’d just had, it was understandable that she would want to focus the most manpower on helping her own men out. Which was probably why she’d ordered a single, scared-looking soldier to accompany them instead of a platoon.

“You don’t talk much, do you, kid?” Fox asked, looking back over her shoulder at the soldier, who only tightened his grip on his gun. It was almost funny to see that he felt threatened, considering both her and Locus had their weapons taken from them the minute they stepped into headquarters.

“J-Just keep walking.”

“I’m walking and talking,” Fox replied, turning her head away. “You got a name?”

“W-what’s it to you?”

Fox shrugged. “Just asking. Trying to get to know people around here, y’know?”

The soldier was silent, and Fox listened to the sound of their footsteps echo through the empty hall. “Louise,” he said after some time.

“Nice to meet you!” Fox said, allowing a grin to creep into her voice, trying to keep the mood light. She glanced back at the soldier, who seemed to be eyeing Locus warily. “Oh, don’t mind him. He’s harmless now.”

“I don’t think you know what you’re talking about,” Louise said in a tone that suggested he wasn’t trying to offend her.

“Honey, I’m the scariest thing in this hallway. Believe me,”  Fox said, stopping short of the door to Kimball’s office. “Should I knock?”

“She knows we’re coming,” Locus growled, clearly not taking the comment about being harmless in stride.

“Alright, sour-puss, no need for a hissy fit,” Fox huffed, and walked up to the doors, stepping through when their motion sensors detected her and slid open.

Kimball was waiting for them with two other soldiers at her side. All three of them had guns, but Kimball’s was holstered at her side in a display of contextually-aware civility. Or as much as she deemed necessary in the current situation, that is. Fox noted this as she stepped around the holo-table and came to a stop in front of the general, not looking over when Locus joined her at her side.

When no one spoke up for a moment, Fox finally let her patience slip and asked, “sooooo? How’d we do?”

Kimball looked over at her, and Fox noted how she regarded her in silence for a moment before speaking. “I believe I owe you an apology.”

Fox blinked. “What?”

“I shouldn’t have doubted you,” Kimball continued.

Oh! Fox put her hands up reassuringly. “No, hey, you don’t need to be sorry for that! You did just meet me. Kinda. So I can’t expect you to trust me yet.”

For a moment, Fox could have sworn that Kimball looked relieved. But then her business-like composure returned, and she said, “today was a shaky test run, but I think the results that we got were worth noting.” Kimball looked over at Locus when she finished, regarding him for a moment before continuing. “Fox asked me to pair you with her, and considering how the two of you worked together today, I think it’s fair to say that it was a good call. However , this does not change things for you.”

Fox heard Locus let out a long sigh and say, “understood.”

“That being said,” Kimball added, “there are still a number of pirates that retreated. We’re unsure of whether or not they will be returning, but we’re preparing ourselves for another attack regardless. Should that happen, the two of you will be paired together again, so it might be worth your time to get comfortable with one another.” She looked over at Fox. “You and I will discuss the specifics of this at a later time, once we make sure headquarters are secure.”

“Copy that,” Fox replied, satisfied with the direction this conversation was going.

“For now, you will be treated for any injuries you’ve sustained, and returned to your cell,” Kimball said, looking over at Locus.

He simply nodded.

Fox watched as the two soldiers on either side of Kimball stepped forward to escort Locus out. She waited until they had exited the room to ask, “what did you have in mind when you said you might pair us together?”

Kimball seemed startled by the question, as her focus had been turned towards her office doors, rather than Fox. “I--” She cleared her throat and quickly regained her composure. “I was going to work on a plan for the two of you over the next few days.”

“Huh,” Fox said. “Well, if you don’t mind the boldness, I think giving him a bit more slack on his leash would help me work with him.”

If Kimball was opposed to the idea, she didn’t show it. “Give me an example.”

“Maybe a few hours a day to work with him?” Fox suggested. “I mean, if we’re going to be paired up, we might as well get to know one another better. We could run through training exercises or something. I don’t know.”

Kimball tilted her head towards the floor, appearing deep in thought. Then she looked back towards Fox and said, “I’m going to discuss this with Agents Washington and Carolina later, and I’ll get back to you.” She fell silent and stared at Fox for a moment, then added, “in the meantime, I would like you to help out here where you can.”

Fox nodded, understanding that the conversation wasn’t going to get much further than that. “You mentioned earlier before the fight that I should help Doctor Grey.”

“Yes,” Kimball said with a nod, looking slightly relieved that Fox hadn’t pursued the topic of being paired with Locus any further. “In fact, she could probably still use your help.”

“Well, then I know where I’ll be hanging out for the next few hours,” Fox replied, smiling under her helmet. “You got anything else for me, or are we done?”

“You’re dismissed,” Kimball replied with a small sigh.

Fox nodded and headed for the door, pausing before she reached it, and looking back. “Thank you for trusting me,” she said, then stepped into the hallway.

 


 

Only one of the Pelicans had been captured successfully. The other, filled with those who hadn’t fallen to Blue Team’s surprise attack, had disappeared on the horizon.

Tucker had wanted to go after them, but orders from the command center had called them back to headquarters. He’d sat in the back of the commandeered dropship with a bitter expression on his face under his helmet, and when they’d landed, he’d yanked his helmet off and walked away without a word.

As he made his way across the tarmac to the hangar, he refused the urge to look back, even when he heard someone running after him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw yellow and gray, and couldn’t help but feel his frustration boil hotter. He waited for Wash to say something, and when he didn’t, he spoke instead. “Today was a fucking shitshow.”

“I know,” Wash said. And he was using that voice again. And Tucker felt himself scowl.

He ground his teeth as they stepped into the hangar, walking past the few aircrafts they had left. Even with the alien weapons they had acquired, their resources were still unreasonably low. And to top it off, they’d just lost a metric fuck-ton of men, Kimball had gotten the idea to set Locus loose , and his team- Tucker heard himself make an angry sound, and he turned and exited the hangar into headquarters.

“It’s all so fucking stupid! ” he exclaimed, not caring how loud he got.

“Tucker-”

“Half of my men are probably dead , Wash,” Tucker snarled, rounding on his teammate.

“They recovered McDevitt. He’s got a few broken bones and was shot in the shoulder, but he’s alive.”

And Tucker felt a good portion of the hot air drain from him. Oh, he thought. Well it was good news, at least. But he still couldn’t bring himself to feel more than a little relieved. “Okay, so that’s one problem, Wash. We still have like, twenty more.” He turned and began walking again, feeling a little bad about his tone, but persisting with the conversation anyways. “I mean, what the fuck was that out there? That thing with Fox? Locus? The ship those pirates were on disappeared an hour ago. And now we’ve got a Pelican to worry about--”

“Tucker, I know. ” And something in his tone made Tucker look over at him. “I know,” Wash repeated with a sigh. “Believe me, I feel it too.”

And Tucker found himself looking into his friend’s visor, and wondered if the expression it was reflecting back at him was the same as the one on Wash’s own face. “We were supposed to be done with all of this,” he said, looking away, down at the floor.

“It’s never that easy,” Wash said, a hint of bitter irony in his voice.

“It fucking sucks,” Tucker huffed, holding his helmet in front of him and staring down at it. There was dried pirate blood stuck in the corner of his visor. Gross.

“Look, why don’t you go down to the medbay and see Hodges and McDevitt? Palomo is probably down there too. Seeing that they’re okay might make you feel a little better,” Wash suggested.

Tucker sighed. “Are you just trying to get rid of me?”

“I’ve been trying for years, and it hasn’t worked yet,” Wash joked, giving him a nudge with his elbow. “But seriously, you should go see them. I mean it when I say it’ll help.”

Tucker pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah, okay. I’ll uh...I’ll catch you later?”

Wash shrugged. “In a bit, probably,” he said, and turned into a branching hallway, walking away and leaving Tucker standing by himself for a moment.

Tucker looked down at he helmet in his hands, then sucked in a deep breath and tucked it under his arm, heading for the med bay.

 


 

There were plenty of people Tucker had been expecting to possibly run into on the walk to the medbay; Carolina, Donut, Simmons, fucking Al Capone ... Fox was nowhere on that list, so when he nearly ran into her at an intersection between hallways, he figured she must be lost.

“Um, are you looking for something?”

“Pretty sure I wouldn’t be heading to the medbay unless I meant to,” Fox replied evenly as she stepped into the medbay.

“No, I mean, that thing with Locus? Shouldn’t you be-”

“Talking to Kimball still?”  

Tucker frowned. “ Yeah?! I mean, from what some of Kimball’s men are saying, you convinced her to let Locus out in the first place.”

“Ohhhh, that’s why we’re having an interrogation,” Fox said, stopping and turning on her heel to face him. “ You think I used some horrible manipulation tactics to get what I wanted.”

Did you?”

Fox held his gaze for a moment, then shrugged. “I mean, call it what you want, but I just asked her to weigh the pros and cons of the whole thing, and she finally agreed to it.”

“Seriously?!” Tucker spluttered. “Are you out of your mind?! ” he exclaimed, drawing the attention of everyone within earshot. “Were you not listening when we told you about all the shit he’s done? He’s not someone you can work with, Fox!”

“And yet...” Fox said flatly. “I mean, you were paying attention out there, right? He literally saved Stripes’ life. And also killed a bunch of pirates. If you ask me, we make a pretty good team. And it’s not like he plans on hurting you guys. He made that pretty clear.”

Tucker stared at her incredulously. “You’re crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re out of your fucking mind.”

“What did you expect? I was stuck on a moon by myself for four years,” Fox chuckled. “Not to change the subject, by the way, but you wouldn’t happen to know where I could find Doctor Grey, do you?”

Tucker blinked. “Why, are you hurt?”

“No, no. Kimball and I both figured that since I’m a doctor, I might as well help out too.”

“Wait, like a legit doctor?” Tucker asked. Sure, she had patched him up on Nalome, but he had figured that was just basic field training.

“How do you think I managed to put you back together again after you crashed on my moon?,” Fox replied. “So are you gonna help me find her or what?”

Tucker sighed, adjusting the position of his helmet under his arm and deciding that Hodges and McDevitt could wait a little longer. “Follow me,” he said, starting in the direction of Grey’s office. This was going to be interesting.

 

 


 

Grey had just finished a minor surgery involving a bullet lodged in a soldier’s shoulder and was on her way to her office when Kimball informed her through the comm in her ear that someone named ‘Fox’ was looking for her.

Fox…. Fox, Fox, Fox, Grey thought as she turned the corner and stopped when she saw Tucker and that one soldier that she had seen briefly on the field earlier today. “ You are Fox!” she exclaimed, pointing at her with the hand that wasn’t occupied with documents and coffee.

“That I am,” the woman replied cheerfully and with a nod.

“Excellent!” Grey bubbled as she unlocked her office, leaned in, and deposited the documents on her desk. She grabbed her favorite pen before she closed the door and brushed past the two. “Well, follow me,” she chimed without looking back, sticking her pen behind her ear. “What did you need me for? Got a fever? Bullet wound? Hypertension? Broken bone?” She paused with sudden realization and turned on her heel and gestured with her mug at Fox, nearly sloshing coffee onto the floor. “ You’re not in the system.”

“Well, I am the new girl,” Fox replied.

“You’re going to need a checkup! ” Grey exclaimed in a singsong voice, turning and continuing onward.

“Well I don’t have any plans,” she heard Fox say.

“Perfect,” Grey grinned, leading them towards the patient wing. If either of them were hurt, they would have checked in for a check up. And she knew that three of Tucker’s men had been injured in today’s skirmish.

“To answer your other question,” Fox continued, “I’m a doctor too, so Kimball suggested I come down and help.”

Really? ” Grey asked, looking back at her. That was interesting. Certainly useful information to have. Out of all the things she had expected the new girl to be, a doctor wasn’t exactly one of them. Especially after seeing how she fought. “What’s your specialty?”

“Biomechanical engineering.”

That made Grey stop in her tracks. She turned and looked back at Fox, a grin spreading across her face. “Oh, you just have perfect timing, then!” Then she gestured with her free hand and turned and continued walking, picking up her pace. When they reached the patient wing, she pointed down the hall and said, “Tucker, your men will be in the third-to-last room down there. We figured we’d put them together. Gale is still in surgery, I’m afraid, so you’ll just have to wait.”

“Got it!” Tucker replied, then to Fox said, “I’ll see you later,” before starting in the direction Grey had sent him.

Grey nodded at him as he walked past, and pulled her datapad out of her labcoat, looking over the message that had popped up. Then she turned and headed back the way they’d come. “Follow me!” she chimed, waiting until Fox was at her side before she spoke again. “I have a patient who took some damage from a grenade to one of his prosthetics. Normally I would handle this on my own, but since you’re here, and you want to help, I thought maybe you could take care of it instead?” She glanced at Fox with a smile.

“You want me to prove myself.”

Grey’s smile only widened. Now she was catching on. “Of course! And I’m sure Matthews would be more than happy to have a new face working on him.”

Fox tilted her head to one side. “Not one of the Reds and Blues then?” she asked.

“Nope!” Grey replied. “I got pinged that he was in the waiting room just a minute ago. I’ll have him called in so you can take a look at him.” She paused, looking Fox up and down. “I was going to say that you should go change into scrubs, but I don’t think we have any your size.”

Fox let out a laugh. “I get that a lot,” she said good-naturedly. “I can make do with whatever you have for me.”

“Good!” Grey said. “Now let me go get his file, and then I’ll bring you to him!”

 


 

“Today went far better than...I mean, I was expecting hostility and stubbornness and--not compliance!” Kimball exclaimed, pacing back and forth in front of Wash and Carolina, who had already been briefed on her earlier conversation with Fox, and were listening with interest. “I know he said that he wanted to help, but this puts things into a whole new perspective that I can’t say I was ready for.”

“He did help us out on Nalome,” Carolina said.

“Not to mention that he was probably trying to avoid getting on Fox’s bad side,” Wash added. “I mean, we all saw how she fought today.”

“I think...” Kimball started, looking down at the scattered documents on her desk. God she had a lot of paperwork to do. “I think there’s a possibility we could use this to our advantage.”

“How so?” Wash asked, tilting his head to one side.

“This is going to sound crazy,” Kimball sighed, trying to think of how she wanted to word this, “but I think pairing the two of them together permanently could potentially provide us with a bit of extra help.” She looked up at the two before her before she continued. “Both of them know Charon. And if we can get them to work together, they might be able to help us find a way to beat Hargrove. We already saw what they came up with in the five minutes we left them alone in that interrogation room.”

Carolina and Wash exchanged a glance, and Kimball wondered what they were thinking. The way Wash was holding himself made it very clear he wasn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of giving Locus any amount of slack. She didn’t blame him.

“They’ve already proven to have some amount of synergy,” Wash began. “Back on Nalome, they brought CORA down together, and today we saw that they’re capable of synching with one another in a fight. And Fox has been going down and talking to him at the end of every day since we got back, anyways. She already knows him pretty well.”

Carolina nodded. “They do have chemistry. But you said that Fox came to you with the idea of sending both of them out today. Even with the reasoning she gave, I think we should be cautious about how we approach this. We don’t really know exactly what she wants.”

“She mentioned that she wanted to use him to help bring Hargrove down when I first met her,” Kimball explained. “What she sees in him exactly is beyond me, but considering that she not only assisted you on your mission, but also brought back resources from the moon, and provided support today, I think it’s fair to say that her personal goal is clear-cut. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t still be careful. Fox is still new here, so we don’t know much about her yet. I plan on monitoring her over the next few days to see if we can get a clearer picture.”

“And if she meets your expectations, what’s the next step?” Wash asked.

Kimball looked away and crossed her arms. “I don’t like the idea of putting Locus on a leash any more than either of you do. What he and Felix did is inexcusable. But Fox said that they both came back because they wanted to help, and thus far their actions have reflected this.” She looked back at the two across from her. “If we can find a way to keep Locus under control, he could be a very useful asset. And Fox has already proven willing to try to work with him. So I think, at the very least, it might be worth trying to pair them together.”

“I think that’s a good call,” Wash said after a moment, much to Kimball’s surprise.

“I...think it’s risky,” Carolina said slowly. “But it could work if done correctly.”

Kimball watched them for a moment, then nodded. “I’m going to sit on this for the next few days before we talk about it again. In the meantime, I want the two of you to keep an eye on both of them. The more information we have, the easier it’ll be to make a choice. I also need the two of you to keep this quiet. I don’t like having to do this, but for the sake of not causing a panic, it’s best that we keep this amongst ourselves until a decision is made. For now, you’re both dismissed.”

Both Wash and Carolina turned to leave.

“And Wash?”

Wash froze and looked back at her.

“Get that shoulder checked out,” Kimball said with a sigh.

Wash gave her a nod, and she could have sworn there was the ghost of a chuckle in his voice when he said, “copy that.”

 

 


 

 

“How’s the arm?” Wash asked when he ran into Matthews in the hallway on the way to the med bay. After speaking to Kimball, he had gone down to the motor pool to see if he could help in any way instead of attending to his shoulder. It wasn’t that bad of an injury anyways, and he needed something to do after the earlier events of today. Anything to keep his hands busy and his mind occupied. Grif had mentioned the grenade Matthews had been hurt by while he was down there before shooing him away when he noticed his injury. It was good to see that he was okay.

“Fixed!” Matthews exclaimed. “It went way faster than I was expecting!”

Wash tilted his head slightly. Matthews had always had a way of being a tad over-excited about things, which sometimes led to exaggeration. “I guess the damage wasn’t as bad as it looked.”

“That’s the thing, though,” Matthews exclaimed, realizing he was blocking hallway traffic as a soldier brushed past him, and stepped off to the side where Wash was. “It was bad. But Fox put everything back together in an hour!”

Under his helmet, Wash blinked in surprise. It seemed Fox was already putting her skills to good use. “Well, I’m glad you’re alright,” he said. “Grif was looking for you in the motor pool, by the way,” he added.

“I figured,” Matthews sighed. “Him and Lopez are probably at each other’s throats by now.”

“Probably,” Wash said, but didn’t have the energy to sound amused.

“I just hope that they don’t kill each other before they finish their jobs. They’ve got a lot of work to do over the next few days fixing up those Warthogs and Pelicans,” Matthews continued. He was silent for a moment, then said, “I should go make sure Lopez isn’t trying to strangle Grif again. See you later, Wash!”

Wash watched as Matthews ducked his head and walked away. “Yeah,” he muttered, “a lot of work.” With a sigh, he shook his head and continued down the hall. He needed to get this shoulder checked out before anyone else yelled at him for it.

 


 

Tucker stared up at the ceiling of the med bay waiting room, watching the fluorescent lights through half-lidded eyes. He had run into Wash on his way out, and despite the other man’s insistence to do otherwise, had decided to sit and wait for him. Someone had to make sure the guy didn’t immediately run off and do something that would agitate his injuries further.

With a sigh, Tucker propped his elbow against the armrest of the seat he was in and cupped his cheek in his hand, opting to close his eyes for a little bit. He had nearly dozed off when the sound of approaching footsteps roused him, and he looked over blearily to see Wash step into the waiting room. Yawning, Tucker straightened up and stretched before standing and waiting for Wash to reach him.

“I told you not to wait for me,” Wash said when he stopped in front of Tucker, helmet tucked under one arm, and an expression that was more tired than annoyed on his face.

I wanted to make sure you were okay, Tucker thought, then froze when Wash’s expression changed to surprise, and realized that he had totally just said that out loud.

Fuck.

“It...was just a scratch, Tucker,” Wash said, an awkward, hesitant smile forming on his face.

“Uh. Well. I know. I just--You sort of...went on a mission right after the fight? And I didn’t know if it got worse?” Great save. A-plus. You’re just the king of conversation today. Tucker forced a crooked smile onto his face that he hoped didn’t look as much like a grimace as it felt.

Wash stared at him like-- like he wasn’t sure how to process the fucking trainwreck he was staring at. “Well...I appreciate the concern. But your time would have been much better spent helping out.”

Tucker’s smile faded and he glanced guiltily away. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I was gonna head there the minute you came out, anyways. So…” he aimed a finger in the direction of the medbay exit, “I’m gonna go…”

“Right behind you,” Wash said, and put his helmet on.

Tucker was midway through turning when he froze and looked back at Wash. “Dude, you just finished getting stitches. Like fuck you’re coming with me.”

“Tucker, I’m not going to sit around when there’s work to be done. The injury wasn’t that bad to begin with. I can handle it,” Wash said firmly.

Tucker scrunched up his face a bit at that, then huffed out, “just be fucking careful, okay?”

And there was a wry note in Wash’s voice when he brushed past and said, “you don’t need to worry about me, Captain Tucker. I’ll be fine.”

Tucker just sighed, shoved on his helmet, and followed him out.

The rest of the day was spent picking up odd jobs around headquarters to help out. Tucker found himself nagging Wash several times about his shoulder, and when Carolina joined them, she did the same. At least Wash listened to her.

Kinda.

By the time they received word that they were relieved of duty for the evening, Tucker barely had any energy to spare. So when Wash suggested that they go for a quick walk around the perimeter, Tucker had half a mind to dig his heels in and head to quarters instead.

But it wasn’t like he could just leave Wash to venture out at night, right after they’d been attacked by space pirates. So he went with him, gun gripped tightly in his hands, eyes darting around to catch any pirates that might still be around, focusing on every step so his feet didn’t drag on the trail.

And when they made it to the top of the cliff overlooking headquarters, Wash stopped, and Tucker fell into place next to him without a second thought.

Wash was quiet for a while, looking down at the valley. And Tucker followed his gaze, eyes falling on the soldiers milling about below, their forms illuminated by the portable spotlights that had been brought out when the sun had set. The storm that had been brewing around the same time the pirates had attacked had passed several hours ago, and now the air was thick and humid. Back home, this sort of weather would have prompted a symphony of insects chirping late into the night. But this wasn’t home. And the war had torn apart the jungle in such a way that hearing any sort of animal was a rare occurrence.

Tucker hated it. The distant chirping of insects outside his window had always been a comfort to him when he’d awoken late at night in a cold sweat back at Valhalla. Listening to them had always grounded him, no matter what sort of nightmare he had. But here, there was only silence. And when he woke with the words “Freckles, shake! ” echoing in his head, there was nothing to pull him back.

Tucker looked over at Wash, who hadn’t moved, and wondered if he felt the same way. It was no secret that the man had his fair share of demons that kept him awake. The bags under his eyes were a testament to that. But if the lack of natural sounds on Chorus ever bothered him, Wash had kept it to himself.

“There’s something I want you to know, but I need you to promise not to repeat it to anyone else,” Wash said suddenly, interrupting Tucker’s thoughts.

“What is it?” Tucker asked, allowing a hint of suspicion to creep into his voice. It had to be serious if Wash wanted it to stay a secret.

“After what happened today, Kimball is thinking about letting Fox work with Locus. Carolina and I have been asked to keep an eye on her for the next few days to make sure she’s fit for the job,” Wash said, looking over at Tucker.

Tucker felt his mouth dry up. Then he shook it off and said, “okay, you got me. I almost fell for that,” in a forced joking tone.

“I was being serious,” Wash said flatly.

Tucker stared. “Okay, wait, hold on,” he said, stepping back and shaking his head. “It’s only been a few days . How the hell did Fox convince Kimball to suddenly start treating Locus like he’s one of the good guys?!”

“Fox had nothing to do with this,” Wash replied. “From what I can tell, Kimball got the idea after watching the two of them fight together.”

Under his helmet, Tucker clenched his jaw. “Wash, we have to tell the others about this.”

Wash nodded. “I’m going to talk to Carolina and see how she wants to approach the situation. The only reason I’m telling you now is because I need you to be on board with this.”

Tucker hissed out a breath between his teeth. “Look, man, you know I got your back, but after what he did to you--”

“I know , Tucker,” Wash said, with some exasperation in his voice. “And I’m going to discuss it with Fox once everything’s settled down a little bit.”

“I just think this is a really bad idea,” Tucker said, with less force than he would have liked. “I mean, the guy tried to kill everyone on this planet. Just because he turned on Felix, doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a good person.”

“I never said he was.”

“Then what--!” Tucker cut off and took a deep breath, then started again in a more even tone. “Then what do you see in him that makes you wanna go along with this?”

Wash didn’t answer, and instead looked away and was silent for some time before he spoke again. “When I was with the Meta, Maine was still in there. Sometimes there would be...flickers of him. Times when his personality showed through. And I...I never encouraged him to fight back, to try to force his way back for good.”

Tucker could have sworn there was a slight wobble in Wash’s voice when he said that.

“There isn’t a day I don’t regret that,” Wash continued. “I don’t know if I could have saved him, but I should have tried. But I didn’t. There was a human being still in there, and I turned my back on him.”

Tucker looked away, at a loss for words. This was new information to him. And even though he couldn’t quite see the connection to the previous topic, the fact that Wash was confiding in him about something so personal put a sensation in Tucker’s chest that he couldn’t quite describe. “I don’t get it,” he said finally, looking back at Wash. “What does this have anything to do with Locus?”

Wash turned to him, head tilted slightly, and Tucker could imagine the thoughtful look he was giving him under his helmet. “During the fight at The Purge, and even a bit before then, I tried to appeal to his more...human side. I like to think it had some sort of effect on him. I don’t know if he would have turned on Felix, or even tried to help us on Nalome if it hadn’t.” Wash looked away again, back over the valley. “I...understand him. At least a little bit. And I think that if he’s pushed to fight back against what he was , that maybe that side of him-- the more human side --might win.” Wash tilted his head down slightly. “But we’re not the right people to push him like that. At least, I don’t think we are. Sure, we can help, but at the end of the day, we were once enemies, and it’ll take time for all of us to adjust.”

“That’s why you want to go along with letting Fox work with him,” Tucker said in sudden realization. And it made sense. She hadn’t known him beforehand. Her view of him was completely unbiased. Not only that, but she seemed willing to try to help him. And the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like it could work. Sure, Fox had pushed Kimball into setting Locus loose on the pirates, but once the two of them were out there, they had worked together far better than Tucker ever could have expected. But that didn’t stop him from worrying. Locus’ previous hostility, and his past fixation on Wash were both considerably unnerving. “Are...are you okay with this?” Tucker asked hesitantly.

And Wash reached a hand up and rubbed the back of his neck-- an action Tucker had come to associate with the man being under significant stress. “I’m not sure.” He let his hand drop with a sigh. “I honestly don’t think Locus is a threat to us anymore. And the best way to know that for sure is to move forward with what Kimball has in mind.”

Tucker wondered if Wash really believed that, or if he was just saying what he felt needed to be said. “We can always throw the fucker back in a cell, right?” he asked.

Wash looked back at him. “Right.”

Tucker forced a smile that he knew Wash couldn’t see onto his face. “Then I guess it could work.”

Wash was silent for a while, then nodded. “Thank you, Tucker.”

“Dude.”

“What?”

“Are you getting sappy with me?”

“Tucker!”

Tucker laughed, grateful that the tension in the air was finally beginning to defuse. “I’m kidding. Look, just--” he shook his head, then grew serious. “We need to tell the others, okay? Like it’s great that you told me and all, and I know that Caboose, and Donut, and probably Sarge won’t give a fuck about what happens, but Simmons and Grif will lose their shit.”

“Tucker, I promise I’ll tell them. Tomorrow,” Wash said. “But right now, we should head back. It’s getting late, and we could both use some rest.”

“Lead the way,” Tucker said, recalling what Wash had said to him previously at the medbay.

Wash just let out a well-humored sigh and shook his head, then brushed past him and started down the trail. Tucker stole one last look out at the valley, then jogged to catch up with him.

 


 

Simmons yawned and leaned backwards, extending his arms over his head in a stretch and pulling a face as he did so. It felt good to stand after being hunched over broken and damaged equipment all day. He’d been stuck in the motor pool for most of the morning, working alongside Grif and Lopez to fix up some of the Warthogs that had taken heat during yesterday’s fight.

He looked back at the engine he had been fixing, then decided to take a break instead of diving back into it. His back hurt enough anyways, and leaning back over the workbench it was on would only make it worse if he didn’t give himself some time off. So he opted for a lap around the motor pool, figuring he could check in on everyone else while he did so.

His lieutenant, McAllister, was working with Matthews on another Warthog. Matthews was underneath the vehicle, while McAllister had the hood popped. From the sound of it, as Simmons got closer, McAllister was attempting to talk Matthews through whatever he was working on.

“Where’d you say that was?” Matthews asked.

McAllister sighed. “It’s next to the fuel filter,” she replied, elbows-deep under the Warthog’s hood.

“Is that the big chunky thing?”

McAllister pulled her hands out of the Warthog and leaned over towards where Matthews’ feet were sticking out from under the vehicle. “Maybe we should just let Captain Grif take a look at this one,” she said after a moment, then looked up when she noticed Simmons. “Oh, hello Captain Simmons!” she exclaimed with a wave.

“How’s it coming?” Simmons asked, approaching and stopping near Matthews’ feet.

“Uh, not amazing since I don’t know anything about cars,” Matthews replied, sliding out from under the Warthog. His armor was covered in some sort of black grime. Simmons didn’t want to know what it was.

“Well, I’m pretty sure I saw diagrams around here somewhere ,” Simmons replied, stepping back when Matthews stood and brushed himself off.

“I tried looking for them,” Matthews said. “Maybe I just missed them.”

“Well, why don’t you two take five, then go looking for them. You’ve been working hard,” Simmons suggested.

Both Matthews and McAllister perked up at that. “Gosh, thanks Captain Simmons!” McAllister chimed.

“I’m gonna go get a snack, you wanna come with?” Matthews asked her.

“Nah, I’m gonna practice my serve. Andersmith challenged me to a match after things settle down,” McAllister replied, heading over to a workbench backed against the wall and grabbed the volleyball that was sitting underneath it.

“Just don’t knock anything important over, or else Lopez might have a fit,” Simmons warned her, walking past.

“Roger that!”

Simmons watched as she made her way to a clear area of the motor pool, looking over when Matthews gave her a wave, then headed out. With a sigh, he continued his lap, giving a nod to Lopez as he passed him. Then he stopped when he realized who was missing, and turned back and asked, “hey Lopez, you seen Grif?”

Probablemente está siendo perezoso,” Lopez replied flatly.

“Over where?” Simmons asked.

“No soy su niñera. No sé.”

“What about babies?”

Lopez let out a world-weary sigh and pointed towards the other side of the motor pool. “Lo vi allí.”

Simmons looked in the direction Lopez was pointing in, then turned back to him and said, “thanks, buddy!”

Te odio.”

Simmons headed towards where Lopez had pointed, picking his way through the maze of shelves and support beams and appliances. He stopped when he heard the distinct sound of a bag being opened. Seriously? He continued forward again, slowly, leaning around the back of the Warthog nearest to him. It was definitely Grif. He had the hood of a Warthog popped, and Simmons could hear him munching on something from where he was. “Grif, you’re not eating chips over a Warthog engine, are you?”

Grif leaned out, helmet off, potato chip grease on his face, and the bag in his hands. “No,” he said.

Simmons sighed and approached him. “You’re going to blow something up!

Grif rolled his eyes and pulled another chip out and stuffing it in his mouth. “No I won’t.”

Simmons let out a frustrated groan and reached for the bag. “You can’t have greasy stuff like that around Warthogs. It’s a fire haza- AUGHGOD!” Simmons’ foot caught on a cable on the floor and he pitched forwards, eyes opening wide in shock when he realized that he hadn’t hit the floor. He stared down at a pair of orange-armored feet for a second, then the puzzle pieces connected and he looked up at Grif, who had caught him.

“Dude.”

Simmons was very grateful that he hadn’t taken his helmet off, otherwise Grif would have seen just how red he turned in that moment. “S-sorry.”

“Whatever, man. Get your feet under you. I’m not gonna hold you up all day.”

Simmons realized that he was, in fact, still being held up by Grif, and turned almost as red as his armor. He was very very grateful that he hadn’t taken his helmet off. He stumbled backwards away from Grif, then dusted himself off. “You got chip grease all over me!” he exclaimed.

Grif shrugged. “I could have just let you fall.”

Simmons let out a huffy breath and grabbed a rag hanging out of a toolbox on a nearby shelf. Muttering under his breath about chips and fire hazards and loose cables, he did his best to wipe off the grease, giving up when he only smeared it, and what looked like oil that was on the cloth, across his chest plate. Frustrated, he tossed the rag back on the shelf and looked back at Grif, who had an amused grin stretched across his face. “That’s not funny.”

“It’s pretty funny.”

“Are you trying to get in trouble?”

“Are you gonna tattle on me?”

“I-- oh! ” Simmons growled. “Just-- fuck it. Whatever!” He looked away and took a deep breath. That’s right. Count to ten. No need to get any more worked up. “What have you been up to?” he asked once he was sure he had his emotions back in check.

“Had to replace like, half of the shit under this thing’s hood,” Grif replied, knocking a fist against the frame of the Warthog, that same smile still on his face. “Why?”

“Just checking in,” Simmons replied.

“Well, do you need something?”

“No-- I was just-- I needed a break, that’s all.”

Grif’s grin grew wider. “I guess that makes you more of a slacker than I am.”

“My back hurt, I’ve been hunched over machinery all day,” Simmons replied.

Grif’s smile faded, and he just nodded. And Simmons couldn’t help but feel like there was something wrong. “Well, you probably earned the break then,” Grif said, turning back to the Warthog. “ I still have a ways to go with this piece of shit. Some jackass drove it into a tree. If we weren’t short enough on vehicles, I’d say it’s totaled.”

And there was something not quite right about his tone. And Simmons wasn’t sure what it was, but he knew he didn’t like it. “Uh...are you...okay?”

Grif looked back at him sharply. “What? No. I’m fine.” He turned his head away and scratched his temple. “It’s just a lot of work.”

“Do you...wanna talk about it?”

Grif sighed. “We both still have work to do. The sooner it gets done, the sooner I can grab some food and sleep.”

“Well...okay then,” Simmons said, and stood in uncomfortable silence for a moment before he realized that the conversation was over. Head down, he slunk back to his work station and pulled off his helmet with a sigh. Everything was so tense now. After the fight on The Staff of Charon, everyone had expected the war to be over. But the rabbit hole went deeper than they had ever imagined, and everyone was reacting differently to it. So it made sense that Grif’s mood might be a little off, right?

Simmons stared down at the visor of his helmet, then set it down on the workbench. He ran a hand through his hair, then grabbed his tools and got back to work on the engine. He kept his head down for the next few hours, only looking up once when he heard Matthews and McAllister bickering about something. He was nearly finished when he heard a set of footsteps headed towards him. Figuring that it was just someone looking for a tool off of one of the shelves, he kept his head down.

“We need to talk.”

He looked up when Grif dropped a toolbox on the workbench he was at and leaned against the wall. He froze for a moment, the words setting off a thousand alarms in his head. Then he realized that Grif had probably decided to open up about what was bothering him earlier, took a deep breath and said, “is something wrong?”

Grif scratched his cheek with the hand that wasn’t holding his helmet and looked away. “It’s about the fight yesterday.”

Oh. “Uh, okay. What about it?” Simmons asked, more confused than anxious now.

“Kimball had you help her stop a radio jammer.”

“Yeah?”

Grif looked away, an unreadable expression on his face. “I heard from Bitters what happened.”

Simmons frowned. “Grif, are you...upset? I-I don’t understand--”

Grif cut him off with a sigh and set his helmet down next to where Simmons had put his on the workbench. “One of the pirates tried to kill Kimball.”

“Yeah. She’s kind of the boss around here. It makes sense,” Simmons replied, still horribly confused.

“I just don’t like how it went,” Grif said unhappily. “What if they hadn’t targeted her?”

“Then she wouldn’t have needed a trip to Doctor Grey?” Simmons suggested.

Grif’s brows knit together in a frown. “That’s not what I meant.”

And Simmons was quiet for a moment, thinking hard about what it could be that Grif was trying to say. Then it hit him. “You’re worried about me, aren’t you?”

Grif rubbed the back of his head and stared at the floor. “You could have been hurt,” he mumbled.

Simmons blinked and straightened up. “I wasn’t though. They didn’t care about me. I was just the guy working on the radio jammer. Kimball and Bitters were the ones attacking the pirates.”

Grif let out a sigh. “It’s so stupid,” he said, shaking his head. Simmons wondered exactly what he was referring to.

“We all thought this whole thing was over,” Simmons said, trying to be helpful.

“Serves us right,” Grif huffed. “Why the fuck would any of us think we’d get let off so easily?”

Simmons wished he had an answer for that. But instead he just shrugged and looked away. “I mean, at least we’re all still together, right?”

“No we’re not. Not all of us.”

And Simmons felt a stab in his chest, because Grif had to be thinking of Church, or his sister, or maybe even Tex. And he realized that Grif hadn’t really talked much about what had happened on The Staff of Charon. And that, sure, Church and Grif hadn’t really ever gotten along , but he’d always been around. And that he had no idea how Grif actually felt about the whole thing. And somehow, that made him feel absolutely terrible.

“I just...want you to be careful. All of you. Especially after yesterday...and what happened on Nalome. I just have a bad feeling,” Grif said, his face screwing up slightly, like he was trying to hide whatever he was feeling. “We already lost Church. I’m not burying anymore friends.”

Simmons had half a mind to take his hand, to do something . Because Grif had that look on his face again; the one he always had when he was trying to look like he had it together. It was the same face he’d worn when he found out that his sister had been put on Blue team. Simmons hated that face. And so he reached for Grif’s hand, but froze when Grif pulled back and crossed his arms.

With a sigh, Simmons let his hand drop and looked away. “I-I’ll be more careful. Okay? At least I’ll try to.”

Grif narrowed his eyes, still not looking at him, and nodded.

Simmons let the silence stretch between the two of them for a moment, then raised a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. “Um, I should probably finish up with this thing,” he said, nodding at the engine on the workbench.

Grif looked back at him, appearing almost startled to be addressed. “Well,” he began uncomfortably, “I finished up with that other Warthog. Lopez is gonna fix the shell later. So I’m gonna go grab some food.” He picked up his helmet and turned. “I’ll be seeing you.”

Simmons stared after him, a knot forming in his stomach. “Yeah…” He watched him step out of the motor pool, then turned back to the engine. He stared at it for a moment, all drive to work on it vanished. “Fuck,” he sighed, rubbing his forehead. He was about to force himself back into it when he heard McAllister and Matthews bickering again. Frowning, he looked over in their direction, listening in on their conversation.

“Buddy, my aim is way better than Palomo’s,” McAllister said, closing the hood of the Warthog her and Matthews had been working on. “There’s no way Andersmith is gonna beat me.”

“Oh yeah?” Matthews said, “then hit that!” He whirled and pointed at an empty can of petroleum sitting on the hood of one of the Warthogs.

“Pft, that’s easy!” McAllister exclaimed, holding up her volleyball smugly. “I’ll take that out, first try.”

“Bet you won’t!”

“Bet I will!”

“Bet you won’t, and you’ll wreck a bunch of shit!”

“Well guess who’s about to get served!” McAllister shot back, then turned, threw the ball up into the air, and served it missing the petroleum can entirely and hurtling right at Fox’s face as she walked into the motor pool.

Simmons held his breath, watching as Fox’s hands flew up and caught the ball before it hit her, then turned towards the direction it had come from.

McAllister stood stock still like a deer in the headlights, hands curled into fists at her sides and shoulders hunched in guilty anticipation. “Sorry!” she squeaked out.

“I take it this belongs to you?” Fox asked, walking over to her and holding the ball out to her.

McAllister practically snatched it from her hands and tucked it under her arm like she was trying to hide the evidence. “I was aiming for the...can,” she said lamely.

Simmons dropped his face into the palm of his hand. At least it didn’t seem like Fox was upset.

“Well, Volleyball, honey, you missed,” Fox replied.

“Um, you’re talking to...my ball?” McAllister asked, tilting her head to one side.

“No, that’s your new nickname. Consider it retribution for almost hitting me in the face,” Fox said with a smile in her voice.

Simmons couldn’t help but grin at that, and he looked over when he heard Matthews burst out laughing. It was certainly a fitting nickname, to say the least.

McAllister’s shoulders sank, and she let out a huff. “I guess it could be worse.

“Oh, this is a curse that will haunt you forever, young one,” Fox said sagely, patting her on the shoulder. “Soon, this will be the only name anyone knows you by,” then she turned and looked towards Matthews. “Now you need to come with me. Doctor Grey wants to run some tests on that arm of yours.”

“But you fixed it!” Matthews protested.

“Honey, I am very much aware, but if we don’t run these tests, it could malfunction and--” she gasped and held a hand comically over where her mouth would be under her helmet, then leaned in close and stage-whispered, “explode.”

Matthews stole a look back at Simmons for help.

Simmons just shrugged. “This is Grey we’re talking about,” he reminded.

Matthews’ spine went rigid and he looked back towards Fox. “Okay, uh, does she need me right now?”

“In the next ten minutes, preferably. It was sort of out of the blue. Hence why I’m running errands for her,” Fox said, with a hint of what might have been annoyance edging her voice.

“W-well then I shouldn’t keep her waiting!” Matthews exclaimed, and darted for the exit, calling back, “I’ll see you later, Volleyball!”

Simmons bit his lip to keep from smiling when McAllister let out a frustrated growl at that. It was almost enough to make him feel better. Almost.

“You good?”

He froze and looked over when he saw Fox looking at him. “Uh, y-yeah. Yeah, I’m fine,” he stammered out, wondering what the giveaway was.

Fox tilted her head slightly, like she could tell he was lying, then said, “if you say so,” then turned and followed Matthews out.

Simmons watched her go, then turned back to McAllister, the humor fading from him. He still had a lot to do. At least his lieutenant had stuck around. A small smile working its way onto his face, he said, “hey Volleyball, come on. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

McAllister turned towards him and whined, “Captain Simmons, not you too!

And that made Simmons laugh. “It’s fitting,” he said defensively. Then, “are you done with that Warthog?”

McAllister looked back at the Warthog her and Matthews had been working on. “Yeah,” she said, sounding defeated.

“Then why don’t you help me with this engine. I’m almost finished, but I’ll need an extra set of hands putting it back,” Simmons suggested.

“Copy that,” McAllister sighed, setting her volleyball on the ground by the Warthog’s tire and heading over to Simmons’ workspace.

Simmons gave her a nod, then set back to work, finally finding the drive to finish. The knot of anxiety in his stomach still wasn’t gone, but with any luck, being able to fix something would at least take his mind off of everything.

He really hoped Grif was okay.

 


 

Wash paced back and forth inside of the hangar. The space was, thankfully, empty, as none of the aircrafts had actually been brought out or damaged during yesterday’s fight. A good thing, considering that Wash needed the room to think.

He’d promised Tucker that he would tell the other Reds and Blues about what was going on behind the scenes. He’d promised. But Kimball had told him not to, and he wasn’t sure what sort of fire he’d be facing if he did. Not that he didn’t think he could handle it. He’d certainly had worse in the past. But it was the fact that she wanted it kept secret at all that worried him some.

There was no doubt that Kimball’s faith had been shaken when Felix had betrayed her. But Wash could tell that she was still trying to believe in everyone around her. Still, as much as he didn’t want to be involved in any of the mess that was happening around him at the moment, he still hated the idea that he could be damaging her ability to trust him.

It was a consequence he would have to live with, he figured. Because truth be told, the Reds and Blues deserved to know what happened next. And with things as tense as they were now, Wash didn’t want to risk hurting his teammates. They were family. They came first.

So he took a deep breath and reached out to Carolina over a private channel. “Carolina, could you meet me in the hangar? There’s something we need to talk about.”

“On my way,” came Carolina’s voice over comms.

And here we go . Wash barely had time to get settled before Carolina walked into the hangar, taking him by surprise. “That was fast,” he said.

“I was passing by. Is something wrong?” Carolina asked, stopping next to him and putting a hand on her hip.

“I…” Wash trailed off and thought for a moment, then sucked in a breath and said. “We need to tell the others what Kimball told us.”

Carolina stared at him for a moment, and he could feel the look she was giving him past her visor. “She told us to keep it quiet.

“I know . But these are our teammates we’re talking about. We can’t keep something like this from them!” Wash exclaimed. “I already talked to Tucker yesterday.”

“Wash.” And there was that ‘dude how could you?’ voice that Carolina used whenever she was disappointed in someone. It had been a while since she’d used it on him. Wash almost forgot what it felt like.

“I know, Carolina. But it’ll be better for all of us if they’re on board with the idea already.”

Carolina sighed and looked away. “She’s not going to like this.”

“I’ll talk to her afterwards. It was my idea anyways,” Wash said.

“You don’t get it. She was relying on us.”

Under his helmet, Wash frowned. “I know. But I’m not going behind our teammates’ backs. And neither should you, boss.”

Carolina tilted her head at him, and for a moment, Wash got an image of the glare she used to give him and the others with the helmet she had back before the upgrade. Then she let out a defeated sigh and said, “I didn’t like it either.”

“Sorry?” Wash asked, confused.

“That she wanted us to keep it quiet,” Carolina continued. “I’ve been meaning to talk to her about it, but I haven’t found the time. We’ve both been too busy.”

Wash blinked, relaxing a little. “Well...I’m...glad that you’re on board with this.” When Carolina had nothing to add, he opted to reach out over a private channel to his teammates.

“It’s not the right thing to do,” Carolina said when he had finished, with a sigh, “but neither is keeping it from the Reds and Blues. There aren’t any winners here.”

Wash was about to reply when he heard the sound of voices echoing in the hall. A moment later, Sarge, Donut, Caboose, and Tucker filed in, gathering around him and Carolina. Wash caught Tucker’s gaze, and the latter gave him a nod.  

“Well hey Carolina! You got here fast! ” Donut observed.

“I was already here,” Carolina replied.

“Hmph, tryin’ to one-up us,” Sarge mumbled.

“Agent Washington! Did you see all of the rocks I moved!?” Caboose exclaimed.

“Er...no, Caboose. I didn’t. Sorry,” Wash said, wondering if Caboose was referencing the work he had done clearing rubble earlier.

“That’s okay. I can show you later!” Caboose said cheerfully.

“SORRY I’M LATE THERE WAS AN ENGINE THING!”

Wash turned back towards the entrance to the hangar, brows raised under his helmet, when he heard Simmons’ voice. The latter jogged across the space and stopped next to Sarge, panting.  

“It’s fine, Simmons,” Wash replied. “Have you seen Grif?”

“He was getting food,” Simmons replied. There was something in his tone that was a little concerning, but Wash didn’t dwell on it.

“I’ll radio him,” Carolina volunteered, then turned away and put her hand to the side of her helmet.

She was halfway through her transmission when a voice called out across the hangar, “I’m right here, take a chill pill!”

Wash looked back and watched as Grif made his way towards them at a casual pace, his helmet tucked under one arm, and his free hand holding a burrito. He stopped next to Donut and gave him a nod.

“All we’re missing is Lopez,” Carolina reported.

“Yeah, I asked if he was coming and he just flipped me off,” Simmons replied.

Wash sighed. It would have to do. He looked over at Carolina, and she gave him a nod. “Before we get started, I need you all to understand that none of what we’re about to tell you can be repeated to anyone ,” Wash began, turning back to the Reds and Blues. He stopped when Donut raised his hand. “Yes, Donut?”

“Are you going to cut our hands off if we do?” Donut asked.

“Wh- no! Look, this-- this is serious, okay?”

“How serious?” Sarge asked.

“Very serious,” Carolina replied, her voice firm.

Wash gave her a grateful look before continuing. “After the fight yesterday, Kimball, Carolina, and I discussed the possibility of pairing Fox with Locus and having her work with him.”

Grif,who had taken a bite of his burrito before Wash started speaking again, doubled over coughing into his arm. Donut patted him on the back, saying “easy, buddy.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty serious,” Sarge said with a nod.

“Does that mean he’s gonna help us?” Caboose asked.

“We’re not really sure. Right now, we’ve been asked to keep an eye on Fox to make sure that she’s capable of handling him,” Wash replied.

“Why the fuck weren’t we told about this too? Why keep it a secret?” Simmons asked.

“Kimball didn’t want to cause a panic,” Carolina told him. “She was worried that with tensions the way they are right now, someone might try something.”

“You’re awful calm about this,” Grif said in between coughs, turning to Tucker.

Tucker didn’t reply and instead looked to Wash for help.

“I told Tucker about all of this last night,” Wash replied.

“Oh, so we get the sloppy seconds,” Grif growled.

“I-- no. Grif, that’s not-- I had to make sure this was the right choice. Especially considering that it goes against direct orders from Kimball,” Wash said.

Grif gave him an unhappy look, but didn’t say anything else.

“The reason we’re telling you this now is because we need you to have an open mind about this. It’s no secret that everyone around here looks up to all of us. Our reactions will determine how they react. And based off of what Kimball told us, she needs all of you to be okay with whatever happens next,” Carolina said.

“Well, it’s not like he didn’t help us kill an evil AI or punch space pirates in the face,” Sarge reasoned with a shrug. “I’d say it’s worth a shot.”

“And we can always throw him back in jail,” Tucker added.

“Yeah, but first we have to wait until he kills one of us, right?” Grif asked bitterly.

“I’m not really sure exactly what sort of boundaries Kimball plans to put in place,” Wash admitted, “but I doubt that they’ll be that flexible. Not to mention that we all know what Fox is capable of. I don’t think that Locus would try anything when she’s around.”

Grif opened his mouth to argue, but then shut it and looked away. “Yeah, okay. Still,” he muttered.

“What sort of stuff would they be doing?” Tucker asked. “You didn’t really say much last night.”

“We don’t really know, ourselves,” Carolina replied. “It’ll likely be similar to what we saw yesterday, combined with rehabilitation efforts.”

“Do you think it’ll work?” Simmons asked.

Wash exchanged a look with Carolina, then looked back at the Reds and Blues. “I do.”

“Well, that settles it for me. I’m down,” Sarge declared.

“So am I!” Donut exclaimed.

“Me too!” Caboose said.

“We can always kick his ass if something goes wrong,” Tucker added.

“I--” Simmons looked over at Grif, who frowned. “As long as you think it’ll work...I don’t see what could go wrong.”

Grif let out a frustrated sigh, looking around and realizing that the spotlight was on him. “Fuck,” he said after a moment. “He helped save our asses twice now. So...whatever. Fine. But if he fucks something or someone up, he’s history.”

Wash nodded, satisfied with the response, then looked over at Carolina. “Boss?”

“It’s a good call” she replied. “But like we said before, we can’t let anyone know about this, understand?”

Sarge gave her a snappy salute. “Yes ma’am!”

“When are we going to find out if Fox and Locus are getting paired?” Donut asked.

“Soon,” Wash promised.

“How soon?” Caboose asked.

“I don’t know, Caboose. But...it won’t be too long. Just be patient,” Wash replied.

“Okay,” Caboose said, sounding unsatisfied.

“Now, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Carolina said, looking around at the others. “And if this takes any longer, we’ll be missed. So let’s get back to work. If any of you still want to talk about this, we can meet later, but for now, let’s move. And don’t talk about this in front of anyone who wasn’t here.”

Wash watched as his teammates dispersed, talking amongst themselves. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Carolina looking at him. He turned towards her, curious.

“We need to go talk to Kimball,” she said.

Wash sighed and looked away. “Yeah,” he said. “What do you think she’ll say?”

“She’ll be disappointed, but she’ll understand,” Carolina replied. Wash looked back at her, startled, when he felt her hand on his shoulder. “We’re in this together,” she said.

Wash gave her a grateful nod,  then looked on as she dropped her hand and headed for the hangar exit.

“Come on,” she said over her shoulder. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll get it over with.”

Wash couldn’t argue with that. So he followed her.

 


 

“Honestly, it was kind of exciting to find out that there are a handful of people here with advanced biotics installed. Matthews told me that he got his after getting shot by a Mantis, which was probably really awful when it happened, but I can tell he’s gotten mostly used to the arm since then, and--” Fox cut off and turned her head when one of the guards who had been standing watch behind her sighed, and he and his companion started to walk away. “Where are you two going?” she asked.

Locus wondered the same thing. Fox had made a point of coming down and talking to him at the end of every day, which he had to admit, he appreciated. But even with the consistency, and the fact that it was unlikely that she would try something as foolish as attempting to break him out, the guards always stuck around.

“General Kimball gave us permission to take a break when you come down from now on,” one of the guards said back over his shoulder, looking down at where Fox was seated cross-legged on the floor.

“Huh,” Fox replied, sounding genuinely surprised. “Ain’t that something? Well enjoy your break, I guess.”

Locus kept his eyes on the guards until they had stepped out of his range of view from inside his cell. Once they were gone, he looked back at Fox, and waited until she turned her head back towards him.

“I guess after yesterday, Kimball finally decided we’d both earned a bit more trust,” Fox said. Then she chuckled and shook her head. “Ah well, we should take what we can get.” And then, reached up and cupped her hands around the sides of her helmet, and as the airtight seal around her neck hissed, Locus suddenly remembered that he had no idea what she actually looked like. He watched with curiosity as she set her helmet on the floor beside her and then pulled the white elastic headband that held back her dark hair off. She shook her head, and fluffed her hair a bit, pulling her bangs away from her face. “Yeesh. I’ve got helmet hair,” she said, scrunching up her nose, which Locus noticed had a large scar horizontally across it. Likely something she had gotten during the Great War, but he wasn’t about to ask.

“You wanna know something funny?” Fox asked, looking at him with eyes that were….startlingly blue. Not something Locus had expected, given her heavily Asian features. He wondered if they were biotics.

“What?” he asked carefully.

“When I first arrived on Nalome I had bubblegum pink hair. It looked so fucking ridiculous. I loved it though.” Fox gave him a big toothy grin. “You ever dye your hair?”

“No.”

“Hm,” Fox shrugged, closing her eyes for a moment as she did so, and Locus caught sight of a scar across her left eyelid. “It’s not great for you, honestly. But I love color, and natural hair gets so boring after a while, you know? I think I’m gonna see if I can dig up some dyes somewhere. I’m thinking auburn or ginger this time. I’ve always wondered what I’d look like as a redhead,” she said thoughtfully, turning her head away and tapping her chin. Then she looked back at him and said, “why don’t you take your helmet off? Give your eyes a break? You have that thing on every time I come down here. It’s not good for you, y’know?”

“No.” There was absolutely no way he was doing that.

“Dude. It’s just me ,” Fox said. “And it’s not like I’ve never seen your face before. I mean, I took your helmet off to make sure you didn’t have a broken fucking skull after you crashed.”

Locus figured as much, but it still didn’t change his stance on the matter.

Fox narrowed her eyes at him in thought, then leaned back with a mischievous grin and said, “I’ll tell you how I got your file.”

And Locus wasn’t sure what was more appalling, the fact that she was baiting him, or the fact that it was working. He really wanted to know how she managed to get a hold of that file. Especially if it contained all the information she had hinted at. He needed to know what she knew. So he sucked in a deep breath and gritted out, “fine.”

And Fox’s grin grew triumphant and a little smug.

“But if you don’t keep your word…”

“Dude, I will! ” Fox exclaimed. “I don’t break promises. Cross my heart!” She drew an ‘X’ over her heart, then looked at him expectantly.

Locus sighed. Might as well get it over with. He reached up and pulled his helmet off, setting it on the floor next to where he was seated.

And Fox just stared at him for a minute before saying, “you have really gorgeous eyes, you know that?”

Locus reached for his helmet.

Fox’s face immediately broke into a smile that was obviously holding back laughter. “Aw, no, no!” she exclaimed, waving her hands like she could stop him somehow, then finally giving into laughter.

Locus glared at her, but set his helmet back down.

She must have noticed, because she calmed down shortly after, swiping tears out of her eyes. “I’m sorry. That was just the cutest fucking thing-- is that how you normally react when you get a compliment?”

Locus didn’t answer. He knew he’d just say something stupid.

“Okay, alright, alright. I see you trying to burn a hole through me with that look,” Fox said. “So the file,” she began. “I have a friend who works for...do you know what Emblem is?”

Locus narrowed his eyes. He’d heard that name before, but couldn’t quite put his finger one what it was. “No.”

“Okay, so it’s the company that created an AI that basically overlooks the entire U.N.S.C. database. It was created more or less to guard the files of every single person operating within the U.N.S.C., living on a colony planet (Earth included), or has otherwise been registered into the system,” Fox explained.

Locus blinked. “It has information on every living human?” He knew the U.N.S.C. database was huge, but he had always assumed that it only contained information on people who served under them.

“Every living person. Aliens included,” Fox corrected. “So, as I was saying, I have a friend who works for Emblem, who is mutual friends with another friend of mine who just so happens to have the hacking capabilities of a brand new, next gen, quantum-computer. So that friend, Charlie-- that’s his name. You don’t know him and your odds of meeting him are... ehh . So, whatever. Charlie got a call from me that I relayed through a channel I hijacked when The Staff of Charon was a smoking heap of scrap metal trying to make its way out of this star system. And I was like, ‘hey, what the fuck is going on down on Chorus? Shit’s on fire!’ And he goes ‘yo lemme do some Matrix hacking shit with the information that you gave me!’ And basically cross-referenced a bunch of shit that I told him (because you bet I was listening in on the fuckin’ dumpster fire that was Hargrove’s ship) after my Emblem buddy got him a ticket into the system. And then, sha-bang! Got your file.”

Locus was quiet for some time, processing this. Then he looked up at her and asked, “what exactly did you tell Charlie that enabled you to find my file?”

Fox shrugged. “I heard some shit about two knuckleheads who called themselves Locus and Felix. Charlie was able to connect you to some bounty hunting shit back on Earth. I tried to get the file for Felix too, but Charlie didn’t have enough time and had to make it look like he was locked out of the system after bypassing the first level of security and then get the hell out of dodge so no one thought he got anything. Without the proper retinal scan, yours is the only file I’m gonna get.” She looked away. “If I ever get back to Earth, that’ll be a Matsukaze Matter.”

“A what?”

Fox blinked, looking almost startled, like he’d pulled her out of her train of thought. “Hm?”

“You said ‘Matsukaze Matter.’ What is that?” Locus asked, getting the creeping suspicion that something wasn’t quite right.

“Oh... uh. It’s just a saying,” Fox said. Locus had the distinct impression that she wasn’t being completely honest. “Speaking of which, I we never actually talked about the fight yesterday,” she mused, quickly changing the subject, propping her elbow against her knee and cupping her face in her hand. “There was just so much to do . I meant to come down here and check on you though. Sorry I never got to it. How have you been holding up?”

“Fine…” Locus said, narrowing his eyes at her.

“What’s that look for?”

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Fox made a face. “To be fair, I only just met you. There’s a lot I haven’t told you yet.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Look, just-- You’re okay, right? Like I know you weren’t really into the whole idea of killing those space pirates. And although you were a real champ about it and powered through...I was worried.”

Worried about what? “There was nothing to worry about.”

“Well sure there was! You’re still technically recovering from what happened on Nalome, and...I mean...You’ve had it rough, y’know? And I kinda put you in a tough position.” And there was something surprisingly earnest about the look she was giving him.

Locus just sighed and looked away. If he was being honest with himself, he wasn't really sure how he felt. The events of the other day had certainly kept him up the night before. There had been too much killing. And that one pirate-- what was his name --Locus couldn’t get him out of his head. Had he really needed to kill him? Couldn’t he have talked him down? He should have done better. He should have tried harder. That pirate’s death wasn’t necessary. But instead of voicing any of this, he simply looked back at Fox and said, “I’m fine.”

And Fox watched him for a moment, not moving, then said, “you’re a terrible liar, Sam Ortez.”

And Locus couldn’t help but flinch at that, because it had been years since he’d heard that name. And all of a sudden, someone he’d only just met, who he knew nothing about, but clearly knew everything about him, was saying it. He wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he simply fixed Fox in a glare.

“Sorry, bad call?” Fox asked. “Noted. Wasn’t planning on using that name around here anyways. It’s a good name, but I can understand why you’d wanna keep it quiet.”

“It wasn’t a lie.”

“Sorry?”

“I wasn’t lying ,” Locus said.

Fox gave him a half-grin. “I don’t know if you realize this, but you do this thing with your shoulders when you’re not telling the truth.”

Locus stared at her. What?

“Don’t worry, I don’t think most other people would notice it. I’m just...really good at reading body language, I guess?” Fox shrugged. “Point is, I’m here if you wanna talk about stuff. It could be anything. I know you’ve had it rough.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Locus insisted. He was fine. He was used to killing. Why wouldn’t he be fine?

“Suit yourself,” Fox said, somewhat unhappily. She was quiet for a moment, and Locus couldn’t help but feel a little grateful. Then she spoke up again, “so Wash has been keeping an eye on me. He’s not down here right now, thankfully. I think he knows it’s too open around here.”

Locus tilted his head slightly. “He’s tailing you? Why?”

“I’m guessing Kimball asked him to keep an eye on me to figure out whether or not pairing us together permanently is a good call or not,” Fox replied. “It’s what I would do.”

Locus narrowed his eyes, thinking hard. “What do you mean ‘pair us permanently?’”

“Like…” Fox looked upwards thoughtfully, then back at him. “Like I guess some time out of this dungeon, for starters. I guess just walking around, tracking your progress as you figure stuff out for yourself?”

Huh. “When was this discussed?” Locus asked, crossing his arms.

“After you left Kimball’s office yesterday,” Fox replied. “It was a brief conversation, but the fact that Kimball came to me with the idea is good news for you.”

You can use this. This is your way ou-- “It won’t work.”

Fox raised her eyebrows at him. “Why not?”

Locus looked away, trying to figure out how he wanted to arrange his thoughts into words. “You’re just going to wind up wasting your time,” he said bitterly. And a movement to his right made him look over, and Fox had a hand pressed against the glass wall of his cell and a firm expression on her face.

“You are not a waste of time,” she said in a voice that was much, much harder than her previous tone. She let her words sink in for a moment before she pulled away and dropped her hand into her lap. “I want to help you, okay? If I’m getting involved in this, it’s because it was my choice, not because Kimball asked me to.” She let out a long sigh and continued. “I know a lot of stuff doesn’t make sense right now, but I need you to hang on just a little longer, okay?” And now her voice was soft, like how she had spoken to him when they’d first met on Nalome.

And Locus clenched his jaw because he didn’t like the way that tone made him want to trust her. She was hiding something. He couldn’t trust her. But god did he want to. She was the only person who’d made an actual effort to get through to him. And he hated how that small display of empathy was all that it took. “I want updates,” he said finally, looking back at her.

Fox nodded, an understanding look on her face. “I’ll let you know every time I hear something new. I promise.”

“And I want the truth,” he said, holding her gaze. “About you, and everything else.”

Fox sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. “In time,” she said. “I’m not ready yet. But in time, I’ll tell you what you need to know.” Then she looked over suddenly, and Locus did the same, wondering what she saw. “Sounds like those guards are off their break,” she said. Then she looked back at him and said, “I have some stuff I need to do, so I should probably head out.” She rose to her feet, helmet in her hands.

Locus did the same, watching her carefully.

Fox met his gaze with a small smile, then gave him a nod and said, “I know it might not seem like it, but you can trust me.” Then she put her helmet back on and turned to go. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”

Locus watched her walk away in silence, head swarming with a thousand thoughts. Then he sighed and put his back to the glass wall of his cell. He had his helmet back on before the guards reached him.

 


 

“I specifically asked you not to tell anyone about what we discussed,” Kimball sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. After their discussion with the Reds and Blues,Wash and Carolina had made their way to Kimball’s office to tell her what had happened. It only seemed fair.

Wash held firm, noticing Carolina looking at him strangely out of the corner of his eye. “They’re our teammates. They deserve to know what’s going on.”

“And what will happen when one of them lets slip what you told them?” Kimball asked, pulling her hand away from her face and fixing Wash in a frustrated stare. “I asked you to keep this quiet for a reason.

“There’s a very good chance that keeping this sort of information from them could have resulted in tension between all of us,” Carolina said suddenly.

Kimball stared at Carolina, and Wash could have sworn that her gaze softened ever so slightly when she did so. “I understand that, but this a very sensitive situation. There are a lot of people who want Locus dead for what he did. If word gets out, something could happen to him. And if he’s ever going to eventually testify for what he did, he needs to be alive.

“There are guards posted outside of his cell, and Fox visits him pretty regularly. I don’t think that anyone would take the chance of hurting him...even if they could get past the security,” Wash replied.

The frustration on Kimball’s face faded to annoyed disappointment when she looked back at him. “That’s not the point, ” she said bitterly. “The point is that I trusted you with very important information, and you shared it, despite knowing just how sensitive it was.”

And out of the corner of Wash’s eye, he saw Carolina jerk her chin downwards, so slightly that he almost missed it. And though he didn’t know exactly what it meant, he knew it wasn’t anything good. “I understand that,” Wash said, looking back at Kimball. “But we did what was necessary for our team. Tensions are already high as it is, we can’t afford to drive wedges between ourselves and others.”

Kimball inhaled deeply, closing her eyes. “Just...did you explain to the Reds and Blues that what you told them wasn’t to be repeated?”

“We did,” Wash replied with a nod.

Kimball opened her eyes and looked over at Carolina, a new tiredness on her face. “Then there isn’t anything else we can do.” She sighed. “Continue tailing Fox and reporting back with what you know. And with any luck, we can keep all of this quiet until a decision is made.”

Wash couldn’t help but feel like he should say more, but he didn’t know what, so he held his tongue.

“If that’s all, I want the two of you to return to what you were doing,” Kimball said rubbing one of her temples. “I have a meeting with Doctor Grey, so I’ll let you know when you can report in.”

Carolina let out a long sigh that drew Wash’s attention. “Understood.”

Wash watched her for a moment, then looked back at Kimball and said, “copy that.” Then he turned and headed for the exit, trying to figure out why he felt so wrong about doing what he knew had been right.

The next few days passed...stressfully. Wash found himself exceptionally busy between helping with repairs, assisting with patrols, and keeping an eye on Fox. The latter was consumed with helping Grey, and seemed to have found her place amongst Kimball’s men. It was good that she was staying out of trouble, as it gave him plenty of time to worry about the pirates that had escaped. So far, none of the patrols had come across them. But Wash couldn’t help but wonder when that would change.

Despite the distraction of assisting Kimball and her men, Wash couldn’t find a way to stop his mind from replaying what had happened during the fight. The wounded soldier. The pelican. The pirate. Locus.

Wash knew he had changed, knew that the shred of humanity that had been in him prior to the fight at the Tower of The Purge had begun to take over. And it wasn’t like he had lied to any of his teammates. He really did believe that Fox could help Locus. And he really did think that the two would work extremely well together. But the fact that the change in behavior had happened so rapidly, and had even caused Locus to save him had thrown him through a loop that he couldn’t quite get out of.

Despite clearly having some understanding of Locus’ background, Fox needed to know what she was getting into, and if anyone knew her whereabouts, it was Grey. He watched as the group of soldiers he had been with scattered to go fulfill their other duties out of the corner of his eye as he headed in the direction of the medbay. When he finally arrived, he asked the receptionist to let Doctor Grey know he was here to see her.

“Oh, she’s down in her lab,” the receptionist replied, chewing on a piece of gum and not looking up from whatever she was typing into her computer. “I’ll let her know you’re coming, but you’d better be careful before walking in.”

Wash nodded in acknowledgement and made his way towards the elevator at the end of the short hallway behind the reception desk. He didn’t need to hear it to know he was walking into a potential warzone. Doctor Grey had always been a fan of unorthodox experiments. He imagined it would only be worse now that she had a new playmate.

The first thing he heard when he stepped off the elevator was the sound of singing. Opera, to be exact. But what was strange was that it sounded like two voices instead of one. With a sigh, Wash reached the door to the lab the voices were coming from and rapped his knuckles against the metal door. “Grey?”

The singing cut off abruptly, and a moment later, the door slid open to reveal Doctor Grey with a welding mask pushed up onto her dark curly hair and a blowtorch in her hand.

“Well hello Wash! Isn’t this a pleasant surprise!” Doctor Grey chimed. “What can I help you with? Broken bone? Bad mental place? Having some trouble getting over the guilt of telling your teammates about that little thing you and Kimball discussed?”

Wash flinched at that, wondering how in the world she knew about that, and was about to speak when he noticed Fox working at a table in the lab. Fox saw him too and gave him a cheery wave. “Hi Wash! Coming to keep tabs on me?”

Wash gave her a hesitant wave back, taken off guard both by the fact that she had apparently figured out that he was keeping an eye on her, and how easy it had been to locate her. He had been expecting a wild goose chase, not a tea party. “I actually wanted to talk to Fox, if that’s alright,” he said to Grey.

Grey tilted her head to the side, despite the lack of a helmet to hide her curious expression. She pursed her red-painted lips and squinted at him, then her face broke into a grin and she stepped back away from the door. “Come in, come in!” she said, turning away with a wave of her free hand. She walked back towards the table she and Fox had apparently been working at. Wash took a moment to look over the boxes of metal parts and tools.

“What are you two working on?” he asked, looking over at Fox as she screwed a panel onto some sort of metal tube with wires sticking out of one end.

“Prototyping,” Fox replied without looking up. Wash wondered how she managed to appear so comfortable with working on something seemingly so delicate in power armor.

“See, after Doctor Rosenblum here did a stellar job of fixing Matthews up, I wanted to brainstorm a little with her to create a more advanced prosthetic!” Grey elaborated.

“I’m sorry, Doctor...Rosenblum?” Wash looked over at Fox with confusion.

Fox leaned back away from her work and turned her head towards him. “Annita Rosenblum. That’s the name you’ll actually find in the UNSC registry if you’re looking me up,” she explained with a level of casualness in her voice that took Wash by surprise.

“Oh,” Wash said. He already knew that ‘Fox’ had been nothing more than a nickname after listening in on her conversation with Locus on the way back to Chorus. But it wasn’t until just now that he had realized he’d never actually learned her full name. Something about it made him feel oddly uncomfortable, like she had just told him a very personal secret.

“You have no idea how excited I was when I realized who I was working with!” Grey squealed giddily.

Under his helmet, Wash frowned. “Uh…” he looked over at Fox. “I’m sorry, are you...famous, or something?”

Fox shrugged. “I’m no celebrity, but I did publish a book on a study I conducted with my mentor about the benefits of introducing synthetic pain receptors to prosthetic limbs.”

“I had no clue I she was one of Manning’s students! Imagine my surprise!” Grey said with a laugh.

“I’m sorry, I still don’t follow--”

“Doctor Howard Manning,” Grey cut him off, holding up a finger. “He’s responsible for a number of groundbreaking discoveries that led to massive improvements to prosthetic limbs! I had the honor of attending a lecture of his once! He’s the reason I was able to fix Simmons up when you all first arrived on Chorus!” Doctor Grey explained.

“Ah,” Wash said dismissively, then asked, “I’m sorry, did you say ‘pain receptors?’”

“Oh, yeah,” Fox said, holding up the tube she had been working on. Wash noticed that it tapered towards the end that didn’t have cables sticking out of it, and realized that it must be part of a synthetic forearm of some sort. “Manning’s signature design has pain receptors.”

“Why?

“Because pain is vital to knowing when your body is in trouble. It’s just a message that our brain sends to wherever we’re hurting that whatever we just did was bad and could possibly lead to very serious damage if we continue whatever we were doing beforehand,” Fox explained with a shrug as she placed the forearm back on the table. “The goal is to have this thing ready in case someone needs it. Grey wanted to put it on Simmons, but…”

“But he said that he prefered his current set-up,” Grey finished.

“Right,” Wash said, trying to sound interested. This wasn’t what he had come down to the lab for at all. At least neither of the two seemed to have anything else to add to their current conversation.

“So you said you wanted to talk to Fox. I’m guessing it’s not about what we’re currently working on, though. Am I right?” Grey asked suddenly, leaning against the table with one hand planted firmly on its surface and the other on her hip.

And Wash felt heat rise into his face. He hadn’t meant to come off as rude. “Well, I just...wanted to make sure that she knew what she was getting into...with the thing Kimball mentioned,” he said, looking in Fox’s direction.

“Wash, I know he’s not exactly the citizen of the year, but he’s not going to be a problem,” Fox said, clearly knowing exactly who he was referencing.

“I just want to make sure that you know the whole story, is all,” Wash said. “I want to believe that he’s changed. I do. And it’s hard to deny that he’s a different person after all that he’s done, but if you’re serious about this, you need to understand exactly what you’re dealing with.”

“What, that he’s a wannabe Darth Vader impressionist who never outgrew his emo phase?” Fox asked. Beside her, Grey let out a snort of laughter.

“Just…” Wash shook his head and waved dismissively. “He tends to latch onto people. And I want you to be aware of that, so you don’t wind up running into the same problem that I had with him.”

“Okay, noted,” Fox said. “Is it like...a projection sort of deal? Or is he just generally very clingy?”

“Both,” Wash found himself exchanging a startled look with Grey when she and him spoke at the same time.

“Mostly for the sake of affirmation,” Grey continued.

“So like...as in he was doing bad things and looked to someone else who also did bad things as a way of saying ‘hey, I’m not a horrible person!’ Right?” Fox clarified.

“Exactly like that,” Wash said, nodding.

“Huh,” Fox said, looking at him for a moment. Then she shrugged and said, “well it’s a good thing I don’t plan on letting him be a terrible human being, then. That way we won’t have that problem!”

Wash let out a sigh. As much as he trusted that Fox would be able to handle Locus, he did wish that she would take things just a bit more seriously. “I just wanted to warn you, so you’d know what you’re dealing with.”

“And I appreciate that,” Fox said with a nod. Then she added, “tell you what, I’ll have a chat with him about this later. Set some expectations, and the like. How does that sound?”

And Wash had to admit that the idea made him feel a whole lot better. “You should do that,” he said.

“Then it’s a date!” Fox exclaimed. Then, in a much smoother tone, said, “don’t worry, Wash, I know what I’m doing. You can trust that I’m going to set things straight.”

And when she said it, a little more of his unease evaporated. He gave her a nod, and turned and exited the lab. It was time to report to Kimball.

 


 

“You all good, Red?”

Carolina looked over when she heard Sarge speak. The two of them had spent the majority of the day working on helping rebuild a part of the supports on one of the upper levels that had buckled during the fight. Now they were on a much-needed break, and apparently, the fact that she had zoned out a little bit while deep in thought had attracted Sarge’s attention.

“I’m fine,” she replied, a bit too quickly.

“Y’ don’t look fine,” Sarge said back.

And Carolina just sighed, looking at the other soldiers who had gathered in a group nearby, sharing stories and snacks. “There’s a lot going on. I just haven’t had time to process all of it,” she admitted.

Sarge nodded sagely and stepped away from the forklift he had been leaning against and sat down next to Carolina with his back to the catwalk railing. “I see where yer comin’ from. It’s been nonstop around here.”

Carolina decided this didn’t warrant a reply, and chose silence.

“How’d Kimball react to you tellin’ her about how you and Wash talked to us?”

Carolina closed her eyes under her helmet, greatly wishing that Sarge had asked anything but that. “She wasn’t happy.”

“Well, didja apologize?”

Carolina looked over at Sarge. “I--” No. She hadn’t, she realized. “Should I have?”

“Well,” Sarge began, looking up at the ceiling, “the way I see it, y’ both did the wrong thing. Sure, she shoulda told us what was goin’ on too, but she also asked you and Wash to keep it a secret. The way it was set up, no one was gonna win. But I’d think an apology would at least help.

Carolina stared at him strangely. It was rare for Sarge to give any comprehensible advice, especially to her. In fact, she couldn’t recall a time when the two of them had such a down-to-earth conversation one-on-one like this before. It left her temporarily speechless.

“Besides,” Sarge continued, “Kimball’s had it rough. She’s one hell of a tough lady, but I doubt she started out that way. Point is,” he said, looking over at her, “you and I know firsthand what she’s been dealin’ with. You as a product of Project Freelancer, me as an old, worn-out Helljumper. But I don’t know her as well as you do. Yer her friend, and she needs ya, so you should talk to her.”

Carolina stared at the grated floor of the catwalk she was seated on. Sarge had a surprisingly good point. “I’ll...see what I can do.” She looked over at Sarge, “thank you.”

“Heh, don’t mention it, Red,” Sarge chuckled. Then he rose to his feet with a groan, pressing a hand against his lower back as he stood up straight. “Now I’m gonna get these good-fer-nothin’ wannabe Grif’s back to work on these supports,” he said, jerking a thumb in the direction of the soldiers who they’d been working alongside who had very obviously gotten too settled during their five-minute break. “We’ve got it under control, so why don’t ya go find Kimball?”

Carolina stood and gave him a nod, grateful for the chance to set things right. “I’ll come right back when I’m finished,” she promised, turning and starting towards the stairs.

“Don’t bother! We’ll be done by then!” Sarge called back good-naturedly.

Carolina couldn’t help but chuckle at Sarge’s enthusiasm, then headed for Kimball’s office.

When she arrived, she found herself stuck outside, staring at the doors, unable to force herself to go any further. In retrospect, she probably should have thought about what she was going to say . But these sorts of things had never been easy for her. Offering encouragement and support? Easy. She’d done it a million times during Project Freelancer, and a million times more after meeting the Reds and Blues. But talking about feelings? That had always been a no-go up until very, very recently. And it was still hard. She had gotten so used to putting how she felt second to her success that it had taken years for her to relearn how to, as Grif put it, “begin to function like a normal fucking human being.”

And now she was shoved into the spotlight on an unfamiliar stage. But it wasn’t the first time, right? She’d tackled bigger things than this before, right? And Kimball was her friend, so it wasn’t like she was getting judged for anything, right?

Okay, ‘Lina, you’ve got this. Just go in there, say you’re sorry, listen to what she has to say, then go back and help Sarge before he drops a support beam on himself. Observe, analyze, execute. Carolina squared her shoulders in a show of confidence, then radioed Kimball. “General Kimball, this is Carolina, do you have a moment?”

“I was beginning to wonder if you were just going to stand there outside of my office, without coming in,” came the reply. Then, “I have a few minutes.”

Carolina felt the heat rise to her face. Right. She has a camera outside of her office. You knew that. You’re fine. Just walk in. Carolina sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, then stepped through the automatic doors.

“You were out there for a while,” Kimball said when she walked in.

Carolina stopped in front of her desk. “I was…” trying to think of how the heck I’m going to word what I want to say next? Nope. You blew that one, Carolina. Realizing she had literally no good excuse, she just fell into an uncomfortable silence.

Kimball gave her a half-smile, then looked back at her monitor, then sighed, and minimized the window that was pulled up on it, returning her attention to Carolina.

And for that whole two seconds, Carolina tried to figure out what it was about her that had changed. Then it hit her like a stop sign to the face during a category four hurricane. “You changed your hair,” she said lamely.

“I did, ” Kimball said. “It’s too much work to keep it straight, and since it doesn’t look like this war is as over as we thought it was, I figured it would be easier not to fuss with it and just keep it natural.”

Carolina felt a twinge of pain in her chest from how she said that. “It looks good,” she said without thinking, and the surprised look Kimball gave her made her wonder how unused she was to receiving actual compliments.

“Well, I appreciate it, but I doubt that’s why you’re here,” Kimball replied. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I just--” Carolina broke off, thinking hard about how she wanted to approach this. “It’s about what happened three days ago.”

Kimball sat back in her chair and looked up at her, a thoughtful expression on her face. “What’s done is done, Carolina. I’m not happy with what you and Wash did, but I do understand your reasoning for it.”

“Well that’s-- We shouldn’t have,” Carolina said. “I mean, we shouldn’t have kept it from our team, but we also should have talked to you about it first. The execution wasn’t as clean as it should have been--”

“Carolina, I’m not angry at either of you,” Kimball interrupted.

Carolina took in a deep breath. “I just...know that...you’ve been having a hard time trusting people after what happened with Felix.”

And for a moment, something dark flickered across Kimball’s face. She turned away, the start of a snarl separating her lips and drawing her eyebrows downward. And then suddenly, the expression was gone, replaced by one of world-weary exhaustion. “What gave it away?” she asked.

And Carolina wasn’t sure how to put it into words, all the observations that she’d made, all the little things she had picked up on. So instead she simply said, “you’ve been different since then.”

“You hardly knew me beforehand,” Kimball replied with a defensive note in her voice.

“No, but I knew the sort of person that you were,” Carolina replied. She looked away and was silent for a while after that, before finally sighing and pulling off her helmet, figuring now was as good a time as any to be absolutely dead honest. “I didn’t trust Fox either,” she admitted. “And I still don’t...not fully, anyways. But I want to believe that she’s trying to help us,” she said, looking back at Kimball. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your judgement. And I’m sorry that Felix made you doubt yourself, and if Wash and I made you question your trust after what we did.”

And Kimball was silent for a very long time, looking like she was trying to think of what she wanted to say. “It’s like I said,” she began, “I’m not mad at you or Wash.” She closed her eyes and brushed one of her curls out of her face. “I just can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if--” Her voice caught in her throat and she looked away. “We all thought this was over when Epsilon sent that broadcast. I let my guard down. And then a weapons system on one of the moons -- of all places --comes online. And then Fox and Locus and the space pirates...It doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to end.”

“You can’t give up,” Carolina said.

“And I’m not!” Kimball exclaimed. “But this whole thing-- If I had just seen what Felix was .”

“You never could have known,” Carolina said, stepping forward and putting a hand on Kimball’s desk. “It wasn’t your fault. You can’t blame yourself for that.”

Kimball let out a humorless laugh. “Can’t I? I sacrificed hundreds of men...and for what? A war that had absolutely no meaning, and was nothing more than a way for Hargrove to commit planetary genocide?!”

Carolina looked away, thinking hard, trying to come up with a way to piece some of Kimball’s faith back together again. “We can’t change what happened,” she said slowly. “There...there have been plenty of times where I wished I could turn back time. I know what it’s like. And I know that there’s no good reason for any of what happened. But I also know that we’re still here, and that we know more than we did before, and that neither of us are ready to give up, no matter how tired we are.” She looked back at Kimball and noticed that she was staring at her with what could have been a spark forming in her eyes. And so she continued. “I know it’s been too long. And I know I haven’t seen all the things you saw when this war first started, but I also know that we’re both going to see the end of it. Because we’ve lasted this long, and I can’t see a reason why we don’t deserve to make it to the finish.”

And now there was definitely a spark in Kimball’s eyes. But there was something else in there too, and Carolina realized with a twinge of guilt that she was holding back tears. And she watched as Kimball wordlessly stood and walked around to the front of the desk and stopped in front of her, let out a sigh, and-- to Carolina’s shock --pulled her into a hug.

Carolina, not knowing what to do, just stood there.

“Thanks,” Kimball said, pulling back, and she looked a little less like she was about to start crying, and had a small smile on her face.

Mission success? Carolina thought, returning the smile. She then reached out and put her hand on Kimball’s shoulder and took in a breath to speak, but then looked over when she heard the office doors slid open.

“Uh. I can come back,” Wash said awkwardly, already backing up.

Carolina dropped her hand, and Kimball stepped back, swiping a wrist across her eyes. “No, Wash, it’s fine,” she said. “I’m guessing you have a report for me?”

“Yeah. Also Fox apparently picked up on the fact that Carolina and I have been watching her,” Wash replied, approaching them and hesitantly stopping short of the two women.

“She said specifically that she knew I was watching her?” Carolina asked dubiously.

Wash was silent for a moment, then let out a quiet, “oh.” Then, “I just talked to her. Discussed what she was getting into. And I really do think that she can handle this.”

Kimball nodded, leaning back against her desk. “I agree,” she said. “Based on the reports you two have been giving me, it’s fair to say that pairing her and Locus together is a good call.”

And Carolina noticed the way that Wash tilted his head slightly at that, and she saw it too-- the way that Kimball held herself with more confidence than either of them had seen in her all week. It brought a small smile to her face. “So what’s the next move?” she asked.

Kimball looked over at her, then to Wash. “Well, I think the only thing left to do is get Fox in here and give her the news. So who wants to go get her?”

Chapter Text

Kimball exhaled slowly, eyes scanning over the three Marines in front of her. Wash had gone and retrieved Fox for her, and now it was time for business. She looked at each of them before starting, “Fox, these past few days, I’ve had Agents Washington and Carolina keep an eye on you. Their assessments of your activity helped me get a better understanding of your capabilities,” she explained. “But my final decision rests on you. I understand that you have been in a leadership position before, and the interactions the three of us have had the chance to observe between you and Locus make me think that pairing the two of you together could be beneficial.”

As Kimball spoke, she noted how Fox’s demeanor became more confident. Whenever they talked, Fox always stood up straight with her head held high, but now her shoulders seemed more relaxed, and she shifted her weight slightly to one side. “But,” Kimball said, noticing how Fox tilted her head ever so slightly at the word, “I need you to understand that no matter what decision we make today, he’s still a prisoner.”

“Noted,” Fox said with a nod.

“You mentioned, when we first discussed this, the idea of adding some slack to his leash. I’ve put some thought into this over the past few days,” Kimball explained. “There’s a lot of work to be done in the aftermath of the pirate attack a few days ago.”

“So...wait a minute,” Fox said holding up a hand. “Am I just...like a parole officer in all of this? Like are you telling me he’s getting community service?”

“I’m asking you to work with him,” Kimball said, mildly annoyed by Fox’s tone. “I’m not sure what sort of freedom you had in mind, but you need to understand that what he did puts him in a position where he deserves very little of it.”

Fox shuffled her feet and turned her head away for a moment before looking right back at Kimball. “I think, after how he helped during the fight, that he deserves just a little more trust. Not a lot! But just enough to say ‘hey, this was a good thing! Keep doing it!’ Like training a dog.”

“And?” Kimball asked, having a creeping suspicion that there was more to it than that.

“And...I think that as he progresses-- which he will! He’s not going to stay the way he is right now forever. It’s pretty clear to me that he doesn’t want to, anyways. But, so say we have him help fix up some of the damage, there’s gotta be a clear reward system in place,” Fox elaborated. “I mean, you’re smart, you probably know this,” she said, waving a hand in Kimball’s direction.

“What did you have in mind?” Kimball asked, interested. Even if Fox’s idea was completely outrageous, hearing what she had to say would at least help get a better image of the sort of person she was.

“I’m thinking of something like an eye for an eye kind of deal,” Fox said. “Charon isn’t done with us. They’ve made that very clear. And homeboy killed a lot of people and wrecked a lot of shit. But he also knows Charon pretty well. The way I see it, it would be useful to stick him on the frontlines and try to at least clean up the mess that he made. ”

“Which is precisely what I was implying earlier,” Kimball said with slight relief. At least they were on the same page.

“Yeah, but what I’m hoping for is that with every good thing he does, he gets a bit more freedom. I’d like him to eventually be out of that cell for good.”

Kimball stared. Then she looked over at Wash and Carolina to make sure that they’d heard the same thing. “What you’re asking for is a level of trust I’m not ready to give him,” she said, turning back to Fox.

“Which is why we build up to it,” Fox replied. “It’s not going to be a right-away sort of thing! But keeping him in isolation in a cell somewhere won’t help him improve. At all. And if what Stripes told me about him is true, he needs to be around people if he’s going to get better. We could do it like...like he gets three hours with me during week one, then based on his improvement it could move up to six hours, then twelve, then whatever.”

“Let me ask you something before I say anything else,” Kimball said, leaning forward and planting both hands on her desk. “What do you see when you look at him?”

Fox fell silent for a moment, pondering the question. Then, much to Kimball’s surprise, replied, “myself.”

Kimball stared at her, and out of the corner of her eye she could see Wash and Carolina doing the same. “Explain,” she said when she finally found her tongue.

“Him and I went through the same stuff. The Great War sucked, and I’d be a liar if I said the way I coped with the shit I went through was completely healthy. But I learned how to deal with it. It took time. It wasn’t fun. But I did it,” Fox replied, centering her weight and standing up tall. “When I look at him, I see the person I was before I figured out how to live with everything I’ve been through. And that person was really fucked up-- kinda like him, y’know? And so I’m thinking that maybe...if I could put myself back together again after what happened, then maybe I can give him a push in the right direction to do the same. Which is why, above all else, I wanna work with him; because I can help.”

Kimball stared at Fox, thinking hard about what she said. In the late hours of the night after Hargrove had fled, in a low voice masked to any who may have been listening in by a symphony of rain and thunder echoing through the surrounding jungle, Wash had spoken to her about the mental state Locus had been in prior to Felix’s death. She still remembered the bitter taste in her mouth when she realized the war he had started was nothing more than a twisted coping method to him, and that her men had died because he simply couldn’t deal with what he had been through. And how she had rounded on Wash, in anger, because he of all people shouldn’t feel sorry for him-- just look what he’s done! And Wash had told her about Project Freelancer, and his time as Recovery One, and the Meta, and she knew that he had a point, just as he knew that what Locus had gone through wasn’t an excuse. And when she looked at Fox now, she was back in her office on that late, humid night with a bottle of whiskey on her desk and an indignant fire burning in her belly. But there was worry that brought the taste of acid onto her tongue too, because she knew how much her men counted on her to see them through and keep them as safe as they could be. And so, with a waver in her voice, she said, “I never want him to hurt any of us again. Understand? Never.

Fox nodded silently, and when Kimball was sure she had nothing to say, continued, “you understand this means he gets one chance. One. He blows it, and it’s over. And if he fights, you or one of them,” she nodded at Wash and Carolina, “puts him down.”

“I understand,” Fox said.

Kimball fixed her in a hard stare, wanting to be sure. Needing to be. And when Fox followed up with a confident nod, and said “I promise I won’t let you down,” she believed her.

“Good,” Kimball said with a sigh, standing up straight. She was quiet for a moment as she collected herself. And when she was sure that she could speak in an even tone again, said “I want a schedule for what you have planned with him for the rest of the week on my desk at the end of the day for me to approve. You are to file a report at the end of every day tracking his progress. If you’re occupying the same space as anyone else, especially the Reds and Blues, you are to keep a reasonable distance between the two of you and them. He is not to be armed under any circumstance unless you and I discuss it prior, and if I decide to allow it, you will be accompanied by either Wash or Carolina for the duration. He does not leave headquarters under any circumstance without my approval, and will do so under strict supervision and escort. And he’s only to be out of his cell during the day. Failure to comply with any of these rules will result in immediate termination of your contact with him, understand?”

Fox nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good,” Kimball said, straightening out some of the paperwork on her desk before looking back up at her. “You’re to begin working with him effective tomorrow. For now, I want you working on that schedule.” She paused, giving Fox a chance to ask any questions she might have had. When the latter said nothing, she concluded, “I’m putting a lot of responsibility and risk on your shoulders, Fox, because I believe you’re capable of handling it. Prove me right.”

 

 


 

What? ” Locus stopped in the middle of the walkway and looked at Fox in disbelief.

When she had fetched him from his cell earlier, he had been expecting the reasoning to be similar to what it was last time; though he had thought it odd that there were no alarms this time. So when she told him that it was because Kimball had agreed to what she had proposed days ago, it caught him completely off guard.

“Your ears broken?” Fox asked, looking over her shoulder, but not stopping.

He stared after her for a moment, before picking up his pace to catch up with her.

“You have a lot of questions, I can tell,” Fox stated, leading him out of the cell block.

Locus followed her hesitantly. Unlike before, the halls were occupied with Kimball’s men. He didn’t need to think hard to imagine what would happen if he were noticed tailing Fox around headquarters.

“Well, come on!” Fox said, turning back and putting her hands on her hips. When he did nothing, she seemed to realize what he was thinking and added, “don’t worry. Everybody already knows that you’re out with me. Kimball made an announcement about it.”

Somehow that didn’t make Locus feel any better. He followed closely behind Fox when she started walking again, aware of the eyes of Kimball’s soldiers on him as he walked past.

Fox led him down to the sublevel floor where Doctor Grey’s labs were, and scanned them through into the one at the end of the hall.

“Alright,” Fox said as she stepped through, “here we are.”

The lab was empty, which surprised Locus a bit considering how much work still needed to be done after the recent attack from the space pirates. He had expected to see at least a few of Grey’s medics sharing the space with them.

As they walked past the shelves and workbenches, Locus looked around to try to get an idea of what the space was being used for. There were odd pieces of machinery strewn across several of the tables, but nothing that really gave any clues as to what Grey was working on.

“Biotics upgrades.”

Locus looked over when he heard Fox speak, and saw that she was walking backwards, facing him.

“Since I helped with Matthews, Grey wanted me to work with her to make biotics out of sturdier stuff,” Fox explained. Then she turned back around, gesturing with her hand for him to follow her around a corner.

A large corner of the lab had been cleared; workbenches and boxes and shelving units all shoved against the walls, leaving an open space. On top of a wooden crate was a laptop with a blueprint that looked very similar to the shield Fox used as a weapon.

Locus watched her walk over to it, keeping his distance, still unsure of exactly why he had been brought here. He looked on as she pulled the shield base off of her hip and tossed it into the air without looking at it. However, instead of hitting the ground like Locus had anticipated, it hovered.

Strange, he thought. Fox stepped away from it and picked up the laptop and carried it over to a workbench, and Locus took the time to get closer to the floating shield base and walk around it. It was certainly an impressive piece of craftsmanship, even he couldn’t deny that. He’d never seen anything quite like it before.

“Cool, huh?”

Locus looked over when Fox spoke, and quickly stepped away from the shield base.

“Hey, no need to be shy. It’s all cool,” Fox said, holding up a hand. “Honestly, when I got it to work for the first time, I stared at the thing for hours, so I can’t really judge.”

Locus stared at her for a moment, then glanced back at the shield base. “Why are we here?” he asked. Out of all the questions he had, that was the most important one.

“In this room? Or just in general?” Fox asked back, placing a hand down on the workbench next to the laptop.

Locus glared at her.

“Wow, okay, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” Fox said. Then, “we’re here because I have work to do, and I figured that at the very least, I could take you out for a change of scenery. And, y’know, we could talk about shit. Or whatever. I don’t know, I’m just playing it by ear, honestly,” she admitted.

Well that was...annoying. Locus had been expecting something a little more... more . While he certainly appreciated not being stuck in a cramped cell with overhead lighting that was a just a tad too bright, he would have liked to have had something to do . With a sigh, he looked back at the shield base, startling slightly when Fox walked past him, as he hadn’t heard her move.

“I was planning on adjusting the energy output on this thing a bit to see if I could get it to make sharper turns,” Fox said, extending an open hand underneath the shield base, which dropped neatly into it.

Locus watched as she flexed her hand and the ring around the base extruded, and took a step back as Fox flung it loosely in front of her. The shield flew the length of the small open space she had created, then arced back towards her, and she caught it with ease.

“Does it respond to your implants?” Locus asked, boredom finally getting the best of him. If they weren’t going to do anything, then he might as well at least learn about the person he was apparently now stuck with.

“Yup!” Fox replied, running her finger across the edge of the shield

Locus noticed upon further examination that it’s edge wasn’t at all tapered into a blade like he had initially thought, but was in fact, rather blunt. And all around it were small panels that looked as though they could extrude. He remembered the plasma energy that had appeared around the shield, and wondered if the panels were the emitters. “And you built it?” he asked.

“That I did,” Fox replied, nodding at him. “She’s made mostly from old Pelican and ‘Hog parts...and a Roomba.”

Locus stared at her. “A vacuum?”

Fox shrugged. “That’s where the motion sensor in it came from, anyways.”

That was...interesting...Locus supposed. It was certainly resourceful, at the very least. But it also raised far more questions than he had before. He had been expecting some amount of alien technology to be involved as well, considering how it operated, and the plasma energy it emitted during the fight against the space pirates. Thinking hard, he crossed his arms and tilted his head at the shield. “You achieved this without the use of alien technology?”

“Oh, no, that’s what the core is made of,” Fox replied, tapping a finger against the spherical base, before tilting the shield sideways and holding it towards him. “I took it out of a weapon I found in some alien ruins on Nalome. It looked like they had some kind of outpost up there too.”

Locus peered at it, and realized that the base had separated into two parts, and hovered a little more than an inch away from each other, emitting a dull blue glow. That was interesting. He found himself wondering what the chairman would do if he had access to this kind of technology, and it made his stomach twist. “So it’s an energy relay,” he said slowly, forcing an even tone.

  “Bingo!” Fox exclaimed, putting her free hand on her hip. “The core is a fixed point. The ring is magnetized around it, and the energy relay emitted from the core keeps it from being knocked off completely in a fight.”

Locus listened, interested. Combining an energy source with a weapon wasn’t exactly new technology, but the way Fox had done it was something he had never seen before. He watched as she set the shield down on the workbench next to her laptop and hooked the base up to one of its USB ports.

“Y’know, maybe if I can get permission from Kimball, I can calibrate it to your implants too. Mostly just for shits and giggles to see if I can get it to work with two people. But after the last two fights we’ve been in, I think you’d benefit a little from stronger defense.” She looked over at him. “Not to say that you’re not a good fighter or anything, just that you’ve gotten really banged up these past few days, and I kind of like you a little better alive.”

Locus couldn’t tell if she was trying to insult him or not. He watched her work for a little bit, taking in everything that came up on her laptop’s screen. He couldn’t make sense of most of it; the technology was simply too foreign to him, but he tried to absorb what he could. He did this for about a minute before his mind started to wander. He still had a lot of questions, and very few answers, and Fox was hiding something, and the longer he thought about it, the less he liked it. He figured he’d start with the most immediate one. “What are the terms of this arrangement?” Kimball had to have set boundaries if she’d agreed to this, but so far, Fox hadn’t mentioned any of them.

“Basically, you and me need to stick together like glue. We get three hours together, and you can’t leave headquarters or be armed unless Wash or Lina-bean is babysitting us. We also have to keep our distance from everyone else. For liability or something. I don’t know,” Fox said, waving a hand dismissively.

So basically, he was stuck inside, with only Fox to keep him company. “What is the point of any of this?” he asked. He would be getting the same level of interaction if he had been left inside of his cell. None of this made any sense to him.

“To keep you from being in total isolation,” Fox replied, looking back at him. “Believe me, I’ve been there, and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a little cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs after it was all said and done.”

“I couldn’t tell,” Locus almost said. But instead, he opted for a less inflammatory “it won’t make a difference.”

“Well sure it will!” Fox said. “I mean, just look at you. You’re already more talkative than you are when you’re all cooped up.”

Locus fell silent for a moment, mostly out of surprise. Was he more talkative? He really hadn’t noticed.

“So,” Fox said, causing him to look over at her, “what do you wanna do today?”

Locus blinked. Was she really asking him what he wanted? Would it even matter what sort of answer he gave? It wasn’t like he had free range of headquarters. And it wasn’t like he could do whatever he wanted. “You said you had work to do,” he replied.

Fox shrugged. “Yeah, and I do, but depending on what you want, I might be able to multitask a little. This time is really meant for you.”

“I’m fine right here,” Locus said, deciding that there weren’t really any other interesting options. Especially since he wasn’t allowed to be armed.

“Suit yourself,” Fox said, stepping away from her laptop. “Anything you wanna talk about?”

That was a trap. “No,” Locus said, a hint of a growl edging into his voice.

“Well, okay then, no need to get all prickly. It was just a question,” Fox said, putting her hands up defensively.

Locus watched as she turned away and walked over to one of the counters and pulled a tool box off of it. She returned to her laptop and set it down next to her shield. Locus wondered if there was any way they could end this...session...early.

“Wanna know how I got that bigass scar on my face?” Fox asked suddenly.

Locus had a feeling she was going to tell him regardless of the answer he gave.

“Back in New Mombasa, my visor got shattered, so obviously I ditched the helmet entirely, because it was useless anyways,” Fox continued. And Locus listened with a slight sinking feeling, because everyone knew what had happened to New Mombasa. “Then there was an explosion. Next thing I know, I've got a gash across my face, and I can't see out of one eye.” Fox paused and unhooked her shield from her laptop, then made a motion with her hand that caused the base to split apart. “I grabbed this helmet off some poor sap who'd bit it. Went blind shortly after due to head trauma. Ludwell found me and dragged me back for the evac. It was not a fun day.”

Ludwell was the...corpse he had fought on Nalome, Locus remembered. He hadn't known that he had been with Fox since the Great War. He wondered how she had managed to keep her composure so well back on the moon after their encounter. He thought about this for a moment, looking away from her at their surroundings. The fact that Fox was opening up to him meant he was one step closer to figuring out what she was hiding. Better to remain cordial so that she wouldn't shut him off.

“How long did you serve?” He asked, looking back at Fox, who was occupied with adjusting something in the shield base.

“Well, I joined a year after college, so…” Fox stopped what she was doing and turned her head upward in thought. “I'd say about five years?” She said, looking back at him. “What about you?”

“Shouldn't you already know?” Locus asked. It had to be in his file.

“I'm just trying to make conversation,” Fox said with a shrug. She turned back to her shield and toyed with it for a few more minutes before picking it up and turning away from the workbench, extending the shield’s outer ring. “That should do it,” she declared. She glanced over at him and said, “you might wanna back up a bit.”

Locus heeded her advice, stepping behind her, out of her way. He watched as she stepped up and hurled the shield forward, and followed it with his eyes as it flew the length of the lab, then took a sharp turn, and looped back to Fox.

“Perfect,” she said, catching it and retracting its blade before holstering it. Then she looked over at him. “So that sword of yours, that's alien tech, right?”

“Yes,” Locus replied.

“Tucker has the same one. You guys get them from the same place?”

“To my knowledge, Captain Tucker was already in possession of his when he arrived on Chorus.” Locus paused, wondering what had drawn her interest. “Why?”

“Hmm?”

“Why do you want to know?”

Fox shrugged, and shifted her weight to one leg. “I was just wondering. You get yours from here?”

Now Locus was definitely suspicious. “Yes,” he said slowly, watching her carefully.

“Do you know if there are others where you got yours?”

And that sent alarm bells off in Locus’ head. “What are you trying to gain?” he asked, bristling slightly.

“Easy, big guy, I'm just trying to figure out if there are extras laying around so I can study them,” Fox replied.

“Doctor Grey has undoubtedly already conducted a study,” Locus said, relaxing a little.

“I'm sure she has,” Fox agreed, “but I wanna see if I can replicate the energy.”

And Locus gave her an odd look. “For what purpose?” He asked.

“Alien tech is hard to obtain,” Fox said simply. “But if we can make a similar energy to what's found in those swords, then it could help us in further technological advancements that might prove useful against Charon. Plus, ShowStopper won't last forever. She's tough, but her energy relay isn't entirely self-sustainable. It'll burn out eventually. Probably,” Fox explained.

So she didn't have some hidden intentions. Huh. Locus couldn't help but feel a little guilty. She was only trying to help, and he was expecting danger around every corner. And he wondered if maybe it was her charisma, or the way that she held herself, or the way that she spoke that kept pulling him back to the past. To Felix. And he took a deep breath, angry at himself for even making the comparison.

“You good?”

Locus looked over when Fox spoke, and realized that he must have made his thoughts apparent through how he held himself. Frustrated, he replied, “I'm fine.”

Fox seemed to scrutinize him, then said, “how about we go for a walk? I can radio the Freelancer dynamic duo and see if one of them can come with us outside. How does that sound?”

Locus thought about this for a moment. Down in the labs, he didn’t need to worry about tip-toeing around any of Kimball’s men. But there also wasn’t much to do, and he was beginning to get antsy. He still had a lot of questions, but they obviously weren’t going to be answered right now. So if he had to choose between a change of scenery, and sitting and listening to Fox’s attempts at small-talk, he found the former far more appealing. With a sigh, he said, “fine.”

Fox gave him a nod, then turned and sent out a quick transition over comms. She was quiet for a moment, then looked back at him and said, “we’re good to go! Carolina just got back from patrol. She agreed to walk with us.” She walked over to the workbench and closed her laptop, then turned and headed back towards the lab entrance. “Come on,” she said over her shoulder as she brushed past him. “Lina-bean’s got a tight schedule. We shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

Locus stared after her for a moment, then stole a quick glance around the room, sighed again, then followed.

 

 


 

 

“So?”

“So…?”

So , you heard the announcement. We both know what’s up. How are you doing?” Tucker asked, looking over at Wash.

Wash looked away from him, back towards the treeline. “I’m fine, Tucker.”

“Okay,” Tucker replied. “Good.” He was silent for a while, following Wash’s gaze, tapping his fingers against the side of the gun he held loosely in his hands.

After a moment, he drew in a breath to say something else, but Wash beat him to it, asking, “what about you?”

Tucker blinked under his helmet. “Uh. I’m good. Why?”

Wash looked over at him, and Tucker could feel the skeptical look on his face. “You’ve been acting different lately.”

Tucker stared at him for a moment. “What? No I haven’t!”

“Tucker, you sat in a waiting room until I was done getting stitches for a minor cut.”

Tucker felt the heat rise into his face. “So? I had to make sure you weren’t gonna do anything stupid. Do you have any idea what Carolina would do to me and Caboose if something bad happened to you?”

Wash tilted his head slightly-- a motion Tucker couldn’t quite read. “You know she’s not like that,” he said.

“Dude, she’s like your big sister. She would definitely fuck me up if I let something happen to you,” Tucker said.

Wash just sighed and shook his head, apparently not in the mood to argue. “You don’t have to worry about me,” he said after a long silence.

Tucker frowned and looked back at him. “Like fuck I don’t!” he said. “You’re a part of our team, Wash.”

“Tucker, nothing is going to happen,” Wash said, meeting Tucker’s gaze.

Tucker drew himself up to argue, then thought better of it and turned away.

“That’s what you’re worried about, isn’t it?”

Under his helmet, Tucker bit his lip. He looked back at Wash. “I...Yeah? Kinda? Like I know I said I was on board with this whole thing, but…”

“It will be okay, Tucker,” Wash said in a voice that was both gentle and firm.

Tucker wanted to believe him. But he also didn’t want to go through what had happened with Church again. He’d already lost one friend. And while there were plenty of measures in place to make sure Locus was no longer a threat, that fear still lingered in the pit of his stomach. He thought about voicing this, and was about to do so when Wash turned away from him with two fingers pressed to the side of his helmet.

Wash was silent for a moment, then looked back at Tucker and said, “that was Fox. She wants to take Locus out for some fresh air.” He was silent for a moment, then added, “Carolina’s taking care of it.”

And Tucker couldn’t help but feel a little relieved at that. “Cool, great,” he replied.

“Was there something you wanted to say?” Wash asked.

Tucker blinked, then shook his head. “It wasn’t important,” he sighed.

Wash watched him for a moment, then said, “well, our patrol’s over. Let’s head back.” Then he turned and started back through the valley, towards headquarters.

Tucker stared after him for a moment, then collected himself and followed.

When they got back to headquarters, Wash suggested that they grab lunch, but Tucker couldn’t find his appetite. Anxiety had put him in a chokehold and had been holding him in it all day. And after his last conversation with Wash, it wasn’t getting any better. He instead opted for some time alone, and headed for the nearest elevator after turning in his weapon at the armory.

He got in and hit the button that would take him to the floor the training room was on. Maybe practicing with his sword would clear his head a little bit. He watched as the doors closed, and leaned back against the elevator wall and closed his eyes, hoping that the pressure building in his temples wouldn’t turn into a headache.

Several floors later, Tucker stepped out of the elevator and headed for the training room. Palomo had radioed him on the way up and asked permission to help Jensen with her physical therapy instead of participating in afternoon drills. It was kind of funny, actually, Tucker thought. Palomo’s relationship with Jensen had developed so quickly. Obviously the kid still denied everything , but it was pretty obvious that he liked her. So of course Tucker had given him the ‘OK’. Better to get him out of his hair, anyways.

As he entered the training room, he looked around for the two lieutenants, finding them working together on a mat by some of the weights. Jensen’s hair was tied up into a messy top knot, with her bangs held back by colorful hairclips above her ears, and her expression of concentration was fully visible on her face. She was doing some sort of flexibility exercise with a resistance band, by the looks of it, and Palomo was at her side spotting for her. Both of them looked up when Tucker approached them.

“Captain Tucker!” Jensen exclaimed with surprise, her grip on the resistance band looped around the arch of her foot slackening.

“That looks like it hurts,” Tucker observed, nodding at the band.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Jensen said. “At least it’s not as bad as when I got shot though.”

“You got lucky,” Tucker replied, and suddenly realized just how much he sounded like Wash. It was a good thing that he was wearing his helmet, otherwise Palomo and Jensen would have seen just how much his face flushed from the thought. “How’s she doing?” he asked Palomo quickly.

“Better? It seems too early for her to be doing physical therapy though,” Palomo replied.

“Doctor Grey said that it was okay,” Jensen said, looking at him. She released her grip on the resistance band and drew her healing leg slowly up to her chest with her foot flat on the floor. Doing so must have hurt, because she screwed up her face a bit. “At least it missed the bone.”

“It could have been a lot worse,” Palomo said, putting a hand on the crutch laying on the floor besides the mat and looking at Jensen meaningfully to offer it to her.

Jensen shook her head at him, saying “yeah, I guess it could have”, and he pulled his hand away. “Honestly I probably would have died if Locus hadn’t shown up.”

Wait, what? Tucker stared at her, then looked at Palomo, who shrugged, making an “I don’t know” sort of face.

“Oh, come on Palomo, I definitely told you about this!” Jensen exclaimed.

“I was stressed! You know I don’t remember things when I get worked up,” Palomo protested.

“Okay, wait, Jensen, are you saying he saved you?” Tucker asked, interrupting their bickering, wondering how he never heard about this.

“I mean, I guess?” Jensen said, scratching an itch above her temple. “Doctor Grey was helping me after I got shot, and these two pirates showed up and were gonna kill us. But then Locus took them both out. He impaled one of them with a flagpole. It was pretty gross.”

“Okay yeah that definitely sounds like him. But why the fuck would he save you?”

Jensen gave an exaggerated shrug. “Doctor Grey said that it’s ‘cause he was scared of what she might do to him if he didn’t at least try,” she explained, earning a snicker from Palomo.

Tucker couldn’t help but grin a little bit under his helmet at the idea of Grey chasing Locus around with a bone saw in one hand. “I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. The guy’s nothing but a fucking coward-” He broke off when Palomo started shaking his head and miming cutting his own throat and Jensen’s eyes got wide. “What?” he asked, confused.

But before either of the two could reply, they were cut off by a cheerful, “hi Tucker!”

Tucker froze, then turned to face the source of the voice, spotting Fox and her new...shadow...standing a little ways away near one of the entrances to the training room. He gave her an awkward, hesitant wave, eyes fixed on Locus, who seemed as cold and stoic as ever. He tailed Fox at a distance as she crossed the room with a bounce in her step to reach Tucker. When she noticed Jensen, she seemed to get even more cheerful.

“Well, hi! Gosh, how are you? Grey told me that she assigned you to P-T this morning. Are you feeling okay?” Fox asked, and Tucker watched as she stopped at his side and looked down at Jensen with her hands on her hips.

She only held his attention for a moment though, as his wariness towards her companion drew him to turn and keep an eye on him. Locus, to Tucker’s relief, had kept his distance, and stood several yards away. Tucker fixed Locus in what he hoped was a very apparent glare, and Locus met his gaze and tilted his head slightly. Tucker held firm for a moment longer, then turned back to Fox, startling slightly when he saw her looking at him. He stared at her for a moment before realizing with embarrassment that she must have said something to him. “Huh?”

“I asked if you were feeling okay too. You’ve been pretty distant recently.”

Oh. Tucker stared at her, taken aback by the question.

“Plus the whole thing with your men. Even though most of them are going to be okay. Y’know, that sort of thing’s tough.”

The concern in Fox’s voice took Tucker off guard, and he found himself trying to collect himself so he could at least give her some sort of answer. “I’m fine,” he replied in a small voice that came out sounding more like a question than an actual statement.

Fox nodded at him. “Okay, I believe you. I’m just asking because I know what it feels like, y’know? If you need someone to talk to, I’ll be around.”

“Uh...Thanks,” Tucker managed, confused. “I appreciate that, I guess?”

Fox gave him a satisfied nod, and Tucker found himself staring at her in awkward silence.

“Um, so what are you guys up to?” he asked lamely.

“Just passing through, actually. We’re about to head outside for some fresh air, but I figured I’d find you first, since I’ve been a little short on time recently and haven’t had a chance to speak with you,” Fox explained. Tucker got the sense that she was relieved that he’d kept the conversation going.

“Right, Wash told me about that. Said Carolina was gonna go with you.” Tucker’s eyes darted to Locus. “You think that’s a good idea?”

“It’ll be fine ,” Fox said, waving a hand at him. “And if you do have any concerns, you can talk to Kimball, Wash, or Carolina about them. They’re the ones pulling all the strings around here.”

Yeah, ‘cause talking about my concerns always goes over well, Tucker thought bitterly.

Fox must have taken his silence as a hint that the conversation was over, because she said, “well, I guess we’ll be on our way then. You three try to behave.”

Tucker watched as she turned on her heel with a wave of her hand, and brushed past Locus, who followed her wordlessly. As they walked away, Tucker felt some of the tension leave his body. As interesting of a person Fox was to talk to, he was far from comfortable with being around her if she was being tailed by Locus. He let out a slow breath that caught in his throat when Jensen suddenly called out, “wait!”

Fox and Locus stopped and turned back to look at her. Tucker found himself doing the same. Jensen turned a little red and fidgeted with the resistance band in her hands, seeming to regret speaking. But then Palomo put his hand on top of one of hers, and she seemed to get some of her confidence back.

“Um…I just wanted to thank you...is all…” Jensen said hesitantly, “for saving me back there.”

And when Tucker looked back at Locus, he noticed that he almost looked surprised. Almost. But then Locus tilted his chin down and said, “don’t thank me,” before turning and walking away. Fox lingered for just long enough to give them a thumbs up before she turned and caught up to him, and Tucker watched as they headed around the corner with a sigh.

At least that, whatever that was, was over. Tucker glanced back at Palomo and Jensen, who seemed preoccupied with each other, then looked back the way Fox and Locus had exited.

He pulled his sword off of his hip and turned it over in his hands, getting second thoughts about practicing with it. With a sigh, he decided that he should just go and try to eat something. His energy had been low all day as it were. And it was never good to think on an empty stomach.

Tucker looked back at Palomo and Jensen and gave them a nod, then turned and headed on his way.

 

 


 

When Fox had radioed her and Wash for a “babysitter for an outside adventure,” Carolina had immediately volunteered. It wasn’t that she was eager to hang out with Fox and Locus so much as she didn’t quite trust the latter with Wash just yet. There was too much bad blood there, and the last thing any of them needed was an incident. So with a resigned sigh, she leaned against the wall and gave Fox the rendezvous point over comms, and waited for her and Locus to show up.

She waited impatiently for a while, before she started wondering if the two of them had gotten “lost.” But just as she pushed off the wall and righted herself to head down the hallway, Fox and Locus rounded the corner.

“Oh hey Lina-bean!” Fox greeted.

Carolina sighed inwardly. “The two of you have an hour,” she said instead of responding with a greeting. “Babysitting” was an excellent word for what she was about to be doing. Which was, of course, frustrating, because Carolina could think of at least a thousand other useful things she could be doing. Oh well. As she turned and led the duo down the hall, she resigned herself to try to make the best of it. “How are things going so far?” she asked, glancing over when Fox matched her pace at her side.

“It’s a slow first day,” Fox replied.

As it should be , Carolina thought. It was far too early for Fox and Locus to be jumping into more...adventurous extracurricular activities. She had figured that this week would go by slow anyways. “What have you two been working on?” she asked, rounding the corner, blinking at the shaft of light that cut through her visor from the entrance to headquarters.

“Updating my shield and making small talk,” Fox replied. “Like I said, slow first day.”

“What was the update?” Carolina asked.

“Hm?”

“For the shield?”

“Oh! I made it so it could take sharper turns, is all. That way it has a much smaller chance of hitting one of the good guys by mistake.”

Under her helmet, Carolina frowned and side-eyed Fox. During the fight with the space pirates, Fox had appeared to be in total control of the shield. It was a little unsettling knowing that it could have been a legitimate threat to any of Kimball’s men if Fox hadn’t been as careful. Having nothing to say to that, she glanced over her shoulder at Locus, who was tailing them silently. He appeared to be paying attention, however, and tilted his head at her when he caught the look she gave him.

Carolina sucked in a short breath and looked forwards, and led the duo up the steps to the entrance of the cave. “Where are you planning on going?” she asked when she reached the middle of the staircase.

“I don’t know. Just for a walk?” Fox replied. “If that’s alright.”

“That’s fine,” Carolina replied, grateful it was that simple.

Fox nodded, then looked back at Locus. “That okay, hon?”

“It’s fine,” Locus replied.

Carolina reached the top of the stairs, and waited for Fox and Locus to reach her before leading them outside. They passed a group of Kimball’s men, who stopped working on a set of metal supports to stare at them as they walked by. Out of the corner of her eye, Carolina could have sworn she saw Locus quickly turn his head away from them, and felt a slight sense of unease.

Once they were a little ways away, Carolina stopped and looked back at Fox. “We stay in the valley, understand?”

Fox pointed finger guns at her. “Sure thing!”

Carolina sighed, then said, “you lead. But remember, stay in the valley.”

“Sure thing,” Fox said, giving her a nod and walking past. “Let’s rock and roll.”

Time went by at a crawl for Carolina as they wandered around the valley. The walk was mostly uneventful, save for the occasional discovery of debris from Warthogs or one of the two downed Pelicans. As boring as it was, Carolina was thankful for it, as the mindlessness of it all provided a short break from the stress of the conflict with Charon.

“So Lina-bean, how’s Kimball holding up?”

Carolina blinked, having been suddenly pulled back into the present moment by Fox’s question. She narrowed her eyes at the other woman for a moment, then glanced at Locus, who seemed uninterested. “She’s fine, why?”

Fox shrugged. “She’s just got a lot going on, is all. I just wanted to make sure she’s doing alright.”

Really, is that it? Carolina thought dubiously. “Why does it matter to you?”

“Well, I’m a doctor, for starters,” Fox replied. Then she let out a small gasp and her back straightened suddenly. “ You think I’ve got ulterior motives, don’t you?”

Well that’s a way of putting it, Carolina thought. But instead of saying so, she replied, “you’re new here. You used to work for Charon. And you insisted that we put you and him, ” she jerked her head in Locus’ direction, who was definitely paying attention now, “together.” Carolina took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to keep from giving into her emotions too much. “Tensions are high here, and we don’t know you that well. It’s not that we don’t trust you, so much as it’s just...difficult to do so.”

“And I get that,” Fox replied, her voice surprisingly calm. “But I just wanted to know if the person who is currently sort of my boss was holding up alright.” And when Carolina had nothing to say to that, she added, “because I care about her.”

Carolina wet her lips under her helmet, pulling a face as she swallowed dry. Then she sighed. “Like I said, she’s fine.”

Fox was silent for a moment, then nodded and said, “alright, I believe you, Lina-bean,” then walked past.

Carolina stared after her a moment, the wheels in her head turning, then she quickened her pace to catch up to the other woman. She matched Fox’s pace, and was about to start talking again when a loud bang resounded across the field. Out of reflex, she froze and put her hand over one of her pistols, looking towards the source.

Fox, however, seemed unfazed, and glanced at her before exchanging a look with Locus. “Well that didn’t sound good,” she remarked.

Carolina looked over at her, then said, “I’m going to contact command and see if there’s something going on.”

“Sounds good,” Fox said with a nod. “ I’m going to get a closer look.”

“You’re staying right here,” Carolina said quickly.

“Never said I had to move, ” Fox replied, then looked towards the source of the sound. There was a ping and her helmet made a purring noise, and a light on the side of it flared red.

Carolina, who had a hand to the side of her helmet, let it drop, staring at the light. “What...is that?”

“Short-Range Spectrum Augmenter,” Fox replied without looking at her. “Or Promethean Vision. Call it what you want.” Then she said, “looks like those guys we passed on the way out dropped some loose rocks when they were repairing the support beams. I think they’re all okay though. Doesn’t look like any of them were hurt. Thankfully.”

“You’re looking at a rock ,” Carolina said. And she was . Right ahead of them was a large rock formation protruding from the field.

“Yeah, but I can see through it.”

“You what?”

The light on the side of Fox’s helmet blinked off, and the purring sound faded, and she looked back towards Carolina. “Promethean Vision lets me see through walls. It’s actually really cool.”

Carolina stared at her, a million questions flooding her brain. She glanced over at Locus, who looked equally surprised. “Why...how  do you have that?” she asked.

“Charon gave the enhancement to a few of my men and I when we went to Nalome. It’s because of that big mechanism CORA was attached to,” Fox replied, looking over at Locus meaningfully when she brought up CORA. “There’s maintenance stuff back there, so it’s helpful when you can see through walls and stuff to figure out where people are. Especially when you’re working with a huge prototype that’s prone to locking in place from time to time and trapping people in the walls.”

“That’s...interesting,” Carolina replied weakly, still having trouble processing the fact that Fox had what was essentially X-ray vision.

“It can even see through active camo, which is helpful, since there were definitely a few pirates who had it during that last fight,” Fox added.

Carolina noted how Locus tilted his head at that, and couldn’t help but feel a little smug.

“Anyways, since there’s obviously no danger, wanna keep moving?” Fox asked, looking hopeful.

Carolina nodded. “Sure. Let’s go.” As they made their way through the valley in the general direction of the cave, Carolina couldn’t help but marvel at how convenient it was that the only person who could make themselves completely invisible had gotten paired up with the only person who could actually see him when he did so. The universe was funny sometimes. She wondered if Kimball knew about the enhancement.

“Well this was nice,” Fox said when they drew closer to the cave, pulling Carolina out of her thoughts. “Maybe...if it’s not too much to ask...we could do this every day? I think it would be good to try to get outside as often as possible, just for a change of scenery.”

Carolina sighed. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll forward you my schedule so we can figure out what times we can meet up.” It could be worse, and it felt good to get away for a while, even if it was only an hour or so.

“Really? That’d be awesome!” Fox exclaimed. Then she tilted her head to the side, and looked over at Locus. “It looks like our session’s up,” she said to him. “I guess we got back just in time. Wanna head in?”

Locus didn’t say anything, but followed her as she headed back across the field towards headquarters. Carolina did the same, keeping her distance behind Locus.

“Thanks for coming out with us, by the way.”

Carolina looked towards Fox when she spoke. “It’s no problem.

“Yeah, but I know we’re not your favorite people. And you have better stuff to do. I just appreciate it, is all.”

Carolina fell silent, unsure of what to say to that.

“Anyways, it was nice of you,” Fox said, reaching the mouth of the cavern and turning to face her with a hand on her hip. “I guess we’ll be seeing you tomorrow?”

“I guess so,” Carolina replied, glancing at Locus out of the corner of her eye. He didn’t seem to be listening.

“Awesome!” Fox said with a grin in her voice, then she gestured to Locus. “Alright, let’s go, bud. I’m hungry!” She turned and headed back into headquarters, with Locus on her heels.

Carolina watched them go, startling when Locus slowed suddenly and looked over his shoulder at her. He gave her a nod, then kept going, disappearing around the corner after Fox. Carolina stared for a moment, wondering if he had just thanked her, then shook her head and started off down the hall. Today had been a day . A few laps around the training room would undoubtedly clear her head.

 


 

“Soooo, how are we doing today?” Donut asked, propping his elbows up on the table, lacing his fingers together, and resting his chin on them.

Across from him, Doc looked up at him with an expression that said “really?” Donut always managed to catch him when he had food in his mouth. He swore he did it on purpose. Doc finished chewing, swallowed, then replied, “fine? I’m fine. Things in the med bay have died down a lot, so Doctor Grey is letting me have longer lunch breaks again.”

“Well that’s nice of her!” Donut exclaimed. “I missed having lunch with you this past week.”

“Mm,” Doc agreed with a nod, glancing at Donut to see if he had anything else to add before taking another bite of his sandwich.

“So five days, huh?”

Oh goddamnit, Doc thought when Donut spoke again .

“Not that I had any doubts about Fox, since she survived falling like, a thousand feet on the moon. But I’m surprised that we haven’t heard about anything going wrong,” Donut continued, glancing away.

Doc finished his bite, then replied, “y’know, I’m pretty sure Locus is scared of Fox.”

Donut raised his eyebrows at him. “You think so? I mean, I wouldn’t blame him!”

“I didn’t see much of the fight, but what I did see all pointed to her not being someone you’d wanna mess with,” Doc said pointedly.

Donut nodded silently, looking over when Grif set his tray down on the table and sat down next to him. “Oooh they got spaghetti?” he asked

“Yeah,” Grif replied, and dug in.

“I think I might go up and get some,” Donut mused.

“Have you eaten yet?” Doc asked.

“Nope.”

“Then you should.”

Donut nodded, then stood. Doc looked over when he walked away, eyes catching Simmons as approached and walked around the table, sitting down next to him. “I really hope this stuff doesn’t give me heartburn,” he muttered.

“You’ll be fine,” Grif said in between bites.

Doc didn’t say anything, and instead focused on finishing his sandwich before Donut got back. He was about halfway through when Sarge took the spot next to Donut’s vacant seat, with a salad on his tray.

“Is that all you’re getting?” Doc asked.

“That pasta ain’t worth the heartburn,” Sarge replied, taking a bite of his salad.

“See?!” Simmons exclaimed, looking pointedly at Grif, who just rolled his eyes.

Doc shook his head and took another bite of his sandwich, looking over when he saw Donut in the corner of his eye. Fox was with him. Huh, Doc thought, wondering how both she and him managed to be off for lunch at the same time. I guess Doctor Grey really isn’t busy right now.

“Hey, look who I found!” Donut announced once he got close to their table.

Fox raised her hand in a small wave. “Donut asked me to sit with you guys,” she said.

“There’s a free spot next to me,” Doc offered.

Fox dipped her head in thanks and walked around and sat down next to him.

Doc glanced over at her, frowning when he noticed she hadn’t gotten any food. “Are you gonna eat something?” he asked.

“Oh, uh, I already had a protein bar,” Fox replied. “I was actually just coming to...socialize.”

“Protein bar ain’t a meal,” Sarge said, looking over at her.

“I know, but with the meds I’m on, it’s tough to wanna eat anything in the middle of the day,” Fox explained.

“You’re on meds?” Grif asked, slurping a loose noodle into his mouth.

Simmons gave him a look. “You can’t just ask if a person is on meds , Grif!”

“She just said she was!

“It’s cool,” Fox said, waving a hand. “I don’t mind. It’s funny, I actually just got Grey to write me a prescription for them a few days ago, which is probably why the side effects are so bad right now.”

“Wait, is it for what we were talking about when you first started working with us?” Doc asked.

Fox nodded. “Yeah,” she said with a laugh. “You don’t realize how hard it is to function with fucking ADHD until you’re stuck around other people.”

Tell me about it,” Simmons muttered, picking at his spaghetti with his fork.

“Well, I don’t notice a difference. You’re still as talkative as ever,” Sarge said, finishing his salad and sitting back with his arms crossed.

“Thanks. I think.”

Doc watched Fox for a moment, then took his unopened water bottle off of his tray and set it in front of her. “You’re probably dehydrated. That stuff sucks the water right out of you.”

Fox looked over at him. “Well aren’t you a little mother hen?”

Donut giggled, “yeah, that’s him. Always worrying about everyone else.”

“He never worries about me, ” Grif said flatly.

“That’s because you sent me to another dimension,” Doc shot back.

“He did what now?” Fox asked.

“There was a teleportation cube mishap,” Donut explained.

Fox looked over at Doc questioningly.

“And none of them actually tried to bring me back,” Doc said grumpily, finishing off his sandwich.

“Huh,” Fox said, then looked down at the water bottle in front of her. She seemed to consider it for a moment, then reached up and pulled off her helmet.

Doc couldn’t help but notice how the Reds all stared at her as she did so, and realized that none of them had probably seen her without her helmet yet.

“Dude,” Grif said, actually looking surprise. “You’re Asian.”

Fox gave him a confused look as she set her helmet down on the bench beside her. “Yeah? Were you expecting something else?”

“Well, you have a Boston accent, so…”

Fox blinked. “What? No I don’t!”

“It’s pretty subtle, but you definitely have a Boston accent,” Donut agreed, nodding.

Fox frowned and stared at her water bottle. “Huh, maybe I really did go crazy on that moon.”

“Can’t be any crazier than Locus,” Doc said, trying to cheer her up.

Fox raised an eyebrow at him.

“Speakin’ of which, how’re you doin’ with him?” Sarge piped up.

“Is he giving you any trouble?” Simmons asked.

“Pfft, no,” Fox snorted. “Honestly, he’s kind of a big pushover.”

Doc, who had been in the middle of digging through his lunchbox for an apple, turned and looked at her in surprise. “What?”

“Yeah, he’s real easy to get along with,” Fox said, waving him off and then reaching for the water bottle, attempting to unscrew the cap. Eventually she gave up and handed it off to Sarge, who popped it open for her. “He kinda just tails me around being a grump and acting like a kicked puppy. And whenever I use my ‘mom voice’ on him, which is rarely, he gets all “ooooh no I’m so sorry” and just sulks for a few hours,” she continued, taking the water bottle back from Sarge and raising it to her lips. She took a sip, then set it back down on the table. “He’s making progress through. He trusts me a lot more than he did when we first got started, and it’s only been five days.”

“Well that’s good,” Doc said, relieved that she wasn’t having to put up with too much.

“Mom voice?” Simmons asked.

“Oh, yeah. It’s what I call the tone of voice I use when I’m being firm with someone,” Fox replied casually. “Doc’s already heard me use it a few times with some of the patients.”

And Doc couldn’t help but chuckle as he remembered the looks on all of those patients’ faces when Fox had gone from calm and sociable to tough and threatening. “It’s pretty funny when she has to do it. Though I definitely got scared the first time I heard it.”

“So do you have kids…?” Donut asked.

“Nah. The term ‘mom voice’ was dubbed when I was a camp counselor over the summers when I was still in college. One of my co-workers called it that,” Fox replied.

“So what were you, a Girl Scout?” Sarge asked.

“Nope. Worked at a camp on the Hale Reservation in Mass,” Fox explained. “It was one of those wilderness camps where you teach kids how to build fires and rafts out of sticks.”

“Well, it explains why you love the outdoors so much,” Doc said. “You’ve been dragging Locus outside every day this week.”

“It’s good for him,” Fox replied.

“The outdoors aren’t good for anybody ,” Simmons said. “There are mosquitoes out there.”

“So wear bug spray,” Grif replied, finishing off his pasta and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“And get covered in chemicals? Fuck that!”

Doc shook his head as the two continued to bicker, looking over when Fox leaned in and stage-whispered, “so how long have they been married?”

“Ever since they arrived at Blood Gulch,” Sarge replied grumpily.

“Yeah I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s where we came from before all our misadventures led to us crashing here,” Doc explained.

“Ohhhh.”

“Speakin’ of which,” Sarge said. “I think it’s time we address the elephant in the room.” He stood and slammed a hand down in the table. “Are ya Red Team or Blue Team, Fox?”

Doc chuckled when Fox just stared at him, confusion written on her face. “You can be neither ,” he offered.

“Shuddap ya damn pacifist!” Sarge barked, pointing at him, then looked back over at Fox. “Well? There’s only one right answer.”

“I thought the teams didn’t matter any more, since you and the Blues worked together now?” Fox asked.

“Hmph, that’s what they want you to think! But the second we let our guard down, they’ll strike!” Sarge huffed, then leaned in towards Fox. “So tell me, are you a Red, or are you scum-sucking, low life, good-fer-nothin’ Blue?”

“She’s totally Blue Team,” Grif said, rolling his eyes. “Her armor has blue on it.”

“Your sister had yellow armor, and she was on Blue Team,” Donut said. “I don’t think it actually matters what color your armor is!”

“Uh...I’m Team Make Everyone Feel Okay And Not Dead?” Fox replied, offering a crooked smile and pointing finger guns at Sarge.

Sarge stared at her, then gave Doc an accusatory look. “Look what you did. She coulda been one’ve us!”

Doc just shrugged. Oh well. At least Fox was taking his side, it seemed like.

“I think you guys have a strong enough team without me, actually,” Fox said quickly. “But no, I think I’m with Doc on this one. I’m staying neutral.”

“Hmph,” Sarge grumbled, sitting back down and crossing his arms, a pout on his grizzled face.

“So do you have any big plans for next week?” Doc asked Fox. “You said that you’ve got a report you need to file with Kimball tomorrow.”

“I might see if I can calibrate my shield so Locus can use it so he won’t take as many hits during the next fight,” Fox replied.

Doc glanced over when he heard Simmons choke next to him. He reached over and gave Simmons a few hefty pats to the back to help him out. Simmons reached for his water and gulped it down, his face almost as red as his armor.

“Are you okay?” Doc asked.

Simmons just nodded, and across from him, Grif drew himself up and screeched, “WHY?!” at Fox.

“Because I wanna test out ShowStopper ’s capabilities. And also because he took a lot of hits last fight. And if we’re going to be teamed up, I need him alive,” Fox explained with a strained look of calm on her face that Doc knew was the result of her being yelled at.

Doc looked away, down at the table. This wasn’t the first time she had mentioned this around him. Late one night after the two of them had finished helping assist Grey with a surgery, she had brought it up. Doc had given her a similar reaction to the one Grif had given her, though in a slightly less screechy voice. Her reasoning made sense. He had been there during the fight with the pirates. And he had seen how much Fox cared about the people she worked with. He’d been on the receiving end of it a number of times as of late, when the med bay was filled with patients in need of care. She had always managed to sneak him a snack bar or a drink whenever he didn’t have time to get one for himself. Even though it was obvious that Fox knew what sort of person Locus was, it also fit the profile that she would care about his wellbeing regardless.

“You’d best be careful with that,” Sarge said, pulling Doc back to reality.

Fox looked over at him. “Don’t worry, Pops, I will be.”

“And you’d better not get us all killed,” Grif warned.

“Relax, I know what I’m doing,” Fox replied.

Simmons looked over at her, his organic eye watery and red from coughing. Then he looked to Grif, who sighed and stood, picking up his tray. “Yeah, I doubt that. But whatever,” Grif said, turning and walking away. Simmons watched him go for a moment, then wordlessly picked up his own tray and followed him.

Doc watched the two put up their trays, then exit the mess hall, then looked back when Sarge stood. “Where’re you off to?” he asked.

“Patrol,” Sarge replied. “Gotta make sure those pirates don’t catch us with our pants down again.”

As Sarge walked away, Doc looked over at Donut, who just gave him a shrug. “For the record, I don’t care what you do,” Donut offered to Fox, who appeared unfazed.

“Thanks,” she said flatly, raising an eyebrow at him.

The three of them sat in an uncomfortable silence after that for a moment, then Doc spoke up. “Hey, Donut, Lopez, and I were gonna throw on a movie tonight. Do you wanna join us?”

Fox gave him a small smile. “Maybe. I was going to look around for some ginger hair dye. See if I can bribe anyone into giving up theirs.”

“I can hook you up!” Donut exclaimed, slamming a hand down on the table.

“Don’t go taking Carolina’s hair dye,” Doc warned.

“Nah, I won’t,” Donut said, waving a hand. He grinned at Fox. “I could even dye it for you, if you wanted. I bleach my hair all the time. That way you could still watch the movie with us!”

Fox chuckled. “I’ll think about it, how about that?”

Donut’s grin grew bigger, and Doc couldn’t help but laugh a little at his boyfriend’s enthusiasm. “Great! Just let me know!”

Doc’s smile faded a little, and he looked over at Fox. “We should probably get back.”

“Probably. What time is it?”

“I think we’re running late.”

“Shit.”

Doc packed up his lunch and looked over at Donut. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said, then stood and leaned over the table and kissed him. “Love you!”

“Love ya too!”

Doc turned and let Fox walk past him, her helmet tucked under one arm, then followed her as she headed for the exit. Hopefully Grey wouldn’t be too upset with them.

 

 


 

Kimball stared down at the schedule Fox had brought her, trying to process what was written on it. “Your reasoning for this proposal, as you have stated, is “because science”?” she asked, looking up at Fox.

“I...meant to edit that. Sorry,” Fox replied, her shoulders going stiff.

Kimball folded her hands on top of her desk and looked Fox up and down. “So?”

“I was thinking that after the fight with the pirates, Locus could use a little...defense boost. He took a lot of damage. And if I’m going to work with him, he needs to be alive, and there’s no way those pirates aren’t coming back. Hargrove isn’t paying them for nothing,” Fox elaborated.

Kimball blinked a few times, processing this. “It’s been two weeks since you first started working with him. And while your reports show immense improvement in his behavior, I don’t think this is something he’s ready for yet.”

“Hitting the ground running isn’t always a bad thing,” Fox replied. “And you’ve already moved him up to six hours with me a day.”

“I’m aware,” Kimball sighed. “But he’s still showing some levels of hostility towards my men and the Reds and Blues. Giving him a weapon is hardly the best way to handle this.”

“Actually,” Fox said, “he just seems...frustrated. With himself and with this whole situation. I think he had it in his head that he would be doing more than just hanging out with me outside of his cell.”

“I see,” Kimball said. And she could see it; him being frustrated. But it didn’t exactly change her stance on the matter. “The purpose of pairing you with him was to give him a small amount of freedom in a controlled setting.”

“Which is why I wanted him to work with the shield,” Fox replied.

Kimball tilted her head to the side, surprised. Alright, what aren’t you telling me? she thought. “How is that controlled?”

“So if I were to calibrate the shield to him, it would still prioritize me over him. So if he tried to throw it at one of your men, I could just call it back,” Fox explained.

Kimball thought about this for a moment. There were a number of assumptions about that shield that she had made based on what she’d seen during the fight with the pirates. The most prominent of which being that Fox was in complete control of it and new exactly what she was doing. The problem lied in the fact that Locus, like the rest of them, had probably never used a weapon like hers before. So not only was there a good chance of him hurting someone by mistake, but once he got good enough to use it well, his odds of being a legitimate threat to her men went up. But Fox said she could make the shield prioritize her. And she sounded very certain of it too. And Kimball had to admit that she was curious, to a degree, to see if Locus had advanced far enough to be cooperative in a training exercise. There was only one way to find out.

“Very well, I approve. However ,” Kimball said firmly, before Fox got too excited, “I’m going to be there. So will Wash and Carolina.”

Fox beamed. “That works fine! Honestly, I think this’ll be fun for everyone involved. Although…” She trailed off, and her demeanor became far less energetic. “You might want to have Grey on standby.”

“Why’s that?” Kimball asked, doubt already beginning to fill her.

“Because the way the shield calibrates to power armor sometimes causes really bad bruising,” Fox replied. “Which is why, if you noticed, on the schedule, I put the following day down as a sort of free period. Just in case he needs the rest. Because at the very least, he’s gonna be pretty sore.”

“Ah,” Kimball said, relaxing. “That’s fine. I’ll have her on standby.” She glanced over the rest of Fox’s schedule. It all looked fairly reasonable. Lots of outside time, but that had sort of become the norm. “Where are you hoping for this training to take place?”

“It’s your base,” Fox shrugged. “You tell me.”

“I can schedule a block of time on the training floor.”

Fox tilted her head up in thought. “That should give us enough space.”

“Good,” Kimball replied. Then hit a few buttons on the datapad Fox had handed her. “I’ve approved the rest of your schedule. For now, you’re dismissed.” She handed the datapad back to Fox.

Fox nodded in acknowledgement and headed for the door, pausing right in front of it and turning back and saying, “you might wanna bring some popcorn for this, by the way. It’s gonna be a hoot.” Then she was gone.

Kimball stared after her, then sighed and shook her head. It was definitely going to be something.

 


 

“Okay, so, you read over the schedule on like, Sunday, so you know what today is, yeah?”

Locus looked up when Fox spoke as she led him through the hallway. “Yes.”

“Cool. Did I tell you that Kimball, Wash, and Carolina are gonna be there? And also maybe Grey?” Fox asked looking back.

“You did.”

“And you’re still cool with that?” she asked, still not looking in front of her, and now on a very clear collision course with a soldier who had just turned the corner and had their nose in a datapad.

“Careful,” Locus replied, nodding ahead.

“Huh? Oh!” Fox quickly side-stepped to avoid running into the soldier on their way past. “Kids these days and their technology,” she sighed. “You gonna answer me?” She asked.

“It’s fine.”

“Okay, great!” Fox said, leading him around the corner and into an elevator.

The schedule she had given him at the beginning of the week stated that they would be on the training room floor for the majority of their six-hour period together. Locus was still trying to wrap his head around why Kimball had increased the amount of time out of his cell. He watched the elevator doors slide shut, then looked down at Fox. “Why did Kimball increase our time?”

Fox looked up at him. “Because you’ve been improving.”

Locus doubted that, but didn’t say so. “Was this always the plan?”

Fox looked away. “Between you and me, the goal is to get you out of that cell permanently. Kimball seemed...like she was considering it. But you have a lot of work to do before you get there.”

Under his helmet, Locus blinked. He never imagined that Kimball would allow him the same freedoms as her men, especially after what he did. It seemed odd. And something ugly in the back of his head thought it seemed like an opportunity. He brushed it aside and asked. “Such as?”

“For starters, you gotta stop being such a grouch to everyone around here,” Fox replied, holding up her laptop, which had been tucked under her arm, and picking a piece of lint out of one of the monitor joints. “You should also probably apologize to Kimball at some point, because you definitely need to.”

“I’m not--” Locus cut off. Was he really coming off as hostile? “What do you mean?”

Fox chuckled and looked back up at him. “Say you’re sorry?

“No...about being a...grouch.”

Fox tilted her head slightly. “You talk like a James Bond villain,” she said after a moment.

“A what.”

“You’ve never seen those movies?” Fox asked, shaking her head.

“I-- what is your point?”

“You’re doing it right now,” Fox said.

And Locus froze. “Doing what?”

“Being a grouch.”

Oh , Locus thought, and fell silent.

“Yeah man, it’s all in how you talk to people,” Fox continued. “Like, I get it. You’ve been through some shit, and you’re upset at this whole situation, and you’re mad at yourself. But everything around you isn’t in your head. We’ve all got stuff we’re going through too. You gotta consider that. Just be nice to people.”

And Locus knew that. And the fact that he was apparently expressing himself in a way that made it seem like he didn’t filled him with frustration. Why did it have to be so difficult?

“And I get it,” Fox continued. “You’re not really a social butterfly. And that’s okay. That’s cool. And sure, being blunt is sort of...your thing. Like we all have a thing. Mine is that I talk really fast and sometimes my brain can’t keep up. But it’s something to work on, y’know? So just think before you speak, and ask yourself if what you’re about to say might make someone upset.”

“Fine,” Locus replied. Then thought better of it and said, “I...I understand.”

“Better,” Fox said with an approving nod, then looked back at the elevator doors. She was silent for a moment, then said, “is this thing broken? I swear to god the is the longest elevator ride I’ve been on.”

It was right then that the elevator pulled to a stop and the doors slid open.

“Okay, there we go. Talk about convenient,” Fox said, stepping out and shaking her head. “I was beginning to get worried for a second there. I mean, I like you and all, but I wouldn’t want to spend an eternity in an elevator with you. No offence.”

Locus just stared at her and said nothing.

Fox chuckled. “Okay, nothing to that, huh? Oh well.” She turned and gestured with her hand to follow her. “C’mon.”

When they finally stepped into the training room, Locus was surprised to find that it was empty. Save for Kimball, Wash, and Carolina, of course. The three of them stood off to the side, likely having a conversation, and looked over when he and Fox walked in.

“Well, hello everyone! I hope we all slept well. Anyone bring any popcorn?” Fox asked, stopping in front of them with her free hand on her hip.

Locus stopped a good distance behind her, knowing full well that neither of the three would want him anywhere near them.

“Popcorn?” Wash asked, glancing over at Locus, who quickly looked away.

“It’s a joke, Stripes. Though I wouldn’t have minded,” Fox said, pulling her hand off her hip and waving it dismissively. “Actually, though, you guys are early. I still have to calibrate the shield,” she continued, holding up her laptop.

“How long will that take?” Locus heard Kimball ask.

“Maybe an hour? Probably closer to a halfie, though. So if you wanna go get coffee, now’s your chance,” Fox replied.

Locus looked back and watched the three talk amongst themselves, silently hoping that they would leave and give him more time to prepare for what came next.

“I’ll stay,” Kimball said. “You two go on ahead.”

Locus groaned inwardly. He watched as Wash and Carolina started to go, but then Carolina stopped and turned back and asked, “you like yours black, right?”

Kimball seemed surprised by this. “Yes,” she replied slowly.

Carolina nodded silently, then caught up to Wash, and the two stepped into the hallway.

“Well that’s awful sweet of her,” Fox said.

Kimball looked back at her. “Did you want anything?”

“Nah, thanks. I can’t drink coffee in the morning,” Fox said, shaking her head. “Last time I tried that, I had an anxiety attack that lasted forty-eight hours. Not a good time.” She turned and looked around, her shoulders falling a little.

“What’s wrong?” Locus asked.

She looked over at him. “Oh, uh. I just realized there aren’t any tables for me to set this thing up on.” She shrugged. “Oh well.” Then she stepped away from Kimball, and sat down cross-legged on the floor. “This is terrible for my back. But I’ll live.”

“You’re a little young to have back problems,” Locus said flatly.

Fox burst out laughing, catching him --and apparently Kimball, as she stiffened up momentarily-- off guard. “Aw, aren’t you sweet,” she said, looking up at him. “How old do you think I am?”

Locus thought for a moment. She hadn’t looked that old when he first saw her face. But then again, the lighting wasn’t the best down where his cell was. “Mid-thirties?”

“Nah, honey, I’m fourteen months older than you,” Fox said, shaking her head.

That would make her….forty-four, Locus realized. She was far older than he had expected. Of course, her bubbly, outgoing personality also contributed to how young his original perception of her had been.

“I think I’m probably older than you too,” Fox said, looking over at Kimball.

“I’m thirty-five,” Kimball replied.

“Forty-four. I’m older,” Fox said, opening her laptop and pulling her shield off of her hip, setting it down next to her.

Locus noted the way Kimball looked over at him, like she was doing the math.

“You guys might as well grab a seat,” Fox said after a moment of silence. “Like I said, this could take a little bit.”

Locus looked over at Kimball, then got closer to Fox and sat down. Kimball opted to stay standing. Locus chose not to let this bother him too much, and instead focused on what Fox was doing. He watched her for a little bit, then asked, “how does the calibration work?”

“So, last night I entered the information for your power armor and implants that I got from your files into this little program here,” Fox said, wiggling the pointer around inside of the window that was pulled up on the screen. “Now I gotta run an automatic calibration, where it will construct a sort of default rig based on your armor. After that, I’ve gotta synch the rig up to you through the WiFi, and then run a manual calibration.”

“What’s the purpose of the default rig?” Locus asked.

“It’s what will allow you to actually use the shield,” Fox said. “Speaking of which…” She pulled out a cable and hooked the shield up to her laptop’s USB port. “The manual calibration will be on you. That’ll be you actually going through the motions.”

“How will I know what to do?”

“I’ll show you!” Fox replied. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna make you ride without training wheels on the first try.”

“Fox, I want to see how it will prioritize you after the calibration is complete,” Kimball spoke up.

Fox gave her a two-fingered salute. “Sure thing!” Then the looked back at Locus and said. “Not sure if I forgot to mention this, but the shield will respond to me over you. So if we both call it at the same time, it’s not gonna go to you. Which is why we gotta be good at communicating with each other by the time those pirates show up again.”

Interesting, Locus thought. “Noted.” He looked over when he heard the sound of footsteps echoing through the space accompanied by the distinct sound of Wash’s voice, and watched as the two Freelancers stepped into the training room and approached them.

Carolina handed Kimball her coffee, then looked back towards Fox. “How’s it looking?”

“Getting there,” Fox replied. “You guys’ bandwidth here sucks.

“It might have something to do with the two space ships that…” Wash trailed off, and Locus caught how he glanced in his direction, “...crashed.”

Apparently Fox had noticed too, because she looked at Wash, then back at him. “There’s a story here,” she said, amusement in her voice.

“Yeah…” Wash said, clearly regretting bringing it up at all.

“Well, we’ll be here for a little bit. Why don’t you tell it?” Fox suggested.

Locus sighed and closed his eyes and looked away, listening as Carolina spoke up and said, “the first ship was the one we were on. Us and the Reds and Blues were on our way home.”

“And the second?” Fox asked.

“We...mighthavedroppedthesecondoneonLocusandFelix,” Wash said quickly.

Locus opened his eyes and looked at Wash irately, then met Fox’s gaze when she turned her head and stared at him.

“What?”

“It wasn’t a good day,” Locus replied.

“What the fuck are you made of?!” Fox exclaimed. “You survived that and crash-landing on my moon?! Are you some type of roach?!”

“No, Wash is a roach,” Carolina spoke up. “He’s been run over at least a dozen times.”

Fox looked back at her and Wash. “Is it because he looks like a highway?”

Wash let out a long, world-weary sigh. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Ah,” Fox said, then focused back on her screen, which Locus noticed had a loading bar on it that was filled to about sixty percent. He couldn’t help but feel relieved. At least they were close to being done with…whatever this was.

“So...uh...can we expect to see any flips or anything today, or no?”

Locus looked up when Wash spoke, then glanced over at Fox, figuring he must be talking to her. But when Fox didn’t respond, and instead looked back at him, he realized that Wash had been speaking to him. Caught off guard, and confused as to why Wash was even talking to him, he scrambled for an answer. “I...I’m not--”

“Unless he was a figure skater or gymnast at some point in his life, and it wasn’t in his file, I doubt it,” Fox said.

Locus gave her a grateful look that he hoped she caught.

“Were you one of those?” Wash asked.

“Figure skater. Four years in high school. It’s all muscle memory. Had a friend who was like...a professional gymnast while I was in college. We used to fuck around and do fancy parkour shit together,” Fox replied, head tilted towards her computer screen.

That made sense, Locus thought. Fox’s execution of her movements in the fight with the pirates had been incredibly precise. It took someone with that sort of experience to have the spacial awareness needed to pull off her style of fighting.

“So I take it that’s where you learned to do all those flips?” Kimball asked.

“Bingo.”

“Doesn’t that leave you open to taking hits?” Carolina asked.

“Well, that’s what he’s for,” Fox said, nodding back at Locus.

“But what’s the point of doing them?”

“Momentum,” Fox replied. “I mean, look at me, Lina-bean. I’m tiny. And this shield weighs close to two-hundred pounds. And while I don’t really feel that weight, since it is a fixed point, I do have to fight it when I throw it, otherwise it wouldn’t go very far.”

“So that’s why it was so heavy!” Wash exclaimed.

“Huh,” Carolina said, and handed him her coffee. She pulled off her helmet and tucked it under her arm, then took it back from him, taking a sip of it and making a face.

“Still too hot?” Wash asked her.

“A little.”

“Oh, look at that, we’re done!” Fox exclaimed.

Locus looked back at her screen, confirming that it was, in fact, done. Then he stood.

Fox quickly set up the manual calibration, unhooked her shield from her laptop and did so too, planting her hands on her lower back and stretching until there was an audible pop! “God, I feel like a grandma ,” she complained, straightening up. “Alright, let’s get started.” She held out an arm, palm facing up, and Locus watched as the shield leapt up and hovered above her wrist. Then she turned and walked past him, out into the open training floor. “Follow me.”

Locus did as he was told, tailing her and stopping short of where she had, waiting for what came next.

“Okay, so before we get started with this, I want you to know that I’ve only ever calibrated this thing once before. For myself. And when I did that, like an hour later, my whole body was black and blue and sore as fuck,” Fox explained, looking at him meaningfully. “There’s no way to know if that’ll happen to you. I’ve updated this thing a dozen times, so maybe I managed to work that out of it. But the reason it did that before is because the automatic rig puts a lot of strain on your muscles and sometimes causes your armor to overcompensate. It won’t do any real damage, but it’ll definitely leave you hurting if it does that. If it gets too much, just let me know. I can save the profile and we can come back to it if you’re still up for it.”

Locus thought about this. He had expected something to happen as a result of using the shield. Pain hadn’t been it. But he’d dealt with pain before. Whatever the shield might cause, he doubted it would be as bad as some of his past injuries. “Understood.”

“You wanna go for it?” Fox asked, tilting her head slightly.

“I’m willing to try.”

“Great!” Fox exclaimed. “Hold out your hand and try to stay relaxed.”

Locus did so, and watched as Fox brought the shield over and held it above his hand.

“You’re going to feel some weight. That’s normal. Just keep your hand steady,” Fox said, both hands around the shield base. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

Fox pulled her hands away, and the shield base dropped. The weight was immediate, and was far stronger than what Locus had expected. It was almost like the shield and his hand were two magnets of opposite charges, but she shield was much, much stronger. And then, like that, the weight was gone, and the shield hovered above his open hand effortlessly. “Is that it?” he asked.

“That’s it.”

“What did that do?”

“It was figuring out its parameters for how much of the shield’s weight you can handle, and how much it’ll need to compensate,” Fox replied. “So what you’re gonna wanna do next is extrude the blade. So make a fist with your hand, than open it up with your fingers straight, okay? And try not to flinch. It might throw off the calibration.”

Locus nodded, then did as she said, making a fist, then opening his hand. The ring around the shield base sprung out immediately. And even though he’d been given a warning, Locus couldn’t help but tense up a little.

“Yeah, it comes out fast. It’ll take some getting used to,” Fox said with a laugh. “So now you gotta learn how to retract it. It’s basically the same motion, but reversed. So go fingers straight, then make a fist.”

Locus did so, and the blade retracted. “How do you avoid retracting it by mistake in a fight?” he asked. It was such a simple movement; one that was too easy to make without thinking.

“You can lock it. Which I’ll show you in a sec,” Fox replied. “So pop it back out.”

Locus obeyed and looked over once the blade had extruded again.

“So, you ever watch Star Trek? ” Fox asked, putting a hand on her hip.

“I’m familiar with it.”

“Do you know how to do the ‘live long and prosper’ thing with your hand?”

Locus thought for a moment. What did that look like again? “Possibly,” he said.

“Give it a try.”

And Locus did. He struggled with it, as it was such an awkward position to move his fingers in, but he got it. The second he did so, the shield emitted a mechanical clicking sound, and when he looked at it, several panels on the surface of the blade had slid back, revealing a ring of what appeared to be vents that glowed a pale blue. “What are those?”

“Vents for the energy relay. When you lock the shield, it expects you to start throwing it around, so it opens its vents so it doesn’t overheat,” Fox explained, nodding at the shield.

Locus nodded. So the energy did emit heat. It made sense considering the shield created a hard light barrier around itself.

“So now I want you to take a chance at throwing it,” Fox said, and when Locus looked over at her, he noticed she was taking a few steps back.

“How do I do that?” Fox had mentioned that she used spins and flips to gain momentum, but he knew he couldn’t do any of those.

Fox chuckled. “Have you ever thrown a frisbee before?”

“Is it similar?”

“Yeah, just keep your eyes on your target and stop your arm movement once you’ve pointed it in the direction you want to go. The shield will take care of most of the maneuvering for you.”

“How hard should I throw it?”

“Give it a light toss. We don’t want to wreck anything in here.”

“How do I know if I’m throwing it too hard?”

Locus looked over when Fox laughed and shook her head at the floor, then looked back at him. “You’re worrying too much. Just relax and trust yourself. You got this, champ.”

Locus sighed, staring at the far wall of the training room. Then he took a stance, pulling back the arm that the shield hovered over. He glanced over at Wash, Carolina, and Kimball, noting that Wash and Kimball had their helmets off now too. All three of them seemed to have tensed up and were watching him closely. He quickly looked away and back at the wall, sucked in a deep breath, then stepped forward and threw the shield. It hurtled away at a much faster speed than he had intended, and he glanced over at Fox to make sure he’d done it right.

“Good, now make a fist,” she said, noticing his gaze and nodding at him.

Locus did so, looking back at the shield, and startling slightly when he saw that it immediately turned and started flying back towards it.

“Relax. Hand out, palm up, like you’re catching a pizza pie,” Fox said, clearly noticing how he tensed up. “Just follow the motion, and it’ll sense you and stop.”

Locus did as he was told, trying to remember to breathe and keep his hand from shaking. He had seen how this thing cut through power armor like it was nothing. And now it was hurtling towards him.

The shield reached him, and he followed its motion with his arm, eyes never leaving it as its rotation slowed and it came to a stop below his open palm. Locus stared at it for a moment, adrenaline coursing through him, then looked over sharply when he heard Fox let out a whoop.

“See? You’re a natural!” Fox exclaimed, clapping.

Locus stared at her a moment longer, taking a moment to try to calm down, then he straightened up, holding the shield by his side. “Is that it?”

“Oh no,” Fox said, a smile in her voice, “we’re just getting warmed up. Now you’re gonna get a running start.”

For the next two hours, Fox ran him through drill after drill. At first, Locus didn’t quite see what she had meant when she told him that the calibration would be painful, but as the time dragged by, he felt his muscles getting weaker. Eventually, Carolina left and returned with a datapad for Kimball, before dipping out for good bidding Kimball and Wash farewell, which Locus was grateful for. One less person to watch him wear himself out. By the time Fox finally called for a break, he felt like he’d just finished dragging a tractor uphill through the mud in a hurricane.

The second Fox showed him how to holster the shield, and he finished doing so, he practically collapsed into a sitting position.

“You’ve done well,” Fox said, patting him on the shoulder as she walked past.

He took a minute to catch his breath, staring at the floor, then looked over and watched as Fox crouched down in front of her laptop, likely to check the calibration.

“Enjoying the show so far?” he heard her ask Kimball and Wash.

“If I had known it would be this...relaxed, I would have brought this with me from the start,” Kimball replied, holding up her datapad.

“Do you think we should get Doctor Grey in here?” Wash asked her, glancing in Locus’ direction. “He’s not looking too good.”

“It’s like I said,” Fox spoke up, “the calibration is painful. Thankfully, I’ve just got one more thing to show him before we’re done for the day. Speaking of which, I’m sending him right to that armor rig once I’m done, if that’s okay. I know it’s been off and on about keeping him in it, but the pirates haven’t shown any signs of wanting to fuck with us, and he’s going to need actual rest.”

“So you’re cutting the session short?” Kimball asked.

“With respect, the guy’s a fucking puddle.”

“Fair enough,” Kimball replied, but Locus could hear the slight annoyance in her voice.

As much as he hated being described as a...puddle...it was a pretty accurate label considering that he could barely move without it hurting. His legs felt like jelly, and every breath send pain shooting up his back. At least it was almost over. He looked over when Fox stood, and sighed as she headed towards him.

“You ready?” she asked when she got close.

Locus looked back at the shield hovering a few inches off of the floor next to him, then back at her. “Ready.”

“You need a hand?” she asked moving closer. “Or-- oh. Okay. You got it then. Never mind,” she said when he pulled himself to his feet.

Locus glanced at her, then called the shield back to him with one of the hand motions she had taught him. It shot up and hovered over his wrist. “What’s next?” he asked.

“Next, I’m gonna teach you how to do a concussive blast, or C-B for short,” Fox said, stepping up beside him.

Locus wasn’t sure if he liked the way that sounded. “What does that do?”

“It knocks your enemies back. Or blows them up, depending on how strong of a blast you create,” Fox said with a shrug. Then she turned and looked at the far wall. “So what you’re going to wanna do is float the shield in front of you and then activate the hard light barrier like I showed you how to do earlier.”

Locus did so, pulling his hand back from it and letting the shield hover with its vents parallel to the far wall, blue energy whirling out of them.

“Then you’re gonna wanna make fists with both hands, and knock ‘em together,” Fox continued. “But don’t do that quite yet, okay?” she added quickly.

“What’s wrong?” Locus asked, looking over at her.

“There’s some safety stuff I need to go over with you,” Fox said, glancing over towards Kimball and Wash.

Locus did the same and noticed how both appeared to be listening intently.

“So first of all, this is sort of like...a last resort. Because it can do a lot of harm,” Fox explained, nodding at the shield. “At full power, this thing’s C-B can break the sound barrier.”

Locus stared at the shield. “Is that what you used to get us out of the tower at Station Alpha?” he asked, looking back at her.

“It is. And what I used was probably only at around sixty-percent power,” Fox replied with a nod.

“How does it work?”

“So what happens is the plasma particles from the energy relay get sucked in really fast to the center of the front of the shield facing away from you. And then they burst apart and send out a massive shockwave,” Fox explained.

Locus blinked, then tilted his head at her. “But what you did on Nalome followed a specific path. Wouldn’t what you just described affect everything around it?”

“Oooh, someone has a basic understanding of physics,” Fox said, a grin in her voice. “So the vents around the blade push out energy too that acts like a sort of counter to the C-B. The way that the blast actually travels is in a sort of spiral, because of how the vents interact with it. Obviously, the radius increases the farther away you are from the target, but it is guided.”

Locus didn’t quite understand the mechanics Fox was describing, but he decided that none of it really mattered, so long as the C-B was mostly safe. “How do you determine the strength of the blast?”

“By how hard you slam your fists together. I’ve capped you off at forty-percent, for the record. Because honestly, you probably won’t ever actually use a C-B, and anything over that could do some serious damage, and you’re new to this whole thing as it is,” Fox said.

Understandable, Locus thought, looking back at the far wall.

“Well, I can see you’re itching to try it out, so give it a go,” Fox said, taking a few steps back to put her a good distance apart from him.

Locus glanced over at her, then back at the shield, suddenly feeling much less confident than he had when she’d been right by his side. He took a deep breath and looked down at his hands, forming them into fists.

“Lightly,” Fox reminded.

Locus nodded, braced himself, then gently rapped his knuckles together. There was a whirring sound, then a crackle, and the shield jerked back ever so slightly. Across the room, one of the huge mirrors that lined the wall vibrated and cracked.

“And that is a ten-percent C-B,” Fox declared. “Excellent work!”

Locus stared at the cracked mirror for a moment, then looked back at her. “Is that it?”

“Well, for now, yeah. You can unlock the shield and retract it,” Fox replied. Then she turned towards Kimball and Wash and gave them a thumbs up.

Locus turned and did as she asked, holding the retracted shield out to her when he was done. She took it from him and holstered it on her hip, then gestured for him to follow her as she walked back towards the others.

“So? What did you think?” Fox asked as she got close to Wash and Kimball.

Kimball didn’t answer right away, and instead looked over at Locus. And because she and Wash had put their helmets back on, he couldn’t tell what either of them was thinking. “It ran smoothly,” she said slowly.

“Buuut?”

“But nothing,” Kimball said, straightening up and looking over at Fox. “It went smoothly. You did well. I take it you’re finished for the day?”

Fox nodded, but there was something about how she held herself that made her seem like she doubted what Kimball had said. “We are.”

“Alright. I want that shield with you at all times unless we discuss it prior,” Kimball replied.

“I figured as much. It will be,” Fox said.

Kimball simply nodded. “Well, this was...interesting. But I have work to do, and Washington has a patrol to catch.”

“Well, then we’ll be seeing you,” Fox said.

Kimball looked over at Wash, who gave her a nod, then the two of them turned and headed on their way.

Locus watched them go, trying to ignore the ache in his muscles, and looked over when Fox tapped the side of her chin. “Is something wrong?” he asked after a moment.

“I think something’s up,” she said softly, looking up at him. Then she shook her head. “It could just be nothing though. Maybe I’m just seeing things.”

Locus wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he simply fell silent.

That silence lasted for almost a minute before Fox finally shook her head and said, “we’ll figure it out,” before crouching in front of her laptop, clicking a few things, then closing it and standing with it tucked under her arm. She looked at him for a moment, head tilted slightly, then said, “come on. You look exhausted. You need some rest.” Then she jerked her head in the direction of the training room exit, and started off.

Locus watched her go for a moment, wondering what she could have seen that would prompt such a quick change of her mood, then shook it off and hurried after her as quickly as his tired body would allow.

Chapter Text

Kimball looked up when Grey stepped into her office, a coffee mug with the words “a doctor a day keeps an apple away, if you throw it hard enough” in her hands, and several pencils shoved through her bun. She couldn’t help but quirk a small smile at the sight.

“I take it this must be pre-tty important if you’re pulling me away from my lovely research,” Grey sang, setting her mug down on the edge of Kimball’s desk.

“Actually, it’s...more of a hunch,” Kimball replied, growing serious and looking away.

“Oh boy. Sit back and tell me all of your woes, sweetie,” Grey said, shifting her weight.

“Last month, when Fox was calibrating her shield so Locus could use it, she mentioned that she was forty-four years old. But when she first arrived here, and we learned her real name, I did some digging-- just basic internet searches --and Annita Rosenblum should only be thirty-eight. I tried to brush it off, but I can’t stop thinking about it,” Kimball explained.

“So she lied about her age, people do that all the time,” Grey said dismissively, waving a hand. “Lord knows I owned a few fake ID’s back in the day.”

“But why would she do something like that? You know her better than I do. Have you noticed anything else that seems off?”

Grey shrugged. “Well, she’s been hanging out with the Reds and Blues more. Specifically the Reds. Though that might be because Sarge has been trying to get her to join their team.”

“Anything out of the ordinary?”

“Well, she has been a bit more hesitant to approach you. Though that might just be her trauma acting up and making her wary of authority. We both know what she went through with Charon.”

Kimball sighed, staring at Grey’s mug. “It just seems so weird.”

“You must not think it’s too much of a problem, since you upgraded the amount of time Fox and Locus spend together from six hours to twelve at the start of the month. Not to mention that you’ve essentially allowed him free range of headquarters as long as Fox or one of the Reds and Blues is within reach. He’s practically assimilated at this point,” Grey said.

“That has nothing to do with this. He’s shown significant improvement, both in his levels of cooperation, and in how he interacts with my men. It’s Fox that I’m worried about,” Kimball replied.

“I’m starting to think that you trust him more than Fox! ” Grey laughed.

Kimball blinked, then sat back with a frown. “I don’t know. Back when I first met her, her intentions seemed clear. She wanted revenge on Hargrove. But after this, I’m not so sure what she wants. What else could she be hiding?”

“Sweetie, I get that it’s been a rough time since...Felix. And I know that she’s pretty charismatic and talkative, and a bit of a jackass, just like he was, but they’re not the same person,” Grey said, fixing her in a meaningful look.

Kimball sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I know. I know that. And I know that we wouldn’t have gotten this far with Locus if it wasn’t for her. I just…”

“I think maybe you need to take a break,” Grey suggested. “You’re cooped up in this office every day. And at the end of the week, when you’re refreshed and have had some time to think, go talk to Fox about it.”

Kimball started to give her a look, then bit her lip, realizing she was right. She was in her office a lot. Even Carolina had pointed it out a few days ago. “You’re right,” she sighed.

“I know I’m right. I’m the smartest person on this planet, and I’m a doctor,” Grey said, amusedly. And then, in a more sincere voice, added, “and I’m your friend. So as your friend, I’m going to have to kindly shoo you out of here to get some fresh air for once in a damned while.”

Kimball raised an eyebrow at her.

“Well! Come on. Up, up!” Grey exclaimed, accentuating her words with shooing hand gestures.

Kimball smiled and shook her head, then rose out of her seat, walking around her desk.

“There we go. Isn’t that better?” Grey asked.

Kimball rolled her eyes. “Absolutely.”

Grey gave her an equally sarcastic smile, and said, “then my work here is done!” And then she picked up her mug and turned, heading for the door.

“Grey?”

Grey paused, mid-step, and looked back over her shoulder. “Hmmm?”

Kimball glanced away, then back at her. “Could you...keep an eye on Fox for me? I just have to be sure.”

Grey let out a dramatic sigh. “Oh, alright. Shouldn’t be too hard today, since both of them were in the lab with me when you called me up.”

“Thank you,” Kimball said, and meant it.

Grey simply gave her a salute with her coffee mug, then headed out the door.

Kimball watched her go, having half a mind to sit back down and continue her work. But Grey was right. She was in here too much, and it was starting to burn her out. So, with a slight shake of her head, she picked her helmet up off of her desk and put it on. Maybe she could catch Carolina and join her on patrol? That sounded nice.

 


 

“I wonder what that was all about?” Fox mused, staring at the door Grey had just bolted out of.

“Maybe something in the med bay?” Locus suggested. “She did leave Doc in charge.”

Fox snickered. “Jesus, you are just a bucket of salt today.”

“The man tried to prescribe antibiotics to counter the soreness from that shield calibration,” Locus replied flatly. “He shouldn’t have a medical license.”

“He does his best. But between you and me, I don’t think he actually does ,” Fox replied, looking back at the tools scattered across the workbench in front of her.

Locus followed her gaze, noting that Grey had managed to get what looked like halfway through the upgrade she had been constructing when he and Fox had walked in earlier. “Are you going to try to finish that?”

Fox sighed. “I probably should. Save her the work later.” She picked up one of the tools and started to mess with the upgrade, then let out a huff suddenly. “This stupid thing’s cameras keep fucking with the focal distance,” she muttered, then reached up and pulled her helmet off.

For a moment, Locus couldn’t help but stare. He had only ever seen Fox’s face twice, once when she took her helmet off down by his cell, and then again two days later after Kimball had sent them out on patrol as a test run, and it had stormed, and Fox had somehow managed to get mud on one of the helmet’s cameras. Both times, her hair had been black. However, now, it was a vibrant copper color.

You should probably say something. That’s the right thing to do, right? “You changed your hair,” he said lamely. Nevermind. Next time just keep your mouth shut.

Fox gave him a lopsided grin and patted the side of her headband. “You like it? Donut hooked me up with some dye a few weeks ago.” She said. “It was a pain to color it though because we had to get creative bleaching it. Grey threatened to chop Donut and I up and feed us to Grif if she caught us using her peroxide,” Fox said with a sly smile. “ Apparently she already has enough trouble with Wash pulling the same thing as it is.”

So that’s how he gets it that blonde. “I see,” Locus said, mildly amused.

“Anyways, this upgrade isn’t going to make itself. I guess,” Fox sighed, her smile fading. She looked up at him. “You eat lunch yet? Why don’t you go grab something?”

“I’m fine,” Locus replied. He really wasn’t that hungry anyways.

“Suit yourself. I’ve got snack bars hidden in one of the drawers down here anyways if you change your mind but don’t wanna go upstairs,” Fox said.

Locus didn’t say anything, and instead watched her work for a few minutes, quickly growing bored. “Is there anything I can help with?”

“Only if you think I’m ready to trust you with my life,” Fox replied without looking up, a smile appearing on her face.

“What do you mean?” Locus asked, tilting his head slightly.

“Meaning there’s a box full of really fragile recycled energy cores over there on that shelf,” Fox said, looking up and pointing at the object in mention, “and it would be super helpful if you brought it over here. But , if you drop it, Grey will probably skin me alive and wear me as a very tiny winter coat.”

Locus shook his head slightly at that, but walked over and retrieved the box. It was lighter than he had been expecting, but everything in it that he could see looked very expensive. He set it down across from Fox.

“Perfect,” Fox said, glancing up when he did so.

“Anything else?”

“Take a load off? Relax? You’ve been working hard these past few weeks.”

Locus gave her an annoyed look that he knew she couldn’t see. “To do, Fox.”

“Fuck, I don’t know. You’re grown. You can make your own choices. Go find Grif or Lopez or Caboose and see if they want your help.”

Locus thought about that for a moment, then decided it wasn’t worth the headache. Most of the repairs had been done by now, with only small issues left to take care of. With a sigh, he crossed his arms and looked over at Fox again. Fox, however, either didn’t notice, or wasn’t interested in engaging, as she kept her nose buried in her work.

So Locus walked around the lab a bit, taking a look at all the things her and Grey had been working on in the past month. Some of them looked interesting, but most of it, especially the blueprints, which were covered in chicken-scratch handwriting, he didn’t understand. Eventually he found his way back to Fox, who was digging through the box he had brought her.

“There you are, you little shit,” Fox exclaimed, pulling out a small, round core.

Locus stopped and watched her for a bit, arms crossed, leaning against the wall while she installed the core in the upgrade. He was just about to go and see if he could find some actual work to do, when Fox spoke up.

“Y’know, you’ve been doing really good.”

Locus opted for silence, as he didn’t feel like he could give her a good response.

“When Kimball first agreed to this, she was pretty reluctant. I don’t think she thought we’d get very far. But she’s started to trust you, which is...surprising, and also pretty cool.” There was a clicking sound as Fox put the core in place, then she sat back and looked over at him. “And if she’s trusting you, then I probably should too.”

Locus tilted his head at her, confused. Up until right this second, he was under the impression that there was some level of mutual trust between the two of them, however thin it might be. Clearly, he had been wrong about that. “What do you mean?”

Fox sighed and set her tools down, looking away. “You remember, a few weeks ago, I said ‘Matsukaze Matter’, and you asked what it meant?”

Locus nodded, suddenly very unsure if he wanted to hear whatever Fox had to say in regards to that.

“It’s…a family saying. Something my father used to tell me whenever something happened in our family. Like if one of our cars got towed, or the WiFi went down, or him and my mother had an argument. It just meant that it was something that our family needed to take care of.”

And suddenly, Locus found himself trying to fit a Jenga block into a tabletop puzzle. None of what Fox was saying made sense. “Your name is Annita Rosenblum,” he said, isn’t it?

And Fox took a deep breath, looked him in the eye, like she could see through his helmet, and said, “No.”

And for a moment, the dull buzz of the overhead fluorescent lights and the whirr of the ventilation system were the only sounds that filled the lab.

And Locus’ thoughts were going a thousand miles a minute and he couldn’t focus on just one and none of it added up but all of it added up and how she had mentioned Emblem and known so much about it and how she managed to get his file and-- “Who are you?” he asked, unable to keep the tension out of his voice.

“Pepper,” Fox said. “Pepper Matsukaze. My father created the program that protects the U.N.S.C. database.”

And now Locus could feel a headache coming on, and he squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away, thinking hard, trying to keep himself composed. “Why did you lie?” he asked, looking back at her.

“Because the CEO of Emblem is going to hand the company over to me when he retires,” Fox replied. She shook her head and bit her lip. “Annita Rosenblum was an alias that I got a buddy of mine, General Sachs, to come up with so that I could be a corpsman during the war. I wanted to help. But I’m...I’m so fucking high-profile that it never would have worked! They never would have let me! So I worked something out with the U.N.S.C. so that I could study biomechanical engineering through their pipeline under Doctor Howard Manning under the guise that I was just furthering my college education. I worked out the details with him when I got up there, and the U.N.S.C. was none the wiser,” Fox waved her hand dismissively, her shoulders falling slightly. “Annie was also supposed to be studying under Manning, but wanted to help out in the war. And so she, AKA I , left and did so, getting sent to New Mombasa. After that, I guess I had become pretty well-known, since I saved a number of people and also studied under one of the best biomechanical engineers of all time, because Charon offered me a leadership position on one of their expeditions. It was only meant to last five years, and since I was supposed to be with Manning for twelve, I figured it would work out.”

Fox shook her head, a bitter expression on her face. “I was so naive. Innocent people are dead, and it’s my fault.” She let out a frustrated sigh and pulled her hair band off of her head, fidgeting with it. “But that’s the truth. The whole thing. You asked me why I lied? It’s because I wasn’t sure who I could trust. If the U.N.S.C. figured out I’ve been lying to them, I’d be cut off from Emblem and thrown in a maximum security prison, just because of what I know. Or worse, if Hargrove figured out who I was, he could try to use me to gain access to that database as leverage against the U.N.S.C.

She ran a hand through her hair, a worried expression on her face. “And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you right away. You deserved better. I know it’s been hard enough trusting me as it is, and now I’ve turned out to be...the same person but with a different name and with way more actual authority and a much higher profile than you actually thought.” She looked back at him. “I get it if you don’t want to trust me, or be around me anymore. I don’t blame you. But I kept all this quiet because I needed to know you and the others were the right kind of people before I said anything.”

And for a while, all Locus could do was stare at the floor as he put the puzzle pieces together. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Fox had created a kill code to take down CORA. She couldn’t have known how to do that without some understanding of how AI’s worked. It had been right there, staring him in the face the whole time, and he’d never even seen it.

And now he realized he’d never known her at all, and everything she’d ever said before was just another part of her cover. Everything but her desire to stop Charon. That was the only thing that had held through. The only definitive truth she’d given him. But it couldn’t be her only endgame. She’d held her cover this long. She’d fooled the U.N.S.C. There had to be something else in mind, right?

“What’s your endgame?” he asked.

Fox blinked, looking confused. “What do you mean?”

“Why are you here? Why get Kimball to let you work with me? Why not just run?”

Fox’s expression hardened. “Because I made a mess, and I need to clean it up. And I know how to. But I need people to help me. Because this?” She gestured vaguely in the air beside her head. “This whole thing is bigger than what you and Kimball and the Reds and Blues have seen here on Chorus. It’s bigger than what Epsilon broadcasted. It’s bigger than all of us. Hargrove has friends in the U.N.S.C., and they are going to let him wash his hands of any guilt if something isn’t done. And he’s going to start by erasing any witnesses to any of the crimes he’s committed that were highlighted in that transmission. Thousands of lives. And we’re at the top of his list.”

“And where do I come into all of this?” Locus asked. Because he was here with her for a reason. He had to be.

“You’ve been through some shit, and I wanna help you deal with it. I never lied to you about that,” Fox replied. “But you also know Charon. And you know the U.N.S.C. Better than any of these guys do, anyways. You and I both saw the shit they pulled during the war. We know what we’re up against. We know they’re not our friends.”

And Locus took a deep breath. Because she was right. Because the U.N.S.C. had turned their backs when they were needed dozens of time. Chorus was just one example. And he was suddenly back in an interrogation room with a U.N.S.C. official treating him like a criminal simply because he’d survived. “That’s the truth?” he asked. He could handle that if it was.

“It is,” Fox said, nodding.

“Good.” Locus looked away, still not sure how he felt about all of this. All of it, in the end, added up. And her reasoning for keeping it quiet made sense. If Hargrove got his hands on the sort of information the database held, it would be catastrophic. He might never see trial.

“So...are we okay?” Fox asked slowly. “I know it’s kind of a dick move to ask, but…I like knowing where I stand with people.”

Fox...for better or for worse, had gotten him far more freedom than he would have ever earned on his own. And she listened when no one else did. And as heavy as this news was, he couldn’t deny that she was really the only person he had looking out for him. And that despite everything, she still seemed to be the same naive, sincere, fidgety person he had met weeks ago. So Locus met her gaze, and said, “you can’t ever do something like this again, understand?”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Fox replied with a small smile. “I hate lying as it is. Too much to remember.”

“Good,” Locus said with a nod. “Then we’re still on even terms.”

Fox let out a sigh of relief that seemed to slacken her whole body. “Phew. Okay. Thank you. Awesome. Great.”

“What are you going to do now?” Locus asked before she got too comfortable.

“Pardon?”

“The others don’t know any of this.”

Fox looked away, tapping the side of her chin. “I think...I’ll tell them soon. I just need a little more time to figure out how I want to do it.”

“Good,” Locus replied. It was the right thing to do. And the others deserved to know.

Fox ran a hand through her hair and looked over at her helmet tiredly. “Well, all that stress worked up an appetite,” she said with a half-hearted smile. “Wanna go grab something to eat?”

Locus sighed, thinking about it for a minute. It’s not like there was anything better to do. “Let’s go.”

He watched as Fox stood and pulled her hair back behind her headband before putting her helmet back on, then joined her as she turned and walked out of the lab.

Neither of them noticed the camera sitting in the corner, the red light indicating that it was recording flashing on and off.

 


 

“Miss Fox! Miss Fox!” Caboose exclaimed, jumping in the air and waving when he saw Fox round the corner.

Fox turned and noticed him, giving him a wave and walking over. “Hi, Caboose! Are you about to head out on patrol?”

“Uh-huh!” Caboose replied, nodding. “Are you gonna come with us?”

“I was thinking about it. Just had lunch. It’s not like we have anything better to do,” Fox said. “Is that okay?”

“YES! Oh this is gonna be so awesome!” Caboose shouted. Then he turned when he saw Tucker walk around the corner with Palomo and Andersmith in tow. “Tucker! Miss Fox is gonna join us on patrol! It’s gonna be so much fun!”

Tucker stopped short of him, then looked over at Fox. Caboose couldn’t help but wonder if Tucker was just being shy and hiding his excitement. Because he didn’t look very excited. So yeah, he was probably just hiding it.

“Where’s Locus?” Tucker asked.

“Right here,” Locus replied, seeming to melt out of the shadows and startling Palomo, who let out a shriek.

Fox snickered and turned her head away, hands on her hips. It took her a moment to regain her composure before she looked back at Locus and said, “maybe you should keep the disappearing-reappearing acts to a minimum, yeah?”

“Hi Mister Locust!” Caboose greeted. “Are you coming with us too?”

Tucker shot him a look. “Why the fuck would you ask that?” he hissed.

“That was the intention,” Locus replied, glancing over at Tucker, but clearly not taking his comment to heart.

Caboose grinned wide under his helmet. “Yes! This is gonna be so much fun!” Now there were two more friends on his patrol! Oh boy!

“Fun is an interesting word for this,” Palomo muttered, still sore from being taken by surprise.

“Come on, Palomo. Captain Caboose is right, this will be an excellent team-building exercise for all of us!” Andersmith replied.

“Can we just…” Tucker trailed off and gestured vaguely, “go? The other patrol is waiting for us to replace them.” He shook his head, then walked past, heading towards the cave entrance.

Caboose looked back to make sure that Fox and Locus were with them, then turned and caught up with Tucker, shouting, “hey, wait up!”

The valley was bathed in warm light as the sun, having reached its peak, began to descend behind the mountains. The patrol that they had replaced seemed relieved to go back inside headquarters, and Caboose quickly found out why. It was really hot out. At least the temperature regulators in his armor kept him pretty cool, and his helmet had a super nifty built-in visor so he didn’t have to squint so much. That was nice.

“Hey Miss Fox?”

“What’s up, Caboose?”

“Do you have four eyes?”

“...No?”

“Because you’ve got two visors on your helmet, and I just thought that maybe you were like an alien or something.”

“Oh, no, Caboose. Those are just...decorations? I don’t actually see out of them.”

“Whaaat? Really? But then how do you see?”

“There are cameras built into the helmet.”

“Whoaaaah,” Caboose gasped. “That’s soo cool!” Then he looked over at Locus. “Do you have cameras in your helmet?”

Locus looked over at him and seemed to consider his question for a moment, then said, “yes.”

“Huh,” Andersmith said, looking over at them. “Y’know, I was actually wondering that myself. That is pretty cool.”

“I always thought it was like a one-way mirror sort of deal,” Palomo said, nodding at Fox.

“How the fuck would that work? Their helmets are fucking solid!” Tucker snapped.

“Aw, leave the kid alone, Tucker,” Fox said.

“He’s not a kid. I know what a kid looks like. I have one,” Tucker scoffed.

“You have a kid?” Fox asked.

“Yeah! Wanna see him?” Tucker asked, his demeanor suddenly shifting, a photograph already in his hand.

“Sure,” Fox chuckled, taking the photo when he handed it to her. “Which one is yours? And wow, a Sangheili coach? How cool is that?”

“Oh no, that’s him,” Tucker said.

Fox stared at the photo, then slowly looked up at Tucker. “Come again?”

Tucker nodded at the photo in her hand and said with pride in his voice, “the alien. That’s my kid. His name’s Junior.”

“Yeah, he was really small at first, but then he got really big, and Tucker was mad at first because he didn’t wanna be short, but now he’s okay,” Caboose added.

Fox stared at Tucker, then looked back at the photo, then back at Tucker, and said, “explain. Now.”

Tucker laughed. “I sorta...got him when I got my sword. He was a bit of a surprise, but it turned out that him and the sword were sort of a ‘buy one, get one free’ sort of deal.”

And Caboose noticed how Fox and Locus exchanged a look, and wondered if they were both thinking about how cool Junior was.

“Wait, but you’re a...guy,” Fox said slowly. “So how the fuck…?”

“Was it like some alien magic or something?” Palomo asked.

“Pssh, no! I don’t think the aliens even are magic,” Tucker replied. “I just had the right equipment back then, if you know what I mean.”

Fox was silent for a moment, then said, “ohhh. Ohhhhh. Okay. Phew.” She looked over at Locus. “That would’ve been weird.”

“Aww but babies are so much fun!” Caboose exclaimed. “You get to teach them how to walk, and say bad words when their parents aren’t around (that’s what Kai did,) and how to hold a spoon…”

“Kai did what now?” Tucker asked.

“What? No, I mean...uh...” Caboose realized he had absolutely nothing to say to defend his friend, so instead he just turned away and said, “nothing.”

He heard Tucker suck in a deep breath, but then Fox said, “aw, just let it go, Tucker. He was gonna learn them eventually.”

Caboose cautiously looked over his shoulder at the others, and when he saw that Tucker didn’t look as mad, turned back to face him. He listened to them talk for a little bit, watching the sun sink lower in the sky, then eventually got bored and piped up, “hey Mister Locust, since you have a cool sword, and Tucker has a cool sword, does that mean that you’re on Blue Team too?”

Locus looked over at him, then at Tucker, then at Fox. But before he could reply, Tucker said, “dude, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t get a team.”

“But why not?” Caboose asked. It didn’t make sense. Everyone else had a team. He had Blue Team. The Reds had their team. All of Kimball’s men were on her team. Come to think of it, neither Locus or Fox had a team. It was kinda sad to think about. It wasn’t fair that they were getting left out.

“Uh, because he tried to kill us, that’s why,” Tucker replied.

“Well yeah, but so did Wash. Kinda,” Caboose replied. “And we still let him be on our team.”

“Wait, Wash tried to kill you guys?” Fox asked.

“Yeah, back then he was kind of an asshole,” Tucker replied, looking at her. Then quickly added, “well, more of an asshole.”

“Oh that’s just cute,” Fox said with a smile in her voice.

“Yeah, he wasn’t so nice back then. And he tried to kidnap Church. We got him back though,” Caboose said.

“Well, I’m certainly glad that he’s on our side,” Andersmith piped up. “Seeing the way he fights, I’d hate to be his enemy.”

“Even though he sometimes acts like we are during training,” Palomo muttered.

“So does that mean that Miss Fox is on our team?” Caboose asked. Tucker never said anything about her.

Fox made a hesitant sound, then said, “actually...I don’t really think I fit in with either team.”

“Aw, sure you do!” Caboose said. That was such a silly thing for her to say! She fit in perfect with Blue Team! She was sarcastic like Tucker, and tough like Wash, and good at fighting like Carolina, and smart like Church-- Caboose frowned under his helmet and looked down at the ground. “We’ve got an open spot anyways,” he said quietly.

“Aw...hey, Caboose. It’s not…” Fox looked away, fidgeting. “It’s not that I don’t want to be on your team. I just don’t...I haven’t been here long enough to decide which team I should be on. ” She looked back at him, crossing her arms. “And, you know, I had a team of my own once, and they’re gone now. And now I’m around all these people, and I have to adjust to not being alone anymore. It’ll just take a bit of time, is all.”

“Okay,” Caboose said, still upset.

To his left, Tucker sighed, and looked back in the direction of headquarters. “Time’s almost up. Another patrol should be heading to replace us in a few minutes.”

“At least we didn’t run into any pirates. That was good,” Andersmith offered.

“Oh hey, the other patrol’s on their way over,” Fox said. “Perfect timing!”

Caboose just sighed sadly and watched as the group of soldiers approached them, looking on idly as Tucker and the others started heading in the direction of headquarters.

Locus walked past, tailing after Fox, then stopped and looked back at him, seeming to think for a moment before saying, “I’m sorry about your friend.” Then he turned and continued on his way.

Caboose stared after him, then quietly said, “yeah, me too,” before hurrying to catch up.

 


 

Kimball stared down at the valley, listening to the wind rustle the trees behind her and feeling it push against her back. “This is a really good spot. You said you found it on patrol?” she asked after a moment, looking over at Carolina.

“A while ago, yes,” Carolina replied, nodding her head. “There are plenty of places up on these cliffs that you can look into the valley, but this is the only spot to my knowledge that lets you see pretty much the whole thing.” She fell silent after that and looked out over the jungle.

Kimball did the same for a minute, eyes following the patrols in the valley below. The patrols. Right. She didn’t just come out here to socialize. Carolina was leading a patrol.

Kimball looked over towards where Donut and the two other soldiers that had accompanied them had stopped, then back at Carolina. “I suppose we should keep moving.”

“Wait, are you staying with us for the whole patrol?” Carolina asked, looking back at her.

“I have nothing else to do,” Kimball replied. “Besides, Grey got on my case about holing up in my office every day.”

“Did she, now?” Carolina asked with amusement in her voice. “Well, then I guess you’d better come with us.” She turned and headed back to the trail, nodding at Donut for him to get the others moving.

Kimball followed, catching up and matching Carolina’s pace at the front of the patrol. “We should keep an eye on that spot in case the pirates return. If they find it, it’ll give them a much higher advantage over us than they did before.”

“You’re worried that they’ll use that spot to become familiar with patrol schedules?” Carolina asked.

“I don’t know. There hasn’t been any activity that we know of from them. It’s like they just vanished,” Kimball replied. “Still, it pays to be prepared.” She fell silent for a while, listening to the banter of the three soldiers behind her, picking out Donut’s voice with ease. It sounded like he was telling some sort of story.

“So, the full day, huh?” Carolina asked suddenly, pulling Kimball out of her head.

“Sorry?”

Carolina looked over at her. “With Fox and Locus. They have the full day together.”

Kimball blinked. “We discussed this a week ago when I made the decision,” she said confusedly. She didn’t understand why Carolina had brought it up.

“I know.”

“Do you have a problem with it? Did something happen?”

Carolina shook her head. “No, no. It’s just...something to talk about, you know?”

“I see…” Kimball replied, still not convinced. Carolina wasn’t a terribly quiet person, but it was still unlike her to bring up something so serious just for the sake of conversation. “And how have things been going, ever since the choice was made?”

Carolina shrugged. “At this point, it doesn’t seem like the men mind having him around. There’s still obvious tension, but I doubt that will ever fully go away, considering the circumstances.”

Kimball nodded in understanding. Of course she hadn’t expected her men to be completely happy about the idea of Locus being given as much of a leash as he had been. After everything he’d done, it made sense. But as long as none of her men acted on their animosity towards him, there wouldn’t be a problem. She looked back over at Carolina, noticing with some surprise that the other woman was staring at the ground, appearing deep in thought. “Carolina?”

Carolina looked over at her, but didn’t respond immediately. Kimball was just beginning to get the sense that something was wrong when the other woman spoke up. “What comes next after this?”

“What do you mean?” Kimball asked.

“What I mean is that...I trust you,” Carolina replied, struggling with the words slightly. “But I want to know if what comes next could affect the Reds and Blues.”

“You mean with Fox and Locus?”

Carolina nodded. “I’ll admit, I’ve grown to trust Fox more and more with time. But I still can’t help but feel that she’s not telling us everything. Like there’s a bigger picture that we’re not seeing.”

Kimball knew exactly how she felt.

“And Locus. I know that he’s repeatedly proven at this point that he’s going to cooperate, but he fooled us before. And in the state we’re in, I don’t think any of us will come out in one piece if he does it again.”

Kimball stared at Carolina, surprised. “You really care about seeing this through, don’t you, Carolina?”

Carolina looked over at her, and was silent for a moment before saying, “I haven’t had many chances to do right by other people. So yes, I want to see this through. I want to make sure that everyone turns out okay this time.” And she looked away quickly after that, and Kimball could feel the weight of an untold story looming over the two of them like an old tree leaning over a river, its roots tugging out of the ground.

And in the silence, Kimball watched her, looking on as shafts of the sun’s dying light cut through the trees and illuminated her armor in an orange glow, reflecting like starlight off of her visor. “We will be,” she said finally, and Carolina looked over at her. “We’re all getting out of this one. I’m sure of it.”

“Yeah, Carolina! You know we’re all tough as nails anyways!”

Kimball felt herself jump as Donut suddenly spoke up directly behind her, and she quickly looked over her shoulder and glared at the Marine. “Were you eavesdropping?

“Guilty as charged,” Donut replied.

Behind him, Kimball caught sight of the other two of her men, who looked just as guilty. Great. “So how much of that did you hear?”

“Eh...most of it.”

Carolina sighed, sounding mildly annoyed. “That was a private conversation, Donut.”

“I know,” Donut replied. “I didn’t mean to hear what you guys were talking about. Me, Tate, and Lawrence just finished our conversation and it got really quiet.”

Kimball looked over exasperatedly as Donut matched her and Carolina’s pace, falling into step between the two of them.

“Don’t worry, though. My lips are zipped! ” Donut mimed zipping his mouth shut over his helmet.

“Well, since all of you were listening, how about you all tell me your two cents?” Kimball asked, looking back over her shoulder at Tate and Lawrence.

“Ma’am?” Lawrence asked.

“Wait, about how things are going to turn out, or about Locus?” Tate asked.

“Either,” Kimball sighed.

“Well, I don’t know how things are going to turn out, ma’am, but I try to be an optimist,” Lawrence replied.

“As you should!” Donut exclaimed cheerfully, looking back and giving Lawrence an approving nod.

“I’m more of a realist, personally,” Tate said.

“Aw, boo, ” Donut replied.

“Hey, I didn’t say that I think we’re going to die, did I?” Tate said defensively.

Kimball rolled her eyes and listened to the crunch of dead leaves and twigs underfoot for a moment before asking, “and what about Locus?”

No one said anything.

Kimball looked back over her shoulder and noted how uneasy both Tate and Lawrence looked. “He’s not giving you any trouble, is he?”

“Well...no,” Tate replied.

“He’s just really fucking creepy. If...if you’ll excuse my French, ma’am,” Lawrence added.

Kimball looked over when she heard Carolina let out a soft chuckle, and couldn’t help but let the corner of her mouth twitch upwards under her helmet at the forwardness of Lawrence’s response. “You’re excused.”

“He’s definitely chilled out more,” Donut spoke up, then snickered, “which might have something to do with Fox’s ‘mom voice.’”

“‘Mom voice?’” Kimball asked, looking at him.

“Yeah, that’s what she calls it when she gets all firm and serious. Apparently,” Donut replied, tilting his head. “Doc told me some pretty funny stories about her using it.”

Oh, Kimball thought, exchanging a look with Carolina, who seemed equally surprised. “What do you mean he’s ‘chilled out more?’” she asked, looking back at Donut.

“Well…” Donut tilted his head upwards and tapped the foregrip of his gun absently in thought. “Earlier today, I spoke to Caboose, and he said that Locus said he felt sorry about Church. And if that’s not chill, then I don’t know what is.”

Kimball blinked several times in surprise, then looked over at Carolina. “Did you hear anything about this?”

Carolina shook her head. “I haven’t spoken to Caboose today.”

“Hmm…” Kimball said, and stared at the ground, watching her feet. “Well that’s interesting news, anyways.”

“Uh, he also helps out around headquarters a bit,” Tate added. “But you probably already knew that. He doesn’t talk to anyone really, also. Which I guess is...normal.”

“For him, anyways,” Lawrence agreed. “Still kinda creepy.”

“Er...if it’s alright for me to ask, ma’am, are you planning to just...not keep him locked up anymore?” Tate asked. “I mean, he’s out and about more and more. W-which isn’t a problem! I just--”

“It’s alright for you to ask,” Kimball replied, cutting Tate off before he had a chance to go off on a tangent. “And I’m not sure. Which is why Carolina and I were discussing it.”

“Oh. Alright. Sorry.”

Kimball looked back at him. “You have nothing to be sorry for. You have every right to be concerned about possible decisions that could affect you and your fellow men.”

Tate relaxed a little. “Yes ma’am.”

Kimball gave him a nod, then looked ahead at the trail. By now, the sun had sunken low, and the bright orange glow of its fading light had begun to dim. They would be heading back soon, she realized, and suddenly wished that the patrol would last longer. Despite all of the awkward conversation, she really had enjoyed the time out of her office. All the more reason to come back tomorrow, she decided, looking on as Carolina moved ahead of her and led them in the direction of the trail that would bring them back to headquarters.

For the rest of the walk, Kimball listened to the banter of Donut and her two men over the white noise of the wind sweeping through the trees. But she kept her eyes on Carolina, wondering what was going through the other woman’s head, and trying to pinpoint the moment in the past hour when she had decided she wasn’t interested in conversation any more. Kimball hoped it wasn’t her fault.

When they finally reached the mouth of the cave, Kimball was satisfied to see the next patrol waiting to switch out with them; Sarge at their head. She returned his enthusiastic salute, then turned and nodded at Donut and the others as they bid their farewells, watching as they dispersed before turning to face Carolina. “Well today was...different.”

Carolina seemed taken aback by this. “Different?”

“Different,” Kimball said with a nod.

“Was it...a good different, at least?” Carolina asked, tilting her head slightly.

Now it was Kimball’s turn to be taken off-guard. “Well, considering we didn’t get attacked, yes, ” she replied with a chuckle.

“Ah,” Carolina replied, and Kimball could have sworn she deflated a little.

“In all seriousness, this was a good change for me,” Kimball said quickly. “I’m in that office far too much for my own good.” She fell silent for a moment, unsure if she should continue. Then, giving herself a mental kick in the ass, added, “I think...if it’s alright, I’d like to join you on patrol for the rest of the week. I think it would be good for me.”

Carolina stared at her, then said, “that’s fine.”

Hell of a way to say ‘no,’ Kimball thought, sighing inwardly at Carolina’s tone. Oh well. Maybe she was just tired. “Where are you off to?” she asked.

“I was going to have dinner. Have you eaten yet?” Carolina replied.

“No,” Kimball said, suddenly realizing how hungry she was.

“Why don’t you join me?” Carolina asked, turning to leave.

“Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t.”

Fair enough, Kimball thought. “Well then, Agent Carolina, lead the way.”

Carolina gave her a nod, and the two of them walked into headquarters side-by-side.

 


 

“Someone’s in a mood!” Grey sang as she swept past Fox and set a mug of coffee down on the workbench next to her.

Fox looked up, confusion written on her face. “What?”

“You’re upset about something,” Grey said, sitting down across from her.

Fox held her in a scrutinizing gaze. “I’m fine.”

“And I’m a ring-tailed lemur,” Grey replied, taking a sip of her own coffee.

Fox sighed and closed her laptop. “It’s been a long week,” she admitted.

Grey allowed the corner of her mouth to twitch upwards into a half-smile. At least now Fox was being honest. She set her mug down and looked over at the materials that were spread out across the counter tops. “Your mood wouldn’t happen to be affected by that little dramatic reveal you gave Locus the other day, would it?” she asked, looking at Fox out of the corner of her eye.

Fox, who had been about to take a sip of her coffee, froze, and locked eyes with her, mug still held to her lips. She slowly lowered it and set it down on the table, moving like a dog who was cornered at the back of a dead-end alleyway, unsure whether to fight or run. “How do you know about that?” she asked, her voice tense and wary.

Grey laced her fingers together and rested them on the table, looking at Fox with a knowing smile. “Before the two of you had arrived, I was documenting some of the adjustments I was making to those biotics upgrades. After I left to speak with Kimball, I got a little sidetracked with some nonsense in the medical bay. When I came back at the end of the day, I realized that the camera’s battery was dead because I forgot to turn it off. After it was charged, I figured I’d go through the footage just to make sure that I’d gotten everything I needed to, and I came across the little conversation the two of you had.”

And by now the hackles on the back of Fox’s neck had risen, and she was wound up tighter than a spring. “And?” she asked through her teeth.

Grey leaned back, her smile fading. “Why did you keep that from all of us? Why haven’t you told anyone who you really are?”

And Fox looked away, appearing almost guilty. “It’s not safe.”

“And yet you just gave all that information away to a literal criminal.”

“I...It’s not like he could do anything with it,” Fox replied.

Grey shrugged. “True, but it’s disheartening to know that you’ve been lying to us this whole time.”

And Fox made a face at that, and let go of the mug handle she had been gripping with whitened knuckles. “I didn’t want to,” she said softly, looking back at Grey. “Really. I didn’t. But I didn’t know--”

“If you could trust us,” Grey finished for her. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips, then said, “I understand. I’m not happy about it, but I understand.”

“Have you told anyone?” Fox asked with urgency in her voice.

Grey looked back at her, eyebrows raised. “Of course not! That’s your job, not mine!”

Fox clenched her jaw, her nerves showing on her face. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” she confessed.

“At the beginning,” Grey replied, waving her hand absently. Then she leaned forward. “These are good people here,” she said, softening her tone. “I know you’re afraid of what might happen if you come clean to everyone here, but they’ll be understanding.”

“It’s not about that,” Fox snapped, then seemed surprised by her own tone, and in a much calmer voice, added, “it’s about trust. It’s about knowing I can rely on you guys. And after what I went through with Charon, I can’t afford to take any risks.”

Grey watched her for a moment, then reached across the table and patted her hand. “I know,” she said. “But we’re not them. You’ve been through a lot, and it shows. But we all want the same thing here.”

And when Fox looked back at her, there was a new tiredness in her eyes. “You really want me to tell the others, don’t you?”

“I’m not going to force you,” Grey said, sitting back. “But it’s the right thing to do. And we both know it.”

Fox bit her lip and stared into her coffee. “How do you think they’ll take it?” she asked.

“They’ll probably be confused and upset,” Grey admitted. “This isn’t exactly side-column news, you know. But if you tell them why you kept all this a secret, I’m sure they’ll be understanding.”

“Kimball trusted me,” Fox said bitterly. “I should’ve just--” she turned her head away with a huff. “I should have just told her about everything right away.”

“But you didn’t,” Grey said, earning her an annoyed look from Fox. “And Kimball probably won’t be too happy about this. But if we’re being completely honest with one another, I think she’ll understand where you’re coming from.”

Fox tilted her head to the side slightly, narrowing her eyes. “How do you mean?”

“By now you have to know that Felix, Locus’ old partner, betrayed her, right?” Grey asked.

And Fox blinked, then she groaned and buried her face in her hands. “Oh my god!”  She dropped her hands into her lap and looked at Grey with a frown. “I’ve got to be the world’s biggest asshole,” she said.

And Grey couldn’t help but smile. “No, I think Hargrove takes the lead in that department. And then Locus and the pirates come in second. You might be in third, if it wasn’t for the fact that you obviously know that what you did was wrong.”

Fox tried and failed to force what might have been a smile onto her face, and gave up and looked away.

Grey allowed her to sit in silence for a moment. No doubt she needed time to process everything. Then she finally spoke up, her grin widening as she asked. “So did you really co-write a book with yourself?”

Fox stared at her, looking almost confused. “Wait. Wait, shit.” Her eyes got wide, and a very real smile appeared on her face. “Fuck. I did , didn’t I?”

Grey laughed, relieved that the mood was finally starting to brighten. “Well, both Annita Rosenblum and Pepper Matsukaze are listed as authors next to Howard Manning. So I think so, yes.”

“Uh...in my defense, I needed the cred,” Fox admitted sheepishly. “Both of...me...needed the cred.”

“Clearly ,” Grey said, nodding.

Fox looked away, her smile fading. She was silent for a moment, then spoke up. “Thank you,” she said, looking back at Grey. “I...I’ve been...scared, I guess? I was totally expecting to die on that moon, and then boom , change of plans! Now I’m here! I haven’t had a whole lot of say in what’s happened to me in these past few years. And now suddenly I have actual agency and people to interact with and every choice I make affects them.” She sighed. “It’s weird. Y’know I’ve always considered myself a people person, but after being completely isolated for four years...it’s like riding a bike without training wheels for the first time.”

And Grey couldn’t help but be slightly taken aback by this. She had always considered Fox to be extremely sociable. In fact, she’d always thought that Fox had gotten on very well despite the period of isolation she had been forced to endure. In truth, if she hadn’t heard that Fox had been alone for four years, it likely would have taken her a while to even guess as much. “You’ve been holding your own, though,” she said.

Fox gave her a grateful look. “I’ve been trying. But it’s hard sometimes.”

“I never said it wasn’t,” Grey replied.

“Right,” Fox sighed. “Thanks.” She stared at her hands, which were wrapped around her coffee mug. “When should I tell everyone?” she asked.

Grey watched her closely, tapping a finger against her lips. “Sooner is best.”

“I don’t want to interrupt the flow of things around here,” Fox said, looking at her.

“So wait until later today, when most of the work is done,” Grey suggested. The Reds and Blues were always free at the end of the day. Kimball was a little harder to get a hold of, but Grey knew that if something sounded important, the General would be there to hear it.

“Okay,” Fox said, looking uneasy. “I’ll...talk with Kimball and see if we can get everyone in one place.”

Grey nodded, then gave Fox a small smile. “Don’t try to sweat this too much. You screwed up, but you’re trying to make it better. And that’s what counts.” When Fox had nothing to say to that, Grey stood, picking up her coffee mug, and turned, looking over her shoulder at her other. “Now, I’m going to try to finish some of these upgrades and see if I can clear up some of this mess. It would be much appreciated if you could help out, and even more so if you would assist me in smooth-talking Matthews into coming in here to let me test some of them out.”

Fox sighed. “That poor kid is going to die young because of you, Grey.”

“Oh, pish-posh!” Grey snorted. “He’ll gain a few more years on the end of his life because of me!” she exclaimed, walking over to one of the counters and setting her mug down next to the materials.

“Better him than me,” Fox retorted, walking over and standing next to her.

Grey gave her a frown, then rubbed her hands together and looked down at the partially-completed upgrade before her. “There will be none of that negativity here, missy! Now pass me that screwdriver. I want to see if I can get this little thing to work.”

 


 

Kimball had followed Grey’s advice and spent much of her time during the past week out of her office. It felt amazing. At first she hadn’t been sure that it would be of any help, but as the days went by, she realized that she had seriously needed a break. And now, as she put the lid back on her travel mug and headed back to her office for the first time today, she felt absolutely refreshed.

As she headed through the hallways, she made a point of stopping and taking a quick look at any repairs she encountered along the way to see how progress had come. Things at headquarters were almost back to normal by now, with everyone falling back into their typical daily routines. It was nice, Kimball thought, to see that everyone seemed to be carrying on just fine. It was almost, almost enough for her to let her guard down.

The pirates were still a threat, and while none of the patrols had reported anything, Kimball knew that they would likely run into them again. It was only a matter of time. At least now they didn’t have to worry about their infrastructure collapsing in on them when it finally happened.

She thought about this as she turned the corner and headed towards the elevator at the end of the hallway. The Reds and Blues were still keeping it together, and had been remarkably helpful. And Fox’s time with Locus had certainly paid off. Those things combined were reassurance enough that they’d stand a good enough chance when the pirates returned.

Kimball made a mental note to have a talk with Wash and Carolina at the end of the discussing Fox and Locus’ progress. The two had a full day together at this point, and her men had long since grown accustomed to having Locus around. He had already proven at this point that he was trustworthy enough to be left alone with the others. And he didn’t appear to have any ulterior motives. It was time to discuss the topic fully assimilating him with Fox.

Kimball reached the elevator and pressed the button to go up, then turned when she heard someone call her name.

Speak of the devil, Kimball thought when she saw Fox jogging towards her down the hallway.

“Oh man, I’m glad I was able to catch you!” Fox exclaimed when she reached her. “There’s something we gotta talk about.”

Kimball glanced at the elevator when the doors opened with a chime, then back to Fox. “Actually, I was just thinking about you,” she said.

The elevator doors slid shut again, and Fox seemed to notice, and asked, “is this a bad time?”

“Hm? No, you’re fine. I was just heading up to my office to read some reports,” Kimball replied.  “It’s nothing that important.” Then she tilted her head at Fox, noticing how the other woman was fidgeting with her hands. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh, uh...no. I was just-- I sorta realized that this might take up more time than you have right now.”

Kimball watched her for a moment, trying to figure out what could possibly be on Fox’s mind that was making her seem so uneasy. Then she sighed and hit the button for the elevator again, causing the doors to slide back open. “Why don’t you come up to my office? We can talk there.”

Fox stole a glance backwards, then nodded and stepped into the elevator after her.

Kimball hit the button for her floor, and watched as the doors slid shut before looking over at Fox. Something was definitely up. Much of Fox’s typical confident demeanor was gone, and she appeared nervous. If it was something to do with Locus, she would have said something by now, Kimball told herself, trying to rationalize the thoughts filling her head.

“So, uh, what were you thinking about earlier?” Fox asked.

“Hm?”

“You mentioned you were thinking about me,” Fox said.

“Ah,” Kimball replied. “I was thinking about how you and I needed to talk about the possibility of assimilating Locus amongst my men.”

Fox looked taken aback by that. “Wow, really? Uh...thank you. I didn’t know you thought I was making that much progress with him.”

“I do,” Kimball assured her. “The reports that you’ve handed me at the end of each week have shown impressive amounts of growth. Just the other day, I Donut told me about a conversation he had with Caboose, and how he said that Locus apparently told him he was sorry about what happened to Epsilon.”

And like that, some of Fox’s confidence had returned. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. I sort of dug into him about his interactions with people a while ago. I’m happy it’s paid off.”

Kimball nodded silently, then said, “of course, all of this will have to be discussed with Agents Washington and Carolina, so we can figure out what sort of boundaries we want to put in place if or when that happens.”

“Gotcha,” Fox replied, then looked over when the elevator doors opened.

Kimball stepped past her, and led her to her office, setting her travel mug on her desk once she got inside. “So what was it that you wanted to talk about?” she asked, looking back at Fox and leaning against her desk.

Fox looked away. “Um...I think this is something that...everyone needs to hear, actually.”

Kimball jerked her head back slightly in surprise. “So it’s important?”

“Very important,” Fox nodded.

Kimball watched her for a moment, noting how she almost looked guilty , and wondered if this had anything to do with the age slip she had made a while ago, and suddenly grew very curious. “Very well, I’ll contact them and get them in here.” And then she turned and sent out a broadcast to the Reds and Blues. Whatever this was, it was going to be interesting.

 


 

Okay, alright. You can do this. This isn’t hard. You’ve done this before. Just run through it, same as you did with Locus, Fox told herself, watching as the Reds and Blues filed into Kimball’s office and made themselves comfortable. She looked over as Locus stepped in after Doctor Grey, and met his gaze, earning a small nod of acknowledgement from him. She had left him with Grey to run and find Kimball, and though she knew that he was likely still unhappy with her little reveal, knowing he was here made her feel a little better.

“Thank you all for coming so quickly on such short notice,” Kimball began once everyone had entered. “I’ve asked you all to come because Fox has something important that she’d like to share with all of us.” She turned and looked at Fox. “You have the stage.”

Fox gave her a nod, anxiety forming a tight knot in her chest that it hurt to breathe past. Deep breath. You can do this.

“So I want to start off by thanking you guys for being really supportive and understanding,” Fox said, forcing an even tone. “I know I’m new to the party, and I don’t really fit in around here, but you guys have been really chill about this whole thing, and it’s honestly made the transition so much easier.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Grey nodding her head slightly. It was enough to bring some of her courage back. “I’ve been working to try to help combat Charon alongside you guys, and as time has gone on, I guess you could say that I’ve started feeling a little less threatened.” Fox paused and sucked in a deep breath.  “Despite all of that, I’m sure some of you have had the suspicion that there’s...maybe something I’m not telling you. And you’ve been right.”

“Fox... what’s going on?” Kimball asked, her voice both firm and concerned.

Fox glanced at her. “So…’Fox’ is just a nickname. Obviously. I got it on Nalome. But the name on my U.N.S.C. paperwork is ‘Annita Rosenblum.’” Okay, here comes the big reveal. Get the fireworks ready, folks. “But that’s not my real name. It was an alias set up by a friend of mine in the U.N.S.C. so that I could get involved in the war. My real name is Pepper Matsukaze.”

And for a moment there was nothing but silence. Then Grif spoke up, “seriously? That’s it?”

Fox took in a breath, then said, “well...yes and no. I’m the daughter of Hiro Matsukaze, the guy who created the AI that runs the entire U.N.S.C. database, which contains information on every weapon, ship, and vehicle on any of the colony planets, it has access to satellites, and contains files of every living person. Like, ever. It’s basically a massive information hub. You wanna know something, it’s in there.”

“So what you’re saying is that you can get any information you want, about anyone ?” Simmons asked.

“Well, technically--”

“Why wasn’t this brought up sooner?” Kimball’s voice cut through Fox’s words.

Fox blinked, “because if Hargrove knew who I was, and that I was still alive, he wouldn’t have spared any of you trying to get me. I didn’t want to not tell you; I didn’t have a choice. He could do awful, awful things with the information on that database.”

“Such as?”

Fox forced herself to stay calm. “Such as figure out who you’re close to, who your family is and where they are, and use them as leverage. And then do the same to pretty much anyone in the U.N.S.C.”

“Which would ultimately result in Hargrove never seeing trial,” Wash said understandingly.

“Exactly,” Fox replied.

“So...are you Pepper, Annita, or Fox?” Donut asked.

“Who cares? As long as she doesn’t call herself a dirty Blue, it’s fine by me!” Sarge replied.

“At least she didn’t stand up and say that she’s one of two assholes who started a civil war,” Grif added, looking almost physically pained from the fact that he had just agreed with Sarge.

“And I didn’t get stabbed again,” Tucker added. “Shit sucked. I had to drink smoothies for weeks!

“Okay, but here’s what doesn’t add up; if you knew what Charon could use you for, why did you start working for them in the first place?” Carolina asked.

Fox took a deep breath, got her thoughts in order, and then explained the twelve year program, and how Charon had asked for her to lead a research team that she thought would ultimately help people, and how naive she had been, and how she hadn’t realized Charon’s intentions, and how it had led to her friends being killed. And then she explained how she was set to inherit Emblem, and how she was supposed to be working with Manning, and how if the U.N.S.C. ever found out what she had done, they would cut her off from the system, and she’d never be able to use what she had to help fight Charon. And when she finished, there was a long stretch of silence between her and the others, that made her heart beat a thousand miles a minute, because oh god, she probably looked and sounded like the biggest idiot. And it was all because she didn’t trust the right people.

“You didn’t trust us,” Wash spoke up suddenly, shifting his weight and tilting his head, but appearing unoffended.

Fox looked over at him, biting her lip. “I-- Look. I like you guys. Really, I really, really do.” She looked out at the others. “Like, I can’t put into words how great all of you have been. But...I was scared. I was scared of what would happen. I wish there was more to it than that. I know it’s pathetic. I’m sorry.”

Wash looked down in thought, and Fox could have sworn she saw him nod his head slightly.

“If I may,” Grey called out from the back, “I’d like to remind you that you did just escape from a very hostile situation. One that was caused by trusting someone you thought was on your side, and turned out to be the opposite.” She offered a kind smile. “Nothing about this is pathetic. If anything, it’s understandable.”

Fox stole a look over at Kimball, and noticed that she seemed to be lost in thought. “Thanks,” she said, turning back to Grey. “I just--”

“So how does this database you mentioned come into play?” Kimball interrupted, looking at her.

Fox glanced over at the others, eyes falling on Doc. He noticed her, and gave her a thumbs-up and a crooked smile. She gave him a small nod, then looked back at Kimball. “So...like I mentioned a while ago, when I first got here, that Hargrove is likely to try to get as much support from his friends and business partners as possible in the coming months. And if the U.N.S.C. is going to be doing things by the books-- and let’s be real here, with this whole thing in the public eye like it is, they will be -- then we know that the trial is going to take place on earth at the U.N.S.C. Supreme Headquarters in New York City. Naturally, Hargrove is going to wind up there, which means all his friends will be honing in on the United Republic of North America. Which means that it’ll be a literal cesspool of corrupt capitalist assholes just waiting to be taken care of,” Fox explained. “If I were the chairman of a multi- billion dollar company about to be taken down for basically treason, I would be making deals. Lots of them. Deals that would benefit anyone in the U.N.S.C. looking to fill their pockets and cause them to suddenly ‘forget’ all of the horrible shit Hargrove has done when the verdict is being decided on. And I’m willing to bet that there are more officials who are more interested in cash than justice, especially considering Hargrove’s ties to the U.N.S.C., so this shit has real potential to get ugly.”

“The U.N.S.C. has a job to do. They can’t just look the other way, right?” Donut asked. Beside him, Grey shook her head.

“The U.N.S.C. abandoned us, remember?” Grey reminded.

“They’re also responsible for the failure and ultimate destruction of several colony planets,” Locus spoke up.

“Among other things,” Wash muttered.

“Power breeds corruption,” Fox said, “which is why we can’t trust the U.N.S.C. to have our backs on any of this. If we’re going to get rid of Hargrove, we need to do it ourselves.”

“Which is where that database of yours comes in?” Kimball asked.

“Exactly,” Fox replied. “The problem is that I can’t actually reach it from here. Which means that I can’t use it to find out Hargrove’s connections and convince them not to help him out.”

“Where is the database?” Simmons asked.

“Earth,” Fox replied. “Specifically in the northern part of Boston, Massachusetts.”

“And in order to reach it, you would need to go there, I’m guessing?” Kimball asked, crossing her arms and tilting her head.

“Unfortunately...yes,” Fox replied. And when Kimball leaned back slightly at that, continued, saying, “I know this is a lot to ask of you, especially since I’m new here, and I’ve kinda been lying to everyone about my identity. But because of my ties to Emblem, I have a fairly diplomatic relationship with the U.N.S.C. I also have a number of wealthy connections, who, with a bit of poking and prodding, I could also convince to send supply shipments to you guys from there.”

“And what about Hargrove’s friends? If, hypothetically, you go to Earth, wouldn’t it make sense to deal with them as well?” Wash asked.

“It’s like I said,” Fox began, “if I were the owner of a multi-billion dollar corporation about to get my ass kicked by the justice system, I would start making deals. And so that’s what I would do. Not only that, but I could assemble a team and make physical contact with many of the people Hargrove is going to try to get on his side and...convince them...to play nice on the side of justice. Honestly, that would be your best bet, because if there are people working on the inside to eliminate the threat, the likelihood that Hargrove is going to send the fight to you is much slimmer than it would be.”

Beside her, Kimball drew in a deep breath. “How many of these connections of yours can be contacted from here?”

Fox looked over at her, praying that she was getting the right connotations from the question. That Kimball was actually considering what she had told everyone. “Unfortunately, there are only two who actually know about the whole alias thing. And if we were going to get in touch with them, I’d have to set up that big quantum computer that I brought back.”

“Quantum computer?” Simmons asked. And both he and Doctor Grey perked up.

“Yeah, that’s what was in that big crate that Grif and Caboose pushed into that Condor,” Fox replied.

“That was a computer!?” Grif exclaimed.

“Is she nice?” Caboose asked.

“Considering she’s just a machine, with literally no personality, I’d say yes,” Fox said, nodding at Caboose.

“How long will that take to set up?” Kimball asked. “I want to know who we're dealing with before any of this is taken into consideration.”

“A few days,” Fox replied.

“It'll be less if I helped you,” Grey responded.

“Then that's the first order of business,” Kimball said. “Once that's done, and I've reached out to your contacts then we'll figure out our next step.” She let out a long sigh, looking over at Fox. “This is a lot of information. It's going to take some time to process. But I'm glad that you shared it.”

Under her helmet, Fox forced a smile. “Understood.”

“So for now, I want you working on getting that computer together. Employ the help of whoever you need,” Kimball continued. “The rest of you will continue business as usual. If anything changes, I will let you know. Dismissed.”

Fox watched as the Reds and Blues hesitantly began to file out, murmuring amongst themselves. And when it was just her, Locus, Grey, and Kimball left, she turned to the latter and said, “I'm really sorry about all of this.”

Kimball shook her head. “I'd be a liar if I said I didn't suspect something.”

Fox blinked. “What gave it away?”

“Your age. It didn't match up with what was listed in the information I found on your alias.”

“Oh,” Fox said, suddenly remembering what she had said when calibrating the shield to Locus’ implants. “Oops.”

“I asked Grey to keep an eye on you for me,” Kimball admitted.

Out of the corner of her eye, Fox noticed the grin that appeared on Grey's face. “Huh. Funny, since she was the one who convinced me to tell you all this.” She paused. “Well, her and Sunshine over there. I guess you can thank both of them for this.”

Kimball tilted her head slightly. “I see,” she said. She was quiet just long enough for Fox to start feeling nervous before she said, “from now on, I want you to tell me about important things like this. I understand why you kept this quiet, but we...we need to trust each other, understand?”

“I do trust you,” Fox replied. “I wouldn't have said anything otherwise. But yes, I understand.” She was quiet for a moment, then added, “thank you.”

Kimball nodded. “If that's all, I would like you and Grey to get working on that computer.”

“Copy that,” Fox said, then turned and headed for the exit, giving both Grey and Locus a nod before stepping out, glad they would be keeping her company as she moved forward.

 


 

“So?”

“So.”

“So are we gonna talk about what the fuck just happened?” Simmons asked. After the meeting, everyone had sort of gathered in the motor pool. But no one had said anything about what had just happened in Kimball’s office.

Grif, who had indulged Simmons with a simple, one-word answer, sighed. “Does any of it really matter?”

“Um, yes?! She’s been lying to us this whole time! And Kimball had her paired with Locus!

“Aw, relax, Simmons! Just ‘cause the lady didn’t tell us her real name or any of that other stuff, doesn’t mean she’s one of the bad guys!” Sarge replied. “Th’ way I see it, as long as she’s not one of those dirty space pirates, then there’s no problem!”

“Come on, Simmons! It doesn’t matter what she calls herself! Annita Roselbub, Paper Mazel Tov, Miss Fox. As long as she’s still our friend!” Caboose added.

Simmons shook his head, feeling like he was about to explode. But before he had a chance to reply, Wash spoke up.

“Look, we’re all kind of surprised, but I think we should take into account what she’s been through.”

“And what about what we’ve been through?” Tucker asked, sounding irritated.

“I mean…” Donut trailed off when everyone turned to look at him, then sucked in a breath and continued, “so we’ve both been through some bad stuff, right? But we...we at least had each other. She had nobody. I mean, she was up there all by herself. I just don’t think it’s right to judge, y’know?”

And Simmons was too surprised to get mad, because holy fuck, Donut was taking her side. Then again, his boyfriend literally worked with her, so of course he’d have a different view of the whole thing.

“Donut has...a good point,” Carolina said. “But so do you, Tucker,” she looked over at Tucker, who puffed his chest out a little in confidence. “We’ve all been through a lot recently. And even though the pirates haven’t come back, and things around here are getting back to normal again, tensions are still very high.”

And Simmons knew that, but it didn’t make him feel any better. “Just…” he pressed a hand to the side of his helmet like it would help dull his headache. “What if she’s hiding something else? What if she’s still working for Charon?”

Wash and Carolina exchanged a look. “I...was going to keep an eye on her,” Wash replied. “But I think I’m pretty confident that she’s no longer working for Charon. The AI that we took down on Nalome was priceless. They wouldn’t sacrifice something as valuable as her for something as small as espionage. Not when they could just send more pirates to do whatever damage needs to be done.”

And Simmons just sighed, deciding that it wasn’t worth arguing about anymore. He was tired, he had a headache, and everything Fox had said had only confused him.

“Well, I guess that settles that!” Sarge exclaimed, when no one else had anything to say. “Now, I have a patrol to catch!” He turned and headed for the motor pool exit, barking, “Donut! Let’s hop to it!” as he walked past.

“Yessir!” Donut exclaimed with a snappy salute before hurrying after him.

“Come on, Caboose,” Tucker sighed, “we should check to see how things are going in the armory.”

“Okayyy. Can I say hi to Freckles?” Caboose asked, tailing him with a bounce in his step.

“Sure. Whatever. Just don’t shoot anyone,” Simmons heard Tucker reply as he led Caboose out of view.

“We should get back to our positions too,” Carolina said, looking over at Wash.

“I’ll see you later,” Wash replied with a nod, he started to walk past, but stopped next to Simmons.

Simmons looked over at him, bracing for whatever unsolicited advice he was about to receive.

“It’ll be alright, Captain Simmons,” was all Wash said, before he continued walking and disappeared around the corner.

Simmons watched him go, and when he looked back, it was just him and Grif left in the motor pool. Carolina had pulled one of her disappearing acts. Great. With a long sigh, Simmons walked over and took a seat on one of the large crates next to some shelves and pulled off his helmet, dangling it in one hand, and running the other through his hair. He looked over when Grif sat down next to him and pulled his helmet off too.

“You’re...um…” Grif began, eyes on the floor, looking like he didn’t know how to say what he wanted to. “You had a good point. I guess. It’s...it’s been a lot.”

“You said none of it mattered,” Simmons said bitterly.

“I mean... yeah? I just... fuck. I don’t know, Simmons,” Grif sighed. “I don’t fucking know.”

“I thought we were done,” Simmons said, then bit his lip because it felt like there was a knife shoved under his sternum and he was scared that if he said anything else, it would cut something loose, and then everything he’d tied up inside of himself since the fight with the mercenaries would come out. Because the truth was that there was a lot that he was upset about, not just Fox. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, he thought angrily.

He startled when he felt a hand on the back of his neck, and looked over at Grif with surprise. Grif didn’t say anything, but held his gaze. Simmons stared at him for a moment, then asked, “um...what are you doing?”

Grif blinked. “Trying to make you less upset? Is it not working?”

Oh , Simmons thought. “It’s...fine.”

Grif nodded, and kept his hand in place. He was silent for a moment, then said, “it’s just something I used to do with Kai, after our mother left. It...helped.”

Simmons looked down at the floor, and Grif must have noticed, because he said, “um...I’m not really...amazing at this stuff. But if you wanna talk...y’know, I’ve got nothing to do right now.”

And Simmons couldn’t describe how grateful he was for that. Because truth was, Grif, out of all of his teammates, was the easiest for him to talk to. Sure, Sarge could be empathetic at times, but he was just as likely to tell him to to lighten up. And Donut, despite having the best intentions, didn’t always know what to say. And he could barely understand Lopez.

“I’m not... actually that upset about...what Fox told us,” Simmons confessed. “I’m just tired. And-- and I don’t wanna deal with anything else that might put all of us in danger.”

“Yeah,” Grif sighed, “me too. And I’m not happy about getting dragged into another person’s problems. But I guess...I guess it’s not so bad, since we’re all together.” He frowned. “Most of us, anyways.”

Simmons looked over at him, knowing exactly who he was thinking of. “Are you going to go looking for her when this is all over?”

“That was the plan. If she’s even still alive,” Grif replied.

And Simmons, without thinking, reached over and put his hand on Grif’s knee. “I’m sure she’s okay. She-- she’s tough, right? We’ll find her.”

Grif, whose gaze had been on Simmons’ hand, met his gaze and gave him an odd look. “‘We?’”

Simmons felt his blood rush to his cheeks. “W-well...I--I mean...you’re not...I mean, I--” He sucked in a deep breath. “I want to come with you.”

Grif blinked a few times, and Simmons could have sworn that for a moment, he looked years younger. Then the spell broke, and Grif said, “uh...I guess...sure. That’s...okay.”

Simmons watched him for a moment, wanting to say more, but before he could open his mouth, he heard, “¿ustedes dos van a hacer algo, o esperan que yo haga todo el trabajo?

He blinked and looked over, spotting Lopez with a stack of boxes in his arms. Funny. He hadn’t even heard him come in. He glanced over at Grif, then said, “we should probably help him.”

Grif just sighed and removed his hand from the back of Simmons’ neck, picking up his helmet and putting it back on before standing. Simmons did the same.

“Thanks,” Simmons said, once he had his helmet back on, earning him a head tilt from Grif. “For-- for listening. It...helped.”

Grif just shook his head and said, “it’s fine. Let’s just help Lopez with those boxes before he tries to strangle me again.”

Simmons nodded, and the two headed in Lopez’s direction.

 


 

The rest of the day-- much to Carolina’s gratitude --was uneventful. They were able to locate and patch up a leak that had been caused by some of the explosives the pirates set off. After that, everyone had dispersed.

Carolina looked at the time in the corner of her hud and decided that she might as well get an early start up to Kimball’s office. She had to report what had gotten done today, and check up on Kimball to see how she was doing after the bombshell Fox dropped on everyone. Speaking of Fox, Carolina realized she hadn’t seen the other woman at all after the meeting, and wondered if that was by design, or if she was really that busy. She thought about going down to check on her, but decided that it wasn’t her place, especially considering that Fox didn’t seem particularly fond of her.

Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she decided she would just head for Kimball’s office instead, and if she ran into Fox later, she’d talk to her then. With a sigh, Carolina double-checked the report on the datapad in her hand, logged it, then tucked it under her arm and headed for Kimball’s office, stopping by her quarters to pick up a few things along the way.

When she got there, the first thing she noticed was that Kimball was completely out of her armor and was dressed down in just her exo-suit with a pale blue hoodie over it. She didn’t look up when Carolina entered, giving her a perfect set-up to simply walk up and set a bottle of whiskey and two solo cups down on her desk.

Now Kimball looked up, her eyes first falling on Carolina, then darting over to the whiskey. Her face broke into a surprised smile, and with a small laugh, looked back up at Carolina and asked, “what the hell is that?”

“A bottle of White Horse whiskey I’ve been holding onto,” Carolina said, setting the datapad down next to the object in mention and taking off her helmet. She shook out her hair, brushing her bangs out of her face. “It was supposed to be for your birthday, but after today, I thought you needed it sooner.”

Kimball laughed at that, picking up the bottle and turning it over in her hands, reading the label. “Isn’t that something,” she said absently. She set it down and looked back at the datapad on her desk. “I checked the logs. I’m glad you guys were able to find that leak. Now we can get our men back on track with training exercises.” She took the top off the bottom and poured both herself and Carolina a drink.

“I doubt the lieutenants will be very happy about that,” Carolina replied, taking her cup from Kimball.

“Or Grif, ” Kimball added with a smile.

Carolina let out a little chuckle at that, and took a sip of her drink.

Kimball did so as well. “Wow,” she said, looking at Carolina. “That’s pretty good. Where did you get this from?”

“Sorry,” Carolina replied, grinning. “That’s top-secret Freelancer information.”

“So if you told me, you’d have to kill me, right?”

“Something like that,” Carolina laughed. She took another sip of her drink and then set her cup down on Kimball’s desk. “So,” she finally said, her smile fading.

Kimball seemed to know what she was thinking, because she set her cup down too and said, “the elephant in the room.”

Carolina just nodded, then asked, “how are you doing? I know...what we talked about…and now this. How are you holding up with all of it?”

Kimball sighed and stared into her drink. “I get it,” she said after a moment of silence. She looked up at Carolina. “I don’t like it, but I get it. I think...I understand why Fox did what she did. I’m not happy about it. But it’s hard for me to be upset about it too.”

“I...had a feeling you would say that,” Carolina replied.

“What about you?” Kimball asked.

Carolina shrugged and looked away, breathing in deeply. “I guess I feel the same way. I know that Wash does too. I know what it’s like to put my faith in the wrong people. Honestly, the fact that she would trust us with this information so soon, after really only having met us, is surprising. But I’m not complaining. At least she told us at all.”

Kimball nodded, and the two sat in silence for a while. Finally, she spoke up again, saying, “I’m thinking that it’ll be easier to keep things the same with her.”

Carolina looked back at her. “So you are keeping her with Locus, then?”

“The two work well together. There’s no denying that,” Kimball replied, taking a sip of her drink. “And it wouldn’t help anyone to pull them apart. What I’m worried about is that if we do send her to Earth, she’ll try to take him with her.”

“We can’t send her down there by herself,” Carolina replied. Though she wasn’t in love with the idea of putting that amount of trust in Locus, she also didn’t like the thought of sending any of the Reds or Blues, or Wash down there with her. Kimball needed them here. “I don’t like it, but he might just be the smartest option to send with her. We’ve lost a lot of men in these past few months.”

Kimball didn’t say anything, but looked like she was thinking hard about what Carolina said. “It’s like I told Fox, there are no plans right now. We’ll deal with things as they come.”

Carolina let out a soft sigh. That wasn’t the answer she had hoped for, but she didn’t want to push Kimball either. She was under enough pressure as it was. She looked away for a moment, trying to find a topic to change the subject to, as their current one had gotten stale. After a moment, it came to her, and she looked back at Kimball and asked, “So are you planning on making it a habit to come and join me on patrols?”

Kimball seemed startled by the question. “Well…,” she began setting her cup on her desk, “honestly, that was just me trying to get some time away from this office to de-stress. Grey says that I need to get out more, and as always, she was right. It helped. Why? Am I getting in your way?”

Now it was Carolina’s turn to be startled. “Wh- no. I mean-- It’s…” she turned her eyes in the direction of the filing cabinet against the wall to her right. “I don’t mind having you out there.”

“But I am getting in your way,” Kimball said. There was a small smile on her face that suggested she knew what Carolina was really thinking.

But in truth, Carolina enjoyed her company. Of course, putting that into words was harder than putting pants on a centipede for Carolina. “It’s a nice change of pace,” she decided to say. “We don’t have much time during the day to talk unless it’s business of some kind.”

Kimball narrowed her eyes and tilted her head slightly, seeming to think about her response. “No,” she agreed, “we don’t.”

“And if you want to keep coming out there, you don’t need to ask my permission. You are in charge of things around here,” Carolina continued, unable to help but feel like she was just digging herself into a deeper hole.

And like that, Kimball’s smile was back. “I see,” she said, sounding like she was hiding a laugh. “Well, I’ll be sure to keep stopping by, then.”

And Carolina let out an internal sigh of relief. She finished her drink and tossed her cup into the wastebasket next to Kimball’s desk. “How late are you planning on staying in here?” she asked.

“Not much longer. Grey will have my head if I pull another all-nighter,” Kimball replied.

“Or I will,” Carolina teased.

Kimball gave her a surprised look, then chuckled. “I figured as much.” She looked over at her computer screen. “Anyways, I have some work I’d like to get finished before I wrap it up, and we’ve both had a long day.” She looked back at Carolina. “Why don’t you try to get some rest?”

Carolina let out a soft sigh. “I’ll try,” she said, picking up her helmet, aware that her time with Kimball was over. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then she turned and headed towards the door, stopping when she heard Kimball speak up.

“It was...nice...talking to you, Carolina.”

Carolina looked back, gave Kimball a small smile and a nod, then continued on her way.

 


 

The dying light of the sun bathed the Chorusan landscape in a warm glow as it slipped behind the distant mountains. Kimball watched as the shadows around and beneath her grew long and cool, fixing her focus on a flock of alien bird-like creatures soared above the valley below, the smooth skin on their four vibrantly-colored wings shining in the sunset.

Birds were a rare sight these days; birds-- and all other animals for that matter. The civil war, and the battles that had followed after the discovery of Charon’s influence, had driven most of them away. If this was a sign of something, she wasn’t sure what it was.

She had meant to head to her quarters after finishing up her work for the day, but something had driven her away, and instead she found herself back in her armor, standing near the edge of a cliff, watching the sunset. The conversation with Carolina had been...helpful. At the very least, it had improved her mood somewhat. Not to say that what Fox had told them earlier that day had been terribly upsetting, but it had been enough to unbalance her slightly.

Of course, she had never fully trusted Fox. Not completely. Even though she wanted to. Even though she had seemed, and still seemed, genuine. Kimball needed to know more, understand more. Because even though Fox, despite all of her fears, had told them the truth about her identity, she still had a feeling that there was something missing. That there were still leftover empty spaces in the puzzle, and she hadn’t quite found all of the pieces yet.

Kimball wondered what Doyle would have done, had their roles been reversed.

It had been nearly two months since the leader of the Federal Army of Chorus had given his life in Armonia. Kimball found herself thinking back to the fiery, golden ball rising up out of the city against the blue of the sky, and how the smoke from the aftermath had filled the atmosphere for days after. Thinking about the events leading up to that moment made Kimball’s stomach churn, and left a bitter taste in her mouth. It shouldn’t have been him. It shouldn’t have been any of them. And all of it had happened because they had trusted the wrong people. She couldn’t let that happen again. She needed to know that Fox was on their side completely.

Pulling herself back into the world, Kimball closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. When she opened her eyes again, the last of the sun’s rays had vanished behind the mountains.

But that wasn’t all that had changed.

The hairs standing up on the back of her neck, Kimball became acutely aware of the feeling that she was being watched. Reaching slowly for the gun on her hip, she took a deep breath, then whirled around, drawing the weapon and aiming it chest-level. And for a split-second, she was still, save for the gradual tightening of her hands around the grip of her pistol. Then the shock wore off; replaced by a bolt of hot tension that shot through her shoulders and spine. “What are you doing here?” she demanded coldly, acid dripping from her words.

She had been expecting a space pirate, or maybe one of the Reds or Blues who hadn’t quite figured out that sneaking up on her wasn’t the best idea, or Fox. So when she had turned and found herself pointing a gun at Locus , her body instinctively kicked into fight mode.

He stood some ways away from her, unarmed. Kimball couldn’t read him well, but judging from how he took a small step back when she whirled on him, he hadn’t expected to be confronted. He was silent for a little too long, and Kimball had half a mind to snap at him, but he finally gathered himself and said, “we need to talk.”

Kimball stared at him for a moment, trying to figure out exactly how he knew where to find her, and how he had managed to slip past the others to get to her. The wheels in her mind turning, she slowly lowered her weapon, but didn’t holster it, and kept her finger by the trigger. “About what?” she asked.

He must have noticed, because the next words he said were, “I’m not a threat. I’m unarmed. I have no intention of harming you.”

“Answer my question.”

Locus was quiet for a moment, then said, “it’s about Fox.”

“What about her?”

“She’s different from Felix and I.”

“I would hope so.”

“And regardless of what she said today, that hasn’t changed.”

And Kimball felt a spike of anger at that. “Don’t condescend me,” she growled.

Locus tilted his head slightly, looking taken aback. “That was not my intention.” He paused for a moment, then said, “in the event that Fox is sent to Earth, she will need someone to accompany her. After the meeting, while we were in Doctor Grey’s lab, unboxing the quantum computer, she implied that she would choose me. I thought it best to make you aware of that.”

He fell silent after that, and Kimball waited a moment in case he wanted to say anything else. But when he didn’t, she straightened up out of the wide stance she had taken and holstered her weapon with a sigh. She looked back up and regarded him for a moment, processing what he had said. “Why...are you telling me this?” He could have kept it quiet. He could have put her in a position where she was forced to make a decision last-minute. He could have used this. So why was he throwing away his chances?

Locus fell silent and tilted his head slightly towards the ground, appearing deep in thought. “Because...it’s the right thing to do,” he replied slowly, looking back at her.

Kimball inclined her head slightly, sizing him up, trying to pick him apart, trying to figure out what was going through his head. “You’re right,” she said after a moment. “It is. Thank you for telling me.”

Locus didn’t reply, but looked at her expectantly, like he was waiting for her to say something else.

And Kimball sighed, because the elephant in the room was overwhelming. “You realize you’re not allowed out here without someone accompanying you, right?”

“I’m aware, and I accept whatever consequence comes from this.”

“That ,” Kimball began, “is something I will have to discuss with Fox.”

“Do you still trust her?”

Kimball blinked, startled. “I--” She looked away, trying to recollect herself. “Do you?” she asked when her composure failed her.

Locus tilted his head to the side slightly. “Her actions and motivations seem genuine enough.”

“Despite the fact that she lied to us?” Kimball asked, more to test the water and figure out exactly how he felt than to push an opinion.

“It’s like I said, General Kimball, she’s different from Felix and I.”

And Kimball leaned back slightly, falling silent for a moment to process all of what he had told her. It was good to know, at the very least, that he still trusted Fox. At least she still had a way of keeping a lead on him. She tilted her head back slightly, turning her eyes up towards the darkening sky. The last of the sun’s orange glow had faded behind the mountains. They needed to head back soon.

She looked back at Locus, who hadn’t moved, and seemed to be watching her closely. “Is that all?” she asked.

Locus quickly looked away, and was silent for a moment before saying, “no. There’s something else. Something I should have told you when we first spoke after the events on Nalome.” And he turned his gaze towards the ground. Kimball couldn’t tell if it was out of insecurity, guilt, or deep thought. At least not until he spoke. “I...owe you an apology,” he said slowly, looking up at her.

And every thought that had been swarming Kimball’s head froze solid. What? Out of all the things she expected him to say to her, an apology wasn’t one of them. After taking a moment to regain her composure and collect her thoughts, she took a deep breath and said, “go on.”

And for a second, she could have sworn that he tensed up. Like he had hoped that she would simply dismiss him instead of taking interest in what he had to say. But then he spoke up, “there is nothing I can do to fix what I’ve done, but…” He trailed off and turned his head away, clearly thinking about what he wanted to say next. His silence lasted for only a moment before he continued; “I made a choice. I was wrong before, I know that now. I need to make things right.” He took a deep breath and tilted his head slightly towards the ground. “I understand you will never trust me,” he said finally, slowly looking over at her. “But know that I am here now because I want to help bring the chairman to justice.”

He fell silent after that, and Kimball found herself staring at him speechlessly. The truth was, she had no idea how to respond. Though his words sounded sincere, she still wasn’t sure if she could trust them. Though she had to admit that what he had said was consistent with his actions so far. Either he was a better liar than she had thought him to be, or there was something else going on far deeper down than she could see into him.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, forcing her voice to sound strong and even.

And Locus balked at this. And Kimball wondered if he really was thinking hard about what he wanted to say, or if he was just trying to buy himself more time when he tilted his head towards the ground. “I...have to,” he said finally, like he was forcing the words out instead of letting them come naturally.

“Why?”

“Because I need to do better,” he replied, and Kimball was certain she had never heard him speak so quietly before.

Kimball took in a deep breath, crossing her arms and looking him up and down. “Yes,” she said after a long moment, “you do.”

And she watched as he looked up when her when she spoke, and she couldn’t help but revel in how strange it was to see him like this. Before, he had been nothing but a killer in a suit of armor with a devastating goal. It had been so simple to limit him to that. To kill any idea of personality he might have. But now...now he was just human. Now they were equals. And Kimball had never taken into account how hard that realization was going to be.

“Your actions resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people,” she said, coldness edging into her voice. “It’s going to take more than an apology to prove to me that you’ve changed.”

And Locus heaved out a long sigh. “Then what can I do?” he asked, looking up at her.

And Kimball realized just how tired he looked; the way he held himself, like a puppet dangling from a single, central string. And she swallowed hard, mind turning over and over as she sought after an answer. There were a billion thoughts-- a billion things she could say-- wanted to say, but none of them stuck quite right. None of them filled in the blank the way she wanted them to. He was a murderer, a monster, but he was here to help. Wasn’t he? Wasn’t he? And the words finally found her, almost automatically. And she said, “you can start by helping us take down the chairman.” The words tasted like vinegar, but at least they were out. Kimball watched Locus give her a slow nod.

“I will,” he said.

“Good,” she replied tersely. Then added, “despite the willingness you’ve shown to both comply with...most of the boundaries I have set in place for you, and assimilate with my men, realize that I’m not in a position where I can trust you. Not yet.”

And Locus said, “I understand,” and Kimball knew he did. And she watched as he turned, having finished with their conversation, and started away. But then he stopped, and looked back over his shoulder at her, and said, “thank you...for listening,” before continuing down the path.

Kimball watched him go, words left unsaid burning like acid in the back of her throat.

Chapter Text

Two months. Tucker stared at the date in the corner of his helmet’s hud absently. It had been two months since the decision to let Fox work with Locus. Somehow it didn’t feel that long, and the realization of how much time had passed left him with a dull feeling of surprise. He had expected all the change they had gone through to affect him more.

Patrol was quiet today; something Kimball’s men had gradually gotten used to after the space pirate attack. They were still a threat, of course, but everyone had sort of accepted by now the fact that they probably wouldn’t be back any time soon.

Tucker looked over lazily as Matthews and Bitters chatted with Andersmith. He remembered that Jensen had been cleared for patrols a few weeks ago, and wondered if he’d see her out and about today. Despite all of his interactions with Grey, he was still surprised at how quickly her skills, combined with modern medical technology, allowed Kimball’s men to get back on their feet in such a short period of time. It was useful, at least.

Tucker looked back over the horizon as a small gust of wind rustled the treetops around him. It was a hot day, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. Which is why he noticed the small speck hovering off in the distance so easily.

“Matthews, Bitters, Smith,” Tucker said, getting the attention of the three lieutenants. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two turn and look in the direction he was facing.

“That’s not one of ours,” Andersmith said after a moment of observation.

Tucker was about to respond to him when the sound of gunfire and shouting rose out of the jungle below. He and the lieutenants stared in the direction it had come from, then exchanged looks with one another.

“Aw shit ,” Matthews hissed.

“Not again, ” Bitters groaned.

“I’ll contact command,” Andersmith volunteered.

Tucker nodded and looked back at the speck on the horizon that was drawing closer with every second. By now he could pick out the shape of the wings and thrusters. It was the missing Pelican.

The pirates were back after all.

 

 


 

Two months went by quickly, Kimball realized as she looked over the report Fox had handed to her when she walked into the office. The latter stood across from her before the desk with her arms folded neatly behind her back, awaiting some sort of response.

From what was on the report, things had been going well. Locus was cooperative, and hadn’t shown any signs of resistance. And from what she had observed from simply walking through the halls of their headquarters, her men had almost completely adjusted to having him around.

Kimball finished going over the report, then set the data pad down on her desk and looked back up at Fox. “I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I was impressed,” she admitted.

Fox shrugged. “He’s not as hard of a subject to work with as everyone told me he’d be. And he’s come way farther than I expected in such a short stretch of time,” she said.

“So it seems,” Kimball replied with a nod. “You’ve done well.”

“I try,” Fox shrugged. Then said, “so…” trailing off like she expected Kimball to know what she was thinking.

“So?” Kimball asked, already bracing herself for whatever Fox said next.

“It’s been two weeks since you first brought up the idea of assimilating Locus,” Fox said. “Is that...still a thing? Like, I know we agreed to set back the date after he snuck off to talk to you and broke like, five rules in one go. But it’s been a while, and he’s obviously still doing really well.” She scuffed her heel against the floor, glancing down at it before returning her gaze to Kimball. “I guess I was just thinking that we could spitball some ideas really fast while I’m here.”

Kimball sighed. She couldn’t say she hadn’t seen that coming. “Despite the improvement he’s shown over the past two months, what happened two weeks ago is proof enough that he’s still not ready for that kind of freedom.”

“It’s not like he ran off ,” Fox said, shaking her head slightly. “And from what I heard, the two of you didn’t exactly walk back together. He came back on his own.”

“I’m aware of that,” Kimball said. “But--”

“But you still think he’s going to ditch the second we take the shackles off, don’t you?” Fox interrupted.

Kimball eyed her with annoyance for a moment, then said, “we just need more evidence that he’s not going to try anything if we do.”

Fox sighed and crossed her arms. “I don’t know how to get that to you,” she admitted, looking back at Kimball. “Not unless you give him a chance to prove it himself. You can’t get results without running a test.”

“I know,” Kimball replied, frustrated that they had hit a wall in their discussion. She looked away. “I need some time to think of a way for him to prove that he’s ready that is safe for everyone else involved.”

“What about a solo mission?”

Kimball looked back at Fox. “Too risky.”

“We could have someone tail him.”

Thankfully, any decision Fox had expected Kimball to make was interrupted when she suddenly received a transmission from the command center.

“General Kimball, we have reports of pirates attacking our eastern patrol, and a visual of the Pelican that disappeared,” said a voice over comms.

Kimball processed this for a moment, then looked up at Fox, who seemed to realize that something was wrong. “Space pirates,” she explained quickly, then to the voice over comms, said, “send support to the eastern patrol, and get a team with a sniper on that Pelican. I’ll be down to assist in five.” She then looked back at Fox, and said, “we’ll continue this conversation later. Right now I want you and Locus to assist with backing the eastern patrol.”

“Copy that,” Fox replied.

Kimball watched her go, trying to shake the request out of her thoughts. There were more important things to worry about right now.

 


 

It had been easy to get used to the idea that the pirates were gone for good. So when a grenade hurtled through the trees and took the arm off of a nearby soldier, Donut was more than a little caught off guard. The blast threw him to the ground, and he felt the prickle of shrapnel against his skin where it had pierced through the kevlar in his suit. Then the shouting and shooting started.

He quickly dragged himself to his feet and darted for cover behind a fallen tree. To his left, a soldier sporting New Republic armor leaned out from his cover of a cluster of boulders to fire a few rounds off into the underbrush. Donut remembered his name was Rory.

¡ Hijo de puta!” Donut looked over when Lopez slid into cover beside him. There was a scratch mark across his chest plate that suggested he’d been nicked.

“How many are there?!” came the shout from Jensen, who had taken cover beside Rory. Donut couldn’t help but feel a little bad for her. She had just gotten back on her feet.

“I don’t know!” Donut yelled back.

“Estamos jodidamente ciegos,” Lopez said flatly. “Se esconden en los arbustos.”

“You’re right, Lopez! We should try to get them out in the open!” Donut replied.

“Mierda,” Lopez sighed.

“If we move farther back, we should be able to make them follow us!” Donut reasoned. The forest was dense, and if they were being fired on now, it was because the pirates had a clear shot at them from wherever they were. The more terrain they could put between them, the better their chances were.

“Copy!” Came the simultaneous reply from Jensen and Rory.

Slowly, the four of them began picking their way backwards through the underbrush, weaving behind trees and rocks to cut off their attackers from them. It wasn’t long before the shooting stopped, and Donut pricked his ears and listened. There was the sound of distant shouting that carried up the slope they were situated on.

“Creo que trabajaron,” Lopez said quietly.

But before Donut could reply, the sound of cracking branches and scuffing sounded ahead. The four of them listened intently as the noise drew closer and closer.

“Those are footsteps,” Jensen whispered. “They’re too big to be a human, though. Do you think-?”

“Hargrove’s men got their hands on a few Mantises, didn’t they?” Rory asked.

And Donut felt his heart sink. It was one thing to have to witness someone getting their arm blown off, and another to fight a giant death machine. And today was going so well.

The sound of a distant explosion brought Donut back to his senses, and he glanced around at his three companions. “We should keep moving,” he suggested, his nerves creeping into his voice. And for once, just once , he wished he could pull his heart off his sleeve, because these people were relying on him to get them through the day.

Swallowing hard, Donut clambered out from behind cover, eyes locked on where the sound of heavy footsteps was coming from, and stood. His stomach tied in a knot when he heard the sound of a gun click behind him.

“Wait, holy fuck, you’re a dude,” came a snigger from whoever had a gun pressed against the back of his neck.

“Well yeah, what did you think I was?” Donut asked in spite of himself.

“A chick? You’re wearing pink.

Donut sucked in a breath. “It’s lightish-red ,” he corrected, yanking his pistol out of its holster and whirling around to face his attacker, somehow managing to knock the shotgun in his hands upwards. He yelped when the weapon went off, firing buckshot into the sky, and batted the gun to the ground.

The pirate stared at the weapon that was now out of his reach, then looked over at Donut, seeming confused. “Well?” he asked when Donut did nothing. “Aren’t you going to shoot me?”

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to get this far,” Donut admitted with a feathery laugh.

The joke was short-lived, however, as a bullet suddenly punched through Donut’s shoulder, and he fell over backwards. The pirate lunged for his gun, and Donut watched as he rose up on one knee and took aim.

He never had the chance to fire.

There was a sound like a screaming gale, and the pirate’s head was rolling across the jungle ground. There was more shouting, and Donut flung himself back into cover next to Lopez, who was cursing in Spanish.

Esa fue la más estúpida de lo que he visto,” he growled, then jerked his chin up when more pirates emerged from the undergrowth and started firing.

But Donut’s attention was focused on a familiar shape, as it arced through the trees away from them. “Hey,” he said, tapping Lopez’s shoulder to get his attention, “isn’t that-”

He never got to finish his sentence as the disc slashed through a tree beside them, toppling it and cutting them off from the pirates. Donut turned away as it fell and covered his head with his arms, uncurling and looking back at it once it settled. He flinched when the sound of shooting erupted from where the disc had come from, and listened to the screams of the pirates as they were caught off guard by what he hoped was their backup.

 


He holstered his pistol and pulled his submachine gun off his back, supporting it on the top of the fallen tree and firing in the direction of the space pirates. Beside him, Lopez, Jensen, and the Rory did the same.

“Hey Donut, are you still alive down there?” came a familiar voice over comms.

“Tucker?!” Donut exclaimed, ducking back behind cover.

“Oh, good, you are. Listen, we’re here to back you up! Just hang in there until we can reach you!”

“Suuuure thing, pal!” Donut replied, feeling almost relieved. Almost.

Until he heard the sound of a massive footstep slamming into the ground beside them, and remembered the Mantis.

“Ay, mierda,” Lopez droned, looking to his right.

Donut followed his gaze, and froze, staring up at the towering form of the giant robot.

“Scatter!” Rory shouted, and they did. Donut dove to the left, scrambling for cover as he heard the Mantis drone “target acquired.” There was a scream, and he watched as Rory was flung backwards in a spray of red as the Mantis’ fire hit him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lopez engaging the pirates. Donut turned to try to help, but whirled, hackles raised, when he heard the sound of someone charging towards him. He turned just in time to see Fox lunge, spring off the fallen tree, and launch her disk towards the pirates. Two of them went down like bowling pins, and those around them redirected their fire towards her.

The concussive sound of a sniper rifle tore through the trees, and Donut watched as another pirate fell. He heard a yell that sounded an awful lot like Tucker, and startled when Lopez leapt over the fallen tree, launching himself out of cover. He didn’t see the pirate with the grenade launcher aiming at him.

“Lopez! No, wait!-”

The explosion cut Donut off, and he was forced back behind cover. He didn’t have time to clear his head before a massive, metal foot slammed into the ground right in front of him, and a voice, in a gravelly, metallic drone, said, “Target locked.”

 


 

Earlier:

 

Tucker had come to the decision that Kimball was trying to kill him. He had come to this conclusion when Fox and Locus showed up with news that they were assigned to assist the eastern patrol alongside them. It had certainly thrown him through a loop, what with the fact that they were just letting Locus outside again, but he’d made the executive decision to simply suck it up. After all, Donut and Lopez had been assigned to that patrol. Their safety was far more important than any grievances he had with Locus.

At least he was quiet.

As they crept through the undergrowth, Tucker listened intently. The sound of gunfire had ceased shortly after they had begun tracking the footsteps of the patrol. It was worrying.

Beside him, Caboose quietly hummed what might have been a very off-key version of the Mission Impossible theme, Andersmith and Matthews moved quietly, and Bitters muttered complaints to himself. To his left, Fox scanned the jungle, her head jerking in the direction of every sound and movement. Behind her, Locus walked in silence, and Tucker couldn’t tell what he was contributing, if anything.

“It’s been too quiet for too long,” Fox hissed over comms.

“Do you think they’re okay?” Caboose asked.

“I don’t know, Caboose,” Tucker admitted, worry creeping up his throat.

They crested the hill they had been climbing, and wound up almost immediately throwing themselves in the direction they had come from when the sound of gunfire suddenly ripped through the trees. All seven of them dropped onto their stomachs, and Tucker army-crawled up to the crest of the hill again, hackles raised.

“Hey Donut, you still alive down there?” he asked over comms.

“Tucker?!” came the startled reply. Tucker couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief.

“Oh, good, you are. Listen, we’re here to back you up! Just hang in there until we can reach you!” he replied, then started scanning the trees. If they were going to help, they needed to know where everyone was. “I can’t see anything,” he hissed after a moment. The jungle was simply too dense.

“Let me try.” Tucker looked over as Fox crawled up to join him, and watched with curious fascination as a light on the side of her helmet flared red with a ding and a purr . She was quiet for a moment as she gazed ahead, and Tucker noted how she appeared to wind up like a spring. “I’ve got ten hostiles to the northeast, and a Mantis making its way up the hill.”

“What about Donut and Lopez?”

“Them and two others are pinned behind cover, it looks like. It’s hard to tell, but they’re definitely all alive-- Oh for fuck’s sake.” Fox leapt to her feet suddenly, grabbed the shield base off of her hip, spun, and hurled it ahead. Tucker watched as the blade extruded from around the base mid-air, and the shield hurtled off through the trees.

“They’re going to get themselves killed,” Fox hissed. She turned and looked back at Locus, and said, “try to get a vantage point and see if you can take a few of them out. You’ve got support this round.” Then she dropped and slid down the steep hill in the direction of the fight.

Tucker exchanged a look with Caboose, then muttered out a frustrated, “goddamnit,” and followed her.

When the sound of gunfire drew too close, he backpedalled with his hands to stop himself, rising up onto his feet and ducking behind the thick trunk of a tree. Caboose slid a little farther, but wound up doing the same.  

When Tucker looked ahead, he realized he could make the fight out through the trees, and he felt his heart sink when he noticed the bloodied body of a soldier wearing New Republic armor. Rory. They should have moved faster. “Matthews, Smith, Bitters, you three circle around and try to cut them off,” Tucker ordered over comms.

“Copy,” came the reply from Andersmith.

A movement to Tucker’s left caught his attention, and he watched as Fox darted through the trees and launched herself off of a fallen tree that Lopez and Donut had taken cover behind.

The sound of a sniper round tearing through the trees halted them before either could make a move to help, and Tucker felt his breath escape between his teeth. It looked like Locus had found a good spot to do some damage.

He was yanked out of his thoughts when he heard an all-too-familiar yell. He ducked away as an explosion ripped through the jungle, then turned back in the direction the cry had come from. Through the trees, he made out the form of Donut, who was scrambling for cover. Right in front of him, weapons armed, was a Mantis.

“Shit!” Tucker hissed. Holstering his gun, he jumped out from cover and bolted for the Mantis, letting the slope of the hill heighten his speed. Letting out a savage yell, he pulled out his sword, activated it, and launched himself onto the machine.

“Your interference is not appreciated,” the Mantis droned, and shook itself, forcing Tucker to hold on for dear life.

“Tucker!” Caboose shouted.

“I’m a little busy right now!” Tucker snapped back, too busy holding on to look in his teammate’s direction.

“Freckles says to go for his eyes!”

“It doesn’t even have eyes!” Tucker screeched. He reached up with a hand to try to get a better grip, but wound up slipping, having the hand he was still holding on with get jammed in a joint, and being flung off.

He hit the ground hard, and scrambled to his feet, tucking his injured hand under his opposite arm. He darted behind cover as the Mantis realized it had thrown him, and turned in his direction to attack. Under his helmet, Tucker grit his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut as the Mantis’ bullets ripped into the tree he was ducking behind.

A shuffling sound to his right caused him to look over, and he noticed Donut hurrying into cover. Once he’d settled, he looked over and caught Tucker’s gaze.

“Oh man, I thought I was a goner, there!” he breathed.

“You’re not the only one,” Tucker replied, sucking in a breath when he heard the Mantis start towards them. “Where the fuck is Lopez when you need him?”

There was a humming shriek as Fox’s shield zipped overhead, cutting through branches as it moved, and arced in the direction of a pirate who had a grenade launcher in his hands.

“I think he blew up!” Donut cried.

“Huh?!”

“Lopez! There was a guy with a grenade launcher! I tried to warn him!”

Tucker looked back just in time to see the shield cut through the pirate, the launcher in his hands bursting apart in an explosion of oranges and reds. “Shit.”

“We have to do something about that Mantis!” came a cry from Jensen over comms.

“No shit!” was the reply from Bitters.

“Captain Tucker, we have visual on the Mantis. Should we engage?” Andersmith asked.

Tucker peered out from behind what was left of the tree he was using for cover. Immediately, the Mantis open fired on him, forcing him back. “Put this fucker down!” he yelled, right as the tree gave out, and with a sickening cracking sound, began to topple over.

 


 

“I could be on the beach. I could be on the beach, sipping a fucking piña colada, with my feet in the water and a cooler full of ice cream next to me. But no. No, I had to wake up this morning and fight a bunch of shit-eating cockbites instead . Fuck my life.”

“Are you done?”

“I’m getting shot at by a giant death robot. What do you think?! ” Grif near-shrieked at Simmons, who was crouching behind cover beside him.

“Will you two quit yer yappin’? I’m tryin’ to focus! ” came the irritated bark from Sarge over comms.

Grif let out a frustrated sigh and leaned out from cover when the gunfire stopped. The Mantis was still there. The thing had come out of nowhere. One minute they had been trying to shoot down a Pelican, the next, a massive death-bot was being dropped right in front of them. Today couldn’t get any worse.

“The Pelican’s gone,” came the update from Palomo, who was crouched behind the Warthog they had driven up to the vantage point.

“Which leaves us with one less thing to worry about!” Sarge exclaimed. Then, “git’cher head down, son. I need to borrow this for a minute.”

“What the fuck is he up to?” Grif muttered more to himself than to Simmons. He tried to find Sarge, but couldn’t see much where he was currently situated. And moving wasn’t an option with a Mantis breathing down his neck.

“Acquiring new target,” the Mantis droned suddenly.

Grif felt his stomach knot up. It only got worse when he heard the sound of an engine revving and all too familiar music start playing. Leaning out a little bit, he caught sight of Sarge in the Warthog charging towards the Mantis. The vehicle’s engine roared as Sarge put the pedal to the metal and steered it into a jump off of a rocky ledge.

And Grif watched with a mixture of horror and amazement as it flew over them in slow-motion.

“Holy shit! ” Simmons screeched as the Warthog slammed into the Mantis.

The Mantis’ legs gave out under the force of the blow and toppled backwards, and the Warthog flipped nose over tail onto its back and skidded a few feet away before coming to a stop.

“Sarge!” Grif heard himself yell. And as the Mantis struggled to stand, he charged out from behind cover towards the wreckage of the Warthog. He skidded to a halt beside it, and dropped to the ground, peering under it, eyes locking on Sarge’s form. He looked unconscious.

“Can we move it?” Grif looked over when Simmons spoke right next to him, and realized he had been followed.

“No-- I don’t know! It’s too heavy!”

“Shit, shit! ” Simmons swore, looking over as the Mantis managed to successfully get itself onto its belly.

“Sarge?!” Grif shouted back under the Warthog. “Come on you old bastard, you can’t die yet!”

“Grif, ya damn low-life,” Sarge groaned, coming to. “What happened?”

“You drove a Warthog into a Mantis, dumbass!”

“Did I kill it?”

“Nope,” came the worried reply from Simmons. Grif looked over in his direction and froze, watching as the Mantis got its feet back under it and rose.

“Well, shit,” Simmons said.

“Move!” Grif roared, and dove behind the raised tail of the Warthog. Simmons did the same, packing in beside him as bullets ricocheted off the belly of the vehicle.

“We have to get him out of there!” Simmons exclaimed.

“How?!

“I don’t know! Just think!

“I--” Grif cut off as the sound of a sniper shot echoed through the jungle and the Mantis stopped firing abruptly. He and Simmons peered out from behind the Warthog, spotting Palomo crouching behind the rock formation Sarge had leapt off of, rifle steadied against the stone.

“Hey asshole! Why don’t you pick on--” Palomo cut off as the Mantis turned its torso in a one-eighty towards him, its legs following suit shortly after. “--Oh. Okay. That worked way too well,” Palomo gulped. “That worked way too well! Oh fuck! ” he cried as the Mantis open fired.

This was bad.

 


 

Sarge was no stranger to pain; shooting into hell feet-first in a drop pod at a thousand fuck-off degrees through atmospheric entry. So when the Warthog flipped and knocked his lights out, and he woke up with his arm caught under a mess of machinery, he took a deep breath and tried to find out more information.

Of course Grif was damn useless. As usual.

And then the Mantis was back on its feet, shooting through the bottom of the Warthog like a hole-puncher through a stack of paper.

With a groan, Sarge put a hand against what used to be the dashboard and yanked as hard as he could. Pain ripped up his arm, and he spat out a string of angry curses that died down to a few angry mutterings forced out between his gritted teeth. Sucking in a breath, he tried again, this time managing to dislodge it with enough force to smack the back of his helmet against the headrest of his seat. He lay there stunned for a moment, then shook his head and set his jaw, grabbed his pistol off his hip, and rolled out from underneath the Warthog--

--Right as the Mantis went for Palomo.

“This was the worst idea! Ever! Of all time!” Palomo screeched from behind cover over the roar of the Mantis’ guns.

“Sarge! You’re okay!”

Sarge looked over when he heard Simmons’ voice, and spotted him and Grif looking out from behind the Warthog. “You can save the butterfly kisses and baby showers for later, we’ve got a Mantis to kill!” he barked.

“What’s the plan?!” Simmons exclaimed, him and Grif making their way to his side.

“Th’ plan is, you two are gonna draw the Mantis back towards the ‘hog, and me ‘n Palomo are gonna work on takin’ out it’s legs!” Sarge replied.

“That’s stupid!” Grif hissed, right as Simmons whined, “why do I have to be bait?”

“Both of you lowlifes quit yer squabblin’ and do what yer told!” Sarge snapped. “Now I’m gonna head on over to Palomo. When I get into position, you two are gonna draw it’s attention.”

“And how is what you and Palomo plan on doing going to help?” Grif asked.

“Easy! We’re gonna make the Mantis face-plant onto the ‘hog and blow itself up!” Sarge replied.

Simmons and Grif stared at him for a moment, obviously impressed by the incredible plan he had conceived.

“That’s...actually a really good plan, Sarge!” Simmons exclaimed.

“No it’s not!” Grif snapped.

“If you guys are going to help, it would be great if you could do it sometime today please!” Palomo yelled from behind cover.

Sarge looked back at where Palomo was hiding from the Mantis, and realized with dismay that the rock formation was nearly chipped apart from the bullets. “Now you two get in position,” he said, glancing back at Grif and Simmons, then dropped into a crouch and began creeping around the Mantis, a savage grin forming under his helmet.

The Mantis would never know what hit it.

 


 

Tucker had no choice but to throw himself out of the way when the tree came down towards him. Unfortunately, the act of preventing himself from being crushed put him directly in the Mantis’ line of fire. Unfortunately for the Mantis, it was right then that Donut pulled the pin on a grenade and threw it at it. Unfortunately for Donut, the Mantis detected the grenade and used one of its arms to bat it back towards him.

Donut scrambled out of the way with a shriek, and barely avoided the blast from the grenade, hissing in pain from the fragmentation he took to his back. He turned, heart in his throat when he heard Tucker shout a challenge to the Mantis, and watched him leading it away from him.

A hand on Donut’s shoulder pulled him back into the world, and he jumped with a yelp and looked behind him and froze with shock when his eyes met with a familiar brown helmet. “Lopez! I thought you were dead!”

“Robots no pueden morir, idiota,” Lopez replied.

“Yeah, I did almost die! It’s a good thing Tucker jumped in when he did,” Donut said, clambering to his feet and looking back in the direction Tucker had headed. By now, most of the fight had moved west, towards the cliff--

“Oh jeeze!” Donut exclaimed, and started in the direction of fight. “Come on, Lopez!”

“Nunca voy a tomar un descanso,” Lopez muttered, and followed him.

 


 

Drawing the Mantis away from Donut had seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t until Tucker found himself with his back to a sheer drop into the canopy below and a Mantis bearing down on him at the front that he realized just how badly he’d fucked up. To his left, Jensen, Matthews, Bitters, and Andersmith were engaged with a group of pirates behind cover with neither group making any headway. And Fox was up the hill, picking off any stragglers. Lopez and Donut were nowhere to be found, and Caboose was in the middle of trying to sneak up on two pirates who had situated themselves behind some rocks. Which meant that there was no one to help him.

Perfect.

Tucker stole a glance back into the trees, making out the form of the Mantis as it crashed through the brush. Drawing it over the edge of the cliff was the obvious choice here, but with no one else to help him, he didn’t stand a chance.

Cursing under his breath, he dove into cover as the Mantis broke through the trees. However, much to his horror, it turned and open fired on the lieutenants, forcing them farther back behind cover, and revealing Caboose as he scrambled out of the way with a yell.

“Is someone going to-- ow -- do something about that?!” Fox roared over comms.

“Can’t you help?!” Tucker shot back.

“I’m a little-- oh for fuck’s sake -- busy at the mome-- don’t you point that at me, asshole!”

Tucker cringed when a shriek followed by the sound of an explosion burst through the trees.

“Tuckeeeeer! I’m comiiiiiiing!” came Donut’s voice.

But Tucker was less focused on what was being yelled at him over comms, and more on what he was seeing in front of him as he leaned out from cover. The Mantis took a step towards where Caboose had retreated to, locked its guns, and let out a sound like a car refusing to start. And Tucker watched as one of its arms crashed to the ground in slow motion, the cables at the end of it glowing orange and hot. And, sliding to a halt behind it, sword in hand, camo rippling as it was deactivated, Locus appeared.

The lieutenants raised their heads, and he turned to them and snapped, “move, now!” then skirted around the Mantis as it turned towards him.

Without thinking, Tucker stepped out from behind cover and open fired on the pirates the lieutenants had previously been engaged with before they could take advantage of the situation. The pirates scrambled and darted into the underbrush, and Caboose leaned out from behind a tree and picked two of them off with Freckles’ help.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tucker watched as Locus went for the Mantis again, throwing himself forward under its fire and going for one of its legs.

“This is highly problematic,” the Mantis said as Locus’ sword cut into its knee, weakening the leg, but not entirely severing it. The Mantis stumbled, beginning to keel backwards as it lost control of its movements, staggering towards where Tucker was standing.

Tucker threw himself out of the way, coming up into a crouch and turning towards the Mantis where it was trying to balance itself near the edge of the rocky cliff. A sudden yell from up the hill drew his attention, and he turned and saw a Marine in familiar pink armor charging towards the Mantis, with Lopez in tow.

“Get some, you oversized washing machine!” Donut screeched, and Tucker noticed the grenade in his hand too late. Donut hurled it at the Mantis as it turned towards him, and the blast slammed the robot to the ground.

The Mantis let out a mechanical sputter, and grated out, “primary systems shutting down…” before sparking and seizing up, then lying still.

Tucker stared at it for a moment, then turned to Donut, who had skidded to a halt a few yards away. He took in a breath, about to offer something along the lines of a ‘thank you’, when the ground beneath his feet buckled suddenly, and the side of the cliff gave away.

 


 

“This is the shittiest plan!” Palomo listened to Grif scream over comms as the Mantis directed its fire at him and Simmons.

“Will you just shut yer trap and focus!?” Sarge roared back.

Palomo, just shook his head, took a deep breath, and lined up his rifle. Don’t fuck this up, he thought, taking a deep breath and getting ready to fire when the Mantis reached the Warthog. He exhaled as it lifted its leg up, and pulled the trigger.

The Mantis jerked forward, and instead of face planting into the Warthog like it was supposed to, it stepped down on it instead. The vehicle ruptured in a burst of reds and oranges, and when the smoke cleared the Mantis was still standing.

“It didn’t work! Did I not say this wasn’t going to fucking work?!” Grif screeched into the communication channel. Palomo pulled away from his rifle’s scope and realized that him and Simmons must have dove for cover.

“That’s ‘cause you messed it up!” Sarge barked back, very much not over comms.

Palomo felt his heart sink as the Mantis turned back towards them. He ducked down behind cover as it fired on them, looking over at Sarge and asking, “you’ve got another plan, right?”

“I’m workin’ on it!” Sarge growled back. He raised his gun, turned to aim, and froze, muttering a startled “what in Sam hill?”

And Palomo noticed it too; the Mantis’ fire had been drawn away from them, only to stop abruptly “Oh thank god! Backup!” he cried as he caught sight of Carolina and Wash.

Carolina had her pistols raised, and judging by how the Mantis was smoking, had hit home with them. And as the Mantis staggered backwards, fuming from one of its vents, Wash charged and launched a grenade at it. It bounced off, and Palomo heard Wash screech “oh come on! ” right before the grenade detonated at the Mantis’ feet.

“Ouch,” the Mantis said, and toppled over backwards.

Palomo stared at the Mantis in amazement, then looked back at Wash and Carolina. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Simmons and Grif creep out from cover and draw closer.

“Is anyone hurt?” Carolina asked over comms.

“Nope!” Sarge replied, as Simmons said “I think Sarge’s shoulder was bleeding?”

“Simmons, you ought to get yer eyes checked! The only red on me is my armor!” Sarge barked off comms, standing up and facing Simmons.

“But you are bleeding,” Palomo replied, standing as well.

Hmph . Blind lot of good fer nothin’s,” Sarge grumbled, then turned to Wash and shouted “we appreciate the gesture, Blue, but we had this whole situation under control!”

“No we didn’t!” Grif yelled, having reached Wash and Carolina and therefore being close enough to yell.

“Grif, shut yer yap! Everything was going according to plan until you lot showed up!” Sarge exclaimed, starting towards Wash and Carolina.

“I could tell,” Wash replied flatly.

Palomo followed Sarge, listening as he continued to squabble with everyone else, eyes on the ground. Sarge’s plan would have worked if he was just a better shot. This was his fault. He looked up when they finally reached the others, and listened as Wash explained that he and Carolina were just passing through and were on their way to help with the eastern patrol.

“Sarge, I want you to head back and get that arm looked at. Palomo, you go with him,” Carolina ordered.

“Uh...right,” Palomo replied.

“Quit yer fussin’, I’m fine!” Sarge huffed.

“Will you just go!?” Grif snapped.

Sarge sucked in a breath like he was going to reply, but Wash beat him to it and said, “Sarge, just go.”

Sarge fixed him in a look for a moment, and Palomo was sure he was going to argue, but then the older Marine just sighed and said, “alright, fine,” and brushed past Wash and Carolina.

Palomo glanced over at Wash and Carolina, then at Grif and Simmons, then with a cry of “hey, wait up!” he ran to catch up to Sarge.

 


 

Tucker scrambled for purchase, dismay filling him as the ground he was on lurched backwards. He lunged, hands reaching for the edge of the cliff, and for a moment his fingers sunk into dirt. But then his hold gave away, and he felt himself begin to fall and let out a yell, squeezing his eyes shut. And then something grabbed his wrist and yanked hard, nearly popping his shoulder out of his socket And with a gasp, Tucker opened his eyes and scrabbled blindly with his free hand for something to hold onto, reaching up for whatever had him. It wasn’t until he grasped whatever was latched onto his wrist that he was finally able to focus on what had him.

More specifically, who.

“Locus?!”

Locus was down on one knee, both hands clamped tightly around Tucker’s wrist. “Stop squirming,” he growled, obvious strain in his voice.

 

 

Tucker blinked, realizing that he was, in fact, kicking his legs, and did his best to stop moving. “Uh…are you gonna pull me up or--”

He didn’t have time to finish as Locus suddenly rose to both feet and stepped back, giving him a hard tug as he did so. Tucker let out a yelp and scrambled for a foothold, managing to find one right as Locus let go of him. His chest hit solid ground, and he grabbed at it with both hands, panicking for a moment until he realized that he wasn’t sliding backwards. He blinked, looking around, noting how his legs were only dangling over the edge from the knees down. “Holy shit,” he breathed, then turned his head forward and army crawled until he was completely on solid ground. Slowly, he raised himself onto shaking legs and peered over the edge of the cliff. When he saw how far he would have fallen, he let out a nervous laugh and stumbled back. “Man, that would have sucked!

“You’re welcome.”

Tucker jumped at the sound of Locus’ voice behind him, and turned to face the other Marine, tension shooting into his shoulders. But Locus simply stood there, seeming to size him up for a moment before turning and walking away.

“Uh...where are you going?” Tucker asked, glancing around quickly and noting that the fighting had ceased before looking back at him.

“To finish this,” Locus replied without looking back, then activated his camo and vanished into the trees.

Tucker stared after him, seeing Donut doing the same out of the corner of his eye. The two noticed each other at the same time, and Donut exclaimed, “oh man, I thought you were a goner!”

“You almost got me killed, asshole!” Tucker exclaimed.

“I didn’t mean to! I didn’t know that the ground was going to give out!” Donut protested, putting his hands up defensively.

“¿Qué esperabas que hiciera la granada?” Lopez asked from behind Donut.

Tucker opened his mouth to say something, but wound up just sighing. “Just...I’m glad you guys are okay,” he huffed.

“Oh, yeah, thanks,” Donut replied, sounding confused at the sudden change of subject. “We totally would have been toast if you guys hadn’t shown up!”

“Tucker! All the pirates are gone!” Caboose shouted, waving down at him and Donut from the top of the hill to his left. Andersmith, Jensen, and Matthews were with him. Tucker watched as the four made their way down to where he, Donut, and Lopez were standing.

“Where did Locus go? I swear I just saw him,” Jensen asked.

“He said something about finishing...something,” Tucker replied. “He was headed wherever those pirates that retreated went, I think.”

“Do Kimball and Fox know this?” Andersmith asked, right as Bitters growled, “oh fucking great .”

“Well that was messy.” Tucker turned when he heard Fox’s voice and watched as she emerged from the undergrowth, her black and blue armor splattered with blood and her shield hovering at her wrist.

“Uh….are you...hurt?” Tucker heard Andersmith ask slowly.

“Hm? Oh, uh…” Fox looked down at herself, seeming to suddenly become aware of the mess she had made. “I um...might have made an unlucky pirate’s gun explode by mistake. Which also made him explode. Oops.”

Sick, ” Matthews said.

“That is. So gross,” Bitter agreed.

Tucker watched as Fox looked around, seeming to realize who the missing member of their party was. “Where’s Locus?” she asked.

“Uh...we don’t know,” Donut replied nervously.

“Oh,” Fox replied, sounding more surprised than upset. “Well, that’s not...great.”

“I’ll call this one in,” Andersmith volunteered.

“No, no, let me,” Fox sighed. “You’ll just get yelled at.” She looked over at Tucker, “we should probably head back,” she said.

Tucker nodded, perking up as the sound of distant thunder rumbled in the distance. Stealing one glance back towards the cliff, he turned and started back up the hill, saying “let’s go,” and listening as Fox hailed the command center and gave her report.

 


 

At first, the news that the pirates had successfully been driven away, and the eastern patrol and those sent to assist were on their way back, was welcome. But when it had been followed with the news that Locus was nowhere to be found, it took Kimball everything she had to keep her composure.

Of course he had run off. Of course he hadn’t planned on sticking around and helping like he said he would. Of course she shouldn’t have trusted him as much as she had. And when Fox walked in with Wash and Carolina, all three soaked from the storm, Kimball drew herself up and readied for an unpleasant conversation.

“I want you to explain everything,” she said, looking pointedly at Fox. “From what Tucker and the others told me on the way in, he just vanished.”

Fox sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and replied, “I was providing support. There were a few stragglers who could have caused problems for the rest of the group if they weren’t taken care of. I wasn’t expecting Locus to wander off, so I took my eyes off of him.”

Kimball let out a frustrated sigh. “This was not your fault alone,” she began. “ Locus is the one who chose to leave, and the rest of the men present at the time did nothing to stop him. This is exactly why I’ve been hesitant to assimilate him.” She shook her head and looked away.  “The main concern I have is that now we’re going to have to send out a search party.”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, honestly,” Fox replied.

“What do you mean?” Wash asked, turning to her.

“He’ll come back,” Fox replied, then looked back at Kimball and said, “he’s got nowhere else to go. He’ll come back. We need to trust that.”

“He was able to find a ship before,” Carolina replied.

“Yeah, but that’s because there was a ship for him to take. There’s nothing left,” Fox responded, turning to her. “And you can’t convince me that he’s spent these past two months working with me and showing all this improvement just to throw it all away. There has to be more to it than what we’re seeing. According to what Tucker told us, Locus mentioned to him that he’s going to ‘finish this,’ which probably means that he’s planning on going after the pirates that escaped.”

“But that doesn’t guarantee that he’s coming back,” Kimball said exasperatedly. “We clearly put too much trust in him before. We can’t possibly expect that he’s going to do the right thing, especially when you consider his history.”

“I mean, fair. But if we’re going off of history, I think it’s important to also consider his recent actions. I mean, he’s done nothing to suggest that he was planning to run off like this,” Fox explained. “You wanted evidence that he was on our side for good, Kimball. And when he comes back, I think you’ll finally have it.”

If he comes back,” Kimball corrected.

“When,” Fox said firmly.

Kimball took a deep breath and looked over at Carolina, who simply gave her a nod. Yes, there was some truth to Fox’s words. If Locus had planned on running off, he could have easily done so after meeting her on the cliff two weeks ago. But it didn’t change the fact that he was gone now. Frustrated, Kimball looked back at Fox and said “here’s what we’re going to do; I’m going to send a patrol about a mile farther than normal every day. If we find something that way, then we’ll hone in on it. I’d send a full search party, but we’ve lost enough men to these pirates as it is, so this is the next best thing.” She looked over at Carolina and Wash, then back to Fox. “I want one of you three on those patrols as well, to increase our odds of convincing him to return if he’s found, understand?”

“Copy that,” Wash replied as Carolina said, “understood.”

Fox, however, tilted her head and didn’t respond right away, and Kimball turned to her. “Fox?”

“No, I understand, I’m just thinking,” Fox replied.

Kimball narrowed her eyes at her, then looked over at Wash and Carolina again and said, “you’re dismissed.” She watched them leave, and turned back to Fox, who hadn’t moved. “Mind sharing?” she asked after a moment.

Fox shrugged, “I was just thinking that you put your trust in him for a reason.” She turned towards the exit, then looked back over her shoulder and said, “maybe you shouldn’t question your judgement so much.”

Kimball stared after her as she walked away, then turned her gaze to the floor and listened to the office doors slide shut.

 


 

“L-look, I know we might’ve maybe hurt a few of your friends. And that you might be kinda mad about it. And--and you’re probably thinking ‘h-hey, maybe I should just kill these guys.’ But you’ve got another choice y-y’know? A-and the answer m- may surprise you--”

“Be quiet”

“Okay. Yeah. I’m shutting up. Totally not going to hear a sound from me ever again. Got it. Lips are zipped.”

“Dude, he said shut up .”

“I’m trying! I talk a lot when I’m nervous-- ow! You don’t have to elbow me!”

“Holy fuck he’s going to get us killed.”

“I’m trying to shut him up!”

“I’m sorry-- wait, hey w-what’s that? Oh god, what is that?! Oh god oh god oh god--”

“Dude chill, it’s a cable.”

“Oh thank fuck ! I thought it was a snake!”

“It doesn’t even-- Are you fucking blind?!

“Well, I have a stigmatism in my right eye--”

Please kill him first--”

“What?! No!”

“--or I will .”

“But I thought we were bros?!”

“We were until we got tied to the back of a Warthog in the middle of the jungle by a dude who’s supposed to be dead , and you refused to shut up!”

Locus let out a long sigh, and finished using the cable he had grabbed from the pirate encampment to tie his three hostages to the back of the Warthog he had commandeered.

Catching the pirates off guard wasn’t difficult, as they were all too busy licking their wounds from their earlier fight next to the remaining Pelican. One of them he recognized as the sniper he had knocked out during the first assault on the New Republic headquarters. He had been holding down the camp when the other two arrived. Locus had picked them off one by one shortly after.

Now it was a matter of keeping the three of them securely in the back of the Warthog with no means of escape while he dragged them back through unfamiliar territory to Kimball for questioning. It would all be less of a hassle if they would just be quiet .

He finished tying the three up, and was about to stand up, when the pirate in the middle looked over his shoulder at him and spoke up.

“H-hey, uh, not to be a bother, but these cables are really tight…”

Locus stared at him, trying to think of something smart to say, then gave up and simply gave the pirate a hard smack to the back of the head with the butt of his gun, knocking him out. The other two pirates fell deathly silent, and Locus looked at both of them and said, “any more requests?”

Both pirates shook their heads feverently.

“Good,” Locus said, then stood and jumped off the back of the Warthog and headed for the driver’s side. He hopped in and revved the engine, and in a matter of seconds they were started up the hill towards headquarters.

The ride back was difficult, as the storm made navigating the jungle far more trying than it otherwise would have been. Locus found himself having to drive much slower than he normally would to try to pick out familiar landmarks, as the map on his hud was only so useful. Eventually he came to a stop at the edge of a cliff, and looking down, was met with the familiar sight of the New Republic headquarters.

He was about to start towards the trail down, but froze when he heard the sound of a gun clicking behind him over the rain pattering against the foliage. He slowly turned his head in the direction of the noise, and found himself staring at a trio of Federation soldiers, with Carolina at their head. He held her gaze for a moment, and when she refused to lower her guns, said, “I’m not a threat.”

“Where did you get the Warthog?” She asked.

“It was at the pirate encampment, along with these three,” he nodded at the three pirates huddled in the back.

Carolina looked over at the pirates, then slowly lowered her guns and holstered them. She turned to the soldier to her right and said, “contact General Kimball,” then headed around to get a better look at the pirates.

Locus followed her with his eyes for a moment, then looked back at the soldier she had addressed, watching as he raised his hand to the side of his helmet and said, “General Kimball? Ma’am, you’re not gonna believe this.”

 


 

Carolina and her team escorted Locus and the pirates back to the motorpool of the New Republic headquarters, where Kimball, Fox, Wash, and a handful of soldiers were waiting for them. While the pirates were being unloaded from the back of the Warthog, Locus kept an eye on Kimball, who was watching the whole ordeal several feet away with her arms crossed.

“Bring them down to the cells and hold them for questioning,” Kimball said to the soldiers who had accompanied Carolina. “You four assist them,” she added, glancing back towards the other men standing beside Wash and Fox.

Locus watched with growing tension as the pirates were led away, his gaze drawn by Carolina as she walked over to stand beside Kimball.

Kimball stared him down for a moment, frustration radiating from her, then uncrossed her arms and drew in a breath like she was going to speak, but cut off when Fox put a hand on her arm and softly said, “let me handle this.”

Kimball turned her head and looked at Fox, her body language unreadable. She then glanced over at Locus before looking back to the other woman, let out a sigh, and said, “you have two minutes.”

Fox gave her a grateful nod and started towards him, stopping short a few feet and looking up at him. She was silent for a moment, and Locus braced himself for what was likely to be a very harsh scolding.

“So...you probably could have gone about all of this a little better,” Fox began slowly, catching Locus off guard with the calmness of her tone. “You definitely made a lot of people here worry.”

“There are no more pirates left. The remaining three would have only called for help, or caused more trouble had I not brought them back,” Locus replied. “It was the right thing to do.”

“Well, I never said it wasn’t--”

“Then what is the issue?”

“Listen, listen, just... look at me, okay?” Fox said exasperatedly.

And Locus did, fully expecting to be yelled at.

But instead of yelling, Fox said, in a gentler voice than before, “I get it okay? I get it.” She let out a sigh that seemed to deflate her a little before continuing. “You want to help. And I know that, and I think that’s great. Like, clearly you're not the horrible person everyone’s told me you were anymore. And that’s awesome. But these people don’t realize that yet.”

There it was. Locus slowly balled his hands into fists at his sides to try to quell his frustration.

“The boundaries that Kimball and I put in place are there to prevent everyone else from feeling threatened.”

Like he was a tiger in a cage. Of course.

“And I need you to understand and respect those boundaries, because humans have an awful, awful track record for doing terrible shit when they feel threatened.”

Don’t make it sound like you’re trying to protect me, Locus thought bitterly.

Fox looked away and rubbed her arm, then started again. “You know, it wouldn’t be so bad if you had taken me with you.” She looked back at him again. “We’re partners, you know? What if something had happened to you?”

“Why would it matter?” The words were out before Locus had time to think about them, and he recoiled with a hiss between his teeth. And he watched as Fox drew herself up, shoulders tense.

“Because you’re a human fucking being, and you’re just as important as anyone else around here,” Fox replied, her voice turning cold and angry and low. “ And you’re my partner, so it’s my job to care about you.” And she was quiet for a moment, letting the tension slowly leave her before she spoke again, “I can’t guarantee that things are going to be the same anymore. Kimball put her trust in you, and you kinda blew it. I know it was for a good reason. But Kimball didn’t think you were coming back.” She sighed. “I guess the best thing you could do right now is explain what your whole thought process was. Y’know, why you did what you did and whatnot. It might help pull you out of the fire a bit, is all,” Fox suggested, looking back at Kimball, who perked up immediately when she did so.

“Well?” Kimball asked.

Fox shrugged. “Those were the last three pirates on the planet. Apparently.”

Kimball nodded at Locus, “is this true?”

“There were no others at their encampment, and there’s no reason to believe there are any left elsewhere,” Locus replied.

“Was there any sign of the Pelican?”

“It was there as well. Unattended.”

Kimball put her hands on her hips and looked over at Wash and Carolina. If she was speaking to them, it was over a private channel so Locus couldn’t hear her. After a moment she looked up and seemed to think for a moment before she turned and started back the way she had come. “Walk with me,” she said.

Locus found himself exchanging a look with Fox before the two of them caught up to her, Wash, and Carolina. They walked for a while in silence, heading in the direction of Kimball’s office. Kimball herself seemed to be processing everything, keeping quiet nearly the whole way there before she finally spoke up when they reached the elevator. “Fox had a lot of faith that you would come back,” she said, looking over her shoulder at him.

Locus looked down at Fox, and she simply shrugged at him. “I... had no reason not to,” he replied, looking back at Kimball.

“She said the same thing.”

“We should be able to get some good information out of the pirates he brought back. Do you want us to head on down and see what we can do?” Wash asked suddenly.

“Doctor Grey is on it,” Kimball replied without looking at him.

“Oh,” Wash said, and Locus could have sworn he saw him shudder.

“However, a more familiar face might prompt them to talk much faster.” Locus blinked in confusion when Kimball’s gaze shifted from him to Fox.

Fox met her gaze and gave her a nod, then looked up at him and said, “you know where the interrogation rooms are, right?”

“I do,” he replied, barely keeping the confusion from his voice. There had just been an exchange between her and Kimball, but he had no idea what it was about, and that made him uneasy.

“You’re sending him alone?” Carolina asked.

Kimball simply nodded at her, then looked back to the elevator when it gave a hearty ding and the doors slid open. Her, Wash, and Carolina filed in, but Fox stayed back for a moment, looking up at him and saying, “don’t worry too much, okay?” before stepping into the elevator.

Locus watched as the doors slid shut, trying to figure out exactly what she meant by that. Then he turned and headed in the direction of the interrogation rooms, feeling a headache start to emerge. This day just wouldn’t end.

 


 

When they reached Kimball’s office, the Reds and Blues were already waiting for them. Kimball had contacted them on the lift up about a major decision being made. Wash wondered if it had anything to do with the silent exchange she’d had with Fox earlier, or the talk of assimilating Locus he’d heard through the grapevine from Carolina and Grey.

Kimball made herself comfortable, leaning back against the edge of her desk. Wash felt her gaze sweep over all of them, lingering a moment longer on Fox, who had situated herself next to Carolina. “For these past two weeks, I have been thinking hard about the next step to take with Locus would be,” Kimball began.

And like that, the tension in the room rose ever so slightly. Wash glanced over at Carolina, but she didn’t return his gaze, and instead focused on Kimball.

“Prior to Fox revealing the truth about her identity to us, her and I discussed the possibility of assimilating Locus in with the rest of you, and my men,” Kimball explained.

Well, at least it’s nothing unexpected, Wash thought, shifting his weight to one side.

“Okay, so just so we’re on the same page here, the guy just broke like half of the rules set in place for him, and we’re rewarding him for it?” Grif asked incredulously.

“I mean, he came back ,” Donut mused.

“Aw, c’mon Grif! You break rules all the time, and we still like you, ” Caboose replied.

“It’s not the same!” Grif exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Tucker agreed, looking over at Fox. “What if he’s just trying to get us to trust him, so he can turn on us later?”

“Considering how much of a terrible liar he’s turned out to be, I don’t think he’s going to try that,” Fox said, shaking her head.

Wash looked back at Kimball, who was listening to the debate intently. “Truthfully,” she said, and her tone was that of someone who was thinking hard about their words, “if I were to be honest, I would say that any hostility Locus has towards us has vanished.”

And like that, the room fell silent.

“Well that was a fucking one-eighty,” Grif muttered.

Kimball looked at him. “Actually...it’s not.” She took a deep breath, then said “two weeks ago, Locus sought me out and... apologized . It was...enlightening...in the sense that it made his motivations clear. But I...well, I suppose I didn’t realize it until just now.” She looked away, towards the others. “Before the attack today, I wanted more evidence that he wasn’t going to walk away the second we gave him enough freedom to do so. Fox suggested he be sent on a solo mission with someone tailing him to keep tabs on his actions. However, in light of what took place a few minutes ago, it’s clear we won’t need to. He single-handedly eliminated the threat of another attack by capturing the remaining three pirates, and then came back on his own, despite having no reason to.” Kimball paused for a moment, and looked over at Fox. “I think, by now, it’s clear where his loyalty lies.”

“Okay, that’s cool and all, but did no one hear what I just said?” Tucker asked.

“Okay, I guess I need to make this monosyllabic for you,” Fox said, tilting her head at him. “Locus is a bad liar. Believe me. If he was trying to deceive you guys, I would have figured it out by now.”

And Wash finally found his tongue. “Honestly,” he spoke up with a sigh, “if you take a look at how him and Fox have been working together these past two months, I think it’s safe to say that letting Locus out of his cell permanently won’t really change anything. I mean, him and Fox already have the full day together as it is. And with the hold that Fox has on him, and how much he trusts her already , I don’t think he would do anything that would result in further harm.”

Carolina, Kimball, Fox, and the Reds and Blues all stared at him, and he couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious.

“Are you…serious about this?” Tucker asked, and something in his voice made Wash look over at him.

“I’m not saying I’m in love with the idea,” Wash replied, after a moment of thought. “But I am saying that...I mean, he saved your life , Tucker. And in the fight before this one, Grey, Jensen, and myself wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

“So we’re just gonna ignore everything else he’s done because he helped us a few times?!” Simmons exclaimed.

“Well, no--”

“Nobody said we’re ignoring anything, Simmons. We’re just trying to put him in a position where we can... get the most use out of him, so to speak,” Fox soothed.

“Guys, come on! Look, none of us like the guy, but it’s not like he’s trying to kill us anymore!” Donut spoke up, much to Wash’s surprise.

“And what if that changes?” Simmons asked.

“Like, okay, okay, so he stopped me from falling off a fucking cliff. And yeah, he said he was gonna go ‘make things right’ at the Tower of Communications or whatever. But like, we don’t know that he’s not still a complete dick ,” Tucker added.

“Let the record stand that I never said he wasn’t ,” Fox replied. “But if he really didn’t care about trying to fix everything he did, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of jumping into danger for any of us. Myself included.”

“Exactly!” Donut exclaimed. He turned and looked at Simmons and Grif, and continued “besides, we all know Locus is scared of Fox. If he tries anything, she’ll just kick his ass!”

“Or one of us will,” Carolina added.

Wash sighed, feeling a headache beginning to develop between his eyes. “All I’m saying is that we should give it a chance. Fox has proven more than once that she can keep him on a tight leash if she needs to.”

“Why thank you , Stripes,” Fox said.

“I say we give it a shot!” Sarge added. Wash looked over at him with slight surprise. “After all, the enemy of our enemy is our friend!”

“Yeah, and making friends is always nice,” Caboose said, nodding sagely.

“Friends is a bit of a stretch, Caboose,” Tucker said.

“Big fuckin’ stretch,” Grif muttered.

“You’re sure that this isn’t going to be any different from how things have been going with the two of you so far?” Simmons asked, sounding like he really just wanted clarification.

“We still need to work out the details, but rest assured that there will still be considerable distance between all of you and him,” Kimball replied with a nod.

“Lord, I can only imagine how it would go if he wound up bunk-buddies with one of you knuckleheads,” Fox said, a laugh in her voice.

Wash didn’t pay attention to what was said next, as he withdrew into his own thoughts. Considering their circumstances, and based on everything that they had seen so far, assimilating Locus among the rest of them really did make the most sense. Fox and Locus had proven numerous times by now that they had near-perfect synergy in a fight together, so having them ready to help when the pirates showed up again would certainly take care of the problem far faster than if one of them needed to be escorted up from the cell block whenever the alarms started going. And he said so, earning him a curious look from both Fox and Kimball.

“So...let me get this straight,” Fox began, “you’re on my side with this?”

“I am,” Wash said with a nod, and he looked at the others, feeling like he should say something. “I know that things have been...shaky...these past few months. But at the end of the day, we have to weigh our options. And if our choices are giving Locus more freedom, or losing more of our friends, I think it’s a pretty easy decision to make.” He looked back at Kimball, and noticed with surprise that she was nodding.

“Does anyone have anything else they would like to add?” Kimball asked, looking around. When no one spoke up, she said, “Fox and I will continue to discuss this, and come to an agreement on a new set of boundaries for him. Once this has been done, you will all be notified.” She paused, then looked over at Fox. “Regardless of whatever changes are made, however, if he steps out of line, things will go back to the way they were before.”

“Understood,” Fox replied.

Wash caught her gaze and gave her a nod.

“Does this mean we can invite Locust to pool parties now?” Caboose asked suddenly.

“We don’t even have a pool!” Tucker exclaimed.

“Not with that attitude we don’t!” Donut replied.

“Yeah Tucker, you just gotta believe!” Caboose added.

Wash just met Kimball’s gaze and shook his head in amusement, and she nodded back, then looked up suddenly. Wash glanced around to see what could have gotten her attention, but when he saw that nothing in the room had changed, he realized that she must have gotten a message over comms. He exchanged a glance with Carolina, who seemed just as interested in whatever information Kimball had just received.

Kimball took in a deep breath, then pushed off from the edge of her desk and stood upright. “If I could have everyone’s attention for just a moment.”

It took a few seconds for the clamour to die down, but when it did, she continued.

“Grey has just informed me that she has finished interrogating the pirates. I’m headed down there to meet her. The rest of you are dismissed,” Kimball said.

“That was fast!” Simmons exclaimed.

“Well, we did send Locus down there too,” Carolina mused.

“Jesus Christ tell me you’re joking,” Grif said, looking at her.

“Well I’m goin’ down there! If those dirty space pirates got somethin’ to say, I wanna hear it!” Sarge proclaimed.

“We should go down there too,” Tucker suggested.

Wash glanced over at him, then looked back at Kimball and shrugged. “I guess we’re all going with you.”

“I guess so,” she sighed, then started towards the door, the Reds and Blues parting out of her way as she walked past. “Let’s go.”

 


 

A couple of fancy maneuvers with a bone saw, and a good half-hour, and the pirates were squealing like the little piggies they were. Grey looked over the notes Doc took on a datapad while the pirates were carted off to the medical wing. She finished reviewing them, nodding to herself when she saw that everything the pirates had told her was there, saved the document, and handed the datapad back to Doc. She turned to Locus, who had all but sunken into the corner of the room with his arms crossed, nearly blending in with the shadows.

She had been taken off guard when she received word that he was on his way down to help her, but he’d been rather helpful in getting information out of the pirates, doing a very effective job of looming over them and generally sounding and looking immensely threatening. “Kimball and the Reds and Blues are on their way down,” she said, keeping her gaze locked on him for a moment before she looked around at the others in the room with her. “So everyone be on their best behavior, and leave the talking to me.”

And as if on cue, the doors to the observation room slid open and Kimball, Fox, and the Reds and Blues filed in.

“Excellent timing!” Grey chimed, turning towards them. “We just got everything in order! Doc, sweetie, hand that datapad over to General Kimball, will you?”

“Sure thing,” Doc said, handing it off, then stepping out of the way.

“This is everything you got out of them?” Kimball asked as she scrolled through the notes.

“It is,” Grey replied, noting out of the corner of her eye how Fox stepped away from the group and went to stand by Locus. “From what those three told us, they and their friends are a group of mercenaries hired under the table by Charon. Apparently they were employed at a space station in the next system over, where The Staff of Charon was being repaired. Unfortunately, none of them were able to give me any information regarding the ship’s whereabouts.”

“It’s likely still docked,” Fox spoke up. “Based on what I saw a few months ago, and was able to pick up over the radio, the ship was in pretty bad shape. Something that size would take more than two or three months to fix.”

“With the damage we did to that thing, I’d say you’re probably right about that,” Simmons agreed, nodding at her.

“Unfortunately, there’s no real way to assess whether or not that’s correct, because according to the pirates, Control wasn’t exactly giving away their position,” Grey explained. As much as she hoped Fox was right, it was silly to get everyone excited when they really had no clue as to the ship’s whereabouts.

“It says here that they were sent to ‘clean up the mess Epsilon left and remove all witnesses,’” Kimball read aloud.

“So basically, they’re picking up where they left off,” Grif said, crossing his arms. “Perfect.”

“Strange that they didn’t send more men,” Wash mused.

“Maybe they thought more of us died on Nalome?” Fox shrugged.

Ha! Like they can take us down that easily!” Sarge laughed.

“Regardless,” Kimball said, waving her hand dismissively and handing the datapad back to Grey, “we need to figure out the ship’s location, and where it’s headed next. We can’t be taken by surprise again.”

Grey tapped the side of the datapad absently, thinking hard for a moment. Over the past few months, Kimball had kept her up to date with everything that was going on. The two things that had stuck in her mind the most were that the U.N.S.C. would possibly ignore Epsilon’s broadcast owing to the fact that he was an AI from Project Freelancer, and that Hargrove knew exactly what he was up against because of the broadcast. No doubt the U.N.S.C. had finally started their investigation by now, and there was a good chance that if Hargrove was not already on Earth, preparing for trial, then he was still on his ship, and was stalling. And if he was stalling, then it would make perfect sense, because the pirates had kept attacking them, even after being defeated the first time. Which meant they were still receiving orders, which meant they were still being paid, which meant that Hargrove was in a position where he could still pay them. Which meant that the U.N.S.C. hadn’t quite tightened their grip around him. Which meant that he probably wasn’t on Earth, because the U.N.S.C. would have ordered him there if they were ready for the trial . Which meant that the ship had to either be still docked for repairs (hadn’t there been engine damage? She could have sworn there had been engine damage), or it was headed for Charon Industries’ headquarters near Jupiter.

Satisfied with the answer she had thought up, Grey said, “I don’t think the ship is going to be a threat to us for a good while.”

“What makes you say that?” Carolina asked.

“Well, logically speaking, if the U.N.S.C. had tightened their grip on Hargrove, he wouldn’t be able to send orders to the pirates to keep attacking us, or provide pay to them as incentive to do so. Which means that the ship is probably still docked for repairs,” Grey explained. “We all saw the way it was smoking when it flew away. I think it’s fair to say that Fox is right; the repairs they need are more than just a few window replacements and an oil change!”

Or it’s docked at headquarters, on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons,” Fox added, prompting Grey to look at her in surprise.

“You read my mind!” she exclaimed.

Fox shrugged, “I mean, it just makes sense, is all. Even if they aren’t there yet, I’m willing to bet that Hargrove is gonna make a stop there to make sure that any dirt on him is being burned.”

“The real question is what we do with this information,” Kimball said.

“Well obviously we gotta stop that ship from leavin’ port!” Sarge exclaimed.

“Okay, but how?” Grif asked.

“Oh! Oh!” Caboose exclaimed. “We could ask Sheila to tell Mangrove that the ship is still broken so he won’t leave!”

“Sheila?” Fox asked.

“He means F.I.L.S.S.” Wash replied. “She’s an AI from Project Freelancer that Hargrove got a hold of somehow.”

“She helped us kick Hargrove’s ass!” Tucker added. Then his shoulders sank slightly, and he added “she’s probably dead, though.”

“Well, unless we can confirm otherwise, she’s no use to us,” Grey said simply. They needed a plan , not a maybe.

“Hold on,” Fox said, staring at the floor. “Caboose, I’m sorry about your friend. But...but I do think you’re onto something here.”

“Okay what?” Grif asked incredulously.

“No no no, listen okay,” Fox said, holding up a hand and looking around at everyone. “We don’t know if Sheila can make the ship seem like there’s still something wrong with it, but we do have something that can.

Grey exchanged a look with Kimball. “Elaborate,” she said.

“The quantum computer that we’ve all been working on!” Fox exclaimed, looking at Locus, then back at her.

“Okay, but how would we even get that thing out there, sneak it onto the ship, and plug it in to do that?” Simmons asked.

“Oh, no, it would access the ship remotely,” Fox said. And like that the whole room got dead silent. Fox glanced around, aware that all eyes were now on her.

“You’re saying you can hack the ship with that thing?” Grey asked incredulously.

“Yep,” Fox nodded. “I mean, I accessed the ship with it when it passed by Nalome before.”

“But the ship was close by when you did that,” Wash said. “There’s no way it has the range to reach it now.”

“Well I mean, you guys have plenty of satellites around here,” Fox replied.

“We could use the one we built at Crash Site Bravo!” Donut exclaimed. “I mean, if we were able use it to send an S.O.S. back when comms were down around here, it should be able to reach the ship, right?”

“If it was able to cut through the barrier created by the alien technology on this planet, then there’s a good chance it has a stronger signal than any of the satellites you have here,” Locus agreed, looking over at Kimball.

“Well, there’s no sense in not tryin’!” Sarge exclaimed. “And if it’ll give that lousy, good-fer-nothin’ chairman a hell of a day, then I say we give it a shot!”

“Lopez and I could help out too!” Simmons added eagerly, sounding like a kid who had just been told they were going to Disneyland.

“We can all help,” Wash spoke up, nodding at Fox. “You just point us in the right direction.”

Grey noted how Fox seemed to look to Kimball for help, wondering if she was uncertain about being in a position to tell others what to do, or if she was looking for permission to do so.

“Then we have a plan,” Kimball said with a nod. “ Fox, Grey, Locus, I want you to finish setting that computer up. Reds and Blues, you work together to bring that satellite back here. Use whatever resources you need. Once we have everything set up, we’ll move forward.”

Under her helmet, Grey’s face broke into a smile. Now they were getting somewhere.

Chapter Text


“Do you think it’ll work?”

Grif stopped fiddling with the roll of stretch wrap in his hands and looked over when Tucker spoke. “What, you mean Fox’s plan?”

Tucker, who was in the process of trying to wind up a set of cables, nodded.

“Fuck if I know,” Grif replied with a shrug before returning his attention to the equipment on the pallet he had been wrapping. It had taken a full day for them to recon the area of Crash Site Bravo then scrape together enough resources to come back and dismantle the satellite. At least now they were getting somewhere. Grif finished wrapping up the equipment on the pallet and grabbed the end of one of the two cargo straps that had been run under the pallet before it was stacked. He made quick work of tying everything down, then stepped back and looked up towards the top of the satellite tower, squinting for the few seconds it took for his visor’s filters to adjust to the afternoon sunlight.

Up at the top of the tower, Carolina and Sarge were working on getting the satellite down. Simmons and Bitters had devised a sort of makeshift pulley system that had already been attached to it. The main problem now was getting it unscrewed . Judging by the banter Grif had only been half-listening to, much of the metal was rusted into place. The result of the jungle’s ridiculously high humidity, no doubt.

“How’s it looking, boss?”

Grif jumped when he heard Wash shout up to Carolina from directly behind him. He turned and glared at him, earning what might have been a surprised look from Wash. Then he looked up when Carolina spoke up.

“It’s going slower than I’d like!” she called down.

“Quit yer fussin’, Wash!” Sarge added. “It’s not like this thing’s goin’ anywhere!”

Grif looked over when Wash let out a sigh, then turned and met his gaze. “What are you working on?” he asked.

Grif looked around, realizing that there really wasn’t anything else to work on, other than the satellite. “Waiting on them, I guess,” he replied, nodding up at Sarge and Carolina.

Wash simply nodded, then looked over his shoulder. Grif followed his gaze and spotted Andersmith steering the forklift over to the pallet he had finished working on. As he watched, Andersmith drove the supplies to the other end of the valley and into the back of the Condor they had rode in on. Bored, but not enough so to take a nap, Grif opted to head over to the Condor, where he knew Simmons and Palomo were strapping all the equipment down. “I’m going to check on Simmons,” he said as he started away from Wash, not waiting for a reply.

“Where are you going?” Bitters asked as Grif passed him.

Grif paused and looked down at where his lieutenant was sitting cross-legged next to where one of the cables attached to the pulley supporting the satellite was tethered. He was probably waiting for Carolina’s signal to grab it and ease the satellite down once it was attached, Grif realized. “To take a look at how things are going in the Condor. What are you doing?”

Bitters nodded at the tangled mess of cables on the ground in front of him. “Captain Tucker asked for our help with these.”

“He couldn’t fix his own mess?” Grif asked, amused. Earlier in the day when they had been unhooking all of the cables, Tucker had brushed off Wash’s suggestion that they rolled them as they went. Naturally, this had resulted in a tangle that took on the appearance of a massive clump of rainbow spaghetti at the base of the satellite tower. Two hours in and they still hadn’t gotten them all untied.

“Obviously not,” Bitters said flatly, managing to work one of the cables free and starting to wind it up. “Speak of the devil.”

“Jesus, Smith! Why didn’t you offer to help out sooner?”

Grif and Bitters looked over when Tucker stopped near Andersmith, who was crouching next to one of the other pulley tethers. Beside him were several loops of cable.

Cheerily, Andersmith replied “well, I was helping Captain Caboose with--”

“Yeah I don’t care. Just keep up the good work,” Tucker cut him off. He then looked over and spotted Grif, “hey. Help me carry some of these. They’re heavy!”

Grif let out a short huff. Sure, make me do all the heavy lifting, he thought, rolling his eyes behind his helmet. But he didn’t argue. Besides, he was going to the Condor anyways. Might as well bring something with him to load in.

Tucker tossed him two loops of cables that were surprisingly heavy, then shouldered the other two and started towards the Condor. Grif did the same, catching up and matching Tucker’s step. They made it about halfway before Tucker spoke up suddenly.

“I wish they’d just hurry up,” he said.

“You realize this is Carolina we’re talking about? She’s a fucking perfectionist. I don’t know what you expected,” Grif replied.

“Yeah, but still. I don’t like leaving Locus back at headquarters when all of us are here,” Tucker replied moodily.

“It’s not like they’re holding down the fort by themselves,” Grif replied. “I don’t like it either, but Kimball seems to think that Locus isn’t going to fuck with anyone anymore. Plus her, Fox, Grey, and a bunch of the others are all back there with her. It’s not like he could try anything even if he wanted to.”

“Still,” Tucker said, then fell silent.

The silence lasted until they reached the Condor, where Grif could hear Simmons’ voice floating out of the back of the ship. It sounded like he was complaining about something, Grif realized with a small amused smile appearing on his face under his helmet.

“Seriously, I don’t know how they expected us to get all of this stuff strapped down. I mean these bungee cords aren’t even long enough!” Stepping inside the Condor, Grif was met with the sight of Simmons struggling to pull a bungee cord over the top of a stack of equipment and attach the hooked end to one of the rungs in the floor of the ship. Beside him, Palomo watched helplessly. Grif figured that Simmons had shooed him away so he’d have more space to strap down the pallet of equipment.

“Do you want some help?” Grif asked, prompting Simmons to look up sharply, lose his grip on the end of the cord, and get smacked in the chin by the hook as it sprang back over the stack of hardware.

“Jesus fuck! ” Simmons yelped, clapping a hand over the chin of his helmet.

“I asked him that earlier, and he gave me pretty much the same response,” Palomo replied.

“You should have gone and found Caboose,” Tucker said, pushing past Grif to shove his two loops of cable into a crate close to the cockpit of the ship.

Grif tossed his cables to him, and turned back to Simmons, who had risen to his feet, still rubbing at his chin. “Wanna let me try?” he asked.

“I’ll get the cord!” Palomo exclaimed enthusiastically before Simmons had a chance to respond, and dove behind the stack of equipment to get it.

“Be my guest,” Simmons grumbled.

Grif turned to reach for the cord, but jerked back in surprise when he saw Palomo’s hand poking up over the stack of supplies, grasping the hook.

“Here you go,” Palomo said with a grunt of effort as he pulled his upper body up onto the stack, pretty much laying across the extended length of the cord.

Grif took the end of it from him, then asked “what are you doing?”

“Uh, holding the cord down, so it doesn’t go over to this side again,” Palomo replied. “Why?”

“What’s sad is that’s probably the smartest idea you’ve ever come up with,” Tucker said with a grin in his voice.

“You know you’re gonna get hit in the face if I lose this thing, right?” Grif warned Palomo.

“On second thought, that’s a stupid idea, and you should totally hit him in the face,” Tucker said.

“You just said it was a smart idea two seconds ago!” Palomo cried.

“Well, to be fair, Tucker doesn’t really know much about physics,” Simmons offered.

“Or chemistry,” Grif added, a lopsided grin under his helmet. “Since he hasn’t been able to get a date since I’ve met him.”

“Man, fuck you,” Tucker huffed.

Grif just chuckled, shaking his head, then focused on yanking the bungee cord down. Hands shaking from the resistance, he managed to push it down far enough to hook it onto one of the rungs in the floor.

“Hey, you got it!” Simmons exclaimed.

“I totally helped,” Palomo declared and slid off of the stack. The second his feet hit the ground, however, there was a metallic scraping sound, and the hook from his side shot up over the top of the stack.

Grif stayed crouched, staring at his wasted effort with irritation, then looked up when Palomo let out a pained hiss.

“Oh god. My balls,” Palomo squeaked, then doubled over.

Over by the cockpit, Tucker burst out laughing. “Oh god that was better than I ever could have imagined!”

Grif stood and leaned around the stack to get a better look at Palomo, who was on his knees with his hands between his legs. “It can’t have hit you that hard,” he said, shaking his head.

“You don’t know tha-ha-haaaat!” Palomo whined. Then in a weaker, raspy voice, rattled out “fifty miles per hour of force right to the balls. I’m going to die.”

“There’s no way that was fifty miles per hour of force,” Simmons said. “It was probably closer to twenty.”

“Oh god. I see a light. Should I go towards it?” Palomo gasped.

“Oh my god cut the dramatics! Grif got punched like eight times in the dick by a human monster truck and he was just fine! ” Tucker exclaimed.

“Thanks Tucker,” Grif sighed.

“Let’s just, not tie this thing down,” Simmons suggested. “Clearly it’s not going to stay put.”

“Yeah, and I’d hate to have to listen to my lieutenant be a fucking pansy again,” Tucker agreed.

“I’m not a pansy! ” Palomo exclaimed, sitting up and glaring pointedly at Tucker.

“Oh look. He lives,” Tucker simply replied.

“Beat it,” Grif said, jerking his head away from Palomo in indication that the other should move. Palomo scrambled out from behind the stack, and Grif gave it a hard shove, cramming it against the wall of the ship. “That way it only has one direction it can move in if we take a sharp turn,” he said, breathing hard from the effort.

“I just hope it doesn’t slide around. I don’t want to think about what Doctor Grey or Fox will do to us if any of this stuff comes back broken,” Simmons mused.

“Or Locus,” Tucker added.

“Don’t remind me!” Simmons exclaimed quickly.

Tucker just shook his head and brushed past. “Come on, Palomo. Let’s see if Bitters and Andersmith are done with those cables yet.”

“O-okay, wait up!” Palomo replied, hurrying after him.

Grif watched the two of them walk out of the Condor and waited until they were out of earshot to turn to Simmons. “How are you holding up?”

“Hm?” Simmons asked, jerking his head back slightly like he was surprised he’d been addressed.

“I just know that you’ve been having a tough time with some of the changes around here, is all,” Grif said with a shrug, leaning down and picking up the bungee cord.

Simmons looked away. “Oh. Y-yeah. I mean...I guess I’ve been...getting used to it?”

“Mhm,” Grif replied, setting the bungee cord on top of one of the shorter stacks of equipment, then sitting down next to it.

“What about you?”

Grif looked up, surprised. “Me?”

“Yeah. I mean, you weren’t too happy about Kimball’s decision to let Locus loose for good.”

Grif looked away and rubbed the back of his neck. That statement was true. But he also trusted Wash. And if he thought that Kimball was making the right call, then there was no point in arguing. “Wash went through the most shit because of that guy,” he said slowly. “So if he thinks that letting him mix with the rest of us will work, then…”

“Forget Wash.”

Grif looked back at Simmons, surprised. “What?”

“I-I said forget Wash,” Simmons repeated, seeming to realize the weight of his own words. “I wanna know how you feel. We haven’t had time to talk since two days ago.”

Grif stared at him for a moment, then sighed. “It’s like I said, if Wash thinks it’ll work, then it’ll probably work.”

Simmons’ shoulders sank slightly, and he walked over and took a seat on top of the stack across from Grif. “You...you know you can... talk to me...right?” he asked.

Grif tilted his head back, narrowing his eyes under his helmet. Of course he knew that. Hell, Simmons was one of the few people he’d always felt like he could talk to. “Yeah, I know.”

“Okay...so…”

“So?”

Simmons looked away, hunching his shoulders slightly, and Grif had a creeping suspicion that there was something he wasn’t telling him.

“Is there something you wanna--” Grif cut off when a loud clang followed by a voice that was obviously Carolina’s screeching “SON OF A BITCH!” echoed through the valley.

“Jesus!” Simmons exclaimed, leaping to his feet.

Grif stood and took a few slow steps towards the back of the Condor. “When was the last time we heard her swear?” he muttered.

“Sh-should we go see what happened?”

Grif looked over to see Simmons standing beside him. “Probably. Doesn’t sound like anything good.” Then he started down the ramp.

By the time he reached the bottom of it, he could see what had happened. The satellite had come loose, yanked up the tethers buried in the ground, and fallen a few feet before Bitters, Andersmith, Palomo, Caboose, and Tucker had managed to grab the cables to stop it. As they drew closer, Grif realized there was now a huge dent in the dish of the satellite.

“Oh man...Grey is gonna kill us,” Simmons whispered.

“It’s just a dent. The satellite will still work, right?” Grif asked.

“I mean, it should --”

“Grif! Simmons! Git yer asses over here and help! ” Sarge barked from atop the tower.

“Grif, help me spot them on their way down,” Wash said, nodding at the two in the tower.

“What about me?” Simmons asked.

“Help us, dumbass!” Tucker exclaimed, taking a step back to dig his heels deeper into the ground as he pulled on the cable..

Out of the corner of his eye, Grif saw Simmons look back at him and exclaim “b-but I’m not that strong!”

“Oh, quit yer blubberin’ Simmons! If it were heavy, those dirty blues wouldn’t be able to hold it!” Sarge barked.

“Yeah, okay,” Simmons sighed and walked over to where Tucker and Palomo were struggling to keep their cable from slipping.

Grif didn’t waste time watching the exchange. It wasn’t worth it to have to hear Wash blow out a lung yelling at him for not helping faster. He walked to the other Marine’s side and looked up at the tower. “Shouldn’t they come down after we get the satellite down?” he asked, watching as Carolina dismounted from the horizontal support she had been straddling and rose into a crouch, balancing with the help of her grav boots.

“If what happened a few seconds ago happens again, they could both be brought down with the tower,” Wash replied simply.

“My point exactly,” Grif said dryly. When Wash gave him a look, he just looked up at Sarge and shrugged.

“I’m coming down!” Carolina called down to them, drawing both Grif and Wash’s attention.

“Be careful!” Wash shouted back up.

“I’ll be fine,” Carolina replied, and started running down the side of the tower. She made it about two thirds of the way down before she jumped off, flipped mid-air, and landed perfectly on her feet behind Grif and Wash.

“Show-off,” Wash muttered, good-naturedly.

“Shut up,” Carolina replied with an obvious smile in her voice.

Grif just shook his head and looked back up at Sarge, who was staring down at them. “Well?! Are you coming down?!” he called up.

“Quit yer yellin’! I’m workin’ on it!” Sarge yelled back.

“We really should have tried to find some harnesses,” Carolina remarked, stepping up beside Wash with her hands on her hips.

“You couldn’t have carried him down?” Grif asked her.

Carolina shook her head. “That tower doesn’t have enough solid surface area. I had trouble finding purchase with my grav boots on my own. I doubt I’d be able to take another person with me without slipping.”

“Great,” Grif huffed, looking back up and realizing, much to his dismay, that Sarge had started down the tower, using the supports like the rungs of a ladder. “Hey, be careful!”

“Quit fussin’, I’m fine!” Sarge said, looking back over his shoulder at Grif and almost slipping when his foot missed one of the supports. “See?” he exclaimed once he’d righted himself. “I’ve got it all under control!”

“Jesus, he’s gonna kill himself,” Wash muttered.

Grif didn’t say anything, but instead watched Sarge’s descent with his jaw set and hands balled into fists. He’s moving way too fast, he thought, noticing how the tower shook slightly with every movement Sarge made. He didn’t want to think about how possible it was that the structure could destabilize if Sarge made the wrong move.

“Hey, um, Washingtub?”

Grif was pulled out of his thoughts when Caboose spoke up, drawing his and everyone else’s attention.

“We’re a little busy Caboose. What is it?” Wash asked, sounding mildly impatient.

“Yeah I was just wondering if maybe you could ask Sarge to maybe hurry up a little bit,” Caboose said.

“Cool yer jets! I’m goin’ as fast as I can!” Sarge barked.

“Dude, I told you to pee before we left!” Tucker hissed, looking over at his teammate.

“What’s wrong Caboose?” Wash asked, turning to face him.

“Well it’s just that I don’t think I’m gonna be able to hold onto the rope a whole lot longer is all,” Caboose said, clearly ignoring Tucker’s comment.

“He’s almost down, Caboose. Just a few more seconds,” Wash replied.

“No I mean--”

“Wash,” Carolina said, cutting Caboose off. She nodded up at the cable Caboose, Bitters, and Andersmith were holding onto.

“Oh shit!” Tucker exclaimed when he saw what she was looking at.

Grif followed her gaze and felt his heart drop. The cord had gotten caught against one of the rusted edges of the base of the satellite and started to fray. “Saaaarge,” he warned without looking up at the other man.

“I told you, I’m hurryin’!”

“Boss?” Wash asked, looking to Carolina.

Carolina didn’t say anything, but darted past him and leapt up into the air, grabbing onto the cable Simmons, Palomo, and Tucker were holding, and landing in front of the latter with it in her hands. “Sarge, you need to hur--” she cut off as the tower let out a metallic groan and started to lean towards her and the others ever so slightly.

Shitshitshitshit, Grif thought, tearing his eyes away and looking back up at Sarge, who still had a quarter of the way to go. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wash look up nervously at the tower, then turn to Carolina and gesture at her to stop pulling.

“There’s too much pressure,” he shouted.

“We need this satellite intact!” Carolina shot back.

“Maybe we should have picked up extra cables,” Palomo said, looking up nervously at where Caboose, Bitters, and Andersmith’s cord connected to the satellite.

“No fucking shit!” Tucker yelled, and took a step back. The second he did so, the cable Caboose, Bitters, and Andersmith were holding broke, snapping back and causing the three Marines to topple over backwards onto the ground. Carolina, Tucker, Simmons, and Palomo all scrambled back, struggling to keep the satellite from falling to the ground.

The tower let out another, longer groan, and a few loose rocks around its base shifted. Grif felt his heart drop into his toes when he saw Sarge lose his foothold. “Sarge!” he heard himself shout.

“Quit fussin’!” Sarge grunted, managing to find his footing again.

“This thing is coming down! Carolina!”

Grif glanced over when he heard Wash speak, then looked back at Sarge, blood rushing in his ears.

“Alright, let’s set this thing down slowly, ” Carolina said. “Follow my lead.” She took a small step forward, and the others followed.

By now, Caboose, Bitters, and Andersmith were on their feet, and had found their way to where the satellite would land, looking up and waiting for it to reach them so they could guide it down. Grif watched them for a moment, then looked back up at Sarge, saw he was fine, then returned his gaze to Carolina and the others, just in time to watch Tucker trip. He stumbled forward into Simmons, who ran into Carolina, shoving the whole line forwards and causing Palomo to lose his grip.

“Fuck!” Palomo exclaimed, stumbling.

“Oh shit!” Bitters cried as he, Caboose, and Andersmith all leapt back.

The satellite dropped a good few feet before Carolina was able to sink her heels in, activate her grav boots, and give the cable a hard tug as she let out a savage yell.

But the damage was done.

The tower, which Grif was willing to admit had been poorly put together and probably wasn’t meant to handle this sort of strain to begin with, had reached its capacity, and began to lean. Gritting his teeth, and turning away from Wash as he began to shrilly warn the others, Grif looked up at Sarge. The older Marine had stopped moving, and was simply holding on. “Sarge, you need to move!”

“I can’t while this damned thing is shakin’!” Sarge barked back, but there was a slight tremor to his voice now.

“You don’t have a fucking choice!”

“Yer not exactly bein’ helpful!”

“Sarge, just do what he says!” Simmons yelled from behind Carolina.

“You stay out of this!” Sarge snapped back, pointing at Simmons.

Oh for fuck’s sake, Grif thought. Stealing a final look at Wash and the others, he pulled his gun off of his back, aimed, and shot the support right next to Sarge’s hand. With a yell, Sarge lost his grip and fell backwards. Grif tossed his gun aside and lunged forward, and was immediately flattened by a very belligerent red-armored Marine.

“There! Was that so hard?!” Grif shouted, shoving Sarge off.

“What in Sam hill was that for?! Ya coulda’ killed me, you sonuvabitch!” Sarge growled back, staggering to his feet.

“You were doing a pretty good fucking job of trying to do that yourself!” Grif exclaimed, standing and dusting himself off.

“Yeah? Well I didn’t need--” Sarge cut off and whirled as the tower let out a screech.

Grif stared up at it, then looked over at the others, realizing the satellite was only a few feet away from reaching Caboose, Bitters, and Andersmith. It was still way too far. It would never make it to them and then be moved out of the way before the tower came down. Cursing, Grif darted around the structure to the side that was leaning and put his back against it, trying to keep it from tilting any farther. “If you assholes could hurry, that would be great!”

“Move over!”

Grif turned to look right as Sarge gave him a nudge and braced against the tower next to him. “Sarge?! What the hell are you doing?!”

“What’s it look like?!”

Grif just shook his head and watched as the satellite reached Andersmith, Bitters, and Caboose, who helped gently lower it to the ground. Wash jumped down from the ledge that the tower was on and jogged over to help them, quickly detaching the remaining cable from it. The second he did so, the tower stopped moving.

“Hurry up an’ get that thing outta here! We’ve got this!” Sarge yelled down to them.

“Working on it!” Wash replied, signaling to the others. “Caboose, go up there and help them.”

“Okay!” Caboose replied.

Grif watched him climb up and brace himself against the structure besides Sarge. Then he turned his head to look on as Wash and the others began working on pushing and pulling the satellite away from the tower. They’d just managed to lift it off the ground when the tower let out another long, warning creak, followed by a loud metallic clang as it began to uproot itself.

“Uh oh,” Caboose said.

“Oh shiiiiiit!” Grif yelled.

“Agent Washington!” Andersmith exclaimed in warning.

And Wash snapped his head back to the tower to see what had happened, then turned back to the others, looked up at the satellite, then over to Carolina, before shouting “SCATTER!”

“Go!” Grif yelled, and dove out of the way as the tower began to topple. He looked back to see Sarge and Caboose on the other side of it, and watched as the structure began to collapse, leaning towards where his teammates had been just seconds ago, right towards the abandoned satellite. He saw Carolina take a step towards it, like she was going to try to move it somehow, only to pull back right as the tower’s base finally gave out and it fell over.

Grif scrambled away, shielding his visor with one arm, and tensed up when he heard the tower scrape against its rocky base and slam into the ground. He waited for the ringing in his ears to subside before he lowered his arm and looked back at the cloud of dust that had been kicked up by the tower. As it began to settle, he was able to make out the form of the satellite under the tower. Wait a minute, he thought, leaning forward and narrowing his eyes. “Hey guys?!” he shouted, looking at where his teammates were standing on either side of the wreckage.

“Ho-ly shit,” Andersmith said.

“No fucking way,” Tucker breathed, shaking his head.

“Oh thank fucking god!” Simmons exclaimed.

“Well that went better than it could have,” Carolina remarked, nodding at the completely untouched satellite that rested just a few feet under the fallen tower. By the look of it, the small amount of leverage that the stone base the tower sat on had caused the top of it to bury itself in the ground a few yards away from the satellite, missing it entirely.

“We should hurry up and get that out from under there before this thing moves again,” Wash said, dusting himself off and starting towards the satellite, only to jump back when the tower shifted slightly.

Grif froze, then looked over at Caboose, who pulled his hand away from the tower base like he had just touched fire. “Tucker did it!”

“Shut up, Caboose,” Tucker huffed, glaring up at him.

Carolina just sighed and looked at the mess, shaking her head. “Look, let’s just...get this satellite back to the others. I think we’ve had more than enough excitement for one day.”

Grif couldn’t agree with her more.

 


 

“So, is this as exciting as you’d hoped it would be, or no?”

Locus looked up at where Fox was seated on top of the quantum computer, passing a cable down to Lopez for him to hook up to the generator in the corner of the lab. “I had no expectations,” he replied.

“Not even good ones?” Grey asked as she walked past behind him, a fire extinguisher tucked under each arm.

Locus opted not to respond, and instead looked back at Fox, who was leaning over the side of the computer, looking down at Lopez.

“Hey hon, could you do me a favor and look at that monitor right behind you when you’re done plugging that in? I wanna make sure this thing’s ready to go.”

“Dame un segundo.” Lopez finished hooking up the cable, then turned and looked at the monitor attached to the side of the computer tower. “Listo.”

“Alright, on that screen, it’s gonna have a bunch of information about the system check we just did.” Fox drew back from the edge of the top of the computer and rose up into a crouch, staring down into the open panel below her that exposed a portion of the system’s wiring. “Alright so, I think I can hear them, but just confirm for me that the fans are running. Are they?”

“Sí.”

“And the bandwidth check came back within the necessary range?”

“Sí.”

“Energy levels are nominal?”

“Sí.”

“And are the system temperatures under twenty-seven degrees Celsius?”

“Sí, pero están aumentando.”

“Ah,” Fox paused, looking back at Lopez. “What are they at right now, then?”

Locus, who had busied himself with putting all of the tools they had used to get the computer up and running away so Grey wouldn’t have a fit later and was really only half-listening to Fox and Lopez’s conversation, paused and looked in their direction. Was his mind playing tricks on him, or had Fox just understood Lopez?

“Quice grados...Espera, ¿puedes entenderme?” Lopez asked, clearly just as surprised as he was.

“Uh... ¿sí? ” Fox replied, shrugging at him. “I grew up around Spanish-speakers, so I know enough to understand it and hold a conversation. Though I’m admittedly pretty rusty.”

“Kind of like the end of this cable,” Jensen piped up from the other side of the lab. “Seriously, how old is this thing?”

“Let me see,” Grey said, walking over and taking it from her, holding it up to her helmet for a better look. “It’s just a few specks of rust. Soak it in Coke and it’ll be good as new.”

“Good luck finding a drug dealer out here!” Donut crowed leaning out from behind the computer tower, his armor covered in dust.

“She’s not talking about the drug, Donut,” Fox said, closing the panel and hopping off of the computer. “She’s talking about the drink.”

“You could make a lot of money from liquid cocaine, though,” Jensen said, digging back into the box she had pulled the first cable from. “Doctor Grey, are you sure we have another one of these cables?”

“I always order double,” Grey replied as she walked over to the mini-fridge in the corner. “And the original recipe for Coca Cola had cocaine in it.”

“What kind of cable is it?” Locus asked, looking over at Jensen. If it was that important, he might as well help.

“It’s an H-L-V-G-C-two-seventy-four-G-P-P,” Jensen replied.

“Those are used for hard light,” he said, glancing at Fox.

“Someone knows their stuff,” Fox said with a hint of amusement in her voice. “And yeah, the system uses the same interface that was at the Station Alpha control hub back on Nalome.”

“Oh! I found one!” Jensen exclaimed, digging the cable out of the box in front of her and holding it over her head triumphantly.

“Throw it to me!” Donut said, catching it when Jensen did so and leaning back behind the computer tower.

“What else is there to do?” Locus asked, looking over at Fox.

She shook her head. “Not a whole lot. When Matthews and Volleyball come back, we should be able to run a full benchmark.”

“They should be almost done,” Grey said, walking past with a bottle of Coke in one hand and the rusted cable in the other.

“You’re really gonna try to save that thing?” Fox asked.

“No use in not trying,” Grey replied, pulling a plastic bin off of a shelf and setting it on the workbench behind her.

Locus watched as she poured the drink into the bin and stuck the rusted end of the cable into it, perking up when he heard the sound of footsteps coming from down the hall. Looking over, he realized Fox must have heard them too, because she was looking towards the entrance to the lab.

“Ladies and gents, we’ve officially maximized the ventilation in this room!” McAllister declared as she stepped through the door with Matthews in tow.

“Also the Reds and Blues are back with the satellite,” Matthews added, coming to a stop next to Jensen and offering a hand up from where she was crouched next to the box of cables she had been digging through.

Fox tilted her head, then looked back sharply over her shoulder as the computer made a start-up sound and the hard light monitor flickered to life. “Looks like they made good time,” she said, turning back to Matthews. “Grey?”

The other woman already had a toolbox in her hand. “I’ll go up and help them get it set up,” she said as she walked past. “You make sure everything’s been setup correctly. Locus, stay and help her. The rest of you, follow me.”

“Sure thing!” Donut exclaimed, scrambling out from behind the computer and hurrying after her with Lopez right behind him.

Locus watched them leave the lab, then turned back to Fox, who was leaning over the computer’s keyboard, staring up at the hard light monitor. Having nothing better to do, he walked over to her, stopping beside her with his arms crossed. “Do you think this will work?” he asked after a moment.

Fox glanced over at him. “It should. I mean this thing ran basically all of the systems on Nalome.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Back to the drawing board?” Fox shrugged. “I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket either, but this is one of those situations where we really don’t have a choice.”

Locus had nothing to say to that, so he watched as Fox ran a full system check. “Has Kimball made a decision about sending you to Earth?” he asked.

“Nope. I figured that once we get this baby ready to go, and actually connect her to my people back home, she’ll be more inclined to make a decision.”

“Understood.”

“Jesus, you don’t have to sound so military about it,” Fox said with a laugh, then froze suddenly and put her hand to the side of her helmet.

Locus realized she was likely being contacted over comms.

“Oh hell,” she muttered, dropping her hand to her side.

“What’s wrong?”

“They dented the satellite.” Fox shook her head in disbelief. “Those poor knuckleheads. Grey’s probably giving them an earful right now.”

Locus felt himself tense up slightly. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“Nah, shouldn’t be,” Fox replied. “But I’m sure we’ll find out when we plug the thing in.”

Locus just sighed and stared back up at the monitor, wishing he could have the same carefree outlook that Fox did.

“You’re worried, huh?”

Locus glanced over at Fox. “Our success is riding on that satellite.”

“Is that all you’re worried about?”

He gave Fox a strange look. “What do you mean?”

“Ever since two days ago, you’ve been way, way quieter than you usually are,” she replied without looking at him.

Locus tilted his chin down slightly, thinking. Truth was, there had been an awful nagging in the back of his head that had been growing since the pirates’ capture. “Things are going to change drastically when you leave,” he said slowly.

Fox tilted her head up at him. “You’re worried about what’s gonna happen to you when I’m gone, aren’t you?”

I...suppose? Truth was, Locus had gotten used to having her around. And while she was certainly a helpful buffer between himself and the others, she was also one of the only people who really seemed to believe he wanted to help. With her gone, how was he going to convince Kimball and her men that he still wanted to make things right? It was hard to believe they’d listen to him. Chances were that without Fox around to help smooth out the creases, he’d wind up back at square one in no time. “It’s unlikely that I’ll be allowed the same level of freedom to assist Kimball and her men as I am now,” he replied.

“Hm,” Fox said, looking back at the monitor. “You’re probably right about that.”

And Locus knew that, but that didn’t mean that he wanted to hear her say it. “I haven’t done enough,” he sighed, turning his head away and falling silent.

“So come with me.”

Under his helmet, Locus blinked, and he turned back to look at her. “You know General Kimball will never allow that.”

“It’s not like I’d be dropping it on her out of the blue. I mean, you’re the one who told her I was thinking about it,” Fox said, giving him a meaningful look. “I can try talking to her, but if you want to stay here, then I won’t bother.”

“It’s up to you,” Locus replied simply.

Fox made a dissatisfied sound, but didn’t say anything else. Instead she looked up at the screen and watched as the system check came back with a report. “We are looking good, ” she mused after reading it.

“What now?” Locus asked.

“Now…” Fox leaned back and tapped the side of her helmet. “We could probably come up with a way to get into that ship’s systems.” She looked up at him. “How good are you at making rootkits?”

“Good enough.”

“Cool,” Fox said. “I’m going to get started on modifying the kill code I used on CORA. My laptop’s over on that workbench,” she nodded in the direction of it, “why don’t you get started on that?”

Locus nodded and walked over to retrieve her laptop. It wasn’t a particularly exciting task, but at least it would keep him busy until the Reds and Blues hooked up the satellite.

 


 

Setting up the satellite took the rest of the day. Not that this particularly bothered Jensen. She liked having something to do with her hands. Hooking up the last of the cables with a sigh, she rose out of her crouch and looked out over the horizon. The sun gleamed like a bright orange beacon that cast its warm light across the canopy below.

Grey had requested that the satellite be placed atop the cliff directly above headquarters for the sake of getting the best signal out of it. A handful of Kimball’s men had already gotten the wiring figured out, which meant one less thing for them to worry about later.

“There!” Jensen looked over when Grey spoke up and saw the older woman dusting her chestplate off. “Simmons, help me double-check this real fast, and if it looks good, then we’re done for the day.”

Jensen watched as Simmons pulled away from the base of the satellite to do her bidding, and quickly grew bored, returning her attention to the dying sun.

“Sure is pretty, huh?”

Jensen looked over when Andersmith walked over and came to a stop next to her. “You got grease all over your helmet,” she replied, a smile forming.

“Do I?” Andersmith asked, sounding surprised.

“Yeah, you look like a dalmatian!”

Andersmith let out a snort of laughter and looked away. He was silent for a moment, then asked, “hey, if it’s not too personal, are you and Palomo serious?”

Jensen blinked under her helmet. “Uh... whyyyy?”

Andersmith shrugged. “I dunno. I was just wondering. You guys look good together is all.”

“Oh...thanks!”

“Don’t tell Palomo I said that, by the way. Or asked. Or...anything. He’ll make it weird.”

Now it was Jensen’s turn to laugh. “Yeah, I know. He gets so self-conscious. It’s funny...like in a kinda not really funny but funny way.”

Andersmith just nodded, then looked over when Bitters came to stand beside him.

“Hey guys,” Bitters said, a yawn in his voice. “Watching the sunset?”

“Yup,” Jensen replied. “Is Doctor Grey almost done?”

Bitters just made a sound and shrugged vaguely.

“Cool,” Andersmith said.

“You guys think this thing’ll work?” Bitters asked.

“We put so much time into it. I hope so!” Jensen replied.

“The Reds and Blues and Doctor Grey all know what they’re doing,” Andersmith said simply.

“Oh- ho don’t get me started,” Bitters said, an eye roll in his voice.

“Doctor Grey at least knows,” Jensen offered.

“I’ll take that,” Bitters replied with a nod.

“Alright, let’s pack it up. We’ll run a test on this thing tomorrow!” came Grey’s voice.

“Speak of the devil,” Andersmith said, looking back towards the satellite.

“Alright, let’s go,” Bitters said, turning and following the Reds, Blues, and Kimball’s men as they started back down the trail, leaving both Andersmith and Jensen to catch up with him.

As she passed the satellite, Jensen slowed when she saw a trio of her fellow soldiers standing by it, not moving. “Louise, Hodges, Mel, you guys aren’t coming back with us?”

“We’re stuck guarding this thing,” Hodges replied, taking his hand off the foregrip of his gun and letting the weapon dangle by his side as he jerked a thumb back at the satellite.

“First shift, baby!” Mel exclaimed.

“At least one of us is excited about it,” Louise groaned.

“Aw, you’ll be fine!” Jensen said, smiling under her helmet at Louise’ tone. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the others getting too far away from her, so she gave the three a wave and said, “good luck you guys!” before hurrying to catch up.

When they finally made it back to headquarters and got unsuited, most of the others dispersed to grab some dinner and rest. Jensen considered doing the same, but she also couldn’t kick the nagging curiosity about what Fox and Locus had managed to accomplish since she and the others had left them. So she bid her fellow lieutenants goodbye and hurried off down the hall towards Doctor Grey’s lab. It didn’t matter if she didn’t get dinner, anyways. She knew Fox had a stash of protein bars down there with her.

Jensen made it to the elevator before she heard running footsteps behind her. Hitting the down button, she looked back over her shoulder towards the source of the noise and watched with surprise as Palomo rounded the corner and almost slid into the far wall. “Palomo?”

“HiiiIIOHGODWHOPUTTHATTHERE?!”

Jensen stifled a laugh as Palomo ran directly into the wet floor sign that was right in front of him, and apparently not as noticeable as its bright yellow surface would otherwise suggest. “Careful,” she snickered.

“It’s fine,” Palomo said, standing the sign back up and stepping back away from it. “No one saw that.”

“I did.”

Palomo gave her a look, then shook it off and bounded over to join her, staring up at the screen above the elevator doors as it counted down. “So where ya heading?”

“Doctor Grey’s lab,” Jensen replied.

“Why? Don’t you want dinner?”

“I had a late lunch,” Jensen reasoned. “And I really wanna see what Fox has been up to since I had to leave.”

“Oh,” Palomo said, his shoulders sinking slightly. “Isn’t Locus down there with her?”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t bother anyone,” Jensen said with a shrug, stepping into the elevator as it reached their floor and opened its doors with a chime.

Palomo followed her. “Are you sure you’re not just biased because he saved you?”

“I don’t know,” Jensen admitted, hitting the button to the basement. “I don’t think so?” She was quiet for a moment, then a small smile formed under her helmet. “If anyone should be biased, it’s you , since he saved your girlfriend.

Palomo made a spluttering sound and looked away, crossing his arms. “Okay yeah so? I’m grateful for that, but I still don’t like him.”

Jensen shrugged. “I didn’t say you had to.”

Palomo didn’t say anything for a moment, then looked back at her. “Wait, you called yourself my girlfriend?”

“I mean...I am , aren’t I?”

Palomo uncrossed his arms and rubbed the back of his neck, looking away. “I...guess? It’s just weird when you put it that way.”

Jensen blinked. “Why?”

Palomo shrugged and tilted his head away. “I dunno ...you’re just really cool and smart and stuff... and then hearing you say it...I guess it just kinda feels like...luck?”

Jensen had to resist the urge to snort with laughter, because she genuinely couldn’t tell if he meant all of that. “You’re a total cheeseball,” she said, unable to keep the grin out of her voice.

Palomo looked over at her in surprise. “What? No I’m not!”

“Yeah you are!” Jensen exclaimed, hopping out of the elevator as it reached the basement floor.

Palomo followed her “Nu-uh!”

“Yeah- huh!”

“Am not!”

“Are so- hey, wait a minute.” Jensen paused and looked towards the door at the end of the hall. “What is that?”

“It sounds like...eight-bit music, or something,” Palomo said, coming up and standing beside her.

Jensen exchanged a look with him. “Huh…” She turned and stared at the door for a moment, then shrugged and said, “oh well. I guess we’re about to find out, right?”

The two made their way to the door at the end of the hall and stepped through it, both of them immediately looking for the source of the music.

“Well, hello, hello!” came Fox’s voice from next to the quantum computer. She was seated on the floor with a wireless keyboard in her lap. Next to her, Locus sat with his back to the computer tower, working on a laptop.

Jensen and Palomo exchanged a look, and they both approached slowly.

“What... is that?” Jensen asked, staring up at what looked like some sort of video game on the hard light monitor.

“Oh, that?” Fox asked, looking back at her. “Yeah, we got bored with doing like...real adult work stuff. So we put Doom on the quantum computer.”

“It was surprisingly difficult,” Locus added, not looking up from the laptop.

“Yeah, we had to run a conversion on it after finally figuring out why we couldn’t get it to work,” Fox said, returning her gaze to the monitor. “Then again, the game is over five-hundred years old. Though you’d think that the community would have built an updated version.”

“How long did that take you guys?” Palomo asked.

Fox exchanged a look with Locus, then replied “ehh….like a half-hour….-ish.”

“You wasted half an hour on that!?” Palomo exclaimed.

“It’s just thirty minutes. We’re gonna be up all night anyways,” Fox replied. “I plan on having this thing working by morning so we can benchmark it, and then come up with a P-O-A.”

“P-O-A?” Jensen asked.

“Plan of action,” Fox said.

“Oh.”

“Anyways, shouldn’t you guys be winding down? You’ve both been working all day,” Fox said, hitting the escape button on the keyboard and pausing the game before looking back at them.

“Oh, uh. I just wanted to see what you guys were doing, so I came down here,” Jensen admitted. “And Palomo followed me.”

“That he did,” Fox mused, tilting her head slightly. “But that’s not all you were looking for, is it?” she asked knowingly.

Jensen let her eyes wander to look at anything other than the other woman. “I...kinda wanted to help too?”

Looking back, she saw Fox exchange a silent look with Locus before saying, “go change into civvies, get something to eat, then grab a blanket, a pillow, and a travel mug and meet us back here in twenty.”

Jensen stared at her, then looked over at Palomo, then back at Fox. “Wait, you’re letting me help?”

“You now have nineteen minutes and forty-two seconds,” Fox replied.

“Come on Palomo,” Jensen said quickly and turned and hurried back out of the lab.

“Are you sure you wanna stay up and help?” Palomo asked when he caught up to her at the elevator, a hint of a whine in his voice.

“Uh yeah I’m sure! This is so exciting! Plus it’ll look really good on my resume if I can say that I helped link up a quantum computer to a satellite,” Jensen replied, stepping into the elevator when the doors slid open.

“Your resume? Are you applying for a job?” Palomo asked, packing in next to her.

“No, but when this war ends, I’ve gotta be ready, y’know?”

Palomo held her gaze for a moment, then shook his head at the floor, a grin on his face. “You’re a nutcase, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Jensen said, punching the number for the living quarters, “but I’m your nutcase.”

When the elevator arrived, it didn’t take either of the two very long to change into civvies and pack up backpacks full of water bottles, blankets, pillows, and some snacks before they hurried down to the mess hall to grab a quick meal. And with minutes to spare, the two made their way to the lab, dropping their bags on a workbench before returning to the computer.

The first thing Jensen noticed when she approached it was that the hard light monitor had some sort of interface on it with a loading bar smack dab in the middle of it. Behind it in another window was a command prompt that was running through lines of code. “What is that?” she asked, looking over at Fox, who was crouched next to Locus, looking at the laptop he had.

“Satellite installation,” Fox said simply, not looking up.

“Oh,” Jensen said, tilting her head back at the monitor. By now the installation was nearly complete, judging by the loading bar. As she watched, it finished, and two new windows came up. “Um…”

Wordlessly, Fox hopped to her feet and walked over and typed a few lines into the command prompt before hitting buttons on the two windows, causing them to close. “Satellite installation complete. I’m gonna finish up some edits on the kill code so it doesn’t fry the system.”

“Did you ask Kimball about the Pelican?” Locus asked, not looking at her.

“Shoot. I’ll do that. It’s late though, so I’m not expecting a response,” Fox replied. She looked back at Palomo, who was fidgeting with a datapad. “Hey kid, you see that data chip on the table next to you?”

Palomo looked up, then over at the table, spotting the data chip. “Yeah?” he asked.

“Toss it to me.”

Jensen watched as Palomo picked up the data chip and threw it to Fox, who caught it one-handed while barely looking at it. Huh, she thought. “Is that the kill code?” she asked.

“Yup.”

“And you’re just gonna plug it into that thing?” Jensen asked, nodding at the computer.

“It’s harmless if I don’t run it,” Fox replied, inserting the chip into a slot near the keyboard. When she did, a window popped up, which Fox immediately closed, then opened the file to edit it, revealing dozens of lines of code. She minimized the window and turned away, a hand to the side of her helmet. Jensen wondered if she was contacting Kimball.

The room was silent for a moment save for the sound of the computer’s fans, then Fox looked over at Locus and said, “she’s going to send a team out to retrieve the Pelican those pirates had. They’ll leave it in the hangar for us.”

Locus simply nodded.

“Okay, what’s the Pelican for?” Palomo asked.

“To test out the kill code,” Fox replied. “The Staff of Charon is an early model Halberd-class vessel, so it happens to share a lot of software with Pelicans and Condors. If we can test out the kill code on a Pelican and have it work, then it should be able to breach Hargrove’s ship as well.”

“Where do we come in with all of that?” Jensen asked.

“Well, when they bring in the Pelican, you guys are gonna relay what’s going on when the kill code runs,” Fox explained, scrolling through the code on the screen.

“Can’t you just hook up a computer and see for yourself?” Palomo asked.

“Not unless I wanna fry it, no,” Fox replied. “That K-C will burn through just about anything that’s hooked up to it when it’s running. So the information has to be obtained manually. I know it’s kinda stone-age, but it’s the best we’ve got out here in the space boonies.”

“Fair enough,” Palomo said, hopping up onto the workbench and laying back with his head resting on his backpack for support. “Well, when you need me, just holler, I guess.”

Jensen watched him for a moment, then walked over and stood next to Fox, looking over her shoulder at what she was doing. “Is that C-plus-plus?”

“Yuuuup. You familiar with it?” Fox asked.

“Uh-huh,” Jensen replied.

“Cool. You can be my debugger,” Fox said simply. “And heck, I might even show you a thing or two about how to make one of these for yourself.”

Jensen blinked, startled. “Really?”

Fox looked back at her and nodded. “Oh, but before I forget, let me bounce the signal to Earth real quick and see if I can make contact.” She quickly opened the program installed for the satellite and began a signal test before grabbing the wireless keyboard and mouse and sitting down on the floor, patting the ground next to her for Jensen to sit.

Jensen plopped down cross-legged next to her, eyes upturned towards the monitor, watching as Fox pulled up the kill code.

“Alright, now pay attention. This is how you ruin a jackass’ day.”

 


 

[4:32 AM]

 

Kimball stared at the time on the datapad on the floor next to her bed. She had been woken by the sound of an incoming video call that she very much did not want to answer. Duty calls , she thought tiredly, reaching down and grabbing the datapad and sitting up in bed. She answered the call, and was met with the sight of Fox’s face.

“Fox,” Kimball groaned, trying to pick the sleep out of her right eye with a fingernail, “do you know what time it is?”

“I know, I know, but it’s important, I promise,” Fox replied, waving a hand.

“Hi General Kimball!”

Kimball watched as the video dipped to the left, showing Jensen’s face for a moment before it focused back on Fox. “You convinced one of my lieutenants to pull an all-nighter with you,” she said flatly.

“I didn’t convince her to do anything,” Fox said. “And Palomo’s down here too…” she looked back over her shoulder, “....and he has already resumed his nap. Excellent.”

“What do you need?” Kimball asked, growing impatient.

“Well, I just wanted to let you know that I was able to successfully ping Earth. Reached out to two of my contacts. Couldn’t get the third, but oh well. So you’re free to talk to them whenever you want,” Fox said.

Kimball blinked and straightened up a bit. “When are they available?”

“Later today, probably,” Fox replied. “I sent a video message through to both of them basically explaining what happened and what my current situation is. I also told them to expect a call from you.”

“And they haven’t gotten back to you?”

“They’re both sleeping. Hopefully. It’s like twelve over there, or something.”

“Alright,” Kimball said, yawning into her hand. “Anything else?”

“We completed the test with the enemy Pelican with minimal issues that have already been resolved. So we’re good to go with The Staff of Charon.”

Kimball blinked. “That’s perfect.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna send the lieutenants to bed and then run another benchmark on this thing before grabbing some shut-eye myself,” Fox said. “Meet me around seven-thirty?”

“Sounds good,” Kimball nodded.

“Cool, I’ll let you get some sleep then. Just giving you an update, adios! ” Fox said, giving a casual salute before signing off.

Kimball stared at the datapad screen for a moment, the wheels in her head turning, and a newfound mixture of excitement and worry fluttering in her chest. Then she connected the datapad to its charger and set it on the floor before laying back and staring at the ceiling of her quarters.

Morning couldn’t come soon enough.

 


 

“Good morning.”

Kimball looked up when a travel mug full of coffee was set down on her desk. “Thank you, Carolina,” she said, nodding at the other woman as she picked up the mug and took a sip.

“You weren’t at breakfast,” Carolina said, and Kimball could sense the unspoken “is something wrong?” in her voice.

“Fox was able to reach Earth last night. She also ran a test of the kill code on the enemy Pelican that was retrieved yesterday evening as well,” Kimball replied, setting the mug back down.

Carolina leaned back slightly, frowning. “I take it you’re going to reach out to her contacts then?”

“That was the plan,” Kimball said, looking away and staring at the wall.

Carolina nodded, saying nothing for a moment. “What have you decided in regards to sending her to Earth?”

“I don’t know,” Kimball replied, looking back at her.

Carolina met her gaze with thinly veiled surprise. “Is there another plan?”

Kimball shook her head and sighed, falling silent for a while. When she finally spoke again, her voice was low and hinted at frustration. “I don’t really think that any plan I could come up with will matter. I know she’s going to wind up having to go to Earth, and I know that she’s going to try to take Locus with her. The problem is, we’re so close to that happening, and I still don’t know how any of it will work.”

Carolina looked away, chewing her bottom lip. “Maybe talking to Fox’s contacts will help clear it up,” she suggested.

Kimball closed her eyes. “I hope so.” She took another sip of her coffee, glancing over at the monitor on her desk. She was supposed to be meeting Fox in ten minutes. “I guess we’ll see,” she said, standing and tucking her datapad under one arm and picking her coffee up in her free hand. “Walk with me?” she asked, looking at Carolina.

“Sure,” Carolina said, turning and letting her lead the way out of her office.

They made it about halfway to the lab before Carolina had to meet up with her patrol, leaving Kimball to walk the rest of the way there in anxious silence. When she stepped off the elevator and made her way down the hall to the lab, that anxiety formed a ball in her chest that grew tighter and tighter with every step until she walked through the door.

Looking around, she noticed that neither Jensen nor Palomo where anywhere in sight. Fox must have sent them to their quarters. Frowning, she walked over towards where the computer had been set up, scuffing to a stop when she caught sight of Locus perched on top of the computer looking a laptop in his lap. For a moment, neither of them moved, and Kimball wondered if he was even awake.

“Fox will be down in five minutes,” Locus said suddenly, causing Kimball to flinch. He looked over at her calmly, and Kimball felt the heat rise into her face.

“I see,” Kimball said, straightening her back to try to regain some semblance of composure. She was silent for a moment, looking around at the lab, then said, “what are you working on?”

Locus tilted his head slightly at her. “Debugging.”

“A little difficult to do without a rubber duck!” exclaimed a new voice.

Kimball looked back to see Grey walk through the doors with her own mug of coffee in her hand. “Good morning Doctor Grey.”

“Morning Kimball,” Grey chimed on her way past, stopping and doing a double-take when she saw Locus. “What are you, a canary?”

“Define the parameters,” Locus said flatly, and Kimball could have sworn he sounded sarcastic.

“Hmph,” Grey said taking a sip of her coffee without looking away from him. “When did Fox say she’d be back down?”

“Three minutes.”

“How long ago did she tell you that?”

“Two minutes ago.”

“Ah,” Grey sighed, looking mildly annoyed. “If she hadn’t pulled an all-nighter, she could have been up early like the rest of us.”

“We wouldn’t be here this early if she hadn’t,” Locus replied.

Kimball stared at him, surprised both by how much of a conversation Grey was managing to get out of him, and the fact that he was defending Fox.

“Fair enough. But she really should have preserved her brain cells. You lose a ton of them when you miss out on sleep,” Grey mused, looking pointedly at Kimball.

Kimball just gave her a look.

“Goooood morning New York Cityyyyyyy!”

Kimball turned and looked over as Fox walked through the lab door with her arms spread wide in greeting. “Oh man I got like two hours of sleep and I feel great!” she exclaimed, making her way over to Kimball and Grey with a bounce in her step. “Which means I’ve hit my second wind, and I’m also probably dying.”

“Just your brain cells, sweetie,” Grey replied.

“Eh, I’ve got plenty,” Fox said, waving a hand dismissively at her and looking up at Locus. “Jesus, you’re like a big cat sitting on the warm spot on the computer,” she snickered. “You get any sleep?”

“Some,” he replied.

“Cool.” Fox looked back at Kimball and Grey with her hands on her hips. “Soooo I’m gonna go ahead and start this baby up, you ladies sit tight!” She pointed finger guns at the two of them before striding over to the computer and powering it on.

As she did so, Locus rose into a crouch, then hopped off of the tower, landing smoothly on his feet and leaning up against the computer with his arms crossed.

Kimball pulled her eyes away from him and looked up as the hard light monitor flickered to life above the computer and showed the start-up sequence. Once it completed, Fox pulled up a window that showed a benchmark report for the system.

“I ran this before I headed out earlier this morning. Just to test the system to triple-check that it was in good condition for what we’ll be using it for. Obviously the report came back with good news, so we have nothing to worry about,” Fox explained.

“What about the system temperature?” Kimball asked, nodding at the screen. “It’s reading as high.”

“Yeah, so that was expected, actually. The benchmark is basically a stress test to see how much this thing can handle before it crashes,” Fox said, patting the side of the computer. “The reason I’m not worried about it is because there isn’t any sort of crash report logged here. And the benchmark I ran actually put more stress on this thing than Hargrove’s ship should. So if it didn’t crash under that pressure, with those temperatures, it should be fine.”

Kimball narrowed her eyes slightly and looked over at Grey, who just nodded.

“There’s something we need to talk about before we get too far into this,” Fox said, looking away from the monitor and back towards Kimball.

Kimball blinked and stared at her. “What is it?”

“Now that this thing’s up and running, you can obviously talk to my contacts and work some stuff out,” Fox explained, putting her weight into the hand she had resting next to the keyboard. "I know I brought up the possibility of me going to Earth before. When we access The Staff of Charon and mess with its systems, we’ll create a safe passage from here right to the Sol System.”

So that’s where this is going, Kimball thought, taking a sip of her coffee. “I see,” she said. “And how long will that last for?”

“I’m not sure,” Fox admitted. “It all depends on how fast the damage is repaired.”

Kimball stared at her a moment, then turned her gaze to the computer’s monitor, eyes scanning absently over the benchmark report. Fox had connections. Fox had money. Fox had power. And she had access to the U.N.S.C.’s database. Kimball had a feeling deep in the pit of her stomach that all of this would match up once she reached those contacts Fox had mentioned. And she also had a feeling that the charisma Fox displayed would allow her to quickly build a team in to move against Charon Industries. All good things. All things that would help.

But Fox was also the only person that really knew anything helpful about Charon. And she had proven to be capable of dealing massive amounts of damage that would greatly benefit them in the inevitable event of another pirate attack. And she was the only one that Locus showed any sliver of trust towards. Not to mention that if she was sent to Earth, she’d want to take him with her.

With a sigh, Kimball looked to Grey for help. “What do you think?” she asked.

“About her going to Earth?” Grey asked. “I think it’s a no-brainer after what she told us a few weeks ago.”

Kimball glanced over at Locus, who tilted his head at her, but said nothing. “You said you were going to go after Hargrove’s friends?” she asked, looking at Fox.

“Yep. And convince them not to help him during the investigation and trial,” Fox replied.

“And what else?”

“Probably sabotage a bunch of Charon’s shit too. Weapons shipments and stuff. They actually do a lot of business in the Sol System.”

Kimball stared into her coffee, thinking hard. “And how are you going to avoid getting arrested for that? You can’t link that back to us. We’ve had a hard enough time getting the U.N.S.C.’s attention as it is. If they find out that someone is committing corporate sabotage in our name, things will only get harder for us here.”

“So I’ll ping my buddy, General Sachs, and have him run up the pipeline and get us operational approval. If we’re working for the U.N.S.C., it’ll be harder for Hargrove to come after us, because he’ll have a hail of bullets from every other Marine in the Sol System aimed at him if he does. And the U.N.S.C. won’t be able to persecute us for doing anything unlawful, because they’ll have authorized it to begin with,” Fox explained.

“Doing that could minimize the flexibility of your operations,” Locus said, finally speaking up.

Fox looked over at him. “True, and that’ll suck, but it’s the only way me being able to access the U.N.S.C.’s database makes sense. If I’m an outsider, and I’m able to get past that protocol, then Pepper is going to be in some deep shit, and then all of us will lose our access if the U.N.S.C. finds out that I’m leaking data to a group of rough and tumble Marines.”

Grey let out an irritated sigh. “And that’s the web we’re tangled in now, I suppose.”

Fox shrugged at her. “It’s less of a ‘we’ thing and more of a ‘me’ thing. I picked my poison. Now I gotta drink it.”

“How would the U.N.S.C. find out that their database is being...leaked...to you?” Kimball asked, still trying to make sense of it all.

“Okay, so Fox is Annie Rosenblum, who works for Charon, right? Hargrove knows that. And when he sees that all his friends are turning against him and all his shit is getting wrecked, he’s going to look into Annie’s life and try to find a connection that could lead to her figuring out how the hell she knows where to hit. And he’s going to find out that she studied under Doctor Howard Manning alongside Pepper Matsukaze. And he’s going to realize, ‘hey, oh shit, they’re probably friends now. Pepper is doing illegal bad shit that’s allowing Fox-slash-Annie to do illegal bad shit to me.’ And then he’s going to come after both of me. And somewhere along the way, he’s probably going to find out that we’re all the same person. And then the media and the U.N.S.C.’s attention won’t be on him anymore, and he’ll be able to get away with shit again, because I’ll be stuck behind bars unable to do anything,” Fox replied.

Kimball blinked at her, then glanced at her coffee, greatly wishing she had spiked it with some of the whiskey Carolina had brought her. “So you’re saying...this whole thing could fall apart...if you do one tiny thing wrong?” she asked incredulously.

“Well, yeah? But if we get approved by the U.N.S.C., then Pepper feeding Annie information won’t be a problem, because she’ll be legally obligated to do so in order to assist in a U.N.S.C.-sanctioned investigation,” Fox explained, scratching the side of her helmet. “My point is, even though getting approved by the U.N.S.C. will, like Locus stated, screw our ability to be flexible in our operations on Earth, it’s pretty much necessary in order for all of us to come away from this with clean hands...Er...well, most of us, anyways.”

Kimball pinched the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes shut. She couldn’t tell if the headache forming in her temples was from stress, or the fact that she’d been clenching her jaw. “How soon can I reach out to your contacts?” she asked, stress seeping into her voice.

“As soon as I hear back from them,” Fox replied.

That’s not an answer, Kimball thought, but held her tongue. “Is that all you have for me right now?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Fox replied.

Kimball sighed, “I want to know the minute they get back to you, understand?”

Fox gave her a snappy salute, piping out a hearty “sure thing!” before turning back to the computer.

Kimball turned, leaned in towards Grey. “Make sure she reaches me the second they contact her.”

Grey just gave her an amused smile. “Of course,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee.

Kimball just nodded and started towards the door. She had a list of questions to prepare for those contacts.

 


 

It had only been a few days since the last fight with the space pirates, and things had already gone back to normal. It had been surprising to Sarge how quickly the clamour about the satellite and Locus’ assimilation had died down. Not that he was complaining. It was actually kind of nice to see everyone able to relax somewhat. Well, almost everyone. From what little Sarge had seen of Kimball, the woman was stressed, but that was nothing new. And he didn’t imagine that there was anything to be done about that either on his end.

Wash, however, seemed to have picked up on that slight bit of tension that still floated in the air, and had decided to redirect it by means of resuming the lieutenants’ training regimine. Better to keep them prepared in case something happened.

Sarge watched as Andersmith disarmed Bitters and went in with an elbow jab as a follow-up on the sparring mat, the corner of his mouth twitching into a smile as Bitters dodged to the side. Behind them, Jensen and McAllister, and Palomo and Matthews were paired off as well.

It was interesting to see how far they had all come from when they had first begun training with the Reds and Blues. And ever since the fight with the mercs to stop The Purge, the lieutenants had been working harder than before to be effective leaders for their fellow men. Seeing them push themselves put a spark of pride in Sarge’s chest.

It was almost nostalgic, seeing them go through similar drills to what he endured in Basic. The difference was that the odds were stacked against them, and they knew it. That, and they were doing way better than he did when he was still green. Of course, he’d never admit it.

Sarge was pulled out of his head when Wash called for training to be over for the day and dismissed everyone. “Good work, men!” he barked out in addition.

“Except you, Palomo!” Tucker added, but sounded somewhat good-natured.

“Aw I thought he did okay,” Caboose said.

Tucker just shook his head.

Two by two, he lieutenants ended their sparring matches and dusted themselves off and shook hands. Sarge caught sight of Matthews giving Andersmith a pat on the shoulder before the two of them and the others headed for the locker rooms. Well, most of the others. Palomo was lagging behind for some reason, looking hesitant.

“Come on Palomo!” Jensen called back to him.

“In a minute!” Palomo replied over his shoulder before looking back towards Wash.

“Is there something you need, lieutenant?” Wash asked.

“Oh, uh, actually I was hoping to talk to Sarge,” Palomo replied quickly.

“Oh,” Wash said, and Sarge saw him looking his way out of the corner of his eye.

“What d’ya need, son?” Sarge asked, and heard Tucker say, “hey, catch up to us later, Sarge. We’re out.”

Palomo held his tongue and looked off at the others, and Sarge found himself doing the same, eyes on the backs of Wash, Tucker, and...well Caboose was walking backwards, but still.

“Bye Sarge!” Caboose exclaimed, waving with both hands before he turned around and faced forward, just in time to run into the wall.

Sarge snickered to himself, watching as Caboose recovered and stepped through the doorway, then he turned back to Palomo, who, to his surprise, had approached him. “Well?”

Palomo looked away, seeming uncomfortable, and muttered something under his breath.

“Speak up!”

Palomo jumped, then straightened out and spoke up. “Look, uh, I never got to apologize for fucking up your plan the other day. Or, well, I had time to, but I kept getting side-tracked, and--” Palomo shook his head. “Point is, it was my fault, and I’m sorry.”

Sarge stared at him. For a moment, it sounded like the kid was talking nonsense, but then he remembered the Mantis. “Son, don’t you worry yerself none. It’s water under the bridge.”

“But-!” Palomo cut off, then in a quieter voice said, “but you seemed mad about it.”

Ah. Truth was, he had been disappointed, but not at Palomo. The disappointment was towards himself for coming up with a plan that had put his team in unnecessary danger. Sure , Grif was a fat, lazy pain in the ass, but Sarge didn’t want to see him or Simmons hurt because of something he thought up. “I wasn’t mad at you,” Sarge said. “So quit yer worryin’, y’hear?”

“A-are you sure?”

Yes I’m sure! If I was mad at you, I’d’ve yapped at ya for it!”

Palomo looked down towards the floor. “Okay...Still, I’ll try to be a better shot next time.”

And Sarge felt something stab at his heart a little from the way Palomo said it. The kid was being too hard on himself. Under his helmet, his brow furrowed, and he narrowed his eyes in thought. Then, he let out a sigh, put a hand on Palomo’s shoulder and said, “kid, you’re a great shot. So quit doubtin’ yerself. I’ve met Marines twice yer age who couldn’t fire a gun as straight as you.”

Palomo looked up at him, and his shoulders began to sag a little less.

“So quit beatin’ yerself up about somethin’ that had nothin’ to do with what you did, got it?”

“Y-yeah...I guess,” Palomo replied, sounding more surprised than doubtful. “Thanks, Sarge.”

Satisfied, Sarge gave him a nod and pulled his hand away. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go find where those Blues were headin’, and beat em there!” And with that, he turned and headed for the exit, a smile under his helmet. That kid was going to be fine.

Sarge made it about halfway down the hall before he nearly ran into Kimball as she turned a corner to head in the same direction as him. “‘Afternoon General!” he greeted.

“Ah, sorry Sarge. I didn’t see you,” Kimball replied, looking and sounding like her mind was only half in the conversation.

“Eh, yer fine,” Sarge said. “Yer not the worst thing I could’ve run into.”

“I suppose not,” Kimball said absently, starting down the hall.

Sarge matched her pace. “If ya don’t mind me askin’, where’re you off to in such a rush? Is somethin’ wrong? It ain’t those dirty space pirates, is it?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Kimball said. “I’m actually glad you asked, because you can probably share this with the others. Do you remember the contacts that Fox mentioned she had on Earth a while ago?”

“How could I forget! She plans on usin’ em to give that old chairman a what-for, right?”

“Right,” Kimball replied. “Well, she got in contact with them, and they just got back to her, and apparently they’re ready for me to talk to them now.”

Sarge narrowed his eyes. “But don’t you gotta use that fancy computer Fox brought from the moon? The lab’s in the other direction!”

“I have something I need to pick up from my office before I head down there.”

“Huh,” Sarge said. “So you want me to tell the others that yer goin’ to talk to Fox’s friends, and you won’t be around?”

“That, and to expect a meeting to discuss what happens next, if you don’t mind,” Kimball said, sounding a little relieved.

“Sure thing!”

“Excellent,” Kimball said, slowing to a stop in front of the hallway that led to her office. She gave Sarge a nod and said, “I don’t know how long this will take, but I appreciate your help. I’ll let all of you know how things went by the end of the day.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Sarge said, stopping next to her. “Best of luck to ya! Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go hunt down the rest of my team.” With that, he turned and started off down the hall again. Grif, Simmons, and Lopez were probably down in the motorpool. Donut and Doc were likely having wine and cheese hour together. And the Blues were probably goofing off somewhere. No sense in runnin’ around tryin’ to find all of em’, Sarge thought, putting a hand to the side of his helmet and hopping onto their private channel. “Hey you all, drop what yer doin’ and meet me in the motorpool stat. I’ve got some news for all of you.”

 


 

When she reached her office, Kimball hurriedly grabbed the datapad off of her desk, nearly spilling the mug of now room-temperature coffee that sat next to it. Tucking the datapad under her arm, she made her way back down to the lab.

Thankfully the elevator was empty when she got to it, and when the doors finally closed after she’d stepped inside, she took a moment to decompress, letting out a long sigh and leaning back against the far wall. Why did this whole thing have to be so stressful? She stared up at the screen above the elevator doors as it counted down to the sub-level, straightening up and taking a deep breath a few seconds before it arrived at her destination. When the doors slid open again, she stepped out with her shoulders back and her head held high; a trick her mother had taught her when she was young and self-conscious.

“If you pretend to be confident, eventually you’ll start believing you are,” she always used to say.

Kimball still wasn’t sure if that was entirely true or not, but it certainly helped her feel like she at least looked confident now. And considering what she was about to be dealing with, that was the best she could do.

She stepped into the lab and headed straight for where Fox was sitting on the floor in front of the computer, looking around to see who else was in the room with them. When she reached Fox, she asked, “where’s Locus?”

“Not sure,” Fox replied, standing, and Kimball realized she had a wireless keyboard in her hand. “So you’re going to be speaking to General Sachs and Captain Rubio Sanchez. Sachs looks like a stereotypical Texan, and Sanchez has a scar on his chin and a Spanish accent,” she explained as she walked over and reattached the keyboard to its port on the computer. “They’re friends, so they agreed to meet up to video call you so you wouldn’t have to say the same thing twice to two different people.”

“Okay,” Kimball said slowly, watching as Fox pulled up a window on the screen.

“I’ve got the connection ready to go,” Fox said, stepping back. “Just hit the video call button, and give it a minute, and it should go through.”

“Understood,” Kimball replied, taking her place in front of the keyboard.

“So...do you want me here for this? Or…” Fox asked from behind her.

Kimball glanced back at her. “I would prefer to speak to your contacts in private,” she said. Better to not have Fox around to avoid twisting the results.

Fox nodded once. “Cool. I figured as much.” She turned to leave, then said, “if the connection goes out or stops working, just give me a holler. I won’t go far.”

“Thank you,” Kimball said, watching as she walked out of the lab and turned the corner. She listened until Fox’s footsteps subsided, then she turned her attention back to the monitor. Here goes nothing, she thought, taking a deep breath and clicking on the call button.

The window immediately resized to fit the entire screen, and went black with a circular loading icon in the middle of it. Kimball waited impatiently as the connection loaded, her apprehension only growing with each passing second. Then there was a sound from the computer’s speakers, and suddenly a face appeared on the screen.

“Well, hello there-- shoot, hang on just a mo’, the lighting in here is horrible.” Judging by the accent, Kimball guessed that the speaker was Sachs, and waited as he looked towards someone offscreen. “Ruby, could you--” he cut off as the lighting suddenly got brighter in the room. “Perfect, thank you. Sorry about that,” the man said, looking back towards Kimball. In the better lighting, she could make out a man much older than her with silver hair sitting at a table.

“General Kimball, I presume?” he asked in greeting, the crows feet in the corner of his eyes scrunching up as he smiled.

“Hello,” Kimball replied, realizing with surprise that this was the first time she had found herself conversing with someone with the same rank as her since Doyle died.

“Pleased to meet you. Name’s Jason Sachs,” Sachs said, glancing over as another man, who looked about the same age as him, sat down next to him. “And this here is Rubio Sanchez.”

Sanchez gave her a grim smile and a nod. “Hello.”

“You seem like a busy woman, being a general and all, so I won’t waste your time,” Sachs continued. “Pepper filled us in on what’s been going on, and we’ve both started looking into resources that we can use to help you folks out.”

“What sort of resources?” Kimball asked.

“Weapons and vehicles, mostly,” Sanchez replied.

“Fox told me that you could possibly get her and her operations approved by the U.N.S.C.” Kimball said.

Sachs, whose eyes had been on Sanchez, looked back at her. “Well...I could pull some strings, but I’d need to know what I’m going for first. Fox said there weren’t really any definites, but that she wanted to try to build a sort of task force to aid the investigation of that chairman.”

Kimball’s eyes drifted away from the screen in thought. Sending Fox down there and having her set up a team and complete missions on her behalf entailed a lot of responsibility. Not that Kimball had any doubts about her leadership skills. Fox had repeatedly shown the confidence necessary to handle herself in tight situations, and even managed to command the respect of Locus. So it didn’t seem particularly likely that she would be an ineffective leader. What really worried Kimball was the unknown. She didn’t like not being able to be hands-on with the fate of her people. And she wasn’t sure if Fox’s leadership would be reflective of her own desire to bring Hargrove to justice. These two know her better than I do. They’d probably be a better judgment of her character than I am, Kimball thought, looking back at the monitor.

“Fox and I discussed sending her to Earth, and she did mention that she would set up a team once she arrived,” Kimball said. “My only concern is whether or not she’ll be able to lead in a way that reflects well on the people of Chorus.”

“Well, does she seem like a loose cannon?” Sanchez asked, propping his chin up with a hand.

“No,” Kimball replied slowly. “But her way of approaching certain situations hasn’t always aligned with our best interests.”

“With all due respect General Kimball,” Sachs began, “you’re not exactly in a place where you can be picky about this sort of thing. You--” He cut off when Sanchez raised a hand to stop him.

“Pepper has always had a more... creative outlook on problem-solving,” Sanchez said, folding his arms on the table and leaning forward slightly. “And I’ll agree that it can sometimes be unorthodox. But Sachs and I plan on maintaining continuous contact with her if she comes to Earth. And, knowing her, she’ll likely come to us for advice on how to handle problems that are much bigger than her.” He leaned back again and shook his head slightly. “She’s been through a lot, and I know she probably seems a little...eccentric. But she knows what she’s doing and what she needs to do, and judging by the message she sent the two of us, she really does have your best interests in mind.”

Kimball took a deep breath, processing this. “Very well,” she said after a moment, looking back up at the two men. “So say I decide to send her down to Earth. What happens then?”

“Well, the U.N.S.C. is already looking at the idea of a task force to aid their investigation, so there will be little fuss getting her involved with that,” Sachs replied. “But here’s the big ugly fish; you have to claim her before I can do any of that.”

Kimball tilted her head to the side. “Meaning?”

“Meaning you basically have to appoint Fox to whatever position you want her in, preferably a higher rank, like lieutenant colonel, and then send those creds to me to get them confirmed,” Sachs explained. “She was a corpsman during the war. The U.N.S.C. won’t even look at her to lead a team unless she has some other cred besides that.”

Kimball sucked in a breath. “The U.N.S.C. hasn’t been particularly helpful these past few years. What makes you think that they’ll approve anything that I send their way?”

An almost mischievous grin spread across Sachs’ face, and he said, “because they owe you a couple of damned favors, and they know it, and we can milk that to get what we need out of them.”

Kimball thought about this for a moment, then asked, “and how long will that take?”

“If you can get her new credentials to me within the next few days, I’ve got friends in high places who can get you results in about a week or so,” Sachs replied. “You’re going to need to get in contact with those friends of mine to help ease the process though. So they know that you’re the real deal.”

“Just so I’m following this correctly; I need to appoint Fox to a commanding position, register her as a soldier under my command, send her credentials to you, and talk with the higher-ups in the U.N.S.C. and convince them to approve her?” Kimball asked, feeling stressed out already.

“It’s a lot, I know, but it’s what needs to be done,” Sachs replied with a nod.

Kimball sighed. “Okay. I can work with that.” She fell silent for a moment, then remembered one of the questions she had prepared. “What can you tell me about Fox’s connections to Emblem and that AI?”

Sachs and Sanchez exchanged a look, then Sanchez said “well, the company was started by her father and his friend Leroy Carson. Pepper grew up with the AI while it was in its earlier stages and became familiar with the way it works. She eventually turned her focus towards biomechanical engineering after I lost my leg in the war. Then she lost her family, and since she’s the only one who knows the extensive details of how the AI works, the U.N.S.C. basically told her and Carson that she has no choice but to take his place for security purposes. They allowed her to leave Earth to further her studies, but she’s been required to check in with Sachs, again for security purposes. Once she comes back, she’ll be taking over the company.”

Kimball blinked under her helmet, surprised. The way Fox had described the company, it hadn’t sounded like a ball and chain. Strange, she thought. “And the AI gives her access to the U.N.S.C. database like she said?”

“Mhm,” Sachs replied with a nod.

Kimball turned her gaze to the floor, thinking. So far, everything she’d learned from these two added up with what Fox had told her. And she’d certainly learned a great deal more about how things needed to move forward than she had expected to. But there was one thing that still gnawed at the back of her head. She looked back at the men on the screen and asked “did Fox tell you anything about someone named Locus?”

And like that, both men fell silent. Sachs turned his head slightly with an unreadable expression on his face, and the corner of Sanchez’s lips twitched upwards slightly. “That bundle of sunshine?” he asked, and Kimball suddenly understood the nickname Fox had given Locus.

“Fox told you about him?”

“She sure did, and whoo-ee is he a piece of work! ” Sachs replied, looking back towards her. “Why she got herself involved with him is beyond me, but it’s like Ruby said, Pepper was always a little strange.”

“Fox wants to bring him with her to Earth,” Kimball said quickly, before they got too off-topic.

Neither of the men looked surprised. “She told us,” Sanchez said. “And while I disagree with her, she seems to believe that he’ll be of use to her somehow.”

“He certainly has the skills she’d need from someone to help her with any dirty work that needs to be done,” Sachs mused.

Kimball nodded silently, thinking. They hadn’t decided on anything regarding him, so it wouldn’t hurt to throw out a hypothetical. “How would you two handle it if he was sent to Earth with her?”

“Judging by what she told us, she wouldn’t need us to do any sort of ‘handling,” Sachs replied.

“Though I will certainly make it clear that any misconduct is highly inadvisable,” Sanchez added with a nod.

“And would you be able to enforce that?” Kimball asked.

Sachs and Sanchez exchanged an amused look with one another before the latter replied “absolutely.”

“Alright,” Kimball said, looking down at her datapad and scrolling through the list of questions she had come up with to find one that hadn’t been answered. “And where would they be staying? I assume you’d have a safehouse set up somewhere.”

“Pep will probably want to stay in her apartment,” Sanchez replied. “It’s on the outskirts of the city, and is protected by that AI. So obviously it’s got the best security system on the planet.”

“Which city?” Kimball asked.

“Boston, Mass,” Sachs said.

“Isn’t there a U.N.S.C. base there?”

“Chawla, yeah. That’s where they’ll probably come in.”

Kimball tapped a finger against the side of her datapad. “Interesting.” She certainly felt more comfortable now that she knew what she was getting into. Sachs and Sanchez had been very helpful, and now she had a good idea of the direction she needed to move in. Looking back up at the screen, she asked “is there any more information you could give me about any of this?”

Sachs made a clucking sound and squinted at the table, and Sanchez leaned back with his eyes upturned in thought.

“Pepper’s father had an old boat warehouse by the harbor that I can have converted to a weapons storage,” Sanchez replied, glancing at her, then looking over at Sachs.

Sachs shook his head at him. “I’ve got nothing.”

“Very well,” Kimball said, drawing both of their attention back to her. “You’ve both been very helpful. Sachs, I’ll get Fox’s credentials to you ASAP so you can run them by your friends.”

Sachs nodded. “Sure thing. I’ll keep you updated on that as well.”

“I’m guessing you are planning on sending Pep to Earth, then?” Sanchez asked.

Kimball nodded slowly. “As of right now, it’s a strong possibility.”

“Then I’ll get started working on that warehouse so it’ll be ready when she gets here,” Sanchez said.

“Excellent,” Kimball said, tucking her datapad under her arm. “Thank you both for your time.”

Sachs gave her a dismissive wave, “don’t worry about it.” He grinned. “We’ll keep in touch, alright? You and your army just keep hanging in there. I’ll get back to you soon!”

“Take care,” Sanchez added.

“You too,” Kimball replied, then watched as Sachs reached towards the camera, then the feed went black. She stood there in silence for a while, the wheels in her head turning, then she looked back over her shoulder in the direction of the lab door. She stared at it for a moment, then sighed and started towards it. It looked like she had a lot of homework to do.

 


 

“Ow ow ow you win , Carolina! You win!” Wash gasped, squirming in pain on the sparring mat.

“I don’t need you to tell me that,” Carolina replied, amused, but she let go of hold she had his arm in and stepped back.

Wash hugged his arm against his chest and sat up, giving her an almost pouty look. “Jesus, boss, you could’ve dislocated my arm.”

“Which is why you should be glad that you’re my friend, otherwise I actually might have,” Carolina grinned, offering him her hand.

He took it, and she pulled him to his feet and stepped back as he dusted himself off with a frown on his face. “You know, one of these days you’re going to have to let me win,” he said, looking over at her.

“Why, just to stoke your ego?” Carolina joked.

“I don’t have an ego!”

Carolina laughed and shook her head, putting her hands on her hips. She was silent for a moment, looking back when Wash asked, “so has Kimball told you anything?”

“About...what Sarge told us earlier today?”

“Yeah.”

Carolina shook her head. “No. She went down to talk to those contacts that Fox set her up with. I think she’s still down there.”

Wash shifted his feet and rubbed the back of his neck. “How do you feel about it?”

“Sending her to Earth, you mean?” Carolina asked.

“Yeah.”

Carolina looked away, letting out a breath. “I think...she could do some good down there. She certainly seems to have the skills and connections to make what needs to happen happen.”

Wash nodded silently, then looked over towards the entrance to the training room.

Carolina frowned and did the same, listening hard and managing to pick up the sound of footsteps and humming coming towards them from down the hall. As she watched, Fox walked past the open doors, stopped, then took a step back and looked over at them, falling completely silent for a moment.

“Uh, you guys need something?” Fox asked.

“No,” Carolina replied.

Fox looked down the hall the way she came, then back at them. “Do you guys usually stare at people as they walk past?”

“We were having a conversation,” Carolina said flatly.

“Okay,” Fox replied, then proceeded to stand there in an awkward silence for a good stretch of time before jerking her head back suddenly and exclaiming, “oh! I’m interrupting you, aren’t I?”

“No,” Wash said quickly.

Carolina sighed. “We were just discussing the topic of sending you to Earth.” No sense in lying. Fox would figure it out eventually anyways.

“Oh,” Fox said, sounding surprised. “I always wondered when you guys had those top secret conversations about important stuff like this.”

“It’s not top secret,” Carolina replied, mildly annoyed at Fox’s tone.

“Oh, okay. Are you guys sparring?” Fox asked, changing the subject suddenly.

“We were,” Wash replied. “Though it wasn’t much of a match.”

Carolina glanced at him, then looked back at Fox figuring that if the other woman was going to talk to them, they may as well learn something useful. “Is Kimball still down in the lab?”

“Not sure,” Fox replied, stepping into the room and walking towards them, stopping a few feet short of the sparring mat. “She’s been down there a while though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s almost done.”

“Hm,” Carolina said, then straightened up and bent over and reached for her toes. Might as well multi-task.

Fox fidgeted silently for a moment, then asked “do you think everyone would be cool with me leaving?”

“Not everyone,” Wash replied. “It’s impossible to make everyone happy.”

“I know that,” Fox replied.

“I think it could be a step in the right direction depending on how it’s handled,” Carolina said, straightening up and then stepping forward into a lunge.

“Are you having second thoughts?” Wash asked with a frown, looking back at Fox.

Fox just shrugged. “Well, I know that Kimball and you guys don’t really like me, and since you’re the people making the decision, I just think it’s important to know you guys’ opinions on it, that’s all.”

Carolina, who had been in the middle of stretching her arm straight across her chest, looked over at Fox in confusion. “You think we don’t like you?”

“Lina-Bean, I know you don’t,” Fox said flatly. “Not that it hurts my feelings or anything. I get that you don’t trust me, and I know that working with Locus has put me in a spot where you’ve got some weird feelings about me.”

Carolina switched legs and arms in her stretch, not taking her eyes off the other woman, squinting slightly. This whole time, she thought Fox didn’t like her, Wash, and Kimball, and it had all been because Fox thought they didn’t like her? “It’s not that we don’t like you so much as--”

“As the fact that I hang out with Locus a lot, I get it,” Fox interrupted, sounding almost frustrated. “No one wants to be around him, so no one wants to be around me.”

“Well, that’s...kind of gotten better, hasn’t it?” Wash asked.

Fox looked over at him, and even though Carolina couldn’t see her face, she just knew the other woman bore an unamused expression. “Has it, Stripes?”

Wash pursed his lips and looked away.

“--It’s difficult to trust you after what happened here,” Carolina continued once she was sure she wouldn’t be interrupted again.

“I get that,” Fox sighed. “Believe me, I can’t go a day without someone reminding me that no one around here except like...Caboose, Doc, Donut, and Grey, really really trust me. And I don’t blame you guys. But I just think it’s important to like...try to get you to trust me. Especially if this whole Earth thing is going to happen.”

Carolina finished stretching and stood up straight. “I’m pretty sure you’re going to Earth one way or another,” she said.

Fox tilted her head. “Really?”

“From what I’ve heard from Kimball so far, sending you down there, especially with the resources you have waiting for you, could benefit everyone,” Carolina said, nodding. “The only issue left is what will happen to Locus, but we’ll figure that out when the time comes.”

“I say we send him down there too,” Wash said, reaching his arms up over his head and leaning back in a stretch.

Carolina stared at him. “You’re being serious right now?”

Wash straightened back up and gestured vaguely at Fox. “Well, yeah. I mean, do you really think anyone’s gonna want him here?”

“Fair enough, but that’s not our decision,” Carolina replied.

“But you agree with me right?”

Carolina sighed again. “I don’t like the idea, but you also have a good point.”

“Iiiiinteresting,” Fox said, drawing attention back to her. “You guys discuss this with Kimball and the Peanut Gallery yet?”

“Kimball knows how I feel about it,” Carolina replied.

“I’m sure that she’ll call a meeting after she finishes with your contacts,” Wash added.

“Hmmmm,” Fox said, then put two fingers to the side of her helmet, muttering, “speak of the devil.”

Carolina exchanged a look with Wash, who shrugged, before looking back at Fox. “Was that her?”

“Kimball? Yeah. She wanted to know where I was. She’s coming to us,” Fox replied.

“Must be important,” Wash said softly.

They all fell silent for a moment, before Fox spoke up again. “So ‘Lina, is that like...your real hair color?”

Carolina blinked. “It was when I was younger, but it got darker with age.”

“So you do dye it.”

“Yes,” Carolina replied, suspiciously. “Why?”

Fox shrugged. “I dunno. It’s a cool color is all. Kinda similar to the color I dyed mine around the time I got the nickname ‘Fox.’ Just...mine was more like...actual red red.”

“Yeah, I remember hearing you say that on the flight here from Nalome, and uh, was your teammate colorblind?” Wash asked.

“Ludwell was, in fact, very colorblind, and couldn’t tell the difference between orange and red,” Fox replied. “That’s four-hundred points to the man with the obviously bleached hair.”

“It’s not that obvious.”

“It’s always been obvious, Wash,” Carolina replied, allowing a small smile to creep onto her face.

“Huh, so you Freelancers do smile,” Fox said.

Carolina gave her a look.

“What? You guys act so tough all the time. Or well. Stripes tries to, but he’s really not that threatening.”

“Hey! I’m--” Wash cut off and looked sharply towards the training room doors, and Carolina and Fox quickly did the same. A moment later, Kimball stepped through and hurried towards them, a datapad tucked under her arm.

“General Kimball,” Fox greeted, dipping her head in acknowledgement.

“Hello Fox,” Kimball replied, a little breathlessly. “I just finished speaking to General Sachs, and Captain Sanchez,” she said, looking back at Fox. “We’ve worked out some of the details, and determined our next steps.” She looked over at Wash, then Carolina, who raised her eyebrows at her in question. “I’m actually glad that the two of you are here, because I think you’d like to hear this ahead of time. Fox, in order for us to go through the proper channels and allow your proposed operation to be approved by the U.N.S.C., you need to be registered as a soldier under my command.”

Fox leaned back slightly, appearing startled. “Oh…’kay. What do I need to do for that?”

Kimball handed her the datapad. “Fill out that paperwork. All I need to do is approve it.”

Fox read over the document, then looked up slowly at Kimball. “This is the registration form for a lieutenant colonel in a position as a commanding officer,” she said, surprised.

Carolina walked over and looked over the datapad when Fox handed it to her, then raised her eyes at Kimball. “You’re going through with sending her to Earth.”

“After The Staff of Charon is accessed and stalled, we have a window of opportunity to do so. Fox and her contacts have already confirmed that they have the resources to help prevent Hargrove from causing us further harm. It’d be a waste not to take them up on it, especially with how far we’ve come and how many lives we’ve lost because of this war,” Kimball explained quickly.

Carolina handed the datapad back to Fox, eyes never leaving Kimball. “Have you let the Reds and Blues know?”

“Once she’s done with that, I will,” Kimball replied, nodding at the documents Fox was currently filling out.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why lieutenant colonel?” Fox asked.

“Because the sort of operations you’ll be completing down there are above the paygrade of a captain,” Kimball replied.

“Ah,” Fox said, and started filling out the documents. “So just so we’re clear, I don’t want you paying me for any of this,” she said after a moment, not looking up at her. “I’m literally a billionaire, so like, keep it. Build a few bridges. Fill some potholes. I don’t care.”

“If you insist,” Kimball replied, sounding like she wasn’t the least bit torn up about it.

Carolina looked away over at Wash, who shrugged and offered her a half smile that she didn’t return. This was all happening much faster than she had expected it to. Oh well, you made your opinion pretty clear. You can’t go back on it now, she thought, watching as Fox finished up the documents and handed the datapad back over to Kimball, who tucked it back under her arm and put two fingers from her free hand to the side of her helmet.

“I just called for everyone to meet us here,” Kimball said, turning back to them.

“Wait, like everyone everyone?” Wash asked.

“As in the Reds, Blues, their lieutenants, Doctor Grey, and Locus.”

Carolina eyed Kimball when she heard Locus’ name, but said nothing.

It took very little time for everyone to find their way to the training room, and Carolina found herself shoulder to shoulder between Wash and Tucker. Fox stood a little ways away, on the fringe of the group, closer to Kimball, with Grey right next to her.

“I know we’re all busy today, so I’m going to keep this quick,” Kimball began, looking over the small crowd. “Most of you heard from Sarge that I spoke to two of Fox’s contacts from Earth today. The three of us discussed some framework, and in doing so, I came to the decision to follow through with Fox’s earlier proposal to send her to Earth to ensure that Hargrove faces the justice he deserves.”

“Wait, you’re leaving?!” Caboose exclaimed at Fox.

“Only for a little while,” Fox replied, hunching her shoulders slightly.

“How’s that gonna work?” Simmons asked Kimball.

“Fox is officially registered as a lieutenant colonel under my command, allowing her a higher level of operational command once she arrives on Earth,” Kimball replied.

“Wait, so she outranks us now?” Tucker asked.

“Sorry,” Fox replied.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kimball said exasperatedly. “What matters is that after this meeting is over, I’m going to send her credentials to her contact on Earth, General Sachs, and he’s going to get her, and the operation to cut down Hargrove’s supporters, approved by the U.N.S.C.”

“Oh now they’re going to help us,” Bitters spat.

“The way General Sachs worded it, the U.N.S.C. is aware that it failed us, and should comply with what we send their way,” Kimball told him. “But the point of this meeting isn’t entirely about that.” She turned her head and looked over at Locus, who stood directly behind Fox with his arms crossed.

Carolina watched as he caught her gaze and inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement.

“Okay, hey, pause-- real quick, uh,” Carolina looked over as Tucker spoke up. “You’re not-- ‘cause like we all saw that little look thing you just did. You’re not actually--”

“Well you’re not gonna wanna go down there with me, are you, Thin Mint?” Fox asked, cutting him off and leaning towards him with her hands on her hips.

“No!”

Fox straightened up, “okay then what’s the problem?”

“Can I please finish?” Kimball asked, frustrated.

Carolina gave Tucker a look out of the corner of her eye, daring him to protest, but he said nothing.

“Thank you,” Kimball said, then continued. “Ever since Fox first brought up the topic of going to Earth, I’ve been thinking about what it means for the order of things around here. The reality of the situation is that we don’t know if Hargrove is going to send more pirates our way, so I can’t send any of you, Reds and Blues. Because the truth is, we wouldn’t last without you. Our numbers depleted significantly after the last major battle against Charon, and in these last two pirate attacks, we lost even more lives,” Kimball explained.

“I hate to interrupt,” Fox said, raising a hand and quickly lowering it once she had Kimball’s attention, “but I’m also definitely gonna need someone who understands the concept of...subtlety. Which...uh...none of you guys really have.”

“You’re kidding right? There’s no one more subtle than Double-O-Donut!” Donut exclaimed.

“Actually, you...pretty much just proved my point,” Fox replied.

“Furthermore, none of you aside from Doc and Grey have worked closely with Fox, which could lead to some communication problems,” Kimball added flatly.

“And you definitely need us here,” Grey said.

“So just so we have it in writing,’ Fox began, holding her hands up in front of her with her fingers splayed, “you’re like one-hundred percent considering sending me and Sunshine to Earth?”

“I’m not particularly fond of the idea, but realistically speaking, it’s the best choice,” Kimball replied.

“No it’s not!” Bitters exclaimed.

“Okay, so look at it this way, we’re both probably gonna die down there anyways. So it’s two birds with one stone. Everyone gets what they want!” Fox said, the false cheer in her voice barely concealing a growl.

“I don’t know... I don’t want you to die,” Jensen said just loudly enough for Carolina to hear her.

“The only other option aside would be to send myself or Wash down there with her,” Carolina said. “And I agree with Kimball’s statement that there’s a chance that Hargrove could send more pirates.”

“Okay, yeah, but it’s just one of you,” Palomo argued.

Yes, but Wash wouldn’t last a second down there with Fox’s personality, and I would very much like to stay here with Kimb-- Carolina chomped down on her bottom lip before she could finish the thought. “Wash?”

Wash looked over at Kimball, then to Fox, then back at her. “Your call, boss,” he said simply.

So that’s a no, Carolina thought, looking over at Kimball.

“Hey, uh, honestly?” Grif spoke up, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. “I’m really fucking tired and I just want to go home, and if sending these two assholes to Earth to fuck Hargrove’s shit up can make that happen sooner, then I’m all for it.” He paused, then to Locus, added, “plus you scare the fuck out of me and I’d rather not have you around. No offense.”

“None taken,” Locus replied flatly.

“If it ends this war sooner, I’m all for it,” Andersmith added, and was accompanied with murmurs of agreement from everyone else.

Carolina looked back at Kimball, raising her eyebrows slightly.

“The terms of this arrangement will be discussed in depth later, and you will all be notified once that has happened, but for right now, this is the decision that has been made,” Kimball said, looking around. “Any questions?”

Carolina looked around, then shook her head.

“Then you’re all dismissed,” Kimball said, then added, “Fox, Locus, and Grey, I want the three of you to stay here for a moment.”

Carolina watched as the three in mention looked back towards Kimball, and she did the same, catching her reflection in her blue visor. Before Kimball could take notice, however, she quickly turned and followed Wash out of the room.

 


 

“This week can’t get any fucking weirder, I swear,” Bitters huffed.

“Careful,” Andersmith said. “The last thing you want to do is invoke Murphy’s Law.”

“I don’t get why everyone’s so upset, I mean it makes sense!” Jensen added.

“All I know is that I’d rather see that green asshole as far away from us as possible,” Grif said, stretching.

“Aw, but Grif, what if he misses us?” Caboose asked.

“Dude, he won’t miss us. He doesn’t even like us,” Tucker added.

“He did save you, Captain Tucker,” Andersmith reminded.

“And me and Doctor Grey,” Jensen piped up.

“I mean, yeah. But that doesn’t make him anyone’s best friend. He’s just doing what Kimball told him to do,” Tucker replied.

“The guy still killed a fuck ton of us,” Bitters added.

And while that might have been true, the fact that Locus was listening to Kimball at all , and doing his best to coexist with them, displayed a significant level of improvement in Andersmith’s mind. The way he saw it, was that if Locus didn’t fit in here, then he’d be better off helping somewhere else, right? Andersmith thought about this as he looked over at Wash, who was conversing with Carolina.

After the meeting with Kimball, they had all gathered in the mess hall for a brief unofficial meeting. But so far, it had been nothing but everyone reflecting on what had just happened, and debating all the new information. So far, the consensus was that most of them seemed to gearing towards the idea of being rid of Locus.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” Tucker huffed. “Like, yes, I want that jackass gone, but in a fucking cell, not loose running around on Earth!”

Key word being ‘most,’ Andersmith thought with a sigh.

“Look at it this way, Captain Tucker,” McAllister said, “it’s kind of like...extreme community service. Locus fucked with us, and now he’s paying for it by risking his life to beat up Charon.”

Tucker gave her a look, then said, “yeah, but how are we gonna know that he’s actually going to help us down there?!”

“We don’t,” Andersmith spoke up, surprising himself. “But we didn’t know that he was going to come back after the last fight with the pirates either.”

“He didn’t have a reason to,” Bitters agreed begrudgingly.

Tucker fixed his glare in Andersmith’s direction, then uncrossed his arms with a sigh. “Carolina?”

Carolina blinked at him, then said, “Fox has both his trust and respect. That alone should be enough to keep him in line. And I’m sure that Kimball will find a way to keep in constant contact with the two of them. She wouldn’t make this choice without thinking any of that through.”

“Yeah, it’s still a terrible idea though,” Tucker muttered.

“Risky,” Matthews corrected. “General Kimball doesn’t come up with terrible ideas.”

“Look, the way I see it, we don’t want him here, Fox is the only person who gets along with him, and she can’t go down there by herself,” Donut said. “You know, I don’t think any of us have to like it, but it’s still gonna happen!”

“He’s right,” Wash said with a nod when Tucker looked over his way.

Tucker was silent for a moment, then huffed out an angry, “yeah, okay, fine. Send him with her. I’m sick of him slinking around like some creepy-ass spider anyways.”

“So do we all basically agree that we want to send them both to Earth?” Grif asked, and there was something like surprise in his voice.

“It’ll be the first time we’ve immediately agreed on anything in regards to those two,” Carolina said, nodding at him.

“And probably the fifth time we’ve agreed on anything at all ,” Doc added.

“Okay, so we send them to Earth, and they run off and we never see them again,” Palomo said.

Andersmith let out a sigh. “Neither of them had to come here and help us. And this entire conversation is happening because Locus snuck off, took the rest of the pirates hostage, and brought them back for interrogation instead of...I don’t know, convincing them to call the ship they arrived in so he could run away?”

“Not only that, but you realize that there’s a good chance they could both be killed, right?” Wash said. “They aren’t going down there for a paid vacation, they’re going down there to try to stop Hargrove from doing even more damage, and make sure that he gets the justice he deserves.”

“You’re actually taking their side on this?” Palomo asked incredulously.

“It’s like I said, it makes sense.”

“Well, that settles it! So who wants to tell Kimball that we’re on board with all of this?” Sarge asked, looking around at everyone.

Andersmith let his eyes wander to the floor. They were supposed to be off working on repairs and training and helping out. He wasn’t used to going against orders, he realized, feeling a little giddy. Of course, the feeling faded when he came to the conclusion that Kimball could be upset at them. “Maybe we should wait until she calls another meeting?” he suggested.

“That, or I could go talk to her later,” Carolina suggested.

“How about whichever one comes first?” Simmons asked.

“Deal,” Carolina replied.

“Then it’s settled,” Wash said. “But for right now, we all have jobs to do.”

“I should probably go back to helping Lopez in the motor pool,” Simmons said as he exited.

“And I’ve got a nap to take,” Grif grumbled, folding his arms behind his head and laying back on one of the tables.

“Doc and I will be having wine and cheese hour if you need us!” Donut said in a singsong voice as he led Doc out into the hallway.

“We’ve got repairs to work on,” Wash said, looking over where Andersmith was seated with the other lieutenants. “Come on, Grif, you can join us.”

“Can’t. Body glued to table,” Grif said.

“Captain Grif, will you please just go before he makes us run laps again?” Matthews begged as Sarge barked, “Grif, git yer lazy ass up!”

“Aw come on, Grif, it’ll be fun!” Caboose said. “We’ll get to use the cement mixer, and screwdrivers, and at dinner they bring us sandwiches--”

Grif jack-knifed upwards so fast at the mention of sandwiches that Andersmith was sure he was going to flip the table. “Fine, fine, I’m going! But only because there’s food,” he said, pushing past everyone else.

“Of course he is,” Sarge said, and Andersmith couldn’t help but smile at the apparent eye-roll in the older Marine’s voice.

Wash simply shook his head, exchanged a look with Carolina, said, “let’s go,” and followed Grif.

 


 

“Well that went better than expected,” Fox said flatly once everyone had left the training room.

Kimball couldn’t help but agree. The meeting had been quick and sloppy and she probably could have thought through what she was going to say a little better than she had...but the reception had still been largely understanding. Taking a deep breath, she looked over at Fox and said, “we need to discuss the terms of the two of you going down there.”

“I figured,” Fox said, then sat down cross-legged on the floor, patting the ground in front of her. “Sit,” she urged. “You’re stressed out. Give your body a break for five minutes.”

Kimball looked over at Grey, who nodded and took a seat next to Fox. With a sigh, she did the same, and immediately felt a great deal of tension leave her body. Wordlessly, she looked over at Locus, who had chosen to remain standing with his arms crossed a few feet to the left of Fox. She decided not to bother with him.

Kimball cleared her throat, then started, looking over at Fox. “First things first, I want you both to understand my expectations. Both of you have done exceptionally well defending the interests of the people of Chorus. You’re to continue doing so in a way that reflects well on this colony and my men.” She turned her gaze to Locus. “That means no unnecessary actions or violence, no criminal activities-- nothing that will deter the U.N.S.C. from providing you with operational approval. If you do any of these things, your mission on Earth will be terminated, and you will be summoned back here for assessment and possible detainment. Do I make myself clear?” She held Locus’ gaze until he gave her a nod. “Good.”

“Uh, for the record, we might need to operate outside of the law a few times to do what needs to be done,” Fox spoke up.

Kimball looked over at her. “Such as?”

Fox shrugged. “Breaking and entering?”

“Also kidnapping, assault, murder, potentially a bunch of traffic violations,” Grey added. “I mean, they’re going to be threatening a bunch of Hargrove’s friends and possibly sabotaging their businesses. None of which is legal.”

Kimball gave her a blank stare. “I was talking in terms of war crimes.”

“I see,” Grey said.

Kimball looked back over at Fox. “Prior to every mission the two of you embark on, you are to send me a briefing of the details, and after said mission is complete, you are to give me a full report of what happened. In video format. And both of you must be present. Is this something you will be able to do?”

Fox nodded. “The AI should be able to hook up a signal to the quantum computer. You can reach us with that.”

“I can help set that up on our end too,” Grey added.

“Perfect,” Kimball replied. “On the topic of video calls, you are to give me a report of everything you do each day. Once again, both of you must be present.”

“I’m guessing we’ll set the time for when we can do that once we get down there, since missions might overlap with any sort of set schedule we might try to come up with,” Fox said.

“That’s fine,” Kimball said with a nod.

“Do the two of you have somewhere you can stay?” Grey asked. “I’m guessing your contacts would have set something up.”

“They mentioned that you would likely want to use your apartment on the outskirts of Boston as your safehouse,” Kimball said to Fox. “Is this true?”

Fox nodded. “Yeah, it’s got everything we need there. Plus it’s close to Emblem.”

“Good, then the two of you will be staying there unless instructed otherwise,” Kimball replied. She looked over at Locus. “Will that be a problem?”

“No,” he said with what might have been a hint of a growl in his voice.

“It has a lot of space, so don’t worry,” Fox said, looking up at him.

“It would also be a good idea to keep a log of any weapons they might acquire, which ones they use, and how much ammo they use,” Grey added.

“That’s a good idea,” Kimball replied.

“I was actually gonna do that anyways,” Fox said with a shrug. “I’m also gonna let you know of any teammates we pick up, since that’s kind of one of our goals for when we get down there.”

“I want you to build me a profile of each of them before you invite them to your team,” Kimball said.

“Not a problem,” Fox replied.

“You’re to arrive at Chawla Base. I’m going to work with General Sachs to get both of you approved to have your power armor ready for use at your disposal. Captain Sanchez mentioned a warehouse, so that’s likely where it will end up,” Kimball continued. “Use it at your discretion, but let me know ahead of time. And I want you both to record your actions with your helmets and send them to me.”

“I can analyze them for you,” Grey offered. “You’ve got more important things to worry about anyways. And I can even show the two of them how to set up a live feed.”

“That would actually probably work out way better,” Fox said to her. “That way we’re not clogging up the airways sending over a two-hundred gigabyte file all the way here.”

“Fine,” Kimball said, trying to think of anything else she hadn’t covered. Unable to come up with anything, she then looked over at Locus. “Before either of you get comfortable, let me make myself clear. Despite the vast improvement you’ve shown since you first arrived here, you still have a lot to prove, and if things had gone any other way, I wouldn’t have even considered this decision. The only reason I am sending you down to Earth at all is because of Fox and the circumstances she brought with her. If you step out of line, I have no qualms about bringing you back here for detainment.” She paused for a moment to allow her words to sink in, then continued. “General Sachs and Captain Sanchez will be keeping an eye on you alongside Fox. If anything happens, one of them will let me know.” And she paused again, because Locus’ demeanor had shifted. It was almost like he had started to fold in on himself, and Kimball recognized this as the same body language she had seen from him when he had sought her out on the cliff weeks ago. And she let out a long sigh and leaned back somewhat, eyes never leaving him. “I need to know,” she said quietly. “I need to know that this is a responsibility that you can handle.” And out of the corner of her eye, she saw Fox look up at him, awaiting his response.

Locus was silent, but returned Fox’s gaze for a moment before looking back at Kimball. And when he spoke, she could hear the exhaustion in his voice. “It is.”

Kimball took a deep breath, holding his gaze for a moment, then said “then go down there and prove it.”

“So...so this is official?” Kimball looked over at Fox when she spoke up.

“It’s official,” Kimball replied with a nod.

And Fox was on her feet, bouncing around in excitement in a heartbeat. “Oh-ho yes! This is awesome!”

Kimball rose to her feet, and Grey did the same, dusting the back of her pants off with the hand that wasn’t holding a mug of coffee.

“Once we gain access to The Staff of Charon, I’ll arrange a Condor for the two of you to take to Earth,” Kimball said, tucking her datapad under her arm.

“Oh man, thank you so much!” Fox exclaimed, looking over at Locus excitedly before turning her gaze back to Kimball. “This is amazing, Kimball. Really. I promise we won’t let you down!”

And Kimball looked over at Grey, who gave a little laugh and shook her head in amusement at the floor, before turning back to Fox and saying “I sure hope so.”

Chapter Text

Carolina let out a long sigh, watching as the thick blanket of night warmed into a deep cyan tailed by a brilliant orange pink behind the mountains in the distance. Even in the early dawn, she still found it so strange that the world was as silent as it was, with no sounds other than a light breeze brushing against the jungle foliage. It reminded her of road trip she had gone on as a child, waking up to nothing but the sound of tires on asphalt and her parents’ hushed voices, looking up to see the birds perched on power lines silhouetted against the sunrise.

It was almost peaceful.

Under her helmet, Carolina frowned and looked back towards the soldiers who had accompanied her for patrol, eyes resting on Fox, who had insisted on coming along. Of course she was a morning person. Carolina quickly turned her head away when the other woman caught her gaze, and stepped away from the cliff, starting once again down the trail they had been walking along. She listened as the others realized she had begun moving again, their feet scuffing against dead leaves and branches as they hurried to keep up with her. None of them said anything, however, and Carolina was grateful for the silence.

Two days ago, after Kimball had her privat