He tells himself he's used to the echo. Some days he almost believes it.
He holds his breath, lets it out slowly, delicately. Control, he thinks, precision, and slips his finger off the trigger. He's always had good trigger-discipline.
The soldier standing next to Simmons takes a couple seconds to fall, like he doesn't quite realize he's already dead. Wash can relate.
Meta rumbles something that might be approval. Wash opts to take it as such. Simmons is yelling, panicked, reaching frantically for the body. The sound of the gunshot is rumbling around in his brain, airing out the dusty corners and snaking along old scars. The echo stirs.
Simmons has stopped yelling. He's on his knees next to his friend, shoulders hunched. "You didn't have to do that," he says.
Experimentally, Wash retreats into his mind, hunting for the pity, the guilt. The echo snarls at him when he gets too close, the puckered scar on his back twinges, its twin on his chest burns, and all he finds is the rage, the injustice, the why-me, the it's-not-fair, the please-not-this-time. He raises his pistol. He doesn't remember lowering it. "Get up," he says. "I need you to call a medic."
Simmons jolts to his feet, hope surging through his posture, then stumbles, wary. He's learning, Wash thinks. "Why? There's not a lot a medic can do with... dead." His voice cracks on the last word. Wash wonders how young these idiots are. Remembers how young he was, once. Stops remembering.
"Just make the call."
Simmons hesitates. Wash slips his finger back onto the trigger. Simmons stops hesitating.
Then there's the waiting, which is all right, Wash thinks, it's all right. He doesn't mind having time to himself, these days, now that his brain is mostly back to single-occupancy. Besides, Simmons is silent and terrified, and Meta is silent and... whatever he is. It's quiet.
He sifts through old memories, feels himself dragging and catching on the exposed bits of shrapnel. One clutches at him, and he's pretty sure it's not a memory, he's pretty sure it never happened, he's pretty sure it's just something he's made. That's an important distinction, these days.
In it, South is sitting on the road, resting her head back against a parked car. Her helmet's beside her, and there are new scars on her face, deep and aching. When he looks too closely, there's a fresh one on the side of her head. He doesn't look too closely.
"I don't have anything to say to you," he tells her, just to be clear, just to present himself as clearly and precisely as he possibly can.
She rolls her eyes, and there's a grin tugging at her lips. "Self-preservation, huh? What a mindfuck."
"It's not the same," he says, before he can stop himself, and then he's sitting crosslegged next to her on the pavement, staring up at the sun, and the feeling of the wind in his hair makes him think maybe he used to be someone else, a long time ago. "You shot me," he adds, just in case she's forgotten.
"So what was this?" She raises a hand to her forehead, and he looks away again. "Eye for a fucking eye?"
He looks down at his hands. Speaks slowly. Carefully. Precisely. "You nearly killed me. I was stuck down there for hours, bleeding into my armor. York's healing unit kept me right on the edge."
"Yeah," South says, and she's got blood on her fingertips; she wipes them against the pavement, like a kid finger-painting. "You made it quick. I'll give you that."
His tone's becoming clipped, and the echo's feeding into it, amplifying his voice, clenching his hands into fists in his lap. "You as good as killed me. You as good as killed your brother. Just so you could escape, just so you could survive. It's not the same."
Her tone is a perfect imitation of his. "You killed me for revenge, not justice. You shot some innocent bystander to scare his friend into helping you. You did it to get some shady son of a bitch to drag your sorry ass out of prison. Don't go throwing stones." But there's no energy in her voice, no pent-up rage, and then she sighs, and he knows for sure that it's not real, he knows it's not a memory, because he's never seen South that calm before. "Oh, kid. I think we fucked up. I think we seriously fucked up."
The echo recognizes the defeat in her voice, like calling to like, and Wash hunches his shoulders, just for a moment, draws his knees up and breathes through his mouth, harsh and soft. "I'll make it right," he says.
She laughs at that, a cold, angry South-laugh. "Assholes like us don't get second chances, Wash. We get shot in the head. Remember?"
He rests his head back again, closes his eyes. Breathes. "Maybe that's what it takes."
He tilts his head, but she's gone. She's been gone a long time. He thinks he knows the feeling.
He opens his eyes. Meta's staring at him, nothing but echoes there, no counsel, no peace. Simmons is looking at him, too, open defiance and impotent rage and cold terror in his posture.
Wash sighs, moves back toward the base to start scouting a perimeter while they wait for the medic to show. He doesn't look at the body. Control, he thinks. Precision.
Some days he almost believes it.