"Are they stealing a plane?"
Tucker turns to see Wash staring into the distance with the slumped, defeated posture of somebody who's just accepted that his entire world has descended irrevocably into chaos. He also sees the Reds, balancing precariously on a UNSC Hornet, swerving and banking and being pursued by a frantic-sounding dude yelling about losing his job.
"Oh, yeah," Tucker says. "They do that a lot."
"They are very good at flying," Caboose says.
Wash shakes his head like he's trying to clear it. "I don't- they're crashing."
Tucker watches the Hornet clip a few trees before leveling off. He's pretty sure he can hear the screaming from here. "They do that a lot, too."
Wash is swaying a little on his feet again, so Tucker slaps him on the shoulder. "Starting to regret hanging out with us?"
"What do you mean, 'starting to'?" Wash says, deadpan. He looks over to his old armor, crumpled in the blood-streaked snow, and sighs. "But I guess I didn't really have a choice."
"You're welcome, asshole."
Wash puts a hand to his helmet's faceplate, wobbles again on his feet. Caboose shoots a sidelong look at Tucker that has all the subtlety of a neon sign flashing CONCERN, then asks, "Are you okay? Because I think if we are fast we could probably still catch up with Doc-"
"I'm fine," Wash says, in the melodramatic tone of voice that heroes use when they're trying to be strong in the face of overwhelming pain. Tucker winces. Great. He's one of those guys. "My healing unit's dealing with it."
"Dude, I saw you when we peeled you out of that armor. You were pretty fucked up." Tucker makes a little grab for his elbow when he sways again, but Wash jerks violently away and, okay, holy fuck, the guy doesn't like to be touched, got it. "Look, here on Blue Team we have a time-honored tradition of screaming in agony when the situation demands it. You don't have to be all stoic-hero. That's fucking stupid."
Wash seems to focus on him, really focus, for the first time. "Tucker, right?"
Tucker's not quite sure how to respond to that, because it's like, yeah, pleased to meet you while you were kind of maybe trying to kill my best friend or whatever the fuck and now you're apparently a good guy or something. Charmed, I'm sure. "Yeah, I'm Tucker. You're Wash. Great, so your fuckin' memory's working. You want a gold star?"
"I'm Caboose," Caboose says, and flinches back when they both shoot a glare at him. "In... case... anyone was wondering."
"It's just that the others told stories about you," Wash says, cocking his head to one side, like he's measuring Tucker up. Tucker debates the merits of doing a pelvic thrust for style. "Didn't make the connection until just now. You're the one who had the whole Sangheili... thing. Aren't you?"
Tucker feels his shoulders tense, notices Caboose backing away in his peripheral vision. "Hey, fuck you. Junior's not a thing, okay."
Wash instantly holds up his hands. "No, no, I- I didn't mean that. I mean." He stops, starts again, more weakly. "Weren't you some sort of ambassador?"
Tucker watches him a minute to make sure he's not fucking around, then sighs and takes pity on the guy. "Yeah. Junior and I had some special assignments and shit. It was fucking boring. Lots of high-level diplomatic bullshit and bodyguards who wouldn't let me use my kickass sword. So glad that's done. Those guys were fucking douchebags."
"Didn't everyone else on your team die in the desert?" Caboose asks, in a stage-whisper.
"Well, uh. Yeah. Okay. So that's not ideal, but I'm glad it's done. I'm a lover, not an interstellar envoy of peace. I just wanna get back to our bases and bullshit with Church for a while, you know?"
He pauses, because Caboose has jolted back from him, a full-body flinch, and then his own words register and he remembers the fucking memory unit, a piece of dead junk in the snow. Tucker can't really breathe for a second, and it's fucking stupid but he can't breathe. "I'm gonna go see if we can borrow a jeep," he mutters. "You're sure as fuck not gonna make it there on foot."
He storms off toward the nearest UNSC trooper, feeling Wash's stare on his back, steady as a laser-sight.
They're about five klicks away from the last of the ice and snow by the time Tucker feels like he can, y'know, actually breathe again. Wash is driving them along a precarious path carved into the side of a mountain, taking hairpin turns and steep inclines with a bored efficiency. It's kinda weird to be chauffeured around by somebody who can actually stay on the road, but any relief is offset by the fact that Caboose keeps up a steady stream of questions from the back seat: "Can we stop for a bathroom break? Can we stop to take a picture of that tree? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"
Eventually Tucker figures maybe he's just trying to fill the silence which, to be fair, is getting really fucking awkward. So he clears his throat into the next conversational void and asks, "What's with the stripes?"
Wash only glances away from the road for a second, but it's enough to communicate his mingled confusion and relief that Caboose isn't the one asking questions anymore. "What?"
"The yellow stripes. Accents, whatever. On the armor. You know, the ones you fuckin' insisted we take the time to paint on while we were in a major hurry trying to save your sorry ass."
Wash's grip tightens on the steering wheel, but only for a moment. "I, uh. I'm not sure I really understand it myself. Back during Project Freelancer-" He pauses, clenches his hands again, then seems to push past some inner wall. "Our armor was... important. Maybe more than the Director ever realized. Someone important to me died for hers."
"That seems like a weird thing to die for," Caboose says, and Tucker would tell him to shut up, but he can't help sort of agreeing. "I like my armor, but it's, you know. Not as important as other things. Like naps."
"Yeah, well," Wash says, "weird or not, it happened. I needed the blue for it to be believable, but the accents are important. They help." He's tapping his fingers nervously against the steering wheel now, and Tucker's really starting to wonder about this whole last-minute plan thing, y'know, about basically handing their lives over to this guy who isn't exactly all there.
They make the next turn at a little more speed than usual, which Tucker figures is a clue that the conversation's over. They're cresting the peak of this mountain, coming up on a wooded area, and Tucker turns in his seat to watch the steep drop-off disappear behind them, the valleys beyond giving way to the ice fields. Somewhere out there, a bunch of UNSC assholes are picking over that armor of Wash's. Maybe they'll be smart enough to figure out that there's an artificial body in there instead of the real thing. Maybe all this bullshit isn't over yet.
He sighs, turns to face forward, and catches a glint of light out of the corner of his eye.
He whips back around, his hand already reaching automatically for his sword, and it takes him a second to consciously identify the glint in the undergrowth as the muzzle of a sniper rifle, and fuck, of course it was too fucking easy.
"Get down!" he snarls, shoving Wash, and then there's a jolt of pain that seems to come even before the deafening bang of the shot, but there's no time to take stock because a second shot blows out their left front tire and the jeep banks, shudders, and starts swerving back toward the cliff face. "Straighten us out! Straighten us out!"
"I'm trying!" Wash yelps, and Tucker just has time to marvel at how much he sounds like Church when his voice squeaks like that, before they're barrelling down the edge of the cliff, slamming into flatter outcroppings and jagged terrain along the way. For a few infinitely long seconds, Tucker's absolutely sure he's gonna die. Then he's kinda hoping he's gonna die because the jeep's picked up a spin and he really doesn't want to fucking puke in his helmet, that's gonna be a mess to clean up-
Eventually, the jeep skids right-side up, slams into the only fucking tree growing along the side of this fucking cliff, and comes to a screeching, groaning halt. Tucker's got his right hand in a death-grip on the jeep's door, and even with his armor compensating he feels the deceleration as a grinding crack in his wrist. "Motherfucker," he gasps, yanking his arm away from the door and doubling over. For a few seconds there's no sound but the tinkle of broken glass settling and his own harsh breathing.
But his neck is itching really fucking badly, so Tucker slaps his good hand against the tickle, which promptly becomes a full-blown needle of pain, "Jesus, what the fuck!" He drags his hand away, staring blankly at the blood on his fingers, then realizes, right. Sniper. Asshole missed, but not by much.
"Tucker?" Caboose's voice behind him is soft, dazed, and Tucker doesn't want to think about how incredibly fucking relieved he is to hear that voice. "Are you okay?"
Tucker hunches over his wrist again, because apparently rocking back and forth really does help with excruciating pain. "Yeah, Caboose, fucking great. How about you, you all right?"
"I'm okay," Caboose says. "I- I don't think Wash is, though."
Tucker jolts, then turns to see Wash slumped over the dash of the jeep. He's not moving. "Oh, for fuck's sake," Tucker says, "I get shot and he's the one who's out cold again. Hey, c'mon, we've gotta get him out of here."
"Should we move him?" Caboose clambers out of the back seat—he really does seem to have made it out completely unscathed—and approaches Wash cautiously along the outcropping. "I always heard you're not supposed to move someone when they're hurt. Or... maybe that was about leaving baby birds you find on the ground."
"We don't have a fucking choice, okay? There was a sniper up there who took a shot at him, and down here we're sitting ducks."
"I knew it had something to do with birds," Caboose says, and stands by, watching as Tucker climbs gingerly out of the jeep.
"Okay," Tucker says, staring down at Wash. "We'll have to be careful, here." He reaches down with his good hand, gently pulls Wash away from the dash. There aren't any cracks in his faceplate or anything—the armor looks completely intact, yellow accents and all. Wash groans, pushing feebly against Tucker's arm, then slumps back again with a sigh. "Yeah, see? He's fine. C'mon, you're gonna have to carry him. My wrist's all fucked up."
"There's blood on your neck," Caboose whispers, like he's pointing out an awkward-looking mole or something.
"Yeah, I noticed," Tucker says, stepping back to try and get a good look up the edge of the cliff. "I can't see anything down here, but we're pretty close to the bottom. We can lose this sniper dickwad in the valley. Let's go, Caboose."
Caboose moves forward, drags Wash effortlessly out of the jeep—the guy's seriously just unbe-fucking-lievably strong—and manages to get him positioned with one arm draped around his shoulder and his toes dragging in the dirt. "Okay."
"Okay," Tucker says, and instinctively reaches for his sword with his right hand. "Ah, fuck me," he mutters, switching to a left-handed grip. The swish of the sword activating still feels comforting, though, and he nods to signal Caboose to start down the path toward the valley.
They make it to the valley floor without catching any more sniper rounds, which is, y'know, definitely a win, but it's getting dark and Tucker's shoulderblades are itching just picturing someone watching them through an NVD, waiting for the right moment—
Wash makes a noise that sounds something like, "Mrrrgh," and Caboose stumbles to a halt. Tucker stops beside him, puts away his sword and leans forward to tap on Wash's helmet with his good hand. "Hey, are you alive in there or what?"
Wash gets his feet under him, pushes away from Caboose, then stumbles straight back into him. "Gn thrwp," he mutters.
"Yeah, well said. Look, we've gotta keep moving—"
"Gonna throw up," Wash says, more clearly, and barely yanks off his helmet in time, stumbling to his knees and retching.
Tucker winces, then passes him a pouch of water when he staggers back to his feet, clinging to a tree for support. "Thanks," Wash says, and, after spitting a couple times, downs the rest of the pouch all at once. There's a bruise already purpling on his forehead to go along with the impressive collection of scrapes he picked up squaring off against Tex and the Meta, and his eyes have a dull, unfocused look.
"You're concussed," Tucker says. "Great."
"Hey," Wash says, his gaze snapping up, "I'm not the one who shoved us off the road. What were you thinking? You could've gotten us all killed."
"I could've gotten us killed?" Tucker drags off his own helmet one-handed, turns his head to make sure the asshole can see the tear in his undersuit at the neck, the gash in the skin beneath. "That fucking sniper was aiming at you, shithead."
Wash blinks. "Sniper?"
"You didn't fucking notice? Someone took a shot at you! Why do you think I shoved you over?"
"I didn't see a sniper either," Caboose offers.
"You have the observational skills of a fucking rock, dude," Tucker says, then rounds on Wash again. "That's twice in one fucking day we've saved your sorry ass."
Wash is sagging a little against the tree behind him. "I didn't ask you to do that," he says, sounding a little dazed. "I wouldn't have—"
"Yeah, well, wasn't my first choice either. Besides, it just skimmed me. Pretty much stopped bleeding already."
Wash just looks at him for a minute, his expression deepening into a scowl, then pushes off from the tree, fastening his helmet back in place. "It's almost dark. We'd better get moving. What's the plan?"
"Fuck if I know," Tucker says, donning his own helmet. "I was just trying to get us away from Snipey McGee up there."
Wash's strides are lengthening, his voice getting steadier. "Did you see anything that could help us identify this guy?"
"I don't even fucking know if it was a guy. Might've been a chick. In which case, y'know, she can scope me out anytime."
Caboose jogs up to Tucker's side. "Hey chicka—"
Tucker glares. "No."
Wash is really, really good at exasperated sighs. When he sighs, it's like the whole fucking universe has disappointed him. "So we have nothing to go on."
"Well, who wants you dead?"
That earns him a fucked-up little laugh. "Do you have an hour?" He walks in silence for a moment, then adds, "I don't know if we should go back to Valhalla. They know we're headed that way. Could be waiting to ambush us."
"Yeah, no shit. You think it's the UNSC trying to get you back to jail?"
"With a bullet in my brain? Hah. No. Somehow I think they want me alive."
"It is very difficult to interrogate someone who is not alive," Caboose says, wisely.
"So what do we do?"
Wash glances back, and holy fuck, is that a glimmer of actual humor in his voice? "What, am I in charge now?"
Tucker starts crossing his arms, then remembers his bad wrist. "Do you have a plan? 'Cause I don't give a fuck who's in charge as long as we get out of here in one piece. And as long as it's not me in charge. I'm a lover, not a leader. And as long as it's not Caboose."
"So you're saying I'm in charge."
"Yeah, by default. What do you want, a parade?"
Wash stares up into the foliage above them for a long moment, then looks back to Tucker and Caboose. "Okay," he says. "I say we keep going. I say we give this asshole exactly what he's looking for."
Stupidly stoic with a death wish. What a winning combination. "Dude, you didn't hit your head that hard."
"If it's not the UNSC after us, I bet this sniper's on his own out here. We can take him. Just need some sort of bait to draw him out. Think about it."
Tucker thinks about it. "That's the stupidest fucking plan I've ever heard in my life."
"It does seem like a bad idea," Caboose murmurs.
"See? Even Caboose thinks it's terrible."
"Do you have a better plan?" Wash crosses his arms. "I thought I was in charge."
"Yeah, fuck that. You can be in charge of the killing-yourself team, and me and Caboose will take on the mantle of leading the actually-fucking-surviving team. Have fun with that."
Caboose perks up. "Wait, am I in charge now?"
"No," Tucker and Wash blurt out, in unison.
Wash gives another sigh that's more of a groan, putting a hand to his head. "Well, what are we supposed to do, here? Just keep running forever and hope he gets tired? We've got to face him at some point. And I for one want to know what's going on."
"I really, really don't, though," Tucker says, and is vaguely aware that his voice is starting to rise. "Seriously! I don't give a fuck. I'm so fucking tired of all this Freelancer bullshit that if he came up right now and asked for you on a silver platter I might just say yes. Okay?" He regrets the words almost as soon as they come out of his mouth, but fuck it, he's hurt and he's fucking tired, y'know?
Wash is quiet for a long time, and then he says, very coldly, "Church always was good at looking out for his own skin. He obviously taught you guys well."
Tucker winds up to punch him, because fuck that noise, but he's completely forgotten about his fucking fucked-up wrist and ends up on the ground instead, cradling his arm and muttering a steady string of curses. Caboose is hovering, making worried noises, and fucking Wash is just standing a few feet away, watching him behind that fucking expressionless fucking helmet.
"What's wrong with your arm?" he asks, dead calm, like he's talking about the weather.
"Fucked it up in the crash," Tucker pants, and presses his helmet's faceplate into the grass, riding out the next wave of bone-grinding pain. "The fuck you care?"
There's a clatter of armor, and then a strangely warm green glow. The pain spikes, whiting out his vision and ramping his hearing up to a high whine, then starts to fade. He rolls onto his back to see a healing unit propped at his side, Wash crouched next to it.
"He saved my life with that once," Caboose says, proudly, and Tucker has to fight back a wave of confusion that's gonna make him blurt out something he'll regret, because how fucking much did he miss while he was out there in the desert?
"Healing unit. You need it more than me right now. You should get a few hours of rest; sun's almost down anyway, and Caboose and I can keep watch. I should probably stay alert with this head injury anyway." Wash pauses, stiff, formal. "I'm... sorry about what I said."
"Fuck you," Tucker says, but his heart's not in it. He sighs, pulls off his helmet again and hikes himself up so his shoulders are propped against a fallen log. It's not comfortable by any stretch of the imagination, but the healing unit's blurring out the pain in his wrist and his brain's starting to feel like it's stuffed with wads of cotton, and maybe that'll be enough to let him rest, just rest. He sighs again, much longer this time. "Thanks. For the healing thing."
"Sure," Wash says. He sounds a little surprised.
Tucker's already drifting, but he's pretty sure he mumbles, "Don' worry, we're all fuckups here" before the darkness closes in.