" Manhattan is the oldest and the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City. It is familiar to many people around the globe thanks to its popularity as a setting for films and television series."
York and North got along almost immediately. They moved in like kids at summer camp, strewing items over beds like they had to claim what belonged to each of them, but when somebody's duffel bag hitched up against somebody else's bed no one cared. North slapped a fanned-out handful of comic books onto the little table between their beds and said, "Do you mind if I keep these here?"
York looked over at the covers, all bright yellows and greens and blacks. Images that were supposed to be scary or heroic. "Not a problem."
North was older than him, although it was hard to tell. He had high cheekbones and bright yellow hair that had looked different colors in different lights. York hadn't had a room this big in years so it was no problem to have a roommate to go with it: being posted in space meant that you got to sleep in the same place every night, anyway. That was nice. York flopped down on the bed and found it satisfactorily un-cardboardlike. "So. Where are you from?"
"Kansas." North sat down on the end of his bed and started piling the comic books.
"I was there once. I'm from Oregon..."
"They certainly didn't name us after where we're from."
"No. Then Wyoming would have to end up Agent London or something..."
There was a companionable silence where York saw Batman and Superman under North's hands, capes flaring. York closed his eyes. "So, who's your favorite superhero?"
"I like Superman. And the X-Men."
"Not any particular one?"
"The whole group."
York yawned. "Do you think that's what we're going to be here? A super group?" He laughed a little.
North looked at him very seriously, but then he leaned back and sat with his legs over the edge of the bed, curling one book in his hands. York couldn't see which one it was, but the way North wasn't particularly careful about how he curled it and put the edges together was comfortable. "It's certainly different from the other parts of the army. I never would have thought that about any other branch. But they're talking about armor abilities and secret missions, and...I guess that's kinda cool."
"It is cool, man." York put an arm over his face. "It's super cool."
"So, who's your favorite superhero?" North asked.
York had never really thought about it. He knew about superheroes, sure, like everybody did, but he didn't spend much time with them. "I dunno. Superman's cool I guess? Captain America?"
"Captain America's perfect for this team." North laughed. York could hear him shuffling through comic books, but he couldn't see him and that was okay. The warm dark of his own arm was fine. He was tired: the briefings for the Freelancer team had been unusual. All of them had stood together in one big room while the Director talked to them. He had been more like a science officer than a CO.
"Did you notice that the Director didn't have rank marks?"
"I figure he's the scientist."
York sat up and blinked. "What do you mean?"
North lifted another comic book. This one was Captain America, like he'd reached for it as soon as York said the name. "There's always a scientist that makes the hero what he is, unless it's cosmic radiation or something. They're usually not very well-liked."
"But they made the hero, so, that's cool."
"It's cool for the reader. I'm not sure it's cool for the guy cursed with radiation or whatever."
York didn't know North well enough to tell how close he was to getting in an argument about the philosophy of comic books, so he didn't. "Whatever, man."
It was the first day of the program. The dorm room door was open and York could see people moving around in the common room but he didn't really know them yet. He knew North, he knew that they had a pilot assigned to the team who didn't bunk with them, and he knew South through North, although she hadn't said much. He knew the quiet kid Washington. York had ingratiated himself into a conversation in which Washington and Connecticut had been talking about some platoon they'd been in together before. York liked making friends. Connecticut didn't seem to but that was okay.
It was seven o'clock and they'd all be going to sleep soon to wake up bright and early for whatever they were going to do, but York didn't want to sleep. He wanted to make friends. Somebody was walking outside the door, so York yelled "Good night!" as loudly as possible.
It was the big guy in the white; York couldn't remember his name. Big guy did a double take and peered into the room. He didn't say anything, though, and York settled back into the pillow. "Okay."
North said, "Good night, York," and then because the next person to pass by was South she wrapped a pale hand around the doorframe and said, "Good night, North," like she meant 'how could you forget me'.
York bellowed, "Good night, South!" and North actually jumped.
South screeched, "Good night, New York!" and he drawled "It's York, if you want," just as North shouted "Good night, South!"
Then South walked off and York heard a distant "Good night, Maine," so since he remembered that guy's name now he shouted "Good night, Maine!" and got a growl in return and a "Good night, York!" from North. York draped his arm over his face again and everything was okay.
"The Bronx was named for Jonas Bronck, an early settler from Denmark. The Bronx, particularly the South Bronx, saw a sharp decline in population, livable housing, and the quality of life in the late 1960s and the 1970s, culminating in a wave of arson, but has shown some signs of revival in recent years."
Delta was a nice AI to have, and in fact, York couldn't quite explain it when the others seemed afraid of theirs. Sure, there had been the disorientation when he'd first been implanted, and the double vision that made everything blurry.
York had had one frightened moment where he thought that had just been him, that the AI, for some reason, needed two eyes to understand the world. But Carolina had talked about it too. They walked into a room with a bunch of doctors and scientists, and they explained in careful, systematic terms while the other Freelancers who'd gone first stood watching. First it was Carolina, then York, so that for a while it was just them against the field of white coats. Whatever had been done to Tex had been done out of sight of the rest, and York thought that after everybody had worried about rankings so much that was an exceedingly anticlimactic thing for the Director to do to them. If this had been a comic book, they would have seen what happened to Tex right away. There would have been flashing lights and speech bubbles, pixelated "a"s stretching across the page to make a scream. Or maybe there would have been suspense, like this. York wasn't sure. He would have to ask North.
Delta didn't seem as alive as the others. As York sat on the middle of the couch, with a Captain America movie doing its flashy best to take over the screen in front of him and North and South comfortably siting beside him on either side of the couch, he could see the other AI doing their own thing. Wash was sitting on the floor, so York could see the movie over the top of his head, slightly distorted by Epsilon glowing. Wash ran his hands through his hair in a nervous way occasionally, and that was annoying but York didn't say anything, because Epsilon had been giving Wash trouble.
North had Theta, who he had to shush sometimes. Theta liked to talk, and was, maybe, the reason why South wouldn't sit next to him: she had gone distant since she hadn't received an AI, her eyes even a more hollow blue than usual even when York, in fine Councilor fashion without the creepy monotone, tried to explain that it wasn't that she wasn't good enough, it was just for science.
Carolina lurked in the corner disapprovingly, with her AI on her shoulders.
York watched the movie, the explosions and the red-white-and-blue, and he could hear Theta and Epsilon, Beta and Zeta, muttering occasionally like kids throwing popcorn in the back of the audience. Delta, though, stayed quiet. York didn't really think of him as a person at this point: even the personal pronoun was strange. York had kept calling him "it", but Theta was "he" to North so York picked up on that pretty quick. Delta didn't seem to mind either way. He recited the occasional fact, and the occasional thing that seemed like a non sequitur until you thought about how illogical society was. It was Delta who suggested that York sit between North and South. The twins had left about a foot of space between them before, and Delta had declared, silently to North, that that was not efficient. Not logical. It didn't prepare the couch for maximum movie-watcher capacity.
So York sat down, and everyone thought he'd just done it because he was York.
Delta worked pretty well as an alarm clock, a GPS, and a tactician in battle. He didn't seem particularly...sentient, though. He jut talked like a computer.
Sometimes, though, York got this little itch in his head.
He got it now, a sense of disorientation and like the bright lights in front of him didn't matter. Movies were irrelevant to the mission. Logic wasn't present here. It had fled the couch.
York, a bit befuddled and his eyesight blurring, had to go with it.
"Excuse me, scuse me," he got up and walked over Wash and headed out the door, stooping as best he could so he wouldn't block the screen. Carolina met his eyes at the door and raised a hand, but he just nodded and went past. Walking down the hallway was just a memory and then he beelined for the coffee, because that helped sometimes. There wasn't anybody else in the common room, although he thought CT would be in here somewhere. She lingered.
Luckily there was coffee in the pot, although it was cold and bitter as it went down fast. The tin can of sugar sat uselessly near the edge of the table. York blinked. He blinked a lot.
He muttered, "What's up, D?"
Delta manifested quietly and maybe he looked a little sad, helmeted head dipped. He still glowed that happy, ridiculous green. "Did you notice unusual behaviors, Agent York? I was merely running my usual processes."
York scratched at the back of his neck. "Everything got kinda blurry, D. I don't know if it's your fault..."
"My sensory perception is running at peak capacity. So, for that matter, is yours. There should be no ill effects."
"Huh. Mine isn't. Doesn't it bother you that I can't see straight?"
York didn't say things like this very often. He never said them to well, people, because what was the use? He could still shoot, he could still drive, and the other agents trusted him to do those things. He'd adapted in days like other people did in years. That's what being a Freelancer was. You were fast and you were good.
And you kept things secret, until sometimes they needed to be whispered to the machines inside your head...
"The vision in your remaining eye is perfect. You depth perception is gone but the timing of my implantation was convenient: I hope my assisting you in determining distance has been helpful."
"Yeah, it has."
York took two more big swallows of coffee, looked at the doors that people were still not coming out of. He couldn't hear the movie from a room away, although the common room didn't have a door. It just had the opening for one, the place where Carolina liked to lurk.
Delta said, "I have a concern about the plot of the movie. It would be more logical to send a team, instead of a single super soldier, to infiltrate the death machine. Human teams can be effective in their own ways, regardless of implantation."
York laughed. "I know, D. It's a movie. They want to make it dramatic."
"Drama is valued over tactics?"
"In a movie. It's not in real life."
"I think I understand, Agent York."
York poured some more coffee, and actually took time to put milk and sugar in it this time around. The cream color reminded him of sitting around with the team, making coffee however they liked. CT drank it black if at all. South liked milk and like seven packets of sugar. North always produced an energy drink from somewhere. Wash always hesitated, not sure whether he wanted sugar at all, and York dumped a bunch in because Wash needed energy. Coffee reminded York of home.
He blinked a lot and the wavering stopped, but now he was pretty sure that he'd left the movie not because of the blur in his left eye but because Delta had just really not understood why the scientists in the movie would let Captain America go off to fight the bad guys alone.
"I'm gonna go back in, D. I want to finish the movie."
"I understand." Delta faded out, covering himself up with his light.
York started out of the room with his coffee cup in his hand. He saw CT lean out from her room, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and that sideways slash of hair. York said, "Hey man. Coffee?"
CT glared at him and retreated.
York shrugged. "Okay."
He went back to the common room and walked over Wash's legs again and sat down between the twins with the coffee warming his hands like a little fire and Delta doing the same thing somewhere around a couple inches off the back of his head. Captain America stormed the death machine and then got put in some kind of cryogenic freeze. North said, "That was in the original comic."
Delta thought that North's comparison of two versions of the same event was logical, but he didn't really have a word for that. York thought that was weird when, later that night, he remembered that the word was memory.
After the movie and after the goodnights York lay in bed and thought about that. Delta couldn't talk about memory. He just wasn't able to, not even inside York's own mind. Memory belonged to someone else. After he got over the disorientation, like his mind's eye missing its twin, he thought it was okay. It made Delta a little more human to be missing something too.
"Brooklyn is the most populous of New York City's five boroughs. Brooklyn's official motto is Eendraght Maeckt Maght. Written in the (early modern spelling of the) Dutch language, it is inspired by the motto of the United Dutch Provinces and translated "Unity makes strength"."
"So, is there a North Carolina?"
She looked up at him from under a curtain of hair, wispy like hay. "What makes you think I'm not North Carolina?"
York shrugged. He was getting good at that, just the right tip of the head and twitch of the shoulders that gave the weighty impression of him only caring a little. (The problem with Wash was that his head-tips and his shrugs didn't have enough weight and had too much caring.) "My roommate's North Dakota. I figured that's how it worked. The guy's the North." York and Carolina were standing in a hall, black walls and strip lights around them. They'd just run into each other, and, well, York had to say something, didn't he?
"Well, there is no North." Carolina turned around. "Or I'm both."
"Why's that?" York followed her. She was just going out toward the rec room with its pool table and its fold-out TV screen; she wasn't going anywhere important. He might as well follow her. "Why would you get to be two?"
(Because he is not CT and does not see the future he doesn't understand the significance of this, the way one name will split into two for her soon enough, that one day she will crack worlds in half the way she has been broken. Because he is York he just thinks it's funny now that number one gets to be two, and he follows her.)
She appeared to be going to the common room, although when she got there she just sat down and looked a bit lost. Her sculpted, blade-shaped eyebrows lifted and made wide patches of skin above her eyes. She said, "I don't know, York." Her shoulders said 'please go away'.
He said, "What are you doing? I thought we could, you know, hang out."
Carolina was a mystery. She was always so poised and military that he wasn't sure how she functioned as a normal human being. She didn't join the group for coffee, in the mornings or in those informal coffee-sessions that just happened when York occupied the couch and Wash or North started talking to him. And it wasn't like Carolina was CT, who avoided the gatherings on purpose, or Wyoming, who just didn't have some invisible sense of tact and timing that normal human beings did. Carolina was too important for informality. She was like an adult who wouldn't sit at the kids' table. No one would assume that she'd be the one to do that.
But he always had the sense that there must be a break in that persona somewhere. Maybe when she stomped around corners and left them, all high peaks of blue armor, she was just doing it for a show. What did she do after she went out of sight?
York just wanted to know, because everybody did something. If Carolina was a superhero then she never really took off her mask. It looked funny with the street clothes, like wearing a tie with a t-shirt. She'd be like...Batwoman, or Catwoman or something. York wasn't so sure about who the female superheroes were.
Come to think of it, tie-with-t-shirt was something York was pretty likely to do.
Post-dramatic-exit Carolina glared at him.
He said, "You gonna watch a video or something? I could bring in some popcorn. Or Oreos. You like Oreos?"
"If you keep eating stuff like that you're going to get soft. Go away, York."
"Hey, these things keep me fast and lean."
"Because you steal them?"
"Because I'm fast. And lean. And steal Oreos, yes, thank you Carolina."
"The Director's going to catch you one of these days."
"Y'know, I thought you were Catwoman. But she's a thief. And you don't like thieves. So you're what, Supergirl?"
Carolina looked directly at him and raised an eyebrow. "Why do you insist on comparing me to a superhero?"
"Because we're all superheroes. North and I have decided."
"We don't all have to be superheroes."
"Fine. You're no fun."
"I'm listening to a message from my sister."
And York didn't have an answer to that, because he hadn't talked to his brothers in a while and it sure would be fun to, so he left Carolina alone and a little while later he could hear two voices in the common room. Carolina, for once, sounded happy.
"Staten Island has been sometimes called "the forgotten borough" by inhabitants who feel neglected by the city government."
Everything reminds him of everyone else. The city is called The City now, most other things on the planet having been bombed-out or taken over by aliens. The City still has street names though, lots of them; Souths and Norths and the occasional lonely Washington so far from its place of origin that people have started pronouncing it funny. Local accents put strange drawling r's in there so that it came out 'warshingtorn'. You can't really escape names like that, and sometimes York wonders what Leonard Church was trying to not-escape.
Then York walks into his coffee shop in the morning. It's not really his, but the green letters above the door saying 'City Perk' are getting very familiar. He walks in with one hand on the thigh holster where he used to keep his pistol and now keeps his wallet. He walks in intending to get a tall latte and a muffin or something, he's not sure, he'll decide when he gets there.
And then there's someone pointing a gun at his kidney.
It's a dude in a suit and sunglasses, tall, white. York notices first that the gun is a little pistol, probably can't be seen by anyone else in the shop. He notices second that the radio is playing this ridiculous Yakkety Sax music that just isn't right for a gunfight at all.
It might be decent for a chase scene though.
York says, "Hi, mister. Do we know each other?"
Delta manifests, but only in his head. The AI knows that strangers don't always take well to his presence. They ask a lot of questions. He says, "Chance of evasion from a shot at this distance, zero percent. I suggest diplomacy."
York says, "Uh-huh..."
The man pulls out a badge with the other hand. He's an actual undercover cop. York is rather proud of himself for having garnered this attention.
(It's a bit sad of the cops if they can't find the one person in the City who owns a suit of armor and wears it to break-ins, but still. The man's got a shiny badge and a suit.)
The cop says, "Back out the door."
York says, "Nice suit," and backs out.
The other cop shows up out of no where as they're standing on the sidewalk, this one in full uniform, and as she starts reading him his charges of thievery, breaking and entering, and carrying concealed weapons, York can hear the coffee shop music, muted through the door become this jazzy soft thing with energy that makes him want to run.
He wonders whether Delta counts as concealed weaponry.
The suit cop unclips handcuffs, and York runs.
He's dodging between cars parked on the side of the quiet street and hears the cops' footfalls behind them. He wonders why they aren't firing and then remembers that civilian cops don't do that, heck, military ones don't either unless you're trying to break into their secret facilities and don't care how many pileups you make on the freeway trying to get out of there.
Its easy to outdistance them, but then he turns the corner and there's a car.
It's idling, engine shivering under the white-marked-with-gold, and it's parked. Waiting for him. He goes right over before he can think about it, booted feet planting dents in the metal, yelling, "I just wanted my coffee!" at the driver. He just wanted his coffee! He earned the money, helping other people not earn theirs, but hey, lockpicking was what he was good at - and the camping, well, he had to have somewhere for the government to send the pension checks to. Couple years of neck-risking secret organizations was going to pay for years and years of coffee, if York had his way-
He runs rather flailingly up a side street that he isn't sure where it leads. It's one-way and bordered by some potted plants and some houses. Delta tells him that they need to go around to the adjacent street, which is called North Frostwood.
The quickest way there is to go right over the coffee shop roof, and with the way the road sloped up he can just jump over a wall and over a potted plant and he's there.
The cops are shouting and waving behind him, the third one getting the car turned around. York never thought of himself as a rule-following kind of guy; not like Wash, anyway. But he was never really a cop-bothering kind of guy either.
Still, he digs a food into the potting soil and grabs the wall and lifts himself over, then jumps into the roof.
The roof is gray-green and studded with the tops of pipes and little walls a couple inches high. York's gold-plated feet take it in like seven strides and then he hesitates at the edge.
It's strange to see a place from a completely different direction. He feels like part of his brain is inside somewhere with a warm drink and that music. In some other universe, that happened.
Delta says, "I would not suggest dropping from this distance," so York turns and sets off across a couple more roofs. The armor carries him pretty fast, and it's almost a relief to know he can still dash across uneven ground like it's flat. He's looking out for a point where he can get to street level again when Delta says, "I believe we have lost our pursuit, but returning to your place of residence would be unwise."
York shook his head. "They won't be able to get in. But you're right, D. Let's plan an alternate route."
He looks back and forth and sees that that North street has stayed pretty level with the roofs, so he can jump off into somebody's back yard and be on the ground, if not particularly far from where the cops saw him last. A guy in a gold suit of armor is probably not very hard to miss.
So he fights through some bushes and down to the street and runs some more. He gets home while the cops put on their siren. He stores the armor, neatly, no sense in rushing these things. Delta can't be stored so easily, but when the cops come to the door they can't tell there's an AI in there. York's hair is messy and he's pretty sure that if he isn't sweating he's at least got that shiny pale 'I've been running' look you get under armor no matter what you do. But he leans out the door with its three concealed locks and says, "Huh?" groggily, and the two cops look at him funny. Delta is wordlessly nervous in his head.
York says, "Can I help you, officers?"
The woman snaps, "A fugitive passed this way. Have you seen anyone suspicious?"
York digs around in his pockets, and they look at him more intently until he pulls out the faded UNSC ID card and dangles it from his fingers. "Thought I heard somebody go that way, really loud," he says, and inclines his head to the right. The world gets a bit brighter while he does, more sky coming into view as the roofs tip.
"Thank you," the cop says, and York isn't sure but he thinks there's some of that particular kind of 'thank you' people give soldiers in there. That 'you've helped us in some way but we can't quite imagine how' way. Combined with that 'oh wow he's blind in one eye' expression, it's softer and more hissing than the usual 'thank you'.
York closes the door, breathes out one very long breath into the tan-gold air of his bunker of a house. Delta says, "I think we have escaped...for now."
York sets the locks, one by one.
He looks at the case the armor's in and scuffs at the floor with his sneaker. He'd thrown on the closest clothes he could find but it's all pretty much the same anyway: sneakers, ripped jeans, gold t-shirts.
He turns away from the door and thinks about how close that was, and how silly that was, and phone booths.
"Never did get my coffee. We'll have to go out again."
Delta says, "I am not sure it would be advisable to attempt that without waiting for some time."
"I know. I'll go out in normal clothes this time. Man, it's finally happened, D. I'm finally a superhero. Stashing my costume in a phone booth."
"Is this a positive life choice, Agent York?"
"I don't know."
He puts on his coat.
"Queens is home to two of the three major New York City area airports. Queens was an important center of jazz in the 1940s."
It was a long time from the first day they'd met. York and North were a lot more comfortable with one another now, with none of the awkwardness of the initial conversation. York knew that North just liked superheroes, along with football and soccer and keeping the team a team. North knew that York just wanted to float along in life, although that was changing these days. It was hard to float down a stream with rocks in it without opening your eyes sometimes.
"Yo dude, I think I decided on a new favorite superhero."
"What?" North rolled over. It was late and the only illumination was the yellow light eking in under the door to the common room. The ship might have been sealed against space on the outside, but in here you could always tell if there was somebody awake or who just hadn't turned the light off. "Are you still thinking about that?"
"I wasn't for a while."
North sat up, pulling the blanket up to his chin. It was oddly cold, or maybe he just wasn't quite awake enough to register temperature. His mind felt muddled. It was nice to have York back, that was sure: it had been strange not having anyone when York was in the hospital. Even if he didn't stay there for missions, he hadn't come back to the room. Now, though, he was sitting on the floor. He had spread the comic books out like messy proof that he owned the place. North didn't mind: he wasn't the sort of collector who worried if something got a crease in it. He mostly liked the stories and the colors, and the teams. It was good if York got to like them too. It was like the middle of the night, though, and York was still dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, with his hair messy, dirtier and fluffier than usual.
"So who's your favourite?"
"This guy." York turned the book around. "Nick Fury."
North smiled. That book had been sitting with all of the others for months. He'd had it when he was a kid. It wasn't one that he re-read a lot; it was more like he'd had the colors of it there next to his bed when he was a kid and it was nice to have them now. "You like that one?"
"Sometimes they get the details right and sometimes they don't. You know, it's easier to jump onto a moving car than to walk down some stairs. Stairs really get me. I didn't have to walk down any until yesterday and suddenly it was just like, woah, everything's wobbly. Yknow?"
"But you've got Nick Fury jumping onto cars. So that's okay." York climbed back into bed. "He's a pretty cool guy."
North laughed. "Right. Cause he looks like you."
"Good night York."
Then it was all silence and darkness until a few minutes later York tried out, "Good night, North,", and then there was the "Good night, York" and then they were done.
Author's Note: This was written for mumblybee for Christmas. She's a York fan, and this story contains various elements from our extensive Freelancer headcanon. I don't see any instances in which parts of it wouldn't be understandable to the lay reader, but let me know. Also, belatedmerrychristmas!