"Daddy, why do you call Uncle Murray 'York'?"
Des had a blue blanket pulled up to her chin. On the bed stood sat the fat, blue nightlight, the cup of water that Des demanded every evening, and The Child's Illustrated Guide to Government Cover-ups.
Wash sat on the edge of the bed and listened to the voices downstairs and the quiet thunk of a plate put down on a table. He had left York pouring drinks and Connie sitting on the edge of a couch talking to Carolina. (He still thought of them as their place-names because it just felt more right, even though York had a whole Murray clan waiting for him in Oregon and Connie said the names are the hallmarks of an oppressive man they don't have in their lives any more, so you're going to call me Daisy when we're married, do you understand? But Wash, well, part of him liked names that explained something about the person they belonged to.)
His daughter's name was Desdemona Baskerville. She hated it. Most of their friends explained that it was important to not take names too seriously (Do you want Daisy Marie Anderson? her mom said) and gave her the Des and Dezzy she wore to school.
And Uncle Murray, all those big vowels for a loud, personable man, got cut down to York.
"We were in the army together." Wash patted the blanket over his daughter's shoulder. "We had code names."
Her eyes widened. "That's cool! What was your name?"
Des looked confused, so Wash said, "Connecticut. We were named after states." Des had learned geography young. Nearly all of her parents' friends thought it was important.
"And now you're not."
"We're not in the army any more."
She looked at the brightly-colored map on the wall. "Because you're here with me."
Wash didn't have a problem with lying per se, but he read that you weren't supposed to encourage inconsistencies in a child's perception of the world. "Because our program was disbanded and we had to hide for a while. I have to go downstairs now. Are you gonna go to sleep?"
Des's eyes were big and nearly the same dark blue as the blanket.
"Are you sure?"
He kissed her hair and turned off the light.
Wash turned the corner and descended the narrow stairs. They had a little living room with a fireplace. It was a cobbled-together house, and old. The team filled up the living room, York with his arms over the back of the couch and North next to him on a plush chair. Connie sat on the edge of the couch, her knees canted away from where Wash had been sitting before he went to put Des to bed. Carolina sat at the table with her very straight back pressed against the very straight wooden bars of the dining table chairs.
York looked up. "She okay?"
"Yeah, York." Wash sat down, Connie started to pay attention to the world.
York asked, "Is Des asleep?"
Wash said, "She was asking why the had code names."
Connie stirred. Carolina asked the question that no one else was: "What did you tell her?"
"I told her we were secret agents. Which is true." He pointed at Connie. "We agreed."
"Yes we did," she said. Wash immediately looked less nervous.
Carolina asked, "Did you think about hiding it from her?"
CT said, "Yes, but she has eyes. She knows most people don't have little green guys floating next to them." She glanced at Delta.
North said, "I remember when she asked whether Theta was made by Apple."
"What about your kids?" CT asked Carolina.
The older woman shook her head. Wash pictured Carolina's brood of transitory foster children, whom he collectively thought of as the Carolinas. "They would tell the social workers."
"That's fine," York said quickly, as if they had discussed it. As if they had argued about it. "D knows how to hide."
Delta was perched on the back of the couch. "I am happy to assist, York, even in my own silence. Although I would prefer if that silence be temporary." That got a laugh from the group, as Delta had been taking on more and more of York's enthusiastically social tendencies. Theta mostly used his knowledge of philosophy to write scripts for independent-label comic books. D had become quite the socialite, and after insisting that it would be logical for the group to talk about a recent sports event next, the conversation turned to small talk even though none of them really cared for sports. The evening went on peacefully, and when North started to yawn the group quietly, happily disbanded. Wash paused next to York at the door.
York said, "Good luck with the kid."
"Thanks. Is everything okay with you?" They had discussed their families a lot lately.
York shrugged his coat over his shoulders. Wash could see Carolina out the storm window, getting into her car.
York said, "I asked her...she said to wait. Her AI are gone but she says they give her trouble sometimes, and it would be like marrying three of them."
Wash blinked. "I know what it's like." He remembered that in the beginning, sometimes, he had woken up in Connie's bed with Allison's name catching in his throat. "It takes time."
Wash clapped York on the shoulder. "Have a good night." Wash shut the door. Connie had meandered off the couch and stood beside him with her arms folded, her gaze following their friends' departing taillights.
Wash looked down. "You okay?"
"I know. That's why you wanted to make the front lawn into a mine field."
"The local ordinance didn't say no." Connie smiled.
"There's that part about no fireworks."
She started to look unhappy again, like a sigh waiting to happen. "I just think that we should be prepared."
"So do I. That's why I explained to Des. It's why Delta and Theta, and us, keep track of radio channels. But we beat the program. Texas got the AI out and..." He turned to face her. "You got the rest of us."
"He could send out a recovery team or something..." Her voice trailed off. None of them liked talking about the Director. The familiar furrow was starting on her brow, her round face wrinkling up.
Wash shook his head as if to rid himself of an unpleasant insect. "He's gone. And besides, he was grooming me to lead the recovery team. You guys interrupted before any of that happened."
"Okay." She looked relieved. Her brow smoothed out. "So it could have been you, coming to find us."
"Yeah, I guess."
"You don't think I'd be scary enough?"
"You're not terrifying."
He smiled before putting an arm around her shoulders and pulling her closer. "This is Recovery One calling."
"Wash - "
"I found suspect number one," he said, and kissed her.
Even though neither of them believed in ghosts, the house that Wash and Connie chose was haunted. Delta sometimes sat on the wires. He and York listened to the police channels and told Wash the local activity and what the officers were named.
York ran a coffee shop now. It was decorated in brown and gold, the walls and the chairs in a friendly goldish bronze. Above the counter, signs proclaimed latte, cappuccino, mocha, caramel, cinnamon, peppermint. The floor space was small, four tables with mismatched chairs around them lurking close to the doors. There was usually a crowd of teenagers and commuters, some of whom stayed and some of whom didn't. There were tablets propped on table edges and snatches of conversation: politics, sports, my aunt's Warthog broke down on Tuesday so I'm lending her -
The Freelancers, the Carolinas, and the occasional pretty lady got their coffee for free.
York wore an eye patch now.
Carolina rescued children. For a while she did it Batman style but there wasn't a lot of money in crashing through windows so she started doing it the conventional way too.
North had Captain America figures in his living room. He worked in the comic shop under the apartment.
No one had seen South in a while.
The coffee shop was comfortably full, people filling the room with a quiet layer of talk but no one feeling squished next to the table beside them. Wash had come to visit and dragged a bar stool over to the counter, hooking his ankles over the rungs. He talked about his day and how Desdemona was doing in school while York and his high-school-aged protege, a willowy girl with red-brown hair who was not in fact a Carolina child, filled orders.
"We've been careful to keep up with the neighborhood committee's standard grass length."
"Yeah, okay, hold on a minute, Wash. Large with sugar to go."
Wash leaned back against the plexiglass behind the coffee machine while a man in a black leather coat passed money over the counter and took the big cup of coffee. Steam drifted. Wash found his eyes closing and idly noted the man walking away.
York, though, tapped a hand contemplatively on the counter as soon as the customer strode out the door. "That guy's been in armor. Recently. Huh."
York leaned his elbow on the counter and cradled his chin.
"How do you know?" Caitlin was standing behind the counter, next to the big silver coffee machine, her hair netted. She met York when he jump-started her car in the parking lot.
York said, "He's got that mark."
"Yeah." Wash rubbed his chin. Now that York mentioned it, there had been a reason he had paid attention to that customer, besides the fact that the guy was nearly six feet tall.
York said, "If you bump your head hard enough in a power suit you hit your chin on this little nob thing, I think it's for the speakers."
Wash slid his phone out of his pocket and tapped in a text to Connie. "Yes, for the speakers."
"Thanks, man. Also I saw his ID when I got him his cappuccino." York gestured to a small white sign in a corner that read '10% off with valid military ID'. (This sign had been Connie's idea: it could, she said, help detect any operatives who might try to get the ex-Freelancers back into the program.) "You're letting Connie know?"
Caitlin looked confused, so York straightened up and helped out. "Might be an old army buddy."
She looked impressed and leaned one elbow on the counter. "You were in the army."
Wash remained bent over his little gray phone. Connie said I'll be there in ten minutes.
York said, "Yep."
Caitlin's impressed look turned slightly nervous. "Were you a Spartan?"
"Nah, man." York chuckled. "Just a guy in the war."
"My one friend's obsessed with Spartans. She's got a picture of Master Chief in her locker. Except it's just a helmet."
"Hmm." York looked at the door, but then returned his attention to her. "High school kids are into Spartans?"
"She goes on about how she thinks she's handsome."
"Eh." York shrugged.
"Have you met Master Chief?"
"Then how do you know he's not?"
York's phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID, then gave Wash a significant stare. "Just a second Caitlin. We need to talk in the back."
Wash hurried around the counter. It was North on the phone: Wash heard York say his name when he took the call. In the back of the kitchen, with Wash circling his toe around a white, diamond-shaped tile, York heard bad news and then hung up.
York said, "North's got a car with tinted windows parked outside his place."
"We should go check it out. Why would our guy be in armor recently?"
"Now hold on a minute. Maybe he was training, or maybe he just has a naturally dented face."
"Someone's watching North."
"Well...yeah. I guess it's possible. What do you want to do?"
"Go check out this guy when Connie gets here. Stalk the stalker."
"Okay. We'll wait."
"She'll get here fast. She speeds when she doesn't have Des."
"Okay." York was as okay with this as he was with everything.
They returned to the front of the store, where Caitlin had a customer who was actually brave enough to invade Wash's previous space at the counter. This person paid and left quickly as Wash retook his territory.
He saw Connie behind the two glass doors before she flew into the shop, beelining for his side and directing her words at the space between him and York. "What happened?"
"Guy looked like he might have been in action recently. Where's Des?"
"I got her from school and left her with North."
Wash's horrified expression told her all she needed to know. Connie slammed a flattened hand down on the counter, making Caitlin flinch and a few customers look up. "What happened to him?"
"He's still alive, but he just told us he's being watched."
"Get in the car."
"Give me a second. York?"
"I'm with you," York turned to his employee as Wash hopped off his bar stool.
"Caitlin." The girl looked up, and York tossed her a keyring. "Lock up for me, would you? I've gotta go."
"Is everything okay?" She bit at the side of her lip, looking concerned, but also had a twinkle in her eye like it was all going to be revealed as a joke or a candid camera any time now.
"Are you sure? You're just going to fly out of here on a mysterious army mission?"
"Yes. Don't tell anyone."
"That's pretty awesome."
"Okay, let's go."
They took two Warthogs, the better to surround whoever was watching the house. The wheels crunched on the gravel as York followed Connie and Wash out of the parking lot and onto the main street that was next to their maze of a suburb. North's shop and apartment were a few blocks down in the more populated direction. Wash was gripping the car door handle like he would fall out if he didn't when York called his cell. Wash picked up as Connie flicked her eyes away from her frantic conquest of the road.
York said, "Are you armed?"
"We've got a pocketknife each and a pistol in a drawer at home," Wash answered quickly. "That's it. You?"
"Nothing. Just D."
"Oh. D, call her."
"You didn't - "
"Calm down man. She'll bring the big guns."
They approached the store from opposite sides of the street. the black car was parked conspicuously opposite, and the man in the black suit was walking across the sidewalk with one hand in his pocket.
The car's occupant could not be seen.
Delta said, "I detect one person inside the car. They are tagged with a UNSC neural interface."
Wash sounded uncertain. "Is that...Agent Texas?"
"No," said Delta. "Her readings are distinct. It is much more likely that this person is - " His reply was interrupted as Connie skidded the car to a stop and jumped out almost before she'd parked. Wash followed.
Connie shouted at the man in the suit. "There's a child in there!"
Faced with her anger, the man in the suit pulled his hands out of his pockets. They were empty. Suit man and the Freelancer exchanged some words before Wash caught up to them. By the time he was close enough to hear, the man was saying something about next of kin. Wash stopped at Connie's side, struck with the chilling, singular question of who had died.
But Connie looked at him with relief. "He's with Brittany."
Then the door of the blacked-out car opened and South stepped out. She looked pretty much like she had when she'd left: spiky, almost white hair, disgusted expression, scarred cheek.
She said, "Hey David."
York emerged from his car. Delta had gone invisible. North and Desdemona emerged from inside the stairwell next to the comic shop, and slowly, everyone relaxed.
South explained that the slightly confused suit man was ex-army and now worked for a veterans' services organization. He was going to help her out with some finances to go toward a place of her own, and could investigate what could be done for the others as well. She said, "Certain people could do with compensation for emotional suffering."
Wash knew that South was talking about him and Carolina, but suit man glanced at Connie.
Half an hour later the suit man had left with a promise to get in touch over the phone. (His name, it was revealed, was Andersmith.) The six Freelancers hung out together in Connie and Wash's place. North had left the comic shop in the care of a promising protege and devoted fan of his graphic novel. Connie held onto a sleeping Desdemona. North had been impressively unflappable during the whole thing, but now he confronted his sister. "Where have you been? You weren't returning my calls!"
"I needed some time to think, and then my phone died but still, I told you I was going to be gone this long."
"Yes. You were sitting in your green chair reading Captain America."
"Was it the 2500 reboot?"
"I don't know! See? This is the problem." She looked around for support. "Your attention span wouldn't be a problem when I'm going out for milk or something, but I told you this was long-term!"
"I'm sorry, South. Trust me, I've learned my lesson."
South snorted, in normal South fashion. "At least you can remember my name. Don't think I didn't notice that, David."
Wash flinched back against the couch. "What?"
"What's my name?"
"Thanks. I thought you were getting even grayer than usual, but forgetting our names is a bit much."
"I only try to forget you and your constant attempts at character assassination," Wash mumbled.
"Be quiet, South," Connie said. "I mean, welcome back. Thanks for the veterans' assistance thing."
"No problem," South growled.
"Hey." York smoothly ingratiated himself into the conversation. "We've got something to, ah, say." He pointed to Carolina, who was sitting in the chair next to him.
"Yes," Carolina said authoritatively, and everyone went quiet.
York didn't hesitate. "We're getting married." He beamed. The room erupted in people standing and congratulating the couple. Wash beelined toward York to give him a slap on the back and got a hug in return. When Carolina extricated herself from a brief embrace from South, Wash met her eyes. I'm okay, her expression seemed to say. I'm healing. You understand.
He did. Desdemona had woken up in the noise and Wash took her so that Connie could mingle. He sat down with her on the couch and thought about what South had said. Sometimes he had trouble thinking of the team by their real names, because the memories of the past were so strong. Even without an AI, he had a tendency to dwell. The whole group, though, was moving on now. They all had lives, and were forgetting about the Freelancer program. They would have new names: Carolina would be the newest Murray soon enough. Wash held his daughter and thought that they could all, maybe, learn to be less frightened one day.
For now, Wash's job was memory.
A/N: This AU was developed by mumblybee and I purely for fun. If I remember correctly, it started with us deciding that Wash's name was David Baskerville. CT and their daughter then needed equally ridiculous names, and somehow we got from this to plotting out an AU designed specifically to make the Freelancers happy. We've got a good amount of backstory for it, about how CT decided to go back to the program and take down the Director shortly after Tex broke Alpha out. This fic was just for fun, and to be an example of their lives in the AU.
Now go watch the actual show and weep.