Wash sat on a ledge on the side of Red Base and watched Carolina, Tucker, and Caboose chase one another around the trees near the canyon wall. They were attempting training. It seemed to be stuck at the 'attempt' stage. Carolina would give an order and then Tucker would twist her words around and and while she was pulling rank (and threatening to kill him, in her quiet, convincing way) Caboose would wander off, rinse and repeat with the occasional interjection as a Red shouted commentary across the field. Although Carolina had no patience for simulation troopers' conflict she was, from a purely chromatic standpoint, a Blue, so she usually stayed over there. And Wash sometimes retreated to the Reds.

Grif leaned against the wall next to Wash. He had lit a cigarette and taken his helmet off, revealing curly hair and a wide face. He shook the pack at Wash as an afterthought. "Do you mind if I smoke?"

"I don't do that anymore."

"I didn't ask you if you wanted one." Grif shook his head. "I said did you mind. Trying to be polite to our esteemed guests here." He set the pack down, and took a breath of smoke. Wash wondered how the Red sergeant even allowed this guy. But then, Sarge did a lot of things that were really hard to understand but always worked out. Wash was having to get used to that.

"I'm an esteemed guest now?" Wash said. "I thought you'd noticed the blue armor."

"Yeah, but Sarge seems to like you. Besides, you guys are Freelancers. You're...whatever. Like Doc."

"I thought none of you liked Doc."

Grif blew out a puff of smoke. "Um, there's something you've gotta realize about bein' here man-just because we don't like each other doesn't mean we can't be on the same team. I freaking hate Sarge, man. If you gave me the choice of staying here or getting my eyes pecked out by birds and going home, I think I'd buy some sunglasses. Actually, with you Freelancers here now, why do I have to stay here?"

But he didn't move. Wash didn't quite get that. Grif just sat there and smoked.

(Wash thought the smoke smelled like jail. It had been a white-collar jail that he had been in, sure. It had been clean and he'd had privacy and the place was so secret that they only ever let UNSC guys in anyway, soldiers who had disobeyed or ran away or said something they shouldn't have said. There hadn't been much to do. He'd smoked there, letting the sour taste hit the back of his throat although it was never quite as painful as the first time, because he'd...not so much figured he was halfway dead anyway, but just hadn't really cared. About anything. Grif gave off that vibe too, but he managed to do it in a...

No. Wash stopped that sentence there. "Healthier way" weren't possibly the right words to end it with.)

Grif sighed hugely and idly tracked as a shouting Tucker ran full-tilt across the grass, seemingly randomly. A few seconds later, there was a thumping explosion in the trees and a lot of gray smoke. Wash craned his neck to see who had given Caboose a vehicle and/or whether Carolina was going to come out firing.

One thing could be said for pretending to be a simulation trooper: you didn't have to worry about requisitions all that much. Even after Freelancer, UNSC command kept sending food and supplies down to Valhalla, as if they really, really wanted to keep the simulation troopers where they were. It couldn't even be explained by the presence of the Alpha any more, because Church was so many iterations away from the actual Alpha by now that no AI could possibly sniff him out, even if any that survived weren't already integrated with him and Epsilon.

Caboose was trying his best to ride an ATV with one wheel. Carolina emerged from the smoke cloud unscathed, pistol held low.

Grif followed Wash's gaze to her. "You telling me you Freelancers didn't regularly hate one another? I thought that was how the army worked."

"I don't like to talk about it."

"That's right. That's what liking one another gets you. Regret when people die."

Wash looked sharply at him. "You wouldn't regret it if, say, Simmons died?"

"Meh. Besides, he'd probably come back."

"Yeah." Wash looked down. He laced his fingers together, staring at the blue on the back of his hands while the others kept shouting. There was some silence for a bit.

Grif said, "So, why'd ya quit?"

"Quit regretting people dying?"

"No!" Grif slapped his knee. "No, man, stop being so dark. You're almost as mopey as that other Blue. Correction: way more mopey. Not as loud. When did you quit smoking." He dropped what was left of his cigarette. It drifted the long way down to the bottom of the base and burnt furtively to itself on the metal floor.

Down there, Caboose abandoned the smoldering ATV as Tucker dashed around the other side. Carolina shouted, "Flanking movement sixteen!"

"Which one is that?" Caboose yelled querulously.

"The one where you rally around from the south and charge like maniacs," Carolina yelled just as Wash was mouthing the words. That was a York quote. He'd said it during one of the training sessions with the paint guns, when they'd been going over all these numbered drills and ancient strategies...probably the very thing that the simulation troopers had never quite managed to grasp. Wash liked the feel of the old jokes. It had been a long time...

"I only smoked when I was...detained from service."

"That's right, we put you in jail." Without anything to do with his hands, Grif propped one leg over the other and leaned on it.

"The Alpha put me there," Wash clarified.

"Don't give the Blues the credit. We helped! I mean, Red Team helped." He looked at Wash as if just now realizing what color his armor was. "Dirty Blue," he mumbled halfheartedly.

Grif let the cigarette fall to the ground and watched the ashes drift. He kept talking, which should not have been a surprise to Wash by now. Wash straightened his shoulders. It hadn't been far from here that he'd taken down a plane. One base over, he had held Doc and Simmons hostage.

Grif said, "Stop talking so seriously all the time." He kicked his feet against the wall and slowly shook his head back and forth, as if to an invisible, very slow beat or to accentuate that he had shucked his helmet.

Wash said, "You have to take things seriously to survive."

"See, you're doing it again. I've survived a lot of crazy crap and I'm still here. Aliens, Tex, being turned into a cyborg, you...all sort of stuff."

"Wait. You're a cyborg?"


Wash's voice remained flat. "No way."

"I have most of Simmons' vital organs." Grif sounded supremely distracted.

"That...doesn't seem physically possible."

"That's what they all say. Except Simmons just tells me to take care of his lungs."

Wash had smoked mostly when alone. It was something to do. It was something Epsilon had no memories of, although Wash only realized that after he was released. It grew to be a taste he needed. He could relax into it, imagining small hands rubbing at his back as his body took what it had grown to need.

Quitting was cold-turkey and painful. It wasn't like the Meta carried a pack around, and besides, there were other pains to deal with. Wash had smacked Doc a few times in the place of a patch. It worked pretty well.

And here was Grif, with plenty of other things to do and not a lot to distract him from the wringing of his insides if he tried to quit. Grif was a naturally relaxed human being.

Wash asked, "Why do you smoke?"

Grif swished his fingers around in the air. "I dunno."

Wash thought, You need a reason. You've got to be running from something. Wars don't get won if you're not running from disaster. And there was big disaster headed their way unless the teams shaped up. He said, "We're going to kill the Director," mimicking the way Carolina said it, making it a mantra.

Grif said, "I know."


"So what?" Grif shrugged and patted his own thick ankle. "The Director never did anything to me, except get me into this war. I guess...indirectly. And saddle us with Church. But I signed up for this. So did you."

"I did. And now look what we've got from it."

"That doesn't have to do with why I smoke. I don't do it to make up for my tragic past. In fact, I don't have a tragic past, unless you count the uncertain but entirely unexpected death of my sister. I just like it."

Down below on the field Carolina had pulled everyone together into a huddle, all of the colors of their armor clashing but standing still next to one another, heads bobbing. For a moment Wash wanted to join them, or rather, felt that someone else wanted him to. His back straightened, his spine aligning into comfortable slots.

He said, "We should go help them."

"Why?" Grif said. "I can watch and make mocking, but barely informed comments from up here."

"We need to be ready for this fight." Wash stood and walked along the wall to where he could more easily jump down onto the base.

"Need? That is a very loose term."

Wash looked at him. "You're not being ordered. There is no command. But people could die in this fight. I'd rather win it without that."

Grif started to speak, but Wash interrupted. "If you don't care, why do you stay here? Sarge hates you."

Grif cursed under his breath and swung around. "Shut it, Blue. You don't know me."

"I just learned that you don't do things just to run from other things."

"Nah. I walk. Running away from work is too much work."

Wash hopped down to the floor and took his rifle from where it had been lying on its side on the wall. "Enjoy that, Red." The insult came easily.

Grif said, "I will."