This is a collaboration with the lovely Reeberry over on tumblr. It started out as giftfic that then expanded suddenly. We took turns writing so it's pretty much a 50/50 split in terms of authorship. This was an awesome opportunity because I've been wanting to write Wash's integration with Alpha pretty much since I watched Recollection.
Church never got the hang of possessing someone and looking through their memories. It was always high pressure situations of on the spot jumping into someone else's skin, intense focus, and no time to wonder about their name or their family back home or when their first kiss was. But when he jumped into Wash, in those last few minutes, the Freelancer's memories opened up like a book. It could have been force of habit, but Church got the feeling that Wash was showing him, like a proud child.
Connecticut wasn't a surprise, really, although the vividness of the memories coupled with Wash's uncaring affect was. Church thought 'this guy actually got a girl once?' and 'naming them all after states was the hokiest thing that old man ever thought of but it does have a ring to it', and 'dude, it's crowded in here'. Wash's mind seemed to shift. Never a stable landscape, it showed pictures and feelings that almost overwhelmed Church. Maybe this was why Wash was so stiff on the surface. But there was also that pride in his mental landscape, a straight-shouldered kind of demand to be heard.
All Church said was, "There's a lot going on in here."
"Don't touch anything," Wash said firmly.
"Finally got the place how you like it, huh?" Church said, the new experience still grating. Through the waves under his feet came the waves of memories, bombarding his mind, glowing fondly as they showed the other agents, his friends. Glowing fondly with happy images, vivid memories, instances Wash cherished to keep for himself.
Next came the wave of feelings associated with the scenes. If Church still had a body, he would have staggered back at the sudden dump. It had been like that since he came through, but, still, every time it caught him by surprise. Under that current of apathy Wash had built up lay a carefully laid out web of vibrant emotion, probably inaccessible even to Wash's conscious mind. It was there for a second, long enough to wind the breath Church didn't need or shouldn't have been holding out of his body, and it was gone again, just as quickly, just as violently.
He supposed it was normal for the agent to give himself so completely to any mental intruder. A reaction hammered into him by the Director, a habit he never had to break because he never thought it'd come up again. (Or maybe it was a remnant of a defeat, a lack of fighting in a battle that Church wasn't even aware of, despite being the attacker.)
"Something like that," Wash said.
Epsilon wasn't here any more, although part of Church instinctively looked for him. The memory unit had left scars, as visible to Church in this mental space as if someone had sliced up Wash's face in the real world. Church didn't want to examine those further. First of all it was boring. Dead memories were dead. Second of all, though, Epsilon now was only something dark and rotten and scabbed over. A ghost of a ghost. It was hard enough for the living to deal with that, but in the mental space, Church could have been lost in it.
So he controlled it instead, took stock of himself, and kept talking. "You've got all of this in here because of me?"
"Not because of you." It was hard to tell what someone's movements were when Church wasn't actively trying to possess them, but that straight-shoulder impression got more forceful. Wash was walking out of the vehicle bay. "Because of the Director."
"Yeah, but, he's me. Or he was, anyway." Church's mechanical voice was almost sarcastic. "He put Epsilon inside your head, and we're meeting up with him to…get
Epsilon, or something? I get a little confused when nobody's talking about me."
"We're going to kill the Meta." Wash started jogging. "Do you really want to take credit for what went on inside my head?"
Church didn't answer that. Instead, he said, "So, if I'm the Alpha - which I am still not sure about, by the way - shouldn't I have some sort of magic ghost power over the other AI?"
"They want you," Wash said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that you have any power."
Church cackled. "Doesn't necessarily mean - yes it does! They want me. I'm like the messiah to their enslaved peoples, the freaking moth to their flame."
Wash paused to think about this, the idea that his passenger was a messiah, paused to reflect how utterly sad it all was, and was promptly reminded of the lack of privacy in his own head at the moment, because him thinking about it meant Church could think about it too.
"Hey, I'd make a fucking good messiah," Church said defensively.
"They should all be thankful your holy weapon can't possibly be a gun," the agent said with a forced smile, a forced joke, a forced lightness to the situation to distract him from the fact that Church was in his head, that someone else was hearing his thoughts, that privacy was once again long gone, and yet more secrets had taken its place. Church felt the antagonism and shrugged it off. He had never had trouble keeping his own identity in someone else's head.
"It's a sniper rifle," Church said, crossing his arms in Wash's head with such gusto that Wash slowed down his running and almost repeated the gesture. "Oh, fuck you too, buddy."
"I didn't say anything," Wash said defensively, picking up speed again.
"You didn't have to, I felt it, man! Your entire mind rang with laughing and disbelief." He said this and Wash could hear the childish pout, so out of place with the memory of the last time this voice had been in his head. "I can hear it, you know."
"Can't we turn it off or something? Can't I just be a quiet passenger and not have a first class pass to your…you?"
"Sure, Alpha. You start being quiet, we'll call that step one."
Church looked around as he became aware of the tiny amount of glee giving this snarky command inspired in Wash. "It's Church."
"Don't just fucking 'right' me, man, it's my name." Church was starting to get used to the sensation of being a passenger, or invader, or whatever he'd qualify himself as. Intruder. That's what Wash's mind supplied, easily, and Church realized what it really meant that he also wasn't alone in his brain. It made his not-technically-existent neck itch. "I call you Wash."
"David," Wash supplied in a flash of insight about name association and it suddenly became very important for Church to call him David where Epsilon and the Director himself had always called him Agent Washington, where all his old friends always called him Wash. Names tolled. Church could feel them changing the waves around him.
"Fine, David, but don't you start calling me 'Leonard'."
"I'd rather not repeat that name anyway."
"Right, right, because that the Director. And we're going to kill him too, or something?"
"Don't sound so confidant. I can tell what you're thinking, remember? You want order because chaos is freaking scary to you."
"What I'm scared of doesn't matter." Wash pulled his rifle a little bit closer to his chest, but that might be more because they were nearing the round-topped buildings that were their destination than because of any emotional distress. Church couldn't quite tell. There's was a difference between reading someone's mind and reading their thoughts. Personal history was easy, especially when Wash opened up like he had, like somebody proudly showing off battle scars. Thoughts that came out in words were as easy to hear as noises over a radio. But the pride had been a quick reaction that was almost gone now that Church had threatened to make the scars worse. Church was feeling disorientation again, like when he'd possessed Lopez and not been able to understand the words coming out of his own mouth.
In Church fashion, though, he said, "So I'm right."
Wash's voice was very flat. "I thought you could tell what's in my head. Don't you know whether or not you're right?"
"I'm pretty sure. But it isn't exactly a road map in here. Did Epsilon cause all this mess, or is it just you?"
Wash said, "I don't know." He had slowed his pace but the building was still getting closer anyway. Church thought about the EMP that they had come here to activate. He was going to die for this war. Again.
"So I'm going to die for a cause neither of us understand. Great."
Then the pride came back. For a moment Wash showed him, with a practiced sort of mental shrug, the Freelancers lining up in front of a glowing blue board.
"No," Wash said. "I think you understand it perfectly."
"I don't really have your motivation, man. It's not like I can relate to you guys," Church said with a frown, and he felt Wash smile. "What?"
"Motivation," Wash echoed.
"Oh, right, I'm the Alpha, so my motivation got stripped away and now it's fucking Kilo or something, blah-de-fucking-blah."
"Kilo isn't a Greek letter."
"So sue me, my knowledge of Greek must've been sliced away too," Church spat back hastily. "Look, all I'm asking for is a cause, all right? Isn't that what people go into battle for? How hard can it be to find one I'll get?"
"I gave you a cause," Wash said easily, his memories still streaming the project, the scoreboards, the Freelancers themselves.
"You gave me your cause. Don't you think I should get one of my own, if we're going to do this?" Wash stopped walking. "What, what's happening?"
"How many times have you died, Church?" His waving brain patterns were changing again, lighting up and moving and Church thought he'd get used to it, he got used to being in people's heads after a while, but Wash was too…too intense for that. Maybe because Wash knew he was there, but it was like every time Church started to get settled, everything had to go and change on him.
For one brief, hilarious moment, he actually thought about counting. "Does 'too many' count as an answer?"
"And what if this is the last one?" Wash said this carefully, tentatively, as if to ease Church into the idea. As if to ease Church into it now, after spending the last ten minutes insisting that he was Alpha, that he was an AI, that the EMP would kill him. "Your last death?"
"Well," Church said with a smile. "At least it won't be Caboose this time."
This got a chuckle out of his host as Wash began walking again. "Now that you're ready to believe you're the Alpha it doesn't sound like it bothers you much."
"Dying? Yeah, I dunno. It's a complicated emotion. Have you heard of those, David?"
With another surge of pride, Wash showed him. People paraded past their mind's eye, masked faces and bare ones going up in flames. Alpha felt what he had done as Sigma and Epsilon. He saw patched and cracked walls Wash had built to try to keep Epsilon out. Because he was Alpha he felt the way they had wanted him. Because he was Private Church of the Blue Army he didn't particularly care. Their want was irrelevant to him except in that it would distract the Meta from Tex. He only knew what Wash had told him about the torture that had split the AI, and because his memory was gone or because he was Dr. Leonard Church, he did not regret them.
Wash did, and he threw every face and name and color he had at Church to get him to understand that. That's where the pride had come from, in a old self-induced urge for Wash to remember his own humanity. Beneath all the stoicism he was proud of surviving Epsilon, and by extension, Alpha. Although Wash had never wanted to host an AI again, now he knew he could handle one.
Church said, "I guess you do have some pretty complex stuff up here. And boy do I disgust you. That doesn't seem like a good start for a working relationship, eh, buddy?"
They were nearing the outpost now. Armed guards started to show up as red marks on Wash's HUD and glimmers of thought in Church's perception. He supposed he was really reading the presence of standard neural implants, but he had always just thought of them as people. Wash moved faster and warier.
"You don't disgust me," Wash said lightly, "but this whole trip isn't exactly my ideal vacation. Shut up." He still sounded friendly. His mental landscape didn't give any clues to his feelings, but Church was reminded of the way Wash talked down to Caboose. "The fact that it was me who ended up here instead of any other Freelancer doesn't matter. I have to transport you, and you have to find a reason to..." he chuckled. "to die, I guess."
"I told you my motive. You told it to me. I've got to get Tex back. Or get close to her, or save her, or something. I don't know. Are you gonna help me with dying for that?"
"Yes. Because the cycle needs to stop."
"The cycle of me looking for her? Fat chance."
"The cycle of you not finding her and not being okay with that." Wash shrugged.
Church could feel the shrug-generating thoughts in a sort of ghostly double of the physical movement. He had to resist agreeing with them. "I don't think me dying is going to save her from anything."
"Finding the Meta gets us one step closer."
"Yeah. And I guess that's all we can hope for sometimes, right?"
Wash refused to wax poetical. "If you say so."
"Yeah, I do. If you can't be assured of success you better arrange for some ass-kicking and hope," Church said, and he settled down to wait.