"What the…" Wash came to with a hiss as each piece of his armor was clumsily detached. "I'm fine. I just blacked out." I think.
He was lying on the ground, the others revolving around him.
He used his periphery to survey Doc's reaction. The medic simply shifted to a different knee to kneel on and reached out for Wash's unarmored wrist.
Tuckers voice fluttered past them, "Blacking out means somethings wrong, dude. If it was normal it'd have a different more non-fatal sounding name. Like, White out or something."
"What?" That was Simmons.
"Hey, White out can be harmful if you sniff it." And that was Grif.
Tucker's voice seemed closer this time, " What kind of dumbass would sniff it?"
"Grif. You should try everything in life at least once. YOLO, you know? You meet all the qualifications. Tucker, you have any?"
And Sarge too. So all the simulation troops survived…Wait…where is Ca-
The nerves in his body tingled as his armor seemed, of its own volition, to move away from his muscles.
The blues-sans Epsilon- struggled with the leg pieces while Simmons and Grif, under Sarges sharp commands, removed the chest and arm pieces. Doc switched knees again, one gloved hand wrapped around Wash's wrist, his thumb over the skipping pulse.
"How do you feel?"
Wash forced his eyes open, unaware he had even been squinting. The warm air in his helmet burned them, and without the shoulder and neck armor anymore, nothing remained to help him raise the weight of the helmet itself. His head fell back with a thud that the two teams would've probably laughed at had they not been distracted with taking his armor off in the first place. The impact surprised him though. If it was concrete or ground, wouldn't it hurt? This substance was something…crunchy, and the suddenness of the action also made his neck ache.
It's snow, remember? You're on Sidewinder.
"Where's…Meta? Where's Epsilon?"
Doc shifted again, " The Meta fell over the cliff. The other guys took him down."
" And Epsilon?"
"The memory unit died while he was inside…sorry."
Wash shrugged. None of it mattered much anymore. Soon he'd be right back to staring through prison bars. His vision was blurry as he looked back up, eyes only, but the purple blob he saw couldn't be mistaken. No one else had purple armor…unless North had returned from the dead without him noticing. He almost thought to look for Theta.
Then Doc opened his mouth to speak again, and there was no hallucination in hell that could withstand the clear inexperience in his voice. This was definitely Doc. Not North.
Then you're alive.
And that revelation was startlingly neutral to him. Living meant being hunted. Dying meant- well dying was the end. Dying meant he failed.
The hustle around him continued rotating, spinning his thoughts from one subject to the armor pieces clunking and scraping against each other. His arms were suddenly armor free and he couldn't ever recall them being so light. As if to test the theory, he brought them up to look at his hands. His elbows didn't quite move how he wanted them to but after a few trial runs, they allowed him to bring his flexing fingers closer to his visor. He inspected their movement for broken bones and then moved them aside to find Doc's still helmeted head tilting.
"Are you alright? Wash? Uh, guys I dunno if-"
"You look misleadingly competent right now," Wash pointed out.
The others, who had stopped to inspect Doc's concerns about the fallen freelancer, went back to work piling his armor pieces together without his body inside.
"Just so ya know," Sarge said from the heap, "We're gonna need that helmet too."
"No." Wash said again.
He didn't reveal his face to anyone. Not even his real teammates.
"Maybe it's a freelancer rule. Maybe he doesn't have a head…"
Wash sat up from his bed of snow and turned his helmet to the owner of the voice; Caboose, a childlike ball of a soldier squatting beside Sarge. His focus zoomed out enough to take in everything else relevant. Simmons and Grif were reassembling his armor together while Caboose alone was taking apart Church's.
"What do you want my helmet for?" He groaned.
Sarge's taunt shoulders loosened as he put his shotgun on his back, " We're puttin' you in the blue's dirty armor, and your cruddy armors gonna stay here."
"…why- why would you do all that?"
It suddenly occurred to him-in the same way that one might notice too late that they were standing too close to the edge of something, nary a step away from falling- that they all had reason to want to let him die. He had kidnapped Doc, dragged Caboose into a high risk mission, forced the reds to join and more or less helped attack Tex. What were they doing? As soon as he fell unconscious they should've pushed him off the cliff, into the sea where the ice could hold him prisoner until such time as he was to wash ashore somewhere. I was unconscious. I was slipping away, I know I was.
The hallucinogenic pages of his memory were not so distorted for him not to understand that. They had somehow saved him. Or at least Doc had.
Said medic sighed, "We really do need your helmet, Wash. Is there like, a special reason you won't take it off?"
"Why would you even help me? Any of you?"
Grif finished assembling the left arm and moved to the right leg. Simmons unconsciously scooted over to give him more room as he worked on the right arm. Neither were looking at Wash, but Grif addressed his words to him, "Look, Guy. Just be happy you're getting saved."
"Yeah, now hurry up!" Simmons whispered harshly, "Recovery beacons go off when an agent goes down, right?"
Wash couldn't make use of his voice at the moment, so he nodded, forgetting the unsupported weight of his helmet. He immediately saw white as his head smacked back against the compacted snow.
Doc flinched at the profanity. When he recovered, he reached one hand around Wash's shoulders to help him sit up again, but the others chuckled at his expense.
"You see? Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, son. Now get that heavy thing over here so we can finish before any more of them agent fellas show up."
Simmons, Grif, and Caboose never stopped mantling nor dismantling respectively, even as they listened to the conversation. Only Tucker wasn't doing anything. He was standing off in the distance watching the sky. Oh, he's a lookout…
This was a level of competency Wash hadn't seen. A level of camaraderie he really couldn't see the bickering squads accomplishing. They were right though. Agents would be showing up to collect the last recoverable body left from Freelancer. It was unlikely they wanted to make that fishing trip for the Meta. He needed to be quick while there was time to waste.
As if sensing his deeper thoughts Tucker turned over his shoulder, " You do look really crazy with just your helmet and cod piece armor on. We weren't taking that shit off, sorry."
Wash had the decency to blush under the helmet, but replaced it with an impassive slit of a mouth and narrowed eyes.
"Then you're alright?" Doc was in his personal space again.
"I had to adjust." Wash pointed out, reaching up to unfasten the latches on his helmet.
"To the cold?" Doc asked hesitantly, finally intuiting Wash's discomfort with his unmasked concern.
"Cold?" The sensation was slow to come, but as intense as a migraine the ache dug through his exposed limbs, biting in gratuitous portions into his flimsy undersuit. He wrapped his arms around his body and pushed himself up to stand. At least that was the plan. His legs disagreed and he tipped forward, throwing the helmet to the side.
Thankfully, Doc caught him and helped keep him standing, and even with small pieces of his hair blowing in his eyes, Wash could see that they were all clearly relieved that he was human and not some AI.
"So we're keeping him?" Caboose handed Sarge the helmet and the world spun on. Only Doc was standing still now, keeping Wash's mosaic world in tact and barring the lingering dizziness from thrashing him.
"I thought you didn't have Stockholm." After he said it, he realized it seemed inappropriate to make kidnapping a joke, but he needed to talk so the silence wouldn't make him overthink all of this.
Doc laughed, "Well, you're the first person I could help so far."
"I get the feeling the healing unit did most of the work…"
"It…might've. Such a Negative Niel…" He added quietly.
It took more assistance than he would've liked, but Wash finally got the last of his armor off and found warmth in Church's. Grif and Doc went searching for some kind of yellow substitute, only for Sarge to produce his own personal toolkit from the remaining wreckage of the pelican.
"Be still." Simmons carefully sprayed the yellow paint onto his shoulder detail. As the continuous hiss went on, Wash looked at all of them, separately first, then as teams and finally, as a whole group. They were tired, he could see it in their movements. In their voices, he could catch their anxiety. And yet, in their actions, all he could ascertain was their bond. Their bond to survive. And now it seemed he was being offered that bond.
"I," He turned on Simmons command to let him paint the other shoulder pad, "I have no idea whether to be content or suspicious of this. I would've left me for dead."
"You can't leave yourself." Caboose informed him.
"You're still going on about that? You freelancers are way too serious." Tucker sat down by Grif in the snow, "You need to relax. Kick your feet up. I mean, you might've did all that shady stuff but you also helped us take down the fucking Meta. We basically owe you."
Griff scoffed, "You blues owe him. He killed our teammates. We're even."
Wash raised his eyebrows but didn't comment. He was quiet- thinking and observing. He listened to the spray can hiss and then rattle as Simmons shook it before the hiss came back. At last, the words came to him.
"You shouldn't trust me."
Caboose clapped his hands together, "It's okay! We weren't supposed to trust the red guys either. Command said we had to fight, but we didn't and nooow," He gave a content nod, "We saved the day! And you."
Simmons moved away, finished with the painting. "Just make us not regret this."
"Saving me or trusting me?"
Simmons threw the paint can as far away as possible, " Both, really."
Sarge turned then, "Right on time, Simmons. Our friends are here." He walked away from them, towards Tucker who had just spotted the small hornet fleet in the air. Simmons followed him with a starch 'Yes, sir.' As his footfall crunched away, Wash started forward. Behind him, Doc, Caboose and Grif brought up the rear.
They could just turn on me now that the authorities are here. But something told him they wouldn't. That they had already stepped in too deep to just step out and they weren't that cunning. The same something that told him that the chaos and anarchy was finally over and that he needed to stop thinking like a freelancer. He didn't need to anymore. He inhaled, holding his chest up with a confidence he didn't quite feel yet. It may have been an easy decision for them to trust him, but it would take a lot to earn his.
They were ordered to stand together for questioning by a soldier on foot, and Wash complied…just like everyone else.
Only for a moment did he allow himself to look at his empty armor sprawled out in the snow.