The black city, the buildings leaning like drunken soldiers. There are always sirens in the city. York likes to know where the emergency crews are going, what corner or what burning street. It's idle curiosity mixed with guilt that sends him turning like a radar dish, widening his one good eye until it almost hurts, resisting the natural drag of his gaze toward the right side. Whatever ambulance or black sheriff's car shouts by, he watches and does not follow. He knows he can't help.
His life is the dusty mattress in the empty room, the armor on his back too heavy for men without tow hooks to steal, and that constant right-leaning look toward ships up above, always hoping and fearing for the three-jointed symbol he will always recognize.
And the waiting, and the itch of his ghost-pet-partner in his head.
And York in the black and tan city, the same colors as himself, except that he burns gold, is going to -
Must hide, must cover his light.
Wash feels a whole cascade of emotions as soon as the Director tells him who he's hunting next. He usually does, now. Each thought is an avalanche, but he's starting to thrive under the snow.
Thief, usurper, blood traitor. And he had the scent of Allison on him, the director said - not thought, but said in the bloodless pinching of his face and the tightness of his hands on the seat of the chair on which he sat, telling Wash with body language they now shared that York was another traitor, another wanted poster to be crossed out in blood, the frayed end of hangman's rope that had almost caught the twins. And now, Wash, the executioner.
When Wash had woken up from his implantation, seeing Leonard Church had been like looking into a mirror.
((Hello David)) Epsilon had said, twice and three and four times over, and the house of mirrors had slowly started to shatter.
There's a tiny line between frequenting a place enough that to be comfortable there and frequenting a place enough that the people there recognize you, and York is trending that line in the Corral.
The spacer bar sat in the middle of a gray street. Many people came and went and few of them fought. The sky was gray and heavy; it was a relief to get away from it.
The bartender looked up at him from under her hat, and Delta whispered in his ear.
[[Take a seat at a table.]]
York wants to sit at the bar, so he does. The resistance is a tiny spike like guilt. You know I don't like reading menus, he thinks, and Delta hears it. Delta has had to remain quiet a lot, so York has gotten used to the tiny sparks of his communication, little Morse Code blips of emotion.
The instant York puts his hand on the bar and starts to shift around on the stool, Delta flares.
[[Warning. An altered soldier is approaching.]]
[[Agent York. Agent Washington is approaching.]]
He wishes he could turn without thinking about the movement first. This, though, is why he wasn't supposed to sit at the bar. It would be quicker to the door if he sat at the table. Innocent passerby would be less likely to be hurt.
Man, York thinks. It's a shame he won't be able to come here any more after this, because he really liked the coffee.
He has made a lot of plans just in case his fellow project veterans showed up. York did not by nature make plans. Delta, though, had been, if not altering his nature than slightly tweaking it.
(It frightened him sometimes. He would wake up in the middle of the night, think about the numerical temperature of the room instead of how cold he was, go back to sleep, wake up and realize that while he was asleep Delta had pulled his discarded under suit over him in place of a blanket, using York's own hands to help himself without his awareness. The suit was warm but clammy, humid with sweat.)
Because of York's nature, he held each plan in loose arrangement in thought, and gave some of them nicknames. Captain America for North. Miss Frizzle for 479 or anybody with a Pelican. Plans one and two were vaguer. They'd work on anybody.
Wash would be storming in like the front lines, York knows - he would come in here trying to be a two-mind, one-man army and carry authority holstered at his hip. Just another kind of hero.
York does not want to have to pick a plan.
He turns and looks.
Wash walks in backwards through the barnyard kitchen doors, scanning the area, not armed but fully armored. He's recent, he's young in his partnership, York can tell, even if the scar on the back of his neck has healed. Maybe the Director has been taking Epsilon out and implanting him over again a slightly different way, to see what works. Church has fewer and fewer subjects left now, after all, York is pretty sure. It must have gone that way. York can tell from the twitch of first Wash's chin and then one arm that his partner is pulling at him.
[[Alarm, threat level raised. 64 percent chance of violent outcome,]] Delta intones. There's red light in York's mind's eye even though his helmet is sitting on the bar.
Don't worry, D. I'm just going to talk to him.
[[Chance of defeating Agent Epsilon-Washington in combat is questionable.]]
Wash shoulders through the bar, finds him. "You need to come with me."
York stands. People start to look up from their beers and poker games, watching Wash's beat cop stride, noticing the pistol magnetized to his armor.
"Do you mind telling me what I'm in for?"
Wash sighs bitterly. "Stolen property."
"I only took what was given to me."
"And it's cost a lot of money."
"Do you still have yours?"
"No." Wash puts one hand on his gun. York sees the gray armor plate jump as Wash's knuckles spasm. He's infected bad, York thinks, even if the chip isn't in him any more, and maybe that means he'll be slower and stiffer, trip over his chains, if this turns into a fight.
York hopes it doesn't. His throat constricts if he starts to think too hard about the first time he saw Wash, the kid shivering on the tarmac with the rest of them, tightening a black scarf around his face as York asked him whether he was too young for spec ops. Since then their relationship became less acerbic and more brotherly, until it broke apart in shards of glass and all the force of a ship breaking its nose against an ice planet.
A lot of things broke that day. York fights past them. He's had this macabre juggling game in his head - which had it worse, Wash or Carolina - that crept up on him and wouldn't leave, no matter how much it disgusted him and he and Delta both tried to sweep it away.
But just the shape of the Freelancer armor threatens to send him spiraling.
"Did you see…what happened…during the crash," York starts.
"Stop sidetracking me," Wash says, and then shakes his head like he is dislodging a fly. He still doesn't pull his gun, and that is as much of a gesture of good will as York needs. "Come with me quietly."
"Nah, I don't really. Need to do that."
"Do I look like I'm fooling around?"
"No." York lets out some of his fear for both of them. "You look like a kid up past his bedtime."
Wash leans closer. It isn't possible to whisper in a full-face helmet with a speaker, not like it would have been when they both had radios, but York's helmet is sitting on the bar. "Right now. If you come back on your own terms, the Director might work something out for you." Now there's the gun, two fingers laid along the barrel and two grasping right, so freaking messy that York wants to yell at Wash for it even as Wash is giving himself a few more seconds before everybody in the bar panics.
"Okay. Look," York said. "I need to use the restroom."
"Yeah," Wash scoffs. "Like that's going to fool me." He's trying so hard that it's almost funny. He's a kid in his father's clothes, but York can also hear something in Wash's voice that makes him think his friend would put a bullet in his kidney if not in his head. "You'll just slip out the back."
"I'm telling you man, you're right. Look." York pats the counter with the side of his fist, looks around, quirks his lips. "I'm tired of running. I sleep in a different place every day. I'd rather be in a cell."
Wash's chin lowers. The yellow visor stares. You want this to be easy, York thinks. Don't you? You might not care whether it's pleasant or not but you want it to be easy. You're like Delta that way.
"Fine," Wash says. "You have three minutes."
"Thanks man." York slaps the counter, dismounts the bar stool. "I knew you had some humanity left," he mutters. On the way, he flips his helmet onto its nose and grabs it mid-stride. Wash's stolen item is in there, after all. Or at least half of it, anyway. The other half is too tangled up in York's synapses to steal now.
Wash just keeps looking at him.
[[Plan one,]] Delta whispers into his head as York walks past the bar, taking half of the stares with him. [[This is the optimal time to implement it.]]
York walks slowly. In the flaking-plaster hallway he mutters to his passenger. "Plan…two."
[[Plan one will be much more efficient.]]
"It'll also probably kill him."
[[He should not be allowed to hamper our progress,]] Delta says.
York shakes his head.
When he opens the bathroom door on the way out, he looks left and right like he's crossing a highway.
Wash elbows him in the face as soon as he looks left again. It's an upward-pushing blow that makes York's entire cheek feel burnt and raw. His eye, too, and the sense of betrayal is almost worse. York sidewinders backward and crams his helmet over his head at the same time.
The first two punches aim for his hands, still at his throat, but York blocks them easily on his forearms and barely feels it. He hits back, mirroring the same thing, just trying to push Wash off balance.
Instead they spin, Wash's hands locked on York's arms. In the blur, York feels like part of himself has been removed from Delta, has been centrifugally flung away, and the illogic of that part is overwhelming. "You were my best friend," York says, hunkering down, getting ready to use Wash's momentum against him, and instead of flinging sideways Wash bends his knees and goes absolutely still.
((Truth is, Wash's best friend died years ago. It was a twisted-wreck car accident on the plains or a ship crashed into a canyon on an unpronounceable planet or a slow gut-pulling dissection by an alien race who just wanted to figure out who we are and why we carry our babies in our bellies but she was dead, had been dead for a long time since before the project started. Leonard and Allison and love/death/pride, those were the three bars on the trifecta, and Wash had stared at all of them too long to feel what York was saying.))
York lets him go, and it's so quiet that he can hear his own suit shushing around his fingers. The bar proper has heard the fight and someone's probably calling the police right now. There'll be another blare of sirens and lights.
"You were supposed to make me more efficient," Wash says through clenched, accusatory teeth, and York steps back, because he thinks he won't have to use his plan now - someone else's is already in motion.
Wash falls to his knees, a big hulk of silver armor in a bar bathroom hallway collapsing, one shoulder rolling against the wall, cradling his head in the same exact way Maine and North used to when they had their headaches, the heel of the hand lifted slightly. That spidery Leonard Church clutch. His knees hitting the floor sound like a car crash. Wash, panting. "I was ready for this, York, I…"
York shakes his head. "You're lying to me again, buddy. I don't like when friends do that."
He kneels down. But you were still my friend, he thinks, and doesn't have to say it. He unlatches Wash's helmet fast. It's a little harder to tug off, because Wash's hands and his shoulder plates both get in the way.
As soon as the mask is off York can see that the fresh air helps him, but the ghost isn't inside Wash's helmet any more, so it only helps so much. Wash has a lot of gray hair. York tips him backwards onto the floor, and pulls his dog tags out so that the police will know he's UNSC. "They told me…I was sane…" Wash says, struggling with the word, spit bubbling at the corner of his lips. York shakes his head. You probably are. Look, this is a physical reaction now. You're coming down from something.
With any luck the people in the bar will peg York as a criminal spacer and Wash as the good guy.
He backs out, just in case. "You won't see me here again. If it helps at all…I'm sorry. For all of this."
It's hard to leave Wash there, but he's done it before.
He hopes the Director won't punish Wash for this. That's Church's style, though, punishing people because he released them out into the world too fast.
It's a pity, York thinks once he has regained a little of himself and the tentative equilibrium with Delta has restarted, because he was just getting to like this place, and [[There is a highly-rated coffee shop in a city 105.4 miles away,]] says the voice in his head, and York knows exactly where the last siren he ever hears in this city is going, but he doesn't turn to help.