Chapter 13: Don't Change Your Plans

Samael wasn't wrong about the cruel simplicity behind the Holy War's all-encompassing nature. You either joined of your own will or you were forced into conscription. The punishment for attempting to shirk such a destiny wasn't only a threat -- the countless unmarked graves of deserters, cowards and heretics were real enough, and they were looked upon with such shame that one might wonder how Sirca's caustic Omegite culture allowed for the occasional blossom of rebellious thought at all. Why not embrace your fate wholly and throw yourself eagerly into the war? It was pointless to resist.

Except for those who were willing to risk it all for change. Those willing to die, not for themselves, but for the hundreds of thousands of Sircans, most of whom would never even know that these individuals put their lives on the line in a desperate attempt to grasp a better future for them all.

Will turned around when Samael placed a hand on his shoulder, the tall chupadore looking down into the rebel's eyes as he reached across and gripped gently into the letters burned into his lover's bicep. Resistance would never be futile to the ones like Samael. Whether it was childish hope, stubborn denial or a fiery drive to shove a fist of protest into the air and fight to the last breath, there would always be those who refused to bow with the masses.

William Barnes still didn't know if he had an answer for how high his convictions stacked up. But he understood better why Samael fought the way he did, and he was learning to draw inspiration from the strange chupadore who strode out of his home -- a home unaffected by the war for all intents and purposes -- and decided to join a losing battle for little reason beyond simply having the raw desire to do so.

"I want to learn to be stronger," Will blurted after a moment, his fingers tightening gently into Samael's arm. "Help me make a difference."

Samael smiled slightly, a teasing response hesitating on his lips. He resisted the playful jab, however, and instead stretched his arm up to cup Will's cheek for a moment. "That's what you want, Will? I ain't exactly the world's greatest instructor." Will didn't quite pout in response...but it was close enough. "Okay, okay, don't guilt trip a fella. Ain't like I could tell ya no, anyway."

"I bet you could if that...Andee-guy was here," Will countered smugly, crossing his arms defiantly even as Samael snorted amusedly and flicked the end of his muzzle.

"Y'know, usually when someone I get with finds out 'bout my favorite fella -- and realizes it ain't them -- they express that jealousy just a bit different-like," Samael replied with a chuckle before nodding once and reaching to grip one of Will's hands securely with his own. "But alright, we done had ourselves enough of a distraction, I think. I ain't one for lessons or nothin', so I'll just try not to give ya any advice that's more stupid'n usual." As they strode through the water and toward the armor and undergarments strewn on the boulders that surrounded the pond, the rebel glanced up with a small grin. "First lesson, y'gotta be able to compartmentalize. Even if I don't see ya goin' out to try 'n be a field guy like me, workin' with the Movement takes a toll on ya."

Will was quiet as they approached the bank and hopped onto the rocks, finally releasing each others' hand so they could start to scrape the water from their dripping forms. Samael continued as he ran a hand through his short head fur: "Not just for those moments when ya go 'n spend some time in 'normal society'...even just...doin' the job, it wears on ya. So ya learn to keep it separate. But ya always make sure ya still take the time to unwind. Even Nelson, super-serious-bitch she is, she'll be the first to tell someone to take ten 'n go eat some cookies or take a nap or do some sweet, sweet canoodlin'."

Samael wasn't bothering with the black under-armor, only strapping on the bits of armor for his hips and torso. Will was halfway through trying to squeeze his damp legs into the stretchy fabric before he gave up with a mumble and mimicked his companion's half-complete ensemble. "So what, this was something like that? A relaxing bath and...uh. Some intimacy?"

The rebel snickered softly, smiling cheerfully at Will. "Sure, though as you seen by now...I got no qualms gettin' my lovin' right there on the job. But yeah, even with the way I tend to...get around, Nelson still sends me off every now'n then, give me a week or two to not hafta put on the armor 'n the fake identity 'n all that shit."

"And that's why you say you don't get to see...your friend often enough," Will murmured. "'Cause that's the only time you can get away?"

Samael smiled again, though it was tinged with that morose overture that Will had begun to recognize as a familiar sight when Samael let a moment grow too serious. "Ain't a lotta jobs for us in Lactan," he explained quietly, shrugging a bit. "So not a lotta opportunities to get out that way."

Will nodded silently -- it made sense. There were few bases in that region thanks to the vast jungle and tribes of scuridae chupadores that made life less than simple for the Reds and Blues. Not a whole bunch that guerrillas could do that wasn't already being done by those damn squirrelies, after all. He bent down to gather up his smaller pieces of armor, then offered a small smile to Samael. "Well, maybe you can get some time off once we get back. And hey...when do I get to meet this infamous bat-guy, anyway?"

The rebel guffawed, and it was as genuine as they came. "Goddamn, you're a hoot, Ex-Corporal Barnes!" he exclaimed, lightly slapping his companion's hindquarters with his tail as they started the trek through the darkness back toward the jeep. "Don't worry, angry little fucker'd be glad to stare down another one'a my appetizers, as he's come to fondly call y'all."

"I'm starting to get the sense that being involved with you means enduring a helluva lotta bad nicknames," Will grumbled. He was following Samael, trusting that he knew the way back. As they picked their way through the underbrush, Will couldn't help himself but to ask: "Dare I wonder why 'appetizer'?"

Samael's grin was broad as it was coy. "As he likes to put it...y'all're tasty snacks, but ya ain't ever gonna be the main course for me."

The moonlight made Will's embarrassment just visible. "I. I am really starting to understand why a bunch of your, uh. Past. Lovers. Have been a little grumpy with you."

Samael's shrug wasn't offensive, paired as it was with an entertained smile."I been tryin' to tell ya, ain't I?" They emerged from the thickest portion of the tree line with the vehicle just ahead of them. "Anyway, you're takin' it all pretty damn well, I gotta say, so no complaints here," Samael remarked with a quiet laugh as he tossed the unused armor into the back of the jeep. Will followed his lead after only a second of pause -- he hoped that if the rebel was willingly stripping away most of his protection that the risk of running into trouble was legitimately low. "Which makes me think of the second lesson," Samael added, tapping his muzzle as they climbed into the front seats.

Will tilted his head curiously, sitting back and then almost immediately grimacing at the feeling of wet fur mashed into the chest plate, squished back into him by the uncomfortable seat. He fidgeted a bit and then sighed and fumbled at the straps to undo the armor as Samael watched with a grin. It was tossed into the back of the vehicle shortly thereafter, leaving him topless and...well. Glistening in the pale beams that stretched through the heavy clouds. The half-nude chupadore huffed quietly and crossed his arms again. "What? You're not the only one who can be...immodest."

"Immodest? Boy, you sparklin' like a goddamn swimsuit model," Samael marveled before chortling and quickly stripping his own chest plate, grinning to himself and throwing it over his shoulder. "Anyway, again, I ain't complainin'."

As Samael turned the engine over and revved it once, Will rubbed a hand across his damp chest and then gazed back at his companion. "So? What's the second lesson, then? 'Don't complain'?"

"Some of my cohorts would have ya think it is!" Samael remarked cheerily. He shoved the hog into gear and they lurched forward several meters before he twisted the wheel toward the steep incline of the mountain to guide the all-terrain vehicle toward a gap in the large boulders. "But nah, second lesson is never assume you know everythin'. That goes for the Movement, that goes for the Reds 'n the Blues. Goes for the House, goes for Omegites, goes for HADES 'n Freelancers an' every other damn group you can think of. Never assume you know all you gotta know...'cause, brother, y'never do. Hell, Tracer knew shit about the history of the Movement that he took to his grave, and not even our oldest current members c'n recall even half of those tales. Always gonna be a gap in the knowledge, no matter how good it seems."

He paused to focus on maneuvering the jeep across several jagged rocks, the four-wheel drive performing beautifully to keep them climbing steadily over the uneven surface. "Shit, I owe Bradford another case'a beer," he muttered with a half-grin before nodding toward Will even as his eyes remained trained through the windshield. "As long as you always operate with the assumption that somethin's gonna take you by surprise 'n pull the rug out from underneath'll find any situation easier to deal with. Won't be as frozen from shock."

Will blinked and frowned slightly. It made sense, but still... "So. What, you're saying I should basically just. Always expect the unexpected? I mean, no offense, it's just. That just seems like. I dunno. Common sense."

Samael chuckled softly. "Sure it does. Lotta things seem sensible -- question is, how often people actually do 'em?" He smiled a bit as the jeep struggled with a particularly odd-shaped boulder, his momentary pause punctuated by the sharp slither of a tire seeking purchase on the uneven surface. "We're creatures of instinct 'n passion, Will. Deep down, all of us are. As much as it seems these days folks prefer settlin' into the order this world's forced around 'em, we all still got that primitive part in our brains. Logic don't always come natural. 'Specially when we're faced with somethin' new, or somethin' startlin'."

Will thought back to his last moments at his old base. The way he'd surprised himself by knocking out Sergeant Marsden. But then also the way he'd left behind his weapon, and froze when facing down one of his former soldiers. It felt nearly impossible to try and imagine that he could have been prepared for either situation, but it also gave him a better perspective on Samael's advice. The less that he accepted to be the sole, all-encompassing truth...the more he'd be able to anticipate.

"Yeah, I can see those gears turnin', my bureaucratic buddy," Samael commented wryly. Will tossed him a sour look, but the rebel only smiled as the hog finally cleared the last of the largest rocks and began a more even climb along a rough path carved into the mountain. "Hey, I tried to tell ya I was a shitty teacher."

"I didn't think you'd be that bad at it, though," Will grumbled, even as he smiled slightly. "So let me guess -- lesson three is something no one, right?"

"Actually, no -- again, that's somethin' you'll find a lot of us are pretty split on," the rebel explained while his companion gazed up at the faint outline of the mountain the jeep was steadily scaling. "Especially the guys in the other faction...though I guess I get why they're so insanely suspicious. Dumbasses think it's smart to keep Freelancin' while they try to run a revolution -- ha!" Will eyed Samael curiously, but he waved a hand as he continued. "Gettin' sidetracked here. Look, I don't personally subscribe to that notion, at least not permanently. Take you, hon -- sure, I wasn't gonna come right out 'n tell you I was with the Movement the first few times we chatted. But I ended up trustin' you pretty deep, yeah? Plenty of times you coulda turned my ass in after I told ya the truth, long after I left your room."

He didn't have to explain the implication -- Will knew exactly what he meant, because he'd of course thought of that once they'd parted ways after their...'interactions'. He might have been speechless with fear upon first learning the truth; after all, he had a legitimate concern that the rebel might just kill him. And beyond that, had they been discovered in that moment, he would have been in nearly as much trouble, since no amount of convincing would have hidden the fact the two had engaged in some extremely homosexual activities. The more he mulled on it, the more he realized what a risk Samael had taken on him.

"So...why did you decide to trust me?" the ex-soldier murmured after a few seconds. "You barely knew me."

Samael shrugged easily. "Sure, I wasn't gonna tell ya I was a damn rebel an hour after I met ya. But I took a gamble after our little chat over dinner, 'n the way you were in bed." Will snorted mildly, but Samael's grin was only half-playful. "Hey, I'm serious! You do things the way I do, long as I do...ya learn to read shit. Lot I can pick up about someone between the sheets." He chuckled softly and turned the hog to follow a trail of gravel that wound around the side of the slope beneath them.

Will was getting used to blushing in the face of Samael's apparently endless reserve of charm. "Yeah, alright," he mumbled before looking thoughtfully at his companion. "I do think I understand why you feel that way, though. About...not trusting anyone, I mean."

Samael smiled curiously at him. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Everything you do, or...we do, now, I guess. Everything we do must be so...steeped in secrecy, always worrying about someone finding out, someone realizing the truth -- but if you never trust anyone..." He shook his head a few times. "Would be hard to get anything done. You must have to trust someone along the way, even if it's just your own people."

Samael laughed quietly, nodding his approval. "Yeah, that's right. Or at least that's what I think. Plenty of folks with the Movement who don't agree. But even when I'm on a solo, it's tricky as fuck tryna do anythin' if I can't find someone to trust, even a li'l bit." He smiled as they approached an outcrop more than halfway to the peak. "We'll probably be able to hit our friends from there. So let me make the third lesson short but sweet."

Will looked at him and was surprised by the way the rebel's expression tightened. "Lots of people we gotta worry about out there. Reds, Blues, even the civvies -- ain't sayin' there ain't no decent folk out there, but when you go your whole life believin' only in what the House tells ya, thinkin' there ain't no way 'cept the way you're told, then you gonna react less'n dandy meetin' someone like me, y'know?"

Will absolutely knew. He'd gone through a version of that when he found out the truth about Samael in his bed, after all. He nodded once, and his companion continued quietly.

"Ain't in my way to try 'n cause trouble for civilians. An' you already know I try to avoid killin' any innocent soldiers. Just like you, most of 'em just...doin' the job they were told to do, 'cause they ain't got no other option that they see. So you come across any of them, you got a chance to talk, bullshit, negotiate, whatever. But..." Samael slowed the jeep and gently twisted the wheel to guide it in a half-circle upon the ledge before killing the engine and looking directly at Will. "You ever catch sight of HADES? No talkin'. No negotiatin'. You turn your ass and run. An' if you're lucky, they ain't seen you an' you c'n go on livin', got it? It ain't a fight worth losin' if you can avoid it."

Will wasn't even sure how to not agree with Samael; the intensity of his quiet 'lesson' left Will muted, unable to formulate a response beyond a slow nod. "Y-yeah. Okay, Samael."

"Alrighty, then!" the rebel exclaimed, throwing off the cloak of seriousness with a wink. "Dig up that radio again, sweetie -- let's see if we can get ya introduced to Nelson."

"Not exactly a very formal introduction," Will sniped, by now expecting the amused grin that met him. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Nothing about you is very formal."

"Ayyy, I think he's finally gettin' it!" Samael announced with a snicker. "Fuck if I managed to keep track of time durin' our jaunt in the water, so if no one answers us on twelve, we switch'r over to thirteen 'n use the same sequence for the code."

"How the hell do you keep up with what channel to use if daylight here might mean it's dark at the base?" Will mumbled while holding the radio out to his companion.

"Heh, they're watchin' all channels at all times -- all the security's done on our end. Keep it smart but simple, 'least that's how we try to operate." Samael smiled a bit and then accepted the radio with a wink. "They know to disregard any message that don't line up with where the operator's located." He leaned back in the driver's seat and kicked his paws up onto the windshield while depressing the talk button with his thumb. "Wurlitz to base, c'mon back, now."

The radio crackled with static briefly before they were rewarded with a voice on the other end: "You got the depot. What's your locale, driver?"

Samael smiled again, his tail flicking leisurely next to him. "Tires on the side of the ol' Qoppa mountains. Gotta gorgeous shot of the peaks and -- no offense, Charlie -- a beautiful view right next to me that puts even you to shame."

Will rolled his eyes, doing his best to not betray his huffy frown with the smile threatening to break through. "Ass," he muttered while crossing his arms as the corners of his maw twitched upward.

The radio was silent again for a few seconds; Will guessed that was the verification Samael had mentioned. One of the rebel's paws danced easily to some inaudible rhythm on the windshield frame as he waited patiently, frustratingly at ease as always.

Finally: "Hey, Wurlitz -- I'd tell you to eat a dick, but we know how that goes," the voice grumbled through the speaker. "This Pony Recruit of yours better be hot shit. Nelson's gonna tear your ass a new one, you better hope she doesn't...uh...oh fuck, shit. Uhhhhh..." The voice grew fainter. "N-Nelson! What a surprise, I thought you were going to oh okay yep you just –"

Samael's lips curled into an entertained grin as the radio scratched and squealed from what was very likely the sound of someone yanking the microphone away. "Wurlitz, you goddamn redneck sonuvabitch, what the fuck did you do?! The feeds are lit up, because apparently some stupid piece of shit thought it would be a grand idea to set off some fireworks that were damn near visible clear across the ring! But oh, I'm sure you were nowhere near that, no, I know you weren't because you're a good employee who only sticks to the very-carefully-planned routes that we discuss long before you get onto the road, right??"

Will's expression had gone from bemused to pale to outright horrified...although his companion was still grinning away as he reached up to tap idly at some of the fading polish on his toe claws, waiting for the furious female voice to taper off before he keyed his radio. "Nelson, you will never cease to amaze me with the way you can roast assholes even fully committed to the truckin' routine!! You're a fuckin' champ, babydoll!"

"I swear to god I am going to rip your goddamn balls off when you get back, Wurlitz!" Nelson threatened, making Will shrink even further into the passenger seat. "We had a fuckin' plan and...okay, you know what, this isn't the time, and. You clearly succeeded and I assume you aren't stupid enough to call with anyone in pursuit, so. Fine, okay. Who the fuck did you drag back this time?"

Will fixed Samael with an accusatory look, and the rebel clutched the radio to his chest in mock horror, mouthing something that looked like "Omigosh no idea what this crazy bitch sayin'!"

Samael chuckled and held the radio up to his muzzle again. "Nelson, c'mon now, you're scarin' my new friend! Ex-Corporal William Barnes has not been able to stop talkin' about how much he wants to join us and just jump right in and hear that same fuckin' morbid-ass lecture you give to every newbie. You know, I think you actually killed the last one...yeah, you remember that, Charlie? Man, she just went on and on and once she was finally done, nothin' left but a pile of skin and bones, poor guy died of dehydration from all that hot air."

Samael's teeth gleamed with cheery mischievousness as, the moment his thumb left the key, Nelson's voice burst out of the radio mid-roar as a string of curse words and barely-intelligible threats punched furiously into the quiet night air. He shook his head with a dramatic sigh as he thrust the radio into Will's chest. "Oh goodness, I just can't deal with her when she's so unreasonable -- be a gem 'n talk her down, huh? I'm gonna find the canteen." He grinned brightly before hopping back between the seats to start digging through their bags while his tail continued swishing about jovially.

Will stared -- not at Samael's ass, despite the fact it was wiggling around happily right next to him, but rather past the rebel's shapely buttocks as if he might receive some explanation for the logic behind making this strange lady so very mad. When her infuriated ranting finally tapered off, Samael was still digging through their packs, which left Will looking at the radio stupidly before sighing and slowly depressing the transmit button. "U-um...m-ma'am? This...this uh. This is Corporal William Barnes. S-sorry! Ex-Corporal..."

The only sound to greet him initially was a long, rattling sigh. He could only continue to stare awkwardly at the communicator before her voice crackled through again, crisp but somewhat less seething. "Since we've all decided to just fuck right off with protocol, I suppose I won't waste my breath noting that we try to avoid using full names or passing any specifics over open comms," she muttered.

Will figured it was best not to point out that they were on an encrypted connection.

Next to him, Samael had found the canteen and was flopped back into the driver's seat with one leg hanging out over the door. Will sheepishly held the radio back out to him, but Samael waved him off. "You're doin' great, bud. Just let'r know we'll be headin' back home ay-sap."

Will huffed quietly but then nodded and lifted the radio to his muzzle. "Um. Right, sorry," he mumbled before clearing his throat. 'Samael, uh. He said to let you know we were heading back...home."

"The fuck you are not," Nelson shot back brusquely, making Will rear back in surprise once again. This time, however, Samael frowned slightly and tilted his head toward his companion, gesturing with one claw -- presumably -- to have him ask for clarification.

"I...I think Samael is. Uh. Asking why," he replied lamely.

"Oh, he's asking why, is he, how polite of him, and I'm so glad he found a goddamn secretary to field his calls, to boot," she groused before sighing again, her tone growing serious. "We've got a lot of activity in the area. Saw two House drop ships fly within half a klick. Don't think they were patrolling...and they actually buzzed just before your little explosion went off. May be a coincidence, but either way. Let's give it half a day or so. Stay outta trouble, keep your heads low, try to keep the chatter to a minimum. No point risking some stupid shit after the stunt you just pulled." She paused and Will licked his lips nervously before his eyes shifted to Samael as she inquired quietly: "Casualties?"

Samael half-smiled as his companion rubbed at the back of his head, then softly answered: "None, ma'am. Not even the soldier that nearly blew me away when I was escaping. Dunno how Samael managed that considering the size of that rifle..."

"Well that's because he wanted to impress you so you'd fuck him. Again," she replied kindly, the blunt and yet somehow polite tone causing Will to mouth wordlessly for a few seconds.

Samael chuckled as he finally reached over to gently pluck the radio from his Will's hands, offering him the canteen instead. "Nelson, you're a peach as always. Y'know, I don't make every decision with that ulterior motive in mind."

"You two already fucked again, didn't you?" she stated more than asked, causing Will to wheeze and expel water all across the windshield and dashboard. "Anyway. Don't blow anything else up. And don't take this as an excuse to visit those fucking caves, I still don't trust that short little fucker you're so --"

"Oh, Nelson, I wouldn't dream of it," Samael purred, effectively cutting her off as his toothy grin lit up the night. "Y'all stay safe up there. Holler sometime after daybreak." And before she could sling any more venom across the radio, he swiftly twisted the knob to power it off with a cheerful smile to Will. "Well, you heard the lady! Let's go see Andee."

"But...she said...and...furthermore, we're...nowhere near Lactan, it's gotta be at least a ten or twelve hour drive, at best! And that's with zero hold-ups and also assuming it isn't pitch-goddamn-black!"

Samael pursed his lips but, surprisingly, did not immediately argue. He bit the inside of his cheek silently while running a finger slowly over the top of the steering wheel, staring in thought at some invisible object in the distance. Will glanced away after a moment, feeling almost ashamed for bringing such a change of mood over his companion. "Uhm...I mean, I'm sure we can still go to see Andee, you probably know all the best shortcuts, anyway, and --"

"Nah, nah, you're right," Samael interjected gently, a slight smile returning to lift his features. "Just you, though. Not Nelson. Don't care how little she trusts him, he's a good dude. But I am bein' selfish, and it's a li'l far. Tiny bastard can survive a few more days without seein' my pretty ass."

Will attempted to smile as well, though it wasn't quite as honest. The reality of being in Samael's position was sinking in further for him. It was easier to understand why Nelson seemed to vacillate between annoyance and reluctant gentility toward the rambunctious chupadore. But before he could attempt to offer a sympathetic word, the rebel snapped his fingers and spun around to start digging through the pile of armor. "Right...those coordinates..."

"Coordinates?" Will frowned, albeit more with curiosity than concern as he twisted in the passenger seat to glance into the back. "What coordinates?"

"Aw, shit, I didn't write 'em down!" Samael exclaimed, his voice somewhat muffled by the pack he'd half-shoved his muzzle into. "Eh, I mostly memorized it." He wriggled back into his seat and then gave Will an expectant look.

The ex-soldier blinked a few times, unsure what the hell Samael was thinking he could offer. "W-what?"

"Y'ain't got somethin' to write it down with or somethin'? What if I forget it the second I say it?"

"Well then you'd be like...a useless piece of office equipment," Will mumbled before wrinkling his muzzle. "Why would you expect me to have something like that? Why didn't you come prepared?"

"I did! I brought my weapons and ammo and shit. Those're my specialties. And yours, well. You, uh. You didn't bring even a single clipboard?" Samael asked with a barely-hidden smile.

Will scowled. "Oh, you think you're funny. Yeah, yeah, I get it. You're the cool action hero, I'm the...lame...useless sidekick who brings all the boring stuff no one cares about." He grumbled, even as he blushed slightly and then awkwardly reached behind him to pull his hastily-packed satchel into his lap. Samael's expression lit up, his teeth gleaming with his enormous grin. "H-hey, fuck you, I didn't...bring a fucking clipboard, okay? But it's perfectly normal to carry a pen or two around with you," he explained hastily while continuing to huff as he dug out a ballpoint pen and what looked like the book that Samael had seen resting on his companion's night stand.

Will saw the way Samael's eyes studied the plain brown cover that had been wrapped around the book, and he shifted awkwardly before rolling his eyes with a dramatic groan. "Yeah, alright, I guess I don't need to hide this anymore, even if you're gonna laugh your ass off at me, not like there's much else at this point you can do to embarrass me more."

"Hey, don't underestimate me," Samael teased before tilting his head as Will used a claw and carefully tore the wrapping near a corner, ripping the paper gently all the way down to the other side. As he peeled it away from the hardback beneath, Samael's eyes slowly widened at the familiar smiling face on the cover of the romance novel. Will sighed loudly as he removed the rest of the wrapping to reveal the title: Hardest of Them All.

"Ooooh my gods, you're a Diamond fan!" Samael crowed delightedly, cackling and clapping his hands together as the other chupa groaned and made a point of tapping the pen loudly against the brown paper. "Oh, don't be embarrassed! He is a fuckin' treat...and he's one-hundred percent on my list!" the grey male all-but-sang out with a wink. "Andee won't admit it, but he's totally on his list, too. That is a threesome to die for, I tell ya what!!"

Will's cheeks were flushed horribly as he rubbed his free hand slowly over his muzzle. "I hate you so much. What are the goddamn coordinates?"

Samael continued his entertained chortling as he rattled off the string of numbers, swinging a finger idly through the air for emphasis. Will quickly copied them onto the torn paper before blinking a few times. He hadn't even finished jotting down the last few digits when he stopped to look blankly at Samael. "Uh. Do you. Not regularly keep track of coordinates or...anything?"

"What, is it like...the fuckin' Seat of Omega or some shit?" Samael retorted while leaning over to peer down at the scribbling. "Man, why ya think I got a crack team with Nelson and them tech boys backin' me up? I ain't got time for all'a that shit, I deal in relatives, not absolutes."

"You would deal in relatives, you tundra-tuft," Will mumbled, apparently still embarrassed enough that he was willing to try out another insult.

He was rewarded almost instantly with a loud guffaw from his companion, Samael grinning enormously and winking up at him. "Nice, nice! I'll give ya that one. Alright, then, Cap'n Clipboard...where're these numbers pointin'?"

"Right here in the Qoppa mountains, actually," Will replied while tapping a claw thoughtfully against the paper before frowning at the dashboard of the jeep. "Damn, the GPS must be on the other hog..." He scratched at his chin a few times and then glanced up at the dark skies. The clouds had continued dissipating to leave the mountainside bathed in a pale glow from the celestial bodies, and after a few moments studying the horizon, Will nodded once. "Can't know for sure exactly where we are, but I'm pretty certain we're close. And I know whatever...this is," he added while gesturing to the series of numbers, "it's to the west. Somewhere in the mountains, I can't imagine more than a couple hours in this thing."

"Well, well, I gotta always seem to have another surprise up your sleeve, my topographically-inclined friend," Samael commented, his words as warm as his smile. "Then I'd say we got somethin' we can do while we wait for the word to head home. Let's see what our Blue straggler was headin' for."

"Or running away from," Will mumbled quietly. "I mean, you got these coordinates off the kid you shot, right?" When Samael gave him a look while starting the engine back up, the ex-corporal smiled a bit. "Sorry, sorry. The kid you knocked out."

"Yeah, he had 'em scrawled out on a scrap of paper in his pocket. Didn't have much else on 'im -- what, you think he was tryin' to get away?"

"Maybe, I dunno. Maybe he had the coordinates written down to warn others about it," Will offered, self-consciously clutching the Diamond novel to his chest to avoid it slipping off his lap as Samael steered the jeep back toward the rocky trail. "It's probably a pretty pessimistic thought, I just. You know. I don't want to go and get shot in the face after all that work not dying during our escape."

Samael chuckled softly. "Naw, I got ya, I got ya. Reasonable concern. Tell ya what, first sign'a trouble, we'll turn around and find ourselves some cozy hidey-hole to tuck away into 'til we get the all-clear. You c'n pump me for stories, or whatever else you wanna pump."

Will rolled his eyes as the tires crunched across the loose pebbles and continued their climb along the winding trail. "Sometimes I think you're so full of your own charm that you forget to turn it on -- there was like zero actual attempt to woo me that time, you realize."

"Aw fuck, you still gotta be wooed?” Samael shook his head dramatically and shrugged his shoulders with an exaggerated sigh. “Welp, the honeymoon's over. Sorry, Will, I'm a taken chupa, I only got eyes for my pissed-off li'l cave-dweller, you're gonna hafta find a new source of premium dick." Samael nodded somberly, his teasing words immaculately masked by his admittedly impressive poker face. "We just can't see each other any more if you're gonna make me work for it."

"Hmph, well. I'm worth it, so good luck with being sad and lonely and wishing you had a substitute bat-boyfriend." Will turned his nose upward and once more earned an approving laugh from the smaller male.

"Ahh, that's better. Nothin' sexier than a guy findin' his self-worth!" Samael grinned, but his eyes were soft as he nodded once to his companion and then turned his attention back to the trail as it curled around the peak and toward a patch of vegetation growing between two of the mountainsides. "Heh. Funny thing -- our last base location was in these mountains, believe it or not."

Will frowned once more. "You don't think..."

"Nah, nah, I doubt it. We were holed up in an abandoned mine way over in them distant mountains, clear 'cross this range," Samael explained, lifting one hand to point over the windshield and to the barely-visible cluster of rocky peaks far past the steep hills they currently occupied. "There are all sortsa caves 'n old mines 'n shit out here -- wouldn't surprise me if someone else decided to set up a li'l haven somewhere out this way."

They entered the dense growth of trees and brush, and the skies were once more partially obscured by the heavy foliage. Samael's eyes were glued to the half-visible path while his companion was looking around through the thickly-overgrown vegetation warily. "I was stationed at that base for years, but I never once saw these mountains, not up close," Will murmured, both arms hugging the romance novel to his breast. "It's not like we weren't told about the mines and caves, it's's strange, you get so used to hearing about something from a distance -- even when its in your own damn region -- and it's almost like it doesn't exist. It's just kinda surreal."

Samael smiled slightly, risking a glance away from the path to examine his newest recruit. "I get that Marsden was a damn slave-driver...but did y'all seriously not get any time off base? Y'all just an hour or so from these beautiful peaks and yet ya ain't been out here once? Damn."

"You don't have to convince me how much it sucked," Will muttered while reaching a hand out of the jeep to brush his fingers against the passing branches. "Now that I'm actually more than a hundred yards away from that place, it's a lot easier to see the fact that we were...well, basically brainwashed. Or somethin' close to it."

The rebel shrugged easily. "I know I've heard it described that way. Hell, I seen it plenty -- you mighta not been as completely inundated, but a big ol' empty-headed fella like Ronson or Jacobs...those boys might as well be under a spell. Not your fault, really. 'S the way the war keeps goin'. Wouldn't be nearly as effective if y'all were left to think for yourselves."

"Yeah, I guess. It's still pretty...I dunno. I feel like a real dumbass for being so...ugh. Blind. Or at least willing to pretend I was blind." Will sighed and then looked embarrassed. "Uh. Can you stop a sec? I gotta, uh. Use the. Trees."

"Aw, just call it what it is!" Samael cheerfully responded. "Y'gotta take a tinkle!"

"Fuck, I hate you," Will grumbled, blushing slightly even as he looked grateful when Samael steered the jeep toward one side of the gravel path.

Samael opened his muzzle, then paused a moment as he cocked his head slightly. He thought he'd heard something from higher up the mountain. But when Will looked at him expectantly, halfway out of the vehicle, Samael flashed his signature grin and reached out to grip his friend's arm gently. "It's alright, Will. Y'ain't the first to realize you were livin' a bullshit existence. An' it don't make you no idiot. Not if you can look back now and realize exactly what it is you're leavin' behind."

"Y-yeah...I guess that's true," the ex-soldier replied quietly. Samael knew how to be reassuring when he wanted, at least. Will nodded once before setting the novel carefully on his seat. "Uh. Be right back." And with that, he turned around and quickly darted further into the treeline while tugging at the smooth fabric of his under-armor.

Samael snorted in entertainment -- as if Will had anything to hide from him at this point -- but waved off the innate desire for modesty as he relaxed in the seat. He was about to pick up the Diamond novel to thumb through it when his eyes narrowed at a sound he most certainly did not imagine this time. Shit...what is that...those sound like...

His head snapped back as the sudden roar of throttling jet engines echoed down the mountainside. There was hardly any time to react as not one, but two drop ships suddenly appeared through the narrow gap in the branches. They were not yet up to full speed as they rumbled past the jeep's position, almost directly over the break in vegetation, and Samael knew without hesitation that he'd be spotted by anyone giving even the most cursory glance downward.

The rebel could do little more than frown up at the passing ships, noting the dark HADES emblem with a slow clenching of his fingers against the wheel. The navigational light on the second craft glided over his stony features, briefly illuminating the left half of the jeep before continuing to pass along the thick trees and underbrush. Neither ship slowed, continuing to increase their air speed as they proceeded toward the foot of the mountain, but Samael had little doubt that his presence was already being radioed in. "Fuck...that's just fuckin' great," he cursed quietly.

He shifted his eyes to the side to see Will's pale features staring at him from around a tree trunk. His taut leggings were barely pulled all the way back up as he hastily stumbled through the brush with a frantic whisper: "Samael! What was that, were those drop ships??"

"Yeah, they were," Samael answered with a grimace, already thumbing through his mental catalog of ideas. "HADES."

"Oh no," Will gasped as a hand went to his chest. "Did...did they..."

"Most likely." Samael bit his lip briefly before glancing at his companion again. "But definitely not you. So far as they know, it's just one unknown in a jeep, heading up the mountain." His mind was whirring away and even though Will was babbling incoherently, he barely processed Will's panicked words as he formulated his own quick plan. "Will, Will -- hush a sec, okay?" His eyes were soft despite the half-order, and Will closed his muzzle reluctantly as he stood next to the jeep with a nervous expression. "My guess is they were investigatin' whatever it is we're headin' toward. And since those ships didn't stop...gonna assume there's a few of them still at those coordinates, on the ground. Probably got left behind to keep lookin' around while the rest of them head...wherever they're headed. They already know I'm here, they already know I got a vehicle. But they don't know about you."

Will shook his head numbly -- he already knew what was coming, even before Samael reached into the back to dig out his pistol from the pile of armor. "N-no, Samael, no said, you said if you see HADES to run, you can't..."

"I've dealt with them before," the rebel interjected quietly, pushing the large handgun into Will's hands despite his protests. "If I keep goin', put on the Red armor, act the part, I might be able to bullshit my way through it, right? I killed a Blue, found these coordinates, got told to check them out. It works, 'nuff that it'll pass a basic inquiry. An' then we'll play it from there, see what happens. But you, you gotta take this and stay hidden. Take the radio, too." He grabbed the communication device from the center console, holding it out while Will continued to shake his head in pointless denial.

"Please, Sammy, please don't do this," the fearful ex-soldier begged, trembling like a leaf as his eyes pleaded more desperately than his words ever could. "I...I don't want to be alone..."

"Hey, you won't be, Will, 'cause if anything happens to me, then the others will find you. Ain't no point in gettin' both our asses killed, yeah?" Samael fought with himself, forcing down the urge to hop across the seats and plant a kiss on the shaking No-Longer-Corporal Barnes. That wouldn't do either of them any good. "I got this. This is what I do, Will. You keep your head down, call headquarters after a few hours if you don't see me, and just listen to Nelson. She'll take care of you."

"B-but, Sammy, wait," Will whimpered as Samael gave a slight smile and then eased the jeep back onto the path. He took a few stumbling steps after the vehicle, calling out his name again and meeting his eyes briefly in the rear-view mirror before Samael looked ahead once more and accelerated quickly up the path.

Will was left standing in the middle of the trail, drenched in moonlight as a small cloud of dust settled around him. He had Samael's pistol clutched in one hand, and the radio in the other, hugging both against his quivering frame as he stared after the hog until it disappeared around a corner. " said we'd get through this together," he whispered uselessly as his chest heaved with the sinking realization of this new reality settling over him.

He looked down silently at the magnum handgun once the engine of the off-road vehicle was lost to the surrounding vegetation. Okay. All he had to do was stay hidden in the trees. Samael would be back. He could handle himself. All he had to do was wait.

...No. No, he couldn't just wait. Not this time.

Will's teeth clenched together as he tucked the radio into the waistband of his black under-armor so he could grip the pistol in both hands. Samael hadn't abandoned him despite numerous chances to do so. He wasn't about to ignore the stupid selflessness. William Barnes inhaled deeply before slipping back into the treeline and then breaking into a jog up the mountain, keeping the trail close but staying in the dark cover as he doggedly began trailing his companion on foot. If Samael thought he could just abandon him to go die a fool's death alone, he had another thing coming.

Samael's sharp eyes spotted the distinct outline of a non-standard helmet on the figure positioned near the entrance of what appeared to be an old mine. He was quickly sliding the last piece of armor onto his shin as he steered around the last curve, having donned his specialist's gear along the drive up the mountain, and was about as presentable as could be. Not that it was going to make a huge difference to these assholes...

The impostor exhaled slowly as he decelerated with a grimace -- he'd noticed the way the soldier at the opening in the rock face was already leveling his rifle at the jeep, but his own attention had been drawn to the bodies lined up near the entrance. There were at least five dead chupadores in various states of undress -- one had only his black under-armor on, and the others had bits and pieces of Blue Army armor hastily pulled into place.

It hadn't made a difference. There were more bullet wounds than Samael cared to count; he couldn't be sure of the scenario, though his mental image sketched out a handful of Blues who were trying to find a safe place away from the war and -- upon being discovered -- had decided their best bet was to go down fighting. But they hadn't stood a chance against the elite squadron, especially without any sort of preparation or warning.

"Halt! This is a restricted location, by order of the House!"

Samael's eyes lifted to meet the tip of the assault rifle aimed directly at his head. The HADES operative was thirty or forty meters away, but Samael knew that distance was nothing for the average member of their tactical squads. He obediently tapped on the brake and killed the engine before raising both arms. Your average grunt knew that when someone with that insignia barked an order, you listened. "Sir! Holmes, Specialist. Red Army, 4219209!" he announced. The serial was fake, but he was leaning on his bluster and hoping the confidence would take the place of reality.

He couldn't see the soldier's eyes, which didn't help with his usual methods. Body language, however, was universal. Despite his immediate, supplicating response, the well-trained operative hadn't lowered the rifle by more than an inch or two. "This area has been deemed a site of insurrection against the rules of the Holy War. The House of Omega is investigating. What the hell is a Red Army specialist doing here?"

'Holmes' kept his hands up but jerked his head toward the back. It was risky -- Will's armor was still in the bed, but so were the pieces of Blue armor he'd taken off the soldier he'd 'shot'. "I took out a Blue asshole outside of our base, Qoppa Outpost 151. Found coordinates in his sidepack and was ordered to come check it out. We thought there was possibly a group of Blues organizin' some kinda unofficial base."

The HADES soldier remained unwavering for a few seconds before noting crisply: "Outpost 151. The ammunition depot." He grunted once before motioning slightly with his head. "Out of the vehicle, Specialist."

"Of course, sir," 'Holmes' replied quickly as he scrambled out of the vehicle and promptly saluted. It was strangely unnerving to not have it returned. "So...if y'all are here, does that mean these fuckers weren't workin' on some underhanded sneak attack?"

"What do you think, Specialist?" the soldier shot back brusquely. He took a step toward the unusual-looking chupadore and Samael kept still, waiting for the right moment. "It's pretty fuckin' unusual to send out a single specialist to track down an unknown lead. Especially from a base so vital to your army's efforts."

"Oh, yeah, I said the same thing to my CO!" 'Holmes' responded smoothly, twirling a hand for emphasis and silently noting the twitch of the soldier's rifle back toward his chest. "But with our location having a corporal as well, we figured we could spare--"

He was interrupted by another voice from behind -- how had he missed the footsteps?!? "Is your corporal walking around without armor? Because it looks like it's right here in your jeep."


Samael glanced over his shoulder with a furrowed brow, keeping his tone even as he could. "It's stolen. We found it with the soldier I capped. Unfortunately it was a kill-shot so we couldn't interrogate him, but the sergeant believed they were going to try and infiltrate the base, possibly because of the ammunition depot."

The newcomer had on the same helmet, obscuring his features and leaving only a generic, hulking figure decked out in matching HADES armor. This soldier had a shotgun held against his shoulder, however, and the insignia on his shoulder had an additional bar over his companion's by the cave entrance. "Mmm. So you were ordered to find the Blues to stop potential sabotage? That what you're saying, Specialist Holmes?"

"Yessir, I've been out here for several hours trackin' down this location -- imagine my surprise findin' the House already on the spot, though! Looks like we didn't have much to worry about, after all..." One highly-trained soldier was feasible. Two of them, however...

He needed to find an advantage.

"I see. It's a shame, then, Specialist. Appears you were too late." 'Holmes' turned carefully to face the higher-ranked House operative, his expression reflecting what he hoped was genuine curiosity. "Oh, has your base not been in contact? We received a report of a massive explosion at Outpost 151, about three hours ago."

Samael wasn't shocked to hear it. Any soldiers that worked for the House had near-constant communication both with one another as well as a central dispatch hub. They'd lost more than a few Movement operatives learning some of the inner workings of the shadowy organization; even without knowing excessive details, they knew enough about HADES to expect extremely rapid and accurate updates on activities around the ring.

Samael simply needed to shift his tactic.

He dropped his jaw and scrambled back to the jeep. He heard the assault rifle behind him click as the safety was disabled but he steeled himself and ignored it. "Omega above, holy shit, you serious? No, I haven't had a single peep...what's the status? Were there any casualties? How are the men?!? They must have knocked out comms..."

The soldier poised by the back of the hog used the tip of his shotgun to slowly stir the contents of the vehicle's bed. "Lotta gear packed for a snipe hunt," the operative rumbled. "Funny thing is -- their comms seemed fine. Communication scanners picked up their report of a stolen vehicle just before the depot went up. Grey chupadore, short. Apparently convinced one of theirs to flee with him."

Samael struggled not to freeze, tried his best to keep fumbling around as if looking for a radio. The only weapon he had available was the enormous long-range rifle. There was no way he could pull a surprise attack with it. "That...that's impossible," he muttered, teeth grit as his tail flicked nervously to make the odd piercing jingle quietly, only adding to the suspicion of his appearance. "They must have hijacked the lines..." He heard the soldier posted at the cave entrance moving toward his back. "Where's my goddamn radio?!?"

"Nice try, asshole," the shotgun-wielding operative snarled, gesturing to his companion while stepping back from the jeep and leveling his weapon.

Samael inhaled sharply and went with his instincts, waiting to hear the paws of the soldier behind him take one more step before he jerked his head backward viciously. But the HADES operative was quick, sliding one leg back and shifting his muzzle to one side, barely avoiding the violent headbutt. Samael continued his momentum in an attempt to launch the edge of his palm into the soldier's throat, but was met instead with the stock of the assault rifle crashing into his temple.

His vision flashed as his body went limp, stumbling back into the jeep with a weak grunt. His hand clutched into the door frame stubbornly, his body fighting the unconsciousness already engulfing his senses as his legs trembled beneath him. His training screamed at him to listen, to grasp at every bit of information that he could. The voices of the soldiers were muffled, barely audible as his head swam from the ruthless impact.

"Where do you think the other Red soldier is?"

"This fucker probably killed 'em and stole the armor. Guessing he's Movement. Calling it in now."

Samael felt an unavoidable tear roll down his cheek from the thrumming pain as his fingers clamped into the armored frame, keeping his boneless form hovering weakly just above the ground. A cruel paw smashed into his gut a moment later and he wheezed in agony before his claws scraped lines through the paint as he finally collapsed into a heap next to the armored vehicle.

"...suspected Movement rebel in custody. Should we dispose of..."

Samael's eyes fluttered, his instincts begging him to cling to consciousness as long as possible. "...derstood. We will interrogate." He had to hang on. He had to fight back. "...ur reply. Tango-3 out."

Samael stared up weakly in time to watch the butt of the rifle crack into the side of his muzzle with a dull snap. The rebel's jawbone creaked, saved from shattering thanks only to the dwindling control he had over his own body. His fist at last relaxed as the sweet embrace of darkness wrapped its arms around him, gently pulling him into the abyss while the last strains of defiant tension melted away. And for the first time in what felt like years...Samael was no longer in control.