Act 2: Like a Friend

The fire crackled invitingly, beating back the frigid temperatures as the two ex-Freelancers sat pressed together on a broad log. The sleeping bag had been unzipped to form a makeshift blanket, pulled around their bodies to help keep the cold off their backs. York had constructed a quick drying rack from a few sturdy green branches and rope, and most of their damp clothes were hung over it. Wash managed to slip out of the tent before York could protest, and it was a bit harder to complain now that the fire was warming them more than curling up together in the sleeping bag had done.

"You didn't pack any spare clothes?" Wash asked with a grumble, eyes flicking up to York's amused features. "Yeah, fine, mine were lost with the jeep, but if you had a t-shirt or something, at least, we could stop being naked."

"Who's complainin'? Anyway, wearing just a t-shirt is way sexier than full nudity, everyone knows that," York reasoned, throwing an arm around Wash's shoulders beneath the blanket. "You're just being self-conscious again! Which is dumb -- you got nothin' to hide! You don't need to look like me just to show a little fur." He grinned back down at his friend, who sighed resignedly.

"You're hopeless, you know that?" Wash mumbled as York shrugged amicably, both their gazes drawing naturally back to the fire. Wash shifted a bit under York's arm, then snorted soft laughter. "Hey..."


"Earlier, when you mentioned...'looking around'. You didn't mean you, right?" Wash glanced up with a bemused smile, though his eyes still searched York's features curiously.

York laughed in return, his eyes remaining locked on the fire even as he squeezed Wash's shoulders tenderly. "Ha, not specifically." He smiled slightly into the flames. "Why not, though? Not like we gotta get past that awkward stage of sleeping-with-your-coworker, we can already check that one off the list."

Wash huffed. "Because no one would ever take me seriously again?"

"Ouch!!" York faked a shocked gasp, clutching his chest with his free hand. "I mean, you wouldn't have to advertise it," he joked while stealing a brief glance at Wash.

Wash was too busy making faces at the fire. "Oh, like I'd have to. No one knows how to keep their damn mouths shut there. We pretend we're better than those crazy assholes at Sidewinder, but let's be honest...are we really? Pretty sure our guys gossip as much as anyone else." He grumbled and crossed his arms even as he let York's half-embrace draw him closer to the other chupa's side. He seemed too distracted with his rant to notice, regardless. "Last thing I need is everyone else making fun of me for being scrawny, being mean, and sleeping with you." He scowled before adding in a mumble: "No offense."

"Heh, none taken!" York did his best to mean it, but was nonetheless glad Wash was still glaring into the campfire. "Anyway, I didn't mean me," he casually dodged as he poked Wash's arm with his other hand. "You ever thought of asking CT to dinner?"

This made Wash blink and sputter, tearing his eyes from the fire to stare dumbly up at his companion. "What? way! That's...definitely not. We're just friends."

"So are we," York replied mildly, arching an eyebrow.

Wash wrinkled his muzzle and reached up to scrub at his cheek for a moment. "That's different!" York studied him curiously. "And she's different, too. You and I have been through a lot together. I mean. She and I have also been through a lot together, but that kids, and. It was different, I guess. But we've seen war together. So this, between us, it's just two guys helping each other de-stress, that's all. It's not the same, you know?"

York deflated somewhat while he carefully carved an entertained grin into his features. He meant what he asked -- it was clear Wash and CT had their own chemistry bubbling just beneath the surface, and York really did want his friend to be happy. He just wasn't expecting to have more cold water thrown on their own strange but comfortable little bond. "Oh, yeah, for sure," he replied with a goofy smile. "Still, just think you should consider it." Wash glowered up at him and he raised a hand defensively. "I get it, you're happy with your thing with Tex. Which is just a harmless fling that you don't care nothin' about."

Wash looked up at him flatly again before grumbling and pulling the blanket around himself a bit tighter. "I can hear that tone in your voice. Ass."

"Just doin' my part as your friend," York replied. "Someone's gotta look out for ya, you ain't so great at doing it yourself." He grinned again when Wash scowled, and it was more honest this time. "You can't deny that, you'd still be back in your damn office doin' inventory checks for the fifteenth time if I didn't drag your ass out for this mission."

"Yeah, well, no one else is gonna do it," Wash muttered before he sighed. "It...was nice to get out, though."

"Of course it was! And hey -- have ya thought of asking for help? You know some of our recruits aren't the best fighters, right? A little bureaucracy might do everyone some good."

Wash gave an encore of his sigh. "Okay, no one else is gonna do it right," he clarified drolly.

York rolled his eyes and squeezed Wash's shoulders firmly. "Now you're just bein' a dumbass. The entire resistance won't fall apart because some guy counted seven crates of noodles instead of eight."

"No, but make a mistake on how much ammo we have and next thing you know, our guys are dead on their next mission because they don't have enough bullets," Wash retorted bitterly.

York gazed down at him for a moment, then grumbled as he shifted his arm from Wash's shoulders to instead curl around his waist so he could pull the smaller chupa into his lap. Wash flailed in protest. "Hey! What the hell, York!?"

But York only held him against his chest and drew the blanket around them both again. "Sometimes you just need to shut up and let things go, Wash. You can't stop every bad thing that comes along. Shit happens." Wash tried to twist around to argue, but York's muzzle nudged his back to the front so they were both looking at the fire. "You're a great leader. The best damn leader this rebellion could have. But you're no good to us burned out all the time, or half-asleep, or dead."

Wash squirmed uselessly in York's grip before he sighed and let his weight drop back into his friend's lap. "Yeah, I get it. None of us want each other to die. But that's just reality, York, that's just our life now. Any day, they could buzz us with a dropship, send in a couple of HADES platoons and wipe us all out. Every mission, every job, any one of us could be killed."

York stared into the fire for a few seconds before responding softly: "Yeah. We know that. We all do. But it all falls apart without you, Wash."

"Bullshit, people don't join the rebellion because of me, they're here because they're desperate, or because they fight for what they believe, and what they want to change," Wash argued as he folded his arms and then looked down. "One person isn't going to make or break this fight. If something happens to me, you or CT would be just as good at leading them. Hell, you'd probably be better. At worst, they have Nelson...who honestly might be more passionate about this than all of us..."

"Yeah. You're right," York murmured as he rested his muzzle on his friend's head. "Then call it selfish. Because win or lose this fight, I don't want to be there without you at my side. And those people need you a helluva lot more than they need me." He could feel Wash's heart thumping against his wrist, and he accepted the guilty sensation that crept over him.

Wash stared silently into the fire. The implication was clear enough. "That's not fair, York," he whispered, his fists clenching slowly in his lap. "That's not fucking fair."

York held his companion securely as Wash closed his eyes and reached up to clutch quietly into his arm. "I know."

The two sat quietly as their clothes dried, neither speaking a word for the near-hour that passed. The fire dwindled slowly thanks to the amount of wood York had built it with, allowing the two friends to savor their welcome solace.

It was York who finally shifted first and loosened his arms. Wash took the silent acknowledgment and slid out of his companion's lap to land in the snow, wincing as his paws sank into it. He immediately shivered and rubbed his bare arms before glancing over his shoulder when York draped the still-warm sleeping bag around him with a slight smile. "How are you n-not just a little co-cold?" Wash muttered through his uncontrollable shudder.

"'Cause I remember that coffee alone doesn't make for a well-balanced diet," York teased, moving to the other side of the smoldering fire with the usual complete lack of shame for his nudity. "I know that our cooks might not be quite, uh. Gourmet level, but I still can't remember the last time I saw you eat somethin' other'n stale crackers and weird vegetables."

"They aren't weird, they're...just vegetables," Wash mumbled as he pulled the sleeping bag around his head so only his muzzle stuck out. "Anyway, I don't care what you say, it's cold no matter what. If we see any of Sammy's people, I'm gonna punch them in the face just for existing out here."

York snickered softly before tossing Wash's pants over and onto his face. "Christ, you're cranky when you're cold. Clothes are nice and dry, though -- let's get dressed and we'll go find you some real food to eat."

Wash huffed around the pants, but he eventually pulled them off his maw and shuffled awkwardly into them while trying to keep the warm blanket around his shoulders. "We're in the middle of nowhere with no vehicle. How do you propose we do that?"

"Eh, we'll figure it out!" York replied in an upbeat tone while sliding into his own jeans. "There's gotta be an outpost or settlement somewhere around here -- it might be a 'secret' research facility, but it ain't that much of a secret. Must be somewhere nearby they can go to for supplies if a dropship is running late or something."

Wash cursed softly. "Shit. You're right -- I should have taken more time with the maps, I'm sure there was something--" He blinked and then sighed as another article of clothing was thrown unceremoniously over his head. "You know, you could just say what's on your mind, like a normal person," he muttered past the shirt as he finally pulled the sleeping bag off and then glanced at it with a grimace. "Oh. Right. Messy."

York rolled his eyes but smiled and trotted up to take the bedroll from his companion. "Geez, it ain't that bad, we only went one time." Wash glowered up at him and he snickered in response while carefully zipping up the sleeping bag to start rolling it up tightly. "Anyway, you were getting all hard on yourself again. So ya didn't memorize the exact geographical layout of this place -- so what?" He eyed Wash pointedly as he began to stow the other loose contents inside the tent back into the pack. "Not the end of the world if we gotta do a little good old-fashioned recon to get the lay of the land."

Wash looked uncomfortable, but he nodded after a few seconds and approached so he could help break down the tent. "I suppose the next thing you're gonna say is how we used to do that all time?" he inquired, holding up a corner of the tent so York could remove the support poles

The look on his companion's face had all the answer he needed. "Heh. I'm just sayin'!" As he folded up the flexible poles, York smiled reassuringly. "Even if something happens that's out of your control, that doesn't mean we can't handle it. Trust in us. Trust in yourself. I sure as hell do!"

Wash was silent as they finished packing up the rest of the tent and shoved most of the supplies into York's bag. York could tell, as always, when his companion was lost in thought. He supposed that was better than Wash simply moping about how trusting him was a bad idea, and how he'd made so many mistakes before. It was sometimes hard to convince Wash that all the good things he'd done far outweighed the mistakes...especially considering how most people would have made the same ones, if not even worse. And he doubted many would do as much as Wash had to attempt to redeem them, either.

After they doused the fire, the two set off on foot in a direction York deemed "most likely good". Wash grumbled, but his spirits were lifted enough by the clear weather and the fact that he was no longer shivering to death. They chatted easily as they moved, alternating between brisk jogs and speed-walking to try and conserve their stamina. It felt like the early days of Freelancer again...where there was such an extreme between having the latest technology and resources...and having to fend off both natural and chupa-made perils with little more than their bare hands and their wits while off in the middle of nowhere hunting down some important object or wanted criminal.

They eventually crossed a road, which hosted just enough vehicular traffic that most of the snow was tamped down and covered with dirt. York's grin was broad as Wash tried his best not to smile as well. "C'mon, I can see it, you're impressed! Toldja I'd find us a way!"

"You technically only found a muddy road," Wash countered with a half-smile. "With our luck it's just gonna take us right back to the research facility."

York snickered amusedly even as he put his hands on his hips and gave his friend a look. "Hey, hey, I ain't done us wrong this far!"

"Except for the part where you got us run out of the place, shot at, got our jeep destroyed and subsequently almost got me killed from hypothermia," Wash noted, though his expression was still entertained.

"W-well...yeah, but you were the one who uh. Left your parka. In the jeep," York retorted lamely.

"Which, again, you got hit with a grenade," Wash fired back playfully.

York huffed and then paused to turn around and fire a pair of fingerguns at his companion. "Yeah but then I sexed ya back to life." Wash groaned and tried not to look embarrassed as his friend cackled and spun back around, raising one finger over a shoulder. "Total net gain!"

"For you, maybe," Wash grumbled, though a small smile teased his features as they continued down the path.

To York's credit, it cut directly through a small outpost town after another couple hours of walking. It was a small but cozy settlement, nestled into a large expanse in the thickly-wooded forests of Sampi. Several houses were clustered along one side, while the other sported a gas station, some local stores and what looked like a diner. York perked at the latter, hooking his thumbs into the straps of the pack while beaming back at Wash. "Hey, check it out! Now there's where we can probably get some good grub."

"What's a diner doing way out here?" Wash wondered aloud while gazing around the town to take in the layout.

"Maybe this road's one used by transports...hauling lumber or somethin'," York reasoned. "Truckers know all the best grease traps, after all."

"Ugh. They probably won't have anything I normally eat, though," Wash mumbled as he trudged after York. There didn't really appear to be many alternative places to look for food.

"Uh, yeah, that's kind of the point," York replied with a wink over his shoulder. "I promised you real food. So shut up 'n let me treat ya." He pushed open the door to the diner and immediately inhaled deeply, his tail giving a happy twitch. "Oh yeah, that's the stuff..."

He looked back to see Wash grumbling but following him inside...and then widening his eyes as he delicately sniffed at the air. "Coffee." It was both an observation as well as a plea.

York tried not to laugh, tossing a wave to the one other patron inside as he threw his other arm around Wash's shoulders. "See? Now everyone's happy."

"Okay, but we really can't stay for long, we need to figure out how we're gonna --"

York cut him off by gently holding his muzzle shut with one hand. "Shhhh. Shh. You're gonna shut up like I said. And you're gonna drink some coffee. And you're gonna have a big-ass plate of food. And then we're gonna figure out the best way back. Deal?"

Wash glared up at him flatly before mumbling a response around the thick fingers holding his jaws closed. "Deal."

"Good!" York smiled brightly and shrugged off his pack to lean it against a booth before sliding in and then nodding to a waitress who glanced at them from across the diner.

Wash sighed but dropped into the booth across from his companion. He scrubbed briefly at his mane as he glanced around instinctively before blinking when York reached over the table to pat his arm. "Huh?"

"The one other guy in here's a local. You can relax, buddy." York smiled again and then slid his arm back as the apron-sporting waitress approached their table, immediately shifting to prop his muzzle up and give her a winning grin. "Well hey there, sweetie!! Two menus and a pot of coffee for this little dude here, when you're able to -- he's got a fixin' for the good stuff!" Wash's subsequent sigh and awkward smile made York look rather pleased with himself.

Getting lost in the middle of Sampi might not have been so bad, after all.

"That' No, you're making that up, there is no way," Wash insisted, jabbing at his companion with his fork.

York laughed and held up both hands before widening his eyes as he spotted a bit of fruit filling on his fingers. "It's as true as it gets!" he replied while licking his fingers clean. "That was the mission. Stop the two from tying the knot."

"And you slept with them both?" Wash shoved another piece of pie into his muzzle as he shook his head in amusement.

"Don't ever let someone say I'm not thorough!" York chortled, leaning back and crossing his arms. "It's probably a good thing they never compared photos or anything...I might have just spiced up their sex life otherwise instead of breaking them up."

Wash snickered, scraping his plate for the last remaining bits of crust. "We had such strange jobs sometimes. Honestly wouldn't have been so tempting to leave if they'd all just been the weird ones instead of the 'kill all these guys without questioning why' ones."

"No kiddin'," York concurred before nudging Wash's shin with a paw. "You want any more coffee?"

"God, no, I'm good," Wash mumbled, pushing his empty plate away and gulping down the last of his fourth or fifth mug. "Ugh, I ate too much."

York half-grinned and raised a finger when the waitress looked their way. "You were hungry, buddy. And can you even remember the last time you had a burger? Or pie?"

Wash looked thoughtful for a few seconds, and York laughed. "See, the fact you even gotta think about it means it's been too long. You can't tell me it didn't hit the spot!"

"Yeah, good. Unexpectedly good," Wash admitted with a slight smile of his own. "Guess it means I'll have plenty of energy for the death-march pace you like to set. We're gonna be walking a bunch more, I assume..."

"Hey, don't forget one of my skill-sets includes resource acquisition," York stated before smiling and thanking the waitress for the check. He pulled out his wallet to leave cash and a generous tip, and Wash glanced at the leather-bound accessory.

"What're you gonna do, go steal a toy truck from the same ten-year-old girl you stole that wallet from?"

York blinked before giving an outright grin as he looked at the front of the wallet where a colorful unicorn pattern was etched into the surface. "Ha! You got jokes again, you really are feeling better!" He slid out from behind the table and lifted the backpack over one shoulder while offering his other arm to help Wash out. "C'mon. If truckers come through here, there'll be a mechanic. And if there's a mechanic, there's probably a radio. We'll see who we can hit up before resigning ourselves to a long romantic stroll to the next hideout."

Wash opened his muzzle automatically to make some argument, then paused. "Huh. That's a long shot, but I guess doesn't hurt to try. Who are you planning to call, though?" His tone became suspicious and he squinted up at York as they both tossed waves to the cook and waitress on their way out.

"I'd start with our own folks, just to see, but...y'know. We aren't that far from Honkal," York noted innocently, his eyes rolling around to peer back at Wash.

Wash's brows furrowed further. "Oh goddammit, no. That's the last person I want to deal with after everything we've been through today..."

"It'll be fiiiiine, it's been a while since we talked, anyway."

"Yeah, because the last time we talked was when I had to apologize for your stupid prank war with Sammy...she's probably still pissed about those snakes."

York grinned as they stepped outside so he could wander down the snow-covered path to look for a mechanic. "Only one of 'em was real, she's gotta be over it by now..."

The mechanic had given them permission to use the radio, on the condition that they bring him some coffee from the diner. York volunteered to do so while Wash reached out to their home base, and by the time he got back with a travel cup of the stuff, Wash was rubbing at his face in annoyance. York handed the paper mug to the grateful mechanic, who didn't care enough about the two strangers to hover around while they messed with the radio.

"No luck with CT, eh?" York inquired, nudging Wash's shoulder. "You try anyone else yet?"

"Yeah, tried our new forward base, no answer," Wash sighed, staring at the radio morosely. "I really don't want to call them."

"Then just call her directly," York suggested, trying not to smile as he leaned on the back of the chair.

Wash looked at him flatly. "That's literally no different. Possibly worse."

"Look, all I'm sayin' is if she gave you the private frequency for her weird, scary war-chair, then she had to figure you'd use it at some point." York grinned and held out his hand. "Set the frequency, I'll talk to her."

"This isn't what I pictured when you talked about being the sacrificial lamb," Wash muttered as he leaned forward to twist the dial of the receiver. "But you know what, I'll take it." He handed over the microphone with a half-smile. "Good luck."

York snorted as he snatched up the microphone. "Puh-lease. I can talk anyone's pants off. Even hers." He paused and looked thoughtful, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "Wait, do you think she puts on her own pants in the morning? Or that someone's job? Oh man, you think that's Sammy's job? No wonder he wants to travel so much. You know, other than meeting up with Andee so they can rub their--"

"Agent York."

York blinked before widening his eyes slowly as he turned his head creakily toward the icy gust that cut through the receiver, colder than any of Sampi's frozen winds. The female voice continued sharply: "Get the fuck off my personal channel and hand the mic to Washington."

Wash groaned and dropped his head into both hands while sinking into the chair. York gave a dumb grin and tugged on his necklace. "Heh. Must have been accidentally keying it."

"You think?" Wash muttered past his palms.

York nonetheless cleared his throat and lifted the microphone again. "Uh, sorry about that, ma'am!"

"I said give it to Washington -- I know you didn't call me on your own because you're scared of me." York laughed loudly, an awkward, forced sound. "Let him give me whatever goddamn bad news you have for me."

York could swear he heard laughter in the background while Nelson was talking, but before he could respond, Wash thrust out a hand, his other one still covering his face. "Just. Just let me talk to her."

"I'm not scared of her," York protested even as he slapped the microphone into Wash's palm. "Tell her I'm not scared of her."

"I don't like lying," Wash deadpanned before taking a deep breath and pressing the button. "Nelson."

"Washington, if your goddamn oversized lap-dog calls my personal line again for any reason other than reporting the fuckin' time of your death, it's your balls."

Wash glowered through his fingers up at York. He sighed heavily and held the microphone close to his muzzle so his carefully-chosen words would be clear. "My apologies, Nelson. And it isn't bad news, just. A request."

"That is almost always bad news as far as I'm concerned," Nelson replied sourly. "Go on, then, what the fuck did you get yourselves into this time?"

"Hey, we were the ones who rescued Samael and Andee from those crazy cultists in Blarganthia just a few weeks ago!" Wash countered, even though his face showed he immediately regretted the outburst.

"You know that wasn't part of any job I sanctioned. And Andee is not one of mine," Nelson fired back.

York tried not to grin as Wash mumbled under his breath and slid low enough in the chair that he was practically laying in it. "Alright, alright. Look, uh. York and I were...sight-seeing out here in Sampi. But our jeep was..."

Wash blanked for a moment trying to think of what to say, but York was there, leaning down with a grin to add: "The damn thing was totaled! Some jack-offs flipped it and we've been on foot since then!"

"And you're, what. Hoping I can send someone over with a vehicle for you? You know what, I was just thinking the other day, 'wow, my truck-sprouting tree is having such a great harvest this year, I better go prune off some pick-ups before it gets overgrown'."

York covered the microphone with a hand and whispered loudly: "I don't think she actually has a truck-sprouting tree."

Wash glared daggers at his companion before sighing again. "Look, Nelson, I just figured I'd ask, it--"

Another female voice interrupted over the sounds of a microphone being shuffled around. "Nelson, ya stingy bitch, just tell them alrea--hey, watch it! I'm just borrowing it!" Wash and York stared at each other in confusion as the audible struggle continued before Nelson's voice muttered darkly as if at a slight distance.

"--least stop putting your fuckin' tits on my head every time you grab it."

"Like you care," the second voice retorted before it came through the receiver clearly: "Howdy, boys! What the fuck are you doing in Sampi?"

Wash blinked as he suddenly recognized the voice. He and York shared an incredulous look. "Ashe?"

"You know it. Now tell me how pissed off I'm gonna be at--hey!" Her voice grew faint again. "Watch your hands, you four-wheelin' bitch! You gotta learn to share!"

Nelson's voice cut back in with a grumble. "If it wasn't made abundantly clear, yes, I'm with Mills. We're in Episemon but she was getting ready to fly me back home. So. I suppose we can make a stop to pick you two up."

Ashley spoke up again in the background: "I never agreed to that shit! They're gonna owe me!"

"Wurlitz is yours for a week," Nelson replied curtly, sounding as if she was turned away from the microphone "I still owe Washington for saving that idiot and his idiot boy-toy."

Ashley muttered something uncouth, too faint to be picked up, but her voice then came across loudly: "Yeah, yeah, fine. Find out where they are -- I'm gonna go check the fuel levels."

Nelson grunted before her voice became clear again. "Washington. Coordinates."

Wash blinked but York was there again, lifting the microphone -- and Wash's hand -- to his muzzle: "A little town out here, it's called Bering. I can get the actual numbers if you nee--"

"Not necessary," she cut him off easily. "I know the place. Mills won't want to fly into town -- there's a lake about an hour or two north from the settlement. We'll be there in a few hours. Got it?"

It didn't feel like a question, but Wash seemed to take it in stride as he mumbled and gingerly pulled the microphone back toward himself. "Yeah. I uh. We appreciate it." He apparently couldn't resist adding curiously: "So. Want to tell us what you're doing in Episemon?"

"Not over the radio," Nelson growled. "Get moving, you two." And with that, the line went dead, leaving Wash and York in awkward silence as Wash slowly returned the microphone to its hook.

"That coulda gone worse!" York announced with a grin, his hands on his hips. "See! Told ya it'd all work out!"

Wash glowered at his companion. "This is the worst idea we've had in a long time." He groaned and rubbed slowly at his temples before glancing at his shoulder when York dropped a reassuring hand on it. "Yeah, I know. Better than nothing. We should get walking, though, I guess..."

"Yep! You gotta work off that second piece of pie," York teased, yanking Wash up to his feet and then jerking his head toward the door. "Follow me!"

"So what, Ashe has a soft spot for Nelson just because she runs an orphanage, so you think she just...flies her around when she feels like it?" Wash asked with a raised eyebrow. "I'm pretty sure she'd rather chop Nelson up and use her for baby food than do her any favors -- do you remember the last time they were in the same room together?"

"Hell yeah, that was like being in the studio audience for a soap opera." York grinned as he mimicked two high-pitched voices arguing.

"You mercenary bitch, you're practically working for the House!"

"What the fuck are you talking about, you legless twat, you used to be Red Army! Hardcore Red Army!!"

"I didn't know any better back then! At least I'm trying to save lives now!"

"Bitch, I run a goddamn orphanage, this ain't just some front, some of these kids probably had parents YOUR crazy rebels killed!"

York sighed happily, shaking his head wistfully. "That was a good day."

Wash couldn't help smiling as well. "It was nice to see her yelling at someone other than me for once, I won't lie. Either way, I guess we'll find out once they get here."

York grunted an agreement as they continued walking along the side of the barely-visible game trail. They'd purchased a couple of bottled waters and a few snacks before heading north out of the cozy village. The walk had otherwise been quiet, devoid of any interlopers beyond the occasional wild creature skittering past in the snow. It had given the two another opportunity to talk and plan their next steps.

As they trudged through the snow, York paused and studied a craggy hill some ways off to the east. He tilted his head thoughtfully and Wash frowned before nudging him lightly with an elbow. "What is it?"

"Pretty sure we're only a klick or two from the border to Kaprime," York mused. He felt Wash stiffen up at his side and he half-smiled. "Nah, we should be fine. Although..." He inclined his head slightly in the same direction. "I think we're pretty close to where the old man went down. Or at least where it was rumored to be."

Wash snorted quietly and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Great. Just what I need, the ghost of that asshole hovering over us."

York raised an eyebrow before continuing to walk toward their destination. "Well, don't hold back or nothin'."

Wash sighed but remained resolute as he glanced at York and then gazed into the snow-covered woods. "He died like a dog. I don't care how long he was doing this, he...died and got his entire group of recruits slaughtered. What good did that do anyone? I get it, he was passionate or whatever, but...christ, this is a war. You can't win just because you want to."

York slowed a bit so he could walk at Wash's side, frowning curiously at his words. "I mean, yeah. It was bad luck they crossed paths with a HADES unit, but...I dunno. I heard one of them survived. That he gave his life for them."

"What good did that do? Who knows if that guy is still alive? I said it before, but one life isn't gonna change the course of this war," Wash spat out bitterly, though he closed his eyes when York dropped a silent hand on his shoulder. "I'm just saying. Tracer wasn't exactly a practical representation of the Movement. Sure, he was a legend, but he's also the reason we have people like Nelson and Samael running around. And are they really helping win the war in any way, whatsoever? Or are they just adding more shit to an already-raging dumpster fire?"

York smiled a bit. "Maybe not the way you want, but it's a little rough to say they aren't helping at all. We wouldn't have gotten inside the research facility without Sammy and Andee. And Nelson's saved how many lives? You remember that one Freelancer, the one they paired with Maine?"

Wash grumbled softly but nodded. "Nebraska. Seemed pretty obvious the Director just wanted her dead. Didn't she get sent on a bunch of solo missions after Maine got pulled out of Freelancer? Stuff that shouldn't have been solo?"

"Yeah. And then Nelson recruited her." York shrugged amiably. "Pretty sure she would have been just another statistic, otherwise."

"She still might be if she's working with Nelson," Wash replied icily before muttering, "Either way. It's not like there's any memorial out here or anything. The old bastard died without a grave, and god knows what the House did with his body..."

Another faint smile crossed York's muzzle. "Bats made him a shrine over in Xulod." Wash blinked in surprise and lifted his eyes to York. "Andee showed me last time I was over that way."

"I...guess I shouldn't be surprised, the bastard got around, seemed to know every fuckin' dark corner of Sirca," Wash mumbled while slowly rubbing at his throat. "That's...still strange to hear, though. They're so closed off, and he was such a pain in the ass..."

"Aw, he wasn't so bad," York reasoned, nudging his companion. "He liked you just fine."

Wash stared blankly up at York. "He called me a spineless bootlicker who wasn't even worthy of dying for the Movement."

"Yeah, but. Then he called Nelson a heartless, barren, ice-queen-bitch who would sooner shoot her own platoon than admit defeat," York pointed out with a half-grin. "He also called me an idealistic idiot of a man-whore, which. Y'know. Pretty much on the nose."

Wash made a face and then shook his head quickly. "And all these things were somehow to be considered praise?"

York smiled quietly and wrapped a friendly arm around Wash's shoulders. "He did give you the coordinates in Lactan."

"Yeah, well. We already heard rumors there were abandoned structures that could be used out there," Wash replied stubbornly as a scowl appeared on his features. But when York squeezed his shoulders gently, he sighed and looked up at him again. "Just. Think of how many more lives he could have saved if he'd stopped being a goddamn stubborn asshole and come out of the field."

"He saved at least one life when he died," York murmured. They turned a bend in the trail, and a frozen lake was visible just ahead. They both gazed toward it for a moment before he continued: "And who knows how many lives that person touched, how many they saved. And yeah, maybe Tracer could have gotten away with his own life if he'd abandoned the recruits, if he didn't do whatever he did at the end. Maybe he would still be alive today. But then someone else wouldn't be. Someone he thought was worth giving his life for." York glanced back to Wash, who met his eyes for a moment before frowning and shifting his gaze away.

Wash's words echoed in York's mind; he was right, too. It wasn't fair. But nothing about this world was...and that was what made friendships like theirs so precious. Regardless of the implications.