Act 3: Common People

They didn't have to wait long, at least. Less than hour after they arrived at the lake, the whine of turbines could be heard over the surrounding trees. A minute or two later, Ashley's very distinct dropship appeared atop the treeline, its cheerful livery standing out the same way its egregious pilot did. York and Wash shielded their eyes as the burst of hot air kicked loose snow and evergreen needles across them both, matching looks of wariness on their faces. "Maybe Ashe already dropped Nelson off," Wash mumbled, squinting past his hand as the ship twisted neatly around before descending smoothly toward them.

The colorful exterior of the craft glided toward them and York took a step forward to reach for the rear hatch...only for it to be shoved open to reveal a female chupa at the top of the ramp, glaring at them from a wheelchair.

"I guess we're not that lucky," York whispered in a loud aside to Wash, who was all but pouting at the sight of their greeter..

"...Hi, Nelson."

"Washington. Lap-dog. You assholes getting in or not?"

Wash sighed and stepped onto the platform to quickly shuffle past Nelson so he could stick his head into the cockpit. He seemed only somewhat relieved at the entertained face glancing over a shoulder at him. "Good to see you again, Ashe."

"Rarely the same for me," she retorted, although she smiled slightly and leaned on the control stick. "What the hell kinda trouble did you get into? There was all kinds of chatter a few hours about a potential bounty on some trespassers out this way -- that wouldn't have had anything to do with you two, right?"

Wash grumbled something under his breath, which was apparently enough of an answer for her. She laughed and shook her head before yelling over the sound of the engines: "Get inside, asshole! Cold as shit out there!"

York was still standing awkwardly in front of Nelson, who was framing the loading area with her figure -- somehow imposing despite the wheelchair. But he finally shrugged off his over-stuffed pack and grinned. "Just gotta throw my luggage in!" he called back before tossing it idly into the ship...rather pointedly angling it toward Nelson.

York froze for a moment when a pair of hands appeared on either side of the backpack to snag it swiftly out of the air. It slowly lowered to reveal Nelson's flat expression and York cleared his throat sheepishly. "Uh. Good catch."

"Get in the fucking ship before I tell Mills to leave you here to walk your ass back," Nelson growled as she tossed the heavy pack aside with a frightening ease.

York rubbed the back of his neck but couldn't think of any reason to test her further as he quickly jumped into the ship and yanked up the ramp behind him. He barely had time to move toward one of the uncomfortable bench seats before Ashley yanked the yoke toward her chest and sent the dropship careening upward.

Wash yelped and stumbled backward as he scrabbled for something to grab onto. But York was there in an instant, catching Wash in his arms even as he himself slammed back against a bench with a wince. "Shit -- I gotcha, buddy."

"You boys should hold onto something!" Ashley called back with a grin as she nudged a pair of aviator sunglasses onto her muzzle and turned her attention back to the ship.

"Thanks for the heads-up," Wash mumbled as York grimaced and rubbed at his side slowly.

"Yeah, my kidneys would appreciate it like five seconds sooner next time," York added before he and Wash both glanced up awkwardly to see Nelson staring down at their tangled bodies while one of her muscular arms gripped calmly into a rail, keeping her wheelchair unnaturally still even while the ship bounced and shook violently with Ashley's jauntily-manic ascent. "What are you made out of?" York asked dumbly, Wash immediately groaning and dropping his head back against York's chest.

"'Piss and vinegar' is what I hear most often," she replied dryly as she studied them for a moment before wrinkling her muzzle slightly. "Holy hell in a handcart, what the fuck have you two been doing?"

Wash and York shared an awkward look while the former attempted lamely to extract himself from York to settle into a jump-seat. "...What do you mean?" Wash inquired slowly.

Nelson sniffed at the air before glowering between them. "Wait. You two? Seriously?"

Ashley craned her head back curiously. "Those two what?"

"These two nothing," Wash interrupted as he scrubbed at his face. "Fly the goddamn ship, Ashe."

"Nah, nah, nah, the one-woman-roller-derby don't say shit for no reason," she insisted, leaning back to squint again as the ship pitched slowly to one side. Wash and York both cursed as the lanky male gripped into the side of the cockpit with wide eyes.

"Dammit, fly the goddamn ship, Ashe!" he repeated, voice almost cracking with his concern. She only peered at him as if trying to stare the truth out of him, very purposefully twitching the yoke to make the aircraft wobble violently.

York, on the other hand, was still staring at Nelson from his seat on the floor, legs childishly crossed as he looked to her with a mix of horror and awe. "How...can can you tell?"

"You forget, I live with Wurlitz," she spat out disdainfully. "I can smell it from a goddamn mile away."

Ashley blinked and then snorted loudly at the air, the ship dipping back to the other side as she leaned back. "What are you on about, Marisa? I don't smell shit."

"Wait, your name is Marisa?" York blinked and giggled stupidly, ignoring the horrible look she gave him. But wait. She...smelled them? York's muzzle opened slightly, his delight with Nelson's name replaced with bewilderment as he whispered loudly: "Oh shit, she has super-senses. To make up for the one she lost!"

All eyes fell blankly on him before the sound of Wash's palm slapping against his features permeated the dull sound of the engines. "York, she...hasn't lost any senses. Just" He looked sheepishly at Nelson and received a double-barrel of the same deathly glower. "Uh. Never mind."

"The sense of humor might count," York replied helpfully before squawking as Nelson cuffed the side of his head. "Ow! Woman, that stings!"

"Smart-ass," Nelson muttered before she gripped into his shoulder and used his body as an anchor to shove her wheelchair forward. She grabbed the back of the pilot seat and leaned forward. "You can just drop them off with me."

"Hold up, I'm still processing what your super-sniffer just sleuthed out," Ashley retorted, peering back over the top of her sunglasses as Wash rolled his eyes and did a poor job of not looking embarrassed. It only took a few seconds of her studying his face before she broke into a huge grin. "Shiiiiit, you're right! Oh, Wash, you tiny adorable bastard!"

"I usually am," Nelson replied mildly before she and Ashley both looked back as York finally squirmed into a too-small jump-seat next to Wash and then leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He cleared his throat before giving his most winning smile and waving a hand.

"Look, whatever you think happened obviously didn't," York announced before reaching out to pat Wash's shoulder. He was a good liar. He could totally save this still. "Poor Wash got stuck wearing my things after his pack got burnt up in the jeep we lost. And you know me, I'm always looking for a good time. And. I found one! Where we had our mission. With scientists, there...there were sexy scientists, and I had. Sex with them. But then Wash had to put on my --"

"Save it, York, Wash's poker face is still shit as it ever was," Ashley taunted, her face painted with delight while at her side, Nelson looked annoyed...albeit with a barely detectable hint of amusement as well. York coughed and glanced apologetically at his friend, who tried his best to not look as morbidly horrified as possible. "What are we talkin' about here, two war buddies get a little too wasted and end up jerking each other off since it's only gay if the balls touch, right? Just a little touchy-touchy, squeezy-squeezy, goosh-goosh?" She paused and tapped her chin thoughtfully. "No, wait, looking at you two, I'm betting it was more of a..." She paused, clearing her throat loudly before pointedly taking on a high-pitched register: "'Oh, York! It's just so big! I'll NEVER fit it in my mouth, but gosh, I'll try!!' Kinda like that, right?" Her teeth gleamed as brightly as her sunglasses, her features decorated with pure delight. At her side, Nelson observed them with a calm, stony face. Well. Sort of. York was pretty sure he saw at least one corner of her muzzle twitch upward.

Wash's eyes widened and he sank slowly into the jump-seat while pulling a hand down across his features. "Oh my god..."

York was stuck somewhere between a broad grin and a sheepish smile -- on one hand, Wash's embarrassment was like a thousand tiny suns exploding from the scrunched-up chupa's body...but on the other hand, acting so awkward about it wasn't going to help their case that much. So he puffed his chest out and then offered a confident but reassuring smile to Wash. "Hey, who gives a fuck? So we messed around a little -- me 'n Wash been through some crazy shit, we've been friends for a long time, what's wrong with just cutting loose and letting things go every once in a while??"

Wash dropped his hand and stared morbidly at York. But York just smiled again and reached out to lightly punch Wash's shoulder. Internally, he wondered if it was the right decision. Wash had been so damn flippant about their 'interaction' that York didn't know if he wanted anything but to deny it.

Okay, maybe this was just a tiny bit about revenge. York didn't want to be a cruel bastard, had stung to have his best friend call what they'd had just...a fling. He started to feel bad about his reply, his massive frame shrinking a bit while his eyes furtively shot back to Wash. He didn't want to strain their friendship just because his weird feelings were getting the best of him.

A few seconds passed before Wash finally sighed and then shifted slightly in his seat to look at the two females watching him closely. "York is my best friend. We've saved each others' lives multiple times, been there for each other when no one else was." He crossed his arms and then added stoically: "So yeah, I know what he likes and he knows what I like. No harm taking advantage of that every now and then."

York's grin couldn't have been wider...or more surprised. Ashley blinked incredulously, herself, showing a rare moment of speechlessness while Nelson gave what York swore might have been a tiny hint of an approving nod. It brought a rush of adrenaline into York's heart as his pulse quickened a bit. He gazed affectionately at his friend, wishing desperately he could peer into Wash's thoughts. Was he just playing along? Or...did he really mean that?

Their victory was short-lived, however. Never to be one-upped, Ashley added a moment later: "Boy oh boy, I bet Tex sure is glad you suddenly dug your balls out of her pocket, since I'm sure you let her know about your annual Boys' Night Inside Each Other, too. I mean, she probably wouldn't care, heartless bitch she is, but. Y'know. Bet she'd still get a kick outta hearing about that."

Wash's mortified expression practically sprinted back to his features as York tried not to snort laughter. Surprisingly, it was Nelson who spoke next while she smirked and jabbed the pilot firmly in the bicep. "Leave them be. I would have told that slimy bitch myself, but I respect someone who tells the truth." She eyed Wash, who looked back sheepishly. "Even if it is a really dumb, really gay truth."

York's snickering couldn't be contained this time while at his side, Wash sighed loudly and slumped forward to bury his head into his arms. York reached over to pat his friend on the shoulder a few times as Ashley laughed and returned her focus to piloting.

Well, at least they didn't have to worry about Nelson's supernatural odor detection anymore.

The craft eventually leveled out as they reached a comfortable altitude; Ashley lined the ship up for the cliffs of Honkal and then jammed a massive wrench against the stick to keep it steady so she could turn around to face the others. Only Wash seemed mildly panicked.

York stood up to stretch his legs and amble around the hold while Wash tried to relax the best he could manage. "Okay, we deserve to get at least one thing answered, too," he mumbled, perhaps desperate to fill the ship with a conversation that wasn't about sex with York. York didn't blame him, even if he was a little bit okay with it talking about sex with York.

"You don't deserve shit, you two are practically hitchhikers," Ashley retorted.

Nelson rolled her eyes but shrugged easily enough. "It's fine, Mills. It's not that complicated, anyway." She leaned forward slightly while frowning and gazing out through the windshield. "One of my fighters died on a mission last week. She had a kid. Young. Too young." She glanced to the side with a quiet grumble. "Figured she'd be better off at an orphanage. We don't exactly have reliable childcare in the cliffs." She then glared daggers at Wash as if daring him to protest. "And I wasn't going to drop the poor kid at any place. Mills might be a fuckin' mercenary-ass-bitch, but..." She exhaled, a reluctant noise if she ever made one. "She runs a good place. Gives the kids a safe home and a proper education about the world. I'd rather drive halfway around the ring to drop off a snot-nosed brat with this money-grubbing whore instead of some shit-show that follow Omega or send the kids to the House."

Ashley only gave a crooked grin at the insult. "And since this cranky bitch hooked me up with a brand new windscreen for this old bird, I saved her from suffering a couple weeks in a car with a screaming kid. Picked 'em up myself."

"Yeah, but. Why did you go with the kid?" Wash asked slowly as York tilted his head as well -- that was a good question. "I assume you could have just stuck her on the ship. You never leave Sidewinder."

"Yes, never, that's why I have a fucking portable radio installed on my chair that works from almost anywhere on the ring," Nelson replied sardonically. "Don't be dense, Washington, just because I'm in this chair doesn't mean I hide behind a desk all day."

Wash grumbled, looking split between uncomfortable and annoyed. "Okay, I get your point. But I still don't see why you went, you...never take time off."

"There's definitely no chance I had business to attend to in Episemon or anything, you're definitely the only one who ever has jobs there, I remember when we signed that agreement. Right under the truck-tree," she replied with enough snark that York almost fell over in his attempt to muffle his laughter.

Wash scowled and rubbed slowly at his muzzle. "Okay, geezus. Just find it weird that Ashe gives you a lift to take care of something for the cost of taking an orphan off your hands when she charges us out the ass just to deliver some stupid uniforms..."

Nelson glowered at Wash again. "That's the benefit of honoring your arrangements."

"For the last time, I did send the rockets!" Wash complained, throwing up his arms in exasperation. "It's not my fault they got intercepted on the way! Neither of us knew there were border checks for the stupid parade!"

York chuckled and wandered around to the side of Nelson's wheelchair. "Besides, me and Sammy brought you those flashbangs, didn't we? Didn't even make you trade for them!"

Nelson squinted up at him. "Yeah, one of my guys assisted in the delivery, that's not exactly helping your case."

"Oh, lighten up, you take everything so seriously!" York replied blithely while idly poking at the massive shotgun holstered on the side of her chair. "I mean, look at this. You were droppin' off a kid, and you still got this thing with you?" He chuckled and reached down to pull it out with one hand while peering at the underside. "Do you even keep this thing loaded?"

He blinked when he felt cool metal pressing against his jaw, freezing in place as he peered warily back at Nelson, who had moved in a flash to produce a revolver from god knew where to shove into the bottom of his muzzle. "Yeah, just like this thing," she growled.

"Putting it back...putting it back," York squeaked, using the very tips of his claws to gingerly ease the shotgun back into its holster while taking a step back with his hands raised. "Good lord, woman, I bet you are a goddamn delight at parties," he mumbled even as he awkwardly leaned around to try and see where she'd pulled the pistol from.

"She's a peach, ain't she?" Ashley crowed, all grins as she reached out and kicked one of Nelson's shins. "Shoulda seen her face when I asked if she wanted to go for a nice walk in the woods with me -- pretty sure that's even scarier than the shotgun. Girl's got eyes that practically shoot lasers -- keep tellin' her she'd have won this war by now if she can just get a face-to-face with that bastard Omega!"

"Yeah, walking jokes, because I don't get those daily from Wurlitz," Nelson muttered, tucking the revolver back into its hidden pouch before pursing her muzzle at Ashley. "And stow that yap, Mills, don't give these two any ideas."

"Too late!" York replied enthusiastically as he flopped down next to Wash again and automatically threw his arm around his shoulders. He figured Wash might appreciate a distraction from their own awkward revelation. What better than a secret scandalous lesbian romance? "You two bumpin' uglies or what?" He paused and then grinned stupidly while glancing between the two. "If Ashe gets in your lap, is that're literally giving her a ride or...what's the right term here?"

Nelson's nostrils flared and she went for the revolver again, but Ashley held out a hand while she choked on her laugh, doubling over and wheezing as the other three stared at her. "Holy shit, I forgot for a sec that at least one of you Freelancer fucks actually had a personality," she managed, coughing again and then pounding a fist into her chest while idly slapping at Nelson's leg. "C'mon, that was pretty good, ya giant, pissy torso."

Nelson grumbled a few choice words and crossed her arms, but couldn't seem to find a proper retort. She eventually settled into a grumpy staring contest with Wash, though York just pulled him closer to his side while leaning forward to whisper conspiratorially toward Ashley: "I know what it's like dealing with denial, I feel your pain."

"It's the worst, ain't it?" Ashley replied slyly before laughing and ducking swiftly to avoid the clipboard Nelson chucked at her head. "Goddamn, you angry bitch, where'd you even find that!"

A sudden clatter from the cockpit caught her attention and she turned around as the wrench was knocked loose thanks to the materialized clipboard. "Whoa, shit!" she called out, though it sounded more gleeful than upset as the ship suddenly dipped forward. "Guess my auto-pilot's broke! Hang onto your butts, kids!"

She hopped back into the pilot's seat as Nelson half-slid, half-rolled forward to start barking angrily at her while Wash toppled over against York again. As the two females began to trade various barbs and insults, York promptly took advantage of the chaos and pulled Wash against his chest with a slight grin.

Wash threw his arms up momentarily in protest, then settled after a few seconds with a sigh as he realized Ashley and Nelson were sufficiently distracted with their bickering. He tilted his head back and scowled. "What the hell, York? You've been so...touchy. Is there something wrong, or..."

York chose to not be upset, instead savoring the delightful warmth of squeezing his friend securely to his broad frame. "Nothin's wrong. Just enjoying the company of my li'l buddy. In case we crash and die horrifically." He winked and pushed his muzzle tenderly against Wash's, making his companion flush and squirm in his arms. "At least we'll die happy."

"Yeah, good, they'll find our charred corpses like this and we'll forever be the gay symbol of resistance...the two rebels who died in each others' arms," Wash mumbled. "Samael will give our eulogy and make the monument a giant dick. I can't wait." He continued to mutter under his breath even as he closed his eyes. And York's smile widened in surprise as Wash reached up to grasp the back of his head to pull his muzzle gently down into his neck. York didn't hesitate, letting his muzzle roam over his friend's throat and collar while shifting one arm to protectively grip him diagonally over his chest.

York felt Wash's body press back into him, knowing his friend adored the sensation, no matter how strange or odd it might have felt. Normal friends probably didn't do this. But then again...they weren't 'normal' friends, were they? They hadn't been for almost as long as they'd known each other. He smiled, glancing briefly at Nelson and Ashley still yelling at each other -- although Ashe sounded surprisingly jovial in her loud retorts -- and then looked down at Wash again. And perhaps this was just a little...aside. A footnote in the story of their lives, merely a hypothetical scenario, meant only to equate to a toe dipped briefly into water. But even if this was the last time they shared this kind of moment...York couldn't hate him for it. He still wasn't sure what he and Wash were, but he knew what his heart murmured to him when they were together.

He tightened his embrace around his friend and kissed his neck softly. He would never hate Wash for anything.

"Geezus, you two need a room?"

Wash glowered at Ashley, though mired as his glare was in his didn't quite pack the punch he might have hoped for. "Hey. Screw you."

"Real strong performance, ten out of ten, Washington," Nelson noted drolly, her arms crossed as she watched the two from across the cabin.

York's muzzle rested atop Wash's head, his companion's bright yellow mane seeming to make his grin all the more potent. "Excuse you, Wash performs just fine when he needs to."

Nelson's muzzle screwed up slightly, an almost delicate look of disapproval settling into place. That was, until it shifted into a cool smile that wouldn't have been out of place on a hangman's features. "I'll let Wurlitz know he's taking you all across on the boat."

The color drained from Wash's face and he groaned and slumped in his companion's embrace. "Oh, god. Damn, you, Nelson, haven't we been through enough today?"

"What? I'm sure he'd love to hear about the latest developments from your side of the rebellion," Nelson replied sweetly.

"I really hope one of your wheels breaks off and you just. Fall off the cliff one day," Wash muttered, making York snort into his mane.

But Nelson only seemed to savor the taunt, offering an actual grin for a moment. "That's what the parachute's for."

Both Wash and York blinked, staring at her in unison as Ashley cackled from the cockpit. "Best part is you don't even know if the scary bitch is lying or not! She's got a contingency plan for everything! She's like a loud, pissed-off multi-tool. Made out of wasps and rabid wolves." Wash sighed while Ashley added loudly: "Tits and dicks in hands, kids, front door's coming up in the rear! Just like York and Wash!"

Wash groaned and dropped his head into both hands as York absolutely failed to contain his uncontrollable giggling. "Goddammit, Ashe."

"I mean, she isn't wrong," York cooed against his friend's muzzle while grinning and bumping his nose against Wash's cheek, peering down at him. Wash only gave him a mild look before clearing his throat as the ship began a smooth ascent.

"You'd better stop being 'friendly'," Wash mumbled over his shoulder. "Last thing I want is..."

York sighed, louder and more disappointed than he intended. "Yeah, yeah. Anyone to see it." He loosened his arms with a grumble. He wasn't breaking his promise this quickly -- this wasn't hatred. Just a kind of general bitchiness.

...It surprised him that much more when Wash reached up to grab into his wrist with a hand. His fingers were strong, betraying the fact they seemed almost tiny against York's hulking figure. "I was gonna say 'for Nelson to complain' since I'm sure she'll need a hand down." He glanced up at York, oddly vulnerable and not a goddamn hint of sarcasm on his face.

York wasn't ready for those hazel eyes. He opened his muzzle to reply with something suave, something sure to knock his companion into the same happy stupor he felt in that fleeting moment of genuine happiness. Something that would make his case for the awesomeness of their friendship.

Wash was gifted with "Y-yuh."

Well, nobody was perfect.

"Oh please, you fruitcakes keep right on rubbin' chubs, I always take care of my girl," Ashley retorted from the cockpit as the dropship slid into a dive that should have brought their lunch up, had it not been so absurdly smooth. The tail-end of the craft swung around completely as Ashley sidled the rear of the ship against the icy outcropping, and York swore he heard a light smek of the chassis bumping into...

Before he could set Wash down to investigate, Nelson had already rolled up to the ramp and shoved it down with a casual smirk. Sure enough, the side of the ship was resting almost daintily against the cliffside, the gap all but nonexistent so that the loading ramp rested smoothly across the snow-dusted rocks. Nelson glanced past the two, still halfway through untangling themselves, and grunted at the pilot. "Mills. Thanks again for taking the brat off my hands."

Ashley grinned and offered a middle finger. "Thanks for breakfast, ya paralyzed ball-buster." The smile that followed was dangerously tender. "Don't wait so long to call me up next time."

Nelson snorted but her eyes flickered with a tiny spark of affection as she nodded once and then gripped the rims of her wheels. The glower returned to her face as she focused, laser-like, on the boys. "Let's go, dumbasses. Don't forget your bag."

York had lost track of how many times Wash had sighed that day, but there was one more for the books. He smiled quietly as Wash slunk over to Ashley to share some muttered apologies and what he imagined might have been a few pleas for a bit of confidence. Not that he actually thought Ashe would go spread the word of whatever it was they had going on between them...nah, she was more likely to sit comfortably on that big, fluffy pillow of secrets for a few months, a year or two...and then whip that shit out to beat them around the head with it at the worst possible moment.

He figured it'd be worth it, if only to enjoy Wash's expressions on that day. York grinned to himself as he shouldered the pack and glanced back toward the front as Wash huffed but quietly knocked his fist against Ashley's. She looked over her shoulder to him and he tossed an impromptu salute back. "Appreciate the lift, Ashe. Shame we don't get the chance to hang out enough."

"Nothin' stopping you dickbags from swinging by the place when you don't need a favor," Ashley retorted. She smiled all the same and shook her head. "Man, how many times will I have to save your asses?"

Wash almost pouted. "Look, it. Won't happen again."

"It might happen again," York corrected him with a wink before jerking his head forward. "Let's go, Wash. You got more upset groaning to do." Wash rolled his eyes but nodded one more time to Ashley, then joining York to step out of the ship and onto the outcropping. York turned around to mash the button that raised the ramp automatically before he and Wash glanced at the entrance to the caves, where Nelson was waiting impatiently.

"Hey assholes, you coming inside or you just gonna hang around out here and pretend you're not thinking about grabbing ass?"

"Can't we do both?" York blurted before he could stop himself. He almost winced as he imagined the annoyed look on his companion's face...but Wash only snorted quietly and shoved him playfully before muttering:

"C'mon. Maybe we can just steal a boat ourselves, these bastards are all a bunch of spastics."

York blinked before grinning enormously. "Now you're talkin'." He raised his voice to answer Nelson. "Coming right along, dear!"

"You think I won't load this fucker with rock-salt and make Wash wonder if he's goin' down on a fuckin' margarita?!?" she threatened while slamming a fist into the false rock entrance to 'coax' it open. "Ask Wurlitz how long it took to pick that out last time!"

If looks could talk, the glance Wash and York shared shouted "What the fuck is wrong with this bitch?" and they were quick to trot forward in unison to join her at the hidden opening. They didn't need a reminder of why testing her patience was always a bad idea.