Your name is Agent Washington.
Lavernius Tucker is your friend.
This time, you almost make it to the Pelican.
You've been good for weeks, and they're starting to relax, starting to—not trust you, but guard you more lightly. They leave you alone with Simmons, and that's a mistake, because there's no version of Simmons who can outfight you. Two strikes take him down, and then you're running, running through corridors to get to the ships, get out—
Grif barrels into you, knocks you to the floor. "Seriously," he groans, "I thought we were fucking done with this."
You're not in your armor (they never let you stay in your armor) but you still try to fight, writhing against the huge weight pinning you down and clawing at the seals on his helmet (not that it would change anything).
Sarge racks his shotgun. "Feel like a hero, dirtbag?"
You go still. You've never been a hero.
This isn't Sarge. This isn't Grif. You tell yourself that, as they drag you back to the throne room.
That's another reason you know they're not real: Tucker is a pervert and generally somebody who makes you want to tear your hair out, but he would never sit on an actual throne molded out of writhing metal women, their mouths open in something between ecstasy and agony.
You can almost imagine Tucker, the real Tucker, saying, Dude, that's so fucked up—
"You should know better by now."
Tucker's fingers grip your hair, pull your head up. (It's not Tucker.)
"I mean, c'mon. Thinking you could run from us?"
It's the same voice, the same face. It's all the same, except Tucker would never do this to you, never ask you to assist in terrorist attacks on UNSC bases, never—
"Exactly the sort of idiocy I would expect from a Blue," Sarge chuckles.
"Seriously, Rookie," says Tucker-not-Tucker. "You thought you could get away?"
"My name is Agent Washington," you say, and the next moment your head is one the floor, pain speckling your vision, Tucker's boot pressing down on your cheekbone.
"Your name is Rookie because I say so, Rookie. And until you start cooperating, you won't get another name."
You don't know what happened. You're still not sure if they're clones who kidnapped you. If somebody was playing with a future cube and sent you to an alternate universe.
If you're crazy and this was always real.
This is what you know: you were on Chorus. Epsilon was dead, but so was Hargrove, and everyone was celebrating. Tucker was laughing about some sort of party at the Temple of Procreation, and you rolled your eyes at him and went to bed, because sleeping was honestly the most important thing you could think of right now.
Then you woke up.
The room was small and dark and you thought it was a horrible joke until it wasn't. You screamed and you pounded on the walls, and your friends came to get you—
But they weren't your friends anymore.
They put you back in the dark.
You know this technique. You know that Tucker is going to pull you out, is going to give you a glass of water and put a hand on your shoulder and make you feel briefly like a human. You know that he'll say, "Rookie," and you'll say, "Yes, sir," because that's what happened the last five fucking times you tried to escape and got caught.
You always cooperate until you can breathe again. You always remember who you really are after.
You don't know how long you can keep doing it. The Reds and Blues have always defined your sanity. You've always let them define you, tell you what's real, because you sure as fuck never know anymore.
Once upon a time, not long after Sidewinder, you woke up and didn't even know your own name, and Tucker told you (Caboose held you) and you realized then that you would never be whole without them.
Now Tucker says, You're our weapon and you work for us, and Caboose says, Yeah, I think you should kill those people, and you don't know how long you can keep not listening to them.
It's very dark, in the room where they put you.
Alpha rode in your head, one final time before he died, and he left more than he meant to: memories from the end, after Epsilon, when he was alone in that virtual room where they kept him, alone in the dark.
That's what makes you doubt yourself now, doubt what's real. Because sensory deprivation is an elementary torture technique, but only Tucker and Caboose—the real Tucker and Caboose—could know what it means to you. The only time you told anyone was after they woke you from a screaming nightmare, and you were clutching a mug of hot chocolate, Tucker's hand resting on your right shoulder and Caboose's on your left—
You press your hands against your face. Breathe in and out. Think, 2, 4, 1, 10.
The numbers are from a lullaby sung across the colonies. You heard it as a child, and later you heard the rumor that the Spartans sang that song to each other on the battlefield when they died, and you felt a little less silly for humming yourself to sleep with it in your bunk. It's the song that droned through your head when you heard Epsilon's final message.
Am I transmitting? Is anyone listening?
You know they are looking for you—the real Tucker, the real Caboose, the real Reds and Blues. They have to be. It's been at least a month, you're sure of that much.
Unless they're dead.
Unless they never existed.
This is Tucker: dirty, unfunny jokes and attempts to get out of training. How do you know if you're doing the right thing? Steady hands waking you from nightmares. Laughter, when you feel like you're about to fray apart.
This is Caboose: murder and robots and simple, open honesty. I mean, we are friends. That moment when you give him back Freckles and you are afraid, so afraid, but you have to tell the truth—and all he cares about is that all his friends are with him.
This is Tucker: You're lucky that we took you in, Rookie. I don't know how you thought you wouldn't get punished for that, Rookie. Pain and fear and fingers locking into your hair, pulling your head up while a knife-point traces lines across your throat. How much pain resistance did they teach you in Freelancer?
This is Caboose: inventions you don't understand and, Give me that wrench, Rookie—no, the other wrench. A blow slamming into your head, sending you to the floor. Well, I guess everyone isn't cut out to be an assistant, huh, Freckles?
You're fighting so hard, but it's getting harder and harder to remember which versions are real.
It's dark and it's silent and you feel Epsilon yawning open in your head, spilling out memories. Your fault you killed them I'm sorry to tell you everyone is dead. And you whimper and squirm and claw against your skin and the walls, but nothing makes it stop. Nothing has ever really made it stop except your team, and they're not here anymore
except they are.
You try to swallow down your panic, and you lean your head against the wall and clench your fists and count, 2, 4, 1, 10, but nobody's listening.
You've been waiting so long, and nobody's coming.
Tucker drags you out when you are mindless with terror, your breath coming in short, whimpering bursts.
(He isn't Tucker.)
The light burns your eyes, and it's a relief when he presses his hand over them. His other hand wraps around the back of your neck, and you can't help leaning into the touch, because this is what Tucker's always done, when the nightmares got too bad. He's always pressed his hand to the back of your neck, anchored you, told you what was real.
"Feel like behaving now?"
You gasp for breath. There's a hurt that runs deeper than your skin, deeper than your muscles and bones. You're tired. You're so tired. You lost yourself a long time ago, gave up fighting for yourself on Sidewinder, and now you just. You just want to accept what they tell you.
But they're not real and they're not your friends and you know your real friends would be so disappointed.
Tucker lets you slump against him. His thumb rubs circles at the base of your skull.
"Ready to be good again, Rookie?"
You're so tired. You've never been able to tell what's real.
Even now, he makes you feel safe.
You say, "Yes, sir."
Your name is Agent Washington.
Lavernius Tucker is your