Chapter 23: Calm before the storm

The fist collided with her jaw and jerked her head to the side. Her dodge wasn't fast enough. As far as she could tell, there was nothing broken yet, and all of her teeth were still in their sockets, but a streak of blood escaped from her cracked lips.

"Hah!" Her opponent jumped back, satisfied with a scored punch. "Pay attention, little girl."

Her head was buzzing with adrenaline so loudly she could barely hear her gruff voice. "If anything here is little, it's your chest, you show-off." With a bit of difficulty, spitting blood, Amber barked back and readied herself for another round.

As soon as the other woman opened her mouth to speak again, far too many words in this fight already, she sprung forward with blinding speed. Instead of aiming for the face, as her movements would lead her opponent to believe, she shifted her focus mid-charge and slammed all of her mass into the other fighter, wrapping her arms around her midsection. Amber shifted her balance to one side forcing her opponent to compensate, take a step back and lock her knees. She moved her leg as if trying to hook the other woman's ankle, fainting the attempt to kick off her leg. As she expected her opponent was ready, so she shifted her balance to the other side and loosened the compromised leg. She quickly took half a step to the side, jerking her whole mass backwards. They both rolled to the ground, Amber first, dragging her surprised opponent behind. As soon as her back hit the dirt, she used the momentum to fling the other woman over her. Barely avoiding another punch she rolled on top of her opponent, who managed to grab her loose clothes and pull her closer. She could feel rock-hard thighs brushing against her waist and kicked both of her legs to the side to avoid the vice-like grip. Both women tighten their muscles on each other's necks and shoulders in an impasse while their legs and hips twist to the side, desperately kicking to find leverage.

"Give up, Red." The other woman grunted, pressing her arm to Amber's throat.

"You know, this is actually pretty hot." Amber gasped, ignoring the blood dripping from her face.

"You enjoy this too much-'' Her opponent's reply was cut when Amber's desperate search for stable footing finally yielded positive results. The redhead dug her heel into a small depression in the dirt and arched herself away from the grip. In one graceful twist she was sure Ruth would be jealous of if she saw it, she managed to completely free herself from the tackle. She used her other leg to swing high above the other woman's body and both of them collapsed again, but this time, Amber's tights were wrapped tightly around her opponent's torso and legs.

"Is this where you call it, or do I have to sit on your face?" She asked, whipping her face with one hand. The crowd around them cheered and her opponent, after a couple of failed attempts to free herself, tapped her leg in defeat.

"Home team and Guests now both at four wins!" The banter's raspy voice cut through the crowd. Amber rolled off of the other woman and took a deep breath. She noticed Billy Mook pushing through the crowd and rush towards her, studying her up.

"You were awesome, Dale!" He leaned down so she could grab him over the shoulder. The adrenaline rush was already fading and she could feel more and more of the bruises all over her body. She smiled at her friend, revealing blood-stained teeth, and turned to face her opponent. It was still unnatural having to look up into someone's eyes, but the woman in front of her was possibly as tall as her brother. The dirty, sweaty mess of short, brown hair and ruffled orange flight suit contrasted with the ice-cold, blue eyes and the almost unnaturally pale skin of someone who spent most of her life encased in metal.

"Not too bad, for someone used to power armor, Liz." She smiled at her and her fellow knight now standing behind with a dirty towel and a large glass of beer.

"You got lucky, Red." Elizabeth Webber said somewhat dismissively, taking the beer and emptying almost half of it in one go. "I'll kick your ass next time."

"Sure, but buy me dinner first." The redhead replied with a chuckle.

"I swear, Dale, you sound like you get off at being slammed into the dirt." Liz replied, rolling her eyes.

"Only because you asked so nicely." She winked at her, earning another eyeroll. Pushing the knight's buttons was a reward all in itself, the actual victory was just a bonus. She turned around to get her own refreshing, barely alcoholic liquid which sometimes passed for a beer in this place. She stretched her muscles, judging just how much she'd regret this fight the next day, when a stern, male voice called from behind her.

"What the hell is this supposed to be, Knight Webber?" Amber froze halfway in her tracks and noticed that the small crowd of civilians and NCR soldiers evaporated in an instant. "Brawling with civilians? This is a disgraceful behavior!"

"Excuse me, Senior Knight, but this was a friendly contest-"

"I'm not talking to you, Knight Carther." Amber was now the closest person to the three knights, even Billy took a couple of steps back. It was almost a comical situation to behold. The two knights who dwarfed their senior stood with their heads down as the older man berated them in the middle of the bar.

"Hey, listen!" Amber wasn't exactly sure why she spoke up, and didn't shut up even when all three members of the Brotherhood of Steel looked at her. Two pairs of eyes pleaded her to run, the third, to her surprise, stared with just a mild annoyance.

"What is it, miss Dale?" The Senior Knight asked, turning his dark brown eyes to face her. He had the kind of face she saw in some of Ruth's comic books on smug and very punchable villains, the sinister goatee included. "Don't you think you caused enough damage here?"

"To be fair," Amber continued despite her own inner voice telling her to stop, "she punched me much harder, but that's not the point. We were having fun here, it was just a sparring match for exercise, nothing wrong with that, right?"

"No, miss Dale, sparring matches are done between peers during training. Not when you're a soldier fighting a civilian in a bar." His emphasis on civilians alone was enough to flood her brain with adrenaline again.

"She's not on duty and neither are you." She barked back, taking a step towards him. "We're having a fun competition here to show that not all tin cans have steel pipes up their asses!"

"And am I supposed to be grateful for that, miss Dale?" The man looked at her with mild amusement while both knights standing behind him, pale and wide-eyed, were frantically gesturing at her to stop talking.

"You're definitely not helping the cause!" Amber continued ignoring both her and their better judgment.

"Barkeep! What's the score of this game?" Senior Knight Morris asked, not moving his eyes away from Amber's.

"Four to four, sir." The man replied from behind the bar, grinning in amusement at the whole exchange.

"Let's make it five to four, then." He said, calmly stepping towards Amber.

"With pleasure."

She rushed him immediately. There were many possible consequences of fighting a senior officer of the Brotherhood of Steel surrounded by at least a couple of dozens of people. She would definitely have to explain herself to Ruth, possibly Stevens, but the latter was quite frankly less problematic. Amber spent the last two weeks being grounded in the base to heal and build up a reputation for herself and the group of mercenaries she and her companions from the other recon squad were supposed to be. It was a task Stevens himself recommended and she took great care to make her cover as believable as possible. A part of that cover was that she got kicked out of the army for insubordination. Now, as her fist was traveling at a lightning speed towards the Senior Knight's face, she considered briefly if it wasn't just a bit too much.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden absence of said face at the end of her arm, immediately followed by a sense of weightlessness. It was a fraction of a second later that she registered a pair of hands grasped around her arm, and another fraction of a second after that her face smashed into the dirt as all nerves in her arm flared in pain when it was expertly twisted behind her back. She yelled in pain when a heavy military boot dug between her shoulders, pressing her deeper into the dust and dirt. She couldn't even tap to surrender.

"Five for the Brotherhood, four for Camp Imperial." The voice from above declared dismissively. "And this is the final result, the competition is over."

Her arm was finally released, but there was no way she could get up on her own. Her arm, the rest of her body, and her pride were now lying bruised in the dirt. She could only hear murmurs of spectators and three pairs of heavy boots walking away in the distance.

A pair of strong arms lifted her from the ground. She looked up to see Billy's concerned face. Without a cocky smile and his eyes wide, he looked almost like a buffed-up puppy.

"I'm okay." She muttered and added before he could reply in any way. "Don't say anything, just get me some booze if you wanna help."

This did not go according to plan. Her brain was just now starting to process what had actually happened and she immediately started to kick her mental butt over the stupidity of her actions. She rarely underestimated her opponents. The two knights she fought earlier looked far more imposing than their commanding officer, and while she had no doubts he earned his position in the Brotherhood, seeing him outside of his metal shell made her way too sure of herself. She assumed that even if the first attack failed, she'd have the time to recover. That, and in her mind, he was really asking for a beating. She slumped on a chair in the corner waiting for Billy to bring her a drink. The bar quickly got over her humiliating defeat, drowning the place in the usual chatter and music. Not much has changed since she first came here ages ago. At least it felt like ages, but in reality, barely two months had passed since she first stood in the door of this establishment. It was the night before her oath, before she squeezed into her soldier's uniform for the first and, as it turned out, last time, and before she met her superior. It's been barely two months and she had already fought monsters, lost count how many times she nearly got killed, saved her partner a couple of times and probably a few hundreds of other lives, and became a scarred, mutant cyborg freak. Yet the most annoying part of it all was that, to most of the people in this bar, she was only a loser mercenary who got kicked out of the army and got fucked up by raiders so many times the local hospital gave her her own bed.

"You did well, Dale." Billy said, sitting next to her with two large, metal cans full of muddy liquid pretending to be beer. Usually, she'd go straight for the strongest pipe cleaner they had to knock out her taste buds as quickly as possible, but unfortunately, her new kidneys still needed some time to get used to that.

"No, I fucked up the last fight." Amber muttered in return, taking a sip from the can. It did taste like mud. "I underestimated the bastard."

"He looked so tiny next to you, almost like Ruth." He grinned. "I didn't expect him to be so short outside of that armor."

"Yeah, and I wouldn't underestimate her again." Her eyes shifted across the ex-cargo hold of a plane, scanning for any familiar faces. "Don't tell her that, but I'm pretty sure she could floor me if she really tried."

"I've seen what she can do." The large guy nodded, lost in his thoughts. "Hottest little bundle of fury I've ever seen."

"Mook, please don't tell me you have hots for her." Amber's eyebrows arched upwards, creating deep wrinkles on her forehead. Her new eyes made noticing the blush on his dark skin all too easy.

"I, err, admire her from a safe distance." The burly man shifted his gaze back to the content of his can, hunching over it a little bit. "What, you're jealous?"

"Well, kinda." She chuckled. "You used to admire me from afar."

"Oh I still do, but you almost broke my arm when you found out."

"Sneaking up on me in the shower was not one of your best ideas, big boy." She shrugged, though smiling at the memory of his utterly terrified face when she found him covering behind a curtain. "Oh, and by the way, never do that to her. Never ever. She'll stab you before you even make a squeak."

"Oh no, I'd never..." He replied, shaking his head rapidly. "We're not recruits anymore, we're professionals."

They laughed and talked some more about nothing in particular before Amber noticed new arrivals at the bar.

"Look, shinies." She muttered, nodding at the four soldiers in what seemed to be recon uniforms, lining up to the counter. Their leader, a sergeant built almost entirely out of squares, was ordering some drinks for himself and his boys. He was barely taller than Ruth and probably not all that much older, but, unlike the very similarly built Senior Knight, had the appearance of a man Amber would never dare to challenge. He was also loud enough for the entire bar to know exactly what the Camp Imperial's only resident recon team was ordering. Two glasses of whiskey, a beer, and a glass of water were quickly administered to the group. Next to him his second in command, and amusingly the man paying for the order, was a polar opposite of his superior. Tall and bony, looking more like a stick figure than a soldier. The third man was an impressive display of human musculature that was barely contained under his shiny, dark skin. He didn't talk much even during the briefing they had a bit over a week earlier. She heard maybe a handful of words coming out of his mouth, communicating mostly with shrugs, smirks, and head shakes. She had a suspicion that talking could actually be somehow painful to him, but she never asked. The last soldier was a clean cut shaved boy with a face and hair so generic he'd blend into any group of NCR recruits. Unsurprisingly, he was the one who got a glass of water.

"Oh, do you think they'll want to join us?" Mook followed her gaze. "I like them."

"I hope not, I'm not in the mood to play this charade with them." Amber muttered, focusing back on her drink as the four soldiers looked around the bar, failing to acknowledge their presence completely. Fortunately, the new arrivals decided to take a seat in the opposite corner of the establishment.

"The boss said we have to play nice with them." Billy replied after an uncomfortably long moment of silence.

"Yeah, someone has to take credit for the great successes of the reconnaissance teams." The redhead muttered bitterly.

"Hey, they pull their weight, you have to give them that. They had got that intel on raider drama before, and possibly found something else now." He tried really hard not to look back at them again. "They came back this morning from another mission, who knows what they heard this time."

"Let's hope it's something big, I'm sick of sitting here and not doing anything." She clenched her fingers around her can.

"You're not grounded as a punishment, Red. The boss just doesn't want your body to fall apart." Billy chuckled at her.

"I know, I know." Groaning, she finished her poor approximation of a beer. "I was told the same so many times over the last two weeks I started dreaming about it." She got up, leaving the can on the makeshift table and turned to leave. "I gotta go talk to the little bundle of fury before someone else tells her what happened here. Thanks for the drink."

"Before you go, me and the other boys are going out to shoot some ants tomorrow! Wanna join?" Billy replied with a bright, boyish smile, as if he was inviting her to the coolest event the surrounding wasteland had to offer. At that moment, she would probably agree with him on that.

"Sure thing. Is it a real job or are you just bored?"

"Real job, Derek's uncle is paying 15 caps for a sack. We're moving out tomorrow at noon."

"Alright, count me in." Amber marched out of the bar and towards her home. It was weird to think about that place as home. She barely spent half of the time in their little room ever since she returned to the base, and half of that was over the last two weeks. It was so weird, yet it felt like home more than any other place these days.

"So..." Ruth pressed her palms together and touched her forehead with her fingers, as if praying, if she had anything to pray to, and closed her eyes. "Not only did you publicly beat up two knights, but you also angered their Senior. The one truly nightmarish of the bunch. The fucking beard-of-evil man that almost never leaves his power cage and has the biggest, meanest plasma rifle I've ever seen."

"...yeeees?" Amber grinned sheepishly from across the room. "In my defense, I wasn't really the one he was angry at, but-"

"I admire you taking the task to heart, Red," her superior interrupted, "but we don't actually want to get sacked. Not until it's something scheduled."

"I know! And it's not like we will be!" The redhead gestured at her helplessly. "Right? It was just a small brawling contest, every side agreed on it!"

Ruth breathed in and out, then leaned back against the wall just behind her bed. They were back for the night in their shadowed, metal-and-tent room. The breeze outside found its way through the cracked window, very gently moving the fabric above their heads. "Let's agree you won't do that again."

The other woman made an almost convincing nod.

"One good thing about that is now we know you're all fine and ready to throw down again." She glanced out the window. "I hope Stevens sends us somewhere soon, it's been... all too quiet recently."

"I definitely agree on that one." Her companion sighed, visibly relaxing. "There were no caravans this week, I think the next one heading to Mexicali is supposed to get here tomorrow. The boring one."

"Are there any not boring caravans?"

"Marco's, obviously." Knowing Amber's uncle by now, she would totally believe that. "But they usually skip this shithole and drive straight to the Inn."

"He doesn't want to lose any more people to the army, I guess?"

"Didn't stop me, I walked all the way from the Inn to sign up." Amber said proudly. "But I didn't expect it to be so boring when we're not out there risking our lives every minute. What are we even supposed to be doing as civilians to blend in? The old man didn't give us any instructions for that."

"Aren't we the ones who should know that?" She looked back at her with a smirk.

"Oh yeah, you're right." Amber chuckled at that, making herself comfortable on her cot.

Since their official return at the base, despite Amber's annoyingly consistent protests, Ruth made her visit the hospital for regular check-ups, making sure her body had recovered and that the implants had adjusted. These trips were the best moments of her days, as the rest proved to be incredibly boring and monotonous, save for a few evenings of bonding with the soldiers of the other team and lunches with the hospital crew. With Amy and Clarence cleared to some of the secretive exploits of her new line of work she felt much less isolated. Even if most of what happened was still too classified to discuss, she could at least tell them about some of their adventures. The only other people she would talk to were the boys from the second recon squad. Mook and Lee got along with her just fine, even if conversations with them were often rather brief. Not for the lack of trying, she liked listening to them, but rarely had anything to say herself. It sometimes baffled her how many memories they had while most of her life just appeared as a brief, painful blur. Vasques was a different story altogether. She didn't even try to pretend that there was something they should talk about and she knew he felt the same way, but so far neither of them had an opportunity to say anything, and she actually preferred it that way. She didn't want to go back anywhere near those memories. She tried to distract herself with other activities instead. Her old, weathered notebook filled up with lazy notes about places she'd been to and people she'd met, even a couple of really bad sketches of the Refinery and the Farm, especially the Farm. The multicolored fields and the general rush of life in that place still lingered in her mind like a warm sensation of a hug. She left a couple of empty pages between those events, but couldn't bring herself to write anything there. During some afternoons, Ruth even started rereading her comics again, those few favorites she had recovered from her stash. Reciting parts of Grognak the Barbarian or The Mistress of Mystery would probably be much easier now than anticipated, if anyone asked her to do so.

And then there were the briefings she had to attend every now and then while Amber was busy doing... whatever she was doing most of the time. The arrival of the new recon squad from the north and the subsequent missions of both the incognito teams provided a couple more puzzle pieces to the story. Still, even with some new intel, Ruth couldn't get anywhere near the full picture. Everything they found so far was about a turf war between raider gangs in this region. Nothing more about the mystery of Big Bog, nothing about the presence of the weird warriors in swirly armors, and most definitely nothing about the presence of their suspicious, heavily armored allies. She still held onto the holotape she borrowed from the Brotherhood's hangar, but had no device to listen to it just yet. The label 7 didn't tell her much, but she also didn't have the caps nor need to buy herself a whole radio set just for that one tape taken out of context. It was irritating, but she kept it for later use, or maybe even more out of spite.

"I spoke with Amy about the Brotherhood yesterday." Ruth continued after a longer moment of calm silence. "It's odd how we're all in this together now. She managed to glean something more from their and the hospital's cooperation."

"Did the small, pulsating vein on Knight Edd's head finally explode?" The redhead asked, lifting herself up on her elbow. "This guy's the biggest asshole in that hangar, I swear."

"No, and I don't like the fact that you spend so much time with them. They can't be trusted, Amber." She crossed her arms, as if that would make her look more serious.

"So snooping and gossiping about them is fine, but talking to them isn't?" Amber's green eyes locked on hers, and in the slightly darkened interior of their room she could see the slits of her irises widening. She thought she'd already got used to it, but almost every time she saw them change it made her pause. Her companion didn't like that, so she hastily replied.

"Amber, our job is to gather information, and that is exactly what I'm doing." Ruth resisted her gaze.

"I don't think spying on our allies is our job, but even if it was, you're doing it ass-backwards." The redhead gave her a smug smile. "Talking to them is much faster than gossiping with their coworkers."

"I wasn't gossiping! I was just talking with Amy and their subject came up." She huffed, feeling a slight tinge in her chest at that remark. "Well, if you're so good at it, go on, tell me what you learned by confronting them directly. Every time I did it, it felt like being a case subject... gross."

Amber frowned, then rolled her eyes.

"Edd, Sylvia, and Doctor Williams came from the East chapter. Eddy gets triggered when you mention how their big, flying cigar got blown up by a bunch of farmers. You want to be a fair distance away when that happens. Sylvia definitely asked me about you a couple of times, too many for it to not be suspicious, so she might have hots for you. That's my best conclusion. Elliot and the blonde scribe girl who writes down everything you say are a thing, I think. Daniel knows how to fix basically everything, but constantly complains he doesn't have the parts and there's a senior scribe and a senior paladin in there somewhere, but I've never seen them."

"Okay, stop." Ruth interrupted her. "I meant useful information, like why are they here, exactly?" After a moment of pause, as her brain reprocessed the barrage of information that was just thrown at her, she added, "and who's Sylvia?"

"The pilot and Chariot driver, slightly taller than you, long, black hair, nice tits, knows her way around an engine..."

"Wait, did you two... ?"

"What? No, I told you she's into you, not me." The redhead replied with a deadpan expression. Ruth made a mental note she did not want to understand her companion's brain processes, or at least, never on this subject. "I helped her with a quick fix on the Chariot. The thing is amazing, I've never seen a car in such a good condition, let alone this big. Well, okay, my uncle once tried to fix an old school bus, you could live inside it and-"

"Amber..." Ruth rubbed her temple, knowing very well this was one of her friend's favorite ways to annoy her, and she wasn't exactly in the mood for it. "Can you please focus on why the Brotherhood is here?"

"They want the tech from Archer City." The redhead replied with a shrug. "What else could they want here? Hoarding new tech is literally the only thing they do and Archer City is a holy grail for them."

"That's exactly what Stevens had told me before, but that can't be it." She crossed her arms again, leaning back. "Why would they stop here and support the operations of an NCR base camp, instead of going all the way there?"

"Yeah, in case you didn't notice, there's an entire independent city there. A big one, too." The redhead muttered, shaking her head. "They can't just march in there and kick everyone out."

"In case you were never taught recent history, it didn't seem to stop them in the past. They never cared too much about NCR, either, so why wouldn't they just go and claim what's 'rightfully theirs'?" Ruth caught herself raising her voice, so she cut it short. "They don't care about people, so there's nothing stopping them."

"Maybe, but now they're on our side, so they have to play nice with the folks we want to be our friends." Amber shrugged again. "They just have to learn to compromise, I guess. And you should, too."


"You want to burn them with your eyes, that's obvious from a mile away, but whatever personal beef you have with them doesn't mean it's bad they're here." She leaned forward to look at her with those now almost completely dark eyes. The last, natural light had gone away for the day without them noticing, only the shine of the outside lamps fell into their room. "Those laser rifles can do some serious damage in our favor. Their words and presence alone can, too."

Ruth looked away. She didn't know if it was her real memory, or was it simply an echo created from the many retellings of the event by her family, but she remembered meeting a Brotherhood patrol once, when she was very little. It was before The Outpost even existed, when they were escaping from her original birthplace overrun by the Legion. The metal-clad people were huge and terrifying and powerful, and they took away their weapons, saying they were too dangerous in the hands of wasteland folks like them. That they were a threat. That barbarians could not be trusted with such creations of science. Those fearless, faceless people hiding behind inches of metal left them there with barely a pistol and knife to protect themselves. Not a single conversation about the Brotherhood was lenient since then. If their name ever came up, it was in the form of a slur. The image of the heavy, metal helmet with imperceivable visors was painted in her head with multiple warning signs surrounding it, screaming at her to simply run.

"I'm not here to make friends with them." Ruth said through her teeth and tightened her arms around herself, looking like a disgruntled child. "But I won't let this get in the way of our work. If like you said they are here to help, I'm not going to stop them, but I'm not letting my guard down and I hope you won't, either."

"They only saved my life, right? Why should I trust them?" The redhead answered mockingly, crossing her arms as well.

"They didn't do it from the goodness of their iron-clad hearts, they got paid good caps to do so." She replied bitterly. "Besides, how many times did I have to save your ass before you started trusting me?"

"Hey, that's not a fair comparison." There was a hint of hurt in Amber's voice and she almost felt guilty for saying that. "But I guess we just listened to different stories when we were growing up. How about this, I promise to be careful and keep an eye out for any signs of backstabbing when I'm around them, as long as you promise not to hiss every time you see them?" She added with a smirk.

"Fine." She tried to remain serious, but for some reason, an image of Amber inviting a bunch of Brotherhood zealots to a tea party just to force her to be friends with them crept into her head and she couldn't keep up the straight face. She considered something for a moment, then opened a drawer next to her bed and took out her second notebook, a much cleaner and well-preserved one. "You said...'' She paused for a moment, holding a pencil to her lips. "It was Daniel who knew how to fix things, right?"

They stopped at the corner of a makeshift building from which they could see the gate that separated the civil area from the military. As usual, two soldiers stood on each side of it, watchful even at this time when the majority of Camp Imperial had gone to sleep or indulged in drinking the muddy alcohol at the bar. A few minutes earlier a messenger knocked on their door with an urgent invitation to Colonel Stevens's office for a night debriefing. They quickly gathered themselves and left towards the main building, but it wasn't without obstacles.

Ruth peeked around the corner, straining her eyes. "There's a new shift already." She turned back to the redhead standing close behind her. "I don't recognize those two, and we don't yet know the code for today."

"True... but maybe the previous one will still get a pass." Amber shrugged. "Let's just go and see."

"What will you say if it doesn't work?" She raised an eyebrow at her.

"I'll just use my charm, of course! Make us look important first, if that doesn't work, either, I'll back you up." The redhead winked and stepped around her, walking with purpose.

Eyeing her partner with growing doubt, she carefully moved away from the building, just in time to notice a group of people a couple of tents away. They were making their way towards the gate as well, rather quickly. She tensed and jumped forward, grabbing the redhead by the shirt before she came into the light of the street lamps, and pulled her behind cover.

"Woah what- what is it?" Amber whispered, backing away from the open space.

"The A-Team's here."

The guarding soldiers were now focused on the newcomers and they seemed to have missed their exchange. One of them took a step towards the group, waiting to question them.

"Come." Ruth whispered and pulled a little on the shirt she was still holding, showing Amber to follow her. "I know another way in, let's go while they talk."

"Couldn't we go in with them?" The other woman asked.

"No." Ruth frowned at her as they walked along the fence. "We cannot be seen together, unless we can't help it. Don't you think it would be a little suspicious that two random civilians wanted to enter the military with the loudest and only recon team at the base, this late, and because of a special invitation? It would be even more suspicious if we followed them afterwards. The meeting must be important if Stevens called for them, too."

"That does make some sense." Amber said. "Where are we going now?"

She didn't answer as she scanned the area behind the fence. A couple individuals came into view and disappeared into their tents, but there was nothing else challenging for them to avoid. They reached a pole holding one section of the fence, standing partially behind a wooden maintenance shack on the other side. Ruth leaned down and struggled with the wires for a moment, before a part of the fence came loose, creating a small opening. "No window from the main building reaches this part of the fence. If we're in, we're in, no one should question it much if we go straight towards the offices. Let's go." She held the mesh up for the redhead to squeeze through before following inside as well, fixing the wires back onto the pole.

"So how do you know about this?" The redhead eyed her as they came around the shack.

"Used to pass through here often when visiting Jonathan." Ruth shrugged. "The hospital wasn't the most inviting place to hang out, and not the most... private, either."

"Oh I see." Amber wiggled her eyebrows, at which the other woman looked away, though not without a little smirk.

They opened the double doors to the main building and squinted their eyes as they entered the white space. In comparison to the scattered light of the street lamps outside, the lighting of the corridors painted a near-white color was oppressive, drilling into one's head without consent. Ruth's eyes adjusted after a few seconds of blinking, but she found Amber hissing at the sudden change. She reached for her sleeve and guided her these first few moments through the hallways. A couple soldiers passed them by, taking note of their presence, some followed them at a distance, but didn't question their business.

They knocked on the doors to the Colonel's office, but were met with silence. After a moment of exchanging glances, a door next to them opened revealing Vasquez who gestured at them to follow inside. They came into a much larger briefing room, joining the other two recon teams as well as three Brotherhood representatives in their orange flight suits and a couple of NCR officers. All of them were already seated in classroom-like chairs with small folding tables. Colonel Stevens was standing in front of a pristine whiteboard with a tall and slightly intimidated lieutenant holding a handful of folders right next to him.

"Great, now we're all here. Please," the Colonel gestured at two empty chairs, "take a seat and thank you for such a swift gathering, there is a lot to discuss."

Both women sat down as the nervous lieutenant started walking between the rows of chairs handing over documents to each squad commander.

"As you know, our main goal these past months was to gather as much intel as possible on local raider gangs." Stevens continued with his hands behind his back and his scarred head held high. Looking down at the documents on her lap, Ruth opened her folder on a printed map with colorful blobs representing various gangs and the boundaries of their territories. Most of them were marked with dotted lines with only two distinct colors marked by continuous lines - red for the Vultures and orange for Tombstones. She tilted it for Amber to see as well. "As you can see in your documents and from what you may have heard, they did a great job eliminating each other without too much of our input. To be more precise, the Tombstones are consolidating power and absorbing or eliminating smaller competition. We recorded another gang acting in that area, as marked in blue on your maps." He said, referring to a couple dots appearing across the region. Ruth recognized the old Nuka Cola plant and the now collapsed building that used to be one of Vultures' outposts. Along with the other blue dots they marked a rough, meandering path going from the Nuka Cola plant in the north-west, all the way down to the south edge of the map. It was clear that whoever they were, they did their best to avoid large settlements like Camp Imperial, the Refinery, and the Farm, but hit known raider outposts along their route. "We don't know who the newcomers are, but we believe most of their numbers are dead by now. The RMS9 team and our friends from the Brotherhood of Steel made sure of that."

Ruth looked at the orange-clad trio sitting on the opposite side of the room. She noticed that the dark-haired woman, who must have been Sylvia, was looking at her intently. She immediately shifted her gaze when their eyes met. Besides her there were two men, among them the terrifying Senior Knight Morris with his stoic gaze focused on the colonel, as well as the slightly unhinged-looking, constantly smirking knight captain, Edd, whose eyes were also wandering across the room.

"However, what we know for certain is that the leadership of both remaining gangs is meeting tomorrow, which gives us the unique ability to decapitate both threats at the same time."

Stevens' words snapped her back to attention. She glanced back at Amber, whose weirdly green eyes were now glued to their superior. The lieutenant brought in a large sheet of paper and placed it on the whiteboard with black pieces of magnets. It was a map of a ruined, pre-war settlement surrounded by rocky hills. "We're planning to ambush them when they meet for what we believe are surrender negotiations."

"That doesn't really make sense." The Senior Knight interrupted. "The Vultures are decimated and the Tombstones could easily finish them off. Negotiations aren't really something raiders are known for, especially between gangs with years of open hostilities between them." Ruth had to begrudgingly agree that the presumed circumstances were... weird, at best.

"Normally I would agree, but we intercepted some communication between those gangs and there is no doubt that the Tombstones want to peacefully dismantle and absorb what's left of the Vultures. We believe they want to get their hands on as many capable people and equipment as they can to boost their chances against us, and anyone else trying to fill in the power vacuum, for that matter."

"And why would they do that instead of the tried and tested method of using their superior numbers and forcing Vultures to join them or die?" The Senior Knight continued his line of questioning, his face unchanging from the stoic observation. "It all looks like a trap to me. The Tombstones want to lower their opponent's guard before overwhelming them entirely."

"I doubt it's something they're going for here. The Vulture's leader didn't stay on top as long as he did by falling for the cheapest trick in the books." Stevens replied, flipping a couple of pages in his folder. "Besides, we know the whole meeting was his initiative; he invited Tombstone and his lieutenants and he was the one to offer conditions of their cooperation. In either case, their motivation is of little concern to us. We know where and when they are meeting, which is all we need to take them all out. Without their leaders, both gangs will hopefully implode, leaving us with cleaning duty after all this is done."

"I admire your optimism, Colonel, but if the Tombstones set up a trap and come in with superior forces, our chirurgical strike might not be as clean as you hope it to be." Ruth really wanted to smack the smug goatee off of the Senior Knight's face for both interrupting and breaking protocol as well as for making a bit too much sense. This situation was too good to be true, but even if this was a trap, taking out both gang leaders was worth the risk. After all, this is what recon teams were for. This is what they were here for. She couldn't help but notice Amber's fingers clenched around her knees as she listened.

"It's not optimism." The Colonel said with a smile. "It's superior firepower. The surgical strike is only our plan A. We'll place three recon teams around the Vultures' camp, they will be our eyes and ears and if the opportunity arises, our scalpel. But, there is a reason I invited you here as well as Captain Hacket." Stevens gestured at both the Senior Knight and the infantry officer in the corner of the room. "The Chariot and a Brotherhood strike force will support the recon teams on site, while three vertibirds with NCR infantry will depart Camp Imperial as soon as we have confirmation from you that all targets are in place. Tombstone and his lieutenants are primary targets for the snipers." He turned to look at Ruth directly as he said that. She swallowed hard, and gave a little nod in response. "Hopefully, that will cause the rest of his gang to assume it was a Vulture trap and turn hostile towards them. The sniper teams can at this point retreat or take targets of opportunity and wait for the main forces to arrive."

"Sir, if I may interrupt." Captain Hacket, silent up to this point, stood up from his chair and cleared his throat. "Why is this operation so hastily discussed mere hours before it is scheduled to take place?" Ruth could feel the contempt in his voice as he looked around the room. "I am aware that reconnaissance teams are used to working with minimal overhead cost and planning, but seeing how this operation involves the infantry, a couple of days of preparations are needed to ensure best performance."

"Actually, there are two reasons for that, Captain." The Colonel answered calmly, ignoring the tone of the other officer. "The first is that we simply didn't have the information before yesterday evening and we had to make sure it was correct. The second reason is that we want to minimize any chance of this information leaking. As you said, this operation involves the infantry, so we cannot be too careful."

Ruth couldn't help but smile at the face the Captain made after that comment. She noticed out of the corner of her eye that Amber had to cover her mouth as well to keep a professional appearance.

"And what if your sniper teams fail to take down their targets or if that doesn't cause the expected chaos?" The Captain continued, trying to compose himself. "And what would be your plan B, sir?"

"Unlikely as it may be, it is up to the Brotherhood to cause a sufficient distraction for the vertibirds to safely approach the target, provide suppressive fire, and land your troops to do the job." The Colonel answered with a smile that made his scar look less than friendly.

"The Chariot is heavily armored, but she is not indestructible. Even if we manage to come unnoticed under the cloak." Sylvia interrupted, clearly annoyed by the exchange. The room fell silent for a brief moment and Ruth could see how the woman turned red and lowered her gaze when all eyes fell on her. "...sir."

"I understand your concerns, lancer-knight." Stevens turned to her with the kind of tone Ruth immediately recognized. It was the subtle change in the Colonel's voice, from the strict military tone to the warm, sympathetic one which she had heard so many times before. "But we're almost certain neither of those groups possess firepower of sufficient caliber to do anything more than scratch some paint off of its back. No need to worry."

"Then why do we even involve the snipers and infantry?" The Captain asked, raising his eyebrow. "Let the Brotherhood go alone and do the job by themselves."

"Because, dear Captain, the NCR does not have the authority to order us to do so." The Senior Knight grumbled and for a brief moment there was a hint of annoyance in his voice. "We are here in a supporting capacity only and it is only because of our good will that we take part in this operation in the first place. Elimination of the raider threat is in our interest, but it is not vital to our mission."

"That's enough of politics, we don't have time for this right now." Stevens said, cutting off Hacket's response. He then turned to the three recon teams, taking them in. "The meeting takes place 4 hours of steady march from here, at noon tomorrow, so you have 14 hours to get there and set yourselves up for the mission. Get your equipment and depart as soon as you can. Each team should go separately by using different routes marked in your papers." Then he turned towards the Brotherhood and Ruth was almost sure he was looking directly at the knight-lancer, Sylvia. "Prepare the Chariot and approach from the east, avoiding detection at all costs by using the silent mode. Your primary mission for now is to relay communication to the base and provide extraction for the recon teams if one is needed."

He then looked around everyone's faces, expectant and strict. "I'll be awaiting updates. This meeting's over, good luck and happy hunting."