Chapter 8: What doesn't kill you...

The main building of Camp Imperial loomed over the landscape, a faint, red light of the radio tower flickering on top of it. They were greeted by the guards and let inside after a formal exchange of undercover passwords.

The whole team was exhausted by the journey spent mostly in silence this time around, as well as the restless night. Ruth's shoulder put her at a great disadvantage when climbing their way back through the ridges and rocky shelves, but with the help of the other soldiers and by clenching her teeth, they were able to make it back just as the evening began to fall. She was relieved to learn from one of the guards that Colonel Stevens was busy and in no mood to be bothered with their report, unless they'd learned something vitally important. The discovery of a new, possible threat was important, but her body and mind told her it could wait till morning. Her temporary companions, Private first class Derek Lee and Private Billy Mook, thanked her for the mission and wished a peaceful night before they dragged themselves towards their respective quarters. Ruth wanted to bed down as well, but first she made her way to the hospital. To her surprise, Clarence informed her that Amber was released this very morning.

"Of course she was." The short woman muttered to herself as the doctor forced her to sit through a check up of her shoulder. Half an hour later and with a fresh bandage she was on her way towards her new home. For a moment she entertained the idea of leaving her stuff there and setting out to look for the redhead, but the thought was rapidly losing its appeal the closer she was to the bed and the quicker the exhaustion was catching up to her. The first night she'd spent in her newly assigned quarters was... ok. She remembered sleeping in much better conditions even before she joined the army and got to bunk up with other nurses in a separate tent, but she also had to sleep in places she'd rather forget existed. The new quarters they got, if you could even call them that, were just a small room in one of the civilian buildings adjacent to the main military base. Built out of scavenged planks and rusted sheets of metal, on top of raised foundations that at some point probably served as a base for one of the airport hangars, it was sturdy enough to provide decent protection from nature's elements. Not much else, though. An additional layer of an old military tent canvas spread across the walls and the ceiling did very little to actually improve the conditions inside and made the whole chamber feel like a claustrophobic, patchwork box. If it wasn't for a decently sized window that overlooked the desert, she'd probably just sleep outside. The room had two beds and a couple of old military crates where they could store their belongings, as well as a small electric lamp giving just enough light to trick the eyes into not adjusting to the darkness. Needless to say, she wasn't thrilled about the perspective of spending her foreseeable future stuck in that small room with the giant of a redhead who could still be contemplating her murder in her spare time.

Ruth lazily pushed the flap of the cloth aside and headed right towards her bed, throwing her bag on it first. She did not, at all, expect the sudden commotion that followed as the blanket moved and the bed heaved, squeaking under weight. Ruth jumped back, startled, her first instinct to reach for her knives, but the heavy blanket unfurled and slid off the bed a little, revealing two equally startled female figures wrapped around each other. She recognized both her friend and medical supervisor Amy, as well as the still bandaged Amber.

"Ruth!" Amy exclaimed, pulling the cover back around herself. "Privacy!"

Her surprise turned into embarrassment as she took a step back, completely dumbfounded and all too aware of the heat spreading across her face. She blinked, regaining some of her composure, and huffed. "Dale! What the fuck is this kind of rehabilitation?"

"Aww come on!" Amber moaned in frustration, sitting up, only to uncover her still bandaged, though otherwise completely naked body, while Amy quickly covered herself avoiding her ex-roommate's stern gaze. "Can't a girl have some fun after all the shit I've been through?"

"Sorry to interrupt you lovebirds, but it's way too soon for this... type of entertainment. Look at her bandages, it's a complete mess!" Ruth exclaimed, addressing the other nurse. "She should still be resting!" She sighed and put her right hand on her forehead in resignation.

"I know." Amy said repentantly after a moment of awkward silence.

"Hey it's my fault, not hers." Amber admitted as she got up from the bed to pick up her clothes, completely ignoring the presence of the two very embarrassed women. "I just needed to let off some steam, mom."

"I didn't even know you two were... hell, I didn't even know you were into girls." Ruth ignored the redhead and continued to reprimand her friend.

"We're not, and... I don't think I am." She admitted, looking apologetically at Amber, who managed to put on her pants behind Ruth's back. "It was... well... an experiment, I suppose."

"Was it good at least?" Amber asked, gently pulling a shirt over her messed-up, loosened bandages.

"I guess... " The medic admitted with a shy smile and opened her mouth to continue, but was cut off by Ruth.

"Enough of this." She said, shaking her head. "You!" She pointed at the surprised Amy. "Get out of my bed, and you!" She turned towards the redhead struggling with her jacket. "You're going with me. Now I need a drink."

Both unfortunate lovers exchanged confused looks before Amber was dragged out of the room.

They came up to a thoroughly rusted, wide hull of a plane that served as the local pub. There was a piece of fabric stretched above the entrance that also shielded a few outside benches from the sand and wind. A solemn guitar-led song, a smell of cheap alcohol, and the general noise of numerous conversations welcomed them as they entered the dimly-lit interior. Most people were done with their duties at this hour and the pub was the default destination for many soldiers and civilian workers from the camp. As was the general look of this section of Camp Imperial, the pub was a classical example of the wasteland architecture from times before the NCR's rule. The hull was reinforced with rusted scrap metal and rotted plywood, held together by whatever means necessary. Most of the furniture was salvaged from the sea of ruins around the base or simply put together from scraps. In the spaces of once-attached wings there were two small rooms serving as lobbies, while the front of the hull was fully taken up by the counter, taps, and refrigerators. The walls were sparsely adorned with tacky pre-war decorations and a few NCR posters talking about greatness and the need to defeat the Legion. Despite its looks, this pub kept its standards, which couldn't always be said about similar establishments peppered throughout the wasteland. Nonetheless, the air was stale and stinking of cigarette smoke and alcohol. The two girls took free seats beside the counter and Ruth, with her blue head hidden under a thin, faded hood, motioned at the tall, broad-shouldered bartender. He nodded at her and reached for a bottle.

Amber discreetly looked around the place before turning to her partner. "So what's all this about?" She raised an eyebrow.

"All what?" The blue-haired woman took out a few caps and counted them. It didn't look like much, but certainly enough to get uselessly wasted in a place like this.

"Your sudden need to drink. I was kinda in the middle of something in case you didn't notice, so it better be important." Amber was still feeling the high and sweat of her private moment with Amy and was now eagerly waiting to be left alone with her frustration. "Ma'am." She added, begrudgingly.

"Judging by her reaction, it wasn't going very well, anyway, so stop complaining." She paused for a moment, watching as the bartender poured a whiskey-like substance into a cup. Amber grunted in response, crossing her arms. "I'm tired, frustrated at the pain in my arm, got a lot to think about, and on top of that you made a scene I'd rather forget. So, cheers." She took the cup and emptied it in one gulp, making her point.

Amber scoffed and gave her an amused glance. "Nobody taught you to knock before entering someone's bedroom?" She gestured at the man behind the counter to get the same as the other woman.

"Except that it was my bedroom, too, and my bed. How the hell was I supposed to know?" Ruth shot her a glance from under her hood.

"Well I had no idea you'd claimed it!" Amber exclaimed a little too loud, before scoffing and turning entirely towards the bar, receiving her drink. "Not like you left a note or anything..." The nerve of that little bitch! The stinging sensation of the alcoholic beverage going down her gullet soothed her slightly, but the frustration remained.

"You shouldn't be drinking much tonight." She almost felt the critical look from her superior, so she emptied the cup and waved for another. The left side of Amber's face, now bandage-free, was marked with a rough patch of fresh scar tissue going all the way from her forehead to her chin. She shook her head a little for the hair to cover it up, but they were too short and too messy to help much.

"You should have thought about that before you dragged me here." They stayed silent for a while, waiting for another round. The rhythm of some upbeat song about heartaches and other problems played in the background, partially drowned by loud conversations and laughter.

"Well..." Ruth continued, her tone now less patronizing than before. "I also wanted to update you on the mission. Something I couldn't do with Amy around."

"Oh yeah, about that." Amber took a sip from her cup. "Did you bump into another one of your ex-boyfriend-turned-raiders? Or did you accidentally send your teammates into obvious danger?" She turned on her seat, but couldn't see her partner's face beyond the cloth. She shifted her weight, leaning her arm on her thigh to try and peer past it. "Must have been so much more fun not having me around... ma'am."

She noticed the other woman's knuckles go whiteish around her cup. There was a short pause before she spoke.

"... No." Her voice was hard to read, though her hands quickly relaxed. "But there are news we've discovered that I thought might interest you. I haven't spoken with Stevens yet and was hoping for a second opinion from you before I went to see him." Ruth glanced at her, looking more tired than anything else.

The redhead leaned back on her seat, noting the change of tone. She looked around, but there was no one directly listening to them, nor anyone standing too close to be a bother. The bartender was away, lazily organising the newly imported beer bottles in the fridge.

"I'm listening, then." She said, lowering her tone slightly. As much as she wanted to take out her frustration on something by poking every single button she had on her superior, this was perhaps not the time to do it.

Ruth briefed her on the whole mission, their objective, what they had encountered, and the unexpected fight that ultimately led to the final decimation of the gang of the Vultures. The redhead was jealous of missing such an exciting clash, hearing of defeating a gang without her own bullet to the cause, and a mention of the possibly new, stronger group, did pique her interest.

"So what do you think?" Her partner asked, finishing her drink. "I'll show you the pattern when we get back."

"Honestly, the less raiders, the better. That's less work for us, and I don't mind them killing each other off for us." She pursed her lips, looking for the right words. "It seems like they can feel the ground slipping from underneath their feet and they're fighting one another for the scraps of land that the NCR is not controlling as of yet. I'd say that's a good thing."

Ruth listened, nodding. "I agree, but I still don't know what to think about the new... gang? Whatever they are, it's worrying me."

"Let's wait and see what happens, I guess. God, this alcohol is so vile." Amber muttered, taking another sip. The other woman agreed and ordered something else, though the smell and consistency seemed to not be too far off from the previous mix. An off-duty soldier slumped on the bar two seats away from them and gestured at the bartender as the music changed again to something melancholic with no lyrics.

"So... who started it?" Ruth asked, catching her off guard a bit. "You, or Amy?"

"Oh? What happened to the whole forgetting that scene part?" Amber asked, raising an eyebrow at the sudden change of topic.

"I don't want to think about the act, but I want to know why it happened." Ruth shrugged.

"I never thought you were into gossip." The redhead replied. She almost managed to forget about her frustration from before, but it mattered less now.

"I never thought you were into girls." Her partner replied with a shrug. "But it's not like we know each other very well, anyway."

Amber looked around the pub, suddenly slightly embarrassed she'd find her nurse date somewhere, listening, but she didn't see anyone even close in appearance to her person. Both women were seated at the very edge of the counter, away from the thickest crowd.

"I see my reputation didn't precede me for once." The redhead said with a sly smile. "I suggested, she wanted to try it, no big deal." She shrugged, looking into the liquid in her hands. "And, you know, maybe we could change that 'not knowing too much about each other' deal." She shifted her attention towards Ruth, who seemed to be more relaxed now with all the booze in their veins. "Like for example why did we join the army and how did we get here, yanno... " She continued, but the other woman didn't pick up the subject, though her shoulders slumped a bit. After another sip she decided to just keep going. "I can start, though there's not much to know about me, to be honest. My parents were traders and scavengers, I followed them around with my younger brother. Then they were both murdered by raiders, but you knew that already." She smiled bitterly.

"You know, we don't have to talk about this if you don't want to." The other woman said, toying with her glass.

"No, I'm fine, and I'm the one asking, anyway. It's been quite a few years since then, we were both very young. After the attack, a group of farmers adopted us and I grew up on Smith's Farm. It was very different from being on the road, but it wasn't bad at all. Only the fresh food, water, always something to do and always someone to make caps on from the caravans. It was a bit boring, though. When I was old enough I came here to join the Army to fight off raiders. And that's it, now I'm here." Amber downed the cup of what was falsely advertised as whiskey.

"When, uh... when was all that? The attack, I mean. How old were you?" Ruth asked slowly.

"I was twelve, my brother nine." The redhead really didn't want to dwell on her feelings right now, but she hoped that throwing information could get her something in return.

The other woman nodded and finished her drink. She didn't ask any more questions. Somewhere in the back of the room someone broke a glass bottle and a small cheer erupted around the scene, but it didn't cause any commotion. Moments later an angry-looking waitress with a broom passed them, muttering something under her breath.

"Well, thank you for that, Dale." Ruth turned to her with a smile, placing her empty cup away on the counter. "But you'll have to get me way more drunk than that."

"Hey! That's not fair!" Ruth chuckled, seeing the frustration on Amber's face. "I thought we were bonding, or something."

"Still plenty of time for that, Red." The hooded woman got up from her seat. "Oh, and... I'm sorry for overreacting before. I shouldn't have. Should I sneak into the medical room and sleep there tonight?"

"No, that's... it's fine. Sorry for taking your bed. By accident."

"It's ok. Finish your drink, I'll meet you at our place." Ruth motioned a goodbye and walked away, disappearing into the crowd and then out the hull.

The redhead just sat there for a moment, not sure what to think or do. With her drink finished in one gulp, she soon made it back as well.

The next morning was one of those times that the current Amber really hated yesterday's Amber for. She vaguely remembered seeing Ruth get up and leave, but when she woke up again, what must have been a couple of hours later, she could clearly see the blue mane sticking out from under the blanket. She got up slowly, trying to avoid any sudden movements she could regret, then grabbed a canteen she remembered placing next to her bed. Weirdly enough, while she remembered filling it up before going to bed, it was almost empty now. She growled looking accusingly at the offending container and tossed it at the bed. She slowly stretched her back, feeling needles of pain flaring up along her bandaged torso.

"Today is the day." The redhead muttered to herself, feeling cold anxiety quickly overtaking the slight hangover that's been so far dominating her consciousness. She glanced down at her bandaged body and felt a striking shiver go down her spine. She wrapped her arms around herself and took a couple of deep breaths to push all the dark thoughts out of her head.

A light breakfast and three jars of water later she was on her way to the hospital. The sun was already high up on the sky and the base was teeming with life. One of the vertibirds was away and there was a lot of activity around the restricted part of the military section of the base. Her thoughts drifted towards the mysteries hidden there, but as soon as she entered the weirdly smelling interior of the large hospital tent she was greeted by the always smiling face of Amy.

"Hello sweetie, how are you feeling today?" The medic asked cheerfully.

"Would be much better if we got to finish what we did yesterday." Amber replied, forcing a cocky smile.

"Oh, riiiight." Amy's eyes darted to the side for a brief moment as if she was making sure they were alone in the tent. "It was good and all, but..." Her face turned red as she spoke. "I'm sorry, but like I said yesterday, I don't think I'm into that... you know... girls stuff."

"Hey, don't worry about it!" Amber replied, totally ignoring the medic's hushed tone. "At least now you know."

"How was your night out with Ruth?" Amy quickly jumped to another subject as she was leading her patient past the empty beds. "I hope she wasn't too pissed at us, you know. I haven't seen her since then."

"I made her regret interrupting us." The redhead chuckled. "We talked about some business. I think we're good."

"Good... " The medic paused for a moment and turned to face her. "Don't be too hard on her, ok? She's a good kid. I don't know where she's from and what she's been through, but when she came here she did so to help others. She helped many people, saved lives and now..." She lowered her voice again almost to a whisper "Look, I know I'm not supposed to know things, but it's not hard to put two and two together when you're patching people up. Whatever you guys are doing out there, no matter how off the books it is, please take care of each other, okay?"

Amber blinked, surprised by the turn of the conversation. "I... don't know what you're talking about." She muttered without any conviction.

"And I don't want to know, just promise me that you at least give her a chance, okay?" Amy gave her an encouraging smile. "I'm just looking out for a friend."

The redhead nodded, not sure what else to say. At this rate half of the base would figure them out before they got to go on another mission.

"Oh, and don't try to sleep with her, I'm pretty sure she's not into that, either, and I don't want to see you in here after she makes it clear to you."

"Believe me, I don't intend to..." The grin on her face was genuine but quickly disappeared once they reached one of the corners of the room separated by a bunch of privacy screens.

"Don't worry, it won't hurt." Her doctor said, noticing her patient's change of mood.

"It's not the pain I'm worried about." She could no longer hide the tension in her voice. She struggled with each step she took towards a metal bed in the middle of the room and once she sat down, her fingers just dug into the metal frame of the bed and refused to move.

"I know you're afraid, Amber." The doctor said, softly placing her hand on the redhead's shoulder. "And I honestly don't know how to make it any less stressful for you, but the sooner we get those bandages off of you, the sooner you can start adjusting to the new state of things." She paused for a moment, giving Amber a warm smile. "It doesn't take away from who you are and in the end, it could have been much, much worse."

Amber took another deep breath and slowly began to undress, revealing her bandaged body. She felt surprisingly cold despite the heat of the desert sun assaulting the hospital tent and the thick air inside of it. She stared at her reflection in a mirror placed in the corner of the room, as Amy gently unwrapped layer after layer of the grayish fabric. It wasn't the first time the medic had done it, but this was the first time Amber was allowed to fully see the extent of the damage done. This time, the bandages were not coming back. Her eyes followed the movement of Amy's hands as she revealed the new landscape of her body. She stared with a mixture of disbelief, disgust and relief at her now naked self reflected in the mirror once all the bandages had dropped.

"Do you want to stay here alone for a moment?" Amy asked softly, looking concerned at the redhead, who just nodded and continued to look at her reflection.

Her nightmares of a ghoulish-like, deformed skin disappeared, but her body did dramatically change. Thin, but deep lines of scar tissue ran across her skin. On top of the scar on her face, three deep claw marks marred her shoulder, a deep cut ran between her breasts and crossed another cut across her belly. A couple of older scars she had were almost completely dwarfed by the new set. She knew there were additional cuts on her back, but she was too scared to move, fearing that the freshly mended skin would tear apart. She lifted her hand, but stopped partway, too afraid to touch it. Her vision blurred slightly and a warm drop ran across her scarred cheek.

"I'm sorry, Amber." Amy's voice came from the side. "We did what we could... She did an amazing job with what she had... " She approached the redhead handing her back a stack of folded clothes. "It's a miracle that you survived and didn't lose any limb or... you know." She nodded at the cut narrowly missing her breast.

"I know." Amber whispered and wiped away her tears. She gathered enough strength to run her fingers across the scarred skin. It was uneven, but soft, and the sensation sent shivers down her spine. She was lost in the maelstrom of emotions. Sadness, loss, anger, sorrow, disgust, but also relief and curiosity. "It's gonna be one hell of a story to tell if someone asks about this." She forced a smile.

"I'm sure you'll get a lot of opportunities to tell just how tough and lucky you were, surviving a deathclaw." Amy replied with a warm smile. "Now cover those sexy boobs of yours or I'll start to regret what I said earlier."

The redhead couldn't help but smile at that comment, took one last look at herself in the mirror, and started to awkwardly put on her shirt. There was a lot she needed to process and sitting topless on a hospital bed was probably not the best place to do it.

The following days were odd, to say the least, as compared to her previous experiences in the Camp. After Ruth had spoken with Stevens, they received no immediate orders and were supposed to wait for the update, taking as much time as they needed to relax and recover. Relaxing for those three days straight was probably the longest she's got in a while, and it was starting to get boring.

After sleeping off the foul whiskey aftermath, Ruth spent the majority of the first day outside, hiding among some crates piled up against the back wall of the building they were staying at. She needed some peace and quiet, and her new room was too dark and too tight for her to feel at ease. A worn, stained, and crinkled notebook accompanied her as she finally had some time and motivation to write down her thoughts. She's had it for a very long time now, filling page after page of memories, thoughts, ideas, or very poor doodles of things and places. The events of the past weeks were hard to process and proved even more challenging to be consciously written down on paper. Additionally, ever since she's transferred to recon, she's been very careful not to hint at any information that could be compromising. She knew she probably shouldn't have continued writing at all for the sake of her position, but the act was calming and helped her through a lot before.

That day she also visited the army graveyard to say her last goodbyes, to finally make peace with what's happened, so she could put it all behind her.

The two following days were mostly filled with struggle to find a place for herself. The whole Camp was bustling as always; some moved about with purpose and haste, some relaxed in the civilian living quarters, new people were just arriving while others were leaving for good. Ruth took a while to just walk around the base, aimlessly, though remaining observant of the people around her. Without a tight schedule at the hospital or an exhausting training regiment, she found way too much time on her hands to get lost in her thoughts, a spiral she really didn't like falling into. She watched two caravans be let inside the base and make their way towards the trading area to unpack and feed their brahmins. One group was leading an animal she's never seen before - taller and less stockier than a brahmin, with a long, singular head and thin ears. Making her way across the main square to reach the newcomers, she also recognized the familiar redhead beelining through the sparse crowd towards her. Ruth stopped and waited for her to catch up, mentally bracing for the interaction.

"You're up early." Amber said with a mischievous smile, holding a loose bag slung over her shoulder. "I heard of a new caravan coming through. You're up for some shopping?" The apparent friendliness seemed a bit suspicious, but she smiled back nevertheless, not sure what else to expect. She hadn't seen her roommate much the previous day, not that she was looking for her, but it was weird to bump into her like that and be greeted with a smile.

"I think I just saw them receive a pass. We should give them a moment to unpack, but sure, let's go." Ruth said as they headed towards the trading area.

The merchants brought with them a whole range of products: from relatively fresh fruit and vegetables imported from local farmlands, through weapon parts and equipment, to scrap metal and other completely random junk that someone would certainly buy at some point. They spent a lot of time just browsing and sharing the more interesting oddities they've found. Amber rushed to see the guns first, looking over a few models, but the prices discouraged her fairly quickly from browsing further. She pointed out some of them to Ruth, criticizing their state and saying just how much tinkering it would require to justify the price. The other woman listened, but the more the redhead got into the technical jargon, the less she understood, though she appreciated the effort to explain some of those details. In the meantime, she found herself a new water canteen, bigger and with a sturdier strap than her current one. They both bought a bunch of relatively well-made clothes, among them a long-sleeved, faded red shirt with mismatched buttons for Amber, and a yellow and green, comfortable poncho-like garment for Ruth. Before they decided they were finished, she glanced around, but could no longer see the strange creature from before, as the animals were usually taken away from the crowd. The rest of daylight they spent on quite peaceful terms, which was more than welcome. They even got to enjoy a meal together where she watched Amber devour what must have been half of her weight in various forms of wasteland cuisine. They didn't talk much, not about themselves at least. The redhead had a comment about every dish and every drink she tried, but appeared to be carefully avoiding any more personal topics.

Later that evening Ruth excused herself to spend some more time alone around the base. Not that she didn't enjoy the company, but her mind was still coping with everything that's happened and looking at the stars high above the ruined landing strip helped just that little bit more than adjusting to Amber's new, slightly more friendly attitude.

The redhead was already sleeping when she got back to their room, and was already gone in the morning when she woke up. Ruth followed her usual morning routine, but finally decided that she had enough of feeling useless and went to the hospital. She walked in just like she used to each day for months, back when she was working there, and of course the first person she bumped into had to be Clarence.

"Oh, hello there Ruth, did something happen?" The man asked with a hint of concern. "I hope it's nothing serious."

"Oh no no, everything is fine." She replied looking around. The hospital was nearly empty with only a couple of beds occupied at the moment. "I was hoping that I could maybe help you guys with something."

"But you don't work here anymore." He replied, fixing his glasses. "And even if you did, we have it all covered. I just have to fill in those papers and we can go for lunch together."

She wanted to insist on staying and looking for something more productive to do, but her attention snapped once again to a familiar red mane suddenly appearing from behind a privacy screen. Her first thought was to roll her eyes at the thought of catching her roommate with Amy again, and sure enough her friend emerged from behind the fabric a step after Amber. There was something off about the two, though. Amber was not the embodiment of confidence she usually portrayed herself as. She looked small and vulnerable and the look of concern and compassion on Amy's face made her feel bad about her initial thought. Both women noticed her presence and for a brief moment she could swear she saw surprise and shame in Amber's eyes, before the redhead smiled and waved at her, returning to her normal self in a blink of an eye.

"Hey, what are you doing here?" Amy asked as both women approached them.

"She's bored and wants to help." Clarence replied with a chuckle.

"That's great, cause I have a couple of beds to scrub."

"... on second thought, no thanks." Ruth replied with a mocked disgust and turned towards Amber. "What about you?"

"Just making sure she misses me." The redhead replied with a wide grin nodding at the other medic.

"Yeah, yeah, I hope I won't have to see you here again." Amy replied blushing slightly at the comment. "Now get lost, both of you, unless you want to handle some used bedpans."

"Don't you have people for that?" Amber asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh I had, but she decided to change professions." She replied, pointing at Ruth before turning around.

"I'll be going as well." Clarence said before any of them could react. "I have to make sure mister Vasquez is out before my lunch break."

"Wait, Jimmie's out, too?" The redhead asked, distracted from what Ruth suspected was a whole series of poop-related jokes at her expense. Thank the rust.

"He won't be if you keep me away from the paperwork, but yes." The doctor said with a hint of annoyance.

"Fuck yeah, we're going drinking tonight!" Amber exclaimed. "I promised him that when we were both here."

"Charming." The man muttered, walking towards the office part of the hospital tent.

The rest of the afternoon went by surprisingly fast. Ruth wanted to meet up for a chat with Amy, but she apparently had a lot of work to do. The worried look she gave Amber at the hospital was still at the back of her mind when Private Vasquez and the rest of the second recon team joined them for dinner and with them came the order that Colonel Stevens wanted to see them the next morning. Technically that meant they should be well rested and ready for action at any moment, but such technicalities didn't bother the other four members of the recon teams. They managed to secure a whole table just for themselves and pooled enough caps to ensure a steady flow of questionably tasting, but very potent alcohol. Ruth's worries and concerns melted with each shot as she sat back and relaxed listening to the stories her companions had to tell. Still, she couldn't stop herself from glancing at her roommate, who despite a large number of empty cups and cans in front of her wasn't as talkative as a couple of nights before.

To say that the following morning was rough would be a massive understatement. All five active members reported to the Colonel's office first thing in the morning, but it wasn't the early time of the day that caused them the most issues.

"I'm glad you're all here." Stevens said with a smirk, looking at his prized soldiers struggling to stand straight in the row before him. "I don't want to keep you here too long, seeing how some of you still need their rest."

He walked back to his desk and pulled out a couple pieces of paper, as well as the piece of metal armor they'd recovered from the Vultures gang site. "Since not all of you were on the mission, please, Corporal, catch us up to speed on what happened."

Ruth stepped forward, looking at her own notes lying on his desk. She cleared her throat and began, carefully pronouncing each word, though struggling. "We've located a camp that used to belong to the Vultures. Everyone on the spot was dead, except for a small group of scavengers. The Vultures' bodies were left out to rot in the sun, but there were two, fresh graves. This," she nodded at the piece of metal, "was recovered from one of them. There were a lot more items buried within, but we didn't want to disturb them, and... we didn't want to interfere with those scavengers."

"What else was there?" He asked.

"They were buried with weapons, armor and ammo, like they didn't need it." Mook replied after a moment.

"Or they left it for later." James replied with a shrug.

"Then they really must not be from around here." Mook chuckled. "Right, Dale?"

The redhead just nodded with a brief smile, but didn't say anything.

"And what do you think about this find?" Stevens asked, pointing at the armor.

"Whoever they are, they don't like the Vultures, and they wanted to get rid of all of them at once." Lee answered and quickly added. "Sir."

"No, they don't." The colonel replied, nodding in his direction. "The biggest question now is why."

"Gang violence, sir." Derek replied again, taking a step forward. "Someone's trying to undermine the Vulture's position, an external force most likely since I've never seen a gang with those markings."

"But... the Tombstones are the biggest gang in the area." Vasquez said, pausing for a moment when the colonel's eye snapped to look at him. "Wouldn't they be the primary target?"

"No." Amber said finally, her voice was a bit slurry. "Tombstones aren't targets, they are the attackers."

"What about those weird guys and not robbing their victims blind?" Vasquez asked. "Tombstones are raiders, they kill to steal."

"I don't know." The redhead answered with a shrug. "Maybe they want to intimidate the competition?"

"Or maybe they are just next on the list?" Mook suggested. "Leaving the biggest rat for last, after all others are defeated, means you can focus all your forces on them."

"Good thinking." The colonel interrupted them. "That's gonna be your next mission. Figure out what's going on here." He said, looking through his files. "Lee, you take your guys west and south, where the other team had first contact with them." He gave him a folder with a map. "Don't engage if you find anything, track them if you can."

"Yes, sir!" Derek said as he picked up his orders.

He then checked Ruth's report again and compared it to the map, then marked something on it and handed them back the papers. "You two go north, we have known locations of other Vulture hideouts and other suspicious places. Talk with the locals, get as much intel as you can." He gave them a second map. "And try to lay low this time. I don't mind having raiders decimated in this area, but it's not good for us if they take all their secrets to their graves. At least try asking questions first. Prepare, get some rest, sober up, and whatever else you need. You're leaving tomorrow. Dismissed!"

"Yes, sir!" All five said and left his office.

As soon as the doors closed behind them they took a collective deep breath. Amber and James sloped against a wall. They each took a moment to rest before Derek broke in a hushed tone. "He knows more than he's telling us."

"Of course he does, he's the colonel, we're just cannon fodder." Mook shrugged at his partner.

"We have our orders, if he doesn't tell us something, it's probably irrelevant to the mission." Ruth said dismissively. She was tired and definitely not in the mood to discuss integrity or some hidden agenda of her commanding officer.

"Oh, I'm sure he told us all he thinks we should know." The broad man scoffed and turned around to face the redhead lagging behind. "What do you think, Dale?"

Amber's face lost all its colors, turning a pale green instead. She heard her name, only to suddenly cover her mouth and jump towards the nearest door which fortunately happened to be leading to a toilet.

Ruth wanted to follow her, but was stopped by Vasquez. "Let her go, ma'am, she rarely has hangovers, but when she does, it ain't pretty."