Sarah returned to consciousness suddenly and tightened her abdomen to sit up from the surface she was laying on but was thwarted by a dull throb low on her right hip. The last thing she remembered was her eyes slowly drifting closed and the sensation of falling as Dusk screamed for a medic. Now she found herself staring at the tattered olive-green ceiling of a military tent. That view was subsequently blocked by the relieved visage of her father. His watery gray eyes narrowed as he smiled down at her and smoothed back her hair in a manner he had refrained from since she had entered Initiate training.
"Hey, Sarah," even his voice was softer than perhaps she'd ever heard it. "Are you thirsty?"
It was only after he asked that the younger Lyons realized she was, in fact, incredibly thirsty. She nodded her head, finding her throat too dry to form words, and her father gently cranked the cot she was on into a reclining position. He held up a tin cup half full of water and allowed her a few swallows before gently removing it.
"The doctor said that you should go slowly for a while," Owen smiled and, after a few moments of simply staring with that paternal expression, he allowed her to finish the cup.
"Wh-what happened?" Sarah managed to surprise herself with the croak that emerged from her throat.
"Both missions were complete successes with zero fatalities," then his smile slowly faded into the stern expression she had come to expect from Elder Lyons. "Unfortunately, our casualty rate was over two-thirds."
Sarah cast her gaze across the tent and found that it was packed with the unconscious bodies of nearly the entire Pride. She was tucked into the corner furthest from the entrance and to her immediate left was Colvin with a pressure bandage covering the left side of his head. On her right was Gallows with bandages covering him from ankle-to-thigh on both legs. Kodiak, her bear of a Paladin, had thick wrappings around his torso that even now were the rust color of dried blood. Knight-Captain Glade was against the tent wall to her right, the foot of his cot nearly touched Gallows', with bandages wrapped around his left shoulder all the way to his elbow; they were wet with a brownish fluid that didn't quite look like blood. Opposite Glade was, to her surprise, the Walker with a heavy-duty wrap around his thigh and a smaller one on the left side of his neck. Parker lay beside Lee with his right leg elevated and foot-to-knee encased in some kind of strange metal brace. On the left side of the tent was Initiate Waters with several monitoring machines hooked up to her and dozens of small patches over her torso that were spotted with fresh blood. On Waters right was Charon with an IV inserted into his hand that led to an innocuous looking bag of water on a stand beside his bed. There weren't any obvious wounds or bandages on him but Sarah had seen enough Initiates die from internal injuries to know external trauma was never a good indicator of how close to death someone was.
"Besides Vargas, all of the Pride was injured, and many of the Rangers. They're a stubborn bunch and I wouldn't be surprised if more should be off their feet instead of preparing to get back to their bases. Which, by the way, they still haven't told me the locations of." the Elder smiled sardonically. "I can't even say I really blame them."
"What happened to them?" Sarah asked.
"Ambushed, just like your squad was, Sentinel," Elder Lyons, all business now, informed her, "Somehow, the Enclave discovered the location of Vault eighty-seven and anticipated the Wanderer making a move for it. Fortunately for us, they didn't anticipate him having Brothers with him or the... locals. Rather, one unique local. You'll see when you meet him."
"How are they?" The croak came back to Sarah's voice and her father quickly held up another half cup of water.
"I think I can answer that better than Elder Lyons," the Wanderer sauntered into the tent, looking only slightly more harrowed than the day they had met, and a massive shadow fell across him. Sarah caught a glimpse of a blocky, yellow-green face peering inside before the Wanderer turned and shook his head. "No, Fawkes, you wait outside. You're too damn big and this tent is already crowded enough."
"As you wish!" The sudden change in the volume of the super mutant's voice jolted Sarah out of her shock and she turned a confused gaze on her father.
"I had the same look on my face, child, believe me. Apparently, Fawkes has retained his ability to reason and fight against, what I am told, is some kind of psychological reconditioning all super mutant's undergo upon their transformation from people to, well, what they are."
"They used to be people?"
The Wanderer removed his sunglasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, "Yes. It's called the Forced Evolution Virus. Apparently, it's what causes such a severe mutation in humans. I always thought that super mutants were just too human. None of the great apes kept in captivity survived the Winter or the War itself so...Wait, wasn't I answering a question?"
Sarah smiled and shook her head, "You always did get distracted with tech talk. I asked how our people were."
"Everyone'll make a full recovery. Some in less than a week, others in several." The Wanderer retrieved a pressure cuff from a medical cart in the center of the room and strapped it to her arm. "Waters is fine but the effects of extended use of that prototype armor are still not well understood. Those entry points where the suit injected her with medicine have yet to heal despite the lingering presence of stem-cells in her body. That's why she's here. Glade got grazed by a plasma bolt that nearly took his head off. The burns are still weeping. I know you were wondering why the bandages are so soggy." The Wanderer pursed his lips and nodded at whatever her blood pressure was but he didn't say a word as he removed a pen light from his shirt pocket. "Colvin also came close to decapitation thanks to a gauss round. As is, I couldn't save his ear but we'll have to see if his hearing's been compromised at all." He shined the light in her eyes as he continued his break down of everyone's injuries. "Gallows caught splash from a plasma grenade. We managed to get some coolant spray on it before he sustained more than first-degree burns but they cover sixty percent of both legs." Doctor Rollins nodded to himself as he put away his light and held a finger directly in front of Sarah's nose. "Follow my finger as best you can, please. Kodiak ripped his wounds open taking the 'bird. Parker snapped his ankle jumping from a two-story window like he had power armor." Rollins chuckled and shook his head. "He'll be fine though. Another couple doses of stim-paks, a week of keeping that ankle immobile, and he'll be doing something else that lands him in a surgical bed." He moved down to her bare right foot and began poking it with a slender metal rod as he watched her face for every wince. "Walker got stabbed but, from what he said, you know how that happened. I have to say though, it's been a long time since I saw anyone that could keep up with him enough to do that kind of damage."
Sarah grit her teeth through the pain that flared in her hip with every poke that caused her foot to clench and spoke, "The bastard was on some kind of combat stim. I'd bet my life on it." She giggled slightly and shrugged at the odd looks she received. "I guess I kind of did bet my life on it."
Her father shared a look with the Wanderer and the Ranger commander shrugged, "She's spent time with Echo. Everyone that does changes. Usually for the worst."
"Plus, I think I'm still high on med-X, fucker," Sarah stuck her tongue out but immediately cringed at her father's glare.
"Sorry, father. Sorry, Doctor Rollins."
Rollins laughed and stood, "No need, Sarah. Like I said, you ran with Echo. Sit on the edge of the cot for me?" With her father's help, she managed and watched as he pulled out what looked like the world's smallest tomahawk with a rubber blade. "This is going to hurt but I can't give you another shot of med-X if I want to test your reflexes. Oh and Charon just needs fluids because he had marathon sex with Star Paladin Cross."
Sarah's eyes distended to an obscene amount as she turned her head towards Charon only to feel her leg jerk upwards in response to the sharp tap that the Wanderer had delivered to her knee. She bit off the curse that threatened to spill from her lips and growled at the source of the eye-watering pain in her hip.
"Sorry, I lied. Charon just took a nasty fall on some rocks and bruised his kidneys. That IV is feeding him mildly irradiated saline solution. He'll be right as rain in a few hours." The Wanderer picked up a chart that had been hanging off the end of her bed and began writing a multitude of notes. "You, on the other hand, are going to need to be on crutches for a couple of weeks. That bullet dug deep, tore more than a few muscles, and gave you a decent hairline fracture. Your ball-and-socket is going to be iffy and I don't want to risk catastrophic dislocation by you doing too much too soon. I'm going to prescribe a less aggressive recovery plan for you and don't try to get out of it. I'm sending this chart with you, wherever you decide to go."
"What's he talking about, father?" Sarah replied as her father gently assisted her in laying back on the cot.
"Ah, you haven't briefed her yet? Whoops," Doctor Rollins shrugged at her father's stare. "How was I supposed to know?"
"It will take a minimum of two weeks to get Liberty Prime ready to deploy. Maybe more than that to modify the G.E.C.K for our purposes. The Brotherhood needs to consolidate its assets and pool them with whatever the Rangers can bring to bear for the push on Project: Purity. Additionally, neither Brotherhood nor Rangers can have their elite units under maximum capacity for such an operation. Morale is something that the Rangers, as much as it galls me to say, have a better grasp on than the Brotherhood. We've never faced an enemy like this before, that can hurt us as they can, and seeing the Lyon's Pride so diminished would be a blow not easily recovered from." Her father sighed and held her hand in his. She gave it her hardest reassuring squeeze and received a smile in return. "Commander Rollins proposed that I send the Pride out on an extended intelligence gathering mission with the Rangers until we have a strategy in place and our assets are ready to deploy."
"It sounds like a good idea. I know my Pride could use some time to get their minds right and it does the Brothers good to know that we're still out there fighting the fight," Sarah supported the decision and returned her father's gentle smile.
"You make me so proud, Sarah. I could not have hoped for a better daughter or Sentinel."
Both Elder and Sentinel Lyons' eyes began tearing up and, before either could embarrass themselves in public, the Wanderer cleared his throat. "We've managed to clear enough space in the Southwest Hub for your entire squad, Sentinel. There's also space back at Command for anyone that wants a little more quiet. I know how rowdy Echo can get when they mix with Delta. Vargas said that the Pride would follow your lead. The McAdams'll be here in a few hours so we need a decision."
Before Sarah could say a word, a familiar voice blasted into the room from the tent's entrance, "Out of the way, you big fucker! See this?! It means I'm a Ranger!
"I am on guard," the peculiar super mutant bellowed but then spoke almost normally at the end.
"Did the commander put you on guard? No? Then let me the fuck in, numbnuts!"
"Rachel, settle down. Commander Rollins, would you tell Fawkes we can enter!?" Wolf's voice called out.
Rollins sighed, "Fawkes, let them in."
"Jesus, Moon, you're getting blonder and blonder every day!" Money teased her quadmate as the threesome entered the tent.
"Is blonder even a word?!"
"You guys really never stop, do you?" Sarah asked and found herself grinning at the smiles that blossomed on the women's faces. It wasn't something she was used to receiving, even from the Pride.
"Hopper, you're awake!? Pay up, Moon!" Money exclaimed and held her hand out for the five caps that Moon had already retrieved.
"Fuckin' irritating little-" Moon trailed off as the three crowded around her cot and effectively muscled her father and Rollins back. Both men had chagrined looks on their faces. "I have to say, Sentinel. You are one tough bitch. Lee told us how you took one to the chest and to the hip and still held off all those Muties."
"Yeah, I took a look at your armor when we got back. It's gonna need a least a week of work before you can use it again. Did you realize you burned out a quarter of your primary servomotors? I think Bowditch nearly shit himself when he saw it." All four shared a giggle at Money's remark.
"How're you feeling, Hopper?" Wolf placed a hand on Sarah's forehead and two fingers on the side of her neck.
"Doc Rollins already looked me over, Wolf," She complained but the woman just frowned at her. "I feel okay. My hip is throbbing but not that bad as long as I don't move much. Why are you guys calling me Hopper?"
"I have been wondering that myself," her father asked with the strangest expression she had seen on his face yet.
"You should have seen your daughter, Elder. She jumped out a window, fell three stories, and then hopped like the biggest, metallic grasshopper you ever saw in your life right up to the 'bird. Probably would have jumped in if she wasn't worried about the rotors chopping her head right off," Money supplied the explanation, imitating her hops by the side of the bed.
"She did, did she?" Her father looked at her with watery eyes again and she felt her own doing the same.
What the Hell is wrong with us? Though, it's true that I've never almost died before.
"Yes, we were all there, bonita. Try to calm down. People are sleeping."
"Oh? How many times did you and Moon wake me up banging like molerats?" Money skipped over to Walker's cot, just beating Moon by a second, and the two fell to alternately berating him and smothering him in kisses.
"You know, if I wasn't having sex with two of them, I'd feel like a damn mother hen."
"Well, you can still be a mother hen-type to someone you sleep with. Men are kind of like kids," Sarah grinned at her father and the Wanderer's affronted expressions.
"That is exactly right, Hopper. Exactly right."
And just like that, Sarah Lyons decision was made.
"Hey, Hopper! Wake up!" Dice shouted into her ear and Sarah jerked upright from her supine sleeping position. "Fuck, watch it!" The hyperactive Ranger hopped backwards away from the potential head-butt.
"That'll teach you to get so close, Dice. What's happening?" Sarah asked hoarsely.
Dice grinned hugely before replying in a sing-song voice, "Reiner and Vargas are fightin'!"
Sarah groaned and lamented, "Why are men so damn stupid?!"
"Beats me, dolly, but it sure is entertainin'! Let's go before we miss it!" Dice grabbed Sarah by the wrist and began eagerly pulling her towards the barracks exit.
"Calm down, Dice! Hopefully, Wolf managed to talk them down."
"Who do ya think talked those boneheads into it?"
"Oh," Sarah rolled her eyes and stopped herself from tucking in the tail of her tanktop into her cargo pants. None of the Rangers seemed to care much for spit-and-polish when it came to anything other than functionality.
Dice and Sarah nearly ran from the tertiary ground floor barracks down to the basement level. She only spared a glance down the hall leading to the workshop where flashes of blue light and a strange thumping noise emanated from. Cracker and Money were cloistered in the place at least 16 hours a day; sometimes up to 20 if no one was paying attention. The two women jogged down an earthen ramp into the tunnel that one of the school's former dwellers had tried to use to burrow into a nearby Vault only to be swarmed by giant ants. The Rangers had cleared the ant nest and sealed the branching tunnels. One of the largest chambers had been converted into, of all things, a place for hand-to-hand combat training.
Soon enough, after several twists of the tunnel, Sarah and Dice came to a stop in a brightly lit cavern beneath the earth. A loose ring of both Brotherhood and Rangers was gathered around Reiner and Vargas. Moon, she noticed, was conspicuous in her absence. Dice followed the Sentinel to Walker's side and placed herself close to Wolf.
"Hey, where's Moon?" Dice asked and winced as Reiner took a brutal left hook to the body.
Sarah didn't know if she was happy that the two men were wearing sparring equipment in the form of headgear and boxing gloves. On the one hand, it would reduce the chance of serious injury to their heads and hands; on the other hand, it let both take more cumulative damage.
"This place brings back bad memories. She took Dusty's spot in Mission Command," Wolf informed them and pointed the Foxes leader cheering loudly for Reiner to knock the piss out of Sarah's second-in-command.
The rest of the match passed in a blur of anxiety for Sarah. She barely made a sound besides the occasional sharp intake of breath and her only movement was the clenching of her fists. Vargas and Reiner were both such... men. The Sentinel blamed Moon for the entire thing since the Ranger had been the one to blurt out that Sarah had the "hots" for the Alpha leader. Sarah had been mortified but had thought nothing of it. Reiner barely spoke to anyone and had uttered all of three terse sentences to Sarah since the Lyon's Pride had arrived. All of her internal torment about her growing attraction to the man had ceased as soon as she found a carefully folded note under the pillow of her bunk. The poem was a simple, heartfelt piece signed 'Reiner'. Sarah had thanked God that she had found it while alone and no one had witnessed her becoming an idiotically grinning, giggling mess of a woman.
Vargas had found the note several days later and immediately confronted Reiner. Sarah had been told hours later by Dice and that led to a heated, whispered argument between the two Brothers. Technically, Sarah outranked him and, since Reiner was outside of the chain-of-command, Vargas had no authority on the matter. Things were not so simple between the leader of the Pride and her subordinate though. Vargas had been with her since the beginning and was more of an older brother than anything; an annoying, cranky, pessimistic, know-it-all brother. He had refused to stay out of her personal business until he decided if Reiner was "suitable" or not.
I guess suitable meant "if he can knock the piss out of me", Sarah thought and exhaled forcefully as Vargas finally fell to the ground with his arms firmly clutched across his midsection.
"That's it! I'm calling it!" Wolf shouted and calmly walked to Vargas' slowly rocking body. "Calm down, Vargas! He just caught you with a clean liver shot. You'll be fine but let's get a compress on that eye. We'll give you a minute to get your legs under you."
"I guess you guys take it easy during hand-to-hand training?" Dice asked but Sarah only had eyes for Reiner as Dusty helped him take his gloves off while the victor maintained eye contact with her.
A small cut over his left eyes trailed blood down that side of his face but he seemed mostly uninjured as he walked to stand in front of her. She reached forward and swiped some of the blood on his face. Before she could stop the impulse, the blood-stained finger was dragged down the left side of her mouth. Her mouth made an O of surprise at her forwardness, as well as the odd way that it had manifested, and Reiner took that as an invitation to deliver a firm kiss that had sparks flowing from head-to-toe.
"I hate to interrupt but Moon says Commander Rollins wants the quad leaders and Sentinel Lyons in Mission Command,"Initiate Waters called from the entrance to the training area.
That broke the spell both soldiers were under and they separated with lightning speed. Sarah turned away from the room at large and cleared her throat as the heat of embarrassment further heated her already flushed countenance. The applause that spontaneously erupted did not go unnoticed.
"I knew you had it in you, Hopper!" Lita congratulated her loudly as she scampered up with Knight-Captain Dusk in tow. Dusk, as hard as it was to believe, looked even more embarrassed than Sarah felt because of the possessive arm that Lita had around her waist. If the Sentinel was completely honest, she had been shocked to her core that the two had begun "rubbing clams" as Dice had so disgustingly described it. "Maybe I should get Claude and Blondie to fight it out so they can stop fighting over that hunk of man in your squad!"
Sarah looked up to see that Kodiak, the aforementioned hunk of man, had his left arm in the vice-like grip of the Foxes Blondie while his right was entombed by the Hot-Tot's medic Claude. As per usual, Kodiak didn't seem flustered in the slightest by the intense glares the competitors were throwing at each other. He grinned, teeth bright against his dark brown skin, and shrugged guiltily. Sarah shook her head but copied the Paladin's expression.
We are all going to be in so much trouble when the Elder finds out about the fraternizing.
"Okay. Fun's over, people. Everyone get back to what you were doing! Let's go, team leads!" Reiner's no-nonsense voice cut off any further banter and Sarah found herself nodding in agreement with the rest.
Thankfully, Wolf laced her right arm through Sarah's left before she stumbled because of her surprisingly weak knees. She turned to Wolf and, before she could ask the question, the enigmatic woman just winked at her.
I don't know if I'll ever get used to how freaky Echo is, she thought in bemusement as Reiner led the way up to Mission Command.
Moon was, for a change, waiting quietly at the comm.-station with uncharacteristically watery eyes. Wolf released Sarah's arm and walked to within a few few of her lover/subordinate. The taller woman rose and the two shared a nod as Moon departed without a word being spoken. Reiner took Moon's place without comment and established contact with Commander Rollins. He greeted Sarah, Lita, Wolf and Dusty before getting down to business.
" Elder Lyons, commander Reilly and myself have agreed that it's time to prepare for the final counteroffensive. Wolf, take your quad, Sentinel Lyons, and three members of her Pride to The Family. See what personnel you can recruit from their ranks. We're going to have need of their talents so be persuasive. Reiner, Lita, Dusty, you make sure everyone left at the Hub is razor sharp and ready to rock at a moment's notice. Once Wolf has returned, we will send a data packet with further details and individual quad assignments. Are there any questions?"
"What's our timetable like, sir?" Reiner asked immediately.
"We want to launch in a week. Maximum."
A quiet, nearly inaudible groan passed through their ranks. It was not the fact that their various teams wouldn't be ready but that the time for R&R was rapidly dwindling. That topic of conversation had been on most of their minds for the last few days.
"Are we allowed to bring civilians along, commander? We still have a camp survivor that wants to find someone."
"Permission granted, Wolf, but if she becomes an intelligence risk...well, you know what to do," Rollins voice hardened in a way that Sarah had only heard a handful of times and that was usually before or after he had killed a sapient.
"Yes, sir," Wolf replied tightly.
There were no further questions and the commander signed off.
"When are you going to depart, Wolf?" Reiner asked as he swiveled in his chair to face the rest of them.
"Twenty-two hundred hours. It shouldn't take us more than three nights. We'll need to borrow the Foxes for a lift to Big Town and then one from there to Meresti. We should be back on the third night with a list of potential recruits from both locations."
"I don't remember the commander authorizing a recruitment drive to Big Town. Or did I miss that subtext?"
"I think you might have," Wolf replied with a syrupy smile. "We need numbers and I think I can convince a couple of ex-Talon mercs with the right incentives."
"Okay," Reiner's eyes seemed to burrow into Sarah for a moment before he continued speaking, "Dice and I will be coming with you to Big Town though. She's been wanting to check up on them and I couldn't, in good conscience, let her go without her lead's support."
A plethora of smirks blossomed on most of the room's face with the exception of Sarah's only because it began to glow scarlet. The others filed out with chuckles, giggles, and quite a few shakes of their heads. When they were finally as alone as one ever got in the Hub, Reiner smiled shyly at her and gestured for her to come closer. She was unprepared when he unceremoniously pulled her down so she was sitting across his lap. The ease with which Reiner lay his hands on her was strange and, much to her chagrin, far more pleasant than she had imagined thanks to the stories she had heard about wasters.
"You don't think I'm too hard, do you?" Sarah whispered to him as she leaned her head against his.
"Too hard, never. You, my lovely Sentinel, are the best thing I've ever felt. You're perfect."
"No, I'm not. Don't say that," she admonished him but his words caused warm shivers to cascade through her body.
"I've felt that way since the first time I saw you and, if you allow me, I'll show you when we can get some small semblance of privacy."
Her breath quickened as he breathed lightly on the side of her neck and gently kissed her right above the carotid. "If I allow you to do what?"
Reiner gently bit her earlobe before he whispered, "Anything you wish for me to do. Everything you need me to do."
"I'd like that,"her voice came out a croak from a throat suddenly dry as a stream at the height of summer.
"Just do me one favor?"
"Don't bring Vargas."
Big Town had gone through more than a few changes since Rachel had last seen it. The residents had enlarged the perimeter of the occupied section of town to now include a circumference of nearly a full block. Large blocks of ancient concrete had been placed in the gaps between buildings to give them a crude but highly effective perimeter wall. The main street that ran through town was clear of debris and the only route into Big Town at either end. A single electric lantern on a pole in the center of the street was the sole source of light in the darkness. Rachel, Wolf, Sarah, Reiner, and Dice approached, with their weapons slung, at a casual gait. Of course, Sarah was in her power armor and Rachel doubted the suits had such a thing as a casual gait. A voice called to them from the darkness to their right as soon as they entered the lonely circle of light.
"That's far enough," the gravelly, deep voice told them with an utterly bored tone. "We've all passed your little tests. Why are you back?"
Dice placed her helmet against her right hip and cocked her hip out slightly as she smirked, "What? You don't recognize me, Dusty?"
A figure, dressed in an entire suit of riot gear complete with visored helmet, stepped into view with a hesitance to his step. He was wide-shouldered, seemed to fill out his armor well and, when he lifted the visor up to get a better look at them, Rachel felt her own eyes widen in shock. She remembered Dusty as being a nearly useless shell of a boy but, looking into his piercing brown eyes, the Ranger felt as though she was meeting him for the very first time. Dusty lowered his Chinese assault rifle to his side and a wild grin grew across his face as his eyes took in Dice's petite form.
"Well, c'mere and give me a hug, daddy!" Dice exclaimed and stepped forward into Dusty's opening arms.
Rachel restrained a smirk as Dusty lifted her up and proceeded to kiss the life out of the young woman. It was surprising, to her anyway, since Dice had mentioned nothing about having a romance with the denizen of Big Town. Once Dusty put her down, Dice stepped back and slugged him in the arm.
"What'd I tell you about doin' that in front of people? They'll start thinkin' I'm fast or somethin'!" Dice huffed but the syrupy smile on her face belied her true feelings.
"You? Easy? Who would ever think that?" Rachel just had to say it since no one else would.
"Eat my shorts, dolly!" Dice flipped Rachel off and then shrugged as she turned back to Dusty. "Oh, and this bitch is still kickin'."
Dusty wasted little time in taking long strides towards Rachel and enfolding her in an unexpected embrace. It seemed like everyone she had even slightly interacted with before her kidnapping wanted to hug her and, much to her disgust, she felt like crying every time. After a few seconds, Dusty released her and Rachel took a deep breath before nodding at the quiet young man.
"I'm glad you're alive. We've missed you."
Those simple words started the waterworks and Rachel turned around to face the darkness as she wiped at her eyes.
"I missed you guys, too," she croaked as she felt Wolf's hand on her shoulder.
"Is it okay if I stay here and help keep watch, Reiner?" Dice asked.
"Yeah, 'keep watch' is a strange way of putting it, Dice. Did you get your anti-pregnancy shot?"
"Yes, mom. What're ya gonna ask me next? If I'm gonna let him in my wazoo?"
"I would if I didn't already know the answer to that question, if you dig my meaning," Wolf teased the young woman as a tiny grin parted her lips.
"Okay, okay, I get it. Stop razzing my berries, make like a tree and get the fuck outta here."
Rachel turned back around, having been sufficiently distracted by the conversation so that she could regain her composure, and grinned. "I don't think that's how it goes."
"Fuck off, ya bastards!" Dice snapped, grabbed Dusty's hand and pulled him into the darkness as he waved his hand in goodbye.
"I don't know if I should be disappointed that he didn't even ask why I was here," Sarah asked, the slight inflection her suit left in her voice was enough for Rachel to identify her by even with her helmet on.
Wolf chuckled and informed the Sentinel, "After what we did for this place, Echo could probably bring a goddamn deathclaw on a leash in here and they wouldn't bat an eyelash. Let's go to the dining hall. It should be around dinner time."
Wolf led the way down the dark, seemingly deserted street. Rachel could see the tell-tale signs that many of the houses were occupied; especially the mini-windmill that she could see spinning against the backdrop of the moon. When they got close to the town's center and the bridge that led into the inner square, Rachel could make out the other half of their group that had entered at the opposite end of the road. Paladin Glade and Knight-Captain Gallows were easy to spot since they stood apart from the group and were huge in comparison. It looked like Lee and Evie were engaging in a round of back-slapping and hugging with a pair of shadowy figures. The final member of their party, Teng, was also hanging back but separately from the Brotherhood. Teng was looking for a place to settle and had said that Big Town sounded like a place he might not mind because their description of its atmosphere reminded him of his former village. Rachel didn't get that reasoning since his old neighbors had tried to hoist him up by his balls but the man was nearly as weird as Lee about some things.
Men, she thought with a fond smile as Lee and, who she now saw was Flash, drew their weapons with impossibly fast movements.
Lee beat the smaller young man but Rachel was very impressed by Flash's speed and steadiness. He had come a long way from the blowhard she remembered.
"I'll beat you next time, daddy-o! I'm gonna pop the clutch on ya so fast it'll make your head spin! Can you dig that?"
Okay, maybe he's still a blowhard but at least he can back it up some now.
"Maybe you will, amigo, but look who's here."
Flash and Matt Brumfield turned to where Lee was pointing. Both of their jaws dropped as they fumbled for the appropriate words. To no one's surprise, those that knew both men anyway, Flash was the first one to recover his tongue.
"Holy shitballs, Moon! I thought you were worm food for sure, dolly! Jesus, it's good to see ya. C'mere and show the Flasher some love!"
Rachel found herself enveloped in another hug and took a moment to notice that Flash had also grown and filled out some. It only served to underscore how long she had been away and that brought the tears right back.
Goddamnit. I'm going to be a mess before the night's over! She thought as Matt patted her softly on the back while she was still in Flash's surprisingly strong grip.
"Good to see you, Moon," Matt told her quietly, "Brucie's gonna be so happy to see you."
Rachel wiped her eyes quickly and gave them both a timid smile since she didn't trust herself to speak at the moment.
"C'mon, Moon. Let's go inside and get this over with before you lose it," Wolf spoke up and spared Moon from blubbering like a baby at the warm welcome she was receiving.
"We'll catch up later, guys!" Evie called cheerfully.
"Gallows, Glade, perimeter sweep, dark, ten meter max," Sarah ordered her two men and they snapped salutes that just came short of clanging from their helmets.
Rachel watched with a small shiver as the pair of Brotherhood turned and marched into the darkness. They did so without turning on their headlamps, per their Sentinel's order, and there was something terrifying about the idea of a suit of power armor looming out of the darkness. It was ridiculous to feel that way, especially since she had fought power armored soldiers in the dark before, but it still gave her the creeps.
Echo quad, Reiner, and Sarah opened the door into the dining hall to find a brightly lit room full of laughter that died in an instant as everyone caught sight of Wolf. Rachel was impressed at what they had done to the old clubhouse. They had broken down the interior walls to create a wide open space where there was room enough for a massive circular table in its center. Even with the dozen or so people around it, the dining table still had plenty of room. The food covering it was simple and definitely light on the portions but that didn't seem to dampen the mood of the occupants any.
"Auntie Moon! Auntie Moon!"
Memory, long suppressed, placed Moon into a crouched position and so she was not prepared for just how tall Bruce Brumfield had grown. It had been over a year since she had been gone and the boy seemed to have gained nearly half a foot. She still picked him up as easily as ever and squeezed him as hard as she dared. Another set of arms, thin and strong, crashed around her waist with bruising force. She looked down at a head of black hair making a passable attempt at burrowing its way into her side. Brucie began to silently sob against her shoulder and little Annabelle openly burst into tears against her.
That was when Rachel finally lost the battle and let her tears flow free.
After a fairly exhausting hour of tearful greetings, the leaders of Big Town met with Echo in the small, soundproofed shack they had built along one side of the inner wall. As in the dining hall, there was only one room with a table at its center. There was a crude, hand-drawn map of Big Town stretched across the wall opposite the door while one of the southern Capital Wasteland resided to the left. Several small bookshelves also rested against each wall and Rachel wondered if the place doubled as a classroom.
The Brumfields, Otis, Vernon, Red, and Kimba were all business as they faced off against the Rangers. Lisa Brumfield was still the same as Rachel remembered and she could only wonder why anyone had let the shrew be in charge of anything. It was encouraging to see that Red and Kimba had stepped up to take more active roles in their community's future. Otis and Vernon had probably been granted positions because they had the most combat experience of anyone in Big Town and their input was needed to keep everyone safe.
"Not that we don't appreciate the visit," Lisa began sarcastically, "But why now? We haven't heard a thing from you Rangers since you told us to dismantle the transmitter and pretend we barely know you. Did something happen?"
"Something is happening but we can't share too many details," Wolf deflected her question bluntly, " All you need to know is that we came here for volunteers to fight. We don't have enough personnel to ensure victory."
"You want our help in a fight?" Red asked, her chocolate brown face settling into disbelief.
Otis and Vernon shared a look of understanding before they both shook their heads with eerie synchronization.
I hope we don't do that, Rachel turned to cast a sideways glance at Lee and found him returning it. Oh, fuck me, we do!
"Why do you need us?" Vernon inquired, eyebrows high on his forehead.
"We're going up against Talon Company. Probably mid-to-large scale firefights. I know you both saw that kind of action when you were in."
"That was a long fucking time ago, Wolf," Otis bit off through gritted teeth, "Things change."
"Not everything. It's still the same guy running things, from what we've heard, and small-unit tactics haven't changed much."
"Jesus, Matt, would you listen to her go on and on about firefights and tactics? Remember when she talked with that accent?" Lisa chimed in and Moon was halfway out of her seat before Wolf grabbed her wrist.
"Easy, Moon," Wolf spoke in a soothing voice and Rachel grudgingly sat back down. "Do we have to do this dance each time I visit, Lisa? Frankly, I'm tired of it. You have everything you ever wanted so why do you continue to push me?"
It seemed as though Lisa was unprepared for such a blunt question because her jaw dropped ever so slightly and stayed that way for several seconds before she said, "Because, Wolf, I feel you looking down on me every single time you come here and I won't be disrespected."
Wolf sighed, reached into a pocket of her flak jacket and pulled out a wad of chewing gum. She popped it into her mouth and chewed with joint-popping quickness for a long minute while the room waited.
"I respect that you've helped keep your people together and alive, Lisa. The only thing I don't like is how you handle some situations but everyone's allowed the odd reaction here or there. So let's call it a truce, yeah?"
Lisa's twisted nose scrunched as her face contorted in response to whatever thoughts were circling her head.
"As nice as all that bullshit was," Otis interjected testily with a raised hand. "Me and Vernon are the ones sugar-tits over there wants for this op and we're all for it. Those Enclave fucks need a good ass whoopin' and we're just the guys to deliver it."
"Really, Otis?" Wolf's eyebrows raised as did the rest of Echo's. "Usually, you're all for avoiding the chance of getting your ass shot off."
"Fuck you, Wolf," Otis spat, "I've heard those Enclave bastards talking when they come through on patrols. They're all 'bout genetic purity and keeping the human race viable. You really think they'll let people like me and Vern live in that world considerin' we play for the other team?"
"That is a fair point," Wolf conceded with a nod of her head.
"Something I'm curious about," Kimba said, a frown etched deep lines into her face as she contemplated the Rangers side of the table. "Where did that Tin Man and the other Ranger go?"
The native Big Towners jumped slightly when all four Rangers erupted into booming belly laughter as they clapped each other on the back. It took a moment for the mirth to die down slightly enough for anyone to form a single word.
"Hopefully," Evie panted to catch her breath after laughing so hard. "Hopefully, ol' Iron Panties is getting a lube job right now."
Rachel groaned, "Fuuuuck, your jokes or puns or whatever are the worst."
"You're just mad that you couldn't sneak away to get your own lube job!" Evie accused as she threw a pointed finger dramatically in Rachel's direction.
"No shit! You are, too!"
The exterior of the Meresti train yard was just as Lee remembered it. Apparently, the Family liked the foreboding atmosphere that the devastated landscape provided. All the craters caused by explosions and the scattered bodies of super mutants, still barely touched by scavengers since the only things that would eat them were rad scorpions, would keep anyone from squatting too long.
"What happened here?" Paladin Glade asked as the group stepped around the moonlit shadow that had been the sleeping pit of the huge super mutant that had nearly turned the tide of that particular battle.
Reiner snorted and answered in one word, "Echo."
"You guys really got around, didn't you?" Sarah sighed in what sounded like a mix of satisfaction and disbelief.
"Yeah," Evie turned to the Sentinel with a grin that nearly shone in the dark, "I still want to know just what the hell Reiner did to you. I didn't even realize you could walk bow-legged in a suit of power armor."
"What?!" Sarah exclaimed and bent over to look down at her feet. "Hey! I'm not walking funny!"
The group, including Sarah's subordinates but with the exception of Reiner, had a quiet laugh at the BoS officer's expense. Reiner patted her consolingly on the shoulder and Lee had a feeling that, if they could have seen her face, Sarah would have been bright red. As they approached the deserted main entryway to the tunnels that led to Meresti Station, Knight-Captain Gallows broke the comfortable silence that had fallen over them.
"Are we sure that anyone still lives here? This place looks pretty abandoned."
"Oh, they're here. They've been trackin' us for about a quarter kilometer now." Lee raised his voice as he called out into the night, "Right, Alan and Karl?"
A shadowed figure jumped from the top of the overhang directly above the entrance to the tunnels and landed lightly barely two meters in front of Lee. Sarah and the others BoS soldiers raised their weapons in a flash only to be startled by a harsh thump on their left. Lee definitely respected Sarah's men and their training because Glade swiveled to the new threat without any prompting from her.
"Easy, guys," Wolf pushed down gently on the barrel of Paladin Glade's plasma rifle. "They're friends."
"Lee, you bastard! Did you sniff us out?" Alan came forward to warmly embrace Lee with a hearty backslapping to go along with it.
"Yeah, I smelled the big guy awhile ago. He got downwind a couple of times." Lee slapped Alan on the cheek roughly. "You still start breathing heavier the closer you get to action."
"Ha! I'll have to remember that." Alan took a moment to study the rather large and mixed group that Echo had brought with them and his smile bloomed wider upon catching sight of Rachel. "Ha! I knew you weren't dead!"
Rachel let loose a brief shriek as Alan rushed through the crowd and hoisted her into the air by the waist. The Family member hugged her tightly for a moment before stepping back and looking deep into her eyes.
"You seem different," Alan questioned with good-natured suspicion.
"I'm new and improved," Rachel replied enigmatically.
"I just bet," Alan waved a hand impatiently at the hulking figure that was Karl, "Stop being creepy and go tell Vance that Echo is here with guests."
"How do we know they're not working for that Enclave?" Karl asked in his slow, cantankerous way.
"After all the shit we've been through with them, you're gonna go there?"
The two Family brothers had a brief stare down that was interrupted by a quiet, timid voice.
"I just want to know if my brother's alive," Lucy West stepped forward from behind the partial screen that was Glade and Gallows.
"And you are?" Alan asked without breaking eye contact with Karl.
Karl and Alan's heads whipped in Lucy's direction with vertebrae popping suddenness.
"You're the kid's sister! Jesus, he's gonna be happy to see you! Come with me!" Alan raced forward and took Lucy gently by the elbow.
"No! I saw her first! I'm bringing her in!" Karl started forward but was stopped by Rachel's hand directly in the center of his chest.
"Easy, big man. I don't know if you've learned restraint while I was away. Why don't you walk me in instead, huh?" Rachel smiled disarmingly and Karl acquiesced with a grunt as he took her arm.
"I still don't see how you don't get jealous, man," Joshua whispered softly as they followed the bickering Meresti men.
"Because any of my women could kill anyone that fucked with them including me," Lee responded instantly.
"Shit. How do you keep all your bits attached?"
"I jump through a lot of fucking hoops and disappear when the tide rises."
Wolf's voice was void of emotion as she called out from behind them, "You two do know that I can hear you, right?"
The foursome of Echo quad stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the upper level of Meresti station as they watched the impromptu celebration beneath them continue into the night. Someone had managed to rig an old jukebox to receive radio signals and the place was alive with music. There were also twice as many people in the station as Echo had expected. The Family had evacuated Arefu's denizens and even taken in a few people that had managed to escape Enclave purges. Food would have been an issue if not for the Family's ability to hunt at night and their own peculiar dietary habits. Lucy West and her brother was one focus of the party, still holding onto each other as though they were the only things anchoring them to the ground, and Lee smiled as he caught sight of the other gathering. It seemed as though their Brotherhood companions were as much as a curiosity to certain Family members and the refugees as the West sister they had all heard so much about. Even now, a young girl of no more than ten reached out to fearfully touch the thigh of Gallows only to quickly run back to her mother at the feel of it.
In Lee's opinion, the biggest surprise had come in the form of a very pregnant Holly. Vance had confided in Lee that they had been trying to conceive a child for nearly fifteen years. He had thought the man insane until Vance had also told him that both Holly and he were far older than they looked. The more Lee had thought about that, as well as his own Awakened abilities, the more believable he had found it. It still made the sight of Holly, whom he now knew to be closer to 50 years old, pregnant a bit on the miraculous side.
"Do you guys think, if Holly wasn't as fat as a freshly fed bloatfly, that Vance would have committed everyone but Robert and Holly to the fight?" Evie asked as she took a swig of whiskey from her flask and passed it to Rachel.
"Doesn't really matter but I think it would have been tougher, bonita," Lee answered her question but caught an odd look in Rachel's eyes. He had first noticed it in Big Town but, watching her stare at Holly, he was beginning to get nervous. "You alright, Rach?"
"I want kids."
There was dead silence as the other three Rangers glanced at each other and Lee felt like his other two women were waiting for him to take the lead. Before he could say anything, Rachel began spilling her guts.
"I mean, obviously after we kick the Enclave's ass back under the rock they crawled out from under. But I think we'd make some beautiful, badass kids, Lee. We have enough money from that stash to live comfortable for years even if we leave the Rangers. Hell, Evie could probably keep us in caps by herself for the rest of our lives!"
"Aw, thanks, Rach! You're swell yourself!"
"Fuck you, Evie! Think about it though, shorty. Don't you want children?"
Lee turned to Evie and found that she had ducked her head shyly. She only did that when she was playing a role or genuinely embarrassed about something. He gently raised her head with a finger beneath her chin and found the truth shining in her eyes.
"Well, I mean, it would be fun! Having a little Lee running around, jumping off of things and making me pull my hair out with the crazy shit he got up to!" Evie grinned blindingly at him.
"What about you, Wolf? Are you ready for something like that? Having a family again?" Lee asked the final member of their quartet.
A number of tears silently ran down Wolf's face before she started gathering them all in a tight hug, "You are my family! We're just going to get bigger."