Long black rivers of smoke coiled up into the sky, a shifting black-gray screen that stood in sharp contrast to the light blue of the late morning. She had taken to glancing to her Pip-boy every few minutes, albeit now a bit hopelessly, reassuring herself that they were, indeed, still heading towards Nipton. That the smoke billowing just beyond the rugged terrain was in the direction her map indicated the town to be. She hadn't given up on the slow dying hope that perhaps what they were seeing was the signs of cooking fires; really black, acrid cooking fires.
But hoping for that was similar to hoping that, somehow, they would find Stella there. And Heavenly had, at the very least, given up on that bit of foolishness.
Her mind limped painfully and struggled with the idea that any military force would be able to wipe an entire settlement from the map. These were no longer the anarchistic days soon after the war; no longer was the wasteland restricted to barely surviving huddles of people, struggling against barren desolateness of the present. The NCR had cities, it had an army. Civilization had reared it's head back west, taken a long, sure stride out of California and cast it's sight in hope for the adjoining states. To step from the lands of her home into the chaos she now struggled through felt such a stark difference it was like comparing wading and drowning. Desperately she held onto the hope that Nipton would be fractured, but note entirely broken. That there would still be something there to save.
The fact that she was getting used to being dirty all of the time was something she coped with the failing bits of her humor. The Legion armor that she still wore rubbed irritation across her sore back. She had somehow fallen asleep in the heavy, overbearing garment, despite the fact it smelled like sweat and blood - someone else's sweat and blood. She had been that exhausted yesterday, and that morning when she had woken up still in it she had felt too awkward to ask Boone to kindly step outside so that she could change. The fact that he had already been awake when she had finally arose was odd enough to her - it made her wonder if he even slept at all. Paired with his personality, she was honestly beginning to expect he was a terribly human appearing robot.
She could hear the crunch of his boots against the sand behind her, and it was about the only sound Boone had made since they had woken up and departed their dilapidated shelter. At first, when the grim truth that awaited her still seemed to be barely brushing the horizon, she had chatted lightly to him. She had found it was much the same as speaking to ED as she got more or less equal responses from both of them - though, ED at least, would beep every now and then. She couldn't claim to mind too terribly though; she hadn't fully realized the creeping loneliness she had been feeling before the sniper joined her company, or the constant fear of being by oneself in unknown territories. And speaking to him, even if she wouldn't have gotten a response if she paid him for one, was much better than brooding in silence; than dreading the things they were sure to find.
One thing was certain, were she ever to make it home; she was going to write a letter to President Kimball and let him know that First Recon training worked. It worked very, very well. Half the time Boone fired his gun she hadn't even heard him draw it, let alone perceived around them anything that appeared remotely threatening. Somehow Boone just knew, and before her hand could even brush the stock of the Repeater he had given her, there would be a pop that echoed across the wasteland and a rustle as he re-shouldered his weapon.
The last thing you'll never see. To think that she had laughed at that. That she had thought it corny. It had only taken two hours in the wastes to ensure she would never, ever laugh at it again.
They had just reached a desolate railroad crossing, ancient, swollen wood and chipped paint stretched before them as arms blocking their way. It looked so forlorn and abandoned that it seemed an omen; a warning, to stall her progress forward. As she moved to step around the orange and white painted planks that lay in her path, the wind kicked up and she caught a scent that, nonsensically, reminded her of Primm. Heavenly took a deeper breath, pausing just on the tracks and glancing back to Boone in puzzlement. Unable to reason what had made her think of that, she brought her gaze away from the sniper and back towards Nipton, and towards the town that had beckoned to her faintly from her memories.
Beyond the railroad crossing, and beyond a cheery, aged blue sign with little flowers on it, she could just see the dull glow of the fires. A smeared hue of orange lay over the town before her, the tall piles of ash and coals having burned down from what must have once been a roaring flame. From her point on the railroad tracks, she could see the entrance of Nipton, the dirt that had, over the years, been pressed into a thin layer of crust over the asphalt of the road that led into town. And from the ashes that swirled with the slow press of the wind, from the crackling embers of the fires that still burned, and from the emptiness and silence that wrapped around her on all sides, Heavenly felt the last tattered remnants of her hope slip away.
The wind came for her again, and this time she knew why she recognized the scent. Why it reminded her of Primm.
Because Primm had been the only place she had ever smelled burning flesh.
They stepped through the railroad crossing and the blue sign that announced they had just passed the state line into California. Heavenly felt no slight reassurance that, technically, she stood once more in her home state. The hell that awaited her ahead was no closer to her home than she was to the sun, and despite the sunlight that spilled over this place, all she could perceive on all sides was the darkness of the hearts of men. The air she breathed held the dry scratch of smoke, leaving her throat hoarse and her eyes wet. Ashes hung lazily in the air, swirling with their movements through it, dancing eerily with each gentle sway of the wind. Heavy black birds hung above them, circling slowly, calling out barked cries of mourning to the empty sockets of skulls that had long ago cracked under the press of flame.
A sign sat on wagon wheels to her right, and it read 'Nipton'.
A flag was staked amongst the bones of slain innocents, and it bore a bull that told her 'Legion'.
She must have stood at that sign, staring up at the gold emblazoned bull that waved crimson tatters into the wind, for more than a few minutes. Smoke brushed past her face and made her eyes burn and tear, but she couldn't remove her gaze from it, couldn't blink and stall the revelation. She must have been caught, entranced, because Boone stepped forward and she heard his voice come out softly.
"We should go." He had every right to tell her, 'I told you so', but he didn't. His voice was terse and curt as ever, but his tone seemed to be measured a bit more gently. As though he were trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to comfort her. Heavenly found herself unable to move, even in the face of his consideration.
Her eyes swept down to the fire, to the blackened remains of the people that had been piled there, and felt a wail build up in her throat that she couldn't allow herself to release. She remained there, wordlessly, feeling in her mind as though she should have been introspective about the carnage before her. As though she should have been trying to deduce a logical reason behind the actions that led to this result. She could find neither excuse nor truth within her to justify the atrocities that had taken place, but she couldn't even bring herself to seek one. It was all too much; the bodies, the death, the smell and the flames. Nothing inside of her could have prepared her for what she saw in that fire, nor what she saw when she stepped around it.
She hadn't spoken, and Boone hadn't attempted again. He followed her wordlessly as she rounded the first of the great bonfires, her boots smudged with ashes and stepping beside bones that had popped and scattered from the coals. She didn't know what was pressing her forward, she didn't know - as Boone had said a mere day ago - what she was hoping to find. Hope was such a far off and imprecise thing that she couldn't imagine herself ever having held it close. A coppery smell of old blood tinged the smoke that burned her nostrils, carrying with it faint hints of decay. If death itself could ever have been described as a physical place she could visit, she would swear that she now stood in it's confines. She moved mechanically and silently, towards the main street of the town and deeper into the laboring heart of the beast. Passed the maw and down the gullet, unable to stop her descent, unable to turn back the way she had come, like a bird lost in flight.
Heavenly rounded the corner, feeling Boone's presence on her heels. Her breath hitched in her throat and she felt the need to vomit and cry and scream all at once. If seeing the true character of Jeannie May Crawford had been a window into the heart of evil, she now strode into it's tastefully decorated living room. And someone had left the mints out for her. Somewhere in the back of her mind she could hear herself laughing dryly with the satisfaction that she had, in fact, been right about there being survivors.
At the very least, there were people here still alive. But Boone had been right, too; there was nothing before her that could be saved.
The telephone poles that lined the street had been stripped and shaped into makeshift crosses, and from those crosses had been hung - something. Something that she hadn't the words to describe. Should she be referring to them as people, since they were still alive? Or as bodies, since they were far too close to death to ever step back over the line into living again? The men and women who hung from the crosses sat precariously on the line between dying and dead. Their state too close to either to tell one from the other. Their bodies were broken and bruised, their skin dry and cracked from overexposure to the sun, their eyes listless and staring as they waited for death.
But they hadn't died yet.
And if they had been dead, if they had been dead, she might have been able to handle that. If she was staring at dual rows of corpses strung up as some grotesque display of subjugation, then she may have been able to turn and run out of town. Against her own knowledge, at first, she had tried desperately to believe that they were dead. But then there were the movements - the random twitch of a finger, the muttered whine from a dry throat, the nod of a head long since lost to lunacy and hopelessness. The people before her weren't alive, but weren't fully dead - strung along some wicked middle ground, dragged through hell before they could even pull their final breath.
Heavenly didn't know when she had fallen to her knees, didn't know how long her eyes had been draining tears. Ashes clung to her as she wept amongst them, studying each and every body on every lackluster monument to depravity. That something as horrible as what was before her could happen at all was bad enough - the thought that someone had done it, purposefully, boggled her mind to the point of hysteria. It was all too much and she didn't know if she was ever going to be pulling herself out of those ashes, away from that blood. She didn't know how she could walk away from the people who lay strapped to crosses and teetering a line between life and death.
"We need to go."
Boone's words were calm and even and they needed to go but at that point she was ready to turn and scream at him. She wanted to tell him, force him to feel something in the repugnance of all of what lay before them. She wanted to shake him until emotion spilled out, any emotion, as she couldn't stop the jumble of hers from doing so. She felt her chest tighten with the need of it, the need to vent to anything that could hear her, the need to scream and cry and make it all a horrible nightmare or a sick joke. And she felt the need to know why, as desperate and grasping as that was; she needed to understand. As if understanding would make all of it incrementally better.
"Monroe." His fingers pressed into her shoulder, and something about how tight his grip was dug into the remorse and mingled confusion that fogged her mind. She looked up to him, blankly, and to her surprise she could see him clearly - she had somehow stopped crying. Boone didn't look disturbed; he didn't look anything, just somewhat insistent. She blinked to him, wondering vaguely what had suddenly made their departure so important - he had seemed content to let her whine in the sand a mere moment ago.
"Monroe. They are still here." The word sent prickles down her arms, "We have to go." There again was that steady insistence, the impassive importance he put to the words, trying to get through to her as a parent would a stubborn child. His fingers bit into her shoulder, tighter again, sending a ripple of ignored pain through the wounds in her back. Heavenly turned her head back to the way she had been looking, but was finally able to look past the macabre sequence of the dead and the dying. There she saw the crimson spotted frames of men, of living men, standing among the wreckage of the town they had destroyed. Knee deep in the burning dead and the barely living and looking as though they felt right at home.
Boone gave up on speaking; his hand traveled to her bicep and he dragged her bodily to her feet, no longer giving a care to niceties. She stared at the men in front of the town hall, spread in a loose line around a man with a fur hood pulled over his head. She stared at them blankly, dumbly, barely noticing the stumble of her feet as Boone began to drag her backwards. Heavenly stared at the man in the middle, the man in the hood and wide black glasses, and it seemed he was staring back at her.
"Wait." Her voice was clearer than she had expected it to be, and far more calm than she could have possibly hoped for. Boone paused, his grip on her loosening just enough so she could turn to face him. She didn't know how convincing she would look with tear trails striping her cheeks and red streaking her eyes, but she met his gaze firmly nonetheless. "I ... I just ... We can't just leave."
"We aren't going to attack them head on in broad daylight." He said simply, to the point, looking over her shoulder to the men who had murdered a town, "They've already seen us. We need a plan."
Heavenly turned from him, and spotted again the man in the sunglasses. Spotted those who stood at attention around him. She felt herself drawn to him, drawn forward to the stare and to the casual confidence in his stance. She didn't know what she wanted from him, didn't know what she could possibly be hoping to find in his answers. But she knew she couldn't step away from this town without finding some reason behind it all, a logical explanation that could justify the horror she waded through. If she left without knowing then she would never really leave. If she left, she may as well strap herself to one of those crosses and wait for death under the unforgiving sun; because in her mind, that's where she would always be. That's what she would always be wondering.
What does one do to deserve such a fate.
What sort of man could order it done.
"I ... I have a plan." She said, her voice quiet, her steps just as so as she moved away from the sniper with her robot in tow, "Just ... Just wait here."
Curiosity pulled her forward, dragged her as undertow into the black depths where true evil resided. She could almost feel wave after wave of despair crash around her as she stepped down the grisly aisle that divided two long rows of nightmares. Each step brought more clarity to her mind, serenity spawned of confusion, banishing fear in it's simplicity. As she neared the men with spears and the tall man with the wide black glasses, she found herself wondering, vaguely, what the hell she was doing. But that was the last vestige of doubt, crashing and burning in the brighter fire of dedication, of cause.
Each turned to regard her, more with scowls than simple apathy, but none moved upon her as they had back at the Raid Camp. These men seemed a different sort; more trained, more disciplined. Each head raised and stared, but not a single lip moved in inquiry. They stood still as the girl in the armor that had come from one of their dead approached them, her quirky, rusted eyebot floating at her heels. She came to a stop before them, as the road widened and spread to either side, it's forward progress ended by a large building at it's head. The man in the center, who wore a hood she could now see was the skinned head of a wolf, kept his arms crossed and his stance relaxed. He watched her for a moment with an intent hidden by the shades he wore, an expression that could almost be described as bordering bored on his face.
"You see the carnage around you," His words were soft, cultured, not at all the vehement spewing of the monster she imagined him to be, "And you see us," He began a slow walk forward from the steps of the hall, measured pace confident and certain, "And yet you still come forward." His words were so soft, so soothing, that she nearly couldn't hear him over the crackle of the fires behind him. "Why is that?" He spoke as though he had no untoward intent within the inquiry; he spoke as though his curiosity had honestly been piqued.
Heavenly didn't stammer, much to her surprise. She knew exactly why she had come forward, as asinine as it sounded. "I wanted to know why." Her words, too, came simple and to the point. No longer was her voice screaming or crying or far too gone into shock to speak. Some hidden strength - if it could be called that - had simmered in her chest, forced her path to intersect his. As absurd as it sounded, the fear of death had subsided in lieu of the desperate need to make sense of what surrounded her.
"Why." He stated simply, and glanced shortly around to the bodies - both those that burned in piles and those that hung half living above them. "You think there need be a reason?" He stated it as a true question, and not an assumption of truth. Heavenly looked slowly along the blackened bones in front of the town hall, and felt the urge to know rise up within her again.
"Yes." She stated, and shook her head almost imperceptibly, "All of these people. All of this effort. This isn't just a victory. This is a message." The words came easily to her, as cold logic always did. Her emotions wailed just behind the veil of her ebbing strength, barely held by the gates of her yearning for the truth.
A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of the man's mouth, and his arms resumed their fold over his chest. His voice was smooth and eloquent again, but sounded almost congratulatory - as if she had made some sort of impression with a simple sentence, "The woman thinks herself a scholar, then?" He proposed, taking another step forward to look her up and down, "Clothed in the bloodied garments of my kin, walking through the masterpiece of my work, stepping aside those who died for lesser sins - and she comes to me expecting an answer." He made a soft sound in his throat, what could have been a laugh had it not been so controlled and quiet, so tempered and defined, "Your perception, however, does you credit, woman. And the Legion does not waste potential needlessly."
He waved his arm passed her, gesturing to the town and all the horrible feelings it evoked in her. Heavenly followed the movement, glancing again to her surroundings and all they conveyed, although she didn't need to. She doubted that the things she had seen here would ever be fully erased from her mind. "I want you to drink in all you see here," His calm words brought her eyes back to him, her throat feeling more parched and rough in that moment than it had since she stepped into town, "I want you to memorize every detail. And then, I want you to spread the word of what has transpired here. Of the lessons the Legion has taught."
Heavenly stared at him, her brow faintly furrowed. This had been a message, as she had surmised - and he wanted her to be the one to pass it along. A gruesome note passing from bloodied hands to clean ones, spreading the smear of sin across her curled fingers.
"I don't understand." She spoke softly, and watched his arms fall, his attention drawn back to her, "Why. Why did you do this? How could you murder all these people?"
Now a true smile spread across his face, and it was toothy and cruel and made him look all the more like the wolf he wore on his head, "Quite easily." He spoke evenly, then folded his arms back over his chest, "They outnumbered us, but they didn't rise and fight back. Even as loved ones were dragged away to be beaten, burned and killed. Nipton was a place rife with sin. And it serves more meaning in it's death than it ever did in it's life." The calm tune of his voice faded away, and the crackle of the fire rushed in to replace it. She stared at him openly, her mouth slightly agape, her words rising into her mind and flowing through her throat in the same insistent hunt for meaning.
"You call these people sinners," Heavenly's voice still came calm, somehow, in the face of the what he was spewing. The man seemed to straddle a line somewhere between madness and genius, and she couldn't quite decide which side to place him on. She felt a building shock as the slow realization came to her that she didn't wish to accept; this man was intelligent. Brutally so. And yet he had condoned - had ordered - the smoking ruins of brutality that lay in bloodied heaps before her. She had lost her meaning in the face of it all, lost her words and found herself scrambling to collect them, to remember why she had come. "You call them sinners?" It had been a simple fact the first time it was stated, but became a question as her mind turned it, over and over again.
He tilted his head back and to the right, staring over the burning pit of tires and broken bodies, an inflection affecting his voice that made it seem he was admiring his work, "This was a town of whores. They expected a pittance for the heads of the profligates who would gather here. They arranged a trap, and only too late found themselves caught within it." He turned back to her, and his smile was small but it was there and it turned her blood to ice, "Nipton once served all comers. Now they serve none."
"But this isn't..." She felt her resolve crumbling within her. These were not the answers she had been seeking. This was madness colored with tact and layered over by a mind too cruel to be as clever as it was. She didn't know what to make of the man, didn't know how to respond to him. "How can one sin justify another? How can you condemn these people and then commit atrocities as unforgivable as their own? This isn't right."
His smile spread wider, a slow and frightening sight to behold, and again he spoke with that tone he had used before. Like she had impressed him, like he could find some use for her, "And you believe yourself to be a better judge?"
Heavenly paused, her mouth hanging open as she struggled to find the answer to that. Hadn't she just, not two days ago, helped Boone kill a woman because of her sins? Hadn't she just answered one crime with another, dealt a death to balance perceived depravity? Hadn't she stood where this man was now, looked upon her work, and felt no remorse for what she had done? Was this law, was this order, in some barbaric, despotic form?
"I am Vulpes Inculta, woman." He spoke smoothly, breaking through the torrent of her doubts and taking a step back, away from her, "Spread my message and I will see to it that your potential is not squandered, as the wasteland would. Or," He took another step back, and a knowing smile spread his face, and more than the wolf she found herself staring at a snake, "If you feel strongly about the balance of this crime, attack us." More men around him split into smiles, an army of reptilian predators standing before one frightened girl and her tiny robot. A single field mouse trapped in a menagerie of serpents, "And then you will feel nothing at all."
He motioned, and they began to leave. Those were her answers, and she couldn't live with only that. She took a half step forward, calling to his shoulder, "You didn't answer my question. Why. Why did you do this? What did this prove?" Her voice was tinged now with desperation, a flush of broken emotion spreading across her cheeks.
Vulpes didn't pause, nor look back. He continued to walk, calmly, confidently, stepping through the ashes of lives he had destroyed, of the city he had leveled. "That they are weak." He stated simply, and all at once it summated the interwoven genius and madness that rolled from the man as easily as smoke rolled from the fires he had set, "And we are strong."
Heavenly couldn't breathe.
The men were walking away and she could hear the faint groans of those dying above her. The monsters of the Legion were stepping through the blood stained ruins of a town that they had decimated, and they felt nothing about what they had done. Her breathing came shallow and fast, her eyes trailing at the backs cloaked in crimson, at the men who had proven to be evil personified; born and bred and given blades to further their works. All the unspeakable anguish around her coiled tight against her throat and she felt she couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't see passed anything through the veil of rage, despair, and guilt. All she could hear in her mind were Vulpes' last, echoing words, the calm and even spread of his tone, the confident stride he carried.
He would go to sleep that night and perhaps never think again of the lives he had ended.
She felt something delicate inside herself snap.
Heavenly's fingers curled around the strap of her grenade launcher. Her movements were certain, mechanical, unhesitating. She pulled the strap from her back and brought the gun into both hands, resting the butt of it against her shoulder. Her shallow breathing continued as she brought the sight up, looking through the rectangular cross hair at the backs of the retreating men. The men who hadn't even glanced back at her, so pleased in the work they had wrought they felt no need to check at just how intimidated they had left her. Her finger brushed the cool metal of the trigger and she paused - as if her body was asking her if she was certain this was what she wanted to do.
The hollow pop of the grenade preceded a kick up cloud of dust and dirt, a heavy spatter of blood striking sand and the thud of bodies thrown to the ground. The grenade had landed in the middle of the men as they fell in line behind Vulpes. And now they fell in pieces behind him. Vulpes flinched and turned, casting one short glance to the men that had fallen, to the blood upon the ground, and then brought his gaze back to the smoking barrel of the gun that looked too large for her shoulder.
There was a moment of silence and clarity that hung between them, just as the smoke was beginning to clear. A moment of incredulity on both sides of the divide. Vulpes stared at her from behind those impenetrable lenses and she stared back at him through her clear ones. For those sparse few seconds when no one moved, when even the injured hadn't yet found time to scream out, Heavenly's mind cleared. She realized with a clear certainty that she was going to die, that what she had just done was going to cause the remaining men to kill her. There was surprisingly little fear entangled with that fact; it came as simple logic. She was, quite simply, going to die. Vulpes was going to kill her.
But he was going to at least be winded.
Heavenly turned and ran, her footfalls pounding against concrete audibly as answering patters began just behind her. Her fingers fumbled with another thick round, struggling clumsily to feed it into the empty end of her gun. The screams of the men she had injured echoed now through the same town that had drank up similar screams just days before, accompanied by the dry flutter of dark wings as scavengers took flight from her path. She ran like she had never run before, underneath the listless stares of the dying, passed the hanging progression of death and amid the swirling ashes of the dead. She could hear the men behind her follow her progress, those few who hadn't been blown apart fall in line with her frenzied run. And she heard a strange, chinking sound, like an engine cranking to life, like a chainsaw revving, but she didn't dare to glance back to the mystery. She ran for the split where the street she was on intersecting with the one she had come from, the one she had left Boone on.
ED's song piped to life. A laser cut the air behind her.
The chainsaw drew closer.
Relief swelled inside of her at the sound of the rifle, rising from her shaking legs into the terrified knot in the pit of her stomach. Boone stared down his scope not ten feet from her, aimed at the men who chased her. His face was drawn in an emotion she hadn't seen before - that was to say, an emotion, period - and as she came closer she heard him call out, "That was your plan?" His rifle spat fire and she heard a body collapse behind her - a body that had been entirely too close. She came to the end of the street and turned, finally pressing the grenade round home and popping the gun shut. She didn't raise the gun; she hadn't the time. Someone had thrown open the doors to the Town Hall, and wolves were running from the darkness within. Heavenly fired from her hip, popped a round off at her pursuers. They, however, had begun to fall back as they saw the gun rearmed, granting she and the sniper ground but effectively wasting the round.
They both began to back up, Boone shooting and Heavenly fumbling in her satchel for something helpful and lethal; another grenade round. Or a stick of dynamite. Or another Boone. Her eyes fell from her assailants as she searched for it, rustling past bullet casings and stimpacks. Not looking at the ground, not watching her attackers, she frantically sought the grenade, her fingers trembling and sweating so profusely she could barely move the contents of the bag. As she found it she heard Boone grunt, and she dropped the round she had searched for so desperately, her pulse pounding as she turned to spot the source of his dismay.
One of the wolves had latched onto his arm, snarling as it dragged away his grip on his gun, as it ripped bloody rents along his flesh. Heavenly's eyes widened and her trembling hand fell to the nine-millimeter at her hip, fingers just barely slipping around the grip before the ground that she hadn't been watching became uneven. She lost her standing, heel slipping over a bit of upraised concrete and sending her spilling to the ground. She pulled her gun free as her backside impacted the broken street, twisting her body with the intent of popping off shots in Boone's direction - which, some cynical part of her mind noted, was an entirely bad idea with her aiming skills. Despite her better judgment, she managed to pull the gun off, finger depressing faintly against the trigger and steeling her arm in preparation for the recoil, but never seeing if she would have actually been able to hit the dog and miss the sniper.
Something heavy was suddenly upon her, a loud, grinding horror screaming too close to her ears. The weight impacting her shoulder, throwing her gun off target and popping off a single shot uselessly into the air as she fell further back. There was a pressure on her throat that she only realized a few moments after it had appeared to be a hand, that someone was crushing into her windpipe and pressing her aching back to the ground. Something covered her and the smell of sweat and ash clung to him, the sheen of his black lenses glinting a dull orange of reflected fires. Vulpes fell to his knees atop her, his one hand holding her throat and pressing her into the ground as easily as one might hold down a child. His other hand reared back and the sound suddenly came together with an image and the combination was such a horrific thing that she wished she could no longer associate the two.
It was a blade, like a butcher's knife but thicker, dull gray metal and a roaring chain along the edge of it. Close as it was, she could see patches of dull brown that could have once been blood, see the knicks along the flat of it where bone had scratched it's surface. The sound alone that it emitted was enough to cause her to begin screaming - as she realized a disturbing second later, she was - all clinking motors and shrieking blades. It was a chainsaw that he could carry as a knife, in a single hand, and it's roar was right atop her and it was pressing down into her.
She struggled feebly beneath him, her arms pressing back against his shoulders and her mouth forming unbidden pleas for mercy. His strength bested hers easily, pressing her back and holding the chainsaw-knife to her, bearing down with a malice to his actions that only spurred her panic. It seemed he was aiming for her neck but her desperate flopping had set if off course and she felt it clink and grind against the armor at her collar bone. It emitted an even more horrible sound as it jumped and struggled to cut through the layers of protection the Legion armor gave her, muffling it's chain against the material it rattled against. He pressed the blade forward and back, tearing through layers of protection with each pull, his face remaining calm and slightly drawn, looming above her with the dark lenses that blocked his eyes.
He was sawing into the armor, breaking through towards the fragile body underneath. Her body jumped and seized against the pavement as he worked deeper through the protection, her chest rattling violently and sporadically with his progress. She could feel the vibrations spreading all throughout her torso as he got closer, feel the press of the ripper through the layers he broke through. Her mind had lost all semblance of rational thought and reason, and she could barely hear her broken scream above the peal of the saw. She had fallen into instinct, into desperate, frenzied strikes against his chest and arms that were all too weak to do her any good. Hope and fear were wayward and tentative concepts to her unthinking mind; she was filled only with the animal need to survive.
She felt the first bright blossom of pain erupt through her shoulder and her collar bone, she could see the first faint hints of a smile break the monotony of his face. Then tears rose renewed to her eyes and she could see nothing at all.
And then the pressure was gone. Vulpes twitched once, his form jerking back in a jolt that pulled the knife from the rent it had dug into her armor. She hadn't heard the pop of the rifle, nor the splatter of viscera on the ground besides her through the ringing in her ears, through the frenzied pounding of blood that pulsed in time with the frantic pattering of her heart. Heavenly lay on her back and stared at the sky, stared at the shifting wafts of smoke that created a thin layer of spotted black against blue. Vulpes collapsed atop her, the knife in his hand clattering to the side in nerveless fingers, the engine slowly sputtering and then dying without a hand to hold it. She could smell blood and smoke, ashes and decay on him, on the wolf fur he wore on his head. She couldn't breathe underneath the weight, couldn't breathe in the wake of the trauma of all that had happened. She lay in despondency, in disbelief. Pain pounded through her back and the after effects of terror coursed numbly through her mind.
"Monroe!" His voice couldn't pull her from whatever had shuddered and collapsed within her mind. The pressure on her chest was relieved as Boone dragged the body off of her, falling to a knee and staring down at her with widened eyes. She couldn't place the expression that he wore, whether it be worry or fear or calm acceptance. He reached out slowly and his fingertips fell on her neck, pressing in towards the pulse that still fluttered resiliently, despite circumstances.
Panic surged anew to her mind. Her hand darted up, snapping on the arm that placed the hand, returning to herself with a frantic insistence. Boone pulled his hand back as she did, letting out a breath that she thought may have been relief - but even when she wasn't a traumatized wreck she wouldn't have been able to measure Boone's elusive emotions. Heavenly pushed herself slowly to a sitting position, breathing in for what seemed like the first time in hours. She could see he was about to attempt to speak past the ringing in her ears, but she put up a hand to stall him. She wasn't ready for words. She wasn't ready to be touched, quite possibly ever again.
Her fingers fell unwilling to the hardened layers at her collar bone, to the broken folds of armor whose dents she could feel brushing against the skin below. She had limped away from the battle with naught but a scratch underneath the broken armor of a dead man, but somehow, she didn't feel lucky this time. Her back had lit afire with the pain of reopened wounds, her mind straining to parse everything that had just happened.
Struggled to understand how she was still breathing and Vulpes was not.
Her hearing was slowly returning to her. The low crackle of fires and the whispering feathers of the scavengers that circled above them. She heard a buzz and a whir and looked back to see ED was floating merrily towards her and away from what looked like the fallen and flaming body of a hound. Heavenly frowned and remained sitting still on the ground, Boone kneeling close and remaining as silent as the eyebot rejoined them. The wind brushed across the trio, bringing with it the coppery scent of fresh blood and the lingering, acrid odor of seared flesh. Nipton once again fell to silence, the breeze carrying the last few sounds the dead town would ever make; the whispered moans of the dying, the crackle of fading coals, the errant cries of the crows above.
And something else. Heavenly's head rose, blinking dry eyes once as she heard it. She looked back to Boone, seeing his attention diverted from her, sent back towards the town hall. She pushed herself to a slow stand and came to her feet, following his gaze to the open doors and a huddled form strewn out on the stairs. A cold fire rose up in her throat and she began forward, ignoring the rumbles of pain that flew up her back with each step.
She returned down the hall of the dead, coming closer to the town hall and realizing both the sound and sight they had perceived. One of the Legion strained to pull himself forward with his arms, a trail of blood revealing it to have been he who dragged a broken body up the steps and released the dogs from the building behind them. Both legs were a shattered mess of bone and pumping blood - obviously the work of her grenade launcher - and he tugged himself down the stairs and towards one of his fallen comrades, and towards the machete that lay on the ground beside the body. He caught sight of her as she neared and he snarled; but even one trained such as he couldn't hide the fear in his eyes, nor the quaking of his hands at her approach.
"You profligate whore." He croaked, his throat cracked from screaming, his face gone pale from blood loss, "Your body is now forfeit. You will be broken and strung up. The Legion will not forget this transgression. The Legion will not forget what was happened here."
Heavenly stared at him, and though she couldn't see it, all emotion had been wiped from her features. She watched him with a calm apathy, nothing stirring in her heart to his suffering. She felt a heated lump rise and fall in her throat, a sickness she fought back down, a sickness to what she saw in the boy and what she was slowly realizing existed inside herself. Her hand fell back to the Repeater strapped lengthwise to her hips, unlatching the strap that held it there and pulling the gun free. The boy saw it, his lip quivering upwards in a sneer filled with hatred and anger and the terror of coming death, but Heavenly offered no emotion in return.
She stared at him now with calm detachment. She stared at him like Checkered Coat had once stared at her, shuddering in darkness and so afraid to die. Calm to his terror, lucidity to his panic.
"You know why this happened?" She said, and her words, the cold apathy to them, made her sound nothing like herself. She leveled the Repeater and the boy continued to stare at her, his blue eyes already half gone in shock and pain, "Because you're weak. And I'm strong." If the tone she used had been flowing from a holotape, she wouldn't have recognized it as her own. If her actions were replayed before her, she couldn't have seen herself performing them.
She aimed for his head.
For once, she did not miss.
She wasn't well.
That much he could tell.
She hadn't spoken much since the end of the fight, as they retreated into the relative shelter of one of Nipton's numerous empty homes. She walked in blankly, her eyes ahead and a slight limp to her step from some wound she hadn't mentioned and he couldn't see. The very town seemed to wound her in some strange, nonphysical way, like merely being there had been slowly sapping her strength since they arrived. Not that he necessarily thought ill of her for that fact; he would have been more concerned had she not given the reaction she had upon the gruesome state they had found the town in. Somehow surviving what they had didn't seem to encourage her usual optimism to return, however. Even after avenging the people of Nipton she only seemed more tired and sore than before.
Though that vengeance seemed to come at some unspoken price to her. He hadn't known her long, he didn't really need to have known her long to know that the words she spoke and the way she had acted had been out of character for her. In retrospect, he wished he would have just sniped the wounded Legion boy while she was still regaining her bearings; killing him herself seemed to have taken another little piece of her and scattered it, lost to the wind.
This regret came quick on the heels of other, more present ones. He felt a faint resonance of guilt inside of himself for leading her without explicitly telling her what they would find. He supposed he didn't want to discourage her path; he wanted things to end as they had today. He wanted to kill every bastard that had defaced the town of Nipton. Things had ended in his favor, and now he could only feel the first edges of guilt for walking her into it unknowing. Because of course he had seen all this before, and of course she hadn't. Were he a better man, he would have warned her. Would have stopped her.
He hadn't, and he could almost see the look Carla would be giving him. Disappointment and mingled shame.
But there was something there, stirring unrecognized in his chest. Some emotion of guilt and regret that broke the monotony of the nothing that reigned prevalent inside him. Seeing Monroe in the state she was in, seeing her disillusionment and grief, it made something stir and perk it's ears inside him. It was such a strange, forgotten thing that it made him wonder how much further it's ripples could spread. It made him wonder if perhaps it was with this girl that he would find the path within him that would lead back to the man that Carla had loved. That had been worthy of love, of redemption. The man who could move beyond the blood on his hands, instead of one who was powerless to do any more than sit and wait for the desert to take him.
But that remained simple, empty hope. Inside, he knew the best he could find at Monroe's side would be the death that hunted her relentlessly. And maybe when it found her, it would take him too - and a debt paid was the most he could expect out of the Mojave.
Monroe grunted faintly, catching his attention. She was struggling to pull the legion armor over her head, to relieve herself of the weight on that wound she hadn't yet revealed to him. Boone dropped his duffle to the ground, setting his rifle to the side of it. He moved forward slowly, not announcing his presence as he came behind her and gently began pulling the armor up. Monroe froze for a moment, her muscles stiffening as if she were considering which would win out within her; modesty or logic. Resigned, her hands rose up over her head, straightening and allowing him to slide the armor up and off of her.
Boone hissed in a reflexive breath.
The plain white shirt she wore underneath the armor was soaked in blood over her back, immediately explaining her limping. Monroe stumbled another step forward and he reached out instinctively to steady her.
"Jesus Christ," He muttered, holding her shoulders gently to ensure she didn't tumble downwards, "What happened? Were you hit?"
"Fucking ... Blinky." Monroe mumbled, seeming only half aware of the question, and giving an outright nonsensical response. He didn't even understand the answer, but considering that there hadn't been any breaks in the back of her armor, he could only assume this was an old wound. Reopened and soaking through it's bandages.
"Lay down." He said evenly, turning back and wondering if he had even brought anything to tend it with. He wasn't a Doctor, nothing on her level, but he knew basic first aid from his days in the NCR. Before he had made it two steps to his bag, however, her soft voice drifted in from behind him.
"My satchel. Bandages. H-Healing powder. Stims." Her voice sounded weak and further away than she was. He heard ancient springs creak as she settled down on the bed behind him, exhaling a soft sigh as she settled in off her feet.
He turned back to the door, sighting her bag where she had dropped it upon entering. He moved to it swiftly, finding the items she had described and moving back into the room where she lay. She had removed her shirt and laid flat on her stomach, the blood soaking her back filling the room with a coppery smell he knew too well. He moved beside her and set to work immediately, fully aware that her eyes were shut and there were small furrows of pain etched in her brow.
"Monroe." He said quickly, loud enough to pull her attention, "Try to stay awake."
She mumbled something, then hissed in a breath as he began removing the bandages from her back. The adhesive edges pulled up easily from the blood and sweat that had seeped through and weakened the bond to her skin. Boone's eyes widened incrementally at what he saw there, his fingers raising to remove his sunglasses and set them aside.
Three long rents were slowly healing across her back, looking too long and too ragged to be upon something so petite. The longest in the middle, striking diagonally across her spine, seemed to be the one that had reopened, and the one that hadn't yet healed fully. The rents above and below the largest were scabbed over and oozing small amounts of blood from scattered cracks, but the importance was minor next to the monster across her backbone. Whatever had hit her had been big and he wasn't certain how she could have even survived such a thing. The one in the middle in particular looked like it had been much deeper and much longer than the state it had healed to - he wondered how it hadn't broken her back and paralyzed her on the spot. Between that and the bullet wound on her head, he was beginning to wonder just how many lives Doctor Monroe had lost, out in the waste.
He had sat still for too long; he needed to get to work. His hands moved to the spot on the bed where he had set the healing powder, untying it's string and pulling the top of the bag open. He shook the powder loose, letting it fall in a flaky layer of brown across her back. It slipped and mingled with the blood and Monroe dragged in a haggard breath. Her eyes squeezed shut and he realized that laying there and thinking about the pain was about the worst possible thing she could do. He was a private person, and he respected others privacy as well, but there was really only one thing he could think about to ask her on.
"So, what happened?" He stated evenly, his calm voice breaking through the silence that hung heavy in the house.
"Blinky." She stated again, simply and nonsensically, but her voice now carried the edge of barely contained pain in it. As much as he was curious about the explanation behind that word, he felt a greater interest in what had happened before that. In the mark she wore as a badge of honor, a medal of survival, glaring out from her forehead and daring the world to come at her again.
"No," He responded quietly, shaking more of the powder to fall in a hazy storm across her back, "I mean your head. The scar."
Monroe paused, seemed to consider. He heard, more than saw, something deflate and collapse within her; something mended since the battle that snapped as she relived an unspoken memory in her mind. She let out another sigh, a soft, quick exhalation of breath that could have been because of either depression or pain. Boone remained silent, as much he always did. He had put the question out there, and if she didn't want to answer, he wasn't going to press it. It would be overtly hypocritical of him to insist that anyone give up their secrets.
A few moments passed and he wasn't certain that she was going to tell him. He continued his work in silence, somber curiosity the only force that had posed the question, and one that was easily contained were it to be denied. She stirred faintly, her small back readjusting against the bed as she propped herself up on her elbows and began to speak again.
From her tone, it sounded like he wasn't getting an answer. He was getting a story.
"I'm a veterinarian." She muttered, and the word itself sounded defeated and lost, "But I was supposed to deliver this chip."
He sat with his back to her, a half finished cigarette between his fingers. Silence spread again through the room, but it was a gentler, more comfortable one. The truth now lay bare between them and she held no more secrets inside her to keep from him. And she hadn't pressed to know his simply because he knew hers, and that was a trade he could remain content with, even if it bordered unfair to her. He hadn't spoke much as she told him all the details of what happened, silently working at the wound on her back and doing his best to ease her pain with what little medical knowledge he had retained from his military days. Once she had started talking she seemed to be at least a bit better; it seemed hearing her own voice was the only thing that kept Monroe calm.
She had found a shirt after his clumsy administrations had at least stalled the bleeding. It was a gray, off-color stained thing that presumably belonged to whomever had been living in the home before the Legion had come. It was a bit big on her and lacked sleeves but it wasn't covered in blood so she had told him she considered it a step up. She had laid on her stomach back on the bed, her eyes staring off at a wall and facing the opposite direction of the corner he sat on.
He hadn't spoken. But he hoped she was used to that. His eyes fell on the bandages she had wrapped around his arm after he had finished with hers - the dog bite hadn't been bad, but she had insisted. Probably felt like she owed him, after he had helped her. He flicked his fingers and scattered ashes to the floor; it wasn't like the owners were coming back to claim it, after all. As usual, it was her voice that broke the silence between them, soft and tired but seemingly recovering, if only minutely.
"Thank you. For my back." He didn't turn or respond, just nodded and took another drag of the cigarette. Silence fell again for only a moment when, much to the surprise of both of them, it was he who spoke next.
"So we're going to Vegas?"
He heard her stir. Probably pushing herself up to look at him in shock. He didn't look back, but could tell she was struggling for words. "I ..." She began, and trailed off, then started again, speaking slowly and deliberately, "Yeah. Slowly but surely."
He nodded, and didn't offer her a reason as to why he was still willing to help her. He thought it's origins lay somewhere in guilt, with boredom finishing a close second. There was more Legion on her path, certainly, but if that was all he cared about he could just start making rounds outside of Cottonwood and pick off slaving bands. He was secretly glad she didn't ask why he intended on going with her, because he couldn't fully place the answer himself. He wanted to believe that it involved doing the right thing, protecting something half broken that couldn't hold it's falling pieces together. He wanted to believe it was because he could clearly see that path back to the man he was, and it was a road fraught with bloodshed that led him ever closer to the brightness on the horizon. And deep down he could only hope that following her would lead him to the release he had sought since he had put a bullet into the face that held the eyes that had kept his demons at bay.
What better way to find death than to follow someone who had already found it twice?
He heard the eyebot whir softly, somewhere off in a corner where it floated. Then he heard her stir, pushing herself up with a grunt and a creak of ancient springs. He turned back, tossing the cigarette to the ground and grinding a foot over it to kill the ember at it's end. He didn't speak, just watched her as she moved around the bed, taking soft, careful steps towards her satchel.
"You should rest." He said simply, impassively, his tone refusing to insist.
She let out a little breath, shaking her head in denial before she found the words to explain. When she looked over, it seemed as though she were fighting tears - or maybe she had looked that way all day, and it was only now he could place the exaggerated shine in her eyes. Her voice came out weak and pained, fumbling over syllables before selecting those she required, "I ... Can't. Not yet. Those people outside. They're still ..." Her eyes dropped away as she struggled for words, "Even if we pull them down, the amount of time they've been up there, the degradation their bodies have suffered, to say nothing of their minds ..." She trailed off, and turned, intent on completing the task she had given herself.
He understood. He had received the same explanation before, from less caring men. Snipers were often called on for mercy shots, and First Recon had been no exception. Boone had shot done more than a few of his former comrades from makeshift crosses, where the Legion would string them up, making sure everyone could see them. He knew what she was getting at, and knew what she planned to do.
It wasn't compassion or care that he acted out of, not necessarily. It was more an odd form of pragmatism; he knew she wouldn't be able to handle doing what she intended to do. If they were going to head towards Vegas together, her mind needed to be on the task. She needed to focus on finding this guy that had shot her, finding the package he had taken. She couldn't be worrying, as he knew from experience she would, about whether or not the innocent people she had put down could have been saved. Seeing their faces would only push her further towards and edge she wouldn't climb back up from. He knew because it had been the same for him, in what seemed a lifetime ago, when he his rifle had first fired forth mercy instead of death.
"I'll take care of it." He stated, moving towards where he had dropped his rifle without looking back to her. There was a small glimmer of hope fluttering in his chest that sparing her the consequences of the well intended act found it's origin in something beyond cold practicality. He could only hope that he was doing this because it was right, and a kindness, and something more than what he suspected it to be.
He didn't look back as he moved past her. He could weather the storm of dead stares and return much the same; she could not. He wasn't sure if she even was the same, now, after the coldness he had heard in her tone and the brutal efficiency of her actions. And he wasn't sure if her changing was an entirely bad thing.
Though he also wasn't entirely sure if he cared.
Heavenly watched him go, unwilling to fight him on the matter. It wasn't something she had really wanted to do, just something she knew had to be done. Again his kindness had flared unexpected in her face, but she was too tired and too sore to wonder on the motivations behind it. The fact that he was going with them to Vegas was enough to send her mind tumbling over his reasons and his meaning. It wasn't, though, that she was in any position to question nor complain about his willingness. What was she going to do - say no to the sniper that had been the sole reason she hadn't wound up decapitated not an hour before? Boone was certainly welcome to follow her where ever he wanted to, so long as he kept that rifle and that pleasant sense of humor of his.
ED beeped faintly from the corner, causing her to smile faintly and half turn her head towards him. "Don't worry." She spoke quietly, words a whisper in a house that belonged to the dead, "You still come first in my heart."
He seemed relieved at that; or maybe the painkillers were just kicking in. She moved away from the door and back to the bed, lowering herself gingerly onto it. Heavenly turned and lowered herself onto her stomach, bringing up her Pip-Boy and pressing buttons until the map came up. Vegas loomed closer and her broken body still had enough life within it to carry her through. The bright city lay northward, and her path was already planned out, her resolve reaffirmed somewhere int he chaos and the death that surrounded her. They'd have to go back up through Novac, passed Boulder City, and through the Vegas slums that surrounded the city proper. There was probably an easier route, faster if they went straight north from Nipton - but she had learned her lesson about deviating from the roads.
Even if she had gained a sniper.
What a strange thing, she considered quietly, to no longer be alone.