Bloody Mess

Disclaimer: I own nothing to do with Fallout 3 or the Fallout universe. All credit for this story goes to the wonderful minds at Bethesda.

Song Credit: The majority of this chapter was written while listening to Turn the Page by Subsonic & Drifta (feat. Kaytee). God Bless Subsonic, Drifta and Kaytee.

Crunchy and Bigshot are dead.

Crunchy was first, and though Red hadn't seen the deed, the screams from somewhere below were enough to confirm that fact. Screams and an awful... awful tearing sound.

Bigshot was next, and as horrible as the idea sounds in Red's mind, it had been an accident. The young man hadn't woken since being abducted, and the super mutants hadn't paid much attention to the prisoner. They hadn't even bothered to lock him in a cell, unlike both Shorty and herself. No, they just tossed Bigshot on the floor and left him there.

Then, as one mutant was checking on the prisoners, it accidentally stepped on Bigshot's head. Red screamed as her friend's skull shattered under the weight of the heavy boot. The super mutant at least had the decency to look surprised. Dumbly, the monster had lifted Bigshot's headless corpse off of the ground and looked at it as if wondering where the body had come from.

Then, to Red's infinite horror, the mutant had shrugged and taken a large bite out of Bigshot's left shoulder before dragging him off to be eaten elsewhere.

Now Red is curled into a ball in a back corner of her cell. They've got her and Shorty locked up in the old Germantown police headquarters; the cell block, specifically. Shorty is a few cells down from her, quiet for the moment. When they had arrived, Shorty had been swearing like a man possessed, insulting the mutants every way he could imagine. It had been somewhat comforting. Shorty's insults were the stuff of legend back when they had lived in Little Lamplight. Despite that fact, the mutants don't see Shorty as a threat. They certainly don't have any reason to. Even the shortest of mutants is still enough to leave Shorty at waist level.

It's only been a few hours since her abduction, but Red knows she's going to die in this awful place. She can hear the mutants as they stomp through the building, too many for her to run from or sneak past, even if she is able to somehow. There are nearly a dozen of them, and she likely hasn't seen all of them. Super mutants travel in large groups. Her years of helping Little Lamplight scavenge teams have shown her that.

She has no more tears. She has no more hope. They'll kill her and eat her, or they'll... she's heard them talking about turning people into super mutants in that grunting, broken speech that they use. That's not... she'd rather die than become one of those things. Still, Red realizes that she might not have a choice.

After all, it's not like they're going to just let her go.

"You let them go."

Star-Paladin Leliana Cross looks up at Elder Lyons as the two sit across from each other in the Elder's quarters. The rounded pre-war table between them is small and rickety, but is still enough to comfortably accommodate an old checker board. Cross prefers chess, it's more strategy oriented, but she knows the Elder likes things simpler during the few moments of spare time he finds during the day.

"Yes, I let them go," the Elder says quietly, a little smile tucked within his wrinkled features and coarse beard. "I have been chastised appropriately, and by my own daughter, no less. Rest her bones, what would my Naomi have said? I certainly have lost my touch." His grin widens a little as he manages to king one of his pieces. A game of checkers can be quick and easy, more so when his opponent is a cyborg with an advanced computational intellect and can beat him easily within a few turns. She never does it, of course. Cross can end their little games whenever she wants. The Star Paladin just chooses not to.

He's blessed to have such friendship in the last years of his life.

Cross jumps a pair of Lyons' black pieces and plucks them off of the board. "It's not like you to just let her go off like that. The two of you usually work out these little excursions days in advance, making sure not to leave anything vulnerable or short-staffed." She gives him a knowing look from across the table, her frame large and imposing in her bulky blue power armor. It's a sharp contrast to the Elder's form, all thinned and wrapped in a worn blue longcoat.

"It will be fine," Lyons replies, pondering his next move. He's got to shore up his defenses or she'll walk all over him. "Besides, I'll just assign Greg and Colvin to the rotations the Initiates would have taken." He slides one of his pieces forward in order to block another assault from Cross. "These things work themselves out. They always do."

Cross raises an eyebrow. The light catches her features and the softness of her brown eyes. With light wrinkles that cross over her cheeks and trace across her brown, the Star-Paladin looks at first glance to be a woman entering late fifties or early sixties. Her steel-colored hair has been cropped into a military-style crew for as long as Lyons has known her, and it doesn't look like even a single strand of hair has ever fallen out of place. It's all illusory, of course. Cross' cybernetics are the reason that a woman that has nearly ten years on the Elder looks like she's only just reaching the later years of her life.

"You're being awfully lenient, Owyn," Cross says quietly. She flips a black piece between her thin fingers. "The Sentinel doesn't-"

"She doesn't need me to hold her hand," Lyons states. "Certainly not in matters concerning her squad. I am not thrilled that my daughter felt she had to go behind my back, but I will respect her choice in the matter. She did what she felt was necessary, just as I did. Leadership is all about knowing when one needs to do the right thing, even if the path is difficult."

There's a brief pause before the Elder continues. "And that certainly includes stepping on toes and angering people. Sometimes I wonder what our Brotherhood would be if we weren't willing to make people angry. I doubt there would be a single one of us alive today. God knows the Great Maxson was more than willing to defect from his government, the most powerful force in the world, and still have the determination to say it straight to their faces."

Cross's surprise doesn't show well on her lined and hard features, but Lyons spots it instantly. "You did this on purpose," she says flatly. "You knew that she was actively recruiting this whole time, didn't you?" The Star Paladin jumps a solitary piece on her side of the board, accidentally setting the Elder up for a game-killing triple jump. It's the first mistake she's ever made during a game of checkers.

Lyons chuckles and jumps all three of said pieces, getting a free king as a prize. "You say that like I do not always act with purpose." He looks up at Cross and smiles. The wrinkles around his mouth and eyes come together in an expression that is both endearing and kind. "Besides, my daughter is more than capable of taking care of herself and her squad. She'll be fine."

Cross levels a look of respect at her Elder. Even in his age, and without a brain that is part computer, he can still surprise her.

"Now then," Lyons says, standing. There's no need to continue the game. Cross' mistake has ensured an easy win for the Elder.

"Shall we get something to eat?" Owyn Lyons asks. "I have it on good authority that they're making mirelurk stew down in the Mess."

Cross smiles and nods, rising from her own seat.

"After you, my Elder."

Sarah ducks low against the gutted and burnt shell of a pre-war car as gunfire splits the air above her.

Using a pre-war vehicle as cover is a risky choice and it always has been. On one hand, they're everywhere in the Wasteland, scattered in large, easy to utilize clumps that are practically begging to take bullets on behalf of the people (or monsters) who happen to be shooting each other. On the other hand, all it takes is one stray shot to set off the small nuclear reactors inside the vehicles. A pre-war car exploding is akin to the detonation of a mini-nuke. It's important to avoid using a car for cover for a prolonged period of time. That is, of course, you're using one that's already been blown up, like Sarah is. At that point the gutted metal frames are fair game.

The super mutants are camped closer than she's predicted, but at least they were more than willing to give their position away when they noticed the squad of Brotherhood soldiers patrolling across the bridge. She's thankful that the bastards are at least stupid enough to foil their own ambush.

Still, the situation is hardly ideal. There are a mess of super mutants in the ruins of the pre-war office buildings ahead and they're all firing with reckless abandon. It's a favorite tactic for the green freaks. They like to suppress their prey and then move in for the kill. Even from her low crouch Sarah can see super mutants milling about, moving in to close the gap.

She's not about to let them.

She half turns to Vargas, who is crouched against another pre-war car a few feet behind, the Initiates alongside him. "Vargas, you and the newbies give us some suppressive fire!"

Vargas nods an affirmative and starts firing his assault rifle at the oncoming super mutants. The Initiates join in, Redding with her own rifle and Jennings accenting the punch of physical gunfire with calm, accurate laser fire.

With the muties pinned on their own end of the bridge, Sarah can focus on the ones in the building ahead. She knows that Dusk is getting an angle from somewhere behind her. She knows where Glade is because the fully-armored Paladin is in cover next to her, waiting for a chance to get his missile launcher into the fray. Gallows is gone and has been gone since they left the Citadel. It's nice having an advance scout she doesn't have to really worry about, but it would be helpful to to know exactly what Gallows is up to.

Glade raps his armored knuckles against the metal casing of his launcher. "Any chance we could get rid of some of those guys in the building before I stick my head out?"

Sarah nods and speaks into the radio built into the collar of her suit. "Dusk," she says loudly over the sound of raining metal, "Status?"

"Lining it up, Sentinel. Whoops, got us a heavy. No worries." A sharp crack splits the air somewhere above Sarah and she turns to follow the shot. She sees a mutant in the building above, standing in a gap where a large window once stood, a missile launcher in its hands. Its head explodes a split-second later and the body tumbles to the ruined streets below.

"Aww yeah," Dusk laughs through her radio. "I felt that from here." She fires up at the building again and a mutant with an assault rifle falls back, a bloody crater where its chest used to be.

The enemy gunfire trickles off a little, enough for Sarah to risk leaning out of cover in order to join the fight. She spots a mutant moving across the bridge, a brute with a minigun, and fires two shots from her laser rifle in quick succession. The first blast strikes the mutant's shoulder. The second blast vaporizes the freak from the neck up. The corpse thuds to the ground, its weapon clattering beneath it.

Vargas yells for the Initiates to fan out and stay low. The Initiates, readied by the countless hours of drills that Gunny has force-fed them over months of training, move with a slow and steady mentality that keeps them safe from enemy gunfire. They take cover on opposite sides of the bridge and resume their steady rate of fire, using the husks of pre-war like the others have done.

Quick learners. Either from the drilling or by example, Sarah doesn't care. What matters is that they're doing exactly what they need to be doing. And, from the lack of scolding on Vargas' part, they're doing a good job of integrating themselves into the current situation.

The Sentinel sprints forward, gunfire whizzing around her as she moves to the next closest vehicle. A few shots ping off of her shoulder plates but Sarah doesn't let it distract her. She's the Sentinel. She's the best there is.

A quick slide against another dead car is enough to get Sarah into position. There are six mutants crouched low across from her, she can see their hulking forms clearly through the shells of the vehicles they're using as cover. Vargas and the newbies still have them pinned, but it's only a matter of time before they start charging.

"How are we looking, Dusk?" Sarah's words are loud over the gunfire and more than enough to fill the small radio at the base of her armor's neckline.

The sniper's reply is swift and informative. "Just about finished, Sentinel. One more-" A crack of gunfire. "Done. Glade's clear. Just give the word."

Sarah fires a few blasts from her energy rifle to keep the muties distracted. "Glade! Rocket on my mark! Hit center and make it big!"

"Copy that," Glade says. Sarah can hear the grin in his voice. "On your word, Sentinel."

A pair of super mutants rush out of cover and toward their dead fellows' discarded minigun. At this prompting, three of the other freaks rush out, weapons blazing. Bullets ping all around Sarah, but it's nothing in the eyes of the Sentinel."

Her words are quiet compared to the sound of the gunfire, but she knows Glade can hear her. "Now, Paladin."

The missile screams past her. She can feel the heat of its exhaust and the rush of air as the explosive passes by. She closes her eyes for the briefest of moments, anticipating the explosion she knows will soon follow.

Screams, the screams of horrible monsters. At least three, maybe more. The air-shaking thump of an explosive detonation. The crunch of concrete and steel as its turned into rubble. The pattering of said rubble as it rains down around her. She lets five seconds tick away, waiting for the inevitable detonation of any nearby cars. Said cars explode into mushroom clouds and her teeth shake.

She takes three deep breaths. One. Two. Three.

Sarah stands up.

Glade holds in a breath. Sarah's on Sentinel mode. Time slows down as he watches her.

"Here we go," he whispers.

There's rubble peppering all around her. Rifle ready, she swings out of cover. Glade can see the way her body shifts with her armor as she takes aim and fires. He can't see her target through the smoke from his missile, but he can hear the scream of the mutant she's hit. She strides into the smoke, firing as she goes.

She's fearless.

Glade snaps back into action and busies himself with loading a fresh missile into his launcher. He and Dusk are on overwatch duty today. They don't move unless Sarah tells them to. It's an old standby for the Pride. One group moves up, the others stay back to provide cover fire in case the first group needs to fall back. The Pride's always fought against superior numbers, and their tactics have evolved to compliment that fact.

Vargas and the newbies move up to give Sarah support, but Glade knows that the fight is basically over. Dusk's sharpshooting has already dealt with the muties on the high ground and he's killed off the majority of the bastards on the bridge. Sarah's the closest, so she'll be the one to finish the freaks.

Dusk sidles up next to him, already loading a fresh clip into her .308. "You see Gallows anywhere?"

The Paladin shakes his head. "Nope. He's probably causing problems further along the route. You know how he is."

Dusk grumbles something and adjusts her sights. "Gun or ripper?" she asks after a moment.

Glade smiles under his helmet. Someone always wants to play the game, even when it's a small team. "Twenty caps says ripper. She's got that look in her eyes. All close and personal today."

"She didn't bayonet it to her rifle," Dusk says, a challenge in her voice.

"Sentinel doesn't need to," Glade retorts.

As if to validate his claims, the grinding wail of Sarah's ripper fills the air, just before a mutant's scream mutes the sound. Dusk swears loudly, though not loud enough to mask the sound of flesh being shredded by a miniature chainsaw. There's a slight pause before the weapon grinds to speed again and another mutant shrieks. Silence descends on the bridge once the mutant's screams cease.

Sarah's voice crackles in over their radios. "All clear. Pride, form up on me."

Glade hefts his launcher onto his shoulder and pulls himself out of cover. "You can pay me when we get back to the Citadel, Knight-Captain."

Dusk groans and sets pace alongside the Paladin. "You're really asking for it, sir."

Glade laughs heartily. It's good to get back into the thick of things.

"I'll keep that in mind, Dusk."

"You're asking for it," Gabriel mutters.

He can see her through the scope, the poor thing. The raider has no idea how close she is to death. And, in his low crouch across the river, Gabriel is moments away from ending her life.

That said, it's proving difficult for Gabriel to pull the trigger.

It's not a challenging shot, not by any means. The spike-covered woman is sitting at the edge of a ramshackle dock, her toes dipped in the irradiated water. Stupid on two counts: she's irradiating herself and presenting an easy target for anyone who happens to be pointing a high-powered rifle her way. She's begging for a bullet between the eyes.

Nonetheless, Gabriel's choice of target gives him pause. The woman looks... we she certainly doesn't look like a drug-crazed fiend, ready to kill him in a second if she spots him. No, the raider has a sad, introspective expression on her weathered face. It's a look he's seen on the faces of others; Amata and Lucy being the first that come to mind. She looks a little like Amata, if he's being honest with himself. Her black hair is shorter and caked with filth, but the face is similar, rounded on the sides with a defined chin. Skin tone is similar as well, a soft caramel color. Gabriel can't see the raider's eyes through the goggles she's wearing, but that's probably a good thing.

Still, a raider is a raider, no matter the face. She's got a hunting rifle sitting next to her and there are two other raiders that need dealing with.

"Shame." he mutters, his voice thick with a drawl that he doesn't really hear. "Pretty thing. Damn shame." Gabriel's finger rests against Arkansas' trigger.

Her head explodes at the crack of a .308 round. Her body slumps back from the force of the shot, arms spread out and feet still hanging in the water. The woman is dead before Gabriel can react.

He's not the one who fired the shot.

Gabriel goes prone as soon as he realizes that there's another sniper on the field. He abandons the view through the scope and looks around hurriedly, trying to place exactly where the un-suppressed shot came from. It sounded close, somewhere to the left. He can still see the remaining raiders in their camp across the river, grabbing guns and shouting expletives. A third raider, one who wasn't visible until now, stumbles out of a ramshackle outhouse, his pants around his ankles and a drum-fed combat shotgun in his hands. Whatever comedic impact the image has is lost when another shot rings out and blows the unlucky raider's head off.

The other two raiders finally take cover against a poorly-built storage shed. They're both carrying assault rifles. One of them looks over at-


Gabriel stands quickly and throws himself to the right as both raiders open fire on his position. He runs toward a nearby rock, cursing his luck all the while. The sniper has ruined everything.

His thoughts go from anger to pain as a pair of bullets tear into the meat of his left arm. He almost drops Arkansas out of shock. Almost. Gabriel drops behind the rock and slides up against it, breathing heavily and trying his best to stave off the pain that has begun to spread through the injured limb. He then shrugs off his rucksack and lets it fall to the ground.

He can hear them through the pain, footfalls splashing through shallow water. The raiders are crossing the river, cackling and closing in. With no time to patch up his arm, Gabriel reaches for Holly's .45, his right hand fumbling and folding as it attempts to retrieve the powerful handgun from the holster under his right armpit. The laser pistol isn't an option, not at close range. It just doesn't have the stopping power he needs.

He tugs the .45 free and waits. He spits, and the words that follow drip with rage. "Come and get me, you motherfuckers. Come and-"

Another shot from the unseen sniper splits the air. Gabriel can hear a scream and a thump as a body hits the ground. The other raider shouts in surprise just before a second shot rings out and silences him.

Things get quiet after that. Too quiet for Gabriel's liking. He uses the reprieve to set the .45 on the ground and roll up his left sleeve to look at the wounds. The reinforced shoulder pad woven into the armor has saved his shoulder, but everything below the armpit is still vulnerable. One of the bullets has passed clean through, but the other is buried somewhere in the muscle. The arm spasms every time he tries to move it and the tissue damage is extensive. He won't be using the limb until he's dealt with the sniper. His options are limited to a sidearm in his right hand. Arkansas and the assault rifle are out of the question. He can't uses Fisto! while firing a pistol and his combat knife won't do him much good when his off-hand is useless. There's always the grenades, but he doubts the sniper will get close enough for them to be effective.

"It's always the snipers," he mutters. "Every fucking time." Gabriel sets Holly's .45 to the side and reaches for a syringe of Med-X at his belt. He fumbles trying to stick the needle into his neck without a hand to steady his aim, but after a few nicks he gets the job done. He tucks the empty syringe into his belt once the drug is in his system. Waste not, want not.

Gabriel picks up the .45 again and shifts his way to the side of the rock. He glaces briefly over the side, enough to get a clear view of what is going on around him. A bullet smacks into the rock next to his head. Gabriel swears loudly and slides back behind cover. No question about it. The sniper isn't messing around.

"You're a quick sonofabitch!" a voice shouts out. The speaker is male and sounds like a sadist. "Why don't you come on out? I promise I'll make it messy!"

Gabriel says nothing. He's not about to give himself away more than he already has. Hell, he's already at a massive disadvantage due to the fact that his rifles are a non-option. Still, the Med-X is starting to kick in. He can still feel blood dripping out of his arm and the small pricks on his neck, but at least the pain has been deadened somewhat.

"I had the drop on you the whole time!" the sniper shouts, cackling with glee. "I 'coulda killed you whenever I wanted, but I decided to save the best for last. After all, what good is an appetizer if you eat the main course first? And you? My friend, you are the main fuckin' course."

What the hell, Gabriel thinks. Might as well keep this guy talking. After all, the longer he talks, the more time I have to recover. He sets Holly's .45 on the ground next to him.

"Only a moron plays games when he should be fighting," the wanderer snarls. He runs his good hand along the side of his wounded arm. Blood flows between his fingers. There's a lot of it, more than he's comfortable with losing, but he doesn't have any irradiated water in his bag to close the wounds. His bandages aren't going to be any help either. Blood will just soak the damn things before they have a chance to be useful.

"Ah, so he does talk! Good, good. Always more fun when the prey's got some teeth to 'em, know what I'm sayin'? Most of you Wasteland types scare too easy. Fuckin' hell, if I had a cap for every time I heard some friggin' crybaby beg for his life... well, that'd be a lot of caps." Another cackle from the sniper.

"You just shoot anything that moves?"

"And why the fuck wouldn't I? Hell man, you got no idea. Killin' is my fuckin' purpose. And fuckin' is my killin' purpose." The sniper dissolves into a cacophony of shrill laughs. "And purpose is my fuckin' killin'! Oh man, I could do this all day!" A brief silence. "But, I'm getting ahead of myself. I live for the good kills, daddy-o. Them fuck-your-ankles raiders weren't nothin' but nothin'. I mean, that raider bitch was pretty hot and shit, don't get me wrong, but a body is so much easier to fuck when it ain't movin'. That's all the greasy stains are good for anyway." The sniper's tone hardens a little. "You, on the other hand, you is decked to the crazy nines. Gonna make a good kill out of you even if it kills you. Oh shit, should'a bin' a comedian, tell you what."

Gabriel cups his good hand and it fills with a small pool of blood. He's already working out a plan, though it's risky as all hell. "Who the fuck do you think you are?" the wanderer shouts.

"Who am I? Who am I?" The sniper sounds both appalled and unbelieving. "You mean to say that you, some random Wasteland dumbass, have never heard of the great Sam Warrick? I'm offended, I really am!"

Ignoring Warrick's posturing, Gabriel lets the blood pool into his hand until it's almost full. The arm of his combat suit is getting saturated with it. He needs to irradiate the limb before too much blood loss takes its toll.

Meanwhile, Warrick continues in his ranting. "I am the greatest marksman this desert ever birthed! I am the lone wanderer! I am the killer that roams the wastes, killing any and all that cross my killer path! I am a legend! A god! A nightmare! I am a wild child! I'm the Alpha and motherfuckin' Omega! I'm-"

Gabriel laughs heartily and Warrick goes silent. Even as he laughs, the young wanderer's mind is racing. If he screws this up...

"Fuck you," Gabriel says, his voice a little hoarse. "I'm not about to sit here and listen to your bullshit. I'm out."

Gabriel dumps the handful of blood into his mouth and quickly grabs Holly's .45. He places the barrel of the pistol against the dirt and tilts his head back. He can feel the blood sloshing between his teeth and the coppery taste it leaves on his tongue.

Now or never, Gabriel thinks.

He pulls the trigger and waits for the punch of the gun going off. In that split-second, Gabriel sprays the blood in his mouth into the air like a fountain. The sound of the gunshot is somewhat muffled as the bullet digs into the dirt, but it's enough to be heard at a distance. The spray of blood... well, Gabriel hopes it's convincing enough. He's not about to actually shoot himself in the head.

For a moment, Gabriel is worried that Warrick hasn't fallen for his trick. But the silence that once filled the air is soon replaced with as steady stream of curses.

"Fuckin' no! What? WHAT? No man, nuh-uh. No fuckin' way you just pulled such a weak. Fuckin'. STUNT!" The sound of a .308 shot pierces the air, but Gabriel doesn't feel or see a bullet impact anywhere near him. Warrick is just shooting for the sake of shooting. Silently and slowly, Gabriel places Holly's .45 on the ground next to him and pulls a grenade from his belt.

"What kind of pussy bullshit was that!" the sniper screams. "You Wasteland types ain't supposed to do shit like that! What the fuck is this world comin' to, when even the daddy-o's are blowin' their fuckin' brains out? Fuckin' fuck, man. Some bull-ass-shit just went down." Warrick's shouting dissolves into a stream of mumbles before tapering off altogether.

Gabriel waits in silence. It's not long before he hears the crunch of boots against the dirt of the Wasteland. Warrick is closing in, slowly but surely.

"Fuckin' mess," the sniper mumbles. "Had some balls doin' that, sure enough. Still bullshit though. Still a bunch of bull-fuggin'-shit. No fun. No fun at all." The sound of footsteps grow closer. With each one, Gabriel's grip on the grenade tightens.

He can hear Warrick sigh. "Might as well see what you had on you, daddy-o. If nothin' else, get some parts and bullets for this ol' bitch. Gonna have to-"

Gabriel pulls the pin and tosses the grenade over the rock. He grabs the .45 off of the ground in that same moment, ignoring the curse that Warrick spits.

The grenade goes off with a bang and Gabriel stands up, the .45 raised an aimed. His left arm hangs limply at his side and his face is covered in a fine layer of blood. He grips the pistol tightly in his hand. The blood has soaked his fingers and made his grip slippery and sticky, but he keeps the gun level.

As it turns out, Gabriel doesn't need the pistol after all.

Warrick is sprawled nearby, in several places. The man's head is still attached to his torso, along with the left leg, but the rest of the sniper's limbs have been blown apart. Gabriel's throw had been spot on. The sniper's rifle lies nearby, damaged somewhat from the grenade explosion but still intact.

What little remains of Warrick is shredded and burnt. Amazingly enough, the sniper is still alive, though only just. His face is a ruined mess and there's half of a pair of sunglasses cocked over his right eye. Whatever hair Warrick had has been burnt off. The ragged torso of a man groans weakly and tries to move the stumps of its arms, but Warrick only succeeds in adding to his pain.

Gabriel sighs heavily and leans down next to the broken, half dead killer. "You ruined my shot," he states, his voice flat. "Really shouldn't have done that."

Warrick mumbles something unintelligible and Gabriel shakes his head. "Man, you should have just minded your own fucking business. Should have left well enough alone." He taps the barrel of Holly's .45 against the side of Warrick's skull. A lot of the flesh and muscle is missing, enough that the warm metal of the pistol's barrel clinks against bare bone.

"I was working, you self-absorbed shit. And you don't-" Gabriel smacks the pistol harder against Warrick's head. "Interrupt." Whack. "A man." Whack. "While." Whack. "He's." Thwack! "WORKING!"

Gabriel flips the pistol over in his blood-slicked hand so that he's holding the barrel. He brings the pistol's grip down on Warrick's face, over and over again. Blood and bits of bone fly past Gabriel's face as he brutally savages a half-dead psychopath.

Words froth from Gabriel's mouth like spittle, unbidden and uncontrolled. "You could have just walked away, you stupid fuck! I'm trying to help people out here! Trying to do what dear old dad would have wanted, the selfish, abandoning prick!"

Holly's .45 runs thick with blood and brain-matter as Gabriel loses any pretense of control. "I never wanted this!" he screams. "I was supposed to have a normal life, damn everything! I was supposed to fall in love, get married, have kids! I was supposed to be safe from this shit! I was supposed to be happy!"

Warrick has long since been killed, but Gabriel can't stop crushing the man's head with his pistol. It's insanity, pure and simple. Even Fisto!, which is on his working arm and can do the job in a pinch, remains unused.

After a few more moments of mindless bludgeoning, Gabriel's good arm goes limp and the .45 falls from his grip. Gabriel breathes heavily, ignoring the blood that drips from both arms.

"Instead I'm here," he whispers. "I'm out in this hell, killing just about everything I come across just to stay alive. If I'm not getting shot at by dumbasses like you then I'm being hunted by things that want to eat me. I don't know what I am. I don't know who I am. I don't know why I'm here or what I'm doing. I'm scared out of my fucking mind because I've only been killing for a few weeks and it feels like I've been doing it my whole life. There are parts of me that I can't control or understand..." He drifts off, unable to continue.

Gabriel sighs and stands, looking down at Warrick's ruined corpse. "You should've killed me when you had the chance, you stupid bastard."

He reaches down with his good arm and picks up the blood-soaked .45. He's lucky that he hasn't damaged the pistol, especially considering how he just used it. Remembering his wounds and blood loss, Gabriel limps his way over to the nearby riverbed. He finds himself stumbling as he walks. His left arm hands limply at his side as he shuffles toward the toxic river, his salvation.

He falls to his knees at the irradiated bank, like some world-weary pilgrim at the shore of a holy spring. Placing Holly's .45 on the ground, Gabriel scoops up a handful of murky, filthy water and splashes it on his wound. The toxins within the water are going to need monitoring, hopefully they'll pass from his system without much incident, but Gabriel's need to stem blood loss is greater than risk of infection. Hell, with the way his cellular system goes into rapid-response mode when it's exposed to radiation, Gabriel has a feeling that he can filter out most toxins much quicker than normal. He knows for a fact that his blood-loss will be countered somewhat by the radiation, as it did when he was stabbed by Vance. On that occasion, and with over 400 rads in his system, the red-blood cells had been replaced even as they had been lost. It's not nearly as quick now, with his relatively low radiation level, but the irradiated water is the kick-start that his mutation needs. Gabriel imagines for a moment that he can feel the cells replicating at rates far beyond a human norm.

He's his own scientific miracle.

He dribbles more water onto the wound. The pain is still prominent, but Gabriel can feel his flesh knitting itself back together, quickly and efficiently. The bullet is still buried in his arm, but Gabriel will have time to dig it out as soon as the wounds are healed. He needs to wait a moment, let his blood replace itself before attempting any sort of field surgery. The arm is still incredibly sore and the affected muscle still throbs with intermittent pain, but it's manageable.

After a few more splashes of purposeful irradiation, Gabriel slowly drags himself away from the riverbed, picking up Holly's .45 as he goes. He really needs to just take his combat knife and engrave Holly's name into the pistol's grip, just to have it over and done with. He'll never be able to forget the... no, it's not guilt. Guilt implies wrongdoing. Regret is a better word. Regret is fine. Wrong... he can't be wrong. Can't. That would mean...

Gabriel shakes his head and trudges back to the rock where the rest of his gear is, not even slowing as he passes what's left of Warrick's ruined corpse.

He gathers his belongings and spends a moment going through the gear that Warrick and and the raiders have generously donated. He takes Warrick's sniper rifle apart and puts the parts in his bag, followed by a dissembled combat shotgun and parts from both of the raider assault rifles. He snags a few medical supplies (including four syringes of Med-X, hallelujah) and additional ammo for Arkansas and his assault rifle, as well as a bit of un-eaten food and some bottles of irradiated water. He'll have to keep some dirty water handy from now on, for medicinal purposes. It's certainly easier and faster than using bandages. Not that he won't keep the bandages. Waste not, after all.

After searching the raider encampment, Gabriel sits down by the irradiated bank once more and injects himself with another syringe of Med-X and draws his combat knife. He stuffs part of an old leather belt between his teeth (the taste is terrible) and clamps down hard.

He takes a few short breaths through his nose and slices his arm open, ignoring the pain as best he can. He pushes the tip of the knife deeper into the muscle, aiming for the bullet. His arm is almost on fire from the pain, but he simply bites down harder on the leather and continues in his impromptu surgery.

After a few grueling minutes, Gabriel digs the bullet out with his combat knife and closes the wound with another helping of irradiated water. He takes a moment and washes the blood off of his arms and face with a rag that he wets with some of his purified water. There's still a considerable amount that has soaked into the side of his armor, but he doesn't have any Abraxo handy to clean the stains. He'll just have to make due.

Gabriel checks himself over, making sure none of his gear has gone missing in the earlier scuffle. He stretches, flexes his newly-repaired muscle and makes sure that he's ready to move on. Germantown is still his priority, despite the recent distraction.

Blinking with realization, Gabriel pats the front of his armor, feeling for the eyeglasses Kimba had handed him before leaving. He pulls the red-rimmed glasses out from under his armor, checking them over to be sure that they're still in decent shape. If he finds Red, Big Town's doctor, he'll return them. If not...

"Time's a'wasting." Gabriel mutters, Arkansas cradled in his arms.

Still, before heading out, Gabriel takes a moment and carves the name Holly into the grip of the .45 with his combat knife.

Gallows hardly uses his combat knife.

He keeps one on hand, of course. Works great on Talon Company and other undesirable human targets. Super mutants require a different touch. A blade is nice, sometimes, but it's better to rely on one's own reach in close range combat, especially with a super mutant. One step too far, one foot off balance, that's all it takes to die when fighting mutants. He's seen it happen, again and again. Only a fool or someone with incredible skill fights a super mutant up close. Gallows is no fool.

The others, they describe Gallows as a scout. That's not what Gallows is. Sarah understands. She knows what Gallows is.


Gallows has already killed several abominations since separating from the Pride, some of them shot with his silenced 12.7mm, others with snapped necks and gouged eyes. Two standard mutants, a brute and three of the centaur creatures, if he's keeping track. Which he is. Gallows always keeps track, though not for the same reasons that Glade and Kodiak keep track.

He can see his prey ahead, waiting in ambush for the Pride to round the corner. Smart of the mutants, but also stupid. Though the position they have taken offers superior vantage over the street below, situated as they are on a ruined skyway between the corpses of two buildings, but the mutants could not be more obvious about their occupation. They shuffle about, impatient and in the open. Stupid creatures.

The Knight-Captain is crouched, frozen in place as he surveys the mutants. Laser rifle in hand, he doesn't move a muscle. They super-mutants have him outnumbered three-to-one. Normally good odds for Gallows, but they're all brutes and they're all heavies. Two missile-launchers and a minigun. It's no surprise that this route has suddenly become treacherous.

Gallow's helmet radio buzzes and Sarah's voice crackles in his ear. "Anything around the corner, Gallows?"

Two clicks on his end, the sign for 'Yes, but I can't talk. Too close.'

"Understood," Sarah says, a little quieter than before. "Armaments?"

Two prolonged clicks followed by a quartet of fast clicks.

"Missiles and a mini," Sarah states. "Got it." A pause from the Sentinel. "High or low elevation? Two clicks for high, one for low."

He sends two clicks and the Sentinel swears under-breath. "You think you can get them from where you're at?"

Two clicks.

He can hear the grin in Sarah's voice. "Then it's your show, Gallows. Whenever you're ready."

Gallows slowly raises his laser rifle, knowing that the mutants are more likely to spot quicker movements. His eyes are fixed on his target, a missile reload strapped to the back of one of the launcher-wielding mutants.

He fires once, the bolt of energy enough to pierce the shell of the missile and set off the payload inside. The mutant explodes almost instantly, its back erupting into a flash of smoke and meat. The launcher goes flying from its grip, one arm still wrapped around the weapon, and strikes the minigun mutant right in the stomach. The monster doubles over and vomits blood onto its boots.

The disarray is more than enough for Gallows. He fires once more, drops his rifle to his side and rushes into the fray, ignoring the pained howls and flailing limbs around him.

He passes the minigun mutant by. The creature isn't much of a threat, considering Gallow's second shot has all but vaporized its face. Its weapon abandoned, the blinded mutant stumbles around until it makes a missed step and falls right off of the skyway and into the street below. A small mercy snaps the abomination's neck when it hits the ground.

The third mutant, the last mutant, screams in anger as Gallows smacks its launcher aside. The creature's body is peppered with shrapnel from the explosion and its injured bulk makes it a perfect target.

At close range, even the most injured super-mutant can still pose a threat. Gallows knows this. He's made his mistakes when it comes to fighting mutants, but he's always the one to walk away. He knows mutants better than he knows himself.

So when the massive green fist swings out at him, Gallows knows to duck. When the mutant over-extends its attack, Gallows steps inside of its reach. When it bellows down at him in anger, Gallows draws his pistol and places the silenced barrel into the creature's mouth.

There's a startled look on the monster's eyes just before Gallows pulls the trigger. He can feel the kick of the large pistol and hear the sound of the buzzing bullet as it rips through the mutant's head. The abomination's brains fountain into the air and drizzle on his armor. Gallows lets the body fall to the ground and silently holsters his pistol.

"Nice work," Sarah says over the radio. Gallows looks down and sees the Pride taking position on the street below. Sarah waves up at him.

He nods back. "Meet you down there momentarily, Sentinel. Going to strip these bodies before we head out. Missiles for Glade."

The Paladin laughs over the comm. "Music to my ears, Gallows. See if you can't grab that minigun ammo while you're up there."

Gallows walks back across the skyway and retrieves his laser rifle. He takes a moment to admire the weapon before moving to search the corpses.

"Understood, Paladin. Gallows out."

"Big ol' sons a'bitches," Gabriel mutters.

He's watching the super mutants through Arkansas' scope. He's prone, having squeezed himself between a pair of large, dusty rocks in order to camouflage himself. The afternoon sun beats down on him, but it doesn't bother him in the slightest. Hell, the heat of the sun is practically an old friend at this point.

He takes a moment to look from side to side, scanning for any threats on the horizon before turning slightly to look back over his shoulder. It won't do to get ambushed again, no sir.

"Could use a spotter," he mutters. "Sho'nuff."

Back to the super mutants. They're big, lumbering things, yellow-green skin stretched over muscle. Grimaces set with blunt, yellow teeth. Angry, beady eyes that show a layer of rage over a core of stupidity. Each one is wrapped in armor made out of scrap metal, car parts and abused, rusted hardware.

There are four of the monsters, all of them meandering around the church and its cemetery with big, plodding steps. One is considerably bigger than the others, wearing a crested helmet made out of rusty metal strips. The big one is also better armed and armored than the rest. There's an assault rifle strapped across the monster's broad back and its figure is covered by larger, thicker plates of metal.

All the smaller mutants are armed as well. Two of them have hunting rifles, while the third has a bloody sledgehammer tucked under its arm and a pair of grenades at its waist.

Gabriel understands why the idiots- people back at Big Town have had so many problems with the super mutants. Even at a distance they are imposing, large and apparently unafraid of milling about in the open. Even raiders, as stupid as they are, generally have an air of caution about them. Not these things. No, they act like pre-war lions on a savanna. Apex predators, bored until their next hunt.

He studies the mutants from afar, not willing to engage until he deems it necessary. They're dug in well, probably an advance camp before Germantown, if Kimba's directions are anything to go by. The freaks have set up barriers and marked their territory. Large pieces of industrial steel, mainly support beams that have been sliced up and planted into the ground to make spiked barricades. Gabriel marvels a little at the strength it must have taken to drag steel steel beams all this way and then bury them into the earth without construction equipment or vehicles to tow the beams.

Even more unsettling than the barricades are the piles of gore Gabriel can see scattered around the ruins of the church. Some of them are wrapped in bags made out of chain-link fences, others sit out baking in the sun. It's disgusting what the super mutants have done. He-

Gabriel sucks in a breath when one of the gore piles he's been looking at suddenly moves and begins dragging its hideous, bloated form across the ground.

"What in hell?" the wanderer breathes. The monster he's identified is more grotesque than anything he's ever seen before. Like something out a nightmare, the carcass drags itself through the dirt with several misshapen limbs that look like human arms. Bits of broken and misshaped bone have punched their way out of the abomination at irregular intervals, and the flesh itself is the reddish-pink of exposed and filthy muscle The front of the creature rises from its slumped form and...

It used to be human, Gabriel realizes, horrified. It's... that's a human torso at the front. Armless. Eyeless. Oh god...

It only gets worse. Three horrid, writhing tentacles suddenly burst from the fleshy abomination's mouth. The tentacles twist through the air like the tongues of some eldritch horror. It shuffles along, tentacles guiding it forward like a blind man's cane.

Gabriel nearly vomits. He's done a lot of things and seen a lot of things that would make any man's gorge rise, but he's managed to keep himself composed. This... this is the worst thing he's ever seen. The abomination before him elicits an instinctive disgust and anger more prevalent than anything he's ever felt in his life. Whatever it might have been, the centaur-like creature needs to die.

Then, as if to add to his anger, he spots a second centaur digging its tentacles into a gore bag.

Six freaks in total, if he includes the super mutants. He's only got five rounds in Arkansas' clip. Not enough to snipe all of them in one go. Still, he might be able to keep them disoriented long enough to manage a reload.

Gabriel sets his sights on the biggest super mutant, the one with the heavy armor and the assault rifle. He holds in a breath, waits for his sights to settle, then pulls the trigger.

The mutant's head doesn't explode so much as it erupts, bits of flesh and metal flying everywhere. Each of the monster's limbs follows suit, that strange bloody mess Gabriel seems to affect on his targets, but he doesn't have time to think about it. One of the mutants cries out in anger, but they haven't spotted him yet.

Thank god for this silencer, Gabriel thinks as he blows a mutant's throat apart. The monster falls to the ground, its hunting rifle clattering beneath it. The other two mutants and their centaur watchdogs are moving with purpose now, searching for the hidden sniper.

Still in the open, you idiots. He takes careful aim and snipes the sledgehammer mutant's grenade. The penetration and friction of the shot is enough to set the explosive off. The mutant explodes with a satisfying bang.

Down to three freaks left, Gabriel lines up his sights on one of the centaur creatures. Its tentacle/tongues squirm through the air as it quickly shuffles around and searches for its target. It's almost as though the abomination is tasting the air in order to-

Gabriel's instincts are what save him. The centaur suddenly turns its bulk and spits a wad of acid from the center of its tentacled maw. The brown-green bile flies through the air with lethal swiftness before striking at the rock on Gabriel's left. The stone bubbles and sizzles from the impact. Gabriel quickly stands and rolls out of the way as another gob of acidic spit strikes ground where he was once prone.

His movement doesn't go unnoticed, and he can hear the triumphant cry from the remaining super mutant and the crack of its hunting rifle. The monster's aim is horrible as its large hands are unable to properly sight the small rifle. Having to shoot from the hip doesn't diminish the mutant's enthusiasm, however, and it bellows a mocking cry as it fires again, the second shot wider than the first.

Gabriel, for his part, rolls behind a large rock and switches Arkansas for his assault rifle. The mutant is only a problem if it gets close, but he can hear the splash of acid on the other side of his rock. The centaurs are unnervingly accurate with their spitting.

He takes a moment to breathe before shifting to lean out of cover. He'll deal with the big one first, then the spitters. It's-


Gabriel's eyes go wide as he realizes that the mutant is charging. It's only a few steps away, its rifle held over its head like a club.

He rolls back just as the butt of the rifle swings down. The mutant howls in anger, spittle flying out of its mouth in frothy torrents. It's hate-filled eyes follow the human's movements and it charges again, swinging the hunting rifle like a baseball bat.

Gabriel dodges a pair of blows and tries to bring up his assault rifle to shoot the mutant in the face, but the monster is simply too quick in its assault. He settles for shooting the abomination in its left knee. Blood flies out of the wound and the mutant screams its pain, but it amazingly remains standing.

It's as though the gunshot has triggered some kind of berserk reflex. The mutant charges in, its impromptu cudgel forgotten, and slams into Gabriel with all the grace of a runaway mail car.

The breath is gone from Gabriel's lungs before he can even process the attack. His assault rifle flies from his grip and he hit sends him sprawling into the dirt several feet away from his attacker. He blinks once. Twice. Holy crap.

"ME KILL YOU!" the mutant screams as its lumbers forward, tossing its rifle aside. It closes quickly, intent on smashing the meal that has killed its kin. Each step brings with it the sound of a heavy footfall. It's this rumbling, stomping sound that rouses Gabriel from his stunned stupor long enough to realize that death is as close as it's ever been.

He rolls weakly out of the way as the mutant's booted foot stamps down. Still sprawled in the dirt, Gabriel lashes out with Fisto!, the power fist's pneumatics hissing as the impact plate catches the abomination's ankle. The blow would have been weak if not for the power fist, as Gabriel is still desperately trying to gain both his breath and footing.

Still, Fisto!'s impact is still enough to shatter the bones in the mutant's foot. Coupled with its bullet-ridden knee, the green titan finally staggers, enough for Gabriel to rise to his feet, take a deep breath, and swing Fisto! in an uppercut.

One moment the monster is there in front of him. The next, everything in Gabriel's field of vision goes red as the mutant explodes, showering the young man in putrid ropes of stinking gore. Gabriel swears loudly as he is coated in a fine layer of red and is rewarded with a mouthful of hot blood for his trouble. Swearing and spitting, Gabriel wipes his eyes (the fingers also sticky with blood and doing a poor job of cleaning the mess) and looks around for his assault rifle. He spots the gun nearby and instinctively moves to grab it, knowing he still has the centaur creatures to deal with.

Sure enough, Gabriel has only a moment to catch his breath and calm himself before the centaurs drag themselves into view. Their tentacle tongues thrash with agitation and they are quick to assault the human with their acidic spit.

Gabriel dodges the deluge and rolls into a marksman's crouch. A pair of three-round-bursts to the head are enough to kill the closest centaur and the bullets rip through the creature and a pair of its tentacles. The monster slumps to the ground, its awful body stilled at last.

The last abomination continues to drag itself toward Gabriel, but a burst of sustained fire is enough to put the centaur down. As the last of the fighting dies down, Gabriel takes a deep breath and checks the surrounding area. The last thing he wants is to be ambushed now, especially after all that effort.

"Covered in blood," he mutters, as though the warmth of the gore that's coated his front isn't reminder enough. The wanderer sets his rifle on the ground and digs into his rucksack with one hand while he wipes away the muck on his face with the other. His bag-occupied hand surfaces with the rag he used earlier, still damp from its previous usage. The stained bit of cloth smells a little, but wasteland beggars can't be choosers.

"That's twice today," he snarls as wets the rag once more. "Damn everything."

Gabriel wipes himself down as well as he can, knowing that he'll need more than just a quick wipe in order to get the red stains out of his armor. Still, after getting most of his skin cleared and squeezing what gore he can out of his well-soaked hair, Gabriel assembles his gear and is ready to move on the church itself, if only to see if any of Big Town's residents have been taken to the super mutant encampment.

He wants to take samples from the monsters, if only to see exactly what they are/might have been, but time isn't on his side. The gore bags that litter the outpost are a very prominent reminder as to what the super mutants are capable of. The hostages take priority this time.

Priority, he thinks. Sure. Whatever that means. You don't care.

He jogs past the corpses of the freshly dead abominations, only stopping by the large, brutish one in order to secure a few rounds for his assault rifle and some working replacement parts. He steps into the ruined church after his quick scavenge and almost vomits right there. The smell of rotting flesh is awful and intense.

The church itself is barely standing aside from the front of the building itself and a few walls. The pews have long since been destroyed and an entire section of the back wall has collapsed inward, exposing the entirety of the building's interior to the mercy of the elements. Walls of peeling paint that might have been white at some point, broken windows with teeth of jagged glass. It's a depressing scene. The house of a dead God in a dead land, smeared with blood and excrement.

A fairly noticeable tripwire catches Gabriel's attention and he disarms it with a quick flick of his combat knife. The drum-fed shotgun it was attached to is his next target and he quickly disassembles the weapon and stuffs the parts into his duffel bag. A few other treasures are found among piles of gore and the shattered masonry. Some additional medical supplies. A Big Book of Science, only a few appendix pages missing. Bullets for his assault rifle, Holly and a trio of grenades. It's a decent haul.

Something moans nearby.

Holly is in his hand before Gabriel even realizes he's reacted to the sound. He shifts his gaze to the rear of the gutted church, on a point where several bags of gore have been piled against the wall that's still standing. He can see a few ramshackle cages made from pre-war shopping carts as well. The mutants might not be any sort of intelligent, but they have certainly adapted to their situation.

Another moan and Gabriel rises from his scavenger's crouch. Pistol held in his left hand, Fisto! ready on the right, Gabriel slowly walks toward the source of the sound. He finds what he's looking for and wishes he hadn't.

"God," he breathes, the sound of his voice lost in the stink of the dead church.

It's a man. Part of one, at any rate. Stripped bare, skin rife with lesions and cuts, the mutant's victim is little more than a torso with a head still attached. There's hardly anything left. Bloodshot eyes roll madly in their sockets and dry, dead lips moan and mumble.

It's easily the most horrible thing Gabriel has ever seen.

They've been eating him, he realizes with a cold, numbing horror. Keeping him alive and cutting off what they wanted, a little at a time. They-

His thoughts are interrupted as his stomach threatens to rebel and unleash its already meager contents onto Gabriel's boots. He sways a little before steadying himself, but the smell of gangrenous flesh and the sheer horror of the situation nearly win out. In the end though, a few deep breaths through his mouth and a steady count to ten are enough to calm the young wanderer down.

The... victim at his feet continues to moan, in pain but not really aware or alive. Whatever the man was, raider or slaver, caravan guard or wandering junk-peddler, there's nothing left but this shell. A husband? A father? A son? Gabriel will never know.

He kneels close to the torso and sighs heavily. "Sorry," he mutters, as though that somehow makes up for the suffering that radiates off of the man. "I'll make it quick. Least I can do."

He presses Holly's cold barrel against the flesh of the prisoner's forehead and pulls the trigger, a hand held up to block the swift spatter of warm blood that jumps up toward his face. The limbless body stills quickly, the corpse finally catching up with the mind.

It's a lesson brutally learned. There are horrors out in the Wasteland that Gabriel is only just discovering, and the things they are capable of are more than enough to make him physically ill.

Can't dwell on it, the voice in his head states. Have to move on. Have to get out there, take these things down. Save the hostages if we can. Eliminate the threat either way.

He exits the church without a word, leaving the corpses to rot in the sun.

The sun beats down on Sarah's head, but it's a nice feeling. It feels like victory.

A successful run with no casualties. She can't really ask for anything more than that. Well, there's the mess of dead super mutants, but that's always just the icing on the proverbial cake.

They're at the outskirts of the Jefferson Memorial, resting down by the banks of the Potomac. The river itself is still relatively unmolested this close to the mouth of the Atlantic, but every drop of water it contains is irradiated. Toxic water or not, the sound of water flowing down to the coast is more than enough to lighten her mood and wash away some of the adrenaline she's built up.

She pings Gallows' radio. The Knight-Captain is scouting ahead, dealing with the few super mutants left on the road to Rivet City. Sarah can see the damaged aircraft carrier turned city in the distance. The sounds of people working can be heard even from where she's at. Rivet City is one of the few settlement in the Wasteland that is considered safe from super mutant incursions, even though the aircraft carrier is located at the very edge of the DC ruins. There are over 500 people living aboard the derelict ship and that number grows daily as more people seek refuge within the aging vessel.

"Gallows," she says quietly. "All good on your end?"

"Nearly finished," he buzzes back. She hears a single laser blast on his end of the radio. "Finished. Route should be clear. Left a few surprises if they decide to come back."

"Good work, regroup up with us and we'll head back to the Citadel."

"Understood. Back in five. Gallows out."

Sarah cradles her rifle in her hands and watches as Glade and Dusk do quick maintenance checks on their weapons. Jennings and Redding are arguing over which of them has the higher kill-count. Vargas approaches slowly, a thin smile on his humorless face.

"Congratulations, Sentinel," the Paladin-Commander says, standing next to Sarah as he looks out over the bay. "Can't ask for a better run than that. They did well."

Sarah smiles and elbows Vargas lightly. "They have your recommendation, then?"

A snort of disbelief slips past Vargas' lips. "Hardly. They've got a ways to go before they're even close to Pride-worthy."


"But they did good. They follow orders and didn't give me any grief. That's as good a starting point as any."

Sarah looks over her shoulder at the Initiates. Redding reaches out and pushes Jennings' chestplate, forcing him back a step. Jennings swears loudly and retaliates, pushing on Redding's chestplate.

"So much for the lack of grief," Vargas sighs as he angrily stomps off toward the Initiates, barking threats and accusations of stupidity. Sarah chuckles a little and shifts her gaze back to the sunlight glinting off of the dirty water.

She takes in a deep breath and closes her eyes. How long has it been since she's just looked out on the water like this? Months, at least. It was always Cain's favorite way to spend down time. Just sitting up on the Citadel ramparts, looking out over the ocean.

"Just look out at all that," he'd say, a far away look in his eyes. "I bet it goes on forever."

"World's flat, Nathan," she'd retort, a dry smile on her lips.

He'd tap two fingers against the side of his head, grinning at her as he did so. "Not in here," he'd say softly, "In here, the ocean goes on forever. In here, nothing ever ends. Not that water. Not you. Not me."

Looking out at the water now, Sarah wishes that it was true.

She sighs heavily and cracks her neck to one side. She can dwell on it later, after her Pride is back at the Citadel in one piece.

"All right," she says into her radio. Every eye turns her way. Every ear is trained on her voice, her orders. "Gallows will be back momentarily. We're off as soon as he gets back. Make your gear checks quick."

And they do. It's not surprising, really.

She is the boss, after all.

Red hopes that the mutants will kill her quickly, if nothing else.

She knows it's only been a few hours since her abduction, but a few hours is more than enough time to lose hope when hope isn't something she's felt in years. No, helplessness and fear have been her only companions since leaving Little Lamplight.

Shorty, from his cell a few paces away, has been silent since running out of curses. They're the only ones left. No words of comfort pass between the friends, even though they have known each other most of their lives. There's only the silence of impending death and the stink of fear, along with the occasional heavy stride of a patrolling super mutant.

Speaking of super mutants.

One of the monstrosities stomps into the room and the floor trembles beneath each tread. Red recognizes the mutant as the leader of the group, as it's the biggest mutant she's ever seen. It actually has to crouch and shift its body in order to fit through the large doorway. The mutant itself is all but wrapped in metal. Large sheets of it have been carved up and layered across its torso and legs like some kind of junkyard samurai. Its arms are uncovered save for a pair of large metal strips wrapped around its lower knuckles; makeshift steel knuckledusters. Its boots are stinking brahmin hide and are festooned with the clattering skulls of human, animal and mutant victims. Red can see the rusted handle of a super sledge sticking behind the mutant's right shoulder.

The mass of metal and muscle stomps toward her cage, staring at her with the usual super mutant grimace. The monsters seem incapable of making any other kind of expression. Still, it's eyes do more than enough to show Red what the super mutant is feeling.

It's hungry.

"Not eat you," the mutant declares after a moment of staring and heavy mouth-breathing. "You make good us. We put you in green stuff. Make you us." With that said, the mutant walks away, radroaches scattering as it plods across the room to Shorty's cell.

The previously silent young man all but bursts into loud, obnoxious protest. "Oh no," the small human says, backing away from the bars. "No way, freak show. Go suck a deathclaw's talons, I'm not some snack for you to munch on."

The mutant's disgusting tongue slathers across its yellowed teeth. "Snack... little human make good snack. Crunch on bones!" It reaches out with both of its massive hands and rips the cell door off of its hinges.

To Shorty's credit, the young human does try to make a run for it. He dances away from the mutant's reaching hand and aims for a bit of space between the abomination's side and the cell door. Unfortunately, a giant hand snatches him off of the ground before he makes it more than a few steps.

Red buries her face in her hands and begins to weep. It's all over. She's alone and afraid, helpless. She can hear Shorty's curses as the mutant drags him away, down into the bowels of the hellish police station. She continues to weep even after Shorty's protests are no longer audible. She continues to weep, to blur her already blurry vision with tears, because she can't do anything else.

She's still crying when the station's alarms begin to blare, each klaxon like the bellow of an angry god.

Hope to God this works, Gabriel thinks.

The trio of mutants outside were a challenge, but he's learned quick that luring the monsters into killzones and traps are the way to go when putting super mutants down. The massive amount of fencing in front of the Germantown Police HQ, a pre-war attempt to funnel quarantine victims and refugees, had been used to lure the mutants one by one into the sights of his sniper rifle. And one by one, Arkansas' cough had blown their brains out all over the ruined sidewalks.

Now he's in the thick of it though. Not much light, not much room to maneuver. Both Arkansas and his assault rifle have been strapped to his back. His sidearms are comfortable at his sides, ready for use if the situation demands it. He's reassembled one of the drum-fed combat shotguns and has it cradled in his grip as the klaxons blare overhead, startling the radroaches and setting off a chorus of confused super mutant shouts.

At least three up here, he thinks as he readies himself in the center of the dispatch room. Gabriel takes cover behind an old bar-height counter that's covered in old computers and layers of dust. Super mutants apparently have little to do with tech outside of weapons and explosives. He's already disabled a few landmines on his journey into the building, and he's re-armed them and placed the mines within the doorways of the room he's in. Both entrances covered, Gabriel waits for the mutants to stumble into his trap.

Sure enough, he can hear the thundering footfalls of a super mutant on approach. A smaller specimen with a sledgehammer, the mutant all but bursts into the room from the doorway at Gabriel's left. In response, the landmine blows both of its legs off. The rest of the body flops into the air in a gesture as comical as it is gory. It lands with a thud in the shattered doorway and stills.

Another bellow splits the air, this time from the opposite doorway. The mine goes off just as the mutant gets a bead on Gabriel, this one larger and holding an assault rifle. The explosion sets something off on the brute, likely a grenade or two, and the entire mutant disappears in a bang of shrapnel and gore, its weapon spinning across the room like a propeller.

The klaxon blares one last time before shutting off.

Two down, one to- Gabriel raises his shotgun. There you are.

He waits until the monster shuffles its way through the doorway before standing and firing. The mutant, who has been navigating its bulk past the corpse of its fellow in the left doorway, doesn't even get a chance to look up before it meets a spread of buckshot with the greater portion of its head. Gore and brain matter paint the ceiling and the lifeless body drapes itself over its deceased kin.

He takes a moment and breathes deep. His nose savors over the smell of blood and spent gunpowder. He knows what's happening. The rush of killing, the adrenaline, his body is reacting to the stimuli in an encouraging way. He can imagine the synapse connections forming, building stronger bridges between memory and reflex, honing his killing skills with everything he learns.

Pick up the pace, Gabe-my-boy. People to save, places to be.

The voice in his head prompts him onward. Gabriel moves gingerly past the exploded brute, grabbing some assault rifle ammo on the way. A few shots from his laser pistol are enough to scare off the radroaches as he slinks through the rubble. He half expects mutants to ambush him at every turn, he's caused no small amount of damage, after all, but none do. There's nothing but the scurrying of radroaches and the occasional crumble of centuries-old mortar.

Shotgun ready in his hands, Gabriel slowly sneaks deeper into the building, his eyes scanning each room he passes. They're empty, for the most part. A few gore bags tucked into the corners, surrounded by buzzing flies. The hallway he's in is dark save for a few flickering lights. At the end of the hall is a door, the one he tried to pick from the outside (unsuccessfully). He-

Jail cells.

They're off to his right, and he can see someone in the cell closest to the door. The figure is curled into a ball in the corner to Gabriel's right, and he can hear muted sobs coming from the prisoner's form.

He moves in slowly, cautious. He has no idea what the prisoner is capable of, or even if he or she is stable. He taps the barrel of his shotgun against the metal bars. "Hey," he says, softly enough that it's a whisper but loud enough so it can be heard. "Hey, you in there. You okay?"

The prisoner stops mid-sob and goes still for a moment. Very slowly, it raises its head and looks out at him.

"Are you..." she sobs. He knows it's a she just by the sound of her voice. "Are you real?"

She moves toward him a little and the light catches her form. Young woman, dark skin. Brown eyes stained red with tears. Dark hair cropped short. A red jumpsuit over a white t-shirt. Kimba's friend Red, Big Town's resident medic.

"I'm real," he asserts, rising from his crouch. He reaches into a pouch on his belt and pulls out a pair of weathered but well-cared-for eyeglasses. He holds them out to her, his hand reaching between the bars.

"I'm here to get out you, Red."

She stares at him. Red can't believe what's happening. For a minute she wonders if he's just a figment of her imagination, a vision come to console her as she slips into madness.

But, as he reaches through the bars, her glasses in his outstretched fingers, a glimmer of hope shines through dark clouds of fear that have built up around her mind.

She takes the glasses and quickly slips them onto her face. Everything is so much clearer now.

Red blinks back the tears that threaten to form and gets a good look at her rescuer. He's young, probably around her age, with a dark mop of unsettled black hair. He's wearing a suit of bloodstained combat armor and Red can see at least five different weapons on him. There's a power fist on his right arm and some kind of wrist computer on his other. His eyes, bright blue and severe, fix her own. Something about him is more frightening than the super mutants.

The soft authority of his voice snaps Red out of her staring. "Do they keep a key around or something? Not much of a rescue if you're stuck behind bars."

Her voice nearly breaks when she speaks, but she manages to keep a semblance of calm. Talking to an actual person is helping. "I was out cold when they brought us here. When I woke up I was already locked in here. I don't know if there's a key or if one of them is carrying it. The big one busted down Shorty's door in order to get to him." She points at the crumpled remains of the cell door.

"I'll see if I can pick the lock," her rescuer says as he reaches into a pouch at his belt and pulls out some bobby pins. "Though if the last door I tried to pick is any indication of the lock-strength in this place, I'll probably have to tear down the door myself."

Red watches in silence as the young man fumbles to pick the lock, swearing under breath as he breaks one pin and then a second. The third time is the charm, and Red's rescuer slides her cell door open with a grunt. "C'mon," he says, urgency in his voice. "We need to get you back to town. This place isn't safe."

Red nods and follows him out of the cell. Freedom is all she can think about as she steps past the door the had once confined her. Tears begin pouring down her face and there's nothing she can do to stop them.

Her rescuer notices and his gaze hardens. "Christ... keep it together, Red. Neither of us will get out alive if you lose it."

Red wipes her tears onto her sleeve. "Sorry, I just... Sorry."

Her rescuer sighs and shakes his head. "It's fine. Just keep quiet, stay close, do everything I tell you and we'll make it out of here." He looks down at the shotgun in his arms and then at the assault rifle on his back. "You know how to use a gun?"

Red nods silently. She's almost dumbstruck when he grudgingly hands over his combat shotgun. "Take it. It's got eleven more shells in the drum. I've got another two drums in my bag if you need them. You lose it and you'll regret it, understood?"

"Yeah, I get it." She takes the shotgun from his hands and watches as he quickly pulls the assault rifle from his back. "Who are you?" she asks, still somewhat dumbfounded that she's actually being rescued.

"Gabriel Matthews. Kimba and the others sent me. You're all that's left, I take it?"

"They killed Crunchy and Bigshot," she says, tears threatening the edges of her eyes. "They took Shorty a few minutes ago. Then the alarm went off... was that you?"

Gabriel nods. "Useful distraction. I didn't see your friend anywhere, but I did see a staircase that lead to a basement or sub-level. Think they might have taken him down there?"

"They killed Bigshot up here," she states, "But I think it was an accident. I heard Crunchy screaming from somewhere below. It's probably where they took Shorty. I haven't... haven't heard him scream."

"Might be alive," Gabriel mutters, as though mulling over the idea in his head. After a moment of silence, he locks eyes with Red once more. "Okay, we'll see if your friend is still among the living. I killed three mutants outside and three inside. How many more are there?"

Red's hands shake a little, but the weight of the shotgun in her grip is a comfort. "A raiding party left about an hour ago, at least six of them. I could hear them stomping outside. If you killed the ones outside and the ones on this floor, then I think there's only the big one left."

"Big one?"

"It's huge," Red explains, her hands gripping tightly around the shotgun. "Massive, bigger than the others. I think it's the one in charge. It had to duck just to fit through the doorway and it had one of those super sledges on its back."

Gabriel curses quietly and looks at the computer on his wrist. "Okay, here's the plan. We go down, see if your friend is alive, then if we can, we grab him and make for Big Town. Understood?"

Red nods quickly, though fear is heavy in her eyes. "Got it. I'll follow you." She makes to follow but stops mid-step as a thought crosses her mind. "What happens if we come across the big one?"

He levels a gaze at her, one that screams 'You're kidding, right?' and holds his assault rifle in the crook of his arm. "Simple. We kill it."

She shakes her head, eyes closed. "It's not that easy. It's all muscle and armor. I don't think there was an inch of it that wasn't covered in metal."

Gabriel checks the clip on his rifle. "Anything over its face?"

"No, but it was wearing a metal helmet. Look, we can't just-"

"Then I'll shoot it in the face," Gabriel declares, some vehemence entering his voice. "We don't have time to debate this, Red. Either we look for your friend or we leave him behind. Are you in or what?"

She considers protesting, but then remembers that Shorty wouldn't have hesitated in the slightest if he knew there was a chance at rescuing one of his friends. That foreign feeling, hope, rises through her and shines behind her eyes.

The two humans slowly make their way through the ruined building and down toward the staircase to the sub-level. Gabriel forces himself to move slower in order to allow Red to keep pace. She's breathing heavily, the poor thing. Scared out of her mind, likely.

"Breathe through your nose," Gabriel instructs, his voice barely a whisper. "Calm down and breathe through your nose."

Red follows Gabriel's instructions and starts breathing through her nostrils. She's a little shocked by how much quieter she is after doing so. She does her best to follow Gabriel's pace of steady silence, but rubble and her own nervousness make it a difficult endeavor.

The humans slowly make their way down the set of stairs leading to the basement. Gabriel holds his assault rifle at the ready and Red marvels at how he can keep his upper body so still while his legs shift and bend beneath him as he moves in a low crouch. Red has a hard enough time staying crouched while she moves and the heavy shotgun in her hands isn't helping the situation. Before she realizes it, they're at the door.

"Keep it quiet," Gabriel tells her. She nods in confirmation and he slowly pushes the door open.

The smell hits her like the swat from a super mutant. It's beyond awful, the sickening odor of rotting flesh and the ammonia-heavy stink of fecal matter. Either one of those smells is enough to make Red queasy, but the two combined is enough to make her pitch forward, the contents of her stomach rising in response.

There's a hand over her mouth just as she starts to wretch. At first Red panics, thinking that her rescuer is trying to kill her as the vomit pools in her mouth and sprays out between her lips, but then she realizes that his fingers are splayed so as to let the bile pass between them.

"It's okay," Gabriel reassures her, even while she expels the contents of her stomach into his hand. "Just let it out. Let it out but keep quiet."

Red nods just as another wave of nausea overcomes her. A fresh jet of vomit rises in her throat and sprays out between his fingers. Through the eye-watering haze of sickness, Red can see Gabriel's face. There's no disgust there, to her numbed surprise. No judgement. It's like he expected this to happen.

A few dry heaves later and Gabriel finally pulls his hand away. Red slumps to the ground, shotgun in her lap, dizzy from the experience.

After a moment's rest, she looks up at Gabriel, who is wiping the vomit from his hand and power fist with a damp cloth. That same bland expression is on his face and he's acting as though nothing has happened. He discards the rag when he's done and pulls a fresh one out of his bag before handing it to Red.

"Clean yourself up," he says quietly. She takes the rag and wipes the sick off of her face and the front of her jumpsuit. Her hands are shaking as she cleans herself, but Red manages to calm down after she focuses on the cleanup. Once she's done, she meekly hands the rag back to Gabriel, who tosses it aside like he did with the other.

"No point keeping that thing around," he states, his voice still low. He looks at Red expectantly and then pulls a bottle of water and a handful of brahmin jerky out of his bag. "Spit the first mouthful to get the taste out of your mouth," he instructs as he hands the bottle over. "Drink as much as you need to after that. Once you're done, I'll give you some of the jerky."

Red obliges silently. After a quick spit she gulps down the water with reckless abandon, pausing only to hand the empty bottle back to her rescuer. She receives three strips of jerky for her trade and quickly munches them down.

He allows Red a few more moments to compose herself before suggesting that they move on and Red nods in confirmation. Gabriel reaches into his bag once more (she's starting to wonder if he's got every useful thing in the wasteland tucked into its confines) and pulls out a box of old flu masks. He hands one to her before donning one himself. Red slips the mask over her mouth and almost immediately begins to feel better now that the smell of the place has been deadened somewhat. She follows Gabriel's slow crouch and the pair steer themselves through the remains of an old firing-range, lights flickering and floor covered in gore, blood and mutant waste. Radroaches scurry about on clicking legs, diving into the piles of filth with insectoid glee. Red keeps her gaze firmly rooted on the space between Gabriel's shoulders. She certainly doesn't want to be sick now, not with a mask over her mouth.

Her gaze fixed on her rescuer, Red is quick to stop when Gabriel halts in his advance and holds up a hand. Perfectly still, Red can hear voices from further into the basement. One of them is brutish and snarling. The other-

"That's Shorty!" she exclaims, almost forgetting to keep her voice down. Gabriel turns back to glare at her and she immediately looks away. "He... I almost didn't think he'd be alive," she whispers.

She looks back up at Gabriel and he nods, almost apologetic. "Keep quiet and we'll get your friend out. Follow me." He moves on an Red is quick to follow, at least as quick as she can be while still retaining some semblance of stealth.

Red follows an incredibly patient and quiet Gabriel down a dark hallway. She can hear the voices ahead, each word adding to her already increasing sense of urgency. She can make out the words now the grunting from the mutant and the protests of her friend.

"-tons of body parts laying around," Shorty states, his voice somewhat panicked. "Why don't you just eat some of those?"

"Not fresh," the mutant grunts, as though perplexed by the idea of having a conversation with a potential meal. "Not tasty like fresh meat. No, you better. Make better snack. Tasty."

A flash of Shorty's usual mouth surfaces for a brief moment. "I hope you choke on my bones, you big shit-for-brains."

Red gulps silently as the mutant's roar fills the air. "YOU SHUT UP NOW!"

They're close now, Red and Gabriel. She can see the mutant's flickering shadow coming from the room ahead. A moment later she gets a glimpse of the abomination's back. Gabriel sees it as well and stops, trading his assault rifle for the large handgun holstered under his arm.

"Oh god," Shorty exclaims, his words accented by shaky fear. "Kill me quick, at least. For fuck's sake! Don't do to me what you did to the others!"

The mutant laughs, slowly and horribly, as Gabriel reaches the doorway. He holds his pistol firmly in his left hand, power fist tight and ready in his right. Red watches as her rescuer stands in the doorway, pistol pointed between the monster's shoulder blades.

"Hey ugly," Gabriel says loudly. Red watches as the mutant swings around, only to find itself staring down the barrel of the .45. Its eyes widen in rage just before Gabriel fires three times directly into the monster's face. The mutant's head explodes after the second shot, the third is just to make sure the bastard is actually dead.

The massive corpse falls to the ground with a heavy thud. Gabriel keeps his pistol raised, searching for more targets, but there's only the busy scurrying of the radroaches.

Red's rescuer looks over his shoulder at her and nods, holstering his pistol. "All clear." It's all she needs to hear in order to proceed into the next room, shotgun cradled in her arms.

Red looks around the room and sees Shorty on his knees, hands tied behind his back with a bit of old rope. He's filthy and one of the straps on his overalls have popped free, but he's alive and no worse for wear. He looks up at her, disbelief etched into his face like it's been written there. "What's with the masks?" he mutters, as though the lack of impending death is a disappointment.

Red nods through the tears in her eyes. "We're going home, Shorty."

He sighs heavily and takes a deep breath. "Not the most thrilling thing to hear, considering what home is like, but I'll take it. Let's get the hell out of here."

Gabriel yanks his combat knife from his boot with his right hand and cuts the filthy rope binding Shorty's wrists. The young man (Shorty can't be any older than Gabriel is), rises to his feet, Red holding out an arm for support. He's a disheveled mess, all in all. There are dark lines under his eyes from either stress or lack of sleep (or both, if the status of Big Town is any indicator), and his clothes, a white shirt and a pair of dirty grey overalls over old black work boots, are filthy. His hair has been trimmed into a ridiculously tall flat-top, probably to add a few inches to his abysmal height. All in all, Red's young friend doesn't look like much of anything, certainly not anything worth risking his life over.

So it's with some irritation that Gabriel hands his assault rifle over to the pipsqueak along with a pair of clips. "Keep close, check your shots and conserve ammo. You lose this gun or damage it in any way and I'll make sure you regret it. You understand?"

The diminutive wastelander nods and accepts the proffered weapon and ammo. "Don't worry about me," he exclaims. "I was part of the scav team when me and Red lived in Little Lamplight. I know what I'm doing."

"I'm worried about my gun," Gabriel states as he ejects the clip on his pistol and adds a few rounds to it. "Now, if we're all done here, let's get you two back to Big Town. This place isn't getting any safer."

A cocky Shorty racks the slide on Gabriel's assault rifle and nods. "All right, let's move out!"

He jogs out of the room without another word. Red quickly turns to Gabriel, a worried look in her eyes. "You're just going to let him run off?"

Gabriel shakes his head. "Wait for it," he says flatly.

Red listens for a moment and then-

"Oh god, who did this?"

The sound of Shorty's retching fills the air as he upends his stomach in the next room. The whisper of a smile curls the right side of Gabriel's mouth and Red glares at him with disdain. "Was that really necessary?" she snaps as the two of them make to follow Shorty's advance.

"Not really," Gabriel states as he pulls a flu mask and a fresh rag from his duffel bag.

"But it made me feel a little better," he admits a moment later.

"Feel better now, Sentinel?" Glade asks as the Pride makes its way back through the gates of the Citadel. Gallows is out scouting again, but he'll be back later.

"Much," Sarah says, her laser rifle resting across her shoulders. "I needed that like you wouldn't believe, Glade. I needed to get out there and actually do something."

"That's the spirit," the Paladin says happily, his missile launcher strapped to his back. He's got a pair of ammo boxes cradled under his arms and a quartet of missile reloads bundled together in a bag slung over his shoulder. "Good to bring back a decent haul like this too. Not everyday Gallows stumbles across an ammo dump."

Dusk jogs up alongside Glade and slows her pace. "I'm just glad we had the newbies here to drag the stuff back." She looks over her shoulder at Vargas and the Initiates. "You doing okay back there, Commander?"

"Doing just fine," Vargas says, an ammo box under his left arm. "You should probably ask the newbies that question.

Dusk stifles a laugh as she turns with Sarah and Glade to look at the Initiates. Wearing any suit of power armor, even the outdated T-45d, gives its user a significant increase in strength, so any normal burden attributed to carrying heavy ordinance is marginalized. However, a T-45d is, at its core, an awkward shell of metal. To those who haven't trained with power armor as much as Brotherhood veterans, lugging ordinance can be both tedious to those carrying it and hilarious to those watching. And, being the good sports that they are, the rest of the Pride have generously allowed their Initiates to carry the rest of the ammo stockpile Gallows uncovered.

Redding and Jennings... well it's almost a comedy routine. Each of them is carrying six boxes of ammo and they might as well be juggling rippers with how uncoordinated their movements are. They've been fine up until now, but the slope up to the Citadel's main gate is proving a bit much for the overladen Initiates.

Jennings, ever the optimist, has opted to carry all of his boxes in a tall stack that obscures his vision. Every misstep slip sends the topmost boxes falling to the ground, and every attempt to pick them back up is met with more frustration as the rest of the boxes follow suit. Still, he's making progress, even if it's slow and often interrupted.

Redding is having a better time of it, but not by much. She's got three boxes under each arm, braced between her arms and her sides, and is making her way up the slope to the Citadel one step at a time. It's all she can do to manage the awkward waddle she has to perform in order to make any sort of progress. Each step is matched by a profound swear that is filtered through her helmet speakers.

Sarah, Dusk and Glade do their best to keep themselves contained, but when a stumbling Jennings collides with a shuffling Redding and the pair send ammo boxes flying, it's all the veterans can do to keep from dying of laughter. Even Vargas, that old stoic, offers a small smile and a shake of his head. Redding and Jennings are sprawled in the dirt, tangled together like armored ragdolls. The former is swearing up a storm while the latter is apologizing profusely.

The moment dies down as the Initiates scramble to rise and gather the scattered ammo boxes. Sarah, amusement still evident on her face, whistles sharply. Both Redding and Jennings turn almost instantly, stopping mid-ammo collection.

"Gather up the ammo and head down to the armory. Last one to get sorted with Quartermaster Durga gets armor-cleaning duties. Hop to it."

The Sentinel turns her back on the scrambling Initiates and walks past the ever on-guard Paladin Bael and into the Citadel proper. Dusk and Glade follow, with Vargas bringing up the rear.

Dusk snorts out the last few spurts of laughter before speaking. "You're making this way too much fun, Ma'am."

"I'll second that," Glade says with a chuckle. "I-"

"Eat my ass, Jennings!"

Redding stomps past as quick as she can waddle, her ammo boxes tucked securely under her arms. Behind them, Jennings lets out a mournful wail as he falls over once more and scatters his cargo.

Another bout of laughter washes over the Pride veterans, and Glade can't stay standing this time. He thumps to the ground butt-first, holding his armored sides. "Oh god, no more," the Paladin stammers. "I can't... Just leave me here, Sentinel. I'm not gonna make it." He doubles over again and laughter blares from the speakers of his helmet.

Sarah pulls Glade to his feet even as laughter aches in her chest. "On your feet, Paladin," she chuckles as somewhere behind her Jennings fumbles his ammo boxes once more.

"The day's not over yet."

"Keep you eyes open. We're not out in the clear yet."

Gabriel makes a point of locking eyes with both Shorty and Red as the trio emerges from the innards of the police station. The sun is starting to get low in the sky and they're still a good twenty minutes from Big Town.

Shorty nods and holds Gabriel's rifle steady, his flu mask hanging around his neck in a mimic of what Gabriel and Red have done with theirs. "We've got your back, just lead the way." Red nods her own affirmative and soon the young wastelanders are moving at a slow jog out of the ruins.

Gabriel scans the horizon as he leads his charges toward Big Town. Despite the obvious threat of being out in the open, the wanderer is surprised when nothing rushes to meet the obviously vulnerable group. Their speed only increases when Big Town comes into view. By the time the group reaches the outskirts of the settlement, Shorty and Red are almost sprinting. It's all Gabriel can do to keep up with the pair as they race across Big Town's ramshackle bridge and are hailed by the surprised voices of their neighbors. He strides past a dumbstruck Dusty just in time to see Big Town's residents, still as dirty and bedraggled as they were before, whooping and cheering at the return of their friends. Pappy engulfs Red in a massive hug while Kimba and Flash wrestle over who gets to tousle Shorty's hair.

Gabriel watches, somewhat bemused, as the wastelanders enjoy their moment of happiness. He feels... good isn't really the word. No, this is a feeling of accomplishment, the acceptance that he's done something significant and fulfilling. He's helped these people, for whatever it's worth.

And, surprisingly, it's worth more than he expected.

He smiles lightly as the celebration continues and walks under the shade of a nearby awning, his sniper rifle cradled in his arms. He's content to wait them out for a little while, but he wants his guns back. Well, maybe he'll let Red keep the shotgun. Shorty and the assault rifle? Hell no.

He busies himself with a quick maintenance check of Holly's moving parts before slotting some fresh bullets into the clip. He's got a pair of clips for the .45 at his belt, just in case, but re-using the current clip saves him the effort of needing to scrounge for more later on. Gabriel finishes looking over Holly just as frantic shouting draws him from his quiet moment. Holly is back in her holster in the blink of an eye.

He's instantly on alert when Dusty rushes past, his hunting rifle abandoned at his post. "Big movements!" he shouts at the group of worried settlers. "Big! Headed our way! Oh Christ, we're dead! We're all dead!"

Bastards must have been just behind us, Gabriel thinks. He reaches out and grabs Dusty's arm before pulling him aside. He locks eyes with the frightened imbecile and the fierceness in the wanderer's eyes is enough to scare Dusty into silence.

"Grab your gun and hide," Gabriel snarls. He releases his hold on Dusty and when the lookout doesn't budge, Gabriel's growl transforms into a shout. "Go!"

Dusty snaps out of his stupor and rushes to collect his hunting rifle. Gabriel turns to face the rest of the settlers, all of whom aren't even bothering to try and hide the terror on their faces.

All of them except Red. She's got a semblance of calm going on, at least. "Gabriel..." she whispers.

He cuts her off before she can say anything else. "Red, get everyone someplace safe and out of sight. Keep low. Don't come out until you hear from me, understood?"


"No argument." He shifts his gaze to Kimba and unholsters his laser-pistol. "You ever shoot one of these?"

The dark-skinned woman nods her head. "Had a few in the lockup back at Little Lamplight. I wasn't part of the scav team, but I learned how to shoot."

Gabriel walks over and hands Kimba the gun, as well as a pair of spare energy cells. He's down to just his pistol, Arkansas, his grenades and close quarters weapons. He hopes it will be enough.

"Get moving," he tells the wastelanders. Red silently ushers them into moving and soon the town appears empty.

Gabriel sighs. He'll kill the super mutants, but the people here won't be any safer than they were before. If these people want to survive, he'll have to do something to get them on their feet.

Still, one problem at a time. He checks Arkansas' clip and feels for Holly's reassuring weight under his right arm.

"Looks like we got ourselves a sum'bitchin' mess," he drawls. His eyes find the roof of a nearby house, one with a perfect view of the surrounding landscape.

"Gonna trade us one mess for another, yessir."

She watches from a small space through a boarded up window. The others are hidden away, tucked under beds and inside wardrobes. She should be hiding as well, but she has to see. She has to know he's going to be okay.

"See anything good?" a voice whispers at her shoulder.

Red almost shouts in surprise, but a small part of her recognizes Shorty's voice. Of course he would be the one to ignore Gabriel's order to hide. Not that she can talk, of course.

"Nothing yet," she mutters, trying to keep her voice low. "Just-"

She sucks in a breath as a massive super mutant lumbers into view, looking into the settlement from across the bridge. It's one of the big brutes, the ones who use the heavy weapons. There's a minigun in its hands, already spooling. Another brute sidles up behind its brother, a bloody sledgehammer in its meaty grip.

"Oh god," she whispers.

Something coughs nearby and the minigun mutant's jaw explodes in a mess of gore and splintered bone. The monster hits the ground with a loud thud, its weapon discarded. The sledgehammer mutant roars in anger just before another cough blows its throat out all over the dirty road.

Red watches, dumbstruck, as gunfire rips into the roofing of a nearby building. The other mutants are out of sight, and so is their target, but she can hear their roars of anger. A mutant suddenly rushes across the bridge, a grenade in its hand-

Now or never, he thinks.

Gabriel runs out of cover and jumps off of his rooftop, Arkansas strapped to his back and his right arm pulled back into a powerful punch. It's crazy and almost certainly suicidal, but Arkansas is jammed on a shell casing, (fuckin' thing) and there's no way in hell he can hit a grenade with a shot from Holly.

So, as many dead men have shouted over the years, charge!

Fisto! connects with the monster's arm just as the mutant reaches for the grenade's pin. The limb snaps off just below the shoulder and the majority of it is reduced to a stinking, bloody pulp. The mutant howls just before Gabriel's combat knife, secure in his left hand, buries itself into the monster's throat. The grenade falls from its grip, rolls in the dirt and drops into the nearby moat with a small 'plop'. Its former owner gurgles and dies, the mutant's good hand scrabbling for the blade as its body slumps forward.

Right on top of Gabriel.

The wanderer swears loudly as he falls onto his back, the mutant's weight pinning him on the ground. In his immobilized state there's little he can do to shift under the monster's dead weight. The creature's bulk is considerable and Gabriel can barely move his legs and left arm. There are still three mutants left out of the original six. Two of them have assault rifles and the third is armed with a super sledge. He scrambles with his free hand, reaching for Holly's holster.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck-

A mutant's bellow interrupts the steady stream of mental curses. The armored monster stomps into view, an assault rifle aimed and ready to fire. Gabriel thrashes his head to the left just as a stream of bullets slam into the ground where his face had once been. He shouts angrily through the deafening impact, if only to hear himself through the gunfire. His fingers awkwardly find Holly's grip and he levels the weapon with a quick snap of his wrist. The Holly barks four times; two of her shots got wide but the third and fourth smash into the mutant's chest and face, respectively. The abomination slumps sideways and sprays a burst of gunfire into the air with its dying spasms.

The closest threat neutralized, Gabriel tries his best to shimmy out from under the heavy corpse, but the weight is still too much. Remembering Fisto!, Gabriel lets Holly fall from his grip and punches the corpse with as much leverage as he can manage. While the corpse does shift a little, Gabriel also manages to punch a chunk out of the mutant which then sprays blood and gore all over his face.

Spitting and hacking, Gabriel almost doesn't hear the raging bellows of the last two mutants until he's suddenly pulled out from under the dead mutant and lifted into the air by an inhuman strength. Blinking his way through the gore, Gabriel locks gazes with the hate-filled orbs of the super-sledge mutant. Its massive hand is clenched around his throat and is starting to squeeze.

"YOU DIE!" the mutant roars. Gabriel's answer is a whispered insult followed by a punch in the face from Fisto!

The mutant's head implodes from the force of the impact and sprays the monster lets Gabriel go as its body begins to fall. The wanderer, not willing to be trapped under another one of the dead bastards, steps aside as the corpse hits the ground.

The last mutant swings its rifle to Gabriel and roars. The wanderer remembers that he doesn't have a gun. Point blank. He's dead.


Gunfire splits the air, but from behind. The sound of a combat shotgun rips through the air. An assault rifle chatters from somewhere unseen, matched by the steady zap of a laser pistol.

Each of Gabriel's loaned weapons rip into the final mutant, throwing off the creature's aim just as it fires. Automatic fire rips from its weapon and harmlessly into the air as impact after impact craters the monstrosity. The withering hail of gunfire is neither precise nor disciplined, but the sheer weight of the firepower is enough to force the mutant back, knock it over and finally kill the beast.

Gabriel turns slowly and sees Shorty, Kimba and Red, his weapons in their hands, standing in a semi-arch behind him. They've got smiles on their faces, all three of them, and stand with a cool confidence that hadn't existed before.

Red leans Gabriel's combat shotgun in the crook of her arm and her smile widens into an honest-to-god grin. "I can't tell you how much I needed that."

Kimba lowers the laser pistol in her left hand and wipes the pooling tears from her eyes with the left. "We... we did it? We beat them? All of them?"

Shorty, Gabriel's assault rifle tucked under his right arm, punches the air with a victory fist. "Hell yeah! That's how we do it in Big Town, you dumb green chickenshits! That's how Shorty do, baby! That's how Shorty do!"

Kimba and Red glance at their diminutive companion with some bemusement and suddenly all three of them are laughing like children, overwhelmed by their sense of victory and the relief that goes with it.

Abandoning their hiding places, the other residents of Big Town join their friends in celebration. There's plenty of hollering, happy yelling, tears. It's an almost exact duplicate of the earlier celebration prompted by Red and Shorty's return, but this one has something else. There's hope here, in this moment. Hope for something more. Hope for something better. The people of Big Town are clutching onto it with as much fervor as they can muster, afraid to let even the smallest drop of it go.

Standing there, exhausted and drenched in the stinking blood of at least two abominations, Gabriel has never felt better in his life.

Red sees his smile before anyone else does.

It's in there, hidden by the coat of blood he's wearing, but it's there. She breaks free of the crowd of her friends and walks up to her rescuer, his shotgun cradled in her arms. He's wiping the blood off of his face and out of his hair with reckless abandon.

He looks up in surprise at her approach and she smiles warmly. "You okay?"

"Uh... yeah. I'm fine. Sticky, but fine. Thanks."

She holds out his weapon, an offering from one rescuer to another. "Don't look so shocked, Gabriel Matthews. Here, told you I'd give this back, didn't I?"

He nods, the remnants of the smile still curling the corners of his mouth. "Thanks," he says as he takes the shotgun back. He sets it down on the ground next to him and wrings a few more drops of blood from his hair. "You guys saved my ass back there, no doubt. I appreciate the assist."

Red laughs warmly. "Our pleasure. I'm just glad we were able to help." She glances over his shoulder at the mutant bodies sprawling in the sun. "You were amazing, even when you got stuck under that mutant. I've never seen anybody fight like that, never. How do you do it?"

He shrugs and wipes off a bit more blood from his face. "It's... I guess you could call it instinctual. I just do what I have to do to survive, you know?"

Red shakes her head. "No, I don't know. The things you've done for us... it's pretty incredible. You took down an entire super mutant camp to keep us safe. We'll never be able to repay you."

He waves her off. Mutant blood flicks off of his fingertips. "You don't owe me anything. I said I'd help, and I did."

"Still, thanks. None of us would be alive right now if it wasn't for you."

Gabriel's eyes glance at the nearby mutant bodies. "I'll give you guys a hand getting those things out of here. Heavy suckers. I'm sure I can rig something together so we can drag them. After that we can get everybody looked at, medically, I mean. Plus, you guys could use some target practice. You might've saved me, but that was some piss poor shooting." He laughs a little and Red can see the layers of stress wash off of him.

"You'd do that?" she asks, her voice hitching in her breath.

"Sure," he says, looking a little perplexed by the expression on Red's face. "Hell, give me a place to sleep for the night and I'll give you a hand setting up some better defenses. The mutants just stormed right across that bridge." He pauses for a moment and a glint of something appears in his eyes. "Now that I'm thinking about it..."


"I've got some supplies stored nearby, not an hour's walk from here. There's a lot of stuff, more than I need. Food, water, guns, ammo, you name it. I could bring some of it down here, get you guys better situated. Least I could do for saving my ass like you did. Besides, what would be the point of saving anybody if I just left you in the same state you were in before?"

She has no idea what prompts it, but she throws her arms around the young man and places a desperate kiss on his lips, one she promptly pulls away once she tastes him.

Red takes two steps back and begins spitting profusely. "You taste terrible!" she exclaims, laughing even as grateful tears threaten to stream down her face.

Gabriel, looking not a little stunned, lets out an awkward laugh. In that moment, Red doesn't see him as the tough mercenary that saved her. No, he's just a young man, no older than she is, trying to get by and doing the right thing.

"That'd be the super mutant blood I got in my mouth," he says, smiling a little. "I got most of it out, but the taste is god-awful."

Red returns his smile with her own and tugs on his arm, leading him to her celebrating friends. "C'mon, Mr. Matthews. I'm sure the others will want to thank you as well. Probably not in the same way I just did but hey, you never know."

Gabriel chuckles a little but allows himself to be led. In that moment, he's forgotten all about his wasteland woes, the anger at himself and his father, the uncertainty that has plagued him since leaving the Vault. He's just basking in the accomplishment, the knowledge that he's done something right. There's peace in that, if only a little.

"Can't I get cleaned up first?" he asks, his voice almost lost among the cheering wastelanders.

"I'm a bloody mess, after all."

LM here,

Quick quiz before we get to the notes. Get your pens ready. Here goes:

Gabriel Matthews is engaging a pair of standard super mutants at mid-to close range. One mutant is rushing with a sledgehammer and a grenade, the other is armed with a hunting rifle. Should he:

A. Open fire with his assault rifle?

B. Close with his power fist and combat knife?

C. Shoot the mutant's grenade with his laser pistol?

Answer follows below, after the notes.

So yeah, this one is even later than I predicted. Since I'm always wrong anyway, I suppose it doesn't matter. Hope you enjoyed.

Yay for some Elder Lyons and Star Paladin Cross! I thought it best to introduce her as a cyborg early on, just so we get some context ahead of time. Context for what, you ask? Muahahaha! Seriously though, I enjoyed writing that scene. Elder Lyons is probably my favorite so far, as far as his nature and dialogue are concerned. Also, checkers is srs bsns gais.

Man, Sarah and the Pride are fun to write! Banter between Dusk and Glade (or Glade/anyone else) is turning out to be a blast, and Jennings and Redding are more entertaining than I thought they'd be. Gallows. Dude. The Knight Captain is srs bsns gais.

Centaurs are fucking disgusting. Nuff' said.

I'm surprised by how much Gabriel managed to keep his shit together during this chapter. He didn't treat Red and Shorty like shit and was actually (sort of) motivated to help Big Town. Wow, way to develop without my consent, Gabe-my-boy. Plus, he almost got killed! A few times! Yeah!

Wait, no, there was that Sam Warrick scene. He loses his shit pretty hard there. Daddy issues are in there too, if I remember correctly. Eh, I'm sure I'll find something to balance Gabriel's scales sooner or later. After all, I still have quite a few hammers waiting to drop. Some of them you Fallout fans are already well aware of. Some of them are secrets that I will horde like dragon's gold until they're ready to be released. Secrets is srs- no more of that.

Next chapter should be fun. Probably more character development and less actiony stuff, but that's fine. Also, Dogmeat! WOOO!

Oh, and the answer to the above quiz was letter...


D- As in: Those muties are Dead no matter what GM Does. (C wut I did thar?)

Anyway, that's all for now! Let me know what you guys think. I always look forward to hearing from you. (Reviews is srs bsns gais)

Happy Mother's Day!

Levi Matthews

P.S. There's a Benchwarmers reference and an XCOM: EU reference tucked away in this chapter. Cookies if you spot'em!