Ariadne sprinted down the maze of ravines, thanking whoever it was that watched over the miserable Wastes, for the freak sand storm. Her body was sore from the recent fight with super mutants, but it was worth it to slip away.

Should this escape be foiled as the countless others had-

-which she not about to think about right now-

-her original new owner man hunt plan was still held up in reserve.

Don't get her wrong, it helped a lot to have the hulking body guard at her side, but she liked free will. Not only did 'employing' Charon go against her own personal morals, it was also irritating not to be able to have a choice in the matter.

It had nothing at all to do with the heated session last night. Nope. No relation at all.

The sand and grit began to burn as the wind continuously lashed the solid particles against her skin. Granted, she didn't have much exposed, but her face was starting to feel a little raw. Pulling out some goggles she had stowed from some raider junkie -now rotting in a ditch for half a day at least- she snapped them on before tucking a frayed rag underneath, completing her makeshift mask. She felt the difference immediately, a small sigh of relief escaping her chapped lips. Hunkered down near a sand-smoothed boulder, the lone wanderer darted her grey gaze through the open space. Not that it did her any good. The sand and debris in the air was so thick you couldn't see more than three feet in front of you at any given time.

'Both a blessing and a curse,' Ari thought grimly to herself.

With a smirk back in the direction she had allegedly escaped from, the Vault Kid shouldered her pack and trudged onwards. The wind howling almost in victory.

-o-o-o-

Damn employer was going to be the end of him.

Charon squinted through the storm, the irritating sand doing little to pierce his tough, leathery hide.

His thoughts wandered back to last night. Perhaps it hadn't been a good idea, fuck, not even a great idea, to continue what he had started in his sleep.

But it had been damn satisfying all the same.

Usually his former employers had ordered him around. Sometimes even to perform such sexual acts on themselves or, as Azhrukhal had, on paying customers. But that was just it. He could command his body to do it to fulfill orders. No lust necessary.

Of course he had to release the shortly awakened stirrings for the brief moments afterwards in his downtime.

But this employer... this smoothskin... he couldn't control himself around her. And it had only been two days.

Two fucking days.

She got under his skin. But it wasn't entirely... unpleasant.

Blood still boiling from battle lust from the super mutants started to veer down another path as images flashed before him. Of creamy skin. Silk dark hair. Those sated grey eyes.

The feel of her wet heat.

Wet with need.

Because of him.

Growling, he clenched his fist and shook his head. He needed to focus. To find the smoothskin. His employer.

And, if necessary, take more extreme measures to ensure she couldn't just run off again.

He smirked.

Once he caught her -because there was no question about *if*, but *when*- he knew just what to do.

And the smoothskin wasn't going to like it one bit.

-o-o-o-

Ari avoided any and all rock formations that looked to offer shelter or even a cave. She merely zigzagged her way through the valley, thankfully not running into any beasts or mutants along the way.

It would seriously slow her down, not to mention possibly draw unwanted attention from a certain ghoul.

At the thought of Charon, the lone wanderer frowned. He was an enigma, that one. How could a contract possess someone so... fully? And why did he seem so intent on being employed? By her of all people?

And why was she so intensely bothered by it?

The dark side of her nudged her, demanding that she think of all the possibilities. A body to constantly watch her back. Warm her bed.

Loyal only to her.

'...slave...'

The whispered thought left a bitter taste in her mouth, and she frowned as though it had been a physical thing. She was not so low that she would stoop to that. Being the master of someone else's every waking thought. Every breath. Every step they took.

Sure Ari helped slavers every now and again. But she always stealthily freed some of her captured slaves once she got paid. Of course, only if they deserved it. The real scum she left to rot in their shackles and explosive collars. Which consisted of the majority of the jobs she took. The innocent were only taken as a mistake on her part due to lack of... information.

Why Charon was so set on doing this didn't settle well with her.

It... mystified her completely.

At the beginnings of another Charon-induced frown, Ari started at a dark outline of a figure approaching through the storm.

A curse almost slipped through, her body tensing for flight, when a feminine voice called out.

"Please! Help me!"

Ari let the curse slip through anyway. This was just the type of distraction she had been hoping to avoid.

Still debating turning tail and running, she cursed again as the frail caucasian grabbed her arm, sobbing.

"Fuck lady, what do you want?" She bit out.

Her heart tore a little at the older woman's look of pure despair. But shit, this lady had to be ten kinds of stupid for just grabbing her like she did.

For all she knew, Ari could have been some fucked up raider that could just shoot her dead where she stood. People like her didn't last too long out in the wastes.

A lesson Ari had learned within the first few hours outside the suffocating, yet safe, vault.

And she had learned hard.

Trust no one.

"My boy... please! You must help my grandson!" Frazzled white-streaked hair accented the crazed look in her eyes.

The grip on her arm tightened, making the Lone Wanderer wince. Shrugging off the bony hands, Ari held the old lady a relatively safe distance away, about to tell her off.

But the woman read the look in her grey eyes and burst into loud sobs, sagging in Ari's hold. Following the older lady to the ground, Ari crouched over her, her hard exterior breaking a little more. Cold she may be, but hardly heartless.

"Fine, point the way, old maid." Ari grumbled, giving her an awkward pat on the shoulder.

"Thank you!" The old stranger clung once more to Ari, her frail frame shuddering with soul-wracking sobs of joy.

Ari nearly fell over at the sudden weight, her balance already precarious at the awkward crouched angle. Ari sighed, allowing the stranger a few moments before slowly, but forcefully, extracting herself from the painful grip.

The Vault kid gave the woman a pointed look, knowing she didn't have much time with the ghoul still tracking her.

Too engulfed in sobs, the woman could only lift a trembling hand towards the direction she had come from, her voice hiccuping as she whispered, "...Yao-Gui..."

Ari exhaled. Why couldn't it be something easy? Wild animals were always unpredictable. But she'd take the mutated bear over a single Deathclaw or two dozen ghouls any day.

Shouldering her A3-31's Plasma Rifle, Ari gave the sitting woman a brief squeeze on the shoulder before striding quickly in the direction laid out for her. It didn't take long before she heard the irritated snarls of the beast, masked as it was by the howling sand. Crouching, she readied her gun, creeping forward so low to the ground her knees scraped the tops of the stones.

The furry beast had its back to her, rearing up on its hind legs. A smaller figure squealed, running off to the side as the Yao-Gui swung its heavy paw. It clipped the young boy's back, sending him sprawling off balance. He knocked his head on the side of a boulder, falling limply to the ground immediately after. The beast rounded in closer for the kill, growling.

All the while, Ari had the Rifle raised to her sights, breathing deeply. Evenly.

It raised its clawed paw for a final blow.

The cross-hairs rested on its forehead.

It swung.

But she fired first.

-o-o-o-

Charon growled as he came across signs of the Lone Wanderer's passage.

He surged forth as he came across a hunched figure in the storm. Would she really make it that easy?

Even as he reached out, he knew it wasn't.

Not her.

The rags hung off a bony figure. Too frail. Too weak to be his employer

Anger flared in the ghoul, fueled by his disappointment. He grabbed the Smoothskin's shoulder harder than necessary, gripping tightly as he demanded, "Where is she?"

The old lady looked up at him in terror, only able to stutter, "Y-yao-guh-guh-Gui..."

Her frail finger pointed in the direction Ari had gone earlier.

"Shit." Charon cursed, dropping the old woman as he sprinted off.

Not that he was worried. It's just...

His employer was strong.

But her performance was altered when she was in a hurry. Otherwise he wouldn't have been able to track her so easily.

He wasn't worried.

But he hastened his step anyway.

-o-o-o-

She watched with mild satisfaction as the microfusion cell made short work of the organic, turning it's body an unhealthy bright flash of green before the Yao-Gui melted into a surprised puddle of goo.

Dusting off her knees, she strolled over to the unconscious boy. She kicked him on the side to wake him. The first didn't do it, so she tried again, though a little harder this time around.

At his groan, she grunted, "Get up."

A snarl erupted behind her.

The boy's green eyes widened.

Then all hell broke loose.

Red pain jolted through her as she was slammed against the rock, spinning to meet the ground with an agonizing scrape. The leather armor took the brunt of it, though she could feel the steady beat of new bruises matching the pumping of her blood.

More angry growls followed suit and the Vault Kid rolled out of instinct.

Mere milliseconds later a deadly paw gouged into the hard earth where she had been, the force of it tearing a chunk deep out of the ground. She fired blindly as she sprang up out of her roll, getting the satisfaction of a pained growl before she ducked and weaved through another barraged assault.

How many were there?

She didn't have the luxury to count.

But she tossed a grenade into the fray, pinpointing the boy somewhere behind her a fraction before she released it. She dodged back, weaving through lumbering Yao-Gui and getting past with light gouges on her person, before she yanked the boy up by the arm and dove over a boulder for cover.

The toss had been too close.

Ka-BOOM!

As the explosion ripped the air and shook the ground, Ari realized they had not stopped moving. A flaw in her hastily made plan.

They had dived over the boulder down a steep incline on the other side. They tumbled violently down the hill, the Lone Wanderer catching glimpses of their direction even as she lost her grip on the boy. His shrill scream pierced the air. That's when she realized.

The sky greeted them a few more yards ahead. They were headed for a cliff.

Just her luck.

She saw the boy tumbling farther ahead. In a move against all self-preservation instincts, she kicked off the ground once her feet made contact, springing closer to the cliff edge.

Grasping the ledge as her momentum carried her over the precipice, the sense of gravity shifted. She saw a blur of another body flying overhead. Without thinking, she reached out with her free hand.

She felt cloth and flesh.

Her fingers clenched.

Suddenly her breath was torn from her as her body slammed against the cliff face. She tensed. Moments later her shoulder fired in agony at the extra wrench of a second body.

The boy cried out as he too hit the rock wall, screaming again as he realized the only thing keeping him from plummeting to his doom was her hand on his jacket sleeve.

Ari took a moment to gather her wits, the storm battering them with more ferocity at this angle, threatening her death grip on the ledge above them. She knew there was still the Yao-Gui to deal with, but she'd cross that bridge if they survived this first.

Suddenly, the boy started to panic. He wrestled with the air, frantically trying to get a grip on anything.

"Shit, little boy. Calm down." Ari bit out, attempting to keep her grip on the ledge as well as the idiot dangling below her.

Of course, he must've been in his early teens, but formalities like that didn't matter in the Wastes. Either you were a kid, or you were grown. Only one of the two survived.

And the way this boy was acting-

"Fuck!" Ari cursed, the boy managing to grab a hold of her legs.

Of course, it would have been a great hand hold, except the boy was going through it all wrong.

Instead of just holding onto her, he started wriggling like a drowning man.

Ari cursed again as she grabbed at the ledge with both hands, almost losing her grip at his wild movements.

"Stop squirming! You're gonna kill us both!" Ari shouted angrily, a bit of fear mixed in there as well.

This situation was spiraling out of her control.

The boy was too far gone to comprehend he was dooming them both. More like a rabid animal than human. She half-expected to get bitten in her calf.

She grunted in pain at a massive tug around her ankles. Shit, the kid was wiry. But fuckin' strong in his struggles.

She felt her grip slipping.

The storm picked a perfect time to dissipate, leaving with a dying howl.

The veil of sand and dust lifted, providing a crystal clear view all around them.

She glanced downward, and her gut sank to the bottom of her toes at the sight. Just far enough to get strangled by the idiot kid she was trying to save.

The canyon bottom was at least a mile down.

There was no way anyone was walking away from that drop.

And if the fall didn't immediately kill them, the dots that resembled a pack of Deathclaws below would.

The boy was screaming, hysterical. All she could see in his eyes was panic. His mouth was frothing in fear.

He yanked again, his movements placing a large strain on her arms. Now Ari was no weakling. She could grapple with a ghoul. Sling a mini machine gun for a couple yards, pounding lead into anything that moved. Take a few well-aimed swings with a Super Sledge.

But this was too much. She didn't know how many agonizing minutes had passed. Gravity clawed at her, their combined weight testing her arms to the limit. He flailed once more.

It was too much.

Ari cried out, losing one hand from the ledge.

"Cut it out!" Ari screamed, well and truly scared now.

She couldn't call up the strength to raise that one arm back up, much less attempt to pull them both up.

But he just kept yelling himself, an endless shout that echoed in the stormless canyon.

Ari looked down, her fingers slowly losing their grip.

There was only one thing she could do.

Only one option left.

"I'm sorry..." She whispered.

Yanking her leg upwards, she kicked down at the panicked youth.

Wide eyes widened.

A silent 'no' framed his mouth as he tumbled down and down.

Ari couldn't get herself to close her eyes.

To look away.

She did this.

He fell the endless moments, becoming a splat on the ground a mile away.

She killed him.

The Deathclaws came running, milling around the freshly made carcass. Gorging on the easy meal ticket.

Ari felt sick.

As she felt her grip giving way, she wondered hopelessly what it had been for. He had died, for what? So she would have a few extra seconds before her own fatal plummet?

A growl above her.

A strong hand encircled her wrist, just as she lost her hold.

Ari snapped her gaze upwards, finding fierce blue eyes glowering down at her, even as he yanked her up.

Up to firm ground. To safety.

"Trying to get yourself killed, smoothskin?" He growled, voice gruff and unyielding.

Another time she might've socked him in the stomach. Done some surprise maneuver or something to get away.

But all she could see was the boy's face. What had she done?

The ghoul dragged her to her feet, her trembling legs wobbling on the solid ground.

She was safe. But what about the boy?

"What, Mole Rat got your tongue?" Charon gripped her other arm, shaking her to get her to look at him, "I track you down, through hours of that freak shit storm, and you can't even say nothin'? Not even a 'thank you' for the dear fuckin' ghoul that just saved your ass?"

Ari looked at him, unseeing. Her gaze drew back over the ledge.

Until Charon shook her again, growling, "Can't even bother to look at me, smoothskin?"

Ari looked at him, finally seeing him for the first time. Realizing he was there.

A little scratched and bruised here and there, but present, standing before her, all the same.

He had tracked her down. Again.

Charon opened his mouth to continue a rant.

But the Lone Wanderer whispered loudly first, her voice croaking from the earlier shouting, "Charon."

She lurched forward, burrowing hard into the enclosure of his burly chest and muscled arms. His instinctive reaction had been to tighten his grip, thinking she was trying to escape again. Only to gape in surprise at the supple bundle of satin skin and reinforced leather within his hold. Her slender arms were wrapped around his torso, her face pressed into his leather armored chest. Was she... hugging him?

Willingly?

He released her completely, in shock. Taking a step back. But she followed like a shadow, mirroring his step, her own arms gripping his waist harder.

Hesitantly, he lowered his arms back down, "Smoothskin...?"

His large hands rested awkwardly around her hips. Sure, she had almost died. He was angry. But never in a million years did he think it would drag such a vulnerable reaction from the tough Lone Wanderer he had gotten to know.

It had to be something else.

Charon frowned down at the tangled black mess of hair, thinking only this Smoothskin could make a disheveled-sorry-ass-excuse of a bun, look good. Letting that supple body rest against his for longer still, refusing to acknowledge the position felt... right... Charon waited.

"...I killed him." Ari's muffled voice rose against his chest.

Charon creased brow deepened. Who was she talking about?

Then that lightly tanned smoothskin face turned upwards, grey eyes looking at him beseechingly, "He was just a boy. A little kid, but he wouldn't quit-"

It all clicked at once. The multiple shouting. Her last screamed words. The blood trails on the ground.

"Stop right there, girly." Charon interrupted roughly, placing a finger to her lips, "First of all, you did what you had to. Secondly, see all this blood on the ground leading to where you hung? Obviously not yours. That boy was already dead, but neither of you smoothskins knew it yet."

Ari frowned, trying to speak past the finger, "But-"

"No buts." The large ghoul growled as he shook his head, pressing his finger more to silence her. He had seen this too many times.

The guilt and 'what ifs' were enough to strip a strong-willed soldier down to an insecure little shit just begging to be killed out here.

Like hell he would allow her to resort to such a pathetic, crumbled state.

But she swatted away the hand, more of her fire coming back. He had to struggle not to loom pleased by it.

"It's still my fault, Charon." She stated.

"Ain't no one's fault but the boy's own. His mother ain't too bright neither. Got herself gutted back there by the 'Gui before I could kill 'em all." Charon rumbled.

"Listen, Charon. That doesn't change a thing. I made us roll down the hill. *I* kicked him down to his death." Ari stepped forward at each sentence, before pivoting to walk away, "Nothing you say will change how I feel about this."

But a strong ghoul arm grabbed hers, forcefully stopping her in her tracks and spinning Ari to face him again.

Ari started.

Fuck. The ghoul was pissed. And for the life of her, Ari could not figure out why.

"No YOU listen, Smoothskin. What do you think woulda happened with the boy and the 'Gui before you got there? A pat on the back? Hell, that boy was dead before you even came into the picture. I seen this a million times. And that's a million times more than I care for." Charon released a stunned Lone Wanderer, reaching for a metal band cuffed around his wrist. Unlatching it with ease, he looked back down at her with a glint in his eye, "You wanna wallow in guilt and self-pity for something that was bound to happen in the first place? Fine. Have yourself a fuckin' grand time with that. My opinion? It's pointless, a fuckin' waste of time, and is more likely to get you killed faster than stumbling across a pack of starved Deathclaws. So go right ahead and feel sorry for yourself. Just don't expect any pity from me."

He grabbed her left wrist, latching the open metal band on her upper arm. Right between her bicep and shoulder. It wouldn't fit anywhere else.

Before she could even think to retaliate, Charon had let her go and had stepped back to observe his handiwork.

The wristband -which was now an armband- gleaned dully in the afternoon sun.

"The fuck?" Ari exclaimed, tugging at the cold piece of metal. But it didn't budge. It wouldn't slide an inch either way, and definitely wouldn't unlatch. Despite evidence from earlier, it looked entirely seamless. Ari shot an accusing glare at the smug bodyguard before her, demanding, "What is this, Charon? What did you just do?"

"Brought it on yourself, Smoothskin. You make it difficult to do my job, runnin' all the time. That little beauty right there will help me sleep at night." Charon grinned.

Ari was no idiot. The ghoul had put a goddamn tracking device on her!

The fuckin' nerve...

"You know, I'm getting real tired of this contract bull." Ari seethed, previous gloom cast off entirely, "What's to stop me from just firing you?"

A darker glint tinted those piercing blue eyes, "You wanna know what I do out of contract, Smoothskin?" He took a step forward, his presence bigger. His features shadowed as he rumbled, "You really wanna find out? I don't think you'll like it."

Ari growled, "Is that a threat, ghoul?" Her temper flared as he eyed her up and down. Sure he was bigger. Stronger. But she would not be underestimated. She didn't back down as she continued warningly, "I don't take kindly to threats."

"A mere statement of fact, girly..." He trailed off smartly, eyeing her once more before standing down, turning to stride away.

Her anger boiling beneath her skin, Ari glanced down at the metal band, then at the retreating back of the ghoul.

No one treated her this way. She wouldn't stand for it.

She liked control. Something that kept slipping away around the damn ghoul. It scared her, this strange feeling. It gave off a faint tint of weakness.

She didn't like it.

Her eyes narrowed.

Her voice was whispered, "I hate you..."

She didn't think he'd hear.

Which only surprised Ari when a reply did come.

Charon never even turned around. He merely paused, glancing down and off to the side, grumbling, "Good. I prefer it that way..."

He kept walking, her confused silence echoing his boot steps. Just as he was cresting a small ridge, she could've sworn she heard him muttering under his breath, "...Better than hating yourself, Smoothskin."