**Special thanks to Mecharic for Beta-ing**

My index finger stabbed the enter key vindictively, and I heard the generators to my left power down. Grinding and winding down from a rumbling roar to a pitiful whine, before cutting out altogether. Leaving me in the dark, cool basement of the clinic. The air thick with dust, tasting of the Cloud even this far separated from the outside. The only sounds being the settling of the building, and the electrical hum of the terminal in front of me.

I breathed deeply, calmly. It was safe here. Safer than outside, at least.

Dean and me had a harder time getting back to the Fountain from his hideaway. He had a shortcut, leading down an alley straight to the entrance of the neighborhood, but the area it cut through was dense with more of the cloud. If I'd been paying attention when I'd first gone in, I'd probably have seen it, saved myself some trouble.

Unfortunately, in order to use it, you had to cut through the pockets of the Cloud lingering there.

Given my introduction to it not long before hand, had I been aware of it, I'd more than likely have died. The only small mercy I had was, unfortunately, Dean. He'd lived in the villa long enough to learn some tricks about surviving the Cloud. With enough practice, I'd probably have been able to figure them out myself. But time wasn't a luxury I had in this place, so I had to live with Dean just showing me how to do it, and trusting he'd pull me through if I fucked it up. Normally, not something I was keen on. Thankfully, since our lives were linked via the collars, he had more reason to help me than not.

A quick trot down the alley and through the cloud, we found ourselves back at the fountain. God was waiting for us, at least, meaning he hadn't been inclined to wander off. Dean and he had some choice words for each other, none flattering. But we didn't all need to like each other to get the job done. He also seemed to prefer God over Dog, if only because he knew God wouldn't eat him, so it was a start.

With those two out of the way, that only left one collar for me to track down. Which just so happened to be off the path to the police station.

The medical district presented me with one more challenge almost as soon as I walked into it. That being that the broadcast speakers lined the area. Trying to navigate the police station had been hard, but manageable. There were only so many places for the old radios to be in an enclosed space like that. Out in the open air though, along the Villa's narrow streets and alleys, they could be anywhere. The only warning I would receive being my collar threatening to blow my head off. Though it was an initial surprise, I knew how to work around it. Having survived the police station had prepared me for at least that much.

Of course, then a Ghost Person dove out in front of me, and attempted to shish-kebab me with a spear. Not much of a way to be prepared for that. But it did give me a chance to test some of Dean's advice. He was right about one thing, you had to shoot them in the head if you wanted them to stay down. That didn't remove the danger from them in anyway though. Their jerky, sudden movements made it hard to land a shot like that without relying on VATs, putting aside their immunity to little things like heart failure. I didn't even want to test trying to face down more than one of them at a shot.

Especially since it took six rounds of .357 to the head before the beast actually went down.

Guess that means, all things considered, Dean at least gives good advice.

Thankfully, despite the challenges, the clinic wasn't too far of a walk. It was a marginally straightforward one as well, compared to all I'd had to do to get to Dean. Even having to play spear limbo with the Ghost people or Hide and Go Boom with the broadcast speakers. All I had to do was follow the path leading to it. Passing century's old ruins of what were once homes and store fronts along the way. Amusingly, there was a gift shop just before the entrance of the clinic proper. As if to say 'Glad to see you survived surgery, come buy yourself a Fancy Lad'.

Much like the police station, the entrance of the clinic was illuminated by an old sign. This time a neon cross. The inside wasn't in much better shape than the police station had been either. Several rooms and halls had caved in from the years of neglect, poor construction. The air, musty and dusty as it was, still carried the sting of ages old antiseptic. The entrance I'd come through spilled out into a waiting room. Half rotten and crumbling seating lined the walls, broken up intermittently by an end table or water cooler. Stale wall paper peeled and curled off the walls, revealing cracked and crumbling drywall beneath chipped and flaking paint. Masonry laid bare to the open air, eroding, even in the semi-stagnant air of the clinic.

The building was slowly returning to earth, it seemed to almost be willing it.

More than that, in the distance, I could hear something. A frantic, almost desperate banging. There was no rhythm to it, just a fearful staccato of panic. Playing in concert with the hiss of pneumatics and whine of electrical motors. A performance that matched perfectly in time with the transmission on my Pip-boy for my last 'partner'.

At least I knew they weren't dead yet.

I tried to follow it deeper into the clinic, and even got so far as a hall that led directly to it. But I couldn't explore too far down it. There were more speakers at the far end of the hall, and my collar began beeping before I was even halfway. Which meant it really was a miracle my last associate was still alive after all.

Now knowing where they were at least, I began to search the clinic. It was a multi-level building, so I should've been able to find some way to shut the power down. The ground floor didn't leave much to explore. Three staircases, two leading to the next floor up, and one leading to a basement, and two halls, one mostly cutoff by the speakers. There were small rooms branching off from them, most housing odd machines that advertised themselves as some form of auto-doc. Not that I knew much about them to begin with, they weren't a common occurrence, even in Vegas. I just knew that most were small enough to be attached to a gurney or bed. These were upright tubes of steel you could walk into. The only other room of note was a large, improvised surgery of some kind.

With two, fairly fresh, corpses occupying it.

Once again wearing the same white jumpsuit I'd woken up in.

What was different about them, however, was how I found them. Laid out like they were being operated on. What's more, their collars weren't far away either, having been placed around the necks of some mannequins. The charges were already expended, but the collars were clearly and meticulously disassembled.

The whole setup meant either someone had taken them here after they'd already lost their heads. Or had tried to remove the collars and, unintentionally or not, killed the two saps. Given all the equipment, and the condition the collars were in, I had to assume the later. It must have happened before Elijah started linking the collars.

There weren't many people left in the Villa to have tried it. More than likely, I was working with them.

Just one more reason to stay on my toes in this place.

At the very least, that morbid little detour proved fruitful. Aside from the knowing more about the people I might be working with; I found a change of clothes. One not currently occupied by a rotting corpse, anyway.

The ground floor covered, I started upstairs. The stairwell to the basement ended in a locked door, so I needed to find the key for that. Not having run into any real trouble yet, I started up to the second floor.

Then I finally met one. One of the Holograms Elijah had told me about.

One of the ghosts.

It was similar to the other Holograms I'd seen around the Villa, and at the fountain. A pale blue silhouette of a person. Rather than a willowy woman though, this Hologram had been male, shaped to look identical to the security armor I was wearing. Occasionally flickering in and out of existence. The hologram wasn't stationary either. This one was moving, gliding silently up and down the hall of the upper floor.

As I learned not long after, it was patrolling.

No sooner had I appeared before it, than its pale blue blinked to a vibrant red. Just as quickly, it began blasting me with laser beams. Not just any laser beams though, oh no, they were laser beams that came from hell itself. They had to, because they burned and cut worse than any other I'd been hit with before. Getting hit with any energy-based projectile is serious business in the Mojave. The wounds might cauterize themselves, but that won't stop them from horribly burning you, or turning you to a pile ash. But they had to get through your armor to do that, nine times out of ten.

The lasers the Holograms used burned through my armor with ease, and almost carved through me just as fast.

Whatever was powering them, it was beyond anything I understood.

I only survived because I literally threw myself back down the stairs and hid. Probably added a few cracked bones to the list of ailments. I was half afraid that thing was going to follow me back down the stairs. It hit me five times, and I got the sense I wouldn't survive a sixth.

But it stayed upstairs, and didn't seem interested in hounding me further than where it was. So, I could at least chalk its hostility up to over aggressive programming, rather than genuine malignance. Last thing I needed worry about was having something like that hunting me on top of the Ghost People. As hard and dangerous as it was, I could at least kill the Ghost People.

You can't kill light.

Ergo, you can't stop or even hurt the holograms. I figured out not long after, unless you destroy the emitter, or shut down the power, they'll keep patrolling their path. Just like Elijah said. Which really shouldn't have been a surprise. I was pretty sure that was just basic physics. I only managed to get around it by taking a chance. I climbed back up the stairs, spied its emitter midway down the hall, and gambled a bullet being able to break it. If I was wrong, it wasn't going to take much to kill me anyway.

If I wasn't as capable a shot as I was, that's probably how it would have ended.

Having survived that encounter with yet another piece of the Villa's insidious designs, I began scouring the upper floor. There were some supplies I made a note to come back for later, along with a few still functioning terminals. I skimmed them, knowing I'd have to take the time to read them more thoroughly on my second pass through. But I did find something immediately useful: a code for the dispensers around the villa. Something that would authorize me to pull med-x from it. Even though I generally eschew using chems outside of emergencies, the knowledge that I should be keeping my eyes open for them was useful. If there was a way to start pulling stimpacks from them, my prospects for survival would improve dramatically.

I also found the key for the basement in the same office as the code, so I continued pressing forward. I descended two flights of stairs and found myself in a cramped, dirty room. Backup generators still humming along even after centuries of sitting there. A terminal on the table at the far end of the room, connecting to the main circuit breaker.

Which led back to present. With everything falling into, uncomfortably close, silence. The sudden lack of noise in the basement feeling as though it would start to choke me at a moment's notice. But I'd take it over the alternative.

I took a moment to collect myself, then started back up to the ground floor. As I started up the stairs, I could already feel the adrenaline from my encounter with the Hologram wearing off. I'd had a long, ridiculously hard, day. The fact I was feeling adrenaline at all meant I wasn't tapped out yet, but I was getting close.

Which carried the side effect of all my wounds finally catching up to me.

The Hologram had done a number to me on its own. Putting my encounters with the Ghost people and exposures to the Cloud, I was in need of a shot. Though I couldn't decide whether that was of whisky or from a stimpack. Not that either were really an option anyway.

I began wishing they were as I began to stumble down the hall towards my final 'partner'. Only a few feet in, one of my knees buckled and I had to lean on the wall for support. Even then I still slid to the floor. So I knelt there for a moment, letting the dull aches and itching burns linger on me, buying myself every second I could to rest. The banging hadn't subsided, nor had the pneumatic hiss that seemed to be its metronome. Whoever I was looking for was still conscious, and likely trapped. There was a chance they'd be pissed by the time they got out, and if I had to fight them, I'd rather not be looking like I'd crawled out of the ground again.

As I knelt there though, I let my gaze drift down the hall. To the rooms that ran along either wall. Each containing perfectly preserved miracles of technology from before the war. Built with one explicit purpose in mind.

"… Fuck it, can't do much worse to me than I already am."

I forced myself off of the floor and stumped my way into the nearest room. Despite having shut down the power, the machine was still functioning perfectly. They were probably hooked to another source, last thing the person inside needed was for them to shut down in the middle of surgery.

My associate was probably wishing that was the case right now, if the banging was any indicator. I'll admit, leaving them trapped didn't sit right with me. But if they'd survived this long without dying, they'd probably last a few minutes more. Or however long this was going to take.

Of course, if something went wrong, the auto-doc would probably kill me.

Or trap me like it did them.

Which, made my choice seem even more stupid, honestly. But the auto-doc appeared to be in working order, so there was no outward reason to not chance it.

I stripped out of my wrecked security armor and engaged the auto-doc. Setting it to run one of the shorter diagnostic and recovery programs. There were other, and frankly better suited, routines it could run. But most of them were time consuming, and if something went wrong, last thing I wanted was to get stuck with my chest ripped open.

The steel tube hissed open, and I stepped inside, standing in a designated spot. The door slid shut behind me, trapping me in darkness. There was a brief strobe of light over me, then mechanisms within the machine began to whir and hiss. Before I had a moment to begin panicking or regretting my decision, however, a support of some kind rose up behind me. The floor inclining so I'd naturally rest against it.

After that, it was a blur. There was a hiss of gas, and I felt the pain of my wounds ebb out of me as quickly as my own consciousness. Leaving only vague impressions of the machine running its programmed course. All told, I do not know how long I was truly in there for. But it felt no more than a few moments.

Then I was back.

The floor settled back to its natural angle and nudged me back into balance as the door slid open.

I stepped back out into the clinic, looking down at myself. My wounds were gone, save some minimalized scarring. Gashes and cuts stitched closed, burns faded back to unblemished skin, even the pain had all but vanished.

I was going to have to see about finding one of these things back in the Mojave, because they worked a treat.

Back in top form, save for the growing gnaw of exhaustion, I began to pull my clothes back on. I kept the security helmet, naturally, but recognized it was time to abandon the security armor. I'd been through all of maybe two close-calls with it, but I could see it wasn't enough. It'd probably been made to handle things more mundane than what I'd put it against. Things like bullets and knives. Not laser beams from hell… or knives.

Seriously, what was with those knives?

Still, I kept it on hand, knowing I could likely use it for spare parts later.

The armor I replaced it with however, I'd found there in the Clinic. And it almost certainly wasn't something that was ever meant to be there. It was a form fitting, charcoal body suit, straps built-in to ensure it fit well and snug. The sleeves capped by fingerless gloves, and the feet feeding nicely into a pair of sound dampening boots. A collar extending from the neck hole, reaching to almost chin height. It was reinforced with a steel plate, with tubes feeding back into what looked to be a rebreather at the front of the armor. The rebreather itself sat over a segmented armor plate, painted in a graying shade of Olive drab. It connected to a similar plate at the back, held in place by belts. Smaller plates resting on both forearms and the knees. A series of large pouches ringed the waist, also attached to an innocuously large belt.

Along the plate inside the collar, the words Stealth Suit Mk. I were etched.

Except someone had apparently tried to scratch out the word 'Stealth' and carved the word Assassin over it. The nerve of some people, unable to accept something without adding their own 'personal' touches.

Either way, the 'Assassin' suit was surprisingly comfortable, and eerily quiet to boot. Assuming the armor plating was of comparable quality, it was liable to serve me better than the security armor had. Confrontation was something I was quickly learning to avoid here.

Properly clothed and put together, I started back down the hall, no longer impeded by my collar.

The percussive banging of steel and hiss of machinery grew louder as I walked down the hall. So close now, I could hear just how truly frantic it was. But… there was something strange to it. A silence that shouldn't have really been there.

Where was the screaming?

I wasn't a sadist, but why the silence? If the person was truly as trapped and afraid as they seemed to be, why were they staying silent? Clearly it wasn't to avoid attracting attention. There was nothing, no screaming, cursing, cries for help, nothing. Something was clearly wrong, and if I weren't as on edge as I was, it might have registered more than it did. If it was a trap, it was way too obvious of one.

Not that such a thing hadn't worked on me before, but details.

I turned left at the end of the hall and found myself with three more of the exam rooms. One of them was blocked by rubble, ruling it out. The two remaining were accessible, but only one of them appeared to be in use. I stepped into it, finding most of the equipment in disrepair or broken outright. Including the autodoc at the center of the room, which appeared to be malfunctioning.

I approached it cautiously, and accessed the terminal built into it. Warnings were flashing on the screen.

Warning: Pressure leak in valve P16C, emergency override engaged

Warning: Sensor C4R6 offline, cardiac signature not found

Warning: Med-x dispenser depleted, restock at earliest convenience.

Warning: Subroutine A113 unable to complete, reinitializing

The warnings continued down the screen like that until they were cut-off by the monitor. It was a miracle, or perhaps a curse, that the machine hadn't locked up altogether.

As the machine began to whir and hiss into another round of whatever operation it was running, the banging began anew. Rather than let it continue though, my hands went to the keyboard, quickly closing out the innumerable error messages. My technological knowledge might not have been up to snuff to do something crazy like create a new subroutine, but I could override one. I quickly skimmed over the order of mechanical operations and saw the issue. Whoever had last used the machine, intentionally or not, had locked the machine into a recursive loop. Making it so the operation was never registered as 'finished', causing it to reset and try again. A rookie mistake in most cases, a sadistic one here. Even barring the other errors now plaguing the machine.

Regardless, I overwrote the command, sending the machine into diagnostic mode. Just to make sure when it opened up, whoever was inside wasn't busy being vivisected. I'd have no idea how to help them, and it'd be fatal for me.

The whir and hissing within the Autodoc died away almost immediately, and the banging went with it. In place of both, a smooth, steady beeping took their place, along with a dull humming. The machine was processing, making sure its patient was fit to be discharged.

I stepped around front of the door and waited. It was only going to take a few moments, and it seemed to only be about to restart the procedure. With luck, the machine wasn't going to need to stitch them back up again. A long, silent moment passed.

Then the door hissed and clicked, before slowly grinding open. Which at least showed where one of the errors was pointing toward. The pneumatic door ground open, and I was prepared to protect myself. My collar might've been linked to whoever was inside, but I wasn't above establishing a pecking order if needed. But that turned out to not be necessary.

As the door opened, the Auto-doc's occupant stumbled forward, landing halfway out on their hands and knees. It was a woman, head clean shaven, wearing the fatigues of a wasteland doctor and a collar to match my own. Her body lean, wiry, clearly and strongly conditioned. Her head lined with scars like a railroad map. Running the length of her skull and down her forehead. She stayed on the floor for a moment, collecting herself, shaking. I had to assume she'd been conscious for the duration of whatever had happened inside the auto-doc. I let her stay there, on the ground. Last thing I needed was for her to panic because I started crowding her.

A few moments passed, as she collected herself, rising to an unsteady knee, then her feet. She faced me. The scars continued to the top of her brow, teeing off and running to the sides of her head. At the edges of her jaw, they looped around, back across her jawline, reaching either side of her mouth. Like some kind of ghoulish grin. They seemed to reach lower than that, her throat, but I chose to stay focused rather than play navigator. Ignoring the scar tissue, she had an otherwise pretty face. Full lips, that seemed to pillow against each other. A thin, regal nose, set betwixt soft cheeks. Strong, defiant blue eyes that seemed to glitter even in the dim light of the clinic.

It's just that it was hard to see past the scarring.

Her head swiveled for a moment, before tracking to me, glittering eyes alight with confusion. The confusion quickly gave way to fear, anger, the glitter almost turning to a glow. I saw her body tense clearly readying for a fight. She shifted her weight, careful to avoid stepping back into the auto-doc.

"Easy, easy." I said, trying to de-escalate, gradually dropping my own stance "I'm not here to fight. If I was, I would've just left you in there."

The woman shifted on her feet, sidestepping so she didn't have her back to the auto-doc anymore. I let her, keep things calm, clean.

She opened her mouth, clearly planning to say something to me. But she didn't. I have no doubt she tried, but nothing came out. Her eyes widened, surprised, possibly a bit in fear. One of her hands gingerly reached up towards her throat. Right to a large patch of scar tissue.

"Are you alright?" I asked, resisting the urge to

The woman's face twisted, grew tight. I couldn't tell how much of what she was feeling and showing was pain or panic. She was trying to power through it, not show weakness. But it takes a lot to show nothing at all. She turned her head to the Auto-doc again, stepping further away, her hand still gently rubbing her throat.

That was answer enough.

"You can't talk, can you?" I asked "The auto-doc screwed something up?"

The woman looked back to me for a moment, then the floor. She let a moment pass before nodding an affirmative.

"Shit." I growled "That's going to make this harder."

As her hand caressed her throat, it brushed against the collar, and she blinked. Her eyes were already wide with surprise, but it was obvious she'd just begun to realize her situation. Her fingers automatically went to the lock of the collar, began fiddling with it.

"Whoa- whoa, don't screw with that!" I said, moving towards her.

She stopped fiddling with it immediately. Instead, she planted a fist into my sternum, gripped my shoulder and twisted at the hip. She pulled me off balance and sent me to the floor. Before I could recover, she drove a knee into my chest and pinned me there. Ready and looking for a reason to start punching me in the face.

"Fuck- easy!" I rasped putting my hands up in a guard.

She didn't immediately try hitting me again though. She stopped and looked at me instead, seeming to fixate on my neck. Probably only just now seeing the collar around it.

"They're linked." I gritted "You try to remove it, it goes off. Either of us bites it, they both go off, got it?"

The woman glared down at me, making no move one way or the other. After a moment, I saw something change in her eyes and she relaxed slightly. She still had me pinned, but she wasn't going to start punching me in the face.

Then she looked down at my armor, and I saw her eye twitch. Then giving me a deadened, irritated look.

"… What?"

In response, she just shook her head, annoyed.

"Look, whatever issues you've got with me, can we dial them back to a point where we can talk?" I asked

The deadened look she gave me intensified.

"-Okay, poor choice of words." I admitted "But we're only going to get somewhere if we aren't trying to kill each other. Work with me here."

The woman eyed me for a little longer, then relented. She got off of me, her clenched fist opening to me. I took it, and she helped me up.

I brushed myself off and continued. "Let's start simple, you got a name?"

The woman eyed me for a moment, but shook her head. She went to speak, only for nothing except her breath to escape her lips. She mouthed the word, but that wasn't much help.

"Right… except you can't tell me it." I answered "Ok, another dumb question… Well, I'm Six, not that it'll help you much right now."

She nodded, pursing her lips. She went to speak again, only for nothing to happen, again. She grimaced, frustrated, but couldn't do more than that.

I let her continue doing that for a moment, as I looked at the auto-doc, eyeing its control panel. More specifically its keyboard.

"I've got an idea." I said, motioning to the machine "Try typing."

The woman looked at me for a moment, then the machine. She recoiled a little, then looked back to me.

"It's an answer, you can't talk, and I don't see a pen and paper around here." I shrugged

She grimaced, and stepped back up to the machine. I drew close enough to see what she was doing, but was wary enough to avoid her hitting me on reflex or something. The auto-doc had locked-up, probably a safety feature to keep someone from using it until the errors were fixed. But at the very least, it gave the woman something to work with.

Once she realized she wasn't going to be able to type out responses, she moved enough for me to see her slowly, carefully, type out her answer.

C… H… R… I… S…T… I… N… E…

"Christine?" I asked "Your name's Christine?"

Christine dipped her head, nodding furtively.

"Ok, one question out of the way." I said, smirking "Only ten more to go."

Christine rolled her eyes, all to happily stepping away from the Auto-doc again.

"I'll try to keep this to yes or no questions, for both of our sakes." I said "We're going to have to work together here."

Christine shook her head no.

"… That wasn't a question."

She shook her head again, running a finger between me and her in a line.

"… Why am I not surprised you don't want to help?" I groused.

Christine shrugged, but made no indication to the contrary.

"Ok, so you don't want to help, but you're here for another reason, right?"

Christine nodded, then angrily motioned to the collar around her neck.

"You're after the old man too?" I asked.

Christine nodded again, but this time looked confused. Mouthing a word I could pick up as "Too?"

"Got a nightkin trapped here who wants to get at him also, long story." I answered "You might have to get on a waiting list."

Christine nodded again, though probably more out of acknowledgement than understanding.

"While I can understand wanting to take off after the old man, I need to ask, do you know where you are right now?"

Christine's expression set, and she nodded again.

"Do you know about the kinds of crazy crap around here?"

Again, she nodded.

"Great, then you should also know where the old man is, right?"

Christine began to nod again, but stopped part way into the motion. She grimaced, then shook her head, a frustrated look on her face.

"I'll give you the answer to this one." I said "He can see and hear us, but we've got no real idea where he is at the moment."

Christine's eyes lit up in surprise, and I could see the gears turning. Then she tapped her collar, figuring it out.

"Bingo." I said "And he seems to be pretty attentive on top of that."

Christine nodded, a bitter look on her face.

"I get you've probably got some kind of business to settle, but right now, you've got more immediate problems." I told her "Not the least of which being that if I, or the two other people we're being forced to work with bites it, we're all dead."

Christine nodded, waving a finger back and forth between my collar and hers.

"We work together, you've got a better chance of getting what you want." I said "I'm not trying to order you around, but we stand a better chance of things by working with each other, not against. I'll do what I can to help you along the way. Because frankly, whether the rest of you agree with me or not, we're in a sinking boat. It takes more than one person to bail it out."

Christine crossed her arms and rolled her eyes, like an obstinate child. But as she stood there, she began to nod slowly, likely coming to terms with it. She didn't have to like the idea of working with me, and especially not with helping the old man, for that matter. But liking something and needing to do it were two ideas that didn't always need to share a room. Right now, just getting a handle on the situation was how to start, she could worry about the rest later.

She nodded her head to the door, relaxing her stance.

"Alright, anything else before we get to it?" I asked.

She thought for a moment, then motioned to me, patting a spot on her waist.

"What?" I asked.

She patted the spot, again, making a pulling motion.

I said nothing, tilting my head in confusion.

She seemed to get that I wasn't getting it, and walked up to me. She stabbed a finger at one of the pouches at the front of my waist, before reaching out to open it. Rather than risk a repeat of earlier, I let her rifle through it. I couldn't recall putting anything in it either.

Which was why I was surprised when she pulled a pack of bubblegum out of the pouch. She gingerly opened the packaging before popping a piece into her mouth.

Confusion hit me for a second, before it hit me: the suit had to come from somewhere.

"… This is yours, isn't it?" I asked

Christine gave me a small, quirked smile that screamed 'No shit.'. She then shook her head and started out of the room. Leaving me to follow after her.

"… Yeah, this is gonna take a while."

I opened my eyes, warding off sleep as it tried to grip me deeper than it had. That was sloppy. Of all the places I could afford to be dozing off, this wasn't one of them.

I was in the back of a dimly lit room, walls painted in shadow and ink. Tables and booths littered the room, each in candle light. Burning softly in the dark void, like distant campfires, casting long shadows, illuminating the vaguest forms and figures around them. The soft murmur of quiet conversation and hushed tones of conspiracy hung in the air like smoke. At the furthest end of the room from me, a stage. Lit and shining like the dawning sun in the gloom.

There was a band of five on it. Four young men and a woman. None of them old enough to be out of their twenties yet. They were playing an instrumental piece, even with the woman at the mic. Seemed more like a closing piece, I must have missed their set.

(**BGM**: Astray, Ok Goodnight)

I carefully pushed out of my seat and stood up from the table I was at. I hadn't been planning to sit around waiting in here, but I didn't have many other options.

I wound up getting to Burnie's a bit earlier than planned. Shouldn't have been a problem, judging purely by appearances, it seemed like the right place from the outside. After almost striking it big last night, I thought I was onto something here. I slipped the guy at the front door a denarii to let me in, and found my way to a table at the back, near a corner. Get a nice view of the place and clientele. If everything panned out, I'd be able to snap up the information and be out before moonrise.

Of course, that wasn't what happened.

People trickled in, sat at tables and booths. Waiters would go around, taking drink orders, sometimes bring back food too. Acts would go up on stage, none of what I was expecting. Started with a pair of guys, hecklers. They were followed by a small troupe, who performed a piece of some play I knew nothing about. Something to do with money and a comically large red button. After they finished, they were followed immediately by a lone woman, a comedian. She was pretty good, managed to squeak a chuckle or two out of me at first. Then she started in on these puns that made me want to bore out my eardrums with a rusty nail.

I got the sense this place had been on Yang's list for an entirely different reason.

This wasn't a bar; it was a cabaret of all things. Another bust.

I nodded off not long after the woman left the stage. Must not have been out for too long, but letting myself pass out here hadn't been the smartest decision anyway. But, since nothing did happen, either this wasn't the type of place to be looking at or they at least knew better than to try anything. As good a reason to keep moving as any.

I began to weave my way back around to the exit. I got some strange looks from the staff on the way out. I had to assume most of them weren't on when I'd come in, or just hadn't noticed me. I'd been doing my best to stay unnoticed, at least the poor lighting and my armor's natural shade helped with that. Made sure the candle at my table was snuffed too. Did my best to make sure I wasn't overt about my presence, for whatever that amounted to. I got a strange look as slipped past a tattooed waitress and booked it out the door. Not like there was anything I could be taking on the way out, and they couldn't stick me with a bill. The bouncer, a shaven headed, burly guy with a spider tattoo over the nape of his neck, made no move to stop me as I went. Which at showed I was at least in the clear, or low enough of the radar to not be bothered with.

I stepped out into the soft lit streets of the summer night. Humidity still clinging like a moist rag to everything, the night sky far above not quite yet its right shade, still clinging to the fleeting rays of the setting sun. But the moon was already shining bright, and the barest pinpricks of starlight had begun to push through. There was something different in the air tonight. Not quite the tension that'd been there. Something pensive and at a knife's edge, but not as it had been. Something was changing, whether it was a result of my actions or not.

But this wasn't a time to celebrate. A few victories here and there didn't change anything if the White Fang's end goal succeeded anyway. I needed to keep going.

I opened my Pip-boy and went to the map. It'd been growing populated recently. Set with markers for every place I'd been, and some I'd yet to be. Like Byz's Tailory, the docks, or the antique shop Ruby and I had visited long ago. There was even one for the stash-house I'd been to the night before. My new interest, however, was among the latter category. The places I had yet to be.

The map of Vale I'd found in the stash-house the night before had been marked with more than plans. They gave rough locations of rallying points, maybe other stash-houses. Probably not all of the ones in Vale, but more than enough to follow up on. I'd left the map for the police to find, help set them on the trail as well. But I couldn't trust them to actually do it at this point. The fact they'd been as obstinate as they were to try and prevent last night's attack was proof enough of that for me. Maybe they couldn't spare an officer for every 'lead' that came in, no telling how many false ones they get nightly. But when some ass-hat calls you and starts telling you people are gonna die, you wise the hell up and listen.

Part of the reason I'd chosen Burnie's tonight was its proximity to one of the rally points. Maybe there was nothing there. Maybe the cops actually hit it. Or maybe there was something there and the cops missed it. I gained nothing from just leaving them as 'maybe'. The sooner I got them crossed off, the better consolidated my actual leads would be.

Judging by my map, the prospective rally point was roughly a block and a half east of the cabaret. Easy enough to cut across if you know where to go. The more time I spent wandering Vale, the better an idea I got of its layout. Not that memorizing the entire city's network of streets and alleys was easy. It's not like every one of them was similar enough to be inconsequential. It wasn't quick either. Cutting down alleys may have been faster than sticking to the streets, but not by much. If there wasn't an alley that went the way I needed, or it was barricaded well enough, I was still forced to take the long way. I needed to come up with a better solution. In that moment though, it was going to have to do. I did my best to avoid drawing attention as I went. Even with the knowledge that hunters and students had tendencies towards strange clothing, I knew I stood out. Just a smidge. In the Mojave you were typically left well enough alone for your clothing choices. Unless you felt like sporting enemy colors and parading through the wrong neighborhood. Then you'd probably be used for target practice. But here, in polite society, I guess it was frowned upon to wander around in a gasmask and body armor.

Joke's on them, at least I'd survive getting teargassed.

It took about five minutes of dodging between shadows before I reached the rally point. Maybe a bit less. With any luck, I avoided garnering any otherwise unwanted attention and could take my time.

The rally point wasn't what I was expecting, after the previous night. In fact, it was almost the exact opposite. The stash-house had been an otherwise out of the way location. A condemned building that nobody in their right mind would go into, much less climb to the top floor of. Anyone who did was either begging to be disappeared, or otherwise incapable of recognizing obvious dangers.

Tonight's rally point was a corner store.

A well-lit, and clearly patronized one.

It sat squarely on the corner of the street, set into the ground floor of a building. Large, untinted windows running the lengths of the exterior walls. The exterior was brick, a bit aged but showing no major disrepair. The signage was bright and looked new, no fading, either recently replaced or freshly cleaned. It read 'Flax's Foods and Corner Mart'. I could see shelves and displays through the windows, illuminated by overhead lighting. Rows of boxed and canned goods, some displays of produce. There was a clear display for smokes behind the counter, beside a bleary-eyed looking man with an odd pair of antlers on his head. Short, round, stumpy, and sticking out of the crown of his head. His hair a bizarre meshing of blonde and brown, broken into patches and lines. There didn't appear to be anyone else inside, aside from workers, clerks. Looking overhead, there were lights on in the upper floors. Signs of life within. Apartments, maybe.

I looked down at my pip-boy, just to make sure I was at the right place.

Not exactly a place that screamed sinister intentions.

But hey, I've been in the Ultra Luxe's kitchen. Looks are deceiving.

Fairly certain I was at the right place, I started puzzling out my course of action. I didn't know where in the building the Stash-house would be. It wasn't impossible for it to be up with the rest of the apartments. Or even in a backroom of the store. But they had a higher risk of being discovered by accident, or overheard by overly nosey types. It's a lot harder for people to disappear in close proximity to each other, not without arousing suspicion. So that helped limit it by a small margin. Maybe not in the store proper, but someplace isolated in the building.

I could start with scratching the apartments off the list. There was plenty of room for them to work with, but also a greater likelihood of discovery. It was one thing if only a few people lived in the building, or if it was out of the way. But, even barring the fact it was seated over an active place of business, there were clearly people who lived there. Maybe you can make a handful of people disappear with the right conditions, but certainly not an entire apartment building. In the middle of Vale. Further still, the neighbors would get wise once they saw White Fang streaming out of the place. Unless they were coming and going plainclothes, someone was bound to notice eventually. Too many things that could go wrong using the apartment this time.

The corner store was different matter entirely.

Going through the front door wasn't an option, for much the same reasons as the apartment. But places like this normally had a loading area. Would be a pain if they could only take deliveries through the front. The White Fang didn't seem to have a problem procuring vehicles, if their use of Bullheads during their attempted robbery at the docks a few weeks back was any indication. So they had choices for how to go into the building that way. But that didn't leave them a lot of room to work. Assuming the store still operated appropriately, as it appeared to, they couldn't be stashing hardware with the produce. Where would they go from there?

I needed to get inside and start snooping.

I walked back down the street, around the building. The nearest alley was big enough to fit a vehicle and, sure enough, there was a small loading area partway down. It was lit up, likely a safety precaution, and was on a raised concrete platform. The alley itself slopping down to accommodate.

I dipped down the alley and made for the loading bay. I kept my eyes open, just on the off chance there was a security system in place. Not that I'd seen any around Vale aside from the CCT tower, but I've been taken by surprise enough to know better by now. Or at least know to be vigilant. The trend seemed to be holding the same though, no security. I crept up to the loading dock, mantling onto the dock itself, and checked to see if anything was unlocked.

It wasn't.

Which was annoying but fitting. No security beyond that anyway.

I swiveled my head for a moment, making sure I was the only person in the alley, before setting to work. The bay door had a lock built into it, and I had a bobby pin. I slipped it into the key hole and began carefully applying pressure to the pins. It was a fairly simple lock, didn't take more than a moment to get the tumbler moving.

Bay door unlocked, I took a moment to listen. My hearing may not be the best, and I was trying to listen through a couple inches of steel, but it was worth a shot. If there was anyone on the other side, White Fang or not, I was basically breaking and entering. Not the trouble I needed to be getting into right now. Not to mention that opening the bay door was going to make a fair bit of noise. These things never rolled up quietly back in the Mojave. As far as I could tell though, things were all quiet on the other side.

Carefully, slowly, I squeezed my fingers beneath the lower lip of the door and lifted. The door was heavy, but rolled smoothly. I raised it only a small amount, maybe a foot or so, just enough to peer inside. The interior was dark, compared to the loading bay, the lights seemed to be turned off. I could see crates of produce through my helmet's lowlight vision. There were tables and shelving along the walls. Arrayed with equipment that ranged from heavy equipment for unloading, to small blades for unpacking. I could hear the barest echoes of conversation mingled with the stale droning of muzak, but saw no one.

I was in the clear.

I lowered myself to the floor and slid through the gap I'd opened, being careful of the noise I made as I went. Inside, I carefully lowered the bay door back into place, and rose to a crouch. I double checked to make sure the room was empty and was satisfied that it was. Made sense, we were getting to the part of the night where most businesses would start to be closing shop. Anyone here was probably part of the night shift, a skeleton crew at most.

I took a moment to check the crates of produce, just making sure they weren't hiding weapons. A quick glance told me no, and I was willing to take that for an answer. My pip-boy was pointing elsewhere anyway, I'd just wanted to make sure there weren't any grenades bunking with the grapefruits.

On the wall opposite the bay door was a set of push doors, leading to an illuminated hallway. The hall itself splitting to the left and right. To the left, at the far end, were two more sets of doors. One seemed to lead back to the sales floor. The other I wasn't sure, perhaps an office or break room of some kind. I wasn't going to check. My Pip-boy was pointing the other way and the voices were coming from that direction.

The other way led to a stairwell, ascending higher into the building, and descending somewhere beneath it.

That was where I was being pointed.

Sneaking a look towards the store proper, making sure no one was approaching, I started towards the stairwell. Muted footfalls meeting concrete like rain on soft soil. At the foot of the stairs, I had to make a choice: up or down. Assuming my assumptions held true, there wouldn't be much for me on the upper floors. But I could be wrong. I needed to approach this with a plan. I wasn't in a rush yet, but the last two nights showed how quickly that could change. So, handling it logically was the only solution.

There should be less space below us.

Ergo: Start from the bottom and work my way up.

I began descending the stairs leading into the bowels of the building. As I went, metal piping and wires began to poke from and line the walls. Most galvanized iron or copper, gas and water lines, probably. Wouldn't know unless I took them apart, and I didn't have time for that. Just needed to be aware of it. If a fight started, being aware of my surroundings was important. Didn't want a stray bullet blowing everyone and me in the building to kingdom come. That would interfere with the situation I'd grown so fond of, known as living.

Two staircases down into the ground, and I felt the air change. The humidity came back, but didn't carry any of the heat it previously had with it. Left the air feeling damp, cool. The lighting was sparse, but present. Probably a safety guideline to keep someone from stumbling around down here in the dark. The pipes on the walls grew thicker, weaving intricate webs as they slunk along the concrete like metallic worms.

The stairwell opened into a short hallway, before spilling into a larger room that seemed to span the foundation of the building. The pipes along the walls spanning out, conjoining to tanks, furnaces, and boilers. The heart of the building.

Much of the area was open flooring, occupied by wood crates and cardboard boxes. The ceiling was open, revealing the steel supports of the concrete floor above. Some rusted shelving at the walls, coated thick with dust and weighed down with old aerosol cans. Sheets of cloth and tarps draped over some of the boxing, rested on a few of the tables. Nothing out of the ordinary, it would certainly help keep dust off of them.

Because of course that's what it was doing.

I walked out into the dim room and scanned over the crates. Most of the uncovered ones were coated with dust and grime, the visible nails and screws rusted with the damp in the air. Some of them were open, showing bits of old shelving, likely used in the store above us. Not what I was looking for. I let my eyes fall onto the tarping over the nearby crates and tables.

I felt a smirk worm onto my face.

The tarps were dust free.

I grabbed the tarp over the nearest crate and pulled it off with a flourish. Kicking up and swirling the fleck of dust in and grime already in the air. Beneath the tarp, nestled into the crate, were carrying cases. Visibly made of composite materials and clasped shut. Weapons cases.

Pay dirt.

I looked at the rest of the tarp covered crates and furniture, and immediately began whipping them off. Crates of weapons, cases of ammo, boxes of clothing and armor. The numbers were smaller than what I'd found the previous night, but the contents were no different. In some cases, they were even identical.

I whipped the sheet off of the table, one of the cheap, folding one. There was a map of Vale on it. Marked exactly like the one from the previous night.

No doubt about it, this was a stash-house, and had been a rally point the previous night.

I looked over my shoulder for a moment, as much listening as looking to see if anyone was approaching yet. The dull roar of furnaces and hum of flowing water were the only sounds to be had, so I seemed to be in the clear yet.

I grabbed a random handful of ammo and stuck it into my pocket as I began to look over the map. The plans for the previous night were still marked on it. If anything, they were more clearly represented on the larger table. Wonders of appropriately sized equipment. At the edges of the map, clearly being used to weigh it down, were folders and dossiers. Business ledgers, if the very obvious SDC logo was anything to go by.

I began looking over the map, comparing it with what I knew as I opened the nearest ledger. Most of the map markings seemed the same, most of the differences only seemed to be minor. They mostly seemed concerned with whatever this particular gaggle of White Fang were interested in. I bet if I really looked, I could track most of the unknown marking back to places that'd gotten hit over the last few weeks. The ledgers weren't much better. Looking over the numbers and dates, I could make some connections to the robberies that were already recorded on the map back at the dorms. They gave some sparse detail about what was taken. Numbers mostly, quantities. Typically dealing in tonnages of Dust, and varieties. The only ones that stuck out as odd were the train robberies. The ones towards Vale's southern edge, focused more on supplies than Dust. Though the ledger confirmed what was stolen were more common odds and ends of the job. Like food and medical supplies, or weapons and survival gear.

I couldn't tell if these were official documents, or ones compiled by the White Fang either.

Though the fact that one of the reports stated they'd gotten a 'FUCKING ROBOT!' seemed to lean more towards them being one made by the White Fang. But there was something official about the way the information was compiled. The odd notes, such as their 'robot', seemed to be just that: notes. Things added on as an afterthought. But that just made things even more troubling. If they were official, then how did the White Fang get a handle on them? I had to jump through hoops to get my copy, and that was with clearance from a member of the Schnee family itself. In either case, I added the ledger to my litany of items. I was certain something on it would prove useful, even if it was just for clarification.

Also, they'd acquired a robot of some kind. That was something. If it was anything like what we'd talked about tonight, I wasn't so worried.

But beyond that, I was having trouble finding anything else of actual value. Pretty much everything I was seeing I'd already figured out the night before, or sooner. The few other ledgers that were present didn't shed any light on what the White Fang was planning, only what they'd done. Maybe there was more to be discerned from them, a pattern. But we already had that on the back burner, and I could only carry so many books with me at one time, unfortunately. At what point the information became redundant was also an issue.

I went back to the crates ringing the table, and began rifling through them. Searching for any more information about what was going on. This place didn't seem as heavily equipped as the one from last night, but there had to be something more here. As I dug through the boxes though, all I found were more weapons and ammo. Some of their uniforms in addition to that, and more of those ridiculous metal masks they wore.

There was nothing else.

All in all, it would mean that this place was a bust. Not great, but not the worst thing to happen either. I could at least knock it off the list, and the night was still young. Plenty of time to track down a few more stash-houses or get into deeper trouble. That didn't change that it was frustrating. There was no telling if the White Fang had anything planned for tonight. They had the last two nights, more or less, so a third wasn't out of the question for the time being. But that also meant I couldn't hang around here for too much longer either. If I couldn't find anything else, I needed to go.

I looked back at the map for a while longer, then grunted and started back towards the stairs. Looking down at my Pip-boy as I went, queuing up my next destination. The night was getting into swing, so the bars were probably busy now. The White Fang was probably beginning to rally again too. So, hitting more of their stash-houses would yie-

I heard the echoing grate of the steel bay door rising open.

My head snapped up from my Pip-boy, tracing the sound.

It echoed down from the stairwell like the low rumble of a hungry deathclaw. Almost as quickly as I'd heard it rise, I heard it thunder shut again. Hitting the concrete dock with a clattering of metal panels. As it faded into the din, I heard the echoing patter of steps.

Voices carried with them. They were getting closer.

I froze, staring at the stairwell. I knew the stairs went higher into the building, but I could guess they weren't going that way. We were in the backend of a corner store, there were easier ways to get up into the building than that.

My heart ratcheted up a notch as I, admittedly, hesitated before whipping back around. Of all the times I could afford to lock-up, this wasn't one of them. I'd left the place opened up completely, not worrying about whether or not anyone else found it that way. No sense in being polite with what I was doing here, I hadn't planned to be around when someone showed up anyway.

Now it made hiding more difficult.

I darted back to the crates and began haphazardly sweeping items back into them. Not so much caring about what went where, so long as it didn't make a mess of noise while doing it. I knew these guys had better senses than I did, last thing I needed was to give a different early warning. Once everything was more or less re-boxed, I threw the tarps back over them, leaving only the table exposed.

At right about that time, I heard the footsteps begins descending the stairs. Each echoing through the room with a metallic thunk.

I didn't have time to recover the table, I just needed to hope it wouldn't set them off right away. I needed to hide, but where? The room was sparse, the only thing providing cover were the crates and table, none of which provided me with anything meaningful.

My head swiveled around, trying to find some place to hide, and turning up nothing.

Then I looked up, and got a stupid idea.

The rafters were open. Just low enough I might reach them.

'…'

I planted my foot onto the map and pushed up. I hadn't gotten a lot of practice pushing my aura to its limits yet, or even keeping extended control over it. But if there was one thing I'd learned today it was that I had a vertical lift of over ten feet.

The table creaked a little as I pushed off, and I launched towards the ceiling. My head passed the rafters completely, nearly connecting with the floor above. May arms shot out and grabbed the supports before gravity could re-exert control over me. I found purchase in the space between the bare steel beams, and levered myself up out of sight. Dust, the normal kind, fell off the girders as I went still. It drifted silently down on the table and floor beneath me.

I turned to look towards the stairs, finding that whoever was approaching had just rounded the corner and started down the last flight of stairs.

There were three of them. Three guys, two of them dressed in street clothes, unassuming and otherwise bland. The other was in a business uniform, brightly colored shirt with a logo over the right breast. Likely for the store sitting over our heads. One of the plain clothed was carrying a brown paper bag, stained and splotched with what looked like grease.

All three of them were clearly faunus. Bag-man had scales reaching up either side of his neck. Business-boy had what looked like a pair of ant's pincers sprouting out of his mouth. The last one, plainclothes, had a pair of spotted dog ears sprouting from the top of his head, and flopping off to either side.

"So, I get the food, and turn around to leave-" Bag-man said "- and there's these two donut munchers sitting at the door. And they're eyeing me like I'm the bad guy."

"Facts man, facts." Business-boy said "They try something?"

"Nah, nah, but if they did, I'd have dropped their asses." Bag-man said, reaching the bottom of the stairs "So anyway, I get outside, and they got their car parked just around the corner. Idiots parked it someplace they couldn't see."

"What'd you do?" Plainclothes asked

Bag-man smirked "I popped open the fuel tank with my knife and poured in some of that fire dust we lifted a few weeks back into it. I barely got down the street before the thing went up like a damn firework. Had to have busted out every window on the street."

"Da-yum." Business-boy said, cutting the word with a chuckle "You crazy motherfucker."

"Serves 'em right." Plainclothes said "Buncha fascist pigs."

"Yeah." Bag-man growled "But we'll teach'em. We're gonna be runnin' it."

The three men crossed the room, weaving their way to the table. They situated themselves around it, and Bag-man set his parcel down on it. He unfurled the top of the bag and drew out two foil wrapped objects. He tossed two of them across the table to Business and Plainclothes. Both of whom ripped open the foil, revealing some kind of flatbread wrapped sandwich, which they tore into.

"So, what's the word tonight?" Bag-man asked, pulling out his own sandwich, plus a fourth "The past few nights turned into busts real quick, we get any word why?"

"No ideas so far." Business said "All we know is the cops got wind of what was going on and were ready to meet us. Plus half the teams we had ready didn't even show. Guys up the chain wanna know why too."

I smirked at that.

"Man, that's all kinds of fucked up." Bag-man said "So what now?"

"Dunno." Plainclothes said "But they're not going to try something big again tonight, right?"

"No, word came down they want us to hold back for a few nights." Business said, taking another bite of their food "Shit going wrong the first night was bound to happen. I'm thinkin' now that it's happened twice, they're startin' to think someone is screwin' with us. They wanna know who before we blow more resources on somethin' like last night again."

I felt my smirk blow up into a smile. If there was a piece of good news I needed right then, that was certainly a start. The smile didn't last long though. Just because I'd managed to keep them from making big moves, didn't change that people could move independently. Even small moves were still moves.

"So, what's that mean for us then?" Plainclothes asked "We just gonna sit around with our thumbs up our asses, or are we gonna do something?"

"Oh, we're definitely still doin' something." Bag-man said "They didn't say anything about us stopping, just can't have it be big. Soon as everyone shows up we'll split, see what we can make of the night."

"What're you thinkin'?" Business asked.

"I'm thinkin' we'll start with finishin' off these burritos, then prep for when the rest show up. There's this jewelry place over on Smith street that's lookin' pretty ripe. And I know you two got some ideas, lookin' at the smirks on your faces."

Plainclothes nodded "Managed to track down that asshole who canned my old man. Think me and a couple of the guys could pay him a visit."

"Basic." Business smirked "I got a line on some hardware we might like, Atlas tech. Better than we got now for sure."

Bag-man nodded, biting into his food. "Think we're all going to make out good then."

For a bad definition of 'good', they probably would.

But that was assuming I let them go through with it. I knew it was going to happen, and they were all going to gather here anyway. That made things simple. All I had to do was hang up there in the rafters until everyone showed up, then remove them from the equation. The only real problem was whether or not I could continue clinging to the ceiling like that. Either they were going to see me first, or the pins and needles slowly burning through my arms would drop me on them prematurely.

Then Business motioned to the yet un-eaten food, a 'burrito'. "So, where's Natty?"

"Busy." Bag-man huffed "Said she'd meet me, but changed her mind at the last minute. Said she needed to pay a visit to someone who owed her some lien. Had a few of the others head with her just to make sure, said she'd be here after."

Plainclothes and Business murmured and nodded at that. They then moved the conversation on to a different topic, and I tuned them out. Given their plans for the evening, it clearly wasn't an uncommon thing for them.

'…Welp, that settles things.'

Revolutionaries fighting for Faunus' rights? Yeah, right. These assholes were no better than common thugs.

I'd say this fell well enough within my criteria to intervene. But I was going to need more information, and quickly. There was no telling what I already missed while hanging from the ceiling like a mailman shaped light fixture.

I took a breath and began planning how to get rid of these three. I pictured in my mind how it would go, took guesses at who would move where and grab what. We were surrounded by weapons, so I had to assume at least one of them would try to make a grab at them. One would try to rush me, and Bag-man claimed he had a knife, so it would probably be him. He was the one I needed information from if I was going to find the last member of the quartet, so I couldn't just beat him unconscious outright. I needed to keep him at distance and busy. I could probably hit him a few times with my cattle prod, leave him dazed long enough to deal with the other two. I would need to work quickly, but I didn't know how many other people were in the building, or even just above us. I could get the shots off fast enough with VATs, I was sure. But I needed to have the time to get the information out of Bag-man.

The thoughts moved in such a fashion until I felt them click into place.

Drop down, brain Bag-man with the cattle prod, buy myself a few seconds. Lunge at Plainclothes before he has a chance to move, or at least get too far out of reach. Business will have a chance to make a play for the weapons, but the surprise might addle him. Getting a weapon ready while fighting off adrenaline and jangling nerves is something that takes long hours and lots of practice. Something most of these White Fang seemed to lack. I wouldn't have to be as gentle with Plainclothes, which would help save time. I was willing to bet I could drop him before Business could fight his nerves off and get a weapon ready. Taking care of business wouldn't be too difficult after that. Which would hopefully leave me with enough of a window to get what I needed out of Bag-man.

It was about as much of a plan as I could ever normally muster for a fight.

"… Wait a sec." Business said, head suddenly swiveling "Didn't we cover the map back up before leaving last night?"

And then they finally started paying attention to what was right in front of them.

Bag-man and Plainclothes stopped eating, Bag-man hovering mid-bite while Plainclothes crammed the rest halfway into his gob. The seized up, save for their eyes, which seemed to lock and dart between each other.

Business examined the table for a moment, before stilling, focusing on something. He leaned in over the table, staring down at a piece of the map on the opposite side of the table. "Is that a boot print?"

Sure enough, there was a dusty boot print imprinted at the edge of the map. Right where I'd launched up from.

It's not like they had a welcome mat to wipe my feet on.

The more sharply dressed member of the White Fang leaned out and across the table. Enough so that he could reach a hand out and paw at the boot mark. Rubbing at it to find, yep, it was dirt. What a surprise. It would nicely compliment the boot mark on his head.

As Business' head slowly turned towards the ceiling, I launched myself from the rafters. Plummeting back towards the table. I didn't have to try and hurt Business to succeed. Even if he'd had the opportunity to concentrate his aura into a guard, I was going to hit him hard. I wasn't falling particularly fast, or even all that far. But gravity works quickly, and concentrating all of that momentum and mass into a smaller area meant a harder strike. A fist won't pierce skin, but the point of a knife will.

I came down on him like a pile driver. His aura shattering on contact as his head slammed into the table with force enough to break the flimsy material, collapsing it inward from the impact. The map and its markers tumbling in around us as the crash of the impact echoed in the close quarters of the basement.

There was a moment where both Plainclothes and Bag-man froze, stupefied. They should have checked their surroundings. But that worked just fine for me.

Right as the world began to move again, Plainclothes stumbled back, moving towards one of the crates. I launched off of Business, drawing my Cattle Prod fluidly. Plainclothes was half turned away from me when I hit him, catching him in the small of his back with the electrode. He tensed mid-stride, causing him to trip to the floor. I came down on him almost as hard as I did Business, jamming the electrode into the base of his skull. Plainclothes tensed involuntarily, every muscle in his body misfiring at once in an effort to free itself from the shock. It didn't work, my weapon stayed firmly in place. I kept it there as I turned to look at Bag-man.

The shock of seeing his friends get taken out in the blink of an eye must've thrown him. He'd stayed frozen in place, even as I was slowly electrocuting his friend. Surprise written on his face, a hint of fear in his eyes.

He finally managed to force himself to move at the same time Plainclothes' aura broke. Bag-man's hand dove into a pocket and snapped back out with a knife, a basic switchblade. He rushed me with six inches of gleaming steel in his hand. Plainclothes let out a pitiful peel of pain as the electrode left his neck, his body curling up defensively as I shot up into a stance. I was no more worried about him getting up to attack me than I was Business doing the same.

Bag-man got into cutting range and flipped the knife with a flourish, slashing at me in a reverse grip. I dipped back, easily avoiding it, and my free hand shot out, clasping down on his knife arm. I gripped it like steel as I drove the end of the Cattle prod into the soft spot just under his ribs. Using the leverage of his arm, I dug it in as far as it would go.

I felt the barest tingle of electricity through my aura as the hit reached home. Bag-man yowled in pain, and the knife fell from his grasp. Keeping the prod in place and my grip strong, I kicked a leg out from under him and drove him to the floor. Only after he'd touched down did I remove the cattle prod, crashing my knee down into his ribs instead. Bag-man groaned, but tried to resist. Without the cattle prod to slow him down anymore, he tried to take a swing at me with his free arm.

I batted it aside with ease, using the same motion to punch him in the face with the fist holding my prod. Further disoriented, he tried to wrench his knife arm free of my grip. I didn't release it, instead keeping my grip on it. Initially just to keep him from having the chance to hit me. But as I grasped his arm, something felt… off. Something about it wasn't moving the way it should. I don't know how I knew that, but even with his aura, it didn't seem as strong.

As his arm jerked in a bid to get away from me, I felt a spot where it locked up momentarily. I pushed down on it, forcing it to jerk in the wrong direction.

His aura broke.

His shoulder left its socket with a meaty *pop*.

The barest howl of pain began to escape Bag-man as I forced the now dislocated limb to the floor. I resisted the urge to try and understand what just happened, and focused on what was going on. I released his arm and reached down to my boot. I drew Blood-nap from its sheath and stabbed it down next to his head. Caught his ear a bit, drew blood.

The howl stopped, but the pain was clear on his face, mixed with bewildered fear.

"My knife's bigger and sharper than yours." I growled, leaning the edge closer to his face "Tell me what I want to know, or I'm going to cut your teeth out."

Bag-man stared at me dumbly for a moment, before his head shook in the barest semblance of a nod. Voice a fearful shadow of itself as he muttered "Y-yeah- yes."

"Your friend." I growled "Where is she?"

Bag-man blinked as it took a moment for the information to pass through the fear. I second passed before he got what I was asking. "Y-you mean Nat?-"

"I don't give a fuck what her name is." I growled "Tell me where she is, now."

"Okay- okay, fuck-" Bag-man sputtered "She should be at the corner of Roscoe and McCloud-"

"Should be?" I asked, letting the edge of the knife start to dig into his cheek

"I- I don't know- yes!" he stuttered "That's where she said she was going- I swear I don't know!"

A moment passed as I kept the knife to his face. Half expecting him to try and make another desperate attempt to escape, or cough up something else. But it wound up being unnecessary. Before he could do anything, my Pip-boy made a noise. Signaling something he'd said had triggered one of its functions. It wasn't the grinding noise it made whenever I had a new job, it was something different. There were only a handful of things it otherwise could have been.

I had a feeling I knew which it was, and grit my teeth.

"Thank you."

I released Blood-nap, and grabbed him by the face. I reeled him back, before smashing his head into the concrete floor. Not hard enough to kill, but enough to make him a non-issue. I stood up, leaving him on the floor as I went to my Pip-boy.

I was right, there hadn't been a new 'quest' opened. But a marker had been added to my map of Vale. Which I had to guess was the corner of Roscoe and McCloud. Meaning if there was any truth to what he'd said, that's where I needed to go.

It was also half way across the damn district.

Before I could begin to really process that though, I heard heavy footfalls on the floor above me. They were moving quick, running. My little surprise attack must have garnered someone's attention. I didn't know who knew that all this was under here, but I had to assume at least someone did. There was no telling just what kind of fight I was about to get thrown into if I stayed. Not to mention the trouble that would come with getting tangled up in this scene.

I paused for half a second to grab Natty's 'burrito' and bolted for the stairs. No sense in wasting food.

With a burst of aura, I skipped the entire first flight of stairs, spring boarded off the wall, and was half way up the second before my feet touched down. If I'd even had half a second to realize I'd done that, I'd probably have marveled at how ridiculous it was.

I took the stairs three at a time, and reached the ground floor just as someone dipped into sight at the far end of the hall, one of the workers.

With a twist, I threw myself to the next flight of stairs, leading further up into the building. An incredibly stupid decision on my part. The only thing I was going to succeed at doing if I fucked up was trapping myself in the building. But I wasn't going to get back to the loading dock and get the door open before they cornered me anyway. If I ran higher into the building, there was at least a chance I could get into the apartment building and find another exit. A fire escape even. So I started climbing the stairs.

I could hear them below me as I fought gravity and climbed higher into the building. My list of problems just seemed to keep growing. Even if I found a way out of the building, I still had to figure out how to get across the district. While racing a clock that was already ticking down.

Why did I feel the need to put myself into this situation?

Because I couldn't just let them get away with it.

Because I'd promised to help stop the White Fang.

Because even if I didn't do it, let it happen without trying to interfere, I'd regret it.

Having a conscience blows.

I pushed harder. Trying to climb the stairs faster. There had to be a door into the apartment building on one of the coming floors. I could hear the foot falls pounding beneath me. Whoever was chasing me either knew what I'd done, or had an idea of it. I needed to get out before I got cornered. I'd already passed two floors.

Three.

Four.

There looked to be only five or six floors from outside.

I was running out of building.

If I couldn't find a way out, I was going to have to fight my way back down. Plus anything else they'd be able to call up in the time that took. By then it would all have been for nothing. Some schmuck would be dead, and there wouldn't be a damn thing for it. No way in hell I was winning that race. But there was no exit. The most I'd be able to hope for was a door with roof access. What was I going to do then, jump off the roof?

'…'

I needed to stop giving myself stupid ideas.

But if it worked…

I pushed hard again, clearing another flight of stairs. The foot falls had gotten more distant below me. Running up stairs is a good work out. They must've skipped cardio and hoped their auras would compensate.

I rounded the corner of the next floor, and finally found a door. A fire escape for the apartment probably.

I avoided it and continued climbing.

The next door was another two floors up, and the stairs stopped with it. A steel door, clearly rigged with an alarm. It went off as I slammed into the door, spilling out onto a tar and stone rooftop. Klaxons and lights went off as I skidded out into the night. Up above the amber streets below, the stars shone brighter. Shining soft pinpricks of silvery white light. The moon dying the ground deep blue and ink black, stretching shadows long and deep.

I couldn't hear anything from the stairwell over the alarm. With any luck though, the alarm would get the authorities attention. Save me the trouble of having to do it later.

I checked my Pip-boy, orienting myself in the appropriate direction. I walked to the edge of the building, gauging. We were high up, couldn't say how far exactly. If a story was fourteen feet, then we were somewhere over eighty. High enough fall to kill a man, especially with asphalt to catch you.

The building across the alley was maybe a quarter of that distance away, and only about a ten-foot drop.

This was stupid.

"…I'm not drunk enough to do this." I grunted, quickly pacing back towards the door, building distance. "The guy's probably dead anyway, Natty or whatever her name is probably already came and went." I turned back towards the edge of the building. "And here I am, about to-"

I bolted towards the edge of the building, focusing my aura into my legs. Kicking up gravel with each step. My heart shot with adrenaline and every brain cell in my head screamed simultaneously to stop. Couldn't do that though, not enough speed and I would be dead. I measured my steps as I ran, making sure I didn't fuck up right at the end.

I reached the edge of the roof, body beginning to lurch out into the abyss below me.

I planted my foot on the lip of the roof, channeling my aura into it.

I shot off the roof like a mortar. Sailing through the air between the buildings, the only noise in my ears being the thunder of my own heart and the whipping of my coat. My arms wind milling and flailing wildly as they tried to grasp at some invisible ledge, catch me before I hit the ground. It was surreal, knowing what I just did, and seeing the ground so far below me.

But ten feet of lift was more than enough.

I cleared the gap and tumbled onto the opposing roof, falling to my hands and knees. I stayed there a moment, trying to grab hold of what I'd just done. I pushed up enough to look back over my shoulder. I could see the roof of the apartment building, some thirty feet away and ten feet higher.

A bewildered, half crazed laugh escaped my lips, before I shot to my feet. Forcing myself to focus. My body was shaking, adrenaline can do that. Heart was still pounding; meant I was alive. My aura was intact.

It meant I could keep running.

It wasn't a straight shot to where Natty was, but it was a far straighter one than running the streets.

And I'd just learned I could absolutely do it. Why couldn't I? I was a damned Acrobatic Marvel, ready to graduate to Walking on Water, given a chance. This was just a heart attack inducing cakewalk.

Using my compass as a guide, I began blazing a trail across Vale's skyline. The first few buildings were less tricky than the one that started it. Most were conjoined, roughly the same height even. Jumping across alleys wasn't a constant necessity, but it was a present one. I had to be careful, both to avoid falling and to avoid breaking my aura. I could call it back, but the more it broke the longer it took to recover. I couldn't afford to be gassed by the time I got there.

Or misstep and plummet to the ground some eighty feet below.

I leapt over an alley and sprinted across another roof top. The next one conjoined to it rose up another fifteen feet, higher than I could jump. I sprinted to the wall and kicked off it, pushing upward with my aura. I mantled over the edge of it and was sprinting again in a blink. An unexpected fruit of training at beacon, the obstacle course had helped prep me for this…

Oh, that's why they had us running it.

Well, now I really felt stupid. I was going to have to start pushing harder now.

The roofs changed height again, descending, and I dropped with it, having to roll with the impact. The pitch of the roof changed suddenly, and I found myself sliding uncontrollably down the roof. I opened VATs for a second to get my bearings, then launched off the roof, clearing my way onto the next. I came down harder on that one, feeling a dull throb shoot through me despite my aura. I came back to my feet and resumed my pace. Needed to be more careful.

I sidestepped and leapt over exposed piping and wiring, slipping past the machines they fed into. I used the machines as stepping stones to mantle over another roof. The one it feeding to had another pitched roof, too steep for me to run or jump across. But it had windows poking out through them, each with more manageable, gentle slopes that I could bound between. Tricky business, requiring precise footwork, but no more dangerous than what I'd already come through. The only hard part I had to fight was the urge to flail my arms in panic every time I made a long jump.

The buildings began to blur as I fell into a groove. Each step coming more naturally than the last, ground more stable with each footfall. My pip-boy pointed the way, and the buildings seemed to feed into each other. Even when I was only catching the corner of one and clearing the distance to another. The amber bathed streets below flashing and bleeding into the gloom I raced through. Warm light to match the warm night.

I cleared a building, the next rooftop home to a soft lit garden. I'm pretty sure I ran past two people having a romantic dinner. Would've been if I hadn't knocked their table over as I went. An accident, I swear.

As I jumped over to the next roof, I checked my Pip-boy again. I wasn't sure how fast I was running or how long I'd been doing it for, but it didn't matter.

I was almost there. Just a street away.

I reached for my flare gun as I touched down on the final roof, running up to the edge. I snapped open the receiver and slapped my improvised flash-round into it. I wasn't sure what I was going into, but starting with a bang seemed like a good idea.

I skittered to a halt right before the edge of the roof. According to my Pip-boy, the place I was looking for was right ahead. Lining the marker up with the buildings in front of me, it settled across the street on a squat, brick and mortar building. The neon out front depicting what could easily resemble a washing machine. Which I supposed made it a Laundromat, or some close approximation thereof.

There was a car waiting out front. My knowledge on cars was second hand at best, only what Raul would talk about sometimes. The designs were a bit different too, different origins from the Mojave. But if I had to my facts straight, it was a four-door sedan of some variety. A rusted, ramshackle thing somebody put a lot of effort into keeping on the road. That person was probably the one sitting behind the wheel right then. Visibly bored out of their skull.

And wearing a White Fang mask and hood.

How brazen and helpful of them.

The car was parked right out front of the Laundromat, directly across from the doors. There was a sign hanging on the door, I was a bit too far away to read what it said. The lights were still on though, dimmed but on. I could just make out someone standing near the door. It was either Natty, or one of the people she had with her.

No time for anything fancy, had to hit hard and fast. I'd leap across to the roof of the Laundromat, then down onto the roof of the car. The Laundromat was close enough I could reasonably do it without breaking my aura. I'd take care of the driver first, electrode to the temple should suffice if I moved quickly enough. Then I'd pop the flash-round into the Laundromat. At this hour there shouldn't be anyone in there other than the White Fang, Natty, and whoever she was here for. The blast would buy me an opening, and more time. I didn't know the numbers, the car was small, so the max they could take was five, six maybe? Assuming one of them was Natty, she could be in the company of up to four more, plus the guy waiting in the car. If I screwed up, that'd turn into a straight up six-on-Six gun fight.

Not a good time for me. I'd have to make it a bad one for them too.

Idea in my head, I took several strides back, and ran for the ledge, launching off it again as I had been. I pictured in my mind that I'd make it, it should've been an easy enough jump.

Except it wasn't.

I hit my crest about a third of the way there and started dropping like a stone.

Reality had decided to kick back in, and I'd undershot the jump.

I didn't stop my arms from flailing this time. "Oh fuck- NOT AGAIN-"

Careening towards the ground and not having many options, I tucked into a ball and tried to focus my aura. Putting it into specific limbs made them stronger, turning it into a guard should work the same.

I hit the pavement outside of the Laundromat, just past the car. Sharp pain shot through me as my aura shattered on impact with the ground. My tuck turned into a roll with the momentum of the fall, and I was carried forward, crashing into the Laundromat's entrance. The door slammed open, glass shattered and steel twisted. I skidded to a halt, on my ass, about five feet it. The world was spinning, and I was in a bit of pain.

I was also surrounded by three other White Fang.

The Laundromat was a dull place, painted in muted colours, with droning muzzac sharing airspace with the scent of detergent. There were machines spanning all four walls, plus two rows of them running the depth of the place. The White Fang were spread out a little bit, one on either row of washing machines. Plus one leaning at the end of them, near the door I'd just wrecking balled. There was a fourth at the far back of the Laundromat, leaning over an older looking man. A woman, wearing the same uniform as any of them, but with the hood and mask removed. She wore a different kind of mask, covering her mouth and nose instead, and her hair spilled out. Voluminous, lightly curled, and red as the sunset. I got the impression that was Natty.

The fact she'd stuck a knife into the older man's mouth spoke as such.

She, and the other White Fang looked at me with a start.

I just sat there, on my ass, regretting the impulsive decisions that'd led me there.

Yeah, not a good time for me.

The White Fang nearest the door started to overcome his surprise, reaching for a sword at his hip. Even in pain and nursing a broken ass, I was still a faster draw than him. I pulled out my flare gun, wasting half a second to aim at the row of machines he was leaning on, and squeezed the round of. Having the prescience to at least close my eyes before the round made impact. I don't know how much good it actually did me.

See, the flash-round had already proven it was stronger than the actual thing I based it on. This was despite the fact it'd been used at fighting range, and in an open area. I hadn't stopped to consider the fact we were fighting indoors.

Light seared bright through the lenses of my gasmask, through my eyelids. Dying my vision a bright red, like staring at the sun when you're eyes are shut. Painful but tolerable.

The noise would've been enough to knock me on my ass if I was standing. A nearly physical concussive wave carried with it. It pushed me onto my back as it detonated, sent my ears ringing in a way worse than they had earlier that day. A million nails on the world's loudest chalkboard, each being stabbed straight into my head. A chorus of bells, keeping time to the roll of thunder.

I needed to revisit the formula and try a weaker mixture if I ever wanted to try this again.

But if it hit me that bad, it had to hit the White Fang worse. This kind of auditory abuse would be crippling to them.

A second passed, then a third, and I opened my eyes. Their re-adjustment feeling like screws being driven into the sides of my head. The world was off-kilter, must have been an inner-ear thing. I forced myself to sit upright despite that, as easy as trying to walk while stone-drunk. My eyes came back into focus, the world spinning wildly. I could see the glittering of more broken glass, and that the Laundromat was darker than it had been a moment ago. The blast must have shattered the overhead lighting, blew out the windows too. The White Fang that'd been reaching for his sword had decided to grab his head instead. Currently clawing at his hood, probably trying to rip his ears off, thinking it would be less painful. His comrades were much the same, the White Fang on the same row of machines as him was half doubled over, gripping either side of his head. The one on the opposing machines was on the floor completely, tossing and rolling like he'd been stung by a bark scorpion.

Natty fared little better, her hostage as well for that matter. She'd released him, dropping the knife, and was leaning against the wall for support. The man had begun scrambling backwards, blind but having enough self-preserving instinct to move.

I struggled to my feet, body stiff and numb with pain. Couldn't make it move quite the way I wanted it to. I got to my feet and had to set myself wide to keep from falling back over. I didn't have the room to wait, as soon as they recovered, I'd be fighting them. Aside from some wounded pride and spotty vision, they weren't any worse for wear. That wouldn't end well for me.

I stumped forward as quickly as my unresponsive ass would allow.

The swordsman was less than six feet from me. No way was he going to recover in time. I swept a leg out from under him, dropping him to the ground. Giving me the angle to drive my knee into his head, sandwiching it into the ground.

I used the machines to pull myself up, and continued my bow-legged waltz to the next guy. The half-doubled White Fang was the easiest to get to, relying on the machines for support. He seemed the closest to recovering, I had no clue how he managed to avoid the brunt of the blast. Didn't help him avoid me though. I socked him in the gut, finishing what the blast started, then slammed his head into the machines next to us.

At about that point, the ringing was starting to ease off and I could actually hear again. There was another fire alarm going off. Just faintly past it I could hear at least two men screaming. One of them was the Last White Fang besides Natty, I had to assume the other was her hostage.

Flare gun still in hand, I snapped it open, dumping the spent shell to the floor. I loaded my Ice-shell into it, and took aim at the White Fang rolling around on the floor. Partly to test it on a closer target, partly because I didn't want to try and walk over to him. I was almost certain I'd be joining him on the ground if I did.

Except, as my hearing continued to return, something else caught my attention: the grinding of an electrical motor, followed by the sputtering cough of an engine turning over.

It came from the entrance.

I bent at the hip, instantly regretting it when I almost fell to the floor, and saw the car had started. The passenger side windows had cracked, missing pieces now, and the driver was frantically looking into the Laundromat. He probably had no idea what was going on, but knew well enough that things had gone completely FUBAR. If he ran, he could warn the rest of the White Fang about what was going on. That would make my life even more difficult, and I'd had enough of that for one night.

I opened VATs and shot the flare off at the hip. A pale blue ball of light shot through the open air of the Laundromat, passing through the ruined doorway. It sailed the short distance from the door to the car, just as it lurched into motion. The ball contacted the window, going off in a burst of mist and vapor. The car lurched, and shot forward wildly. Traveling down the street another dozen yards before careening off the road. Crashing into a lamp post with a squeal of rent steel and crunch of broken glass.

Pity the driver hadn't gone with it.

He was lying on the road, right where the car had been. An engine block sized piece of ice settling beside him.

Must've blown him through the other door.

Physics, scary.

But that was some useful data, at least.

My flare wasted, I holstered my flare gun, drawing my cattle prod. With a grunt, and an effort, I pushed off of my row of machines and began stumbling across the room to the Rolling-Fang. My hearing was just about back now, and I could very much make out that he was screaming. I stepped closer to him, getting about half way.

Then a sharp pain shot up my back, and I toppled back to the floor. I tried to get back up, but couldn't make my body listen to me.

At which point, I gave in and pulled a stimpack from my inventory. I jammed it into my hip and gave it a moment, letting the pain wash over me as control began to weave its way back into my limbs.

I needed to be more careful. Even if the pain wasn't an issue, I didn't have enough of these things to go abusing them.

Forcing myself to my knees, I rose and walked over to Rolling-Fang. He'd begun to settle back into Rocking-Fang, having curled into a ball and begun rocking back and forth slightly. He stopped screaming, at least.

I stood over him, looming.

His head swiveled up to me, fearful.

I careened down on him, Electrode first.

He got out a short, yelping scream that devolved into incoherent babble.

That made three.

I stood up and started towards the back of the Laundromat. Natty had apparently recovered enough to begin clawing after her target, who had blindly scrambled himself into a corner. Natty'd lost her knife, but as I got closer to her, I could see something… writhing underneath her mask. She was hissing and snarling at him like an enraged animal. Fitting, she was acting the part.

Right before she could pounce on the man again, I grabbed the back of her outfit and hauled her back. She made a token effort to claw at him, but the man was out of reach, his arm up in a feeble guard.

Realizing her assault was stopped, and now aware of why, Natty twisted in my grip. Trying to wrench free and, failing that, try to hit me as I pulled her further away.

No longer impeded by a broken ass, I twisted and threw her towards the opposite side of the room. She didn't go far, but stumbled a few feet away, before whipping around to face me. She ripped her mask off, revealing a rather pretty face. Nestled between two, rather venomous, spider-like fangs. Her mouth bared sharp teeth, green eyes full of fury and hatred glared daggers at me.

I cleared the distance and decked her.

My aura was gone and I wasn't here for banter, sue me.

She tanked the hit, aura eating most of it as she tried to keep her footing. She pitched forward, coming in up the length of my arm. Mouth opening wide beneath her mask as she got close, fangs ready to puncture. I pivoted, letting her sail past me as I hammered the butt of my cattle prod into the back of her head. She stumbled for a step or two, then whipped around and tried to back hand me.

I dipped back, let it pass, then drove the cattle prod into her, sending her rigid.

A skilled fighter, she was not.

I cranked the output to max and let it hold her there for a second, until her aura broke in a cascading of light. Then she screamed, and her whole body tensed in pain.

I stepped forward, thrusting the Cattle prod into her and driving her off balance. She hit the ground in a heap and, despite all evidence to the contrary, still tried to keep fighting. Trying to push back up to her hands and knees. I gave her a light tap to the back of the head with the electrode. She went out like a light and crumpled back to the floor.

That left only myself and the man that had somehow brought all this on himself.

I walked over to the man, through the dimly lit, klaxon filled ruins of what was once a place of business. His place of business, more than likely. Hope he had insurance, because I wasn't going to be paying for it. The man was curled in the corner still, arm not as guarded as they had been, but still there. He was a small man, shrunk with age and missing hair, except on the sides of his head. What he had was grey, or on its way to being white. He kept his eyes mostly shut, much like Port did. I wasn't sure if that was a situational thing or a normal thing for him.

I stared down at the man, assessing him. He didn't look too hurt, and with the alarm going off if the authorities hadn't already been on their way, they were now.

That was going to have to be good enough.

I nodded to the man, then turned and bolted back for the street. I wasn't waiting around to get wrapped up in that mess. I bolted down the street, rounding the corner, and then ducked into the nearest alley. Keeping to them and only darting out onto the streets and main roads when I didn't really have any other choice. I only stopped doing that after I was a comfortable number of blocks away from the place, and the sirens were nothing but background noise to my ring-tinged hearing.

A part of me hoped my aura would help fix that before it became an issue.

Safely away, I kept to the alleys until I found one that had a fire escape dangling in it. Figuring that if I was going to be keeping to the shadows anyway, I might as well try the new ones I'd found tonight. It may have hurt at the end, but I wasn't going to knock how effective running the roofs turned out to be.

I scrambled up the ladders, grates, and stairs of the escape, and came out at the top floor. Maybe seven feet shy of the roof proper.

I took a moment and breathed. Remembering the training I'd done earlier that day, gripping at the warmth in my chest. A few moments passed, and I felt it spread back over me, my aura restoring itself. It came with a wave of exhaustion and lethargy, but that was a price tag I'd already known about.

I jumped up and off the fire escape, grasping at the ledge and ambling up onto the roof. Compared to most of the ones I'd run across in my mad dash to get to stop Natty, this one seemed rather bare. A few units, climate control if I had to guess, and a door built into a small extension. A way up through the building, for the normal people.

I took a deep breath and walked over to the ledge of the building, taking a seat on it. I checked the clock on my pip-boy. To my surprise, despite the rapid series events leading up to now, the night was still young. I still had plenty of time to prowl the city, chasing down leads and the like.

Which didn't bode well.

I'd stopped the White Fang from pulling some serious stunts to keep everyone distracted. Probably kept a lot of people alive and safe to boot. But I hadn't accomplished much more than that. Much like Blake feared when we agreed to this three nights back, they were still out there. Maybe I was slowing them down, stalling them even. But I hadn't stopped them. This was a precarious situation to be in. The longer I kept at it, the more brazen and desperate they were likely to get. They seemed to have a timetable they needed to keep, and I was throwing them off it. I had a lot of ground to cover, and it sure as hell didn't feel like I had enough time to do it.

But, for the moment, progress was progress.

At the rate I was going, maybe I'd turn something up.

I reached into my pocket and took out the 'burrito' that'd been meant for Natty. It more closely resembled a foil wrapped pancake now. Must have landed on it. But, food was food.

I undid the straps to my helmet and popped it off, letting the night air reach my face. Felt nice, a cool breeze despite the warmth.

I peeled the foil off and took a bite out of the flattened food stuff.

It was hot.

Like really hot.

As in, I've eaten Fiery Purgative before, and I'd use that to wash this down, hot.

It was also pork, beans, rice, and a medley of corn, onion, and herbs.

Tasty.

So, I sat there, feet dangling off the ledge, enjoying a new delicacy in the night air. I had a lot to do, and I was going to be spending quite some time doing it. If the past few nights were any indicator, it wasn't going to be cut, dry, over and done with like I'd prefer. In that case, I needed to take my rests where I could. If running half way across the city was going to be an every night occurrence, I would need to.

I found my gaze drifting up to Beacon in the distance. It was strange, seeing it like this. In a lot of ways, with the tower rising up above it all, illuminated like its namesake, I was reminded of Vegas. Just another crazy city, full of problems and nowhere near enough people to handle it, or qualified to work it. But somebody needed to, otherwise the whole thing would go to the dogs.

I took a deep breath again, letting my spice scorched throat be soothed by the mingling odor of hot asphalt and summer breeze.

"… Yeah, this is gonna take a while."


Yo. Back again. As per usual, I apologize for the delay. Like I said last time, I started a new job and started making some moves up in the world. Unfortunately, you make moves up in the world, and they start expecting you to do things, like figure out a more regular sleep schedule, and eat healthier. Part of the delay this time was that I couldn't find a time to write without being utterly exhausted because of the schedule change, at most getting two days off where I could actually sit down and focus on this, assuming nothing else got in the way... which, it did. The other part was that I knew I wasn't going to have enough time to put anything else up for the anniversary, so yeah, here we are. Four years old and still kicking.

Ain't it grand? :P

I will also pre-emptively apologize if there was any noticeable dip in quality. Again, the schedule change has had me trying to re-orient how I handle things, and that is one of the things most liable to suffer, hopefully not in the long term though.

'Shadyxlr': Six:"-and this diode here is the primary laser, without the focusing optic-" *accidental discharge* Cardin: "MY EYE!"

'Thepkrmgc': It would be an insult to everyone who lost any eye trying to get them working if they went unmentioned.

'PilotWithThreeStrikes': Sad but true, they'll have their day though.

'Buttermu': I tried to do an ascii of the pog meme here, but no dice, sorry :/

'MindsandMirrors': Definitely something that'll need to be covered in the future, see below for more information.

'Duiwu': Always happy to provide :)

'Ser_Dorito_of_Aisle_13': On the list, definitely lots of potential shenanigans to be had there.

'A54321': Yeah, they're nice to have on in the background sometimes. Reveal things you never really knew about either (like how the plague from before the war in Fallout was actually a government experiment (go figure) meant to be used against the Chinese. No way in hell I'll ever find a way to work that in, but it's nice to know.)

'Dimas15': Aye, I think a lot of people are waiting on that. That'll be a fun chapter. Hope to give more soon too.

'Gundam-Knight-Chris': Coco: "She was looking where?", Velvet: "NO I WASN'T!"

'Benixwolf': Thank you, I'm trying. :)

'Rio_Skyron': :)

'Another S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'(1): He honestly should have, and it would have solved so many issues for him. The cops are either inept at their jobs (very), They won't help him because he's a known criminal, or he just genuinely didn't think to call them. He didn't bother to call them when Yang showed up the second time in vol. 2, despite being well within his right to do so, so it's honestly up in the air.

'Darkromdemon': Honestly, with how canon has depicted ANY piece of Atlas tech? Frankly, no, they couldn't.

'FastestGunInTheWest': Not necessarily, although we haven't seen most of them in action, there is at least some background material to work with. Historically, Most of the kingdoms were some form of monarchy (hence kingdom), which itself isn't so hard to puzzle out. Post-great war, most of the kingdoms seem to be governed by some form of council, with elections being a focus for Atlas in volume 7. Which would make them a parliamentary/congressional democracy, to my knowledge. Democracies that have either completely rejected having a single person governing everything (Vale by choice, Vacuo by force(for a given measure)) or otherwise have strict guidelines regarding it (Atlas and Ironwood... being Ironwood). Honestly, once broken down, not so hard to wrap one's head around, Just requiring enough background knowledge to do it. As for Pre-war America, yeah, it is kind of sad that most people don't recognize what it was that supposedly made America great. But it also shows just how bad things were before the bombs. Two hundred and Fifty some-odd years later, and people still remember how bad it was. The Enclave only remembers it as good because they were the ones benefitting from it, and most people with Old World Blues are, like you said, stuck in some way. Keeping with the idea of governance, part of it stems from the fact the US gov't before the war had become a dictatorship in pretty much everything but name. I don't think its been mentioned what elections were like in the years leading up to the bombs, but I have to imagine the word became synonymous with 'postponed indefinitely' (a brief search actually showed the last president wasn't even elected into office, he came to power after the guy before him got impeached... Yeah.). Maybe Six could talk about some of what made America great, or at least express some of the ideals the country was founded on. But that's a chapter for another day.

'Greymane': I think what you're saying just about hits the nail on the head, as of the moment. Or as it has been. Six wasn't taking Remnant seriously, and is probably still underestimating just how grim things actually are (given what is now known about RWBY canon, not such a hard thing.) As you've been reading up to now, hopefully, Six has started to rectify those things. Even if he's not back to end-game status, he's at least getting better. As you've said though, its not strength that makes the courier, but wit. I've got plans, and I'm hoping I can keep the majority of what you're saying in mind while doing it, because I do recognize the validity of it. Its the details man, once I start ignoring them, stupid mistakes start happening. Above all else, I want to avoid them. (even knowing I've already made some.) Side note: I did have a bit for the money planned out, but it kind of got away from me. Hoping to have a chance to rectify that in the near future.

'Linuxnoodle': I actually appreciate reviews like this, I recognize I'm not infallible when it comes to writing more indepth aspects like that. If things like that happen again in the future, please let me know, they're some of the few things I'm willing to go back and actually edit to be more accurate. :)

'Dasgun': 0^0

'Ableuser': Ruby: "Hey-yo what's up peeps, it's you're favorite grrls from Beacon and Wasteland-boy comin' to you live from our dorm room!", Yang: "What up guys!", Weiss: "Good evening.", Blake: "...", Six,"-WHAT THE FUC-"

'Guest': Fair, I wouldn't put it past Six to go McCarthy on someone (the terminate with extreme prejudice kind, not witch-hunts and paranoia)

'Spatialyeti8': Looks like the website finally got you too, eh? Also, cackling may not be nice, but neither is Dala (*more cackling*)

'Guest'(2): We do get an idea of what they might have been capable of through Salem, or Oz (fucking stored momentum nuke- WHAT!?), but it is an admittedly limited view. Guess we'll never know... maybe... as far as I'm willing to say right now(*cackling*).

'Another_S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'(2): Yep, it's really, REALLY not feasible in the real world, or Fallout for that matter. There's no safe, easy way to just 'stop' someone that doesn't involve extensive research and knowledge of that specific individual. There's a reason why 'less-than-lethal' weapons are dubbed as such rather than 'non-lethal'. There's no guarantees with it. The only saving grace RWBY has, as many have stated, is the fact that Aura lets people seemingly come back from near fatal injury. Or at least, linger long enough to get treatment. Agreed though, if it were so simple to incapacitate someone without lasting harm, it would have begun taking prevalence a lot sooner.

'Guest(3)': It took me a moment to realize you're not wrong about almost every Fallout game ending with someone getting nuked. That is some twisted fucking irony right there.

'DriveNJives': Honestly, I don't think Remnant has a form of Retrofuturism. Retrofuturism (as I understand it) is largely an art movement, that focuses on recreating modern to futuristic aspects of our world using technology of a bygone era. Extrapolating out the aspects of it that would enable it, or at the very least following design aesthetics of the era. Despite 'eighty years' having passed between the Great War and present day, there's never really been a mention about what kinds of tech came into vogue during that time span. For all we know, they were fighting with everything from knights and archers to heavy armor and artillery. As such, I don't think Remnant has much in the way of retrofuturism. I think they largely remained stagnant, or close to it, for most of the show's history, and only after The Great War brought peace did things really start to ramp up. As a result, developing too fast for any of those 'design eras' to be properly explored. But, that's all hear-say and conjecture, and I'm partially buzzed while writing this, so what do I know?

'SilentKnight': As do I, as do I. :)

'Holandia1103': Whaaaat, whatchu talkin' about? ;)

'New_Village': Aye, that he is.

'New_Village(2)': Thank you :)

'Guest(4)': This is actually something I've thought about on occasion, and have done some looking into. Sadly, the answer I come back to, is that there really isn't one particular fairytale Six could necessarily draw inspiration from. But there's a reason for that: he's not from that style of story. Fallout isn't based around fantasy and fairytales, its based around Sci-fi and Pulp-fiction, sometimes Westerns. They tread similar circles, but reach different outcomes depending on the path you take. You could certainly make arguments that there are Fairytales that match close enough to Courier Six to work as a parallel or inspiration, but you could do the same with pulp-fiction and westerns too. He's close to the 'knight-errant' archetype, but doesn't quite meet the mold. The closest fairytale I think comes close to characterizing Six is Childe Rowland, in my mind, but it's still not quite there. Strangely, aside from the obvious batman references, he's actually taken pages from golden-age era comic characters like The Sandman (Wesley Dodds, not Flint Marko or Morpheus) and possibly the Spirit (Not the Frank Miller one... technically). I've got a few ideas, but in the end, I don't think there's any one particular fairytale or source that is directly capable of capturing Six. That's not a bad thing either, it just means there's room to incorporate more to him and flesh him out. (Another example of a character based off of Childe Rowland is Roland Deschain (for the fans of the King), who himself is spiritually based off of Rowland, but borrows more characterization from Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name... hmm...)

'Guest(5)': Oh, I'm sure there're a lot of things Atlas would like to have right now.

'Guest(6)': Huck Finn, can't beat references to classic literature "What's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?"

'RainbowLightning101.1': Thank you :). It's a slow burn for sure, I honestly wouldn't want it any other way. I know some people might not like a story that wastes a page describing a lamp (I do too, that's just stupid), but just as equally, I cannot stand a story that can't take the time to do its job right.

'Guest(7)': When four teenage girls can shatter one of your most 'advanced' war machines like it was made of glass, yeah, you're pretty shit at your job. Also, You want to see Six get Parried with someone?... there's a sight to see, Six in a fist fight with someone, before his opponent suddenly grabs a bystander and uses them to deflect six's attack and then using the bystander as a human-shaped club. That'd be interesting to see. Jokes aside, much like in the past, I can't really give you an answer here. Partly because I enjoy screwing with you guys/gals, and partly because it's no fun giving away the plot here. It's also bad practice. I didn't even know it was canon now that Blake was actually Bi for that last reason. I had to go look it up, and only found a relatively definitive answer thanks to the wiki. It's never been brought up in the show, ergo I tended to just treat it as more shipping shenanigans. I honestly find it kind of asinine that this is how they've chosen to confirm parts of the story rather than address it properly. Not everyone is going to go chase down an AMA, or catch a once in a lifetime livestream. You say it's hard to write for Blake? HER VOICE ACTOR IS BI. Seriously, just fucking ask her what it was like coming into her own with that, and work it into the show. Then you can stand a better chance at being nuanced and thoughtful rather than heavy handed and pedantic. Even if its not something she actively broadcasts, first -hand knowledge and insight is worth its weight in gold. Wouldn't even need to use her experience specifically. You wanna tease the fans so damn much, the least you can do is actually put the effort in rather than grabbing that shoehorn you're so fond of. If we're supposed to be politically correct, warm, welcoming, and understanding of everyone regardless of what they do with their hamburger, isn't the ultimate logical step treating it with the same respect and effort we'd want of our own works? You want Blake to be bi, why not show her with a copy of both Ninjas of Love and Kunoichi of Hate. Now THAT would really kick things up a notch.

'Chrisdiokno117': Workin' on it, but the love is appreciated :)

'PoisonPen37': Sorry for the delay, like I said above, had to choose between posting early and having nothing for the anniversary, or delay and post it then. made my choice, only pushed it back by about... an extra two weeks. Whoops.

Alright, so, about that format shift I've been mentioning for months now (or a few chapters, if you're just now joining us). Part of the original plan was to keep up the format of the last several chapters for an extended period of time. That way all kinds of world building and interactions could happen, and I wouldn't be cheapening the experience. The idea was to do that for the next (in-universe) two weeks of time, roughly the timeframe that seemed to happen in Vol. 2 (in my scattered mind, at least). With sections split up for a 'training' section, a 'lore' section, and a 'night-time' section. With various bits of story weaving through everything, as you do. Before diving into it though, I wanted to do a dry run and make sure it could actually happen. I used the days prior to the start of it as a sort of measuring stick, both to gauge you guys/gals reaction, and to see what doing it that way would entail.

The results: You guys were rather happy with how that played out.

It also took me this entire year to cover three days.

Yeah.

Once I realized that, I knew things weren't going to play out how I needed them to, and had to change the plan. I'm still going to cover the two weeks, as I originally planned, but rather than covering the full days, I'm just going to cover the segments like we have been up until now. With the intent to cover the 'equivalent' of two weeks in the process (IE: fourteen segments). They're going to follow the same basic pattern as the last few chapters have, with the ideal end result being four chapters, each containing three condensed segments of what would normally happen. With everything technically happening within those hypothetical two weeks, but not necessarily running concurrently. Note, that this doesn't mean that the 'Lore' talks are going to completely vanish after this either. I see how you people react to them, they'll be around for a while yet. There's a lot of wasteland to cover, and two weeks is hardly enough time to even scratch the surface (think about how little was covered in three days, trust me, it ain't going anywhere).

For those of you who are more mathematically inclined, you've also probably picked up on the fact that four chapters with three segments each only means a total of twelve days. Yes, I can do basic math too, despite some people's suspicions. Those extra two chapters have been accounted for though, and I have some ideas about what I'm going to do with them.

With all that said, what it boils down to is that there probably won't be another chapter of this until 2022. My issues with work aside, it's going to take time to write it all down. I'm hoping for a miracle that I can get another one out before the end of the year, but I'm fully aware of what season we're about to run headlong into, and recognizing it will probably play a part in things slowing down significantly. I'm re-affirming it here though: Not dead, just sleeping.

Anyhow, I think I've taken up enough of you're time for now. This Fanfic is brought to you by Christine's Beans: Vale's premier Taqueria, home to the Total Meltdown Burrito

Adios.

-Ash