Chapter Forty One

August 22nd, 2077

Night City, Northern California

Aldecaldo Territory, Badlands

Howling winds swept across the barren wastelands east of Night City. Scattered patches of desert shrubs and skittering herds of wild animals were exposed by the moonlight hanging overhead.

V was stationed on the fringes of a temporary camp thrown together by Panam's inner circle. After months of fighting it out with their Raffen adversaries, the Aldecaldo's had reached a critical juncture in an ever-expanding war of attrition.

Megacorps were starting to get involved in the conflict, and Biotechnica was sniffing up Saul's ass regarding their contract. The details were sketchy, but corpo legal teams were notorious for snatching the feet under their contractors.

Panam and practically most of the Aldecaldo Council were furious that Saul would even grant Biotechnuca an audience in the middle of their war with the Wraiths, and V couldn't blame them.

Aldecaldos combat efforts were being stifled by political infighting, and with winter approaching, the price of fighting against the Raffen was becoming increasingly expensive.

The war needed to end, and the Nomads were in desperate need of a game-changer.

Panam and Mitch attempted to persuade their rigid Chief into permitting them to hijack a Militech Basilisk, but they were predictably denied. The Clan soon fell into two camps, with Saul and Edison on one side and the rest of the council, including Panam.

To avoid more internal unrest between the two factions, Panam left the main encampment with fifteen Aldecaldo Rangers, along with Mitch, Cassidy, and the rest of her inner circle.

Officially they were leading an expedition into Wraith territory on a much-needed reconnaissance run, but in reality, their sights were set on the Militech Convoy. The Clan was desperate for that mammoth tank, and they needed to execute their hijacking with precision and subtlety to prevent further internal strife within the Aldecaldos.

Acquiring the mammoth tank and transporting its part to their main camp would force him to accept their decision or escalate the ramifications for defying him. V's money was on the latter, especially since nearly three-quarters of his council openly favored the hijacking.

Commandeering the Militech convoy was going to take a heavy degree of shock and awe. While the Nomads target didn't possess the same level of security as most corpo transports, there was still a considerable amount of firepower at their disposal.

A platoon of Militech grunts backed up by four Behemoth APCs were the assigned security detail to the Nomad's future Basilisk.

The plan was to isolate two of the lead APCs from their cargo using a massive freight train. From there, the Nomads would wipe out the divided Mercs and commandeer their prize.

Simple and effective, just the way V liked it.

Unfortunately, the Miltiech Convoy wasn't set to leave Night City until early that morning which meant there was a ton of downtime for the antsy Nomads.

While fifteen handpicked Aldecaldos from Mitch's strike teams were shifting in and out of sentry watch, Panam and the rest of her inner circle were fiddling with the controls at the train station.

V was directed towards an overwatch position about a hundred meters east of the makeshift encampment. She was sporting her coveted Nekomata covering the only approach to the station with her tech rifle's enhanced optics.

Thankfully the Raffen had become suspiciously quiet over the last week, isolating themselves to a scattered collection of settlements southeast of the Sierra Sonora pass.

No one in the Aldecaldos understood the Wraith's strategy, but the sudden lack of skirmishes along the 101 highway was jarring.

Nevertheless, Saul refused to take the supposed bait and kept his Clan north of the highway, fearing a trap. As a result of these odd circumstances, there were huge swaths of territory unclaimed by both Aldecaldos and Wraiths.

"Is he still on patrol?" The Merc peered away from her scope towards the approaching Panam. The Aldecaldo's last few days had to have been the most challenging in her existence.

Between her Clan teetering on the edge of catastrophe and the emotional toll inflicted on them both while hunting for the Meatman, it was a wonder how Panam was even awake.

V re-adjusted her stock and examined the horizon for a familiar thermal contact running between jagged rocks and rolling hills.

"Last I saw, he was patrolling a valley about a click to our North," V explained. "No way we're going to be able to get him back to camp. He turned his commlink off."

"Jesus Christ." Panam rubbed the grim from her eyes and took a pron position to V's left. "I don't mean to pry, but what do you think happened at that Estate?"

"I wish I knew."

V's expression turned into a frown as she stared off towards the desert wasteland below. Cyrus was far more subdued since the Merc had retrieved him from a high-end Estate belonging to the enigmatic Eliza.

When V and Panam found out that Cyrus had managed to finally locate his missing partner, there was a sense of trepidation pooling at the bottom of their stomachs. The relationship between Spartan, Merc, and Nomad hadn't exactly been quantified yet, considering the chaotic nature of the last few days.

V tried not to make a big deal out of it, but she was beginning to worry that everything she wanted was going to fall away because of the addition of Eliza to Cyrus's small list of confidants.

Hell V was seconds away from saying fuck it and flinging herself at Cyrus to get through his thick brain and how she felt about him, but when she locked gazes with the Headhunter, she stayed her hand.

Whatever events transpired at that Estate did not go according to Cyrus's plan, and he didn't speak much about the reunion with his Headhunting teammate. The only person privy to that knowledge was Chamber, and she immediately sent him away from the city accompanied by V to the badlands.

Panam was surprised by her 'friends' arrival in a Phantom, but she was more than willing to make accommodations for them at the Aldecaldo encampment. It came as little surprise when they were swept up in one of Panam's insane schemes.

Cyrus didn't really seem to care at all about the planning phase, and once they arrived at the station, he requested to be put on patrol duty outside their perimeter. Panam didn't have the heart or reason to deny him, and within moments the Spartan was a half a click from the encampment, ignorant or uncaring of the worried stares sent his way.

V sent a silent message to Panam that'd she keep an eye on him, snatching up her Nekomata and foraging together an overwatch position. A peering glance at the internal clock from her kiroshi optic indicated that Cyrus had been out there for almost five hours, and it was high time for him to head back to camp.

However, with no means of bringing him back to camp, aside from walking out there and grabbing him by the hand, there was little chance Cyrus would be coming in unless he wanted to.

"How's the crew?" V passed a half-filled water canteen to Panam, who graciously accepted.

"Still tense." The Aldecaldo supplied. "The Rangers aren't used to going against Saul's directives like myself or the other Veterans. Mitch is doing his best to keep them active and away from any wary thoughts."

"If we pull this off, I doubt Saul will be focused on the Rangers. If anything, your ears are going to start ringing once we get back to camp. "

"Lucky me."Panam made a brief, snickering sound while intaking a mouth full of freshwater.

"Heavy is the crown, P. No one else in the Aldecaldos is capable of irritating the shit out of Saul better than you," Panam responded to V's mocking with a poignant middle finger, and the two were on the verge of engaging in another round of baiting when the Mercs commlink went off.

"V, do you copy?" Cyrus's voice halted their cheerful discussion in its tracks, and V scrambled to reply to the Spartan's summons.

"I hear you, CY. Find any raffen patrols out there?"

"No, just dust and echoes with minimal signs of human life.I'm on my way back to the campsite with a….guest." V's brows furrowed in interest. "Have Panam and the Nomads learned how to make use of the freight train?"

"Yeah, they're all set to go. We're just waiting for mission start in t-minus eight hours and counting…." V hesitated, shooting a glance to an equally interested Panam. "…What guest are you bringing."

"A wolf without a pack."

Cyrus's journey into the Badlands was a welcome diversion from the frayed emotions he was experiencing following his traumatic reunion with Eliza in Night City.

Chamber was irate that she'd seemingly distanced herself from him on the precipice of keeping her family safe, but Cyrus wasn't in any mood to argue for or against the Matriarch.

Losing Dana was difficult, and after months of searching, locating Eliza was intended to be the one silver lining in an otherwise turbulent week of dire circumstances.

That didn't happen, and now Cyrus was left to deal with the bitter taste of knowing Eliza had no intention of seeing him while he continued his duties.

Night City takes and takes and takes until there is nothing left but a hollow existence.

Dana lectured to Cyrus about the novelty of seeking to rewrite the narrative of this decadent city without being eaten up in the process. Eliza spent thirty years trying to break down the corporations and criminal elements piece by piece, but Night City exacted its toll in the end.

The Siren Order was fractured, and her eldest daughter played a part in its downfall.

There were pieces of Cyrus that demanded he return to the Estate and do everything in his power to alter Eliza's perspective by pointing out the contrasts between his attempts and hers.

The Matriarch was forced to fight and claw her way to the top, evading corpo kill squads and syndicate hitmen while also spending much of her time and effort building a nascent faction committed to her shared belief.

In contrast to his partner, Cyrus possessed an advanced UNSC AI in his corner, which alleviated much of the burden and resolved many of the difficulties associated with creating a suitable power base.

The Custodians had already proven their worth by resolving the civil war in Venezuela and preventing another third-world country from turning into a cog in a grinding corpo machine.

Decker and her Patriot Faction were slowly superseding Purist's control in the Sixth Street Gang, and already the Militia Captain was experiencing a stark increase in influence that rivaled Will Gunner himself.

She wasn't quite ready to take total ownership of her Clan, but if the need arose, Decker could at the very least start a civil war with Gunner over the soul of the Sixth Street Gang.

Taki Kenmoch and her Astral Claws have seen their ranks swell to well over two thousand members, giving the Clan unparalleled control over the majority of Westbrook.

In every way possible, Cyrus retained more assets and influence over the major players in Night City.

Despite his firm belief that he would have no trouble convincing Eliza to resume the burden of responsibility that she had abandoned years before, there remains one roadblock on his path to the reunion he seeks: Eliza's children.

Every time his partner's sight rested on her children, there was a protectiveness that practically superseded all other thoughts.

From her natural-born Selena to her adopted daughter Liana and even to her insane eldest child who spit on the same ground she walked on.

Eliza was adamant in her determination to safeguard the family that she had built through thirty years of struggle and was willing to forego all of the responsibilities that came with being a Spartan in favor of devoting her time and energy to being a caring mother.

Cyrus loathed and admired Eliza's tenacity, and no matter how eager he was to have Eliza by his side, he would never tear her away from her children, no matter how much he wanted to.

"Heavy is the head that wears the crown."

Cyrus had an unobstructed view of Night City from his present vantage point, which allowed him to revel in its beauty. At this distance, the beauty of the city's burgeoning skyline could be seen for miles in every direction.

Under normal circumstances, this hillside would be a backpacker's paradise, but the harsh environment made any venture into the wastelands a dire affair. Nomads utilized their vehicles as a means of transportation and as a shield against mother nature's fury.

Packs of coyotes and wolves are just a fraction of the dangerous native fauna that called the Badlands their home. Nomads may live in the barren wasteland, but they are not its original owners, nor are there human bodies suited to its harsh faculties.

Only carnivores survived in these unforgivable lands plagued by chilling shadows and scorching heat.

When Cyrus heard the howling of coyotes, he threw his Copperhead across his shoulder and unsheathed his Kukri. His firearm would be useless against a pack of canines, and the rolling hills along with obstructed sightlines favored the swarming mass of wild animals.

The high-pitched howling of the surrounding pack was interspersed with brief bursts of coyote yipping, and its intensity only grew with every step the Spartan took.

For several moments after he first caught sight of the pack darting in between the hills, Cyrus's body locked up as he prepared for an inevitable conflict.

These canines were much too large and ferocious to be a natural part of the planet's ecology, and in truth, it was human interference that caused them to be altered from their native state.

Megacorps spent billions on turning carnivores of any kind into weapons of war called war hounds. Corporations and governments began modifying their genetic material and expanding upon their violent tendencies.

Wolves and Coyotes were a particular favorite amongst the corporations, and eventually, they were turned into a viable war asset. However, when a few of these modified War Hounds managed to break containment, it turned the surrounding ecosystem on its head.

The genetically enhanced carnivores began to breed with their lesser cousins, and it didn't take long for packs of Wolves and Coyotes to roam across the Badlands in swarms.

The project soon became too expensive for corporations to maintain, and there was little cause for continued development. Megacorps shut down the War Hound project and reallocated their resources to other profitable initiatives.

Those that weren't killed outright were either released into the wild or managed to escape containment. The canines wreaked more havoc on the ecosystems that they had come to call home.

These War Hounds are a fearsome opponent, and Cyrus has managed to avoid a direct confrontation with them - until now.

The Spartan waited and waited for the inevitable pack to test his fortitude, but the attack never came. The coyotes either didn't catch his scent or decided that confronting him was a fool's errand.

The moment it became obvious that the coyotes had no intention of confronting him, he relaxed and let the tension in his body go.

Cyrus had just holstered his Kukri and taken two steps towards the Aldecaldo campsite when he was halted by a singular howl echoing across the valley. The call of nature didn't belong to the coyotes, but instead, it was a lower-pitched howl drawn out and mixed with growls and barking.

The Spartan recognized the unique call of a Gray wolf, one of the few remaining competitors to the coyotes in the Badlands, and turned to investigate. These canines are considered elegant predators and a highly sociable species that live in a tightly knit pack of no more than fifteen members at any given time.

Cyrus had a soft spot for wolves when he was younger. He used to carry a stuffed toy of a luna wolf in his pack.

One of the few souvenirs from his childhood reminded him of his parents before being inducted into the Spartan program.

This would be the Headhunter's first chance to experience the grandeur of a wolf pack in its natural habitat, and he did not know when he would get another.

Cyrus ascended a steep hill with his hand tightly grasping the hilt of his Kukri while unholstering his Unity. His ears began to fill with the sounds of tearing flesh and growling, and when he finally reached the summit, he found himself in the midst of a fierce battle between a ravaged pack of Gray Wolves and an encircling swarm of Coyotes.

The larger canines had been outnumbered four to one and yet still managed to put up stiff resistance against their smaller cousins. However, the Coyotes drove in between the Gray Wolves formation separating their pack's cohesion and isolating a few of their number.

It was a precise and methodical process, but the pack of ten genetically modified Wolves was eventually decimated. The adults managed to take two of their killers with them to the grave.

By the time Cyrus was moving to intervene, only one Wolf was still alive, and this one stood above the rest. The Canis Lupis was the youngest of his pack but withstood a trio of Coyotes with ferocious intent.

His height matched his younger cousins at around two feet tall, and if Cyrus had to guess, he weighed no less than a hundred and fifty pounds. The Wolf was involved in a violent struggle with a brown-coated Coyote when he failed to notice another circling behind him, preparing to strike from behind.

Cyrus vaulted over the battling canines and snatched the prowling Coyote by its neck before tossing the wild animal away with a shattered throat. The swarming pack paused in its prowling, eyeing up their new prey with glee.

The Wolf made direct eye contact with Cyrus as it peered around the corner of its peripheral vision. In that brief instant of nonverbal communication, a tacit vow of cooperation was formed, allowing the Spartan to redirect his attention away from the Wolf and onto their common adversary.

The Coyotes had fallen back into the shadows, regrouping their numbers for a final assault upon their weakened cousin and their newest prey.

When they finally burst out of the shadows and rolling hills, the remaining pack of Coyotes unleashed a string of agitated yelps and savage growls. They fanned out amongst themselves and proceeded to create a semi-circle around Cyrus and his canine companion.

In return, Cyrus and the Wolf came to a respective back-to-back stance standing no more than a few inches away from one another.

Cyrus began unleashing shot after shot into the swarm of Coyotes to his left as swiftly and accurately as possible. His rounds found flesh and bone, killing three of their number before they charged directly towards the pair of lone wolves.

The Spartan caught a leaping coyote by the muzzle, driving his Kukri into its lower jaw and stabbing through bone. A second coyote lunged at his forearm, biting down on Cyrus's flesh with tremendous throat and piercing through his jacket's sleeve.

He drove his Kukri into the Coyote's left eye, killing it instantly and allowing Cyrus to dislodge the sharpened teeth from his arm. Specks of blood trickled down the limb, but he paid it no mind and threw himself into the mass of wild animals.

Cyrus was in the thick of a swarm of Coyotes before he knew it, cutting through fur-covered flesh and evading sharpened claws and fangs as they charged at him.

After sliding down to his knees to avoid a claw slash aimed at his face, he struck the attacking beast in the torso with the barrel of his Unity, firing off a burst of bullets that pierce through the Coyotes hardened hide.

The Spartan was engaged in combat with a pair of snarling Coyotes when he caught a glimpse of his comrade being assailed from all directions.

Cyrus gunned down and sliced through his respective opponents and made a direct beeline for the pinned Wolf.

He kicked a Coyote in the torso sending the creature howling through the sky and smashing against a jagged rock allowing his ally to find his feet.

The Wolf returned the favor by intercepting a Coyote as it lunged towards Cyrus's exposed flank, digging its teeth into the wild animal's throat and tearing through its flesh.

Cyrus nodded in thanks and returned his attention towards the severely depleted pack of Coyotes. There was a lull in fighting as the surviving members silently debated whether to continue or cut their losses.

The unlikely pair waited with bated and heavy breaths as the Coyotes chose to retreat in defeat. Their pack numbered almost eighty members at one point, but now they were whittled down to a little over twenty.

Cyrus allowed his adrenaline to simmer down and let out a deep exhale of tension while overlooking his minor wounds.

The Wolf wasn't so lucky.

The canine suffered numerous grievous wounds to its body, sporting a nasty slash that ran along the side of his muzzle and came dangerously close to his left eye.

She, because Cyrus observed the severe lack of male genitalia, limped toward the bodies of her fallen pack members. Their frozen bodies were prodded by her emotional whimpers, which were mingled with pain and anguish at the loss of her family.

As the Wolf desperately nudged them with her muzzle, seeking any type of physical response, the truth of her situation began to dawn upon her and Cyrus.

She was now a lone wolf without a pack, and they didn't survive long in these wastelands. The Wolf's adrenaline soon etched away from her injured form, and the canine stumbled to its side, blood leaking from its wounds.

He had two options, take her with him or put her down.

The answer was obvious.

Cyrus gingerly grasped the wounded canine by its torso and drew it up to his chest. The Wolf attempted to scurry out of his grip, but the intense battle for survival sapped its energy clean.

"Steady on, girl." The Wolf froze at his neutral tone, and Cyrus could have sworn that his voice alone had managed to settle her nerves. "The living aren't done with you yet."

Cyrus began the short trek back to camp, and he silently prayed that the medical supplies available there would be sufficient to stabilize the wounded canine.

Fate had unknowingly conspired to turn the canine in his arms precisely into the company he craved most.

Hunters work better in pairs after all.

"You know somehow this isn't the craziest thing you've ever done." Panam's eyes bore into the side of his head, but he paid her no mind as he carefully sterilized the Gray Wolf's wounds.

His return to camp was an interesting affair; no one could scarcely believe that he'd come back with a War Hound in tow. Wounded or not, the genetically altered canines were a force to be reckoned with, and few people had managed to tame one without bloodshed.

V didn't comment on the unusual circumstance and motioned the Spartan towards her shared tent with Panam to begin treatment. She promptly cleared away the worthless cans of food and water from their pullout table and laid a fresh blanket on top of it for Cyrus to lay the injured Wolf on.

"Pass me a fresh gauze, Panam." The Aldecaldo gave both her companions a peculiar look before tossing a packet of medical gauze V's way. "How's the stitching going over there, CY?"

"Slow and methodical." Cyrus looped the surgical threads in between the exposed patches of skin. "Thankfully, the wound was only caused by a single claw and not multiple. Otherwise, this would be much more difficult."

Mitch threw open the tent flap with a bucket of boiled water in his hands. The Aldecaldo deposited the filled container next to V, who wrang a fresh towel through the disinfected water.

"How's she doing?" Mitch asked while staring at the Wolf's slow breathing.

"Touch and go for a little bit, but we managed to stop the bleeding in the critical areas," V said while wrapping a fresh gauze around one of the canine's injured legs. "She's responding well to the auto docs, but something tells me that has more to do with Corpo tampering than a natural reaction."

"I wouldn't look too much into that, V." Mitch tossed her and Panam a bottle of booze. "The rest of the crew are waiting outside for a much-needed get-together. When you're finished in here, let the Wolf rest and come on out when you guys are finished."

"We'll be out in a bit Mitch," Panam responded while popping open her drink.

"I'll hold you to that." Cyrus silently nodded towards Mitched as he finished stitching the Wolf's wound, and the male Nomad returned the gesture before exiting the tent.

The Spartan went through a few more medical checks before disposing of the bloodied rags. She had fallen asleep within minutes of arriving at the camp, and her heart had stopped many times throughout her treatment.

They were fortunate that Carol had brought along enough medical equipment to revive the stricken creature.

"So…." V drew out while sipping on her drink. "…We keeping her?"

"That decision isn't up to me." Cyrus nodded towards the slumbering Wolf. "That's up to her."

"How about a name then?" V contended as she tilted her head. "Unless you wanna call her 'Wolf' the rest of her life."

"I don't exactly have a creative imagination when it comes to names." Cyrus shifted his gaze away from the wounded canine to his companions.

V rolled her eyes. "So, do you want us to pick for you?"

"Knowing your naming tree," Panam chimed in as she made herself comfortable on a pullout chair. "You'd call her W and call it a day."

"This coming from the woman who called her fucking GRAD Overwatch." Panam reacted predictably to V's teasing, whirling around on the Merc with an indignant expression.

"Hey! That beauty was a hand me down from Mitch, and he etched the damn name into the barrel!" Panam's hollering elicited a vicious growl from the sleeping canine, and Cyrus sent a cutting glance towards the bickering women.

"Get out." The Wolf's snarling enhanced his demand, and V was the first to capitulate under his gaze. She raised both hands in surrender and dragged the irate Panam out of the tent by her arm.

Once the boisterous pair were out of sight, Cyrus turned towards the War Hound. The Wolf stood on all fours, jumping off the bloodied table and stretching out the kinks in her back.

Cyrus reached inside a cooler and took out a slab of raw meat, which had been graciously provided by Cassidy, who had gone out hunting for food earlier in the day. Fighting and dying can makes one's stomach growl, and judging by the ravenous looks in her eyes, the canine's hunger was the only thing that sprang to her mind.

He tossed the meat in the air, and the Wolf lunged at her prize and tore into the raw portion with glee. She was ignorant of her injuries, and Cyrus chastised the canine for stretching the stitches on her muzzle.

"Steady on, girl." The Wolf's ears perked at his voice, and her amber eyes-which eerily reminded Cyrus of V's-glanced up as he came to a knee next to her. "Your injuries are still healing, and the last thing I need is for you to break your stitches…."

The Spartan rubbed behind her left ear, and the Wolf curled into the physical contact while chomping down her meal. Her motions were scrutinized with a critical eye, and he kept a keen eye on the sutures as they moved between bites.

"Maybe I should get you a cone to-" The Wolf snarled at the word, forcing Cyrus to withdraw his hand for fear of losing it. "Nevermind then."

Her amber eyes were fixed on him with intensity, and it was only when she became certain that Cyrus's intention to put a cone around her head was vanquished did she willingly return to her meal.

"You're definitely a War Hound." Cyrus mused to himself while scratching behind her left ear.

It was not the enhancement in durability, senses, or ferocity that made War Hound such a deadly military asset in the first place. It was the significant rise in awareness that transformed a wild animal off the leash into a lethal fighting force.

Corpo scientists would alter the genetic makeup and implant a hearing adaptor behind its left ear, allowing its trainer to interact with them more effectively. The result was a War Hound that rapidly responded to complex directives with practical ease, disregarding the ancient technique of sicking a dog on a hostile with one-word instructions.

"Wonder which Corpo company made you," Cyrus muttered just loud enough for the Wolf to hear. "Arasaka?"

A low growl reverberated from the War Hounds throat, but a shake of her head denied any notion that she was an Arasaka product.

"Militech?" The Wolf's howl was deep and evocative, inciting her to tear even more fiercely into her food as a result. "You don't seem to like them very much."

While Cyrus grinned in response to the Wolf's piercing gaze, he began to silently ponder what he should do with her. Inevitably he would have to cut her loose, but there still remained the fundamental fact that her pack was gone. Granted, she could go out there and find a new one, but the prospect of that happening was slim to none.

Wolfs were just as territorial against their own kind as they were against others, and outsiders were rarely accepted outright into a pack.

But it wasn't his decision to make, and she wasn't in any position to leave the camp by the looks of it. The Wolf's injured legs hampered her mobility, and it would be nearly suicidal to venture into the Badlands on shaky feet.

Staying inside the camp while her wounds healed was the only logical option for the Wolf, but that didn't mean she had to be cooped up in the tent by herself.

Cyrus stood to his feet, drawing a pair of curious amber eyes to him. He raised one arm and pointed to the space next to him. "Stay close to me and do not stray from my side."

Amusingly, the Wolf gave him a sharp nod in acceptance, and Cyrus didn't feel the need to give her answer a second thought.

Wolf and Spartan exited the tent just in time to hear Cassidy drum up a pleasant tune on his guitar. The encampment which had been suffocating in tension was now a den of utter respite.

The Rangers and even members of Panam's inner circle, such as Teddy and Bob, were beacons of apprehension throughout the day, but that fear was drained underneath the calming clear sky and Cassidy's soothing play.

Cyrus spotted an open seat for him directly in between V and Panam, no doubt by design if the glances they shot his way were any indicator.

"Saved you a seat, CY." V waved him over and patted at the thick blanket underneath her. "Not sure about the Wolf, but I think we can make some room."

Panam didn't move an inch, glancing in between the Wolf and Cyrus. "Put the mutt next to V, I just got my clothes dry cleaned, and I don't want her hair all over me."

The Aldecaldo flinched at his companion's deep growl, eliciting a round of laughter from her fellow Nomads, who looked on with interest. It was rare for anyone in the Badlands to see a War Hound when they weren't trying to rip your throat out, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"How's our guest?" Cassidy asked, throwing Cyrus a new beer bottle as the Spartan sat down with his legs bowed.

"Right as rain considering the circumstances." The Wolf rubbed against Cyrus' side before settling into a seated position between him and V. The Merc ran her hand through the canine's thick pelt, marveling at the softness of her fur in between her fingers.

"She better be," Carol retorted. "Damn dog used up a shit ton of our medical supplies. I barely have enough to patch this sorry lot if they get hit."

"Calm down, Carol," Mitch chastised the senior technician. "If this plan works out, then we won't have to worry about any of our boys getting shot. Now relax; you're not about to ruin my peace and serenity over a few auto docs, are you?"

"Fuck your serenity." Carol snorted sarcastically, but her expression possessed no genuine hostility towards Mitch of the Wolf. She was just annoyed at the loss of some of her personal auto docs more than anything.

The Aldecaldos settled into a pleasant ambiance, conversing amongst themselves while Cassidy concentrated on his guitar.

V and Panam talked animatedly with a few Nomads closest to them, leaving the Spartan to his quiet self.

Cyrus observed the Aldecaldos around him closely, watching the bright sparkle in their eyes as they engaged in small talk with one another. A headcount indicated that the entire encampment was gathered around the campfire, and no one was on the perimeter.

The lack of guards on watch alarmed Cyrus, and he was seconds away from rectifying that mistake when Panam snatched him by the arm.

"Woah, cowboy." The Aldecaldo eased him back to his seated position. "Where are you wandering off to?"

"We don't have anyone on watch," Cyrus explained in a low voice.

"We'll be fine," Panam waved off his concerns and grasped his bottle of beer by the stem. "Now drink up. You've been all snarled up with tension these last couple of days; a few hours of levity won't hurt you."

"But," V snatched his shoulder, drawing his crimson gaze towards her.

"Steady on, CY." The Merc was using his own words to the Wolf against him. "And take your own advice while you're at it. Otherwise, our furry friends here will think you're a hypocrite."

Cyrus furrowed his brows and glanced down towards a pair of unamused amber orbs. These War Hounds were far too perceptive for his liking and the Wolf expedited this feeling by laying herself across his right leg and pinning down the limb with his weight.

While Cyrus could easily dislodge the canine, the knowing looks from Panam and V rooted him in place.

Great now there were three of them.

Even so, the tension in his body remained, forcing Panam to link her right arm around Cyrus's left and press herself into his side.

"I got something for you to focus on, CY." The Aldecaldo pointed up towards the sparkling stars. "How intimate are you with the stars."

"I'm….knowledgable." The shit-eating grin plastered on V's face went unseen by Panam, but Cyrus sent her an unamused glance. The Merc raised her hand in faux surrender and gently groomed the Wolf in his lap.

"Then I don't suppose I have to point out the Big Dipper, do I?" Panam put his palm on his knees and gradually traced the bones of his knee cap in sluggish circles.

"No, you don't." Cyrus ignored the Nomad's ministrations and gazed at the flickering stars above.

A part of him wished he could go back to his Headhunting days.

His life was a lot simpler back then because the mission always remained the same, no matter where he was or what he was doing.

He woke up from a cryo pod, grabbed his gear, hopped in a drop pod, and hunted Covenant on a distant planet until either he died or they died.

Protect Humanity.

Cyrus wondered if he could last as long as Eliza and, if he could, how much could he endure before the wheels fell off entirely.

Only time would give the Spartan his answer.

"Hey, Ana." Mitch's voice cut into his thoughts and drew the attention of the entire camp. "Sing us that song you were working on."

A bespeckled woman, no less than twenty years of age, hesitantly glanced at her fellow Nomads in apprehension.

"I-I'm still working on it, Mitch." The woman was wary of the spotlight, and Panam's encouragement, while good-natured, only seemed to make it worse.

Her fellow Aldecaldos tried their best to encourage her, and even V seemed to pinch in a few inspiring words. "Come on, Ana. Your voice is top-notch, and I've been waiting to hear it for weeks now."

The bespeckled Nomad smiled shyly at the praise sent her way, but it was Cassidy's words that put her at ease.

"No reason to be nervous, kid." The older gentleman gently grasped her shoulder and gave her a warm gaze. "I'm gonna play the tune you jump in when you're ready."

Ane Brun - All My Tears

The nomads' fingers adapted to a constant rhythm that reminded Cyrus of a catholic song during the few times he visited a church on Actium. Religion persisted even into the 26th Century and only grew with each Covenant victory.

Ana's voice was serene, matching a pleasant soprano melody that seemed to put everyone in hearing distance at ease.

The Wolf raised herself from his leg and rambled toward the singing Nomad, finding a cozy seat before Ana, who looked at her curiously. Nevertheless, the Aldecaldo continued with her lyrics, never stopping and finding more confidence with each passing word.

V's head settled into his lap, and a bedazzling smile met Cyrus's curious glance. The Merc scooched closer and gently grasped the Spartans free hand to the center of her chest.

"I want you to hear this because you need it, CY."

V's brilliant amber eyes pierced his crimson irises, and in a tone that was equal parts sincerity and compassion, she spoke the words Cyrus had not realized he desperately needed to hear.

"We will never leave you."

Panam pressed her head into his shoulder as her grip on his arm tightened. V rolled over onto her side, using his thigh muscles as a makeshift pillow, but she never released his hand.

V was right.

Cyrus did need to hear that, and he wished he could have stayed in that position for eternity.

But time waits for no man.

It's Exam Week for the next ten days for my university, not sure why there staggered but it does help the workload. As a result, I may take a week off to get the creative juices flowing once again but we shall see.

Unfortunately no review responses this week because of the aforementioned exams above, but I will endeavor to answer all questions soon.

As always I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and remember to review to your heart's content every little bit helps my motivation.

Next Chapter: September 27th

The next chapter is available on my Pa t re on for those who would like to see it. The Link is below.

www .(p)at (r) e o n. co (m) /Cypher1597 (remove the spaces and () to access)