"So, how long you gonna wait?" Rhys crouches in the shadows of an overturned train, pieces of his shotgun laid out in front of him. The glow of a half-shielded lamp bounces off the planes and scars of his face, makes him even uglier.
"Wait for what?" Ash doesn't like having him along--not that he's ever been along before. That's the whole problem. She isn't used to having him around. She's gotten comfortable with being alone. No one feels sorry for her when she's alone, not even herself.
"Until you start talking back, stop smiling, get pissed, whatever it is you do when you run out of sunshine." Rhys snorts softly, glancing over at her so that the light glitters briefly in his too-black eyes. They're so dark, Ash can hardly tell the iris from the pupil even in the day.
"It's not sunshine. It's who I am. It doesn't go down at dusk or whenever you think it will." Ash stirs the squirrel stew before it boils over, then moves the pot off the heat a little to let it quiet down.
"It will. Eventually." Rhys goes back to reassembling his shotgun. "Always does."
"You want to waste your time worrying about it, go ahead." Ash is hard-pressed not to laugh at his grimace.
"You're laughing." Now the grimace is a scowl. Rhys has the face for scowling and not much else, with his black brows and heavy features.
"Yes." Ash does actually laugh at him now. Her own irritation fades into a familiar affection she didn't expected to feel again and that, as much as her amusement at him, fuels the laughter bubbling up in her.
"At me. I'm funny to you?" Rhys seems caught between frustration and confusion.
"Yes...no." Ash gets up to scan the horizon--or what she can see of it through the murky tangle of fog and swamp that surrounds them. "It's just familiar. I know you won't take this as a compliment, but you remind me of my husband. It's kind of nice."
The silence behind her lurks long enough that Ash finally has to turn around to make sure Rhys hasn't simply up and left, stealthily, to avoid any further contact with her. Instead, he's simply staring at her, those dark eyes drilling into her skin until he grunts and looks away.
"I knew you were crazy but that..." He shrugs one shoulder. "I remind you of the man you married? Not a compliment to either of us. Or you're more of a sucker for punishment than I thought."
"Nick was a good man." Ash hasn't had anyone to talk to about him since she woke up in this hell. "Not a nice one. He could be kind, but that's not the same as nice, either." She fishes around in her pack for a bottle of water for Rhys--he'd needed three Stimpaks after a disastrous run-in with a mirelurk nest and he hadn't had any water beyond what he'd swallowed when they swarmed him. "When I met him, he treated me pretty much the way you do. Didn't have time for me, wanted me to do my job and stay out of his way."
"And you married this guy?" Rhys meets her eyes when he takes the water from her--she half-expected him to refuse it, he has every other time she offered.
"I'm not easily offended. I'd spent a lot of time around military men. Nick was a soldier. A hero. But that costs." Ash sits back down once she's checked on the stew. She has a little flour in her pack, mirelurk eggs, and time to mix up some dumplings if she uses the lid of the pot as a mixing bowl.
"So it costs." Rhys exhales sharply as he gets up to sight along the barrels of his shotgun, checking to see if the scope is set properly. "You felt sorry for the guy?"
"Not at all." Ash shakes the eggs until she finds one she's sure is liquid inside. She won't need the whole thing, it's cool enough out at night that she can set some aside for breakfast. "But I get it. I get that by a certain point, every new person that comes into your life is going to be one of three things: a thorn in your side, a knife in your back, or a hole in your heart. And each person thinks they're going to be the exception, they want some kind of consideration because they're different. But it's not them. It's life. It's war. No matter how special you think you are, war never changes. So I understood. I did my job. I did my job and I didn't leave and one day he reached for me without even knowing he was reaching and I was there."
As she speaks, Ash uses her pocket knife to drill a hole in the top of the egg and a stick--cleaned in the fire--to scramble it without cracking the shell further. When she looks up, Rhys is staring at her until he catches her eye and then he looks away.
"And then he married me. Or, he asked after a fashion. Badly. Awkardly." The memory makes her throat tight and her eyes hot. "He told me not to marry him, in fact, not two seconds after he asked. Said it'd be a terrible idea. And I said yes anyway. Funny, how he thought he'd ruin me and I ruined him in the end."
"You..." Rhys is watching her again and this time he doesn't look away. "You ruined him?"
"Yes, so you were right to be suspicious." Ash pours egg into the pot lid, then adds the flour. The stick does well enough for a whisk. "As you feared, I'm a hazard."
"What did you do?" In the moment, Rhys' face is curious and open, like a child listening to a bedtime story.
"Made a civilian of him. Brought him to Sanctuary. Signed us up for the Vault. Signed away his life." Ash hasn't had anyone to say that to, either. She's said it to Nick but he hadn't been there to hear her. "He'd have survived the bombs; his unit was stationed in the Marshall Islands, guarding the test of a new device. Instead of going down fighting, he was frozen like a packaged meal and then murdered with a single gunshot before he had a chance to defend himself."
"Better to live an hour for a good reason than a lifetime for none at all." Rhys is back to being irritated with her. "You should know that. Or are you just passing through the Brotherhood?"
"I'm not. I don't think so. If I can stay--ethically, morally, emotionally and all that--and if I'm doing any good, I'll stay. I don't leave things undone." Ash shrugs instinctively. Things undone make her itch. She can remember clearly all the things she needed to do the morning the world ended for them. Shopping. Shaun's costume. "I had things to do, you know. I can't do them now or I would."
"You never said why you joined up in the first place." Rhys cracks the water open and drinks. "Or if you did, I wasn't listening. You just showed up and pissed me off."
"Yeah, that might be why I didn't tell you." Ash laughs a little. She uses a spoon from her junk pocket to scoop the batter she's made into the squirrel stew. "I don't really...unless I think someone might know something."
"Know about what?" Rhys' stare still cuts. He doesn't trust her.
"The Institute stole my son. My baby. That's how Nick died. Trying to stop them." It helps if she just rattles it off, keeps it short and simple. That way she doesn't cry, even though her skin and bones hurt with wanting her baby back.
"That's a good reason to die," Rhys says simply. "Better reason to live." He's not sorry for her, doesn't try to comfort her. "Guess you do have your reasons for taking down the Institute." He finishes the water, then crumples the container in his big, scarred hands. "Rain's coming. I'll set something up to keep it off while you finish that."
Then he's gone from the circle of firelight and Ash is left to gather up her heart again in private, for which she's profoundly grateful. She finishes up the stew and dumplings while Rhys uses a tarp and some rope to rig a kind of shelter with the train car. If the cars weren't all overturned, they could set up inside but they're not that lucky.
They eat in silence, under the tarp, as the rain starts to fall and sizzles in the dying fire. Lightning streaks across the sky, casting a purple sheen over the water of the swamps they're patrolling. In the distance, Ash can see Gunner territory and part of her craves another fight to keep her mind away from everything that haunts her.
"Sleep first." It's an order. Rhys takes the dishes. "I'll wake you when it's your turn." He leaves her again, as abruptly as always, to do the washing up.
Ash likes that he doesn't assume she's going to do it. He may not like her but he takes care of her when he can. That's enough. She couldn't deal with him being kind. Other people are unbearable with their sympathy and their gentleness. It may be less than ideal to have him along but it's the next best thing to being alone.
She unrolls the thin, makeshift sleeping bag she made a blanket and duct tape--waterproof and warm and it ties onto her pack well enough--and covers herself so she can try for some sleep. Her pack serves as a wall against the wind, her shotgun isn't much of a pillow but it keeps her head off the ground.
Sleep is far from restful. Something about Rhys reminding her of Nate dredges up ghosts. It's so cold, her body thinks she's back in that cryo chamber with the ice creeping over her nerves. She can see Nate through the glass, she can read the fear in his eyes, she can still hear the last echo of Shaun's cries.
"God," she thought back then. "They lied to us. We're in trouble." And Nate's eyes said he was thinking it, too. Then the air wasn't air anymore but something else that sucked the life out of her. She died, or almost did, and it was all over.
All over until she woke to watch Nate die. She pounded at the door, she screamed with no breath, she clawed the frosted glass, and it didn't matter. Nate died without ever knowing she was still alive.
"Don't put me back, don't kill me again." Kellogg's face loomed near and the cryo chamber started up again, humming around her, breathing poison and ice into her lungs. She fought it but something had her pinned, her wrists restrained, her mouth covered with a heavy hand.
"Stop it." Rhys' urgent hiss isn't far from the hiss of gas into the chamber. His hand is clamped over her mouth to stifle her screaming and she's shaking so hard only his weight is holding her together. "You're gonna get us killed."
"Sorry." The word is lost in his palm. Ash is sobbing and horrified by it. "I'm sorry."
His face is inches from hers, illuminated by her Pip-Boy. He must have turned it on to cut the dark when he was trying to wake her. He takes his hand away from her mouth and she replaces it with her own, afraid she's going to scream again. It's always right there, under the surface.
"I'm sorry," she says again, through her fingers. "Oh, God, I'm so..." The tears won't stop.
"It's okay." Rhys' face shifts, twisted with pain instead of disdain. "Shh." He strokes her hair gently, slides an arm under her neck to keep her head off the ground. "I'm sorry."
Ash can't stop crying and she starts to panic. Biting her fingers does nothing to stop the sobs and Rhys forces her to cut it out anyway, pressing her hand to his chest and covering it with his own.
"I can't. I can't." Ash grabs him like she's drowning and he's going to save her. "Make me stop. Please. Make me stop."
She expects him to slap her or shake her, she's not sure how hard someone would have to hit her to break the grip of her horror and grief. It should hurt, if it hurts she'll stop crying. That's what makes her keep fighting, the pain from outside pushes the pain from inside down where it can't get out.
Rhys touches her cheek lightly, so lightly she hardly feels it, then he kisses her on the mouth. His lips are gentle on hers, dry and cracked and careful. The touch stems the tide of her tears and then he kisses her again.
Ash is still holding onto him, fingers digging into the straps of his armour, but now it's to pull him close for another kiss and another. He kisses well, better than she'd have expected if she thought about it. His tongue is hot on hers, his hands are cautious on her face and her throat and then her waist and her hips.
"Don't stop," she breathes. She wants to drown now, drown in this. Maybe kisses will push back her pain as well as bullets.
"Only when you say." Rhys kisses her jaw and her throat and then under her ear. His breath is ragged against her skin and, when he shifts against her, he moans.
It won't take any time at all to get out of their gear. Ash's fingers are already searching for his buckles. She wants his skin on her skin, his unexpectedly careful hands on her breasts and between her thighs.
She's about to tell him she wants him to fuck her when there's a noise from the darkness, a weird tearing, rushing sound and then a roar. Rhys rolls off her so fast she's left cold in the wake of his leaving but she's already on the move herself.
A beast rising out of the swamp is so huge that Ash's mind can't really encompass it. It's a massive shambling mound of horror that reeks of rot and...mirelurk.
"Get the minigun," Rhys orders, voice raised over the roaring.
The minigun. It's with his gear. She didn't want him to bring it because it's so big and takes so long to rev up. Rhys fires a blast from his shotgun into the mass of the mirelurk--queen, that must be a queen--and it turns toward him as he draws it off.
The bulk of the gun is cold under her hands and she fumbles to get a belt out of his ammo case. He puts everything back in the same place every time, or she'd never be able to find it.
"Hit it anywhere." Rhys slams another shot into the queen and it doesn't seem to make a dent. "I don't give a shit." The queen spits slime at him and he stumbles when he dodges the splash. The queen roars, lurching forward and blocking Ash's view of him.
Ash hefts the minigun and starts it up. She's never been so happy to hear the whir and spin of the damn thing. She hears Rhys cry out in pain and that just makes her angry. Somehow, she supports the gun on one hip like a baby so she can pitch a grenade at the queen.
"Hey! Over here, bitch!" The grenade pops--it's barely more than a firecracker next to the queen but it's enough to get her to turn. "That's right. Lemme see that pretty face."
It's not pretty. Acid spurts and Ash has to just hang onto the minigun and take it. The burn is horrifying but it makes her feel clean, clean and focused. She opens up the minigun and it blazes away, shaking in her hands like a horse trying to take the bit and run.
Ash leans back, bracing herself as the queen charges. Meat and blood fly as the hail of bullets chew into her body. Ash spits acid herself, clenches her teeth on the pain, and finds the strength to pull the gun up a little higher. All she can do is hold her ground and keep the gun going.
A massive claw swipe catches her in the side, then Ash is airborne. It's a strange feeling, flying. All she can think is that she hopes she doesn't die. She's got things to do. She hits the train car with a crackle of bones, her bones, then slides to the ground where she's pinned under the weight of the gun.
She can see, though, just enough to make out the queen against the cloudy sky. For a moment, the queen is still standing, then she sways and topples like a tower collapsing.
Ash can't breathe, can't get Deliverer out, can't even reach her combat knife. The chitter of hatchlings comes toward her in advance of the clattering little swarm. One of them bites through her calf below her armour, another starts gnawing at her boot. This is not how she planned to die, eaten alive by seafood.
"Get off her, you little shits." Rhys looms, his boot comes down on one hatchling, then another. A shotgun blast disperses more. Then he pulls the one off her calf and crushes it, bare-handed. "We're even for this afternoon," he says, as he jams a Stimpak into her leg.
"Sure." Ash still feels like she's dying. "Owe me for the queen now, though."
"You're a pain in my ass," Rhys says. He gives her another Stimpak anyway. "I'm taking you home."
"Not done." Ash hates leaving things unfinished.
"Really?" Rhys picks up the minigun like it's nothing, the bastard.
"Really." Ash sucks in a full breath. The agony of the acid still lingers so she scrubs her muddy hands over her face. "Not done."
"If you say so." Rhys clears the belt from the gun, then loads a fresh one. "In case we need it again," he explains. "Since we're staying out here like crazy people."
Ash manages to get up so she can stumble to the water's edge and clean up. She ends up soaked again but relatively free of acid and mirelurk gore. Rhys has the camp mostly packed by the time she staggers back. Neither of them want to stay the night next to a pile of delicious, tenderized mirelurk meat. Deathclaws and wild dogs won't be far behind with that much food lying around.
"Kind of hard to get time alone if we go back," Ash points out. It hurts to shoulder her pack but she gets it on.
"Time..." Rhys stops in his tracks to look at her askance.
"To finish what we started back there." Ash is more than a little gratified at his baffled expression. "I told you, I don't like leaving things undone."
"I. You. We." Rhys manages to get that much out, then he shakes his head. At least it gives Ash time to catch up to him.
"Unless you don't want to, which is also fine." She passes him, following the train tracks south.
"No." Rhys' boots sound behind her. "Finishing is good. We can finish that and then we can finish that other thing you need to do."