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Barghest
Chapters On the Prowl - Stray Pup - Taming of the Beast

BARGHEST

Stray Pup

When the gangs of Diamond City couldn’t hide the fact that Mr. Rowe had been mysteriously missing for over two weeks, there was bound to be some internal struggle among them for power. The city watch saw little reason to care. If some gangsters decided to kill each other off they would have no complaints about it. Less criminal activity for them to handle. In fact, they drank a secret toast to the loss of the mob boss.

Though there was sure to be some suspicion, none of them could put two and two together to figure out that Mr. Rowe had vanished on the very same day as the Barghest had returned to the city for reasons unknown. Shanks had never really liked the moniker he had been given, but it had stuck on him like a tick in all the worst places. Whenever someone needed to have some significant other or adversary “disappear” in one way or another they would enlist the assassin Barghest. Supposedly the name was some sort of reference to a ghost hound from old folklore from “the Isles”, dating long back since before the Great War. And as much as he hated to admit it, the reality of it wasn’t far off. He had keen senses: hearing, sight, dexterity and reflexes, and of course his excellent sense of smell. Few were the people who could escape his nose. He was swift and subtle, and often left no trace of himself, or the intended victim, unless instructed otherwise. Mr. Rowe had turned out to be just the perfect target to demonstrate his uncanny abilities of making people vanish. Though Shanks was sure that the meat salesman down the traders’ street had some suspicions of  just from where the meat he had provided her came, she had taken it without a word and tossed a couple of caps his way.

Of course, contractors were rare. There weren’t many who dared to approach him, yet alone hire his services. Just by taking a midnight stroll along the streets of Diamond City he could feel every gaze pierce his back, even with his face all covered up with wraps, with the exception of a small opening to peer through. He left his tail hanging out from underneath his coat however. There was no point in trying to cover it up as it gave him away no matter the mood he was in. It would at times swing around wildly, and sometimes even make people trip over it. It was out of his control: just an extension of his thought process and something he just wasn’t able to turn off, no matter how much he wished to.

Though he was used to being ostracized in Diamond City, and everywhere else for that matter, the communities seemed more than happy to take his caps as long as he steered clear of their own private affairs. He was more than happy to oblige, as he generally didn’t get along well with people. He had seen his fair share of them ever since the Great War, and knew what made them tick. They’d kill him in an instant if they caught him stepping out of line. So far that had yet to happen, and he intended to keep it that way. Despite his freakish appearance, he was welcome to trade, to eat at their food stalls, and rest at the inn, as long as he kept his nose clean and didn’t overstay his welcome. If there was anything that these fools feared more than their synthetic people boogeyman, it was a dog: talking and walking among them as if he was one of their own.

He could understand them though. He found little pleasure in their company as well. What little joy he could find in staying in Diamond City on this very day relied on the fact that Mr. Rowe was gone and wouldn’t bother him again. Also a couple of street urchins wouldn’t need to go hungry for some time.

As he sat by the table in a secluded corner of the Dugout Inn, smoking his favorite brand of cigarettes he reflected over where he would be heading off to next now that he could feel the tension rising in the air with the gangster boss gone. Once they realized that Mr. Rowe would not be coming back, there would be fighting. And he’d be happy to leave the city to sort that mess out by themselves.

Or maybe not, he thought as he was approached by Gerald Batters, one of the Diamond City guard officers.

“Barghest?” the man said askingly.

Shanks huffed on his cigarette for quite a while. He truly hated that moniker and thus refused to acknowledge it, but nevertheless he leaned back in the sofa and observed the man with his gleaming eyes.

“What is it, meat? You are bothering me. Have I pissed someone off?”

The guard shook his head. “Not really, no.”

“Then spit it out, meat. You are wasting time I could use to have another smoke.”

“I’d like to hire you.”

Shanks clipped with his ears, sticking out of the cut-out holes he had made in his hood in order for them to fit. “Oh?” he grinned. “Now this is new, even for the Diamond City guard. Didn’t think any of you baseball boys had the balls to even consider assassinations.”

“Shut it, dog”, Gerald said. “It’s not for me. It’s … well… on the behalf of Diamond City as a whole.”

“Interesting”, Shanks said, leaning forward. “And who has pissed off Diamond City to the point where your officials would enlist a wandering freak show to do your dirty work?”

“Slavers”, the guard said, cutting the mutant short.

“That bad, huh?” the dog-man groaned and licked his mandibles.

“We have received reports of them raiding a couple of smaller communities southwest of here. There is another settlement with farms lying in their wake, and we fear it might be their next target. We’d like to pay you 500 caps for taking out their leader on the spot, preferably the whole gang if needed be. You will receive additional 50 caps for each and every one of his filthy ilk, if you’ve got the means to prove it.”

Shanks stubbed out his cigarette in the ash tray. “I want 800 caps, meat. Assassinations doesn’t come cheap.”

“We are stretched as it is. Our whole budget is spent on keeping our defenses well stocked, and to keep Raiders and Super Mutants as far away from Diamond City as possible. 500 caps is all we can afford.”

Shanks spat, a sharp drop of yellowish residue leaving his infected gums. “Make that 600 caps, or I am walking, meat.”

Gerald grinded his teeth. A part of him wanted to punch the monster in the face, but he knew that they had no other choice. There were no other capable bounty hunter or the like to enlist in the city. And the farming communities surrounding Diamond City was their only source of income where food was considered. If they lost all of their farms to the slavers, then the city would starve.

“600”, he said with a sigh. “And don’t you dare fucking raise it now.”

Shanks grinned, his jaws cracking up in a canine smile with his tongue sticking out, panting heavily. “600 caps”, he repeated. “For that you will get any part of this slaver leader you want to dine on, meat. The rest of his crew I might even consider throwing in for free, depending on my mood by the time I get back.”

He rose up from the sofa and adjusted the sniper rifle on his back, rolling his shoulders with a cracking sound. “Until then, officer. Cheerio.”

Gerald Batter muttered something behind his back. Though the security officer most likely thought his insult would slip by unnoticed, he completely forgot that Shanks wasn’t an ordinary man. His impeccable hearing caught the familiar wording of “flea-ridden bastard” from behind. And though the Barghest would’ve been more than happy to teach the guard some manners with his fists or otherwise, he had other business to attend to. Besides, it wasn’t like he hadn’t been called worse before. Still, he didn’t want to encourage such behavior. If people could go around insulting him, whether they knew if he was listening in or not, then he was no longer a man to be feared and respected. He would rather have both traits intact. The fear and respect he had instilled in people had kept him alive for over 200 years. He was hoping to stretch it for another 200 years, but he knew better than to be that optimistic.

Making his way through the ruins of Boston unnoticed was something that came as easy for him. Thanks to the soft padding of his paws he made as much sound as a leaf falling on the grass. The downside with his hind legs, however, was that they prevented him from ever wearing full boots. And though Raiders never made fine corpses, they often left some sweet boots behind as a legacy for him to claim – if only he could wear them. If he owned a place of his own, he imagined that he would have an entire room dedicated to his collection of fanciful boots.

He made his way past a shootout between Gunners and Super Mutants in an alleyway. An itch in his fingers urged him to slow down and stop, upholster the sniper rifle on his back, take aim and let loose a couple of well-placed bullets. It would however be a waste of good ammunition. Bullets he could use to end the slaver threat. Not that he particularly cared much about the worries of Diamond City, but caps wasn’t easily come by. Hadn’t it been for the chance of getting a juicy reward, he would’ve happily been on his way to some other shithole by now: leave Diamond City to sort out their own sordid mess.

Once out of the city he strolled over the ridges, and stopped on a hill to gaze out over the Commonwealth Wasteland. It was still midday, and the sun was still hours away from setting. Far off into the distance he could see plumes of smoke rising. He expected that this was the result of the slaver troupe: burning farms and making off with men, women, and children alike. He knew how slavers thought. Since his gloomy days of Paradise Falls he had gotten to know a couple of them quite intimately. Most of them were outcasts, just like himself. Somehow telling themselves that they had been given the privilege to treat others like shit, because of some sad bastard who had beaten them as kids: fucked with their heads to the point where there was nothing left but spite and malice. At least that’s what he had been telling himself. His own story was something like that, as far as he could remember. Most of his memories from before the war were nothing but a blur now, and most of them after the war as well, when he thought of it in hindsight.

He finally reached the burning settlement, having dodged several encounters with Raider gangs and wildlife that did not agree with his scent. Though he had seen his fair share of fucked up shit in the wastelands he had roamed, this brave new world seemed to have an unrequited love for him, as it constantly tried to outdo his previous experiences with new horrific sights. All the farmhouses had been put to the torch with the exception of a greenhouse, the livestock had been slaughtered, and the inhabitants had all been killed: their bodies displayed on spikes shoved into the ground.

He stomped in to the yard, surrounded by the burning buildings and the corpses of what looked like an entire family tree. Not even the children had been spared.

He grimaced at the sight. Why kill the settlers? Why not enslave them?

It confused him. And it would seem that Gerald Batters had been mistaken. These perpetrators, whoever they were, weren’t slavers. A true slaver would never miss an opportunity to enslave good assets of labor … or assets of pleasure: as even in death some of the young women of the settlement looked healthy and beautiful.

He stopped and beheld one of their corpses. She had been sawed in half by the waist, her shirt had been unbuttoned, her ample breasts exposed to the wastes. Her apathetic expression bore witness of whatever horrors she had endured before her demise, her dead gaze staring at an unknown horizon far off into the distance. A spike had been driven vertically through her rib cage and out the top of her head.

He sniffed in the air. The decomposition had yet to set in. The killers couldn’t be more than half a day away. He reckoned that the attack must’ve occurred some hours before dawn, while it had still been dark. The several tracks in the bloodied dirt were that of army boots: worn out and most likely scavenged.

He had already ruled out Raiders. Though these kinds of cruelties were not unheard of amongst their ilk, they were barely organized enough to launch a raid on a Deathclaw’s pantry. And they knew better than to attack Diamond City property, believing that the unofficial capital of the Commonwealth had some sort secret army they could send out in retaliation. If only…

It was as Gerald Batters had said: Diamond City’s resources were stretched enough as it was. Men and women were dying to the left and right. If these news ever reached the Raiders, it wouldn’t be long before they realized that there was nothing to fear from the city, and that they could at any time launch an assault and claim it as their own personal clubhouse. Though Gunners, maybe? However, Gunners were not prone to these sort of atrocities. They were far more disciplined than that. They accepted a contract, killed their targets, and left without a word. This was not their style.

He flinched as soon as he heard a pot break from one of the greenhouses. He quickly upholstered the revolver he had hidden within his coat as his gaze scanned the dirty, broken windows, waiting for a face to appear.

“Show yourself, meat”, he growled, his voice slightly muffled by the scarf he wore around his snout.

The wind grabbed the greenhouse door and slammed it wide open. He took it as a sign of an invitation and so steadily approached the building with his weapon drawn.

“Come on out already, asshole. I heard you in there. Nothing goes past unnoticed by my ears.” He heard someone scurrying about inside, but there was no response. And no action was taken. “Listen, meat, I am going to count to five, and if I don’t see your ugly mug in the center of that doorframe by then, I am going to put this place to the torch as the bastards who came before me did. Except that I will finish their job.”

There was still no response, though he could certainly tell that there was someone breathing inside. His ears flexed wildly, picking up any and every sound.

“Fuck it”, he said, getting impatient. “One, two, five!”

“No!” a melodious voice yelped.

He snarled and lowered his weapon the moment he saw her. She couldn’t have been more than 11, maybe 12. A young girl with tousled, dirt blonde hair. She had a pair of piercing blue eyes that truly stuck out in these vast landscapes of vibrant sunburn. Her clothes were in tatters – not necessarily the work of the would-be slavers, more likely the result of poor life conditions.

Her lips trembled, and her legs were shaking as she raised her arms high up into the air.

He lowered his revolver with a scoff. “Lighten up, meat. Take down your hands.”

The girl’s eyes were fixed on the impaled corpses. “Oh god, no!” she exclaimed, dropping to her knees.

He sighed and approached her, trying to cover up the view with his coated form. “Your family, I take it?”

The girl sniffed, eyes streaming from her eyes. “They were … during this month, at least. They took me in and cared for me after I strayed from my previous family.”

“Great”, Shanks muttered. “Well, it’s a long road ahead from here to Diamond City. A couple of hours I’d wager, and I haven’t got the time to babysit you while these killers remain at large. So you can either sit tight here and I will send someone to get you when this little ordeal has been dealt with, or you can take the risk and head on back to that shithole in central Boston on your own. Your call, meat.”

“No, please!” the girl pleaded. “Let me come with you!”

“What? No. Didn’t you listen, meat? I don’t have time for you. I am going to snuff out the bitches who offed your momma and poppa.”

“Please!” she begged. Her words were barely intelligible due to her heavy sobs. “I don’t want to stay here and look at them.”

“Then close your eyes? Fucking hell, do I have to spell it out for you? You can’t come with me. You would just get in my way. You would probably get yourself killed. Hell, you might even get me killed, and I am not dying for you, meat.”

The girl sank to the ground, breathing heavily. He could tell she was desperate to do anything just to be safe. Just to have someone around her who would comfort her and tell her that everything would be alright. But he couldn’t be the one.

“Listen, meat. You can stay here and refrain from gawking at the dead, or you can skip along towards Diamond City just fine on your own. Those are your options. Your call.” He holstered his revolver and started to head out into the wastes. “Don’t you be following me now, meat. You are safer here than anywhere else.”

The girl said nothing, but just continued to cry. Shanks shrugged and kept on going. He didn’t have time for this. He reckoned that her family’s killers had a good head start with at least another hour by now and he needed to stop them before they reached another settlement. The Diamond City security would most likely screw him over on the reward if he allowed more people to come to harm.

Tracking the gang was easy. The military boots left a familiar mark for him to follow westward, over the dunes and beyond the ridges. He estimated their numbers to vary somewhere in between ten to twelve individuals. Meek prey for him to hunt down and deal with as he saw fit. 600 caps for taking out the leader and an additional 50 caps for each head alongside theirs. But as he had said, he would be willing to give those for free. It was all a good sport to him. And the 600 caps would suffice more than enough to cover the cost of the ammunition spent. The hours passed and the sun slowly began to settle over the Commonwealth. His hunger began to grow. He hadn’t eaten since last night. Mr. Rowe had been a stubborn man in life, and even in death Shanks found that the gangster’s person was somewhat hard to stomach.

His prayers were answered in the form of a family of molerats playing amidst the hills. He strode right into their game and claimed himself as the victor with a couple of swift slashes of his hunting knife. And just like that supper was served.

With the fresh prey caught he moved over to a collapsed billboard, setting up a makeshift camp in its shadow. He’d catch up to the killers eventually, but not before he had himself a hearty meal. Day turned to dusk as he prepared the molerats: skinning them, gutting them, spilling the intestines out for the bloatflies to fester on. He slowly roasted the flesh over an open fire. He leaned himself back in a pre-war beach chair in plastic, putting up his fuzzy feet for rest on a block of concrete. While he was enjoying his meal, digging into the ribs, his ears couldn’t help but pick up the sound of tiny footsteps approaching his camp in the darkness, encircling him.

So she followed after all, he reflected. Dumb kid.

He decided to lay back for a while, to see what she intended to do, and so he pretended to be fast asleep. And just as he had anticipated she crept into his camp from the shadows behind him. A small hand reaching out for a leg of the molerat on the roast.

He flew up and grabbed her by the arm, causing her to flinch and let out a startled scream. “Thieving from me, are you? Is that what your slaughtered family taught you?”

“Let go of me!” she growled and pounded on his arm to let her go.

He pushed her back, causing her to topple and fall over on her behind in the dirt. “There. You are free to go. Now run back to the farm.”

“I can’t go back there”, she said. “I can’t stand to … look at them.”

“Not my problem, meat”, he replied dryly. “Look, if you are hungry you can have some of the roast, but then I want you to piss off back to the farm.”

“No, please. You’ve got to let me come with you”, she pleaded.

“You are as daft as you are ugly, kid?” he said with a snarl, annoyed by her persistence. “Beat it.”

Her lips started to tremble again – a sign of incoming waterworks.

He groaned. “For fuck sake, do I have to put a bullet in your foot or something for you to take a hint? It is dangerous around me. Either you will get shot at and killed, or you will end up within my line of sight and up shot at and killed.”

“I don’t care. I … I don’t want to go back. Please. I’ll…”

“I’ll what?” he said, repeating after her. “You won’t do shit, meat. Now, turn around the way you came from and go back to your burned down home … or bother the guards at Diamond City, if you can make it there. I don’t care, just don’t follow me.”

The girl stood up, brushing off the dust on her ripped pants. “I won’t go back”, she said with a surly expression. “You can’t make me.”

“You willing to test that theory out, meat?” Shanks said, slowly getting up from his chair. “Do I have to beat your orphaned ass or something? Fuck off, or I will…” He didn’t get much further before he realized that she had a revolver pointed at him.

Since when did she? He felt in the holster of his coat. Gone.

“Don’t touch me!” she snapped.

Shanks furrowed his brows. She had somehow managed to not only piss him off, but had also gotten the only sidearm he was carrying from within his coat, without alerting him. Though he was still mad at her for not obeying, he found her resolve to be quite commendable.

“Listen here, meat”, he growled. “I’ll give you one good shot. If you hit me, I’ll let you stay the night. But if you miss, I’ll break both of your tiny little hands like twigs.”

She swallowed hard, her hands shaking. He reckoned that she had never held a gun before, or even knew how it worked, but that wasn’t a theory he was willing to test out. She steadied herself.

“But … if I hit you … wouldn’t that …”

“Hurt like a bitch, most likely. But go on, meat.”

Her tiny hands flexed in the light of the campfire, unable to keep her aim steady. He smirked underneath his scarf. It would seem that she couldn’t bring herself to do it, not that he blamed her. Every hand wasn’t meant to hold a weapon.

Just a kid after all. Just a kid who…

He felt a sharp pain pierce his left shoulder, causing him to stagger and take a step backwards. “Ow, fuck!” he shouted. “Bitch!” He clutched to the wound with his right hand. A livid gaze piercing hers from underneath his hood.

The girl trembled. “I … I am sorry!” she said. “I didn’t mean to. I just pulled and…”

He seized the gun from her and smacked her over the forehead with the back of his right hand. “Dumb meat”, he growled. “Why the fuck couldn’t you just leave me alone in the first place, when I asked you kindly?”

She sobbed and pressed a hand against the place she had been struck, tears beginning to well up in her eyes.

“Oh, you are crying?” he snapped, stumbling backwards and collapsing into the beach chair with pained grunt. “I am the one who is shot, and the meat is the one crying. Fucking swell.”

“Well, maybe next time you shouldn’t ask a kid to shoot you!” she yelled back at him in a tearful rage.

He was about to say something nasty, but her words made him come to his senses, even though the pain made him quite abrasive. “Fine”, he snorted. “Fucking stay then. Celebrate Christmas with me or whatever. I don’t care. Stupid meat.”

He groaned as he fumbled after the surgery kit inside his coat. Though the wound would heal up just fine on its own during the night, all thanks to the ingenuity of West Tek’s finest, he still needed to eject the bullet.

The girl plopped down next to the fire, and wrapped her arms around her knees as she observed this foul man attempting to fix himself up. It would seem that he wasn’t doing a particularly good job. She just glared at him.

“You going to sit there and mope all night, or make yourself of some use by coming over here and help me fix this mess?”

“Why?” she said surly.

“Because I might just break both your hands anyway, if you don’t. Once I reach the surgery kit, that is.”

Reluctantly the girl rose up. She hesitated for a moment. She hadn’t really gotten to see him up close in detail until now. Back at the farm everything had just happened so fast, and her mind had been elsewhere. But here, in the light of the campfire, she could see him for what he truly was. She hadn’t seen anything like it. He was neither a Ghoul nor a Super Mutant, but something else entirely. He was dressed up in a hooded duster coat with plenty of pockets and belts to store the various types of ammunitions and traps he seemed to carry. On his back there was a high calibre sniper rifle with a scope. His torn jeans were armored with padded leather, and in his belt there hung a long and sharp hunting knife. His hands were covered up in dirty wrappings. The longer she paid attention to his figure, the more disturbing the details became. He didn’t wear any boots. His feet were paws sitting on a pair of hind legs, the kind of limbs she had seen on wild dogs roaming the Wastelands. The tips of his fingers were crowned with sharp claws. From behind the beach chair a tail stuck out. It was remarkable how she hadn’t noticed it before. Somehow it seemed to be an even more obvious feature of his in the dark. Finally there was the face: though completely covered up with a scarf, his face was elongated – drawn out. She had at first believed that he was wearing some type of mask, like a gas mask or something. But now she became aware that this was an actual physical feature of his. Even what little she could see of his skin hinted of what was hiding beneath his clothing: dark gray fur. This wasn’t a man, this was an animal pretending to be a man.

“You going to stand there and gawk all day, meat? Hurry the fuck up.”

She snapped out of it. “What do you want me to do?”

“The right side of my coat: there’s a surgery kit there. Help me reach it. Your damn bullet has dug its way in like a tick.”

The girl reluctantly opened up the side of his coat, pulling out a kit containing all matter of surgical instruments. She could smell the stench of unwashed fur from far away. What kind of person was this man?

As soon as she handed him the kit he took off his coat, exposing an athletic torso dressed in a tank top soaked with stains of sweat, blood, and probably other things she didn’t dare to guess. But it was when he drew back the hood and pulled down his scarfs, exposing his face to her for the first time that she took a frightened skip backwards. It was a dog. Or was it? She didn’t know the sort. She knew only from what she had seen in pre-war books, and of course the skinny wild mongrels that roamed the wastes, but this one was neither. From his muzzle and down his neck and chest his fur was coated with white, while the rest of him seemed to be dark gray. His eyes were as pale as dirty ice, bloodshot and possibly infected. His fangs were sharp and his gum seemed to be just as unhealthy: the sign of a voracious omnivore, and possibly a heavy smoker. His face wore several scratches and bite marks, indicating that he had more than once been in battle with predatory creatures just as ugly as himself.

He didn’t particularly seem to care about her reaction, glaring at her warily as he began to work on himself. “You ruined my coat”, he muttered.

“S-sorry”, she stuttered. “I didn’t mean to…” Her words trailed off and she swallowed. Her mouth felt dry. She was still in a mix of shock and fascination, maybe still angry over the fact that he had struck her. But she couldn’t help but stare. “I didn’t know how hard I squeezed.”

“Uh-huh”, he grumbled, leaning back as he jammed a syringe into his fuzzy forearm with a sigh. “That will take the pain away for a bit”, he groaned with relief. “You like blood?” When she shook her head, he scoffed at her: “Well, quit staring at me then and help yourself to some more molerat or something.

He opened with bullet wound up with some of his tools, all cleaned up for purposes like these. The dog-man grunted with pain as the sedative had yet to take its full effect yet. As he held the wound open with some dilators, he shoved his scarf into his mouth to bite on. He then proceeded to gently stick a pair of tweezers into the bleeding hole in his shoulder. He closed his eyes and started to shake violently as the cold metal jaws struck a couple of nerves.

“Mfffukka!” he mumbled, biting down into the scarf.

He then sighed with relief as the bullet was extracted, having embedded itself deep into his flesh. It didn’t seem to have hit any bone. As soon as it was out, he could already feel the familiar sensation of the wound slowly starting to mend itself. Tissue finding loose ends to tie back together to form a whole.

“You can look now, meat”, he groaned.

The girl watched with shock as she saw the wound slowly disappear before her very eyes. It was unlike anything she had ever seen. It was even stranger than a dog that walked on two legs and both spoke and reacted like a normal human being, albeit more mean than anyone else she had known – with a few exceptions.

Her jaw dropped. “H-how did you do that?”

“I didn’t do shit, meat”, he said. “The people who made me did. Only good thing they did for me. And that's the kindest insult I have ever given them.”

The girl sat down. She was still hungry, but from what she had seen she had lost all sense of appetite. This was too much for her to experience in one day: torture, murder, mean dog-men, self-healing wounds, and worse. It all made her head feel heavy and tired. She half expected that at any point she would be woken up by farmer Tanner from a dream, telling her that she was welcome to join them for breakfast. She had been living as an orphan for so long that when she had been taken in by the Tanners, it was one of the happiest moments of her life. They had given her a room of her own in the greenhouse. They had fed her and cared for her. She had even become friends with the daughters. But when the evil men had arrived at the farm late in the night, she had stayed hidden, in fear that she too would suffer the same fate as the Tanners. She hadn’t wanted to. She wanted to go out there and scare them off, fight them if she had to. But the moment that she heard what they did to Christina, to Lydia, to Melanie, she had frozen up – unable to do anything, but to sit in a cramped corner of the greenhouse, crying and covering her ears up so hard that her wrists had started to hurt.

When morning had come, she had looked out through the windows and seen the results of the slaughter. Smelling the blood of the Tanners and their livestock, the stench of burnt wood. She hadn’t wanted to go outside, and she reckoned that no one would come for her. Come and take her away from this horrible place. Not necessarily because she was scared, but because she felt guilty. Guilty that she hadn’t been able to do anything for the people who had taken care of her. Guilty that she had just been sobbing all through the night while the evil men had been torturing them and … done things to the daughters that had looked very painful, even more so than the torture. If they could somehow come back to life, what would they say to her? Would they blame her for cowardice? Would they think of her as ungrateful? She couldn’t bear the thought. She had just wanted to get herself away from there, believing that if by some impossible means they could come back, they would be mean to her. That they would say that they regretted ever taking her in. That they would chastise her for not coming to their help when they had been there for her.

“You drifting off in the head or something, meat? Or were you just born that way?” the dog-man snarled.

“Huh?” she grunted.

“Hell, I should’ve just tied you up back there. Tied you up and gone straight back to Diamond City and told them to pick you up. Would have saved us both some trouble. Set me back with an entire day as well, most likely. Thanks for that, by the way.”

“But you didn’t tie me up”, she snapped at him, still cross with him. “I am here now, so you deal with it.”

He seemed taken aback by her retort. “I am going to deal with it in due time, meat”, he growled. “Or maybe your family’s killers will be the ones to take care of you for me. That would indeed save me some of trouble you’ve been stirring up.”

Tears started to well up in her eyes again. Why was this creature so mean to her? Was he like this with everyone or just with her?

“Yeah, you aren’t fooling me with that waterworks bullshit, meat. It won’t bite on me. I am the one doing the biting here. Now eat your supper, shut your trap, and go to sleep. Tomorrow, I’ll figure out what to do with you, because I am not going to have a stray pup chasing me at my heels. Got that?”

She wiped her tears off on her sleeve. The first thought that came to her mind was to say something mean back to him. She hated to feel so inferior to grown-ups. Hated that she wasn’t as well versed with words as they were. She wished she was as grown as Christina, or maybe as brave as Melanie: then she could’ve told this monster a thing or two.

She sobbed and looked another way. She didn’t want him to watch as she wept, knowing that he would most likely berate her again, or mock her. He seemed to be that kind of person.

“What’s your name, meat?” he asked.

She wasn’t ready for that question. “Why do you care?” she said, trying to mask her unsteady voice.

“Well, if your family’s killers put a bullet in you while you are tailing me, I’d like to know what to put on the grave marker. Or would you like to be known posthumously as ‘unknown dumb girl’?”

So insensitive

“I am not going to give you my name so you can make fun of me anymore”, she replied. “Go to hell”, she muttered under her breath, struggling to hold the tears back.

Though he did seem to catch that last phrasing, he was unfazed by it. “I was serious though, meat”, he said, leaning back in his chair. “What’s your name? Else I will call you shit-for-brains, if that makes you any happier.”

“Shannon!” she snapped, crying at this point. She fell silent for a short moment, catching her breath. “My name is Shannon.”

It was completely quiet between the two for a moment. For a moment she thought that he had left her there. Gone off on his own or something. She didn’t know for how long she refrained from looking in his direction, but by the time she finally did, she found him sitting there with a perplexed expression on his dog-like face. He didn’t say a word or move a muscle. He just sat there, as if he reflected on something. He sat so still that she believed him to have suddenly died of a heart attack or the like, but judging from his rattling breath, he was very much alive.

“H-hello?” she said askingly.

“Uhm", he said, clearing his throat. “You should get some sleep, meat.” His voice, though dark, hoarse, and rough, had a much different tone to it than before. It was much softer and reminded her of how farmer Tanner spoke to her in the early mornings: all calm with a smile on his face. Though this dog-man did not smile. “It’s going to be a long journey tomorrow. You are going to need all your energy if you are going to keep up with me, because I am not staying to wait for you or carry you. You get that?”

She still wondered why the sudden change of heart, but didn’t question it. She was still angry with him. She just nodded in understanding and looked into the campfire, wondering what had triggered his emotional side. Though she was still a kid, she could tell when grown-ups acted in a way that seemed out of their character. Even if she still didn’t know the name of this … beast, she had already guessed what kind of person he was. He was unkind, unscrupulous and only seemed to act on his own priorities, having little to no time for anyone else but him. And yet, something had all of a suddenly changed the moment she had told him her name. She wasn’t perhaps particularly smart, but she was good at noticing changes.

She lied down next to the fire, curling up and wrapping her arms around her legs. Cold winds were blowing over the Commonwealth as night began to settle. She started to drift away. The horrors and experiences of last night fading for the time being; to the calm crackling of the campfire and the howling of the gusts. She only momentarily woke up to something heavy thrown over her. It was warm. In her dazed state she soon realized that he had thrown his duster coat over her to serve as a blanket. Though she was still mad at him for being the jerk that he was, she still appreciated the gesture, but was too tired to say utter a small thanks. And even if she did, she reckoned that he wouldn't care.

Shanks collapsed with his back against the chair, gazing up at the starry sky above them. He was dead tired. This stray pup had certainly messed up his plans, and tired him out. But from the moment she had told him her name he couldn’t bear to be cross with her any longer. He would just have to think of how he would deal with her tomorrow.

As he laid there in the beach chair and began to doze off, he began to remember something. Memories came and went. Some recent, some older than two centuries. Memories from before the bombs had changed the world forever – from before he had been changed forever. He remembered some better than others, whether they were recent or two hundred years old. Some of them intermingled and became one, even though he knew for certainty that the details of them eluded him and couldn’t possibly be true. Nevertheless he humored them, as he found great pleasure in them.

Shannon, he reflected, looking up at the sparkling celestial bodies above him. Are you up there somewhere?

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