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Chapter 11: One step at a time


Ruth did not expect to hear this first thing in the morning. She cracked her eyes open, realizing that she had them closed for much longer than she had originally planned. It was morning already, and not the early sunrise kind of morning, but the hot, blazing one. All further contemplations on the time of day, however, were cut short by Amber's angry litany of obscure curse words.

"Uhh... Amber?" She heaved herself up from her bedroll, her eyes still getting used to the light.

"We never should've trusted this asshole!" There was a sound of wood cracking and hitting the sand somewhere beyond the ruined wall.


"Our stuff is gone, that's what!"

All the remaining traces of sleep left her immediately and Ruth jumped to attention, shaking herself awake. They quickly checked all of their leftover belongings, now scattered across the campsite like rubbish. The accidental companion of their previous mission, Michael, took most of their food and all of their water. Ruth cursed under her breath seeing that he had snatched a stimpak from her bag as well, though left all the other chems, pastes, and powders stored in small bags, jars, and bottles she carried with her at all times.

"What the hell?" She shook her head. "He seemed like a decent guy. Pretty useless, but not the kind to rob us!"

"Yeah, seemed." Amber grunted and rolled up her sleeping bag. "I'm going to kill the fucker if I ever see him again."

"I'm with you on that." Ruth checked the knives on her belt. It was the one piece of equipment she never left behind and learned to sleep with, either strapped to her back or hidden under the pillow. This couldn't be said about her rifle, but surprisingly, the thief did not take their weapons, nor their ammunition. "It's no use running after him immediately, we have no idea how much of a head start he has, anyway. At least he left you that combat armor."

"Not as big of a dick as he could have been. Doesn't make me any less angry..." The redhead muttered, tying the bag to her backpack. "Or the scumbag just couldn't carry anything else."

Amber picked up the pale-green pieces of armor she haggled yesterday and put everything on, strapping the bands into places and adjusting them to her body. It took some time, but after tinkering with the straps and buckles the armor fit her quite well. "This is actually pretty cool. Much lighter than my previous one, though it doesn't look like it." She turned around, admiring each individual piece.

"It suits you." Ruth commented, but wasn't focused on her at all. She was sitting down, leaning over a big, weathered map she took out of her backpack in the meantime. Pressing a pencil to her lips, she was thinking of their next best route and trying to guess the thief's next destination. He seemed to be mostly interested in their supplies, and they did talk about the Refinery yesterday, so it was her best bet at the moment. Dots, lines and other small scribbles marked certain locations on the sheet before her, like Camp Imperial and the cave from their second mission together. There was a doodle of a horned skull with long teeth, crossed out with an additional note reading "cleared". She found the spot of the Nuka Cola factory and carefully wrote down "cleared, toxic". She then figured their current location and measured the distance they still had to cover. "We have half a day of marching to the Refinery from here. It's not far, we'll be following the main trading route, but it'll be risky without water. It's blasting mercilessly today..." Ruth focused on another marked location on the map, then glanced at her broken rifle. "... but I think I have an idea."

"Idea?" Amber arched an eyebrow seeing the other woman smile at the gun.

"We're going off track for a bit." She swiftly folded the map into a thin rectangle and packed it. "But first, I have to make you a morning shot. This won't take long." She began preparing the same concoction she'd given the redhead yesterday.

She heard her partner sigh and sit down in front of her, awaiting treatment.

"So where are we going? You just said we don't have enough to go on additional sightseeing." The redhead questioned. "We need to get to the Refinery or we're dead."

"I wouldn't say dead, just slightly crispy from the sun." Ruth looked up, seeing the other woman frown. At the moment she didn't even have her arms fully protected from the heat, sitting only in a tank top and the wide armor, her protective clothing ending up in the fire the previous night. She gave her an apologetic smile. "I do have a plan, don't worry. I could find and improvise some food on the way, but finding water won't be so easy. That's why we're making a stop on the way. Somewhere where there should be plenty of water for both of us. Trust me."

"If you say so." Amber just muttered in response and cringed when she received the familiar orange-like concoction in a can.

"How are you, anyway?" In full daylight she could now clearly see the stripe-like bruises on her arms and neck. She was heavy-eyed, to say the least. "I hope you got enough sleep to keep you going today."

"I've been better." She downed the medicine in three gulps, learning from yesterday's experiences, though she could still see her face twist every time. "But I've been much worse. Knowing my luck, those vines could have had thorns and teeth." Amber paused, looking at the empty cup. "Thank you." She met her gaze for a moment, before setting the can down and getting back to her feet. "Let's get going. Maybe we'll still get to catch the fucker."

Ruth smiled and quickly gathered her things.

They didn't talk much along the way. Chatting and joking meant losing precious energy and focus, both of which they needed most to make it as quickly as possible to their next destination. Although the trading routes were considered the safest paths to travel the wasteland, raiders sometimes used that to prepare an ambush on the caravans and lone wanderers alike. Amber knew there was a whole system behind the caravans' schedule and they did their best to get the most accurate intel on what the raiders were up to. Each merchant had at least two guards with them at all times, and were usually armed themselves. Even some brahmins, if the bandits came too close, were trained to use their horns and mass to protect their owners. Brahim armor was not as widespread, but she did see a couple caravans crafting makeshift protection for their beasts of burden, at the cost of a few pounds of goods on their backs. Despite all that, raider groups were often big in numbers and firepower. It was a constant arms race between the caravans and raiding bands; the race that built the powerhouse that was the Refinery and their caravan systems, as well as the big and well organized raider gangs like the Tombstones or Vultures. Even the best-equipped caravans sometimes fell under the swarm of lead and other weaponry commanded by those groups. Caution and best-informed intelligence on their enemies were a merchant's best weapons.

With the sun already high in the sky, no sight of danger, no breakfast, and not a drop of water in their canteens, they finally reached their first stop. They stepped off of the crumbling road and looked up at the base of a tall, concrete construction. A massive pylon towering above the sands was built here years ago to hold a wide, advertising billboard. The pylon itself stood on a bulky, concrete base, mostly buried in the sand and surrounded by thick, thorny bushes. The billboard had mostly collapsed into a pile of rusted metal scaffolding below, but they could still read the slogan "Visit Archer City today!", with a few hexagonal shapes next to it. In the background, there was a panorama of a city centre with tall, gravity-defying buildings surrounded by geometrically planned out neighbourhoods, an imposing tower overlooking it all. The beautiful imagery was now heavily faded by the elements. A few pieces of the construction were hanging dangerously in the air, held only by wires and pieces of a metal frame. Amber heard rumors about this Archer City, once a highly advanced complex of themed districts surrounded by cliff-like wind barriers, an oasis of life and progress in the middle of a desert. Ruined nowadays for the most part, it held the biggest settlement down south, New Mexicali, which played by its own rules and fell under no jurisdiction but their own. She's never been inside the giant walls, but she's been at the trading outpost just outside. It was the final stop of many caravans traversing from across the country. Some even called it the New Vegas of the south, and just like its namesake from the Mojave, it was prime real estate for the NCR to grab.

She looked back at the concrete landmark, trying to find any signs of a possible water source, but although she saw nothing, her partner was obviously beelining towards the construction.

"So that's what we wasted time for?" Amber asked sceptically, standing in the shadow of the pylon. "I thought you knew an unmarked trading outpost or a caravan stop." Ruth just smiled and walked around the base to a large piece of what used to be the corner of the billboard.

"Help me move this and you'll find out." She kneeled down beside it and dug some of the sand away with her hands. Amber grabbed the rusted, twisted metal frame and pulled it away from the rest of the construction, revealing a metal door built into a sloped base of the structure.

"Now, help me open it." Ruth pointed at a rusted knob on the door.

"I hope this is worth the heat stroke I'm about to get." She grabbed the knob with both hands. Her muscles tensed and she slowly turned the rusted lock. The metal groaned in protest, but moments later the lever clicked and released the heavy door. With some effort they managed to open it just enough to squeeze through.

"What the hell is this?" Little avalanches of sand slipped free and fell inside the dark opening, disappearing from their view. Her partner took a few deep breaths then stepped inside.

"Come. Careful on the stairs, they're steep." Ruth turned on her flashlight and disappeared underground.

The way down wasn't long. A few steps later they reached the bottom and found themselves in a small room smelling of dust, old rubber, and something rotten. The ceiling was merely above the height of a regular person and Amber had to duck to avoid hitting it. A tiny flame illuminated the interior as Ruth lit a kerosene lamp hanging in one corner, soon growing bright enough to fully see the interior. The cubby contained a tiny workbench improvised from what must have been a console, some tools, and a few fuse boxes connected by thick cables. Bundles of wires were hanging from the ceiling and on all the walls creating a thick, black web of crumbling isolation and twisted metal. The only other furniture immediately visible after entering was a wide, reinforced metal chest with faded military markings, which took up a fine part of the limited space. Right below the concrete ceiling a few cables were spread like strings with various herbs and thin pieces of fabric hanging from them, dried to a crisp by now and covered in cobwebs.

"So this," Ruth motioned around, "is my secret stash. I found it long before joining the army. The chest was already here, filled with whiskey and wine bottles. Someone really didn't want their boss to see them drinking on the job. At least, that's the story I came up with." She chuckled and bent down to fiddle with the chest's lock.

"Did you... live here?" Amber looked around, noticing a bundle of fabric, a stained pillow, and a small pile of empty bottles and other rubbish just near the stairs. There was also a pair of completely worn-down pair of shoes in the corner.

"I... yeah." She hesitated for a moment. "For much longer than I could've wished, but it made for a really good hideout. No one seems to have found it since I left."

"Aren't you, like, afraid to be here? You know, tight and dark and-" Amber looked past her shoulder as she fiddled with the lock, her moves a little too erratic to open it on the first try.

"At first I was, but I didn't have anywhere else to go. It took some time getting used to, but... at some point I started to trust that it wouldn't collapse and bury me in here." Ruth took another deep breath. "But you didn't have to remind me about it." The lock finally clicked, releasing the lid.

To Amber's surprise, the first thing she noticed inside the chest was a colorful comic book. A whole stack of them, in fact, spread across the whole length of the container. She happened to see shreds of these in abandoned houses, shops, or other random places while scavenging, but those were in a far better condition than expected. Even the few issues she saw carried by caravans were often way more damaged than this collection. She was about to ask about them, but her partner quickly picked them up, gathering them into a small pile, and set them aside, revealing a few bundles of fabric and other items stuffed between them. She quickly took them out. Comics, clothes, bandages, and various other items now littered the floor.

"What's this?" Amber watched the process with great interest, then pointed at a black, round object placed between a set of bandages.

"That's... It was a gift." Ruth took it carefully and brought it closer to the light. It was a very worn down billiard ball, an eight ball exactly, its characteristic black color almost completely turned grey. "I got it from Alan a few years back. His father used to gamble at The Strip, and that's where it came from. It's meant to be a lucky charm from what he told me." Her eyes followed the cracks in the surface that almost looked like ripples coming from the big, faded 8. "It didn't seem to work. Neither for him, nor for me." She set it down, letting it roll across the dusty ground, bouncing off of the redhead's boot before stopping.

Amber glanced at it accusingly, but quickly turned her attention to another item that just landed on the floor. A slightly faded, blue bundle of cloth. It reflected the light of the flame as if it was made out of shiny metal or a precious stone. She picked it up carefully and the soft fabric unfolded revealing a gorgeous, short dress with thin straps. It looked like it could barely cover what it should. "Ruth..." She struggled to keep a serious tone and her face straight. "What is that?"

The blue-haired woman froze. At first all color drained from her face as she quickly snatched the offending piece of wardrobe, then she turned beet-red, folding the dress quickly and throwing it back into the chest.

"Nothing, this is nothing! Don't rummage in my stuff like that!" She hissed, ignoring the redhead's giggles.

"Alright, princess!" Amber stood back, still snickering, and watched her partner as she unpacked the rest. She found a small, plastic container, similar to the ones she held different ointments in, and a small paper bag. She put them into one of the satchels on her belt. Then, carefully, she unwrapped a piece of cloth, recovering several metal parts stacked on a case of .308 Winchester rounds. "Wait, don't tell me you have an entire gun in there?" Amber looked at the pieces curiously, trying to recognize the elements.

"Well, I need to replace the broken one somehow, right?" Ruth took out the last bundled up part and placed it with the rest of the pieces. Guessing by the shape of it, it was a scope. She gathered the items she thought useless and placed them carefully back into the chest, then locked it. Everything else, apart from the gun, landed in her bag.

"Great, but we still need water." The redhead muttered, looking at the pile of junk her partner had gathered.

"There is a jug of water, a few bottles, and cans with food under the workbench." She motioned in the general direction of the stash. "Take all of them and come on up. We should be all set for now." She grabbed the gun parts and hurried outside, beads of sweat covering her forehead.

Amber kneeled down next to the workbench and looked for any opening. The panel in the wall under it was loose and with a little bit of effort, she removed it, uncovering a few rows of supplies, more than she'd expected to find. There were six large water bottles, a half-empty glass jug, and a metal box full of dry military rations. One person could probably survive on those for a couple of weeks. She opened one of the bottles and took a sip. The water was stale and had a slight metal aftertaste, but once her dried lips touched the cold liquid she realized how thirsty she was after the trip. It took her a few minutes and half of the bottle before she stood up and gathered the rest of their supplies. She quickly looked around, checking the half-decayed boxes on the walls, but found nothing but dust and a handful of crumbling wires. She took one last look at the weird little hideout, doused the flame, and went back up.

Amber found herself battling her own thoughts. The very existence of this place brought back her old suspicions about her partner, but she desperately didn't want to give in to the doubt again. As odd as it was to admit, she really began to trust her companion and she wanted to believe that the blue-haired girl was telling her the truth. On the other hand, why would she have a hideout in the middle of nowhere, yet so close to a couple of major settlements? They were only a couple of hours off from the Refinery and maybe two days away from Big Bog. She remembered the conversation she had with Vasquez about the two mysterious strangers who were later rumored to have caused the plague, among them a young girl with an odd appearance.

She came out into the desert sand and placed all her findings on the concrete structure of the pylon.

"What do you think?" Ruth made sure the scope was secured in place then presented the weapon to her partner. She was smiling proudly, holding the gun with great care.

"Well, uh..." Amber looked closer at the rifle. It was quite elegant in shape and longer than the ones they got from the army, probably heavier and nastier, too. However, it was in a pretty bad condition, weathered by time and use. She took it carefully from the other woman, feeling it in her own hand. The grip was worn down and the wooden surface was cracked. The metal parts were scratched and rusted in a few places. Its stock was wrapped in an oily piece of cloth and some pieces were held in place by wires, string, or duct tape. The redhead couldn't help but cringe while inspecting the weapon. "I mean, it's probably a really good rifle, but... Who on earth repaired it for you? It looks so sad, it's a joke of a weapon!"

Ruth's eagerness visibly faded as she scratched her neck. "Yeah, it's... pretty bad, isn't it? I've been trying to keep it functional, but, well, you see how that went." She sighed. "It was in a much better shape when my mom took care of it."

"I might be able to fix that for you when we get to the Refinery." Amber looked around the area through the scope, which other than being dusty, was in a very good shape.

"You would, really? You'd fix it?" She heard her ask with newfound hope.

"It'd be a shame to leave a good rifle like this, I know my way around this stuff. And it looks like it means a lot to you." Amber couldn't help but smile at the other woman's growing excitement. She couldn't recall if she ever saw such a genuine smile appear on her face before. Her focus was quickly drawn away by a rumbling in her stomach. "Let's eat and get going. You still owe me a meal from yesterday."

"Oh, shit, right." Her usual, slightly-frowning expression returned and she turned to the recovered supplies.

They covered the entrance to the hideout and sat down to eat, hidden in the shadow of the pylon as the sun moved across the sky. Their supply of water shrunk to five bottles as they ate dried military rations, leaving the cans for later. Stale water and centuries-old rations weren't too high on Amber's prefered food list, especially in her state of still painful digestion of basically anything, but she devoured her portion in a heartbeat without any complaint.

"Shame you didn't leave any of those wine bottles you mentioned. We could take some with us." She commented, attempting to stretch without hurting her body too much.

"They were... disposed of." Ruth muttered, opening a piece of her ration.

"You didn't throw them away, did you?"

She didn't respond, just bit into the small, flavourless slab of protein instead, which Amber took as a no.

"So..." The redhead started, trying to sound as neutral as she could. "How did you find this place and how long did you stay here?"

"I found it by accident. You could say I ran away from home and needed a new one." She said with a shrug.

"Now we're getting somewhere!" Her disinterested tone was immediately out of the window as she cheered and continued her inquiry. "Sooo, when was that?"

"Oh, I don't know, a while ago. It's hard to keep track of time." Her partner replied after chewing on the remaining piece of ration for an annoyingly long time. "How do you feel? Any signs of radiation poisoning or anything like that?"

"Don't change the subject now." Amber protested as Ruth took out her medkit and started to mix the all too familiar concoction.

"Sorry, but you're still my patient. Drink this and we're going." Was the only reply she got. The foul smell of the sludge made her instantly regret what she just ate. It was somehow worse each time she tasted it.

"Fine." She leaned against a piece of concrete, slightly irritated. "Since you won't answer that, how about there?" The redhead pointed at the remnants of the billboard next to them. "Ever been there?"

"Wait... Archer City is a place?" At first she thought it was another silly excuse, but Ruth looked genuinely surprised.

"Yes, and no. Mexicali is the place everyone talks about, but Archer is the entire pre-war ruin." She explained. "As far as I know."

"Oh." Her partner glanced back at the weathered cityscape. "I never knew that. And no, not yet, but I want to. People say it's very colorful."

"Yeah, that's what I heard." Amber gulped the rest of her medication and handed back her makeshift cup.

Once they cleaned up the small pile of trash left from the meal and refilled their canteens, her companion picked up her new weapon with care, as if it was made out of glass, and walked towards the nearest rock. Amber observed her as she took out the black eight-ball from one of the bags attached to her belt and put it on the rock, securing it in place with a few shards, then got back to the pylon and reloaded the rifle.

"What are you doing?" The redhead suddenly grew worried. "This thing is in no condition to-"

A loud bang interrupted her protests as Ruth brought the weapon up, looking through the scope before firing. The bullet missed its intended target and kicked up a cloud of dust when it hit the dirt.

"I need to sight it in." Ruth fiddled with the scope for a few seconds. "Don't worry, as terrible as this gun may look, it can handle a few more shots before it explodes." She added and fired again after a moment of aiming. This time the projectile hit the rock, chipping away a large fragment. She reloaded, not waiting for her partner's reply, and fired again. The black ball exploded into a cloud of tiny shards, disappearing completely from their sight. Only a few tiny chunks remained on top of the rock, swaying back and forth from the momentum.

"There. Now we can get going." She put on her backpack and hood.

Amber gave her an odd look, glancing at the shards, before putting on her equipment as well.

"Um... you want to talk about it?" She asked after a moment.

"Talk about what?" The other woman said from behind the cloth.

"That ball that you just annihilated?" The redhead pointed in the general direction of where she was shooting.

"Well..." Ruth sighed quietly. "You know the answer to that question, there's not much more to the story." She said bitterly, looking at the shards scattered across the sand. "Those were just remnants of the old life, but none of it matters now."

"There's still a long walk ahead of us. Nothing but sand and coyotes around. You know, if you'd change your mind on the way. " She shrugged.

"Unlikely." The smaller woman smiled in response.

"Oh come on, can't you open up at least a little bit?" Amber poked her gently. "Can you at least tell me how many of your ex'es are out there that might want to kill us?" She smiled, which only made her partner scoff in frustration.

"No, I don't have any ex-boyfriends, sorry to disappoint you." Ruth turned to the road, hanging the weapon on her shoulder. "Not anymore at least." She muttered.

"What about girlfriends?" The redhead teased, following her. "Or unrequited love?" She continued, but there was no response. "I'll make you talk one day, you know. No matter how many bottles it takes."

Ruth scoffed at her, shaking her head. "Let's just walk for now."

"Fine, ma'am. Let's walk in silence for a few hours like normal people do." The redhead capitulated, rolling her eyes.

She didn't respond.

They marched in the unforgiving sun, stopping by abandoned huts and farm houses every now and then to rest and drink some water. The long sleeves of her uniform, fingerless gloves, and her cowl protected well enough from the rays, but she was growing worried about Amber's bare arms at the end of the day. There was nothing in her stash she could spare, and they didn't meet any merchants on the way, either.

Ruth kept looking around the area, trying to piece together what it could've been before the war. The surrounding landscape was overgrown with dry shrubs and wild, twisted variations of fruit trees. It must've once been covered in green and yellow fields, extending beyond the horizon, a sight now completely unimaginable. Many people broke their backs to make the best of the crops, and even with the new technologies of the atomic age, simple tools like sickles or hoes could be found anywhere. Now, the once fertile ground was dry and cracked unevenly, mosaics of stones and sand instead of maize or potatoes. Lonely, broken fences separated the land into empty sections. Skeletons of brahmins and people could be found every once in a while, remnants of those who tried to turn this land back to its former glory. Sometimes, they also spotted ruined, rusted parts of Mister Handy robots, the pre-war machines that did everything and anything the owner imagined, from farm work to babysitting. A lot of those survived to this day, though Ruth has only ever seen one, only to run away immediately from its flamethrower defense system.

At one point they hid in the shade of an old house. The inside was not worth scavenging for, there were only moldy beds, empty cans, and dirty spoons among the everpresent dust.

"You used to live around here somewhere, right?" Ruth broke the silence before passing a bottle to her partner. She swept the sweat from her brow and took off her hood to cool down.

"Yes. Somewhere over there." Amber looked around, then pointed south across the flat plain.

"Wait. We went past it? We could have stopped there if you wanted." She swept her fringe out of her eyes, frowning. "Our mission is to gather info after all, maybe your family would know something interesting."

"I don't feel like that's necessary. There are caravans going in and out of The Farm, there's plenty of intel coming from them alone." Amber shrugged and took a sip from the bottle. "Besides, my family... They wouldn't be too happy to see me."

"How's that?" Ruth glanced roughly in the direction the redhead had pointed to before. "You told me these were the people who saved you, right?"

"Yes, but they didn't approve of my... Let's call them life choices." The redhead emptied the bottle and put it in her bag.

"Touchy subject?"

"Not really, just boring. I wanted to have fun, they wanted me to pop out a few kids. I wanted to fight, they wanted me to farm." She crossed her arms and shrugged, leaning against the one wooden wall that could support her weight. "My brother got along well with them, and even he turned against me, so I left, joined the NCR as soon as I could. They didn't approve."

"So they don't want you there... at all?"

"Oh, they would love me there, so they could nag me and torment me with their perfect points of view and tell me how much my life is screwed because of what I've done." Amber just shrugged and kicked a nearby can.

"So this is a touchy subject. Sorry about that." She put the hood back up after a few moments of silence and gave Amber a reassuring smile. "We don't have to go there, but we should be close to the Refinery by now. Or so I think, I've never been there myself."

"I can be your guide when we get there. That's where I used to run off to when they tormented me too much with their pep talks."

They soon came back out into the sun and carried on along the dusty path. The redhead spoke again after a few minutes of walking. "You know you're a hypocrite, right?" She heard her say from behind her shoulder. "Asking me about my life when you don't really answer anything?"

Ruth held back a heavy sigh and kept looking ahead. She half-expected her to say that. "Sorry. I won't ask any more questions."

"That's not at all what I meant." She came in line with her, and in the corner of her eye she could see her trying to peer past the cowl. "We're stuck together, so it's only fair that we know and trust each other."

"You don't have to know my entire biography to know me." Ruth replied dismissively. "I'm trying to give you other reasons to trust me. I do want to trust you, too."

"Then give me something to work with!" The redhead looked at her visibly frustrated. "You keep saying the same thing about us working as a team, yet you're dodging everything like a bullet."

"Wasn't saving your life enough? Twice now, too? You keep pressing me for answers like I owe you any, but that's not the point." She kept her voice steady, as much as she wanted to bark back at her with the same frustration. Out of all people, she had to be stuck with the most nosy girl she's ever met.

"It is if your past comes back to bite us in the ass." Amber muttered angrily.

"I'm not going to discuss my past with a person I met a few days ago. I don't do that with anyone, and you're surely not gonna be the first, no offence, Red. None of it matters anymore. Is that so hard to understand?" She stopped and looked directly at her partner. "I trust you with my life and I hope you know you can trust me with yours. But we don't have to know everything about each other to work together."

Amber looked at her in silence for an uncomfortably long time, as if she wanted to read her just by that, before answering. "I see. I can accept that under one condition."

"Just don't make it anything silly."

"If there's ever anything from your life that might come back to haunt us, you will tell me about it." The redhead said in a surprisingly cold manner.

She was prepared to lie the way she used to. She was prepared to give another half-truth just to have this conversation out of the way and dealt with. This time, it took her only a second to decide, and she did so with a smile.

"Deal." Ruth extended her hand, and the redhead eagerly shook it. "The one thing I was worried about is already gone."

"Thank you." She let go and her expression shifted completely to that of a confident grin. "Let's get going or they'll shut the gates and we won't get in till morning." The redhead commanded and rushed forward, waving back at her to follow.

The horizon was dancing in the heat, blurring the edges of the flat, dusty plane. However, the heat didn't affect all of the creatures equally. The only intermission in the otherwise monotonous travel was a detour they had to make to avoid a small nest of fire ants. They spotted a few drones along the way and debated shortly if a little hunting excursion wouldn't be a good idea; fire ants' nectar was a valuable substance after all, but they decided against it. If there was indeed a nest nearby, a few killed ants would attract a lot more, including the deadly, fire-breathing soldiers. No, she never understood how that was a thing, but it was too dangerous to get close and find out.

Leaving the plains of pre-war farming fields they came between the sand dunes that progressively covered the wasteland from the east. They were heading towards a black spot on the horizon, a spot that seemed to spill across the surface of the desert as they approached it slowly. When the evening began to fall, some clouds spread across the sky, cooling down the scorching sand. They passed the first charred remains of pre-war buildings. The sand under their boots turned to ash as they ventured deeper, reaching a cracked, deformed road. Everything around them was melted, burned, and destroyed. Everything except for the large structure ahead that was now quickly becoming visible to them. Although its thick, concrete walls were darkened by the fires that raged here over two centuries ago, the building stood relatively undamaged. Its purpose was lost to time, and it was the only building still standing in the area. It originally had only three floors, but it looked like its new inhabitants expanded it, building additional turrets and towers on top and around the simple, rectangular shape. Most of its windows were covered with sheets of metal, but some, especially on the upper floors, were left open with only pieces of colorful fabrics covering the openings in its walls. This building, together with a few other facilities around it, were surrounded by a tall fence reinforced with gray, metal parts and watchtowers.

As they neared the settlement's wide gate, three armed guards wearing identical dark gray armor pieces approached them. Amber gestured at them in a similar manner she's seen Private Mook do at one point in their travel together - the right hand up with the palm open, and the left arm at the side, with her palm towards the ground. Ruth figured it must've been a greeting exchanged specifically between Refinery residents.

"Welcome to the Refinery." One of them said, nodding politely. "I'm afraid we'll have to take away your ammo if you wish to enter." The two other guards handed them two metal boxes with numbers painted on them. "We'll also have to check your weapons in case they're loaded when you enter the settlement."

"You... want us to do it out here, just like that?" Ruth frowned at the guard, glancing over at Amber who was just reaching for her ammo pouch.

"Yes, ma'am, now. This is a standard procedure that every newcomer goes through. Additionally, it'd be recommended for you to keep your weapon's breech open at all times while in the settlement. If you're not willing to cooperate, you won't be let inside." The guard explained patiently. "If you have any more questions, you can head to the watchtower and ask the guards stationed there." He pointed at the nearest makeshift outpost.

"Understood." She nodded, slightly taken aback, and took the bullets out from her rifle's magazine. Amber did the same with her shotgun, and they surrendered their pistol magazines with all of the spare ammo from their bags. Finally, after the tedious ordeal, the guards pulled the screeching, heavy gate aside.

"Why do they take bullets and not weapons?" Ruth finally asked once the men were unable to hear them. "Wouldn't it be easier?"

"People come here to sell and buy weapons, they need to see what they're dealing with." Amber replied with a shrug. "Ammo is ammo. You don't have to see it and traders can just request it be added to your box. At least that's how it was explained to me a long time ago."

The inside was as gray as one could expect it to be. Most of the new buildings or reinforcements were made out of dark metal, similar in hue to the one used for the guards' armor. Amber gestured around as they walked, really taking on the role of a guide. She motioned at the barracks right next to the entrance, and to the pen for the brahmins on the other side. Along the road that led to the main building they could see a few stores and several small, wooden huts. Aside from the main structure that loomed over the place, the majority of the area was taken up by a foundry on the right wall of the settlement. It was separated from the rest with a simple fence. There were two large furnaces built out of rubble and scorched, black bricks. The majority of the view of the foundry was blocked by the huge heaps of scrap material which rose all the way above the fence.

At first glance, the whole place looked rather depressing and gloomy, but it was far from being dead. Caravans came and went, travelling along the trading route north. Amber explained that many scavengers called this place home; trading, exchanging information, relaxing, and some of them eventually working to keep it alive and prosperous. If they felt lucky, or just desperate, they would venture deep into the sea of slag right behind the outer fence, in hopes of finding something valuable. From the recovered parts the local craftsmen and weaponsmiths produced tools, weapons, and armor for the settlers and militia.

The stores were currently closed as it was already evening, but a single caravan chose to rest by the wooden houses. There was a brahmin tied to a pole, drinking water from a metal container. One of the caravaniers, together with the guards, sat on colorful rugs spread on the ground while the other tended to the animal. Ruth gestured at the group, and they decided to do some shopping if the merchants were still open for trade.

"Hello there!" Both women came up to the caravan. "We'd like to trade with you, if that's still fine at this hour." Ruth said politely to the man cleaning the brahmin. He turned to put the brush on one of the packages and turned to them.

"Of course! Whatever do you need, ladies?" The moustached man tipped his hat, his sunstruck face brightened by the honest smile.

"Medical supplies, weapon parts, maybe some ammo." The redhead smiled back at them. Ruth took off her hood and her bag, looking for something they could barter with.

"How much for that? I can toss in some ammo from our stash as well." She presented him the pistol with a silencer they'd found in the factory. The merchant took the pistol from her, examining it.

"Right, right... That bad boy's in a real good condition. Will you give me a moment? I'm sure there's something we can find that will suit your needs." He gave her back the weapon, flashed a smile, then turned towards the stash of goods.

Ruth looked back into her bag, thinking of something else to present, when she heard Amber lean down to her and whisper. "One of their guards is staring at us. Let's make it quick."

She acknowledged it, pretending to be focused on her bag again before looking up, but the guards shifted their sight elsewhere by now. The merchant came back with a few packs of Med-X and a stimpak.

"That's all I've got for now. Maybe... come back tomorrow for something more." He smiled widely again, presenting the medication.

They bartered the pistol and threw in a small mountain of caps for additional two ammo boxes for their weapons. With both sides satisfied, the women headed for the main building. Keeping the redhead's comment in mind, Ruth couldn't shake the feeling of a few sets of eyes on their backs as they walked away, but when she turned at the entrance, the caravan was no longer interested in them.

There were two main entrances to the towering structure. They entered the one with a metal sign above, reading The Smoldering Corpse with stylized flames over a shadowed figure of a dead and burning body.

The interior of the inn couldn't have been more different than the outside. The room they entered was large, dimly lit by colorful lamps, and comfortably cooler than the ashland. All the windows were either filled with bricks, thick metal sheets, or were completely boarded up. The bulky concrete walls were covered in various fabrics and animal pelts, so as to give the place some color and life despite the surrounding dust. There was a large bar on the left side of the room, built between two pillars which used to support the walls that long ago divided the area into several smaller rooms. The bar itself was mostly made out of wood and metal scraps, composed into a curious, abstract design. There was a follow-up text to the sign outside, reading: ... Still Kickin'!. Two signal lamps, one green and one red, were placed on both sides of the counter. A large collection of trophies, from a pair of radstag antlers to a deathclaw's horned head decorated the wall behind the bar. Other decorations included weapons, blades, and maces put into decorative frames, each with its name carved into a small, metal plate. Amber pointed to them, briefing her on the story of the owner of this bar who claimed to have gathered some of them on his many travels, but most of his collection came from different merchants and adventurers who either sell, give away, or lose their weapons while visiting the establishment. Booths with tables and chairs of varying origins were neatly placed around the room. The ceiling was decorated as well, with colorful fabrics and Christmas lights hanging from it. On the right side of the room was a wide staircase, leading to the second and third floor that were built on top of the concrete building. There were a few people sitting inside, enjoying a meal and a drink to the sounds of music coming from a jukebox near the opposite wall. A couple of guards wearing similar outfits as the men they've met at the gate observed the guests lazily.

Amber approached the bar and sat on the stool at the counter, looking around. Ruth followed and sat next to her, staring at the range of trophies displayed on the walls.

"I've never seen so many cool things in one place." She said quietly to her partner. Before Amber had a chance to respond, a man in a white tuxedo emerged from under the counter, holding a piece of clean cloth and a tall, polished glass. Ruth held back a surprised sound she was just about to make, her attention now fully on him. He looked like a monster from the pre-war tales: a walking, decaying corpse. His nose was missing, and so was most of his hair with only a few patches remaining. His dark eyes, however, were full of life, with a spark of charm, which wasn't in any way diminished by his ghoulish looks.

"Hello there, weary travelers and strangers alike, oh how may I help you?" His voice was rough, raspy, but had a soft tone and a sense of calmness to it. He bowed slightly, then looked at the redhead who smiled back at him. His face brightened up as he set the glass aside. "Well I'll be damned! If it isn't my little Amber! Look at you! You look great! Are you still growing?"

"Hello, uncle Jules." She smiled even wider. "You look great, too!"

"You don't have to pretend, I know how I look." The ghoul chuckled and walked out from behind the bar, gesturing at a waitress to cover for him. "What brings you here and who's your little friend over there?" He pointed at the smaller woman. She's seen ghouls before, hundreds of them, though most were all too eager to eat her face off instead of talking. It was rare for her to actually encounter a friendly ghoul in person.

"This is Ruth, my business partner." Amber said motioning at her companion. "We're traveling north, past the mountains. We stopped by to rest and to say hello."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Ruth." He grabbed her hand and shook it gently.

"Nice to meet you, too." His rigid skin was odd in touch, but his eyes spoke warmth. She looked away, embarrassed at her initial reaction.

"Like father, like daughter." He chuckled again, turning back to Amber. "Always on the move, pops up at random and never visits if it's not business."

"Don't be like that, Jules. I visited often when I lived on the farm." Amber protested.

"Wrong, you ran away from there often and wanted to hide under my roof." He corrected her, smiling widely, which in his case looked rather unpleasant. "And I had to cover for you all the time."

"Oh, the good old days..." Amber rolled her eyes. "Anyway, Jules, do you have a corner for us to stay at for the night?"

"I'll get you two a room, not a single problem!" He turned back to his bar, leaning under the counter. "One bed as always, or...?"

"Separate beds, please." Ruth said, almost too quickly.

"Yes, make that two beds this time." Amber confirmed, not even trying to hide her amusement. "Oh, and I have a rifle to fix, can I use your workshop?"

"Of course you can. We moved it to the basement, to have more room for the guests, but I'm sure you'll find it. I seem to remember you were pretty fond of that place." He turned back to them and handed a slightly tarnished silver key to Ruth. "Second floor, room 221. And of course, feel free to use our baths and wash your clothes and gear." He smiled and added in a low voice. "No offence, ladies, but you two really need it. I can smell it and I don't even have a nose."

Ruth walked down a dusty hallway on the second floor. It contained multiple doorways that marked the walls on both sides, with the doors themselves missing. Here and there, rotting planks had been hammered in to fill the gaps in the crumbling concrete. Sunlight found its way in-between some of the imperfections. Numbers on each side of the entrance indicated pairs of rooms behind each empty doorway they've passed.

She paused at the doorway marked by "221/223". Each room had a little character to it, bearing its own blend of scars. In this one, the glass of one of the windows had been broken out and someone had hammered a metal mesh stretched over a wooden frame into its place, a colorful fabric hanging on it loosely, a light breeze making it ripple. A double deck bed stood on the opposite side of the entrance. Other than that, there was a small table, two mismatched chairs, one of which served a clearly decorative purpose as it would most likely fall apart under the slightest of pressures, and a large wardrobe just right from the entrance covering most of the makeshift, wooden wall. The room was rather small, but it was enough for a night, and much safer than sleeping out in the open.

"I must say I expected worse." Ruth tossed her backpack on the top bunk.

"Why do you get to sleep on the top one?" Amber protested and followed her in, closing the door behind her.

"Privileges of command." The other woman answered with a smirk. She climbed up and began unpacking.

The redhead rolled her eyes and tossed her things onto her bed. "Fine."

"Now that we're alone... what was that about the caravan guard?" Ruth looked at her partner.

"To be honest, no idea. One of them was just staring and seemed agitated by, well... you?"

Ruth frowned, trying to think of the people they'd encountered. "I don't recall ever seeing any of them before. Maybe he was just overprotective." She glanced at her attire, cringing slightly. "And, I mean... we do smell really bad."

"Oh yeah we do." Amber scoffed. "I don't know what that was, but let's not visit them tomorrow as they suggested, maybe. Anyway, I'll go down to the workshop to fix your boomsticks." She muttered, picking up Ruth's new rifle as well as the old one, wrapped in a piece of clothing.

"Don't you want to go wash first?" The short woman asked, sitting like a cat on top of the bed.

"Why bother if I'll get dirty anyway?" The redhead shrugged, turning to take her leave. "Don't worry, I'll take a bath before coming here so I won't stink up the room."

When the doors closed behind her, Ruth collected everything she needed to wash, still thinking about that caravan. She didn't know anyone in that group, but she couldn't count on them not recognizing her in some way. She stopped with her hand on the doorknob, listening for any sounds in the corridor, but aside from the creaking of the building, everything was quiet. Pulling the cowl on tightly, she left the room and locked it behind her.

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