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Chapter 12: What goes around comes around

Amber walked down the familiar stairs and into the basement. The air was much colder here than outside and felt almost painful at first, but her body quickly adjusted and appreciated the change. She walked across the narrow corridor, sidestepping obstacles she knew were there, hidden in the shadows. She'd walked this path countless times before, sneaking in and out of the building, and was pretty confident she could just as well traverse it blindfolded. In fact, she vaguely remembered doing so at least once in her past. She turned towards the first room flooded with bright, artificial light. Her eyes took a moment to adjust, but the workshop looked exactly as she remembered. It was a spacious, though rather cramped room filled with workbenches and shelves stocked with all sorts of tools and materials. It smelled of old grease and metal. Stopping in the doorway, Amber froze for a moment as her eyes locked on a male figure slanted over a small, manual mill. He had dark hair with a few strands of silver shining in the bright light, and a short, neatly trimmed beard. His eyes were covered by a pair of goggles with built-in magnifying lenses, but Amber knew there were dark brown orbs hidden underneath.

Lowering both weapons and setting them against the doorframe, she knocked on the metal door, her fist clanging against it like the clapper of a giant bell. The man raised his hand for a moment, waving without looking up from his work. It took him a few more seconds before he put a piece of metal away and lifted his head, taking off the goggles.

"Yes, how may I... " He began, but squinted his eyes and stopped abruptly. "Well fuck me sideways!" The man exclaimed and a wide smile flashed across his raddled face. "Amber, you little minx, what are you doing in this shithole?" He almost jumped off of his little stool and rushed to her, embracing the redhead in a bone-crushing hug. She immediately embraced him as well, the familiar scent of old-world cologne and grease hitting her nostrils, before he took a step back and looked her over. The longer he examined her, though, the quicker the joyous surprise faded from his face. "What the actual fuck were you thinking, young lady? You know what you did? And what the fuck happened to your face?"

Amber could see anger, relief, and concern mixing on his face, but she couldn't tell which emotion was taking the lead. "Hi, uncle. Good to see you too-"

"Don't you uncle me, Amberly." He said sternly, pulling back, and folding his hands on his chest. The redhead felt like a little girl again, despite being a couple of inches taller than the patronizing man before her. "You owe me some apologies and explanations, right here, right now." His dark eyes drilled into her as he took another step back, leaning against a workbench behind him.

"I'm sorry..." She muttered, lowering her gaze.

"Sorry for what? Come on now, we have time."

"I'm... sorry for bailing on you and joining the army, even though I promised I wouldn't." Each word was hard to squeeze through her lips.

"In the middle of a caravan run," he added, "at night, and without any warning!"

"I left you a note!" Amber protested, gathering the courage to look back at him. He must've seen it!

"In the car, where I found it after turning the entire inn upside down, looking for you!" His voice was still angry, but he couldn't stop himself from smiling. "You know how many hookers I had to interrogate that night?"

She found herself chuckling at that, even through her squeezed thoat. "I'm really sorry, Marco. I fucked up, I know."

"And you still owe me those ten caps you borrowed to pay the stripper." The memory made him smile even wider and he soon abandoned any attempts at sounding serious.

"Oh come on, don't tell me you didn't like the show!" The redhead rolled her eyes.

"Not when it was a distraction for you to run away and join the boy scouts." A frown crawled back on his face. "Speaking of which, why aren't you in a uniform chasing geckos in the middle of nowhere?"

"It... didn't work out as I'd originally planned." Amber hesitated for a moment before answering. "Turns out I'm not a good soldier material after all, so now I travel with a... friend, you can call her a business partner I guess, and... "

"You can sell that pile of manure to your other aunts and uncles, Pumpkin." She felt a sting of guilt pierce through her, and she bit her tongue. There was no lying to this man, there never was. He always could see right through her, no matter how much time had passed, or how much she tried to get away with something. "There's no way they would kick someone like you out. I've seen NCR goons too dense to tie their own shoes, they'd make you a fucking squad leader in a heartbeat."

"I... look..." She started, trying to put together a good enough excuse in her head, but abandoned it, feeling her uncle's dark eyes burning through her cover story like fire through paper. "The truth is... I really can't talk about it. I'm sorry."

Marco sighed, looking her up and down, slightly shaking his head. "I don't like this, but you're a big girl now... just don't do anything stupid. You're too good to play soldiers with those morons. Why don't you come back and join the Dusters for real this time. I could use a shotgun like you. There's never enough hands in a caravan business."

Amber lowered her eyes again, struggling with her thoughts. "You know I can't."

"Of course you fucking can, kid. Stop chasing ghosts pretending you're doing it for the greater good." He paused, waiting for her to look up. "I know what you want. You want revenge and looking for revenge is what kills people. You know that."

She couldn't deny the truth behind his words, and if it wasn't for the events from the past week, she'd probably let some doubt settle in her mind. But not this time.

"I found him." She resisted his gaze, finally asserting herself. "I found the bastard who killed them."

"And what did you do about that?" He cut her short, lifting his chin. "He ain't dead yet, you know. The whole wasteland would be buzzing with rumors if he were."

"He will be, I'll make sure of that!" Amber hissed, momentarily carried away by emotion, anger making her chest burn. "I can track him, we have the reports, I only need more people to realize the danger. It is possible, Marco!"

The man before her took a deep breath and wrapped his huge arms around her once again. "As stubborn as your goddamn mother." He patted her on the head. Amber frowned, but the anger soon seeped away and her clenched fists relaxed. "Just don't get yourself killed or brainwashed by those sissies from the NCR." The man chuckled and let her go. "You're the last family I have."

"You still have Tom."

"Your brother likes living on The Farm a bit too much to take over the business for me." There was a hint of bitterness to his voice. "Besides, he can't even fix the damn tractor they've got there."

"Is it broken again?" The machine was up and running the last time she was there. She looked back at the rifles left at the door, grabbed them, and headed towards the nearest workbench.

"Don't act so surprised, Pumpkin. You sucked the grease with your mother's milk. I guess all he remembers is planting carrots." Marco chuckled, turning to examine the weapons as well. "What happened to these beauties?"

"They are my friend's." She began browsing through various tools on a nearby shelf. "One got fucked up in combat, the other, well... let's say she has a similar approach to tinkering as my brother does."

"Let's see what we can do about that." The man sighed and handed her a pair of pliers from his belt. "You didn't tell me what happened to your face."

"It's a long story." Amber said dismissively, turning her focus on undoing the rusted wires that held the old rifle together.

"We have a year of catching up to do, you might as well start there."

Water was a precious commodity in the wasteland. Even Camp Imperial had limited supplies of it and each soldier had access to rationed amounts every day. The old underground water canals created long before the war were still partially operational in some places, providing life-giving water to a handful of communities. The Refinery was one of such places. Even though the surface was covered in ashes and pieces of atomic glass, somewhere underground, the centuries-old tunnels still provided just enough resources to fill the large water tower in the back of the settlement and cool the tanks in the foundry.

Ruth walked through the corridor and out of the back doors of The Smoldering Corpse, entering a small area to the side of the building. It was partially separated from the main courtyard of the settlement, providing a semblance of privacy for the guests staying at the inn. She turned in the direction Jules had pointed her to and headed towards a large water tower supported by numerous metal beams, sitting behind a one-story building containing the bath. Some sort of machinery stood in between, connecting the two with big, rusted pipes and cables. From the outside, the bath itself was constructed out of wood and metal, as most things around here were. The hut was elevated slightly above the ground and she had to walk up a few steps to reach the metal doors. Coming inside, a smell of stale water, rust, and cleaning supplies hit her nose. Even that strong mixture was better than the stench she's been carrying around since the Nuka Cola factory.

She turned the switch and a single strip light filled the interior with an artificial glow. She passed a doorway covered with an improvised curtain and entered the first of the two medium rooms. It appeared to be a changing room with benches, a wardrobe containing a few neatly folded pieces of cloth that posed as towels, and a set of sinks with a mostly intact, although slightly faded mirror. Behind another set of curtains was a cabin with several showers and a drain in the middle. Despite the first impression, the place was reasonably clean and well supplied, judging by the large collection of Abraxo detergent and other items organized neatly on a metal shelf.

She took off her stiff suit, placed it with the rest of the clothes in one of the sinks and added water and some of the provided detergent before jumping into the room with the showers. It wasn't too often that she had access to enough water to take a real shower, so she intended to make the best of it. With all the dirt and stinking mixture soon scrubbed off of her body, she let the water sink into her hair. She felt like a dried up desert plant finally getting some much needed rain. It was like shedding old, dried scales only to reveal a new, fresh, and soft skin underneath. After a couple of minutes of just standing and enjoying the sensation, she turned the water off. Coming back to the first room, she dried herself with a piece of clean cloth and wrapped herself in it.

Ruth examined the soaked pile of clothes in the sink, making a mental note to sew herself some more underwear. Pretty much all of her clothes were there: her one-part flight suit with inserted metal plates on the back, legs, and torso, a shirt, a wide, sandy cowl that she used to hide her hair under and as protection against desert winds, a pair of socks, gloves, and a few bandages. Parts of her equipment such as belts and pouches were emptied and put in there, too. She washed everything thoroughly, making sure all the traces of the slime were gone, and at last, out of mind.

Standing at the sink, she caught a glimpse of herself in the faded mirror, having paid little attention to it before. She stopped rubbing the fabrics together and studied the reflection enclosed behind the glass. Her wet hair was ruffled and sticking in every direction. She ran her fingers through the fading, blue chaos and sighed, seeing the much lighter, gray roots growing out already. Her hand brushed against the jagged left ear, torn by a bullet not that long ago. It was an odd feeling, causing an unpleasant shiver to run down her spine. This wound and the one on her cheek healed well over time, but she felt a needle of pain in her chest while looking at them. Her thoughts drifted back to that moment, memories and repressed emotions slowly returning to her consciousness. All the sounds of dripping water and the smell of the bath faded for a moment as she almost heard the ringing in her ears again. Ruth shook her head, pushing the flashbacks away. She needed to turn her attention to something else, but the first thing her sight fell upon were the off-color patches on her exposed skin. They were placed randomly about her body, from the sides of her neck and along her arms, to around her shoulders and across her stomach, some more regular and symmetric than others. As the years have passed, she learned to tolerate her unusual appearance, but she never really accepted the change. She dreaded every moment of seeing her own body, and could never understand those who found her attractive or exotic in some way. While the attention often distracted her from the shame she felt looking into the mirror, it never lasted long. It didn't help that questioning, surprised, or alarmed glances often accompanied those of admiration and desire.

Ruth relaxed her fingers gripped tightly around the edges of the sink, took a deep breath, and stepped back from the mirror, dropping the makeshift towel to the floor. She finally looked up, critically examining the reflection. Despite the parts of herself she utterly despised, looking at the overall image, she was surprised to think of herself as... improving. Only two years ago, the woman before her was little more than skin stretched across puny bones. She was tired, desperate, bruised, and lost. Now, she looked much more like an actual person, with defined muscles and shapes someone would probably call attractive. The permanent bags under her eyes have mostly disappeared, and although her skin has always been pale, there was a healthier color to it now. The old scars have stayed, as deep as they were, though healing. It felt as if she'd found a place for herself, a purpose amongst other people. People who taught her how to do the good thing... or so she strongly wished to believe that what she was doing was right.

She gazed up and down her body, turning slowly in the mirror, but a strange feeling overcame her suddenly. A tingle, a barely conscious realization of someone looking at her. In the faded and slightly dirty edge of the mirror, Ruth saw the door to the bath was cracked open. She turned around at once. Her hand automatically traveled to her belt for a gun, but then she remembered she was standing there completely naked. She picked up the discarded piece of cloth and hastily wrapped herself in it. A pair of curious eyes peeked over the door frame. They widened as the woman spotted them, a surprised gasp escaped the creeper, and the little head disappeared. There were hurried steps of the person running away, fading quickly.

"Damn it!" Ruth cursed, feeling cold sweat on her back. The stupid kid almost gave her a heart attack. She quickly finished washing her clothes and headed back towards their room with haste.

Amber returned near midnight, holding two shiny rifles in her arms. A couple of hours with her uncle and a couple of bottles of actual, local ale lifted a huge weight off her chest, something she wasn't even aware of until she met him again after all this time. She slowly opened the door, hoping to quietly sneak inside. The room was dark, but as soon as she turned the doorknob, she heard a rustle on the upper bunk of their bed. A stream of light from the corridor lamp flooded the room and she noticed a blue head poking out from under the thin cover.

"You're late." Ruth muttered, shifting in her position.

"Sorry mom, I didn't know I had to be home sooner." She replied with amusement. There was a piece of string attached between the bed and the wardrobe, Ruth's clothes hanging there to dry with an empty section left for the redhead's gear. The room was filled with the smell of artificial, flowery soap, and a pleasant scent of a freshly cleaned, female body. Amber inhaled and smiled, looking at her partner's struggles to untangle herself from her sheets, grunting. She closed the door and switched on the light.

"What took you so long?" Ruth asked, finally able to sit up, squinting in the light. Her hair was puffed up and all over the place.

"I have something for you." The redhead held up the rifles, before putting them down on a small table.

"Woah." Her partner whispered and leaped off the bed, landing next to Amber, in her panties and her chest wrapped in a piece of cloth she struggled with moments earlier. She quickly pulled a blanket from her bed and tightly wrapped herself in it, all the time looking over the shiny guns. "Thank you, that's... This looks amazing!" Ruth leaned down to look closely at the weapons.

"We cleaned it, oiled it, glued, and filled in the cracked stock and replaced a few screws. It should serve you well for a long time now." Amber said, observing the other woman's joy as she grabbed her old, now restored rifle and examined it from all sides.

"We? Is Jules into guns, too?" She asked, holding the weapon with utmost care.

"I met a friend down there." The redhead shrugged. "An old friend, someone I've known since I was a kid, since before I lived on the farm."

"I wonder how many of your friends we've got yet to meet. You know a lot of folks around here."

"Yeah, at least I used to..." The redhead looked at the window, where the colorful cloth swayed gently in the night breeze. "My family came here very often back when I was a kid, I was one of the little buggers running around the main square, picking up lost caps and other crap."

"One of those little buggers tried to peek at me in the shower."

"Oh yeah, I did that too." Amber laughed and turned towards the backpack she'd left on her bed, then grabbed some clothes from the inside before turning back to the door.

"Where are you going now?" Ruth tore her eyes away from the rifle.

"You're all nice and clean and I smell like a puked out Nuka Cola." Amber replied with a shrug. "I hope you didn't use up all the water."

"No, I didn't. But make sure to close the door."

"Not locking the door is part of the fun." She smirked as she stepped out into the corridor. "Oh, and your panties are inside out." She added with a mocking smile, seeing her blanket slipped off a little. Ruth instinctively looked down, turning red, and quickly wrapped herself in the cloth again, looking extremely offended, but the redhead was already gone before she could say anything. Satisfied with another of her small victories, she marched down the hallway towards the bath house.

The shower was far less eventful than Amber was hoping for, at least in terms of unwanted guests, but the much needed washing and soaking was all she really needed. The sunburns on her arms and neck from today's march stung a little, but the cold water soothed her pleasantly. She quickly washed what was left of her clothes, trying to ignore the scarred body staring at her from the mirror, before leaving the bathhouse. She had no idea what time it was, but it was definitely late. The whole settlement was quiet. Even the inn was already deserted, leaving only the distant hum of the two century old generators powering a few remaining lights. The damp cloth she wrapped herself with was no barrier for the cold night air, but she felt no need to get back to her room just yet.

The Refinery was surrounded by a sea of darkness. Ash and gravel on the ground faded into the black of the night sky, as if there was no horizon. Far off into the distance, she could see the faint haze of The Glow. As a little girl she was afraid of the green light creating a sinister backdrop for the mountains separating the valley from the distant, radioactive hellhole, but years of looking at it from a safe distance made her want to appreciate its weird beauty as a constant feature of the landscape. A feature that sometimes spewed out a massive and deadly radioactive storm cloud that on rare occasions could break through the mountain barrier and cause unspeakable damage to everyone living here. A cold shiver ran down her spine at the memory of one of those storms she witnessed as a little girl. Simply being in this place again reminded her of so many things from her past. Stupid, dangerous, embarrassing things she did as a kid, and later as a rebellious teenager constantly running away from the family that took her in and cared for her. The conversation she had with Marco made her realize that just like with him, they never knew she never intended to get back from that caravan. She followed the stars to where they met the grey land, in the direction where her old home used to be. She never wanted to feel this guilty about her decisions, but maybe... maybe it was the recent brush with death, or the one before it, or the recovery of her mother's pendant and the unlikely encounter with the butcher that killed her parents, but a part of her really wanted to go back there and hug her brother and tell him all about it.

"That's nice, but you should totally get back and hook up with this guy Jack who came here last month to pick oranges, you'll totally have awesome kids." She said to herself in a low, mocking voice. "And fix the damn tractor while you're at it." She giggled at the brilliance of her comedy skills and turned back towards The Smoldering Corpse. As she walked through the empty corridors of the old building, she could only hear snoring and occasional squeaking of metal bed frames.

Upon returning to their room, she discovered Ruth was already fast asleep. She hung her own set of wet clothes next to hers and jumped into the sheets, happy to be resting on something more than hard ground and a thin layer of bedroll. She was hoping that the sleep would quickly overtake her, but instead, she was left there drowning in her thoughts again. Her body screamed for rest, while her mind was forcing her to recreate the events of the last few days, staring at the bottom of her partner's bunk, too afraid to close her eyes. After whoever knows how long, her consciousness finally slipped into the dream world, only to wake her up again, gasping for air as tiny tendrils creeped across her skin and into her body. It took her several, rapid breaths to realize there was nothing crawling into her throat. She instinctively reached for her neck, massaging it gently, then looked around. The sun was probably well above the horizon already, filling their room with tender light, filtered by the colorful cloth spread across the window. She could hear Ruth's gentle breaths on the bunk above. Lying down, Amber tried to fall asleep again, but every time she closed her eyes, the sensation of something wrong and slippery wrapped around her body filled her mind. To avoid thinking about the horrid event, she recalled different images from her memories. She reached under her shirt and took out the small piece of jewelry. It glittered in the faint light like a crystalized flame. Hot tears began forming in her eyes. For years, she avoided thinking about her parents like this, but today, the sadness and sorrow were comfortable, familiar feelings that kept the fear and hurt away.

She wasn't sure for exactly how long she was staring at the pendant, or if she fell asleep, or even closed her eyes. She was vaguely aware of the sunlight breaking through the window, but it was the creaking of the upper bunk that brought her back to reality. She quickly hid the jewelry under her shirt and wiped dry trails of salt from her face just in time to see a blue mane poking from above.

"Slept well?" Ruth asked, still a bit sleepy herself.

"Well enough." The redhead cleared her throat, ignoring the burning sensation in her eyes. "I think we should get going soon if we want to get anywhere today."

Some incoherent mumbling came from the other bed in response.

A lot of people were going about their business in the settlement, making the place seem more lively than yesterday. With the shops open, the central square was teeming with life. Local merchants and entire caravans worth of goods from all across the region set up shop and the Refinery turned into a full-on marketplace. There were weapons, armor, and all possible types of ammo, almost all of them way out of their price range. There was also a section of stalls with everyday items and food, something that immediately gained their attention. Fresh, ready meals were served from the sizzling pans, spreading delicious smells all across the settlement. Recently harvested vegetables and fruit spilled out of their containers, inviting customers with their colors and shapes, some of which Ruth was seeing for the first time, and some she definitely couldn't afford right now. She also saw all sorts of chems and medical tools, entire medkits, and even the rarest of ingredients. The amount of caps she'd need to spend here would probably outweigh her and the equipment she'd buy. Nevertheless, they had to eat something. With the extra amount of road they had to cover to catch up with their original plan, they settled for a hot meal each, a gourd and brahmin meat stir fry, as well as a few mutfruits and several canned meats for the road. Amber bought herself a faded, black shirt to replace the one she had lost to the Nuka monster, as well as a pair of shorts. In the meantime, Ruth scanned the marketplace a few times looking for the caravan they had encountered before, but the group was nowhere to be seen. That brought her some relief. Once they were done, they left the market with nearly empty pockets.

They returned to The Smoldering Corpse to pick up the rest of their equipment. The inn was empty with only the ghoulish owner at the bar at the moment.

"Ah, morning! I hope the night was pleasant?" He asked with his raspy voice, smiling at the two.

"It was great as always." Amber replied with a smile. "But we have to be going now. Don't worry, we'll be back soon, I promise."

"You Dales always promise that, never keep your words." Jules replied, putting down two actual glasses in front of them. "Can I at least keep you around for a glass of refreshing orange juice?" He reached down for a large jug with chunky, orange liquid. "On the house, of course."

Ruth looked at the glass in front of her, surprised and intrigued. She remembered drinking such a concoction once or twice in the past, but the orange color mostly reminded her of radaway.

"If you insist." Amber sat down on the bar stool before she could say anything, and moments later a glass full of orange juice was standing in front of her face.

"So..." Ruth started, carefully picking it up. "Have you heard about anything interesting in the region, recently?"

"I was about to ask you the same question." The ghoul replied, while Amber just picked up the glass and took a small sip, observing them both. "Usually travelers such as yourselves share their stories with me first."

"I'd have done that yesterday, but, you know, I was busy." The redhead said, sipping the orange liquid. Ruth took a sip as well. She was not prepared for the level of sweetness mixed with the sour and bitter aftertaste. She heard the other woman giggle and she realized she was cringing at the juice, contemplating the taste for a bit too long.

"Yes, Marco said you two had some catching up to do." Jules smiled, shifting his gaze towards Ruth. "How's the drink?"

"I-It's good! Thank you." She sipped again, this time trying her best to control her face. It really was good, but she had to get used to it.

"I'm very glad to hear that." The bartender turned back to Amber, who was watching her with amusement. "And when will I get a chance to do some catching up?"

"When we're done with our business, I promise!" The redhead just smiled back. "By the way, have you heard any news about the Vultures? We were messing near the old Nuka Cola plant and there were signs of raiders fighting, probably."

"That would explain the smell from yesterday." Jules chuckled. "You just had to take a look inside, didn't you?"

"Maybe we did, maybe we didn't, but you can spread the word that there's nothing dangerous in there anymore." The redhead finished her glass. "So what do you know about Vultures?"

"Well... not entirely." Ruth chimed in, sipping the weirdly addictive liquid. "I'd still advise caution around that place. Ghouls and other things still roam around."

"I'm sure the Big Boss will be very happy to hear that news, anyway." The ghoul reached under the counter and took out a small notepad with a very worn-out pencil. He scribbled something down, and continued without looking up. "As for the Vultures, I've heard rumors that a couple of their outposts were hit recently by a very well organized and armed group. There were some theories that it might have been a large-scale action from the NCR, but apparently, our dear protectors had very little to do with it." Ruth could have sworn that the ghoul intentionally winked at them while saying that. "Quite recently, our scavengers found interesting bodies full of good loot, clad in heavy armor, but so far we don't know who they were or why they were out killing Vultures. We also know that one of the Tombstones' slave caravans was hit, but there were no similar bodies there, so we don't have any solid leads about that massacre. Marco did mention you might know something since, allegedly, you were in the area." He raised what used to be his eyebrow, looking at them with his black, charred eyes.

Ruth's eyes widened at that and she turned to face Amber, who was clearly fighting to stop herself from smiling.

"I might know something about that, but we have to go now." The redhead replied, failing to control her smile. "I'll tell you all about it when we get back."

Jules sighed and scribbled something more in his notepad while Ruth quickly downed the remaining content of her glass, thanked the ghoul for his hospitality, and rushed to catch up with her partner.

"Why did you do that?" She asked as they reached their room.

"I like to tease the old guy." The redhead replied with a shrug. "Don't worry, he got used to it by now."

"But that's a secret." Ruth protested. "We can't walk around bragging how many raiders we've killed."

"Why not? It's not like killing raiders is something only the NCR does." Amber replied, stuffing her bags. "If we want to look like mercenaries, we have to act like them. And believe me, mercenaries brag about everything. If we had dicks, we'd have to advertise everywhere that we have the biggest dicks from here to New Vegas."

She tried not to, but that still made her laugh and completely lose her train of thought. "Why only from here to New Vegas? We could have bigger dicks than that, you know."

"Because of Long Dick Johnson." Amber replied, staring at her seriously. "No one messes with Long Dick Johnson."

"Long Who?" She asked, looking back with growing confusion for a moment, before the other girl cracked and started laughing.

"Sorry, your face is just precious. It was a joke some lady from a caravan once told me." She explained.

Ruth rolled her eyes and quickly packed her own stuff.

Amber locked the door behind them and left the key to their room with Jules, where they both thanked him again and left The Smoldering Corpse behind. After one last window shopping tour around the market square they went towards the gate where they received their ammo back, loaded their weapons, and left the Refinery to continue their route up north.

They turned at the corner of the settlement, passing by an outpost, but merely several steps later, in the corner of her eye, Ruth noticed sudden movement. Like a shadow, floating closer to them from the entrance.

Before she had a chance to react, however, both of them heard guns click right behind their heads.

There was a very quick series of reactions.

Amber turned on the spot, her left arm raised just enough to flick away the gun, her right hand reaching for her pistol. A moment later she was aiming her weapon right at the face of a stranger now in front of her, holding his arm with her hand firmly to the side. Three more guns appeared immediately, two of which pointed at the redhead, and the third at the other woman. Ruth only managed to turn her head towards her partner and freeze, her hand resting readily on the holster of her weapon. Time seemed to have stopped as Amber and the man were staring each other down. His face was deeply tanned, a black, unkept beard outlined his jaw. He had a long, dusty trench coat and a desperado hat on his head.

"Put that puny mouse away now, would you?" His voice was deep and sounded cynically bored.

Ruth quickly sized up the situation. Aside from the trench coat man, there were three other people in light armor and the fourth one in a simple, wasteland outfit. She recognized them as the guards and traders of the sketchy caravan. They were all armed with at least one pistol or a rifle. A bell rang somewhere behind them and she tilted her head to see the guy they traded with before, leading a brahmin. She cursed with a litany of obscure words in her head.

"What is this?" Amber snapped, frowning, her voice alone intimidating. "What do you want with us?"

"I saw that shotgun on your ass and figured you'd be a problem..." He sighed, firmly keeping his gaze on hers. "We only want the blue one, so don't get excited."

Ruth tightened her grasp on the weapon and shot him a questioning look. "And what business would I have with you?" She could see the man next to her trembling very slightly, trying to keep his breath steady.

"With me? Nothing." His dark eyes slid towards her for a moment. "But there's a whole town waiting to rip you apart. I'm just a delivery guy."

It took her breath away for a moment. "I'm sorry, what?" Ruth said dismissively, though her heart rate increased significantly and she felt herself sweat.

"Oh. You don't know? Well, that's just hilarious!" He presented a wide, mocking grin.

"This must be some kind of mistake." The redhead protested, lowering her voice to a threatening growl. She must've squeezed the man's wrist as his face twisted a little in pain. "You've got the wrong person, so I kindly ask you to leave us be."

"Wrong person?!" The jittery trader exclaimed, losing all his cool. "That's her alright!"

"Calm down, Greg." The tanned man spoke sternly. "But do show them what you've got. We ain't leaving without her, and you might want to resolve this peacefully."

The guy called Greg exchanged glances with a person standing behind Ruth. She felt a cold muzzle of a gun press against her head and she tensed, ready to fight. The trader only then lowered his own weapon and searched his pockets. He took out a mangled piece of yellowed paper, unfolded it, and held it up for everyone to see. It was a wanted poster. Amber tore her eyes away from the stranger to look at the warrant and the rage that was building up on her face was momentarily replaced with disbelief.

A faded sketch showed a bust of a young girl with a skinny face and long, messy, white hair. It wouldn't be so off-putting if it weren't for the spots on her neck, face, and arms, drawn to be deliberately visible. What made her jaw drop even lower was the text written underneath.


10,000 caps reward DEAD

12,000 caps reward ALIVE

Still pointing her gun in the general direction of the trench coat man, her fingers clenching around the weapon, Amber focused her attention on her companion.

"What is this? What have you done?"

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