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Chapter 16: Like caged starlings

She was given back her temporary clothes and the women were led out of the building. Amber walked right beside her, with a few other people escorting them and the mayor in silence. Irene asked to accompany them as well. They left the walls of the ancient hall and turned into the older, deserted part of Big Bog. The majority of homes here were falling apart, eaten by the weather and moisture from the soil. As the ground quickly became muddy, they came into one house and climbed up to the roof. From there, they could see the expanding lake that swallowed the town structure by structure. They walked over a few roofs guided by wooden planks and parts of scaffolding which created a path above the flooded streets. They reached a tall, concrete wall of an unfinished building, with various machinery around it. It was already half submerged in the greenish, smelling water. It almost gave Ruth another nausea reaction after looking down into the slimy liquid. They climbed the last scaffolding and reached a small platform with a rusted, but sturdy jib sticking out of the wall. There was a thick chain at its end that held a sort of a closed, metal carrier that could closely resemble a cage.

"Twelve hours from now." The mayor spoke as the padlock on the metal doors clicked open. "You are to be submerged in the lake and wait for somebody to pull you back out when the time is up." He received a nod from both of them. "And I don't recommend breaking out. You won't be able to, and if by some miracle you do, we have marksmen all around town. They will pay close attention to this area during the night."

Irene approached Amber and both women exchanged a few words in hushed tones as the redhead casually took off her tattered shirt and cargo pants, folding them on a piece of fallen wall. Only now Ruth noticed the extent of her friend's lacerations and bruises caused by the explosion. Her entire shoulders, tights and sides were covered in bandages.

Guilt creeped into her chest again, but there was no use arguing against them both serving the sentence. She looked away as the redhead tightened the rags around her chest and stepped into the cage next to Ruth. The metal hook screeched slightly under their combined weight. They both fit inside, but barely. Their hands and legs could easily go through the gaps between the steel bars, but otherwise there was barely any room for them to move. Below was a vast, green depth, undeniably radioactive and smelling like rotten, salty fish and fermented plants.

"I'll see you in the morning." Peter said, looking at Amber. He gave Ruth merely a glance, then turned around and left as one of the guards pulled the lever. The chain screamed as the metal carrier slowly descended.

Both women huddled together as the cold, sticky water touched their bodies and the stench of whatever died in here hit their noses.

"You know, this could have been fun if it wasn't for all the shit, bugs, and rads in this puddle." Amber commented through clenched teeth. Ruth could feel her partner's trembling body pressed against her back. "... and salt." She hissed moments later.

She tried to ignore the burning pain of every scratch and cut on her own body. The cage kept submerging into the murky water and Ruth looked down as its surface slowly passed her breasts. "They are going to stop, right?" She asked and shifted her body to gain a few more inches between her head and the encroaching liquid. "They wouldn't trick you like this, would they?"

"They should..." Amber replied and the whole metal construction shook and stopped in place with a loud, metal moan. "... and they did." She added with a sigh of relief once they fully stopped. They heard the guard walk away and they were left to themselves, surrounded by a huge body of water and the buzzing of flies above the surface. "Just another charming way in which they treat their visitors." The redhead grimaced at the sight around them.

A shiver ran down Ruth's spine. Despite the ever present heat of the desert, the water was cold and very, very unpleasant. Most of her body was submerged in the slime, leaving only her neck and head above the liquid. She could easily float in it if she wanted to, but the thought of losing connection to the mesh floor somehow terrified her even more. Her wounds stung with every movement of the small waves and every part of her body began to remind her of the harm inflicted on her, as the pain-numbing drug stopped working a while ago. The situation she found herself in was still far better than the alternative, and she was strangely thankful for the rusted bars. Her mind drifted to the events from a few hours ago, or however long she was stuck in that interrogation room, no matter how much she tried to push these thoughts away. She didn't even realize when her hands clenched on the metal bars and her body shuddered, trying to produce tears. She couldn't even try to stop the flood of emotions that pushed through her. There was no point in trying, anyway; she was alone with only Amber to witness her breakdown, the very person who willingly dragged herself through hell just to be here with her. That fact only made her even more guilt-ridden.

"It's alright now." She heard Amber's calm voice and felt the cage move when she turned around. A pair of strong arms gently wrapped around her a moment later.

"No, it's not..." Ruth shook her head, a few tears squeezing out of her eyes and falling into the water like rain drops. "I'm so sick of this happening again." She sniffled. "I've finally gained your trust. And what's the next thing that happens? You get injured, and almost die because of me. This town could've killed you at any point, and the explosion?" She turned in the embrace to look at her. "You didn't even know who you were saving. You risked so much..."

"I saved someone who was wrongfully accused of a crime she didn't commit..." The redhead replied softly. "Someone who came here to right the wrongs of her past... Someone, who saved my ass a couple of days ago... A friend. I believed you told me the truth, I trusted you, and because of that we are both alive right now." She smirked for a moment. "It would have been a lot easier if you had mentioned something about it sooner. But you chose to do the right thing in the end. That's all I needed to know."

Ruth didn't know what to say. She was stunned for a moment, then a new wave of warm tears rolled down her face and she returned the embrace. "You've done so much... you saved the whole town."

She heard Amber hesitate in her response. "This case is far from over." She said, still holding Ruth in a gentle hug. "But we'll worry about that later."

"Thank you... thank you." They remained like this for a little while, ignoring the water and the pain. The smaller woman stopped crying, her last tears disappearing in the cloth on the redhead's chest. She shifted, and only then realized just what position they were in and how close her face was to the other woman's breasts. "Uh... the hug is nice, don't get me wrong, but my rib cage hurts. Could we turn around now?"

"I think I like this position better." Amber purred, smiling widely, which prompted a giggle from Ruth.

"I'm starting to think you got into this cage with me just for this." She gently pushed the redhead away.

"I can't say it's a downside," Amber folded her arms on her chest, "but I'd prefer cleaner water and less lethal surroundings."

She smiled back at her companion and looked around the cage. Their view could be divided into two categories: ruins and water. In both cases there was very little to actually look at. The crumbling concrete surrounding the town of Big Bog obscured their line of sight to the south-east and the vastness of the salty lake surrounded them from every other side. Unlike the smaller bodies of water they'd passed on their way here, this lake still had a lot of life in it. She could see small fish and other critters swimming around them beneath the slimy surface. Fortunately, none of them dared to get too close to their bodies. At least for now. She couldn't tell what could come out of those murky depths once the sun disappeared behind the distant mountains, and the thought about that concerned her, to say the least.

"I hope you at least took a rad-X before we came here, or anything for that matter. Unless you want to grow a fifth limb." She said. "If we had a Geiger counter, it'd play us a song you don't want to hear."

"I... didn't think about that." The redhead replied with a hint of panic in her voice. "Do you think there's a lot of rads in this? I was thinking about the virus, and since it doesn't exist... I totally forgot about the rads... I don't want to turn into a ghoul, or worse, that mutated monster with tentacles for eyes."

"Relax, there shouldn't be too many." Ruth tried to calm her down a bit, though she had no idea how dangerous these waters truly were. "They took us here for a reason... but there are things swimming in here, so we should be fine. I think."

"What if they are ghoul fish?" Amber looked back at her intently, trying, and failing to hide her smile.

"There are no ghoul fish and you're not taking this seriously." The smaller woman smirked.

"I can't really do anything about it now, can I?" The redhead replied with an ensuring smile, but her tone shifted from amusement to concern. "I desperately need a change of pace. I think we should stop worrying about our situation for now and talk about something else. You went through a lot back there..."

"I'm fine." Ruth interrupted her, turning her sight to the waters of the lake.

"No, you're not." Amber insisted. "I saw the bruises. It's visible from a mile away that you're limping. And you still have blood under your nose. What's happened since the prison?" She paused momentarily. "Did they...?"

For the lack of a better alternative, Ruth cupped the water in her hands and quickly washed the dried blood away.

"It's from drugs. They gave me some potent concoction before the execution so I wouldn't fight back. I didn't react too well to it, I guess." She paused, looking down at her bruised arms beneath the surface. "As for the rest... they threw me into some room and I got a beating, nothing too serious. I might have a cracked rib, but they didn't... you know..."

"Good." She felt the woman's tensed muscles relax against her back "Because I'd castrate them with a rusty spoon if they tried anything like that on you."

"Your... protection, for the night, it was enough." She was silent for a longer moment. She knew what her friend's done that evening, and it stung her even more. All the sacrifices Amber had gone through she felt responsible for and hated herself for having dragged her into that mess. "Though it wasn't really necessary."

"How so?" She shifted a bit. "It sure looked necessary to me."

"Nothing I couldn't have handled." Ruth was hoping she sounded convincing enough. "You really didn't have to-"

"You were cuffed, outnumbered, and on the floor." The redhead cut her short, and the cage rattled on the chain when the woman turned to look at her. "About as far from handling it as you could have been."

She just frowned and didn't look back. "It's just sex they wanted. I could've given myself in and waited it out. Couldn't have been worse than the stick."

"What the fuck are you saying?" Amber's tone changed to something between anger and disbelief. "You don't know that! The beating you got now is nothing compared to what they could have done to you if they had the entire night for it. By the time they were finished you'd be begging to be staked just to be done with it."

"Then why did you have to risk it?" She shivered at her words and glanced back.

"I wasn't their prisoner or accused of murdering half of their town, for starters." The redhead growled. "I've done it for much less before. Hell, I've done it for a can of fucking pears my girlfriend wanted at the time, ‘cause only one merchant in the area was selling them!" She paused and breathed in, calming herself down. Ruth pressed herself slightly farther into the corner of the cage and just listened, grasping the bars next to her. "Look. They wanted to hurt you. Really bad. You don't know what lengths they could've gone to. In their eyes, you were already sentenced to death, and they were there to start the execution. I can't even begin to imagine what people who came up with this," she shook the cage, stirring the water around them, "would have done to you if they had the time, but I'm willing to bet my boobs it'd have been something extremely nasty. All I did was tire them out."

"...You're right." She answered after a moment of intense stares from her companion. The redhead definitely had a point. She never had to deal with people this angry and malicious. Even though the wasteland had taught her that persevering was the strongest asset to have, and in spite of everything, she was pretty decent at it, the truth was she never had to deal with something as extreme as this. She shuddered at the thought of just how much worse things could've been. "Thank you." She sighed, turning away. "I didn't want to make you angry."

"It's fine, don't worry about it. It's been a wild ride over the last couple of days."

They both looked up and around at the sound of distant gunshots. The sound carried on the water in a weird way and made it hard to tell the direction of the shots, but it wasn't anything near them, or even in the town behind. It faded almost as soon as it appeared, and her attention shifted back onto their surroundings. The sun was moving down on the sky, a couple clouds were lazily passing above their heads.

"How are you feeling?" Ruth glanced at her. The bandages were already soggy and some of them looked as if they were about to slip off of her freckled arms. "Are the cuts deep?"

"Don't worry about it." Amber replied with a shrug. "Just a few shards from the explosion, the bastard took most of it. I'll be alright and back to my sexy self in no time."

"I bet you will." She smiled at that. "Wait till we show up at the Camp. Maybe even Amy will change her mind."

"Maybe even you will." Amber turned to her, smiling seductively despite the less than romantic setting.

"Nah." Ruth looked away, smiling at the other woman's efforts. "Not my terrain."

"Hey, I'm a blast with the ladies!" The redhead continued. "And I can give you a chance to experience it first-hand. You get 100 percent satisfaction, guaranteed."

Ruth snickered at that, which sent a painful wave across her body. "Thanks, I'll pass."

The redhead shrugged and said with a mischievous smile. "Hey, don't bash it till you try it."

Something touched her leg and the smaller woman almost jumped. She was about to curse at the woman next to her, but she saw a shape underwater instead. A two-headed fish resurfaced. It looked as if dumbfounded on where to swim, before disappearing back into the murky liquid. Amber didn't seem to notice, and Ruth didn't mention it.

"I've heard that one before." She picked up the subject. "Sometimes girls who had one drink too many tried to hit on me, too, so you're nothing new, Red." She gave her a teasing smile.

"But maybe I'll be the one to-"

"No, stop it." She dismissed her and gave her a splash of water when Amber gave her an even more playful look. "Stop!"

"Ok, ok. Care to tell the story, at least, Blue?" The redhead asked and shifted her position slightly, making the chain above them screech. "It's not like we're leaving this puddle any time soon. Hasn't been half an hour since we got here."

"What story?" She asked, faking confusion.

"You know, the thing you mentioned, girls hitting on you all the time." The redhead continued to smile. "To lighten the mood a bit."

"Fine." Ruth sighed and leaned against the bars, facing her companion. "I usually just shrug off this stuff. That one time it was... a bit different. It was at some random pub a few years back. There was a group of probably just-old-enough teens, at the bar I overheard them making bets and challenging each other the more they drank. They sent the shy girl to seduce someone, but no one really believed she could do it, so I approached and asked if she needed help, just to mess around with her asshole friends. I was hoping to find her someone, but she was more interested in, well, me. We ended up making out in front of their faces just to see their jaws drop. I partied with her for the rest of the evening. Never saw her afterwards, but I hope she found new friends to hang out with." She shook her head and hid her eyes behind her hair.

"Partied with her? As in...?" The redhead gave her a sly smile.

"As in we danced and got her more whiskey on my tab. Now that I think about it, she probably had enough after the first round." She smiled innocently. "If she'd wanted anything more, she didn't say, and besides, I didn't. In the end she was a bit too drunk to complain, anyway, so I made sure the others took care of her when they were leaving." She shrugged and felt a pang of pain in her chest. There really could've been a cracked rib in there somewhere. "So, any stories from you?" She asked, wincing.

"You okay?" The redhead leaned forward a bit in concern

"Don't change the subject." Ruth shrugged it off. "You owe me an embarrassing story."

"Alright, alright," Amber rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. "During all those times I've been to the Refinery, there was that one night when I wanted to spend some caps for the fun I didn't know if I would find after joining the army. I... don't really remember how it happened, but I woke up with three boys and a girl in one room and I had 50 caps more than I came with. I left before the rest woke up and had to beg Jules to keep his mouth shut about whatever happened that night at his bar. He was furious, and I can't even remember why."

"Wow." Ruth grinned, trying her best not to laugh too much. "Then I know what to ask about when we see him next time."

"No, please don't!" Amber's face turned from slightly embarrassed to straight up horrified. "Never mention this to anyone from the Refinery!"

She chuckled more, holding her side. "Sure, I won't, I won't."

She felt a nudge to her arm, and pain radiated from her bruises.

"Sorry." Amber said, hearing her friend hiss. "But you can't fall asleep."

"You're right." Ruth knew she couldn't give in to exhaustion just yet, but the struggle became more and more unbearable. The water became colder around them and the sun already vanished behind the mountains, turning the sky dark shades of red. They were far from marveling at the views, though. Some small creatures began nibbling at their legs and the wounds kept burning from the salt.

"How are you holding up?" Ruth asked, flexing her back cautiously.

"Could be worse." The redhead smiled at her weakly. The last several hours took a toll on her as well. Her eyes turned red, lips became swollen and even in the warm glow of the setting sun her face looked sickly pale. "But don't worry about that."

They'd fallen silent for a while and Ruth's eyes soon started to close again. Her exhausted body screamed for some rest and the poisonous water around her seemed to suck all the remaining strength from her.

"So... do you have any other interesting stories?" Amber's voice broke the silence again. Ruth groaned, but knew that while talking drained a bit of their energy, it was a certain way not to doze off.

"I don't know." She looked around the cage, as if searching for an idea. "Nothing comes to my mind right now. I guess my life just wasn't so interesting."

Amber burst out laughing. "Girl, your life was interesting enough to almost get us both killed twice already."

"Maybe, but not in an entertaining way." Ruth muttered defensively, but brightened up soon. "Not a story, but... I just wanted to say I'm glad we can finally talk the way we do now."

"Locked in a cage, slowly soaking in deadly poison and radiation from a toxic puddle?" Amber looked at her with a smirk. "You're welcome."

She smiled, rolling her eyes briefly. "I mean, that you no longer want to kill me"

"I might still want to kill you, I just didn't want other people to do it for me."

"So... you'd risk your own life to do it? That sounds stupid."

"It wouldn't be the first time I risked my life for a stupid reason." Amber's tone shifted slightly. "But yeah, consider this a thank you for saving my life twice already."

"The first time doesn't count, I put you in that danger myself."

"Yeah, you did..." The redhead looked down at the barely visible jagged line of the scar disappearing into the murky water. "At the time I was sure you did this to get rid of me."

"Really?" She paused for a moment. "You know, constant threats and tension didn't inspire me to like you very much. It would've been a perfect plan." Ruth gave her a smirk, but the other woman was looking away. Her smile faded. "Why did you go in?"

"It was my job. I got an order from my superior, I was supposed to do it." She shrugged. "But then you saved me, and kept me alive long enough for the cavalry to arrive. I realized then, you were just doing your job, too."

Ruth sunk into the water a little deeper. "Yeah... really poorly."

"Hey, if you really did your job poorly, I wouldn't be here today to save your ass from becoming a shish kebab."

A slight shiver came over her, and not from the chilly water around them. They sat in silence for a while, before Amber spoke again with a chuckle.

"It's so stupid that we had to go through all of this just to start talking like real adults."

"We have some serious issues." Ruth nodded with a half smile. "Sorry you ended up here with me. And that you had to see me so fucked up."

"Are we going to say sorry about everything we did so far?" The redhead glanced at her with amusement.

"I guess so." She shrugged, glancing back.

"Well... Sorry I was such an ass to you before."

"Sorry I didn't want to tell you about my past shit. There's a chance none of this would've happened."

"Sorry I almost shot you in the face." Amber paused for a moment. "Three times now."

"Sorry you have all those scars because of me." Ruth immediately regretted saying those words out loud, seeing a brief shadow of grief appear on her partner's face.

There was a slightly longer pause before the redhead continued. "Sorry I shot your ex." Amber said, looking back at her. "Not that I did it, but how I acted back then."

Ruth sighed heavily, glancing at the slight waves rippling against the metal bars.

"The fucker deserved it. The man I remembered was probably dead for many years... if he existed at all." She looked up at her. "You saved me back there, so I'm thankful."

Amber nodded at her in response.

"Well, I'm done apologizing for today." The redhead mustered a smile. "I feel there will be plenty of occasions later for more."

"Let's hope not." Ruth replied and looked around them. The land became submerged in darkness by now, and she could swear that the water had a very, very faint glow to it.

"Did you hear that?"

"Uh, no?" Amber rubbed her eyes and grabbed one of the bars to hold herself upright. While their vision got used to the dark, everything was still a blur and too out of focus to distinguish anything apart from themselves, the cage, and the waves of the lake a few metres ahead. Even the underwater critters had gone away. They'd heard odd sounds and the distant shouts carried on the wind, but this time it was something different. It was definitely something much closer.

"I think... something fell into the lake. Or jumped into it." Ruth strained her eyes to see beyond the bars.

"Shit, I must have dozed off." Amber shook her head and stepped closer to the other woman. "What if it's a giant mirelurk?"

"Not like we can..." She started, but in the corner of her eye she noticed something move in their direction.

Emerging from the darkness around them, they saw a roughly man-sized shape with a long, thick tail just below the water level. They held their breaths when the creature came closer, a kind of clicking sound emerging from its crab-like mouth. Despite the dark, Ruth distinguished a very thick and wide plate on its back, covering its round eyes and long, spiky arms. One pair was almost in the shape of boxing gloves. It seemed capable of breaking the rusted cage into pieces, not to mention what it could do to their bones. The creature stopped not too far away from the women and looked as if examining its future prey.

"What the fuck..." She whispered, submerging herself more in the slime while the redhead just looked at the terrifying creature, unable to move.

The mutant reached out with one of its arms, the clicking intensified. It was a hand away from one of the bars when a loud bang echoed around the place, the bullet ripping off the long limb. The creature let out an odd, hissing sound, both of the boxing-like arms shot forward, missing the cage by mere inches, before another bullet went through its body. It was followed by a third, which completely destroyed the monster's front features. Its still twitching corpse splashed in the water and floated on the surface for a while, before slowly drowning in the lake. Both women stared in shock at the scene, now looking around in search of more of such surprises, but the flooded part of Big Bog was deathly silent once again.

"... and that's why we didn't try to run away." Amber gulped.

"... yeah..."

Ruth's legs felt like giving out. Even letting herself float in the water didn't help much. The overwhelming fatigue from a day full of dread made her vision spin and she felt constantly lightheaded. The pain in her side and the movement of her partner were what kept her awake.

The redhead wasn't much better. She was clinging to the bars, but she saw her head fall a few times, as if she was falling asleep and waking up at the same moment. They couldn't sit, couldn't really flex their muscles, and by now, their sentence was turning into a real struggle.

She choked on the liquid and her eyes shot open, stinging. She didn't feel when she lost her grip, and as she drifted off, her head was suddenly below the water level. Panicked, she extended her arms, but found nothing. Her legs hit the metal floor. Before she regained her footing, a pair of arms pulled her out of the water.

"Ruth!..." She heard the muffled voice of her partner, holding her tightly by the shoulders. "Are you ok?"

Choking, she blinked away the liquid, her throat burning. The smaller woman nodded, holding onto her.

"Don't scare me like this. I should've... kept you awake." Amber sighed weakly.

"Sorry." Ruth said in a raspy voice, clearing her throat. She shook her head, the slime dripping from her hair.

"That's the word of the day." The other woman muttered.

The sun was beginning to rise, turning the sky blue, but its rays couldn't reach them just yet. They were cold, so, very cold. Their bodies shook desperately trying to fight off the ever present temperature. They huddled together, embracing each other for warmth, as the mountains on the horizon were touched by the first glimmer of the desert sunlight.

Ruth could tell her friend was barely keeping her head above the water. Once the sun lightened their surroundings, she could see faint trails of blood soaking through her bandages.

Ruth herself didn't feel much better, her hands shaking and her legs stiff.

"Damn... it reminded me how thirsty I was." Ruth mumbled, feeling the gross taste of the slime in her mouth.

"Yeah..." The redhead failed to keep her eyes open. "Hey, if I die..."

"No, you won't." She interrupted her.

"... I just wanted to say, you have a really cute butt."

"Thanks." Ruth chuckled weakly. "Your boobs make up for a good cushion."

"I know." Amber smiled, holding her companion. The world around them became brighter very quickly. The critters returned, probably attracted by Amber's blood, and the flies appeared above their heads. She heard the growing buzzing, though only somewhere at the edge of her consciousness.

"Not long now... We can do this." The smaller woman muttered, looking at the hypnotizing movement of the water. It was so peaceful, calming, making her drowsy again.

Amber's torso moved violently as her muscles contracted. The woman tensed and pushed her companion away. Ruth stared at her, alarmed, as she poked her head through the bars and her stomach expelled a bloody mess into the slime. Her whole body shuddered and she leaned heavily against the bars, losing her balance, blood dripping from her lips.

Ruth rushed to hold her up and realized she was far too weak to keep it up for long. "Amber, stay with me!" She slapped her on the cheek, getting only a frown from her friend before she passed out completely, becoming very, very heavy. "Damn it!" She strained her muscles to hold the woman above the surface. It was bad. If they didn't get her a radaway within a few hours, her friend could be as good as gone.

"...Hey!" Ruth called out, much more quietly than she expected. "She needs help! Please!" She yelled, or so she tried, her strained voice breaking. "She's not gonna make it!... Anyone?!" The wasteland answered her with silence and a quiet echo of her own words.

Ruth leaned against the bars and Amber leaned on her, enclosed in a tight grip. It felt as if they stayed in this position for an eternity, as the sun lazily made its way up the sky. The redhead's breathing was raspy, but steady. Ruth's whole body hurt and burned, but she became numb to the pain and only focused on keeping both of them above the water for as long as she could.

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