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Chapter 17: Waking up

Her surroundings shook with a metal groan. For a moment she thought she'd heard the raspy calls of crows and the flutter of their wings as they flew away, startled. Ruth's eyes cracked open, confusion and pain clouded her mind. She didn't know where she was, or why she was so cold and weak. The world quickly returned to focus when the chain above them screamed and the whole contraption began to rise. It was only after she felt the slimy water moving around her that she realized she was still holding Amber, her numb arms wrapped around the bars and locked around her partner's waist. Ice-cold fear pushed all the remaining wisps of confusion away from her mind. Expecting the worst, Ruth lifted her companion's head. Amber was breathing. Her breaths were raspy and shallow, but she was still with her. The strands of flame-red hair stuck to her forehead, her skin and lips were sickly pale. Ruth sighed in relief, not realizing she'd been holding her breath. Without the support of the water, which was now well below their belts, Ruth felt the weight and strain on her legs and they both collapsed onto their knees. Her muscles were trembling, arms still wrapped around the other woman. The chain reached its limit and they stopped abruptly at the edge of the ruined wall. There were not more than four people staring at them.

Ruth tried to say something, but her vocal cords refused to work as two guards opened their radiation-dripping prison and effortlessly pulled the redhead away from her. She looked with wide, stinging eyes to the one person she recognized.

"We've got her." She heard the gentle voice of the town's only doctor. "Take her to the hospital, I'll be there in a second." The two guards did as they were told and carefully carried the redhead down the makeshift bridges. Ruth had to be picked up and carried out of the cage as well, too weak to force her legs to move again. She felt like a ragdoll, currently held effortlessly with one arm by a person she didn't even bother to look at. If it wasn't for the help, she'd probably fall face-first into the ground the first step she took. The doctor looked at her, uncertain, probably judging whether she was permitted to help her or not.

"I'm fine. Don't waste your time on me." Ruth managed to say quietly, guessing the other woman's thoughts. The pain in her side was previously numbed by the cold water. Now, because of all the sudden movement, it returned to her with full force and radiated across her whole body. She clenched her teeth and refused to think of everything that was wrong with her at the moment. All that mattered was to stabilize her companion so they could get the hell out of here. "Radaway." She muttered, trying to make her jaw work properly. "She already barfed blood. She needs..."

"She'll be taken care of, don't worry." Abby gave her a nod and motioned at the guard to move out. "Even though your sentence is over, I'm probably not allowed to help you, but the amount of radaways we still have should be enough for both of y-"

"I'm fine." Ruth insisted, wincing, as the guard corrected their grip on her. "Make it double for Amber, if you have that much to share."

"I could do that, but... " The other woman paused, looking for the right words.

"She needs it more than I do." She glanced back at the doctor. "I know what I'm doing. I'm a doctor, too."

"That's why I don't believe you." Abby frowned at her, then nodded. "But if you insist, I'll focus on miss Dale."

They quickly made it to the hospital building, although she didn't remember most of the trip. Ruth was laid down on a bed beside Amber, whose arms were quickly connected to two drip bags with the familiar, orange liquid inside. Abby was ordering the guards around, cleaning and bandaging some of Amber's cuts again, all while attempting to have a conversation, but Ruth was too tired to respond or care. The thought that they still had to get out of this town kept her from passing out. She stared at the IV bags, her eyes stinging, the drops falling lazily down the tube. Amber's body slowly regained its more lively colors and soon the redhead stirred and her eyes cracked open.

"Hey. Glad you're back." A great weight was suddenly gone from her chest. Ruth reached out and gently grabbed her wrist to let her know she was there. "We're out of the cage. We're out, you hear?"

Amber mumbled something and looked around, her consciousness slowly resurfacing. She groaned and turned her head towards Ruth. "You look like shit."

"So do you, Red." She couldn't help but smile at that, and she let her hand go.

"Yeah, I feel like shit too." The redhead coughed, wincing, then looked up at the medicine. "How bad is it? Anything growing out of my forehead yet?"

"You'll be good after that, just give it a moment." Abby replied with a kind smile, then turned away to throw Amber's used bandages into a bin.

The redhead sighed and faced Ruth, giving her a questioning look. "Why... Why is your hair like that?"

"Like what?" She looked at her more confused than ever. There were other things more important than appearance right now. She brought a strand of her short hair before her eyes, then frowned at it, feeling somewhat alarmed. All the water and radiation washed off the blue dye almost completely, leaving behind a light gray, somewhat off-white mess. She thought she had more time before the color, or the lack of thereof, dominated the strands again. She tossed the bundle of hair aside in disgust and took a deep breath. "Don't mind it, please. How do you feel? Better?" The bags above her head were now almost empty.

"At least we're not floating in that shit puddle anymore. So, better, I guess." Amber mustered a smile.

"Ladies." They both turned their attention to the doctor. "I think that's all I'm able to do for you. I would do more, but... " She paused, looking at the door behind her. "You have to get going. They're waiting for you."

They received their clothes back, changed, and thanked Abby for the help. As soon as they walked out the door, they were accompanied by a group of guards. Ruth immediately recognized some of them and she felt her hair stand on end. Each and every guard either looked down or away from her, be it because of shame or confusion painted on their faces. She wished she had the strength to get back at them somehow, but at the moment, even walking straight was a big challenge. She stepped closer to Amber instead and held onto her, rather than any of the guards. The redhead seemed a lot better, much quicker than she'd expected. She looked exhausted, but confident, and determined to face whatever was waiting for them, with her head held high.

They were led through the town and the center of the square, so that every citizen could see them leaving. Nobody spoke a single word. Ruth expected shouts or dissatisfied comments once again, but there were none, not even whispers. The few people who came down to see them and those peering out of their doors and windows looked more confused than anything else.

Once they reached the main gate, they were joined by the mayor, Irene, and one more guard, who held what was left of their belongings. It didn't look like much.

"Let's make this brief." The mayor cleared his throat. His voice sounded tired and he was looking everywhere but at Ruth. She didn't look at them, either, being more interested in a piece of wood lying next to her feet. Or was it a bone? "I'm sure none of us wants to make a show out of this. You are hereby sentenced to exile. If you're ever seen near the city, you will be killed. If you ever try to interfere with the city, you will be tracked down and executed." His words were monotonous, as if he was reciting a soup recipe. The guard stepped out and handed them back their backpacks and some of their weapons. Ruth grasped her rifle, holding it close to her chest for a moment, before hanging it on her shoulder. Once that was done, the mayor approached Amber and extended his hand to her. "With that said, I'm really sorry that it came to this. The town is in great debt to you and I hope you understand why we had to do this."

Ruth stared harder at the piece of wood, feeling smaller than usual. Every fibre of her body itched to run, to just go away from here at last, tired of their voices, tired of their proper words, of everything that was this town. The redhead, on the other hand, seemed to be taller than ever. As if she's just taken a nap, enjoying the small talk as if nothing's happened to her overnight.

"I understand." She said quietly, glancing briefly at the extended hand before her. "You have a lot to do here now, we won't take any more of your time." She put on her backpack and walked past him.

"You do remember what we agreed upon, right, miss Dale?" Irene asked as they passed through the gate. "You agreed to track down those who were truly responsible."

"Oh, we will make them pay." The redhead turned towards the older woman. "But we won't do it for you." She added and saw the woman's grimace just as the gate slammed shut behind them.

The sound ringed in her ears for a few, long seconds, then Ruth turned towards the desert. Their sentence was finally over. She almost couldn't believe it. Amber kicked a small rock towards the gate and quickly joined her.

The two soldiers set out on the skeleton-covered road, which seemed to stretch for miles upon miles in the waving horizon. Strapped for equipment and strength, they both walked in silence for a long while. Each step, slowed down by the sand, sent waves of pain through Ruth's body, reminding her of the harsh reality. Her clothes dried up quickly in the morning sun, but the murky smell remained. Step after step, she didn't know how far away from the settlement they got, but she didn't dare turn around to check. She never wanted to see that place again. Ruth squinted her eyes and dragged herself forward, trying to think of anything but the pain, but her head felt heavy and her mind was in pieces. She couldn't seem to focus on anything. She looked up just in time to notice Amber stop and look at her with worried eyes. The redhead said nothing, but turned towards a pile of rubble nearby and sat down, tossing her backpack to the ground.

"Is something wrong?" Ruth asked, approaching her companion, confused she hadn't even noticed the rubble before. Everything but the closest objects to her seemed to blur and move on their own, becoming almost a mirage to her eyes. Nothing around her felt real, and she had to focus twice as hard to understand the other woman's words.

"Besides everything..." The redhead unzipped her backpack. "We need to check what we have left. We're far enough by now that those fuckers can't snipe us for taking a break." Ruth only nodded and did the same, glad to sit down for a moment.

It didn't take them long to realize just how bad their situation was. She would expect them to take away some of their things, but they pretty much took everything essential. All that was left was her rifle, one pistol, and a canteen of water for each. All the ammo and food they had purchased at the Refinery, as well as their remaining caps, were taken from them, except for a handful of powders and ointments everyone always thought useless. A few basic tools and their clothes, together with those on their backs, were left alone. Ruth also found her two notebooks left untouched, covered by a thick fabric at the very bottom of her backpack. To her great dismay, however, they took away her trusty, old knives. She looked for them miserably, going through her bag multiple times, but to no avail. Amber still had her armor, although most of its pieces were hanging loosely around her backpack. It was clear that in their current state, this exile was just another death sentence with the wasteland as the uncaring executioner. They sat there in tacit silence for a few more minutes before Amber got up and put on her equipment.

"We need to get back to the Refinery." The defiance and hope never left her raspy voice. "Come on. Let's show them they can't kill us, no matter how much they try."

Ruth sighed quietly, but mustered a smile at her partner before getting up and trailing behind the redhead. Oh, how much a bottle of vodka would dampen her pain right now. Or two bottles. Or three, as many as she needed until she no longer felt anything.

She quickly lost track of time. The merciless sun blasted her skin and her cowl wasn't enough for this kind of heat. They should've made a stop already, but in their situation, any rest like that could be their last, so they had to keep moving. Ruth's lips were dry and her mouth felt as if it was filled with sand, but she didn't dare open her canteen, too afraid to use up all of her water at once. Her head was pounding, spinning, her heart was threatening to jump out of her chest and her muscles burned with every move. She didn't know where she was going, her vision completely useless in the blinding light, but as long as she recognized Amber's silhouette before her, she followed. The woman knew she was slowing down, each step felt like eternity, eternity of walking through fire that burned from above and from the inside of her very self. At some point, she noticed Amber taking her bag and rifle from her, but it did little to relieve her exhausted body. Soon, she could feel the overwhelming numbness taking over. Her vision faded into a dark tunnel. Ruth turned towards her companion, trying to grab her for support as her legs gave under the weight of her own body and she landed in the hot sand below. The redhead said something, lifting her up, but she couldn't understand any of it. She felt water on her lips and swallowed it reflexively, but it only made her realize just how much she needed more. She wanted to get up, or at least open up her eyes, but it was far beyond her strength. She was vaguely aware of Amber trying to wake her up, shaking her body and speaking to her, but she only slipped further and further into the darkness.

Images flashed within the void of her mind. Incomprehensible, chaotic images she didn't really understand. Maybe they were dreams, maybe they were memories. She couldn't tell anything apart, and she didn't even try to remember it. Each time between the visions Ruth woke up to catch brief moments of reality. She knew that Amber was still walking, dragging her body through the desert. The redhead was still risking her life, suffering to save someone who should've already been dead, because she didn't know when to give up on her. And Ruth was only a helpless spectator, hoping she would breathe her last breath soon, so her friend would have to abandon her before the wasteland claimed both of their lives.

One of the downsides of being rescued from the brink of death, was that whatever almost sent you to the other side had probably caused a lot of pain. Pain that you feel long before you can start appreciating being alive. Ruth knew that already, but never before was she so relieved to wake up to a splitting headache. She tried to open her eyes, but the bright lights hanging above her bed felt like white-hot needles burning her retina. She recognized the smell of a hospital, or at least a well-cleaned medical point. Putting in some effort she managed to shift her arms and legs. Everything was in place. Incredibly strained, but alive. She also realized that there was an IV bag attached to her left arm. She was covered with a sheet and had a hospital gown on, but other than that, she felt completely naked. Her body was lighter, not burdened by the heat or intense fight for survival. She breathed in the cool air and appreciated a moment of peace, despite the ever-present pain. It almost felt like dreaming, like this relief was far from possible and she would wake up soon to the scorching sand. Turning her head to the side, she tried to open her eyes again. Slowly, and not without struggle, the white world around her faded into its slightly blurred, gray, more familiar self, and she realized it was real. Ruth was alone, as far as she could tell, but the sounds were still lazily returning to her. The small room was mostly filled with boxes full of medical supplies. There were two other beds besides hers. A pile of used bandages and torn, bloodied scraps of clothes were left on the one next to her. Among them were pieces of her suit, as well as the shirt Amber bought mere days earlier.

Fighting her headache, nausea, and fatigue of her entire body, she lifted herself from the cot. The world spun a little.

"Woah there, young lady!" A very raspy, female voice came from behind her. Startled, she almost jumped out of her bed when a pair of cold, boney hands grasped and held her in place. "Where do you think you're going?"

She looked up, feeling dizzy from the change of position, only to see pieces of rotting flesh partially covered by a surgeon's mask. Her hand reflexively covered her mouth as her stomach rebelled against her will. The ghoul immediately stepped to the side, holding a small metal container in front of Ruth's face. The container which she would have certainly used, if it wasn't for the fact that she didn't eat much in the last few days.

"I get that a lot, lately." The ghoul doctor replied with a chuckle. "I'm doctor Susan Winters, but you can call me Sue. How do you feel?"

"Imsosorry." Ruth moaned once her body stopped convulsing. "Im juss lil'bit dizzy." She looked up again, blinking tears out of her reddened eyes.

"From what I was told you're extremely lucky to just be dizzy." Sue put the container aside and checked the nearly empty IV bag above her head. "I had to use two radaways on you and one more on Amberly to purge out all of that radiation. So please, try to avoid any infections for the next few days, your immune system is pretty much non-existent at the moment."

"I know... how that works. How did I get here?" Ruth asked, very slowly and cautiously sitting on the side of her cot with her legs down. She stared intensely into one tile on the floor to stop the spinning.

"All I know is that our guards brought you both in here almost a day ago, exhausted, and blasted with rads. Not glowing just yet, but probably close. You'd have to ask Amberly about the details, she left less than an hour ago." She paused for a moment. "Actually, I kicked her out, because she couldn't stop asking about you. That girl has no patience whatsoever."

"How is she? I mean, she actually almost puked rainbows before we got here." Ruth asked, observing the doctor as she removed the needle from her arm and tossed the empty bag into a bin.

"She's... mostly fine." The ghoul shrugged and opened a drawer filled with syringes. "The doses of radaway she got were enough to clean that shit out. Other than that, she'll have to use a lot of lotion and avoid direct sunlight for a week, or all of those cuts on her skin will look worse than mine." She chuckled. "And she probably caught an eye infection from the shit in that water. You'll have to remind her to apply a few drops of a concoction I made for her."

"What do you mean by eye infection?" She frowned. "And what kind of medicine is it?"

"Oh, don't worry, she said her eyes itch and she's over-sensitive to light. Nothing some diluted stimpak gel and med-X can't fix! Normally, I'd just tell her to walk it off, but with all the radaway purging the shit out of your immune system it's better to make sure she won't grow maggots out of her eyeballs, right? And she's a big crybaby when it comes to doing anything with her eyes, so it's best that you take care of it for her, actually." Sue turned around and shrugged. "And now it's time for your happy shot." She took out a syringe and came up to her.

"No, please, I don't need it." Ruth shifted away from the doctor. "I... really shouldn't take med-X."

"Addicted?" The ghoul asked, lowering her voice slightly.

"More like... allergic." Looking away, she winced, suddenly remembering the weird alcoholic shot she got from Abby at the podium. She figured it must've been made on med-X, or some other similar drug, as she recalled the streams of blood that escaped her nostrils back there. "It won't work on me like I'd want it to, so don't waste a shot, please."

"I see." Sue put the syringe back into the drawer and scratched the almost non-existent skin on her head. "I only have some herbal painkillers if you want them, but they won't do much. Sorry, pipsqueak." She took out a small pouch of powder with a Xander root label sewn onto it. Her mostly obscured ghoulish face looked almost sympathetically at the girl.

"That's enough, thank you. And I apologize for my reaction to you." Ruth took the powder and stood up cautiously. Her muscles were still sore and trembling, but she regained enough strength to try and risk walking around.

"Don't mind it, I got used to it over time. Your bag is in the next room, you should probably put some clothes on. I'm sure most of our patrons won't mind seeing a bare ass, but we usually charge them to do so. Come back if you need anything."

Ruth smiled and thanked Sue before leaving.

Changing took a lot more effort than she expected, and even though she was chewing on a portion of the bitter powder, its effects were slow and minimal at best. She hoped her own mix of painkillers would be better next time she took it. The girl examined her body as she dressed. It was a multicolored mosaic of dark and pale patches of skin with many shades of bruises ranging from pale purple, all the way to almost black. Most of those bruises were concentrated on her right side that was slightly swollen. It felt familiar somehow, seeing her bruised body like that. She didn't recall ever looking like that, even at the worst of times, but she couldn't shake a feeling of deja-vu. She quickly pushed those feelings away, focusing on the difficult task of putting her clothes back on, but the thoughts stubbornly didn't want to leave her mind. Ruth shuddered at the thought that this much pain was still the best of all the possible outcomes. Involuntarily, her mind went back to the many terrible dreams and everything she saw and experienced in the past... three days. Or four, judging by what the doctor had told her. On one hand, it was hard to believe they've been gone for that long, but on the other, sitting in that flooded, stale cell felt for her like years on end. Holding her side, she remembered the punches and the people looming over her, together with the overpowering helplessness. All of that returned like a whip to her consciousness, making her zone out in the middle of the changing room, half-dressed. She supported herself against a wall for a moment to stop the spinning and the sudden wave of anxiety.

One deep breath in, one long breath out. She focused on the motions of her chest, trying to mute all the other things from her head.

"Do you need help, pipsqueak?" Sue's voice coming from behind her back pulled her out of that mindspace.

"N-no, I'm ok, thanks." She quickly did up the buttons of her trousers as the doctor gave her a look and came back to her work.

Ruth finished her changing, dressing into a set of extra, loose clothes she used to take everywhere in case her uniform got damaged, putting on her new poncho, too. It seemed to her as if everything smelled horribly of the irradiated water, even though this set was fresh. She put on her cowl as well, somewhat insecure about her current hairstyle. What made her feel even worse, was that her knives were gone. The additional weight on her belt used to give her a sense of safety, and she made a mental note to get a pair of blades as soon as she found something good enough. And as soon as she made some caps.

She exited the room and took the stairs down, following a distant sound of chatter and music. It echoed in the empty corridor, different sounds jumping from one wall to the other, and soon the lighting changed from artificial white to warmer, yellow hues. She entered the large, familiar bar, which was filled with patrons, both people and ghouls, talking loudly, drinking, and laughing. A few musicians sitting in the corner played on makeshift banjos and other instruments she didn't recognize from afar. At first the crowd and the noises made her flinch and she took a step back, but she swept her gaze across the numerous faces once more, finally noticing the redhead sitting at the bar. She was busy talking with the familiar ghoul bartender. Ruth took a deep breath and walked into the crowd, carefully avoiding all the people around her, fighting the growing headache. Amber spotted her way before she could get to the bar and she saw her rush towards her, pushing a few unfortunate patrons to the side.

"You're up! The doc said you wouldn't be out for days!" The smaller girl gasped when her partner's arms almost crushed her in an embrace.

"Amber...! Still injured...!" She hissed, feeling a sharp jolt of pain. The redhead immediately let her go and apologized. Even in the dim light of the tavern she could see the redhead's green eyes were somewhat reddened and swollen, but some color returned to her face and her smile was just as bright as she knew it.

"Sorry! I was so worried! How do you feel? Did the doc treat you well? She can be a bitch sometimes." They took a couple of steps out of the way, leaving most of the crowded room behind.

"She was very nice, actually. And I feel great, you know, like a pack of brahmins just stomped over me." They both chuckled. It was so good to laugh, even if her chest sent waves of pain to protest the extra effort. "But most of all, I'm here and alive. We're alive, thanks to you." Ruth smiled widely at her friend. After long, dark hours of preparing mentally for her own execution and getting used to an almost unavoidable meeting with death herself, she could finally let go of these thoughts and leave that dark place behind. At least for now she was finally safe, they both were. No matter how much every fibre of her body ached, that one moment in The Smoldering Corpse was one of the best she's ever had.

"Are you sure you're alright?" There was a hint of concern in Amber's voice. Ruth blinked tears out of her eyes, and without losing her smile she embraced the redhead. Amber wrapped her hands around her smaller frame and gently stroked her faded gray hair, whispering that everything was okay. It felt like it was okay. They could finally wake up from that nightmare. A few people passed them by, holding their drinks and food, but amongst the crowd they came unnoticed.

"Okay, I'm done." Ruth said quietly, wiping her eyes dry with her hand.

"Why do I always get hugs from her after something traumatic happens." The redhead sighed, rolling her eyes, her arms still wrapped around Ruth. "We could cuddle sometimes, you know..."

"Only when something traumatic happens. You get the hugs, and I get to be a crybaby." The smaller woman chuckled, moving away from the embrace. She made sure to fix her cowl back on, when a distinct smell reached her from behind the bar. Roasted meat. Her stomach suddenly twisted painfully. "Hey, do we have anything we could sell to buy some food?"

Amber sighed and led her partner to one of the tables.

"Don't worry about that, it's been taken care of." She replied in a somewhat sombre tone.

"Amber, did you... please don't tell me you did." Ruth asked, not sure what to actually expect.

"No, I didn't kill anyone and I didn't fuck anyone, if that's what you're asking." The redhead shot her a glance and they sat at a table under one of the richly decorated walls. There were colorful carpets and knitworks hanging above them, together with some artistic vision of a metal horse. It looked more like a brahmin with a long, hairy tail. Quite similar to a creature she'd seen at the Camp once, but with fewer limbs. "It's just... my family knows what happened and they sent caps to pay for the meds."

"That's great! We'll repay them as soon as we get back to the base, I should still have something..."

"No, it's not that simple." Amber cut in with a sigh. "They want me back at The Farm and my uncle is going to take us there."

It took her a moment to remember what her friend had told her about the troublesome relationship with her family, and from what she knew, they didn't support Amber in her life choices. "But it can't be that bad, right? They helped you, us, out, so maybe you could pay them a little visit?"

"No, it really is bad." The redhead muttered with an even deeper sigh.

"Stop complaining so much, girl!" They both jumped, hearing Jules's raspy voice behind them. He approached the table, carrying two large plates filled with steaming hot piles of meat and a hefty portion of dark bread, a lot of greens on the side. "Your family is worried and they haven't seen you in years! They sent enough caps to cover for fixing both of you. I'd say they deserve a wee bit of attention and gratitude." He placed the dishes in front of them swiftly. "Food is on me, of course." He added with a smile. Amber looked up at him with resignation, but said nothing.

"Thank you for your help, sir. It smells great." Ruth said politely, fighting the urge to dig into the pile of food right away. "We'll make sure you get compensation for this."

"Don't worry about it." The ghoul waved his hand, smiling even wider, which looked like he was just baring his darkened teeth.

Ruth looked at her plate hungrily and was about to dive in, but she stopped and looked back at the bartender.

"Wait, how did you manage to get to the farm and back in such a short time? Wasn't it farther away?"

"Oh no, it wasn't me." Jules replied with a chuckle. "An old ghoul like me has no business traveling the wastelands anymore. Marco drove there and back."

"Drove?" Ruth raised her eyebrows in surprise. "What, you have a car?" She ignored Amber, who almost begrudgingly turned her focus to her plate.

"I don't, but he does. You'll get a chance to hop in it later today." She didn't know how she felt about the idea. "Now, stop chit-chatting and eat something, you have to be starving! Dig in!" With that the ghoul smiled again and turned back to the bar, greeting some people in the crowd on his way.

Ruth followed him with her eyes for a bit, but her curiosity was finally overwhelmed by the smell of fresh food. Biting, chewing and even swallowing sent small jolts of pain through her body, but she didn't care. A young waitress brought in a pitcher of water and two cans as mugs. Both women emptied them in front of her and asked for a refill.

"So... " Ruth started, once she couldn't fit any more food into her. Amber was just finishing her meal. "How did we actually get here? Last thing I remember was passing out on you in the middle of nowhere."

"I dragged our asses as far as I could before passing out, too." Amber took a moment to chew on a piece of dried brahmin. "And then one of Marco's scouts found us. Apparently, he persuaded the caravan of assholes who sold you out to tell him what happened. The scout managed to wake me up and gave us water. Some time later, a few more guards came with a cart and brought us here."

"Huh. We got lucky, then." She sipped more water from her makeshift cup, trying to gather her thoughts.

"After all the shit we've been through we deserve a little bit of luck, don't you think." The redhead shrugged, swallowing another huge bite.

"Yeah..." Ruth looked aside. She waited for her partner to finish her food before she continued. "Amber... Tell me what happened at Big Bog."

"You have to be a little bit more specific. A lot, and I mean, a lot happened there." She lifted her cup. "Like, a month's worth of shit compressed into... what was it, two, three days?"

"Tell me everything. I need to know what you did after you left me in the cell. I spent the whole night going through every possible scenario, wondering whatever the hell was happening in that town."

"Alright... well..." The redhead shrugged. "First I had to deal with those guards to make sure they wouldn't have any strength left for you. The girl was pretty cute, actually, but not my type-"

"No, don't... not about that, please." Ruth interrupted her, facing away from her to take a breath. "I don't want to know everything." She paused for a moment. "Not that I don't appreciate your help, I really do. Whatever your ways are, I guess."

"I'm sure you'd do the same for me." Amber replied with a sly smile, which made Ruth even more uncomfortable. "So what do you want to know exactly?"

"I guess the most important part is what you discussed with the elders after you interrupted the execution." The hooded woman studied her face.

"Oh. That's a big one." Amber looked to the side, as if looking for the right words. "You see, the thing is... It's best if you see it yourself." She reached into her shirt pocket and took out a piece of paper which she handed to her companion. "This is one of the letters Stan got from his... well... someone. It's signed by somebody who calls himself the Professor and it appears he made the drug used to poison the water. We don't know if it was Stan's own idea to continue the plague, or was he just the one doing someone's dirty job."

Ruth took the letter and opened it. She only needed a single look over it to recognize her uncle's meticulous writing. It spoke something about the latest shipments of the substance and questioned about the progress, but she didn't read the whole message. She just shook her head and closed it.

"I... This is what you found?" Ruth waved the letter at her partner, frustration seeping through her words.

"You recognized the writing, didn't you? This is your uncle's, am I correct?" The redhead spoke softly, lowering her voice.

"No!... I mean, yes... sorry, this is a bit much... It just cannot be him. But it cannot be!" She pushed the paper away with a shaky hand.

"You told me he couldn't make a virus, but this was a very sophisticated drug, and you said so yourself, he was good with that." The redhead took the letter, looking at her in confusion. "Listen, it doesn't matter if it's your uncle or not, we have to track this Professor guy down and have a friendly chat about experimenting on innocent people."

Ruth didn't reply at first, trying to make sense of all of this, then looked at her intensely. "Let's say, hypothetically, that it was him. You want to tell me that you made a deal with the people who would gladly stake you for nothing to find and kill a man you don't even know? Just like that? Just like they did to us?"

"Obviously we first ask him a couple of questions. If he's the fucker responsible for what happened to us over the last few days, then he's not a man, he's a monster and he needs to be stopped." Amber responded with the same coldness.

"Listen." Ruth frowned, tapping her hand in frustration. "How about we put it off for now? I don't want to..." She paused, battling her thoughts that just kept contradicting one another. "It's over, okay? We're safe now, let's just focus on our real mission instead of chasing ghosts. We have to go after those raiders, we-"

"Are you serious? You just want to leave it like that?" The redhead looked at her in disbelief. "After all we've been through?"

"What we've been through was the work of the good people of Big Bog. They wanted to kill the wrong people to get their bloody revenge."

"They were manipulated by Stan, who was obviously working for this Professor guy! He's the bad guy!" Amber pushed aside her plate, leaning forward for emphasis.

Ruth shook her head.

"You didn't see that fury in their eyes, Amber." She said with a shaky voice. "Hatred was what was driving them. All, in unison, like a fucking beast ready to kill. They wanted to tear me apart with their bare hands! Fuck the Professor, it's the whole town that should go to hell!"

"Wouldn't you be mad at someone who caused two thirds of their friends and family to die in a horrific plague? To become husks of themselves, never to wake up again before they died, for no reason whatsoever?!" The redhead raised her voice.

The hateful shouts and faces appeared before her eyes again and she sprung up from her seat.

"BUT I DIDN'T DO IT!" She snapped, clenching her fists, both from helpless anger and the pain of her body, a storm of thoughts and the burning headache making the world spin a little again.

"You didn't, but he did!" Amber frowned up at her and slammed the letter in front of her partner, pointing at the signature. Ruth breathed in and sat back down, begrudgingly looking at the stained piece of paper. "The Professor was the one who blamed it all on you to cover himself. That's why we have to find him. He used those people as lab rats to test some drugs, but fuck them, they wanted to kill us, and nearly succeeded." The redhead sat back as well and continued, trying to sound calm again. "But I'm pretty sure Stan sent him another letter and I bet you a monthly supply of beer that you're the main subject."

Ruth glared at her for a few more moments, biting at her inner lip, then gave up and hung her head, slumping back on her chair. She didn't want to believe it, didn't want to accept this kind of reality, but arguing about it was stupid, to say the least. Someone, whether it was her family or not, was out there with enough power and resources to put shackles on an entire town and manipulate them out of their minds. Big Bog didn't have to be the only place affected by this Professor, either. If, of course, what her partner had found was to be taken as a fact. She wouldn't think otherwise.

"We'll talk about that later." Ruth said after a long pause and brought a hand to her brow. "I believe you, it's just... this is not the right time or place for this. I'm just afraid to-"

Before she had the time to finish, the doors of The Smoldering Corpse flew open with a loud thud, almost hitting a pair standing next to the entrance. Some people, Amber and Ruth included, turned around to see what was happening. A single person came inside, shutting the doors behind them and yelling something which sounded like a booming greeting to everyone in the inn. He had a large backpack, at least two guns with him, and a dusty hat on his head. What drew their attention the most, though, was the distinct armor with spiral markings and the face they both remembered all too well.

"You've got to be kidding me." Amber muttered and stood up from her seat, making the cans fall over.

"Amber, wait, what are you doing?" Ruth looked at her alarmed, but the redhead ignored her completely and went past their table. She quickened her step, elbowing a few patrons on the way, her gaze focused on the man as that of a hound locking on its prey. She was steaming, and Ruth knew exactly what was coming.

"And how are YOU doing, my greatest pal?" Michael exclaimed to the completely confused, but otherwise unfazed Jules, then winked at some random woman next to him. He turned, spotting the charging redhead. In a heartbeat his expression changed from smirking through shock to horror, but it was too late to turn back. Before he knew it, Amber's fist slammed into his cheek with the force of a charging bighorner. The punch sent him to the ground, making most of the glasses, cans, and mugs jump up on the tables. People around them parted, forming a circle surrounding the two as the bulky man held his face in his hands, moaning in pain. Ruth caught up to them, trying to squeeze through the crowd with as little physical contact as she could.

"You dipshit!" The redhead shouted, towering over him. "Where's my money?!"

"Money? What money?" He extended one hand in front of him, as if pleading her to stop when the woman stepped closer.

"The one you stole from us after we saved your sorry ass!" She sent a kick into his side, making him twist on the floor.

"I don't know what... Ooof!"

Before she got to relieve her anger with another swing, Ruth pulled her back.

"That's enough, Red." Her partner had to wrap her arms around her hand to keep her in place. "You're making a scene, let's just take it outside."

"With pleasure." Amber muttered, grabbing the man by the straps of his backpack. Patrons moved aside, giving her a clear path towards the door. Ruth followed, all of them receiving funny looks from other people.

Moments later Michael landed face first in the dirt just outside the tavern. He tried to get up and run, to call for help, but the redhead grabbed him again and turned around, slamming him into the charred wall of the establishment.

"I'll ask again." She leaned in close to his ear and whispered coldly, twisting his arms to hold him in place. The man squealed quietly. "Where are our fucking caps?"

His eyes darted around, finally stopping on Ruth, standing next to them with her arms crossed. "Lady! Please tell her something, this woman is crazy!"

"Oh Mike, she's not even angry yet, and you haven't seen me angry." She smirked, leaning against the wall to look him in the eye at his current level. "This can get all sorts of crazy, so you better listen to her."

Amber twisted his arms tighter.

"Fine! I'll give them back, I swear!" The man whimpered, looking back at her in fear. "Just let me go! Christ, don't break my arms!"

They heard quickly approaching steps and the redhead let him go, just as two armed men ran towards them to investigate the commotion.

"What's going on here?" One of them asked, levelling his weapon at Amber.

"This man stole my property in the wasteland." She said with her hands above her head to calm them down. "Isn't that right, Michael?"

"I wouldn't call it stealing, exactly." He stood up straight and massaged his arms. His face was still covered with dirt and flakes of paint from the wall. "I was just taking provisions for my travel from our common camp. The way partners do, you know."

"Were those your provisions?" The guard asked, lowering his rifle.

"Well, they were in our camp so I guess they partially were mine..." He started, but Amber interrupted him at once.

"No, they weren't. We camped together, but we didn't travel together. He took the caps, meds, water, and food from our bags without asking." She clenched her fists seeing him roll his eyes and look at the guards. "We almost died because of that!" She barked.

"But you didn't, so no hard feelings, right?" The man smiled with innocence painted across his face. Ruth pierced him with her glare.

"I should beat the shit out of you right here and now." Amber hissed, taking a step towards him, but she was stopped by the other guard.

"Alright, that's enough!" He stepped between them, holding his hands up to separate them. "No fighting within the settlement! If you really want to sort it out differently, we'll have to throw you out the gates. It's best you pay back whatever you owe her and we're done here." He said, addressing Michael, then turned towards Amber. "And you... You stay out of trouble, okay?"

Amber crossed her arms and walked away from her victim, ignoring the small crowd that had left the tavern and gathered around them.

"Come on you two, now that your steam is off, let's talk this out with a drink or two." Ruth said to both her partner and Michael who was already digging through his backpack and pockets looking for caps.

It took him another fifteen minutes just to gather five hundred caps worth of meds and supplies for both of them. Ruth was sitting at a table with him, waiting for the cash, while the redhead left to get them something from the bar. And to cool off. Michael's cheek was slightly swollen and he got a black eye from the punch, but he didn't seem to worry about that anymore.

"Alright, that should be everything. Tell you what, let me buy you a drink as an apology, too." He handed her the pile of caps. She put them into a pouch that she tied tightly and placed inside her bag. Thinking of all the possible medication the local doctor could've given them, she roughly estimated the amount would be enough to pay Amber's family back when they got there.

"Thanks, but no need for that." She shook her head, seeing the redhead still glaring at him from the other side of the room.

"You look different, did you lose weight or something?" Michael asked, waving at Jules, who seemed not to notice him. "Not that you look bad, of course." He turned to her with a smile.

"Uh..." She was completely taken aback by his comment. "Thanks? I guess? But it's really none of your-"

"Why change the color?" He asked again, staring at her with almost child-like curiosity. "Blue looked good on you."

"It... kind of washed away." Ruth mumbled, looking to the side. She almost managed to forget about her hair, and now the annoying awareness of that was back. She involuntarily ran her fingers through her short fringe and tossed the strands to one side, then fixed her hood again. "Say... Are they really so gray? Like, gray, or white?" She leaned a bit closer and lowered her voice.

"Well." He inspected the strands from his seat like an expert. "There's some blue left in there, but yes, most of it is gray, almost white in some places, actually..." He stopped, seeing her expression change from worried to that of resignation. "But that's good! You look great!" With a long groan Ruth let her head fall gently onto her arms on the table.

Someone put a bottle near her face and sat beside her.

"What's going on here?" Amber asked, piercing the guy with her gaze.

"We were just talking about her gorgeous hair! And you got your money back, haha!" Michael smiled at both of them, momentarily nervous and sweating.

"Nooo stop... I hate them that way..." Ruth whined quietly, her voice muffled by her clothes, and Amber only frowned at him.

"You should support her more. It's not good for your relationship." He stated and nodded, as if to himself.

"What was that?" The redhead set her half-empty beer bottle down, ready to punch him again.

"Anyways!" He cleared his throat and continued. "I could sell you some interesting info, if you're interested. You know, the kind of info that might be interesting to someone like you."

"Why should we be listening to anything you have to say?" The redhead growled, looking down at him.

"You just look like someone who might be interested in things like that." The man said, trying to keep his cool while looking back at her.

"Then tell us." Amber waved her hand at him as if to urge him to continue. "And then I'll decide if it was worth my time or not."

"Did I mention that I want to sell this information, and not give it for free?" Michael gave her a slightly confused look.

"Did I mention that I have a very compelling urge to strangle you for what you've done?" He could probably almost feel the venom striking him in the face. Ruth lifted her head just to look at his reaction.

"I... can see your point here." Michael shifted nervously. "And this urge of yours... will it disappear if I tell you?"

"It might..." The redhead took a sip of her ale. "If it really is something interesting."

"Alright," he took a moment and sighed in resignation, "but I must say you're a very persuasive negotiator. So... I was walking along the road south from here when I saw a group of NCR troopers supported by the Brotherhood. They were just in the middle of fighting off an attack of some bandits. Of course I already told you that a small group of tin-men came to Camp Imperial some time ago, so it's nothing unusual to see them working with boy-scouts there. The interesting part, though, was that the people who attacked them were wearing armor similar to mine." With that he gestured at his heavy chestplate with painted, swirling patterns. "And there was a woman with blue hair in that group, too."

"How many people were there?" Ruth sat back up, wincing a little. "Did you see any markings on the NCR soldiers? Oh, and... did the tin cans get fucked up?"

"I knew you'd be interested!" Michael exclaimed, but was immediately calmed down by Amber's stern gaze. "I think there were four NCR guys and two heavies, one of them had the kind of armor I've never seen before. There was also some guy with them, looked like a raider. The blue team ran away as soon as they killed him. They lost three of their own, the NCR didn't lose anyone more. Soo no, the tin-men were fine."

Ruth grunted, leaning against her chair's backrest. "Shame."

"You were right, this is interesting." Amber crossed her arms.

"So maybe you'd reconsider and... you know... show me your gratitude in caps?" He looked at her hopefully.

"No... but I won't kill you as soon as you leave this settlement." She replied, matching his hopeful tone. "Deal?"

"While I know you're just joking, I do appreciate the gesture." He nodded at her, smiling awkwardly. "So let's put all the bad blood behind us and have some more drinks, on me!" He waved at Jules again. "You girls are staying here? Do you have a room already? Maybe I could get you something better, just for the three of us?"

Before any of them could reply another voice entered the discussion.

"I'm afraid those two young ladies are traveling with me this evening, and as far as I know, they are expected at The Smiths' tonight."

Ruth sighed in relief when Amber's cold, murderous gaze melted into something between surprise and resignation as soon as the other man approached. Michael turned around and suddenly seemed a lot smaller, sitting right under the tall and wide figure of the newcomer. He flashed a bright smile to all of them.

"Why are you doing this to me, Marco..." The redhead whined and put her nearly finished bottle aside.

"That's not the way to greet your dearest uncle." The older man laughed, which only made Amber seem even more tired with this whole situation. "Name's Marcus Dale, but everyone calls me Marco." He turned to face Ruth and tipped his hat.

"Pleasure to meet you." She introduced herself, too, and they shook hands.

"I hope he isn't bothering you?" Marco pointed down at Michael.

"Nothing we couldn't handle." Amber shifted her gaze at the sitting man. It almost made him jump.

"I think I'll be going now." The adventurer excused himself from their table. "If you ever need any more information, I'll be around. But please, do consider the caps next time. Good chat!" With that, he disappeared into the crowd.

"Alright girls, go get your things, say bye to Jules, and meet me outside the gates in half an hour. We'll catch up on the way." He winked at them and left.

"So that's your uncle, huh?" Ruth asked as soon as he disappeared.

"Uh-huh." Amber sighed.

The sun was beginning to lazily crawl down to the horizon as they left the tavern. Their bags were stuffed with fresh supplies of water, food, and meds for the road. They passed the guard post and the main gates, where Marco was already waiting for them. Next to him was a vehicle unlike anything Ruth has ever seen. There were few military trucks and cars in use in the NCR army, but they were used sparingly and kept hidden most of the time. This car was definitely something different. Not much more than a frame was left from the original, sleek, family car it must have been before the war. Its chassis was reinforced with multiple metal plates, windows covered with similar sheets of armor, only small, strategic slits left between the platings. The whole car rested on four, large wheels, definitely too big for the rest of its frame. Several, mismatched tires cut in half were attached to the car in place of its original bumper. Most of its hood was missing, exposing parts of the engine which, to Ruth, appeared to be mounted on top of another engine while its trunk was replaced with a couple of large metal chests welded onto a metal frame. None of it made sense to her. All of the metal parts were of dark gray hues and occasional rust, the signature of the overall Refinery style. It looked ready to drive on any road and climb any dune or hill.

"Beauty, isn't she?" The small woman blinked, hearing Marco's voice as he opened the back door for her.

"Yes, uh, it's great." Ruth recollected herself and came up closer to throw her things inside, but the idea of entering the car at all made her very uncomfortable. There was plenty of space inside, the couches looked neat, but the thought of being locked in another metal box made her uneasy to say the least. Especially the kind of box with almost no windows.

"Take the front seat." Amber placed a hand on her shoulder. "You should feel better in there."

"Come on ladies, we have to hurry if we want to get to The Farm before nightfall." Marco rushed them as he jumped behind the wheel. Amber quickly found her way to the back seat and stretched her legs across the couch. Ruth reluctantly took her place inside, feeling the metal coffin around her come to life with the roar of the huge engine.

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