Chapter 18: The wayward daughter
The armored car jumped off of another dune, spraying sand and dust from underneath its wheels. It landed on the cracked asphalt of the long-forgotten road and its engine roared wildly as parts of it creaked a little under its great weight. A pack of coyotes hunting nearby sprinted to the sides and out of their way, yelping and barking in protest at the intruders. They left them behind in a few heartbeats.
"Exciting, isn't it?" Marco outshouted the engine of the metal beast, his mustache twisting upwards in a smile. "This baby can handle more jumps like that if you want!"
"Yeah it can!" Amber's voice came from the back seat, exhilarated by the ride.
Ruth wanted to return the smile, but all her focus was aimed on gripping her seat and trying not to break anything else in her body as the vehicle turned for another dune. Marco shouted to hold on as the whole car swayed to the side and the tires left the sandy bank. She tightly grasped a metal handle that miraculously was not removed from the cabin when the car was reinforced, squeezing her eyes shut and bracing for impact as she felt her body become weightless. A moment later the car hit the ground and shook violently, righting itself again.
"Woohoo!" Amber shouted from the back, laughing. "I missed that!"
"See, there are some good sides to seeing your uncle." Marco grinned back at her.
If it weren't for the discomfort of her injuries, Ruth could maybe even call this fun, though she much preferred the steady flight of a vertibird. She had to think hard about the open space surrounding them and the air on her face, so as not to faint or freak out, though her heart was racing from the moment the vehicle's doors shut on her. Amber, on the other hand, by some amazing ability, still had her legs stretched across the back seat, not minding the jumping and shaking of the vehicle, having the time of her life. She figured it was practice.
"I think she's had enough." The redhead punched the driver's seat. Twice, so Marco would feel it.
"I'm ok! This is fine!" Suddenly aware of the attention, she attempted to control her face, but the car shook again driving over something, and she tightened her grip on the handle, wincing.
"T's alright." He laughed, glancing at the slightly pale woman next to him. "It takes some time to get used to this." He brought the car back to a more even track and slowed down a little. "Well, most people need time, Amber over there... this was her crib and she slept in here like a baby."
"Oh, come on!" The redhead whined, shifting in her seat. "I was already like, two, or something!"
"Yes, you were. Little angel she was." The man chuckled and turned his gaze back to Ruth.
"An angel? That's a first." She picked up, finally able to relax a bit.
Marco laughed. "I see you got to know my girl pretty well."
Amber scoffed and leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms.
"Anyway, you look kind of familiar." He glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. "Haven't we met before?"
"I... don't believe so?" Ruth paused for a moment, but didn't really recall his face, and she'd recognize such a wide, contagious grin.
"Hmm. I must've seen someone very similar to you, then." He smiled and turned his attention back to the road and she looked away as well, unsure of what else to say.
Looking out through one of the slits on the metal plate next to her, she scanned the desert, expecting to spot a raider group attracted by the vehicle's noisy engine. How could Marco not be afraid of that? It didn't help that the slits were small. She felt a nudge to her shoulder from behind.
"You can pull the plate down with this, if you want." Amber motioned at a lever on the side of her doors.
"Can I?" Ruth asked, trying not to sound too pleading.
The reinforced "window" popped out of its frame and slid down the doors, making a gust of wind roll inside the car. Ruth leaned her head into the opening, sighing in relief as the wind rustled her hair in all directions. The desert slowly flattened out as they traveled. All she could see was the sea of glistening sand and occasional leftovers of ruined farmhouses and grain silos, the distant hills and mountains outlining the horizon. With his one hand on the steering wheel, Marco reached down to the middle of the car's dashboard and flicked on a built-in radio. The radio's host spoke up in an accent that was difficult to understand, throwing in words that she didn't know, but could guess the meaning of. Pleasant tunes of harmonica and acoustic guitar soon filled the air as they rushed along the dusty road.
"I didn't know there was a radio with music in Mexicali." She allowed herself to close her eyes and relax as she spoke. "I've only heard the pre-recorded NCR stuff."
"Yeah, there are many radio stations around, but this valley has a terrible reception." Marco shrugged, steadying the car after a sudden turn. "But you go North past the mountains and you get Radio New Vegas, NCR Live, and a whole lot of small stations dotted along the way. Even some Legion bullshit from time to time, I'm surprised those savages figured out how to cobble together an antenna."
"I wanted to build a radio station at the Refinery, but Jules wouldn't let me." Amber said from behind.
"You were 15 at the time, girl!" He chuckled, shaking his head a little. "And you had ten new ideas a minute. We'd have a half-finished tower with a couple of cables dangling from it and you'd jump to another one of your projects. Carl is a patient man, but he hates wasting resources."
"Not like he has any shortages of scrap metal." Amber muttered from her seat.
"Who's Carl?" She didn't recall hearing that name before.
"The Big Boss of the Refinery, latest of the whole line of scavenger princes, as they used to call themselves back in the good old days." He said, steering the car around a ruined portion of the road.
"Prince Carl Mook The Third." The redhead joked from the back. "Ruler of the Refinery, the Scorched Sands, and Protector of The Farm."
"That's... a really long name."
"Speaking of the farm." Marco motioned at the view before them. "Here we are, girls!"
With that he hit the brakes, almost sending Ruth off of her seat. Behind, she heard Amber curse horribly and tumble down. They exited the car, massaging their sides and whatnot. Although Marco's story helped ease her anxiety, she immediately felt better setting her feet on stable ground and standing in the open space.
Immediately after exiting from the armored and isolated vehicle she was struck by the unusual surroundings. They stopped in front of a massive structure that at some point in the past used to be a tall, rectangular grain elevator. The lower third of the building was made out of brick and mortar, surrounded by irregular shapes of smaller structures built over time. The remaining height of the elevator as well as the watchtower at the top were made out of wood and metal. Even though parts of it had given out to time and winds, there were signs of meticulous repairs and additional constructions. She counted at least six levels of windows and platforms on the main structure. The building was surrounded by a labyrinth of smaller huts, sheds, and animal pens connected together by a maze of scaffolding, creating a sort of a wall separating the elevator and the central square they were standing on from the rest of the farm. It must've taken decades and the strength of many people to complete the structure.
It wasn't even that the complex as a whole looked more impressive than other settlements she's visited. It was the spirit that was immediately visible on its walls. Just below the scaffolding sat rows of barrel cacti, adored with fresh, yellow fruit on top. Among them grew different kinds of desert flowers that Ruth recognized as california poppies and bundles of chuparosa, ready to bloom when the rains fell again. Two tall, mesquite trees grew at the corners of this face of the settlement. The wooden huts and sheds themselves were painted in different, pastel colors, now tinted with the evening oranges. The paint was slowly flaking off, but she saw elements that told her the buildings were repainted every now and then. There were strings of tiny lanterns illuminating the whole front of this towering, yet welcoming structure. A couple of large windmills stood behind the massive building, their blades poking from above the wall with every turn. They were painted in pastels as well.
She went around the open doors of the car, seeing Amber gathering the things that must have fallen out of their backpacks before handing her her stuff. Behind them, Marco was just closing a wide gate they had driven past. It was a part of a tall fence built out of wooden planks and metal poles, topped with layers of barbed wire. Afternoon light came through the numerous, thin cracks in the fence, casting long shadows on the path they were about to follow up to the farm itself. Before she followed, though, Ruth lingered for a moment to take in the view, unable to focus on one detail before her eyes jumped to another. Her eyes widened in awe and curiosity. She's seen The Smiths' Farm as a landmark from a distance, but never got close enough to see its full glory.
As they went along the road to the entrance, they passed by wooden pens from which brahmins and other farm animals watched them, turning their double heads in curiosity. In the orange hues of the lazily setting sun the farm looked inviting, like a promise of safety and warmth.
"Home, sweet home..." The redhead sighed, gazing at the building.
"It really does look like one." Ruth said in a soft voice, taking in the sight.
"Wait till I show you the fields. It's nothing like I've ever seen anywhere else." Amber's voice turned almost dreamy. She expected her partner to hate the visit altogether, but it was clear she must've missed that sight despite her previous grumbles.
"I'd love to." Looking around, though, something did seem a little off. "I don't see anyone on the terraces. Where's your patrol? Why is it so quiet?"
"Oh, they've seen us, from miles away. Heard, too." She looked up and Ruth followed her gaze to the top of the building where a few small, slit-like windows were. It was the highest point in the area, serving as a great watchtower in the middle of the flatlands, guarding the entrance silently. "There are at least two shooters in there at any given time. How do you think I learned to shoot so well?" Amber smiled proudly. "And it's quiet because it's late. Farm life means you get up before the sun rises and go to bed as it sets."
Ruth was about to ask more questions, but something on the other side of the entrance clinged, clicked, and produced a number of other sounds when they stopped before it. One wing of the double, heavy doors swung open, revealing many curious faces and several sets of eyes staring at them. Amber gave the group a heartfelt smile, and a small stampede of yelling and laughing kids spilled out of the doorway. They flooded her with hugs and smiles and Ruth had to step away to avoid them. She stood at the side, observing as a group of older people appeared in the entrance. Three men and four women in total came out into the light. Not all of them jumped at the redhead with joy, though. Their expressions ranged from happiness through relief to uncertainty. One of the men pushed through the small crowd of youngsters and stopped right in front of Amber. The wave of children now moved to Marco, some of the kids grabbed his arms and he lifted them up, laughing even louder than them.
"Look what the cat dragged in..." The man gazed at the redhead, his brow furrowed.
"Hi there, little brother." Amber smiled awkwardly.
Little? Ruth's attention was immediately drawn to him. He was almost a head taller than his sister! Although his brown hair didn't match Amber's flame-red color, his eyes looked back at her with the same, greenish hue. They both had freckles and wide postures.
"You were supposed to write to us every week." His deep voice and tone matched his frown. "Have you forgotten?"
"I... might have missed a few weeks." Her smile turned apologetical.
"More like months. We were worried!" Amber's brother tilted his head like a puppy. "And what happened to your face? Grandma won't be happy about this!"
"Oh shut up and give me a hug already." Amber said in a shaky voice. His stern face finally brightened up with a gentle grin and the siblings embraced each other in bone-crushing hugs as tears of joy rolled down their cheeks.
She couldn't help but smile at the scene. It was a treat seeing her friend like this. A few other people from the family stepped out to greet her, more or less affectionately.
Somewhere, in the back of Ruth's mind, lingered a mix of emotions she didn't want to fully recognize. Amber spoke so badly of her family before, yet what she was seeing now looked so welcoming and... right. Her eyes turned from the scene as a sense of bitterness entered her thoughts. The burning realization of loneliness and envy left her zoning out for a moment, until a pair of big, curious eyes caught her attention. One of the kids came up to her cautiously, fiddling with his thumbs.
"And who... Who are you, miss?"
"Name's Ruth." She leaned down a bit. A few other kids surrounded her, appearing almost out of nowhere. "I work with Amber. How about you, what's your name?"
"Thomas, miss." He gave an adorable, shy smile, then pointed at her. "What happened to your ear?"
"Oh, this, uh..." She searched for the right words, but was interrupted by a little girl.
"Where are you from?"
"So is Amber a good shooter?" Another kid chimed in.
"What kind of a cool gun is this?"
"Hey, guys, slow down-" She said, but the questions just kept coming.
"I love your hair! It's almost like... old people color!"
"Why do you smell like that?"
"Why are there spots on your hands?"
She stepped back under the sudden flood of attention and looked up at her partner for help. Amber just smiled back and shrugged, but her brother approached them and gently pushed the swarm of children away.
"Guys, guys, give this girl some space to breathe." The young crowd spread shortly, muttering in disappointment. He chuckled and bowed slightly before her. "Thank you for bringing my wayward sister back. It's a shame she had to get beaten up first to even consider, but it's great to have her back. I'm Matthew, Matt for short." His green eyes studied her closely, just like his sister did when they first met.
"Wayward... That's a good way to put it. Nice to meet you, too." She introduced herself with a smile, having to look up even higher to meet his gaze than she had to do with Amber.
Matt gestured for everyone to follow and the small crowd of people came inside the building. Marco waved at them and wished them goodnight, before he turned back to his vehicle. As they squeezed through the narrow corridor, Amber leaned in and whispered, making sure no one else heard her.
"Ruth, this... might be a bit weird, so don't freak out." She looked over the crowd and then her eyes widened. "Oh! And never, under any condition, say that you're my girlfriend. Not even as a joke! Got it?"
"Tch, wow, and there I was hoping you would stop with the flirting." Ruth cracked a smile, sending her a questioning glance.
"I'm being completely serious this time." She noticed a sense of honest fear in her eyes. "I'll explain this later."
"Uh... yes, fine, I won't. Don't worry."
Amber clearly turned tense. Her lips pressed together tight, she kept looking ahead as if hoping, or dreading, to see something or someone. Ruth couldn't see anything but the backs of others, and only when they entered the main building and the people parted she could study the interior. She found herself in a clean and surprisingly warm common room, lit brightly by lamps and candles. It had a tall ceiling and a couple of thick, concrete pillars with wooden walls dividing the interior and separating this first room from the others. Looking up, she saw a tall, empty shaft surrounded by stairs spiraling up between the floors of the elevator. Before her, there were two huge tables in the middle, leftovers from the supper still on numerous plates. The whole room looked about as homey as a wasteland dwelling could possibly get. All the walls were covered with wooden planks painted white and yellow. Several faded paintings and pre-war posters hung about, preaching various propaganda. The floor was covered with mismatched rugs, few renovated couches stood around by the opposite wall and even a faintly glowing jukebox found its place in the corner, playing something slow and soothing. Pots with white horsenettle and broc flowers stood near the entrance. Even though there were no windows, the whole room was spacious and bright, and there were pleasant smells coming from what must've been the kitchen to her left.
"So..." The oldest of the men approached them once they were in the room. His face was beginning to wrinkle heavily, and only a few strands of graying hair covered a bald patch on the top of his head. The redhead tossed her backpack on one of the benches before turning to him. Ruth followed, setting her rifle down cautiously. She considered carrying it around, having almost lost it again recently, but here it seemed unnecessary. "I'm glad you're in one piece, Amberly. I hope you've learned your lesson and decided to get back for good, right? That's why you're back?"
"Oh be quiet, James." A gray-haired woman interrupted before Amber could respond. She seemed to be of similar age, her face tanned with patches of darker skin here and there. "Don't start this again, give her some space to breathe, the poor thing must be exhausted from all we know." She turned to her with a smile. "We hope that the money was enough to patch you up, dearie."
"I... " Amber wanted to reply, taking a step back, before another one of her aunts joined in. She was much shorter than the other two with thick glasses on her nose.
"Amberly, dear, whatever happened to your face and hair? That braid was to die for! Oh, did you lose weight?"
"Bah! Stop with the small talk, will you! The girl had her fun, now it's time to get back home and start a family as she should've long ago! You know that, Alice, and it's time to talk about it!" The man apparently named James said, crossing his arms. Ruth could see how Amber slowly moved away from the encirclement and looked at her brother, begging him to do something. He smiled and stepped in.
"So how was your trip here?" He motioned to the side, leaving behind the three elders arguing among themselves.
"Bumpy, I'm sure you can imagine, but quick." There was a hint of relief in her voice as they both approached the table.
"Are you girls hungry? There's still something left from the supper if you want."
"Jules made us his special steak, so you know we're good." Amber looked around the room and Ruth followed her gaze to an empty rocking chair in the corner. "Where's grandma?"
"Went to sleep right before we spotted you coming. Want me to go and tell her?"
"No! No, it's fine, I'll talk to her tomorrow." Amber smiled nervously. "I'm sure everyone's tired already, so we can handle ourselves for now!" She added, trying to be loud enough so everyone could hear her.
"Oh no problem dearie, but if you need anything..." One of the aunts replied, taking a break from what turned into a full-on discussion with the other elders. She saw them gesturing widely and raising their voices a little too high for a normal conversation, which immediately broke the serene atmosphere of the room.
"No need aunt Alice, we can manage!" She turned to her brother. "Thanks, Matt. I have no idea how long I'll survive here if they keep this up."
"They would be really happy if you stayed here for, you know, longer." He shrugged, leaning against the table. "It wouldn't be that bad."
"Oh, I know they would be, but I'd sooner shoot my brains out after a week of this talk than enjoy my stay." Amber lowered her voice, cringing.
"Don't be like that, you have to understand where they're coming from." He frowned back at her with his arms crossed. "You know they want what's best for you."
"Matt, please." Any shadow of a smile completely faded from her face. "Can we talk about it later?"
"As long as you promise not to disappear in the morning like the last time." Her brother looked her up and down. "I was worried, and they were, too. Though you might not believe that."
"Don't worry, I'm not doing that to you again." She looked away, before turning back to him with a playful smile. "Besides, I heard there's a tractor to be fixed."
The tall man chuckled and smiled back at her. "Alright, I'll leave you two alone, but we're not done talking yet."
"Sure, good night." Amber waved as he turned towards the stairs, took a deep breath, and looked back at Ruth. "Sorry about that. Want some hot tea?"
She nodded and followed her in the direction of the kitchen. "You know, everything looked like a dream up until this point." Ruth commented as they walked. "I'm beginning to understand the problem.".
Amber just sighed, sending her a tormented look.
The kitchen was a large, yet surprisingly cramped room with counters along the walls, fridges in the middle, and lots and lots of cupboards. The whole interior was tiled in yellows and greens, and there were bundles of herbs drying above almost every counter. A low fire was slowly burning under a cooking station with a wide, cast-iron stove. There were rows of shelves on the opposite wall, with numbers of cans, jars, and other containers. Amber reached inside a cupboard for a pot, instinctively knowing where to find it, and filled it with water before setting it on the stove.
A woman with impossibly curly, but short hair came in after them, holding a small mountain of dirty plates.
"Oh hello! Glad to see you're back!" She smiled at them and dumped the plates into a big sink on the other side of the room.
"Hi Rita." Amber greeted her as she pulled two cups and a can from a drawer.
When the woman went past them and back for another round of cutlery, Ruth spotted several healed, but clearly visible, evenly spaced gashes around her neck. She didn't know why at first, but they made her anxious.
"Who was she?" She whispered to her partner.
"My cousin's wife and the Farm's main cook. Of course there are always several people in here helping her everyday, but she's the boss. Well, my aunt Alice is technically the chief, but she's been passing on the sacred knowledge for years now, so Rita's actually in charge." She paused to open the can and sprinkle some tea leaves into their cups. "We get all sorts of people in here. From random folks from all over looking for work, to merchants who simply choose to stay. Rita and her sister Carla were rescued slaves from some fucked up raider camp, came here looking for help and stayed for good."
Something turned inside her stomach as she thought about those scars. She quickly turned her attention to something else.
"So how do you drink this? I can't remember the last time I had any, to be honest."
Soon, their cups were filled with hot water and they took them outside, waiting for the tea to brew. Amber led her out of the kitchen and along a corridor that ended in wide doors with glass, see-through elements on the opposite side from the doors they entered. They stepped outside, emerging at the back of the huge brick structure. There was a small yard before them with many benches, a place for a bonfire circled with stones, as well as a few more beds of seasonal flowers and cacti planted inside of wooden crates. Everything was illuminated with lanterns hanging from cables elevated above the ground with metal poles. She could see a long building to their left, which Amber explained to be a shed with all the tools, various farming equipment, and tractors. A few more smaller buildings stood on the right along the fence. Before them and past the yard there were the rolling fields. She couldn't see their whole extent as the sun had already gone down, plunging the landscape into the growing darkness, but she could guess they reached far and wide around the farm. Amber promised to take her for a walk the next day.
A chilly breeze made them round back into the house. Sipping their teas, they went inside, only to come face to face with a young woman.
"Oh!" She smiled awkwardly and looked away for a moment. "Amber, I was just looking for you." She had long, light brown hair tied into a ponytail. Her eyes were blue and contrasted well with her tanned skin.
"Martha..." Amber said surprised, before the other woman rushed towards her and hugged her. The redhead wrapped her hands around her and picked her up for a brief moment.
"I was so worried you'd never come back!" Martha said once her feet got back to the ground. "Sorry I couldn't be here when you arrived, but I was with Grandma, helping her get ready for bed."
"Still on the granny-sitting duty?" Amber chuckled, awkwardly scanning the otherwise empty corridor.
"You know how she is, nobody else is patient enough." She smiled and looked at Ruth, as if she had only just appeared. "Oh, hello to you too."
Ruth smiled at her and introduced herself, again. She felt it'd be a repeated experience in the next few days, and she'd already forgotten some of the names she'd heard in response.
"So... are you two...?" Martha shifted her gaze between them, raising an eyebrow, specifically at the shorter woman.
"No no no, we just work together." Ruth quickly explained, surprised someone actually brought it up.
"It's okay, you can tell meeee." Martha winked at her and smiled mischievously.
"Believe me, if she was my girlfriend I'd tell you first." Amber assured her with a wide grin.
"Okay okay, I believe you. Anyway, Grandma said that she'd like to see you before sleep. You know, in case she won't wake up because she's so old." She added, making air quotes as she spoke.
"Ugh, fine." Amber groaned, visibly deflated by the news. "I don't have any choice, do I?" Martha just smiled and shook her head, wiggling her ponytail.
Ruth just followed them, sipping the weirdly bitter, but incredibly tasty hot leaf water.
They came up to a set of doors and Amber took a deep breath, mentally preparing herself.
"I'll wait here." Ruth gave her an encouraging smile.
The redhead turned the doorknob and went inside.
"Ah, yes. I'd recognize those heavy steps anywhere." She heard a thin voice come from the inside. "Won't you bring your friend in as well?"
That caught her off guard. Amber was just about to close the doors behind her, but she pulled them open and motioned for her to follow. "Just remember what I told you." The redhead whispered, pressing a finger to her lips, before they both were standing in the small, cozy bedroom.
The elderly woman was lying in her bed, covered with a few layers of blankets. There was a small night lamp sitting on a bedside table, with a radio and a stack of books next to it. Her gray hair covered only the sides of her head, her skin was wrinkled and slightly discolored. The most peculiar, however, were her eyes - white as milk, but full of life and expression, even at the late hour. It wasn't often that Ruth had the opportunity to meet so many old people, in one place, in one day. The wasteland must've been treating them incredibly well.
The older woman's wrinkles turned into a smile. "Everyone got to see you already, when I'm stuck in this damn bed. Come here, sweetie, come." She outstretched both her dried, boney hands.
"Hello, Grandma." Amber said quietly as she grabbed her hands and sat down on the bed right in front of her.
"You've been away for a long time, my child." The woman's voice sounded tired, but pleasant. "How was your little adventure?" Instead of looking directly at Amber, she touched her cheeks and nose. Her wrinkles deepened slightly, she blinked her milky eyes. The young woman looked incredibly tense as Grandma's fingers brushed against her scarred skin. Ruth could easily imagine what emotions were running through both of their minds and immediately understood her partner's previous concerns. Standing there, watching the private moment became very awkward and sad. She shifted her eyes from them for a moment, looking at a small collection of framed pictures above the woman's bed.
"My poor little Amber..." The old woman gasped. "How did that happen?"
"A monster attacked us." Amber lowered her head a little when the woman's fingers trembled. "I couldn't escape and barely made it out with my life. But a friend saved me."
"I warned you, child, the world out there is dangerous. Too dangerous, even for you, my brave little flame." There was no anger in her voice, only genuine concern. Her hands brushed against the damaged skin once more, then rested on her shoulders. "Although... This does make a cool battlescar. Bitchin', is how you'd say it?"
The redhead resisted for a moment, then couldn't help but giggle.
"I bet James and the others didn't say the same, did they now?" She asked, concern showing on her face again.
"I know you, child." The elder woman sighed. "You think this is not your world. But you have to accept, sometimes they're right, too. We all care about you, and this home will always welcome you." Her fingers pressed against her shoulders. "You don't have to fight wars out there..."
"Please, don't start this conversation again." Amber interrupted. "You know I have to do this."
"You were always a tough one to reason with." Grandma smiled gently, but the expression faded soon.
The redhead leaned away from her hands. She kissed them and got up. "It's late, Grandma. We're tired..."
"Won't you introduce your friend to me?" The old woman turned her faded eyes towards Ruth. She momentarily corrected her posture and cleared her throat, feeling as if she was reporting to Stevens. She introduced herself politely.
"Come to me, dear." Grandma gestured at her and Amber nodded to give her a push. She glanced at her friend, then sat down just as she had before. Ruth looked into those faded eyes, they alone could make her skin crawl, but Grandma's pleasant voice made up for it. Her hands gently brushed against her cheeks, nose, and forehead, tracing the shape of her face. They stopped briefly at her scars; the bullet bruise on her cheek and chipped ear made her brows twitch in an unspoken question. It was really hard not to lean away.
"You're such a pretty girl. A bit undersized... but strong." She gently touched her neck, shoulders, and arms, which was an odd and uncomfortable feeling to say the least. She must've felt her withdraw a bit and she took her hands away. "A young woman like you would surely catch a handsome boy, if she hasn't already. Amber doesn't want to listen to me, maybe you will help me convince her?"
"I'm sorry, miss." Ruth glanced at her partner standing next to them. "I don't think she'd listen to my arguments, either."
"Grandma, please." Amber stepped closer. "Don't drag my friends into this."
The old woman chuckled. "She'll never listen to reason, will she?" Ruth smiled, shaking her head a little. The redhead only groaned and turned away from them. She felt the milky eyes rest on her face again. The woman was blind, but that seemingly hollow gaze studied her carefully. She slowly lifted her hand up to her face again, but held it in the air before smiling slightly. Ruth frowned a bit, then leaned into her palm herself. The boney fingers gently touched the bags under her eyes. Staring into that gaze felt rude to her at first, but now she couldn't turn her attention elsewhere. It was almost hypnotizing. "You look really tired, little one. You've been through a lot. Too much for you to bear."
Ruth felt her throat dry up, but said nothing.
"Our farm is a good place to rest. It's safe. There's food, water, and good people, when you get to know them... " Her voice was soothing and her rough hand was warm. "You both could stay, you know that, right? There's nothing to run away from here."
She broke eye contact and leaned out of the older woman's reach, feeling a little disturbed and anxious.
"Oh, I'm sorry, did I scare you? I didn't see that coming. I'm blind after all, you know." Grandma chuckled again. "You don't have to take an old woman like me seriously, sweetie."
"No, it's fine." Ruth recollected herself and squeezed her dry hand, getting up from the bed. "Thank you for the offer."
"Now, both of you. If you want something to drink, we should still have some of that fine brandy sweet ol' Harold bottled years ago." She tried to wink, but just blinked comically instead.
Amber stepped in and kissed the elder woman on the forehead. "Thanks, Gran. We'll be going now, and you should rest, too. Have a good night."
They stepped out of the room and they both took a deep breath.
"I'm so, so sorry about all that." The redhead gave her an apologetic look and motioned towards the common room. "That's just her way of being. I couldn't expect what she would-"
"It's fine, don't worry about it." Ruth mustered a smile at her. "I'm not going to persuade you to stay here."
Amber smiled back and they came into the saloon, where Martha was just turning the radio off.
"How was it? Is she asleep yet?" She came up to them.
"Should be soon. And you know how she is." The redhead just shrugged. "Anyway, do you know if my room is still mine?"
"Yes, it's been kept as messy as you left it there. Rachel dusted it a bit and gave you fresh sheets. We don't have any more free beds now, but an additional mattress should be somewhere on the same level." She smiled at them. "Unless you don't mind sharing the bed."
"Give it a break, will you." Amber rolled her eyes playfully. "We'll get going. I'll... find you tomorrow, maybe?"
They told each other good nights, grabbed their things, and went separate ways. As they climbed the stairs, Amber began to explain the setting of the house. The building had five levels connected primarily by a wide staircase running around an old elevator shaft. No longer operational, the shaft was turned into a vent for transportation of heavier objects between the floors. Several ropes dangled there with baskets and buckets attached. The redhead mentioned how she and her brother often used to play in these, lifting each other up. The living quarters took up the first two levels above the ground floor. Walls made out of planks and rusted sheets of metal divided the floors into rooms of various sizes. Not all of them had doors, so people used cloth, more planks, or basically anything else to protect their privacy. The next two floors, Amber explained, stored all the crops as well as armory and water tanks. On top of all that was the watchtower, where the snipers surveyed the area at all times.
As they walked along a gallery which ran around the shaft and connected all the rooms, Ruth could see multiple pipes and cables running up and down through the massive open area of the structure, weaving between the walls and floors. It didn't seem like the building had any large windows. Light here was either artificial, coming from various lamps, or candles and lanterns, one of which Amber was carrying. Almost all the surfaces of the interior from floors to ceilings were covered with fabric, rugs or a thick coat of paint. Walls were full of paintings, signs, lamps, and other hanging decorations leaving almost no empty space where one could see a bare plank or a piece of concrete. Despite the thick walls around her, she didn't feel overwhelmed. It wasn't the cave with corpses and a stench of death all around her, nor the tiny, stale-aired hideout. The building was big enough and lit well so she felt safe and comfortable inside. They walked towards one of the corners of the building along a narrow pathway.
"We're here." Amber stopped in front of one of the makeshift doors and opened them. "Sorry for the mess, I haven't been here in over a year."
The room was pretty spacious, but empty. Two reinforced concrete walls met in the corner with a tiny window right opposite the door. The other two walls were made out of whitewashed planks. Unlike the passage they've just come through, the walls in this room were sparsely decorated, with only a few recovered posters pinned to worn planks. There was a small table by the far wall just beneath the window, a rather tall bed that looked like the upper part of a broken bunk bed, and a chest next to it. On the other side of the room was a mostly empty bookshelf with a few items like a slightly cracked snow globe, few wooden, carved, and painted pony figurines, and a few pre-war books that somehow didn't decay completely.
"Wait here, I'll be right back." Amber hung the lantern on a wall next to the door and left. Ruth set her things down and came up to the wall with posters. Most of them resembled the Brotherhood's slogans of victory and brighter future, at which she scoffed and focused on a poster with a flying, armored ship, and then another one with a pretty woman advertising the Nuka-Cola products. The last poster, however, made a cold shiver go down her spine. It showed a few silhouettes standing on a stage, each in a different color. Red, orange, white, violet, and blue. The large letters advertised The Inn, a known caravan stop and notorious clubhouse, with a small map at the bottom showing its location. The other posters were faded and torn in several places, but this one was clearly much newer, printed a few years, not centuries, ago. Ruth stepped away from it and turned her attention elsewhere, noticing a few Caravan cards on the shelf and an empty bottle of Nuka-Cola Victory. She walked up to the window and pushed a worn, white cloth aside, letting a soothing, chilly breeze wash over her face.
It was dark out, but her eyes soon got used to the lack of light and she saw the fields around the building. It all looked even more impressive from here, and she noted it was a great spot for a sniper indeed.
Few minutes later Amber returned, dragging an old bed mattress behind her. She pushed it through the door and placed it right next to the bed.
"It looks so much better than a bedroll." Ruth smiled. "My... everything, is still begging for rest."
"Believe me, this is the most comfortable bed you'll ever sleep in!" Amber grabbed the frame of the tall bed, giving it a small shake. "I fixed it myself. It has an extra bounce, if you know what I mean." She added with a wide grin.
"I meant the mattress, but thank you." Ruth took off her poncho and was about to throw it onto the mattress.
"Oh no no no, you're the guest and you're taking the bed tonight." The redhead protested. "Besides, you are my superior."
"The superior orders you to sleep in your bed and stop whining." Ruth frowned at her, smiling slightly.
"Oh come on, we can switch tomorrow, just give it a try."
She sighed, and threw the piece of clothing on the bed instead. "Fine, fine. But first... do you have a bath here, or something?"
"I thought you'd never ask." The redhead said with a grin that made her look away nervously.
They descended down the long stairs and reached the ground floor. Amber led them into a room next to the kitchen, flicking a light switch on the side. A single lantern came alive under the low ceiling, while a strip light illuminated the room right next to the main chamber. The back of a furnace sitting in the kitchen extended to this room, giving off heat and warming up the interior. Its floor was tiled in brown, while the walls were wooden. Under the opposite wall was a platform with a few small steps leading up to it, where two, huge basins were set into it. They looked as if made out of copper. There were pipes descending from the ceiling and wrapping seemingly randomly around the back of the furnace, before reaching the tubs. The room next to the bath was much brighter, white, probably a changing room with sinks and cabinets. Amber walked up to the platform before them and lit a few more lanterns standing there.
"Since the fire was still going when we arrived, the water should still be warm." She pointed at the mess of pipes in the corner. "We won't have a whole lot of it, the whole family has probably already been here, but it will be enough. The water is drained and filtered so we can reuse it often."
Ruth listened, but was more occupied with just looking around the room. She heard the redhead turn on the valve of one of the basins and the water slowly, but surely, began flowing into the bathtub.
She couldn't get enough of the fuzzy feeling of warmth she was getting almost at every corner in this place, The Farm in general. The cozy interiors, the renovated furniture, slow music, the pleasant smells and flowery decorations, together with the ultimately warm welcome her friend had received at the entrance... Although the conversations were at times weird and she understood where Amber's reservations and general anxiety were coming from, the place itself gave her feelings she hardly thought she'd ever experience again. And the bath? She thought she was lucky to have visited the Refinery and used a shower there, but this was something amazing.
"So that's how home feels like..."
"... I guess?" Ruth turned around to see Amber glance at her weirdly.
She wasn't aware she said that out loud and was now battling an embarrassed blush creeping onto her face.
"Sorry, a lot of this is kinda new to me." Ruth looked down and away from her.
"So I've noticed." There was a hint of concern in her voice.
"I'll... go change." The woman left the chamber quickly, disappearing into the changing room.