Chapter 19: No place like home
As soon as she found herself a towel, gathered some bathing soaps from a shelf nearby, and the water reached a satisfactory level, she jumped out of her clothes and undone a few bandages still wrapped around her shoulders, leaving the fabrics scattered on the floor. She put some soapy powder in the tub, creating lots of white foam on the surface. Her feet touched the water and she soon submerged herself in the warm liquid, a pleasant shiver going through her entire body. It's been a long while since Amber had a chance to use this marvelous place and truly relax the way she used to. She sat down comfortably, stretching her legs, and settled down in the curve of the bathtub. She put her arms behind her, on the edges of the tub, trying her best not to look down onto the scars running along her torso. The redhead closed her eyes for a moment, hearing some shifting in the other room, wondering what was taking her companion so long.
She soon heard the tapping of bare feet on the tiles nearby and opened her eyes to see Ruth wrapped in a towel, looking at her quite baffled.
"... Oh. Right." The short woman said, looking away.
"What? Did you expect me to bathe in my clothes?" Amber laughed a little, shaking her head at her embarrassment. "Come on in, it's great!"
Ruth walked up to the small steps, holding her towel. She stopped for a moment and took a deep breath.
"Could you just... not look for a moment? Before I get in?"
"Not like I haven't seen you..." Amber just shrugged, but covered her eyes with her palm. She heard the towel slide down and fall to the floor as the wooden steps creaked slightly under her weight. The redhead parted her fingers a little to peek at her.
She had a glimpse of her friend almost completely naked before, but she never had a moment to really look at her. Amber's seen many female bodies in her time, from smooth and soft, through scarred and rough, to slightly deformed or otherwise impaired by nature or the wasteland itself. Still, the patchwork of colors on her friend's skin was something really curious to fasten her eyes on. Aside from the much lighter, almost white-ish sections of her pale skin that formed interesting, uneven, and largely asymmetrical shapes, she now also began to notice all the scars of various sizes. There were thin, old gashes across her stomach, a number of small, irregular cuts on her arms and knees, as well as her elbows. Ruth turned her back a little, getting into the tub, and she noticed the long, gnarly scar she'd seen before; two long gashes beginning at her left shoulder blade, going all the way up to her clavicle and neck where it was more irregular and messed up. It reminded her of... teeth? A bite mark, possibly? The woman faced her again, and her eyes fell onto her side, where the concentration of bruises still lingered heavily, creating a violet and blue patchwork of its own. A dry lump formed in Amber's throat for a moment, and she didn't even realize she'd lowered her hand from her eyes long ago.
"Hey! I told you not to look!" Ruth frowned at her, covering her cute, small breasts with her arm, before quickly sitting down in the tub. A little too quickly, as she saw her wince for the hundredth time since they woke up at the Refinery.
"Sorry, I..." Amber found herself at an odd loss of words. "You made it hard to look away." She finally said with a smile, but the other woman just closed her eyes and leaned back. There was a blush across her face, but it slowly faded. The steady, low hum of the furnace filled the air.
"It is nice in here." Ruth commented after a moment, the warmth of the water around her seemingly dissolving her frustration. "So much better than a cold, salty puddle."
"That's why I took you here." She leaned back, too, thinking of how to phrase her thoughts. They sat in silence, enjoying the warmth of the water, before Amber finally spoke again. "Are you ashamed of them?"
"Of what?" The other woman stirred on the other side of the tub.
"Those... your patches..." She lifted her head to look at her. "You said you didn't even like your hair like it is now."
She saw her shift, curl up a little, and lower her eyes. "Ashamed... I think it's a good word. Disgusted? Afraid? All of those, you could say."
"Sorry, if you don't want to talk about it-"
"No... no, it's ok, we can talk." Her eyes looked from the foamy water up at the redhead with renewed determination. "I think we... I ran away from talking for long enough."
"Okay..." She took a deep breath. "When we arrived at Big Bog, and even before that, I thought you'd been hiding them because people could recognize you or something." Amber looked to the side. "As much as I still think that's true, now I see it's more than that." She paused, looking for a good way to put her thoughts into words. "I think I understand it. I've been avoiding mirrors and, well, looking at myself in general, ever since the bandages had come off."
Ruth gave her a pained look, taking a moment before she responded. "It does get easier, you know."
"Does it?" Amber sized her up skeptically.
"Well... It takes a lot of time. You're still healing, both mentally and physically. Those are very fresh and they won't look this bad in a couple of months. After that... there are moments when you'll even be alright with them." She tried to smile, but it came out more like a grimace. "But it's not like it's going to go away completely. I know mine won't."
There was a moment of only the humming in the air between them, as the small flames of the lantern candles danced, casting soft shadows on the walls around them. Amber caught herself absentmindedly tracing her fingers across one of the deep scars under water.
"I think you deserve to know where they came from." Ruth finally picked up, looking up at the redhead with an expression she couldn't put her finger on. "And everything else I've been holding out on you."
Amber had to blink a few times to make sure what she was seeing, and hearing, were real. "Yes! Yes please go ahead, I'm listening." She shifted in the water, sitting in a more comfortable position.
"So... let me start from the moment we first met. Exactly the moment you saw your necklace and accused me of being a raider. Truth be told you were...not entirely wrong." Amber's eyes widened and she tensed a little, feeling a sudden rush of adrenaline. Ruth saw that and lifted her hands in a defensive manner. "Now, don't freak out and let me explain from the beginning. There was a reason why I didn't want to talk about this, and I'm only going to do this once, but please hear me out. There's... a lot to unpack, ok?"
"... Go on." She just nodded, listening intently.
Ruth lowered her hands and took a deep breath.
"When I was still a kid, my family found an abandoned bunker not far from The Glow. There was a water purifier, strong walls, enough rooms to house tens of people, and even a research lab. It was empty, and far enough away from the crater to be safe from the radiation and mutants. There were me, my parents, David, and a few other people that had come with us. We began building a home of our own there, more and more people getting to know about the place, coming along to help and settle. Someone called it The Hot Water Outpost, because of a small airport that used to lie nearby, but everyone just called it The Outpost." She smiled at her memories. "That was where my father taught me how to patch up a wound, and my mother showed me how to hold a rifle. There were kids of my age to play with, and at one point Alan came along with his father. He was a little older than us, but he made for a really great friend back then. In time, some of the caravans recognized our place as a good trading spot and made it a permanent stop in their travels. The Outpost never looked as welcoming as the Farm, but it was getting there, and it was the closest I had to a real home."
"I... actually think I heard about it once or twice, from Marco and his caravans." Amber thought for a moment, but couldn't really recall much more than the name, and that something happened there that the caravans crossed it out of their routes. Not like it was anything unusual, the Dusters' maps were updated regularly due to new settlements popping up, or other ones falling into ruin for various reasons.
Ruth just smiled a little and continued. "David had the time of his life at the lab, crafting medication for trade and for us. We made some really good caps on that. He was working on his own project, too. Since we lived so close to the crater, he wanted to make something better for radiation resistance than plain rad-X. It took him almost a year, but he eventually created something that could, potentially, make a person almost entirely resistant to the effects of radiation." Amber raised her eyebrows skeptically, and the other woman looked to the side. "Potentially. I know it sounds like fantasy, but he was a really smart man with enough knowledge and resources. When the first samples were done... I eagerly volunteered to be the first person for him to try it on. It seemed to be working, but before we really got to test it out, my body reacted, well... like this." She lifted her arms a bit, showing the discoloration. "I was terrified, and as the changes progressed, I blamed him for turning me into a very weird ghoul. We stopped the treatment, but withdrawal effects were even worse, so he tried his best to change it up and try again."
"I honestly thought you were born with them." The redhead looked at her skin with newfound understanding. "Why did you do it? If you were so scared, why did you continue? Didn't your parents try to interfere with that?"
"We all thought it was for the betterment of everyone. My parents wanted me to be the best..." She paused for a moment, as if looking for a different expression. "To be an example. Amber, if this had worked, he would not only make a fortune, but shield countless people from radiation. It would make living in the wastes so much easier, everything about it seemed worth it. In the end... I guess it was. Back in the cage, without my enhanced resistance, I'd probably pass out on you there, first, and we'd both be dead by now."
Amber looked away for a moment, but didn't say anything to that. She thought she understood this kind of sacrifice, but it was still extremely uncomfortable for her to imagine being a test subject for something so untested.
"Anyway... Things went downhill soon after we resumed the research." She saw her shift a little and wrap her arms around herself, visibly agitated. "The Outpost was doing extremely well... which eventually attracted raiders. There came a gang that had enough firepower and people to wipe us all out. Instead of doing that, though, they visited us often, demanding us to hand over everything and produce more before they came back the next week." She grimaced, but her expression soon changed to that of grief and fear. "They killed people, or stole them in the night if we tried to trick them. Well... one day, they became tired of waiting for another week and just stormed the place. Half of our people died in the fight. They enslaved the rest... The Outpost officially became a slave trading spot, and we were cut off from the rest of the world. They ruined everything we'd worked for, and turned my home into... it's hard to even describe."
"I'm... sorry." It was all Amber could say as the realization of what it must've been like dawned on her. Memories of her encounters with raiders flashed in front of her eyes as she tried to comprehend how it must have felt for someone whose life was turned into this one never ending horror.
"Me and my family survived the shooting. Somehow, David and my father managed to persuade their boss we were the only people who could operate the bunker and that they needed us alive. At least they needed the adults. I was... I was meant to be sold away. One day, I overheard the raiders talk about how many caps they'd make on a treat like me, that I would surely make for a nice decoration. The only reason they let me stay was because I was part of David's research, and he told them he needed me if they wanted more jet and other drugs for free. Almost everyone else my age was gone the next day."
As Ruth continued her story a cold shower ran down Amber's spine despite the hot water surrounding her. She remembered the slaves they had rescued not too long ago. It was all too easy for her to imagine her companion in shackles in one of those cages, especially after what they'd just been through in that wretched, flooded town. Her throat dried up momentarily.
"From then on... a lot of that is a blur, to be honest. I almost never left the bunker, or the lab itself. Only when they needed to take me into the crater, looking for stuff to sell, and since I was partially immune, they sent me there on almost every excursion. While my parents were breaking their backs outside, in conditions you can only imagine were survivable at best, I could at least sleep under solid roof and be safe from the insensate, disturbing fate that other slaves had to endure. I hardly ever saw my parents. My attempts at sneaking out usually worked, but they caught me a few times, and... well, I stopped doing that after a while. Alan was one of the few people from our original population who stayed. He took care of us, of me, when he could, you know. Still... almost everyone I knew were either killed, died during their enslavement, or were sent away, never to be seen again." She paused for a moment to breathe. "You know... I recognized the scars Rita has on her neck. They had collars like that, too, with inward spikes, worn as punishment. I think I saw one of my friends wear it before he was purchased. They bled so horribly..."
Ruth's voice drifted as she spoke about those memories and Amber wanted nothing more than to get up and hug her friend, but at the same time she was paralyzed by a tidal wave of guilt. She realized how much pain her petty actions and condescending attitude must have caused.
"... I don't even remember how long it was. Three? Four years, maybe? All of that seems so brief in my memories. You don't have many memories when all you could look at were the same walls each and every day."
"Wait, years?! That's insane!" Amber tried to quickly do some math in her head, despite the maelstrom of emotions she was going through. "How long did you live there and how... How old were you when your uncle started experimenting on you?" She shook her head in disbelief.
"I... don't remember." Ruth's voice sounded equally confused as she finally spoke. "I must have been in my early teens, but after all that, the memories just mix and blur together. I really don't know." She looked away, as if ashamed.
"I guess you've been through so much, it's understandable you might not remember." The redhead said, not sure if she was trying to console the woman before her, or to explain to herself the reality she had to face.
"One day," she continued slowly, her arms wrapping tighter around herself, "my mother managed to sneak inside the bunker to talk to me. I haven't seen her in so long... There was a rebellion brewing, and she and Sam, my dad, were doing the best they could to make it happen. For the next day the raiders were preparing another trip to an abandoned military base nearby. I was to go with them, me and one more slave, who apparently knew where to find a missing piece to repair the bunker's defense system. The plan was optimistic... but possible, and we were desperate. We only had one shot at this, and the responsibility was overwhelming." She looked up to meet her eyes. "That's when she gave me an amber pendant. A gift she got from my father when all of that started, so she had something human to hold on to. It was to give me strength." She paused for a moment looking at Amber, who in turn looked at the pile of clothes dumped carelessly in the middle of the floor where on the very top, a small amber drop glittered in the artificial light. "As far as I know, he haggled it from one of the raiders."
She took a deep breath and continued. "We left the next morning. The base was dotted with ghouls and the glowing ones, but that slave knew exactly where to go and how. Or so I thought... He definitely knew one thing; the code to open up a corridor that we could never get to before. But it wasn't to help the others. It was supposed to be an escape tunnel in case of emergency, and he wanted to use it to run away. There were never any missing pieces for our bunker. He made it all up to run and leave everyone behind, but as soon as they opened, he ran right into a section of the base full of ghoul soldiers. They were isolated probably since the bombs first fell. I saw him being torn to pieces." She paused again, it was clearly harder for her to control her voice. "At that moment, I realized I finally had a choice. I could close the corridor back up and return empty-handed, be accused of losing a slave and being useless... or leave it open and wait till there was no raider left to punish me or the others for finding nothing." Another pause. She was sitting there completely still. "So I let them out. A whole swarm of those monsters escaped, going straight for those who were meant to keep an eye on us. I managed to hide and watch, but the raiders were quicker than I thought and they jumped on their bikes, heading straight to the Colony, the swarm right behind them." Amber thought she saw a shiver go through her. "I ran back... only to arrive at a carnage. The fight was still going, but barely. The slaves were fighting against the raiders, but there were just so many bodies... The ghouls were everywhere. Everything smelled of blood and fear. Somehow, I got to the bunker and squeezed inside the busted doors. Found my mother. Right there on the floor. Someone grabbed me and pulled me into the lab. Sam and David were there, uncovering a hidden passage. We escaped through a tunnel... far enough away from the bloodshed, so we could no longer hear the screams, just the gunshots in the distance."
Her last words felt forced, emotionally bereft, and Ruth fell completely silent, her body trembling in the water, her gaze stuck somewhere beyond their present moment. Before her conscious mind caught up to her, Amber was kneeling next to her friend, wrapping her arms around her.
"I'm so, very, sorry." She felt her voice choke as she spoke. She wanted to say so much more, but at this very moment she simply couldn't. She felt sick and disgusted with herself for everything she said, did and thought about Ruth before knowing her story. She felt an overwhelming guilt and anger, both at herself and at the entire cruel world, which had tested her friend. And most of all she felt the need to protect the tiny, shivering form wrapped in her arms. They held this position for what felt like ages surrounded by water, steam, humming of distant machinery, and their own, quiet sobs. Their tears rolled down their faces and mixed with soapy water around them. When sobs finally stopped and her exposed skin started to feel the chilly air Ruth shifted slightly between Amber's arms and leaned away.
"... you know we're both still naked, right?"
Amber smirked at that and couldn't help but chuckle despite her throat still being held tightly by emotions. "And you know I like it this way." She took her arms away.
"Maybe we should finally bathe... like we were supposed to." Ruth smiled a little, too, though her voice was strained and tired. The water around them was already getting colder and the foam was almost non-existent by now. The redhead chose to be a little more respectful this time and she made sure to look away.
They washed and dried themselves, before putting their clothes on and heading back towards Amber's room. She put on her necklace, squeezing the pendant in her hand as they walked up the staircase. The rest of the house was already mostly asleep, only some night lamps illuminated the stairs along the whole height of the building, guiding them back. Before they collapsed on their beds, Ruth reminded Amber about her new daily ritual, explaining she needed to apply a concoction to her eyes every evening. The redhead took the liquid from her reluctantly, and as much as she tried, she just ended up with her face all wet. Ruth smiled at her efforts, chewing on her own meds, and finally helped her apply the mixture correctly.
"Thank you for telling me." Amber whispered from her mattress, looking up at the other woman.
"Thank you for giving me a chance." She saw her smile, then turn around.
Amber was laying on her mattress, completely still, waiting for Ruth to fall asleep. It didn't take long, and she soon heard steady breathing from the bed next to her. Despite her own fatigue, she carefully got up and walked towards the door, making sure she didn't make any sound. Thanks to the years of practice and muscle memory exercised over the countless nightly escapades, she moved swiftly through the corridor, avoiding many squeaky floor boards along the way. The faint moonlight passing through the open shaft in the middle of the tall structure was surprisingly enough for her to navigate. She stopped in front of an all too familiar door in the opposite corner of the building and took a deep breath.
The redhead grabbed the doorknob and turned it slowly. The door opened, almost without a sound, and she stepped in carefully, closing it behind her. The room was almost a mirror image of her own, though only in layout. The spirit of this room was vastly different. While her living space was nearly empty and rough, this one was teeming with life, filled with a variety of different things. Neatly folded clothes, small pictures with frames glittering in the moonlight, multiple flower pots with all sorts of plants in them... The room didn't change much since she'd left, and even if it did, she wouldn't have noticed as she shifted her attention immediately to the bed and the young woman sleeping in it. She approached the bed and sat on it gently, brushing a few strands of hair from the sleeping girl's face.
"I wondered if you'd sneak in here again." She whispered, opening her eyes.
"I came for my welcome back kiss." Amber whispered back, lowering her head slightly, but was gently stopped by the woman's hand. "Martha? Is something wrong?" She looked at her, confused.
"For starters, you disappeared for an entire year."
"You of all people here knew exactly where I was going." Amber protested and leaned in a bit more. "I trusted you with all of my plans."
"And... you didn't even write to me as you promised you would." Martha shifted herself ever so slightly away from the redhead.
"I would, but then I'd have to write to everyone." She frowned. "Or they'd get suspicious of you."
"And would it be so bad to write a letter to them? We were all worried." Her blue eyes gazed back at her, but there was no complaint in them, just somber concern.
"You could have run away with me." She gave her a slight smile. "We'd find ourselves some cute girls, and..."
"You know I couldn't-"
"You know you could." Teasing back, Amber tried to lean in again, but a firm hand stopped her.
"Amby, please, we shouldn't..." There was a note of sadness in her voice Amber understood immediately and backed away.
"Do I know him?" She asked, feeling her heart sink just a little bit. Martha just shook her head slowly and looked away through the window. "Why did you agree to it?"
"He's a good man, with a good heart. A newcomer, hard working and healthy-"
"Cut this bullshit, you sound like your father." Amber barely stopped herself from shouting those words out loud. Frustration flared up inside her chest, like it did so many times while living here. "Why do you do this to yourself?"
"I... it's for the best. They wouldn't understand if I told them it's not what I want, you know how they are, you of all people..."
"So why do you want to stay here?" She gave her almost a pleading look, wishing she could just grab her hand and pull her out of this place for good.
"This is my home, and they are my family." Moonlight glimmered in Martha's eyes as tears began to form. "I can't leave, I don't want to leave..."
For the second time that night Amber felt someone's sadness soak into her skin as she wrapped her arms around the other girl and gently stroked her head.
"They shouldn't force you to do anything." She whispered, fighting with the burning anger inside her and her already frazzled nerves.
"It was my decision." Martha's voice was muffled and quiet, but confident. "Trust me."
"If he ever does anything to hurt you..."
"He won't." The other woman whispered. "But if he does, I'll let you know."
"I'm sorry." The redhead whispered as Martha slid out of her embrace and wiped away her tears.
"Don't be, Amby." She gave her a sad, but genuine, beautiful smile. "You always wanted to protect me, but I'm a big girl now."
"Oh, I wanted so much more than to just protect you." Amber smiled back at her with a wide grin.
"I'm sorry dear, but you said it yourself that no matter what, I can't saddle you down." She chuckled and gently placed her hand on the redhead's knee. "This train had already left."
"I know, I know." Amber turned back to look at her. "I didn't know you... you now... I was kinda hoping to let out some steam."
"I'm sorry, dear..." Martha shifted closer and hugged her tightly. "What about your new friend? She's really cute?"
"Ruth?" The redhead asked, surprised. "Nah, she's not... she's something else."
"I see..." Amber could feel the blue eyes drilling deep into her soul. "So, how long do you want to stay before going on another adventure?" The sudden change of topics threw her off balance.
"I... don't know? A couple of days, I guess." She gave a little shrug. "We went through a lot and we still need some rest. I do need to catch up with you guys after all."
"So we can have this conversation in the morning, right?" Martha asked, fighting with a yawn.
"Rrigght, sorry... We'll get back to this tomorrow." Amber whispered, getting up, but the firm hand that pushed her away just a couple of minutes earlier now grabbed her and pulled her in for a kiss. The redhead blinked, stunned for a moment, but before she could react, their lips parted again.
"That's so you never forget the good old times." Martha purred. "Now get lost, I have to get up in the morning."
"Alright alright, I'm going." Amber muttered.
That night definitely didn't go as she had hoped it would, leaving her way more frustrated, annoyed, and concerned than she'd ever like. Still, her exhausted body gave up as soon as her head hit the mattress back in her room and her consciousness slipped away from her.
A blur of feathers darted past the window for the second time, before finally joining other small, quickly moving dots in the cloudless sky above. The outside was rich in the sounds of chirping, buzzing of insects, distant voices of the farmers, and occasional ringing of bells hanging around the necks of brahmins. It felt almost surreal. Her eyes swept across the myriad of colors below; from the green patches of cacti, through the glistening, fresh leaves of the many rows of various vegetables, purple and red spheres of mutfruit hanging from low, dwarfish trees, faint blue hue of numerous streams of slow-moving water branching all around the fields, all the way to the rainbow of different clothes of the workers, all surrounded by the golden sands and gray shrubs of the desert. Warm breeze swept across her face and she inhaled as deeply as her aching ribs allowed, knowing these could be the last days of such fair, hot weather.
Turning away from the dreamy scene outside, Ruth looked back into the seemingly dark room, blinking a few times for her eyes to adjust. She was surprised to see Amber sitting on her mattress, yawning.
"Good late morning." She smiled, seeing her friend's red hair completely ruffled. "I've been up for a while, but I didn't want to wake you up."
"You should have..." Amber rubbed her eyes, turning away from the bright light coming from the window.
"I figured you needed some rest, too, but now that you're awake... " She motioned out the window. "Come on, hurry up, I want to go down there already!"
Amber chuckled with amusement. "Okay okay, let me dress my ass first."
As much as she usually dreaded the hot, desert sun, the warmth on her face today was invigorating. Her cowl was left in the bedroom and the breeze putting the gray-ish hair in her eyes was welcome. She felt as if she'd shed old skin, or resurfaced from something terrible last night and the wasteland was welcoming her anew.
They made their way in-between the maze of the irrigation streams and meticulously organized rows of plants. A couple farmers waved them good day from among the oddly-shaped, tiny trees. There were groups of baskets full of fresh veggies and fruit, some of which she did not recognize, set along the main path. Ruth's never seen an orchard this big, and as ordinary as it must've become for the people here, she felt her heart grow the farther they went. Her companion had something to say about nearly every piece of land here, and she listened to every little anecdote with great interest, her eyes wandering about the landscape as if she was admiring art.
"Hey girls!" A voice came from the side and a young man struggled out of the patches. "Name's Jake. Didn't get to say hi yesterday." He was a little shorter than Amber, tanned and muscular, as seemed to be the norm here, with contrasting blond tufts of hair and mustache.
"It's been some time, Jake." Amber hugged him briefly, and he quickly turned to the other woman.
"I see you brought a friend!" He seized her up, stopping at her eyes. "What an amazing sight you are! Hope you're finding the Smiths as welcoming as this place can get. I know it's not too much, but they're doing their best."
That threw her off a little, but Ruth smiled back, trying her best to return some of the eye contact. "Uh, thanks, I guess. It's been pleasant, actually."
"Good, let's hope this can keep up! So what are you up to?"
"I want to show her around a bit, if you don't mind." The redhead gave him a nod and turned to the path.
"Oh not at all! I can come with you, there are some things that've changed since last time you were here. You could use a little update!" His enthusiasm was quite amusing, his wide grin shining from under the sparse mustache.
"Don't you have work to do?" The redhead sent him a questioning look, but the man just shrugged it off.
"Eh, the old geezer can criticize someone else for five minutes." He glanced back at an old farmer who was picking fruit not far from them.
"If you insist." Amber rolled her eyes, but waited for him to join them.
After almost an hour of walking and listening to the many ways one could gather razorgrain, as well as a number of more or less uncomfortable questions and shamelessly direct praise towards Ruth, they decided they'd seen everything and parted ways.
"Well well, someone's got an eye on you." Amber wiggled her eyebrows at her and received an annoyed grunt.
"No, really? I haven't noticed." Ruth scoffed.
"Don't worry, he's not a threat or anything," she leaned in slightly to whisper, "but I do not recommend."
The other woman just shook her head.
"How do you feel?" She glanced at the redhead as they came out onto the main path leading to the farm's towering house. "You've been shielding your eyes all morning so far."
"It's really bright, isn't it though? I should ask Matt, maybe they have some sunglasses here to borrow."
As they slowly left the fields, she heard a familiar, but somewhat concerning sound. Short, deep noises, like growls, coming from somewhere on their right. Ruth immediately stopped, her eyes drawn to the direction of the sound.
"What was that?" She could've sworn she heard...
"Oh, our dogs! Rachel must've let them out for a stroll."
On cue, two large shapes appeared some distance before them, emerging from behind a patch of plants, two pairs of ears perking up. All of her muscles locked in place and cold sweat washed over her as they jumped and sprinted in their direction.
"Cooper! Biscuit! Hi boys, c'mere, c'mere!" Amber crouched down, clapping and extending her hands to the sandy-haired animals.
In the blink of an eye they were there, panting, each bark making her jump and she lifted her arms instinctively to shield herself.
"There are my good boys! You can pet them, it's ok." The other woman just ruffled their short fur, their long snouts coming dangerously close to her face, licking and jumping around. The redhead looked up at her and cocked her head. "What's wrong?"
One of them turned around and began sniffing her shoe. Ruth just took a quick step back, trying with all her might not to kick it or turn tail and bolt to the building. "I don't- dogs are, uh- could you please take them away from me?" Stumbling over her words, she didn't even expect fear would clench her throat so tightly.
Amber pulled one dog closer to her, the other already at her side, wrapping her arms around them as they wagged their tails. "I've got them. See? It's all fine." One of them licked her neck furiously.
Ruth just stood there, rooted to the ground, not even remotely interested in being convinced.
There was a brief moment of hesitation before the redhead looked at her with realization. "Shit. Ok, give me a second." She grabbed both dogs by their collars and gently, but firmly, held them down. Both animals immediately calmed. "Follow!" Amber commanded and got up, walking away with both animals obediently accompanying her. Once she was a safe distance away she turned to pet her furry companions and said some other command Ruth didn't quite hear. Both dogs rushed towards the fields kicking up a dust cloud in their wake.
She took a couple of deep breaths to force her heart to slow down a bit and headed back towards the building. She sat down on one of the benches just near a large crate with various cacti and other succulents, as Amber caught up with her a few moments later.
"Sorry, I could've expected you to have dogs here." Ruth started, but the other woman interrupted her.
"Don't worry! They should be in their kennels anyway, not everyone has to like them running around. We usually let them out at night to scare away wild animals and other unwanted guests, but most of them sleep and rest during the day. And they are good dogs, disciplined and trained to the point they won't attack anyone unless ordered to. Little kids can play with them and even ride them sometimes, so you don't have to be worried." The redhead paused briefly, then sat next to her. "That's where you got that scar from, right? It's a bite mark?"
"Showing all the cards, huh?" She scoffed a little, then continued. "It's not much of a secret. Just an unpleasant close call with a pack of mongrels." She explained reluctantly, feeling her shoulder itch at the memory. "I was desperate for food and followed vultures in the sky, didn't expect something else would, too, stupid... Couldn't sew it by myself and now it looks kinda gross. I really don't trust anything that can bite and run faster than me. No offense to your dogs."
"I'm sure they wouldn't take any."
Ruth was sitting idly on the bench, listening to Amber's stories about her time spent on the farm and all sorts of misadventures she had when one of the young boys she met yesterday came up to them, asking for help with the tractor the redhead had mentioned a couple times. With her companion snatched away, Ruth went back inside for her damaged clothes and joined them in the workshop.
It was a large hall adjacent to the main building with a couple of large doors on both ends, filled with all sorts of machinery in various states of disassembly. She counted at least three tractors beside the one Amber was working on, but judging by their condition, they were nothing more than spare parts donors. The walls were lined up with workbenches and shelves stacked with mechanical parts and tools while heaps of scrap metal and other junk filled most of the remaining space. She didn't see many workshops in her life, at least not ones that were used in the last 200 years, but this one looked messy, even by the wasteland standards. Judging by the amount of profanities she could hear from Amber as she was struggling with the tractor, it wasn't just her opinion.
Ruth made herself a bit of work space on a nearby table and started patching up her clothes and armor using whatever she could find. After a while of working and observing Amber and her brother as they cursed at the stubborn machine, she jumped off her seat, excited to have mostly fixed the reinforced flight suit, only to experience a shock of pain in her ribcage. She almost managed to ignore it completely today, but it came back with double force. She didn't manage to hide it from the redhead, either. This time it was Amber's turn to order her around, as she sent her to the common room with a cup of hot leaf beverage and told to lay down till the family began to gather for dinner. There were sounds of cooking and rushing about from the direction of the kitchen, but there was no one else besides her in the huge room. After a few minutes of laying there she got bored and began examining the decorations. Her attention was quickly drawn to a vast collection of framed photos on one of the walls. She quickly spotted the familiar freckled face and realized that this family had to have a working camera! She only ever saw parts of them in the wastes, if any. Amber was much younger in the picture, her hair tied into a long braid, a cowboy hat on her head. Finally, Ruth left the living room and headed back up to the bedroom to plan their next route in peace and write in her notebook. She also spent a surprisingly long time studying the room, trying to imagine how Amber's life must have looked like. Most of the room's sparse decorations looked familiar. There were the posters she'd seen before, a couple of books, and toys from her friend's childhood. The one thing that stood out was the broken snow globe with a white, domed building inside. The glass was cracked and all of the water inside it must have long since leaked out, but the globe itself still looked almost magical. The white specs of fake snow rolled inside as she rotated it in her fingers. The word "WASHINGTON" was written on the wooden base in faded, golden letters. Her daydreaming was interrupted by a sudden, extremely loud bell ring that almost made her drop the globe. She placed it quickly back on the shelf and poked her head out into the corridor. The quickly growing commotion and voices downstairs made her realize it was already dinner time.
The dinner itself was a peculiar experience. Everyone came down from the fields or other places on the Farm and took their seats in the common room. Adults, grandparents, kids, each seat was quickly taken and the whole interior became incredibly loud with laughter, chatter, or heated discussions. Last time she saw so many people dining at one table was back at the training camp, when all recruits used to gather at the Camp's largest mess hall. She sat down next to Amber, who now sported a pair of darkened goggles strapped across her forehead. Before the redhead could ask her anything, the persistent man they met before, Jake, sat down in the other seat next to her and flooded her with questions about her feelings towards farm life. She had to remind herself of all the tips about politeness and self-control she had learned on her basic bedside manners nurse training back in her rookie year in the NCR. The Grandmother was slowly brought into the room as well, sitting down in her rocking chair, receiving a small table just big enough for a plate. Ruth did everything but look in the direction of those milky, weird eyeballs.
Finally, the food was served, which saved her from continuing another topic with the overwhelmingly enthusiastic mustache man. There came a huge pot of noodles with pieces of meat, roasted steaks, salads, eggs in various forms, and baked goods, together with freshly-squeezed mutfruit juice. Upon asking her companion whether they had any, she was stoked to receive a cup of orange juice. The abundance of food and diversity of tastes made her head spin. Everything was fresh, served hot, laid down on plates and wooden trays, not a single two-century-old can in sight. Although eating at the Camp did provide some of that comfort, the best was restricted for the higher-ups, and the majority of her time there she usually fended for herself, anyway. Even the massive portions of roasted beef they ate the previous day in the Refinery couldn't measure against this meal. Ruth just sat there in the middle of this enormous feast ignoring everything and happily stuffing her guts with foods she's never tasted before.
That was until she heard Amber's annoyed groan, which immediately shattered the illusion of paradise and brought her back to the table with many pairs of eyes focusing on the chair right next to her.
"Don't act like a child, Amberly, you have to decide what to do with your life." An elder spoke up from across the table.
"Uncle James, please..." Amber shook her head, but the man interrupted.
"What? You want to tell us, not now? Maybe tomorrow? Maybe next year?" He glared at her. "You have to decide someday!"
"I don't have to do anything, with all due respect, uncle."
"Bah, that's easy for you to say. You should stay here and see what's good for you. Instead, you come back here shamelessly after a year of complete silence."
"You brought me back here." The redhead rolled her eyes.
"And you should be grateful for it! Like for everything else we'd done for you and how you turned out in the first place!" James's voice got louder, echoing in the large room. "Instead, you came back here after you learned nothing, and brought some wasteland scoundrel with you to-"
"James, calm down!" Aunt Alice interrupted him suddenly. "This is not how we treat our guests here."
Ruth stopped halfway with a spoonful of noodles and looked around, finding a few glares directed at her person. She set the utensil down, suddenly feeling bad for ever even wanting to try their food in the first place. The drink before her that she specifically asked for became a glass of shame. She had no idea where to even rest her eyes, feeling the uncomfortable glances of others.
"I am calm, Alice." The older man said, getting slightly red on his face. "She's the one acting immaturely and you know it! She's been like that for years! We're out here, breaking our backs for her every day, and what do we get in return?"
"Suuure, just because I don't want to plant turnips for the rest of my life, I'm the bad guy." Amber almost growled in annoyance.
"But we don't even have turnips." Jake interrupted them and suddenly everyone was looking at him instead of Amber.
"Shut up, Jake, you complete moron. And where the hell is your gratitude, young man, huh? Don't act like the clock isn't ticking for you, too." The eldest uncle muttered, but was again interrupted by another older man at the table.
"James please, not in front of the children."
More voices soon joined in from all sides of the table drowning the room in a cacophony of arguments. Somewhere along the way Ruth completely lost track of who was saying what, and instead, she just observed the people around her. The overabundance of brown hair and blue eyes made it very clear who was a member of the Smith family and who came from the outside. Everyone looked healthy, strong, and tanned. Their clothes were neatly kept and cleaned, any tears and other damage was carefully fixed. Even their colors and patterns were more vibrant and of some higher quality to that of what she usually saw in the wastes. The people were well-groomed and facial hair was a stylistic, personal choice. She only noticed a couple of small scars on the folks here, and none of them as gruesome as hers or Amber's. In her time, she saw people from the heartland of the NCR, from places where civilization returned nearly a century ago, and those people weren't that far off from the people at the table. Even the freed slaves, the two young women sitting not that far away from her, looked far more healthy than her. If it wasn't for the scars around their necks, she'd assume they were both born and raised here with the rest. She felt some blood rush up to her face, remembering that only a few days prior she looked into a mirror with a sense of pride, now momentarily brushed away by the sight of the crowd around her. It wasn't hard to see how nobody would want to leave this place to risk their lives outside. And yet, here she was, sitting in the middle of a verbal storm focused on her companion who did just that. She turned to look at Amber, mentally comparing her scarred, hardened features with the round, smiling face from the picture she had seen in the photo before. Her plate was almost empty, she seemed to have eaten barely anything, which was very unlike she knew her.
"Thank you for your hospitality, but we will be leaving tomorrow." The redhead's voice appeared to be calm, but Ruth had heard that tone before. She got up and left, cutting the chance of any further conversation.
Some of the storm died down as people followed her with their gaze indignantly. She felt the attention begin to shift, so she quickly got up as well and headed for the doors without a word.
She found her outside, standing just beyond a row of lanterns with her back to the entrance.
"No, you will not change my mind, please leave." The redhead said, her tone slightly less controlled than at the table just moments ago.
"I told you I wouldn't try." Ruth walked up to her carefully, as the other woman glanced past her shoulder, seeming to relax a little. "Do you want me to leave? I can wait in your room... but I'm not going back to that table."
"No... you can stay. A wasteland scoundrel is fine." She gave her a little smile, but it was obvious she was steaming, barely containing her emotions.
The sun was quickly setting, painting a wonderful mixture of blues and purples and reds in the sky beyond the fields. No one else followed them out of the building, though they could still faintly hear the raised voices inside.
"The Outpost was built just near a small oasis, a couple minutes north from it." Ruth started, looking out into the distant mountain range. "I used to go there a lot, especially at night, to cool down after the day. Before all the shit went down, that is." She looked roughly in the direction of her companion. "I know this will sound weird, but... do you want to go stargazing with me? Somewhere far from the chaos behind us. I need to talk to you about our plans, anyway."
Amber took a moment, but after a deep breath, she finally answered. "Yeah... that sounds nice. I know a place we could go." She paused for a moment, mustering a smirk at her. "You know it's a date, right?"
"Shut up you idiot, it's not."