Chapter 20: Tracing back our steps
They finally reached a spot in the outer part of the fields right behind a big patch of broc flowers, where a few tall, honey mesquite trees created a sparse canopy. A piece of land here was rather flat and undisturbed, a perfect place for a nightly hideout away from prying eyes. They could still see the Farm's building when standing up, but the encompassing greenery blocked it when Ruth sat down under one of the trees. Amber managed to sneak inside the kitchen, using the chaos of the ongoing discussions, and snatched two bottles of sweet, home-made wine.
"Sorry, I couldn't find any blankets." The redhead muttered, sitting down not too far from her.
"That's okay." Ruth made herself comfortable and observed her friend fiddling with a screwdriver to open one of the bottles. "You shouldn't have taken those, either."
"Hey, what's a date without a good wine." Amber shrugged and pulled the cork out with a satisfying pop! sound. She handed her the opened bottle.
"I swear, if you call it a date one more time, I'll punch you." She rolled her eyes in annoyance before trying the dark, red alcohol. The flavor was very fruity and sweet, with a slight tang at the end. She couldn't say whether she's ever tried something this vibrant in taste, and it was pleasant to drink.
The redhead chuckled and jabbed her screwdriver into the cork of the second bottle.
The sun finally disappeared behind the mountain ranges, plunging the valley in a somewhat comforting darkness, revealing millions of bright dots in the inky, nearly cloudless sky above them. They could hear distant sounds of hunting coyotes and faint signing of nocturnal birds behind the constant, slight rustling of leaves. Even though the Great War caused whole species to disappear from the face of the Earth, many remained in spite of mutations and others were slowly coming back to fill in the empty spaces. She's never been much of an animal person, but the nightly song of the birds she couldn't even see was like a lullaby.
"Do you really want to leave tomorrow?" Ruth broke the silence between them, not taking her eyes off of the twinkling stars. "I think we should rest and heal a bit more before we continue."
"We shouldn't even be here in the first place." Amber muttered and took a sip from her bottle. "But I think we should go back and report what we've found..."
"But we didn't find anything." She frowned a little. "Our mission was to track down the guys in painted armor, and what we got was... everything but that."
"We found that they were at the Nuka Cola factory." The redhead paused for another sip. "And we have to report on what happened in Big Bog."
Still staring up, Ruth was quietly going over all the possible scenarios for that particular debriefing. None of her ideas seemed like something she would ever look forward to, or be prepared for, for that matter. She wanted to focus back on the sounds around them, but the thoughts made some anxiety creep back into her mind and distract her. "What happened there wasn't our objective."
"But it might be related."
"How can it be related?" She turned her head to look at her. "The Big Bog disease appeared years ago and we didn't see those swirly armored guys until only a couple of weeks back. They can't be affiliated with any gang, either, they killed raiders on sight and didn't allow anyone in, anyway. No gang would be this smart to control an entire town for years without anyone else knowing." She paused for a moment. "The Outpost doesn't count. It wasn't anywhere this big and they took everything by force, not under the cover of some disease."
"I don't know, but it feels somehow connected." Amber shrugged and turned towards her. She didn't know if it was a trick of the light, but the woman's bright, green eyes seemed to glitter in the last rays of the dying daylight, looking almost supernatural. Or maybe it were the eye drops she got? "There's not enough people living in this desert to account for two weird things on such a large scale. Besides, between a bunch of raider-killers and this mysterious Professor with the means to brainwash and mind-control an entire settlement for years, I think the latter needs more attention."
Ruth felt her heart sink at the thought of the enigmatic person behind her recent brush with death and she turned her attention to the sky again. Her mind struggled to avoid the subject and prove the connections her partner made were wrong. Deep down, she had to admit it made at least some sense, and she was afraid to ponder on it longer.
"You're right, we'll go back and report." She said finally. "Besides, we have to verify what that idiot Michael said."
"Don't remind me of this asshole." The redhead groaned and pressed her lips to the bottle taking another large gulp of its content. "The wasteland is unfair that we went through all this shit and that guy is still alive."
They sat in silence for a while longer, surrounded by the mystifying, though now faint sounds of the desert. Ruth could see distant points of light around her: the tall, illuminated radio tower of Camp Imperial, and an ever so slightly shifting, glowing haze that backlit the western mountain range. With the Refinery on the other side of the farm and Big Bog, way off in the distance, at least two days of travel on foot away from them, she felt almost strangely safe.
"You know..." She broke the silence again, turning to see her friend, who was lying on her back with one hand behind her head. "When we first came here, this place looked like a paradise to me. The buildings, the warmth, a sense of community, and... home. Everything here was, and is, a thousand times more than what I've ever had. And to be honest, up until this evening I could not understand how you'd ever want to leave all of that behind." She glanced in the direction of the towering building.
"Sorry you had to witness all that mess." The redhead muttered. "My uncles and aunts rarely consider the collateral damage of their words." She pushed herself up with a groan and took another sip. "And don't get me wrong, their bitching and moaning is a part of me not wanting to live here, but that's not everything." There was sadness and melancholy in her voice, something Ruth didn't hear before. "I'd rather people think it's a family drama because that's easy to understand and explain, but... I spent years here, growing up, learning, meeting people. It's much more than that."
"You don't have to-" She started, assuming where this was going, but the redhead ignored her and continued.
"I was a teen when my parents died, nearly old and strong enough to handle a gun properly." She said, looking at the bottle in her hand. "But I've seen death before. My family was in a dangerous business, scavenging and trading always puts you in the crosshair. Not just raiders, but other scavengers as well. The Refinery enforces their rules, but not all want to follow them and dead bodies can't complain to the big boss." She paused for another sip. "When my parents died, I felt like the whole world had ended, but those people took me and my brother in. I would be dead, or worse, if it wasn't for them. You can imagine I wasn't the most obedient child, but I worked hard, knowing I owed them as much at least. Matt spent over half of his life here, he barely remembers my parents and the life we had before. But I do."
Ruth just looked at her, listening, feeling the dread of the story creep up on her. She knew loss very well, and she could see it painted across her partner's face, in the crevices of her frown and the distance of her eyes..
"There were other people here, mostly seasonal workers and traveling caravans stopping for a few days to rest and restock on food and water." Amber's voice became quieter and softer, as if she was worried someone would hear them even on this remote patch of dirt. "One of those caravans visited the farm frequently on their route. It was a small group of merchants, four or five, including a couple with a young girl. Good people, hardened by the wasteland, but they kept their heart in the right place." She paused, taking another sip from her already half-emptied bottle. "And I fell in love with the father. He was almost fifteen years older than me. I can't tell how it happened."
This was not something she was expecting to hear, but Amber's expression didn't change much. It left her feeling anxious, and she didn't interrupt.
"At first he reminded me of my father. Strong, decisive, caring, head of his family. They were happy together, living and caring for each other. Then I got to know him better and I fell head over heels for him. I knew their stories, about how they met; a scavenger boy from the Mojave and a merchant girl from New Reno. But I didn't care about that, I was a stupid, selfish brat. I knew he liked me. I knew he was attracted to me. I wanted to make him mine, and eventually I did it. Month after month with each visit we snuck out, hid where nobody could find us. I knew I was making him happy, I ignored all the guilt we both felt." Her voice choked a bit and she paused, turning her gaze away. "Then, one time, they didn't return. The entire caravan disappeared. I waited for days, weeks, months. I wanted to go out to find them, but my family stopped me. They finally told me what'd happened. Somehow, somewhere, they were ambushed. A group of raiders managed to take them by surprise, when they weren't together." She paused again, taking a deep breath. Her words were very quiet, her right hand locked tight around the neck of the bottle. "I've blamed myself for this every day... Before they left for the last time... he said he loved me... He said he wanted to talk with his wife about us. I asked him not to, but I knew he would do it... In my mind I can still see how they died. They argued because of me, maybe even separated... raiders came and killed them all... the innocent child, the sweet, caring wife, and the man I loved... because I was a selfish brat who couldn't keep her pants on." She seemed to cringe, before looking up at the stars above. "This is the reason why I joined the army. I didn't do it to avenge my parents or to make the wasteland safer. I told that to everyone, but it's a lie. I did it to atone for the innocent deaths I caused." She paused, then gave a sad smile. "All cards out, right?"
Ruth looked at the woman, stunned. "I... I don't know what to say." Her heart sank the more she thought about her friend's past. She shifted and sat closer after a moment of stillness, trying to get her attention. "Red, look at me. I'm sorry you had to go through this, but... you don't know that. You don't know if whatever happened was your fault, and you can't keep other possibilities out of mind just because of guilt. You will probably never find out, so there's no point in beating yourself up over it." Despite the nearly complete darkness she could see tears rolling down her cheeks. "...I understand, though. I really do." She took a deep breath. "Listen, I might not be the best person to tell you this, but I get it, so please... Stop blaming yourself. For their death, and for the love you shared." She gazed at her intensively.
"I know you do." The redhead said quietly, smiling through tears. "That's why I feel comfortable telling you this." She took a deep breath and wiped the tears off her face. "To be honest, I never thought I'd ever tell this to someone, maybe on my death bed... but I planned to go out all guns blazing, so that's probably not gonna happen."
"Don't say that." Ruth reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Sacrificing yourself like that won't bring anyone back."
"I know, and I'm not in a hurry to do it." She sniffled, a shudder going through her body. "The longer I live, the more of those bastards I can take down with me."
"So... you abandoned probably the most comfortable life in the wasteland to hunt down raiders?"
"That, and to get more chicks, chicks dig the uniform." Amber chuckled, drying her eyes with her sleeve.
"Joke's on you, we're not in uniforms right now." She smiled, too, and let go of her.
"But I still managed to get you out on a romantic date."
Ruth couldn't help but laugh at this, but she still went through on her threat and punched Amber in the arm. It probably hurt her more than the redhead, as her overexerted muscles and damaged ribs flared up in protest. "Flirting with your superior is not the best idea, Dale." She said, ignoring the pain.
"Sorry, ma'am, I will do better next time, ma'am!" The redhead jumped back to her admittedly slightly shaky feet and saluted.
"I know." She fell back on the ground with a thud.
Ruth's bottle wasn't nearly as empty as Amber's, but she could already feel its effects not just on her mind, but also on other parts of her body. After a couple more minutes of idle chat and consolation she decided to heed nature's call and excused herself to the nearby bushes. When she got back a couple of minutes later she saw Amber in the exact same position as when she left, lying down on her back with the empty bottle to the side and both hands behind her head. She clumsily sat down next to her, picking up what was left of her wine.
"So, your turn now." The redhead said, turning towards her. "What made you join the boy scouts and how did you end up in this suicide squad?"
"Well..." Ruth paused for a moment, thinking of how to phrase her thoughts. "Me and what was left of my family separated shortly after Big Bog. I had some time to decide on what to do next, but I couldn't. I couldn't even think straight for a long time afterwards. Everything seemed terrifying, and a couple places chased me off just because I looked like a raider to them. But the worst thing was that I couldn't get over what had happened at the Outpost. I was so... riddled with guilt, is probably the best way to explain it." She drank the remaining drops of wine and set the empty bottle aside.
"Wait, why did you leave your family?" Amber asked. "Weren't you just reunited?"
She looked to the side. "We were separated for so long... we didn't really look eye to eye after all of that. We were living a few steps from one another, but I could safely say we missed a few years. We decided it was best I found myself a future instead of traveling with them."
"I guess I can relate to that... " The redhead sighed and glanced towards the building behind them.
"I did barely anything to stop whatever was happening to my home. Even the plans for the rebellion I only got to know about on the last day. People called me the labrat, and I doubt they believed I could do anything to help... and I didn't. In the end, I was there just to watch everyone die." Ruth paused for a moment, having to mentally shrug off the sudden wave of grief. "I drifted from place to place without any purpose, literally haunted by my past. I did what I had to just to survive, but there was nothing I could do to feel better and feel that I was making a difference. The NCR was a promise to do something good, for once, and a promise of some kind of safety. Not like I cared about their ideals, but they appeared here and were doing some good, so I tried. The hospital was just in need of support, and that's where I ended up. It was so rewarding." Her memories drifted to those first few days on the job, how she quickly befriended Amy and got the hang of her skills again. "The countless happy recoveries, the amount of trust people put in you, helping others get over things I myself couldn't... There was a lot of death and tragedy, too, but we were all prepared for that."
"And why the recon?" Amber asked. "Most soldiers just want to go off and fight the Legion up north."
"A friend inspired me." Ruth took a deep breath, looking far off into the distance.
"...And? That's it?" The redhead turned to her, eyeing her curiously.
"We were supposed to be recon together." She shrugged, her voice growing somber. "Or so we hoped, when I got enough training I could maybe join them at some point, but that... that never happened, and it never will. Instead, I ended up with the horniest, most hot-headed girl I've ever met." Ruth gave her a playful smirk, but it quickly faded.
"Don't forget sexy and really funny." She smiled. There was a pause, and then Amber lifted herself on her arm, trying to catch her gaze.
"Your friend was in the Scorpions, right?"
Ruth just nodded. "Did you see them?" She asked after a moment. "In that cave?"
"I did." Amber fell back on her side. "It was Haze, wasn't it?"
That made her frown a little. "How did you know? Did you know him?"
"We had our first hand to hand combat training with him, in the boot camp. I managed to toss him to the ground." She chuckled shortly before continuing. "And, well... I overheard you that one time at the hospital. I was barely conscious and didn't think much of it, but now that you'd mentioned it..." Ruth didn't reply, just stared into the sky, the stars a little too blurry to really focus on them. "You were close."
"You could say that." Ruth smiled sadly. "Corporal Jonathan Haze... He trained my group, too. I was a complete mess back then, but he saw that I really wanted to achieve something, so he helped me pull through, helped me find my place there. I wasn't yet sure if the NCR was the right call, but he quickly became my next reason to stay. We grew pretty close in time. It wasn't love, I wasn't ready for that... but it could've been." She felt her face getting warmer despite the cold desert breeze and looked away from the redhead, hoping she wouldn't notice.
"What's that blush about?" She did, asking in a sly tone.
"I drank a whole bottle of wine, what do you expect."
"Blue, I can tell the difference with my eyes closed." Amber purred, leaning loser. "Now spill the beans."
"Alright, we fucked a few times instead." Ruth shrugged, smiling. "Ok, many times, actually."
Amber looked at her dumbfounded. "You little minx, you. Many girls in my batch wanted to moan his name, me included."
"Didn't expect that, did you now?" She laughed, barely seeing her surprised expression in the dark. "It was fun... Then he got promoted, becoming the commanding officer of one of the first reconnaissance teams out here... and we were sent to find them. We did." She fell silent, the warmth in her chest beginning to hurt.
"...Ruth, I'm terribly sorry." Amber's expression changed from excitement to concern.
"No need to be." She sighed. "I already made peace with what's happened, and you know... It's good to feel that kind of pain. It just means there's something left of them, even if my memories of them fade in time. It's one way to remember." Her eyes closed for a moment, taking in the sounds of the soft rustling around them. "We were late for the funeral, but at least I can always visit."
Amber looked at her in silence for a while, but then asked with a mocking smile.
"So... you two did it because he inspired you?"
"No, he got shot and I was his nurse." She smiled again at the memory. "We were alone in the hospital tent at night... I was really, frustrated, you could say.."
"I... did not expect that." The redhead replied after a longer pause.
"I'm full of surprises." Ruth replied with a smirk. "And no, I won't tell you any details."
"I'll get them out of you eventually." Her friend muttered under her breath.
"Not a chance."
They both fell silent again.
The alcohol and mental fatigue finally caught up with them and Ruth was sure that if it wasn't for the cold and increasing wind, they would have spent the entire night outside. Instead, they eventually managed to get up and get to Amber's room before collapsing on their beds. The night went by in the blink of an eye and she woke up equally as tired as she was before, with an additional benefit of a head-splitting headache. The mattress next to her borrowed bed was already empty and the sun was clearly high in the sky. Ruth rolled out of her sheets and stumbled her way downstairs, desperately looking for a glass of water.
"Hello there!" A familiar, soft, female voice hit her head like a ton of scrap metal. "You went away so fast yesterday, I wanted to apologize for my father-"
"S'ok." Ruth muttered, turning around to face Martha who'd just come out of the kitchen.
"Oh dear, you look just as bad as she does... " The young woman gasped a little and quickly handed her a glass of water, which Ruth immediately emptied, despite her stomach's protests. "Our wine is... an acquired taste. I'm surprised Amber lost her immunity to it."
"You seen her?" She blinked a few times, trying to clear the persistent, lingering haze from her mind.
"Yes, we spoke like an hour ago. Matt and I were concerned about what happened yesterday and wanted to convince her to stay one more day, there's a caravan passing through to Camp Imperial tomorrow." Martha took the glass and gestured at a chair which Ruth gladly used. "She said she had to ask you first, but judging by the hangover, she won't be too eager to go anywhere at least till late afternoon." The woman smiled a little, shaking her head.
"Where is she?" The smell of whatever Martha was preparing was making her mouth water and her stomach turn at the same time.
"Back at the workshop." A plate of a couple of flat, round, yellow-ish... omelet? pieces covered in some kind of a thick, red jelly landed in front of her. Martha sat down on the other side with a steaming cup of hot, brown liquid with a distinct smell she recognized as coffee. "She said she had to do something more, Matt is there to keep an eye on her since she wasn't looking too hot today."
The smell of the breakfast in front of her was amazing. On one hand, she was itching to dig into it, on the other, the memory of the judgment she received at dinner yesterday was holding her back from even looking too long at it. Martha must've noticed her hesitation, and she reached out to push a fork closer to the other woman.
"My family's been terrible hosts, I know, but please don't take it personally." She smiled. "Eat up, we have more than enough to share. And you have to try my pancakes, they're my specialty."
"Thank you. That's really kind." Ruth carefully sliced a piece of her breakfast.
There was a moment of pause as the other woman sipped her drink and Ruth slowly chewed on the meal. It didn't taste quite the same as an omelet, and the texture was thicker, but it was incredibly good all the same. She really hoped her stomach would survive it.
"You're a medic, right? I saw the cross patch on your bag." Martha asked, setting her cup down. "We haven't had a real medic in here since my mother died." There was a hint of sadness in her voice, but a glimmer of hope in her eyes. "I wanted to learn instead of having to communicate back and forth with the Refinery whenever something happens, but I have to take care of Grandma almost all the time. No one else here has enough patience, and so I can't go out to the Refinery or Camp Imperial to train."
"I'm sorry about your mother." Ruth looked up across the table. "I know how it feels."
"I never had a chance to meet her." Martha smiled sadly. "You can say we passed each other along the way in and out of this world."
"Oh..." Her eyes fell onto her plate as she jabbed the jello with her fork. "Well, if we do stay here one more day, I could try and teach you a thing or two." She mustered a smile at her. "That's the least I could do in return."
Her expression brightened up, but before she was able to answer, they heard the doors open and another familiar figure came inside the common room.
"Hi girls!" Jake sent them a flawless smile, which made her stomach turn again. "Do I smell coffee time?" He soon joined them at the table with a cup of his own. His hands were still dirty from the soil and he brought the smell of wind with him. "Someone's had a rough evening, I see!"
Ruth just rolled her eyes a little. They exchanged some small talk with Martha, but she didn't really focus on it, swallowing the last pieces of her delicious breakfast.
"Has she shown you the watchtower yet?" She felt the drilling stare of Jack's eyes and she figured the question was directed at her.
"No, not really." Ruth pushed the empty plate away.
"Then you're missing out! The view from there is amazing, it's a must-see." He grinned. "Wanna go there now? We have guns up there."
"I... there's still things I want to do first. Could we do that later, maybe?" She met his blue eyes for a moment, gazing back at her persistently.
"Fine! But put a pin in that." He smiled at her, the brilliance of his grin making her just slightly more sick.
Jake left the room, coming back to his duties, while Ruth thanked Martha for the meal again and put her plate on a pile of other to-be-washed dishes in the sink. Before she went to confront Amber about their plans, she had one thing she really wished to do before they left. Ruth came back up to grab a few items from her bag and headed to the bath. The room was as welcoming as the last time they were here, but filling an entire bathtub just for herself felt extremely selfish. There were a few large, wooden buckets in the changing room and she used one of them instead. She chuckled to herself at the thought of the number of baths she's taken over the last couple of days, a night in the salty sludge excluded. If happiness in the wasteland was measured in cleanliness, she's never been this happy in her life. Once that was done, she sat down and in an almost ritualistic manner, mixing a few substances and liquids she grabbed from her stash, among them a blue-ish, fine powder, and applied that carefully to her hair. Waiting for it to take in the coloration, she sat inside one of the tubs and unrolled a single comic book she grabbed from her hideout, something that was not taken away by her oppressors at Big Bog, and read a few pages of the adventures of Grognak the Barbarian in Cometh the Trickster. It was probably one of her favorites from the series. Finally, she washed the mixture off and quickly brushed the strands, feeling a lot better despite the still lingering hangover.
Ruth tried to sneak out of the bathroom and was about to head to the workshop, after packing her things, but someone stopped her in the middle of the staircase.
"Oh wow! What a change!" She groaned internally at the enthusiastic voice as Jake continued up the stairs to meet her halfway. "Beautiful choice of color."
"Thank you?" She wasn't sure what else to say.
"I was just resupplying ammunition up top." He gestured at a bag on his arm filled with several packets of ammo. "Do you... want to go there now, maybe?"
"... sure, let's go." Her internal groaning turned into screaming, but she figured it was best to just get it out of the way. He was not going to let that one slide. "Lead the way, Jake."
They climbed up the long staircase, the height of the empty shaft and the hangover making her head spin dangerously. It wasn't an extremely long hike, but in her state, it was an effort she was not prepared for just yet that day. At the end of the steps, Jake opened up a hatch in the ceiling, which led out onto the last floor and into the watchtower.
"Here we are!" He helped her up the last bit and smiled, gesturing around.
The interior was long, but pretty small, compared to the rest of the rooms in this building. There was a chest on one end, two chairs, and a few empty cups, but otherwise the room was blank and full of dust flying in the light flooding from a few slit-like windows. A woman sitting on one of the chairs waved at them, a scoped rifle in her hands. Jake offered she took a break, and she gladly accepted, leaving them up there alone. While they were talking, Ruth walked up to one of the windows and almost gasped, seeing how high they really were. She could see the whole length of the fields around the Farm, a mosaic of colors of different sizes among the labyrinth of streams. The view stretched a good distance past the fence, and she could see the bottom of the distant mountains, blurred by the heat and the sun. The huge windmills standing in the desert nearby, now almost at an equal level with them, rotated slowly, lazily, each blade painted in equally pastel shades as the welcoming walls of the settlement. She walked up to the next window on the other side, clearly recognizing the buildings of Camp Imperial and the landing strip among the golden stretch of the desert. On yet another side, the view extended in the direction of Big Bog, though she could only see a faint outline of what must've been the Refinery, and scattered remains of small, pre-war settlements, together with the bulky shadow of the Nuka-Cola factory on the horizon.
"Wonderful sight, isn't it?" Jake stepped next to her, looking out of the window as well.
"It's still all sand and wasteland around." She smirked. "But it's impressive."
"See that?" He pointed roughly in the direction of the Refinery. "Just past that ruined farmhouse."
Ruth strained her eyes, but it only made her head hurt. He leaned back and handed her a rifle with a long, polished scope. Looking through it, she found what he meant, a small group of people walking along the road. A caravan, as she could faintly see the outlines of fully-loaded brahmins. One of the tiny men lifted up his hand and she saw a brief flash of light.
"This is how they let us know they are there and not sneaking in." Jake commented. "That's how they know we know they're there."
"Cool..." She brought the scope elsewhere and along the horizon, looking for other familiar landmarks.
"Wanna try your hand at it?" He nudged her and pointed out of the other window. It was something she hadn't noticed until now - a series of humanoid-like puppets arranged in a few lines: one still inside the fence, others past the territory of the Farm. Shooting practice.
"So this is where you train, huh?" She took a pack of ammo he handed her and swiftly loaded the gun.
"For the most part, yeah." Jake leaned next to her, trying to get her line of sight on the puppets. It was only very uncomfortable. "Try getting that one in the middle, with the red paint on its face."
Ruth brought the weapon up to her eyes and leveled it, making him lean away. She looked over the figures and pulled the trigger, the shoulder of the red-painted target jerking a little.
"Good one!" Jake commented, but she frowned a little.
She fiddled with the calibration of the sights a little and fired again, and again, this time hitting the straw brains of the unfortunate thing.
"Jackpot!" He grinned at her. "Now, try the-"
She pulled the trigger again, not really listening, as she found herself a few other interesting targets. A can tied to another puppet's torso jumped from the bullet grazing its side. Next to it, there was a cinder block with a few bottles set in a line. Two out of three exploded into a pile of glass shards.
"I had my fun." Ruth pulled away from the gun and looked back at him, handing him the weapon.
He didn't react at first, stunned, but then brightened up as usual. "That was amazing!" Jake laughed, taking the gun away from her.
"So do you want to show me how you do it?" She smirked at him playfully.
"Maaaybe another time, my arms hurt from all the digging today." He smiled at her sheepishly. "Let me just take a look around and then we'll call Cathy back up."
Ruth chuckled shortly, looking out as well.
The urgent tone immediately drew her attention to him, as he gripped his weapon tighter and focused on the scope.
"What is it?" She stepped up to him, straining her eyes. There was a cloud of dust not too far off, seeming to come out of a ruined collection of farm buildings
"Looks like some car just drove past... could be someone from the Refinery." He tensed a little, noticing something.
"What do you see?"
"Someone's coming. No signals, though. Three figures... some guys with guns." He described as the figures came more and more into view.
Ruth turned around and spotted the gun the woman had left behind. She grabbed it and looked through the scope, quickly finding the people in question.
"Maybe a little warning shot will-"
"No!" She lowered the rifle and looked at him. "Don't shoot. I know these guys."
To say that Amber got up early would be an understatement. The first rays of the sun barely broke above the horizon when the headache got too unbearable to even pretend she was asleep. She crawled out of her bed, fighting against her aching body, and walked down to get some water. It was still too early for most of the people here to rise, but the kitchen was already bustling with life. Rita, Carla, and Martha were preparing heaps of food for the family and other workers, chatting along as they usually did. Amber remembered how she was often forced to help them when they were younger, back when anyone still had any hopes of making a housewife out of her.
As soon as they noticed the redhead, and the apparent poor state she was in, they hooked her up with a cup of coffee and a sandwich. With the girls otherwise occupied, Amber hastily departed from the definitely too loud kitchen, stashing the sandwich for later. With the hot cup and a somewhat refreshed mind, she went out towards the far side of the field. The sun was slowly chasing away the morning chill from the fields as she walked a narrow path past the farthest buildings and into a small, fenced off patch of land with a couple of short, twisted trees. Large boulders with names written on them were neatly placed in rows along a sandy, even path. She walked past them and towards one corner, where a much smaller rock was placed with her own shaky handwriting on it.
Sarah and Tony Dale
She stopped there and pulled out the small, amber and silver necklace hanging around her neck.
"Hi mom, hi dad. I got this back for you." She whispered gently, rolling the small trinket between her fingers. There was a moment of stillness, a somber lack of response, as a slight breeze moved a few strands of hair from her eyes. "I... I did many stupid things to get it back. Things you wouldn't like. But it's here, and so am I... I wish I could hang it around your neck where it belonged, mom." She paused, fighting with her emotions over the control of her own body. Her throat tightened in protest as she looked down at her weathered, freckled hands. "It's been a while since I last came with a visit... and I don't know how long it will take for me to come here again. I thought I had a purpose out there, a simple mission to complete, but I think I was just chasing shadows, like you always told me not to do." She took another deep breath, sorting through her thoughts. "Now, that mission got bigger, much bigger, and there's other people involved. People I don't want to get hurt. I... I feel like I'm at a crossroads and all the roads lead to dark places, but I can't stay, and I can't go back, either. I know you don't like what I'm doing." She smiled a little. "I can imagine what you'd say, dad, but please... I hope you'll at least understand that I have to do something."
She knelt down, despite her aching back and muscles, and extended her hand to place the amber necklace on the unfazed rock before her. She stopped mid-way, the string brushing against the stone.
On the edge of her mind, she heard careful footsteps coming down the path.
"And Matt always tries to sneak up on me." She muttered under her breath, not turning back to face him. "I wish you could tell him to stop."
"I think they would prefer it if you held on to it." She heard her brother's voice behind. "It would be much safer with you."
"I don't think it would." The redhead replied, but kept the pendant in her hand as she rose back up. "It's very dangerous where I'm going."
"The more reasons to have them with you, for luck." It was unusual for her to look up to meet someone else's gaze. "Or you can stay here-"
"Matt, please." She felt her headache flaring up as soon as he said that. "You saw what happened yesterday..."
"Till tomorrow." He continued, calmy raising his arms. "We're expecting a caravan to Camp Imperial."
"I... sorry, I'm-"
"On edge? Upset? Hangovered?"
"All of the above." Amber muttered and looked down at her feet, the only sight that didn't cause her physical pain at the moment. "I feel like shit."
"I didn't expect to see you so battered after a single bottle of the juice." He chuckled. "Come on, Martha said you need way more coffee today."
"That snitch sent you here?"
They laughed and walked away, leaving the graves behind. The amber necklace still dangled from her hand as she trailed behind her brother, stumbling against her thoughts in her chaotic, scrambled mind.
They chatted on their way back, but Amber couldn't focus too much on it, constantly distracted by spikes of pain in various places in her body.
"Worst hangover ever." She muttered under her breath, stretching her aching back, only to groan in pain again. She sighed in relief seeing piles of dishes after what must have been the main breakfast. Avoiding her oldest uncles was at the very top of her priorities at the moment.
"Welcome back, dear." Marta smiled from behind a pile of plates she carried towards the sink. "Feeling any better?"
"Not really, but I'll live." The redhead picked the pile off of the smaller woman and carried it the rest of the way. "Your dad calmed down after yesterday?"
"Oh you know him, complaining when things aren't going his way. He'll be grumpy, but he'll get over it."
"Yeah, he'll get over it once everyone does as he says." Amber muttered, picking up a clean glass. "Or when aunt Alice puts him down."
"He wants what he thinks is best for this farm." Matt chimed in, sitting down at the table with a half-empty cup of coffee.
"By that logic he'd want me out of here as soon as possible." The redhead chuckled, winking at Martha who blushed instantly, shooting her an annoyed glare, turning around so Matt would not see it.
"Well, he wasn't exactly crying after you left-"
"No, he was furious." the woman interrupted, wiping her hands after tossing the rest of dirty utensils into the sink.
"Yes, but not because you left, it was more about the way you did it."
"I mean, he was just as mad when Larry ran away." Martha's voice trailed off for a moment.
"Any news on him?" As much as she loved the irony of that particular family drama, she felt great sympathy for Martha, who for all intents and purposes lost her brother.
"Nothing from him directly, but we know he's a mercenary somewhere in the Mojave. Uncle Marco met him a couple of times." Matt replied with a shrug. "He and the guy he ran off with are apparently pretty successful bounty hunters."
"At least we can be sure they have each other's backs." Martha commented with a straight face and winked at Amber.
"I taught you well." She muttered, feeling surprised that even blushing could somehow hurt. "So anyway, what's with the caravan?"
"They should arrive here in the afternoon and their next step is Camp Imperial." Matt picked up the topic, completely oblivious to the exchange of dirty glances between the two women. "I assume that's where you're going?"
"Yeah, that was our plan, but I'll have to talk about this with Ruth, we did plan on going there today."
"Sis, you look like you're about to puke all your guts out in a moment, you're not walking all the way there alone and I doubt your stick figure companion is gonna carry you there."
"So why do you want to go back there anyway?" Martha asked. "You went there to join the NCR, but you're not in the army now, so why there?"
"I joined in and, well, left." Amber took a deep breath, mainly to ease the headache at least a little bit, contemplating for a moment if a raid on Ruth's medical supply in search of Med-X was a good option. "They didn't consider me as a viable candidate for what they needed, I guess." She was hoping her hangovered appearance would mask the deficiencies in her acting skills. "But I've met a couple of, let's say, like-minded people there and we formed a mercenary group of our own. Ruth is one of them."
She already told this story to Matt, who at least appeared to buy it without any questions, but even the briefest of glances told her that there were now many more unanswered questions bubbling up in Martha's mind. She wouldn't expect anything less from her, but she also knew that she'd keep those questions to herself.
"You'll have to tell me all about it later." Was exactly the answer she expected to hear. A code name for 'I know you're bullshitting me and I want to know the truth' that existed between them for years whenever Amber's misadventures were far too spicy for the rest of the family.
"Sure, if Ruth agrees to the caravan option, I'll have a whole evening to kill." She replied with a wide grin that earned her a subtle kick under the table.
"So what's the plan for now?" Matt asked after finishing his drink. "You're going back to sleep through the hangover?"
"Nah, I have a couple of things to do in the workshop." Amber replied with a shrug. "I hope I can finish at least one of the things there."
"I'll join you in case you fall asleep under the tractor or something." Her brother chuckled and got up with her.
"Have fun, grease monkeys." Martha muttered and turned towards the pile of dirty plates and mugs in the sink. "I'll be here for at least an hour." She added with a sigh.
Going back to the workshop was always like coming back home. Amber felt way more at ease here than even in her own room. She walked towards one of the benches and took out the sandwich wrapped in a piece of cloth she was given in the morning. Her body sent her mixed signals of demanding food and at the same time somehow being repulsed by it. She took a quick sniff of the fresh bread and cheese inside and put it down, feeling her stomach turn.
"I swear that wine is getting worse." She muttered and opened a drawer. Inside, wrapped in a piece of cloth was a wide, metal blade about a foot long, the fruit of her last day's labor. It was still covered in a burned scale from heat treatment she barely managed to do the day before, and with the events of the previous evening, she was sure it would never get a proper finish. But, if they were staying here for another day, it should be just enough to clean it and fit it with at least a temporary handle. It was a rushed job and she wasn't happy about it, but with the limited time she had after dealing with the tractor, it was way better than it had any right to be. It was a thick, single edged knife similar to standard issued combat knives Ruth had before, but with a much more pronounced taper and curve. She wrapped the tang in a piece of cloth and began swinging it around as if she was holding a saber.
"You know you could make those for a living." Matt commented, observing her balancing the blade between her fingers.
"Shut up and find me some wood for the grip scales." She muttered, focusing on the edge. "I have some grinding to do."
Amber spent countless hours playing with different tools in the worksop. Two centuries old grinding wheels and drills cobbled together by previous mechanics required patience and a fair dose of caution. If she ever saw anyone in her current state trying to work on those machines, she'd personally kick them out of her workshop. Fortunately, there was no other Amber around to be the voice of reason, so she slipped on her greasy, old protection gloves, slid a pair of goggles onto her eyes, and proceeded to gently slide the rough metal across the spinning, abrasive wheel.
Years ago, back when she brought a whole set of roughly knife-shaped metal bars from the Refinery, she spent months practicing the art of knife making between various other jobs like sharpening gardening tools, straightening rakes, and remounting shovels onto their new shafts. She could probably find a couple of discarded, uneven, bent, or wrapped blades still lying around the hall, tossed into a scrap pile after another fail. Some of them served as replacement blades for harvesters or were grinded down for use in the kitchen, but most of them were probably rusting in a bucket somewhere. This one, while not perfect, definitely came out decent enough, comparably. She cursed a couple of times when the blade snagged on the spinning wheel creating uneven groves, but overall, she liked the final product.
Matt came back some time later with a roughly rounded piece of a broken shaft she quickly cut to size. Her mind rushed through all the preparation steps, frustrated over the sluggishness of her body. A piece of thick, copper disk could serve as a good enough guard. It slid onto the tang with a bit of a hit from a wooden mallet. Then came the handle scales sandwiching the tang. Her brother was trying to tell her something over the noise of a drill as she made holes for the rivets. She felt his hand on her shoulder as soon as the drill cleared the last hole. Amber glanced at him surprised and the world around her spun uncontrollably.
"Sis, are you okay?" His voice sounded distant and echoey. The roar of the drill motor stopped, leaving a ringing sensation in her ears. "You're pale as a corpse."
She took a step forward, grasping the nearly complete knife. Her body protested, the movement sending a wave of pain across her entire back. Her vision blurred as she looked at the duplicated image of her concerned brother. "No..." She muttered and felt herself become weightless as the world spun around.