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Chapter 6: Change, like healing, takes time

The red light atop a military radio tower guided them back to the base. The black, heavy machine descended in the main square of the military sector, touching down on the crumbling runway. Several people came out of their tents and posts to see and assist the crew. The two soldiers grabbed the stretcher and carefully took out the wounded woman, two others helping move their equipment. Ruth jumped out of the vertibird, her joints a little sore from the chilly morning wind, then led them to the hospital. Of course everyone knew where it was, but she still felt in charge of this expedition. Anyone who found themselves in their path quickly jumped away and Amber was soon brought into the huge tent. There was a number of beds and booths separated by cloth curtains, some of them currently taken, some obstructed from view to give a sense of privacy. It smelled of antiseptics, blood, and, strangely, flowers.

"There they are!" A tall man with glasses and fair hair formed into a long braid approached them, calling over other doctors and assistants. She recognized him immediately, as well as one dark-skinned woman emerging from a booth to join him.

"Good to see you, Clarence. Amy." She was hoping to see them here, even at this early hour. "Where to?"

"We have a bed for her in the back, thanks for the call." He nodded at the soldiers and greeted Ruth with a handshake. Back on the vertibird she heard the pilot contact the Camp to inform the medical crew of the coming patient. Clarence glanced at the redhead with a concerned frown, then turned back towards the beds to start preparing.

"What's happened to your face, hun?" Amy came up to her, grabbing both her cheeks in her hands like an over-concerned auntie. "I don't see you for three days and you're already bruised."

"No time for that!" Ruth protested, setting herself free from her grasp, then turned towards the slightly confused soldiers. "Thank you for your help, we can take it from here." They nodded as two other people rushed over and took the stretchers.

"It's good to see you." Amy smiled at her as they followed the head medic to the designated bed. In her restless sleep, Amber grunted from the pain, her body trembling slightly, sweat pouring down her forehead. She was still wrapped in her bedroll.

"Careful with the torso, there's a whole lot of mess there." Ruth warned a young medic who began taking the bedroll aside as soon as the woman was transported off the stretchers. "Just a moment, I'll go get an apron."

"Didn't they prohibit you from wearing that again?" Clarence said, raising an eyebrow, not looking at her while he prepared to administer the needed medication.

"Fuck that, let them try and stop me!" She said past her shoulder and rushed to an adjacent room.

The following hours were long and tense. Amber wasn't getting any better for a while. They were working hard on closing all of her wounds that needed suturing or those that re-opened, bringing down the fever and monitoring her constantly from the early morning. Eventually, their efforts paid off and her body seemed to stabilize over time. Treating her here was a much easier feat with clean bandages, lots of water, blood for transfusions, antiseptics, and a helping hand. With the passing hours and other patients to tend to, only Ruth and Amy remained to watch her. They were sitting on plastic chairs at the opposite sides of her bed, chatting, noticeable sweat on their brows.

"... I never knew these things were so fast, barely got the final shot in time. I'd only ever seen them from a distance, looking down from mountain tops. This was... definitely too close." Ruth continued to tell the story of their encounter. She had to omit a few details, even to her roommate and good friend, as keeping military information secret was part of her job. "She was incredibly lucky, it could've gone a lot worse than that." Her head was resting against the tent's wall as her vision began to spin a little during the last hour, the adrenaline and energy finally leaving her.

"I bet. When the NCR was taking over this place, the whole neighbourhood was infested with deathclaws, so I've heard." Amy replied in her tired yet sweet voice. "I've never seen the big lizard, and I'm good this way. Let others be heroes. Us, doctors... we have a different job to do."

"Yeah, you don't ever want to meet one." She thought about those words for a moment, then glanced at Amber. She was resting peacefully, the numbing drugs and other medication giving her a chance to sleep. A thick blanket was covering her up to her neck. She was pale, her head was bandaged and there were bags under her eyes. Two drip bags hung above her bed, one with blood and the other to keep her body hydrated.

"At least she'll have a badass set of scars." The other woman said, catching her glance. "Not like they're anything special these days, but she'll have a story to tell."

"I don't think she'll like them... In time, maybe." Ruth sighed, rubbing her temple with her hand. "She almost died on me back there. Before I dragged her away she lost so much blood..." A shudder ran through her body. "Beats a lot of what I'd seen here. At some point I didn't know if I could do it, you know."

"I know. Sometimes you can't help it, no matter how much you try to save them. I've had that before. It's never fun." Amy let her impossibly curly hair cover her face for a moment before she shrugged them off. "But, hey, Ruth. You've done a wonderful job, hun. She's here and she's alive, she'll be out before you know it."

"Thanks to you for teaching me." She gave her a genuine smile, then it faded as she got lost in her thoughts.

"Is Clarence still here?" She looked around as far as she could see past the cloth curtains.

"Sit tight, I'll go check." Amy smiled and left. The light of early morning crept through the cracks of the tent walls, casting sharp, orange lines across the interior, the faded, dirty windows blurring the rays into soft radiance. Some people have only just begun their duty for the day. She followed the vivid light with her gaze, trying to remain awake. Among the usual hospital equipment like bins of discarded cloth, carts with utensils, and IV poles in the corner, she also noticed small jars with pieces of wood and cloth sticking out of them. They were placed randomly around the room, the little bit of liquid at the bottom emanating a slight, pleasant scent of flowers and spices. It was one of the younger doctor's idea a while back to try and replace the usual smell of the hospital with something soothing. The imported fragrance oils have since then been changed every week or removed for a time being so as to not be overwhelming. Not every patient liked the idea, but the majority didn't mind the extra effort.

Soon, the other woman came back with the head medic at her side. His glasses were tucked into his pocket. He must've been equally exhausted, though nothing but constantly present bags under his eyes gave that away.

"Yes? Something wrong with miss Dale?" He asked, looking over their patient.

"No. I just want to talk."

"Well, that's much worse." Clarence winced when Amy nudged him hard in the side.

Ruth got up, crossing her arms. She looked away from them, searching for the right words. "Technically I shouldn't tell you this. But I think you guys deserve to know. You'll know soon enough, anyway." She stammered for a second.

They glanced at each other, confused and worried.

"Haze told me recently they were leaving for some mission soon. Go in, do what you're supposed to, come back. It always took them two, maybe three days, tops. He promised he'd be back the day of my transfer." She paused, wrapping her arms tighter on her chest. "Well... it's been a week now. We found them yesterday. All of them. Right in that cave." She bit her lip, falling silent for a moment.

"Oh shit..." Clarence whispered, going pale.

"Jonathan is dead, guys." Her voice broke and she felt her eyes water. "He was your friend, too, so I thought... I thought you should know..."

Amy stepped closer and embraced her tightly, bursting quietly into tears. Clarence joined the hug, grasping both of them with a heavy sigh. They stayed like that, holding each other for a longer moment. The hospital was really quiet that day and no one disturbed their little mourning.

"Thank you for telling us. I'm... really sorry you had to be the one to find him." The man said when they separated. "I'll make sure to be at the funeral when it happens."

Ruth just nodded, wiping her tears. She knew she might not be able to attend it if they sent her on another mission. The sudden realization of loss that was sitting in the back of her mind for hours weakened her greatly, but the support of those two kept her standing. A nurse came along, requesting one of them to assist a new patient. Amy swiftly dried her eyes, looking fresh and almost unfazed in a jiffy then followed the nurse to the entrance.

"Get some rest. There's a new couch in the office now, you might get some sleep while I watch her." Clarence patted her on the back and took her place at the side of Amber's bed.

Ruth glanced at her then made her way to the extra room. It had the main office with rows of filing cabinets, a desk, and some other furniture, while the couch was separated from the main room with a thick cloth curtain. She pulled it closed behind her, plunging the little space in darkness, and her consciousness faded almost immediately when she hit the couch.

Her sleep was dreamless and before she knew it someone was squeezing her shoulder. She didn't know how much time had passed as she cracked her eyes open to look at her tall, blonde friend.

"Hey. I hope you got some sleep." Clarence smiled. "But there's news I need to tell you about."

She scrambled up, blinking to clear her vision.

"Derek Lee came some time ago to talk with you, but I didn't want to wake you up just yet." He made sure there was no one else in the vicinity and lowered his voice to a whisper. "He said that the boss requests your presence first thing in the morning."

"What time is it now?" She squinted her eyes, the artificial light in the room beyond telling her nothing.

"Late afternoon. Thought you might still want to do something today before I sent you back to your tent for the night."

She thanked him and quickly got her bearings, leaving the apron in the office room. Amber was still sleeping, but the colors on her face seemed to have returned. The short rest did wonders and she felt some energy come back to her as she stepped outside the hospital into the brisk, warm air. The sky above was clear and was beginning to turn greenish. Grasping the strap of her rifle tighter, she headed towards the gate separating the civilian sector from the military heart of the base. It was time to go back to her tent and write the report for Stevens. Ruth felt a nudge of anxiety even thinking about putting the last day into formal words.

There were only a few people in the square at this time, most making their way either out of the Camp, back to their homes, or straight to the bar in this sector of the base. She passed by a couple she recognized to be one of the survivors from the raider camp they destroyed only a couple days ago. She wondered whether they were having a hard time deciding what to do next. Maybe they decided to stay with the NCR in the end?

Lost in thought, she was surprised to feel a hand on her shoulder, stopping her in place.

"Sorry, no entry." The guard at the gate looked down at her and gently pushed her away. There was another soldier, a woman now piercing her with her gaze from under the military helmet.

"What? Why?" She looked at the man, frowning.

"Eeeeh..." He scratched the back of his neck. "Sorry, Ruth, but you're no longer allowed inside the restricted area."

Shit, of course! With everything else happening this week, she completely forgot about her new status. The moment she transferred to this particular team and could no longer wear the characteristic brown uniform, she lost the privilege to live among other soldiers. For all intents and purposes she was supposed to be a civilian living among other civilians and these two soldiers probably didn't even know why. She gritted her teeth.

"But... my stuff is still there. I didn't get a chance to move out."

"Could you please check on that list we got? Search for Delassandis." He leaned over to the woman who took out a folder from her bag and began scanning for her surname.

"She's on the list." She grunted, closing the file. "We'll let you through under supervision. Get your stuff and come right out, no sketchy shit."

"I know her, ok? You don't have to be so rough." The man gave them a crooked smile. "I'll let you go and guard her, fine?"

The woman nodded and began to unlock the gate.

"Thanks, Javier." Ruth smiled and followed inside.

A defeated sigh escaped her as she glanced at the area, the swarm of uniforms, and even the state of the tents here. The clothes were maybe a little stiff, but she already missed living in this section. The civilian area was not bad, but there was certainly a difference in conditions and the amount of caps spent on everyday existence, as far as she knew. She really didn't want to leave this all behind, together with the people she'd already got to know.

Ruth took the little things she owned from the tent and came back to the hospital. She knew she'd have to talk with the Colonel to sort out her accommodation, so she had to spend the night on the couch once more. Darkness fell upon the desert shortly after. She spent the rest of the evening writing the report, helping out a little with other patients, and overthinking, before the sleep took her away.

Unnatural, empty and confusing.

These were the best words she could come up with while entering the main building's upper floors. She felt completely lost surrounded by the clean, white walls and the smell of freshly dried paint. Outside, the sun was already hanging high above the horizon, blasting everything in the valley with its blinding light. The inside, however, shielded by the thick concrete walls and an actual working air conditioning and artificial neon lighting made her question the reality of her situation. Maybe she was still sleeping in the wrecked truck next to dying Amber and didn't realise it. She walked on stiff legs through the freshly renovated corridor, her whole dirty attire and self out of place. It'd be like walking through another dimension, in another world, only if it wasn't for the wasteland landscape out the window. She followed a gray line marked on the wall knowing that at the end of it she'd have to talk to Colonel Stevens. She was clutching a couple of pieces of paper containing her report and a small bag with three bloodied pieces of metal.

Only one word came to her mind when she thought about this confrontation.


Regret and anxiety made her chest hurt. She failed him, she failed herself, and most dramatically, she failed Amber. This reassignment was a mistake. She lost all the reasons to be here and she almost got an innocent girl killed. She just wanted to go back to the hospital, to work as a doctor like she did before, to live with other soldiers, to work with people she considered friends.

She stopped in front of the heavy, wooden door. Even though they were cleaned and repainted, it was obvious that they were just as old as the rest of the building. She lifted her hand and knocked.

"Enter." The officer's voice answered immediately.

Taking a deep breath she turned the bronze, glistening doorknob. The room on the other side looked nothing like what she was used to after her previous encounters with Stevens. Unlike his dark, cluttered tent, this room was large, bright, and almost shiny. She still recognized the same desk and his chair, as well as a row of cabinets behind him, but next to the white walls and a large window they looked at least a hundred years newer.

"Yeah, I don't like it, either." The colonel said, pulling her back to reality. "They should have prioritized the new hospital and barracks instead."

"No sir... I didn't..." Ruth stumbled over her words. "It's really nice in here." She finally said, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room as the door closed behind her.

The colonel looked at her with his good eye and smiled. "Then I'm glad one of us likes it." He nodded at the chair opposite his desk and sat down. "So tell me what happened this time, Delasssandis." He asked as soon as the woman took her place in the chair.

"I prepared the written report, sir." She answered and handed him the document, trying her best to hide her anxiety.

"Thank you." He said looking at her writing. "But I want to hear it from you."

Of course he would.

"I... " She started, hesitant. "Sir. When we reached the designated camp, it turned out to be deserted. I sent Private Dale to check the cave where she got attacked by a female deathclaw." She said, trying to control her voice, but it still came out rushed and stiff. "We killed the beast and I dragged Dale away from danger. I stitched her up, but her condition quickly deteriorated and I was forced to call for extraction. I am aware that my actions were risky and expensive, but I couldn't risk losing another good soldier." Ruth lowered her head a bit, avoiding his one-eyed gaze and handed him the small bag. "We recovered these from the cave, sir."

The man took it and gently unwrapped the patched fabric revealing the three metal tags with names engraved on them.

"So all of them were dead?" There was a hint of regret in his voice while he was looking at them. She nodded in response, trying to take her eyes away from the three pieces of cold, dirty metal. "Do you know how they died?"

"They had to have been ambushed by the creature, sir." Her throat contracted as the memories of the carnage returned to her. "They were already partially... decomposed and eaten when we saw them. The cause of death was pretty obvious, and even if I wanted to look for gunshot wounds in most cases it'd be almost impossible to find, with the state they were in."

Stevens sighed heavily and leaned over to the side of his desk, placing two small glasses and a bottle of brandy between them. Ruth watched in surprise as he poured the golden liquid evenly into both of them.

"I'm sorry you had to go through this, Delassandis." He said, handing her a glass. "Did you know any of them?" There was genuine concern in his voice.

She picked up the glass and looked at the alcohol inside for a longer moment, the strong smell reaching her senses. "Corporal Jonathan Haze, sir." She said, barely keeping her voice even and took a small sip. "He's the only one I knew close. I was working with Specialist William Harris for a day once, but that's about it."

"Haze..." He muttered, lost in thoughts for a moment, looking at the three pieces of metal before him. "Good soldier, skilled marksman, top of his training group. All three of them were just like you and Dale..." He smiled sympathetically, then paused for a moment longer, looking at the papers laid on his desk. "He was the one who recommended you, wasn't he? I remember him mentioning training a promising new recruit."

"Yes," was all she could muster as a response.

"I'm sorry for your loss."

Ruth nodded, squeezing her eyes shut to prevent any tears from forming. It was not the time nor place for that. But it was time for something else. She inhaled the paint-scented air and gathered some courage.

"Sir, I'd like to-"

"Do you think it was a mistake to send them to investigate that camp?"

She stuttered and stopped, the sudden question taking her by surprise. "Uh..." Ruth searched for the right words, all the courage bursting like a popped balloon. "Sir, I'm not sure... "

"I told them they should expect raiders because that's what our intel said." She found it hard to look away from his intense stare. "And now they are dead."

"I don't think it was your fault, sir." She said quietly, feeling the pressure of silence.

"Oh, it was my fault, that's how it works." He emptied his glass in one gulp. "I give orders, soldiers go out and sometimes they die." He paused for a moment, giving her time to process his words. "And it never gets easier, not when you hand-pick the best for the job that needs to be done."

Ruth quietly took another sip from the glass, not sure what else she could do. His words drilled into her mind.

"We have to do our jobs the best we can. If we don't, people die." The colonel continued, lining up the dog tags on his desk. "But we're not immune to errors, and when we make mistakes, good people can get hurt." He shifted his good eye back to look at her. His words were not harsh nor commanding, they were soft and of almost fatherly tone. "My commander once told me that good soldiers often live long enough to go home, but the best soldiers... they rarely come back at all. They become heroes." He chuckled. "Then he told us that he needed volunteers to be those heroes." He pointed at his eyepatch. "I was the lucky one." He turned and gestured towards a faded picture in a small frame above one of the cabinets. It showed a group of maybe a dozen soldiers posing in front of a huge wall of concrete stretched across a canyon. "This was my team a few days before we left for the last mission. I was among the three who survived." He sighed again and poured himself more brandy while Ruth looked at him wide-eyed, listening. "Few days after that, the NCR won the first battle for Hoover Dam. Nobody remembers a small group of soldiers who stole the Legion's logistics plans, poisoned a few of their leaders, and sabotaged a few caravans." He shrugged and took a sip. "Many of my friends died because of this mission, but it was not a mistake."

"Sir... " Ruth said finally, putting her glass down. "Private Dale got attacked by the deathclaw because I didn't go into the cave with her. It is my fault and my mistake."

"How do you know?" He asked flatly.

She looked at him as if the answer was too obvious. "I told her to go alone. It was my decision and my choice to let her go, and... "

"I know you told her to go alone, but how do you know it was the reason she got hurt?" The woman looked at him unsure how to respond, so he continued. "If you went in together, the deathclaw would shred both of you and there wouldn't be anyone to patch you up." He pointed at the line of dog tags on his desk. "They probably went in together and they are all dead and you're not. More than that, you killed the bitch and probably prevented an infestation of deathclaws that would cause even more deaths." He raised his voice slightly and Ruth felt her heart skip a beat. "Yes, it is your fault, your responsibility that Dale got attacked, but in the end it was not your mistake."

She sat still for a few moments stunned by his words. She didn't know what to do with herself or what to think anymore. The colonel took something out of his drawer and stood up. Ruth followed automatically standing at attention.

He walked around his desk with two small envelopes grasped in his hand. "The general didn't like the idea of a specialist leading a recon team." His voice returned to his normal, formal tone. "In the light of your recent successes, I promote you to the rank of corporal, effective immediately."

It took a few moments for her brain to process the information. She looked at her commanding officer dumbfounded, repeating his words in her mind, trying to understand exactly what just happened.

"Moreover, Private Amberly Dale is to be promoted to the rank of private first class." He handed her both envelopes. "Inform her about this as soon as she wakes up."

Ruth took the envelopes with shaky hands, her mind was completely blank. "Thank you sir." She managed to respond automatically.

"You did well, Corporal. I know you won't rest even if I order you to stay away from the hospital, but I want you to be in top shape tomorrow morning. And I stress it, morning." He gave her a hint of a smile. "I have a mission for you and the other team."

"I'll do my best, sir." She hoped she didn't sound too defeated.

"I know you will. Now go." He said, and handed her back her report. "And feel free to correct this paper, I'm sure there are a few mistakes that could use some fixing."

Ruth took back the document, saluted, and left the room without another word.

When the huge doors closed behind her, she took a few steps away from his office and stopped, looking at the contents of her hands. This was completely different from what she'd hoped to achieve. Her mind was blank, yet reeling with contradictory emotions, questions, and stubborn defiance of his words. She shook her head and seconds later she was running down the corridor, heading towards the hospital.

She only slowed down when she reached the tent. As Ruth went past the waste bins just near the entrance, she recognized Private Vasquez from the other recon team on a bed to her right. She'd seen him yesterday evening, but he was sound asleep. His arm and leg were wrapped in bandages. Two nurses were just checking up on him and not wanting to interrupt, Ruth quickly turned to the back of the tent.

Amber was awake. The bed was slightly elevated so that she wouldn't have to lay completely flat. She was chatting with Amy who was standing beside the redhead's bed checking her drip-bag. Ruth sighed in relief, seeing her awake for the first time since the night in the car wreck. The woman caught sight of her and smiled.

"I thought you'd forgotten about me." She said weakly, but not without the usual hint of mockery in her voice.

"After all the trouble you caused? No one would." Ruth walked up to them and nodded at Amy. "I hope you're not tormenting her too much now that she's awake."

"Only as much as I need to. She is kind of whiny, though." She chuckled seeing Amber's furrowed brow. "Don't go anywhere dear, I'll check up on you later." Amy smiled at them and disappeared behind a curtain.

Ruth sat on the edge of the bed, studying her partner's face. "How's being drugged?"

"It's pretty cool. Everything still hurts, but a little less." She sighed softly. "I'm pretty sure booze would work better."

"Sorry, that'll have to wait this time." Ruth smiled in response, still tasting the brandy in her mouth.

"I'm surprised you're not in the white coat yet." Amber muttered and looked at the papers in her partner's hand. "You asked for a transfer back here, didn't you?"

Ruth blinked at her in surprise, then looked down at the papers. She didn't expect Amber to remember much of their talk that evening. "I wanted to, but Stevens had other plans for me. I'm being sent with the other team on another mission. I think he knew I was going to ask for it, and didn't even give me a chance."

"Serves you right." The redhead chuckled.

"By the way." She held up the papers. "We got promoted."

"Wha- really?" The redhead tried to sit up in excitement, but she hissed instead as the pain pinned her back down on the cushion.

Ruth held her partner's body down. "It's too early for you to move like that, you want to rip your stitches?" She scolded her.

"Fine, fine." Amber muttered, wincing, then motioned at the envelope. "Could you..."

"Sure." The other woman said with a brief smile, opened the letter, and unfolded the piece of paper, holding it in front of Amber's eyes.

"Damn." The redhead said after scanning the text. "I finished my boot camp a week ago and now I got my first promotion." She turned her eyes towards the blue-haired woman. "I guess getting shot at and torn apart by a deathclaw counts as an extraordinary achievement."

"I think it's more about surviving those things." Ruth said with a shrug. "Then again, I got mine for dragging you through this whole ordeal."

"Just don't make a habit out of it." Amber chuckled again.

Their further conversation was interrupted by Amy pushing a wheelchair with a familiar soldier sitting on it.

"Good evening." Vasquez said, nodding at both of them. "I'd salute you, ma'am but..." He gestured at his bandaged right arm, immobilized on his chest.

"Don't worry about that." Ruth replied with a smile.

"Alright, enough of this flirting." Amy said, helping the man move from the wheelchair to the bed next to Amber's. "All three of you are supposed to get some rest now." She turned towards Ruth. "And you especially."

She gave her a puzzled look in response. "I don't recall being one of your patients, Amy."

"But you will be if you collapse from exhaustion. You've been through enough, now go find some place to rest, or I will have you sedated and strapped to a bed. And remember to take care of that wounded cheek!" As much as she could argue, Amy was right. Ruth barely managed to get enough sleep the previous night and the events of the last couple of days were still clouding her mind pretty heavily.

"I didn't know you were into the kinky stuff." Amber said and both women turned towards her, Ruth's face reddened when Amy winked at her.

"There are many things you don't know about her, dear."

"Alright, I'm going." She shook her head, trying to hide her blush behind her short fringe. She sprang from the bed and left.

James lay down on his bed, trying to find a comfortable position for his immobilized leg and arm. From what Amber had gathered from his and Amy's conversation, the majority of his wounds and injuries were almost healed by now, but there was still some time needed until he was allowed to come back to his team.

"So, how did that happen?" Amber asked, tilting her head as much as she could to see him. Moving was still an issue, but with all the drugs and care put into her recovery, just laying there wasn't as big of a torment as it used to be.

"Nothing as spectacular as in your case." He chuckled. "I fell down a hole. A big hole."

The redhead laughed and immediately gasped when her chest flared up in pain. "A hole, seriously? What were you doing?" She clenched her teeth, but managed to hold her grin.

"The usual, gathering intel." He shrugged and rolled his eyes. "But it was dark... and there was some kind of a well covered with seriously decayed planks. I guess that explains it."

The redhead scoffed, imagining how funny it must have looked, but at the same time felt her own wounds sting at the thought of experiencing such an accident. "Did you at least find anything interesting there?"

"In the hole? Not really. Few dead mole rats, really, really stinky dead mole rats."

Amber closed her eyes to get rid of the images of decomposing bodies in the cave, almost tasting the horrid smell again. "Yeah, those things stink like hell."

"But that's not all." Vasquez continued, shifting slightly to look at her. "We did find a few dead raiders, too. They were executed, but not like, you know, Legion does it. Not on a cross. They were just tied to posts and shot full of lead. In their armor and all, some of them even had caps on them."

"That's... weird." Amber muttered. "Which gang were they from?"

"Not Tombstone's, if that's what you're asking. They were the mountain people, allied with the Vultures. They are small fries, no idea why someone would waste ammo on them and leave all their shit intact. Why shoot those piggies if you can slice their throats or just leave them in the sun?"

"I guess someone wants to show off just how much ammo they have." Amber finally said with a painful shrug.

They both lay in silence for a while. Various voices and other sounds of normal hospital activities died down around them as more and more patients fell asleep while doctors left to take some well-deserved rest. Footsteps of people outside the tent were less and less frequent, but if one listened closely, they could hear music in the distance coming from the pub. Amber sighed silently and closed her eyes, sleep taking over her slowly. In her thoughts, she thanked Med-Tek, or whatever pre-war industry had been there, that they managed to produce such awesome pain-numbing drugs. The wasteland would've been so much worse without them.

"Dale?" The man asked, almost whispering. "You still there?"

"I was just planning to pass out, but I'm still here." The annoyance in her voice was clear, but he didn't seem to care.

"What do you know about Delassandis?"

There was a long silence after his question. Sleep disappeared from under her eyelids when thousands of thoughts ran through the redhead's mind as she tried to figure out how to respond. There were many things she could say, but none of them truly fit for the right answer. Her ideas of the short girl were colored with emotions ranging from hate through respect to gratitude, and every one of them contradicted the other and messed up her thoughts even further.

"I don't know." She finally said.

"You... don't know what you know?" Vasquez asked, confused, and turned on his bed. "You spent a lot of time together, you have to know something." She felt his almost unnaturally dark eyes studying her face.

"We didn't really... talk too much." She admitted, suddenly feeling guilty. "Truth be told, I wanted to kill her for the better part of last week."

"You, what?" His voice sounded even more confused.

"I thought she was a raider spy, or someone like that." She chuckled. "I still think she's not who she says she is, but she saved my life so I suppose I have to give her the benefit of the doubt, right?"

The bald man next to her stayed silent for a few moments. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts for a bit, then his tone turned odd. Cautious, with a hint of mystery. "When I was a teenager, and we still lived in Big Bog, peculiar people came to my town. It was a man and a young girl. They came to trade, offering to heal our sick in exchange for supplies, food and water. But we had many good doctors, and they weren't with any caravan. They were outsiders, so they didn't get everything they had hoped for. As soon as they left, a terrible plague spread among my people. The girl had white hair and weird patches on her skin." His dark eyes shifted towards her, his forehead wrinkled in a frown. "Have you seen how Delassandis's hands look like? Her face? How she keeps wearing long sleeves even though it's boiling hot outside?"

"Now hold on there a second." Amber shook her head slightly. "You're trying to tell me that our superior is the same random girl from the past that infected your town? Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?" She didn't know how to feel about his story. It seemed very unlikely and superstitious even, but then all her doubts resurfaced. On one hand, she wanted to protect the fragile trust she began to develop for her companion, on the other, she couldn't deny that there was something in Ruth that has always bothered her.

"I know. And I never met the girl, I never even saw her up close, only heard the story from someone else." James admitted. "They were the outsiders, kids in Big Bog weren't allowed near anyone outside the community. The people there have always been, well... Her look and age are all I can confirm."

"It's not like she's the only woman with a weird skin condition. The wasteland has all sorts of weird shit to give you, and there are a thousand ways and possibilities for your face to get fucked up, I'd seen some of that in other strangers before." She tried her best not to think about her current wounds and their future consequences. "Besides, that mess on her head is far from white." The redhead argued, but then again she's never seen her partner's natural hair color, and car polish was still easy to find in the wasteland. She knew of various shades of green, yellow, orange, even purple, that raiders sprayed on the scalp, and who knew what was in fashion back then, maybe even white.

"I know and I don't want to accuse her." Vasquez admitted, although she heard the hint of uncertainty in his voice. "But please, if you get the chance, ask her if she's ever been to Big Bog. Maybe there's a chance she will know how to help my people."

"I will..." Amber said as her mind was desperately trying to put all the puzzle pieces together, but the number of empty spaces increased rapidly and she had no idea what to make of it.

"Am I the only one who hates his new office?" Mook shuddered, empathizing his horror as the doors closed behind them and the three soldiers came into the evenly bright corridor, the odd smell of paint still disturbing their nostrils.

"I'm pretty sure Stevens hates it even more." Ruth smiled, putting a new set of papers back into a folder.

Derek sped up his pace a bit. "I just wanted to say, ma'am." He came in line with their new temporary commander. "That I'm really excited for this mission."

"Really? It just sounds like another intel-only walk."

"Well, your first objective didn't seem that special, either, and you got to fight the Tombstones!" He gestured widely as he spoke.

She was about to say something about the purely accidental nature of this mission, but his elevated voice continued. "And then you stumbled upon a deathclaw! The real deal!"

"Not to mention you destroyed it!" Mook joined him, nodding with a wide smile across his face.

"Yes, and it almost destroyed Dale, too." She frowned, looking ahead trying not to recall the still fresh memories.

"Having you in the team, ma'am, we're gonna have a wild ride!" The walking muscle spoke, ignoring her remark. Ruth sighed heavily as they marched down the hallway.

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