A regular rain shower followed right on the heels of the rad storm as it passed, bringing with it cold winter air and scattered raindrops. Nick removed his tan trench coat and draped it over Jaycee in his arms. His brown fedora he dropped onto Gale's head as she limped along beside him. Soon, his shirt was soaked through, but he didn't mind. He was just glad they were all alive.
The sun had mostly set when they made it back to Sanctuary, plunging the world into chilly blue shadows. Preston Garvey called off the search parties when they arrived. It turned out they had already caught Simon Abney heading out of town with another kid. He was being held in a locked room under armed guard, so Gale called a meeting with the settlement leaders to decide what to do with him.
Nick leaned against the wall behind Gale in the dining room of the main house, with everyone else arranged around the table. Another settler neither he nor Gale recognized was allowed into the meeting to stitch up the wound on Gale's hip while the rest of them talked. The synth kept an eye on the stranger, but she did a good job. Jun Long quietly returned Gale's patched jacket to her. Jaycee sat on Gale's lap the entire time and Gale never once complained, even while she was being sewed back together. The girl remained quiet and solemn, a total break from the happy, chatty child she was before this day. Gale kept touching the girl's hair, her expression lost when she took in this stark difference again and again.
The discussion didn't last very long at all.
In the cold and the dark, the settlers gathered at the wooden bridge leading out of Sanctuary. The rain had stopped and the storm moved on, leaving behind a wet cold that threatened to drop below freezing. Some of those gathered held torches, the flickering orange flames reflected on the river below. But they were tiny dots of light in the immense black all around, outshone by the billions of stars blazing in the sky overhead. The settlers all turned as Preston Garvey and Sturges hauled their hapless prisoner through their ranks and out onto the bridge. They shoved him down onto his knees and stepped back on either side of him, weapons trained on his head.
Simon Abney's heavy breathing puffed into the cold air as he shrank down on his knees, hands above his head. He had short brown hair ringing a mostly bald pate and a thick beard. Looking up at Garvey, he said, "W-what're ya gonna do with me?"
As if on cue, Gale Anderson stepped forward from Nick's side at the bridge rail, boots ringing against the planks. Nothing about her was theatrical now; every line of her body, from her narrowed dark eyes to her clenched fists, spelled rage. Her truest truth. She stopped in front of Simon Abney, then crouched down so that she was at eye level with him.
"Simon Abney," she said, surprisingly level voice carrying to the onlookers, "you have been found guilty of human trafficking and kidnapping on at least two counts. You were instrumental in the traumatization of a child. You have betrayed the trust of this settlement, the citizens of which took you in and called you one of their own. For these crimes, the settlement of Sanctuary hereby bans you from its borders. And," her voice lowered, "so that no other settlement makes the mistake we made—"
Marcy Long stepped forward out of the crowd, bearing a long steel rod with a metal bottle cap welded to the end. The crimped edge around the cap glowed with heat from where she had held it in an open torch flame. She handed the brand to Gale and moved back.
"—in the sight of these witnesses, you will be branded an exile," Gale finished.
Simon Abney shrank back—whimpering no no no!—but Gale caught him by his coat collar. He struggled in her grip until he heard the click of Sturges cocking back the hammer on his pistol. Abney froze, eyes wide.
Gale said, "When you hate me after this day, remember: you chose this." Her jaw clenched and through gritted teeth, she spat, "It was worth one hundred caps to you."
In a single motion, the Vaultdweller grabbed a fistful of Simon's hair in one hand and, with the other, pressed the bottle cap brand against his cheek. Nick cut his gaze away as Simon's scream pierced the night; it quickly died to a wet whimper. When Nick looked again, the Vaultdweller was hauling Simon up and shoving him toward the other end of the bridge and the open winter night. He had a toothy, circular black mark burned into his cheek, the flesh around it already swelling. He sobbed as he ran in wobbling steps toward freedom and eventual doom.
Gale stood watching him go, legs splayed apart and hands loose at her sides. The brand rolled along the planking beside her where she had dropped it, hissing as the heat touched the damp wood until it came to a halt. The rest of the witnesses dispersed to find warm homes and much-needed beds. As they passed, Sturges gave Gale a light slap on the back and Garvey nodded to her.
Quiet descended, but still Gale stood there. Crickets chirruped uneasily and smoke drifted upward from the end of Nick's freshly lit cigarette. Hat brim angled low, Nick lounged with his back and elbows against the rail. He tapped ash over the side several times as he waited for her.
With a shiver, Gale finally pulled her exposed hands into the sleeves of her jacket and joined Nick at the railing. She rested her elbows on the old, splintery wood and gazed downriver in the opposite direction of him, expression destroyed. Nick handed over the cigarette.
Gale only looked at it a moment before handing it back. "I don't deserve this," she whispered, voice cracking.
Nick grunted, neither agreement nor disagreement. Studying the glowing embers, he said, "You probably need it more than I do."
Gale shook her head and was silent for a long, long time. The night grew colder and Nick tipped his chin back to gaze up at a cluster of bright blue stars. Questions spun in his mind. He was uncertain how to help Gale, uncertain whether he should—did she need a hug or to be left alone? had they done the right thing here?—so he did nothing. Remaining by her side was all he could offer right now.
"I keep thinking," Gale eventually said from the dark, "that death might have been more merciful. But I couldn't—" the handrail creaked as she tightened her grip on it, "—execute him in cold blood." Nick heard Gale run a hand through her hair, a gesture familiar enough by now, after months of travel with her, that he recognized it even without looking at her. "I just… I don't know what I should've done. I don't know if I should've killed those people but let him live." Her voice dropped to a murmur. "But I couldn't let it happen. Not again. Not another kidnapping... not if I could stop it."
Knowing that he wasn't the only one facing inner conflict over this mess somehow made Nick feel a little better, a little more forgiving toward Gale. He blew out a stream of smoke, white against the night. "Justice takes many forms," he said. "That can be dangerous thinking, but we do the best we can."
Gale grunted, neither agreement nor disagreement. "You know, I was studying to be a lawyer. Before all this…" —she gestured with an open hand at the broken, irradiated land around them— "happened."
"Well," said Nick with a smile, "that explains all those fancy words of yours."
Gale chuckled, but no smile appeared. "My point is," she said, "what happened tonight is not how it would've been handled back then."
When Nick shifted to look at Gale with his night vision, he saw shadows lurking behind her eyes. It was at moments like these, when Gale faced the often harsh moral gray areas of post-war society, that Nick remembered she had not grown up in this world. She didn't think like the other inhabitants of the Commonwealth. Hers had been a gentler life than theirs, with problems like kidnappers dealt with by legals and officials. She didn't belong in this cruel reality but, Nick had to admit, she did adapt to it.
Nick said, "I remember." He nodded back toward the rickety houses across the bridge from them. "All I know is, that little girl in there didn't disappear into the horrors of the wasteland, thanks to you." He flicked more ash off of the cigarette. "Tonight, I think that's good enough for me."
Gale nodded almost imperceptibly. Several more minutes ticked by as she considered what he had said. Then, without a word, she took the cigarette from Nick with gentle fingers and drew on what little was left. He accepted this as a sign that maybe she no longer thought of herself as undeserving.
Nick decided then that for all the heart Gale had shown today, neither did he.