After the Vault: Chapter 18

Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of Fallout or anything that comprises it. This is a non-profit story written solely for my own enjoyment and that of anyone who wishes to read it. The story and all original characters are mine. Please don't use them without permission.

000

After the Vault

-A Fallout Fan-Fiction by Nutzoide-

Chapter 18

Full Circle

It was dark when Abigail awoke. Not the pitch black of a tent at midnight, or the glistening, haloed darkness of a night beneath the stars, but a warm, night-light darkness manufactured for comfort and security. Even though the light flickered, quite unlike the dim, steady bulbs that had lined her vault corridors, there was something reassuring about it. She was at least somewhere safe.

She was also in bed, beneath more covers than the cool night air had any hope of penetrating. She might have lifted out a hand to check the air and discard one of those sheets - any contrast to the constant daytime heat was welcome to her now - but she didn't know if her body would respond if she tried. Dull, aching pains echoed slowly through her, radiating outwards from her wounded shoulder, now wrapped with uncomfortable tightness. Her arms ached as if she'd spent entirely too much time in the gym, and been too lazy to take a hot bath afterwards. Even her head throbbed.

A pill would have been nice right then. Something to keep her moving through the pain, and get her out of bed.

Instead she sighed and lay still, so as not to aggravate her throbbing shoulder. Thankfully, knowing it wasn't an option didn't seem quite as grim as it had several days before. She was alive, and that was something. Alive and safe. At least for now.

"Oh, you're awake? It's a bit early for you, isn't it?" The voice was surprised, but pleasantly so. Then, more gently, "How do you feel?"

Abigail closed her eye and sighed again. It was Chopper. But then, who else would have treated her wounds and bandaged her up? This was something that Abigail really didn't need to deal with, feeling so groggy and uncomfortable. The woman had managed to destroy her self confidence and break her heart in one terrible evening, but since then had saved her life in the alleys and had actually shouted that she still cared about her, after everything she had done. But only *after* having slept with Erin, according to rumour.

And Abigail still had her possibly wounded friends and a damned Super Mutant to worry about. No, she did not want to deal with Chopper right now.

"Unhh. I'm okay, I guess."

It came out more confrontationally than she intended. After all, hopefully Chopper had put the whole sorry mess behind her already if she was back with Erin. But that did not make as much of a difference to Abigail's state of mind as she had hoped.

Chopper's voice came back quieter, and more curt now. "I see."

That was it for a moment. Abigail looked down past her feet to where the woman's voice came from. It was hard to make out, but lit both by the one candle and the green glow of Abigail's PipBoy screen, Chopper sat at a table by the side of the room. Her medical bag was open and her tools spread across the tabletop, but she wasn't working.

"You've certainly been in better shape," Chopper finally said. Her voice, though still quiet, had returned to its normal, level tone. "But you'll heal eventually. It wasn't a bad break, for a gunshot. Try to sleep some more."

Yes, that was better. If any talking was going to happen, it wasn't going to be now. Feeling relieved Abigail tried to take her advice, but now that she was awake she found that more rest would not come easily.

"... Why have you got my PipBoy?"

"It has a decent light. And you wear it on your left arm. You'll have to change that for a while."

A sudden worried butterfly flitted through Abigail's stomach. "You've haven't read my diary, have you?"

"Why would I do that?"

"Just... don't." Not that I've used it recently, she thought. But still, things had changed.

Another few minutes of uncomfortable silence followed. "Chopper? Did anyone die?"

"A lot of people died. Go to sleep. We can talk about that tomorrow."

"Chopper!"

"Tomorrow. You need rest, and I still have work to do."

So there were still people in trouble then, and Chopper was still needed, even though the sun had gone down.

"What time is it?"

"Three twenty seven, according to your gadget."

Late then. "You aren't going to sleep?"

Chopper's silhouette shifted. "If I do then Hickman dies."

"Oh no..." That wasn't fair. He was one of the good ones! Why him!

Because he couldn't keep up any more, part of her mind told her. Because his old injuries slowed him down. Because it was too much to hope they had got through without any further casualties. Because one or two bullets of the hundreds fired that day happened to find their mark.

Because someone else had rolled the dice, and got lucky.

"I told you, we can talk about it later. Worrying is only going to keep you awake."

Abigail had always hated it when Chopper was right. Especially when it was for the right reasons.

"You can save him, right?"

"Maybe. I wouldn't be trying if it wasn't possible."

000

The soft, flickering candle had been replaced by the white glare of sunlight on the walls when Abigail finally woke again. The blinds were drawn and what little light there was cast itself across the hastily painted walls rather than down onto her, but it still made her reel before she could find her sunglasses on one of the bedside stands, groping for them one handed.

Then her shoulder objected, echoed by her head, as she slowly managed to slip them on. Perhaps she ought not to be moving like that yet.

However, her only alternative was to lie in bed, watching the rays of sun march across the room. That was even less appealing than the pain that had already begun to subside. Chopper had probably given her another stimpak, pain faded so quickly, and though she had shifted out of it in her sleep there was a sling resting around her neck.

With great care she eased her left arm into it again, hissing when it protested, and she rose. She was just wearing her jumpsuit, but she did not like the idea of getting her leathers back on again, wherever they might have been. Instead she slipped her feet into the mismatched boots that sat by the dresser, not bothering to try and tie them, and headed out. Chopper's things were still strewn across the tabletop, minus the medical tin and Abigail's PipBoy, but they could be left. If nothing else, Abigail wanted to find out where exactly she was, and more importantly where everyone *else* was.

It was actually very disconcerting, stepping out of a bedroom and not being met by a long corridor lined with doors to similar rooms. There was a room opposite, with a bed and a trunk at its foot, but that was all, and the brief hall opened into a much larger room filled with both a kitchen and living space, which looked into one of Corva's winding alleyways.

This was what a normal house was in Corva. However briefly she had visited it, Bason's had been very similar.

As soon as she emerged all three pairs of eyes in that room turned to greet her, and before Abigail could even say hello Sharn was out of her chair and rushing to hug her.

"Abby-girl! I thought you weren't going to wake up at all at this rate!"

It was a calm and careful embrace, much more restrained than her voice was, and while it still hurt to be held Abigail didn't mind in the least. She was just glad to see Sharn alive and well after all.

"Ow, ehe, I'm so glad you're okay," Abigail beamed, hanging onto Sharn even as the woman realised that it must have hurt and tried to pull away. "I was so scared, I thought you'd be dead."

"I thought so too," Sharn admitted. She rubbed at a bandage that had been tied around her head, just above her eyebrows. It made her voluminous hair look puffed upwards like a stook of corn. "But I got off lightly."

From the table, a pint of beer in his hand, Rathley chuckled. "You're a tough bitch if you call a cracked skull 'light', sugar."

Abigail's concern immediately blossomed on her face, but Sharn waved it off. "Really, I'm okay. I must have fallen pretty hard. Just don't hit me there and I'll be fine. You on the other hand, ought to be sitting down."

Abigail didn't protest as she was led to the chair Sharn had vacated. It was nice to be looked after right now. "And what about you two?" she asked. "And Simon? Is he okay?"

Both Kyle and Sharn's faces fell, while Rathley's simply firmed slightly. After that Abigail knew the answer before any of them gave it.

"Simon didn't wake up," Kyle said at last. "We thought he might have pulled through, he didn't look any worse than Sia, but he must have been closer to the blast."

"Oh." That was a blow. A heavy one. Both he and Trevor had been killed chasing after their revenge. Abigail couldn't help but think that it couldn't have been worth it. "And Jassic died. I know. I saw it happen."

"Yeah," Rathley agreed, sucking air through his teeth, "that was nasty. Quick though."

Kyle went to the stove and retrieved a lukewarm pan of coffee, pouring some for her.

"Who else?" Abigail asked as she accepted the cup.

"Your girl, Vas," Rathley replied. "Got cooked in that car out back. Damn thing was still live. Went up like nobody's business." He chuckled. "It was a decent bit of cover too, apart from that. She and Bason probably took down that mutant on their own, almost."

"And Bason?"

"He's fine," said Kyle. "A few scratches. He never got past the back wall, but it kept him out of the line of fire."

"Wyatt and Gnash got shot up," Rathley added. "Don't know if you talked to them. Didn't choose the best of times to come and back us up, when the last lot of raider's came runnin' out. Took a bullet myself in that lot."

He pulled out his chair, and Abigail could see that his stomach was bound up, like her shoulder was.

"Uh, is it bad?" She had to ask but he didn't seem to be in any discomfort at all. He even laughed about it.

"Nah, Chopper got some good meds after the fight, and I've been patched up enough to know this ain't even gonna slow me down."

"Uh," Sharn seemed to hesitate, adding her own casualty to the table, "Hickman died last night. One of the Raiders on the upper floors hit him, apparently."

"He did die?"

Kyle nodded. "Chopper told you then?"

Abigail nodded.

"We thought he might make it. The bullet only got his bad side." Kyle tapped his chest to illustrate. "But it went right through. We didn't get Chopper to him in time."

Abigail sighed and closed her eyes, sipping the warm drink. "She said she thought she could heal him."

Rathley nodded. "Yeah, she was real pissy about that this mornin'."

"The rest of our cart made it okay though," Sharn assured her. "Lumps and scratches, and a few minor gunshots, but nothing lethal."

It was enough, Abigail thought, but she was grateful that the list wasn't longer. "What about you, Kyle?"

He shrugged, subdued, but trying to lighten the mood. "I'm fine. They didn't touch me."

"Lucky bastard," Rathley said with a smile.

"You're slow, old man."

Kyle stopped and turned back to Abigail. "By the way, you probably want this back."

He laid a knife on the table that Abigail instantly recognised as hers.

"You left it in a Heart."

000

While it was good to listen to her friends talk and bicker again, the company alone was not enough to keep Abigail indoors. They could tell her about the battle, and of the hunt for roaming Hearts that had lasted well into the evening, Abigail still had questions that they hadn't been able to answer.

Most important, to Abigail's mind, was what had happened to Stephanie. Abigail had passed out on that rooftop leaving the gunsmith alone with the Super Mutant she had called Manny, but as for what had happened after that the others couldn't say. She was alive, that much was certain, but the Mercs and Scavs in their army had been more worried about rounding up the remaining Hearts or claiming some loot on the sly.

Had the mutant simply sat and waited to be found? If so, then why? Abigail had half expected not to wake up at all after exhaustion had forced her to submit to Stephanie's request, and let the monster be.

Then again, Abigail was glad she had. She had been ready to tackle the creature off the roof, and if she'd risked it then she *wouldn't* have woken up again, regardless of whether she had succeeded or not. That much would have been certain.

So, what had been done with the Super Mutant, now that it was under Stephanie's care? And Erin's, if rumour was to be believed. How could they be remotely safe alone with a beast that had been shooting Brotherhood level explosives into their people?

No-one seemed to care much. The Mercs were too pre-occupied with licking their wounds and tallying up their scavenged bounty, while the townsfolk who had stayed and weathered the occupation, or who had been captured and since released, were laying claim to the finest houses and farms that their neighbours had abandoned.

Even Sharn seemed content to accept this new status quo. "If anyone knows, if would be Stephanie. She was captured by them. She knows him."

"But look at what they did! What if it's like Stockholm syndrome or something?"

Sharn had only looked at her in confusion. "Stock-what-syndrome? Abby, Erin's a smart girl. I'm sure she and Steph know what they are doing, whatever that is."

Abigail hadn't disagreed. She didn't want to fight, and she was too mentally drained to argue the point. It was Erin's decision, but Abigail still would have liked to know what had happened to them since the battle, and why they hadn't just killed the monster.

She'd thought of going back to the police station to ask directly, but before she'd even got close she had been ambushed by one of the groups of townies, rushing about to claim tools or goods they could use.

"Hey, hey are you Abigail? Hey guys! You know who this is?"

Abigail had stopped short, surprised that anyone would make such a fuss. "Uh, yes, that's me. Can I help you?"

"I told you!" said the young man excitedly. "She's the one who fought back the mutant on top of the station!"

Instantly the six strong mob had fallen on her, thanking her for 'saving the town', single-handed if you were to hear them go on.

"Seriously, did you fight it bare handed?"

"Damn, I thought you'd be taller. I nearly didn't recognise you without the jacket."

"We would have been dead if it weren't for you, girl. Anything you want, just ask."

"Guys, can't you tell she's out of your league?"

"I'm thanking her, asshole! She took a beating for us!"

"Yeah, you okay now? I got stimpaks if you need 'em?"

Abigail couldn't have got a word in edgeways if she'd tried, but she'd been caught off guard and thoroughly unprepared for this sort of treatment. Instead she backed up a step, her throat dry, and tried to do what Rathley managed so well. Act cool, and stay in control.

"Guys, hey!"

All six of them shut up as one.

She smiled a little. What do you know, she thought. It worked. "Thanks, but I have somewhere to be. Just... get this place back on its feet, okay?"

One of the more confident young men beamed back at her and nodded. "You bet, Miss. Come on boys, stop bothering her and get back to it."

Once they had swaggered away she let out a sigh. It was nice to be praised like that, but it didn't half make her nervous. If that was what was waiting for her at the police house - probably swarming with people as Erin restored order to the town - Abigail could put her questions off. She didn't want to think that it wasn't her business, but she could at least trust that they knew what they were doing.

And that they weren't going to lower their guard around 'Manny'.

So, as several of the townies had clearly been wondering, where exactly *was* she going?

Well, she did still have friends she wanted to check on, and they weren't too far from there.

000

The Seven Feet Under had never been a hive of activity in Abigail's experience, but now with reconstruction and recovery starting get underway the place seemed deserted even by that comparison. Not all of Corva's ghoul population had frequented the place, and Abigail had only really socialised with Christian's group of friends, or the few women she had met there like Celia.

Now the tables lay empty, a pack of cards or box of dominoes lying at each one, unmindful of potential theft. Who would have stolen a ghoul's meagre pastimes? Likewise the bar was lined with empty stools and chairs. Geoffrey, the grisly and grizzled barman, sat behind his counter with a glass of rotgut, paying no attention to the few ghouls within - who were either too uninterested in the town's reclaimed freedom or were physically incapable of helping out around the town.

"Uh, hi Geoff. Can I get a glass of sipping liquor please?"

Abigail was fond of the ghouls, but even then she'd never really liked Geoffrey. He was brusque and curt, and seemed to treat his job as owner of the clubhouse as a chore, even as he defended it like it was his own child. She didn't really want the drink, but he would think he was wasting his time if she asked a question without putting a cap his way.

Geoff huffed and hauled himself out of his chair to fetch the bottle. "Uhhh. One glass of liquor. That's a cap then."

Abigail nodded and handed over the bottle cap that she already had in her hand. "Um, is Christian here?"

Geoff rolled his eyes. "Nope. Off do-gooding. Celia's here though, 'course. You probably want to talk to her."

He pointed over behind the bar area to the settees, and true enough Celia was sat there. To her surprise, Kirren was with her. Abigail took her drink. "Thanks Geoff."

As ever Celia sat slightly hunched, but as upright and proper as she could probably manage. Kirren on the other hand lay sprawled against the back of the sofa, a glass of viciously clear spirit in her one hand.

Celia was quick to greet her when she appeared. "Habigail! Plhease, come and sit whith us?"

For someone so calm and gentle, this was the most animated that Abigail had ever seen Celia. Kirren, less so.

"Hey," the one armed Merc said with a tipsy smile, raising her glass as Abigail sat down on a chair opposite. "You did well, so I hear. What are you doin' here?"

Abigail put her glass down on their table. "I was going to see if Stephanie was okay, but since she's probably with Erin, and the police station is probably crowded..."

Kirren waved off her concern without a second thought. "Don't worry about them. They got it all sorted, apparently. Erin's got everyone she can running around and re-building, and sending out word that Corva's safe again. If there's one thing she does well, it's organising people."

"I whould be helping whith Christ'hian and Halbert as whell," Celia said, "bhut I fear I whould be in the whay."

Kirren agreed. "Yeah. It's not like we haven't done our bit already, anyway."

There was a trace of post-combat depression there, but Abigail guessed she would have felt the same if she had been set on the sidelines after the fight just because of a disability, rather than injury.

"So, you came here?" Abigail asked her. For someone who had played just as large a role in the fighting as she had, it seemed odd that a talented Merc like Kirren would have sought out the ghouls again when there was a whole town apparently eager to lavish praise upon them.

"You're here, aren't you?" Kirren quipped with a smile. She took a sip of her drink. "Celia, Geoff, they stuck around. They picked me up when I needed it when they could have stayed walled up here. It's better to have friends than flatterers, isn't it?"

That Abigail could agree with. "So what happened after I left? You look like you handled the Hearts better than I did." She flexed her left hand, poking from the sling.

Kirren see-sawed her head back and forth, seemingly not convinced. "I spend the rest of the fight stuck in that stairwell. I'm not used to close quarters gunfights yet, and there were dozens of those bastards. Oh, I killed enough of them, but I don't like all that popping-out-and-shooting-from-cover business, and you can only take so much ammunition. Thankfully I held out long enough for the cavalry to join me. And the last half dozen surrendered or suicided."

"And you didn't get shot," Abigail noted.

"Not for want of trying. And I'm covered in bruises from that stairwell wall."

"Khirren was saying," Celia added, steering the conservation forwards rather than back to the fight, "that Herin whill be harranging prhoper payments once hall the whork hassignments are mhade. Hand what to do whith the Hearts' mhutant. Hit was strhange to see one so hunlike hourselves."

Abigail's eyes widened. "You saw it?"

Celia nodded. "He is quhite lharge, isn't he? There whas mhuch debate habout him lhast nhight."

"Debate? Like what?"

"Whether he gets shot. He's not the only Heart we took alive, and that was Erin's reason for not having him executed on the spot. Which kept the more vocal Mercs from objecting."

Oh, how Abigail would have objected if she had been in any state to do so.

"And look at him. Erin probably wants to keep him for the same reason the Hearts did."

"But he's a monster!"

Celia's expression dropped into something so sorrowful that Abigail could guess what she was going to say even before she said it.

"Whe were human once."

And that just wasn't fair. "No! Celia, no, you're nothing like that creature! He shot rockets at us!"

"He also took a bullet to the chest and two more to the stomach, un-armoured, and lived to tell about it. He could do the work of ten men putting this town back together. Would you complain if he was on your side?"

"But he's not," Abigail went on. She couldn't afford the luxury of doubt. Not when those creatures had slaughtered their way through her vault, cost Kirren her arm, killed Jassic, Simon and Vas, and even been the reason Old Bert had died under friendly fire. "He's *not* on our side."

Kirren shrugged. "Well, we'll both get to have our say tomorrow."

"Huh?" Abigail looked up at her.

Kirren blinked and began to smile again, realising Abigail hadn't yet been told. "Erin's got a dozen of us on the list to decide how to sort this town out, Abby. From scratch, just about. And you certainly made your mark yesterday. You were already something of an icon, and now you're a town hero too. The Townies like listening heroes. How could Erin could get away with *not* inviting you?"

000

After that Abigail chose not to visit the station after all. The situation had been taken out of her hands once she had passed out on the roof, and if Erin and Stephanie were putting the mutant issue up for debate then they were both none the worse for their encounter with it. She could scarcely believe they were considering that 'Manny' could be trusted, or even just easily leashed, and Abigail would say as much if her voice could be counted, but that would not happen until tomorrow. If she went to see them now the topic would undoubtedly come up, and she did not want to quarrel with either Erin or Stephanie yet. For now she was just content knowing that they were safe and sorting out their affairs, whether she got to see them or not.

Instead Abigail spent what remained of the morning with Kirren and Celia. Christian, Albert and Nigel had joined them for something to eat, but after that Abigail left Kirren and the ghouls to their afternoon. The pain in her shoulder had started to become more than just an inconvenience, and she had returned to her room in the house she and her Scav companions had been given to get herself a stimpak.

The anaesthetics had done their job well. She had intended to visit several other old acquaintances to see how they had survived the invasion, if indeed they had, but after lying down to let the stimpak kick in it became too much effort to leave again. Instead she dozed through the afternoon, and was woken when Sharn had brought her some dinner.

"Wha..? I fell asleep?"

Sharn had just nodded and sat next to her on the bed, a bowl of rat-meat broth in her hands. "You probably still needed it."

"Uhg. I'll never sleep tonight now."

And she had been right. The moon was high in the sky by the time she gave up trying, and ventured out into the cold air. She left her shades on the bedroom table and pulled her jacket around her shoulders as best she could to ward off the night time chill, but when she reached the first of the farm pens to the east, only a few minutes away from the house, she knew she would not be staying out long.

Still, the extra rest seemed to have done her good, allowing the stimpak to work its chemical magic on her shoulder while she had slept. It still hurt, quite badly, but it was a much less sharp pain than it had been the night before, or that morning.

"What are you doing out?"

Chopper's voice made her turn, completely unprepared to meet another soul out in the darkness, least of all her. While Abigail could see well enough by the moonlight, Chopper carried her PipBoy with the green light turned back on again. It made for a poor torch, only lighting up a few feet of the darkness, but it was better than nothing and it didn't hurt her eyes. The fact that the woman had it again made Abigail frown, but she had forgotten it herself when she had gone out that morning.

"I spent all afternoon in bed. I had to get out."

Thankfully Chopper didn't seem to care, and if it had been an accusation she let it drop. "And you come *here*?"

Chopper looked out over the brahmin pens, and to the rows of dry but not quite dead grain. Abigail hadn't gone there specifically. She'd just started walking, and this was where she could see between the now sparse buildings to the desert beyond. The flat expanse was strangely beautiful by moonlight, Abigail had found.

"Why not? And how come *you* aren't in bed? I thought you didn't get any sleep last night."

"I didn't," Chopper replied, leaning on the wooden fence of the brahmin pen. "I finished putting the last of our Mercs back together before it got dark. Then I heard you muttering to yourself next door. Then I heard you leave."

Abigail turned back to the view of the desert. "I'll head back when I'm ready. I need the air."

"Who said I was taking you back? I haven't had a chance to talk to you since last night."

"Talk? You came out here in the dark to talk? About what? I thought Erin was the one you'd want to be spending your time with now?"

Chopper laughed. Enough to worry Abigail. "What?"

"I guess people would think that, wouldn't they. But you know what I think of her, Abby."

"You slept with her!"

Chopper nodded. "I gave her what she thought she wanted." Chopper's smile turned ironic. "I pretended. I think we both wished I hadn't given in, after the fact."

"W-what? If you hurt her..."

"She wanted me to love her. So I did. I gave her everything I had. And she knew I was faking it all. She took it harder than I expected." Chopper sighed, her smile having vanished now. "So, I doubt she'll be bothering me again."

That was... weird. Hadn't Erin *wanted* Chopper back, at any cost? "What? She just changed her mind? You had to have done something!"

Chopper gave her a sidewise glance. "You two are opposites, pretty much, but you're both still naive. Romantic. She wanted romance. She wanted to be in love again, not to be fucking someone and having to make believe. She's too sensitive for that, at least in the bedroom."

"You knew she'd be upset, then."

"You don't approve?"

"Of course not!" Abigail fumed. "You're so cruel!"

To her surprise Chopper actually nodded in agreement, but her face was dark. "I know what I am. Better than you do, Abby. And I know I can make mistakes. I wanted to make the break with Erin, make my point, but I didn't want her to end up crying in our bed." She paused for a moment. "I didn't want you to hate me like this either."

Abigail wanted to object, but Chopper forged ahead, clearly intent to say what she had in mind. "You were acting like a petulant child, and I'd told you what you were getting into. You did it anyway, and you thought you could do it behind my back."

"Like you'd have reacted any different!"

Chopper clearly had no answer for that. "... Maybe not. But you paid for your mistakes, during a crisis no less. That's pretty impressive."

Abigail didn't know what to think of that. So she scoffed. Chopper had conceded the high ground, so Abigail could retaliate. "Impressive, but not worth an apology?"

"You wouldn't be willing to forgive me if I apologised, so I'll save my breath until you are." Chopper's response was hard, but not unfeeling. Abigail couldn't tell if it was accusing or hurt, or a mixture of the two. "And I think you *can* forgive me. I'll stick around for that."

Abigail watched as Chopper stood up straight again and turned away. "Don't stay out too long, or you'll catch a chill." She held up the PipBoy. "I'll leave this in your room."

She walked back leaving Abigail still agitated, but now more than a little confused.

000

Erin arranged a smaller meeting than Abigail had expected that following day, nine people in all, and there were few faces among them she did not recognise. Some like Stephanie were notable merchants or labourers, while there were several who had a vested interest in the towns politics or trade. The remaining two had played a visible and decisive part in the fighting; Kirren and Abigail herself.

The surprise was that, of the fighters, it was only the two of them to be invited. Even Rathley, popular with the township despite his lax morals, had not been included. Abigail could have thought of many other people more suited to take her seat, but as Kyle had said, they hadn't stood up on the edge of the police station to signal their victory. She hadn't really intended it to be taken like that at the time, but apparently it had made an impression.

At the far side of the table sat Erin, Lilis, and the man Abigail knew as the announcer from the town's rat fights. He was, it turned out, responsible for all the sports evens in Corva, bloody or not, and he gesticulated furiously as he explained his concerns.

"Without a draw to bring people *back* we wont be *able* to repopulate. The farms are withering from neglect, and even if we find enough people to man them they have never provided enough product to trade with *outsiders*. And if our remaining township are farming, who is making and maintaining the goods and services we can trade with the caravans?"

Erin's answer was succinct, but not without concern. "The Hearts left us supplies and arms, and we've come through the fight with less bounty grabbing than I'd expected. Financially, the short term isn't too much of an issue. If we can't *feed* people, then they can't live here, and the farms are valuable enough that they can be given to the families who supported most during the occupation without need to further 'reward' them."

"And the water caravans?" the Rat Man asked.

"They need no incentive to do business here. And the pump house can supply those of us already here, at least." Lilis' analysis was cold, but made a lot of sense. "The farms will have to trade for water for crops and the brahmin, of course, but they will also be the few with resources to trade with. The five farms here supported this town at full strength, on a good year."

Bason sat along the side of the table, opposite Abigail and Kirren, next to the two men Abigail had never met. One had been Mayor Golway's right hand man in expanding the town, while the other was the Trade Master, and the man who organised the caravans and settled resource disputes. It was he who spoke up next.

"And if we have a bad year?"

The man was not one for excessive talk, it seemed. Abigail hadn't even caught his name. But he had a sterling presence at the table, and a soft but absolute way with his words.

"Then we sell the armoury surplus." Erin sighed. "We have no town guard to arm with it, and I will not hire in more mercenaries to fill the posts left by the last lot."

She turned to Abigail and Kirren. "I trust that the ones we have are capable enough, for now."

Kirren arched an eyebrow. "I doubt most of us would turn tail and run, if that's what you mean."

Bason agreed. "They wouldn't be here if they were that sort. Especially if the spoils are generous."

In fact, the spoils Erin had promised now were more than just generous. As long as the Mercs were willing to add their loot to the town pot, both an equivalent of one thousand caps would be awarded to each in spoils, and a home within the town. An actual home, furnished and maintained to a liveable standard, for life. There were enough houses belonging to the confirmed dead to make it feasible, but each one would be worth far more than the owner's share of spoils. Houses were not often bought in the wasteland. They were inherited, or built with sweat and blood. Most in Corva had been built well for scrap and clay constructions, and an unneeded house might be worth a fortune, either to a wealthy artisan or by way of renting to travellers, longer term.

And if the owner could not be bothered to try and get an unwanted property to make money, the town would be happy to buy it back for a reasonable price, though notably less than its real worth.

"We will just have to trust that policing will not be needed in full beyond organising security for the farms, and issuing supplies."

Erin took a deep breath. "Right, no other concerns there? Next. The Super Mutant."

"Manny," Stephanie corrected.

Abigail tensed, making her stimpak-anesthetised shoulder ache, but Erin nodded. "Manny. Firstly, our positions here should be clear. Raise your hand if you think he and the other captured Hearts should be executed."

It was a no brainer. Abigail raised her hand. To her surprise, so did Erin. Even more shocking, Kirren did not.

The vote was split five to four in favour of not killing them. Bason and the trade master were the other two in favour, but they were not Erin's focus. "Why I want them dead is obvious. I expected not to get my revenge at the end of this, but I didn't expect to be outvoted so soon. I would like to know why the rest of you are so willing to be lenient."

"Simple," the Rat Man said. "The raiders surrendered. They belong to us now, and the mutant is improbably valuable, even as nothing but a freak show attraction. People won't come here to see ghouls, but they'll flock to see that creature!"

"He's a liability," the trade master retorted, clearly appalled. "Raiders should not be tolerated. A raider that could demolish a Merc troop single-handed, doubly so!"

Abigail agreed wholeheartedly. "Even if they are people," she exclaimed, looking specifically at Stephanie, "they don't do anything but kill! They killed everyone in my vault, and all they cared about afterwards was that we didn't have enough supplies for them to steal! This one decided that joining up with the Hearts was a good idea!"

Erin looked at the five forgiving men and women. "My father was a lenient man, but if he hadn't been so trusting he might not have been abandoned by his own guards and left to die."

"Raiders are nor irredeemable," Kirren said, calmly breaking the brief moment of thought that followed. "A rare few might not even like what they do. They're people, and what the town is lacking right now is people. A workforce. The Hearts as a gang may well not recover from this attack, and if they do it won't be for many years. What you have are six people whose lives depend on your good grace, and another who could do the work of ten men in rebuilding the south side. If he had enough principles to try and protect Stephanie and the other captive women from the Hearts, then he might be willing to do some good out here."

Stephanie immediately leapt on the chance to voice her opinion. "Manny was part of an army, on the other side of the Cobalt Line. He was trained to kill humans, but his army was beaten, and the Mutant that he calls 'The Master' was killed. He and his friends fled this way, fighting off the Brotherhood until he got to the Cobalt Line. Only four of his group made it there. One was killed by some sort of nightmare creature in the Line, and the Hearts were the first people he, Paxel and Brute stumbled on when they got to this side. He's the only one left now, at least from his group.

"If that had been you, and the Hearts made you a deal to keep you fed and teach you about this side of the Line, wouldn't you have taken it?"

Bason looked at Stephanie long and hard. "He looked after you girls?"

Stephanie nodded. "Paxel didn't care so much - he didn't like any humans apparently, which is why the Hearts kept him guarding outside - but Manny tried to help."

"Yes," Lilis said, her voice dark. "There were a few of those women the raiders didn't get to rape."

"He tried!" Stephanie implored.

Lilis raised a placating hand. "I know. A few spared is better than none. I'd keep him and kill the others, if that were an option."

"It's not, Lilis," Erin replied. "If this town wants mutant equality, it has to live with it all the way."

"I know."

Then, from the back of the room, the creak of a door opening stopped the debate as Manny squeezed himself through the small doorframe.

"Manny! You're not supposed to be here."

The Super Mutant ignored Stephanie and walked in, causing the trade master to flee his chair with a cry. Manny removed the empty chair and sat in its place.

"We're not so bright any more, after the dip. We know it. And humans're nothing but trouble. 'specially vault people." He stared at Abigail. "But we don't want to die. We don't have an army no more. The Hearts were a good army, seemed like. It was nice being strong again."

"You killed my best friend," Bason accused as he sat next to the lumbering giant.

Manny nodded. "You killed mine too. Killed him first. Doesn't matter. If you don't kill me, I'll fix what I broke."

"And why would we consider trusting you?" Erin asked.

Kirren knew the answer to that. "Because he *is* going to die, whatever happens. Everyone is talking about the Brotherhood's conspicuous absence, but they will be here eventually. And if he runs he'll be caught and gutted by someone sooner or later. He was a Heart, so the Diamonds won't take him in, with their pride. And even if he did turn on us eventually, everyone would be on guard for it. He'd be gunned down before he got out of town."

"You hide me when Brotherhood comes," Manny said. "Say I got away. You said me and Hearts belong to you now? It's true. You keep me, I work for you. I can be loyal to you instead, long as you keep me secret."

"And you trust him, Steph?"

"Yes. I trusted him with my life."

Erin nodded. "Then the question is: Who is going to divide opinion out there when we put him and his 'friends' to work."

And as much as she might have wanted to, just out of spite, Abigail would never have had the heart to object. As scared as she might have been of what could happen, Corva needed a united front to stand behind as it recovered. She looked to Stephanie's hopeful eyes, then Bason's resigned ones, and finally to Kirren and her confident, knowing gaze, and she remained quiet. It wasn't the hardest thing she'd ever had to do, but right then it felt like it wasn't far off.

000

Abigail had few opinions to give after that, but her opinions had only really been required for a few of the matters being brought to the table. She was there to endorse whatever decisions were made, a mostly objective outsider in matters of politics and commerce, and a voice that people would be willing to listen to after the crisis.

Erin would be announcing their plans soon enough, but not all of them stayed to take their supportive stand beside her. While the town planner's role was clear, and his appearance with them largely unnecessary, Lilis also departed with few words after the meeting was done. It was clear that she, probably more than anyone else besides the trade master, would be acting as Erin's advisor when it came to matters of people and politics, but her sudden disappearance made Abigail wonder. What exactly was Lilis going to be doing now? If she wasn't going to make a visible role for herself as a trusted aide to the new Mayor, what did they have in mind for their working relationship?

Was Lilis going to remain a prostitute, locked away until either her customers or the town paid for her? Surely this was a chance to move on from that. Unless she was owned in the same way Kyle's old girlfriend had been. A sobering thought.

"Hey, don't look so down."

Stephanie came over to her as those of them who were left waited for the announcement to begin from within the police house. She wore her iconic straw had again, looking far more alive and vibrant than the tired and anxious woman she had been only a few days before. "I know you don't like him, but he's not as bad as a lot of people I've met, you know?"

"Huh? Oh. I wasn't thinking about... Manny."

Stephanie smiled and sat down next to her. "Liar. But I think being around people like us will be good for him."

Abigail didn't know about that, but she had to try and give the mutant a chance. It had already been decided, and if ghouls like Celia could identify with a monster like that... maybe Abigail's anger towards them was too deeply rooted to be healthy. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to talk about him. I was thinking about Lilis. You don't know her much, do you?"

Stephanie shook her head. "Nope. Even Erin doesn't. Not really. There's some story about how she ended up being the town negotiator, apparently, but I've never heard it. And Erin either doesn't know, or doesn't want to tell. I mean, she said Lilis never got out much. That's what's got you down?"

"Sort of. It was never like this in the cinema. We beat the bad guys, but there's still a lot to do before everything's back to normal."

"That's life. Don't worry about it so much, Abby. We're grown hardy out here. Here."

She held out her hand, and in it were two grenades. Abigail stared down at them, a little lost.

"You never used them. So they're a thank you, for rescuing me. And for getting shot up for my home." She was wearing an infectious smile. "Just don't go throwing them at people's faces, point bank. If it had gone off on impact we'd *all* have died. Risky, Abby."

"It was all I could think of at the time."

"Well, be glad it worked. I sure has hell am."

000

"So, they're keeping the mutant then?"

Chopper's voice was unconcerned, but by now Abigail welcomed that. She had been bombarded with approval and appreciation all afternoon, after Erin's public announcements. The girl had made a point of mentioning Abigail's vault, and how even now tolerance could win out in the face of surface hardships.

God, she had been angry at that. It was hideously manipulative, but it worked. Manny had been trotted out like a prized catch after that, to pledge his service to the town after his mistakes. The Hearts that had followed, offered servitude or death, had been a footnote by comparison. None had chosen to die.

And Abigail had borne it. Erin was right, after all. That one mutant was worth more to the town than any kind of bartering resource. It was a quick ticket to recovery, with a sword of wasteland prejudice hanging over its head to keep it in line. Corva was the perfect place for it to seek asylum. Too bad it had tried to destroy it.

Abigail hadn't looked up as the intruder had entered her room. She just kept quiet and tried to shrug off her jacket, so that the doctor had access to change her dressings.

"Honestly, I'm surprised," Chopper continued when an answer to her question was not forthcoming. "Erin doesn't have her father's fondness for wasteland unfortunates. I guess this one is more useful than the ghouls."

Abigail sighed. "You didn't used to talk this much."

"... I did. But you were the one trying to make conversation, back then."

That was true enough. It was the Buffout that had turned her into a recluse, almost. But she was wiser now, and as such there was less to talk about. And the combination of her injuries and Chopper's painkillers had blurred the line between recovery and her lingering withdrawals.

"It's decided Chopper. There's nothing to talk about. And they're right. I don't like it, but they are."

"Welcome back to adulthood." Chopper smiled as she undid Abigail's bandages. "And you could have disagreed, but you let them decide instead. She wouldn't have done that in your place."

"And neither would you. I get it."

"Maybe. Depends how worthwhile the result is. She's risking a run-in with the Brotherhood." Chopper's eyes narrowed. "That's sure as hell not worth getting caught on, but damn well worth getting away with."

Apparently Manny himself didn't come into the equation at all in Chopper's mind. "And the *mutant*?"

The doctor shrugged. "I've banked on *Rathley* watching my back."

That was a poor comparison in Abigail's eyes, and unfair, but Rathley *had* actively got them into trouble, and very nearly killed.

And Chopper was doing this to try and draw her out again. Trying hard to be friends. Commendable no matter how annoying it was, but Abigail wasn't to be swayed.

"Rathley's better than that. Maybe the way I thought *you* were..."

Chopper's pleasant expression dissolved into a blank glare. "Ouch."

"But even if he's not, he wouldn't kill a family out of greed."

Chopper replaced the dressings around Abigail's wound before beginning to tie the bandage again, and resuming the conversation. "He's done as bad. Believe me, he'll kill out of *convenience* if he feels like it. But he's clever, at least. He'll give himself a way out. *We* were that way out in Micasa."

"Then why do you stick around with him?"

"You know the reason for that."

Abigail did. He was one of the best survivalists out there, if rumour was to be believed. For a Scav team, that was the most important skill available. "There's not much to talk about then. You can stop trying to win me over. It won't work."

To her surprise, Chopper seemed to relax a little. "Then you won't be the first woman to walk away from me, if that time comes. I'll survive, but I won't be pushed away just yet. You have too much potential to throw back into the water."

Abigail huffed. Petty or not, she didn't want Chopper enjoying her attempts at revenge. "I'm flattered," she replied with more than a touch of sarcasm. "I didn't realise I was that good in bed."

Chopper's amused eyebrow rose. "You learn quickly. But with all that drive behind you it'd be a shame to leave you without anywhere to go. That's Erin's problem. She knows what she wants, but she can't do it for herself. She needs approval. People to take her there. You? You'll charge in on your own. But you don't know where to charge to, do you?"

"Chopper, stop it. Please." I don't need you people trying to psychoanalyse or flatter me when I'm trying to work out what I want!

Chopper did as she was told and stepped back, her work done. "As long as you understand. We can show where you might want to go, if you need the help."

000

Abigail's worry was that, even now, she was reliant on people like Chopper and Rathley for guidance. She had spent several months living on the surface, but in all that time what did she know of her options? She could not stay in Corva, that much was clear. Rathley's group had taken her along because she had proven herself to be more than a Townie, and she had enough ego to feel that she could do better than that.

Daily life on the farms in the town of Robert had been informative, but they had lacked something. Simply surviving did not bring her the same satisfaction as travelling with Sharn had her friends had done. Likewise, the weeks of leisure in Willets High had been made bearable by her friends there, both her current group and Casey's, but without them her introspections and worries would have driven her insane.

Thinking about it, the same was true of Corva. She loved the town more for its friendly ghouls and their aged stories than for its human populace.

Of all its permanent residents, Bason was perhaps her best human friend there, and he was working all hours of the day now that he had been placed in charge of rebuilding. He and Jassic had been building merchants for the town, as well as Mercs, and with all the others having either fled or been killed Bason was now the single man in charge. Abigail suspected he was burying his grief in his work, but he had still given her time to talk briefly when she had sought him out.

Frankly, there wasn't a nicer man who could have been given the position. He balanced out the coarseness and apathy of the people around him.

If she was to live there though, would the few people like him be enough to keep her going? By scraping together a living through maintenance and rebuilding old technology she could probably take over the town's entire Scav shop trade single-handedly, and to be fair it was tempting.

Just not tempting enough. Not when it would mean having Sharn and Kyle leave her behind. They were the people she wanted to help most. The people she owed the most to. If they were going to head out again and resume their scavenging, she wanted to lend her technical expertise to the search. It would mean living with Rathley and Chopper again, but that was okay. Rathley might be mean, and his priorities were pretty screwed up, but he was nice enough to her. And Chopper was trying to be friendly. Abigail knew she would never get back once she had felt for the older woman, those days were long gone, but she could at least try and be reasonable. She had always complained in the vault when the other girls had got bitchy over fights and disagreements, and that's exactly how Abigail had been behaving over the entire Buffout issue. Not that it wasn't justified, but she wanted to be better than holding grudges like this. Especially if they would have to be living together.

000

But there was only so much time for these worries as she went about town. She still did not know what Sharn and Kyle wanted to do; they had been busy helping out around town like everyone else. While there was still paid work to do no-one was considering leaving just yet. Granted, the payment was in abandoned town supplies and rations rather than ammunition or caps, but it was better than most day to day fare that a Merc or Scav had to be willing to accept between jobs. Even Kirren, unable to take on the manual labour, made for devastatingly effective impromptu law enforcement in her commanding green armour.

As for Abigail, she sought out those people she had not had the courage to find before the announcement. Bason was busy, but willing to lend both an ear and his own advice, and after fighting along side him at the Diamond Ring she had hunted out Lyster to thank him for his part in the battle. He didn't have the time or inclination to chat as he gathered up abandoned supplies with another of his Merc associates - he had no time for 'heroes' - but he had at least approved of her part in the fighting as well.

The graves had been dug for the fallen, beside the police station's open yard, making a small second cemetery. The graves almost reached the triple figures, but compared to the one to the south it was very modest, and Abigail paused at only a few of the graves. Trevor and Simon were there, as were Vas, Jassic, and Hickman, and beside them lay others like Erin's father, and "Marge - The toughest old bitch in the Wastes".

That was what had led Abigail to the brothel, still named Marge's by the inactive electric sign on its roof. Abigail had meant to visit Lilis before, and Marge's apparent death during the invasion only made her wonder more about the woman's situation.

The door was missing, the brothel being located in the more damaged part of town, and behind Marge's old desk sat the muscular man Abigail remembered as her bouncer.

"Um, Hi there, uhh..."

"Stanley," he replied, when his name did not come to her lips. "A pleasure again, Miss Abigail."

"I don't suppose I could speak with her, could I?"

Stanley smiled and sat back. "That would depend on which 'her' it was. Sadly not all our women survived the attack, and some who did decided not to return after you liberated them from the Hearts."

That Abigail had not needed to think about. "Lilis. I mean Lilis. She is still here, isn't she?"

Stanley nodded. "That she is. Though she, and all of us in fact, have a little more freedom over who we choose to see these days."

"You... work here too?"

Again, a nod and a knowing smile. "That depends on who might be asking. I certainly wouldn't mind if *you* asked."

Abigail flushed in embarrassment. "Uh, no thanks. I'm not... Can I just talk to Lilis please?"

Stanley chuckled, clearly enjoying her discomfort, and pushed a discoloured glass dish forward across the table. "Her time is a lot more valuable than the rest of ours."

Abigail groaned. She hadn't brought much in the way of valuables. The farmers and merchants were still gearing up for proper trade, and Market Street was still largely bare.

"Right. Of course. And me without my wallet." She fished into her jacket pocket with her good hand and pulled out a few caps. "Can you just give her another message for me then?"

"That I can. And you've probably earned one on the house."

Abigail left the caps in the dish anyway. It wasn't as though she didn't have enough of them now. "Just tell her I hope she's okay up there. And that someone working for Erin deserves better than this."

Stanley nodded and left to deliver the message, and Abigail headed back out to the street. Lilis would probably think she was being presumptuous anyway, but she could at least show that someone cared.

Then, from behind her, a piercing whistle rang out, and she looked up to see Stanley at one of the upper windows. To her surprise he motioned her up, without a word.

000

"So what was it you wanted to see me about, Abigail?" Lilis asked. "Not just the fact that I am keeping my own room, I suspect."

Lilis looked as well turned out as always, dressed in a simple, flattering shirt and loose brahmin-hide trousers. She sat on her large bed, while Abigail took the single, fur-padded chair.

"You were just quiet at the meeting," Abigail said honestly. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."

"And you were hoping I might have turned over a new leaf now that the Madam has passed on?"

"I didn't mean it quite like that. But yes," Abigail admitted, "I thought you'd be working with Erin now, instead of here."

Lilis seemed entirely unconcerned by her living arrangements though. "She knows where to find me when she needs my skills. Until then, I will keep this brothel running and make sure that those of us here are well taken care of."

Abigail blinked, a little confused. "What do you mean? Are you running it with Stanley?"

Lilis shook her head. "No-one is 'running' Marge's any more. She kept us well enough, but the leash was rather tight - especially mine - considering that we all worked here willingly. Now that we've been given the opportunity, we have done away with the leash entirely, and we won't be lining anyone's pockets but our own."

"Officially, Stanley is in charge in case of disputes," she went on, "but we will all contribute to the house pot, and we know each other well enough to help each other out should any one of us have a poor week. My prices are high enough to keep us solvent, even if only one or two of my more regular clients ever return. And we have a reputation to maintain. We intend to remain the best company you can buy within three caravan rides."

Kyle probably would have disagreed, Abigail thought, but then again that was just because of one woman in particular. "At least you take pride in your work, I guess."

"Abby, you aren't still trying to pity us are you?"

"But is this really how you want to make money? Sex with anyone who can pay?"

Lilis shook her head slightly, and it was clear that she was the one who pitied Abigail. "We wouldn't need a man like Stanley to man the desk if we were that indiscriminate. And some of us can be more choosey than others. From here on, some might only take on the few regulars who they trust. And you should know, Abby, that sex is a powerful tool if you use it well. And only as meaningful as you want it to be."

"You *don't* want it to be meaningful?"

"Certainly not with everybody willing to pay my fee. But with some, yes, it is. I will be upset if they don't return, and not just because of their caps."

She stood, and went over to lay a hand on Abigail's shoulder. "And I'll stay to make sure that the prostitutes in this town are treated properly. If they aren't, I can do something about it. Even if I can't deal with a situation myself, or if the whole house can't, my relationship with Erin works both ways. No-one else will do that for us. We're just whores. That's why I stayed here when Mayor Golway first offered me a way out. The people out there may not care about men and women like us, but *I* do."

She straightened up, and smiled. "Is that a good enough answer?"

"Yeah."

000

It was several days before the town had settled down into something of a routine, and those who had fled had begun to return. News travelled slowly across the desert, especially considering how few people relied on radio transmitters. Abigail had been stunned to realise that her PipBoy was perhaps the best transmitter in town, especially after the old Mayor's set had been destroyed by the grenade that had claimed Jackhammer's life, and while she would be wearing her sling for a while to come sending out an all clear message was one of the things she could usefully do for Corva.

Of course, the returnees were unhappy to find their homes ransacked. Whether it had been the Hearts or Erin's repossession teams was irrelevant. Any goods they had not taken with them, they had lost. But, as the new Mayoress had stressed, they still had their homes, and unlike many brave men and women who had stayed to defend the town, they still had their lives as well. Any who were unwilling to accept their loss could leave, and forfeit their residences as well. There were others who could be given the shelter.

Perhaps that was why she and Chopper had got on so well in the past. They could both be absolute bitches when the need arose, yet fully capable of justifying their ruthless decisions.

There was even word that the Brotherhood of Steel was finally on its way, almost a week after the town war had been won, and that stung Abigail a little. People reputed for their technological capabilities surely had an obligation to help those who needed their aid. Their medical expertise alone would have been invaluable to the fight, never mind their firepower.

So, they wander over now that the people they could have saved were already dead. Either they must have really busy schedules, or they were as callous as Chopper made them sound.

Which seemed wrong. For all his genetic elitism, Initiate Harris had been a nice person.

Still, that was what had pushed Abigail to take her companions aside, now that the town was gaining more able bodies again. Manny the Super Mutant was stomping around town, taking orders from Bason and his team, and these Brotherhood of Steel people were only another week's travel away, according to her radio reports.

Abigail wanted to leave.

She loved Corva dearly, but if she was honest with herself it was only for a certain part of its populace. That was why she wanted their talk to be over dinner at the Seven Feet Under. That way she could explain herself to her ghoul friends as well.

"I mean, I thought I'd want to stick around, even without a place to stay. It might have been nice to do some more scavenging around here, maybe? Hunt down some of the Hearts that fled. But with all the building going on, and... Manny out there. It feels too much like it's still a battlefield. Every time I see that mutant, I can't stop thinking about everyone back in the Vault. I just don't want to stay."

She almost felt like she was apologising, which wasn't the point at all. At least not as far as her companions were concerned. She was just explaining that she *was* going to leave.

"And what, you want us along, Sugar?"

Rathley, as blunt and to the point as ever. He spoke around a mouthful of overcooked Pigrat roast, there being a surplus since most of the fighting rats had been killed for sport by the Hearts.

And as usual, Sharn rolled right over his question. "Of course we'll go. Right gunner-man? I mean, if you want us to."

"Of course I want you to." If Sharn and Kyle hadn't wanted to come, Abigail wasn't quite sure what she would have done, but she had expected it wouldn't come to that. "It's just, I want to go before the Brotherhood arrive. Initiate Harris said I should have joined them, after we first fought the Hearts before, and I don't want to deal with that again. Especially if everyone here is hiding Manny as well. That all seems like a bad idea to me."

"Join the Brotherhood?" Rathley exclaimed, genuinely surprised. "Damn, now there's an offer. What makes you think that'd be a bad idea?"

"Because!" Abigail exclaimed right back. Given that they were dining in the company of ghouls, she would have thought it was obvious. "You heard what he said about people like Christian and Celia! And Lilis, even."

Christian seemed glad to hear it. "Yeah, worrisome types, them lot. Lots'a guts and lots'a brain, but I'd be afraid if they come walkin' through here."

"They hads a deal with the old Mayor," Nigel agreed, "but I hopes Erin gets to them before they decides otherwise, now he's gone."

"So," Rathley asked "you don't want to stay and look after these old corpses?"

Abigail scowled at him. "Of course I do!" She turned to the ghouls at their table. "Really, I do. I just think I would do more harm than good."

"Whe can sthand up fhor hourselves, if whe have to." Celia gave Abigail a ragged, understanding smile. "The Brhotherhood whould not harm us. Herin whould not hallow it, and Corvah is their hally. They know they have much to hexplain, hafter their habsence these last wheeks. Whe ghouls are a small cohncern beside that."

Across the table Kirren finally spoke. She had remained quiet all evening, but seeing as she still resided with the ghouls even after earning a new home they had invited her to join them.

"When are you leaving then? The Paladins will be here by Friday, I heard."

"I don't know. A day or two? I need to sell Erin back the house, and get supplies."

"You should keep it," Chopper advised. "It's good, guaranteed capital. Unless you're not planning on coming back."

"Oh, I am, but I'd rather stay here at the clubhouse if I do. Or with one of you guys. I'm sure the money could be used for better things."

"'Course you're welcome here," Christian said, wearing his five toothed smile.

Abigail expected an objection, but Chopper just shrugged, already done with her food.

Kirren, however, was not eating what remained on her plate. "Do you need another gun arm?"

Everyone turned to her, and Kirren met their gazes levelly. "I'm not so much use here now. The Hearts are gone, there have always been more than enough good Mercs around here, and I've pushed my luck several times too many working against the Diamonds." She raised the stump below her left shoulder. "They wouldn't take me like this anyway, even if I somehow managed to get in without being recognised again. You guys seem to get into a lot of fights for a Scav team though."

"You know, shit happens." That was Rathley's explanation, and sadly no-one could think of a better one.

"Well, if you want to..." Sharn said, looking around the table. No-one objected, least of all Abigail. She had grown to respect Kirren a great deal during the short time she known her, and it was safe to say that they had become friends since the battle. Having another friend travelling with them would make the journey all the more pleasant.

Rathley gave her a lop sided grin.

"Looks good, Sugar. Welcome aboard." Then he paused and turned to Abigail. "'Cept you haven't said where you're thinkin' of goin' here."

"Straight east, to High Town," was Abigail's reply, already knowing where she wanted her next destination to be. "Celia's diaries said they always need help with their tech, or caravan raiders. And I'd have thought there would be plenty of unexplored places to scavenge around the mountains, right?"

"Christ, way up there?"

Kyle was happy to look on the bright side. "What? At long as we don't try to skirt the Swarmlands to get there."

000

Abigail stood in front of her farewell party, her pack hanging from her good shoulder and her worn jumpsuit protected beneath the now recognisable layer of black leather. Only her jacket's missing right arm showed the slowly fading blue cloth, the cuff trimmed with bright, bold yellow.

It was a small connection to this dim past, but it gave the occasion a sense of camaraderie as she shook hands with Overseer Jameson. He was a busy man, and it meant a lot that he had come to see her off, if only briefly.

"You're sure this is what you want, Abigail? You have a promising future here."

"I know, sir. But you have other technicians. It's out there where I'll be needed."

He nodded, and let her hand go. He was a stern man, but not unreasonable. He knew she would not be swayed.

After that the pretence of formality faded, and her family came forward. Her Mother would have hugged her - she always fussed so much over everyone - if not for Abigail's broken clavicle. "Please be careful out there, Abigail. No more gun fighting."

Her father kept his composure more successfully, and lay a caring hand on his wife's shoulder. "All grown up, and choosing the hard path. And with another new friend in tow as well. Make us proud out there, understand?"

Abigail chose to reply with a smile and a sloppy salute. "Yes sir, Father sir."

"And don't go giving your friends that kind of lip, young woman. They've done a lot for you, taking you under their wing like this."

"I know, Dad. Lighten up. I'll save it for next time I come and visit."

When the goodbyes were said and done Gillian and Alice stood by the great vault door, waiting for her.

"So, you will be visiting then?" Of course, from Gillian it sounded like a casual enough question, uncaring even, but Abigail knew better. Gillian's brave face was good, but she didn't get to practice it enough to fool her.

"You'll miss me?"

Gillian shrugged. "Sure, why not. It won't be the same playing softball without you down here."

Alice, though quiet, was always the more honest of the three of them. "We'll go and watch something sappy tonight and bawl out eyes out. I hope you'll miss us too though. It's not nice being left behind, you know."

"Yeah. I know." Oh, did she ever know it. "I've done my bawling already, but yeah, I miss you guys. You're the best friends in the world. But I can't stay here forever."

"Of course not," Gillian replied with an assured smile, her dreadlocks bobbing. "You've got the whole world to explore. What are you even doing standing around here gabbing! Get going, girl!"

Yes. It was past time already. "Yeah. See you." She signalled to the control deck, and the great vault door began to move. It never occurred to Abigail that there should have been sirens and flashing lights to accompany it. This wasn't an escape or an exodus. It was just farewell.

"And bring us souvenirs next time!"

"Sure, I'll get you a rat-burger!"

And with that Abigail stepped back towards the waking world, out into the wasteland again, and back to the scavengers who were waiting for her.

000

The End

000

Author's Notes: My thanks go out to everyone who read this story. I hope you've all enjoyed it. And special thanks go out to all of you who left feedback. You were my incentive to keep working on this as often as I could. Yes, there is still a whole lot I could do, but that would require a second 'book', and there are too many other things I'd like to try writing before I even begin consider something like that.

As ever please leave a review with any comments and constructive criticism you may have. They are always greatly appreciated, and there is no better reward for a writer than to hear back from the readers.

Many thanks to Richard King for his proofreading assistance.

(c) Nutzoide 2010