Nova watched Gob as the door swung open in a blast of dust and heat, the Vaultie billowing inside with the wind, still prodding the gadget on her arm.
"You're back," Gob said, grinning like there wasn't a damn thing wrong in the world. "You okay? You need anything? I can get you a drink—or a stim-pack if you want."
"I'm fine," she laughed, slinging the strange sniper-rifle down from her shoulder and unbuckling the straps to her pack. "I was careful. Like I promised."
Nova smiled slightly from her corner, but the smile was a pained, twisted beast. She was glad the Vaultie was back. The kid made Gob happy and gods knew he wasn't happy very often anymore. It was just as well he had somebody left that could make him smile.
But that didn't mean she had to like the kid, because it was downright fucking cruel what she was doing. Making Gob promises like that—promises she'd be back, promises she wouldn't get her stupid head blown off, promises of one day like the day would come when Gob didn't look like he'd lost a fight with a radiated lawnmower.
And then the Vaultie went and did something Nova didn't expect.
She hugged him.
It wasn't a friendly sort of hug. It wasn't the kind of hug that usually accompanied a greeting or the kind of hug you gave to a friend who had wandered in the Wastes a few years back. And Nova wasn't a romantic—not much cause for it in her line of work—but that was an embrace. An eyes-closed, tucked in the crook of a neck, missed you too goddamned much to say embrace.
It was only when the muscles in her jaw began to protest that Nova realized she was grinding her teeth. Making herself stop, she unclenched her fists with the force of will usually reserved for childbirth and painted on a smile.
Fucking Vaultie. Setting Gob up for a goddamned heartbreak—like he hadn't had his heart broken enough in the last century. And the worst part was Nova knew she didn't even give a shit. Because a month from now, maybe two, she'd be on to the next adventure, to the next town and the next Wastelander that caught her eye and it wouldn't be a ghoul with a sweet, ruined smile because nobody was that fucked up. And Gob would pine for months before he resigned himself to the fact that she wasn't coming back, promise or not and Nova knew there wasn't a goddamned thing in the world she could say to Gob then that would make that kind of betrayal any better.
"I'm about dead on my feet," the Vaultie said at last, pulling away with a sheepish grin, "but I wanted to see you before you closed tonight."
Gob nodded and seeing the look in his eyes, Nova knew it was far too late to avert disaster. He was head-over-heels with so much fucking hope there wasn't a thing in the world she could do to protect him.
Slowly, Nova got up from the bar with the blank-cheerful face she used on her Johns the morning after—repeat customers were everything in Megaton—and crossed the room to stand next to them.
"You're late, kid," she said, keeping her voice carefully neutral. "Said you'd be back last week. We were worried."
Gob had been worried anyway. And she'd been worried for Gob. All that wishing that the Vaultie'd come back just to see a smile back on Gob's face, and now Nova wished the kid would have just stayed away. If she'd turned up dead somewhere—if she'd died fighting the Good Fight—then Gob could have had his perfect black-and-white what if fantasy without ever worrying about some—
"I know," she said, cutting through Nova's furious inner tirade. "I'm really sorry. But I got tied up in Underworld."
She laughed, a husky chuckle that could have melted Jericho, let alone poor Gob.
"Well, not literally tied up. That would have been fun, but," she brightened and turned to Gob, her fingers twining through his seemingly of their own volition. "I met your mom."
Nova hated that woman.
It wasn't that she was jealous. No, she and Gob were doomed from the start. Hell, the first time they'd met, she'd screamed like a little girl. Granted, it had been Moriarty's fault and there was the whole zombie at two in the morning thing to contend with, but the fact of the matter remained that first impressions never went away. She'd screamed. She'd been ready to claw his eyes out and run for the door.
But the Vaultie had smiled. She'd looked at Gob like she was hoping his clothes would spontaneously combust and Gob had noticed.
At least Moriarty didn't bother him with her around. She got a dangerous look in her eyes when he got loud and Vault-dwellers were notoriously bat shit. That and the fact that she had a fucking sniper rifle strapped to her back more often than not and a story about picking off Super Mutants from Three Dog's balcony.
Anybody who could snipe a Super Mutant at that kind of distance wasn't the sort of person you wanted catching you in the middle of the night on a smoke break.
Nova watched as Gob glanced towards the door for the eighty-second time that morning with a hopeful smile tugging at the corners of his lips and winced. Slowly, she pushed away from the wall and made her way behind the bar, sitting down next to the shelf with the cigarettes.
"Hey," she began. "About the Vaultie…?"
Gob shook his head with something that might have been a laugh.
"She has a name, Nova."
And it was funny how they only used it when she was around to here. Nova sighed and ran a hand through her hair. The smile faded from Gob's face and he frowned, leaning back against the bar counter.
Something was wrong. Something somewhere along the line had gone horrible wrong with the world at large and there was no way to fix it. But Nova was going to try because popular as she was, she could count all her friends in the world on one hand too and Gob was one of them.
"I'm worried about you," she said at last, choosing her words carefully and gauging herself by the look in Gob's old summer eyes. "The kid… she's not the kind of girl that's going to hang around, you know? And I'm not saying this to… hell, I don't know why I'm saying this, Gob, except I don't want to see you get hurt."
"She'll come back," Gob said softly, running his fingers through his own short cropped hair with a look that broke her heart. "She—"
"Promised?" Nova finished, wishing he would see reason and knowing it was impossible even as she tried. You could break a lot of things, but hardly ever hope. Optimism wasn't the kind of disease that could be cured with a little logic. "Things happen, Gob. People change. Hell, she changes. She's like a child playing… hopscotch in the Wasteland. What happened to her grand quest? Is she even looking for her dad anymore?"
Gob frowned, turning away from her to wipe down the already spotless bar.
"She found him," he told the fake woodwork. "Said she passed a letter to him through some doctor in Rivet City."
"And that's it?" Nova pressed, trying her damndest to be gentle about it. "Gob, she got bored. Finding her father was all well and good for a while. And then it got hard and she quit."
"She didn't quit," he snapped with surprising vehemence, stopping to glare at her over his shoulder. "She wanted to know he was alive—wanted him to know where the hell she was—and she did that and now she's done. She's not…" the anger faded abruptly, replaced by a cracked and stubborn faith. Quietly, he finished, "She's not the person you think she is."
There was nothing she could say that was going to change his mind and seeing that determination in his eyes, Nova found she didn't want to. Let him have his hope.
Hell, it was probably the only thing getting him through the day.
"If you say so, baby," she said at last, touching his arm. "I just want you to be careful."
"I'm tired of being careful, Nova," he said, so quietly she barely heard him. "I'm lonely."
"I don't want to set the world on fire…" the radio crooned on the floor below her and Nova staggered up and out of bed, not sure what had woken her, but knowing something important had.
"Ye think just because you've got some damn Vaultie lookin' after your scabrous ass you're too good for this place, 'ey?"
Fuck. Nova ran her fingers through her hair and started down the stairs. There wasn't much she could do when Moriarty got into one of his moods, but she could try. Even if it meant yet another black eye.
"In my heart I have but one desire…"
"Colin, baby," she called in her most seductive purr. "What's got you riled?"
"Riled?" he snorted as she came around the corner and Nova could see he was more shit-sober than he'd been in weeks, a horrible grin tugging at his weather-lined face. "Me? I'm not riled, Nova dear. I'm fucking furious. I just happened to check my finances this morning as I am wont to do now and again only to find that this maggot infested excuse for a corpse has been fucking stealing from me."
"Don't you fucking honey me!" he snapped, his shoulders squared as he glowered at her. "You knew about this. Don't go denying it. I know damn well you too are like a bunch of fucking school girls when I'm not here to watch it. What'd he do with the money, Nova? Where the hell'd he put my money?"
Gob frowned, one hand twitching for the radio even as he stared Moriarty down.
"I didn't steal the money."
"And with your admission that you feel the same…"
"Didn't steal the money?" Moriarty laughed and spun, landing a solid right hook into his jaw. "Like fucking hell you didn't steal my money!"
"Gob doesn't steal, Colin," Nova said as she crossed the room. It wasn't much as far as a good defense went, but it was the only thing she could think of given the time. "What? You think he's going to pay you back with your own money?"
The man snorted and rocked backwards.
"No," he said at last with a short, bitter laugh. "No, I guess you're not fucking clever enough for that, are you? It'd take real balls to steal from me an' yours rotted off years back."
Gob glared, his fists clenching and unclenching as the radio continued to sing and Nova wondered if maybe he'd finally snap. Maybe it was more than the radio and the Vaultie and being trapped in this dead-end town with no way out.
Maybe it was enough.
"What'd you do with it then?" Moriarty continued, aiming a kick Gob sidled away from. "Discounts probably. Givin' deals to your little tunnel rat, were you? What? She look at you with them big brown eyes of hers and ask real nice? Make you think you had a chance in hell, 'ey? Make you think she wouldn't mind taking a corpse to bed?"
"I don't want to set the world on fire…"
"Fuck you," Gob growled, his shoulders square and that dangerous look in his eyes again. "Everybody knows you steal the damn stim-packs anyway."
"I just want to start…"
"Talk back to me, will ya?" Moriarty thundered with rage in his eyes. "I own you, you festering son of a bitch. I saved you from those damn slavers. You owe me your life and this is how you fucking repay me?"
"A flame in your heart."
He pulled his hand back to strike just as a small metallic click broke the sudden, dusty silence. She hadn't heard the door open or noticed the blast of hot air that accompanied a customer. But the Vaultie stood in the doorway just the same, aiming her .44 with cool precision at a spot directly between Moriarty's eyes as Three Dog chattered in the empty space between songs.
She didn't say anything. No clichéd warnings or trite threats. Just continued to aim down the barrel of the gun with that calculating stare that kept no secrets. In that instant it was obvious just how little she liked Moriarty, just how well she knew the gun in her hand and just how willing she was to pull the trigger.
This was not the girl that had popped out of the vaults with a charming sweet grin, smelling of rust and stale water. This was a woman that had seen a hundred deaths and caused a hundred more and was itching for the chance to rack up another.
"Back in the Vault," she said at last, her voice low and clear, "there's a thing called Citizen's Arrest. You see a crime but a guard's not around, you handle it yourself."
Moriarty changed gears like a man swimming from a mirelurk. The raging idiot was gone in a flash, replaced by a charming salesman with a wheedling, golden grin.
"Now don't go doing anything stupid, love," he soothed, hands out and open in front of him. But the Vaultie only grinned—a bearing of teeth Nova had seen once before on the Yao Guai that had dragged off her brother.
"Me and Simms were talking about it the other day, as a matter of fact," she continued, heedless. "And do you know what he told me?"
"Simms?" Moriarty tried to laugh. "Darling girl, Simms may think he's the law around here, but I'm the mayor. Now why don't you and I step into my office and have a nice chat about what's bothering you? I seem to remember there was somebody you were lookin' for…?"
"Found him," she said, gun and smile unwavering and for the first time, Nova wondered just how sane the Vaultie really was. Because there was Wasteland stupid and then there was just plain suicidal. And for all intents and purposes, it looked like the kid was leaning towards the latter. But Gob had an angry glow in his eyes, feet apart and shoulders set—a fighter's stance—and she realized that even if the kid lowered her gun, Moriarty wasn't going to make it out of this one in one piece.
"Really? Good for you, lass!" Moriarty grinned, but it wavered like the water around the bomb. "Have a nice family reunion, did you?"
"Yeah, it was. Reallynice. Productive, you could say." She lowered her gun abruptly, pulling a slim disk from her pocket and holding it up instead. "He even gave me a present."
Something in the way she said it—something about the gleam in her eyes belied the threat swimming just under the surface. Moriarty was a lot of things, but he wasn't an idiot and he damn sure knew his business.
He put his hands down slowly, looking like a man faced with the choice between a band of raiders and a nest of centaurs.
"What is it?"
"Your computer. Well," she said, and her grin curled at the edges, "everything on your computer anyway. Even the files you had hidden in the back-up drives. My dad's a real whiz at science, you know. Said he broke a record with your computer. Hacked and downloaded in a minute flat."
Nova looked between the two of them and seeing the sick, pale hue Moriarty's face had taken on. She knew the disk wasn't what the kid said it was. It couldn't be. She'd sent a letter to her dad; she hadn't met him. But then, when she'd first rolled in, Nova had seen the kid hack into Moriarty's computer with the ruthless efficiency of a child who'd had all the time in the world and only one thing to do with it.
She could have done it. She could have all the blackmail in the world stored on that disk or floating through the greenish cyberspace of her robotic cufflink.
She had done it.
Unaccountably, Nova grinned. She felt like laughing in relief—in sheer, terrible joy. Because one way or another, Moriarty was finished. Maybe he'd get run out of town or blackmailed into submission. Or maybe he just wouldn't make it out of here alive. Because she had a feeling that Jericho and the Stahl boys would be only too happy to volunteer their time and lead pipes. And knowing them, they'd be just tickled to take their time about it and really savor the moment. Hell, they probably carry him down to the armory so no one would be bothered by the mess or the noise.
No more black eyes. No more bruises and broken fingers. No more stitching up the gashes Gob couldn't reach himself. No more sharing iced bottles of Nuka-cola to bring down the swelling. No more Moriarty.
She looked at the Vaultie, really glad for the first time the kid had made it back and smiled as their eyes met through the hazy sunlight.
"Hey, Nova?" the kid said and tossed the disk through the space between them. "How would you like your own bar?"
It turned out, the Vaultie was better at business than she'd let on. Because somehow a copy of the disk was sitting stashed away in every corner of the world—a nifty little hack on her Pip-boy that would send the file out to every computer in Megaton should something happen to her. And somehow, it just so happened that both Andy Stahl and Lucas Simms had suddenly come into possession of working computer systems.
Nova grinned at Jericho as he stopped dead at the door, eyeing Moriarty with suspicion as the man stood like an angry statue behind the bar.
"Hey, honey," she purred, tilting her head to the side. "Wanna hook up later?"
He looked between the two of them and smirked.
"What about the business?" he asked, pulling out a cigarette to share.
"I was thinking of changing the sign outside. How does Nova's sound?"
Nova watched from the stairs as Gob sat across the table from his Vaultie, the two of them leaning so close she could swear their foreheads were almost touching. She wasn't especially romantic—not much cause to be even without the business—but it was cute. Probably one of the first things she'd seen in weeks that didn't rank up there on her list of things that depressed the hell out of her.
"You sure?" Gob's voice wafted back to her.
The Vaultie laughed, looking ever so slightly embarrassed, and Nova swore she saw the beginnings of a blush creeping down from the tips of the kid's ears. She may have killed a hundred muties and god only knew what else, but she was still just a kid with only half a vault's worth of experience when it came to men.
"It's a big house, you know. Room for… people. Besides myself, I mean. And I've got loads of food. Not that I think you're too skinny, but Moriarty doesn't feed you near enough and most of it'll go bad before I get to it. My freezer doesn't work real well."
Gob smiled and Nova watched as his fingers crept over hers.
"I could fix that for you. Used to be a mechanic back when there was an army to be a mechanic for."
"That'd be great!" Her eyes lit and a grin split her face for a second before she remembered to look serious. "And if you hang around—I don't want to pressure you or anything—but you could watch the house for me when I'm gone."
Nova couldn't help laughing at that and ducked behind the curtains of the tiny bathroom to keep from drawing attention to herself. The kid was alright. Bat shit crazy, but alright. She kept her impossible promises and she made Gob laugh. Hell, she gave him hope. Even if it didn't work out, even if months—years—from now she ran off into the Wastes without a word, at least now he knew that somewhere there were still people out there worth a damn.
That didn't make their awkward flirting any less painful to watch though. Keep an eye on the house with the fully armed robot designed to kill intruders? Fix a fridge Moira had just installed a month ago?
Nova considered telling Gob to just jump her already and sauntered from behind the curtain to do just that only to find the two of them already leaving.
And Gob had his arm around her waist.
Nova smiled and leaned back against the wall instead.
She'd let them figure it out.