So, let me tell you something about deserts. There’s something about living at the mercy of a deadly space laser that cooks peoples’ brains. I know I’m prone to flights of whimsy and not thinking things through, but I know what I like, and I take reasonable steps towards achieving it. And what I happen to like is getting into trouble, winding people up, making a mess, and having a good time. Y’know, general hooliganry and mischief.
So why is it suddenly so damn hard to walk down this road?
I was standing by a bent road sign, declaring that this was Route 66, and that I was to be travelling no faster than 75 miles per hour. No danger of that, mate. I had the radio on - a proper radio, since the tape I’d fished out of a dispenser way back was now useless. It seemed like a good idea when I set out, but now there was this awful weepy ballad on, but at worst it would be three or four minutes of miserable crooning and then it’d be on to something a bit more upbeat. Nevada, now up to my shoulder, circled me and sniffed the ground.
The sun was almost directly in front of me and low in the sky. I was setting off early in the morning to return to the worst of Equestria’s warzones. The kind of environment I thrived in. Or at least, I was standing on the highway, with the remains of a roadside diner with a space cat on it nearby, gazing reluctantly in the direction those places were. I was losing valuable morning travel time standing here. What was weighing down my mind so much that was just fucking standing there?
The day after Big Top, we stood at the top of a mountain in the Death Caps with a hole in it. Today was blustery, and even a little chilly on the mountaintop. I knew I was going to get sunburned from standing out here regardless. We all had arrays of bandages on us, and I think I was starting to come down with something. Gadget definitely didn't look fit for it, but it was by his insistence that we were up here. Rainbow and I accompanied him in the air, and Sam was able to make the trip on foot, because I guess robots can just sprint the whole way. I mean, he did make it down to Isotope City while we were fighting yesterday, didn't he? That trip took us a whole day on the way out. I don't know, man. Mercifully, he didn't keep us waiting too long, because by the time we were all on the peak, it was approaching midday. Not ideal the day after spending basically a whole day fighting.
Wordlessly, Gadget held up the mug and the mail tray, and tipped them out. The ashes immediately caught in the wind, and scattered into dust, and then into nothing, blowing away into the desert. Once they'd vanished into nothing, he dropped the containers, and let them tumble down the mountain. He stood there, alone, silhouetted against the blue sky. His life's work, blowing away in the wind. We said nothing. There was nothing left to say.
We'd already been through the lab waiting for Sam to get here. Rainbow tried to give Mum's book back to Gadget, but he told him to keep it. Rainbow gathered up some of the remaining food supplies, since they'd do nothing here except rot. Gadget took what notes he could from the files, but there were lots of things he left behind. I couldn't help feeling frustrated that after all this - after ruining so many lives, including mine - he looked like he was abandoning the project. I didn't get the chance to raise this concern with (and probably punch) him though. Rainbow had spotted me coiled up like a cobra and did that thing where this overgrown puppy of a stallion touches my shoulder and asks me if I'm okay and I immediately take it down a notch. Of course I told him I was fine, but what was really going on was a little moment of logic. Whatever Gadget did at this point didn't really matter. Whether or not he returned to his work, it wasn't going to change the past. Hadn't I just told Valkyrie as much?
We came down from the mountain with naught but the exchange of looks and a nod. Sam agreed to meet us again later, and we returned by glide to Roswhinny. If we made good time, we'd be there in time for lunch.
The night before, we hadn't had much time to discuss anything. Ivy had plenty to talk about with the scribes and Sam about the successful trial of the Little Boy, but Rainbow and I just ate and passed out. Gadget... I don't think he even got as far as eating. It was a weird and short evening where most of the base gathered around fires and slept in tents, shivering. When we arrived today, the tents were still there, and were even being expanded, with help from the tribe and the Wormwood crowd. The Fort Mercer ponies got ready to go when they saw us return, and most of the Isotopians (that's a word, right?) were gone before we even left for Big Top.
Gadget peeled off to find the bathroom, and Rainbow and I continued to lunch. I suspected that he wasn't hungry, really. Considering this was peak hours for the mess hall, it was quieter than I expected it to be. It was less of an uproarious cacophony of chatter and more like a muted chorus of muttering, broken up by the occasional laugh or some other yell. At a rough guess I'd say they were missing a third of their number. The way that many of the Rangers gazed gloomily into their plates, you'd think they were missing more. Crumble was busy fighting the grill, so we got our food from one of the other kitchen attendants.
"I mean, I guess your situation is different to mine, kinda." Rainbow homed in on Ivy's voice. We found her talking to Caliber. Nevada had taken a liking to Caliber, it seemed, and was making it difficult for him to eat his lunch without there being a puppy in the way. "I've been hikin' round the mountains for weeks at a time ever since I was born, and you... this is the furthest you've ever been from home, ain't it?"
"Get down, you little... y-yeah."
I whistled. Nevada instantly perked his ears and scrambled towards me over the table, falling over himself and rolling on the floor in his demented rush to jump at my hooves. Caliber lost his cola in the process. Ivy tipped some of hers into the cup. "Sup," I said. Nevada sat at my hooves and wagged his tiny labrador tail so much.
"Cal was just asking me about how I manage trips out to see Mom."
"This all sounds like a lot of walking," Cal said, voice cracking.
Ivy rolled her eyes. "You get used to it."
'No you don't' I mouthed. Ivy spotted me doing this and gave me a bop on the nose with my own fork. "I thought the rest of you guys had left for Isotope City already."
"They-they-they did. I'm gonna visit Ma's home." He smiled, but also shrank into his shoulders. "K-kinda nervous..."
"The hike will knock that out of you. You'll be fine." Ivy patted him on the back, and he made a tiny squeal. Ivy winced from the pitch.
"Where's Sam?" I gathered that Cal's question sounded a lot more panicked than he meant it to. Not everyone gets a fight-or-flight response from reassuring gestures.
"He's-" Ivy started.
I talked over her. "He's walking, he'll be a little while."
"Who's gonna be a little while?" Sam said, right behind me. Ivy was, fortunately, on the ball enough to catch my lunch when I threw it all into the air from jumping with fright.
"I was gonna say, he's right over there. You're gonna need to be more observant than that wandering around the city."
Grumbling, I sat down with my food. Rainbow snickered, and went around to sit beside Ivy so they could be gross together. "When did you get here?"
Maybe I was seeing things, but I think I was starting to read expressions into his unmoving metal face. This one was unbearably smug. "'Bout twenty seconds ago."
I shook my head and stuffed my face with a hash brown. "So the guard duty's paying off in the end?"
"What?" Caliber was absolutely withering and dying with all this attention. "Oh, I'm not doin' no guard duty no more. Pa said I could... said I could go work in Sam's shop iff'n he'd let me."
Sam made... a noise. "Yep. We talked about it." Just thrilled. Thrilled, he sounded. "We can try it. I'm sure you'll understand if I don't let you work on anything that could put someone's eye out for a while." Cal looked excited enough to burst, and then small enough to vanish from existence in the space of seconds.
I giggled. Nevada jumped on my lap and started sniffing my plate. I didn't want to bap him on the nose, but needs must. Poor thing and his whiny noises. "So, you think you'll be around the base again any time soon?"
"Me?" Sam stared at me. I nodded. Holy shit, I was making small talk. What is happening to me. "What, the Caballero Center too inconvenient for you?" Well, now I felt like a moron. "Listen. You folk around the table have been sweet, but I will be happy to see the back of this place. Right now everyone's licking their wounds but I can see those scribes over there eyeing up my servos. Miss loudmouth over there looks interested in the second-hand parts she can get off me too."
Ivy nodded and rolled her eyes. "That's fair. If this were any other day they'd be on you like vultures the moment my back was turned."
"Although." Sam leaned in. All of us did the same without realising it, except for me, because I had a puppy in my lap trying to catch his own tail. "Something tells me Isotope City is gonna be a bit less... weird. I'd wonder if Winchester would be able to convince people about the whole aliens thing, but he's surrounded himself with such idiots that if he told them the earth was a giant donut they'd probably start eating dirt. Maybe the place will open up a bit and finally stop being a squalid garbage hole."
"Hey!" Caliber whined.
"Cal, I live there. The place is so filthy that I'm worried about catching something."
Cal grimaced at the table, then nodded. "Okay, yeah, i-it's pretty bad."
"The alternative is that alien conspiracy theories explode across the wasteland and undermine trust and cooperation between settlements, but..." Sam shrugged. "Gotta break a few eggs."
On that cheery note, Nevada decided that he'd scratched my lap enough and jumped off to scamper around the mess hall. I'd scoffed enough of my lunch that I didn't mind chasing after him mid-conversation. Being exhausted and in pain, he escaped the hall before I had a chance to catch up. I really needed to invest in a leash or something. When I did catch up with him, he'd found the eagle tribe, packing up their stuff and getting ready to leave. Babylon had him high in the air and was saying nonsense words to him, while he tried get a noseful of all the interesting smells coming off her. Jaffa, bless him, was enthralled. Nevada realised I'd caught up and barked at me. Babylon let him down so he could return to mashing his face into my legs.
"A new journey, where so many end," Babylon said.
"Oh, not this bollocks again."
She laughed. "Metaphors are useful."
I couldn't help it I was smiling. "Yeah, okay. Stars and stuff." Jaffa was on the ground trying to touch noses with Nevada. "He is absolutely adorable, though."
"Will you be able to care for him? I don't mean to doubt you, free bird, but nurturing is... not something I would expect from you."
"There's a lot of things I didn't expect from me before this week, but it's just all surprises lately, innit?" I smiled, and ruffled Nevada's ears. "Besides, with what I went through for my last dog, I think Nevada's gonna be just fine." He barked. Oh, long may these few weeks last when he is but a tiny hoofful of yaps and falling over and fitting in my saddlebags. "You lot heading off?"
"When the sun lowers. We are preparing. The foals and a few others are camped west of Fort Mercer. We've left them alone long enough."
"So like, that's it? Just back to being nomads?"
"What do you mean?"
"Like, you're just going back to exactly what you were doing before all of this happened?"
Babylon squinted for a moment, and then laughed. "Free bird, there have been many journeys before you, and there will be many after. The tribe made its peace with the Rangers long ago. We return to the road because it is our home."
"Me? Not the missing puzzle piece of the universe? Pshhh." I waved dismissively, and she chuckled. "Yeah, that's fair. It did seem like a lot of the Rangers had it out for you, though."
She rubbed her face a bit. "You are a pegasus, yes?"
I demonstrated by giving my wings a little flutter. "Obviously."
"When you flew over the north of the city, what did you see?"
"Uh, ruins I guess?"
"To the north of that. In the plains before the hills."
I bit my lip. "I mean, there were no buildings, but there was still the old street plan, sorta."
Babylon smiled. "You see, the roads are more stubborn than we imagine." I scoffed when I figured out where she was going with this. Again with the bloody roads. "One day they will all blow away into dust, and it will be as if they were never there. But that may be after you and I are long gone from this place. We may not see them often, but the ways walked in the past shape the ways of the future."
I sighed. "Makes sense. Shame, but it does."
She put her hoof on my shoulder. "If it makes you feel any better, missing puzzle piece of the universe, before this week, I doubt we would be able to come here and do what we did. Thank you, Atom." Then, when I wasn't expecting it, she kissed me. Just a little smooch. I think she was aiming for my nose or cheek or something but by me moving around clumsily it hit the bullseye and she just rolled with it. I... what? She's married and old enough to be my mother. She's basically an in-law. The fuck? Maybe she could tell that I really liked her voice. While I was standing there looking like a beet red mannequin, Babylon smiled at me, and returned to her business. She knew what she was fucking doing. Nobody saw it. Nobody would believe me. I think I tried to look indignant but just looked flustered.
She smelled like cinnamon, by the way.
"What?" I blinked. Turing Test was waving in front of my face.
"You look a little sunburned."
I staggered. "Oh. Must have spaced out. Sorry. I'm fine." I'm just blushing, I didn't say. I noticed Babylon was still nearby, at Turing Test's side, smiling. I quirked a brow at her, and left it at that. The tribe had basically packed up their stuff - how long had I been standing out here? In the baking heat of the day, no less.
"C'mon. Let's get you inside 'fore you hard boil that noggin o' yours." He gave me a little knock on the side of the head, Babylon followed him, and after another moment to figure out what the hell was happening, so did I.
We returned to the mess hall. It was quieter now, with only stragglers getting food now, and some of the remaining tables taken by groups lollygagging. Crumble sat out talking to Prickly Pear. Ivy was still in the room, doing something in the kitchen for some reason. As soon as I came in, Nevada scurried towards me and headbutted my legs until I picked him up. Sensible pup had gone and found some shade while I was going for my latest case of heatstroke. I didn't think I was that fried in the face, but maybe I'd come to regret it in a few hours.
"Can we get some water over here?" he yelled.
"Ivy?" Crumble called to the kitchen. Moments later a bottle fired over the counter, and Turing Test snatched it out of the air, and gently floated it to me. Man, having one of the sparkly pricks around was kind of annoying, having two to deal with would be insufferable. I pressed the bottle to my face for a bit before drinking. Maybe I was a little sunburned.
"What's cookin'?" Turing asked as he sat down at the bench across from Crumble. Babylon sat down beside him, and I sat on the floor nearby with Nevada.
"Pear's thinking about strategy. What to do about... well, y'know." Crumble waved at the room, particularly gesturing to the rubble strewn across one side of it.
Turing Test chuckled. "That sounds like a plan I'd want to be here for, missy. You ain't elder yet."
Pear waved it off. "I'm not getting very far while we're still waiting for inventories to come in. First things we need are food and clean water. We're on to emergency supplies, and they're gonna last... maybe a week. The food will run out before the water."
Turing sighed and nodded. Babylon rubbed her chin. "It is a shame that your home is where it is. This ground is hard, and the waters are too far below it to reach."
"Y'know they have a water talisman in Isotope City?" I blurted, while I absent mindedly tugged on the toy gun with Nevada chewing the handle.
"Atom, I..." Turing Test didn't sound comfortable. "I don't think..."
"They did just roll up with aid yesterday. Something tells me they're not as impenetrable as you might think." He still looked sceptical. Pear looked at me like I had two heads. "On top of that, word on the street is..." I smirked. Word on the dirt track? "They're going to need some help with construction and repairs over there. I know repair is going to be something you're busy with here, but given the priority of water, maybe you can arrange a little quid pro quo."
The two of them looked at each other thoughtfully. "That could work," Ivy said, leaning over the counter. "We have contacts now. Hell, the sheriff's son is my..." She squinted as she worked it out. "... stepcousin? I think? And there's Sam too. As long as we can guarantee that we're not going to shoot up the place and disassemble Sam, I'd say they'd come around the table."
"I worry," Pear said. "I worry about compromises like this. They may be essential to our survival now, but if we continue to compromise the mission of the Steel Rangers, we might as well disband. What would command back east say?"
"Listen." Turing rubbed his beard. "Listen, listen listen. If one of them desk pirates took a spin round our way, they'd already have the whole Palomino chapter thrown out as heretics. Star Paladin consorting with a tribal, diluting the blood..." he waved in Ivy's general direction. "Your Pops and I were among the first generation to be raised out here. Y'know how many Rangers came to San Cimarron at first?" There was a pause. Pear shrugged weakly. Turing Test leaned in. "Thirteen. That's not a base. They didn't so much establish a base as absorb a settlement. Orders were to get a foothold in the SC area by securing Roswhinny as a base of operations. And what do you know, there was already someone here. A young, starving settlement clutching weapons they didn't understand. And let me tell you, I..." He put a hoof to his chest. "Your father was my brother in arms. Today I hurt as you hurt. But if Saguaro was in charge of those thirteen Rangers that day, we wouldn't even be here."
I heard the pop of Prickly Pear's eyebrow crunching. "What do you mean?"
"I know him. He'd have evicted them by force. It wouldn't be hard, even. Ideologically pure, sure, but strategically? Dumb as a bag of rocks. That 'colony' wouldn't last ten years. We're incredibly lucky they didn't. Instead they negotiated. The Rangers knew they needed the location and the horsepower, so in exchange for cohabitation, they'd secure the base, teach them how to use this hardware they were sitting on. They did all that and more. They made them Rangers. And the San Cimarron Steel Rangers are stronger today because of that. We have succeeded through co-operation where force of arms never could. It's in the very blood we shed to keep this place." Turing Test realised at this point that he'd banged the table and was leaning over it, and he sat back and took a deep breath. "That was something your father never allowed himself to understand."
Pear nodded pensively, gazing at the table. "You make a strong case, Turing. My gut still ain't feeling it, but..." she looked at Crumble. Crumble looked tired, but she smiled. Then her eyes scanned across Ivy, Babylon, and then slid over to me, where they lingered. Then she looked back up at Turing Test. "My gut's been wrong before." Crumble was watching all of this carefully, and she shot me a wide smile after Pear's answer.
"Then it's a plan? Or, the start of one," he said.
"Sure. Like I said, survival concerns first. We can look at building materials later."
Their conversation moved on to medical supplies and food trade, and my interest drifted. I spotted Ivy leaving the kitchen. I called over to her.
"Yo, where's Rainbow man got himself to?"
She only realised I was talking to her when she heard Rainbow's name. "What? Oh, I was just about to look for him. I think he went to find his daddy."
I scoffed as I was getting up. "Typical. Had him one day and he's already lost him again."
"Come on. Let's track 'em down."
She waited for me at the doors, for me to catch up, and we headed out on to the helipads together, with Nevada scampering behind.
"Y'know, I was gonna make an observation about how this time last week we were making the same journey only we were at each others' throats the whole time, but that hallway probably doesn't have walls anymore."
Ivy laughed. "Only a week? It can't be only a week. Feels like you've been here for years."
"Yeah! It's what... yesterday, day before was in Los Arabos, day before that was the trip out and that was a week on the dot... ten days. I think it's ten days."
"This has been the longest ten days of my life, Atom."
"You said it."
We found Rainbow and Gadget in the ruins of the old room. Rainbow was showing off the remains of his collection, bless him. Gadget looked like his interest had been exhausted and he was now in the realm of polite patience with his excited son. He now also had to deal with an excited puppy, who he'd managed to not meet yet. I had to pull Nevada off him when I noticed he was visibly in pain when trying to catch him jumping. We let Rainbow finish the story about Treble Clef (again), while I kept the puppy busy.
"Well, it’s definitely played its last now. Maybe with some care and attention I can get it back in one piece, but I doubt it’ll ever sound as sweet again."
I broke the silence. "Ivy, how many times have you heard that story?"
"I’ve given up counting." Rainbow looked like he’d been punched in the stomach. Gadget looked more relieved than maybe he meant to. Ivy bounced over and gave her husband a kiss on the nose to cheer him up. "C’mon. We’re only kidding around."
I’m not, I didn’t say.
"It’s a shame," Gadget said. "Reminds me a lot of your old collection in the Stable. If I were here to see it a few days ago I’m sure it would have reminded me a lot more."
It was around this time that I noticed that the box of stuff I’d helped pack was missing. "Hey, where are the records?"
"Oh, they got taken to Isotope City."
"What? Those bastards, already looting on us?"
Rainbow chuckled. "No-no-no. Sam’s gonna hold on to them. They’re gonna get ruined sitting out here. He also said it was your idea? But then if you’re confused, I don’t know what he’s on about."
Of course! He’s actually bloody doing it. "Oh, hang on. I get it now. Don’t worry. All fine."
"I hadn’t figured him for much of a collector, but..." He shrugged.
Gadget’s stomach interrupted us. He tried to look like it wasn’t him, but I think he was incapable of not looking guilty, even when he hadn’t done anything. "‘Scuse you," I said.
Rainbow smirked. "Not hungry, are you?"
"I... mm. The group, and all the Rangers..."
He went behind him and nudged him along. "Come on. You didn’t even have breakfast. They’re not gonna poison you."
"Not intentionally, I mean the freezers probably lost p-ow!" Was all I managed before Ivy skulled me with the alarm clock.
Turing Test, Babylon and Prickly Pear had cleared out, leaving us to find a table by ourselves, with Crumble idly cleaning the kitchen. Nevada wandered into the kitchen like he owned the place. I... didn't mention it.
"So I'm curious." I made Gadget immediately nervous by what I said as I sat down. "What’s going to happen to Valkyrie? I doubt we’re seeing her again." I squinted. "At least I hope not."
He sighed. He probably didn’t want to think about it, but at the same time, could have been most of what he could think about. "Well, I imagine she’ll face charges for abuse of her command. What she said about my exile causing her disgrace wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t inaccurate either. Big Top isn’t a glamorous posting, and she probably didn’t have to fight hard to get it. Now that the reasons why are clear, and there’s half a base KIA with nothing to show for it, I doubt the council will have much patience for her."
"Good," Ivy said. "If I had my way she’d be pegasus pizza, but this’ll have to do."
"Steady on," I chuckled. "Does this mean the Enclave are gonna bugger off? I’ll bet everyone could do without that stick up their arse."
He blew and hissed. "All depends on how the politics go down in New Cloudsdale. There’s definitely a strong case for a withdrawal, especially if Valkyrie’s been spending all her time chasing me and not recovering technology. With no cloud cover and disappointing returns, they could just cut their losses. Or they could decide that being so far steeped in blood, they might as well keep at it. Who knows? It’ll be months."
"I see... Would be nice to not have to watch the skies." Rainbow said. "And what about you? What are you going to do now? I doubt you're in a hurry to get back to Los Arabos."
He relaxed. Or, that might have been him deflating because he reminded him that all of his comrades were dead. "I... don't know. I haven't had time to process everything yet." I nodded.
Crumble, always with the perfect timing, got our attention by sliding a plate full of hushpuppies in front of us. The actual puppy was sitting on her shoulders. "I know what might help with that."
She helped herself to a seat beside Ivy. Gadget looked like he wasn't sure if they were poison or not, while I was scooping some into my mouth. Rainbow gently pushed my hoof away from the plate before I ate them all. Eventually, Gadget tried one. His eyebrows raised, and he continued to munch. He shot a smirk at Crumble.
"You're very clever."
She winked. "Of course I am."
"Well." He sat back. "I suppose... I have to think about it sooner or later." He sighed and looked at the ceiling. "I'm really too old to be starting this all again... another two years to recruit? Another seven years' work, with this leg? I'll be in no condition to see the end of it."
I snorted. "Are you seriously gonna put your feet up and drink scotch all day? I can't see it myself. If familial chaos isn't gonna get in the way of your work, I'd hardly expect old age to."
He stared at the table with a resigned smirk. His number had absolutely been called, and he knew I knew it. "Have to be realistic."
"Phbhsh." Rainbow thumped me.
"I've already had two runs at this thing and they've taken most of my life. They've torn apart everything I've ever held close to me. The third one is going to kill me."
"What is this work anyway?" Ivy sensibly cut me off before I suggest that he hurry up with it then. "Considering the ruckus it's caused I'd hope it be a darn good excuse."
Gadget winced. "I couldn't..."
"Dad..." Rainbow sighed. "The jig is up. There's nothing left for anyone to take, and nobody's willing or able to take it anyway. You might as well spill the beans."
He looked at him, then at me. I don't know why he was looking at me, I was struggling to give a shit. "Right. Okay." He took a deep breath. "The Manehattan Project... it's - it was an effort to complete an unfinished pre-war megaspell that would restore the land. We had the plans and a team of experts, and the run of an old research facility."
"Restore the land?" She leaned in closer. "Like what, toxins? Radiation? Soil chemistry?"
"Everything. We couldn't hope to match the range in the original plans, it was going to cover all of Equestria... but if we could build something that was half as effective in half the range, that would be enough."
"Have you conducted small scale tests? Like a proof of concept?"
"Oh, of... of course, that was how we were feeding ourselves, we had plots of soil that we worked the methods out on first..."
I knew the look in Ivy's eyes. She was trying so hard not to be patronising. "Well... why not share that? If you're not being hunted, sharing your findings could help a lot of ponies."
"Have you seen my notes? They're incredibly technical, they'd be useless to anyone who I wouldn't consider-"
She talked over the end of his sentence. "Working for the project, right, and where would they have come from?" He shot her a whiny glare. "If there are ponies out there educated enough to work on your magnum opus, ain't there gonna be ponies educated enough to read a manual you wrote?"
"So I give them to you, and then what? You get your little band of land bastards up and pillaging again and then sit on the recipe with the rest of your hoard?" Gadget sneered. I laughed. Everyone else didn't.
Ivy looked over her shoulder and then at Crumble. They exchanged grimaces. "Look. Prickly Pear ain't gonna wanna hear me say this, but I'm not talking about just us. I'm sure we can run interference for you while you get back on your hooves, and then I dunno. Travel around teaching your food magic. Do whatever you did when you were recruiting others to help you in the first place, but get them to help their own communities. Get them to share it too. You might not be around to see it all, but... you might make more of a difference than toiling in a hole for something that might not work."
"You've... got a point. I'll have to think about it. I'm not going anywhere for the time being. You're sure I can stay here? I certainly don't... feel safe."
I banged the table harder than I meant to. "Mate, with the life you've had, I don't think you're going to feel safe anywhere." He frowned and quirked a brow in a 'yeah probably' kind of way.
Crumble nudged his side. "Gadget, these Rangers ain't hunting anyone. They've neither the will nor the means. Make yourself useful and some of 'em might even grow to like you."
"Not like I have a choice, I suppose." He paused, and then popped the last hushpuppy into his mouth. "Keep these things coming and you've got a deal."
She chuckled. "Gonna need corn for that. Maybe you can help."
He smiled at her. Like, really smiled. My eyes widened when I noticed what was happening. Was my dad getting an old man crush? Oh fuck. Fuck that's not something I need to be thinking about. I scrambled for another topic. "SO." I threw my elbow on the table without having a topic ready to go. Uhhhh. "What are you two doing now?"
"What?" Rainbow and Ivy said at the same time. I was looking at them.
"Like. What's the plan? I've been following you guys for the last week and a half. Might help to know what you're up to next."
They looked at each other, then they laughed. "What do you mean?" Rainbow said. They didn't stop looking at each other. I shrugged. "I mean, we're not exactly gonna sit down and try for a baby next week, are we? The whole place is dirty and we're burning the food stockpile. You're not gonna want to give birth in a tent?"
Ivy smiled. "Sugar." He smiled too. "Darling." He smiled less. "Sweetheart." He went into full panic mode. "I was born in a tent. You know this."
"Not that tents are bad!" Crumble and I tried really hard not to burst out laughing. "I'm sure it'd be fine! Just maybe there might be a better time? I don't know, we hadn't talked about this before, I-I-I..." His face went beet red.
Ivy hit his front. "Relax, goober. We ain't having no kids yet. Not when we're three first aid kits away from using whiskey as a painkiller."
The relief on that boy's face. "Of course! Yes. Exactly."
I chuckled. "Y'know I actually meant like, what are you doing now that there's nothing tying you down to San Cimarron?"
They looked at each other again. "Well I'm not going anywhere without Ivy."
"And I ain't going anywhere without my steed." She squeezed his shoulder. She could barely reach around it. He hadn't stopped blushing from the last topic. "Plus I got family here. I don't think we're in any hurry to leave, are we?"
"I mean... a holiday might be nice. We could go visit Manechester, maybe? I could show you the old stomping grounds."
Ivy smirked. "What, the same bombed out ruins but raining and muddy?"
"Uhm... well, we don't have... I mean..."
She shut him up with a kiss. "I'd love to, sugar."
"G-great! Excellent! Once we're all fixed up here, right?"
They gave each other a squeeze, and sat leaning together. It was mostly Ivy leaning on Rainbow, because I think if they leaned the other way around, he'd be a widower quite quickly.
"So what about you, Atom?"
Ivy leaned over the table. "What are you gonna get up to now?"
"Well." I breathed deep.
"Wow, always brings a tear to the faceplate, don’t it?" You wouldn’t know Sam was a robot over the radio, because funnily enough, it kinda hides how much he sounds like he’s talking over a radio. "That one goes out to a friend of the city who’s hitting that long and winding road today. Maybe one day it’ll lead you back to our door. Until then, fly safe, pal. And now, some messages."
Nevada bumped my front with his nose. He’d finished pissing all over the Satellite Sam’s, and was now looking for attention. I was constantly surprised by how big he’d gotten in just a few weeks.
"What’s wrong with you, boy?"
He sat, with an unwagging tail. He looked behind me. I looked over my shoulder. I saw the big metal atom on the stadium, the peaks of the Death Caps to the north, the crumbling towers of downtown San Cimarron, the broken glass roof of the Caballero Centre, the bombed-out remains of the Roswhinny flight tower, the smaller encampments on the plains in the hinterland and the squat blip on the horizon that was Big Top. All of it was behind me. In front of me was unbending, baking highway, for days. Y’know, I couldn’t blame him.
"Just between you and me, I’m not too jazzed about this either. S’hot out, innit?"
He tilted his head.
"Okay. How about this. We stay until the end of the summer, and then hit the road? How’s that sound? Maybe we’ll have Rainbow and Ivy with us then."
He stood up and barked. The worst of the wasteland could wait.
"Come on. If we hurry we’ll be back in time for lunch."