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Title: Moonlight Miles: Goodsprings
Author: MustInvestigate
Disclaimer: I only own action figures
Rating: PG
Character(s)/Pairing: none
Warning(s): none
Summary: A bit of backstory for the Incoming/Outgoing F!Courier.




Doc Mitchell doesn’t expect his patient to live through the night. He'd subtracted two bullets, added three precious bags of O-positive, and had the whole mess sutured up by noon. A dozen delicately applied stimpacks sealed up the work and stimulated the beginnings of bone re-growth. It would take a few days to set and most likely leave her brow crooked, but it’s the shredded grey tissue underneath that worries him.

By sundown, her skin’s gone hot and dry as hardpan: infection.

He can’t risk any more stimpacks, not without throwing her into shock. He crushes a moldy xander root that’s been in the back of the fridge for months and gets her to swallow the paste, but he knows that’s just pissing on a grass fire. Only more stims could kill the gravedirt filth that’s growing in her brain, and if she’s still alive in the morning, it’ll be safe to give them to her. Until then, she’ll have to fight it herself or, more likely, go right back to the boneyard Victor dug her out of.

The doc settles into a chair at her bedside, offers up a quick prayer up to St Cayetano, and lets his exhausted body drop into a light doze that will break if his patient so much as passes wind too energetically.

A door slamming wakes him an hour before dawn. Cursing his tired bones for letting him sleep so deep, he hauls himself out of the rickety chair and follows the trail of blood and sand out the back door.

She stands, swaying, in his little garden, mother-naked and goggling up at the night sky. He notes with relief that she’s sweating enough to turn the sandy dirt on everything south of her sterilized head to streaks of mud.

The fever’s broken.

He steps forward, letting the door slam behind him, ready to catch her if she swoons. Her head snaps away from the stars at the sound, and the look in her eyes – he’ll realise later, it reminds him of a bad case many years ago, a former Ranger-turned-caravan-guard back from Dogtown with a dose of the foaming madness just too far gone to treat – freezes his feet to the sand.

“You the ferryman?” Her voice is a crow’s caw and her eyes don’t quite focus together, but the question comes out steady, almost calm.

“No ma’am, I’ve never been on a boat in my life. Why don’t you – ”

“This is death,” she interrupts, only a last-minute lilt giving the statement an edge of doubt.

“Some might agree, but I’m a doctor, not a philosopher…or a sailor.” He moves closer…carefully. “It’s my medical opinion that you are very much alive, and that you’d have a better chance of staying that way if you were back in bed.”

He risks another step closer while she absorbs that, frowning in concentration.

“Had to take a piss,” she says after a moment. “Thought this was the bathroom.”

“I’ve got a toilet inside, if you’re feeling civilized.”

She shrugs at the joke and moves toward him, and he knows now how he slept through her escape. Even glassy-eyed and trembling, she makes no noise on the cracked, rocky earth. Her toes spread like fingers – he counts six on each foot, all long and functional – and she eases through each step so that nothing shifts or snaps underneath.

She leans hard on his arm, though, and what little urine she manages to pass is dark. When she’s settled on the bed again, he orders her to drink a bottle of spring water and improvises a saline drip. She fights the sleep she so obviously needs, watching with wary interest as he sets a needle in the good old median cubital vein, so he jabs a light dose of med-x in her other arm.

Minutes after it should have taken effect, she’s still awake, brushing at the sand lingering on her arms. “There’s grave on me.”

“You can take a bath tomorrow. Get some sleep.”

She grunts and closes her eyes, but pipes up again a few minutes later.

“Went to the lake like a sky,” she says, “but ferryman wouldn’t take me across.”

“Fevers can give a person strange dreams.”

“Why wouldn’t he take me?” she demands.

The doc sighs and shifts on his chair, the weight of 24 lead-lined hours on his eyelids. “Because the sandman has a prior claim on you. Go to sleep.”

“The sandman?” she murmurs, finally, finally drifting off. “That his name?”

She sleeps through the next three days, wolfing down his simple meals without opening her eyes. The doc would worry, except her body’s immune system heals so quickly, so aggressively, he half expects it to reach out and sooth his rheumatoid-swollen knees. Her skull grows whole, leaving an ugly ridge bisecting one eyebrow, as expected; stims are powerful, but not magic.

No, he sees the sallow complexion and sunken eyes of someone who’d worn herself to bones even before some maniac cracked her liberty bell, and that her body has leapt on the chance to bushwhack her into a little rest.

When her eyes finally stay open for more than five seconds, he asks after her name.

She frowns in hard thought, then shrugs. “Don’t have one.”

“Some memory loss is to be expected, after what you’ve been through, hopefully temporary,” he reassures. “Just take your time, it’ll come to you.”

She looks over his shoulder. “Think you said something about a bath?”

Awake, she makes him nervous. There’d been no need to shave away any hair before slicing into her skull, since it was already gone but for two thin stripes like devil horns. Her clothes had been unremarkable overalls before he’d sliced them to blood-caked rags, but her skin carries the old scars of a hardened raider. And she gives him a good view of them, coming and going, where anyone town-bred would have instinctively wrapped the bedsheet around their modesty.

He finds his wife’s old Vault suit in the bottom drawer.

“You’ll want to put this on,” he tells her.

“Don’t know why I would.” She complies anyway, tugging the one-size-fits-none up to her waist, tying the arms there when it’s clear she’s a foot too long in the body for it. With one of his undershirts up top, she’s decent enough to avoid more than the usual gossip if any of the locals barge in with gecko bites on their ankles, and he can relax a little.

But not much. She keeps one eye on him as she prowls through his house, leaning hard on the wall and touching everything from the plunger to a bag of flour like it fell off a flying saucer and might zap her. When she flips through a medical journal back-to-front, he asks if she can make out the words.

“Some.” She runs a finger down the page. “If…it…blood….and…that…uh…”

“That’s a good start.”

She drops it on the desk with an impatient grunt. “You sound like Ruby.”

Her face twists. “Ruby? Is that right?”

“I don’t know,” he says, his heart hitching in his chest at seeing the teeth her angry grimace reveals, the canines filed to evil little points. “What do you remember about this Ruby?”

“Nothing. A flash, then gone. Heat lightening.” She shakes her head. “Didn’t mean to speak, that last bit.”

She’s hiding the panic well, but her shallow, careful breaths and blown pupils give her away. His heartbeat settles down again, and he leads her to the couch with a gentle, “Sit down, now.”

No real raider would waste energy on a calm façade, not when his laser pistol is a foot from her hand. She’s tame enough.

“Your noggin’s taken a lot of damage, and you might have trouble remembering or keeping your thoughts in a row while it heals. But there’s good chance at least some of your recollections will return, in time. Now don’t force it, but let your mind go blank. Yeah? Good. Now tell me the first thing you think of.”

She’s quiet a long time.

“Sandman. Men. In the sand, digging.”

“Sandman?” he echoes. When she struggles to form words and gives up, makes a rude gesture and taps her own forehead, he chuckles. “You’re not a fool. That’s just what we call the one who puts your lights out at night.”

“Yeah,” she nods, relieved. “That. Him.”

“Him?”

“Him.” She throws her shoulders back and lowers her voice to a deep alto. “‘I ain’t a fink. Game was rigged from the start.’ Then…”

She stands, cocks her hip, and points a finger at the floor. “Lights out.”

The doc winces. “Of all the memories to keep, eh? The brain’s a funny thing.”

“He took…he…he kept…he kept the ferryman away?”

Doc Mitchell shakes his head. “That was a fever dream.”

“There was a lake,” she insists.

“Not within 30 miles of Goodsprings. Here, since you’re struggling, have a look at this.” He gives her what he rescued from her pockets: a 10mm handgun that was likely old before the bombs fell, a dozen caps, and a contract. “At least we know you’re a Mojave Express courier, number six on their list.”

“Six. Maybe…” She skims it without recognition. “This says…prime?”

“Primm.”

“How far?”

“Too far,” he corrects her, again. “Try a walk around town, first.”

* * *

She sticks to the road, as if the doc could see her through the midnight mile between them and slap her for disobeying.

Tho’ don’t think he’s a hitting man, why’d he –

Fortunately, the beast the trader spoke of has done the same, and she soon finds his tracks. The townsfolk think she’s supernatural, able within a day to tell who has strolled down the sandy main drag, how long ago and how much they’d drank. As if she was born with magic eyes. As if it wasn’t a hard-learned skill, setting those eyes to the ground and remembering – Easy Pete with his half-crippled foot that swung wider leaving Trudy’s then coming in, Sunny’s boat-wide boot soles, Trudy her own self mincing in pre-war heels worn down uneven.

Why’s she – well she never leaves indoors – but if raiders struck, those blue bastards prowling after the boy – couldn’t run, easy prey –

She follows the tracks even when they move into open country, keeping low so she can hunker on her haunches when the dizzy spells hit bad and the stars dance under her feet, and if she thinks of nothing but those dents in the sand and broken mesquite twigs, the ghosts come. They slip along outside her eyes’ reach, bumping her heels, whispering their names just too low to hear unless she doesn’t try to listen.

She knows this is the trail of the sick beast, the one Chet’s travelling friend warned him of, because they are bighorner tracks and they stagger lee-wise like those of that foaming ‘guai, when she was a little, and she can see one of the ghosts through the back of her head.

Him – he – favourite uncle, his name lost the way she can tell is for good, but his lined face, sun-rough hair – oh, he would slap if I didn’t listen, not the doc, but they’re close –

And she follows that whisper as she follows the tracks, and on the way is that hunt. Favorite uncle teaches the littles because his sister is the best hunter, the one who most keeps the tribe fed, clothed and jingling with caps. When she can move without noise and track a fart along the breeze, she’ll join her mother and big brothers – but, no, barely get three seasons with her, before the deathclaws move in on their ‘lurk supply and the old woman sends her running for reinforcements while –

No. The hunt to remember is that ‘guai, that mad thing out of Tar Walker territory, half that tribe killed or infected and their bighorners all slaughtered against the tiny demons that ran through them, a belly-clawing winter ahead for survivors who could not even eat their poisoned kin.

This ‘guai carried the same doom for them, for the…for…for their tribe, until they ran it down, boxed it in a canyon with a shallow cave, and her – her – with the bright grey eyes, one of them now bulging as the hungry thing behind it grew, eating into her mind and bringing the falling fits more and more as summer curdled into wet autumn – she sprinted toward it, howling, madness a poultice to draw out madness, and died under one swipe of its bloody paw.

But she’d lured him out of the sheltering cave. Hunters let loose from the canyon walls above, lead racing the raindrops, and in the morning blocked up the canyon with brush soaked in rock-oil and burned them, purifying woman and animal together. After, her children claimed her spirit, imbued with a ‘guai’s wisdom and ferocity, came to them in dreams, and the tribe was careful to always speak of her bravery at the end, not the meddlesome pettiness of her healthy years.

Just in case.

The bighorner’s tracks in front of her show a drunken stagger, legs tangling and tripping it up. She can hear it bellow, but the fitful wind blows the sound around, echoing off the hills. Last time she saw this, it was from the vantage point of favourite uncle’s shoulders, but she’s sure. If the beast makes it to Goodsprings, even gets close enough to infect the local geckos, it’ll be the Tar Walkers’ fate for those silly, soft people.

Those silly, soft, stranger-saving people.

The trail loops, she sees. It has been drifting down every slope, retracing its own steps. And the bellow is closer, now, probably just over that ridge ahead.

Get ahead of it – there – will probably pass along that log, maybe get tangled up –

She moves into place, readying her horrible, tiny, all-but-useless pistol, a miniature thing when clasped in both hands. The bighorn lets loose another coughing bray, so close now, snuffling wetly as if it’s caught her scent. Perhaps it has.

No, simpler than that. Madness, pulled to madness –

She is as mad a thing as the beast. With her split-rotten head and splay-staggered thoughts, she loops and falls even when the stars stay up high where they’re meant to. They’re kin, she and it, and she thinks that can make her poultice and purifier in one.

The waning moon above shivers, then swoops, and her stomach pushes into her throat.

No – oh no – not now – can’t do this, not with my guts in front of me – but – ”

She makes herself still, not press her forehead to the ground until the fit passes, mentally throwing the sickness in front of her like a lasso. This is what will drawn it out, their shared demon.

It’s over so fast, a ragged string of heartbeats that skitter like a scorp’, slavering beast, foaming mouth and broken-sore skin, pistol firing again and again all by itself in her twitching hands, one of her feet jerking out from under her as the poor sick thing collapses almost on her, its wetness spraying over her face, smelling rich and sour on her lips.

Silence rings in her ears as she turns the pistol to her temple.

Can’t carry this back with me – kill the sickness – covered in it, tasting it – tasting – tasting –

She eases off the trigger, cautiously touches her face. She expects to feel slobbery wetness, is sure the doc’s shirt is sloppy with the thing’s blood and ichor, but her forehead and cheeks are only sweaty. Her clothes are clean. The beast lies, dead, caught in the crotch of the log across the dip between hills.

She tastes blood, her own. There’s a ragged gash inside her bottom lip shaped like her teeth. The drool on her chin came out her own slack mouth.

And (she checks the chamber to be sure) she’s out of ammo anyway.

Suspected I’m not the hero type – good to be sure.

Doc Mitchell stands on his porch, watching oily smoke rise against the lightening horizon, dashing her plans to quietly slip back to her invalid’s cot. “Did I just waste those days I kept you from dyin’, Six?”

“No,” she says, sure of that after her night’s work, if nothing else.

“Sure seems like it to me,” he harrumphs. “Unless you’re gonna look me in the eyes and say you’ve got nothing to do with that burning out there, or those gunshots I heard?”

She looks him in the eyes and says, “I’m not gonna lie to you, doc.”

The sky shifts from violet to deep red while they stare each other down.

“Get back to bed,” the doc finally snaps. “And you’re not getting out that door again without a leash on you.”

* * *

Sunny finds the nameless courier in what’s quickly becoming their regular corner booth, fenced in by wire and metal. She’s not a friend, but she’s a hell of a shot. As the only people in town under 50 and not dodging the local crime syndicate, they’ve fallen together like two bullets in an empty sack.

On closer inspection, the table’s detritus resolves into two piles: the guts of Trudy’s busted-up radio and the clean, oiled components of her handgun.

“Metal won’t catch fire, no matter how hard you glare.”

“Can break it down,” the woman growls, “but I can’t get it back together. Makes no sense.”

“Still?” Sunny asks. “You better check that thing Doc gave you. That’s a weird skill gap for a bullet to leave.”

She checks the Pip-boy screen on her arm. “Nah. Head hasn’t gone squiggly. It’s just…just…bah.”

“I’ll do it for you. Again.”

The courier waves a sarcastic as you please gesture over the table and watches over the rim of her beer bottle as Sunny quickly slides the pieces together with a few deft twists. “See?”

“With my eyes, yeah. My fingers…” She waggles the moronic digits. “It’s like they don’t want to put it back together. It’s better in pieces. Think I hate that gun.”

Sunny examines it, seeing only a battered but perfectly serviceable weapon. “Maybe it’s the one your fancypants sandman shot you with. Maybe he dropped it.”

“No. That one had a pretty handle, and filigree all along the barrel. Saw it in the moonlight.”

“Of course it did,” Sunny snorts. “Bet he only wears underpants with little hearts on them, too.”

She doesn’t laugh at the joke, only pops open her Pip-boy screen and compares its innards to those of the radio Mr Fancypants’ buddy knocked over. On her third try, she finds the broken connection and twists the wires back together, snapping the screen back into place with a smug hmmph!

“You’re good with that thing,” Sunny observes. “Think maybe you’re really a vault dweller, and all your friends are chin-deep in sewage waiting for you to get back with a water filtration chip?”

“Not pallid. Or squinty,” the woman disagrees, tapping the radio’s speakers.

So far, they’ve concluded that the nameless woman probably isn’t a New Reno moll, a Montana soldier of fortune, a Texarcana princess, a Legion spy, President Tandi’s evil clone, or a shapeshifting nightstalker up on two legs. She’s almost certainly exactly what she looks like, some half-feral tribal lured to the fringes of civilization by sweeter booze than can be brewed in a hollow rock, but wild speculation passes the time.

“Hmmm…ok, I got it: Gomorra girl. One of the really classy quins, back in the courtyard, with your own bouncer to throw out any deadbeat johns.”

“Not a chance!” the woman snaps.

Sunny leans back, starting an apology before the tribal can take into her with those freaky teeth.

“I feel, real strong-like,” she interrupts, “that I only fuck for free.”

Sunny chokes on her vodka, prompting Trudy to come smack her on the back a few times while that evil, wanton bitch hides a grin behind her beer.

“You ok, sweetheart? Land sakes alive, you don’t have to drink the entire bottle in one go! I’ve got plenty more to sell you when that runs out. Oh, oh my, is that sweet music I hear coming outta my little old box?”

Sunny coughs harder, ducking her head to trade smirks with the tribal. Sheesh, these crazy Goodsprings biddies…

“Know you missed your Mr New Vegas,” that sneaky stray says, voice like honey.

“I sure did!” Trudy fishes in her apron and puts a handful of caps on the table. “Here’s something for your trouble.”

The woman only stares at them, eyebrows drawing together into a thundercloud.

“Sorry, Miss Six, isn’t that enough? I’m not sure what you’d usually charge.”

Sunny clears her throat, expecting an answering smirk or eyeroll from across the table even if she isn’t quite bold enough to tell Trudy the courier insists on giving it away for free. She gets nothing but a blank stare.

“Don’t like to…to deal…with caps,” the courier replies, slowly, like she’s reading the words in real tiny print of the back of her eyeballs.

“Oh, the do make such a noise, jingling around the pockets, don’t they?” Trudy’s got them back in her apron faster than Sunny can blink. “I’ll just keep a tab at the bar for you, instead.”

The courier shrugs, still frowning like there’s more written around the inside of her skull, if she just concentrates hard enough. Sunny feels like she should step in and protect the brain-damaged savage from Trudy’s mercantile skills, but – who in the Mojave who doesn’t like caps? Sunny has no idea where to even start with that.

Trudy rushes to fill the silence, anyway, before anyone has the foolish impulse to suggest the courier could just as easily dispose of those filthy caps over at Chet’s. “I kept thinking I’d seen you out in the hills after I close down the saloon, and last night I was sure of it. You were standing out in the road, just at the hill’s crest, lookin’ up at the pretty crescent moon.”

“Good hour to hunt,” the woman nods, leaving go of whatever half-thought had vexed her. “Geckos are torpid in the cool, and I’ll smell any big predators long before they see me.”

“You don’t say?” Trudy blinks. “I don’t mind telling you, it gave me a start. Seeing you, in that pale moonlight all yearning-like, I said to myself, ‘Gosh, that’s Patsy herself, right before my eyes after all these years!’”

Sunny decides to take the bait. “Patsy?”

“Oh, child, of course you know who Patsy is!” Trudy slides into the booth, bumping hips with Sunny. “As a little woman, you snuck out after midnight to leave sweet apples on the road, when your young fella was away or when he was just being slow to realise he was your young fella?”

Sunny clears her throat. “No, I…sure, some of my friends may have, but I, I’m not superstitious.”

“Mm hmm,” Trudy smiles without showing her teeth. “Well, I must have been a sillier young lady than yourself. I left a small orchard on that road when my Franklin joined up with the Rangers. And superstition it might be, but he came back from every mission…until he didn’t.”

The courier looks to Sunny for an explanation. “Apples?”

“Well, they keep the doctor away,” Sunny replies, unable to resist teasing the silly old woman next to her.

Her brows scrunch together again. “Mitchell’s afraid of apples?”

“No, dear,” Trudy huffs impatiently. “Nobody’s afraid of apples. You offer them because they’re rare and tasty, hard to part with. Not going to get Patsy’s attention with some rotten old hunk of molerat!”

“Not unless Patsy’s a deathclaw,” the courier agrees, valiantly attempting to keep up with the conversation. “They love molerat.”

“Patsy was a mortal,” Trudy says, crossing her arms tightly. “She lost her man, maybe to a war, maybe to a woman, and went out walking, hoping to come across him coming back to her. She walked so long there was finally nothing left of her but the longing and the search. So if you find yourself on the road, after midnight, out in the moonlight, she’s walking with you.”

The Brahmin flop’s getting too deep for Sunny’s comfort. “I should really go clear out the springs. You coming, ‘Patsy’?”

Out in the noonday sun, Sunny chuckles. “Patsy, the Courier. Pitter-Patsy, of Green Goodsprings, scattering apple seeds everywhere she goes. And singing. Sowing apple seeds and singing.”

“I don’t want the set the world…” the courier obligingly begins, her voice cracking.

“Stop that.”

“Moonlight. Moooon.” She watches a dust devil whirl past them, drawing out the word. “No, not the moon. Stars. Moon was just there. In the way.”

Sunny checks her ammo stock and whistles for Cheyenne, who wriggles out from the shaded hollow under the porch and shakes sand out of her fur. “Did any of that make sense inside your head? Because, out here, it made none, except maybe in Brahmin.”

“Easier to move by night,” the courier replies slowly. “Off the roads, keep in line by the stars. But the moon was so bright and low, couldn’t help but look back, and…”

She looks back now, at the graveyard. “Stay here.”

Sunny ignores the order, following her to the edge of the gulch everyone in town avoids because it’s home to a million bajillion radscorpions. The courier plunges right in, ghosting along tiny rises that shouldn’t hide a rat pup, let alone six feet of crazy woman. But the ‘scorps barely twitch in her direction. She ducks into an abandoned shack that would probably collapse under a hard word and makes the return trip hauling a dirty leather bag.

Sunny backs up ahead of her, expecting an army of bugs to descend on the town. But no, just that courier, upending the bag onto Trudy’s porch.

“Uh, why do you have that Legion helmet? And an NRC mantle uniform?”

“Camouflage,” the courier explains absently, digging through the pile. “Ah hah!”

Cheyenne sniffs at the beat- to-hell-and-back leather armor the courier holds up, whining at what looks like old blood.

“Stinks, I know. But I left some hides tanning by the spring, and once it’s patched up it’ll, well, smell more like gecko ass and turpentine. Probably better.”

“Camouflage?” Sunny repeats.

“Don’t mind telling you,” the crazy woman begins, imitating Trudy’s haughty drawl, “this jumpsuit binds up terrible in the crotch. Be good to have something that fits.”

“If you don’t explain something in the next five seconds, I’ll sic Cheyenne’s jaws of death on your goddamn crotch.”

She drops the armor back into the bag. “Road. Moonlight. Hell, Patsy…made me think. Made me remember.”

“Remember that you’re an NCR spy infiltrating the Legion, maybe?” Sunny interrupts. She doesn’t like the shuttered-up look of the woman’s face.

The courier points at the ‘scorp gulch. “Pulled off I-15 to rest up, change into settler-wear. Was going to run through open country, straight shot to…to…cut through the sewers into, uh, and wanted something light and quiet-looking on me. Fit in. Stalled just a minute, full moon so low and big and bright. Started north, but had to see that moon once more, and…”

She rubs the back of her head and shrugs. “They crept up on me.”

“Goddamn,” Sunny whistles. “Don’t you ever have a pretty memory come back?”

“The moon was pretty.” She stuffs the rest of the clothes into her bag and stands, dropping it over one shoulder in a move she must have made a million times. “Let’s hit the springs.”

“Patsy…” Sunny begins. She doesn’t know what she wants to say, but she needs a name to say it to. “Hey you” or “Courier” or even “Miss Six” just won’t do.

The woman smiles, her eyes narrow but dry. “Got any sweet little apples? Find you a man swingin’ a bighorn cock if you do.”

“Fuck you,” Sunny smiles back.

For once, none of the settlers are hanging out by the springs, but a half dozen chompy little monsters fill that gap in their social calendar. Sunny lets Patsy sneak up first. The woman refuses to waste bullets on the bastards and insists a machete would mar the hide. So, Sunny gets to watch her creep around with Chet’s old shovel held over her head, damn near pissing herself trying not to laugh.

She caves in two little heads, though, and distracts the rest long enough for Sunny to get a clean shot between their eyes. They skin and dress their kill, more out of habit than hunger, and set the raw meat to cook over one of the campfires by the spring. Patsy trades old hides for fresh out of her makeshift tanning pit and, using what looked like a sliver of bone and a whole mess of Doc Mitchell’s fine silk thread, begins patching up that old leather armor.

“I do enjoy hard work,” Sunny tells her, lighting a cigarette. “I could watch it all afternoon.”

“Fuck you,” Patsy replies, eyes inches from a complicated stitch.

Sunny hides a grin and tilts her face up to the sun. The stranger isn’t a friend, no, but she could certainly get used to passing the hours in company. She suspects that the newly christened “Patsy,” pausing her work to throw a scrap of tendon to Cheyenne to chew on, might feel the same.

“You still planning a run to Primm?”

“Guess so,” Patsy shrugs. “No rush. Too bad there’s no goldens ‘round here. You can make fire-fighting armor with those hides.”

She finishes and changes out of the old vault suit with a grimace of relief, twisting to test the fit.

“That…that doesn’t look like the deathclaw’s dinner I was expecting,” Sunny says. The bright blue gecko hides had tanned down to dusty grey, almost the color of the rocks behind them. Actually, with the random patterns of old brown leather and grey hide patches, she could probably lie down by the road and just pass as a rock herself, if only the lightness of raw scar tissue didn’t jump out so much from her dark, mostly bare skull.

Patsy’s already lost interest in her work, jerking her chin toward the road. “You know him?”

Sunny looks over her shoulder to see some waster lurking by the old caravan, probably hoping one of them would get naked again. “No. Just some creep, probably.”

He takes their glances as an invitation and shambles into the campsite. “You ladies gotta help me. My girl, she’s trapped up on that ridge. She fell into a nest of geckos and they’re gonna eat her alive if you don’t save her!”

Cheyenne growls low in her chest, hackles up. Sunny rubs behind her ears and tells her to be still. She’d take it as a bad sign, if the dog didn’t react the exact same way to every new face. She’s tempted to anyway, given the man’s twitchy hands and shifty eyes.

Hell with it. He’s not a local, but keeping the springs clear of pests is her job.

Patsy cocks her head. “Why’d you come from the road, then?”

Sunny’s already on her feet, half-listening for the man to say he got turned around fleeing, that he hadn’t been sure he could trust them and circled around, or maybe that his friend had gone up without him. Her ears prick up when he only pauses before repeating his plea word for word.

“C’mon,” she says before Patsy can ask again. The courier puts her hands on her hips like she’s going to refuse. “We should clean out that nest before they move down to the springs, anyway.”

Sunny’s ready to argue, but the courier picks up her shovel and old pistol without a murmur against it. “Just point me at ‘em.”

It’s a damn tough fight. This late in the season, the younglings are all but full grown, soft baby teeth hardened to serrated razors. Patsy drops the shovel after one rips a bite out of her shoulder while its siblings dogpile up to her waist. Sunny can’t help her right now, not if she wants to get through this with her kneecaps still attached and Cheyenne in one piece, but she’s not needed. Thirty seconds and half a clip later, Patsy’s attackers are so much cooling meat among the broc flowers. As Sunny finishes off the last two before they can escape over the ridge, she wonders why the courier even bothers fumbling with her makeshift club when she can shoot like that.

They reach the top, find a mattress and bear traps (very nearly discovering those the hard way), but no girl.

“Huh, you think she – ”

Sunny turns, but Patsy’s no longer behind her. She can’t see her anywhere, in fact, even though she heard her muttering something about a “son of a gway” just a moment before. What she does see is the waster, racing up the hillside to find his girl.

With his pistol drawn.

Before Sunny can point hers – just to be on the safe side – a dusty rock stands up behind the creep and it’s Patsy, coolly popping two in the base of his skull.

He rolls downhill, coming to rest against the pile of gecko corpses.

“What the hell?” Sunny cries.

Patsy looks up from stripping the body, surprised. “Came to kill us. Killed him first.”

She jerks her chin at the mattress, which Sunny sees now is stuffed with ammo and caps, some scavenger’s life savings. “You think he was just using us? How do you know this wasn’t his?”

“Found this hideaway last week.” Patsy settles the man’s estate in a little heap and sets to work in the gecko carcasses with the same matter-of-fact efficiency. “Was a four-eyed sharpster who took a potshot at me then, not him.”

“So you knew from the start he was moonshining us? Then why the hell’d you trot along instead of saying something?”

Patsy pauses to rub a splatter of gecko gore from her cheek with a clean forearm. “Would have missed out on a hunt if I had.”

She rips the skin from the carcass with one hard yank.

“Okay…” Sunny calls finders keepers and helps herself to the mattress bounty, whispering a vaya con dios for the unknown scavenger-cum-gecko-chow. “I guess that makes sense. Of a sort. But damn if I’m not sick to my gizzard of Goodsprings being overrun by gun-waving assholes!”

Patsy grunts in agreement, wrapping meat up in raw hides. It would be good to kill something, that was what she’d thought, and the clarity of it had pushed the man’s oily smell and pea-shooter eyes to the side. For that moment.

But the words won’t line up.

Doc tells her they’ll do that, do that until they won’t any more. The dizzy fits have passed, a good sign he says. The madness is passing. Maybe.

Breathe, she thinks, and sets her mind to air-in air-out while her hands do what they do without her split-peach brain telling them how and it would be nice if her mouth could –

“Can kill them, too.”

Sunny is making that face she nearly always makes, and she is annoyed. Not at Sunny, at the words, that they jump out her lips as soon as they come together right.

No, annoyed at Sunny too. Why not kill them?

“That’s not how we do things here. And, even if we did, you and I’d be so much sun-cooked meat if we tried. Better we figure out how to spirit Ringo away without being seen.”

Maybe.

Maybe not.

She could, easily, could walk right down the road under a full moon and the gangers’d never see her, but the trader manchild…

“Better we don’t risk spoiling the pleasing smoothness of those features.”

“Patsy, I swear to all the gods ever, I will stake you outside the deathclaw caves covered in applesauce if you try to matchmake us again.”

Sunny appreciates nothing of the courier except live ammo rammed hotly into her enemies. The pretty trader and she, they make sick-brahmin eyes at each other’s backs, but speak only of trivial things: food, escape. Foolish townies.

“And, just for the future, ‘free of obvious mutation’ is no way to talk a friend up to a handsome fella, anyway!”

Don’t roll eyes, she tells herself. Dealing with Sunny requires too much forbearance, sometimes. “A rare quality, even in towns. Should know your own value.”

“Keep talking, deathclaw bait.”

Sure, remind the deathclaw clan there’s nice soft human flesh over the road, no teeth or claws but lead and steel, and not even that if caught off guard. She’ll never understand townies. Cooking fires everywhere, put on armor only to fight each other, stroll through open country like big “oh kill me now” beacons with only a varmint rifle or laser pistol on hand.

They’re all mad.

There’s a hole in my mind, but they’re really mad.

“Me and Cheyenne are heading back to town, Patsy. You coming?”

“No.” The smell of horsenettle is on the wind, strong as molerat musk. How doesn’t Sunny notice it? Such useful seeds, for tanning or poisons; she’s not going to pass up the chance to stock up.

“I can stop calling you Patsy, if that’s what’s jammed a cactus up your cooch. It’s just a joke.”

If this, then that. It’s all she has to stuff in that empty place so the rest doesn’t cave in. If these wires work, twisting those to match will make them work too. If this person gives aid, then aid them in return. If the thing in Trudy’s mind called “Patsy” walks the midnight road, then she is a Patsy.

“I know, you’re probably got some real tribal name, like, uh, ‘Two-Gun Mailman’ or ‘Turd Blossom’ or something else with some deep meaning behind it, and Patsy’s not something I’d ever expect someone like you to – ”

“’Walks in Moonlight’?” the courier interrupts. “Sounds tribal enough.”

She keeps a stern face until Sunny socks her shoulder and declares her a bigger pain in the ass than Chet’s experimental saguaro toilet paper. They part peaceably and Patsy climbs the high ridge over town, stuffing her travel bag with the seeds. She is caught between using up the last can of turpentine on a batch of poison or curing today’s hides when she spies the plague of Powder Gangers lurking behind Victor’s shack.

They’re too far away to hear, but their grouping and gestures are clear – the big one, what’s-his-nuts, pepping up the rest. They can take this town, yeah! They’re outnumbered five-to-one, but that’s five trembly-aiming old people to every one big strong Powder Man!

She makes her way back to the tanning pit and sacrifices the last of her turpentine to the valuable hides.

As the sun goes down, she lurches into Chet’s store under a load of good leather and asks if he has anything to silence her stupid little pistol and, oh yeah, every scrap of 10mm ammo he’s got.

Trudy stumbles over the bodies on her way into the saloon the next morning, three of them neatly dead by a single headshot, but two of them riddled and sliced, blood splashed all across the street. Her heart thumps and lurches so at the shock that she hurries in to the Doc’s, only to find him putting a final stim into the gore-splattered stranger, the wild woman it’s so cute to call Patsy now.

She nods casually at Trudy as she leaves, scratching under her filthy armor, and the older woman faints in the doorway.

Sunny finds her friend later, dozing in the old trailer she’s taken over since Doc pronounced her “well enough and getting on my nerves.” She knocks on the aluminium frame.

“Hey, Patsy?”

“Mmnnnuh? Yeah, what?”

Sunny shifts her feet and clears her throat. “We’re all really glad you…did what you did. It maybe saved the town. And Ringo ‘specially said that he owes you big. But…you’re obviously all…healed up now. And…well, Goodsprings is a real small town…and you’re kinda big for it…y’know?”

Patsy takes this in silently, finally nodding.

“I need to get to Primm. See how much trouble I’m in.” She throws her few things into the dirty travel bag and stands, packed up in moments. “Can’t hide here forever.”

Something in Sunny’s chest twists when Patsy carefully puts on an old hat that Doc Mitchell used to wear for weddings and christenings, back when Goodsprings had such things. “You’re always welcome to swing back around.”

“Yeah.”

It’d be so much easier if she argued!

“I got your caps off Trudy. Harder than getting some nasty dead thing away from Cheyenne once she’s got her teeth set, but I managed.”

Patsy shakes her head. “I told her – ”

“You hate caps, yeah, it’s the talk of the town. Er, it would be, if not for…anyway. So I took those caps and got Chet to put a silencer and a night-vision sight on my old varmint rifle.”

She shrugs the gun off her shoulder and shoves it into Patsy’s stiff hands. She turns it over sullenly, holding out a whole three seconds before planting it in her shoulder and scanning the distant ridge.

“And I want that back in one piece!” Sunny tells her, turning away before the hitch in her throat can grow roots.

“See you ‘round,” the courier calls after her, and sneaks out of town the back way.
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