The moon was new, but the stars made up for it.
On a flat ridge in the middle of Zion Valley, Eddy sat back on her elbows in the red dust and stared into the glittering sky.
It was a vertical middle. Not so low the soft rush of the Virgin sang her to sleep. Not so high the wind whistled hard and urgent between gnarled juniper branches. Only the snores of a few Dead Horses on their pallets split the silence. Let her know she wasn't alone.
Never imagined it could get so quiet here. There were spots out in the Mojave where, if a dust devil didn't spin up and spit dirt at you, you wouldn't hear or see anything move for miles and miles. When you did, it was a radscorpion. And then what you heard was your own gunfire.
No natural human noise. No sweet river or soft cottonwoods. Even the yuccas didn't budge.
Zion, though. If you climbed up high and swept your eyes around the whole canyon, it looked just as empty. But it wasn't. Bighorners and yao guai, dragonflies and fish, cattails and rushes. The whole damned valley seemed to sing with wind and water.
There were green plants here, flowers and bushes—pretty ones, deadly ones, but green and everywhere.
And the Sorrows didn't stay in their caves anymore. Now that the White Legs were gone—dead, mostly, though a few made it out alive—the people of the tribe weren't afraid. They knew the valley better than anyone else, and it was theirs to roam.
Well. Joshua Graham said the valley belonged to God. That awestruck, whispery way he described God, and all his works and meanings, Eddy could almost believe it. Zion was that beautiful.
She'd leave it soon. The fight was long over now. They didn't want anything else from her. She could wind her way back to the passage where she entered the valley, back to the long road, alone. Back to Vegas, and her friends, and her enemies. Unfinished business that needed finishing.
She sighed, and stretched her head to the side, her shoulders tight. Truth was, she could have left weeks ago. Follows-Chalk had already gone, headed to Vegas or maybe even the Hub, making his own way without any map but the one in his head.
She'd packed her satchel and got ready to walk, more than once. Something pulled her back, every damn time—one of the Sorrows women asked for her help with an unruly bighorner, or Daniel needed her Pip-Boy to check one of his hand-drawn maps.
Or she went to fill her canteen and Joshua was reading by the water. And his sharp blue eyes watched her every move, she could feel it. Suddenly she was hesitant, and afraid. Of what, she wasn't sure.
Something wouldn't let her walk away yet.
Guess it was worth staying a while longer for a night like this.
The thin air was warm on the ridge and Eddy, in a dirty buttoned shirt and corduroys she picked up from a Ranger station, was comfortable enough to leave her Followers coat, and her hat, back in Angel Cave. Where all her things were, even the Pip-Boy.
The little silver 9mm was stuffed into the back of her pants. She'd never leave that fucking pistol behind, no matter what. That was the gun that shot her dead. She never let it out of her sight.
The lady on the grip prayed while she stomped all over the moon, and the boy. She was a menace.
It could get cold in the valley, colder higher up in the wind, but this night it was nice. Like a warm spring. The caravan had found one of those on the way in, and dipped into the water, when they cut away from the Long 15. Pah Tempe, the signs said. Hurricane. Joshua told her they were old words, from old languages.
Eddy stretched out her legs and kicked up dust. Everyone was asleep. The Dead Horses at this campsite were tucked away in the caves, but some liked the open air, and spread out along the ridge on their horner hide and grass beds.
Torches lined the paths along the hillside, pointed out the shaky rope bridges that crossed the gaps, but they were just dots of light in the dark valley. The red cliffs glowed purple at night.
There were no clouds. The stars were bright enough to see by, and damn but there millions of them. A big, messy stripe of them, a blur. She could see why they'd called it "milky," in the moldy science books the Followers collected. Looked more fuzzy, to her. Dirty white fur. A cat, maybe. In space.
Maybe the blurry stripe was the cat's tail. The old books showed other shapes for the stars, and she'd memorized a few: the bear, the bull, the scorpion.
The white cat could swallow them all.
What would Joshua make of this clear, star-filled sky, if he were around? The heavens are God's glory. They show us the magnificent reach of His hand. Something like that. His voice was in her head. Been stuck there for months now. She could have a conversation with him when he wasn't even nearby.
That scared her. But maybe less than it should have.
Then there was a faint, faraway flash in the corner of her vision. She turned to the patch of sky where she thought it had been, but nothing was there, only the same stars, and they didn't move.
Until one did. It just fell through the sky—or shot, like a bullet. A streak of light, and it was gone.
"Wow." If there were two, she guessed, there might be more. She pulled off her glasses and wiped them on the tail end of her shirt. They were dusty, and greasy, and the shirt didn't help much. But she could see all the points of light sharper with them on. Without, they were a smudge, like that cat's tail.
As soon as she balanced them back on her nose, there was another star shooting down the sky. Then another, right after, to the left, over the sharp point she'd never seen past that edged the valley.
She laughed to herself. It was so strange, these falling stars. She'd never seen anything like it. But there was no voice in the back of her mind that said bad, worry, not right. It did feel right. There was nothing to be afraid of.
Her gut was tense from a year or two of racing around the Mojave with so much to lose. It was hard to listen to it sometimes. Easier, out here, where she was nothing but a little bag of bones between earth and sky.
Arcade would have liked to see these stars. She'd wanted to bring him here. She'd come to depend on him, for his brains and his heart, which she loved with all of hers. But there was value in being alone for a while, he said. And Wisdom's self oft seeks to sweet retired solitude.
He pulled that from some book he'd stashed away. She learned a long time ago he never said anything original.
Maybe, what with everything that happened, and the people she found here, it was best he didn't come. The rest of them, too. She didn't think any of them would understand why she stayed here. Why she let Joshua Graham walk around breathing air, instead of putting him down in the dirt.
Maybe Arcade's dusty old saying was right, in a way.
Another star flickered and sank into the night.
Taking the Happy Trails job on her own had been an escape. A self-imposed exile. No one knew who Eddy was, or the crazy fame she'd acquired, despite all best efforts. No one cared about her, or asked her for anything but to read a map and shoot a gun.
She'd done that a lot, before all the bullshit. Never out this way, or this far.
Zion was a vacation. Even with the war, the White Leg assaults, keeping the tribes safe, and... everything else. There was something here that soothed her. Something that made the endless blood and scratching for power and caps dissolve into background noise, like a broken radio.
It let the pain in her head fade. It let the wide canyon hold her quiet and still. It let her sleep.
But sometimes it was too beautiful to let it pass by without watching.
"Like tonight," she said to herself.
A deep, hoarse voice, dark and warm as the night around her, spoke out. Joshua.
She sat up and brushed the dust from her elbows as he approached. His snakeskin boots stepped softly over the red soil.
You're awake. It was the first thing he ever said to her, after she woke up in Angel Cave on a rickety cot. She'd passed out right at the mouth of the cave, in that boy's arms, from the blood loss and the pain. Joshua saw to her wounds while she slept.
He made her nervous then. That fact had not changed in the months since. Maybe the degree of it had, or the reason for it.
He stood next to where she sat. "Watching the skies?" he asked, and folded his arms. "Good night for it. But they usually are, here."
Eddy gave an affirmative grunt. "There's something strange going on."
"Oh?" He was interested, or sarcastic, or patronizing. Hell, she couldn't figure it out. She could swear he made inflections no one else did, or could, and all at once sometimes.
"Just watch for a piece. Maybe you'll see it. The stars are falling." She pointed up at the sky, but there wasn't one direction they'd fallen from, or to.
He hummed, curious, and shuffled his feet. Pebbles rolled away under his boot.
She hugged her knees close and kept her eyes on the sky. It was the right kind of thing to focus on, instead of his closeness, and his unknowableness, and how white his bandages were against the burned red of his visible skin, in the pale starlight.
So focus she did. She narrowed her eyes and scanned the stars, waiting for another to fall, until her eyes were sore from not blinking. Joshua was silent beside her. It seemed like a long while.
Then a little flash. A short one, it fizzled into nothing almost before she saw it.
"There!" she said, pointing to the dark spot where the star had been for a moment. "See that?"
"Yes, I did." He let his arms fall to his sides. His hand nearly brushed her shoulder. That took her focus from the stars. She stared at his bandage-wrapped hand, and the raw, scarred fingertips he left uncovered.
"And there's another," he said. Quickly, she turned her gaze back to the sky, but of course it was already gone.
"Ever seen that before?" She looked up at him from the ground.
"Yes. Long ago," he answered, and met her eyes. Even in the starlit dark, his own were as clear and blue as the water that rushed the rocks at the Narrows gate. "But not like this. It's... beautiful." His voice was softer then. Soft, when he spoke to her, and looked at her.
Eddy sat up straight and stared out into the canyon. She didn't want him speaking softly to her, under the stars, all alone. Like they were kids, or idiots. Even if some part of her liked it. She knew what she was—a woman too far gone and too hard for any other life. And him? Well, just look at him.
Joshua stepped away then, like he'd heard her thinking about him. That wouldn't shock her. He made his way quickly up the ridge toward a cliffside path. Maybe, she thought, he was embarrassed. Wanted to get away from her.
But he stopped at the bottom of the upward slope and turned back. "Come this way," he said. Ordered. He wasn't soft anymore.
She didn't move. She didn't take kindly to orders. "No. I'm watching the—"
"I know a better vantage point. Trust me."
Eddy sighed and pushed herself off the ground. If he said it was so, it was probably so. Anyhow, if there was a more peaceful and open spot in the canyon to watch the stars fall from the sky than right here, she wanted to see it.
She'd learned to trust him by now. In the beginning, there was no other choice.
Thanks for reading. This is a story that's been on my mind for years and still keeps burning... if you'll pardon the terminology.
—Four months ago—
When Eddy woke, she remembered being shot.
She remembered the searing white flash of pain that charged through her like a sharp clap of thunder. The blur of her vision, and the drift of her mind into the silent, empty black.
She remembered being killed every day she woke up alive.
Each time, she half-expected to find herself back in Doc Mitchell's house. She could still smell it: vodka and lamp oil and Blamco mac and cheese. The doc was kind but shaky, a sad old man that made her sad to look at him. Eddy didn't like being sad when she didn't have to.
But she always woke somewhere else, since that day. Some bed at the Wrangler, crusty with fluids she didn't want to think about. Curled up back to back with Arcade on a worn-out sleeping bag next to a creosote bush, both their glasses somehow caught in the low, sticky branches.
This time, she woke sore, and alone, in a rotten cot. Wherever she was, it smelled like mold and gunpowder.
This time, she remembered being shot with the Happy Trails folk. They all went down, Jed and Stella, that fool Ricky. And so did she. One of the raiders hit her good, right in the upper thigh. She'd lost more blood than she could handle, trying to fend off the ambush, and walk away. Stupid.
She was the only one who made it out. Real good end to the trip.
Fuzzy, faint lights blurred far away past the close dark. The air was thin and cool, and a faraway fire flickered somewhere. She couldn't see. The cot beneath her squeaked and rattled as she felt blindly for her glasses, her Pip-Boy, anything.
There was only cold, flat rock beneath her.
Someone was speaking nearby, low and deep. Asking for something—pleading, but it sounded so strange. Monotonous, like a bad song.
She felt a chill, like her legs were bare, and tossed off the thin cover. Her legs were propped up on a stack of blankets. She had on nothing below her shirt but loose, grimy underwear, and a heavy wrap of bloody bandages around her thigh.
Her pants were gone. Her gear was gone.
She tried to swing her leg out of the cot, and let out an involuntary groan. Pain gripped her leg and shot up and down, throbbing in her veins.
"You're awake." The low voice spoke to her. Its owner came closer. He—she guessed—scraped a chair across the rock floor and set it near where she lay, holding her leg and cursing quietly.
He sat in the chair and turned the knob on a camp lantern. The corner brightened. Without her glasses most everything was a blur, but even so— He was featureless, white. She didn't know if he was human.
Whatever he was, he could talk. He could answer her.
"Where's my pack?"
He leaned forward, and dragged something lumpy and heavy across the rock. It settled noisily at one of the cot's feet. "Here." Then he sat back, calm and quiet.
It unnerved her, how he didn't move. It felt like a trap. She kept her bad eyes on him as she reached below.
Her glasses were there, sitting on a neatly folded pair of pants. Glasses on, she found her bulging, frayed canvas pack beneath. The Pip-Boy was inside, just under the zipper. Her stash of caps. Her carbine in the blanket case. The little silver 9mm.
Eddy could see clearly now, in the dim light. They were in a cave, on a rock face table, the cot shoved against the far back wall. No way out but forward. She was cornered.
A few torches stood along the cave walls, their flames burning steady.
The man was sitting still. He was human, or a ghoul, though she didn't see much distinction between the two most times. Covered in dingy bandages, under his clothes, and around his face. Covered everywhere, but his eyes.
The skin around them was scarred and patchy, and the whites of his eyes were an angry red mass of veins. But the eyes were blue, clear blue. They fixed her with a look that was haunted, that couldn't hide anger and pain no matter how he tried.
She knew that look well. She saw it in every mirror.
"Where am I?" she asked.
"In a cave, in Zion Canyon. Follows-Chalk brought you here," he said, nodding his head back toward the black expanse that must have led out of the cave. "Do you remember?"
The tribe boy, or probably more than a boy, he'd said a lot of things she couldn't hear, past the pain and the gunshot ring in her ears. He had her lean on him, and walked her, wincing and bleeding into the dirt, up and up and then down past the trees and the cliffs. There was water, where he stopped, and people. And then she blacked out.
"The White Legs welcomed you before we could. My apologies." That must have been what passed for a joke, from him, but he didn't sound amused. "You were hit in a large vein in your leg. Lost a lot of blood. It could have been very unfortunate, if Follows-Chalk had not found you in time."
Wasn't the first time she'd come that close. She was sure it wouldn't be the last. It explained all the big drumbeat throbbing on both sides of her head. And the thirst.
And the fact that she didn't feel like answering any of his questions. Just wanted to ask her own.
Eddy thought he might not be a ghoul. It was rude, maybe, to ask, if he was trying to hide it with those bandages. His voice wasn't so hoarse, but it was deep, and harsh. There was hurt and rage in it. Most ghouls she knew were apathetic. They'd seen it all, for longer than they wanted to, and couldn't get so mad anymore. They'd grown tired of it.
"Who are you?"
He stared at her, and didn't speak. His hands were flat on his thighs, unmoving, though she saw an uncomfortable twitch in his bent trigger finger.
Finally, he said, "My name is Joshua Graham."
Eddy's heart beat hard into her throat. It couldn't be so. Joshua Graham was dead. Joshua Graham was a ghost story, for young Legionaries and New Californians alike.
Must be some psycho, she told herself, some sad sack who took on the name, so people would be afraid of him.
But something knocked against the back of her mind, and said, It is so. Hanlon, he'd told her Graham was from Utah. He'd told her Graham spoke to the tribes, way back when.
And the skin around his eyes, shiny and raw and ragged—those were burn scars. Like the skin on his fingertips, the dark, wounded fingers that curled against his jeans.
She was still cornered. Backed against the wall, behind him.
She let her hand drift down below the cot, closer to her pack. The carbine was in its case, that wouldn't work. It would only take a few seconds to dig in and grab the 9mm. Had to hope like hell it was still loaded. If Graham was armed, and he would be, it'd take him the same few seconds to grab his weapon.
If he was Graham, he was deadly, and he'd take her down before she could flip the safety. Before she could shoot him in the head. Assuming that would even kill him.
It didn't matter that he saw to her wounds, that he could have let her die already. They wouldn't do that. She knew what the Legion did with women.
She swallowed. "Let me go."
The scarred skin at his eyes furrowed, but Graham's expression hardly changed. "You shouldn't walk on that leg yet," he said slowly.
There was no one else in the cave, that she could see. But there had been people when she arrived, at the water's edge. Tribe people, like the Chalk boy. That's what Caesar did—he gathered up the tribes, and convinced them they were backward and wrong. Changed everything they were. Made them his own.
She was far enough east that this might be where he gathered them up from.
"Is this a Legion camp?" It felt like a stupid question. But she had to know the odds. It could just be some kind of feeder. Maybe the tribes weren't converted yet. Maybe there was a way out.
Graham closed his eyes and sighed, shaking his head. "No."
He mumbled something under his breath. The same low monotone he'd been saying earlier, before he noticed her. She couldn't understand it.
When his hand disappeared behind him, Eddy flinched and tried to sit up, but it hurt so much she couldn't go far. Then he pulled out the gun she knew he was reaching for, a dark pistol even smaller than the one she kept.
She gritted her teeth and stared him down.
But all he did was eject the magazine into his other hand, hold both up for her to see, and toss the pieces clattering onto the rock floor between them.
"You don't have to go for your gun," he said. "You're safe here."
He leaned forward in the chair, his elbows on his knees. It was a vulnerable position. It gave up ground and space. Like a cat rolling onto his back, belly up—it sent a message.
But cats lie, for the fun of it. To trap you, while they get out their claws.
"That so?" she asked. She let her head fall against the cool cave wall. The jagged edges scratched her scalp, pleasantly painful. "The Legion wants me dead."
His eyes steeled and narrowed. "If you know who I am, who I was—"
"Everyone does," she cut in.
Even with the bandages, she could sense the irritated tightness in jaw. "Then you know they want me dead, too. The feeling, as it happens, is mutual."
He stood abruptly, the chair scraping the rock beneath him, and walked to a murky recess cut out of the rock face. He reached inside, and there were metal scrapes and clangs as he searched for something within.
One of the great things about the Legion, Eddy had learned in her years as a courier, was that they just couldn't shut up. Didn't see the point in it, apparently. They wanted you to know all about them. It was part of their trade. If they had secrets, they were well-buried, or their tongues were cut out.
So every New Californian south of San Francisco knew about the Burned Man. Knew about the routing the Legion took at Hoover Dam under the Legate, and the awful example Caesar had made of him.
That was part of their trade, too. Spreading their stories and pumping them up so much that by the time a kid in Junktown heard about the Burned Man, he was ten feet tall and bulletproof, more monster than man and indestructible—until the great Caesar decided he was pretty damned destructible, after all.
Maybe there was a little truth to those stories. What she saw before her was a man, not too tall or big, but alive, and more or less undestroyed.
If the Legion knew he was alive, too, they kept their traps shut about it.
And that was the fucking rub of it. She didn't know if the man she saw was still the Malpais Legate and true to Caesar beneath all those scars, even if he implied otherwise. Doing Legion work out here in the wilderness of the east, where no one could stop it.
There was a long, sharp metal whine. Graham pulled hard on something from the rocky crevice, and dragged it out: a footlocker.
He carried it, and it looked heavy, over to the flat outcrop where Eddy was still curled up in the cot, silent and watching. With his foot, he swept the magazine and pistol out of the way, and placed the footlocker on the ground.
Graham flipped open the lock clasps and pushed back the lid.
Inside was a mass of busted guns and other broken weapons. He lifted them out and showed them to her. A cracked anti-materiel rifle. The remains of an exploded C-4 demolition charge. A spear, snapped in half. A ripper knife, its sawblade bent.
"These are a few of the weapons I kept from the Legion assassins who have come for me," he said, dropping a rusted machete into the locker. "I have never enjoyed killing, not even in my darkest hours. But I will defend myself, so that I may live to see out my purpose."
Eddy didn't want to ask what the purpose was. Only crazy people talked like that. But the collection was a sight.
Caesar was wrong. Something was keeping this man alive, beyond all reason.
"Why'd you keep all these?" she asked.
He looked up at her. He seemed like he forgot he wasn't alone for a moment, lost in thought. "Ah, well... Humility is a virtue. It could have been any one of these weapons, or the men who wielded them, who sent me to my maker. But no matter how they endeavor, and they do, the assassins cannot seem to kill me."
Graham studied her. "For a moment, I thought you were another one sent to try."
So he wanted her gun in this box, too. At least that made sense. She lifted her chin. "I kill a lot of Legionaries, if that's what you're gettin' at."
He blinked. "Then I thank God I am not one of those any longer."
The lid fell shut, and Graham shoved it into a dark, mildewed corner. He sat back in the chair, and dragged it closer to her cot.
"I used to collect the bullets from NCR snipers, as well," he said. "The ones I could find, or pull out of my body. Those I left with the Legion." He folded his hands in his lap. "A morbid collection, I know."
It wasn't something she wanted to admit to him, but—she understood that. She half-wished she'd kept a few mementos like that along the way. But she had the 9mm. That was enough.
"I've danced with a few of those assassin posses myself. They're tough," she said. She had the scars, and had seen and felt the bullets dug out of her flesh, to prove it.
Graham nodded slowly. "Judging by the very fact that you're here and alive, they've utterly failed when it comes to you. I thank God for that, too."
Eddy didn't know what to say to that. No one had ever been thankful she was alive. House, the doc, even her companions—when she stayed alive, they were probably relieved, at best. Not thankful. She was expendable. Even Yes-Man was more necessary to keep plugged in.
She stroked the painful throbbing in her thigh and looked away into the darkness of the cave.
"No harm will come to you here. From us," he added, gesturing to her leg. "I showed you this for a reason."
When he didn't say anything more, and looked at her like she could read his mind, she said, "Well, go on, then."
Graham leaned forward again. His eyes damn near glowed in the lantern light.
"We need your help here. The particulars don't matter, until you're well enough." His gaze drifted toward her legs beneath the cover, and slowly back up to meet her eyes.
"To make things simpler, I ask you to trust me. Though my sins are known to you, I am not of the Legion. I am a New Canaanite before anything else. I trust in the Lord, and the Lord brought you here."
Graham spoke with the conviction of a man with nothing else he could hold onto. Not even himself.
"I'll think about it," Eddy said.
He nodded and stood again, slowly this time, and his stare never left hers, even as he lifted the chair and placed it against the cave wall.
"Rest now," he said. He bent to the floor and collected the pistol case and magazine, and turned toward the cool dark of the outer cave.
Eddy pulled the cover up to her chin and lay back down, carefully stretching her legs as much as she could, rearranging the stack of worn woven blankets beneath her feet. She turned her head to the side, to watch the cave and the distant firelight until she fell asleep.
Graham had not yet left. He stood with his back to her, reloading the magazine and checking the barrel.
"Hey," she said.
He holstered the gun and half-turned, looking back over his shoulder. "Yes?"
"Is there anyone else in here?"
"Not at the moment."
Her eyes settled on a torch in the west corner. It flickered softly and cast a glow on the cave wall, and tall, sharp shadows all around.
"Who were you talking to when I woke up?" she asked. "I heard you."
She heard a soft, muffled laugh escape him. "To God. I was praying for you."
Graham stepped into the dark. Eddy closed her eyes and counted his steps as they echoed through the cave.
Hope you enjoy this alternate take on meeting Joshua. As much as I love the in-game scene, I'd be bored to tears writing it verbatim. There's still a little sexy gun loading. Can't do without that.
The path trailed up into the warm blue night. There were no torches to light the way along the narrow, winding cliff. Just the stars, and the sliver of new moon perched among them.
Dust kicked up as they tracked their way. Joshua walked ahead, Eddy close behind. He stepped careful and quiet, didn't move too fast. She followed his feet, her eyes on his boots. If there was sun, you might see her bootprints in the dust on top of his. She echoed his steps, one by one.
The cliff drop at her right was stark, a black expanse that met the path and felt a lot less empty than it looked. A trick of her eyes, of the night. Every time she thought she'd got used to the heights, and the falls, in Zion, another one got her, right in the gut. She rubbed the sweat from her palms onto her corduroys.
"It's dark," she said, as though that weren't plain. But neither of them had said anything since they started walking. It wasn't comfortable. Seemed like he was waiting for something. Waiting for her.
"You can see ok up there?" she asked.
"My vision is very good, even in the dark." He stepped over the spiky reach of a lonely saltbush that sprung out of the rock.
She took the same long step over the bush after he'd passed. "Oh. Not mine." That was what Cass would call a grave fuckin' understatement. It was why she picked up any glasses she came upon, no matter how wretched or ugly. Just in case.
"I know," he said, slowing down as he led her around a curve in the cliff. "I've seen you shoot."
Eddy breathed in sharp, lips pursed, ready to spew curses and say it was a damned lie. Then her stomach lurched hard.
On the other side of the sharp corner was a thin rope bridge, swaying in the dark. The kind of decrepit little bridge that was all over Zion. The kind she would walk an extra three miles to avoid.
The boards were mostly unbroken. Far as she could see, anyway. Which wasn't much.
"You should go first," Joshua said. He was encouraging, but it sounded like he was weighing each word. "I will be right behind you."
She wasn't afraid of it. She wasn't afraid of much in this dry-assed world, not even dying. It was just that her feet were stuck in the dust right where she stood. They didn't want to go.
"Or, I can lead you." Joshua crossed his arms and leaned back on his heels. "If you can't see the way."
"I can see," she snapped.
Just like that her boots picked up, and she stomped up to the bridge and onto the first rickety board. Her sweaty hands grabbed the guide ropes, and she leaned forward, trudging ahead.
Joshua's boots knocked against the boards she'd already left. He was behind her, like he said.
Would've been a comfort if she weren't so pissed off.
"You know," she said, "you didn't complain about my sight, or my shots, when we were on the White Legs." The next board wobbled in a way she didn't like. She stepped clear over it. "So I don't find all this very fair of you."
"Perhaps not." He was just a board back. He'd caught up quick. "But it is the truth. I can't imagine who taught you to shoot. No one, I suppose."
"Well, you sure don't flatter, do you? I get the job done," she muttered. The ends of the guide ropes were a few feet ahead, tied to metal poles driven into the rock. She took two hard steps forward, grabbed for a pole, and hauled herself up onto the cliff.
Old terra firma never felt so good.
Eddy turned to see Joshua calmly step off the bridge, and up to where she stood. "You speak the truth—I don't flatter. But it helped you get across, didn't it?"
He leaned forward, close to her ear, and said quietly, as though anyone were around to overhear, "Best to have faith, and put your mind toward something else, when fears take hold."
Then he pulled back. He'd needled her on purpose. She'd learned to read him by now, even with all his facial expressions hidden under white gauze. He was amused. He must not have left all that sadism behind with Caesar, after all.
"I can shoot," she said.
"You can." He scanned the trail ahead, his eyes drifting up the mountain. "Just not perfectly." His gaze fell back to her. "God did not grant us all the same gifts."
Joshua Graham was an impossible person. Eddy was sorry she'd ever met him.
No—that wasn't true. Not at all.
She shook her head. "Not sure he granted me any."
It wasn't like her to wallow. But a person had to take a hard look at themselves and their life every once in a while. That wasn't wallowing.
And her life had not been a sunny day by the lake, not by a Mojave mile. Nothing to do with the courier job that kicked up so much trouble. No, her mama said there were dark clouds the day she was born, and they followed her the whole way.
If Joshua saw any of those clouds pass over her now, he didn't show it. His eyes were soft on her again. So was his voice. "Oh, He did, indeed. Yours are far, far finer than mine."
Then his hand fell upon her shoulder. There was the lightest press of his fingertips on her hard muscle. The warm cup of his palm, the heat of him through her shirt.
She wondered if he ran hot, with all his ravaged skin. What his skin looked like, felt like, beneath the bandages. She wondered a lot of things she shouldn't.
Joshua let her shoulder go. His fingertips trailed down her arm. He walked away, to another curved cliffside that led up, around a tall column of red rock.
Eddy stared after him. Of all the fucking people in this blasted world, why this rotten, self-righteous bastard? Why was he the one whose touch made her chest ache like she'd been punched with a power fist? Hell if she knew. She didn't even want it.
In these four months, they talked. A lot. He respected her, and she feared him—or his legend, or his past—enough to keep a good clear distance. Something changed. Something got twisted up and made him talk to her like that. Made her look for him when he wasn't around. Made her stay.
If she could lay it all out on paper, or draw it in the canyon dust, maybe she could see what happened, when.
Maybe it didn't matter what happened. Only that it had. And here they were.
She jogged over to the trail before she lost him entirely.
Joshua waited for her where the path grew steep, and widened. It flattened out just where he stood, into a plateau. One foot propped on a jagged slab that jutted from the rock wall along the path, he was watching for her. As she scrambled up the trail, he held out a hand to help her up.
"Just up here," he said. She took his hand, still hot, in her own. His grip was strong and hard—but so was hers. He pulled, and she pushed. They met on the flat ground, on equal footing.
The plateau was wider than she could see from the trailhead, and empty. This high up, there wasn't much—a withered, windbeaten juniper bent over the cliffside, a few scrubs of broom and thirsty dock in the dirt.
A cave couched the plateau. The dark mouth looked deeper than the night sky. No light at all.
Joshua stepped out onto the flat ground in front of the cave, a few feet from the edge. "No overhangs. No trees." He swept the dust from his forearms and looked at her. "A clear view."
He was right. There was nothing between them and the stars but their clothes. And billions of miles of space, she figured.
You could see all of Zion from here. You could trace the tops of the mountains in the air like they were little hills. You could follow the glittery snakeskin of the Virgin twisting through the canyon.
"It's perfect," Eddy said. And wouldn't you know it, right then: another star tumbled down.
It was cooler up here, like she thought it might be. She rolled the sleeves of her shirt down, and gripped the cuffs in her fists. There was hardly even a rock to lean against in this barren spot. She moved to the middle of the open space, away from the cliff that rattled her, and hugged her arms tight around herself.
The white cat tail arced overhead, and the stars in the middle were sparkling and colorful. Shinier than anything on this planet. The spidery, smoky streaks that curled around the stars made them look even brighter.
Were there other planets out there like this one, half-destroyed with its shitty wars and shittier people? Other Zions, other idiots like her staring up clueless at the sky from wherever they stood? Did those idiots have someone nearby who made them feel at peace, and like they'd never know peace again, all at the same time?
Joshua was next to her, his own neck craned up. He had his arms crossed, his stance assured, as always. For someone who said he was never comfortable, he sure looked at relaxed most of the time. She guessed he had to act better than he felt. Everyone does, in their way.
"I come here sometimes, to watch the heavens." His voice was quiet, and low. "Do you mind if I stay with you?"
He didn't look at her when he asked. She didn't turn to him when she answered.
"I'd like it if you did."
She thought she heard him make a noise, a faint hmm in his throat.
"Thank you," he said.
Well. If they were going to be there a while, best sit down and find their ease.
She crouched to the ground and sat back, stretched her legs out in the dirt. Her scuffed and muddy boots, the soles mercifully whole, kicked up a little dust storm. It swirled around her feet.
Joshua followed her lead, bending carefully to the ground, guiding himself down with practiced apprehension. He knew the movements by now. He'd been in discomfort, if not outright agony, for so long, she figured. She couldn't fucking imagine how he felt. And he wasn't real talkative about it, so imagination was all she had.
Sometimes it was hard to keep on a short leash.
There was a sharp, cold prickle at the base of her spine. The 9mm had moved when she sat, sliding into her pants and down to her ass in a very awkward fashion. Eddy pulled it out. The pearl grip was heavy in her hand. She was glad it was so dark she couldn't see the lady.
She set it on the ground, softly. A foot or so away, a foot or so back. Out of sight, but not out of mind.
Joshua watched her all the while. He shouldn't have found it odd to be armed, even here and now, at night in the peaceable valley, no White Legs, no storm drums. But he must have seen something in the wary way she handled the gun. How she didn't want to leave it too far from her reach.
"Are you still afraid here?" he asked. It wasn't what he meant. She could hear the meaning, underneath. Are you still afraid of me?
Her eyes had adjusted to the dark. She could see him clear enough. One knee bent, arm slung on top of it, he leaned on his leg and turned to her, an easy posture. But she could feel the tension burning off him, hard and questioning.
"No," she said. And she meant it.
He knew enough of her past by now, but he couldn't understand what the gun was to her. Maybe one day she'd let it go. Maybe one day she wouldn't care anymore.
It wouldn't be anytime soon.
She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. The muscles were all stiff from looking up. Fuck it, she thought. She leaned back, and laid her head down on the dusty rock.
The view was better, flat on the ground, staring straight up. The rock was cool beneath her, flat and solid. It felt like floating, like those dreams where you jerk awake scared because you're falling through the air. But there was half a mile of solid rock under her. She was safe. She wasn't afraid.
She was only a little surprised when Joshua lay down on the rock beside her with a soft grunt, as close as the gun, but not so cold.
Warning: this chapter goes into Eddy's past, and there are some oblique references to sexual abuse in her teenage years, but nothing graphic. I've updated the fic tags to reflect this, but I apologize that it's coming a little late.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
—3 months ago—
They circled around Eddy in the cave and listened and laughed, the tribe kids.
Guess they weren't kids, really. Not any more than she had been when she struck out from Oak Creek after she broke free from the ranch. She thought she was grown, then. Thought she could take care of herself, since no one else would.
Back then she had nothing but a dead man's clothes, and a knife, and swiped stacks of NCR cash. Back then she had nobody. At least these kids had tribe.
Follows-Chalk told them some of the things she said while they were clambering up boulders and breaking into cobwebbed old ranger stations. Eddy blabbed to pass the time, and he asked so many damn questions—well, it'd be rude not to answer.
He wanted to know everything about the rest of the world. Whatever he couldn't see from his cave at Dead Horse Point, or even from the peaks here in Zion. He wanted to know about caps, and casinos, and courier jobs. He wanted to know what her life was like. Sad and shitty as it was, she guessed it was different to him.
And to his friends.
So five or six of them at a time, Dead Horses scouts and some Sorrows, too, led by Follows-Chalk, they would find her at a down time. They never bothered her when she was dead on her feet from scouting their taboo places, or hungover sticking her head in the river, or just had too much talking for one day. Their favorite time to ask her for stories was when she was in Angel Cave, reloading casings or cleaning her rifle.
Eddy found it suited her, too.
The reloading bench was just tall enough to let her sit on a rusty stool, rest her old tired ass, and do two of her favorite things: make ammo and talk shit.
"Well, I didn't want to kill him," she told the kids.
She pushed out the spent primer from an old brass casing in the press. It clinked onto the metal table. It was one twang among the soft metallic brush of weapons being inspected, cleaned and loaded. That sound echoed in the cave from another table, where Graham sat. Alone among the rest of them, with his little .45s, more than she'd ever seen in one place.
Eddy didn't favor a gun like that. A big brush gun, and big 45-70 gov't slugs like she was reloading now—those made her feel good and ready. The 9mm she kept around for other reasons. Just like she'd kept that knife she ran away with, kept it until it didn't make her sick to look at it anymore.
"Nope, I didn't want to, even though he'd been meaner than a shot gecko to me, so he deserved it." McCaffrey. What an asshole.
Follows-Chalk giggled, excited to hear how the story turned out, even though he'd heard it already. The rest of the kids waited.
"Hell, I don't want to kill anybody, unless I have a reason." She took a clump of bunched up steel wire and scrubbed at the brass, hoping it was clean enough so the charge didn't blow up on her later. "Being paid to is no good reason, not if you can talk it out. Defending yourself is. Revenge is."
She blew the residue from her fingernails. "Now revenge isn't something to take lightly. You have to be willing to die, because it'll kill you if you don't kill them."
"That happen to you, Eddy?" Follows-Chalk asked. He had asked it before.
"Yep." She lined up the empty casings before her, a row of shiny brass soldiers ready for duty. "More than once. But that's for another day."
Someone cleared his throat, a sharp warning. It was Daniel.
He had taken up a dry, flat rock ringed by ferns, his map spread out on his crossed legs. An oil lamp beside him lit him from below, and the dark beard shadowed his face. He didn't even look up, just ahem-ed his disapproval, and pulled a pencil from behind his ear to scratch out a note on the map.
He hated her stories, and he hated that she told them to the Sorrows. No one was as pure of heart and mind as Daniel thought the Sorrows were. Once you were born into this world you were part of it, even in Zion. And no one could get their soul stained by hearing a fool-headed story they only half-understood, anyway.
So Eddy ignored him.
"So McCaffrey wouldn't budge. I even cut him a deal," she said, oiling the empty casings with a rag and a tin of yao guai fat. "Just give me your hat, I said. Then the Garretts'll think you're dead and we can both turn the other cheek."
Maybe she shouldn't have said that last part, because Daniel looked at her then, full of weary anger. The soft clicks of safety pulls stopped. Graham put the .45 he was cleaning down onto his table.
Daniel sighed, and it was the loudest damn sigh she ever heard. "I remember when they used to sit at your feet like this, Joshua," he said, his voice shaky with poorly hidden disgust. "I suppose tales of sin and violence are always in fashion. The newer, the better."
Graham said nothing. Just went back to his guns. Like he knew it would piss Daniel off more than an argument, or a cold response.
Daniel folded his map, picked up the lantern and stalked off. He was protective of his heart, and he didn't like bad influences, like her. It didn't bother her none, not personally, but she couldn't relate to that.
The kids didn't react at all. They didn't feel the judgment in Daniel's words, because it wasn't meant for them.
She watched Graham lift a lantern from somewhere on the ground and light the wick. He placed it on the desk, at the corner, and picked up another .45. He smoothly flipped the pistol on his finger and checked the barrel, with a practiced eye, like he'd done it his whole life.
He couldn't have told the tribe people much, she figured, in those tales, if they let him stay—if they didn't string him up for all he'd done. Or maybe they were bloodthirsty things. They seemed sweet. Practical, unlike Daniel, but sweet.
No, Graham kept it pretty tight. At least with her. Hadn't said much to her since that first day, only to ask after her leg, and give her food and bandages and alcohol. Not that she didn't have her own, but his was hard grain for cleaning and wounds, and not so tasty as her shrinking stash of bourbon.
He hadn't given her reason to be afraid, like he said. He'd been kind to her. It didn't make much sense, but she took it as it was. Really, it was enough that he didn't give her the stink eye like his missionary friend.
"Anyway," she said to the kids, "he wouldn't give me that hat. Flat refused. Wanted to fight me. I didn't get it." She shook out black gunpowder into a tiny cup and reached for a bent tin funnel.
"So I had to fight him. Once I shot him dead, then I knew. I lifted that hat off his head, and he was balder than a baby's ass."
Follows-Chalk laughed, too hard, like she was doing stand-up and he was her own little audience plant. The other kids followed his lead.
She funneled a few grains into each casing, never very careful about the measurements. It drove Boone crazy. Gonna blow your face off like that. Let me. Sometimes she let him. He asked for nothing else, really. Bastard wouldn't even ask for water when he was thirsty. Fuck knows what would happen to him without her.
Boone thought she babied him, but he was a baby, to her. A big, grumpy baby. She missed him.
"McCaffrey died just so nobody would see his bald head. Stupid, huh?" she said.
The kids all nodded.
The bullets twisted into the casings without a fight. The yao guai fat bunched up around the edge and greased her hands.
"When I brought the hat back to Francine Garrett, she put it right on and laughed. She was so happy she damn near danced, and she let me take Fisto for a—"
Shit. Eddy held the bullet press handle and looked over it at the tribe kids, sitting on the cave floor around her. They stared up at her, bright and happy and... innocent, maybe.
They didn't need to know about the Wrangler, and what kind of nonsense drunks and degenerates like her got up to. Maybe Daniel had a few things right.
"Well," she said. "Francine paid me real good." She brought the handle down and crimped the bullet in tight. "Okay, that's all for now, get outta here."
She pressed a few more bullets and didn't look up. Follows-Chalk led the rest of the kids away, shuffling through passage toward the sunlight. He knew her moods by now.
Then there was only Graham, and Eddy. At different tables, working at what they seemed to like best. Alone. Together.
The cave sounded like the back room at the Gun Runners' place—the quiet metal press of the reloader, the finished bullets chiming against each other in a pile, the spring of the magazines shunting into the body of the gun.
Eddy kept an eye on Graham, but she didn't expect him to speak.
He stacked a mass of pistols into a weapons locker near his feet and locked it shut. Then he leaned onto the desk in front of him.
"May I ask you a question?"
She paused, the press lever in her hand, and glanced at him from the corner of her eye. She considered saying no. But curiosity got the better of her.
His burned and bandaged fingers were steepled near his covered mouth. He took a moment before he spoke again.
"What you said before," he said slowly, "about revenge. You spoke from experience."
The bullet boxes she kept for 45-70s were all torn and water-warped. She dumped a few finished bullets into an empty box and looked at him. "That's not a question."
His eyes in the lantern light were a sharp blue, like broken glass. "What happened?"
She sighed. Figured that he would dig in like that. "Which time?"
"Begin at the beginning," he said.
Most people in the wastes didn't sniff around anybody else's history. Maybe they thought it was rude. Maybe they only cared about themselves. Sometimes even asking where you from? could get you a cold shoulder, or a threat.
Probably most folk were relieved to make it as far as they had, and they wanted to leave whatever hard times they'd lived through in the past. No sense crying about it now.
So Eddy barely knew how to answer him, or whether she wanted tell the truth. No one ever asked about her like that. Just like he'd been glad she lived. Just like he prayed for her.
Why was he like that with her? He'd been foul and evil for so long, now he had to see if he could be good? Because he had been good to her, and to the tribes, even though it didn't make a bit of sense, with what she knew of him.
Or maybe he only wanted to see how bad she was, deep down. To protect his heart, like Daniel.
Either way, he asked.
Her jaw got tight like it didn't want to open up and speak. But she did anyway, and told him what she'd never told anyone before.
"My mama took me to a big brahmin ranch in Oak Creek when I was 14. Left me there. Told me she couldn't feed me anymore, I was getting too grown. She said I'd be a maid there."
Eddy brought down the bullet press, hard. The workings clanged against each other and rang in her ear. "That brahmin baron, he had a lot of maids. They told me mama only made $50 off me. Guess I wasn't that cute," she said with a broken laugh, and looked at Graham.
The raw fingertips rested against his bandaged face. He stared at her, his eyes wide and clear.
She didn't care what he thought of her. He couldn't judge her for anything she'd done.
"I lasted about eight months there," she said, and took the ready bullet from the press. Eight months of bad food and fights with the other girls and yeah, she did have to clean the house and wash the dishes, when the ranch owner didn't want her... "Before I decided it was him or me."
She knocked him out and tied him to his bed. She'd watched the ranch hands with their ropes—she learned quick.
"No one knew who did it. Everyone wanted to kill him, you see, and girls ran away all the time. I was long gone by the time they found him." Surrounded by empty pill bottles, needles sticking out of his arms, his neck cut up with the knife. To tell the truth she wasn't sure what had done the job, but he wasn't breathing and he couldn't touch her.
That's what she wanted. That's when she split with the money she stole, and the knife, and whatever else she could find in his closet.
Eddy pulled out another empty 45-70 box. "I heard the wife got the mark for it. She hated him more than anyone. NCR put her in front of a firing line." She wasn't too sad to hear that. The old hag had a hand in everything that happened.
And there wasn't any more to say about it. She funneled more powder into the next line of casings.
Graham pushed his chair back, screeching on the rock floor, and stood. She watched him walk over and stop at the edge of the reloading bench. His fingers curled against the rust-rotten metal. She couldn't tell if he still had fingernails or not.
"I am sorry that happened to you," he said, his voice low and warm.
She shrugged, and twisted in another bullet. The Malpais Legate can't be much better. Even if he's sorry now. Worse happened to people all the time, anyway.
"Then I got sick somewhere in the Boneyard, and someone dragged me to the Followers and they took me in." Eddy sighed impatiently and wiped the fat from her hands onto her pants. "Why all the questions? Do you wanna know my recipe for radscorp casserole, too?"
Graham folded his arms across his chest. "Follows-Chalk told me a different story. About your courier work. But I thought it best to hear directly from you."
"Oh, that," she said. She crimped the brass around the bullet. "Someone killed me. I had to kill them back."
He didn't move. The lantern was behind him now, and she couldn't see his eyes. "Elaborate," he said with weak sarcasm.
So she told him the story she was tired of telling by now. The thing that everyone else seemed to know already, even people who didn't know her. She supposed he should know, too.
Know just how far she would go to do what had to be done.
It wasn't the only time, but it was the one that mattered now.
By the time she finished, she had no more bullets to make. They lay in a few shiny stripes on the bench—dull, flat silver at each end, not-quite-gleaming brass in the center.
Graham nodded absently while she spoke, and dropped his arms to his side. He was hard to read. He didn't move the way other people did, with their nervous itching, or picking at their clothes or hair. He was so still and measured in his movements, it made him seem perfectly self-assured. But no one was really like that, even if they pretended to be. Not even him.
Everyone had fear and anger circling inside them like a hot desert thunderstorm. With Graham, it only showed in his eyes.
It made her think the storm inside him must be stronger than most, because he chose to look so calm.
He turned to his own desk, picked up the lantern, and brought it to her bench. She squinted against the close, bright light. Maybe he found her hard to read, too.
"We have much in common." He declared it, like it couldn't be argued. "Has that occurred to you, as well?"
Eddy tensed on the hard stool, and her nostrils flared. Her own storm swirled up to say no, to argue and deny it.
But she had the same thoughts sometimes, in dark moments when she looked across a fire, or the river, or this cave they were in and saw him there. From more of a distance, in times past, she would have seen a monster, and she would have hunted him with no remorse—with pleasure, if she had been tasked with it.
Up close, he was shattered, a raw nerve exposed, howling with shame and rage despite his silence and stillness.
And what all that amounted to is that he was only a man. Just like she was only a woman.
Their paths had never crossed, but they ran parallel. Two dark roads broken as a Mojave highway.
"I guess we do," she said.
He looked deeply into her eyes. Her vision had adjusted to the light, and it lit him from below. There was a dark shadow beneath his eyes, and where she should have seen his mouth.
"Both murdered, and come back to life. Both too tempted by the sin of wrath. Caesar wants the both of us to die, yet the best of his men cannot manage it. Both of us seem to have a terrible strength."
There was more. She wished he wouldn't go on. But he couldn't—he didn't know anything she had not said out loud. Though if anyone could see into her black heart, she feared it would be Joshua Graham.
He leaned onto the reloading bench, closer to her, and spoke softly. "I hope you use your strength to a good purpose. The Lord knows I try," he said, and glanced upward, toward the wet sharp points on the cave ceiling. "Yet I fail each day to find such grace."
The low whisper of his voice broke then.
"You are young, and whole," he told her.
Eddy laughed under her breath. "Not that young." 38, the number on the casino. Lucky 38. They'd had a party for her, on her birthday. First birthday party she'd ever had. They wouldn't wait on her there, she thought, if she stayed here too long.
Not all that whole, either, she thought, but I can hide it better.
He shook his head, though there was kindness in his eyes, like there had been when he asked how she felt, or brought her roast fish and water in that cot.
"You have time and opportunities I never will again," he said. "Don't waste either on ghosts."
Then he was quiet. After he stared at her for a few more moments, he pushed away from the bench and headed toward the mouth of the cave.
It was a relief. He did not really know her. How broken she was already.
He was wrong about another thing, too. She would never get away from ghosts.
She was just talking to one. She was one.
Eddy swept the last line of bullets into an empty box, and brushed the dark gunpowder from her shaking hands.
Thank you, everyone, for reading! This is the most fun I've had writing in a long time and I hope that comes across. I'm very excited about where the story is going... thank you again!
The stars stopped falling.
At least, Eddy hadn't seen one in a good while. They were just little lights, quick as a hiccup against the dark sky, and she only had two bad eyes behind these glasses. It would be easy to miss a few. Easier when there were some other things on her mind.
Up on the plateau, it was still, and hushed. Not a breeze to cool her skin, not a night bird's call to pierce the air. There was one noise. A faint, faraway hiss droned on, neverending—the Virgin, on its slow slide through the canyon.
Everything else had gone quiet. Even the two of them.
Joshua rested beside her, hands folded on his stomach. It was hard to see in the dark, without turning over to look at him, if he was watching the sky. Hard not to make it obvious that she was watching him, flat on her back next to him, still as the air around them.
He hadn't spoken in some time. A few sighs, that sounded content and calm—good sighs. He seemed at ease. From the corner of her eye, she watched his stomach rise and fall with his breath. It was muffled by the bandages, but she could hear that, too. It was soft.
She paid too much attention to him.
"You asleep over there?" she asked. A half-whisper, in case he really was.
But he laughed, a short, rough breath. "No more than you."
Just the two of them lying side by side in the dark, then.
She'd grown accustomed to the coolness, and the rock beneath them still held some warmth from the late summer day. She'd even got used to Joshua near her, to the quiet rhythm of his breathing.
A warm, dizzy feeling floated up inside her, and she smiled to herself. Whatever was between them, that wasn't canyon dust and air—right then? She was contented, too.
There was nothing in the world for her to do but lay right there with that sky glittering above her, and pick out the shapes she remembered.
The belt. The arrow. The scales.
"I sleep," Joshua said, "but my heart waketh."
It was that deep, solemn voice he used when he spoke from his scripture, but soft, again. There was so much she didn't understand in what he read, or quoted, to her, but to hear him speak it was its own pleasure.
"Our bed is green. The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir."
Our bed, he said. Her smile faded, and her eyes went wide. He was just quoting the words. Nothing around them was green, anyway.
Discomfited. The word, not one she'd ever used, popped into her head.
Arcade and Veronica were arguing over deathclaw omelets in the 38's kitchen. She said discomfort was the same thing in usage and when would Arcade pull the dictionary out of his ass and actually read it sometime. He said it meant acute embarrassment and frustration, a more delicate and pointed pain than simple discomfort. Neither one would back down, and probably hadn't yet.
To Eddy's fool ears, it had sounded like Arcade was right. He usually was. And now she could could tell him how it felt.
Eddy was discomfited by Joshua's words. By how she liked lying beside him. How she watched all his little movements.
It had been a while since she felt anything like that, for more than a minute. She usually didn't let it live long. Just enough that she could shake it loose, so it didn't grab a foothold in her.
Nothing good had ever come of all that. Wasn't hardly worth it, even for the fun of it. Even if she wanted it, now and then.
One time she leaned close to Raul, watching his strong, scarred hands at work on an old toaster. When she handed him a screwdriver, he said Thanks, boss, real low and sweet by her ear. It shot right through her like the first hit of wasteland tequila.
One time Swank came up behind her while she watched a show at the Aces. He brushed her hair back, his rough fingertips swept across her neck, and he leaned down to whisper something pointless that she forgot as soon she heard it. Then he set down a fresh rum & Nuka and left without another word.
There were other times, other men. She hadn't done anything about it in years.
Sometimes it was better to just imagine what could be, instead of making something out of nothing, looking like a fool. Maybe it was was better to protect your heart, like the New Canaanites seemed to. Put all that out of your mind, and move on.
For now, the night had its own fine qualities.
"I could sleep right here," she said, and if she had been by herself, she might've let her eyes drift shut and block out those stars. Let the night surround her. Wake up cold, and alone.
Joshua hummed, a thoughtful sound. "That seems to me a waste of a blessed night."
"Blessed?" She stressed the front of it, like he did.
"Don't you think so?" His arm raised, the one that wasn't next to her, and he gestured up toward the sky.
Blessed. Who knew what that meant to him? It could be as holy as one of his prayers, or as ordinary as an everyday sunrise.
Eddy laughed quietly. "I don't know how I'd know."
He turned then, so small a turn you almost couldn't tell, unless you were watching close. His shoulders shifted up, his body angled itself just a little to his left. Toward her. His head drifted to the side, to look her way.
"You don't believe the things I've told you. And read to you." His voice was gentle, but there was a sadness at the back of it, like he didn't mean to let it out.
That was their way, the New Canaanites. Their good news, their holy book. Those things wrote out the path they took through the world. Those were what mattered most. He wanted to share it with her. He would have done that with anybody, she figured. Though she never saw him read to the Dead Horses or Sorrows, the way Daniel did.
"Perhaps you will," he said. "In time."
A breeze picked up then, and swept over the plateau. It ruffled the loose ends of her hair across her shoulders. It had a juniper smell to it, dark and sharp. She breathed in deep.
Belief wasn't something which came natural to Eddy. Neither did trust. Belief was like a sarsaprilla cap—only worth something because everybody said it was. Trust was the rare blue star on the inside. Belief could get you killed, if you were dumb enough not to second-guess. And keep your gun loaded.
And trust? Trust was not a thing—it was a process. A long road, with so many damned curves and breaks you could lose your way.
So she just wasn't sure she would ever believe. But she could feel. She felt something when Joshua spoke his word. When he told her about salvation. He was so sure about it, nothing would move him. She wondered what it was like, to be like him.
Maybe she didn't show it, but the things he told her—she thought about them a lot. Forgiveness. Sacrifice.
Forgiving was not in her. And she was just fine with that.
At her side, Joshua laid his hand on the rock between them. Inches from her hip.
Here in Zion, the idea had come to her, quietly, like it had always been there: it was not up to her to forgive Joshua Graham.
Or for anyone in this blasted world she had wronged to forgive her. Anyone she'd let live.
People like her, like him—they left a lot of blood in their wake. It stained them as sure as they were breathing. It could not be washed clean, like it was never there, no matter what Joshua's book said.
But there could be a balance. She could give of herself sometimes, and do things right. Like those scales she could pick out in the stars. Weigh the blood against the good.
Could be it was enough to do that, just about half the time. To look for a way to be good. Like Joshua had done.
She had judged him once. It made her feel mighty tall, to look down on him for what he was. Made her feel so good about all the things she'd done, the things that broke into her dreams and woke her up in a cold sweat. The things she couldn't forget. It was easy to think: at least I'm not him.
Now she knew better. And maybe she had learned that from the things he said. From his good book.
Beside her, Joshua lay still and easy, his eyes on the stars again. If he thought he knew any of what was in her mind tonight, her thoughts racing in all directions like a frenzied ant—well, that would be all he knew. Wasn't any way she could tell him in words.
Eddy pulled her feet in, knees up, and squirmed against the rock below her. There were ridges and ruts that felt sharp and good, scratching her back through the worn-thin flannel of her shirt. She couldn't help but let out a little groan when it hit the right spot on her shoulder blade.
His head turned back to face her. That time it was not a subtle movement. He huffed, a hard breath that she could hear easy. There was no seeing in the dark for her, even up close, but she could feel his eyes on her.
He was paying attention to her, too.
She stopped scratching and looked straight up.
Right above the plateau, it seemed like, there was another shape she knew: the swan. If swans were still around, they weren't around anywhere she'd ever been. But there were drawings in the old books to show what they looked like. The stars fanned out to make the big wings, the long neck. When she tipped her head back further, and held her glasses up, she could see it clearly.
She coughed. Like it would push away anything else they were both thinking. "You see that one up there?"
"A falling star?"
"No, a shape." She raised her arm straight toward the sky, and pointed. "The swan. The brightest stars connect. They make the swan. Look right up." She heard the soft sweep of his bandaged head shift against the rock. "See 'em?"
"I'm afraid I don't," he said, slow and flat. "Show me."
"Aw, hell. Look." Her arm still raised, she traced the lines. "There's a big one up top, that's the tail end. Right there."
He moved again, his shoulder leaning into hers, his head tilting with it. "Ah. Yes."
"Follow that one down to another, that's the body." She felt his affirmative grunt. "Then down from there, there's a line for the neck, to the head. And the body, out on either side's a wing." She pointed to the shimmering anchor stars that made up the bird shape.
"Oh." He sounded surprised. "It's a cross."
Well, he would see it that way. "A right crooked one, maybe," she said.
"No, it's—" He sighed. "When our Savior was crucified, His body sagged upon the cross as His mortal life gave out. Just so."
Eddy swallowed. She'd seen some of the old churches and their fixtures. She knew what he meant. But it made her think of other people who were hung up just the same, the ones the Legion left to sag and rot at Nipton, or for the crows to peck their guts out along river. Each one she found, she put out of their misery.
It was the only right thing to do. She wanted the Legion dead as much they wanted her to die. They both wanted that now. Past was past.
"But there are big wings," she insisted. "Longer than that part."
Hell's bells, he talked about her sight. She shifted toward him, and took his arm in her hand. It was heavy—wrapped in thick bandages but muscled, strong from long years of shooting, climbing, who knew what else.
She leaned her head right up to his, to find his line of sight, and felt the gauze there against the quickening heartbeat in her own temple.
Eddy pointed with his arm. "There," she said, and swept his hand along the line of stars. "And there."
The whole of him was warm next to her, everywhere they touched: the temple and cheek, his long side, and the parts not blocked by the flak jacket, the soft cotton shirt at his underarm, and his hip.
His forearm twisted, and his wrist curved around hers. His bent fingers brushed her palm.
"Thank you," he said, a low, breathy whisper. "I see now."
Her face burned. How many times had she imagined him speaking to her, close and ragged, just like that? And shot the thought out of her own head, like you would some ugly mole rat who burrowed clear into your campsite? It had no right to be there.
That was why she camped alone so many nights. Seemed like whether she stayed with Dead Horses or Sorrows—when she went to bed, he was in her sight. When she woke up, there he was again. He dug right in and wouldn't leave. Fuckin' mole rat.
And here she was curled up next to him, holding his arm, her cheek against his. She was making it all harder on herself. Even if, like the other times, some part of her wanted it.
Wanted him. This wretched, half-dead son of a bitch. She lied to herself all the time. Said she was too hard and old for such notions. Said even if she weren't, he was no kind of man to want. Lies, all lies.
She lowered both their arms to the ground, and let his go. She moved her face away from his. But they were still so close. She left it that way.
"Where did you learn the star shapes?" His voice was close, too. It purred into her.
She sighed. "The Followers, in the Boneyard. They had a school. Books." And clean water, and medicine. Women who smiled, who held your hand when you were sick. Men who didn't look at her in that awful way. "I stayed there as long as they let me. Don't remember everything they tried to teach me, but I came out better than I went in."
"The Followers are good people," he said. "I would thank them for helping you, if I could."
There was a sour underbelly to him saying that, she knew. Not all of them were good. But Caesar wasn't their fault. Learning didn't make him bad. You couldn't keep people stupid and in the dark just in case they picked up something they could use against you. You had to be ready for that, and fight it down.
"Did you have schooling?" she asked.
"Yes." She felt his arm move against hers. His fingers brushed at the rock face between them. "At the church. That was a long time ago," he said, all wry, like he was so ancient.
"Must've been a good one. You know a lot." The way he spoke and read, and the certainty he had in what he said, she knew he was educated. Like Arcade, and Veronica. Not just smart, but taught to believe his own words and thoughts. There was a difference.
He laughed softly. "It was good. We learned a great many things, well beyond our religious studies." Then his fingers stilled.
"Perhaps not enough," he said. His voice was dark with regret. "Not the way the world truly works. Only the way we wished it did."
She watched him, his chest rising and sinking with each hard breath. It was hard to imagine what he'd been like then, a young man with no scars, inside or out. Shit, it was hard to her to picture herself the same way, and she had lived through it. Maybe they became different people, each time they fought, and died. They were newly made, over and over.
Eddy turned back to the swan. She didn't know just what Joshua wanted with her. Didn't know if he wanted anything. What if it was all in her mind? The soft talk, the touch, the heat that burned her. Her brain was full of shrapnel and bad decisions, faulty and dumb at the best of times. It couldn't be trusted.
So this was enough. It was probably all she could even handle. A quiet night under a beautiful sky. A conversation and space to think. A friend. She thought she could call him that now.
"Well, look," she said. "Even people like us can have a nice night once in a while."
Joshua looked at her. His face was so close to hers on the ground, she could feel his breath. "Like us?"
If she turned her own head, it would be too much. No room between them. Near touching, again.
So she did it. Her brain always came through with the worst possible choice.
His eyes were such a bright, clear blue, she almost thought she could see them even in the dark. Sometimes when he looked at her like this, with his intense stare, she was nervous. It felt intimidating, like a judgment. This time, up close, it was anything but. It was a pull toward him.
"Yeah," she said, her throat dry. "Us."
They could have a nice night. They could be together, just like this. The pain and blood and death, the memories and nightmares—they could ignore it, for one night.
What she couldn't ignore was the weight of his hand closing over hers then. His thick, hard fingers between her own. The desperate grip that pressed against her palm, and that he lifted her hand in his, and placed it on his stomach.
Of course Joshua did not finish the line from Song of Songs:
I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh
This took me just a bit longer to get out than I hoped, but that's life. Back to our regular schedule. Thank you for reading!
drug use / experience, set during the Rite of Passage quest
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
—2 months ago—
The air pulsed around Eddy. It was hot and slow. It warped and waved in front of her eyes. The ground wasn't where her feet thought it should be. She tripped and rolled into the loose red dirt.
A cloud of dust blew up around her, and she could swear she felt every little speck fall on her sweat-soaked skin. A glowing pinprick, like hot snow.
White Bird had not been real forthcoming about what his ritual would be like.
Eddy groped her way along the dry cavern walls and crawled up pebbled hills to the yao guai nest. The sky was sharp and purple, and everything was glazed. Like you'd spilled a sarsaparilla on your eyes and let it dry there, all sticky.
That might have been a livable situation for a brief time, if not for the howling echo of every sound she heard, and the rapid gunshot of her heartbeat. It pounded through her body, so hard she nearly wished it would just stop.
She found Ghost of She and saw her split into four flaming, spitting devils.
She found the butt of her rifle and it slipped between her wet hands.
She found herself alone in a pile of broken skulls, screaming.
The fire from the bear's corpse burned on her skin, even while she dragged her herself away, down the dry slope. Her limbs wouldn't follow orders, her tongue was thick in her mouth.
Past the wind and blood in her ears, she followed the sound of water. Every step, it was harsher and louder, until she sloshed into the Narrows, and all she could hear was the waterfall's deafening, endless crash.
Eddy covered her ears and walked and walked until the sound didn't hurt anymore.
The wet stones beneath her feet gave way to the gray, silty mud at the river bottom. The only ground that didn't fall away under her was a low, sandy bulge at the edge of the water. She planted her boots there, gripped the rock wall behind her tight, and tried to will the world to stop moving.
And burning, still. That root tea the shaman made was boiling her from the inside. Made her want to take off these filthy clothes she'd been wearing since God knew when and just lay her aching body down in the river.
Let the cool water rush over her, wash away the salt sweat, and the drool, and the hot tears that stung her eyes and fogged her glasses.
But she might rush away with the water, and where would it take her? What kind of dead swamp did the Virgin dump out into when it left the canyon? What kind of mess had it brought from wherever it sprung? Safer to stay in one place, here, and let the river go its own way.
She took off her pack and her rifle. The water rushed up to soak them.
Her shirt buttons were smooth, pearly snaps that slipped between her fingers like the river stones. Each one came apart with a crack that echoed off the rock. The sleeves hung onto her arms when she tugged them down. They seized her wrists until she shook the whole thing loose from her, and let it float, thin and ragged, on the water.
She dropped to her knees in the mud and reached into the river. Cupped her hands, brought the water over her head. It dripped into her eyes and down her hot cheeks. The cool of it melted away as soon as it hit her hot skin, so she splashed more onto her face, her neck, her hair.
There wasn't enough room in her lungs to breathe. The frayed collar of her undershirt ripped easy when she pulled at it. She dragged the ratty edge of the shirt up her stomach, ready to lose it to the river, too. Then she saw him.
Joshua Graham stood in the water before her. Between her fogged and spattered glasses and her shuddering vision, he was a blur again. A ghost.
The river churned around his legs, a dizzy ring of waves to mark him. His arms held high, his leather-bound scripture in one hand. Eddy had never seen him care whether he was wet or bloody, though he changed those bandages often enough. His book, on the other hand—he kept it safe and clean.
He spoke. The words came to her over every other sound.
Come down and sit in the dust, O daughter of Babylon.
Make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers.
Thy nakedness shall be uncovered.
I will take vengeance, and I will not meet thee as a man.
He went on and on. He didn't need the book to read what he came to tell her. It was all in his head already, she knew.
She stared up at him from the mud, mouth hanging open, while he said his verses. His voice was dark as the words he recited. It soothed her ears from the pain, and it swirled into her stomach. It was low and close and sweet, and she wanted to hear more of it.
White Bird had said she would see a vision of truth. And here he was. She had to laugh. It was a sad surprise.
Pretty words demanding death and destruction. She was the one to come to for that.
"You're right." Eddy's mouth moved slower than it ought to have. Her words were slurred, and that made her laugh harder. "You're so right," she told him, rising to her feet.
He trudged to the rock-strewn shore where she stood. She backed against the rock face, still laughing though it was hard to breathe. He came close, closer than he had ever got to her. His boots dug into the mud just outside her own, and he looked into her eyes.
"Datura." It was a scold, but she could hear his flat humor in it. The unfortunate fact was, despite her laughter, she found not one fucking bit of all this funny. "You'll be fine," he said, "in a while."
"How long?" How long could one damned cup of tea last? Her throat burned with thirst, and every word and breath dried her further. She licked her lips and her breath caught, lapping itself in her lungs.
His eyes searched her face. She tried to follow his gaze, to keep his eyes straight with hers—it eased the spinning, and the pulsing. She could keep watch on the fierce, cold blue there, and the deep etched marks in the mangled skin above his nose. But he roamed over her, and then his hand was on her cheek.
The dark, burned fingertips were warm and sharp like the dust. His thumb ran over her skin, under the frame of her glasses, and up to her brow bone. It drew up her trembling eyelid. Her eye fluttered, unfocused, and he leaned in, closer, to study her.
His scent wasn't strong. It wasn't bad. She had to be this close to know. Or the tea had made that potent, too, like everything else. Gun oil, dirty jeans, something dry and smoky like a dead fire, something musty and sweet like an old, wet cactus.
She breathed in deep. It did nothing to settle her shaking hands. Or the strange fucking urge she had to reach for him, to pull his body toward hers. To have someone to hold her through this, no matter who it was.
Some part of her thought it would feel real good, to have him flush up against her. Some other part of her was doing all the thinking, since her brain was fucked.
That was the only reason. She was going crazy. Didn't make a bit of sense, otherwise. But what did these days? What ever had?
He let go of her eyelid. The rough fingertips swept down her face, and moved under her jaw. They pressed into the soft, wet flesh of her neck. Eddy whimpered and sighed when they pushed in further, to find her heartbeat.
Her blood pulsed into his fingers. It drummed, fitful and wild. Her eyes found his again. They stared at each other, without a blink, without a glance away. She heard, felt, his breath, hard but measured against the gauze that covered his face.
At his side, his other hand gripped the leather scripture book and held it tight against his thigh.
Then he lifted his hand away. She swallowed, still feeling the force of his hand against her throat.
His eyes left hers and lowered. He seemed to watch her swallowing. To watch what felt to her like a desperate rise and fall of her chest, while her lungs tried to keep pace with her heart.
"The symptoms should ease soon," he said slowly. "Gone in a few hours, by my observations." His voice had deepened, quiet and cracked. He shifted his feet, and the toe of his boot knocked against hers.
Hours more of it. If she could puke, or pass out, maybe she would live. If Joshua would stay with her like this.
Eddy couldn't ask that. Her damn mouth wouldn't let her say it. Even if her body asked it of her. Even if, through the haze and pain, she realized she thought of him as Joshua, now. Thought of him as a man, like other men whose touch she had known and liked, whose bodies she wanted to press against hers.
"Have you ever—" The question caught in her dry throat.
Joshua's eyes flicked up to hers. "Ever what?" he asked, a low whisper.
She coughed, and raised her shoulders from the rock face and leaned forward. They were nearly touching. "Drunk datura tea."
He shook his head, slowly. "New Canaanites don't believe in it."
The question spilled out of her before she could think it back.
"That why the Legion won't take chems? Because of you?"
He didn't look away, but his eyes changed. They hardened and grew cold. She had never mentioned the Legion to him again, after that first time in the cave. Suppose he felt it had been an understanding between them, that she would know better.
But she never knew better. He was learning that now, she guessed.
After he stared at her for a moment, Joshua answered calmly. "Yes. It was my idea. One of many."
There was a silence that was filled with more answers. She could hear the truth churning in his mind like the river over the rocks.
Yes, what the Legion became was because of him. In nearly every way. He had been with it from the beginning. He helped to create it. He was its architect, as much as Caesar, whether he wanted to take the credit or not.
Yes, he had enslaved, and raped, and robbed so many of their lives and homes and dignities. And taught and ordered others to do the same, passed on the grim tradition of his brutality. Yes, he had done all that.
He was not like other men.
It would do her good to remember it.
"How could you do it?" she asked.
The man had the worst fucking habit of looking you straight in the eye when you wished he would turn away. It made her feel like whatever she said came right back to her. Reflected in a broken mirror. His eyes were the blue edge of the glass. Sharp, and deadly.
"You ask the question I ask myself every day," he said. "I only know that I did."
He was drowning in shame, but shameless, because he made no excuses.
"My past is a wreckage. If anyone could learn from it—" He shook his head and finally looked away, with a heavy sigh. "That life... It was the first black chasm I fell into. I crawled out of that darkness with whatever was left of me. The canyon itself was nothing after that."
Eddy had never felt sorry for Joshua. Never wanted to feel it. He made that impossible, if she'd been so inclined. He went on living, fueled by love and anger. Love for his people, for God. Anger for anything that would separate him from them, even what he had been before. He looked at his past straight as he looked at her.
Thing was, she couldn't see what he saw. And he couldn't hear her own truths, black and foaming in the darkest parts of her mind. So deep it would be hard to speak them.
"You can forgive yourself?" she asked.
He turned back to her and fixed her with an awful look. The question had come out harsher than she'd meant it. She wasn't speaking with sense. She truly wanted to know. To hear if it was a real thing.
"God forgives," he told her. "I don't."
Joshua took a step backward toward the water. Away from her. The heat that had settled between them faded, and Eddy was left to shiver, feverish and wet, without the weight of him near.
"I won't forgive myself, and I will not forgive Caesar." He said the name like it bit his tongue. His empty hand, the hand that didn't hold the scripture book, flexed slowly, the wounded fingers curling. If she could have seen his mouth, she guessed he would be snarling like a rabid coyote.
"My body, my mind, my soul." His voice shook. "Everything I promised to God, he took from me."
She believed him. She had seen only a little of the wreck Caesar had made of the world. That he and Joshua had made together. "And your humanity," she said through chattering teeth. "That's the important part, I hear."
He scoffed, and it was an ugly, judgmental noise. "Now you do sound like a Follower."
"I come by that honest." Her brittle throat croaked out the words, but she needed him to hear it.
Something stilled him then. His eyes let go of their hard stare. He didn't fight her. He spoke calm and resolute. "If you judge and find me irredeemable, I understand. But no one among us has not sinned."
Eddy believed that, too. Sin, such as she knew him to mean it, was nothing new to her. Not the everyday fucking and drinking and gambling that set Daniel to anger. No, the acts that end in death and misery. She had been walking right into those since she was a kid.
Her heart still beat heavy in her throat, and her head, and with each pulse she could feel a sinful memory: a trigger pull, a stab, a crowbar hit. She had started with the old man, the rancher, who hurt her and the other girls. But she had killed a lot of old men since then. And women. Some were evil. Some were surely innocent, if there was any such thing in this life.
And what happened to their children when she took their lives? The ones who loved them? What happened to them when she lived, and they didn't?
If his past was a wreck, her path was a ruin. There was death at every turn. And she made the choice to keep walking, hell or high water.
She fell back against the rock wall. The rock throbbed against her, in time with her heart, with each slow blink of her eyes. "Whatever you mean by that," she said. "I've done plenty. But not like you."
Joshua stared at her for a moment, then stepped close again. The pointed toe of his snakeskin boot wedged under her foot.
"No one has sinned like I have. Not even Edward, because he never cared. But he will be judged, in the end."
He brought his hand to her cheek again. Before, his touch had been hot and insistent. Now it was unsure. Now it felt like he saw her another way she couldn't possibly know.
"We all will," he said softly.
Then he pulled back his hand, and his foot, and turned away to walk into the water. He disappeared downriver, into the foam and spray of a waterfall.
Eddy felt around her face and throat, where his hand had been, and the skin was flushed and sweaty. But so were her hands. So were her eyes and her mouth.
She stooped and crawled to the water, and drank of it until she couldn't. She rolled onto her back and lay herself down where the river met the rocks. The stones cool under her back. The back of her head, and her hair, in the cold stream.
Judged in the end, he said. She was counting on that.
me @ Josh Sawyer: Yeah Psalm 137 is good and all, but how bout that Isaiah 47?
Thank you for reading. I hope this abrupt shift from "sexy" to "oh shit" was as entertaining for you as it was for me.
I really appreciate all your comments! They sustain me like water in the desert or, uh, something.
Most times, Eddy knew what to do with herself.
There were easy choices. Stay or go. Ask or tell. Speak or keep quiet. Kill or be killed. Any one of those was the right move on a given day, or it wasn't right, but it didn't matter much. You made a decision, and you went ahead, whatever the consequences were.
Sometimes even being killed you could move on from. Maybe only a few people were like that, but it was a hard notion to swallow. She'd never been special. Just a little lucky.
The times, on the other hand, when Eddy had no fucking clue what to do? Stuck like a brahmin on a fencepost, too stupid and scared to move one way or the other?
She'd make a list.
Count up in her head everything around her, the things that were real. When the ground dropped out from under you, at least you knew what was still there. What you could see, and feel.
There was the cliff, and the empty canyon beyond, not so far from her feet. There was the solid rock under her back that went down and down. There was the black opening of the cave mouth behind her. There was a scrub of Mormon tea that rustled in the breeze a few yards away. There was the gun she couldn't let go of, set away against a small, dusty rock.
There was Joshua. And there was Eddy, with her hand in his. Her breath shaky and shallow. Her palm hot against his own, bandaged and raw. Her fingers curling around his, the back of her hand brushing his worn leather belt, the frayed belt loops at his waist.
She wasn't looking at any of that. She was looking at him, and he stared right back.
She swallowed, and used her free hand to push her glasses back up her nose. They'd slipped when she turned to face him. Her eyes had got as used to the night as they were ever going to, and she could see him clear enough. This close, it was easy.
Joshua's eyes looked less red and sore than they did day to day. Less pained and hard. More soft, like they got with her sometimes. More worried. There was a wrinkle she could make out even in the damaged skin between his brows. A question in his stare. In his grip on her hand.
Eddy couldn't translate it into words. She was no good with languages, not like him. She was only half-passable in English, for fuck's sake. But she could guess at what he asked. She was asking it, too. God damn her but she couldn't help it.
Her only answer was to lower her hand from her glasses, and land it gentle on his arm between them. A muscle twitched under her palm. She ran her hand over the cool cotton of his shirt, and the rough stitched patterns there, and felt the gauze wrapping underneath. Felt the heat of him through all of it.
Heard a muffled grunt through the bandages at his mouth, and saw his jaw move beneath them, like a rabbit in a trap, desperate to be free. He watched her all the while.
Until the jaw moved once more and he tore his eyes away. He let go of her hand and dropped it into the dust. In the same quick motion, he pushed himself up to sit, away from her, and pulled his legs in to lean upon his knee. He sighed, quick and hard, and stared out over the cliff into the dark horizon.
Eddy was left there, alone. She moved her fingertips back and forth against the dusty plateau. The warmth faded quickly from her hands. Sometimes you made the bad choice. Sometimes your answer was dead wrong.
Maybe he'd been asking a different question, or no question at all. Maybe he'd been telling her to stop him from gazing into her eyes and holding her hand like some fool. If she'd heard that instead, and done the right thing, she wouldn't be laying down breathing in dust, with her hands in the dirt and her face hot with shame.
But she was a fool, too. Never more foolish than when he looked at her with that soft stare.
"Did I hurt you?"
She asked it to have something to ask. To not have the silence sit so heavy on top of her. She nearly hoped she had hurt him. Otherwise, he just didn't want her near anymore. And wanting that, coming so close to it, giving into it in her own stupid way only to have it thrown back—it made her feel real fucking weak.
But he hadn't pulled away like that when she lifted his arm before, to show him the swan. This time, she'd touched him so lightly, and he was a tough bastard. Then again, she didn't know how he felt—how his broken body might react to anything.
"What?" He said it, his breath heavy, like he had forgot she was even there with him.
Then he shook his head. "No. I don't injure quite that easily." So he had heard her. It was just taking his brain a minute to catch up to his ears.
She almost wished he hadn't heard. That she could lay there and play dead while he was distracted, until he got bored and left. It worked with deathclaws, sometimes.
"Of course you don't know that." Joshua's fingers raked along his leg in a slow scratch. "You only see what I let anyone else see."
"My joints don't move the way they should," he explained. "The way they used to. Part of that is from the burning. Part is from the fall, and how my bones reset." From the corner of her eye, on the ground, she saw his back straighten, stiff and slow.
"Part of it is growing old." He didn't say it with any humor, the way you would when you talked to a friend. He said it like a doctor with a patient. Like Julie Farkas might say it to one of those ancient drunks in Freeside, to keep them from starting fistfights, or throwing themselves down stairs.
That must have been the way he could talk about his body, and his pain. Like it was someone else's. He could talk all day about his soul and its ravages, but to admit such a simple weakness, that you ached and hurt like an old ghoul, when you had to hide it just to get up in the morning—it wasn't easy.
"Some of my skin has never healed at all. The vast majority has, over the years. My body is a ruin of scars, but it is whole, in its way. The bandages... I could remove most of them. I don't want to." He turned his stiff neck to face her. "Is that vanity?"
She rolled onto her back and brushed her dusty hands onto her corduroy pants. "I don't think so," she said flatly, training her eyes on the stars. So she didn't stare at him.
He cleared his throat. It was a funny, cautious sound coming from him. He'd never been afraid to speak his heart, as he liked to say. "It's only that—" He sighed. "I want no pity. Not from anyone. More urgently, not from you."
She sat up on her elbows and did look at him then. Just to be sure who was really there. More feeling was spilling out of him in the past few minutes than she'd heard the whole time she had been in Zion. Had it only taken her touching him to do it?
"I don't pity you," Eddy said, her voice hard. She thought he knew her better than that by now. "Hell, I've got scars. Plenty, if it makes you feel better."
It was a dumb thing to say, to someone like him. He seemed to like it when she said dumb things, though. She did it often enough.
Joshua hummed. "I know your scars," he said.
Whether the sky was paling with the first faint light of morning, or her eyes were trained so hard on him that seeing him was easy now, she didn't know. What she did know was the look he gave her was one she had seen before—in the Narrows, when she was sick from datura and he touched her face. It was a wanting look, but a lonely one, too.
"Your forehead. Your left thigh," he said softly. Her latest bullet hole, and the one she couldn't hide if she tried.
"Your right shoulder blade. The left side of your stomach." He carefully crossed his legs, and placed his hands in his lap. "The knuckle of the third finger on your right hand. Those are the ones I have seen..." He trailed off, like he wasn't even talking to her.
He listed every wrecked part of her like it was a precious thing. She was seized with something bright and frightening. It gripped her chest and held tight. She sat up then, fully. How could he know so much? How could he care?
Her breath came shallow. She stared at her own hands. Trying to see that knuckle scar even she didn't know about in the dark. Trying not to let that bright feeling run wild, or give her wild ideas.
Then she heard him let out a heavy sigh. "Greedy as a wild pig," he muttered.
"Hmm?" His voice pulled her back from her thoughts.
"My father used to say that." He looked to the sky. "Nothing was ever enough for me. Always hungry after I'd eaten. Always eager to learn more than I was taught. I suppose that was my sin." His head fell and he looked into his lap. "I should have listened."
"The Lord has given me so much," Joshua said, low and hoarse, "despite what has been taken from me. What I gave away. And still I wish for more."
Something real stupid in her wanted to take him into her arms then. With no idea what she'd do once she had him there. She wondered how long it had been since anyone touched him the way she had. Had held him the way she wanted to. Too damn long, she guessed.
"Well, I disagree with your father," she told him.
His head spun back to look at her. There was fear there, a scold, like she'd be in trouble. Like no one dared disagree with that man. She wondered about that. How long it took someone to get free from those that brought them into this world. All the pain they left along the way. Not even death could make a clean break. She knew.
"It ain't wrong to want things." She looked at him clear and spoke plain. To him, and whatever of his father was left to listen. "If you didn't want anything, you wouldn't do anything. Just sit and rot in your own piss."
The fear left his eyes then. And he laughed. It was gravelly, rough as sand, but it was a sweet sound, she had to admit. "That is one way to put it," he said.
They sat together, quiet, for a time. He was closer to the cliff, cross-legged and straight-backed, half-turned toward her, but his gaze moved restlessly over the plateau, and out into the dark. The horizon was edged with a brightening blue. Morning was coming on.
She was hunched, one leg out straight, the other bent on the ground. She pulled the cuffs of her shirt over her hands, and flicked a loose bootlace, tapping the peeling leather on her boots. She found her eyes on him once or twice, and looked away before he noticed.
There was something he said that wouldn't leave her mind.
"What are you wishing for, anyway?" she asked. The bootlace dropped onto the cracked boot tongue. "Or can't you tell me?"
"I don't believe in superstitions," he said calmly.
When she turned to face him, she found him staring at her. That look, again. It sank into her stomach, heavy and hot.
"I wish we had met in a different world. A different life."
He said it with all the softness and wanting that haunted every too-long look he'd given her, every touch of his burned hand upon her body, every time he'd helped or given or apologized.
Those were easier to deal with than words. Words had to be answered with more words. And her words, weak and messy as they always were—they flopped around in her gunshot brain like that bootlace, back and forth. They would never come out right.
They'd never tell all the vexation, and hunger, and plain ache she felt when he said something like that.
"God damn it, Joshua," was all she could manage.
His eyes narrowed. "Please," he said, in that commanding, angry voice he hardly ever used with her. That wasn't what he meant. There was no please in it at all.
And what little she did say was still wrong, all wrong. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
He didn't care about foul language, though he never used it himself. But he wouldn't stand for swearing when it came to his religion. She guessed some part of her did that on purpose. To let him know how bad it really was.
If she couldn't tell him proper, she could ask, though it hurt just as much.
"What do you want with me?"
There was a cry stuck in her throat—she could hear it when she talked. It was embarrassing. It brought hot tears to her eyes, which was even worse.
She didn't expect him to say anything. Or if he did, to say he didn't know, to be as lost as she was. But he had every command of his own words that she failed to muster up, and he answered her without a pause.
"Everything," he said. "Everything I can't have."
Joshua's gaze didn't falter. He committed to telling her what hurt so badly to hear, and watching her hear it. It was vague, meaningless really—but he threw all he wouldn't say into it. Asked her translate it again, and fail again.
So what if he wanted what he couldn't have? So fucking what? How did that make him different from any other dirty, sunburned asshole in the wastes?
Except maybe Eddy. She had almost convinced herself she was past wanting much more than a loaded gun, a cold sarsaparilla, and a hot bath.
Until she came to Zion. Until she learned that the Burned Man was a real man, a different man. Until with every passing week, every month, the distance and fear between them went away, and the one thing she could understand without translation was that she shivered each time he looked at her and his eyes said You. It's you.
If she had thought she could call him a friend, that was fading quick as night into morning. He was something more than that.
And it pissed her off.
She crossed her legs so fast and angry that a cloud of dust blew up around where she sat. She coughed, and folded her arms tight across her chest. Tried to hold everything in. Looked straight ahead at the blue-tinged black, her mouth shut tight, her breath hard and fast.
Tried not to notice Joshua inching toward her on the plateau, until they were as close as they had been before. Noticed it anyway.
Her hands curled into fists and her teeth ground against each other.
"Eddy," he said, with a low sigh. "Tell me what's in your mind."
He had never said her name before. She liked hearing it in his voice, and she hated liking it.
What was in her mind? Bruises and shrapnel, soaked in cazador venom and whiskey. One small, rare cache of good friends. Bad memories, fears so old they were buried in dust. Desires that got so strong sometimes she shook with the wanting. And anger—at a lot of things, but mostly herself.
And so fucking what to all that, too, she thought. She took a deep breath. The anger left fast as it had come. The wanting stayed. This was how things were. There were only two choices now.
Run, or face it.
"You wanna know what's in my mind?" she asked, her sarcasm stumbling into something that sounded sweet. Sweet for her, anyway. "I was thinking, maybe we could pretend to be normal fuckin' people for a minute."
She dropped her hands to her lap and faced him. "Would that be so hard?"
Joshua leaned on one hand beside him in the dirt. After he looked at her for a moment, blinking softly, he asked, "And what would that entail? What do normal fucking people do?"
Everything was so upside down and strange, it was almost natural to hear him curse.
Eddy guessed neither of them really knew what normal was, only that it wasn't them. But she knew what she had imagined so many nights, what thoughts wound their way into her dreams. Her imagination was strong. It got in her way sometimes. Never thought it would be a help.
"You know," she began slowly, unsure how to put it, and her gaze fell toward her boots. Her palms were hot and sweaty all of a sudden. "Talk like we were doing. Be close. Touch each other. Kiss under the stars, maybe," she said, laughing. It was the corniest idea, ridiculous for people like her and Joshua Graham. But right then, it was what she wanted more than she could ever tell him.
"Try not to let every damned thing feel like such an agony all the time. Just for a little while." She smiled at him, or tried to, over the twisting in her gut and the cold shiver that found her again, when she met his eyes.
Joshua sat up straight. He brought a hand to his face, and his fingers curled around the edge of the gauze at his cheek. With a sharp swipe, he drew down the bandages that covered his mouth.
Even in the poor light of the stars and the not-yet morning, she could see the tangled map of his skin. The broken ridges of burned and badly healed flesh.
He took her wrist in his hand, and pulled it, gently, close. He pressed her dusty fingers against his mouth.
After the shock of what he'd done passed, she stroked his lips. His eyes shut tight, and she felt him swallow, felt a shuddering breath escape him.
The scar tissue was soft under her fingertips, softer than it looked. She moved to touch below his mouth, the exposed parts of his cheek. What was left of his skin was less yielding than her own, but the texture and the heat felt good under her hands. She wanted to touch more.
"If this," he whispered between her fingers, "wouldn't be agony to you. It would not be for me."
No, Eddy thought. She brought her hand down to cradle his neck, and leaned forward. Quite the fucking opposite.
When she pressed her lips to his, and tasted the dry salt of his skin, she whimpered like a coyote, high and wild. He opened his mouth to hers with a deep groan. His hands found her hips, and he pushed himself forward.
She landed with a soft thud on her back in the dirt. He fell with her, against her. The weight of him settled on top of her. They kissed, hard and urgent, while a lazy breeze blew onto on the plateau, too weak to come between them.
Now we're getting somewhere. :)
Thank you for reading!