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Niki started at the ceiling of her room, the same ceiling she had started at each and every night since she had been born in this house twenty-one years ago. The white paint had long since turned grey and was peeling in places. If her father had still been alive, she was sure he would have come up with an ingenious way of making paint from what was were available in this world she had been born into. A tear seeped from her eye and made its way down her face until it ran out of energy half way along her jawline. There had been nights where she had cried until she thought her heart would burst. On those nights Blondie had silently entered her room and sat with her, not speaking but just sitting on the edge of her bed, letting her know she wasn’t alone.

Over time the pain of her loss had faded a little. Now, not the raw jagged hurt that she had experienced, just a numb emptiness, a hole where her parents love had existed. She had tried to fill that hole with something else to help disperse the pain but nothing seemed to dull the ache. She wished she was as strong as Blondie, the stoic hunter never seemed to be affected by emotional torment. Blondie had been Niki’s saviour in more ways than one. Not only had she saved Niki from the Reavers, she had also been the anchor that kept Niki from getting lost in her own grief. The tall, brawny woman who had not only been her saviour, but had also been the welcome distraction from the agony of losing her family.

A distraction that annoyed the hell out of Niki. She had often wondered what had gone on in Blondie’s past that left her so cold and emotionless, but no matter how often she pressed for some hint of her life story, Blondie would just close down, thick mental walls blocking out any intrusion.

A small sigh escaped Niki’s lips. This time not one of sadness, more of frustration. A feeling that fanned the embers of anger inside her.

Why was Blondie so damned closed to her? If only she would open up a little Niki was sure they could have something more than the friendship that existed between them.

In the beginning Niki had held on to the tower of strength that Blondie had been. As Niki had grown older and Blondie had begun to teach her how to be a survivor, Niki felt the bond between herself and her educator flourish. She had giggled to herself when Blondie had rebuked her for dressing in figure hugging clothing. While she had understood perfectly the reasons why Blondie thought her attire was inappropriate, she enjoyed the feeling of knowing Blondie’s eyes spent far longer than was decent resting on what the clothing covered.

The thought landed firmly on the small flame of anger, smothering it before it took hold.

A ghost of a smile warmed Niki’s face. She couldn’t put her finger on exactly when she had fallen for Blondie. She assumed it had begun with hero worship that had slowly grown into infatuation, which inevitably blossomed in to love and sexual attraction.

Niki sighed once more. She had seen magazines from before the time of the falling, publications that contained faded images of men and women from a past age. They all seemed to be beyond beautiful, but in Niki’s eyes Blondie outshone them all. The hunter was taller than Niki by at least a head, and her body was as hard as rock, muscle formed by a life of hard living. Dirty-blonde hair crowned her head, hacked short in to an untidy tangle. A total contrast to the styled faces that appeared in Niki’s magazines, but her grim visage glowed with a beauty that none of the people the magazines referred to as stars could hope to match. Her harsh natural beauty coupled with her enigmatic past made Blondie a mystery begging to be unravelled.

Most nights Niki fell asleep wondering if the rough Wastelander would ever open her heart to the farm-born youngster, or would she be forever pining after her. Would Blondie always be oblivious to Niki’s desire while they lived out the rest of their years on the farm?

There had been times when, as a child, Niki had asked her parents why they rarely left the small homestead. Usually it would be after her mother and father had argued about something. It was only when she grew old enough to understand what had happened while her parents had been young, did she fully grasp how dangerous life was beyond the hollow they lived in.

The world had known about Zeus long before it had become a real threat. Niki’s mother had told her how the various governments had insisted there was no danger, and how the majority of the public had believed that. After all, it was a time when people believed what the media told them, blindly accepting what was handed down without question.

The minority, small groups of survivalists that didn’t believe the spoon-fed information, chose to prepare themselves for a scenario where the worst would happen. Niki’s mother’s parents had been one of those groups. They had built the thick-walled block house miles away from large population centres, bursa escort sunk a basement deep in to the rock with air filtration, and water sourced directly from below them. Niki’s father had been an apprentice engineer and had been with the construction crew who had built the safehouse and had been infatuated with the couple’s young daughter Marylin. Riku had only been dating Marylin for a few months when it became apparent that Zeus would indeed come a lot closer than the near miss originally predicted.

Riku had helped the family get to the safety of their newly-built bunker and accepted their offer to ride out the worst of what was to come. From Niki’s understanding, Zeus had struck the planet on a continent call Africa. After the initial strike, no one was really sure what came first, but Riku had spoken about the sky raining fire and the seas boiling up to swallow the earth.

Why the authorities had failed so badly, no one knew. There was talk about people chosen to go to safe places to ensure the continuation of the human race, but if that had been the fact, then they didn’t care about the part of the world where Niki and her family lived. When the dust settled, and the initial chaos had died down, the survivors had waited for help to arrive, but none came. Many had perished, dying from hunger and exposure and left to rot where they fell.

Out of the debris of the world that had been, the folk that managed to cling on to life fell into one of two categories, the ones who tried to rebuild, piecing back together the fragments of a devastated civilisation, and the ones who saw the power vacuum and grabbed everything they could while to opportunity presented itself.

The raids had begun small, one or two people stealing into encampments to take what supplies had been gathered. As the Rebuilders got more organised, they began to protect themselves against these raids, so to compensate the small groups formed gangs, earning themselves the name Reavers, taken from the groups of raiders that had plundered the Anglo-Saxon lands hundreds of years before. Niki’s mother had told her stories about a land far away in a different time, where the Anglo-Saxon farmers had hired warriors to cross the borders and chase the gangs of Reavers down, and hopefully returning the stolen cattle and crops. She also told of how the Rebuilders followed a similar course of action, seeking out the breed of person who would take the battle to the Reavers and burning the roots of the parasitic breed out. Niki had grown up listening to wonderful tales of the Hunters, the fearless predators that roamed the Wastelands, putting Reavers down and returning the much-needed goods to their rightful owners. Heroes with names like America’s Captain, The Man of Iron, and her personal favourite Miss Marvel, a beautiful huntress who dealt her own form of justice all across the Wastelands.

For a long time Niki had thought Blondie was either Miss Marvel or, if not, someone who had fashioned themselves on her. That had been the beginning of her infatuation and eventual attraction. Giving a small moan, Niki pulled her knees upwards, attempting to quell the warmth that blossomed between her thighs. The small moan ran in to a longer one as her hands began to touch her body in the places where she wanted Blondie to touch her. As the moans grew quicker, Niki wondered if Blondie ever touched herself while thinking about her young apprentice.

The next morning dawned bright, the storm had blown itself out overnight. By the time Niki rose, her body still buzzing from her previous night’s climax, the sunlight was seeping around the edges of the shutters allowing a little natural light in to the room. Smiling to herself over the secret pleasure she had gained, Niki rolled out of bed and pulled on the gown that had been her mother’s, her own grown too small a long time ago, then peeked out of her bedroom door. The door to Blondie’s room was closed as always, but the coffee Niki had left outside her room the night before had gone. A good sign Bea was up and about already. Niki hurried off to wash before dressing, her bare feet tiptoeing across the chilly, heavy-duty vinyl floor-covering. At least the previous night’s rainfall would have replenished the water tanks so there would be plenty for a shower she mused as she shrugged her robe off and turned the tap, steeling herself against the deluge of cold water.

Dressed in her figure-hugging attire, painstakingly stitched together from bartered leather padded with Kevlar fibre, Niki poured herself a coffee from the pot that had been left to keep warm on the solid fuel stove. Gingerly she took a sip, grimacing as she did. Blondie had many skills that she excelled in, but coffee-making wasn’t one of them; for some reason it always tasted like she had made it with ashes out of the previous night’s fire. The table that doubled as a work-bench held a small metal plate, layered with several slices of toasted bread, the leftovers of escort bayan the previous days bake that Blondie always toasted in the morning. Niki snagged a slice and nibbled on it as she slurped another mouthful of sour-tasting coffee. The door out to the small patch of land beyond the house was open, letting the fresh morning breeze cleanse the inside of the bunker. From where she was standing, Niki could see Blondie doing her normal morning exercises. Currently she was hanging from the steel framework that formed a cover for part of the vegetable plot. Using her arms to repeatedly haul her body up until her chin was above the bar, then lowering herself down again. Niki watched the scene for a few moments, drinking in the flexing of Blondie’s muscles as they moved under the long-sleeved tee-shirt that covered her upper body. Even at this distance Niki could make out the scars around Blondie’s neck, evidence of the violent past the huntress refused to share. As she silently finished her breakfast, Niki wondered how many other scars Blondie kept hidden under her clothing and those locked away behind the impregnable walls of her mind.

As Blondie released her hold on the framework, Niki turned away from the door, unwilling to let Blondie know that she had been watching so intently. She lifted the heavy bag containing the Ma82 on to the table, pretending she had been concentrating on the weapon all along.

Normally they cleaned all weapons after returning to the bunker. All the way through her training, Blondie had scolded her for not cleaning her weapons after use, but after the terse moments the previous evening she hadn’t been in the mood, preferring instead to go to her room with her own thoughts. A gentle warmth touched her cheeks as she remembered exactly what those thoughts had ended up involving, and her hands shook a little as she opened the case and lifted the rifle out. Her hands ran over the black weapon, the cocking slide slipped backwards smoothly, the moving parts slick with a fine coating of fresh oil.

“I cleaned it earlier,” Blondie’s voice announced from the doorway, giving Niki an excuse to turn around again. “I wanted to do it to say sorry for snapping last night. I just got too tired.”

A wash of emotion rolled up from deep inside Niki, a swell of pity, grief, sadness and happiness all rolling together in a maelstrom of feelings. In all their time together, Blondie had never apologised for anything. For Blondie to have done the task for her and actually voiced her regret was a huge change. It felt like Blondie had opened a door to her. A very tiny door, but a door none-the-less. A happy smile spread across her face. She knew the excuse wasn’t the truth but it didn’t matter, Blondie had taken a very small step towards her and that was a victory in Niki’s book.

“You didn’t need to do that Bea,” Niki replied softly, “I was tired last night as well, so I was possibly being too pushy.”

The familiar forced smile played across Blondie’s lips, but while she attempted to express her acknowledgement of Niki’s admission, her eyes briefly reflected anguish and pain. A fleeting glimpse of the person behind the walls, there for a second then gone again. To Niki, the peek was a knife in the heart, a harsh reminder of how much suffering Blondie must have lived through but was still closed to Niki.

“I thought we could go to Garrisonville, pick up some supplies and maybe see if there are any contracts open.” Blondie suggested, her words carrying a huge meaning to Niki. The mere mention of a contract meant that Blondie considered her ready to attempt a serious hunt.

“I’ll go and get my gear together,” an exuberant Niki replied quickly, making sure she agreed before Blondie could change her mind.

The morning sun carried over to the afternoon and the hiking was pleasant and easy going. The route they followed had once been a road before Zeus, when people had travelled everywhere in wheeled transport called automobiles. The idea seemed fairly lazy to Niki, they both hauled packs and weapons, Niki even had the mammoth Ma82 slung across her back, and they were still making good time. Niki had tried to imagine what it must have been like before the Falling. The road they were travelling on must have been a wonderous sight. Now, however, the road was heavily overgrown and the few viable parts were potholed and torn. Every so often structures loomed out of the undergrowth, only discernible as man-made by the regularity of their shape under the cloaks of moss and vines that clung to them.

As always whenever they journeyed somewhere, Blondie pointed out various plants, asking Niki their names, which ones were edible, and which were poisonous. Every so often she would ask Niki to explain what she would do if they were ambushed on the road, pushing for rapid answers to questions about how to spot the imaginary assailants and the best route to extract from conflict.

“I’ve been shot in the thigh.” Blondie bursa escort announced suddenly. “We have incoming fire from the ahead right and left. Best course of action?”

“I grab you and drag you to cover over there.” Niki replied just as rapidly.

“You can’t get to me. The assault is too hostile,” Blondie fired back as harshly as the fictitious bullets.

“I hit cover to assess the situation,” Niki answered her, voice easy and level, “Is your position secure?”

“I am not in immediate danger,” Blondie informed her, “You can hear movement. The attackers are closing, a large band by the noise.”

“I’m not going to leave you if that’s what your aiming for me to say,” Niki said defiantly, “If I couldn’t move you, I would stay and fight by your side until my last breath.”

Blondie halted, catching hold of Niki’s arm to keep her attention. “Then we would both be dead. The tactical thing to do, would be for you to withdraw to safety and play hit and run on the Reavers.”

Wearing the same resolute expression she had when the discussion of clothing came up, Niki tightened her jaw and spoke through clenched teeth. “Tactical thing yes,” she admitted, “but not the rational one.”

Instead of the expected rebuke or argument, Blondie gently squeezed Niki’s arm. “If it ever came to that, I want you to promise me you would save yourself first, then worry about me later.”

The familiar ember of anger flared inside Niki once more. “And why do you get to play the hero?”

Slowly Blondie released her hold on Niki’s arm, the all too familiar cold glaze to her eyes again. “Because I’ve been there before, I know I can survive it. If you were killed trying to save me, I wouldn’t have a reason to.”

The words rolled over Niki like a summer storm, chilling her to begin with, but leaving her refreshed in their passing. Her mouth opened but no words issued forth.

“Sorry,” Blondie muttered as she turned away from Niki’s wide-eyed stare, “That came out wrong.”

The words ran around Niki’s mind over and over. Blondie did say if Niki died she wouldn’t have a reason to live. It wasn’t an admission of love by any standards, but it showed that Blondie cared for her. Possibly deeper than Niki had ever thought possible.

By the time Niki managed to close her mouth and gather her thoughts back to the present, Blondie had resumed walking and was already several meters away, striding effortlessly away on long lean legs.

“Hey, wait up.” Niki called, hurrying to catch up, her heavy load keeping her to a limit of a fast jog. “What did you mean by that?”

Keeping her focus on the road ahead Blondie largely ignored the question. “Nothing.” She finally replied after being asked several times. “It’s just been a long task training you and I don’t want that to go to waste.”

Once again Niki knew that Blondie wasn’t being fully honest with her but dropped the subject anyway, happy that she had heard correctly. She continued the walk with a half-smile on her face and humming softly to herself.

Garrisonville was the largest civilised settlement in the area. It boasted dozens of stores and over a hundred homes as well as a school and peacekeepers. One of the reasons it had flourished was the five-meter-high wall that surrounded the town, the residents realising early on that the best way to rebuild was to keep Reavers out. As the town expanded, new walls were built and the old torn down, the materials recycled and used to build new homes or infrastructure. There were only two ways into the town and both entrances could be closed with large steel doors, keeping the town secure.

Niki had been to the town once before, not long before her parents had been killed, and had been a little overwhelmed at the sheer number of people. As the gates to the town came in to view she felt a similar flutter of anxiety and she moved slightly closer to Blondie, her presence a reassuring comfort.

“Stay close,” Blondie instructed, almost as if she had sensed Niki’s unease, “When I stop, you stop and keep your hands empty.”

Nodding her understanding, Niki moved a little closer, glad that Blondie had issued the instructions. It would make sense that the peacekeepers would be wary of them. Afterall, they were two armed travellers and may not be friendly.

As it was when they got a dozen meters away from the gate a voice called for them to halt and state their business.

“Just looking to pick up supplies,” Blondie called back, “And to check in with Bruce.”

A muted exclamation issued from behind the wall and a few moments later a burly man with long auburn hair and a thick beard to match appeared in the gateway, his upper body packed in to a tactical vest festooned with grenades, handguns and ammunition magazines.

“Son-of-a-bitch, Blondie!” the man shouted, his voice heavy with an accent unfamiliar to Niki as he hurried out towards them, “We thought you were dead.” The giant stopped short of them his arms wide open. “Where’ve you been?”

There was a second or two of hesitation then Blondie stepped forwards in to the offered embrace, her body rigid and stiff as he hugged her and only relaxing again when he released his hold.

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