Procreation is your civic duty.
When she'd been a kid, that hadn't meant much. A good long word to practice reading when she was first learning how, and a few obnoxious snickers whenever Butch was around—haa doody—but that was about it. Even when she learned the definition, it was still a meaningless string of letters with no real mental image or feeling attached. Like “fresh air” or “sunshine,” it remained abstract.
Procreation is your civic duty.
When she was thirteen, they had sex ed in school, and she frowned through all the gaps in the information that her father had already filled in for her in private. While the boys snickered to each other and whispered “tits!” and “boners!” until Amata snapped at them to shut up, it gradually dawned on her what it meant.
Procreation is your civic duty.
She would be expected to mate with one of those smelly animals someday. The ones who stuck gum in her hair so often she finally chopped it all off. The ones who snapped her bra strap at their first class formal until her skin felt raw. The ones who called her names that hurt in different ways depending on their target—nerd and flat chested and braceface. It's not like there was anyone else. Vault 101: no one ever enters, no one ever leaves, a fact tattooed inside her ears by the Overseer's voice.
There would be no eleventh hour delivery of eligible bachelors, no “Surprise! There's an inter-vault exchange program!” explosion of confetti from Vault-Tec, who were just kidding about that whole sealed door thing. She would have to—she would have to…
And then she'd have to have a baby.
She had nightmares for a week. About sex, about being pregnant, about dying in childbirth.
Procreation is your civic duty.
At nearly fifteen, she figured out that she liked boys, at least a little, and girls a lot more than that. When the Overseer caught her with a tattered copy of The Price of Salt she'd found in one of unused sections of the vault, he chuckled in a way she didn't like. Touched her arm in a way she liked even less.
“Such a voracious reader,” he'd simpered, plucking the book from her sweaty, guilty hands. “You'll read anything you can find, won't you?”
Within the week, she returned from class to a plain brown package on her bed. Beneath the crumpled paper she found three pristine, conventional romances and the remnants of her own found treasure, its cover blackened with ink to conceal two elegant women in subtle embrace. Inside, in red pen, she found an inscription.
A fine book, but I encourage you to broaden your horizons and develop wider reading tastes.
The implied or else hurt and frightened her in ways she couldn't fully articulate. In the vaguest way possible—easy to deny as a threat should she tell anyone of the exchange—he made it clear her preferences didn't matter. He didn't even care what they were. If she was curious or confused or something else entirely made no difference to him, so long as it wouldn't get in the way of her future as a brood mare.
That night she cried herself sick, with her book clutched so tight and for so long the ink stained her fingertips.
Her father, always more perceptive than she wanted him to be, said nothing. But a different brown paper package found its way to her bedroom in the following days. Inside, she found six well loved paperbacks, their spines cracked and worn, and a brief note: These were your mother's.
They all had women on them.
Procreation is your civic duty.
By eighteen, she'd more or less accepted it, that she'd be married and mothering children for the good of the vault someday. Or thought she had. Her first kiss, a year earlier, had been a girl. Her second, a boy. Both were nice enough to curl her toes. She had that much figured out, at least.
But someday turned out to be much sooner than she anticipated. Sooner than anyone could have. The youngest member of her class turned eighteen and then…
She glanced at the spinning diner marquee in time to see it flash Procreation is your civic duty for the hundredth time in the past hour. Oh, how she wanted to smash it. With her bare hands until they were bloody, if necessary. The fingers around her coffee mug flexed until her knuckle joints popped. A long few moments later, they relaxed and she sighed in defeat.
Optimistically—foolishly—she'd thought when the time came they'd have some kind of choice in their partner. If not a choice, then at least the chance to court each other before being married. Instead, the Overseer wanted genetic matching, based on who would produce the strongest, smartest offspring, and immediate marriages, to ensure procreation could begin as soon as possible. He had a large enough pool of fresh genetic material to start repopulating the vault, why wait for them to pair off organically?
So she was poked and prodded and cheek swabbed, given a cookie and a pat on the head like the conclusions drawn from her blood and saliva wouldn't map out the rest of her future. Told not to worry, even though that's all she could do. That had been nearly a week ago, and she was no closer to feeling all right with it than she had been to begin with. In a day or two, the test results would be in for every vault dweller under the age of twenty-five. In another week at most, the suitable pairs would be newlyweds. They'd have a lovely reception, brush the rice from their hair, and then—like good little lab rats—settle into their new lives as married couples.
If they got lucky, they were only looking at fifty, sixty, years of mutual misery and existential despair before the sweet release of death. Whoever didn't die first could fill their remaining years with whatever wild pursuits old people got up to, she thought bitterly. Extreme macrame or something equally exciting.
Brooding, she stared into the blackness in her cup. She was willing to fulfill her obligations to the vault. She owed it her existence, her safety, of course she would. But so soon? She was an adult, technically, but she'd barely had any time at all to do stupid things with her independence! There weren't a lot of wild oats to go around in a place like this, but now she'd never manage to sow even one or two. Even if she tried, no way could she fit a lifetime's worth into less than a week.
She tried to tell herself that she might get paired with Freddie, who at least wouldn't try to push her around. He was kind of cute. If she had to wake up to the same face every day for the rest of her life, she hoped it would be one she could stand to look at. But with her luck, she'd end up with Wally Mack and his stupid hair and grandpa voice. Or, worse, his creepy older brother.
Paul might not be so bad. It was difficult to gauge how successful a match between them would be, but if she tilted her head and squinted just so, she could imagine it being all right. His conversational skills left something to be desired, but perhaps there was a brilliant philosopher under all those layers of Tunnel Snake propaganda he repeated ad nauseam. She did know he liked to read—in secret, because the rest of the 'gang' couldn't abide learning. That would give them some common ground. Lazy Sunday afternoons sitting and poring over books together could be nice. Not “decades long relationship” nice, but it might get her through the first few years without resorting to heavy drinking.
Jim Wilkins and Steve-Not-Stevie Armstrong were similarly bland and inoffensive. Being shallow as puddles and twice as dumb besides, they didn't offer much hope of hidden depths; but she might be able to carve out something resembling contentment with one of them, even if delirious matrimonial happiness was out of the question.
She willfully ignored the possibility of being paired with Butch. He was...him. She might marry him, if forced, but she'd scoop her uterus out with a rusty spoon before she'd help continue his genetic line. He probably wouldn't be too keen on the idea, either, but who knew for sure? Boys could be real creeps when even the possibility of sex entered the picture, much less the Officially Vault-Tec Sanctioned Certainty.
Taking another sip of her coffee, she drew a deep breath, counted to ten. So, sitting alone in the diner at two in the morning making herself angry all over again wasn't helping matters. What else was there to do? She couldn't go talk it out with anyone. Amata was asleep, not that she could have received visitors at this hour anyway with the Overseer's iron-fisted rule over her social life. Her father was dozing in the clinic when she'd looked in on him, and she didn't want to disturb him. His sleeping habits had always been poor, and the genetic testing added to his workload significantly. It was better to let him rest when he found the time.
Even Andy had been preoccupied when she came into the diner, puttering around and putting dishes away, making unusual beeping noises that she guessed were some new subroutine installing. She'd actually poured her own cup of coffee for the first time since the day she'd first been allowed to drink coffee, snagged a seat and then started to sulk.
He wasn't busy now, and her cup was almost empty so she'd have an excuse to get his attention, but a Mr. Handy wouldn't make a good analyst. Even if he was hovering behind the counter, looking at her as fretfully as any robot could, with the aperture of one of his eyes nervously shifting whenever his attention settled on her. Wide, narrow, wide, narrow. Maybe he wasn't very good at...well, much of anything, but he cared as much as an artificial intelligence could. She could do worse.
She opened her mouth to call him over, but he focused so intently on her that he saved her the trouble of even making a sound. He immediately dropped the sponge he'd been absently squeezing and drifted over to her booth, bobbing unsteadily with a copper carafe in one of his pincers.
“More coffee—“ he bzzapped strangely, “Miss Titties?”
She almost dropped her cup. Definitely a new subroutine. “Andy? Are you all right?”
“Right as rain—” In spite of the chipper tone, he bzzapped again, though he didn't seem to think anything was amiss. “Miss Titties!”
Again, the cup almost flew from her fingers. Not because of Andy, but because of the stupid haw haw haw that could only be—
“Butch?” The diner was supposed to be empty. It was two in the morning! She'd even checked when she came in and hadn't seen anybody. It's why she'd settled here in the first place, instead of staring at the ceiling above her bed with insomnia. The diner was a place where she wouldn't bother anyone, where she could be alone to think, but with Andy here, not too alone. She couldn't even get away from DeLoria's juvenile antics in the middle of the night?
“It wasn't me.” His head appeared over the back of one of the other booths, hair all tousled like he'd been sleeping there. He lazily slung one of his arms over it—he wasn't wearing his jacket, for once, which surprised her since she thought it was fused to him by now—and rested his chin on the red vinyl.
“Sure. You were just—what, taking a break from—from—” Why couldn't she come up with anything witty? “From being a jerk?” Not even close to clever.
“I wa—” He stopped to yawn into the back of his hand. “Oh, man. You got any more of that coffee?”
“Get your own!” She clutched her cup possessively to her chest, sloshing some on her vault suit. It only burned a little. Barely hurt at all.
“Miss Titties!” Andy's coffee pot smashed against the floor with a clang as he bobbed toward her in alarm. “Miss Titties, you've burned yourself!”
Butch fell out of the booth laughing.
“Shut up, Butch!” She tried to wave off Andy, but he weaved closer, metal parts clacking. “No, I'm fine. Andy, stop—Look! Butch needs coffee!”
Andy hesitated, turning slightly in midair as his processors assessed the situation. She heard a whirring sound from deep inside him. Then he said cheerfully, “Yes, indeed you do, sir! Right away, Mister Titties!”
Butch laughed even harder, rolling onto his side, dangerously close to Andy's thruster flame as he hovered with the dented coffee pot. “Mister—“ he gasped out, “Mister Titties!”
She folded her arms across her chest, where the coffee was starting to get cold. “Forget to program an alternate algorithm for the 'Mister' variable? Or is 'titties' the only thing you can spell?”
“Titties!” He cackled some more, for a lot longer than any sensible person would have deemed necessary, and then collapsed on his back on the floor as his laughter tired itself out. The ha ha has got longer, quieter, until he was just breathing with a little 'heh, titties' in between. “Oh, man.”
“God, it's really not that funny.”
He sat up and smirked at her. “So you think it's a little funny?”
“No,” she said primly. “I do not.”
“You're sure.” Andy pressed a cup of coffee into Butch's hand and then zoomed off to make another pot. Butch grinned. “Miss Titties?”
“You're a child.”
He raised his cup in impish salute. “And you're Miss Titties.”
“And you're Mister Titties!”
“Ha! You said titties!”
“I already said titties, you—”
“Said it again!”
“Titties, then!” She stood and stomped over toward him. They always brought out the worst in each other, the most childish, the most reactionary. Tonight was no exception. “Titties, titties, titties!”
“Titties!” He started laughing again, hard enough that he fell over backward and sloshed his coffee all over the floor. “Tit—titties! I can't breathe!”
“Good! I hope your last word—” He really was starting to wheeze, and he was red in the face, even though he was still grinning. Was he asthmatic? She couldn't remember from the handful of times she'd peeked at his file over the years. “Butch?” He shook his head, still gasp-giggling helplessly. Alarmed, she yelled, “Andy!”
“Yes, Miss Tit—”
“Never mind that, just bring us some water.”
“Yes, Miss Titties!”
Well, that didn't help. A fresh wave of laughter knocked him back again as he tried to sit up. She offered Butch a hand, because helping him seemed like something a reasonable human being would do, but when he took her hand, her foot slid in the coffee he'd spilled. She landed in his lap, and his elbows hit the floor so he wasn't so much sitting as half lying in the puddle he'd made.
His laughter cut off abruptly, although he was still gasping for breath. “Well, Miss—“
“Say it again and I'll brain you.”
It startled her, his use of her actual real first name. She heard it so seldom. Butch had only ever used it when adults where lurking over his shoulder, spurring him to apologize or make nice, and it always dripped derision when he did. Violet, said with one corner of his mouth turned up in a not-quite-smile, in a voice that was just this side of soft, was something new. It was either unsettling or pleasant; the butterflies in her stomach couldn't seem to reach a consensus about why they were upset.
“You like that, huh?”
She averted her eyes, then defiantly dragged them back to meet his. “Well, it's better than Nosebleed.”
“Or Tit—“ She clapped her hand over his mouth. He huffed through his nostrils, tickling her skin with his breath.
“Don't ruin the first nice moment we've ever had.”
“Mmm-hmm,” he agreed. When she didn't take her hand away, he gave her an exaggerated nod. And when she still didn't take her hand away, he licked her palm.
“Ew!” She jerked her hand back. It revealed a shit-eating grin beneath.
“Hey, I gave you a chance to back off. Not my fault if you can't keep your hands off me.”
“Ugh, you gross boy.” She tried to get to her feet, but Vault-Tec issue “casual wear” boots lacked traction. She slipped in the coffee again and fell full across him, chest to chest. Her forehead cracked against his hard enough to make her wince. He tried to either catch her or fend her off, but he reacted too slowly and ended up with his arms loosely wrapped around her waist and the breath, apparently, knocked out of him.
She was struck by the totally irrelevant observation that his breath was minty fresh. His mouth was open with surprise, and his eyes were wide, at least for a couple of seconds. Then his face settled into that teasing expression she knew so well.
“Can't wait for next week, huh?”
Everything that she didn't realize she'd forgotten came crashing back. This stupid farce with him and Andy and Miss Titties made all her problems drop right out of her head, and now he brought it all back with one stupid little sentence. Even when he wasn't actively ruining everything, he still found a way to ruin everything. She shoved herself up, away from him.
“You—you—” She wanted to run off, but nowhere she could go was far enough away. Overnight the vault became a cage instead of her home. If she couldn't run, and she couldn't fight, then...then...oh! She settled for punching Butch in the arm, not as hard as she could, not as hard as she wanted to, but hard enough to hurt him. “You are such a jerk!” She rolled sideways, not caring that she was sitting in lukewarm coffee as long as it meant that no part of her was touching him.
“Ow! What was that for?” He punched her right back, and they both sat there rubbing at their bruised arms. He looked more than a little surprised, and she realized that without the leather jacket to absorb the blow, he'd probably felt that more than she'd meant him to. It didn't make her feel any better.
“This is all just some big joke to you, isn't it? 'Ha ha, I get free sex with a girl!'”
He sat up straight, looking just as pissed off as she felt.
“Oh, yeah, like I really want to get stuck for the rest of my life with some chick who can't even stand me. Sounds like a real good time.”
“The rest of your life!” She scoffed. She hadn't expected him to take his sham marriage that seriously. Only the women would be really forced to. “All you have to do is make the babies. We're the ones who have to do all the work, no matter what we'd rather be doing with our lives. You get to have a career.”
“Barber,” he muttered. She ignored him. He might not like his job that much, but at least he got to do it. She'd seen what it was like for mothers in the vault—they were moms first, and had to fit everything else into their spare time, even work.
“No one would blame you if you moved into your own rooms and never went near your wife again. As long as you got her pregnant first.”
Butch drew back from her, looking—she'd never seen him look like that before.
“I ain't abandoning my kid!” He dragged his fingers through his hair—left streaks of coffee in it, and didn't even notice. “Whoever I get matched up with, we'll do what we gotta do, but no kid of mine is gonna be running around this vault not even knowing who his father is.” A coffee droplet dripped onto his nose, and he realized what he'd done. “Damn it!”
“Here...” She got a cloth napkin from the nearest table and just about threw it at his head, not meeting his eyes as she did so. She had never considered that Butch might have any feelings at all about fatherhood. And she had never thought to wonder if he had any family besides his mom; if anything, she'd assumed he'd had a father who'd died before she was old enough to remember. She couldn't even imagine what it would be like to live with the alternative.
“Thanks,” he said grudgingly, wiping away the coffee.
“Yeah, well. Sorry.”
“Yeah.” He took a comb from somewhere inside his vault suit and started fixing his hair. “So...I thought all girls wanted to have kids. You don't want to be a mom?”
“God, no!” She scrubbed at the wet spot on her chest, and only succeeded in spreading it around. Maybe, someday, if she ever managed to figure out how to deal with all her complicated feelings about parenthood she could do it, and do it well, and might even want to do it. But she couldn't really imagine it happening.
“I want to be a dad someday.” He glared at her, daring her to make fun of him for it. “Do all that dad stuff, throw a ball around and teach him to shave and junk. Just, someday, but not yet, you know?”
“What if it's a daughter?”
“Then I'll teach her to shave.”
That was...kind of nice. She couldn't imagine that Butch would be a good father—he was still Butch, after all—but at least he was willing to try. He was probably going to be a better parent than she was. Best case scenario, she would probably drink herself into oblivion and let her kids run wild.
“Why're you lookin' at me like that?” Butch demanded.
“Just thinking about the next generation of Tunnel Snakes.” She shook her head as if she could physically banish her thoughts. “Where's your jacket, anyway? Don't tell me you're suddenly too mature for all that stuff, what with your impending fatherhood.”
“Once a Tunnel Snake, always a Tunnel Snake.” He said it proudly, and she wondered, not for the first time, how he was even able to keep a straight face. Did he know he was a walking dick joke?
When she failed to react, he jerked his thumb toward the booth he'd been lying in. The jacket was on the vinyl seat, rolled up to form a rough pillow.
“Are you sleeping here?” she asked. He shrugged.
“It's quiet. Usually.” He gave her a pointed look, which she ignored. After all, she wasn't the one who had been shrieking with laughter over his childish prank.
“Couldn't sleep in your room?” she asked, and he shrugged.
“Of course. I'm sleeping there right now. You're just dreaming this.”
“Ha! Yeah, right, like you're the girl of my dreams.” He glanced at her coffee-stained chest, pretty obviously about to insult her, but then his mind seemed to go blank. She followed his gaze. Was there something wrong? No, they were just boobs.
Wait, was he staring at her as in—ogling her?
“My eyes are up here!” she snapped. He jerked his head up with a guilty start. Good grief. Yes, she'd filled out a lot over the last few years—it had been a long time since any of the boys had called her Flatsy Cline, anyway—but she had nothing on Christine or Amata.
Butch's eyes gave an exaggerated roll, compensating for the sheepish look he gave her, probably. “Don't get your panties in a bunch.”
“What my panties do is none of your business.”
“You got that right, brainiac.” His eyes raked over her body again, and this time he managed to look as condescending as he'd meant to the first time. “Like I'd ever be interested in your panties.” He dropped his voice and stage-muttered, “Probably big old granny ones, anyhow.”
“You stupid jerk!” The nerve! Like anyone had anything besides Vault-Tec approved underwear? She shoved him, pretty hard this time. “Will you just go away?”
“I was here first!” He pushed her, so hard she flopped over on her side in the coffee puddle. Furious, she kicked him in the knee.
This was familiar territory, at least. And it felt so good to be an immature asshole for once. She spent way too much of her life not punching all her problems into a bloody mess. But as far as immaturity went, and punching, for that matter, Butch had a lot more practice than she did. That wouldn't stop her from trying to hold her own against him. She was so mad, not even at him, but just at everything—the unfairness, the pressure, the looming loss of what little freedom the vault allowed—that she felt like throwing a tantrum. She could think of nobody better to throw one at.
“You were here first.” She shoved him. “You shouldn't even be here! What's the matter, is your mom so drunk she passed out in your bed? Couldn't sleep in hers because it smelled too much like scotch and vomit?”
“You shut up about my mom!”
He didn't shove her, or punch her, both of which she would have been prepared for. Instead he tackled her, each fist wrapped tight around a handful of her vault suit, and she fell back until the back of her head cracked against the floor. Before she could brace herself, he lifted her up and slammed her down again.
“Stop—” She tried to push him away, but he outweighed her by kind of a lot. And he was as mad as she'd ever seen him.
“Don't talk about my mom!” He drew back to punch her, and there was a part of her that welcomed it. She hadn't fought with him, physically, since the day of the G.O.A.T., but she still remembered the rush that had come from just beating the shit out of each other that day. It had erased her worries about the test, anyway. She stared up at him, defiant, palms flat against his chest as she just barely held him off from crushing her under him. He hesitated, and then, with a frustrated grunt, smashed his fist against the ground next to her, instead of into her face. “Just don't, okay?”
“Why?” Why was he not punching her? “Does it bother you that your mom's a—“
“I said can it, twerp!”
“Are you going to make me?”
“Are you trying to pick a fight?” He should still be angry, but that was dissipating in the face of his confusion. She closed her fingers around a double handful of his vault suit, yanked him down, and then, regretting having brought him in closer, shoved him away.
“He finally gets it! I always knew you were a little slow, but sometimes talking to you is just sad.”
Something twisted in his face, and she could tell he wanted to hit her—and yet, he didn't. Instead, he arched his body up and back, until he was resting on his hands and knees, no part of them touching except her hands on his chest. She clung tighter and shook him as hard as she could, until he knocked her hands away.
“Quit it! I'm not gonna fight you. I don't want...” He broke off and shook his head, just as frustrated as as she was.
“Don't want to get your ass kicked by a girl, again?” she suggested.
“Pfft. You never kicked my ass.”
“Only because you always had your mouth-breather friends to back you up. You couldn't take me by yourself.” He could, she knew. He was Butch, and she was the vault nerd, and there was no outsmarting him in a fistfight. But there was a tightness inside her, like a pressure cooker with the lid clamped shut, that would only be relieved when her knuckles were bruised and bloody.
“Kid, you hit like my grandma,” Butch said derisively. “And she's been dead for thirty years. Why are you acting so weird, anyway? You're just gonna get yourself in for a world of hurt, for no good reason.”
“It's better than sitting around waiting to get—“ The word stuck in her throat. She couldn't say it. She especially couldn't say it to him.
“Waiting to get...married?” he asked, slowly, with a puzzled frown.
“That's step one.”
“Get knocked up?” he guessed, with an even deeper frown. She fixed her gaze on a spot over his shoulder, all too aware that he was looming over her exactly like someone else was going to in just a few days.
“That's step three.”
“Then...oh.” He scrambled to his feet very suddenly, pulling her up along with him before she could think to argue. “All right, let's do this.”
“Hit me,” he said, as if it should have been obvious. “Come on, Grandma, let's see what you've got.”
She didn't wait for a second invitation.
Violet knew how to make a fist, and how to apply the force of the punch without breaking her own hand. That was about all she knew. But this kind of thing wasn't really about facts and theory, anyway. She drew back her fist and swung it at his face.
And all of a sudden, she was stumbling forward into empty space, and he was somehow standing behind her, laughing.
“Gotta be faster than that, dweeb!”
She spun around and swung at him again, and he danced back, just out of reach.
“Ooh, close! I almost felt the breeze from that one.”
“Hold still!” she yelled, and he laughed harder.
“Why would I do that?” He fended off a body blow, and gave her a shove that sent her way off balance, giving him plenty of time to get out of range again.
“You jerk, you told me to hit you!”
“Oh, is that what you're trying to do? I couldn't tell.”
He ducked another wild swing; as he came up, he drove his shoulder into her abdomen with enough force to actually lift her off the ground. All the air rushed out of her, and she went sprawling across the floor, stunned.
“Holy shit, are you okay?”
Her lungs made a squeaking sound as she tried to draw some air in. She shook her head.
“You're way tinier than Wally,” Butch said, by way of apology.
She breathed, and breathed again. It really hurt—but she wanted to do it again.
“Just—wait a minute,” she gasped. “We're not finished.”
“Are you serious? I just knocked you flat on your ass.”
“So, I think my dead grandma would have put up a better fight.”
He was such an asshole! But...he wasn't wrong.
Unexpectedly, she found herself on the verge of tears. Butch stepped back from her like she was a reactor about to go critical.
“Hey—no—I didn't mean that. You fight better than a dead lady, okay? You just need more practice.”
“I'm never going to get more practice!” She managed to keep the words from turning into a wail, but there was still an alarming quiver in her voice. “I'll never get to do anything stupid and self-destructive. My life is over.”
“You want stupid and destructive? Why didn't you say so?” He offered her a hand. “Come on, Nosebleed. Nothing's over yet.”
Hesitantly, she put her hand in his and let him pull her to her feet. She had just been thinking about doing stuff on her own, but if anyone knew stupid…
“What are we going to do?” she asked. He shrugged.
“What do you want to do?”
“Everything! Everything I've never done before, which is—everything.”
Butch grinned. “I like the way you think, kid, but let's start small. Ever smoked a cigarette?”
“You can't smoke in a vault. It would wreak havoc on the air filtration system—“ He was laughing at her again. “Okay, screw it. Light me up.”
He still had her hand. It gave her another unsettled flutter in the pit of her stomach when he pulled her over to his booth, and his jacket.
“Hang on, I've got a pack in here somewhere.”
He rifled through his pockets one-handed, still holding on to her. Did he think she was going to try to run away? Cautiously, she gave her hand a tug. He released her immediately, with so little attention he might have forgotten she was there, except that he then threw a smile over his shoulder.
“Found 'em.” He showed her the pack, and then deftly flicked his wrist so that a single cigarette popped halfway out of the package. He held it out to her.
“Show-off.” But she took it, carefully holding it like a pencil. Butch took one for himself—it looked natural in his hand, and even more so in his mouth. She tried to imitate his stance as he lit first his, then hers.
He took a deep drag and let it out slowly, and then cocked his head at her, waiting.
Okay, she could be as cool as Butch, no problem. She closed her eyes and took in a lungful of smoke—and instantly felt her whole body reject it.
It felt like sucking on fire! Actually, that was exactly what it was. Why had she thought this was a good idea? She doubled over, coughing helplessly, head swimming as tears streamed from her eyes.
Butch laughed, but she felt his hands on her back, guiding her to a seat so she wouldn't fall on her face.
“You'll be all right, don't worry. Just give it a minute.” He couldn't stop laughing, but he also kept a hand on her back, steadying her with his touch. She had no idea what to think about that.
“Why—” Her voice came out as a croak, and for a minute she couldn't get anything else out through the coughing fit. Finally, she managed to ask, “Why would anyone do this to themselves on purpose?”
“I dunno, it's better after you get used to it.”
“Get used to it? How?”
He pulled away from her, and she realized he was still working on his cigarette like it was no big deal. She had dropped hers, but the diner wasn't burning down around her, so it was probably okay.
“How do you get used to anything?” He took another puff and tipped his head back, smirking. When he opened his mouth, the smoke escaped in a perfect ring shape.
“I have to try that! Give me another cigarette,” she demanded.
“Gee, I don't know,” he said with pretended thoughtfulness. “Seems like this might be too much for you to handle. Maybe we should have started with something a little smaller. I can show you how to make a calculator spell out BOOBS.”
“Butch! Give me a cigarette!”
“What's it worth to you?” he asked, in a tone that told her they were about to have a major difference of opinion over something or other.
“What's it worth to you not to get a punch in the nose?”
“You already tried that, remember?” Smarmy jackass.
“Fine, then,” she snapped. “I don't need you. I can go find my own cigarettes.”
“You won't, though.” His words froze her in place, halfway out of the booth. There was nothing mocking in his tone; it was a simple statement of fact. “You're a little Goody Two-Shoes,” he added, calmly. “You won't do anything fun all by yourself.”
And again, he was right. She wasn't about to tell him so...but she settled back into the booth, and he gave her a smart-ass grin.
“You have a suggestion?” she asked warily.
“Yeah. I suggest you start thinking up something nice to say.”
“To you?” she blurted.
“Of course not to me!” He rolled his eyes. “What do you think, you hurt my feelings or something? I'm crying into my pillow every night because the little pipsqueak doesn't want to be my friend? No, I have to get something from my room, and if you're gonna be an asshole to my mom, you can't come with me. Okay?”
That wouldn't be easy for her. She didn't like Butch's mom any more than she liked him. She'd never exchanged three friendly words with the woman. Or even three unfriendly words. With so few people in the vault, it was hard for anyone to really be a stranger, but if anyone was, it was Ellen DeLoria. At least with Butch, there was a history. With his mom, she really didn't know if she could think of anything to say.
“I won't be an asshole,” she said. Violet didn't have to like her to be polite. And she'd probably be asleep, anyway, or passed out, so there was nothing to worry about.
“You sure about that?”
“Yes, god! What a lovely home you have,” she said in her prissiest suck-up voice. “I just love what you've done with your hair. It's not that hard.” He still didn't look satisfied. “You really care about your mom, huh?”
“'Course I care about my mom. What kind of question is that?”
The kind of question you ask about the vault drunk? was the exact wrong thing to say, so she didn't say it. They'd somehow managed to keep this magical bubble of camaraderie from bursting so far. Maybe they hadn't come down with a case of warm fuzzies for each other, and maybe a couple of punches had been thrown, but this was a lot closer to friendliness than their usual hostility. Why ruin it?
So she shrugged, even though she couldn't help averting her eyes and ruined any real chance of looking nonchalant. Maintaining unaffected cool wasn't really in her skill set. Hopefully he wouldn't notice the deficiency and pry too much. “Just a question.”
He studied his half-finished cigarette for a second, and then held it out to her.
“You got a real problem with that smart mouth of yours. Why don't you use it for something else?”
She felt sudden heat creeping into her face, even though, from the look of him, he was really just talking about smoking.
“I don't—I don't want your spit,” she stammered.
“Scared I've got cooties?” He held it closer, filtered end threatening to touch her. Without thinking about it, she took a step back. Brows rising, he smirked and jabbed it her direction again. Of course. He was still him, how could he not? She flinched, then glared at him for making her jerk away. “Jeez, kid, I'm actually, like, embarrassed for you. I stopped believing in cooties in first grade.”
That hadn't stopped him from giving her wet willies, crowing about infecting her with them all the way through fourth, as she recalled. “Knock it off.”
“Thought you wanted to be a bad girl.” Jab, jab, jab—each time a little nearer with the dampened tip of his cigarette. “Never gonna get anywhere with this rebellion thing if you can't handle a little spit.”
“Stop! It's not about cooties, you jerk! I don't want your spit—in my mouth!”
He straightened up, and there was a flash of something—hurt pride, maybe. Then he leaned in close, the cigarette forgotten, so close she lost sight of everything but the way his mouth turned up at the corner.
“Well, like I said...” His voice, so low and rough, made her skin prickle. Something about it felt vaguely dangerous, but in a new way, a not-whiny-Butch way. It unsettled her. Like watching a good horror movie in the dark when the music ratcheted up. Was she scared? She wasn't sure. She just knew it was...weird. Uncomfortable, and weird, and new, and interesting, and even though she kind of wanted to study it, she hated it. “You're never gonna get anywhere if you can't handle a little spit.”
To distract from this unfamiliar strangeness settling on her spine, she glared harder. But he was so near, she had to tilt her head up to do it properly; a tactical error she was too proud and too stubborn to correct, even if it made her look like she wanted him to kiss her. He smirked at her—because he didn't know any other facial expressions, apparently—and brought his hand up toward her shoulder like he planned on putting his arm around her.
Instead, he shoved her.
With a startled screech, she went over backward and fell into the booth. She scowled up at Butch as he barked out another mocking laugh, the jerk.
“I'm so glad you're having a good time,” she grumbled.
“Oh, I'm sorry, did you want a little sugar?”
“Really? 'Cause you kinda looked like this.” He formed his lips into an exaggerated pout and fluttered his eyelashes at her, making kissing sounds in the air. “Oh, Butch,” he said in falsetto, lips still puckered, “Take me now!”
“Not even if you were the last guy on earth,” she said firmly. “And there were no women. And no robots.”
He ignored her and continued noisily smooching the air, and she wondered if it was too late to punch him.
“Thanks for reminding me what a creep you are,” she said. “I was almost ready to forget I hated you, for a minute there.”
“Yeah, we wouldn't want to forget that.” He grinned at her, not offended in the least, and she felt a momentary urge to thank him for real. There was something liberating about brutal honesty and forthright mutual antipathy.
“Move,” she said, and he stepped aside without a word to let her out of the booth. He stubbed out his cigarette on the table as she clambered to her feet. It left a mark, but she didn't chide him for it. What did she care if he damaged vault property? It had always seemed important to keep the vault nice and tidy, but what for? Future generations?
Butch followed the direction of her gaze.
“You got a problem?” he asked, like he expected her to say something about the ring of ash and scorched plastic.
“No. Actually...” Hesitantly, she reached out toward his abandoned coffee cup and bumped it with two fingers until it toppled off the edge of the table. It didn't shatter, but a chip came out of the handle. Butch burst out laughing.
“Ooh, look out for this one! She's a rebel!”
He kept laughing as she scooped up the cup with both hands and straightened, glaring. He stopped when she hurled it to the ground with all her strength. This time, it smashed beyond all hope of repair.
“Oh, shit!” He almost sounded impressed, but she didn't have time to stop and analyze his tone because he grabbed her by the wrist and ran with her out into the hall. “Come on, I'm not getting busted for broken dishes!”
“You have something bigger in mind?”
“You kidding? Of course I do.”
He pulled her around a corner, and the flattened themselves against the wall just as Andy's voice floated after them, full of electronic concern.
“Are you quite all right, Miss Titties?”
Butch snickered. Violet didn't. But she had to admit to herself that she was starting to find titties slightly amusing.
“Don't worry. He knows one of us was smashing up the place, but as long as he can't see us, he won't do anything about it.”
“Do you spend a lot of your time harassing poor Andy?”
“Oh, sure, now it's 'poor Andy.' I'm not the one who gave him a mess to clean up, y'know.” He glanced down at the leather jacket still dangling from his hand, and back at her. Then, with a shrug, he thrust it at her. “Here, take this.”
“If you want to be bad, you have to look good doing it. I'm not giving it to you,” he added quickly. “I want it back as soon as we're done. But just for tonight, you're an honorary Tunnel Snake.”
“The fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” she said dryly. But she took the jacket and slipped it on over her vault suit. It was heavier than she expected, and warm, and it smelled like Butch, like his aftershave and the gunk he put in his hair. She wasn't sure she liked it, but she did feel a little more daring just having it on. Outside clothing wasn't officially off-limits, but in practice, it was vanishingly rare for anyone but Butch and his delinquent friends to wear anything that hadn't been provided by Vault-Tec.
Butch was staring at her as if he'd never seen her before, which was just plain silly because it was his jacket. She struck a pose she must have seen him do a thousand times, slouching back with one foot braced against the wall for balance.
“Yeah,” she said, imitating his vocal swagger and the slightly silly accent she knew he'd lifted from all those old movies he liked. “Yeah, this is pretty cool, right?”
“Pretty...” He shook himself. “I mean, not as cool as a real Tunnel Snake. But you'll do.”