Vanja doesn't remember a life before the Metro. She doesn't remember a time where she wasn't half starving in the cold dark.
Her mother, a maid and sometimes prostitute, always told her lovely stories about her father: that he was a great man, protective and loving, and that she lost him in the post-war chaos. Vanja likes to think that's so, but she's not even fully convinced her mother knows who he was at all. From the time she was born, it was just the two of them. Until her mother passed away, too sick to keep working and too poor to get well, when Vanja was 9.
After that, the girl found herself on the street, where she was lucky enough to fall in with a small group of other street kids. She learned to run fast and move her hands faster, picking pockets and grabbing mushrooms from market stalls. Anything to keep herself and her found family of siblings alive another day.
Now 20, she's at the upper end of the group, one of the oldest still alive. Vanja is charming and quick to smile, but tough as nails, willing to do whatever it takes to support her family.
Vanja couldn't help but laugh. "Alright, alright. Next time Kae beans one in the head with a rock, it'll be teeth all around, ok?" She scraped the rest of the food off the plate and directly into her mouth as the kids broke out into excited murmurs. Even some of the older teenagers shared glances, wondering how they might pull off the promised gift giving.
Vanja was, of course, on the exact same page as Kaella about how they'd manage it.
"Alright, clean up dishes, then it's getting late. I wanna sleep and if I'm tired, then you must be tired, too."
The description of their scent wasn't a lie. At best they smelled like rotten meat. At worst, it was indescribable, an instant gagging sensation of horror. Vanja hadn't spent much time around them, thankfully, but her two brushes with the monsters had left quite the impression.
Still, one of the clueless kids looked up in wonder. "I want a tooth!" she said.
Vanja ruffled her hair with a grubby hand. "Maybe next time, lil bit."
Vanja cracked, only for a second, barely stifling the snort of laughter that came with remembering the various things that Kae had actually thrown rocks at, the many times this fake gambit had been employed in real life... often to great effect.
She took another bite of her dinner and shrugged.
"What can I say," she said through a full mouth, "They just smell so bad I can't stand to be near 'em."
It was funny, the little things you did to keep yourself going. The little white lies that kept a family together. The bigger lies that made life feel a little lighter, that kept up morale for the kids.
The story was so patently fake that it was useless to pretend otherwise to anyone over the age of seven. But the story was, if nothing else, fun.
It was what they'd always done. Enough so that even the teenagers, surly as they could be, got into it.
"Yeah," one said reluctantly, giving Kae a look of I know what you're up to, "I bet you never missed a shot, right? And it was probably the biggest one you'd ever seen?"
"YES!" Vanja jumped right in, gesturing with her fork. "Fuckin' HUGE! Massive thing, barely fit through the passage as it chased after us. We'd ducked around a corner to hide but we could still hear it..." she made a spiderlike movement with her hand across the table, approaching the nearest little one. "...Stalking us... looking for us... coming in for the kill!" She reached out and grabbed at the kid's tummy, tickling it as she shrieked.
"I was just lucky Kae was there to save the day!"
Each one of the members of their little family was a kid picked up off the street, and they were a diverse bunch. Teenagers who'd run away from home. Kids who'd lost their parents to violence or disease. Babies found abandoned, who didn't know any family but this one. All still hungry, all still barely surviving. But every one better off here than where they'd been before.
Of course, there were more street kids than these ones. You saw them damn near every day. But Vanja had learned it, hard and early: you can't save them all, no matter how badly you might want to.
She and Kae did their best, though. And tonight they wouldn't be so hungry, at least.
Vanja dished out the food - spicy, oily, earthy, salty - to each plate before sitting down to eat herself. Nobody waited before digging into it, but that wasn't expected. The table manners were lacking, and nobody cared.
"Hey," Vanja said, waving off the thanks, "Thank Kae. She scored big today!" She looked up at Kae with a glint in her eye. "Our Kae fought off a whole swarm of Nosalias single handedly!" Of course she wasn't going to tell them the real story. The older ones rolled their eyes, but the small ones stared at Kae with big eyes. "G'on," said Vanja, "Tell them how you punched one right in the snout!"
If she had yanked it off of something important, at least nobody had seen her do it. The smallest ones were always the fastest, even if their technique was lacking.
"Yes!" the young boy fist-pumped the air, clearly delighted at the idea of bread. Which, nicely, tasted far less fungal than most of the other things you could make with the subterranean mushrooms that made up the bulk of their Metro-centric diet.
The two were easy to shoo, and went to fetch wood, while the youngest kept on playing with the little metal thing.
Meanwhile, Vanja and the older ones were just about done with their quick fry, and scrambling for makeshift plates.
"Hope you're hungry, we got more here than I figured we would," said Vanja.
In this house, everyone worked. If it wasn't chopping or setting up the stove fire, it was washing or clearing off space to eat. There was no other way to do it. In fact, this was extremely civilized compared to when it had just been Vanja and Kae, maybe one or two others their age who floated in and out, nicking some food from a market stall, running full tilt with it tucked under their shirt, to find a spot hidden in the depths of the lines to quickly share or squabble over it, always watching for someone or something coming around the corner.
This was damn near The Ritz. Meanwhile, Kae was getting swarmed.
"Look what I found!" one child crowed, showing off a small metal... something... maybe a machine part?
"I kept the whole place safe while you were gone!" said another, who was objectively too young to be protecting much of anything.
"Can we make mushroom bread later?" begged a third, tugging on Kae's arm.
Vanja nodded, making a low noise of agreement in her throat. It wasn't the kids' fault she was so hard on them. Kaella was absolutely right-- they'd had it so tough growing up that Vanja felt an almost compulsive need to make sure the same things didn't happen to their little family. And if that meant she was tougher so they at least learned from a trusted source... better her than someone who was actually out to get them.
They walked the short distance home, winding through the badly lit shanty town to get to what was arguably the roughest corner of them all, a place made entirely of found objects and scavenged bits, that seemed to be a genuine pile of industrial trash to anyone else. But to Vanja, it looked like home. She opened a door made of scrap wood that had no lock on it and led the way through.
Inside the shack, the two were instantly swarmed by no less than six kids of different ages, the oldest a young teenager, the youngest just seven, all bussing with greetings and questions.
"Aayy-" Vanja cut them off, holding up her pack. "We brought dinner!"
She nodded slowly. "He's a good kid..." she said slowly. It was hard for her to think of anyone as being more than five years old, sometimes. "I guess there's not much that'll teach him better than the hard way. I just wish we had more leeway for him to learn, ya' know?"
They picked up a bit of cooking oil, the bundle of a few different types of mushrooms, and a bit of cheap lye soap on their excursion. And even then, they still had a solid number of bullets left over. Vanja was more than happy with that haul.
"Ready to head home?"
She shook her head and smiled. "If Sasha asks for sweets one more time I'm gonna' scream," she remarked. The small ones couldn't really help it, they didn't understand what was reasonable yet. But it still hurt Vanja's heart when she couldn't give them the things they wanted so badly.
The market was fairly busy. This particular market didn't know Kae or Vanja as thieves. It was too close to their home base, and Vanja had always made it a point not to shit where they ate, as it were. It was difficult keeping the younger ones reigned in, but it was always worth the walk to ply their trade so they could actually spend their bullets somewhere when they had them.
"D'ya think 'Miri is old enough to be trusted doing the shopping?" she asked thoughtfully as they counted out bullets on a counter. The shopkeep handed them a bundle of mushrooms that, while cheap and a bit soft, were easy to buy in bulk, and wouldn't be so bad once fried in oil. "It'd be nice to get him deputized for some of this, but I don't need him wasting bullets on stupid shit."