Actions

Work Header

The Crooked Woman

Chapter Text

“I still can’t believe you figured out it was a Mirelurk that took the gun.”

“you mean Reba?”

“I’m not going to dignify a sniper rifle with a name.” I shook my head irritably, rolling my eyes toward the sky. The broken and ruined buildings of the city scrolled by slowly around us. Warm sun streamed down from on high. The warmth of the July air had forced me to abandon my usual leather jacket in favor of a lighter vest. We were on our way back from Salem after a week long search for a gun Barney Rook had misplaced. Or at least that’s the conclusion we’d come to. He hired us because he’d been convinced someone had stolen it. Why someone would want to steal a half broken, well used sniper rifle was beyond me. “seriously, who names their weapons?”

“admit it, you’re one step away from naming yours.” Nick quipped beside me, grinning at me out of the corner of his eye. He looked the same as ever, still wearing that trench coat and hat even in this weather. Synth was lucky he didn’t sweat. Though I did have to wonder if he felt the heat. I knew he could feel, from personal experience, but what about heat?

With a shrug I shook my head. The rifle on my back banged up against my shoulder as if trying to reprimand me. “nope, he’s just a gun.”

“but you just called it a he.”

I opened my mouth to protest but snapped it shut just as quickly. “alright, you’ve got me there.”

Nick laughed and wrapped his arm around my waist. In the middle of the street, not four yards from the nearest guard post, he brought us to a stop. He pressed me against his chest, leaning over me so that the brim of his hat shadowed my face too. “I thought I always have you.”

A deep blush came to my face, I’m sure of it. Squirming in his arms I glanced toward the guards standing at the gate, staring at us. “Nick… they’re watching….”

He looked at them, smirked, then crushed my lips beneath his. The gesture took me so much by surprise a sound of fright broke through my throat. But once his warm lips were moving with mine I couldn’t do anything except let him in. Kissing Nick wasn’t like kissing a human. Humans were sensitive, even tentative sometimes. They took it slow and let it build. Nick though, it’s like he refused to waste a single moment. The moment our lips met the passion came pouring out of him just like the first time. His hands pulled us tighter together and I was forced to throw my arms around his neck to hold myself steady.

Somewhere in my peripheral vision I could see the guards nudging each other and pointing. So what? Who the fuck cares? Nick and I were no different than any of the rest of them. Sure he was machine but on the inside he was even more human than them. And besides, I could be a synth. This was only natural wasn’t it?

When we parted my lips were red and my breath ragged. Opening my eyes I looked up into yellow irises that glowed like warm coals. He grinned cheekily at me. “I love seeing you like this.”

That blush just got warmer. Damn it he was the only one that had ever been able to do that to me. In an attempt to hide it from his satisfied smirk I buried my face into his shoulder. “you’re the worst sometimes.”

“I know.” He chuckled, the sound reverberating against my ear.

“hey love birds! Take it off the street!” the bark issued down to us from the guard post followed quickly by low whistles.

Nick and I both growled as we parted. Hand in hand we covered the remaining distance to the gates into Diamond City. The guards continued to hoot and holler at us as we walked through the gates. They’d never let us live it down. Then again, we did make it stupidly easy for them to jab at us. It’s not like we made a secret of our relationship. I’m pretty sure that Piper had run a story about it at some point too, claiming it was a sign that fear of the institute was finally dissipating. Or some equally stupid bullshit.

We made our way up the ramp and into the city. As usual it was alive and buzzing. A year ago if you’d told me I’d be spending so much time in this place I’d have shot you. Now, I could hardly imagine leaving Nick’s side for more than a few days. There were times I wondered if we were moving too fast. If Nick felt the same way I did or if I was just intruding. Times like the ones back in that street gave me my answer.

“are you hungry?” Nick asked as we passed through the Diamond City market. He gestured toward the Power Noodles where Takahashi rumbled around. “we can afford to be fancy tonight.”

I laughed out loud, shaking my head. “you mean I can be fancy? You don’t eat.”

He rolled his eyes at me. “so?”

Smiling I tightened my hand around his and tugged us toward the street leading back to the agency. “you’re going to get tired of waiting for me to eat all the time.”

“you rarely take a seat and just enjoy a meal.” He pointed out with a dry voice. Then he smiled crookedly at me. “I’ve heard Violet makes the best mole rat roast. One of these days you should try it.”

At the mention of Violet Flynn I felt my fists clench of their own accord. There was still a part of me that was angry at her for what happened to Nick. Anger laced with guilt. By the time Nick had come found me Flynn and Macready had already disappeared, headed off to the capitol waste according to Codsworth. I still hadn’t had the chance to apologize to her for the things I’d said. Nick knew about those things and even if he didn’t say it I could tell it was still a source of disappointment between us.

Still holding hands we turned down the path toward the red neon sign reading Valentine Detective Agency. Standing in front of it Nick came to a stop and examined it. Just inside the alcove leading to his office I glanced back at him. “what?”

“you know.” He muttered, a hand to his chin as he stared at it. “I might have to make a new sign, if this partnership keeps up.”

Laughing I waved it aside. “don’t bother, Valentine Detective agency has a nice ring to it. sticking O'Malley somewhere in there will just make it awkward.”

“somethings gotta change eventually.” He pushed himself into the hallway beside me, our bodies pressed against each other. As he passed he kissed my cheek, the ones with the scars.

They were a terrible reminder of the things that had happened, what we had to go through to get to this point. I’d wanted to get rid of them the moment we got back to Diamond City. We didn’t need the reminder. Every time Nick looked at them I could see the flash of guilt that plagued him. It didn’t matter that Kellogg had been the one to strike me, it had been his hand that made the marks. Unfortunately neither doctor Crocker or Sun could do anything to remove the scars. They ran too deep, they’d said.

A metaphor for my whole life I supposed.

“nothing has to change.” I protested as I followed him into the offices. Considering the heat of outside, inside was surprisingly cool. A fan spun in the back corner of the office, sitting atop a filing cabinet. It could do little to cool the place. “I’m pretty happy the way things are.”

He stopped just inside the door and looked back at me, smiling that tender smile he reserved only for me. It made my heart swell to see it. “doesn’t mean we can’t make things better.” He brushed his hand against my cheek, drawing a shiver out of me in spite of the heat.

Someone clearing their throat caused us both to jump. Flinching involuntarily I took a step back and turned to face the office. There, sitting at Ellie’s desk, tapping a pack of Mentats on the metal, was Hancock. He was watching us with raised brows, those pure black eyes of his practically sparkling with amusement. “do I get any of that love Valentine?”

Nick smirked, chuckling at him. “wait your turn.”

Subconsciously I put a little more distance between Nick and I. Not entirely sure why. Hancock knew about mine and Nick’s relationship, probably better than anyone else. And of all people he’d probably be the most likely to encourage it. But that didn’t stop the embarrassment from flooding me. Hancock was like a father to me and I’d never admit that out loud, to anyone. Let alone him.

He stood up, folding his arms in mock disappointment, leathery features almost impossible to read. “what have you two been up to?”

“oh you know.” Nick waved his hand vaguely, coming to sit at his own desk with the air of a man that had come home from war. “we discovered a cell of institute scientists that escaped the destruction so we had to put them down. No big deal.”

“that it?” Hancock let a thin, gravelly chuckle escape his chest. His eyes drifted away from Nick’s face and even if you couldn’t read ghoul facial features you could tell something was up.

Or rather wrong I suppose. Shaking off my earlier embarrassment I stepped around the desk and sat on the corner. Nick gave me a look of reproach but I ignored him. “What’s wrong Hancock?”

He looked at me, anger and rage momentarily racing across his features. When that was gone all that remained was pain. “I need to hire you two.”

Nick sat forward, his elbows on his knees, expression serious. They’d had been friends for as long as I’d known them and that showed in that moment. “what’s happened John? You never come to Diamond City if you can help it. How’d you even get into the city?”

“I’ve got friends in low places Valentine, you know that.” In spite of his light tone though Hancock took off his hat and ran a hand over his leathery skull. The gravity of what he had to tell weighed him down more than anything I’d ever seen. I thought I was prepared for what he said next, turns out I was wrong. “It’s Fahrenheit… she’s been shot.”

Nick and I exchanged looks. My instinct was to laugh it off. Wouldn’t be the first time Fahrenheit had gotten shot after all. She practically had more scars than anyone else I knew, and she was damn proud of it. When we looked back at Hancock I felt a rush of nausea surge through me. “how bad?”

He leaned over his knees, his gaze kept firmly on the ground. Without that tri corner hat he looked weak, lonely. Like a man that had spent his entire life looking for something that he still hadn’t found. “I sent her to my warehouse to do sweep and clear, routine stuff. It shouldn’t have taken her that long. But when she didn’t come back on time I went looking for her.”

“go on.” Nick nodded, his voice low and serious.

Hancock played with his hat, turning it in slow circles between his hands. “I found her and the men I sent with her…. Some piece of shit shot up my men and left her for dead. If I’d been even a few minutes later she’d have bled out.” Rage filled his voice to hide the grief. If there was one person that Hancock trusted above all others it was Fahrenheit. They were practically family. If he was my dad she was like an aunt.

“did they ransack your stash?” Nick asked in a low serious voice. He was always good at that. Setting aside emotion so that he could hear the client out. It was a skill that I’d never be able to emulate.

“yeah.” Hancock’s hands tightened on his hat and his arms began to shake. He drew his gaze up to meet Nick’s, jaw set tight. “I’d go looking for these bastards myself but I can’t leave her for too long. They unloaded into her stomach. The doc says she may not recover fully.”

“Amari?” my brows shot up.

He nodded silently.

A small hiss escaped me. “she doesn’t have enough medical experience to handle that. She’s not that kind of doctor.”

“what choice do we got?” Hancock snapped, switching his hard stare to me.

I held my ground all the same, staring him in the eye unflinchingly. “doctor Sun owes me a favor. I can have him go to Goodneighbor and treat Fahrenheit.”

“I’m not sure we could convince him to leave the city.” Nick protested, leaning back to look up.

With determined eyes I glared at him. “he’s not going to get a choice.”

“Fahrenheit wouldn’t want charity.” Hancock grumbled darkly, drawing our attention back to him. He stared me in the eye steadily for a few seconds, trying to convince me to retract my offer. When I refused to he let out a long sigh and nodded. “but she’s going to need it.”

“I’ll go talk to Sun.” Nick rose with a small groan, straightening his trench coat. He looked at me, rubbing a hand along my arm. “you do the questioning. I’ll be back in a few minutes then we can head out.”

Desperately I bit my tongue. I wanted to protest. Nick was better at questioning clients, he always was. Besides Sun owed me the favor, not him. Then again, Nick would be the most likely person to get Sun to do what we wanted. Unlike most of Diamond City, Sun didn’t hate ghouls or even Goodneighbor, the problem lay in getting him to leave the safety of the walls. If he’d listen to anyone it was Nick.

“fine.” I finally said with a nod.

Nick squeezed my arm one more time before slipping out the door into the hot day.

I watched him go somewhat mournfully, before gradually looking back at Hancock. He continued to stare at the hat between his hands as it made slow circles. I’d never seen him like this before. Not once in all the years that he’d taken care of me had he seemed anything less than immovable. Or maybe that’s just how I saw him. I still remembered the first time I’d met him. Damn, that was so long ago.

“I should start by asking if you know anyone that may have it out for you but I know better than that.” I murmured thickly, leaning over my knees.

Hancock chuckled ironically. “a better question would be who doesn’t have it out for me.”

“anyone in particular that comes to mind?”

Carefully he took in a breath, trying his best to steady himself. Not even Hancock could pretend everything was alright. “the Gunners, the Forged, the Triggermen you name it. Not to mention those freaks at Covenant and that piece of shit mayor here. And that’s just recently.”

“that doesn’t give us much to go on.”

“excuse me!” Snarling he snapped his eyes up to me. His fingers tightened on his hat, deforming the already fragile leather. “I’m sorry I can’t be of more help to you! That’s the damn truth though! I don’t know who did this! That’s what I’m hiring you for remember?”

The anger in his voice felt like a knife to the chest. Flinching I averted my gaze, too scared to look him in the face. I’d seen him stab a man on a good day. It barely mattered that we were like family, that wouldn’t factor in when he got angry. He wasn’t feral yet but in the middle of his anger he might as well be.

“I get it, I do.” The steel in my voice surprised even me. Stiffly I looked back up into his face, jaw set. “She’s your friend, you’re scared, you’re angry, but if you don’t focus the people that did this are going to get away. Now snap out of it and tell me what you know.”

His jaw fell open, blinking rapidly. Pretty sure only a handful of people had ever spoken to him like that, especially since he became mayor of Goodneighbor. Least of all me. The most I’d done is call him a bastard behind his back. At least my words hit home though. Hissing through his tight lips he let his head fall. Holding his hat loosely in his hands he nodded. “Sorry kiddo.”

“just help me find out who shot Fahrenheit.” Through a hard tone I replied, fists clenched on my lap. “I want answers too.”

“ya know.” Hancock chuckled, a poor imitation of his usually mocking laugh. “she’ll never live it down.”

“live what down?”

“that our little orphan girl is gonna be the one to save her.”

I let out an airy chuckle, shaking my head. “she’ll just be happy to hear we put a bullet in the person that shot her.”

“that she will be.” Leaning back over his knees Hancock finally started taking me seriously. Up till this point he’d been treating me like the kiddo he always saw. Finally, he was treating me with the same respect he showed Nick. Not a huge improvement. “what can I tell you?”

“How many men did you send to the warehouse?” slipping off the desk I took Nick’s chair. He kept notepads in his drawer alongside a pack of bullets. I took one of those, ready to take notes.

“just three, counting Fahrenheit.”

“that’s not a lot.”

“it was supposed to be routine.” He snapped.

“ok, I get it.” groaning airily I shifted in the chair, leaning forward a little. “what was in the warehouse?”

At that point Hancock averted his attention casually away from me. Hardly needed him to say anything in the first place. Why he was acting all embarrassed about it was beyond me. “a few… supplies….”

“which kind of supplies?” my brow shot up with irritation.

“chems, alright?”

“I thought you didn’t deal.”

“I don’t.” though he continued to keep his eyes elsewhere. “it’s insurance. I’ve got to keep a reasonable stash. It’s like a cash fund in case Goodneighbor falls on hard times.”

“outline that for me.” It may have sounded like a dumb question but I wasn’t about to make assumptions. Nick always warned me that in this line of work assumptions led down dead ends, sometimes literally. Better to hear it directly from the client.

Client, Hancock was our client. Wouldn’t be easy to think of him that way. “if Goodneighbor finds herself in the need of weapons, or repairs, on short notice and the caps aren’t enough. I’ll open up my stash and sell what it takes to make ends meet.”

“that fast? You must have networks in place to unload your chems that quickly.”

He smirked at me appreciatively. “I’m starting to see what Valentine likes about you. Yes, the plan wouldn’t work too well if I didn’t. I’ve got buyers on standby should the need arise.”

“and they know about your stash?”

“obviously.”

“do they know where?”

“hell no.” he tossed his hat onto Ellie’s desk and crossed his arms. “I’m careful. No one but me, Fahrenheit and a handful of my men know where the warehouse is let alone what’s inside it.”

“it’s not the only warehouse you have I’m sure.” I had to admit, prying into Hancock’s personal business felt more wrong than I thought it would. “are the others safe? Have you checked them?”

“didn’t think about it in the middle of my friend lying on her death bed.” He retorted with a dry chuckle.

Before I could reply Nick walked back through the front door. Sun didn’t come with him, drawing a glare from me. He raised a hand shaking his head. “he’s agreed, it wasn’t easy, but he knows us and he trusts me. He’ll go to Goodneighbor so long as we escort him.”

Hancock rose abruptly, hat in hand once again. “then what the hell are we waiting for?”

Nick cast a glance between him and me, brows rising when our gazes met. “are you done questioning him?”

“we can keep going on the way.” I was as eager to get Sun to Fahrenheit’s side as Hancock was. Especially now that Nick had brought such good news back with him. “you’ll want to hear everything yourself anyway.”

“right about that.” He led the way out of the office into the hot day. I expected Hancock to do something to hide his identity in Diamond City but he strode proudly beside us. Right through the market toward the gate. More than once someone scurried away as soon as they saw him, terrified. Mayor McDonough’s paranoia involving ghouls certainly had root in this city. From what Nick had told me it hadn’t always been that way. It wasn’t until recently that everyone grew scared of them. As someone who had basically grown up with ghouls I really didn’t understand the fear.

Sun waited for us at the bottom of the stairs leading out of Diamond City. When he caught sight of Hancock at our side he took an involuntary step back. “you didn’t tell me there was a ghoul involved.”

“calm down doc.” Nick waved aside his fears casually, simultaneously grasping him by the shoulder and turning him around. “your patient is completely human and needs your help. Don’t you have some kind of oath to uphold?”

“it doesn’t say anything about….” He replied, glaring over his shoulder at Hancock who gave him a toothy grin. “them.”

“careful doc, we ghouls are one snap away from becoming feral.”

I slammed my elbow into Hancock’s side, shooting him a reproachful look. “think about Fahrenheit a little before you start shooting your mouth off.”

With a half amused, half irritated smirk he averted his eyes away from Sun. With Nick and the doctor leading the way we made short time to Goodneighbor. Hancock and I kept vigilant watch which as it turned out was unnecessary. As if the universe was trying to keep Sun from turning tail we met no resistance. I expected Sun to get cold feet when we passed by Swan’s pond. Lucky us the old behemoth was lounging in the water well out of sight. Sun didn’t issue a word of protest or annoyance while we went. Not sure what Nick had to do to convince him to come with us but if he fixed Fahrenheit I’d owe him one. As we went Hancock and Nick exchanged words. He told Nick as much as he told me and then some.

The atmosphere in Goodneighbor was tense to say the least. The guards held their guns a little tighter and the residents walked around with bowed heads. It was probably unnecessary, just instinctive. Word had spread pretty quickly about Fahrenheit. They all owed Hancock for one reason or another, and through him, her. They were scared, of him, of what he might do. He wasn’t an unreasonable man, but he had a temper. We all knew it. Better to keep your head down.

Hancock took the lead once we were inside his town. “she’s in the state house, follow me.” Barely looking at anyone he led us through the front quart yard of the town into the state house where he made his headquarters. Inside, to the right into a dusty, normally vacant room.

Amari stood just inside the doors, looking grave and worn. Her usually tidy hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in a couple of days and there were shadows under her eyes. Only one other time I’d seen her like this. Weird, I didn’t realize she cared so much about Fahrenheit. “Mayor Hancock! What are they doing here?”

“you did good doc.” He stepped up and put a hand on her shoulder. For a split-second I watched the pain race over his features before he banished it. Had to look strong in front of his people. “but we’ve got help now. Go rest up.”

She glanced first at Sun, who pushed past her, then to Nick and I. “you two will find who did this.”

Noticed how it wasn’t quite a question. I nodded firmly, lips drawn into a grim line. “yeah, we’ll find him.”

A small sigh of relief issued out of her, her shoulders slumping. The tension she’d been holding in her body left along with what little strength she still had. “good, thank you, both of you.”

“clear the room! I need space to work!” Sun shouted at us irritably over his shoulder.

Amari nodded to us before leaving the room, her shoulders slumping visibly even more as she made her way to the door. Looking back into the room I finally saw Fahrenheit. She lay on a bare matters on a coffee table at the center of the room. Her armor was gone, most of her clothes too. With Sun on the other side I was afforded a full view of her injuries. Her stomach was little more than a pile of torn and bloody flesh. Bandages soaked in blood hung loosely off the table. Her face, scarred and lined with all the years of fighting, was calm. That wasn’t a natural look on her.

It was that alone that made my blood go cold.

Nick and I backed up out of the room as per Sun’s request. Hancock remained for several seconds staring down at them in stony silence. With his back turned it was impossible to figure out what he was thinking. Easy to guess though. It was the same thing we were all thinking about.

Eventually Nick called to him, braver man than I. “Hancock, we’ve still got a few questions.”

Reluctantly Hancock turned around and marched toward us. With his feet planted shoulder width apart he looked up at Nick. “what do you want to know Valentine?”

“where’s the warehouse?”

Right to the point then. I had been wondering when that question would come up. Brows raised I watched Hancock’s features become defensive. “and why do you gotta know that?”

“don’t be an idiot.” Rolling his eyes, Nick glared at the ghoul. “there’s going to be evidence there that points to whoever shot Fahrenheit. If you want us to catch those bastards you’re going to have to give up a few secrets.”

Hancock had never looked readier to hit Nick than right there. His fist actually clenched at his side as his eyes darted around. At least I thought they did, hard to tell when he didn’t have pupils to speak of. Come on Hancock, you knew there was no other choice here. You probably had more warehouses across the commonwealth, what was the point of hanging on to one? Not to mention one that it had already been totally ransacked.

After several seconds of silent deliberation with himself, Hancock finally gave in. “NH&M Freight Depot, just south of the east entrance of the pike mass tunnel.”

That wasn’t far. We could be there before the sun went down. Apparently, Nick thought the same thing as he straightened abruptly. “sit tight Hancock, keep your people calm. We’ll handle things from here.”

“we’ve got this.” I added firmly, squeezing his arm in an awkward gesture of assurance.

As Nick and I moved toward the exit one of Hancock’s hands shot out and grabbed my arm. With a tug he pulled me up short, forcing me to turn around. The skin of his face was strained as the muscles beneath tightened. Fire burned in his inky black eyes as hot as a nuclear explosion. “promise me, you find who did this, you repay them in kind. I don’t care if it’s me, or Nick, or you, just make them pay.”

Beside me Nick stepped up, placing a hand on my shoulder. “we’ll bring them in if we can. If not, then I swear, they’re not getting away.”

“thanks brother.” Hancock dropped his hand from my arm and gave me a halfhearted smile. “you too, kiddo.”

“you know when we finish this.” As I took the lead I talked over my shoulder at him, “we’re going to have to discuss the whole kiddo thing.”

“you can discuss it all you want, it ain’t gonna change a thing.”

Probably true.

Chapter Text

“remember when we cleared out the pike mass tunnel?” Nick’s question drew my eyes from the road back over my shoulder. We stood at the top of the tunnel overlooking what remained of the structures below. Someone had tried to rebuild what we destroyed but it didn’t look like they were here now.

“yeah, what about it?” my brows shot up, somewhat impatient. Granted there was nothing we could do for Fahrenheit, Sun was her best hope now. Still, the longer we loitered around the colder the trail got. Didn’t want to go back to Hancock empty handed.

With his arms folded Nick gave me a crooked grin, yellow eyes practically sparkling under his hat. God I loved that look. “don’t you miss the days when things were that simple? No gray area, just black and white, shoot or get shot?”

“I’m not sure I remember things the way you do.” I laughed shaking my head at him. “gotta say though, I kind of like puzzles.”

“you’re in the right line of work then.” Stepping back from the edge he closed the distance between us, hands in his pockets. “no more mercenary work for you?”

“that job wasn’t mercenary work.” together we left the pike mass tunnel behind, heading south. By now the sun had sunk low. The buildings afforded us a little more cover which I was grateful for. Doubted Nick cared one way or the other. “It was a job for the railroad.”

Nick came to a stop. When I glanced back at him he was giving me a heavy irritated expression. “you roped me into a railroad job?”

“if I remember correctly I didn’t rope you into anything.” Standing in front of him I put my feet shoulder width apart, thumbs hooked into my belt. The tiniest hint of guilt seeped into my face though. “you practically forced yourself on me. You didn’t give me a choice.”

He swung his head back, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly toward the sky. “at least tell me that was the only job you conned me into helping you with.”

“that was my first assignment from the railroad.” I retorted, resisting the urge to mirror his gesture. “it was a test. Thanks to our success they let me join.”

“oh great, good to know I helped you put yourself in harm’s way.” Shaking his head he strode past me, hands still in his pockets.

Irritably I reached up and plucked his hat from his head.

“hey!”

“I’m not sure how many times I can apologize for it ok?” defiantly I put his hat on my head, quickening my pace to outstrip him. “how do you expect me to make up for it?”

He came level with me, his longer stride easily covering the distance my fast pace could. “I’ll let you know when I think of something.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw his grin widen. Chuckling I shook my head at him. “you’re a monster.”

“look who’s talking.”

We climbed up a crumbling wall and slipped through a rusted over chain link fence. The deeper we went the more tense I became. Places like these always seemed to be crawling with ferals. At least it was broad daylight. God knows I hated running into those things at night. We stepped around a set of train cars back out into the open. The warehouse looked dilapidated. Then again pretty much everything in the commonwealth looked dilapidated didn’t it?

It might have been a greenish color but rust ate at the corrugated walls leaving it a sickly hue. It was big too, bigger than I expected. Hancock didn’t strike me as the kind to over compensate. The walls weren’t strong but they’d clearly survived some shit over the years. Bullet holes and laser burns riddled the old metal. We stepped up beside it and I ran my finger over one of the scorch marks. “old, not from our fight.”

“I don’t see any other signs of fighting out here.” Nick appraised the ground at the foot of the wall, searching for footprints and scuff marks. “all of this looks old. Maybe they got in on another side.”

“Did Hancock say if he found Fahrenheit inside or outside?” I questioned as I slowly made my way down the side of the warehouse. Every few feet I’d examine a scorch mark or a bullet hole. They all looked old so far.

“inside.” A pace or two behind me Nick followed, eyes trained on the ground as we moved. “they had to get in somehow though. There should be signs of how they got in.”

“they could have gotten in from the roof.” We rounded the corner together. A quick sweep didn’t reveal any fresh carnage. Maybe the fighting hadn’t reached here.

“if they did I’ll give you a boost.”

“why am I always the one getting put on the roof?”

“think you can lift me?” Nick chuckled behind me while I nodded.

“fair enough.”

“hold up.” Nick gestured for me to stop, his hands pressed against a massive swinging door set into the wall. “Give me a hand.”

Together we pushed against the door, trying to pry it open. It didn’t budge an inch. “blocked up?” I questioned in a strained voice, pushing against it. “barricaded. Doubt they came in this way.”

“worth a shot.”

We rounded to the third side, still clean. All the marks and footprints we found were at least a month old. I was beginning to doubt we’d find anything out here. As we went I noticed the lack of windows on the ground floor. Taking a step back I craned my neck to look up to the second floor. There were windows up there, they could have gotten in through there. “Nick, give me a boost.”

“you love climbing things admit it.” laughing he caught up with me and knelt with his hands clasped.

“you love watching me do it, admit it.” hands braced on his shoulders I put a foot in his hands, smiling at him.

He grinned right back at me. “maybe.” With a powerful thrust he launched me into the air. I launched myself off his hand and grabbed the ledge. Groaning a plenty, I hoisted myself up onto the roof. “you’re out of practice!”

“shut up!” chuckling under my breath I trudged up to the windows that lined the upper section of the warehouse.

“see anything!?”

“nothing!” I walked the full length of the warehouse, peering at the blacked out windows for any sign someone used them to get in. None of them could open, either nailed shut or rusted to all hell. There weren’t any tool marks, or signs of boots on the roof. “yeah they didn’t get in from up here! Do we want to check the other side?!”

“no! let’s go inside!”

Fair enough. Kind of didn’t want to get down though. I liked having a proper vantage point. That was the sniper in me talking. I walked to the far end of the roof and watched Nick make his way to the last side. “see anything?”

“nothing new, need help down?”

“nah.” Defiantly I leapt from my perch and landed with a smooth roll in the dirt. Dusting myself off I stood, grinning.

“show off.” He chuckled, leading the way to the door set into the wall. “At least Hancock gave me a key, not sure I could pick this thing.”

“speak for yourself.” With folded arms I waited while he unlocked the door and slipped inside.

I could smell the gut wrenching stench of burning flesh the instant we stepped in. Old shipping containers and an assortment of abandoned machinery filled the warehouse. We passed through a security gate and up through a freight container to an open space on the other side. Here the smell was almost over powering. I threw the back of my hand to my nose, blinking through watering eyes.

It was total chaos.

Bullet holes littered every available space. Pools of blood oozed across the floor. Black, sooty scorch marks lined the ground. What remained of a car sat in the center of it all, beside a shipping container. Metal stuck out of it like rusty ribbons, where the power core inside had exploded. Shell casings lay scattered on the ground like bits of confetti. That would be Fahrenheit’s idea of a party.

“5 mm rounds.” Nick knelt to the floor to examine one of the casings. “probably from a minigun judging by how many there are. Fahrenheit’s probably.”

“looks like she was standing up there.” I pointed to a ramp that ran over our heads from which drops of blood oozed. From this vantage point I could see a hand splayed out over the edge, hanging limply.

Nick walked passed me deeper into the warehouse. He stopped beside the car and leaned over, shaking his head. “there’s a body here too, damaged pretty bad, can’t tell who it was.”

“was it one of Hancock’s guys?” picking my way through the sea of shell casings I walked around to a staircase leading up to the platform. At the top I had a good view of the carnage and I couldn’t help but give a low whistle.

From where he stood Nick looked up at me with a shrug. “no idea. He was wearing a hazmat suit though. Visor melted his face off.”

“hope he was dead before that.” I swept the platform with my eyes. A large pool of blood stained the platform directly behind a set of half destroyed boxes. Judging by the wreckage someone had been using it as cover for a while. Just beyond that lay another body. “I’ve got another hazmat up here. Looks like someone hit the gas tank on his flamethrower.”

“they’re probably Hancock’s guys then.” Nick called up, carefully scanning the details of the room. He disappeared from view around the back of the freight container. “looks like someone isn’t getting paid.”

“what have you got?” walking along the top of the containers I came to stand above him.

Here lay yet another body, this one wearing a set of cage armor. So he didn’t belong to the hazmat suits. Probably came in with whoever had raided the warehouse. Nick shoved him to his back and pointed to a bullet hole in the back of his head. “looks like there was a double cross.”

“great, how dangerous are these guys?” grumbling under my breath I jumped down to ground level and scanned the scene. “judging by the position of the bodies I’m guessing our suspects came in from somewhere on this end.”

“suspects?” Nick raised a brow at me while he searched the pockets of the dead man. “you’re starting to sound like me.”

“I know, scary isn’t it?” the doors to one of the freights had been blasted open. I climbed in to check around. Empty crates and boxes littered the floor. Someone had packed up in such a rush they failed to notice they dropped some of their loot. I knelt and picked up a Jet. “there was a lot here. They’re going to have one hell of a time unloading this shit.”

Nick got in alongside me, scanning the room himself. A low whistle escaped him. “didn’t think he had this big of a stash. Hate to see how big the others are.”

“they’re going to be lying low for a while with a haul like this.” I commented quietly. “that might buy us some time.”

“I sure as hell hope so.” Nick left the container, standing in the middle of the battlefield with his arms crossed. With narrowed eyes he scrutinized the warehouse, carefully taking in every detail he could see. “there were three of them…. They only had small caliber guns.”

As I slipped passed him I pointed toward the platform overlooking the room. “Fahrenheit and one of her men was up there, the other one was probably checking the stash.”

“the intruders used a grenade to destroy the car.” Nick continued, slowly walking around the wreckage, giving the burned body a wide berth. “he got caught in the blast.”

“Fahrenheit took cover behind the boxes up there. Her other man doused the floor below with his flame thrower.” Hands on my hips I craned my neck back to look at the platform. “he held them off until one of them shot his gun and it exploded in his hands.”

“Fahrenheit held out for as long as she could, probably emptied her gun.” Turning on a heel Nick went back to the body of the intruder that had been left behind. “but they shot her. When she went down they started cleaning out the stash. Someone, the boss probably, got greedy and shot the third member.”

“how do you know there were three?” I questioned skeptically. “I only count three kinds of bullet casings, including Fahrenheit’s.”

Silently he pointed at the soot left over from the explosion of the car. “there are three sets of prints there. Hancock’s man wouldn’t have left prints in the ash, since he was dead by the time it settled.”

Had to hand it to him, he was good. But there was still one thing our little investigation hadn’t answered. How had they got in? “they didn’t break in from the outside, there’s no way they could have picked that lock and it wasn’t damaged.”

“so they had to come in from the inside.” Hands spread wide he gave me a grin. “now tell me, where did they come in at?”

He was toying with me again. He pretended that he was trying to train me to be more observant. Even if that’s what it was he still got way too much amusement out of watching me stumble around in the dark. Sometimes literally. Hoping to make him eat his words I strode slowly around the room, searching for the clues he’d already found. The intruders couldn’t have come in the way we had, which left the other end of the warehouse. As I walked around I passed by a stack of barrels that gave off the warmth of radiation. A shiver ran down my spine, quickening my pace to get away from it.

Then I stopped.

“ah hell no.” growling under my breath I risked the radiation and shoved aside a stack of barrels to reveal a set of stairs leading down to a door. “they came through here? What did they do dig their way?”

“must have.” Nick nodded, coming to stand beside me and looking down at the door. “we’re sucking up a lot of rads standing here, lets get down there and see what we got.”

No argument here. I had no desire to spend the night coughing up a lung, again. Radiation poisoning was a deplorably familiar problem. Through the door we found a basement beneath the warehouse that must have suffered one hell of an explosion. A massive hole in the floor sunk down into dust and dirt. Cracks spider webbed across the room toward us, making every step a dangerous gamble.

We came up short just inside the doorway, exchanging looks. “shall I go first?” Nick offered.

“don’t be such a baby.” Rolling my eyes I strode out ahead of him, ignoring the way the concrete underfoot tilted precariously. Standing at the mouth of the hole I peered in. “looks like they left some equipment behind.”

“good.” He slid into the hole ahead of me, landing in a large pile of loosened dirt and concrete.

I waited at the top, brows raised. “how’s the radiation down there?”

“there isn’t any, it’s safe!” He glanced up at me grinning. “don’t be such a baby.”

“says the guy who’s immune to it.” Rolling my eyes I skidded shakily down to his side. Dust filled my nose forcing me to sneeze in quick succession.

“bless you.” Nick said absently as he knelt beside the machine. “it actually charges my batteries if you’re curious.”

“yeah, I was totally wondering. What is that thing?” sniffling I stood over him, brushing aside dust to reveal what remained of an eye robot lying on the floor. A low whistle escaped me. “I’ve never seen a model like this. Someone modded the shit out of this thing.”

With a fierce tug Nick pulled it free from the ruble, antennas breaking off as he did. “not what I’d expect to find on a mining crew…. It doesn’t even have arms.”

I grabbed it from his hands and turned it over. Eyebots like these weren’t rare. They patrolled the wasteland blasting old prewar messages to anyone stupid enough to stop and listen. Their front ends were usually just speakers but someone had augmented the hell out of this one. “it’s got some major juice, wouldn’t be surprised it could release subsonic frequencies. Might explain what it’s doing on a mining team.”

“you lost me.”

“I heard about an old miner in the capitol waste that modified a mister handy with subsonic blasters.” I set the poor machine down gently. Hard to imagine someone putting so much work into him and just abandoning him like this. Tinkerers usually had real attachments to their builds. “he could topple a skyscraper in less than five minutes. This little guy probably could loosen nearby dirt if so inclined.”

“interesting.” Dusting himself off Nick got to his feet. Scanning the room he pointed. “looks like they came through there. Maybe we can follow the tunnel back to whatever hole they crawled out of.”

“if only our job could always be so easy.”

Had to admit, I didn’t much care for cramped spaces, let alone dark, dank tunnels. Underground no less. As we followed the trail back through a maze of collapsed basements and pipes, I couldn’t shake the feeling the ceiling would fall on top of us. Not that I’d ever been buried alive. Pleased to say that was one horror that I hadn’t endured just yet. Nick seemed unaffected, striding forward with barely a hint of hesitation. Course he was, after all he didn’t need air to breathe.

“don’t be so nervous.” In the middle of the tunnel he stopped. Turning he offered me his hand as I came level with him.

“psh, I’m not nervous.” Though I quickly grabbed hold of his hand. The feel of his metal fingers wrapped around mine brought some semblance of comfort. Even if every stream of dirt falling from the ceiling left me feeling cold.

Eventually the tunnels spat us out into the subway. With the comparably stronger structures overhead I mustered enough courage to drop his hand. “well this isn’t good…. They could have gotten in here a million different ways.”

“Let’s not go losing hope until we’ve seen it all.” Nick strode out onto the platform. A creeping sort of dust flowed along the floor in his wake as he moved. There were bullet casings here too, shotgun and .45 rounds. Carefully we picked our way across the platform to a train car that still sat at the station. Skeletons lay at random on the ground. Wondered if they had starved to death down here or if something else had gotten to them. That something else could be anything.

And that something else was still here.

As we walked through the train to the other side of the platform snarls pierced the air. Nick and I both reached for our weapons a split second before the first ghoul charged out of the gloom just down the hall. It flailed wildly as it ran toward us, mouth agape, tongue swinging out of its jaws. With clawed hands it batted at the air like someone trying to swim through water. It went for Nick, as the closest victim on hand. Before it got within a few feet of him however, he put an expertly aimed bullet into its skull.

We both let out a breath we hadn’t realized we’d been holding. Gradually we dropped our guns and Nick shrugged his shoulders. “ya know, I’ll never get used to the sounds those things make.”

“Hancock does a terrifyingly good impression of them.” I chuckled, holstering my gun. That was probably the biggest mistake of my career. A younger version of me would have killed me for doing it. I guess I was getting a little soft. “I swear, there are times when I thought he’d gone feral.”

“why am I not surprised?” Nick turned to face me, gesturing with his gun down the tunnel the ghoul had wondered out of. “ladies first.”

I took one, one single step before I heard the rage pouring out of that damn tunnel. We both snapped to attention, eyes whirling up toward the gloomy darkness. It seethed, and writhed with bodies I could barely see. Out of the darkness lumbered a ghoul, then another, and another. Soon there was a damn army coming toward us, hissing and spitting at the light that still flickered on the platform.

Nick and I exchanged one look before we turned to run back the way we’d come. Just as we pivoted to leap through the train car however we came up short. Ghouls were pouring out of the doorway, practically crawling over one another to get out first. Couldn’t help but wonder if that was what subways had looked like back before the war. The thought of prewar people, like Flynn, clambering over one another to get out amused me.

Then the first ghoul lunged and the smile slid from my face. It hit me with enough force to send us both tumbling onto the tracks. Rotted teeth and spit filled my vision. It gnashed its jaws at me, trying desperately to make me as nose-less as it. I held it at bay with my forearm but it was all I could do to keep it back.

Then it’s skull exploded inches from my face and it fell to the side. Bits of brain and skull plastered over my face I shot up to find Nick standing beside me, firing into the crowd of ghouls racing toward us. Behind him more ghouls were pouring out of the train car, scrambling clumsily to their feet. Taking a knee, I swung my 10 mm pistol up to meet the onslaught. My first few rounds found good targets. Two skulls and a chest exploded in a wash of blood and gore. The bodies piled up, hindering those that came behind. With a little time bought I reached into my coat and produced a Molotov cocktail. “Nick!”

He glanced at me and nodded. “switch!”

In the blink of an eye we exchanged positions. He took the cocktail from me while I poured what rounds I had left into the army still running toward us. Where the hell were all these things even coming from? Was there a damn nest down there?! How had the assholes that shot Fahrenheit gotten this far in the first place? A burst of flame and a wash of heat warned me that Nick tossed the cocktail at the car. I risked a glance to ensure there weren’t any other ghouls coming out of there.

He returned to my side, firing mercilessly into the crowd until his gun ran out. Swearing under his breath he tried to quickly reload it.

“I told you to get a better gun!” I shouted over my own gun fire.

“just hold them off!”

Yeah right. As if my magazine heard him loud and clear it emptied. My gun clicked uselessly in my hand. And the ghouls were still coming.

“plan B?!” wasn’t sure he’d be able to hear me over the enraged snarls that filled the underground platform.

He looked at me incredulously. “you had a plan A to begin with?!”

Well no, but shooting generally was my default plan A. My default plan B was something else entirely. Just as the first few ghouls reached our position, literally trampling their brothers and sisters underfoot, I grabbed Nick. We twisted out of the way of claws and teeth. One Ghoul ripped a chunk out of the end of Nick’s coat to which he swore and kicked it in the teeth. We ran back to the train car.

Running back toward the tunnel we came through, Nick searched his pockets while I reloaded my pistol. Thank god I carried a second magazine with me. Wouldn’t do us much good in the face of a damn horde. Fire licked at our shoes as we ran, left over from the Molotov. It didn’t do anything to us but it gave the ghouls behind us something to think about. It bought us a little more time as the tunnel came into view.

Nick grabbed me by the shoulder and thrust me out in front of him. there wasn’t enough breath in my lungs to protest. When I saw what he held in his hand the urge to argue completely disappeared. Giving up on shooting the ghouls I ran out ahead, bursting through the hole in the wall. Once safely on the other side I spun around, covering Nick as he ran. The ghouls were just beginning to race through the flames, some scorched to the bone for their trouble. As he ran through the hole Nick pulled the pin of a grenade with his teeth and lodged it into the side of the tunnel.

He wrapped his arms around me and practically picked me up as he kept running. We tumbled deeper into the tunnel, trying to put as much distance between us and the grenade as possible. I glanced back just in time to see the first ghoul bound through the rubble toward us. Then the grenade went off with a deafening boom. Rubble, shrapnel, ghoul bits, and concrete went in every direction. The blast wave picked us up and carried us the rest of the way down the tunnel. I lost Nick in the middle of the carnage. Tumbling head over heels I lost all sense of direction. My head smacked painfully against something and I went limp.

The tunnel collapsed behind us, effectively burying any ghoul that was caught beneath. The muffled sounds of enraged screams issued out of the wreckage. Shakily I sat up on all fours, blood dripping down the back of my neck. Lucky me, my gun lay beside me, as if it had refused to leave my side.

“well… didn’t expect that to be so big.” Nick appeared, dragging himself from a pile of dirt in the other corner. His hat had a fresh scorch mark and his trench coat would need patching up but at least he was alive. “you alright gray?”

“I’m not sure….” I replied honestly, gingerly pressing my fingers to the back of my skull. It didn’t hurt, though that might have something to do with the adrenaline. My fingers returned sticky, and hot. “I’m gonna need a Stimpak I think….”

Dusting himself off, Nick knelt beside me, gently easing my head forward. “sorry about this….”

“is it that bad?”

“you’ll live but I give no guarantees about your IQ.” He dropped his hands and smiled at me tenderly. A stark contrast with his words. “and I’m not sure you have the points to spare.”

“I didn’t understand half of that, but I’m pretty sure you just insulted me.” Using his shoulders as supports I hoisted myself to a standing position. Tried to ignore the way the ground swayed beneath me. “well… I guess this was a dead end.”

“are you making puns now?” he stood, glancing back at his own handiwork. The ghouls were still scraping at the rubble. They may dig their way out, but it’d be one hell of a long dig. And they’d probably lose interest long before then.

“what do we do now?” sighing airily I crossed my arms and gave him a raised brow.

“that robot would have needed repairs and a lot of scrap to keep it functioning.” Turning around Nick gave me a grin, an excited glint coming to his eye. He was on the hunt now. Like a hound with the scent. It was kind of sexy actually. “let’s head back to Goodneighbor and see if Daisy can help us.”

“good plan.” I nodded, a gesture that sent a wash of pain down my neck. Ignoring it I led the way back toward the warehouse. “I want to check on Fahrenheit anyway.”

Chapter Text

“an Eyebot?” Daisy’s mostly nonexistent brows shot up at us, as if we’d just suggested there was a unicorn in the waste. “I haven’t seen anyone come through here looking for Eyebot parts.”

“they might not have been after Eyebot parts, but they should have been regulars.” Nick replied, with the barest hint of irritation. His patience with clients didn’t extend entirely to witnesses I’d noticed. If they weren’t forthcoming about what they knew, or what he wanted them to know, he got annoyed. It was kind of entertaining to see the normally easy-going man reduced to grinding his teeth.

Daisy knelt behind her counter and produced a ledger from beneath. Quickly she flipped through her sales. Casually I leaned over the counter to get a better look. Even if I cared I couldn’t read any of that. Her handwriting might as well have been a foreign language. Probably better than mine anyway.

“no… no I don’t see anyone that I don’t know.” She shrugged, shutting her book with a loud bang.

Nick put his hands on the counter, leaning forward. “are you sure?”

“careful Nick.” I warned quietly, shooting a brow up at him. Was he forgetting we were in Goodneighbor? And that we were talking to Daisy? You’d think considering how often he found himself in town he’d know better than to antagonize her. Irritating people in Goodneighbor was like playing chicken with a Deathclaw, just a bad idea.

And watching the pleasant expression slide over Daisy’s features left me feeling like I was about to face a Deathclaw. She put a protective hand on the top of her ledger and smiled at Nick. Crooked rotten teeth flashed like the fangs of a mutant hound. “I’m quite sure. If you don’t believe me feel free to take it up with Hancock. For now I think we’re done.”

Nick looked ready to argue with her, the servos under his skin whirred under the strain. Before he could make things worse I grabbed his arm and tugged him away from the counter. “we’ll be back later, tell us if you think of something.”

That Deathclaw look disappeared as she turned her attention to me. Pleasantly she smiled, probably just trying to stay on good terms so I’d do more jobs for her. Jokes on her, it’d been months since I freelanced. Not since I joined the railroad way back when. “is this about Fahrenheit getting gunned down?”

Silently I nodded, my face going slack.

She let out a breath and dropped her head. “I’ll let you know if I think of something. Anything to catch those bastards.”

“thanks Daisy.” With Fahrenheit lying on her death bed nearly all of Goodneighbor was in a haze. No one quite knew what to do with themselves. Beside the fact that she was a friend to most of the people here she was also the second-best line of defense. They didn’t feel safe without her. I was right there with them. Goodneighbor needed Fahrenheit.

That satisfied Nick at least. He let me drag him away from the store and toward the old state house. As we walked he put his cold metal fingers to the back of my neck. “that feels good thanks.” I murmured over my shoulder.

“Ask Sun for a Stimpak, he’s sure to have one to spare.”

“nah, I’ll live. I’d rather he use it on Fahrenheit anyway.”

We stepped through the red door just in time to hear something splinter to pieces in the wall around the corner. Together we raced into the room to find Hancock standing beside the wall, his hand buried wrist deep in the plaster. “she needs blood, why won’t mine do?”

Sun stood behind Fahrenheit’s motionless form. The bandages on her chest had been expertly redressed. The doctor had blood on his coat, wiping away at his hands with a bloody rag. Surgery must have been one hell of a procedure. It didn’t even look like there was any anesthetic. Fahrenheit wouldn’t have allowed any anyway I guess. What a bad ass. Sun glowered across the room at the ghoul who looked ready to turn feral right then. “there are more than several reasons why your blood will not do. To start, nearly all of your cells are dead to begin with.”

“I still bleed.” He replied curtly, removing a pointedly bloody fist from the wall.

Sun sighed, shaking his head and folding his arms. “what little live blood cells you have are horribly irradiated. I will not risk giving my patient radiation poisoning when she is still recovering.”

“what about me?” I stepped forward into the room, passing by the raging Hancock. It felt rather like turning your back on an angry Radstag. He might not hurt someone but you shouldn’t put it past him. “I’m not a ghoul, and I’m not sick, at the moment.”

“that may work.” Sun eyed me, shaking his head. “but I don’t know your blood type, let alone hers. If we don’t match them we will only cause more damage.”

“then where do we find someone with her blood type?” Nick asked in a surprisingly calm tone. The only voice of reason in a room full of hot heads. Then again, he probably belonged to that title as much as Hancock or Sun.

Slow and stiff, Hancock turned to look at the doctor. Those black eyes of his were almost as angry as a wild dog’s. “point me to whoever we need and I’ll bleed them dryer than a Bloodbug in the summer sun.”

Lovely image that. Still I would be lying if I didn’t share the sentiment.

Sun let out an exasperated breath, running a hand through his hair. He spoke to Nick, probably aware he’d be the most likely to hear him out. “look, I’ve never treated Fahrenheit before. I don’t know what her blood type is. Given time I could figure it out but we don’t have it. So we need a universal donor. That means we need O negative. I’ve met only one person with that blood type but they’re dead. I don’t know who else to look for.” Before Hancock could start yelling at him he threw up a hand. “but there may be a place we can get it.”

“what are you waiting for applause?” I snapped, growing irritated with the run around. A woman’s life was on the damn line, just get to the point! “where do we get the blood?”

“do any of you have a map?” Sun glanced around at us, brows drawn.

I shook my head with a shrug. When you wondered around the commonwealth for as long as I had you didn’t tend to need a map. Not even Nick carried one. Hancock on the other hand strode to a drawer on the far end of the room and removed one from inside. He stood beside the doc as he handed it over. “show me where.”

Sun laid it out on a table and pointed to a spot just west of the city. “here, the Mass Blood Clinic. It used to be a blood collection center, for tests and donations. If anywhere is going to have what we need, that’s the place.”

“I won’t be long.” Before any of us could protest or react, Hancock took the map and strode toward the hall.

Unfortunately for him I was standing there. With a hand raised I stepped into his path, which was rather like stepping into the path of a charging Radstag. He came to a stop and glared down at me threateningly. “don’t go off half cocked Hancock.” Unflinchingly I stared up into his face. A tight knot formed in my chest, warning me that I was making a very poor decision standing there. Ignoring it I continued. “she needs the blood, don’t get yourself killed trying to save her.”

“out of my way kiddo, or I’ll have to teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget.”

And he wouldn’t hesitate. Not in this state. Reluctantly I stepped aside, still staring him hard in the face. His eyes shifted ahead and he shoved passed me, man on a mission. Sighing heavily I watched him shut the door with a swift bang. Nick appeared beside me, arms folded. “you know, I see where you get it from.”

“he’s gonna get himself killed.” I grumbled shaking my head.

“we need to go with him.” as he spoke Nick strode for the door, fully prepared to follow his friend into whatever hell hole he found himself in.

“what about the case?” even while I verbally protested I physically submitted. I followed him out of the old state house into the square outside. Hancock was already pushing his way through the gate. Idiot.

Nick glanced at me over his shoulder, giving me a shrug. “the trail’s already cold. Won’t get much colder while we watch his back.”

Fair enough. Besides I didn’t want Hancock doing this alone anyway. The man had a poorer sense of self-preservation than I did, and I’d leapt off of buildings into Vertibirds. He’d need back up, against himself really.

I’m sure he noticed us following him the moment we left Goodneighbor but he didn’t let on. Purposefully he strode through the twilight lit city, fists balled at his sides. He had his shotgun with him, as usual. Maybe he’d been ready to thrust himself into danger all along. Probably the only reason he hadn’t gone after Fahrenheit’s attackers was that he didn’t know who they were. That’s where Nick and I came in. No idea how he’d react when we finally did find them.

It was only thanks to a scuffle with some Supermutants that we caught up with him in the first place. A patrol got the jump on him just ahead of us. Nick and I ran forward, taking down one between the two of us. Hancock punched one in the jaw then shoved his shogun into its mouth. Green blood and brain went flying. The third one gave us collectively a little trouble. It wielded a heavy bladed crowbar which he swung toward Nick’s head. Nick managed to dodge it just barely and I shot the mutant in the knee. He howled in pain and whirled on me which put his back to both Nick and Hancock. Deftly they pointed their weapons directly at his head and blew his face apart.

Covered in blood, gore and bone we stopped to exchange looks. Hancock stared at me before giving Nick a dubious look. Nick didn’t look at him, casually reloading his revolver one bullet at a time. I had never thought subtlety was something a ghoul face was capable of but I couldn’t help notice the barest hint of gratitude cross his face.

When Nick was done he swung the cylinder back into place and looked at the ghoul. “well? Shouldn’t we get a move on?”

We walked together after that. In spite of the gravity of our mission we still managed to make a few jokes. Couldn’t keep us entirely down. Hancock managed a few ghoul related jokes, resembling his usual self if only a little. I didn’t know what kind of history Hancock and Fahrenheit had. Nobody did really. Rumor had it that they’d run into each other about five years before Hancock took over Goodneighbor. Before Diamond city kicked out the ghouls. Someone once told me she’d belonged to a raider gang called the Forged. Hard to imagine the tactically minded head of the watch holding up with a bunch of rough idiots. Maybe that’s why she’d ended up in Goodneighbor in the first place.

I couldn’t remember a Goodneighbor without her. By the time I stumbled into town Hancock and she were already running a tight ship. She was as much a part of the fabric of Goodneighbor as Hancock was. Things just wouldn’t be the same until she was back on her patrols. Scaring off Supermutants and beating sense into people that got out of line. Would be lying if I said I hadn’t tasted her brand of justice once or twice. Not that I was holding a grudge about it. Probably deserved it.

We left the city behind and crossed the river using an old lock system. On the other side we had to wade through bogs and ghouls to get back ashore. From there it was a short walk up the road to where Sun had marked the blood center’s location. As the road rounded a ridge we found an old military check point erected in the middle of our path. Sun hadn’t mentioned anything about military. Great, let’s hope there weren’t any old Sentry bots waiting to fill us full of holes.

While the boys went ahead unconcerned I rested my hand on my pistol and watched the building carefully. As we passed the checkpoint and headed into town Nick snorted, glancing back at me. “see that billboard?”

His finger drew my attention to a faded billboard on the side of the building just off to our right. It was an advertisement for Joe’s Spuckies. “doesn’t that bring back memories?” I muttered, a hand drifting toward my scarred neck.

“at least that’s one criminal we won’t have to track down.” he quipped lightly though we exchanged heavy looks. Winter wasn’t something we discussed often, and we both preferred to keep it that way.

Hancock paused up the road, glancing at us over his shoulder. “how’s your investigation coming? Did you find anything at the warehouse?”

Nick nodded as he continued up the cracked black top. “we found an Eyebot left behind by whoever got in. They dug their way in from the subway tunnels. Don’t suppose you heard any rumblings about that.”

Hancock swore and shook his head. “not a damn thing. Shit like that’s pretty easy to keep secret. Out of sight out of mind and all that. Those assholes. Must have been planning this for a while.”

“we found one of them, shot in the back.” I added to Nick’s report even while he gave me a sharp look. It wasn’t professional to share detailed progress reports with the clients, I knew that. But this was Hancock and Fahrenheit, it didn’t feel right to just keep things quiet. “there are two still out there now, we think one of them may have owned the Eyebot.”

“you shouldn’t have come with me.” He made a left down the street, now scanning the broken buildings for the one we were looking for. At least most of them still had signs. “you should be looking for them, not babysitting me.”

Yeah, love to, if I could trust you’d make it back in one piece.

As much as I wanted to say it, it was Nick who spoke first. “we wanted to make sure this didn’t turn into a murder investigation.”

Hancock just scoffed at us and picked up the pace. I followed him a few steps before I realized Nick wasn’t with us. Confused I turned around to find him standing in front of the largest building in town. It was red and had all kinds of flags hanging from it. The fort if I had to guess. He stared up at the front doors, which were barricaded, face blank.

“Nick?!”

When I called to him he flinched slightly and snapped his gaze toward me. His eyes went for a split second to the scars on my face then back to my eyes. “nothing.” Waving it aside he strode quickly to catch up with us.

I watched him with skepticism, eyes narrowed. “I thought we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

No reply.

Whatever that building meant to him was too damaging to talk about. It could have been anything, something from an old case, maybe even some of the old Nick’s memories, or Kellogg. My money was on Kellogg. That damn mercenary. He’d done more damage to my detective than either of us probably realized. Too bad I’d crushed that Holotape. Amari might have been able to figure out a way to let me kill him a hundred times over.

Teeth gritted in irritation I followed the pair at a distance. We were coming up on the end of the block. There was just one building left. Judging by the way Hancock’s pace quickened that was our target. But just as he walked through the front doors I heard the terrible buzzing of a dozen pairs of wings in the air. Nick ran forward, pulling out his gun as he went. Gun fire split the otherwise calm air.

“fucking Bloatflies!” Hancock swore.

“watch yourself!” came Nick’s voice.

Pulling my gun free, I ran at full tilt toward the door. Didn’t get nearly that far. A stream of maggots cut my path forcing me to skid to a stop. Three Bloatflies came buzzing around the corner on my right. Their wings beat angrily and they spat their disgusting offspring at me. The mere thought of that shit touching my skin made me want to throw up. I retreated to the other side of the building while I fired at the swarm. Damn bugs wouldn’t hold still, making it almost impossible to hit them and save bullets. Times like these I wished I carried an automatic.

One of them exploded with a burst of green blood, or it might have been bile, hard to tell. While the remaining two continued to pursue me I twisted around a corner out of the line of fire. Inside I could hear Nick’s and Hancock’s guns repeatedly firing while they themselves had fallen silent. Judging by the increased buzzing we’d woken a damn hive. Just our luck.

I backed up around a broken car toward another wall. Just as the opening into the building appeared on my left something stabbed me right through the left shoulder and out the other side. Screaming in pain I twisted to see what it was but when I turned nothing was there. The thing in my shoulder twisted and turned, several pairs of insect legs pressed against my back. Blindly I put my gun over my shoulder and fired into the thing on my back. After one or two shots I finally hit it. In a burst of blood, which soaked my entire back, it exploded. The thing in my shoulder remained though and I didn’t have time to think too much about it.

The remaining Bloatflies came careening around the corner, spitting and buzzing fiercely. I retreated inside the building, or at least what once had been inside the building. It was practically an open air porch now, with filing cabinets, furniture and a skeleton for good measure. A hand to my shoulder, which still had a stinger lodged in it, I ran through a door, down a hall and up some stairs. From the front entrance I heard Nick and Hancock calling for me. No time.

At the top of the stairs I turned around and swung my pistol up. It shook in my one good hand. The combination of adrenaline and pain made it difficult to aim. Didn’t need to be that good though. As the Bloatflies appeared within sight I lodged four bullets into the machine directly behind them. Thankfully it still had a power core. It went up in a burst of flames and rads. The fire caught the Bloatflies and they immediately began writhing in pain, spitting maggots out randomly.

I fell back behind a wall just in time to avoid a thick stream of bile as it came up the stairs. Pressed against the wall I listened to the buzzing slowly die as the bugs fell victim to their worst enemy. “fuck you.” I growled under my breath.

“Vel!” Nick yelled from below, sounding more panicked than was absolutely necessary.

“I’m fine! Up stairs follow the explosion.” Fine was a relative term. I’d probably suffered worse than this but that didn’t make the pain any less annoying. Groaning I forced myself to my feet just as Hancock and Nick made their way up the stairs.

Upon seeing the thing sticking out of my shoulder Nick swore under his breath and reached out to steady me. Didn’t realize I needed it till the floor stopped tilting. Go figure. “Bloodbug. Lucky it missed your heart.”

“oh it was aiming for it I’m sure.” I laughed to hide the wince as he prodded my injury. “lucky me it went through and through or I’d have been sucked dry.”

“you’re taking this pretty damn well kiddo.” With his arms folded, Hancock leaned on a wall across from us, grinning proudly. “Fahrenheit would be impressed.”

“is it that bad?” certainly didn’t feel that painful. Then again someone had told me Bloodbugs were able to numb their victims with toxins. The idea of having Bloodbug toxins in my system was even less comforting.

Nick gripped the syringe like thing sticking out of my shoulder. He met my gaze grimly, lips drawn in a thin line. “on the count of three?”

“yeah.” Hard to keep my voice from rising in fearful anticipation.

“one, two, three!” with a fierce tug he pulled it free of my shoulder.

Thin air slipped through my teeth in a long drawn hiss. Slowly I doubled over, gripping my burning shoulder with a hand. “thanks….”

“your welcome.” He tossed it aside and pressed a hand to my bleeding shoulder. “it wasn’t full grown or you’d have one hell of a hole in you. Shouldn’t take long to heal.”

“great.” Still hard to breath with my ribcage spasming from the pain. Gasping for breath I sat up, leaning up against the wall. “please tell me someone brought a Stimpak.”

Hancock stepped forward, lazily offering me a Stim from his pocket. “I’ll go have a look downstairs. Lets hope those Bloodbugs didn’t get all the O.”

“I’ll be there in a minute.” I called after him as he trudged back down the stairs. With a jab I injected my shoulder with the Stimpak. A flood of relief surged through my limb and up the back of my head. A headache that I didn’t even know I had disappeared. Should have used one sooner.

Nick held me steady by the elbow and gently peeled back the collar of my shirt to look at the injury. “I guess the blood isn’t all yours.”

“nah, Bloodbug exploded.” Twisting my neck awkwardly I tried to get a better look at the injury which was almost impossible.

“let me patch this up.”

“someone should make sure Hancock doesn’t run into more trouble.”

“he’ll be fine for a few seconds.” Nick eased my vest from my shoulders and pulled the collar of my shirt further down over my arm. Good thing it was a flannel button up or he’d ruin it.

I watched Nick work out of the corner of my eye. “is he holding up ok?”

“hard to say.” We murmured quietly to one another, unwilling to risk the subject of our conversation overhearing it. Hancock would be furious with us. “he’s putting on a good show.”

“but you know him. You should be able to tell.”

Nick applied a piece of cloth to the wound and taped it down with a little duct tape. With a heavy sigh he shook his head. “he’s just trying to focus right now and I can’t blame him. It’s Hancock, he doesn’t get scared.”

“but he is right now.” nodding I replaced my shirt. Nick helped me slide on the vest while my arm remained stiff. “Fahrenheit’s going to be ok though.”

Firmly he nodded. “if we can find her enough blood. You go search with Hancock I’ll have a look around up here.”

“sure thing.” Though to be honest, the prospect of being within punching distance of an enraged Hancock didn’t appeal to me. Leaving Nick to look around the top floor I descended back down the stairs only to find it empty. “Hancock? Hancock where are you?!”

“in the basement!” His muffled voice issued up from underfoot.

After a little wondering I finally discovered the stairs leading down into the basement of the blood center. Down the hall and to the left I eventually came across Hancock standing over a Bloatfly corpse which he’d crushed under foot.

He looked up at me, with a knowing smirk. “you and Valentine done talking behind my back?”

Rolling my eyes I followed him deeper into the basement. We found a lab here with old chemistry equipment still littering the counters. A massive metal door lay in the wall with a big red button beside it. Hopefully it had the blood we needed. “we’re just worried about you Hancock.”

“well don’t.” he grumbled over his shoulder as he made his way to the door. “I’m not the one with a stomach full of lead.”

He had a point there but it didn’t particularly matter. He slipped into the next room and I followed him with a sad shake of my head. This room probably had once been refrigerated but with the power grid down it was just another room. Shelves of dry or empty blood bags lined the walls. I hoped to god that we weren’t too late. We spread out, scanning the bags one at a time, occasionally pocketing one if it was of the right type. “hope we find enough for Sun.”

Across the room Hancock grunted in response, stuffing a bag in his coat. As I stepped out from behind a fridge door he looked at me, contemplative. “you know, if it weren’t for Fahrenheit you wouldn’t be here.”

“yeah, yeah I know.” I rolled my eyes, crouching to scan the bottom most shelf. “Goodneighbor would have been overrun by Supermutants years ago if it weren’t for her.”

“that’s not what I meant.” While he spoke he continued to look through the shelves, wondered if his eyes even saw them anymore. “when you stumbled into town, an eight year old covered in dirt and blood with a gun in her hand I wanted to send you to Diamond city.”

“you what?!” I snapped up, mouth falling open in astonishment. “you wanted to what?”

He kept his back to me, even while he spoke in a rough hard tone. “As much as I love my town, Goodneighbor ain’t the place for a kid. I thought for sure if you stayed you’d end up dead or worse within a month.”

We had never had this conversation before and to say I was shocked would be an understatement. It almost felt like your parents telling you they didn’t want a child in the first place. I tried to hide the sting his words produced in my chest. “then why did you let me stay?”

With a sigh Hancock straightened from the floor, hands on his belt. Over his shoulder he looked at me, black eyes inscrutable. “Fahrenheit. She was the one that saw you first, wondering around outside the walls. You were half dead from hunger and dehydration so I don’t expect you remember.”

Vaguely. I did remember the first time I saw the neon sign of Goodneighbor but it was mostly a haze. The events leading up to that moment were little better. I could barely remember anything from the day it happened. It was just a lot of pain, blood and shouting.

“she ran out there and brought you inside the walls. From what she told me you nearly shot her.” Hancock chuckled thinly, returning his gaze back to the shelf. Oh yeah we were supposed to be looking for something. Hard to do that when he was practically telling me he didn’t want me. “I was going to have her take you to Diamond city as soon as you were coherent. You know what she told me instead?”

“what?”

At last he turned around to face me fully. A half smile on his leathery face. “she told me that you were as broken as the rest of us, that you belonged in Goodneighbor.”

Sheepishly I averted my eyes, grimacing. I mean that was true, and in true Fahrenheit fashion it was put rather bluntly. Only helped take the edge off it. “you still could have sent me to Diamond city. Who knew how I’d have ended up.”

“better off probably.” Bitterly he shoved a fridge door shut and turned to face me again. Couldn’t tell if he was angry or just frustrated. Maybe a combination of both? “the point is she wanted to keep you, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. If it weren’t for her you wouldn’t be here.”

That was a strange thought. Hard to say where I’d be right then if I hadn’t grown up in Goodneighbor. I may never have met Nick, or at least I wouldn’t have become friends with him. I wouldn’t have joined the railroad, I wouldn’t have been with Nick when he faced Winter, I may not even be in that room trying to save Fahrenheit’s life. “you know what Hancock?”

“what?” one of his brows shot up, sensing what I was about to say.

“fuck you.” Swinging around I returned to the search, ignoring the way the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Dangerous turning your back on Hancock. “I don’t care whether you wanted me or not, I don’t care if Fahrenheit was the one that kept me around, I don’t want to be anywhere else but right here.”

Long thick silence followed my statement. I resisted the urge to look at him. I meant what I said, and I refused to give him a reason to think otherwise. The silence carried on until we’d searched the entirety of the room. When we both made for the door we came to a stop, facing each other. He gave me a sideways look, not quite a smile but not a frown either. “if it makes you feel any better. I’m glad we kept you around.”

“thanks.”

Chapter Text

“change her bandage once every day, give her a Stimpak every six hours and until her pulse strengthens keep giving her transfusions.”

“thanks doc.”

Sun tried not to look at Hancock and Fahrenheit as he packed his supplies back up. Instead he looked at Nick and me, almost accusingly. Didn’t really see the problem. It’s not as if anyone in Goodneighbor had actually followed through with their threats. Not even Hancock. He stood at Fahrenheit’s side, gently gripping her hand with his rough one. She was out of the woods. It was just a matter of time now.

“I’m ready to go back to the diamond now.” doctor Sun grumbled irritably at us, arms folded.

“sure thing.” Nick didn’t protest but he didn’t move either. He had his eyes on Hancock, waiting to be dismissed by the mayor.

Wise decision. I leaned against a wall off to the side, rubbing my sore shoulder. The Stimpak had numbed most of the pain, and I could lift it. The stinger hadn’t been nearly large enough to make much damage. Thank god for that. I couldn’t afford being crippled, not while there was still a case.

Maybe after.

Eventually Hancock dropped Fahrenheit’s hand and looked up. Beneath that trifold hat he stared at Sun with the friendliest expression he was capable of. Not saying much when half the muscles in his face were dead. “you’ve got my gratitude brother, you need anything just give me a call. We owe you.”

The sentiment clearly set Sun aback. He gave Hancock a side long glance before dropping his gaze. “it’s my job.”

We all knew that wasn’t true. His job was in Diamond city, he didn’t have to come all the way out here for someone he didn’t even know. “you’ve got a favor from Hancock, use it wisely.” I quipped with a half grin.

Sun gave me a look before turning to Nick. “can we go?”

“course.” Satisfied Nick uncrossed his arms and gestured for me to follow him out the door.

He and Sun left the state house ahead of me while I paused to glance back at Hancock. He now sat in an arm chair beside Fahrenheit’s bed, removing his pack of Mentats from a pocket. “we’ll be out on the case but if she wakes up don’t hesitate to tell us.”

“don’t worry, I’ll let you know.” He dropped his chems into his lap and met my eyes. “just find those assholes. Or she won’t rest up.”

Fair enough. Fahrenheit wouldn’t just sit around and heal if the people that put her there was still out there. Hell I’m not sure any of us really could. Giving him a thumbs up I ran out of the state house to catch up with Nick and Sun. Nick had promised the doctor to escort him back to Diamond City when Fahrenheit was stable but we needed to head back there anyway. If Daisy was a dead end there was just one other place we could check. If that Eyebot had been a pet project its owner had to get parts from somewhere. If not Goodneighbor then Diamond city.

At least Sun hadn’t insisted on us taking him back to the city last night. When we got back to Goodneighbor from the blood mass center the sun had already long sunk low. Nick and I had retreated to my quarters early on leaving Hancock alone with Fahrenheit and Sun. Curled up in Nick’s arms I slept more soundly than I ever did without him. It’s not as if I spent every night with him, but a majority I did.

Now with a cool breeze drifting through the ruined buildings we made our way back to Diamond City. It would be nice if we could do most of our investigation early in the morning. I was fairly certain I was developing a sunburn on the back of my neck. Problems of having short hair I suppose.

We passed through the gates of Diamond City about an hour after leaving Goodneighbor. On the stairs leading down into the city Sun spoke over his shoulder at Nick. “I do hope this makes us even Valentine.”

“oh believe me, we’re more than even. Next time one of your patients decide to skip town without paying come find me.”

Sun grumbled something inaudible before proceeding ahead of us down the stairs.

“that was probably more adventure than that man ever has.” I commented in a dry voice, watching him go with a smirk.

Nick shrugged, scanning the market. “looks like Myrna’s is open. You go talk to her and I’ll check on the kids.”

“she doesn’t like me any more than she likes you.” Exasperatedly I pointed out, rolling my eyes.

“at least she’ll talk to you, more than you can say for me.” He gave me a crooked smile. Whenever he did that I couldn’t refuse him and he knew it. Manipulative little asshole. “I’ll buy you something at the Power Noodles after.”

“you’d better.” Hated talking to crazy Myrna. That woman had more paranoia about synths than nearly anyone else in the commonwealth. If she had more balls than brains I expected she’d have joined up with the brotherhood. That wasn’t really an option since Charmer blew up their flying fortress. Still wish I’d been there for that. Add into that the fact that I could be a synth and I was even less inclined to interact with her. It did make her amiability to me ironically entertaining though.

We walked together down the stairs until at the bottom we split off from each other. He went into the Publick Occurrences and I proceeded deeper into the market. This early there were already people, drifters and travelers, scanning the shops. A particularly large trader stood in front of Myrna’s shop, Diamond City Surplus. Long before I reached the shop I could hear their haggling. Arguing more like.

Myrna seemed to have met her match. “I won’t go any lower than a hundred.”

“I couldn’t sell this shit for anything more than fifty on the frontier!” the big man protested angrily, throwing out his hands. “you’re out of touch hiding here in your walls.”

“you won’t get a better deal anywhere else.” She snapped. He toward over her so badly she practically had to crane her neck back to look at him. That just made the argument that much more entertaining. I actually hung back a little to watch it play out.

The big man looked skeptical, arms folded, chest puffed. “I bet Daisy’s Discounts got a better deal for me. Worth the trip if you ask me.”

Myrna scowled, like someone had just put a foul smell under her nose. “if you want to go buy from that backwater hustler be my guest. You’ll be back here in no time.”

“I’ll just take my caps and leave then.” With one big hand he swung his bag further up his shoulder and started to turn.

“wait! Wait! Fine!” Myrna shouted, throwing up a hand. “fifty it is then.”

“deal.” They exchanged goods, him with the air of a satisfied man she with pure irritation. Once they finished their business he nodded to her, tilting his cowboy hat with a finger. “pleasure doing business with you.”

“likewise.” She growled around gritted teeth.

I stepped aside to let the big man pass, raising my brows at Myrna. “losing your touch?”

Waving at me she recounted the caps before putting them in her lockbox. “he’ll be back, they always are. Now what do you want? Hope you’re not here for that synth.”

My eyebrow twitched but I kept myself from rising to the challenge in her voice. Must have been growing wise in my old age. Or Nick was a good influence. Not long ago I’d have punched her for the tone alone. “I’m here looking for somebody. Has anyone come in here with a customized Eyebot?”

Her brows shot up. “why do you want to know about that?”

“thing is, this guy owes me a lot of money for a job I did for him a couple weeks back.” it was a lie but a lie that slipped out convincingly. I doubted she’d tell me anything if she knew it was for a case. Or even that I was here for Fahrenheit. Anything to stick it to the synths in the world. What a bitch. “he has this pet project, an Eyebot, and I was hoping he’d stopped by here looking for parts.”

“a guy did come by recently looking for Eyebot parts but he didn’t have one with him.” she replied skeptically, looking me over carefully. She was suspicious, which was frankly her default. It literally wouldn’t have mattered how else I approached the situation she still would have thought I was up to no good.

Time to get humble, which to be honest wasn’t my strong suit. “listen Myrna, I’d really appreciate your help here.” With my hands out to either side I gave her the sweetest smile I could muster. Didn’t know for sure if this would work or not. “you know what it’s like to get short changed! One entrepreneur to another, what would you do?”

For a moment she continued to debate herself, probably weighing the possibility that I was a synth, or that the guy I was looking for was one. After a few minutes she glanced around and nodded. “fine, fine. A guy did come in recently. He looked all torn up about something, asked if I had an Eyebot rig.”

“and?” at last, progress. Don’t worry Fahrenheit we’d have those assholes soon.

“I told him I didn’t have any Eyebot parts.” Myrna shrugged then jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “but I pointed him to an old robotics disposal ground north of the city.”

Sounded like our guy, and if he was torn up about something, might have something to do with his pet project buried in half a ton of dirt. “where’s this junkyard?”

“you know Sanctuary hills? That up and coming settlement in the north?”

“yes….” Not a memory I cared to relive thank you.

“if you head directly east of that town, it’s across the lake up the hill. Can’t miss it.”

“thanks Myrna! I owe you one.” Satisfied I made to leave when one of her hands shot out and grabbed my wrist. It took all my strength to keep my other hand from going for my gun. Casually I looked back at her, pleasantly smiling. “can I help you?”

“you know, you should be careful, just cause the institute is destroyed don’t mean there aren’t still synths out there.” That expression looked wild, her eyes wide almost pleading.

She was right about one thing, there were still synths out there. Plenty in fact. Not all of them with sinister intent. Forcefully I tugged my arm free and glared at her. “you should be more careful, you might be a synth already and not even know it.”

Leaving her to chew on that wonderful prospective I strode away from her shop. A large grin plastered itself across my face, so big I couldn’t hide it. Nick waited for me at the counter of the Power Noodles and one of his brows shot up at my expression. “what did you do?”

“oh nothing.” Casually I sat at the stool next to him and leaned into his shoulder. “she saw our guy. He was here looking to replace his Eyebot. She pointed him to a robot junkyard north of here.”

“that’s a four hour march.” He grumbled, gesturing for Takahashi to bring me a bowl of noodles. “should fuel up, we’ve got a long hot day ahead of us.”

“I’m just hoping this guy doesn’t put up much of a fight.” Thanking the Protectron with a nod I quickly dug into the noodles. Around a mouthful I continued. “with the way my luck’s been going on this case I’m worried what’ll happen in an actual fire fight.”

“you have had some astonishingly bad luck lately.” He laughed, resting an elbow on the counter with his chin in his hand. “I’m just hoping that’s not gonna rub off on me. Maybe I should leave you home.”

“if you even try to leave me here….” With a hard swallow I transferred a glare to Nick.

He simply chuckled, leaned in and kissed me. “wouldn’t dream of it gray.”

Pretty sure if Myrna saw that she’d practically raise the alarm and sic Diamond city security on us. Thankfully she didn’t, and Takahashi certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. After I ate Nick and I packed a few supplies at the agency and told Ellie where we were going. She protested us, vainly, and said we should hire some mercenaries to go with us. Nick just grumbled something about not needing back up and I actually laughed. Ask anybody in Goodneighbor, I was one of the best damn mercenaries in the commonwealth.

We left by the front gates and swung north. This path hadn’t been such a dangerous one up until a couple of months ago. When the railroad had blown the institute to hell it had left its mark. Namely a giant crater in the middle of the commonwealth. It spewed out rads like the damn glowing sea and had become just as dangerous. Ghouls, Deathclaws, Mirelurks, anything that got off around the stuff was attracted to the place. It made making a direct path to the north impossible. Once we crossed the river we turned west for a long while to avoid the dangers of the institute.

Mildly wondered what the scientists might have thought about their old headquarters being turned into an irradiated paradise for ghouls.

There weren’t many dangers along the path between Diamond City and the junk yard. Once we skirted around the crater we made a more direct path north. We passed through a town nestled beneath what remained of a freeway. Gave a mole rat den a wide berth, and passed by an old flooded quarry. It took us over four hours to reach the junk yard, by which time the sun was beating down on us mercilessly. My neck itched so badly it was all I could do not to scratch it off.

When the rusted chain link fence and squat concrete building came into view we came to a stop at exactly the same time. “I don’t like walking in there without knowing what we’re about to deal with.” I muttered under my breath, leading the way off the road.

“you and me both.” He followed me off the road into the underbrush. Our feet created small puffs of dust but hopefully we were far enough away to avoid being spotted.

Together we climbed a ridge up to the top of a hill that overlooked the junkyard. A haphazardly throne together shelter lay here nestled between two rocks. Beyond that I could see the lake and just beyond that stood sanctuary. The sight of it made my heart tighten in my chest, painfully. That place represented the worst moments of my life. The scars on my face tingled, my wrist ached, and it became difficult to breathe. Sometimes I still had nightmares about that day. Waking in a cold sweat there would almost always be warm arms there to ease me back to the present.

Just like now.

Nick wrapped his arms around me and squeezed, his chin on my shoulder. “I’m right here gray, forget the past.”

Gently I gripped his arms, leaning back into his chest. The tightness in my chest ebbed away but I continued to grimace at the settlement. “I know, I know…. So should you.” My words were quiet but pointed.

His arms tightened on me before releasing. Twisting around I tore my gaze from the buildings to face him. The expression he gave me was sad, pained almost. His arms hung loosely at his sides while I reached up to his face. His jaw was set, servos tight beneath his skin. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me.”

My eyes hardened, lips drawn into a tight line. Looking him in the eye I waited until I was sure he was listening. “you don’t have to do this alone Nick. Remember what you told me?”

His yellow gaze met mine, mechanical but I saw more humanity in them than I saw in almost anyone else in the commonwealth.

When he didn’t answer right away I told him anyway. “you don’t have to fight alone anymore.”

With his left hand he reached up and brushed his thumb against my flushed cheek. A muted smile appeared on his lips that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I know, love, I know.”

My throat swelled, preventing me from saying the rest of the words I had in mind. Nick and I both had scars. He knew mine like the back of his hand, but he didn’t share his. I hoped one day he’d let me see them, that he’d stop keeping secrets. They were his secrets, and I’d respect that, at least for now. I turned my head and kissed the palm of his hand before slipping out of his grasp. “we’ve got a job to do.”

He let his hand fall loosely, following me with his eyes. “that we do.”

We’d continue this conversation, later, for now there were assholes to catch. One of them hiding out in a junkyard. I swung my sniper rifle from my back and knelt behind a rock. It provided the perfect cover as I scanned the yard. Rusted out cars and piles of scrap metal littered the yard. The chain link fence provided neither an obstacle nor cover. The concrete building was small, probably only one room, with no windows.

“any sign of our man?” Nick leaned up against the rock beside me, hand placed next to my rifle.

“no but-oh fuck.”

“what?”

Near the back of the junk yard stood a pile of cars which surrounded an intact sentry bot. grumbling under my breath I offered the rifle to Nick. “there’s one of those damn sentry bots down there. Looks functional. If we’re after a tinkerer he could have reprogrammed it already.”

Nick looked at it then sat up, glaring at the junk yard. “it’s not powered up yet, we may get lucky.”

“lucky.” I rolled my eyes. “he’s probably in the building if he’s not out here. If we’re quiet, we may be able to take him by surprise.”

“you bring your bobby pins?”

I patted the breast pocket of my vest. “course.”

“then we’ll go around the back. Keep your head down and stay alert.”

Didn’t have to tell me twice. This wasn’t my first party, wasn’t even my first party with him. We slid silently down the side of the hill, one eye on the bot the other on the building. It didn’t help that they were on opposite sides of the yard. Nick went behind me, his gun out, watching the sentry bot carefully. At least he’d be able to warn me before it filled us full of holes. Wouldn’t be able to do much else. Hated doing something like this in broad daylight. It was literally asking for trouble. All it would take would be a single glance out the window at exactly the wrong time to get spotted. Sweat dripped down my temple which had little to do with the heat.

Once we reached the front of the door I knelt down silently at the lock. Neither of us dared speak, but we exchanged glances. We knew what to do. He peeled himself away from me and stood a few feet behind, gun held between both hands. When he was in position I inserted a bobby pin into the lock and began to pick. Weren’t many tumblers, shouldn’t be too hard to open it. The guy inside wouldn’t know what hit him.

Unless he did.

Several things happened within seconds of each other. First from the inside I heard a man’s voice yell, “Sonya! Blast that door!” now wasn’t sure who Sonya was, but if they were blasting open the door I didn’t want to be behind it.

Second, I heard something large, and powerful whir to life in the distance, followed quickly by Nick yelling, “Get down!”

Abandoning the bobby pin I leapt to the side, tucking and rolling. The door buckled then flew across the dusty road into the pile of cars across from it. The blast wave caught me, sweeping my legs out from under me and carrying me a few feet. With a painful thud I hit the dust rolling. My ears wrung so badly I could barely hear anything.

I could see just fine though.

Out of the building an Eyebot floated, its entire front end sparking with blue electricity. It swung around to face me, whirring loudly. Almost a split second too late I realized it was charging up for another blast. I scrambled to my feet, careening around the pile of cars behind cover. The Eyebot shot a blast so powerful it actually moved the cars a few inches. My ear drums popped.

Nick suddenly landed beside me, his back pressed against the cars as his hands reloaded his pistol. When had he emptied his mag? And why? “we’ve got trouble!” he shouted at me.

“tell me about it!” hard to tell if I was shouting or not, my ears were still ringing. “what is that thing?!”

“not what I’m talking about!” as if on que a chunk of earth exploded at our feet in a fiery burst. Nick surged to his feet, grabbing me by the arm and hauling me in the opposite direction. Not a moment too soon. The sentry bot careened around the side of the cars, its minigun arm spinning up to fire.

My eyes shot wide, as it took aim. I lunged at Nick, grabbing him by the back of the trench coat and forcing him to roll with me to the ground. Bullets flew over our heads in a wide arc. Thankfully this thing didn’t have the best mobility. It couldn’t change its aim as easily as we could change our direction. Nick regained his footing and ran out ahead of me. He came to a stop, spun around and fired at the sentry bot. not sure what good a hand gun would do against its armor plating.

Judging by the grinding of gears and gravel it didn’t do anything.

A man darted out of the bunker ahead of me, following that damn Eyebot out of the junkyard. While hell continued to rage behind me I swung my pistol up at him. “stop right there! Don’t make me shoot you!”

He glanced back. His clothes were dirty, hair askew. In one hand he carried a small combat knife and both of them shook. When his eyes met mine they were filled with fear. How could a man scared of a couple of strangers try to kill Fahrenheit? He didn’t even have a gun! What use could he have been in that fight? He didn’t look like a threat at all, well except that bot of his. Which turned around to point its business end at me.

Nick’s shots stopped. I heard the distinctive thum of a rocket being fired. A split second later Nick crashed into me, driving us both to the ground. The Eyebot fired at us at exactly the same time as the rocket careened toward us. The blast caught both the rocket and us. Wrapped in each other’s arms we went rolling. The rocket arched its path to explode against the side of the building. It took a hole chunk out of the concrete. At least that wasn’t either of us.

Nick was the first to recover. He got to his feet, whirling around to face the exit to the junkyard. Couldn’t tell if he saw the guy but we had more immediate problems. The sentry bot rolled across the path, effectively trapping us inside the yard. I got to my feet groaning. My shoulder was starting to hurt badly and my head throbbed. Not sure how much longer I could keep this up.

Grabbing me by the shoulder Nick dragged me toward the building while the sentry bot spun up its minigun. Steam issued out of the back of it like a chimney. “get inside!”

“what are you going to do?!” I shouted back as he threw me into the concrete building.

“we cant punch through the armor but there may be a way to finish this before we’re piles of metal and flesh!”

“how?! We don’t have any grenades!”

He shoved me to the back of the wall, hands on my shoulders. With fierce yellow eyes he looked at me. Hard to argue when he gave me that look. “stay here!”

“Nick! Wait don’t!” I reached for him but he quickly slipped out of reach and back outside. “Stop! Nick what are you going to do?!”

I ran to the door and looked outside. The sentry bot was right in front of me, practically blocking the door. A strangled scream of fright tore out of my throat. I scrambled back, falling flat on my ass to get into cover. It pointed its minigun directly at me. Great, I guess this was as good as Deathclaw. Then suddenly the back of it burst open in a stream of hot air and steam. By some miracle it slumped forward, its gun powering down for a few crucial seconds.

Then on its back appeared Nick. He climbed up the back of it, his metal fist raised high. He had a pack of bullets gripped in it. in a split second I realized what he was about to do and I felt my heart hit the pit of my stomach. I dived away from the door, hiding beneath a work bench in the corner. Crouched on the floor, I threw my hands up to protect my head, not that it would do me much good if the explosion was too large.

The instant I took up my new position I heard the bullets begin to pop. Nick’s revolver didn’t have enough rounds in its cylinder to do much damage even under the armor plates. By shoving his extra ammo in there he’d practically made an automatic machinegun. The bullets fired from the sheer heat, tearing through metal. Couldn’t be sure there would be enough damage to finish it.

Then the answer came.

Alarms sounded on the giant metal machine as its insides tore apart. It continued moving for a few seconds, slammed into the doorway once or twice. The building shook before the entire front half went crumbling into rubble. That was probably the only thing that saved my skin right there. I risked watching as the ruble fell before just outside I heard the sentry bot stop moving. For a blissful second silence fell.

Then it exploded.

The ground shook so violently I was worried it might open up and swallow me whole. Cracks ran up the walls and to the ceiling. Whole chunks fell away. Ruble fell like rain, filling the room. The table over my head buckled dangerously beneath the weight. By some miracle it held. Dust filled my vision, thunder finished the job on my ears that Eyebot had started. Darkness fell over me.

The thunder stopped rolling, the last bit of ruble and still the god blessed table stayed standing. In the cramped space I uncurled myself, trying my best to breathe even. In the dark I couldn’t see a damn thing. I’d never been in such deep darkness in my life. Already the air was feeling thin. Ignoring the itch in my throat I twisted around and started throwing kicks at the rubble piled up beside the work bench.

It came loose, slowly, excruciatingly slowly. Bit by bit. A chink appeared in the concrete and a rush of hot air surged in. I’d never been so happy to see sun in my goddamn life. “Nick?! You out there?!” I started shouting. My voice sounded small and far away in my own ears. “Nick!”

Silence.

Silence had never made me panic more in my life. I kicked harder and faster until the hole became just large enough to wriggle through it. Had to leave my rifle behind for a second but I escaped. The entire building had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Most of the furniture now lay crushed beneath slabs of concrete. How my little workbench had survived I’ll never know. Where the front entrance had once been stood the sentry bot. Or at least what was left of it. It’s three legs still remained on the ground, sturdy as ever. Its entire top half had been blown to pieces.

Stumbling over concrete and bits of burning metal I ran out onto the road. “Nick! Where are you?! Nick!”

Still no response.

As I came around the side of the sentry bot I saw him. He lay tangled in a rusted car, his limbs sticking out at odd angles, his head hung back to face the sky. My heart went cold. “Nick!”

Chapter Text

It felt like running through tar. My legs just wouldn’t move and my chest felt heavy. I lurched forward, climbing up the car to his side, panting. His eyes were black, staring lifelessly toward the sky. “Nick….” I shook him, as if he might wake up from that alone. Nothing. My hands trembled slightly as I lifted his head up.

The right sleeve of his coat had been burned all the way up to his elbow. What little skin he still had had been burned several inches shorter. Hard to imagine the kind of pain that caused. The rest of him looked unscathed, relatively speaking. Gently I peeled back his shirt and coat to reveal his chest. A long jagged piece of metal stuck out from the middle of his stomach. Couldn’t tell if it was a piece of him or something else.

“you damn idiot.” I murmured, hoping that by being angry with him I could ignore the fear building in my chest. Taking in a long breath I attempted to steady myself. At least the metal had pierced a seam in his synthetic skin. With my knife I popped the plate free to reveal his inner workings. God I hated doing this. The piece of metal was lodged between two pipes. No idea what they did or what they went to. God what I wouldn’t give for Ellison to be here.

With a tug I pried the metal out. Nick jerked once but remained still. What the hell else was I supposed to do? “god damn it don’t do this to me!” I was shouting now, desperate. “not after all the shit we’ve been through I’m not leaving your ass out here!”

As if it might help I slapped him hard across the face. Still no reaction. I didn’t know how a synth worked, I didn’t have the skills to fix him. I wracked my brain, trying to think back to all the times he’d been put temporarily out of commission. Those weren’t pleasant memories to bring back. it only made my heart quicken and my stomach tighten. Then a thought occurred to me. Nick had said radiation helped charge his batteries. At the time I’d shrugged it off as a quip considering we’d been bathing in it but it was my only hope.

With no small degree of effort I dislodged Nick from the car. He slumped heavily forward, draped over my shoulders limply. It looked like his limbs were fine, maybe a little dented from their impact. Hopefully he wouldn’t have many repairs to do when he woke up. Groaning with the strain I dragged him toward the sentry bot. I could feel the heat of radiation rolling off of it. Prewar technology always had some kind of reactor in it, this bot shouldn’t be any different.

I dropped Nick beside the legs of the bot and leaned him up in a sitting position. Hands raised, I backed up several paces, silently preying this would work. Minutes went by. I remained standing, staring at Nick’s face, waiting for the slightest indication it was working. The sun baked the back of my neck. I’d have a sunburn but I didn’t give a shit right about then. Fidgeting from foot to foot violently, I wrung my hands.

Wake up god damn it!

Then finally his eyes lit up, literally. Those yellow eyes powered on, he sat up and groaned in agony. “that hurt a lot more than I thought it would.” He admitted doubling over with his burned arm pressed into his stomach.

Relief flooded through me like a title wave. Strength fled my legs and I collapsed to the ground. “you damn idiot, what the hell were you thinking?! That could have killed you!”

“it wouldn’t have killed me.” He grumbled around gritted teeth. Stiffly he got to his feet, limping away from the burning carcass of the sentry bot. I ran forward and grabbed him under the elbow, steadying him as he walked. “I’ll be fine, just got a bit singed.”

“a bit?” I rolled my eyes. “don’t be such a soldier.”

“don’t call me a soldier.”

“stop acting like one.”

I helped him to the hood of a car where he sat with a heavy grunt. Wincing he took off his trench coat to better examine the damage done to his body. My initial evaluation had been right. Besides the burn running up his right arm there were only a few dents and holes on the rest of him. Nothing a little work couldn’t fix. He flexed his arm, wincing as what remained of his skin moved. “it could have been worse. Doesn’t feel like the heat damaged any of the major stuff. Still hurts like hell though.”

“it’s scorched.” I pointed out blandly. Where his hand had once been polished steel it was now covered in soot. Turned totally black. Tiny bits of melted synthetic skin still clunk to his scaffolding. I’d seen him get his arm ripped off. Why did this hurt so bad? “are you going to be alright?”

He shrugged, rolling what was left of his sleeve away from his elbow. The skin had bubbled a little, like blisters. “it’s still hot, I can feel it burning. Damn it….”

“your skin has built in sensors?” I questioned, more to myself than to him.

Nodding he stood up, somewhat steadier now than before. “don’t know about other gen twos but the institute built my body to be as human as possible. Must have made my skin with sensors or something. I’m no scientist.”

So he could feel things but only skin deep. That explained the arm thing. “what do we have to do?”

“I’m going to try cool it in the lake. Where’d Mel go?”

“Mel?” I followed him out of the junkyard, carrying his trench coat in a hand, down toward the lake.

“the sleaze bag with the Eyebot.”

“you recognized him?”

“now I do.” With the air of irritation he wondered down the side of the hill toward the lake. at the shore line he knelt and plunged his arm into the cool water up to the shoulder. a thin hiss of relief escaped him. “he came through Diamond city a few days ago, got picked up by security.”

“he got away.” I grumbled, sitting beside him at the water’s edge. With my knees drawn up to my chest I watched him. “sorry, I was too busy getting buried alive.”

“at least you didn’t get your arm burned off.” He muttered sarcastically but looked at me with concern. “you get injured at all?”

“no, thankfully.” Beside the pounding headache and ache in my shoulder. Nothing a Stimpak and a little booze couldn’t fix. “is that working?”

“mostly.” Straightening he pulled his arm free and examined the skin with a grimace. It still pained him, clearly, but not as much as before. Wasn’t sure how he was supposed to heal from this. It’s not like his skin fixed itself like human skin did. “we should head back, I’ve got some sealant that’ll finish the job.”

“what about Mel?” my brows shot up. He wasn’t honestly suggesting we go home and leave that asshole out in the open. Him and his damn Eyebot almost crushed me under a fucking door.

Nick must have heard the irritation in my voice because he chuckled and rolled his eyes. “unless you can track a single man through the wasteland we’re at another dead end. Almost.”

“almost?”

Smirking he took his coat from me and threw it back around his shoulders. “Diamond city security, they’ll have something. Up for a little breaking and entering?”

“hell yeah.”

Nick repaired some of his new dents as we made our way back to Diamond City. The sense of urgency had been entirely lost on us, both just pleased to be alive. As we went, I went over the events in my head. One thing bothered me about Mel, or whatever his name was, and it wasn’t until we reached the gates to the city that I said anything aloud. “he didn’t look like a killer….”

One of Nick’s brows shot up at me, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. “I guess you’d know what a killer looks like.”

It was supposed to be a light jab but it stung. Grimacing I averted my gaze to the wall as we walked up the stairs into the stadium. “I saw his face, he was scared. There’s no way he shot Fahrenheit, I almost doubt he knew what he was getting into at Hancock’s warehouse.”

“then he’d have to be one hell of an idiot.” We came back out into the warm sun and walked slowly down the stairs toward the market. Had to admit, felt good to be back in the city. I had never thought I would say that. “he dug the tunnel with that Eyebot. He had to know where he was going in order to do that.”

“maybe….” Still didn’t sit right with me. Mel just looked too scared.

We bypassed the market and headed back to the agency first. Mentally I braced myself for Ellie’s berating. Wasn’t disappointed.

“you’re both irresponsible!” she cried with her hands in the air while Nick applied what basically looked like glue, to his skin. I sat across from him, massaging my swore arm while the Stimpak took effect. “you both could have ended up dead! Where would that leave the case then? You’ve both got work to do!”

“so I’m an employee of the agency too now?” I questioned her, brows raised.

She scowled at me and rolled her eyes. We’d had that conversation before. When I first helped Nick with a case I’d demanded payment. Mind you this was years ago and I was an almost entirely different person. She’d curtly informed me that I wasn’t part of the agency so I didn’t get paid. Nick had paid me under the table after that though. It had remained a running joke since. “I thought you’d be smarter about things. You spend most of your time in the frontier!” she snapped at me.

“I didn’t exactly give her a choice.” Nick admitted with a crooked grin. “and you should see the other guy.”

Ellie narrowed her eyes at him before exasperatedly sitting at her desk. “you two are terrible influences on each other.”

In order to change the subject Nick gave her a sharp glance. “does anyone on Diamond City security still owe us?”

She blinked and shrugged. “I don’t think so. They’re all paid up.”

“nobody owes us a favor?”

“’fraid not.” She shook her head. “why? What do you need from security?”

“what do we need from security?” I questioned, leaning on his desk.

He glanced at me almost exasperated. “I told you, Diamond City security picked him up a few days ago. Word is someone broke him out. Anything they took from him is still there. It’s our best bet to catch a lead.”

Hadn’t thought of that. Guess that’s why Nick was the senior detective in the outfit. What did that make me? I’d never let him call me a rookie. “they’re not just going to hand us his stuff. They don’t like you and they like me even less.”

“I know that.” Satisfied with the job on his arm he put aside his sealant and sat back with his fingers to his temple. “I’d hoped to leverage a favor but we don’t have anyone to leverage. Looks like we might have to bribe a guard.”

“fuck that!” I shot to my feet, planting my hands firmly on my hips. “give me a bobby pin, a distraction and a minute we’ll have what we need.”

Slowly he brought his gaze up to me, expression drawn. “I was joking when I asked if you were up for breaking and entering.”

“don’t have much of a choice.” Ellie pointed out, for once taking my side on the matter. That was rare. “you don’t have the caps to spare on a bribe. And what’s the worst that could happen?”

“she gets caught and jailed, maybe kicked out of the city for good.” He grumbled, sounding a little more concerned about the prospect than he should be.

“oh please.” I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly, placing my hands on his desk and leaning forward. “they couldn’t keep me out the first time, they won’t stop me a second. Besides I won’t get caught, so long as there’s a good enough distraction.”

“you know.” Ellie crossed her legs casually, smiling at us conspiratorially. I sensed we were about to see the dangerous side of her. “Moe owes us for that job a few weeks ago. I’m sure he’d be willing to pull something. And Vadim would just jump at the opportunity to help you with a case.”

“I don’t like the idea of getting anyone involved with this.” standing Nick shrugged off his scorched trench coat. Thankfully he had another one, there was no repairing this one. “I’d prefer to do this alone.”

“if you start a distraction you’ll end up in jail longer than me.” I pointed out airily, crossing my arms.

His shirt went next revealing his broad shoulders and incredibly well formed body. I know he was built that way but that didn’t make the sight any less pleasing. He grimaced at me, half irritated half reluctant. “and I don’t want you getting yourself into trouble.”

A soft smile spread over my face. Sighing through my nose I walked around the desk, going to his side. He turned to face me as I reached up to touch his face gently. “I’ll be fine… just let me do this ok?”

His jaw tightened as his hands reached up to my arms. A wonderful crooked smile took over his features replacing the worry that had dominated before. “god I love you.” He tilted down to kiss me but I put distance between us. He almost looked hurt.

“save it for when I get back.” smirking I extracted myself then glanced at Ellie. “can you coordinate Moe and Vadim? Tell them I’ll owe them one if they don’t just do it.”

Ellie grinned, revealing her true colors once again. Had a funny feeling that if she didn’t work for Nick she’d have run her own gang. Maybe the Triggermen even. “don’t worry about a thing, get yourself in position you’ll know when things get started.”

“I should be worried about you two working together shouldn’t I?” Nick questioned with raised brows, tossing aside his ruined shirt.

We both just gave him cat like grins that only made his anxiety worse. “don’t worry, everything’s going to be just fine.” Ellie giggled.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that, all things considered, but it wouldn’t be too bad. What was the worst that could happen? Spend a little time in jail? I lived in Goodneighbor most of my life. A couple nights in Diamond City lockup wouldn’t compare. And getting kicked out the city wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Ellie and I left the agency and parted ways at the market. Not sure what she had in mind with Moe and Vadim, but knowing those two it’d be one hell of a distraction. Almost wished I’d get to see it. Unfortunately I had a job to do. I made my way to the locker room where security made their home. It’s like the sweat of two hundred years ago had been soaked into the walls. I’d been in a lot of sketchy places that smelled like the ass end of a Deathclaw but even I had to fight the scowl. Nose scrunched in spite of myself I stepped in.

There wasn’t much to look at. There was a large open room with a makeshift cage built into the wall. On the left was an office, on the right a hallway leading off to the bathroom and shower room, and a doorway to the barracks. Nowhere to hide. The moment I walked in two guards standing around looked at me. Couldn’t see their faces beneath their masks. Didn’t need to, to know what they were thinking.

And they certainly weren’t keeping their thoughts to themselves. “what the fuck are you doing here? You lost?”

It literally wouldn’t matter how many years I lived in Diamond city or how many of her damn people I helped, they’d all still hate me. Especially the dicks on security. I had half a mind to start insulting them in my usual dry humor.

Thankfully the distraction came barreling through the door behind me before I could open my mouth. Vadim crashed through the door, nearly taking me out with it. Second time that day someone had nearly killed me with a swinging piece of metal. Following him came Moe, both yelling at the top of their lungs. Some part of me had always wanted to see these two go at it but not this close.

“you short changed me you crook!” Vadim bellowed at top volume while he carried the fight into the middle of the room. “I demand that you reimburse me for what you stole!”

“I ain’t stole anything from you!” Moe snapped in equal tone. Their accents really contrasted with one another. Couldn’t decide which one annoyed me more. Moe’s was taking the lead so far. “get off my back! You’re a filthy liar!”

“I dare you to say that to my face!” whirling on him Vadim threw up his fists.

A tad dramatic but I didn’t expect anything less from these two. As the fist fight began the security officers in the room ran forward. They either protested or secretly started taking bets. I’d have gotten in on that action with ten on Vadim. Never bet against the burly bar tender.

With the room successfully distracted, at least for now, I went to work. on the right stood the evidence lock up. As I approached the door a guard came bounding out of it. my brows shot up. That couldn’t have been any more perfect. Before the door closed I slipped through it to the other side. Lockers and shelves lined this room. impossible to tell which one had what we were after. Had to find a ledger.

While punches started to fly along with insults in two different languages, I searched. Security were a bunch of illiterate idiots but they were still held accountable by the mayor. If they didn’t keep records they wouldn’t get paid. There had to be something here that could point me to the right locker. Eventually I found a book hidden beneath a counter. I grabbed it and flipped through to the last page then worked backwards. Some confiscated chems, a stash of firearms, might think about taking those. No Nick would kill me. A handful of caps, booze, ah there it is. Prisoner effects, Mel, locker ten.

Replacing the book with little care I ran to the locker and jiggled it open. Outside there was even more shouting. Security had finally decided to break up the fight. Those two had earned themselves a night in jail and a drink from me. Made a mental note to buy big at their shops next time. Inside the locker I found a small satchel which clanked as I extracted it. not too heavy, guess he didn’t have much with him when he got pinched.

Prize in hand I dashed out of the door. The security guards had their hands full wrestling the two men into the cage. They kept fighting with words even while their fists were bound. Vadim caught sight of me over the shoulder of a guard and his brows shot up. Grinning I gave him a thumbs up to which he grinned.

Yep, definitely was gonna owe him one.

Satchel slung over a shoulder I left the security office and quickly slipped back into the city. I found Ellie standing in front of the agency with Nick. The former was trying to suppress a giggle while Nick puffed on a cigarette. As I approached they looked at me. “well?” Nick questioned in a less than pleased tone.

Grinning broadly, I lifted the satchel. “got it!”

Nick tossed aside his cig and stamped on it. He’d found a new shirt, this one a little yellow. Made a mental note to go scavenging in a clothes shop soon. Needed a new pair of pants anyway. “lets get that inside before security comes snooping around here.”

“relax.” Laughing I followed him back into the agency.

“I’ll relax when this is over.” He held out a hand for the bag and I gave it over.

Ellie spoke from the doorway, waving casually at us. “you two have fun, I’ve got a date tonight.”

“is it with that drifter, what’s his name?” Nick gave her a sharp look, eyes narrowed.

A smile slid over her face, mischievous as ever. I was really starting to like this side of her. “wrong again Nick, you’ll never figure it out.”

“give me more time, I’m sure I will.” He smirked at her before she slipped out of sight.

I sat at the desk and leaned back to smile at him. “she may be toying with you.”

Snorting he shook his head. “it’s a woman, I’ve figured that much out. She’s doing a pretty damn good job of hiding her away though.” Unceremoniously he dumped the contents of the bag onto his desk.

A knife, some tools, a bag of caps and a few Mentats came tumbling out. I picked up the knife, eyes narrowed. “he’s got a better blade than I do.”

“keep it, doubt he misses it.” Nick sat and picked through the pile of goods. First the caps, which he counted out then set aside dissatisfied. Next he examined the Mentats. “you know, back in the day we’d be able to do a chemical analysis on these things, that’d point you right to the dealer who you could strong arm into telling you who he sold them to.”

“well where’s the fun in that?” I quipped lightly, replacing the knife and getting my own look at the Mentats. “you prewar detectives had it easy didn’t you?”

“oh yeah.” He replied sarcastically. “we had cameras on every corner and trackers in every criminal under the sun. we barely needed to leave our offices.”

“sounds so boring.” I whined mockingly. “however did you entertain yourselves?”

“dates”

“is that a hint?”

“maybe.” He dropped the Mentats onto his desk and shook his head. “this isn’t going to lead us anywhere. There are too many chemists in the commonwealth and we don’t have the time to question them all.”

“there’s got to be something.” I grabbed the bag and rummaged around inside it. Something hard brushed against my hand but on an initial glance there was nothing inside it. Pinching the bag between my fingers I discovered a seem. “bingo.”

“what have you got?” interest rekindled Nick leaned forward on his desk.

With Mel’s own knife I tore into the bag to reveal a second pocket. Out tumbled a cloth wrapped sweet roll and a small note. Nick snatched up the note immediately, reading it aloud for my benefit. “I’ve thought a lot about what you said, I’m ready to give it a shot. Neil. Who’s Neil?”

“how am I supposed to know?” grumbling I unwrapped the sweet roll. Sweet roll was a loose term. Sugar wasn’t exactly common in the commonwealth. Most people searched for alternatives, usually involving some kind of chem. It worked, sometimes. The sweet roll smelled good, a little old and crumbly after being in that bag for who knew how long though. Pretty good. Throwing caution to the wind I broke off a piece and popped it into my mouth. “damn.”

“please tell me you didn’t just eat that.” Nick rolled his eyes, staring at me over the top of the note.

“it was for the case.” Shrugging I put it back down and pointed at it. “it’s good though, better than good. I’m not sure anyone in the commonwealth would even bother trying this hard.”

“is it real sugar?” he asked quizzically.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted real sugar.”

Reaching forward he broke off his own piece and popped it into his mouth.

My eye brows shot up. “you can taste?”

“it’s not that far off from smell.” He shrugged before spitting his bite into a trashcan. “it’s not the same as I remember it. But it’s close. And you’re right that tastes way better than it should. It didn’t come from just anywhere.”

Arms folded I leaned back in my chair, staring at the sweet roll. Nick lifted the note up to the light, frowning at it as if it hid more from him. where would a sweet roll like this come from? It’d have to be a stable settlement, somewhere that the people weren’t struggling to survive or they wouldn’t bother with deserts. But they didn’t make them like this in Goodneighbor and not even the Colonial Tap house had ones like these. Something tugged at the back of my mind pointedly, like an itch that wouldn’t go away.

At exactly the same time I snapped my fingers and Nick brought his eyes back down to me. “vault 81!” we both said at the same time.

He stood and placed the paper down in front of me. “there’s a water mark, feint, but its still there. It’s Vault Tech. Only one vault I know that’s still friendly to outsiders, only because they don’t shoot on sight.”

“I heard a trader in Goodneighbor talk about vault 81 and an old woman named Summerset once. They said it was the only place to buy goods like this.” I pointed at the sweet roll, grin broadening. “I bet you fifty caps this Neil, knew Mel and is from vault 81.”

“seems as good as any place to start.” He grinned right back at me, as crooked as ever.

“then what are we waiting for?!” excitedly I got to my feet and went for the door.

Nick ran around the desk and caught me in his arms chuckling. “cool your motor there gray. It’s getting late, they won’t let us in even if we do have reason.”

With an irritated sigh I dropped my hand from the door knob. He had a point. But I was eager to see this case to the end. Whether Mel was the one behind the gun didn’t matter. He’d know who was and that’s the person that hurt Fahrenheit. Nick could pretend this had to do with justice, I couldn’t.

His arms went around my stomach, pressing me into his chest. I could feel his breath on my neck which sent a shiver up my spine. “We can pick this up tomorrow, vault 81 isn’t going anywhere.”

“but the case….” My protests were weak in the face of his affection. Shoulders slumped I turned my head to murmur into his neck. His arms tightened around me as my lips brushed his skin. Good to know I could tease him almost as easily as he could tease me.

“it can wait.” Gently he twisted me around in his arms and pressed me against the door. While one of his hands entangled mine his other locked the office.

The distinctive click sent a wave of excitement through me. Parts of me began to heat that only Nick could remind me were there. I gripped his hips, forcing him to press against me. My breath started to come in short bursts.

Nick grinned then crushed my lips beneath his. Passion poured between us without hesitation. His hands gripped my shoulders, holding me steady against the door. My Bloodbug injury stung just slightly but I barely noticed it. all I could focus on were his warm touch, his lips moving roughly against mine, the warmth emanating up from the bottom of my stomach. Once again I was forced to part us as my breath ran out. Gasping I leaned my head back expecting he would give me a moment to breathe.

He didn’t. mercilessly he kissed my neck, first gently, almost teasingly. Each touch of his lips made me shiver even more then he nipped at me. A surprised pleasured moan slipped out my lips which sent a wave of embarrassment through me. I had my hands on his chest now while he spoke playfully into my neck. “I’ve never heard that voice before.”

My flush grew worse, not entirely sure what from at this point. Everything felt warm. “shut up.”

He nipped at my neck again which drew another strangled moan out of me. His hands went from my shoulders to my belt. My hands were already working on his shirt. When had that happened? His body felt warm under my touch, almost as warm as my own. His lips went from my neck to my jaw then back to my lips.

After a few more moments I grabbed at his pants, clumsily unbuttoning them. He chuckled into the kiss and pulled back. “the bed?”

It probably would be better if we did. Through a thick breathy voice I replied. “lets go.”

Chapter Text

The night was a long one. And we hadn’t even done any work. Hard to say when I actually slept. Nick let up at some point and held me while I fell asleep. The next day I woke naked, wrapped in his arms and his face mere inches from mine. His wonderfully tender smile inflated my chest and filled me with warmth. I wormed my way up his chest and pecked him on the lips. “good morning.”

“good morning.” He echoed softly, his arm tightening around my shoulders. “sleep well?”

Silently I nodded, burying my face into his chest. “you?”

“I always sleep well with you.” He kissed the top of my head. Well sleep was a relative term. He didn’t exactly sleep so much as put himself in a low power mode. He’d taken to doing that after nights like that one.

Wrapped in his arms, lying in bed, it was so easy to forget about the world outside. If I was being honest that’s all I really wanted at that moment. With closed eyes I tried to imagine that we didn’t have responsibilities, that the agency, hell the whole damn commonwealth didn’t exist. “have you ever thought about retiring?” I murmured aloud.

Nick shifted under my hands, turning on his side to better hold me against him. “one day, maybe. I’ve been at this a long time, a lot longer than you’ve been alive. If I did retire I’d have to run it by Diamond City first.”

“heh, true.” They wouldn’t let him go lightly. Neither would I.

We stayed in bed for a few more minutes while the city woke up around us. Soon we could hear the sounds of the market drifting over the rooftops. Moe was out there pushing his swatters. At least security hadn’t been too hard on him. It was Nick who rose first, swinging his legs out of bed. While I curled tighter into the blanket he pulled on a pair of pants. As he rose it afforded me a wonderful view of his other assets.

A snort escaped me before I could bury it in the mattress.

He glanced at me over his shoulder and smirked. “you’re so immature.”

“you love it.”

Bracing himself with a hand on the wall he leaned down and kissed me warmly. When we parted he smiled crookedly. “I love you.”

I hid my face beneath the covers to hide the blush. Not that he hadn’t seen that several times last night. “we should probably get going. We wasted a lot of time yesterday.”

“I wouldn’t consider that a waste of time.” He grumbled rather hurt as he walked away to a dresser in the corner.

“not what I meant.” Grimacing I got up, holding the blanket over my chest self-consciously. Again, not that Nick hadn’t seen that a million times last night. In an attempt to take back control of my hair I ran my fingers through it. Still hadn’t had the chance to get it cut since coming back from my little vacation. It was starting to get annoying. “but we should get a move on.”

“vault 81 isn’t going anywhere.” Casually he tossed one of my dirty bras and tank tops at me, which I caught smoothly. With folded arms he watched me throw them on while he remained only half dressed. “but you’re right. are you sure you don’t want me to go alone?”

“will they even talk to you?” I slid on my pants from the floor. They were covered in dirt and blood. I’d need to wash them soon. “don’t know much about the vaults but I doubt they take too kindly to outsiders. Let alone a synth.”

“they trade regularly with outsiders.” As he spoke he put on one of his white shirts. It wasn’t quite as nice as the one that got its sleeve burned off. Pity really. Next to go on was his shoulder holster and god damn I loved seeing him wearing that. “and I’ve visited the vault once before. If they remember me they should let us in.”

“what’s it like in a vault?” I questioned, equipping my gear. “are they like the institute or…?”

“they’re nothing like the institute was.” Shaking his head he left the bedroom, fully dressed. “the ones I’ve been in are barely holding together anymore. All pipes and metal, nothing fancy about them. Wouldn’t want to live in one to be honest.”

“doesn’t sound much different to Diamond City.” I followed him into the next room, wrestling a shoulder pad over my injured shoulder.

“It’s underground, sounds worse to me.” He tossed on the only other trench coat he owned and glanced my direction. “breakfast?”

“I’ve got some jerky I can snack on, on the way.” I refused to waste any more time than we already had.

As it turned out we’d wasted more than I thought. When we emerged from the agency the sun was already high in the sky, bathing us in hot waves. In no time sweat was dripping down the back of my neck. In that moment I’d almost risk radiation poisoning just to get clean. Vault 81 was remarkably close all things considered. Most vaults that I’d heard of were out in the middle of nowhere or hidden under buildings. This one was just out on a hill just outside a bog. It took us less than an hour to get there, even with a detour to avoid some Bloodbugs and Bloatflies. Little bastards just wouldn’t leave us alone now.

When we got there we discovered that some traders had long since put up structures around the entrance of the cave. Just inside a chain link fence were a couple of rickety wood buildings, a fire pit and a security light. It didn’t bother us as we passed beneath it and proceeded into the remarkably cool cave. It opened up into a wider cavern where a massive vault door stood at the far end. A catwalk led down to the front of it with a control panel on the top level.

Nick strode forward while I slowed down a little. An apprehensive hand went for my gun without my permission. Wouldn’t make for a good first impression but this place put me on edge. He pressed a button on the panel and spoke to no one in particular. “Edwards! It’s Valentine! I’ve got some questions for one of your people!”

Silence followed his words. I cautiously approached the panel and examined it with raised brows. “I think they’re ignoring you.”

Nick rolled his eyes at me before punching the button again. “it’s for a case Edwards! Let’s not bring in the overseer on this.”

Static issued over the console’s tiny speakers until a gruff male voice spoke. “What’s this about Valentine?”

Crossing his arms Nick shifted his position, giving the console an exasperated look as if it actually was Edwards. “I’m here on a case, need to talk to Neil. You going to make trouble for me?”

“why should I care what kind of case you’re on?” Edwards snapped angrily.

“what a dick.” I muttered under my breath.

“tell me about it.” from a pocket Nick produced a fusion core, wasn’t sure where he’d been hiding that in the office. “I’ve got a core, go tell your overseer.”

“just leave it outside the vault!”

“not a chance Edwards.”

A rush of static followed Nick’s stubborn words. I didn’t know Edwards but I already disliked him. Hearing him submit defeat filled me with more satisfaction than it probably should have. “give me a minute, I’ll get her up here.”

“thank you.” Nick leaned against the banister with folded arms, patiently.

“I see you get around.” My hand left the grip of my gun seeing him so relaxed. Suppose if he wasn’t tense I had no reason to be.

He shrugged casually. “you live long enough everyone learns your name.”

“that’s an encouraging thought.”

We waited in that cave for a few minutes until a woman’s voice came over the speakers. “Mr. Valentine, what brings you to our vault this time?”

“Overseer McNamara.” Smiling, Nick thrust himself off the banister and leaned over the console. “I have a case on my hands that I could use your help on. What do you say you let me and my partner in?”

A beat of hesitation followed his request. Wasn’t surprised. I wouldn’t let just anyone into my vault if I were in charge. Let alone someone like me. “Edwards told me you had a fusion core, that true?”

“yes it is.” He held it up as if to show it off. “I’ll gladly hand it over if you let me question one of your people. Man by the name of Neil.”

“Neil? What does he have to do with anything up top?” genuine surprise, so she wasn’t involved with what happened. Not that I expected she would be.

In the background I could hear Edwards argue with her in quite angry undertones.

“enough Edwards!” she snapped. “get that door open. Come on in Mr. Valentine, I’ll have someone find Neil and bring him up. You can explain this case of yours face to face.”

“thank you overseer.” Nick’s words were almost drowned out by the alarms and grinding of gears as the vault door opened.

The cave shook violently underfoot, bits of dust streamed down from the ceiling. One of these days this cavern would collapse from the vibration I just knew it. then the vault would be buried for good. The giant gear shaped door slid out of the way behind the wall and a catwalk slid forward connecting the path. I let Nick lead the way as we descended the steps toward the vault. As we passed through the door I got the distinct impression of a time capsule. When those doors were closed the topside world might as well not exist. Was it any wonder you still heard about vaults opening their doors for the first time?

The room might as well have been a giant metal box, pipes and vents zigzagged the walls and ceiling. There were armed guards waiting for us. I’d never seen so many blue jumpsuits in my life. It reminded me of Flynn a fact that brought a distasteful grimace to my face. unlike her suit, these ones had the number 81 sewn into them. Never understand why vault tech had thought that was necessary.

A woman with a brown bun on the back of her head stepped forward. With her hands on her hips she gave me the distinct impression of a mom irritated with her children. Nick came to a stop before a gate, waiting patiently to be beckoned deeper into the vault. “thank you for this overseer, we shouldn’t take long.”

“the core?” she questioned with raised brows.

Sighing lightly he produced it from a pocket and handed it across the gate to her.

She took it, examined it then handed it off to an old man beside her. He looked it over carefully then nodded. “looks good, full charge too.”

“doubted Nick?” I questioned with the barest hint of irritation.

As the old man left the overseer, presumably the old woman in charge, gave me a once over. “never doubt Valentine, not so sure about you.”

“I vouch for her.” Nick put out a hand as if to present me. Tried to ignore that. I didn’t need him to vouch for me. What the hell did I care what a blue thought of me? “we won’t cause any trouble, we just need to talk to Neil.”

“he’s on the way up.” McNamara glanced around at the guards standing at her side. “you’re all dismissed. Edwards go back to your post I can handle it from here.”

A middle-aged man standing directly to her right scowled visibly. From beneath a stupid hat he shot Nick a disgusted look. So this was Edwards, somehow I hated him even more in person. It would feel good to put a bullet in him. doubted anyone would take too kindly to that. Judging by the look he cast me he sensed exactly what I was thinking about. “I don’t like the look of this one overseer. My men should stay.”

“Valentine’s vouched for her and I trust his judgment. Leave us.” She snapped at him, glaring him down like he was a child.

With great reluctance he went, taking the guards with him. when they were gone Nick crossed the threshold and gestured for me to do the same. I had a new found appreciation for overseer McNamara. With raised brows I grinned at her. “looks like vault dwellers aren’t all as soft as wastelanders would have you believe.”

She laughed dryly and shrugged. “we have our own kinds of problems here, might not look like much to outsiders but it’s what we know. Now what’s this case about Valentine?”

“our client was assaulted by a man we think has a connection to your vault.” Nick answered easily, a little too easily if you asked me. We didn’t even know this woman and he just let her in on our case? For all we knew she was involved too, as unlikely as that might be. “Neil is our best and only lead at this point.”

“don’t know what help he’ll be.” She glanced over her shoulder down a hall as the sound of elevator doors reached us. “but here he comes.”

Not sure what I was expecting. Maybe a gruff looking, burly hunk of a man. What came down the hall instead might as well have been Deathclaw fodder. He was a gangly man, with brown hair too flat to be interesting. He looked a little nervous as he approached us, glancing between the overseer and Nick as if one of them might be carrying his death sentence. “uh… what’s this about overseer?”

“don’t worry Neil, Valentine here just has a few questions for you.” McNamara gestured to him. “be honest please.”

“actually overseer.” Nick gave her a sidelong look. “I think it best we talk to Neil alone.”

That got her attention and not in a good way. First surprise than suspicion crossed her features. Turning fully to face Nick I got the distinct impression she might actually fight him. I’d pay to see that. “excuse me?”

“the questions we’ve got are of a ….”

“personal nature.” I finished for him in a hard tone.

He nodded at me. “We need Neil to speak freely and I’m not sure he will in front of anyone else.”

“just what are you implying?” she snapped.

“nothing overseer. We want justice here nothing else. Please.”

Nick rarely said please, he wasn’t that kind of man, so hearing him say it now was strange. For a minute I thought I’d heard him wrong. And apparently so did the overseer. She hesitated, glancing at Neil who looked as nervous as ever. Finally she let out a long breath. “are you alright with this Neil?”

He blinked wide eyed. This kid knew Mel? Somehow I doubted he’d ever left the vault. “uh… yeah I guess so….”

McNamara turned a hard stare on Nick, daring him to argue with her. “you’ve got five minutes. Then whatever you have left to say has to be said in front of me. Are we clear?”

“yes overseer.” Damn Nick, since when are you so agreeable? Was it an authority thing? Cause she had absolutely no power outside the vault walls.

Satisfied McNamara gave Neil an encouraging look before leaving us alone with the boy.

He looked even more nervous left alone with us now, if that were possible. I could actually see the sweat beading on his brow.

“relax boy, we just have a couple questions.” Nick reached into his trench coat, retaining eye contact with Neil as he did.

“I don’t know anything,” he shrugged dramatically, shifting from foot to foot. If that didn’t scream, I know something and I’m terrified to say so, I didn’t know what did.

“relax.” With a roll of his eyes Nick produced the note from his pocket and handed it over to Neil. “did you write this?”

Reluctantly he took it and examined the writing inside. The moment he read the first few words he glanced over his shoulder in a panic. “how did you get this?! are you going to tell overseer McNamara?”

“why would we do that?” my brows shot up. Not really sure why McNamara would be angry over the note. She seemed like a reasonable sort. If someone wanted out of her vault she wouldn’t stop them. “it’s your business not hers, which is why we’re having this conversation without her.”

The sweat was coming harder now. gently he folded the note up and slipped it into his pocket. “yeah… I wrote it…. what happened to Mel?”

I hadn’t been expecting to get this far this quickly. It was a relief really after all the shit we’d gone through to get here. Neil was being surprisingly cooperative. So much so I asked him the next question without waiting on Nick. “that’s the thing, we’re looking for him. He might have gotten himself into some trouble. Where would he go if he wanted to get out of the open?”

“he’s in trouble?!” Neil’s voice rose an octave out of concern. A lot more than I would have expected.

Nick threw up his hands, trying to calm Neil before things got out of hand. “he may be, which is why we’re trying to find him. do you have any information that’ll help us?”

Neil’s eyes darted away toward the open vault door. Interlaced with concern was nervousness. He definitely knew something and for some reason he didn’t want to tell us. What exactly did Mel mean to him? A decision passed behind his eyes, determination solidified in his expression. “what kind of trouble is he in?”

What were we supposed to tell him? We hadn’t lied up until now, but he was pushing it a little. Besides he wouldn’t know Hancock or why anyone would want to put a bullet in Mel. That anyone being me.

Thankfully Nick spared me from having to elaborate. “he worked a job with someone, and that someone is killing off the members of their team. We want to find Mel before that happens to him.”

Mostly true and a convincing enough lie that Neil instantly relented. His jaw set he glanced back at the vault door before sighing. Just say it boy. “Mel told me that he’s got a hideout on an island out in the east.”

“any specifics?” I asked with the barest hint of irritation. There were a lot of islands out there. We didn’t have time to search them all.

Neil folded his arms and contemplated the floor between us. “he uh… said something about ocean-oceanol…. Some society to do with the ocean?”

“Nahant Oceanological Society?” Nick questioned with raised brows. My head snapped around to him. how in the hell did he get that?

Neil snapped his fingers. “that’s the place.”

From the hallway came walking the overseer. She didn’t look exactly pleased and in fact kept a glare trained on me as she approached. Time to end this conversation. “well, looks like we’ve got the best lead we’re going to get. Thanks Neil.” Personally I had no desire to go and deal with the overseer. She looked like the kind of woman that could fillet you with her eyes. quickly I slipped away from the conversation back toward the vault doors.

Behind me I could hear Nick exchange a few quick words with her. She wanted to know what Neil had to said to us but none of us were about to tell her. I stepped out of the vault into the hot summer air and took in a grateful breath. There was no way I’d ever live in a vault. Then again, I’d said the same thing about Diamond city less than a year ago and now look at me.

Nick soon followed, shaking his head in mild irritation. “McNamara is a good woman but damn, stubborn woman….”

“gave you an earful?” my brows shot up. Maybe I should have stayed to watch that.

“not me, poor Neil is getting it.” shoving his hands into his pockets he glanced toward the sky frowning. “she wants to know what he has to do with top sider problems. He’s not being very cooperative. Won’t be surprised if he ends up under house arrest after that.”

I snickered. The mere idea of being put under house arrest was fairly ridiculous. If anyone tried to put you under house arrest they were better off just locking you up in jail. Things sure were different in a vault. “so you know what he was talking about?”

“yeah.” Nick brought his gaze back down to me. That expression wasn’t exactly full of pleasure or excitement. Made me dread what he was about to say next. “you ever heard of the raider camp Libertalia?”

“yeah, they got raided recently didn’t they? Lost most of their men and their leader.”

“yeah that’s the one.” He gestured vaguely toward the east. “there’s an old oceanological society out on that island. Back before the war it was run by some environmentalists and a handful of Mr. Handies.”

“environmentalists?” hated it when he used prewar terms I didn’t know.

Waving it aside he started down the road away from the vault. “don’t worry about it. the point is I know where we’re going. It’s gonna be a long walk. We might want to stop back at Diamond City to get some supplies.”

“I can kill me dinner on the way.” I replied casually, a hand drifting toward my pistol. I still hadn’t shot anything worth shooting yet. Ghouls, bugs and robots could only do so much. Not that a Radstag would satisfy the ache in my wrist. When I finally found Mel….

“If Mel’s prepared for us, we’re going to need a lot more than some jerky to get through to him.” couldn’t see it but I had the feeling Nick rolled his eyes at me. “we should stock up on ammo and take any grenades we have. You still good with that rifle?”

Fondly I patted the leather strap that ran over my shoulder. “don’t doubt it.”

Chapter Text

Ok if I was being honest I wasn’t the best with my sniper rifle. There were plenty of other people in the commonwealth that had better aim with one of these things. I was alright with it, but I didn’t have the predictive skills necessary to be good. My trusty pistol had always been my weapon of choice. The sniper was, honestly, usually just convenient. If it came down to a real fight, I’d much prefer to use my pistol.

If it came down to a real fight.

I still wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Mel. He still didn’t look like a killer to me, or at least not a competent one. He could have easily killed Nick and I both with that Eyebot of his. Instead he’d chosen to run. Why? And to top it off he’d told Neil about his hide out. The hell kind of criminal did that? Not a smart one at any rate. He was probably in over his head.

Wouldn’t be the first idiot that we’d had to pull out of the fire.

Nick still wasn’t convinced. While we packed up extra supplies at the agency I brought it up to him. “this again?” he groaned, shoving another grenade into a canvas bag. “he tried to kill us gray, what more proof do you need?”

“he didn’t though!” I tried to keep my voice even. Ellie was in ear shot and I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing Nick and I were arguing. “he ran, he didn’t stick around to make sure the sentry bot finished the job.”

“maybe he was sure it would finish us off.” Straightening he swung the bag over his back, brows shooting up. “honestly it looked like it had for a minute there.”

No need to remind me. The image of his dead face would remain at the forefront of my mind for weeks. Remembering that did put a little rage back into me. Mel had a lot to answer for even if he wasn’t the one behind the trigger. “but you saw him, don’t tell me you thought he looked capable of killing someone in cold blood.”

“we live in the waste.” With a hand he gestured around the office as if I might see the entirety of the commonwealth through the walls. “even back before the war people were capable of anything. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s not to assume the best of people.”

“and you call me pessimistic.”

“you see a lot of people at their worst in my line of work.” He grumbled bitterly. “hard not to let it get to you.”

Grimacing I reached out and touched his hand forcing him to look at me. “Nick… don’t turn into a wastelander, please.”

His mouth fell open, blinking rapidly. Then his expression softened and he put a hand to my cheek. “I’m still me gray, just with a little rust on top.”

I tried to make my expression hard but looking at him made that difficult. Pretty sure it just came off as mildly depressed. “a little rust is fine, just don’t go letting it reach that heart of gold.”

He smirked. “gold doesn’t rust.”

How much I wanted to believe that.

Sighing heavily he dropped his hand from my face and turned toward Ellie. “we’ve got a long way to go. Don’t expect us back tonight.”

Lazily she leaned over her desk, holding her chin in her hand. “sure, go off and do your thing. I’ll just be here, wondering if my boss is ever going to come back.”

“don’t worry.” I laughed lightly. “I’ll make sure he gets back in one piece.”

“you’re no better.” She laughed at me but fixed me with a firm look. “don’t go getting yourselves killed, the commonwealth can’t afford to lose either of you.”

I blinked. That was not what I expected from Ellie of all people. My jaw hit the floor and just kept going while I stared at her dumbfoundedly. Nick beside me gave Ellie a raised brow but took hold of my arm and steered me toward the door all the same. “don’t worry, I’m a permanent fixture in the wasteland now, couldn’t get rid of this old synth even if you tried.”

“I don’t care to test that theory.” She called after us as we left the agency.

It took us over eight hours to reach the island where Mel’s hide out supposedly stood. It was so far out of the way it was hard to imagine anyone setting up shop here. Well besides raiders. Thankfully with Libertalia burned out there weren’t many raiders around the island to make our lives difficult. There were plenty of other things for that. As we walked down the causeway that connected the island to the mainland a lone Supermutant came running up on our position. He looked terrified, if a Supermutant could look scared.

Nick and I separated to either side of the road, both with weapons out. Just our damn luck. If there was one of these things there were sure to be more not far. Freaks always ran in packs. I fully expected to have a fight on our hands but the thing just completely passed us by. As he retreated I gave his backside a quick once over. Someone had riddled his thick green hide with bullets. Well that would explain the running.

Slowly Nick met me in the middle of the road as we continued to stare at the mutant with raised brows. “why does that seem like a bad sign?”

“probably cause it is.” I suggested with a roll of my eyes. maybe Mel was a little more dangerous than I initially thought.

Nick pulled the hammer back on his revolver, suddenly looking grim. “eyes up, don’t want to think about what we’re walking into.”

“good thing you brought all the firepower.” Joking lightly I wracked my gun too. Yeah that bad feeling was starting to creep up on me.

We made our way further down the road, past what once had been a military cargo ship. Nick led the way to the left through some houses that were playing host to ghouls and feral dogs. None of them came out to greet us which I considered a relief. Didn’t bode well for what we were about to walk into of course.

Then we found them. Three Supermutant corpses lay across the road. The blood still oozed and their bodies were plenty warm. Bullet holes littered their hides but more than that there were scorch marks and… “are those… buzz saw cuts?” I questioned in a small voice.

Nick knelt in front of them, leaning forward to get a better look. To my disgust he stuck his fingers into one of the cuts. “looks like.”

“bullets, scorch marks, buzz saw….” Yeah didn’t like where this was going. I drew my sniper rifle from my back and scoped out the area ahead. The road sunk into the sea for a few feet before remerging on the other side. It effectively cut off the end of the island from the rest of it. From where we stood I could make out two buildings.

One was a squat, square concrete building to the right. It jutted out into the sea a short distance. To its left stood what looked like a normal house, all be it a little larger than one, its second floor partially collapsed. It looked like it had a small dock behind it that leaned over the shores precariously. This all stood at the top of a slope at the bottom of which we stood.

It all looked fairly harmless. A nice little spot to take a vacation away from raiders and Supermutants. Well usually. Hell I’d have thought about setting up shop here myself. Only one problem with that though. Three Mr. Handies patrolled the buildings and the area around them. Now ordinarily a Mr. Handy wouldn’t be too terrifying, they weren’t exactly hard to kill. But judging by how they’d decimated the Supermutants we weren’t dealing with your run of the mill Handies. Then there were the three turrets scanning from the top of the squat building.

“still think Mel’s harmless?” Nick questioned mildly.

With an irritated sigh I dropped the scope from my eye and glanced at him. “suggestions?”

“this is why we brought the firepower.” From the bag he offered me a couple of grenades which I gladly took.

“I’m not sure a few grenades are gonna save our skins.” As one of the Handies floated toward the road I grabbed Nick by the arm and hauled him back toward the houses. Safely hidden behind a white picket fence I looked back at him. “this isn’t going to be easy. Think he’s just inside there?”

“if he is, he’s backed himself into a corner.” Crouched to the ground Nick leaned out to get a look at the situation. “there’s only one way to get off this island. Sort of wish we’d brought back up now.”

He had a fair point. If we had someone else to cover the bridge we could focus all our efforts on dealing with these Handies and driving Mel out into the open. We still might be able to pull something similar off with just two of us. “as much as I hate suggesting it….”

“I go in and you stay back.” Nick finished my thought without hesitation. He dropped back behind cover and fixed me with a hard look. “and don’t argue with me, we both know this isn’t about old world chivalry. You’re the one with the range.”

Fair point, the same point I was going to make. The thought of letting Nick run in there on his own left me feeling hollow. Mel had already given us hell before. And that was with only two bots. No telling what kind of havoc he could wreck with six of the damn things. But it was our best option. Reluctantly I drew my sniper tighter against my chest. “fine, just give me a sec to find a good vantage.”

“signal me when you’re ready.”

I peeled away from Nick, all be it reluctantly. Every fiber of my being was telling me to stay at his side. Whether that was out of concern for the situation or something else was up for debate. I guess there were real problems with being romantically involved with your adventure partner. Back before the whole business with the railroad, the institute and the synths I’d have laughed at anyone that ran with their lover. That was just begging for trouble. Then again, I hadn’t exactly taken that advice in the past.

Seemed like I had a bad habit of taking the people I loved into dangerous situations. Or following them into dangerous situations as the case may be.

There was a house just off the road with an awning attached to it. I climbed a ladder up to it and inched my way around to the other side of the house. From here I was far enough away that the turrets couldn’t hit me and I still had a good view of the oceanological society. With sniper in hand I knelt and give Nick a thumbs up.

Now timing was everything here. It wouldn’t matter how much backup Nick had, if I didn’t get this right he’d be burned to a crisp before he got to the doors. My job was to take care of the turrets but if I started shooting too soon then the Handies would swarm toward Nick’s position before he was ready. If I waited too long the turrets would fill him full of holes he’d never be able to repair.

No pressure or anything.

With one eye I watched Nick make his way, doubled over, up the road. The three Handies floated on the other side of a car lying dead in the middle of the blacktop. They didn’t notice him as he took cover behind another car, inside their perimeter. Once comfortably hidden he glanced over his shoulder at me. Through the scope I could see the look he gave me clear as day. Why wasn’t I shooting yet?

Grimly I swung my sniper up toward the turrets. One of them jittered to a stop as it caught sight of something that wasn’t supposed to be there. Before it could discover Nick I put two slugs into its side, where it housed its ammo reserves. In a beautiful destructive chain reaction the bullets inside tore themselves apart in succession, virtually tearing apart the bot. The other turret swung around in my general direction which was the worst possible option.

At that very moment Nick decided it was a good time to rush out from behind cover, shooting at the Handies as he ran. Two of his rounds glanced uselessly off the body of one of the bots. It turned and charged him, saw hand raised. Meanwhile the turret was spinning up. I couldn’t shoot two things! Panic surged up my throat for a split second before a crack of gun fire reminded me Nick wasn’t helpless. Teeth gritted I turned my aim back to the second turret and buried three rounds into it. First into its swivel motor then two more into the base of the gun. It sputtered uselessly. I’d hit its firing mechanisms.

The third turret firing brought my scope back down to Nick. He retreated across the black top into the house like building on the left. Shit no! damn it Nick! I can’t cover you in there! Furiously I stood and swung my sniper onto my back. Chances were there was only one way out of that house. Nick was backing himself into a corner and the door wasn’t going to hold long against these armored Handies.

Pistol out I careened across the scrub brush. I leapt over the water using an abandoned long boat as a platform then bounded up the slope. By the time I reached the cars in the middle of the lot the Handies had already broken into the house. The turret swung around to face me and immediately fired. I dropped and slid the remaining few feet to cover behind the car. Bullets rained down in my path. The rough road effectively skinned my thigh but the pain didn’t register under all my adrenaline.

Heart pounding in my chest I hid behind the car. Bullets plummeted into my cover and heat began to rise out of the front end. Smoke billowed up from beneath the hood warningly. I gaped at it before running out of the blast radius. The reactor inside ignited and tore itself apart. The blast wave caught me and carried me several feet further. I hit the dust and rolled several times head over heels. I came to rest on my stomach, gun held in two hands and fired five rounds into the turret. At this range my pistol didn’t have good aim, two of my bullets missed entirely but the other three found their marks. The turret went up in a puff of smoke and fire.

Gasping I forced myself to my feet. Elbows skinned, knees bruised I staggered toward the door. It hung loosely on its hinges having been obliterated by three saws in mere seconds. inside I could hear Nick firing but he had to be running out of bullets. Following the noise I ran inside and up some stairs. A Mr. Handy lay just inside the door. It had been slammed against the wall, probably by an explosion. Its dented shell had clearly smashed whatever chips used to control it.

On the second floor I discovered a another Handy flailing around uselessly. Someone had successfully shot out its three bulging eyes and it now swung its arms dangerously and stupidly. I ducked one of its arms then grabbed another. Using the butt of my gun I dislocated it at the joint. The arm came, the Handy reared and I fired into its now open arm socket. My bullets did enough damage to shut it down.

Just as it collapsed a scream tore through the building. My heart leapt into my throat, I swung around. There in the corner lay Nick flat on his back. The last Handy bore down on him with the buzz saw. It tore into his shoulder, ripping cloth and skin alike. Nick clearly felt it, his eyes wide as another cry tore out of his throat.

“get the fuck off him!” I yelled as I ran at the bot. wielding the arm like a bat I swung it into the side of the Handy. It went tumbling away, exposing its jet pack underside. With deadly aim I sunk a single bullet into its underbelly. It immediately exploded from the inside, arms popping out like legs on a bug squashed under foot. Pieces flew in every direction but thankfully there wasn’t much debris.

Tossing aside the arm I knelt down beside Nick, panic rising in my throat. “what happened to staying outside!? You’re an idiot!”

Wincing he sat up, clasping at his shoulder. “they were tougher than I expected.”

“no fucking kidding.” Without permission I pulled down the collar of his clothes to get a better look at the cut. It had completely torn through his skin, leaving behind a ragged ugly rip. “how bad does it hurt?”

“not so much since, you know, the saw isn’t doing more.” With one of his hole fingers he prodded it gingerly, wincing.

“should we sew it shut or….?”

“tape will do fine, but we don’t have time to go looking for any.” Dismissively he waved aside my hands and rose.

I scowled at him. “seriously?”

“I don’t bleed, don’t worry about it.” stooping he retrieved his gun and fedora from the floor. Grimly he proceeded to refill the cylinder. At least we had a moment to do that I guess. Still wish he’d get a gun with more bullets. “He’s not in here, which means he’s in the other building. If he hasn’t snuck out already. You were supposed to keep watch for him.”

“excuse me if I was panicking over the man I love getting himself killed.” I retorted irritably but felt a heat rush up my cheeks as that word left my lips. In an effort to hide it I turned away back toward the stairs.

“man you love?” Nick’s amused voice followed me as I went.

“focus.” He really had to latch on to that didn’t he? He just loved it when I showed affection. Even if my version of affection was a little rough around the edges. Walking out into the open air I reloaded my pistol’s mag. Over our heads the turret I’d left dismembered but alive continued to patter at us uselessly. A little pitiful really, those things were usually a bigger pain in the ass than that. The Handies had been a bigger threat.

Nick pulled out ahead of me and led the way to the other building. A metal door stood in our way but a quick test of the handle proved it wasn’t locked. Standing just to the side, handle gripped in one hand, gun in the other he looked at me. “ready? That Eyebot’s gonna be in there so keep your guard up.”

“no need to tell me twice.” Pointedly I wracked the slide on my gun and pointed it at the door. “let’s go.”

He threw open the door and allowed me inside first. I ran in, gun whirling around for its target. The first thing I saw was the buzz saw coming toward my face. I ducked and rolled out of the way. There was a fourth Handy, well shit. He reared up high, raising all three of its arms like a triplet of vipers. It whirled round to face me with two of its eyes, the other noticed Nick as he entered. while the buzz saw came back down at me, the torch on its other hand lit and pointed at Nick. Swearing under his breath Nick dodged out of the way, leaving the doorway behind.

I retreated further inside as well. We stood on a grated catwalk below which sloshed at least three feet of water. Thankfully the Handy had to choose its target. For a brief moment it was torn between us, jittering back and forth like an idiot. Nick and I swung up our weapons and pelted its metal casing with enough bullets to make it swiss cheese. Whatever swiss cheese was. Heard that expression somewhere before but at that moment I couldn’t remember where.

The metal held out for the first few rounds but it soon buckled. One of our bullets, couldn’t be sure whose, found a chink in the armor. It tore through its insides, bringing it to a dead stop. It hovered silently for a few seconds before sinking to the grating. Wiping a hand over my brow I turned just in time to see the Eyebot powering up its blue front end. It wasn’t pointed at me though. it hit Nick with the full force of its attack. The sonic wave carried him a few feet into the nearest wall.

Any ordinary person would have been out cold but Nick got up, his hat gone, yellow eyes burning. “find Mel! I’ll handle this!”

No time to argue.

Not that I liked it.

Teeth gritted I swung around to scan the room. It was a large, two story tall room, with a catwalk along the top floor and what must have been a containment tank on the first. Bits of electronics poked out from beneath the water which seemed to have come from a pipe against the far wall. That’s when I spotted him.

The dirty faced drifter coward in the far corner, gun held tightly in shaking hands. Like before I didn’t get the impression he even knew how to use that thing. Didn’t exactly matter when his damn creations were doing the killing for him. furiously I ran along the cat walk until I stood in front of him. our guns pointed at each other I barked. “shut the bot down! now!”

“no way!” he shouted back, staring at me with wide eyes. “you’ll just kill me!”

“I’m going to kill you if you don’t shut it down!” hard to make your voice heard over the blasting of an Eyebot hell bent on killing your… boyfriend? We still hadn’t decided on titles yet.

Mel rose to his feet, the gun shaking so violently in his hands I doubted he’d hit me even if he pulled the trigger. Even at this range. “just leave me alone! I didn’t know what she was planning! Just go!”

“Not gonna happen!” Ducking his gun I got within his defense and swung the butt of my gun into his jaw. His head snapped back violently and he stumbled. The gun left his hand as he went so I put mine away. As he hit the grate I landed on top of him, grabbing him by that filthy blue coat. “shut it down!”

“no!” he swung a poorly balled fist toward my face. it connected with enough force to make me jerk to the side but that was it.

Angrily I grasped his wrist in my hand. liked to imagine I was leaving a bruise. Then he did something I wasn’t expecting. Grasping me by the shirt he grabbed me with his knees and forced us both to roll. Over the damn edge of the catwalk. We tumbled through air and landed in the water. It wasn’t nearly deep enough to break our landing entirely and I smashed hard into the stones bellow. The breath left me in a rush, bubbles rising out of my mouth to the surface.

My eyes went wide as terrible memories flooded my mind. I could feel the hand on the back of my head, the ropes biting into my wrists, the ache in my chest. Being drowned over and over and over again. Panic swelled up my throat. my heart thudded so loudly in my ears I couldn’t hear anything. Desperately I reached for anything, hands clawing at air, to haul myself up. I grabbed hold of a body wearing a canvas jacket and forced myself to my knees.

Mel grabbed me by the hair, likely under the impression I was trying to stop him when all I wanted was to be above the surface. He shoved me off of him and ran through the water toward a ramp. Back under I could see Stern’s face, his smiling face as my lungs began to ache, burn for air. Not again, please god not again. Never again.

Eventually I found the strength to stand and I shot up out of the water with a gasp. Wet, shaking, terrified I staggered toward the ramp. The feel of the water nearly up to my hips kept my heart beating faster inside my chest. I had to get out, I had to get out, I had to get out. I nearly collapsed onto the ramp, face flat against the grate, eyes screwed shut. Water continued to slosh at my feet but it didn’t induce the panic like before.

“I told you to leave me alone!” a voice brought my gaze up to find Mel standing over me. He held his gun pointed at my head. Or rather my gun. That little fucker had taken my gun! If there was one thing I couldn’t forgive. I’d have been angrier if not for the panic still broiling in my chest.

Then Nick appeared on the ramp to his right, his own gun pointed directly at Mel’s head. “I’d appreciate it if you put the gun away friend.”

Mel’s eyes shot wide, staring up at the barrel pressed to his head. “but Sonya….”

“bit broken.” Nick’s voice was low with rage and his eyes were narrowed. “now put the gun down.”

Fingers laced into the grating I forced myself further up the ramp as far as I dared with Mel still pointing my gun at me. My body was still shaking and my mind wasn’t entirely in the present. Normally I could set things aside to deal with later but this was different. I couldn’t control this. The panic remained very real and very strong in my chest.

“if I put it away you’ll just kill me.” Mel spoke.

“if you pull that trigger I will kill you.” That rage continued to build in Nick’s voice.

“no way! Let me go first!”

“I’m going to count to three.”

“I said leave me alone!”

“one….”

“go!”

“two….”

“Mel!” a new voice entered the conversation forcing me to look further up the ramp past Nick. There standing in his full vault suit and Pipboy stood Neil. How he’d gotten here and what he was even doing outside the vault was beyond me. He stared at Nick then at Mel fearfully.

Mel gaped, just as shocked as me. “Neil?”

He held out his hands pleadingly. “please Mel just put the gun down! You don’t need to do this!”

“what- what are you doing here?!” Mel blurted, dropping the barrel of my gun. That was progress. “you shouldn’t be here! You should be at the vault! Did these people bring you?!”

“no.” with confidence I wouldn’t expect of a vault dweller in the commonwealth for the first time, Neil strode forward. He put a hand on the gun Mel held, eyes hard. “I came here cause I thought you were in trouble. The hell are you thinking? What’s going on?”

Shamefully Mel averted his eyes, which brought them down to me. I swallowed hard, trying to hide the panic still plaguing my chest. It didn’t do much good judging by the sorrowful expression he gave me. “I’m sorry…. I didn’t know what she was planning honest. I was just trying to get out of the commonwealth as fast as I could.”

Nick brushed passed him and knelt at my side. As his hands came around my shoulders I reflexively flinched out of his reach. Immediately he retracted his hands, grimacing. “What happened?”

I shook my head. If I dared open my mouth the contents of my stomach would come pouring out. Instead I gripped the banister with a sweaty palm and forced myself to stand.

He rose with me, hands held out as if I might collapse at any minute. That could very well happen honestly. “can you make it up the ramp?”

In answer I practically climbed my way up to the second floor, completely ignoring the others. The further away I got from that damn pool the better. As I stepped into the warm sun a breath of wind washed over my damp clothes. The cold helped clear my mind if only a little, driving away the nightmarish visions still playing on my mind’s eye.

Behind me Nick followed, reaching out with one hand to brush my arm. “gray?”

My heart leapt into my throat. a strangled cry escaped my chest as I swung around and buried my face into his clothes. His arms went around me tightly, pressed into his wonderfully familiar chest. Sobs wracked my frame while tears tore out of my eyes. I balled my fists in his trench coat, drawing him closer. “don’t let me go… please don’t let me go….”

“I’m here.” He murmured gently into my ear, stroking my hair with a hand. “I’m here, it’s going to be ok. Just let it out.”

Wasn’t sure it was going to be ok but it felt fucking great to cry in his arms. His hands held me fast, drawing me out of memories that threatened to overtake me. I did my best to focus on him, ignoring everything else. Eventually my chest untensed and my heart slowed to a steady heavy beat.

It was at this point I noticed Neil and Mel standing awkwardly off to the side. They were too obviously trying to look at anything but Nick and I. to my displeasure Mel was still holding my gun at his side. Taking in long steady breaths I extracted myself from Nick while he silently protested. Fists clenched I stalked toward Mel who swung his eyes around to me a split second too late. My coiled fist connected with his jaw. Something popped, both in my hand and in his face. He hit the ground in a pile of dust while I cradled my fist. “that’s how you throw a punch you piece of shit!”

Clutching at his bruised jaw he looked miserably up at me. “look I’m sorry alright? Damn it.”

Nick came to stand at me side, arms folded. I caught the look he gave me out of the corner of my eye but thankfully he didn’t press the matter. It wasn’t something to be discussed in front of these two and we both knew it. “give my friend her pistol back, now.”

As if it burned him Mel quickly offered it to me. When I took it a little more relief flooded through my system. If there was one thing that could make me feel more at ease it was having this beauty in hand. kind of like a teddy bear. Then I pointed it at him. “now then, we’ve got a few questions and if we don’t like the answers you’re getting a bullet to the knee. We clear?”

“crystal!” Mel’s voice rose several octaves.

Then Neil stood between us. “hold up! You said you were trying to help him, not kill him! You lied to me!”

“we said there were people that wanted to hurt him and we wanted to find him first.” Nick pointed out blandly. “we never said we wouldn’t be the ones kicking his ass.”

Neil’s face became so angry I was honestly surprised he hadn’t shown more spine back at the vault. Maybe the wasteland had already done a number on him. “look I didn’t tell you where to find him so you could beat answers out of him. If you lay a single hand on him I’m going to-”

“gonna what?” poison dripped from my lips as I rounded angry eyes on Neil. The combined effect made him go silent. “gonna shoot us? Kill us? Hate to break it to ya kid but you’re not exactly built for that.”

Neil’s fists tightened and for a minute I thought he might actually punch me. I’d honestly love to see him try. A little brawl might be just the thing I needed to pull me back from the brink. But unfortunately Mel stood and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright Neil.”

“no it isn’t.” furiously Neil waved aside his hand and swung his gaze back on me. “if you promise not to lay a hand on him I’ll give you my Pipboy! It’s worth something out here ain’t it?”

A low whistle escaped my lips as my eyes darted down at the personal computer strapped to his wrist. Kid wasn’t lying. A Pipboy was worth more than some mercenaries saw in a life time. Just imagining all that cash made my mouth water. Old habits die hard apparently. Grinning I put my gun away. “you’ve got yourself a deal kid.”

“lets all get out of the open and have a seat somewhere.” Nick put a guiding hand on my shoulder and steered me toward the house. Didn’t argue with him. the four of us, in an uneasy truce, walked across the black top back inside. The turret from before still followed us with its barrel while no bullets came out. We entered the house and Nick proceeded to drag what unbroken chairs he could find out into the entrance room. “sit.” He pointed at a chair, giving Mel a significant look.

While he sat I kept my eyes firmly on him. As much as I’d love to kill Mel just for tipping me over into the water I didn’t have any intention of doing so. He didn’t look like a killer, even less so now that he sat in front of us. Neil sat beside him, watching me with equal vigilance. Couldn’t blame him. but with that Pipboy, and the caps it represented, on the line I wasn’t about to fuck that up. Besides I had a feeling I knew what was about to be said.

“alright start from the beginning.” Nick growled, lighting a cigarette.

Mel glanced between him, me, Neil then back to Nick. “Hancock sent you right?”

“bingo.” The old detective nodded once.

Taking in a long breath Mel steeled himself for what he was about to say. “look, I had no idea what she was planning. She said we were digging into Diamond city’s mayor’s strong room. she said there’d be a big haul waiting for us on the other side. She needed me, or rather Sonya, to dig out the tunnels.”

“so you had no idea you were headed for Hancock’s warehouse?” I asked in a low tone.

He flung out his arms. “no! of course not! If I did I’d have turned around in a heart beat! Hancock’s the last man I want to cross! When we got there his right hand gave us a warning, told us to turn around. But she and her hired gun refused! They opened fire! When it was over they were all dead!”

“not all of them.” Nick leaned forward on his knees, face drawn. “Fahrenheit, Hancock’s right hand, survived. You’re lucky, otherwise we’d be having an entirely different kind of conversation.”

Mel breathed a long sigh of relief, running a hand through his thick hair. “thank god…. I thought for sure she was done for, and by extension me. If she’d been killed….”

“then Hancock would have hunted you to the ends of the earth.” I finished with a dismissive wave of my hand. “back on track.”

Swallowing hard he swung his gaze back up to me. At least he’d shown regret in all of this, genuine regret. He’d actually been worried that he’d killed someone, even if that partly came out of self-preservation. So far I believed every word, and as he continued I had no reason to doubt him. “when the dust settled we started loading the chems up into bags. She took em to sell, wouldn’t tell me who the buyer was.”

“and who was she exactly?” Nick pressed.

“Bobbi No-Nose.”

A growl escaped my chest before I could stop it and my fists clenched. “that back stabbing, no good, rad sucking, half-baked, mutated whore?!”

Nick’s brows shot up at me in astonishment. “I’ve never heard you insult someone quite like that before.”

“I see you’ve met her.” Mel chuckled a little nervously.

“everybody in Goodneighbor knows how much Bobbi hates Hancock.” I growled around gritted teeth. How the hell hadn’t I seen it before?! Of course it was Bobbi! Who else had the shriveled stones to pull something like this?! Worse yet she did right under his nose! “when I get my hands on that bitch….”

Nick returned his gaze back to Mel. “is there anything else you can tell us?”

Mel leaned further over, swallowing dryly. “not really, but something was up with her. She hired some merc to help with the dig, thing was he wasn’t your cheap run of the mill kind. Then she paid me after the job was done, the whole bill. Without selling off the chems. No idea where she could have gotten that kind of money from.”

“you’re saying someone was financing her?”

“yeah but no idea who would do it.” He shrugged dramatically. “she has one hell of a reputation ya know.”

“that’s an understatement.” My wrist was beginning to ache again. God it would feel so fucking good to put a bullet in her skull. So what if she had some mysterious benefactor? All I cared about was getting revenge on that bitch for Fahrenheit.

And Nick knew it. he put a hand on my knee forcing my eyes up. “head in the game gray, don’t go losing it on me just yet. Still gotta find No-Nose.”

“fine.” More determined than ever my eyes snapped back on Mel. “well? Any idea where she’s gone? Who her dealer is? Where she’s hold up?”

He shook his head. “no idea, she has a place in Goodneighbor but after what happened I doubt she went back.”

Groaning I ran a hand through my hair, leaning over my knees.

Beside me Nick drew closer, head tilted so that the brim of his hat hid his face from Neil and Mel. “do you believe him?” he murmured quietly.

“yeah.” I nodded, all be it with irritation. “look at him, does he look like he’s spinning a tale to save his hide? That’s all he’s got.”

Satisfied he sat up, nodding in agreement. “alright Mel, we believe you. Doesn’t mean you’re free to go though.”

“What?!”

Nick threw up a hand to keep him from protesting. “until we find No-Nose I don’t want you going far. Stay in the commonwealth until we’re done. Ya hear me?”

Mel scowled, his mouth falling open to argue. My right hand drifted toward my pistol. The movement drew his attention and he clicked his mouth shut. “fine, I’ll stick around…. Can I at least take Neil back to the vault?”

“sure thing, but don’t stray too far.” Nick gave him a warning look. Been a while since I’d seen that one. He used to reserve that for me, that stay out of trouble you damn idiot kind of look.

Neil rose, unlatching his Pipboy as he did.

My eyes narrowed at it and the words slipped out of my mouth before my mind could stop them. “forget about it, just keep it.”

“no.” He shoved it into my hands, scowling. “at least one of us is a man of his word.”

I fumbled to catch the thing before it fell. Curiously I turned it over. Hadn’t I seen Flynn wearing one of these things before? Wonder why she hadn’t sold it yet. She’d been a vault girl though. Probably sentimentality. Allowing it to fall to my side I fixed Neil with a hard stare. “if you want to come live out in the wasteland, you’re gonna have to learn a hell of a lot fast.”

“mind your own business.” Mel grabbed Neil by the arm and hauled him toward the door.

“what about that Eyebot of yours?” Nick called with the barest hint of amusement.

“I said mind your own business!”

Mel probably would have slammed the door if it was capable of it. Amused, with folded arms I watched them go before glancing back at Nick. “what now?”

Groaning he rose, rotating his bad shoulder experimentally. Didn’t look like he felt the pain anymore, good. “now? time to head back to Goodneighbor. If we leave now we’ll get there just after sun down. Can you manage that?”

“I’m not the one that got sliced.”

“not what I meant.” He fixed me with heavy yellow eyes that left me feeling breathless. Beneath his fedora his gaze was intense. A lot of people I knew said they could never read him. Some people even thought he was emotionless. He’d never been that way for me. And it made it impossible to lie now.

Grimacing I dropped my gaze. Let’s hope he didn’t see the pain I hadn’t even known I had. “can we just get on the road? I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“sure.” He stepped forward and squeezed my arm.

Subconsciously I touched his then turned to leave that damn oceanological society behind.

Chapter Text

“what happened back there?” Nick finally asked the question I’d been waiting to hear since we left that fucking island.

Safely within the confines of the ruined city, or not so safely, that knot had finally disappeared from my chest. I’d sincerely hoped he’d forget all about it. Hell, I wanted to forget all about it. But that was the whole problem wasn’t it? I couldn’t. Sighing heavily I turned in the middle of the street to face him. We had just crossed the river onto the south bank. In the middle of the square a broken statue to some faceless war hero stood. A billboard for Blast Radius hung just over our heads.

We weren’t more than a few minutes out from Goodneighbor but once we arrived I knew I’d be even less inclined to chat. Least of all about this. “I’m sorry I froze.”

“don’t apologize, talk to me.” He strode forward and took me in his arms. Gratefully I laced my hands around his middle, trying to hide my face in his shoulder. “I’ve never seen you react like that before. That wasn’t just any normal kind of fear.”

“yeah….” Hated to relive it but after what happened Nick deserved an explanation. Going cold like that could have gotten us both killed. That would have been on me. “I… don’t really know what happened. As soon as I went under I just… remembered….” Hard to talk when your throat was being a dick.

Gently he squeezed me then held me out at arm’s length. Those eyes of his scrutinized me carefully, the same way they did a crime scene or a witness. I hated it when he did that. Don’t detective me I’d say. Usually. One of his hands cupped my cheek and he grimaced. “Stern?”

“yeah.” I nodded, averting my eyes to a point just over his shoulder. “I guess that bastard did more damage than I thought. Wish we hadn’t given him a quick death now.”

“same.” He growled bitterly then his face softened as he drew my gaze back. “there’s nothing I can do to make this better.”

“I wasn’t asking you to.” Grumbling miserably I drew him into a tight hug and buried my face into the side of his neck. His hand went to my head. The mere feel of his warmth pressed against mine fought away the nightmares better than any amount of drink ever had. “I can handle it…. It’s my burden to bare.”

“for the last time.” Irritably he groaned, pressing me harder into his chest. “you don’t have to fight alone anymore.”

“right….” hard to get used to that thought. We’d been together for a little over a week now. If you counted the days before I ran off like a god damn fool then maybe a month. Then again, we’d been friends, best friends for years before now. Still wasn’t entirely sure when my feelings toward him had grown deeper. Or when his toward me had. “It’s hard to talk about… I just need some time.”

“we have all the time in the world.” Murmuring gently he pressed his lips to the top of my head and squeezed me one last time.

“enough about me.” With a shake of my head I pulled myself away. Confusion flashed over Nick’s features, maybe a little disappointment. “what about you? How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine, it’s you that’s got the baggage.” With a chuckle he tried to laugh it off but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Grimacing I took his face in my hands and forced him to look at me. He could easily have just shrugged off my advances, better strength and all that, but he didn’t. “everybody knows we’ve both got baggage.”

Letting out a long sigh that smile faded a little to be replaced by an ironic half smirk. He reached up and stroked the scars on my face with a cold metal thumb. “ya know, no one would blame you if Stern wasn’t the only one that left a mark.”

“Kellogg is a bunch of crushed circuits and dead data.” Anger leaked into my voice, fear totally absent. He was no worse than the rest of the pieces of shit in the commonwealth. At least to me. He’d only beaten my face in. Nick though…. “what he did to me doesn’t bother me.”

“even though it was my hand that did it?”

“stop that.” Gently I grabbed hold of his hand and crushed his palm against my face. “where is that coming from? Nick it wasn’t you! I don’t blame you and I’m not afraid of you.”

“back at the society, I thought for a minute it was about Kellogg, not Stern.” His gaze dropped, the rim of his fedora overshadowing his eyes. Starting to think he did that consciously to hide his face. “I wouldn’t blame you if it was. Hell sometimes I look in the mirror and scare myself.”

“Nick.” My heart ached hearing the defeat in his voice. With a hand I drew his face back up. Stop hiding under that hat. Before he could say anything I pressed our lips together. I made sure this kiss was gentle, soft. Just a small reminder that we were both alive and together. Before it could go any further I parted and locked eyes with him. “you’re not a monster, he was. What he made you do shouldn’t have happened. But that wasn’t you.”

He let out a bitter ironic chuckle, not the sort of thing I liked hearing from him. “I guess I should be grateful that you stopped me before I did anything else.”

“stopped Kellogg before Kellogg did anything else.” I emphasized the name for good measure. Damn it. Once again I wished I’d saved that Holotape for times like these. Kellogg hadn’t gotten a dignified death but he deserved so much worse. Even more than Stern. “I know it’s going to take time but stop blaming yourself.”

“who am I supposed to blame?”

My gut instinct was to say Violet Flynn but he’d never have that. It was her fault, if no one else. She’d been the one that went after Kellogg and needed Nick to find her son. For a few days after the whole thing I’d stopped blaming her because well Nick had been fine. At least as far as I’d known. Now though. Kellogg left scars on Nick that wouldn’t heal as easily as the ones on my face. I’d never be able to forgive her for that. Didn’t matter to me if she’d found her son or blasted him to hell.

Nick slipped out of my grasp, jamming his hands deep into his pockets. “forget it, we’ve got a case and the trail’s going cold. We can talk about this when No-Nose is locked up.”

“or dead.” I murmured, more to myself than to him. Still wasn’t entirely sure if Nick would be able to shoot her himself. He was too good for that. Even if he didn’t really think that now. Hancock would want me to kill her, and he’d trust me to get it done. Still, didn’t like the thought of what that would do to Nick and I.

By the time we reached the gates of Goodneighbor the sun had left and the stars came out. They twinkled brightly over our heads, not that many wastelanders bothered to look up at them. Looking up meant taking your eyes off the people trying to take your stuff. Even in towns as safe as Diamond city you were hard pressed to find someone with their head in the stars. Damn near no one here in Goodneighbor.

Before we did anything else we knew we had to visit Hancock and give him an update. Without a word passing between us we entered the Old State house. There we found the ghoul mayor, standing beside Fahrenheit, his back to us. We weren’t exactly being quiet. Wasn’t sure Nick was physically capable of that. Yet as we came level with him Hancock jumped. “didn’t anyone ever teach you to knock?” he snarled at me.

Mockingly I put a finger to my chin and glanced at the ceiling. “I don’t know, did you teach me to knock?”

Scowling he brushed past me back to the chair he’d been sitting in when we left. With a gravely groan he sat, sinking deep in the torn upholstery like it might swallow him. Judging by the look he had, he wanted it to. “she still hasn’t woken up.”

“well she shouldn’t anytime soon.” That was a little blunt Nick, don’t you think? “she got shot in the stomach John, and she ain’t a ghoul. Can’t just go take a radiation bath and be on the road again.”

A thin mildly amused chuckle escaped him. He dropped his hat and scratched his leathery scalp. That had to hurt. “so? Any news or are you two snoops just here to take a load off?”

Normally I’d have teased him a little. Said something like, now that you mention it we have been trekking across half the commonwealth thanks for the thought. But with Fahrenheit lying on a table. With the woman that put her there still out there. I didn’t even want to waste time with small talk. “it was Bobbi No-Nose.”

To an untrained eye it looked like Hancock didn’t react. Oh but they’d be wrong. His shoulders went stiff, his breathing slowed until you could barely hear it. the skin around his eyes tightened. “Bobbi… I knew I should have run her out of my town years ago.”

“she recruited a team, one man she killed, the other we’ve dealt with. She’s the last one and probably the person that put the bullets in Fahrenheit in the first place.” Nick continued. Was he just unaware that Hancock was about to explode or did he just not care?

Abruptly the mayor rose practically scaring the piss out of me. The hairs on the back of my neck knew what was up. “she did this right out from under us! I let her stay here! Knowing full well she’d pull something like this! I should have killed her when I had the fucking chance!”

I didn’t dare speak. There were maybe three times I’d seen him this angry before. All three times had ended in blood and a few bodies. The bodies weren’t always of those that deserved it either. No desire to be in the same room as this fire storm.

The synth on the other hand. He walked right up into the danger zone and put a hand on Hancock’s shoulder. “take it easy John, gotta stay focused if we’re going to find her. Where was she hold up here?”

“she’s got a place behind Kill or Be Killed. Back alley.” His voice remained carefully controlled but his fists quivered. What little live muscle he still had was pulled taut.

“lets have a look gray.” Much to my relief, Nick strode back around the table toward me. As I turned to leave he stopped in the doorway and looked back at Hancock. “what? You’re not coming?”

“don’t you two, I don’t know, want to keep civilians out of this?” he glowered at us from the corner of his eye, half expecting us to agree.

Good thing we weren’t exactly normal detectives like those dumbasses in the Silver Shroud radio show. “hell no.” rolling my eyes I jerked my head for him to follow. “you might see something we missed.”

“not that we could stop you.” Nick had a point there. Since when had Hancock ever let someone get in his way?

The ghoul put his hat back on and straightened his coat authoritatively. “then what are we waiting for?” before we answered he strode out of the state house into the front quart yard. We exchanged amused looks before following him.

The alley behind Kill or Be Killed had always been a dangerous one. Gunners, Triggerman and other gangs enjoyed using it as a meeting place. A bit ironic that it was right in front of Bobbi’s door. If they had known how much of a fucker she was I doubt they’d have taken the risk. When we got there the door was locked. Usually one of us would have picked the damn thing but Hancock wasn’t about to waste the time. Deftly he shot the handle out with his shotgun and kicked the door in. Had to appreciate the direct approach a little eh?

This building had probably once been used as a warehouse before the war, or something. Through the doors we found ourselves in a half collapsed room with next to no ceiling. The floor above had almost entirely fallen in years ago. Bits of broken furniture littered the splintered floor boards. A set of stairs led down and up.

“well, not what I call a criminal lair.” Nick commented.

“what are you the silver shroud?” I questioned with a smirk.

“don’t call me that.”

“I’ll take the basement.” Hancock didn’t wait for either of us to make a move. He left the doorway and headed down the stairs.

“the second floor probably doesn’t have much, I’ll do a sweep.” Back to work I guess. If Bobbie hadn’t been planning on making a run for it we might actually find something. Up the stairs I walked until I stood at the edge of the second floor and looked down to find Nick watching me. “what?”

“one of these days your affinity for heights is going to get you into trouble.”

“but you’ll be there to catch me right?” I winked at him.

“don’t push your luck.” Though he grinned crookedly at me.

The floor was far worse up here than I’d thought. Creeping around the edge of the room was the safest approach but even that looked dangerous. Every step I took the boards creaked, and sagged. The furniture here perched precariously on broken wood, teetering over the floor below. “hey uh, Nick?”

“what?”

“watch for falling objects.” Just as I said that a trash can finally lost its balance and tumbled to his floor.

He swore under his breath then stepped back into sight through the hole. “do you mind?”

“I didn’t do that.” Creeping slowly around the edge I reached a door on the far side of the stairs. A sign beside it read restrooms and beneath that a notice about washing your hands, or something. The door didn’t provide any resistance. As I opened it a disgusted groan escaped me. “Bobbi set up an office in a bathroom Nick!”

“who said we were dealing with high class criminals?” he laughed. “please tell me she was using the toilet as a desk chair.”

“no such luck.” Somehow Bobbi had managed to cram in a desk, a safe and a computer in the cramped bathroom. It still had a sink and what was left of the toilet. There was even a urinal behind the desk. Classy. With much banging of the knees I slipped into the seat at the terminal and typed in a few commands.

“find anything?” Nick called.

“I could use your expertise here, terminal’s locked tight.”

“with pleasure. Nothing down here anyway.”

While I waited for him to come up I eagerly went to work on the safe. Soon discovered there was no visible lock on it. wires ran from it to the terminal and I scowled. “damn it, stupid computers.”

“I hope that doesn’t extend to all machines.” Nick stood in the doorway, grinning crookedly.

Sitting on the safe cross legged I smirked. “you’re all a little stupid, it’s endearing sometimes. Other times….”

“irritating as hell.” He sat at the terminal and went to work breaking down the security. It was Bobbi how bad could security be?

Below I heard Hancock make his way back up to the second floor. “she tunneled into the subway system from the- where the hell are you guys?!”

“up stairs!” I leapt from the safe and leaned over the hole to look down at him. “what’d you find?”

In this light he looked even angrier than before. Scowling he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “that bitch was tunneling down in the basement. Looks like she managed to reach the subway tunnels.”

“which led right to your warehouse.” I murmured brows raised. “how in the hell did she even know the subway was that close, let alone that she could get to your warehouse from them?”

“I can answer that.”

Nick’s voice drew my attention back to him and I gestured for Hancock to come up stairs. The synth had already broken through the security on the terminal. Leaning forward I quickly typed in a few commands. “excuse me.”

“I thought I was the one in charge of hacking.” He grumbled mockingly.

“you are, I just want the safe.” It clicked open and I eagerly stooped to search through it. by this time Hancock had reached us. He leaned in the doorway, clearly unwilling to pack himself in alongside us in the bathroom. Didn’t blame him.

“what have you got?” he questioned.

Nick leaned back from the screen. “I’ll read aloud shall I? The map was drawn under orders of some city planner at the state house, a Sebastian Mullins. And right before bomb day. Looks like the city was planning on expanding the subway system, but the big kaboom ended that. At least somebody’ll be able to make use of it. the map shows a subway tunnel not too far from my own basement here in Goodneighbor. And from there a network of underground utility areas that lead right to that bastard’s strong room. All I have to do is dig through and I’m in like Flynn. Did you know the tunnels lead up into your warehouse?”

“I had a hunch but I didn’t think anyone was dumb enough to come in from that direction.” He was glaring again, not at anyone in particularly thankfully. The hairs on the back of my neck were still on edge. “apparently she had more balls than the neighborhood watch combined.”

“she really had it out for you.” Nick continued, opening a second file. “listen to this, I am so sick of Hancock and his dumb smug mug. The second anybody else gets any power around these parts, he comes in and squashes it. he thinks everyone who has the privilege of living in this dump owes him everything. He’s wrong. He owes me for the time I wasted here. I’m gonna be somebody. I’ll show him. That was in rant, well at least she knew it was one.”

“I’m no tyrant.” Hancock growled turning his back on us and walking to the edge of the hole. “I gotta make sure this community doesn’t tear itself apart, can’t have infighting.”

“well you got infighting.” I murmured under my breath, then flinched. When he didn’t react right away I assumed he didn’t hear. Thank god. The vault swung open with a loud creak. Out tumbled a stack of grenades. My body froze for a split second while they rolled into my lap. When we weren’t immediately eviscerated I breathed out a long sigh. “this is a fuck ton of fire power, where the hell did she even get the caps for all this?”

“next time, check for booby traps.” Nick commented dryly.

Past the grenades lay a small assortment of weapons, a box of caps and some ammo. An impressive arsenal for a lone ghoul. I took the caps out and opened the box. There weren’t many left but a letter fell out.

“what have you got?”

Nick’s voice at my ear scared me out of my skin. “god damn it.”

“aren’t you jumpy?” Hancock chuckled humorlessly.

Ignoring him I flipped open the note. “No-Nose, here is the deposit, rest to come on completion, don’t disappoint. H must be the donor Mel mentioned.”

“H?” Nick took the letter right out of my hands without a word.

“help yourself.” Not that I was interested in the note anymore. The guns drew my attention again. They weren’t just run of the mill, pipe-pistols or spiked bats. They were Gun runner good. Not cheap. So not only had she hired herself two guys, presumably paid them both up front, and bought good gear, she had caps left over. Maybe I was in the wrong business. “any idea who H is Hancock?”

“not a damn clue.” He and Nick passed the note over the top of my head while I admired a pistol at the bottom of the safe. “could be anyone, plenty of love to go around for Goodneighbor’s mayor.”

“well whoever it is he’s got deep pockets and a lot of ‘love’ for you.” With a small groan I got to my feet, my knees popping in protest. Twisting in place I glanced at Nick. He still hadn’t moved, staring intently at the note as if it might be a Deathclaw or something. “Nick?”

He shook his head and looked up at me. For a split second it looked like he’d completely forgotten I was there. When he blinked his yellow eyes focused back on me and he gave a quick half hearted smile. “if No-Nose is looking to unload chems there’s only a handful of dealers willing to take that kind of heat.”

“and I guarantee most of the people you’re thinking of owe me one way or the other.” Hancock grumbled.

“what about the Triggermen?”

My brows shot up at Nick. Oddly specific there. “most people think Hancock and the Triggermen are on good terms.”

Nick fixed me with a crooked grin. “most people think.”

“think.”

“you’re not very good at being discreet, either of you.” Just in time, I glanced over my shoulder to see Hancock rolling his eyes. “yes, things have been rocky with the Triggermen recently.”

“at no fault of yourself I’m sure.” I chuckled, brows raised.

He smirked at me. “of course.”

“then they’d be willing to take the chems No-Nose stole from you and turn them around for a profit.” Nick got up out of the chair, adjusting his trench coat as he did.

“where are you going?” I span around to face him. he wasn’t about to suggest what I thought he was about to suggest.

“well ya see.” A mockery of a sheepish expression came to his features. I didn’t believe it for a second. He was trying not to look excited and self-satisfied. Smug bastard. “the Triggermen came under new management about eight months ago.”

“oh?” Hancock and I both muttered at the same time. He continued on without me. “and I don’t suppose you had anything to do with that.”

“oh no of course not.” Still trying to act sheepish. “but the new management knows me. She won’t turn me away.”

“she?” my brows shot up even higher.

Nick’s eyes strayed toward me and I could have sworn I saw a glint there. “Jealous?”

“course not.” Oh but my cheeks had other things to say. Defiantly I crossed my arms and turned my back on him. that didn’t help. Hancock was smirking at me. For a guy that was supposed to be my adoptive father he certainly had a weird way of showing fatherly love.

One of Nick’s arms came around my shoulders and I discovered his lips on my cheek. “no need to be jealous love, you’re the only fleshy person for me.”

That flush got a little worse. Hancock laughed.

Chapter Text

“Nick…?”

“hm?”

“how’d we get here?”

“well,” came his muffled voice from somewhere in front of me. “we went to No-Nose’s place.”

“right.”

“we searched around a bit. When nothing turned up I suggested we go looking for the chems.”

“I remember that.” I nodded, mostly in an attempt to get the black hood on my face to loosen up a bit. It was getting hard to breathe in there.

“so we went looking for the Triggermen.”

“I get all of that but, Nick how’d we get here.” To emphasize my meaning I shook the ropes that bound my wrists. Not that he could see my motion. He too had a bag over his head and ropes around his wrists.

He got the gist though. “did you have a better plan to get to the boss?”

I opened my mouth wide to exclaim I did before he interrupted me.

“that didn’t involve shooting.”

Clamped my mouth shut at that with a sharp click. Indignantly I turned away, causing the hood over my head to sway. A breath of cool fresh air seeped in which I gulped in greedily. Nick probably couldn’t care less. Lucky synth. “we could have snuck in.”

“snuck in where?” Nick prodded rather ruthlessly. Somehow he sounded utterly relaxed in our current situation. Me, I wouldn’t relax until I had my gun back in my hand. “since the kid cleared out vault 114 no one knows where the Triggermen stashed themselves. They came under new management and ever since then they’ve been harder to pin down than a Bloatfly larva.”

“how hard could it be to figure out where a criminal organization operates?” I protested a little louder than I meant to.

Someone banged on a door on the left and shouted. “keep it down in there! Boss will be here soon!”

“better do what the man says gray.” Came Nick’s teasing. “don’t want to cause trouble.”

“to hell with them.” But I did keep my voice level. Last thing I wanted was to get beaten for my big mouth. Wouldn’t be the first time I’m sure. “seriously there had to be a million better ways to see the boss than to let ourselves get captured like this. I thought you were friends with her or something!”

“friends is a strong word for it.” imagined he shrugged at that point, hard to tell under a hood he practically put there. “I was hired by her parents to find her. Turns out she was running guns for Skinny Malone and the Triggermen. When I got there things turned a little sideways.”

“that’s when Violet Flynn, vault dweller, came and saved your ass.” I finished with an exaggerated roll of my eyes. Damn I wish we could see each other right about then. “not just a vault dweller, fresh faced prewar house wife!”

“did you have to put it like that?” he grumbled irritably. “well Violet may have encouraged the new boss to kill Skinny, so now we’ve got this boss. And she’s one hell of a woman let me tell you.”

Didn’t like him referring to anyone as ‘one hell of a woman.’ Guess I was grateful for the hoods now as my face showed my inner thoughts on the matter. “so you think she’s going to show up here and actually talk to you?”

“see the thing is.” Nick’s voice dropped considerably so I leaned in a little to listen. The ropes on my wrists bit as I stretched my arms. At least these thugs had the common sense to tie us to our chairs. “pretty much everyone that was at the vault got dead, one way or the other, except the boss and some of the men loyal to her. Word is she’s been tellin people Skinny appointed her boss. She wouldn’t want that getting out.”

“so what you’re saying…” muttering slowly I resisted the urge to raise my voice. At this point it was best not to draw the attention of the man outside. “is that you have blackmail on someone, and delivered yourself gift wrapped to said person, on the off chance they wouldn’t wise up and just cap you in the ass?”

A long silence followed my slow irritated question. Clearly Nick hadn’t thought that far ahead. Which was weird considering this was the sort of stunt usually associated with me. Nick was always so much more careful. This move was down right reckless. Sure it was quick, but it was way more than dirty. What had gotten into him?

Unfortunately for my satisfaction and our general good health, the door opened. “well, what have we got here? Couple of do-gooder morons who thought they could just go walking around my territory without paying for protection?” it was a woman’s voice, pretty young by the sound of it, and plenty scary. It reminded me of Magnolia almost, if Magnolia ever went crime syndicate. Hell maybe she was and I didn’t know it.

Someone lifted the hood from my head and I drew in several grateful gasps of air. It tasted like bog water and sewage. When the Triggermen had picked us up it was just west of Diamond city, about an hour after we left Goodneighbor. They’d put us on a forced march, hoods on, to the middle of who knew where. We, or I, had gotten a few hours rest before now. Which by the way, do you realize how hard it is to sleep sitting up, tied to a chair? It’s fucking hard.

They’d put us in an old shipping container. Outside I could hear the gentle drip of water and the scuttling of tiny Mirelurk legs. It’d be just our luck if there was a fucking queen nearby. Four men, wearing fedoras, suits and carrying machine guns stood in the shack. They didn’t scare me half as much as the woman contemplating Nick like a tarantula. She might have been pretty, at some point. But her position as boss had clearly taken its toll on her. Scars puckered her otherwise flawless skin. A dress hugged her curves which looked a little sharper than was normal. Bags hung beneath her eyes which she’d tried to hide with a little makeup.

The most striking thing about her was the lack of weapon. She knew what it meant to be boss. “if it isn’t Nick Valentine. Been a while. Seen my old ma and pa?”

“I told them they didn’t need to worry about you Darla.” Nick stared up at her with an astonishing amount of composure. His yellow eyes remained steady under that fedora while he gave her a half grin. “you don’t need anybody looking out for you, do ya?”

She laughed, a cruel sound from a cruel woman. Sitting up she put her hands on her hips then glanced in my direction. “is this your new girl? It’s a shame, the other one was prettier.”

“watch it….” the growl escaped me before I could stop it. A swift fist to the face put an end to the rest of my retort. The Triggerman beside me shook out his hand, grumbling a swear under his breath.

“my other girl is on a different case.” Nick’s eyes darted toward me then back to Darla. He was trying his utmost not to show concern but it was a struggle. “I’m here on a case doll, if you don’t mind giving me a hand.”

“and why would I help you?” she asked, gesturing to one of her men silently.

While Nick and Darla continued their exchange I watched the other men. They weren’t scared or apprehensive. One of them darted out of the shack with an eager grin on his face. Just what was happening?

“you got me there.” Nick shrugged, shaking his head. “you ain’t got no reason to help this old synth out. But ya know, Skinny Malone and I, well, we had some history.”

Darla’s face screwed up in disgust. Probably not the best line of attack there Nick. “why should I care if you and that-” she glanced around at her men, before swallowing her words. “you and Skinny had history. He’s not the boss anymore. You killed him if I recall.”

“that’s not quite how I remember it.” a pointed smirk played over his features.

At that moment the thug came back carrying an improvised battery and some cables. Yeah didn’t like where this was going one bit. My hands started playing with the ropes. Hard to tell if Nick was unaware of the danger or just didn’t care. Either way, if they were about to torture us I wasn’t about to take that lying down. The ropes were thick and rough. At least they hadn’t confiscated the Pipboy. A tiny piece of metal stuck out from where it had been damaged. Desperately I rubbed the rope against it.

Darla snatched the battery and cables from her men. A toothy, wicked grin spread over her features. It was then I noticed the missing tooth. Toothless Darla, had a nice ring to it. Couldn’t stop myself chuckling at that thought.

Big mistake. Darla rounded her eyes on me, glaring. “what are you laughing at?”

“who me? Nothing.” I shrugged awkwardly, readjusting my grip on the rope. “just thinking about how old Skinny got the name. What happened to the old fart anyway?”

“I heard some vault dweller did him in.” Nick replied now grinning at me. “at least that’s the story people have been telling. Isn’t that right Darla?”

Our little back and forth was setting Darla off and I couldn’t help but smirk in satisfaction. For someone that had appeared so scary before she was hilariously upset now. Which probably wasn’t the best option we faced.

“since you killed Skinny I’ve thought long and hard about how to make you pay for it, Valentine.” Darla put the battery down next to Nick’s chair and held up the wires in either hand. “but there isn’t much that hurts a synth is there?”

The guards all chuckled, sweat dripped down my neck and Nick’s casual demeanor finally slid away. Things were getting serious and no amount of talking was about to get us out of this. The rope between my fingers was beginning to fray but not quick enough. Damn it, come on.

“you going to let your guys watch?” Nick questioned quietly, any trace of amusement gone. About damn time he started acting like we were in trouble. Cause we fucking were. “they didn’t know Skinny.”

Maybe she thought she could handle us. Maybe she figured we were tied down. Maybe she was just stupid. In any case she waved a hand at her men lazily. They exchanged disappointed looks but didn’t argue. Say what you will about the woman, she knew how to strike fear in their hearts. Doubted they respected her much. With the air of disappointed children they filed out. The last one glanced in my direction before closing the door behind him.

Good, if I could just get free Darla wouldn’t be much of a challenge. Lets hope the ropes came loose before she took those wires to Nick.

Didn’t look like that was going to happen. Darla turned to face Nick, apparently totally ignoring me. That gave me free license to move faster. Damn these ropes. “I knew it was only a matter of time before you came knocking.” She murmured down at him, her voice low and deadly. “you know I can’t let the men find out what actually happened.”

“look doll.” Nick tried to maintain a casual tone. While his eyes repeatedly darted toward the cords she held. “I’m not here about Skinny, you got the Triggermen and honestly that’s fine by me. I’m here on a different case.”

“this is a critical time.” She continued, leaning down to switch on the battery. Tiny blue sparks shot out of the connectors to the cables. It might explode if they weren’t careful. “do you honestly expect me to believe you showing up here is a coincidence?”

“well it is.” Not too convincing there Nick.

Darla certainly didn’t believe him. The cords clasped in one fist she pressed them up against his side. Sparks flew and Nick bucked. Either through some malfunction or his own determination nothing passed his lips. The pain was obvious though.

“stop it!” I shouted, the ropes all but forgotten for a split second. “you could kill him! stop!”

Darla straightened, taking the cables with her. She whirled around and glowered at me. “you want to be next?”

“leave her alone.” Leaning over his knees Nick scowled up at Darla.

“yeah bring it on!” I bellowed, straining against the ropes now. No time to cut them, I had to slip free. It was going to hurt like a bitch but it’d be nothing compared to electrocution.

“Gray just shut up.” Nick groaned out, as painful as it sounded. No idea what electricity would do to his body. He’s a machine after all. All the electronic bits inside him probably couldn’t handle that much abuse.

Darla stood between us, glancing back and forth with an ever-widening sneer. “I appreciate your eagerness girl but I couldn’t care less about you.” Her full attention returned to Nick.

Teeth gritted I worked harder on the ropes. Bit by bit it scraped its way up my hand. If I could just get it over the thumb then I could get free. Didn’t look like Nick had the that kind of time though. His yellow eyes remained locked with mine as Darla walked around to the back of his chair. Warning me to keep quiet. How the hell was I supposed to do that?!

Darla placed a hand on Nick’s shoulder and a disgusted growl escaped my throat. She didn’t seem to hear it, or care. “don’t get me wrong Valentine, thanks to you I run one of the biggest gangs in the commonwealth.”

“you’ve got a funny way of showing your appreciation.” Even now Nick remained calm. How could he do that? My pulse beat so fast and my fingers were sweating. The rope was almost over my thumb. I could feel the bones popping painfully. I’d end up dislocating the digit for this.

Quietly Darla let her hand slip from his shoulder. He couldn’t see it but I could see the absolute rage in her face. Why she bore Nick so much hate was beyond me. Maybe she was just crazy, like every other person in the damn wasteland. That kind of rage drove the cords into the hole on Nick’s neck. Once again a silent scream tore out of his lips. Sparks shot out of his mouth alarmingly. My breath hitched. Desperately I tugged even harder. It felt like the rope was fraying even more. The Pipboy had been useful after all.

Mercifully the cords came away. Nick slumped forward, totally silent while his shoulders shook. Darla contemplated him with a pitying expression. “you know, I thought you’d make more noise, pant or something. It’s not as fun to torture machines as I thought it would be.”

This time Nick didn’t even speak. Gradually he lifted his gaze to mine. His yellow eyes were slightly dimmer than before. That was never a good sign. God damn these ropes!

Darla sauntered back around to stand between us. She held the cords out in a hand casually while they sparked. The back of her dress went down to the small of her back. I dreamt about shoving those cables up her spine. See how she liked it. “I’m getting bored. Come on Valentine, entertain me a little before I kill you. Say something.”

“Sorry Skinny knocked out your tooth.” He strained to say.

A snarl escaped Darla as she raised the sparking wires to her eye level. At the exact second she moved the ropes came loose. I lunged to my feet. The bitch didn’t see it coming. With less grace than I’d have liked, I leapt onto her back, latching onto her hand holding the wires. She had a height advantage but I was stronger than her. I wrenched her arm back over her shoulder. she dropped the cables allowing me to snatch them as they fell. Twisting around I slammed my elbow up into her nose. No blood, she staggered back all the same, clutching at it.

While she was momentarily blinded I latched onto her neck. With a foot behind her knees I forced her back. Didn’t take much to make her lose balance. Tall and weak people really needed to watch out more carefully. With a dull thud she hit the metal, her head smacked hard. Before she could recover I threw my legs over her chest, clamping her hands to her sides with my knees. With deadly intent I held the sparking wires an inch from her face, leaning down toward her.

“boss!” someone banged on the door. “is everything ok?!”

Pointedly I held a finger to my lips. “tell them everything is fine, you’re just getting rough with the prisoners.”

Fury dominated her features. I half expected she’d try yelling for help. I half wanted her to. Any excuse to shove these things down her throat. unfortunately for my sadistic side, she was smarter than that. “everything’s fine! Mind your own business!”

“sorry boss.”

“good.” I hissed into her face, still holding the cables steadily. “now, I’m going to get off of you, and you’re going to untie Nick. If you try anything, calling for help, attacking either of us, I’ll stick these into your eye socket. We clear?”

My own words surprised me. I usually wasn’t so eager to deal other people harm. Then again this bitch deserved it for what she did. My menacing tone certainly had the desired effect. As much as her face remained steely her eyes submitted. Shallowly she nodded.

Holding the cables an inch from her body I got off and let her get up. Under my supervision she untied Nick from the chair. He got shakily to his feet, rubbing his wrists. “are you ok?” I asked quietly out of the corner of my mouth.

He gave me a sidelong look, eyes still somewhat dim. The worry grew like a cancer inside my chest. “have a seat Darla.”

For a split second it looked like she might protest. When I brandished her torture device at her though, she quickly complied. Legs crossed she sat, smoothing out her tattered dress carefully. “you win.”

“damn straight.” If Nick even gave me the slightest indication he’d be ok with it, I’d strangle this woman. A quick glance in his direction revealed he wouldn’t be giving me any such direction. Well damn.

“now we can have a civilized conversation.” Nick dragged the other chair closer with stiff movements. Evidently there were a few lingering side effects of the electrocution. God I prayed none of them were permanent. “like I said, we’re here on a case, we don’t want any trouble. O'Malley here will give you plenty if you don’t answer my questions.”

I guess that made me bad cop, or something. Darla glanced at me out of the corner of her eye and I smirked.

“so let’s get started.” Nick sat in the chair, less than a foot of space between him and Darla. “we’re looking for Bobbi No-Nose. She’s got herself a big stash of chems she’s looking to unload. Now we know she has ties to the Triggerman. All we need is a location.”

Darla sneered at him, to which I brought the sparks a little closer to her face. Eyeing them fearfully she quickly replied. “she’s been negotiating a sell for a few weeks. Said she didn’t have the chems on hand but would at the end of the week.”

“and?” My wrist was beginning to ache and it had nothing to do with holding up the wires.

“and she always met our couriers in south Boston.” Fear was finally beginning to take hold. Sweat slicked the back of her neck and shoulders. My fingers were beginning to slip.

A dark expression on his face, Nick leaned forward over his knees. He brought their faces to within inches of each other. A tight knot formed in the pit of my stomach at the sight. “is that all you know?”

I’d never seen Nick scare anyone, or even try to, until now. I’m not sure how I felt about it. It just didn’t seem like Nick. It was working like a charm at least. Darla coward back in her chair, practically leaning into me. As if I’d give her any comfort. “word is a contingent of Gunners have been seen in the area. They’ve been making life difficult for my gun moles.”

“thank you for your cooperation.” Satisfied Nick got to his feet.

I watched him replace the chair back where I’d been sitting in it, quiet. “what now?”

“now.” slowly he turned back around to face Darla. “where are our weapons?”

Silently she nodded toward a crate sitting in the corner behind him. He quickly searched it and produced my rifle, pistol and his own revolver. Nick was probably the one person in the whole commonwealth I’d be alright holding my pistol.

“alright doll, listen up.” That casual tone had returned as he grinned down at her. “this is how it’s going to go. I’m going to fire two shots. After that you’re going to walk out there and tell your men that the job is done. You’re going to lead them back to whatever sewer your lot crawled out of. If we get even the slightest indication that you’ve warned them I promise you, O'Malley and I are better shots than any of those thugs.”

A little rage returned to her face but she nodded. Personally I’d liked to have shocked her to drive home the point. Not that Nick would be pleased by it. Once he looked satisfied by her response I put my hands up to release her. Deftly Nick fired two rounds from my gun into the ground beside him. Their eyes met one last time. Silence stretched on in the echo of the gunshots. Go on bitch, I dare you. My fist tightened on the cables.

Much to my disappointment she didn’t try anything. Stiffly she strode toward the door and slipped out. Muffled voices issued to us through the eroded metal. Nick handed my gun over. We stood shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the moment when Darla would make a fatal mistake. Again to my disappointment she didn’t. Gradually the voices drifted away into the wasteland. Still tense, Nick slid the door open a crack to peek out. “looks like they’ve cleared out.”

“good.” A little disappointed I put my pistol back in the holster at my hip. The weight of it was the best damn comfort I had. Next to Nick of course. We stepped out into the light, the sun high over our heads. Midday. We’d wasted a lot of time with this little diversion. Nick’s plan had worked but at the cost of precious time we didn’t have. Bobbi might have already cleared out of south Boston.

And more importantly, at the risk of Nick.

Gently, I reached out and took his hand to stop him. curiously he glanced down at it then back at me. I made my face grim. “are you alright?” This whole case had taught me just how wrong I’d been about Nick’s invulnerability before. As a machine it just never seemed like much could hurt him. I’d seen him take a bullet to the gut and keep going for god’s sake. Between fire and electricity I was beginning to worry more and more about him.

Yet he seemed unfazed. He squeezed my hand reassuringly and produced that crooked smile. “I will be. I’ll need to do some diagnostics but not till we get out of here.” Then he glanced out across the landscape. “where exactly is here?”

Good question. We stood on a set of tracks that stretched on to either side. Marshes reached out before us but I didn’t recognize anything nearby. I’d never been this far south. “fuck if I know.”

Nick tapped the Pipboy on my arm, brows raised. “I think these things have a built-in map. Give it a try.”

“I sincerely doubt it’s got a map.” Then again, that might explain how Violet Flynn kept herself from getting lost. Best option I suppose. Scrolling through the screens I quickly found a tab that had exactly what we needed. A rudimentary map appeared on screen, a little arrow indicating where we were. “fuck.”

“what?” he leaned in closer to get a look and a groan escaped him.

We were on the other fucking side of the commonwealth.

“it’s gonna take us hours to get to south Boston.”

With a shrug Nick took another sweeping glance of the area. “we can stop back at the diamond to get some rest. You look like you could use it.”

Dismissively I waved aside his offer and strode out ahead of him. The map was good enough I could easily see where we needed to go. Pipboys really were useful. One thing prewar people got right I suppose. “we don’t have time. We’ll camp on the way if we have to but I’m not making another detour.”

“if you say so.” He came level with me. As we walked away from the shipping container his hand slipped into mine.

My eyes darted down at it then back at him. I was beginning to blush, I could feel it. “excuse me, what are you doing?”

That croaked smile returned making my heart inflate a little more. “just let it happen. Don’t want to lose you along the way.”

Chapter Text

It took us five long hours of hard walking to get to South Boston.

Nick led us north down the tracks for a very long time. According to the map we were nearly at the boarder of the commonwealth. Far further than either of us had ever been. The Pipboy certainly proved its worth as we went. Didn’t know how the hell it worked or how it knew where we were but I wasn’t about to complain. It showed us the way when the tracks dropped in and out of view. At long last familiar landmarks began sliding down on either side of us.

An hour after chasing off Darla we came across the Gunner’s base. Just out of sight from it Nick hesitated, his yellow eyes duller than usual. Our hands had remained clasped throughout the journey and now I squeezed his. After what happened I had no doubt Nick needed to run a diagnostic. Until he did there’s no way we’d be able to manage a fight. Before I could say anything he gently tugged me off the tracks toward the marsh bellow.
From there he took a long winding path through the marsh, actively seeking out the firmest ground. At first I thought it was out of worry for himself. After all being electrocuted then adding water probably wasn’t a good idea for a machine. But after a while I knew better. He wasn’t avoiding water, he was avoiding deep water. And for me. Damn it Nick. Even after what happened he was more concerned with other people than himself. People like him put the rest of us to shame.

In spite of his determination though we couldn’t entirely avoid wading through the marsh. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried at first. My panic didn’t kick in like it had before. My stomach tightened and the hand Nick held grew sweaty, but that was it. Eventually our feet landed on cracked blacktop which carried us the rest of the way north.

Back in familiar territory, I let myself relax and look more carefully at Nick. There was a singed hole in his side now that had burned straight through to his skin. A little black etched the inside of his neck too. His movements were just a little jittery, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. And his eyes too. They hadn’t gotten any brighter.

“Nick….”

“don’t worry about me gray.” He must have noticed my staring cause he causally brushed off my attempt to do just that. “I’ll be fine, like you said we’ve got work to do.”

Sighing heavily I rolled my eyes at him. “look, you’ve been through a lot these last couple of days. Maybe you should go back to the agency and I’ll-”

“please.” Coming to a stop in the middle of the road he fixed me with an exasperated expression. Didn’t need to give me that look. Even as the words passed my lips I knew how ridiculous it was. “you’re not seriously suggesting I let you face off against the Gunners alone are you? Come on gray, you’re smarter than that.”

A smile tugged at my lips but I banished it. “this is serious Nick.”

“I am being serious.” Oh yeah, that smile said serious. When I continued to grimace at him he reached out and wrapped a hand around the back of my neck. With a tug he closed the gap between us and crushed my lips beneath his. The kiss was a distraction, I knew it, but that didn’t make it any less effective. Warmth filled my face as we parted and he gave me that crooked grin. Do you have to be that attractive Nick? “I’m not going to let you out of my sight until you’re safe at home again.”

“didn’t I tell you?” I murmured a little breathily. His kisses really did affect me more than I cared to admit. “home is with you.”

The most tender expression filled his face making my heart swell in my chest. It was almost painful. He gave me another peck before drawing us apart. “with any luck this is our last stop anyway. Bobbi No-Nose is gonna get what she deserves.”

That statement brought the frown back to me. “hey, uh Nick….” I began awkwardly as I followed him further up the road. We were approaching south Boston now. The ruined freeway loomed high over our heads. We weren’t far from where Eddie Winter had met his end. And where Nick had almost met his. A lot of mixed memories here. And Glory. With a shake of my head I tried to avoid those thoughts. Too much guilt there. “what exactly would you consider, what she deserves?”

He sighed heavily, the sound came out a little glitchy. Still hadn’t figured out if he actually had lungs yet. “I know what Hancock wants, and I know what you want, but it doesn’t sit right with me.”

Figured that much. “I know it doesn’t sit right with you…. But what choices do we have? This isn’t prewar, we don’t have prisons for people like her.”

“frankly I just want to deliver her over to Goodneighbor. They can decide what to do with her.”

“Nick you do realize that’s as good as a death sentence right?”

He gave a grunt in reply, his pace picking up. We were headed into town now.

“Hancock and Fahrenheit ARE Goodneighbor.”

“then at least the wounded party gets to decide what to do with her.”

“yeah but-”

Then a chunk of the wall next to us exploded into a puff of dust.

The crack of the gun followed soon after and Nick and I went low as we ran for cover. In the blink of an eye we had our guns out just as a tiny crater appeared in the road behind us. It was a sniper. It had to be. The damage those bullets were dealing was just too large. Where the hell was it?! Just ahead of me Nick swerved off the road to a mostly collapsed building. All that remained was a corner’s worth of brick wall. We collapsed behind it together, pressed in tight, shoulder to shoulder.

“where the hell is it coming from?!” I shouted over the firing. Did he have a bottomless mag?! What the hell!

Nick gripped his gun in both his hands. It shook, just barely. Damn it Nick why didn’t you just go back to Diamond city like I told you to? “rooftop, a block away. But that’s not our only problem.”

Right on que the wall directly to his right exploded in a flurry of bullets and dust. Momentarily terrified I grabbed him and pulled him closer, as if that could save him. He gave me a sidelong look, then swung around to fire at the new comer. Couldn’t see where his shots landed but judging by his dark expression they didn’t land good. He pressed himself up against me while the sniper opened fire again. “that was really stupid.” I murmured with a roll of my eyes.

He shot me a glare. “we’re sitting ducks, it’s only a matter of time before one of them comes around that corner. If it weren’t for that damn sniper, we’d have the advantage.”

“then cover me for a second.” He wanted an advantage, I’d give him an advantage. It’d only occur to me later that I did the exact same thing I’d made fun of him for earlier. Irony was, at least mine actually worked.

I threw my sniper from my shoulder and swung around on the opposite side of the wall. Nick laid down suppressive fire on the merc standing in the street. It wouldn’t last long, even if Nick had more than a handful of bullets in his gun at any one time. Quickly I scanned upward toward the roofs of the buildings around us. The street made a weird turn further down, passing in front of a large red house.

That’s when I spotted her.

At long last the bitch that’d almost killed my friend stepped into full view. She wore a white shirt, with a black vest and black slacks. Her brown hair looked fake, might have been considering she was a ghoul and literally had no nose. She glanced back toward the street, right at me. Probably couldn’t see me. If she could she sure as hell didn’t know who I was, we’d met maybe once. Yet as our eyes met across the street she seemed to know full well what I was doing there.

And there was fear in her eyes.

A merc, wearing the green bandana of a Gunner, grabbed her by the arm and hauled her around the corner. The bitch was getting away. It made my blood boil and my wrist ache. The battle came into focus as the anger surged through me. Sadistic vengeance took hold of me as I scanned upward for the sniper. I thought I’d left that feeling behind when I left the merc gang. Hell I thought Nick had killed it. Right at that moment though, there was only one thought on my mind.

The Gunner sniper came into view through my scope. Before he got the chance to pull his trigger again I put one between his eyes. Ok it wasn’t that clean of a shot, still wasn’t great with this thing, but it did the job. At the same time it went down Nick ran out of bullets and the other Gunner leapt out from behind cover. His machine gun forced us both to retreat. Bits of our cover went flying out in different directions.

“nice shot.” Nick commented appreciatively as he reloaded his revolver.

“we don’t have time for flirting, she’s getting away.” I snapped, throwing my rifle back over my shoulder.

“I wasn’t flirting.” The barest hint of a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth though. Couldn’t he be serious for more than five minutes? “I’ll take care of this one, you go after No-Nose.”

Grinning viciously I raised my gun and nodded.

Could tell by that look he gave me he was half way to telling me to go home. It’d been years since I saw that look, two maybe three. In the moment I didn’t care, it barely registered. Only one thing on my mind and that was the ghoul bitch running away like a coward.

Barely a split second apart, he swung around the wall and I barreled toward the house. Didn’t have time to look, didn’t have the mind to care what happened to the Gunner. Kept my ears open to make sure it wasn’t Nick that got killed. He got off three shots before the Gunner’s machinegun stopped firing. Judging by the pained groans, the Gunner would live, just not happily. So very like Nick.

I went careening around the side of the house just in time to see the ghoul and her escort disappear up the street. “no you fucking don’t.” swearing violently under my breath I tore up the street after them. Should have known something was wrong the moment they retreated. Gunners don’t retreat. They’re professionals, smart, organized. This whole thing so far had been clumsy. Going out the front door in the middle of a fire fight with one man on the asset? Even I knew that was stupid.

If only I had listened to that tiny voice in my head that could see all that. She knew it was a trap, so why the hell didn’t I? The street sloped upward slightly and to the left. A wall on my right dropped away revealing a large square with some kind of monument in the middle. Standing on the banister was a Gunner who lobbed a well aimed frag grenade at me. Digging my heels in I tried to stop as it soared. No good. Couldn’t move fast enough to get away.

Hands shot out from nowhere and grabbed me around the waist. My feet left the ground before my body met it once again. Face flat in the dirt something landed on top of me just as the grenade exploded. Tiny bits of metal and concrete cut at my exposed legs. No serious damage, thanks to the body.

With the sound of servos, the weight lifted. “you alright?”

“where the hell is she?” ungrateful jackass I was, I barely acknowledged Nick as I got to my feet. In my defense the ringing in my ears was so bad I could barely hear my own voice. A crater had formed in the concrete not three feet from our position. Must only have one or we’d be having a party right about then. Momentarily forgetting the dangers overhead, I ran up the hill to level ground. Across the street No-Nose was scrambling up some rubble while her escort turned to face me. “I’ve got her Nick!”

Under the adrenaline and the ringing I couldn’t make out his reply. Not that I cared particularly much at the moment. No-Nose disappeared on the other side of the half collapsed building before I’d even begun to run. The Gunner she left behind swung his weapon up to face me. A poorly constructed pipe-pistol. Must be a rooky if they’re giving him such shitty equipment.

Only a rookie would try backing up a set of stairs while firing. His foot caught on the first step and he went tumbling back. By accident, he fired his pistol toward the sky. It sounded totally muffled to my damaged ear drums. As I came up on him I tried to step over him. Ungrateful piece of shit didn’t deserve to die but he had other plans.

He reached out and grabbed at my legs tripping me up. I stumbled at the top, just in time to see No-Nose leap down into an alley beyond. A furious snarl escaped me as I twisted around on the ground to face the fucker slowing me down. He wrestled with my legs pathetically, a poor attempt to take me down. I got one leg free and bashed him hard in the nose with the heel of my boot. Blood spurted like a fountain, wasn’t too satisfied with that. While he still held on to me I smashed his face in again. A tooth flew out of his mouth into the ruble. Would never find that if he wanted to.

At last he let me go and I gave him one last kick in the side for good measure. As he went tumbling down the stairs like a sack of Tatos I span around. The top floor of the building had been completely destroyed leaving a one story drop to the alley beyond. No-Nose was already turning the corner ahead of me by the time I hit the ground. Gun gripped in my hands I bounded after her. It occurred to some small part of me that I’d left Nick behind. No way he’d know where I went unless he saw that little show earlier. Couldn’t stop and wait for him. Not with that shriveled freak getting away.

The moment I turned the corner I caught sight of No-Nose scrambling up a chain link fence just down the street. She wasn’t as alone as I initially thought. Another Gunner stood at her side. When he saw me he flung his gun up with expert aim and deadly intent. Grinding my teeth in frustration I retreated back behind cover. “you’re not getting away from me No-Nose! Stop wasting my time!”

“kiss my ass!” came her gravely reply.

How about shoot your ass? Yeah that sounded better.

When the gun fire stopped I took my opportunity. As I span around the corner I found the gunner scrambling clumsily up the fence. No-Nose had already abandoned him. Guess she didn’t really need to show loyalty to her employees. Not that she could have stopped me from putting two in his back.

He fell from the fence and I ran up the street. A pile of dirt off to my left helped boost me up and over the fence. When I landed a bullet whizzed past my right ear. I tucked and rolled behind cover, sat in the dirt behind a rusted truck.

“leave me the fuck alone! You got no idea what you’re doing!”

“I’ve got a pretty damn good idea!” I shouted back, leaping to my feet and firing at her. To my satisfaction one of my bullets grazed her arm just before she went running out of sight again.

Swearing under my breath I ran after her. Had to admit, the bitch was quick. By the time she came back into sight she’d already made it down the street. Blindly she fired back at me, her bullets serving as little more than a distraction. Be careful, a voice in my head told me. To hell with that, we were so close. I could finish this right now!

But you know what they say, don’t count your Mirelurks before they hatch.

Pursuing her down the streets didn’t prove difficult, especially with her bullets giving away her position every step of the way. Every now and then she’d shout something incoherent back at me to which I just grunted. At some point her bullets stopped coming. Good.

As I turned a corner, half a second behind her, we came face to face with a camp of raiders. Their guards raised the alarm with shouts and bullets. I leapt out of the way, swinging my gun up at him. Before he could fill either me or No-Nose with holes I put one in his head. More appeared, on the walls and overhead. No-Nose barely paid them any mind as she ran. My guess, she knew they were here and had lead me into what she thought was a trap.

Her mistake.

From a pocket I produced the only grenade we had left. Nick might reprimand me later for the waste. Then again he had never been particularly opposed to killing raider scum. I pulled the pin with a thumb then lobbed it up over their wall.

“grenade!” someone screamed inside much to my satisfaction.

I was turning the next corner before it exploded. Ahead No-Nose was racing up a slope beneath the freeway, headed out of town. Must have thought she’d lost me. Open terrain wasn’t your friend if you didn’t have ammunition. Or maybe she was just stupid. After all, she’d made an enemy out of Hancock. That’s about as dumb as you could get.

She went over the hill just out of sight. My lungs burned and my legs ached. The stinger wound in my shoulder threatened to open again. No time to think about any of that though. Panting I bounded the rest of the distance until I stood on a road next to the freeway. A military checkpoint blocked the middle of the road. Just south of it No-Nose careened down the street.

I slid to a halt in the middle of the blacktop, gun pointed at her. “stop or I’ll put one in your back!”

To my surprise she actually came to a stop, hands raised to either side of her head. Rasping out breaths that sounded painful she turned. The fear I’d seen before was there and it filled me with joy. Damn right she should be scared. I had her at gun point after all. But when she looked at my face the fear slid away to be replaced by astonishment. “O'Malley?! Hancock sent you then.”

“who else were you expecting?!” I shouted, gesturing with my gun barrel. “get on the ground, now!”

But she didn’t. To my utter rage her hands fell limply to her sides and her shoulders relaxed. She could see the gun right? “you don’t get it. You’re in over your head girl. Do yourself a favor and go home.”

Pointedly I cocked my gun and trained it more carefully on her. “I’m not going to say it again. On the ground.”

She smirked, hip cocked, totally relaxed. She was mocking me, that had to be it. No way she could be this relaxed in the face of a gun barrel. “sorry girly, but you ain’t a big enough fish to finish this. Hancock should have sent somebody else.”

I fired a single shot, aimed to a point just over her shoulder. She flinched visibly and a little fear finally leaked into her decayed features. “on the ground now!”

Slowly she knelt on the blacktop, raising her hands once again. About damn time. “so what are you going to do? Kill me? Hancock sent you after all.”

I’d thought about that, and in my head I’d already put a bullet between her eyes. My finger squeezed the trigger the tiniest bit in anticipation. Revenge would taste so good. It would. To the me of five years ago. Now Nick’s voice and face came to mind and I realized for the first time I was alone on that road with her. What would he do?

Fuck that, I knew exactly what he’d do.

Jaw set I lowered my gun a few inches. “you’re going back to Goodneighbor.”

Shock filled her face before a weird mix of fear and disappointment replaced it. The same mix of emotions filled her voice as she spoke next. “you don’t get it! If you don’t kill me then he will anyway!”

“and that’s Hancock’s decision to make.” The words felt weird in my mouth. I mean yeah he’d kill her, what did it matter if the bullet came from me or his shotgun?

“I’m not talking about Hancock!”

“the hell are you talking about?” my eyes narrowed.

No-Nose looked practically beside herself. On her feet once again she had her hands splayed out to either side of her. “I fucked up! He’s gonna kill me! If you take me back to Goodneighbor he’ll find me! I won’t let him catch me!”

“who are you-” a bullet streaked across my left arm, grazing my forearm deeply. A scream of pain tore out of my throat just as the gunshot echoed down to us. I span on the spot to find where it came from but another bullet tore apart the blacktop at my foot. Desperately I flung myself behind the checkpoint trailer, pressed up against the rusted metal. The bullet wound in my arm bled freely between my fingers, gun held loosely.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw No-Nose scramble, tearing down the road. “get the fuck back here!” I screamed leaning out of cover. Another bullet landed in the trailer just over my head and I hid again.

“fuck, god damn it, fuck!” how had I come this close only to let her get away?! I’d kill that Gunner. He wasn’t the only damn person with a sniper rifle.

Only as I leaned out with my rifle in hand he put another bullet into the metal, warning me to stay put. Why hadn’t he just killed me? I’d been wide open, a prime target but he went for my arm? Not only was that stupid, but it was a smaller target than, say, my head or chest. Whoever this guy was he was good and a pain in my ass. Wasn’t like the Gunners we’d dealt with up till now.

We.

Fuck Nick. What would the sniper do if he came looking for me up here? My heart crawled up my throat at the thought and my mouth went dry. With the strap of my sniper wrapped around my arm I got up on a knee. A little reckless sure. I needed to finish this now though. The fresh bullet wound burned as I span around the edge of the trailer, training my scope upward.

Silence followed. Blissful silence.

Must have run off. At least he let me go. Groaning under my breath I got up. Blood dripped down my arm. Not too bad, might could do with some stitches. With a hand wrapped around it I glanced in the direction No-Nose had run. Gone.

“Vel! Damn it where are you!?”

Nick’s voice brought my gaze back around. He came hiking up the hill beneath the freeway toward me. Relief flooded through me at the sight. Somehow he had managed to escape the battle mostly unscathed. No thanks to me. There weren’t any new holes in his clothes or burn marks. I’d still end up repairing the ones he had at some point. How could I have been so stupid? I shouldn’t have left him behind.

I moved to meet him, grimacing in shame. “I let her get away.”

“I doubted you let her.” He gave a brief chuckle until his eyes fell onto my arm and they went wide. Before I could do anything he closed the gap, gently taking hold of my wrist. “did she do this?”

“no.” I shook my head to hide the wince as he touched the wound. “there was a sniper somewhere. He pinned me down to let her get away.”

A quiet curse slipped under his breath. With his metal fingers he nudged the graze and grasped my hand with his other. “squeeze my hand.”

“I’ll be fine.” I obliged all the same, knowing he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

My strength satisfied him. “at least you can still use your hand. Hold still.” With one hand he untied his tie and slid it from around his neck.

I watched him wrap my arm with it, grimacing in shame and disappointment. “I’m sorry I let her get away.”

“don’t apologize for that.”

“but how’re we supposed to find her now?!”

“let me worry about that.” With a small jerk he tied off the makeshift bandage. For a second he continued to hold onto my arm, grimacing at it. “I’m beginning to lose track how many of my ties I’ve sacrificed to you.”

Was that a subtle jab that I needed to scavenge him more ties? “what are we going to do now? We can’t just let her get away.”

Heavy yellow eyes rounded on me and I felt the weight of them on my chest. They were accusing and at first I thought it was about losing No-Nose. I should have realized. “what got into you? You could have gotten both of us killed going off halfcocked like that.” His voice went low, mad, maybe even a little scared.

Blinking rapidly I took a step back, hand going to the bandage. “look I saw the ghoul and I reacted. I thought you valued instinct. What did you expect me to do?”

“I expected my partner to act like one. Not like a merc.” he answered venomously.

His words bit hard and I averted my eyes. A sting came to my eye which I tried to ignore. Kind of hard to do that.

Nick let out a long sigh. “I know you, gray, you’re better than that. You’re better than you used to be. You know I hate seeing you act like that raider I met five years ago.”

“you don’t need to remind me.” Although apparently he needed to remind me not to act like her. Five years ago I’d been a completely different person. A person that now, looking back, I was ashamed of. Back then I was a miserable, blood thirsty wretch. There shouldn’t have been any going back from that. But Nick had taken the long odds. He’d torn up what made me that person and rebuilt me. Thanks to him I could look the woman in the mirror right in the eye. Well for the most part.

Disappointing Nick was worse than disappointing myself.

“I’m sorry.”

A hand cupped my cheek and brought my face back around. Nick gave me a gentle halfhearted smile. Not quite reassuring. It would take time before he let this go. Just another thing we had to work through. Damn, we were just a pair of broken wastelanders weren’t we? “just don’t do that again, please.”

Swallowing hard I nodded, fighting the urge to bury my face into his shoulder. “I’ll try.”

“thank you.” Smiling a little wider he dropped his hand then jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “but we should get back. I left a lead bleeding out the knee in the middle of the street.”

“the poor lead.” I smirked.

Chapter Text

“I don’t know anything! Besides why the hell would I tell- Ahh!”

“oh I’m sorry did that hurt?” I glanced up from the Gunner’s bloody knee. At least we’d tied him down before I went to work or I’d be getting a face full of gore right about then. He squirmed beneath my hands while I dug around for the bullet. The cords we used to tie him strained against the chair.

“Jake wasn’t it?” Nick casually spoke as he searched the room. We were inside Hawthorne Estate, the building that No-Nose had fled from. Judging from the inside she hadn’t been here long. It consisted of a living room and kitchenet. There was probably more to the house but all other doors and stairs were blocked. Boxes of ammunition and a couple of guns lay scattered on the counter, couch and coffee table. Nick stood beside a radio, absently fiddling with the dials. “isn’t there a code in the Gunners, if you screw up a job you don’t get a second chance?”

“you don’t know nothing!” Jake bellowed like a child, twisting against the cords.

“look.” Irritably I brandished my bloody knife at him, glaring up into his face. “if you don’t sit still I’m never gonna get this thing out. Then we’ll just have to take your leg off. Won’t last long a cripple.”

That got him to shut up. With a clear click he slammed his mouth shut, going a bit pale. Some mercenary. If he weren’t with the Gunners I seriously doubted he’d last more than a week. Reputation sure got you a long way in the wasteland. A uniform too. Whether you were Gunner, Brotherhood of steel or Institute. Not so much vault dweller though.

Out of the corner of my eye I watched Nick slowly make his way around the counter toward us. Apparently the radio had lost its appeal when it wouldn’t pick up on his favorite station. He scraped a wooden chair across the room and set it in front of our prisoner. Could have sworn he was trying to make it loud. Huffing he sat, leaning over on his knees. “alright, Jake, so let’s say you don’t know where No-Nose went. Maybe she didn’t tell ya, maybe she was tight lipped about it, or maybe it was above your pay grade.”

Was this good cop? Did that make me bad cop? I guess so. After all I was the one wrist deep in this guy’s leg. I’d found the bullet ten minutes ago but I wasn’t about to pull it out just yet. Let him squirm a little longer.

Sweat was beginning to drip down Jake’s face in sheets. And he was as pale as a sheet. Never thought I’d see a Gunner reduced to this. A pile of ghoul fodder sure, nothing like this. “exactly! Above my paygrade!”

“but that doesn’t mean you didn’t hear something you weren’t supposed to.” Nick’s expression was cool, even while the corner of his mouth threatened to lift. Good to see he couldn’t take this kid any more serious than me.

The Gunner’s expression went steely. Pointedly he stared Nick right in the eye. I sensed a deal coming. “and lets say I do know something, what do I get for it?”

“well for starters, my partner will patch you up.” Nick gestured at me vaguely. A twinge of irritation made my wrist twitch. Gotta be careful, wouldn’t take much to severe his artery. “and you’ll get to leave here. With our word we won’t tell a single soul you survived.”

That got his attention. Casually he leaned back, relaxing for the first time since we dragged him off the street. Might have crossed his legs if I gave him the option. Smirking he glanced around the room. With the air of someone appraising the possibilities.

Nick had him hook line and sinker, whatever that literally meant. At this point Jake was just stalling. It took all my willpower not to stab him through the thigh. We didn’t have time for games like this.

Finally he looked back down at the detective, grinning. “you’ve got yourself a deal. Have her patch me up first then I’ll talk.”

For a split second it looked like Nick was about to say no. His eyes tightened and his fists clenched. Our eyes met. My brows shot up questioningly. It had been part of the plan all along after all. Eventually he let out a quiet sigh and nodded. “fine, do what you can for this jackass.”

Suddenly bad cop? Jake had struck some kind of nerve. Dutifully I popped the bullet out of Jake’s leg, none too gently. He screamed in pain while I stood, wiping my knife off on the couch beside us. “you’re hardly worth the Stimpak.”

He took in several long breaths then craned his neck to look up at me. That grin he gave me sent a disgusted shiver up my spine. “should I take my pants off so you can bandage it up?”

“you’re getting a Stimpak and that’s it.” Nick swooped in between us, sparing Jake a broken jaw. Silently he stabbed the mercenary’s leg with a Stimpak and took a step back. “now talk. Where did No-Nose go?”

“Hey!” Jake pointedly struggled against his bonds now. Incredulous he gaped at Nick. “untie me!”

“no.” defiantly Nick straightened and crossed his arms. “that wasn’t part of the deal. Do you want us to put a bullet back?”

My hand had already fallen on my gun in anticipation. After that comment I’d really like to amputate his leg.

To my disappointment Jake’s courage fled him like a Radstag in the open. “alright! Alright fine! I overheard her and the captain talking about the Glowing Sea!”

Something cold and hard hit the pit of my stomach. My hand slipped from my gun, sweat beaded on the back of my neck. Nick glanced at me over his shoulder, his expression equally as shocked as I felt. More than him though, the news scared me shitless. The glowing sea? We were going to have to go to the glowing sea?!

Silently Nick held out a hand and for a minute I was seized by an overwhelming need to squeeze it. Then I noticed his eyes dart toward my knife. “glowing sea huh?” I tried to make light talk as I handed it over to him. “she sure’s run a long way to get away from us eh Valentine?”

“not too smart to go hiding in the glowing sea when a synth is chasing you.” He muttered dryly, slicing through Jake’s bonds. As the mercenary stood up Nick glared at him. “now I suggest you get out of the commonwealth. Hell, only safe place for you is going to be the west coast. Better get moving.”

“it’s a long walk.” I muttered, glowering at him. “even longer on one bad leg. Impossible on two.”

He got my drift. Jake quickly and silently left the room out the front. A disappointed sigh escaped me but my shoulders relaxed. “well, guess it’s the glowing sea for us.”

“Not just yet.” Turning, Nick handed back my knife. “I used my last Stimpak on that jackass, and you’re going to need one for your arm. Let’s head back to Goodneighbor, John will want an update anyway.”

Oh yeah great, lets go tell Hancock I fucked up the job and let the ghoul bitch get away. If he didn’t fire me for that on the spot I’d be surprised. To be perfectly honest I was a little eager to get back to Goodneighbor. Fahrenheit still hadn’t woken up as far as I knew, there was always a chance. And if not, that would be fine. I’d just be able to deliver good news when she finally did.

If she ever did.

With a shake of my head I dislodged that thought. My eyes focused in on Nick only to find him frowning at me. “what?”

“nothing.” He averted his gaze a little too quickly. Something on your mind?

Before I got my chance to be interrogator, he strode out of the house. With an irritated sigh I followed him.

Thankfully Goodneighbor wasn’t far from South Boston. By the time we reached the gates the sun had only just begun to turn colors. Thank god, hated traveling in the dark. To my surprise Hancock was standing in the front quart yard, talking in undertones to some of the neighborhood watch.

“she’ll kill all of you if she finds out you’ve been slacking on the job. Don’t let me catch you drinking again, understood?”

“sure thing sir.” The two ghoul guards he was talking to swayed visibly on their feet. if they could shoot straight I’d eat Nick’s hat.

Yet our good mayor seemed satisfied and waved them off.

“morale’s low.” Nick commented as we approached the ghoul.

He turned with a half smirk. Annoyingly, his black eyes fell on my arm and he thrust his chin out on me. “you look like shit.”

“thanks.” Defiantly I crossed my arms, which only made the bullet graze hurt worse under Nick’s tie I might add. “don’t suppose you’ve got a Stimpak or something.”

“you’re gonna need more than a Stimpak for that.” He gestured casually and led us toward the old state house. “don’t tell me you came all the way back here just for that. Are you two doing anything out there?”

“haha.” I rolled my eyes, but honestly it was good to hear him joking. His jokes usually got on my nerves, and I usually found myself the butt of them. Still, they were a good sign. As we stepped up into his headquarters I glanced down the hall. “how’s she doing?”

Hancock paused, one foot and one hand on the stairs. “she woke up once while you two were gone. Not for very long. And I wish I had a recorder on hand for what she said. So I think she’s healing.”

“good to hear.” Nick came to stand at Hancock’s side, a hand on the ghoul’s shoulder. “told you she’d be fine, John.”

Quietly irritated he shrugged off Nick’s hand and continued up the stairs. “yeah, well, I knew that. How’s the man hunt going?”

Nick and I exchanged looks. He offered to be the one to tell him, I could read that much in his expression. Grimacing I shook my head. No, this should be my responsibility. We ascended to the second level, where Hancock and Fahrenheit could usually be found. It was admittedly a little weird not to see her sitting at that chess board, puffing on a cigarette.

“well?” Hancock spoke harshly over his shoulder as he pointed at one of the couches. “that zombie get what’s coming to her yet?”

“not exactly….” Groaning I sat, trying to ignore the flight or fight response. It was never fun delivering bad news to Hancock.

With a needle and thread he approached. Hard to tell under that leathery skin but I knew he was expectant. “ya lost her didn’t you?”

This wasn’t the kind of conversation I wanted to have before he was about to stick a needle in me. I threw open my mouth to elaborate when Nick stepped in. “we didn’t have much of a choice, John, she was waiting for us.”

“she hired some Gunners for protection.” I quickly stepped over him, giving him a scathing look. This was my job. “she was terrified of someone. You should have seen her.”

“she should be terrified.” Hancock sat on the coffee table in front of me and tugged my busted arm toward him. That hurt, and it took all my strength to stop myself wincing. With rough hands he untied the tie. “I’m coming after her after all.”

“I’m not sure she was scared of you….” In an attempt to avoid staring at the wound I fixed my eyes on Nick’s yellow ones. They were soft, but now curious. “when I caught up to her on the road, she said something about another guy. I think someone else is chasing her.”

“wouldn’t surprise me.” Hancock scoffed, ignoring every time my arm twitched under his fingers. Honestly I’d have preferred anyone other than a ghoul to sew me back together. Ghouls just didn’t have the same sense of pain as the rest of us. “No-Nose got around, she’s made enemies out of half the big names in the Commonwealth. Gotta wonder how she’s lasted this long.”

“did she mention this other player by name?” Nick asked leaning into the couch beside me.

I shook my head. “no, not that I remember. She just kept calling him him, you get me?”

“hmm.” His expression went dark as he dropped his eyes from mine.

Weird, never usually saw that look on him. What did he know about this case that he wasn’t sharing? What did he know about the other players?

“it’s probably her benefactor.” Hancock drew my attention back to the wound on my arm which had nearly been closed. About damn time, felt like a god damn pin cushion under his hands. “I’m guessing you stopped her from selling my chems, so she’s got one hell of a debt now she can’t pay off.”

“that’s putting it mildly.” Nick rose with a small groan, lighting a cigarette. “the mining equipment, the hired hands, the Eyebot, the fire power now Gunners? She’s burning through caps faster than a gambling addict. And the commonwealth doesn’t run on credit.”

“if she wasn’t out of funds before, she sure as hell is now.” I murmured. At last Hancock gave me my arm back. Gingerly I cradled it against my stomach, still grinning up at Nick. “and that’s why she’s fled to the Glowing Sea.”

“wait what?!” Hancock’s sharp voice brought our conversation to a dead halt. Nick and I’s gazes snapped around to him as he bolted to his feet. He gaped at us, giving us a wonderfully detailed view of his rotted teeth. “you’re fucking kidding. She’s gone to the Glowing Sea?”

“that’s where the trail leads.” Nick nodded, flicking the ash off the end of his cigarette casually.

“then she’s as good as gone.” Hancock waved his hand while his voice grew angry. “no fucking way you’ll find her in there let alone come back out to tell the tale. That bitch just outplayed you.”

“don’t be an idiot.” I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly at him. “it’s just the Glowing Sea. Not like she’s in the heart of the institute. And let me remind you, Nick and I have been there.”

Hancock looked practically beside himself with fury, which was weird cause I didn’t really see any reason to be that upset. He threw his arms to the ceiling and strode around to the back of the other couch. “you’re the idiots if you think you’re going in there. Look just forget about it. She’s gone, that’s the end of it.”

“what’s gotten into you?” Nick commented dryly.

My eyes narrowing, I stood to face Hancock. “you can’t fool me Hancock. You’re not going to let her just get away with what she’s done so why are you trying to throw us off?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about kiddo.” His voice went cool but his jaw flexed. “and, by the way, you’re both fired.”

“doesn’t work like that friend, sorry.” With a huff, Nick sat back down on the couch, stubbing out his cigarette in the ash tray. “job’s not done till we get the perp. What are you trying to pull?”

Furiously Hancock’s eyes darted between us. Never seen him like this before. Couldn’t decide if he was angry or just frustrated. Finally he threw his arms into the air one more time and shook his head. “I’m not going to…. I don’t need you to…. I don’t want to lose you too.” The words fought him every inch as he spoke.

And they felt like a punch to the gut. In the nearly two decades that I’d known Hancock I’d never once seen him worry about someone. Sure he cared about his men, but if they were stupid enough to get killed then that was on them. I had never seen him outright try to prevent someone from going to their own death. Let alone voice something like that aloud. He was family. He was my family. Even more so than I’d ever realized.

But so was Fahrenheit.

“we’re going into the glowing sea, whether you pay us or not.” I spoke in a hard but quiet voice. If there was one thing Hancock would understand, it was how stubborn I was. Hell Nick was here too. Guess that made this the most stubborn room in the entire commonwealth. “No-Nose is going to get what’s coming to her. And we’re coming home. Get used to that idea.”

“do you even know what the Glowing Sea is? Have you even been there?” Hancock spat, rounding angry eyes on me. “it’s a hell on earth. Things you’ve never even seen will hunt you down like dogs. And if they don’t get you, the radiation will. It’s a death trap. No-Nose is probably already dead anyway.”

“I’m not gonna be satisfied with probably.” I growled now in equal tone. Hancock wanted a fight, I’d give him a fucking fight.

Too bad he wasn’t up for it. letting out an inhuman growl he turned. That growl sounded way too similar to a feral. With one hand he took off his hat and scratched his leathery scalp with the other. “you two are the absolute fucking worst.”

“damn straight.” Came Nick’s satisfied reply.

I glanced at him over my shoulder then turned back to the mayor. “we’ll be fine.”

“sure you will.” He seemed to roll his eyes at me. “how’re you planning to survive the radiation?”

No idea to be honest, couldn’t be that hard to figure out though. I mean radiation wasn’t exactly an uncommon hazard in the waste. In response I shrugged, turning my attention back to the bullet graze. “that’s for me to figure out. We’ll handle No-Nose just make sure you don’t run Goodneighbor into the ground before we get back.”

He scoffed.

Nick helped me wrap his tie back around my arm. “before we leave we should go back to Diamond City, I want to check on the kids. No telling how long we’ll be out there.”

“fine.” Probably shouldn’t leave Nat unsupervised for that long anyway. On the other hand I wasn’t sure about that boy. He was supposed to be a copy of Flynn’s long lost son. Or something like that. Honestly last time someone tried explaining it, it had all been too complicated for my interest.

Hancock popped one of his Mentats. His shoulders instantly relaxed as the chem entered his system. “there ain’t no shame in backing out ya know. I can assemble a team of ghouls to go in after her. It doesn’t have to be you two.”

“there you’d be wrong.” I laughed. “not about the it doesn’t have to be you two bit. About you finding anyone else crazy enough to go into the damn sea.”

“what about Flynn?” He questioned with raised brows. “heard she’s been in and out a couple times.”

I scowled visibly and somehow my determination to go into the Glowing Sea doubled. Was I going to let Flynn outdo me? No, no I wasn’t. “come on Nick, still gotta get back to the city before sun down.”

He probably knew what I was thinking. With a chuckle he stood. “sounds good to me. We’ll come back to Goodneighbor when we’ve found No-Nose. Try not to lose sleep over us.”

“tch.” The ghoulish mayor just fixed him with an exaggeratedly bored look. “don’t count on it.”

We probably should go see Fahrenheit. At least say goodbye if we never made it out of the sea alive. Then again, not much point in it. And I doubted very much she’d have taken kindly to it even if she was awake. So with one last goodbye to our mayor, Nick and I headed back into the ruins headed to Diamond City. Things were quiet before sunset. A time when sane people scurried back to their homes and the madmen were only just waking up. And other worse things. Diamond city welcomed us back before trouble found us.

As we descended the stairs into the market I scanned the stores. “I should go see if the surplus has a hazmat suit. Unless you’ve got a suit of power armor lying around somewhere.”

“gray.”

The way he spoke brought me up short. Pivoting on two steps I turned to look back up at him. He hadn’t moved from the top step, staring down at me with shadowed eyes. “you alright?”

“course I am.” He gave a large shrug while his face remained heavy.

“do you think I’m that stupid?”

An airy chuckle escaped him. “don’t worry, I’ll do diagnostics and repairs tonight. Should be good as new for the morning. But that’s not what I want to talk about.”

Oh, this conversation. Wasn’t he there when Hancock had tried to talk me out of this? “look, Nick, if there’s one thing I won’t do it’s let you walk into the glowing sea alone. I’d be damned if I just stood by while you went to hell on earth. So don’t start.”

He waved his mechanical hand, as if brushing aside that conversation. “I know, I know. And honestly there’s nobody else in the whole commonwealth I’d rather go in with. No one else I’d trust to watch my back.” at last he descended the stairs until he came level with me.

“then what?” holding still, I let him put a hand to my cheek. Warmth flooded me, tickling my skin.

His expression became soft, tender. It made my heart ache and for a brief moment he could ask anything of me. “promise me that when we go, you’ll be careful. Don’t take risks, stay close and we’ll keep each other safe.”

“you’re scared too….” My throat felt dry.

Quickly he hid his eyes beneath the rim of his hat but I’d already read him.

There was no need to say any more than that. While he hid is face I wrapped my arms around his chest and squeezed. Soon his arms found their way around me. The warmth of his embrace drew out the fear. So long as we were together we could handle anything. Even a Deathclaw or two. “we can do this, if Flynn and Macready can do it, so can we.”

A huffed laugh issued out of his chest as he broke the embrace gently. “can’t wait to see their faces when we tell them this story.”

“I don’t care what you say, I’m not doing dinner with them.” Rolling my eyes I marched down the rest of the steps to the muddy paths of Diamond city. “particularly with her.”

He followed not far behind, likely smirking at me. “she isn’t that bad. Give her a chance.”

“cold… day… in hell.”

One of his hands shot out, grabbing me around the good arm. With a tug he forced me around. His yellow eyes were serious. Not that I could take this conversation seriously. “she’s a good person gray, she didn’t mean to put anyone in harm’s way.”

“but you’d do it again in a heartbeat.” I pointed out irritably, my eyes narrowing.

“because she’s my friend.”

“well she isn’t mine.” Scowling I crossed my arms and turned my gaze upward. From here I could see the mayor’s office window. The silhouettes of two men shadowed the glass from inside. Wonder what kind of backroom deals were cooking up right then. “at the risk of starting an argument tonight, Flynn needs someone in her life telling her no. She’s got the rest of you wrapped around her little finger.”

“that isn’t true.”

Fuck you, of course it was true. I’d seen the way Deacon and Desdemona looked at her. And if she had won those two over then there wasn’t anyone she couldn’t manipulate. It made me a little sick to be honest. Granted, Flynn didn’t have a whole hell of a lot going for her other than her… charm. Starting to realize her codename had been aptly chosen. That made it worse though. If she couldn’t help herself, she didn’t have any business asking other people for help.

“you make big talk.” Nick shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled at me. “I’ll have to remember this when you start doing favors for her.”

“shut up.” My eyes narrowed playfully at him before I nodded at the newspaper beside us. “if I’m doing anything for her, it’s because of that kid of hers. Better go check on him, I’ll go have a look at the surplus.”

“don’t get lost along the way.” He called at me as I turned.

Holding up my Pipboy I laughed. “I’m the one with the onboard map!”

Chapter Text

You hear all kinds of stories in the wasteland. Men from space and their weird laser guns. Talking mole rats. Ghosts looking for someone to help finish their business. Talking Deathclaws. An Eden paradise somewhere out there. Mostly I figured that last one was wishful thinking. Although I’d have been interested to see what a Deathclaw thought about. Probably something along the lines of, oh that person looks like fun, lets go play fatal tag with them. In any case. There was one place you heard stories about but never from someone that had actually been there. The Glowing Sea.

Plenty of people claimed to have gone in and back. Mercenaries, Gunners, bunch of ghouls. They were all pretty much lying. Only two kinds of people went into the Glowing Sea. The desperate and the stupid. Guess that made Nick and I both stupid and desperate. Same goes for No-Nose I suppose. Point is, if someone said they went in they probably didn’t have much intention of coming back out. It was safe enough on the outskirts, hell if the outskirts counted as going in I’d have been there. Deeper in though was another story.

Word was the Glowing Sea had been a result of the biggest bomb dropped during the war. Where the rest of the commonwealth had pretty much recovered from the radiation, the sea still leaked it like a faulty pipe. There were a few places in the commonwealth that had bad radiation. They were usually crawling with ghouls, sometimes Deathclaws, dangerous enough alone. Had to imagine the Glowing Sea was at least ten fold worse. From what I’d seen at a distance it was.

I stood on the blacktop, staring into the glowing sea through a fishbowl. I was beginning to wish this place could just stay a rumor.

“nervous?” Nick stood beside me, wearing his usual trench coat and fedora. A little irritating that he didn’t have to throw on anything special to survive this trip.

It was nearly impossible to move in this damn hazmat suit. To say nothing of the helmet. Couldn’t be sure I’d be able to aim straight with this thing on. Stiffly I turned to give him a sidelong glance. “aren’t you?”

With a flick of his wrist he checked his revolver for ammo before shoving it back in its holster. Was beginning to wish more than ever he’d get a better gun. “it’s good to be nervous. It’ll make ya careful. Just don’t get jittery.”

“the jitters are the least of my concern.” Grumbling I returned my gaze to the road ahead. A literal road to hell as it were. “so I hope you’ve got a better plan than wonder the Glowing Sea until we stumble into a ghoul that doesn’t try to eat our faces off.”

“rumor has it there are a group of those children of atom cultists living out in the middle of the sea.” He reached out and took my arm with the Pipboy attached to it. “I got vague coordinates from Piper way back when. Your Pipboy is gonna come in handy now.”

“that’s its job.” Once he put the coordinates in I glanced down at the map. Seemed like a long way off from here to the children of atom. If they were even there. If they would even help us. And if they had even seen No-Nose. That in and of itself seemed like a one in a million chance. We’d come here on the word of a Gunner too. Now I’d been on cases with Nick that seemed impossible. This, took the top slot.

“you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.” Nick brought me out of my thoughts. I suddenly found him standing at my side, that crooked grin on his face.

“what are we waiting for? The glowing sea isn’t gonna get any less dangerous if we stand around here.” Hoping that he couldn’t see the apprehension through my fishbowl helmet, I marched up the road into hell.

The instant we came over the ridge and found ourselves in the glowing sea proper, my Pipboy blew up nervously. I’d never heard a Geiger counter go that haywire before. A perfect introduction to the hell scape that waited for us.

If you’ve never been to the Glowing Sea, let me paint you a vivid picture. Imagine a normal landscape, hills, trees, you know all the good stuff. Now take out the good stuff, replace the ground with black dirt, glass and glowing pools of radioactive goo. Then fill the sky with black green clouds, make the air poison, and you’ve pretty much got the glowing sea. Somehow most of that didn’t bother me. It was the ruins, or what was left of them, that put my teeth on edge. I was used to the ruins in the city, these were hardly recognizable.

We passed by chunks of highway, jagged hunks of metal sticking out of the ground. A cave that looked like it might have once been a Red Rocket station. Not to mention the pools of radioactive sludge, literal swarms of Bloatflies, and the absurd number of ghouls. I tried keeping track of just how many we passed but it was literally impossible.

Through the gloom I spotted a shadow lumbering across a patch of highway. Without a word I grabbed Nick by the trench coat and pulled him back. With a thud he hit the ground beside me. “what the hell gray?”

“sh.” The sweat rolled down the back of my neck as I put my sniper to my eye. Sure enough I spotted a Deathclaw, patrolling its territory. Maybe it was the fishbowl, or the radiation, or some combination but I could have sworn that was the biggest one I’d ever seen.

“that’s one pissed off dino.” Nick’s voice in my ear scared me out of my suit.

The sniper slipped from my eye and hit the concrete with a clatter. Nick grabbed me around the collar and dragged me back behind cover. In the distance the Deathclaw huffed. Pressed into the dirt patch I held my breath. Ironic that it was my sniper rifle that was about to get us killed.

Nick risked a look over the dirt, yellow eyes narrowed. “well, raptor over there doesn’t see us.” He whispered, barely loud enough for me to hear him. “but it’s blocking the way. We’re gonna have to go around.”

I looked to the map on my Pipboy. Didn’t particularly like that I was calling it my Pipboy now. Still fully intended to sell it when I got a chance to breathe. “we’re close. If we swing further south then head straight east, we’ll be there.”

“lead the way, I’ll keep an eye on our scaly friend.”

“great horned lizard.” I grumbled under my breath. Didn’t particularly like leaving my back to something like that. Not that I didn’t trust Nick. Then again, last time we’d went up against a Deathclaw he’d lost an arm. He probably had had enough time to come up with more arm puns.

Inching our way across the glassy black of the glowing sea ground away at my nerves. I wanted to move fast, to get out of danger, yet that risked drawing the attention of Nick’s pissed off dino. So we were stuck, creeping over hills and crags until we left the Deathclaw long behind. At least I hoped we left it long behind.

Nick just straightened and strode out ahead of me without so much as a warning. Which I had to interpret as a good sign or get left behind. Soon we found ourselves on a path leading up through a small slot canyon. According to the map we weren’t far. Probably at the top of the slope. Subconsciously I relaxed. We were almost at the end anyway, the worst part was over.

Oh how wrong I was.

The ground beneath our feet began to rumble. We both came to a stop at exactly the same time. If synths could feel their hearts sink Nick’s had to have right about then. We had barely enough time to exchange dread filled looks before the ground between us exploded. For one second I thought the Deathclaw had somehow gotten the drop on us explosively. Then the chittering sounds pierced the gloom.

A pincer the size of my head, surged out and snapped at me. It narrowly missed my ribcage as I staggered back. Before I even had the mind to celebrate the other pincer swung at me. This one clipped me in the shoulder. God himself must have been looking out for me because the suit didn’t rip. Before it could swing at me again I rolled out of the way, up the side of the path.

From this vantage I caught a brief glimpse of Nick. He backed up on the far side of the path, two Radscorpions pressing him to the edge of the cliff. His gun flashed like a beacon in the gloom. The Radscorpions screeched in fury, their giant tails struck like lightning. Nick took one more step back. One of the tails struck the ground at his feet. Then he disappeared over the side of the path.

“Nick!” his name tore out of my throat painfully a split second before the scorpion struck at me again.

A pincer snapped around my leg, bruising down to the bone. It didn’t break, not for lack of trying. Instead the Radscorpion swung its entire body around, taking me with it. It tossed me several feet away. My head cracked against the inside of my helmet. The damn fish bowl. Stars danced on my eyes while my hand instinctively scrambled for my gun. Splayed out on my stomach I didn’t even see the shadow before the scorpion was on me again.

Three pairs of heavy bony legs dug at the ground around me. Something hot slid down my helmet. Even through the air filters I could smell the damn thing. Bile surged up my throat in response. I literally gagged. Nothing like the smell of Radscorpion spit to purge the stomach. A set of claw like pincers clacked against the back of my helmet.

At last my hand wrapped around the grip of my gun. It took all the strength I had but I managed to turn over to my back. A poor decision in hindsight really. It gave me the perfect view of the scorpion’s gaping mouth. It’s mandibles wrapped almost cleanly around my helmet, scraping uselessly against the reinforced plastic. If it had been any bigger it could have found a grip. Then it would snap the fishbowl, and crush my skull like a Mutfruit.

Who said Radscorpions weren’t smart? I swung my gun wide, trying to get it pressed up against its brain. Its half a dozen beady black eyes glinted with green light. It grabbed my wrist in one of its pincers. I screamed as it squeezed. The gun threatened to slip from my hand. it bore down harder on me, forcing my helmet flat on the ground. Poison and spit slid down the front of my helmet, a sickly green ooze. At least it wasn’t acid or my face would be melting off right then.

Struggling to stay conscious from the pain I unsheathed the knife form my shoulder. before it could stop me I sliced at one of its mandibles. With a shriek of pain it reared up on its legs, releasing my arm. Practically clawing at the ground, I scrambled out from under it. my arm throbbed but I had managed to hold on to my gun. Going to a knee I swung around only to find the path empty. A giant hole where the scorpion had been.

“fuck… fuck….” Wiping furiously at my helmet, I swung around wildly. Where the hell was it?! these damn things! They were as annoying as mole rats but fifty times more dangerous. Under the rolling thunder there was no way I’d hear where it would strike from next.

A different sound drew my attention instead. Over the edge of the path a Radscorpion shrieked before a gunshot cut it short. “Nick! Hang on!” gun gripped in one hand, knife in the other, I pelted back up the path to where I last saw the synth.

Didn’t get near that far. The dirt exploded right beneath my feet. as it parted the hard exoskeleton of a scorpion shoved me upward. Like a spring board it sent me flying back down the path. I did a painful summersault as I hit the ground until I landed hard on my back. blinking through the pain I sat up just in time to see the scorpion rear one last time before it charged.

Gun held unsteadily in two hands I pelted its face with as many bullets as I had. Its hard-outer shell cracked to pieces. Four of its eyes exploded like black Tatos. Yet it still kept coming. Its mouth hung open lopsidedly with its missing mandible. Both claws raised and open to crush me. Then its legs seized up. They went totally stiff, digging a set of long trenches in the path as it skidded the rest of the way.

It cleared my legs before its own legs gave out entirely. With the last bit of its momentum it crashed onto my chest. Blood, poison and spit oozed down over my helmet and shoulders. The air in my suit became almost unbearable. The weight of the thing made it just as hard to breathe. Yet I’d won. “fuck you! Fuck you and the rest of you overgrown insects!”

“gray!”

A fresh wave of relief flooded over me. Almost didn’t care this carcass was trying to crush me. “Nick! You ok?!” with no small degree of effort, and a lot of leg strength, I kicked the damn thing off. Breathing easy at last I staggered to my feet. “Nick! Where are you?!”

“down here!”

Following his voice I practically collapsed on the edge of the path overlooking the cliff. He stood between two Radscorpion bodies. A new tear in his coat ran from his hip past his knee. That was gonna be one hell of a fix. “how the hell did you kill two of them?! I emptied my clip in one!”

He craned his neck back to look at me. Grinning smugly he held up his gun. “it may not have many bullets but it packs more of a punch than yours.”

Rolled my eyes. “can we get a move on before more of those things show up?”

“lets just hope that Deathclaw didn’t hear us.” He joked, dryly, but it was a fair and real danger.

While he climbed back up the slope I reloaded my magazine. No point getting caught with your pants down.

“you look like shit.” His dry grumble signaled his arrival back on the path. “can you even see through that?”

“I don’t know, I thought you just got a new face job.” I wiped uselessly at the helmet with a hand. “lets get moving. Maybe the children of atom have a rag or something.”

“just don’t ask to borrow my tie.”

You know you have too many near death experiences on the average week when you joke immediately following one. We probably should have been more concerned for one another. Maybe Nick should have been telling me to go home, or vice versa. In the middle of the Glowing Sea, it was almost more dangerous to turn around. So together we left behind the site of our recent life struggles, and headed up.

The path sloped to a peak before immediately plunging into a massive crater on the other side. At the basin lay a pool of glowing water. Insanely someone had decided to build a metal shack over the top of it. Ramshackle buildings lined the crater in a semi circle on the far side. Not particularly defensible. Didn’t even see any walls. How did these people deal with things like Radscorpions?! You’d think living in the Glowing Sea would make you smarter than this.

Then again it took a special kind of stupid to take up residence here.

That very special kind of stupid was pointing gamma guns at us. “who dares corrupt Atom’s holly ground?!”

“cultists….” I grumbled inaudibly as my hands went up.

Beside me Nick did the same, although he looked far less concerned about the gamma gun pointing in his face. “listen, we’re here looking for somebody. We don’t want any trouble alright?”

“do not speak to me machine!” the cultist snapped.

Looking past the barrel of the gun I surveyed the group. They all were dirty faced, thin haired, mad eyed men and women. Most wore little more than rags. A few had on the robes of atom, strainer on the chest included. The two holding us at gun point had hoods too, their eyes glinted from the shadows. Either they were just eager to shoot someone or they were crazy. Didn’t want to test either case.

“calm down.” I barked, trying not to clench my fists. Wouldn’t be very comforting. Wondered if their guns could do much to me when I was wearing a hazmat suit. For that matter radiation charged Nick’s batteries so what could it do to him?

“I will not hear your lies interlopers!” one of the guards bellowed, brandishing his gun. A mouth full of holes flashed in a snarl. “I will protect Atom’s sacred ground from the heathens of the outside world! Be gone!”

“are you kidding?”

“gray.”

“no!” I threw up a hand at Nick to stop him then stomped toward the children of atom. Most of them took a step back except the guard that still had his gun on me. “we’ve just trekked god damn miles from Diamond city! Narrowly avoided a Deathclaw! Almost got crushed to death by a couple of Radscorpions! All just to get here and talk to you people and you’re going to just throw us out?!”

“gray, I think you’re the one that needs to calm down.” Not that Nick was trying to stop me or anything. Liked to think that meant he shared my sentiment. Sometimes he could be a real pushover though.

The child of atom stared at me in bewilderment. Clearly he’d never met anyone with more spine than a Radscorpion. That’s a smart joke by the way, scorpions don’t have spines. His gun wavered and dropped a couple of inches. “th-this is Atom’s sacred ground! You are intruders come to destroy his children! I will protect them!”

Irritably I threw my hands into the air, then gestured at the sniper on my back. “if we were here to kill you, you wouldn’t have seen us coming!”

That’s when the guns came back up toward our faces. Groaning I threw my hands back up, and took a step to rejoin Nick. He gave me a sidelong look, eyes narrowed. “that was a real good case you just made. Well done. Is this how you make friends all the time?”

“shut up….” Was beginning to wish we had come here to kill the children of atom.

Turns out I wouldn’t need to.

“that’s enough!” a high commanding voice issued over the crowd. Some of the children dispersed, parting way for the new comer. The guards didn’t back down even as a ragged old woman came forward. She might not have been that old, but the radiation had taken its toll. Her hair looked lanky, her skin sagged and I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t blind. Everything about her looked sickly. Yet as she stepped forward there was the unmistakable glint of authority in her eye.

“Mother Isolde!” the guards flinched. The one on Nick glanced over his shoulder while mine continued to point his gun at my face. if he didn’t point that somewhere else soon I was going to crack it over his skull. “please, stay back, I am handling this.”

“stand down brother.” She put a restraining hand on his arm, forcing him to lower the gamma gun. About damn time. Her dull eyes went to me next. Didn’t see any of the usual hostility or suspicion there. Although it felt like she was sizing me up for some reason. “it isn’t often that we receive visitors. Please follow me.”

“Mother Isolde!”

“that’s quite enough brother. Go prey to Atom for guidance. It seems you may need it.” well that was a burn. Hard to keep my mouth straight as Mother Isolde guided us through the crowd of onlooking children toward the buildings.

“nice place you’ve got here.” Nick said casually. A bold faced lie if ever I heard one. This place made Diamond city look luxurious. Hell, it made Goodneighbor look like a god damn paradise.

And Isolde must have known it. “we live humbly before Atom’s glow.” She answered leading us up into the only two story building in the camp. Inside wasn’t much better than the outside. With it open to the outside radiation filled the air just as bad as in the crater. How anyone could live out here and not go ghoul was beyond me. “now then, please have a seat. I would offer you something to drink but I’m not sure either of you are prepared to accept Atom’s gift.”

I was about to ask where we were supposed to sit when Nick just put himself down on a crate. Who said hospitality was dead? With a groan I sat awkwardly on a rickety stool beside him.

Once we had sat, she perched herself on a folding chair, shoulders relaxed. “it isn’t often that we receive visitors from outside these hollowed grounds. If you have not come for Atom’s blessing than what have you come for?”

“we’re looking for someone.” Nick leaned forward on his knees, hands clasped.

“if you came in search of Atom I could help you.” She smiled jokingly, while a weird insane glint flashed in her eye. That could have been my imagination to be honest. “but we receive few visitors if any. You are the only outsiders that haven’t fired upon us in some time.”

I’d have sympathy but considering how many people these damn children killed on a regular basis…. Yeah no sympathy here. Holding my tongue on that point proved difficult. Lucky me Nick was there to do most of the talking.

“I doubt she would have come near you. She’s a ghoul.”

The instant he said the word ghoul, Isolde’s entire manner changed. Her shoulders stiffened, her face scrunched up like she smelled something awful. Maybe she finally got a whiff of her front yard pond. With folded arms she sat back. “those creatures, spurned by Atom himself, are not welcome near our camp. The feral monsters often stray near Atom’s crater. We push them back as best we can but they return.”

“we’re not looking for a feral, although she ain’t much better than one.” Nick glanced at me with a grim half grin. He wasn’t lying.

Isolde looked between us. “what has this ghoul done to warrant being chased to the furthest ends of the commonwealth?”

“she hurt our friend.” I replied venomously before Nick could. “she almost killed her and we’re here to make sure she gets what’s coming to her.”

Isolde studied me. The dull color of her eyes made me uncomfortable. Sure I had gray eyes but at least mine were natural. The radiation had taken such a toll on her body it was a wonder she still had a nose. Wonder how she’d react if she ever became a ghoul herself. “your friend is lucky to have someone such as yourselves in her life.”

Snorting, I turned my gaze out the door into the wasteland. “yeah well… have you seen the ghoul or not? She has short dark hair, probably armed to the teeth, black vest.”

A few more seconds of silence followed until I turned back to glare at Isolde. Didn’t like the expression I saw there. Taking in a slow weary breath she rose and paced toward the door. From there she could overlook the pond. “I sense Atom’s favor with you, Vel O'Malley.”

“We never introduced ourselves.” Nick muttered in a guarded tone.

Isolde kept her back to us while she spoke. My body suddenly felt cold in spite of the hazmat suit. A bad feeling crept up the back of my neck. Could these cultists get any weirder? “some of us did indeed see your criminal. She was traveling northward from the capsized factory just north east of here.”

“any idea where she might be going?” hard to say anything around a shocked throat. It didn’t feel like we were in danger but the sooner we got out of here the better I’d feel.

“there is but one place in that direction that could shelter her. There is an abandoned shack directly north of Atom’s crater. We do not go near it but someone as desperate as this ghoul may have no qualms.”

Next obvious question, which Nick voiced for the both of us. “why don’t you go near it?”

“Atom does not wish us to.” She replied without hesitation. What? Atom had higher standards of hallowed ground? He preferred pits in the middle of nowhere over ruins? Beginning to think ‘Atom’ had poorer judgment than me.

“thank you mother Isolde.” It was Nick who brought the conversation to an end first. Even more eager than me, he rose and strode toward the door. “let’s go gray.”

Not that I was far behind to begin with. Quickly I made to follow until Isolde spoke again. Crazy old bat. “be careful, Vel O'Malley. Atom will protect you until you enter the abandoned shack. You will be without his help once inside.”

“I don’t need Atom’s protection.” I spat over my shoulder, shooting her a glare. “I never have.”

My venom did nothing to deter her. “you may not feel him, but I promise, he’s always been there.”

Something in my stomach crawled. Taking hold of Nick’s hand we left the crater as fast as our legs could carry us. I felt the eyes of all the children on me as we left. Did they sense whatever Isolde had? Or were they just happy to see us go?

Chapter Text

“Atom’s favor hm?”

“don’t fucking ask me.” Another shudder ran down my spine. Did we have to talk about this now? “they’re crazy, she’s crazy. How the hell did she know my name?”

“I don’t know.” With a shake of his head Nick turned his gaze back to the path ahead of us. We were making good time, at least I thought we were. Hopefully we wouldn’t miss the shack in this chaos. “like you said, she’s crazy. Maybe she’s heard of you, somehow.”

“somehow, is that all you’ve got detective? That’s a real comfort.” Still felt like those children were watching me. Even through the fishbowl helmet the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I couldn’t wait to get out of this place. Wouldn’t feel safe until we’d left the Glowing Sea far behind.

“you know it-”

“can we just forget it?” I shot him a glare over my shoulder. Not an easy thing to do when you’re wearing a suit like this. “if we keep talking about it I may shoot something.”

In surrender he raised his hands. “fair enough. Keep your eyes out. That shack can’t be far.”

It had better not be far. I was getting sick of this place. The suit, the radiation, the Radscorpions, fucking cultists. Was it any wonder that nobody came around these parts if they could help it? It made it the best place to hide I supposed. No-Nose knew what she was doing when she came out this way. I mean who in their right mind would just waltz into this hell hole willingly? Present company excluded. And I was pretty sure Flynn wasn’t in her right mind. At least back then. Probably less so now all things considered.

Wondered mildly to myself what kind of trouble she and Macready were getting into down in the capitol. Never been that far myself but judging by the stories I heard it couldn’t be much different than the commonwealth. Certainly couldn’t be any more dangerous than what we were doing.

“that’s gotta be it.” Nick’s triumphant voice drew me out of my thoughts and my eyes up.

We were coming up a slope that overlooked the broiling valley behind us. At the top a cabin loomed out of the gloom. My hand went for my gun. This place made me more jumpy than two decades living in Goodneighbor. Turns out my jumpiness wasn’t necessary since someone had come before us. We mounted the hill and looked over the porch into the old cabin. A couple of ghoul bodies lay on the floor, rapidly cooling.

“someone’s been here alright.” I muttered.

“what?”

“I said someone’s been here!” shot him a glare.

His brows shot up. “you’re going to have to speak up if you expect me to hear you through that thing.”

Rolling my eyes I jabbed a finger at the cabin. “are – we – going – inside – or not?!” I spoke every word deliberately, taking my sweet time irritating him.

His turn to roll his eyes. shaking his head he went ahead of me, climbing the stairs up into the building itself. Half expected a ghoul to jump him as he passed the door but thankfully nothing so eventful happened.

I followed him, feeling somewhat more relaxed with four walls around me. At least I knew there wasn’t anything watching me through them. Was starting to despise the ever present yellow green fog that clogged up this place. The cabin looked relatively intact, considering a nuclear plant had gone critical next door. Beside the ghouls there was a broken bed, a table and a skeleton leaned in a corner.

“problem with secret doors.” Nick said, chuckling mildly to himself. He walked across the room and nudged a trap door with his foot. “gotta have someone behind you to keep them secret. It’s locked. Think you can handle it?”

“what? Hard to hear in this fishbowl!” I called mockingly, while I produced a bobby pin from my belt.

“alright smartass, get on with it.” he scowled.

Unprovoked sarcasm, that was a sure way to irritate him. Didn’t let it last long of course. I knelt at the trap door and coaxed the lock open. Not as quick as usual with the gloves. Couldn’t wait to get this thing off.

“you’re getting slow.” He chuckled, lifting the door. “after you.”

“such a gentlemen.” Smiling I proceeded down into the depths of the passageway. It was well lit and deadly silent. The ladder spat us out at the top of a sloped hallway leading into a slightly larger room. Here we found a desk with a skeleton still sitting at it, on duty. “died on the job, hate to go out like that.”

“how do you expect to go out?” Nick walked around the desk, watchful for traps. Knowing No-Nose she’d have set plenty. Then again, maybe she hadn’t had the time. I hoped not. I was getting tired of this chase. “as far as I can see we’re hell bound to go out on the job.”

“as long as there’s a Deathclaw involved, I’m fine.” Leaning over the desk I raised my brows at him. “find anything useful?”

“.44 revolver and some bullets. Want it?”

“no.” pointedly I put a hand on my gun. “I like my piece just fine.”

“then I don’t want to hear anything more about mine.”

“kind of like this typewriter though, never seen one in such good shape.”

“got a thing for antiques don’t you?” he chuckled.

Smiling seductively I winked at him. “you tell me.”

Smiling to himself, he straightened and gestured to the next hall. A sign beside it read Restricted area, unauthorized person’s keep out. “shall we break a few rules?”

“isn’t that in our job description?” I followed him down the next hall which sloped like the other. Eventually it came to an end in a large mechanical door. Sliding a hand over it, I grimaced. “no lock on this one, bet she disabled controls from the inside.”

“give me a minute.” Next to the door Nick popped the cover on a panel and went to work on the wires inside. As he worked my mind came into focus. We were close, I could practically smell No-Nose behind that door. She wouldn’t get away, not a second time. One way or another, this would be over. I’d make sure of it. My hand tightened around the 10mm subconsciously. With a small hiss the door slid open and I jumped. “got it.” Nick sat up.

“let’s stay low and quiet, chances are she’s waiting for us but I want to get the drop on her if we can.”

“agreed.”

Doubled over we crept through the door onto a platform that jutted out into space. For a split second I marveled at the room before us. It was three stories tall, straight down. we stood at the top most floor. Through a railing down the center of the room you could see right to the bottom. And there she was. A small form rushing back and forth between computer terminals. She was frantic as she worked. Terrified even. That didn’t make any sense. Back on the road she hadn’t been nearly this scared of me. What had changed?

My eyes drifted upward, scanning the other floors. Nothing too deadly, as far as I could see. Maybe we’d gotten here before she had a chance to bunker down. Good. “is this a vault? Seems a little small.”

“nah, this is something else.” Nick murmured alongside me. “keep low, we’ve got the element of surprise for now.”

As Nick made his way inch by inch along the walk, I glanced back down at No-Nose. One bullet, at this distance, using my rifle, would end it all. This chase could be over right now. We could just walk right out the way we’d come. It would be so easy. And that was the problem wasn’t it? At least to Nick it would be. Even now he wanted to bring No-Nose in, alive. And he’d be furious if I just did away with her and called it a day.

So with a resigned sigh I followed him toward a door on the far left. Guess he knew where he was going. Through this room we discovered a set of stairs leading further down. it looked like the place had been abandoned mid work day. Clipboards, newspapers, coffee cups still sat on desks with their chairs pushed out. Here and there we stumbled over skeletons still dressed in lab coats. Just what sort of place had this been before the war?

We reached the next floor down, guess that made it the second floor? Still nothing. At this distance I could hear No-Nose muttering to herself. She sounded as scared as she looked. Then as we came around a corner we came face to face with a Protectron.

“intruder! Intruder, you must be eliminated!” it beeped melodramatically. It’s glass face glowed with a menacing red light while its insides whirred angrily. It thrust out both its three fingered hands with pneumatic actuators. Nick was ahead of me, he got the attack before we even knew what was happening. The Protectron punched him hard in the chest. I heard metal whine in protest. The force sent him smashing against the wall with a crunch.

The Protectron gave me no time to think about Nick. It swung around to face me next, one mechanical arm raised. I wasn’t made of metal like the detective. If it hit me with even one punch it would crush my ribcage. Or worse. So I dived aside while it punched through the doorframe where my head had been.

Skidding on the metal floor I span around to face it. Like a character from a kid’s comic book, it struggled to dislodge its arm from the wall. It gave Nick just enough time to recover, rolling off a box that had broken his fall. He staggered out of reach, throwing his gun up at the Protectron. Together we pelted it with the full capacity of our magazines.

Sparks and bits of metal flew off of it in every direction. One arc zigzagged through the air and struck my outstretched gun. Electricity surged up both my arms momentarily numbing them. Swearing I staggered back, shaking my shoulders to recover. Finally the Protectron broke free of the wall. It span around wildly, carried by its own momentum, narrowly missing Nick.

Somewhere behind us I could hear two more Protectron footsteps pounding their way up the stairs. I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see them. The palms of their hands glowed with an angry red light to match their faces. They were powering up, ready to fill us full of sizzling holes. No problem, they wouldn’t be smart enough to shoot us yet. We had time to deal with the first and gun down one other before we were in danger.

Then the lights went out.

Plunged into utter darkness I heard the swoosh of an arm then the crunch of metal. “Nick?!”

“keep your head down!” came his voice not a foot to my left.

Then another crash and crunch. That Protectron was relentless. How it survived all those bullets was beyond me. In the helmet I could hardly hear a damn thing. Should have taken it off the moment we got inside, no time for that now. Thankfully Protectrons glow in the dark. Its red glass face swung around. It perfectly backlit the side of Nick’s head, a weirdly menacing sight.

Along with the gun he pressed firmly into the Protectron’s face. A single bullet shattered the glass entirely, tearing through its head. A chain reactions of tiny explosions surged over its face before Nick grabbed my arm and shoved me to the ground. Just over our heads the thing exploded. Not a single piece of shrapnel hit my delicate suit.

“smart.” He muttered irritably. “she knew the Protectrons could see us in the dark even if we can’t.”

“hold on.” Struggling under his weight I pulled the Pipboy up toward my face. “this thing has a light doesn’t it? How do I turn it on?”

“hell if I know.” Red lasers whizzed over our heads with flashes. For a brief moment the floor was lit with red light. In the next it was gone and I was blinder than before. Nick got off of me with a groan, swinging his revolver up at the remaining Protectrons.

Maybe his eye sight was better than mine or maybe my night vision had already fled me. Either way I couldn’t see what he was shooting at. Through the helmet I could only hear his gunfire. If I didn’t get some light I’d end up dead next. While Nick fought I fumbled with the Pipboy. It couldn’t be this fucking hard to turn on a light! Weren’t these things made for people like, well, Flynn?

“move it gray!”

Nick’s voice kicked me into gear before I even knew exactly where the danger was. Springing to my feet I narrowly avoided being incinerated by a flash. My stomach ran into the banister and I leaned precariously into thin air. The flash had totally wrecked my night vision again. I wasn’t gonna get any good shots off until I had good light. Gunfire echoed around inside my helmet. Be surprised if I didn’t have permanent ear damage after this.

Then finally my fingers found the right button and the screen of the Pipboy blared to life. Luckily it was pointed away from my face. For a brief moment a hollow, skull like face stared up at me from the bottom floor. No-Nose, I’m coming for you. At last I could see! Teeth bared I swung my weapon up at the Protectrons with both hands. Whoever built the Pipboy must not have realized it would be perfectly placed to illuminate a gunman’s target, but damn. There was nowhere for the machines to hide even if they thought about it.

Thanks to my light Nick could now clearly see our targets and his gun went up as fast as mine. We shattered the Protectrons’ faces, one each. Sparks and tiny explosions went off. I just barely got behind cover before they both went up in a grenade level death throw.

My ears were ringing so badly I could barely hear Nick through my helmet. “let’s move!”

Could have guessed that. He ran along the ramp through a door across from us. Our path was bathed in a sickly green glow from the Pipboy. That just about summed up the wasteland didn’t it? taking the stairs two at a time we ran down to the final level where things sounded frantic. Apparently there weren’t any other Protectrons for No-Nose to hide behind. She scrambled between desks, typing furiously at the terminals.

Nick came to a stop in the middle of the room, gun raised. “it’s over No-Nose! Time to stand down!”

She finally stopped moving, standing on a platform on the far side of the room. slowly she raised her hands to her head, fully aware of the pair of barrels pointing at her. “you’re both idiots, coming out this far just to find me.”

“we’re not the ones that came out here in the first place.” I spat, trying my damnedest not to shoot her in the kneecap. that’d just make carrying her out of the glowing sea that much harder.

Gradually she turned around to face us. Like back on the road, I got the distinct impression she wasn’t even the slightest bit frightened of us. Kind of stupid if you asked me, after all, if we had come all the way out here to find her what did she think we were going to do? But she just stood there, arms relaxed, face slack, eyes darting around. What did she expect someone else? “I ain’t going back.”

“I ain’t asking.” Nick replied in a hard tone. He kept his gun firmly on her chest, just in case. I almost wanted her to make the first move. “you’re gonna face justice for what you’ve done. Make it easier on yourself and just come with us.”

“he said you were supposed to be the smart one but you’re as dumb as she is!” No-Nose threw her arms high over her head then let them fall back to her side. The gesture made Nick and I both tense.

“are you going to surrender or not?” Nick’s voice went low now.

No-Nose’s eyes darted toward the ceiling, back down to us, to our right then back on us. A decision passed behind her eyes in less than a second. I could have killed her in that time. Not too long ago I would have done it too. But I wasn’t that person anymore. Almost wish I was because in the next instant all hell broke loose.

She span around to the terminal directly behind her. With a clasped fist she slammed a button beside it. Nick got off a shot which grazed her shoulder. She went slumping over the terminal with a groan. Over our heads red warning lights came to life. Sirens blared in every corner and a bored, monotone voice issued evacuation orders. Self-destruct. Of course she found the fucking self-destruct.

I dropped my gun, glancing back and forth between No-Nose and the stairs. Nick made to run forward but I grabbed his arm. “No good! She’ll slow us down, she’ll make sure none of us get out of here alive!”

“you want to leave her behind?!” He span around to gape at me, yellow eyes wide with astonishment.

“I want to live!” with the alarms reverberating around inside my helmet, I tugged Nick toward the stairs. For an agonizing, irritating moment it looked like he might not listen to me. He remained stationary in the middle of the room, glaring daggers at the ghoul. I looked too, for however brief a second. She was smirking at us. Like she’d won.

Sure, fine, if you considered winning to be being buried under three stories worth of rock and metal. Then yes, she’d won the fucking grand prize. I’d be sure to congratulate her when we met up in hell. At last Nick finally relented. He span on a heel and bounded up the stairs nearly two at a time. Panting inside my hot helmet I followed. Couldn’t hear the voice, or its countdown, but we couldn’t have long. What kind of place was this that the people who built it had a self-destruct? Wasn’t that usually reserved for forts or really secretive labs? Or was it just a joke? One last middle finger to the people that came after the bombs. The more I thought about prewar people the more I was beginning to think they were just a bunch of assholes.

We reached the second floor and leapt over what remained of the Protectrons. At least now with the red lights flashing we didn’t need the light of the Pipboy to find our way. Good thing too cause it swayed dizzyingly back and forth in time with my arm. Nick remained just a single pace ahead of me, repeatedly glancing back. I appreciated the gesture but we didn’t have time to worry about the other. If we didn’t get out of this place the glowing sea would become our grave. And I was not about to die in a place that Flynn had managed to survive twice.

At last we came to the top most floor. Here I risked a glance over the banister down into the depths of the building. No-Nose had moved, cradling her damaged arm. She staggered across the room to the wall that had been to our left. A set of doors slid open. That was all I saw before the first charge exploded. A hunk of wall somewhere between the last and second floor burst. A fireball the size of a car obscured my view followed closely by another. Soon explosion after explosion was tearing apart the building. The metal platform beneath my feet sagged dangerously. Metal struts buckled and whined, pipes ruptured spectacularly.

While smoke, gas and dust filled the air I span around only to get a blast of fire directly to the face. The suit protected me from the worst of it but I still felt the heat. Inside the helmet it felt like someone was trying to steam my brain like a Mirelurk carcass. Sweat dripped into my eye. The sting was so bad I couldn’t stop blinking. One of my hands thrashed blindly, hoping to find the doorway that was hopefully still here.

Another hand shot out and grabbed hold of me. The body attached to it dragged me out of the smoke. The explosions drifted away to be replaced by menacing rumbling. The heat slid away. The hand grasping my wrist didn’t let up until we were at the far end. Hands grabbed me around the shoulder and thrust me toward the ladder. “Up!”

Didn’t need to tell me twice. Panting I scrambled up the ladder while cracks zigzagged across the walls around us. My heart beat painfully in my throat, my pulse angry in my head. With a balled fist I shoved open the trap door and clambered out. Only half on solid ground I span around, offering Nick my hand up. He was right behind me, using my arm to haul himself to the surface just as the ground under our feet buckled.

Together we pelted out of the cabin, putting several paces of distance between us and it. the ground shook and groaned under the stress of the self destruct. On the surface it looked and felt like an earth quake. The rock gave one last heave, splitting the cabin’s foundations to the core. One chunk of wall sagged inward and the entire front porch sank a few feet into the ground. Gravel slid beneath our feet toward the sink hole under the cabin. I grabbed Nick for support and he dragged me several feet further back.

Eventually it came to a rest. The earth gave one last heave, a belch of hot gas hissed out of the cracks in the earth, then all was silent. On the surface it didn’t look like anything spectacular had happened. Honestly, now it looked like the cabin belonged in the wasteland. It was over. At least I’d like to think it was.

Nick set me steady on my own feet then stalked up toward the cabin once again. His fists swung tightly at his sides while he moved. Couldn’t see his face but I imagined it was livid. “she’s alive… no way she didn’t have an escape plan.”

“I think she had an elevator. We find wherever it spits out, we’ll find her.” I said, striding back to his side.

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye before gesturing. “can’t be that far, split up, find her. Stay in ear shot in case something goes wrong. I’ll go around the north.”

“got it.” we parted, mutually focused on finding that ghoul bitch and putting an end to all this. Should have killed her when I had the chance. She’d certainly done everything but hesitate to kill us. Those irritated thoughts followed me as I swung around the cabin. The ground was now unstable underfoot. Patches of dirt had turned liquid during the explosions, making pools of glowing green goo rise. The soil crunched under my every step.

Just around the building I found a squat concrete structure jutting out of the ground. Hadn’t seen that before. Fifty-fifty odds it belonged to the facility under our feet. Before I called to Nick I wanted to be sure though. while I approached the bunker I reloaded. Wasn’t about to let No-Nose get the drop on me. A set of elevator doors stood ajar, smoke billowing out from inside. Yep definitely part of the building. In the soft soil in front of the doors footprints raced off to the right, behind the back of the cabin. “Nick! I think I-”

“I found her!” Nick’s voice brought me back to my feet.

A string of swears slipped between my gritted teeth as I span on a heel and dashed to his voice. Through the gloom I could just make out his silhouette tearing up a hill behind the cabin. Every once in a while he’d duck and cover while gunshots echoed off the ground. The suit slowed me down, allowing Nick to keep the head start he’d already taken. I couldn’t see No-Nose but I trusted his instinct. The tracks were headed in this direction anyway.

While radioactive thunder rolled over our heads, we chased her deeper into the glowing sea. Up a hill, around some craggy cliffs and dead trees. A few bugs buzzed in our path but Nick didn’t let them stop him. He shot two then bashed the other aside as he came up on it. A Bloodbug swung to face me as I took up the rear. “fuck you, not again!” before I got within range of its needle nose I put a bullet through it. Not before missing an obscene number of times. Damn it.

The ground leveled out here for a few yards before sloping upward once again. Nick was already scrambling up the slope, practically on hands and knees. I tore after him. Pools of goo turned out to be deeper than I thought. They sucked sickeningly at my ankles. Under the suit I could feel the heat of the sludge. Thank god I was sealed inside. Didn’t dare think what that stuff would do to someone if it got on their skin.

For a split second Nick disappeared entirely from view at the top of the hill. Panting I clawed my way after him. The air in my suit was stale beyond reason. It felt like choking on the air in the security office back at Diamond city. A pang of homesickness washed over me. I missed the walls of the city, the safety they gave. There was no waiting for the next Radscorpion to tear you apart. God I couldn’t wait to get out of this place. At last I came to the top and found Nick standing out in the open, gun pointed dead ahead.

We stood in a bowl shaped miniature valley. Cliffs and hills rose up around us. Some dead trees littered the ground. A car lay upside down, half buried in gravel and dirt. Remarkable of all was the church that stood directly across from us. Or at least what remained of it. All that we could see now was the caved in roof of what must have been a beautiful building. If the bell tower lying beside it was any indication.

And lying, half collapsed, on the roof of the church was No-Nose. She knelt in the dust, one hand clutching her bleeding arm, panting. Good to see she was as winded as me. Her gun lay a pace away, just beyond reach. Doubted there were any bullets left in it anyway.

Nick took in steady even breaths as he made a few careful steps forward. “you’re out of bullets Bobbi No-Nose, there ain’t no self destruct, no Protectrons, it’s over.”

With a huff she sat flat on her ass, staring at us in disgust. I mean what else was she going to look at us with? “you don’t get it… I’m not going back.” she panted shakily.

“doesn’t look like… you’ve got a choice.” My panting really didn’t help the menacing tone I was trying to use.

It fell on deaf ears in any case because she just scoffed at me. “I told you before, if I let you take me in he’d just find me and kill me. I’m not gonna die, not after all the shit I’ve been through.”

“all the shit you’ve been through?!” my jaw hit the ground and just kept going. Did she want to compare scars?! I’d bet every last cap I had that I could out do her sad sob story. Not to mention, “we’ve been through fucking hell to catch you, you’re gonna get what’s coming to you or Fahrenheit’s going to beat you to a pulp!”

“I’m not scared of you, or that bitch, or Hancock!” She bellowed back, fists clenched and rotted teeth bared. Her limbs shook just a little. Maybe she should have been a little more quite. After all, who knew what was under our feet waiting to crash this party.

Not even Nick seemed to realize it though. He took another step forward. “your financer, who is he?! I want a name No-Nose!”

Gradually she brought her eyes to his. An ironic smile stretched her features while fear leaked out her eyes. “you mean you don’t know? What the hell kind of detective do you call yourself?”

“answer the question!” He was mad, more than that I’d almost call it pissed, as pissed as Nick ever got. A step behind him I now watched his movements carefully. This case had changed, not sure when, but he’d stopped going after No-Nose a long time ago. There was more to this than he had told me. Now standing out in the middle of the glowing sea I was just trying not to get mad he hadn’t said something.

No-Nose didn’t care about Nick’s anger, if anything she was amused by it. she threw out her hands to either side, now grinning ear to ear. “not a chance. If there’s one thing I know about him is that betraying him is a death sentence.”

Nick fired a single shot. With it, my heart leapt into my throat and I flinched. The bullet streaked just over her left shoulder. “that was a warning.” He murmured in a low menacing tone, pulling the hammer back on his revolver for the next one. “talk.”

“Nick!” what the hell was wrong with him? I thought we were supposed to bring her in. Was he really aiming to kill her after all this time? No, that wasn’t right. this was Nick. But then, he’d become reckless since we found that note hadn’t he? That business with the Triggermen was evidence enough. Not to mention he hadn’t hesitated to come all the way out here.

He took another step forward, which I matched until I was level with him. I could finally see his face and what I saw there made my blood go cold. Rage, no confusion. He knew exactly what was going on. “how did you contact him?”

No-Nose had shrunk back from the bullet and now leaned heavily on the church. Her eyes darted around, just as they had back at the bunker. Just as they had on the road. Back on the road…. “he contacted me!” she shouted, more terrified than ever. “when I put feelers out for a loan nobody would have me. Then he sent his man to my door and offered me five thousand caps to finance the operation!”

“who was the man?” Nick barked, baring his teeth. “a name, description, anything! I want to know who hired you!”

She was beginning to shake now from pure fear. Wide eyed she kept glancing around. Her paranoia was almost enough to make me look around. An itch formed on the back of my neck that could have been sweat or something else. “you don’t understand, he’ll find out. He’ll kill me.”

“if you don’t tell me what you know, I’ll let Hancock do whatever the hell he wants to you.” Before I could react Nick strode forward and grabbed No-Nose by the front of her shirt. Hoisting her high into the air he pressed his gun firmly against her face.

“Nick calm down!” I ran forward, as stupid as that sounds. Trying to get in Nick’s way was like getting in the way of a charging brahmin. Something in me doubted he had as much control right then. Ignoring the little voice in my head I grabbed his hands and tried to make him put her down. “what are you doing?!”

“where is he?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

She held onto his hands for support while her feet dangled a couple inches off the ground. Easy to forget Nick had the strength of two men in those mechanical arms. “I don’t know.”

“but you know his name.” he pressed.

“put her down Nick!”

“It’s Jim Murtagh!”

“and where do I find him?”

Desperately she threw open her mouth and then her head exploded. Blood and bits of brain splattered my visor. Something smashed into it at nearly the same time. Plastic shattered, a spider web of cracks split across my vision. The sheer force of the impact carried me backward a foot. Probably should have been upset at being covered in someone’s head blood. All thoughts to that disappeared when the sound finally caught up with the bullet. Someone had fired a rifle at us and killed the ghoul. Almost killed me.

Nick hit the ground and put his back to a mound of dirt beside us. “Gray! Talk to me! Gray!”

“alive!” I crawled to the side, lying prone on the ground behind the church. No-Nose’s body lay beside me, blood freely flowing from the massive hole in her face, where her eye had once been. For a split second I saw gray in her dull eye and memories washed over me. There I was, lying on the concrete with my eye hanging out over my cheek. Thunder split the air, forcing me from those thoughts and I tore my gaze from the corpse. “where’s it coming from?!”

“just stay down!” Nick bellowed.

“you just stay down!” with a hand I wiped furiously at the blood and brain. It was no use. I couldn’t see a damn thing. Hot air seeped in through the cracks on my helmet. Droplets of blood oozed in, dripping on my face. Shit. The radiation. What the hell was I supposed to do?

Over on my right Nick got up and pointed his gun up into the distance. Judging by his gritted teeth and tight eyes he didn’t see anything. “damn it….”

“gone?”

“looks like.” He got fully to his feet, shoving his revolver back in place angrily. Then he span around and ran to my side. “how bad is it? did the bullet-”

“I’m fine, the helmet’s cracked though.” using the church for support I got up, glaring up the hill to where the bullet had come from. “we gotta go after him.”

“no.” Nick answered firmly, grabbing me around the arm. “you’ve got maybe a half hour before the radiation starts giving you the worlds worst suntan. It’s going to take us that long to get out of this pit.”

“but what about the shooter?” I gestured wildly up the hill, mouth agape. “he just killed No-Nose and you just want to let him go?”

“we don’t have a choice, I’m not going to let you die out here too.” Before I could protest any more he tugged me back toward the hill.

Angrily I glanced back at the corpse lying in the dust. Just what sort of person had she gotten herself mixed up with? What did Nick know about it? And what would he do to us when he got wind of all this? The case was pretty much closed but I had more questions than I did before.

Chapter Text

“hold still.”

As if I could do anything else. I knew Nick was just overcompensating for the fiasco that was our trip into the Glowing Sea. Still, he could give me a little more credit. Sitting stiffly in the chair I had to fight every urge to bend my arm while he stuck me with some Radaway. At least that damn suit had come off. One more minute in that thing and I was going to throw up.

Hancock sat in a chair across from us, his cheek resting on his fist while he watched. “I told you not to go in there didn’t I?”

“we didn’t have a choice.” I grumbled irritably, exchanging looks with Nick.

He quickly dropped his gaze the moment our eyes met. We hadn’t said much on the way back from the glowing sea. Nick had insisted on getting me back to Goodneighbor as quickly as possible before the radiation sunk in. I hadn’t been one to complain about it. Didn’t want to throw up my lungs, again. Now that we were safely in the state house though, all the questions from before came flooding back. And he knew it, and was actively avoiding them. That’s fine. I’d let him have his secrets at least until we were alone. Didn’t seem like the kind of conversation we should have in front of Hancock.

Or Fahrenheit for that matter, who sat up in bed, itching at the bandages on her chest. “the odds of going in and coming out of the Glowing sea alive are fifty to one. You guys are beyond lucky.”

When we arrived Fahrenheit had been awake. And it was that sight alone that filled me with relief. It almost made the trip into the glowing sea worth it. Sun had done his work pretty damn well. I’d have to make it a point to thank him properly when we got back to the diamond. And just because she was awake and sitting up, Fahrenheit thought that meant she could go right back to duty. Even now she was making to stand up.

“will you just stay down?” Hancock barked at her with a roll of his eyes. “you’ve earned yourself a week at least.”

“and who’s going to protect this town while I’m sitting here? You?”

“you think you can do a better job right now?” he tossed a pack of Mentats at her which she barely managed to catch. “see? Just stay down.”

With a scoff she sat back, arms folded. That had to hurt her stomach. How she managed to stay sitting was beyond me. “I’m impressed kiddo, I never thought for a second you’d be the one who’d be avenging me.”

“thanks, I think.” Nick finally released my arm allowing me to slouch miserably in the chair. It felt good to be sitting at last. It felt like we’d been on the go for days. I was looking forward to a week of sleep and food.

“seriously.” Groaning Fahrenheit sat back in her pillows. About damn time. She was going to pop her stiches if she kept this up. “if you hadn’t dealt with No-Nose I’d have done it myself. Good to know that I don’t have to deal with that anymore.”

“yeah….” I glanced at Nick but his attention was occupied by the cigarette in his hand. we hadn’t told Hancock and Fahrenheit everything. We hadn’t discussed it before we arrived but when it came time to tell the story we’d avoided mention of the sniper or Jim Murtagh or that No-Nose had been running from something else. If either of them found out about it they’d be right back on the war path.

Of course, Hancock still suspected something was wrong. “you know I’m a little surprised.” He said as he offered Nick a light for his cigarette. “I thought for sure you’d drag her shriveled ass back here. Did you seriously gun her down?”

“she didn’t give us a choice.” Nick replied in a hard tone. Hancock might think it was irritated but I knew better. It was guarded. “after she put a bullet through gray’s visor I just reacted.”

A surprisingly convincing lie. When had Nick learned to do that? Not too long ago he’d been furious with me for hiding the truth yet here he was, purposefully misleading Hancock. Hancock! His life long friend, not some low life on the street. I’m sure he had his reasons which was the only reason I held my tongue. Otherwise I might not have.

“which I’m grateful for.” I added, hoping to put Hancock off the scent. Nick eyed me from under his fedora, silent. “she’d have put me down if Nick wasn’t there.”

“I take back what I said before.” Breathing a long sigh Fahrenheit settled deeper in her bed, eyes drooping. “I’m no longer impressed.”

“well at least the universe is back in order.” I grumbled, throwing her a middle finger.

“well I’m still impressed.” Hancock slapped Nick on the shoulder, grinning a rotted smile. “you two’ve been through hell and for that, you’ve got my gratitude. Even if you didn’t listen to me like you should have.”

“all’s well that ends well right?” smirking I ran a hand through my hair. Still felt hot and sweaty from the suit. What I wouldn’t give to get clean. Then again after what happened at the oceanological society I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t have another episode. “we got the bad guy, there aren’t any lose ends left, you can rest easy now.”

“when have you ever known us to rest easy?” Fahrenheit mumbled, eyes totally closed. It was mere seconds before she was out again. I’d never let her live that down. it was so rare that she displayed anything… well human.

“she’ll be asleep for hours, gave her a sedative half an hour ago.” Hancock laughed, popping a Mentat. “god knows she ain’t gonna sleep without one.”

“sounds like someone I know.”

“you would never sleep if I didn’t make you.” I grumbled at Nick with a roll of the eyes.

“but I don’t actually need to sleep.” He smiled crookedly down at me, not quite meeting my eyes. “I just do it for you.”

“isn’t that sweet? Are you two done making googly eyes at each other?” groaning Hancock rose, making himself an even more tempting target for a household object.

“I sort of thought you’d have more to say on the matter than that.” Nick’s brows shot up.

“oh, I got plenty.” He paused at the doorway, looking back over his shoulder. “sit tight, I’ll go get your payment.”

“you fired us remember?” I laughed.

“tried to, if memory serves.” With an irritated wave he continued out of the room. “don’t go anywhere.”

Silently we watched him go, while Nick stood in a corner puffing on his cigarette and the IV dripped into my arm. I wanted to get his attention but the stubborn man refused to even glance my direction. Ok I get it, he was feeling guilty for not telling me the truth but that wasn’t an excuse to avoid this. I didn’t have much ground to stand on considering what happened with the railroad. I was the last person that would judge him for this. He had to know that. Sure it was a little hypocritical, and irritating, not silence worthy.

Still he remained quiet, occupied with a particular spot on the wall. It dragged on and I let it. This was neither the place nor the time to have this conversation. Instead I occupied myself with the Pipboy. I had fully intended to sell the thing as soon as I got the time to contact some technophiles. At least right up until it proved itself so useful back in the Glowing Sea. If it weren’t for it we may not have gotten out of there as quickly as we did. Guess I’d have to keep it. Maybe I could get it modified too.

Hancock returned with a box of caps in hand and looking almost pained. Couldn’t blame him. never felt good to pay someone for something you ordinarily would do yourself. Unceremoniously he shoved the box into Nick’s hand. Almost making him drop his cigarette. “there, that should cover it. A little extra for the glowing sea.”

Nick shook the box once and frowned. “this is more than you ever pay me John. What’s gotten into you?”

“well there are two of you now isn’t there?” he jabbed a thumb at me while he went to stand over Fahrenheit. “I expect it’s a fifty-fifty split between the two of you.”

“ya know we hadn’t actually ever stopped to discuss it.” grinning at Nick I tried to get him to finally look at me. No such luck. But he did smile crookedly at my jabs. “I’m thinking we should draw up a proper contract.”

“if you want to start talking contracts we should put your name on the sign.”

“O'Malley Valentine detective agency doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.”

“I said the same thing!” Hancock and I both laughed while Nick rolled his eyes.

“you two think you’re hilarious.”

“aren’t we?” my brows shot up.

At last Nick’s yellow eyes strayed to mine. Steadily I held his gaze, mentally willing him to see that I wasn’t upset. His brows drew together, almost confused, before he dropped his eyes again. Lucky for him Hancock was there or I’d have had it out with him right then.

“how long do you two plan to stick around?” Hancock looked over his shoulder, probably thought we’d been ogling each other again. “there’s gonna be a party down in the Third Rail if you’re interested.”

“as dangerous as that sounds, I think I’ll pass.” Laughing I brushed aside his invitation. “as soon as this bag drains I’m headed for a nap. I’ve had enough scrapes with death this week, my quota’s full.”

“I didn’t realize you had a limit.”

“thanks Nick.”

“suit yourselves.” Hancock headed for the door once again, looking suddenly as tired as I felt. “I need a drink.”

“you need a drink? I need a drink.” Grumbling under my breath I rolled my eyes.

Then suddenly the ghoul mayor stopped in the hallway. Without warning he span around and marched up into Nick’s face. the synth’s eyes widened for a split second while he took an involuntary step back. The box of caps almost slipped from his grasp and he totally lost his cigarette this time. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, sensing the danger now rolling off of the ghoul in waves. What the hell had gotten into him?

“mind if I make something real clear Nick?” He growled in a low gravely tone. He could have been going feral.

Nick? He never called him Nick. One of the synths brows shot up but he remained standing. “go ahead John.”

“if you hurt her.” My heart leapt up into my throat and my cheeks started to heat instantly. Oh god, he wasn’t about to do what I thought he was. Hancock just don’t please. “and I don’t mean a bullet or two she lives and dies on her own merit, but if you hurt her. I mean really hurt her….”

“yes?” amused yellow eyes darted toward me before they came to rest on Hancock again. In hindsight this was kind of hilarious. Nick had been in the commonwealth long before Hancock had been born. This exchange wasn’t exactly traditional, whatever that now meant in the wasteland.

“I’ll pin you to the gates of Goodneighbor, you got that?” Hancock finished quickly and menacingly. Even I felt a shiver run up my spine. Because I knew that wasn’t an idle threat.

Wasn’t sure Nick did. He looked Hancock dead in the eye, half grinning. “don’t worry about me John, gray would probably do it herself.”

“probably true.” Like a switch had been flipped in that rotted skull of his, Hancock took a step back. His usual cynicism returned and he smirked at the synth in a strangely sinister manner. “glad we had this chat. Now I’m gonna go get shit faced.”

“have fun.” Nick remained where Hancock left him, probably the tiniest bit frightened to move. He kept square shoulders all the same.

I found myself smiling at him affectionately, a look that usually didn’t pass my face in public, and he noticed.

Smiling he faced me, yellow eyes saying everything he wasn’t. “what?”

“the fact that you can face off against Hancock is reason enough for me to date you.”

“are we discussing titles now?”

“do you want to?”

He strode across the room and leaned over me on the couch. An excited heat burned just below my stomach. He was probably teasing me, no way he’d take things that far here. And judging by his growing smile I was giving just the reaction he was hoping for. With his lips beside my ear he drew a shiver out of me. “you’ve been my girlfriend a while don’t you think?”

The heat was so bad I was sure my face had turned bright red. Thank god Fahrenheit didn’t wake up right then or I’d never hear the end of it. So before anyone could catch sight of my blush I put my arms around Nick’s neck and buried my face in his shoulder. He was taken by surprise for a split second before his arms wrapped around me. We held each other in that awkward hug for a few seconds. The IV tugged painfully on my arm but I didn’t care.

This was important.

“Nick.”

“hm?”

“I don’t care how bad it is, you can tell me.” I whispered into his neck, eyes closed.

“it’s not that simple.” Felt his arms stiffen against my body. He may not have had a heart beat, or lungs to breathe, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t read his body language.

“nothing about us is simple.” Understatement of the century. He was a prototype synth, that had been thrown out with the trash by the boogeyman of the wasteland. A boogeyman that had been destroyed leaving him with no answers. I was a suspected synth, with a past full to bursting with loss. Nothing about us was simple.

For a few moments he remained silent, still holding me tightly against his chest. Eventually he took in a long shuddering breath. “not here, back at the agency, it’s safer there.”

“promise.”

“I promise.” Gently he eased us apart, kissing me on the temple as he went.

I supposed that was the best I could ask for. Pushing Nick would just go badly for both of us, I knew that. Letting him open up at his own pace was difficult though. I mean, after all, I was never a patient person. For that reason I unhooked myself from the Radaway when there was still half a bag left. To my surprise Nick didn’t protest. Gave me a couple of looks but didn’t stop me from putting my kit back on. Before Hancock came looking for us, we were headed back to Diamond city.

It was late. Probably too late to go walking through the ruins. It was a pitch black night, with barely a moon to light up the streets. The dangers of the night more than anything else kept us quiet on the way home. Packs of wondering ghouls filled the streets, forcing us to find alternative routes back to the diamond. I showed Nick a couple of paths the railroad had used to transport synths. I wondered mildly if they were still at work or if the railroad had disbanded after the institute was destroyed.

It was both a relief and stressful when we walked through the gates of Diamond city. Nick strode out ahead of me, seemingly eager to get back to the agency quickly. For someone that had been so reluctant to talk about it before he certainly seemed fine now. We passed by Publick Occurrences and I almost suggested we should check on the kids. Then thought better of it. They were probably in bed anyway.

When we reached Nick’s alcove I put a hand on his arm. “what’s going on Nick, who’s H and Murtagh? What was this case really about?”

He paused, one hand on his doorknob. “I didn’t know he was involved until after we found that note. It didn’t fit his usual MO. It blindsided me.”

“I’m not asking you why you didn’t tell me.” I squeezed his arm, hoping to reassure and elevate that guilt. God knows he was the last person I wanted to make feel guilty. “I don’t care why you didn’t tell me before, you’re telling me now aren’t you?”

With a long breath he gripped the handle a little tighter and stepped inside. “then we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

The moment he stepped over the threshold he came to a dead stop. Confused I tried to look around him but Nick did his utmost to stay in my way. Didn’t work. a man sat at Nick’s desk, puffing casually on a cigarette, looking so relaxed you might have thought he owned the place. His platinum blond hair hung into a set of blue eyes. that leather jacket looked like it had been to hell and back. Lounging in Nick’s chair, he didn’t look all that intimidating.

Yet Nick remained stiff and watchful. “we’re closed.”

“too bad.” The man replied in a light, casual voice. Sitting forward he stubbed out his cigarette in Nick’s ashtray. Judging by the stubs still lying in it he’d been here a while. “I had a proposition to discuss with your partner.”

“who the hell do you think you are?!” I tried to get around the detective but he put out a hand.

“Gray, don’t.”

The man rose, straightening his leather jacket. It was then that I finally noticed the sniper rifle on his back. The bullet graze on my arm throbbed painfully, like it could sense the very thing my mind took so long to figure out. He fixed me with those blue eyes. Like he knew me. “Vel O'Malley. You made quite a name for yourself with that mercenary work. I have a proposal.”

“we don’t want to hear your proposal.” Nick finally gave up on holding me back. he dropped his arm and took a step forward. I followed him, instinctive fear telling me this wasn’t a man to face alone.

“it isn’t my proposal.” The man smirked at him before turning back to me. My hand drifted toward the pistol on my hip. Wouldn’t be the first shoot out in Diamond city. “I’m here on behalf of my employer.”

“and who is your employer?!” I demanded fiercely.

Nick just gave me a look over his shoulder. Had he had a run in with this man before?

“you won’t know him by his name, only the things he’s done.” The sniper put his hands in his pockets casually, still as relaxed as ever. “suffice it to say that he’s a powerful man, deep pockets, and you’ve drawn his attention.”

“guess I should be honored.” Sarcasm dripped from my lips.

Which only made the man chuckle. “scared more like. Drawing his attention isn’t something you should take lightly. Believe me.”

“speak your piece and leave.” Nick growled, fists clenched at either side. Frankly I was surprised that he hadn’t drawn yet.

“not without a reply, my employer doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“who is your employer? You still haven’t answered my question.” I refused to let this guy just walk away without giving me something. It didn’t matter to me how dangerous he might be. After all, he’d had two opportunities to kill me, and took neither. If he wanted to kill us we probably wouldn’t have made it back to the Diamond.

He let out a long sigh, presumably he had better things to be doing than this. “Mr. Valentine and he are acquainted.”

“H….” the letter slipped out in a hoarse whisper.

He nodded. “Hintzen, Samuel Hintzen.”

“we don’t want anything to do with that bastard.” In the blink of an eye Nick had his gun out. The revolver pointed steadily at our guest. For some reason he didn’t pull the trigger. In hindsight that was the best decision he could have made. “now get out of my office.”

But I had questions. Stepping forward I put a hand on his arm and forced him to lower it. he gave me an astonished look which I chose to ignore. Sure I was as angry as him and wanted this guy gone. Only thing that kept his brains where they were was the information it held. “H financed No-Nose. Why kill her?”

“she was becoming a liability.” He shrugged visibly. “she knew it was part of the contract. When she failed to deliver she became a loose end.”

“you killed her.”

“I could have killed you both.”

“but you didn’t.”

He heaved a long shrug, shaking his head as if he couldn’t quite believe it himself. “Mr. Hintzen has a soft spot for Mr. Valentine and he instructed me to extend an invitation to you when I got the chance.”

“so what are you then? His lap dog?”

“a very dangerous lap dog.” He smiled toothily, flashing a mouth full of rotted teeth.

Nick took a step forward and put himself firmly between me and the man. “that’s enough, Jim Murtagh isn’t it? We’ve heard enough, it’s time for you to leave.”

“with all due respect Mr. Valentine, that isn’t up to you.” His green eyes fell back to me. The muscles in my stomach tightened. “I was instructed to get an answer. I assure you, if you choose to join him, Mr. Hintzen will guarantee that you and Mr. Valentine live safe comfortable lives.”

It sounded casual but his undertones made the threat clear. Swallowing dryly I met Nick’s eyes as he glanced back at me. Hintzen, whoever he was, had Nick scared. This reminded me of Winter. Both men had inspired so much hate in Nick. But this wasn’t just some ghoul who locked himself up in a bunker to ride out the war. This was a man who had been in the commonwealth for who knew how long. Probably had more caps than I’d see in my lifetime, and man power. Skilled man power. A true threat. Refusing this offer… would it put Nick in danger?

As I opened my mouth I fully intended to accept it. Anything to protect Nick. I’d give anything to ensure his safety. I’m sure those thoughts showed on my face because Nick span around and grabbed my hand tightly in his whole one. “don’t.”

My mouth clicked shut instantly. Silently I argued with him, glaring into his eyes. He seemed to understand my meaning and shook his head just a little. Those eyes were determined, strong, unwavering. He wasn’t about to be pushed around by this guy or anyone else. And he wouldn’t let me be pushed around either. With a firm nod I snapped my eyes back to Murtagh. “no deal. Go tell your boss that he can go fuck himself.”

Murtagh chuckled, folding his arms across his chest. “well, gotta say, I’m a little disappointed. I was looking forward to working with you.” He strode toward the door while Nick and I maneuvered around him. Not an easy thing to do in such a cramped space. He threw open the door and a rush of warm night air drifted in. I became aware of Nick’s hand still in mine. We hadn’t let go of each other. At the door Murtagh paused, looking back. “Mr. Hintzen said you might refuse. He said that if you were to I was to deliver one final message.”

“spit it out and get out.” Nick muttered. He was standing closer to me now, as if to ensure we weren’t alone.

I felt my blood go cold as Murtagh’s eyes fell on me. The barest hint of a smile crossed his face, or maybe it was a smirk. Hard to tell looking back now because of the words he spoke next. “you should pick your allies more carefully, V3-27.”

“get out!” Nick bellowed. Without even a hint of fear he grabbed Murtagh by the shoulder and shoved him out the door.

In the mean time my world was falling apart. My heart had leapt into my throat and remained there while I tried to regain control of my breathing. Arms shook, legs quivered, they’d give out entirely soon I just knew it. Mind raced with thoughts but a single question surfaced. “how does he know?”

Nick slammed the door and locked it. “don’t listen to him.”

“but he knew my….” Hard to say the word designation. Not sure what else you’d call it.

He strode forward, folding me in his arms so tightly I thought he might crush me. His voice reverberated in my head with my ear pressed against his chest. “sh, it’s going to be alright. You’re not a synth remember.”

Someone certainly thought I was. How had Hintzen even figured it out? What the hell did that matter?! The point was that he knew and that was a problem. How much else could he know? Could he know the recall code? Could he use that against me?

“Nick you’ve got to say it!”

“what?”

Furiously I pulled back and stared wide eyed into his face. How the hell was I going to make him understand? “you’ve got to say the code, please, I need to know!”

“don’t be an idiot.” He tried to draw me back into an embrace.

Shoving him back I took several steps deeper into the office, away from him. “you don’t get it?! If I’m a synth he can use that! I have to be sure, for our sake I have to be sure!”

“no.”

“why not?!”

“because I wont let him control you!” the shout reverberated around the office, echoing off the metal walls. I’m sure our neighbors heard it. It shocked me into silence. My hands went limp at my sides while I stared into his face. Gradually the fire died in his eyes until they only smoldered. “I’ve been chasing Hintzen for years. He’s the worst kind of criminal, worse than Winter. He uses people, controls people, and I won’t let him make you do something you’re not ready for.”

Not ready for. It seemed like a stupid concept in that moment. Did it matter if I was ready or not? Hintzen had an advantage, one we could take away if only Nick would say the damn code. “but if he knows that I’m a synth.”

“you’re not a synth.”

“if he knows I might be!” I threw my hands into the air. “then what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know.” With a heavy groan he sat down at his desk. Face in hands he leaned over on his knees, defeated. I’d never seen Nick like this before. Not even at his lowest point, when the night was darkest, had he ever just looked so broken. Without thinking I went to his side. My arms went to his shoulders which shook ever so slightly. “go to Sanctuary.”

“what?”

He lifted heavy yellow eyes to me, shadowed by his hat. “go live in Sanctuary please. It’s the safest place for you. Until Hintzen is dealt with I can’t put you in any more danger.”

“I think it’s a little late for that Nick.” I took his face between my hands, forcing him to sit up straight. The way he looked scared me. Nick was always such a strong man, I could always rely on him if I needed him. It was my turn to show him that same steel. “you heard him, I have his attention now. Living in Sanctuary, Goodneighbor or Diamond city it won’t make a difference.”

“then go someplace else. Leave the commonwealth.”

“not without you.”

“don’t be so stubborn, this is your life we’re talking about.”

“this is your life too.” My eyes became hard, lips drawn in a thin line. Nick couldn’t look away from me, I wouldn’t let him. “you have his attention, do you think he’s just going to leave you alone forever? Nick at some point he’ll come for you, and I won’t let you face him alone.”

His hands came up and gripped my wrists gently. Yellow eyes shook as they looked back and forth between mine. Nick’s most fragile moment. “if we stay… we’ll always be in danger… you know that.”

“you could have left a long time ago, and you didn’t. Why?”

“because he needs to face justice, and I’m not about to let him control me.”

“then we won’t let him control us.” I answered firmly. It was a strange role reversal. Being the one lending him strength instead of the other way around. I’d lost count how many times he’d comforted me. It was about time I returned the favor. “together, we’ll bring him to justice.”

Sighing, he shook his head. “stubborn woman.”

“you wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“you’re right about that.” Without warning he closed the gap between us, forcing our lips together. His kiss tasted lonely, desperate and a little scared. All he wanted was to take comfort in me and I shared that desire whole heartedly. We became entangled in each other’s arms. Heat filled my chest while his lips moved against mine. It felt so damn good, it was such a shame when he broke the kiss. Then he said three words that inflated my chest. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” With my arms around his neck, sitting in his lap, I placed my head against his shoulder. I thought our troubles had ended with the institute. I’d been wrong. I thought they were over after Kellogg. I’d been wrong again. Didn’t mean we couldn’t handle it. We’d take down Hintzen, and we’d do it together.

Chapter Text

“there, how’s that feel?” John took a step back, holding the scissors out in one hand.

I sat forward in his chair and ran a hand through my hair. “fucking great, I didn’t realize how badly I needed this until now.”

“I took a little extra off the back and did some layering. Think I’ve outdone myself this time.”

“that you have.” grinning broadly, I leapt to my feet, brushing bits of hair from my shoulders. “how much I owe you?”

“twenty caps.” He washed up his tools while I counted out the caps.

Confidently I handed him across the money, said goodbye and headed back into the market. It was a cool day, for the summer anyway. there was some nice cloud cover, relieving Diamond city from the harsh sun. standing there, I took in a long breath, hands on my hips.

“looks good.”

That grin didn’t leave my face as I looked down to find Nick walking toward me. His fedora shadowed his eyes in that way that somehow made him all the more attractive. “I thought for sure you’d want me to let it grow out.”

He scoffed, snaking a hand around my waist. “not a chance, short is you, I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

Playfully I pecked him on the jaw before he twisted to intercept me with his lips. I could hear John chuckle somewhere behind us but I didn’t care. After all the shit Nick and I had been through, I wanted to show off a little. When we parted I leaned into his shoulder. “have we earned a vacation?”

“anywhere particular in mind?” gently he steered me toward the other end of the market, headed back to the agency.

“I don’t know, just somewhere else, somewhere cold. I can’t stand this heat much longer.”

“there are some settlements up north. If you’re really itching to get out of the commonwealth.”

“maybe.” We bypassed our alley and I frowned. “Nick, I’m all for a walk but where are we going?”

“they’re back.” he replied in an undertone.

“who? Hancock and Fahrenheit?”

“Violet and Macready.”

I froze in the middle of the path, shoulders stiff, face going grim. This had better not be going where I thought it was. “I’m not talking to her.”

“Gray….”

“no, don’t gray me, I’m not talking to her.” My voice dropped low and cold.

He took me by the arms and turned to face me. His warm yellow eyes weren’t hard or accusing like I expected. They were pleading. “you said yourself that you wanted to apologize for threatening to kill her if nothing else. Just do that.”

“I never apologized for threatening to kill you.” I pointed out blandly.

“you didn’t have to, I knew you felt bad.”

“no I didn’t.”

“yes you did.”

“no, I didn’t.”

“nevertheless.” He waved it aside. “you can’t just avoid her.”

“watch me.”

“gray.”

I set my jaw, narrowing my eyes into his face. “I’m not going to apologize.”

He took a long breath, lifting his gaze toward the sky. For a few seconds he just stood there, staring at the clouds drifting by. For a brief moment I thought he’d shut himself off or something. He’d done that in the middle of conversations he didn’t want to have. then finally he looked back down at me. “just talk to her, please. For me.”

You manipulative son of a bitch. Groaning I dropped my gaze and glowered at the ground between us. He had to spin it that way. If he did that hat tilting thing I probably wouldn’t even be able to contemplate saying no. I wanted to. I didn’t want anything to do with Flynn. Nick forgave her, everyone forgave her, but I wouldn’t. There had to be at least one damn person holding her accountable for her actions. If it wasn’t going to be Nick then it had to be me.

I wouldn’t apologize, cold day in hell. But Nick wanted me to talk to her, so I’d talk to her. “fine.” I said at last, turning my gaze up to meet his. “I’ll do it.”

“keeping threats to a minimum?” one of his brows shot up.

Rolling my eyes I nodded. “yes, yes, threats at a minimum.”

“thank you.” Taking my hand he led the way back to the market. As we approached the other end of the city I could see the group standing there. My feet started to slow, practically dragging in the dirt. There was a lot of them, and honestly the sight was somewhat intimidating. There was Flynn though. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was expecting. Maybe I was hoping she’d come back from the capitol looking dead inside. She definitely looked like she’d been through a special kind of hell though. bags under her eyes, fresh injuries. She favored her side a bit and there was a new burn on the back of her hand.

The rest of them looked better. Macready’s shoulders didn’t slump quite as hard as they used to when he spent his time drinking in the third rail. Piper was there too, with Nat at her side, a distinctive space between her and a man I didn’t recognize, wearing a baseball cap and a set of shades. He looked like the sort of man who’d fit in at Goodneighbor. I wondered momentarily what would happen if Hancock and him ever met. And Deacon was there too.

The entire group stood outside the Publik Occurrences, in one large mass. My legs started to lock up and Nick put a hand around my waist. “don’t chicken out on me now gray.” He whispered into my ear.

“shut up.” I grumbled but allowed him to drag me before the group of wastelanders.

Flynn looked up and it took all my willpower not to literally snarl at what happened next. “Nick!” she cried, eyes going bright. Before any of us could react she raced forward and flung her arms around his shoulders. I stood stalk still beside him, jaw set tight, trying my best not to look at them.

“hey kid.” Nick replied, putting his arms around her.

The moment he did though Flynn let out a small cry of pain and immediately extracted herself, hugging her arms. So she’d come back with a few more battle scars than it looked.

“I’m sorry, are you-”

Flynn waved her hand, cutting him off. “I’m fine, sorry.” Then her eyes strayed toward me.

Now I’ve been told that my glare could kill a Supermutant if I put my mind to it. must be true because the moment she caught my gaze she took several steps back. carefully she put herself between Macready and Piper. She honestly thought those two could protect her? Idiot.

A few seconds of tense silence followed before Flynn forced herself to meet Nick’s gaze and ask, “Anything exciting happen while we were gone?”

Nick let out a long breath, glancing down at me. “well… sort of….”

“that wasn’t vague at all.” Baseball cap piped up drawing my glare back to him. It was then I noticed the Pipboy he wore on his arm. it had to be an older model than mine. The nobs were on the wrong side. Violet still had hers too. Glad I left mine back at the agency. Didn’t want to give her ammunition.

Nick raised a brow at the stranger. “who are you?”

“Piper’s fiancé.” He shrugged.

I felt my mouth start to fall open before I grappled it closed again. Piper’s fiancé? Somehow I doubted the high strung reporter would stoop nearly that low.

Didn’t look like Piper was entirely ready to address the issue though as she grabbed Nat by the arm. “hey, Nat do you wanna go talk inside?!”

Nat tugged at her arm, wide eyed, mouth as about as open as mine wanted to be. “What did he just say?! What happened while you were gone?!” she shouted, pointing at baseball cap in utter astonishment. My sentiments exactly kid. “who’s that?!”

I didn’t hear what Piper said next as they disappeared into the Publik Occurrences. Baseball cap, whatever his name was, frankly at this point I didn’t care, ran after them. The door slammed shut before he got there and he just leaned up against the door. “Is that Nat?! I love her already, let me meet her!”

Now my mouth fell open, staring at a full grown man pawing pathetically at a door. And this guy thought he was going to marry Piper? Frowning I leaned toward Nick. “I thought they were bringing back a kid?”

“you don’t count that as a kid?” he muttered back with a shake of his head, before looking back at Flynn. “so what happened to you?”

“that’s a long story….” She murmured, subconsciously trying to hide the scarred back of her hand.

I rolled my eyes. “and we got shit for being vague.”

“you were.” Baseball cap muttered behind me.

Flynn on the other hand, conceded with a sigh. In quick succession she made wonderfully short work of her story. Thank god. If she’d made a saga out of it I’d have walked away right then. “fair point. We went to the capital wasteland, found Duncan, I got whipped, we killed some slavers. The end. And now back to you guys.”

“you said something ‘sort of’ happened.” Macready added, glancing between Nick and I.

They were staring at us expectantly now, like they fully expected one or both of us to tell them our story. Nick turned to me and I just gave him a dark look. He wanted me to talk, I’d said I would, but I didn’t even want to talk about this. I could tell he didn’t either. We’d agreed to tell no one about Hintzen, that would just put them in danger. And as much as I was perfectly fine putting Flynn’s neck on the line, Nick would never do that. For a few seconds we just stared at each other, demanding the other one say something. Nick had firmer ground to stand on in that argument but if there’s one thing I am, it’s stubborn.

Eventually he shook his head irritably and looked back at the pair. “Fahrenheit got shot, we tracked down the people who did it and took a trip to the glowing sea.”

“Jesus.” Flynn breathed in astonishment, wide eyes going between us. Her gaze didn’t linger on me for very long. Good. “so, sounds like everyone had a rough few weeks.”

“I had a fine time in the capitol!” Deacon interjected, like he was worried that we’d forgotten he was even standing there. Glad he was though, that gave me something else to glare at. At least something else Nick wouldn’t be mad at me for. “I got to go on a bonding road trip with Piper, dumped her at Megaton, went to the DC Railroad H-”

I couldn’t help myself. I cut him off. “wait, what are you doing here? What is your purpose here?”

My interruption set him aback. His mouth remained poised to continue his sentence, still grinning that shit eating grin as usual. One by one our gazes fell on him, waiting for the answer to come. Finally he closed his mouth and shrugged. “I don’t know and neither does the author.” with that he spun on a heel and headed back up the stairs out of Diamond city.

I just watched him go, frowning at what he’d said. Normally I’d have just ignored him, I did that plenty back in the Railroad. But the moment I stopped watching him the sooner I’d have to acknowledge Flynn. Eventually my eyes were forced to look back at her. She wasn’t looking directly at me, but I could tell she wanted to. Groaning I looked at Nick. “can we go now?”

“Wait, wait,” he held up a finger at me, now frowning at Flynn, “where’s Duncan?”

A stupid smile split Macready’s face at the mention of his son. “He saw the dog and he decided he’d rather play with him then hang around a bunch of mungos.”

“What?” my eyes narrowed.

“He’s spent a little too much time in little lamplight.” he shrugged.

“Little lamplight?” Nick’s brows shot up.

Macready opened his mouth, probably to explain in somewhat greater detail what had actually happened down south. Mercilessly I cut him off. “No, no, I don’t care about your tragic backstory, it’s time to go.”

“Wait, uh....” Nick glanced at me, then back at Flynn, then at Macready. Don’t you fucking dare. “I need to, uh - Oh! Talk to Macready!” real smooth, Nick, real smooth.

Macready too clearly had no idea what was going on even if it was so painfully obvious. “What? Why?”

“Just come with me, you’re gonna wanna hear this.”

“Can’t you just say it here?”

Yes, couldn’t you just say it here? Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut as Nick tried to leave me alone with the housewife. Of course he’d do this. I guess I’d done this to myself in a way.

For a split second Nick hesitated, eyes darting around. Searching for the invisible thread of conversation that could do what he wanted. I watched his eyes linger on Flynn for a split second before he strode forward and grabbed hold of Macready’s arm. “We need to talk about boundaries.” with those ominous words hanging in the air behind them he dragged Macready away toward the dugout inn.

That left us alone. Good job Nick, you’d successfully left me alone with the one person in the commonwealth I’d kill for free. I stared after him, as he and that merc disappeared behind the corner. I could feel Flynn’s eyes on the side of my face. Was she willing me to look at her? Probably not. Maybe she was just silently praying that I wouldn’t snap and break her neck. Yeah that was probably it.

The seconds ticked by, I could just make out the edge of Nick’s trench coat around the corner. Well hoped he’d enjoy the show. “Mother fucker.” muttering under my breath I finally brought my eyes to Flynn. “I’m not apologizing.”

She flung her hands up, a flimsy barrier between us. As if that would stop me if I truly wanted to inflict some damage. “I’m not asking you to!”

I shifted my gaze to a point over her shoulder. Suddenly I wished Deacon would come back and provide a punchable distraction from this painfully awkward situation. As much as I’d have liked to end this conversation with my usual tact, I knew the watching Nick would be furious with me. And honestly I had no desire to be sleeping in Goodneighbor for the next few weeks. Hancock wouldn’t let me live that down.

Then I heard her mumble, “but I’m sorry! I had no-”

“No! You don’t have the right to apologize!” the words flew from my mouth like bullets bringing with them a wave of déjà vu. The words echoed inside my head. The right to apologize. Someone had said the exact same thing to me three years ago. My jaw throbbed remembering what had followed. My chest ached remembering what I’d done to deserve it. The anger remained but it now rolled around inside my chest with guilt.

She kept eye contact with me, had to give her that, but her voice was feeble. Little better than a murmur. “I know I’m sorry- I mean, uh, I know I can’t be sorry, but I am! I’m sorry-”

“Goddammit!” I growled around gritted teeth, dropping my gaze. I could feel several sets of eyes on us now. Baseball cap had long stopped moaning at the door, likely transfixed by what was happening. The guards standing around were holding stock still. The preacher outside his little church even stared at us blatantly. So what? I couldn’t care less what those pieces of shit thought of me. Not one of them knew the things I’d done. If they did, they’d shoot me on sight. “Stop talking, just stop talking.”

Silence fell like a lead weight. My arms hung at my sides but my fists shook. I wanted to hate her. Not just for what she did to Nick but how often she put everyone else in danger. I wanted to despise her. But that would be hypocritical wouldn’t it? I’d done worse and with less reason. I’d killed innocent people. I was the one that led the damn brotherhood to the railroad in the first place. The blood of all those agents, and Glory, was on my hands.

I cast around, searching for Nick. Please, just end this before I did something I’d regret.

“Sorry.”

I took in a sharp breath, willing myself not to break her nose. That was essentially all I could manage. I threw my eyes back up to her, my fists so tight it actually hurt. “Listen you crying manipulative bitch. Nick’s forgiven you, that should be enough for me but it isn’t. I hate you. I hate everything about you. You risked his life to find your son. Well congratulations, but he’s still hurting. And that’s on your head. And I hope that guilt eats you up inside!”

“Okay, that’s enough!” Macready’s voice cut me off. The words came to a screeching halt inside my throat. There was still more to say but he stalked up between us. I took a half step back, staring up into his face. “you said Violet didn’t have the right to be sorry, but I know what you’ve done! I know what you were. You don’t deserve an apology from her! She’s twice the woman you’ll ever be!”

His words hit me like a ton of bricks and I actually staggered a step back. I didn’t know how he’d found out. Hancock made it a point never to let me forget. Maybe that’s where he’d heard it. How much did he know?

Nick put himself between me and Macready. Maybe he thought I’d hit him, or maybe he noticed how stricken I’d become. “back down Macready, she wont hesitate to put an end to you.”

Flynn stood behind them. Her face slack. “Maybe we should go....”

“yeah you should.” I muttered under my breath, the heat seeped from my words.

Nick looked at me over his shoulder. “gray….”

“It’s fine.” Flynn’s voice came in a cold undertone. I transferred my gaze back to her, finding it all the easier to glare at her dead expression. Somehow seeing her a little lifeless and soulless gave me the barest hint of satisfaction. It wasn’t enough to fight the guilt though. “I get it. We’ll see you around Nick.”

For a few seconds we all just stood there, in the middle of the road, staring at one another. Or at least me and Macready glared at each other, Nick stood between us and Flynn tried to keep her eyes off me. I didn’t want to look at her anyway. the silence stretched. The longer it lasted the heavier it weighed on me. She just reminded me of what I once was.

Swallowing hard I turned away and stalked toward the Dugout inn. “I need a drink.”

A small crowd of onlookers had formed around us and I brutally pushed passed them. Hope they enjoyed the show. Maybe Piper would write a story about it at some point. Goodneighbor bitch tears into prewar housewife, read all about it. Nick was probably angry with me and I didn’t blame him. I’d probably disappointed him. It was his fault for leaving me alone with that woman.

While my brain writhed my feet found their way down the road and into the inn. Vadim had somehow managed to resist the commotion outside, cleaning a glass behind the counter. “O’Malley!” he greeted me with such warmth it took me a moment to get over the shock of it. “Been too long! How went the case?”

“Well enough.” I grumbled, slouching onto a stool at the counter before him.

“What’ll it be?” he cocked his head. Bartenders could read people almost better than your average detective. Of course it didn’t take a detective to read my mood right then.

“Some of your moonshine, strong.”

Nodding solemnly he walked off toward the back room.

“Well... that went well.”

I didn’t even turn at the sound of Nick’s voice. I slouched even further, allowing my head to rest on the counter top. “I’m sorry… I just… I couldn’t look at her without wanting to threaten her.”

“and the fact that you didn’t means you’re growing as a person.” He replied with the barest hint of humor.

Vadim came back and placed a bottle down in front of me. I picked it up, watching the liquid inside swish around in there. That shit had been known to kill people. Why was I contemplating it now?

Nick reached out and forced me to set the bottle back down. “you don’t need that.”

“yes I do.”

“no you don’t.” forcefully he tore it from my loose fingers and set it out of arm’s reach. I didn’t even bother fighting it. my outburst had utterly drained me of all my energy. I felt like a deflated balloon. I didn’t feel bad for what I’d said, I meant every word. But the guilt was a heavy weight on my heart.

“aren’t you going to berate me?” I grumbled, turning my face back into the counter top.

“do I need to?”

“no.” my fists tightened, nails digging into my palms. In spite of what Flynn had done to Nick, or even other people, she was still a better person than I’d ever be. It was easy to forget when she was gone the things she’d done to help the world. Destroying the institute, helping people, the railroad. What had I ever done? I’d hurt people, killed people, innocent people. And I couldn’t even spin it as a means justified the ends. Flynn had done what she did for herself and for her family. What wouldn’t I do for mine? “I’m sorry….”

“you don’t need to apologize to me.”

“yes I do.” Ignoring Vadim who undoubtedly watched us in silent interest, I sat up and looked at Nick fully. “I don’t know how you can stand me. The things I’ve done. I’m a thousand times worse than Flynn. Macready was right.”

“Macready doesn’t know anything about you.” Nick answered forcefully, looking me dead in the eye. “he doesn’t know the good you’ve done, he doesn’t know that you’ve spent every day of the last five years trying to make up for what you did.”

I scoffed shaking my head. “you’re giving me a little too much credit.”

“that’s exactly what Violet says.” He leaned in, an arm on the counter, the other on the small of my back. “and you know what? You two aren’t as different as you’d like to believe. You’re both stubborn, you’re both accident prone. You both put yourselves in danger to protect the ones you care about and you’ve both made massive mistakes.”

“thanks….”

“the point is.” With his metal right hand he reached up and cupped my face. the gesture kept my gaze on him, firmly set in place. “that you’re both good people, and I just wish you’d both realize that already.”

Good people? Did good people put the ones they loved in danger? Did good people screw up as consistently as we did? Did good people lie and steal and cheat to get what they wanted? Did good people stand in the middle of the street and yell at each other? Maybe Flynn was a good person, she sure as hell had more ground to stand on. But me?

I tried to reach for the bottle but Nick caught my arm and hauled me to my feet. silently I let him drag me out of the inn. I didn’t even bother protesting, I knew it’d be useless. He didn’t say a word as he pulled me through the market back toward the agency. Once inside he finally released me and strode up to one of his many filing cabinets. Arms folded loosely, I leaned up against the wall, watching him with a tilted head.

Nick threw open several drawers and stood to the side, glowing eyes narrowed. “come here.”

“what?” I grumbled, begrudgingly complying.

With a ridged finger he pointed at the drawers he’d opened. They were all filled with files from cases he’d done. “do you know what these are?”

“scrap books?”

He groaned. “they’re cases, that you helped me solve.”

Now I frowned, scanning over the drawers. “you sure? This many?”

“damn sure.” He gestured to a corner full of cardboard boxes. “there are more over there too. Each one of those cases represents someone you helped. You say you haven’t been trying to make up for your mistakes. Then what is all of this?”

Not sure how I was supposed to reply to that. I mean, I’d been helping Nick with cases since I met him five years ago, but I’d never kept track. Redemption wasn’t high on my list of priorities in those early days. In fact making up for my past was only a relatively recent development, brought on by my growing relationship with Nick.

“it’s not enough to make up for what I’ve done.”

He folded me into his arms, pressing his hand to the back of my head. “it’s a start.”

Jaw set I buried my face into his shoulder. Yelling at Flynn had taken it out of me and the rest of it hadn’t helped any better. Nick’s arms felt good. I didn’t deserve this after what happened. All I wanted was to stand there for the next three months. Forget about Flynn, the institute, Hintzen.

Gently he rubbed his hand against my back. “I know it’s a lot to ask right now, but promise me that you’ll give her a chance, one day. Violet wants to make things right. will you let her?”

I swallowed hard. Didn’t move. I’m not sure I could look him in the eye. Slowly I nodded into his shoulder. “one day, I’ll give her a chance… but I’m not ready to forgive her for what she did to you.”

“I understand.” Nick kissed the side of my head before releasing me. “but to be frank, it isn’t your place to forgive her for that or not.”

Maybe he was right. hated to admit it but he probably was. Sighing heavily I let my arms fall from him and sat at Ellie’s desk. Leaning over my knees I just stared up at him, expression dark. “she hurt one of three people I care about in the Commonwealth, and the man I love. Excuse me if I take that a bit personally.”

With a sigh and a shake of his head, he proceeded to shut the drawers. I was willing to bet he’d lied about just how many cases we’d actually solved together. Appreciated his intentions at least. When the office was put back together he turned to face me. Warm eyes. he didn’t even look disappointed. “you know, you have come a long way, since we first met.”

“I’m still not apologizing for threatening to kill you.” I produced a half grin, which widened when he offered his crooked smile.

“one day you will.”