I could've slept 'till noon, but Nick woke us up in the early morning by knocking on the door. I think he actually spent the rest of the night in the common room. However, the settlers didn't seem to mind him, at least not like when we first arrived here.
After getting some cold water splashed on my face and a chance to freshen up I felt significantly better. When I returned to our room I nearly bumped to Nick, who was packing the newly acquired meds to be taken with us.
”Hey. Have you eaten anything yet?” He stood up and gave me a concerned look.
”Just about to get something”, I nodded and squeezed the hoodie in my hands. ”Listen. I just- thank you. For last night. For being there for me. I know that I have a habit of worrying about things that might never happen. And I try not to burden John with them, but that doesn't mean they don't keep piling inside of me. It wasn't just because of the Day Tripper, or because I was tired. I really needed to vent.”
Nick silently looked at me and the cigarette in his mouth made lazy swirls in the air. After a moment he took the smoke between his fingers and drew a deep breath before answering.
”I think you can talk to John about those things. Or rather, you should. Putting on a brave face is another thing, but if you hide everything behind it too long, it's not doing anyone any good. But if you can't, you can always come talk to me.”
”You're right”, I couldn't but agree with him. ”You're easy to talk to, Nick. I just hope I'm not too much trouble.”
”You? Never”, Nick flashed a bright smile, returned the cigarette back to his mouth and grabbed the small bag with him. ”Be sure to eat well before we leave. How's your ankle?”
Okay. There was no way there wasn't a hundred per-cent warm heart inside this guy. Whatever he claimed to be, he was as human as one could get. The very best kind, even.
The weather was on our side and for a change, no storms in sight. Not even clouds. It actually seemed like the day would be pleasant – from where we were walking I could see far to the Horizon. The scenery would've surely been breathtaking, but the skyline was also filled with bare or dead trees and crooked utility poles. At least the sky hadn't changed much since how I remembered it from 200 years ago. Which, for me of course, felt like just about two years.
Hancock didn't mention anything about last night, which felt a bit unusual to me. Normally he would've teased me with all sorts of small notes just for the sheer joy of seeing me blushing, but not today. Maybe this time he just wanted to leave the issue, that had led to us making love, behind us.
Along the way we saw some mongrels and mole rats, which didn't give us too much trouble. Lucky for us, we didn't see any ferals – live one, at least. When we passed a yard with several rusty trailers we spotted about eight to ten dead ferals scattered around the road. They had clear marks of gunshots and hits of a blunt weapon on them. It was clear they had attacked someone traveling the same road as we were on, but no other bodies were in sight.
We mainly followed the road, sometimes taking shortcuts through the wilderness. Still it took hours before Nick announced that we should be getting close. I secretly sighed in relief – walking with full alert was still more tiring for me than it was to John or Nick. I didn't really know if Nick could even get tired, but I knew for a fact that John had much more stamina than a normal human.
After we climbed a small hill we saw the road bending a little to the left and leading to a bridge, which crossed a steep chasm with a lazy, running stream. But even from the distance we could clearly distinguish two large masses of meat, lazily moving around the bridge. The greenish skin looked sickly and the wind carried some of their grunting to us.
”Super mutants”, Nick sighed. ”Great, just what we needed.”
”Can't we go around?”
Nick glanced at me and gave it a thought, but then shook his head.
”There's no saying how far we would have to go around in order to reach Sunshine Tidings. Luckily I don't see more than those two, so we should snuff them out and keep following the road.”
”Say no more”, Hancock dug out his shotgun and put on a mischievous grin. ”I still have two grenades, too, but I'll use them only as the last resort. I don't see anything else on those fuckers than a board and a pipe gun-”
A sudden rustle from the bushes near us made us jump and Nick drew out his .45 in just a blink of an eye, aiming at the direction the sound was coming from. Hancock stepped in front of me and gave me time to get my pistol out, too. We stood still, waiting for something to dart at us, but instead we heard a faint voice.
”Please, don't shoot. I'm unarmed. I'll come out, just... don't shoot, okay?”
We exchanged looks before Nick gave a reserved response to the disembodied voice.
”Come out. Nice 'n easy.”
The man who emerged from the bushes with his hands up was somewhere in his thirties. His clothes, jeans and checkered, grey shirt, were badly ripped. There was large blotches of dried blood on them, but he didn't seem to be hurt. His brownish hair desperately needed a cut and almost covered his hazel eyes.
”Don't shoot. I'm alone and unarmed. I was just trying to figure out how to get across that bridge myself, when you showed up. I hid, because there was no way telling who you were. But... I noticed that you're a synth”, the man nodded at Nick. ”So maybe you don't mind me asking, where's your Geiger counter?”
His question considering the situation seemed completely irrelevant and it made me puzzled. For my surprise Nick answered without hesitation.
”Mine's in the shop. So you're with the Railroad, then?”
The man shook his head and lowered his hands, as Nick too lowered his gun. I glanced at Hancock, who did the same and followed their lead, but didn't holster the pistol just yet.
”I wish I could say that. I just heard that code being used many times before between the agents. My name is K2-55, but you can call me Thomas. I was on my way to Mercer Safehouse with a Railroad agent, but he... died. A Deathclaw attacked us yesterday, and it was so damn big. The agent, Memphis, told me I should run. I thought he'd be right behind me, but instead he acted as a distraction and saved me.”
Thomas looked down in his hands for a while, then squeezed them into fists.
”I heard that you're trying to get to Sunshine Tidings. It's just next to Mercer Safehouse, so I was hoping if I could tag along? I don't really have anything to pay you with, I lost about everything I had besides the clothes I'm wearing when the Deathclaw attacked, but...” Thomas spread his arms. ”I'd be in your debt.”
I noticed that Nick was watching Thomas very closely. Even Hancock let Nick do the talking and just stood next to me.
”Nick Valentine, John Hancock and Ree”, Nick introduced us briefly. ”You one of those synths who escaped after the Institute fell?”
”Yes”, Thomas affirmed. ”I managed to find The Railroad quite soon after that, but they already had their hands full with refugees. So I stayed in their HQ for all this time, and only now was the first opportunity for them to escort me to the Mercer Safehouse. They said that from there I could finally start a new life.”
”Hm”, Nick scratched his chin. ”Mighty impressive. To someone like you to survive the wilderness of the Commonwealth alone for 24 hours. Unarmed.”
”I guess I was lucky”, Thomas shrugged. ”The Deathclaw never came for me and I found a shelter in an abandoned cabin before making my way here. I thought I could at least try to reach the Safehouse, and to deliver the news about their agent.”
There was a few seconds pause, before Nick glanced at us and then turned his yellow eyes at Thomas again.
”Well, I don't see any harm in helping ya out”, Nick nodded. ”But first we'll have to deal with the mutants down there.”
We all turned our heads to look at the bridge again, and the two huge mutants stomping around it. They reminded me of the old tales of trolls and bridges, but I doubted that these would settle for gold coins. I unfastened the rifle from my backpack and peered through the scope.
”I have a clear view”, I declared. ”I think I can at least wound one or both of them before you get to them.”
”That's my Sunshine”, Hancock smiled. ”But I think you should come a little closer with us, first. The new guy can stay here, since he doesn't have anything to fight with.”
So we agreed that Thomas would stay where he was and the three of us would sneak closer to the bridge. I'd try to act as a sniper and Hancock and Nick would do a surprise attack from both sides.
As we started making our way down Nick casually got closer to Hancock.
”Keep an eye on him. He might be a synth, but he isn't telling the truth. And good call not to leave Ree alone with him.”
”He was lying?” I asked, keeping my voice low.
”Me and the Institute haven't been on speaking terms for a long time, but I know the synths escaping from there are as vulnerable and helpless like babies. They hardly know anything that awaits them on the surface. And for him to prance practically unharmed for a full day in these woods...”
”Yeah, not buying that either. But might as well be that he caused the agent to die and just doesn't want to get in trouble for it.”
”Still doesn't explain how he's still alive”, Nick frowned gloomily.
”In any case, he wasn't carrying any weapons on him”, I pondered. ”So he can't really take us out, either. And if it's just a short walk left to the Safehouse and Sunshine Tidings we should escort him there. Maybe the people there can clear him.”
”Maybe”, Nick replied, but didn't sound convinced.
Nick and Hancock placed me on top of a mound just at the verge of the forest and then both of them disappeared to their separate directions. The mutants didn't seem like they had any idea of us closing in on them. From this distance I could almost hear them speaking, too, even though their words rumbled out mostly as indecipherable grunts. They appeared frustrated and from the way they moved I gathered that they were arguing over something. Good – that meant they weren't paying too much attention to their surroundings.
While I waited for Hancock's signal I laid down flat, trying to make myself as invisible as I could and fitted the stock in my shoulder pocket. This rifle was a gift from John and I loved it. It had a long, light barrel, full stock and a scope – and I just had to name it. She was Holly, of course. Maybe it was a bit of a cliché and corny to give a name to it, but I sticked by my decision.
I was already growing anxious, when I finally got the sign. A small rock was thrown over the mutants and it hit the rusty, broken down car right behind them, making a loud bang. When the mutants jumped around and started to grab for their weapons, I acted fast.
The other mutant's neck was already in my focus, so I let out a controlled, short breath, and pulled the trigger.
As the bullet dug itself inside the fatty, green neck, the mutant gave out a loud bark and came down on one knee. He covered his neck with his big hand, but the dark blood was still flowing. He was hurt, but not nowhere near dead. Now it was time to try and hit the other one. The less they had to deal with a super mutant with full health, the better odds we had to take them down for good.
With quick movements I unlocked the bolt, pulled back and ejected the empty cartridge. I pushed the bolt back and peered through the scope for the unharmed mutant, who had turned back to face my direction.
”COME HERE, HUMAN! YOU COWARD”, the mutant bellowed and started blindly shooting with his pipe gun.
I fired another bullet and it hit the mutant almost dead on in its belly. The mutant screeched nearly dropping its gun, but didn't falter like his friend.
Nick and Hancock had started their attack. After I replaced the used cartridge with a new one I looked through the scope and saw that they managed to kill the one I had shot in the neck. But the other one with pipe gun was giving them seriously hard time.
”YOU KILL MY BROTHER!” It roared and in its rage it grabbed a board and started to swing it at the ghoul and detective.
”That was your brother? I could've sworn it was your momma”, I heard Hancock shouting back as he dodged the blow, which looked like it could've ripped his head clean off.
”Don't get too close, now”, I whispered to myself while watching them from afar and trying to get another shot in.
To my horror I saw Nick stumbling on something and he fell on his back, only two small jumps from the raging green creature. The panic caused a cold sweat to break out and I tried to get the mutant in my focus, but it moved too much and I only grazed its thigh.
”Shit”, I cried out and scrambled on my feet. ”Nick!”
Nick tried to move away, but the mutant's board came down and hit him hard on his back. I saw and heard the board cracking and my heart sank. I finished with the preparations and held up the rifle again, but Hancock made it first. He actually jumped on the mutant's neck and with a quick, smooth draw he slit the creature's throat open.
The blood sprayed from the gash, and despite being so badly hurt the mutant tried to grab Hancock and bash his head in. Instead, Hancock jumped off and rolled further away. The mutant clearly tried to decide which one of the pests it should try finishing off before kicking the bucket, but it was too late. It took one step closer to the detective, who lied emotionless on the ground, but another step was only half as long. The mutant fell down with an ugly crack, which happened when the thick skull hit the asphalt.
At once, not caring if it was safe or not, I scrambled down, almost tripping on tree roots, and ran to them. Hancock was already on his knees next to Valentine, who wasn't moving.
”Is he...” I swallowed the rest of my question.
”Not yet”, Nick mumbled, cheek against the ground and eyes shut. ”Gimme a minute. I'll have to check my systems.”
I dropped the rifle and with a relieved, trembling sigh I slid down to my knees. Together with Hancock we patiently waited for the synth to deliver the news.
After something that felt for ages, Nick opened his eyes and grunted.
”The luck of the devil, nothing of importance got broken. But the soft tissue needs a Stimpak.”
We helped Nick to sit up and removed his jacket and the shirt, which revealed the tattered wound on his back, just under the part where he would have his rib cage. I quickly searched for a Stimpak and injected it to him. My touch on the wound made him flinch.
”I'm sorry”, I tried to be as gentle as I could. At the same time I wondered why the Stimpaks didn't heal the gash on his face, or regenerate the flesh on his arm. Maybe they were so old injuries that the meds didn't work on them, anymore. So, they were like scars.
Someone approached us and I jerked my head up, only to see Thomas cautiously walking closer. While the Stimpak was doing its work on Nick, Hancock and Thomas went to check the bodies. I sat next to Nick, who had closed his eyes again. He leaned against the cement railing of the bridge and I did the same.
”You did well back there”, he said and I could detect a smile on his otherwise stoic face.
”Not good enough. You almost got killed.”
Nick's eyes opened half-way and the yellow glow turned to look at me.
”Don't dwell too much on something that didn't happen, kid. I'll be good as new... well, as good as I was in few minutes.”
I reached to his human hand on a whim and gave it a squeeze. Nick's eyes grew ever so slightly wider and his gaze dropped down on my hand on his. For a second I got a sudden, irrational fear that he would shake it off, but instead his fingers carefully closed around mine. I got the feeling that no one had really held his hand like this after he woke up as a synth.
”Nothing”, Hancock walked to us and looked irritated. ”Not a single cap for our troubles. Just this note: 'KILL. LOOT. RETURN.' Actually I'm impressed – didn't even know they could read.”
Hancock crumpled the note and threw it away.
”Hey, did I interrupt something?” He grinned and I quickly pulled my hand back.
”Yeah, Ree was just telling me how she likes a busted synth better than a Jet fiend ghoul”, Nick snorted and grimaced, as he pushed himself to sit straight.
Hancock chuckled. His glimpse at me made my cheeks burn, though I didn't have a clear reason why.
”Shit, and here I had hoped she wouldn't realize the bad deal just yet.” John reached for Nick and helped him up, patting his shoulder.
”Good to see you're still kickin'.”
I rose up and picked up Nick's shirt and jacket. He was already moving better, but still needed help putting the clothes back on. Thomas walked to us and watched as we dressed Valentine. Now, that I knew what Nick thought about him, his presence made me a bit uncomfortable, but Thomas didn't seem to notice.
”That was really impressive! If it wasn't for you, I don't know how long I should've had to wait for those... things... to leave the bridge.” Thomas's eyes were fixed on Nick. ”You're not a Gen 2, are you? But you're not a Gen 3, either. What are you?”
”Pal, if I knew I'd told ya”, Nick huffed as he got his both shoulders under the jacket and shook it on its place. ”There, thank you. We should continue before any of those mutants' friends start showing up.”