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“A woman outta time, huh? Of all the topics we’ve covered, I’m surprised with how long this one has been kept under wraps.”

A newspaper is held in front of her, and it takes all her strength to lift her head enough to glance over the headlines. Piper’s name is the only thing she really catches – the only thing she remembers reading. The rest of the words run and twist, congealing, tinged red and tasting of metal in her mind. Metal like the knives on his hands. Fingers. They’d been hot against her skin.

Everything is red. Blurred. His face is concealed in darkness, but she can’t figure out where it’s coming from.

The newspaper pulls away, and she can’t help but try to follow it. It’s an absent action, like bugs being attracted to light. Piper’s name is the only bit of familiarity in this place. She had Nick, she remembers faintly, but he’s gone now. They didn’t like his clothes. Didn’t like the idea of a Synth trying to act like a human.

She’d tried… Nick…

Her arm is limp by her side. More than a few bones are broken. She can see the glistening of white peeking through flesh, jagged, and she knows bones aren’t supposed to bend that way. But at least it’s a dull ache. The knives had been sharper, and she can still taste the copper on her tongue.

“Give him back,” she’s mumbling before she can stop herself, the words bypassing her brain and going right to her mouth. Her throat’s dry, her voice is cracked, but they’re clear enough. “Let him go.”

The man in front of her runs his fingers together and the screech of metal on metal makes her shrink. She tries to collapse into the bedframe she’s been tied to. It’s propped upright so she’s hanging down. Out of the corner of her eyes she’s caught, in pieces, other raiders connecting a repurposed battery to the metal frame.

“Let him go,” she says, with more strength, but even then it isn’t much.

Can Synths scream?

The man chuckles. He flicks his wrist, there’s a flash of pain, and warmth trickles down the fresh slash in her cheek. It’s a light cut. A warning. She doesn’t scream, but can’t stop herself from flinching.

“The Institute seems to be payin’ you some interest, Sweetheart. I wanna know why, but I’m gettin’ mighty sick of askin’.” The Southern drawl is thick. Paper rustles. He’s looking over the news again. “You’ve gotten pretty big. What are ya? Mutant? You look pink enough, though, so I’m not too sure.”

She’s a housewife. She has a law degree. She has a baby. She has Nate.

Had. Had, had, had. All of them, had.

Nick, had. Hell, even her gun was a had. They’d taken her rifle after a shot to the leg had her kneeling and disorientated. Even Nick, with all his Synth reflexes, couldn’t do much against a stun baton.

“Nick…” her thoughts have become circular. The man blurs, like a shadow pulled. The only thing she can catch is the glint of his fingers, but she hears him grunt in vague annoyance.

“Carter, Med-X. We’re losin’ her again. And some Psycho. Get the blood nice an’ pumpin’.” To her he adds, “C’mon, sweetheart. You haven’t earnt your ticket off this ride yet.”

The injections aren’t gentle, but the hits come fast. Her heart picks up. She hears it pulsing and the energy ripples through her in short, sharp waves. Breath hitches. White flashes.

“Shaun?” she mumbles. “Nate?” A sharp inhale. Her body tingles. “Nick?”

She’s lost a baby already. She’s lost a husband. She’s not going to lose the closest thing she has to a father in this godforsaken wasteland, even if he’s made of metal.

Something rattles. Her wrists ache. Her whole being hums, and then she’s seeing him. Shaun, in his crib, and there’s a rocket dial above his head and she can’t reach him—she can’t reach him—

“Hold her!”

The binds on her wrist melt away and she runs for her baby. Something sends heat across her arm and ribs in five searing lines but it’s distant. Her baby has his arms outstretched.

She curls her fingers around one arm and it’s cold. Like he’s frozen again. Maybe he’s dead. Maybe Kellogg killed him.

Something roars, primal. Its voice is of the caves. Of prehistoric hunters with their kin clutched to their chests and nothing but their teeth and nails to keep them safe. It’s old, and she clings to that voice because it’s made her throat sore and her lungs ache and her eyes sting.

Her baby feels strange in her arms. In her hands. She knows she’s holding him strangely but it feels natural. Shaun smiles at her as she runs (she can’t remember when she left her restraints, but her wrists are bleeding red and trailing colour). When she tugs at his small fingers, still cold and stiff, the world before her flashes white. Raiders are screaming, or maybe they are singing, but when the light flares and sears images of rocket sundials into her retinas the noise stops. There is only thunderous crashing.

She finds Nick soon enough. He doesn’t have his trench coat or hat and he’s strapped, too, to an operating table. His eyes widen as she approaches. He says something but she can’t make sense of it, so instead she tears through his restraints like butter. His eyes get wider.

“Sole—” he begins.

“I have Shaun. We need to leave, Nick.”

He stops. Something in his expression changes, and his voice becomes gentle. “Put it down, Sole,” he says. He checks behind her. There is more singing and screaming.

She tightens her grip on Shaun and the chill of him is soothing against her wounds.

“No,” she says. “I can’t let him go again.”

She can’t read Nick’s face, but before she can ask him what he means he pushes her behind him and steals a gun from a raider’s charred body in one fluid movement. She’s not sure where the body’s from, but she can’t bring herself to move as Nick fires several shots and heavy thuds lift into the air. 

“I can’t let him go,” she repeats. “Nick.”

He says nothing but takes her free wrist gently in his good hand. It’s then she notices that neither hand is particularly good. There are heavy dings where it looks like they’ve taken hammers to the metal and stubs.

“Easy, now,” he soothes, and tugs at her. “I’m gonna lift you up, okay? I still have strength in these old circuits.” A wry smile. She nods. “Just be careful with… Shaun, there.”

Of course she will be. Another nod, and the whole world jerks.

Nick runs with her in his arms. The whole ordeal makes her ache, and she curls herself around Shaun. He’s giggling, but the giggling is becoming slurred. Deeper. Like a whir.

Nick grabs something on his way to wherever it is he wants to go. The injection is careful, calculated. Everything wavers and begins to fade. Shaun distorts in her grip. Her breathing slows.

Her bloodied fingers fall from the Fatman’s trigger as darkness rears its head and swallows her whole.

 

--

 

John Hancock has a precarious relationship with power. He knows that he needs it, because a mayor without power is just a jockey with a better hat, but he also knows where power goes if it’s left unchecked. It’s like the Mentats he indulges himself in when the nights are long and boring: right to the head.

But it’s hard to ignore the power with people like Ridge breathing down his neck. Or, maybe more accurately, right up his ass.

“Please, Mayor!” The man’s in his fifties, easy. The suit gives it away. He’s from the stalls in Diamond City, but the mud that cakes his boots are suggestive of a sudden but unforeseen exile. Hancock isn’t particularly sympathetic. He leans against a desk (not his; he doesn’t like desks unless he has someone else to have fun with on them, if they’re into that sort of thing) with his head lolled back staring disinterestedly at the ceiling.

Ridge continues with a grand sweep of his arms. “Please, Mayor, shelter me from the ghou—” his words catch in his throat and Hancock smirks a lipless smirk. For a bit of fun he removes his tricorn hat and runs a deformed hand over his bald head. “Ghooouuu…” Ridge tastes the vowels with a smack of his fat lips. “Ghouulish personnel,” he finishes lamely. “Urm. Ha-ha.”

Hancock replaces the hat with a sigh and kicks off the desk. The guards either side of him step back. Briefly he considers the knife in his boot, but he’s not about that. That’s power talking again, he knows. The power of a life at your feet.

“You don’t have to ask,” he says smoothly, even with his raspy voice. “Goodneighbor is all about the people. But I guess that’s the thing. Can you be for the people?” If he had eyebrows he’d raise them.

Ridge hesitates. “What do you mean?”

“You’re from the stalls, aren’t you?” Hancock shrugs. “You gotta have a bit of cash. A person like you doesn’t get from Diamond City to here without a few run-ins with raiders. So what did you do? Bribe ‘em? You don’t have a gun and you still have all your limbs.” He can’t help the slight disappointment that edges into his voice at the tail end of the sentence. Too many people with less caps have limped into Goodneighbor with rifles instead of crutches. But that’s life. Until he puts his own feet down, there will always be others unable to stand on theirs.

The man adjusts his tie and pales a little. “Well,” he says, “I do have a few caps…”

“Hand ‘em over.”

“What!?”

“A little bit of goodwill for Goodneighbor,” says Hancock, not missing a beat. “You wanna be part of the people? You gotta be for the people, buddy.”

The man sputters, like the tightness of his tie is choking him. It takes a while, so Hancock allows his black eyes to drift. Really, he doesn’t understand it. They’re just caps. Back in the pre-war days you got them off bottles, and now they controlled whether or not you could eat for the day. It was strange how the world turned or, well, didn’t turn. Like war, money never changes.

“Just hand ‘em over, guy,” he says, when the old man lets out a barking cough. Maybe he’s trying to regurgitate the caps. “Or I give you to Fahrenheit here and she can figure out what she wants to do with you.” Hancock nods to the woman who’s been picking her teeth with a dulled scalpel behind him. She grunts. Ridge only coughs more.

“P-please! These caps are all I have!”

Hancock’s mouth twitches. He takes a step forward and the man stumbles back.

“I can’t help but disagree with you there, buddy,” he says evenly. “You have your health, don’t you?” His proximity casts a shadow over the other man, who cowers. But there’s nowhere else for him to go. The Goodneighbor guards know their mayor. They move to block the exit. Hancock smirks. “Or d’you wanna give us your health instead of your caps? We can do that. If your caps are all you have, after all. Why not take somethin’ worth less, right?” He plucks the knife from his boot and twirls it. “Whadd’ya say?”

“P-please!”

“Oh,” Hancock stops twirling and feigns surprise, placing a rough hand on his chest. “You mean your caps don’t matter that much? My oh my. What a change.”

“Get away from me, ghoul!”

The man scrambles back on all fours. Hancock waves to the guards and they part in time for the asshat to barrel past them. Hancock listens closely until he hears the door slam shut and heavy footsteps disappear.

Fahrenheit throws the scalpel at the far wall and it embeds itself deep into the wood. “That was soft of you,” she says.

Hancock shrugs. “Not worth my time. I saw how he looked at Daisy when she greeted him. I don’t needa know any more than that. If he wants to hide away in the area l say let him, and if the mutants get to him then, hey, it’s not our problem. Let’s see if his caps save him.”

She snorts and he shoots her a grin. “Whatever you say, Boss. Remember that a pawn can still take out a king.”

“Just keep the rat away from our storehouses.”

“Whatever you say,” she repeats, and turns to leave.

Hancock is about to reward himself for a job well done with some Jet when there’s an explosion. Gunfire follows. He rolls his eyes. Fahrenheit hasn’t even left the room. She walks backwards a few steps to fix him with a flat look that says I have to check this out, don’t I?

Of course she does. She’s closest to the door and Hancock is closest to his Jet. He points at it as if to make his case and Fahrenheit groans. Whatever. It’s probably the suit kicking up a stink. She can handle it. It’s been a long day, with all the new drifters coming in, some obviously more successful in staying at Goodneighbor than others.

Fahrenheit rips her scalpel from the woodwork as she passes it but then something out in the foyer stops her. The gunfire has ceased but there is yelling coming from beyond her bulky, metal-clad frame. Hancock tilts his head and frowns.

“What is it?” he says.

Fahrenheit steps aside. A figure stands beyond her, bent over something curled and red and breathing heavily. Hancock’s heart sinks. It’s a woman. Hancock would never admit it, but seeing a lady hurt always makes him a little queasy. It’s a bit too familiar.

There’s something not quite right about the man holding her, but Hancock knows too much about not quite right to care. He’s not shocked, of course, no. There’s a lot of blood in Goodneighbor, and he’s spilt more of it than he cares to admit, but it’s still a damn shame.

He lifts a hand to signal for the guards to help.

“Been a while, John.”

His brow furrows.

“Nicky?” He says. He moves forward to try and get a better look. At first he’d thought the blood was from a mix of them, but now that he’s closer he can see that it’s all the woman’s. Damn. And, as he suspects, the thing holding her is a very familiar Synth, if only because of the voice, because he’ll be damned if anything else is familiar. Nick Valentine, in all his wannabe noir-cop glory is missing the casing for his legs and half of his upper left arm. His chest is riddled with bullet holes and sparks jump from a frayed circuit in his neck.

For all the lack of normal that is the Commonwealth, even Hancock knows this isn’t right. “Get me Kleo!” He barks to the guards outside. “We’re gonna need spare parts!”

“A doctor,” says Nick. “Don’t worry about me, John, get her a doctor. All the stimpaks you’ve got, got it?”

Something in Nick’s leg gives way and the whole thing crumples. The Synth falls to his knees and the woman in his arms stifles a cry. Alive. Fuck.

Hancock growls. He turns to Fahrenheit. They don’t need to speak – she nods and bolts- and he rushes forward to kneel by the detective and the woman.

“Pass her here,” he grunts. Nick’s hands take a few tries to unlock – they have a vice grip on the woman – but they manage.

Blood has clotted but what wounds she has reopen as Hancock tries to guide his arms under her. Well, shit.

He thinks quickly. It feels a little blasphemous as he unties the American flag from his waist, but this is what America is, isn’t it? Hope for new life built upon blood. He uses his teeth to tear off large strips and ties what he can around what he can.

There’re a lot. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say a few dozen Deathclaws had gotten to her, but the slices are too clean.

“What happened?” he asks, standing. She’s nearly weightless, and when his eyes sweep over her shaking form he realises it’s because she’s almost as ghoulish as him, with her ribs visible even under her shirt. “You found her like this?”

Nick shakes his head. “She found me like that,” he rasps. “Just keep—keep—keep—” he’s glitching. Nick shakes his head to get his speech back. “Just keep her safe, got it? Of the people—”

“For the people. You got it.” Hancock grimaces, and he’ll be damned if he’s the one to not live up to his own damn words. He adjusts his hold on the woman and her blood seeps into the red of his coat. It’s warm, which almost jars him because she’s so cold.

“Save her life,” Nick whispers, as two ghouls with a stretcher approach.

She should be heavier than this. Her breathing shouldn’t be so shallow. Her skin should have more colour.

Hancock places her as gently as he can on the stretcher. “C’mon, Nick,” he says, “you know I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”

  

 

Chapter Text

Hancock can’t be everywhere at once, so he makes do with delegation. The medical team he has looking over the woman stem the bleeding as well as they can and apply stims where needed. For Nick he gets Kleo, as the closest thing he has to a robot doctor.

Doc Carey is the head of the medical team. Doc Carey is also, in all respects, the actual medical team. Goodneighbor isn’t big. The rest are just volunteers.

“Where do you want us to set her up?” says Carey from behind her clipboard. There’s blood on her hands but she doesn’t seem to notice. “Rexford is full enough already and the storehouses are filthy. Daisy has a backroom, but you’ll have to bring it up with her.”

Hancock glances at the woman’s heavily bandaged form, prone on the floor. The stretcher, at least, had given her enough of a clean place to be tended to, but in the end they hadn’t moved her far from where Nick had been forced to leave her.

He thinks for a moment. “We still have that spare bed in the attic. Dust it, throw on a clean sheet, and bring it down. I’ve got just the place.”

Carey gets to work with practiced swiftness. Hancock doesn’t have to tell her twice before she’s barking orders at the volunteers and organising them into smaller groups. He leaves her to it. Not that he’d say it to anyone, but the idea of Carey in a tricorn hat isn’t an image he’s opposed to. She’d do well.

Once he knows his new patient is sorted he makes his way to Kleo’s backroom. The first thing he notices is the Fatman propped up against the wall.

He whistles. “Whoa, Kleo, when’d you get that?”

The assaultron is in the process of welding a rough casing over the exposed circuitry of Nick’s leg. By his grumbling, Hancock guesses she’s not doing as good a job as she thinks. He pulls up a chair and slumps down, finally grateful to have some respite.

Kleo hums. “Sugar, this piece of candy had it on him when he got here.” 

“Did he now? So what? We get to keep it?”

“She had it, not me,” says Nick from the table.

Hancock kicks his feet up on a nearby crate. “Your little friend, right?”

“Her name’s Sole.” Nick strains his neck to make eye contact but Kleo slaps him back down. More grumbling. “She thought it was her son. Was carrying the thing like a baby and making some real short work of the local raider population.”

Hancock throws on a smirk. “Sounds like my kinda woman.”

John.” It’s a warning. Nick’s voice has nails.

Hancock has to roll his eyes at that. “C’mon, scrappy, you know I don’t mean it.”

Silence. When the detective speaks up again, however, it’s softer. “How is she?” he mutters. “Have you checked up on her?”

“It’s only been a few hours, Nick. This shit takes time.”

“How long until she wakes up?”

“No idea.”

They lapse into silence, the stillness of the dusty evening punctuated only by the occasional clang of Kleo smacking Nick’s leg back into place.

To say that it’s not every day someone turns up bleeding this much in Goodneighbor is a lie. Hancock can’t count how many times blood has spilt on the ol’ pavement, though he figures it’s not a stretch to say one might be able to give the whole town a new paintjob in a pinch. But still, he’s curious.

“Mind tellin’ me what happened to you two?” he says. The next part, at least, is true. “It ain’t every day I get a naked Synth beatin’ down my door. Sounds like a whole truckload of fun.”

Nick’s laugh is mirthless, tinny and dry. “Can’t say I know either, John. We got a case file with an address that seemed innocent enough and decided to have a look. Next thing I know, some punk is playing baseball with my photoreceptors and they’ve taken my trench coat. Can’t have a Synth looking too human; you know how it is. Your guess is as good as mine.” He pauses, and when he speaks up again it’s quieter. “If… If you get her to open her eyes, John, I’ll—”

“Don’t go committin’ to things before they happen,” Hancock cuts in. “Give it time.”

Nick just sighs in a way that’s almost human and goes quiet once more.

 

--

 

When Nora wakes it’s to birdsong.

The pillow against her cheek is soft, white, and smells faintly of lemon. She blinks away the sleep in her eyes and winces when sunlight hits them through the open window. A cool breeze filters in, making the thin yellow curtains flutter. They look almost green against the baby blue of the walls.

Sunlight? Nora eases herself up shakily and realises that she’s on a bed – queen-sized, with freshly laundered sheets of a darker yellow to match the curtains. Her feet are bare. Unblistered, too, and perfectly pedicured. She almost doesn’t recognise them. And, when she reaches down to touch them, she finds that she almost doesn’t recognise her hands, too. Red-painted nails, soft fingers, no calluses.

“Sweetie?”

Her head snaps up. In an all-too familiar doorway stands an all-too familiar man, his dark hair parted in the middle with a few lone strands dangling over his forehead. He’s still in his nightclothes. She remembers that face in the mirror, standing behind her as she fixed her hair and applied her makeup.

“Nate?” she whispers, and her voice cracks. Cold rises in her chest and makes her breathing come harder, her eyes sting and water.

Nate just chuckles. “Hey, it’s okay.” He has that same crooked smile he’s worn since they met in senior year. “Keeping a house together isn’t easy. You really should let Codsworth lighten your load every now and again.” His expression turns sheepish and he rakes a hand through his hair. “I, uh… didn’t want to wake you, but Shaun keeps crying and I think he wants his mom. Dad just doesn’t quite cut it. You know how he gets.”

She does. God, yes, she does, but she can’t stop herself from sobbing lightly. Her shoulders shake in her blue blouse and she knows she’s messing up her eyeliner. How long has she been asleep? She can’t tell, but her hair’s probably a mess, too.

“Honey?” Nate says, reproachfully. The tears keep coming. On one hand she can’t stop them but on the other she’s not sure why. Nate approaches her and gingerly places a warm hand on her shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. His eyes are amber, like the sunlight, like the curtains. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

She shakes her head, black bob bouncing, and sniffs. She takes a deep breath; tries to calm herself down. “I think I had a bad dream,” she says softly. “About…” she waves her hands, as if trying to snatch the right words from the air, “War, I guess. Sorry. I—”

He wraps her in a tight hug and she closes her eyes, buries her face into the crook of his neck, and breathes him in. Fresh soap overlays the scent she just knows to be him. Nate. Her Nate. 

“It’s okay,” he whispers, rubbing small circles into her back. “No one’s going to try and mess with our military. It’s just a big scare war. Nothing’s going to happen.” He pulls away and swipes a thumb across her cheek. “Listen, how about I make you some coffee to help wake you up and you get Shaun. Once he’s stopped crying, I’ll take us all to the park. We could all use some fresh air.”

She nods and he stands up and leaves, humming. A part of her wants to call him back, to feel him holding her again, but Shaun—Shaun.

Nora runs. She doesn’t know why she does, but by the time she’s in Shaun’s room, bent over his crib, she’s on the verge of hyperventilation.

Her baby stares up at her with big honey-gold eyes – from his father – and she makes a small coo when she sees how watery they are. She reaches down with a finger and a smile blooms across her own tear-stained face when his little hands clasps it.

“Hey, buddy,” she says. Tears are flowing again. Maybe she’s just overwhelmed. Maybe it’s hormones. Shaun giggles. “Giving daddy a hard time, are you?”

The mobile above his head glistens with newness. Absently, she taps one of the red and white rockets.

With a spark it detaches itself from the mobile. Nora jumps but doesn’t pull away from Shaun. In that moment she doesn’t feel there, like she’s watching herself watch everything else unfold. The air around her thickens. The rocket hovers in front of her, spewing a small cloud of smoke. It almost seems to regard her before, with a final crack, it buzzes out the open window of Shaun’s nursery, zigzagging sharply down the street.

And then it hits the ground.

The flash of white is blinding. A roar tears from the point of impact just as a scream tears from her throat.

Nate!

Her husband’s at her side with a coffee mug still in hand. He stands between her and the window while she fumbles to get Shaun in her arms. “Sweetie?” He tilts his head. “Are you okay?”

The cloud mushrooms upwards and pierces the sky. Rings of white bloom around its peak. Horrifyingly beautiful rings, like halos, and maybe she’s looking at the birth of an angel, wreathed in terror, awe, and fire.

The inferno erupts outwards.

She doesn’t have time to scream again. Heat hits but it doesn’t hurt, even though the world around her buckles and splinters and warps. Her house disintegrates. Nate’s coffee mug shatters in his hands and he cups her face like it’s still summer outside.

“Sole?” he says, but his lips are bubbling away and his cheeks are caving inwards. Fire washes over them. Flesh peels and stretches, hardens and darkens. His eyes go black and it’s like looking into oil. Shaun is cold and stiff.

Sole.

She tries to say his name – her Nate; Nate, Nate, Nate – but her voice has left her. The shrieking of the bomb has stolen it. All she can do is watch as his clothes turn red; dirty, faded, the colour of a burn, while around them the world continues to explode and implode, all at once.

Nate, please!” She tries again—tries to grab him—but when her hand touches his arm his skin comes off in reams. “Nate!

Nate’s lipless face cocks to the side and he frowns. When he speaks it’s like gravel.

‘fraid not, sister.”

The light from the bomb flares again and the force of it sucks the wind from her.

Along with everything else – Nate, Shaun, her house – until light is all she has.

 

--

 

Reality crashes into her like a wave and she’s gasping for breath even before she can surface. Pain lances through her, makes her back arch, her whole body convulse, and her chest heave. A weight is pressed down on shoulders. The face of Nate swims back into view but even through the tears she can still see him, peeled and burnt with eyes so black it’s like they’ve swallowed night.

He’s the one with his hands on her shoulders, bent over her, talking, though it’s to someone she can’t quite see. The world is still too bright.

“Get the Med-X, Doc,” he says. She strains against him and he applies more pressure, making her cry out as something in her arm shifts and grinds. A tutting, a wry curl of his mouth. “Whoa there, sunshine. You’re not ready to take on the day just yet. Easy. C’mon, Doc, she’s stronger than she looks.”

Her throat is too dry to form proper sounds so all she can do is hiss as a rough hand seizes her by the wrist. A thumb runs across the vein of her inner arm, and then there’s a pinch.

She gasps as liquid heat oozes across her muscles. Her heart flutters, like she’s falling even though she knows she’s on her back. It’s not unpleasant, though. The weightless warmth pulses from her arm and ripples outwards to the rest of her limbs.

Her breathing slows. A haze descends on her brain and, slowly, what solid thoughts she has recede into the background.

Nate’s grip on her eases until, finally, he pulls away.

“That’s it,” he soothes. “Don’t worry, it’s a small dose. Ride that out for a bit. We’ve got you.” He regards that same person she can’t see. “Let Nick know she’s awake,” he casts a sidelong glance at her. “He’ll want to say hi.”

“Yes, Boss,” says the other. They’re raspy, just like him, and their footsteps disappear quickly.

Nick…

Her head aches in a dull, distant sort of way. The name swirls through her mind for a bit before finally forming the image of a silver man, with striking yellow eyes and a voice that reminds her of cigarette smoke and the rustling of newspapers.

Nick… Nick Valentine.

Sole. That’s who she is now. Not Nora. She knows the news should be more painful than what it is, but the warmth of her limbs keeps what dread there might be at bay.

Instead she says, though her jaw is heavy and her throat is dry: “Nick… Is Nick okay?”

The man in the room with her – the man who can’t be Nate, now that she can see him clearer and realise that the build is different, that he swaggers more when he moves– hasn’t stopped looking at her with those black eyes. Without looking, he retrieves a bottle of water from the coffee table behind him.

“He’s fine, just a little dinged up,” he says, opening the bottle and approaching her. “We had Kleo do some hardcore panel beating about a week ago. He’s a whole new Synth.”

He holds the bottle out to her. It takes a few tries as she realises that one arm is stuck firmly in a crude cast, but she finally manages to grasp it and take a mouthful.

“A week ago?” she says weakly, setting it aside.

The man nods. “Let’s just say you’ve been out for a while. But hey, from what I hear that’s not particularly new for you.” He smiles with a burnt face and no lips.

A ghoul, a voice whispers in the back of her head. In a pirate hat.

The ghoul chuckles, and it occurs to Sole that her mouth is a traitor, stealing words from her brain before her common sense can interfere. “The technical term is a tricorn. Why? You like it?” He gives it an appreciative pat. “It kinda gives me a sexy ‘king of the zombies’ sorta vibe, if you ask me.” He tilts his head to the side, examining her. “The name’s Hancock, by the way. How you holdin’ up?”

She’s not sure. Her body hums but she can feel something dark gathering in her thoughts, like storm clouds. There’s an emptiness behind them. An empty crib and an empty house and—

A cell, restraints, the cold bite of knives against flesh and fire in her veins

“What happened?” Her voice seems far away.

Hancock’s expression falls into neutrality. “You don’t know?”

She shifts on what she now realises to be an old bed. It creaks beneath her weight and she winces as muscles she isn’t even aware of curl in on themselves. The cast on her arm makes it difficult, but eventually she manages to prop herself up a little, enough to look around the room. It’s simple enough, fairly large and bare, with a desk at the end and the coffee table by her side.

She pushes the sensation of chains and knives behind the clouds and bites back another wince.

“Where am I?”

If Hancock notices the reluctance, he says nothing about it. “Goodneighbor, but I guess you want specifics. This is my office.” He grins. “Call it insurance. I don’t know you, but Nick tells me you’re valuable, and I like to keep my valuables nice and close. Heh. And speaking of the ol’ circuit board…”

Heavy steps echo against the floorboards. Sole isn’t sure if it’s the Med-X wearing off or if Nick just brings everything around him into focus, but when the Synth enters her field of vision the world around him sharpens. Familiar yellow eyes light up on her.

“Sole,” he rasps. “It’s good to see you awake. Didn’t think I would, but I guess every dog has his day.”

The next burst of warmth that spreads through her chest can’t be the Med-X. “It’s good to see you too, Nick.” God, she’s probably crying again. She can feel the heat as it trails down her cheeks.

Hancock whistles and takes a step away from the bed. “Well I’ll just leave you two to it, then.” He turns to Nick. “But when she’s up for it, I wanna talk to her.”

Nick doesn’t have his usual trench coat, clad instead in a flannel shirt and jeans a few sizes too big. He nods to Hancock as the other man passes him on his way to the door.

“You got it, John.”

“Kicked outta my own office. The things I do for you.”

Sole’s never seen the detective snort, but there’s always a first time for everything. “Guess that makes us even.”

“Yeah, we’ll see.”

Hancock greets someone on the other side and shuts the door gently behind him.

It takes a while. Silence hangs between them. It’s not unpleasant, but Sole can sense the things not being said in the same way one can sense someone looking at them. She goes to speak, but eventually Nick approaches the bed.

“That’s Hancock. He’s a good man.” He inclines his head and purses his lips. “I… don’t know what to tell you, Sole,” he admits, after a while.

“You don’t need to tell me anything.”

“No, I really do.” Something sharp creeps into the edges of his voice. “Ellie told me that Pickman Gallery had been weirdly quiet these past few months but I didn’t think anything of it. And when she mentioned that the caller had asked for you, too, well… I only felt pride.”

Her brows furrow. Sole reaches out with her good hand, trying to clasp Nick’s own. He catches the movement—Synth reflexes—and his lips twitch.

The metal of his hand is cool against her palm.

“I’m proud to have you as my partner, Sole,” he mutters. “The Valentine Detective Agency hasn’t been this productive since—hell—since ever. But right now I—” he gives her hand a squeeze. “I think it’s best if we pull you off the roster.”

She laughs. “There’s not like there’s much I can do in this shape, anyway.”

His face remains impassive. “I mean for good, Sole. The Agency can deal with a little hiatus until we get your son. Once we have him, I’ll go back and you can restart your life where you left off in Sanctuary Hills.” He lets go and pulls away. “I won’t bother you again.”

Time creeps by. Sole can feel the trickle of it. Nick’s gaze remains firm.

And, in the darkest recesses of her mind, the baying storm breaks against the shore with a clap of thunder.

 

--

 

Hancock leans against the wall. It’s not that he listens in to other people’s conversations, it’s just that it’s his office. It’s not really eavesdropping, he figures, if it’s on his property, just simple and completely agreeable curiosity.

Pickman Gallery, huh? The place had been quiet for a while, but Hancock hadn’t thought anything about it, either. With the supermutants on one side and the raiders on the other, a bit of quiet was welcome. Goodneighbor didn’t have enough resources to worry about a lack of things happening when so many other things were happening in alarming and increasing abundance.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been thinking about it, though. Hancock, despite what others outside of Goodneighbor tended to say, held great interest in the outlying regions of the Commonwealth, if only because it tended to be the scraps of these regions that ended up under his wing.

Fahrenheit hovers nearby, never too far, picking her teeth with a scalpel. Hancock nods to her and she strides over.

“Boss?” she says.

Hancock waits. Nick has started on a spiel about the detective agency. Perfect. He gestures for her to come closer and leans in. “Pickman Gallery,” he whispers. “It’s been awful quiet over there, don’t you think?”

Fahrenheit blinks. “You mean apart from the mini-nuke explosions?”

Hancock nods. “Exactly. That’s recent. The raiders there have been quiet for weeks, and suddenly all this noise and her, blowin’ it all up. You can’t tell me the two ain’t connected.”

Her eyebrows knit, her frown deep-set into an otherwise fair face. “Should I check it out?”

“Get a team of ghouls. This is reconnaissance. Slip in, find out what you can, and leave. Get goin’.”

Fahrenheit nods and slinks away with a deftness that belies her build. Hancock returns to his listening.

Just in time for the scream.

It’s not one of pain. There’s too much teeth. The second one, however, is very much in pain. Frustrated pain, halfway between a groan and a roar, followed by every curse he knows and then some.

A few seconds pass.

The door opens. Nick walks out, stiff as ever, back straight as a plank. His head is on an angle.

Hancock tries to feign innocence, fails, and instead settles for a simple, “How’d it go?”

Nick gingerly realigns his head. It pops back with a snap. “She slapped me.”

“That’s women for you. Which move did you try to pull?”

John.” Nick looks down at his feet. “She forgot I’m a Synth. Metal, and all that. If you could bring the Doc back to make sure she’s okay, I’d appreciate it. I don’t think she wants to see me for a while.”

“I’m sure it’s the Med-X.”

The humour is lost on the Synth, who seems content to roll around in self-pity. Hancock’s never kicked a dog that didn’t deserve it but he knows the look, and Nick’s pulling off the eyes like a champ.

Hancock sighs. “Listen,” he says, clapping the Synth on the shoulder, “I’ll get the Doc, calm her down, and when she’s rested up I’ll call you back. She’s gone through a lot. Give her time before you drop whatever it is you wanna drop on her.”

Nick stares hard at the floorboards.

“I’ll be in the memory den, then,” he says, still not looking up. “I need to figure this out.”  

 

--

 

Sole can hear them talking outside, and if the dull ache in her wrist and fresh strike of red against her bandages is any indicator, it’s about her.

Idiot. The pain is distant but she knows that’s only because of the great big wall of Med-X still slithering through her veins. She’s torn stitches, her skin’s pulling, and she’s fairly certain there’s going to be a bruise on her palm as well—damn it.

She’d sought out the Agency. She’d sought out Nick, fighting through raiders, Gunners, and finally negotiating with Skinny Malone. She’d done well. She’d put what skills she had to good use and, for the first time since leaving the vault, she’d done something with herself. With all the failed attempts to find someone who knew what happened to Shaun, it was…

… Maybe it wasn’t something she needed – not in the traditional sense – but she’d craved it. She’d watched Nate die. She’d watch her baby be taken away. And then, as the icing to the cake, she’d watched herself walk out into a world she didn’t fully comprehend (and on some level, knows she never will). Finding Piper and Nick and working with the Agency, finally being able to put those years of law and criminology to use, was almost enough to make her feel like she was at least capable of something.

And the Agency? Hell. If she couldn’t save her baby, then maybe she could save other people’s.

She doesn’t want to cry again. Maybe when she was a housewife she would give herself more time to cry, but in the Commonwealth even once seems more than what she’s allowed. So instead Sole curls in an attempt to sit straight and hikes up her shirt to try and look over her injuries with the one good arm she has left. The blood’s seeped through it and gotten onto the sheets, but it’s salvageable.

“I was gonna tell you to try and steer clear of any sudden movements, but I see you beat me to it.”

She freezes and her head snaps up. The ghoul – Hancock – watches her, leaning against the closed door. She doesn’t remember hearing him enter. 

He smirks. “You need another hit of Med-X? I can provide.”

She lowers her shirt. “Uh, thank you, but I’ll pass.”

“Not your kinda ride, eh?” He pushes himself off the door and walks over to her with movements that remind her of a cat, all quiet predatory confidence, and she realises who she’s in the room with.

Ghoul.

Hancock continues blithely, “I’m a Mentats ghoul myself. Makes me feel intellectual.” The word rolls off his tongue and he picks a needle and a spool of what looks like surgical thread from the coffee table. He then holds the needle to the fluorescent light of his office, as if doing so will somehow bring an epiphany, and clicks his tongue. “By the way, you gonna roll over or what?”

What?

Black eyes regard her coolly. “Who d’you think’s gonna patch you back up? Hint: it ain’t gonna be you, sister. Not with that arm.”

Sole finds herself subconsciously sinking further into the mattress. “Why not a doctor?” she says.

Hancock threads the needle and shakes his head. “Nope. Don’t need her. Those beautiful stitches are my own handiwork. With your kinda bleedin’ we had to work fast and, hey, I’m real good with my fingers.”  

He takes a step forward.

“Nick says you’re a good guy,” cuts in Sole, eyeing the needle.

Hancock grins. “And what do you think?”

“I think a good guy would let me have a doctor if I asked.”

The needle lowers but Hancock’s grin doesn’t fade. “Right,” he drawls. “Then I guess a good guy like me better grab the Doc right away. Sit tight, take it easy, rest up. You’ve got a long recovery ahead of you.”

Chapter Text

The days roll by without incident. The road to recovery might not be long but, God, it’s slow, so Sole’s grateful that she’s unconscious for most of it. She sleeps (if she can call it sleeping) in Hancock’s office, shut away in the corner with a few room dividers set up to give her some semblance of privacy. It’s not like the ghoul spends too much time there, anyway. It’s only every now and again that she slips back into consciousness to find him hunched over his desk, or sitting back with his feet kicked up on the splintered wood, a thoughtful – if dazed – expression on his face. Usually he’s out on the streets, checking up on people and chatting.

She only knows this because the guards he has posted outside his office tell her. They’re all she has to talk to, with Nick more or less keeping to himself.

She’d stopped being angry with him almost as soon as he’d shut the door. Sole’s never been good at staying angry. Even when it was Kellogg staring down the barrel of her rifle, she’d waited until he pulled the trigger first with a sneer. “Soft,” he’d called her.

And she is soft. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s why she asks one of the guards to send a message to Nick asking for some time to talk, and it’s also why she doesn’t press the matter when they return with a solemn look and a short, curt, “Sorry, Lady. He’s not around.”

Nick can take care of himself, but she can’t help but be worried at that.   

The gashes in her side are scabbed over by the end of the second day, healing quicker than she thought they would. Maybe it’s something in the stims they’re administering, because when Doc Carey ambles around next with her clipboard she orders Sole’s cast be removed. Evidently, the leg’s not broken, though the flesh is torn where the bullet had entered; it’s just that no one trusted her to not move during her time unconscious. It’s really only her arm that causes her distracting amounts of pain, but she manages by laying still on her back.  

She keeps herself occupied in other ways. She eats what she’s given and drinks when she can. Between the two, she thinks and tries to piece together what happened at the Gallery, but every single face she tries to construct is blurred like running paint. It’s like trying to catch smoke, with every memory twisting and curling away between her fingers.

There had been blood. Not all of it was hers. There had been… others. A lot of others.

And a sound, like a million mouths chewing in a damp, dark room.

 

--

 

It’s in the evening on the third day that Sole realises maybe stopping the Med-X too suddenly was a bad idea. At one point she thinks she hears Shaun crying in the distance until the noise comes into focus and she recognises the metallic screech of a drill. At another she feels like she’s sitting in ankle-deep water listening to thousands of wet lips smacking together until pain hauls her back onto the mattress and leaves her holding back groans.

Sweat seeps through her bandages. Her wounds itch. There’s a persistent scratchiness on her forearm. She’s counted the cracks in the ceiling fifteen times over so far.

She’s not really sure what to do when Hancock starts speaking.

“Hey, you good to talk?”

Sole blinks awake (she’s been awake the entire time but she finds that Hancock’s easier to deal with when she pretends to be asleep). A divider is pulled aside and the ghoul peers over her.

“Hey,” he repeats. “Up and at ‘em, sunshine, I needa word.” Instead of the usual grin his face is scrunched in thought.  

Sole adjusts herself on the bed until she’s sitting as Hancock makes his way around to take a seat on the coffee table. He shoves everything else on it – clean bandages, spare Med-X – to the side.

“Yes?” says Sole, as he, apparently unthinking, pockets one of the Med-X vials. “You, uh… You need something?”

“Just information.” He looks her over. “I wanted to have a chat with you earlier, but you didn’t really seem up for it, so I let it slide. But now we have a problem.”

Sole’s heart sinks. She’s not exactly equipped to deal with a problem. “We… do?”  

“Unclench, sister, it ain’t about you.” Hancock settles on the table, thinks for a moment, and then adds, “Well, okay, it is about you. But I ain’t about to shiv you, if that’s a thing you’re worried about. That’s not the kinda guy I am.”

“A good guy,” she adds.

He winks at her. “You know it. Didn’t even bother you while you napped. Kept nice and quiet.”

“Mayor Hancock—”

“C’mon, you’re sleepin’ in my office. Call me Hancock.”

She raises her eyebrows and tries to keep polite, even though the red of his coat keeps mixing with the dirty white of his shirt. “Hancock,” she repeats, slowly. “Your… problem?”

His expression falls immediately. “Right, right. It’s about Pickman Gallery.”

Sole freezes. “How did you—”

“I’m a real good listener. That, and my reports say the place is just a whole bunch of craters since you left. What the hell’s up there?”

The memories are still nothing but fog and haze, but Sole gives what she can. “I’m not sure,” she admits. “I don’t really remember.”

He hums. “Don’t remember a thing, huh?”

“It was dark? Radroaches, maybe?” She recalls the incessant chewing. “It was wet. A lot of things there were… eating, I think.”

Hancock nods. “No idea about the eatin’, but… huh. So maybe it’s underground.”

“What’s underground?”

“That’s the golden question.” Hancock leans back, bracing himself against the table. “I sent some of my people to go and check it out. Make sure nothin’ bad’s headed our way. Thing is, I haven’t heard from ‘em since.”

Sole chews on the inside of her cheek. “You think it’s the same…” She weakly indicates her bandaged leg and arm.

Hancock shrugs. “Could be. Won’t know until either we get any kinda word or the turnaround.”

“Turnaround?”

He nods. “Fahrenheit and I work on a seven day turnaround, otherwise we just end up steppin’ on each other’s toes. She has three more days before I send in the cavalry.”

Sole frowns. “Then why talk to me if it’s on a turnaround?”

“It got you talkin’, didn’t it?” There’s a glint in his eyes, like twin stars, and they sweep over her. “If we’re gonna be roomies I wouldn’t mind a bit of communication. You know, instead of pretendin’ to snore whenever I come to check up on you.”

Heat gathers in her cheeks. “You don’t have to check up on me,” she mutters.

“Doesn’t mean I ain’t gonna, sister. It’s the right thing to do.”

He tilts his head to the side, watching her, and the space between them grows heavy. “Tell me about yourself,” he says suddenly.

Sole isn’t ready for it. She nearly does a double-take. “What?”

“You gotta have a story, sister. We all do. We wouldn’t be in Goodneighbor if we didn’t.” He keeps his gaze steady and his posture open. “You’re workin’ with Valentine, aren’t you?”

He keeps his tone even but Sole catches the curiosity. Hancock’s eyes are a little wider, head still on that little tilt, watching.

He’d know sooner or later, wouldn’t he? “Yeah,” she relents. “I’m looking for someone.”

For a while he says nothing, tapping out an absent rhythm against the table. “Nate and Shaun, right?” he says mildly, as if what he’s talking about is as mundane as the weather, and something in her stomach sinks.  

“Yeah,” she says quietly. “How’d you know?”

“When you first woke up,” he says, expression still neutral. “You called me Nate and you asked for Shaun.” He pauses, forehead knitting. “Nick knows what he’s doin’. If anyone can find them, it’s him. Don’t you sweat it, sister.”

There’s an injector on the table behind him and he picks it up, along with a vial of Med-X.

“What’re you doing?”

“Just a little tip from an expert.” He draws some of the clear liquid from the vial. “Never go cold turkey. Halve what you have if you gotta, but never go cold turkey. Remember that we had you on this stuff while you were unconscious. Givin’ up too quickly is just gonna make you sick.” He flicks the injector and looks at her expectantly.

He’s a ghoul. Sole’s shot through what feels like hundreds of them, and every time she looks at his face, with his nose no more than a cavity and his hair burnt to nothing but scars and warped skin, she can’t help but freeze up.

But it’s the way he touches her that pushes all thoughts of resistance from her mind. Hancock’s fingers are rough but gentle as he carefully takes her by the hand and turns her arm until the vein is facing him. The pinch of the needle makes her hiss but the pain doesn’t last long, not with the way his thumb rubs small circles around her inner wrist. 

Warmth hits her and again she feels that vague sensation of falling. Her head lolls back and, in the distance, behind the crash of euphoria, she hears him chuckle.

“Not used to chems, aren’t you?”

“Nothing like this.” She hums. “Relaxing.”

When she opens her eyes (she’s not sure when she closed them) Hancock has a new injector clamped between his teeth and is in the process of rolling up his sleeve. She watches him, eyes tracing the lines on his arms, the pockmarks that run along his veins.

“How do you know Nick?” she says, and her voice seems far away. Hancock draws three times the amount of Med-X he gave her for himself and stands up. He disappears beyond the dividers and comes back with a small lounge chair.

“Goodneighbor is a city for the lost,” he says, pulling up next to her and falling into it. “And Nick’s job is findin’ lost people and bringin’ ‘em home. He ends up here too damn much.” He raises the injector and inclines his head. “To findin’ the lost.”

Sole doesn’t have her injector, but she lifts her good arm in what amounts to a small wave. “To finding the lost,” she echoes, before the world goes black.

 

--

 

Med-X pulses through him, bringing a familiar warmth.

Hancock’s gaze lingers on Sole as her eyes droop closed. He returns his hand to her wrist, measuring the pulse, while rubbing those small, soothing circles. Eventually her breathing evens out to match the smooth rises and falls of her chest.

He’s more sluggish than usual but his reflexes have always been exceptional. Hancock snaps forward to cradle her face before the angle gets painful and, careful to mind her arm and leg, he rearranges her on the bed so that she’s laying down, blanket pulled up to her chin.

He’d listened to her restlessness for hours. She needed the sleep and, hell, he’d needed a break, too. The day was going too slowly, no word had come back from Fahrenheit since he’d sent her and that team to Pickman, and—shit—what was he supposed to do? It felt wrong, sitting on his ass.

Pickman. He has no idea what the fuck’s goin’ on in Pickman and, as it turns out, neither does Sole. Not that he can blame her. Doc Carey’s report had made it painfully clear that the cocktail of drugs they had pumping through her was something… other. Hancock’s no stranger to blacking out after an intense high, but he and chems have history.

Sole’s hands are soft. A vault dweller, probably, practically new to the Commonwealth. Getting that high without experience has gotta knock something out of place. He hopes, for her sake, that it’s just her memory. He knows raiders. It’s not a bad thing if she can’t remember what happened. 

Shaun?

It’s so quiet he questions whether or not he actually heard it, until it comes again, breathy and small.

Shaun, please…”

Sweat beads around her brow and her nostrils flare as she sucks in a breath.

Mommy’s here.

A son. Hancock knows he shouldn’t listen in, but he also knows too well what it’s like to wake up with your head between reality – to open your eyes and not know which you is doing the looking – so he drags the chair a little closer and makes himself comfortable.

And just like that, he’s tracing those small circles on her wrist again, until the words die away and the night takes over.

 

--

 

Sole jerks awake to the sound of the dividers being dragged aside.

“What’s goin’ on here? John?” Nick’s voice is gruff. The dividers give another sharp scrape against the floorboards. 

Her eyes ease open to find that she’s lying flat on the bed, the crude blanket drawn up to just below her collarbone. Sole absently rubs the thin material between her fingers before, slowly, registering the grumpy Synth staring hard at something next to her.

“John,” he repeats, warningly.

Hancock. That’s right. Bit by bit, the fog in her brain dissipates and she glances to the side.

Next to her sits Hancock, morning light hanging in dust-flecked curtains around him. He’s sprawled on the lounge chair with one arm draped across the back and a leg resting on the coffee table.

The ghoul doesn’t turn to regard Nick. His eyes remains on her, steady and dark.

“Shit, Nick, at least try knockin’ first.”

“Start talkin’, John.”

Something slides around in the ghoul’s mouth, and Sole swears she sees the chalky redness of a Mentat roll with practiced ease beneath his tongue.

“Keepin’ a close eye on her,” he says simply. “What’s it look like?”

“Like you’re keeping two very close eyes on her, and I don’t know if I like that look.”

“Actually, Monsieur Valentine,” pipes a third voice. “Upon scanning the table contents, it would seem to me that Monsieur Hancock has recently, which is to say within a timeframe of about ten hours, administrated a mild dose of Med-X. I would assume for Mademoiselle Sole.”  

Nick huffs and crosses his arms. Sole notes the new trench coat. “You assume, huh?”

Sole blinks. Everything’s moving too fast, conversation included. “Curie?” she mumbles.

Now that she listens she can hear the soft hum of the modified Mister Handy’s thrusters.

“Mademoiselle Sole!” A glass eye appears over the top of one of the dividers. “It is most good to see you. We were so worried!” It pulls back on its stalk, moving backwards and forwards. “Monsieur Valentine was correct when he said you were in rough shape. Oh, please allow me to provide a better analysis.” The eye disappears.

Nick sidesteps generously to allow for the limbed white sphere that is Curie to hover through.

“Who’s the ‘bot? You know her, Sole?” says Hancock. Curie goes to float by him but he lifts a leg to block her.

Nick’s words are clipped. “Her name’s Curie, John, and she’s a damn good doctor. Show some respect.”

Hancock shoots him a dry look but lowers his leg.

“Please do not be bothered by Monsieur Valentine’s harshness, Monsieur Hancock,” says Curie soothingly, one eye trained on Sole while the other twists to look at Hancock. “He is experiencing some cognitive dissonance as a result of recent mnemonic recalibration practices.”

“Some what?”

“Curie, please,” Nick grumbles, quieter. He looks down at his feet. “You’re here to look at Sole. What’s your diagnosis?”

He hasn’t really made eye contact at her since he arrived. Sole tries to duck her head to meet the Synth’s golden gaze but he doesn’t look up.

“Excuse me, Mademoiselle, this will not take long at all.”

Sole winces as one of Curie’s many limbs prod at her bad arm, and then again at her leg. There’s a flash as a green light flickers across of the robot’s eyes; a scanner.

“Your leg is coming along so wonderfully, Mademoiselle!” Curie just about sings, and Sole can’t help but smile at her enthusiasm. “The cybernetic limb actuator will find optimal use in your arm. Left to itself, it will take much too long to heal.”  

“Cybernetic limb what?” says Sole weakly, as Curie makes a tutting noise and begins to pick at her bandages.

“After we killed Kellogg, I took the liberty of taking what I could,” says Nick. “Can never be too sure of what’s useful and what’s not, these days. That, and it’s never wise to let Institute tech go to waste.”

“You pulled a cybernetic implant out of a dead guy,” says Hancock, but Sole can feel the smile in his words. “Gotta hand it to you, Nicky, that’s somethin’ I never thought I’d hear you do.” 

The bandages are peeled back to reveal purple flesh, mottled yellow, and a network of stitches. Sole groans, but it’s not at the sight.

“You still haven’t answered my question, John. What’s with the sudden camping—”

“Monsieur Valentine!” Curie’s third eye turns sharply. “You are distressing my patient. Both of you are! I must politely request that the two of you leave immediately.”

“What, Goodneighbor’s doctors not good enough?” Hancock’s tone is playful but it seems lost on Nick.

“Depends. Do they have cybernetic limb actuators and the know-how on how to use ‘em?”

Curie bristles. “Both of you!”

The two exchange heated looks and, for the briefest of seconds, it seems almost possible for the air between them to spark.

Until Hancock turns away and brushes by the Synth, shoulders bumping. “Well hey, I guess the day ain’t complete until I’m kicked outta my own office. Try not to break her,” he calls behind him.

Curie gasps. “I would not dream such a thing!”

“Good answer.”

They leave, and Curie returns to going over Sole’s injuries.

Sole grimaces. “That’s—hey!” She jerks when Curie tugs at one of Hancock’s stitches. That’s worrying.”

“Monsieur Valentine is merely concerned for you, Mademoiselle,” says Curie. Another tug and the sensation of stretching skin rakes on Sole’s nerves.

She winces. “He is? He wouldn’t even look at me.”

“Oh so dearly!” A device clicks out of one of Curie’s limbs and it leaks a solid white paste. “Please do not fret, Mademoiselle. He is going through, as they say, trying times.”

The paste is cold against her wounds and Sole bites back a hiss. “You said something about mnemonic recalibrations. That’s memory restructuring, isn’t it?”

“It is good to see that your ordeals have not harmed your understanding of language! I will add it to my report.”

“What happened to his memory?”

Curie pauses in her ministrations, the white paste now covering the deep slashes where the stitches had been. If she had been human, she probably would have been twiddling her thumbs.    

“That is not for me to say, Mademoiselle Sole,” she says apologetically. “I am sure he will talk to you about it when he is ready. Ah!” Sole flinches as the last stitch is pulled out and replaced with the paste. “The disinfecting process will take but a few moments. This is as far as I will go without your express approval.”

Sole cringes as the paste on her arm begins to sting. “Approval for what?”

“Minor surgery for the application of Monsieur Kellogg’s old cybernetic implants.” She must have caught Sole’s expression because she then quickly adds: “They have been thoroughly disinfected and restored to their factory settings, I assure you!”

“But how?” Sole’s lips flap and she knows she should be speaking but nothing comes out. “Also—why?

“Is it not obvious, Mademoiselle?” Curie’s eyes jump back and forth, inquisitive. “You are on a mission to find your son. But this arm, it will take months to heal. More importantly, without full use of your body, you will remain an easy target for those who might wish to cause you great harm. Oh, I could not bear such a thought, Mademoiselle! I was only briefly informed of the events at the Pickman Gallery, and I… can see what was done.”

“It’s not as bad as it looks.” Sole offers the robot a smile and only prematurely realises that she can’t gauge robot reactions like human ones. Curie’s eye stalks remain where they are. 

She doesn’t have time for this, not with her arm free of stitches and the stinging sending sharp lances of pain down to her fingers. Sole coughs in a way she hopes is distracting. “So this will help me heal faster, right?”

“Oh, yes, Mademoiselle, most definitely!” Curie’s interest in medicine returns full force and the robot’s thrusters spark. “One half is external; a lightweight metal casing that goes over your injured arm, with external finger nodules for dexterity. The second is the implant proper, and will allow for you to exert control over the affected limb by way of the most fascinating of neural transmitters—”

“So an external bone structure that I control with my brain?”     

Curie’s thrusters stutter. “I-I—well, yes, I suppose.” She deflates a little. “It will divert the strain of movement from your broken arm to an external agent while maintaining a greater form of limbic control. Pain dampeners will still be necessary, of course.”

Sole smiles appreciatively. “I didn’t know you knew anything about this sort of stuff, Curie.”

The robot seems almost sheepish. “I must admit, cybernetics is not what I was programmed for,” she says, “but I am always so eager to learn. Monsieur Valentine returned to Sanctuary to tell me of your predicament and inquired about whether or not we could use the actuator to help you. He was most distressed, Mademoiselle.”

“He reprogrammed you?”

“He would not dare!” Curie bobs on the spot, all three of her eyes dilating. “Mademoiselle, that is as good as brainwashing for someone like me! No, he had Monsieur Sturges aid in teaching me the many applications of cybernetics while Monsieur Valentine himself… taught me what he could of Institute technology.”

Sole doesn’t miss the hesitation. “Sounds like a lot to learn in a few days,” she says, eyeing the other.  

Almost imperceptibly, Curie drifts a little closer to the ground. “We did take a short route, yes. I… Well, interfacing is really quite common amongst Institute Synths, with their advanced networking capabilities, but I had never thought that I would experience it myself. It was…” She clicks her arms together, drifting off.

“Are you… okay, Curie?” Sole blinks, confused. “Curie?”

Curie bursts back into movement. “A-ah! My apologies, Mademoiselle Sole! I’m afraid there was a hiccup in my programming. Did you consent to the cybernetic implants?”

Curie continues to click her arms together. Sole’s not sure what to make of it, but she’ll ask Nick about it later, once he’s had time to himself. “It has to be better than being stuck in this bed, right?” she says, shrugging.

Curie bobs a nod. “Then we will begin at once.”

 

--

 

“I really do like seein’ you back in the outfit, Nick, but what gives?”

Hancock leans with his back against the wall in one of the empty rooms downstairs. It’s broad daylight. Most of Goodneighbor wanders around in the sun, but really it just isn’t his style. There’s a reason he’s particularly fond of the hat.

Nick just leans against the other wall, moodily taking larger drags than necessary from his cigarette.

Hancock growls. “You’re breakin’ my heart here, Nick. You know me.”

“Exactly,” the detective snaps. “I know you. That’s why I gotta keep an eye on you.”

Hancock opens his mouth to protest but then shuts it abruptly. He grins. “Heh. Fair point. But you know I wouldn’t do anythin’ to someone who didn’t ask for it first. That just ain’t who I am.”

“I know.” Smoke billows from the massive crack in the side of Nick’s face. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m just having a tough time at the moment. Sortin’ through some things. Do you find her attractive?”

Hancock’s no stranger to being blunt, but it’s almost alien coming from the Synth.

“I try not to make a habit of preyin’ on people in my care,” he says slowly, eyeing the other man. Nick grunts in response; returns to his smoke.

Silence returns. Eventually Nick drops the butt of his cigarette and stomps it out beneath his boot. He pulls out a fresh one, glances at the pack, and holds it out to Hancock.

A peace offering, if the ghoul ever saw one. It’s as good as he’s gonna get with Valentine. Hancock crosses the floor, accepts the cigarette, and finds a new spot leaning next to the Synth.

“But it’s not just that,” mutters Nick, pulling out a lighter. “Somethin’ isn’t right about any of this.”

“About you bringin’ a robot nurse?” Hancock swallows the last of the Mentat to make room in his mouth. “I gotta hand it to you, Nick, I didn’t know you were into the French. The accent, though—mm.”

Not that.” It takes a few tries to get the lighter going. Nick lights his and then offers the open flame to Hancock, who leans over to light his own. “I’ve gone over my memories at the Den. Over and over. Picked up a few weird things, let me tell you.”

“Like what?”

Nick turns to him, hands in his pockets, golden stare like searchlights beneath his hat, and Hancock can’t shake the distinct feeling that he’s being x-rayed.

Nick huffs and looks away again. “The raiders at the Gallery.” He snorts. “Cowards and crooks. They took out my eyes to play hacky-sack, but they were also quick to replace ‘em. Maybe the idea of messing too much with an Institute Synth freaked ‘em out.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Me. I said that.” Nick lets out a small, indignant laugh. “Told ‘em a Courser would follow my signal if my internals got too damaged. Scared the pants right off ‘em. But while they were playing hacky-sack, the morons got me a nice airborne view of this.” 

Nick dips his metal hand into the depths of his trench coat and pulls out a photo, no bigger than his palm. He hands it to Hancock.

“I had Doctor Amari take a snap of it while we were poking through my head. Give it a good, long gander.”

Hancock’s eyesight is better than most people’s – one of the many upsides of being a ghoul – so it doesn’t take him long to figure out what he’s looking at. The figure is deformed, its twisted face staring into a light as its mouth hangs open at an angle not meant for anything alive. Its limbs dangle by its knees, pale and long, and at the tip of every finger is the familiar glint of a blade.  

He scowls. “It’s a ghoul. What’s your point? We get ferals all the time.”

“That glove it’s wearing has knives that match the distance and depth of Sole’s wounds. Don’t be fooled. That’s our ghoul.” Nick takes another drag and keeps his voice even. “But look closer.” Nick taps the creature’s face. “You know, I’ve always considered you one of a kind, John, so tell me: what the hell do you think’s goin’ on here?”

Hancock stares. The cigarette goes limp in his mouth.

“Well, shit.”

And the ghoul in the image stares back, its eyes black as oil.

Chapter Text

Sole squeezes her eyes shut and thinks hard.

She opens her eyes and thinks hard.

The sleek white casing over her arm remains motionless.

Sole sits with her legs dangling off the edge of the bed while, next to her, Curie makes quick work of bandage disposal by way of an internal incinerator. Her head aches, but that’s to be expected. Just behind her right ear the neural transmitter has left a bump around the size of a thumbnail, still tender to the touch and coated in that damn white paste.

… She glares cold-blooded murder at her arm and thinks har

“Ow!” She catches herself before she instinctively rubs the implant bump, the remnants of an electrical surge still making the hairs on the back of her neck vibrate.

“Mademoiselle Sole!” Curie’s thrusters spark. “Nerve to transmitter synchronicity will take time. Please do not overexert yourself or the hardware!”

“Are you sure this is going to work?” Sole gives an experimental twitch of her fingers herself and winces when a twinge of pain shoots all the way to her shoulder. “If you give me—I don’t know—two days with it, I think I can come up with some modificat—”

Curie flicks her good knee with a huff. “Absolutely not, Mademoiselle. This is Institute technology. Even with your experience and knowledge, it is not advisable.” She seems to hesitate. “And, if I may… point out—yes, point out, in a most polite manner—the last time you made one of your modifications, it took four days to return Monsieur Codsworth’s language settings to English.”

Sole doesn’t pout – she’s too old for that – but she is vaguely aware of the way her bottom lip thrusts out when she frowns. German had suited him well and she’d fixed it, in the end. She’d been working without her usual gear, anyway.

Her usual gear. Of all the things Sole had found herself concerned with, she didn’t think boredom would be one of them. She’d just been stuck in the bed for so long.

“Hey, Curie?”

Somewhere in the interim, the robot had returned to her disposal work. “Yes, Mademoiselle?” she says, one eye stalk turning to regard her.

Sole tests her injured leg by giving a small kick. When the pain isn’t immediate, she tries to stretch it out as much as she can, and winces as skin and flesh tug at stitches and paste.

“How long do you think it’ll be before I can get back to work?” she says.

Curie gasps. “Get back to work? Mademoiselle Sole, absolutely not!” She incinerates the last of the bandages and twists around to look at her. “When I said that this will help you heal faster, I meant within a few weeks, not within a few hours!”

The threat of more boredom looms low and heavy. Sole hadn’t really realised it until now, with Curie buzzing around her, but she’d missed tinkering. In between helping out the Minutemen and Valentine’s cases, it’d kept her occupied through the long nights.

The notion that her custom laser rifle could be in the hands of someone who didn’t appreciate the intricacy of her focus crystal array sends a pang of irritation into her chest. She hadn’t really thought about it much before, but her Pip Boy is gone, too. Something in her mind nudges at the fact that it was taken early on, but she can’t put a name to where it might be now. 

Either way, she needs to stay busy. Needs to get her arm working and her leg moving. Even though she knows Shaun’s life isn’t on a timer (if they’d wanted him dead they would have put a bullet through his skull on the same day they did Nate’s), there’s still the matter of the Gallery.  

The Gallery. Her thoughts keep flitting back to it, like a fly to light. They’d wanted her for something – they’d been so concerned about the Institute – and the man speaking—

“A woman outta time, huh?

“Mademoiselle?”

Sole glances up, breath catching in her throat, and she coughs. Curie stares at her, eyestalks dipped inquisitively to try and get a better view of her face. Sole doesn’t remember looking down.

She gathers herself quickly. “Hey, any chance of getting my old tools over here, then—”

Just as well you want your old tools back,” Nick’s voice booms from the other side of the door. It opens and the detective, with a swish of his trench coat, strides inside. There’s a cigarette hanging from his lips, still puffing smoke, but at the sight of Sole he quickly flicks it to the ground and crushes it underfoot.

Curie bounces on the spot. “Impeccable timing, Monsieur Valentine!”

“Don’t get too excited, sister, the old rust bucket was listenin’ at the door.”

Hancock trails him, though Sole can’t decipher his expression. His black eyes are neutral, forehead knitted. There’s what looks to be a photo in his hands but it’s not long before he tucks it into the recesses of his coat.

Nick’s steps stutter to a halt once he reaches the bed, almost as if he’s afraid of getting too close. He gives a curt nod. “Your tools,” he repeats. “It’s good you miss them, because we’re bound for Sanctuary as soon as you’re up for it.”

“Yeah. Fancy that. Your old tool wants to take you back to Sanctuary.”

Hancock’s walked around to his desk, poring over something Sole can’t see. Nick ignores his jabs, however, keeping his gaze steady on Sole.

She peers up at him. “Sanctuary?”

Nick shoves his hands into his pockets. “You wanna get back in the saddle, don’t you? Well we can get to that once we’re far enough from Pickman Gallery.”

“He’s got a point, sister.” Hancock adds. “Pickman ain’t a place you wanna be near right now.”

There’s something they’re not telling her. Sole can sense it, somewhere in between their words and furtive glances. She narrows her eyes. “Why?”

Hancock scoffs. “You mean aside from the fact that a whole lot of people there messed you up? Just the usual reasons. Radiation, raiders, and they probably have a leader.”

“They targeted you,” continues Nick. “I don’t know why, but for some reason I doubt that it’s for anything wholesome. If any of ‘em are still alive, I’m willing to bet they’ll come after you again.”

Sole doesn’t let her gaze drop. “Is anyone else at risk?” she says evenly.

The room, as one being, holds its breath. Hancock’s watching her. She can feel his black eyes hot on her face, but she ignores it. She keeps her stare level with Nick; puts everything she can into it because God knows he’s kept too much from her already—

The Synth flinches. “Only you,” he says quietly. “At least, as far as we know. And given the state you’re in, I’m not exactly inclined to make sure. Someone had to see us leaving and it’s been long enough as it is.”

“But you don’t know—”

“Curie?”

The Mr Handy had retreated to the end of the bed to give the other three room to talk. She bobs in acknowledgement. “Monsieur Valentine?”

“The arm ready?” He wasn’t even talking to her. The one who has the arm.

“Installation is complete, Monsieur Valentine, but neural synchronisation will take a while yet.”

“It’ll do for now. Sole—”

Stop.” It’s not a roar. She doesn’t raise her voice at all, but the anger hisses between teeth clenched shut like hot steam escaping a valve. Electricity sparks in her temples and she winces.

She doesn’t see Nick move but the coolness of his synthetic flesh is unmistakable on her shoulder. “Hey there, easy now,” he soothes. “Take it easy.”

Warmth trickles from her nose. Absently, she dabs at it with her fingers, watching as it smears red. She can’t move her modified arm, and when she looks down she sees it’s because the thing has balled into a fist.

That’s it. That’s it.

Hancock’s half-sitting at the edge of his desk with one leg kicked over the other, still watching. “You alright there, sister?”

“Do you have a radio?”

Hancock keeps his eyes on her. “Doc Amari probably has one in that basement of hers. Not sure if it’ll work, though.”

“I’ll make it work.” Sole pries Nick’s hand off her and gingerly steps off the bed. Her muscles are weak from disuse, pain spiralling up her bad leg as everything pulls and she stumbles, only to fall against the Synth’s chest. His arms automatically hook around her waist to steady her.

“Sole—”

“Well, while you’re here,” she mutters against him. “You can help me get to the radio. I need to make a call. We… need to talk, Nick.”

His grip on her tightens, so slight she nearly misses it. “Yeah,” he says softly, “we do.”

 

--

 

Doctor Amari is polite and looks at her with an expression she can’t quite place when Sole, her good arm thrown over Nick’s shoulders, limps down the stairs of the Memory Den. She brings out the broken radio from beneath a counter and leaves them to it.

A part of Sole wants to bring the radio back to Hancock’s office – she’s kicked enough people out of their own workspaces already – but her leg is still twinging and she’s certain she’s pulled one of the stitches. That, and there’s still… Nick.

He sets her down as gently as he can in one of the seats by the counter, a hand on her hip as if she’s at risk of toppling backwards. It takes a bit of reassuring, but eventually he steps away.

The detective slides into a chair behind her, leaving her to single-handedly pry open the back of the radio and begin fiddling with the wires.

Silence is thick. She’s not sure how to puncture it, and so she lets it fill slowly with the sharp snaps of electricity as she attempts to hook the radio into the local power source. Fuses crackle. For a moment she thinks she has the thing working, its light humming on, only for it to sputter and die once more.

“Have you tried smacking it? Works for me,” he says, and she can tell it’s him trying to inject some humour into the situation. “You know, if you get the red wire—”

“Nick.”

His words peter away. “… Well,” he says eventually, “that last bit is genuine advice. Red wire. The receiver. Gotta hook the two together or you won’t transmit a thing. It’s… Well, it’s always the red wire, isn’t it?”

After a few tries Sole finds that he’s right, though it takes a while. Residual pain has made her head light, her vision blurred at the edges. Her other hand is still in a fist, cramped tight and with no signs of letting up any time soon.

With a whirr the radio comes to life. Static crackles over the makeshift intercom and Sole fiddles with the dials until she finds the frequency she’d assigned to Sanctuary. She leans in closer to the transmitter. “Preston? Preston, I know you keep an ear on this channel, so you better pick up.” She’d never been one for military jargon. That was always Nate’s area of expertise. “Preston, get your ass on the line.”

They wait. Static flits around their ears.

Preston’s voice filters through with a buzz. “General? How’d you get on this frequency? Wait, no, don’t tell me. First thing’s first: I saw a dog the other day.

She smiles. “Did you give him any meat?”

Preston chuckles. “All clear. It’s fantastic to hear from you, General. Valentine seemed pretty nervous when he was last here. I trust he got to you?

Nick huffs. Sole ignores him. “Yeah. Yeah, he’s here. Curie, too.”

Good to hear it. We… weren’t really sure about the state you’re in. Only Curie got the full brief. I—

Rustling breaks through, followed by someone yelling. “Give—give it here! Hey! Hey!” Piper’s voice cuts across the white noise. “Blue? Blue, is that you?

Miss Wright! For real? Give it—”

Clam it, Preston, you always hog her!

A new voice enters the fray. “What are we yelling about now—wait, by ‘her’ do you mean Sole?”

“Deacon, thank God, give me a h—”

“What’s going on here? Garvey, you’re supposed to be on patrol—”

“Sole’s on the radio, Dansey, so if you don’t mind—”

“Sole? Let me speak to her—”

“Hey!”

“STRONG, TOO, WISHES TO PARTAKE IN THIS BATTLE OF THE RADIO TRANSMITTER.”      

“What the bloody hell’s goin’ on here? Is that Sole?

Tell her she still owes Macready fifty caps!

Mum! Greetings from Sanctuary!

Sole moves like lightning, snapping down the volume before Preston’s voice explodes from the speakers.

Everybody, out!

The bickering continues. Sole’s face aches and it’s a couple more seconds before she realises it’s because she’s grinning. She listens, glad she has her back to Nick, while the sound of the Minuteman shoving everyone out of the makeshift shack she had set up for the radio transmitter crackles over the speakers.

We have borders to keep! Move it, move it!

Piper snaps something. Codsworth makes a comment about adequate nutrition. Danse, not one to be distracted, growls about how it’s Preston who should be concerned about keeping borders because it’s his turn on the roster.

Sole tries to break through the din. “Preston?”

“One sec, General, I just gotta—Strong! You keep everyone out peacefully and I’ll get you your next radstag steak personally.”

“THIS EXCHANGE IS ADEQUATE.”

There’s complaining, but no one’s about to argue with the supermutant. The other voices die away quickly while Strong makes vague threats.

Preston returns, breathing heavily. “Sorry about that,” he says. “It’s been nearly two weeks. We thought the worst, even with Valentine. Where are you?

She half wants the other voices to return. Like a wave crashing across her consciousness she realises how much she misses them, their faces, their company. The emptiness is sudden. She’s in a room underground, on the other side of the Commonwealth, days away from home.

“Goodneighbor,” she says, and tries to keep her breathing even. “I’m fine, Preston. Tell the others I’m fine. How are they?”

They’re fine, too, General. Restless, but fine.” His tone turns hopeful. “Actually, we’re nearly done putting the bar together. It should be finished by the time you get back. You are… coming back soon, right?

She bites her lip; considers what needs to be done. “… Not for a while, Preston,” she admits, and behind her she can almost hear Nick freeze. “There are things I need to do here. Someone came after me and they might go after others. I can’t leave a job half-done. I just wanted to call and let you know.”

I understand, General. Don’t worry about a thing on our end. I have it all under control.

Sole laughs. “You sure?”

Contrary to what it sounds like, yeah. Mostly. For when I don’t, there’s always Strong.” She can hear his smile on the other end. “… Well, if you need us, I’ll keep an ear on this channel. I’ll see you later, General. You… stay safe out there. It’ll be alright.”

It’s easy to smile around Preston. Maybe it’s the Minuteman in him, but when he says things will be fine, Sole finds herself believing it. She runs a thumb along the ridges of the radio dial. “I will. You all stay safe, too. See you, Preston. Sole out.”

The radio clicks off. She twists the dial absently, committing all those voices to memory, allowing her thoughts to run. She hopes Codsworth isn’t overworking himself, that Danse and Deacon are keeping things civil, that someone has kept on reading to Strong (she could hear it, how his vocabulary had improved, and she shakes her head at the irony. In another life, maybe she’d be reading to Shaun and not an eight-foot mutant. The world is strange, like that); hopes that Piper’s finally gathered the courage to just ask Cait out already

“… I miss them,” she says.

Nick shifts on his seat behind her. “They missed you, too. I talked to them while I was there.” Sole eases herself around on the chair until she’s facing him. The detective is hunched, elbows propped up on his knees, fingers threaded beneath his chin. “We were gone for two weeks, down at Pickman. I don’t know how long it seemed to you, Sole, but for them it’s been nearly a month. We should go home. Get away from here, at least until you’re good to… I don’t know.”

The word had been ‘fight’. It was there, resting on his scarred lips and in the way his golden gaze flickered to her hip. Usually it was where she kept her rifle, but for now it was bare.

“Nick…” she starts, but she’s unsure how to finish. Nick seems so much smaller bent over in his chair, like he’s trying to fold in on himself. “Hey… if you’re not ready to talk…” she keeps it open for him. Gives him enough room to get up and leave if he has to.

But Nick just shakes his head. “What kinda bird is ever ready to leave the nest, I wonder? No. Sometimes he just needs a good push.” He pauses, unthreads his fingers, and for the first time in what feels like too long, Nick meets her eyes without reluctance. Gold burns into brown. “I imagine you’ve figured it out. You’ve always been sharp enough. I don’t want you to return for them. I want you to go back to Sanctuary for you. For me.”

Sole can’t keep the pity from her tone. “I don’t understand.”

Nick just laughs. “What? Didn’t think Synths had selfishness pre-installed?” His lips quirk but it’s hollow. “In all honesty, I don’t get it either. You’re my… friend. I always thought that was it. You’re the best friend an old toaster like me could have. I—”

Synths don’t have lungs, but everything about Nick catches. Sole didn’t register the moment where she moved. She doesn’t remember the pain, though now it sloughs over her in waves as she kneels next to him, but it’s far away, tucked behind something.

She grips his metal hand with her cybernetically modified one. Silence overcomes him until, with small, gentle clicks, each metal finger curls to intertwine with hers.

“You’re going to rip out your stitches if you stay like that,” he says quietly.

“Don’t worry about it.”

He harrumphs but there’s no force behind it, and in that second she thinks he’s done. That that’s it, and there’s nothing else to say, because even someone like Nick has to have limits. She doesn’t know what the limits are to. Maybe it’s compassion. Maybe it’s something else.

But when Nick next touches her, it’s with his other hand, carefully carding through her hair, like she’s a pre-war porcelain doll, afraid to break.

“I don’t know what they… did to you at Pickman,” he says, and it’s soft and breathy, unlike anything she’d heard of him before. “When they took you, I thought that was it. I honestly thought that the last thing I was gonna see of you, of one of the only friends I have in this whole damn world, was gonna be you bleedin’ out on the floor. It would have been my fault, too. Old Nicky Valentine, too eager to solve a case. Too confident to realise not everyone around him is made of metal.”

He pauses in his ministrations, his hand resting on the back of her neck, thumb rubbing small patterns behind her ear, just under the implant.

“But then I… heard you, and I knew you were alive.” His laugh is bitter; it leaves an acrid taste on her tongue. “You know, you think that’d give a man hope, but instead I just felt…” He sighs, and the hand starts up again. “… I counted those days. And on every single one, I wished that I wouldn’t hear you. I wished that they finally let you go and maybe you’d have some peace. But I made sure they kept me alive, just in case. I guess I made the right decision, in the end.” There’s an edge to his voice when he speaks next. “I don’t have a self-destruct function, Sole, but if it meant taking a few of those bastards down with me, I wouldn’t have even thought about it.”

His fingers tighten around her own and she looks up at him – really looks. He’s worn. His face is ragged and scarred and peeling. His trench coat is made of patches, his metal hand thin and dented. His eyes aren’t as bright as she remembers them always being.

But in the centre of it all is Nick. Her Nick. The Synth, trying so very hard to be a man, to be helpful, holding onto her hand like it’s the only thing keeping him from being swept away.  

“If you’re wondering what’s been up with me, I guess that’s it,” he says, finally. “For the first time in my existence – not the old Nick’s, not something implanted by the Institute, mine – I feel… Hell, Sole—I feel afraid.”

Sole lets go and stands, or, at least, she tries to. Nick notices, rises with her, and somewhere in the middle they meet, his arms wrapping around her shoulders and cradling the back of her head while her own good arm grasps the back of his trench coat.

Her eyes sting. She notes, vaguely, that Nick’s shirt is getting damp and that someone will have to wash it.

“Hey, no need to cry.” He mumbles against her. Sole just shakes her head; clenches her eyes shut. Nick tightens his grip. “Don’t cry,” he repeats. “You’ll make me cry.”

“You don’t have tear ducts,” she mumbles into his chest, shoulders shaking. It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd.

But it’s Nick, and she’s smiling against him even though she’s crying and she doesn’t know why she’s doing either.

When Nick laughs it rumbles in his chest. “Guess you caught me red-handed, then,” he says. “No tear ducts. The Institute really messed up there, didn’t they?”

She rubs her face against him. Her words are broken, said through hiccups she won’t admit she has. “Promise me you won’t leave?”

“Only if you don’t, either, Partner.”

And that’s that. He doesn’t tell her to hurry up or clean her eyes. He holds her through her trembling, through the incoherent string of apologies that she can’t hold back any more. Through her regrets and the way she babbles even though not everything makes sense. Through every jumbled I’m sorry as it bubbles from her throat.

He matches each one with a hand through her hair and a whisper, though she’s too far gone to catch the words.

 

--

 

Hancock nearly jumps from his chair when Nick returns to his office, Sole in his arms.

“Shit, Nick, what the f—”

Nick hisses. “Keep the volume down,” he nods to her. “Sleepin’.”

Sure enough, Sole looks wrecked. Her eyes are rimmed red and puffy and her cheeks are glistening, her hair clinging to her forehead with sweat. With every breath Hancock can’t help but notice the slight shiver, the way she tries to bury herself further into the Synth. 

Her metal-clad hand has a vice-grip on Nick’s shirt. When the other man lays her down on the bed, it takes a few good tries to pry her off.

Nick joins him at the desk once he’s slid the dividers back into place.

Hancock’s not one for subtlety. “What the fuck did you do to her?”

“We had a talk.” Nick trudges over to the office window, pushes it open, fishes two cigarettes from his worn pack, and offers one to him.

Like usual, Nick lights his first and holds the lighter out to Hancock for the ghoul to lean over and make use of. The smoke drifts into the evening in lazy swaths. Outside, the sun is nothing but a bronze semi-circle, dusting the clouds pink and orange. “An early sleep will do her good,” he says, making sure to keep his voice low. “After all, she’s staying here.”

“Is she, now?”

“With your permission, I guess. She wants to help, John.” Nick spits the word but when Hancock looks over he doesn’t miss it: the glimmer of pride on the Synth’s beat-up face. “Sound familiar?”

It does. It’s what stopped him earlier.

Is anyone else at risk? She’d said. Not her. Even with her screwed up arm, half-working leg, and no weapon to her name, she’d asked: Is anyone else at risk?

Maybe it’s the Mentats he’d indulged himself with a few hours earlier, but the memory of her eyes as she’d said those five little words makes Hancock pause, cigarette still burning between two fingers. Her eyes had reminded him of rock – not that brown shit he saw on the daily – but something deeper. The sort of rock that oceans could beat at for millennia and still wouldn’t crumble; the sort at the heart of mountains; the sort that made the very bones of the planet, even though people stepped on it so often they forgot.

He couldn’t argue with eyes like that. His own had been blue, once. Soft blue, like water, wading through Jet highs and swimming through oceans of Med-X until, he’d hardened them himself.

And what a load of good that had been.

Hancock stubs out his cigarette against the windowsill. “As long as she’s alright, she’s free to do what she wants,” he says, more clipped than he intends. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go find myself some well-earned fun. This babysittin’s really crampin’ my style.” 

Nick lets out a steady stream of smoke. “What about Pickman?”

“I’ll fill her in tomorrow.” Maybe Kleo’s, Hancock thinks. Kleo knows her hardware. “Found out a few things while you were busy.”

“Like what?”

Hancock makes his way to his desk and plucks up the photo. With a flick of his wrist he sends it spinning towards Nick, who catches it with the sort of deftness only a Synth could have. “Well for starters,” he says, “our ghoul’s neck ain’t deformed. That’s a fuckin’ collar.”

 

--

 

“I have caps! Let me go!”

Darkness jostles around him. Ridge can’t see from inside the sack, with all its scratchiness and faint scents of blood and excrement, but he knows the raiders outside can hear him. He knows because they’ve told him to shut up several times.

“Two-thousand caps!” he barks. The thing carrying him grunts and the sack jostles sharply once more.

It’s not a human grunt. Of all the things worrying him, that’s the one that worries him most. People he knows how to reason with, because the thing about people is that at least there’s a common language: money. Things are more complicated. Irrational. The only point of comfort is that there are raiders present. Raiders he’s dealt with before.

They’d found him on the outskirts of the Old North Church. He’d been so certain they’d rekindle their old deal…

“You let me through last time!” He thrashes in the sack but the thing holding him tightens its grip. “Just take me back to Diamond City! You know me!”

“Shut up!” hisses a raider. “We’re here. Christ.” There’s a rhythmic clanging. “Open up!”

Metal screeches against metal as what sounds like an old door is opened. They move onwards.

Ridge doesn’t know where they are or where ‘here’ is, but as they move deeper into whatever building they’ve entered, he swears he can hear the sound of many mouths chewing and the gentle trickle of water.

All it does is get louder.

“Quiet now, isn’t he?” sneers another raider. The first one only laughs.

Chewing. Or maybe it’s just rustling. Yes, of course, rustling. Probably just wind through the cracks in the building. Yes.

Eventually they come to a stop and Ridge is dumped unceremoniously onto a cement floor, still damp with what feels like water. He nearly screams when the light assaults his eyes.

He blinks meekly until the black spots finally disappear. Ridge can’t tell where the lights are coming from, if only because they appear to be coming from everywhere. He kneels in the middle of what seems to be a high-ceilinged room while, all around him, the rustling.

Not chewing, he tells himself. Definitely not chewing.

“… Hello?” he tries, and his voice bounces off the walls. 

For a moment there’s nothing, but then a voice breaks through, deep and drawling. “My scouts tell me you have some interestin’ information.”   

Southern. It’s not strange, but Ridge hasn’t heard that sort of accent for years.

He rallies nonetheless. “A Synth!” he growls, “I was attacked by a Synth! He nearly knocked me over as I was running, I—”

A Synth?” The voice comes from everywhere. “A Courser, or are you talkin’ somethin’ more like a mannequin?

Ridge doesn’t even need to think. “Valentine!” he spits. “You know, I’ve always said he couldn’t be trusted—”

Black explodes across his vision as the butt of a rifle slams into the back of his head. Ridge doubles over, gasping.

“Keep your answers brief,” hisses the raider behind him. “Show the Director some respect.”

Director? Ridge recalculates his place in the hierarchy of conversation and bows deeply so that his forehead brushes against the floor. It smells faintly of copper.

“Director!” He clenches his eyes shut. “Please, forgive me!”

Silence, kept alive by the chewing.

And then a chuckle, deep and rumbling, and Ridge for just a second wonders if the whole room is moving.

I like you, boy. So you know where ol’ Nicky Valentine’s run off to, do you?

There’s something not quite right about the voice, Ridge decides, but he’s not sure what, so he has himself ignore it. “Yes,” he says. “Mr Director, he’s—he’s, ah, in Goodneighbor, you see. With that ghoul.”

Ghoul?” This seems to pique the Director’s interest, and Ridge knows a thing or two about interest. It means a deal, and deals, he knows, means living.

“Why yes, Mr Director!” he says, trying not to sound too hopeful. “John Hancock, Mr Director.”     

The chewing stops, and Ridge, reeling in the sudden void, wishes against all odds that it’ll come back.

It does, after a pregnant silence, and the Director speaks up once more. “Well I’ll be. Johnny boy is here, is he?

Ridge’s survival instinct kicks in as he bites back a remark about living in a Vault. Instead he goes with what he knows. The Director seems rational enough. “If you let me go, I’ll tell you everything I know about him! You do want to know about him, don’t you?” The chewing continues; the Director absent. “I-I’ll give you all the caps I have! That’s two-thousand. But it’s in a safe, so there’s no point in killing me. You’ll get nothing.”

The laughter echoes in the chamber, so heavy that it makes his head spin.

My, don’t we just have a generous soul on our hands? Looks like we’ll need to make some rearrangements.” The sound of feet slapping against wet cement meet his ears, but it disappears as quickly as it starts. “My boy, what if I told you that you can keep your caps?” says the Director, and behind him Ridge thinks he hears the raiders snicker. “And that there’s a whole lot more waitin’ for you if you just do me a lil’ ol’ favour?

 

 

Chapter Text

Sunlight lances through the open windows. Yellow curtains flutter in the breeze. 

Fall brings with it the distant chirping of cicadas. Nora sits on one of the two couches in her living room and listens to them, back rigid and shoulders pushed back. Her baby blue blouse is soft against her skin. 

The TV is on but there’s no volume. On it, in black and white, is a man standing at a dais. Every fifteen seconds he lifts his hand and makes the same, open-palmed gesture towards someone in the crowd before him, who must have asked a question. She wants to turn her head to watch it, to make sure that perhaps it isn’t stuck on loop, but there’s no moving from her spot on the couch. Her feet are lead in a pair of heels she can’t bend her neck to see. 

In the distance a clock ticks, mixing in with the cicadas’ constant thrum. She’s not sure where it comes from. It’s a heavy tick, carried by the sort of sway she remembers from her parents’ old grandfather clock. She never owned one, but it’s there, rhythmically cutting through the white noise of her Sanctuary Hills home. 

Nate sits across from her with one leg crossed over the other and his entire upper body covered by the newspaper he’s reading. They haven’t said anything to each other for what feels like hours, though Nora knows it’s been much less (and yet somehow more). Then again, that’s the nature of dreams and nightmares, and this time she’s certain she’s dreaming. She has to be. She knows this one too well.

Nate licks a finger and turns a page with a gentle rustling, the frost that has formed on his blue fingers shaking off with a glimmer in the light. He doesn’t seem to notice the way the ice has melted into his newspaper. Words dribble down the grey in long, unsteady streams, but even where water hasn’t ruined the print she can’t read it. Words are backwards and jumbled, and some letters she can’t even recognise.

Everything carries with it the faint scent of copper.

“A woman out of time, huh?” says Nate, turning another page. 

Nora says nothing. It’s the thirteenth time he’s said it, and somewhere in her chest she can’t find the courage to answer him. It seems wrong, like speaking through a funeral procession, so she just sits and watches Nate go through his motions while keeping herself motionless. Listless. Maybe she’ll wake up. 

But she knows the answer to that already.

Dreams have patterns. Sometimes you have to follow them through to the end.

Kellogg’s pistol is cold in her lap. Out of everything else in house, it’s the only thing to feel real. She’d only held it twice, first when she’d ripped it from the man’s dead fingers just in case he wasn’t so dead, and second when she’d flung it out to sea, but evidently it had been enough. It’s strange how much the brain retains. 

Cicadas, tick, an open-palmed gesture, a lick of the finger, a turn of the page. 

“A woman out of time, huh?” 

Maybe she’ll never wake up, and maybe that won’t be so bad, but it’s an old thought for an old dream and Nora knows: she needs to wake up. Needs to wake up because, somewhere out there, Shaun is dreaming without her.

Wordlessly she lifts the gun, aims down the barrel - tries to make it quick even though she knows it doesn’t matter - but then she stops.

Nate’s hand clicks. Flesh is gone, and a familiar metal frame nearly punctures the thin paper. The smell of cigarette smoke winds its way through the copper of the air. 

A woman outta time, huh?” he says, voice gruffer, deeper, bringing with it the memory of a dusty office and glowing eyes. “What d’you make of that, partner?” 

She opens her mouth to try and answer him, a new name on her lips, but before she can stop herself the gun fires.  

 

--

 

Sole jerks awake with a gasp and wheezes. 

Her skin’s clammy. Face flushed. Heat pulses and recedes to give way to an all-chilling numbness in her chest and along her arms and for just a second she believes she’s woken up again in that cryopod with mist and water at her feet and a dead body across from her and—

Reality rushes back in waves. Sole sucks in air like she’s surfaced from the ocean. Everything shakes, including her vision, and she can’t tell if it’s her or the room—Hancock’s office—that’s churning. Sweat gathers on her palms even though they burn cold. 

If her heart goes any faster she might die. If she stops breathing she might die. So she concentrates on trying to slow her breaths while also keeping them deep and uniform, ignoring the way they shudder on the exhale. 

Blood claws through her veins so fast she can’t tell if she’s floating on an adrenaline high or still dreaming. The world is soft at its edges—too soft—the night has bathed the office blue, stretching the shadows long and dark. 

She doesn’t even think about it. Sole takes her bad arm by the wrist and shunts it back.

Her cry doesn’t go unnoticed. When Nick yanks back the dividers, golden eyes looking as if they’re floating in night, Sole’s doubled over her arm and breathing hard between her drawn-up knees.

For a moment he seems like he might yell, but then his stare softens. “Hey,” he says, gently. “What happened?”

She can feel him reaching for her in the way the air moves; the whirr of his circuitry. She clenches her good fist, her metal-encased arm still trembling and unresponsive. The smile is forced onto pale lips. She keeps her voice as light as she can, which isn’t hard given the scrambled mess of images still roiling in her brain. 

“Rolled over onto my side. It’s okay.”

But it doesn’t fool Nick. It’s never fooled Nick. His eyes twitch in their sockets and she can feel him running his diagnostics. His eyes scan her – the slump of her back, the sweat that makes her skin shine in the dim moonlight, the way her shoulders shake, even though she tries to keep them steady.

He’s a detective. More than that, he’s her friend. What could she possibly keep from him?

“You had that dream again?” he says. The bed creaks when he takes a seat at its edge by her feet.  

Listening to his voice always helped. She tries to push the yellow curtains and frozen man to the back of her mind and takes another, deep breath. “Yeah. Just need a moment.” She needs more than a moment. Nick sitting next to her brings back the dream; she half expects him to pull out the paper and say that one damn line when he shifts on the spot, trying to get comfortable. And then she remembers the gun, cool and steady in her hand, and the way the muzzle had flared. 

“Sole?”

She throws him a smile, though she can’t really tell if he can see it. “Yeah? Sorry. Just thinking.” She straightens herself out. “Uh, what time is it?”

Nick grunts. “’Bout eleven in the PM, if my internals are up to date.” 

She nods. There’s no plan to go back to sleep any time soon. She’s slept too much as it is, her leg and arm throbbing from lack of use. Sole pinches the bridge of her nose, rubs a thumb beneath the ridge of her brow, and squeezes her eyes shut. 

“Well, I’m feeling awake as ever,” she says, opening them. “I think I might head out. Get some fresh air.” 

Nick shuffles to the side to give her enough room to swing her legs off the bed. “You want company?” he asks. “Goodneighbor doesn’t really sleep but I make for a pretty mean goon-deterrent.” 

She can’t help but laugh weakly at that and out of the corner of her eyes she spies Nick smile. 

“I’ll be okay. Thanks, though.” she says, standing. It’s shaky at first but she balances it out. Her leg aches and, again, there’s the familiar sensation of flesh being pulled, but it’s duller than before.

The dividers take a few tries to push apart. Without their shadow, the rest of Hancock’s office is a little lighter, a splash of red from outside cooking fires casting their glow across rotting floorboards and peeling wallpaper. 

The bed creaks. “You sure?” Nick asks again, from beside her.  

Sole ignores the way the gap in his faceplate looks like a bullet’s torn through him, and instead twists her head so that she can rest it on his shoulder in a sort of half-hug. 

“Yeah.” She nudges him in what she hopes is a playful manner. “I’m good.” 

 

--

 

Getting down the stairs is an effort and a half, but it’s worth it once she’s finally out the door. Night air breathes along the back of her neck and cools her damp skin. 

Sole’s not sure what she’s looking for, so she walks. 

She hadn’t really realised how stuffy Hancock’s office was – how small the little corner had been with its dividers and no windows. Goodneighbor’s buildings surround her, alive with ruddy lamplights and the neon pink glow coming from the Memory Den. Around her mill people, ghouls and humans, some of them talking to each other, others gathered around the various cooking fires, some in the shops. 

They look at her as she hobbles by. Some without shame, puffing smoke and refusing to turn away, others from beneath the brims of hats and behind glasses. 

There has to be a diner or bar – somewhere where she can sit down and lose herself in the noise of everyone else going through their lives. Sole rounds a corner, keeping her gaze trained downwards as she passes a bald man in a leather jacket leaning against a wall, watching her too closely, too intently. 

“Hold up,” he says, but she pretends to not hear him and keeps walking. “Hey! Don’t be like that. I said hold up.” 

Sole tries to get her metal arm to clench its fist but all she gets are twitching fingers. The man has long strides and makes his way around her easily, his broad frame blocking off her path and forcing her to stop. 

He eyes her, cigarette flaring between his teeth as he takes a drag and looks her up and down. “So you’re Hancock’s new squeeze, huh? Us normal folk have heard a lot about ya. Why don’t you pull over and we can talk?”

They stand in the middle of the pathway leading to what looks like the city entrance. To her right are a few shops, but no one moves to interrupt them. 

Sole keeps her gaze level with him. “What do you want?”

The man chuckles, low and raspy. “Relax, sweetheart. I just wanna know why Hancock’s got you locked up in his office. What you packin’? You a Synth like that detective guy?”

“Yes.” 

Another chuckle. “See, now that answer seems a little too eager, don’tcha think?” The tip of his cigarette burns bright and fades, and he puffs a ring of smoke into the space above them. It lingers for a few seconds before dissipating. “Oh well. It seems to me like I ain’t doin’ a great job of first impressions, so lemme try again. I’m Finn,” he holds out a hand for her to shake, “and I’m what you might call an… insurance broker, of sorts.” 

Anyone who puts ‘of sorts’ at the end of any sentence is one Sole knows to look out for. She’s worked for enough lawyers. She knows the game, and because she knows the game she takes his hand and gives it a small shake. Keep up with images. Play along until you find an opening. 

Calloused fingers grip her hard, too hard, and when she tries to pull away they tighten. “You kinda got all the insurance you need, what, with Hancock’s mitts all over ya,” he continues conversationally, “but I’m just wonderin’ why he’s got his mitts all over ya. What’s the deal, sweetheart? Got a little secret or are you just into that sorta zombie shit?”

“Geez, Finn, can’t a guy entertain a lady and not have people thinkin’ the worst? We ain’t all like you.”  

The familiar voice comes from an alley by the stores and Sole tries to keep in her sigh of relief when Hancock emerges from the shadows, hands clasped behind his back, an amiable smile on his face. He stops just short of them, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, turns to her, and nods. “Didn’t think I’d see you up at this hour. And without Nick. Interestin’ choice.” Hancock then shifts his attention to Finn and panic flashes across the other man’s eyes. “Finn! Fancy havin’ the joy of seein’ you. How about you let her go.”  

It’s not a question. Hancock might be smiling but Sole can see that he has his legs shoulder-width apart and his hand resting a little too nonchalantly on the flag he uses as a belt. 

Finn’s lips quirk and he digs his nails into the thin skin on the back of Sole’s hand. “Can’t you see the lady and I are havin’ a conversation? Wait your fuckin’ turn.” 

“What? No love for your mayor, Finn? I said let her go.” 

Finn snorts but, regardless, lets her go, slowly. Sole’s eyes flicker to Hancock just in time to see the ghoul give her a wink and she steps away, flexing her fingers. 

But Finn’s attention has been diverted. He wheels around to sneer, spitting the cigarette to the side. “You’re soft, Hancock. You keep lettin’ outsiders walk all over us. One day, there’ll be a new mayor.” 

Hancock presses a hand to his chest in mock hurt. “Come on, man,” he edges closer and slings an arm across Finn’s shoulders too fast for the other man to respond. And even then the gesture is too familial, too friendly, and leaves Finn struggling to gather himself in a manner adequately threatening. Hancock gives him a sideways hug, long fingers curling around the other’s shoulder. “There. See? This is me we’re talkin’ about here. Lemme tell you somethin’…” 

Hancock’s free arm moves to something hidden in the depths of his coat with the ease of someone checking their watch, and then there’s the glint of steel.

It flashes, twice, so fast that Finn doesn’t even make a sound before he’s on the floor, blood pooling beneath him. 

Sole’s eyes widen. “Hanco—

Finn groans. 

Hancock falls into a squat, yanks the top of Finn’s shirt from beneath his jacket, and wipes off the excess blood from his knife. “Someone get the Doc,” he calls behind him, “Finn here seems to have had a little case of forgettin’ who the fuck’s in charge.” 

The people who had once been spectators burst into motion. Hancock tilts his head at Finn’s prone form and prods him with the hilt of his knife. “Easy, sister. He ain’t dead. Not yet, anyway.” 

“You stabbed him.” 

“Twice, but who’s countin’.” He stands, brushes himself off, and tucks the knife back into his belt. “But hey, look who it is. What’re you doin’ up—” He pauses. 

Sole hobbles over to Finn and kneels down. She presses two fingers to his neck. His pulse is quick, the bleeding on either side is hopeful – no major organs – and the leather would have slowed the blows. She’s about to try and flip him onto his back when two drifters arrive with a ragged stretcher. Within seconds they have him thrown on.

Red drips from his jacket. No one says anything, just a cursory nod to Hancock, and the pair leave without a word. 

Sole’s mouth opens and closes, searching for the right words. “Is he gonna be oka—”

“Don’t worry. I don’t make a habit of stabbin’ my people if I can help it. This instance? Couldn’t help it.” Hancock strolls over and holds out a hand. When she doesn’t take it he adds: “Finn’s a special case. This ain’t the first time he’s pulled this shakedown bullshit. He can think over his actions while he’s in the infirmary.” 

She closes her mouth. “I…” There are still angry red crescents from where Finn had dug in his nails, and she rubs them gingerly. “… Thanks for getting rid of him,” she finishes lamely. “And for also… not getting rid of him.” 

He hauls her up with a strength that belies his build. “The pleasure’s all mine,” he says, his usual grin slipping into place. “He’s been pullin’ this shit for weeks. ‘Bout time he got what he deserved. So,” he gestures to her, “how’d you give the old circuit board the slip?”

Sole hesitates. “It’s—it’s nothing like that. I’m not tired, so I just thought a walk might…” Might what? She’s still not sure, so Sole just trails off and ends with a shrug. Hancock’s head tilts to the side and she adds, offering him a smile: “Honestly, I think I was going a little stir-crazy.”

“Really, now? Fancy that.” He grins and returns to rocking on his feet. “Well, then, how about you join me for a drink?”

Sole blinks. “What?”

Hancock’s grin widens. “Drinks and dinner, on me. I’m headed to the Third Rail anyway, and I’m always up for a little company.” His voice lowers. “Unless, of course, you ain’t up for it.”

She can’t tell if he’s challenging her in some way. She also can’t tell how dinner and drinks could, in any way, be a challenge, but with the way Hancock’s smiling she can’t help but consider the possibilities. 

“I’m not really a heavy drinker,” she says, carefully. 

Hancock shrugs. “Don’t have to be. We got water. We also have water at the State House, so it’s up to you, sister. I’m just offerin’ my humble services to a newcomer. Whadd’ya say?” He offers her his arm. 

Sole doesn’t want to go back to counting ceiling cracks and trying not to sleep, so she takes it.

 

 

The Third Rail isn’t far and Hancock allows her to lean on him as they walk. Suddenly the arm he’d offered makes more sense; she’s limping by the time they make it through the door.

“Hey, Ham, I want the backroom. Do us a favour and clear it out. Let whoever’s in there have a drink on the house.” 

They make their way down the stairs. Ham – the bouncer, she realises, from the way he eyes the people heading in before them – clears out what has to be the back room with a quick jerk of his thumb and nod to Hancock. There’re a few stragglers but no one argues. Hancock leads her inside, muttering something into Ham’s ear on the way, and the bouncer disappears in the general direction of the bar. 

“What did you say?” asks Sole, as Hancock leads her to the couch and slumps down. She takes a seat next to him. 

“Just told him we’re hungry. We don’t have waiters here, but I trust Ham to not spit in our food.” 

True enough, the bouncer returns balancing two plates, a bottle of water, and a beer. He sets everything down on the coffee table in front of the couch and shuts the backroom’s doors on the way out.

And that’s that. The room is flushed pink by the neon lights, muffled singing filtering beneath the cracks in the door, but otherwise it’s relatively quiet, the air warm with the smell of distant cigarette smoke and what Sole thinks must be week-old Jet fumes that have seeped into the couch. 

They sit like that in comfortable silence for a while, Sole enjoying the music and picking at what she realises is Mirelurk meat while Hancock relaxes with his drink. They exchange small things: updates on her recovery (slow but steady) and small jabs at Nick (Hancock fixates on the idea that his hat is somehow superior), but the conversation peters out after a while. Sole finds herself drawn to the singing, listening closer, trying to catch the lyrics.

“You leave me breathless, weak at the knees. I’m feelin’ reckless, pardon me, please.”

Swing. Like the music she listened to when she was younger, in high school with Nate at one of the many dances. She was never good at dancing but neither was he, and in the end they’d always just end up swaying, her arms wound around his neck and his nose buried in her hair to something slow and smooth.

“You know, sometimes it ain’t half bad to have company,” pipes Hancock, bottle halfway to his lips. “The backroom’s quiet. You’re free to leave but you won’t be bothered if you wanna stay. Ham will kick the ass of anyone who tells you otherwise if I can’t do it myself.” He takes another mouthful and stretches, bones cracking.

Sole shakes the memory of Nate from her mind. Her wedding ring isn’t on her finger anymore, but she swipes a thumb across the pale band of skin where it had been. “Speaking of ass-kicking,” she casts him a playful sideways glance, “why were you lurking in that alley, anyway?”

“Bit of this, bit of that. Contact business, mostly. Gotta keep my eyes and ears open, as mayor.” He runs a finger around the lip of his bottle. “Still no word from Fahrenheit, so I’m thinkin’ of leadin’ a charge tomorrow to Pickman, but Nick tells me that works out for you.” Another swig. “Tells me you wanna stay. Is that right?”

Sole looks down at her hands. She clenches one and thinks hard about moving the other, but the fingers only curl slightly. 

“I want to,” she admits. “If you’ll have me. I don’t want to be a burden.”

Hancock finishes his drink with a chug and slams it down with a loud, satisfied ahh. “Don’t worry about that crap.” He reaches into his pockets and pulls out a small metal tin. It opens with a pop. “If you’re capable, you prove it to me on the field. Just like how I’ll be provin’ myself to you, simple as that.” A Mentat rolls onto his palm and he offers it to her. “Wanna ride? Might need it in a second.”

She holds up her hands and shakes her head. 

Hancock shrugs and pops it into his mouth. With familiar deftness, he rolls it beneath his tongue. 

A pink tongue, she can’t help but note. Just like hers, and it’s not due to the lighting. For some reason she thought it might be different – she’d seen it before, but never this close. 

“Wait—why might I need one?” Sole cuts in.

His brows knit.

“Hancock?”

Hancock, eyes lidded in quiet contemplation as the Mentat slowly dissolves, delves into the depths of his coat and brings out something small – a card – that photo, but he doesn’t hand it to her. Instead he glances it over himself, frowning. 

“I gotta ask, though,” he drawls, “why would someone like you wanna stay? Pickman’s always been raider territory but, with you blowin’ it all up, there’s a good chance nothin’s there and maybe Fahrenheit’s just takin’ her time lootin’. Who knows. But you? You have a home. Sanctuary, right?”

He’s only partly right. Sole fiddles with the metal casing on her arm.

A woman outta time, huh?

“I haven’t been able to shake off this… feeling since I woke up,” she admits. Hancock’s eyes narrow, but there’s no anger to them. It’s like he’s trying to see through her. “It’s probably nothing,” she adds quickly, “but just in case anyone else gets hurt, I want to stop… whatever it is before it happens.”

He continues watching her, dark eyes shining in the neon pink, but they don’t take any of the colour. If anything, they swallow it. His tongue rolls behind his lips. His mouth opens, closes, and opens again. “Hey, you don’t have to answer,” he says, “but what kinda feelin’ are you talkin’ about?”

It’s quiet, more to himself than to her, and a creeping cold moves through Sole’s chest as he holds her gaze. The urge to cry is there, pushing at the back of her head, but she can’t pin why.

She finds herself shuffling back, trying to press herself into the softness of the couch and failing miserably. It’s soft but rubbery. “Sorry,” she mumbles, shaking her head. “I don’t know.” She bites her lip. “It feels like… dread, maybe. Or it could just be anxiety. Whenever I try to figure out why, though, it just…” she shrugs and tries to smile. “Like trying to catch smoke with your hands. Or…” She can’t finish. Can’t draw the line in her thoughts anymore. Everything goes blank.

Darkness. Not warm or cold. Not frightening or safe. Just empty.

Hancock regards her. He drapes an arm along the length of the couch and rolls his tongue, and Sole catches the last of the Mentat smear a chalky red stripe along the roof of his mouth. “Look,” he says, and his voice is soft and careful, “I know the feelin’. Take it from me: leave it. You don’t wanna go knockin’ on doors that are best left closed. You don’t needa think any more about it if you don’t wanna.” He frowns and, almost absently, pulls the photo back. “Actually, if you wanna stay here while I go and check out the gallery tomorrow, I’ll come back and give you a full report—”

No.

Hancock goes silent. Sole winces as heat gathers on her cheeks. She scrunches her nose and holds back a cringe.

“… No,” she repeats, with less force. “You need me there. What if I remember something?”

Hancock tilts his head to the side. “And what if you remember somethin’ you really don’t want to?”

“Then I’ll remember it and move on.” Sole holds out her hand to the photo. “I trusted you, didn’t I?”

Hancock glances down at her hand, and maybe it’s the light or the leftover Jet fumes or maybe she really does need more sleep, but she swears his lips quirk up.

“Well… Maybe I ain’t givin’ you enough credit, sister.” He passes it to her. “Easy, though. I’ve talked with Doc Amari enough to know how memories can mess with people. Don’t push yourself. Tell me if you recognise anythin’.”

Metal-encased fingers close around the photo and Sole holds it to the light. There’s a tingle of electricity around the implant but it’s far away, muted behind the swirling darkness on the image.

The ghoul in the photo – him, with his twisted body and melted face – swirls into focus.

Heat sears across the cuts on her face, arms, legs, and sides as her eyes rake over the blades on his hands. The acrid stench of copper swamps her nose and she reels back, hand over mouth and breathing harsh.

Everything flushes hot and cold. For a second the lights go off and she’s there, alone in the dark with her feet ankle-deep in a liquid she can’t put a name too and his voice, like a bell in her head

Take it easy, Sweetheart. Breathe deeply, now.

“Hey, you alright?”

The world slams back into place, which is strange insofar as she doesn’t remember the moment it fell away. Sole checks her feet, scrapes the toes of her boots along the dry floor, and clenches her eyes shut—counts to ten.

She licks her lips in an attempt to get some moisture back into them. “Yeah,” she croaks, pulling her hand away from her mouth and opening her eyes. “He was the one ordering the others around.” How could she forget he was a ghoul? Sole’s brows furrow as she tries to conjure up the details of his face and fails. When she’s not looking at the photo the image slips through, like sand through splayed fingers.

Gingerly, she returns the photo to Hancock. “But it’s just a ghoul, right? No offence.”

“None taken.”

“Then why are you and Nick so worried?”

“Well that’s the thing, ain’t it?” His frown deepens. “Most ghouls just come into bein’ through the usual means. People who played too much in the radiation storms, got caught in the bomb blasts but weren’t too close to be burnt to shit, that sorta crap. Long story short, though: there are other ways to make a ghoul. This one?” He taps the photo. “This sonofabitch got himself manufactured.”

Sole narrows her eyes and tries to read him, but his face is too far from human. Black eyes remain bottomless and blank. “I… don’t get it. How do you manufacture a ghoul?” 

Hancock smirks. “Another story for another time, maybe. It’s complicated. Just know that what we might have on our hands ain’t your average ghoul. The process involves some strong as fuck military-grade shit, and it takes a certain kinda person to turn by choice. Chances are they’re pre-war, too, and if there’s a thing I know about ghouls, it’s that the old ones are always the craziest.”

The photo floats through her mind again, and although she can’t make out the face Sole zeroes in on something else. “Wait,” she says, “he had a collar.”

Hancock growls. “Don’t even wanna begin thinkin’ about that.”

“Why not?”

“Because then we have to consider that maybe Chuckles here has a boss—”

Boss!

The doors slam open.

Sole yelps, Hancock groans, and the drifter that had burst in shrinks back under the force of the mayor’s glare. “Boss!” he squeaks. “Boss, please!”

“Shit, Tony, can’t you see I’m—”

Hancock stands, and it doesn’t take long for Sole to realise why.

The drifter shakes. His face is pale despite the pink of the lights, and sweat circles his forehead, his hat long knocked off. He clutches his submachinegun to his chest like a lifeline, and even that rattles in his white-knuckled grip.

“Boss!” His lips flap. Hancock takes a step forward and he winces. “Boss, it’s Fahrenheit.”

“What about her?”

“No, Boss…” The drifter shakes his head frantically. “Boss, it’s Fahrenheit.”

 

--

 

The Third Rail is empty and, by the time they reach the streets of Goodneighbor, Sole sees why. The crowd has emptied onto the main square, outside the shops, where a woman with orange hair sits stock-still on a crate in the centre of a ring of people.

She’s barely clothed. There’s blood dribbling from various cuts along her skin, but it’s congealed for the most part. Next to her kneels Nick, his trench coat shrugged off and thrown around her shoulders, sleeves rolled to his elbows, and a bloodied cloth in hand.

He looks up as they approach, the crowd parting to make way for Hancock, Sole trudging behind with her limp.

“Sole,” says Nick, standing. “John.” He tips his hat, grimaces, and turns to her. “I was going to go look for you, Sole, but then I heard the commotion. Take a look.” He inclines his head to the woman on the crate – Fahrenheit.

“Fahrenheit?” Hancock approaches her and puts a hand on her shoulder. He gives it a squeeze but there’s no response. “Has she said anythin’, Nick?” he asks.

Nick’s grimace deepens. “She just asked for you, if your guards are the sort to tell the truth. Hasn’t said a word to me.” He tosses the cloth into a nearby bucket of water. “But that’s not it, John.” Nick nods to something off to his right. Sole follows it.

There’s another crate, pressed up against the inner wall of an alley. A few people, she notes, have been watching it warily, but have yet to approach it. On it sits a man in a tattered suit, nursing a steaming cup to his chest, grey-white hair stuck up on all angles.

She’s not sure who he is, but when Hancock sees him he lets out a low growl. “You,” he hisses. “What the hell d’you think you’re doin’ here?”

The man jumps up at the ghoul’s attention and scrambles to his feet, spilling what looks like hot soup in the process. “Oh, Mayor!” He bellows. Whispers ripple through the crowd and he fumbles over his words. “This—this isn’t my fault! I found her!”

Hancock gestures for him to move forward, into the light. The man does so.

“Ridge, is it?” says Hancock.

The man, Ridge, makes a little choked noise. “Y-yes.”

“Start talkin’.”

The man’s face turns as pale as his suit. In the meantime, Sole hobbles over to Fahrenheit. The woman’s cuts are too familiar and too exposed, so she begins buttoning up Nick’s trench coat as best she can. Fahrenheit doesn’t move to help. She watches Sole with cool blue eyes.

I found her!” repeats Ridge, voice rising an octave. “You threw me out! Where did I have left to go? Do you know how hard it is to get back to Diamond City? I was out in the ruins for a week!”

Then how did you find her?

“I recognised her!” Ridge snaps. “You threatened me with her, remember? Because I do. She was half-conscious when I found her, but I remembered!”

When Sole returns her attention to the pair, Hancock has his knife out, twirling it expertly along his fingers. He has Ridge backed up against the wall he’d only just been leaning against, the larger man burbling incessantly.

“Please!” The human hisses as Hancock slams the butt of his knife into the brick right by his ear. “I won’t pretend I’m being selfless about this, okay? Alright? I was stuck out there long enough. I want in, so I thought bringing her here would get me in, okay? But I didn’t do it!” Hancock growls low and he whimpers. “Look at me! Do you honestly think I could do anything like this to someone like her? Mayor?” Hancock draws back the knife. “Hancock!

“Boss?”

Every muscle in Hancock’s body freezes up just as Sole’s blood runs cold.

The crate creaks as Fahrenheit rises from it. For a moment she seems about to stumble, legs buckling under her own weight, but she rights herself with a jerk of her torso.

The movement is more like a puppet than a person. It’s uncoordinated; messy. Hancock whips around on heel.

“Fahrenheit?” His words are hoarse. “What happened to you? Where’re the others?”

“Boss,” she repeats. “Boss, I’m fine. It’s not as bad as you think.”

“Not as fuckin’ bad as I think?” It’s not anger, Sole realises, but concern, etched into every groove of Hancock’s leathery face. “You might needa get some glasses, sister, because I don’t think you and I are seein’ the same thing. What happened to you?”

Fahrenheit is silent for a moment. Her eyes brush over Sole one last time before she turns to acknowledge Hancock. “A message,” she says simply. “I had to get a message to you.”  

Sole hears the silence in how it fills everything. The buzz of the lamps get louder, even though she knows how quiet they are. She can hear the individual breaths of the people around her, the hum of Nick’s internals, the way the white paste on her injuries crackle as she moves, inching away from Fahrenheit and towards the relative safety of Nick.

The detective, absently, steps in front of her, a hand on her arm to gently push her behind him.

“What kinda message takes a week?” Hancock continues, rounding on other woman. “No more of that cryptic shit, Farah, you tell me—”   

“The Director cordially invites all Commonwealth citizens to the Freakshow,” Fahrenheit cuts in, and the way she says it reminds Sole of the mechanical speech of the Institute’s Gen-Ones. “After its extended tour of the Southern States, he has finally reached our fair town. Be ready. Rejoice.”

Slowly, realisation dawns on Hancock’s face. His expression softens. His grip on the knife weakens, though he doesn’t bring it down. “Fahrenheit,” he says, soothing, “Hey, kid, this ain’t you. Fara—”

“Please let me deliver my message, Boss.” Her words waver and Hancock flinches. Fahrenheit takes a deep breath, body shaking beneath Nick’s coat. “The Director wants you and Nora to be the guests of honour.” 

Sole’s heart clenches.

“Nora?” Hancock whispers, until something clicks and he turns to Sole. “… Well, shit. What happens if we choose not to go, Fahrenheit?”

The woman’s lips twitch, stuck somewhere between a smile and something completely other, something wild and hunted and scared, eyes glassy.

“Then, Mayor Hancock,” she says, and her voice cracks, “The Director will bring the Freakshow to you.”

It happens as if in slow-motion. It’s almost as if it’s the words that had been the force keeping Fahrenheit together as, once the last syllable leaves her cracked and bloodied lips, she breaks. Her face crumbles inwards, mouth distorting to cry, but nothing comes out. She’s screaming without sound, hands rising to claw at her scalp until she’s ripping out chunks of hair.

Hancock’s quick. He lets go of his knife and seizes her by the wrists; calls over a doctor – any damn doctor, just quick.

Fahrenheit’s whispering, quick and fast with a throat that just can’t keep up.

I delivered your fucking message,” she hisses, hyperventilating against his shoulder, writhing against his hold. “I did it. Now get out. Get out. Please, get out—fucking—please—get out.” 

Chapter Text

Hancock’s out of stretchers, so he and a few of the stronger drifters take Fahrenheit by the wrists and guide her towards the infirmary, leaving the crowd, Sole, and Nick behind.

She mutters the entire way; some words he can’t understand, while others are furious cursing cut through only by short cries.

The infirmary is a warehouse, and there’s only really room for four beds. Not exactly safe – which was why he’d insisted that Sole stay in his office – but it’s enough, and it’s the quickest way to find Doc Carey. When he enters she’s bent over Finn, newly bandaged, with that French robot hovering behind her.

It doesn’t take long to notice him, mostly because he’s just about kicked down the door and Fahrenheit is still shaking.

“Hancock,” she says, and her expression darkens quickly as her eyes alight on Fahrenheit. “We’re outta beds. Maybe if we—”

“Clear one,” says Hancock, not taking his eyes of Finn. The man’s conscious, glaring hard from beneath his overhanging brow. “Get rid of him. He can walk it off, if he knows what’s good for him.”

Carey hauls the man up with more strength than what looks possible, but Finn is also ragged, and weak as anything. His shirt’s off and the blood is still soaking his bandages red, and when he stumbles to his feet he’s swaying.

Hancock ignores him and begins marching Fahrenheit to the bed while Carey makes quick work of changing the sheets.

Until Finn fucking speaks. “Didn’t have the balls to get rid of me,” he sneers from where he’s leaning against one of the many crates that line the warehouse walls, “and now you’re throwin’ me out like yesterday’s trash. Some mayo—”

And then Hancock is on him, snarling, knife slamming forward to bury itself between his ribs. Air tears from Finn’s lungs and he keels over, forehead slamming into the bone of Hancock’s shoulder.

A low gurgling bubbles up from Finns throat. He pushes but there’s no strength—he doesn’t have any, with all of it bleeding out onto the floor. Nails scrape down the ghoul’s front, trying to gain purchase on his neck, but already the eyes are glazing.

Hancock jerks the knife deeper. “I gave you a fuckin’ chance,” he growls, and he twists the knife; feels the ribs separate with the force and the body pinned to the crates seize. “But you’re right. You are trash, Finn, so I’m gonna do you a favour and finally throw—” he stabs again, “—you—” blood splatters the white of his shirt and – fuck – that shit’s gonna stain, “—out.”

The body drops to ground with a wet crack as skull meets cement and behind them someone gasps. Hancock glances over his shoulder, to where Ridge stands wide-eyed by the open door.

Hancock’s breathing heavily, all the pent up rage from not understanding Fahrenheit’s situation pouring from his muscles to his fingers to his blade. He flicks it – lets the blood rain down on Finn’s prone form as he keeps his black gaze on the pale man in the doorway. “You wanna be next?” he bites out. “If not, I suggest you leave.”

Ridge ducks out quickly, slamming the door behind him.

When Hancock returns to Carey and Fahrenheit, the doc has Fahrenheit restrained by the small team of drifters and is tapping a vial of Med-X. He wipes the last of the blood on the sole of his boot with a frown.

“My apologies, Doc. I know how much you hate wastin’ supplies. I’ll get you new ones.”

Carey administers the Med-X with a shake of her head. “No need. I heard about what he did with my last patient.” Fahrenheit gasps, her eyes rolling back, and her whole body goes limp. Carey draws away. “I’m just surprised you didn’t kill him earlier.”

Fahrenheit’s breathing eases. The initial ride is always strong, but the woman’s no rookie when it comes to chems. Hancock approaches her, tucking the knife away. “Oh, I wanted to, but… well, she was watchin’.”

“Fahrenheit?”

“Sole.” Nick’s trench coat has been taken off so the Doc can get a better view of her injuries. Red scores the tan material, now nothing but a heap by the bed. Hancock counts the slashes, notes the placement: less decisive and shallower than Sole’s, but Fahrenheit’s also littered with bruises. A struggle, then. That’s his girl – a fighter.

“I never picked you for one who cared what people thought,” says Carey, raising an eyebrow.

“She spaces out enough, Doc. Maybe if she was new and needed to be taught the ropes, but not when she’s barely keepin’ it together. I’ve seen it. We want her to feel safe, don’t we?”

“In Goodneighbor?”

Hancock scoffs, not unaware of the reputation. “Everyone’s welcome. At least this way she doesn’t have to see the mess. Hey,” he waves to the two drifters who’d helped wrestle Fahrenheit inside, “Ross, Archie, take Finn and throw him into the ruins. Try to keep it discreet, and far enough so we don’t have to smell him.”

They nod, and end up rolling Finn in Nick’s trench coat for lack of anything else. Another thing Hancock has to replace.

Clothes you can replace. Someone’s trust? Not so much.

Nick could get over it. It was better than having to explain to Sole why some people just needed to be shivved.

“Please excuse me, Monsieur Hancock.”

Curie hovers past him, that same white shit she put on Sole’s injuries oozing from a gun on one of her arms. He moves aside and she begins to apply it to Fahrenheit’s wounds, Carey stepping back to watch.

“… She won’t be regaining consciousness any time soon,” says Carey, after a while. “So tell me what happened.”

Hancock scowls. Here he is, with two doctors at his side, his bodyguard on a hospital bed, and a question he doesn’t know the answer to. Mentats focus the mind, and by the solid ache in his temples he can tell they’re doing their job maybe too well, but even then he’s at a loss. Fahrenheit’s words roil through his head like storm clouds: The Director cordially invites all Commonwealth citizens to the Freakshow.

He has no idea what it means, unless Fahrenheit really has lost her mind and she’s talking about some kind of… circus, maybe? But that can’t be it.

I delivered your fucking message. I did it. Now get out. Get out.

God, please get out.

Her nails have raked angry lines down her scalp. In some places there’re clumps of red.

“I’ve got no fuckin’ clue what happened,” he admits. “But I got the feelin’ we’re gonna have to check her head. I’ll get Amari onto it once she’s good, but…” But he honestly has no idea what state Fahrenheit’s head’s going to be in once she’s awake. He wants to leave the finer details out of the conversation (there are people around, still in their beds, recovering, and they don’t really need the bedtime story), but with a display like the one that had gone down in the town square, he’d be surprised if all of Goodneighbor wasn’t whispering about it within the hour. “You know anythin’ about someone called the Director and his freakshow?”

Carey frowns, and Hancock suspects she’s thinking the same thing. She’s no ghoul but she’s old – older than him, at least – if her grey hair and face full of wrinkles is any indicator. The both of them have been around long enough to know that anyone who puts a ‘the’ before their name is trouble – it’s in the false sense of importance, in the need to make the title their identity.

“Can’t say I do,” she says, eyes narrowing. “Should I?”

Another thing Hancock doesn’t know, and it grates on his nerves like sandpaper to the face. He’d been keeping tabs on everyone in the Commonwealth, and suddenly everything’s happening at once and he barely has time to send proper recon teams or take a look for himself without everything going to shit.

There’s not enough Med-X left in his office for him to get adequately blitzed. Some Jet, then. Hell—why not both?—and maybe somewhere in between it he’ll have some time to sleep.

Should he know about the Director? Who the fuck knows.

“Apparently he toured the South. Can’t say I heard of him,” he says. Fahrenheit stirs but the movement is slight before she falls back into the waves of Med-X pumping through her veins. “He fucked her up pretty good, though. Do all the checks you need. All of them. We don’t know how sick he is, but we have reason to believe he’s a pre-war ghoul. Radiation checks should give you a clue.”

Carey understands and treats the implication with a curt nod, while Curie makes a worried gasp beside her. The older doctor’s tone is cut and clean. “I’ll do everything I know, but it’s worth noting: what do you think he did?”

Get out.

Hancock’s hands are fists at his sides. Fahrenheit’s eyes are baggy. The bruises, now that he has time to properly catalogue them, are darker around her neck, and something about the way she can’t properly close her mouth makes his gut churn.

“No idea,” he says, for what seems like the umpteenth time in the past hour. “But there’s only one way we can find out, isn’t there?”

 

--

 

“We all know there’s a trap waiting for you two,” says Nick. Smoke drifts from the gap in his neck as he takes another deep drag of his cigarette. “Charging in with guns akimbo is gonna get you diddly squat, unless you count bullet holes as something you’re out to get.”

Sole tallies up the floorboards of Hancock’s office. She sits on one of the couches in the middle of the room with her back rigid and feet planted firmly on the ground. Her palms ache. She’s pressed her nails so hard into the skin she feels she’ll sink into her own flesh.

“Doesn’t change anything,” she says, clipped. "He needs to be stopped.”

Nick grumbles to himself – something about dames not listening – and stubs the cigarette out in the ashtray on Hancock’s desk.

Him. She can’t even put a finger on who he is. The Director? The name has no meaning. Her memories of Pickman move like fog, shapes forming in the wisps and eddies of grey and white but never solidifying into anything she can put a name to. Every time she tries to push through something in her mind snaps her back, like a wave pounding against her chest and knocking her to shore. A flash of red, a flush of heat, and then sudden, sudden cold.

And then it’s dark. It always ends up dark, with her feet ankle deep in God-knows-what and hot breath on her face. Attempting to dream – to remember – only has the dream spitting her out harder, but by then she knows: she can’t even remember things properly.

“She’s right,” Hancock says, low and hoarse. His steps are light as he paces back and forth between her and Nick, fidgeting madly with the now empty Mentats tin. “He dug his grave as soon as he put a hand on my people. I want his fuckin’ head.”

His people. Fahrenheit. Sole’s fists clench harder, and she tries to concentrate on the burn of her nails digging up skin.

“I’m sorry I brought him here,” she says, quietly.

With sharp flicks of his thumb, Hancock flips the lid of the Mentat’s tin and slams it back down in an erratic staccato. “I sent the recon team, sister.” He says. “You had nothin’ to do with it.”

Nick huffs. “I hate to play the blame game, but in this case I’ll make an exception.” Sole flinches, but the Synth continues quickly: “Sole, it’s not your fault. If there’s one thing I learned working at the Agency, it’s that we don’t blame the victim—”

Metallic crinkling cuts him off.

The Mentat’s tin is crumpled in Hancock’s hand. The ghoul sneers and tosses it. “We cut down the piece of shit who made the victim a victim. Simple as that.” Twitching fingers pull out his knife and he begins to twirl it, drawing intricate patterns in the air. “So we go tonight. Keep the victim-makin’ to a minimum.”

“Which returns us, again, to the fact that we can’t go rushing in knowing he’s waiting for us,” pushes Nick.

Sole bites her lip. “Not us,” she mumbles.

The detective frowns. “What?”

“Not you,” says Sole, with more force. “Hancock and I are the ‘guests of honour’. Fahrenheit didn’t mention you.”

Hancock, for the first time since bursting into his office, stops pacing. “Hate to say it, Nicky, but she’s right. You ain’t on the list.”

Nick makes a frustrated noise at the back of his throat. “Every Commonwealth citizen is on the list,” he snaps.

“Fahrenheit is a Commonwealth citizen,” says Sole. Behind her, Hancock moves to lean on the back of the couch she’s sitting on, where he can get a decent view of Nick across from them. “If that’s how the Director treats Commonwealth citizens, then being a guest of honour might be the thing that keeps us mostly out of trouble. He has to have a reason.”

Nick growls, automatically fishing out the second last cigarette from his pack and shoving it into his mouth. “Which brings us back to my point, doll,” he lights it pointedly, expression grim beneath his fedora, “we don’t know the damn reason.”

“If he’s hurting people, we don’t need one to at least have a look,” she presses. “He’s just a ghoul—”

A deep hum reverberates from next to her. “Now you and I both know that ain’t true, sister.” Hancock pushes off from leaning against the couch and resumes his pacing. “You heard Fahrenheit. Get out. He did somethin’ to her. Somethin’ to her head. Hell, he did somethin’ to you, too, a few weeks ago and you still space out. We can’t push that shit beneath the rug. ‘Normal’ is on another goddamn planet, and that’s sayin’ somethin’.”

Nick nods. “You notice the bruises on her neck, John?”

“From fingers.”

Sole grimaces as the image of Fahrenheit creeps into her mind. She’d seen the bruises in between trying to button up Nick’s trench coat – looking while making sure no one else did – and they’d been… strange.

“… No, they weren’t from fingers.”

The pair turn to regard her, and she chews at her bottom lip. “Puncture wounds,” she explains. “If they were made by fingers we’d be getting four on one side and one on the other – four fingers and a thumb. There were four but they were evenly spaced, with a point in the middle.”

The detective hums, a glimmer of pride colouring his voice. “That’s why you’re my partner and he isn’t.” He inclines his head at Hancock, who stops to meet his glowing gaze. “What we’re looking at could be drug-related, but nothing we’ve seen, and our ghoul doesn’t seem the sort to get rid of his gloves long enough to handle a needle.”

“Some of the others must have survived,” says Sole, swallowing a lump in her throat.

“Can’t tell yet, but he isn’t going to be alone. Weird doesn’t begin to cut it.” Nick folds his arms. “We need to think this through like a case. What’s the common denominator between you two? Why does he want both of you in particular? And from there, we need to draw lines between you two and him.” More smoke pours from his mouth. “We need something, at least. A leg-up, because right now he holds all the cards, and attacking him at night is gonna be going to him on his own terms. We need a plan.” He turns to Hancock. “John.”

Hancock sways on the spot, knife tumbling from finger to finger with practiced ease. “What you got?”

Nick shrugs. “Him kidnapping us aside, you’re the next big link I can think of. We need to get this into the open air so we can think as straight as possible.”

Sole perks up. “A link?”

The knife stops twirling around Hancock’s fingers and, with a sharp flick of his wrist, returns to his sash. “Yeah,” he says, “I guess there is that.”

“Is what?”

Hancock makes his way around the couch and slumps down next to her. “Relax, sister, it ain’t a big deal. It’s just not somethin’ I figured you’d wanna hear, with everythin’ that’s goin’ on.” He throws on a smirk, though it’s not like his usual ones. It’s more subdued; calculated, like someone trying to look relaxed instead of someone feeling the real thing. “You know how I said this guy was a manufactured ghoul? I guess you could say that I am, too.”

Cold ripples through her chest. “Someone turned you into a ghoul?”

Nick lets out a small, deprecating laugh.

Hancock ignores it. “Somethin’ like that.” Absently he picks at the fraying ends of the couch. “I did. I turned myself into a ghoul. My choice, and all that crap. And before you ask: no, I don’t regret it.”

Sole bites back the question and wonders just how often Hancock gets it to warrant such a swift response.

The man must have noticed her hesitation, because he continues with a flippant wave of his hand: “It gave me a killer high; what can I say?”

There’s something else to the story, somewhere in the way Hancock’s too quick to answer questions that haven’t even come, but Sole refrains from asking. It’s not her business. She’s only known the ghoul herself for a week.

Instead she lets her mind wander as Hancock and Nick start up a back-and-forth.

“Maybe he thinks you’re like-minded,” says Nick.

Hancock isn’t convinced. “Who knows? Maybe he thinks I’m pre-war and just wants to share stories of the good ol’ days and play baseball. I don’t think it matters when he’s as good as dead.”

The last connection is her. Despite how much she wants to go charging in demanding answers, Nick’s right: they can’t do it without a plan. They were invited. As long as they answer the invitation without preparation, they’re at the Director’s mercy.

A freakshow. She has no idea what to make of that, so the only thing they can do is work with what they have, and what they have, evidently, is Hancock.

And Hancock is made, just like him. There had to be an advantage there. Sole’s only dealt with ghouls insofar as she’s had to shoot them down before they bite through her neck – her experience is limited enough – though she remembers small details. Remembers sneaking through countless malls and subway tunnels trying to keep from the prone bodies on the floor, if only because they never stayed prone for long.

The ferals she’d crossed before had been sluggish right up until the point they noticed her. Before that they sort of… meandered. Blind, or at least something close to it. Always at night, if they could help it—

The room is dark; water laps at her ankles

“Sole?”

She looks up. Nick peers down at her, face the picture of concern, cigarette still smoking in his robotic hand. Hancock is silent too, peering at her from his place on the couch, black eyes narrowed.

Eyes like the ghoul in the photo.

A dark building, a face in darkness, chewing in darkness.

Neon lights. Faded pink. Black eyes.

Hancock, of all people, clicks in faster than Nick. He leans back and lifts his chin. “What you thinkin’, sister?”

Sole blinks, still trying to piece everything together. “Hancock,” she begins, slowly, tasting her words. “… How much do you hate bright lights?”

 

--

 

Sole doesn’t realise she’s using her modified hand until the eighth flare slides into her makeshift bandolier. It’s as if the attention short-circuits it. Electricity flares behind her ear and she winces as the arm falls limply to her side, inert once more.

Hancock is next to her. They stand behind the counter at Kleo’s weapons store, packing what flares they can find into a sack-bag in what is more or less silence. Every now and again he looks at her – she can feel it even though, at this angle, his eyes are hidden behind the brim of his tricorn – but instead of starting up conversation he just returns to his packing with a small hum; the beginnings of a song.

The song that was playing at the Third Rail, she notes after a while.

Nick had disappeared up the stairs with Kleo a while ago, determined to tag along despite the lack of invite. She’d tried to tell him off, but he’d just jerked a thumb at Hancock and made a jibe about not being afraid of ghouls, given the nature of present company. It was enough to earn him a short glare from the ghoul himself, but nothing else, and in the end she’d been left with the mayor on packing duty.

It was a duty she could have done by herself, but there just wasn’t much else to do. Hancock had insisted.

Hancock. A manufactured ghoul who’d gone and created himself.

She’s not sure what to make of it. When she looks over his face like buckled leather, nose missing, eyes nothing but void, decked out in clothes she remembers from history fieldtrips, she doesn’t understand why anyone would want that for themselves. She’d heard ghouls were close to immortal, and maybe that had been it, but even then…

There were functioning ghouls, sure. But most of them? Feral. Foaming at the mouth, tearing with teeth and nails. Who’d want to live in the shadow of something like that?

“To think you were doin’ so well.”

Sole jumps, flare nearly flying from her good hand as she turns to stare wide-eyed at Hancock.

The ghoul wears a half-grin, a flare dancing between his fingers like his knife had been before.

Her lips flap. “Um… Huh?”

Hancock’s grin twitches. “Your arm,” he says. Sole glances down. The limb is still limp, but she’d been hoping he wouldn’t notice. It probably didn’t help that the way they were standing has him directly next to it. “Didn’t wanna mention it, just in case, but it seems like you got there all by yourself.”

She eyes him cautiously. “What do you mean?”

Hancock toys with the flare in his hand. It’s the last one, not counting hers. That’s fifteen altogether between them, with three flare guns. “I mean,” he says, “try not to think about it.”

Sole’s brows furrow and she bites her lip. Electricity sparks, but her modified fingers don’t move.

She didn’t count on being so useless so quickly. “It’s not that easy when it’s your arm,” she bites out.

“Is that so?”

His voice is a breathy purr. The next jolt of electricity doesn’t come from her implant, and instead spirals up her spine and makes the fine hairs at the back of her neck tingle. Hancock draws away from his place by the counter and circles her with predatory ease.

Circling, slowly, until she’s forced to twist to keep her eyes on him, her lower back pressed against the counter while her good arm braces itself against the edge.

He nearly closes the gap between them with a single stride.

His breath tickling her cheek reminds her of cherry, and she realises it must be the Mentats he’s constantly hiding beneath his tongue.

Relax,” he purrs, and the deep rumble of his voice cascades over her senses and makes her toes curl. He’s just so damn close. “Let your instincts take over. Just feel—”

And then his arm jerks around, just like he’d done with Finn.

To stab. To kill. To—

A shock of pain spikes up her bad arm and Sole gasps, eyes wide, as her modified arm connects with Hancock’s, their wrists meeting with a thonk. She can feel the heat of something hovering just next to her neck—whatever he’d been holding—her mind’s buzzing too quickly for her to remember and—

“There, see?” Hancock’s grin widens. “You still got it.”

Sole’s breath catches in her throat. Adrenaline makes her fingers tingle – her body run hot.

But her modified arm is still up, blocking Hancock’s strike.

A breeze runs through the open front of the shop. Sole wants to breathe it into her core – anything to cool her skin – but it does nothing. In the end, it’s Hancock’s voice that makes her shiver.

“You don’t needa be so tense.” He pulls back, and in his hand is… still the flare, as opposed to the knife she hadn’t realised she’d been expecting. Hancock notices the way she’s looking at it and rolls it around in his palm. “You ain’t scared of me, are ya?”

Sole lowers her arm slowly, carefully, unthinkingly, or at least as close as she can to unthinkingly. “Scared?” she echoes.

It takes a certain kinda person to turn by choice.

His eyes shine in the yellow glow of Kleo’s wall lights, and she realises that he’s watching her just as closely as she’s watching him.

What kind of a person are you, Hancock?

He was kind enough to take her in. To take Nick in. To take care of them at the expense of his own resources, to keep her safe in his office, to get Nick fixed up as best he could, to send a team to try and see what had happened, to make sure the man who harassed her was kept off the street for at least a week… in his own way, Hancock was kind, self-made ghoul or not. There were too many humans who couldn’t hold a candle to that.

The words come easier than she thought they would.

“No, I’m not scared of you.” Sole offers him a smile and hopes he can see it’s sincere. “Just nervous, I guess. I don’t know what to expect.”

Hancock tilts his head to the side and glances down at the flare in his hand. “Don’t sweat it. You got nothin’ to worry about with me coverin’ ya.” He tosses it up, catches it, and holds it out to her. “Unless you wanna run. I don’t blame you, and I won’t stop you.”

She takes the flare, eyes skimming over the ruffles of the shirt beneath his frock, and the buttons inset into the cuff before lingering on his hands, rough and worn—contrasting so starkly with the smooth pink of her own.

Hands he’d chosen.

“No, I’m not running.” Sole hesitates. “Hanco—”

“Are we done packing or are you two just gonna chat the night away?”

The pair turn sharply to find Nick making his way down the stairs, a box in his arms and Kleo in tow. The Synth moves with purpose, marching up to them until he’s almost as close as Hancock.

And he stays that way, until the ghoul takes a few steps back to give him room to move between them. Nick breezes by, muttering through the cigarette in his mouth, and sets the box down on the counter. He begins unpacking: a pistol, ammunition, stimpaks.

“I hate to interrupt,” he says, pulling out an assault mask, its goggles a darker shade of green than what Sole’s used to, “but we have a job to do. If we want this to work, we need to keep things as dark as possible until it’s time strike. The sun’s not gonna be an ally this time.” To Kleo, he then adds: “Sure this thing’s gonna work, doll?”

“Honey, I know my hardware. Do you work?”

“Point taken.” Nick pushes the mask towards Sole. “Suit up, kiddo. You don’t have photoreceptors quite like mine or ghoul-eyes like John. Kleo’s got these,” he taps the eyes, “fitted with night-vision. If anything wants the jump on you, they’re going to have to get up nice and early.”

“Thanks,” she smiles and pulls it on, watching as her world turns green, thin lines of black and lime cutting through as images focus and refocus.

“There’s a dial on the side you can use to adjust the intensity,” says Nick. “Remember: if you need to pop a flare at a moment’s notice, shout and shut your eyes. Same goes for you, John. We wanna blind him, not each other. Ah, and that reminds me…”

There’s shuffling as Nick returns to the box, and Sole peels back the intensity until Kleo’s shop lights aren’t so bright. Hancock’s returned to absently going through the bag, rearranging it, adding things, and taking things out. At one point she thinks one of the flares he throws in has a strange metal tube attached to it – like an inhaler – but he moves so quickly and the night-vision is so monochromatic she can’t be sure.

“Here we go.” A clicking sounds as Nick pulls a combat rifle from the box. He checks over it swiftly, fingers nimble across battered metal. “We’ve kept it to unmodified sights, but bear with it. Best range Kleo has right now—” Sole bites her lip. “—and I know how you get about range.”

Sole accepts the rifle with a wince as it weighs down her bad arm, but she readjusts the weight accordingly until it’s tucked comfortably in the crook.

“A riflewoman, huh?” Hancock says from by the bag. “Not bad, sister.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” says Nick. He frowns, leans forward, and adjusts Sole’s mask. A whole section of shop she didn’t notice before slides into view. “Now, unlike you two, my eyes glow in the dark. I figure I take point to distract anything that might notice us first while you, Sole, pick ‘em off.” He takes a deep drag of the cigarette, and when he next speaks it’s quieter, more pointed. “John, you take care of her if anything gets too close.”

Hancock grunts. The final thing he pulls from the counter is a sawn-off shotgun, battle-scarred and worn. “They can try.”

The Synth nods. “This is rescue and recon. We go in, shoot the raiders, blind the ghouls, get your people, and hope our Director starts monologuing so we can piece all of this together. If he doesn’t, we shoot him. Ready?”

Sole grips her rifle tighter. It’s been long – too long – since she last held one, but there’s no time to get used to it. There’s Fahrenheit and the rest of Hancock’s recon team. There’s Nick, with his battered exterior. And there’s her.

She doesn’t want to go back, she knows, deep down, in those quiet places in her mind where the voices of fear scream loud and unheeded. But there’s also duty. She remembers Fahrenheit’s eyes, wide and crazed and unseeing. She wonders if maybe she looked the same when she took the Fatman to the gallery walls.

But, most importantly, she wonders how many others might look like that if they don’t destroy the problem at its roots. She wasn’t fast enough before. The same mistake can’t happen twice.

So she takes a deep breath, holds back the shudder, and says: “Yes.”

The distinct ch-chk of a shotgun cocking cuts through the air. Hancock smirks and slings the bag over his shoulder. “Then what’re we waitin’ for?” He rolls his tongue, and a drop of red rolls with it, chalky and bright. “Let’s light ‘em the fuck up.”

 

--

 

Finn remembers how he died.

He remembers the shock of it. Or maybe it wasn’t really shock, because ever since Finn was small he’d searched for conflict. It made his heart beat. It made his blood burn. It made him feel alive. But it’s always a shock, he supposes, when you die. You’re never really expecting it to turn out the way it does. Cold. Wet. Alone.

He remembers being wrapped in something that smells of mothballs and metal and being thrown into a ditch. He remembers the blood in his mouth as his teeth broke against pavement. He remembers counting the seconds tick by, hoping it’d be like the old tale of counting sheep to help you sleep. He remembers thinking, hey, if he counted enough seconds, maybe he’ll finally get to fuckin’ sleep.

He remembers it being Hancock’s fault. The fuckin’ ghoul. The radfreak with his dumb fuckin’ hat and mutant eyes, waltzing around like he was a real person just because he wore the clothes of one.

Finn remembers the good old days. Finn remembers Vic. Finn remembers the night the zombie overran the State House with his gang of drifters while Finn was still halfway through a hit of Jet. He’d been so slow. So fuckin’ slow he couldn’t fight back as one of the assholes rammed him with the butt of a rifle and pinned him to the floor with a boot to the head.

And the ghoul had laughed. Ordered the slaughter of his friends and laughed. “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?” he’d said. “Remember?”

Finn even remembers remembering, even though he’d never tell anyone, the day that drifter’s head smashed against the pavement. What had she wanted? Drugs, probably. She shouldn’t have spoken out of line. Should have just shut the fuck up when Finn told her there were other ways to pay. Other ways to get the right kinda insurance.

He didn’t mean to throw her that hard, but accidents happen.

He didn’t think he’d use his boots the way he did. It was in-the-moment, and psycho’s one hell of a drug. He’d just wanted to see what would happen; how it would all spill if he went down hard enough.

Finn remembers the last sound that came from one of his friend’s throats. It was a gurgle, somewhere between a cry and a plea, and the ghoul had cut it short with a shotgun.

“Lemme go,” Finn remembers saying. “Lemme go! Please! I wanna live!”

“Come on, man,” Hancock had said. “It’s me we’re talkin’ about. Of course I’m gonna let someone like you live.” It had felt like a lie then. Finn wishes he’d seen it for what it was. “I’ll let you live because it’s more than what you gave her, and because it’s exactly what you gave me.”

Finn remembers wishing he’d died that day. Finn also remembers feeling that wish turn into anger, and that anger turn into more reasons to just fuck with the other man.

However, with his mouth filling with blood, Finn can’t help but consider that, hell, maybe he was right the first fuckin’ time.

But that was then. They do say that, right before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. Finn thinks that’s it. He’s not proud. He’s not disappointed, either. He didn’t expect anything more.

Until it continues.

Finn remembers hands under his armpits hauling him up. He thinks, thank fuck, maybe it’s finally death.

But then Finn hears a voice, and it’s no memory.

“This is it! It’s him!” it says. “I saw it. I saw everything. He’s perfect.”

Chapter Text

Pickman Gallery is a black husk against the moonlight, dipped green in night-vision.

The night is quiet as they make their way across the grounds, towards the main entrance, and Sole can’t help but think about how unnatural the quiet is. Usually there are raiders, gunshots, something moving or trying to scavenge in the cloak of darkness, but now there is… nothing.

Nothing but peace and stillness, and the gentle whistle of breezes between the buildings.

It’s all so faint, so quiet that she feels as if maybe she isn’t there. Maybe this is another dream. The moon is so far away, the sky is so expansive, and Nick isn’t at her side. No one is. The Synth moves ahead of her, his white shirt nearly blending into the green and out of sight, and she can’t see Hancock as he trudges along behind her, though every now and again she feels a light touch against the small of her back – a reminder that he’s there and still keeping watch.

“Easy, sister. We’ll stop if you need to.”

She doesn’t want to stop, just in case the night swallows her like it has the sound, so she keeps moving with her rifle ready, knuckles white with how hard she holds the grips.

As they get closer they see the extent of the damage. Pickman Gallery is a ghost amongst the living. The roof is sundered, caving inwards, while the walls have burst out in places, planks of wood and nail jutting like displaced bone. Glass from broken windows glimmer where it litters the floor and crunches underfoot, and the doors have been thrown from their hinges, face-down and splintered against the cement. It creaks when Nick places the first step on it, and he stops abruptly before he can make any more sound.

“I don’t see anything,” he whispers, kneeling forward to peer into the entrance. “What do you two think?”

Sole peers down the scope of her gun out of habit and does all the usual checks – heights and vantage points, inside as best she can, looking past the battered stairs she can only vaguely recall.

“Nothing.”

“Then either he wasn’t really ready or he doesn’t care how ready we are.”

Nick straightens and, minding the creaking doors as he steps across, motions for them to follow.

The gallery seems bigger on the inside. And maybe it’s because she can still see the sky through the torn floors, or maybe it’s because of the way the wind whispers through the cracks in the walls, but it seems to breathe with her. It settles, groans, and exhales as she creeps behind the detective, bent low, gun ready.

They’re only a few steps in when Hancock snags her by the bandolier and pulls her flush against him. Sole would have yelped if not for his arm across her mouth.

“Careful.” He murmurs by her ear. “Look down.” His arm slides away and tentatively Sole fiddles with the dial on her mask.                                

The green intensifies, brightens, until she can make out the sharp ridges of the cracked walls around them and the grain in the wood, and then she sees it.

It’d been so dark she’d mistaken it for more floor. Nick’s knelt by the edge of a stretching darkness along the floor, peering down; had she kept walking she would have pushed him over the lip: a deep gash in the wood.

It stretches a few feet from the entrance and two feet wide, if her eyes are any judge, ripping right down the centre of the hall to the far wall behind the staircase. A fissure, like someone had taken the building and tried to break it in two.

It’s where the breathing is coming from, she notices. The air that pulses out in gentle surges is warm and smells faintly of—

copper.

A woman outta time, huh?

The world sinks as her heartrate picks up and floods her with ice, and suddenly her skin’s too tight and her breath is too hot and her mask—

Hancock seizes her by the wrist when she goes to rip it off, her chest pounding so hard she thinks it might burst from her like whatever burst through the floorboards.

“Take it easy,” he repeats, and she hopes to God he can’t feel her shivering.

But he does. He must, because he jerks her backwards again until she can feel the warmth of his chest against her back and his arms around her midsection.

“Hey, you feel me? I’m real. I’m right here, sister.” He speaks up this time, firmer by her ear, no longer breathy and faint. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do this.”

She does. She needs to see.

Sole grips the cuff of his frock and commits the details of the worn threads the memory; maps the tears and the seams, the coarseness of the fabric and the curve of the buttons. She concentrates on how solid Hancock is behind her, on his breathing, on the cherry on his breath as it brushes by her cheek.

The numbness in her stomach doesn’t fade, but eventually it begins to fold in on itself, curling like shrivelling petals until it’s small and tucked away somewhere behind her heart. She holds it there just as Hancock anchors her to him until, with a shuddering breath, she pats his arm. Let go. And squeezes his hand. Thank you.

He does so, and she nearly stumbles with how little strength is left in her legs.

Nick, she realises, had been watching them for a while. His eyes are twin points of white in the mess of green and black. “Are you gonna be okay, Partner?” he says. “Need water? Food? We can take a break whenever you need.” Sole shakes her head, mouth too dry to form words. “Alright. Just holler if you need to stop, okay?” He returns his attention to the fissure. “Looks like a pressure blast.”

Sole swallows. “It wasn’t me,” she manages.

“Couldn’t be. Nothing here’s burnt to high hell.” He leans forward and sniffs. “My first guess would be a gas main, but the smell’s all wrong. Smells like—”

“Blood?”

Nick nods, slow and solemn. “That, or something close to it, but that’s not the problem. If there’s blood there’s gotta be bodies. Where are they?” Nick shakes his head. “John, put those ears of yours to work. You hear anything?”

Hancock gently manoeuvres around Sole and kneels next to the fissure. For a moment he’s silent.

“… Not a thing,” he says, after a while, and then he raises his voice. “The place is empty.” He kicks a nearby piece of rubble and it tumbles down the fissure. A second passes, and then the thud. “It ain’t too far down.” He shrugs off the bag and hands it to Sole. “If I don’t call back, throw down a flare.”

He vaults over and disappears into the black. Silence, and then a series of light thuds.

Hancock’s voice drifts up from the darkness. “Throw down a flare anyway, would ya?” She does, turns off the night-vision, and squints at the signature pop of ignition. Light hisses to life, the sparks raining down from Hancock’s outstretched hand, and he tosses it into the middle of the room he’s in, the dirt beneath his boots shining with moisture.

“When you’re ready, make your way down,” he says, “you might wanna see this.”

It takes a while, but eventually Nick lowers her until she’s close enough for Hancock to catch and before she knows it she’s being carefully lowered onto her own feet while Nick drops down beside her, metal limbs absorbing the shock with ease. The light from the flare has burned to a dim red, but she can see enough: the room they’ve dropped into is larger than she’d thought, probably large enough to cover at least half of the Gallery’s bottom floor, with corridors cut into what looks like walls of rock lining the sides.

Catacombs, she thinks distantly, flicking the night-vision back on as the glow from the flare fades. She wanders over to the nearest wall and runs a finger along it, heart racing as it comes off wet.

The fluid is cool to touch, with a slight stickiness. Hancock and Nick join her soon enough, and the ghoul does the same thing, except he presses his finger to his mouth and smacks his lips.

“This is it,” he mutters. “Tastes like metal but it ain’t blood. Too thin.” He glances up, and Sole follows his gaze to where a tangle of pipes twist their way along the ceiling. Several of them – the ones that would have stretched across the fissure – lay broken and dripping, half-buried in the dirt.

“They were transporting it?” she asks.

Nick scans the pipes. “Must have. But what constitutes ‘it’ is the bigger question here.” He shrugs. “It makes our job easier, though. Here, pass us some flares and a gun.”

She begins passing them along, Nick shoving them into his pockets while Hancock manages to secret them away into the various compartments of his frock. For the most part she doesn’t think much of it, moving mechanically, counting, until her hands close around something else.

Sole pulls out the inhaler, its red cylinder body easily mistakable for another flare, and glances up at Hancock. “What’s this?”

“Really, John?” growls Nick. “Can’t say I’m surprised, but there’s a time and place.”

Hancock plucks the inhaler from her hand and, like the flares, tucks it away into his coat. “It’s called Jet,” he says, ignoring Nick, “and it’s from my own reserves. Relax, sister.”

“A chem?”

“Psychoactive stimulant,” says Nick, taking the last of his flares and holstering the gun. “Makes time feel like it’s going real slow. Best to stay away from it—”

A crack cuts through the night, echoing through the catacombs and slicing through her ears. Sole whips around to face the source – one of the branching caverns – rifle ready and night-vision flickering to life.

When she looks down the scope there’s a single shadow, shuffling along, almost indistinguishable from the darkness behind it. It’s not what she expects, though, cowed and shuffling, both noticeable hands braces against the corridor walls to help it along. Its feet drag in the dirt – the scraping grinds against her nerves and makes her grip on the rifle tighten.

Until, eventually, the thing shuffles into view, as green as everything else but no longer shrouded by the secondary darkness of the corridor. A ghoul, in a simple shirt, torn pants, and tattered vest.

Beside her Hancock sucks in a breath. “Fuck—Tommy.” He rushes forward to grab the ghoul by the shoulders and the other ghoul bends with the force, doubling forward with a groan, head lolling from side to side like a ragdoll.

He puts a shaky hand on Hancock’s arm. “Boss…” he shakes his head, mop of brown hair flying, “Boss, you came for us…”

Part of the recon team, then. Sole lowers her gun just as Nick does the same.

“Shit, Tommy, what the fuck happened? Where’s Jo and Al?”

But Tommy’s not listening. He hauls his head up, moaning, as if it’s too heavy for him, and looks around, eyes raking over Sole and Nick.

And then he’s back to shaking his head, muttering furiously. “No,” Sole catches. “No, you weren’t supposed to… you weren’t…” There’s something bulging around his neck and he begins to pick at it. Absently at first, like it’s an itch, until she sees that his nails are catching and scraping. “He didn’t say you could bring anyone but her, Boss,” he says, “Guests of honours only… Gotta be a guest of honour…”

“Nick’s a citizen of the Commonwealth, Tommy,” Hancock returns, slowly, carefully, and he backs away, dipping into the depths of his frock. “He’s got an invite too. Freakshow, right? That what this whole operation is?”

“He’s a Synth.” Tommy continues, voice cracking. “Boss… Boss, I’m sorry—”

“Cover your eyes.”

Sole flicks off her night-vision just as light erupts from where Hancock stands, Tommy howls, and all around them the darkness hisses.

Like thousands of snakes, intercut by garbled cries and bubbling throats.

Boss, please!

“In the centre, now!

Sole’s legs move on their own, propelling her forward as Nick dashes behind her and Hancock stumbles back. They meet in the middle of the chamber, the flare still spewing sparks at Tommy’s feet, the ghoul yowling with his hands at his eyes and his neck and his…

Collar. A collar of tarnished metal and glass, something green sloshing within. His neck is raw. Dried blood cakes the edges and scrapes off in thick chunks as jagged nails miss their mark.

“Boss!”

The gargled hissing only gets louder. It tears through her ears and scrapes itself down her sides from all around, moving and twisting and undulating, until she realises it’s coming from every single one of the corridors.

And when she looks she sees why. She flicks the night-vision off to make sure but the need for affirmation dies when she spies the pale skin, gangly arms, and gnashing teeth.

Ghouls. Ghouls upon ghouls upon ghouls, all scrabbling over each other like panicked spiders in a tangle of gnarled appendages and distended bodies, twisting to try and get out of the light and back into the shadow of the corridors. Some bite each other to rip them from cover. Others snarl and tear. Black eyes are the only way to distinguish where one ghoul ends and the other begins, less like eyes and more like twin tunnels through each flat face and straight into void. They don’t even catch the light of the flare.

She tries to count them but can’t. They move too quickly. The echo of the catacombs magnifies and disperses. Her eyes just can’t keep up—

“How many are there?” she whispers.

Nick readies his flare gun. “Too many to deal with without some crowd control.”

“Grenades?”

“Not unless we want the rest of the floor to collapse on us. It’s alright, though. Stay calm…”

Tommy sobs. “You’re gonna make him mad!”

Hancock growls, low and rumbling over the high-pitched hisses like radio static and Tommy’s wailing. “Tommy, this ain’t you—”

“Get off me!”

When Sole turns it’s in time to see the ghoul clamp his hands on Hancock’s wrists. Hancock has him by the collar but he’s straining to keep a hold as Tommy thrashes.

“Tommy, come on…”

“I said let… Boss… I said…” He stills, body going limp in Hancock’s hold. The flare sputters. White dims to pink, and Sole pulls a fresh one from her bandolier. “Let... Let me

Thomas.”

Everything stops.

The voice doesn’t need to try to cut through the gargled noises coming from the ghouls. There’s an edge to it, a delicate one, less like a knife and more like a scalpel. She can hear the way it dissects Tommy by the way he whimpers at the inflections in his name and the trembles that wrack his body.

Sole can’t see where the voice comes from. The pink of the dimming flare brings new shadows and splatters them across rock walls, and the nature of the chamber they’re in sends all noise spiralling skyward, but she holds firm and listens as closely as she can.

She doesn’t realise that her gun is shaking until Nick puts a gentle hand on it.

Thomas,” repeats the voice, and the ghoul in Hancock’s arms flinches as if something’s struck him, though the rest of him remains limp. “I thought I told you to greet our dear guests, not threaten them.”

Hancock has stilled like everyone else, and Sole realises that she can’t bring her feet to move. Suddenly it’s all so… rude.

The voice continues airily, “Even if they did bring that piece of scrap in with them. Just because the company has no manners doesn’t mean we have to respond in kind.

There’s shuffling in one of the corridors as the ghouls scrabble to make a clear path in the middle.

“Nora, my dearest… And Johnny… Oh, it’s been too long. Lemme see y’all face to… face.

Somewhere in the darker parts of her mind, where the absent thoughts get colder and heavier, Sole knows even the pink light of a dying flare is too much.

A warped shape emerges from the depths of one of the many corridors.

His body is as deformed as she feels it should be, and the blades that glint at his fingers are as unnaturally clean as only they could be. It’s not a memory – her memory is still nothing but haze drifting along the floor of her mind – but still she knows. It’s like the image had bypassed something in her brain; gone straight from something she saw to something she can only now feel in her gut.

Director. Director of all things past, present, and future.

Arms dangle low by his sides, the blades dragging lines in the dirt behind him, and his face reminds her of something made out of wax left to melt.

She can’t move as he trudges, steps heavy, towards the small space where the corridor connects with the main chamber, and looks out at them.

“Well,” says the Director, chuckling, and in an almost too-human gesture he claps his hands together, minding the blades, “let me begin by welcomin’ you to my li’l show—”

It happens too quickly for her to catch it. Sole isn’t sure at what point Hancock manages to release Tommy and go for his shotgun, but by the time she’s registered the fact that he’s moved he’s already fired two shots at the Director.

The Director watches him, black eyes, sunken as they are, wide and inquisitive.

Two thuds echo through the chamber as two ghouls from the corridor hit the floor with fleshy thuds that sound too much like a heartbeat. Red pools beneath them, at the Director’s bulbous feet, and he cocks his head to the side at the sight.

“Now, now, Johnny,” he says, shaking his head, “No need to get like this—”

Hancock reloads and lets loose another two shots, but it’s almost as if the ghouls on the side can read him faster than he can read himself. The spray of shotgun shells hits another two bodies as they lunge in front of the Director, intercept the shots—

And drop to the floor, lifeless, if twitching.

Hancock reloads and Sole takes a step towards him.

“Stop.”

“What’s a few more bodies?”

It’s not that simple. It can’t be. Sole reaches for him again. “Hancock, just st—”

Sole.”

It’s Nick this time, but his words are strained and waver on the exhale. Sole turns, and her stomach drops.

The Synth is frozen on the spot, gun still at the ready, behind him one of the many baying ghouls.

It had to have crept in from one of the corridors while he wasn’t looking, because nothing else could have gotten the drop on Nick. Nothing else could be quick enough to get a hand wrist-deep into the open wound on the Synth’s neck.

It regards her with empty eyes. The sound the burbles up from its mangled throat is almost a chuckle as it flexes a spindly finger along a panel of exposed circuitry. Nick’s eyes flicker off, his grip on the gun falters, and his vocal unit buzzes.

S-S-Sole.”

“Such fragile tech, those old gens,” muses the Director. “I’d stop wastin’ my bullets, if I were you. The kids get startled at loud noises – why, it would be a shame if they moved too harshly, bein’ in such a precarious position—” 

“He’s an Institute Synth,” Sole bites out. “If you damage his internals, they’ll send a Courser.”

This time the Director does laugh. “You’re tryin’, Sweetheart, I’ll give you that, but I’ve done my readin’ while you were out there, puttin’ up your nose at my generous hospitality. Detective Valentine here isn’t the most honest of Synths, ain’t it?”

Sole tries not to let her expression give it away. She tries not to twitch, or even blink, as the Director looks her over.

“We’re all family here,” he says, shortly, “in our own li’l ol’ way. You’ll see that soon enough. But, darn it, I just can’t hold this here function if you two are gonna get trigger happy, you understand?” Behind them Nick gasps as more pressure is placed on his wiring. “See? It’s even stressin’ your Synth out. Best put those guns away. We’ll leave it to itself if you agree to come with us - a little tour, nothin’ big.”   

Sole’s grip on her rifle tightens. “How do we know you won’t hurt him?”

The Director waves a bladed finger. “Darlin’,” he soothes, “between you an’ me, I don’t think it can afford for you to not trust me right now. It’s your decision. The same goes for you, Johnny. Drop the guns. Don’t try anythin’ hasty, now.”

Hancock hasn’t moved since the last shotgun burst. His mouth is pressed tight, expression dark, muscles taut. 

“Hurt him,” he says, and it’s calm, collected, like the centre of a hurricane, “and I’ll make sure you don’t die. No matter how much you might ask, I’ll make fuckin’ sure, you got that?”

The Director inclines his head. “I wouldn’t expect any less from you, John.”

Hancock drops the gun.

“Director, right? How do you know who I am?”

The Director waves him off with a vague gesture. “In good time. We haven’t even begun our tour, and there is much to get through – you know how it is, with a good enterprise. Come along, then.” He turns, shuffling around with uneven steps, and begins down the corridor he’d just emerged from. Hancock moves after him.

Sole goes to follow him, but then he stops. “Oh, Thomas,” he says, not looking around, while the ghouls that surge around him clamber to get out of his way. To the left of her Tommy’s breath hitches. “Bring Nora back to her room. I’m sure she missed everyone.”

Sole!” Hancock lurches towards her but the ghouls overwhelm him, white limbs slamming in and holding him back. Hancock snarls. “You get the fuck away from her, Tommy! That’s an order!”

But Tommy’s not looking at him. He keeps his eyes down, arms straight by his sides, hands fists. Shaking.

Thomas,” repeats the Director, and the younger ghoul whimpers.

“Sorry,” he whispers to her.

Nick is still behind her. She’s been with him for so long that she knows the pattern of his internals – the way they click in perfect unison, the whirrs of gears, the buzz of electricity, the soft flushing of coolant. But all of it in the hands of the ghoul is a stutter. She can hear Nick’s life balancing on a thin line of electrified wire, with nothing stopping the ghoul from pushing him off.

It’s too much to risk. She can’t do that to him. Not again.

“I… I want my gun,” she says.

“My dear, it’s either you drop your gun or we’ll drop your friend, simple as that.”

As if for emphasis, the ghoul digs its nails into something she can’t see, and Nick convulses, crying out, before falling to his knees. His gun drops into the dirt, forgotten, while the rest of him trembles.

It’s not a choice. It can’t be, with Nick. She can’t lose Nick – not again.

Sole drops her rifle and allows Tommy to approach her, wringing the life out of his own hands as he does so. Hancock’s roaring every curse known to man from the corridor, but it’s as good as screaming into a storm.

She doesn’t know what Tommy injects her with, but it brings with it a familiar warmth, and then nothing at all.

 

--

 

Hancock can only watch as Sole collapses into waiting arms. Not Tommy’s – the kid scrambles back as if Sole might burn – but one of the ferals.

It doesn’t claw for her like the others did to him – like they do to him – with three pairs of arms dedicated to holding him back and another pair clamped around his waist. Instead, the feral goes from clambering over the others like a frenzied animal to pulling itself into a stand with snake-like fluidity, and it scoops her up into its arms before she can even begin to truly fall.

It even adjusts her so that it can cradle her head against its caved-in chest. Had he not seen it, he would have sworn it was another ghoul entirely. Its actions are too conscious for a feral, and yet it looks no different. It had acted no different. It had been no different.

“Impressed, hm?” says the Director, as the ghoul walks – calmly fuckin’ walks – and disappears down one of the many corridors. A swarm of ferals flow after it, crawling along walls and on all fours across the ground. “I’m sure you have questions, but I can’t get to answerin’ them if you’re gonna be so darn uncooperative.”

Hancock grinds his teeth and tries to ignore the ache in his jaw. Bit by bit, he forces himself to relax, despite the vice-like grip the other ghouls have on him.

The Director hums in approval. “There we go,” he says, voice like velvet. “Nice an’ easy.”

The arms fall away and Hancock drops a few inches, unaware that they’d been holding him up as well as holding him back. In the meantime, the ghoul with its hand shoved into Nick’s circuitry keeps its eyes on him.

“You’ll get your toy back when we’re done, Johnny. No need to worry.” Hancock swivels on heel to face the Director, but the ghoul still has his back to him. He continues down the corridor. “Come along, now.”

There’s nothing else to do, then, but move forward. Hancock’s no stranger to situations like that. In any other moment he might have thrived off it, except for the fact he doesn’t even have his gun or a clear way to stick a bullet into the Director’s misshapen head.

So he does what he guesses he must: he follows, and ghouls converge at the corridor mouth until the dimming red of the flare is swallowed by black, and the world is plunged into darkness.

It only takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. Black turns to deep purple turns to a fuzzy light blue. The Director’s steps are shaky ahead of him, spindly legs wobbly under the weight of a protruding stomach too big for the lanky frame and twisted spine. He wonders how such a thing can even move at all. The feet are swollen. His arms look like they’ve been pulled too thin; like even a light touch could snap them.

But yet the Director walks on, casual as ever, as the corridor slopes down. Coarse dirt gives way to haphazard steps made from scrap metal and discarded concrete. Around them the ghouls go from clambering along the sidelines to crawling up the walls in an attempt to stay close, grappling hands finding purchase on the pipes that wind across the ceiling. 

There’s still a flare gun in the depths of his frock. He can feel the outline of it against his pounding heart.

“I established my li’l Freakshow a little over… what? Two centuries ago, I think,” says the Director conversationally. “Give or take a few decades. Had a much smaller group, then, but we expanded, sure enough, into the thrivin’ family we have today.”

That was what this was? Fuckin’ family?

“Have you ever read the Bible, Johnny?”

“No.”

The corridor breaks away into another chamber, larger than the one they were in before. The ceiling is higher, the floor concrete, and it occurs to him that they’ve broken into the basement of another building. A large control station sits pressed up against the far wall, a mess of cabinets either side littered with syringes, injectors, a few guns and batons, and other paraphernalia.

It’s almost mundane, until he notices the dark stains along the concrete floor.

Hancock stops a good six feet from the Director, who keeps walking until he reaches the control station.

“Not a big reader, Johnny?” he says.

“Can’t say I am.”

“Good.”

The Director waves over one of the ghouls. Just like before the transformation is almost immediate – the slobbering mess pulls itself to its full height and with calculated ease takes up a position at the station, fingers moving nimbly across the buttons.

“The Gospel of Matthew, 5:5,” continues the Director. “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

Hancock feels around his frock, trying to keep movement to a minimum. A few of the ghouls pause to watch him, but none of them make a move to stop him or alert the Director.

“Part of the God Squad, are you?” he says.

The Director laughs, deep and throaty. “Oh, my boy, you do so tickle me. Nope. Hell, I ain’t even read the whole book. Not a fan of the prose.” A cabinet built into the station lets out a cloud of steam as the ghoul at the panel pulls a final switch. “All it does is talk about a plan. God’s plan, see.” The assistant ghoul pulls a vial from the steaming cabinet, looks it over, and the Director taps it gently with the tip of one of his knives. “But, really, what is his plan? What’s his direction? You know, pre-war, there were entire countries dedicated to findin’ out God’s plan and, even with all that, we couldn’t figure out a damn thing. If you ask me, that ain’t our fault. That’s poor management.”

Nick’s words echo in his ears: Get him monologuing. Hancock grunts. “Poor management, huh?”  

And it doesn’t seem to be hard, with the Director intent on running his mouth. “A good Director is plain, to the point, and if havin’ other people know his plan stops the plan from workin’ then, really, it couldn’t have been a good plan to begin with,” he continues. “God doesn’t have a plan, boy. God doesn’t need one, that’s why he’s infallible.” He sighs, and it’s almost human. “And that’s also why he failed us. People ain’t infallible, John. They’re people. They need plans. They need direction.”

The flare loads silently. Hancock holds back a smirk, just in case it alerts one of the spying ghouls. “So you’re gonna tell me your plan, then, or what?” he says.

The Director still doesn’t turn to look at him. He scrapes a blade leisurely along the control panel and watches as the screech scatters some of the ghouls crawling at his feet. “I wanna cleanse this world, John,” he says, “for the meek. For the meekest of all of us: the freaks. People like you an’ me an’ all these wonderful kids. The humans couldn’t make this world work, so now it’s our turn to inherit it.” He drums his fingers along the metal panels. “And I want you to join with me. There’s nothin’ else to it. No more gods. Gods are what had us creatin’ bombs in a bid to reach him. To touch the heart of creation at the atom. No. Now is the time of monsters—”

There are still ghouls watching him but he doesn’t care – Hancock aims and fires. The light from the flare sparks into searing white brilliance and sends hot lances into his retinas, but he keeps his gaze trained on the Director and the assistant. Keeps himself steady even as the rest of the ghouls scramble for cover in a mad, screeching cacophony.

The Director is a blur of scintillating steel and there is a shnk.

The flare skitters in five different directions, cut into five neat parts. The light bounces away into the corner of the room. The Director watches it go, the knives on his hand scraping together with the absent disinterest of someone watching passing clouds.

Numb. Hancock’s fingers are numb on the trigger.

The Director sighs again and shakes his head. “Really, Johnny, you think I’d fall for that again?”

Hancock barely has time to register the crackle of electricity before the stun baton slams hard into his back and he keels over with a cry.

Cement is cool against his cheek, his tricorn tumbles from his head, and when the next blow from the baton comes it makes his whole body wind like a tightening spring.

“I did so wanna be civil, my boy. It’s a damn shame.”

Hancock clenches his eyes shut in anticipation for another blow, his muscles too seized up to fight back, but instead he feels something cold and hard close around his neck.

And then a click as it’s secured tight.

Electricity sparks along his nerves, lighting up his senses and sending his mind into overdrive, but even amongst the twitching of his muscles and scrambling of his thoughts he knows – he can feel it – the unmistakable metal of a collar. 

He wants to grab at it, tear it off, but his fingers won’t unlock. His spine won’t straighten.

“Tommy,” he pants, tries to keep his words together because pride is a hard thing to shake off. “Sole. Nick. What the fu—” A hard kick from behind him tears another cry from his throat and sends him sprawling along the floor. By the wetness against his face he’d say right into one of the bloodstains.

Tutting, and it seems to come from all around him, but that might be the kick. “I’m sick of that language, Johnny. How are we supposed to converse like adults if you can’t act like one?” Footsteps approach him, and the Director’s swollen feet come into view. “Thomas told me you and him were close. I figured the welcomin’ party might as well be a friendly face. Your Synth will be kept safe. As for Nora,” one of the feet presses against his shoulder and pushes him onto his back, “she’s home. She’ll learn to like it, just like you will.”

The assistant ghoul’s mangled face swims into view, bent over him, thin fingers working his collar. Hancock growls, tries to shuck the thing off, but the ghoul doesn’t seem to notice. The vial it has in its hand sloshes green, and slides into a compartment in the collar.

When Hancock finally manages to throw a punch the ghoul’s finished, and ducks away without much difficulty. He might as well be punching through water, his reaction time’s so shot.

The Director backs away.

Hancock bares his teeth and growls, low and throaty. His body is lead but he pulls it up anyway, once the tingling stops and the fuzz in his brain falls away. Hancock pulls himself upwards, even though the rest of him screams for him to fall, to finally just rest, take a chem, and pull himself together.

He stands nonetheless. Because he has to. Because Nick’s still out there somewhere and Sole is who the fuck knows and his recon team still needs their Boss.

And the Director can only laugh – that infuriatingly casual laugh, like he has all the time in the fuckin’ world

“Johnny, I gotta say, I feel like a proud dad reunitin’ with the prodigal son.” Hancock reaches for another flare. “Please, do allow me to reward you.”

A click resounds through the air, and Hancock grunts as four points of sharp pain explode around his neck.

“Take a moment to enjoy it.”

He feels the injections, but only for a split second.

Because then his head’s on fuckin’ fire, and the electricity from the baton doesn’t even begin to compare because it’s like someone has set off a nuke in his chest and he’s breathing atomic flames. His whole body seizes and the rush moves from his neck and rolls in crashing waves up the back of his skull and straight into his brain.

He’s on the floor before he can even realise he’s fallen, forehead grinding against the cement even though he can’t feel the scrape of it. There’s no cold, only the coiling heat the licks through his thoughts and blooms in firework spirals across his senses.

He’s being stretched. Across time. Across space. He’s being atomised and he can’t control it and the overpowering sense of being nothing and everything makes his toes curl and a groan (pleasure? Pain?) roll from his tongue.

“What… what the fuck did… what… what is…

Hancock hears Hancock talking, but it’s far away, across the universe, where he can’t reach. It’s better to stay with the heat that makes his back arch and his stomach swell.

But he knows the answer to Hancock’s question, even if Hancock can’t ask the question the way he wants to. He knows this high in the same way one might know a dream – in drips and echoes. It branded him once. He never thought it would again.

“What… f-fuck…”

There’s a hand on his head, stroking calmly with cool, attentive fingers, and he leans into it despite the distant scream that it’s wrong, it’s all fuckin’ wrong.

“You should know this drug, Johnny,” soothes the Director, and the voice rings through his head like a bell. “It’s the one that made you into the upstandin’ young man you are today. My drug.”

The words drip warm honey over his bones; makes them stick, relax, and melt. Hancock can’t move. Doesn’t want to. He wants to stay forever and burn.

“Now come on,” says the Director, and that voice washes over him, drowns him, pulls him under until it’s like he’s listening from underwater.

“Let’s talk, freak to freak.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The house is dark as she runs. Hallways stretch and twist. She knows there aren’t this many rooms and yet she doesn’t look back as she claws for each door, for each exit, from room to room to room.

I know you, Nora.

She’s in the belly of the beast. Here, where memories fester like open wounds, entombed in the visage of a lonely house she knows isn’t hers – not really, though it wears the image like a stolen skin.

I know you’ll never tell them how much you remember.

Her breath is fog, her feet raw, eyes burning with the sting of salt and ice.

Because you remember all of it. Don’t you, Sole Survivor?

When she makes it to the lounge she tries to ignore the way the couches have gone missing, replaced with cryopods that do nothing but spill mist and cold.

There’s a body in one, sitting and reading a newspaper, but it disappears when she blinks.

You can still dream with me. All you have to do is let me in. Stop fightin’.

The gun is never in the same place, but it’s the only thing that works these days. She rifles through kitchen cabinets, throws open drawers, until her fingers close around the familiar metal grip.

Movement behind her, the shadows undulating and dripping void to give way to a loping figure with gangly limbs and a twisted face. Nora whips around to catch it, teeth bared.

“Get out of my head!”

The flare from the muzzle illuminates a body twisted beyond recognition but the shot misses, sparking off walls twinkling with frost.

A chuckle echoes, not just through the house but in her ears and chest, sending needles through her skin.

My dear…

She fires again into the darkness, moving along the wall with every lick of shadow, again and again and again.

I never left.

Until she stops, heaving, blinking back the blurriness in her eyes as her hands shake and teeth chatter. A man stands before her, his face featureless except for two black eyes, glistening like oil. He tilts his head, and his cheeks move in such a way that suggest the echo of a smile.

Ice crystals cling to his Vault 111 jumpsuit, smattered with red around his shoulders. 

“Hi, Honey.”

And she fires.

 

 

When Sole claws from the dream she’s gasping, and then screaming as light pierces her eyes.

“Quiet!”

A hand slams over her mouth but doesn’t squeeze and she writhes against it, pushes, kicks, claws, until her fist breaks across the owner’s forearm and tears a cry from their throat. The sound of footsteps stumbling to get a grip on gravel drags through her ears – staggering back, away from her, frantic and uneven.

“I deserve that,” the voice whimpers, “I deserve it… I deserve…”

That voice.

“… Tommy?” she croaks. “Where’s Nick? Hancock? I…”

Coherent thought falls into place, the final flecks of dreaming still speckling her vision black trickling away into clarity. Out of habit she jerks her bad arm back, and hisses as more pain sluices through her muscles. Awake, then. She has to be awake. Sole blinks, eyes aching in the harsh fluorescents, and waits for the rest of the world comes into focus.

It does so, in drips. She lays on a dirty mattress on a gravel floor, in a small cavern with a ceiling so low that even Tommy, cowering as he is by the makeshift door, has to crouch. A dim floodlight stuffed in the far corner washes the hollow in white, and the walls are insulated with various pieces of ragged clothing strung up with wire and… posters.

No, not posters.

Drawings.

She recognises the figure, scrawled in something that’s dried brown on old newspaper scraps, from his billowing cloak to his hat, pulled low to obscure his eyes. She didn’t think he’d survive the war.

“The Silver Shroud?” she whispers.

The pictures are signed with a name she can’t quite make out.

Hi, Honey.”

Her muscles seize. Tommy squeaks and slams the flat of his palm against something tucked under his arm. “No!” He whines when the voice doesn’t cease. “Quiet, quiet!”

Listen, I don’t think Shaun and I need to tell you how great of a mother you are—”

“Quiet, please!” A final, fumbling blow to the device cuts off the words with a harsh buzz, and Sole catches the green glow of a Pip-Boy flicker off.

The young ghoul’s still panting when she eases herself up, vision swimming. “My Pip-Boy?” Her words are garbled, tumbling from lips that can’t move as fast as her thoughts. Sole shakes her head. “Tommy—”

I’m not Tommy!” The ghoul winces, as if the volume of his own voice is painful, and curls a little further in on himself. “I’m not—I’m not Thomas, either,” he says, quieter. “I’m not—” he catches himself, bloodshot gaze flickering to the Pip-Boy, and he shakes his head. “Episode seventy-eight, the Silver Shroud is captured and brainwashed by the treacherous Hypnotica. It was one of the f-first episodes to feature the Mistress of Mystery as the main character.” The Pip-Boy rattles when he holds it out to her. “She woke him up by makin’ him listen to her voice.” He swallows, his other hand twitching to pick at his collar. “I-I thought—I thought the same might help you. You… you’re fightin’ him… aren’t ya?”

She nods. There’s blood on his sleeves and smeared across his chest, but he’s not bleeding.

“Thank you.” Sole accepts the Pip-Boy, and the ghoul snaps his hand back before their fingers can touch. She pulls it onto her wrist, switches it on, and deactivates the tape player without looking at the name displayed on the screen. It’s always the same. She hadn’t taken it out since Codsworth gave it to her.

Instead she focuses her attention on the ghoul, who’s backed himself into the farthest corner of the room, knees pulled up under his chin, shivering. His hair is slipping – a bad wig, now she can see it in proper light – and he whimpers when they make eye contact; looks away.

“Hey,” she says softly, turning on the mattress. Her muscles twinge. “What’s your name, then? You’re not Tommy?”

His fingers keep fiddling with the metal of his collar. He hasn’t stopped. “K-Kent. Kent Connolly. I’m from Goodneighbor.”

“Kent, huh?” She offers him a smile, though he doesn’t stop shaking. Doesn’t stop trying to dig his fingers beneath his collar. “It’s okay. We’re going to get you back—”

“You can’t make me go back!” he blurts, and Sole halts in mid-climb from the bed. Kent hesitates, fingers twitching around his collar now with increasing frenzy. “I’m nothin’, okay? You gotta leave me behind. I-I’m not allowed… I’m not…” he trails off, eyes going glassy. “I’m… I’m nothin’.”

Sole eases herself to kneel against the gravel, but keeps her distance. She knows that look. Kent isn’t looking at her anymore – he’s watching something else, something behind his eyes, beyond where she can reach him.

“Tommy said I’d be okay because I’d h-have Fahrenheit with me,” he says, quietly. “Nothing—nothing gets past her.” He curls tighter, like he’s trying to disappear into the stone. “But I’m not Fahrenheit. And I’m not the Shroud. And he got past me.”

The last words break with a soft sob that bubbles up from the ghoul’s throat, and he goes quiet, hunching forward like a puppet cut loose.

“Got past me…” He shakes his head. “He got… he got past me. I’m sorry.” Sole’s heart sinks. The next words are barely whispers. “He got into their heads and now they’re like those ferals. He’s in my head now, too,” says Kent. “I’ve done my best to keep him out.” The drawings. The episode listings. Sole bites her lips. “But I don’t know how long I can. It hurts.”

She wants to hug him – the small ghoul in his tattered clothes, with bloodshot eyes too watery, too confused. He doesn’t belong in the caves. She can’t imagine anyone like this even holding a gun.

Keep him out. So that was the room, then. It had to be. Kent Connolly, from Goodneighbor, who keeps his mind safe in a silver shroud of his own making. Who wraps his thoughts in superheroes and supervillains, in story structures and radio plays, to keep the monsters out. 

Like she’d done. First with Shaun, and then with Kellogg’s pistol.

A woman outta time, huh?

“It’s like a voice i-in my head,” he says.

You can still dream with me. All you have to do is say yes.

“It keeps getting’ louder. S-sometimes I can’t hear myself think, and sometimes… sometimes I can’t t-tell if I’m the one doin’ the thinkin’.” Kent draws his arms tighter around his legs. “He—he won’t get out of my head, but that means I got to see pieces of him, too, you know? It felt… It felt like he really didn’t want you to get your Pip-Boy back. It has to be important. Like the Shroud’s trusty submachine gun! Has to be… Right?”

His eyes are so wide. Hopeful.

“Yeah,” she says, running a thumb along the Pip-Boy screen. “More than you could imagine. Thank you, Kent.” Her arms and legs ache as she pulls herself from the mattress.

The ghoul squeaks. “Wait—where—where are you goin’?” Sole crawls towards the door. “He doesn’t know I’ve made this place. H-he thinks I just think about the Silver Shroud a lot. You’ll be safe here until the Boss comes for us!” His mouth snaps shut and then, quieter, he says: “For you, I mean. For Jo and Al. Maybe you can bring them back? Make them normal again.”

Sole braces her hand against the door. “I’m bringing us all back.”

“N-no, you can’t! I’m—”

“You’re not nothing.” Sole turns to face him, with his watery eyes and trembling body. Kent’s not small, but the way he holds himself, like he’s keeping himself together with nothing but string and gum, like he’s scared he’ll fall apart—she’s seen it before. She’s seen it in the victim stands as an intern, in the eyes of settlers she’s helped, in children.

It’s the look of someone wishing that maybe they might wake up from a bad dream.

Sole tries again, softer this time. “Kent,” she places a hand on his shoulder, “you got me here, didn’t you?”

He hesitates. “I-I gave you the smallest dose I could of the chem. It’s only Med-X, so I—I figured it’d be okay. I gave—I gave the rest…” he nods to the door.

It takes a few shoves, but eventually the rusted metal gives way.

“—and the rest… the rest to him.”

There’s a body heaped over by the door, tucked into a small dip in the rock, pale and twisted, its breathing slow.

Kent shuffles next to her. “He was carryin’ you. I-I don’t think they think unless he tells ‘em. Like extras on a TV show.” He breathes in, shaky and ragged. “I—I don’t think they know the difference between bein’ awake and—and sleepin’ because livin’ like that, it’s… it’s…”

“It’s as good as dreaming?” she offers. The ghoul’s fingers keep twitching, like it’s trying to grab something.

“Yeah,” says Kent, barely audible. “They… they keep workin’ until they just… drop. And he forgets about ‘em, and another one just comes up to fill the space. They didn’t even look at me when I picked you up. I-It’s how I got away with building all this. I don’t think he knows yet. I—”

He sucks in a breath when her hand gently lands upon his knee.

“Kent,” she says, searching his eyes. Red-ringed, and she wonders how long it’s been since he’s slept. “You found a way to do all of this and you helped me. See? You’re not nothing. You’re coming home with us. I’m not leaving you here.” She gives him a small squeeze. “You can’t let him win. What would the Shroud do?”

His hands fist at his sides, and he sniffs and tries to blink some of the wateriness away. For a moment he’s silent, until, “I… Okay. If you really think I can, I-I’ll help where I… where I can.” 

Sole smiles and cranes her neck to check beyond the door to the small room.

Work until they dropped, huh? The Director—director of all bodies—using ghouls en masse, with almost perfect synchronicity. They’d jumped in front of Hancock’s bullets before Hancock could even fire. They’d made a path, for Christ’s sake. She’d never seen ferals so coordinated, pulsing like secondary—

—muscles.   

Before she can stop herself her modified fingers run along the neural implant behind her ear, her gaze falls on Kent’s collar, and her own neck tingles in four, small points.

Don’t worry, Sweetheart. I’m not here to hurt you.

Kent’s eyes are wide with alarm before Sole has a chance to hold back the sharp inhale as darkness closes in. A flash of pale skin—the glint of steel. She thinks she feels water around her ankles, and she counts to ten in her head until she can remember the gravel beneath her boots.

And then, through clenched teeth, she says, “What kind of work?”

“Th-these tunnels. They—I don’t—I think they go on for a very long way. It’s a whole network.” 

“Do you know your way through them?”

“Only bits.”

She’d been holding the thought at bay for a while, but there’s no keeping it back now. It creeps down the back of her neck in icy trickles. Valentine. Nick. She knows she’s been here before – saved him before, though the memory is fogged over in the images of a baby in her arms and fire in her face – but not like this. Not now that the Director knows he can poke around the detective’s internals.

“And Nick,” she says, “is Nick okay?”

“Your Synth friend? I-I’ve seen him before. I…” Kent shifts on the spot; looks down. “The Director, he… he doesn’t destroy assets.”

But Sole knows: you don’t have to destroy something to hurt it. She switches her grip to Kent’s hand and urges him towards the door.

“H-hey! Where’re we goin’?”

“I can’t go anywhere without my partner. Stay behind me, but tug my hand in the direction we need to go. I’m as good as blind without my mask.” They can find a gun on the way, and she can be quiet. Sneaking will have to do. “Until we get there, I need you to keep thinking about the Silver Shroud—”

A scream barrels down the tunnels.

Sole’s chest aches with how hard her heart’s beating, and when she breathes in the air is sharp.

“And tell me everything you can about those collars.”

 

--

 

Wakefulness dances around him.

Hancock can’t catch it. Every time he reaches, scarred fingers splayed and desperate, it twirls away once again. In his world of smoke and shadow, it’s a flickering candle flame, snuffed out, only to be relit further and further away.

He’s falling. He’s falling and turning and sleeping and waking, all at once. Sometimes he sees the world for what it is: grimy, with his arms held down in grips strong enough to cut off circulation, and other times he’s back in that dark place, watching the fire.

He’s so warm. He wishes he wasn’t. Euphoria rolls through him in toe-curling waves, making his breathing hitch with every rise until the pleasure plateaus, and then he’s back to falling.

Every now and again he hears the Director, speaking with a clarity that betrays the way his head soars.

I see you’re enjoyin’ yourself. Goes to show, my boy: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

He’s no lightweight when it comes to chems, Hancock knows, but this is something else. His nerves are fireworks, and when one of the however-many ghouls ambles around to haul him to his feet he can’t help but groan. It’s not even a matter of whether or not it feels good now, just that he’s feeling, and all of it is sweet fire against his skin.

But he’s still Hancock. And he’d be damned if any high fucked him up beyond speaking. “What do you… what the fuck do you want?”

The Director fades into view but the whole image is blurred, dancing around him like the flame, occasionally slipping into darkness as unconsciousness laps at his senses.

I told you, Johnny.” The hands holding him down drag him up and push until his back hits a wall, boots scraping against concrete. “I want you to join with me.” The ghouls divest him of his frock. “I mean, honest and truly, have you seen this body? Well past its use-by date, but it’s the only workin’ one I got that can—well, let’s say handle me.

Hancock’s thoughts are scattered, drifting, constantly sinking below the darker waters of his mind before resurfacing with lazy abandon, but he doesn’t miss what’s being said. He pulls his lips back, tries to snarl, but the sound is weak. Pathetic. 

Join with. Of-fuckin’-course. Fuck—how’d he miss that?

The Director shuffles into view, flanked by more ghouls, head tilted, and with a twitch of his twisted face – an attempt at a smile – he slips off one of the bladed gloves. The hand beneath looks oddly smooth in the dark, emaciated as it is. 

“I’ve got a story for you, Johnny,” says the Director, clearer. “Did you know they called me a freak when I suggested the drug? Had all the plans sketched out an’ everythin’, from the biology to the chemistry, and even the experimental psionics and neural re-pathing. All the SWRI had to do was approve.” He laughs. “But nope. Wasn't until the military got wind of my work that suddenly the 'freak' became somethin' useful. Ain’t that just so tellin’ about the world?”

Behind him, the other ghouls work the control station. Hancock can’t catch what they do only that, above them, the pipes begin to rattle.

“So hand-in-hand go the military and I,” continues the Director, with a wave of his free hand. “I, after some time, develop as close to perfect a drug as I can. Ghoulification within a week. Body parts stay mostly on the inside, increased physical capabilities, radiation resistance, nigh-immortality, even cute lil’ doggy eyes, nice an’ black.” He chuckles. “I managed to synthesise two doses of that drug. Two. Took years. You know how research grants go, boy? It’s all money and time and, with all the money that went in, my time was runnin’ out.”

Hancock wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he’s listening intently now. As intently as he can, with two ghouls breathing down his neck. The Director’s words are oddly clear in his ears, like they’re bypassing every particle, every obstacle, and slithering directly into his brain, and Hancock’s not unintelligent. Contrary to popular opinion, he knows when to shut up.

The Director flexes his fingers and daintily plucks his other hand from the glove. “So I take one,” he says simply. “As a scientist, I understand the nature of variability. It wasn’t what I expected and I turned into… well, into this.” He passes the glove to a waiting ghoul and gestures to himself. “That’s trial an’ error for ya. So I try again with the second. I fix all known parameters, workin’ off myself as a sample. Military finds out that I’ve been usin’ a – get this, now – unwarranted test subject instead of one of their lil’ soldiers.” Another laugh. “Good ol’ military manners! I escape, of course, but they take my work. Hide it away in another research facility. I think you know the one: good ol’ CIT. So there I am, mutatin’, watchin’ my body break with me still trapped inside, as some mouth-breathers in the robotics division throw my life’s work away. Too dangerous, the reports say, bein’ in the business of makin’ monsters. So they destroy it.”

“You… you’ve got a fuckin’ point?”

The hands on his arms tighten enough to warn. Hancock growls but he can’t bring himself to fight. 

The Director just watches him, calm as ever.

“Are you irritated, Johnny?” He mocks confused offense. “Am I annoyin’ you with my here story?” He taps him in the centre of the forehead. “Remember that. Because now I want you to multiply that vexation by as big a number as your lil’ head can manage, so maybe then you’ll be able to understand my feelin’s when word reaches me, hundreds of years later - hundreds of years of growin’ an’ decayin’ on a defective dose - that my perfect specimen wasn’t, in fact, destroyed, and had already been stolen by some upstart little addict?”  

White explodes behind his eyes and pain erupts in his skull as the muscles in his neck snap taut and slam him back against the wall. Hancock cries out – it’s too quick for him to hold back – and somewhere in the back of his mind he realises: nothing had hit him. Like his muscles weren’t his to control.

But he’s Hancock. And because he’s Hancock he forces on a grin despite the way his jaw sets, like someone’s nailed it shut, and the way his head spins, high intermingling with nausea. “As they say…” he lifts his chin, ever-defiant, “ya snooze, ya lose.” The pressure on his jaw tightens, but the Director’s face (can he call that thing a fuckin’ face?) remains a mask of vague amusement, like he’s watching a mouse run through a maze. Fuck knows, Hancock feels like a mouse. “Now d’you… d’you just like the sound of your voice or is there a reason for runnin’ your mouth?”

The Director steps away and glances off to the side as something at the control station clangs. “Johnny-boy, come now, there’s always a reason behind what I do,” he says smoothly. “But, I gotta admit, I do want an apology. You, m’boy, were rude. I had to cart myself all the way over here – takes me nearly seven years – just to meet you. I mean, truly, have you seen these accommodations?”

Light flickers on in the distance, illuminating an almost hidden alcove and secondary doorway and scattering a small group of ghouls. A rectangle of metal catches his eye in the room beyond, dulled with stains he can’t even begin to identify.

An operating table.

Numbness unfurls in the pits of his stomach.

“Ah. The power’s never been the same since Nora blew up half our generators,” says the Director mildly, in the manner of someone commenting on the weather. “But we manage.”

Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfu—

Hancock squirms but the two either side hold him firm, his drugged limbs too heavy, too slow, and they begin to march him towards the room.

“But most of all, John, I want you to know how much work I’ve put into that drug. Into you.” The Director moves to allow for the ghouls to pass, kicking Hancock’s frock to the side. “And I get here, all right an’ ready to meet ya, an’ all I can be is so deeply disappointed. You’re my perfect monster, John, and here you are with your – what’s that lil’ slogan of yours? – ‘of the people, for the people’.”

The steel of the table is like ice through the worn material of his shirt.

“You’re a king, with every gift I could ever give, rollin’ in filth. Fightin’ for some kinda… innate right in the world.”

His boots are torn off and discarded. There’s water around his ankles. The operating table is surrounded by it.

“Nothin’ but a waste. You understand how painful it is to see you like this? To see you, in your little people-mask? The others might think it’s the other way around but, boy, I can see right through you.” 

Metal clasps close in around his arms and legs to pin him to the table, wrists flush against what look like week-old bloodstains. The biting of the metal is welcome, though. It grounds him that little bit more, like the cold of the ocean waking him to swim.   

It frees his mouth and lets him speak. “If… if all this is about me, then why Sole?”

The Director clicks his tongue. “Now, now, Johnny, that’s between me an’ her.”

No answer is forthcoming, though Hancock isn’t sure what he’d do with one if he ever got it, so instead he settles for what he knows. “I hate to break it ya, but if you want this body you might wanna get in line.” It’s nothing but false bravado – he knows that as well as the next guy, and there’s no doubt that the Director knows that, too – but it’s all he has. 

The Director’s face twists into view, like something solidifying through smoke. “You’re a real personality, you know that?” he says, and something on Hancock’s collar clicks.  

His neck stings again as another wave of warmth washes over him, and this time Hancock can’t hold back the groan that wells up from the depths of his throat. The heat is so much, so easy to get lost in, like drowning, dissolving into a euphoria that makes him think of tumbling through clouds. His whole body hums pinks and purples, his skull throbbing, skin sensitive as the Director cups his face and drags a thumb across his cheek.

It’s almost loving, until his head is then eased to the side. An inspection, and he can feel the heat of the Director’s gaze as it rakes over every groove in his skin, but then the fingers dip lower to press against the tender flesh of his neck and Hancock hisses.

“Let all your thoughts drift away, Johnny,” says the Director, softly. “You don’t needa think anymore. Let me do it for you.”

Hancock knows he should be fighting. Should be formulating something – anything – a plan, a way to run and hide and find the others, but the Director’s words are submerging him, sweeping back every thought, every desire, and leaving nothing but euphoric content. Hancock realises he could drown here. And maybe he wouldn’t mind.

And before he knows it the Director’s voice is everywhere again, curling through his ears in soft licks, and it’s still so wrong. The high is wrong. His body is too pliable and his mind can barely string itself together to make sense of anything but how good it feels to be right there, right now.

See, the problem with neural imprintin’ is that there’s already too much personality in any given head. It’s why ferals are easy. Beautiful minds, Johnny. Like children: simple, empty, with plenty of room for potential. You just gotta push ‘em in the right direction, and off they go.

Pressure builds behind his eyes, almost painful if not for the pleasure that spirals up his spine and cascades down his chest.

“But a head like yours? Well, we gotta work our way there. Gotta clear the room, otherwise there ain’t no way I’m gonna fit in that there skull o’ yours.”

Hancock wants to say no, but all he can manage is a strangled groan.

The Director’s laughter is light and lyrical and beautiful and so fucking wrong but – fuck – keep going. Keep laughing. Don’t leave.

“Let’s get started.”

Distantly, Hancock wonders where the screams are coming from.

 

--

 

“It’s this—this machine,” says Kent. “I don’t know exactly what it does, but it… that’s when the voices started.”

He speaks in a harsh whisper in front of her, hand clamped in a vice-grip around her own while, above them, the rattling of the pipes hides his voice.

They’d started up a few minutes after they’d left his cave. Sole can’t pin why, but it doesn’t take a scientist to know it can’t be good.

“The collars—they’re—they’re secondary. It’s like training. If you’re doin’ what he wants, he uses them to, like,” he struggles for the right words, “make you feel good. And then h-he hurts you more.”

He pauses to peer around what Sole assumes to be a corner, but when he doesn’t move she realises: it’s because he’s wiping his face. She catches the shine of water on his cheeks in the dim green of her Pip-Boy.

“But it feels good, right? The-the drug in the collar. It feels really good. And soon you just… you just start wantin’ to feel good again. Because it’s the only good you get, when you’re here.” He pauses to breathe, and it occurs to Sole that, if they get back, Kent’s going to need to talk about this more. He’s going to need to find a way to get this out of his system, just like the drug.

He starts up again down the tunnel. Sole squeezes his hand and Kent stumbles for a second before, gingerly, squeezing her back.

“He gets in your head when you feel good,” he says, softer, “because you’re too busy feelin’ good to think. So he sort of… does the thinkin’ for you. And you get used to it, because it’s easier than lettin’ yourself remember all the bad things that’re happenin’.” He laughs, more nervous than anything else. “Before you know it, you’re doin’ what he wants and not carin’. And sometimes you—you wake up and you can’t remember your name.” He takes a deep breath. “It’s… it’s why I made my posters. Kent Connolly loves the Silver Shroud. If I can remember the Shroud, I can remember me. He—he won’t take that away, no matter how much he tries to w-with the name thing.” They slow to another stop as they reach a fork in the tunnels. “Hey, Nora—”

“Nora’s my old name.” She nudges him lightly. “Call me Sole. Is everything… okay?”

Kent nods, almost indistinct in the darkness. “Sole,” he amends. “I’m… well... talkin’ like this? It’s the m-most okay I’ve felt for a—for a while. But…” She can see the outline of him as he peers over his shoulder at her. “But I can’t help but wonder if we’ll be able to get the others back. The Boss’ll be okay because he always is, right? But Jo and Al, and the ferals…”

What he can’t say hangs in the air. They’re like me. I could be them. They’re my friends. They were people.

How many feral ghouls had she shot down before? She’d only felt minor remorse, then. Her reasoning had been that they were beyond understanding what had happened to them. Put like that, it was easy enough to close her eyes, pull the trigger, and call it mercy.

But it’s more than that now. Despite everything that he had to have gone through, there’s a hopefulness to Kent she can’t shake. It’s somewhere in the way he holds her hand and squeezes it every few seconds, in the way he stops every five or six steps to mutter a small Silver Shroud synopsis and episode listing, and it’s in his eyes, though they’re nothing but watery glints in the near-darkness: he’s desperate.

But Sole knows: desperation is just another form of hope. It’s hope looking over the edge of the cliff and shuffling along regardless.

There’s strength there – the sort of strength that has kept the Director out of Kent’s head – and she doesn’t want to break that now, not with the collar, but Sole also can’t lie. Not when he trusts her.

“I don’t know if we can reverse going feral,” she says, and Kent’s grip on her wavers, “but we can try. Maybe it’s different if it’s because of the drug.”

She doubts it, but it’s enough for Kent. The ghoul smiles, barely visible, and carries on.

Eventually the ground dips. Humidity breathes across her face, rising up from the dampness of the dirt. The smell of copper is stronger here, and she wrinkles her nose.

“Episode seventeen,” mumbles Kent, “the Shroud is caught by the Mechanist once more…” He swallows. “You… you t-took out the generators when you were last here. He t-tried to get me to fix them, but I could only get a few runnin’. They’re all on the low—the lower levels. Your friend is probably there because that’s where all the tools are.”   

They descend further. Pressure builds around her temples, like someone has their hands wrapped around her head, and she sucks in a breath as a wave of heat washes over her.

I can feel you...

“Do you feel it, too?” Kent whispers. “What this place is?”

Ahead, the darker silhouettes of ghouls against grainy black cross the tunnel. They’re silent, the occasional crunch of their feet in the dirt the only indication of their being there at all.

Sole, licking her lips to try and coax some moisture onto them, nods and flicks her Pip-Boy off.

It’s a brain, ghouls passing through it like thoughts. Background processes. The Director’s head, projected outwards and carved into rock, kept alive with withered bodies.

Where are you?

Kent gasps and doubles forward, but he clamps his own hand over his mouth before the sound can travel too far. Sole grabs him before his face can meet the ground, arm around his waist, holding him to her as he shakes.

“Kent?” she whispers. “Are you—?”

There’s a hiss down the tunnel, slicing past the rattling of the pipes, and then approaching footsteps. 

Sole opens her mouth but Kent cuts through. “Episode thirty-eight,” he mutters furiously, “the Silver Shroud is captured by a c-cult.”

Another hiss, closer now.   

I’m not with her,” he whimpers. “I’m movin’ rocks. I’m workin’.” He tugs his hand from her grasp and there’s a shuffling as he buries it in the dirt. “I’m not with her, I’m workin’ on my tunnel. Silver Shroud, episode ninety-one, the Shroud…

The footsteps stop. Kent’s breathing is ragged, his back a trembling mess against her.

Until he inhales sharply and holds it.

The footsteps start up again, and a few feet away Sole spies the twisted outline of one of the ghouls, hunched and turning its head from side to side.

Where… are you…?

The thought is quieter now. A whisper.

The ghoul turns and starts back down the tunnel.

I… can… feel… you…

Until it’s gone, bar the constant pressure around her temples.

Kent exhales, deflating.

“We… we need to k-keep going. It’s not far now,” he says, not fighting as Sole hauls him back up. “There’re more down here. It’s really loud down here.”

It’s not. If anything it’s quieter, the pipes more refined, but Sole understands. She finds his hand in the dark and allows Kent to continue leading, though when he does it’s slower, more tentative, as if each step might suddenly give way.

Until a scream tears through the darkness.

Kent stares ahead. “Was… was that…”  

Sole can barely feel the movement of her lips. Her mouth is dry, words like bile caught in her throat and acrid on her tongue.

“Yeah,” she finally croaks. “Hancock.”