“Watch yourself, friend,” the merchant says. She hands over his purchases: five shotgun shells, a single box of .38 rounds, one precious Stimpack, no Radaway. “You and your puppy. He’s a cutie, isn’t he? Better not take him east, if that’s where you’re headed; the forecast says radiation storms in a day or so. Not much cover around here.”
“Thanks.” His purchases get carefully stored in a rucksack that looks too empty, even to him. “But we’re headed for Diamond City.”
“Yeah? You got business thereabouts? Looking for work?”
“Looking for someone.”
She glances down at his left hand and smirks. “Wife run off with a raider? You wouldn’t be the first, honey, not even close. I hope she’s worth the trouble.”
“Thanks for the supplies,” he says flatly, turning away to avoid having to school his face calm. This stranger isn’t worth the trouble. Not many people are, from what he’s seen so far.
His rucksack slings easily over one shoulder. Lighter than he was hoping. The economy’s changed beyond recognition; he hasn’t yet learnt the value of his ever-meager caps stash, any more than he knows when a wandering merchant is trying to stiff him.
Dogmeat comes to heel when whistled to, tail wagging. They make their way past the caravan line. Brahmin, weighted down, dirt-smeared and stinking of unwashed pelt. The guards that watch him over raised shotguns.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m leaving,” he says before he can stop himself. “Try not to get eaten out there; I hear it can really ruin a guy’s day.”
Two of the men ignore him. The third grins, sharp and sudden. His teeth are shockingly white.
“Just speaking for myself, I’m not too worried,” he says cheerfully. “All I have to do is run faster than everyone else. Not that I’m much of an athlete, but I’ve definitely got Buttercup here outpaced.” He pats the Brahmin’s shaggy side. “You should invest in your very own meat shield. Does wonders for the peace of mind.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
“Atta boy.” The guard tilts his head. His expression is hidden behind outsize sunglasses, ridiculous in the fading sunset. “Hey. Watch yourself once you hit the City outskirts, you hear me? Security’s good, but the super mutants have been real bold these last few months. You hear shooting, don’t go investigate. Just run.”
“Thank you.” It’s the first kindness he’s seen in days, and true gratitude forms unfamiliar on his tongue. “I’ll be careful.”
“You got it. Watch the skies, traveler, and all that.” The guard salutes lazily. He wanders off; a saunter without a care in the world. Must be nice.
Dogmeat perks up at a pat on the head. His ears twitch; the warm wind ruffles his fur. “Let’s go find this city everyone’s talking about, huh, boy? Shouldn’t be too far. And I bet Shaun will be there waiting for us. At the gate, maybe. Bet he’s all set to go home already. I bet he’s been looking forward to it.”
He talks as they tread the broken asphalt, and with every step his boots crunch and his gun gets heavier in his hand. Far off in the distance, he thinks he sees lights.
The night is long and lonely.