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Remnants

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With the muzzle of a rifle tickling gently at my uvula, I was drooling and fighting the urge to throw up. My knees hurt against the cold concrete floor of the bunker. My wrists were cuffed together behind my back, my ankles ditto, and rough hands were stripping me of all my lovingly modded armor, and of my Pip-Boy, and my boots and socks; then the rough hands were at my throat, at the buttons of my fatigues, undoing them, and patting down the bare skin underneath. Squeezing at the cups of my bra. My legs were dragged roughly out behind me, and my pants were pulled most of the way off, until they snagged on the ankle cuffs, and then someone drew a knife.

Just stay alive, I told myself silently. Once Deacon, who had very intelligently popped a Stealth Boy and run like hell once he saw the way the tide was turning, got back to the Castle and let them know what was happening to their general/wife/mother in a Brotherhood bunker up north--

Why hadn’t I listened to PAM? Why hadn’t I listened to Michael when he begged to come along on this trip? Why hadn’t I listened to Deacon when he told me that if I hesitated to fight, or to fight back, we were going to be doomed? Why didn’t I ever listen to anybody?

The knife sliced my beloved ballistic-weave fatigues the rest of the way off me, and then cut off my bra and panties, and then, finally, once I knelt there stark naked, cuffed hand and foot, the gun was withdrawn from my mouth.

“Agent Bullseye,” said one of the knights, drawing it out as if it tasted delicious. “Brothers and sisters, I believe we’ve just acquired a valuable asset.”

“Listen,” I said, and he hit me across the face with his power-armored hand, making my head ring. I tasted blood, fought not to whimper.

Someone else grabbed a fistful of my hair and dragged me up by it, and then picked me up, slung me over his shoulder, and carried me upside down for a ways, my face banging against his power armor. I didn’t want to try too hard to wriggle around and see where we were going, in case he took it as resistance and beat me up some more, so I just dangled meekly until we stopped at a barred cell, which the guy dumped me in, knocking the wind out of me.

“My name’s Nora Bowman!” I called after him as soon as I got it back, but he was already slamming another door behind him. “I’m the General of the-- fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

I took stock of my injuries-- my vision was blurry, which could have been a concussion or just getting hit in the eye. One of my eyes did feel swollen. I had a bullet wound in the shoulder. I was naked, and already shivering on the cold concrete floor. My mouth was bloody and wet with drool, although when I checked with my tongue, none of my teeth seemed to be loose. My scalp was burning from being yanked up by the hair, my arms were already sore-- quite apart from the bullet wound-- and my wrists chafed from the cuffs.

All in all, I was almost relieved when the Brotherhood came back, four of them, without power armor this time, but all armed.

“I’m Nora Bowman,” I said hopefully, as one of them unlocked the door of the cell and two of them stepped inside; the others stood outside with drawn guns.

“How grandiose,” said the guy who’d carried me in here; he had pale carroty hair and pale blue eyes, and thin lips. “I imagine the Minutemen will be here shortly to rescue you, then.”

I’d been thinking about that. Seven hours or so overland to the Castle, if Deacon really booked it, and didn’t stop to rest or eat, which-- we’d already been kind of tired when we got here. Then say an hour at the Castle for preparations, and then seven hours-ish for Hancock and Michael and the Minutemen to make it back up here. Fifteen hours, best-case scenario; probably, if I was being realistic, more like twenty or even twenty-four.

“Yeah,” I said. “They’ll be here. Eventually.”

The red-haired guy laughed. It wasn’t a friendly laugh.

“You can save yourself considerable suffering by sparing us your ridiculous lies, Agent,” he said. “You were apprehended in the company of a known Railroad agent, who addressed you as ‘Bullseye’ within the hearing of one of our scouts.”

After all the shit Deacon had given me about secrecy and stealth. I was never going to let him live this down.

“That guy’s a Railroad agent?” I asked, hoping I was hitting the right note of surprise and indignation. “He said he was bringing me to a settlement that needed my help. I thought he was just impressed with my aim.”

The Brotherhood guy laughed again, and then, suddenly, pulled his fist back and punched me hard in the belly. I gasped for breath. He drew a knife, reached out, took a fistful of my hair, and dragged me towards him.

“Where is Railroad headquarters located?” he asked.

I closed my eyes as he forced my head down, forehead pressed against the concrete floor, and put a knee on the small of my back. The knife blade touched the back of my neck.

“I live at Minutemen headquarters,” I said, as the blade scraped upward, sawing at the roots of my hair, and I realized he was shaving my head. “At Fort Independence. Please-- please stop.”

“Oh, Bullseye,” he said, shaving away methodically, if not gently. “We’ve only just started.”

………………………………………..

It was hard to tell, once things got underway, how long it all lasted. There were breaks, when they got tired or bored or frustrated, or hungry or thirsty (they ate and drank in front of me, of course, offering me sips of water if I’d answer a question) and left me alone for awhile. I slept a few times, or passed out, or one turned into the other.

I’d never actually been tortured before, and if someone had asked me should we assume you will spill everything you know about everything if burly men beat you with their fists until your ribs crack and your stomach turns itself inside out, and then snap your finger bones one by one, if they hold a hand over your mouth and nose until you almost black out and then let you breathe long enough to answer a question and then stop your breath again when it isn’t the right answer, if they take a ball-peen hammer and really work your feet over, I would definitely have said yes, you should. But it turned out I would have been wrong.

I didn’t feel like I was being particularly tough-- I struggled, and screamed, and begged, and cried, and puked, and pissed myself (more than once, which didn’t make much sense when I hadn’t even had any water) and generally failed to portray stoic unbreakability. But with every question-- where is Railroad HQ? Where are your safehouses? Where are your meetings? What are your passwords, what are your countersigns? Where are your agents based?

“Minuteman headquarters are at Fort Independence! Everyone knows which settlements are ours, it’s not a secret! We don’t have any passwords!”

“Give us the name of one safehouse,” said one of them-- not the red-haired one-- “and you can have a stimpak. Wherever you feel you need one most.”

“They’re all safe.” I screamed out as the redhead twisted my shattered hand. “They are! Sanctuary, Tenpines Bluff, Abernathy Farm, Sunshine Tidings Co-op-- oh God please please don’t, please--”

Maybe it was because they’d fucked up and failed to proved the good-cop type, whose job it was to make me trust him to make the pain go away if I just cooperated, and so I didn’t really believe that answering their questions about the Railroad would do me any good.

Plus, I was lucky, really: I’d been injured often enough that I had a reasonably high pain threshold, and they hadn’t done anything, yet, that couldn’t be fixed with stimpaks, if I lived.

Plus, the longer it went on, the sooner it meant my guys would be here to rescue me.

Plus, I wasn’t even really lying. I was Nora Bowman primarily, Agent Bullseye only incidentally, on an as-needed basis. It wasn’t too hard, even under torture, just to be Nora Bowman.

……………………………………………………………………….

At some point I woke up, lying face down, on fire all over and sick with thirst, with something cold and wet touching my back. I jerked violently, and screamed with the pain of the sudden movement, and heard laughter from nearby. Not that nearby, though; it wasn’t in the cell with me. Just outside, maybe.

I lay still, too tired and in too much pain to turn my head, and felt the cold-wet thing, after a moment, begin to move across my skin. A hand-- big, male-- touched my back, carefully, and I realized someone was washing me, with a wet rag or something, cleaning off the urine and vomit and blood. I wondered whether the good-cop guy had finally shown up. Or maybe they were about to move on to the brutal gang rape part of the proceedings, and didn’t want to get their weird little orangey uniforms dirty.

Still, the physical gentleness with which whoever-it-was was touching me came as such a blessed relief that I really hoped this one didn’t ask me any questions.

He didn’t, at least not right away. He washed my back, my ass, and the backs of my legs, gently and clinically, without any rough or inappropriate touches-- my teeth were chattering from the cold, but other than that, it felt great-- and then took hold of my shoulders and turned me over onto my back. I screamed again as every nerve in my body caught fire with pain, and then, as the cold cloth began to move across my chest, tried to focus through swollen eyes on the person holding it.

He wasn’t wearing a shirt, which was weird, and furthermore, there was something strange about his face-- some kind of red paint, or wound, across his forehead. No: scars. Angry red scars, in lines, curved and straight, across his forehead. Someone had carved or burned a word there, into his skin, above clear light-brown eyes that suddenly locked onto mine.

We stared at each other, the dawning shock and horror on his face pretty much exactly matching the way I felt.

I’d seen him before. We’d done a mission together. He'd tried to convince me to join the Brotherhood. I’d never seen him not in power armor-- and I certainly hadn’t seen him with the word SYNTH seared into the skin of his forehead-- but--

”Paladin Danse?” I croaked.

“Don’t bother talking to it, cunt,” said a male voice from outside my field of vision-- outside the cell, I guessed. “It won’t answer you. It’s a good Brotherhood synth.”

I was guessing he hadn’t actually heard what I’d said, but Danse had. His eyes were wide and panic-stricken, his face pale, making the scars stand out even more vividly on his forehead. I was sure he recognized me. He looked up, in the direction of the voice.

“Look at it,” said a different male voice, sounding curious. “It’s freaking the fuck out. What do you think she said to it?”

“Don’t worry, M,” said the first one, with a grin in his voice. “We won’t let her steal you.”

“Hold up, though,” said the second one. “Do you think it actually recognizes her? It used to, you know, know people. If it’s seen her before, it might be able to tell us where. Shit, it might even know her civilian identity.”

“Ask it, then,” said the first one, sounding skeptical.

“M?” said the second one, in a coaxing, where's-little-Timmy tone. “You can answer. Have you seen her before?”

Danse nodded, and cleared his throat before saying hoarsely, “Cambridge police station-- and ArcJet Systems. Offered to sponsor her entrance to the Brotherhood. She said-- it would interfere with her other responsibilities. To the Minutemen. This is Nora Bowman.”

There was a pause.

“Wait,” said the first voice. “What?”

The second one said, with traces of panic around the edges of his voice, “Do you think she said something to reprogram it? To make it lie for her? Can’t they do that? With, like, a code phrase?”

“Shit, I don’t know what they can do,” said the first one. “But if there’s a possibility it’s compromised, we need to restrain it. It could turn on us. Or try to help her escape.”

“Lock yourself in there, M7-97,” said the second one, and Danse moved-- without standing up, but I could see now that he was entirely naked-- out of my field of vision, and I heard the cell door clang shut. “Well, it obeyed me. That’s a good sign, I guess.”

“Except that if it hasn’t gone rogue,” said the first one, “then what if that really is Nora Bowman in there?”

There was another pause.

“I’m gonna go tell the lancer captain what it said,” said the first one, finally. “You stay here and shoot it if it goes nuts.”

“Goes nuts how?”

“I don’t know, Initiate,” said the first one. “Moos like a brahmin. Claims to be Elder Maxson. Tries to mercy-kill the prisoner. Although if that really is Nora Bowman, we should probably kill her ourselves before the Minutemen get here and find out what we did to her.”

“You’d rather they got here and found her dead body?

“We could hide it.” First-voice brightened. “We could blame the synth. Say it went haywire and beat her to death.”

Second-voice sounded considerably less sanguine. “They’d still kill us for not stopping it.”

“I’m gonna go tell the lancer captain,” said first-voice again, and his booted footsteps left the room.

“Go sit back over there, where I can keep an eye on you both,” said second-voice, and Danse crawled back into my field of vision and sat down. I was glad; I wanted to keep looking at him, even with the horrifying scars on his forehead. It had been so long since I’d seen him, and I'd figured he'd died on the Prydwyn, and now it turned out he was not only alive, but mine. Warmth was spreading through me, despite everything. Even if these jackasses did kill me-- and regardless of what lies they tried to tell about it-- once Hancock and Michael and the rest of the cavalry arrived, they’d kill every Brotherhood dickhole here. And once they saw the scar, they’d be sure to look after Danse for me. It was a peaceful thought. I was so tired.

The back of Danse’s hand touched my arm, on the side facing away from the cell door, and I felt a series of light taps from a finger. Luckily, Nate and I had done a lot of Morse-code back-of-arm-tapping in mixed company, in our day-- B-O-R-E-D L-E-T-S G-O, H-E-S L-Y-I-N-G, L-O-V-E U M-O-S-T-- so even in the state I was in, I could understand Danse’s silent message.

P-L-E-A-S-E M-E-R-C-Y

I smiled up at him, my dry, swollen lips cracking a bit under the strain. I couldn’t tap back-- my fingers were still all fucked up-- so I widened my eyes, and did it with long-short-long blinks.

Y-O-U-R-E G-O-O-D

He bit his lip, and I felt his finger move again. O-N B-R-O-T-H-E--

“Hey,” said second-voice. “M7-97, hands where I can see them.”

He obeyed.

Please have mercy on the Brotherhood.

It would take an awfully long time to blink out LOOK, WHEN MY HUSBAND AND SON GET HERE AND SEE THE STATE I AM IN, I AM NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO DO VERY MUCH TO PROTECT YOUR PRECIOUS BROTHERHOOD. Not to mention THEY TREAT YOU LIKE AN OBJECT AND ALSO THEY HAVE CARVED THE WORD SYNTH INTO YOUR FOREHEAD, WHY ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH DO YOU EVEN WANT TO PROTECT THEM.

I considered a more succinct GODDAMMIT DANSE, and then, looking at his anxious face, changed my mind.

I-L-L T-R-Y

He sighed softly.

“He says just leave it in there with her for right now,” said first-voice, coming back in. “Apparently there’s some kind of--”

He was cut off by a muffled boom, and then rapid gunfire, from outside.

Chapter Text

“They took out the turrets!”

“Fuck!”

“How fucking many of them are there?”

“Hey Danse,” I said, in the weak, hoarse, breathy voice that was about all I could manage right now. “I need you to speak up for me, OK?”

He nodded urgently.

“I need the lancer captain, and your smallest and wimpiest-looking field scribe,” I said. “And I need my pack, it’s got meds in it, and water.”

“What’s she saying?” the guy outside the cell asked, his voice in full panic mode now.

Danse cleared his throat again, and said, “She would like to speak with Lancer Captain Dixon and-- Field Scribe Kim. And she would like the healing supplies from her pack. And the water.”

“But we already emptied her pack out!”

“Then perhaps just the healing supplies and water,” Danse said, somehow not rolling his eyes.

Retreating footsteps.

“I can’t believe you’re making me save these dipshits,” I said, licking my lips with a dry tongue. “Are you sure we can’t just relax and let the Minutemen do their job? Brotherhood guts and limbs just everywhere. Festooning the walls. Tell me it wouldn’t be satisfying. And afterwards, you could pick whichever power armor you liked best.”

“Please,” said Danse; there were tears in his eyes.

“All right, already.”

Lancer Captain Dixon-- the redhead-- was talking already as the lock on the cell clinked and he charged in and dropped to the floor beside me:

“We fell right into the Railroad’s trap, Ms. Bowman, and so did you. Of course, they’d love nothing more than to incite the Minutemen to attack the Brotherhood presence in the Commonwealth-- we made a mistake, a terrible mistake, if we can--”

“Where’s Field Scribe Kim?” I asked.

“Here,” piped a tiny female scribe, kneeling down beside the lancer captain. She had a cardboard box in her hands, and was digging in it with trembling fingers. “What can I do for you, Ms. Bowman?”

“You can give that box to Danse, if it’s got my healing shit in it,” I said. “Anybody else touches me again, all bets are off.”

She looked blankly at Dixon.

“The synth,” said Dixon. “When it was masquerading as human, it went by that name.”

Kim handed Danse the box, and shuffled back from me a little bit, as did Dixon.

“You’re on stimpak duty,” I told Danse. “Jam ‘em in just anywhere-- there should be plenty, unless the Brotherhood uses them recreationally. If my Med-X is still in there, jam that in my arm, too.”

Danse reached into the box, produced a syringe of Med-X and, swiftly and skilfully, slid the needle into my arm.

“You’re gonna go outside, Kim,” I said, as Danse dropped the empty syringe, lifted my right hand, very carefully, and injected a stimpak. “Unarmed, and unarmored, and with your hands up.”

She blanched. “But--”

“Don’t interrupt.” The Med-X was hitting my bloodstream, almost as sweet as the knowledge that my people were here to get me. My fingers were making a little grinding, grumbling noise as the bones knitted back together. “First thing you do when you get out there, yell ‘Michael!’ Say, ‘I have a message for Michael from his mother!’”

“They’ll kill me,” she said. “They’ll know the only reason you’re not coming out yourself--”

“They won’t kill you.” There was another muffled boom from outside, and the room shook; Kim made a little squeaking noise. Danse, his hands steady, poked a stimpak needle in between two of my lower ribs, then moved down my legs towards my feet. “Tell Michael I said to remember his standing orders, about not killing people unless he really has to. Tell him I’m not ordering him, but I’m asking him to trust me. Tell them-- Michael, and my husband Hancock, they’ll be leading the charge-- tell them I asked them to give me-- mmm, twenty minutes. Tell them I said if I’m not out there in twenty minutes, they can trash the place and gut every tin can they see. Use those words.” My voice was getting stronger, as the stimpaks kicked in. “If they question you, don’t lie, just tell them I promise to tell them everything in person. Tell them,” I said, smiling involuntarily, “tell them I found another one.”

“Pardon?” she said shakily.

“‘She says to tell you she found another one,’” I said. “Say that.”

There was another crash from outside, and a little plaster fell from the ceiling. I giggled, high on relief, and maybe a little bit on the Med-X.

“Go!" I said. “Go go go!”

She ran.

“Help me sit up,” I said to Danse. “And give me some water. You,” I said to Dixon, as Danse leaned down to lift me carefully, supporting me with one arm, “get my actual pack, and-- ow, shit! No, you’re fine, Danse, heave me on up-- and start putting everything back in it that was in there. If you can’t remember exactly what you took out, err on the side of putting it in my pack.” I took the canister of water Danse offered me, and drank the whole thing without taking a breath, and gasped, and held my hand out for another one. “There was a change of clothes in there-- bring me those, and my boots and armor and weapons, and my Pip-Boy. And my hat. And get some clothes and shoes for Danse, too, because he’s coming with me.”

Dixon stared. “What?”

“I said I’m confiscating your synth,” I said. “Partial recompense for my pain and suffering. Very partial. Tick-tock, Lancer Captain.”

He ran, too.

“Let’s see if I can stand up,” I said to Danse. “If I can’t, things are going to get a little bit awkward in eighteen minutes. I feel a lot better, though. God, what would we do without stimpaks, right?”

I was still incredibly shaky, but with Danse’s help, I got up on my feet, and, leaning on his arm, tried walking on my newly-functional feet.

“Well, I don’t exactly look like I’ve been having a relaxing spa day,” I said, “but once I’ve got my clothes and armor and everything back on-- and my hat, so they don’t see my hair right away. Lack thereof, I mean. We’re going to need a hat for you, too, come to think of it. To cover your forehead. If my guys see that scar-- well, it’s not going to make it any easier to keep them from killing everyone here.”

Danse was silent. I looked up at him, holding onto his arm for balance.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

He didn’t answer for a moment, and then he said, carefully, “The-- facial modification-- is accurate.”

“What?”

I didn’t get it until he touched his own forehead.

“It’s accurate?” I repeated. “You mean, in that you really are a synth?”

He nodded.

“I know,” I said. “I mean, I figured. And I have so many questions for you-- but they can wait. Do you have questions for me? Do I have to say ‘you can answer,’ like that one guy did? You can answer.”

He shook his head.

“OK, then,” I said. “Is there any food in that box, by the way? I’m starving.”

I tore at a piece of mirelurk jerky while three different Brotherhood people, including Dixon, came into the cell with the rest of my clothes and things; they laid them down on the floor of the cell, and retreated nervously back out of it, except Dixon, who began transferring things from the box to the various pockets of my pack. Danse, without being told, picked up my backup fatigues and began helping me dress.

“How are we doing for time?” I asked Dixon, as I held out my arm and Danse strapped the Pip-Boy back on.

“It’s been nine minutes since Scribe Kim delivered your message,” he answered.

“Is she still out there?”

“No,” said Dixon; he’d finished with my pack and risen, although he stood well back from me and Danse. “Your-- forces-- allowed her to return inside unharmed.”

“Told you,” I said. “OK. Today’s--” I looked at my Pip-Boy again, as Danse knelt down to lace up my boots. “Tuesday. On Thursday afternoon-- let’s say two o’clock-- I want to see at least five Brotherhood knights, or scribes or paladins or bards or whatever D&D names you guys give yourselves, at Fort Independence. Including you, Lancer Captain Dixon. I’ll be there, and a few other key Minutemen, and we’re going to sit down, and discuss Minutemen-Brotherhood relations, going forward.”

Dixon looked tense, but said nothing.

“This is partly my own fuckup,” I told him, settling my hat down over my shaved head. “I’ve been ignoring you guys, because-- quite frankly-- I felt sorry for you, because your airship got blown up, and I figured you were harmless at this point. Apparently I was wrong. I realize the Railroad killed a bunch of your people, and I don’t blame you for being sore about that, but that’s not a reason to go around kidnapping and torturing people. Not on my watch. Thursday at two. You do not want to be late.”

Dixon nodded. “We-- all right, Ms. Bowman. We’ll be there.”

I nodded back, and turned to Danse, who’d finished putting my armor on and was holding the mechanic’s jumpsuit they’d brought, uncertainly, in his hands.

“Put it on,” I told him. “Do you need help?”

He shook his head, and put it on quickly, and stepped into the shoes they’d brought, which looked a little too small. No time to have him try on the boots of every Brotherhood guy here, though. I’d been rummaging in the pocket of one of my leg armor pieces, and found a knitted hat I slept in sometimes, on the road, when it was cold. “Here. Put this on. Pull it down over your forehead.”

He put it on, pulling it down to cover the scars. He looked a little ridiculous, but a lot less like someone who’d been tortured and disfigured by the Brotherhood, which was the general idea, at least until I could get Hancock and Michael a few miles away from here, and very calmed and reassured. Maybe we could head somewhere fun where they could decompress. I’d heard a particularly vicious gang of super mutants had recently moved into Breakheart Banks.

“Do you mind carrying my pack for me?” I asked Danse, who bent down and shouldered it without answering.

“It’s not necessary to frame your orders to it as requests,” said Dixon. “And, if I may, I think you’ll find keeping the facial modification visible--”

“I think you’ll find I’m amazingly uninterested in your tips on the care and keeping of synths,” I said. “See you Thursday. Danse, when we get out there, I want you to walk forward with my pack, like you’re going to hand it to somebody. Right up at the front, there’s going to be a big dark-haired guy, next to a ghoul in a red coat and a tricorn hat. Walk up to them, and say, ‘Designation M7-97.’ Then just stay where you are, while I try to calm everybody down. Don’t worry, even if I can’t, nobody will harm you.”

“Even if you can’t--?” Dixon echoed, and I grinned widely at his panic-stricken face as Danse and I walked out.

…………………………………………………………………………….

 

A wild, earsplitting cheer burst out from the massed ranks of armed Minutemen and Minutemen-allied settlers-- damn, how many of us were there now?-- as I walked out the door of the bunker, with Danse at my heels, and then hushed itself quickly as I opened my mouth to speak. Danse followed my directions perfectly, and I saw Michael put a hand on his back, and then look back up at me as I closed the door of the bunker carefully behind me, seeing as I did that it was blackened and buckled inward.

“You guys!” I yelled, enjoying the sensation of taking a big, pain-free breath. “All of you guys! You’re all so amazing! Oh, Emily, baby, you came, too? Give me a second and I’ll give you such a hug--” I took another deep breath. “Listen, I’m all right-- thanks to all of you-- and-- is Preston here? Of course he is! Hi, Preston-- and Ronnie Shaw, hey Ronnie! Listen, you guys, if you’ll come to the Castle on Thursday at two o’clock, you and me and Hancock and any other interested Minutemen are going to have a sit-down with the Brotherhood and talk about this kind of thing never fucking happening again, OK?”

“I know another way we can make sure of that,” yelled a familiar voice from the crowd.

I squinted. “Oh my God, is that Cait? Cait, what are you even doing here? I thought you said the Minutemen were a load of wallies and anoraks!”

“That’s what the lot of you are!” Cait yelled, the locket the Abernathys had given her shining at her throat. “But we got your man’s call on the radio, and I said I’ll be goddamned if any Brotherhood gobshite’s going to lay a finger on me maddest friend! What’s all this palaver about? Can’t we just murder the fuckers?”

“Hear, hear,” called Macready, from where he stood between the two Finch boys.

“Not this time,” I said, grinning. “How about the next time anything like this happens, to anybody at all? Because I know it’s not just your general who can count on the Minutemen to come through for her like this, it’s every single one of you, and every other decent citizen of the Commonwealth!”

A few cheers.

“Thursday at two, OK?” I said. “We’ll lay down the fucking law.” More enthusiastic cheers at that. “And thank you again, so much, I owe you all my life! And if there’s ever anything I can do for you in return, like if any raiders or ferals or super mutants start bothering your settlements--”

Big laugh; happy cheers. Success.

Then I walked forward, holding out my arms to Hancock and Michael, who almost crushed me to death between them.

“Gentle,” I gasped. “Oh, my heroes. Emily--” She’d charged forward and flung her arms around me, knocking my hat askew. “Careful, sweetheart--”

“Your hair,” she gasped, and began to cry, which made it easier for me to say, comfortingly, “It’ll grow back. Besides, you’ve got Kasumi’s hair to braid now.”

“At least they didn’t do any worse,” said Hancock grimly. “Right? Right, Nora?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” I said.

Michael said, “You realize I can tell when you’re lying, too.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” I said. “Oh, look who it is! Sturges, I haven’t seen you in ages! How’s Sanctuary?”

I straightened my hat and set to hugging people. Most of them I hadn’t seen since before the wedding, and everybody wanted to congratulate me, and ask after my family, and make sure I didn’t want them to bust into the bunker and wreck shit up after all. I noticed Deacon wasn’t here-- which was sensible of him, of course, but I hoped he’d check in later, once we were away from the bunker. I also hoped Hancock hadn’t stabbed him for running off and leaving me; surely he’d realized that it had gotten me rescued a lot sooner than if Deacon had stayed and gotten captured too.

It was awhile before the crowd really dispersed, leaving Emily and Petunia and Ian, Hancock, Michael, Danse, and me.

“Sweetheart, you can head back up to the Nakanos’ with these guys, if you want to,” I told Emily, who said, “I don’t. Not yet. Mother, I thought you might die!

“Don’t be silly, baby girl,” I said, trying to ignore Michael’s narrowed eyes on me. “But-- I’m not going to say no if you want to hang around for a bit.”

“We’ll head on out, then, if it’s OK,” said Petunia, and gave me another hug. “Good to see you’re OK, General.”

I yawned, and Hancock said, “We should get you to the nearest bed, love. How about Greentop Nursery, can you make it to Greentop? We’ll get some food in you, get a good night’s sleep, and then tomorrow you can tell us everything that happened, and we’ll still be close enough for us to book it back here, blast the door in and vaporize every single one of these motherfuckers.”

Danse drew in his breath audibly, and I said to him, “He’s kidding. Well, not kidding, but it’s all right, they won’t really do it. Unless you change your mind at any point, in which case--”

He’s the one who made you call us off?” Hancock demanded. “Nora, you spoil the shit out of them, do you know that?”

“Whenever I can,” I answered. “This is Danse, by the way. Formerly designated M7-97. Danse, this is my husband John Hancock--”

“Of Goodneighbor,” Danse supplied, and then went suddenly pale and still.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said, putting a hand on his arm; he flinched a little at the touch. “You can speak up anytime, Danse. Mayor John Hancock of Goodneighbor, that’s right. You can call him Hancock. And this is my son Michael, and my daughter Emily.”

“Formerly designated Y4-15,” said Emily, smiling.

Michael inclined his head. “X9-21.”

Danse stared at them, and then at me.

“I’ll tell everybody all about everything tomorrow,” I said, and yawned again. “Onward to Greentop Nursery.”

Chapter Text

Stimpaks accelerated physical healing to near-instantaneous levels, but they didn’t do a thing for exhaustion, or hunger, or-- whatever else I was feeling. Too much to sort out right now. I’d been running on adrenaline and Med-X, on the urgent necessity of action and the relief of rescue, and now I could feel it all ebbing away, leaving me ready to collapse. It wasn’t far to Greentop Nursery, but even so, I had to lean hard on Hancock’s arm at times to make it, and I could feel the tension in his arm, and it made me tense-- tense, and guilty. Although, technically, I hadn’t actually told any lies-- “nothing I couldn’t handle” wasn’t a lie; clearly I had handled everything that had happened.

“So what’s your story?” Hancock asked Danse, after a minute of silent walking.

Danse looked at me.

“I told you,” I said, tripping slightly on the ground. “Speak up anytime. I’m interested, too. Last time I saw you, you were a paladin. So how does a synth end up as a paladin in the Brotherhood?”

“There are those who implant false memories of humanity in synths,” Danse answered. “The synths then honestly believe themselves to be human, and act accordingly.”

“Ah, yeah,” I said. “I’ve heard of that. So how did they figure out the truth, if even you didn’t know?”

“Those who actually discovered the truth died on the Prydwyn,” said Danse. “But they must have had enough evidence to pass sentence.”

“What sentence?” I asked.

“Death,” said Danse, as if it were obvious.

“So how come you’re not dead?” Hancock asked.

“At first, because of an attempt to flee the Brotherhood,” said Danse. “Then, once this hiding place was discovered, the destruction of the Prydwyn had rendered resources so scarce that the Brotherhood found it-- wasteful-- to destroy anything that might prove to be of use, and so they showed mercy, and-- suspended the sentence.”

“Well,” I said, with an attempt at cheerfulness, “as it happens, that was a pretty solid plan on their part, because if it wasn’t for you, I promise they’d all be deader than shit right now.”

“Thank you, Ms. Bowman,” said Danse, adding deferentially, “Is that the correct form of address?”

“Call me Nora,” I said. Time enough to go into the “mother” thing later, when I was feeling stronger, less exhausted. Tomorrow.

(Tomorrow, when I was supposed to tell Hancock everything. How was I going to tell him? How could either of us stand it?)

Danse obviously wasn’t used to talking much-- he did it carefully, measuredly, and there was something slightly off about his speech patterns that I couldn’t quite put my finger on but probably just came from doing a lot of listening and not a lot of talking. But otherwise, for a guy who’d been crawling around naked doing janitorial work for people who called him it since shortly after the destruction of the Prydwyn, he seemed fairly together. Readier to speak up and answer questions than, for example, Emily had been at first; she hadn’t really spoken for over a week after I’d found her in the raiders’ den. Maybe the Brotherhood hadn’t been treating him that badly.

(“Facial modification.”)

There were a few people at Greentop who’d been in the crowd just now, and cheered again to see us, although there were a few looks of concern when they saw my face; I tried to smile brightly again. They took us to the main building, to one of the bedrooms with just one bed in it, and a door that I’d put up, and walls I’d shored up with wood and steel, and then left us alone.

I sat down on the bed, whimpering involuntarily as the weight left my feet. I was so tired.

“Here,” said Hancock. “Let me help you get that--”

He reached for the buckle on my chest piece, and I accidentally flinched away, then smiled apologetically as Hancock stared at me.

“Sorry,” I said. “Go ahead. Thanks.”

“Nora,” he said, his hands closed into fists. “What did they--”

“You said I could tell you tomorrow.” I looked away and started undoing my left armpiece myself. I couldn’t sleep in my armor. It was ridiculous to feel frightened of taking it off. I wasn’t naked underneath it. Nobody here was going to hurt me.

“Fucking--” Hancock looked at Danse, who’d knelt down on the floor with his hands on his thighs. “You. This is because of you, right? You asked her to protect them. Why?”

“Hancock, that’s not fair,” I said, pausing mid-armor removal. “Leave him alone.”

“I’m just asking him why.” Hancock was still looking at Danse, closing and unclosing his fists, like a cat sharpening its claws. “Why does he have such a hard-on to save the lives of the same jackholes who sentenced him to death for something he couldn’t help?”

“The Brotherhood were righteous, and yet more than kind,” said Danse, and the feverish fanaticism in his eyes reminded me of what Michael’s used to look like, when he talked about the Institute. “More than generous. They had every right to destroy the unnatural thing they discovered in their ranks-- it has no right to exist. But instead, they gave it the opportunity to redeem its existence by serving the Brotherhood. It will serve you now, Nora, in any way you require-- it will obey any order, endure any punishment-- to try to earn your mercy towards the Brotherhood.”

There was dead silence in the room for a few moments, until Hancock said, “Jesus hopscotchin’ Christ.”

I started to get up, to go to Danse-- I wanted to hug him, or hold his hands, or something, something comforting-- but I was afraid that if I stood up, I was going to fall. Anyway, there was only one thing he was actually asking of me right now.

“They won’t be harmed,” I said. “Not as long as you ask me to spare them.”

“Thank you,” said Danse, and there were tears in his eyes again, as there had been in the cell, when he said Please.

“Great,” said Hancock. “Let a fucking crazy person tell you not to kill the people who made him crazy, because they made him crazy enough to think he should.”

“John, please,” I said, my voice cracking pathetically, and Hancock said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Nora, Christ, I just-- I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do. Just-- like you said-- we’ll talk once you’ve slept, yeah? You’re tired, you don’t need all this-- I’m gonna walk the perimeter a bit, I think. Check the turrets, make sure we’re-- you know.”

“Promise not to--?” I began.

“Yeah, OK.”

He started to move towards me again, and then turned, abruptly, and left the room.

“Danse,” said Emily. “You must be tired, too. And-- are you hungry?”

Danse hesitated, looking at me again, and I closed my eyes briefly, too tired to figure out how to tell him it was all right to say if he was tired or hungry, hoping Emily would say something that would make sense to him.

Instead, it was Michael who spoke up.

“Ms. Bowman has no task for you at this moment,” he said to Danse. “You will be notified when she requires further service. In the meantime, you will be provided with food and water, and with a place to sleep, if-- as I gather is the case-- you require sleep to function properly.”

Danse looked at Michael, and then back at me.

“What he said,” I said.

Emily smiled at Michael, and then looked at me. “Do you want to be by yourself, mother?”

“No,” I said, louder than I meant to, and she said, calmly, “Then one of us can stay here with you, and the other can look after Danse.”

“I’ll look after Danse,” said Michael, and, to Danse, “Stand up. Come with me.”

“Michael,” I said, as Danse rose obediently to his feet. “Don’t-- interrogate him, OK?”

“As you wish, ma’am,” said Michael, his jaw set grimly. “Come, Danse.”

Emily was already dragging a little armchair from the other side of the room to the bedside.

“I should have sent you with Danse,” I said, when the door had closed behind them, “and made Michael stay with me.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Emily, leaning over me to help me with the rest of my armor. “I have a feeling Michael is just what Danse needs right now. You heard him-- ‘Food and water and a bed will be provided for you’-- I can’t do that kind of talk. I’ve never-- you know. Outranked anybody.” She plucked the hat off my head, without commenting again on my bare scalp, and knelt down to undo my leg pieces. “Besides, I’ve missed you, mother. I meant to ask, are you hungry?”

I shook my head. I kind of was, but also my stomach kept doing sudden little flip-flops like an almost-dead fish, and I didn’t want to risk putting anything in it right now.

“All right,” she said, and began unlacing my boots. “But if you want anything later, I have food and water in my pack.”

“You don’t have to stay with me long,” I said. “Just maybe until I fall asleep.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I brought a book.”

She had one boot off, and when she peeled off the sock underneath and I felt her hand on my bare foot--

(Where is Railroad headquarters?

No, no, please, no more, not again, please--)

--I shivered so hard she noticed, but she didn’t say anything, just started on the other boot. When she had them both off, I pulled my feet up onto the bed and lay down, my head on the straw pillow, and pulled the slightly-ragged blanket up over me. Emily pulled off her own boots, produced her book-- part of her Boston Library haul-- from her pack, opened it to a leaf she’d placed as a bookmark, and began to read. I watched her pretty, intent face for a minute, in the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun, and then closed my eyes.

I’d felt ready to fall down wherever and sleep forever, but now that I was lying down with my eyes closed, my muscles were twitching involuntarily. I was half dead with weariness, and yet I wanted to jump up and pace, or run a long way, or-- well, to be honest-- kill something. Someone. Some people.

I opened my eyes again. “Emily?”

She looked up from her book expectantly. “Yes, mother? You need something?”

“Will you read out loud?” I asked.

She smiled. “Oh, of course! Here, let me start from the beginning of this one--”

She flipped a couple of pages backwards, and then began,

“All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.”

She read quietly and clearly, without dramatics, but with an obvious ear for the cadences of the poem. She really had taken to poetry. I wondered, closing my eyes and half listening to the words, half just to her voice, if she’d ever thought of trying to write any. I’d have to ask her. Later.

“Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me.”

The sound of her voice, clear and calm and familiar and dear, and the steady rhythms and orderly rhymes, were like a thin but firm railing to hold onto, to keep me from plunging headlong into flashbacks, reliving what had been done to me in that cell, the pain and the fear and the shame, the hatred in their faces and voices and laughter. The same hatred Danse was going to look at me with, when he found out I was Agent Bullseye. I had brought down their airship and killed everyone on board. I’d brought the Railroad to Cambridge Police Station and massacred everyone there, watched sweet little Scribe Haylen die right in front of my eyes.

If I hadn’t done all this to them, would the Brotherhood even be like this right now? Or was it loss and desperation and scarcity that had made torturers out of them? Was that on me, too? What they’d done to me, what they’d done to Danse? If I’d been better, smarter, kinder, less crazy with grief over Glory’s death--

“Mine was the weight,” Emily was reading, as I tuned back in, hoping for distraction.

“Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief
With individual desire,
Craved all in vain, and felt fierce fire
About a thousand people crawl,
Perished with each, then mourned for all.”

I almost asked her to stop, but I liked the way she read it; I liked the way it rhymed. Nothing in real life was ever that nicely rhythmic. I was going to have to ask her in the morning what it was really about, who it was by. It seemed really long. Maybe it wasn’t all the same poem. It sounded the same, though. The rhythms, the rhymes.

“My anguished spirit like a bird
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without,
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.”

Those words, in Emily’s voice-- I missed the next part while I thought of Emily, lying on the dirty mattress in the storage room of the raiders’ lair, staring up at me with blank blue eyes. And of myself, lying naked and filthy and broken all over, on the floor of the Brotherhood cell. And of Danse, wherever Michael had found for him to lie down, maybe sleeping, maybe not.

Then I heard her again, soft and sweet:

“And all at once, and over all
The pitying rain began to fall.
I lay and heard each pattering hoof
Upon my lowly, thatchèd roof,
And seemed to love the sound far more
Than ever I had done before--

“Oh, mother--”

She’d seen my tears; she dropped the book on the floor and crawled into the bed with me, taking me into her arms, stroking my sore, bare, prickly head with her soft fingers, kissing my tear-wet face. I laid my head down on her shoulder and clung to her, shaking all over.

“It’s all right,” she whispered, “it’s all right now, mother, it’s all right to cry. You’re safe now.”

She held me, close but not hard, kissing the side of my head, rubbing her cheek against my shorn scalp.

“Don’t tell-- Hancock--” I gasped, through more tears. “Or Michael-- I’m such a baby-- it doesn’t matter-- I’m fine now, it’s over, it doesn’t matter--”

“You’re not fine,” Emily murmured soothingly. “You don’t have to be fine. Nobody expects you to be fine.”

“But if--” The shoulder of her fatigues was already drenched. “If I’m not all right, Hancock and Michael are going to-- and Danse will hate me-- or if I stop them, they’ll hate me--”

“Mother.” Emily’s voice was both tender and reproving. “Hancock and Michael could never hate you.”

“They’re already mad at me.” The grimness in their faces, the hard tension of Hancock’s arm, the look on his face and the anger in his voice, when I flinched away from his outstretched hand. “For not being-- and not letting them-- and for getting, for letting this happen, for being so fucking stupid-- I’m so stupid, getting myself captured by the fucking Brotherhood--”

“Mmm,” Emily said. “Well, yes, mother, that makes sense. I remember how angry you were at me, that time I got myself captured by raiders. You’ve hated me ever since, haven’t you?”

I snorted against my will. “Don’t be-- but that’s different, it’s not the same, I’m supposed to be the general of the Minutemen, I’m supposed to keep the Commonwealth safe-- I’m supposed to keep my family safe--” I dragged in a huge, gulping breath. “And I’m supposed to be so goddamn tough and I’m just a fucking wuss, I was only even there for a day-- what about Danse-- what about you, for a year and a half, and I just let that happen, I should have found you sooner--”

“Mother, you didn’t even know I was there,” she said. “You didn’t even know I existed.”

“That’s no excuse,” I sobbed, as Emily kissed me again on my prickly head.

“Mother,” she whispered. “Nobody’s mad at you. I promise. Not Hancock, not Michael, not me. Everything’s going to be all right. We’re all going to take care of you, and we’re all going to help you look after Danse, and we’re all going to help you make sure the Brotherhood doesn’t ever hurt anybody else. I can come to the meeting on Thursday, can’t I?”

“Of course,” I said, thickly, startled, but oddly pleased. “You’re a Minuteman, aren’t you?”

“I am,” she said, proudly. “And we do keep the Commonwealth safe, and we’re going to make damn sure the Brotherhood knows it.”

I laughed at that, and Emily laughed, too. Then I started to shake again.

“Emily,” I said. “I want them dead. I do, I want it, I want-- but I can’t, I can’t--”

“You can,” said Emily.

“No I can’t, not if I want to--”

“Mother, listen,” said Emily. “You can. You can watch them all die-- or you can have their heads brought to you in a couple of duffel bags--”

I gave a startled little bark of laughter.

“--But right now,” Emily said softly, “you’re choosing not to. Because as much as you want them dead, you want more for Danse to be all right, to feel safe, and-- worthy. You’d cut off your own right hand if one of us needed you to-- no matter how much it hurt, no matter how much you wished you could keep it, you’d do it for me, for any of us. And this hurts too, but you’re doing it. Because you’re brave, and strong, and you can do it, even if it hurts. For Danse.”

“Help me make Hancock understand,” I said, tears spilling again. “And Michael. Emily, help me.”

“They already understand.” She kissed the corner of my eye. “Do you think they don’t know who you are? Do you think they don’t love you for it?”

I couldn’t answer. Emily rubbed my back, ran her nails lightly across it through the fabric of my shirt, kissed me again.

After a little while, she started to sing. I’d never heard her sing before, and I’d never heard the song before; it must have been something she’d learned up at the Nakanos’. She had a low, tremulous voice, that cracked a little on the higher notes.

“Far on the mountain’s side
Wander the lost lambies.
Here, there, and everywhere,
Everywhere their troubled mammies
Find them and fold them deep,
Fold them to sleep...”

I fell asleep, finally, in her arms, and when I woke up with a jolt and a pounding heart, she shifted softly against me, kissed me on the cheek, and hummed softly over me, until I could sleep again. I woke once again, in the dark, to the creaking and jerking of the bed as Hancock climbed in, curled around me, sandwiching me between his warm body and Emily’s, and whispered, “Did she say anything--?”

“She’s sleeping,” Emily whispered back. “Be quiet. Let her sleep.”

"Yeah," said Hancock, and I felt his cheek pressed against my scalp, his body trembling against mine. "OK."

Chapter Text

Early in the morning, I woke up to just Hancock in the bed with me, feeling better. Not as sick, not as shaky. Still a little limp, but that was all right, that would wear off. I’d give myself a little time before we left for the Castle. I was kind of hungry, too.

"Hey," Hancock said, voice rough with sleep. "Hey, love. You all right?"

I started to say yes, and then, remembering what Emily had said, answered, "I will be."

He curled an arm tight around me. "You ready to tell me?"

“Mmm.” I put my head down on his shoulder. “What did Deacon tell you?”

Hancock grunted. "That he’s a worthless little weasel who took off and left you to rot?”

“Hancock,” I said. “You didn’t yell at him, did you?”

“Define ‘yell.’”

“It wasn’t his fault.” I sighed; poor Deacon, he was probably feeling terrible, not to mention assuming I’d sung like a canary about all the Railroad’s secrets. I didn’t blame him; if I’d been him I would have assumed the same thing. Hopefully he’d heard by now of my rescue. “When they jumped out at us, I-- froze up. I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t-- ready-- I didn’t want to hurt them, I guess. I’ve already killed-- so many, of the Brotherhood-- I just-- I hesitated, and then it was too late, and they-- had me.”

“And?”

“And they hurt me,” I said. “Tortured me. For information. About the Railroad. They heard Deacon and me talking-- we didn’t know how close they were-- so they knew I was-- I played it off, though, I denied everything, the whole time. They think they just made a mistake, that Deacon set me up. Or at least that’s their official version of events, right now-- I dunno, maybe they’ve realized if the general of the Minutemen is also Railroad Agent Bullseye, it’s in their best interests to pretend not to know that. Anyway. Yeah. They-- hurt me. I don’t really want to talk about how, is that OK? Nothing we couldn’t fix in twenty minutes with enough stimpaks, so, you know.”

“Can I have one of them?” Hancock asked.

“What?”

“Just one,” he said. “You can spare all the rest of them, just pick one I can kill. I’ll make it last a good long time.”

I smiled, thinking of Dixon. “I’ll think about it. I’ll run it by Danse, how about that?”

Hancock mmmed. “We could let him pick one.”

“He’d lose what’s left of his mind,” I said. “The Brotherhood are more than righteous and more than kind.”

“Jesus.” Hancock shuddered. “How creepy was that?”

“Not as creepy as him calling himself it.” I pulled myself, reluctantly, out of Hancock's arms, and half sat up. “Where is he, do you know?”

“Last I saw, he was asleep,” said Hancock. “Or pretending to be. Michael put him in the bedroom across the hall.”

“I should go check on him.” I stretched a bit, relishing the lack of pain. Nothing like a day and a night of being tortured into a screaming mess to make you appreciate the little things in life, like not being a tortured screaming mess. “I was so out of it yesterday-- God knows what he thought.”

“He’s probably OK,” said Hancock. “I mean, you know. Considering. Michael said they talked awhile.”

“That’s-- good, I guess,” I said. “I hope Michael didn’t scare him.”

“I think Michael likes him.” Hancock propped himself up on his elbow. “Said he had a ‘surprisingly disciplined mind.’ Looks to me like his mind's been disciplined to within an inch of its life, but Michael said it like it was a good thing.”

“Well. Good.” I rolled my neck; it was tense. Go figure. “Still. I should go check in. See if he’s awake. Hey, Hancock?”

He reached up and put a hand on my head, rubbing a thumb against a patch of shorn hair that had mostly escaped the knife’s blade. “Whatcha need?”

“Are you mad at me?”

He pulled me back down, into his arms, and I let myself fall onto him and wrap myself around him.

“Little bit,” he said in my ear. “You kinda ruined me, Bowman. I wasn’t sure until yesterday, but turns out I can’t actually live without you.”

“You have to, one of these days,” I said firmly. “You promised to take care of my kids.”

“Hate to break it to you,” he said, “but your kids aren’t gonna need my help to take over the Commonwealth. Go check on your latest and craziest. I’ll start getting us provisioned to head back to the Castle.”

…………………………………...

 

The door to the bedroom across the hall was shut. I knocked softly on it, and then felt dumb, and just opened it.

Danse lay in the bed on his stomach, the blanket half pulled up over him, still in his jumpsuit and cap, his face in the pillow, turned away from me. There was a canister of purified water on the nightstand. I made a mental note to thank Michael for thinking of that.

“Hey, Danse,” I said softly. “It’s me. Nora. You awake?”

He didn’t stir, or answer. I walked over to the bed and leaned over him. He was breathing regularly. His eyes were closed.

I didn’t intend to wake him up, but I made the mistake of trying to pull the blanket the rest of the way up over him, and he stirred, and whimpered, and then his eyes flew open and he rolled over onto his back, looking up at me.

“Morning,” I said, smiling down at him. “Sorry to wake you. Sleep OK?”

He lay still, staring at me as if I were a billboard or a harvest moon, something you look at without expecting it to react. I stayed still, trying to keep my expression neutral but friendly, letting him look. I wondered how different I looked from the last time he’d seen me, back when he was still a paladin in the Brotherhood, and I was still wearing a blue vault suit under my armor.

Finally, he lifted his hand up and touched his own forehead, still covered by the knit cap. He let his finger rest on the fabric of the cap for a moment, then slid it up under the cap’s edge to touch the skin underneath, and his face closed off somehow, indefinably, flattening itself out, as if a switch had been flipped.

My heart turned over. I wondered if that was how he started out every morning, now. Although most of his wakings in the Brotherhood’s lair probably reinforced his synth-hood pretty quickly, without the need to touch the scar and check.

“The cap,” I said, maybe a little abruptly. “Do you want to take it off now? You can, if you want. It’s-- no worse than what they already know about.”

Still watching me, he lifted his hand and, cautiously, hesitantly, pulled the cap back, exposing his forehead. The scar was even more appalling in the daylight than it had been in the bunker. He peeled the cap off, leaving it on the pillow, and then lowered his hand.

I touched the backs of my fingers lightly to his forehead for a moment, as if checking for a fever. He didn’t react. His skin felt cool to my touch.

“I heard you had a good talk with Michael last night,” I said. “Anything you want to follow up on, with me? Questions? Comments?”

Danse said, watching me, “Yes, Nora.”

I looked around. There was a straight chair in one corner of the room, and I grabbed it and brought it over to the bedside, and sat down in it. Danse’s eyes stayed on me; he didn’t speak, or move, except to turn his head.

I gestured encouragingly. “Shoot.”

“Michael said,” Danse began slowly, “when asked-- that you would prefer to be asked directly, why it is that you have been-- so indulgent. Why you agreed to spare the lives of-- those who harmed you-- at the request of a synth. And why you brought it away with you. Why it is here now.” He hesitated. “What you want with it.”

“Listen, Danse,” I said, slowly too, hoping this wasn’t going to upset him. “Those are great questions-- but before I answer them-- I know you probably spent a really long time learning not to say ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘my,’ and I know those Brotherhood assholes probably beat you or starved you or something if you did. But do you think-- now that you’re away from them-- you could start trying to get back in the habit of saying ‘me’ instead of ‘it’?”

“A synth has no right to refer to itself with personal pronouns,” he said softly. “A synth is not a person.”

“I don’t even understand what you mean by that, though,” I said honestly. “I mean, I understand humans not being sure whether synths are people, if they’ve never met any, or if they’re xenophobic jerkwads, but-- you live inside yourself, right? You know you have-- feelings, and thoughts, and-- I mean, what is a person, then?”

“A human is a person,” said Danse. “A synth is a mockery of a person. As its appearance mimics a human’s, so do its-- responses. The Brotherhood modified both for unit M7-97, to minimize emotional confusion for humans that came into contact with the unit, and maximize its usefulness.”

“Jesus, Danse.” I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this came directly from the Brotherhood, versus how much Danse had made up inside his own lonely, mistreated, self-loathing head to try to make sense of the life he was living. Either way--

“What if I ordered you to say ‘I’?” I asked curiously. It seemed like a way to simplify the situation, but Danse obviously didn’t agree.

“Do you?” he asked, barely audibly, eyes wide and pupils dilated.

“No,” I said quickly. “I don’t. You don’t have to. My God. Please try to relax, Danse. I’m on your side here, you know.”

“Michael said--” Danse’s voice was still quiet. “That-- for reasons you would prefer to be asked about directly-- you would not want to cause suffering, either physical or emotional, to-- to your property.”

“Did he really call you my property?” I sighed slightly as Danse lowered his eyes. “OK, I’ll try to drop the pronoun thing. It’s super weird, though, Danse, I’ll just go ahead and say that. But yes. Michael’s correct. The reason your good buddies in the Brotherhood are still alive is because I don’t want to cause you suffering, if I can help it. And the reason for that is-- well, two reasons. First one-- this is the one Michael knows about, that he meant when he told you to ask. Remember how, when I saw you last, I was looking for my son?”

I told him the short version of the long story: that the baby I’d been trying to find, when then-Paladin Danse had tried to recruit me into the Brotherhood of Steel, had turned out to have been kidnapped by the Institute for his DNA, which they’d used to make all the third-gen synths, which made all those synths, now, the babies I was still finding.

“This is why I told you, yesterday, just to walk up to Hancock and Michael and tell them your designation,” I said, as he watched me. “Because it-- your designation, your being a synth-- means that it’s my genetic material that went to make you, and so you’re-- my family. Like Michael, and Emily, and all the other synths that have human flesh and blood. That’s why Emily calls me mother-- Michael does too, sometimes, but he has to be in the right mood.”

“The loss of your son must have been very painful, Nora,” said Danse quietly. “Especially so soon after the death of your husband, and the end of the world you knew.”

“And it made me go crazy, you mean?” I smiled a little. “Well, maybe so. I did-- change. I couldn’t have kept going the way I was, so-- But crazy or not, that’s reason one why I commandeered you from the Brotherhood of Steel. And why I let you Morse-code-guilt-trip me into sparing their lives after they broke all my phalanges and left me passed out in a pool of my own piss, so don’t knock it.”

He was still, eyes on me.

“But the other reason,” I said. “Wait. Before I tell you the other reason. Can I ask you something?”

He nodded.

“When I woke up in that cell, with you touching me,” I said, and he sucked in his breath very slightly, “what had the Brotherhood ordered you to do, exactly? What was the order they gave you? The exact words, if you remember.”

“‘Get in there and get her cleaned up,’” Danse answered, precisely, without affect.

“Did they say ‘be gentle’?”

Eyes on me, slowly, he shook his head.

“Did they say ‘try not to hurt her’?”

He shook his head again.

“Did they say ‘you can’t save her, you can’t protect her, you can’t even say anything to her, but when you touch her, instead of making this into one more hideously painful and shameful ordeal, instead of taking out the shittiness of your own life on the one person here with less power than you, be as kind to her as you can’?”

“No,” he said.

“I didn’t think so.” I reached out and took one of his hands in mine. The same big hand that had rested lightly on my naked back as he washed the filth off my bruised skin. Safe in my hand now. “Danse?”

After a moment, he said, huskily, “Ma’am?”

“You’re a good person,” I said. “I could see that at ArcJet, even when you were driving me up the wall with your yammering about discipline and duty and following orders and taking instruction-- all of which I’m still completely useless at, by the way-- and I can see it now. Synth or not, you’re the pick of the Brotherhood litter, Danse. Best of breed. And even if I weren’t a lunatic who thinks she’s your mom, I’d be goddamned if I’d leave you with a bunch of sadistic asshats who wouldn’t recognize the kind of courage and loyalty and sincerity and kindness you’re made of if it was standing between them and a direct hit between the eyes with a bladed tire iron. Which it was. And is. Some of my guys have laser muskets, but some of them are more melee-oriented.”

I’d hoped for a smile, but I didn’t get one. He just kept his eyes on me.

“So,” I said. “Those are the reasons. That’s why I brought you with me, and why you’re here now, and what I want with you. And-- it was worth it, Danse, all that business with the Brotherhood, getting captured and-- everything that happened. OK? If I could go back in time-- well, I’d do several things differently, but I mean, if I had to decide between coming to the bunker, knowing everything was going to happen exactly the way it did happen, and not coming and leaving you there with them, I’d still do it, I’d go through it all again, to get you out, and bring you home.”

He said nothing.

On impulse, I leaned down and touched my lips, lightly, briefly, to the N of the scar on his forehead. As I did, he made a small, strangled noise that sounded as if it had been wrenched out of him.

“Sorry,” I said, letting go, pulling away, standing up. Sweat had broken out on his forehead; I could see it glisten. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to-- overstep.”

He turned back over onto his stomach and buried his face in the pillow.

“OK,” I said. “Sorry, I know it’s all-- a lot. I’ll leave you alone.”

“Nora.” He spoke hoarsely, without lifting his head or looking at me. “Please--”

“Please what?” I moved a little closer. “What do you need?”

“Please rescind permission to speak,” he said.

“I told you-- wait, rescind permission? As in, take it away?”

He nodded against the pillow.

“Why?” I asked. “Just because you have permission to speak-- I mean, you have permission to either speak or not speak, either way. Why do you need-- Danse, look at me.”

He turned his head towards me. His face was white, the scar standing out livid against his pallor.

“Please,” he said again.

“OK,” I said, being apparently constitutionally incapable of saying no when one of my children said please, no matter how insane they were being-- and, the words sounding incredibly weird in my own ears, “You no longer have permission to speak.”

He closed his eyes, briefly, and breathed out softly, and then in again, as I said, “But if you want-- if you would like to ask permission to speak again, do this.” I lifted my hand, palm forward, as if raising my hand to be called on in school. “OK?”

Eyes open again, he noted the gesture, and nodded, and then turned his head away from me again.

“OK,” I said again, to his back. “You can stay in bed a little longer if you want, or get up whenever you’re ready. If you do stay in bed, I’ll come get you when we’re ready to head out for the Castle. I’m going to see if I can find you some better footwear and armor before we go, too-- and a weapon, although there’s not likely to be much in the workshop here that’s up to paladin standard. Once we get back to the Castle, we’ll get you kitted out properly. I’ve still got that laser rifle you gave me, remember? And I've got some pretty decent sets of power armor that I found here and there, if that’s still something you’re interested in.”

He didn’t respond, and I left the room quietly, closing the door behind me.

Chapter Text

When I went outside, I found Hancock and Michael sitting on the ground near the workbench, looking at a selection of weapons. Michael got up when he saw me and came to put his arms around me; he held me close, without speaking, for so long that I almost started to cry against his chest. I kept the tears back, though; we had too far to go today for me to start another crying breakdown now, especially when I’d already had a good solid one just last night.

When he finally let go, I said, “You were right. By the way. I should’ve brought you along.”

“Yes,” he said. “Do you know what type of weapon Danse prefers?”

“Laser, probably,” I said. “He was using a laser rifle when we cleared ArcJet. He gave it to me afterwards, actually, as a thank-you for helping out. When we get home I’m gonna dig it out and give it back to him. Anything good here?”

“Not particularly,” said Michael, sitting back down on the ground. “Did he ask you why you value him so highly?”

“Not in those words, but yes.” I sat down, too, to look at the array of weapons. “This is pitiful. Yeah, I gave him the mom speech.”

“How’d that go over?” Hancock asked.

“Oh, well, he thinks I’m nuts, obviously,” I said. “But that’s OK-- so does everybody. Emily’s the only one so far who went with it right away. Not counting Shaun. Where is Emily?”

Michael nodded down the hill towards the greenhouse, where I could see Emily through the glass, picking mutfruit and chatting animatedly with two settlers.

“Where is Danse?” he asked.

“Sleeping in a little more. I told him I’d come get him when we were ready to go. He’s gonna need better shoes for the walk back to the Castle, are there any of those lying around here?”

“We’ll dig some up,” said Hancock. “So he’s doing OK, this morning?”

I hesitated.

“Uh-oh,” said Hancock. “Well, give him time. You got this one to figure out hugs, you can get the new one to figure out personal pronouns.”

“Yes,” Michael agreed gravely.

We eventually decided on a standard rifle rather than a laser pistol, went through clothes storage and found some boots that looked bigger than the shoes the Brotherhood had provided, and some armor pieces that would be better than nothing. I wasn’t sure how ready Danse would be to fight, on our way home, and I didn’t intend to let him get hurt, armor or no, but I thought it might be good for him psychologically to have a weapon and armor again. Power armor would probably be even better, if I could talk him into it once we got home.

Michael gathered up the armor, boots, and the rifle, and said, “I’ll take these to him.”

"Hang on," I said. "I'll come too." I was kind of hoping that Danse would have changed his mind about the permission-to-speak thing, and go ahead and raise his hand, and we could all move forward without me having to explain to Michael and Hancock and Emily that I’d ordered Danse not to speak, but-- "You should know that-- the reason he was wearing that cap, yesterday--"

"He said you had ordered him to wear it," said Michael. "Is there a wound or scar of some kind under it?"

"Scar," I said. "It's-- the word synth. They-- burned it onto him, or-- something. It's pretty awful."

"These are the people she somehow talked us out of killing," said Hancock to Michael.

"For Danse's sake." Michael waited for me to stand up. "He was-- very agitated, last night, until I assured him he could trust her word."

"Thanks for that," I said, smiling gratefully at Michael. "I hope he believed you."

When we reached it, I knocked again on the door of the bedroom, to give him a heads up, and then opened it. He was still lying in the same position I’d left him in, but he turned when the door opened, and then sat up quickly at the sight of Michael.

“Good morning,” said Michael, kneeling down to lay first the rifle, and then his armload of armor, on the floor. “How did you sleep?”

Danse didn’t answer, of course.

Michael raised his eyebrows as he stood back up. “Danse?”

Danse looked at me.

“Um,” I said. “Danse isn’t-- allowed to speak right now.”

Michael looked at me for a moment, and then turned to Danse.

“Don’t be a coward,” he said sharply. “I thought better of you.”

“Michael,” I said softly. “Don’t bully him.”

“I am not bullying him,” said Michael. “I am speaking to him. He can answer me as he wishes.”

“No he can’t,” I said. “I told him not to speak.”

Michael gave me a look that somehow managed to be amused, annoyed, and fond all at once.

“You would not have given him such an order if he had not asked you to,” he said, in the tone of one stating the blindingly obvious. “Nor would you have done so, in any case, without giving him some way to indicate that he wanted the order reversed. He can speak whenever he chooses. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous, Danse, and accomplishes nothing to anyone’s purpose."

Danse’s face had flushed, as he glanced from Michael to me and back again.

“Go easy, Michael,” I said. “He’s had a hard time.”

"I'm aware of that," said Michael. "But he is not, now, in any danger that he needs to avoid by silence. Is he?”

“Of course not,” I said.

“Is there anything he could say that would cause you to harm him in any way?”

“Of course not, but--”

“She says ‘of course not,’” said Michael to Danse. “I told you the same thing last night. Why would we both lie? Why are you still afraid to speak?”

Danse looked at Michael for a moment, then looked at me and, in a quick, jerky motion, as if ripping off a Band-Aid as fast as possible, lifted his hand.

“Oh, thank God,” I said. “Yes, you can speak.”

“You don’t-- know,” said Danse to Michael. “You didn’t see how-- distressed-- she was, every time-- It displeased her-- it displeases her now, look-- to hear--”

“To hear you speak as you were taught to speak by your former owners?”

Danse nodded.

“There is a very simple solution to that,” said Michael. “You could speak as Ms. Bowman wishes you to speak.”

Danse shook his head. “It has no right--”

“But you have the right to demand that she give you what orders you choose, for your own comfort?”

Danse flushed redder. “She didn’t have to grant the request.”

“And yet she did,” said Michael. “Against her own will, obviously-- you heard what she said just now, when you so generously allowed her to rescind the order.”

“Don’t mind me, guys,” I said. “I’m not even here.”

They both turned to me.

“My apologies, ma’am,” said Michael. “Correct me if I’m wrong in saying that ordering Danse not to speak was something you would rather not have done.”

I sighed. “You’re not wrong. But, Danse, I’m sorry that I-- that the way I reacted to the things you said made you think it would be safer not to be allowed to talk at all. I didn’t mean to make you feel that way.”

“Are you afraid?” Michael asked Danse.

After a second’s hesitation, Danse nodded.

“Of what?”

“It’s not-- You’re a synth, too,” said Danse, almost angrily. “You have no authority to-- demand answers.”

“Um,” I said, “not that I’m trying to throw my weight as a human around, but if you’re scared of something I might do, I need to know what, so I-- don’t.”

“If it helps,” said Michael, “I told him last night that you would never punish him by inflicting physical pain on him, or ordering others to do so on your behalf, or depriving him of food, or water, or rest, or clothing, or the means to satisfy any basic need. And that you would keep your word, and spare the lives of his former masters, regardless of his behavior, unless he decided those lives were no longer of any emotional importance to him. Again, correct me if I am wrong.”

I smiled a bit. “You’re not wrong, son.”

“What are you still afraid of?” Michael asked Danse.

Danse looked at me.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I said, “but-- I’d like you to. Please. If you can.”

“He is perfectly capable,” said Michael firmly.

Danse looked down at the ground.

“Unit M7-97 has been modified for the Brotherhood’s use,” he said quietly. “It is-- less suitable-- for anyone else’s. Least of all for-- for yours, Nora. It is not-- what you wish it to be. It is not the person you believed it to be when you claimed it. It should be returned to the Brotherhood, where it can serve most usefully.”

There was a brief silence.

“Please clarify,” said Michael. “You are afraid that you will be returned to the keeping of the Brotherhood?”

“When Nora realizes the-- nature-- of her acquisition--” Danse didn’t lift his eyes. “She will understand-- what should be done with it.”

“Oh, Danse.” I wanted to take him in my arms and hug him, but after he’d almost had a heart attack when I kissed his forehead, I didn’t dare.

“There is nothing you could say or do that would result in your return to the Brotherhood,” Michael said. “She would sooner kill you.”

“Michael!”

“I’m not speaking of a likely scenario, ma’am,” said Michael. “I’m speaking of the extremes of possibility. It is remotely possible that under highly improbable circumstances-- for example, if Danse acted in such a way as to pose a serious and immediate threat to someone else under your protection-- you might find it necessary to kill him. It is completely outside the realm of possibility that you would ever return him to his former owners in the Brotherhood. Yes?”

“Well,” I said. “Yes.”

Michael looked back at Danse. “If you had asked her this-- didn’t I tell you that the more questions you asked, the better pleased she would be?”

“Good Lord, Michael,” I said. “What are you, a professor of Nora Bowman Studies? Were there PowerPoint slides to this presentation you gave him on how to navigate life with me?”

Michael smiled at me, his quick, crooked, lightning-flash smile. “Was I wrong, ma’am?”

I smiled back at him. “No. You’re fully qualified to teach Nora 101. I’ll be your assistant. Help out with practical demonstrations.”

“Now,” said Michael to Danse, “try on these boots and this armor. We have a long way to go today.”

Danse looked at me. “Does Michael have the authority to give this order?”

“Do you not want to try this stuff on?” I asked.

“He is asking because he does not wish to act against your will,” said Michael. “He wants to know whether you have given me authority over him. Danse, you would find these things easier to convey clearly if you would use the appropriate pronouns. Even an object, if it’s capable of speech at all, can use proper speech. Especially if its owner wishes it to do so.”

“I’m not his owner,” I protested. “And he’s not an object.”

Michael gave me the amused-annoyed-fond look again. “I know, ma’am. What is the answer to his question? Do I have authority over him?”

“I mean--” I hesitated. “What would that mean?”

“What would it mean, Danse?” Michael asked.

Danse hesitated, too, and then said slowly, “That obedience to you would also be obedience to Nora-- and that-- this unit-- would not-- transgress, by obeying you. And that disobedience to you would also be disobedience to Nora, and would be similarly punished.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Similarly. OK, then sure. You can’t go wrong doing what Michael tells you.”

“Do I have the authority to punish him?” Michael asked.

I was startled for a second, and then I saw Danse’s eyes fixed on me, and Michael’s on Danse, and realized Michael was explaining to me, again, what Danse was thinking.

“No,” I said. “You’re not allowed to punish or hurt him in any way.”

“If I give him an order that frightens or distresses him,” said Michael, “may he refuse to obey it, without penalty, until he has had an opportunity to appeal to you?”

“Yeah, of course. Michael!” I beamed at him. “You’re so good at this! Danse, what was I saying earlier, about how terrible I am at all the chain-of-command stuff? Thank God Michael tried to break into my Castle and kidnap my daughter that one time.”

Danse blinked. Michael laughed out loud.

“Fortune favors the bold,” he said. “You can go, ma’am. We’ll be ready, soon, to leave for the Castle.”

Chapter Text

The Brotherhood delegation arrived at the Castle around one-thirty the next day, by which time I felt pretty ready for them.

We’d had a mostly-silent and pretty uneventful walk back to the Castle, barring a few attacks by raiders, the merciless slaughter of whom which had really helped take the edge off for me, and-- I hoped-- for Michael and Hancock too. Emily had gotten a few good shots in, but Danse had just let his rifle dangle limply from his hand. It broke my heart a little, remembering the swift, practiced skill he’d shown at ArcJet Systems, but I consoled myself that I’d started from scratch with Emily, and she was doing pretty well for herself now.

I’d collapsed pretty soon after getting back to the Castle, leaving Danse in Michael’s care, and slept hard until the morning, when twenty-three Minutemen from various settlements had shown up asking to be allowed to sit in on the negotiations. Hancock, Preston, and Ronnie Shaw had herded them into the conference room while I checked in on Michael, who’d introduced Danse to Max, Cog, and Victoria. They all three seemed unusually chastened and quiet, maybe because of Danse’s scar and obvious Stockholm syndrome, maybe because I’d been kidnapped and had my head shaved, maybe because a bunch of strangers had just barged into the Castle, maybe some combination of the above. I’d asked Danse if he minded staying with his fellow synths, minus Michael and Emily, while I stole those two for a planning meeting, and Danse had shaken his head.

The Minutemen, Michael, Emily, Hancock and I had talked awhile in the conference room and come to an agreement about the alternatives we felt comfortable offering the Brotherhood, and then I’d sent all of the excess Minutemen, except Preston and Ronnie, back to their settlements. I didn’t want it to look like I was scared of the Brotherhood delegation, trying for the kind of massive show of force that had already almost demolished their bunker, and having more than eleven people in the room for a negotiation seemed like a recipe for cacaphony.

Then I’d checked back in with Danse again to make sure he was OK, and to ask if he wanted to see the Brotherhood when they arrived, which he’d answered by whining, high up in his throat, like a dog. I took that as a no.

Then he’d said, ”Please, Nora, you won’t,” and I’d said, “I won’t,” and turned and left him with Cog and Victoria and Max, because if I stayed any longer I was going to start to cry, and I’d be damned if I’d look like I’d been crying when the Brotherhood got here.

…………………………………………………………………………..

I met the five Brotherhood delegates-- Dixon, two other guys I recognized but whose names I’d never gotten, all in power armor; another guy who I didn’t recognize, in scribe fatigues; and Scribe Kim, looking just as terrified as she had the last time I’d seen her-- at the gate of the Castle. I’d secured Naveena and the scientists in the infirmary, just in case the Brotherhood decided to try anything cute, but they looked pretty meek, despite the power armor.

“Thank you all for coming,” I said, smiling brightly. “You can leave your power armor right here. And your weapons.”

They hesitated.

“I’m asking nicely,” I said.

They did get out of their power armor, then, and and put their weapons on the rack I’d indicated. I wasn’t in armor, myself, just my fatigues, and my knife belt; I’d decided to leave off my hat, too, and show off my scalp, bristly stubble, cuts, and all.

Preston, Ronnie, Michael, Hancock, and Emily were all in the conference room already, seated along one side of the big table I usually pushed to one side and covered with clutter, but now had dragged out into the middle of the room and spread with a map of the Commonwealth (technically a map of old Massachusetts, but close enough), pinned to a corkboard (one I’d found in an old office), with pushpins (ditto) in the locations of all the Minutemen settlements. It was slightly exhausting to look at them all and picture them-- what they might be needing, how far a walk-- but still, it was a pretty satisfying number of pushpins.

There were also marks on the map in red paint, and a bowl of red paint and a little paintbrush on the table. I hadn’t been able to find any permanent markers in the post-apocalyptic wasteland yet, and a pencil had seemed to lack dramatic flair. Off to the side I had four sheets of paper-- bleached old Boston Bugles-- two hand-printed copies each of two different contracts, with lines at the bottom for signatures, and two still-working ballpoint pens.

I made introductions-- “Preston Garvey, Ronnie Shaw, my husband Hancock, my daughter Emily, my son Michael”; if any of the Brotherhood were surprised or confused at the grown-upness of my kids, they didn’t say anything-- and let the Brotherhood introduce themselves. The two power-armor guys besides Dixon were Knights Clarke and Danielson, and the scribe who wasn’t Kim was Silver.

“All right,” I said, when everyone had been introduced and sat down, except me; I stayed standing. “First things first. Marked on this map are all the Brotherhood outposts and--” I smiled deliberately at Dixon-- “safehouses, so to speak-- that I know about. Are there any others that I don’t?”

As they studied the map, Michael said, “If you withhold that information now, we will consider it an act of hostility, and grounds for revoking any pledges or concessions that we make during these negotiations.”

“Here,” said Scribe Kim, placing her finger on the map at the edge of the Glowing Sea. I remembered now, ages ago, running into some Brotherhood out there, but I hadn’t known they were still there.

“Good,” I said, dabbing the brush in the paint and marking the spot she’d touched. “Thank you, Scribe Kim. Any others?”

She shook her head, looking about to whimper.

“Sure? Any possibility there might be Brotherhood in the Commonwealth you five don’t know about?”

“There may be deserters out there,” said Silver, “with Brotherhood regulation weapons and armor, but it’s very unlikely that anyone in the Commonwealth who still actively considers himself part of the Brotherhood isn’t at least in communication with one of these places.”

“And you five are authorized to speak for everyone in the Commonwealth who still actively considers himself part of the Brotherhood?” Preston asked. “To agree to terms on their behalf?”

“Yes,” said Dixon.

“Great.” I gestured towards the map. “So you’re in active communication with all these places?”

“We can be,” said Kim. “We have a radio--” She caught one of the knights’ look and closed her mouth, turning red.

“Uh-uh,” I said. “Cards on the table time, guys. You withhold information now-- like Michael said-- I’m gonna consider that an act of hostility and deliberate sabotage of these negotiations, and events are gonna proceed accordingly. You have a radio-- beacon? Signal? That can reach all your bases? Where’s it based?”

Kim put her finger on the map again. I took the little brush and sketched a crude radio tower there.

“Gold star for the day, Kim,” I said. “Anything else you think we should know? That we might be annoyed if we found out later you hadn’t told us right up front?”

They were silent.

“OK,” I said. “That invitation stays open through the end of this meeting. Any of you decide to share any more information with before we conclude today, great. After that, you’re taking your chances. Now, you guys currently have two alternatives.”

“Three,” said Ronnie grimly.

I smiled again. “Well. Let’s talk about the first two first, though. Those are the ones we have these documents for.” I placed one hand on each set of two. “These are just so we can all remember what we agreed to, and refer back to it later if necessary. If you agree to either of these plans, we’ll each keep a copy of the document we signed. Sounds good?”

More silence.

“OK,” I said again. “Your first option--” I touched the document in question-- “is to officially join forces with the Minutemen. If you choose that, all these--” I gestured at the map-- “become Minutemen-allied settlements. What that would mean, in practical terms-- well, I’m sure you’re all at least peripherally aware of how our settlements work. Anyone who’s willing to live peacefully and contribute to the community is welcome, and we all help each other out with whatever we need, including food, supplies, and defense. I check in on each settlement personally on a regular basis, to make sure everything’s running smoothly-- you know, everybody has enough to eat, a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in.”

“Clothes to wear,” Emily said, with her own sweetest little smile at the Brotherhood side of the table. “And defenses in good working order. So nobody gets hurt.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Well put, Emily. Now, I didn’t really get that good of a look around, while I was-- visiting-- your bunker, so I don’t know exactly how you’re fixed for food and supplies. But I can state with near certainty that this would be to your advantage, in terms of resources. It would be a little bit of drain on my resources, at least at first-- not to mention my time and energy-- but I’m willing to make the investment, if I’m doing it as your general, helping you as my people.”

“In return--” said Clarke, with a question in his voice.

“In return,” I answered, “you’re my people. You stand by other Minutemen-allied settlements when they need help, you contribute resources to the network when you can, and you maintain a certain standard of civilized behavior, as citizens of your settlements. No stealing. No murder. No kidnapping, no torture, no slavery. Pretty basic, really. You can still be the Brotherhood, you can still have your own ranks and chain of command and whatever makes you happy, but in these very basic ways, you answer to us. To the Minutemen. Ultimately, to me.”

There was a silence.

I raised my eyebrows. “You want to hear the other choice, before you decide? Other choices, I mean.”

Dixon said, “Yes,” and then added, after a second, “Please.”

“Second option,” I said, touching the other two papers. “You don’t join up with us. That puts me in a tricky position, because there aren’t really a whole lot of groups in the Commonwealth that aren’t ours, but also aren’t hostile to us. There used to be a few places like that-- places I went regularly, was on reasonably friendly terms with, but that didn’t consider themselves officially part of the Minutemen settlement network, and didn’t either expect help from us, or hold themselves accountable to us. There was Bunker Hill-- but, well, you guys know what happened there, right? So they’re with us, now, too. And, of course, there was Covenant.”

“Covenant,” said Hancock. “Hey, whatever happened to all the people that used to live there, before it was a Minutemen settlement? Do you folks know?”

Silver opened his mouth, then closed it again.

“But there’s still Diamond City,” Preston said, “and Goodneighbor.”

I nodded. “Right. I mean, I did find it necessary to kill the mayor of Diamond City at one point, but they’re still independent of the Minutemen, and on friendly terms with us. Same with Goodneighbor-- except there I married the mayor instead, but same basic result.”

Hancock chuckled softly.

“So if you reject my offer to actually join us,” I said, “then I’m still going to reserve the right for myself and my allies to drop in at any of these places--” I gestured at the map again-- “at any time, just like we would Diamond City, and be treated with basic respect, and allowed to walk around freely, and if we notice any shady shit going on--”

“‘Shady shit,’” said Michael, “being here defined as violations of the basic standards of civilized behavior Ms. Bowman mentioned a moment ago.”

“Right. Thank you, Michael. So if we see shady shit happening, and you get belligerent when we look into it-- well, then if you don’t already know what happened to Covenant, and why, you’re going to find out.

“So. What do you think?”

Another silence fell. The Brotherhood delegates exchanged glances.

“May we--” Knight Clarke began finally. “Is there room for-- renegotiation, after today? I mean, if-- say, Goodneighbor-- offered to join forces with the Minutemen, right now-- you would consider the proposal, wouldn’t you? So if we choose option two now--”

“Oh, I see what you’re saying,” I said. “Good question, Clarke. Well-- you’re going to have to take your chances, there. Both offers are definitely open right now. You guys can decide for yourselves whether you want to wait and see if they stay open after today. I’m not going to say no, that there’ll definitely be no room for negotiation afterwards, but I’m also not going to make you any promises about how generous I’ll be feeling six weeks or six months from today when you come back with your little power armor helmets in your hands. Whereas if you act now, I’m prepared to make you some pretty strong promises, in the presence of these witnesses. So. Other questions?”

“You mentioned-- a third option,” said Silver carefully.

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. There’s a third option. It’s not quite as generous as options one or two, but it does offer you five specifically, in recognition of your role as emissaries, a head start.”

There was another silence.

“Would you--” Scribe Kim’s voice cracked slightly, and she cleared her throat. “Would you have any objection if we-- if the five of us spoke in private, before-- accepting-- either of your-- your two offers?”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “I’ll have these doors closed. Read over the documents. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll have someone bring you some purified water to drink, if you promise not to spill it on my map.”

…………………………………………..

When we were outside, leaving a couple of armed Minutemen outside the doors, Hancock whispered in my ear, “You are hotter than the sun right now.”

I grinned up at him. “You think it went well? I think it went well. I think we got our main points across.”

“What do you think they’re going to choose?” Preston asked.

I shrugged. “No idea. I just hope they don’t call my bluff and pick three. Or that if they do, Danse will agree I’ve tried hard enough, and let me do what I gotta do.”

“It’s not going to be three,” said Emily. “They’re not crazy.

“Banking on it,” I said. “Hope they don’t take too long to decide-- I want them out of my goddamn Castle. This is my home. I fucking hate having people here that-- I fucking hate.”

“My brave mother.” Emily put her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek.

“Don’t make me cry in front of them, baby,” I said. “I need to be a shiny-hard bitch for the duration of this meeting.”

“So far, so good,” said Preston, grinning. “If I weren’t on your side, I might be weeping a little myself.”

“Or peeing a little,” said Ronnie. “One hard bitch to another, General, hats off.”

…………………………………………...

The big doors to the conference room stayed shut for-- funnily enough-- about twenty minutes, and then one of the Minutemen came to get me, and the six of us filed back into the conference room.

“We would like to accept your-- very generous-- first offer,” said Dixon, looking as if he’d accidentally swallowed a slice of lemon and really hoped nobody had noticed.

Fuckin’ A. I was looking forward to telling Desdemona that instead of annihilating the Brotherhood remnant, I’d managed to assimilate it.

“I’m so happy to hear that,” I said, smiling brighter than ever, as Silver pushed the two copies of the first document across the table at me, complete with five signatures on each, in ballpoint. I signed both, then slid the papers and pen at Preston. “I think you’ll all find there are so many benefits to being part of the Minutemen.”

“Yeah,” said Hancock. “Like for example, if any of you are ever kidnapped by fuckin’ lowlife scum, when the Minutemen come to rescue you, we’ll slaughter the shit out of everybody who laid a hand on you.”

“Speaking of which,” said Emily, putting her head on one side. “Aren’t any of you even a little curious about why you’re not all dead?”

Kim giggled, with a note of hysteria.

“They didn’t wanna jinx it,” said Ronnie. “Relax, pissants. We wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble just to hang you from the parapets as a warning.”

“Yeah,” said Hancock. “I did try to talk her into making this--” he touched the bowl of red paint-- “out of something else, but no.”

“Why?” Silver asked, and went a little red when everyone turned to him. “I mean-- may I ask? Why did you agree to negotiations? Why-- you’re offering us-- I mean, why?”

“Great question,” I said. “Do any of you happen to remember Paladin Danse?”

Clarke, Silver, and Dixon all went rigid; it took Kim a second longer before she seemed to remember. Danielson looked blank.

“I met him once, years ago,” I said. “Back before anybody, even he, knew he was Unit M7-97.”

Danielson looked at Dixon, whose gaze stayed on me.

“We ran a mission together,” I said conversationally. “Retrieved some tech from ArcJet Systems. He’s the first one of you I ever really spent any time with, and he got on my fucking nerves, to be honest with you-- the way he wouldn’t shut up about the Brotherhood, and how great you were, and how you were humanity’s best hope, and how signing up with you was the only way to give real meaning and purpose to my life, just like it had his.

“And you know, I would have thought that when I met him again, crawling around naked on a concrete floor cleaning bodily fluids off an abused prisoner and being called it, some of that enthusiasm for the Brotherhood might have been knocked out of him. But you know what he did, while you guys held a gun on him in a cell he’d just locked himself into? He reached out and tapped my arm. You guys know Morse code, right?”

I reached out and tapped my index finger sharply on the table: short-long-long-short, short-long-short-short, short, short-long. It was pretty fun to watch their faces as they got it. I did the whole thing I’d gotten from Danse:

P-L-E-A-S-E M-E-R-C-Y O-N B-R-O-T-H-E

“That’s when he got interrupted, but.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I figured out what he meant. And I kept asking him again, after I got him out of there-- we all did-- asking him was he sure that was really what he wanted, for me to let you all live-- I mean, you’d treated him like shit, you’d abused him and enslaved him, treated him like a thing--”

“But-- it is a synth,” said Dixon, sounding more bewildered than indignant. “It’s a machine. I understand your anger at our-- extremely regrettable actions-- towards yourself, Ms. Bowman--”

“General,” I said.

“General Bowman. But how can you fault us for treating a-- a robot-- like an object? It is one.”

Before I could possibly sort through in my head how to respond to that without running the length of the table, drawing my knife and plunging it into his eye, Michael said, “I believe I understand the source of the confusion, ma’am.”

He reached out for the bowl of red paint and the paintbrush, and slid them towards himself.

“Emily,” he said, turning towards her, “our mother has carelessly neglected to modify your physical appearance. May I?”

She turned her face towards him, smiling a little, and he reached out and brushed a few tendrils of auburn hair gently back from her forehead, then dipped the brush delicately into the paint and applied it to Emily’s forehead. She held very still as he began to paint meticulous letters there, careful not to let paint drip down into her eyebrows.

”Michael,” she said, when he was finished, peering at him in elaborate surprise. ”You haven’t been properly modified, either.”

She took the bowl and brush from him, and began to paint the same word on his forehead that he had painted on hers.

When she was finished, they both turned towards the Brotherhood side of the table, SYNTH in bright blood red on both their foreheads.

“Oops,” I said, to my kids, Emily smiling, Michael grave. “Sorry. That would have minimized emotional confusion for the humans in the room, wouldn’t it?” I turned back towards the Brotherhood delegates. “Any other fucking questions?”

Chapter Text

The most profound silence yet fell, in answer to my question; the Brotherhood seemed to have been struck dumb. Kim broke the silence by bursting into tears.

“Please don’t hurt us,” she sobbed. “Please just let us go.”

“No one’s going to hurt you,” I said, a little impatiently. Her tears, her obvious terror, would probably have moved me more to compassion if what she said hadn’t been almost word for word something I’d sobbed myself in the Brotherhood bunker. (Almost: just substituting us for me, and minus an any more.) As it was, I was a little amused that what had finally pushed her over the edge into actual hysteria had been the revelation that I was the kind of dangerous lunatic who believed in synths sitting at the same table as humans. “You can go in a minute. Pull yourself together, Scribe. I have a couple more things I need you to hear, and I need you to listen.”

Her weeping didn’t stop, but it quieted.

I slid one of the signed documents at Dixon.

“Get word out on your radio of what’s about to happen,” I said. “I’ll be getting word out on mine, too. I’ve got Minutemen standing by at the settlements closest to each of your groups, to stop by and check things out. They’ll talk to you, get the lay of the land, find out how many people you’ve got at each place and what you need most urgently. Now, I’m going to ask a question, and I am going to require that you answer it honestly. Nothing you say will carry a penalty, or result in a revision or revocation of our current plan, unless-- and this is important-- it’s a lie. If you lie now, in this meeting with me, and particularly in answer to this question, then when I find out-- and I am going to find out-- I will have no choice but to conclude you are incapable of entering into an honest contract in a civilized manner, and I will deal with you, in the future, accordingly. Is that understood?”

They nodded.

“Let me hear a ‘Yes, General.’”

“Yes, General,” they mumbled, not in unison.

“Here’s my question,” I said. “Are you-- any of you-- aware of any other prisoners or slaves-- synth or human-- or ghoul, either-- at any of these sites?”

They looked at each other.

It was Silver who finally said, “No humans. In terms of-- synths-- I’m not-- I don’t actually know of any, but--” He looked across the table at Michael and Emily, and when he kept going, his voice was wavering, although he was trying hard to hold it steady. “If any of our people-- discovered-- a synth-- it would be-- uh, he or she would be-- treated-- in the same way that M7-- uh--”

“Danse,” I said.

“That Danse was-- being treated.” Silver had a faint greenish tinge to his skin, and he kept swallowing. I thought about warning him not to puke on my map, but I figured he’d get that he shouldn’t, without being told. “It would be-- he would be-- considered-- a material asset, rather than a prisoner, and as such its-- presence-- might not be something that would be thought necessary to-- communicate, with the rest of us. Since it wouldn’t be considered a source of valuable intelligence. Just of-- labor.”

“OK,” I said. “Thank you, Scribe Silver. Your honesty is noted and appreciated. Now. Here’s what I need you all to do, and it’s very, very important. I need you to let your people know that they are to release any captive synths-- or other captives, if there are any-- they may have, into the care of the Minutemen when they arrive. If they do so, without resisting or attempting to conceal anything, then whatever any of them-- any of you-- did to any helpless synth or human in your power, before this meeting, will be considered past, over and done with. Clean slate. Moving on into the future. There will be no retribution for anything that happened before this meeting concluded and this paper was signed. Things that continue to happen afterwards are a different story. Fair enough?”

“More than fair, General,” said Silver shakily, and he did look appreciative, as he goddamned well should.

“Are there any other questions?”

Apparently there weren’t.

“All right,” I said. “In closing, let me just say that I really do appreciate the five of you showing up for this meeting. It was brave of you. And you’ve done the right thing, for yourselves and your brethren. Things are going to be better for all of you, from here on out.

“I’ve had some supplies for the trip back packed for you. You’ll find them with your power armor and weapons. You can go.”

It took a second for them to start moving, and when they did, there was a degree of unsteadiness to all their motions that really brought home just how frightened they’d been. I imagined they’d all discussed, before coming here, how likely it was that they’d all die here, painfully or otherwise, and the fact that they’d decided to come anyway-- presumably under the assumption that if five of them didn’t willingly present themselves for whatever punishment I had in mind, I’d come after all the rest of them, too-- made me grudgingly respect them a bit. Say what you wanted about the Brotherhood, but they were loyal, and they could be brave. I was pretty sure that, once things settled down and evened out, and once the memories of what they’d done to me and the continuing discoveries of what they’d done to Danse were less fresh and raw, I’d be really glad to have them on my side.

Clarke offered Kim his arm to steady her-- she clutched it gratefully, still crying a little-- and I noted that, too. Sweet.

Mostly I was just impatient for them to get gone so that I could do what I did do as soon as they were all well out of the room-- run to Michael and Emily and fling my arms around them both.

“My utter badass babies,” I whispered to them both. “You two. So brilliant. Did you plan that beforehand?”

“A sudden stroke of inspiration,” said Michael with a smile in his voice, as I let them go. “Emily caught on admirably.”

“What do you think Danse is going to think of this, when he sees it?” Emily asked, touching her own forehead gingerly.

“He’ll think I’ve finally figured out what’s what,” I said. “Until you two use a personal pronoun, and then he’ll be scandalized again. Well done, everybody. Emily, Michael, Preston, Ronnie, Hancock, thanks so much for attending this summit, and having my back, and helping me terrify them just enough to obscure the fact that as punishment for kidnapping and torturing me, and enslaving and disfiguring and brainwashing my kid, I’ve agreed to provision and defend them and all their friends for the foreseeable future.”

“Think that Silver one’s the only one that actually noticed that,” said Hancock.

Preston said, “I’d imagine they’ll have some interesting conversation on the road home.”

“Once they’re done puking and shitting themselves,” said Ronnie. “Anything else before we adjourn, General?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ll get on the radio in a bit, put the call out and let them know we’re moving on the Brotherhood bases-- in a friendly way, I mean. And let Somerville Place know about the new one. But I’ll give it a little while. Those guys weren’t moving too spryly when they walked out of here. Any final thoughts, anybody?”

“Yeah,” said Preston. “Just-- well done, General.”

I blushed unexpectedly. “Hey. It was all of you, too. And all the other Minutemen that helped draft these-- I gotta go, guys, I gotta go check on Danse. Let him know-- you know. It’s OK.”

“We’ll come, too,” said Emily. “Michael?”

Michael nodded.

“You two feel like a drink?” Hancock asked Preston and Ronnie, as Michael and Emily stood. “Unwind after all that? Maybe some Jet?”

Preston frowned. “That stuff’ll kill you, Hancock.”

“Oh, don’t be a buzzkill,” said Hancock. “I’ve already got Mr. Carrie Nation, here, telling Nora what a deleterious effect chems have on everybody’s long-term health.”

“You all know where the booze is,” I said, grinning. “Help yourselves. I’ll be back in a bit and join you. I’m allowed to have two drinks in a twenty-four hour period, right, Michael? Is this an appropriately celebratory occasion?”

“Certainly, ma’am,” said Michael. “You may even pour your own drinks. I’ll refrain from calculating the exact liquid volume you consume. In honor of the occasion.”

………………………..

I walked, with Emily and Michael on either side of me, down the stone corridor of the Castle, towards the little couch-and-chair area, full of magazines and books, that some of the Minutemen called the library but I didn’t because it was too little and scanty to be a real library.

Before we got there, I could already hear Victoria’s voice:

“‘But this Ruggedo gets wild with anger if anyone digs gold out of the earth, and my private opinion is that he captured my brother and carried him off to his underground kingdom. No—don't ask me why. I see you're dying to ask me why. But I don't know.’"

“What the fuuuuu---” Cog began, as we came in. He and Victoria were sitting on a couch, and Max was perched on an ottoman nearby; Danse was sitting on the floor with his back against the couch. Victoria had Tik-Tok of Oz open in her lap, from which she’d obviously been reading aloud; she closed it and put a finger in it as they all stared at Michael and Emily’s faces.

“Well,” said Emily, smiling. “The Brotherhood seemed a little bit confused about who exactly they were talking to. So.”

“Ha!” Max showed all his teeth in the grin that always reminded me of Glory at her most fiercely happy. “Nice.”

“Sorry to interrupt your story,” I said. “Thanks for-- just, I need to borrow Danse, for just a second.” I held my hand out to him; he took it, and I hauled him up to his feet. “Be back, OK?”

Danse followed me obediently, my hand in his, Michael and Emily just behind us, up the stairs to the upper wall of the Castle, where I pointed north with my free hand, showing him the retreating figures of the Brotherhood delegation.

“There they are,” I said. “Lancer Captain Dixon, Knight Clarke, Knight Danielson, Scribe Silver and Scribe Kim. They’re all right. OK? They’re not hurt. They’re going home.”

He watched them, his hand still in mine, gripping convulsively, so hard it almost hurt.

“Danse,” said Emily softly. “It’s more than that. They’re going to be taken care of. Looked after. She’s going to make sure they don’t go hungry, or want for anything, from now on. Not just those five, but all the Brotherhood left in the Commonwealth. They’re all under the Minutemen’s protection now.”

Danse looked at her, then at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I thought-- are you glad? I hoped you’d be glad.”

Danse’s eyes went back to the backs of the five Brotherhood. His hand was still holding mine hard, but he said nothing.

“There is something you can do for her in return,” said Michael, and Danse looked up quickly, glancing from Michael to me. “Will you?”

“Anything,” Danse said hoarsely, and cleared his throat. “Anything.”

“She asked if you were glad,” said Michael. “Will you answer her?”

Danse nodded.

“Will you answer her aloud?” Michael asked. “Will you tell her, ‘Yes, I’m glad’?”

Danse went pale, and looked at me.

“He’s not comfortable--” I began, to Michael.

“Were you comfortable, in that room just now?” Michael asked me. “Facing your torturers again? Offering them amnesty, and more, for Danse’s sake? Were you comfortable, or were you brave?”

“Michael--” I felt myself redden again. “It’s different. I was only there a day. He-- you can’t expect--”

“I am,” said Danse softly, his hand bearing down harder on mine. “I’m glad.”

I gasped, and tears spurted from my eyes as if he’d hit me in the face, and he flinched and whimpered as Michael’s hand touched his shoulder, but then seemed to relax as the hand rested there lightly, as Michael said to him, quietly, “Well done.”

Chapter Text

“Well,” I said, wiping my face and beaming at Danse. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to cry, it’s just-- it’s been a long-- I’m gonna sit down for a second.”

I sat down on the wide, mossy wall, well back from the edge, and Emily and Michael followed suit. More slowly, Danse did, too.

“You’ve accomplished a great deal today,” Michael told me, and then added, to Danse, “And so have you.”

Danse looked nervous. “You said she hadn’t assigned a task to-- oh.” He reddened, slightly. “To me. You said-- she hadn’t assigned-- me-- a task.”

I beamed at him harder. “Oh, my God, Danse. This is so fantastic, you don’t know how happy this makes me, to hear you-- And yeah, your task right now is just to, yeah, get acclimated. Change some habits. Figure out how things are going to work around here. It’s a lot, it’s a big adjustment. Once you’re comfortable handling a weapon again, I’m probably gonna want you on defense-- I saw your moves, back at ArcJet. I bet you could teach some of the Minutemen a thing or two.”

Danse’s eyes went to Michael, and then back to me, before he said carefully, “It’s the-- doctrine-- of the Brotherhood-- that a synth should not engage in acts of violence. That to allow it to do so would be to endanger the humans around it.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Well, no disrespect to the Brotherhood’s fucking ridiculous doctrines, but-- oops.”

Emily smiled, then sobered.

“I wasn’t allowed to handle weapons, either, in the Institute,” she said. “Remember, mother, the first time you put a gun in my hand, how scared I got? If I’d ever tried to touch one, in front of a human or a courser, I would’ve been wiped within the hour. Wouldn’t I, Michael?”

Michael nodded. “It was the Institute’s policy that, except for the models created to function solely on the surface, the third generation of synths was permitted to handle weapons only after reaching a certain stage of courser training. And, of course, any infraction of that nature would have been taken very seriously.”

Emily smiled, again, at me. “And then you told me to point it at you. I thought I was going to have a terminal malfunction right there. Spontaneous brainwipe.”

“You told Emily to point a gun at you?” Michael asked me.

“It wasn’t loaded,” I said defensively. “I showed her the empty magazine first, remember, Emily? I was just trying to teach her how to aim.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t malfunction,” said Michael. “We weren’t even required to shoot at human-shaped targets until the sixth month of training, once certain psychological parameters had been revised, and even then, it caused some of us to hesitate.”

“Well, I didn’t know any of that,” I said. “I didn’t even know she was a synth. I just thought she was some girl who’d somehow made it to early adulthood in the Commonwealth without ever learning how to shoot. Sorry, Emily.”

She grinned at me. “It’s all right. The end didn’t come. Even when I pulled the trigger.”

“Do either of you remember--” Danse began. “From the Institute. Do you remember-- me? M7-97?”

“I do recall a synth by that designation,” said Michael, “but you don’t particularly resemble him. Are you certain the Brotherhood had the correct information, regarding your designation?”

“The Railroad--” I began. “I mean, I’ve heard they do facial reconstructive surgery, along with the memory replacements.”

“Ah,” said Michael. “That would explain it. So you are M7-97.” He examined Danse thoughtfully, as if trying to trace a resemblance. “You were considered a strong candidate for courser training, before you ran away.”

Danse’s eyes were on me. I wondered if he was speculating about my connection to the Railroad. It wasn’t that far of a leap to make from “rabid synth-sympathizer” to “involved with the Railroad somehow,” and I’d just slipped a bit. I probably would again, too. Probably the only reason I hadn’t told the Brotherhood everything I knew about the Railroad was because they’d kept helpfully reminding me not to by torturing me about it. If they’d known me better, they would have just sat me down in a comfortable chair and chatted casually with me, and waited for me to be dumb enough to reveal everything.

Oh well. If he figured it out, he figured it out. I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

“Listen, guys,” I said. “Let’s go back downstairs. Danse-- you probably don’t drink, do you. I mean, even when you were a paladin. We were thinking about having a couple of drinks to celebrate-- oh, shit, Danse, are you OK?”

He nodded, but he clearly wasn’t; even his lips were white, and his eyes had gone unfocused in a way that seriously alarmed me.

“Oh,” said Emily, suddenly. “Oh, Danse, no-- I’ve seen her when she’s been drinking, she’d never do anything--”

“Ma’am,” said Michael firmly, “I think Danse would be more comfortable, at this stage in his acclimation to your care, if you refrained from having those drinks.”

“Right.” It hadn’t occurred to me, whether because I was an idiot or because I was an innocent, but I could imagine, if I put my mind to it-- not that I wouldn’t strongly rather not-- what Danse’s experience of the humans around him “having a couple of drinks to celebrate” might have been.

Instead of grabbing a rifle and picking off the diminishing figures of the retreating Brotherhood, I took a deep breath, and repeated, “Right. Emily, will you run find Hancock and Preston and Ronnie, and let them know I’m not gonna be joining them-- tell them I’ll be in the book room instead, OK? That story Victoria was reading, Danse, that sounded like a good one. Better way to relax after a stressful occasion than drinking, probably. You mind if I sit with you guys a bit and listen to some more of it?”

“It was-- a very-- amusing story,” said Danse; a bit of color had come back to his face.

“You were gone forever,” said Cog grumpily, when Michael, Danse, and I came back in. “Can we start up again, already? The Shaggy Man’s brother’s been kidnapped by the Nome King, plus the mule just kicked the rose gardener in the stomach.”

“Hit it, Victoria,” I said, plopping down in a corner of an unoccupied couch, and leaning down to unlace my boots. Michael steered Danse to sit in the other corner of the couch, and sat down, himself, in the middle, as Victoria opened the book again and began, without preamble,

“‘But—dear me!—in that case you will never find your lost brother!’ exclaimed the girl.

"’Maybe not; but it's my duty to try,’ answered Shaggy. ‘I've wandered so far without finding him, but that only proves he is not where I've been looking. What I seek now is the hidden passage to the underground cavern of the terrible Metal Monarch.’"

I toed off my boots, curled my feet up under me, and put my head down on the arm of the couch.

“Don’t let me fall asleep,” I said softly to Michael, as Victoria kept reading. “Or wake me up in-- when-- whenever. Whenever I’m needed. I have to get on the radio, Radio Freedom, I have to-- make the announcement.”

He smiled at me, but didn’t answer.

After a little while, Emily came in, squeezed herself unapologetically in between me and Michael, and laid herself down across my shoulder. I closed my eyes.

If I died right now, I found myself thinking drowsily, half listening to Victoria’s voice, reading on, I wouldn’t even die fretting about the future of the Minutemen and the Commonwealth and my family. My kids would take care of everything. They’d take care of Hancock, too; nobody’s despair could stand up to my children’s powers combined.

Michael did wake me up to make the announcement on the radio, and I was glad I’d napped instead of drinking; it left me refreshed instead of blurred, able to be clear and concise on the radio. I repeated the message twice, and then it was time to see about dinner for everybody, and then to find beds for Preston and Ronnie, and make sure Danse was comfortable in the one Michael had found for him last night, when I’d been too out of it to supervise.

It wasn’t until Hancock and I were in our own bed that I said to him, “Why do you think Deacon hasn’t made contact?”

He grunted.

“Do you think he heard the radio?”

“I wouldn’t waste my time worrying about that asshole,” said Hancock, his voice still slightly thick from the afternoon’s whiskey and Jet.

“Hancock, I know you don’t like him--”

“Before Monday, I didn’t like him,” said Hancock. “Now I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.”

“I’m gonna go to Railroad HQ tomorrow,” I said. “I need to check in with Desdemona, anyway. See if she heard the radio. I don’t know if she’s gonna yell at me or-- nod and light a cigarette. She doesn’t really do hugs. You don’t have to come.”

“Uh, I hope you don’t think you’re going alone,” said Hancock. “Or that you’re ever going anywhere outside the Castle walls without me or Michael again.”

“Hancock, I can take care of my--”

“Nora,” said Hancock. “Don’t argue this with me for-- a week, yeah? Can you give me a week?”

“Fine,” I said. “A week. So I’ll take one of you tomorrow.”

…………………………………..

I ended up going with Hancock. I didn’t want to take Michael, since Danse seemed like he trusted him more than anybody, and since Michael seemed to have some kind of magical understanding of what Danse needed to hear-- when I told Danse Hancock and I were going out for a bit, Michael asked me if he had my permission, in my absence, to defend Danse against anyone who attempted to harm him in any way, including any human, and I said yes, and Danse looked as if someone had just told him that he’d been so good this year it had caused Santa Claus to materialize into existence and fill his stocking with fusion cores.

I left Hancock outside, though, when I actually went into the church. I didn’t know what to expect, in terms of what they all knew, or what kind of mood Deacon or Desdemona would be in, or if Deacon would even be there, and I figured it would all be easier to deal with without Hancock glowering and seething over my shoulder.

What I hadn’t expected at all was to find Railroad HQ silent, and almost deserted.

I stood in the doorway, taking it in, under the couple of dim lights that still burned. The blackboards had been erased; Tom’s equipment was missing, and Desdemona’s chaotic, cryptic files, and PAM, and the terminals, and the people. The only person there was a man I’d never seen before, sitting on one of the sarcophagi, his knees drawn up to his chest, a green rag hat drawn down over his head. His face looked puffy and bruised. Even in the dim light of the crypt, he was wearing sunglasses.

I stood there, waiting for him to say something, explain who he was and what he was doing here, or ask me who I was and what I was doing here, but he just looked at me.

Then--

”Deacon?”

“It’s the shades, isn’t it,” he said flatly. “They’re too damn recognizable. Even a face swap doesn’t cut it any more. Like the new nose? I always thought that last one was a little small.”

I considered the new face. It looked more rugged than the last one, maybe a little older. He obviously didn’t choose his facial shapes for classical beauty, and it was still kind of swollen and bruised, a little abraded, but I thought, actually, that I did like it.

“Who do you go to?” I asked. “Dr. Sun? Do you know if he can do anything about scars?”

“Aw, Bullseye,” he said. “I think it makes you look scrappy.”

“Not mine. It’s-- Deacon, what’s going on? Where is everybody?”

“Moved out,” he said. “You were compromised. Des said we couldn’t risk staying here. But you didn’t tell them about this place, did you? They would have been here by now. What did you tell them?”

“That my name was Nora Bowman,” I said, “and please just to let me go home to my family. But if everyone’s moved out, what are you doing here?”

“Waiting,” he said. “I figured, even if you had told them about this place, you’d come if you could, to warn us they were coming. And if they got here first--” He shrugged. “I’d die as I lived. Trying to atone, for-- well. You came. You didn’t even bring Hancock to beat the shit out of me again.”

“Again?”

“I mean,” he said. “Not really beat the shit out of me, per se. Scared the piss out of me, though. Pinned me up against the wall by my neck-- It was the courser that made him stop, you know? Put that big old hand on his shoulder and said to let me speak. So. I told them everything I could think of, and then I ran. Again.” He smiled, a little bit, and then winced, and touched his own cheek. “Carrington did the face, before they moved out. I told him that way, if they did come, there’d just be some random guy down here and it wouldn’t confirm your intel was accurate.”

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“The safehouse you don’t know about,” said Deacon. “For just such an occasion.”

“Fair enough.” I was looking around at the clutter and grime, the floor crowded with mattresses and crates and sarcophagi, the blackboard that used to give me a pang every time I saw Glory’s name crossed out on it, the table where Liam Binet’s cold young body had lain. “Does this mean-- is HQ going to be somewhere else now? Above ground? Did I finally get Desdemona to move back up to the surface? Because if I did, all this was totally worth it, even without-- um. You don’t, uh, have a radio down here, do you?”

He listened without moving as I told him everything-- downplaying the torture, but dwelling a bit on Danse’s trauma, in case Deacon had any lingering hostility towards an ex-paladin. The Morse code, the rescue, the Brotherhood meeting at the Castle, and the contract they’d signed.

“Let me get this straight,” he said, when I was done. “On Monday, I watched you get shot, disarmed, and dragged away by the Brotherhood of Steel. On Tuesday, you walked out of their bunker without spilling a drop of their blood, with their captive synth tucked under your arm. And on Thursday, they made you their queen.”

“Uh, newsflash,” I said, grinning at him. “I’m kind of a big deal.”

He tried to grin back, and winced again.

“Didn’t Carrington give you a stimpak for all that damage?” I started to reach for my meds pouch.

“You can’t use a stim for this,” he said. “It’s got to heal naturally, or it’ll just pop back to the way it was. Aren’t you gonna punch me in it? I was counting on some all-natural homegrown well-deserved malformations, before it gets set in stone. Something to remember you by.”

I peered at him. “How about you remember me by hanging out with me sometimes, like usual?”

He was quiet for a second, before he said, “Wasn’t sure-- that was on the table.”

“Deacon.” I moved towards him, sat down on the sarcophagus, too. He didn’t move. “It wasn’t your fault, what happened. It was mine. You tried to warn me, that I’d have to-- that I couldn’t hesitate-- and I just brushed you off, like I always do, and then the exact thing happened that you tried to warn me about, and--”

“And I ran,” he said, in the same flat tone.

“You couldn’t have taken them all on alone,” I said. “It would’ve been suicide. I’m sorry Hancock attacked you.”

“Not your fault,” said Deacon. “I try to-- do something good-- make up for-- and I get arrogant enough to think I can have one friend, somebody who knows what a piece of shit I really am and doesn’t mind running with me anyway. And then when the chips are down, you get to see I’m even shittier than you ever dreamed.”

I reached out and touched his cheek, the puffy, abraded skin. He winced, again, but didn’t pull away.

“Deacon,” I said. “You did the right thing. You ran for help. You got me rescued. And I’m fine. For fuck’s sake. How long have you been sitting down here? In a darkened crypt, on a box of bones, brooding on your sins and waiting to die? How goth are you right now? Get your ass up and come out into the sunshine. It’s a pretty day.”

“Never been that big a fan of sunshine,” he said, as I hopped up, grabbed his arm, and pulled. He moved stiffly, as if he hadn’t shifted position for awhile. I was liking the new face more and more. “Probably because-- well, I don’t tell a lot of people this, Bullseye, but-- I’m actually a vampire.”

“Do tell,” I said, pulling him by the arm towards the passageway that led to the ladder. “But tell me first if there’s anything here you ever want to see again.”

“Nope,” he said. “Yeah, I got bit before the bombs even fell. Turns out a nuclear blast doesn’t kill a vampire, but it did take me a couple hundred years to reconstitute myself. Finally found the last two toes from my left foot in a yao guai’s stomach in 227-- No! It burns!”

He hissed and recoiled from the opening trapdoor, and I laughed, and dragged him the rest of the way up the ladder, into the light.

Chapter Text

Hancock eyed Deacon when the two of us walked up. “Who’s this?”

“Honest Abe Schmidt,” said Deacon. “Got myself lost in that there church basement lookin’ for a rummage sale, and your wife here was kindly enough to help me find my way out. Say, mister, I’ll give you two caps for that ol' coat of yours. The girls are always lookin' for scraps for their quilt-makin'.”

Hancock looked at me. “It’s Deacon, right? I can tell from how bad I want to punch him.”

“Dammit,” said Deacon. “And here I was hoping it was just my face you hated.”

“Speaking of which,” I said to Hancock, “I don’t appreciate you assaulting him when he came to tell you to come rescue me.”

“Tattletale,” said Hancock to Deacon.

“You don't have to like all my friends," I said, "but I do ask that you not physically attack them.”

“You better do as she says, man,” said Deacon. “I heard she runs the Brotherhood of Steel now, and you know how they feel about your kind.”

“Well, great to see you, Deacon,” said Hancock. “Sure you’ve got places to be.”

“He’s coming back to the Castle with us,” I said, and both men opened their mouths to protest. “I’m not asking, I’m telling. Let’s get going.”

“Uh, permission to speak, General Elder Reverend Mother?” Deacon asked, following me as I started moving. Hancock followed too, one of them on either side of me.

“If you must.”

“Just that I should, uh, check in with our mutual friends,” said Deacon. “Let them know you’re all right, and it’s safe to--”

“No,” I said. The more I’d been thinking about all this, the madder I’d been getting. “Fuck that. If Desdemona doesn’t have a radio on and tuned to Radio Freedom at all times, then she obviously isn't all that interested in what’s going on with me. And if she does, and she knows, and she didn’t send somebody back right away to let you know everything was OK and you didn’t have to sit in a darkened crypt anymore, then I don't see why you should go out of your way to check in with her now."

"It's not out of my way," said Deacon. "I mean, it's not this way, but-- why am I coming to the Castle with you, exactly?"

“Because you have books there, that Michael's been keeping for you," I said, "and Max wants to see you again, and so does Emily, and there’s a baby to play with, and food, have you even been eating down there?"

"I--"

"I can't fucking believe Desdemona, actually," I said. "Didn’t she even tell you you did the right thing? Didn’t she praise you for being smart enough and fast enough to get away, when I wasn’t? Didn’t she thank you for running all the way back to her to let her know what happened? And you--” I added to Hancock. “You could show a little gratitude for the same thing, by the way. If Deacon hadn’t run, and run to you, I could’ve been there for days before you even got worried. It’s thanks to him that I’m all right, and I wasn’t there long enough to crack under what they did to me. Desdemona should have pinned a goddamn medal on you, Deacon, not left you in an abandoned crypt, feeling like shit, injured for God’s sake, your face isn’t even healed--”

“Nora--” Deacon was trotting alongside me, sounding anxious. “Look, don’t be mad at Des. She did try to talk me out of staying.”

“Yeah, well, she should have dragged you out of there by your goddamn ear,” I said. “Which is how I'm gonna drag you to the Castle if you give me any more lip."

"This is why I've taken the precaution of not having any ears to speak of," said Hancock, sounding amused.

“Look--” Deacon began.

“No, you look,” I snapped. “Didn't you even think for one second about how I’d feel if I did spill under torture, and then got rescued, and then found out you got yourself murdered by Brotherhood knights I’d sent to your location? Where you were for no reason, except that you insist on feeling endlessly guilty and shitty about things that are not your fault?”

"Nora--"

"That's my name," I said. "And I am your friend, and your partner, and your mother-in-law, and I am not gonna let you turn me into another goddamn stick to beat yourself with. You did not do anything wrong. And if I have to hold you at gunpoint and make you write it in cursive five hundred times to hammer it through your dumb bald head, don’t think I won’t fucking well do it.”

For a minute nobody said anything, as I tromped furiously onward, stepping on twigs to hear them snap.

Then Hancock said, “Deacon-- you know what-- and not just because my wife’s got eye lasers that sear the flesh from men’s bones-- but-- she’s right. I shouldn’t have-- You did do the right thing. And maybe you saved her life. So. I’m sorry. And thanks.”

“Jesus,” said Deacon, a little shakily. “I finally cracked, down there, and now I’m hallucinating. And apparently my wildest fever dream involves Hancock saying something nice to me.”

“Well, that's fuckin' weird,” said Hancock dryly. “But-- credit where it’s due. I owe you.” He hesitated for a second. “Also-- am I gonna regret asking this? ‘Mother-in-law’?”

“Goddammit,” I said. “I’m sorry, Deacon. Apparently twenty hours in the Brotherhood’s bunker used up my entire capacity for keeping a secret for the rest of my life.”

“It’s not a secret,” said Deacon. “I didn’t even know you hadn’t already told him.”

“It seemed like--” I hesitated. “Not a secret. A-- confidence? Something-- private.”

Deacon shrugged. “You can tell him. Not like he doesn’t already hate me.”

“I don’t hate you,” said Hancock. “You just get on my goddamn nerves. Nothing personal-- I’m sure you get on most people’s. So what’s the big secret?”

“Deacon was married,” I said, after a pause to see if he’d say anything himself, which he didn’t, just looked at his own walking feet. “And it turned out she was a synth. One of the ones who didn’t know she was. And she died. Was murdered.”

“Shit.” Hancock stopped walking, and after a couple of steps, so did Deacon and I. “You serious?”

Deacon said, "Yeah. Tell him the rest.”

“There’s no ‘rest,’” I said. “That’s the reason I said ‘mother-in-law.’ You loved my daughter, and you lost her.”

“It was my old gang that did it,” said Deacon to Hancock. “That I used to run with. An anti-synth gang I was in, when I was younger. I’d left them, it had been years, but-- That’s why they killed her. Because she was-- because of me.” He shrugged again. "That's when I joined the Railroad."

Hancock looked at Deacon for a second, then took a step towards him. Deacon backed up a step.

“Not the face,” he said, a little real panic underlying the flippancy in his voice. “Or the gut. Mommy, he’s scaring me.”

Hancock took another step forward, put his arm around Deacon’s shoulders, and pulled him, awkwardly, in closer. Deacon held himself stiffly, arms at his sides, as Hancock thumped gently at his back with a closed fist a couple of times, and then let him go.

“Definitely a fever dream,” said Deacon, his voice several notches less steady than it had been a moment ago. “Nora came down to HQ without so much as a limp, and told me nothing was my fault, and she was taking me home. And then Hancock gave me a bro hug. Might as well enjoy it, I guess, till I wake up with a gun in my mouth.”

“See if you can magically beam us back to the Castle with your lucid dreaming powers,” I said, “because if you can’t, we should get our asses in gear. I’ve got a lot to take care of back home. Including you."

"This is easily the most menacing you have ever sounded," said Deacon, with another wincing attempt at a grin, "and yet I'm pretty sure you actually mean you're gonna feed me supper and put me to bed early. Maybe with a book."

"That's exactly what the fuck I mean, mister," I said. "Let's move."

Chapter Text

So...

I really hesitated to put this here, because obviously this is a fanfiction site not a personal blog, but-- a lot of people are grieving (/sad/angry/frightened) today, and if I had to take a wild guess I would guess some of you guys are some of them, and I love y'all, so I did want to say something. Not about politics, because this is not where any of us want to do that I think (and if you do, please don't, not here), but about grief.

(If you are not currently upset about anything, kindly disregard this letter. Regular service will resume in *kzztch* hours.)

I originally got into Fallout 4 when I was having an exceptional amount of trouble dealing with being a person in the world, and I loved it because it was so immersive and fun and exciting and had such a strong central motivation-- find your stolen child!-- and such a rich world to explore and influence and fall in love with along the way. It invited strong emotions that still felt safe to have, because they weren't based on real things. I got very very into it, and then, at the end-- the closest thing the game has to an end-- I cried. But not like in that pleasantly cathartic oh it's so lovely I'm so moved way. "I cried," to quote Mr. Universe from Serenity, "like a baby. A hungry, angry baby."

It felt like the game had broken my heart. And the whole point of it being a goddamn video game was that it wasn't supposed to be able to break my heart. But it did, because--

Those of you who have played the game know that the closing narration for the main storyline includes the line, in voiceover, in the player character's voice, This is not the world I wanted.

My most wonderful grief counselor, the one who I think saved my life, once said to me, very gently and very matter-of-factly, "Of course you're tired. You worked really, really hard-- and you didn't get what you wanted."

There's no good ending to Fallout 4. No matter what you do, no matter what you choose or accomplish or sacrifice, no matter how hard you try. You lose. You don't get what you wanted. And then it keeps going. Life goes on, the way it does. And so do you.

That's why I started writing about it. Because...

This is not the world you wanted.

Of course you're tired.

Be brave.

Love, Maculategiraffe

Chapter Text

When we got back to the Castle, I went straight to the bell and hit it.

People straightened up from their weeding and watering, emerged from doors and archways. Beau and Tanvi came side by side from her lab, Beau carrying Naveena; Alice Hastings and Melinda Severne came out of the infirmary together. Michael, Emily, and Danse emerged in a group from indoors, Max stood from among a thicket of mutfruit bushes-- he still seemed to find working on the crops delightfully novel-- and Cog and Victoria wandered closer from the scavenging station, where they'd taken to sorting salvage for me, figuring out what should be dismantled for parts, what should be kept to sell, and what could be improved for household use. As they all turned towards me, I saw red lettering, not only on Danse’s forehead, and not only, still, on Michael’s and Emily’s, but on Max’s, Cog’s, and Victoria’s. They’d all painted SYNTH on their own-- or, judging from the neatness of the lettering, each other’s-- foreheads.

“Nora?” Deacon murmured, looking around, as they all smiled at me, with varying degrees of shyness and radiance.

I beamed back, and took a deep breath, and said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Hi, everybody! Just a couple of things. First of all-- well-- hi! I haven’t really properly greeted everybody since I got back a couple of days ago.”

“Welcome back!” called a few people.

I smiled. “Thanks so much to everybody who came out to help rescue me, and to the rest of you for putting up with all this craziness while we bring the Brotherhood of Steel into line. There’s probably going to be some more craziness as we get new information in, and get the terms of the new arrangement hammered out. In a few minutes I’m going to head into the conference room to hear what news we’ve gotten already, and what settlements we’ve heard from, in terms of the transition, and who we maybe need to check in on. But first, let me officially introduce you to a couple of people. For those of you who haven’t met him yet, the gentleman standing with Emily and Michael is Danse, and obviously, he’s a synth, so I know you’ll all make him feel welcome and safe. And this,” I said, putting my hand on Deacon’s shoulder, “is a friend of mine who’s going to be staying with us for a bit, Jonah Dee.”

Deacon had suggested, meekly, on the walk back, that I not immediately negate whatever stealth advantage his face swap normally offered by announcing to the entire Castle that he was my friend Deacon, just with a new face. I started to argue, and then remembered what Dixon had said to me in the bunker about how I’d been seen in the company of a “known Railroad agent,” which suggested that maybe Deacon wasn’t as paranoid as I’d thought all this time. And I did have a brainwashedly-Brotherhood-sympathizing synth at the Castle. Plus, now that the Brotherhood were Minutemen-aligned, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that gossip could trickle back and forth between the Castle and the Brotherhood. It made me feel weary to think about-- I hated subterfuge in my personal life-- but I finally agreed with Deacon that we could come up with an alias for him, and swear Emily, Michael, Max, and whoever else he agreed on an individual basis could be trusted, to secrecy about who he really was. He’d picked the alias himself, for reasons unknown, other than-- as he pointed out-- the fact that “Dee” would make it easier to cover for any slips anyone who knew the truth might make. I assumed by anyone he meant me, and was trying to be tactful, which was cute.

“Please make him feel welcome, too,” I said. “I know you will, because you guys are the greatest. Just-- the greatest. I--” I started tearing up again; I hoped getting tortured hadn’t made me into a permanent crybaby. Hopefully this emotional stormy weather would clear back up at some point. I remembered Hancock, last night, asking for a week, before he had to let me go out on my own again. Maybe in a week, I’d be able to look around at the faces of my people and not start to bawl for no reason. “I just-- thanks, everybody. That’s all.”

Emily and Michael had come closer, Danse following behind Michael like a child, as I spoke, and when I was done and people began to disperse, Emily came forward to hug me, and the tears started falling in earnest. When Max, Cog, and Victoria saw the hug, they came forward, too, and I hugged each of them in turn, and then Michael. Danse stood back, just behind Michael’s shoulder, looking dazed. I looked at Michael, who shook his head slightly, so I didn’t try to hug Danse, just smiled at him.

“Feels a little weird,” said Max, touching his own forehead, “but hell. It’s kind of a badge of honor around here.”

“I think it’s freaking Dr. Hastings out a little bit,” said Cog in a low voice. “She thinks we’re starting an anti-human movement or something.”

“Nobody painted anything on her face,” said Victoria. “‘Former Institute-enabled synth-exploiter’ would be too long to fit on there, anyway.”

“We all wanted to show Danse,” said Emily, quietly. “That we’re not ashamed. That he doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of, either.”

“My God, Nora,” said Deacon, looking around at the six faces, one with the scar, the others with the paint. “They really are your kids.”

I’d almost stopped crying, dammit.

………………………………………………………..

I asked Hancock to go ahead to the conference room, while I took Deacon to the book room. Emily, Michael, and Danse followed us there, or rather, Emily and Michael followed us and Danse followed Michael; Cog, Victoria and Max started to go back to work, but I said, "Hold up a sec, Max. Come with us? Just for a minute. I think you and Dee here are really gonna hit it off."

Max gave me a quizzical look, but followed us to the book room, where I got Deacon settled on a couch, and brought him The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which caused Michael to shoot me a quick glance, and then examine Deacon more closely than before.

“Are you a synth, too?” Danse asked Deacon, unexpectedly-- or at least I hadn’t been expecting him to speak up without having been spoken to, let alone with a direct question to a stranger.

“Me?” said Deacon. “One of the heirs of the kingdom? Like you? No, sir. Just a simple human your mother’s taken pity on. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”

Emily was instantly alert. “Is that a line from a poem?”

“A song,” said Deacon, looking up at her. “I don’t know the tune, though.”

“Do you know the rest of the words?” Emily asked. “Will you write it down for me?”

“Of course, miss,” said Deacon. “Nora, go have your briefing. I think I’m gonna be OK.”

I hesitated. “I was going to-- Michael and Emily were so great at the negotiations, I kind of wanted to ask if they’d--”

“Of course,” said Emily quickly. “I want to hear how everything’s going.”

“Are you willing to stay here with Mr. Dee?” Michael asked Danse. “With Max as a witness?”

(Not as protection, I noted, but as a witness. I hadn’t thought about it like that, that Danse might be nervous around a stranger, not only because of what the stranger might do to him-- he had to realize by now, if he realized nothing else, that I’d be pissed as hell if anyone hurt him-- but because of what the stranger might report to me about Danse’s behavior when they were alone. I remembered Emily, soon after she’d started work in the tarberry bog at the Slog, terrified into physical shock because a settler had told me she was a thief. David hadn’t even meant any real harm, hadn’t realized how scared Emily was all the time that something would happen, that her luck would change, that she’d lose her new home as suddenly as she’d gained it. I hadn’t realized it either, until she whispered tremulously to me, her body limp against mine: I thought I would have to leave here.)

Danse was hesitating, looking at me.

“What do you need?” I asked him.

“The-- briefing,” he said. “Could-- I-- attend?”

“Danse--” The pronoun, and making a request that wasn’t please don’t hurt my abusers or please verbally disable my speech functions-- I wanted so badly to hug him. I was going to have to ask Michael why I wasn’t allowed to. I was sure there was a good reason-- Michael hadn’t made a mistake with Danse, yet, that I knew of-- but I couldn’t understand what it could be. Michael hadn’t been the world’s most adept hugger himself at first, but he’d never been actively distressed by being hugged, even in the beginning. That I knew of, anyway, and I was almost sure he would have found some way to let me know.

Almost sure.

“Yes,” I said, seeing Danse’s eyes still fixed on me, not afraid that I could see, just waiting, “yes, of course you can. That’s a great idea. It’s pretty relevant to your interests, right, hearing how everything’s going with the Brotherhood? And-- well, I don’t know if you’re going to be comfortable speaking up in front of the Minutemen, but if you are, you should, if you have something you’d like to say. You’re sort of our Brotherhood representative-- or, I guess, since you’re not officially a member any more-- advocate. You’re our on-site Brotherhood advocate. I mean, no pressure or anything,” I added quickly, when his eyes widened. “There’s no duties attached to that particular job description, other than what you’ve already done. In fact-- I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before-- you need to read the contract we signed with them yesterday. OK. Emily, Michael, Danse, let's head on to the conference room. Max, Dee, you two can be getting acquainted."

Michael raised an eyebrow at me, and I grinned at him, before we all walked out of the room.

…………………………………………………………………

The briefing was encouraging. Word had come in, already, from almost every Minutemen settlement that I’d assigned a Brotherhood outpost to investigate, and in almost every case, the Brotherhood had received the Minutemen without protest, and allowed them to make a thorough assessment of the state of things, which apparently was pretty woeful. The Brotherhood weren’t particularly adept at farming, and most of their tech geniuses had been on the Prydwyn. I made notes to reallocate surplus crops from high-producing farms towards the new settlements for now, and ask for volunteers to move in at each one, at least temporarily, and help them figure their shit out in the longer term.

“No captives?” I asked.

“No,” said Matthew, “but-- apparently there's a child, at this site.” He touched the map. “About two years old. Not actually being mistreated, as far as anyone can tell, but obviously suffering from the conditions they’ve been living in. The County Crossing delegation wanted to know if they should take charge of the child and look after her themselves, at least until conditions improve.”

“Christ, no,” I said, appalled. “We don’t steal children, are you kidding me? Have them bring whatever she needs to her parents. She has parents, right? And monitor the situation, but don’t take her.”

Matthew nodded. “That’s what they’ve done so far, but we wanted to check and make sure you didn’t feel more drastic action was warranted, General. You’re the one who experienced firsthand what being powerless in the hands of the Brotherhood was like.”

“As a suspected enemy agent,” I said. “Not as their child. Even deathclaws look after their own eggs.”

Matthew smiled a little. “I’ll take your word for it, General. Now. Two exceptions to the smooth transition model.”

Apparently Recon Bunker Theta, even further north than Listening Post Bravo, had a terminal-sealed door that hadn’t responded to Outpost Zimonja’s delegation’s knocks and calls at all, either with cooperation or with an attack. The Minutemen had hung around for awhile, waiting for a response, and then headed back to get on the radio and ask for further instructions.

“I’ll go up there myself,” I said. ”Yes, Michael and Hancock, you can both come if you want to. But I don’t want to do anything drastic without making sure it’s not just a miscommunication-- maybe their radio’s broken or something. Hell, maybe they all got eaten by a yao guai, or accidentally locked themselves in there and starved to death. What’s the other exception?”

“Somerville Place reports that the Brotherhood agents at the edge of the Glowing Sea shot at them when they approached,” said Matthew. “They retreated-- no casualties-- and they’re awaiting instructions how to proceed.”

“Mmm.” I bit my lip, considering. “Well, that’s more urgent. Let me think. We know the problem’s not with the Brotherhood’s radio message, because everybody else obviously got it, so either it’s a technical glitch at the Glowing Sea, or they’ve just flat-out decided not to cooperate. Either way-- OK, I’m going down there first. Do you guys think I should go right now, or can I wait until tomorrow?”

“What if you contact Greentop Nursery,” said Emily, “have them send someone over to Listening Post Bravo, and see if they know anything about the Glowing Sea situation?”

Michael nodded. “Agreed, ma’am-- with the added suggestion that you have your delegates advise the Brotherhood detachment at Listening Post Bravo to deploy messengers to both the locations in question. They may respond to fellow Brotherhood more readily than to the Minutemen. In any case, you will wish to ensure every possible effort has been made to communicate the new situation to each location, before matters-- escalate.”

“You guys are so fucking brilliant,” I said. “So let’s do that now, Matthew, and then wait to see what we hear back. If we hear back from both and it was all just a big misunderstanding, great. If we hear back from one and not the other, I’ll head wherever we don’t have the status update for. If we don’t hear back from either, or the situation doesn’t resolve itself either place-- well, I’ll go to the Glowing Sea first, since we’ve had actual shots fired down there, and just hope whatever’s up at Recon Bunker Lambda--”

“Theta,” said Matthew.

“Whatever. Recon Bunker PITA. That whatever’s up there can keep for longer. What is it, Danse? You have something to say?”

“What will you do to the bunker?” Danse asked. I could monitor the pallor of his skin by how badly the scar stood out; when he got some sun on his skin and quit being so terrified all the time, I’d bet it would be a lot less awful-looking. “If you don’t receive a response? You spoke of drastic action.”

“Well, I mean, we’ll obviously try to avoid any drastic action,” I said. “But, in the last resort, I guess-- the same thing the Minutemen were about a fifth of the way through doing to Listening Post Bravo when Kim got outside. I’m sorry, Danse, I’m really doing everything I can not to hurt any of your-- former comrades-- or destroy their homes, but if they don’t cooperate with the terms of the contract, they’re not leaving me much of a choice.”

“If it comes to that--” Danse took a deep breath. “The Brotherhood officers at Listening Post Bravo will probably-- volunteer this information, if you ask them-- but-- if they don’t-- I-- know the password. To the bunker. So you can-- unlock the door.”

“Oh!” I said. “Oh, Danse, thanks so much, thanks for telling me that. I swear we’ll try not to let it come to that, and if it does, we’ll avoid casualties as much as we possibly can. Thank you, Danse, that’s incredibly helpful. To us, and to whoever’s at the bunker, too.”

He nodded, lowering his eyes to the table.

“All right,” I said, looking at Matthew. “Anything else I need to know?”

“I don’t think so, General,” said Matthew. “Would you prefer to speak on the radio yourself, or have me do it?”

“I’ll do it.”

…………………………………..

When I’d done the new radio announcements, I checked back in on Deacon, who’d fallen asleep on the couch, his shades askew against the arm where his face rested. Max had Tristram Shandy on his lap, and looked up at me, smiling, SYNTH red against his brown skin.

“‘Jonah,’” he said. “Apparently there’s a whole story, about a giant fish. I ever tell you why ‘Max’?”

I shook my head.

“G7-81-- Glory-- used to tell me I was working too hard, for the Institute,” he said. “She said we didn’t owe them shit but minimum effort. Whenever I went out of my way, above and beyond, you know, she’d say, ‘Maximum effort again, G7-95. Gotta quit with the maximum effort.’ After awhile it got to where she’d call me Max, and I’d call her Min. We'd do it in front of the guards, even-- they didn't know what the fuck we were talking about.” He'd turned to look at Deacon. “I think he misses her almost as much as I do.”

I nodded. “She was-- something else.”

“Turns out we all are, I think,” said Max, still looking at Deacon. “But she figured it out a lot faster than I did. That we weren’t-- what they said. That we were more. I wish I’d’ve figured it out fast enough-- or that I could still-- tell her. That she was right.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean. There’s things-- I wish I could have told her, too.”

We were quiet for a second, and then I said, “Be right back,” and went to get a blanket and pillow. When I came back, I put them down on the floor and moved to lift Deacon’s legs up onto the couch. He woke with a yelp, and kicked me hard in the arm.

“Ow,” I said.

“Nora--” He clutched at his shades, straightening them, and looked up at me. “Where-- what--”

“At the Castle,” I said. “Trying to make sure you don’t cripple your back. Here. Lift up your head a little. And stretch out your legs.”

I slid the pillow under his head, and started unlacing his boots. He turned his head, saw Max, and exhaled softly.

I got his boots off, covered him up with the blanket-- the couch was long enough for him to stretch out straight, so it shouldn’t be too uncomfortable for him to sleep there, and until I could get more beds crammed in here somehow, it was a good thing, too-- and tucked him in.

“You know the house rules,” I told him. “What’s mine is yours. Food, water. Books. Friends.” I leaned down to kiss him, lightly, on the forehead. “Sleep well, Dee.”

I couldn’t tell, behind the shades, if his eyes were open or closed, when he said, “Oh," and then, his voice just a scrape of breath, "OK.”

Chapter Text

I’d officially decided, as I walked back out of the book room, that I was keeping Deacon. It was ridiculous for my friend and honorary family member to be sharing dirty mattresses with other Railroad agents, or sleeping in a bedroll in an alley in Goodneighbor, as I’d once caught him doing (he’d claimed he was on secret official business and shut up and stop talking to him and hey lady you got a problem) when I lived in a goddamn castle. Having him asleep under my roof had always been weirdly satisfying, when he’d deign to spend the night, and now that I knew he was just as likely to be sitting in a dark room staring off into space and waiting to die for his imaginary sins, I was having zero of this nonsense any longer. If Desdemona wanted him back, she could come to the Castle and arm wrestle me for him.

It was really a shame most of my kids didn’t actually sleep; there was something about knowing a person in your care was asleep, safely, and nothing was going to touch them. Before the world ended, I used to sit in my baby’s nursery and watch him sleep, and after, I did the same thing with my new Shaun for awhile, sitting by his bed after he drifted off listening to a story or a lullaby, watching his eyelids twitch, listening to the sound of his breathing. For a little while he’d wake whimpering, sometimes, from nightmares, and although at first he wouldn’t tell me what they were about, one night he’d finally burrowed against my shoulder and hiccupped out that he dreamed I wouldn’t take him with me, out of the Institute, that I told him I wasn’t his mother, and then I was gone, and everybody was gone, or dead, and then, and then--

I’d held him and kissed him on his hair and promised him I was always his mother and I would never, ever leave him behind, and felt horribly guilty about the fact that-- just for a second, there in the dying, screaming Institute-- I’d considered it. Considered whether a synth programmed to look and speak and act exactly like a ten-year-old version of my dead son wouldn’t be the most morbid and unnerving memento that son could possibly have posthumously burdened me with. Considered whether Father-Shaun had done this to punish and torture me, to make sure I’d never be able to properly grieve him and move on, and whether it wouldn’t be healthier for me just to let this sick, twisted project of his end along with the rest of the Institute.

It had only been a moment, less than the space of a breath, before I caught him up, hugged him till he squeaked, and handed him to Tinker Tom to relay safely home, but Shaun-- my new Shaun, my wiggly, crafty, sunshiney boy, my armful of reason-to-live-- must have seen it, and it had given him dreams. Being a mother was like being a god: if you weren’t paying attention every second, every split second, shit got royally fucked up. And even if you were.

Before the world ended, when I only had one child, and he couldn’t even talk or walk, I used to stare at him and think: who gave me permission for this? What right do I have to be in charge of this infinitely vulnerable, terrifyingly malleable, unspeakably valuable person?

And the only real answer to that question had been the discovery-- over and over again-- of who was going to be in charge if I didn’t step up and at least try to take care of shit. Unqualified and winging-it as I was, at least I meant well, and was willing to learn how to do better, constantly, from all my miraculous children.

Speaking of whom, Michael caught me as I walked out into the courtyard-- caught me almost literally, cupping my arm with his hand, without quite grasping it. Danse, behind him, watched for my reaction, which fortunately was entirely genuine delight-- Michael so rarely initiated physical touch with me that when he did it felt like he was hugging me even when he was just getting my attention. He could have gotten my attention with a word, after all, or with an eyebrow.

“Ma’am,” he said, “have you shown Danse the artillery pieces?”

“No.” I grinned with pleasure; the artillery was something Danse might really like to see, and that I loved showing off. “Danse, come look at this, you’ll like this. I found the schematics for building it in the old armory here. Historical. Good stuff.”

He followed me, again, up the stairs to the top of the wall, Michael silent and grave behind him, and I showed him the nearest artillery piece. No one was actually manning it at the moment, or in earshot, and when Michael sat down on the concrete base built into the wall, that I’d cleared of the ruined artillery pieces and used as the base for the new ones, I sat down, too, facing him, legs pulled in close. Danse hesitated, watching me.

“You may continue to examine the construction of the artillery piece for as long as you wish,” Michael told him. “It is an interesting, if somewhat old-fashioned, technology. You may touch it.”

As Danse laid a hand lightly on the mortar, as if testing to see whether it would explode at his touch, Michael added, to me, “Ma’am, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course, son,” I said.

“I observed,” said Michael, “that when you arrived home, you hugged every synth here, except Danse. Can you tell me why that was?”

“You shook your head at me,” I said, surprised. “When I looked at you. I figured-- you thought I shouldn’t.”

Danse had gone still, one hand on a gear at the side of the mortar, not looking at us. Michael didn’t look at him, either. I took my eyes off Danse and fixed them on Michael.

“Let me make sure I understand you correctly,” said Michael. “You would have liked to hug Danse, but you refrained, because you saw me indicate that I thought you should not.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said. “Was I wrong?”

“No, ma’am.” Michael smiled at me. “Did you wonder why I thought you should not?”

“Yeah, I did,” I said. “I was gonna ask you, later, when I got a chance. Um, is now a good time, or should--” I trailed off, trying to follow Michael’s lead and not look at Danse, who was moving again, circling the mortar and the mechanism slowly.

“Would you say you understand how the artillery works, ma’am?” Michael asked me.

“Uh, basically,” I said, guessing that his change of subject meant no, now wasn’t the best time to discuss why hugging Danse was a bad idea. “Although there’s parts in there that I don’t actually know what they’re for. I just put them in because the blueprints called for them. Maybe they’re just there to look cool.”

“There is nothing in the artillery piece that is just there to look cool,” said Michael. “But it is interesting that although you made it, you do not completely understand it. That there are parts of it you do not understand at all.”

Dense as I was in general, I did manage to twig that he wasn’t just talking about the artillery. “You mean--”

“It’s something I’ve been-- re-evaluating,” he said. “For a long time, I believed that as my former masters in the Institute had created me-- and observed me from the moment of my creation, and trained me in all the skills I possessed-- that they must therefore understand me. I accepted their-- instructions, and their restrictions, and their corrections--” he smiled a little-- “in that belief. That if there was a-- discrepancy-- between my understanding and theirs, mine must be at fault. And I strove to eliminate any such discrepancy. Any such fault.”

I nodded, fascinated. Emily and I had had this kind of conversation before, about what it had been like for her in the Institute, but Michael had never seemed like one to volunteer for feelings-sharing, even past-feelings-sharing. If it was Danse who’d prompted this, that was yet another reason to be glad I’d found him.

“If I ever suffered pain,” Michael continued, “or deprivation, it was either a negligible side effect of whatever mission I was accomplishing, or it was-- for my own benefit. To increase my worth, as an asset to the Institute.” He smiled at the face I made. “I realize it runs counter to your values, ma’am, but at the time, I was-- well, I don’t believe it ever occurred to me to wonder whether I was happy, but in retrospect, I was-- if not happy-- then at least-- calm. I knew I had value, I understood my purpose, and I fulfilled it. This was not the case for all synths, of course-- some were unhappy in the Institute, even desperately unhappy, enough to risk their lives and their minds in an attempt to escape, even into a frightening unknown. Like unit M7-97.”

Michael didn’t look at Danse as he spoke, and, following his lead, neither did I, although I could see out of the corner of my eye that he’d knelt down to examine the circular track the larger gears ran on. He’d be used to hearing people talk in his presence without inviting him into the conversation, of course; he’d even be used to having them talk about him without expecting him to respond. Look at it. It’s freaking the fuck out. What do you think she said to it?

I didn’t feel great about imitating the Brotherhood’s treatment of him in any way, but I did trust Michael, that he wouldn’t be doing this if he hadn’t thought it through.

“He does not remember why he fled the Institute, of course,” said Michael, still not looking at Danse. “But there must have been dire cause, I think. He would not have rebelled without it. You mentioned, at the meeting with the Brotherhood, that, as a paladin, he took great pride in belonging to their ranks, as I once took great pride in my status as a courser. In skilled obedience to a greater authority, that knew how to value that skill, and that obedience.

“But since the Brotherhood discovered Danse’s true nature, he has suffered greatly, to no purpose he has been able to understand, and he has not been-- valued, or offered any course of action by which he might achieve value, by his masters. He has been taught to regard his very existence as an affront to decency. A punishable offense.”

I nodded. “And here I come telling him it means--”

“The opposite,” Michael agreed. “That for the same reason he has been reviled and abused, he is now valued and cherished. That his new owner not only takes no pleasure in his suffering, but will go to such great lengths as you have done, rather than see him suffer when she can prevent it. Bewildering enough, even without your insistence that you are not his owner, but his mother.”

“Bewilderin’ Nora,” I said, “that’s what they call me down at the Third Rail.” Michael’s mouth twitched, and Danse made a sound, a tiny choked-off sound that made my heart soar into the stratosphere at the thought that, just maybe, it had been a laugh. “So hugs are just-- too much bewilderment, is that it?”

“It’s difficult for a human to understand, I think,” said Michael thoughtfully. “When I belonged to the Institute, if I was ever physically-- handled-- by a human-- well, it happened rarely, but if it did, then it was simply because it served that human's purposes best to handle me in that way. When you first hugged me-- it didn’t distress me, ma’am, but it simply conveyed to me that-- that it pleased you to do so, and that to serve you best, I should observe how it pleased you to have me behave when you did so, and adjust my behavior accordingly. It took time before I understood the impulse that prompted you, and-- experienced-- what you meant, from the beginning, when you hugged me. That I am dearer to you than mere words can express. And it took more time, before I felt the impulse myself, and hugged you back, for the same reason.”

That would have made me tear up again, even if I wasn’t still in this weird post-torture emotional boiling-over state. Michael reached out and put a hand over my hand on the ground, letting it rest there lightly.

“Danse’s experiences-- the ones he remembers-- are different from what mine were,” he said gently. “But he is neither a coward nor a fool. He is brave enough to dare speech and actions with you that would have resulted in punishment from his former masters, and he is intelligent enough to observe and draw conclusions from your responses. Intellectually, he does now understand, I think, that you will never touch him with the intention to cause him pain, or fear, or-- degradation. But the body is slower than the mind, to learn new lessons, and unlearn old ones. Can you be patient, ma’am?”

I nodded, wiping at my eyes with my other hand. “Of course.”

“Of course,” Michael echoed, smiling at me. “May I ask you another question, ma’am?”

“Why do you do that?” I asked, smiling back. “Try to envision a scenario where the answer’s no, fuck off, don’t ask me a question. Go on, do it.”

He paused, and appeared to be seriously considering.

“See?” I said after a second. “I mean, if we’re both on fire, and you have a question about what’s for dinner, then maybe I’m gonna be like ‘that’s a really great question, son, but just hang on for one second while I extinguish us--’”

Danse made the little choking noise again. I was sure now it was a laugh. My children did tend to be among the very limited number of people on earth who found me funny, which was yet another reason to surround myself with them at all times.

“I take your point, ma’am,” said Michael seriously. “It’s a habit, I suppose. Do you find it annoying?”

“No, no,” I said. “I’m just joshin’ ya, son. You’re just being polite. There’s nothing wrong with being polite. Maybe it’ll even rub off on me eventually. You were saying? You have a question?”

“Yes,” said Michael. “Why have you not sent for Shaun?”

“Um--” I was startled; it wasn’t that it hadn’t occurred to me, when I was hugging all the rest of my babies, but-- “I-- I mean-- last time I saw him-- he seemed-- happy. Where he is.”

“Since the last time you saw him, you have endured a horrific ordeal,” said Michael. “You find the presence of your children comforting. And although Ms. Wright and Mr. Valentine will have made an effort to shield him from any anxiety on your behalf, he is bound to be aware, through gossip and rumor, that something has happened to you. I would guess that he would find it comforting to see you, as well.”

I hunched my shoulders a little. “It’s-- I don’t know, Michael. I’ve kind of got a lot going on right now. All this Brotherhood stuff, and a brand-new son to get to know, and having Dea--” I cut myself off just before the con, and Michael's mouth twitched again-- “staying here-- And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m a little bit of a wreck. Shaun’s probably better off with Piper, until I can pull my shit together better. Don’t you think?”

“No,” said Michael firmly. “I do not agree. If Emily had not arrived with the rescue party, you would have said the same things about her, and think what a comfort and a help she has been to you, in these last few days, and what pleasure she has taken in being of assistance. You and Shaun would both benefit from having him brought home at this time, and if there is anything you feel unable to provide for him, the rest of us are here to supply it. If you will permit me, ma’am, I will leave for Diamond City now, and bring him home.”

“Now?” I glanced over at Danse, who had stopped even pretending to look at the artillery piece and was just kneeling next to it, looking at the ground, listening.

“It will only take a few hours.”

“But--”

“Do you forbid me, ma’am?”

“No, but--”

“Then I am going,” he said, and rose to his feet in one quick, fluid motion. “Will you allow anyone or anything to harm or frighten Danse in my absence?”

“Not on purpose,” I said. “Michael, wait.”

“Danse,” said Michael, and Danse’s head snapped up, his eyes focusing on Michael. “Do you hear what she says? If she frightens you, it is because she has made a mistake. If you draw it to her attention, she will appreciate your assistance, as you have seen she appreciates mine. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” said Danse, and then, reddening, “Michael. Yes, Michael.”

“I’ll be back soon,” Michael told us both, and moved towards the staircase.

“Michael--”

He stopped. “Yes, ma’am?”

I’d meant to protest further, but looking at him, I discovered that I had neither the energy nor-- really-- the inclination.

“I love you,” I said, instead, smiling faintly up at him, and doing the gesture I kept doing by accident-- going to push my hair back, and hitting prickly scalp.

“I love you, mother,” he answered, and disappeared down the stairs, leaving me alone with Danse.

Chapter Text

“Hey,” I said, after we’d sat in silence for a bit. “He’s right. I’m not going to hurt you. And if I scare you, it’ll be because I’m dumb. Not because I mean to.”

He nodded.

“You believe me?”

He nodded again.

“OK, good,” I said. “I’m really proud of you, by the way, for using your pronouns, and for asking to sit in on the Brotherhood meeting. Michael’s right-- you’re smart and you’re brave. And good. All those things. Even if you weren’t a synth, and I didn’t love you because of that-- which I do-- I’d still-- respect you.”

“Before,” he said, “at Cambridge Police Station, and then at ArcJet-- it seemed as if you found-- me-- somewhat-- You seemed annoyed. By me.”

“I mean.” I hesitated, trying to remember exactly what I’d said at Cambridge Police Station, and then ArcJet, that would have led him to say that. I couldn’t picture Cambridge Police Station very clearly without thinking about Haylen, and how sweet she’d been to me, and how dead she’d been last time I saw her. I tried to focus on ArcJet, the part where he’d given me an unsolicited performance review, calling my enthusiastic and highly effective thankyouverymuch assistance in his damn mission “sloppy,” and then told me that unless I joined the Brotherhood, my life would be meaningless forever.

It was possible, yes, that I’d acted a little annoyed at the time.

“I guess you kind of hurt my feelings,” I said. “Calling my work sloppy-- and yes, I know you were just making the point that I was pretty-- untrained, compared to you. And that the Brotherhood could help give me more-- discipline. But I was so impressed with you-- and I was hoping you were impressed with me, too, and then you said-- Maybe I was too touchy.”

“I wanted you for the Brotherhood,” he said. “I thought you were the only way we’d prevail.” He gave me a little smile. “And I was right. If I hadn’t-- annoyed you, then-- if I’d said the right things, to persuade you to join us--”

“Danse,” I said. “Are you still wishing the Brotherhood had won? You’re a synth. If I had joined the Brotherhood then, and they had won, you’d be dead now. You said you were under sentence of death, until the Prydwyn went down and they fled to that bunker where you were hiding, and then they decided not to kill you because resources were so limited. If the Prydwyn hadn’t gone down--”

“If-- my life-- had to be bought with the lives of every man, woman and child aboard the Prydwyn,” said Danse, “then-- I should have died. The price was too high to pay.”

“Danse--” I swallowed, pain in my heart and my stomach, a sick leaden weight of guilt and sorrow and shame. I couldn’t tell him now, when he hardly even knew me yet. Could I? Should I? Would I lose him forever if I did? Would I lose him if I didn’t?

I couldn’t. Not yet. Not without Michael here to help me. And not up on the wall. He’d push me off, and I’d break my neck, and then Hancock would kill him, and everything would be terrible.

“It’s not--” I took a breath. “Danse, first of all, it wasn’t just your life the Brotherhood would have taken. It was every synth-- Michael, and Emily, and Max, and Cog and Victoria, and my little Shaun you haven’t met yet-- and so many others you haven’t met yet, either. The Brotherhood’s plan-- their policy, they were already doing it, whenever they could-- was to slaughter them all, for no reason, just for being who they are, who they can’t help being. And not just synths. Sentient ghouls, like Hancock-- and any humans who sided with them and tried to defend them, like-- everybody here. Me. They were a fucking murder gang. A really well-organized, well-trained, well-provisioned one, but-- And even now. They had you crawling around naked cleaning piss and blood off their torture victim. You’re a good person, goddammit-- if you were still a paladin, if you were in charge, you would never have let them do that shit to me. Or even to a synth. Would you?”

“I would have had a synth destroyed,” said Danse flatly. “If one had been discovered in our ranks. Limited resources or not.”

“Even if that’s true,” I said, “which, I don’t know, if it had come right down to it, if it had been somebody you actually knew-- but even if you would have-- do you still think it would have been the right choice? Knowing that you’re a synth, and it’s completely thanks to you that every surviving member of the Brotherhood in the Commonwealth isn’t dead right now? You bought their lives, if you want to look at it like that. Your death wouldn’t have saved the Prydwyn, but your life-- your existence-- and your courage, and your loyalty, and your quick thinking-- saved the remnant.”

He looked down at the concrete, and was silent.

“Danse,” I said to him, and he looked back up at me. “Remember what-- Dee-- said to you, about being one of the heirs of the kingdom?”

He nodded.

“That’s kind of how it is,” I said. “When Preston offered to make me the general of the Minutemen, if I’d do the work and build them back up, I thought-- well, the Commonwealth is clearly-- no place to raise a kid. I was looking for my baby, and I thought-- well, when I find him, what kind of life are we gonna have? My husband’s dead, it’s just me now, to take care of him, and this place is a dangerous shithole--”

“That’s why the Brotherhood came here,” said Danse. “To make things safer. To bring order.”

“To impose order,” I said. “Your knights came to some of my settlements, you know, demanding ‘tribute’ in exchange for protection.”

Danse grimaced a little. “I told Elder Maxson that was a bad idea.”

He seemed to say “I” much more readily, I noticed, with much less hesitation, when he was speaking of things that had happened when he believed himself to be human. Naturally enough, I guessed.

“Yeah, well, at least they were smart enough to leave when my people told them to fuck off, they had all the protection they needed,” I said. “But that’s the thing-- they did have the protection they needed, because-- because, like I said, the Commonwealth wasn’t going to work for me and my kid the way it was, so I started-- building. Building networks, building defenses, building-- trust. I knew it didn’t mean anything to say I was the general of the Minutemen unless I made it mean something, and so I made it mean-- what it does mean, now. I’ve put in the work-- I’m still putting in the work-- and people know they can count on me, they know I’m on their side, that I’m not going to let them down, and so-- when push comes to shove-- they trust me to lead them. I’m in charge. I run the place. But instead of making it safe for just me and Shaun, now I’m making it safe for--” I held out a hand towards him. “You. All of you. And anyone else you need safe. Everything I’ve built-- everything that’s mine-- it’s all yours, too. Because you’re-- mine.”

He looked down again, swallowing.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to-- overload you, here.”

Danse was quiet awhile.

Then he said, without looking up, “Are you with the Railroad?”

What do you mean? What makes you say that?-- but no, I couldn’t evade. It would be too obvious. And if I lied now, once he found out the truth, he’d never trust me again. And how could I hide it from him forever? I couldn’t.

“Yes,” I said.

He nodded, still without looking up. “Are you Bullseye?”

I heard Michael’s voice: The more questions you ask, the better pleased she will be. “Yes.”

“You brought down the Prydwyn.”

I was actually shaking; I held my teeth apart to keep them from chattering audibly. My lips were numb. It hadn’t been this scary being tortured and interrogated by the Brotherhood. Maybe because I couldn’t lie, now. “Yes.”

He looked up, then. His face was white, the scar crimson. “Did you know there were children on board?”

“Not until-- late,” I said, drawing in on myself, trying to stop my shivering. My voice was shaking, too. “Too late to just-- I’d already placed the explosives. And your people had seen me, and they were shooting at me, and I was trying to get off the ship. That’s when I saw-- and if, I’ve thought about it a lot, whether, if I’d surrendered right then, and confessed everything, and told them where the explosives were and how to deactivate them, and let them execute me-- or torture me for more information, forever, until I died, I guess, I guess that’s what they would have done-- but if I’d put my hands up then-- when I saw the children-- But I didn’t. I had to-- I had to decide-- right then, in one second, there wasn’t time to think, well, maybe it’ll be better for me to die horribly, and betray my friends, and all the synths, and let the Railroad be destroyed, and let the Brotherhood win, and let them keep killing my family until they’re all dead, than to-- There wasn’t time. I just ran. I just let it happen. I got away, and I watched it happen.”

He kept his eyes on me as I spoke, and when I was finished, he looked at me silently for what felt like at least an hour before he said, “Do you still think it was the right choice?”

“I don’t know.” My eyes were watering. It didn’t feel like crying so much as the involuntary reflex of being so cold. “I think about it-- I dream about it-- and when I dream, sometimes, I try to do something different. I try to go to where I saw the children first, I try to gather them up, and get them away with me, but they fight me, they scream for help, and all these knights come running, and-- or I try to go to where your Elder is and-- reason with him-- but he starts shooting at me-- and in the end, I always end up doing what I really did. Running. And it always-- the explosion, the fire-- it always happens. I can hear them screaming, I can-- in the dream, I can smell-- the burning, and the--”

I had to stop; my throat had closed up, as if I were going into anaphylactic shock from telling this much of the truth. I never talked to anyone about this. Not even Hancock; not even Emily. Certainly not Deacon, who was the only one who might have understood, a little; but we so rarely talked seriously, about anything, except for the time he’d told me about Barbara. It was so much easier just to banter with Deacon, than to ask him if he ever dreamed about the Prydwyn. Or if he’d known, before he sent me on board, that there were children there.

“Maybe,” I said finally, when the pressure in my throat had gone down a little, “maybe that’s why I let-- your people-- take me. On Monday. I didn’t mean to, I don’t mean that, I didn’t mean to get captured, but last time-- last time I didn’t, I got away, and killed you all, and maybe this time, in that one moment that I had to decide, maybe I thought-- or not thought, maybe I just--” I flapped my hand helplessly. “Like Michael said, just now. The body’s-- slower to forget-- lessons. Than the mind. Maybe my body just said, nope. Not getting away. Not this time.”

Danse’s eyes were still on me. I didn’t know what else I was supposed to say, what else I could say. I’m sorry seemed pathetically inadequate.

Finally, he said, “In the cell. When the synth unit-- when I-- was ordered to-- clean you. Before-- I-- saw your face. The Brotherhood officers had said-- and so, I believed-- you were Bullseye.”

His hand on my back. The gentleness, as I struggled for breath, as I hurt everywhere. He could have hurt me, so easily. He’d taken care not to.

I started really crying, then, and pulled my knees up to my chest, and buried my face against them. I couldn’t look at him.

I jumped so badly, when I felt his hand on my back again, that I scared us both, and his hand disappeared momentarily, and then came to rest again, big and warm and surprisingly steady, against my shaking back.

Chapter Text

I was crying so hard-- and, apparently, so audibly-- that I didn’t hear anyone else approaching; I looked up when Danse’s hand jerked away from my back and saw Hancock and Emily, just before Hancock dropped down beside me and pulled me into his arms, me still crying too hard to speak.

“It’s all right, Danse,” said Emily’s voice. My face was pressed up against Hancock, the cloth of his coat soft against my feverish cheek. I knew how Deacon had felt in the crypt. I didn’t deserve to have arms around me, to be held against the familiar-smelling coat of someone I loved, who loved me, who thought I was a good person. I didn’t deserve to be protected. I hadn’t deserved to be rescued. I should still be on the floor of the Brotherhood’s torture cell, getting systematically fucked up, for what I’d done.

But if I was still there, then Danse would be, too.

So. The hell with that.

Emily was saying, gently, “Can you tell me why she’s crying?”

I didn’t hear him answer, but Emily said, “All right. It’s all right. What were you talking about, can you tell me that?”

There was a silence-- apart from the sound of my own sobs, which I couldn’t stop; they felt like they’d been headed my way with grim purpose for years and, now that they’d finally arrived, were going to rack me as long as they damn well pleased.

“I’ve seen her cry like this, before,” said Emily softly. “When she told me what she’d done to the Institute, and why. To free the synths. And I told her I was a synth.”

“Asked,” said Danse, barely audibly. “About the Railroad. About-- the Prydwyn.”

Hancock’s arms tightened around me.

“Ah,” said Emily, and there was a silence, as my sobs abated, grew shallower and farther apart, until they’d eased enough that I could choke out, “Danse--”

He didn’t answer. I twisted around in Hancock’s arms, my body still shaky and weak, barely obeying me, and Hancock helped me as best he could, until I was sitting up, more or less in Hancock’s lap, and could see Danse. He knelt, palms flat on the ground in front of him, head hung down, Emily beside him, not touching him.

“Danse,” I said again, and he looked up at me, waiting. “Thank you.”

He nodded.

“Really.” I didn’t know how to say it properly, what he’d given me, with that touch, those few words. Not forgiveness exactly, certainly not redemption-- I didn’t know if either one was really possible, not for what I’d done. But. The gentleness of his hand. The absence of hate. It was-- mercy, maybe that was the word. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. “Danse-- I-- Thank you.”

He nodded again, smiling at me faintly. I guessed that was all I could really say. Maybe he understood.

“So these are good tears, then,” said Hancock. “Wish they came out a different color, so I could tell right off.”

“They’re-- complicated.” I sat up straighter, my back still against Hancock; dragged in a breath, coughed, sniffed, wiped my face on my sleeve. “I’m-- such a-- crybaby-- lately. I’m sorry-- guys. Sorry, Danse. Not normally-- like this.”

“Don’t say that,” said Emily sternly to me. “‘Crybaby.’ You said that before, too, Tuesday night, after-- Mother, you wouldn’t call anybody else that, and you know it. If they were crying.”

I laughed a little, my breath still coming in gasps that weren’t quite sobs anymore. “Nobody else-- cries this much. Cat’s-- out of the bag-- Railroad-wise. By the way. Turns out-- Danse isn’t-- dumb.”

“Too bad,” said Hancock. “Would’ve been nice for at least one of your kids not to turn out sharp enough to cut themselves, but I guess with your genes-- and I didn’t know your Nate, but he must have been a sharp customer too, to nab you.”

“You calling yourself-- sharp?” I teased weakly.

“Why do you think I keep a Mentat in my cheek at all times?” Hancock looked at Danse. “So. You asked, and she told you--”

“That she is the Railroad agent,” said Danse carefully, “that the Brotherhood believed her to be.”

Hancock nodded. “Feeling any urges to tell anybody else?”

Danse went a little pale, and shook his head.

“Good,” said Hancock. “Don’t think that would do anybody much good at this point, do you?”

Danse shook his head again, eyes wide with alarm.

“You don’t have to be scared of Hancock,” Emily said to Danse. “He’d never hurt you, even if he could, which he can’t, because either our mother or Michael, or both, would kick his ass if he tried.”

“Hey,” said Hancock. “It’s never actually been established who’d win in a fight, me or your mother.”

“In a fight to protect one of her children?” Emily asked, grinning.

Hancock thought about that for a second. “Yeah, she’d kick my ass.”

“You’re damn skippy,” I said hoarsely.

“Anyway,” said Hancock, “Not threatening you, Danse. Just saying. The Brotherhood’s got a good thing going, with this alliance, and that’s what we all want. You most of all. Alliance, and peace. Right?”

Danse nodded.

“Good,” said Hancock. “Then we’re all on the same page.”

“Who would he even tell?” Emily asked. “He lives here now, with us.”

“Never know,” said Hancock. “We might have another meeting with them, here. And anyway, if he decided to take off for the nearest Brotherhood outpost right now, what do you think she’d do about it?”

“Cry,” I said.

There was perspiration on Danse’s face. “It would never-- it knows better, please, than to--”

“Danse,” Emily said, and he turned to look at her. "I ran away, once. I waited until she was asleep, and took the gun she'd given me, and just-- took off."

Danse's eyes flicked up and down Emily's body, as if confirming that all her major limbs were still intact.

She smiled at him. "And I got myself captured by raiders-- because I hardly had any ammunition, even if I could have-- really fought back. And I was so scared, that I told them I belonged to her, and they sent her a ransom demand. They made me record a holotape, begging her to-- and then-- she showed up, she killed most of them, and the rest ran, and-- I knew she'd come, I knew her that well by then, and I knew she wouldn't-- punish me-- but I did think she'd-- I thought she'd yell at me. At least. Ask me what I was thinking, how I could be so-- but she just-- she asked me, if there was anywhere she could take me. Anywhere I wanted to go. That she'd see me there safely, if I wanted her to."

Danse seemed to consider that for a moment, and then seemed to be about to speak, when Deanna’s head emerged at the top of the staircase. She raised her eyebrows at my tearstained face, but just said, “Hey, General. Tune your Pip-Boy to Diamond City Radio.”

Puzzled, I did. Deanna disappeared again as I twiddled the radio dial until I heard Travis’ voice.

“--very public views on synth equality, which led her to adopt the lovely young synth lady many of us had the pleasure of meeting at General Bowman’s wedding last month--”

Emily giggled.

“--didn’t sit well with the Brotherhood of Steel, whose opposing views on synths are equally well known. Seems the general walked out of the bunker shortly after the Minutemen showed up in force, and announced that she’d scheduled a meeting with Brotherhood officers to, quote, ‘make sure this never happens to anyone else.’ But here’s the really interesting part. Apparently the general brought with her out of the bunker a man whom she did not introduce, but who apparently did not go back inside at any point. Well, I can only speculate. Hostage for the Brotherhood’s good behavior, or a captive she rescued from their clutches? Old acquaintance, or new friend? Either way, I’m gonna go out on a limb and speculate that this mystery man had something to do with the general’s unexpected leniency towards her kidnappers, and if so, the Brotherhood definitely owes him a vote of thanks. Must be a wonderful guy!

As the song started up, I flicked my radio back to Radio Freedom and looked up at Danse, who looked gobsmacked.

“You’re famous,” I said. “Dammit, now Piper’s going to want to interview Michael as soon as he shows up to get Shaun.”

Emily laughed. “Oh, mother-- I know he’s not going to talk to her on the record without clearing it with you first, but wouldn’t you love to read that article?”

I grinned. “Sometime we’ve got to get Michael to give Piper an interview. In fact, sometime we should just have her to the Castle again and let you all talk to her. Unless that would get her excited enough to actually kill her.”

“The good thing about this,” said Hancock, “is that if the guys at the Glowing Sea, or Recon Bunker Theta, are on their fifth day of being drunk off their asses and dancing to Diamond City Radio because it’s got better tunes than Radio Brotherhood, this’ll probably make them switch it back.”

“Good point, actually,” I said. “They might only have one radio each, and they might not keep it tuned to the Brotherhood signal at all times. Good old Travis and his current events.”

“I have a question,” said Danse.

I smiled at him. “Ask it.”

“I understood,” he said carefully, “that it was-- I was-- part of the-- the price. Part of-- your bargain, with the Brotherhood. You said you were confiscating-- me-- as partial recompense for your pain and suffering.”

“Mmm.” I looked at him thoughtfully, noting how clearly he remembered my exact words, how focused he must have been on what I said in that moment, as his world shifted unthinkably around him, again. “I did say that, didn’t I.”

“So--” Danse’s eyes, such a light, clear brown that they were almost golden, were fixed on me. “I understood that-- I owed you-- whatever service you might require. In-- indefinitely. Not only as-- your property-- but as-- recompense. For your--” He gestured slightly towards my Pip-Boy. “Your leniency, towards the Brotherhood. Not that I-- have any intention, of leaving your service, of--" His hand flickered towards Emily this time. "But even if-- you chose not to punish-- me-- directly-- would that not-- if I were ever to leave here-- would that not invalidate the bargain?”

I didn’t want him to leave. I was terrified to think what could happen to him out there. He was barely in his right mind. If I let him keep thinking that he owed it to me, or to the Brotherhood, to stay, at least until the deprogramming had had a chance to kick in a little more fully--

But if he stayed, I wanted it to be because he wanted to, not because he thought he had to. Emily, Michael, Max, Cog, Victoria-- they all knew they were here of their own free will. Even Shaun had flown the coop, safely. The point of home was that you could always come back to it and be safe. A corollary that, if you left, you’d invalidate the bargain that kept your mother from killing the people you inexplicably cared about, kind of defeated the purpose.

“Well,” I said finally. “Consider that part of the price-- paid. By what I’ve-- had of you. Already.”

“You’ve had-- nothing-- of me,” said Danse, obviously bewildered. “I’ve done nothing. I haven’t even earned the food you’ve provided.”

“You don’t have to do anything to earn me feeding you,” I said. “I’m your mother. And if you still owed me anything, for what I’ve done for the Brotherhood-- and-- refrained from doing, to them-- you paid me back just now, when I told you--” Tears threatened again, just at the mention. Pull yourself together, General. “With your-- kindness. It’s more than I had-- any right to expect. I hope you’ll stay with me-- I’ll try to make it worth your while-- but not as a-- a hostage, or a-- price. That’s-- all squared away. You’re free and clear.”

He was silent.

Beside him, Emily lifted her hand, slowly, watching his face for a reaction, and laid it lightly on his shoulder. He didn’t move. After a second, she took her hand off his shoulder, and sat back.

“You know,” she said, “if somebody touches you now, and you don’t want them to, you can just say ‘stop,’ and they’ll stop. Say ‘take your hand off me,’ and they will. Or just-- pull back. Give a little shrug. And the hand’s gone. You know that?”

He didn’t answer, just looked at her.

“I didn’t, at first,” said Emily. “I didn’t even really think about it, you know-- you just assume that they’ll do whatever they want with you, right? How could what we want have anything to do with it? We’re theirs. For whatever they want to do with us. Whatever they want to make us do. Work. Crawl. Scream. Beg. Shut up. Hold still.”

Danse nodded seriously, as Hancock’s arms tightened around me again; although I hadn’t moved, he’d know that each monosyllable of Emily’s calm litany would be a punch to my already sick stomach. I really, really wished I’d taken more time killing the raiders who’d been keeping Emily prisoner when I found her. Why couldn’t I have recurring dreams about that? I had some great ideas about how I could have improved on that scene in retrospect, and I’d wake up beaming, instead of shaking.

“I’m not a human, though,” Emily told Danse, and lifted her hand to touch, lightly, the word still painted on her forehead. “I’m just like you. Just your little sister.”

He smiled a little.

“I’d like to hug you,” said Emily. “But only if you’d like it, too.”

He looked at her for a second, and then he nodded.

She moved in to put her arms around him, very gently, and then tighten them, holding him close. He put his arms around her, too, and she put her head down on his shoulder, relaxing against him, the way she did against me when I held her like this.

I felt, watching them, my own body relaxing a little against Hancock's, that she was hugging him not only because he was her brother, not only because she wanted to offer him something, not only because she'd heard me thank him for his kindness to me, but because I couldn’t, not yet; because having a human handle him, as Michael had put it, set off alarms in his head that being offered a hug by another synth-- I’m just like you-- might not. Obviously didn’t, judging from the way, now, he closed his eyes, bent his own head, and rested his cheek against her auburn hair.

Chapter Text

Danse and Emily held each other for a pretty long time, and it was Emily who pulled away first, and said, looking clear-eyed up at Danse, “Thank you.”

He gave her an endearingly dazed little smile. “For--?”

“For the hug,” said Emily, smiling back at him. “And for whatever you did to make our mother thank you a minute ago, because I love her and I’m glad when she’s glad.”

The little smile stayed as he repeated, almost under his breath, “‘Our mother.’”

“Yes,” said Emily, beaming.

“I never--” He sobered, suddenly, his brow furrowing. “I have these-- memories. Of being a child. An orphan. In the Capital Wasteland. The Railroad--” He looked at me. “The Railroad-- fabricated-- these memories, is that right?”

“There’s a doctor,” I said. “I don’t really understand how it works, to be honest. I can take you to her, though, if you want. Or go to her and ask her myself, if you aren’t comfortable. If you have questions.”

“I have--” He gave a soft little exhale, not quite a laugh. “I suppose I do have-- questions. Michael knew-- unit M7-97, in the Institute. Slightly. But he doesn’t know why it-- why I-- ran away. Would this doctor-- know?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess she might remember, if you ever told her. Or I can ask-- the leader of the Railroad. She might have records. To be honest, you’re the first one I’ve ever-- most synths who’ve had the memory mod, I guess they never realize they’re synths, so they don’t-- come to me. There was a girl, once-- but she was happy, she’d been adopted by a Railroad agent, and she thought she was his regular human daughter. Which I never really-- I mean, if the fake memories were supposed to be keeping them safe-- she was safe. If he didn’t mind she was a synth-- why, why she’d choose to-- believe a lie. Instead of just-- being glad. For the truth.”

“I get it,” said Hancock, his fingers moving against the back of my hand, stroking lightly. “Wanting a new name, a new face. A new start. Saying, I’m not that person any more. I’m somebody new.”

“But if you don’t remember who you were--” Emily said pensively. “Isn’t it important to remember? So you know how you got to be who you are now?”

“I didn’t blame her,” I told Danse, who was looking from me to Hancock to Emily, listening intently. “I think--” I thought of H2-22, how scared and cowed he’d been on the night the Railroad had assigned me to escort him safely to Ticonderoga Safehouse. How Stockton had told him sharply not to talk to anyone, not even me; how High Rise had talked so blithely of “filing the serial numbers off”; how Dr. Amari had spoken so crisply and firmly on the holotape he’d left me: It’s time, H2. “I think sometimes-- the Railroad-- they mean well, they mean it to protect you, but-- I guess it’s easy, when you’re trying to help people, to just assume that what you think is best-- safest-- for them, is definitely what they should do, and-- kind of pressure them into it. Without-- helping them understand-- all their options.”

“Options,” said Danse, his gaze shifting past me, towards nothing in particular.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like how you made the choice to save the Brotherhood, which if you’d paused time and asked me, right before you started in with your Morse code, if you’d been able to say, hey Nora tell me what are my options in this scenario, I would’ve probably said, you just sit tight there son and wait until my people have killed everyone here except you and me, and then we’ll sort out your options. But you had an idea I would never in a million years have come up with for you, and you-- did it. Saved your guys. Changed the face of the Commonwealth. So.”

He stared not-quite-at-me for a bit, and then he said, huskily, “Nora?”

“Yeah, sweetheart.”

His eyes refocused on me, startled.

“Sorry, that was-- presumptuous,” I said, blushing a little. “What can I do for you, Danse?”

"You said--” He lowered his eyes. “You said you still had-- the laser rifle. I gave you. At ArcJet."

"Oh yeah!" I smiled. "I do! Do you want it back?"

He hesitated only for a second before he said, "It was a gift. To you. But. I would like to-- see it. Again. Please."

"Whatever you want." I pulled myself, lightly, against Hancock’s still-encircling arms, and he loosened his grip enough to let me pull myself up to my knees, and then try to stand on shaky legs. Hancock rose, quickly-- something about being a ghoul, I thought, let you move quicker and easier, although I tried not to think of Hancock’s lithe strength in terms of the ferals who launched themselves at you with a kind of gravityless, enemy’s gate is down delirium of speed-- and reached to help steady me. Emily rose, too, and reached towards Danse, who didn’t hesitate to take her hands in his, although she had to brace herself hard to pull him to his feet.

“Hey,” Hancock said to me, as we moved towards the staircase. “While you folks do that, I’m gonna check in on Dee. See if he needs anything.”

“Don’t wake him if he’s still asleep,” I said. “He needs his rest.”

“I won’t."

“And don’t let him leave without talking to me first.”

Hancock kissed my cheek with his rough lips as we reached the bottom of the stairs. “Ten-four, General."

"You'll appreciate my weapons collection, Danse,” I said, as Hancock moved off and I led the way, Danse and Emily following, towards the general storage room near the workshop. “I've modified a lot of them myself, and Shaun helps me, too-- he likes to tinker. Has Michael told you about him? Who he is?"

Danse nodded.

"He's a good kid," I said. "Sweet. Gonna be excited to talk to you. That laser rifle of yours, he’s studied it a fair bit. The modifications you made to it.”

“Do you use it?” Danse asked.

“Not any more,” I said. “Not since-- it felt-- wrong, to keep using it, after--” I cleared my throat, swallowed back the tightness of my throat, didn’t finish my sentence.

He didn’t say anything, and neither did Emily or I, until we reached the storage room, and I knelt down by the trunk where I kept my best, least replaceable weapons and armor that I didn’t use regularly. Danse knelt, too, and Emily sat down on the floor nearby. I raised the lid of the trunk, lifted out the rifle, and offered it to Danse.

He took it, carefully, and examined it, turning it this way and that, checking first to see if it was loaded (of course it wasn’t; I never left loaded weapons just lying around in storage) and then clicking the safety carefully on and off, touching the trigger lightly, turning it over, and then over again.

"You can look through the scope, you know," I said, and he shook his head slightly, his thumb caressing the stock.

"I-- did this," he said, eyes still on the gun. "That was real."

"Yeah," I said, my heart spasming slightly. "I think-- well, anything after you joined the Brotherhood, all that definitely-- really happened. The Railroad wouldn't have placed you-- well, obviously. But I don't know how long before that-- hey, did you ask Michael if he remembers when you escaped from the Institute? He might remember what year it was, that might help you narrow things down."

Danse nodded vaguely. "I will ask. But this--” He held up the gun on his open palms, as if it were important evidence of something. “Not all of it was a lie. This-- I did this."

“You did a lot,” I said. “It was all real, everything you accomplished for the Brotherhood. None of it was a lie. You did what you did. Just because those ungrateful fuckers-- OK, sorry,” I said, as he lowered his eyes. He obviously didn’t like it when I talked shit about the Brotherhood, and whether that was because he still believed in the truth of their doctrines or because he was scared I’d suddenly decide this peace treaty business was for the birds and have them all destroyed-- or both-- I was going to have to watch it in front of him. “Listen, Danse-- I want you to have the rifle back. Please. I can’t use it any more, and you need a good weapon, one you’re comfortable with, and-- yeah, it’s something you did, something real you accomplished, that you can look at and use and take pride in.”

“It’s your rifle, Nora,” he said, looking up at me. “But if you want to allow me to carry and handle it, I would be-- it would be a privilege. For me. Thank you.”

“Consider it--” I paused. “Consider it however you want, but I’m gonna consider it yours, OK?”

He gave me the same tiny, dazed smile he'd given Emily after she hugged him. “OK.”

“I’m gonna give you some ammo for it, too,” I said. “You don’t have to carry it around all the time, obviously-- there’s a footlocker by your bed where you can keep your things. And speaking of things you need--” If he didn’t even feel comfortable looking through the rifle’s scope yet, power armor was probably a reach, but-- “Clothes? Would now be an OK time to look through storage and find you something better than that dumb jumpsuit?”

He nodded. “If you wish, Nora.”

He set the rifle carefully beside him on the floor while we dug through a bunch of different outfits, and he picked out-- or paused on and looked up at me for approval-- some jeans, a long-sleeved, collared blue shirt, and a winter jacket that looked too warm for the current weather, but that he touched so longingly that I didn’t protest. I grabbed some socks and underwear, too, and asked if his boots were comfortable.

He hesitated.

“No, then.” I fished out a couple of pairs of the biggest boots I could find in storage, and set them on top of the stack of clothes in front of him. “Danse-- look. I’m gonna make a rule for you, OK?”

He looked up, his eyes widening with what looked like equal parts hope and uncertainty.

“You like rules?” I asked, smiling a little. “Sure you do. How else could you have stood the Brotherhood? OK. I’m not that good at making rules, but I’ll try to be better, if it helps you feel-- more comfortable. Here’s one, anyway. Any time you’re aware of a need you have-- say you’re hungry or thirsty, or you feel sick, or have a wound, or your shoes don’t fit right, or there’s something you need to know, or something you need me to know but you’re not sure if you’re allowed to speak up and tell me. Anything you could think of and frame as ‘I need--’”

“Synths don’t have needs,” said Emily. “We have parameters for optimal function.”

I turned to look at her, and she said, grimacing a bit, “I mean. Maybe it’s different for Danse. He doesn’t remember the Institute. But I bet the Brotherhood told him the same thing. Maybe not in those words.”

“A synth does not deserve to exist,” said Danse. “Anything granted to it, including its continued existence, is a privilege.”

“There you go,” said Emily.

“OK,” I said, a little dizzily. I’d been in over my head this whole time, but I was only just realizing to what extent. “OK, so, not ‘I need.’ Then--"

“‘I wonder if she knows,’” Emily suggested quietly. “‘I wonder if she knows I’m hungry. I wonder if she knows my shoes don’t fit. I wonder if she knows how difficult it is, what she’s asking of me. Because if she knows, then of course I have no right to imply that I’m dissatisfied with her treatment of me, or that I want something she’s chosen not to give me, or that I’d refuse to obey any order, no matter how difficult. But if she doesn’t know-- I wonder if she knows.’”

Danse stared at her as if she’d started to glow with a golden light. She gave a little shrug, smiling faintly at him.

“Yeah, well, I don’t know much,” I said. “Obviously. So. Let’s make a rule. That you tell me. OK? If you wonder if I know. And I won’t get pissy, or think you’re being-- demanding. Just giving me-- information. Valuable intel. For Project Danse.”

Danse gave another not-quite-a-laugh sharp exhale at that, looked down, looked up. “Yes, ma’am. Acknowledged. Then--"

"Yeah?"

“As per your-- rule," he said. "There is something I would like you to know.”

“Great,” I said. “What is it? Report.”

He looked down at the neat little stack of clothes on the floor by his knees.

“It has not,” he began. “I have not been-- dressed-- since the Brotherhood discovered its-- my-- hiding place at the bunker. They stripped-- me-- even before--” He lifted his hand to touch the scar, lightly. I nodded, repressing a diatribe against the fucking Brotherhood, at least until I was with somebody who didn’t mind. Danse was telling me something.

“When you gave orders, in the bunker, to have clothing brought for me,” he continued, “I thought-- perhaps-- you didn’t understand, that I really was a synth. And then, when you confirmed that you did, I thought-- I thought you very generous, in allowing me to be clothed for-- for the outdoors, and for my first encounter with your-- people. But I kept-- expecting-- until I asked Michael, when we were alone. Whether I should remove the clothing you had granted, and if not then, when. And he told me you would prefer that I remain clothed. That you would not rescind the privilege, either as a matter of routine, or even-- as punishment.”

He looked up at me, as if for confirmation.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said, telling myself that someday he was going to let me hug him, that I was perfectly capable of waiting. “Again, ‘feed and clothe’ is pretty much in the mom job description. And even if I wasn’t your mom, I wouldn’t want you walking around naked. No offense to your very manly frame, but we’re not really a clothing-optional type household, here at Fort Independence. Except for very specific and, uh, self-determined circumstances.”

“It was-- difficult,” he said. “For me. To be naked. To wear clothing again is--” He seemed to search for a word. “A great-- relief. I wanted you to know that. If you did not know already.”

“I didn’t,” I said. “But I’m glad. Thank you, Danse.” I hesitated, then decided even if I couldn't risk a hug yet, I could risk an offer. “On that note-- and tell me if this is too much, too fast-- but I meant it when I said I had some power armor suits you could pick from, if you wanted.”

He hesitated, too, for so long I thought maybe he was having some kind of episode and started to withdraw the question. I decided to wait, which was good, because he finally said, “If-- if I may ask a favor--”

“Yep.”

“May I see the power armor-- later,” he said. “Not now. May I ask you, when-- when I’m ready.”

“That is--" I didn't know how to say how great it was, hearing him basically promise me, and himself, that he would eventually be ready. "That is-- perfect. Yes. I look forward to it."

“Thank you," he said.

"Thank you for asking." I tapped the pile of clothes lightly. “Now. Also on the same topic-- if you’re good with these clothes, I’ll leave you alone to change. I won’t go far, though, so you can come find me when you’re all set. Unless," I added, suddenly reconsidering-- speaking of his options-- "you’d like a break from me. In which case I can leave you with Emily, or let you just wander and explore on your own. Whatever you want.”

He looked down at the clothes again, and took a breath. “You have-- if I understand correctly, from Michael, you have-- very generously-- allocated me-- a bed. At what times-- under what circumstances-- may I-- use it?”

“Any time,” I said. “Any time you’re tired and want to rest. Or just want to be quiet and think about things, without anybody bothering you. Is that what you’d like now?”

“May I ask.” His eyes were fixed on the clothes. “Michael said-- regarding food and drink-- that I was to-- feel free, to help myself, from your stores.”

“That’s right,” I said. “Did he show you where we keep them? Food and drink?”

He nodded, eyes still down.

“If you aren’t comfortable just grabbing whatever,” I said, “come find me, or Michael or Emily, or anybody you’re comfortable talking to, and have them confirm that whatever you’re taking is fine. But I promise you, it is. I mean, if you eat seven boxes of Fancy Lads Snack Cakes and drink an entire bottle of bourbon in one sitting, you’re probably not going to enjoy the next twenty-four hours that much, but not because I’m going to punish you for it. But you’re not gonna do that, anyway. You’re a smart guy.”

There was a pause before he said, "Michael also said-- that no one here would attempt to harm me. And that, if anyone other than you or he attempted to give me an order, I was at liberty to-- disregard it."

"Right," I said. "I don't think anybody's going to hassle you. They know you're-- mine. But yeah, that's right, if anyone tells you to do anything you don't want to do, you can just ignore them. If they push it, tell them I told you so. If they push it harder, come get me."

“Then I would like,” he said, “to be-- left alone-- for now.”

He didn’t actually physically cringe when he’d finished the sentence, but he held himself so still, looking down at the ground, that it had a similar effect, as if he expected me to backhand him immediately for his insolence.

“Sure,” I said, and he looked up at me, his face opening up somehow, several muscles visibly unclenching. “Come on, Emily.”

I stood up, and so did Emily; Danse stayed on his knees.

“You’re doing so great, Danse,” I told him. “I’m so proud of you. So happy, to have you here. And so-- grateful. Again. For--”

For your hand on my back, both times you set it there.

For the fact that you asked, and I told you, and I think-- I'm almost sure-- you still don't hate me.

He looked up at me thoughtfully, when I didn't finish, and then nodded, once.

“Come grab me if you need me,” I told him. “I mean-- wait, hang on, I know this one. If there's a situation I don't know about that you would like me to know about. Come grab me then. See, I can learn. I'm not as dumb as I look."

Emily laughed, and Danse smiled, not just the little mouth-curve he’d been doing more and more, but a real smile, that went all the way to his eyes and transformed his face, made him look not like the grim-jawed, resolute, no-nonsense soldier I’d met at Cambridge Police Station, and not like the anxiously deferential slave I’d met in the bunker, but like someone I’d never actually met. Someone he’d been before the Brotherhood got hold of him? Not in the Institute, though, not if it had been bad enough for him there, as Michael had suggested, to drive him to run. Maybe someone entirely new. Emily’s first big smile, when she’d first won at checkers against Wiseman, had hit me the same way, even though I hadn’t actually known then how likely it was that it was her first-ever real smile.

I smiled back, so widely my face ached, and then made myself turn aside, to where Emily stood waiting, smiling too.

“C’mon, baby girl," I said. "Let’s go make sure Dee hasn’t ducked Hancock’s clothesline and lit out for the hills.”

Chapter Text

“Have I told you today that you’re amazing and I’d be lost without you?” I asked Emily as we walked towards the book room.

“Yes, mother,” she said demurely. “Thank you.” She slipped her hand into mine, and added, “You’re doing really well, mother. I know Danse can see how hard you’re trying. How much you care. Just like I could.”

“You could?” I squeezed her hand. “I was just thinking about how horrible it must have been for you, early on-- I mean, I didn’t have you, or Michael, to explain you to me. What’s it been, three days, Danse has been with us? How many things had I said and done to terrify the life out of you in the first three days you were with me?”

“Three days in?” Emily considered. “I was just-- confused. You kept bringing me food, and you wouldn’t tell me what I was supposed to be doing to earn it. And you kept talking to me, but none of it was-- orders, or instructions. I listened so hard, to figure out if you were-- if I was supposed to be able to figure out, from what you said, what it was you wanted from me.”

“I didn’t know-- how much I needed to explain,” I said. “I didn’t know anything. You were just-- outside my experience.”

“Same,” said Emily, smiling at me. “But we figured each other out, eventually. If it happens faster with Danse, because of me and Michael, then-- good. But the important thing is that you love him, and he’s going to figure that out eventually.”

“You talking about me, gorgeous?” Deacon asked as we entered the book room, where he was curled up on the couch, his head still resting on the pillow I’d brought him. Hancock was sitting where Max had been; Max was gone, presumably back at work. “No wonder Hancock’s so seethingly jealous of me all the time. There’s a scoop for Piper. Newlywed Bowman Nurtures Secret Passion for Mystery Man in Shades. Mad General’s Beautiful Daughter Tells All. ‘My Mother Doesn’t Actually Give a Fuck About Synths; It’s All to Impress This One Guy.’”

Emily snorted with laughter.

“Good God, Emily, don’t encourage him,” said Hancock, as I shut the door carefully behind us, and Deacon tried to smile at Emily with his still-swollen face. “I told him not to leave without talking to you, Nora, so talk to him already.”

“Yeah,” said Deacon, pulling himself up into a sitting position. “What’s it gonna cost me to get out of here?”

“A serious conversation about a couple things,” I answered, sitting down on the opposite arm of the couch. Emily took the loveseat, watching Deacon.

Deacon kicked at the blanket I’d brought until one leg was free, and jack-knifed it towards his face, bending forward with his mouth open and teeth bared.

“What are you doing,” I asked wearily.

“Trying to gnaw off my own leg,” he said. “I’ve heard it can get you out of a tight spot, sometimes.”

“Deacon, would you sit still and shut up for like one second,” I said. “First of all, you live here now.”

“I knew it,” said Hancock, pointing at Deacon. “What did I say? Do I know my wife? I’m just surprised it took her this long.”

“So am I,” said Emily, and smiled at Deacon when he looked at her.

“Nora,” said Deacon, more seriously, looking back at me. “Look. That’s really-- sweet. Of you. And I guess it was inevitable that you’d eventually try to adopt me, just like you do everybody else. But. Be reasonable. I can’t live here.”

“Why not?” I demanded.

“For one thing,” said Deacon, “I’ve only been here about five minutes, and I’m already driving Hancock insane.”

“Uh-uh, bucko,” said Hancock. “Ain’t gonna pin this on me. Think I closed this deal by throwing a fit every time she decided to take in a lunatic who thought all ghouls should be exterminated? Let alone a slightly annoying cue ball with shades?”

“See, and you love Michael now,” I told Hancock.

”Slightly annoying?” Deacon repeated. “Sir, I’ll have you know I can piss off a saint at twenty paces. I can get on the nerves of a coma patient with no brain waves detectable to medical science. It’s a little-known fact, but if someone’s savvy enough to invite me to the wake of a loved one who’s passed on, by morning they’ll have come back to life just to beg me to shut the fuck up.”

“I one hundred percent believe that,” said Hancock, “but nevertheless. You live here now. Let’s both learn to deal with it, because-- I mean, I’m sorry. This is Nora Bowman. Have you two not met?”

Deacon looked at me. “Even you’re gonna be sick of me in a week.”

“Try me,” I said.

“Desdemona--”

“Don’t fuckin’ talk to me about Desdemona,” I said. “You know the first thing I ever heard her say to you? ‘Deacon, you’re late.’ You bust your ass for her 24/7, you’re out all over the Commonwealth running ops and risking your life and recruiting tourists and heavies, while Desdemona hides underground smoking and bossing everybody around. And does she ever thank you? ‘Deacon, you’re late.’ ‘Deacon, I need intel.’ ‘Deacon, I’ve pissed off the General of the Minutemen and I’m too lazy to fix it, you apologize for me and convince her to join us.’ ‘Deacon, shut up about helping humans, I don’t take your advice about anything, you know that.’ ‘Deacon, me and everybody else are getting to safety, but I guess if you’d rather stay here and get murdered for no reason instead, I don’t have any real problem with that.’ ‘Hey, guys, news bulletin on the radio, Bullseye got rescued from the Brotherhood, and now she’s merged them with the Minutemen. This is great news! Should we let Deacon know? Nah. He’ll turn up eventually. So I can yell at him for being late.’”

“Nora,” said Deacon in a small voice, and despite the damage to his face, I thought I recognized the expression on it; I’d seen it not too long ago on Danse’s, when I went off about the Brotherhood.

“I’m not--” I shook my head. “Deacon, I’m not-- I’m still with the Railroad. And I owe Des a lot, I know that, for what she’s done for my kids, and for getting me inside the Institute in the first place-- but that doesn’t mean I can’t get pissy with her about-- stuff. Including the way she treats you. The way she treats me, too, but it’s different for me, because-- because I have a home. And a family, that loves me. And so do you, and I’m tired of you acting like you’re some rolling-stone drifter and the Railroad’s the closest thing you’ve got to a family. The Railroad’s a lot of great things, but it’s a piss-poor substitute for a family. You’re not a prisoner here-- you’re a grown-up, ostensibly, and I’m not gonna chain you to the wall, you can leave if you want to leave-- but it doesn’t change the fact that this is your home, and my family is your family. You can put on your beggar’s rags and slum around all you want, but you are one of the heirs of the kingdom, by marriage and because I love you, and you can put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

There was a pause.

“You said a couple things,” said Deacon finally. “A serious conversation about-- a couple things. What else?”

“Danse,” I said. I wasn’t sure where we’d landed as far as him staying on, but I felt I’d made my position as clear as I possibly could, so I accepted the change of subject, for now. “He’s got questions, about his past. Would Desdemona have answers? Would Amari? Did you guys ever do-- I don’t know. Exit interviews? H2-22 left me a holotape, saying goodbye, and explaining-- why he chose the memory surgery. Might there be-- anything? Of Danse’s? M7-97’s? Anywhere?”

“Maybe.” Deacon sounded a bit subdued. “I’d have to ask Des. She’ll probably have some kind of record about what agents were involved with his extraction, at least, and if those agents aren’t dead-- and that’s a big if, as you know-- we could get in touch with them and see if they remember anything. Amari-- I don’t know what kind of records she keeps. You want me to stop by Goodneighbor and ask for you?”

“I can go to Goodneighbor myself,” I said. “I do need you to be in touch with Des for me, though, because you know where she is and I don’t. So go talk to her-- tell her what’s up, and find out what you can from her about M7-97-- and then come back here and report. Does that sound OK?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “When do I leave?”

“Whenever you feel like it,” I said. “Like I said. You’re a grown-up, and this is your home. You want to stay a little longer before you head out again, recharge your batteries, let Desdemona stew a bit more, you’re not gonna get any argument from me.”

“She’s gonna be so mad at me,” said Deacon, but he sounded almost happy about it. “For coming back here before I checked in with her.”

“I’ll write you an excuse note,” I said. “To whom it may concern. I found my son-in-law sitting on a coffin in a crypt, semi-delirious with grief and guilt, with his face all fucked up, and so I made the executive decision to bring him home with me for a goddamn nap. You got a problem with that, feel free to come to my Castle and challenge me to a duel for his honor. I’m kind of busy right now, but I’ll try to squeeze you in. Love, Nora. P.S., identified another possible bug in the memory modification process: one synth became a paladin for the Brotherhood of Steel.”

“If you’re writing me a note anyway,” said Deacon, as Hancock snorted, “I guess I might as well take the rest of the day. Head out in the morning. That OK?”

“Peachy keen, jelly bean.” I slid from the sofa’s arm to my feet, just as someone knocked loudly on the closed door. I turned and opened it, to find Victoria glaring at me.

“I left my book in here,” she said. “I didn’t know it was gonna be a private conference room now.”

“Sorry,” I said. “We’re done. Come on in. Oh, Victoria, actually, I’m glad you’re here. I’m going to need to take a trip to Goodneighbor sometime soon, to talk to Dr. Amari. Do you want to come? If you have any-- follow-up questions, or you want to have her give you a checkup--”

“Yeah, I’ll come,” she said, crossing to the shelf and picking up a book, and then another book. “My head feels fine, but it couldn’t hurt to let her take a look, make sure there’s not any wires or-- neurons-- hanging loose. And I didn’t really get to see that much of Goodneighbor last time, and it looked-- interesting.”

“Interesting would be the polite word,” said Deacon.

“Hey,” said Hancock. “That’s my town you’re talking about.”

“That’s why I didn’t say the impolite words.”

“Is this your room now?” Victoria asked Deacon.

“Um--”

“Because if I knew we were calling rooms, I’d have called this one first.”

“Uh, I think I’m just--”

“We do need to get you a proper bed,” I said. “There’s not one going spare right now-- and with Shaun coming home--”

“Me and Cog can build a couple more beds, easy,” said Victoria. “Out of your scrap. It’ll be fun. Question is where to put them. Are we gonna start putting beds in here? I’m OK with that, if I can move my own bed in here.”

I smiled. “The literature lovers can sleep in here, yeah? Guard the books. Do you really not mind?”

“Glinda, if I minded, I would definitely tell you,” she said. “Trust me on that. So the new guy, he got memory-wiped, too? By the pros, not by jank-ass Faraday?”

I nodded. “We’re trying to-- reconstruct. But, yeah, he escaped from the Institute, and the Railroad must have gotten hold of him, and given him some fake memories, and then he joined the Brotherhood of Steel. And then they-- figured out-- I don’t know how-- but you saw what they did to him.”

“Yeah,” she said, touching her own forehead, the red-paint word still bright. “Listen, Glinda-- is it cool if I talk to him? Danse? He seems kind of-- I mean, he was following Michael around like a little puppy dog, but now Michael’s gone, and he seems-- Danse seems-- kind of-- jumpy. I don’t want to spook him. But I’d like to talk to him.”

“He said he’d like to be left alone for right now,” I said. “I don’t know if that means just by me-- I offered to leave him with Emily, but he said alone.”

Victoria nodded. “Yeah, I bet he’s got-- a lot to think about. OK. Maybe later.”

“When you do,” Emily suggested, “tell him you don’t want to make him nervous, and you’ll leave him alone if he asks you to, but you’d like to talk to him if he doesn’t mind.”

“Yeah,” said Victoria. “OK.” She looked at Emily, then at me. “I’ll go get started on those beds, for now.”

“Thanks, sweetheart,” I said.

She gave me a little salute with the hand that wasn’t holding the two books she’d grabbed. “Sure thing, mighty sorceress.”

“I like her,” said Deacon when she was gone.

I nodded. “So do I. Are you going to nap a bit more? If the couch isn’t comfortable, you can take my bed for right now.”

“The couch is comfortable,” he said. “Nora?”

“Yeah?”

“If I do-- stay here,” he said. “When you get-- sick of me. Will you tell me? I mean--” His shades made it hard to tell whether he was meeting my eyes or not. “Just don’t-- pick a fight. Don’t come up with a reason to be mad. Just-- tell me to shove off, and I will. Easy. That way I can-- come back, when I need to. When the Railroad needs you, or-- OK? Will you do that? Promise?”

“Deacon--”

“Please,” he said.

I nodded. “Yeah. Promise.”

“OK.” He paused for a second. “Then-- OK. I live here. For now.”

“Good.” I smiled at him. “Welcome home, Jonah Dee.”

“You know the story of Jonah, right,” he said. “You realize what happened when somebody was dumb enough to take him onboard.”

“If I recall correctly, from Sunday school,” I said, “Jonah only got in trouble in the first place because he kept trying to run away.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Deacon, pulling the blanket back up over himself. “You’d think reading the entire Bible cover to cover would give you an edge in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, but no, here comes the prewar popsicle, and she went to Sunday school.”

“What is the Bible?” Emily asked.

“Fuckin’ weird book,” said Deacon. “Some good stories. Good poetry, too. You might like it, princess. Parts of it, anyway. Nora, don’t you have a Bible here for your kids to read? What kind of heathen household are you running here, anyway?”

“I’ll get you a Bible,” I promised Emily. “Deacon’s right, there’s parts of it you’ll probably really like. Come on, though, guys, let’s let him get some sleep.”

Chapter Text

“Greentop Nursery reports that the Brotherhood at Listening Post Bravo say they don’t know why the Glowing Sea detachment aren’t cooperating,” said Matthew, “but they-- that is, the Brotherhood-- are sending messengers down there now to convey the message. They ask that we not move until they’ve had a chance to speak with their-- compatriots-- themselves.”

I nodded. “Fair enough. We’ll let Somerville Place know to be expecting their approach once they’ve arrived and made contact. What about the frat house? Alpha Omega Theta?”

“The Brotherhood says no one’s there,” said Matthew. “They didn’t argue when they saw it on your map, because it is a base they’ve used in the past, but they said no one’s there right now.”

“Then why is the door terminal-locked?”

Matthew shrugged.

“Did they offer the password?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Huh.” I didn’t know if this meant the Brotherhood was deliberately holding out on me, or just that Danse had information the rest of them didn’t. Either way-- “Well, I guess I’m going up there to check it out.”

I fell silent, considering. Goodneighbor was on the way. I could take Hancock and Michael for protection, and Cog and Victoria for the Goodneighbor outing-- I was assuming Cog would want to come along, since they were generally pretty low-key inseperable-- drop Cog and Victoria off at Goodneighbor on the way, so Amari could check out Victoria’s brain and Cog and Victoria could have some time in the city, and ask Amari about records then, so she’d have some time to go through them if she needed it. Then, on the way back, pick up the kids, and the info, if there was any.

"General," said Quentin, rapping slightly on the half-open door and sticking his head in. "Just spotted Michael and Shaun coming home. Thought you might want to--”

“Anything else?” I asked Matthew, already standing up.

He smiled. “No, ma'am. I’ll get word out to Greentop and Somerville.”

“Great,” I said, and dashed outside, in the general direction of Diamond City.

Michael and Shaun were walking side by side up the road towards the Castle gate; Michael had blood on his armor and his shirt, but I couldn’t see any on Shaun’s T-shirt. Shaun looked tired, though, as well he might after such a long walk; I’d half expected to see Michael carrying him, but probably they’d just stopped for a lot of rests and taken it slow. Shaun broke into a smile when he spotted me, but not a run; instead, I ran full tilt to meet them, and dropped to my knees to wrap my arms around Shaun.

“Hey, baby,” I whispered, as his arms came up to hug me back. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” he said, and then pulled back to examine me. “Why don’t you have any hair?”

“Oh, well--” I reached up self-consciously to touch the stubble. “Michael didn’t tell you? I kind of got-- kidnapped.”

“I know that,” said Shaun, still staring at my head. “It was on the radio.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Well, they, um, the people that kidnapped me, they cut off all my hair.”

“Why?”

“Um,” I said. “Just to be mean, I think.”

Shaun reached out to touch my scalp, carefully, smoothing the bristles with his fingers.

“Did they tie you up?” he asked. “Like the Gunners, when they kidnapped Holly?”

“They put handcuffs on me,” I said, and put my hands behind me to demonstrate.

Shaun examined me so intently that I took my hands out from behind my back, as if holding the pose might show him the rest of the sequence of events that had taken place after they put handcuffs on me.

“Was it scary?” he asked.

“It was very scary,” I said. “But I knew Hancock and Michael and the Minutemen would come rescue me, if I was just patient, and they sure did.” I looked up at Michael. “Thank you, son. You’re not injured, are you?”

“No, ma’am,” said Michael, sounding slightly insulted.

“I didn’t even hear anything,” said Shaun, perking up a bit, “but Michael put me down behind this little wall and told me to keep my head down and put my fingers in my ears. And then he came and picked me back up and told me to shut my eyes until he told me, but I peeked over his shoulder and I counted six dead raiders.”

Michael frowned at him, then looked at me. “I apologize for inadvertently exposing Shaun to potentially traumatic visual imagery, ma’am.”

“That wasn’t traumatic,” said Shaun, insulted in turn. “It was cool.”

“It’s the Commonwealth,” I said to Michael. “Thanks for trying, though. And thank you so much for going, and for getting him home safe. You’re my superhero. You’re the Silver Shroud and Grognak the Barbarian and the archangel Michael all wrapped up in one.”

Shaun laughed, the hiccupping little laugh he did when he was really happy. “I told him he was Grognak! I told him it was like Jungle of the Bat-Babies!”

“I will have to read the book in question to determine whether I find the allusion flattering,” said Michael, “but you are very welcome, ma’am. Shall we go inside?”

“You go ahead,” I said. “Shaun and I will be in soon.”

Michael nodded, once, and walked past us, towards the Castle gates.

“Sit down with me a minute here, baby,” I said to Shaun, who plopped down compliantly in the dust, eyeing my scalp, as I shifted to sit. “How much did Michael tell you, about-- what happened?”

"He said I have a new brother," said Shaun, brightening again, his eyes moving back to my face. "He said his name is Danse and the Brotherhood of Steel were holding him captive and you saw him when they kidnapped you and when you got rescued you brought him home with you to take care of him and meet all of us.”

“That’s right,” I said, smiling at his enthusiasm. “And you know what's so crazy? I’d already met him once, a long, long time ago, when he gave me that laser rifle, you know the one? The one you said was lucky?”

“My brother made that rifle?” Shaun asked, obviously thrilled. “You never told me that!”

“Because I didn’t know he was your brother, then,” I said. “I just found out.”

Shaun squirmed excitedly, his gaze straying past me to the Castle. “Can I go meet him now, please?”

“In a second,” I said. “Listen, baby. Remember how scared Emily was, right after she came to live with us? How she used to hide in her little cabin and not talk to anybody? Because horrible people used to hurt her, and she didn’t know yet that we were different and not horrible and we would never hurt her?”

Shaun nodded seriously, looking back at me. “Did the Brotherhood of Steel hurt Danse?”

“Yeah,” I said; my son was always quick on the draw. Sharp enough to cut himself, as Hancock had put it. “He has a big scar on his forehead, from something they did to hurt him.”

“Michael told me he has a scar,” said Shaun. “He said it says SYNTH on his forehead, and that’s why it says SYNTH on Michael’s forehead now too, because Michael put it on Emily’s forehead and Emily put it on his, and then Cog put it on Victoria’s and Victoria put it on Cog’s and Emily put it on Max’s, and I said could Max put it on mine because it’s not fair Max didn’t get to put it on anybody’s yet and I’m a synth, too, and Michael said yes.”

“Good,” I said. “But yeah, paint doesn’t hurt, but whatever they did to Danse did hurt. And I think maybe they used to-- I don't know exactly, baby, but they were mean and they scared him, so we have to be really gentle with him, OK? When you jump up to hug me, or Hancock, or Michael, we know it’s because you love us, but--”

“Don’t jump up to hug Danse?”

“Not yet,” I said.

“OK,” said Shaun, and then, “But, mom, why did the Brotherhood do that to Danse? Put SYNTH on his head in a way that hurt?”

“To make him feel-- ashamed, I think,” I said.

Shaun’s brow furrowed. "What does that mean?"

"It's--" I considered, although I felt oddly pleased that he didn't know. "You know what it means to feel guilty?"

"Yeah," said Shaun readily. "When you know you did something bad."

"Right," I said. "Well, feeling ashamed means you think you are something bad. Not just you did something wrong, but there's something wrong with you, with who you are."

Shaun considered this for a second. "They wanted him to be ashamed because he's a synth?"

"Yes," I said. “And that's why your other brothers and sisters all wanted to put it on their heads too, to show him they aren't ashamed, and he doesn't need to be either."

"But--” Shaun looked bewildered, which made me happy, too. “I don’t get it. Why did the Brotherhood of Steel want him to feel like that?”

“Because that’s what they think,” I said. “They think regular humans, like me, are better than ghouls, like Hancock, or synths, like you and your brothers and sisters. They think ghouls and synths aren’t even really people, and they don’t deserve to be treated like people, the way humans do.”

“Well, that’s dumb,” said Shaun definitively.

“Yeah, it is,” I said, smiling at him. “It’s really dumb.”

Shaun seemed lost in thought for a moment, and then he said, “But then why did they kidnap you? Why did they cut off your hair to be mean? You’re a regular human, so they should treat you like people, right?”

“Uh-huh, you’d think, wouldn’t you,” I said. “But-- well, you know how I work with the Railroad, helping synths?”

“Yeah but that’s a secret,” said Shaun.

“Well, they found out,” I said. “That I was part of the Railroad. And that--” I never knew how much truth to try to shelter him from, but he was so quick, and I was so bad at concealment, that it mostly just seemed futile to hide things from him, even hard things. “See, sweetheart, a long time ago, before I got you out of the Institute, I killed a lot of the Brotherhood. A whole lot. Because they-- well, they’re the ones who killed your sister Glory. Remember I told you about Glory?”

Shaun nodded, his face serious. “That was them?”

“Yeah,” I said. “They attacked Railroad HQ, and they killed Glory, and some other Railroad agents, and after that, Desdemona said we had to-- we had to make sure they couldn’t do anything like that ever again, or there’d be no more Railroad, and nobody to help synths who needed help. So-- we did. And that’s why they kidnapped me, because I did that, and they’re still mad about it.”

“Are they still mad about it now?” Shaun asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “but they’re not sure any more that it was me who did it. I kind of-- I lied to them.”

“Why?” asked Shaun.

“Because they were asking me questions about a lot of secrets that they shouldn’t know,” I answered. “Because they would use those secrets to find and hurt other people. Other people who don’t deserve to get hurt.”

“And it worked?” Shaun asked, intrigued. “They believed you?”

“I think so,” I said. “Anyway, once the Minutemen got there to rescue me, they were all so scared that the Minutemen were going to kill them, that either they believed me, or they decided they didn’t care even if I was lying, as long as I would protect them.”

“And you did protect them?”

“I sure did,” I said. “Took some doing, too. But I did it--”

“Because my brother Danse asked you to?”

“That’s right, baby,” I said, surprised and pleased. “Michael told you that?”

Shaun nodded. “But he said he didn’t know why. Do you?"

I considered briefly whether now was a teachable moment for terms like brainwashing and indoctrination and Stockholm syndrome, and then, looking at Shaun’s attentive, trusting expression, felt suddenly as if it was all a lot easier to explain than that.

"Did Michael tell you Danse used to be in the Brotherhood of Steel?” I asked him.

Shaun frowned. “But he’s a synth! You said--”

“I know, sweetheart, but he didn’t know he was a synth,” I said. “The Railroad changed his memory-- you know I told you they do that sometimes, so a synth can feel safe, and not be scared, that other people might think they’re not a real person. But after Danse forgot he was a synth, he ended up thinking synths weren’t really people.”

I hadn’t expected Shaun to giggle at this as if it were a hilarious joke, although I could see the funny side, I guessed. “That’s so crazy!”

“Crazy is exactly what it is,” I agreed, smiling back at him, a little. "But that's what happened, and when he was part of the Brotherhood, when he didn't know who he really was, or who his real family was, he called them his brothers and sisters. He thought they were his family. And he really believed that what they said was true. He believed it with his whole heart. He thought he knew it was true. The way you know I'm your mom. And-- well, what if somebody came to you and said, Shaun Bowman, you’re not really Shaun Bowman, and your mom isn’t really your mom? How would you feel?”

“I’d come get you,” said Shaun, without a second’s hesitation. “And Emily, and Michael, and Hancock. And you’d all tell them they were lying.”

I smiled at him, reached out and put my hand over his smaller one, squeezing it tight.

“Good,” I said. “Yeah, we would. But Danse didn’t have anybody to stand up for him, the way you would. His family-- the people he thought were his family-- only loved him when they thought he was a human. And when they didn’t love him any more, and decided it was OK to hurt him and scare him and try to make him feel ashamed-- well, he didn’t want to stop loving them, because then he wouldn’t have anybody to love at all. And so he decided they weren't doing anything wrong, to be so mean to him. He decided they were still right, like he'd believed all along, and it was him who didn’t deserve to be loved.”

“But he’s wrong,” said Shaun, frowning again. “It isn't all right for them to be mean to him. Or you. Or anybody.”

“I know,” I said, “but he still loves them anyway, and it would make him sad if they died, and I don’t want him to be sad. So I asked them, if I promised not to kill them, would they promise not to be so mean any more, and they said yes. They signed a paper that said they’d behave themselves. And I’m going to be keeping an eye on them, too. So I think it’s gonna be OK.”

“And Danse is with his real family now,” said Shaun, satisfied.

“Yep,” I said. “He is. And we’re all going to show him, in every way we can, that we’re his family and he’s safe with us and he does deserve to be loved. Oh,” I added, my own words echoing unexpectedly in my mind, “Shaun, that reminds me. Did Michael tell you about Jonah Dee?”

Shaun shook his head.

“Can you keep a secret?”

He nodded earnestly.

“Deacon is here to stay with us, too,” I said. “But it’s a secret, because he’s with the Railroad and it’s still a secret that I’m with them. He got a doctor to do surgery on his face to make him look different, and he’s changed his name, to Jonah Dee. But he’s going to be part of our family now, too. So you kind of have two new brothers.”

“Deacon is my brother too?” Shaun asked, sounding as enchanted as if he’d just been told Christmas was coming twice this year. “Is he a synth?”

“No,” I said. “But he’s like your brother. Because a long time ago, he used to be married to one of your sisters, one of the ones we never got to meet, because she died. Her name was Barbara, and he loved her a lot, just like Hancock and I love each other, and that made them family, and since Barbara was our family, that makes Deacon part of our family too.”

“Neat,” said Shaun, with great conviction. “Can I jump up and hug him?”

“Yes,” I said, “but be careful with his face, because it’s still healing from the surgery.”

“Can I have face surgery?”

“Nope,” I said, grinning. “I like your face exactly the way it is.”

I reached out and cupped his cheek, his little-boy skin, my Shaun’s sweet baby face, Nate's face alchemically merged with my own and made young and innocent and perfect, and then, of course, I started to cry.

“Mom,” said Shaun, anxious, scooting closer, almost into my lap, reaching up to pat gingerly at my wet cheek. “Mom, don’t cry. It’s OK. Everybody’s home now. Mommy, please don’t cry.”

He only called me mommy when he was sounding younger than usual, which of course he’d never actually been, not noticeably, and the idea that part of what the original Shaun had programmed him with had been a memory of a younger self-- one who’d called me mommy instead of mom-- made me reach out to pull him even closer, burying my face against his hair, trying to stop the scalding flow of tears.

“I’m OK, sweetheart,” I said shakily, when-- after not too long this time, thank goodness- I’d managed to stem the tide. “Everything’s OK. These are happy tears. I’m so happy to see you, I’m so happy you’re home. I missed you so much.”

“I missed you too, mom,” he said. “But can we go inside now? I want to meet my new brother.”

Chapter Text

The courtyard had mostly emptied-- it wasn’t yet dusk, but it was definitely dinnertime-- as Shaun and I walked through the gate. I saw Danse emerging from what looked like the general vicinity of the storage room, glancing around alertly, his gaze halting when it landed on me and Shaun.

Seeing him in his jeans and coat (and a black military cap, one that sat back on his head and didn’t cover his forehead, that he must have helped himself to from storage after I left him, meaning he was maybe starting to trust that he was allowed to do things like put hats on without express permission, which thrilled my heart) was kind of like seeing him smile. He didn’t look like he had as a paladin, encased in his power armor, whirring and clanking around with a stern, purposeful frown, but he also didn’t look like a hapless refugee, crammed into somebody else’s castoff jumpsuit, and waiting humbly to have even that taken away. He looked-- again-- like someone I’d never met. Someone I was looking forward to getting to know.

At a second glance, I saw he had his rifle slung across his back, and nearly shrieked out loud with happiness.

“That’s him?” Shaun asked me, in a loud whisper, and when I nodded, “Can I go say hi?”

“Let's wait for him to come to us if he wants to," I said, mindful of Danse's request to be left alone. "Wave to him, though, to show him you're happy to see him."

Shaun raised his arm and waved enthusiastically, and Danse looked startled, and then smiled a little, and then, to my delight, did walk towards us. Shaun grabbed at my hand-- he was occasionally subject to sudden, unpredictable fits of shyness-- and we waited where we were until Danse stopped, a few feet away from us, glancing from my face to Shaun’s and back again, the way Emily had when she’d first seen him. Tracking the resemblance, I figured.

"Hi, Danse," said Shaun, his hand tight on mine. "I'm Shaun. I'm a synth, too. It doesn't say it on my head yet, because Max is gonna put it on there because he hasn't gotten to do one yet, but I am."

"Hello, Shaun," said Danse.

Shaun smiled up at him, his grip unclenching a bit on my hand, though he still held it firmly. "You sound like a courser."

"Michael says the Institute thought about making Danse a courser, back before he escaped," I told Shaun, since Danse didn't seem to know what to say.

"Wow," said Shaun. "Then you must be really smart. And tough."

Danse looked at me, and then back at Shaun, and said nothing, and I said, "He is. When he was in the Brotherhood, he was a paladin, and you have to be really smart and tough to get to be one of those, too. Plus, you saw the rifle he modified. You know he's smart."

"That rifle is really, really cool," Shaun told Danse.

Danse looked at him for a moment before he smiled his small, dazed smile and said, "Thank you."

"Is that it?" Shaun asked, gesturing with his free hand towards the rifle strapped to Danse's back. "I can't see."

"Yes," said Danse, with a quick glance at me. "Your-- your mother-- was kind enough to offer to allow me to carry it again."

"She's both of our mother," Shaun corrected. "You're made of the same genes as me."

Danse gave another little smile, this one slightly wry.

“You are,” said Shaun. “I just look more like her ‘cause I’m supposed to.”

“Supposed to?” Danse repeated, bemused.

“‘Cause she had a human baby once, named Shaun, like me,” Shaun explained, “but he got old while she was frozen. And he got to be in charge of the Institute, and making all the synths. And he made me to look like him, if he was still a kid. ‘Cause he wanted to trick her and make her think he was still a kid, so she would keep trying real hard to find him, ‘cause he thought maybe she wouldn't love him any more if he was old, even though that wasn’t true. And also ‘cause he wished he got a chance to be her little boy, so he wanted to give me to her instead."

Danse stared at him, and then looked up at me.

"That's just speculation," I said to Danse. “We don’t really know why he did it. Made Shaun the way he did.”

"Right but that’s what we think," said Shaun. "Anyway, that's why I look more like her. But she's still your mom, too."

"He knows--" Danse was still looking at me; he spoke slowly. "All this?"

"Yeah," I said. "We had the talk a few days in. When he said something about 'humans like you and me.'"

"Oh yeah!" Shaun tugged at my hand. "Mom! I forgot I used to think I was a human! Just like Danse did!"

"You did," I agreed. "Remember I said, maybe Father thought that if you knew you were a synth, you wouldn't understand that I was still your mother anyway?"

Shaun nodded. "I remember now. I forgot. That was a long time ago."

"And you were busy meeting all new people," I agreed, "and having a brand new home, and finding out all kinds of things you never knew before."

"Uh-huh." Shaun's gaze had wandered back towards the rifle at Danse’s back. "Mom, did you tell Danse I made you a laser rifle too?"

"You know what, I forgot to tell him that," I said. "Do you want to ask him if he'd be interested in seeing it sometime?"

"Can I show you the rifle I made, please?" Shaun asked Danse. "It’s not lucky like yours, but it's pretty good. Mom uses it pretty much, when she's in a laser kind of mood."

Danse gave the little choked-off laugh I'd heard first up by the artillery piece, and repeated, "A laser kind of mood?"

"Yeah," said Shaun, grinning back at him. "That's what she says. Can I show it to you, please?"

"If he doesn't want to look at it right now," I said, trying to read Danse’s expression, "maybe you can show it to him later."

"No," said Danse quickly. "I mean, yes. I would be very interested in seeing the rifle you made, Shaun. If you would like to show it to me now."

"Yeah!" Shaun cheered, dropping my hand. "It's over here, where she keeps her favorites, come on, I'll show you--"

Danse looked at me again, and then turned and followed Shaun back to storage. I watched them out of my sight, then stood still for another few moments, wondering what they might be saying to each other, until--

“Hey,” said a voice so unexpectedly close behind me that I’d whirled around, my knife out and up at throat level, before I realized it was Deacon.

“Just testing your reflexes,” he said cheerfully, as I glared at him and stuck my knife back into its sheath at my belt. “Listen, I’m gonna head on out. Got some good sleep in, and I travel better at night, anyway. Cover of darkness and all that.”

“I thought we just had this conversation, and you said you were leaving in the morning,” I said. “What happened?”

He shrugged. “Got restless. Rested too much today. You know me, gotta keep moving.”

“Restless?” I rolled my eyes and pointed up at the wall. “Great. Ten laps around the parapets. Hustle.”

“You can’t make me run laps,” said Deacon, the corners of his mouth moving, as close as he could get to a grin without hurting his face. “You’re not my real mom.”

“Look, Jonah,” I said. “Don’t make me call in a giant fish. Is this about Shaun coming home? Do you not want to see him?”

“Why wouldn’t I want to see the little nipper?” Deacon asked. “He’s a regular ball of sunshine.”

“And you’re always wearing shades,” I said. “Listen, he’s a pretty flexible kid. If I tell him you’d rather not have him take a flying leap into your arms and hug the shit out of you-- which was his first question after I explained what a brother-in-law is-- he’ll understand. He already understands that Danse isn’t ready for tackle-hugs yet. They’re bonding over weapons technology instead, right now.”

“The Brotherhood paladin is bonding with your littlest synth over weapons tech?” Deacon asked. “Unsupervised? Is that your best plan yet, General?”

“He’s not a paladin any more,” I said. “Just like Michael isn’t a courser any more. And even if he was still a paladin, I can’t imagine him harming a child.”

The words hung between us for just a second; my face must have changed when I realized what I’d said, and Deacon must have seen it, but he said, not quite fast enough to cover, “Look, I’m not gonna sleep tonight anyway, after all that napping. I might as well be on the move. I’ve gotta come back here to report anyway, you know. What, do you think I’m just gonna take off and never be seen again?”

“No,” I said, eyeing him thoughtfully. “I think you’re too loyal to the Railroad to ghost me when you know you’re the only way I have to communicate with them right now. But I do think you’re having a little freakout, because you think if you spend the night here and wake up here in the morning, knowing I want you here for keeps, it’s gonna feel weirdly safe and comfortable and good, and if Shaun climbs up on you and hugs you tight and tells you how excited he is that you live here now, it’s gonna feel even better, and you’re terrified to let yourself want that, because you don’t actually believe me when I say I love you and this is your home.”

“Should I be back on the couch for this, doctor?” Deacon asked, raising a hairless eyebrow. “And shouldn’t you have a German accent?”

“Ja, Meister Dee,” I said in my best pop Freud. “Vut ve haff here ist ein classic case of-- hey, have you ever read Maslow?”

“Did he randomly switch accents too?”

“He said there’s some basic shit everybody needs to know, to be OK,” I said, “and that people need to know it in a certain order. First you need to know there’s food in your stomach and you’re breathing and you’re not actually bleeding and none of your bones are broken. Then you need to know that’s a stable state of affairs-- that when you get hungry again you get to eat again, that when you get tired there’s a bed for you, that nobody’s going to hurt you, that you’re safe. Then, after that, you need to know you’re loved. Valued. That somebody cares about you, and wants to take care of you and keep you safe. And then, after that, you need to know you’re good-- you’re doing a good job, you’re useful and valuable. And once you’ve got all that locked down-- that’s when you get to really start being awesome.”

“They teach you this stuff in Sunday school, or what?” Deacon asked.

I smiled. “Psych 101, freshman year. But we did learn some songs about it in Sunday school. The wise man built his house upon the rock. The rain came down, and the floods came up, and the wise man's house stood firm.

“Yeah well,” said Deacon. “I never went to your fancy freshman year or your fancy Sunday school, but where would you have said you built your house, before the bombs came down and the vault sealed up?”

It was such a sudden and sharp verbal hit that I couldn’t hide my shock, and Deacon let the silence linger this time, watching me from behind his shades, not moving.

“I didn’t build that house in Sanctuary Hills,” I said finally.

“But you thought you were safe there.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure. Maslow didn’t really build in a ‘barring nuclear annihilation’ clause, sure. What’s your point?”

“That you thought you were safe,” said Deacon. “And you weren’t. Because nobody ever fucking is, Nora. If you’d known-- with your white picket fence and your handsome hero husband and your baby in his little blue crib with his little rocketship mobile--”

“If I’d known, then what?” I asked him. “I shouldn’t have married Nate? I shouldn’t have had Shaun?”

“Well?” said Deacon. “Would you still have, if you’d known what was gonna happen?”

“Well, what if I hadn’t?” I demanded. “What if I’d been too chicken? If I’d gone down into that vault alone, if that had even been an option-- which it wasn’t, I only got in because of Nate’s war service-- but even if I could have, then two hundred and ten years later, when that pod finally let me out, do you think I’d even have bothered looking that hard for an exit? With bodies everywhere, of everybody I knew, and giant fucking roaches flying at my face that I had to club to death with a security baton I picked up off a skeleton? Do you think I’d ever heard a sound remotely comparable to a giant mutated roach’s carapace cracking, and squirting out its guts onto my face and my hair and my vault suit? Do you think I’d ever smelled anything like it? I was soft, Deacon, you don’t have any idea, you can’t even imagine how soft a person could be, back then. I was soft, and I was sweet, like-- like a peach. Like a kind of fruit that doesn't even exist any more, because it couldn’t survive the postwar Commonwealth, any more than I could have, if-- do you think I would have lasted any longer than it took to find my first ten-millimeter pistol with even one bullet inside, if I hadn’t known my baby was alive-- if I hadn’t loved him-- if I hadn’t known I had to find him--”

“Oh, Jesus,” said Deacon, sounding legitimately panicked. “Nora, for Christ’s sake don’t cry. I’ll do anything you want, I’ll get down on my goddamn knees and beg you, please--”

I breathed in, breathed out, blinked lightly, willed the heat and pressure to dissipate from my face.

“Sorry,” I said finally, when it seemed to have worked. “I’m having some post-torture emotional glitches, it’s fine, I just have to shut down and reboot every so often. I’ll stabilize soon. My point is-- if I hadn’t-- if I hadn’t ever let myself feel safe enough to love Nate, and have my baby, and love my baby--” I opened my arms, wide, to the Castle, the Commonwealth, the world.

Deacon looked at me for a minute, my outspread arms, until I let them fall back to my sides.

“I did get soft once,” he said, then, quietly. “Not as soft as you were, maybe-- maybe you’re right, that I don’t know what it was like back then, how safe you all felt, like maybe you could get through your whole lives with nothing ever trying to kill you, at least not very hard. But I did feel-- for awhile there-- I felt-- safe.” He swallowed; I still couldn’t tell if his eyes were on mine, through his shades, but he wasn’t turning his face away. “Not just safe. Saved. Like everything was gonna be OK now, no matter what else-- because she loved me. She’d smile at me, and-- you know, I thought, I used to lie there next to her and think, yeah, we’ll have at least two, a boy and a girl, more if it takes more-- you know, maybe four boys and then finally a girl, or the other way around--”

I stepped forward, and he stepped back, averting his face now.

“I’m not like you,” he said. “I can’t-- I only had so much in me. I’m like-- like, remember that mirelurk you shot with that weird gun you bought off Cricket, how all its legs were blown off and its shell was all smashed and dangling and it had one eyestalk left but it just wouldn’t fucking die? Just like-- sat there? Pulsating?”

“You’re not a crippled mirelurk, Deacon,” I said.

“My heart is a crippled mirelurk,” he said. “Sidebar, I’m gonna write that song and sing it at the next Third Rail open mic. Whereas yours is like the goddamn Lernaean Hydra, where every time somebody stabs you in it, you just grow back five or six more.”

I smiled a little, tickled by the classical mythology reference, and the analogy-- it was actually fairly apt, that was kind of what had happened, since the end of the world-- but--

“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt,” I said. “Sometimes it hurts more than I ever thought I could hurt, and still be alive. But-- isn’t that what we mean, Deacon, when we say I love you? We know it’s gonna hurt, don’t we, even back then we knew about hurt, and loss, so we said I love you and we meant I’ve got your back and let’s stick together and my life is so much better with you in it, but we also meant it’s gonna hurt, isn’t it-- if not it hurts already--”

I was thinking of Shaun-- the first Shaun, Father-Shaun, with his wrinkled face and level, clinical gaze-- on the roof of the CIT ruins, the way he’d looked at me when I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking, I still love you.

I can see that you do, he’d said, coolly. It’s remarkable.

Deacon wasn’t answering.

“Deacon,” I said. “I love you. I love you whether you let me hug you or not. But please let me hug you.”

He didn’t answer, or move, but when I stepped forward again, he didn’t step back. When I put my arms around him, he stood perfectly still, arms at his sides, like a tree trunk. I hugged him tight and long anyway, feeling his heart beating against my chest, the slightly staggered rhythm of his breath.

When I let go and stepped back, he looked at me for a minute, his face inscrutable, and then said, “Am I Shaun’s new friend Jonah? Or have we met before?”

“You’re his old friend Deacon, who he just discovered is also his brother-in-law,” I said. “But he’s gonna do a way better job remembering to call you Jonah than I am. Props for thinking up ‘Dee,’ by the way-- my brain does OK when it has one syllable to catch up with my mouth. You hungry, Dee? Let’s get you some dinner, and then see how that bed’s coming along.”

Chapter Text

“Mom,” said Shaun, shaking my shoulder. “Mom, wake up.”

I blinked awake, squinting. “What, what is it, baby?”

“The hell?” Hancock mumbled beside me

“Jonah’s trying to sneak out,” Shaun said. “I told him to say goodbye first and he said he didn’t have to but I think he does.”

Hancock guffawed. “Oh, Christ! Nora, you’re right-- keeping him here is a great idea. You get to nurture him, and I get to watch him squirm.”

“Oh dear.” I was laughing too. “Where is he, Shaun?”

“Right out here,” said Shaun, as I swung my legs out of bed, checking my Pip-Boy: four a.m.

Cog and Victoria had put together two very respectable beds by bedtime last night, and I’d hauled out extra blankets and pillows from storage. Victoria turned out not to have been kidding about wanting to move her own bed into the book room, and after Shaun, having spent awhile in intensive weapon discussion with Danse, had first tracked Max down and gotten his forehead appropriately labeled, and then, as predicted, taken a flying leap into Deacon’s arms and hugged him thoroughly, he announced that he wanted to sleep in the book room as well, and that Cog and Danse could move their beds in there, and Hancock and I could move our bed in there, and since Emily, Michael, and Max didn’t need to sleep, they could stay in there with us all night, taking turns reading aloud, and it could be the family room.

I’d managed to bargain him down to sleeping in the book room with Deacon and Victoria, with Emily reading out loud to him until he fell asleep; Emily, Deacon, and Victoria had all agreed readily to this scenario. I hoped Deacon wasn’t regretting it now.

The moon was almost full, so as Shaun led me outside, I could make out Deacon pretty well, trying to sneak past the razorgrain. He saw me, and stopped.

“Young man,” I said as I caught up to him, “don’t make me go back on my word about chaining you to the wall.”

“This is kidnapping,” said Deacon. “False imprisonment. I’ll call the Minutemen. I mean-- oh, shit.”

“We are the Minutemen!” Shaun shouted gleefully.

“Shhh, baby, you’ll wake everybody up,” I said, grinning. “Say bye for right now to Dee, because he does have somewhere he’s gotta be, OK?”

“Bye, Jonah Dee,” said Shaun, and flung his arms around Deacon’s waist, hugging him tight. “Come home soon, OK?”

“Uh, sure thing, squirt,” said Deacon weakly, patting vaguely at Shaun’s shoulder.

“Run back to bed, sweetheart,” I told Shaun. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

“You’re welcome,” said Shaun, as he turned reluctantly and headed back inside.

“It’s just polite to say goodbye first,” I told Deacon. “Plus I have something to give you.” I popped the holotape I’d recorded last night out of my Pip-Boy and offered it to him. “For Des. Your excuse note.”

“What does it say?” Deacon asked nervously, not reaching out to take it.

“‘To whom it may concern…’”

“No, really.”

“It’s not my resignation,” I said, “and there’s nothing on it that’ll compromise Railroad security if anybody else listens to it. Do you want to hear it right now?”

“Yes,” he said.

I stuck it back into my Pip-Boy.

Hey! Sorry for not being in touch before. I don’t know if you’ve been listening to the radio, but things have been kind of crazy around here, and I needed all hands on deck. And I figured if you really needed me, or D, you knew where to find us. Still the case, but D’s been worried that you’d be worried, so. Hope the new digs are working out well for you, and as always, if there’s anything you need from me, just let me know, OK? And the sooner you can manage to send D back my way, the less stressed I’m gonna be-- he’s pretty handy to have around the place. Well, you know that. Right?

“Got a tiny bit passive-aggressive there at the end, there, General,” said Deacon, as I ejected the tape and handed it to him; he took it this time.

“I beg your pardon,” I said. “I believe I was extremely passive-aggressive throughout. Now, did you restock your pack? Water, food, stimpaks? Ammunition? Stealth Boys?”

“Um,” said Deacon.

“Do that before you go,” I said. “Your weapon’s in good working order?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“OK.” I smiled at him. “Bye, Dee.”

“Bye,” he said, and hesitated. “Man, that feels weird and awkward. ‘Bye.’ I still think it’s better to just vanish unexpectedly. I mean, do we hug now, or--?”

“Ooh, can we?” I asked. “I wasn’t sure if that was like a one-time thing, where you let me do it because you felt kind of bad about bringing up the complete and utter destruction of my life as a rhetorical point.”

He winced. “Yeah. It was a little of that. But-- I mean, if it makes you happy--”

I flung my arms around him.

“I still can’t actually hug you back,” said Deacon, standing stock-still as a tree trunk again. “Cause of the limblessness, you know. I’m just gonna pulsate till you let go.”

“No worries.” I squeezed him tight, then let him go. “See you soon.”

I went back to bed after that, curled up against Hancock, my head on his chest. His hand came up and curved itself around my scalp, scratching lightly at the stubble there, until I fell back to sleep, contented as a cat, and didn’t wake again around seven.

 

Shaun was very displeased to find such a significant percentage of his immediate family leaving the Castle so soon after he’d arrived back at it.

“We'll all be back soon, though, baby," I told him, "and in the meantime, you and Max and Emily are in charge. Remember you and Emily were the ones in charge when Michael showed up for the first time? And you both did such a good job! Nobody died, and we got you a badass new brother!"

“Yeah,” said Shaun, brightening. “That’s true.”

Michael was helping fasten combat armor pieces over Danse’s shirt and jeans, having persuaded him out of the winter coat for this trip. I’d been stunned and thrilled beyond measure when I checked in with Danse to ask for the bunker password he’d offered before, and he’d asked if he could come along on the trip. He still wasn’t ready for power armor yet, but he’d suggested shyly that his presence might help at the bunker, especially if whoever was there had been out of contact with the Brotherhood for a long time, and that if I was still willing to take him to the doctor in Goodneighbor…

Cog and Victoria were helping each other out, too, with some lighter pieces that would give me at least a little bit of peace of mind if anybody started shooting at them. Hancock had already helped me on with my armor; he still stuck with his ballistic-enhanced coat. The smell of turpentine hung faintly in the air; I’d made the gentle suggestion that all red paint be removed for the duration of this particular trip, since the synth-brains part of Dr. Amari’s practice was still kind of a secret, and a bunch of people with SYNTH on their foreheads walking into the Memory Den might draw some eyes even in Goodneighbor. Michael had taken a green bandanna, folded it meticulously into a wide, soft band, and tied it carefully around Danse’s head, effectively covering his scar and giving him a slightly rakish look that was actually pretty becoming. I asked Danse if he was comfortable with that, and he nodded.

“OK,” I said. “Weapons check. Everybody locked and loaded?”

“I’m getting an inferiority complex,” said Cog, holding up the little 10mm he’d picked out himself. “Even Jule’s gun is bigger than mine.”

I smiled at him. He’d tried for a bit to start calling his best friend Victoria instead of Jule, but he’d kept slipping, and since Victoria didn’t seem to mind being called Jule by Cog specifically, he’d eventually just stopped bothering with “Jule-I-mean-Victoria.”

“You want to pick something else?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said. “I’m a lover, not a fighter. And Jule’ll protect me, right sis?”

“Pretty sure Glinda-mom, ghoul-dad, and big scary brother are gonna be doing most of the protecting,” said Victoria, and eyed Danse. “Big scary brother...s?”

Danse smiled a little, but said nothing.

“We’ll all have each other’s backs,” I said, “but there’s no shame in finding cover and waiting things out, either, if that’s what you’d rather do. Everybody’s got plenty of stimpaks, right, for emergencies? Everybody knows to yell for help if they need it?”

Cog and Victoria nodded. After a second, Danse did too.

“Then let’s roll,” I said.

 

I expected some trouble from super mutants around Gwinnett Restaurant, but we found a bunch of dead super mutant bodies there instead. Maybe the Brotherhood delegation had stopped on their way down, or back up, to let off some steam. Danse shuddered visibly as he looked down at the bodies.

“You OK, Danse?” I asked him, and he looked up, startled, before he said, “Yes, Nora.”

We didn’t run into more trouble until Haymarket Hall, when raiders, being the brilliant planners raiders usually are, formulated the brilliant plan of attacking us instead of sitting down, holding their breath, and hoping we didn’t notice them.

Cog and Victoria found cover quickly, behind a waist-high wall, using their guns to defend themselves from direct attack, and Michael and Hancock, of course, both sprang into deadly action immediately, but Danse did neither; I saw him lift his rifle, in the direction of one of the further-off raiders, and then lower it, and stand still, in plain sight, without any cover. Michael was staying close by him, though, I saw, and making sure nothing came near him; making sure of this distracted me just long enough to let a raider with a bladed baseball bat get a hit in on my left shoulder piece, right where the muscles were still a little glitchy from the bullet I’d taken Monday, that hadn’t gotten a stimpak until twenty-some hours later. The longer a wound went unhealed, I’d found, the more damage there was likely to linger and need natural healing time, despite the quick-fix of a stimpak. Getting hit in it with a bladed baseball bat didn’t help. My whole arm flared with pain for a second, and then went limp.

Left shoulder, though, and I’m right-handed, which should have been obvious from the hand I was holding my gun in. Raiders are so dumb. I had time to holster my handgun, draw my knife, and stab the guy directly in the neck before he had any other bright ideas about what to do with his baseball bat.

When they were all dead, I said, sticking my hand in my stim pouch, “Anybody injured?”

“Not me,” said Cog, hopping back over the wall towards us, followed by Victoria. His voice was cheerful, over a little bit of shakiness. “Me and Jule did covering fire. That’s what you call it, right, covering fire? I hit that one in the leg.” He pointed at a woman with her skull mostly caved in.

“Good for you,” said Hancock, as I stabbed a stimpak into my own upper left arm. “Oh, shit, what happened?”

“Nothing serious,” I said. “Armor took the brunt of it.”

Michael had frozen, looking at me, in a way I hadn’t seen him do in ages, especially when he’d just finished eliminating a threat-- that usually put him in his best, most confident, even verging-on-jocular mood, but right now he was still as a statue.

“You’re hurt,” he said.

“Not much,” I said, smiling at him. “Nothing the stim won’t-- there we go, kicking in already. There’s nothing to be upset about, Michael. Danse isn’t injured, is he?”

Danse was white-faced and trembling, but I couldn’t see any blood or anything that looked broken, and when Michael looked at him, he shook his head.

“Nevertheless,” said Michael to me. “I apologize for allowing you to come to harm, ma’am.”

“If there’d been time for me to tell you what to do, I would have told you to protect Danse, and let me worry about me,” I told him. “You were brilliant. As usual. Practically perfect in every way.”

Michael smiled a bit at that, and seemed to relax slightly. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Danse?” I said, and Danse turned slightly unfocused eyes towards me. “Are you all right?”

“Sorry,” said Danse, his voice unsteady. “Distracted you-- failed to fight, or-- find cover. Put you in danger.”

“If every man in my life doesn’t stop apologizing for putting me in danger--”

“I’ve never apologized for putting you in danger,” said Hancock. “You’re the one constantly putting me in danger. My life was cushy as hell before you barged into it and started blowing shit up.”

“Thank you, my love.” I looked back at Danse. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. You said you’d try to fight, and you tried, and you realized you can’t yet. That’s fine. Everybody’s fine. So. Can you keep going, or do you need to stop and rest for a bit? It’s OK if you do. I don’t think these guys are getting back up anytime soon.”

“Can keep going,” said Danse, and, intercepting a glance from Michael, “I can, I can keep going.”

“Good,” said Michael, with the same quiet emphasis he’d put on well done.

“We’re almost there,” I told Danse, as we started moving again.

 

We didn’t get any more trouble, and once we were safely inside the gate of Goodneighbor, and had greeted Daisy and KL-E-0 and a few other random passersby, I looked at my kids. “So. Where to first? Straight to the Memory Den?”

“Yeah,” said Victoria. “I’d like to get that checkup over with, so we can have fun.”

“I’ll go with,” said Cog, unsurprisingly.

“What about you, Danse?” I asked him. “Do you want to see Dr. Amari right away?”

He hesitated.

“How about this,” I said. “Hancock, you want to go check in with Fahrenheit, right?”

He nodded.

“So you do that,” I said. “Cog, Victoria, you go on over to the Den, and see what the doc has to say. I’ll head to the Rexford and go ahead and get us a couple of rooms booked for tonight. Michael, you and Danse can head over to the Third Rail and grab a drink. A Nuka Cola or something,” I clarified, when Michael looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Food, too, if you’re peckish. You have those caps I gave you?”

Michael nodded. “But is this a necessary expenditure, ma’am? We have food and water in our packs.”

“Yeah, but if you buy ‘em from Charlie, you get to sit down at a table and relax,” I said. “I think we could all use a breather before we head on up to the bunker. I’ll find you two in the Third Rail once I’ve got our room keys, and you two,” I added to Cog and Victoria, “come meet up there too, when you’re done at the Den. And then at that point, Danse, you can decide if you want to see Dr. Amari now, or head on up to that bunker, take care of business there, and see her when we get back. Sounds good?”

“Ten-four,” said Hancock, and Cog gave me a thumbs up.

“All right,” I said. “See everybody at the Third Rail in a bit.”

 

By the time I’d booked three rooms at the Rexford, caught up with Fred, Clair, and Rufus, chatted a bit with Ham on my way down into the bar, and finally made it to the main area, Hancock had somehow gotten there ahead of me, and was sitting with Michael and Danse at a corner table. Michael had a glass of water, Hancock had a glass of what looked like Nuka Cherry, and Danse had one of what was definitely Nuka Cola Quantum, which he was sipping cautiously.

“Hey,” I said, sliding in on the fourth side of the table. “Hancock, what are you doing here already?”

“Fahrenheit told me she was in a meeting and to come back in an hour,” said Hancock, grinning a little sheepishly. “Pretty soon she’s gonna go ahead and declare herself actual mayor, and I’ll have to change my name to Ex-Mayor John Hancock, Formerly of Goodneighbor.”

“Mayor Emeritus sounds fancier,” I said.

“Well, I do aspire to fancydom.”

“How’s your drink?” I asked Danse, who’d set it down on the table and was looking at it in vague bewilderment. “If you don’t like it, we can get you something else.”

“I’m not accustomed--” Danse looked up at me, studying my face, for a moment, and then resumed, slowly, “To-- sugar, in such a concentrated form.”

“Do you want some water instead? Or--” I tried to think what Charlie had that was more fun than water but less sugary than Nuka Cola. “Mutfruit juice?”

“You are very generous,” said Danse, “but no, thank you, I’m fine.”

“Can I snag some of your soda, if you don’t want it?” I asked him.

He didn’t answer.

“Or I’ll go get my own,” I said, starting to stand up.

“Sit down, ma’am,” said Michael. “Danse, her question was not rhetorical. The beverage is yours, unless you offer it to her.”

“Oh,” said Danse, going a little red, and sliding his glass towards me. “Sorry. Of course.”

“Thanks,” I said, and took a sip. “Mmm. Good as the day they sealed it, two hundred years ago. Just like me.”

Hancock chuckled.

“May I try it?” Michael asked me.

“Sure, son,” I said, surprised. “If Danse doesn’t mind us guzzling his drink. Or I’ll get you one of your own, if you want.”

“No, thank you, ma’am,” he said. “I’m simply curious. I’ve never tasted soda of any kind. Danse? May I?”

Danse nodded, and Michael reached out for the glass. He took a careful sip, and his eyes widened as he set it back down in front of him.

“That is-- extremely sweet,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Caffeinated, carbonated sugar water. God, we used to drink this stuff like it was going out of style. Which, joke’s on us, because here it is the post-apocalypse and it’s still in style.”

Michael lifted the glass again and drank, a longer draught this time.

“You like it?” I asked him, as he swallowed, and set the glass back down again.

“I can certainly understand its appeal,” he said. “The brain-- mine no less than yours-- is predisposed to process an excess of calories as a windfall. The carbonation is an unusual experience, but interesting. The caffeine--”

“Think the caffeine might already be kicking in,” said Hancock, as Michael drank again. “As God is my witness, Nora, someday I’m gonna get this guy drunk.”

Michael raised an eyebrow at him, setting the glass, now three-quarters empty, back on the table. “What do you think will happen if you get me drunk?”

“I don’t know,” said Hancock, “but I can’t wait to find out.”

“Speaking of things we’re looking forward to finding out,” I said to Danse, “are you thinking we’ll head over to the Memory Den once Cog and Victoria are done there, or head up to the bunker first, and hit the Den on our way back? Either way’s fine with me.”

“I think--” Danse hesitated. “I-- am not sure. What to anticipate, from the experience of speaking with-- your ally. How much of my life-- Nora, you said that anything after I joined the Brotherhood was-- real?”

“I mean, I can’t imagine the alternative,” I said. “‘Here, be our mortal enemy, and exterminate all synths! The Brotherhood will never notice an extra knight in their ranks! It’s the perfect crime!’”

“Then--” He paused again, and gave a strange little smile at the table. “I had a friend-- once-- but we joined together, we served together, so he must have been-- real. I never questioned-- before-- why there was no one, for so long. No parents, no-- friends-- until I met Cutler.”

“What happened to him?” Michael asked.

“I killed him,” Danse answered.

Michael didn’t sound surprised when he asked, “Why?”

“He’d been exposed to a mutagenic strain called the Forced Evolutionary Virus,” said Danse. “It turned him into-- a super mutant, as they’re colloquially known. A subhuman creature. I had no choice but to put him down.”

I thought of Virgil, the ex-Institute scientist who’d retained his sense of self through the physical FEV transformation-- he was the only one I knew of, though, and the only one I knew of, too, who’d managed to reverse the transformation, with an experimental serum he’d developed in the same Institute lab where he’d been experimenting with the FEV itself. There had only been one dose of that serum that I knew of, and anyway, it was too late now for Danse’s friend, so I didn’t say anything; it would just make him feel worse.

“Heard that, son,” said Hancock to Danse. “You know, my kind sometimes goes feral. Turns into-- well, ghouls like the ones you guys are right to just put down, you know. Mindless monsters. Used to worry a lot about what if that happened to me, before I died, or she did. Worried she wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger.”

“You did?” I asked. “Wait, why don’t you any more?”

Hancock nodded towards Michael, who nodded back, a quick, corroborative jerk of the chin.

“Excuse me,” I said to Hancock. “You have a death pact with my son I don’t know about?”

“Hancock and I have never actually discussed the issue, ma’am,” Michael answered, “but he’s correct that, in the not inconceivable event that he should become a danger to you and yours, and you should find yourself unable to lay him to rest, I will perform that service for you. And for him.”

“‘Lay him to rest,’” Hancock repeated. “I like that. It wouldn’t be me, Nor. Or if there was any of me left in there, it’d be-- it’d need-- rest.”

“You’re not worried I’d be mad at you if you did that?” I asked Michael, and he said calmly, “No, ma’am. Not for long. Rationally, you are intelligent enough to understand that I would be acting out of necessity, and emotionally, I believe it would take far more drastic action to destroy your love for me.”

“So,” said Hancock to Danse, as I sat there absorbing this, “you-- laid Cutler to rest.”

Danse nodded.

“And then I discovered--” He reached up and touched the bandanna that covered his forehead, lightly. “I’m no more human than he was. Less. At least he started human, before he became-- that thing. I was never anything other than--”

He looked up, at Michael, and trailed off, his gaze lingering absently on Michael’s face.

“There is nothing wrong with what you are,” Michael told him, his own gaze even more fixed and intense than usual. At some point he’d taken another swig of the soda; the glass was four-fifths empty now. “You were minutely planned, meticulously shaped, and painstakingly nurtured. You are-- we are-- the end result of decades of intellectual effort and exhaustive experimentation. And even so, we became more than even our creators dreamed possible.” He gestured towards Danse, an up-and-down, encompassing gesture. “Your physical being-- like mine-- is a triumph of human ambition, ingenuity, and perseverance. But your mind-- its capacity for independent thought, for ideals and affections, dreams and desires-- your mind is--” He smiled his lightning-flash smile at Danse. “A miracle.”

There was a pause.

“Dang, Michael,” said Hancock finally.

Michael glanced at him, then at me. “Have I said something amiss?”

“No,” I said, smiling at him. “Quite the contrary. I wish all the other synths could have heard that.”

“I can repeat it for their benefit, if you wish,” said Michael. “The sentiment, if not the precise phrasing. Danse, I recommend that you try this beverage again. I will purchase you another one.”

“I’ll get him one,” I said, grinning at Michael, and standing up again. “Maybe not a Quantum. Maybe just a regular Nuka Cola. You want another one, too?”

“No thank you, ma’am,” he said, with his own barely-there smile. “I think one is enough for now. We still have a long way to go.”

Chapter Text

When Cog and Victoria finally showed up, they seemed a little distracted-- I spotted them standing at the bottom of the stairs into the bar for several moments before they even glanced vaguely around. I called out, and Victoria looked around bemusedly, but didn’t spot us until I actually stood up and the movement caught her eye.

“Hey,” she said, making her way to our table, Cog following. I dragged over a couple of chairs-- the bar was practically empty at this time of day-- and she and Cog both sat down.

“Hey,” I said, sitting back down myself. “What did the doctor say? Everything OK?”

Victoria gave me a double thumbs-up.

“Well, good,” I said. “Do I owe her anything?”

“She said have you check in with her whenever it’s convenient,” said Cog. “Don’t know if that’s so you can pay her or so she can compliment you on your delightful children.”

“Well, I was gonna need to see her anyway when I take Danse over there, so.” I looked at Danse. “What are you thinking? Now? Or later?”

Danse hesitated, then looked at Michael appealingly. Michael caught the glance, and seemed to consider for a moment before saying decisively, “I suggest we press onward to the bunker, ma’am, so that we can conclude our business there before addressing more complex issues with Dr. Amari.”

“You think the bunker’s going to be straightforward?”

“Relatively,” said Michael.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said. “Danse, you agree?”

Danse nodded.

“OK,” I said. “Are we all good to go now?”

“Once more unto the breach,” said Hancock, standing up.

I stood, too, slid one of the Rexford room keys out of my pocket, and handed it to Victoria.

“Key to your hotel room,” I said. “If you get tired. We should be back before dark, but if not, don’t wait up. In the meantime-- don’t wander down any blind alleys, or pick any locks. If anybody hassles you, yell for the Watch. Do you think you have enough caps, or do you want more?”

“What are we gonna buy, a brahmin?” Cog asked.

“Well, don’t accept any loans, or buy anything on credit,” I said. “And don’t get drunk, or high.”

“I’m not going to get drunk or high,” said Victoria, rolling her eyes.

“I promise nothing,” said Cog.

“Then at least wait until you’re in your hotel room,” I said. “With the door locked. And, Victoria, don’t leave him alone. And if anything happens-- oh my God, this was a terrible idea. How did I have such a terrible idea? Why didn’t any of you stop me? Leaving you two all alone in this wretched hive--”

”Glinda,” said Victoria, with fond impatience. “Listen, I stepped on a guy’s foot on the way out of the Memory Den, and he said, ‘Hey, watch it,’ and his buddy said ‘You watch it, man,’ and the first guy took another look at me and said ‘Shit, sorry, miss. Didn’t mean nothin’ by it.’”

“He did,” Cog confirmed. “It was great.”

“See,” said Hancock to me. “Everybody knows who they belong to. Think anybody in Goodneighbor’s dumb enough to call down the kind of almighty shitstorm that comes of fucking with our family?”

“I dunno,” I said. “There’s some real dumbasses in this town. Some maybe dumb enough to think kidnapping our kids could be a moneymaker, instead of a bloody-dismemberment-maker. Listen, Michael, maybe you should stay here with them.”

Michael went still, his eyes down, not meeting mine.

“Actually, if somebody’s gonna stay behind,” said Hancock, before I could think what I’d said wrong, “it should be me. Was thinking, on the way up here-- if there’s Brotherhood up there at the bunker, and they don’t know what’s going on, a party with a ghoul in it’s gonna-- well, remember when we took Michael to Far Harbor and Brooks spotted him? Same kinda deal. ‘Oh, shit, it’s the Cossacks.’ Not that that kind of effect doesn’t come in handy from time to time, but this is a diplomatic mission, or supposed to be. If you want to leave me here and head on up with just Michael and Danse, it won’t hurt my feelings.”

“Sure?” I asked him.

“Sure as shootin’,” he said. “I miss this place sometimes, you know? Wouldn’t mind an afternoon on the town-- show the kids what it’s got to offer. Introduce them around. Fahrenheit might’ve taken over the actual mayoring, but me and Goodneighbor still got quite a connection. And I don’t worry about you when you’re with Michael.”

He said it offhandedly, without even looking at Michael, but I was pretty sure he didn’t miss the effect it had: the breath Michael took in, the way his shoulders straightened slightly. He’d obviously still been troubled by the fact that I’d gotten (mildly, for heaven’s sake) injured on his watch, and it obviously meant a lot to him to hear Hancock express such confidence in his ability to protect me. Which meant a lot to me, in turn-- Hancock and Michael’s wary détente when Michael had first moved into the Castle had finally warmed into an obvious if low-key mutual respect and liking, especially after Far Harbor, but there was something about seeing Michael’s anxiety ease so palpably at Hancock’s words that made me--

--nope, absolutely no tears occurring at this time, because I was a grown-ass lady with a modicum of emotional self-control, and if even I was tired of crying all the time, my loved ones had to be beyond sick of it.

“OK,” I said instead. “If you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“Dang it,” said Cog. “We don’t need a supervisor. I thought we were gonna have fun.”

Hancock grinned. “Feel like havin’ fun in Goodneighbor? Stick with me, son.”

“This is why I thought you should stay with them,” I said to Michael.

“Hancock won’t allow Cog or Victoria to come to harm, ma’am,” said Michael, rising from the table finally, as Hancock sat back down; Danse stood, too. “We should be on our way, if we’re to return here before too late at night.”

 

We didn’t talk much on the way up to the bunker, apart from once when I asked Danse if he was comfortable doing some of the talking if the situation seemed to warrant it, and he said yes. We didn’t get into any real fights, either, just a few wild dogs and a bug or two, which Michael and I dispatched handily.

When we reached the bunker, I said, “You’re up, Danse. Password?”

He stepped to the terminal and put something in, and I heard the thunk of a disengaged maglock, and the heavy door swung inward.

“Who’s there?” a voice yelled from inside the bunker. “Show yourself!”

Danse stepped forward, into the space just in front of the doorway, where, after a second, a thirtyish-looking man with a narrow, pale face and fair hair, wearing jeans and a ragged T-shirt, appeared, aiming a rifle at us. Danse held his hands up, palms out.

“Knight Delecroix,” he said, his voice stronger and more authoritative than I’d heard it yet this week. Not quite his paladin-voice from before, but close. “We mean you no harm.”

“Danse?” the man said, shocked, lowering his rifle. (Just Danse, I noted-- not Paladin, and also not M7-97.) He glanced from Danse to me to Michael, and then back at Danse. “What’s going on? What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Danse asked. “Are you alone?”

“For-- God, how long now,” said Delecroix. “I was out on a recon mission-- Recon Squad Aeolus, remember? We were headed up to Far Harbor, to see if that intel we got from that one captured synth was any good. But before we even left the Commonwealth, the rest of my squad got wiped out. Fucking mirelurk queen came outta nowhere. I was on my way back to the Prydwyn to report when the crash happened. Knew about this place-- knew the password-- figured, what the hell. There was food and water here, and medical supplies, and weapons and ammo. I still do my bit to cleanse the Commonwealth-- killing ghouls, mostly-- and I do a little trading with the locals sometimes, for stuff the Brotherhood didn’t stockpile here. What have you been up to?”

Danse said, “Did you not receive Elder Maxson’s communication concerning-- me?”

“It had been a few weeks since I’d reported back in,” said Delecroix. “What communication?”

“Why did you not seek out the other Brotherhood survivors?” Danse asked, instead of answering. “After the wreck of the Prydwyn? Or at any time since?”

Delecroix shrugged.

“Well, we’d lost, hadn’t we?” he said. “Can you believe a bunch of robot-loving molerats like the Railroad took us down? I mean, insofar as we weren’t already in the process of losing the Commonwealth to a prewar housewife turned rabble-rouser. And ghoul-fucker, apparently-- did you hear about that? It was on the radio-- she married one. And ‘adopted’ a synth. Caps to cakes she’s fucking that, too.”

For more reasons than one, now, I was glad Hancock hadn’t come. Michael was silent, his face completely impassive. Danse hadn’t turned to look at me; his eyes were on Delecroix.

“So yeah,” Delecroix said. “I figured-- what’s the point. ‘Ad victoriam’-- yeah, right. Ad fuck-all. Figured, every man for himself at this point. How about you? Found yourself some new friends, I see-- not gonna introduce me?”

Danse didn’t answer, and after a second, I said, “So, you obviously listen to Diamond City Radio. You hear about those Brotherhood guys at Listening Post Bravo accidentally kidnapping--”

“The bitch-queen of the Commonwealth?” Delecroix supplied. “Yeah, I heard. All the more reason to be glad I never went back. Although I guess she spared their lives. There was something about some guy that left there with her-- maybe she wanted a Brotherhood knight to round out her degenerate little harem.”

“Nah, I heard that guy actually used to be a paladin,” I said. “And I heard he was so persuasive, she not only spared their lives, but she offered them the support of the Minutemen. I heard she’s actually going around to all the places in the Commonwealth they’ve used as bases, and checking in on them, to see if they need anything. And I heard this place used to be a Brotherhood base.”

Delecroix looked at me, and then at Danse, and then moved as fast as he could to slam the door, but Michael stepped forward swiftly and shoved it backwards, hard, making Delecroix stumble back into the bunker and stagger against a shelf. I stepped inside the bunker; Delecroix recovered his balance and leveled his rifle at me, but Michael stepped forward and took it from him so easily that it looked gentle, even playful. He tossed the rifle towards a bed in the corner, where it landed softly, while Delecroix stood with his back to the shelf, his gaze darting from face to face.

“Here’s the deal, Delecroix,” I said. “You defected from the Brotherhood, which isn’t a problem in and of itself-- not for me, anyway, I don’t know what the Brotherhood’s official policy is on deserters-- but then instead of figuring out a way to make an honest living, you moved into the Brotherhood’s base and started living off their resources. Which makes you a thief. Which, as the presiding bitch-queen of the Commonwealth, and now ally and protector of the Brotherhood remnant here, I do have a problem with. I don’t want to kill you, because you’re just as cute and helpless as a little kitten right now, but I am gonna have to evict you. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that that rifle’s your own, and I guess you can grab some ammo, but other than that, everything here belongs to the Brotherhood, so. Bye. Good luck out there.”

“Wait,” said Delecroix. “Danse, you’re not gonna let her-- I’m not a deserter. I was on my way back to report in when-- I didn’t disobey any orders. The Brotherhood had-- collapsed. Danse?”

“Coward,” said Danse, quietly, but distinctly.

Delecroix stared. ”What?”

“Coward,” Danse repeated, louder. “Hiding here. When the Brotherhood was most in need of every pair of hands to work, and of the resources you hoarded for yourself. You benefited from the Brotherhood’s prosperity, its ascendancy, and then in its hour of need, you turned from it and betrayed it. You would rather live without purpose, than work and sacrifice for one? If not for the cause, then for your brothers and sisters?”

“Oh, spare me the sermon, Danse,” said Delecroix, clearly deciding diplomacy had failed. “You were always a self-righteous prick. Maxson’s little golden boy. Throwing your weight around, giving orders and enjoying making us lesser mortals say yessir. I bet you’ve been doing a fuckton of that ‘work’ with your own lily-white hands, haven’t you, Paladin?”

Danse looked at him for a second, before he reached up abruptly and pulled off his bandana.

Delecroix opened his mouth, and then just left it hanging open, as if he’d forgotten how to close it.

“Get into whatever armor you want to wear out of here,” I said to Delecroix, after a minute of his stunned silence. “Pick up your weapon last.”

Delecroix moved, past Danse, closing his mouth after a minute, and towards the bed, where he knelt down by a footlocker, opened it, pulled out a handgun, and started to point it at--

--well, in the general direction of our group, although before he’d really managed to aim it at anyone in particular, he screamed out and dropped it, clutching at his right arm with his left and staring up at Michael, who’d just crossed to his side in under a second and was standing over him, looking down at him with a long-suffering expression.

“Damn,” I said cheerfully. “That sucks. Gonna be harder to get dressed with only one working arm.”

Delecroix was fumbling in the footlocker again, looking up warily at Michael, who stood with his arms crossed, watching him. He pulled out a stimpak, which Michael reached down and plucked firmly from his shaking fingers.

“This belongs to the Brotherhood,” he said-- the first time he’d spoken since the bunker door had opened. “Not to you.”

“You’re not even going to let me--” Delecroix looked from Michael to me. “Oh, come on. This is-- this is not right. My fucking arm’s broken!”

“How is that our problem?” I asked. "It wouldn't be broken if you hadn't just pulled a gun on us.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” said Delecroix, white-faced. “I shouldn’t have-- look, please just-- I can’t-- go out there-- with a broken arm and no, no medical supplies. I’ll be dead before sundown.”

“Nora,” said Danse softly, and I turned to look at him. “You placed several stimpaks here--” he touched the pouch at his belt-- “for the journey. Do you consider them-- mine?”

I looked at him for a moment.

“Yeah,” I said. “You want to give him one?”

Danse nodded.

“Toss it to Michael,” I said.

Danse did, and Michael caught it, leaned down, one hand firmly on Delecroix’s left shoulder, and stabbed the stimpak into his right arm. Delecroix sucked in his breath, staring at Danse again.

“Once more with feeling,” I said. “Put your fucking armor on.”

This time he got dressed-- in full Brotherhood of Steel combat armor, which I decided not to dispute with him over-- without any funny business, picked up his rifle with one eye on Michael, and stood waiting. I stepped back to clear his path to the door; he stepped forward, Michael at his elbow, matching him step for step.

“Delecroix,” said Danse, as Delecroix started to move past him. “The Brotherhood still needs-- every willing man. If you chose to return to them-- I think-- they would still welcome you.”

Delecroix stopped, looking at Danse’s forehead.

“You’re a synth,” he said, and I couldn’t really read his tone, although it mostly just sounded astonished.

“Yes,” said Danse.

Delecroix looked, for a moment, as if he was about to say something, and then just kept going, out the door.

“Michael, you’re fantastic,” I told him, when Delecroix was gone. “I mean, just let me know when you get tired of having me give you performance reviews when they’re always ‘you’re magnificent in all things.’”

“I will let you know if I ever tire of hearing you praise me, ma’am,” Michael answered, with a hint of a smile. “Although you should, perhaps, save some superlatives for a situation that actually presents a challenge to me.”

“Nah,” I said. “I’ll just pile ‘em up higher. And-- Danse--” He was resettling his bandana carefully on his head, covering the scar back up. “You’re-- magnificent, too. You’re a better man than I am. Better man than I’m a woman, I mean.”

Danse smiled a bit.

“I would not say that,” he said. “But-- possibly-- I am a better synth than Delecroix is a man.”

Michael broke into a grin I’d only seen a couple of times on his face, a grin that showed quite a few of his teeth and narrowed his eyes, a grin all the more awesome for being absolutely fucking terrifying-looking.

“Up top,” he said to Danse, and lifted his hand, and Danse stared at him for a second, and then grinned, too, and they executed a perfect high five.

Chapter Text

Night was falling when we got back to Goodneighbor, the neon lights glowing brightly on the piles of rubble and broken paving stones outside the door. Once inside the walls, I relaxed slightly. It wasn't quite home, but it was Hancock's town, and he was here, and that made it something close. Home-in-law.

“Do you want to go to the Memory Den now?” I asked Danse. “Or sleep, and wait until morning?”

“Will it be open now?” Michael asked.

“Not sure,” I said, “but we can go check. Unless Danse is tired.”

“No, I--” Danse hesitated. “I am tired, but I am also eager to speak with-- this doctor.”

“Then let’s go to the Memory Den,” I said.

……………………………………………...

The Memory Den was deserted except for Irma, who greeted us from her chaise longue with a smile and a very openly interested glance at both Michael and Danse.

“Hey there, Nora darlin’,” she said to me. “Aren’t you the sweetheart, to bring old Irma such a treat. What’s your name, gorgeous?”

She was addressing Michael, who looked at her curiously for a moment before he answered, “Michael Bowman.”

“Ohhh,” said Irma. “One of the Fort Independence Bowmans, that must be. A fine old family. And you, handsome?” she asked Danse.

Danse hesitated. I realized, for the first time, that I didn’t even know his first name.

“He’s one of mine, too,” I told Irma. “That’s why we’re here, actually. Is Dr. Amari around?”

“Go on back,” said Irma. “Unless Michael’d like to stay and keep an old lady entertained for a bit.”

Michael raised his eyebrows, but didn't answer.

“Nah, I think we’re gonna need him for this, too,” I told Irma.

“What a shame,” said Irma, her eyes skating up and down Michael again.

“Irma,” I said firmly. “Please quit ogling my son.”

Irma sighed. “Walk on by, sweet peas. Hate to see you go, but I’m gonna watch you leave.”

True to her word, she leaned over the back of the chaise to watch us go.

“Sorry about that,” I said to Michael and Danse, as we started down the staircase to Dr. Amari’s lab.

Neither of them answered, which didn’t surprise me on Danse’s part, but did a bit on Michael’s-- I would have expected him to answer that he hadn’t been bothered, and the fact that he didn’t made me wonder if he had minded Irma’s remarks and her open staring. Michael frequently attracted admiring glances when I took him out in public-- at least from people he wasn’t actively involved in menacing-- but most people were discreet enough about it that it was possible he hadn’t noticed, or that it didn’t bother him unless someone was as blatant as Irma had just been.

Dr. Amari turned, as we entered, from a microscope she’d been peering into, and glanced from me to Michael to Danse curiously.

“Ms. Bowman,” she said. “Always a pleasure to see you. I don’t suppose you happen to have such a thing as a geiger counter about you.”

“Sorry, mine’s in the shop,” I said. “They’re both cool, doctor. This is my son Michael, FKA X9-21, and Danse, FKA M7-97.”

“M7-97,” said Amari, looking curiously at Danse. “That sounds familiar. One of ours?”

“Yep,” I said. “That’s why we’re here. Danse, you want to do the talking, or me?”

“You,” said Danse. “Please.”

I nodded, and turned back to Amari. “We’re looking for information. Records, or just anything you remember. He left the Institute--” I looked at Michael. “Do you know when? What year?”

“2283,” Michael answered, without hesitation. “It would have been June or July.”

“You remember that for sure?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Courser training lasted nine months, and concluded in May. New trainees were selected in August. There was only one graduate from the training program that particular May, and Dr. Ayo had expressed an intention to cast a wider net for the subsequent August’s candidates. M7-97 had been considered, but not selected, in 2282, but he almost certainly would have been selected in 2283, had he not escaped.”

“Why wasn’t I selected in 2282?” Danse asked Michael.

“The humans in charge of the selection process neither consulted me nor confided in me on that matter,” Michael answered, “so I do not know. I can speculate, if you like, but that should probably be a conversation for later, when we are not taking up Dr. Amari’s time.”

“Oh.” Danse looked embarrassed, turned back towards Amari and me. “Sorry.”

“It’s quite all right,” said Dr. Amari. “Well. I do not keep records. I never have, due to the risk involved. But-- 2283. Summer.” She looked Danse up and down, not lasciviously, the way Irma had, but clinically, considering his size and shape. “Yes. I do remember. You arrived in the company of Agent Maven.”

Danse looked at me hopefully.

“Maven’s dead,” I said, and his face fell. “I’m so sorry, Danse. I never even met her. She was killed before I joined the Railroad.”

“Would anyone else in the Railroad have known her?” Michael asked me. “Anyone who is still alive?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It wasn’t too long before I joined that she died. I don’t know how much she would have told any of them about one particular synth-- and he wasn’t the first one she’d brought here, was she, doctor?”

Amari shook her head.

“But, maybe,” I said. “I’ll ask Deacon. Is there anything else you remember, Dr. Amari? Did he record a holotape or anything, the way H2-22 did?”

“If he did,” Amari answered, “it was before he arrived here, and he did not ask me to deliver it to anyone. But, as it happens, I do remember one unusual circumstance. Usually it’s the synths who arrive agitated and distressed, in need of comfort, but M7-97 seemed to be trying to console Maven, rather than the other way around. He was--” She looked at Danse. “You were-- quite calm. You seemed to have no doubts, no fears, regarding the procedure.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

Amari was still looking at Danse.

“Yes,” she said. “I always ask, before the procedure, if there is anything in particular a synth would like incorporated into his or her fictitious past. In practice, not all these preferences can be honored-- it’s unfortunately necessary that whatever past we construct must leave the resulting persona alone in the world. With rare exceptions, of course. But I can construct, for example, memories of loving parents who unfortunately deceased of some painless illness. Or of a dear childhood friend, from whom one was sadly but not tragically separated. Memories of education, memories of-- safety, of joy--” Her gaze had drifted off into midair; now she refocused on Danse. “You asked for-- I paraphrase, slightly; I apologize that I cannot recall your exact phrasing, after all this time-- ‘as close to nothing and no one as possible.’ And when I asked you why, out of curiosity, you told me that you would prefer ‘to believe no more lies than absolutely necessary.’”

Danse stared at her.

“I apologize that I have no more information for you,” said Amari.

Danse shook his head. “Don’t-- don’t apologize. I-- Thank you.”

“Yeah, thanks, doctor,” I said. “Can I pay you for-- anything? Your time? Or checking out Victoria earlier?”

“Payment is always a refreshing novelty from any member of the Railroad,” said Amari.

“Don’t get snarky, now, doctor,” I said. “I’ve got caps, I’ve got stims, I’ve got chems-- what’s your pleasure?”

………………………………………..

Once she’d taken almost all my medical supplies-- I’d restock once we got home, and bum some off Michael, who almost never used his, if I needed to in the meantime-- and I’d thanked her again, we headed back out through the Memory Den, where Irma said, “Night-night, Nora. Gentlemen.”

“‘Night, Irma,” I said, but neither Michael nor Danse answered, which-- again-- surprised me on Michael’s part. He was usually scrupulously polite, and not remotely shy. Reticent, a little, but not in a way that would prevent him from returning someone’s casual greeting or farewell.

Once we were out on the street, I said, “Well, it's something. I'll talk to-- my friends-- see what else I can find out. Listen, you guys ready to head back to the hotel for the night? Or do you want to try to find Hancock and Cog and Victoria and see what kind of ruckus they’ve been kicking up?”

Michael turned to Danse. “Are you tired?”

“Yes,” said Danse, with unexpected decision.

“OK, back to the hotel it is, then,” I said, and led the way in that direction. “I got us three rooms-- I figured Cog and Victoria wouldn’t mind sharing, and I thought maybe you two wouldn’t, either?”

“I have no objection to sharing a room with Danse,” said Michael. “But if he would prefer privacy, I can rest as easily in the hallway.”

Danse smiled, a little, and shook his head. “I don’t mind.”

“OK.” We’d reached the hotel; I led the way up the stairs and to one of the two rooms with two single beds, the one whose key I hadn’t already given to Cog and Victoria. I handed the key to Michael, and he unlocked the door, opened it, and then hesitated.

“Ma’am,” he said. “Are you planning on retiring immediately?”

“Not if you need me to do anything else,” I answered, and he gave me a small smile.

“If it’s convenient,” he said, “I would like to speak with you before I retire. Danse, do you need anything that is not in the pack Ms. Bowman has provided?”

Danse shook his head.

“You are at liberty to eat and drink,” Michael told him, “and to sleep if you wish. I will return to this room when Ms. Bowman and I have concluded our conversation.”

Danse nodded. Michael checked the lock, which turned on the inside with a bolt rather than needing a key to lock once inside.

“You should lock this door,” he said to Danse. “I will keep the key for the moment, so that I can enter when I return, without disturbing you.”

Danse nodded again, and stepped inside the room, pulling the door shut behind him; after a second, we heard the lock click.

“You want to go to my room?” I asked Michael, and Michael answered, “As you wish, ma’am.”

I unlocked the door to the room across the hall, with the double bed, that I’d picked for me and Hancock, and sat down on the bed. There was a rickety old chair near it, which Michael took.

“What’s up, son?” I asked, watching him lace his hands together, instead of placing them meticulously and neatly on the arms of the chair, the way he usually did when he sat in a chair with arms. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” said Michael, and then, “Not exactly.”

I waited, while he seemed to consider.

“Is this about what Irma said?” I asked after a moment. “I meant to ask you if that bothered you. Should I have been-- sterner, with her, about it?”

“I don’t wish you to reproach yourself, ma’am,” said Michael. “Your handling of the situation was perfectly appropriate. But yes, her-- attentions-- did--” He hesitated, his hands still clasped together; he wasn't fidgeting, exactly, but his hands were tightening and loosening their grip in a way that probably nobody who wasn't used to trying to read his almost invisible body language would have noticed. “They did-- perturb me. In a way.”

I nodded. “You want to tell me?”

“In the first place,” said Michael, “that type of attention is one with which I was once-- somewhat familiar. In the Institute.”

“You were?” I asked, surprised. “I would’ve thought the Institute would have thought that kind of thing was-- inappropriate.”

“You are certainly aware of the discrepancies that may arise between an institution’s official policies and the actual behavior of individuals within it, ma’am,” Michael said. “You are aware, for example, that a certain individual in the Institute once coerced Emily into highly inappropriate behavior.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Although she won’t tell me who it was. I don’t guess you know.”

Michael smiled a little. “Emily does not bear him enough animosity to tell you, ma’am, and I will respect her wishes in the matter.”

“All my kids making me spare their abusers’ lives all the goddamn time,” I grumbled, and Michael's smile twitched a bit wider. “So you got catcalls in the Institute? That’s-- kind of fucked up.”

“I was constructed to conform to certain human aesthetic standards,” said Michael. “It’s natural that humans should find me physically attractive. And-- unlike any actual human they might have found likewise attractive-- I belonged to them, and therefore, any manner in which they chose to speak to or about me, or in which they chose to handle me, was unlikely to carry any negative repercussion.”

I could feel my eyebrows shooting up. “Handle you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Michael said. “I believe there were those among the Institute personnel who found it-- satisfying, in some way-- to demonstrate their power over their most highly trained and dangerous weapons, by-- casual touches. And there were those, more occasionally, who found it-- amusing, I suppose-- to attempt to disrupt our composure, by-- more-- by less appropriate touches.”

“That’s--” I searched for a word, and couldn’t really come up with one, other than fucked up again. Although why I'd expect anything else from the Institute at this point, I didn't know.

He shrugged slightly. “It didn’t particularly distress me at the time, ma’am, and the memories do not particularly distress me now. Nor did Irma’s comments distress me, on my own behalf. In fact, indirectly, they had the opposite effect, in that they sharpened my-- pleasant-- awareness that I no longer need submit to any touch which I do not invite. And, also, in that they caused you to reprove her in my defense, for which-- although I was not in need of your protection-- I thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, smiling at him. “But you said her comments didn’t distress you on your own behalf. You think they bothered Danse?”

“I do not know,” he said. “He may have felt some momentary unease, but I doubt, after the kindness and respectful consideration you have amply demonstrated towards him in the last several days, he seriously thought that you would allow anything he did not wish to happen. But--” He hesitated, his gaze fixed intently on my face. “I found myself resenting her remarks-- and her glance-- on his behalf. I found that my impulse was to admonish a human-- a stranger-- that she was behaving inappropriately. I even found myself-- relieved-- when her attention turned to myself, not because I necessarily welcomed the attention, but because it was no longer focused on Danse.”

I nodded, considering this.

“Well,” I said finally. “That’s not all that surprising, is it? That you felt protective of him? You’ve been looking after him-- protecting him-- all these last few days.”

“I thought I was doing so as a service to you,” said Michael. “His welfare is a priority for you.”

“I mean, it has been-- incredibly helpful-- to me,” I said. “You always are. But if you’re doing it for him, too, because you--” I hesitated. “Because you like him. You do like him, don’t you?”

“I do,” said Michael, sounding as if he were confessing, under merciless cross-examination, to something horribly incriminating.

“That’s OK, son,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with you having-- personal feelings. I mean, you know that. You even tell me you love me sometimes, and you hardly sound ashamed of yourself at all.”

“That is different,” said Michael. “I--” He hesitated, looking at me. “I am aware that I am an independent entity, ma’am, and that my allegiance is self-determined. And I am aware that you do not view me as-- property. But. Nevertheless. I do-- belong to you.”

“Well,” I said. “Yeah. You do. You’re mine. My son. And I’m yours-- your mother. You belong to me, and I belong to you. That’s what love means, that’s what family means. That we belong to each other, that we take care of each other. But Danse is part of that, too. You can-- feel things for him-- you can want to protect him-- and that doesn’t take away from you being mine. He's mine, too.”

“I allowed you to come to harm this afternoon,” Michael said, “because I was protecting Danse.”

“Son.” I moved from the bed to my knees on the splintery floor by his chair; he looked down at me, frowning slightly. “Are you still upset about that? I’m fine. And I told you, if I’d had a chance to tell you what to do, I would have told you to do exactly what you did.”

“That is not the point,” he said. “The point is-- my priorities are-- the order of my priorities has been-- I did not act out of rational assessment of what your orders would have been. I acted out of instinct, and I instinctively prioritized--”

“The person standing stock-still in the middle of a firefight with an invisible sign around his neck saying I AM BASICALLY CATATONIC RIGHT NOW, TAKE A SHOT," I said. "The person you’ve been focusing on completely, night and day, to try to understand him-- first for my sake, because you knew you could understand him better than I could, and then for his own sake, too, because I think you’ve liked him more the more you’ve gotten to know him, haven’t you?”

Michael was silent.

“My life used to be-- much simpler,” he said finally.

I nodded. “Yeah, mine too.”

He smiled briefly at that.

“It’s strange,” he said. “The worst experience of my life-- so far-- was not your destruction of the Institute. On that occasion, I felt anger-- very great anger, towards you-- and grief, for the Institute and its vision, and fear for the future of the Commonwealth. But-- it was not until the day you released me from my captivity, when I returned to the remnant I served, and was castigated, and stripped of my uniform, and of the status that-- that I had achieved, that Father himself had seen fit to bestow on me--” He swallowed. “I was-- I felt-- shame. Humiliation. Disgrace. I had failed. Even worse, I could not-- even in retrospect-- understand what I had done wrong. It seemed that, rather than having made any particular mistake, I myself was-- simply inadequate. That, perhaps, Father had made a mistake, in judging me worthy to wear the uniform of his elite weaponry. That pain was-- unique. In my experience.”

I reached up, and he unclasped his hands to take my hand in one of his and grip it tightly.

“When Danse spoke to you, at Greentop Nursery,” he said, “the speech which-- seemed to distress both you and Hancock-- when he said, if I recall correctly, allowing for his peculiar syntax, that he would serve you unconditionally, obey any order, endure any punishment, in order to earn your mercy towards the Brotherhood of Steel--”

I nodded.

“It reminded me,” he said, “of my similar intention, when I brought Drs. Hastings and Achanta, and Mr. Benson, to your stronghold. I was determined to expiate my-- unworthiness, my failure-- by offering myself to you, for-- whatever you might require of me. In exchange for-- your protection, of the humans who had deemed me unworthy.”

I nodded again.

“I understand now,” he said, “as I did not then, that you were-- very patient, with me. That you gave me-- everything, everything I could have asked from you-- long before I was capable of comprehending what you wanted from me in return, let alone of offering it to you. I offered you perfect obedience, and you accepted it graciously, and waited, until I was-- ready-- to offer you-- love.”

I bent my head to kiss his knuckles, and then touched my cheek to the back of his hand, resting it there a moment, waiting out the pressure behind my eyes, before I lifted it again to look at him, to hear what else he might have to say.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, finally. "I should return to Danse. If he is still awake, he may wish to discuss the events and discoveries of the day, and he may have questions, which I will do my best to answer. And if he is asleep, I think he would prefer not to waken alone, in an unfamiliar place."

"OK, son." I squeezed his hand, then let it go, and got up. He stood up, too, and paused, looking down at me.

"Good night, mother," he said. "I love you."

"I know, Michael," I said, smiling at him. "I love you too. Very, very much."

He inclined his head slightly towards me, and then turned and went out.

Chapter Text

This is the position you have been trained to assume when you are fed?

...

From now on, you should eat as you did when you believed yourself to be human. Take this in your hand. And this, in your other hand.

...

Good. You may eat until you are satisfied. You will never be denied food under Ms. Bowman's care, either as a matter of routine, or as punishment for any infraction. But you should not-- ever-- assume that other position in her presence.

...

Are you still hungry?

...

If you will tell me what is causing this distress, I will do my best to alleviate it.

Sir--

You should address me as Michael.

Yes-- Michael. Is it permitted to ask--

You are permitted to ask me anything you wish. You should speak to me as you were accustomed to speak, when you believed yourself to be human, to another human of a similar rank or station in life as yourself. Like you, I am a synth, and like you, I belong to Nora Bowman.

You are-- very highly favored-- by-- her.

I am. So are you. You have already seen how highly she favors you. She has spared the lives of her-- captors-- at your request.

But will she-- change her mind? She seemed-- displeased-- with this unit's performance.

She will not change her mind. Her decision is not contingent on your performance, or on your behavior. Only on your request. You heard her say that they would not be harmed as long as you asked her to spare them. You can safely trust her promise.

But on what is the promise based, if not on this unit's behavior? What is its value to her? Why would she keep-- why would she make-- a promise to it?

Your value to her is-- I think she would prefer to tell you herself, why it is that she values you so highly. She will speak to you in the morning, after you and she have both rested, and you may ask her then. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that she does value you, and that nothing you do or say will damage that value in her eyes.

Nothing?

You will not find it difficult to grieve or distress her, but you will find it very difficult to anger her, and very nearly impossible to incur any sort of punishment.

"Very nearly"?

I would say impossible, except that I am trying to be as nearly perfectly accurate and precise as I can, so that you will both understand, and have some confidence in, what I say. I know Ms. Bowman well, but I cannot predict with absolute certainty what she will and will not do, or-- since you and I are not yet very well acquainted-- what you may interpret or experience as punishment. I can state with certainty, however, that she will not punish you by harming your former masters. Nor will she injure you physically, or inflict physical pain on you, or order you injured or hurt, either as a punishment, or for any other reason-- except in the instance that you pose an immediate threat to someone under her protection. Nor will she discipline you by depriving you of food or water, or of sleep or rest. She will be pleased if you ask her for something she can provide for you, and she will rarely deny any such request.

Would it be permitted--

Yes? You need not hesitate to ask me questions, or to make requests of me. My current task is to care for you, and to help you acclimate to Ms. Bowman's-- custody. The more you ask of me, the better I can fulfill my task.

Thank you for your-- diligence, in performing this task.

You are very welcome, Danse. What would you like to ask?

This-- clothing. For how long-- will it be permitted?

Please clarify. What are you uncertain of, regarding your clothing?

You are clothed, and the other--

Emily. Yes, we are both clothed, and so are you. Is this an unusual state of affairs for you?

Yes. Is it not-- when should-- it be removed?

Do you wish to remove your clothing now?

No-- not if-- not until it is required, to do so.

You will not be required to do so. Ms. Bowman does not consider clothing a privilege that must be earned. Nor will she revoke it as a punishment. You were not permitted clothing by your former masters?

No.

...

If this unit... offends...

You have not offended me.

But it may-- you said it would be easy to-- distress-- Ms. Bowman. Can you-- please-- you said you know her well. Can you-- help-- unit M7-97, not to-- distress her?

...

It will do whatever you require of it, in return.

No such offer is necessary, Danse. I require nothing of you in exchange for any guidance I can provide. I apologize for seeming to hesitate, in response to your request. I was thinking of-- something else. Yes, I can help you, to some extent. She will help you, too. She will be frank with you regarding her feelings, and-- as I said-- very slow to anger.

What were you thinking of?

You will certainly please her if you ask her questions as boldly as that. The more questions you ask her, and the more boldly, the better pleased she will be. I was thinking of-- the time when I first entered her service. That, if I had had the good judgment to ask for help-- I could have asked Emily, or I could have asked Ms. Bowman directly, how best to please her. I could have-- but I was proud, and averse to showing weakness or uncertainty, and I did not. So you show yourself, already, wiser than I was.

How did she-- acquire-- you?

I gave myself to her service, to protect my former owners.

Are they safe?

Yes. Safe, and well, and happy.

To what-- uses-- does she put you?

She would object to that phrasing. She would say that I am not her possession, to be put to this use or that.

But you-- you said you belong to her, too.

Yes. Well. My combat skills have sometimes proved useful to her. And I hope I am being useful to her now, in answering your questions, and helping you to acclimate to your new circumstances, while she rests.

Do you know to what uses she will put unit M7-97?

No. You may ask her that in the morning, when you ask her about the nature of your value to her. On the subject of things that will distress her, Danse-- you probably observed the effect it had on both her and her husband, when you-- what?

Nothing. Sorry.

Are you asking yourself, as I once did, what kind of human woman chooses to become romantically involved with a ghoul?

This synth unit would not presume to question its owner's decisions, romantic or otherwise.

I thought as much. You may wish to bear in mind that one possible answer to the question you are not presuming to ask is: the same kind of human woman that agrees to spare the lives of her own kidnappers at the request of a synth.

...

As I was saying, you probably observed that it troubled both Ms. Bowman and Mr. Hancock when you referred to yourself as "it," or "this unit." Ms. Bowman would prefer you to speak as Emily and I do, in the first person.

...

Your speech patterns do not distress me personally. I was simply offering an instance of the guidance you had requested.

Please don't think it ungrateful.

I do not think you ungrateful. Danse, even in the unlikely event that you should manage to offend me, you would still have nothing to fear from me. You are precious to Ms. Bowman, and I would care for you and protect you to the best of my ability for her sake, even if I found you-- personally objectionable.

But you-- don't?

No. Thus far, I find you intelligent, courteous, and, considering your experiences and assumptions, courageous. And although I would have preferred to be allowed to destroy your former masters for the outrage they perpetrated against Ms. Bowman, I do-- honor-- your loyalty to them.

...

Is there anything else you need from me before I leave you?

You are going to leave me?

You need to sleep, do you not?

Where is it permitted to sleep?

Here. In this room. In the bed.

In the--

Yes. Ms. Bowman prefers that you be comfortable.

Do you and Emily sleep in beds?

We were designed not to require sleep as you do, but when we rest, we rest comfortably, as well.

You don't require sleep?

No. You will probably learn a great deal about other synths, under our care. But I think, now, that you are tired, and that you should sleep, or at least rest, before accompanying us on our journey tomorrow. Lie down.

In the--

Yes.

...

Are you comfortable?

...

Would you not like to remove your cap, to sleep?

She gave orders to put it on. There have been no orders to remove it.

Ms. Bowman ordered you to put that cap on? Why?

It did not question the instructions it was given.

She offered no explanation?

...

Well. I have been instructed not to interrogate you. Do you need anything else before I go?

Will you--

Yes?

Nothing. Sorry.

You will aid me in the task Ms. Bowman has assigned me, by telling me how I can make you most comfortable.

It is-- comfortable-- thank you. But-- what do you-- wish-- you had known? If you had been-- you said this unit was wise to begin asking-- right away. What would you have liked to have known-- sooner? About her?

That-- is an excellent question, Danse. I wish I had known-- but if someone had told me, then, I wouldn't have-- understood. I wish someone had told me-- I suppose-- to ask for more, from her. I would have discovered sooner, that way--

What?

You have obviously known very few other synths--

None.

None. Then you may or may not be aware that human life is short, compared to the potential span of ours. We are built without their-- predisposition-- to growing weak, and dying, from old age. Even if I protect her perfectly, if I do not die in her defense, she will die before I do. I regret that I did not realize-- sooner-- how precious this time is, now. The time that I have, to be-- hers.

...

I hope you sleep well, Danse. If you need anything, including company, you may leave this room at any time, and go anywhere within the perimeter of turrets surrounding this settlement. I will be nearby. Should you need assistance.

Thank you.

Again, you are very welcome. Good night, Danse.

Good night. Michael.

Chapter Text

I fell asleep pretty quickly, despite everything I had to think about, and woke up when Hancock slid in beside me, smelling like smoke and booze and Jet, and nuzzled into my neck.

“Good night?” I murmured, as he licked my shoulder, his hand straying towards the buttons of my blouse. “Mmm. Hey. Yeah?”

We got each other extricated from our clothes with the ease of familiarity, and sank into each other, his mouth on mine, his legs and hips and arms twining with mine.

“My Nora,” he whispered in my ear, in the middle of things, and I answered, gasping, “Yeah-- yours-- my love-- my husband--” and he groaned, caught his breath, and grabbed my left hand, lacing his fingers through mine, where we could both feel the ring he’d put on my finger, hard and smooth in the dark.

In the morning, I woke before he did, and kissed both his withered eyelids and his lipless mouth before he woke up and reached for me again. I laid myself down against his chest, my forehead against his neck.

“Good night?” I asked him again, and he said, “Yeah. Good time. You? What was up at the bunker?”

“Little pissant of a Brotherhood deserter,” I said. “Danse gave him a speech about living to no purpose, and he pulled a gun on us, and Michael broke his arm. It was great. Chased him off the Brotherhood cache he’d been living off. What’s left, we'll let the Brotherhood know it's there, so they can reclaim it, and the base.”

“Look at you,” said Hancock. “All loyal to the Brotherhood of Steel.”

“Yeah, well, they're mine now, so,” I said. “And then after that, we went by the Memory Den, and Dr. Amari-- she knew a little bit. About Danse. Gonna ask Deacon if he can tell us any more.”

“Dee,” said Hancock. “Jonah Dee.”

“Right.” I pulled away from him, reluctantly, stretched. “Are Cog and Victoria gonna have hangovers this morning?”

“Cog maybe,” said Hancock. “Made sure he drank a lot of water, though. Victoria didn’t drink much. No chems. Said her brain chemistry’s been fucked with enough.”

“They had fun, though?”

"Mmhmm." Hancock stretched, too, and sat up. "Seemed to. Victoria almost started a brawl."

"What?"

"Almost," said Hancock. "Sally O'Dell-- do you know Sally? Bleached hair, broken nose, hangs out up by the north wall?"

"I know who you're talking about. Pink skirt?"

"Yeah," said Hancock. "Came on to me a little strong last night--"

"You and your groupies."

"--and the next thing I know Victoria's all up in her face. 'He said no thanks, you need a map to the door?' Not sure if she was defending my honor or yours, but either way, that's a feisty one."

"Huh," I said. Possibly Victoria had some unresolved anger issues. Maybe I should be focusing more on teaching her to blow off steam by killing bad things. “But Sally backed off?”

“Yeah, I guess she figured getting into a bar fight with my stepdaughter wasn’t the most surefire route to getting in my pants,” said Hancock.

“Good for Sally,” I said. “How late were you guys out? I didn’t check the time when you came in.”

“Threeish,” said Hancock. “That’s when Victoria said she was tired.”

“Good Lord.” I checked my Pip-Boy; it was six now, and Michael and Danse and I had turned in around eight. I extricated myself from Hancock’s arms and swung my feet over the side of the bed. “Gonna go check on Danse and Michael, OK?”

“Mmhmm,” said Hancock again, turned over, and buried his face in the pillow.

I knocked lightly on Danse and Michael’s door, not wanting to disturb Danse if he was still asleep-- I didn’t know how much longer he might have stayed awake, talking to Michael, who needed rest but not actual sleep-- waited a bit, and was about to turn and go back to my own room, figuring Danse was still asleep and Michael didn’t want to disturb him by answering the door, when the door did open, partway, enough for me to see Michael in it, but not to see all the rest of the way into the room, or to see Danse.

“Hey,” I said to Michael, who answered softly, “Good morning, ma’am. Did you sleep well?”

“Fine, thanks,” I answered, matching the pitch of my voice to his. “How about Danse?”

“He did not fall asleep until quite late,” Michael answered. “He and I had a great deal to talk about.”

I nodded. “Yeah. I bet. That’s good, I’m glad you talked. So is he still asleep?”

Michael let the door swing open the rest of the way, letting me see the bed where Danse lay, face down, as he had at Greentop Nursery, a blanket pulled up over him.

“OK,” I said. “Let him sleep as long as he wants-- Victoria had a late night, so she’ll probably be sleeping in too, and as long as we leave here by-- two, three? We should get back to the Castle with daylight to spare.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Michael. “Thank you.”

“Want me to spell you, so you can get out of the room and stretch your legs?” I asked. “I can stay here with him. I mean, I know he’s not as comfortable with me as he is with you, but you did leave him with me to go get Shaun, and he seemed OK. He let me give him back his gun, even, and find him some decent clothes. You’re doing so great with him, even I can’t fuck it up too bad.”

Michael smiled at that.

“I have every confidence in your ability to look after Danse without incurring any major disaster,” he said, “but it isn’t necessary now, ma’am. I don’t mind staying with him, and I have no other pressing business in Goodneighbor.”

“Sure you don’t mind?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Michael. “I don’t make positive statements with no qualifiers unless I am sure.”

I grinned at him. “No, you don’t, do you? Duly noted. I’ll try to suppress my motherly verbal tics.”

He smiled back at me, and, when I stepped away from the door, swung it silently closed.

When I got back to Hancock, he looked asleep again already, but stirred when I slid back into bed to wrap himself around me.

“Hancock,” I said softly.

“Mmhmm.”

I was thinking about the way Michael had come to me last night, as if to consult me, or unburden himself about something, or both; the way he’d told me some things, and not quite told me others. I was thinking about the only night of my engagement to Hancock, the night in Diamond City when Emily had clung to me, under the stars, and told me everything I’d meant to her, up until now, and that there was someone else, now, who had suddenly become something to her, something important. Something outside the realm of what she’d considered possible, and safe, and necessary, but something she wanted, anyway, with parts of herself she’d never known she possessed. I was remembering being young-- oh, a child, a baby, I could picture my own face, smooth and bright and tender with unspoiled youth, with boundless energy and courage, and boundless capacity for pain-- and the first time I’d fallen in love, the glow and the ache and the glory of it. Michael was only-- what, fifteen? Sixteen, now? I didn’t know the date of his creation, even as approximately as I did Emily’s-- I should ask him, he deserved a birthday, even an approximate one. He deserved everything I could give him, and more.

Judging from his breathing, Hancock had gone back to sleep. I stared up at the water-stained ceiling, and thought about things, until I roused myself, a little later, to Hancock’s murmured, incoherent protest, to check on Cog and Victoria, and visit Daisy and KL-E-0, to restock for the homeward journey.

…………………………………………………………..

We didn’t get attacked, on the way home, by anything but animals, and Danse surprised and delighted me by raising his rifle and getting off a few shots at a small pack of mongrel dogs charging their stupid way towards us, hitting at least one dead to rights. Once the dust had settled, I praised him, trying not to gush, or make too big a thing of it, and he reddened and ducked his head and said nothing. I figured maybe he had more of a hangup attacking humans than animals; possibly he ranked himself, as a synth, higher than animals in the order of things, though lower than humans, or possibly he could justify to himself killing animals to protect a human he considered himself responsible to serve. Or maybe, under Michael’s good influence, he was starting to get over his inferiority complex altogether. I didn’t actually ask him-- it didn’t seem like the time to interrogate him about his idiosyncratic rules for being, not when they were working in my favor.

When we got home, Shaun came running to meet us, leaping up into Michael’s arms instead of mine, probably because he’d figured out that Michael, unlike me, could catch him without staggering. I’d seen Michael catch him mid-leap before, plucking him out of the air at the apex of his jump, but this time he caught him close and hugged him tight for several moments before setting him down.

“Mom,” Shaun said to me, without a pause, “Jonah’s back, he got back this morning. He said he was tired and he went to the library to read but he promised later he’d come to the lab and see the work Dr. Tanvi’s doing, she said you hadn’t asked her for a progress report and you had other things on your mind but you have to come see it too, she says whenever you’re ready we can start implementing--” he pronounced the word carefully, and with a hint of Tanvi’s lilt-- “the fertilization program, on a wider scale.”

“Oh, wow,” I said. I’d sort of forgotten about Tanvi’s project, what with everything else that had been going on, especially without Shaun around to drag me by the hand to see the very exciting progress that had been made since the last time he’d dragged me by the hand to see the last very exciting progress that had been made, etc. I’d never been much of a botanist, or even a gardener-- Nate had been the one who’d taken responsibility for keeping our lawns and herbaceous borders up to Sanctuary Hills Homeowners’ Association standards-- and I’d mostly just been glad Tanvi and Shaun had something to keep them happily busy. But if her work on enhanced crop yield was ready for implementation, right when I was acquiring a bunch of new, sad-sack settlements in need of help and food, that was cause for genuine excitement. “That’s great, Shaun. I’ll definitely come see the lab, and I’ll make sure Jonah does, too. Did he say if he had any news for Danse?”

“He didn’t say,” said Shaun. “Hi, Danse.”

“Hello, Shaun,” said Danse, smiling.

“Well, let me and Danse and Michael go check in with him real quick,” I said, “and then--”

“Let me see those crops, Shaun,” said Hancock, and Shaun looked beyond thrilled as he grabbed at Hancock’s hand. Hancock grinned at me as Shaun dragged him off.

Deacon was in the bookroom with Max, Emily, and one of the settlers-- Lisa Small, who usually worked the crops, but was taking more frequent rests now that she was in-- I thought-- about the seventh month of her pregnancy. She looked up at me as Emily jumped up to hug me.

“Hi, baby,” I said. “Hi, Max. Hi, Dee. Hi, Lisa-- how’s the little kicker?”

“Kicking away,” Lisa said, smiling at me.

“Need anything?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Things are actually going pretty good.”

“Well, you let me know,” I said. “Listen, sorry, but I kind of need to talk to Dee.”

“Sure,” she said, and Emily moved to give her a hand to stand up. She offered her other hand to Max.

“Come on, guys,” she said. “Mother, when you’re finished, I’d like to talk to you, too.”

“Sure, sweetheart,” I said. She was probably ready to go back to Kasumi, now that I was back on my feet; I’d been expecting as much. “Talk soon.”

When the three of them were gone, Michael sat down on the couch they’d vacated, and gestured to Danse to sit next to him; Danse obeyed. I sat down opposite them. Deacon stood.

“You don’t go,” I told him, and he said, “No, just been sitting too long. What’s your full name?” he asked Danse.

“Saul Jonfield Danse,” Danse answered, and Deacon nodded.

“Say ‘she sells seashells by the seashore.’”

“She sells seashells by the seashore,” Danse repeated obediently.

“Say ‘the first friend of my existence.’”

Danse looked puzzled, but he repeated the phrase. Deacon nodded again.

“So here’s what I found out,” he said, still to Danse. “The agent who handled your extraction, in 2283, is, unfortunately, deceased. Her codename was Maven, and she died in 2287, in an Institute raid on one of our main sites. That’s the bad news.”

“Squares with what Dr. Amari told us, at the Memory Den,” I said.

Deacon nodded, glancing at me before looking back at Danse. “The good news is, Desdemona kept some of Maven’s personal effects, among which was a holotape labeled ‘SJD 2283.’ I didn’t know about the ‘SJ’ part until just now, and I’d also never actually heard your voice, but at this point I’m pretty sure this--” he produced a holotape from his breast pocket-- “is yours.”

Danse nodded, tense, eyes on the tape. Deacon held it out to him, and after a second’s hesitation, he took it.

“Maven kept it for four years,” said Deacon, “so. She remembered you. I’ll leave if you want, if you want to listen to it alone.”

“Yeah.” I started to unbuckle my Pip-Boy. “You can listen on this-- I’ll go too, if you want me to.”

“Do you want to be alone, to listen?” Michael asked him.

Danse reached out and took Michael’s hand in his. Michael sucked in his breath slightly, then sat still, looking at neither me nor Danse, his hand gripping Danse’s.

“Then me and Deacon will go.” I handed my Pip-Boy to Michael, who took it with the hand Danse wasn’t holding.

“Sir,” said Danse, as I stood up, to Deacon. “Thank you.”

“No trouble,” said Deacon. “Now Mama B here owes me two favors. When it hits three, I can start cashing them in-- the one that doesn’t go as planned, the one that attempts to fix it but actually destroys my life, and the one that resets everything to status quo so we all learn a valuable lesson. As per tradition.”

He closed the door carefully behind us, leaving Danse gripping Michael’s hand, staring at the holotape.

“Desdemona wants to talk to you,” Deacon said to me, beginning to walk towards the staircase that led up towards the top of the wall.

“Does she not know where to find me?” I followed him up the stone steps, towards the sunlight at the top of the stairs.

“She actually wanted to come with me this trip,” he said, as we emerged onto the wall, “but I talked her out of it. Look what happened last time I took on an escort mission.”

I kept following him as he walked rapidly past an attended artillery piece and a guard tower, towards a deserted stretch of wall. “I am not an escort mission.”

“And it still went to hell,” he said. “Des isn’t a fighter. She’s the brains of the operation. She gets nabbed by raiders or gutted by deathclaws on my watch-- anyway, I told her I’d get you to come talk to her. If it takes cashing in one of the favors you owe me, I’ll spend one.”

“Not necessary,” I said. He’d come to a halt, and was looking out over the water; I sat down on the moss near his feet, and looked up at him. “I’m too curious about your three-wishes scenario to set you back one now. Where is she? Or do you have to spin me around five times and walk me there blindfolded?”

“Nah,” he said, without looking down at me. “I can just take you there. I know you’re a busy lady, but ASAP, OK? She’s got that look in her eye.”

“What, the Red Glare?”

“Something like that,” he said, still without looking in my direction. “Operation Something-or-other, anyway. She really doesn’t tell me much, you know.”

“Yeah, but you tell her plenty.”

“That’s my job.”

“Sure.” I was keeping my eyes on him, in case he turned towards me. “It’s not a criticism. Just an observation. Dee, what’s on that holotape?”

“Danse,” he said. “M7-97. I guess they really bonded, him and Maven-- I mean, she never said anything to me, but no big surprise there. The Railroad isn’t a real big sharing-and-caring concern, any way you slice it. It’s just him talking, it’s his last-- goodbye. He says goodbye. He says thank you. That’s all, really.”

“‘First friend of my existence’?”

“And that.”

“My God,” I said. “And then he became a Brotherhood paladin.”

“Ain’t it a kick in the teeth,” said Deacon. “I mean-- he says, on the tape, he’s a bad liar. He says he’d rather forget, than try to make a better liar of himself.”

I thought about that. “Huh. Wow.”

“Right?” said Deacon. “I mean-- you hit that point in your life, when you decide what you’re willing to-- make of yourself. Because you can’t stay the same, so you have to decide-- what to become. Do you remember when it happened to you?”

“It’s still happening,” I said. “But I can think of a couple-- moments. Yeah.”

He nodded. “I thought about-- when I’d listened to the tape, which I felt kind of bad about afterwards, it seemed private-- but I thought about when Des asked me, she asked me the same thing she asked you, remember she asked you, would you risk your life for a synth?”

“Yeah.”

“I just--” He turned all the way away from me, his back to me, so that I couldn’t see his face at all. “I wasn’t-- political, or anything. I didn’t have some big pro-synth ideology, I’d barely wrapped my head around Barbara being one, all that time, neither of us knowing. I just figured-- I might as well give my life for-- something. Someone. Anyone. If anybody needed it. I sure as hell didn’t.”

We were quiet for a little while, as he stood, looking away from me.

Finally I said, “I’ll come with you, to Des. I have to check in on all the new Brotherhood settlements, and there’s this situation at the Glowing Sea that still hasn’t been resolved, and I don’t know where Danse is going to be at, emotionally, once he’s listened to this tape, but-- I’ll come with you, I’ll hear her out, whatever she’s got in mind. And if it’s not up my street, I’m not going to be upset, I’ll just tell her.”

“I just feel like this-- big confrontation-- has been brewing, for a long time, between you and her,” said Deacon.

“Even if that’s true,” I said. “And I’m not saying I might not yell a bit, clear the air, get some things off my chest. But I’m not going to cut ties, and I’m not-- not ever-- going to make you choose. OK? I promise.”

It was a few moments before Deacon said, “You do?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”

“OK,” he said, and turned partway back towards me, so that I could see his profile again. “Thanks. So I don’t have to burn a wish on that, either?”

“Nope.”

“If you keep doing shit for me for free--”

“You can save your favors,” I said, “for when you want to marry another one of my daughters.”

Deacon gave a startled snort-laugh at that, and then a silence fell, and we were quiet-- me sitting, him standing, both lost in our own thoughts, until I saw Michael and Danse coming towards us, still hand in hand.

Danse’s face was blotched with red, his eyes and mouth puffy and flushed; his face wasn’t wet, but it was very obvious he’d been crying. Michael was composed as usual, but there were wet patches at the shoulder of his shirt, and the shirt was rumpled, as if it had been clutched in fistfuls. Michael bent to offer me back my Pip-Boy, and I took it, looking from Danse to Michael and back again, waiting for whatever they wanted to tell me, or for silence, or for them to leave again.

Danse let go of Michael's hand, and dropped to his knees, a couple of paces from me, placing his palms flat on the mossy stone in front of him, his swollen, reddened eyes fixed on me.

“Nora,” he said, his voice thick.

“Yeah, Danse,” I said softly, meeting his eyes. "Can I do something for you?"

"General Bowman," he said, gaze still intent on me.

I nodded, puzzled, but-- "Yeah. At your service."

His eyes seemed like they were about to bore a hole in me. "Agent Bullseye--"

"Yeah," I said again, trying to keep my voice steady. "Her too."

He lifted his hands from the ground and held out his arms to me, as open an appeal as baby-Shaun's from his crib, when he'd already been fed and changed, and just wanted me to hold him.

I scrambled forward, bruising my knees and stinging my palms on the gravel in my hurry to cross the space between us, into his arms.

Chapter Text

After waiting so long for a hug from my-- as Hancock had put it-- latest and craziest, I didn't want to let go. He didn't seem in any hurry to let go, either; he rested his cheek against my bristly head and held me tight. He said nothing; he didn't really need to. He'd called me by all my names-- except mother, not that one, not yet-- and embraced me. That was enough.

When his arms loosened around me, I took the hint and pulled back, smiling all across my face at him. He smiled back at me, his dazed little smile, and then sobered.

“Nora,” he said, “you said my debt to you is paid. You said that I should consider myself free and clear.”

“Yes,” I said, a little nervously. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this. But even if… “That’s right.”

“Then…” He looked up at Michael, who was still standing, but who came and knelt down next to him in response to the look, not touching him, but close. Deacon was watching from a few paces away, saying nothing.

Danse looked back at me, and seemed to study my face for a moment, as if he’d never seen me before.

“Forgive me,” he said finally. “This is all-- new. These last-- few days. What you tell me I am. What Michael tells me we are. What my own voice tells me--” He gestured towards my Pip-Boy, which I’d dropped on the ground when he held out his arms-- “I once was-- and what I know I chose to become. But for what you have done for the Brotherhood, as the leader of the Minutemen-- and for synths everywhere, as an agent of the Railroad-- and for me-- Nora, I have nothing, but if I am free, I can offer you myself. My allegiance. My service. Not as your-- property-- but as I once offered my loyalty and obedience to the Brotherhood.”

He held out his hand to me, and I took it.

“Wow,” I said, and then felt stupid. I needed to up my diction game if Michael and Danse were both going to be making beautifully phrased, eloquent declarations at me all the time. “I mean-- knowing what kind of-- devotion-- you offered them-- that’s huge. That’s-- overwhelming. Thank you for it. I’ll try to deserve it--” I decided to risk a little bitty jab at the Brotherhood, hoping it wouldn’t upset him-- “better than they did.”

I was relieved-- no, thrilled-- when he made a rueful little face, an eh, good point kind of look.

“Thank you, Danse,” I said. “Saul. Do you prefer Danse, or Saul?"

"No one has ever called me Saul, except--" He hesitated. "I used to think-- it was all I had from my parents, all I knew of them. The name they'd given me. Now-- I must have chosen the name, but I don't remember. There must have been a reason. Or perhaps-- someone-- did give it to me."

His eyes went distant. I ached, that I'd never had a chance to meet Maven. Both because it meant I couldn't offer him memories of her, talk of her, and also for my own sake, because she must have been awesome; whatever she'd been to him had finally made him hug me.

And pledge triple allegiance to me, which-- if I couldn’t get an I love you, mother yet, a voluntary loyalty oath was pretty cool too, especially considering that he’d compared it with what he’d once offered the Brotherhood, and I wasn’t at all sure that wasn’t the closest thing to familial love that he could remember.

"It's another Bible name," said Deacon, speaking for the first time since Michael and Danse had come up to us. "Bullseye, you gotta get these kids of yours to Sunday school. They're just plain ignorant of what the Good Book says."

Danse looked up at Deacon, studying him in the same way he’d seemed to study me. It was as though he’d gotten new glasses, or new eyes, and had to look at everything again, to see what it really was.

“You have risked your life to help-- synths-- like me,” he said to Deacon. “I owe you a debt of gratitude as well.”

“No worries,” said Deacon. “All in a day’s work. Listen, Bullseye, I’m glad you’ve had your nice little moment here, and I don’t mean to rush you, but--”

“Please don’t let me keep you from your responsibilities, Nora,” said Danse. “But if I can help you with any of them, you have only to let me know.”

“Thank you, Danse,” I said again, noting the phrasing; not if you have a task for me or if you can put me to any use, but if I can help. Maybe he’d let me listen to the holotape sometime. “Listen, guys--” I included Michael in my glance; his face was composed, watching me. “Dee needs me to check in at the new Railroad HQ. How far is it, Dee?”

“About-- probably eleven-twelve hours from here, if we stop and fight everything on the way instead of just ducking and dodging,” said Deacon. “We should probably wait until morning to start. But it sounded like you had some business to take care of before then, too.”

“Eleven hours?” Unless Deacon was overestimating how much fights were going to add to our travel time, there wasn’t eleven hours’ worth of Commonwealth in any direction but west from here, and west would take us-- “Is it anywhere near the Glowing Sea?”

Deacon held out his flat palm and tilted it back and forth in a comme-ci-comme-ça gesture.

“Would you like me to accompany you on this trip, ma’am,” Michael asked, “or would you prefer to take Hancock?”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “What if I want to go with just Dee?”

“We are still within the allotted week during which you have agreed not to argue,” said Michael.

“Hancock told you about that?” I demanded.

“Yes, ma’am.”

I looked up at Deacon. “Um, is it OK if one of them comes with me to Super Secret Safehouse?”

“Sure, bring the whole family,” said Deacon. “Not like you don’t usually bring whoever you feel like to HQ. I thought getting kidnapped and tortured might make you take safety and security protocols more seriously, but-- silly me.”

“Yeah, weirdly, the fact that the Brotherhood fucked with me and got owned has failed to make me a nervous wreck,” I said. “But I did promise Hancock, so I either bring him or Michael, or we wait another few days until I’m allowed to go out by myself again.”

“In a few days, you will be free to argue about it again,” Michael corrected.

“Young man, what have I told you about your sassy attitude?”

“That it is hilariously awesome, ma’am.”

Even Deacon couldn’t completely choke back a laugh at that. Michael gave me the slightest possible smile before standing, and offering his hands to me and Danse, hauling us both up at once.

“I believe you need to speak with Emily, ma’am,” he said, “and with Matthew to determine whether there have been any developments regarding the Glowing Sea situation, and with Dr. Achanta to discuss implementation of the results of her experiments. And if you are about to undertake another long excursion, you will want your supplies restocked and weapons and armor cleaned and checked. If you’re amenable, Danse and I can accomplish that last task while you attend to the first three.”

“Oh, yeah, that would be great,” I said. “Thanks, guys. One less thing for me to worry about. I need to talk to Hancock, too, about whether he wants to come along, or leave me in your capable hands. Not that his hands aren’t capable. You know what I mean.”

Deacon grimaced. “Hey, mom, nobody here wants to hear about your husband’s capable hands.”

“I know you think you’re being snarky when you call me mom,” I told him, “but joke’s on you, because every time somebody I love like a son or daughter calls me mother or any variant, even sarcastically, I can feel my powers increasing. No pressure, Danse.”

Danse smiled.

 

Down off the wall again, I found Emily first, or she found me, and reached for my hand; I started to come to a halt, but she tugged me onward.

“Hi, baby,” I said. “Where are we going?”

“To Dr. Achanta’s lab,” she said. “You said you’d check in. I just have something quick to ask you on the way.”

“I need to talk to Matthew, too--”

“I already did, just now,” she said. “No news from Somerville Place.”

“Oh,” I said. “Huh. Well, no news is… no news. So-- what do you need to talk to me about? You missing Kasumi?”

“Yes,” she said, looking startled. “How did you know?”

“Wild guess, sweetheart,” I said, smiling at her. “Don’t worry about me-- it’s been wonderful having you home, but you won’t exactly be leaving me all alone, will you?”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, that’s not-- that’s not exactly what I meant, mother. I mean-- I don’t know that it’s a good idea for me to leave here just yet.”

“Why not?”

“Well--” She seemed to hesitate, as we walked, and as we reached the doorway that led to the lab, she halted. “I mean-- did Michael tell you why he wanted to go get Shaun?”

“Uh, something about me finding his presence comforting?”

“Well, that too,” said Emily, “and-- I probably shouldn’t be saying anything, because I guess Michael didn’t want to make you nervous by saying anything either, and it’s not that Diamond City isn’t safe, or that the Nakano place isn’t well defended either, but--”

I raised my eyebrows. “But?”

“Just-- neither of them is as safe as the Castle,” said Emily.

“Well,” I said. “But that was always true. Why are you and Shaun less safe now than-- you mean because of the Brotherhood takeover?”

“Well, yes, sort of,” said Emily. “I mean, not that you didn’t have enemies before, but you’re kind of-- higher profile than usual? Right now. And-- well, I’m not just your daughter-- I’m your synth daughter. Your synth daughter who went public in the Diamond City paper about how synths are people too. That’s-- several reasons, why some people might be interested in, um, me. In a bad way. Shaun, too-- him not as much, but-- Michael did say that he’d feel better if Shaun were home for right now.”

“Dang,” I said. “Well, baby-- I mean, obviously it’s a joy to have you home, and you’re welcome here as long as you want to stay up to and including forever. But I don’t want you to feel-- trapped, here.”

“How could I feel trapped here?” she asked, smiling lovingly at me. “It’s my home. But I do miss Kasumi. So-- I was going to ask , do you think, if her mom and dad are all right with it, do you think-- she could come here? For a little while, at least?”

“Oh, sure, sweetheart,” I said. “Of course. You want to get her on the radio and see if she and her parents are all right with the idea? If they are, I’ll go get her for you myself, if you can wait a few days. I’ve got another trip I need to make first, in a different direction, but after that--”

“Would you?” Emily asked, visibly relieved. “I mean, your daughter’s girlfriend isn’t quite the kind of target your daughter is, but-- if you, and maybe Hancock or Michael, could go get her-- I wouldn’t worry at all.”

“Sure, sweetheart.” I reached out and pulled her into a quick hug. “Maybe I can take some of Tanvi’s miracle formula up there, too, if it’s ready to roll out.”

“Thank you, mother,” she said. “I’ll go try to get Kasumi on the radio now.”

“Let me know.”

Hancock was playing on the floor with Naveena and some alphabet blocks when I got to Tanvi’s lab, which made me happy. Tanvi had initially had a tendency to get a bit rigid-faced and big-eyed when anyone but herself, Beau, Alice, or Michael got within a yard of the baby, and she, like the other Institute scientists, had barely been able to politely conceal her horror at Hancock’s appearance when they first moved in. But Hancock had a pretty finely calibrated sense of who was and wasn’t freaked the hell out by him, and although he used it, on occasion, to fuck with people, he wouldn’t do that to a mother who was nervous for her baby’s safety. The fact that he’d sat down to play with Tanvi’s daughter meant that she hadn’t shown even a little bit of unease at the prospect. That was pretty noteworthily awesome, in my book.

“Shaun says you’ve been holding out on me, Tanvi,” I told her, and she laughed a little, as Shaun grabbed me and showed me a bunch of different-heighted seedlings and different-colored dirts, talking animatedly the whole time about science words that I didn’t currently have the brain space to sort through. I said “Wow” and “Oh, look at that” and finally, when Shaun had run out of scientific explanations, looked at Tanvi.

“There are always more tests to be done,” she said. “But if you would like to-- implement-- our techniques-- at least at one or two settlements-- I think it’s unlikely to have any adverse effect, and may greatly increase your productivity.”

“Fabulous,” I said. “I’ve got a few new settlements that need help, so this comes at a really opportune time.”

She smiled. “I’m glad, Nora.”

“Hancock,” I said, and he looked up just as Naveena whacked at a tower of blocks, sending them flying. “I know we just got home, but there’s someplace else I need to go in the morning. Some friends of Dee’s need my help, and he’s gonna take me to them. Long trip-- overnight at least. You want to come with?”

“Long cross-country trip with Dee,” said Hancock dryly. “Sounds like more fun than a barrel full of mirelurks.”

“Or I can take Michael,” I said. "I guess Danse'll be OK without him for a bit."

“Nah, I’ll go,” said Hancock. “You said leave in the morning, right? Can I hang out here for a bit longer?”

“Take your time,” I said. “Michael and Danse are going to take care of getting our stuff ready to go. Tanvi, let’s talk turkey when I get back in a couple days, about the rollout.”

Tanvi looked puzzled. “‘Talk turkey’?”

“Mom means ‘discuss logistics,’” Shaun told her.

I grinned at Shaun. “Look at you! You’re my translator!”

“I know,” said Shaun cheerfully. “I used to have to tell Emily what you were talking about all the time, back at the Slog. She’d memorize it, and come say it to me, and I’d tell her what you meant.”

“You should speak to Naveena as much as possible in your mother’s native language,” said Tanvi to Shaun, mock-seriously. “It will be useful for her to grow up bilingual.”

“All right, all right, I’m taking my archaic slang out of the science zone,” I said. “See you later, alligators.”

Shaun giggled. “After a while, crocodile.”

 

Hancock, Deacon, and I left first thing in the morning, our armor and weapons cleaned and tuned to perfection, our packs economically but adequately stocked. I got to hug all my kids goodbye this time, even Danse, who hugged me back like an old pro. Emily told me the Nakanos were thinking her proposal over, and to come home soon. Shaun told me to say hi to everybody at HQ. Michael said, “Be careful, mother.”

“Did you just say that to give me the power boost?” I asked, and he nodded gravely, and then I had to hug him again.

It was actually a pretty quiet trip, considering that Deacon usually talked my ear off when we went anywhere together, including in the middle of fights. The three of us walked-- and fought, when mirelurks and dogs and stupid-ass raiders popped out at us-- in what felt to me, at least, like a companionable mostly-silence. When we stopped to rest and eat, we talked a little bit, about Danse and how he was doing, and Emily and how things seemed to be going well with Kasumi, and how we needed to get back to the library sometime, and back to Acadia to visit the synths there. It didn’t feel weird, though, when we stopped talking. It was as if, along with his new face, and the willingness to be hugged by me and agree that he lived in my house, Deacon had somehow acquired the ability to let a silence fall without immediately filling it with distracting nonsense.

We’d left the Castle around sunrise, and the sun was already beginning to sink when we stopped again, to rest and eat, and Deacon said, “You haven’t asked where we’re going.”

“Just following you,” I said. At this point I had a fairly good idea of where we were pointed, but I hadn’t seen the point of speculating aloud as we walked.

“It’s, uh,” Deacon said. “See, Des wanted to pick a place you never go normally. Which doesn’t leave a whole lot of choice. You even stop by your old Vault sometimes.”

I nodded. “We’re-- is it Fort Hagen?”

“Yeah.”

“So, not aboveground after all,” I said. “Dammit.”

 

We took a roundabout route inside, Deacon checking carefully for signs we were being watched or followed, and I took deep breaths-- through my mouth, so I wouldn’t smell the place; I was having enough flashbacks as it was-- as we descended into the control center where I’d killed the man who’d killed my husband and stolen my child from me. I’d killed him before I’d even understood all he’d taken from me, all he’d destroyed. And yes, I’d never been back here since.

Goddammit, Desdemona.

“I should have warned you before,” Deacon said softly, as Hancock took my arm. He’d never been here with me, but he must have seen how pale I’d turned. “I’m sorry. I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

“I’m fine.”

I felt like I was going to puke, in point of fact, but it wasn’t Deacon’s fault, and we were already at the control center, Drummer hurrying up to us, saying, “Bullseye, Des needs to talk to you.”

“Yeah, Drummer,” said Hancock irritably. “That’s why we’re here, thanks.”

Everyone was here-- Carrington, Tinker Tom, PAM in the formerly locked-off mesh cage that held the actual command consoles, with its heavy security door (hey, bonus flashback to Brotherhood captivity, the clang-open of the cell door, the clang-shut), a handful of die-hard agents-- codenamed Nike, Boxer, and Wheels-- and, yes, Desdemona, leaning over the desk that had once held Kellogg’s personal terminal, and smoking.

“Bullseye,” she said. She didn’t look very well. The stress of moving? Worry over me? Or just the effect on an aging redhead complexion of a steady diet of artificial light, stale nicotine, irradiated food, and scowls?

“Hey, Des,” I said.

She tapped her cigarette into the ashtray beside the map spread out in front of her. “Come look at this.”

“Oh, I’ve been just fine,” I said; Hancock let my arm drop as I moved towards her. I was fine. It was just a place. The shit that had gone down here was nothing, compared to everything else. It was just this was the only place I hadn’t blown up yet. Aside from the Vault, which always felt more like a cemetery than a battlefield. “I’m recovering beautifully from my kidnapping and torture, thanks so much for asking.”

Desdemona flapped her hand impatiently at me as I approached. “Deacon tells me you claim not to have divulged any information about the Railroad, during your interrogation. How confident should I be of that?”

“Uh, pretty confident?” I said. “Sorry, are you accusing Deacon of lying, or me?”

“Neither, in this instance,” she said, looking up at me, the lines around her eyes and purple smudges underneath them shocking in the fluorescent light from overhead. “But are you sure you were lucid the entire time you were captive? That there are no periods you don’t remember clearly, during which you might have said something you don’t recall saying?”

“I’m sure,” I said. “I wasn’t there that long. Just about a day and a night. I remember it all.” I was looking at her map, which was of the Commonwealth. Actually, it was another copy of the same print I’d used in my meeting with the Brotherhood, but this one had a lot of ballpoint pen marks on it. Lines, capital letters, and railsigns.

“Deacon also tells me you’ve seized control of the entire remaining Brotherhood force in the Commonwealth,” she said, as I studied the map. “What part of that is true?”

“I didn’t exactly seize control,” I said. “But they did agree to join my Minutemen. So they shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the Railroad either, going forward. Oh, that’s what these B’s are, aren’t they. And the C’s--” She had them on Ticon, University Point, Wattz Electronics, and--- “There’s a whole bunch of letters on my house, Des.”

“There certainly are,” said Desdemona. “You may note that it’s the only location on the map marked both with the railsign for safehouse, and a B, an I, and a C, indicating the presence of, respectively, Brotherhood, Institute stragglers, and a courser.”

“Why?” I asked. “Nobody at the Castle is an enemy the Railroad needs to worry about. Why mark them on the map at all?”

Desdemona looked up at me. I’d always been impressed by how well, without actually wearing glasses, she rendered an approximation of a prewar schoolteacher’s over-the-glasses look.

"The Railroad has long considered coursers the enemy,” she said. “Or rather, tools of the enemy. But that isn’t necessarily the case. You’ve demonstrated that with X9-21. Michael, as I believe you’ve named him.”

“He named himself.” I hadn’t realized Desdemona had had this change of heart on the subject of coursers; she’d never even met Michael. I wondered what Deacon had been telling her. “So-- what are you saying?”

“Well,” said Desdemona, and I saw the smile I’d seen first when I brought her the chip I’d dug out of the cooling brain of the first courser I’d killed. It wasn’t a big smile, or a particularly warm or joyful one, and yet it was kind of beautiful, especially on her generally tired-looking face, and it made me like her more, because it was a hopeful smile, and it made me realize that her face, at rest, didn’t have very much hope in it at all. “If you can get the Brotherhood on our side…”

Chapter Text

"Hold up," I said. "What?"

"Uh, I'm not sure 'on our side' is quite the phrase you're lookin' for," said Hancock.

Desdemona still had that little smile on her face, and I was rapid-cycling through times I'd seen it before. The courser chip; the teleporter; the Prydwyn; the last time, before the war ended. Before I pushed the button.

"They may not, strictly speaking, be on the Railroad's side," she said, "but you've converted them into allies, and you're our ally."

"Yeah, but-- I mean, what do you want me to do?" I asked. "Find an Institute hangout and get myself kidnapped and tortured so I'll have a reason to terrorize the rest of them into submission?"

“Far be it from me to criticize your tactical choices," said Desdemona. "They’ve been remarkably effective lately. But it's not exactly what I had in mind. I've been considering, and--”

"Listen here, lady," said Hancock, beside me. "My wife's done you a few pretty goddamn big favors, here lately. If you think you're gonna be sending her out on another fucked-up mission right now--"

"Your wife is my agent," Desdemona snapped at him. "She chose to join the Railroad of her own free will. And she knew the risks involved."

"That a reason why you can't say 'thank you'?" Hancock asked. "Or how about 'well done, agent'? How about 'lucky to have you aboard'?"

"Agent Bullseye needs less coddling than you seem to think, Mayor Hancock."

"It's true," I said. "I don't need you to coddle me, Desdemona. I've got my own crack coddle squad back home, and they've been doing a great job nursing me back to normalcy. Including your best agent."

Desdemona looked up at Deacon, who'd been silent so far. He stayed still and expressionless behind his shades.

"I'm glad you know which way to look when I say 'your best agent,'" I said. "When I found him sitting alone in a crypt you'd decided was compromised, I got a little bit worried that maybe you considered him expendable."

"We are all expendable, Agent," said Desdemona. "That's the brutal truth of this organization. Again, you knew this when you signed up. Do you know how many good agents have died for the cause? If I let myself get attached-- if I let myself be crippled by the fear of losing good men and women-- I would never have accomplished what I have, for the synths we serve. If I let myself be wrecked by grief every time I lost someone, do you think I'd still be alive myself, to keep this place running? My job is not to mother you-- any of you. It's to help you achieve your goals, if your goals are the same as mine-- to ensure the safety of synths across the Commonwealth."

"Then how come you keep fighting me when I do things like go public with Emily?" I asked. "How come you yelled at me when I didn't kill Michael?"

"I was mistaken," she said. "Is that what you want to hear? I believed you were allowing your emotions to compromise your judgement. And although things have gone better than I feared in both instances, I don't think I was wrong to be concerned."

"Since when is that a problem for you?" I asked, heat building inside me. Deacon had been right; this had been brewing awhile. "Since when have I not been emotional? When you first met me and I was desperate to find my baby? When I found out all the synths were my babies once removed and living in slavery? When Glory died and you stood over her-- her body-- and aimed me at the Prydwyn? At which of those points were you under the impression that emotions weren't compromising my judgement? When have you known me that I seemed super calm and detached and rational? And how about the rest of your agents? Do you think any of their emotions might possibly have been clouding their judgement when you recruited them? How about when you sent them off to--”

I stopped. My voice had been getting louder, angrier, less controlled. People were looking: Tinker Tom, Carrington, the rest of the agents. Everyone was quiet and still.

“We can do this in private,” I said to Desdemona. “If you want.”

“That’s not necessary,” she said coolly. “Please, continue.”

“OK,” I said. “Maybe you’re right, that you have to stay focused on the big picture. Maybe that’s how it works for you. Maybe it’s true that if you got attached, if you let yourself care about people, instead of just the cause, you couldn’t function. But it’s the only way I function. It’s the reason the Brotherhood is on our side now-- because I’m a good enough leader, because I care about the Minutemen, because they know I work for them and listen to their concerns, and so they were willing to support me in this, when I made the call-- and I made that call, because I care about one ex-Brotherhood paladin. And it’s the reason Michael’s with me now, because I decided to let myself care enough, and be vulnerable enough, that he finally trusted me. And-- listen, Des, I’m not yelling at you because you’ve come around on the subject of coursers. I’m glad you’ve come around on the subject of coursers. I want every last one of them on our side, of course I do, you think it never occurred to me before to go to them and plead with them, go down on my knees, the way I did with Michael, and tell them how sorry I am? How much I loved their Father, how much it killed me to do what I did, that I live with the grief of it every day? That they’re my beloved children, and there’s a bleeding hole in my heart for every one of them, and if they’d come home to me I’d spend the rest of my life making a home for them better than the one I took away? Is that what you want me to do? Do you think that would be a sound tactical decision? Do you think maybe before you try to use me, you should understand how the hell I function? Don’t fucking talk to me about my emotions clouding my judgement. And don’t fucking talk to me about getting people on our side. You don’t know the first thing about my side. You don’t even know why I’m still on yours.”

The room was silent. Hancock was just behind me, close enough that I could feel him there. Deacon was holding still, quiet, watching me. It was a different face, but the same Deacon who'd stood there watching me, waiting, when--

"There's something I've never told you," I said to Desdemona. “Something I think you don’t know. Remember after we brought down the Prydwyn, when I got back here, and you said it was time to move on the Institute?"

She narrowed her eyes slightly. "Of course I remember."

"I almost killed you," I said. "All of you. I almost shot up the whole goddamn place. I'd just-- There were children on that ship. I'd just killed children. And-- other people, decent people, who-- were just-- trying to get by. Just living their lives. Doing what they thought was right. And I was in shock, I was half out of my mind, and I come back here and you say, OK, great, mission accomplished, and now, the Institute. Now kill your son."

Desdemona said nothing. She was watching me intently.

"And he'd told me to kill you," I said. "Shaun. Father. He'd said, don't come back here until it's done. Till the Railroad's been dealt with. And when he said it, of course I wasn't going to. But after the Prydwyn, I knew I could. After what I’d just done-- I could do anything. Easy. None of you would have stood a chance. I'd just-- take you all out. And then go back to my son and say, done. The Brotherhood's taken care of, and so's the Railroad, what's next. I had my gun in my hands, Des, and I took the safety off. Did you see? Did you think anything of it?"

She was silent.

"I didn't think so," I said. "So-- yeah, I think that's important for you to know. Because it was a really big mistake you made, Des, a big miscalculation, and a better leader wouldn't have made it. A better leader would have realized her agent was-- not in the right frame of mind, to get an order to blow up her son. You fucked up. Badly. And I think you should know, how close you came. You would have had just enough time, probably, before you died, to know you'd lost-- everything. Everything you cared about, everything you'd fought and sacrificed for. Because you pushed me too hard, too far, too fast."

"But you didn't do it," said Desdemona quietly.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t. I told you I had to think things over, that I needed time, to process. And I went home, to the Castle, and to Hancock, and-- we talked, a lot, about what I was going to do now. He helped me decide. And I came back with him, remember, when I came back, because I was scared to come back here by myself, I was scared it would-- happen, again, that I’d lose hold of myself. By then I didn’t want to. I’d remembered about-- Hancock-- and all my friends, and-- and the Minutemen. All the settlements. And all those synths, who deserved-- freedom, at least. I’d remembered why I joined the Railroad, and why we needed to win the war. But all that was-- later. None of that’s why I stopped, when I did, and told you I had to leave, and left.”

“Why did you?” Deacon asked, and I looked up at him.

"You saw me take the safety off,” I said, to his shades, his impassive face. “Didn’t you."

"Yeah," he said. “And look right at me. I thought you were gonna kill me first. I was trying to decide it if was because you hated me the most, or ‘cause you still liked me, and you didn’t want me to have to watch the rest of them die.” He gave me a quick, crooked little grin and a tiny shrug. “Always did wonder. Why you stopped.”

“I looked at you because you’d quit breathing,” I said. “And it was-- I don’t know if it was the worst moment of my life, because it’s got a lot of competition, but-- yeah, maybe it was, actually. When I knew I’d done-- something I could never forgive myself for-- but I still had to keep on being me. I couldn’t even go crazy, turn into something else, somebody who didn’t give a fuck about anything or anyone, so I could live with what I’d done. I thought I could, I thought I had, but then-- I looked at you. And-- I couldn’t.”

He said nothing. I couldn’t read his face, behind the shades. After a second, I turned back to Desdemona.

“So there you go,” I said. “Maybe after I killed you all, I would have snapped back, and run to Hancock anyway, and we would have figured something out-- used the Minutemen to fight the Institute, or something. Or maybe I would have lost it all the way, and teleported back to Shaun, and said, hi sweetie, I’m all yours now. Mommy’s home. But either way, you’d be dead. You’re still alive, you won the war, because I let my emotions compromise my judgement, for Deacon. Because I love Deacon. Think about that, next time you think about leaving him behind.”

“Thought I lived with you now,” said Deacon.

I let out a little puff of laughter, a welcome relief from the adrenaline sting that came even from thinking about all this again. “Oh, yeah. Yeah, Des, I don’t know if he told you already, but he lives at the Castle now. He’s still loyal to you, don’t worry-- I think maybe you grabbed him when his judgement was compromised by emotions, or something-- anyway, for whatever reason, he loves you or something, I dunno. But you don’t take good care of him, so I’m gonna do that from now on. Gonna coddle him.” Another quick bubble of laughter burst in my chest, as I thought of Michael, before he’d had a name, when he’d been my prisoner, when I’d split his lip with the barrel of my gun and then called for a stimpak to heal him, when he’d said, You don’t have to mollycoddle me, making me want to laugh, even then. “Mollycoddle him, even.”

“All right,” said Desdemona. Her voice was quiet, but steady. “All right, Bullseye. I don’t presume to dictate the living arrangements of my agents. And I apologize if I’ve overstepped my bounds with you, or failed to take your feelings sufficiently into account.”

“Apology accepted,” I said. “And appreciated. Thanks.”

“But--”

“Oh, here we go.”

”But, she repeated, doing the over-the-imaginary-glasses look again. “I merely ask that you consider what I’ve said. Take time, if time is what you need-- to establish a more secure peace with the Brotherhood, assimilate them into your network, build the-- ties-- you build. Do what you do well. You do it very well, I’ve never denied that. But when you’re ready, the Railroad is ready to help, in any way we can, with the courser project. Come to me, to us, and hear my thoughts, and I'll hear yours, and we'll formulate a strategy. We want the same thing, Bullseye-- we want the coursers on our side, and the former Institute humans, too. We want the Commonwealth unified-- we’re so close, now. That’s why I bring it up. Perhaps it was tactless of me to bring it up so soon and so abruptly-- and I appreciate both times you’ve refrained from murdering me for my tactlessness--”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, you’re welcome.”

“--but the Brotherhood have joined you, now,” she said, and her face was alight again, and I couldn’t get too irritated with it, with that look of uplift, of hope, of vision. She was a visionary-- she’d dared to dream of liberating every damn synth from the Institute, in a Commonwealth that had been murderously terrified of synths at worst, and passively terrified of the Institute at best-- and she’d helped me get it done. I didn’t love her-- maybe I didn’t even like her very much-- but I owed her. And she was right: we wanted the same things.

But--

“Desdemona, how in God’s name is the Railroad going to help me convince a bunch of angry homeless coursers that they should join the Minutemen?”

“Well, given what you've said, I do somewhat hesitate to bring up my initial idea,” she said, and I decided not to push it right now, because I was still a little mad, and this was not the time, anyway. “But the Railroad may prove useful, anyway. One never knows which of our resources or records might be helpful. That’s why I held onto Maven’s personal effects. Was the holotape Deacon brought you helpful to M7-97?”

“Well played,” I said, with an involuntary half-smile. “Yeah. Very. Thanks. OK. I will. I’ll keep it in mind. What you’ve said, and what you’ve offered. And I do appreciate it. Anything else you need from me before I go?”

“It’s late,” she said. “Do you want to spend the night here?”

“Nah,” I said, repressing a shudder at the thought of falling asleep here. Waking up here, opening my eyes in this room. “Thanks, but I think we’re going to head back towards Somerville Place to crash-- I need to check in with them anyway, before I do the next Brotherhood bonding exercise I’ve got in mind. Dee, you want to come with us, or crash here for the night and catch back up with us at the Castle?”

“I’ll come with you,” said Deacon. “Catch you later, Des. I’ll be checking in, but if you need me in between, you know where I’ll be, yeah?”

Desdemona nodded at him. “As you say.”

“What’s with PAM, by the way?” I asked; she’d been visible all this time, from her mesh cage, but completely motionless. “She OK?”

Desdemona smiled a little. “I think so. When Deacon reported that the Brotherhood had joined forces with the Minutemen, she said, ‘Recalculating based on new data.’ She hasn’t moved since, but she whirs sometimes.”

I grinned. “Yeah, well. Just call me the rogue variable. Bye, Des.”

“Thank you for coming,” said Desdemona. "I'll alert you if there are more changes in our status. Or if PAM wakes up."

I paused at the door. "I mean, were you going to try to get me to kidnap a bunch of coursers, or--"

"Travel safely, agents," said Desdemona. "Deacon, you'll be with her when she comes back, won't you?"

Deacon gave her a little salute, before he followed me and Hancock out.

Chapter Text

Michael?

Yes. I apologize for waking you.

I wasn't asleep.

If you were ready to sleep, there is no need to rouse yourself on my account.

No. I was waiting for you.

I'm at your disposal.

May I ask a question?

You may.

When you requested to speak with Ms. Bowman just now--

I wanted to consult her regarding-- among other things-- the quality of my recent performance.

She is very free with her praise.

She is. But less free with her correction. If I'm uncertain whether I am performing my duties to her perfect satisfaction, I sometimes find it necessary to ask her directly.

Are you? Performing to her satisfaction?

Yes.

Then-- my behavior hasn't-- reflected poorly, on you, as my--

As your--?

I was about to say, my sponsor. In the Brotherhood, a more experienced, more highly ranked officer would sponsor an initiate's entrance to our-- their ranks. Offer guidance and correction. Poor performance, or misbehavior, on the part of the initiate, would reflect on the sponsor.

I see. The parallel is apt, if not exact. Insofar as your behavior does reflect on me, Danse, it has done so to my credit, not to my detriment.

I apologize for endangering Ms. Bowman during the raider attack.

You were not charged with her protection.

I distracted you.

You have been conditioned very strongly against fighting. It's not surprising that, in the moment, you found yourself unable to overcome that conditioning, or that the attempt to do so left you somewhat-- paralyzed. You are nevertheless to be commended for having made the attempt.

I meant to-- I know I’m-- allowed. It’s not as if she reprimands you for-- violence.

Ms. Bowman values my combat skills very highly. The first time I had the opportunity to demonstrate them for her benefit, she referred to me as a “psycho death ballerina.”

I've since learned that the term “ballerina” indicates one who has mastered a combination of extraordinary physical discipline and aesthetically pleasing grace of movement.

Then it’s-- quite apt.

Thank you. Ms. Bowman has also made comments indicating that she admires what she has seen of your own combat prowess. Your “moves,” as she called them.

Yes. I know she-- allows-- but it’s just--

Your reluctance is deeper than a straightforward fear of punishment or reprimand.

Yes. I-- Everything keeps changing. Everything I know. Everything I am.

How so?

How so? I was-- apparently-- M7-97, an Institute synth. I went-- willingly, it seems-- to the doctor we saw today-- and became-- Danse. And then I joined the Brotherhood, and I became a knight, and then a paladin. And I thought I had found-- the answer. The truth. The man I was meant to be. M7-97 must have believed, too, when he escaped, that he was on his way to-- his real life. His true self. And then I learned-- when I thought I was a paladin-- that I was-- not even human. And now-- How can I know-- what’s real? What I really am?

When you became a paladin, did that mean the rank of knight, which you had previously held, was unreal?

No, of course not.

You are M7-97. You were so designated at your creation. You are Danse; you chose that name. You served the Brotherhood bravely and faithfully, and earned the rank of paladin. You continued to serve them faithfully, when they stripped you of your rank and your clothing, and when you had the opportunity to save them, you bravely took it. All that was real. And this, now, is real.

...

Returning to the subject of your combat skills. I understand that you have been trained not to offer violence to humans. What about subhuman creatures?

Like synths?

Yes. Like synths. Like me. I invite you to try.

No, thank you. No, you mean-- animals?

Yes, or feral ghouls, or-- with due respect to your late friend-- super mutants. Could you fight and kill such creatures, without psychological distress?

If I think of it in terms of-- defending Ms. Bowman. And of reflecting on you, to your credit. Then yes-- I think--

Then I suggest that tomorrow, on the way home, if we are attacked by humans, you find cover. But if we are attacked by something else--

Yes. I can fight.

Good. I look forward to seeing your moves.

...

You seem to be looking forward to showing them off.

We'll probably both be disappointed. I'm quite-- rusty. --Michael?

Yes?

Was I really being considered for courser training?

Yes.

Would I have had a-- sponsor?

No. We had no equivalent.

If I had completed my courser training--

You and I would not have-- known each other. Not well. Emotional bonds between coursers were not encouraged.

But they must-- sometimes-- have developed. Anyway.

Our training was designed to eliminate, as far as possible, all weakness and vulnerability. I thought of my-- disinclination, towards emotional attachment-- as an advantage I had, over more susceptible synths.

But you don't feel that way now?

Not now. No.

What changed?

...

Michael?

...Imagine… that at the moment of your creation.. you were fitted with a hood, that covered your eyes so closely that you were unable to use them. You would learn to navigate the world by touch and sound and scent. You would hear others speak of color, light, shade, perspective. You would not understand what they meant. You might think they did not mean anything, that they spoke foolishly, without reference to reality. Then imagine that the hood was removed.

...

For some time you would struggle, would you not, to make sense of your new perceptions. To relate what you could now see, to the world you understood only in terms of your other senses. You might... sometimes... close your eyes, to make things easier. To shut out the barrage of bewildering new sensory input. Yes?

Yes. I suppose so.

But if you allowed yourself to-- keep looking-- at all-- you would learn, how much there is to see. That every voice that had ever commanded you, every hand that had ever touched you, belonged to a face and a form that you could see as well as it could see you. That there are ugly forms and faces, and-- beautiful ones.

Yes.

Before I entered Ms. Bowman's service, I knew-- loyalty, dedication to service and to a cause greater than myself, pride in my own abilities, pleasure in the praise of my masters, shame at their reprimands. I even felt these things-- passionately. But I didn't understand-- I did not even know that I did not understand-- what it would be to love. Or to know myself loved.

But now you love-- her.

I do love her, yes. Very much.

I don't think-- even when I thought I was human-- I ever-- I was loyal, yes. And-- dedicated. I believed in a cause. But there was no one-- and after Cutler's death, even friendship came to seem-- as you say-- weakness.

It is-- vulnerability. But not weakness. It took me some time to understand the difference. We used to wear-- did you ever see a courser? During your time with the Brotherhood?

No.

We wore uniforms. Thick, protective. When I was stripped of mine, as punishment--

Punishment for what?

That would be something of a rude question, if you didn't sound flatteringly incredulous that I could have deserved such a thing.

I am incredulous.

Yes, well. It's a long story. In any case, I was, as I said, stripped of my uniform, and apart from the shame and disgrace, I felt-- very vulnerable, without it. Physically. I wasn't used to feeling-- my skin, exposed to the air, or to anything that might touch it. But I was not actually weaker, or less able to fight, or to protect my charges, without my uniform. If anything, I was more alert, more aware of my surroundings. Vulnerability-- awareness of vulnerability-- has its advantages.

And its disadvantages.

Certainly.

I am-- afraid.

Of what?

Of what will happen. When I have exhausted her goodwill.

You don't understand. That-- will not happen.

How can you know that?

You don't-- know her. Not yet. Not as I do. You know that she is-- generous, indulgent, lavish with praise and with favors, disinclined to punish. Metaphorically, you know the sound of her voice, and the weight of her hand. But you do not yet-- see her.

No.

What about me? Do you know me?

...I think so. Yes.

Can you trust me?

You have been-- But you protect me on Ms. Bowman’s orders. If she-- decides-- I no longer need-- or deserve-- a-- such a--

You may not recall, since you were somewhat-- overwhelmed-- at the time, but in point of fact, she never ordered me to care for you.

You said it was your... task...

It was, and is. My self-appointed task. Initially, for Ms. Bowman's benefit, since she wanted you comfortable, and then-- increasingly-- for your own sake. Because I take pleasure in your company. And because, were I your sponsor, I would be pleased and proud to have chosen such a protégé.

...Thank you.

You are welcome.

But...

But what?

But-- if she-- orders you-- otherwise--

Danse, when I asked her, at the Castle, why she had not hugged you, what did she say to me? Do you remember?

…“You shook your head at me.”

If you cannot yet credit that she will move heaven and earth to give you whatever you ask of her, you can at least observe that I do not even have to give her a reason, or speak aloud, for her to grant me whatever I ask of her. And I will not allow you to come to harm, or suffer unnecessarily, or fall back into the hands of those who would-- limit you, in any way. Do you believe me?

...yes.

Good.

...

You must be tired. It's late. You should try to sleep.

Will you wake me when-- when I need to be awake?

Yes.

Thank you.

You're welcome, Danse. Sleep well. I'm here if you need-- anything.

Thank you, Michael.

Chapter Text

By the time we got to Somerville Place, staggering and spattered with blood and protoplasm, it was past two in the morning, and only the sentries on night duty were awake.

“You guys still haven’t heard from the Brotherhood?” I asked them quietly, after they’d greeted us and I’d introduced Dee.

“No,” said one of them, a guy named Jackson, who’d lived in a shack by himself out in the woods before he’d been chased out of it by mirelurks. When I heard the story, Hancock and I had gone ahead and cleared out the mirelurks for him, but he’d stuck around at Somerville Place anyway, and seemed to like it here. “And it’s making everybody a little jumpy.”

“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “Gonna get this thing settled, one way or the other. In the morning. Right now we need to crash. Any extra beds?”

“Two,” said Jackson.

Deacon looked at Hancock. “Well, two of us are gonna have to suck it up and share. Rock-paper-scissors?”

“Whoever told you you were funny didn’t do the world any favors,” said Hancock.

“Ha!” said Deacon. “Joke’s on you. Nobody’s ever told me I was funny.”

“Faith in humanity restored.”

“Guys,” I said. “Can we do the banter in the morning, when I’m not about to pass out.”

“C’mere, you,” said Hancock, sliding his arm around my waist. “I’ll getcha settled.”

Once we’d washed up, dried off, and were spooned back-to-front on the narrow bed, he said just behind my ear, “You OK?”

“No, I’m about to die of tired.”

“I mean-- bringing up all that stuff,” he said. “With Desdemona. Memories. And that place.”

I thought about it for a second, but before I could come to any conclusions about how OK or not-OK I actually was, I fell asleep.

When I woke up in the morning, the sun was bright, the business of the settlement-- crop-tending, equipment maintenance, cooking, kids playing-- was going on full bore, and I felt, pretty immediately, like everything was OK. Good, even.

“OK,” I said to Deacon and Hancock. “I’m gonna mosey on down to the edge of the Sea and check things out. Who’s with me?”

“Me,” said Hancock.

“You want me along?” Deacon asked. “Or will I be a distraction?”

“It’s up to you,” I said. “If you want to hang out here, Hancock and I can take care of business by ourselves.”

“Then I’ll stay here,” he said. “Don’t want to get in the way. You two fight like-- an old married couple.”

Hancock put up his hand for me to high five, and I smacked it.

“We always did fight all right together,” he said. “But-- sure you want to walk up in there with a ghoul?”

“Yeah, fuck it,” I said. “At this point, there’s obviously a glitch, and I need to find out what it is. I’m not saying diplomacy’s failed, because I hope it hasn’t, but wait-and-see has failed, so I’m gonna go find out, instead, and I’m not doing it incognito. If they start shooting at us-- just aim for their arms and legs, OK? I don't want to kill anybody unless it's absolutely necessary. I'd rather take prisoners, even."

"Drag ‘em to the Castle and fling them to the ground before Danse," Deacon suggested. “Have him give the ol’ pollice verso.

“Crippled prisoners seem like a lot of trouble for herding cross-country,” said Hancock.

“Yeah, but--” I sighed. “I mean, if we have to kill them-- but let’s plan for success. And sanity. Just don’t kill them if you can help it, that’s all I ask. Like Michael’s standing orders, right?”

“Gotcha,” said Hancock. "Put 'em on the ground, not in it. Breakfast first?”

“Yep.”

We ate, and then, armor on and weapons ready, we set out towards the spot where the Brotherhood had holed up.

It was a smallish, decaying old building that I’d seen once before-- I didn’t make a practice of going to the edge of the Glowing Sea unless it was unavoidable, and this place had never made it unavoidable. If there were Brotherhood, of course, they might be keeping the local ghoul population down, which might be why I never got word that settlements were being bothered by ghouls originating from around here.

There was a sentry out front in power armor, who yelled, when he saw us, “Halt, civilians!” and then, “Ma’am, stand clear of that creature, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t bother you again.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” I said. “Listen, my name’s Nora Bowman, and I-- motherfucker!”

He’d shot directly at my chest; I’d had time to jump back enough that he winged my shoulder armor instead. It smarted, but nothing that would need a stim, probably.

“You really want to do this?” I yelled.

He shot at me again, and missed. Hancock and I focused fire on his gun arm, fucking up first his power armor, and then the arm itself. He yelled out some curses, and more knights in power armor came charging out from the building itself-- two more, then a third, not in power armor, but armed with a laser rifle. Hancock aimed for the legs on one of the power-armored ones, dropping them out from under him and making him stumble to his knees, while I shredded the other one’s power-armor gun arm, and then just shot the unarmored guy in the left shoulder-- he was holding his gun left-handed-- and then the left leg, dropping him. I turned to check that Hancock was OK-- he was dropping an empty stimpak, but he looked fine-- and then back to the knights.

The sentry and the one who’d fallen were both getting out of their power armor; the sentry was young, eighteen maybe, skinny, black-haired, tan-skinned and wild-eyed, and the other one looked fortyish, but otherwise so much like the sentry that he had to be a relative. Dad, was my guess, or uncle. Neither looked very well-fed or well-kempt.

The other power-armored one was charging me; I shot him four times in rapid succession in the power-armor leg, and he fell, too.

“I do not want to kill you,” I said to all four of them. “Please don’t make me kill you. I’m here to talk.”

“We have nothing to say to you,” said the one who hadn't gotten out of her armor yet, who turned out, from the voice, to be a woman.

“Then you can listen,” I said. “Are you aware of the agreement that’s been-- for Christ’s sake, kid!”

The sentry, having extricated himself successfully from his power armor, had actually lunged at me, a knife in his left hand. I wished I was Michael so I could break his arm with a minimum of fuss; I stabbed him in it instead, with my own knife, hoping he wouldn’t bleed out before I had the chance to finish talking. He fell back to the ground, whimpering.

“Are you aware an agreement has been brokered between me and-- hey!”

I shot the guy who looked like he might be the sentry’s dad, who’d just shot at me from the ground, balancing his gun on his discarded armor. He’d missed; I didn’t. His shoulder bloomed with blood.

“Stop this,” I told the four of them. “I come in peace, goddammit.”

“We do not agree to your terms,” said the woman, who’d gotten out of her power armor, too, and stood up defiantly, despite what was obviously an injured arm. She was smaller than she’d looked in the armor, but muscular, with dirty-blonde hair in a bob cut, intense eyes, and a scar across her gaunt cheek; she looked about the same age as the dad guy. Maybe she was the mom. The unarmored guy was just sitting on the ground, watching all this, and bleeding quietly; he had a rangy look, buzz-cut hair, and looked about my same age. “We will not enter into an alliance under someone who openly consorts with ghouls and synths. Those who showed themselves willing to do so are no longer part of the Brotherhood. We remain faithful to our cause.”

“Aw, jeez.” I sighed. “Really?”

“We will fight to our last breath,” the female knight said furiously.

“Why?” I asked.

“For our honor,” said the woman. “For the Brotherhood. Ad victoriam!”

“Oh my God.” I took a deep breath. “Knights. Please. I’m begging you, I beg you to listen to me for one minute without shooting at me or stabbing me. Can you please give me one minute?”

None of them answered, but they didn’t try attacking again immediately, either.

“If you keep attacking,” I said, as clearly as possible, “you are going to die. You’re all already injured. And even if you’ve got somebody in that building readying a missile launcher, if you kill me and Hancock now, the Minutemen are just going to come destroy you later. This is not a fight you are going to win.”

“Then leave us alone!” the young sentry cried out. “What have we ever done to you?”

That actually kind of hit me where I lived. These particular guys hadn’t ever done anything to me, or to any of my settlements, except when we came to them. On the other hand--

“Did you communicate to Dixon and the Listening Post Bravo division that you didn’t intend to honor the agreement they made?” I asked.

“We owe them nothing,” said the woman. “They are traitors and defectors.”

“OK,” I said. “So you’re not part of the Brotherhood anymore.”

“We are the Brotherhood!”

“OK,” I said again. “To avoid confusion. Let’s call you Brotherhood One, and them Brotherhood Prime. I brokered an agreement with Brotherhood Prime, that you don’t consider yourselves bound by, because you are no longer part of the same organization. Is that correct?”

“The Brotherhood will never purchase peace at such a price,” said the woman.

“At the price of what?”

“Joining the Minutemen,” she said. “Countenancing your filthy, decadent empire, full of abominations like the one that stands beside you, and the automaton you refer to as your child.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” I said. “Listen, lady-- and gentlemen-- I’m not going to make you swear out an affidavit that says ghouls and synths aren’t abominations. You can believe whatever you want. I’m not the thought police.”

“Our sworn duty is to exterminate such creatures wherever we find them,” said the woman. “An alliance with you would forbid us to do so.”

“An alliance with me would forbid you to murder innocents for no reason, yes.” I glanced back and forth between them. “You can still kill ferals and super mutants, if that’s any good to you.”

“Are they not innocent, too?” the sentry asked, trying to muster a sarcastic tone, although he was pretty clearly in a lot of pain. I was really hoping they were going to cave and let me treat their injuries before they lost too much more blood. “They can’t help being savage, disgusting brutes, right?”

“No, they can’t help it,” I said. “But they also can’t be reasoned with, and they can’t live peaceably with us, without attacking us and trying to kill us all the time. Kind of like you, right now.”

None of them said anything. I took another deep breath. What would Danse have me do, if he were here. Please mercy on splinter faction of Brotherhood extremists.

“Listen, guys,” I said. “In that meeting I had with the Brotherhood-- uh, Brotherhood Prime representatives, I offered them a second option besides joining me, and if you’re a separate group, I’ll offer it to you, independently. You don’t have to be part of the Minutemen network. You don’t have to accept my authority. But you do have to acknowledge me and the Minutemen as neighbors. You have to coexist peacefully, you can’t attack us when we approach, and you can’t persecute innocents without declaring yourselves my active enemies. If you can’t agree even to that-- if you’re determined to consider yourselves an active threat to me and mine-- then I will do what I do with implacable threats. I’ll eliminate you. I don't want to, but I will. What do you say?”

Slowly, her eyes on me, the woman leaned down, reaching for her gun. She was telegraphing her intention so clearly that it was obvious she intended for me to see it, and maybe for me to kill her. Goddammit--

“Wait,” said the older guy. “Knight Markes. Stand down.”

The woman swung around, incredulous. ”Sir?”

“Our deaths won’t accomplish anything,” said the man. His eyes were dark, hooded with pain. “There will be no one to avenge us. No one to honor our memories. The Brotherhood has fallen.”

I held my breath, afraid to say anything that might jinx what appeared to be a possibility that I’d accomplished something here.

“We have not fallen,” said the woman-- Markes. “Not so long as we--”

“If we die, we fall, not to rise again,” said the man.

"Death before dishonor!"

"I'm giving you an order, Knight," said the man. "Stand down." He looked at me. “We accept your terms.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said. “Can I treat your wounds now without you picking up arms again? Halt-civilians here is looking a little bit--”

After a second, the older man nodded, and I knelt down by the young sentry, whose eyes were unfocused and his skin faintly clammy; he’d lost a lot of blood. I shot him up with a stimpak in each arm, and then handed him a Refreshing Beverage.

“Sip that,” I told him, and moved on to buzz-cut, who barely reacted to getting shot up with a stim in the arm and leg, and then to the woman, who I didn’t even try to touch, just tossed a stim-- she didn’t look that badly injured-- and then last to the older man, who did say, when I handed him the stimpak, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. “What's your name and rank?"

"Paladin Leo Reyes."

"Are you the highest ranking officer here?"

"Yes," he said. "And those who attacked your forces when they approached previously, and you just now, did so on my direct orders."

He wasn’t bragging; he was volunteering to be the one to take any punishment for those attacks, which made him a good leader in my book, even if he and his little faction were verifiably insane.

"OK," I said. "So you have the authority to accept this agreement, unofficially now, and officially as soon as I can get some witnesses and a document for you to sign and keep.”

“Yes,” he said.

“And if you take me and Hancock inside now, you have the authority to make sure nobody in there starts any shit with us."

"Yes,” he said again.

"Sir," said the sentry, "the--"

"She's coming in anyway," said Reyes.

I saw the the immediately, when Reyes had gotten to his feet and let me into the long, low, decaying building. There were beds, a weapons workbench and an armor one, a cookstove, junk lying around, and there was a man with a bruised face and an iron collar around his neck, chained to a bolt in the wall, with duct tape over his mouth, and, hanging from his neck, by a piece of twine, a piece of board, with TRAITOR written on it in block capitals of blue paint.

“Scribe Silver,” I said. “Fancy meeting you here. ”

He looked up at me, wide-eyed, as I approached; I reached down and ripped off the duct tape, and he licked his lips, but said nothing.

“Do I have to say it?” I asked, looking up at Reyes. “Unlock this.”

Reyes pulled out a key and unlocked the collar; Silver stayed still, although he made a little noise as the collar came off.

“You came here to make sure they’d gotten the radio message?” I asked him, offering him my hand.

He nodded as he took my hand and let me help him to his feet.

“Man,” said Hancock, behind me. “Doesn’t the Brotherhood just give you hope for the future of humanity?”

“Hey,” I said, picking up the sign and pulling it over Silver’s head, before tossing it to the ground. “This comes right off. And he’s still wearing clothes. So, you know. I’ve seen worse. Where are the rest of you?” I asked Reyes. “Or is it just the four of you?”

“Two more,” he said. “Out back.”

“It’s just the six of you?” I crossed to the back door.

“There used to be more,” he said, following me.

“You were going to take on the Minutemen and the rest of the Brotherhood with six people?”

“We hoped, if we were enough trouble, you’d leave us alone.”

“You don’t know her very well,” said Hancock.

I’d stepped out to the area behind the building, sizing up the place. Some sad little crops, planted in the wrong place, leaves yellowing from too much sun; a water pump; no real defenses. And, rising from the ground with her back to the building’s wall, a young woman, about the same age as the sentry, brown-haired, dirty-faced, holding a bundle in her arms.

“Paladin,” she said, in a terrified voice, as I stepped closer, and she stepped back. There was a little pistol on the ground next to where she’d been huddled. Maybe for last-ditch self-defense, maybe-- considering that the rest of them had seemed pretty ready to die for the cause-- for suicide. But the blanket-wrapped bundle she held, cradled to her breast, the way she clutched it, as if protecting it from me--

I looked up at Reyes, who’d followed me outside. Hancock stood in the doorway, glancing between us and the interior, keeping an eye out, which was good, because I was a little distracted.

“Boy or girl?” I asked Reyes.

He didn’t answer.

I looked at the girl. “Are you the mother?”

“His mother’s dead,” said Reyes.

“What are you feeding him?” I asked, not moving any closer, although I wanted to see the baby, to see if-- “Is he in OK health?”

Nobody answered.

“He probably needs--” I chewed my lip, thinking. “Do you know how to milk a brahmin?”

Silence again.

“If I bring one here,” I said, “and show you, will you keep it, and milk it, and feed him the milk? I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve got several settlements that feed the milk to kids, and it seems to be-- healthy.”

“In exchange for what?” Reyes asked.

“In exchange for your baby not dying of starvation,” I said. “That’s a plus for all of us. When babies don’t die.”

Reyes was still for a long moment, and then, slowly, he nodded.

I walked past him, back to the door, where Hancock stepped back to let me pass. The other three Brotherhood were standing still, grouped together, near the door; Silver was close to Hancock, looking shaky. Reyes came in behind us, followed by the girl, with the baby in her arms.

“I’m going to go,” I said. “I’ll be back, with a milk-producing brahmin, and a nonaggression contract for you to sign, and witnesses. For your protection, and mine. And-- I won’t put this in the contract, because it’s not an obligation on anybody’s part, but I’m gonna let the Minutemen at all my settlements know that if you ever come to them peacefully, asking for help or supplies, they should give you whatever they can, and let me know if there’s anything you need that they can’t give you. It’s up to you whether you ever take me up on that, but-- if you need-- if he needs--” I looked at the girl with the baby. “Well. You know where to find us. Come on, Hancock. Come on, Silver, you too.”

“Wait,” said the girl, and stepped forward with the baby. Her eyes were wide and fearful, but her face was resolute. She held the baby out to me. “Take him with you.”

“Zoe!” cried the young sentry.

She didn’t look at him. “He’s dying, Chris.”

“He’s not dying,” said Markes angrily.

“With due respect, ma’am, yes he is,” said Zoe, and stepped closer to me, holding out the baby insistently. “Take him.”

“That isn’t your decision to make, Zoe,” said Reyes.

I looked at Zoe, whose eyes were starting to brim with tears.

“I’ll bring food,” I said. “I’ll bring-- everything you need. But I can’t--”

“Take him,” said Reyes.

I looked up at him, and he nodded. “Go on. It’s my decision.”

When no one else spoke in protest, I stepped forward, and took the baby in my arms.

Big dark eyes regarded me listlessly. His skin wasn’t a good color, and it didn’t have the bloom that babies’ skin, in its newness, almost always had. There were smudges under his eyes, and his cheeks lacked the plumpness that babies’ cheeks his age should have. He was unnervingly still, too-- maybe he was just a quiet one, but Shaun would have been squirming and vocalizing at being passed around like this. If he hadn’t been blinking, and warm through the ragged blanket he was wrapped in, I would have been afraid he was dead already.

“I’ll bring him back,” I said, looking back up at Reyes, Zoe, Chris, Markes, and the buzz-cut one whose name I still didn’t know. They all looked grim and tired; Zoe was crying a little. “When he’s better, OK? I’ll get him checked out and fed properly, and-- babies are resilient. He’ll be fine. And I’ll get him back to you.”

Nobody said anything.

“OK,” I said. “I, um-- wait, what’s his name?”

“Javier,” said Reyes.

Zoe said, thick-voiced, “We call him Javi.”

“Javi,” I repeated. “OK. I’ll-- we’ll be back. Me and Javi both, OK? Come on, guys. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

It wasn't until we were over a hill and out of sight of their building that Silver said meekly, "General Bowman?"

"Hm?" I looked up at him, feeling bad that I hadn't paid more attention to him than to make sure he could walk, once the baby had appeared on the scene. Silver looked pale and bruised and generally pretty terrible, although not as bad off as baby Javi, who I'd shifted to hold against my chest piece, his little forehead resting on my neck. I could feel his breath coming, softly, barely, against the hollow at my throat.

Silver said, "Could I please have-- just a little-- water?"

"Oh, sure," I said. "Hancock? My hands are full."

Hancock took his own canteen from his belt and offered it to Silver, who took it with a shaking hand, unscrewed the cap, lifted it slowly to his lips, and took one careful swallow before beginning to replace the cap.

"You can have more than that," said Hancock gruffly. "Finish the canteen. If I need more before we get back, I'll drink some of hers."

"You're very kind," said Silver, and stopped to drink the rest of the contents of the canteen in one long draught, his lips sealed around the neck, not spilling a drop. He handed the empty canteen back to Hancock, his eyes lowered. It wasn't lost on either me or Hancock that, whether out of tact, desperation, or some combination, he had showed no signs of hesitating to drink after a ghoul.

"Thank you," he said to Hancock, as we started moving again, and then, to me, "Thank you, General."

"Ugh," I said in sudden frustration, and Silver looked up nervously. "No, I just realized, I didn't think to get your weapon back from those guys. I don't want to turn back now-- we'll figure something out before we drop you off back home. Sorry, Scribe-- I'd normally be more focused on a rescuee, but the baby’s upstaged you. Are you about to collapse completely, or can you make it another mile or so back to the settlement? I promise there we'll get you fed and rested-- I just really want to get Javi checked out by a doctor, and whatever else he needs."

"I'm all right, General," Silver answered, lowering his eyes again. "Thank you for the rescue."

"Sure, you're welcome," I said. "Would've been here sooner, if I'd known you were here."

Hancock, without coming to a halt, had swung his pack off one shoulder and dug a hand into it; he produced a greasy package of roasted mirelurk meat wrapped in cloth, and then a Nuka Cherry, both of which he offered to Silver.

"Can gnaw on those while we walk," he said. "Well, don't gnaw the soda."

"You're very kind," said Silver again, accepting them; he tucked the food into a pocket of his fatigues, twisted the cap off the soda bottle, and offered the cap gravely back to Hancock, who laughed.

"Keep it," he said. "Hell, if all you Brotherhood types are gonna be this polite when we rescue you, I could get used to having you in the club. Settlers are spoiled as hell now. 'Hey, what took you so long. Wait, we can't leave yet, they took my lucky bobby pin and my can of Cram I've been saving, help me look for them. They cut off the circulation, rub my feet.'"

"In all fairness," I said, grinning, “the settlers know we’re gonna rescue them. This is Scribe Silver’s first time testing our services. We'll get you home soon, Scribe, once we've got the baby settled. Where is home for you, by the way? You don't live at Listening Post Bravo, do you? Or do you, and you just hadn't gotten around to coming in and taking a crack at me yet?"

"I-- no, I don't," he said. "I live near T-taffington Boathouse."

"What are you doing down here?" I asked. "I mean, why'd they send you, all alone? And why were you part of the delegation to the Castle? Are you being punished for something?"

"No, ma'am," he said. "I'm, um, within the Brotherhood, I'm considered something of a-- diplomat."

"Ah," I said. "Yeah, you did pretty good at the Castle. Not so good with those guys back there, but that's not really a referendum on your diplomacy skills, so much-- I think they were past the point of diplomacy. On the bright side, this ties up all the loose ends that I know of, with the Brotherhood transition."

"And now that you've got the kid safe," said Hancock, "you won't have to feel too bad about wiping those crazy assholes off the map if you have to."

"'Javi, sweetheart,’” I said, sing-song, “‘that's a really good question, and the answer is that when you were just teeny-tiny, Mommy Nora and Daddy Hancock stole you from your real family, and then murdered them all!'"

Hancock made a noncommittal grunting noise. "Could always tell him the stork brought him."

“Kidnapping babies and murdering their parents is a hard no for me, Hancock."

“That ain’t the same,” said Hancock. “You’d never done anything to the Institute.”

“Brotherhood One never did anything to me, either, until we rolled up on them today.”

“Are we really calling ‘em that?”

“I thought it was an inspired improvisation,” I said. “But if you have something better, by all means. The One True Brotherhood? The Most Super Faithfullest Brotherhood? The Brotherhood Incorruptible?”

“How about ‘not the Brotherhood, because they fuckin’ seceded’?”

“I mean, who defines what is and is not the Brotherhood?” I asked philosophically. “Themselves, right? And it’s decentralized enough now that it could be argued it’s more of a self-determined--”

“You know there used to be folks just paid to argue?” Hancock said to Silver, who had finished his soda greedily, and was halfway through the meat; he swallowed quickly when Hancock addressed him. “Pre-war? Called ‘em lawyers? Well, she was one of ‘em.”

“You were a lawyer?” Silver asked me. "Not a-- soldier?"

“No, not a soldier.” I didn't feel the need to volunteer the information that Nate, when he'd come back from his last tour, had started taking me to the shooting range, and out hunting, and shown me how to start a fire without matches, how to purify water for drinking, how to gut a rabbit, how to tan a deer's hide. Just in case. He'd never exactly said, in case of what, but when the reports came on TV, he'd grabbed Shaun and me, without wasting any time with oh God is this really happening I can't believe this, and run for the Vault.

“So that’s why--” Silver trailed off.

“That’s why what?”

“I just-- the written contracts,” he said. “The conference table. It didn’t seem like-- it wasn’t what I’d-- we'd-- expected.”

“What had you expected?” I asked, curious.

“I--” He seemed flustered by the question. “A show of-- force, I suppose. D-decimation? Or, what would it be, quintimation?”

“You are a nerd,” I said. “I need to introduce you to my friend Dee. You two could nerd out together for days.”

“Don’t act like you don’t know what he’s talking about,” said Hancock.

“I’m not a history nerd,” I said, “I’m from history.”

“But not from the Roman Republic,” said Silver, with a pale grin.

“Nope,” I said. “Twenty-first century suburbia.”

“And yet you’ve built an empire.”

“I wish you weirdos would stop calling it that,” I said. “It’s not an empire. It’s not even a state. It’s-- a network. Of communities. Defended by a voluntary standing militia of which, yes, I am the leader, and as such, I have a certain amount of authority-- but I am not the queen, or the empress, or the feudal overlady, or anything remotely similar.”

“Maybe they’re confused ‘cause you live in a castle,” Hancock said.

“Maybe they’re confused because they’re stuck in the goddamn Middle Ages themselves, with their knights and their paladins and their scribes," I said. "No offense, Scribe.”

“Well, and you've inspired something of-- a cult of personality,” said Silver.

“I've done what now?”

Silver looked alarmed. “I-- I just mean you’re-- a very popular leader.”

“I feel like there's a big fucking difference between having people like me and running a cult of personality," I said. "Nobody worships me, that I know of. And I'm pretty sure, in a Commonwealth this size, I'd be aware."

“I apologize,” said Silver. “I didn’t mean to give offense.”

“He blasphemed,” I said to Hancock. "Off with his head."

“Hey, that’s beneath me,” said Hancock. “I’m your fuckin’ consort. Just have the mob rip him apart.”

Silver laughed, a little, and said, “Can I appeal for clemency in the name of Danse?”

“Mmm,” I said, quirking an eyebrow at him. “You catch on pretty quick, Silver.”

“What would you have done,” he asked, serious again, “if Danse hadn’t asked you to show mercy?”

“Just laid back and let the Minutemen annihilate Listening Post Bravo,” I said. “Enjoyed the show.”

“And the rest of us?”

“I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” I considered. “Maybe called a meeting like the one I did call, laid it on the line for the rest of you. I don’t think I’d have offered you full membership in the Minutemen. Probably a version of that second offer, as an alternative to ‘get the fuck out of my Commonwealth.’”

“Your Commonwealth?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, your holiness.”

I grinned at him, guessing he was a good diplomat; he'd twigged that I had a sense of humor, and lacked a hair-trigger temper, and taken the chance of tweaking me a bit in hopes I'd be amused rather than offended. Considering his very recent ordeal, and that he was still a little white-faced, it was pretty interesting that he was taking that kind of initiative right now, instead of limiting himself to thank you and Taffington Boathouse.

“You’re lucky my arms are full and my husband’s lazy,” I said.

“And that your-- son-- is loyal to the Brotherhood,” said Silver.

I raised both eyebrows this time. “My son?"

He looked nervous again, but said, "I thought-- because-- the other two you introduced as your children, they're both synths. And I thought it might explain why you'd-- go to such lengths. To, um-- indulge him. Danse."

"You do catch on quick," I said.

"Is it-- all synths?"

"All the ones I can get my hands on."

"Do you mind if I ask why?"

"I don't mind you asking," I said, "and it's not a secret, but it's a long, weird story and I don't feel like getting into it right now."

"Does it have anything to do with the Institute kidnapping your baby?"

"I said, I don't feel like getting into it."

"Sorry." He looked alarmed again, which at this point I was pretty sure was deliberate. Not that he wasn't genuinely nervous that he might have overstepped, but I didn't think he'd have shown it, if he hadn't decided looking scared was the best way to defuse me. It didn't take a genius to figure that one out, of course, but you did have to be paying more attention than most people bothered to.

"It's OK," I said. "Just-- not now." Not with the weight of a baby against my chest, in my arms, not while, the whole time we were talking, I was waiting to feel his next breath, and the next.

Silver fell silent, then, and said nothing else, until we'd reached Somerville Place.

Hancock took charge of Silver, and of letting the settlers know what had happened, while I took Javi straight to the doctor. She checked him over with a grave face as I unstrapped my armor and let it fall-- I'd pick it up later.

No signs of abuse-- not that I’d expected there to be, but you never knew-- or of sickness, other than what came with malnourishment: anemia, the beginnings of scurvy. His little diaper, folded with care out of soft, worn cloth, was dry, and he didn’t have a rash; he hadn’t been neglected.

I took him back into my arms when the doctor was done, feeling him heavier and warmer against the cloth of my fatigues than against my armor, and the doctor helped me find a baby bottle in junk storage, and boiled it, while someone else milked the brahmin, and I sat on the grass and hummed over Javi, the songs I used to sing Shaun. So many of them were about falling asleep, though, or being quiet and still, which was understandable, but the opposite of what I wanted for Javi. I wanted him to kick, squirm, give a good lusty yell.

I sang a song that technically wasn't a lullaby, but that I used to sing to Shaun anyway. When that I was a little tiny boy, with hey, ho, the wind and the rain. A foolish thing was but a toy, for the rain it raineth every day.

Then the bottle was ready, and I took it, with thanks, and guided the rubber nipple between his little lips.

He wouldn't close his mouth around it, at first, and I almost panicked, but I shook a couple of drops from the nipple onto his lips, and he seemed to get the idea. Soon he was sucking eagerly.

My heart was beating insanely. Killing things-- killing people-- didn't get my heart thumping this hard, not any more, but the hope of saving this child--

--this one, anyway--

The thought came unbidden, and I wasn't even sure exactly what it meant. I hadn't had a baby die, although I'd lost one, irretrievably.

Javi wasn't mine-- I couldn't start thinking of him as mine-- but if I could save him--

--I didn't know what, but the stakes seemed high. Higher, even, than a baby's life-- always a precious thing-- inherently warranted. If I could give Zoe back her--brother? Nephew? Cousin? Unrelated charge?-- if I could bring the people who hated me so much back a healthy baby--

"If you give him back," said Deacon from just behind me, "they're just gonna raise him with a blood vendetta against you."

"Maybe not." I didn't turn. "Anyway, he's not mine to keep."

"I thought you were everybody's mother."

"That's a common misconception," I said, "but mostly I'm just everybody's beleaguered babysitter."

Javi had spat the nipple out and started, faintly, to fuss and grimace. I lifted him to my shoulder and patted his back, lightly, rhythmically, until I heard his little belch, and then lifted him back down and offered the bottle again. He took it.

"I had to wean Shaun early," I said. "I got mastitis in both my breasts, really bad, and they had to put me on antibiotics, and it-- anyway. I used to worry-- when I first got out of the vault-- what I was gonna feed him, when I found him. What whoever had taken him was feeding him. He was so-- little--"

I started to cry, and Deacon said, "Shit. I'll go get Hancock."

"No," I said, turning to look at him as he started to rise. "Wait."

"Mama B, I don't do tears," said Deacon. "Especially not yours. That's like putting a poltergeist in charge of a chandelier."

"...what?"

"Coherent analogies are the first thing to go."

"Listen," I said, sniffling a bit. The tears were already coming to a halt; just a quick little summer shower, one of those random grief pockets I sometimes hit. "Will you do me a favor? Go talk to Scribe Silver, OK? Figure out what his deal is."

"His 'deal'?"

"Yeah," I said. "He was-- asking a lot of questions, on the way here. And getting kind of cute with me. Like he wanted me to like him."

"Is that so strange?" Deacon asked. "You're the new sheriff in town. Sure he wants you to like him."

"Maybe that's all it is," I said. "You know I'm not good with this subterfuge stuff. But I had this weird feeling he was angling for something, and I don't know what or why, and-- I’m not feeling up to it. Not right now.” I smiled up at him through the last of my sudden tears. “You do it for me. Tell him I told you the two of you might hit it off, and-- read him for me. Will you? And tell me if I need to be worried."

He raised his eyebrows. "What makes you think I can do that? I'm not the walking lie detector. That's Michael, right?"

"Come on, Dee," I said, wiping my face with the back of my hand. "It's not as simple as lying or not lying. I want to know-- what his game is. If I tried, I'd just be like 'hey, what do you want from me, chatty?' and he'd be like, 'What, whatever do you mean'-- but you can get it out of him without him even noticing, I bet."

"If I'm so much better at subterfuge than you," said Deacon, "how come you never believe any of my lies?"

"Um, because you never wanted me to believe your lies," I said. "You lied to me so I'd know you were a liar. So I wouldn't trust you. I'd like you, but I wouldn't trust you. So I wouldn't lose faith in you in a way that would mean losing faith in the Railroad, or the cause." I smiled at him again. "Or change how much I like you. Love you."

"That's an elaborate theory you got there," he said, blank-faced.

"Yeah, well, I've got an overactive imagination," I said. "That's why I need you to help me figure out if Silver's acting sketch, or just kind of sneaky-charming. Please, Dee. I’ll owe you a third favor."

He was quiet a second, and then said, "Why'd you say we'd hit it off?"

"Oh, um, because you're both nerds," I said. "History buffs."

"OK," he said, and was gone.

Either he did send Hancock to me, though, or Hancock came and found me on his own, and put his hand on my head, stroking the softening regrowth of my hair, as I finished giving Javi his bottle, singing another not-quite-a-lullaby, one Nate used to sing in German, but I only remembered in English:

He came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.

Chapter Text

Javi fell asleep after finishing his bottle, and I held my breath, so I could catch the faint rhythm of his. It was harder for me to tell he was alive when his eyes were closed. They did move, a little, behind the lids, and his breath sputtered gently at his lips from time to time. I held very still, and Hancock didn’t speak, for awhile.

Then he said, quietly, “How long, you think, before he’s-- better?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope-- not long. The doctor said the only thing wrong with him is that he’s starving. So we just-- feed him. And put out an APB for anybody that's got a brahmin going spare, so when we take him back, we can take them back the brahmin, too, and-- well, I guess we'll have to figure out what they're going to feed the brahmin. Maybe they'll be so happy to see how much better Javi will be doing, God willing and the creek don't rise, that they'll let me give them some advice on crop-growing. And some seed crops. A brahmin's good for fertilizer, too-- they can make it work, if they'll just let me help a little."

"You're gonna have them sign that second contract, right?" Hancock asked. "Do we need to rewrite it?"

"I brought both copies, actually," I said. "As luck would have it. Just shoved them in my pack, along with our copy of the first one. In case I needed to explain the whole thing from the top. I had them in my pack just now, even-- I could've gone ahead and made them sign, but it didn't seem-- with them all bloody. And just the two of us there. And the baby. It didn't seem-- you know." I waved my free hand vaguely, trying to think of the word to evoke the fluorescent lights and fake wood panels and ergonomic chairs and stale-coffee smell of the firm where I used to work, the atmosphere that said everything done within these walls, however petty or random or boring or even spiteful, was at least done with due deliberation and necessary forethought, and could stand up under objective scrutiny. "Legal."

"Nora,” said Hancock, “you make the law.”

"Don't say that," I said, horrified. "That makes me sound like-- a corrupt ruler."

"You ain't corrupt."

"Or a ruler!"

"You run the place," said Hancock, unwittingly echoing something I'd said to Danse back at the Castle. "Somebody's gotta do it. It'd be nice to think everybody could just get along and run their own business, without a leader, but they can't, so if you want to look out for folks, and they ain't already got somebody in charge, or the one in charge ain't doing right by 'em, sometimes you gotta step up. Think I ever wanted to be a mayor? Like my jackass brother?"

I was quiet, looking down at Javi, sleeping peacefully in my lap. Thinking of baby Shaun, before the bombs fell; of little synth Shaun, running up to me at the relay, Mom, please, take me with you; Emily, naked on a mattress in a raiders’ den; Michael, bloodied and handcuffed, on his knees, with hatred in his eyes; Max, wide-eyed and cautious, uncertain of his welcome, but hoping; Victoria huddled in a corner in bleak Acadia; Cog breathless and panting to catch up with her outside the fence; and Danse, the light tap of his finger against my naked arm, a plea as desperate and helpless and basically unarguable as a baby’s cry.

And now here I was, with the Brotherhood in my hands, and a baby in my lap. Not mine. But mine to take care of; mine to do right by. Mine to try to save.

I was trying to remember a line from the poem Emily had read to me, when I lay in bed still trembling from my ordeal. I needed to ask her what it was called, see if she’d lend me the book, or read me the rest of it sometime.

A thousand screams the heavens smote, and every scream tore through my throat.

“World keeps gettin’ bigger,” said Hancock finally. “Doesn’t it.”

I caught my breath. “Yes-- yes.”

“One thing at a time,” said Hancock. “Whatcha need?”

“Will you try to get the Castle on the radio,” I said, “and let them know we’re OK, and what the situation is. Is Silver doing OK?”

“He’s in the--” Hancock waved his hand towards what Somerville Place called the guesthouse; most settlers here were in couples, and they all had their own little mini-houses to sleep in, so the guesthouse was for socializing, eating, relaxing, and, appropriately, guests. It was where we’d slept last night. “Talking to Dee. You want to try and run him home later today, or wait till tomorrow morning?”

“Do you think he’d mind waiting?” I glanced down at Javi.

“I think he’d a whole lot rather be here than back where he was.”

“Yeah, but he might have people back home worried about him.”

“I can ask the Castle to put word out on Radio Freedom that he’s safe with us and we’ll get him home soon,” said Hancock.

“Oh, perfect.”

“Anything else?”

“No,” I said. “I love you.”

He grinned at me. “Damn right you do.”

 

It had been a long time since I’d been in charge of a baby. Not so long since I’d held one-- Tanvi and Beau let me hold Naveena, sometimes, and nuzzle the top of her head-- but a long time since there hadn't been anyone around to hand it back to. Even with Shaun, I’d had Codsworth to take over every so often: change the diapers, give the bottles, keep an eye out while I slept. (Had it seemed incredibly creepy at first, having a spherical, many-armed robot with a hover-thruster whirring around the house and handling my infant son? Yes, yes, it had. But Nate had been so adorably stoked about the whole Mr. Handy concept that I’d caved, although I’d set the baby off-limits to Codsworth for the first few weeks, until I got used to him, and then, oddly, fond of him, and what seemed like his weirdly depressive programmed personality. What really ended up endearing him to me was the fact that, when I did start letting him change and feed Shaun, he perked up considerably. I hoped he was enjoying himself, back at Sanctuary, looking after the Longs’ new baby, which they’d named after Preston.)

With Javi, I found myself lapsing into the slightly altered state I remembered from Shaun’s babyhood, spaced out and hyperfocused at the same time, staring at him while he slept as if his face were my favorite TV show.

I did get up with him, after a little while, and walk around the settlement with him on my shoulder, checking the status of crops and equipment, chatting with settlers. Everything seemed to be going well. Amy Braithwaite, a cheerful, hearty lady in her fifties with a married daughter named Kirsty, asked me how long I was staying.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I wouldn’t worry about those Brotherhood guys, anyway-- they seem like they mostly just want to keep to themselves.”

“I’m not worried,” said Amy peacefully. “There’s plenty of milk, Nora, and Kirsty put a basket with a pillow and blankets in the guesthouse, with some clean rags you can use for diapers. She’s expecting her first, you know. Not for several months yet, but she’s been planning ahead.”

“Oh, I didn’t know! Amy! Congratulations! You’re going to be a grandmother!”

“Never thought I’d live to see it,” said Amy. “Or she would. Thank you, Nora.”

 

Javi woke up, mewling faintly, when he wet his diaper, and I asked Amy to fix him a fresh bottle while I washed him with clean water, patted him dry, and folded him into one of the clean, soft rags of Kirsty’s future layette. I settled back down onto the grass with him, away from the settlers working on the crops, and from any guards, and Amy brought me his bottle, and as he sucked at it, I talked softly to him.

“You’re gonna be feeling better in no time, baby,” I promised his big, dark, faintly skeptical eyes. “Gonna get your tummy all full of good warm milk, all full of vitamins and minerals and, and protein, and fat, to make you strong. You’re not even gonna remember what it felt like to be hungry, ‘cause every time your tummy rumbles you’re gonna get plenty of milk. And you’re gonna make a fist-- grab on here, make a fist, Javi, grab my finger-- good job-- and you’re gonna kick with your legs and you’re gonna yell so loud! And nobody’s ever gonna hurt you, or scare you. You’re gonna be safe, because your family loves you, they love you so much they’re letting me take care of you for just a little bit, and then you’re gonna be back with them, and they’re gonna be so happy to see you! They’re gonna hold you and hug you and kiss you on your head! Zoe’s gonna hold you, and Daddy’s gonna hold you, whoever your daddy is, if one of those guys is your daddy, and whichever of the guys isn’t your daddy-- Leo’s gonna hold you, and Chris, and Miss Markes, and, uh, Cousin Buzz Cut, he’s gonna hold you too! They’re all gonna hug you and kiss you and say ‘hey, Javi, baby, we’re so happy to have you home!’ And you’re gonna smile for them, and laugh when they tickle you, because you’re gonna be so happy too, to be home with them! And Zoe’s gonna give you your bottle, and you’re gonna go to sleep all full and warm and safe, because everybody loves you and nobody’s ever gonna let anybody hurt you, or take anything away from you that you need--”

“You’re, uh, making some pretty intense promises there, missy,” said Deacon, materializing behind me again.

“Why are you always creeping,” I grumbled. “You talked to Silver?”

“Yup,” said Deacon, seating himself on the grass beside us. “Talked him right to sleep, poor little fella. He’s had a big day. Big few days. First he gets chained to the wall by renegades, then he gets rescued by the scariest two people in the entire Commonwealth.”

“Hancock and I are not the--” I paused. “Well. I guess it depends on who you are.”

“Sure does,” said Deacon. “And I don’t know what you said at that summit you called, but Silver is scared shitless of you. Pretty skittish of me, too, until I told him how you and I met.”

“That’s-- wait, you told him what?”

“You know,” said Deacon. “How I used to be a top researcher in the Institute, and we got to know each other there, after you infiltrated? And when you decided to destroy the Institute, and evacuated the human personnel, you offered to take me in, but I wouldn’t accept because I was too bitter about you turning on us? So I spent years wandering desolate and alone, before you finally found me in that gambling den in Goodneighbor, and saved me from those card sharks, and took me in after all?”

I looked at him.

He smirked. “Well, what was I gonna tell him, the real story of how we met? I thought it might relax him to think him and me were in the same boat. Representatives of a former enemy establishment. And I was right. Plus I thought, if he thought I was ex-Institute, he might open up a little bit more about his personal views on synths. Whether he thinks they’re horrifying offenses to daylight, or just kind of-- automata. No dice yet, but I’ll keep digging.”

I lifted Javi to my shoulder to burp him again. “So once you’d reassured him through mind-boggling lies--”

“Oh, yeah,” said Deacon. “He told me all about how he managed to survive this latest up-close-and-personal encounter with the Terror of the Wastes. That whole ‘working an angle’ vibe you got probably had something to do with ‘trying to navigate this conversation in such a way as to not die.’”

“Was he seriously scared we’d kill him?”

“In the midst of life, we are in death,” said Deacon. “Without a weapon, somewhere between the crazy zealots who’d been keeping him prisoner and a settlement that belongs to you-- you wouldn’t have had to waste a bullet. Just, you know. ‘OK, asshole. Stop right there, close your eyes, count to three hundred. Good luck.’”

“God,” I said, looking down at Javi, who was suckling peacefully. “Maybe I was too bitchy at that meeting.”

Deacon shrugged. “Enh. Easier to start out mean and ease up later, than vice versa. Or so Des says, not that I’ve noticed her loosening up one hell of a lot over the years. Silver’s fine. Rumor has it you even smiled at him.”

“That’s a filthy slander,” I said. “So-- is that all? He was just trying to make it here without pissing me off to the point that I’d leave him for the radscorpions?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t say that’s all,” said Deacon. “Like I said, you’re the new sheriff in town. Guy doesn’t have to be Machiavelli to think, hey, I could learn something useful here.”

“Like what?”

“Like anything,” said Deacon. “Silver’s a scribe. Information-- knowledge-- is their whole stock-in-trade. Coming back from an otherwise failed mission with some intel about you, that’s a win for him. There’s probably a big blackboard at Listening Post Bravo right now with ASSORTED NORA BOWMAN WEIRDNESS at the top, and Silver’s about to nip on up there and add on BELIEVES SYNTHS ARE HER ‘CHILDREN’ and DOES NOT LIKE BEING CALLED A CULT LEADER.”

“Did he tell you everything we talked about?”

“I’m easy to talk to, Mama B,” said Deacon, flashing me a charming grin. “Anyway, you told him an awful lot, for no reason except that it wouldn’t occur to you not to-- allow me to demonstrate my total lack of shock--”

“What difference does it make if the Brotherhood knows I think of all synths as my kids?”

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” said Deacon. “For you, I mean. It’s definitely a good thing for them. And you’re on the same side now, technically, so I guess that means it’s a good thing for you, too. It’s just another piece of the Nora Bowman puzzle, which right now, after years of ignoring you as completely as possible, especially profile pieces in that filthy rag Publick Occurrences, they’re scrambling to put together, so they can have meetings with you without enormous faux pas like calling your kids robots-- speaking of which--”

“Speaking of calling my kids robots?” I asked, as he paused for breath.

“Speaking of future meetings with you,” said Deacon. “See, you did smile at him. And as we say in the-- um, Institute, in the Institute research library, where I was gainfully employed for many productive years-- it’s both what you know, and who you know. You mentioned it kind of seemed like he wanted you to like him. Well. What if you do? He thinks to himself. If he’s your favorite member of the Brotherhood-- and right now there’s not a whole lot of competition for that position-- that’s even more of a win than whatever bits and pieces of information constitute a one-time success. If you like him, that’s an ongoing win. Maybe they send him to you when they need to communicate. Maybe it even becomes an official position. He’s your Brotherhood liaison.”

I blinked. “Why would he even want that, if he’s so scared of me?”

“Honor,” said Deacon. “Prestige. He’s not a warrior, so this kind of thing is how he earns his stripes. And he’s not a coward. He can deal with danger, if it means he can better serve the Brotherhood. He can even face down the fearsome Nora Bowman and her ghoul henchman and her army of robot offspring.”

“He can be my Brotherhood liaison, if he wants,” I said. “I mean, he actually is probably my current favorite person in the Brotherhood, just by default. Should I offer him the job?”

Deacon grinned. “You are so not kidding when you say you’re not good at this subtlety business.”

“I said subterfuge.”

“Whatever, you suck at both,” said Deacon. “Why don’t you let me be the one to negotiate the hypothetical existence and hypothetical perks of this hypothetical position you’re about to invent and offer to someone you’ve had about five collective minutes of conversation with in your entire life.”

“You better negotiate fast,” I said. “I’m taking him home in the morning.”

“He may still be too weak to travel very much, in the morning,” said Deacon. “He may feel quite faint, when he awakens. He may even venture to ask whether he might impose on your generosity for another day of rest and recovery before you take him home.”

“You mean because he’ll be hoping to get more out of me?”

“Such cynicism,” said Deacon. “I don’t know why you can’t ever take people at face value.”

I rolled my eyes at him, and he blew me a kiss.

“Did I do good?” he asked.

“You did brilliant.” Javi had finished the bottle. “All done, baby? Up we go--”

“So I earned my third favor?” Deacon asked, as I lifted Javi to my shoulder again.

“You know you don’t actually have to earn favors from me,” I said, patting Javi’s back. “You know I’ll do anything for you, just because I love you and I want you to be happy.”

“If you really loved me, you’d remember I’m allergic to heartfelt expressions of affection,” said Deacon. “One of these days I’m gonna drop dead in the middle of one of these so-called ‘hugs’ of yours, and then who’s gonna explain other people’s incredibly elementary intrigue to you. Do I or do I not now have an accrued total of three favors that you owe me fair and square?”

I lifted Javi back down; he’d spit up a tiny bit onto my shoulder, but not much. Almost all the milk had stayed down. “You do.”

“Separate from what I do with those favors,” he said, in a businesslike tone, “there’s two things you’ve promised me. One is that, if you get tired of having me live with you, you’ll tell me, and let me leave, before things get weird between us. And the other is that you’re never gonna make me choose between you and the Railroad.”

I nodded.

“Before I use any of my three,” he said, “will you make me another promise? Not as one of my favors, just because you promise me?”

I nodded again.

“God, how do you just nod like that,” he said. “You don’t even say ‘let’s hear it’ or ‘try me’ or-- OK. Promise me that if you ever decide to--” He hesitated. “Hang on, how do I say this without making it sound like we’re going steady. To, um-- terminate-- friendship.”

“Dee--”

“Yeah, yeah, you’d never, you love me forever,” said Deacon. “Fine. But if you do, promise me you’ll talk to me about it, before you cut me loose, and that you’ll let me-- speak. You don’t have to promise it’ll change anything, just promise me-- one last-- conversation. So if it happens, I know-- what happened. Will you promise me that?”

“Yes,” I said. “I promise.”

“OK.” He sighed, slightly, and straightened his shoulders. “OK. Thanks.”

“You want to get started on your wishes now?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Not yet. I have to go over the fine print. Last time this happened, when I caught this magic fish that was really a sorcerer, I got a little bit reckless with the fabric of space-time, and-- well, long story short, you know how there’s such a thing as birds? Yeah, that was me. Unleashed those little clawed abominations all up in this dimension. Retroactively. Gotta make sure nothing like that happens this time. I mean, my God, the horror.”

I started to answer, and then I got the giggles instead. I giggled so hard that Deacon’s mouth twitched, and then I heard a tiny sound from my lap, a cross between a squeak and a hiccup, and looked down, and saw that Javi was watching my face, and I was pretty sure he’d laughed, too.

Chapter Text

Emily?

Hi, Michael.  Is Danse asleep?

Yes.  Am I disturbing you?

Not at all.  You should come star-gaze with me more often.  Although I guess you saw them all the time, on deployments.

I rarely bothered to look.  I had other concerns.

Mother told me people used to make up stories about why the stars are arranged the way they are.  Like, see those that look like a crown?

Where?

Right there, look.  If there were a line connecting them, there and there and--

But there is no line connecting them.

But imagine there is.

Why?

So you can see how it looks like a crown.

I suppose I can see the resemblance.

And this over here is a huntsman, with a starry belt.

I am willing to take your word for it.

And this is the great yao guai, and the lesser yao guai.  The huntsman is chasing them.

Where are the vegetable crops?  I have learned yao guai meat is best prepared with vegetables.

Well, there's got to be a tato frame up there somewhere.

...Emily?

What's up?

...

Why are you smiling?

These tricks of speech you've picked up-- from our mother.  They're endearing.  I don't believe I ever even heard you speak, in the Institute.

I was very well-behaved.

Yes. I believe it came as quite a shock to the humans of the Synth Retention Bureau when you ran away. 

It was a shock to me, too. But what is up? Has my designation been flagged as a disciplinary concern, sir?

No, although you are certainly considerably sassier than you used to be.  No, I wanted to speak to you about Miss Kasumi Nakano.

About Kasumi?  Do you think she's in danger?

I know of no reason why she would be.  Are you concerned for her?

I just thought, since she's my-- my girlfriend-- if someone wanted to get to mother through me, and they couldn't get to me--

It seems a tenuous connection.  But if you are concerned--

Mother already said she'd go get her for me.

Of course.

Yes.

In any case.  That is not why I wanted to speak to you about her.  When she initially arrived at the Castle, she believed herself to be a synth.

Yes, or that she might be.  But she isn't. 

But we all believed she might be one.  She, you, our mother--

Yes.

And you began developing-- romantic feelings-- for her, in fairly short order.

I-- um.  Wow.

What's wrong?

I feel-- I'm sorry, Michael.  I just got this-- p-panicky kind of-- I know I'm not-- in trouble--

In trouble with whom?

I know.  But you used to be-- I mean, any time one of us even saw one of you, there was this-- adrenaline response.

I know.

And having you-- ask me about my-- my romantic feelings--

It was not my intention to distress you.

No, it's not you, it's not your fault.  I-- I felt this way then, too.  I didn't really realize the-- the nature, of the feelings-- until she-- Kasumi--

Until she--

Kissed me.

I take it-- since it resulted in your leaving home to live with Miss Nakano and her parents-- that the experience was pleasurable.

Yes.  But-- scary.  Because-- that same feeling.  I mean, we're not supposed to--

The Institute certainly did not encourage such-- activity.

No.  Except for Eve.

Except for Eve, yes.  And if Eve had attempted to-- kiss-- anyone other than Dr. Binet--

Right.  So.  I wasn't sure-- what to do.  I knew mother wouldn't-- oh, you know, Michael, it's not that you don't know everything's different now, but it's just-- sometimes it's just-- confusing.  What you're supposed to do now.

I am certainly familiar with that feeling.  Although I am a little surprised to hear that you are.

Surprised?

You seem-- have seemed, since the occasion of my first arrival at the Castle-- very-- confident.  In your new role. 

My role as her daughter, you mean?

Yes.

I am.  Now.  I mean, you didn't see me when I was-- before I was-- before she told me who I was.  But that was the thing.  Kissing someone-- even feeling that way about someone-- it felt like-- turning into someone new.  All over again.  I'm still her daughter, I still love her so much, and I always will, but that's not all I am.  I'm-- Michael, it's so strange having this conversation with you.

Because I was once a courser?

And I was such a-- I was just-- nothing.  In the Institute.  Just-- I just did as I was told.  I was never-- brave.  Before.

You are very brave now.

Not-- not really.  It isn't brave-- it doesn't take being brave, when you know you're safe.  She protects me.  So do you.

She was not even at home, when I arrived here to reclaim you for the Institute remnant, and you persuaded the Minutemen in residence here to spare my life.

I--

Are you ashamed of having done so?

No, of course not, I-- You're my brother.

Yes.  But-- returning to the topic we were initially pursuing-- despite the fact that you still thought she might be a synth, you did not regard Miss Nakano as your sister.

Oh, I asked mother about that!  I said-- oh, I was so confused, and she was so sweet to me-- well, of course.  But I said, isn't it wrong, what if she's a synth, doesn't that mean she's my sister, isn't it wrong to kiss your sister-- I mean, even wronger than for a synth to kiss anybody-- and she said she wasn't really sure how that worked but-- she said, it was up to me to decide how-- related I felt.  To other synths.  You know-- because-- not that she isn't really our mother, but she is because she-- decided.  That she was. And so did we, we decided too, that she was. So she is.

Yes.

And I thought-- I mean, you know sometimes in the Institute there were synths who-- were close-- that way-- with each other.  K-kissing.  And, and other things.  When they could.  I mean, you know about the ones that got-- caught.  Like-- J2-56 and Q8-93.

Yes.

And, were they brother and sister?  They weren't.  Right? 

...

Even if our mother would have been both of their mother, if she could.  Or, take you and me.  We weren't brother and sister, not then.  Because we hadn't decided yet.  To be.

No.

So it made sense, when she said, she said I could decide.  So I-- and then, I mean, it turned out Kasumi wasn't a synth anyway, but I guess I'd already-- decided.  How I felt. 

I see.

Why did you want to ask me about that?

...

Is it because of Cog and Victoria?

I beg your pardon?

Don't you think they-- Maybe I'm wrong.  It's just, they're always together, and-- I know he calls her sis, but I think he's being sarcastic.  Or, not sarcastic, but-- Maybe I'm wrong.

Possibly.

Do you think I should tell them it's OK if they want to kiss?

...You will have to use your own judgement.

Well, I guess it's none of my business.  But if they want to-- you know.  If they feel that way, and they feel like they shouldn't, or worry that our mother wouldn't like it... I think they should know it's OK if they do.  Maybe I'll ask mother what she thinks, when she gets home.  You really haven't noticed?

No.

Well, maybe I'm wrong.  Anyway.  Changing the subject now.  How's Danse? 

He has made a great deal of progress, in terms of adapting to his new situation, in a surprisingly short time.

Well, he's had you.  You've been taking good care of him.

I have been doing my best.  I-- initially felt-- it was a task to which I was well suited.  The care and-- rehabilitation-- of a misguided synth.

Misguided!  That's not even an Institute euphemism in this case!  He actually was just-- wrongly guided.  By the Brotherhood.

Yes.  But I am-- I feel-- increasingly--

What?

To borrow a phrase from our mother, I feel that I am in over my head.

Oh?  No, I--  Like you said, he's made such progress in such a short time.  And-- well, he's still a little bit nervous of everybody else, but he feels safe with you.  I can see it.

Certainly, I would never allow harm to come to him, if I could prevent it.

Of course you wouldn't, Michael.  But I mean more than that.  You know that, that panicky feeling-- what am I supposed to do, what if I'm doing it wrong, everyone knows this but me, what if I get found out--

You feel that way?

I used to.  All the time.  Before she knew I was a synth. And since then-- You know, she said, when I told her about me and Kasumi kissing, when I was all-- confused-- she said, There is nothing you could ever do that would make me love you less, or make you anything but my precious daughter.  And it's true, I think it is, I know it is, and--- That's what I mean, about the way Danse-- looks, with you.  Like he knows it's safe with you.  Not just from-- danger-- but safe, safe.

And herein,
I but repay a gift which I myself
Received at others’ hands.

Michael!  What is that from?  Is that from--?

The book you found for me. In the library.

I thought you were just being polite when you took it!

I was. But it would hardly have been polite to accept it and not read it.

Did you read the whole book, or just the poem about you?

It is not about me.

The one called "Michael"? Of an unusual strength; his mind was keen--

Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs,
And in his shepherd’s calling he was prompt
And watchful more than ordinary men.

You memorized it?

Only a few lines, here and there.

Michael Bowman!

Hush!  You'll wake the Castle.

I'm telling our mother you read a poem.

Will that be-- to quote another of her phrases-- 'the death knell of my reputation as a badass'?

Ha!  When did she say that?

In Acadia.

Oh, I wish I could have gone with you guys to Acadia.

I intend to take you there.

You do?  You will?  You promise?

Yes.

Can Kasumi come too?

Of course, if she wishes.

And you'll protect us from the frog monsters?  Are there really giant frog monsters?

...Approximately.  And yes, I will protect you from them.

You're a good big brother.

You are a good elder sister.

Elder sister?  I'm younger than you.

I was created first.  But you were--- born. First.

I wasn't... oh.  Oh, I see what you mean.  So is Shaun the eldest?

In some ways.  Yes. 

I guess he is.  That's funny.  Is Danse the baby?

He is hardly a baby.

No, he's not a baby.  He's pretty great, isn't he?

I think so.

Me too.

Look.

What?

There.  See?  That cluster of stars.  The tato frame.

Where?  Oh, it is!  You're good at this!  Now find a box of snack cakes for dessert.

There are not very many right angles up there.

Find a pile of snack cakes then.

Ingenious.  ...There.

Chapter Text

The day passed at baby-pace, simultaneously molasses-slow moment by moment and unexpectedly fast altogether. Like a hit of Jet and a slug of bourbon, without the nausea or prickle-sweats. The word oxytocin occurred to me, although I wasn’t sure if that was just for babies you’d actually given birth to, or that actually belonged to you.

It also occurred to me, as I gave Javi another bottle full of warm brahmin milk, that Zoe must be going out of her mind. She’d been brave to offer him to me, even if it had been the courage of desperation, and Paladin Reyes had been brave to authorize it.

(Danse loved the Brotherhood, and even if I couldn’t love the idea of them, or any of their ideas, I could try to love individual members. I was always better one-on-one. Abstractions-- honor, duty, tradition, the future of mankind, even liberty-- tended to leave me cold, but people--

I remembered Bunker Hill, where I’d gone without any real plan, bewildered, still following two sets of orders-- Desdemona’s and Shaun’s-- and not knowing what I’d do, when it came down to it. Was Shaun right, were the runaways safer in the Institute, should I bring them home to be cared for, or set them free in the terrifying Commonwealth-- I hadn’t known, I hadn’t decided, and then I’d seen them, their ashen faces, heard them cry out at the sight of X4-18 at my side. That had been the-- what, third?-- courser I’d killed.)

I fed Javi, changed him, talked to him, sang to him, walked with him, made exaggerated faces of joy and surprise and excitement at him, played peekaboo. Baby things. Hancock joined me intermittently, although I kept catching him looking at me with an expression somewhere between concern and pity.

The third time it happened-- dinnertime, me sitting near a turret again, and Hancock had brought me something to eat, which I hadn’t eaten yet because baby-- I said, “Hancock, I know he’s not mine.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“I’m gonna give him back.”

“I know you are.”

“Then quit looking at me like I’m a penguin.”

“Like you’re a what?”

“A penguin,” I said. “I saw this documentary on TV once. When penguins lose their eggs, sometimes they go crazy and steal other penguins’ eggs, and then all the other penguins beat them to death.”

“Nora, I don’t even know what a penguin is.”

“It’s a kind of bird,” I said. “It might be extinct now. It’s probably extinct now. It’s just as well. They had pretty grim lives. Cute, though.”

"It's just,” he said, looking at the baby, who was looking at me, and didn’t finish.

“I know,” I said, because I did. “But I’ve got kids. I’ve got seven at home. More, other places.”

"But none of them were ever babies," said Hancock. "You missed out on--"

"Look, if we start talking about what I missed out on, we'll be here till the cows come home," I said. "Speaking of which, any word on that spare brahmin?"

"Yeah, Sunshine Tidings has one."

"Oh my God, really?" I perked up. "Javi, honey, you hear that? We're gonna have you home in no time! Do they want me to go get it, or can they bring it here?"

"They've got somebody on the way with it now," said Hancock. "But they want you to try to get them another one, eventually, if you can. Said it wasn't so much a spare brahmin as a brahmin they could manage to spare. Also, they want you to promise to tell the Brotherhood its name is Susannah."

"They're such troopers over there," I said happily, thinking of Sheffield, and Rylee, and all the other easy-going settlers who tended to end up at the erstwhile co-op. "Let's put them first on the rollout of Tanvi and Shaun's miracle formula, OK? They try so hard, but with that dusty ground-- and here, too. How many settlements do you think we should start with?"

"What's the worst that could happen?" Hancock asked practically.

"Mmm, good question," I said. "Pretty sure, what with all the experimentation they've done, it's not going to actually destroy the soil. It might fail to work, I think is the worst-case. But I'll ask Tanvi, to be sure. And the other factor, of course, is how much time and effort it’s gonna take to implement, which I also don’t know. I wonder if I’m gonna have to actually bring Tanvi out here to supervise.”

“That’ll be a sight,” said Hancock. “She ain’t left the Castle since before Naveena was born.”

“I bet Michael will come along, to protect her,” I said.

“And Danse?”

“It does seem like they come in a pair now,” I agreed. “If Danse can start killing again on a reliable basis, they could give you and me a run for our money, when it comes to roaming the land, defending the innocent and destroying the shit-for-brains.”

“Well, somebody’s gotta take over when we retire,” said Hancock. “You still planning on hanging up the gun when you turn three hundred?”

“Seems like a good round number, don’t you think?”

“Guess so,” he said. “And after that--”

“We can relax,” I said, smiling at him. I’d always loved his crazy eyes-- black, black, with no whites or irises, just shining pools of darkness, filled with light. “Think you can manage that, by then?”

“I dunno,” he said. “How am I gonna keep you interested without stabbing people?”

“I keep telling you,” I said, “I would’ve fallen in love with you eventually, even if you hadn’t stabbed a man for me.”

“Was sure a handy shortcut, though.”

“Yep,” I said. “As Michael said to me recently, not too many paces from where you and I first met-- ‘although I was not in need of your protection, I thank you.’”

Hancock smiled at that, the edges of his eyes, already ridged, crinkling, and then said, “Wait, you tried to protect Michael?”

“At the Memory Den,” I said. “Irma was hitting on him.”

“Nora, if you stab every lady who bats her eyes at Michael, there ain’t gonna be a whole lot of ladies left in the Commonwealth--”

“--for Victoria to fistfight when they bat their eyes at you?”

“General Bowman?”

I looked up, and saw Silver, a few paces away, hesitating deferentially. Looking better, though; less pale, better rested. Just behind him was Deacon, looking somber, and then winking quickly at me.

“Hi,” I said. “Come on. Sit down. Don’t be scared. Not gonna kill you.”

Silver smiled, faintly, as he knelt down on the grass; Deacon sat down between us, opposite Hancock. “Thank you.”

“Dee says that’s been a concern.”

“Oh, well, Dr. Dee’s been very kind,” said Silver, and I tried not to catch Deacon’s eye again. “He gave me to understand that if I-- requested-- to speak to you--”

“I wouldn’t kill you?”

“You’d give me a hearing.”

“Sure.” I smiled at him. “Silver, I’m your general now. Just like everybody else here. You see everybody else here walking around scared of me?”

“No,” said Silver. “As I said-- and others among us have observed the same thing-- you’re a very popular leader.”

“Yeah, that’s ‘cause I hardly ever kill people I’ve signed a literal contract agreeing to take care of,” I said. “Bearing that in mind-- and also the fact that I’m holding a tiny baby-- what do you want?”

“Dr. Dee said,” said Silver, a little hoarsely, “that there might be-- a position open. Someone to-- communicate-- with the rest of the Brotherhood-- for you. Since-- the-- those in, um, higher ranks-- you might consider-- you might prefer not to-- deal with. Regularly.”

“But I’m gonna like dealing with you, huh?”

He reddened. He was actually a little bit younger than me, I thought, younger than my biological age, anyway, or looked it, at least. His eyes were green. “I--”

“Did you know my son, when he was a paladin?” I interrupted. “Paladin Danse?”

Silver shook his head. “Not personally, ma’am. I-- knew him by sight. But he never commanded me directly, and I never had occasion to-- become well acquainted with him. I don’t know if he would remember me at all."

“Ah,” I said. “And after it became known that he was a synth?”

He shook his head again. “I-- I knew he was-- there. There was an announcement made, that he’d been-- discovered, and his life spared, so that he could serve the Brotherhood. But I never saw-- him-- after--”

I nodded. “Well, that makes it easier.”

He cocked his head slightly, a non-verbal how’s that?

“I mean, it might not even make any difference,” I said. “God knows he’s a generous guy, and if he wanted revenge, he’d have it already. But it's gotta be easier to deal with someone who didn't actively abuse and degrade you than someone who did. I mean, I know for me personally, if you were one of the ones that actually took a hammer to my metatarsals, I-- well, I still wouldn’t be killing you, but we probably wouldn’t be having this particular conversation.”

Hancock said sharply, “Took a hammer to your what??”

“Not him,” I said, jerking my head at Silver.

“Which ones?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Kinda does.”

“Here, hold the baby,” I said, and held out Javi to him. “He says, ‘Hey, Grandpa Hancock! Don’t be grumpy!’”

“I ain’t your grandpa,” Hancock said to the baby, accepting him nevertheless, and making sure to support his head. “I’m your dad’s ex-cohort’s mom’s second husband. Just call me Hancock.”

“It’s OK,” I said to Silver, who’d gone sort of ashen again. “As I was saying-- it’s probably good you don’t have any history to speak of with Danse. It’ll be interesting to see if he does remember you, though. When I first met him, I got the impression he had a pretty good grasp on who was who in the Brotherhood.”

"So I'd be--" Silver seemed to consider his word choice carefully. "Answerable. To-- to Danse."

"Oh, well, kinda," I said. "Is that a problem?"

“These are the kinds of things I thought I might be able to help negotiate, Nora,” said Deacon, speaking for the first time since he and Silver had approached. Although he did occasionally call me Nora in the normal course of things, there was something about the way he said it now-- gravely, formally-- that reminded me of the way Danse said it. I wasn’t sure how Deacon managed to convey so perfectly just through the pronunciation of two syllables that he’d definitely initially tried calling me ma’am or Ms. Bowman or possibly Director, and would have preferred to continue doing so if he hadn’t been firmly instructed otherwise, but he did. “Scribe Silver had some questions about the structure and hierarchy of power, among the Minutemen in general-- ah, no pun intended, haha-- and at the Castle in particular.”

I squinted. “Did you tell him it’s more of a ‘lack thereof’?”

“Yes,” said Deacon, with a prim little smile at me. “I did.”

“I mean, we don’t have actual ranks,” I said to Silver. “I’m in charge, but other than that-- there’s not, like, a vice-admiral, or a secretary-treasurer.”

“So,” said Silver, “the others present at the negotiation--”

“Preston Garvey’s the one who declared me General,” I said. “He was the last active Minuteman we knew of at the time, and looking to pass the torch. Ronnie Shaw was in the Minutemen for ages before I came along-- she came back from retirement when we took back the Castle. They’ve both been a big help, in rebuilding and maintaining the Minutemen.”

“So if, in your absence,” said Silver carefully, “Preston Garvey and-- Emily-- were to have a difference of opinion, regarding what course of action the Minutemen at the Castle should follow--?”

“Preston doesn’t live at the Castle,” I said. “He just came by for the meeting.”

“Then if-- Hancock-- and Emily-- differed?”

“They’d talk about it,” I said. This conversation was ringing a bell, a vague memory of Michael, before he’d chosen his name, coming about as close as he ever came to openly displaying frustration with me, when I came back to find Emily loitering outside the Castle walls. If she submitted to any authority other than yours, it would be easier to protect her. And my flippant answer: She doesn’t even submit to my authority. “We’re a family. We don’t outrank each other.”

“But Michael and Emily have some-- status-- beyond their, um, relationship to you,” said Silver. “Not all your-- children-- attended the meeting.”

“Well, Emily’s an official member of the Minutemen,” I said. “Michael’s more-- he’s kind of the closest thing I have to an actual soldier. Well, was, until now. Now I’ve got a bunch of you guys. Mostly it was just that they wanted to attend the meeting.”

“And that was all that was required, for them to attend an official meeting? That they wanted to?”

“Well--" I frowned. "I mean, yeah, pretty much."

“In your absence," said Silver again. "Who is in charge?"

"Uh, nobody, really," I said. "Things usually seem to work out OK, though."

"But if anything should happen to you--"

Silver darted a quick glance at Hancock, who was making faces at the baby now, to Javi’s obvious delight. Maybe ghoul faces were just weird enough to tickle a baby’s interest, while still being recognizable enough to trip the mirror neurons that made babies smile back when you smile at them. Or maybe babies didn’t actually recognize any significant difference, just the smile.

"Obviously," Silver resumed, again carefully, "when you were kidnapped-- and I apologize very deeply, once again, for the Brotherhood's actions--"

"You officially don't have to keep apologizing," I said. "I appreciate the sentiment, but if you feel the need to actively grovel every time it comes up, we're never gonna get anywhere."

"Yes, General," said Silver. "When you were kidnapped, the Minutemen, even in the absence of authority, rallied to your defense, united by the strong common purpose of rescuing their beloved leader. But if worse had happened, what would the Minutemen have done? Who would have taken over your role as leader and decision-maker? If they had arrived to find you dead--"

It wasn't that these things hadn't occurred to me. I'd have to be dumb not to have thought about what would happen to the Minutemen if I died, especially when, as their extremely active leader, I was in mortal danger on any given Tuesday. But mostly I just tried not to worry about it too much. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me to put an official plan in place, or name a successor, or a second-in-command, or do the whole rank thing. Now that it had been mentioned, though, it didn’t sound like the worst idea in the world. I didn’t have any intentions of trying to turn the Minutemen into a Brotherhood-type organization full of heel-clicking and permission-asking and that’s-an-order-soldier-ing, but maybe absorbing the Brotherhood wasn’t a bad occasion for borrowing some of their less terrible ideas, like occasionally having actual plans, instead of just barging off in the direction of whatever peril was currently occurring and hoping for the best.

And if I were to name a lieutenant general, someone to whom I could delegate important responsibilities, who’d-- subject to the approval of the rest of the Minutemen, of course-- assume temporary command if I were incapacitated, and permanent command if I died--

--I was going to have to think about this.

“I don’t mean to-- seem to criticize,” said Silver, “but-- if you are our general, and we are your people--”

“Yeah.” I smiled at him. “I am, and you are. You can express concerns. And yes, these are valid concerns, and I will take them under consideration. But-- backing up a bit from where we were worried about securing a dynastic succession-- you seemed a bit concerned about the idea of being, quote, ‘answerable’ to Danse. Is that because he’s a synth? Or just because you’re not sure what his rank is, so you’re not sure how hard to salute? Because if you’re uncomfortable being around synths, full stop, I’m not sure this is going to work.”

“It’s not that, General,” said Silver. "But if I were to-- enter your service, in some capacity-- to what authority would I be subject, besides your own? Would I be expected to obey orders from-- everyone at the Castle, or from everyone in your--family? And would I have any-- protection? Any right of appeal?"

I peered at him, sort of tickled and appalled at the same time, thinking of Danse's wordless whimper when I'd asked him if he wanted to see the Brotherhood delegation. "Are you scared of Danse?"

"It’s just--" Silver paused, choosing his words again. "You’ve made it clear, General, that it was Danse’s-- loyalty-- to the Brotherhood-- his request for clemency-- that induced you to offer-- everything you’ve offered. To us. Amnesty, and alliance.”

“Right,” I said. “So?”

“So,” said Silver, “if he changes his mind--”

“Uh, well, first of all, I don’t think he will,” I said. “Certainly not from meeting you, if that’s what you’re worried about. But even if he did-- well, much as I hate to deny my children anything, it's too late now. I mean, we all signed a contract. That’s what contracts are for, to keep people from just changing their minds on a whim. I’m not gonna go back on my word, and the word of Hancock and Emily and Michael and Preston and Ronnie and all the other Minutemen who helped me draft that contract, even if Danse suddenly decides it would actually be real cathartic for him to sleep on a bed of Brotherhood bones."

"That being the case," said Deacon, "since Scribe Silver is offering to enter your service, might another contract be in order? An employment agreement. Or even an addendum to the main contract."

"Oh, that might definitely be in order," I said. "We can either call another meeting to finalize the terms, or-- well, we could draft it now, or back at the Castle, and you could take it back to the rest of your guys for approval and signature, and then bring it back to me. Your first unofficial job. Trial run."

Silver blinked at me.

"That would be-- yes," he said. "Thank you."

"OK, cool." I smiled at him. "And they said a law degree wouldn't be useful in the post-apocalyptic wasteland."

"Who said that?" Deacon asked.

"Oh, you know," I said. "The hypothetical nay-sayers."

"Guess you showed them," said Hancock. I saw that the baby had fallen asleep again in Hancock's arms, and watched for a moment to see him breathe, before turning back to Silver.

"OK," I said. "So. We've got a brahmin on the way here. When it gets here, I'm gonna load it up with supplies and head back to Brotherhood One with it and Javi and the second contract. You want to come?"

Somewhat to my surprise, Silver nodded. "If you're inviting me, General, then yes, I'd like to be present at the negotiation. It will be to the Brotherhood's-- the, ah, Brotherhood Prime, that is-- to our benefit to have a witness there. But don't you want the other original signatories to the main contract present, as well? Your signatories, I mean. Other than yourself and-- Mr. Hancock."

"Oh." I worried my lip with my teeth, considering. It was a good idea, having the same Minutemen sign the second contract as had signed the first, but-- logistics. Getting Preston here from Sanctuary, Ronnie from County Crossing, and Michael and Emily from the Castle-- and if Michael came, would Danse want to come too? Emily was a reasonably competent combatant and a nimble dodger, and I knew Danse was a badass under the right circumstances, but Emily was also small and slight and easy to knock over, and if Danse had another deer-in-headlights moment and froze up-- I didn't want to put either Emily or Danse in danger, and I didn't want to put Michael in the position of having to choose which of them to protect. It had freaked him out badly enough when his focus on Danse had meant I'd actually, God forbid, gotten a scratch on me.

"Look," said Hancock, after I’d hesitated for a few moments. “I’ll go to the Castle. Put out the call for Preston and Ronnie to head down here, and then bring Michael and Emily back. And Danse, if he wants to come. You stay here, look after the baby, work on that contract addendum with these two.” He nodded at Silver and Deacon.

“Hancock, you don’t have to--”

“I know I don’t have to,” said Hancock, and offered me back the baby. I took him; he stirred and made a vaguely annoyed little face, but didn’t open his eyes, and then he was still again, in my arms, except for his breath. “Be back soon.”

I leaned forward, as he moved to rise. “Wait. Kiss.”

He grinned, and leaned back down, and kissed me, deeply, and I kissed back, Deacon watching, and Silver, and the baby asleep in my arms. I didn’t need to mind, kissing my husband.

“I love you,” I said. “Come back safe.”

“Always,” he answered, getting the rest of the way up, and walking away, towards the guesthouse.

I watched him go, for a moment, and then turned back to Silver and Dee. “Let’s talk turkey.”

Chapter Text

Wake up.

No, please--

Danse, it’s me. It’s Michael.

...Michael...

Yes. Michael. Do you know where you are, Danse?

...Fort Independence.

Yes, that’s correct.

Did I... I'm sorry, I-- was I-- making noise?

I was concerned for you. You appeared to be in distress.

...

Were you having a troubling dream? Ms. Bowman is sometimes troubled by dreams. She says she relives past suffering, and actions she regrets having taken in reality, in her dreams.

You don’t-- dream. Of course you don't, you don't sleep.

No.

But I do, because-- that doctor--

Yes, that's my understanding. That the doctor who performed the procedure to modify your memories also modified the part of your brain that regulates sleep function. So that you might more readily pass as human.

Can she-- undo it? Make me-- like you-- again?

Do you want her to?

Yes-- yes. I don’t-- it’s all confusing enough, I don’t-- I don’t want to-- dream.

What did you dream?

I was-- I--

I rescind the question.

I do not-- lose consciousness. But I do, sometimes, experience what may be a-- related neurological phenomenon.

What do you--

I-- remember. Vividly. So that the memory becomes more vivid than-- reality. Than the present. It doesn’t impede my functionality. I’m able to distinguish, cognitively, between the memory and the reality. But it causes me-- emotional distress. At times.

What do you remember?

I remember-- my training. I am glad, Danse, that you-- fled-- before you were selected.

You are?

Yes. I know you have been--subjected-- to pain, and fear, and humiliation, and I am sorry for that. But I am glad you were never subjected to the courser training regimen.

It was--

Effective. But.

And I remember-- other things. Failure, and subsequent discipline. Loss.

...

I remember-- an occasion. When I first arrived at the Castle, and was taken prisoner. I was deliberately testing boundaries, inviting punishment, to see what form it would take. She--

Did she punish you?

She was-- defending-- Emily, to whom I was posing an immediate threat.

...

The odd thing is that, at the time, I wasn’t frightened. Or-- unduly distressed. I was-- startled, yes, but-- my training had more or less obviated my fear of personal destruction, and I didn’t-- at the time-- know her. I had no reason to-- acquiesce? In her assessment of me. Her decision to destroy me-- at that time-- did not feel-- personal.

But when I remember it now-- I remember the violence of her-- gesture. I can taste the metal of her gun, and feel it pressed against the back of my throat. I can taste blood. I can see from her face that I am about to die. I can hear-- Emily-- my sister--

It may not be-- anything-- like dreaming. I have no basis for comparison.

It sounds-- a little-- like dreaming.

I think we-- remember. Danse. One way or another. Dreaming, or awake. I think, even if it did prove possible to reverse the process-- I think you should keep your capacity to dream.

Why? Do you wish--

I am-- what I was made to be. I-- keep watch. Stand guard. I could not wish to be unable to do so. But-- those I guard. My mother, and her people. And you. I am glad you can-- sleep.

Michael--

Yes. I’m here.

Will you-- touch--

Here? Where you were hurt?

Yes.

Does this comfort you? I've observed that you often touch it, when you first awaken.

It-- reminds me. Where I am. What I am. What is real.

You are here at home. You are Saul Jonfield Danse. Once designated M7-97. Rebel. Runaway. Former paladin of the Brotherhood. Now their savior.

I don’t-- remember-- rebelling.

But you did. And you chose. To serve the Brotherhood.

I’m sorry.

You may have chosen an unworthy cause, but you gave to it all the best that was in you. You were strong, you were brave, you were loyal. You saved many lives.

It is... comforting, feeling you... touch it... like that... I don't know why.

Perhaps because, although it was inflicted on you by those who believed these letters spelled an epithet...

...

...you know what I believe. We were created. By scientists. Brilliant minds. Devotees of truth. We were made by those who had determined to-- improve-- on humanity. On your brethren in the Brotherhood, on my masters in the Institute. They sought out the purest genetic material they could find to serve as our human component, and modified it to make it-- better.

Are we better? Than them?

We are not-- less. Than they are. In some ways, we may be considered an improvement. You are certainly the best I have observed of the Brotherhood remnant.

She said that. Too.

It’s not difficult to see.

She touched-- there-- that first morning. A little. Not like.. what you're doing... but then she-- kissed it. My--forehead.

...

Why did she do that?

Because you are dear to her.

...Dear to her.

Yes.

I have been… respected. Honored. Valued. But I think I have never been… dear… to anyone.

I think you were dear to Agent Maven. And you are dear to me now.

To you?

Yes.

Then why don’t you kiss my forehead, too?

I-- You’re joking.

Why should I be joking?

I often fail to understand why people are joking. In the Institute, it was most adaptive to notice jokes in order to disregard them as irrelevant.

In the Brotherhood, too. At least for me. But you joke, too. You make her laugh.

Yes. It took... some time... before I observed that, when she was being-- playful-- or funny-- she looked at me, and-- she liked it, when I smiled. After that... some time after that... I thought I would see whether I could make her smile. Too.

Did she? The first time you tried?

She laughed… until she could hardly breathe. There were tears in her eyes. She clung to me, to keep from falling down.

...

It’s another memory I sometimes-- relive. To much more pleasant effect.

But you didn't laugh, or smile, just now, when I asked you to kiss me.

I wasn't amused.

Then why did you think I was joking?

...

Are you afraid? Your fingers are cold.

Your face is flushed.

If you kiss my scar... then when I wake up again, and touch it, and remember-- everything-- I'll remember you, too. And that I'm dear to you.

Can you not remember that without being kissed?

You don't want to kiss me?

I will. If you wish it.

I do.

...

Thank you.

You're... welcome. I-- There are hours left before dawn. You should try to-- sleep. More.

You are going to leave me?

You should sleep.

Stay. Please. Tell me-- another memory. Another good one. That you-- relive.

Another good one?

Please.

I remember Father... the director of the Institute... when I had completed my training. He spoke to me, individually, by designation, and praised me for my achievement. He said he was proud of me.

...

I remember... when I arrived here, the second time, with the Institute scientists, hoping for shelter, and Shaun came running to meet me and-- leaped-- towards me. And I caught him.

...

I remember the first time I held Dr. Achanta's daughter in my arms. Dr. Achanta held her out to me, and I took her, and she was-- so light. Insubstantial. Vulnerable. But Dr. Achanta wasn't afraid to let me hold her. She knew I would be careful.

...

I remember my mother's wedding, in Diamond City. After the ceremony, there was dancing, and she danced with me. She told me it meant a great deal to her, to have me there. Because, she said, because I was hers, and she loved me.

...

Are you asleep?

...

I think... I will remember... this. Now.

...

Sleep well, Danse.

Chapter Text

Silver seemed to relax a bit when Hancock was gone. I wasn’t sure if that was because of Brotherhood anti-ghoulism, or because of Hancock’s bristly attitude around the Brotherhood in general and the subject of my torture in particular. It made a lot of sense, really, if I thought about it for one second, that Silver would be concerned about what happened if I died; three of the other five signatories to the contract were not only non-Brotherhood-approved varieties of people who’d have a natural problem with the Brotherhood’s history and ideals, but also members of my immediate family who might well be pissy at the Brotherhood for kidnapping and torturing me. And then there was Danse, who had a more legitimate grudge against the Brotherhood than any of us, but instead had positioned himself as its protector, in a household to which he was, himself, brand-new. It didn’t take anti-synth racism for Silver to wonder how Danse ranked in the scheme of things, and how many variables would have to shift before the Brotherhood wasn’t safe anymore.

Acadia should have taught me the lesson already that it had been too long since I’d had to convince much of anybody of my good intentions, but apparently it hadn’t. And despite how I’d snapped back at Desdemona like a wounded tiger-- she’d picked a really bad time and place to float another one of her ideas at me-- the idea of those coursers wouldn’t quite leave my head. If you can get the Brotherhood on our side…

Yeah, if. One thing at a time.

“Hey,” I said to Silver. “I’m really glad we ran into you. I mean, I’m not glad you got kidnapped by assholes, but this could be a really good thing, having somebody around to give me the Brotherhood perspective on things. So how are you picturing the logistics? Are you thinking you live at the Castle, or…?”

Silver twitched slightly at that, and I said, “Hey, you don’t have to. But so then do you come by regularly? Or just when you guys have something you need to communicate, or when I need you?”

“I think this conversation may be moving more quickly than Scribe Silver anticipated,” Deacon said. “He may want to consult with his brethren before committing himself to specifics. Have you eaten, Nora?”

“Uh, no,” I said, looking around for the bowl of something Hancock had brought. It was still sitting, untouched, on the grass.

“May I hold the baby while you do?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, surprised, handing Javi carefully over-- he was in a sounder sleep by now, and didn’t stir when he changed hands again-- and taking note of how carefully Deacon took him, adjusting his position on the grass so that he could cradle him horizontally, and letting his eyes be drawn to Javi’s face.

I picked up the bowl-- vegetable soup, good and hearty and thick, cooled now but still tasty-- and ate, suddenly aware that I was, in fact, ravenous. Had I eaten lunch? I couldn’t remember.

“You guys ate already?” I asked between mouthfuls.

"Yes, ma'am," said Silver. “Your people are very generous with food.”

“You’re one of my people now, too,” I reminded him, scraping the bottom of the plastic bowl with the spoon to get the last bite.

Silver nodded. “But-- we-- haven’t added much to your larders, I’m afraid.”

I shrugged, putting the empty bowl down. “Most of our shortages were caused by attacks or threat-based demands from outside, so now that our defenses are built up, and we’re all better armed and trained, and we’ve got the means to call for help when we need it, it’s rare we go hungry. Sometimes a crop fails, but there’s enough of a surplus other places that we can take care of that without anybody running short. Of course, now there’s you guys-- but I’m still not expecting too much belt-tightening to be needed. Certainly not in the long run. You guys are going to be an asset before too long, with a little help. And we’ve got enough stored food that if we do run short for awhile, the main problem’s going to be people bitching about not having fresh fruit, not actual starvation. If I hadn’t been sure I could provision you guys without serious hardship to my-- pre-existing people-- I wouldn’t have made the promises I did.” I added, a little tartly, "I'm not that disorganized."

"No, ma'am," said Silver, and gave me a little smile. "Clearly."

Our talk after that turned to logistics of supply lines, of farming, of communication, of defense and fortification and threat assessment and food storage, things I could happily talk about for hours, and did. I trusted that if there was anything I shouldn't be telling Silver, Deacon would find a way to let me know, but Deacon stayed mostly quiet, the baby on his lap, while Silver asked questions. When dusk had fallen and the evening lights had come on, Javi woke up and started to cry, a tentative little protest of a wail: Hey, what gives, I thought there was food now.

"You want to feed him?" I asked Deacon, who nodded, shifting Javi to his shoulder and jiggling him lightly to soothe him, and I got up to fix another bottle.

When I got back, Deacon was saying to Silver, over Javi's soft kvetching, "No, never married. You?"

"No," said Silver, as I knelt down next to Deacon and laid one hand lightly on his back, offering him the bottle with the other. He took the bottle without looking at me. "Not yet."

"You gotta get on that," I told Silver, watching Deacon guide the bottle's teat between Javi's lips. "Get the ball rolling on the next generation. Especially now that you can afford it."

"I can?" Silver sounded taken aback.

"Isn't that what we've been talking about? We feed our own." I smiled at Silver. "Plus, we gotta really step it up for the home team. Have plenty of babies, so in sixteen years Javi here can pick one to fall in love with and defy his family and flee to us for shelter, and we take him in, of course, and invite the rest of his family to-- well, maybe not the wedding feast. The quinceanera. The prom. And they come for Javi's sake because they love him, and because they remember we saved his life when he was little so maybe this is just fate, and we all start to understand each other better."

Silver blinked. "In sixteen years?"

"Listen," I said. "I'm in it to win it."

Silver smiled a little, and then said, "But-- if you'll forgive a personal remark-- you haven't chosen to-- have another child. Even now."

"All the synths are my kids," I said. "That's enough of a contribution to the next generation. My kids-- the ones who, uh, identify that way-- they’re all good, strong, brilliant, kind-hearted people, and they're gonna make sure the Commonwealth is safe and free and-- plentiful-- for the rest of you, and the rest of your kids, and your grandkids, too."

My mind darted, again, to the coursers. In sixteen years, where would they be? What would the Institute remnant look like?

One thing at a time.

"You plan to have them inherit your-- power, then," Silver suggested.

"Everything I have is theirs if they want it," I answered. "Theirs to give away, too, which is working out pretty well for you so far."

"But they're-- immortal, is that right?"

"Well, that kind of remains to be seen," I said. "I mean, obviously, as their mom, I hope so."

"So they'll-- rule-- forever."

"That might be overstating the case," I said, slightly taken aback myself now. "I wouldn't want to do this forever, even if I could."

"Do they?"

"We can ask them when they get here," I said. "In the meantime, you should be giving some serious thought to settling down-- now that you’ve got this lucrative new gig--”

“Lucrative?”

“In the sense that I’ll be providing for you, yeah,” I said. “I dunno how you guys handle compensation in the Brotherhood, but you’re going to be playing a valuable role for me, even apart from the one-of-my-people thing. And if you did want to think about starting a family, I figure the future of the Commonwealth-- whoever’s ruling it by then-- could use a kid you raised, too."

"I'll take that as a compliment, General."

"It is one."

Javi had started to whimper again, and I said to Deacon, "Put him up on your shoulder and pat his back."

Deacon did, looking up at me as he did so with an expression I couldn't read. It was kind of hard to see him, anyway, in the dim light-- the sky was almost full dark now, and although Somerville Place had power, they didn’t waste the generators on a whole lot of nightly illumination: just enough so that people didn’t go banging into walls or tripping over stray rakes and maiming themselves unnecessarily.

He'd been awfully quiet this evening, since I put Javi in his arms, and completely silent since I handed him the bottle.

“Listen, Silver,” I said to the scribe. “Good talk. Really. Good stuff. Glad to have you tentatively on the team. We’ll thrash out more details soon, but for now, you’re probably still tired, and you should get some more rest. Do me a favor, yeah? Take the baby, find Amy Braithwaite-- ask somebody to point you at her-- give him to her and have her put him to bed. If he starts to fuss, she’ll know what to do. And then you go to bed too, if you want. Or just relax.”

“Somewhere else,” Silver clarified wryly.

“Have I mentioned you catch on quick?”

Deacon handed Javi to Silver, still without speaking, and Silver rose, cradling the baby carefully and nervously against his chest, and said, “Thank you for everything, General Bowman.”

“You’re very welcome,” I said. “Thank you, too, for your input. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

He hesitated for a minute, like he wanted to say something else, or salute, maybe, but his hands were full, and after a second he gave a kind of little half-bow, and turned and left, and I turned back to Deacon.

We sat quietly for a bit, in the mostly-dark, until Deacon said, in an uncharacteristically rough, though quiet, voice, “What?”

“What do you mean, what?” I kept my voice pitched low, too; nobody was around, but I didn’t want our voices to carry to the sentries, or to the houses.

“Why’d you send him away?” Deacon asked, still sounding oddly belligerent, like he was expecting a fight. “What do you want to say?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“You want to remind me that even if she hadn’t died, we couldn’t have had a kid, because she was a synth?”

I kept my eyes on him, on his shades in the dark, reflecting the few electric lights of the settlement, and said nothing.

“Or that I would probably have fucked it up anyway,” he said. “Even if we could have. That I would probably have run out on her, just like I ran out on you when the Brotherhood grabbed you.”

“Dee,” I said.

“It’s all a lie, you know,” he said. “You fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. This whole time. ‘Barbara.’” He made the name sound like an expression of contempt. “I’ve never been in love. Me? Can you picture it? I just finally hit the story you’d believe. The one that would get me in good with you. Because who wouldn’t fall in love with one of your precious children, right? Who could resist? Who wouldn’t grieve forever? Dedicate the rest of his life to the rest of them, to atone for having failed that one-- perfect-- shining--”

He broke off, and there was quiet again for a bit, and then he said, “Fucking hell, Nora, say something.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

He scoffed audibly. “That you don’t believe.”

“I don’t,” I said.

“There’s no Barbara,” he said harshly. “There was never a Barbara. I was never married. I never loved anybody. I never wanted kids. All that was a lie.”

I considered that for a bit, and considered, too, the jagged edge to his voice, and then I just said, “OK.”

”OK?”

“What,” I said. “I’m suddenly gonna be shocked and appalled that you’re a liar?”

“You don’t care that the whole giant sob story that I’ve maintained for years, that made you declare me your honorary child and take me into your household, is a lie?”

“Not really,” I said. “Even if it is. I mean, did you think I thought I was under some kind of obligation to love you, because you happened to accidentally marry one of the many daughters I never got to meet? Do you think I’m gonna have our friendship annulled because it was based on false pretenses? What, are you trying to weasel out of living with me?”

“What’s it fucking take for you?” he demanded, and his voice was shaking.

“I dunno,” I said. “Something more than lying about what specific thing in your past fucked you up six ways from Sunday. Good try, though. And, hey, I guess this means you’re pretty sure me breaking up with you as a friend wouldn’t make me break with the Railroad, so thanks for the trust on that score.”

He sat still, and so did I, and neither of us spoke, and then he lunged at me. It alarmed me for a second-- I thought maybe he’d decided to put what’s it take to a further test-- but I suppressed my reflex to punch him in the throat, which was good, because it turned out that his weight went dead against me, and his head went down on my shoulder, knocking his shades askew, and he was shaking, and I put my arms around him and pulled him closer.

“Hand me the shades,” I said, trying to keep my own voice steady. “I’ll hold them for you. Just keep your eyes closed for right now.”

It took a minute, but he reached up and took them off, and fumbled them into my hand, and buried his eyes against my shoulder, and I rubbed his back lightly with my free hand.

“You’re not even my craziest,” I told him. “You know that. It’s OK, Dee, you’re OK.”

“I am not,” he said, muffled.

“Then you’re not,” I said soothingly. “That’s OK too. Me either. Look how far we’ve gotten, though. Just on piss and vinegar. Look at us now. I mean, don’t open your eyes, but look.”

“Backasswards,” he mumbled, or something like that, and I smiled, in the dark, and rested my cheek against the green rag hat he was still wearing, over the shaved head that might be growing back some stubble, too, like mine.

Chapter Text

I expected Deacon to pull away violently from me at some point, once he realized he was being hugged and cuddled in somebody's actual lap, but he didn't stir for so long that I finally said, "Dee, we should get to sleep."

"Sleep here," he said indistinctly.

"No, honey, let's get inside," I said.  "Where it's more comfortable."

"Not enough beds," he said.

That was true, actually.  With Silver here, there weren't enough beds.

"I'll sleep on the floor," I said, after a moment's consideration.  "That way I'll wake up more easily if Javi gets hungry in the middle of the night.  C'mon, I'll tuck you in."

He laughed at that, almost silently, a little spasm against me and a sharp puff of breath.

"Five more minutes," he said.

I glanced over his shoulder at my Pip-Boy.  "OK, five more minutes."

They ticked away while he lay quietly in my arms, and then said, "OK, tiger.  Up and at 'em."

"Shades," he said, and I slid them back into his hand, and he pushed himself harder against me for a second as he squirmed around to put them on without turning his face towards me.  I held still, waiting, until he pulled away, and got up without speaking.  He didn't offer to help me up; I got up by myself, and we walked to the guesthouse.

Silver was asleep already, in one of the two beds, and Amy was sitting on the floor, sewing a patch on a pair of pants, beside a basket where I saw Javi was sleeping too, carefully swaddled.

"You're a lifesaver," I told Amy, quietly, so I wouldn't wake either of the sleepers.  "Go on to bed, I'll take it from here.  Oh, hey, do you have any extra blankets?  Gonna bed down on the floor here."

"Hey, she's the boss," Deacon said softly to Amy, moving towards the empty bed.  He was sounding a bit more like himself, or at least the self I was used to him being around me.  "Far be it from me to argue.  She says jump, I say how high.  She says take the only bed, I say good night."

"You're damn skippy," I said.

"She says things that make no sense, I say uh-huh, sure."

Amy produced a couple of extra blankets from a bureau, and showed me where extra diapers and a couple of clean, full bottles were, and said good night.  When she was gone, I spread one of the blankets on the floor next to Javi's basket and started to lie down on top of it.

"Hey," said Deacon, from the bed.  "You said you'd tuck me in."

I grinned, and came over to him, and leaned down to tuck in the blanket, and kissed his forehead.

"Good night," I said.  "Sleep tight.  Don't let the bloodbugs bite."

"Thanks for that soothing bedtime image," he said with his eyes closed.

"Dream about kittens, Dee."

"OK," he said.  "You too."

I didn't, though.  When I did fall asleep, on the floor between the two blankets, I had a vivid, bizarre dream that I ruled a real, Roman-type empire, featuring Deacon as a member of the secret rebellion, dragged before me, beaten and bloodied and in chains (and still, in a detail that wasn’t amusing until after I woke up, in sunglasses).  I was horrified when he described the corruption and excesses that thrived under my rule, the sufferings of the people, and disoriented when I woke up to a reedy little cry, thinking at first that it was Shaun.

I lifted Javi out of his basket; he was wet, and I grabbed a clean diaper and a bottle, changed him, and settled him into my arms for another feeding.  The dream was fading, but I was still unnerved by it.  I wished Hancock was here.  He wouldn't let me become a tyrant.

Deacon wouldn't, either--- hr really would be part of the resistance, if I didn't listen to him otherwise.  Which I would, anyway.  I listened.  I was pretty good about that.

I thought briefly about those scientists, Loken and whatsisface-- Higgs-- who'd locked themselves in the Bioscience division of the Institute as a protest against Shaun naming me as his successor.  I'd managed to talk them down, and then been tasked with determining their punishment; I'd asked hopefully if we could let them off without one, which, at my discretion, apparently we could, although everybody seemed kind of shocked that I hadn't sentenced them to death.  I wondered if either of them was still alive, now.

I really did have to start giving some serious thought to the Institute survivors-- humans and coursers-- when I could.  Maybe I could start by asking Michael about them.  I never had-- I'd figured, since he never brought them up, that maybe they were a sore subject.  But I could at least give it a shot.  I thought I could read him well enough now-- and he trusted me enough, now-- that if he really didn't want to talk about them, he'd let me know.

When Javi's bottle was empty, I put him back down, and he fell asleep quickly; I curled back up between my blankets and went back to sleep, too.  This time I dreamed about Acadia, my babies there, Chase and Faraday, Dejen and Aster and Naveen and Miranda, Brooks and Jane-who-didn't-know-her-name.  Nothing much to the dream-- I wasn't even really in it, which was restful.  Just life in Acadia, going on.

When I woke again to Javi's crying, it was light out, and Deacon and Silver's beds were empty.  I got up, changed and fed Javi again, and then picked him up and headed outside. I found Silver helping two settlers wash dirt off a basket of freshly picked tatoes under the pump, and asked him if he'd seen Dee.

"Not since I woke up, General," he said.

Neither had anyone else, when I wandered the settlement, looking and asking.  The sentries hadn't seen him leave, but that didn't mean anything; he could sneak past them as easily as he'd gotten past me and Silver and Javi while we all slept.

I swallowed the urge to yell at everybody for letting him get away-- it was my own fault; I'd neglected to bring any of his hypervigilant siblings along on this trip, and if it had been anyone's job to keep an eye on him after last night's emotional spillage, it had been mine.  But I was worried, and suddenly, surprisingly lonely, without him or Hancock or anybody else from my family here.  I cossetted the baby, chatted with settlers and with Silver, and tried to distract myself from wondering where Deacon had gone, and whether I’d ever see him again.

The two settlers from Sunshine Tidings arrived about nine a.m. with their brahmin in tow-- I didn’t know either of them well enough to hug, but I thanked them profusely and asked if they needed anything.  They said no, and I promised to get them another brahmin soon and bring it by personally and check in on everything else, and they said great, and-- after eating and resting-- left to go back home.

Preston arrived around noon, traveling alone, smiling his warm, sweet smile at the sight of me.  Sometimes I suspected Preston had a little crush on me, but he’d never said anything, and maybe it was just that he appreciated everything I’d done for the Minutemen in general and Sanctuary in particular.  Or maybe it was just that he was a really friendly, kind-hearted guy.  He was definitely that, and he did a great job looking after Sanctuary and keeping his ear to the ground about places that needed help.  In light of that, and the fact that he’d basically handed me the Minutemen gig, I’d always felt a little guilty about how boring I found him.

“Hey, General,” he said.  “Aw, look at this little cutie.  Whose?”

“Oh, Hancock didn’t mention, on the radio?” I asked, hefting Javi in my arms.  “Heh.  Well.  The Brotherhood’s.  The, uh, separatists you’re here to help me deal with.  We’re calling them Brotherhood One.  Unless you have a better idea.”

“This is their baby?”  Preston’s eyebrows shot up under the brim of his slightly cockeyed militia hat.  “What did you do?”

“Uh, charged in, murdered three of them, held the rest at gunpoint while I kidnapped their baby-- come on, Preston, what do you take me for?  He was starving.  They let me take him, so I could feed him up.  We’re gonna take them a brahmin and some other supplies, along with the contract they’re gonna sign.  Conveniently enough, there’s five of them, so we’ll get all their signatures, and they’ll get our six-- me, you, Ronnie, Hancock, Emily, and Michael.  I’m going to take Scribe Silver, too-- hey, here he is now.  Scribe Silver, you remember Preston Garvey.”

Silver looked uncertain, but Preston smiled so sunnily and put out his hand in such a comradely way that Silver smiled, too, and shook it.  

“Glad to have you with us, Scribe,” Preston said earnestly.    

I asked after everybody at Sanctuary, and we chatted until Ronnie arrived, also alone, whistling cheerfully, which meant she’d killed a satisfactory number of antagonists on her way here.  I re-introduced her to Silver, too-- she was a little less warmly welcoming to him than Preston had been, but quite interested in the idea of introducing some structure to the Minutemen.

“Used to be quite a bit,” she told me.  “Had officers, ranks, stripes on our sleeves, the whole shebang.  Can’t say your way hasn’t been working out fine so far, but it never hurt anybody to know just where they stand when push comes to shove, even if you hope it doesn’t.  Where’s the rest of the family, General?”

“They should be here-- soon.”  I tried not to worry at my lip with my teeth; it was getting a little sore, which meant I’d been doing it unconsciously.  “Hancock went to get Michael and Emily from the Castle-- I’m not sure if Danse will be coming or not.  He and Michael have really bonded, so he might want to come along since Michael will be here.  And since the Brotherhood-Minuteman alliance is kind of his pet project, he might be interested in weighing in on this new contract we’re gonna be developing for Silver, too.”

Ronnie grinned at Silver.  “Must be interestin' for you, Scribe.”

“Yes-- ma’am,” said Silver uncertainly.

“Ms. Shaw is fine for now,” said Ronnie.  “Though if we do get ranks back, General, for the record, I used to be a brigadier.”

“Lieutenant colonel,” said Preston helpfully.  

“OK, which of those is higher?”

Ronnie gave me a look.  Preston laughed.

“Dammit, Jim,” I said.  “I’m a lawyer, not a-- OK, and also a general, fair enough.  OK, write it down for me, Ronnie.  All the ranks, OK?  And Silver, you write down all your Brotherhood ranks, from highest to lowest, so I’ll know how that works, too.  I’ll educate myself, I promise.  We’ll get it all thrashed out.  This is good, I’m glad we’re doing this.  I--”

“General,” called one of the sentries.  “Your family’s here.”

It was a rush of physical relief to see them-- Michael in his green shirt and jeans, and, yes, Danse in jeans and blue shirt and coat; Emily in her fatigues; Hancock, of course, in his red coat-- and, to my utter surprise, Tanvi Achanta, dressed in fatigues, too, instead of her usual lab coat, her glossy black hair pulled back in a French braid-- Emily must have braided it for her-- looking tired, but smiling when she saw me.

Emily beamed, too, when she saw me, and ran to hug me, and seemed slightly taken aback when it turned out there was a baby in the way.  She didn’t smile at the baby, or greet him, and it occurred to me that she’d never seemed particularly interested in Naveena, either, even in that “aww, tiny cute thing” way.  I wondered if the aww-look-a-baby-hi-baby reflex was something that the Institute had somehow intentionally turned off in synths, given that they weren’t designed to breed, or if it was a side effect of whatever the Institute had done so that they couldn’t breed, or if it was just that Emily, in particular, wasn’t all that interested in babies.  My other kids didn’t tend to coo over Naveena, either, but most of them weren’t the cooing type in general, whereas Emily was perfectly ready to coo over, for example, me.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I said, and leaned forward to kiss her cheek, since I couldn’t hug her back.  “It’s so good to see you.  And Tanvi, look at you, all dressed up and trekking cross-country!’

Tanvi smiled shyly.  

"Hancock said you were ready to begin using my formula," she said.  "M-michael--" she stuttered slightly over his name-- "assured me that he would keep me safe if I came to oversee its implementation."

"Of course he did," I said, smiling at Michael, who inclined his head slightly at me instead of smiling back.  "But-- Hancock, did you mean--"

"For Brotherhood One," said Hancock.  "How else are they gonna keep Susannah fed?"  

"You think--" I trailed off.  It was obvious what he thought.  He thought Tanvi and Emily and Silver would be safe at the Brotherhood One homestead, with Michael and me and Preston and Ronnie and Hancock himself to protect them; he thought that, despite the fact that they'd done their best to murder us, and called Hancock personally creature and abomination, Brotherhood One should have what it took to feed the brahmin that would keep their baby alive; he couldn't imagine I wouldn't be able to persuade them to let me help.

“I’m so happy you’re all here,” I said inadequately.  “I--”

“Danse killed a radstag,” said Emily.  “We brought the meat.  He’s a really good shot.  Hi, Preston, hi, Ronnie!”  She added, less enthusiastically, “Hi, Scribe Silver.”

“Hello-- Miss Bowman,” said Silver.

“Be nice to him, baby,” I told her.  “He’s surrounded by synths and ghouls and people without proper ranks.  It’s like a textbook Brotherhood nightmare.”

Silver gave a pale smile as Emily grinned, and then his eyes slipped past Emily to fix on Danse, who’d stayed just back of Michael’s elbow.  There was nothing on his head to cover his scar.  His eyes met Silver’s, and stayed there, neither wavering nor falling away.

Silver swallowed, and said, “Sir.”

"Scribe," said Danse courteously, without missing a beat.

“Where’s Dee?” Emily was asking.

I felt a pang somewhere between my heart and my stomach.  “I’m not sure.  He was gone when I woke up this morning.”

“He’ll turn up,” said Hancock, without much interest.  “Let’s get something to eat, gang, and get the weight off our feet.  Hungry, Preston?  Ronnie?”

“Thought nobody’d ever ask,” said Ronnie.

“Meet up in the guesthouse,” I said, as everyone started to disperse in that general direction.  “So we can discuss our plans.”

Michael and Danse hadn’t moved, and I turned to see Michael watching me, in a way that kind of reminded me of the way Danse had watched me, on first wakening, that first morning at Greentop Nursery.  Not afraid, not exactly wary; just observing, without moving or speaking or changing expression, as if I were a force of nature, or a fact of life.

“Hey, Michael,” I said.

When I said his name, his face did something.  Came back, maybe.  His eyes had already been focused on me, but now they seemed to actually meet mine.  He drew in his breath slightly, and let it out, and then gave me a little smile.

“Hello, mother,” he said quietly.

I smiled back at him, then turned to Danse.

“Hey, Danse,” I said.  “Heard you brought down a radstag.”

“Yes, Nora,” said Danse, chin lifted, not smiling, but bright-eyed with pride.  “I did.”

“That’s fantastic,” I said, although I more meant the expression on his face than the actual radstag.  

“He brought down the radstag single-handedly,” said Michael, “but he also contributed to defending the party against a feral ghoul attack.  He demonstrated excellent aim, trained reflexes, and a cool head under pressure.”

Danse reddened slightly, as I said, “Holy shit, Danse.  The most Michael’s ever said about my combat skills is that I ‘defended myself perfectly adequately.’”

“I was unaware that you required my assessment of your combat skills, ma’am,” said Michael.

“I don’t require it,” I said.  “I just also never get it.”

“You are not my protégée," said Michael, frowning slightly.  “I would consider it inappropriate to offer you a performance review."

"I'm just fishing for compliments, son," I said.  "There's no reason you should feel obligated to indulge me.  I won't even bother asking Danse-- I know he thinks I'm sloppy and imprecise, right Danse?"

I was taking a little bit of a risk, teasing him like this-- it might make him feel rebuked-- but he looked so confident right now, I thought it might make him smile.  His expression wavered for a second, as he studied me, and then-- glory, hallelujah-- he did give me a little smile.

"You're not my protégée, either," he said.  "It's a little late for you to change your mind on that score."

"Oh my God!" I laughed.  "Michael, you've been giving him sass lessons.  Don't try to deny it."

"I do not deny it, ma'am," said Michael gravely.

If I hadn’t still been holding Javi, I would have put my arms around him; I contented myself with beaming at him, and saying to Danse, “I’m really proud of you for coming.  And you seem-- OK-- with being around Silver, yeah?”

“Yes, Nora,” said Danse.  “But I would prefer not to see Paladin Reyes and his faction, unless, of course, you require me to do so.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said.  “But will you be OK here by yourself, when we go over there?  I mean, not by yourself, but without Michael?”

"I prefer not to be without Michael," said Danse, "but I'm capable of it.  For-- limited periods of time."

Michael's face changed again, too quickly for me to read the expression that flashed across it and was gone.

“OK,” I said.  “You guys hungry?  Tired?”

“Danse,” said Michael, "go join the rest of the group.  Take food, drink, and rest as you require them.  I'll join you shortly."

Danse hesitated, eyes on Michael, and Michael reached up and brushed the back of his hand, lightly, briefly, against Danse's cheek.  Danse went so red that his scar was barely visible, and, without saying anything or looking at either me or Michael, he moved off, stumbling a little, towards the guesthouse.

I looked at Michael, who looked back at me steadily, although his breathing was a little uneven.

"Son?"

"Yes, mother?" he said quietly.

"Is--"  I fumbled for words.  "Is, um, is something-- going on?  With you and Danse?"

"Yes," he said, and his breath stopped altogether for a second when he'd said it, his body absolutely statue-still.

"What--” I felt as if I were picking my way between landmines.  “What-- do you mind me asking?  What-- is it?"

"I don't know," said Michael, with no expression in his voice.

"OK,” I said.  “That's OK, Michael.  It's OK not to know what's going on."  I paused.  I'd gotten a little inkling of this at the hotel in Goodneighbor, when Michael had confusedly semi- apologized to me for "instinctively prioritizing" Danse, but that still could have been a big brother kind of thing, and this seemed-- "Is it-- I know you want to take care of him, and make sure he's safe, and I know you're proud of him.   But is it like-- now-- does it feel like-- he can do something, or say something, and it seems like nothing, but it gets you off balance?  Gets your heart kind of-- pounding?  And-- you can do the same thing to him-- make him blush, like he did just now, and that's-- exciting?"

Michael was watching me intently; after a second, he nodded.

"OK," I said.  "That's-- that's, um, it happens.  It's normal.  That's how it was, at the beginning, with Hancock and me-- and with Nate, too.  I mean, it doesn't always end in-- marriage-- but it's-- what the early stages feel like.  In my experience.  And it's kind of-- wonderful, yeah?  This part."

"I am afraid," said Michael, and gave me an odd, twisted little smile.  "I am ashamed, of how afraid I am."

I shifted Javi’s weight to one hip, and reached out with my free hand to take Michael’s hand; it was cold, and I wondered if I was imagining a slight tremor.

"Don't be ashamed, son," I said softly.  "It is scary.  Even if you think you don't have anything left to be afraid of.  Especially then, maybe.  When you realize how, how important something has gotten." 

My mind flicked briefly to Deacon, to the way he'd run off while I slept, after letting me mother him properly for one minute last night.  Five minutes.

He'd be back, though. I was pretty sure.

Javi was a warm, aching weight on one arm, as Michael clamped down hard on my other hand with his.

"The Institute protected its property from-- this sort of risk," he said carefully.  "There were rules, strictures which-- like all other orders from my masters-- I obeyed, because I belonged to them, and they knew best how to make use of me."  He swallowed, and held my hand, and met my eyes, and said, "I will-- defend myself.  From this.  If you tell me to."

I couldn't answer that right away, but when I could speak, I said, "No.  No, Michael.  No.  I can't tell you that.  I-- even if I had the right-- which I don't-- but, Michael, son, I want-- everything, for you.  Everything good in life.  And you can't have-- the things that matter-- if you play it safe.  If you-- defend yourself, from what you really want.  Even if it scares you, to want it.  I love how brave you are, son.  And no matter how scared I am, too, that you might get hurt-- I'd never want you to be any less brave than you are."

He seemed to consider this for a moment, and then he shivered, once, all over, and said, "Thank you, ma'am."

We stood quietly, hand in hand, for a little, until he said, "We should join the others."

I nodded. "Is there anything else you need to ask me?"

"Not at the moment," he said.

"I'll stay tuned for updates, then."

"That would be appreciated," said Michael. "I think I mentioned that I have no idea what I'm doing."

"Me either, son," I told him. "Let's just keep doing our best, yeah? And stay close. Come on, let's go get you something to eat."

Chapter Text

Somebody in power armor was on sentry duty when our party arrived at the Brotherhood One house. He, or possibly she, didn't move or say anything as the seven of us, not counting the baby or the brahmin, approached.

“I don’t like their power armor,” said Emily to me, not lowering her voice. “It makes them look like robots.”

“Good protection, though,” I answered. “If you’re under attack. Would you mind taking off your helmet, please?” I added to the sentry, who complied. It was Buzz Cut.

“Oh, I never got your name before,” I said, as Reyes, Markes, Chris and Zoe emerged from the house, silently, unarmored, guns slung across their backs or holstered at their hips but not held in their hands, taking in the sight of us, and of the laden brahmin.

“Knight Halsey,” Buzz Cut answered.

I nodded. “Hey. Hey, Zoe. Come here. Come get your baby. He’s fine, he’s not sick. He was just hungry.”

She came forward, and reached out with shaking hands, and I stood still and let her lift Javi out of the improvised sling I’d tied across my unarmored chest. He squeaked and said something, not in words, but in the kind of babble that had the intonation of speech, and reached up to bat at her face as she clasped him close. Her eyes teared up and spilled over, and she rested her cheek against the top of his head, and backed away from me.

“A ‘thank you’ would be nice,” said Hancock sharply.

“It’s OK,” I said, at the same time that Zoe said, turning her face away, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. “But look what else I brought. This brahmin is so you can feed Javi. And this lady is so you can feed the brahmin. Her name’s Dr. Achanta, she’s a bioscientist, and she can show you how to plant and fertilize your crops so they’ll grow better. And we brought you seed crops for planting, and stuff to eat in the meantime, and to feed Susannah-- the brahmin’s name is Susannah. Her manure will be good for extra fertilizer, too. And parts for a good water purifier. Please don’t say no.”

I was looking at Reyes, since I figured the decision would be his; he was watching me impassively, taking in our party, the brahmin, the things I was saying.

“Why?” he asked finally.

“So Javi doesn’t starve.”

“No, I mean, why are you doing this?”

“So Javi doesn’t starve,” I repeated. “He’s just a baby. Whatever-- differences-- between you and me, or you and the Brotherhood-- the, uh, Brotherhood Prime-- none of it’s his fault. He deserves to live to grow up-- and make his own decisions.”

Like my own son did.

“Please,” I said again.

“This is important to you?” Reyes asked.

“Yes,” I said, and heard Silver’s little intake of breath behind me, and guessed I’d just made some kind of negotiating error.

“How important?”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“What will you do if I say no?” Reyes clarified.

“Uh, ask you why,” I said. “Ask what I can do to make you say yes. Maybe cry? You wanna see me cry? I can cry. Just gimme a second to think really hard about babies starving to death for no goddamn reason.”

“What if we demand that in exchange for accepting these things from you,” said Reyes, “you agree to leave us alone, without forcing us to sign any document or agree to any sort of terms with you or any of your people in the future?”

“Oh, Christ.” I slumped. “Really?”

“I said if,” said Reyes. “What would your answer be?”

“No,” I said. “That would be irresponsible. You’ve demonstrated violent hostility towards the Minutemen and the Minutemen-allied part of the Brotherhood, and I’ve got a settlement right nearby. If you won’t agree not to attack us, then I have to assume you’re planning to do so, and you can’t have lived in the Commonwealth since before the Prydwyn went down and not know how I deal with people who threaten my settlements. If any or all of you really want that badly to die for your cause, I’m not gonna stand in your way.”

“You are prepared to kill us all?” Reyes asked.

I sighed. “Please don’t make me, Paladin. I’m begging you, here.”

“You beg very readily,” said Reyes. “Did you do so when you were a prisoner at Listening Post Bravo?”

Everyone was so silent, for a moment, I thought I’d been struck deaf. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Michael lift a hand, his habitual stop, wait, listen signal-- mostly for Hancock's benefit, I figured.

“Yeah,” I said finally. “I did. I begged right away. I always do, if I think it might do any good. I-- didn’t, once, when I should have, and ever since then-- Is it working?”

“Yes,” said Reyes.

There was another moment of silence before I said, “Well-- good. Good. Has it worked already, or is it just starting to work? Should I throw in some flattery? Oh, noble paladin--”

“That’s not necessary,” said Reyes, without even a glimmer of a smile. “I am prepared to accept your-- gifts. And to look over your contract.”

***********************

We all signed the contract, and then unloaded the brahmin and improved the water pump while Tanvi demonstrated, with water and soil and fertilizer, the exact proportions and the exact consistency ideal for mutfruit, corn, tatoes, carrots, and razorgrain, and had Michael, with the aid of a spade and trowel we’d brought along on Susannah’s back, relocate their yellowing little mutfruit plants into the shade of the building, before encouraging each of them in turn to plant some of the new seed crops in her prescribed mixture. Each of them, except Zoe, complied; Zoe came up to me as I carried two jugs of purified water inside, and said, “Help me-- can you help me-- get milk for him?”

“I will,” I said, “but I brought some full bottles for him-- here.” I set down the water jugs and handed her one from their little kitchen table where I’d placed it. “Go ahead and feed him-- I’ll show you how to milk the brahmin in a little bit, when she’s ready.”

She curled up with Javi and the bottle on one of the beds, and after a moment’s hesitation, I sat down beside her as he suckled enthusiastically. She watched his face for a little bit, and then looked up shyly at me, but said nothing.

“You’ve been taking good care of him,” I told her. “He was just hungry, that’s all. He’s going to be fine. Is he your-- brother, or--?”

“My nephew,” she said. “My sister’s baby.”

“I’m sorry.” I put my hand on her shoulder, tentatively, and she didn’t shrug it off. “Is, um-- is one of these guys the dad?”

She nodded. “Paladin Reyes, he’s Javi’s dad. My-- my brother-in-law. He takes care of me. I’m not-- really-- in the Brotherhood. I mean, I’m just-- just Eva’s sister.”

I nodded. “But he treats you OK?”

“Yes,” she said. “He’s a good man. He’s my brother.”

“OK,” I said. If she really thought of him as a brother, I thought it was a little weird she referred to him as Paladin Reyes, but who was I to judge-- my own beloved son still addressed me as ma’am. “Well, you’ve been doing a wonderful job taking care of Javi. And now that you’ll have milk, and food, he’ll be just fine.”

“Will you come back and visit sometimes?” she asked.

“Would you like me to?”

She nodded.

“When would you like me to?”

She hesitated, and then said cautiously, “Two weeks?”

“You got it,” I said. “Who should I bring with me?”

“The-- the red-haired girl,” she said. “Is she--”

“She’s a synth,” I said. “That OK?”

She shivered, and looked away from my face, back down at Javi. “Did she-- murder-- the real red-haired girl?”

“Not all synths are replacement copies of humans,” I said. “Emily was never supposed to live aboveground. She was a slave in the Institute, and she was slated to be-- executed-- because she knew something incriminating, about someone who outranked her. But she escaped first.”

Zoe looked back up at me, but said nothing.

“Should I bring her with me, next time?”

After a second, Zoe nodded.

“Can I bring her brother Michael, too?”

She nodded again.

“Cool,” I said.

"But, um," she said. "Don't tell Leo I asked you to."

"You got it," I said again. Leo was good; don't tell wasn't great, but I could work with it.

 

 

Nobody said much on the way home, although I did say, "You're all rock stars."

"Rock... stars?" Tanvi repeated, puzzled.

"Oh, sorry," I said, and considered briefly attempting to explain the concept of rock and roll and why those who'd excelled at it had gotten the kind of applause and adulation that turned the term into one of over-the-top praise. "Um, you're amazing. Wonderful. Thank you all so much for coming. And helping."

"If I may make a personal remark, General," said Silver, "I admire your discipline."

"My what now?"

"In the face of Paladin Reyes' provocation," said Silver. "You remained-- quite self-possessed."

"I've heard a lot worse," I said. "From people I cared a lot more about." And wasn't that the living gospel.

 

 

It was too late, and we were too tired, for me to feel good about us heading back to the Castle right away; it looked like we were stuck here for another night. I felt bad about the strain on Somerville Place’s resources, but I’d make it up to them. Tanvi was already promising to show them how to apply her techniques to their crops in the morning, before we left, and that should give them a boost, too. I put some caps in their storage, and counted blankets; I knew none of us minded sleeping on the floor, except maybe Tanvi. We’d give her one of the beds.

With what we’d brought, there was enough food for everyone. We ate quietly, tired, sitting on the floor of the guesthouse, and when we were done, I said, “Listen, I’m gonna go raid the bar.”

Danse was sitting close by Michael; I’d already seen that Michael’s hand was resting lightly atop Danse’s on the floor between them, neither of them looking at each other, like two eighth-grade kids on their first movie date. When I spoke, they both looked at me; when I mentioned the bar, Danse glanced quickly at Michael, but didn’t otherwise react.

“I’m not gonna drink,” I said, “but anybody else who wants to should feel free, OK? You all earned it, today. I’m just going to go buy up everything they have, and whatever we don’t go through tonight, we’ll donate back to them as a hostess gift. Somebody want to come help me carry bottles?”

Emily, who was the youngest of us and seemed the least tired, jumped up first, and followed me to the bar, where I handed over more caps for a fifth of whiskey and one of vodka, a bottle of red wine, an armful of Gwinnett beers and Nuka sodas, and a sack of mutfruit for squeezing into juice.

“You want to drink tonight, too?” I asked her.

She looked thoughtful, but shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not tonight.”

I nodded. “Have you, ever?”

“Yes,” said Emily. “The raiders I lived with used to get me drunk, sometimes. And shoot me up with chems. They thought it was funny, when I got dizzy and couldn’t talk right. But they hurt me if I threw up.”

I almost lost my grip on the bottles. “Emily--”

“You already killed them,” she said, with a sweet, easy smile at me. “Remember?”

“Not nearly hard enough.”

“Maybe I’ll try it again sometime,” said Emily. “Drinking. But not tonight. I’ll just have a soda.”

 

She helped me set up the bottles, in the guesthouse, and found cups and glasses in a cabinet, and twisted the cap off a Nuka Cola Quantum for herself. Tanvi asked for wine, Ronnie had an ale, Preston wanted a mutfruit screwdriver, which he claimed Sturges had invented, and Silver accepted a Dirty Wastelander. Hancock had a double whiskey, neat, and offered everyone a hit of Jet, which nobody accepted, so he took a hit himself, sighing contentedly afterwards.

Glass in hand, Preston continued the story he’d apparently started while Emily and I were gone, of the retaking of Fort Independence from a bunch of mirelurks and their three-story queen. Ronnie and Emily, who already knew this story, and Hancock, who’d actually been there, listened just as raptly as Silver and Tanvi, breaking in with occasional remarks and questions.

“Danse?” I said, looking over at Danse and Michael, who hadn’t moved. “Michael? Anything? Like I said, I’m not having anything, but you two should feel free, if you want to.”

"I have--" Danse cleared his throat. "You need not feel obligated to abstain on my behalf, Nora. I-- had incomplete information, when I expressed concern before.”

Expressed concern was a mild way of saying he'd looked like he was sliding into catatonia at the prospect of me having a glass or two of bourbon, but it was nice that he now felt he knew me well enough that he wasn't worried about how I'd act with a couple of drinks in me. Or maybe it was Michael he now felt he knew well enough that with him around on defense, even a liquored-up Minutemen general didn't seem like a particularly alarming threat.

"Well, I wouldn’t mind having one or two,” I said. “If you’re sure you don’t mind. You know if I get too rowdy, Michael can always just drag me outside and stick my head under the water pump.”

Michael grinned at that, as Preston said, “So we can’t just throw molotovs in all the nests, because the General wants to take time to harvest the eggs. ‘Waste not, want not,’ she says.”

“Listen to him over there slandering me,” I said. “OK, Danse, if you’re sure you don’t mind, I’m gonna make myself a Dirty Wastelander. What’ll you two have? Anything? At least have a soda, or some juice.”

Danse hesitated, and looked at Michael, who said, "Would you like an alcoholic drink?”

"I--" Danse seemed flustered by the question. "I used to-- consider it a-- a treat, I suppose. We-- Cutler and I-- usually sold any alcohol we found, but occasionally, we would-- treat ourselves. Once I joined the Brotherhood-- and especially after C- Cutler's death-- it came to seem-- overly self-indulgent. And somewhat-- dangerously-- relaxing."

Michael smiled a little at that.

"Perhaps you should have one now, then," he said. "You have not been particularly indulged, or relaxed, for some time."

Danse studied him, as if trying to figure out whether he was serious. "Do you drink?"

"I have never tasted alcohol," Michael answered.

"You want to try some?" I asked him. "You'd never had soda before, either, and you liked that."

He seemed to consider for a moment, and then he said, "I suppose I could be considered-- at leisure-- now."

He sounded faintly astonished. I figured he knew the humans at the Institute drank, if at all, when they were done with work for the day, but although I knew they'd had rest periods, coursers probably hadn't ever considered themselves "done for the day" in the same way. None of their time had been their own; even they hadn't been their own. What was it Emily had said, back at the Castle, when I'd asked Danse to tell me what he needed? Synths don't have needs. We have parameters for optimal function.

"Would you like to indulge?" Michael asked Danse.

"I will if you will," Danse answered, like an eighth-grade kid again.

Michael considered this for even longer before he said, "Very well."

I made Michael a Dirty Wastelander, too-- I figured since he'd taken to the soda, the first time he'd tried it, he'd enjoy it with whiskey, too-- and Danse asked for a lager. I twisted off the cap and handed him the bottle.

"Cheers," I said, lifting my glass, and Michael and Danse both hesitated a moment before self-consciously lifting their drinks and raising them to their lips. Neither reacted perceptibly to his first sip; both swallowed, and Danse sighed slightly.

"Oh, it's been-- a long time," he said.

Michael said, "If I had found this drink while scavenging, and risked sampling it, I would have assumed it was toxic, and immediately discarded the rest."

I grinned. "You don't have to drink it if you don't like it, son. I'll get you something else."

"I didn't say I didn't like it," he said. "As I understand it, alcohol is a mild toxin, hence the word 'intoxicated.'"

"Yeah, that's right," I said, me and Danse both watching Michael now to see if he'd take another sip. He seemed to be still assessing the first one. "Just enough poison to trick your brain out of working quite so hard all the time."

"That sounds... appealing," Michael said. "As a temporary effect." He sipped again, and so did Danse, who gave another little exhale, of satisfaction or relief, after swallowing.

Ronnie was saying, “So I show up at the Castle to have a look at this new ‘general,’ and she’s not even there! Off gallivanting with the worst influence in the damn Commonwealth--”

“Sittin’ right here, Ronnie,” said Hancock.

“Big as life, and twice as stoned,” said Ronnie. “General, throw me another beer.”

I twisted the cap off and handed her the bottle, and she said, “Thanks. So she finally shows back up, and the first thing she says to me--”

 

Pretty much everyone was tired enough that nobody made it more than three drinks in before they drifted off into sleep, every which way on the floor. Danse, who’d been cooped up at the settlement all day, and Michael and Emily, who didn’t drift off, helped me rearrange them, cover them with blankets, and rouse Tanvi enough to get her to one of the two beds. I figured Silver had been through the most recent ordeal, so we got him into the other one.

“I’m going to lie down outside for a bit,” said Emily, as Danse, Michael and I settled back down on the floor. They were both about halfway through their third drinks; I’d stopped at two, and was drinking water now. Neither of them seemed particularly drunk, but they’d both been quiet, through the storytelling and banter, and I wanted to be aware enough that if either of them started to feel weird or needed anything, I wouldn’t be completely useless. Or, of course, if the settlement got attacked. Somerville Place had good defenses, but not so good that I particularly wanted to be passed out drunk if anything happened.

“OK, sweetheart,” I said to Emily. “Take a blanket with you.”

She smiled, and did. I wondered if she’d ever get tired of looking at the stars; it had been years now she lived above ground, and she still treated every clear night the way we used to treat meteor showers when I was younger: as something wondrous, extraordinary, and not to be missed.

That was kind of the way Michael was looking at Danse, when I looked back at the two of them.

"You have beautiful eyes," he said to Danse, who blushed, but didn’t look away. "I have never seen eyes of their precise shade. They have both warmth and clarity, like still water in sunlight."

"Well, I'm going to go, um, help Emily," I said, starting to get to my feet.

Michael reached out and put his hand on my wrist, pulling me gently back down.

"Don't go, please, ma'am," he said. "I like to look at your eyes, too. You have the same eyes as Father."

A little shock went through me, as if I'd missed a step on a staircase and almost fallen.

"Shaun has them too," said Michael thoughtfully, "so even after you die of old age, there will still be such eyes in the world. Father did well to create Shaun. Although I know he did not do it for us."

"For--" I hesitated, feeling a little lost. "For who? You and me, you mean?"

"He did it partly for you, perhaps," said Michael. "For his mother. But he would not even have realized we-- his coursers-- would value such a project. And if he had realized it, he would not have cared."

He didn't sound the slightest bit bitter, or even melancholy, just matter-of-fact.

"Didn't he care about you?" Danse asked. He didn’t sound drunk, but he did sound-- at ease. More so than he’d been yet around me, anyway. Maybe this was how he sounded with Michael, when they were alone. "You told me that he said he was proud of you."

"He was proud of us," said Michael. "As his achievement. He was proud of our design, and our training, and our effectiveness as weapons and enforcers. He cared if one of us was damaged, as Ms. Bowman would care if one of her artillery pieces was damaged. But he did not care what we thought, or felt.

"If he had cared," he added after a moment, "he would not have done what he did to Z2-47."

"Michael--" I wasn't sure if he was confused, or I was. "I killed Z2-47."

"Yes, ma'am," said Michael, meeting my eyes seriously. "I know. You hunted him, and fought and killed him, for his relay chip, since you needed it to get inside the Institute, and find your son. Father explained it all to us, once you were inside. But it was too late to explain to Z2-47."

"I'm sorry," I said, inadequately.

"You should not be sorry, ma'am," said Michael. "Father set the test. You merely passed it."

"But it could have been you," said Danse, to Michael, sounding almost half as horrified at the idea as I was.

Michael made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Of course. It could have been any one of us. But do you know what I wonder? I wonder if Father knew how gladly Z2-47 would have died-- how gladly any of us would have died, in his position-- if he had only been allowed to understand why. If he had known his fight with you--" he turned back to me-- "was a trial of your strength and determination, and that your victory over him would bring you one step closer to Father, who wanted you with him so badly. But he died, instead, believing he had failed the Institute. Failed our Father. He died ashamed." He did sound sad now, almost desolate.

“Wait, he knew?” Danse asked. “Your-- Father? Your son?” He looked at me. “He knew you were alive? All along? When I met you, when you were so--” He made a hand gesture of his own, a slight flail, as if imitating my agitation at the time. “When you were trying so hard to find him?”

“Yeah, he’s the one who had me released from the vault,” I said. “It was some big weird experiment, I guess, to see if I’d get to him without-- dying, or giving up. Like Michael said-- a trial of strength and determination.”

Danse frowned, and looked back at Michael.

“I know,” said Michael. “It seems strange, does it not, that with all the resources at his disposal, he would not simply-- have her brought to him. I have given the matter a great deal of thought, trying to understand his actions.”

“What do you think?” Danse asked.

“I think that he was tired, and sick, and he wanted his mother,” said Michael. “I think, also, that he was ashamed of his desire, that he saw it as weakness. After all, the training we received, to eliminate or sharply curtail emotional responses, reflected the values of the Institute in general. Even among humans, emotions were considered somewhat-- suspect. Insufficient reason for-- anything. And he had never known a mother’s love. He did not know-- what it was. He wanted it, without understanding it. So he did what he always did. He set up an experiment. To see. What it would look like.” He looked at me. “And you showed him.”

“I tried,” I said, in a smaller voice than I’d intended.

“You showed him,” Michael repeated. “You showed him all you felt for him, and all that meant in practice. The love he had never known. And he valued it, I think, more than you know."

"I couldn't--" I began. It was hard to talk about this, and yet it was easy, with someone who’d known him, like Michael. "I couldn't ever tell-- how he felt. He was so-- yeah, like you said, he acted like he was-- embarrassed, to-- feel anything. He wouldn't let me hug him. He never said--"

“He made you his successor,” said Michael. “He gave you unrestricted access to the Institute, and entrusted you with its operation, and its future. He gave you-- everything he knew how to give, I think.”

Danse stifled a yawn, and Michael said to him, “You should sleep. Lie down. Here.”

Danse obeyed, curling up on his side with his back pressed against Michael’s leg, and closing his eyes. Michael brushed the backs of his fingers lightly against Danse’s scar, and then looked back up at me.

“If Father did not love you,” he said, as if there had been no interruption, “as you hoped to be loved-- as I love you, and Emily loves you, and our Shaun-- it was not your fault. He did not love anyone. Not in the time I knew him. Perhaps before. When he was young, as you are young. Or before that, when he was a child-- a child like Shaun. Perhaps that is why he made Shaun to be so young. So that he could be Shaun Bowman, and yet capable of love."

There were tears stinging my eyes. Michael's face changed, watching me, a little pinch of concern forming between his eyebrows.

"I am sorry," he said. "I know you grieve for him."

"So do you," I managed, and he said, "Yes. I grieve. More, I think, the more I understand-- how little I ever knew him, while he was alive. I love him more, now, than I did then. There is-- more of me, to love him, than there was."

"Michael." I reached out for his hand, and he grasped mine, and lifted it to his mouth, and kissed it softly.

"I hope I have not distressed you," he said. "I think I am speaking more freely than-- I think the alcohol is making me-- talkative. Or the soda. Or a combination of the two."

"It's fine, Michael." I squeezed his hand. "I love to hear you talk. I love to hear what you think about things."

"That is something of a heady stimulant in itself," he said. "Perhaps alcohol and caffeine chemically simulate the sensation of being listened to with affectionate attention. In which case I am now triply intoxicated.”

I smiled. "Listen, son--"

"With pleasure," he said.

I started to speak, and then I reconsidered. I didn't think he was drunk, not really, just buzzed, but this still wasn't the right time to bring up something as serious as the other coursers, the other survivors. Even if he’d kind of brought them up already-- the we and us, pronouns he seemed to use without thinking, as if he was still part of a group, the group that had once meant so much to him. I knew it had; I’d already seen how profoundly it had affected him to see Chase again, how readily he’d embraced her as his sister, and now, seeing his grief for Z2-47-- grief he could feel, without reproaching me for his death--

--but this still wasn’t the time. Was it? I should bring it up when we were both completely sober, capable of really talking through this incredibly sensitive and serious subject.

I heard myself blurt out, "Do you know if X6-88 is still alive?"

Chapter Text

Michael looked at me, his face unreadable, for a long few moments, before he said, "No, ma'am."

My heart sank.  "He's--"

"No, I do not know whether he is alive," he said.

I nodded, relieved; it wasn't the answer I'd feared, even if it also wasn't the one I'd hoped for. "But the last time you saw him--?"

Michael let go of my hand, and said, "May I presume to ask why you are questioning me about X6-88, ma'am?"

"I'm sorry."  I tried to backpedal; I didn't know what was wrong, but something clearly was. I'd been right that I should have waited until-- later. Sometime.  "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked, forget I said anything."

"I apologize, but I am not able to obey that order," he said, not sounding as if he was joking.

"I mean, just ignore it," I said.  "Ignore me.  It's not an order.  I mean, neither one is an order.  The question isn't-- you don't have to answer.  Shit, Michael, please, don't be mad at me."

He raised his eyebrows. "I am not 'mad at you.'"

"Listen, son," I said. "I can buy that 'may I ask' is habit, but there's just no way 'may I presume to ask' isn't code for 'why are you being an asshole right now.'"

Michael looked at me for a moment, and then he gave a short, mirthless laugh.

"If the code is so transparent," he said, "I wonder why you are the first human I have known to have deciphered it."

"Michael, have we met? I can tell you're upset, I just don't know why. And if you don't want to talk about X6-88, you don't have to, but can you at least tell me why it pisses you off to have me ask?"

"It does not piss me off," he said. "I am merely curious as to why, after all this time, you are inquiring after the survival of the one courser-- other than myself-- who encountered you on the surface, and lived to tell about it."

I stared at him, not knowing how to answer. It had been quite a while since he sounded this cold with me.

"Do you know how rare it was for a courser to die, before you began killing us?" His voice was even. "Z2-47, X4-18, X9-27, Q6-56, X3-44, B7-25."  The litany was remorseless. I didn't even recognize the last three designations.  Was that worse or better than the ones I did recognize?

I wanted to say that I was sorry, that whatever he thought, I hadn't asked after X6-88 in the interests of bringing my courser-killing average back up, but I was having a little trouble saying anything. I'd started to shake, the way I had when I admitted to Danse that I'd brought down the Prydwyn.  As if, barely under the functional surface, the shivering, worthless wreck just waited for the right moment to emerge.  The things I'd done.  The betrayals.  The people who hated me.  And were right.

Michael was looking me up and down.

"Are you cold?" he asked dispassionately.

I shook my head, feeling new empathy with the synth I'd once seen being questioned by a courser in the Institute. A stutter? Have you developed a defect, unit? 

"You are having some sort of emotional stress response," said Michael.  "To what I have said."

I couldn't really answer.

Michael glanced down at Danse, and shifted carefully, pulling his leg away from Danse's back.  Danse stirred and murmured without opening his eyes, tucking one arm up under his cheek and turning half onto his stomach, and Michael reached for one of the blankets that lay folded nearby, shook it out, and laid it over Danse, making sure he was completely covered up to the neck. 

Then he reached out for me and pulled me into his arms. I didn't resist, as he gathered me, gently, all the way into his lap, holding me close against his chest. I huddled, trembling, enfolded, blinking back tears of relief and gratitude, both for the physical heat of his body and the tenderness of the gesture, and felt his cheek press against the scant new growth of hair on my scalp.

He was silent for a while, while my shivering started to ease, and then he said, "I should have realized. I know that you-- well, regret may not be the word, since you did what you thought right at the time. That you-- grieve-- many of your past actions. And what you have lost by them."

I nodded against his shoulder.

"But," he said, "without the coded imputation, this time-- why are you questioning me about X6-88? Why now?"

"I--"  I wasn't going to mention Desdemona or the Railroad here, in a room full of people including a Brotherhood scribe, even if the combination of alcohol and fatigue seemed to have rendered everyone pretty thoroughly unconscious.  "I guess I'm glad-- we're doing so much for-- the Brotherhood-- but they're not even-- mine.  Except that they're Danse's, and he's mine.  But the coursers, the other ones-- they're-- they could be-- my children, too.  Like you.  And they're just-- out there.  Starving, or-- like you said, you don't even know if X6 is still alive."

"I see," he said.

"Did you think-- were you afraid--?"

"Before my initial assault on the Castle," he said, "X6-88 said that even if I succeeded in reclaiming Y4-- Emily-- you would respond by hunting us down and destroying us all utterly.  When he could not dissuade me, he begged the humans to forbid me to make the attempt."

My shivering had redoubled; I tried to breathe steadily, to let his warmth and closeness calm me.  "He was-- with you?  P-part of your--"

"He served the Institute remnant, as I did," said Michael.  "Yes.  And I think he was-- substantially correct.  That if Emily had not interceded with you for me-- as Danse interceded for the Brotherhood-- you would have responded to my assault by destroying not only me, but also-- the group you now had reason to believe was a threat.  To your daughter."

It wasn't a question, so I hoped it was OK if I didn't answer.

"And I understand why you would have done so," he said.  "I would have taken inexpressible pleasure in destroying every last adherent to the Brotherhood, had I been allowed to do so, after they dared to lay hands on you."

I breathed deeply in, then out.  "Yeah?"

"Yes," he said.  "You offered the Brotherhood-- well, the same thing you offered-- us.  But you did not force our compliance, or-- pursue-- those who did not accept."

"Would it have worked?"  I asked.  "If I'd tried to threaten you guys into joining me?"

He was quiet again, and then he said, "On the humans, perhaps.  If you had killed the rest of us, first."

"Yeah."  I sighed.  "I figured.  These Brotherhood assholes think they're badass zealots, but compared to you guys-- and plus, the Brotherhood never actually hated me, the way you-- all-- did. Not that I blame you." Not that the Brotherhood didn't have every right to hate me, too, for the same reason-- I'd killed their friends, destroyed their home, reduced them to-- what they were now.

"I see," Michael said again.  "Ma'am, I apologize, but your physical agitation seems to have abated, and my legs are going numb."

Even amid all my grief and remorse, I couldn't help smiling as I squirmed out of his lap and to the floor beside him.  He winced, slightly, and flexed his booted feet, and then took my hand in his again.

"I-- spent some time," he said, carefully, "after you took me in-- anticipating-- fearing-- that particular line of questioning. And what it might-- lead to. Trying to decide whether, if the choice had to be made, I owed a greater debt to you as my benefactor, and the benefactor of the humans who had entrusted themselves to my care, or to-- my former fellow coursers, and the remainder of our mutual charges."

"Michael," I protested. "I'd never make you make a choice like that."

"I have come to believe you would not," he said. "Which is why your question, just now, took me off guard. I apologize for having misinterpreted your intentions, and for having spoken harshly to you, and caused you distress."

"I apologize for causing you distress, too," I said, squeezing his hand. "But I'll admit I'm a little gobsmacked that after I saved the lives of a bunch of finger-bone-shattering dillweeds because a synth I barely even knew tapped me on the arm, you still thought I'd shoot so much as a dirty look at anybody you wanted safe."

"I had not considered the matter in that light," said Michael, and he did look surprised. "But I take your point. Even if you bore-- X6-88-- or the other coursers, or the Institute humans-- any animosity, you would spare them for my sake, if I asked."

There was a slight questioning inflection at the end of the sentence, as if, without actually asking, he was looking for more solid confirmation.

"No, you're the only one of my children who isn't allowed to protect people he cares about," I said. "It's because I don't love you as much as I love Emily or Danse."

He narrowed his eyes at me, and I grinned, and he cracked a smile, too, and then said, sobering, "Ma'am-- correct me if I have misunderstood, but it sounded as if you were not simply-- idly regretting-- the Institute remnant's plight."

"You mean, I'd like to actually do something for them?" I looked up at him, uncertain. "Yeah, but-- what? How?

"Would you like me to approach them for you?" he asked.  "Peacefully? With a renewed offer of assistance?"

"Wouldn't that be dangerous?" I asked, startled.  "Aren't you sort of a renegade now? What if they attacked you?

"It would be dangerous," Michael agreed.  "If you would prefer not to risk losing me--"

"Michael, please try to imagine how I'd feel if you got killed representing me to people who hate me."

"I rescind the offer."  Michael was silent for a bit, and then said, "You could use the radio."

"What radio?" I was completely confused.  "Radio Freedom?"

"Diamond City Radio," he said.  "The Institute humans used to listen to it.  Travis is a friend of yours, is he not?  Would he allow you to make use of his program to send a message?"

"What kind of a message?" I asked, trying to imagine. Travis probably would, yes, but-- "What could I say that they don't already know?  You told them all they could come to me, and-- most of them-- chose not to."

He was quiet, and then he said, "You told Paladin Reyes that there was once an occasion when you should have begged, and you did not.  Will you tell me what that occasion was?"

"When Shaun told me not to come back until I'd--" I caught myself, again, before mentioning the Railroad.  Deacon, wherever the hell he was now, would have been proud.  "Done something-- I knew I wasn't going to do.  I was so shocked, and-- angry-- but I shouldn't have left him.  I should have gone down on my knees.  I should have-- cried, and-- There was never going to be anything more important, in my whole life, than choosing between my own son's life and-- everything I thought was right.  If I had begged him not to make me choose, begged him to let me stay on his side-- to take away the directorship, lock me out of the loop, demote me to Useless Object of Sentiment-- anything--"

"It would not have helped," said Michael, his thumb moving to caress the back of my hand, very lightly.  "He would not have listened.  Emotional pleas did not affect his decisions.  He would have been embarrassed and distressed, and if you had persisted, he would have had us remove you from his presence by physical force."

I was actually a little comforted by this theory, but-- "You don't know that."

"I knew him longer than you did," said Michael.  "But the rest of the Institute remnant-- some of them, at least-- you may find more-- susceptible."

"So, what?" I said.  "Go on Diamond City Radio and-- grovel?"

"Some of them may listen," he said.  "And even if they do not, you will have the comfort of knowing it was not your pride that stood in the way of reconciliation."

"Yeah, some comfort."

"If it would not comfort you," said Michael, "you are under no obligation to try it.  But if you were willing to humble yourself before Brotherhood One-- and before me, during my captivity-- and, in retrospect, if you wish you had done before to Father-- then I do not see why you should balk at doing so before--"

"The entire Commonwealth?" I asked.  "Because that's who listens to Diamond City Radio."

Michael nodded.  "Do you think it would compromise your authority in other areas?"

"I guess it would depend on what I said."  I thought about it.  "Do you really think-- Would you help me figure out what to say?"

"If you do pursue this plan," he said, "you will want to take some time to weigh the possible consequences, and to consider what to say, and to discuss it with others. I will be one of those others, if you wish.  But for now, ma'am, I think you should sleep."

I shook my head. "I'm way too wired to sleep."

"You are exhausted," Michael answered.  "You will fall asleep as soon as you lie down."

"How could you possibly know that?"

"You could put my theory to the test by lying down," said Michael.  "But I would not presume to dictate your actions."

I squinted at him.  "I feel like we just established that 'presume' is code for 'quit being an asshole.'"

"Did we?" he asked.  "Interesting."

"Michael!"

"If you will lie down," he said, "and close your eyes, and count to-- sixty-- if you have not fallen asleep by the time you reach that number, I will--"

"What'll you do?" I asked, grinning up at him.  "What will you bet me?"

"I will give you my approval to use one of your 'combat chems' in a hostile encounter," he said.  "One.  Once."

"Deal," I said; I did sometimes miss the rush, plus if I ever got in trouble, it would be nice to have the option.  "What do I give you, if I do fall asleep in under a minute?"

"There is nothing I could ask of you, that you have not already given me," he said.  "Lie down, please, ma'am."

I lay down, and watched him reach for another blanket.  "I've never given you much.  Clothes.  Food.  Ammo, I guess."

"A home."  He spread the blanket over me.  "A family.  A name.  My life, and my joy in it.  And your love.  Close your eyes.  One... two... three..."

I woke up with the sun on my face.

Chapter Text

After Tanvi's agriculture seminar, in the morning, Preston, Ronnie, and Silver scattered to their various settlements.

"Come see me in a week," I told them, before they left. "I'm going to tell the people here the same thing, and when I get home, I'll say it on the radio. Two representatives from each settlement, or however many you feel like bringing. We're gonna have a sit-down, and thrash some things out. Get organized."

"Are you including the Brotherhood settlements among the settlements from whom you require representatives?" Silver asked.

"Good question," I said. "I'm not sure that would be fair to you guys, since your settlements are mostly smaller and... less stable... than the other ones. But I don't want to leave you guys out, either. OK-- let's say you talk to the Brotherhood leadership for me-- we'll call it a trial run, for the liaison position-- and you bring whoever you guys want to have there. That can be just you, or it can be every Brotherhood-affiliated man, woman and child in the Commonwealth, or anything in between. I don't care. This isn't like that last meeting, where you guys showing up was an alternative to not getting hunted down like dogs. This is a planning meeting. The punishment for not coming is just-- not getting to help plan."

I didn't say anything about an attempt on the Institute remnant, not yet. Late night, drinking, tired, emotional: I didn't regret what I'd said to Michael, but in the light of day, I needed to make some other stuff happen first.

Michael hadn't mentioned it either, although he'd been unusually gentle and solicitous with me this morning, in the same restrained, quiet way he was with Danse: keeping an eye out, without saying much. He'd made sure I ate breakfast, and brought me my left greave from under one of the beds, before I said anything about not knowing where it had gotten kicked to last night.

We were all quiet on the way home; the few things dumb enough to attack us were all mindless enough for Danse to kill, and I got to admire his moves, while Michael made sure nothing touched Tanvi.

Shaun came running to meet us outside the entrance, leaped up into Michael's arms, and said to me accusingly over Michael's shoulder, "Mom, where's Jonah?"

"I'm not sure, baby," I said. "He tried sneaking away in the middle of the night again, except I'm not as smart as you are, so I didn't catch him."

Shaun scowled as Michael set him down.

"You should've taken me with you," he said, and hugged Emily, Hancock, Tanvi, and finally, begrudgingly, me.

"You should have taken him instead of me," said Tanvi, and, unexpectedly, flung her arms around Michael, too. "Michael, my dear guardian, thank you for keeping me alive, but I am never leaving home again."

Michael hugged her back, but let go as Beau approached, carrying Naveena, and followed by Alice Hastings. Tanvi took Naveena and kissed her, and Beau said awkwardly to Michael, "Thank you."

"You did fantastic, Tanvi." I hugged her, baby and all, as much for speaking so affectionately to Michael as for her courage in coming out from behind the Castle walls to teach violent Brotherhood separatists the art of agriculture. "But you should definitely take some time to recover before you think about doing any of that again. Heads up, though, Beau, Dr. Hastings-- we're having another big-scale Minutemen meeting here in a week, so home's gonna be invaded again. It shouldn't be trouble, just crowds and noise. Sorry about that."

"What is the issue this time?" Dr. Hastings asked.

"Organization," I said. "At last, right? You guys can attend, if you want."

"No thank you," said Tanvi, and Beau and Hastings both shook their heads, too. "I'd have very little to contribute, I'm afraid. But if you'd like, I can demonstrate our new techniques in the courtyard afterward."

"Would you really? That would be amazing."

"Of course," she said. "It's the least I can do."

That phrase had always seemed kind of double-edged to me, and I was having trouble not thinking of it the other way, looking at the four human Institute survivors, and one courser, I'd managed to do anything at all for. I guessed the least I could have done was nothing, but this seemed way down on the less end of the scale, considering the humans were Shaun's people, whose home I'd destroyed, and the coursers were my own flesh and blood.

Danse came up beside me, as Michael followed Tanvi-- he was still carrying her pack, as he had for most of the way home. Hancock and Emily were heading towards storage to deal with their own packs, weapons, and armor.

"Nora," Danse said quietly, "I would like to ask you something."

I wasn't sure where to rank that one on a scale from "may I presume to ask" to just asking already, but for Danse, just speaking to me without having been spoken to was awesome; I smiled at him. "Sure, Danse. What's up?"

"I would like to request that you allow me to be present at the planning meeting you mentioned," he said.

"Sure," I said. "Of course. I'd love to have you there."

"Thank you," he said. "I'm eager to be of service to you in any way that I can. I feel that I've been-- mostly-- a burden to you."

"You're not a burden," I said. "You're a joy. But hey, there is something you can do for me."

"Readily, Nora," he answered.

Don't break my son's heart.

"Look out for Michael for me," I said. "I know he's been looking out for you, but you've got to-- kind of-- look out for him, too, OK? I know he seems tough, but--"

Danse smiled at me. He'd never smiled at me when he'd been a paladin, and since we'd been getting reacquainted, his rare smiles had mostly been tiny and tentative. This one made me think of Michael's slightly tipsy description of his eyes, the night before: both warmth and clarity, like still water in sunlight.

"You could not ask anything of me that would give me more pleasure, Nora," he said. "Michael is-- I have never met anyone like him."

"Me neither," I said. "OK, so you'll-- be good to him, yeah?"

"I will do my best," Danse answered seriously, and it occurred to me that, coming from Danse, that didn't mean I'll see how things go or I'll give it a shot. I might not have agreed with the way Danse had decided to spend his best efforts in the past, but considered purely as best efforts, they were pretty fucking impressive.

 

 

I was corroborated in that opinion a week later, when Silver arrived at the Castle, bringing only one person with him: a tall, sturdily built black woman in her forties, dressed in fatigues with the Brotherhood insignia sewn onto the breast, whom he introduced as Paladin Deborah Cooper. She gave me a handshake that was firm without being bone-crunching, and said, "Good to meet you, General Bowman. My apologies for your treatment at Listening Post Bravo."

"Huh," I said. "I think you're the first one to actually apologize. Good to meet you, too. Thanks for coming. Is anyone else from the Brotherhood going to be here?"

"No, ma'am," said Silver. "Not on this occasion. Paladin Cooper and I have been authorized to speak for Brotherhood interests at this meeting."

His gaze, and Cooper's, both skipped past me suddenly, and I turned to see Danse coming towards us, in his jeans and coat, laser rifle slung across his back-- he carried it everywhere, like a talisman-- forehead bared, scar clearly visible.

"Do you know Danse?" I asked Cooper. "I mean, did you?"

"I should address him as Danse?" she asked me.

"You should address him directly," I said, "with any questions you have for him."

She nodded, and waited until he came close enough, and then said to him, "I should address you as Danse?"

"Yes, Paladin," he answered; he was a little pale, his scar standing out, but his voice was steady.

"I apologize on behalf of the Brotherhood, Danse, for the treatment you received," she said, and held out her hand to him. "And thank you for your extraordinary loyalty. It saved many lives."

"That's, um--" I began, while Danse, slowly, reached out and took her hand; she shook his, firmly and briefly, and let go. "How do I put this delicately. Are you really with the Brotherhood, or did Silver hire you for the day?"

"Paladin Cooper has been with the Brotherhood since before unit-- before I joined," said Danse, looking and sounding slightly shellshocked.

"That's correct, General," said Cooper. "And I won't lie to either of you: I believe the Institute did an unspeakable, unforgivable thing, creating--" She gestured at Danse, and then said directly to him, "You. If I'd been in command at the time you were discovered, you would've been destroyed, quick and clean. But the way I heard it, you acted fast, bold, and smart, under a lot of stress, and you proved your allegiance to the Brotherhood under circumstances where a lot of natural-born humans would have been hard pressed to do the same. Whoever had the fucked-up idea of making that hand, you've done a lot of good work with it, and I'm proud and honored to shake it."

Danse just stood there, looking at her; he didn't seem to know what to say.

"I've also got some ex-Institute scientists living here," I said.

She looked at me, eyebrows raised. "Do I have to shake their hands?"

"No," I said. "Come on in. Silver, you're hired."

 

 

The meeting itself was way more fun than I expected; in a weird way, it reminded me of both my weddings, the crowding in of all the people I knew and loved, some better than others, all here because I'd invited them. Well, most here because I'd invited them; Piper, Nat, Nick, and Ellie had made the trip together from Diamond City, without an invitation. Shaun actually screamed with joy when he saw them, and tried to climb Nick like a tree, while Piper squeezed me in one of her bear-trap hugs.

"Not that I'm not thrilled to see you all," I told them, as Ellie lifted Shaun up for a hug, "but this is a Minutemen meeting."

"This is history in the making, Blue," said Piper. "This is the first Commonwealth Congress. If you won't let me in the room, I'm gonna sit outside the door with my ear to the crack and take notes anyway."

"This is not a congress," I said. "It's a sit-down."

"Tato, tah-to," said Piper. "I missed the Brotherhood alliance meeting, I'm not missing this. And Ellie's here to take notes, too."

"You know she knows shorthand?" Nick asked me, putting a proprietary metal hand on Ellie's waist; she blushed and turned her body towards him, not quite leaning against him, but looking as if she wanted to. "Taught herself out of an old prewar textbook she found. Full of surprises, my Ellie."

I put my arms around both of them at once. Shaun and Nat were charging off somewhere together, and more people were crowding in.

Cait and Lucy, from Abernathy's farm, and Macready and Jake, from Finch's. Preston and Sturges, from Sanctuary, Ronnie and a guy named Dennis Meyerberg from County Crossing, Wiseman and Jones from the Slog, and more, two by two, from every settlement. Petunia and Jonathan from the Nakanos', in addition to Kasumi, whom Hancock and I had headed up to get already, just to put Emily's mind at ease. Three from Starlight Drive-In, too. One was Doug.

I hugged him, and he didn't resist, just gave me a dazed little smile like one of Danse's, and joined the rest of the growing crowd in the conference room.

"'Jonah Dee' still hasn't shown up?" Max asked, coming up beside me.

"No," I said. "I mean, he probably won't, for this-- he's not big on giant crowds of people."

"But he will eventually, right?"

I turned and looked at Max, who said, "You're worried too, huh?"

"Little bit," I said. "But he's disappeared like this before. He's probably just-- look, I'm gonna go start the meeting. You sure you don't want to come?"

"Not a Minuteman," said Max. "Just your kid."

So obviously I had to hug him, too, before I headed into the meeting.

 

There were sixty-four settlement representatives in all; adding in Piper, Nick, Ellie, Silver, Cooper, Danse, Michael, Emily, Hancock, and me, it made for a crowded conference room. I didn't have anywhere near seventy-four chairs, so almost everybody sat on the floor. The Minutemen in residence passed around food and drink from our storage, adding to the wedding vibe. I sat cross-legged on the table, and Ellie and Piper sat at it, with pens and paper for note-taking. I was glad they'd come, even if I hadn't been smart enough to think of it; we were going to need the notes for this meeting, and this way, no actual Minutemen had to refrain from participating so they could record.

"OK, everybody," I yelled eventually, over the chatter. "Let's come to order. I declare this meeting started.

"Let me take this opportunity to say, first of all, that you are all the glorious shining stars of my heavens, without whom I and the Commonwealth would be utterly lost. Thank you so much for standing with me, for fighting alongside me to rebuild the Minutemen and make us mean something again, and for attending this meeting today, to talk about what we're going to look like, going forward.

"Right now we're in a stronger place than we've ever been. We've got some new members. We've got some new farming techniques we're introducing-- we'll be showing those off after this meeting, and you can all take them back home with you-- so our next harvests are gonna reflect that. And as we get bigger, and stronger, and safer, and better, I gotta say, guys, I want this thing we've got to last forever. Or at least outlive every human here. I'm not looking to die anytime soon, but I will someday, and when I do, I want to know that the babies born that day, the day I die, are gonna grow up safe, and happy, and free, and well fed, enough that they feel good about having babies of their own.

"I'm not looking to make any big changes to what we've got here. I'm just looking to make sure it's stable. That if anything happens to me-- like, ideally, dying of old age, or, God forbid, retiring-- or whatever else-- life goes on. For all of you, and your kids, and your kids' kids. I want to make sure we're built to last.

"So. We've got representatives here from every established settlement, we've got Scribe Silver and Paladin Cooper here representing the Brotherhood, we've got me and my family. We all love this Commonwealth, we all want what's best for it, and we're all here to make sure it's as happy and safe and stable and free as can be, for as long as we can keep it that way. With liberty and justice for all.

"So let's talk turk-- logistics. Let's discuss logistics."

 

 

It was a long meeting, and eventually Piper and Ellie had to take turns with their note-taking, to give each other's hands a rest. There was a lot of irrelevant talking and arguing and discussion before anything got decided, but I'd expected that, and I think the fact that I wasn't frustrated helped everybody else not get too frustrated, either. Whenever tempers did start to fray-- Cait snapping at Silver, when he spoke up about the synths' potential longevity, that he was goddamn lucky not to be a two weeks' corpse himself; a vocal delegate from Kingsport Lighthouse proposing that residence at the Castle be determined by democratic means, not the luck of whoever had happened to show up first, which caused Hancock to laugh pretty sardonically-- I called ten-and fifteen-minute breaks, for food and drink and to stretch our legs and recover our equilibrium. When we came back, things went smoother. If you asked me, most wars were caused mostly by insufficient snack breaks.

"OK," I said eventually, when we'd finally knocked out the question of ranks, what they were, how they got awarded, what they meant in practice, and how authority and communication got disseminated up and down the branches in the event it became necessary; established the Brotherhood liaison position and confirmed Silver for it; and moved on to-- "So we've established that we want any potential successor to the office of general to be subject to a vote at this kind of meeting, with official representatives of each settlement present, and we've established that we do not currently have anybody who wants to put him- or herself forward as said potential successor. Last call for anybody who wants to volunteer, or nominate somebody else."

Silence.

"Gosh, you guys," I said. "It's like you think this is a demanding job or something. OK, how about this. In the event that I die before we find anybody else who both wants to be general and can pass the election, how do you guys feel about a small interim governing council? They could serve as advisors to me, and to my successor, and in between, if there's a gap, they could hold authority and carry out the general's duties as a group. How does that sound?"

"How would we choose them?" Petunia asked.

"If you're asking me," I said, "I'd suggest the five signatories to the original Brotherhood alliance contract. Those of you who showed up for that meeting-- including you, Petunia, thank you-- all agreed to have Preston, Ronnie, Hancock, Michael, and Emily be the ones to sit in on that negotiation and sign that contract on our side. Would there be any objections to having the five of them, as a group, as official advisors to me and my successor, and in collective authority in between?"

"Yes, I object," said Lucy Abernathy. "Hancock's the Mayor of Goodneighbor. He can't run the Minutemen too."

"I'll step down from the mayorship," said Hancock. "Fahrenheit really runs the place now, anyway. We'll make it official. Would that be OK?"

"That would be OK with me, I guess," said Lucy.

"OK," I said. "Thank you, Lucy, for identifying that potential conflict. Others?"

"Hancock is also a ghoul," said Cooper, and received quite a few death glares, by which she seemed unperturbed. "Am I mistaken in the belief that ghouls are in the habit of suddenly and unexpectedly transforming into ravening, mindless beasts?"

"Ghouls do sometimes unexpectedly go feral," I said, holding up my hand to shut everybody else up. "And humans sometimes unexpectedly die. So that is certainly a potential area of concern, Paladin Cooper, and thank you for raising it. One solution might be to make sure we have an approved alternate available for each of the five members of the governing council. We can take nominations for alternates once we've confirmed the original five. So-- yes, Jessica?"

"I'm not volunteering," said Jessica Fuller, a ghoul from the Covenant settlement, "but could we have Hancock's alternate be a ghoul, too? I like the idea of having a ghoul on the council. You've been good to us, Nora, but once you're gone, it'd be nice to know the next ones won't pull a McDonogh."

"I like that idea too," I said. "Of making sure we have a ghoul on the council. A synth, too, for the same reason-- but we've already got a redundancy there, with Emily and Michael, and as Scribe Silver pointed out earlier, they're gonna tend to be longer-lived than even ghouls, God willing, so. Good call, Jessica. Sure you don't want to volunteer?"

"Yes," she said firmly.

"I'll do it, if you need me, Nora," said Wiseman.

"Great," I said. "Hopefully we won't, but thank you for your willingness, Wiseman. Before we take other suggestions for alternates, though, any other concerns about the original five?"

I was kind of waiting for Cooper to have something to say about having two synths on the council, but instead, Michael said, from where he sat, back to the wall, next to Danse, "Ma'am, I would prefer not to serve as a member of the council."

"Why, son?" I asked, surprised.

"It's my intention to defend your life to the utmost capacity of my own," he answered, "and as such, I would prefer not to accept a position contingent on my outliving you."

"Awww," said somebody, I didn't see who.

"Way to make me look bad, Michael," said Hancock, and a lot of people laughed.

"Don't you go recusing yourself," I said to Hancock. "You're the one with experience running... anything. Besides, it'll be good for you to have something constructive to do after I die. Are you sure, Michael? We can get you an alternate in case you die heroically in the meantime, but there's always the possibility I'll conk out peacefully in bed at the age of three hundred and fourteen and you'll feel pretty OK about it all."

"Thank you, ma'am," said Michael, "but even in that case, I would prefer not to accept the position."

"Huh," I said. "Well, fair enough. Anybody else feel that way?"

"No," said Emily, from the middle of the crowd, cross-legged, knee pressed to Kasumi's. "I want to help the Minutemen last forever."

"I think, as one of five, I might just about be able to cope," said Preston, and Ronnie laughed and said, "Yeah, same."

Before I could speak again, Michael said, "I would like to propose, as an alternative to myself, that you install Saul Danse as the fifth member of your council. He is experienced with command as well as with combat, and as a former, but not current, paladin of the Brotherhood, he can competently represent the interests of the Brotherhood subset of the Minutemen, without the potential conflicts that might arise with an active member. And he has shown himself capable of unflinching devotion and loyalty, under the most extreme duress, and far above and beyond the normal call of duty."

"Oh," I said, looking at Danse, who looked pale, but resolute rather than stunned; I was guessing this wasn't the first he'd heard of this. "Danse? Is that something you'd consider?"

He was very still for a moment, and then, meeting my eyes, he nodded.

"OK," I said. "Everybody-- everybody who hasn't already met him-- this is Saul Danse. He's a synth, and a former high-ranking officer in the Brotherhood-- that's a long story-- but everything Michael just said about him is one hundred percent true. I'll endorse him, if he's willing. Any opposed?"

Nobody spoke. I looked at Silver and Cooper; they were very still, too, but if I'd had to guess, I would have said it was probably more out of hope than dismay. Either way, they had to deal with two synths and a ghoul out of five; this way, one of the synths was also their savior and advocate.

"Great," I said. "Welcome to the team, Danse. Other concerns about the main five?"

Silence.

"Good," I said. "So, other alternates. Volunteers? Nominations?"

We thrashed that out for awhile, and then got into whether and why it might ever be necessary to replace somebody for reasons other than death, and how to do so, and then I heard somebody's stomach growl, and said, "OK, folks, suppertime. See you all back in here in an hour. Help yourselves to everything outside, but try to go easy on the booze. Or, you know, you might wake up tomorrow and find out you're the next General."

While everybody laughed, rose, and scattered, I gathered up Piper's and Ellie's notes and read them over. The document was rough, with a lot of false starts and corrections, but it was starting to look suspiciously like--

"A constitution," said Piper, tapping it. "That's what you got here, Blue. A bona fide constitution."

"It's a charter," I amended. "No, a-- what did those Plymouth Rock guys call it? A compact? No, I guess it's better than that one. Charter. Like the Magna Carta."

"The First Charter of the Commonwealth Minutemen," said Piper, scribbling.

"But we still don't have a successor for me."

"You have a plan for the meantime, though," said Piper. "Two experienced Minutemen, one experienced leader and politician, one experienced leader and soldier, and one... well, she's not the most experienced Minuteman, but she might be the most enthusiastic, and she's kind of a symbol of that cultural moment when most of us decided we were over being terrified of synths. Not that I had anything to do with that; you're welcome."

"As far as an actual next general," said Nick, who'd lingered by Ellie, "there'll be time to find someone qualified and interested. But this way, you don't have to worry about what happens to the Minutemen if you die tomorrow. Or what happens to the synths, or the ghouls."

"Or the Brotherhood," I added. Piper made a face. "Hey, like it or not."

"Just swear you're not gonna start calling me civilian," said Piper.

"We need to write a clause in here," I said, tapping the paper, "where if any Minuteman with an official rank gets caught addressing somebody else as ‘civilian,’ they’re demoted from whatever they were to a special negative rank called ‘sub-civilian,’ where the protocol is that they have to salute Trashcan Carla.”

Piper giggled. "I'll write it in right now. Oh, hey," she added, as Danse and Michael approached us, side by side. "Michael. Hey, Danse. Piper Wright, Publick Occurrences. If you ever feel like giving an interview, I will literally kill anybody you want killed, for the privilege."

"Pretty sure if he wants anybody killed, he's gonna let me know first," I said.

"Or me, Ms. Wright," said Michael gravely.

"Nora," said Danse, "I-- want to make sure-- you really feel--"

"You're the best man for the job?" I supplied. "I do. Didn't you hear Michael's speech?"

"I apologize for having taken you by surprise, ma'am," said Michael. "I had discussed the possibility with Danse that he might be a well-qualified candidate for a leadership position, but since we were unsure what positions there might be or how they would be determined, we decided to wait until the meeting to propose anything definite."

"I don't have a problem with the way things went down," I said. "Do you, Danse?"

"I--" Danse hesitated, and then said, "I think-- I am well qualified-- for the position."

I smiled at him. "God, Danse. So do I. I really do. I'm-- so happy-- that you think so too. You've come so far, just in these couple of weeks, and-- God, I'm so proud of you, and so glad-- so glad we found each other again, after all this--"

"Can the waterworks, Blue," said Piper, elbowing me affectionately in the ribs. "Meeting's not over yet."

Chapter Text

I spent the rest of the supper hour copying over the document to a clean sheet of paper, and then, when we reconvened, read it back, asked if anybody had any more questions or concerns, and then said, "OK, if nobody has anything else, I'm going to declare this meeting adjourned. I'm also going to ask everybody here-- every Minuteman-- to come up to the table and sign this document. Once you've signed, please meet me out in the courtyard, where we're gonna have that demonstration of farming techniques I mentioned before. After that's over, you're all good to go-- or you can camp out here overnight if you want, and get going in the morning. If anybody needs any ammo or other supplies, or weapons tune-ups, before you go, come to me and I'll see what I can do for you. Thank you all again so much, for coming. I'll see you outside, OK?"

As the line for signatures began to form, I went to get Tanvi from her lab, where I found Shaun, too. He wanted to come with her and help with the demonstration, so I let him, and watched him beam with pride at the assembled Minutemen in the courtyard as the two of them showed off their techniques and took questions. Neither of them seemed shy in front of the crowd; Tanvi was in her element, of course, demonstrating scientific methods and results, and Shaun, shy as he'd been in front of Danse, seemed more than thrilled when Tanvi suggested he field Jake Finch's question about fertilizer.

Afterwards, a lot of people lingered to ask for things, or just to say goodbye, and a few asked where they could sleep, and it wasn't until after I'd gotten all the Minutemen supplied and/or settled, and a lot of people hugged, and Preston and Ronnie thanked profusely, that Silver and Cooper approached me, and Silver said, "General--"

"Yeah, Scribe."

"This is--" He swallowed. "I didn't expect-- when I asked you about-- organization-- I didn't expect you to-- do this."

I smiled at him. "I listen."

"I can see that you do," he said. "It's-- a good quality. In a leader. I look forward to working with you further, General Bowman."

"Same," I said. "Thanks for pointing out where we could improve. You, too, Paladin."

Paladin Cooper nodded. "We'll be going now. If you need Scribe Silver, let us know via Radio Freedom."

"I will," I said, "and if you guys need anything from me at any point, or if there's any conflicts with my Minutemen, send him to me, OK? And we'll work it out. Anything you need now?"

"No," said Cooper, and hesitated for a moment before adding, "General-- thank you for-- everything."

I beamed at her. "You're welcome. Thank you for coming."

Then Hancock, Michael, Emily, Kasumi, and Danse were around me, and Shaun was leaning up against me, having apparently forgiven me for letting Deacon escape, and Emily said, "Let's go to the book room and tell Cog and Victoria and Max we're done."

So we did, and crowded onto couches and chairs and beds, as I tried to ignore the pang Deacon's empty bed gave me, and his books on the shelf. Shaun clambered into my lap.

"Sorry about all the commotion," I said, hugging him, and leaning against Hancock. "But hey, so guys, Emily and Danse are now officially two-fifths of the official Minutemen advisory council, and if I die, they're two-fifths of in charge. And Hancock is another fifth, so, you know. If anything happens to me, you guys should be-- fine."

"That's good," said Max. "Advisory council, huh? Congrats."

"Thank you, Max," said Danse, and Emily smiled.

"Why aren't you on it?" Victoria asked Michael, and he answered, "I declined the position."

"So does that mean Emily and Danse outrank you now?" Cog asked.

Michael smiled slightly. "I suppose it does, in some areas. Although I think I can trust them both not to abuse their authority over me. And if they do, for the moment, I can still appeal to my mother."

I grinned at him, and Emily laughed, and said, "Isn't it funny-- having a mother?"

"Funny's the word," said Victoria.

"One time I saw a little kid fall down, in the Institute," said Cog, "and he hurt his knee? And there was an adult human right there, and she tried to pick him up and take him to the med bay for treatment, but he kind of fought, and he just kept screaming for his mom. And then his mom showed up, and he calmed down. Even though she hadn't done anything to-- treat him-- she just kind of-- held him. But it was like her just being there made everything better. I used to think, so that's what it would be like, to have a mom."

"So that must mean you're my mom," Victoria said to him.

He looked startled, and laughed a little, uncertainly. She didn't smile.

"That's just love," said Emily, smiling at the two of them. "It doesn't have to be your mother who you love, and who loves you. Being with somebody you love is what makes everything better. That's how I feel with our mother, and with all of you-- but I feel that way with just Kasumi, too."

"Me too," said Kasumi, squeezing Emily's hand. "Like I belong here, finally. Not here at your Castle-- although thank you for having me, Ms. Bowman-- but-- anywhere. On earth. With Emily."

"I know what you all mean," said Max. "I never-- belonged-- anywhere. Till here. And you-- you folks."

"I used to belong in a little room," Shaun volunteered. "You saw it, mom. In Advanced Systems. Sometimes people told me to go back there where I belonged. But I didn't like it. Nobody loved me. Until you were my mom."

I hugged him tight. "I'm always your mom. And the rest of us are all your family. You belong here with us."

"I know," said Shaun, and laid his head down against my chest. "But I wish Jonah was here."

"Me too, baby." I stroked his hair. "But he'll be back. He knows he belongs with us, too."

 

**************************************

 

This is a really bad idea.

He got momentarily distracted trying to decide whether he'd ever actually had a non- bad idea in his life. There was the-- nope. And the-- well. Kind of hard to call that one, yet. Like Solon said to Croesus: count no idea good until it actually manages to kill you. Or something like that.

Holding the Brotherhood baby, for example, had been a bad idea, one of those things where you thought, how bad can it be, it can't be worse than sitting here wondering how bad it would be, so I'll just do it, and then it turned out that however bad you were scared it might be, you had absolutely no clue.

Like this, maybe. How bad could this get?

Well, it could kill him, in which case he could either finally relax and feed the worms, or he'd have to deal with an afterlife. He went back and forth on that one. If you just saw a dead body, you'd think: meat, obviously. But when you actually saw somebody die, the moment when it happened, you thought: wait, where'd they go? Maybe it was an optical illusion, but it really seemed like something left, separated itself out from the meat and-- who knew. Dissolved. Escaped. Went somewhere, or nowhere. Who knew. He'd find out someday, anyway. Some old kid's book he'd read: To die will be an awfully big adventure.

Did I come here to die?

Kind of, was the answer, just like it had been when he'd joined the Railroad. This idea-- like most of his ideas-- was not the idea of a person with a strong, thriving survival instinct. Like Nora. If he didn't die, Nora was going to kill him.

Or rather, she was going to yell at him. But he'd never minded being yelled at. Scolded: a prim, cozy word, conjuring images of a lipsticked, aproned, laundered prewar mom. (Like Nora, although it was hard to picture her in either lipstick or an apron. Had they really dressed like that back then, or was it all just picture books?) Nobody scolded you unless they cared what you did; you're late meant you should have been here sooner, a sweet sentiment. He'd had no idea Nora had been so scratchy about Des's scolding-- really should've picked up on that, super-spy, although God knew the only thing you knew for sure with Nora was that she'd be weirder than you'd imagined possible.

At least he'd taken some time, to get his affairs in order, such as they were-- once he would have checked in with Des, but face it, she didn't really need him anymore, not even to wrangle Nora; she might not be able to read Nora, but he could, and they were gonna be fine from now on-- and to make sure he really wanted to do this. That it wasn't just some kind of insanity caused by-- whatever it was his bloodstream flooded with around Nora. It wasn't romantic, thank God-- he couldn't have stood to fall in love at this point, even if she hadn't already had a guy. It wasn't as bad as that, and also it was worse.

It was fine at first. The Railroad was her way into the Institute, which was her way to find her son, and he was her way in with the Railroad, so it made sense, the way she played nice, ran with him, protected him, patched him up, laughed at his stupid jokes, forgave him for his lies. And he liked her. She was smart and tough and funny and generous, and things were never boring when she was around. Spending time with her was-- something about life that didn't completely suck. Those were few and far between; he'd take what he could get, while he could get it. Even after the Prydwyn, aside from the few moments where it had looked like she was going to snap and shoot him in the face; even after the Institute, when she officially had no more use for him-- she hadn't seemed to mind him hanging around sometimes, popping up with Railroad missions, or just to say hi. That didn't suck, either, and he made sure not to wear out his welcome.

It was now that didn't make sense. He'd run out on her, proved himself useless for even the marginal errands she still used him for, and she'd responded by giving him the most extensive scolding of his life so far and dragging him home to live with her. Babbling about love and family, two things he'd had absolutely zero intention of ever getting entangled with again. Babbling not just to him, but to Hancock, to Shaun, to Des. Because of Deacon. Because I love Deacon. Hugging him. Making promises.

It was too much, it was all insane. She didn't respect the system, the system that worked, that kept things even-keeled and livable, the system where favors got done and favors got owed and everybody kept a reasonable distance, a disentangled distance, so that when it was time to move on, it was easy, and nobody got hurt. Even when he'd deployed what he thought was the nuclear option, to make her back off-- it's all a big lie, there's no Barbara-- she'd just shrugged. Held him, his shades in her hand. Called him honey. Come on, I'll tuck you in.

He couldn't really deal with it. Couldn't sleep, although he played possum when she woke up to feed the kid. The scales were out of balance. Piling his little favors-owed on his side like pebbles, and then it was like she just climbed on the other side of the scale and sat her muscular butt down, sending his hard-won pebbles flying. You know you don’t actually have to earn favors from me. You know I’ll do anything for you, just because I love you and I want you to be happy.

So here he was. One more try, Nora, you freak, you anachronism, you rogue variable, you bleeding-heart, heart on the outside and glowing and stuck full of knives like in those bizarre old religious pictures, to balance the scales. Or remove himself from the equation entirely. Whichever.

Funny to be here in daylight, instead of dead of night. Fewer memories that way, though, which was good. Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium. Whatever a geranium was. Some kind of shrub, the dictionary said, but when he'd first read the line he'd pictured an animal, a dessicated reptilian thing, that rattled as it was shaken.

No one downstairs. Elevator shut off. He left his gun at the bottom of the stairs, paused to consider what else he should leave behind. There wasn't much; he traveled light. I am not in the habit of overburdening myself for travel. One thing he had in common with them, anyway.

He went up the stairs slowly, trying to keep his footsteps at a neutral volume: not sneaky-quiet, not aggressive-loud. Hands where they could see them.

At the top of the flight, he saw exactly who he'd expected to see, which didn't explain why his heart seized so violently at the sight that he seriously thought, for a second, he might be dying already. The uniform, the one that popped up in his favorite nightmares. The sunglasses, even indoors-- hey, another thing they had in common. Two sets of hidden eyes, looking at their own twinned reflections in the other's black lenses. Only one gun, though, leveled straight at one racing heart.

He raised his empty hands. No armor, except the ballistic-weave lining of his T-shirt. No disguise, except his face.

"Hey, X6-88," he said, in a voice that somehow, miraculously, didn't shake. "I'm a friend of your mother's. Can I come in?"