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JOHN

The Fens, MA

March 15th, 2280

The tall buildings cast long afternoon shadows, swathing the alleyways of The Fens in cool-toned shade. Turrets chugged reassuringly up on their platforms and from their respective corners in the entryways to Diamond City. A few guards wandered the square in their thick umpire padding, more sitting in out-of-the-way nooks and passages patiently waiting for their shifts to be over after another boring day of roving the Fens with no action to report. This was one of the good days. On the bad days, local mutants or raiders wandered too close to the stadium, triggering the turrets and proving that the guards were worth their weight in caps as they tackled the threat.

John worked alongside a dozen other men in one of the passageways that led to Diamond City. The Wall had been hoisted up past a man’s height, spacious enough for folks and ladders to pass by with enough clearance without being fully lifted. It was a warm spring day and John’s sleeves were rolled up past his elbows. He no longer wore the arm guards that had been part of his ensemble for years; John’s use of hypodermics had ceased and the marks in his arms that he used to hide from his brother were long gone. He was dealing with setbacks and monotony now, getting by and using his time more wisely in lieu of escaping. In a way, Danse had healed him, nudged him into filling his time with writing and causes instead of falling into an inescapable haze that stole his life away. The two of them were finally aligned and in a good place. The constant anxiety of uncertainty had been replaced with a soothing relief that only came with honesty and trust. Despite being a Commonwealth away, he knew that Danse was as safe and happy as he could be, living his life in the Citadel and loving John from afar. They would see each other in a few months’ time and until then they would both remain busy.

Blowing a strand of blonde hair out of his face, John propped up a piece of chest height aluminum siding that read You’re Almost Home in blatant white lettering. “What do you think?” he asked, dragging the sign back a few feet to allow his friend to view it at a distance.

“Needs punctuation,” Derek Wiseman stated, pausing in his own work, the fissures in his face pulling tight as he grinned. A few drops of white paint dripped from the brush in his hand.

John dipped his stiffly bristled brush back into the can of paint at Wiseman’s feet and dabbed at the sign, dotting a period at the end. He used the remainder of the paint on his brush to swipe a few arrows onto the stadium wall itself. 

Nestled up against the stadium walls, John’s team of workmen were painting signage displayed down the trails that led through the city and up to Diamond’s City front gate. Protected by the Wall was scrawled in several places along with other comforting slogans and a string of white arrows marked the safe routes. A few levels of scaffolding had been hastily erected to hang and paint signs beyond the reach of chemmed-out raiders looking for objects to vandalize and higher than the average spray of bloodshed.

Voices rose, echoing down the alleys as a cluster of figures met by the entry to the Wall. The guards took note of the commotion and circled closer to the gateway, a few even made the effort to get out of their chairs so inconspicuously tucked into shadowy corners of the Fens. One of the blustery voices belonged to John’s brother; John felt a rush of heat to his face and hoped that Guy would stay put within the safety of the ticketing stalls. The uniquely gruff, old-timey radio play voice, like the kind that was found on old Silver Shroud recordings, of Diamond City’s local detective added to the racket at the gate.

“Looks like that creepy synth found the town pump,” someone pointed out in a derisive tone.

“Don’t be crude,” Wiseman admonished, not bothering to look up from his work. “That’s the mayor’s daughter you’re talking about.”

“Fucking ghouls,” the man huffed, “sticking together through thick and thin. Just not thick and skin, right?” A few men laughed. Wiseman and John rolled their eyes at each other.

Diamond City’s ghoul mayor, Roberts, had been digging himself into a recent grave. For the last few years, his focus had been more on ghoul affairs than the rising number of missing humans that had been accumulating. “Not a single ghoul has ever gone missing, ya notice that?” someone else asked in an exaggerated whisper. “But people, ya turn around and, poof, they’re gone.”

“Maybe the mayor is feeding them to his constituents,” another answered. More laugher chittered up and down the alley.

John threw his brush into the paint bucket and turned. He kept his anger capped as he said, “Keep your ignorant comments to yourself. That’s the kinda shit that gets people killed.” A few men jeered. The few ghouls that had been assigned to painting remained silent, Wiseman included.

A young, black man on the scaffolding above John called, “If you care so damned much about ghouls, you can start by fucking one!”

John grew tired of this witless exchange and turned to take his equipment and move to a different passageway when, as if she had been summoned, Eliza Roberts appeared, smiling, her gray eyes bright in her withered face, carrying a crate of Nukas and saying, “Hi, John.” The men in the alley erupted into laughter.

John released a slow sigh. “Hey.” He took a Nuka from her crate and cracked the cap. Eliza peered around him to gaze at the cackling men.

“Hi, Eliza,” Wiseman added, taking a Nuka for himself. “Excuse me.” He threw the bottle at the man on the scaffolding. It exploded in a surge of glass and fizz as the man jumped back. “Go fuck yourself, Hawthorne.”

More laughter resonated, amplified into a surge of sound by the narrow streets and towering buildings. Even the ghouls joined in this time. John grinned and drank his Cola as Hawthorne shook soda from his shoes.

“Here, now! What’s all this racket about?” Guy McDonough huffed, coming around from the opened Wall. “I can hear you all caterwauling from the ticket booths.” Guy had their father’s moon-shaped face and stout barrel body. John looked more like their mother with his defined features, only his hair was longer than she had ever worn hers. “Good God!” Guy gasped, eyes traveling the length of the corridor. “What the hell are you doing to the entry passages?”

John felt like he was thirteen again, caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to. His brother had that effect on him. John’s excuses suddenly seemed flimsy. “Making an easy trail in – directions, warnings – so folks can find their way.”

Guy’s beady eyes thundered at him. “There’s no open door policy here, John. You know that. The moment that we start to take in just anyone is when we leave ourselves open to obliteration.” He perched portly hands on his hips. “Now, who authorized this?” he asked the workers.

“Your baby brother said you did,” Hawthorne called down.

Guy’s face seemed to turn purple. He grabbed John by the wrist and pulled him close, causing the Nuka bottle to drop from John’s hand. “You used my name to entice defamation of city property?” he snarled in a whisper, his eyes hard. “What were you thinking?”

John fixed him with an equally unmoved glare. Guy’s recent appointment to town council had been all he could talk about, but something about his personality left him ineffective as a leader. “I was thinking that you’d be damn grateful when this brings in new traders and families,” John said. “That I know you – knew that you’d happily take the credit. Everyone would win.”

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to,” Guy continued to growl. “I know where you keep disappearing to,” he hissed in John’s ear. John could only stare at him. Danse? Was this about Danse? How could it be? “You and your filthy little habits,” sneered Guy. “I know where our money goes and the kind of riff-raff you give it to.”

With a start, John knew that he was talking about Goodneighbor. “You think I want those bastards here? Hell, no!” He twisted his wrist out of Guy’s grip and pointed at the signs in the corridor. “Guy, this is legit. This is a game changer. A safe port in this shithole of a city. It’s gonna save lives.”

Guy moved away from him, disgust still wrinkling his nose. “These are not your calls to make.” He shouted at the men in the alley, “Pack it in. Get that equipment back from whenever you stole it. And the next time someone uses my name, you’d better find me first.” 

John felt a rush of heat flow through him. He hauled up a can of white paint and threw it at the stadium wall. It splashed upon contact, sending great spreads of white to coat bright green. Rivulets dripped down pooling in snowy puddles on the asphalt. John tightened his fists as the workers left the scaffolding.

Guy shook a finger in John’s face. “Never let me catch you fooling me again. You might not respect me but plenty of people in this town do. I gave you a life here and I can just as easily take it away.” He snapped his fingers on ‘away’, demonstrating just how simple it would be to leave John homeless.

John pondered that thought for a moment. How bad would it be, if it came to that? He could end up back in the Capital Wasteland, staying at Rivet City for a price or in Underworld for a trade of labor if he couldn’t afford a room outright. Danse would be nearby and Guy far away. Hell, maybe he’d played his life all wrong for this to not be his reality. But that would mean abandoning his life’s work. Without the influence that his brother held, all of John’s dreams of instigating a political overhaul to the Commonwealth would be lost. The Brotherhood’s impact was too great on the Capital and no change was likely to occur anytime soon. No. He’d have to stay put and bide his time. His moment would come, he just had to wait for it.

The streets cleared and as Guy ventured back inside the city, John felt a hand on his back. He whirled, bringing up a fist. “Fuck.” He dropped his hand, sudden tension releasing from his shoulders. “Eliza.”

She still stood nearby in her faded dress, looking very much like a child – a gaunt, deeply scarred child. “I’m sorry, John. You and me…we seem to make a lot of trouble.”  Eliza Roberts would always be fifteen years old, eternally trapped in a teenage body and an adolescent mind. Ghoulification hadn’t withered her completely; a tiny thing, she still had enough curves to draw the eye and a wicked streak behind closed doors that clashed with the innocent air she gave off. She wore a wig – custom for female ghouls – of fat, dark curls. John supposed that was why so many men took a liking to her. Incurably flirtatious Eliza ate the attention up. There was something enticing and taboo about a young girl that wasn’t as young as she seemed, even to John.

Despite his devotion to Danse, some women – and on rarer occasion, men – still caught his eye. Not that he would ever stray – that wasn’t the type of man John was. It wasn’t that Danse would ever know, but the soldier took a hell of a risk by contacting John at all, and John wasn’t about to discard the person that he loved most of all for someone as flippant about feelings as Eliza was. She had a habit of falling in love once a week and with a different man each time, putting a strain with no end on her father. This week, John made sure it wasn’t him. “Go home, Eliza. Your father’s been worried.”

“Oh.” She removed her hand away the small of his back. “Okay. See you, John.” He gave her a tight-lipped smile as she left. Alone at last, he sagged against the wall, mindful of the wet paint. He kicked at the scaffolding, making it clank and jiggle. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he stalked away from the entrance to the stadium.

He hadn’t made it very far when a voice called, “If you insist on running, be sure that it’s gonna be towards something better and not away from something that’s merely difficult. And, for God’s sake, take a gun. It’s rough out there.”

John stopped and turned back around.

A shabby looking man stood in the shadows of the Wall. He lit a cigarette. The flame momentarily cast his face into light.

“It’s you,” John said, momentarily transfixed. “You’re the one that brought Eliza back. Again.”

The half-disintegrated synth shook out the flame. “Poor, simple Eliza. She has no idea how many problems she creates.”

John walked back, asking, “Why do you keep helping her?”

“It’s not her fault. Hell, she thinks she’s in love. She’s a dim bird but a sweet girl.”

John stopped in front of the mechanical man, a smile creeping across his face. “And her father pays you.”

The synth gave a half-smile in return. “And he pays me.”

John joined him in the shadows, producing a canister of Jet and shaking it. “You’ve been here longer than I have.” John paused to inhale. “I still can’t figure this place out,” he said, through a grimace. He coughed out of reflex, breathing out leftover fumes.

“People are all kinda the same,” the synth noted, the gleam of metal skull visible through gaping holes in his peeling polymer skin.

“How’s that?” John said slowly, the words slurred slightly as the Jet slackened his thought process.

“They’re unpredictable.”

“Guess that’d explain it.” Still angered over his failed plan, John took another hit, as the first one wasn’t enough to alleviate his frustrations.

The synth finished his cigarette and fixed John with bright yellow optics. “You aren’t scared of me at all, are you?”

John exhaled slowly, blowing residual residue from his lungs. He cleared his throat. “I…owned a synth once. Guess I’ve had time to adjust. He wasn’t anything like you, though.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve got a whole lot more skin.”

“Ah.” The mechanical man nodded. “One of my skinny, dumb predecessors. How’d you find one of those things, let alone tame it?”

John pocketed the canister and shook his head, mind comfortably fuzzy. “Story for another day.” He looked back at the entrance to Diamond City. His arrows still looked inviting, no matter what the cost had been to put them up. A stack of half-formed essays on the individual townships that had made up the Commonwealth Provisional Government sat on his desk at home, waiting for his attention. John had no doubt that Guy would be waiting for him as well.

He gave the synth a stiff farewell nod, turned, and headed for Goodneighbor. His brother could have Diamond City all to himself if he wanted it.