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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.

Chapter Text

JOHN

Goodneighbor, MA

April 10th, 2288

John blinked sluggishly at the ceiling above his head. At some point after the bombs had fallen, the red paint had begun to peel in the rooms at the Hotel Rexford. Above John was a white gap in the shape of Australia where the paint had retreated into hanging, rotted strips, leaving exposed plaster behind. From the chaise lounge where he lay sprawled on his back, John listlessly rolled his head towards the person sitting crosswise in the ornamental chair beside him. Fred Allen’s head had lolled back and his mouth was open. John wondered if he saw Australia, too.

A foreign chem called Rocket had come in on one of the caravans and John wouldn’t have been much of a leader to let an untested drug go straight into circulation.  Fred was Goodneighbor’s resident chem expert and, together, the two of them did a service to their town by sampling the goods. Rocket was contained in familiar red inhalers and felt like a variant of Jet, albeit a much stronger variety. It had been a long while since a baseline Jet product had affected either of them so heavily and the sensations were swift to claim their senses. 

Now, both of their arms drooped, fingers dangling close to the floor as they lay in the silent aftereffects of their high. He felt like he was sinking, as if the chaise was trying to consume him, to suck him straight down through its cushions, and John rolled off of it, wooden limbs refusing to cooperate, ending up on all fours. The heavy fabric of his red coat pooled by his knees and seemed to blend in with the carpeting. The floor tilted a little, attempting to buck him off of it. He shoved himself to his feet, using Fred’s chair as leverage. It was late, and intersected parties, such as Fahrenheit and Danse, would be worried. As he stood, he clapped his friend on the knee and was rewarded with a slothful thumbs-up gesture. Good. John felt better about leaving Fred alone with his high having been given approval. John swayed his way down the hall, keeping a hand on the wall for guidance. He had stumbled down the stairs at the hotel before, but no one had caught him yet.

As a human, it had taken John years to learn what his chem tolerances were, undergoing several close calls in the process. As a ghoul, he had to undergo the entire process once more, only that time, he had been reckless and ignorant, trusting his new body to have higher tolerances than the old one and treating it poorly. That wouldn’t have been proper mayoral behavior for any place but Goodneighbor. Here, it made him a legend. Hancock, the mythical hero who liberated a township and kept the doors open. Hancock – the everyman who partook in all of the vices that his residents did. Hancock, who managed to remain unconscious throughout most of his ghoulification. Hancock, who, like the coward he was, had sent MacCready, his deputy mayor, to Sanctuary to inform the others of Nick Valentine’s death while he hid out in Goodneighbor, killing himself slowly with chems and secreting Danse away.

The memories of Far Harbor still hung over John’s head like a cloud. His guilt over Nick had been inescapable, and he had fallen back into chems as his method of hiding. His newfound abilities had left him shaken and he longed for another ghoul to share his experience with. Nick had mentioned someone else that might have shared John’s background, but now any chance of finding this person seemed to have died with Nick.

“Mr. Mayor?”

John paused with arms out for balance, having made it halfway down the main drag of Goodneighbor before being called upon.

Kent Connelly waved at him from the open door to the Memory Den, his kind face worried. “There’s somebody for you on the radio. It’s a little hard to understand – she curses a lot.”

Frowning, John followed Kent inside. The interior of the Den was warm and heady with the perfume that Irma wore. She didn’t seem to be present; it was late enough that she was probably asleep. Kent ushered him into the side room, cramped with Silver Shroud memorabilia and radio equipment. John leaned over the desk as Kent flicked dials and nodded at him.

“Hancock,” John spoke into the microphone. “What’s it to ya?” He took a deep breath and willed the wallpaper patterns to stop crawling. The way they whirled was distracting and nauseating. He clenched he eyes shut.

Fuckin’ hell. Finally,” was the response over the line. “Thought I’d have to march down there and cart ya off myself.”

Cait? Why would Cait be contacting him? They had only a minimal amount of interactions in the past, largely including her trying to convince him to blow his own brains out. “Whacha need, doll?” he asked, baffled.

I…well…the thing of it is…” Strong-willed Cait seemed to be nervous. John was intrigued. “Look…I’ma need you to go on a road trip with me. Ain’t no big deal, just something I gotta do and I…I’d like you with me. I think you’d get it, wouldn’t push me past what I was ready for.

“I’m gonna need more information, Cait.”

There were a few muffled curses, as if she’d turned her head away from the microphone to swear. When she came back on, she asked, “Ya ever hear of a Vault 95?

John felt a cold, rippling chill. “No. You’re on your own,” he said. “I ain’t going with you there.” Going to 95…she was insane by thinking he’d accompany her. The rehab vault. No way. He moved to shut down the signal.  

Wait!” Cait yelled at him, as if she could see that he was fed up. “I ain’t saying that you gotta go through it with me. Nate, he’s taking me, wants me to get clean. Curie’s coming too, thinks it’ll be scientific. But…John…You’re the only other person I know who’s stuck in the same place as I am, and ya knows what this feels like. You understand what I’m givin’ up and…that’ll make me feel less alone in this.”

Despite their connection being audio-only, he shook his head. “I ain’t holdin’ the banner at your pity party. Find some other sap.” This time, he did manage to turn off the receiver before she said anything else.

He turned to go, finding Kent sitting in a Pod, intensely rubbing his eyes. “Sorry you had to witness that garbage, Kent,” said John. Kent blinked at him through violently red sclera. He looked tired and...pale, if that was even possible for a ghoul. “Get some sleep, pal.” Kent nodded and John left him behind, heading back out into the street.

The Old State House stood vacant at night, drifters sent off into the cleared warehouses for temporary housing for those who couldn’t afford a stay at the Rexford. No longer a halfway-house for junkies and drunks, he and Danse shared an apartment on the top floor, the lower levels utilized for conducting town business and organizing his papers.  John had spent the last few weeks categorizing his writing and including an index for reference while Danse had taken over Finn’s old position as gatekeeper. Danse’s militaristic greetings didn’t quite fit the Goodneighbor vibe, but his inspections of incoming caravans were top-notch and he uncovered a good deal of smuggled items that would have otherwise slipped past unnoticed. In the empty State House, neither or John and Danse had to hold back. They could be as loud as they wanted, without fear of being overheard. Most of Goodneighbor knew about them or, at least, had their suspicions. Not that news of them would ever leave the town. Folks didn’t go to Goodneighbor to spread rumors about other peoples’ habits.

John found it a long, tedious haul to get himself up the winding staircase, vertigo toying with his senses the entire way as he tried to watch his feet instead of the never-ending swirl of the bannister. When he arrived at the top floor, he found Danse, still dressed in the same jeans and a black shirt from this morning, seated at a table, pieces of Righteous Authority spread out over its surface as he cleaned each portion by lamplight. “I sent Fahrenheit home,” Danse said, running a rag over the barrel of his laser rifle. “She said to remind you of a meeting about the Minutemen caravans at oh-nine hundred tomorrow.”

“Was that the way she said it?” John chided, watching Danse meticulously work from the landing. Atom’s Judgement, the Warhammer that John had brought back from Far Harbor sat in a darkened corner. John hadn’t been able to reactivate the radioactive element of the weapon since leaving the island and its fog. He took a small amount of comfort at that.

“Well…no.” Danse set the barrel down and picked up his rifle’s stock. “But the meaning is identical.” His beard was close-cropped to little more than stubble. John had hated the beard, and after too many Mentats one night, had told him. Danse’s dark hair was shorter too, more like it had been when he had still believed he was human. Maybe synths didn’t age, if the rumors were even true, but they sure had to go through all of the petty maintenance that normal humans did with things like teeth, nails and hair.

The two of them were still adjusting to living together. Things were nice, but odd. Even at the height of their former relationship they hadn’t spent more than a few days together. John wasn’t used to having someone around him all the time and was constantly learning new things about both of them. It felt strangely domestic to let Danse button the cuffs of his shirt in the mornings instead of using his teeth. Some days, Danse was debilitated by migraines so bad that that he would spend the hours curled into a ball in their bed, grinding the heels of his palms into his eyes and remaining inconsolable. Although he had mentioned headaches before, John had no idea of their magnitude. He had also forgotten about Danse’s night terrors and had rolled out of the way many a time to avoid being beaten as Danse violently thrashed his way out of nightmares. When he went without the blank sanctity of Calmex, Danse relived horrors almost nightly, leaving him exhausted in the mornings. Not that his responsibilities at the gate suffered, but John was realizing just how hard Danse pushed himself each day.

“Why are you lingering in the doorway?” Danse asked, lifting his eyes from his work to study John. “Are you all right?”

John hesitated before crossing the room, which seemed to shift and turn slightly as he walked. He eased his plasma pistol out of concealment and gently placed it on the table. His removed his fingers from it and stood as straight as he could, knowing that, even then, he was swaying, compensating as the floor seemed to rock below his feet as if he were standing on a ship at sea.

He knew it, knew that he was higher than Danse had ever seen him. He expected Danse to scold him, to shake him, to leave him entirely. He deserved as much. Danse had put forth such an effort, working on building their lives together while John was the one ruining it, falling into old habits without much consideration for Danse’s opinions. He hadn’t said that he would try and leave chems alone, not wanting to make promises that he couldn’t keep. Previously, Danse’s presence in his life had lessened John’s desire to drown himself in substances. But recently, doing so seemed to only sure escape from the reality of what had happened on the island.

To his credit, Danse was much calmer than John anticipated. He settled his cleaning items back on the table and took pause before asking, “Why do you do this to yourself?”

The room shifted from a back and forth motion to a spin, jolting under John’s feet. He knelt on the floor of their apartment, forehead almost touching the floorboards, hands spread out as it to keep from falling through the center of the Earth as his stomach lurched. “I don’t know…” was the only reply he could think of.

John heard him get up and a moment later Danse was rubbing the scar-hardened flesh of his neck with one hand. The gentleness of his touch made John feel that much worse. “Are you really that unhappy?” Danse asked, voice a fraction softer than normal.

“No, no,” John insisted, wanting to take the comfort that Danse was offering. He didn’t want to be numb while around Danse; he wanted to cherish every moment they had together with perfect clarity. But the damn chems got in the way. “It ain’t about that. It’s all kinda wrapped up in who I am.”

He felt awful for Danse – that he had to endure kissing his rough lips and stroking his rad-torn carcass, that he took Rad-X every morning so that John didn’t irradiate him with the byproducts of their lovemaking. Danse deserved better than a junkie ghoul at the end of his rope. For the first time, John found himself regretting that he took the drug that changed him. He would never be the person he was again and that was who Danse wanted. McDonough, not Hancock. He was with the wrong John. Now, he feared that their relationship would always be draped with a melancholic veil, holding them back.

“I keep expecting us to break,” John admitted, more to the floorboards than to Danse.

“We won’t,” Danse promised. He stripped the heavy frock coat from John’s shoulders and stood. John got up as well, the rate of his breathing increasing rapidly with exertion as Danse folded his coat and slung it over a chair with a natural expression on his face.

Now,” John snapped, heartbeat thudding in his chest. He fixed Danse with an anxious glare as he held onto a corner of the table for support. “You say that now. And when you’re sick of the rads, sick of my town, sick of being scared of what might happen if people knew about us, what then? I’m long haul, Dan. I always have been.”

Danse’s unruffled expression didn’t change. “Then why are you the one that sounds so terrified?”

John panted in his panic, unable to answer. Because neither of us are the same as who we were. Because I don’t trust that this is real. Because I’m absolutely certain that I’ll wreck things with us again. He could have chalked his thoughts up to paranoia, that it was the chems talking, but that would have been a half-truth. “I’m trying to hold my shit together. I am. For you. But, I keep feeling like I’m losing my way.”

Danse came closer, fingers reaching to unknot the flag around John’s hips. When it hung free, he draped it around John’s neck, keeping it close to him. He then began to pry the buttons of his waistcoat free. “You’ve given me a home, John. Reasons to fight. I lost my family when I was turned out of the Prydwen, but I gained you. In the Brotherhood” – John rolled his eyes at every sentence that began with in the Brotherhood – “I never really fit in. But because I stood out, things tended to go in my favor. More scrutiny meant more accolades for my successes, being selected for particular assignments, and allowing me to even become popular in my own way. I don’t regret serving with them, I doubt that I ever will, but I do feel that I’ve disappointed you.” Danse’s mouth turned down, his brows lowered and creased as he eased the open waistcoat down John’s arms and added it to the chair with the coat. He raised his eyes to John’s face and traced gentle fingertips down the furrows in John’s throat. “Had I been by your side, you wouldn’t have done this to yourself.”

John stepped back, taking Danse’s hand in his and moving it away. “Dan…We can’t play that game – the shouldas, couldas, and might have beens. This is what it is.”

Danse’s gaze was lost somewhere on the exposed flesh of John’s collarbones. “What was it like?” His solemn eyes found John’s, the irises amber in the weak firelight of the lanterns. “When you became…when you went…”

Ghoul?” John volunteered, removing his hat. He tossed it onto the table, near to his gun. The churning of the room was slowing, and he was grateful for that.

Eyes traveling to the flayed patch of skin on John’s forehead, Danse answered, “Yes.”

There was a time and a place for honesty and if John wasn’t a coward, this might have been either. “Was no big deal,” John lied, pulling the flag from his neck. He wound it around one hand as he spoke. “I went to sleep. I got up minus some skin.”

“I find that story unlikely.”

John didn’t look up. “Daisy been filling your head with stories again?” Danse, his former paladin soldier, had been taking his duty as gatekeeper seriously, which meant a tight bond with both Daisy and KLEO. When he appointed him, John had expected some level of disgust from Danse at having a partnership with either of them. He hadn’t taken Danse’s love of order and responsibility into account, and the man had shocked him when he had started cataloging weaknesses in town barriers with the assaultron and charting caravan inventory with Daisy as she told him tales of her long history.

He felt the beginning of a chem headache starting to form between his eyes and ground a knuckle into the pain, flinching. When he opened his eyes, he caught Danse placing a carton of dirty water on a nightstand as he sat on their bed. He was barefoot, a sobering reality of their domesticity. He held out a hand over the bed, indicating the John should join him. He did, looping the flag around one of the bedposts as he seated himself.

“John,” Danse began. “I do realize who you are. Who you’ve been in my absence. I don’t blame you for any of it.” There was a snag in the blanket that covered the bed. John picked at it as Danse talked. “I care about you and I find myself in a position that can no longer ignore. You have a twenty year history with chem use that has led you down some very dark roads. Now, I know that you are an adult and in a significant station within this town, but I am…constantly concerned for your wellbeing.  I also find that my silence on this matter might be misconstrued as leniency.” John slumped and fell into a pout. This conversation was a long time coming. He was aware that he often tasted of chems, and that could be no treat for Danse. He tugged his boots off as Danse continued. “I don’t bring this up to admonish you. I just…it hurts my heart to think of you intentionally hurting yourself.”  

John tossed his boots under the bed and scowled at him. “I’d never do that.”

Danse’s hands were in his lap, his body twisted slightly to look at him. His warm eyes were concerned, not accusatory. “You have before. I know circumstances are different now, but I still worry. I’m not asking you to stop – I can’t ask you to do that for me. But…” He reached for John’s hand and took it. “Please don’t feel that you have to run or hide from me. I can be there for you. Whatever crutch you need…use me to help bare your burdens. I can stand it.”

John’s breath had been stolen away. He altered his grip so that he could lace his fingers with Danse’s. “Cait called me on the radio tonight,” he found himself saying. “There’s a vault somewhere that treats addictions…she wanted me to go with her.”

In rare instances, Danse would spare a blessed extra moment to think before he spoke. “If you accompanied her, is that…something that you would consider?” he asked with restrained expectations.

Shrugging, John said, “Dunno. Not really. Not sure. I’m not gonna make that promise. You feel me on that?”

Danse stood and kissed John on the forehead, right over the wide scar there. He pressed the carton of water into John’s hand. “Drink this before you go to sleep. It will help with the headache.”

John chugged the carton while Danse went back to cleaning his gun. He placed the empty container back on the nightstand and wiggled under the covers, pulling the blanket over his head. He felt a clash of desires – to gratify Danse, to support Cait, to hold fast to the last few traits that were still recognizable as his. He almost laughed, as if chems made up a part of who he was. But they did now, even physically, and he couldn’t sweep that fact aside. He was grateful that Danse hadn’t given him an ultimatum. Had it boiled down to that, he would have liked to assume that he would have picked Danse but, in truth, he wasn’t so sure. Years of wanting this, a life with Danse seemingly contented at his side, and yet there was still a chance that he would throw it away for a few shots at getting high. Danse didn’t have to be ashamed of him. He was ashamed of himself.

The next morning, he radioed Sanctuary and told the group to wait for him.  

Chapter Text

MACCREADY

Vault 111, MA

April 13th, 2288

MacCready flicked cigarette ash into a mug that read World’s Best Overseer in gaudy lettering and leaned back in an ergonomic chair until he could put his feet up on the desk. As his took another drag on his cigarette, he checked the terminal. Searching for connection, the screen still read. Either the group hadn’t reached the other vault yet or they’d been eaten by rabid molerats on the way. He preferred to favor the former.

The interior of the vault was quiet. Too quiet. But the structure was pretty much a tomb, so that was to be expected. Above, on the Earth’s surface, it was late morning. Down here, time could have stopped and no one would have been the wiser. It had been Curie’s idea to use Nate’s Pip-boy to transmit an audio recording of the procedure in Vault 95 to Vault 111 for storage and additional notetaking. Over the last few months, she had been transferring all of her handwritten notes to digital formats. As the nearest location to Sanctuary, and with a vast amount of memory storage available, Vault 111 had become her laboratory. Although Nate had left the vault open for her, he never went in with her, not that Mac could blame him. He had never returned to the metro tunnel where Lucy had died.

Before she had left, Curie had excitedly explained that anyone who wished to listen to her broadcast would be welcome, that it was sure to be ‘an enlightening event for the progression of neuroscience’. MacCready gave zero fucks about science, but should the entire procedure fail or…end badly…he wanted to know immediately. He had a vested interest in the outcome of this mission. Besides, any excuse to escape Sanctuary was welcomed. The world was cruel and unusual for MacCready’s employer to have hooked up with the Minutemen and located there.

As the only person to have expressed interest about listening in, he was surprised to see Danse wander into the office. Mac stamped his cigarette out on the overseer’s desk and asked, “Here to be part of the audience?”

“I…figured it prudent to maintain awareness of the situation,” Danse said as he pulled up a second chair.

“Uh-huh,” Mac answered sardonically. He wasn’t sure who Danse thought he was fooling by wearing that bomber jacket. The guy looked like he was masquerading as a Brotherhood pilot…lancer…captain, or whatever they were called. Maybe he had been demoted. Once Nate had showed up wearing the paladin’s own armor while Danse went without, questions had started to be raised. Had he donated it to Nate? Given how proud Danse had been of that damn suit, that idea seemed farfetched. Everyone in Sanctuary suspected that Danse had been having trouble with his faction and had taken bets on what he might have done to merit reprisal from the Brotherhood. Deacon’s theory had been the craziest, but then, one never knew what would come out of his mouth.  The paladin had been antisocial for weeks before straight up vanishing. Mac had seen him in Goodneighbor during intermittent visits but his presence seemed bizarre and confusing on too many levels.

Out of the corner of his eye, MacCready saw the font on the terminal screen change. Connection established. Recording enabled. He swung his legs down from the desk.

“Oh, my. Monsieur Nate, this device is much lighter in weight than I had anticipated. What a marvelous design.” The audio must have been connected to the vault’s mainframe. Curie’s voice was spilling from the overhead speakers.

“You know what was really goddamn marvelous?” John’s voiced asked. “The amount of Gunners that we had to gut to get in here.” Danse looked up at the speakers with an anxious expression, as if he was watching the group in 95.

Curie, I’m going to man the terminal. You stay with Cait,” Nate’s commanding voice instructed.

“Oui. Yes. Of course. I will admit that I expected a medical facility to be, well…tidier.”

“Hell,” Cait grumbled. “Watch me go through all o’ this, just to die from tetanus a week later. Whose piss poor idea was this anyway?”

Yours, Cait,” Nate said. “Sit down.”

Yeah, yeah. Gimma a sec.”

Cait was stalling. Mac could hear the anxiety in her voice, a nervous energy that could swiftly turn to panic. It sounded like someone was tapping on glass. “You got this, toots,” John was calling. “Here for ya.” How John had gotten caught up in this quest, Mac couldn’t guess. It looked like the blind was leading the blind through this one. Or, the stoned leading the stoned.

Human female subject, age twenty-six, prepared for detoxification treatment,” Curie announced. Clearly, Cait had concurred to suck it up and sit in the damn chair.

Okay. Accessing clean room terminal,” Nate noted. “Cait, are you ready?”

No. But I ain’t ever gonna be. Just hit it.”

Initiating now.”

Cait began screaming an alarming, high-pitched sound that seemed to amplify to horrifying levels from within what had to be a small, mostly metal room. He spared a glance at Danse, who had gone pale. Cold beads of sweat popped up on MacCready’s forehead as he ran a nervous hand over his mouth, his facial hair prickling his fingers. Goddamn. Cait’s screaming went on for what seemed like eternity, devolving into pitiful whimpers as he tensely waiting for someone to say something.

Mademoiselle, Cait. How are you feeling?”

I feel…I feel…like a damn bag’s been pulled off me head. Hell, lookit this…my hands aren’t shakin’.”

Please, allow me to do a brief physical examination. Look at me.” Whatever study Curie undertook, it didn’t involve speaking. Male voices conferred in hushed tones too quiet to hear clearly. Several tense moments passed before Curie said, “Female human subject appears to have had a fully successful recovery.”

MacCready punched the air in celebration and let loose a short laugh. Sanctuary was sure to be less dour place without Cait’s stressed attitude bringing morale down. And bringing MacCready down. She’d grown on him, the two questionable characters in a sea of do-gooders. Their developing relationship had been strained by needs – her chems and his caps. Steady employment through both Nate and Goodneighbor had keep MacCready afloat, but Cait…she’d been circling the drain for some time. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since she was around anyone else with some frequency, but she seemed to be humiliated that she couldn’t control her own actions around him. She hadn’t told him of her plans to get clean and he certainly hoped that she wasn’t doing it for him, but he was relieved that there seemed to finally be an end to her pain.

Second subject,” Curie’s voice came back on over the speakers. “Male ghoul, age thirty-four, beginning procedure.”

Danse stood straight up, his mouth hanging open. MacCready caught his eye and they stared at each other, stunned. Mac was glad that he hadn’t gone with them – sobriety seemed to be airborne.

Okay, bud. Here we go,” Nate said.

If MacCready had thought that Cait’s screaming had been impressive, John’s cries surpassed hers on every level. It sounded like he was being electrocuted. A series of circuitry pops sounded and an alarm began blaring.

Shit! Pull him out of it!” Nate was yelling. “Disconnect everything! Cut the wires!”

A short gasp seemed to catch in Danse’s throat as he stared engrossed at the speakers with wide, panicked eyes. He gripped the back of the chair so tightly that veins and tendons popped out on his hands, his knuckles white.

There were a few moments of disjointed scurrying and noise as the rest of the group talked over each other, shouting commands until the alarm died. John’s distinctive, guttural voice bellowed in the silence that followed. For one terrifying instant, MacCrady feared the John had slipped into a feral state. Then, John’s unmistakable voice cursed, “Fuck!”

Looks like you broke it,” said Cait.

“John…damn. Are you okay?” Nate asked.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! FUCK!” was John’s singular response.

Curie gave an additional note. “Attempt number two, failed. It appears that the detoxification systems within this vault are not compatible with anything other than human subjects. This trial is completed.”

The terminal screen now read, Connection terminated.

Letting a shuddering sigh loose, Danse sank down to sit on the desk, his head hanging, chin almost to his heaving chest. Mac found it odd that he looked so distressed over a ghoul that he hadn’t done more than sneer at. Except…Danse had left Sanctuary the same time that John and Valentine had and he appeared to be living in Goodneighbor now.

MacCready decided to take a leap. Danse would cave Mac’s face in with his fist if he was wrong. “Are you boning my mayor?” Danse jerked his gaze up, his distressed face turning confused, then shocked. “Or…I don’t know how it works,” Mac continued, stretching the back of his neck.”…Is he boning you?”

“I…that’s…you’re…” Danse’s face went from pale to pink to green. He tore his eyes away.

“Wow.” Mac blinked, stunned that he was right. “You are. No wonder you’ve been hiding. Water cooler talk on that airship of yours might be awkward. ‘Hey, how’s your shriveled ghoul lover?’ ‘Fine, thanks. Kill any of his kind today?’”

“I’m no longer employed by the Brotherhood,” Danse informed with a flat voice.

“They tossed you out for that, huh? Guess you should have expected it.”

Danse swallowed hard but refused contradicting him.

“Well…you better not be wasting his time,” MacCready said, finding himself sliding into the paternal role, something that he had been defaulting to as of late. “He’s not as cavalier as he seems.”

Danse nodded and seemed to breathe easier. “I am…well aware of John’s traits. And no, my affections are not conditional.”

“Look, I get it, man.” MacCready leaned back in the chair again, putting his feet up once more. “Life can suck as a soldier sometimes. When I was with the Gunners, it seemed like everyone around me was crazy. Mostly, because they were, but also because it was hard work with no free time to blow off all that accumulating steam.”

Raising a thick eyebrow at him, Danse disputed, “Mercenaries and soldiers are not equivalent to one another.”

MacCready folded his arms across his chest and shrugged. “They’re both militia where people trade in their lives. Yours for honor, mine for caps.” Although he hadn’t been with the Gunners long, it had been long enough. He had been brought on as a conscript during a draft of snipers. Since the job had been right up his alley, he’d taken the contract without question, the promise of sending caps home too good to pass up. “You’re telling me that you’ve never regretted an order?” he asked.

Shaking his head, Danse answered. “Never while under command. I had faith in my superiors.”

“Jesus. Listen to you. Never? Really?” He felt disgust crawl through his belly. “All the fighting you’ve seen. All the ridiculous death and you still backed them up? They sure buy souls cheap in the Brotherhood, don’t they?”

Danse scowled fiercely. “I won’t be drawn into a moral debate with an assassin.”

That word made MacCready seethe. Assassin. It sounded tawdry and shameful. But that’s what he was, it was the truth. He had foolishly thought the joining with the Gunners would be easy work, fun even. From far enough away, the people he killed had no stories, no lives, just faces in a scope. While he had never fully integrated into their group, that was fine; he hadn’t enlisted to make friends. He did his job and kept to himself, distancing both his victims and his cohorts. Everyone was too preoccupied by their own lives to notice the layer of Gunner-green clothing he still wore to this day. Everything he owned, with the exception of Lucy’s watch, the toy soldier, and a worn duster striped from the corpse of a dead feral ghoul, had been issued to him by his Gunner commander. “There’s a stark difference between who I am and what I do,” he said, unsure of why he felt that he needed to defend himself.

“Is there? You seem to relish any opportunity for violence.”

“Sure didn’t fucking relish Quincy,” MacCready muttered before he could catch himself.

Fuck. Shit. Hell. It was too late to take that comment back, and Danse was narrowing his eyes at him. “What would you know about Quincy?”

“What would you know?” Mac countered, sliding his feet off of the desk and back down to the floor.

“I had Colonel Garvey brief me when I first arrived in Sanctuary. That information seemed prudent on behalf on Commonwealth affairs.”

Goddamn thorough Danse, MacCready thought, digging into everyone’s business on behalf of the Brotherhood. “Look, the whole Gunner platoon rolled down there, I didn’t have a say in it. I didn’t even know why we were there. Couldn’t see anything over the barricades.”

True, he hadn’t seen anything over the blockages, but the highway…he saw plenty from up there. When the overpass had come down, he had been one of the first to climb up that concrete ramp, the conscript snipers drafted for the specific reason of shooting down into the streets of Quincy.

“You partook in the siege?” Danse asked. Although he still sat on the desk, he had twisted around to face MacCready, his brown eyes probing Mac’s blue ones.

“It…Hey, I was doing a job,” Mac insisted, palms pressed flat against the lip of the desk. His gaze drifted as he said, “One of the few things in this world that I’m actually good at.” His heart pounded. It was like he was there all over again, the cracks of energy blasts and bullets filling the night sky, the smell of smoke as the blockages were burned, both Gunners and Minutemen barking orders, and the screaming of those dying on the ground below. “There was some kid in the streets, waving a flag, so excited to see those idiots in the hats,” MacCready recounted. “Like they ever stood a chance.”

Danse’s voice was low as he said, “The Long’s son?”

MacCready snorted. “Who lets a kid wander around at night during a stand-off? If that had been my son…” He couldn’t finish that sentence. He reached to grip the overseer’s mug tightly in one hand, the image of Duncan in place of the Long’s son burning into his brain. “No kid should end up like that, shot through the leg to die slow.”

Frowning, Danse’s brows lowered. “You just told me that your visuals were compromised. How did you know where he was shot?”

MacCready’s eyes snapped up, his pulse pounding in his neck. Time seemed to freeze. He recalled the snapping sound of loading a round into the chamber of his rifle, spread out on his belly on a level of the overpass above Quincy. His sights had been set on a man with a laser musket near the church. When a shot had sailed past his cheek as he fired, the image in the scope had blurred and his target had been lost. Only when he had pulled his binoculars had he seen the aftermath of what had happened. The little boy lay in the street, struck by Mac’s bullet instead of the man in front of him. His career with the Gunners had ended with a single bullet. In the pandemonium of the fighting, Mac had slunk away, running from the incident and heading straight for the asylum of Goodneighbor.

Caught in his lie, MacCready panicked and crashed the overseer’s mug over Danse’s head. Launching to his feet, he threw himself into a run, headed for the corridor than would lead him out of the vault. As he passed a bulkhead, a heavy weight slammed into him, forcing him to collide with a cold, steel wall. He was tossed onto the ground and landed on his stomach. As he resisted, both of his arms were wrenched behind him. Danse was as strong as he looked. It was like struggling against a deathclaw.

All of his carefully placed cards had come tumbling down in one careless moment. Sanctuary was the kind of place he could retire to. The kind of place he could raise a family… 

“Don’t…” he choked out, his heart beating too fast.

“Don’t what?” Danse asked, hauling him to his feet.

“Don’t tell his folks,” he begged. “It’s eating me to be here, looking everyone in the face and pretending that I wasn’t there. Drop me in a hole but just, don’t tell them.” Duncan. What would happen to Duncan if he was imprisoned or executed? He would rather be dead having masqueraded as a hero than alive and be known as a child-killer. “Shit. I didn’t mean to! He came outta nowhere! It was…it all happened too fast. Christ, I shouldn’t have been there. I should have never left the Capitol.”

Danse kept a hard grip on one of his arms but released the other. He huffed, his eyes stern and said, “I understand being caught up in battles that you did not initiate. I understand taking orders that you later learn to question. I understand, and believe, that what you did in Quincy was an accident. It is not my place to judge you, nor pass a convicting verdict.” With a deep sigh, he added, “To be clear, I only subdued you because you made a very ignorant move to attack me with ceramic. Had you remained calm, this confrontation could have been avoided.”

All of his relief came rushing out in one exhalation. “Good to know,” Mac said as Danse released his hold. MacCready stepped back, asking, “Is, uh…is this between us then?”

“Until a point where I deem this information prudent to share, yes. You are not a threat to this settlement. Condemning you would only cost us manpower.”

It looked like this was the best answer MacCready was going to get. He nodded and breathed slow and steady, compelling his heartbeat to normalize. “Hey, Danse,” he wheezed. “Thanks for being a stand up human being. I owe you.”

Danse’s face slacked, paling slightly. He nodded with a clenched jaw and stalked out of the vault, leaving MacCready alone with his demons.

Chapter Text

DANSE

Sanctuary Hills, MA

April 13th, 2288

An impromptu celebration had popped up when the group from Vault 95 returned that evening. The festivities were held on the exposed foundation of a house that had once stood next to Nate’s workshop and garage. Just out of reach of the firelight, Danse stood off to one side, leaning against a wooden pole that had a copper bell suspended from the top of it. A grinning Cait was being passed around the settlement, going from one set of arms to another before landing in MacCready’s embrace and refusing to part with him. Nate made his rounds, checking on his charges, exchanging handshakes and smiles while Codsworth passed out beverages. Enjoying the bustle of excitement, Dogmeat slid between shins, tongue lolling and tail wagging. On the porch of the workshop, John sat alone with a beer in his hand, mouth set in a straight line, sunken eyes downcast, one hand wrapped around his knee, back curved in a mournful slump.

To look at Sanctuary, it seemed as if nothing had changed, and yet, for Danse, everything was different. Six months ago, he had come here as a noble representative of the largest military organization in the Wasteland. That role had been short-lived, ending when the reality of his identity as a synth had been revealed to him. He had largely been on the move since then, avoiding Brotherhood depots and adopting new lifestyles. For a brief, sweet moment he had thought that he might have had a future in Acadia, before the events in Far Harbor removed that as an option. The only upside to Goodneighbor was proximity to John. Yes, work was consistent, but he felt too far removed from the habits of the citizens in John’s town. He had been assigned to oversee a drunk tank at the Capital for a few shifts once – that sorry state of exposure to the worst of humanity’s degradation was present every day for him now. Subjected to a rigid sense of order and a consistent code of ethics for the entirety of his adult life made Goodneighbor seemed like a pit of pure chaos and mischief in comparison. John was a better strategist than he let on. Why he allowed populism to run rampant through the streets made little sense, seeming almost as if he had given up on bettering the town and was contended to play to role of the jaded rebel living a lackluster life of chems, drink and inaction.

Although he longed to sweep a miserable looking John into a hug, he refrained, letting distance protect them from discovery. He imagined an irrational reality where he would actually be able to act on his longing, to be beside John with an arm draped over his shoulder, in the same manner that MacCready was standing with Cait. He was touched and stunned that John had even attempted being cured and felt inherently awful that the endeavor had been unsuccessful. Trying to catch John’s eye was failing and, against logic, he took a step towards him. “Danse!” someone shouted. He took a step in reverse, ending up back when he had been, and swiveled his head to see Nate motioning at him. “Don’t disappear,” Nate called. “I’ll need you later.” Danse nodded and looked back to John, who appeared to have shaken off his sulk and was now integrating with the crowd, raising his beer to Cait in a toast that lacked mirth.

Someone jostled him from behind, colliding with his shoulder. “So, you ever gonna actually tell anyone that you’re a synth?” Deacon asked, handing him a bottle of whiskey, Danse’s preferred type of alcohol. He considered asking Deacon about the lengths he had gone to find out about the drink but he bit his lip and thought it best to be accepting instead of suspicious. “It’s not my call to out you,” Deacon said, the camp fires causing orange balls of light to reflect off of his glasses. He had a beer in his hand, although the cap was still on. “But word came down from Acadia about a ghoul and a big, military-type guy that kinda got caught up in a firestorm. Thought it’d be nice to know that Nick died for reason.”

Danse felt a stab at the mention of Nick. He tapped the whiskey bottle against his leg. “I’d…assumed that I’d know when the time was right.”

Shrugging one shoulder, Deacon said, “Don’t know if there ever really is a right time to tell people that you aren’t who they think you are. I mean, not that I’d know anything about that.” He spread his arms and walked backwards into the revelry. “Everyone already knows that I’m the Dread Pirate Roberts.”

Although Danse kept the whiskey bottle on him for the remainder of the evening, he rarely drank from it. He and John stayed in their respective corners of the event, noticing each time the ghoul gave half-hearted well wishes to those that approached him but keeping his distance. He remained away from the thick of the revelry, sticking to the outskirts, wandering in long, slow circles as his thoughts raced. Partially cast in shadows, Danse wondered, if anyone looked at him too closely, would they know? Could they see through him, right down to his lies? He knew that was impossible. He had gone a decade without anyone suspecting he was a synth, without knowing it himself. But it was more than just his construction that bothered him. Were there countless synths out there in the Commonwealth right now, estranging themselves from their communities, struggling to find the words to tell those that knew them that they were imposters? The likelihood of that scenario left Danse aghast. He was part of a race that he knew nothing about. Kasumi…Kasumi was going to be his guide…

The night was warm with no breeze, and between the camp fires, barrel fires and the dancing that had started up, the temperature in the communal square was rising. Voices got louder the more people drank, and by the time the radio was going into its second round of the same songs, Danse felt like he was suffocating. His chest had gone tight and a warm flush had creeped up his neck, setting his ears on fire. Making a decision, he called, “John!” The level of noise must have been too high; he didn’t turn in Danse’s direction. Anxiety charging through his system, he slammed the bottom of the whiskey bottle down on a workshop table, and strode into the open garage where Nate kept his armor – Danse’s armor – and flicked off the radio.

Voices dropped when the music died. A few confused muttering floated here and there as all eyes turned to Danse. His lungs heaved and he rubbed at his beard growth, wishing that he had drunk more. That, perhaps, might have helped him blurt out what he needed to say and get it over with. He saw John shove his way to the front of the crowd.

Danse gave a shaky exhalation and forced himself to take a deep breath. He felt eyes crawling all over him. “I’ve never been very good at addressing crowds, so you’ll have to forgive me if my manner is less than eloquent.” He cast a quick glance at the armor standing proudly by his side. The sight of it stabbed him right in the heart. “You’ve all likely noticed that several months have passed since I’ve spoken for or partaken in events regarding the Brotherhood of Steel.” He paused, his nerve threatening to leave him. In the gathering, he saw Nate fold his arms. “This is because I am no longer a part of their operation.”

As he let that information sink in, Piper nudged Preston, saying, “Called it.”

From a few feet away, John, with wide ebony eyes, shook his head slightly and mouthed, What are you doing?

He licked dry lips and kept going. “This was not a decision that I made, but rather was forced upon me for a very specific reason.” Danse let his head hang for a moment before looking up and saying, “It was brought to my attention that I am, in a fact, a synth unit.”

Silence. The only sound in Sanctuary was the crackling of burning wood and the whir of Codsworth’s motors. Expressions of befuddled shock slid from face to face.

He hadn’t planned for anything past this point and now found himself scrambling for words. “I…I feel that you should know I…I didn’t replace anyone. I didn’t deliberately mislead you. Though I…I suppose that no synth did. But I understand now. This life. This…fear of being prosecuted. I have no doubt that I deserve it. But all of my former offenses were because of who I was, never due to how I was made or who programmed me.” He wanted someone to say something, anything at all to spare him from having to keep speaking. “I just…felt that it was time you knew.” He gave another heavy exhale and shuffled in place, waiting for something it happen.

MacCready gave a low whistle and several people parted in front of him, leaving a clean trail between him and Danse. “Man,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “You are goddamned lucky.”

Danse felt a surge of unease, as if things were about to go very wrong. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that you are godDAMNED lucky,” MacCready repeated, his voice raising. “Oh, lucky that this happened to you, that is. If anyone else that had turned out to be a synth…Hell, if it’d been me, you would have been the first in line to have shot me in the head.”

Danse clenched his jaw and remained silent. What MacCready had said was the absolute truth. He would have put the culprit at down first discovery.

“Wanna know the kicker?” MacCready asked, looking livid. “You kept this from us. You knew and you just…decided it didn’t matter. Like what we didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt us. Acted just like any other synth would, hiding and laughing at the stupid humans that trusted it.”

John moved into the path, putting himself between Danse and MacCready. “That ain’t what happened,” he snarled, beer bottle gone, his fists balled, his back to Danse.

In the back of the crowd, Danse spotted Curie. She was off in a corner, wringing her hands, eyes darting around nervously. It dawned on him that she was the only other synth in Sanctuary. If events were to ever turn ugly, she would likely get caught up in the same bias that would be directed at him.

He should have expected this, should have anticipated that a percentage of the Sanctuary crew would not accept him. It still hurt. “MacCready, I couldn’t…I didn’t know what to tell anyone. Perhaps I chose poorly, but I –”

“Christ,” MacCready snapped at John, flinging out hand in a wild gesture. “Is that why you’re fucking it? Out of pity?”

Faint whispers slithered through the group as Danse felt that hot flush claim his face and rush down his back. Never in his life had he felt so unjustly betrayed. The Brotherhood had been correct to hunt him down. That disaster in Far Harbor hadn’t been his fault. But MacCready, his friend, who, hours ago he had vouched for, spouting hateful comments and insulting John, crossed a line.

John’s posture bowed for an instant before he squared his shoulders and growled, “Watch your damn mouth, Robert. After all I’ve given you…After all the times I’ve stuck my neck out to protect you, you throw this back at me?”

“Jeez, look at you. You knew!”MacCready spat. “You knew longer than anyone and you kept it a secret. Like we’re a bunch of damn morons that would just –”

“– Act the same way that you’re doing right now?” John asked. “Yeah, crossed my mind.”

Leaving the covered area of the garage, Danse nudged past John, warily approaching MacCready like he would a nervous dog. “Everything that I said in the vault today, that was my decision. No one made me say or do anything that I didn’t want to.” Cait appeared at MacCready’s side, her bat in hand. The addition of a weapon to this discussion set off alarms in his head and sent his body into preparations for an altercation. He stood taller, with slacked knees, tension rounding his shoulders. “MacCready, this is still me,” he asserted, his hands floating upwards in surrender. “I haven’t changed.”

“Hell, the old you was a monumental asshole who didn’t give two shites about any one of us,” Cait deliberately pointed out. “Some comfort if we’re in for the same.”

Danse’s hands were still in the air. “I understand that this is still a shock to you. Believe me that I am still adjusting.” He extended a hand, imploring that MacCready shake his, that they might lead on an agreement. “Hate me for who I am, not because of what I am.”

Cait shoved the head of her bat at his chest, “Don’t you fuckin’ touch neither of us, synth. Ya best be headin’ back to whatever the hell you’ve been hiding out. You ain’t welcome here.”

“Both of you stop it!” Nate thundered. Attention turned to him. Anger blazed in his dark eyes. That was the thing about Nate – he was a nice guy, quiet, sarcastic as hell, but when pushed, he could become downright terrifying. “Grab some air. And if you decide that this is something just too difficult for you to overcome, keep walking.”

Butting in, Deacon gently pushed Cait’s bat away. “See? This is why we can’t have nice things – like friends. And I’m not gonna to stand for any synthshaming on my watch.”

“Course you’d get in on this nonsense, Deacon,” Cait hissed, making circles with her bat at her side. “That thing’s more interesting than all of us to you. When it’s burnin’ this place to the ground, hope ya stop to have a good laugh.”

“C’mon, man,” MacCready shouted at Nate. “Dude’s a synth and you’re defending it? Fine.” He put a hand on Cait’s shoulder and pulled her away from the crowd. “I’m not getting killed because the rest of you want to play make believe. We’re outta here.” With that, he left the group, guiding Cait away as they both vanished into the night, beyond the throw of the firelight.

Guilt sank deeply into Danse’s chest. The already strained band of survivors in Sanctuary had just lost two of its best fighters because of him. He had only wished to be candid and keep those that he knew and trusted abreast of what was happening. This was likely to be his life now – facing the possibility that anyone he met might be eager to kill him based on principle alone.  He was exceptionally glad that he hadn’t chosen to bring this information up in the vault today. The sniper would have left a smoking hole in his body.

The sensation of fingertips against his back made Danse turn. John stood behind him, echoes of firelight dancing in his black eyes. Distress gave way to need, and he wrapped his arms around John’s narrow shoulders. There was no more room or reason for shame. In one fell swoop, all of his secrets had been revealed. “I’m sorry that your treatment was unsuccessful,” he said into the shell of John’s ear. “But I am so proud of you for trying.”

John’s arms slid around his waist. “Proud of you, too.” He breathed a quiet laugh. “What are you gonna do now that you don’t have to hide anymore?”

He pressed his forehead to John’s, making the tricorne tilt up a little. “Catch up on all of the time I’ve lost with you.” Both of them tightened their arms around the other.

Deacon coughed loudly, garnering attention. “So, to anybody that placed bets on the cause of our paladin’s removal – I’d like to collect now.”

Chapter Text

NATE

Sanctuary Hills, MA

April 13th, 2288

Six months ago, Nate never would have believed that his next sweeping conflict would be fought in the streets of his hometown, the resistance spearheaded by a ragtag bunch of misfits pulled from all different walks of life. Well…six months for him, two-hundred and ten years for everyone else. In the time that he had spent learning to adjust to this new world, he had come to the conclusion that nations at war, no matter when or where, remained largely the same. There were fanatics and survivors, those supported by enormous armies with conquest as their goal and those whom were fortunate enough to be able to defend their homes and keep their families close.

When Nate had first emerged into the desolate expanse of the Wasteland, he had clung desperately to anyone that seemed in a position to assist him. His son, his son, his son. All thoughts had been on the swift retrieval of his infant. He had assembled a collection of characters, all with different strengths, for easy access, an army ready to go at a moment’s notice. They were all free to go, of course, but, with the exception of Piper, John, and Deacon, they had no place to call their own. He began to wonder if he had been plucking people out of their lives and holding them hostage while he struggled to sort out his own affairs.

Still stinging over the loss of Valentine, Nate had taken over the old synth’s work at the agency, while juggling demands from all four regional factions as well. At any given moment, if was difficult for Nate to pinpoint exactly who he was supposed to be. General. Paladin. Fixer. Father…

Danse wasn’t the only one harboring secrets. If anyone in the Commonwealth knew about Nate’s connection to the Institute, particularly his connection to its director, he would become an instant target instead of some dismissible troublemaker in a jumpsuit. He was gently treading his role at the Institute, gathering information without leaving the Commonwealth in shambles. Without Danse’s membership, Nate’s role within the ranks of the Brotherhood of Steel was more important than ever. The Railroad was noble in their own way, and the Minutemen provided immediate support but, blame it on his time spent in the military, Nate favored the firepower that the Brotherhood promised. When the final battle began, it would be the Brotherhood that persevered.

As the rest of the community dispersed, he watched Danse and John embrace and was utterly speechless, chagrined for having overlooked their pairing. Once, Deacon had pulled him aside and said ‘Boss, you know about them, right?’ But when Nate had pressed, the spy’s smile had secured and nothing further had been clarified. Now, he understood. John had been the one to intercept Danse at Recon Bunker Theta prior to Nate’s arrival. In Danse’s darkest moment, John had been the one that was there for him. And it appeared that he’d been on Danse’s side for quite some time while Nate went about, preoccupied. He wondered what else had slipped his attention while he strode the Wasteland, Dogmeat by his side. His dog was the safe choice. He would keep Nate’s secrets of where he had been, who he had been helping and, when Nate would return from the Institute close to tears, asked no questions.

The whizzing of motors drew Nate’s attention. He stepped to one side, allowing for Codsworth to collect discarded cups and bottles that rolled across the slab, dropped as partygoers had made an uncomfortable retreat. “Pardon me, Sir,” the robot entreated, chasing a rolling bottle, pincher extended. Nate smiled and clapped him fondly on the orb of his head as he floated by. Thank goodness for Codsworth. Nate often feared that he would have descended into madness had his old Mr. Handy not been present to greet him when he emerged from that hellish vault that stole his family. In a world where everything had been turned upside down, Codsworth’s presence was constant, the sole intact reminder of his old life.

“Hey, buddy,” said Nate. “We may not always remember to say it, but thank you for always keeping the lights on for us and making this a place we can call home.” It was the little things that mattered, small tastes of the way life had been – clean clothes and ice cubes and keeping the dust at bay on the workstations – that ensured that Sanctuary remained Nate’s home, despite painful reminders of what he had lost still fresh in his mind.

“Oh, Mr. Nate.” Codsworth fussed, sounding like he would blush if he could. “I am simply honored to still be able to carry out my function at easing your burdens.”

He gave the robot a second pat and craned his neck, searching for Danse. The area was empty, he and Codsworth the last to remain. He had some actions to atone for and was glad that he was back in his vault suit and not wearing his Brotherhood uniform. It was Nate’s fault that the Brotherhood had uncovered Danse’s identity; he had freely given them access to any information that they requested. He felt awful for Danse, enduring so much change in sure a short period of time. Danse was the only person he knew to have had his life stripped away as suddenly as Nate’s had been, and perhaps this would be the issue that united them. He’d like that, to have the company of another solider that was able to start over after losing everything. It gave Nate hope.

He had only been above ground for a few days when accidentally tuned in to a military frequency. Rushing to assist, he had turned a corner in Cambridge and found himself back in Alaska, barricades and armor and the familiar jargon of military lingo. Nate had never expected to see someone in power armor again and Danse was someone that he could have been close to had they spent more time together. Out of everyone that Nate had managed to accumulate in his suburb, Danse’s background had been the most similar to his – the voluntary soldier with stars in his eyes about the virtue of his republic.

With the images of the feral ghouls that he had slaughtered in Cambridge still fresh in his mind, ‘Your face’, had been all Nate was able to comment on upon meeting John Hancock in the entry square of Goodneighbor. When disgust and shock at his appearance gave way to knowledge and tolerance, he had found John’s humor and easy banter endearing. But with the impression that the town’s mayor was unpredictably wily, Nate had proceeded with caution, utilizing his knowledge without risking John’s dependency and addictions in the field.

Heading into the street and up the cul-de-sac, Nate found him lingering in the doorway of the blue house. John was up on his toes, pressing his lips to the scar over Danse’s brow. Each was grasping the other’s arms. It was such a private moment that Nate felt instantly hot in the face and uncomfortable for watching and averted his eyes. Of course he was uneasy. He had never witnessed two men share intimacy before; such things weren’t talked about before the war, or even allowed in some regions. John’s sexuality didn’t come as a surprise; he’d had to stop taking the ghoul to settlements, as too many people wanted into his pants and it made for awkward trade negotiations. But for reserved Danse, this was unprecedented.Aboard the Prydwen, Nate had once teasingly asking Danse if he had ever smuggled a woman into his quarters, to which Danse had tensely responded, “Negative. Never.” At the time, Nate had been trying to rattle Danse’s cage, to force some aspect of humanity to the surface. Now, he knew that Danse had given him the truth.

The rise and fall of discreet voices made Nate look up. Having left Danse in the doorway of his house, John was striding to the opposite side of the street. He noticed Nate and tossed him a mock salute before disappearing between the houses.

Approaching the blue house, Nate asked, “Where’s he off to?”

“Back to Goodneighbor. Fahrenheit has been quite upset with him for constantly leaving.”

Nate nodded while trying to read Danse’s expression. He had a tired, resigned look of adulation, gazing off to where John had vanished into the night. “Is that where you’ve been this whole time?” Nate asked, feeling awful for not knowing the answer to his question. When had his charges started slipping through his fingers?

“For several weeks, yes,” Danse responded, sliding into his home. The fire barrel outside cast just enough light to give an orange outline to the interior. The rest of the building was illuminated by moonlight flowing in through the broken windows.

Nate lingered by the doorway, unsure of how to start this conversation, of how to fix the neglect he had been giving his old sponsor. “Hey, Danse,” he began. “Don’t stew over Whiny MacBuzzkill’s comments. He doesn’t speak for everyone.”

“I don’t intend to,” Danse said, heaving himself up with his arms to sit on the kitchen island’s countertop. Several empty alcohol bottles stood upright beside him. “His was a reaction that I should have prepared for.”

Stepping over the threshold, Nate brushed a finger over peeling paint. “So, um…you and Hancock. That’s a thing now?”

A crease appeared between Danse’s brows. “Please don’t refer to him by that name. That isn’t how I know him. He’s just John.”

Nate paused for a moment, gaging Danse’s reaction. It was a startlingly casual comment for someone so withdrawn. Sure, he’d clued Nate in on his background with Haylen and his former vendor partner, but a sturdy wall still stood between them. “We don’t have to discuss him if it makes you uncomfortable. I won’t insist. I just…well, I feel like shit. I’ve got a ton of people counting on me and I hate letting anyone down. I should have been there for you and I wasn’t. I’m sorry.”

Danse’s shoulders slumped a little and he dropped his gaze. “You shouldn’t hold yourself accountable for events that are beyond your control. I…I’ve never discussed John with anyone except for Haylen.”

“Haylen knew about you two?” Nate nudged the bottles aside and pushed himself onto the island to sit next to Danse.

“For a time, but only in vague details,” Danse answered. “I…I didn’t have many friends at the Citadel, and none that I would have been frank with besides her. Most of my bonds were established after I had been assigned to the Prydwen.”

“Citadel…” Nate’s brain rushed to connect the pieces of information that he had been given. “You…you knew him before you came to the Commonwealth. Shit…Danse did you know him when he was human?” Danse had been responsible for the formation of Nate’s initial opinions about ghouls. John had been the first one that hadn’t tried to eat his face.

“He is human,” Danse said, with an indignant expression. “What happened to him…it’s just skin.” Nate felts a rush of embarrassment to have Danse, of all people, point that out. “His appearance is just…penance for my allowing for our relationship to deteriorate.”

That sounded particularly callous. “Danse, I...I doubt that it’s penance for him.”

“No, I…I didn’t mean…” Danse babbled, flustered. “It’s just that I don’t have the right to be petty. I pushed him out of my thoughts while he never let go.” He spared a glance at Nate before looking away. “I have become very good at pretending. Sometimes I get wrapped up in emotion only to find myself startled that he doesn’t look the way I expect him to. I worry that I will always be repulsed by the sight of him. That this is something beyond my control. That my Brotherhood programming is just too strong. That no matter how much I want to, this is something that I will never overcome. And I hate myself for it.” Danse gave a short exhalation, somewhere between a snort and a sigh. “When I was still stationed in the Capital, he may have kept me alive. In dire situations, I fought harder. Due to the circumstances of our communication, he would have to wait to hear from me. The thought of him waiting while I lay dying or dead was nearly too much to bear.”

Nate brushed his fingers over the polished yellow gold of Nora’s wedding band, where it hung on the same chain that held his Brotherhood holotags. He empathized. Fighting for someone was a more powerful motivator than fighting for an ideal. While he had survived on the battlefield spurred on by the knowledge that Nora had been at home waiting for his safe return, it appeared that Danse had managed to put John in a similar position.

“Gotta ask,” Nate said, a smarmy smile tugging at his mouth. “After all your rhetoric about control and honor and self-restraint, you ended up with him?”

Danse didn’t take his statement as lightly as he had hoped. Crossly, Danse stated, “Understand that John is an individual. I have never once been directly responsible for his actions. Whereas, what we do affects the Brotherhood as a whole. You and I have to remain representatives at all times.”

Nate bit the inside of his cheek before reminding him, “I do. Not you. Not anymore.”

Having gotten caught up in his reprimand, Danse paused before tightly saying, “Noted.”

Blowing air, Nate muttered, “Hey, I’m sorry. This…this is new territory for me. Should I…should I not send the two of you on missions together? Should I make sure that I do? I don’t really know how to handle this from a tactical perspective.”

“Just remain consistent. I’m sure that there are more couplings than you realize.” Danse picked a few scattered bottles up, seemingly disappointed that they were all empty. “Battle has a habit of drawing people together. Sexual natures tend to follow.”

Cracking a grin, Nate leaned into him. “Hold me, Danse.”

“No,” Danse answered, shoving him away with one hand. Nate cracked, a hissing laugh escaping through his teeth. Danse’s solemn expression changed to one of skeptical humor. “Look, I don’t have to agree with the way John lives his life to care about him,” Danse continued. “God knows that he didn’t agree with the way I lived mine.”

“Do you mean the Brotherhood?”

Nodding, Danse said, “My career what was eventually drove us apart. And…what I suppose brought us back together.” The harshness in his eyes softened. “He came for me. He was the first person that Haylen thought of when she found out about who…about what I really am.”

Nate tapped his fingers against his knees before asking, “Are you happy?” Danse’s answer mattered. Nate’s negligence could be excused if his friends were doing all right.

Danse dipped his head. “I don’t recognize myself. The certainty in life has been replaced with questions and tests. And John…I’m not sure why I’ve been deemed worthy of a second chance. How anyone could love me in spite of being both a machine and a failure, I’ll never understand.” A small, tight smile crept across his face. “But I am happy. And I haven’t been for quite some time.” His eyes had a bright quality when he brought them up meet Nate’s. “He and I…we had a long, loving history.”

“Until?”

That cautious smile vanished. Danse tried to speak but failed, opening and closing his mouth a few times without words. Finally, he parted with, “Until we had nothing left to offer one another.” He seemed to close up after that statement, his chest filling, his eyes hardening once more.

Nate gave him a pat on the back and hopped down from the counter. Since Danse was better off with directives than conversation, Nate revealed, “I’ve got a plan to use Brotherhood forces to deal a pretty significant blow to the Institute. I’ll bring you up to speed in the morning.”

“I don’t see how I’ll be able to assist,” Danse said, looking confused. “My presence will only make you an enemy of the Brotherhood.”

“Maybe,” Nate agreed, backing out the front door. “If they knew it was you.”

Chapter Text

CAIT

Concord Water Tower, MA

April 13th, 2288

Cait shoved MacCready hard, making his spine meet steel with a solid bang that reverberated through the cramped interior of the water tower. “Jeez. Ow,” he rebuked, without blocking her.

Unapologetic, she pressed into him, hands tugging at his clothing. “Hell,” she cursed, struggling to pull his belts loose. “Why ya gotta have so much stuff strapped to ya?”

“Occupational necessity,” he said huskily as his palms slid over the smooth skin of her bare shoulders.

She had to hand it to Nate – he certainly had amassed a collection of good-looking people, a veritable treasure-trove of eye candy. She had taken to the short, skinny sniper. He had a sense of satirical humor about him, which she found enthralling. And he sure was pleasant to look at.

After Danse’s scandal that had come to light during her sobriety party, they had retreated to MacCready’s lair, leaving the rest of Sanctuary to rue its lenience towards synths and fools. The steel sphere of the water tower overlooking the Red Rocket station was confined and claustrophobic, two reasons that he seemed to have chosen it. Something about small spaces comforted him, although too much time spent there gave Cait a restless sensation of being trapped in a box with no air. The tower was a short run down to a ridge that overlooked Sanctuary Hills, too far away to get caught up in a raid but close enough to provide support from a distance. A rope ladder that some intrepid raider had left years prior dangled between the internal pipes, enabling a short, narrow climb up to the ball. A narrow walkway circled the interior, caged in by a waist-high railing. Boxes of ammunition and spare weapons attachments took up a portion of the space, a nest of blankets, pillows and sleeping bags occupied another. The crimson glow of the vertical rocket at the fueling station was a blip in the distance, visible through the rusted proscenium of blast-loosened panels that had popped loose from the sphere, leaving bright countryside starlight to flow in and bath them in a crystalline gleam.

Early that morning, she had awoken with the intent to reach for her next hit of Psycho, only to remember that she had disposed of her stash in preparation for the trip to Vault 95. Now, without a haze of chems cushioning her, she was hypersensitive to her surroundings. Everything was too clear, sensations razor sharp and blindingly real. She let MacCready kiss her, his fingers fumbling to open the front of her corset and she yanked her pants down. The lingering taste of cigarettes in his mouth, the light scratch of his nails as he palmed her breasts, the cool crispness of spring air against her bare flesh that made her shiver, left too many impressions for her taxed brain to handle. Cait had expected her rage to diminish following her procedure. It hadn’t, and now she felt as irritated as before with the added element of clarity raking at her nerves.

Her hands stalled, ceasing to undress, immobile thumbs tucked into the sides of her underwear. She had never engaged in a sexual act while sober, and the prospect of this being her first foray into a cyclone of emotional wreckage and the promise of mixed feelings made her nervous. No, not nervous. Angry. Sex was supposed to be an escape from reality, not an additional complication.

Taking note of her hesitation, MacCready took his hands off her, catching her eye as he asked, “Are you…doin’ okay? I mean, you’ve had a seriously dank day.”

She had to escape the softness in his ice blue eyes. Dropping her gaze, she tasked herself with removing his coat. “I’m right fine,” she answered, tugging his scarf away from him as well. “Clear skies and kittens, Mac. Don’t worry yourself.”

She tilted her head, mouth opening to silence his words with a kiss. His rolled his head out of her reach. Stripped down to an olive-green undershirt, he captured her hands in his, stilling them, and attempted eye contact again. “I told you – call me RJ.”

“Sure. Yeah,” she said, eyes darting from his. She twisted her wrists just enough to make him release her. “RJ.”

He sighed and let go of her. An uncomfortable silence gnawed at the space between them. Pulling his cap off, MacCready cocked his head to search her eyes with his. He raked both hands through his hair, which sprang back into place almost immediately. “Cait…” Her name was a whispered plea.

“Fuck all. I toldja, I’m fine.” Her hands landed on her hips. Why did he have to make things difficult? Nearly naked, her indignation compiled. “Are we doin’ this or not?”

Not, if you’re gonna be weird about it.”

“I ain’t the one-” She cut herself off. Fighting with a guy who was trying to respect her…how low of her. She beat her shame back. “Hell. You’re right,” she conceded, saucy hands falling. “Long day.” She battled to fix a smile on her face. “And you and me – the only ones with a lick o’ sense in this place.”

He gathered her in his arms, and, shit, that felt nice. “What can I say?” he told her. “I call things like they are. I like beer and caps and making heads pop like dropped melons. I’m not into wasting time or worrying about hurt feelings.” He held her slightly away from him, frowning. “But I’m just kinda…waiting for it to all fall apart, you know? Things have been quiet for too long. Before coming here, I’d been under Hancock’s umbrella for months, handling his dirty business, making sure troublemakers disappeared. Before that, my life was kinda…unfocused. Keeping my head down in Goodneighbor was probably one of the best calls I’ve ever made.” He gave her a fetching smile. “Well, I mean, that and throwing in with you. Bonnie to my Clyde.”

“Shit, RJ,” she chuckled, lessening her tension a fraction. “Didn’t they get shot up?” she vaguely recalled.

His face slacked, and he blinked in confusion. “Did they? Well, crap.” The grip he had on her shoulders tightened before releasing. Face screwed up in thought, he declared, “Cait…I think you’re swell. I mean, it’s pretty great to not have to watch what I say around you; you say way worse. But I’m trying something out – being honest instead of hiding like a coward.” He took a sharp inhalation through his nose, mouth pressed into a tight line. “Look, I’m not trying to dump a load of crap on you, but I’ve left some details out of my story.” Taking what looked like a wooden figurine out of a pocket in his pants, he turned it a few times in his hand, running fingers through his sandy blonde hair before putting it back. “I was married,” he confided, voice low, keeping a hand in the pocket with the figure.

“Yeah, well, we all make mistakes, don’t we?” she said, making a move to grab the buttons on his pants. If she could make him stop talking, maybe there was still hope that nagging thought could be pushed from her mind. She pressed her naked chest against him, reaching up to wrap her arms around his neck and take his ear between her teeth.

“I’ve got a kid,” he blurted out, standing stone still with her draped over him.

Cait jerked her head back, slamming her mouth shut, feeling if he had jabbed her sharply with information. She withdrew her arms and pushed away from him. If he thought that her getting clean was some sort of precursor to a picket fence family life, he was about to get an earful.

She was gathering air in her lungs to let loose on him when a deep bang rattled the water tower. Both she and MacCready looked down the yawning shaft of the tower when a second crash sounded.

“Robert Joseph!” the grating voice of a ghoul called up at the sphere. “Get down here before I climb up there and put you over my knee!” It was John, it had to be.

“Crap,” MacCready grumbled, slamming the cap on and scrambling to get back into his clothes. He gave her a brief, apologetic glance before swinging himself over the edge of the walkway and clambering down the rope ladder. MacCready was a Goodneighbor boy through and through, rushing to his master’s call. In that instant, she pitied him, having to answer to the whims and rules of someone else. Nate was already dragging her across the Commonwealth. If she followed MacCready each time that he was beckoned, she would be giving her life away entirely.

Cait crossed her arms over her bare chest and leaned against the curving metal of the sphere, looking down through a missing panel to the ground below. She could see John pacing, looking similar to a nervous wolf as his coat swung to and fro. Sexy ghouls she could appreciate, but combined with the creepiness of synths – no thank you. She wouldn’t have asked John to go with her if she’d known he was putting it to one of those murder machines.

She could hear the door to the water tower swing open with a rusty grind. “Is this that part where you take a swing at me?” MacCready’s voice carried. She couldn’t see him. He must be lingering in the doorway. Her breathing was shallow and quiet as she listened to them.

“What the hell was that about?” John snapped. “Dan’s done nothing to you. And you ain’t that big of an asshole to call him out for no reason.”

“Look I…I’m sorry I was a – a jerk – about Danse being…made instead of born,” was MacCready’s weak excuse. “My mouth tends to get me in trouble.”

“Yeah, I’ve met you. Kinda what I expect.” John responded, his voice losing none of its harshness.

“It’s…I...” MacCready gave an aggravated sigh. “Man, when did you start leaving me out of things? Did I screw up? Is that why you don’t trust me?”

John was silent for a moment before saying, “So, all that shit about you and him…that was about you and me?”

“C’mon. We were close. In Goodneighbor, you even counted on me. Then we end up here, and you got sucked into being his only friend. And I got…”

“…replaced?”

“…yeah,” MacCready answered. “You brought me on board to help with your mayoral crap and I hardly saw you. Kinda felt like I ended up as a spare tire while you slacked off with your boyfriend.”

“Jeez, Mac. Things with him…it’s bigger than me. It takes a lotta damn effort.” He was quiet for a time. “Sorry to set you up with a position in Goodneighbor and then ignore you.”

She leaned back from the opening, hiking her pants up. As she pawed about, searching for her clothes, the thought of putting actual effort into a relationship dawned on her. The idea that anyone would actively welcome the mental exertion it took to fully unravel another person seemed laughably sappy. Hooking her bra in the back, she stretched her neck back out through the exposed panel.

“Man, I gotta ask…” MacCready said, wandering out to where Cait could see him. “Danse? He’s not like he’s affectionate or even, well, nice.”

“It ain’t easy to explain. We ain’t lewd about it. We’re just people, you know? It ain’t for show like, ‘C’mere and look at how easy my life is now that I’ve got this guy and all his problems to lug around’. I can just…be still with him. When we’re together, I don’t feel like my life is falling apart.”

With what felt like a blow to the gut, Cait realized that she and MacCready didn’t come close to what John was describing. She hadn’t misled him; they hadn’t discussed it at all. A future, titles, what the other wanted, none of this had come up during the few months that they had been sneaking around, banging one out when no one was watching. She felt more uncertainty now than before she left for Vault 95. She cursed to herself, feeling like an awful person to get clean and consider ending things with him. But the idea of being a parent, a mother figure to his rugrat…that scared her right down to her soul.

“Hey,” John was saying down below. “If I ever ask to hold chems for you, don’t indulge me. Don’t take ‘em from me, but don’t hand ‘em over either.”

“You’re the boss, Boss.” MacCready added, “You doing this for you, or for him?”

“Both. But me, mostly. It’s gotta be for me or it won’t stick.”

Cait would never have had the gall to suggest that. Sure, she’d tried to kick her Psycho habit a few times, if you could call being too broke to buy any trying. Her plea to Nate had been easier, to rip her addictions free like a bandage in one go. She pondered on MacCready, if she used him as another substance, treating sex as another numbing tool. The likely answer was a distressing yes. She hastily got dressed, buttoning her corset by feel as she glanced down.

“That’s good to hear. Thanks, Bob.” John slapped MacCready on the back, hard. The shorter man nearly fell.

Mac righted the brim of his cap. “I hate you.”

“Aw, that’s nice,” John cooed. “I hate you, too. Although Cait might fight me over you. Pretty sure I’d lose that battle.” MacCready moved out of sight. The door to the water tower creaked and slammed, the rope ladder wobbling as someone climbed it.

Oh, fuck. She and MacCready hadn’t been careful enough and now everyone knew about them. Extraditing herself from this relationship wasn’t going to be easy, or fair to MacCready. He seemed to genuinely like her, which made her feel even worse.

Hauling himself up the last rung, MacCready grinned at her as he stood. “Now, where were we?” His smirking expression shifted to surprise when he saw her dressed.

Cait’s mouth felt dry as she grasped for words. “We were…gettin’ set for me to head out.” Cowardice had taken root. She had always preferred escape to reality.

His smile fled. “Wait…what?”

She sidled past him, barely brushing his body as she slipped by, taking either side of the open railing in her hands. “Been a long day, RJ. A girl needs some space…I mean, sleep. I…goodnight.” They shared awkward movement where they nearly kissed, only for her lips to land on his cheek instead.

As she climbed down the ladder, she heard him mutter, “Everyone’s lost their darn minds…”

Once outside, she made her way back down into Sanctuary. Her chem stash might be gone, and MacCready’s touch no longer an option, but there were still other vices to satisfy her needs.

“Hell,” she muttered, skating through the remnants of the night’s earlier festivities. She plucked a bottle of whiskey up from the workshop table. “Might as well start drinkin’.”

Chapter Text

PRESTON

Sanctuary Hills, MA

April 14th, 2288

The heavy bowl of night refused to lift that morning. The sky lightened, turning the dawn from indigo to a hazy gray, but sunlight refused to puncture a potent cloud cover that clung to the hilltop areas surrounding Sanctuary like cloaks. Streetside, along the broken ruins of sidewalk, the tall oil lamps still burned bright, warm balls of light staving off the gloom. Such mornings were normal this time of year, the mist likely to burn off by midday and be trailed by balmy afternoons.

Preston Garvey wandered the vacant streets, laser musket in his hands, keeping watch while the rest of Sanctuary Hills began to rise. The chirring of inactive turrets and somber moos coming from the brahmin pen were the only sounds that filled his ears. He pondered on what mornings might have been like before the war. Birds were more plentiful then, filling the air with song instead of mournful caws. He imagined the stagnant frames of automobiles coming to life, zooming around as people left the safety of their homes to take them into the city. No worries of being shot or eaten would trouble those happy pre-war people. Were their lives exciting in a world where anything seemed possible? Or were individuals bored by the monotony of their daily lives, trying to find faults in their stable environment?

As Preston made another loop through the development, skating by the garden and around the main congregation area, he heard noises coming from the workshop. Voices clashed, rising in a quarrel. One of the combatants had Sturges’ familiar drawl. Peculiar. The man was the voice of reason within the Minutemen and almost never shouted. Preston’s gait picked up in worry, pushing him into a jog, coming to a startled halt as he rounded the workshop corner.

Nate was strapping himself into his Brotherhood combat armor, scowling at Sturges as he secured the fastenings. Their resident repairman had his shoulders bowed in a sullen pout, brawny arms crossed defensively as he leaned against the weapon workstation. Nate’s paladin armor sat within the repair bay, looking depressed in its sedentary slump, adding to the dolefulness of the scene.

“Aw, hell, old timer,” Sturges barked at Nate, a sneer curling one side of his lip. “You think you’ve got all the answers!” 

“My knowledge is a bit more extensive than yours,” Nate spat, jerking a buckle tight across one thigh.

Preston stepped up onto the concrete slab of the workshop, his musket angled at the ground. “Hold up, you two. What’s going on here?” he asked in a calm yet interrogative tone.

Nate’s head snapped in Preston’s direction and pointed in a frenzy at him. “Tell him,” he ordered Sturges. “Tell him what you said to me!”

“What now?” Preston was thoroughly confused.

“All right, all right,” Sturges said, unfolding his arms and holding his palms up for serenity. “We’re gonna settle this now!” He turned to Preston, face stern with deliberation. “What’s worse, Colonel – being a vampire or being a werewolf?”

Stunned speechless, Preston could only stare at them, aghast. It was too early for nonsense. He squeezed his eyes closed and took a moment for himself, scrunching his face up and shaking his head. “Guys,” he addressed Nate and Sturges with weary exasperation. “Can you not?”

“Not, what?” asked Sturges.

“Talk. Or, much less, include me?” He frowned at Nate, who was cinching the last clasp on his chestpiece. “General, why are you still here? Thought you were headed out at daybreak.”

Nate gestured to Sturges with his chin. “We got caught up and needed a swing vote. Danse refused to participate.”

He spotted Danse for the first time, his expression dour, seated on a bunk in the corner, stuffing fusion cores and ammo boxes into a rucksack. He wondered how many times Danse had been asked that question before it had been passed to him. Obviously, a few too many.

Getting Nate started on a chat regarding movie monsters and days gone by would only result in further delay. Preston couldn’t blame him; the man from the vault had few topics that still brought him enjoyment, regardless that most didn’t understand his references. Granting his friends an acquiescent smile, Preston compelled, “On your way, sir.”

“Hmph. Fine.” Nate plucked his helmet up from the workshop table and dropped it over his head. He strode forward and slapped Danse on the shoulder. “I’m tagging you back into the game. Suit up.” Danse’s gaze dropped and suddenly seemed to find the concrete floor fascinating. The muscles in Nate’s face smoothed as he blanched. “Well, I mean, best as you can,” Nate blathered, trying to recover. He tossed Danse a combat armor chestpeice, one without insignia, Preston noticed. Nate cleared his throat in embarrassment and slapped a fusion core into his armor, Danse donning the apparel given to him. Once Nate was secured in his suit, he and Danse exited the workshop, heading out to the coast. 

Preston paused before shouting down the road to him. “Oh, and vampire! Werewolves get the majority of their time to use at their discretion!”

Sturges, who had busied himself with dissembling a requisitioned microscope for materials, slapped his knee and whooped. “See? I knew it!”

Preston gave him a small smile. Although he might never realize it, Sturges was the one who kept them all going on the road from Quincy to Sanctuary Hills. Throughout all the losses and dreadful turn of events, Sturges had ironic anecdotes for every occasion and an upbeat attitude that was infectious to their small band of survivors. When moments came that made Preston want to hang up his hat and walk unarmed into a mass of ferals, it was Sturges’ consistent faith and his here-and-now outlook that kept Preston’s perspective in check. He not only owed Sturges his life, he also owed him his sanity.

As Preston continued his patrol of the perimeter, the sky steered away from leaden hues, turning a faint shade of pale blue. Sanctuary was nearly vacant, with most of the regular inhabitants off handling independent issues. Nate and Danse were disappearing over the bridge, on their way to deal with Brotherhood concerns. Piper and John had headed back into the city last night, off to their respective hometowns. Deacon could be anywhere, but had likely slipped away in the night, as was common for him. Preston spotted Curie absorbedly working at her chemistry station, a pair of oversized plastic safety goggles wide across her face, the strap making her short hair stand up in the back. The effect made her look not unlike a mad scientist.

He paused in his circuit to shake his sleeve from his wrist. A sundial watch was strapped to his wrist, and he turned until it was properly aligned. Almost time, he noted. He searched for a decent place to prop his musket, settling for the flat surface of a patio table.

It gave him pride to see the Commonwealth getting back on its feet, and he felt honored to be a part of it. But with too many failures under his belt, he wasn’t comfortable with any more responsibility than he already dealt with. Micromanaging Minutemen needs, provisions and security was a full-time position that suited him. It was a constant endeavor to track dozens of settlements all with different requirements and populations, but one that allowed for the locations to deal with one consistent voice, someone that they knew and respected, giving a human face to the Minutemen enterprise. Several nuclear fusion batteries charged the receiver in a pouch that hung from his belt, the wireless radio adhered to his overcoat sending a constant stream of updates through the Radio Freedom channel and allowing Preston to check in with each location remotely. Each day, at zero eight hundred, he rolled through the list of settlement sites in alphabetical order.

Gripping the speaker microphone on his lapel, he pressed the talk button and said, “Abernathy Farm, report.”

“All clear. Could use some more beds, though. Over.”

“Copy that. I’ll make a note of it. Over.” He moved onto the next settlement. “Boston Airport, report.”

“We’ve got it handled. Over,” an irritable Brotherhood agent barked.

Preston rolled his eyes. What a waste of a settlement. All that location did was drain supplies. Still, Preston didn’t argue with his General’s wishes to include it. “Copy that. Bunker Hill, report?”

Bunker Hill buzzed through with Kessler’s voice. “Colonel,” she addressed. “We’ve had a caravan go missing. The daughter of one of our shopkeepers was with them. They were headed your way. Over.”

Frowning, Preston responded, “Copy that, Bunker Hill. Kidnapping? Over.”

“No ransom, Sir. Last sighting was near Lexington. Over.”

A missing person and a supply line down. Preston heaved a sigh. “On it, Bunker Hill. We’ll send out a team. Garvey, out.”

“Copy.”

The rest of the locations had mostly resource complaints and petitions for defense. He pulled a notepad and pencil from an inside pocket of his waistcoat and made notations of all requests before turning his attention to the issue from Bunker Hill. He was down his standard response team. Normally, he would forward this information to Nate and allow him to resolve it. However, with the General on a specific mission for another faction, he didn’t dare disturb him. He could call for reserves at the Castle to intercede, but trekking in from the coastline could cost valuable time.

As he struggled to manufacture an investigation, MacCready wandered up the road, yawning and stretching, back from another night spent in his tower. For an instant, their eyes locked. MacCready stiffened visibly before turning on his heel and starting back the way he came.

“MacCready, come back,” Preston called. “I’ve got something I need you to look in on.”

 MacCready stopped, his back to Preston, shoulders rising and falling in what had to a hefty sigh. “What do you need Preston?” he asked, turning. “I’ve got a full day planned.”

A full day of gambling at Starlight, no doubt, Preston predicted, dryly. He picked his musket up and steadied it, the weight of it feeling familiar and comforting. “Same old story,” he answered. “More bad news with no end in sight.”

Readjusting the brim of his cap as he tentatively approached, MacCready sarcastically divulged, “I love talking with you, Preston. You never fail to lighten my mood.”

Preston let the comment slide. “Bunker Hill needs our help. Minuteman caravan went missing nearby.”

“Of course,” MacCready smirked. “You’re always with the business, aren’t you? Any thoughts on where you’re sending me?”

Preston tracked the supply line trails in his mind, flipped through one probable route to the next. There was a dark spot on his mental map, a place where they hadn’t been able to establish a connection yet. “There’s a community partway between us and Cambridge. I’ve passed by it before. High walls, secure, only one way in. Looks suspicious, if you ask me. I want you to check it out.”

Nodding, MacCready said, “Got it. Not that I’m down with walking into surprise places. I normally like to know what’s going to try and kill me in advance.”

“Then bring some muscle,” Preston replied. “And be diligent.”

“Ya mentioned muscle, right?” came Cait’s voice. “Well, that sure as rain sounds like me.” Emerging from the doorway of a nearly house, she settled her bat, a wicked looking thing with nails sticking out of the barrel, over a shoulder. Her undereyes were swollen, evidence of a rough night, but a wicked smile stretched her lips. “I could use me a good head bashin’. Been far too long.”

“Only if necessary, Cait,” Preston humored, a tight smile crossing his face. “You’ll be looking for answers, not trouble.”

“Tato, pato, trouble, schmouble,” MacCready quipped, throwing a conspiring smirk at Cait. “We’ll give what we get. I’ll grab some rations and pack up.”

Hmm, Preston pondered darkly. Maybe sending the two of them alone wasn’t the best idea. Both had a penchant for swift violence that could easily get out of hand. As MacCready and Cait headed towards the supply depot, Preston called after them. “And take Curie with you,” he called. “Maybe she’ll uncover something useful.”

They halted and craned their heads, first at Preston, then towards the little synth.

Curie, who clearly must have heard the exchange, removed her goggles and gave them a meek wave, obviously hesitant following MacCready’s outburst the night before. Preston could only hope that the pursuit of a common goal would keep both Cait and MacCready’s opinions in check.

He leaned into his radio once more, his musket dangling from one hand. “Bunker Hill, come in.”

“This is Bunker Hill. Over.”

“Investigatory team is on the way. We’ll find your people.” As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn’t. Making promises was a dangerous way to handle relations in an unstable environment. No taking it back now. He’d just have to hope that MacCready would find a solution and everyone would go home safe. “Over,” he closed, wishing, not for the first time, that he still had a militia at his disposal.

Thank you, Colonel. God bless. Over.”

With little else to do but pray, he recommenced his patrol, resolved to never let Sanctuary fall on his watch.

Chapter Text

JOHN

Beacon Hill, MA

April 14th, 2288

It was late morning by the time John got back on the road. When he had grown too weary to continue his homecoming, he had spent the night on the third floor of a gutted townhouse, grabbing a few hours of sleep, plasma pistol in his hand, snuggled into a discarded sleeping bag; its owner had either left it behind in a rush, or been unable to return and claim it.

He had opted to take the safe route to Goodneighbor, one more preferable when traveling alone, and it had taken him in a wide arc, leading him through sparsely populated areas and avoiding the tightly packed streets of the Fens and Back Bay.  He passed over a few potholed and fractured bridges, skirting around the riverfront. The raiders at Camp Kendall and those on the other side of the safeguarded bridge to Beacon Hill gave him little trouble. Their guns had lowered at the sight of his costume, a vivacious red against the cool concrete backdrop of the riverfront, and they allowed him to pass freely. Plenty of raiders swung through Goodneighbor – a fact which Danse had adamantly opposed…Finn, too, come to think of it – using their spoils to purchase rarer varieties of ammunition, chems, or alcohol. Several even had Memory Den accounts. More caps passing through the merchants was never a detriment, so John had allowed their presence, one of the few leniencies still in effect from Vic’s term as mayor.

John’s long walk had been tedious and dull. Although two canisters of Jet clacked together in his pocket with each step, he refrained from using them. An additional concern beyond throwing away his attempt at sobriety at the vault was that getting high on the streets of Boston and being killed would be a rude way to repay Danse for his affections. In a self-imposed compromise, he slid a tin of Mentats from a different pocket and popped two tablets, grinding them with his teeth before swallowing.

As he cut through Beacon Hill, detritus clogged the streets, turning multilane boulevards into narrow pathways through the rubble. There were often minute changes in the route. Intermittent chunks of buildings would crash to the street, sometimes a few shards of glass, sometimes half a story would come crumbling down, blocking an intersection, and new paths would have to be made. When that would occur, he would send out work teams, clearing a path though or putting up new signage around the obstruction, both leading to Goodneighbor.

As he wove his way through alleys and narrow corridors that used to be wide thoroughfares, a mark on propped up piece of cardboard caught his eye. Two swipes of blue paint intersected to form an X. His stomach knotted at the sight of it, panic charging his body with white hot energy and making his pace quicken. The sides of buildings and hastily erected signs became visible, baring either those same marks, or phrases such as Turn Back or No Ghouls!, all written in identical shades of blue. He broke into a run, plasma pistol bouncing on his hip, leaving rousing ferals and barking mongrels in his wake as he charged towards home. Fuck. Fuck, no. Fuck, ran through his mind as he sprinted. Courtesy of the Mentats he had taken, the marks stood out like vibrant, sinister slashes on the white exterior of Mass Fusion.

The familiar glow of Goodneighbor’s neon sign came into view, along with more alarming warnings. The overhanging overpass creaked and groaned ominously above as he flew to his town. Rounding a corner brought the entrance into perspective, a large X painted on the entry door, the blue paint still wet and shining. Fuck. Fuck! With cold sensations of fear spiraling within him, he banged the door open and flung himself through the doorway.

The streets were empty. He spun in a hapless circle, searching for anyone who might be lurking just out of view. A hulking metal figure still stood in her shop. John raced towards KLEO as he shouted, gasping, “Is it here? Is it back?”

“As I’ve said before – the probability of an additional outbreak was always likely, Sir,” the assaultron stated. “You knew that.”

Fuck!” he finally screamed out loud. Rage and fear caused his limbs to tremble as he raced to find Fahrenheit. 

The Blue Pox. This was any leader’s worst fear come to pass – an illness running rampant in their community, with little opportunity to stop it. If John had a deity that he believed in, he would have prayed nightly to it to never witness that epidemic again. Twenty-three ghouls had been infected the last time the plague cut through Goodneighbor. Nine had gone feral, and were put down. Only four, including John, had lived.

Many things had changed since the bombs dropped, including viruses. New strains of old diseases mutated the same as everything organic had, finding new hosts and new methods of survival. Freshly evolving species and human variants provided additional hosts for innovative strains to transform into deadly deviations of the same malady. Some strains only attacked the lax immunity of vault dwellers. Some only provoked mutants and wildlife. And some, only affected ghouls.

The Pox had been crawling through the Wasteland for at least a century, occasionally disappearing for years before resurfacing with deadly vengeance. Doctors that focused their studies on ghoul ailments were rare and immensely valued. Some believed that the Blue Pox had evolved from aggressive strains of the New Plague, mutating to only contaminate ghoul hosts. It was common knowledge that the Pox was only transmissible to irradiated humans and that the vast majority of Wastelanders had nothing to fear. Being an illness that only targeted an already dismissible race, the Blue Pox received little attention from the medical community and few cures or treatments had been developed. The mortality rate was high and most outbreaks only ended once the virus had wiped out the entire populace.

Shoving the front door of the State House open, John bellowed, “Fahr?” into the higher levels. “You here?”

“She’s in the rear warehouse with the rest of them, boss,” a lone watchman answered from the above landing. He was a human, John noted, not a ghoul, and the sole person in the building.

He tore across the State House and out the opposite door, finding himself on another vacant street. Humans only, read a banner draped over the Rexford’s front door. Jerking his head in the opposite direction, John’s gaze landed on the rear warehouse, an abundance of blue Xs adorning the building, both on cardboard posters and on the brick façade. He hurried towards it, coat sailing behind him. Barging through the door, he almost collided with Daisy, cartons of dirty water mounted in her arms. She looked both exhausted and relieved when she said, “Oh, Hancock. Thank god. You’re back!”

Someone grabbed him roughly back the back of his coat and whirled him around. He found Fahrenheit glaring at him, her hand still twisted in his apparel. She hissed, “Respectfully – fuck you, John. Goodneighbor’s coming apart at the seams.”

He felt blindsided and took a moment to force a deep breath before asking, “When did it start?”

“For certain?” she asked. “The marks showed up the day you left, although, it seems that symptoms had been surfacing for a while. Fatigue, followed by cough, followed by boils.”

“Christ, Fahr. You know I would’ve come straight back. Why didn’t Kent radio Sanctuary?”

She leveled a disgusted look at him. Dragging him, she led him up a level and into a side room. Several lanterns littered the floor, leaving the room dim and dismal. On a mattress in a corner, wrapped up in blankets and looking like he was asleep, lay Kent. In the weak lamplight, the rounded blotches on his face looked purple, although, in any other light, it would be clear that the blemishes were blue in color.

Fahrenheit let go of him, and John sank to the floor by Kent’s side. “Goddamn,” he breathed, guilt churning in his stomach. Only now did John remember how poor Kent had looked when they last saw each other. “Hey, bud. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. But I’m back. I’m gonna fix this.”

Kent stirred, mumbling, “Oh…Mr. Mayor…it’s you.” He gave a frail, heartbreakingly warm smile. “I believe in you. You’d never let us down.” He opened his eyes. His sclera were pitch black.

John rocked backwards in shock. His composure was only lost for a moment. Quickly, he slid his features into a self-assured smirk. There was a time and a place for lies, and this instance was not only perfect, but necessary. “Hang in there, pal. The worst is over,” he said, leaning pat Kent’s shoulder. The heat of Kent’s fever rose up through the blanket to warm John’s palm.

When he looked up, Fahrenheit’s mouth was drawn in a tight line. He stood, bringing his head close to hers, and whispered, “Grab all the ice you can from the bar. Get Rufus’ crazy beer-toting robot in here, too. Anything cryo, bring it in. Use ‘em to make compresses and cold water. Gotta keep the fevers down. And put someone on the gate – keep all ghouls out.”

She nodded and left to fulfill his orders.

Ghouls were at a severe disadvantage when it came to illness. While fevers existed to kill viruses and send the host body back on the road to good health, they could mean swift death for a ghoul. Lingering radiation kept their bodies burning hot, several degrees above than the average human. While regular humans would sweat, ghouls were missing those first few crucial layers of epidermis that allowed for the regulation of body heat. Too high a fever could quite literally cook a ghoul’s brain, sending them into a premature feral state, from which there would be no return. 

He glanced around the room. Kent’s was one of four mattresses inhabiting this area, each occupied, the entire building a makeshift infirmary. Not for the first time, he kicked himself for not having a doctor employed. John patrolled the warehouse, finding each room on every level filled with affected ghouls, Ham, Daisy and a few others running back and forth, trying to make the ill comfortable.

He grabbed Daisy’s attention during one of her passes. “Dais,” he said to her. “What happened? Where’d it come from?”

“You missed the meeting, John.” He must have looked confused, because she continued. “About all the new Minutemen caravans put into rotation by your vault buddy?” John nodded. He had been preoccupied with Cait and flighty thoughts of sobriety. It certainly hadn’t been the first meeting that he had missed since Nate had first darkened his doorway. 

“More caravans mean more inventory,” Daisy explained, pausing briefly to hand a roll of Med-X off to a passing volunteer. “More inventory means a higher chance of trading contaminated goods. We got some drifters talking about how they’ve been on the run from this for a few months. Danse’s thoroughness at the gate was probably the only thing that staved off an outbreak for this long. Your boy probably saved a lot of ghouls’ lives without even knowing it.”

“Yeah,” John muttered. “Wouldn’t he like to know that.” He had been so angry at Danse for turning away unscheduled caravans, and for pulling unlisted merchandise from sales. He had never felt happier to have been wrong. A fleeting sense of gratitude towards Danse was overshadowed by the weight of what needed to happen now. Leaving the warehouse, he traveled up the street to snake himself in between the slots of the barricade at the end of the street. Reaching a slim arm though the wooden panel, he found the collection of wires that ran power to the neon sign on the opposite side of the wall. For the second time in his career, he unplugged the marquee with a swift tug. The hum of the sign died, along with any optimism that might have been lingering in him.

The last time the Blue Pox had swept through Goodneighbor, there had been little to do other than make the condemned as comfortable as possible. The truly human townspeople had been tasked with dragging those in the throes of feraldom out into the streets and shooting them with silencers on, keeping town panic at bay for as long as they could.

The rest of the day was spent taking names of the infected, and charting the rate of their decline. Depressing work, all told, survivors of the first flux watching it happen once again, and the smoothskins, ones that weren’t here the last time, getting fast history lesson.

Retreating to the Memory Den, John took up residency at Kent’s radio. He slipped a holotape into the recorder and prepared to loop a message. Fighting a numbness that threatened to consume him, John prepped his best authoritative voice. Ready, he began recording. “Message repeating,” he said. “This is the mayor of Goodneighbor. The date is April 14th, 2288. We’ve got an outbreak of the Blue Pox going down. Until further notice, the town’s on quarantine for all ghouls traveling in area. Repeat, quarantine is in effect.” His mouth twisted down, desperation fluttering in his chest. He added, “Hey…for fuck’s sake…if you’ve got fever blossoms, send ‘em our way. Goodneighbor, out.”

John manned the radio all night, sucking down one canister of Jet after another, his own voice playing over and over again on the recording. There were no replies.

It was Piper who woke him in the morning. As he slept propped up in Kent’s chair, she had slipped into the room and touched him on a shoulder, causing him to jerk awake. His hand had gone for his knife before he realized that it was her and that his knife was long gone, lost at the bottom of some waterway in Maine.

“Christ, Piper,” he snapped, rubbing at his face. Kent’s desk was strewn with empty chem containers, Jet and Mentats and a hit of Med-X thrown in for good measure. He sneered up at the reporter. “Come to chronicle my downfall?”

Piper’s expression was much softer than normal, and she shook off his attitude easily. “I go where the news takes me,” she said, shrugging. “I heard your message last night and I did a little digging. Word is, this weird ghoul Pox started near the southern border of the Commonwealth and has been traveling up. Somehow, Goodneighbor got passed over until now.”

“When did sick ghouls become news?” he asked, snidely. “People suddenly start caring?”

“That’s the power of the press. We kinda dictate what people should pay attention to.”

A chem headache throbbed to life and he rubbed his temples. His body was confused. It just wanted a steady stream of chems, none of this stopping and starting nonsense. He slumped in the chair and heaved a sigh. Exhausted and stressed, he didn’t feel like putting on the lovable leader act for her. “You shouldn’t be here,” he wearily stated.

She frowned, her brows creasing. “What am I gonna do? Take a strain back to Diamond City with me, where it affects all of no one?”

“Yeah,” he said, standing. “And send it right back out again on the caravans, infecting more and more ghouls as they sit in their homes, minding their own business.”

“Shouldn’t you be, I dunno, leaving?” she asked, incredulous. “A ghoul-based disease and you’re staying here at ground zero?”

He moved to push past her and check on the infirmary. “I’ve had it.”

She grabbed his arm and spun him back to face her. “Wait – You’ve had it?”

Irked, he pointed at his eyes with both index fingers, right up in her face, indicating the obsidian blackness that consumed his corneas. “Have you seen me? Think this is normal?” he disgruntledly asked, backing down only after she let go of him. “Had a bout come through in the winter of ’84,” he informed her. “Those of us that lived ended up looking like this.” 

She squinted at him. “Thought you said you had Rad Fever when you were a kid.”

“Yeah. That, too.”

Her mouth hung open. “Jeez,” she finally shrieked, finding her voice. “How are you even alive? John…you’ve had two major Wasteland illnesses. The odds of getting through either one of those are close to zero.”

“Guess I’m built scrappier than I look,” he said, making a move for the door again.

Static spat from the radio. “Goodneighbor? Can you hear me?” a voice on the other end of the line said.

John leapt for the receiver, shoving past Piper once more, in the opposite direction this time. “Hey, yeah. This is Goodneighbor,” he said into the microphone.

“Hello. My name is Arlen. I’m up north in a ghoul settlement. I think we may be able to help you out. We keep a stock of fever blossoms on hand because, well, you never can be too careful, can you?”

John stepped back and threw a series of wild celebratory punches into the air before answering. “That’d be an awesome and much obliged thing to do, friend. How you wanna arrange this?”

You know where Finch Farm is? We’re up the road a ways. On the other side of Saugus.”

Nate had dragged John to Finch Farm before and had gotten a flaming sword for his troubles. “Yeah, yeah. I know where both places are.”

Wonderful. We call our home The Slog. We’ll see you soon, Goodneighbor.”

“Got it. On the way.” He made a move to rush out of the Memory Den before whirling around and adding, “Thank you, Slog!” to his dispatch.

As he bustled out the door, Piper kept pace with him. “What’re you after, Piper? I’m busy.”

“I’m invested now. Call it expanding my horizons. Ghoul interest, instead of human. I want to write about how it ends.”

Back on the street, he said, “Then you gotta do it with your boots on. I’m not leaving you here to pepper folks with questions. Ask me all you want. I’ve got a long walk and I’d appreciate a second gun and another pair of hands. If I gotta pay The Slog one hell of a compensation for remedies, it’ll be worth it.”

As he curved around a corner, stepping into the U that connected the two main drags at The Third Rail, a woman yelled, “What the hell? You’re leaving again? Now?”

He swung around to find Fahrenheit with her fists clenched at her sides. Two watchmen carried a body, tightly wrapped in a sheet, out of the infirmary and down an alley.

“Gotta go, Fahr,” John said. “There’s a group of ghouls that wanna help us. They got supplies that we need. Somebody’s gotta walk the goods back here.”

Her eyes were cold and condemning as she said, “Explain to me why it has to be you.”

He paused for an exasperated moment, feeling almost sick with overwhelming guilt. “Because it has to,” he said, meeting her hard eyes. “I gotta do right by Goodneighbor, and that’s something that I’ve been letting slide for too long. I need to make it up to the people, make things right. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Heard that before,” she groused, not intending for him to miss hearing it.

The pop of a silenced gunshot came from the alleyway, and John felt his blood drain. That hadn’t been a body under that sheet. It had been someone he knew becoming feral.

“Fahr, I’m going. We’re already out of time.”

Chapter Text

MACCREADY

Covenant, MA

April 14th, 2288

With his head craned back, MacCready stared up at the massive, towering concrete walls surrounding Covenant. Beyond the barricade, proud rooftops baring all of their shingles poked at the belly of the sky. Enormous floodlights, powered up despite the daylight, stood at every corner of the complex, causing pockets of wasted and barren undergrowth to glow at the base of the wall. Turrets and barbed wire traced the ledges, making the settlement resemble a fortress that put most Brotherhood of Steel depots to shame.

MacCready’s small team had been swallowed up by the shade that the immense barrier cast over the roadway. With his rifle strapped to his back, he shifted, whistling. “What do you think?” he asked his cohorts, letting his head fall forward. “Keeping something out or keeping something in?”

“Such a secure location,” Curie remarked, jotting notes onto a pad, her ever-present satchel of papers slung crosswise over one shoulder. “How has Monsieur Nate or Colonel Garvey not bartered a treaty with this site? It would seem beneficial, no?”

Cait swung her bat absently as she guessed, “Maybe they don’t wanna play nice with the other kiddies.”

They had come down from the north, sticking to the highway to avoid stumbling over any camped raiders lingering in the hillsides. It was early afternoon and the sky was a bright, clear blue, cloudless and inviting. A wide river reflected the sunlight, breaking the rays up to sparkle on the surface of the water. The oppressive appearance of Covenant clashed with what would have otherwise been a pleasant vista. A jarringly cheery sign stood out against the flat grey tone of the barricade, welcoming visitors, overcompensating for the dreary exterior. Adjacent to a guard shack, a silver-haired greaser sat in a chair before the gates, waving at them in a friendly manner. “Ya here visiting?” he called to them.

MacCready shared a look with Cait and tilted his head in a here we go insinuation, before answering back. “On our way through from Greygarden,” shouted MacCready. It wouldn’t do to have any troubles follow them back to Sanctuary. “Looking to set up some trade deals.”

“Well, that bein’, I gotta walk each of you through the Safe Test,” the gate guard said, with a lazy smile. “We can’t just let anybody in. Gotta make sure everyone’s like they seem, ya know?”

One of MacCready’s brows lowered as he tentatively approached the gates. “…kay…”

“Sounds like the same line that Diamond City totes,” Cait muttered under her breath, her bat draped over her shoulder as she walked. Curie scampered behind them to keep up.

“Name’s Swanson,” the greaser said, settling down at a desk in the guard shack. “Test ain’t no big deal – just a couple’a questions. Take a seat.”

MacCready fell into a chair opposite him. “Alright. Shoot.”

Swanson cleared his throat and lifted a stack of papers, eyes scanning the first page. “You are approached by a frenzied vault scientist, who yells, I'm going to put my quantum harmonizer in your photonic resonation chamber! What's your response?”

Off in the distance, a dog could be heard barking in the silence that followed Swanson’s question. Dumbstruck by the question, MacCready looked up at both of his companions in turn. Curie was scribbling frantically on her notepad. “Oh! This is a riddle!” the little synth bubbled happily. Cait looked as if she had smelled something rotten, lips curled into a wicked scowl.

“What kinda fucktardery is this?” MacCready asked, turning back to the gatekeeper. Preston was going to be doing his own recon from now on.

“Please, take these questions seriously. What would you do?”

“Your mom,” MacCready answered.

The test went on for too long and followed no logical pattern that Mac could calculate. After him, Curie went, chatting through her reasoning and enjoying the process too much, followed by Cait, who answered in swears. At the end of it, Swanson stood and congratulated them. “Helluva bunch of answers ya gave, but ya passed.”

“Praise be for that,” Cait groused, hoisting herself out of the chair by using her bat as she would a cane.

Swanson opened the doors that led through the concrete barrier of the settlement. “Welcome to Covenant,” he said with a prideful grin.

The three of them passed through the entry and into a small, cheery-looking community complete with gardens, power and intact housing. Radios were tuned into the classical music station, soothing notes wafting through open doorways. Curie’s eyes went everywhere, marking notes with fervor. “Place is so clean, I’d imagine it squeaks,” said Cait, peering into houses. “Where you wanna start?” she asked him.

A stout older man passed by, looking too similar to Mayor McDonough from Diamond City. Too well fed and too opulently dressed by Wasteland standards, clearly, this was the man in charge. His carriage imparted absolute ease and power, a tight-smirking king looking down on his peasants. MacCready took the opportunity to collide with him.

“Sorry, man. My fault,” MacCready said, righting the man while slipping a hand into his pocket. His fingers closed around a key, which he palmed. With their luck, that key would lead to a hidden bunker of horrors.

“No harm, son. On your way then,” the man said, tipping his hat before moving off.

“I wanna start here.” He surreptitiously took hold of Cait’s hand and slipped the key into her palm. “No one keeps their trash out in the open. Find out what this goes to.” He turned his attention to Curie. “Ask around and see what you dig up. People find you adorable. Use that as leverage.”

“Oui. Although I am uncertain that shovels will be required.”

They broke apart in three different directions. While Cait slipped around the backs of the houses and Curie questioned the shopkeepers, MacCready wandered the center of town. A single tree towered over him, the focal point for the entire complex. Gnarled and long dead, the scrabbly tree was an ugly eyesore. He frowned up at it, noting that it didn’t fit in with the town’s pristine setting.

Along one of the picket fences that lined the houses, a man in glinting armor stood out, both by his apparel and by his long hair. This powerfully built man had a tough look about him. He was dressed like a caravan master, a survivor, not some townsperson that lived inside of a walled complex.  The man turned away from a disgruntled citizen with a heavy sigh. “Passing through or here to stay?” he asked, addressing MacCready.

MacCready shook his head as drew nearer. “Just visiting.”

“Same,” the man said, giving a nod. “Name’s Dan.”

“Huh,” MacCready grunted. “I have a…a friend by that name.” He wasn’t sure if it was safe to call Danse friend, although it was certainly better than calling him an enemy. “Bob,” was the name MacCready gave. Common and untraceable, that was the name he used when undercover, despite hating it.

“You didn’t happen upon a caravan on the way here, did you?” Dan asked.

MacCready frowned. “As it happens, we’re looking for one, too. Was coming up from Bunker Hill.”

Dan’s eyes darted to a few wandering settlers before landing back on MacCready. “We’re in a similar business, Bob. I think we’re looking for the same people.”

“Any leads?”

“These people wouldn’t cop to noticing an atom bomb. Been giving me the run around since I got here.” Dan moved closer, his voice dropped to a whisper. “You might wanna keep moving,” he said, warningly. “Folks here ain’t what they seem.”

MacCready’s brows furrowed. “Is this so?”

Dan gave another tired sigh. “Look, I’m just trying to do a job but something ain’t right here. They’re hiding something. Dunno if it’s chems, caps, or synths, but they’re sittin’ on something.”

MacCready slid an automatic glance in Curie’s direction. She was chatting with a doctor, grinning while the doctor scowled. “What made you jump to synths?” he asked, bringing his eyes back to Dan.

“If one thing has the Commonwealth up in arms, it’s that anybody can be a synth. You might have caught that entry test. Supposed to weed out the real people from the fake ones, but who’s to say how well it works?”

Distress swelled, making MacCready fidget. Taking notice, Dan said, “Shit. You’re one of them aren’t you? Or you brought one in with you?” This caravanner was brighter than he seemed.

MacCready kept his mouth shut, knowing that giving no answer was just an incriminating as saying, sure, yeah, I bought in that one over there.

He knew that it made him a hypocrite, but MacCready’s stance on synths tended to waver depending on the situation. Danse was a dangerous element, packaged directly from the Institute, just like that courser, X6-88, – who had been briefly employed in Nate’s entourage before disappearing. Both Danse and X6 were literal killing machines, built to destroy anyone who they perceived as enemies.

Curie was different, though. She operated under whatever pre-approved programming Nate had seen fit to allow. She was still a meek scientist, almost a child, a newcomer to the Wasteland who abhorred violence, partaking in it only when absolutely necessary. Sweet, shy, and unassuming, she lacked the bloodthirsty nature that both Danse and X6-88 had shared. Curie posed no threat to anyone.

Unnerved, MacCready bid a hasty farewell to the caravaner and continued combing through the community. Although no one had any answers for him about a missing caravan, they had plenty of smiles and well wishes.

Cait resurfaced, steering him into a tight wedge between two houses. The sun was setting and dark shadows were easy to find. “Something’s weird,” she said as they huddled, swinging her bat lightly against one leg. “Ain’t nobody as happy as the folks here are.”

“Coverin’ something?” he asked her, keeping an eye out for Curie. He spotted her and waved her in. She jogged towards them, satchel bouncing.

“Definitely,” Cait answered. “Check what I lifted.” When Curie had joined them, they formed a circle as Cait flashed a piece of paper. A few rules were listed on the note, including a warning about discussing synths or the Institute. “What’cha think? Safehouse?”

MacCready shook his head. “Not really the Railroad’s style.”

“I don’t like this,” Cait declared. “We should book outta here and come back when we know what we’re dealin’ with.”

Curie slid her notes back into her bag. “I must agree. We are simply not prepared to combat an unknown variable.”

Shivers and unease ran through MacCready and he had to agree with them. “Then let’s beat.”

As they left the nook between houses, they found a sunset painted in pinks and corals waiting for them. Pressed tightly together, MacCready led them back out into the main arena of Covenant. They were almost to the front gate when the older man, the one MacCready had pickpocketed, fell into step beside them.

“Hey there, stranger,” the man said, nodding to MacCready. “Name’s Jacob. I run this place. Seems like the bunch of you have been poking around.” A line of Covenant citizens ambled from their houses to bar exiting the settlement.

Their group stopped, MacCready pushing himself between the girls and the crowd. “Hey, man, we don’t want any trouble. This just ain’t the place for us. Gonna be heading on.”

Jacob smiled from under his prim hat. “Now, now. Don’t go jumping to any rash conclusions.” The man spoke slowly and concisely, each word landing hard. “But we need to protect our own. I’m sure you understand that.”

There was a commotion behind them and MacCready twisted around. The caravan driver, Dan, was tossed out of the shadows to land at the foot of the tree that fanned thick branches over the entire town.

“Looks like your test failed again, Swanson,” a resident remarked, flaunting a pistol. “One of these trespassers is a synth.”

Heat traveled up MacCready’s neck as his stomach clenched. There was a perceivable shift in the air.

Jacob snapped his fingers and the wealth of citizens rushed at them. It happened so fast that MacCready and Curie had no time to draw their weapons. Cait only managed to swing her bat once, connecting with someone’s upraised arm, before the three of them were restrained.

“Bitch broke my arm!” someone was shouting, as MacCready found himself being towed towards the immense tree at the center of town. He was forced to his knees and, as he looked around, found that his friends and the trader were being drawn into a semi-circle, all kneeling, wrists held behind their backs.

Brandishing his own weapon, Jacob prowled the assembly, stopping behind the trader, thumbing the hammer. “Which one is it?”

Dan shook his head, shaggy hair swinging. He was covered in bruises, causing his face to swell. “I told you,” he growled. “I don’t know for sure. They didn’t tell me.”

Jacob fired his gun and the front of Dan’s head exploded outwards in a shower of brain, bone and blood. The three from Sanctuary jerked, stunned into silence. Jacob cleared his throat and smoothed his tie, revolver still smoking at his side. “Apologies. That wasn’t very neighborly at all. Let’s try again.” He continued roving the circle. “Hypothetically – say that one of you is a synth. Which one would it be?”

MacCready’s eyes danced all over the scene. Cait was boring holes into Jacob’s face, muscles jumping in her cheeks as she ground her teeth. Curie was glancing at MacCready, as if pleading with him, but his jaw was fixed shut. A wrong word could be disastrous. Dan’s body lay in a heap, still leaking blood.

Silence stretched, townsfolk fingering their weapons while Jacob wove his way through the group, stepping between each of them, studying their expressions. “No? No one?” he asked as the three of them remained mute. He huffed a disappointed sound. “I supposed we’ll have to gamble, then. One out of three. Take him to the compound.”

At a gesture from Jacob, two inhabitants grabbed MacCready by the arms and hauled him to his feet. “Whoa, whoa, wait! No! I’m not a damn synth!” he shouted, as he was dragged from the circle kicking and struggling. Cait lurched to her feet, engaging in a brief struggle before she was subdued by a rifle stock striking her in the back.

Amid a sudden swell of fright, it dawned on MacCready that this fear of synths had cost of lot of real people their lives. How many had died being falsely accused, shouting the truth up until the end to no avail?  With eager hands grabbing at him, hoisting him off the ground, it seemed like MacCready was about to join the ranks of the condemned. Christ, had more people had died this way than actual synths?

“Non!” Curie screamed, her voice cutting through Cait’s yelling and the shouting of the townspeople. “Stop it! It is me! You will leave him alone!”

“Curie, no…” MacCready breathed as the threat to him stalled, people pausing as they heard her.

“Oui. I confess,” she said, ignoring him and addressing the entire town. “I am guilty. I am not, nor have I ever been, human. My associates did not know of this. I have, how you say, bamboozled them.”

MacCready found himself being thrown forward, landing hard on his palms, minute bits of gravel cutting into the skin. Cait flew herself to his side as two men grabbed Curie roughly by the arms. The word ‘wait’ never made it out of MacCready’s mouth. Fighting for Curie would undoubtedly assure that all three of them would be restrained. He and Cait stood and were forced backward by leveled weapons.

Motioning to Curie with his gun barrel, Jacob said, “See? That wasn’t difficult at all. You’ll gladly remain here. The two of you” – he addressed MacCready and Cait – “should probably pick your friends a little more carefully next time. And let’s keep this little incident between us. No hard feelings, right? We all have to do our part to keep the Commonwealth safe and secure for everyone.”

He and Cait were hauled out of the front gate, stumbling backwards the entire time. The last MacCready saw of Curie was the resigned stare that she gave him. It is all right, she seemed to be saying. I can bear this. You will live and that is truly what matters. She gave a small smile as the gate swung shut, sealing her from view. The doors sealed with a heavy clang, turrets still whirring above the wall.

In a moment of desperate insanity, guilt gnawing at his insides, MacCready threw his shoulder at the doors, as if to break his way back in. And then what? Be immediately cut down? He stepped away from the wall.

“Hell,” Cait cursed, rubbing her hands against her thighs. Without her bat, she was unarmed. “We goin’ for Nate?”

It was a knee-jerk reaction to go to Nate with any problem that reared. His heart heavy, MacCready shook his head. “Out of range. And with the Brotherhood.”

“Minutemen?”

“Not their bag. And their numbers are strained.”

With sudden inspiration, his back straightened and he threw himself into a run. He heard Cait’s shoes plod the pavement a step behind. “Hold up!” she cried. “Where you off to?”

“Back to Sanctuary,” he called over a shoulder, not breaking stride. “Gotta hop on the radio. Synth in jeopardy – this is a Railroad problem.”

Chapter Text

DEACON

Railroad HQ, MA

April 15th, 2288

Floating lazily in a vast sea of nothing, Deacon couldn’t find much to care about. Sure, he was slowly falling, but that was no reason to be concerned. This was one of his favorite places, one of the few times that he could be alone and safe at the same time. Well, at least it felt that way on this side. On the other side, zombie dinosaurs could be tearing the Commonwealth apart and he’d never know it.

His lethargic freefall came to an end. Sensation prickled as awareness returned. His body became solid again, and heavy, way too heavy, his arms and legs dead weight as he lay on his back. As his mind settled back into reality, the faint sounds of Railroad HQ beat against his eardrums.  A harsh scraping echoed through the chamber – Glory disassembling a weapon. There was a sizzle and a pop – Tinker Tom doing things that he probably shouldn’t. Right beside his head, a match lit, scratching and whooshing into flame. He struggled to pull his weighty eyelids apart. Opening them a fraction, he found Desdemona looking down at him, a cigarette in her hand and a sour puss on her face. Orange lamplight climbed the stone walls, stagnant, with no air flow to disrupt the flames. Momentarily, he was startled. Everything was too clear, too bright, and it took him a few seconds to realize why.

“Shades, please,” he asked with a thick, dry tongue. His voice was hoarse and low, a side effect of time spent under anesthesia.

She stamped her cigarette out and leaned in closer, fishing something from a pocket. She affixed his sunglasses onto his face and familiar shades of gray fell over his field of vision. Something large and white fell into view. Carrington, in his lab coat, stretched across Deacon to pull an empty bag of saline down from the IV stand and replace it with a fresh one.

“I had the strangest dream,” Deacon rasped. “And you were there, and you were there –”

“I don’t need a recap, Deacon,” Desdemona said, devoid of mirth. His jokes never quite landed with her. “I need you to answer a few questions.”

He cleared his throat, wincing at the scratchiness in his windpipe. “Hit me. But not literally. My noodle arms would make for a lame defense.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Somewhere over the rainbow. It’s a little drabber than I anticipated.” He rose up on his elbows, triggering a dull throb at the back of his bald head. His fingers brushed over the spot, finding a lump there. Great. Now he’d have to invest in even more wigs to hide the protrusion.

“Do you recognize me?”

“One of the witches. Did I get that right?”

“Seriously?” Carrington asked from nearby. “You expect that he’d give you accurate answers? The fact that he’s as infuriating as usual proves that there were no complications.”

Desdemona cast Carrington a wry look before dropping her gaze to Deacon. “Do you know your name?”

He hesitated to respond. Still emerging from the fuzzy, helpless bubble of surgery, he couldn’t be certain that he wouldn’t give her his real name.

Desdemona ignored his silence and rolled on. “Do you know what we’ve done to you?”

He sat up, albeit with some difficulty. “Augmentation,” he answered clearly. “Now I can carpool to the Institute with Fixer. Thank God, ‘cause that commute was killer.”

It had taken the Railroad time to figure out what to do with the courser chip that Deacon had taken from X6-88. Correspondence between Carrington and Pinkerton all the way in the Capital had been difficult and haphazard. HQ’s doctor did his job just fine, but the man lacked the legendary brilliance that Pinkerton had honed. While things would have been easier if Pinkerton was brought to the Commonwealth, the road was too long for a man as old as he was. Several Railroad agents had served as runners instead, delivering hand-written instructions and theories as fast as the old scientist could generate them. Deacon still didn’t fully understand the mechanics of what had been done to him – that was Carrington’s job – but he trusted both men with his life, and anyways, he never could say no to a surgery.   

Music floated through the crypt, soft and relaxing. “Somebody trying to soothe the savage beast with that music?” Deacon asked. Their headquarters normally sounded as dead as the pre-war residents did in their tombs. “Why do we suddenly have ambiance? It’s like being stuck in an elevator.”

Frowning, Desdemona replied, “The radios are off, Deacon. There isn’t any music playing.”

His brows drew together. He concentrated on the notes, trying to place them and wasn’t too surprised when he succeeded. The barest hint of classical tunes echoed dully from within his own head. Fixer had mentioned some connection between the Institute’s transport frequency and the classical music station, but Deacon hadn’t guessed that it would translate to an ongoing, unavoidable resonance. Although it made him feel slightly akin to Beethoven, it was distracting and his brain felt crowded. He gave Desdemona a half-smirk. “Just joshing you. I know, one of my lamer jokes. Even I wouldn’t laugh at that. I mean, pfft, music. Who cares about the arts anymore, am I right?”

He didn’t feel bad about lying to Dez – he didn’t have much of an emotional response about lying to anyone – but having her panic and pull the plug on a backdoor option into the Institute just wouldn’t do. He was suddenly in a rare category with Fixer, able to slip in and out of the facility unnoticed or detected. Hmm. He was going to have to stock up on additional costumes. However, if a full synth recall ever came to pass, resulting in anyone owning a courser chip or a synth component being beamed directly into the Institute, Deacon was going to find himself screwed along with the rest of synthkind. The odds of that kind of maneuver being initiated on behalf of the Institute were nearly nonexistent – every undercover synth and Institute field agent would be compromised and decades of planning would be annihilated in a single instant. Only an endgame scenario would merit such an event. He shuddered to think of the day that the Institute would consider launching a full force attack. Would the Railroad be targeted first, posing a real threat, or last, to merely wipe out a nuisance?

Deacon sat and mused on that grim thought until Carrington allotted him his release. Pulling needles from Deacon’s arms, he said, “As there are no impediments from the procedure, I give you full clearance to return to your normal duties.”

Deacon slid down from the gurney, the stone floor cold beneath his socks. He rubbed his thumb over a pinprick of blood on the back of his hand. “Cool. That’s one thing to love about the Railroad – the free health care. That, and my very own cubicle.”

“Don’t wander,” Desdemona warned, stepping away. “We’ll want to get you to do recon with Fixer as soon as he’s back in the area.”

“Every lone wolf needs a lamb,” he told her affirmatively.

He rolled his head back and forth, adapting to the soft swell and fade of music. After a short hunt for his sneakers, he retreated to his workstation as HQ buzzed around him. Several holotapes containing images, schematics, floorplans, and last words or goodbyes were scattered across his desk. Wiggling the sneakers on, he scanned an abnormally stout pile of folders and paperwork. A fraction of a familiar face peered back, the photo slipping from one of the folders. He gave a grim smirk and flipped the file open.

The M7-97 case file was still unresolved, unusual for anyone in Deacon’s caseload. Most synths were damn happy to have someone give them a way out of their old lives, ecstatic for anyone to even talk to them as human beings at all. Danse and Harkness were too similar, stubborn and stuck in their ways – neither were wiped, relocated, or surgically altered after their reckoning. They had refused the standard Railroad offerings, as had Glory. Deacon blinked up at her, gazing over the folder. Was she even happy? Doubtful. He’d never seen her crack a smile for any reason other than for the promise of bloodshed or schadenfreude. Then again, she was probably one of those people that was comfortable in their own misery.

“Yo, D!” Tinker Tom shouted. Deacon closed the file and slid it under the rest his paperwork. “One of your Minuteman adjacent buddies is barking over the horn,” Tom said, poking his head out of PAM’s alcove, and gesturing with thumb over his shoulder.

“Personal parameters are being invaded,” PAM’s voice droned. “Please exit my research bay.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tom muttered, scuttling out of her niche as Deacon strode in. Tom had a collection of copper wires and fiber optics in one hand. “You keep hogging the good stuff. Spread the wealth, baby,” he chirped as he exited.

Deacon was tall enough the reach the radio on top of PAM’s shelf with no trouble. He pulled the microphone down, punched the transmitting button, and said, “Welcome to the R&R Slop ‘n’ Go. Can I interest you in a Freedom Shake?”

Hey, uh, Deacon. It’s MacCready.”

“Countersigns and codenames, man,” Deacon insisted.

Dude, I don’t know what any of those are!”

“Then cut it short.”

MacCready gave a quick sigh into the microphone on his end, making static hiss from the speakers near Deacon’s ear. He leaned away from the sound and then back in.

We, uh….well…we kinda lost Curie…

His face pulling into a scowl, Deacon asked, “What, like, you misplaced her? Did you retrace your steps? Maybe look in the fridge? I swear, that’s where I leave my keys all the time.”

No. Deac…she was taken. I’m sorry. It was a real shitsto – crappy situation and she took a proverbial bullet for us.”

Feeling a strange sense of overwhelmingly numb calm, Deacon asked, “…is she alive?”

She was. Cait and I just got back from some town called Covenant, looking for some missing people. Seems like the place goes out of their way to nab synths. Figured you’d want to know and work whatever Railroad magic it is that you guys handle.”

Weird. Deacon didn’t feel much of anything. Curie adored him and they were hip-deep in a physical relationship. He should feel – what? Fright? Horror? Maybe his stance on not getting too attached to anyone had left some deep scarring that nothing could pass through.

Wracking his brain for locations, he mentioned, “Place with a big concrete barrier by the river? Looks like they’re keeping out the Spanish Inquisition?” If a place existed in the Commonwealth, Deacon knew about it.

I…guess? Sure sounds like the place.”

 “On it. Thanks, man.”

You…you’re gonna get her back, right?”

“Goin’ in guns blazing. Just wait for it. I’m gonna be riding a radstag and wielding a blunderbuss in each hand.”

That might make it difficult to shoot. Keeps us posted.”

“Will do.” With that, he replaced the microphone and switched the receiver off.

Deacon took a few strides toward Desdemona’s dais before zigzagging and staggering into the back hallway. Alone, he sank down on his haunches. Like a wave rolling forward, the numbness turned over and Deacon felt a surge of disorienting rage, a black curtain swinging down over his field of vision. A image emerged from his past of a woman, a synth, screaming his name, begging for him to save her. He had failed, and despite the bloody swath he’d carved he had still found her hung and dissected at the end of it. His head jerked back as he tried to clear his mind. Whoa now. Uh-uh. We don’t think about that. Did that ever happen? Were those memories even legit? Lies and reality were too deeply entangled, stories twisted and retold told too many times to be properly recalled.

In his career, Curie hadn’t been the first synth to lean on him a little too heavily. Take one scared synth viewing the world for the first time and pair them with a savior that had all the answers and, boom, instant case of hero-worship. Sexual relationships between newly liberated synths and their Railroad handlers were common, and the synths would remember nothing of the encounters post-wipe. He liked to think that most agents were above taking advantages like that, but the truth was that they weren’t. He certainly wasn’t. Although he hadn’t been Curie’s handler, he seemed to have all of the answers that she was seeking regarding her new status as a synth and he had been more than willing to oblige her request to experiment with physical coitus. Helping a synth out was what the Railroad – and by extension, Deacon – did best. Once, he’d loaned her his French maid outfit and, boy, that had been pretty much the best idea ever. And it was for science! Surely, that created a moral loophole that let him off the hook.

Although it had taken some explaining that sexual sensations did not equal being in love, life with Curie was blissfully uncomplicated. He was safe with her. She would never pry or ask him to make promises that he knew he couldn’t keep. She could live forever on a diet of insight and physical sensation. He could keep her at a distance and deny any romantic inkling. Emotions and him, they didn’t get along particularly well. Better to box them up and store them elsewhere. It was their agreement, something that he could easily do.

Deacon’s mind was caught in an onslaught of images. What was happening to Curie right now? Were her captors raping her? Maybe. Probably. That was one of those peculiar reactions that men had towards things that they hated and didn’t understand. Surely, that was an experience that didn’t belong in her notes. One picture that wouldn’t go away was the sight of a woman dangling from a chain noose, her entrails spilling from her open abdominal cavity. In a sporadic succession, her hair shifted from Curie’s short, dark pixie to Barbara’s flowing red curls.

He lowered his head into his head and gave a frustrated whine. Standing, he leveled one punch at the crumbling brick wall. The sudden burst of pain in his hand steadied him and he resumed his purposeful path to his superior.

He found Desdemona swathed in a haze of cigarette smoke and disorder. Drummer was yammering in her ear while she glowered down at the notices littering her workspace. Deacon’s keen ears caught a few words; “Stockton,” and “Synth” and “Covenant”. 

“Hey, Dez,” Deacon interjected. “Looks like word is out on that Covenant place. Ya know, the one with the entry exam? Somebody I know got carted off there.”

“That fake synth?” Glory spat from nearby. Deacon turned to glare at her. Glory righted the minigun she had been working on and glowered right back at him. “She’s not even real person. She’s just riding around in someone else’s body.”

Glory had been ongoingly vocal about her displeasure at having Curie’s consciousness transferred to G5-19’s body. She argued that by choosing to endorse Curie’s upload, it validated Wastelanders’ claims that the Railroad was one step away from liberating vending machines, hurting their cause overall.

Deacon looked back at Desdemona. She was watching him without a shred of pity on her face, the red hot glow of her smoke centered between her lips. He shrugged at both women. “Look, I’m not an idiot,” he tried to explain. “I know that she’s the least real synth there is out there…but she makes me laugh and that is an increasingly rare ability these days. If you’re looking for an apology about me considering her one of ours, you’ve got a long wait ahead. This is what we do – help synths. All of them. And from what I just overheard, she’s not the first to disappear at that location.”

“Old Man Stockton’s daughter was out that way,” Drummer shared, his conversation no longer secret. “No word from her since.”

“Amelia Stockton?” Glory asked, standing, hefting the minigun. “Sweet girl. Can’t fire a gun to save her life. She’s gonna get eaten alive by those bastards that grabbed her. We rolling in after her?”

Desdemona shook her head, flicking ash. “We’d be too late. The location is on the other side of the Commonwealth. I’ll have Caretaker dispatch a team of heavies to handle it. They’ll pull any synths they find and bring them to the usual place for reassessment.”

“Meaning Bunker Hill?” Deacon noted, glad that Amelia’s peril could sway a rescue attempt, even if Curie’s couldn’t.

“Of course,” Desdemona said, returning her lit cigarette to her mouth. “Glory, build a team. I want an interrogation squad ready to meet the group post retrieval. We need to know what we’re up against. Covenant could be one of many places used to eradicate synths.”

“Lookit you,” Deacon gushed, giving Desdemona a wry smile. “So certain that no one’s gonna die in this.” He made for his workstation to retrieve his weapons. “C’mon, Glor,” he said over his shoulder. “Let’s go meet our intrepid heroes when they return from battle.”

“Not you, Deacon,” ordered Desdemona. “We didn’t entrust you with that tech in your head just to get it blown up. You’re here or you’re in the Institute with Fixer. We can’t risk you in the field. Not anymore.”

He turned so slowly to face her, disbelief churning in his gut. “Pardon? I must have been oxygen deprived during that surgery. Could’ve sworn you just forbade me from being a field agent.”

Sighing, Desdemona stamped out her cigarette. “I know that you wouldn’t approve. But I felt it the right thing to do. You’re our secret agent and our best hope for destroying the Institute. We have to keep you safe.”

Anger bubbled inside of him. “Hey, I never signed up to be an indoor kitty. You really think I’m gonna just stay put while you all go on fighting without me?” He wanted to be furious with her. Truth be told though, he had to honor her deception. Desdemona had taken a page straight out of his book – furthering the cause through doublespeak and paper thin promises. So this is what it felt like to be on the other side of a sham. Faint music still chimed in his head, the melody turned mournful and ironic.

“You will and you’ll be happy to do so,” Desdemona retorted. “Be flattered. You’ll be one of the first on site during the fight for the Institute. You might even get to fire the first shot.”

Chapter Text

CURIE

Covenant, MA

April 15th, 2288

Curie’s stomach rumbled. The entire digestive process – while fascinating – could be quite inopportune. Comforts such as a hot meal or a night’s sleep in her own bed could not be accommodated. The town had settled in the hours since she had last seen MacCready or Cait, night falling as she sat in her small prison. Through the windows of her cell, a small room adjoined to one of the homes, she could spot a few twinkling stars suspended in a black sky. The only source of light in the building was that of the moonlight slipping in through the windows, throwing the bars of her cell into long shadows that crept along the floorboards.

When the front door opened it was Jacob in his porkpie hat accompanied by two other men. With disgusted expressions they unlocked her cell and reached in to grab her. She didn’t fight back as she was pulled out and her hands bound. It would have been foolish to engage them in combat, her without weapons and outnumbered. A blindfold dropped over her eyes, adding to her helpless state.

She truly pitied these men, to live in such an enormous time of creation and rebirth and choose, instead of being joyous and inventive, to be frightened and cruel. But to err was human, she supposed as she was marched out of the building and down the promenade. A squealing sound came from the front gate, metal hinges grinding. A fresh breeze caressed her face, unhindered by the concrete barrier that surrounded the town. They must be taking her out of Covenant, she grasped. But where to after that, she couldn’t begin to imagine. She was disturbingly intrigued as to what was going to happen to her. Not fearful, not despondent, merely curious. 

The men that escorted her said little. They told her to step into something that wobbled, swaying left to right – a boat. For a few minutes, all she heard was the slapping on water against the keel and faint splashing as paddles dipped into the river, propelling them. There came an abrupt bump as the boat ran ashore, rocks scrapping at the hull. Curie was jostled out of the transport and found herself submerged in chilly water up past her knees. A shove against her back urged her forward, wading in the direction she was guided. The clank and squeal of a metal door echoed. Was she in a tunnel? She was shoved forward and the door slammed shut behind her. After a short walk, the water fell away and she was on dry land once more.

“Got a new one, Manny,” she heard one of her captors say.

“Haul it down to processing,” was the reply.  

Curie almost stumbled as a tug on her arm nearly yanked her off her feet. She blindly plodded down a dirt passageway, turning as her captors guided her, marching her deeper and deeper into a maze of a dungeon that stank of stale air and wet earth. She passed by a chamber where a woman was screaming in breathless terror. Or pain. The sound echoed down the corridor making Curie’s stomach knot.

“Doc Blythe,” someone in her party addressed. The voice sounded familiar. “Where you want it?”

“Room two.”

Curie found herself being turned and pushed to one side. By the sound of her shoes hitting the ground, she could tell that she now stood on metal and had left the dirt-packed path behind. After a few steps forward, she was spun and pushed backways until she felt herself falling into a chair. Clasps were secured around her ankles and her bound wrists were momentarily freed before being strapped down onto armrests. An additional band circled her forehead and the blindfold fell away.

She was briefly relieved to see a man in a lab coat, prepping a tall machine to her right. Just as swiftly, she fought that reaction from her mind. If she was in a vault, odds of horrendous experimentation were high. But the neither the room nor the doctor’s coat were clean enough to signify that her kidnapping was endorsed by Vault-Tec personnel. Still, she felt a similarity that she couldn’t quite identify.

The man in the lab coat, who must have been the person called Blythe, approached and leaning over Curie. He shook out the wires on a few electrodes and adhered them to her skin, the round nodes sticking to her temples and just below her collarbone. Her eyes followed the wires up to the big machines by her side, guessing that it must be an electrocardiogram and a brain wave monitor. The woman on the other side of the wall continued to wail. Blythe punched a few buttons on a nearby console and the equipment attached to Curie hummed to life. Feeling a guilty flush, she wished that she could watch whatever procedure was about to occur. But she would be the subject on this experiment, not an observer.

Blythe slid away to access a terminal, drawing Curie’s eyes as he moved. She spotted the greaser from the gate, pouring himself a cup of coffee while two guards in shabby gear flanked him, carrying their weapons close to their chests, looking anxious to use them.

The screaming from the other room abruptly stopped and silence pierced at Curie’s ears for a few tense seconds. A creak and grind signified a door being opened. A second round of the same sounds was accompanied by a bang as the door closed.

Everyone in the room stilled as an older woman entered Curie’s test chamber. She wore a lab coat as well along with a pair of goggles that hid her eyes. She had the type of sour expression that might have sent children running or curdled milk.

“Recording now, Dr. Chambers,” Blythe said over his shoulder without looking at her. “Subject 14 ready for baseline testing.”

Curie’s gaze scraped the room. Swanson, from the gate, had settled into a chair at one of the metal tables in room, their tabletops covered in notes, folders and equipment, leisurely sipping from his mug. The guards were shifting, scavvers, not soldiers or Gunners used to long hours of diligent attention. With a start, she noted familiar posters plastered to support columns and was finally able to place the strange connection she felt with the setup of this facility. “However did you come across this lab equipment?” she asked from within her bonds. “Was it recovered from Vault 75? That seems most likely.”

Swanson harrumphed from behind his mug. “Speak when spoken to, synth. You wanna get a treatment?”

Curie frowned. “I am unsure. I will need more information regarding this treatment.”

“What’s with the accent?” one of the guards mumbled to the other.

“Beats me,” the second guard responded with a shrug that made his rifle bob up and down.

Clearing his throat, Blythe turned to Curie and spoke clearly. “Congratulations. You made it onto a baseball team. Which position do you prefer?”

It was the same question given at the gate to Covenant. She couldn’t recall the answer she had given and struggled to generate a response. “I…it was…Oh! I remember this. One of my colleagues, he had a holovid of one of these events. I would be – who is it? – the man in the box? The one with the microphone.”

“…the announcer?” Blythe’s face had a blank look.

“Yes! The one that watches the entirety of the game and makes the comments.”

 Blythe spared a glance at Chambers, whose scowl deepened. “Um…why?” Blythe asked.

“To document and observe the proceedings, of course.”

The guards looked at each other. Swanson paused with his mug in the air, one brow lowered.

“I…yes. Noted,” Blythe said as Chambers drifted closer. “Next question. Your grandmother invites you to tea, but you're surprised when she gives you a pistol and orders you to kill someone. What do you do?”

Curie hummed and wore a thoughtful expression. “Is this the first occurrence of such a request? Senior dementia is a quite sad and serious ailment. My recommendation would be to provide a service animal for comfort and companionship. Perhaps a feline.”

Swanson stood and made his way to Chambers. He whispered into her ear, “This one ain’t fightin’ the questioning. The other ones, they fight the whole way through.”

“An anomaly, I agree,” she muttered through a sneer.

“I mean, the questions are supposed to be disorienting,” Swanson continued. “We want a gut response to the test.”

“Oh, I am quite familiar with this assessment,” Curie explained, nodding against her head strap. “It is a derivative of the Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test.”

Everyone in the room froze. “How the hell do you know that?” Blythe sputtered.

“I was an employee of Vault-Tec,” she answered honestly.

“The fuck?” a guard sputtered. “Vaults use synths?”

“Oh, no, no,” Curie corrected. “That was after. I have only been a synth for about…hmm…five months? Before that, I was a RobCo robot.”

Confused silence stretched. Stunned glances were traded all around the room.

“It’s lying,” Chambers finally spouted. “Playing games with us.” With a nod from her, Blythe clicked a switch. A jolt of electricity shot through Curie. The room went white as her muscles contracted, the sensation of being burned from the inside out too sharp and painful to quantify. Unable to pry her jaws apart to scream, she rode the agonizing wave to its conclusion. The current passed through her and the event was over almost instantly.

In the aftermath, pins and needles pricking under her skin, Curie shocked herself by feeling rage. Scientific exploration, although misled, she could apprehend, perhaps even support. But cruelty and torture was beyond her realm of comprehension. Her captivity was no longer an inconvenience and the novelty of participating in their studies dissipated.

Chambers turned her back on Curie. “Let it rot in one of the cells until it’s willing to drop the good subject act. Starvation is a powerful motivator, even for these machines. And in the interim, you know the next stage.” She signaled to the guards, who both straightened and leered at each other. They crossed the room to pull Curie from her chair. She slumped in their arms, the aftereffects of the shock given to her running its course. As soon as Blythe had disconnected the nodes, Curie found her feet and was escorted further into the compound through winding tunnels and many doorways.

In an enlarged underground cavity, a collection of both medical and equipment stations cluttered the cave floor while several cells secured with doors of iron bars lined an elevated section. It was this second story area that Curie was directed to, a guard gripping each of her arms. Dirty and wide-eyed prisoners cowered within the cells, staring fearfully at the guards.

Curie’s entourage stopped before one of the cells. What looked like a pile of rags trembled in a far corner. A guard waved over his shoulder and the cell door slid open with a slight grinding noise. Curie was roughly shoved inside and fell to her knees. The door rumbled shut behind her with a clang. One of the guards took a moment to spit at her through the bars before leaving.

She stood, steadily. Nerves wouldn’t serve to help her position. While MacCready and the others might be planning to liberate her, she couldn’t count on them succeeding.

The ball of tattered clothes still shivered at the far side of the cell. Curie peeked over her shoulder at the retreating guards and back to her cellmate. She crossed the small cage and crouched beside her co-prisoner. The person jumped when Curie’s hand touched their shoulder.

“No!” they screeched, sobbing. “Not again! Please!” The other captive was a young woman. She thrashed backwards, twisting away from Curie. Her hair might have been blonde or light brown but in the dimness of the cave and in her unkempt state it was hard to tell. She had a clear bite mark reddening her neck and no pants.

“It is quite alright,” said Curie, softly. “I have sufficient medical training. If I may, can I check you for injuries?”

“Are you real?” the woman asked, shaking. “Are you a person?”

Curie was taken back for a moment then understood. “If you are asking if I am a human or synth, I am a synth.” Although Deacon had warned her to use caution when speaking to others, spouting untruths went against her nature. The woman didn’t shrink away from her. “What is your name, mademoiselle?”

“A-Amelia.”

“Oh!” Curie said brightly. “Hello. I was sent to rescue you. Although….I suppose such a thing is a bit more difficult now.” She dropped her gaze from Amelia and scanned the cell while she spoke. “Are you hurt?”

“I…those men…” Amelia didn’t finish.

Curie turned a sleeping bag over, checking underneath. She spared a consoling look at Amelia. “Oui. I suspected. I am very sorry.”

Amelia’s eyes had gone unfocused. She had wrapped her arms protectively around her legs. “They come for me a couple of times a day. Sometimes, they put me in the chair and ask me questions. Sometimes…they take turns…they ask me the questions then, too. The woman with the goggles…she watches.”

A spark of fury burst to life inside of Curie. She was surprised by the strength of it. Her brows knitted and hot warmth spread down her limbs. Curious, she noted. She tore her eyes away and scanned the solid dirt walls. Affixed to one wall was a Tesla trap, its wires snaking out of the cell and down to the first level. “What is this trap used for?” she asked.

Amelia had lowered her face, burying it in her arms, forehead against her knees. “They shock us. A few people tried to get out. They got zapped. They…they kept screaming….”

Continuing to rummage through the cell, Curie flipped over a dinner tray. Beneath it laid a silver fork. A wide grin broke out across her face. Curie swiftly grabbed it, stuffing it into a pocket in her jeans. She swung her head to face Amelia.

The other woman caught her expression and looked at Curie as if she had gone mad. “Why are you smiling?”

“Because you are a survivor,” Curie assured. “As am I. And we will make a grand escape together, you and I, despite the odds.”

“How – how can you promise that?” Amelia sniffled, her eyes widening as if daring to hope.

“I often find myself being underestimated. Strange, no?” Curie stood and looked up at the Tesla trap. She began to unbutton her flannel shirt. “You will tell me if anyone enters this cavern, yes?”

“I…yes.”

Curie shrugged out of her shirt, exposing the white tank underneath. She skidded a bucket over and upended it, hopping on top of it. “Can you walk?” she asked Amelia as she wound the shirt around one hand.

“I can.”

Curie pulled the fork from her pocket and transferred it to her cloth-wrapped hand. “Can you run? Fire a weapon?”

“I…I think so.”

“That is good.” Curie reached up and wedged the fork into the guts of the trap. It made a sizzling sound and the fork glowed red. She jumped down off of the bucket and put her shirt back on. “Now, I need your assistance.”

“Okay…”

“I want you to yell for them. Gather as many as you can up here.”

Amelia froze, not even breathing. “I…what would I say?”

“Lie, if you must. Something about the Institute? Perhaps that they are coming for you?” An army of converging synths looking to reclaim those who had escaped. That seemed like a pretty terrifying persuasion.

Amelia stood, her bare knees knocking in fear. Smiling again, Curie put her hands on her shoulders. “This is a time for strength. We will persevere but only with you assisting me. Do not be afraid. Be calm but fierce. I need you as you need me.”

Gulping, Amelia nodded. She strode to the bars and drew a deep breath. “You’ll be sorry!” she cried. “The Institute and all of my synth friends are coming for me!” She looked back at Curie, who signaled for her to keep going. “My father will have sent for them! It’s been days! They’ll be here any minute!”

Two guards poked their heads into the cavern. “Shut your cakehole, robot bitch,” one snarled.

“You keep opening your mouth, I’ll fill it with something,” the other added, letting go of his assault rifle to grab his crotch.

Amelia gave Curie a frantic look of horror.

Curie frowned. The guards were still too far away for her plan to work. What would Deacon do? He’d say something to inflame them. Most likely, it would be a cultural reference that no one would understand. Curie recalled a holovid that one of the scientists from Vault 81 had enjoyed. “Your mother was a molerat and your father smelt of tarberries!” she shouted, flinging the bucket against the bars. She groped for the meal tray and slid up to the gate, spinning the tray horizontally to spiral at a guard’s head.

He ducked and shouted to the rear hallway, “Got a ruckus in here! Send somebody to the terminals to teach ‘em some manners!”

“Big man you are, sending someone else in!” Amelia was on fire now, shoulders taut with rage, gripping the bars with whitened knuckles. “Call me a bitch – you’re the bitch, asshole!”

Amelia’s courage must have sparked the survival instincts of the other prisoners. They began to shout affronts as the guards, pelting them with whatever they could find.

Both guards snarled and plodded up the path to the cages, a few more appearing behind them. Doctor Blythe slid past them and scurried to one of the desktops below, punching the keyboard of a terminal.

Curie threw herself to the ground and scrambled to haul the sleeping bag over her head. “Amelia!” she cried. “Join me now!” Amelia spun from the gate, which was rumbling open, and dove down next to Curie. She pulled the thick padding over their bodies as the Tesla trap arced and spat. The sound of charging energy became deafening until the trap exploded in bolts of blue lightening shooting out at all angles in uncontrolled bursts. Curie could see the light dancing between the gap of the sleeping bag and the dirt floor. The guards, previously so intent on inciting wrath on their prisoners were screaming as electricity ran through them. “Shut it off!” someone was yelling. “Power it down!”

The flashes of blue light died and Curie threw the fabric cover off. One of the guards lay sprawled in the doorway to her cell, his armor smoking. His rifle lay where it had fallen, a step away. Curie sprang for it, snagging it by the shoulder strap and pulling it close. The safety was still off and the weapon undamaged. She snapped it up to her shoulder and released a series of rounds into the remaining guards, sparing a few precise shots to cut down Blythe before he could trigger traps in the other cages. Curie scrambled down to the first level and scrolled through the terminal’s commandsTriggering the rest of the cells to unlock, she shouted at the other captives, “You will accompany me! Take the weapons! Defend yourselves!”

She hurried to the doorway and cautiously strode out, watching Amelia follow suit and gesture to the other prisoners to hurry with the barrel of a pistol she had claimed. Curie and the escapees formed a tight group as they wound their way through a labyrinth of passageways, sending a barrage of bullets and anyway who tried to stop them. At long last, a pipe tunnel at the end of one corridor came into view. Curie felt a rush of relief surge through her when she saw it. “Come now,” she ordered. “We will –”

A series of bullets stuck the pipe, causing orange sparks to fly. The ragged band dropped into a collective crouch and glanced up.

On a high brick platform above them stood Swanson with an assault rifle in his hands. Doctor Chambers stood beside him with her pistol leveled. A line of guards flanked them. “The Institute coming for you,” Swanson crooned. “Bullshit. You’re nobody. There ain’t no one coming to save you.”

Amelia and the others looked at Curie, pleading with her to have had some secret backup plan. She wasn’t sure of how to tell them that she was at a loss for solutions.

Something made a clicking noise from within the pipe. Too familiar with the sound, Curie dropped to a sprawl. “Grenade!” she shouted, and the others hit the dirt as something small went flying by. A crack followed by an eruption of disorienting cold filled the cramped quarters along with a cloud of dust, debris and snowy condensed air.

As her ears rang, Curie saw figures swarm from the pipe, firing powerful blasts of blue energy from Gauss rifles at the guards. These newcomers wore heavy coats of reinforced leather and determined expressions. Two lines formed; one line fired relentlessly of the captors, cutting Swanson and Chambers apart, the other line recovering the freed captives. One of them gripped Curie by the arm and heaved her into the safety of the tunnel, forcing her to leave the firefight. In her stunned confusion, Curie wasn’t sure who these people were.

When the sound of gunfire died and the strangers reconvened in the tunnel, Curie spotted one questioning Amelia. “Stockton’s daughter?” he asked her.

“I – oh, yes!” Amelia seemed to sag with relief. “Did my father send you?”

Her questioner glanced at another rescuer, who nodded and reached into a bag. “You’ll understand later,” he said. “Precautionary measures.” The second man stepped forward and plunged a needle into Amelia’s neck. She fell into the first man’s arms.

Curie had only a moment to be confused before she felt a sharp prick in her own neck. A sound like rushing water filled her ears as her body went limp, falling into the arms of one of the rescuers. The other survivors seemed to all fall at once, grabbed by the rescuers who all brandished syringes with long needles. She vision blurred, disorienting her.

“How long ‘til we can transport the lot of them to the usual place?” the man holding Amelia asked as he lifted her slack body.

“With travel and debriefing, we’ll be done in a day, back at Mercer in two,” one of the others answered. “Standard proceedings. By the book – you know that’s how Desdemona likes it.”

Curie felt herself being raised as she lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

DANSE

Milford Memorial Hospital, DE

September 28th, 2280

Danse burst through the double doors of Admitting, John’s arm slung around his neck. The doors threw wide and clanged against their frames clanging against their frames, allowing a square of sunlight to momentarily flood the lobby before swinging shut, plunging the two of them into a bleak tomb. The upper windows of the foyer were caked in soot and grime, preventing daylight from penetrating into the room below. Several emergency lights glowed in remote corners of the space, pale amber and ruby, spreading weak illumination as far as they could. Skeletons littered the floor, some in wheelchairs, and two more were stretched out over the reception area.

Outside, stalking the perimeter of the hospital, a rumbling voice called, “Gonna find you, bleeder!  I’ll crack your bones one by one!” A demonic howling accompanied the threat, causing Danse’s already sweaty body to churn out more anxious droplets to run down his neck.

He flung John to the floor, leaving him to curse and bleed as Danse ran headlong for the reception area, laser rifle bouncing against his back. He grasped a flag pole still secured to its base, ragged pennant attached, and rushed back to the doors. A guttural, frustrated roar shook the boarded-up windows at ground level. Additional voices thundered outside in response. Danse wedged the pole through the door handles, knotting the flag around it, securing it in place. He threw himself back as something banged into the doors, a slit of sunlight peeking through the crack. Danse’s reinforcement held, but it would not last very long, not against an entire horde of mutants trying to break in.

He grabbed John by the back of his shirt, hauling him up. His slid an arm around his waist and dragged John’s arm around his head to take hold of his shoulder again. Pressed against his side, they shambled down one of the hallways, praying for temporary asylum, John hopping while Danse nearly dragged him down the corridor. A trail of blood splattered in their wake.

Danse pulled to a stop before an elevator. “Nice fucking day, you said”, he growled, punching the elevator recall button. “Let’s hang at the lake, you said.” No sound came from the elevator shaft. Of course it was broken.

“Can we not blame me, please?” John grunted from between gritted teeth. One of his pant legs was soaked through with blood.

Darting to one side, and eliciting a cry from John, Danse towed him into a stairwell. The choice of up or down played through his mind. Being potentially trapped below ground wasn’t a risk that Danse was willing to take. He began climbing, supporting John, wondering if it would be easier to just carry him. The stairwell was nominally darker than the lobby. At each level they passed, Danse would squint to read the signage for that floor, a single bulb and an exit sign above every door. At a level marked Surgery, he left the stairs behind, pulling John out into a long white hallway. With every doorway that they passed through, Danse would drop John into a chair lining the wall and rig a barrier, barring a door or tipping furniture into the hall. They moved through an operating theater and into a side room stocked with equipment. Danse’s ragged breath and John’s pained bellowing were the only sounds present in an otherwise still and lifeless space. Inside of a steel storage room with one entry point, this was as secure a location as they were likely to find. He hoisted John onto a table and unslung his rifle, keeping the safety off, placing it out of the way but near enough to grab. Leaving John to grind his palm against his wound, Danse began to collect supplies.

When they had been caught unawares by an assemblage of mutants, bullets had immediately started flying. Without their supplies, which were left back at their camp in lieu of what was meant to have been a short stroll, emergency rations were all that they had brought. The few stimpaks that Danse carried had been used on himself when a series of bullets tore holes through his rifle arm. They had almost been clear of the area when John had taken a shot to his thigh, knocking him to the ground and causing his to lose his weapon. In a haze of firefight adrenaline and sudden icy horror, Danse had grabbed him and made for the red cross of a sign in the distance. Now a maze deep in the hospital, Danse could finally attend to John’s injury.

“There goes my unsullied record,” John was grumbling behind him, hoarseness in his voice. “Guess I’m a normal Wastelander now, carrying around a bullet in my body.”

Through some sort of otherworldly luck, John had never taken a bullet before now. Danse briefly thanked God that John hadn’t been shot in the head. The image that accompanied that thought made him shudder. He had never desired to be in a combat situation with John by his side. He had stridden for years to avoid such a thing, being overly cautious and avoiding dangerous or unpredictable locales. “What chems do you have?” he asked over his shoulder, snatching up various tools necessary to extract the bullet.

“I don’t carry when I’m with you.”

Danse sighed as he yanked cabinet doors open. He’d waited years for that answer only to have it now at the absolute worst time. John’s chem use had been a subtle point of contention between them since the beginning, one of the things that the two of them would never agree on. Like Danse’s Brotherhood allegiance, it was something they struggled to compromise on. Both chose to actively overlook these differences of opinion in favor of preserving their relationship, opting for selected ignorance over conflict.

Prying first aid boxes apart and rummaging through rows of chems revealed a single stimpak, a bottle of antiseptic and, blessedly, a bottle of Hydra. “Here,” Danse said, handing the bottle to John. “Drink this.” He then collected the items he had accumulated and deposited them on a surgical tray, which he placed next to John’s hip.

Danse attended to him, cool efficiency pushing away fear. John was hardly the first person that Danse had attended to. As a high ranking officer, he had to be apt at all fields, including medical training should their field scribe be lost. Under the weak gleam of flicking florescent tubes, he nudged John’s hand out of the way and ripped the fabric of John’s khakis apart, exposing the injury. The jostling of getting him here had done John’s leg no favors. He fumbled to inject a stimpak, which would force the bullet closer to the surface of John’s skin while knitting torn muscle left in its wake. Extracting the enlarged needle, Danse discarded it and unscrewed a bottle of antiseptic, splashing some over the wound. John ground his teeth and hissed, pulling the bottle away from his lips.

“Finish it,” Danse commanded. The Hydra would work to repair any nerve damage that had been sustained.

John complied, still grimacing. He resembled a bloodied pin-up reminiscent of Nuka-Girl, lounging propped up on one arm, elbow on the knee of his good leg, which was bent in an inverted V, pulling a long draught from the Hydra bottle.

“Don’t move.” Danse took hold of John’s slender thigh, bracing himself and keeping John’s leg still, so as to avoid further damage. With the opposite hand, he dug into the wound with forceps, bringing forth a jagged scream from John, until metal hit metal.  With his teeth clenched, he eased the projectile out, careful not to twist it. Danse dropped the bullet onto the tray. “It’s done. How do you feel?” Danse asked, putting pressure on the bullet hole until the stimpak could complete its job, sealing the wound entirely.

John’s eyes were squeezed shut. He gasped through his teeth, twisted one hand into thumbs-up gesture and shook it in the air, shivering as though he had been hit by an unexpected draft. “Feels awesome. Five stars. I’d recommend being shot to all my friends.” He looked pale and green under the florescent lighting. The empty bottle of Hydra sat by his side. Having lost a fair amount of blood during their escape, what John needed were blood packs. Unfortunately, none were stocked with the supply room.

Feeling flushed with guilt, Danse stammered. “I…I’m sorry. I should have done a better job at scouting the area. I should have been more diligent. I should have –”

“Stop. I ain’t gonna deal with you trying to make yourself upset.” John was supported by both arms now, his legs stretched out over the table. John’s head was ducked, struggling to force his labored breathing into rhythm. Still wan, he was shaking, the after effects of shock clearing out of his system. “Shit happens. And my number was up. That’s all.”

Not able to look at him any longer, Danse averted his eyes and checked the nearly closed wound as his stomach twisted. The terror that he’d been holding at bay crashed over him. Even though the threat had passed, the fear that today might have been the day he lost John overwhelmed him. His hands shook as he wiped his bloody fingers clean with a dampened rag. Tentatively, he glanced back up.

John’s hazel eyes looked a muddy color, brown mixed with green, half-lidded and losing focus as the Hydra crept through his system, causing sweat to bead on his forehead and his pupils to expand. Catching his gaze, John gave a lop-sided smile. Nearly all of John’s teeth were straight, but his incisors unusually sharp; he had bitten Danse a little too aggressively at times, drawing blood. He liked that John was small-framed – it made him feel defaulted into the role of the hero. He and Cutler had been nearly identical in build, equals on the battlefield and in their lives. John was about as capable as any normal Wastelander, which was to say not very in comparison to Danse’s training, and he had taken great pride in being his guardian. “It was my duty to protect you. I’m…ashamed to have failed at that.”

A short, huffing laugh escaped John’s throat. “Why?” he asked, sounding breathless and astonished, high on Hydra. “I ain’t the kinda person someone looks out for. I’m a mess and a fuck up.”

John’s self-loathing was normally subtler. After a brief hesitation, Danse responded, “I don’t think those things.”

“You would,” John insisted, shaking his head, a crease forming between his brows. “You don’t know what I do when you aren’t around, who I am. My days all blend together. I write and I catalog and I chart and I just…pass time until I can see you again.” John’s voice was gradually increasing in pitch. “I don’t feel. Damn…Dan, I don’t feel anything. S’why I shoot up and take pills and breathe Jet…I can’t feel anything. There’s just you. You’re all I got. And I know that ain’t fair, making you alone be what moves me, but I can’t help it. I miss you…When I wake up and you’re not there I don’t know where I am. I’m fuckin’ lost.” John seemed to shake himself from his reverie, blinking at his surroundings. “Shit…I’m sorry. I whine like a bitch when I drink Hydra.”

Danse pointedly ignored John’s blubbering comments. They made his insides coil anxiously. “You’ve had limb injuries before?”

Glancing away, John stared down at the floor. “No…wasn’t why I took it. I drank it because I could. Cause it was there. It’d fuck me up just as well anything else.”

John was right, of course. Danse had no way to know what he was like outside of the handful of times they saw each other every year. But that he would somehow revert to a persona that Danse was unable to handle was unlikely. They were happy together and, by John’s own admittance, their time together was the highlight of his existence. The moment was all that mattered when they were together; it calmed Danse, shutting down the endless clamor of his mind, bringing Danse back to as normal as he ever could be again. It was the greatest gift anyone could ever give to him. The constant static of negative white noise filling his head since Adams’ Air Force Base quieted. All his concerns fell away, replaced instead by a happy sort of nothingness. Some days, Danse was happy to just sit and let John talk, listening to the sound of his knife rasping against his whetstone as he spoke of politics and commerce and picked Danse’s brain about world events.

John knew everything. About Cutler, about Rivet City, his hopes, his fears – there was nothing left to share. In his own time, John had revealed his secrets, as well – Stacia and the baby they never had, the history of John’s drug use, his time with Garrett and West and what had happened to them. Danse did his best to not judge him and he knew, without question, that John loved him. Danse was well aware that his fraction was the only issue that caused strife between them in an otherwise simple and respectful relationship.

John was still hunched over, gaze locked on the linoleum floor. Danse moved to kneel on the ground, looking up at him, forcing John’s eyes to meet his. “I could never be as hard on you as you are on yourself,” Danse insisted. “Yes, my time is filled when we’re apart, but I do wonder and worry about you.” He exhaled hard. Words didn’t form easily for Danse, and he tried to piece each sentence together with great care. “I do love the Brotherhood. It serves a greater purpose than my own subsistence and runs deeper to me than any religion or national pride could. But there are fractions of my life, pieces that are entirely my own, which only exist when I step away. Knowing that you are somewhere out there, willing to risk not only your life but your very soul to stand beside me, to trust me with your heart…it keeps me going. Each time I see you, it feels like coming home. This is why I’m alive. If I was anyone but myself and my life was my own, I would get down on my knees and beg you to share your life with me.”

John gives a bittersweet grin, tenderness filling his eyes. “You are on your knees,” he teasingly pointed out.

The slight smile that had built on Danse’s face faded as he noticed that John was correct. A life with John…what on Earth had he been suggesting? Such a thing was beyond the realm of possibility, something that could never be. He felt a wave a stifling guilt for even motioning it. He had walked into a bar in Alexandria and taken John for a ride with no destination, wasting his time and his life. And for how long now? Three years? How much longer could they continue if nothing changed? John had been quite vocal about wanting more than Danse could give.

“I’m sorry…” Danse whispered, not clarifying why. He hung his head.

“It’s fine,” John answered softly, making the connection.

“Is it?”

There was an uncomfortable pause. “Shit, Dan…It is what it is.”

It seemed to Danse that the only aspect of his life that he excelled at was his career. He wasn’t certain of how to navigate a life with the needs of another person involved. Things had been so much easier with Cutler. Their lives had been so intertwined that Danse hadn’t needed to think about their futures. Both soldiers in the same squadron and often assigned to the same teams, nearly every day had been spent by the other’s side. Danse hadn’t properly guarded himself against the possibility that they could one day be separated by tragedy.

Both had been reckless and hotheaded in their youth, traits that had been carried from Rivet City to the Citadel.  When the opportunity came for Cutler to volunteer for the mission that had ultimately cost him his life, Danse had been serving time in the brig for drunk and disorderly conduct. Had Cutler taken the assignment in order to pass the time until Danse’s release? He’d never know. Rather than safeguard their future by keeping himself in check, Danse had errored and left Cutler alone. He had rushed to aid him as soon as he was able, only to be too late.

The image of Culter’s hulking, newly-mutated body haunted him. Culter’s face, his human one and his mutated visage, fused together in Danse’s mind to mock his memories. Danse pressed his fingers to his temples, as if he could rub the image away with pressure. A list began to form, a roster of all those that had trusted and served, both under Danse and at his side, that had lost their lives due to decisions that he had made. He felt himself falling, sinking into a pit where they all screamed eternally, calling his name and grasping for him, seeking release and salvation while he could do nothing to help.

There was a rustling sound and John dropped into view, hobbling down from the tabletop, mindful of his leg. “Hey…” he said in a soft voice. “Where’d you go to?”

Danse’s blank gaze rose slightly. John’s eyes were sincere, albeit a little glassy from the Hydra and blood loss. He found that he couldn’t talk. Distress had paralyzed both his tongue and his body. John…oh, John…not a solider, not a volunteer. He had never signed up for danger; he was only with Danse because he cared for him. Getting John killed, or failing to prevent his death, would open a wound in Danse that could never heal.

He found himself gasping, lightheaded. His heartbeat pounded deafeningly in his ears while his skin flushed and crawled.

“Dan…I don’t know how to help you.” John voice sounded very far away, a wrenching concern punctuating the words. “Tell me what to do.”

Moving only a fraction, Danse leaned towards him. John took the hint and wrapped his arms around him, letting Danse bury his face in his blond hair. Like a wave smashing against a rock, resolve burst in Danse’s chest and his arms rose to circle John’s shoulders, clinging to him for dear life as tremors of guilt rolled through him.

John said nothing else until the episode had passed. When they drew apart, John paused to try and smooth out the lines in Danse’s forehead with his thumbs, hands lingering to cup his face before dropping. Danse blew a shaky breath as they stood.

He opened his mouth to apologize, regretting that John had to see him at anything less than his best, when something heavy crashed from the nearby hallway. Their eyes met in sudden understanding that their respite was over. Danse darted to retrieve his rifle. “Are you able to run?” he asked John.

“Able or not, I can and will.” Although pale, John looked determined and furious, a savage light filling his eyes that was both frightening and striking. It dawned on Danse he had been wrong. John wasn’t in need of a savior. He was a fighter and, as he drew a wicked-looking knife from one of his armguards, appeared to brace himself for a brutal assault which he would meet with pleasure. He looked glorious and deadly, and Danse loved him even more for it. He felt a pang of uncertainty at his decision to deny a life with John by his side. Alas, he couldn’t see any reality in which that opportunity could come to pass.

Danse headed out first, taking the lead, his rifle at the ready. John grabbed his arm. “Hey, wait. Can I ask you something?”

He stopped and looked into John’s eyes, at that moment ready to grant him whatever that he requested. “Anything.”

Frowning, John asked, “How about we steer clear of Delaware from now on?”

Chapter Text

PIPER

Essex County, MA

April 15th, 2288

The inky blackness of a countryside night pressed in on them. Nothing lit the ruined road but starlight and, even then, clouds where mounting to blot out what little illumination there was. To the east, an advancement of sickly olive vapor was visible, sweeping in from the Glowing Sea. The crisp freshness of a spring evening was replaced with static energy that made her hair prickle.

“Rad storm rolling in,” she commented. John didn’t answer. She hadn’t expected him to. Their journey had begun with her digging as hard as she could, brushing against one sore spot after another in an attempt to glean information from him. Button-pushing usually got folks to crack wide open for her. With John, it only resulted in him stewing in heated silence, granting her an occasional one word response.

Piper frowned, trying to judge the storm’s distance. If they were caught in it, the storm wouldn’t affect John, only her. She dug into her pockets and produced a few prophylactic tablets of Rad-X, wincing as she swallowed them dry.

John trudged up the road in front of her, the tattered tails of his coat swishing from side to side, his long legs setting a hurried pace that she rushed to match. Their trip had been strained and largely silent, him giving brief, biting answers to her questions regarding the dilemma in Goodneighbor, making it a point to remind Piper that she knew almost nothing about ghouls. Perhaps he strode just a little faster for the effect of keeping his back to her.

This was going to be a tough article to write. Having never penned a story about ghoul matters, she was collecting the history of an entire race one query at a time. It was frustrating that John was so short with her. Back in the day, he had been Diamond City’s resident human expert on ghouls, serving as a liaison between the two cultures. He could be the key to starting a circulation of papers in Goodneighbor and elsewhere, boosting the paltry amount of sales she brought in from Publick Occurrences.

As they continued north, Piper attempted to fill the quiet with another question. “You still taking Curie’s remedy?”

John balked and threw an irritated glance over his shoulder. His dark eyes looked like pits in his face. “No, I love gambling with my sanity. Been taking bets on when I’m gonna lose it. Course…I won’t be around to collect…”

“I’m serious.”

“Sheesh. Course I’m takin’ it. Lay off.”

He swerved away, maintaining his pace but at a distance. They walked in silence.

She’d had to ask. The only feral-slip she’d witnessed had been the time at the river in Sanctuary. She could only assume that there had been more. John had certainly made himself scarce enough so that he could be evolving in all kinds of ways without anyone noticing. Piper had no idea what he did while out of sight in Goodneighbor. Well, apparently, what he’d been doing was Danse.

She switched tactics to get him talking. “How did you become such as expert on ghouls? It sure wasn’t from living in Diamond City.”

“Ain’t from Diamond City originally. You know that.” They both hopped over a glowing puddle questionable origin. “‘Sides, I’ve always been partial to ghouls over smoothskins.”

Piper pursed her lips. “Even when you were one?”

“Yup. They wear their ugliness on the outside. Makes ‘em more honest as they don’t gotta worry about impressing anyone. Folks are more tolerant of human assholes; whereas a ghoul with a bad attitude is just gonna get shot.”

“But you fell for a human.” She chortled as wind picked up to tug at her hair. “Never would have thought that your type was Brotherhood soldiers.”

Soldier,” he corrected, looking back over his shoulder. “One.”

She narrowed her eyes. “The name you gave –”

“Yeah, I know the name I gave. I wasn’t about to give Dan up to the press and have his life get fucked too, no matter how bad things were.  They wanted a name so I gave them one.”

Christ. Had everything that he’d ever written about John McDonough been wrong? She pursed his lips before speaking. “Still – back on topic. Danse is human, not a ghoul. Well…I mean…now we know he’s a synth,” Piper added, tripping over her words. “But back then, you didn’t know. Neither of you did.”

John’s shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “Didn’t set out to find him. He just kinda happened to me.”

During this conversational dead end, a large concrete building loomed into view, complete with towering smokestacks and loops of wide piping. Firelight danced along the walls, separating the structure from the darkness of the road and the surrounding turf. That had to be Saugus, which meant that their destination would be coming up soon. Piper turned her head. Angry green clouds were roiling, creeping towards them. She pushed herself to keep pace with John. He stared straight ahead, paying her no mind.

“Pickman still doing his part to clean up your area?” she asked.

Skidding to a halt, John snapped, “Jesus fuck, Piper! You just keep pushing! Why you gotta bring up Pickman?”

She stopped, glancing around to ensure that his outburst hadn’t gained the attention of anyone from Saugus. Nothing moved.

Returning John’s glare, she spouted in a low voice, “You’re giving me nothing to go on. You run one of the largest towns in the Commonwealth and it’s like you don’t even care about it. What’s the body count that you wake up to each morning? Are gunfights and overdoses just part of the Goodneighbor charm that I seem to be immune to?” She snorted. “Goodneighbor. It used to be Shitneighbor. Now it’s just Negligentneighbor.”

“Because I’m a crap mayor? Say it – my town is fucked up because of me! Enough people keep implying it!” He plunged ahead with giving her the chance to speak, anger further distorting the lines on his face as he shook a finger at her. “Now, let’s get one thing straight – insult me all you want. Hell, I can take it. Probably deserve it. But you don’t say one damn thing about my town. Got it?”

He spun and marched up the trail several steps ahead of her, his shoulders hunched forward. She let him sulk. She didn’t regret her words, not in the slightest. As far as successful settlements went, Goodneighbor was near the bottom of the heap. Sure, John had a fruitful enterprise of commerce and traffic, but that was all in chem trade and gun sales. As many caps as that brought in, she’d be scared shitless to take Nat there, as she half feared for her own life every time she visited. Maybe she was missing the point of having such a secure location be handed over to the degenerates of society to do with as they wished. As she recalled from his Diamond City days, John was a better businessman than this, and all of her abrupt commentary came from a place of legit confusion. Then again, perhaps she was making an unwise assumption in presuming that both John McDonough and John Hancock were the same person.

The storm settled over them just as they reached the end of their journey, a choking mist hugging the air and making it difficult to see further than a few feet ahead. The Slog turned out to be an unassuming little farming community. Rusted chain-link fencing wrapped around the complex, which appeared to have been a civic center at some point before the war. The lights coming up from a half-filled swimming pool might have been pretty had the sky not been clogged with an irritated haze.

“Hey there, Slog!” John called out in a clear, optimistic voice. “Goodneighbor here.”

“Hello, Goodneighbor!” someone responded, their words contending with a growl of thunder.

John – who wasn’t entirely an asshole – nodded to the civic building for Piper to take cover from the rad storm. From the shelter of the doorway, she watched as several ghouls emerged from the mossy-tinted fog, rising up out of the in-ground swimming pool and shuffling in from the fields looking like, well, zombies from a spooky horror film.

John stood with his back straight, ready to greet The Slog’s occupants, the politician in him prepared to bargain for his town. Near enough so that Piper could read his face, his good-humored expression crackled when he saw the male ghoul leading the others, gesturing to the others in an ‘it’s all right’ kind of way. John must have recognized him in a distressing way because the polite grin that he wore bled away. “Hell…” he whispered, the bravado on his face sliding into wide-eyed disbelief. “Wiseman.”

“Wiseman?” she repeated, aghast, her gaze swinging between the two of them. How the hell John could tell one ghoul from another was beyond her knowledge. “Derek Wiseman? From Diamond City?”

She should have expected that Wiseman would be able to set up a hamlet of his own. Out of all the ghouls in the entire Commonwealth, he had once received the greatest respect. Back in Diamond City, he had been both brave and charismatic enough to go toe-to-toe with Guy McDonough and walk away.

“Sorry,” said Wiseman, frowning as he came to a stop before John. “Do I know you?”

“You took my life away,” John stated, his hands balling into fists at his sides.

Maybe it was just a ruse from the encroaching storm, but Piper felt a palpable tension mounting in the air. Unconsciously, she brushed fingers over her pistol. A stiffening sense of danger was present. She tried to put it out of mind and concentrate on the scene in front of her.

Tilting his head slightly, Wiseman’s eyes raked up and down John’s body, gaze settling on the flag he wore. “Holy shit. John? What the hell happened to you?”

“Reached the end of my rope,” was the simplified answer John gave, his eyes narrowed. Flashes of forked cyan lightning flickered across the sky.

The remaining ghouls had arrived, forming a half-circle behind Wiseman. “Goodneighbor…,” Wiseman said, musing to himself. “I understand now. I heard rumors of some smoothskin going ghoul too quick to suffer properly. Then, the place gave him a title. That was you.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “What is it that you’re calling yourself these days? Hoover? Hamilton?”

“…Hancock,” John answered in a small voice, as if his poise had been drained.

Catching sight of her, Wiseman swung his head in her direction. “And Piper. Still chasing this one for a story?”

“Maybe,” was the guarded answer she gave. Talking with Wiseman stirred up old, uneasy feelings. “There are a lot of people that could use the medicine you have. If I get an article out of it, that’s a bonus.”

“Sure that this isn’t an attempt to redeem yourself for screwing us over?” Wiseman questioned. “People. It’s nice to know that you’re calling our kind by better names these days.”

It occurred to Piper that it would be very easy for a gaggle of angry ghouls to fall upon her, and that their vengeance might not be completely unfounded.

Taking a step closer, John spouted, “Don’t make this about her. I got a town full of folks that need help. Ghouls. Just the same as you and me.”

Wiseman gave him a worn glance. “Well…that’s a lie, isn’t it?” he said. John bristled. “You’re nothing like me. And nothing like the rest of us. You don’t deserve to wear a ghoul’s face. You didn’t earn it. Didn’t suffer for it. Didn’t endure the centuries of persecution and terror. What – you thought it would be fun? You thought you’d get a nice high out of being shot at for kicks and turned away wherever you go?”

Aclap of thunder shook the building that Piper was huddled under.“You better not presume to know me, brother,” John said in an angry voice. “You didn’t then and you sure as hell don’t now.”

I suppose that we can agree on that. You were very good at keeping secrets.” Wiseman’s demeanor calmed, although his voice lost none of its edge. “So, your town’s in trouble. Did you stop to think that a plague might be a tactical ploy on behalf of your dear brother? Wiping out a ghoul refuge…isn’t that right up his alley? Although, you did give him everything he ever wanted. Suppose that ought to count for something.”

Several fingers of lightning touched down too close for comfort. Piper could smell the burnt vegetation left in their wake. The gathering of ghouls glanced about nervously. But John and Wiseman were locked in their own world.

John shook his head, expression dark and strained. “You turned Diamond City into your own game of chess, every one of us a different piece. You just played me badly.”

Resolvedly sighing, Wiseman said, “You used to be a formidable ally. Now, you’re just pathetic. All ghouls know about Goodneighbor. Degenerates, right? Those are the types of people you serve? Murders and drug dealers? You used to talk a good game about the future. You inspired me, inspired a lot of people. Looks like you jettisoned the plan in favor of old habits. How goddamned disappointing.”

The clash of the storm halted, suddenly quiet, as if The Slog hung in the eye of a hurricane. All of Piper’s hairs stood straight up, making her flesh crawl. Clouds churned above, knotting tighter, making the glimmering absinthe shade bright in the sky.

John’s fists were so tight that his mottled knuckles had lost their color. He closed his eyes and his body shook with silent tremors, looking uncannily like a gaunt, rapid ghoul about to slip. When John’s eyes opened, his irises burned gold, a bright yellow that gleamed against the night.

Every source of light or power at farm seemed to hum, the sound growing in intensity, each bulb filling with blinding jade light. A great boom of thunder rocked the farm. All at once, forks of lightning crashed violently to the ground, touching down on the concrete poolside, setting crops ablaze and sending ghouls screaming. At the same time, the lights popped, showers of emerald sparks spraying from anything electrical. Piper ducked as the overhead bulbs shattered and bathed her in glass fragments. The entire farm was momentarily engulfed within a brilliant green flash. As her skin prickled, Piper felt a wave of nausea pass over her. Just as abruptly, it was over, the cloud cover thinning and thunder subsiding. The lights destroyed, the only source of illumination came from the crawling green mist.

Cautiously, Piper peeked up, glass tumbling from the brim of her cap as she fought to insert any type of logic into what had just happened. John’s shoulders slumped forward, as if he was suddenly exhausted. Several of the faming ghouls were scrambling to quell the burning crops. Wiseman hadn’t moved but had John locked into an astonished stare. “Did you…did you do that?” he breathed, his irritation replaced with reverence.

Jaw clenched shut, John didn’t answer. His eyes were coal bricks once more. “Freak!” one of the ghouls called out from the garden plot. “Someone ought to put you down before you kill someone!” Fat, glowing green tears rolled down John’s withered cheeks, weaving down the creases to drip from his chin.

As her stomach roiled, Piper didn’t know what to think. She never thought she’d witness ghouls turning on one of their own. Maybe John was just too different, neither here nor there. Not a long-suffering world-wary ghoul or a human benefactor prepared to take on the fight. It seemed no wonder John had wanted to die after the election. No option had been left for him. Guilt mixed with the nausea and she fell to her knees, vomiting.

When her stomach was empty but still queasy, she looked up to see Wiseman tentatively approaching John. They were both clad mostly in shadows. In a voice softer than before, Wiseman alleged, “You know, right? You know what you’ll be?”

“I think it’d be awesome if we never see each other again,” said John, ignoring the tears he was shedding.

Wiseman was still, staring at John for a while before he spoke. “Whatever disagreements you and I have, I won’t hold against your town. Arlen?” he called, looking past John. An older ghoul poked his head out of a small shack adjoined to the civic building, looking quite relieved to have been inside for the majority of the previous scene. “Get those packs of fever blossoms ready. Our people need help.” Wiseman then tuned and joined the rest of the ghouls in caring for the damaged crops.

Piper gagged again, bringing up nothing more than bile. Footsteps crunched over the shattered shards of glass surrounding her. Looking up, she saw John standing over her, using a cuff to dap at his cheeks. Piper spit, and then asked, “Was he right? Did you cause all that light?”

“Take some meds, sister. That wasn’t light. It was rads.”

Piper blinked at him before fumbling through her pockets in search of the emergency dose of RadAway that all Wastlelanders kept handy. John assisted her with the needle before joining Arlen with readying supplies. She felt better by the time the last drop of the drug had disappeared from the content bag. Once she was standing, John greeted her with bag stuffed full of flowers; their stunning, bright blue color seeping out through the zipper’s teeth. An identical bag was slung over his own shoulder.

They made a hasty retreat from The Slog, neither speaking for a better part of an hour. Piper made the careful decision to remain several steps away from John, her hand drifting over her pistol as she wrestled with making sense out of what she had happened. They made their way out of the storm’s path, and after a few miles starlight finally broke through the clouds. Meandering down the devastated highway, Piper repeatedly peeked at John as he walked with his head down. He seemed almost ashamed.

“So, hey. That was pretty weird, right? At The Slog?” she probed lightly, fishing for information. “Do things like that happen often?”

“Not exactly like that,” he answered, sounding beaten. “But sometimes, yeah.”

“Should we, um, tell Nate?” she carefully asked, taking a wide step over a rusted fender. “Or Danse? I mean, does he know about this stuff?”

“He knows. He knows all of it.” He gave a disgusted sounding grunt, gaze still tracking asphalt. “He’s the one that restrains me when everything goes black and all I can feel is un-fucking-controllable wrath. That’s the word that best describes it – wrath. It builds and I just…go away. I kick and claw at him, can hear my squalling blend into growls. He keeps me from hurting anyone else. Sometimes, its minutes. Sometimes, its hours.”

Stunned, Piper asked, “And Danse…he deals with that?”

“Course he deals with it. He’s good at handling responsibility.” He shifted his pack to the opposite shoulder and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shaking one out. “After Far Harbor, he steered clear of Sanctuary for his reasons and I did the same for mine. S’why the State House is cleared out. Making a claim for privacy seemed a hell of a lot easier than telling anyone the truth.”

“Which is?”

He lit up and took a deep drag before responding, “I’m a liability.”

That was the end of their conversation, both spending the reminder of their journey preoccupied with their own thoughts.

They arrived back in Goodneighbor by daybreak. Numerous residents, John included, got to work breaking the flowers down at various chem stations to extract whatever ingredient they had that could combat the rampant illness gripping the town. Piper wandered to and fro, taking notes and gathering stats. When asked to assist, she gladly put her pen down and did so, administering treatments and helping to haul the dead away for offsite incineration.

It was an exhausting day. Piper made it all the way until the afternoon, when she threw herself down on a mattress at the hotel and slept hard for several hours. When she woke, it was as if Goodneighbor had revived itself. A few more ghouls filled the streets and the atmosphere had changed. People were laughing and she could hear the sounds of caps being dumped for the purchase of trade or gambling. Kent tipped his hat at her as she passed him by. “Hey, you,” she greeted cheerily. “Spot your fearless leader anywhere?” Finding John meant that she could get his closing statement, wrap up her visit and go home.

“Headed up to the State House earlier, Ms. Wright. Hey –” he took her hand “ – I just wanna thank you for helpin’ us. Not many Diamond City folks willin’ to go the distance for a bunch of ghouls, ya know?”

His praise made Piper feel squeamish. Sure, she had accompanied John to pick up the cure, but she hadn’t gone with the intention of rescuing ghouls. Still learning about how to share the Commonwealth with ghouls and synths, she didn’t really deserve the admiration in Kent’s dark eyes. She forced a grin and twisted her hand gently to make him release her. “Hey, uh, thanks. Any time.”

The State House was eerily quiet. Back in the day, watchmen were always muttering about this or that, gossiping or giving a stern warning. With them gone, the place seemed like any other old building in the Wastes, albeit with fewer holes in the floor. She poked her head into every room, searching for John. No one was in his residence or the offices. She spun around a few times, looking for some place that she had overlooked. Pausing, she glanced down the winding staircase, noting the basement.

After trotting down the steps, Piper found John in the subterranean level of the State House, dressing a mannequin in his costume. He was dressed in leathers, his flag looped around his middle. The tricorn was still perched atop his head.

“It’s been a day,” she greeted.

“Yeah,” he tiredly agreed. “It’s been a day.”

He had a resigned sort of calm about him that Piper found completely unnerving. Had she found him with a beer in one hand and a canister of chems in the other, she might have been more at ease. She thought that she knew what to expect from the likes of him. Now, she wasn’t certain that she knew anything at all about him, either as Hancock or as John McDonough. 

“Whatcha doin’ there?” she asked, her insatiable curiously and bluntness overcoming common sense.

“You know…there ain’t no post-apocalyptic mayoral handbook. I did the best I could.” He frowned at the mannequin. “Seems like I ain’t in the right position. If enough people tell me that, it’s gotta be true, right?”

Giving him a slight smile, she quipped, “But you’re Hancock, the savior of Goodneighbor.”

He huffed and removed his hat. “Don’t call me that. That ain’t who I am anymore. I’m just John.” Gently, he set the tricorn atop the mannequin’s head, completing the ensemble.

She watched him closely as he shook out a piece of red cloth and tied it around his bald head. It seemed as if whatever resolution he had decided on was unalterable. She wasn’t sure of what his life was leading to and she was pretty certain that he didn’t know either. The prospect of losing himself, especially now with Danse back in the picture, must be particularly terrifying and absolutely unfair.

At some point during her tiresome day, something had clicked in her mind and she had been able to place the almost magical ability that John had utilized when calling down the lightning. Piper didn’t know much about the hierarchy of ferals, but she could imagine that John would rank pretty highly. “When you turn,” she began, broaching the subject as lightly as she could. “You’re not gonna be one of those slow, rotten ones, are you?” John glanced at her, mute. “You’re gonna glow,” she predicted in an awed tone.

Sighing, he said, “Come with me.” He gestured to her and she followed him back up the stairs and into the large room on the top floor. He bent to wrest something enormous up off of the floor and the room filled with the same luminous green glow as had encased The Slog. She jolted backwards, fearing a spill of radioactivity. 

“It’s contained. Don’t worry about it,” he said, not that her worry subsided any.

When the glare dimmed, she could see clearly again. In both hands, John was hefting a warhammer, its head fully engulfed in chartreuse energy. The green gleam bathed one side of his face, making the fissures on it appear even more cavernous. “I’m gonna tell you some things about me,” he said. “They’re gonna sound freaky and impossible but I wanna leave a record. And I need to ask a favor. Don’t print anything ‘til I’m gone, okay? I don’t want folks to shun me while I’m still kicking.”

She spent the rest of that day writing his story down, starting with his feral turn in Sanctuary all the way to the present. When they had concluded, the two of them retreated to the balcony for some fresh air and stale cigarettes. They had just missed the sun dipping over the walls. The town was bustling by that point. Still not up to its old standards, but more people littered the streets and the sounds of a working community rose to their ears. With the gates open once more, new drifters had appeared bringing goods and news from elsewhere in the Commonwealth. The string lights gave twilight a slightly festive feel.

John was watching the activity, rapping his rings against the chipped wooden railing as a faint smile took hold. “Hey, Piper,” he chirped. “Why do demons and ghouls hang out together?”

She sighed and humored him. “Why?” she asked in a droll manner.  

“‘Cause demons are a ghoul's best friend!” His mouth hung wide open, waiting for her response.

She rolled her eyes. “Never talk to me again.” He grinned at her, still incorrigible, as she shook her head.

“Hey, boss,” Fahrenheit’s voice drifted up from the street. They peered down at her, finding a pair of drifters by her side. “You’re never ever going to believe what went down at Bunker Hill today,” she stated, hands on her hips.

Chapter Text

MACCREADY

Charlestown, MA

April 16th, 2288

The siren in Sanctuary’s main square had sounded at the break of dawn, its keening rousing everyone including MacCready in his water tower nest. The message from Bunker Hill had been brief. Hostiles converging nearby. Fearing imminent threat. Help defend. With most of the community’s personnel off doing who-knew-what, pickings had been slim to build a team that could offer Bunker Hill any assistance. Both Sturges and Codsworth had been left to watch out for Sanctuary while Preston marched MacCready, Cait and Dogmeat off into battle. These types of requests usually entailed putting down a gaggle of ferals or three wayward Gunners. After, he could probably shake down a few of the residents for a fat stack of thank you caps. No big deal. They’d be back by sundown.

As they followed the road in a little line, Preston had taken the lead, the enormity of his laser musket at the ready. Behind him, Cait tossed a bat wrapped in wicked-looking barbed wire from hand to hand, a machete swinging at her hip. Happily oblivious to any danger, Dogmeat scampered around the two of them in a circle as they walked. Picking up the rear, and falling slightly behind, was MacCready, trying to give both humans a wide berth.

Cait had been intolerable since Vault 95, picking verbal fights instead of physical ones and being generally unpleasant. As a childish solution to this problem, he had been actively avoiding her. An absolutely selfish thought, MacCready wished that she had never gotten clean. If the Psycho was what kept her smiling, flirtatious, and happy, he preferred her on it.

As for Preston, MacCready found himself in an endless loop of trying to appease his requests while making every attempt at avoidance. The Minuteman kept requesting MacCready’s aid, seeking him out, knowing the he was the best shot in the group, even beating out Danse for that title. Any weird request that came in for assistance with a ranged approach went straight to him. Mirelurks giving a settlement troubles? Sure. MacCready would wiggle up in a tree and make short work of the problem. Oh, no – a quarry full of raiders? Lemme hang out on this ledge and make some heads spurt. When paired with Nate, he’d rush in, drawing attention in his ridiculous vault suit while MacCready picked off whatever was dumb enough to stick its head out. That much, he was prepared for. But this life kinda sucked. He had signed up for a standard contract of assisting Nate, not getting caught up in a revolution where anybody at all could give him orders. He didn’t have to accept all requests, but it was hard to judge where Nate’s influence ended and someone else’s began. The guy was so deeply entangled in everybody’s business that, should a request roll down from the Enclave, MacCready couldn’t be certain that Nate wasn’t responsible for it and that he wouldn’t be contracted to oblige. This yes, sir, right away, sir reality felt way too similar to his time with the Gunners.

MacCready had always suspected that he would be a lackluster solider, and time and again, it had been proven. He didn’t fit right with the Gunners and sure as rain didn’t fit in with Nate’s eccentric group of protagonists. He was in it for the caps and to hell with valor, involving himself in heists and situations he prayed that his son would never hear about. His son. Dammit. It was far less painful to forget about him, to have all-consuming lengths of time when all he did was work, providing for Duncan even if he couldn’t be present. But what kind of life could he have with Duncan at his side? A merchant, getting ripped-off and robbed every few days? A repairman? Yeah, sure – he’d definitely be happy with that. Wrong.

With the duffle bag over his shoulder packed full of ammo boxes and everything he cared about, MacCready had an inkling that he wouldn’t be returning to Sanctuary. That brief period of time when things seemed to be working out for him had expired. Nothing much remained for him in the Commonwealth besides a misplaced sense of responsibility towards Nate, despite having long since refunded the caps used to hire him. Whatever he had with Cait seemed to be drawing to a close and, heck, he missed his son badly. MacCready couldn’t even guess at what Duncan must look like now. He hadn’t been much more than a toddler when he had been left behind in Big Town. Irony was that MacCready had left to ensure a safe home for Duncan, abandoning him at the same time.   

He almost snorted in sardonic laughter as he trudged through Charleston staring at his comrades’ backs. Danse’s life was way worse than his, automaton or not, having everything he had sucked away and reality rubbed in his face. And Nate…crap…Nate might never find his son. And here MacCready was, knowing full well where Duncan lived and opting to remain separated. Everything he set out to do was for Duncan, and then it all had gotten so muddled. It was time to say goodbye to the Commonwealth. Bunker Hill was almost to Goodneighbor. He could grab one last job from Daisy, escorting one of her caravans all the way back to the Capital Wasteland. After that, he’d grab Duncan and hightail it off to somewhere – anywhere – else.

Done, he nodded to himself. He’d do just that. And better to make a break for it while Nate wasn’t around to object.

“Keep up, boy-o,” Cait grumpily called, giving him a half-glance. “Yer laggin’ behind.”

Sunlight sparkled on surface of the Charles River. On the other side of the river, a camp full of raiders congregated, leather-clad ants patrolling a roof-top holdout beyond firing distance. Bright blue skies and calm winds filled the sky, with no lingering traces of the radstorm that blew over the city yesterday.

No signs of the Railroad either. Radio silence had been initiated following MacCready’s plea to Deacon. Any request for updates had been answered with frustrating static. At this point, they either had or they hadn’t managed to retrieve Curie. If they hadn’t, well, he didn’t want to think about that. Synth or not, she was a nice lady that didn’t deserve to die. He made a deep, harrumph in his chest. Heck, he’d been wrong about everything else he thought he knew – why not add incorrect prejudices about synths to the list? If Danse ever darkened his doorway again, he might just be able to muster up an apology to the guy.

Speaking of, there was a notable Brotherhood presence in the area, one that seemed to be getting thicker the closer they got to Bunker Hill. Trios of soldiers were stationed here and there patrolling the streets of Charlestown, some with guard dogs, some on the move, stomping in their armor as they followed the same route that Preston lead his group along. The four of them were ignored, bucket heads never swiveling in their direction, not that their inaction eased MacCready’s growing anxiety any.    

Minutemen flags were flying in Bunker Hill when they arrived, proudly displaying the peoples’ affiliation. The crumbling monument stretched tall, its steeple spearing the belly of the sky as it cast a long shadow over the adjacent lodge. Although he had only been there twice, MacCready felt that the town seemed overcrowded. In the shade of the high granite walls, anonymous heavies were assembling all over the marketplace, hardened-eyed men and women in reinforced coats that slunk through the shadows, avoiding eye contact and carting heavy weaponry.

“What’s goin’ on here?” MacCready drawled, eyes drinking the busy community up. Between the Brotherhood forces and these guys, it looked like something big was about to go down. A ridge of fur stood straight up along Dogmeat’s spine.

“Looks like we found the Railroad,” said Preston.

Sure enough, MacCready spotted an agent named – what was it? Glamor? Glory? – striding around the corner of a vendor’s stall. He took a few steps in her direction, but when he rounded the partition she had vanished completely, leaving him stumped. Come to think of it, most of the other heavy hitters had also disappeared. He knew better than to even try to spot Deacon. He wondered if the Brotherhood’s presence had triggered the assemblage of Railroad agents or if it was vice versa.

“Looks like this place is about to get one hell of a showdown,” Cait muttered as Preston steered them out of the market into Bunker Hill’s farming area.

A middle-aged woman in a patched suit was barking commands as two men strung chains over a rear entryway. “And when you’re done, secure the front gate. Send a runner to hold the caravans at a safe location until this is all sorted out. Reinforcements should be on the way.”

“That’d be us, Kessler,” Preston announced, causing the woman to swing around to face him. “We’re here to help.”

Her eyes dragged over the lot of them, seeing what had to look like a skinny kid in a coat that was too big, an irate woman swinging a bat, an anxious dog, and a lone Minuteman. “Some cavalry,” she said curtly, mouth turning down, disappointment sagging her shoulders. “The General said that we had nothing to worry about. I’m worried.”

“Dirty Mungo,” MacCready mumbled under his breath.

“What?” Kessler bit, sending a disgusted glance at him.

“What?” he repeated as if he hadn’t heard, giving his best attempt to look innocent. The sharp sound of chains being dragged over concrete grated in his ears. A vendor knocked into him, her arms full of wares to be squirrelled away and secured. He blew an annoyed sigh from one side of his mouth.

“The General managed to reach out to you?” Preston clarified, shifting his laser musket from one shoulder to the other. “What did he say about the nature of the threat?”

“He didn’t,” Kessler answered, looking upset at that fact. “Warned us to go to brace ourselves, though.” She gave a nod towards the chained door. “Don’t think that I haven’t noticed the activity around here. Not sure what the Brotherhood is hoping to find, but I’m not about to open my doors to them.”

“And the Railroad?” MacCready asked, dropping his weighty duffle to roll his shoulders. “You pin any of them down for an answer?”

“The Railroad? What are you talking about?” Something in Kessler’s eyes shifted, fear blotting out irritation before switching back again. “Why would the Railroad be here?”

“Seriously?” MacCready’s brows shot upwards. “You’re gonna try and tell me you didn’t see them? That fleet of heavies disappearing like ninjas? They’re good, but they aren’t that good.”

“Kessler, answer me honestly,” Preston began in a low, soothing voice. “What do you have here that both the Brotherhood and the Railroad would want?”

She appeared to soften, forehead creasing as she struggled to elucidate. “I’m…I’m not at liberty to say, Colonel. But please…if this gets ugly…when this gets ugly, keep hostiles out of the marketplace. There’s more at stake here then you know.”

“Well, hell. Obviously that’s the case,” Cait grumbled, jammed a fist against one hip. “If you want us bleedin’ and dyin’ for ya, you better give us somethin’ better to go on.”

Kessler swallowed. She cast a few quick glances either way. A few citizens hurried about, readying weapons and closing down stalls. The men who had rigged the chain had moved on to the main gate. They were alone as they could be. “Synths,” she answered at barely more than a whisper. “We hold escaped and rescued synths in the basement. If the Brotherhood gets in, they’ll take them. They’ll kill them outright or experiment on them. Please, you can’t let that happen.”

Cait’s arms hung loose and air rushed from MacCready’s chest. Synths. Of all the things to risk their lives for. “The Brotherhood?” MacCready repeated slowly, as if Kessler was daft. “You…want us to fight the Brotherhood of Steel over a bunch of synths?”

Only Preston seemed unperturbed. He gave Kessler an easy smile. “The Minutemen stand up for everyone. Doesn’t much matter where they come from or what they’re running from. We’ve got this, Kessler. Make sure your people are safe.”

Jeez, MacCready thought. Way to make me feel like a jerk. Clearly, Preston was a better person than the rest of them.

Kessler faded away as she hustled her constituents into secure positions. The shacks and overhead gangways were nearly abandoned, the barrels of a few rifles visible over railings as residents crouched in wait. A steady thumping of propeller blades grew and fell in volume as a few vertibirds circled Bunker Hill, their fat bellies close enough to clip the monument should they veer off course. Dogmeat was padding around in circles, sniffing about and sneezing, clearly amped.

“Something doesn’t line up,” Preston said, raising his voice to be heard over the droning of the ‘birds as they congregated under the enclosed market. He looked confused, an alarming expression for someone that was the leader of their little group. “I get that the Brotherhood has their own priorities, but raiding a settlement for information and kidnapping suspected synths doesn’t seem like their style.”

“Pugh,” MacCready groused, hefting his duffle again. “Clearly, you’ve never been to the Capital. Brotherhood gutted that place. Everything that they didn’t claim got destroyed. It’s why I took off; all decent cities where anyone could try and grab some under-the-table work had to answer to their rulings. That’s the Brotherhood I know. If they can’t control it, they destroy it.”

With her nose with wrinkled in distaste, Cait mentioned, “Ain’t Nate with them walking garbage cans, right now? That’s where he went off to, didn’t he?”

Shaking his head, Preston blew a sigh out of his nose. “It just doesn’t add up. We’re missing something. And going up against Brotherhood firepower…that doesn’t make me happy. Or optimistic.”

MacCready couldn’t keep an expression of disgust from claiming his face. “The Minutemen going to war with the Brotherhood over a bunch of synths hanging out in a basement. Is that worth it?”

“Preventing an unnecessary loss of life and helping innocent people to live free?” Preston questioned. “That’s always worth it.” A beat passed, and then his posture abruptly changed, squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin. “Alright. To it, then. We’ll split up. Cait, you good to hold the market?”

“I’ll crack whoever’s heads get in me way.”

One of Preston’s brows lowered. “Well, I guess that’s…refreshing. I’ll hold the gate.”

“Where do you need me?” MacCready asked, ready to get this bloodbath over and done. If he had just a fraction of additional cowardice in his body, he would have considered slipping away before the bullets started to fly. Heck, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.

Preston gave him a slight smile and his gaze traveled upwards. “Exactly where you think.”

Lifting his head, MacCready looked straight up at the monument. His grin matched Preston’s. “Got it.” An elevated position too cramped for armored soldiers to get to. Maybe he’d survive this madness after all.

“Dogmeat!” Preston called. The shepherd pricked his ears and trotted over, tongue lolling. “With me, boy.” They left the safety of the granite-lined market to take a position at the front gates, which had been shuttered and crisscrossed with both ropes and chain.

It became all too clear to MacCready that he and Cait were alone in the square. She wasn’t even looking at him, just gazing at the circling ‘birds with a bored expression. The tips of his ears burned slightly in awkward discomfort. “Well, uh…yeah,” he mumbled at her, clutching his duffle a little closer. “See you on the other side.” He tuned and made for the stone doorway that led up the tower.

“RJ!”

Cait must have spun quickly to have snagged the back of his coat as fast as she did. Suddenly, he was being hauled backwards, making him stumble a little. She whipped him around and planted a violent kiss on his lips. It was…weird. There was no passion behind it and yet held a finality that spoke volumes. When she broke away, she said, “We’re gonna be tradin’ some words when this blows over.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, downtrodden. “No denying it.”

Turning his back on her, he began ascending the flight of stairs leading to the top of the obelisk, knowing that there was the slightest chance that Cait would slip out during the rumpus, which would probably save her own life and spare him that conversation with her. He wasn’t sure if he preferred that option or not.

Within moments of climbing, he was winded, a stitch in his side causing him to pause and mutter, “I’m gonna get old and die climbing these stairs.” There usually wasn’t this much cardio involved in sniping. The walls seemed to spin around him as he climbed, swirls of pale granite flying by. Occasional gaps where the stone had crumbled away gave him glimpses of the world below, the only proof that he wasn’t trapped in a vortex of stone.

At long last, he reached the top, finding a chair and a small table beneath a sizable window. A breeze rolling in from the sea tugged at his cap, the slightly briny tang of ocean air filling his nostrils. Slinging his duffle down, he set up shop. He kicked the chair out of the way and stacked cases of ammunition on a rickety table, popping the boxes open for easy access. Readying his rifle, he slipped a round into the action and closed it.

He had a visual of not only the front entrance but the bridge leading all the way to Beacon Hill. Several squads of Brotherhood soldiers marched around the perimeter of Bunker Hill, carrying a hardcore arsenal. MacCready traced their units with the barrel of his rifle. Not that he wanted to shoot at people that were kinda just doing their jobs, even if they were assho – idiots. Pissing the Brotherhood off could mean the end of the entire Commonwealth.

In a terse moment, he wondered if it was too late to join Cait for the imaginary escape he had built up in his mind. That would be a shi – awful thing to do to Preston, leaving him alone to fight an entire legion. He supposed, worst case scenario, that the Castle could bomb the entire town into powder, putting an end to them all.

Stuffing his cowardice to one side, he blew out a steadying breath, and settled to one knee, waiting to hear the rat-a-tat of gunfire accompanied by the pew-pew of laser fire. Minutes ticked by. It had been a while since he had seen any Railroad operatives. Where had they disappeared to? The basement, likely. Brotherhood forces wouldn’t wait around forever. MacCready braced himself for the inescapable moment when the armored patrols would storm the gates, ready to drop them before they could even touch the woodwork.

That…didn’t happen.

He had only an instant to comprehend what was happening before it was too late. Static tingled all over his body seconds before the sky filled with channels of blue light so brilliant that he had to look away. Those forks of azure energy crashed to the ground with deafening booms. There was no frontal assault; it came from all sides, including above. Gunfire exploded from every direction. Synths were appearing out of nowhere, both inside and out of the Bunker Hill enclosure, riding fingers of blue lighting in droves. The sapphire light would dissipate and clusters of early model synths would immediately open fire.  “Oh, shit!” slipped out of his mouth before he could stop it. Blue pops of Institute forces were dotting the Bunker Hill piazza.

There had been no word about the Institute’s involvement.

MacCready thumbed the safety off, taking a preliminary shot at one skeletal-looking Gen-1. Bang. The spindly thing blew apart in a shower of metal and plastic. Long, frantic minutes became a cycle of drop target, pull the bolt back, eject casing, re-load, line up new shot, rinse, repeat. Fuck. Robots were everywhere.

The Brotherhood finally sprang into action. They did break the gate down, causing MacCready to momentarily wonder what happened to Preston’s defense, pushing through in pursuit of Institute forces before unloading a barrage of fire into the square. The salvo was too much for the settlement. Minigun rounds tore vast chunks out of the masonry while laser fire caused crops to go up in flames. Several Railroad agents flickered into view as their Stealth Boys died, firing enormous Gauss rifles at the armored Brotherhood units, laying into them until plating flaked off and the soldiers went down. The Brotherhood was swift to respond, tearing the agents to shreds while synths slid through the marketplace unhindered. Dumb. Dumb dumb dumb. Both sides were losing focus on their Institute opponents in favor of laying into one another.

MacCready downed one courser, easily recognizable in the crowd, before losing any specific targets in the throng. His job became futile as all three factions swarmed the city, the skirmish so packed full of combatants that it was difficult to pinpoint only synth targets without risking Brotherhood, Railroad or civilian casualties. Too many noncombatants were scattering throughout the area, fleeing the surprise synth invasion and the bombardment of gunfire. MacCready could have sworn that he spotted a kid out there, darting between shacks as she searched for cover.

He lowered his rifle, the barrel dipping dishearteningly as he closed his eyes. A brief flashback to Quincy claimed his senses, of a firefight with a kid running around that had ended badly. There was no such thing as a secure location, no place where a kid could grow up safe and happy without the threat of some group rolling in a blowing everything to Hell. He pictured the boy from Quincy, remembering the way he looked as he writhed on the ground, MacCready’s bullet in his leg. In this memory, the boy wore Duncan’s face.

The roar of vertibird ammunitions being fired shook him from his trance. He opened his eyes to see the airborne forces bob in the sky, front-mounted lasers sending a concentrated destruction at the streets lining Bunker Hill’s barricades. A few scant figures darted through the roadways. Ferals. No wonder. They were probably drawn by the noise. The sounds from the battle were echoing through the entire city, sure to wake all kinds of lurking things.

Once ferals appeared, Brotherhood forces were torn, their attention divided and weakened. Rays of deadly energy were streaking in all directions. A fireball erupted a block away and MacCready knew that a vertibird had gone down. Feeling a chill, he remembered that Nate was with the Brotherhood. Fuck. Had that been him? Cait’s fate was lost to him as well. Without a decent view of the marketplace, he had no idea how she was faring.

This entire brawl was insane. The Institute was winning, no doubt, picking off lone combatants as the other two parties ripped into one another on a massive scale. He felt a sudden respect blossom for Deacon and Danse. Somehow, the two of them managed to keep an uneasy peace while the rest of their factions were, apparently, bloodthirsty savages bent on vengeance.

His disgust was interrupted by a deep bellow. Leaning out of his window, he spotted what looked to be a trash heap lumbering across the bridge, leading their way. It was wielding what looked to be a boat anchor, swinging it in wide arcs, pulverizing a triad of Brotherhood soldiers that were misfortunate enough to not be encased in steel. “Holy fudgebuckets,” he spat, recognizing what it was. The mutant behemoth roared again, dripping in salvaged gear and colossal pieces of snow-white ceramic, its gigantic feet crushing cars as it headed straight towards Bunker Hill.

MacCready slumped down, dropping out of view from his window. Under the tearing impact of heavy fire, the monument quivered, puffs of dust shaking free between the stones. This was a shitstorm of epic proportions with no way out. He sat with his rifle in his lap, groping to draw his emergency pistol. Once loaded, he chambered a round and aimed it at the stairway. His free hand slid into a pocket and gripped his toy soldier tight, whispering an apology to Duncan for sucking beyond belief.

As the obelisk quaked violently, he wondered who would get to him first – synth, human or fanged creature. All of them were monsters.

Chapter Text

DANSE

Boston Airport Ruins, MA

April 16th, 2288

With questing fingers, he slid the pair of angular metal holotags attached to a chain around the feral’s neck to face him. Kneeling beside his kill, Danse pondered his victim. A leftover scrounger from when the airport had been cleared, the feral had sprung at him, broken teeth visible as it honed in on his throat. Danse had made short work of it, plunging his combat knife into its temple. Fragile bone and softened tissue had given way and the thing had dropped instantly. It had been a simple kill that hadn’t drawn attention from nearly Brotherhood guards.

Now sprawled out in death, he frowned at the beast. A buzz of confusion took place in Danse’s brain as he tried to comprehend the identifiers in his palm. The tags were from a Brotherhood registry, but the number was from an old category, and the metal oxidized due to time and the elements. Somewhere, someone had served, turned and traveled all the way to the Commonwealth. Or traveled and then turned. Or…turned and then served. But where the hell had it wandered from? Maybe he was entirely mistaken and the tags were the prank of some daring raider meant to cause mayhem. He sighed and let the tags fall from his hand. Between John’s bizarre infirmity, the mess in Far Harbor and the reveal of his own identity, Danse was over trying to make sense of the world.

Standing, he cautiously peered out of the airplane cockpit that he lingered in. Curving steel supports stuck out from the craft like a ribcage. Gaps in the cabin where entire panels were missing had allowed that wayward feral to slip in. A stiff breeze came in from the ocean, causing Brotherhood flags to snap in the wind, the proud orange fabric cracking violently as it flapped. 

Hardly a secure position, but its purpose served to hide Danse from sight while he waiting for his former charge to return. Danse had been left to skulk in the ruins while Paladin Sterling had taken a short transport up to the Prydwen. The grand bulk of the airship veiled the airport in shadow. How fitting that the sprawling Brotherhood hub should blot out the sun, diminishing natural grandeur in lieu of superior technological prowess. The flight deck was bustling, vertibirds loading and detaching in regular intervals, surely off to stage the grandest offense the Commonwealth had ever seen. Such amass of firepower and personnel could only mean that something had shifted, that some player had made their first move. The scene made Danse wistful to be unable to partake, a hollowness filling his chest as he watched fat-bellied craft glide from view.

It would have been more efficient for Sterling to have taken a vertibird escort from one of the fields near Sanctuary Hills. Instead, they had spent several days crossing the Commonwealth, smuggling Danse into the heart of Brotherhood operations. When Sterling had requested he accompany him to the airport, it hadn’t been Danse’s place to question him, despite his concern. He’d be damned if he was going to begin shying away from a superior’s request.

During the trek, Sterling had questioned him diligently about Brotherhood rules of engagement, particularly the level of force available and specific tactics that were part of a standard response. Danse had gone beyond humoring the man, giving him sound advice and stern recommendations. Handling logistics in Goodneighbor was a tedious occupation as compared to the grandeur of his former role. He longed for a grander purpose. If his new position was to serve as Sterling’s civilian second, such an opportunity was better than he should hope for. But, if he was to be honest with himself, he knew that role belonged to Colonel Garvey.

They had paused at an old church in the north end of the city, Sterling insisting that Danse wait outside while he ducked into the crumbling building for nearly half an hour. When he had emerged, he had jammed his helmet on angrily and refused to speak of what happened.

The effect of watching Sterling march in his old paladin armor was surreal. It was as if he was watching an echo of himself, his suit trying to maintain a status quo while its former operator could only watch. Giving his armor away was the grandest insult that Maxson had ever devised. Most salvageable suits were broken down into scrap for new models or the pieces refinished and issued anew. Danse’s suit was intact, the scuffs and rust stains old friends that had seen him through difficult times. He felt quite humble and vulnerable in its presence.

Unobtrusively, Sterling reappeared, coming around from the rear of the airport, stomping wide footprints in the sandy beach. A few radgulls took to the air, startled by his approach, flapping lamely with malformed wings. Danse stepped down from the plane’s cockpit to greet him. Watching Sterling disembark from his armor in the lee of the craft, it struck Danse that everyone else who had served under him had gone home in a bag. Haylen was the only other exception. His lungs seemed to deflate. “Everyone that has ever stood by my side has either died or forsaken me,” he mentioned flatly, more for his ears than Sterling’s.

Leaving his suit to reseal around an empty center, Sterling approached, clad in his uniform, frowning as he hopped up into the exposed belly of the plane. “I haven’t. And I didn’t.” He glanced behind him, back the way he had come. “And neither did someone else.” He tossed Danse a roguish grin and held up a finger. “Wait for it…”

Danse followed his line of sight. A few seconds passed before Haylen poked her hooded head around the corner, spotting them. She strode towards them with her chin up, and hauled herself up into the plane with a grunt. “Paladin Sterling,” Haylen stiffly addressed with a nod as she stood. “Danse,” she added, almost as an afterthought, his name hitting him like a slight blow to the gut. She had visited him once while he was a mess in Sanctuary. He had drunkenly fought with her, although he couldn’t recall why. She hadn’t returned and he hadn’t blamed her; he had been terrible company. “How have you been?” she asked, her trademark concern absent from her eyes.

“Distraught, to be honest,” he answered candidly. “John has been a great comfort to me.” And he had. Despite John’s personal hardships and degenerative mental state, he had made every effort to ensure that Danse wasn’t jostled or harassed while he was adapting. Goodneighbor might be a waning slum, but no one was likely to challenge him or hold his past against him.

Haylen’s eyes rounded. “You…you’re still with that thing?” she stammered. She bared her teeth in a grimace. “I don’t see how can you stand to look at him, let alone….you know.”

At her words, Sterling spun and made himself very busy, scanning the area for threats and pointedly keeping his back to them, leaving them to sort out their issues without interference.

Danse’s mouth turned down into a wicked scowl as disappointment swelled. “Oh, Haylen…” he mumbled with a shake of his head. Negligently, he had forgotten that she was still a model Brotherhood soldier, her beliefs rooted as a part of who she was. Neither of them tried very hard to get through to the other during Danse’s seclusion. The only person that could stand him had been John. He tried to look at his situation from her perspective. Although he absolutely had, Danse no longer found John repulsive. He just…was the way he was. It wasn’t as if they had just met – how revolting, finding himself sexually attracted to some anonymous ghoul – and he owed John more than tolerance. Thought it horrified him, Danse had made a commitment to see John through his change, to stand by him and not let him face his deterioration alone. He felt guilty over John’s condition, carrying a certain responsibility for it. If his decision had been different…

He always seemed to choke on his words, but it was important that he try and explain. So few people were in his corner and the prospect of losing Haylen forever due to a disagreement over John was heartbreaking. Maybe she’d never understand. That would be unfortunate. They had been close for so long, fluttering at the edge of true friendship for years, the strain of their ranks keeping them from true comradery. “I managed to rekindle a previous romantic relationship at no small feat,” he told her. His fists were nervously balled, although he had no memory of doing so. “He wasn’t like this before, whereas I’ve always been a wretched being – shortsighted, intolerant, and synthetic. But despite who – despite what I am – despite what I’ve done that he finds reprehensible, despite the slights and slurs, he cares about me and has the capacity to forgive my actions. And so I can forgive his exterior.” 

Her hardened features slacked, her eyes softening. She looked down at her feet before meeting his gaze again. “I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around everything that you’ve gone through. I just…I miss you, Sir.”

Her Sir both soothed and stung. It was a painful reminder of how straightforward and simple his life had been. He gave her a fragile smile and opened his arms. The stiffness in her spine vanished, and she loosened a huff of laugher before reaching up to drape her arms around his shoulders. The hug they shared was timid but warm. When she laughed again, he could feel the vibrations against his chest. “Well, the guy seems to be doing something right for you to show any affection at all.”

Sterling coughed dryly, redirecting their attention. “Can I come back now?” he queried from the rear of the craft. “We’ve got work to do.”

He and Haylen drew apart. “Of course,” Danse affirmed, prepared to shoulder any necessary burden. “What do you need?”

“I met with Maxson to discuss a situation that I recently became aware of. My trips to the Institute, they’ve, uh…shined a light on certain facts that we would have otherwise been blind to.”

“What did you find?” Danse asked with an air of suspicion. Although he trusted Sterling, he had a distain for secrets, something which the paladin seemed to thrive on. He couldn’t say that he sanctioned Sterling’s mysterious visits into the heart of enemy territory. The man went alone each time and returned looking either drawn or furious. Danse would have gladly switched places with him, as he was certain that his resolve was higher. If he twisted his head, he would be able to spot the charred remnants of the relay transport that first sent Sterling into the belly of the beast. The scorched pieces of the relay hadn’t been salvaged yet and stood as a technological testament to Brotherhood ingenuity in the open air of the exposed airport lobby.

Sterling’s furrowed brows and tight lips were straight lines. He sharply inhaled through his nose, and his words tumbled out, riding a single breath. “The Institute has at least one rat in Bunker Hill. Word got back to them that the trading post is ground zero for escaped and jeopardized synths. They plan to have a fleet of coursers and automated units bring them back.” He flinched, as if uneasy to speak about synths in front of Danse.

Utilizing Brotherhood forces to liberate synths…Danse’s loyalties felt divided. Not that his old prejudices were coming back into play, but the potential loss of soldiers’ lives on behalf of synths being sequestered by the Railroad was difficult to stomach. In truth, Danse’s opinions were cloudy. He tottered on the edge of wanting to hold each individual – synth, ghoul, or human – accountable for their own actions since, God knew, members of the Brotherhood were not without flaws. Of all his Brothers and Sisters, two were left that still held him in esteem. All his deeds, everything that he had given up or denied for the sake of duty, was now moot.

“You want us to launch a counterstrike?” Danse guessed with rising dismay. Clearly, Sterling was biting off more than he could chew. The three of them stood little chance against multiple Institute forces.

“Not just us,” Sterling clarified. “I may occasionally look stupid but, boy, do I build a mean house of cards.”

“Your fashionable glasses are fabulous, Sir,” assured Haylen. “Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Thanks, Haylen. No, Danse. I’m bold, not suicidal.” Sterling pointed overhead at the mass of forces heading out into the field. “The Institute monitors all airwaves in the ‘Wealth. That’s why we took the long walk. I had to tell Maxson personally. The chance to take out a hefty number of coursers? No way he was gonna pass that up.”

“The Institute has our lines tapped?” Haylen looked pale. “Dammit,” she hissed. “This information would have been appreciated earlier, Sir.” That was as close to a scolding as someone of her rank dared. “But there’s an additional complication. I think the higher-ups might actually suspect that the town is harboring synth refugees. Over the last few hours, several known and suspected Railroad operatives have been spotted congregating within the town perimeter. It seems as if they’re organizing a full assault.”  

Sterling appeared stunned by this information. “The Railroad? No!” he shouted before getting his voice under control. “I told them to lay low for next few days and let me handle things! They couldn’t wait one day?”

The church.

Danse’s spine stiffened as he made the connection, feeling relieved that Sterling hadn’t taken him inside. He didn’t want any type of connection to the Railroad, not trusting them to resist grabbing him and scrubbing his memories clean on the spot.

Sterling looked equal parts confused and irate. He was pacing, his hands in his hair. “Maxson’s deployment is supposed to fight the Institute synths while the people of Bunker Hill go to ground! Why would the Railroad get in the middle of all that? Let the Brotherhood clean house. Railroad can deal with their charges after.”

Haylen shook her head. “It’s too late, Paladin. Brotherhood deployments are already converging on the area.”

“Bunker Hill is a Minutemen settlement, isn’t that right?” Danse chimed in, the fact dawning on him. “If word is traveling of an impending attack, wouldn’t Colonel Garvey be sending a team to defend it?”

The paladin cursed up a rainbow storm of insults. “Everybody wants me to help them but no one checks with me before actually doing anything!” he exasperatedly cried. “Out of everyone, the Railroad listens the least! They all think that they’re solving a problem when they’re only making more.” He leveled a fierce kick to the airplane’s hull that made the weakened support structure shudder. Recovering himself, Sterling pushed his hair from his forehead and said, “We need to get to Bunker Hill, fast. C’mon. We’re taking a ‘bird.” He headed out of the craft’s rear, jumping down onto the sandy beach.

Danse remained rooted to the spot. This was as far as he could go into Brotherhood occupied territory. He felt aggravated that Sterling would bring him so close to being part of a grandiose event, only to have him watch from the shadows and live vicariously through his former teammates.

 “Um, Paladin?” Haylen questioned.

Both Sterling and Danse turned to face her. Embarrassment flared and Danse looked away, his heart heavy. Never again would he carry a title. Such things were reserved for people, not masquerading machines.  

“You’re gonna need a pilot,” Haylen pointed out, approaching him. “All lancers have already been assigned.”

Sterling twisted the release valve on his armor. The back opened invitingly, ready to cradle its operator. He grinned at her. “I’ve got a pilot.” Nodding with his chin to Danse, he patted the open suit on the shoulder. “Saddle up,” he ordered.

Danse still hadn’t moved. “Is this the reason you brought me?” he asked, stunned.

“One of them, yeah,” Sterling disclosed. His expression hardened. “If I were to bring some lancer with me, they would happily lay waste to civilians if that meant inflicting more damage – targeting generators and vehicles to explode and damn the consequences for the poor local idiots. You know I’m right. I hold you in higher regard.”

He felt peculiar that Sterling trusted him in this way. Had the man witnessed so many senseless deaths caused by Brotherhood negligence that he would forgo the proper channels, opting to bring an outcast into the fray instead?

“You want me to…steal a vertibird?” Danse attempted to clarify, hoping that he was mistaken. 

“No. Not steal,” Sterling quickly explained. “I have one on reserve at the airport. I just need you to claim it. Haylen and I will meet you on the off-ramp to the airport. That should be far enough away to avoid additional eyes.”

Danse exhaled roughly. It wasn’t quite a sigh, but a sign of submission. He was very good at following orders, even when they set his nerves on fire. It was an ability that John had hated.

After striding to the suit, he hesitated, giving Sterling a once-over glance. The two of them were nearly the same size, and bared the same coloring. They could have been brothers through blood instead of combat. From a distance, they could easily be mistaken for one another. “For the record,” Danse stated, as he straddled the armor, “I believe this is a perfect storm of good intentions going awry.”

“Noted,” Sterling acknowledged with a curt nod. “Get in.”

Danse climbed into his armor, which sealed behind him with a well-acquainted hiss, feeling that reassuring squeeze as the suit pressurized. For a precious moment, his life was normal again. He was suited up and ready for battle, safe inside of his shell. His eyes raked over the screen’s display. Sterling was letting his helmet fall into disrepair, Danse observed with a sinking heart.  Headset displays were notoriously delicate pieces of equipment, prone to short circuits and loss of visual acuity. Several of the onscreen icons were flickering, their readings obscured.

“You good in there?” asked Sterling, knocking on the chestplate.

“Your upkeep is shoddy, solider,” was his response. “You should surrender this suit to Ingram once our mission is complete.”

He heard Haylen chuckle. “That’s our boy!” she quipped.

Hiking up his resolve, Danse set the suit in motion. Without an interfacing undersuit, the armor wasn’t nearly as comfortable as he recalled. The joints and shoulders rubbed abrasively at his skin through his worn clothing. The controls were sluggish and the steps sent unpleasant vibrations into his knees. How on earth did raiders manage to control such advanced gear without the proper attire?

He plodded his way towards the airport security gate, his knowledge of the area allowing for his body to continue on auto-pilot as his mind churned. What a harrowing experience. Despite his armor, he felt naked, wearing a sign that read Here I Am pasted onto his front. He tried to recall Sterling’s gait, and if it differed from his own. Every member of personal that he passed sent beads of sweat to trickle icily down his back. His presence drew almost every eye straight to him. Most nodded at his passing. Several even gave salutes, addressing him as ‘Paladin Sterling, Sir’.

Luckily, the airport was undermanned, the majority of able-bodied personnel headed to Bunker Hill. Danse found a handful of initiates gathered in the supply depot, playing what looked to be a makeshift game of Caravan. Too green to be cleared for field ops, their type had little to do during campaigns like this. They paid him vague attention, possibly because they were unfamiliar with individual officers, their lives an excess of training and menial tasks.

Skirting by, he overheard an embittered recruit say, “Our brothers better get a few licks in at those synthfuckers in the Railroad. About time they got crushed under our boot.”

Another gave an exuberant guffaw. “Those psychopaths are about to get their asses handed to them on a silver platter.”

Danse halted in the cover of the stairwell. For the first time, he was embarrassed by his former regime. He wanted to reprimand these recruits right there, to remind them of who the real enemy was, to not bother concerning themselves with an annoyance like the Railroad when the Institute was looming so large with the threat of a pending attack.

“Think the Railroad’s hiding Danse in there?”

His heart stopped. He didn’t breathe.

“In Bunker Hill, I mean,” that same solider continued. “It’s not like…I mean…his body wasn’t brought back…”

“Jeez, Clarke,” another answered. “You and your conspiracies.”

“No, think about it,” Clarke persisted. “Doesn’t the Railroad change what people look like? What if they made, like, a fake Danse for us to find? They could do that, right?”

The group seemed to think about that for a moment. “I guess,” one of them replied. “You think…is that why the Brotherhood is going all in? To try and reclaim Danse? All this action for a couple of lost synths and the shot to take out a few coursers…it’s kinda hard to swallow.”

Were these lackluster recruits right? Was this going to be a bloodbath because of him? He was inclined to agree with that recruit. Sending all able forces in to raid a single Railroad stronghold was overkill, even by Maxson’s standards. 

He set his jaw and continued up the stairs to the acquisitioned tarmac, his armored feet clanking on the concrete. As he crested the top of the stairs, a beautiful sight greeted him. Invictus sat on the landing platform, her polished plating gleaming in the sunshine, white bars of light reflecting off her hull. Her name was still proudly displayed on her tail in Danse’s own scrawl. Had Sterling selected this particular gunship to deliver him back to the ground following his meeting with the Elder? He must have, knowing what the ‘bird meant to Danse. He had assumed that he would never step inside of her again.

The tarmac was vacant of guards. Looking upward, he noticed that all vertibirds had detached from the Prydwen. The battle was on.

Crossing the platform, he hoisted himself inside. Danse secured the suit to the floor of the cabin by utilizing the magnets in the feet. He slid out the back of it and into the pilot’s seat. Selfishly, he wasted several seconds to run his hands lovingly over the control panels, tracing the buttons and screens warmed by the sunlight filtering in through the windshield, Invictus feeling alive under his touch. This ‘bird and this suit – he owed his life to both of them many times over.

Then, duty kicked in, and he began the process of getting Invictus into the sky. During preparations, he made sure to disable the tracking system and radio, ensuring that his unit would be off the grid. The wind in his hair felt glorious as he lifted away from the airport. He was free. Briefly, he imagined flying off, of grabbing John and leaving this vile Commonwealth behind. But no. That would self-indulgent. Sterling needed him and John would never abandon Goodneighbor. For better or worse, this was his life now, assisting from the shadows and sacrificing glory. 

He picked Sterling and Haylen up atop the fractured overpass as planned. Sterling climbed into the armor as Haylen took the navigator’s chair. She handed him her goggles to wear, and he graciously accepted. He and Haylen both reached for headsets. As long as Sterling had his helmet on, his voice would feed through the receivers and their voices would, in turn, be sent back to him.

Soon enough, they were back in the air and on their way to Bunker Hill. They flew over the waterfront, skimming the north end. Danse was thankful for Haylen’s goggles; the sunlit glare coming up from the river was intense.

“Why can’t I move?” Sterling queried over the headset.

Danse guessed that he must be trying to lift his feet to cross the interior. “I’ve magnetized the soles of the armor.”

“Why? What am I going to do? Fall out of this thing?”

“You’d be surprised,” Haylen and Danse dryly responded in tandem.

Sterling kept his mouth shut.

When they approached their endpoint, the battle was already in play. Danse kept them at a distance, skirting the surrounding streets.  As Sterling had predicted, one tanker truck was already ablaze. Several vertibirds were hovering within the enclosure of Bunker Hill’s courtyard, firing their front turrets in lengthy successions, ripping their targets to shreds. Their fire was met by a volley of deadly energy or lead aimed at the fuselages or lancers. Beams of blue light were crackling in vertical spears, the energy waves distorting readings on the control panels.  One ‘bird staggered in midair, its tail clipping a corner of the monument, sending chunks of granite tumbling from the spire before crashing to the ground. 

“Fire is too heavy,” Danse observed. Ground units were being pummeled by pieces of their own transports. “Haylen, reroute audio feeds. Sterling, get on the com and get these units out of the air. Ground forces should fall back until the sky is clear.”

“Lancers, this is Paladin Sterling,” the man announced to the other air units. He relayed Danse’s orders before Haylen switched the feed back to Invictus only. 

“Additional orders, Sir?” Sterling requested.  

A few beats of silence passed as the air traffic thinned. Apparently, they were both falling into old habits.

“Are you asking me to take charge?” Danse questioned, floored.

“I’m still a tourist, Danse. You’re the veteran. It’s your world, not mine. You belong in the field.”

Danse felt knocked off kilter by the praise. He finally caught onto why he had been brought. Sterling’s faith in him was unwavering. Although his title had been revoked, little had changed between them. He was honored that Sterling still relied on his council, trusting that he knew both the Brotherhood and the Wasteland inside and out and bestowing him with a purpose. That was one of Sterling’s attributes – grasping his friends’ desires and making them reality.

“Track the Institute relays,” Danse instructed, assuming his role. “At each burst, target the forces appearing at the base. Take the time to search out coursers. They have to take priority. Railroad operatives are an unfortunate irritation. Haylen, search out tell-tale signs of Stealth Boys – shimmering air or intermittent visuals – and flush them out, avoiding direct hits. Aim for distraction, not annihilation.”

Off starboard, a flash of light popped. The deep whom of Sterling’s Gauss rifle declared that he was picking off targets. His rounds were infrequent and controlled, selecting his prey with careful precision as he avoided friendlies. Haylen sent a few scattering shots down from the front turrets, attempting to dispel clusters of enemies firing up at them. Despite her actions, Invictus took intervals of extreme bombardment from combatants on the ground intent on bringing down a Brotherhood craft. Bullets pinged off of the hull and rattled around the insides of the cabin. Sterling let out a grunt and swore.

“Sterling, sound off,” Danse commanded. “Are you alright?”

“Negative. I’m blind,” was the paladin’s disgruntled reply. “Feed to the screen is out. Now I see why you always take your helmet off.” He blew a sigh. “I’m going to remove it.”

Without his helmet, Sterling wasn’t going to be able to effectively communicate. Now wasn’t the time for a lecture on gear maintenance, but Danse made a mental note to include one once they landed.

Something huge went hurling past the windshield, narrowly missing their craft. Swerving, Danse cringed and ducked his head out of reflex, never mind being incased in the cockpit. The object struck another ‘bird, which spun off course. The engine belched smoke as it went down nearby. Invictus quivered against the force of the ensuing fireball.

Haylen leaned forward into his periphery, almost rising out of her seat. “Where is it?” she sounded panicky. “Danse? Do you see it?”

“What happened?” Sterling yelled from the cabin, sounding confused. “See what where?”

Danse pulled up, gaining elevation and maintaining a level that he assumed was out of range. He scanned the roadways, circling. They were alone in the sky, the last remaining air unit. When he spotted the mutant behemoth, it was crushing a trio of his Brothers with an impressively sized boat anchor. His heart tore for those soldiers. “Affirmative,” he answered, the rancid taste of digust in his mouth.

Danse swung the craft around, pinpointing the asphalt-chucking behemoth with the front-mounted turrets. It stretched its entire stature, reaching to swing the anchor at Invictus’ exposed belly.

“Haylen! Light it up!”  Danse instructed. She lurched forward, gripping the gunnery controls as he held the craft steady. Haylen released a torrent of concentrated ammo into the roaring beast.

“What going on?” Sterling shouted again in alarm.

“Mount that minigun, Sterling,” Danse instructed over his shoulder. “Fire!”

Sterling continued to holler over the drone of the propellers. “I don’t – Shit.” He must have finally seen it. In less than five seconds, the cabin was filled with echoing minigun fire, a thrilling sound despite being deafening.

Daring a glance over his shoulder, Danse caught sight of Sterling leaning as far out of the cabin as he could manage. He had ripped the minigun off of its axis and was unloading it into the mutant, looking as if this was where he belonged, the fray a part of who he was, the necessary lifeblood to keep on living in a world that had let him down. Danse understood. In that manner, they were the same person. Over the bellowing of the mutant, and the firing of both types of weaponry, Danse could hear Sterling’s battle cry, visceral, enraged and authentic. 5mm casings flowed downward like hail, spilling across the floor and cascading out of the ‘bird.

Amid the screaming and gunfire, if allotted, Danse would capture this moment and happily live in it for eternity. The rush of blood, the surge of adrenaline, it was essential. Without it, he was lost. His knuckles tightened over the throttle.

John would have to understand. 

This was where he lived.

Chapter Text

DEACON

Bunker Hill, MA

April 16th, 2288

This wasn’t his best disguise.

The scavenged synth field armor was stiff and clunky, chaffing in the armpits and other places. The narrow lenses of the helmet were difficult to see through, tinted so dark that it looked like night. The resin was still pristinely bone-white, unblemished by bloodstains; the dead Gen-2 he’d stripped it from hadn’t had any to spill. He carried an Institute-issued laser pistol, wishing for something with more firepower. If the Institute’s weapon of choice couldn’t shoot through a wet paper bag and their clothing didn’t sit right in the crotch, no wonder synths ran.

Arriving fashionably late to a massacre always meant that there would be a plethora of bodies to pillage for clothing. He had discarded his caravaner clothes upon arrival. Too many heavies knew his face to go in without a mask. Too many variables were in play, and none of his options had been ideal. Dress as a civilian, probably get shot. Dress like he was from the Railroad, definitely get shot. Brotherhood? Get super shot. Institute? Get super-duper shot. But the Railroad knew his face. And if the Institute recorded an image of him? Oh, he didn’t even want to think about that. Sure, he could have found a suit of power armor, but would have promptly become a slow moving, obvious target. So, he’d play the part of a Gen-2 and see where that got him. Deacon was no fool. He was also under the influence of a Stealth Boy. When it puttered out – and it would – he’d be ready with Plan B…and C.

When Fixer had appeared in his standard mode – bringing bad news and wearing his Brotherhood armor to boot – he had warned that despite some noise at Bunker Hill, he would handle it. Desdemon’s response had been evasive, cantering around the promise to stay out of it. As soon as Fixer had shoved his wide armor out of the crypt doorway, Des had sprung into action. Curie’s group had been retrieved from the catastrophe of Covenant, but they weren’t the only synths that were taking refuge in Bunker Hill. The whole place served as a synth storage facility, as having freshly-wiped or newly-escaped synths wandering Goodneighbor was a bad idea. The Bunker Hill packages were being debriefed and categorized below the marketplace by external heavies, those who operated outside of the HQ, minders that had no idea what they were about to face. Glory had been appointed task leader for this retrieval, which meant nothing short of utter carnage, the elimination of all opposing forces.

At her appointment, Deacon had taken the initiative and slunk out the escape tunnel. He now had a perfect opportunity to play the part of the heroic lover and he’d be damned if he was going to sit tight while another woman that cared for him died for the crime of being a synth. It could be argued that Fixer had given him a wink, a nod, tapped out Morse Code against his armor, anything that gave Deacon the permission to defy Desdemona’s orders to sit tight. Argued, even though it was false. In HQ or with Fixer, right? Those had been the options that Desdemona had given him.

The battle outside of the city was deafening – vertibirds above, gunfire all around, and the Brotherhood spouting ridiculous propaganda-laced battle cries. There was someone up in the tower, taking potshots at coursers, causing their blood to paint Pollock-y artwork across the granite. He dodged and wove through the streets and over the collapsed front gate, darting from one cover to the next; a Stealth Boy wouldn’t protect him from stray bullets. The whole place was shaking, or maybe it was just the concussive gunfire rattling Deacon’s bones.

Still invisible, he darted through garden plot to the crumbling remains of Bunker Hill, the whistling tune of bullets whizzing by. In the vacant arena of the marketplace, Deacon took refuge behind a partially collapsed stall. Bodies were heaped here and there, sprawled across the floor. He just had to outlast the initial carnage. There would be a break in the assault – there always was – where he would slip into the basement, joining his brethren as they pushed onwards. He’d have to move past them, of course, to secure Curie and drag her out before the full fight reached the holding area at the base of the complex. The Railroad might be down to relentlessly defend that handful of synths, but Curie…he couldn’t be sure that their intentions extended to her. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the Railroad, but he was dubious of battlefield decisions, especially Glory’s. He couldn’t take the chance that she’d put Curie’s safety last.

A brief moment of reprieve appeared to be clutching Bunker Hill; no one was currently shooting or dying in the near vicinity. The front line must have moved elsewhere. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Deacon guessed where. He dragged his fingers through a nearby pile of ash. The few accouterments that lay nearby – standard issue laser rifle and a few pieces of flaked-off plating – identified the heap of residue as belonging to a Brotherhood solider. With a few quick strokes over the front of his chestpiece he marked out the rail sign for ally, as getting shot by his own people would have been embarrassing. Painted with the blood of his enemy, Deacon felt almost primal. Too bad he held a laser instead of a club.

Voices and the jangle of armor cut through the eerie stillness of the market. A stern looking man in a long black coat led a cluster of Gen-1s and 2s through the bazaar. A courser. Deacon supposed that opportunity tended to present itself where it did. Okay, then. He’d accept cover fire where he could.

Scurrying out of his nook, he fell into line with them just as his Stealth Boy ran out. It took a few strides to get the Gen-2 walk down, kind of stiff in the hips and with heavy footfalls. There was no need for dialogue – he knew their destination. The courser crouched behind a stall and wrested a heavy utility door up from the ground, one by one, the other synths slid into basement. The courser dropped down after them.

Between the tinted lenses of the field helmet and his shades underneath, he was practically blind for a few moments until his eyes adjusted to the dim surroundings. Deacon stuck close to that courser as the synth platoon navigated a brick passageway lit with string lights. He’d been down in the bowels of Bunker Hill before but the atmosphere bared little resemblance to his previous trips.

That moment of calm was long gone. The walls were practically shaking from the torrent of munitions being fired up ahead. The courser didn’t speak; he signaled the rest of his squad with hand gestures. The earlier models plunged into an adjoining cavern, and Deacon was left with like choice but to follow, lest he blow his cover as synth solider X.

The underground display of firepower was astronomical. Miniguns and assault carbines and Gauss rifles, were rolled out like thunder. Even the cachoo, cachoo of a railway rifle banged around in the catacomb. From evaluated positions, Railroad heavies fired down into a trapped squadron of Brotherhood soldiers. Heedless of the bullets pinging off his plating, one armored Brotherhood knight was tossing a pair of Gen-1s like ragdolls, smashing them against cement columns. A star paladin twisted a Gen-2 in its massive steel-plated hands, tearing it completely in half, and sending a flurry of sparks spilling from the thing’s mechanical guts. The unarmored grunts were taking heavy damage, madly firing as they staggered into death.

There existed an impressive number of reserve agents, not good for anything other than firepower. The piles of agent bodies were often staggering after battles. The nutcases of the Wastes – lookit them go! Scavvers, raiders, mom and pop America – everyone was happy to put holes in Railroad agents. They were the great unifier of the Commonwealth. It was perplexing to see the balance shift in their favor.

“Push ahead!” the star paladin was shouting, her armor stripped down to the frame. “Radio any record of M7-97 to base!”

Well, Deacon thought as he slipped through a hole in the basement wall, his courser carving a path, this is a new twist. It looked as if Maxson wasn’t quite ready to write off the asset that used to be his friend. Danse must remain a loose end that the Brotherhood felt it needed to tie up. Suddenly, his presence was validated. Technically, Deacon was still Danse’s handler, his case unresolved. Whether out of pity for Danse or playing his cards close to his chest, Fixer had only given Deacon the barest of details. If the Brotherhood had doubts about Danse’s death or had come across new information, he needed to be in on that.

Deacon kept just out of range, his Institute pistol pointed stiffly ahead, firing off random bursts of fire directed overhead and at the walls, letting the courser cover him, guiding him deeper into the bunker. With his back to the wall, he slid around the bloodbath, trying to slip deeper into the facility without drawing attention. It was an easy feat, as all sides were busily tearing into one another. The whole while, synths continued to pop into existence, riding channels of blue light to shoot members of both warring factions in the back. It was pure chaos, clear that both groups had lost control over their campaign, blindly allowing the Institute to get the upper hand while they fed on revenge.

He spotted Glory on a ledge, the belt of her minigun churning as she cut down soldiers in a hail of bullets. The entire Brotherhood platoon was pinned down, trapped in the center of the cavern as Railroad heavies and turrets laid into them. The cave stank of the combination of gunpowder, burned ozone, coppery blood and charred flesh. One by one, soldiers would crumble to the ground, either in a loose-limbed tumble of death or in a crash of inactive power armor.

He felt both vindicated and awful that the Brotherhood was having their asses handed to them like this. The Railroad could have easily slipped in and out, no shots fired. That was Deacon’s style though, not Glory’s or Desdemona’s. He briefly pictured Danse in this fight and knew that his command would never have come unglued in this manner. Both understood the frustration between the Brotherhood and the Railroad; they shared them. But if his kids couldn’t listen and play nice, Danse would most certainly pull over and turn this massacre around.

“Bunker Hill is ours!” some heavy announced, unleashing a stream of assault rifle fire into the final Brotherhood of Steel survivor.

Well, it was about to be no ones’ if this bombardment kept up. Deacon half-excepted the entire monument to come crashing down through the ceiling. Deacon’s courser was putting up a hell of a fight, a gladiator in what had become an arena littered with bodies.

The Railroad tightened their focus on the Institute forces. Deep blue streaks of Gauss charges did battle with the paler beams of Institute laser weapons. Some synth eradicator picked up a discarded Gatling laser, curtesy of some dead soldier, and the tides turned. Red beams of instant death spread out in a wide display, reducing several Railroad operatives to piles of hot ash.

Glory, tossing her spent minigun aside, grabbed up a dropped railway rifle and promptly shot Deacon’s courser through the head with a railroad spike. The courser staggered for a moment, remaining upright for a few heartbeats before toppling backwards.

The remaining heavies concentrated their fire on the eradicator, causing it to violently jerk under the impacts of bullets. The Gatling laser fell to the ground with a heavy thump as the destroyed synth’s body followed suit.

A break in the battle occurred. No synths phased in and no shots rang out. Still head to toe in field armor, Deacon sensed that his disguise was about to backfire. He backed out of the basement and crept around a corner, entering the concrete tube of a service tunnel, putting distance between himself and the Railroad operatives.

“Enjoy hell, fucker!” someone screamed at him from behind. He whirled in what he hoped was at least a graceful manner.

Wow, Glory had covered ground fast. Her small, strong body was blocking the entry to the tunnel. She was wearing a sadistically wide grin, with the railway rifle at her shoulder, staring down the sight.

He threw his arms in the air, a distinctively non-synth gesture. “Hey, did you see a wild brahmin come through here?” he asked, his voice loud and clear through the helmet. “It owed me two-hundred caps.”

Glory’s callous face shifted to an almost disappointed sulk, like he’d taken her candy away. No, no death for you right now.

“Shit…Deacon.” The rifle dipped away from him. “You’re really bad at listening to orders.”

He lowered his hands. “I listen. I just find that my way is far more interesting.”

She gave him a sly look. “You come to rescue your woman?”

“Pfft. Clearly, you’ve mistaken me for someone chivalrous. That’s what I get for having good breeding and height.”

Retreating a few steps back into the combat arena, Glory ordered, “Don’t move.”

“Rooted to the spot.”

The flow of synths had stopped. Through the fracture in the broken wall, he heard her commanding the surviving heavies to get back up to the surface and deal with their casualties. When she reappeared, she was all business again, her eyes and mouth hard with purpose. The railway rifle was up and aiming. “Come with if you need to,” she snapped as she pushed past him. “But you better keep outta my way.”

Deacon became her shadow, mentioning, “Seen what happens to anyone that gets between you and a goal. Personally, I’d find becoming compost in some basement would seriously dampen my effectiveness.”

Climbing a set of stairs, Glory sniffed, half grunt half chortle. “Remember the first rule of the Railroad.”

“Um…no one talks about the Railroad?”

Making a face, she twisted to face him at the top of the stairs. “No. Synth liberation comes first. To hell with anybody who gets in the way.”

Deacon was pretty sure that wasn’t an official party line.

They maneuvered through a concrete service tunnel riddled with the pockmarks of gunshots. They took one step into the adjoining hallway and immediately leapt back. Turrets, likely placed by the Bunker Hill settlers just in case of this exact scenario, opened fire on them. Glory made short work of them, causing the stout machines to burst apart in small fireballs that sent flak soaring.

Descending another set of stairs, the noises of a scuffle could be heard ahead, shouting and the telltale sound of bodily impacts. There were no shots being fired. They briefly met each other’s gaze before hustling towards the racket.

Finally, they reached the furthest portion of the basement level. A few early synths had gotten past the first cavern and the hallway traps. Though engaged in combat, the skeletal robots had been disarmed by a band of ratty Gen-3 survivors, forcing them to sloppily fight hand-to-hand against their sturdier opponents. They had armed themselves with anything that hadn’t been nailed down – random tools and found items – hammering the Gen-1s into submission. Ha. How embarrassing for the Institute.

There Curie was, being a little badass, wielding a broken shock baton like a spear, lunging at her attackers, holding her own. In a fight, she wasn’t reckless like Cait, or standoffish like Piper. Curie carried out maneuvers with a cool sense of detachment, unhindered by pesky morals or second guesses. Though she be but little, she is fierce, Deacon thought with pride.

Gen-1s were being slaughtered, stabbed at and crushed. One had a fire extinguisher come down solidly on its head, popping its cranial shell like a smashed egg.  Another met its end when Amelia Stockton shoved a butter knife through an optic and into its electronic brainmeats. 

While Glory fired off a few spikes that ended the melee, Deacon slid up behind Curie and placed a hand on her back. She felt warm and solid, reassuring. She was safe. The risk had been worth it to see her handle her own with such confidence.

At his touch, Curie’s shoulders seized in surprise and she whirled, angling the pointed end of her baton down. It jabbed through a gap in Deacon’s armor, slipping in between his ribs. The force of the impact was strong enough to knock him off his feet. He yelped and fell, his hand dropping to grasp the lance in place. The pain came after the shock, and he slid to the floor as his inhalations became labored. Standing over him, Curie’s eyes sparkled with savage triumph, her shoulders rising and falling with each deep gasp.

Well, he was glad that she was enjoying breathing. He made a tactical decision to remove his helmet instead of yanking the lance out. With one hand holding onto the blade, he sank his free fingers under the helmet and pried it off.

Curie’s pleased manner shifted into astonishment when she saw his face. She sank to his side, prattling what seemed to be frantic apologies in French.

He ground his teeth and shook his head. “No…my bad,” he wheezed. “Shoulda worn my shades…on the outside of the helmet.” He dropped the helmet and curled his fingers a few times in Glory’s direction.  “Pak me,” he ordered. Glory fished a stimpak out of a pocket and tossed it at him. Curie caught it and began to tend to his wound, shaking her head and forming a long sentence in French of what he assumed were curses.

Hell, if he’d known she was this capable, he would have been sipping a Dirty Wastelander on some beach, not bleeding like a poked voodoo doll underground. He recalled too clearly the newly synthed Curie, ambling about like a baby radstag in Sanctuary, still unsure of how to move her arms and legs. Seems like she’d adjusted fast, probably while Deacon had been busy with the two-thousand other tasks he was responsible for. Turns out she was doing just fine. He was the one complicating things. Hmm. This caring stuff was clearly perilous.

Not one for coddling, Glory didn’t wait around for the stimpak to kick in, in instead herded the cluster of Gen-3s out of the sublevel and back towards the surface. Deacon and Curie took up the rear, him leaning on her as his injury continued to knit; the image of his height against hers was probably pretty hilarious. The way out was silent as the grave. Everyone, and everything, was dead.

Outside, it was still daylight. How could it still be daytime? Hadn’t the entire battle taken days? Sure felt like it. One last vertibird circled the air a few streets over. Its mounted minigun was churning out death, the hot casings falling like rain, metal droplets glinting in the sunlight.

The rescued synths, apart from Curie tucked under Deacon’s arm, were hastily nabbed by Railroad agents, who slapped Stealth Boys on them and whisked them away. Poof. Gone. Like they had never existed, leaving Glory, Curie and himself alone in the market.

Success. It was a Railroad victory.

Kind of.

Now, with the likelihood of flying bullets lessened, Deacon exchanged his salvaged armor for trader attire amongst the stalls. The three of them stepped from the enclosed market and out into the sun, the obelisk at the center of town stretching up over them. Glory was beaming, her skin glowing like hot copper in the light. “We won,” she stated, rare smile lines appearing at the corners of her eyes.

Deacon countered her pride with a frown. “Did we? Hell, did anybody? That statement seems like a highly debatable alternative fact,” he said.

A collection of Brotherhood scribes had shown up as a late addition, counting casualties. Here and there, Deacon would spot a heavy dragging a body towards a stack in a shaded corner of the marketplace. He had never witnessed a bloodbath of this magnitude before. Wounded were being tended to by medics from their own factions. For now, the bodies of Institute synths lay forgotten, their busted carcasses long done spitting sparks. Bunker Hill residents were popping their heads out of ramshackle shacks and around corners to gauge the probability of safety. Blood had collected in puddles and slicks spanning the market floor, dark red in the shadows, stark against the granite. Thick, black, stinking smoke curled into the air from beyond the gates, remnants of vehicles set ablaze by gunplay. A dog was baying somewhere past the courtyard, on the other side of the monument, adding to the grief of the scene.

There were going to be a numerous amount of empty bunks and vacant hideouts tonight. This was always the worst part, not that fighting and dying didn’t have their own drawbacks, but waiting after a battle, counting survivors and looking for familiar faces that would never appear, yeah, that was pretty terrible.

He turned his shades to face Glory. “Do me a solid?”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I was never here. I’m back at HQ right now, lurking in the escape tunnels – mirelurking if you will, heh –and trying not to pull the hair outta my wig in boredom. Curie…” He looked at her, squeezing her shoulder, and she smiled up at him. “…she went out with you. You didn’t want to let G5-19 out of your sight.”

Glory pulled a face, and Deacon was almost certain that she’d deny him. Her sneer relaxed though, and her eyes drifted over Curie’s face. “Yeah…seems like something I’d do,” she agreed. “Out of respect for G5, I’d make sure her body was safe.”

The moment was almost touching, plucking at heartstrings all around. That was the Railroad though – one big, dysfunctional, happy family, although the happy part was often in short supply. So was the big.

The sounds of footsteps behind them caused Glory to whip her railway rifle up. Deacon’s hand hovered by his Institute pistol as the they turned.

“Jeez. Look at this place. This is way we can’t have nice things…like the ability to take five steps without getting blood on my boots.”

MacCready.

Cait was by his side as they exited the monument, her clothing and sprayed with gore. Smudges marked where she’d tried to wipe her face clean. Judging by the fulsome smirk she wore and the bloodied bat in her hand, none of it was hers. “It’d be your own blood drippin’ down those stairs if I hadn’t come to rescue you,” she chided with quirked brows.

Huffing, MacCready pursed his lips and tried to look indignant, but didn’t argue. 

Glory nudged him and pulled Curie away, clearly eager to rejoin her team and wrap this mission up. Deacon and Curie squeezed each other’s fingers as they parted, but didn’t kiss goodbye. Blech. That kind of thing was for kids and folks with nothing to hide. He didn’t fall into either category.

The merc, the fighter and the fraud all hung about for a few minutes, sharing a pack of cigarettes that MacCready had produced while their champion emerged. Fixer, still in his paladin power armor but without his helmet, began barking orders, initiating a brief battlefield truce so that Bunker Hill could be cleared of bodies. Agents and soldiers leapt to obey, retrieving their fallen without acknowledging each other.

A few settlers had been caught up in the conflict. When their bodies were discovered, lumped in with the rest of the dead, Fixer’s scowl matched Deacon’s own. It wasn’t as if the people of the Wastes had been down to support the Railroad, the Brotherhood, or the Institute before his, but now the final nail seemed poised over the coffin – no one was likely to forget what happened here today, and they certainly wouldn’t forgive.

A dog had weaved its way through the grieving groups and was busily attempting to tangle itself amid Fixer’s study metal legs, which made sense once Deacon placed the pooch as Dogmeat. “What’s going on, pal? What is it?” Fixer questioned the canine. Dogmeat responded by darting off, scampering around the obelisk. Fixer followed with lumbering steps.

His alibi secured, Deacon slunk off when MacCready and Cait weren’t looking, trailing Fixer’s path. Coming around to the front of Bunker Hill, he stopped short when he heard Fixer wail a long, infuriated note. The next few steps he took were cautious.

Kessler stood at the busted-in front gate, talking to Fixer, although little of what she was saying traveled to Deacon’s ears. Apologies mostly, stoic in tone. It looked as if Fixer was shaking, fists clenched, armor vibrating. Dogmeat was prone on the ground, head on his paws, ears back.

At Kessler’s feet lay Preston Garvey.

Deacon came up behind Fixer, peering around a wide shoulder, braced for what he’d find. It appeared that Preston had been caught in one hell of a crossfire while holding the gate. He had been shot by all factions; burns from Brotherhood lasers, holes from Institute rifles, and bullet wounds from the humans – larger caliber holes from Railroad agents and smaller rounds from the Bunker Hill residents – all marred his body and clothing.He’d been right in the thick of it up until the end.

Although he and Preston hadn’t been close, he knew that Fixer and the Colonel had been, and if Deacon had been a man plagued by emotions, he would have felt for the General’s grief. Even if they ran in different circles, Deacon could commend the hard work that had been done. The Minutemen were a respectable force now, providing an environment where tagged and released synths could live without fear of immediate death. And it was all due to motions that Preston had put into play. If he had a hat, he would have doffed it in respect.

Was this it? The end of the Minutemen? It was no secret that Fixer was the General, but he also had a whole buttload of other responsibilities to other groups, not to mention the entirety of Valentine’s Detective Agency on his shoulders. Poor guy. And now Deacon would have to tell him that the story about Danse wasn’t sticking very well, risking his status with the Brotherhood.

Close enough to hear the conversion, Kessler was promising, “We’ll send the Colonel to the Castle. You have my word. It’s the least we can do. Is…isn’t that where he’d want to be?”

Fixer’s mouth was clenched in a firm line. He cast a dark look at Deacon, eyes narrowing when he recognized him. He jerked a stiff nod at Kessler and stalked down the entry steps, masking his grief with determined fury as he strode into the street. Dogmeat had risen and was loping at his side.

Deacon followed, long legs matching his stride. “Where you off to, partner?” he called in a careful voice, not wanting to risk pushing Fixer over the edge.

“To burn Covenant to the ground.”

Well, that seemed like the best idea Deacon had heard all day. “Hold up. Nothing like a bonfire to bring folks together. We can make Fancy Lad s’mores over the toasty corpses of our foes. Good times.”

Fixer didn’t respond, but kept plodding onwards, turning at a junction in the road and marching down an alley.

“Hey, uh, boss? Covenant’s the other way,” Deacon reminded.

“I know,” Fixer said without turning his head. “Danse is waiting for my report at a fallback position. And I have to give something away.”

“Oh, yeah, hey. About Danse….”

Chapter Text

JOHN

Goodneighbor, MA

March 21st, 2281

For the briefest of moments upon waking, John didn’t know where he was. On his belly atop a couch, that much he knew for sure. His mouth felt dry and the telltale signs of a hangover were close at hand, nausea tickling his throat and a throb in his temples. He stretched, moving gingerly, trying to create as little disturbance as possible. Letting his gaze drift, he caught many a drifter in more or less the same position as him, draped in chairs or lounging on couches, having forgone stumbling up the stairwell to claim rooms on the upper level. Some folks had even claimed patches of floor, sleeping or chasing the ends of a chem trip.

The lobby of the Hotel Rexford looked like it always did. Thick, plush rugs covered much of the floor, tarnished hardwood peeking out in between the mats. Gentle, rosy light filtered in through the dirty windows, curtesy of the neon sign outside. Out of sight, a generator softly chugged, sending power to the few partially-lit chandeliers that hung from above. Scattered custodians were working silently, trying to clear the rooms of litter before the tenants regained their senses. On an adjacent chaise, he caught Emogene Cabot in the arms of William Black, both snoring. In the Rexford’s gauzy half-light, Pickman fluidly glided through the tangle of sleepers in his patched suit looking like a fine connoisseur, assessing his peers.

Rexford, the retreat of the Commonwealth, was the place to be. Good looking folks with caps to spare enjoyed extravagant parties on a weekly basis, drinking and chemming themselves into oblivion while music played too loudly and inhibitions were abolished. Marowski kept the finest, most exotic chems flowing through his doors and the most potent alcohol on stock, while Vic lurked out of sight in the State House, leaving the man alone to do his business. No wonder. While Vic might have had a handhold on the local government, his status came from the mountain of caps that the Marowski family had incurred. 

John stood, rolled his neck a few times to crack it, and wondered what time it was. His hands wandered to his pockets, checking to see if he was robbed in the night, though under Marowski’s guards, that kind of thing didn’t happen much. But too many people knew who he was. Ever since he got that plaque put on his door at Home Plate, he had learned to be cautious. J. McDonough, it read, Diamond City Treasury Dept. Everyone at Rexford was too suave, too arrogant, and too careless with wealth. This now included John.

When his invitation had arrived, his first though had been that he was going about his life either entirely wrong or entirely correct. The height of his popularity and influence had taken him somewhat by surprise. It was him that was shadow managing Diamond City for Mayor Roberts, his financial systems in place, his trade routes bolstered by the addition of the Crimson Caravan to bring in supplies from the west, while his brother took the credit. The people in the streets knew him, shook his hand and offered him trinkets, but up in the stands he was still some newcomer, riding high on his birth, shaking up the status quo. John might have had had Roberts’ ear and the peoples’ respect, but it was Guy that had the entire city council under his thumb and his hand in the most influential of pockets. John’s extensive knowledge of market statistics and current Wasteland affairs couldn’t quite break down any doors for him, particularly while his portly brother took every opportunity to block his way.

Still groggy, John stumbled from the lobby, carefully stepping over those too far gone to notice him. Even in their stupor, the guests still wore their finest – dresses with hardly any tears, and crisp shirts and trousers close to their original color – the pressure of maintaining a certain image a necessity for survival. They came from all over, delighted that someone as powerful as Marowski took an interest in them. Diamond City, mostly, or some of the surrounding fortified households. Caps meant security, and those with more than their share stood a higher chance of an innocuous life safe above the riff-raff infighting in the streets or the challenge of feeding ones’ family by peddling scrap.

John wasn’t dense. He understood that this was Marowski’s way of keeping an eye on all the biggest players in the region, luring them under his thumb with promises of exclusivity, which equaled a rise in status, which equaled more influence, which meant that Marowski had the right to call in any favors he wished. Brilliant tactic, honestly.

He lit a cigarette as he shouldered through the Rexford’s front door, ignoring the post-chem throb of a headache. The way the shadows were crawling across the asphalt, it must be late afternoon. Outside of the hotel was very different than within. The mattresses lining the streets were full of drifters, drinking swill out of bottles that bore no labels, writhing in chem-induced fits, or simply staring blankly ahead, all hope and drive stolen.

As he smoked, taking a path around the State House and out of the hamlet, he considered taking a handful of Mentats to fight the ache in his skull. Hair of the chem you swallowed, and all that. Making a thoughtful sound in his throat, he declined his own offer. Although he tended to have an impressive amount of chems at his disposal, he rarely used them, opting to rely on them only for work, to push himself further. And, well yeah, during the occasional bender in Goodneighbor where faded was preferable. Too heavy of a use and he’d find it impossible to step away from the pills, needles and inhalers so prevalent in Wasteland life. Normally, he couldn’t care less, but on the all-too-rare occasions when he would find himself with Danse, he didn’t want to feel blurry. He wanted every moment they shared to be crystal clear and dedicated to memory. Plus, withdrawal sucked when you were supposed to be on a sex-riddled visit with your man.

As a coral sunset blazed over Boston, the glow warming tall, sun-bleached buildings, John cautiously picked his way back home, sticking to shadows and squeezing though narrow alleyways, hugging the safe route back to Diamond City.

The sky had darkened significantly by the time he reached the rear loading doors of the stadium. After waiting for a break in the guards’ rotation, he slipped through a side door opening into a VIP green room that led up into the field, traipsing through darkened, forgotten passageways. He emerged amid a collapsed section of bleachers, an area of town where residents disposed of broken equipment not worth salvaging and arranged with stacks of discarded tires. Sometimes the city would burn the heap before adding more to the smoldering pile.

Standard curfew was in effect, the walkways playing host to thinning traffic. Infrequent commerce commenced in the shops, with robots left to operate stalls. The restriction existed under the idea that darkness spurred the Institute into action, boogeymen leaping at the chance to snatch the lone traveler away. And who knew? Maybe that was true.

John, mostly sober now, picked up his steps, eager to make it home without bumping into anyone that would give him grief – not that folks from the stands had much reason to wander down this far.

“John? Is that you?”

He froze, eyes darting around to try and pinpoint the voice amid nightfall.

Eliza Roberts was sitting by the edge of the water purifier erected atop a sizable pond near the back end of town. Her bare, wrinkled feet were trailing in the clear water, the skirt of her faded dress spread out in the circle where she sat.

“What are you doing out after curfew?” he said, approaching her.

She tilted her head coquettishly, the dark curls of her wig tumbling across one side of her face. “What are you doing out?” she countered, an air of mischief in her rough voice.

“I’m a grown-ass man. I do what I want.”

Dipping her head, she gazed up at him. If she had eyelashes left, she would have been batting them at him. “Stay with me for a while?” she asked, rubbing the area next to her with the flat of her palm.

The side of John’s mouth pinched as he tried to think of what to say. He knew where she wanted this to lead. She’d managed to churn through all the ghoul-curious men in town, but he had continuously kept himself out of her reach, perhaps the last checkmark she had left on a list of conquests.

Eliza Roberts, the eternally hormonal teenager. John understood, really, he did. As a young man, still underage on Liberty Ilse, he’d gotten a girl pregnant. That had been turning point in his life where everything became shit for a long while. But that girl was long dead, along with what could have been their child, joined in death by a collection of old comrades that had dared to befriend John.

He granted her a simple smile, bumping her shoulder with his knuckles. “Not this time, toots. See you around.”

Eliza looked down into the water, her reflection marred by faint ripples. “You always say that.”

“Maybe. But I always do see you, right?” Just not in the way she wanted, probably on his back. He was an attractive man and knew it, but leading someone on, even unintentionally, just felt rude. Better that the two of them steer clear.

“Do you think I’m a slut?” she asked quietly, with a hint of wistful hurt.

“Don’t use that word,” John reprimanded, feeling a brief dark cloud of anger expand and contract in his chest. He hated seeing good people tear themselves down. “You’re tryin’ to do what you do, without judgement. No shame in that. Folks should keep their highfalutin’ mouths shut.”

She grimaced at the pond, absently spinning a ring on one of her gnarled fingers. “Goodnight, John.”

“…night,” he said, leaving her to her ponderings. It seemed like Eliza was growing up, at least in her own head, aware now of the harsh whispers and outright laughing behind her back. Though, it remained to be seen if she really did want to change, to stop chasing men and find her place in Diamond City society.

The towering reactor at the center of the market spewed clouds of vapor into the evening sky, obscuring the emerging stars. Though the chems had faded in his system, John still felt tight, amped. Diamond City had that effect on him, making him feel like an animal in a cage, left to pace back and forth in an unnatural state of boredom. He should be out in the city, making a difference and swaying an unfortunate tide, beating the monsters and the agitators back, claiming the whole of Boston as a safe haven. He could imagine that reality, and his heart swelled to think of it. But being an unreliable marksman of limited strength and influence stymied that plan. So, he’d do what he did best instead – pass the time.  

He slowed as he passed Wiseman’s door, giving it a few raps with his knuckles. The ghoul appeared within momentarily, one brow ridge raised in a, Yeah? What do you need? manner.

“Top level of Home Plate. Bring some sluggers,” John instructed. He was offered a ragged grin, and the ghoul closed his door. John turned and trudged the rest of the way home, taking a brief detour to lift a basket of baseballs from Moe’s unwatched storefront, leaving a bag full of caps under the counter in compensation.

Fumbling with the key, he shouldered his way into his domicile, driving an elbow against the switch that set the string lights looped throughout his home aglow. Dropping the basket on his second-level bed, he freed himself from his traveling armor and stowed his handgun in its rightful place. He snagged a loose shoelace, leftover from his hypodermic days, and tied back his mess of blonde hair.

A level below, the still unlocked door banged open. “That you?” John called.

“Who else?” Wiseman’s gruff voice answered. He appeared, climbing the short stairs up to John’s level, an aluminum baseball bat in each hand, the barrels resting atop his shoulders. 

Their friendship was mutually beneficial. While the city council had no place for John, per Guy’s insistence, Wiseman had served for years and, much to Mayor Robert’s disappointment, was currently the only ghoul voice at town meetings. Wiseman fed John crucial information about finances and shifting trading policy that made his job in the treasury department less laughable. Without Wiseman’s data, John would be left to from strategies based purely on guesswork.

He surmised that his brother had him appointed as city treasurer purely to allow himself to become a spectacular failure before the eyes of the people. John had surprised everyone, including himself, at how successful he was at spinning multiple metaphorical plates in the air without error. He enjoyed the predictability of accounting, any flaws in ledgers immediately apparent and able to be dealt with. His brain naturally categorized complicated factors into ideas, was a phenomenal negotiator due to his quick tongue, and utterly refused to compromise. His brother was livid at his success. Diamond City was flourishing, and John had no shame in giving himself most of the credit for that.

The two of them toted their items up onto the highest level, John feeding Wiseman the basket of baseballs though the top hatch of his home before climbing up. John hopped onto a patio chair and scrambled to the top of the metal trailer that sat above his domicile, giving Wiseman a hand with both himself and their stuff. The air was cooler above the marketplace, and spring crisp. Bright stars blanketed a clear sky, constellations that John had never bothered to learn suspended proudly in the heavens. The lights from shop signage stopped well below their level, leaving them sandwiched in near darkness to do something that was quite illegal but intensely fun.

As Wiseman swung each bat in turn, testing which to use, he mentioned, “You missed the reading of the city council minutes this morning.”

John shrugged, digging into the basket for a favorable ball to start their game. “Meh.”

“Let me guess – Goodneighbor?”

“Mmm.”

“Aaaaaand you’ll be wanting a copy of my notes?”

John tapped the tip of his nose in confirmation.

Wiseman gave an irritated grunt. “You’re something else,” he said, shaking his head and smiling.

They stood as far apart as the length of the trailer would allow, Wiseman hefting his bat and John with the basket by his feet. John trusted Wiseman’s account of baseball over Moe Cronin’s. After all, Wiseman had lived through that era.

“Eliza’s on the prowl,” John warned as he wound up. “Tried to claim me again.” He lobbed the ball hard.

“Ha!” Wiseman barked as he swung. The hit connected, and the ball went sailing out into the vacant stands. “Someone call the rusty gumshoe. Give him a head’s up.” He shielded his eyes against the glare of a stadium flood light to watch the ball sail out of sight, then readjusted his hold on the bat. “You know she’ll lose interest once you give in. That’s the easy way out.” Wiseman grinned wickedly. “Unless her skin’s not smooth enough for your taste.”

“What?” John faltered with his next pitch, momentarily confused before he got it. His mind didn’t automatically jump to the disgust that went hand in hand with bigotry. Besides, it wasn’t as if he had never slept with a ghoul before. “Naw. That’s not it. I’m…kinda with someone.” He tossed a second ball.

Wiseman swung. The ball cracked and flew, flying into the stands. “That so? For how long now?”

“Just a couple…years,” he admitted. That sounded stranger out loud than it had in his head.

Wiseman laughed, rotating the bat in his hand. “Jeez, John. And your brother is supposed to be the cagey one?” He shook his head and held out the swatter. “Here. Your go.”

They switched positions. John was in terrible form, swinging and missing each pitch. A grin made Wiseman’s features pull taunt. “With coordination like that, how are you still alive?”

John arched a brow, giving a sly leer. “Maybe I’m too damn pretty to die?”

Wiseman laughed from deep in his belly. “I’m not one to judge.”

John adjusted his hands to choke higher. Though he took life in stride, his humiliation with this game had about reached its limit.

“Where’s your woman at?” asked Wiseman.

John drew a blank. “Who?”

“The one you just mentioned, chembrain,” teased Wiseman.

“Oh. Uh…yeah.” Another pitch, another miss. Goddamn it.

Wiseman was an upright citizen, always ready with praise, and one of the most dependable guys John knew. He shouldered many a burden with ease, and had John’s respect. He struggled for a moment, weighing the cost of his words. Having never been partial to lies, John tapped the bat against his knee as he guardedly spoke. “That’d be less woman and more…rugged man.”

A burst of laughter erupted from Wiseman, and he fixed John with a playful smile, dark eyes widening in feigned disbelief. “I don’t think we’ve met before.” His expression perplexed, he held a finger in the air before pointing it at him. “It’s John, right?”  

“Har har. My vices are vast and plentiful, and I make no apologies.” John’s score continued to suffer as he lost focus on the game. He had never mentioned Danse to anyone. This was new territory.

“So…about the guy…” Wiseman probed, pausing his pitching, taking John’s admittance in stride.

Locking up, the bat over his shoulder, John blinked, asking, “What’s it to you?”

With a good-natured shrug, Wiseman said, “That’s what friends do, right? Take an interest?”

John’s posture loosened, letting the bat down, and stood straighter.

Christ. Where to begin? How to explain loving someone that would always be just out of reach? He couldn’t say that Danse’s concern over their association was unfounded; John was certain that the Brotherhood’s bigotry knew no bounds. John wished with all his heart to be able to dance with him in a room full of people, to show him off and put Danse’s fears to rest, but it seemed unlikely that that day would ever arrive.

So, simple facts, then. He could part with a minimal amount of information. Surely, that much wouldn’t be a betrayal of Danse’s trust. John decided to keep adjectives about Danse’s glorious ass to himself, and focus on the basics.

“The guy’s fuckin’ solid,” he said, his thumb tracing circles around the bat’s handle as he spoke, his breathing becoming calm and slow as his mind wandered. Danse’s face appeared in his mind, his hard jaw, the well-memorized scars and those deep, hurt eyes. “I can be ugly in front of him, cryin’ or selfish or spittin’ mad, and he ain’t fazed. He’s better than I deserve.” He blew a shaky puff of air and wished that he’d lit a cigarette for this. “And it ain’t some immature infatuation – not like everything’s rainbows and fireworks. It’s just…easy. He makes all my trash seem absolutely trivial. There’s no place for my bullshit, for my chems or excuses. I’m damn close to normal when we’re together.”

“Has he been here? Did I pass him in the street and not know it?” Wiseman asked, tossing another baseball.

John had to rush to react. The swing went too high. He shook his head. “Not gonna happen. We only get together about six times a year – four if he’s in the middle of something big or can’t get a hold of a vertibird to meet me. He’s too busy with his Brotherhood shenanigans to poke around the regular places.”

Something shifted. The air seemed to drop by a few degrees as Wiseman’s face churned through several different expressions. In a jolt of motion, the ghoul grabbed John’s arm and pulled him into the semi-shielded camper on the roof, where no one could see them, his bat clattering to the floor. “A solider?” he asked, his breath hot in proximity, black eyes thundering. “You’re with a member of the Brotherhood of Steel?” Wiseman asked the words slowly and precisely, as if John was slow to understand.

“Yeah,” John cautiously responded, squirming against the ghoul’s grasp. “He’s some kinda big shot officer. What of it?”

Wiseman’s piercing stare cut into him, made him feel as if he’d broken some unspoken rule. “Have you lost all sense? The Brotherhood’s made up of butchers and fanatics. Every one of them. You can’t reason with them – they don’t listen.” Tossing his head south, the ghoul shouted, “Look what they did to the Capital! That region used to be safe! Then they gutted Rivet City for parts and took the water supply for themselves!” John staggery slightly as he was roughly released. “Dammit, John. I thought I was your friend.”

Wiseman’s fingers had dug too deep, and John rubbed the soreness from his arm. “You are my friend,” he asserted. “Why the hell does it matter who I’m seein’?”

With a tilted head and incredulous expression, Wiseman’s bearing seemed to insist that John was an imbecile. “You think we’d be doing this there? A ghoul and a human out after dark? Do you know how that would look? They’d shoot me for daring to integrate, and likely, do the same to you for allowing it.” 

John blinked at his boots as he processed the earful he had been given. This was an abhorrent side of his friend that he had never witnessed. He had foolishly forgotten that Wiseman was a ghoul, neglected to see him as different, and hadn’t put his concerns in a separate category from his own. While the Brotherhood existed as a slight annoyance for humans and the butt of many jokes, they posed a very real threat to the ghoul population.

“I want to be happy for you, John. But I can’t.”

Raising his eyes, John met Wiseman’s glare, a look that shared both disgust and disappointment.

“I’m sure that you want to say that the man you’re with is different. But, is he? What do you really know about him? Do you know what he does when you aren’t around? The orders he carries out?”

No. John didn’t. That had been the understanding between the two of them since the beginning, to never speak of the Brotherhood. There was comfort in ignorance. If he knew…if brought proof that Danse participated in the murder of innocents based on nothing more than prejudice, he’d be half-tempted to bury his knife in Danse’s thick neck. He might even do the same to himself afterwards. Wouldn’t that be poetic?

Wiseman sighed. “My advice? Decide if this guy is worth it. And do it fast. If this gets out, you’ll lose Roberts as an advocate, along with most of the city’s support. Diamond City, for all your brother’s bluster, is a ghoul town. I don’t think you get how lucky we are to live here. There’s aren’t many places where someone like me can be free, or prosperous. If you incite the fear of Brotherhood attention…well…there’d be panic.” He turned and pried the hatch leading down into Home Plate open. John stayed put. Wiseman knew how to let himself out. “Just…chew on that, will you? See ya around,” he concluded, vanishing into John’s home.

He nudged the discarded bats with the side of his foot, aluminum clattering against the metal flooring, and picked one up, absently running his hand over it as he walked back out to the deck in a pensive state. John struggled to recall vague snippets of early conversations. Danse just patrolled around killing mutants, didn’t he? He handled rescues of other soldiers, as proved in Maryland, but beyond that…John drew a blank.

John had promptly taken ill during one visit with Danse. Something simple, a cold or the flu, which was more of an inconvenience than a concern. Danse had taken great delight in caring for him, his big hands rubbing wide circles in John’s back while he lay curled in his lap, always so gentle with him. Danse was a decent man, John reminded himself, caught up in events too momentous to deny. He had frequent nightmares, trapped in old battles that made him thrash and gasp; proof that the Brotherhood was ruining him. Wiseman was wrong. Danse was better than his faction; he didn’t fit right and knew it, had said as much, and that couldn’t just be about being gay in an unforgiving military environment. John believed – he had to - that one day Danse would make him proud and step away from them, if for no other reason than to finally be able to be himself.

He wasn’t sure how much of that was an obligatory lie that he needed to tell himself.

In a fit of fury, he tossed the final baseball up into the air, and swung hard. The connecting crack took him by surprise, and the ball went sailing past the stands to smash into a stadium floodlight. There was an indistinct crash and a bulb went dark. John dropped the bat and shielded his eyes with a hand, staring into the lights.

“Shit.”

He swiftly dispersed the roof, dropping down through the hatch in the camper.

Three weeks later, he received word that Danse’s leave had been cancelled, and would be updated when Danse was able. It happened sometimes. No big deal. A trip to Goodneighbor and a stack of essays on the pros and cons of using cartridges as currency kept him busy.

Twelve days after that, John woke up to a riot in the streets. A cacophony of noise stirred him from his sleep. He fumbled to pull on a shirt and hit the light switch before rushing down the stairs and out the side door of his home.

Solomon’s shop was one door down, conveniently placed for when John’s whims struck. His neighbor was leaning against his own door, passively chewing a blade of razorgrain, watching the city unravel.

Diamond City security was lined up and at the ready, barring the ramp between the field and the stands. The force was utilizing salvaged Zip model car doors as shields, their uniforms fully visible through the curved glass. A crowd consisting of mostly ghouls with a few token humans sprinkled in were shouting and pelting the officers was mutfruits and tatos, which left pulpy smears on the glass shields.

 “S’goin’ on?” John slurred at Solomon from his threshold, the sound of sleep still thick in his throat.

Solomon huffed, his half-lidded eyes cloudy and indifferent. “The ghouls are freaking out, man. Looks like the Brotherhood of Steel finally took the hammer to Underworld.”

A heavy weight dropped into John’s stomach; he actually grunted as it hit. If all the ghouls in the wasteland had a singular capital city, Underworld would be it. An assault on Underworld meant an act of terrorism, the attack intended to instill fear and panic in all ghouls everywhere. Sure looked like it was working.

Barefoot, his long hair mussed, John darted out of the doorway, tearing through the marketplace. He was recognized, and a crack in the line of guards formed, allowing him to slither by. He charged up the stairs and unto the mayoral lift rig, punching the control button with force. 

As the lift ascended, he caught the Blacks, a pair of upper stand residents, leaning over the railing at the Colonial Taphouse, jeering at the ghouls. “Filthy beasts,” commented Mags, her nose wrinkled in distaste. “Crawling through our city like vermin.”

“The whole Commonwealth could benefit from thinning their numbers,” added William, a grim sneer on his face. “God bless the Brotherhood.”

John was tempted to stop the lift and heave them both over the railing.

When the mayoral office came into view, he saw Eliza sitting at her secretary station with her head down, her face buried in her arms, the wealth of her curls spilling over her desk. At the sound of the lift halting, her gray eyes met his. “Oh, John…” She took his hand as he passed, and he allowed it. Towing her, he burst into Robert’s office.

Already ancient by human standards, Roberts seemed to have aged significantly with this development. He looked almost mummified as he sat hunched over a radio, his gnarled hands pressed over his heart as he listened in on a broadcast.

The harsh rumble of a super mutant’s voice was giving a report.

“ – last survivor of the Summit in Underworld. The rest…Shepard…Fawkes…they’ll all gone. Every soul in the museum.”

John took a long breath, and Eliza clutched his hand tight. Roberts seemed frozen, trapped in shock.

“The governor gave us clearance, and we assumed that extended to Brotherhood relations. We all took separate routes, followed protocol. Assembled peacefully. There must have been an informant. There was…there was a child. A boy with a scar on his face, leading a troop of soldiers in black armor. I could barely see him through the fire fight….”

The nails on his free hand dug painfully into his palm. John had passed through Underworld on many an occasion in his youth, had met Danse in the same region. He knew people – ghouls – that lived there. Had lived there…Now, the place had been wiped clean.

“Any chance for a coalition of sentient mutants died along with my friends. To anyone looking to trace this transmission, you won’t find me. I don’t know how long this message will last on repeat. This is Marcus, last survivor of the Summit –”

John finally noticed Travis Miles, their radio jockey, sitting in a chair in the office, appearing uneasy and trying to shrink into the cushions. That was par for Travis, but he was a few shades whiter than normal.

“What’s goin’ on with this?” John asked him, tilting his head at the radio.

“It’s…well, it’s…probably some type of…of blanket signal,” Travis stammered, “the kind that, you know, broadcasts across all frequencies. So, uh, yeah…it’s everywhere. Been playing for a few hours now. Folks are freaking out. The mayor asked if I could block it, but…I don’t…I don’t really know what I’m doing…”

“Is this legit?” John questioned, daring to try and snag Roberts’ eye. “Anything else other than the broadcast?”

Emerging from his reverie, Roberts leaned back in his chair and releasing a shaky sigh. “A few merchants are being detained in the ticketing queue for their safety. Their stories match the broadcast’s – a sizable Brotherhood squadron, with black armored soldier at the forefront, storming Underworld.” His wrinkled eyes closed. “The building was set on fire afterwards. All the debris in the Mall…it fed the blaze. If survivors fled to neighboring structures, that’s where the flames claimed them.”

A grave silence stretched. “What now?” John asked in a low voice. “Security is going at full mast. Looks like chaos out there.”

Roberts’ brow hardened, his old, curved spine straightening best as it could. “We must keep the peace. I fear that Diamond City will have dark days ahead. Aggressors will use this as an excuse to engage. Those seeking justice will use this as an excuse to engage. The bottom is out of the tub.”

Damn. Things had to be pretty black for Roberts to quote Abraham Lincoln. “You bringing the city council on board?” John asked, knowing that might be a terrible mistake. Most council members were people of influence, sure, but the upper stands were enormously overrepresented. Judging by the Black’s comments from earlier, John could guess at what the council’s majority would say - if the Brotherhood started trolling for ghoul refuges, Diamond City would definitely be on the list.

A saddened nod from Roberts. “I’ll have to. The city is in tumult. I must confer. That’s what separates an elected position from a dictatorship, my boy. I have to trust that the people will do the right thing.” More to himself, he added. “…I have to.”

This was where John had to take his leave. He didn’t have a place on the council, and his duty was to be in the streets, taking to individuals and hearing them out, making folks feel like their sides were being taken under consideration. 

He took the elevator down, which was less dramatic then his ride up. The lift dinged and opened. Sure enough, several brahmin, weighed down with cargo, snorted and kicked, upset to be sealed indoors between the Wall and the stairway to the field. A bushel of caravanners sat in a circle on the ground comparing their stories while a young woman in a burgundy coat struggled to keep pace taking notes.

Taking a right, he began climbing the long stairway to the marketplace. The passageway was dim, depressing, and empty. Maybe that was just his mood. He could hear the rabble in the field going at full force, shouting obscenities and pleading to have the mayor come down. 

John stepped into sunlight and the field came into view, the row of guards still dividing the chaos in the field from the stands. He was immediately grabbed by a set of hands, which hauled him out of sight, forcing him back into the tunnel. John’s survival instinct kicked in and Wiseman almost got a knife in the gut. Confused, John kept his knife hovering in midair while Wiseman backed him against a wall. The fury in the ghoul’s eyes was staggering, and John felt puzzled about how to react.

“Tell me that your stalwart warrior wouldn’t have been a part of destroying Underworld,” Wiseman hissed in his ear. “That he would have said ‘no’ and turned in his armor. Do it. Defend him to me.”

He squirmed out of the ghoul’s clutches without answering him. He couldn’t. He didn’t know Danse’s whereabouts. Fuck. He hardly ever did.

Wiseman gave John with a lengthy glare before departing for the council meeting. “Didn’t know so.”

What a fucked up run of luck to have slipped in mentioning Danse prior to all this. But now, Wiseman knew. And if he told anyone else, particularly now with the city enflamed….shit. Shit shit shit.

John rubbed at his face as his nerves fired, carefully sticking to the backs of buildings and off the main paths as he made his way home. He let himself in and promptly began pacing. Wiseman had gotten his brain to begin churning in a nonstop circle. Danse had seen the elephant and decided that he loved it, that blood and combat made him whole. Was Wiseman right? Had Danse been at Underworld? Hell, he would have readily volunteered. That cancelled leave…damn…it all timed out too perfectly.

By this point, he was shaking. Not from a need for chems, although a binge was certainly around the corner, but from an abhorrence at himself. The simple solution was to write the whole thing off, play it up as if Danse had never existed and, for God’s sake, never see him again. If he saw Danse, or spoke to him again, he would be betraying what was left of his morals, and excusing Danse’s actions.

His heart tore. He had fallen for one of the bad guys, a villain. A nauseating image came to mind, of Danse proud, covered in the blood of innocent ghouls and of mutants that were trying to help the wastes instead of hurt it, slapping his teammates on the back and congratulating them on a job well done. But he didn’t know, not for certain. John’s psyche waged war with itself, grasping at the faintest threads of hope. Plenty of things could have keep Danse out of the fight, right? Things like…like…

“Goddamn tom-fuckery.”

He charged up the levels of his house, bursting out of the hatch up the roof, and stood panting, eyes scanning the city. Several voices were yelling, cursing. Someone was crying, loudly but out of sight. A ghoul and a human were in a fistfight by the noodle kiosk, security rushing in to break the scuffle up. He kept waiting for the sound of gunfire to erupt. The city was charged, angry and confused, and John related all too well.

The sluggers from last night rolled about under his feet, the metal cold against his skin. He bent to pick one up, whirling it in a vicious circle. Pivoting, he slammed the barrel into the inside panel of the camper, bellowing his tangled emotion. He kept battering, beating dents into the aluminum, until his muscles screamed and his blows became sloppy, glancing off the metal instead of knocking divots into it. His furious yelling ripped his throat raw, dissolving into a keening that didn’t quite manage to produce tears.

He hated everything. Hated Danse for picking the wrong side, hated himself for wanting to know if the man was even all right, hated the Brotherhood for being illogical extremists, hated that he had to sit and wait for Danse to send him word, and hated that he’d ever been in Alexandria to begin with.

The bottom really was out of the tub.

He found some shoes and emptied a canister of Jet before venturing out into the unrest.

Chapter Text

MACCREADY

The Third Rail, MA

April 16th, 2288

It had been a long friggin’ day.

Following the bloodbath at Bunker Hill, Cait had the fabulous idea of going to get ‘pissed drunk’. MacCready and Danse, who had spotted them crossing the Charleston Bridge and flagged them down, were in agreement that, yes, that would be an acceptable end to this shitshow.

The nearest safe location was Goodneighbor, which served MacCready twofold – he could get an early start tomorrow with one last job. Escorting one of Daisy’s caravans south would take him back to the Capital and his son. Surely, the governor would have work for him there. The two of them went way back.

When the trio slipped into Goodneighbor, they found that a few drifters, usually chemmed out or drunk, had pulled themselves together and were repainting the entry door, though stubborn streaks of blue still showed through beneath the new coat. A solemn sort of cheerfulness hung in the air. The back alleys were free of fights, and the streets, although lacking the standard ratio of ghouls, were full of handshakes and friendly back patting.

Back at the bar of the Third Rail, still stinking of fear sweat and gunpowder, MacCready heaved a sigh. “Home sweet hole,” he jibed in good humor, plunking down a handful of caps for a beer just north of lukewarm.

The station was hazy with cigarette smoke and crowded. Piper was in attendance along with a whole mess of other people. She and Cait were seated on one of the worn couches, playing poker with a bunch of guys he didn’t know, while Magnolia crooned in the background. The place felt homey and safe. Crap. It was gonna suck to leave this behind. Well, the Third Rail anyway. There was a lesser chance of a wayward knife sliding between his ribs here than up in the Gooodneighbor streets.

Looking around, he spotted Danse drinking at the bar, seated at the furthest stool from the entry, shrinking away from bustle of the club, hunched over his drink. In front of him, several dirty shot glasses were upside down on the bar top.

MacCready slid down the bar, taking a seat next to him. “You and people mix about as well as oil and ocean water,” he cracked in good humor.

Danse gave a preoccupied grunt in response. “I received a field promotion today,” he mumbled into the shot glass in his hand.

MacCready wedged his beer on a corner of the counter and slapped the cap off. “That so?” he asked, pocketing the cap. He raised the bottle to his lips. “To what?”

Danse slammed the shot back and added the glass to his collection. “General of the Minutemen.”

Choking on the news, beer sprayed painfully out of MacCready’s nose. He clapped a hand over his face, sputtering while he tried to process what Danse had divulged. Huh. That might just work. The ‘General’ was already notoriously famous. Everyone would assume that role was still filled by Nate. If Danse kept out of uniform and away from making a spectacle of himself, no one would be the wiser. Coughing, MacCready hacked, “Then, what’s Nate gonna do?”

Danse lifted a shoulder. “Same as he has been. Infiltration and shouldering the detective agency caseload.”

Rolling the beer bottle in his hands, MacCready tried to sort out his dues. He owed Danse an apology before he left the Commonwealth forever. The guy tried so hard to fulfill everything that was asked of him, be it Brotherhood orders, Nate’s requests, or his own internal source of morality. He had done nothing to provoke MacCready’s bigotry other than exist, and that was a pretty crappy way to relate to someone. 

“Look I…I didn’t mean to make such a scene over you being a synth. Most of that…it wasn’t about you.”

Danse’s spine stiffened a bit at the word synth.

“Christ,” MacCready continued, caught up in momentary horror. “I just think…if I got taken, replaced, what would happen to the people I care about? To my so…to my family? But that fear…none of that is your fault. I’m sorry I’m an asshole.”

Giving a grave smile at his empty glasses, Danse shrugged again. MacCready took that as an acceptance of his apology. 

After a sip of his beer, MacCready added, “I guess I shouldn’t have be so shocked. Everyone’s heard the way you talk. You kinda sound like you swallowed the most pretentious thesaurus in existence.”

Danse’s head hung a little lower. “I enjoy utilizing particular words…”

With a chuckle, MacCready clapped him on the back. “That’s ‘cause you’re a nerd and a jerk. But, that’s okay. News flash – so am I.”

A ghoul shouldered in between MacCready and Danse. He pried the half-finished bottle of beer from MacCready’s hand and signaled to the mechanical barkeep. “Hey, Chuck – pry open one of the good crates, will ya? No point in hoarding goods if you ain’t gonna share with your friends.”

White Chapel Charlie whirred and his chassis tilted as if in protest, warning, “Long as you’re the one payin’ the bills, Mayor.”

The ghoul grinned and shrugged. “Hey, I gotta be good for something, right?”

“Oh, shi – I, uh…hey. Hancock,” MacCready babbled, feeling guilty at not recognizing him. Sometimes, a ghoul just looked like a ghoul, largely indistinguishable from one another. John has retired his outfit, which hadn’t helped, exchanging it for leathers, a white undershirt, boots strapped up to his knees, the flag at his waist, and a red banana tied around his crown, obscuring his baldness. His rings still glittered on his fingers.

Charlie slid a variety of bottles their way. Danse made a cutting motion with his hand, a negative on more alcohol.

Placing a gentle hand on Danse’s arm, John requested, “Check the back room for me, will ya? Sometimes disgruntled triggermen like to plot my demise in there.”

Alarm darkening his face, Danse shoved away from the bar and strode towards the back, barely wobbling at all.

“That true?” MacCready asked, starting in on a bottle of Nuka Dark. John always got his hands on the best items.

“Sometimes. Dan won’t pick a fight, but he’ll look intimidating as fuck and make troublemakers turn tail. ‘Sides, I needed to speak with you.”

MacCready’s expression curdled as he frowned at the bar top. Great, he thought. He still bore the title of Deputy Mayor. His exodus from the Commonwealth was going to let John down, as well. There really was no slick way to escape.

“Ya know,” John stared, filling a glass with moonshine. “If our vault registered friend hadn’t shown up and we’ve stayed in Goodneighbor, you woulda been my kinda guy.” 

John’s statement took him by surprise, and he had to clear his throat several times before he could speak. “I…um…Glad it all worked out then.”

“Wouldn’t have been interested?” John asked, cocking a sultry brow at him.

“Not a frosty chance in Hell.”

John exhaled a soft laugh and nodded, bringing his glass to his mouth. “Good to know. Clearly, I have type – disinterested soldiers,” he confessed before taking a sip.

Shaking his head, MacCready admitted, “I was never a soldier.”

“I stand corrected.”

“And I don’t think I would have been happy to hang my hat here permanently.”

Although he held his tongue, John didn’t seem pleased to hear that. His set his drink down, his mouth tightening into a line.

Backpedaling, MacCready tried to explain. He wouldn’t have another chance to do so. “Not that I don’t get it. Goodneighbor is complicated. I know that there are a lot of pieces in play. I’ve just…I’ve never been into chess.” He drank his beer and tried to avoid John’s fathomless black eyes. “I mean, c’mon man – it took Nate in a friggin’ costume to do all the things you wouldn’t. There’s a serial killer thinning the local raider population and you stipend out mercs to clear property.” A flutter of annoyance built in his chest and he gave John a level glance. “You think it was fun to watch raiders and scumbags try to shake Daisy down? It sucked. And people are still shooting synths in the streets. I was all for that for a while, but…tall, dark and grumpy in there?” He jerked a thumb toward the back room. “He’s yours. I guess…I guess even people like him deserve a fighting chance. So, calling Goodneighbor home? No thanks. You talk about freedom – but freedom for who? You wave the flag and rally the cry when all the while the straits stay dire.”

John was motionless, pinning him with an intense glare, the glass of moonshine forgotten. MacCready swallowed. It was easy to forget that John’s usual solution to opposition was violence. Seemed like he and Danse weren’t too different in that regard.

“Thinking you might’ve done a better job with Goodneighbor?” John asked in a clipped tone.

MacCready returned to his now lukewarm beer, sipping between sentences. If he was lucky, he could die drunk. “Maybe I would have,” he said, part truth, part challenge. Little Lamplight flashed briefly in his memories. “But as is? Not sure I’d want it. Normal people come here and they lose their shi – minds. They might be totally capable wherever they came from, farming or trading or whatever it is they do, but you add in Goodneighbor and suddenly everyone just goes nuts, forgetting their families and responsibilities. And while that might make for a hell of a good time, going home broke and high has probably cost plenty of folks their lives, livelihoods, and loved ones.” He pulled the bottle away from his lips and sighed. “Dude, I wouldn’t bring my kid here. And I wish that I could. There’re a lot of awesome things that I love about this place. But it’ll take a lot of work. This place is too big. It should give Sanctuary a run for its money. Being safe and strong and able to grow – I mean…Isn’t that the point of freedom? That’s independence. That’s liberty.”

With gnarled fingers tightening around his glass, John said, “You should take Goodneighbor.”

He reeled as if struck, and fought to string John’s words together. “You…What?...You...you can’t just give me your town.” MacCready was breathless with disbelief. This was too great of an honor and he wasn’t sure how to process the offer. Did John know about his childhood reign in the Capital? He had certainly never told him, keeping his past to himself.

John didn’t look happy, but he did seem determined. “I can. I’m seceding. And I’d be hard pressed to find anyone better suited. This was as far as I could take it.” He gave MacCready an easy smile. “I didn’t pick you as Deputy Mayor ‘cause you’d look good in my duds. I know what drives you, brother. It ain’t caps you’re after – it’s security. You’re the smart ass that wants something better. I’m just the numbers guy that handles the caps.”

MacCready shook his head. “Yeah, no. I don’t do numbers. That’s gonna have to keep on being you.”

A genuine smile tugged at John’s face. “Deal. And I’ll be able to leave all my crap here. Hauling paperwork across the ‘Wealth ain’t exactly a good time.” They paused and drank. “You’ll be good for Goodneighbor,” John said, with a gentle nod. “Hell, you’ve always been more qualified than I ever was.”

This was an unexpected twist to the fresh start he wanted, with the advantage of staying put and keeping his ragged band of friends. And Duncan…jeez…he could finally send for Duncan. Surely, Daisy would know someone trustworthy that could escort him up to the Commonwealth. Man...this was almost too good to be true.

“Won’t the people vote on it?” MacCready asked, concerned tracing his brow.

“Oh, they’ll vote. But no one else is gonna run. S’how I got my gig. Goodneighbor folks know a good thing when they see it.” John’s mouth quirked downwards. “You’re gonna go changing it, though. That ain’t sittin’ too well with me, but I get it.”

“Of course I’ll change it. I have a son that I haven’t seen in eighteen months. I might actually make it respectable.”

John gave him a side-eyed look, but he was smiling.

After polishing off his beer, MacCready blew a low whistle. “You leaving Goodneighbor. End of an era.”

“Save your tears for after,” said John, as he left his drink unfinished and climbed up on the bar, using MacCready’s shoulder as leverage. Tall above the crowd, John snapped his fingers at Charlie, who cut the music, and raised his hands for attention. “Yeah, it’s me,” he addressed the crowd. “I know, I know. I’m out of uniform.” Voices and shuffling died down almost instantly. “So, uh, hey. I been doing some thinking. Ain’t no surprise that I’ve been out on the road a lot. Done a lotta good and made some big changes to the world at large. But that ain’t exactly been fair to you. So, I’m gonna come right out and say it – I’m stepping down as your mayor.”

A stunned outcry rolled through the establishment. John waved his hands for quiet.

“Now, this ain’t about you, so don’t go thinking that it is. I like you all. We’re friends. But that doesn’t mean you should elevate me. I love Goodneighbor just as much as the rest of ya. That’s why I gotta be honest and say that I’m not the guy for the job. Me quitting is a good idea for all sorts of reasons. And while I didn’t deliberately screw anything up, I probably managed to anyway, and hope you’ll forgive me. I did the best that I could and, frankly, you deserve a hell of a lot more.” He paused then, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. “I want to thank you. You’ve been good to me throughout times in my life when I definitely didn’t earn it. I could have shut up and run when things got tough. Hell, that’s my standard M.O. But that woulda been a real shitty goodbye and I care about you too much let things end like that. Truth is, I’m just too torn to keep staying here.”

“Don’t leave us, Hancock!” a voice pleaded from the crowd. “Goodneighbor’ll get overrun quick!”

“Yeah,” someone else called out. “This’ll be a raider town before you know it!”

“Now, I ain’t gonna let the place fall apart on you. You should have somebody who’s gonna be up in the State House, day in, day out. I got someone in mind to take over that’ll take our town to the next level.” He gave a grim smile. “Our. I guess your is a better word now.” John looked out over the crowd, and his smile widened to something sincerer. MacCready followed his line of sight to where it rested on Danse, who had poked his head out of the back room to catch the speech. It was because of him, MacCready knew. It was Danse that John was changing for. 

With honest enthusiasm, John concluded, “I’m gonna be happy to be one of the people again. This is a pretty kickass town. You better do me proud.” Sliding off the counter, he landed with a flourish. He knocked his knuckles against the bar, the metals in his rings catching the light from Magnolia’s stage parcans. “Later, Goodneighbor. I love the hell out of you.”

The Third Rail dissolved back into conversation, hurried voices discussing the change in management, or those less inclined to care, turning back to their drinking and gambling. Magnolia started a new song, something slow and bluesy.

Piper had risen, and was approaching with her beer in her hand. “You stole some of that from Washington’s Farewell Address,” she admonished John, elbowing him in the ribs.

Rubbing at his side, John shrugged dismissively. “Only the gist of it.”

Piper grinned and flagged Charlie down for another drink.

Danse had joined them, wearing a confused look on his face. “What just happened?” he asked with thick brows lowered. “What did I miss?”

John glided up to Danse’s side, sliding his boney hand into his. He tugged the bigger man away from the others and found a clear space wide enough to maneuver in. They slow danced together, whispering to each other in low tones and nodding. Jesus, thought MacCready. A ghoul and his robot. They looked so enamored with each other that he found it nauseatingly saccharine. But maybe they both deserved something like this, to be in their own bubble and set the past aside, if only for a little while.

He was still on his stool, finishing his beer when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Turning, he found Cait standing behind him. She took his hand, a weak smile spreading, only to fade.

With a sudden weight bowing his shoulders, he pulled his hand from hers. “Ah, sh – crap…” he muttered, knowing what she was going to say, that things weren’t going to end up in a favorable scenario. He stood and, because it felt appropriate, he removed his cap. “You and me…that was never gonna to work, was it?”

She shrugged, green eyes downcast. “Ya want a family and a decent life. I ain’t gonna stand in the way o’ that.”

There was silence between them for a moment. Magnolia’s smooth crooning filled the gap while MacCready struggled for words, wringing his cap to occupy his hands.

Lifting her head, Cait took a deep breath. “Think I’m gonna head out, leave the Commonwealth behind and be on my own for a bit. Might find just the place for me.”

MacCready forced a tight smile that he didn’t feel. He understood her need to run. Up until ten minutes ago, he had shared it.

When Cait smiled back at him, her eyes were full of admiration. She reached a hand out to cup his cheek. “There’s a heap lot of difference between actin’ like a good person and actually bein’ one,” she said with conviction. “You’re one of the good ones, luv. So, curse if you’ve gotta, drink ‘til ya pass out, and shoot a motherfucker in the head. Won’t change who you are. If ya’d bother to look around – really bothered to listen – you’d know that everybody loves ya. Nate’s gang – not one of them has a shit thing to say about you. Teasin’, maybe, but ya got the respect of an entire damn community. Give my regards to the lot of them.” Her hand slid a bit and she pinched him on the cheek. “Was fun while it lasted, boy-o. You’re gonna do right fine for yourself, MacCready. No doubts.” Her hand fell away.

“I told you – RJ.”

“RJ.”

He shrugged, his cap waving against his leg with the jostle. “Or, Mayor MacCready, I guess. Looks like that’s a thing again.” He frowned at her, genuine concern creasing his features. “Are you gonna be okay out there on your own?”

Cait laughed. “Luv,” she asked, “ain’t we always on our own?”

She stepped away and wove through the throng of people, disappearing in a blink into the crowd.

MacCready blew a hearty exhale as he replaced his cap. He resumed his seat and ordered another beer. As he popped the cap on his bottle, Piper slid onto the nearest barstool.

“Trouble in paradise?” she asked, a drink of her own in her hand.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” MacCready grumbled in return, speaking directly into his beer.

Piper lifted her chin, one side of her mouth pulling tight in understanding. “Ah.” She raised her bottle. “To being young and single in the Commonwealth.”

“I’m not gonna toast that.”

“Hmm…” Piper tapped the mouth of her beer against her teeth, thinking. “To change? Hopefully, for the better?”

“Yeah. Sure. I can drink to that.”

She tapped the neck of her bottle against his.

Pensively consuming his beverage, it occurred to MacCready that it was time to hang up his rifle and get a real job. Hell, didn’t Duncan deserve to have a functioning adult as a parent? He couldn’t keep playing the part of the petulant adolescent; he’d hand that role off to the furball in the zeppelin.

John had given him an amazing opportunity that he wasn’t sure how to fathom. Being a real mayor seemed like a hard and complex job. Regardless, he was ready to take the next step. He’d need to find a real town doctor and deal with Marowski for good. A lot of caps passed through Goodneighbor. A lot of a lot. Plenty to throw at people that proved to be problematic, enough to encourage troublemakers to leave or shape up. With the warehouses and hotel cleared, there would be plenty of room for families to move in, giving Diamond City a run for its money.

A kid-friendly Goodneighbor. MacCready sipped his beer and tried to imagine it. He could picture Duncan running, healthy and happy, from stall to stall in an expended marketplace, holding up items, new exotic foods or pieces of cool-looking scrap, smiling, asking, ‘Daddy, what does this do?’.

His heart swelled, full to bursting with emotion. “Don’t worry, kiddo,” he said under his breath. “I’m bringing you home.”