Actions

Work Header

Keep Close

Chapter Text

He'd been reluctant at first, and wary. Every person they'd met in the Commonwealth on their nearly failed reconnaissance mission had been belligerent if not completely unhelpful. Most of the time they just opened fire without question. She was an anomaly, genuine and unfailingly generous without want of reward.

He remembered the first moment he saw her more clearly than anything before. His team had been surrounded by ferals at the Cambridge Police station. They'd been held up there for days repeating their distress signal endlessly in hope that someone would come.

She did. She leapt out from an alleyway, taking him and the ghouls by surprise. She sailed through the air somehow in slow motion; she was a blur of blue and mismatched armor, a gas mask concealing her face. She charged the ferals as though she knew no fear. She aimed her 10mm carefully, doing her best to land each shot exactly where she meant it to go. When every feral finally laid dead on the ground, he met her halfway.

Dollie Wallace, she was just passing through, she'd said, looking for something, but she had neglected to mention what. He'd appreciated her help then, not knowing that it had only been the beginning of all she would do to help him and his cause. She agreed to go with him to ArcJet, and she was amazed to find it was more than an old electronics corporation that she'd cleared for scrap once on her way by.

She had never seen a synth before. He'd done his best to instruct her in how to face them. She met and quickly exceeded his expectations. There was no disputing the fact that she was intelligent, and it was astonishing how quickly she learned. However, it was the way she'd rushed to his side in horror after the engines had fired that had cemented her into his mind.

Reflecting back, when he'd offered he hadn't quite believed the words coming out of his mouth. He'd asked her to join the Brotherhood of Steel. She had hesitated and asked for time to think. He was disappointed, but told her to come to the police station when she'd made up her mind.

He wished he'd been able to see her face. At least then he would be able to recognize her if he ever saw her out in the Wasteland. He kept a fading memory of her voice at the back of his mind.

It had been four weeks since he'd bid her farewell at ArcJet. Rhys scoffed and decided she wasn't coming back using a few choice words that the Paladin didn't approve of. He hoped that the Knight was wrong, but as time continued to drag on, he'd begun to accept defeat.

Each day passed the same, checking the perimeter, scouting for supplies nearby, waiting with eager anticipation for the Prydwen to arrive and their mission to continue. Rhys had mostly recovered from his injuries. The Paladin didn't have to make the trips completely on his own anymore. It was a relief, but he also didn't like that he was putting the Knight in danger. The longer they stayed at the police station with such small numbers, the greater a target they became.

After another scouting mission into the deserted city of Cambridge, they had returned to the station. Haylen greeted them with her usual relief, glad that they had both returned without injuries.

Rhys lowered himself sorely into a chair at the table, Haylen handing him a mug. Danse set the helmet of his power armor down on the high counter that had once been a reception desk.

"You know what I can't wait for?" Haylen piped up wistfully.

"Hm?" Rhys indulged her.

"A shower." She sighed, joining Rhys at the table.

"You and me both."

A shower would be nice, he'd thought. A shower and a shave. The security of his quarters, getting a full night’s sleep for the first time in a long time.

He'd let the Knight have a few minutes off of his feet before he called his attention. "Rhys, I could use a hand unloading equipment."

"Sir." He'd set his mug on the table, following into the other room.

They made quick work organizing their scavenge and cleaning their weapons. As Danse was piecing his rifle back together, he heard Haylen's chair scrape against the floor in the other room.

"Oh!" The Scribe sounded surprised.

"Sorry... I... didn't catch your name before." A woman's voice caught his ear.

He snapped the last piece of his rifle together before hurrying back to the main room. He was surprised to find a woman standing at the top of the stairs, her expression somehow serene, a word he'd never applied to a person.

"Ah, Danse?" She looked up at him, her voice one he thought he wouldn't be hearing again. She swept a few locks of wavy jet black hair behind her ear as she spoke.

She met his brown eyes with her hazel and he tried not to falter as he took in her face. It was triangular in shape and made up in a way he hadn't seen. She had detailed eye makeup and her lips were painted a shade of orange. She was unlike any wastelander he'd ever met save for the pink burn scars that painted the clay brown skin of her forehead and her cheeks. They didn't detract from her beauty, but were a part of it.

It was her. The voice and the bright blue vault suit with the yellow numbers. It was a bit more muddied than when he'd watched her walk away the last time.

"I assume you've had time to think about my offer?" His voice had been guarded, hard.

She'd considered him very seriously for a moment. She was very clear when she spoke to him, forward with her intentions and he liked that. She agreed to join the Brotherhood, but she had a few conditions.

She didn't offer many details, but she made it very plain. Her son had been taken, and she was going to get him back. "The minute this stands in my way," she'd said, "I'm done."

He had respected that, certain that it would never become an issue.

She dazzled him with her dedication. She got to work immediately, diving into prewar ruins to find equipment for Haylen, and clearing out encampments of ghouls and mutants alike for Rhys.

She was a quick study, adapting to Brotherhood protocol with ease. He was hard on her, there was no denying it. Sometimes he thought he could see her coming to the end of her rope with him, but it wasn't new. He'd trained enough recruits that he was accustomed to that kind of exasperation. He was vouching for her and he wanted to be 100% certain that she was prepared when the Prydwen made its appearance.

Sometimes she stayed over night at the station, and others she'd disappear for a week, sometimes two before she returned. Even when she stayed though, she rarely seemed to get more than an hour or two of sleep at a time.

One night, she'd slipped out of the police station while he was doing his nightly perimeter check. She'd climbed the metal steps on the barricade and stared into the empty city night, visibly shaken.

"It's impressive, isn't it." He'd said from the base of the stairs after a moment.

She had glanced toward him, her expression confused at first before she seemed to realize where she was. A small smile found her face and she looked back out at the decaying skyline.

"You should have seen it before the bombs,” her voice was wistful.

He wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly. "Before?"

She seemed to realize her mistake and she frowned looking at her hands on the railing of the barricade.

"I'm not from... here," she'd said.

"I don't think I understand what you're implying," he'd frowned, shifting his weight as he looked up at her.

She had sighed, pacing her way back down the metal steps, stopping when she was about at eye height with him in his power armor. She gestured toward her vault suit as she began to speak.

"Vault 111, where my family and I were... it was a cryostasis experiment by Vault Tech." The look on her face said that she knew it sounded improbable. "I'm pre-war, just like those ruins."

He'd been stunned, but the longer he thought about it, it made sense. There were many things about her that he couldn't help admire, though at times she could be quite naive and foolish. She gave every person she met the benefit of the doubt, which seemed to bring her more strife than anything: the way she often ran around the Commonwealth aiding settlers that were in danger, even if it meant putting herself in bad situations, and the way she openly greeted every new person as though she already knew them. If not dangerous, it was charming. Those things, he attributed to her life before the war. And if there were any doubts left in his mind, he recalled the fish-out-of-water look that crossed her face when they’d been attacked by a Mirelurk for the first time.

He was confident about his choice in recruiting her. He considered himself in lucky company just to know her. The ideals that she brought with her from the vault made her an oddity, and he felt he had just as much to learn from her as she had to learn from him.

It was easy to get caught up in all of the fighting when there was a war impending. He was certain that Dollie would help the Brotherhood remember the people of the Commonwealth. He wanted to see the Brotherhood do all it could to benefit the lives of the locals, just as they’d helped the people of the Capital Wastes.

 

She was the General of the Minutemen. She'd agreed to that first. But there was something she couldn’t pin down that had dragged her back to the police compound, agreeing to aid the three soldiers inside.

There was something familiar about Danse, but she couldn't put a finger on it. It wasn't that he reminded her of Nate directly, but she'd be lying if she said there weren't similarities. She thought it could have been that old commanding officer Nate had invited for dinner a few times, and he had definitely rubbed her the wrong way just the same, speaking like everything he said was a known fact and there was no room for growth or a change of view.

Even though she felt this way, traveling with Danse was an enlightening experience. He had a wealth of knowledge that had helped her learn many things about the dangerous new world she was living in. And when it came to tactical skill he was by far the best soldier she'd ever met. She'd had a lot of close calls before meeting him.

Aside from her commanding officer, she felt herself gravitating toward Scribe Haylen who was sweet and kind. She and Haylen would share meals together when Dollie returned from her missions, and she found herself divulging things she had been keeping to herself. She couldn't see this as a flaw, because she knew that the Scribe wouldn't use that information against her.

The young woman had been fascinated by Dollie's wedding ring. She hadn't seen one before, and supposed that the tradition must have died with the war, as using precious metals as jewelry would be wasteful when trying to survive. Dollie had laughed at the thought of melting down her most prized possession. She'd likely freeze to death or starve before she let them go. Haylen had smiled and said she understood.

The Knight, Rhys, was absolutely insufferable where Haylen was kind. She found herself grappling for some common ground with him, which he refused to offer. Finally she chose to let her actions speak for themselves, completing every mission he gave her as quickly as she could. Nothing seemed to appease him though.

After too long it became increasingly difficult to justify putting her safety on the line to try and impress Rhys. At least when she was clearing out ghouls or raiders for settlers they thanked her. Rhys just turned a shoulder and tried to pretend she wasn’t there. She got the impression he’d have prefered if she weren’t. Haylen had tried to explain that he wasn’t keen on outsiders joining the ranks of the Brotherhood, assuring that once she became more integrated, he’d warm up to her. Dollie wasn’t sure the Scribe was right.

At first it was easy for her to tear herself away from the Brotherhood of Steel soldiers. Nick Valentine needed help on a few cases, and the lawyer in her got a thrill out of seeing a real detective at work in this strange new world. Valentine was exactly what those soldiers hated, and she could never understand that. The more time she spent with him, the more she knew she'd lay down her life for him in a second. The old bucket of rust would balk at that, she knew, but after all they'd been through together, he was alright by her.

And outside of the detective work and clearing ferals and super mutants, there was Preston Garvey determinedly chugging away at rebuilding the Minutemen. She ran clear across the Commonwealth at his word anytime settlers needed assistance. She loved helping, but sometimes she felt overwhelmed.

When things started to weigh too heavily on her she would lock herself in the Red Rocket Truck Stop down the road from Sanctuary Hills, and if it got really bad she would retreat to Vault 111 and sit with her back against Nate's cryopod. He'd helped her become the person she was, and he'd always known what to say to drag her out of a slump. She would sit there for hours contemplating what he would say to her. More often than anything she'd wish that it was her inside that pod and him out here. She wouldn't wish the pain she felt on him, but maybe he'd have found their baby boy by now.

After confronting Nate's murderer in the depths of Fort Hagen, her nightmares had been haunted by increasingly terrible visions of what the Institute would be when she finally found it. She did her best to wear herself out completely before she even thought of sleeping.

The Prydwen's arrival in the Commonwealth had been a welcome distraction. As soon as she finished up at the Memory Den with Valentine and Piper, she'd made her way back to Cambridge. She needed something structured to take her mind off of everything. Her life had become a sick joke, and she needed to be a bit more grounded before she ran headlong into the Glowing Sea, the way that Dr. Amari had talked about it.

The police station was buzzing with activity as she came to it. The sheer number of soldiers had taken her off guard. She'd found Danse inside. He'd seemed revitalized with a new sort of energy. She'd trailed behind him to the roof where a Vertibird was waiting to take them to the ship.

As the vertibird took off she was stunned. She'd never experienced anything like it, the roar of the bird, the wind in her hair, and a brilliant view, watching the sun set beyond the backdrop of Boston. It was obvious to her why Nate had spoken so fondly of flying in them.

Upon arriving on the Prydwen, astonished by it even more now that she was on it's deck, she was met by Lancer Captain Kells, a serious man that made her nervous at the amount of authority that he commanded.

She'd felt abandoned when Danse had left her with the Captain, her stomach twisting itself in knots. But if she'd found Kells intimidating, the Elder left her downright terrified. He was nothing like she'd expected. So much younger, bold and fiery, intense.

When she assured Danse that it was all quite impressive, his face had practically glowed with pride. She found herself liking him more than she thought she would. There was something terribly endearing in what the Brotherhood seemed to mean to him. It was very obvious that it was his life.

Before she stepped back onto a vertibird for her first official assignment, she stood staring into the eyes of the suit of black polished power armor she'd been given upon promotion to the rank of Knight. It was strange the way it struck her. Even though she'd never seen him in a suit, it reminded her of Nate, her power armor poster boy. She pressed a hand against the chest piece, acknowledging the scrapes, the bruises that had covered most of her skin for weeks. His ring was cool against her chest beneath the vault suit. She still had the picture he'd tucked into his suit in the vault, the one he'd carried with him on the front lines.

Determination solidified in her gut as she remembered the words he'd recorded for her to hear.

... everything we do, no matter how hard, we do it for our family...

She crossed behind the suit, pushing a fusion core in and turning the release. There was a hiss as the suit opened. She reached up, pulling herself inside, and it closed around her.

"Feels like you can take on the world in there, doesn't it."

It did.

Chapter Text

Dollie didn't sleep.

Each day without progress toward finding Shaun was like another weight added onto her shoulders. She would wake in the middle of the night thinking she'd heard him cry out, only to find herself alone on a ratty mattress in a shack she'd nailed together on Red Rocket's roof. She preferred to keep busy instead of sleeping. Valentine always frowned at that, telling her she needed to take time and rest, but she always gently assured him that she would be fine.

And it was easy enough to outrun her demons. The settlers at Greentop needed scrap to build some turrets, there was a missing person case in Diamond City, super mutants had taken up in an abandoned high school, and she was set to find someone named Virgil in the glowing sea. It was easy enough.

Until it wasn't.

She always forgot how terrible the mutants were until they were in front of her again. She cursed herself upon entering the high school for not returning to the Prydwen for her Power Armor, and Danse definitely disapproved. She took point, as usual, but she was unsure if she'd make it through this one.

As they cleared out the lower corridors and a lunch room that was noxious with the smell of rotting meat, everything was going alright. Danse was quick to use his power armor as a shield for her when the gun fire was too heavy. She was grateful for this, taking out mutants at long range to keep them off of his back.

But somehow they got separated. As she picked through lockers in the upstairs corridor, looking for bottle caps and anything that could be useful in a settlement, she lost sight of him. She couldn't believe it, how could she lose a man in a suit of power armor in these tiny corridors?

She started to back track, but as she reached the stairwell down, two mutants rounded a corner. She fumbled with her gun. If Danse had been with her at that moment, he'd have growled that she needed to stay focused or she'd get them both killed. But if he'd have been there things would have been fine.

One of the mutants swung a club like arm at her, hitting her square in the stomach and launching her across the corridor. She thought she might be sick as she choked for air, her back aching painfully where it had met a wall of steel lockers. As one mutant loaded up his pipe rifle the other lumbered toward her yelling. She slumped to her knees, scrambling for the laser pistol that had been knocked from her hands.

The mutant was too close. She dived away from his path, hearing him slam into the wall where she'd just been. As the other began firing she set off into a sprint down the hallway. The floor was slick and she skidded into the wall at the end of the corridor, losing some of her momentum.

The two mutants began to follow her and she ducked down just before another few had the chance to spot her down the hallway. Without thinking, she closed herself into a locker that still had a door. The mutants yelled with fury outside, and began their search for her.

The locker was tight and dark. Her labored breathing bounced off of the walls all around her, slamming back into her ears. Her chest tightened. She heard the sound of heavy clanking footsteps. “Oh god," she thought. "Danse, please hurry."

The mutants were getting angrier, and they were getting closer. As one slammed against a locker three or four down from her, there was a loud metal groaning and the ground around her shook. And then the sound of a laser rifle firing erupted.

She could hear Danse shouting his usual angry banter, yet somehow it felt far away. She pushed her hands against the door of the locker to try and help him. It wouldn't budge. She felt her body turn cold, and her eyes filled with white noise television static. Her ears were cotton, and her throat was swollen shut.

"This is the one." She heard.

No. No no no no no, her brain screamed.

"Is it over?" Nate's tired voice asked as Shaun began to cry.

"Almost." A voice like gravel and knives said.

No no no, not again, please. It was all there in front of her eyes. She raised a weak fist to bang on the door.

"I'm not giving you Shaun!" Nate yelled, fighting against the woman in the biohazard suit.

She banged her hands harder this time. No!

There was gunfire and she watched it happen again. His name burned on her tongue with searing pain. She clawed at the door, watching her husband’s blood drip to the floor.

And then Kellogg glared in at her and those words exploded in her ears. "At least we still have the backup."

She screamed, banging as hard as she could against the door. She couldn't be frozen again, he couldn't leave her there again, she had to get to Nate, maybe this time she could--

There was a blinding wash of white light and something grabbed hold of her shoulder. Fear erupted within her and she cried out in panic.

"Knight Wallace!" A stern and worried voice jarred her.

Suddenly she could hear her frantic breathing and her eyes started to clear. She was drenched in cold sweat and she could feel the tears pouring down her cheeks.

"Are you still with me, Knight?" Danse's brown eyes were lined with concern.

There was a scratch on his cheek that began to bloom with blood. She shuddered out a calming breath. She looked around. There was no Kellogg, his corpse was rotting back beneath Fort Hagen. She wasn't in Vault 111, she was in Shaw High School. Four super mutants and a mutant hound lay dead on the ruined vinyl floor.

"Paladin..." she spoke, and her throat burned.

"I'm here, Knight." He gave her arm a careful tug, pulling her from the locker. It looked like part of the ceiling had crumbled after she'd shut herself in, blocking the door. "Let's get the hell out of here."

"Right," she said carefully.

He handed her the laser pistol she'd lost, and she held onto it for dear life. She trailed behind him, not far out of his shadow until they were out in the open again.

Night had fallen while they were inside, and Danse suggested that they find a place to stop for the night. She wasn't familiar with any settlements nearby, so they found an abandoned shack and got to work setting up camp for the night.

As they sat quietly across from each other at the small fire, she could tell there was something he wanted to ask. He didn't seem particularly comfortable with that kind of thing, so she decided to put him out of his misery.

"I don't really know what happened." She said, studying her hands in her lap. "I'm sorry."

"No need to apologize..." He trailed for a moment. "It... happens to the best of us."

She nodded, starting to recognize what was happening. She remembered painfully how Nate would wake in the dead of night screaming and sobbing with hysterics, and how she'd tried her best to soothe him. Panic attacks and night terrors. She'd spent the Fourth of July trying to coax him out from under the bed in their room, assuring him that the fireworks weren't bombs.

"If you'd like to talk about it..." Danse said cautiously, trying not to pry.

She didn't want to. But after a moment she thought that maybe he could help her, the way he'd talked before...

"When I was trapped in that locker it... it reminded me of the vault. Suddenly I was in that cryopod again... watching them take Shaun... watching Nate die again..." As she spoke she realized she had never mentioned Nate to Danse before. She stumbled as she glanced at the Paladin over the campfire. "My husband... Nate he..."

Danse nodded, assuring her that she didn't have to say it. But she needed to.

"Nate was murdered and there was nothing I could do. I don't even know how long he was dead before I got out of that pod. Ten years, or something close, I think..."

There was a long pause before she felt like speaking again.

"He was a soldier. Among the first to use power armor in the field. I was so proud of him. He was being honored at a banquet." Her heart ached horribly. "I miss him so much, but... I don't know if he'd recognize me anymore..."

"If he was a soldier, I'm sure he'd be proud of the progress you've made."

She was surprised by the small smile that found her lips. "I hope you're right."

She thought about Nate, his dreamy blue eyes and the way they crinkled when he smiled. She thought about his voice, about the holotape she could feel in the pocket of her vault suit that helped preserve it in her memory. If only she could feel his arms around her one last time, or feel the soft kisses he'd place playfully all over her face.

He was gone. And it hurt. But she needed to stay focused if she was going to find Shaun.

"Thank you for listening. I haven't really talked about this with anyone."

"Glad to help." Danse gave her the hint of a smile.

She recalled the scrape on his cheek and frowned. She pointed to it. "Did I do that?"

He lifted a hand to his cheek, before shaking his head. "Forget it ever happened. No harm done. Get some rest."

She was just exhausted enough that she thought she might be able to escape the horrors of her dreams, so she listened. She laid down with her back to Danse and to the fire. She felt safe knowing that he had her back. "Goodnight, Paladin."

"Night, Soldier."

 

She had entered the Glowing Sea on her own, feeling incredibly vulnerable in her hazmat suit. When it came to the Institute, she prefered not to get anyone else involved. Emotions were highly charged in the Commonwealth, and she wanted to know she could get to Shaun without compromising his safety.

She had listened when people warned her about the Glowing Sea. But now that she stood within it, it was worse than she had ever imagined. She could hardly see ten feet in front of her face, and she stumbled through the terrain uncertainly. After she got directions from some thoroughly unsettling people living within the crater, she climbed her way to the cave.

Everything hinged on this man named Virgil helping her, and she just wasn't sure that he would. Someone who had gone through the trouble to hide themselves this far out didn't want to be found. She'd be lucky not to take a round to the face upon sight, but she had to hope.

As she trudged her way up a steep slope, practically clawing at the ground to propel herself up to the other side, the ground shook. She slipped, falling to her knees and sliding back a few feet before a cloud of dust and earth erupted behind her. She threw a look backward, terrified by the creature that had sprung up from the ground.

It distinctly reminded her of a creature from a recurring childhood nightmare she'd had. A shining black shell and a sharp deadly stinger. A scorpion, more than twice her size.

In a frenzy she clawed her way to the top of the slope, practically falling down the other side. She could hear it following her, its speed terrifyingly close to hers. She put on the breaks as the creature reemerged from in front of her, causing her to land hard on her back. She aimed her pistol at the creature, emptying a round into it with nearly no effect before it lunged toward her.

She rolled hard out of the way, the creature catching her arm with its powerful stinger. She shrieked as it bit into her skin, tearing through the hazmat suit fabric easily. She cursed, deciding it would be best if she could just outrun the thing.

She ignored the searing pain in her arm, and scrambled to her feet, sprinting toward a mostly caved in concrete building. Somehow, she could tell that night was falling as darkness began to swallow the sky, robbing her senses even further. She felt frantic as she threw herself into the gap of the building, backing as far into the space as she could.

Her breathing bounced back at her from inside the helmet of the suit. The geiger counter on her pipboy ticked out of control. She felt sick, drenched in cold sweat. Her arm was bleeding and it burned like hell.

The creature lunged at the side of the building, trying to reach her. She watched it, terrified, feeling like a trapped animal. After a long time, it relented, its sharp appendages carrying it away, crashing through the irradiated, burnt earth.

Feeling weak, she fished through her pack. She took a stimpak and searched for the med-x she knew was somewhere within the confines. She tore at the fabric of a shirt she'd stuffed into the bag, using it to bandage the cut on her arm before she found the roll of military duct tape she'd swiped from a locker in Fort Hagen.

She pulled a long strip from the tape, wrapping it around the cut in her suit four or five times, hoping it would do to seal her in and keep the radiation out... It was the best she had for the time being.

Once she'd calmed her nerves she crawled out of the ruined building, taking extra caution to be as quiet as she could. She was on high alert, each sound dragging her attention as soon as she heard it.

It was darker than she'd ever witnessed. There were no stars through the thick radiation haze. She came to a sloping hill, almost a mountain, and hesitated at the mouth of the cave. She was terrified of what she would find, hoping it was the right place and she wasn't just walking into the den of another monster that wanted to make her into a meal.

 

"What happened to you!" Danse's words were much more of an exclamation than a question as he came to the side of her cot.

The Scribe that had helped her to med bay from the vertibird slipped out of the room awkwardly, probably going to clean Dollie's vomit from his boots.

"Radiation." She grumbled, the effort of speaking setting her stomach on edge again.

"Extremely high levels, at that." Knight-Captain Cade gave her a scowl as he hung a bag of RadAway on a hook, pushing the needle into the crook of her arm. "Where were you, the Glowing Sea?"

She was quiet for a long moment, embarrassed at the joking tone he used. "... yes..."

There was a moment of deafening silence.

"Unaccompanied?!" Danse's voice cut into her, causing her to shrink further into the cot. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, Soldier! You could have been killed-!"

"I think she's suffering enough from her poor decisions without your yelling, Paladin." Cade frowned at Danse, pushing a bucket into Dollie's hands. "Any other injuries I should know about, Knight?"

"... can't feel my left... arm..." She grumbled again, her stomach rolling. "... some kind of... scorpion... thing..."

Danse went so red in the face she thought he might explode. She was sure he was going to open his mouth to yell again. She braced for it. Her stomach gave a determined heave before he got the chance, and she pressed her face into the bucket, vomiting water and bile. She hadn't been able to keep anything down since she'd left the Glowing Sea two days before.

"I'll do what I can to get Knight Wallace on her feet again soon, but she's certainly guaranteed it won't be an easy job." Cade sighed, and it sounded like he was dismissing the Paladin. "For now she needs some rest and quiet."

Between waves of sickness she heard a few frustrated growls before Danse huffed and clanked away. She coughed, her fingers trembling around the metal bucket.

"You certainly seem to have a knack for getting under his skin." Cade  almost laughed as he checked the bag of RadAway.

She gagged in reply.

 

Miraculously, the feeling had returned to her arm. Miraculously, she'd survived an otherwise lethal dose of radiation. Miraculously, she was farther away from finding Shaun than when she started.

When Danse grilled her for her reasoning for going to the Glowing Sea she fed him the lame excuse of curiosity which of course only sent him on a long winded, and completely reasonable tirade about how she needed to think more carefully about her actions if she wanted to continue living. She had assured him very sincerely that staying alive was, without a doubt, her intention.

After he finished telling her about the Glowing Sea, about how it was ground zero for the bombs dropped in the Commonwealth and host to countless dangers that no one should ever try to face down alone, he began to tell her about Radscorpions and their many dangers and insubstantial weaknesses. He reminded her a few times that she was lucky to still have her arm. She thought his exasperation was a lot like the fretting and worrying her mother had always done over her and her sister.

All of the lecturing, all of the gruff and angry frowns were accompanied with an exhausting training schedule that had her sleeping like through the night, until she no longer needed the medications for pain and her nightmares skulked back like an old dog. She was half tempted to keep taking the chems... but she didn't want anything to slow her down finding Shaun.

She took to roaming the ship, often getting incredibly lost, when she couldn't sleep.

She had found the forecastle by accident, but had claimed it as her favorite place on the ship pretty quickly. The cold wind that went with a high altitude blew her bangs into her face. She was slumped on a yellow crate, a faded and torn black and white photograph clutched in her fingers.

They stood in front of the steps that lead to the monument at Bunker Hill. It had been the winter before he left for his second tour, it was a frigid day, but they were celebrating. What it was, she couldn't remember, but he was so handsome in his suit and tie. She could hardly recognize herself in the white trench coat and those painful strappy heels. His hand had rested on her waist, and the lighting had cast half his face in shadow.

Salt water dripped on the glossy surface and she pushed it away, avoiding the faint red stain in the top left corner. She sniffed, pushing the tears from her face with the heel of her hand.

She needed a distraction... needed to be on the ground for a while...

 

"You know what this reminds me of?" The old synth asked, making adjustments to his metal hand with a screwdriver.

"Hm?" She peered up from her looting, pushing a hotplate into her bag.

"A cold autumn day not so long ago in an old tunnel like this one. A beautiful dame rushing to the rescue of an old bucket of bolts." The way he spoke made her sick for a time long gone.

"Feeling sentimental?" She smiled up at him, admiring the yellow glow his eyes cast in the dark tunnel.

"I guess I am." He put the screwdriver into a pocket on his trench coat.

"I don't think the company's quite so reasonable this time around." She frowned into the dark, a faint orange glow pouring from an archway.

"You have a point there." He smiled and reloaded his pistol. "What is it we're looking for?"

"A... uhhh... flux sensor?"

He laughed. "You have no idea, do you?"

"Not a clue." She smiled, stepping further down the cement corridor.

Carefully she made her way forward. The first archway she came to was blocked by an old bus and she couldn't see much around it. The second archway was lined up with the bus stairs, and she hesitated, her stomach twisting with apprehension. She hated places like this. A chill inched its way up her spine.

"I've got a bad feeling about this place." Valentine muttered quietly from behind her.

Up the stairs was a bench lined with several teddy bears. 'All Are Welcome' a scrawl of chalk on the metal wall heralded. She took the first step and glanced around the corner to her right. There was a torn curtain, a light casting a shadow against it and pooling on the dirty floor. She glanced to the left and saw that the bus was mostly gone, swallowed by debris that had fallen from above over the years. A blinding white light lit up the tunnel further down.

The frantic and rigid movement caught her eye and she felt cold terror in her stomach. She took a knee to steady her rifle. She aimed for the head, took a silent breath to steady herself, applied the pressure to the trigger. She'd been trained for this, she could do it. She had to.

The bullet erupted from the chamber, sailing through the feral's head with a painful echoing bang. The creature was pushed off of it's feet with the force.

"Good shot, Sweetheart." Valentine praised her softly as he took the steps behind her, firing into another ghoul that was alerted by the sound of her rifle.

She appreciated the praise. She hadn't gotten much of that recently.

She fired a shot through the other ghoul’s torso. It hissed and gurgled as it collapsed to the edge of the metal floor of the bus. She checked the scope, but couldn't see any more hostiles in the immediate area.

She took another deep breath, ignoring the rank smell of rotting flesh that the ghouls had carried with them. Behind the curtain were a few more teddy bears, posed like one was performing surgery on the other. She shuddered uncomfortably and grabbed the few stimpaks and other items worth scavenging.

The tunnel split off into two, one washed in light, the other dim. She contemplated the two paths for a moment.

"Maybe if we take the right path we can surprise the rest of them."

"It's worth a shot." She reloaded.

The dust settled around them as they crept through the dim corridor. There were two jersey barriers that were pushed into an obtuse angle and she crouched down behind them, Nick following suit. She peered over the top, aiming at a ghoul that was slumped into the murky water.

She inhaled slowly, recalling the chill breeze at the airport as she'd kneeled in the mud, aiming at a bullseye painted on a sheet of metal. Another bullet had dented too far from the center. Her fire was erratic and the clouds started to release a cold drizzle. She had growled, gripping the gun tighter and grinding her teeth. Danse had put a hand out for the rifle, taking it from her. She'd felt defeated looking up at him in his power armor from the mud. He'd lifted the rifle to his shoulder, aiming at the target. She'd watched him as he took a steadying breath, and then he'd pulled the trigger, easily hitting his mark, his eyes focused and attentive. Relax and try again, he'd said, putting the gun back in her hands.

Her finger pulled the trigger, sending a bullet through the ghoul's head. It didn't even stir. “Two for two,” she thought. “If only he'd seen it.”

Her small victory was short lived as four ghouls crept out from a corridor, lumbering toward the sound. She focused on keeping her cool, and aimed at their legs, trying to impede their progress. Then the rifle jammed.

Valentine swung himself over the jersey barrier and batted at the closest ghoul, taking shots at those ambling closer. Dollie struggled with the rifle for a long moment, unable to get it unjammed. Frantically, she dropped it and searched through her bag, pulling her 10mm into her hands.

Valentine cried out as two ghouls lunged into him, knocking him down. Dollie took aim, blasting them away as best she could without hitting the old synth in the process. One blasted away, showering rancid blood through the air. She forced herself into the other, smashing it with her gun until it stopped struggling. Her pipboy ticked.

Valentine pushed himself back to his feet. He dusted off his legs, frowning. "Thought there'd be more benefits to a metal skull..."

"You alright?" She gave him a worried frown.

"Yeah, I'm alright. Sooner we get outta here the better, though."

"Right." She agreed.

She took point again, sneaking down the corridor the ghouls had emerged from. A thought struck her and she pulled a molotov from her bag, prepping it and pausing in an archway. She counted three ghouls, preparing to surprise them with a little fire show.

"Be careful with that thing." Valentine mumbled apprehensively.

She gave him a nod, lighting the cloth and tossing the bottle into the other room. There was a small inferno that rattled the old tunnel and she heard hissing and gurgling as the ghouls struggled in the flames. She started firing into them as they became visible, Nick firing over her head where she was crouched.

When the flames died down, the ghouls bodies littered the ground, bobbing a bit in the water.

"Looks like there's a room through there." She gestured to the corridor across from them.

"Hope that things in there somewhere." He adjusted his hat.

She sloshed through the water, keeping her pistol at the ready. She crept carefully through the door and turned, facing the ruined room to her left. Her pipboy ticked angrily in warning.

She squinted into the room, not checking where she was stepping. A rusted can clattered into the wall, rolling away from her. She grimaced, holding in a curse.

The ghouls that greeted her were much faster than the ones in the corridor before. She fired a full round into the one nearest, backing up clumsily. It bowled her over, putting her flat on her back. The water on the floor reached up as the creature swiped at her violently. She tried to scream, but stale water filled her mouth.

Valentine put a bullet in its head, grabbing her by the arms and pulling her further from the doorway. He got her sitting before he started firing on the next ghoul.

Dollie sputtered, spitting water and heaving for breath. She could feel the hot trickle of blood down her face as she tightened her grip on her gun, shaking water from it.

In a glowing haze, another ghoul came into view in the room. It was green and repugnant, looking even further from human than the others. A glowing one.

She leaned around Valentine, putting an entire round into the monster as it lunged ferociously toward them. It stumbled backwards at the force of their combined efforts, but it was taking so much fire. Her pipboy kept clicking.

She reloaded and put another round in the creature, Valentine reloading while she did. After another round from each of them it crumpled to the ground. She kept her gun trained on it for a long moment, just in case.

She heaved an exhausted breath. "Damn."

"You alright?" Valentine leaned down, helping pull her to her feet with a steadying arm.

She was a little woozy and she was definitely still bleeding, but she was in one piece. "I think so."

Nick supported her as they searched the room. She popped a rad-x as her pipboy continued to click, not wanting a repeat of how she'd felt after leaving the Glowing Sea. There was a green steamer trunk in the back corner. She kneeled in front of it and opened it, fishing around until she pulled out a piece of equipment clearly labeled FLUX SENSOR CM-88B 180924609 on the back. She pushed it into her bag, and Nick helped her stand again.

"Let's get out of here." She sighed, leaning her weight into the synth.

"No argument from me."

When they were clear from the tunnel, settling by a campfire at Oberland Station where the locals were always happy to see the General, Valentine helped clean the blood from her face. She'd received a gash along her hairline; it wasn't deep, head wounds just tended to bleed quite a bit. He made her take some RadAway before he finally settled himself on one of the cement blocks that served as seats.

"You know, we make a pretty damn good team." He smiled at her crookedly.

She returned it sweetly. "It's good to have friends to depend on."

"Sure is."

He insisted that she get some rest there, and that they could head for Cambridge in the morning. She was happy to agree, taking him up on the rest as soon as the sun settled onto the horizon.

 

The ghoul barreling toward him disintegrated into ash, most of it being pushed away by a breeze. He quickly turned back toward where the Knight was, ready to offer the covering fire she so often needed.

He watched, impressed as she shot the legs out from under one feral before lunging into a closer one with the butt of her gun. It hit the pavement hard, and she rammed the gun down against it's head, leaving it splattered along the asphalt. He felt pride seeing her old hesitation was nowhere to be found. It seemed like the rigorous training had paid off.

With one well placed shot she put the crippled ghoul down. She hadn't even broken a sweat.

"Outstanding, Knight!" He stopped to give her a well deserved compliment. "You're clearly improving."

She looked back over her shoulder up at him, her eyes wide with surprise. A wide, glittering smile completely changed her face, the dimples of her cheeks making themselves known. "Thank you!"

It took him off guard. His chest tightened and his mind went completely blank. He'd never seen someone with such perfect teeth, someone who was so obviously meant to smile like that. And he'd certainly never expected a smile like that to be directed at him. He forgot to breathe for a moment.

"Is something wrong?" She asked, turning to look back at him.

She'd already taken several steps toward the reservoir that was their destination. He felt himself flushing, and cleared his throat, turning away in hopes that she wouldn't see.

"Thought I heard something." He grunted, trying to sound convincing as he looked up the slope adjacent to the road.

"Oh." She looked in the direction he had, watching the skeletal trees for a hard moment. She glanced up at him before looking back toward the reservoir and continuing down the slope.

He gave his head a shake, reminding himself to stay focused. He couldn't let trivial things like an unexpected smile derail him from the mission at hand, especially not with hostiles lurking nearby. He stretched his shoulders before following after Dollie.

With more ease than on their previous missions, they cleared the outside perimeter. She pulled hard on the metal handle of the front door, but it didn't budge. She tried again, and the handle snapped off in her hands, sending her into the dirt.

He hm'd, helping her back to her feet. She frowned and her face flushed as she looked uncertainly at the handle in her hands. He stepped in front of her and slammed a fist into the edge of one of the double doors, denting it and using the space to pry the other door open. The metal screeched.

"Good thinking." She commended brightly, dropping the handle on the ground.

"Just be cautious. The noise could have alerted any ferals inside of our presence."

She nodded, readying her pistol. He gestured her in, following close behind her. There was a dead withered ghoul on the metal catwalk they came in on, a catwalk leading up and one leading downward next to an office area to their right. He gestured her into the office and she nodded, moving quietly inside.

He focused on the catwalk upward, pausing when he heard something stirring. He lifted his rifle as he saw a ghoul scrambling to its feet. It stumbled toward him and he swung his rifle at it hard, trying to avoid rousing the others that were bound to be lurking nearby.

The eruption of a bullet drew his attention back toward the office at the entrance and he watched as Dollie stumbled backward out of the doorway. A ghoul was limping toward her, one of its legs badly crippled. She put a bullet through it's head and it dropped.

Something hit the back of his armor with a hiss. He turned as quickly as he could, swinging at the ghoul that had snuck up on him. He batted it to the ground and fired.

"Shit." Her irritated curse, caught his attention again and he looked down over the rail. He counted five ghouls as they were scrambling toward the catwalk up to where she was.

Before he could react she began firing into them. The gunfire caused a reaction, likely with gasoline that had leaked from the machinery, and the lower floor erupted into flames. The building groaned with the explosion.

He hurried back toward where she was as three of the ghouls lumbered out of the flames. She took a knee, firing toward them and he stopped behind her, offering more fire. The ghouls came close, but were put down before they could reach the top of the ramp.

"You alright, Soldier?" Danse asked as she rose back to her feet.

Her expression was serious, but she nodded. "Fine."

"Let's make sure the lower level is secure." He moved down the ramp.

She followed without hesitation.

The ground was still hot from the flames. He peered into a room that branched from the main one, but it was mostly collapsed. Dollie continued toward a door at the back of the building, her pistol at the ready.

"Over here!" She called to him, her gun trained at a gap between some equipment and the concrete walls.

He hurried toward her as she began to fire. A ghoul charged from the space, and he intercepted it before it barreled into her, using the thick metal arm of his power armor to swing it back into a pillar. It's ribcage was crushed with the force, and he claimed it's demise for the Brotherhood.

They took the corridor through the doorway together. He ignored his discomfort with how close his head was to the ceiling.

"Careful," He told her. "Picking up a lot of radiation ahead."

She nodded, stopping in her tracks. The look of determination on her face told him she was planning something. She pulled a green bottle from her bag, and a lighter.

"Use those sparingly," He warned. "Don't want to compromise the structural integrity of the building."

"Right." She took a few steps back before lighting the molotov. She tossed it through the doorway ahead of them.

The building shook with the explosion. They readied their weapons as the shrieks echoed into the corridor. A ghoul barreled through the door, slamming into his power armor as he was shifting his weight and sending him staggering back out into the open room behind them.

He pressed his laser rifle into the ghouls chest, firing several times until it disintegrated into ash. As he regained his bearings, he registered the green wash of radiation from a glowing one that was stumbling violently out of the far room.

"Knight! Get out of there!" He barked, trying to aim his rifle at the ghoul around her.

She stumbled backwards, firing into the ghoul. She was almost clear of the corridor before it threw itself forward into her. She was knocked off of her feet and hit the ground hard, flat on her back. She scrambled to get out from under it, but he knew from experience that those things were strong.

He rushed forward, roasting it with laser fire the best he could without hurting her. He watched as the ghoul plunged it's face toward her, it's mouth gaping and ravenous. A thrill of panic ran through him.

There was a loud bang and green gunk splattered through the air. The ghoul fell limply on top of her.

He grabbed it's carcass roughly, shoving it away from the Knight. She coughed, and spat as he hurriedly helped her to sit up. She was coated in green sludge and thick blood, but she was alive. She wiped her face off on her shoulder, before looking up at him with fire in her hazel eyes.

"I'm sick of these damn ghouls." She growled, her forehead creased with frustration.

His eyes widened. He'd never heard that edge in her voice. He felt wash with relief. The tension of the entire situation coaxed a laugh out of him. Her eyes widened at the sound and her face began to flush. It only made him laugh more.

"It wasn't funny!" She whined, exasperated with him. "I almost died!"

He got control of himself again and shook his head, unable to shake the smile away as he looked at her again. "You handled yourself well, Knight. You're doing the Brotherhood proud."

The admiring expression that overtook her face was almost too much for him. A small smile curved her orange lips, and she looked down before trying to get back on her feet. She swayed unsteadily and he reached out a hand to stabilize her. The look didn't leave her face for a long time. They were both smiling as they made their way back to Cambridge.

Chapter Text

It was a hot day, the sun roasting the Commonwealth without any sign of relenting. Her power armor was suffocating and uncomfortable. She'd been clearing feral ghouls out from Lexington with Danse when Preston had sent out a message from the Sanctuary recruitment beacon.

She wasn't sure what the trouble was as they crossed the old ruined bridge, the gates standing open, the turrets humming on the stone pillars. Danse was alert, surveying the disheveled and ruined neighborhood. She paused just inside the gates and looked over at him.

"I'm going to hop out for a few minutes. You're welcome to come with me if you want."

He seemed uncomfortable. "I'll hang back here."

"Right." She gave him a nod before pressing the release on her suit.

It released her mercifully, and a cool breeze felt great as it swept over her skin. She popped the fusion core from the suit and placed it in her bag, heading up the hill.

Every time she walked into Sanctuary it was a painful reminder. Her eyes played tricks, showing her wilting autumn trees, leaves in oranges and yellows, green and blue and yellow siding, trimmed green lawns. That was all a memory, one that haunted her.

An excited bark greeted her as she got closer to the heart of the settlement. Dogmeat came sprinting toward her, his tongue lolling as he ran. He jumped excitedly around her. She gave the dog a warm, loving smile as she leaned down to rub his head.

"How you doin' buddy?" She cooed as she scratched his stomach.

He wiggled happily, taking his feet again and licking her face.

"General!" Preston's voice pulled her focus away from the german shepard.

He was coming toward her, his laser musket present as always as he waved a black gloved hand at her. Dogmeat trotted after her happily as she went to meet her right hand man. She could hear the musical thunk of hammers, the chatter of voices, the harmony of life rebuilding itself where nothing should have thrived. It planted a smile on her face as she met him.

"I heard your message, what's up?"

"I just got word from a settlement due south of here. Some raider's have been giving them trouble."

She lifted her arm, tuning to the map on her PipBoy, turning so he could show her the location. He pointed it out and she marked it down.

"Abernathy Farms. They're good people. I'm hoping we can get them on our side."

"Alright, sounds good. Is there anything I need to check on while I'm here?" She blocked the sun from her eyes, glancing around at the ruined houses, keeping her eyes away from one.

"I'm sure everyone would be glad if you checked up on them. I've been monitoring the perimeter daily, but you've got sharper eyes than most." He gave her a flattering smile.

He was the shining star of the Commonwealth. If anyone could put things back on track, it was Preston Garvey, she was sure of that. She offered him a smile in return before heading toward the yellow house that served as the central hub of the settlement.

"Well, if it ain't everyone's favorite vault dweller." Sturges gave her a crooked smile, a toothpick between his teeth. "Things've been goin' pretty smooth around here."

She gave him a warm smile. She'd grown pretty fond of the mechanic. "Noticed any problems with the walls?"

"Not any that I've seen. Holdin' steady. We're runnin' a little short on food, if you think you can scrounge up something more to plant, but other than that, things are good. Almost homey."

She laughed. "That's good to hear. I'll see what I can do. I might be able to buy some crops from that farm Preston's sending me to."

"Sounds like a plan." He smiled, turning back to the workbench.

She continued on her rounds, trying to be quick as she could still see Danse's hulking figure near the gates waiting. It was hardest to pull herself away from Codsworth who trailed after her back toward the gate, fussing all the while.

"You have been eating well mum, haven't you? You're looking thin." He fretted, giving her no time to reply before fussing at something else. "And oh, those bruises, mum! You really should find a doctor and have them looked at!"

"Codsworth, honey, I'm doing fine." She assured the Mr. Handy, setting her hands on his tarnished dome.

He heaved a sigh. "Oh, alright, but please do be careful. And, Miss Dollie... come back home soon."

"I will. I always do. Don't get yourself so worked up." She assured him, giving him a warm smile.

The old Mr. Handy floated defeatedly back toward the wreckage of their home, knowing very well that she went out of her way to keep from setting foot inside. She smoothed her black hair before turning back toward the gate.

"I'm sorry it took so long." She gave Danse a sheepish smile as she buffed at a scratch on her power armor before clambering back inside. It smelled stuffy and of her own sweat.

"These defenses are lacking." He gestured toward the walls, all business as usual. "There should be more guards on watch."

She surveyed the gates. She'd helped build them with her own hands. Her body had ached horribly for days afterward, but at least she'd been able to sleep.

"We don't have many guards to spare. It's a small settlement right now, but more settlers show up all the time."

He gave the settlement one last critical look before turning back toward the bridge. "What's our next move?"

"South from here, a settlement's having raider troubles."

The walk to Abernathy Farm was quiet and uneventful. She still didn't know how to strike up a conversation with him, and she was pretty sure he preferred it that way, but it made her feel awkward. She switched the radio on in her suit, keeping the volume low. She frowned though as Uranium Fever played through the speakers. If only a few more songs had survived the end of the world, she'd just heard it an hour ago...

When they arrived at the settlement, built around an old radio tower, she slipped out of her Power Armor again. In her experience, people were a little less likely to open fire if you didn't clunk up to them in an impenetrable metal can.

A man in a worn brown duster eyed her apprehensively with a shotgun at the ready. "That's close enough, stranger. We're a peaceful farm, we don't want any trouble."

"I'm with the Minutemen. I heard you were having some raider troubles."

The man looked surprised. People often commented about how the Minutemen had fallen into disarray. The man regaled her with the story of his daughter who'd tried to stand up to the raiders that were plaguing them. Her heart broke for him.

"There's nothing worse than losing a child," she frowned sympathetically. "Believe me, I know."

"It must be a... terrible feeling. I'm sorry for both of you." The rumble of Danse's voice surprised her.

The man had pointed them in the direction of the raiders, and she promised she'd return his daughter's locket. She climbed back into her armor and didn't think much of it as they back tracked, crossing through Concord.

As she often did, she took the direct route through the trees, enjoying the thunk of the power armor as she pushed up a hill. As they came to the satellite array, the ring of gunshots slowed her down.

The raiders appeared to have their hands full with a slew of mole rats. She lifted a hand, signaling Danse to hold up. They stayed far back enough in the trees that they would be difficult to detect despite their armor. It wasn't long before the gunfire died down, the mole rats defeated.

"We should flank them on both sides. I'll round the main building. Wait for my signal. Safety's off." Danse instructed before moving as stealthily as possible in a metal suit.

She sized up the gaggle of raiders returning to their regular business as she slipped a new fusion cell into her rifle. She checked the Paladin's position, patiently awaiting his signal. He lifted a hand, holding it steady for a tense moment. He pointed, waving his fingers through the air, a gesture that meant Go.

She pushed forward, taking aim at a raider that was pacing along a metal catwalk leading up to the satellite dish. The sound of laser fire on the other side of the building drew the raider's attention and she took the shot. The man cursed before spinning around to return fire. She pulled the trigger twice more in quick succession, steeling herself as he stumbled back against the rail of the catwalk, toppling over. She did her best to ignore the gruesome crunch as his body hit the ground.

"Shit, you killed him!" One of the raiders screamed, real pain tearing through their voice.

It bit into her. She swallowed hard and gritted her teeth. The ping of bullets bouncing off of her armor pulled her back into the fight. She fired back, pushing further into the yard around the array.

The raider tried to duck behind a few crates, lobbing a moltov in her direction. She cringed, the force of the explosion rocking her just slightly inside of the armor. But other than that, she didn't feel a hint of the pain.

She watched as Danse laid down a thick burst of laser fire on the raider, reducing them to red hot ash. He gestured for her to hurry up, and she crossed to him quickly.

"There's a door through here." He nodded toward the concrete building.

"Right." She nodded, ducking inside and opening the door to a dark stairwell.

The stairs were almost too narrow for the power armor and she gritted her teeth in attempt to keep quiet as she trudged downward. Two flights, and then a third, which opened out into a dim doorway.

"Careful!" Danse whispered harshly, grabbing the shoulder of her armor and stopping her. "There's a trap wire."

Dollie glanced down, just noticing the three red beams she'd almost stepped through. She groaned inwardly, taking a careful step back. Danse stepped around her, carefully instructing her in how to disarm them. It was difficult to see, but she tried to commit it to memory, certain that the knowledge would come in handy.

They pushed onward into the ruined bunker. Dollie noted the two locked doors, making sure to stop back through after clearing the area. They headed toward a staircase that slunk further underground, and a watch dog growled from where it had been trotting upward. It barked, alerting the raiders below.

She put a bullet in its head and nodded as Danse gestured down the corridor opposite. They split up, and she took the stairs downward. She spared a look around the corner at the bottom and was greeted with a spattering of bullets.

She tucked herself back around the corner hastily, and the gunfire stopped. She held her breath before leaning back out, firing her own round at the raider that had spotted her. His armor was flimsy and he crumpled to the dirty floor.

She pushed forward, entering a room with a long bench and a series of lockers. There was a radio on the bench and she resisted the urge to flip the switch, could hear the distant scuffle of combat somewhere above, could hear the shuffle of boots in the next room, the jittery banter of raiders so jacked up on chems they couldn't tell what direction was up and what was down.

She reloaded her pistol before pushing forward. Two raiders inside. One spun around at the clunk of her armor, firing blindly into walls and anything else they could find. Bullets pinged off of her armor, drawing dust from the crumbling walls. One deflected off of her helmet, cracking the thick glass that shielded her eyes before planting itself in the ceiling.

"Eat lead, bitch!" the other raider roared as she spun around, and Dollie could hear the whir of a minigun spinning up. She cursed inwardly, putting a few bullets into the raider to her right before trying to duck back into the room behind her as bullets began to pelt into her like a hail storm.

The raider screamed, following her retreat. Dollie scrambled as the ammo ran out in her pistol. She lobbed the 10 mm in desperation, watching it collide with the cage armor around the raider's head.

The raider hesitated as the gun ricocheted to the ground, offering a brief window of respite. Dollie wrenched the pipe pistol from the hands of the dead raider on the floor, firing as quickly as the gun would allow.

The minigun whirred again. Dollie gritted her teeth as the bullets slammed into her chest plate. She could feel it denting inward, growing thinner by the bullet.

"Paladin!" She shouted toward the corridor, hoping that Danse could hear her over the gunfire.

She thought she could hear the clunk of his power armor, prayed perhaps that the echo of laser fire was drawing nearer. The visual inside of her helmet flashed, blaring at her in warning as the left arm of the suit failed, then the right leg. The chest plate went critical, the glass of her helmet fracturing further. The display went dark. She sunk down on a knee, trying to steady herself.

"Why won't you just die?" The raider screamed, pushing further toward her and revving the gun again.

Dollie fired a spattering of shots, cursing the accuracy of the pistol in her hand, but feeling some satisfaction as one tore through the raiders forearm, sending her staggering back and dropping the minigun heavily onto the ground.

And then quick bursts of laser fire had the raider screaming in agony, trying to turn and drag the minigun to no avail. Danse came into view, and Dollie couldn't help but consider him some kind of knight in shinning armor. This seemed to be the way things played out when they traveled together. She got herself in over her head and he came barreling to the rescue, cool and composed as ever.

He reached her while the dust was still settling, offering a hand and pulling her back up to her feet. She winced sorely, feeling the exertion of the heavy armor and of nearly being turned into swiss cheese. She pulled the helmet from her head, breathing in the stale air of the bunker greedily.

She breathed a grateful thank you, and set out to search for the locket, finding it tucked carelessly in a toolbox.

 

After buying a few tato plants off of the thankful settlers, they headed back toward Sanctuary. She contemplated stopping at Red Rocket to drop off her armor. There was plenty of scrap there she could use to fix it, but then again, Sturges could give her a hand with the parts she still didn't understand. Danse's voice pulled her out of her thoughts.

"Are your missions for the Minutemen always this tedious?" He was frowning.

She mulled it over. "I... hadn't really thought of them like that, but I guess so."

"These settlements of yours seem to be more trouble than they're worth." His frown deepened. "All this trouble for a piece of jewelry?"

"It's more than that," she said softly, trying to be patient with him. "It was their daughter's, of course they'd want it back."

He was quiet for a moment as they trudged up a hill. "That aside, these people can't fend for themselves."

She didn't say anything. He wasn't completely wrong, but she was of the opinion that they were doing the best they could. After a moment, a thought struck her. "What does the Brotherhood do with all the technology they confiscate?"

"We learn all we can from that technology and keep it out of the hands of people who don't respect it to make sure that history doesn't repeat itself. Technology with no use is destroyed."

"But who's the Brotherhood to decide that those people won't respect it? What makes them so superior?"

He thought for a moment, his eyebrows knit together. "The Brotherhood has two centuries of experience with technology. Our strict code keeps that technology from being abused. Members are extensively educated in how best to utilize what we find. Outsiders can't be trusted with that responsibility, as history has shown. The rampant and irresponsible use of new technology is what led to abominations like super mutants thanks to the FEV, and it's happened again with the Institute and their synths. I'm sure this is difficult for you to grasp; you're from a very different time."

She almost laughed at that. "It was my job to understand thinking like that Danse. It's the same tactic people have used for all of human history. Keep information out of the hands of the "common" people to maintain control, keep them uneducated, make sure they have to depend on you for protection."

"Our goals aren't that dubious, Knight," he was growing exasperated, like he didn't understand why it was so hard for her to grasp. "The Brotherhood wants what is best for all of mankind."

"You attract more flies with honey than vinegar is all I'm saying."

He looked at her confused and she got the impression he wasn't sure which part to question first. She wondered briefly if there were any giant radioactive bees producing gallons of toxic honey somewhere out in the Wasteland. What was there to put in her tea now?

"Kindness often gets a better response than a show of power. If you offer to help people on their own terms, they're more likely to help you out when you need them to."

"That exposes weakness. People exploit kindness and it isn't likely to garner much in the way of assets or respect. The Brotherhood has seen the consequences of being too lenient. About a decade ago our leadership took the Brotherhood down a bad path that focused far too much on charity. It caused division in our ranks. It wasn't until Elder Maxson took leadership that the Brotherhood was able to return to its true purpose."

She frowned, sweat trickling uncomfortably down her back. She didn't think she'd be able to sway him and didn't want to further irritate him, so she accepted the impasse for what it was. She could see the cracked road that would take them back to Sanctuary.

"It's getting late," she said after a few moments, watching the horizon as the faint silhouette of Red Rocket came into view against the darkening skyline. "I think we should stay in Sanctuary for the night. I'll fix up my armor and we can leave for the Prydwen first thing in the morning."

"It will... have to do." He sighed in annoyance.

 

Night fell quickly. Dollie had been reluctant to leave him at the gate, but he'd insisted. More so than other settlements, Sanctuary was hers. She was the General of the Minutemen, and he didn't want his presence to undermine that authority.

He'd exited his power armor, the hulking form of it close by as he sat by a meager fire, finishing his dinner rations. He watched the flicker of light from within the settlement, listened to the distant chatter of activity as it slowly dwindled to nothing. The Knight was working on her power armor somewhere in the heart of the settlement, he could hear the familiar sounds.

A different sound caught his ear, the scrape of boots across the ground and a whistled tune. It wasn't long before the red glow of a laser musket caught his eye and the Minuteman came into view through the front gates. He went to push the heavy gates closed, eyeing the empty guard post with some annoyance.

Danse rose to his feet, offering a hand. Together they pushed the wooden doors closed and the other man chained them shut.

"You're the Paladin, right?" The man gave him a smile and offered a hand, the moonlight and distant fire casting faint shadows on him.

"That's correct." Danse took his hand, shaking it confidently. "And you are?"

"Preston Garvey, Commonwealth Minutemen. Mind if I join you?" He gestured toward the fire.

Danse glanced back toward the fire before nodding. It would have been rude to refuse since he was only there on the settlement's hospitality. "Certainly."

They sat down beside the fire and Preston pulled a bottle of purified water from one of the pockets on his coat, taking a long drink. They sat in silence for a long while, before he turned his attention back to Danse.

"The General speaks real highly of you."

Danse didn't know what to say to that. He glanced up at the other man, quirking an eyebrow. Preston shook his head, almost in disbelief it seemed.

"She's certainly gotten more strict since she joined the Brotherhood. It's done wonders for her confidence, to say the least. She's just amazing though, isn't she?"

"She's an outstanding soldier." Danse agreed before glancing down at his gloved hands, not sure what else to say.

Preston seemed comfortable in the silence, smiling pleasantly at the fire. He stayed longer than Danse was comfortable with. He'd need to take advantage of the walls while he still had that comfort and attempt more than a few hours of sleep, but it would be rude if he asked the other man to leave. Somehow, Preston seemed to read his mind.

"Well, it was nice to officially meet you, Paladin. If you need anything, just holler." He tipped his hat before walking up the cracked asphalt into the settlement.

Danse nodded in goodbye, before rising to his feet and dumping a bucket of water on the fire. He headed into the ruined house, taking advantage of the bed inside that Dollie had told him he was free to use. His body ached as he tried to quiet his thoughts and drift into sleep.

 

The sun was setting quickly, turning the sky a cloudy dark blue. She needed to return to the Police Station before it got too dark. Cambridge was dangerous at night. She turned the dial of her pip boy in one last act of desperation. She received radio silence, faint static.

She sighed, letting her arms fall slack at her sides as she stared at the rubble of C.I.T. She wondered what could have reduced so much of it to dust. She'd driven past it nearly each day as she'd finished her law degree. She'd been able to see the dome from her first apartment.

The radio crackled, but there was no beeping like the scientist had told her she would hear. She frowned, trying not to let the disappointment overwhelm her. She wasn't even sure that she was prepared to take on a... what had Virgil called it? A courser?

She recalled the boy she'd seen in Kellogg's memories, covered in freckles despite the distortion of the machinery. It had to have been Shaun. He was older than she'd hoped he would be. It wouldn't be so hard to miss a few months, or how ever long it was going to take her to get him back... but ten years... wouldn't she be the villain if she took him back now? There was no way he could possibly know who she was...

That didn't matter... she couldn't let whatever nefarious plan they had for her son play out. She had to get him back.

She nudged a rock with her boot, turning the radio dial again.

 

It was alarming how easily he found himself forgetting the information Knight Wallace was so forward with when she'd agreed to join the Brotherhood. It was easy for him to forget the loss that she carried slung over her shoulders like a cross. Everyone in the wasteland had lost something, her pain couldn't have been any different.

There was something entirely different about it though, and it bothered him. It had begun to nag him when he'd traveled with her to Sanctuary, watching her expose her weaknesses to a total stranger and walking away with complete and utter trust. There was no suspicion in the way she conducted herself, as though she expected every person she met to treat her the same.

There was an openness she thoughtlessly maintained that was completely unbecoming of a soldier. Yet somehow she was able to weaponize her loss, using it as a tool to gain people's trust. She'd done it to him when they met, and he couldn't help but wonder if she even knew what she was doing. It grated at him until it became annoyance.

Her naivety and disregard for her own personal safety was bound to get her killed, and it was likely to take those close to her with it. He knew she was from a different era entirely, but he was certain that the time she'd spent in the Commonwealth would have taught her to be more careful where she put her trust.

He'd been trying to find the right moment to confront her about it as they made their way back to the Prydwen. He thought it would be best to do it before they reached the airship, so that she wouldn't feel cornered.

They were crossing a wide bridge pocked with gaping craters, revealing the murky water beneath. Most of their travel had been uneventful, and the outskirts of Boston seemed deceptively quiet. He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and slowed his pace, lifting his rifle in preparation.

There was a soft thud against the back of his power armor as the Knight bumped into him. She'd left her own power armor back at the Police Station, much to his annoyance, and had seemed lost in thought.

A child stopped in the middle of the bridge with a pipe pistol lifted toward them. He frowned heavily as they stopped close enough to hear what she had to say.

The child brandished the gun, trying to appear threatening, and he couldn't help but bristle. A hand on the chest plate of his power armor drew his attention down and he watched in confusion as Dollie stepped past him, closing in on the child.

"Knight!" He warned, but she didn't heed him.

Her demeanor changed and her voice was scolding as she addressed the child. "Put that down."

The girl shrunk back from her slightly, pushing the gun forward again in defiance. Danse grimaced. A gun in untrained hands could prove fatal.

"Put it down." Dollie was insistent.

Slowly the girl let the pistol fall to her side. She lifted her chin in defiance, glaring up at the Knight. Danse watched amazed as Dollie sank down to one knee, making it so the girl had to look down at her.

"What is it you want?" She asked kindly.

The girl glanced around in disbelief and then back toward him in distrust. He frowned. What Dollie said next was too quiet for him to hear, but the girl glanced back at her.

"Food." Her voice was nervous and she leaned away from Dollie.

"Not specific enough."

"Two cans of food."

"Are you sure?" She asked softly.

The girl glanced back at him again.

"Per person."

"Better." Dollie moved her bag to show the girl as she removed four boxes and cans.

He bit his tongue to keep from reprimanding her. She said something softly to the girl who nodded uncertainly, and she was handing over a few stimpaks and a bottle of pain relievers.

The girl greedily took the things in her arms. Danse watched as Dollie handed her a flare gun and a flare, instructing her to use it to call the Minutemen if she needed assistance. The girl nodded seriously before hurrying back across the bridge.

He was finished trying to stifle his anger.

"What were you thinking?" He growled. "She could have been placated-"

"I don't care." She snapped.

"What?" He snapped back.

Her eyes widened with surprise as she looked up at him. She shook her head.

"That's not what I meant." She frowned before sighing. "I just meant... I was never hungry, thirty years of my life. Is there a single person today that can say that?"

They both knew the answer.

"I'll gladly starve it if means a child gets to eat." She watched after the girl, a painful longing on her face.

He felt sorry for her and it surprised him.

"That gun could have misfired." His voice was still gruff, but most of the anger had faded.

"You're right. It could have." She nodded and fixed him with a serious look. There was more gravity about her in that moment, more awareness than he'd ever given her credit for. "If it had been loaded."

She held his gaze for a tense moment before she nodded across the bridge and started walking.

He had underestimated her. He wouldn't make that mistake again.

Chapter Text

"It's gonna be okay," she murmurs, brushing a few dark brown strands of hair from his forehead, pressing a gentle kiss to his smooth cheek. He is warm and the smell of soap and aftershave is in her nose like an old friend.

His blue eyes are bright with fear, regarding the pod the man gestures toward behind him. She lets her palm fall flat on his cheek, fixing him with all the love she has to give, and ever so slightly she sees the panic ease.

The soft whine from his arms draws her attention and she's smiling downward, her fingers dancing lovingly over their son, half him and half her. "Mommy's not going far."

She presses a soft kiss to her son's forehead before the man is asking them to make haste, to enter the pods so the process can begin, so that their new life can begin.

She fixes him with one last loving stare, never asking to take their baby in her own arms; knowing that he is the only anchor tethering the man she loves with all she is to that strange place.

She pulls herself into the pod, holds her breath as it closes around her and waves as she watches them across the way, her entire world in a tiny metal pod. She can hear the hiss of pressure, she feels the abrupt drop in temperature, anxiety causing a note of hysteria to--

It was cold. There was no sound outside of her breathing. Her head was in a box, detached from her body. There was nothing but darkness and silence and the hitch in her throat as she dragged in a breath of frigid air.

There was a ringing inside of her box, a word hanging in the air, throwing itself back against her sharply like a blade. Her senses trickled back to her slowly, one at a time at their own leisure.

There was warmth close by her, she could feel it on one half of her body. And then the word hanging over her ears began to register. The pressure of her tongue to the roof of her mouth and the back of her teeth, the long pull of her jaw downward, the crisp percussive hiss made by her tongue on the junction of her teeth. Her nose recalled burning bark and the wet weight of rain.

The last dregs of her nightmare played out as she was waking, before her eyes had the strength to open and save her from the impending horror. Not hands but scaled black claws tearing blue blankets; weak hands trying to hold tight, the sickly lights glinting off of gold before an explosion turned flesh into a gaping hole.

Her body vaulted her up, her eyes stared incomprehensively into darkness, and she pulled her knees toward her chest, not registering the pain of her own fingers pressing harshly through fabric until there were certainly bruises on her thighs. Her voice was raw like a wound as she tried to muffle her own sobs into her knees. She rubbed the tears into dirty blue fabric.

Her brain screamed out questions she couldn't dare to articulate, miserable pleas of self-pity she couldn't allow herself to succumb to for fear that she'd never get her footing again.

She grappled to recall where she was, or if she was alone. There were no whimpers of worry, no robotic squawking. She wondered if she would see unnerving yellow eyes when she looked up, or panicked suffocating green, maybe chocolate brown so filled with pity it would make her retch.

She was met with an unobtrusive glance over a steel shoulder plate; honey brown eyes filled with wordless understanding, eyes more accustomed to trauma than she would ever wish upon anyone. He didn't speak, he didn't press her for details, or even expect answers of any kind, and god was she thankful.

The dreams had been growing more frequent, more abstract. She'd awoken the night before having dreamt of aseptic hallways with fluorescent lights. There had been shadowed figures in lab coats passing a bundle of blankets back and forth, refusing to let her see what rest inside, but she had known. When she'd reached out toward them her hands had been small and charred, cutting across her vision in lagging movements that lingered far too long to be real.

Her dreaming had begun to fill with the prickling memory of flames licking at her skin and the anxious crackle of radio static. It was getting to the point that she just wished she didn't have to sleep. There was enough on her plate that she could stay busy indefinitely, and there was always more to do. She couldn't help but wonder what anyone did before she emerged from the Vault. How did anything get done in the Commonwealth before she returned?

If she could just keep pushing until she finally picked up the Courser signal, then everything would be alright. She had to stay vigilant, had to believe that her efforts would take her straight to Shaun. Nothing else mattered, so long as she kept her mind occupied.

 

Exhaustion was weighing heavily on her, affecting her mood and her performance. He counted the changes in scrapes and bruises and hours spent observing as she stared blankly into campfires at night instead of sleeping. While she did attempt to sleep when he insisted, she would often lay on top of her sleeping bag, staring at a wall or the ceiling, and when she did sleep it wasn't more than an hour before she would bolt upright, awake and trying to stifle anguished sobs.

The troubling increase in her nightmares was dwarfed by the fact that no one else seemed to notice the changes. The Minuteman Garvey would send her to four locations in quick succession, not once asking after her well-being or allowing her the time to stop and rest. Settlers complained more than he'd noticed before, and they barely took the time to thank her before they were asking more of her.

Watching her deteriorate so quickly had him reluctant to leave her side and he was half tempted to order her off duty for a few days of recoup. After another week with little improvement he did. He stopped her before they entered the barricades at the airport, alarmed by the slight tremor that had taken to her limbs.

"Knight, I think you need to take a few days to get back on your feet."

The straight forward comment took her off guard. She'd knitted her eyebrows, looking up at him with confusion. "What do you mean?"

"You're running on fumes. When was the last time you slept more than an hour at a time?"

There was a pause before her face paled and she gave her head a stiff shake. She opened her mouth to dispute him, stammering unintelligibly. He lifted a hand to silence her.

"Your field performance has severely declined. It's important that you give your body the break that it needs before you end up getting hurt."

"I can't, there's so much to do," she insisted and he realized the emotion creeping onto her face was fear.

"Knight," he tried to sound stern, but was finding it difficult. What could she be so afraid of? "I'm ordering you to take a few days off to rest."

Her voice was a desperate whisper when she spoke again. "I can't. Danse, please don't make me."

"At least two days, Knight. You should see Cade straightaway. He may have something to help you sleep."

The fear very plain on her face made him uncomfortable, but he remained firm in his decision. Her health depended on it. He escorted her to med-bay personally before informing the Elder of his recommendation. He'd been feeling worn down himself and was thankful for a few days of reprieve.

He spent his time catching up on paperwork and tweaking his power armor. He even found the time to begin a new book when he was in his quarters.

He didn't see the Knight but once or twice in their prescribed four day recoup, and it wasn't until they were back on the ground that he realized she was behaving coldly toward him. It was bizarre; most soldiers begged for a few days off, but Dollie was acting like he'd paid her a personal insult.

He wanted to ask what it was he'd done wrong- wanted to set things right straight away, but things were too hectic for him to even bring it up. And when he finally thought he'd have the chance to ask her, she told him she was leaving for a few days. When she returned to the Prydwen it was just to ask his help clearing mutants out of Faneuil Hall. She barely met his gaze, and her usual warmth was nowhere to be found.

The effort to clear out the mutants had been exhausting and dangerous. Her bitterness toward him had made it all the more difficult and it was grating on him more than he liked to admit. After all he'd done in her best interest she repaid him by forcing their relationship ten paces back. He'd thought they were finally getting somewhere...

He was annoyed out of his mind when she retrieved the small golden grasshopper from the roof of the building. All that effort clearing out mutants for a chunk of metal she refused to explain to him? He was glad to scrub the Wasteland clean of mutant filth, but the cost of that particular mission had been too much. It felt like she was punishing him for something, and he didn't know what.

Things had only gotten worse when they arrived in Diamond City.

A dark scowl took his face. He couldn't understand it. How could she fraternize with that... thing. It should have been shot, killed, disposed of immediately. And yet when she saw it, she had thrown her arms around it like it was a long lost friend.

"Valentine!" She'd exclaimed, her voice taking on a sweet tone he'd only heard her use on Dogmeat and children.

"Well aren't you a sight for sore eyes." The synth spoke, patting an exposed metal hand against her back. "Where've you been, Kiddo? I was starting to worry."

She held the synth at arms length and smiled up at it. "I got it!"

"Oh, you did eh?"

Danse shifted uncomfortably witnessing the exchange. It took every ounce of restraint not to put the synth down.

Dollie pressed the golden grasshopper into the synths unexposed hand. It held the object in front of it's unnerving yellow eye, sizing it up.

"Well, look at that." It made a sound like laughter. "You're quite the detective, Dolls."

"I have my moments." She smiled up at it affectionately. The synth offered her some caps for the apparent service she'd performed. She shook her head, closing its hand around them. "I don't need your money, Valentine. Maybe give Ellie a raise, huh?"

It laughed again, before seeming to notice Danse's presence. The robot's tone changed. "Who's your grim looking friend?"

Dollie looked back at him apprehensively, almost like she were ashamed of him and not that thing. He felt his teeth grinding. He was rigid with tension. She pursed her lips before looking back at the synth.

"This is Paladin Danse of the Brotherhood of Steel." Her voice lost its sweetness. "He helped me take care of the Super Mutants that were in Faneuil Hall."

"Well... how kind of him." There was a grudging tone in the synths voice.

Danse glared, deeply considering his rifle. Dollie put herself between them and he felt his blood boil. How could she protect that rusting abomination?

"I have a few things I have to finish up with the Paladin, but then I figured we could check out the site together. I should be back by tomorrow."

The synth took it's eyes off of Danse, looking back to the woman between them. It's mouth formed what could have been considered a smile.

"Sounds like a plan. I'll see you back at the agency."

"Behave yourself." She told it with a teasing tone, leaning on her toes to kiss it's cheek.

"Oh, I always do." It said, before it turned it's back and walked away.

Danse was nearly shaking with anger. Dollie didn't move until the synth was out of sight. He wanted to yell, he wanted to curse, he wanted to track that thing down and kill it. He was near to exploding before she turned on him, an angry determination on her face that he had never seen directed at anything other than ghouls or super mutants.

"He helped me track down the man that killed my husband and bring him to justice. He's the only reason I've been able to make any progress finding Shaun. Valentine is a good man." Her voice was sharp and aggressive.

"That thing-" Danse growled before she interrupted him.

"That man," she emphasized, poking a slender finger against the metal chest plate of his power armor, her words biting into him. "Is under my protection. He's done more to help me than anyone else since I stepped out of that vault."

He glared down at her, outraged at the tone she'd taken with him. "That thing should be destroyed, Knight."

"If you value my companionship whatsoever, Paladin, you won't lay a finger on him." She hissed before she turned and walked toward the exit of the city.

He was shocked into silence. No one under his command had ever had the audacity to speak to him like that, and he had certainly never expected it to be her. He felt his anger so close to overflowing. He should have her confined to the Prydwen. He should have her disciplined for insubordination. She'd be scrubbing the hull for weeks. Maxson would tear her to pieces, order her to destroy the very synth she was defending.

That scrap of metal had helped her find her husbands killer... helped her get closer to finding her son... Next she'd tell him that a super mutant was helping her search out the Institute... He couldn't believe how misguided she was.

He glowered in the direction the synth had gone before watching her back as she trudged up the ramp to the exit. She didn't even hesitate to see if he had followed her.

In the months he'd known her, had she ever misled him?

Begrudgingly, he set his feet toward the exit. Force would only make her quit. She'd been very clear with him from the beginning. He didn't want to drive her away when it was so clear to him all she could give to the Brotherhood. He'd just have to prove to her that she was wrong.

 

She was furious. Her concentration was erratic. He hadn't said a word as he'd caught up to her outside of the great green jewel. She had known it was a bad idea, taking him with her to speak with Valentine. She'd wanted... to what... get back at him? Show him that she wasn't just going to lay down and take his ignorant dogma? Try and force him to see that nothing could ever be so black and white? She didn't know why. It burned like fire in the pit of her stomach.

They cleared their way through a group of super mutants that had taken up in an old building on the way toward the Prydwen without a word to each other. The tension between them was volatile. The longer she dwelled on it, the more she wanted to bat him over the head with her gun.

She wasn't paying much attention, sure. She found it hard to keep focus on a normal day, not to mention when she was irrationally outraged. She'd gotten a bit ahead of him, the sound of each one of his clanking footsteps burning her wick faster. She barely had the chance to register what was happening before she was thrown to the ground.

She banged her head against the broken asphalt; the air was pushed from her lungs. Her vision was blurred and unfocused. She could taste blood in her mouth. A wave of heat, a cloud of dust, her ears were ringing.

Danse had yelled something, but everything was in slow motion. There was a heavy weight on her chest, a choking, rib cracking weight. He moved, and she could breathe again, slowly, painfully. Nothing broken, but definitely bruised.

A frag mine... she'd... walked straight into a frag mine... God she was lucky to still have both legs. She sat up carefully, her vision still doubled.

"What in the hell were you thinking?" he screamed, fury overtaking him.

Her heart was still pounding, her ears resonating with the whine of the explosion. She had nothing to say. She hadn't been thinking.

He growled at her silence, before whipping around toward the charred black crater. The back of his power armor was scorched from where he'd absorbed the brunt of the blast. He reached down, pulling something from the rubble. Waves of heat still radiated from it. His rifle... it was crushed, melted, ruined... It didn't look like it had any chance of being salvaged.

She winced, trying to get back on her feet. She failed, crumpling to her hands and knees. She spat blood onto the concrete.

"I'm done! You need to clean up your act." Danse growled, throwing a stimpak onto the ground in front of her. "I'll see you back on the Prydwen, Knight."

Like hell he would. No heroics her ass. She could have died... should have died...

He was gone before she weakly took the stimpak in her shaking hand.

 

Sweat trickled down her spine. The sun was blazing down upon them as she pushed the shovel back into the dirt. Her body was fatigued, bruised. She couldn't remember the last night of good sleep she'd had. But as the days ticked by she realized she could push farther than before. She wiped at the sweat on her forehead, heaving a heavy sigh.

"So, do you plan on tellin' me what you're hanging out with that tin-can for?" Valentine asked as he leaned on his shovel for a cigarette break.

She thought about it for a moment. Why was she keeping him around? She didn't believe in his narrow minded dogma and he certainly wasn't glowing with charm. But... the power armor, the guns, the firepower that the Brotherhood packed...

"I'm just trying to weigh all my options." She told him, scooping another shovel of dirt into the pile.

"How'd you manage to talk him down? Certainly didn't look pleased when I left."

She thought about that too. Her shovel struck wood. She paused to look at her friend.

"I'm not really sure. I think I threatened him, actually." Her stomach twisted at that.

She and the Paladin weren't currently on speaking terms, it seemed. And if he meant any harm to Valentine, that was fine by her. Though she did find herself missing his tactical skill. His aggressive demeanor tended to attract most of the bullets in a fire-fight. But missing someone because they were a decent human shield was different than actually missing someone.

"I'm surprised he didn't throw you in the brig."

"You and me both." She gave her head a shake before gesturing to the wooden coffin. "On three?"

Nick nodded, grabbing the other end. On three, they heaved it up onto the grass. They marveled over their treasure and Dollie gripped the sword in her hand, lifting it so the sun glanced off of the blade. She couldn't believe that the treasure had been there in Boston all along.

In many ways, the world she woke up in was more magical than the one she'd seen burn.

"I could really go for some lemonade." She murmured dreamily, slipping the sword through a belt loop on her vault suit.

"Lemonade!" Valentine laughed, "Haven't thought about that in years."

They lugged their treasures back to Diamond City.

She decided to prolong her break from the Brotherhood, from the Paladin. Maybe in a week or two she'd be able to let things go, and maybe he'd have had the time to think over her ultimatum. She wondered why he'd heeded her at all, but she pushed the thought aside.

 

"At least it isn't raining." Preston said, wiping the sweat from his forehead on his coat sleeve.

The Commonwealth was in a dry spell. The sun cooked the Earth unforgivingly. Dollie imagined Lake Michigan in the summer and the beach she'd grown up playing on. She and her sister would chase each other up and down the dunes, splashing out into the water in their swim suits. It certainly wasn't the January she remembered.

"A little drizzle might be nice." Piper groaned, leaning in the shade of the collapsed store front. "Cool things off at least."

Dollie used her hand to block the sun as she admired the ruin before her. She adjusted her helmet, glancing over at the small ragtag gaggle of Minutemen. They were sizing her up, she could tell. She had proven herself to Preston, somehow, but these people had no reason to believe in her.

"What do you think, General?"

"Let's give it a shot." She gave Preston a smile. "Piper and I will go around back and we'll hit them from both sides."

"Alright. We'll wait for you to get into position."

She and Piper picked their way through the rubble around back of the Castle. The reporter had been itching to leave Diamond City, and Dollie was happy to indulge her. She was sure that whatever was coming, an article about it in the paper could really help the Minutemen's image.

"What do you think's in there anyway, Blue?"

"A few Mirelurks, if I had to guess." She checked the barrel of her 10mm. "Nothing we can't handle."

A few Mirelurks turned out to be a lot of Mirelurks, and a legion of their hatchlings. Once the big ones were taken care of, they took to smashing the eggs. It was messy work. The Minutemen seemed to have things under control in the courtyard so she stepped inside the stone walls.

Preston helped her take out a few of the big ones that had holed up inside. In the room that Preston called the General's Quarters, a huge piece of weaponry laid abandoned on the table. She laid a hand on it, terrified and impressed.

"Wow. A missile launcher." Preston commented. "Could come in handy."

She imagined lugging that thing around. It would definitely slow her down. Unless she had her power armor... but her closest suit was on the Prydwen. It had been another week. Her anger still hadn't subsided.

Preston was fawning over a huge gas canister that looked to have been fitted with a torch as the ground shook and something shrieked outside. By the volume, it had to be big.

"Uh, Blue!" Piper called, her voice high. "You'd better get out here!"

"What is that!?" One of the Minutemen shouted.

Without a second thought, Dollie pulled the missile launcher into her arms, grabbing the missiles as she sprinted toward the courtyard. Preston wasn't far behind with his new find.

The monster before her was like nothing she had ever seen, something directly out of her nightmares, or those cheesy horror flicks Nate had adored. The monster looked like a Mirelurk, but twelve times the size. It climbed the rubble of the eastern wall, spitting green liquid that sizzled when it came into contact with anything.

There was a frigid trill of terror through her chest, begging her to run, to hide, to fear. Preston charged past her into the fray, launching himself toward the beast. She swept her head in both directions, running down the corridor toward the south, taking a staircase two steps at a time.

Even from atop the Castle's walls, the thing was still hulking over her. She took a steadying breath, heaving the missile launcher onto her shoulder. She loaded it, taking aim. The heavy weapon erupted with a loud thum, and her shoulders hiked upward her lungs expelling their air. The missile hit, the monster screeched.

There was chaos all around as a softshell erupted out of the grass and moss near where she'd rooted herself. The huge Mirelurk spat acid, lumbering toward her.

Her mind was blank as she heaved the missile launcher into the softshell, knocking it clear off of the wall. She was pouring sweat as she took off in a dead sprint across the wall, away from the sizzling rain of acid.

"Hey ugly, down here!" Piper yelled with effort, pitching a molotov into the creature, trying to steal it's attention long enough to give Dollie some cover.

Preston was close by the reporter, unleashing a wave of flames toward the monster. The three Minutemen were laying down covering fire with their laser muskets.

Without breath, Dollie raised the missile launcher onto her shoulder again, taking aim, rolling with the powerful erruption of the weapon in her hands. Her body prickled with the excitement, with the effort.

The heat of the explosion rolled.

 

She hadn't dared enter Boston Common, not since the Sunday before the bombs had fallen. It was a catastrophic mess when she finally found herself stepping across the street.

Her foot hit a patch of dead grass. She could smell it, fresh cut and brushed with dew. Her eyes showed her a park with rolling green, blue skies and fluffy white clouds. The water clean and clear with white and black painted swan boats bobbing on its surface. People lounging in the grass, children chasing each other laughing.

Her chest felt hot as she remembered a cool Friday night, a gentle breeze, a glass too many of wine, those dreamy blue eyes, labored breaths, and the excitement of trying not to get caught. They'd giggled the whole drive home.

"I'd steer clear of that, Blue." Piper's voice brought her back to the present. "Rumor has it there's some kind of monster that lives in there. They call it the Swan."

Dollie shook the blush off her face, hoping the reporter hadn't noticed. She tugged the strap across her shoulders higher on her back and glanced in the direction they were going. The trek back to Diamond City was always such a hassle. Boston was over crowded with mutants, gunners, ferals, and raiders. There was something blood thirsty waiting around every single corner.

"I've had my fill of monsters for today." She sighed tiredly, following Piper into the heart of the ruined city.

"You said it."

The pair hurried through the mess of Boston, stopping to clear an encampment of raiders that refused to let them pass by. Dollie had a hunch it was something to do with the missile launcher slung across her back.

She was overly cautious, keeping her eyes on the ground to make sure she avoided any mines.

There was an overwhelming sense of relief as they stepped into the old stadium. They climbed the staircase side-by-side and Dollie felt her usual twinge of wonder as the city came into view. It reminded her of old comics, the wave of nostalgia almost crippling.

"Hey, Nat!" Piper called to her sister.

Dollie felt herself immediately soften. Nat hated the soft way she talked to her, but she couldn't help it.

"You smell terrible." The girl scrunched up her nose.

"Ha, that's probably the Mirelurk guts. Man, have I got a story for the next issue!" She ruffled Nat's hair. "I'm gonna go clean up. See you later, Blue. Don't be a stranger!"

"Bye, Piper." She smiled, heading for the market.

She'd spent a pretty amount of caps on a house in the market, but it was a good location, even if the inside was a little worse-for-wear. She closed the door behind her and dropped the missile launcher on the table, unloading the last remaining missile beside it.

Dust drifted through home plate. She unbuckled and slid out of the various pieces of armor she used. Slipping out of the dingy vault suit, she draped it over a kitchen chair, before heading to the bathroom. It wasn't much but a separate room with a toilet, cracked mirror, and a shower head that didn't really work. She filled up the sink basin with cold water, using a clean looking rag to wipe herself down.

She had a few ideas about how to fix the shower, but would need some extra scrap she didn't have on hand. If she could get it working there in Diamond City, she should be able to implement it into some of her settlements. She would be able to get most of what she needed in the market place outside.

She emptied and refilled the basin, washing her hair in the sink. She'd bought some shampoo off of John at the Super Salon in the market. She lathered it into her black hair. It smelled like hubflower. Not the jasmine she'd once forked over fifteen dollars a bottle for, but still better than blood, sweat, and mirelurk.

Her mind wandered to the last real shower she'd had, bare feet against the porcelain, warm water running across her body. Nate's arms wrapped around her, his lips against her ear. His deep voice rumbling through her... his hands...

She tugged harder on her hair, splashing the cold water on her face.

She was a mess.

There was work to do, and no time to get trapped in the past. She stared wearily at her reflection in the foggy and cracked mirror. She needed to get her head back on straight.

 

She gave the mutant's corpse a kick, just making sure it stayed dead. MacCready was laughing as he surveyed the other mutants they'd brought down. He wasn't used to dealing with targets that were quite so... green.

"Okay, okay... Beers are on me." Mac laughed, giving her an enthusiastic grin.

"Glad you're enjoying yourself." She smiled, as she pulled a laser rifle from the mutant's meaty hand.

"You certainly know how to give a guy a good time." He joked, peering through the scope of his rifle toward the roof of a building across from them.

She couldn't help but laugh.

"The night's still young. What else you got planned?" He lit up a cigarette as she inspected the rifle.

She pressed it to her shoulder and took aim at a spotlight that beeped obnoxiously. She squinted, easing her finger onto the trigger. It kicked back into her shoulder, a beam of red hot energy shattering the spot light, sending glass flying like confetti.

"Bartender at the Third Rail mentioned something about clearing out the warehouses in town for some good caps. You interested?"

"Caps is the magic word, Boss."

"Think you can be discreet?" She eyed the small man, slinging the laser rifle onto her back.

"I'll do my best." He smirked, exhaling smoke.

They hadn't gotten off to the best start, but she was easing into things now. He was a merc in need of caps, and she was trying to scrape up some extra funds. It was almost relaxing being around someone who thought she was too nice.

They strode back into Goodneighbor, getting down to business. They'd blazed their way through the first two warehouses before a strange feeling settled in her shoulders. When had killing become so easy?

Her first days in the Commonwealth had been a roller coaster. She'd been so relieved to see Codsworth waiting for her at home, but had stumbled blurry eyed into Concord, terrified at her first glimpse of humanity in the new world. A part of her had still believed she would wake up beneath her yellow comforter, her face nestled against Nate's chest. His hands would smooth all the worry from her face.

A bullet had bit into her shoulder, a scar she still carried with her, and she had realized that she wasn't dreaming. After helping Preston and the others secure the Museum of Freedom she had been riddled with guilt and shame. She'd killed at least six people... six human beings.

She wondered how many people she'd killed now as she fired on a ghoul in a striped three piece suit. She had no way of counting, even if she really tried. It was too late to let it get to her now. Every person she had killed had been intent on killing her first. If she started firing on the innocent, that was when she needed to worry.

"That was fun." Mac sighed as they settled onto bar stools in the Third Rail, pleased at the caps he'd earned for the outing.

She gave a laugh, accepting the beer he'd bought for her. "The definition of fun is a lot different than it used to be."

"What did people do in your day, sit around lookin at each other or some sh- thing?" He took a swig from his tumbler. She found it so strange the way he fought himself not to curse.

"We played sports or... watched movies at the drive-in, traveled." She sighed, wistful for the feeling of the breeze through her hair as she drove down the highway.

"Drive-in movies... pfft." He shook his head resentfully. "Sounds like an easy life."

There was a tug in her gut, and she frowned.

"Life wasn't all sunshine and roses before the war, you know." She held the cold bottle in her hand, watching the lights of the bar glitter off of the bottles behind the counter. "Everyone still had their problems... people never really change."

MacCready gave her a skeptical look, frowning as he clutched the tumbler of whiskey in his hands.

"People were still alcoholics, drug addicts, abusive lovers... parents... None of that's new. People still killed each other for no damn good reason." She tried hard not to remember the sickly bruises that had decorated her mother's skin throughout her youth, tried not to recall the burn of fire on her skin. "Never knowing when or where the first bomb was going to drop..."

There must have been something on her face that gave her pain away, because his face grew apologetic. "I didn't mean... geeze."

"You know what's stuck with me most, since I woke up in this... hell?" She looked over at him, wording it as delicately as she thought the Wasteland deserved.

He waited.

"Despite everything that's happened... All that really has changed... People still help each other, they still cling to each other." She lifted her Gwinnet Stout, tilting it to see how much was still in the bottle. She hated it, but he hadn't... "People still do everything in their power to help the ones they love."

Her words seemed to have effected him in a way she didn't anticipate. He got quiet and watched the bar under his hands. She must have touched a nerve. In the handful of days she'd known him, he never shut up.

She bought him another drink. She didn't push him to talk.

Chapter Text

Dollie took a jagged, painful breath, pushing the holotape into the player.

"Oops." Nate's voice crashed through her, his warm laughter burning in her chest. By the sweet way he spoke she could imagine him cradling Shaun in his arms. "Keep those little fingers away... Ah, there we go... Just say it. Right there... right there... Go ahead."

Shaun giggled into the microphone. Nate laughed delightedly, cheering.

"Hi honey, listen..."

The tape played. She'd memorized it by now. She sat behind the desk in the house that belonged to the man who had taken Nate's life. She stared at the spot on the floor in front of her where she'd seen him, her little boy, sitting; his wavy black hair and his brown skin were an homage to her own.

He'd said something... about a father...

There was a stabbing pain in her chest.

"... patience of a saint as your mother used to say."

She loved him so much. Everything had been taken away from her, everything she'd worked so hard to build. She twisted the golden band on her finger. Imagined what he'd say if he were with her now...

"... I know our best days are yet to come..."

The smell of cigarette smoke was still thick in the house. Her stomach rolled over on itself. She imagined Nate in his tuxedo, her in that silver dress that had slunk over her frame. Her hair curled and his gelled the way she loved. She'd have worn that crushed berry lipstick he'd bought her for her birthday. He'd have given the best damn speech anyone in the veterans hall had ever heard. They would have danced the night away, laughing as people gave him congratulations.

But Nate was dead, his body bitten by frost in a cryopod in Vault 111, blood frozen on his chest and his lips. She had tried waking up, but it hadn't worked. This was real life now. She felt weak.

"But everything we do, no matter how hard, we do it for our family."

Her shoulders slumped, the tension snapping something inside her. She stared at that spot... she'd get him back. She'd hold him in her arms. She'd let him know how much his father loved him, how much she loved him. She'd never ever let him go again.

"Bye honey, we love you!"

The holotape stopped and the pipboy clicked, releasing it. There was a moment of ear shattering silence. And then a soft, haunting voice erupted from the radio.

"... don't they know... it's the end of the world...?"

She let the tears fall, silent sobs shaking her frame.

 

Her shoulder ached. She'd hit the dirt pretty hard. She forced herself back up again, gritting her teeth through the pain. She steadied the shot gun she was lugging, firing on the raider that had turned their attention toward her. Somehow it wasn't enough. She reloaded, her fingers working faster than she remembered. The second time, the raider stayed down.

"Pretty handy with that, Blue." Piper offered her a hand, pulling her the rest of the way up.

Dollie'd been in Hardware Town once when Nate decided to build the dog house himself from scratch. She could somewhat remember it from it's ruined state. The back warehouse was full of shelves stacked high, and she carefully climbed the leaning metal walkways. She pocketed all the caps she found, before searching for what she'd really come for.

Piper helped her in her search, coming up with the can of yellow paint they still needed shoved into a dryer somewhere in the back.

"Good find." Dollie gave her a smile, shifting through the debris of the front counter.

Peaking out beneath a few burnt magazines was an unopened tube of black paint. She closed her hand around it, lifting it up into the light with a grin.

"Now, I'm no artist, but I'm pretty sure black won't help us make green." Piper put a hand on one hip, looking at her skeptically.

"This one's for personal use." She smiled, tucking the tube into her bag before taking the blue paint from Piper's other hand. "Come on, I think there was a mixer in back."

 

"Are you sure about this?"

"I'm sure." Dollie nodded.

She climbed into the pod, laying back into the leather seat.

"Just don't get... lost in there, Kiddo." Valentine frowned, watching as she situated herself.

"I won't." She assured him softly, appreciating the understanding tone of his voice.

The hood of the pod closed around her and she watched the television screen. She focused all of her effort on the thing she wanted to remember, hoping that she wouldn't be watching her nightmares unfold.

For a moment she was taking coats at the front door with her mother, avoiding his interested glance- the first time she saw him- her sister brought home four friends from the barracks for Christmas dinner.

And before long it was Easter in her mother's living room filled with spring sunlight. He'd come along again and Dollie had tried not to wonder if her sister's taste in women had suddenly become her sister's taste in men... She'd begged Lila to dance with her, and she'd begrudgingly agreed, tripping over her own feet the way she always had. Lila had laughed before long, telling her she needed a beer. 'Give him a spin,' she'd said, pulling her toward him and forcing her hand into his. They'd swayed shyly to the music.

And then when he'd asked her to dinner two weeks later she'd assumed it was about her sister. He'd been nervous and stuttering all throughout dinner. He'd knocked over his glass, spilling water into his lap. The night ended quickly after that and he had walked her back to her apartment. When he'd apologized for the terrible date she'd felt like an idiot. 'A date? I thought this was about my sister!'

'Your sister? Your gay sister?' They'd laughed and some of his nervousness seemed to melt away. Apparently, he'd begged Lila to take him to Easter so that he could see her again. She'd flushed in surprise. He asked if he could take her out again, and she'd agreed.

Memories rushed past her eyes- twirling in a dance hall with him until two in the morning, their first kiss on the doorstep of her apartment, and him on his knee proposing six months later. The two of them dancing through their empty first apartment, how she'd seen him off at the airport the first time he left for active service, and their wedding when he returned... she'd never thought she would stop smiling.

She remembered the park in Boston Common the day before he left for his second tour, and she remembered calling him on the phone to tell him the good news two months later. He'd cried and cheered, telling all the other soldiers in ear shot that he was going to be a father.

She remembered the first time he'd held their son in his arms and wept. She remembered the first time they brought him home and how he'd fallen asleep in the chair in Shaun's room every night, reading him story after story. She remembered everything until the memories turned back into static on the screen, ushered away with the tear on her cheek.

She'd fallen in love with Nathaniel William Wallace III when she'd thought there would never be room in her life for anything, or anyone. It was thanks to him that she was the person she'd become.

They were supposed to raise Shaun together, and maybe another. They were supposed to retire and grow old together and be buried side-by-side. That perfect, happy dream melted away with the frost in the vault.

 

The Commonwealth had grown cold so suddenly. Dollie shivered as she leaned the shovel against the back of the house. The ground had still been warm enough to dig. The work had kept her mind occupied for awhile.

She pulled her threadbare jacket a little closer, thinking only of her actions as she grabbed the small, triangular frame. She swiped her thumb across the glass, trying to clean it somehow, with little success. There was a deep crack running from top to bottom.

A soft sigh carried her breath up into the air as she leaned over the mound of freshly turned dirt. She pressed the folded flag down into the dirt, caught in a trance. Maybe a few hubflowers or carrot flowers could brighten it up a little?

Dogmeat trotted after her as she searched, pushing his nose to the ground and sniffing now and then. Dollie went through the motions, plucking a few flowers, firing a bullet through a few bloatflies, carefully crossing back over the river into Sanctuary. Her thoughts stayed scattered.

Morning came too soon. She hadn't slept at all by the time the sun crawled its way upward into the dull sky. There was a new patch over a gap in the northern wall and a mostly completed turret, and she'd salvaged as much scrap from the vault as she could carry back to the workshop. Her body was weary and her brain was a blank, white-static haze.

"Something to warm you up, General?" Preston's voice coaxed her back.

She blinked up from the fire she'd been staring into for minutes, or hours, she couldn't be sure. Preston gave her a soft smile and held a mug out toward her. She took it, holding it in her hands gratefully.

The coffee was stale and bitter, but it was warm. She thanked him, finished her coffee, and began rooting through the workbench.

Her life was too precious to squander by being so stubborn.

 

Dollie squinted to decipher the plans she'd scribbled on scratch paper. She'd lost the pencil in her hair sometime in the past hour. Adhesive, fiber-optics, crystal, gold, circuitry... it would take her forever to scrape together enough caps to get all the pieces she needed.

She gave a yawn as she pushed out of the chair at her dinning table, careful not to coat the chair with the mixture of grease and paint that covered her hands. She pulled a damp rag into her fingers, pushing at the grime as she made her way to the bathroom.

On the other side of the house, a nervous DJ struggled his way through the late night repertoire. There was a bit of static distortion in the radio waves from the concrete of the building, but Dollie hummed along with the tune that started up. She'd heard them all hundreds of times- before the war and after.

She gritted her teeth and pushed the pipe wrench as hard as she could, hoping the pipe would finally be fastened into place. She discarded the wrench and tried not to get her hopes up for the hundredth time that night. With bated breath, she turned both metal knobs.

There was a miserable spattering of water that cracked against the cold concrete floor before sputtering out. She waited for a moment, hoping it would come to life again, but there was nothing and she dissuaded herself from giving the wall a kick.

She turned around and examined the pipework, hoping she could quickly spot the problem, or locate any leaks. As soon as her back was turned she was assaulted with a frigid spray of water that drenched her through.

She shrieked and whipped back toward the shower head, scrambling for the knobs. Water pelted her face and she couldn't help but laugh, turning her back toward it again. With shivering fingers, she peeled off her clothes and enjoyed the first shower she'd had in months.

 

The sound of his laughter rang in her ears, the greatest song she'd ever heard and had been praying she would hear again. The smooth brush of his cheek against her skin was like a shot of Novocaine. The world was right again, and if she held really still she might hear birds singing.

He pressed his lips to her cheek, and then her nose, her forehead, the other cheek, her ear, and down to her neck. And she laughed. Genuinely laughed. She giggled, slipping her arms around his shoulders and pulling him closer.

She took a moment to inhale the memory of his aftershave, the way it prickled her nose and unwound the tight strings of her shoulders.

"I've missed you so much." She murmured, running her fingers over his face, the gentle edges of his mouth.

"I missed you, too." He laughed as he rolled onto his back, away from her fingers. "I'm not sure how I feel about this new look of yours, though. All the tight clothes... you look like your sister."

"Hey," she laughed, her lashes heavy against her cheeks. "What's wrong with my sister?"

"Nothing! Your sister is my best friend. She's just not you."

She laughed again, smiling at the feather-light brush of his fingers on her arm. There was a soft moment of silence that was less like a dagger than silence had recently been. She rolled into him, resting her cheek against his shoulder.

There was a melancholic twinge in her gut.

"Do you remember when I asked you to marry me?" He traced small rings along her spine.

"Of course I do."

"The first time." He glanced over out of the corner of his eye. "You told me no."

She'd said no? She didn't... remember saying no...

"What?"

"You told me there wasn't any time. You were too busy... you wouldn't let me in."

"I don't remember that, Nate." She frowned, pushing herself up to see him clearer.

"We were in your apartment. I wanted to take you to a drive-in movie, but you were studying for an exam. I said, 'Dolls, would you marry me?' and you said 'Don't be ridiculous.'"

Her heart jumped and she flushed. "I... I thought you were joking!"

He exhaled a sigh and pulled her closer. "You were so focused back then. There wasn't any room in your life for anything but books and exams... You couldn't see anything outside of what you already knew. You thought it was all you had... but you changed, after awhile."

"You wore me down." She laughed, tracing a scar along his collar bone. Shrapnel, from the front lines. The wound that had brought him home.

They stayed silent for a few moments longer and she smiled sleepily.

"Dolls?" He lulled. "Did my perennials come up?"

She felt her smile fading. "The perennials...?"

"Honey..." There was a frown in the tone of his voice.

The rings she'd felt him tracing were a faint tingling now.

He rolled to face her again, softly gripping her shoulders. She agonized over his jaw, the lopsided slope of his lips, tried to avoid the sharp blue of his eyes. A brick dropped from her brain into her stomach. She reached up, taking his face in her hands again.

"Oh, Nate..." She whispered, dragging in every last detail of his face before he slipped away. "How will I do this without you?"

She watched as his lips fought to smile, to be strong for her where she needed it. His fingers brushed at a few strands of her hair. "The way you always did."

She nodded and the lone tear slipping down her cheek was cold. The finger swiping for it had no effect. She bit at her lips to stop herself crying out.

"I love you." He whispered.

"I love you, too." She jammed her eyes shut as tightly as she could.

A cold wind pushed through the cracks in the rickety building. She pulled the pillow tighter to her chest, watching the steam of her breath in the dark.

Chapter Text

The wasteland had turned bitterly cold in almost no time at all. The wind bit at his face as he kneeled, pressing an armored fist to the burnt ground. There was a splattering of dried blood where the asphalt had been cracked from an explosion.

He remembered the wild look in the knight's eyes as she'd coughed, blood dripping down her chin. He remembered the dizzying rage that had taken him over as he'd snapped at her— snapped for the first time he could recall since he'd joined the Brotherhood. It had been three weeks since he'd left her there. He'd stormed away like a child.

Part of him defended the knight and her actions- she was from a different world entirely, how could he expect her to know how to handle every situation? She hadn't had the years of Brotherhood training that allowed him to understand the danger of abominations like synths and supermutants; the training that accounted for his constant vigilance.

However, it wasn't difficult to rationalize his actions after what she'd said and how she'd acted. He resented his own attempts to defend her when she hadn't even come back to do so herself. She was new to the wasteland, but she was an adult. She'd been exposed to the harsh reality of the commonwealth for months, and her ability to keep cool under pressure had been one of the reasons he'd been drawn to her in the first place. When last he'd seen her, she'd acted like a different person entirely, and he hadn't liked it.

His nerves couldn't decide whether to relax or coil even tighter. He felt relieved that her body wasn't laying there in the crater, or just a few steps away, riddled with bullets. He never would have forgiven himself. But the empty crater offered no clues to her whereabouts and her absence irritated him further.

If she never returned to the Brotherhood it was his fault. That would mean the loss of a great asset, the loss of one of his own charges, and worse still, the loss of someone he'd placed a great deal of faith in. And all because of his temper, which he'd been so careful to control.

An old familiar throbbing pounded at the back of his skull. He shut his eyes, hoping in vain for a bit of relief.

"Something wrong, Sir?"

Danse glanced up from the charred crater at the scribe who'd addressed him.

"Nothing." He assured her, rising to his feet. He observed the team he'd been assigned- the scribe, an initiate, and a knight. "Remain vigilant. This area is riddled with land mines."

They acknowledged dutifully, pushing deeper into Boston, and he pushed Knight Wallace from his mind.

They picked through the bones of the city, securing a path into the bloodbath the inner zone frequently was. A few short weeks ago he had cleared some of the buildings they passed. They were already infested with raiders and mutants again.

It would be tactically advantageous to establish an outpost in the zone. It would make excursions into the city easier, as well as making the area safer for civilian traffic. He made a plan to include the proposal in his report when they returned to the Prydwen, keeping in mind any suitable locations that he could recommend.

The sky darkened with clouds. Rain fell hazily on them between the ruined buildings.

The scribe, Porter, watched the monitor in her hands, shielding it from the rain with a gloved hand. She'd been assigned to pick up signals from any abandoned tech they could confiscate.

"Getting a significant reading up ahead, Sir." She gestured into the hazy distance.

"Noted. We'll assess risk on the approach."

As they closed in on the location, the drum of gunfire grew louder. Between the buildings ahead he noted a square of grass.

“Looks like this was an old brewery. It’s unclear how useful the tech will be.”

He signaled for the group to hold as a bottle flew through the air toward them. It collided with the cracked street well ahead of them and erupted in angry flames. They seemed to have stumbled upon an ongoing battle.

He got a decent glance at one of the combatants, clothed in old army fatigues. Gunners, and based on the molotovs they’d picked a fight with raiders. With the four of them it would be unwise to engage, especially with—

"How do you want to approach this, Sir?" Knight Bernhardt asked urgently, forcing him out of his train of thought.

He hesitated, trying to grasp at the threads of his plan. “This isn’t worth the risk, we should take an alternate route to avoid conflict.”

“Sir.” They obliged without question.

He’d expected some kind of resistance, or some kind of question. He’d become accustomed to nonchalant dissention, or soft relieved laughter. He’d gotten used to running his plans by an eagerly awaiting ear.

He was struck by the actual absurdity of it, realizing that most new recruits weren’t given the liberty of calling shots the way he’d allowed her… Had it really been wise to do so?

 

On the third night the team camped out in an old bank. Danse had taken the first watch shift with Dunnet, fortifying the only entrance with a few old filing cabinets. After about four hours they traded off.

Even though he was supposed to be sleeping, he couldn't. The quiet conversation of Knight Bernhardt and Scribe Porter in the entry hall was loud enough to impede him. The initiate had given in to sleep much faster than he had in years. The man's snores blended in with the chatter.

His head ached painfully, swarming with thoughts. He pushed himself to his feet, giving his empty power armor a glance before deciding to take a second look around. Everything was coated in a thick layer of dust, further proving his suspicion that they were the first people inside in a very long time.

He made his way up the staircase, stepping cautiously over the rotting floorboards. Bright white moonlight poured over what remained of the floor from one of the offices. There was a breeze from inside and he let his feet carry him toward the source.

The glass of the window was cracked and frigid winter air bit at his face as he leaned beside it, squinting into the clear night sky. He appreciated the silence, the snores and conversation dampened enough by the floor not to reach him. Despite having quarter's of his own on the Prydwen, he was so rarely allowed time alone with his thoughts.

The stars were bright, obscured here and there by grey wisps of clouds. They reminded him of her and the night in Cambridge when she'd told him the truth about who she was.

He wished he could understand what it was about her that let her get under his skin. Perhaps it was because of a gut instinct to protect her. Or the way she was always taking him by surprise, allowing him to see things from a different light. She was someone to ask all of the questions about the old world that most people found mundane and boring. She needed help and he wanted to do what he could for her.

She was a parent searching for her child the way he'd always hoped and dreamed his had done for him... She was the first person who could put him at ease since... since...

He frowned at his reflection and tried to shrug it off again. The thoughts were like a scab; the more he picked at them the more it would itch.

He focused on his face, covered in a thick layer of dirt. He needed a shave, some rest, and to stop doubting himself until they were out of the field. There was nothing he could do until then.

 

“Porter, Dunnet, hold back! Bernhardt, with me!” He barked as they pushed into the old building.

The knight was right behind him as he kicked the door in.

Porter had gotten high readings on the building. It was a relief. They were set to head for the extraction point the next day and he didn’t want to return to the Prydwen empty handed.

A dark corridor stretch in front of them. It was a tight fit for his power armor. There were three doors. They’d split up and cover more ground.

He pushed forward, testing the right door. Locked. He gestured Bernhardt forward to the next doorway. The Knight slipped past him, engaging the mutant in the next room in a blaze of laser fire. Danse glanced back and pointed to Dunnet, motioning for him to join the knight. The initiate followed.

There was a security door at the end of the corridor.

“Porter, see if you can disarm this door.”

“Yes, sir!”

She got to work quickly, using a screwdriver to unhook the card reader panel. She pulled wires from the monitor she’d used to track the tech down, hooking the device into the wall. The screen filled with green characters and she scrolled through them expertly.

The door disarmed with a click and they moved inside. Porter scoped out the room for any tech. She worked quickly. The sound of laser fire carried through the building.

His ears picked up thundering footsteps from the other side of the room.

“We have incoming!” He caught the Scribe’s attention.

She readied her pistol and he moved toward the doorway.

“Gonna kill you, human!” The beast bellowed as it ran down a ramp of fallen ceiling paneling.

“For Elder Maxson!” He cried out as he fired his laser rifle.

The mutant was reduced to glowing red ash, but another quickly took its place. Porter laid down assisting fire as he went close quarters with the putrid monster. It let out a roar in his face and he returned it with a snarl, bashing at its face with the butt of his rifle.

Porter finished her quick sweep of the first room, giving him an all clear.

“Careful, picking up some rads in here.” He warned as she entered, before leading her up the ramp to the next floor.

They cleared the next room with little resistance, adrenaline thrumming through his system, lifting his spirits. He nodded the scribe to the office on the floor and watched the points of entry as she did a search.

“This is in great condition.” She pulled something from one of the terminals, stashing it in her pack.

“This floor is all clear, Sir!” Bernhardt emerged with the initiate in toe from the corridor along the wall to the right.

Laser fire began to rain down from the next room, bouncing off of Bernhardt’s suit and just barely missing Dunnet.

“Kill them! Kill them all!” A mutant roared from the next floor.

“Hold them from here! Porter, let’s get up there!” Danse commanded and the team got to work.

He and the scribe headed back down the ramp, searching through the security room. There was a hole in one wall that led to an old utility closet. There was no stairwell in sight.

“Over here, Sir!” Porter called.

He took point, climbing the stairs two at a time. At the top of the staircase there was a decrepit showroom with another ramp composed of ceiling tiles. The mutants had their backs to them, firing down to the lower floor.

“Pin them down!” Danse shouted, opening fire.

He lived for the thrill of it, the gratification; for the chance to give the abominations what they deserved. He’d see every last one of them burn if he could.

 

His ears were deafened by the whir of the vertibird's blades and still ringing with gunfire. Sometimes it was hard to remove himself from the battlefield. Usually he was reluctant to leave his power armor, but this time his body was aching to take a break from it. He was looking forward to a beer before he got some much needed rest.

He followed close behind his team into the Prydwen for their debriefing. They had returned under the cover of night, and Captain Kells stood in for the Elder. Danse saluted the team before they departed, off to their bunks for well deserved rest. He shook hands with Kells, assuring him that he'd have a full report once he'd gotten a bit of sleep.

The climb up to the next deck was exhausting, and it was more difficult than usual to haul himself up the ladder in his armor. The closer he got to the hanger, the more his body ached and protested against each step. The mess hall was quiet and Danse nodded to the soldier wiping down the counters.

He stepped into his power armor station and achingly pulled himself out. His knees felt weaker, his body exposed, as he put his boots to the metal floor. He'd spent so much of the past ten years in a suit of power armor that he almost felt naked without it on. He pulled his hood from his head and stretched his shoulders, taking a mental note of a few dings and scuffs on the suit that would need some touching up the following day.

As he turned to head to his quarters he noticed the power armor in dock three was absent, and froze. After the initial surprise passed, he bristled.

The possibility that the knight would return while he was gone hadn't crossed his mind. He wondered if she had really returned or if she had only come back for the power armor, and he felt his stomach twisting itself into angry knots. He ground his teeth, running a hand through his hair as he headed for his quarters.

Ingram was down on the tarmac and there weren't any outgoing vertibirds scheduled until the next shift at 08:00 hours. He had the urge to see if Proctor Teagan was in and ask him about it, but he forced himself to wait.

His temper flared. She'd clearly planned her return this way to avoid his anger. He clenched his fists as he made for his quarters, forgetting the beer he'd longed for completely.

He tried to push her from his mind again, having succeeded for most of a week while on the scouting mission. But knowing that she'd either slipped away with Brotherhood property or had returned in his absence to avoid the consequences of her actions did nothing but drive him into a frustrated stupor. He slept fitfully, tossing and turning in his bunk, imagining how he would reprimand her the moment he found out where she was.

Before long he was sitting up in his bunk, grinding his teeth. If she had gotten away he would go and find her himself. He would explain the situation to the Elder and strip her of her rank completely.

He'd been wrong about Dollie Wallace. He had been too soft. He had let her take advantage of his good nature, he had... Well, he'd thought... he'd hoped that... she were different somehow.

Unable to lie there for long he decided to take a shower. He thought he'd finally shaken the thoughts as he scrubbed his face under a sputtering stream of water that shifted fickley between icy and scalding. The water pressure was worse than usual, egging on his frustration.

After his shower he glowered at himself in the mirror, tidying up the scruff on his cheeks and his chin.

His brain refused to think of anything but the Knight. She had so much potential, he sincerely believed that. It was infuriating how she blew off her responsibilities, disappearing for weeks at a time. He was certain that if she would only realize how great of a soldier she could be then she would climb ranks in no time. She would command respect and better the Brotherhood’s relations wi—

"Damn it!" He growled, dropping the razor.

A small knick bloomed with blood on his cheek where he'd pushed too hard. He wiped at the blood with his thumb and exhaled a breath he hadn't noticed he'd been holding.

The knick was just beside the scar that ran an intersecting course toward his mouth. He’d earned the scar getting knocked in the head by a Mutant wielding a board that splintered on contact. It was one of his very first outings as an Initiate. Krieg had nearly shouted him out of his skin for being so reckless. Though, he distinctly recalled it being the first time he’d seen a Mutant up close— and the first real misstep he’d made.

Krieg had been, as some affectionately referred to him, a hardass. Though no one had been as aggressively chastised as Danse had under Krieg’s command. He’d been driven to his limit often, and while he knew that he was better for it, part of him still struggled to understand why he’d been held to such an unattainable standard from the start. He’d been nothing his whole life leading up to the Brotherhood, and Krieg just expected him to catch on like he’d been raised a squire…

He frowned at himself in the mirror, trying to hold on to his anger, wanting to justify it. But when it came down to it, wasn’t he just pushing Wallace the way that Krieg had pushed him?

The closest thing the woman had to military experience was a dead husband who’d been a soldier in a conflict two hundred years in the past. She was a widow. She was a mother, terrified for her child. Clearly the way he’d been pushing her wasn’t working. It wasn’t right for him to ask her to change so much.

If he knew her the way he'd thought, she'd probably returned with the implicit intention of talking things out with him. And if he knew her the way he'd thought, it had driven her crazy to sit still waiting for him to return. She'd probably taken on as many tasks as people would give her to keep busy.

When he'd finished shaving it was barely five in the morning. He had no choice but to start on that report he'd promised Kells.

 

Rivera gave a low whistle. "I'll be glad for a few hours off my feet."

Dollie smiled, offering the other Knight a nod of agreement as they headed into the Prydwen.

Dollie had arrived back at the Boston Airport just short of a week before, lugging more equipment than she reasonably should have been. She had hoped to patch things up with Danse right away, had spent the whole trek from Diamond City getting up the courage, but was disappointed to find the Paladin had left the day before on an assignment.

It was the first time she'd been there without him, and she'd seized the opportunity to get to know some of the crew on her own. She had come bearing gifts: more than a dozen technical documents for Quinlan, a stash of blood samples for Neriah, and a missile launcher and the promise of support from a nearby farm for Teagan.

After two nights of laying anxiously in her bunk staring up toward the scaffold ceiling of the Prydwen, unable to sleep with the constant commotion, she had volunteered for patrol. One of the knights in the rotation had been injured fighting some Mirelurks and needed time to heal. Ingram was grateful for her willingness to help. She was grateful for the busy-work.

For the past two days she'd been paired with Rivera, a good natured Knight who refused to wear power armor. The minute they were out of earshot from any commanding officers he would slouch and joke and grin. She was enjoying the patrols. They kept her mind off of her impending conversation with the Paladin and the stress of wondering when she'd finally catch wind of an institute courser. And it was nice having someone to associate with other than Danse.

As they passed through the mess hall toward the power armor hanger, he nudged her suit with his elbow. "Hey. Got a joke for you."

She smirked, preparing herself for the worst. "Alright."

"Okay, okay. So, blind man walks into a bar-- and then a table, and then a chair." He grinned up at her as she lined her power armor up with her station.

She rolled her eyes. "Really? You can do better than that."

"Oh come on, it's funny!"

She pressed the release on her Power Armor and it opened, setting her free. The cool air outside of the armor hit her hot skin, and she smoothed down the hair that had come loose from her bun. She was building up endurance in the suit, having clocked close to 32 hours in the past week. Danse would have been proud. She frowned and thought maybe not.

She rolled her shoulders, trying to stretch them out. Her vault suit was wearing a bit thin. She’d have to replace it before much longer.

She started in on her power armor straight away, making note of any dings she could easily repair on her own. She needed to ask Ingram about the left leg and what she could do to help it move more smoothly.

"You taking me up on that drink?" Rivera tried to catch her attention, grinning.

"I already told you, I'm helping Cade later." She smiled, grabbing a wrench from the table near her station.

"Tomorrow then?"

"Maybe some other time." She dismissed him, kneeling down to remove the outside panel.

"All work, no play. I get it. See you for patrol tomorrow, Wallace."

She offered him one last glance. "See you then, Rivera."

The hanger fell into silence. It was around eight in the morning, most people were just starting a new shift. She took the time each morning to collect her thoughts, learning more about modding her power armor and working on her current pet project which was carefully stored in the trunk next to her bunk.

This mod had her stumped though, and she was worried that she'd mess something else up if she tried fixing it on her own. Some mornings Ingram was around to talk her through it, but she'd taken the graveyard shift down on the tarmac and was resting before her next shift.

She bit her lip, glancing at the row of suits next to hers. It was one of the rare times when there wasn't anyone around, and she wouldn't know who to ask if they'd been around. Hesitantly, she turned a bolt.

"What're you working on?"

The wrench slipped from her hand as she flinched, startled by the deep voice. The wrench clattered loudly on the metal floor, and she turned to look up at the man standing over her.

She was met with a broad muscular man in a white tank, arms crossed over his chest and the sleeves of his orange uniform tied around his waist. She tilted her head back further to find a set of familiar honeyed eyes and a thick eyebrow quirked questioningly.

She blinked, struggling to get herself to her feet. She stumbled over her words awkwardly as she tried to straighten her shoulders. "Paladin... I... you snuck up on me!"

He glanced to the power armor behind her and she remembered his question.

"The left leg sticks and I'm not sure how to fix it..."

"May I take a look?"

"Of course." She nodded, stepping out of the way.

He kneeled down, picking up the wrench she'd dropped.

She took advantage of his distraction to get a better look at him as she realized she'd never seen him out of power armor before. For some reason she hadn't thought he'd be quite so tall, and much to her embarrassment she'd assumed he was bald for some reason. Quite the opposite though the hair on his head was thick and dark, carefully styled to stay out of his face.

The taut network of muscle that composed his back and shoulders shifted as he adjusted the leg of the power armor expertly, explaining aloud to her as he went. His demeanor wasn't what she'd expected now that he was back on the Prydwen. The way they had left things before she thought he would have been livid. Instead he seemed perfectly calm.

"That should suffice for now." He reattached the outer panel and stood, turning to face her.

She couldn't read the expression on his face. She twisted the gold band on her finger nervously.

"How long have you been back?" His tone didn't reveal anything about what he was thinking.

"I... well, one week tomorrow." She glanced down at her boots, before taking a steadying breath. "Could I-"

As she began to speak a few soldiers pushed a cart into the hanger, chatting loudly with each other. She watched them and lost a bit of her nerve, glancing back to Danse.

"Could we talk... in private, Sir?"

His expression faltered, but she still couldn't read it. He glanced toward the newcomers, then offered her a nod. "Follow me."

She mentally rehearsed what she wanted to say as she followed a few paces behind him. She was distracted from her rehearsal by the way he loped as he walked, as though he were still wearing his power armor. He did spend more time in it than out...

He led her to a door near the ladder that she hadn't given much consideration, which she realized must lead to his quarters. He unlocked the door, gesturing for her to go in. She stepped inside hesitantly.

The room was as spacious as could be expected, and everything was arranged tidily in its own space. There was a small workbench with a tool box where his warped and melted laser rifle sat. She frowned when she noticed it.

She stood uncertain in the center of the room as he leaned back against the small workbench.

"When did you get back?" She asked him conversationally.

"Around midnight."

She nodded, growing distracted by the crate full of tinted glass bottles in the corner...

Danse was quiet for an awkward moment, before he drew her attention. "What did you want to talk about, Knight?"

She steeled herself without realizing. She flinched, looking down at her boots, but reminded herself to lift her chin. She had wanted to hold on to the strange calm she had with him before this conversation began. She didn't know what would happen after she'd said what she meant to say. Still, she needed to show him the respect a commanding officer required.

"I wanted to apologize. The way I acted in Diamond City was out of line. I let my emotions get the best of me and I could have gotten you killed because of it. I'm sure you've tried to think of a million excuses on my behalf, but... I was being childish, and it won't happen again." She paused to gather her thoughts before gritting her teeth and pushing on. "I know where the Brotherhood stands when it comes to synths... but I need you to understand... Nick Valentine is my friend, and my loyalty to him isn't just going to disappear because you tell me he's bad when I've seen the good he's done first hand."

He didn't speak. It took every ounce of courage not to lose the steam she'd been gathering.

"I'll make sure to steer clear of him when we're traveling together, but I won't stop seeing him, and I most certainly won't kill him. And if that isn't good enough then... Then I'm afraid I can't stay here."

He shifted after she finished. He opened his mouth to speak, but he closed it again. After a tense moment, he sighed and shook his head.

She felt a moment of panic, sure that he'd tell her to leave and forbid her from ever setting foot in the airport again. Better now than later, she thought, but it would still hurt just the same. She braced herself for the inevitable.

"I'm sure it took a lot for you to apologize, and I appreciate it. I think I owe it to you to try and clear the air..." He shifted his weight again, a thoughtful expression she hadn't yet seen taking his face. "I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot when we first met... and I feel like I'm the one that owes you an apology. Expecting you to embrace the standards of the Brotherhood without having a history with us was unfair. And given that you've adjusted so quickly to... most of our beliefs, I don't think I needed to push so hard."

She was taken off guard by the sincere tone he had taken. She teased him before she had the chance to think better of it. "So, you really are human without all that power armor."

Her reply cracked the unreadable expression and he offered a curt smile. "Sometimes I need a reminder, but yes... I am."

He took a moment to gather his thoughts, but she could tell he wasn't done. She waited patiently, stunned that he seemed to be letting her in. She thought that maybe provoking his anger had been worth it if this would be more common...

"When I was an Initiate, my sponsor was Paladin Krieg. Toughest squad leader I ever served with. He was a model soldier, embodying the values every trainee was striving to achieve. Fiercely loyal, secure in his beliefs and brave to a fault." He smiled faintly, as if remembering.

"From the moment I was assigned to his squad I was singled out... it felt like he was pushing me harder than the rest of the team. I fought by his side for years and we had some seriously close calls, but he never explained to me why I was treated that way."

"Did you ever ask him?"

"I'd considered it, but unfortunately, I never had the chance." He paused with a frown. "After I was promoted to Paladin and I had moved to my own squad, I received word that Krieg was killed at Adams Air Force Base. The news was like being kicked in the stomach. I mean, I'd lost some of my brothers and sisters before, but his death... well, it really got to me."

Dollie mirrored his frown with her own. She hadn’t even considered… he was a soldier, the list of people he’d lost must have been long… it was stupid of her to...

He took another moment, before he glanced up, catching her eye.

"It's taken me a long time to realize it, but the reason Krieg was so tough on me... is the same reason I'm so tough on you. It's because I believe in you and I don't want to see any of your potential go to waste."

"I... don't know what to say." She felt flattered, stunned even.

"You don't have to say anything. Just keep doing what you're doing. I trust your judgement, but I can't promise I won't be uncomfortable around your... friend. I don't recommend letting anyone else know about this, either." He glanced away from her uncomfortably, his voice awkward when he spoke again. "I... expect you'll keep this in confidence of course. Some of that information was of a personal nature, and... I'd like to keep it that way."

"Of course." She exhaled slowly.

He nodded thankfully, uncrossing and re-crossing his arms over his chest.

"I...I won't let you down, Paladin."

Chapter Text

Dollie could still feel the blood on her hands. She couldn't fathom the blackout rage that had overwhelmed her as she'd first destroyed, then plunged her fingers into what remained of another beings brain and came back with a still flashing hot chunk of metal. When it came to the Institute, it seemed, there was nothing she wasn't willing to do.

She realized she was staring as a man with a black pompadour and shades exchanged a few caps with Whitechapel Charlie for a beer. She glanced over the ramshackle counters behind the robot bartender: wobbly side tables, crooked counter units, and a junked out refrigerator with the door missing.

"He was invisible! Can you believe that!?" MacCreedy's chattering came back into focus and Dollie glanced over to see the man excitedly clutching his hat to his head.

"I was more impressed with you flipping him over while he was invisible." She offered him an amused smile, watching as he rocked on his bar stool.

She pulled the round chip from her pocket and wiped it disgustedly on the pants of her General's uniform before holding it up to the flickering light overhead. She had no idea how the chip was the key into the institute, but she was thankful to finally have it in her hands.

"You were ruthless! I've never seen you go in like that, it was awesome." Mac offered her a beer and she gave her head a quick shake of refusal.

The man laughed, accepting the beer for himself. She gave him a quick glance, realizing just how young he was as he poured over a Grognok comic on the bar top. She couldn't imagine being young out in the Wasteland, growing up in a world like the one around her... She considered asking the merc what it had been like for him, but thought maybe that kind of conversation wasn't what her caps were paying for.

When she was twenty-two she was pulling all-nighters in the campus library, memorizing court cases the way a sinner memorized a Hail Mary. She certainly couldn't imagine herself in Mac's shoes, killing for cash and downing a forth of whiskey without batting an eye.

Things were difficult all around in the Commonwealth, there was no denying it. Even the people who glared down their noses at her in the upper-stands in Diamond City had it harder than she had before the war. Sure, a loaf of bread had cost about thirty bucks, but at least her food was rad free and she didn't have to choose between eating and loading a gun.

She turned the chip over in her hand. It was the key to making the Wasteland a safer place. It was the golden ticket that would get her into the Institute to get her son back, that would give her some scrap of normalcy. She tucked it carefully into her pocket, listening as Magnolia and the band struck up a tune.

 

The second floor had collapsed into the first inside of the offices at the National Guard Training Yard. Dollie had been there before, trying to clear it out for the settlement on the other side of the road. She hoped the clearing had stuck, though it had been a few months since she'd been there.

Her pipboy chirped. Danse shifted in his power armor behind her.

She turned her pistol's sights on a limp figure on the second floor, trying to find any hint of movement. The pistol shook with the trembling of her hand.

"Judging from the amount of dust present, it's safe to assume we're the first people to investigate this location in quite a while."

She nodded to the Paladin, gesturing to the corpse on the upper floor. He locked onto it, gesturing her further into the ruin. They worked quickly and quietly, checking each corpse that lay decomposing on the cluttered floors. Danse broke away to check the staircase and Dollie checked behind the receptionist desk.

There was a guttural clicking and some of the rubble shifted. Dollie flinched away as a withered hand pushed through the heap of splintered support beams and plaster, clawing at the ground with thick yellow nails. An oozing feral ghoul emerged, pulling itself forward and swiping for her legs as she backed into the wall behind her. The wall gave with a rusty creak and her heart leapt into her throat. She compressed the trigger of her .44, blood splattering the legs of her vault suit.

Once she was sure the feral was dead she glanced back over her shoulder. She hadn't stumbled into a wall, but a door she'd missed before. Her pipboy chirped faster.

Inside, dust settled, caught in beams of sunlight that shown through the windows. The room appeared to have been upended: the door half blocked by a filing cabinet, the floor littered with debris and the corpses of a few ferals, a desk knocked on one end. Beyond it Dollie saw the figure of a woman hunched against the wall.

She eyed the ferals, moving in closer. She caught sight of the distress beacon on a bookshelf beside the woman, and her orange jumpsuit, the Brotherhood insignia on the chest piece of her combat armor. Her stomach turned, all too familiar with the smell of rot and decay.

"The upper floor is all clear." Danse called to her from the other room.

"In here." She called back to him, hitting the button to disarm the pulser.

His resounding footsteps moved closer, but stopped short. "Wait, that's..."

Dollie glanced back at him in the doorway. His shoulders fell, and the tone of his voice with them.

"... Knight Astlin. She was in my company, years ago... Best marksman I ever saw."

Dollie frowned, leaning down and gently pulling the tags from around the Knight's neck. There was a holotape clutched in Astlin's hand and she took it. She slipped the holotags into her bag before moving back to the Paladin.

"She had this." She showed him the holotape before inserting it into her pipboy.

The tape deck clicked shut before a woman's voice out-poured from the speaker. Beyond the sound of her voice there was the familiar growl of ferals and the percussive beating of limbs against a door.

"Knight Tara Astlin. Brotherhood of Steel Recon Team 429-Alpha. Serial number 3431. It's been three hours since I set my distress pulser. There's been no word from the Paladin or Faris. Their objective was the satellite array on the coast. They may be out of range. My orders were to hold this position at all costs. The entire site has been overrun. The door won't last much longer. Paladin Brandis, sir, it's been an honor, sir."

Her pipboy clicked, spitting the tape back out.

"A soldier to the end. Well done, Knight." Danse shook his head, staring toward the woman. "They should have fortified their camp, made it a proper outpost. But they must not have had time. And Astlin paid the price."

Dollie tucked the holotape away for safe keeping, trying to keep the sympathy from her face. After another moment, Danse gestured toward the door.

"We've got another lead. Let's move out."

Dollie reached out, laying a hand on his metal shoulder plate. "Danse, I'm... I'm sorry."

He glanced away, back toward the fallen soldier, and Dollie slipped past him back into the reception area. She took a steadying breath, trying to push her unease aside, trying to be the soldier she needed to be— that Danse expected her to be.

Back in the courtyard she noticed the satellite dishes towering above trees and power lines, close enough walking distance to make it before the sun set completely. She pointed toward them as Danse joined her, securing the door behind them.

"There, that must be where they headed."

"Affirmative."

They followed the asphalt where they could, cutting through the dense fallen trees here and there. As they moved closer her pipboy picked up another distress beacon. She tuned the radio to the beacon's frequency.

It ticked and they followed cautiously. The array was laid out before them, surrounded with an ancient chain link fence. There were holes spread throughout that would allow them to pass through. A few white and orange trailers sat like empty husks down the hill from where they stood.

It was the gore, however that stood out the most, and the metal spikes driven into the ground. There were large bonfires blazing throughout the compound, and rickety looking wooden shacks nailed together on the railings between the satellites.

"Mutants." Danse growled, flicking the safety off on his rifle. "Going weapons hot."

"Right. Need to swap weapons." She crouched down shifting through the contents of her bag. She pulled out an automatic laser pistol and double checked the safety on the .44 before storing it inside. "Ready."

"Try not to get seperated." He gave one last instruction before moving down the hill.

She pushed to keep pace with him, her laser pistol at the ready.

It didn't take long for the mutants on the ground to notice a soldier in power armor heading toward them. There were two mutants around the side of one of the trailers that opened fire. Their accuracy was shoddy, but Dollie heard a few bullets ping off of Danse's armor.

Danse stopped, laying heavily into the mutants. Dollie aimed around him, putting a few shots in before a spattering of bullets hailed down from up on one of the satellite structures. She tucked back behind Danse, watching the bullets pour into the dirt nearby.

She stood back up, knocking her knuckles against his shoulder plate and pointing. "Up there."

"Got it." Danse shifted, locking fire on the mutant up above.

Dollie shifted around him, hitting the last mutant by the trailer twice in the chest before he crumpled.

"Need to get closer." Danse pushed around toward the trailers.

She held back as a mutant ran through the fence to meet them with a board. She aimed, hitting the mutant in the shoulder a few times before it was too close for comfort. She jogged backward, letting it get closer.

The mutant reared back it's board, roaring as it swung for her. She ducked around it, firing up point blank into it's face. It howled with pain, falling to a knee and giving her an opening to fire another shot to put it out of it's misery.

She turned away, jogging to catch up to the Paladin. They pushed through to a fallen satellite dish, Danse aiming high while she kept a focus on the ground. As a mutant with a submachine gun fell from a round of laser fire, the frantic chirping of a Suicider caught her ears.

"Head's up!" She took aim for the Suicider's head.

Danse shifted, following suit. The Suicider roared, shifting to detonate the mini nuke clutched in it's hand. Danse side-stepped, pushing her back behind him.

She turned, bracing for the explosion and pulling a fusion cell from her bag to reload. She caught sight of another mutant towering over her just as it swung a sledge hammer toward her head.

She ducked and threw herself as hard as she could into the mutant's stomach. The mutant was taken off balance enough to stagger a few steps, stopping it from swinging into Danse's back. Her fusion cell hit the dirt, rolling out of reach as the mutant screamed out angrily. It got hold of her by the shoulder, knocking the wind from her as it threw her to the ground.

The mutant swung the sledgehammer out to slam down into her, bellowing out a taunting laugh. A metal arm swung hard into it's face before it could and it turned to face it's new assailant. Danse slammed the butt of his rifle hard into the mutant's nose with a furious crack.

It stumbled backward and Danse fired two solid bursts of laser fire into it's chest. Before it had finished crumpling to the ground he'd turned back toward her.

"Are you alright?" He offered her a hand.

"Yeah, I'm fine." She winced, taking it and pulling herself up. She pointed up to one of the wooden shacks. "I think there's still one holed up in there."

"On it." He focused his rifle upward and she stuck close behind him, catching her breath.

The mutant banged against it's chest in fury, stupidly wasting it's last opportunity to put up a defense as the Paladin sent it falling from it's post with a sickening thump. Dollie checked her pipboy, the distress signal sounding close together.

"The signal's coming from up there."

Danse eyed the rickety woodwork for a moment, before nodding toward it. "You first."

It had grown dark as she edged her way up into the precarious wooden shack. Danse followed cautiously behind her. A new wave of rot wafted from within the shack, and she tried not to gag as a slumped man in scribe fatigues came into view. His uniform had been drenched in blood, but it had long since dried.

"Field Scribe Faris. He was with the recon team." Danse found a sturdy section of wood and crossed his arms.

Dollie disabled Faris' pulser, trying to keep her nerves steeled as she pulled the holotags from around the man's neck. The scribe had a holotape, just as the Knight had. Dollie pushed it into her pipboy.

There was a crack of static, then a harsh exhale. The man's voice was pained and he struggled for breath.

"Ah- This is Faris. It's been... two hours since the Paladin left. My leg... I can't stanch the bleeding. Bullet must've hit an artery. Brandis... if you get this... I hope you made it back to Astlin in time. There was nothing you could do for me. Get to the bunker up north. You'll survive. That's all that... all that matters..."

"They must have come to the satellite array for the comm system. Probably trying to send word back to the Prydwen. But they were ambushed. Faris was wounded, couldn't walk. They got a distress signal. And Brandis left him behind."

Danse paused, forgetting for a moment that he'd been trying to hide his anger. His armored hands clenched into tight fists.

"He broke the first rule of small-group tactics. Stick together. Always stick together. They all wound up alone. And they all got killed. Damn it."

It was growing impossible for Dollie to keep her stomach down. She turned back toward the ramp. "I'm sorry, Sir, I have to—"

"Go ahead."

She hurried carefully back toward the ground, trying not to retch from the gore and the smell. She pressed a hand to her clammy face. This mission was turning into one giant disappointment. He had said the missing recon team had been in the Commonwealth for three years. Three entire years. There was no way anyone was left. She wasn't so sure she could handle finding another rotting, bloated corpse so soon.

"What now?" She asked Danse as he stopped beside her.

"Paladin Brandis. He always was a survivor. But after all this time..." He looked just as unsure as she felt. "The tape mentioned a bunker. I think I know the one. It was part of my original mission brief."

He glared out into the inky darkness of night. The roaring fires around them flickered on his face, burned in his brown eyes.

"We'll find somewhere to camp for the night. Move out again in the morning."

 

An uneasy silence had settled over them. Dollie didn't know what to say, and finding another dead soldier had put Danse in an even darker mood than normal—not that she could blame him. The whole thing had her on edge, too.

They'd set up camp back near County Crossing, the locals offering what little hospitality they could afford to share. She had distracted herself for a while repairing a water pump for them as best she could.

By the time she was finished it was late and her hands ached from the detail work. She settled by the fire, offering the distracted Paladin a can of purified water. He thanked her and set it aside, returning to observing the dirt near his boots.

He'd had a lot on his mind. Dollie thought maybe retracing the steps of the first recon squad was forcing him to reflect on his own experience entering the Commonwealth.

She didn't know a whole lot about what happened, except for what Haylen had told her. It hadn't exactly been much easier for them than the missing squad. They were few in number when she'd found them in Cambridge. She very well could have found their bodies if she'd been a day... an hour later.

She left Danse to his thoughts, letting her own concerns take the wheel for a while.

Virgil hadn't had much to offer her when she and Valentine had visited him with the courser chip. It had taken him a bit to remember who she was, what she wanted. Whatever it was he'd done to himself to go mutant seemed to be taking it's toll. She wanted to help the man, repay him for all he was doing, but without a lead there wasn't anything she could do.

She shifted as something in her vault suit itched. She pulled the folded picture from the suit, scratching the spot over her heart where it had been. One of the corners had turned, scraping against her skin. She hadn't looked at it in a while, carefully attempting to bend the corner back in place.

"Is that a photograph?" Danse's voice startled her.

He eyed it curiously, and she offered the picture out to him, stunned when it actually left her hand. It hadn't been anywhere other than her fingers or pressed over her heart since it had left its original place over Nate's.

Danse looked down at the photo, holding it carefully between calloused, scarred hands. She watched his face as he studied it. He glanced up at her, and then back down again.

"This is you?"

She laughed softly and leaned closer so she could see it.

"Yeah. That's Nate. We were at Bunker Hill." She pointed to the monument in the photo. "It's the picture he had with him on the front lines, when he was deployed."

She was aware of him nodding, but was too close to register the movement. He was quiet, studying the picture with interest. He hesitated when he went to speak again.

"The burns..." he stopped, seeming to think better of it too late.

He was observant. She was surprised. The picture made the burns hard to see. It was the reason she'd always liked it so much. The damaged and scarred people of the Commonwealth didn't so much as take a second glance at her marred skin, but before the war people had often stopped to gawk- on the sidewalk, in the grocery store. It didn't matter where.

"Prewar, like the rest of me." She leaned away again, glancing toward the dirty concrete.

She wasn't sure if she should share, or if she even wanted to. She didn't want any more pity than she'd already gotten for them.

Danse was quiet, embarrassment thinly veiled on his face.

"A house fire, when I was thirteen." She found herself saying. "Thankfully, I was the only one home."

By his expression, it was more than enough information.

"I apologize for prying. It wasn't my intention." He handed the photo back to her.

"It's alright." She took it carefully in her hands, folding it gently and tucking it back into her vault suit. "What about you?"

"Hm?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Do you have any scars that aren't from battle?" She asked, trying to coax some kind of personal information out of him.

"All of my scars are combat related." He frowned gruffly, shifting back toward the fire to prod at it and keep it burning.

Dollie frowned, watching the way the flames cast dramatic shadows over his face. She wondered what he was like beyond the stoic decorum and militant bravado. He'd offered a few brief glimpses, they'd shared a laugh maybe once. Aside from what he'd told her about Kreig, she didn't know anything about him.

She knew plenty of things about Preston, Valentine, Piper, hell she even knew a thing or two about MacCready, but Danse... he spouted Brotherhood protocol like he was reading straight from a book, he worked on power armor, had a bit of a knack for prewar history, but... what else was there?

He cleared his throat. "I did... break my nose in a bar fight, once."

"Wh- Really?" Her ears perked up at the mumbled admission.

"I attempted to break up a scuffle between a bar goer and a... a friend of mine." He shrugged. "It's never been quite the same since."

She smiled faintly as he ran a finger over the bridge of his nose thoughtfully, before he returned to prodding the fire. Her imagination rejoiced at the thought of it. It wasn't much, but it was more than she could have asked for. An amusing thought, and a lighthearted distraction.

"I think I'll call it a night, Sir."

He didn't look up from the flames. "Night, soldier."

She snagged a few hours of rest, the exhaustion from the day weighing her down into a dreamless sleep.

 

It had been a quiet day for the Commonwealth. Dollie had spent much of the morning trailing a bit behind the Paladin. He was tense, more than normal, and she wanted to give him some space.

They hadn't even encountered any hostile's until they were on the other side of Malden, and even then it was just a few wild dogs. She didn't even have the chance to lift her pistol before Danse had all three taken care of, one drifting away in a plum of crimson hot ash on the wind.

"It isn't far now. Up ahead." He called back to her, pushing up the hill.

She tried to prepare herself for the worst as the small bunker came into sight. There were no signs of a struggle outside. The heavy metal door was sealed tight.

"Recon Bunker Theta. This is the holdout site. Stay vigilant." Danse adjusted his grip on his rifle, nodding her to the computer monitor near the door.

She swallowed the lump in her throat with difficulty, her mouth feeling dry. She fastened her pistol to her hip and set her fingers on the keys. She entered in the code, 429A, and the screen flickered on, neon green text filtering in. She prompted the security door to open. The heavy locks clicked and it disengaged.

"Hold." Danse warned her. "Be cautious, Knight. If Brandis is alive in there, we have no idea how he'll react."

"Right." She nodded, her stomach coiling tight.

Dollie moved inside first, cautiously toeing her way into the bunker. Just inside the door behind a makeshift barricade was a haggard man, greying and erratic-- and focusing a laser rifle directly at her chest.

"Freeze!" The man bellowed. "One more step and I'll... I'll blow your damn heads off!"

"Paladin Brandis?" Danse scrutinized the man.

"Who are you? Who sent you? How did you get in here?" Brandis gestured at them with the rifle aggressively.

"Uh... Danse?" Dollie glanced up at him anxiously.

"It's Danse. Paladin Danse. Don't you recognize me?"

"... Danse? No... no, no, no, that can't be. Why... why are you here?" Brandis shifted, confused and training the barrel of the rifle away from Dollie.

"I was dispatched to the Commonwealth on a recon mission, Paladin. Just like yours."

"How did you find me? I've... I've been alone. All alone. For so long..."

"We followed the distress beacons left by your team. Their holotapes led us here." Dollie piped up gently, keeping her movements slow and measured.

"The others! What... what happened to them?" The anger and confusion on his face cracked.

"They're... dead, Paladin. I recovered their tags." She carefully pulled the three silver chains from her pack, offering them out.

"You... you did?" He was taken aback for a moment before he straightened, letting the rifle fall to his side. He took the tags from her hand. "Thank you. This... this really means a lot to me."

Neither of them moved, waiting for Brandis to react. He was like a cornered animal... They had to let him make the next move.

"I... I tried to go back for them, you know. There was nothing I could do, not alone. But I had hoped... You've been through a lot to find me. I should... I should give you something." He turned, looking into the bunker, before he turned back to them. "I've collected a lot over the years. Technology. Odds and ends. If you see anything you want, take it, take it."

"Brandis... Come back with us. You're still a member of the Brotherhood, Paladin." Danse coaxed.

"What? No, no, I couldn't. Not after everything that's happened."

"The Brotherhood needs you, Paladin. It's time you reported in." Dollie tried.

"I... can't. It's been too long. I... I wouldn't be of any use." He shook his head, looking down and away.

"No one knows the Commonwealth better than you. We need your help."

"No." He spoke firmly. "There's no going back. Not for me. Not anymore. Thank you for... for bringing them back to me."

Brandis dismissed them without another word, turning back into the bunker. The conversation was over whether they wanted it to be or not.

Danse watched the old Paladin for a moment before catching Dollie's eye and gesturing toward the door. He exited the bunker. Dollie hesitated for a moment, watching as Brandis laid the holotags down on one of the metal shelves. She let her shoulders drop before she joined Danse outside.

"You handled yourself well, Knight. This... hasn't been easy."

She couldn't help but frown. "The Paladin... he might recover. Can't we just give him some time?"

"Perhaps... He was a fine soldier once." He sighed, crossing his arms. He shook his head. "But now... he'll never be the same."

"It doesn't feel right... leaving him here alone after all this." She looked back toward the bunker.

"We've done all we can do here. Let's report back to the Captain." His voice was resigned as he turned away, not once looking back.

 

The silhouette of the Prydwen hung foreboding on the horizon. Every step that carried them closer to the zeppelin was like a needle in Dollie's skin. They'd uncovered and confirmed the loss of three soldiers in three days. She felt like her throat was swollen shut with the nagging disappointment of how things had ended up. Danse seemed unfazed.

Once on the tarmac, Dollie was washed in a new wave of dread that hit her with the sea breeze. She followed Danse into the vertibird that carried them up to the ship, and then she followed him across the deck and inside. She wasn't ready for the disapproval she was sure the ship's Captain would offer her.

It came all too soon.

"Knight Wallace, report." Captain Kells turned his sharp gaze on her.

"We were able to trace the missing recon team's steps. Paladin Brandis was the only survivor."

"Brandis survived?" There was a brief flicker of excitement on his face. "Well, where is he?"

Her hands were clammy where they were clasped behind her back. "Unfortunately, I was unable to convince Brandis to report in, Sir."

Kells didn't so much as attempt to mask his disappointment.

"I- I'm worried about him, Sir. He seemed paranoid... unstable."

"I'm not surprised. All that time alone must have taken a toll on him." He scowled at the loss, shifting his weight to his other foot.

"Did you want the team's holotapes?"

"Yes. Thank you. I'll see that they make it to their next of kin."

"It's unfortunate they lost their lives." She frowned, handing over the tapes.

There was a moment of silence in which Dollie realized her mistake.

"Unfortunate? They knew the risk. They faced it with courage. And we honor their sacrifice. We don't feel sorry for them. It's time you stopped thinking like a civilian and started thinking like a soldier, Wallace." He scolded, his words sharp and cutting.

"Understood." Dollie looked toward the floor, her stomach prickling with embarrassment.

"It wasn't an easy mission. Here's a reward for your hard work." Kells held out a chest piece emblazoned with the Brotherhood symbol which she accepted dutifully.

"Thank you, Sir."

"You earned it. I'll prepare a full report, but in the mean time, the Elder wants you to report in, as well."

She felt her body temperature plummet, the prickling feeling in her gut spiking. She kept her face fashioned into a blank mask. "Right away, Sir."

He nodded his dismissal, and she turned back toward Danse who was waiting just outside of the control room. His chin was lifted high, a confident smile playing on his features.

She tucked the chest piece into her pack, attempting to shift the contents to make sure the courser chip remained hidden within it's depths. She wasn't ready to share what she had... She had to come up with something to say, and she had to do it fast. She twisted the golden band on her finger.

"A misstep or two, but you've really gotten the hang of things." Danse offered a sincere smile that made her feel like she was two inches tall.

"... Thank you." She glanced away, pulling her lip between her teeth.

Together they headed up to the command deck. The Elder stood solid and broad shouldered, facing the greying sky beyond the Prydwen. She was stricken again by how young he looked. She stopped behind him, trying to stand at attention the way a soldier was supposed to.

She clasped her hands tight behind her back. She couldn't tell Maxson about the courser chip. The minute she did everything would be out of her hands. She needed to make sure that she stayed in control of this. For her own sanity. For the sake of the Commonwealth. For Shaun.

"Knight. I hope you have good news." He turned, focusing his steely gaze on her.

"Actually, Sir. I do." Her mouth was moving without her permission.

"Well, let's hear it." The Elder's face shifted into surprise, a spark of subdued excitement in his eyes.

"I've made a contact in the Glowing Sea. An escaped Institute scientist who's agreed to help. Apparently, the Institute is utilizing teleportation technology."

"Teleportation?" He shifted, his hands coming together in front of him. "This explains why we've been unable to track their movements. Did your contact offer any other leads?"

"Yes. There are these Coursers. Synth units specialized for retrieval. They have the ability to "relay" in and out of the Institute at will, thanks to a chip in their brains. If we can get a hold of one of those chips, Sir, my contact may be able to help us reverse engineer the technology."

"This is great news, Wallace. Good work!" The Elder offered the edge of a smile, before he was strategizing again, pacing in a short line. "All of my top officers will be placed on alert. The more people that are searching out these Coursers, the sooner we'll have results."

"That's a great idea, Sir." She nodded, despite the sirens blaring inside of her brain.

"Keep up the good work, Knight. Report in as soon as you know more." He nodded to her and Danse in turn. "Dismissed."

Danse didn't say anything about what she'd told the Elder. Not so much as a word about how she hadn't informed him of anything in that report. He surveyed her for a moment, but nothing translated into his expression.

"We should both take the day to decompress." He told her simply at the top of the ladder. "This mission wasn't easy. I'll check in with you once I've taken care of a few things."

"Yes, Sir." She nodded, trying to offer him a smile, but it felt like she was shrinking away to nothing.

He broke off, heading toward the power armor hanger. She should have run that report by him first. She should have told him. She should have done it a long time ago.

She took the metal stairs up to her bunk, feeling like a planet had crashed squarely on her shoulders.

 

Dogmeat was close on her heels as she moved through the hazy old building. The Memory Den was the last place she wanted to be, but she couldn't think of anywhere else to go. Irma was chatting with Kent in the next room, and she spotted Dr. Amari at a computer bank at the back. There was a man in one of the memory loungers, but she ignored him.

When the doctor noticed her, she frowned with apprehension. "You're back."

"Dr. Amari, I could use your help."

"I'm not so sure... No offense, but danger tends to follow you, Mrs. Wallace."

Dollie frowned, giving her wedding ring a quick turn on her finger. "I don't mean any trouble. I don't know who else to ask."

Dr. Amari considered her for a long moment before frowning and glancing toward the stairs behind her. "Alright. Come with me."

Once they were safely out of earshot, the doctor became more cordial.

"The Glowing Sea... Virgil... what happened?"

"I found Virgil, and he has a way inside the Institute, but I need a code from this courser chip." Dollie held out the piece of tech for Amari to see.

"A courser chip? You fought a Courser? Oh my god."

"Can you help me, Doctor?"

She frowned. "Unfortunately, no. I've worked on a lot of Synths, but never a Courser. I don't know what that chip does, let alone how to decode it..."

Dollie heaved a sigh, glancing at the clock on her pipboy. This was a day trip wasted. She had to be back to the Prydwen before long, and with no leads it would drive her crazy.

"But... there are people who might." Amari caught her attention again. "I work with a group that, well... they're the only ones I know that even have a chance at cracking Institute security. They're called... the Railroad."

"The Railroad?"

"They help synths escape the Institute. I don't know who they all are. Usually, an agent of theirs just shows up with someone who needs new memories. One of them gave me a code phrase. Said it would help me find them if there was ever an emergency. ""Follow the Freedom Trail.""

Dollie considered this for a moment before nodding. "All right. I'll find them."

"Good luck. I'm sorry what I have is so cryptic, but hopefully you can figures things out as you go."

"Thank you, Doctor."

Dollie left her to her work. She turned, expecting to see Dogmeat close behind her. The dog wasn't there. She headed back up the stairs, looking for her companion. He rarely strayed from her side.

"Dogmeat?" She called to him.

He was sniffing at something on the floor. He huffed, and Dollie kneeled down to take a look, giving his head a pat.

"What is it boy?"

It looked as though someone had dropped a holotape. It hadn't been there when she and Dr. Amari had descended the stairs just a few minutes before. She pulled it into her fingers, examining it closely.

Scrawled messily on the orange case were the words "Join the Railroad." She stood up slowly, looking out into the main room. Irma and Kent were still chatting idly in the side room. The man in the memory lounger hadn't moved. There was no one else in sight.

Chapter Text

It was on the way through Boston that she first noticed.

When Dollie had returned to the Prydwen from Goodneighbor she'd asked the Paladin's help assisting a new settlement for the Minutemen. He'd agreed without so much as a comment on what had happened with the report she'd given the Elder. They had set out with an air of comfortable comradery.

When they'd arrived at the Slog, her stomach had clenched with anxiety.

She'd been floored when Danse had commended the ghoul, Wiseman, for the innovation of the tarberry farm. He didn't say anything to her, no grumbled annoyances or assumptions about a settlement that was all ghoul, and she was honestly surprised. They'd cleared the mutants at Breakheart banks with little trouble and had returned, leaving the settler's at ease with the promise of a visit from a Minutemen patrol to help them improve their defenses.

But now, at least three hours out from the airship, there was a lag in the Paladin's step, the set of his shoulders sinking lower than normal. The way he winced, shutting his eyes tight when he thought she wasn't looking, was familiar to her— but not from him. After that she could recognize the exhaustion and the discomfort in his eyes.

She spotted the first barricade heralding that Diamond City was nearby. She paused where she was a few paces ahead of him, fishing through her pack, feigning some kind of realization. She ran a thumb across a box of bullets, weighing her options. He'd stopped them on her behalf several times, though she had a distinct notion that he wasn't about to do the same for himself.

"Paladin, could we stop through Diamond City? I need to swap out some gear."

He stopped beside her, raising a thick brow. He regarded the hellish city-scape before them for a moment. "That shouldn't be a problem."

"Great." She gave a small smile and turned in the direction of the barricade. "It isn't far from here."

After another ten minutes they were safely within the protection of the green walls of Diamond City. She guided him through the busy streets, waving at Nat on her soap box as they passed. It felt like coming home as they walked through the central plaza. They were at Home Plate after a few moments more and she paused outside, searching for her keys.

She threw Danse a glance over her shoulder, watching as he tried and failed to mask his discomfort. She realized how much he would need to duck to get through the door and smiled.

"Low clearance just inside." She pushed open the door, stepping through.

The interior was pitch black and she bee-lined for the lamp on the end table, pulling the cord. It cast a small beam of light into her living room. It wasn't quite finished yet, the red sofa resting against the concrete wall with her yellow chair beside it and the wobbly coffee table she desperately hoped to replace. It was still mostly bare, but it was home.

"The main switch is on the other side." She glanced back at Danse.

He had a hand against the low ceiling that hung over the door, uncomfortable and taking up a large amount of space in her entry way.

"You should take a break, stretch your legs." She suggested, trying not to overstep her bounds as a subordinate. "I won't be long."

She made her way through the darkness, running her fingers along the walls, still not completely comfortable with where things were. She fumbled for the power switch above the workbench, smiling as electricity moved outward, lights switching on.

She laid her keys down on the dining table, smiling at the pad of paper with Piper's handwriting scrawled across it. In slanted and cramped writing the reporter wove the tale of her newest disagreement with the Mayor. Dollie sighed a laugh before unclasping her pipboy and laying it beside her keys.

She heard Danse shifting in his power armor in the other room before the click and woosh of the hydraulics told her he'd heeded her recommendation. She flipped the clasps on her sides and slid out of her combat armor chest piece, hanging it over a kitchen chair.

She paced back to the living room where she'd left him, watching as he rolled and stretched his shoulders. His back was stiff just by looking. He held so much tension in his shoulders, in the clench of his jaw.

"Make yourself at home." She smiled as she passed by him, shuffling through things on her desk.

She plucked a screwdriver into her fingers before remembering a document she'd picked up back in Fort Hagen. She opened the central drawer, pulling it out and turning just as Danse was pulling the hood from his head.

She glanced back toward the floor, checking over her desk again to make sure there wasn't anything else she needed. Once the Paladin had finished smoothing back his thick black hair she offered the manual out to him.

"Thought you might enjoy this."

He took it, glancing over the cover, offering a thanks before settling himself on the couch.

Dollie headed back across the house, pulling the chest piece from the kitchen chair and hauling it upstairs to the miniature armory she'd thrown together on the uppermost level. She sat on the wooden floor, criss-cross with the new chest piece Kell's had given her on her lap.

She stared at the symbol emblazoned on the piece of armor. Danse had told her what each part stood for once. The gears were technical knowledge. The blade was willingness to defend themselves. The circle represented the wholeness of Brotherhood. The wings, hope. She traced the wings with her thumb.

If she chose to sport the chest piece she had to believe in what she was promoting. She wanted to believe in it, to find strength in it the way that Danse did. It would be nice, the proud glint that she knew she'd see in his eyes if she chose to wear the Brotherhood's insignia on her chest with her chin held high.

She set to work, adjusting the straps on the sides to match that of her old chest piece. Once she'd made the necessary adjustments, she hurried down the stairs to check the clock on her pipboy. It was 7:30. If she was quick, she'd have enough time to sell the old piece for some extra caps.

She grabbed her keys and slung her bag over her shoulder.

"I'm going to run over to Fallon's before it closes." She glanced toward the Paladin, fidgeting with her keys.

He nodded, focused on the operations manual she'd given him.

She slipped out into the cool air, listening to the bustle of the city as it opened up around her. Myrna was scrutinizing a customer at her stall next door, and Moe bellowed down the way in true ballpark vendor style. Arturo announced the last call for the day. Don't get caught dead!

Dollie shuffled her keys into her pack, trying not to drop the chest piece balanced on her arm. She didn't have long to browse at Fallon's. She could already imagine Becky's complaints. Her feet kept moving, sending her stumbling into the back of a DC guard.

"Oh, sorry!" She glanced up.

"Don't worry about it." He shrugged her off with a glance over the shoulder.

There was something familiar about the man that made her stop. He'd already turned to continue his patrol. She couldn't put her finger on where she'd seen him. Maybe it was just around town... or... out in Goodneighbor? There was something about the shape of his face, his voice...

"Uh, sorry, have we met?"

He hesitated before he turned back to face her, a black pair of sunglasses hiding his eyes from view. He shifted his weight back after a moment and gave a crooked smile. "No way. I wouldn't forget a face like yours."

She was taken off guard by the flirtatious tone. She hadn't been spoken to like that in... well, in two hundred years. A nervous laugh escaped her throat and she glanced away, warmth creeping into her face. She cleared her throat trying to be articulate.

"Ah, s-sorry." She looked down and away, slipping out of the situation and away from him.

The guard didn't say anything else, and she shook her head as she descended the steps into Fallon's Basement.

She'd been right. Becky was peeved with her coming in so near to closing. She shopped around as quickly as she could, disappointed in the few threadbare coats the shop had to offer. She haggled for a while over the old combat armor chest plate, before they agreed on a fair price.

The walk back to Home Plate was quick as she tried to consider an excuse to make them stay put for the night. The Paladin needed the break, and her feet weren't exactly aching to get back on the road. She wanted a hot meal and a shower, wanted to wash the blood and dirt out of her vault suit.

She couldn't think of a good excuse. She'd just have to be honest.

She pushed back through the door, wondering how long she'd been gone. It had to have been about fifteen or twenty minutes, not much more. She pulled the door shut behind her, opening her mouth to speak before she noticed.

Danse's head hung against his shoulder, the operations manual held flat against his chest with a slack hand. His shoulders rose and fell evenly. His face was the softest she'd seen it, the tons of worry that usually plagued him carried off by sleep. She couldn't imagine how tired he must have felt to fall asleep sitting up like that. Her eyes lingered on him for a long moment.

Who was looking out for him the way he'd been doing for her?

 

Danse awoke with a start, sitting forward groggily. For a jarring moment he had no idea where he was. The room was dark and still; the ceiling was high. He was on a ragged red couch, a thin grey blanket laid over him. He pushed it from his shoulders, glancing around for some recollection of where exactly he was.

The sight of his power armor beside the chipped blue door jogged his memory. They'd stopped in Diamond City. Dollie had stepped out. He must have fallen asleep. The manual he'd been reading lay open on the coffee table in front of him. There was a can of purified water and a bottle of pain killers holding the page down.

The sound of food frying hit his ears just as the smell hit his nose and stomach. He heard the quiet crackle of radio static accompanied by a soft humming. The lights were on in the other half of the building, washing the floor in a red-orange glow.

He pulled the chain on the table lamp, wincing as the light hit his eyes. The wall clock above the couch claimed it to be five in the morning. That had to mean he'd slept for a solid ten hours. He hadn't meant to fall asleep in the first place.

He popped the tab on the purified water, taking a deep drink. He got to his feet achingly, the muscles in his shoulders and upper back protesting, tense from falling asleep sitting up. At least the dizzying pain in his head had subsided.

He took a sip from the water can, quietly crossing through the Knight's make-shift home. She'd told him it was a work in progress, but if he were being honest it was the nicest looking place he'd ever set foot. Spotless floors and dusted surfaces, every trinket deliberately set in place. Perhaps that Mr. Handy of her's had something to do with it.

Danse paused just through the doorway to the kitchen. His breath stuck in his throat at the portrait before him.

She had her back to him, swaying in time with the Andrews Sisters on the radio as she tended to whatever was on the stove. Her hair was down, falling to her shoulders in tensely curled waves. The light blue dress she wore fell just to the bend of her knees and her feet were bare on the worn wood floor. He'd never seen her out of that vault suit or without any kind of armor.

She leaned gracefully up on her toes to reach something on a shelf above the stove. Aside from the pink scars that wove down the backs of her legs and arms she looked exactly like a pre-war poster, or a page clipped from an old magazine. An All-American housewife bustling to prepare a meal.

This was the person she was meant to be: contentedly humming along with the radio, her shoulders relaxed, blissfully oblivious to her surroundings. Just the sight of her comfort put him at ease, the way she always sought to, though he doubted she was aware of that. It was the reason people like Rhys, Kells, and Arthur intimidated her so badly. Their rigidity refused to be eased. He'd thought he fit that description, too, until he met her.

He recalled her husband from the photograph she'd shown him. He'd been a lucky man to know that there was someone waiting for him to return from war, someone to mourn him had he failed to return. But perhaps it was in poor taste to consider the dead lucky.

Dollie glanced back over her shoulder toward the table before noticing him standing there. Her usual orange lipstick was absent, her lips a light shade of pink. The makeup that always ringed her eyes was missing, too. Her face shifted into a bright and cheery smile, her straight white teeth looking too perfect to be real—in this century at least.

"I didn't wake you, did I?"

"Not at all." He shook his head, stepping further into the kitchen. "I apologize for putting us behind schedule."

"It's alright. I didn't want to wake you."

She should have, but he didn't say anything. They could have been back to the Prydwen the night before. He could have been half-way through another stack of paper work, though it was unlikely he would have gotten quite so many hours of sleep.

He glanced around the kitchen, unsure of what he should be doing. The smell of the food made his stomach clench in hunger. He took another drink from his water.

"Hungry?"

"I wouldn't want to inconvenience you."

"Not at all." She pulled a stack of dishes from the counter beside her and laid them on the table. "I'm no chef, but it beats the mess hall."

"The food from the mess hall isn't so bad. As long as you don't smell it first."

She laughed, scooping a rifle off of the table into her arms with a screwdriver and a yellow box. She relocated the clutter to the work bench on the other side of the room, before hurrying back to the stove.

"Need a hand?" He set his water on the table.

"That would be great!"

She handed him a plate stacked with the best looking pancakes he'd ever seen. The pancakes he was used to were flat and crisp, but these looked light, evenly browned, with more volume. He set them down on the table as she was holding out a small glass pitcher filled with a black syrupy liquid.

"What's this?" He took it, giving it a curious sniff. It smelled sweet.

"Pancakes with tarberry syrup."

He wasn't so sure about that. Tarberries were tart, practically inedible. He sat the glass pitcher down.

She turned a knob on the stove with a loud click. She put one last plate down on the table, piled with what his nose informed him was most definitely bacon.

He hadn't had such a luxurious meal in at least a year, and even then the ones he'd had were few and far between.

"Coffee?" She asked, lifting a red coffee pot.

"Sure. Thanks."

She filled two mugs with steaming hot coffee, setting them down on the table and taking the chair closest to the stove. He sat down across from her. He hated to think how much everything for the meal cost her, and yet she was sharing it so nonchalantly.

"Settlers that don't have the caps insist on paying the Minutemen in supplies. The only thing I had to pay for was the coffee." She smiled at him over her mug. "I won't be able to use it all myself."

He gave her a nod, filling the plate in front of him.

She did the same, spearing two pancakes with her fork before pouring the inky black syrup over them. He decided to give her the benifit of the doubt, pouring a bit of the syrup onto his plate.

He cut into the pancakes, taking a bite. They were soft and light. The tarberry syrup was sweet with only the faintest hint of tart. For something as simple as pancakes, they were still some of the most flavorful food he'd eaten in ages.

"These are great."

"Thanks." She smiled. "Breakfast is pretty much where my cooking ability stops."

He tried one of the slices of bacon. "Best meal of the day."

They ate in silence, the radio still buzzing quietly in the background.

His thoughts kept returning to the laser rifle she'd cleared away. He hadn't known she was interested in weapon modding. She'd stuck some kind of paper along the barrel of it and he couldn't think of any reasoning behind doing so. He'd spied what looked like a recon scope.

He washed down a second helping of pancakes with his coffee. It was strong and smooth. "Do you always work on weapons at the dining table?"

"Hm? Oh, I usually use my desk, but I didn't want to wake you." She hadn't yet finished her first two pancakes.

"What were you working on, if you don't mind the inquiry?"

"Well... I've been trying to mod it with a beta wave tuner... but it's kind of beyond my capabilities."

He sat up straighter in his chair. He'd worked with one before. "That's a nice piece of equipment."

She shrugged, glancing up from her plate. "Expensive, too. I don't want to damage it."

"I could assist you, if you'd like."

She weighed the offer for a moment. "That would be great."

She pushed her plate to the side and retrieved the rifle and the tools from the bench. She pulled the tuner from the yellow box, passing the laser rifle to him.

"I've been trying to work it out for about two weeks, but I can't figure out how to actually hook the tuner into the circuitry."

"What's with the paper?" He ran a thumb over the scratchy brown paper.

"To protect the paint on the barrel from chipping while I'm modding it."

He held back a laugh. A chip in the paint on a weapon was a non-issue, in his opinion.

"Here." He took the tuner and the screw driver, indicating the port it needed to be hooked into. "The most important thing to remember when modding laser weapons is that the slightest misalignment of the crystal arrays can make the gun completely nonfunctional. This could cause low beam intensity, overheating, even the failure of energy regulatory systems."

"Right." She nodded, pointing a thin finger to where he'd indicated. "So it attaches here?"

"Correct. You hook it into the wiring at this port, like this..." He connected the wires carefully, showing her the order, "-which will allow it to draw energy from the fusion cells through the particle diverter."

"Okay. How does it link back into the arrays?"

He shifted the gun to allow her to see better.

"So, by attaching the tuner here, it will hyper-focus the energy into the arrays, through here." He traced the path of the energy through the outer casing, before fastening the tuner down with the screwdriver. "This causes higher energy output without over heating the arrays, and has the added bonus of increased firing range."

"You make it look so easy." She smiled.

"I've had years of practice."

He tested the rifle out in his grip, resting it against his shoulder. The full stock was fastened too far back to fit her grip, sitting comfortably in his arm.

"The stock is all wrong for you. I can adjust that as well, if you'd like."

"Oh, no! Uh... that's alright." She shifted abruptly, shaking her head.

He lifted a brow at her sudden change. "It's no problem."

"It's just- It isn't... well, it isn't for me."

If not for her then who was she going to so much trouble for?

She held out her hand for the rifle and he handed it over. She ran her fingers over the paper, biting her lip before exhaling a quick sigh. She slipped a thumb beneath it and pulled it away, though he still couldn't see the barrel or the significance of the paper.

"I still feel bad for the way I acted last time we were here in Diamond City. I was angry, and I took it out on you. You didn't deserve that. I could have gotten you killed with that frag mine, and..." She frowned, adjusting the rifle in her hands. "I saw the ruined rifle in your quarters and I... I wanted to make it up to you."

She offered the rifle back out to him. He could feel the crease of his forehead. His mind was drawing a blank. He just stared at it in her hands.

"It- It's a thank you. For everything you've taught me. I would be dead by now if it weren't for you." She pushed it out toward him again. "I-... I checked with Proctor Teagan, and he says it's completely up to standard!"

He turned his hands up, letting her set the rifle back into them. With the paper pulled away the barrel was the usual dark green, except for a line of intricate, scripted lettering. He laid a careful finger over the white letters, following their path, the way they looped and hung together, slanting precisely across the barrel. Beneath and just behind the white paint there was black paint in the same swirl, making the letters look like they were three dimensional.

"This is... it's too-"

"Ah, you can't give it back, because I won't take it." She was babbling, her voice higher pitched than normal. "And besides, your name is on it."

He had no idea what to say. He tried to recall if or when anyone had given him something like the rifle he now held in his hands, his name meticulously painted across the side. She'd almost perfectly adjusted the gun with his arm span in mind. He tested the stock against his shoulder again incredulously, peering through the scope.

"I... I don't know what to say, Knight." He sat it down on the table in front of him, leaning back in his chair.

He glanced up, trying to come up with some kind of thanks. The Knight's eyes were wide as she twisted the ring on her finger, watching him anxiously. Her face was flushed. She looked so...

Scribe Haylen had given him stimpaks and other medical supplies during the recon mission; they'd all traded munitions when it was necessary in the field. Once, upon their enlistment, he and Cutler had shared a bottle of whiskey to celebrate. But... no one had ever put so much effort into something, into a gift, for him. It didn't make sense.

"I... thank you."

 

The police station was buzzing with activity. She kind of missed when it was just the four of them, the recon team and herself. It had been an escape from the madness of the Commonwealth. They'd been the second group of people she'd encountered that hadn't been hell bent on putting a bullet in her head and selling her gear for caps.

She and Haylen were catching up in the corner office while Dollie was sorting through her supplies. She was taking a well deserved break, sitting in the chair with her elbows propped on the desk and her chin resting on her hands.

"So, how are things with you?" Dollie asked, sifting through her pack.

"Same old, same old." Haylen shrugged, her voice monotone and indifferent.

"Any new developments with everyone's favorite Knight?"

Haylen rolled her eyes, pushing herself back in the chair. "No. And honestly, I think I'm over it."

Dollie gave her a small smile. "It's alright. You'll find someone great. Someone who'll leave some space in their life for you."

She smiled halfheartedly, shaking her head. "It doesn't matter though, does it? We're prepping to go to war. I should be more concerned about that, right?"

Dollie laughed. "It's alright to think about romance, relationships. What's the point of a war if there isn't something you're fighting for?"

"Most of the Brotherhood thinks it's enough that we're fulfilling our mission, but that's a good point." She sighed, gloomily.

"You'll find someone. It always happens when you least expect it." Dollie handed her a pack of gum drops from her bag.

"Thanks." She laughed, taking the gum drops and popping one into her mouth, looking back over Dollie's shoulder.

"Oh, did you need something, Sir?" Haylen straightened up in her chair, setting the gum drops on the desk.

Dollie glanced back over her shoulder, noticing the Paladin in the doorway. He glanced away from them both, hesitating outside of the office before he seemed to make up his mind. His power armor clicked and clanked as he stepped sideways into the office.

"Nothing pressing, just..." He turned his eyes to Dollie, shifting his weight, clearing his throat. "Knight. Here."

He held out a narrow brown box.

"What's this?" She looked up at him, confused but taking it the same.

"It isn't much, but it should help with the pull you've been fighting on your .44."

"Oh! Thanks. You didn't need to do that." She turned the box over in her hands, glancing back up at him again. She wondered for a moment if he were trying to compensate her for the rifle.

"It... is your birthday, isn't it?" He glanced back toward the door frame.

She blinked for a moment, unconvinced that it could already be April. She glanced toward the pipboy on her wrist. In the bottom corner it heralded the date, April 21st, 2288.

"... oh! It is! How'd you know?"

"I recalled it from your file." He glanced away again, a metal hand behind his head.

"It completely slipped my mind." She gave her head a shake. Thirty-two. Christ, she was thirty-two. "I am getting old."

"You don't look a day over two-hundred."

She sputtered in surprise at the small smirk on his face before a bright, exuberant laugh escaped her mouth. "At least I have that going for me."

They shared a warm smile and she tucked the box into her pack.

"Almost ready to head out. Just need to check in with Rhys."

"Affirmative." He nodded.

She turned back to the Scribe, giving her a wave. "I'll see you around, Haylen."

Haylen's expression was hard to gauge, but she gave Dollie a smile, wishing her a happy birthday. She felt herself grinning as she headed across the station.

Rhys didn't offer as polite a reception when she met him on the other side of the station. He fixed her with a scowl, his nose upturned. It was still a warmer greeting than he'd given her in the past.

"I need you to clear out College Square, Knight. It didn't stick last time." He scrutinized her with a sneer.

"Oh. Cleared it on the way in."

"What?" He leaned back, eyes widening.

"Didn't want it to become a problem for the station."

He opened and closed his mouth a few times trying to speak. Finally, he crossed his arms, leaning back against the door frame behind him. "Alright. That's... somewhat impressive."

She narrowed her eyes, trying not to smile. "Is it?"

Rhys rolled his eyes, before regaining his usual composure. "There's an old chemical plant to the northwest, full of ferals."

"Abraxodyne Chemical?"

"That's the one. Clear it and report back. And try to hurry it up this time, will you?"

"I'll do my best." She gave her own eyes a roll and turned away, crossing toward the door of the station.

Danse's face was puzzled when he moved through the doorway, joining her. He shook his head before meeting her eye.

"Ready to head out?"

"Ready."

 

She'd attempted to convince the Paladin to go around Lexington, but he'd insisted, much as she'd assumed he would. He was right that it would be faster than her proposed path back toward Concord, but she'd hoped to avoid the hostiles that filled it.

The trek through the ruined city had been full of ferals and confrontations with small pockets of raiders. After two hours, they'd come upon the factory that Rhys had indicated. It towered upward, vast and imposing. There was a central building surrounded with tall cylindrical towers in varying widths.

It looked like the lab equipment of a mad scientist who happened to be a giant.

"Some activists before the war were trying to get this place shut down." Dollie told him, taking a seat on a metal crate to rest her feet for a moment.

"I can see why." Danse shielded his eyes from the sunlight filtering through the clouds. "No windows."

"That can't have been safe." She frowned, relacing one of her boots.

She reloaded her combat rifle then situated it comfortably across her back. She headed for the metal double doors. The factory was huge, and Rhys had said it was full of ferals. She hated facing ferals. She could have known them once.

"No shame in being intimidated." The rumble of Danse's voice pulled her out of her head.

"I'm not afraid." She glanced back at him over her shoulder. "Not when you're watching my back."

She turned back to the doors, gulping in a big breath of air before pushing one open. The sunlight spilled inward just a few feet. Everything else was dark. She turned back to Danse again.

"I think we're going to need your head lamp."

His neutral expression turned serious. He grabbed his helmet, pulling it over his head and fastening it in place. Dollie turned the dial on her pipboy, neon green light erupting from the screen. She pulled the rifle from her shoulder and back into her hands.

Together they pushed into the darkness.

The white light from Danse's headlamp carved through the room. They had entered into some kind of reception area. Usually, the old flood lights in most places were still working, but the bulbs had shattered, glass crunching under foot.

It was suffocatingly quiet when they both stood still. When the Paladin shifted the clank and creak of his power armor seemed amplified, bouncing off of the darkness and back at them.

Dollie swallowed the lump in her throat. "Where do we start?"

She followed the beam of light as Danse pivoted. There was a crack of static and his voice filtered through the helmet's speaker. "This way."

She moved in the direction he'd nodded, attempting the handle. It didn't budge. She pulled a bobby pin and a screwdriver from her bag, kneeling down to pick it. She squinted through the green light, listening closely for any sounds on the other side of the door. The lock clicked.

She pushed the door open, light spilling over a metal desk in disarray. The light shone sickeningly on the bones of a skeleton slumped over the desk, a dusty pistol near the finger bones. Rusting filing cabinets lined the left-most wall, drawers scattered on the ground. The metal frame of a terminal littered the floor.

Dollie stepped into the room cautiously, circling the desk with her rifle ready. The back wall of the office appeared to be lined with plastic blinds. She grabbed the cord, pulling it. The blinds inched upward haphazardly.

The glass pane behind the blinds was cracked and grimy. She tried to see out, but everything beyond it was black. She turned back toward the door where the Paladin stood. He turned back into the reception area and she followed.

The old factory was so quiet she wondered if it were actually empty... if Rhys' intel had been wrong.

On the opposite side of the room they found a security door, mag locks intact. Dollie frowned.

"I'll look for a switch behind the reception desk."

"Good plan."

She tried to step over the glass from the light bulbs, edging around the desk. It was littered with yellowed paper, rotted from the years and mildewed from humidity. She pushed through the paper and other debris, searching for some kind of switch or button that would demagnetize the locks.

"There's a keypad, try looking for a code." Danse called over to her.

She glanced immediately at the junked terminal, searching for any post-its or scraps of paper beneath it. She came up empty.

"Nothing."

"Maybe a key card?" The beam of his headlamp swiveled, blinding her for a moment before turning back toward the security door.

She sighed, taking a step back to look from a different angle. Her boot came back down on something hard and rounded. She slipped back into a filing cabinet, but her chest piece absorbed most of the impact.

A soft scraping met her ears, whatever she'd stepped on shifting and dragging. She caught sight of it in the green light and her stomach dropped into her boots. She fumbled the rifle back into her hands, firing into the feral's head before it gained it's footing.

Danse turned, the light washing over her again.

"It's down." She glanced over before looking back down. There was a black lanyard around the ghouls neck, a white plastic card with a black strip hanging against it's chest. "Found one."

She returned to the door, swiping the card through the receiver. The magnets clicked, and the door opened. They pushed on into a room lined with lockers. There were two corpses, face down in the middle of the floor. Dollie edged around them, keeping the rifle trained in their direction.

The ferals didn't stir. Danse gave one a kick with the foot of his power armor, but they stayed down.

"Let's keep moving." He gestured toward the next door.

It opened out into what Dollie guessed was the main factory. It was even darker somehow. They headed straight forward, crossing the upper level into a room lined with computer terminals with dark screens.

"There's no power in here at all." She struck the keys on one of the keyboards.

Aside from the ghoul with the key card, they weren't running into any others as they scoured the upper level of the building. Her nerves were on edge the further in they went. She was starting to get aggravated.

Her foot caught on a pipe that she'd missed and she tripped, Danse throwing out a hand to catch her.

"Careful, the illumination level here is below minimum safety levels."

She sighed, her breath filling the silence. The volume of it rang inside of her ears. She clutched her rifle tighter, willing her feet to keep moving. She steadied herself and continued back down the path.

In the darkness something clanked, falling from above them and clattering to the concrete not far from where they were. She stopped in her tracks, shock shooting through her and rooting her in place. She couldn't see far enough ahead to be sure the sound hadn't stirred something in the dark.

"Don't worry, Knight." Danse placed a hand heavily on her shoulder from behind, solid and reassuring. "I've got your back."

She gave a curt nod, shrinking back against him. Her voice was thin. "Just... keep close."

"I'll take point for now."

He pushed in front of her, the light of his headlamp bouncing with each step. She followed close behind. They came to a catwalk that cut across the open space of the tall factory building. He paused.

"This way." Danse instructed, turning onto the metal catwalk.

She nodded uncertainly, following a few paces behind. The sound of his heavy steps reverberated off of the concrete walls around them, bouncing back to her ears in disorienting waves.

The catwalk gave a creak and a groan, straining to hold the weight of Danse's power armor. She hesitated, her stomach clenching, taking a step backward. Before she could voice her concern, the groaning grew into a roar.

The catwalk shifted quickly beneath their feet. Dollie's back hit the platform and she found herself sliding downward. She heard Danse shout followed by the heavy thud of him hitting the ground several seconds later. She clawed for purchase, knowing that a fall from that height would be devastating for her.

The neon light of her pip boy flared out around as she felt the catwalk slipping away, couldn't see the ramp to grab hold, and fumbled blindly in the darkness. She felt the hard metal bar of the railing collide with her shoulder and she flailed for it desperately, the weight of her body yanking hard on her shoulders as she clung on.

The pain of it was enough to draw a scream from her lips. She winced hard, focusing all of the strength in her body into holding on. The sound of her rifle cracking against the ground below met her ears tauntingly.

She peered down over her shoulder, trying to find the white wash of Danse's head lamp despite the swaying of the broken catwalk. She caught sight of it just before the bulb blew and the light faded.

"Paladin?" She shouted down to him.

There was no answer. The wet cartilaginous sounds she'd learned to associate with ferals popped and echoed in the darkness.

"Paladin!" She tried to rouse him, hoping he was alright, needing him to be alright. Needing him to come to before whatever was happening happened.

The horrible thudding of limbs crashing against concrete turned her blood cold. If he was unconscious he would be killed, slow and painful. If she tried to drop down and help him she'd break her legs at the least, and would be unarmed when she got there. She'd just be dropping to die with him in a pit of thrashing razor teeth and fingers.

But it was Danse. He was in a full suit of power armor. Even after a drop like that, he would be fine, wouldn't he? He would be fine, he had to be.

The catwalk groaned as it's swaying slowed. She glanced up into the darkness that lay above her, watching dust settle in the light of her pipboy and praying the metal would hold. Her heart shuddered against her ribs.

There was a pained grunt from below followed by the clunk of armor.

"Knight?" His voice was strained and muffled when he called out to her.

She looked back down, wishing she could just see something.

The growls and moans of ferals met her ears not long after. She couldn't see anything. She tensed in panic as the sounds of bodies colliding with metal reached her ears.

Danse growled furiously from below, and there was a crunch and a thud. Soon the darkness below was illuminated by the brief red glow of laser fire. She could only catch short glimpses of power armor and flailing limbs. The metallic clang of collisions and the screams of the ferals combined with the ominous, flickering glow was like a hellish nightmare.

The burn of ozone drifted up toward her.

Her grip slipped on the metal railing and she cried out, kicking her legs as if they could propel her upward without anything to push against. She panted painfully, the muscles in her back burning in protest. She jammed her eyes shut in focus, trying to hold on.

An anguished cry from below drew her attention back down. For several seconds there was nothing and her heart nearly stopped. No ghouls, no Danse, no laser light.

"Paladin?" She cried down to him, her voice sounding harsh and frantic in her own ears. "Danse!"

"-M... I'm alright." He wheezed faintly. "Where are you?"

"Still... up here..." She panted out as loud as she could.

"Damn." He grunted. "Hold on... I'll... I'll get you down from there."

Her arms were quaking, her fingers slipping on the metal bar. A blast of laser fire tore through the air past her, colliding with the catwalk. She flinched, a strangled sound escaping her throat. Another blast of laser fire joined the last.

The catwalk groaned again, a slow agonizing sound.

"Hold on." Danse urged.

Her heart thundered as she watched one last blast collide with the catwalk above her. It shuddered under her hands and shifted hard. The still air whipped around her as part of the metal support snapped, sending her plummeting toward the ground below.

One of her hands slipped free from the metal bar as the last support held fast. The scream that tore from her throat was swallowed by the sound of twisting metal. Her shoulder popped as she dangled by one hand, a mind numbing tearing sensation rippling through her arm and shoulder blade.

"You need to let go." Danse's voice was closer now.

"N-... no." She choked, tears stinging her eyes.

"I can't promise it won't hurt, but I will catch you." He assured her.

Squinting downward she could just see him in the glow of her pipboy light. The remaining support creaked in the darkness, the catwalk shuddering again under her grip.

She sucked in a jagged breath, forcing her eyes shut tight and gritting her teeth. She imagined her fingers uncoiling, she imagined falling again. The catwalk screeched as the last support began to give way.

"You have to let go!"

Dollie swallowed hard. She let her fingers slip free from the metal bar.

Chapter Text

Dollie coughed as the dust and debris settled around them. Pain flamed through her as concrete dust lodged itself in her throat, making it more difficult to breathe. Danse was slumped over her, the only thing between the metal catwalk and her body.

"Paladin?" She stared up into his helmet, the visor webbed with fractures.

He didn't respond. She pushed a hand against his chest plate. There was no give and no sign of movement. The suit was slumped to the knees.

"Danse? Can you hear me?"

The crushing silence turned her blood to ice. She reached upward checking how close the catwalk was to his head. It was resting on the top of the helmet.

She grimaced before searching for the seam that would give her enough purchase to pull the helmet upward. The light of her pipboy bounced off of the metal and back into her eyes making it almost impossible to see.

He coughed, muffled and painful. The speaker was no longer playing back his voice. Dollie exhaled the slightest breath of relief.

"Hold on." She struggled, her fingers pushing beneath the helmet, but with one hand it was nearly impossible to dislodge it. One of his hands shot up, pushing against the catwalk. The metal creaked and groaned.

He lifted his other hand, pushing at the helmet. He took a wheezing breath as it pulled away and let the helmet fall unceremoniously to the ground. She could see the slick paint of blood on his face.

"You're bleeding." Her voice was frantic, pushing back at her against the metal.

"... Knight..." He choked out, trying to shift the set of his shoulders.

"Yes?"

"T-take my rifle... go..." He coughed again. "I can hold it... long enough... for..."

His face was twisted with pain and the effort of keeping the catwalk off of them. A bomb of panic exploded in her chest, sizzling through her arteries, burning her throat.

"No." She scrambled to her knees on the concrete.

She ducked under the arm of his suit, moving as quickly as she could with the pain still coursing fresh from her right shoulder all the way down to her fingers. There wasn't much space between his armor and the collapsed metal.

She crouched, grappling with the release at the back of the suit. It refused to budge. She growled, hiking a knee upward, pushing it against the back plating for more leverage. It gave a screech, beginning to turn.

"Knight, that was an order!" He spat.

"We're getting out of here together." She hissed at him, pulling harder on the release. "The frame'll hold it long enough for us to get clear."

He was silent as she forced the release the rest of the way. The usual pop and hiss was replaced with a muted thunk. She jammed her fingers under the hatch.

"Push back!"

The hatch pushed up just a few inches before retracting.

The Paladin growled, shifting the suit roughly. Dollie backed up as much as she could as he put the suit on it's feet, still crouched down. The hatch pushed again, this time with about half-a-foot more clearance to allow it to open.

She pushed her fingers back under the hatch, pushing upward. Danse pushed back against it, and the latch it'd been catching on shifted. He half stepped, half fell down, hitting the concrete with another pained cough.

The catwalk shifted down onto the now unoccupied suit. Dollie reached between the legs, snatching his rifle from the ground.

"Here." She held it out to him.

After wiping a gloved hand over his face, he grabbed it.

"Come on." She began to move, heading in the direction with the least amount of catwalk between them and the open space of the dark factory.

The slow creak of the metal sinking lower filled the cavernous space. Further out from the suit the space between the floor and the metal grew painfully smaller. She didn't want to think of how tight of a fit it was for Danse if it was hard on her.

Panting and feeling claustrophobic, she reached the edge of the metal that scraped sharply over the ground in front of them. She shuffled, trying to use her body to push against it to allow them to pass.

The metal struck her right shoulder, drawing a choked whimper from her throat, white hot pain making her head swim. Danse laid a firm hand on her waist, pushing the weight off of her shoulder with his own as he crouched beside her.

"Together." He told her through his teeth and she nodded. "One... two... three."

They pushed upward, shuffling out from under the catwalk. Danse was out first, and the undistributed weight sunk on her. His arm slipped across her stomach, yanking her back and out of the way as the catwalk thudded to the ground. They tripped clumsily into each other, crashing to the concrete.

Dollie cringed from the pain. She could feel Danse's chest heaving hard against her back. His grip slackened around her. She tried to push past the weight of exertion, the breathlessness of her lungs, the thundering of her heart in her throat.

They weren't in the clear, yet.

She rose to her feet, her head swimming from pain and exhaustion. She shook it away, clinging to the wave of adrenaline to keep her moving. She offered the Paladin a hand and he took it.

He staggered as he gained his footing. From what she could see his eyes were clamped shut as he began tipping away from her toward the floor again.

"Woah, woah!" She croaked, pulling on his arm to keep him standing. She ground her teeth at the pain that came from attempting to use her right arm to steady him, letting it hang slack at her side instead.

He set a foot out to keep himself upright and she shuffled closer, laying her arm across his back. His muscles were tensed, bracing against the pain, she guessed. He was radiating heat.

"Lean on me." She urged, as he focused on her dizzily.

"Your arm."

"It's fine." She assured him, pulling his arm around her neck.

He winced as her hand laid flat on his side and she pulled back, apologizing.

"Let's get the hell out of here." He groaned, leaning into her.

They shuffled slowly through the dark. Dollie squinted, trying to see anything through the pitch black. Her boots crunched over glass and she had to kick chunks of concrete out of their path. She nearly tripped again when her foot collided with the corpse of one of the ferals Danse had fended off before.

The light of her pipboy bounced unhelpfully from behind the Paladin's shoulder. They edged closer to one of the cement walls, and she steered them along it, hoping against hope for a door or a room they could fortify until they'd caught their breath.

A few paces ahead she noticed a set of double doors, a chain pulled through the handles. She wouldn't be able to pick any locks with one hand. Above the doors she could just make out one word. EXIT.

She helped Danse ease back against the wall, then reached out for the chain. It tugged away, snaking toward the ground. A note of apprehension surged in her stomach.

She pulled one open slowly. A narrow corridor stretched out, a set of stairs leading downward. She couldn't make out the end from where they were standing, but if the sign was right, it would get them moving in the right direction.

"Hope this tunnel's stable." He grumbled. "I've been buried alive enough for one day."

She exhaled a small laugh. His sarcasm was appreciated, dulling the edges of the situation just enough to quell some of her anxiety.

It was difficult keeping pace with Danse's longer legs on the stairs. They took the steps one by one, his hand gripping at the wall and his other arm still braced carefully around her neck. She held her arm out in front of them, trying to illuminate the steps as they came.

At the end of the beam, she noticed something reflecting back: two small orbs in the darkness that shifted and pushed further toward them— attached to the wrinkled and garish skin of a feral that threw itself, tripping and flailing.

Danse snapped to action, pulling the laser rifle from his shoulder and she dug her hand into her bag, searching. Blasts of laser fire made contact with the feral, sizzling and filling the corridor with the smell of burning flesh, and the feral fell backward down the steps.

A second was barreling toward them up the steps, flanked by the jerky movements of a third. The beams of laser fire weren't consistent with the accuracy the Paladin was known for.

Dollie produced a combat knife, the first thing she could get her hand around, rearing her arm back and slamming the blade down into the second ghouls head when it got close enough. It gurgled and spat, dragging her arm and the blade downward as it collapsed onto the steps.

She pulled at it, but the blade didn't budge. The feral writhed under the blade and she felt like she might be sick.

The third feral drew close before taking a laser to the side of it's face and crumpling.

Danse laid a hand over her's on the blade, slamming the sole of his boot to the feral's face and helping her yank the knife free. She shuddered, thankful she couldn't see whatever gunk was likely coating it.

After a moment of tense silence, waiting for any stragglers that might bowl toward them, they resumed their careful descent. The foot of the stairs came into view with a dented metal door at the end of the landing. They were nearly home free.

Dollie threw the door open with a heaving breath. Blinding white light spilled over them.

An angry gust of wind sent her backward a step. The air was freezing.

Dollie stared out into the gale. The sky was grey with thick, towering clouds. The geiger counter on her pipboy snapped to life, ticking as though she were in the Glowing Sea or the middle of a rad storm.

Snow. It was... snowing... In April... it...

Danse's back stiffened and he pulled away from her side. She glanced toward him, following the motion as he turned. He bent downward with a hand pressed against the cement building to steady himself. She grimaced, looking away as he heaved the contents of his stomach onto the ground.

He needed medical attention. Between the rads and the weather, it wasn't likely that a Vertibird would be able to lock onto their location, not to mention fly to it. They needed shelter, and fast, before they added radiation poisoning onto the list of their problems.

She looked backward and then out into the storm, weighing options. Not far off she could see what looked like a cabin. It would be better than the suffocating darkness behind them.

 

The chain link separating the stalls rattled.

A hand slammed a scrap of paper down onto the worn counter in front of him. Danse glanced up from the circuit board he was stripping into the excited bottle green eyes of Jim Cutler. Sandy blond hair fell into the man's face as if he'd run the entire way back to the junk stand.

"I have a proposition for you." He tapped the flyer urgently.

Danse frowned, pulling the paper into his hands. The Brotherhood of Steel, the militant group that had moved through, was recruiting. He put the paper back down.

"What about it?" He returned to the circuit board.

Cutler sighed, glancing back at the passersby before turning back toward Danse. "You and me. Let's enlist."

"Have you lost your mind?" Danse gawked up at him, setting his screwdriver down. Enlist? Why the hell would they enlist?

"No, come on. I'm serious!" Cutler rounded the counter, pushing himself up onto it.

Danse shook his head, reaching for his pliers. Cutler nudged his shoulder with the back of his hand. He started counting on his fingers.

"Three meals a day, every day. A bunk to sleep in. Weapons. Ammunition. Actually knowing how to use them." He was grinning. "More than just us watching our backs. Come on, Danse. This is our chance."

"Our chance? For what?"

"To get out of our nowhere lives. To actually do something, help people. Project Purity. They're the ones that did it! You've always wanted to help people." Cutler thumped his hand against Danse's shoulder again, harder this time.

He watched the sincere expression on his best friends face. He frowned, glancing down at his hands and then around at the stand he'd poured blood, sweat, and caps into.

"I don't know, Jim. I don't think I'm cut out for something like that." He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. He was a decent shot with a rifle but not the kind of caliber that could feasibly confront raiders and mutants all the time.

"Danse, we can do anything together. That's what brothers do." Cutler held out his hand for him.

Guaranteed food, shelter... He sighed. "I'll... at least listen to the recruitment pitch."

He took Cutler's hand and the other man squeezed hard, his crooked grin filling his face.

"Great. Close up shop. We're meeting the recruiter in the galley in ten minutes!" Cutler had jumped down from the counter, drumming his hands on it excitedly.

No. No, that wasn't right. That was so long ago... Danse tried to remember where he was. It was a soft, irritated sigh that brought him back. Knight Wallace... and the factory... He needed to focus.

His head hurt. And nothing about their dire situation was helping.

Not the snow that had materialized out of thin air, not that damn factory with it's damn ferals. Not the eight fusion cells he had left, not the fact that the Knight had lost her weapon, that she'd nearly died in the fall. Not that he was the one that had stepped out onto that catwalk without once considering that it could be structurally compromised sending himself and the Knight plummeting some twenty feet.

The fall would have been fine on him if he'd known it was coming. But the Knight, she could have died. It was a miracle that she hadn't. If she had died because of a mistake like that, he could never forgive himself. She was too damn important, she was his charge and— damn it, she needed to stop prodding at his head.

"Quit!" He snapped, the effort sending a new wave of pain through his skull. Throbbing, pulsating pain.

She fixed him with a glare. "Would you just hold still?"

"I told you, I'm fine." He reached up toward his forehead, but she swatted his hand away.

"You're not fine." She insisted, trying again to observe his head.

It didn't matter. If she kept prodding, inflaming the pain, he was going to explode. Why the hell couldn't she just listen and leave him alone? He winced, a wave of nausea building in his gut.

"The Knight-Captain has taught me a few things, you know."

He honestly didn't care if it were Cade himself, he'd still want to be left alone. He opened his mouth to tell her as much before she pressed her fingers against his temple and some of the pain mercifully dissipated. She pushed his face back and he was looking at her chin. Her fingers were cool against his feverish skin.

He reminded himself that she was just trying to help. That she was concerned for his well being. He huffed, crossing his arms over his chest with a scowl.

"I think the stimpak did enough." He gave one last attempt.

"The stimpak isn't going to pull the glass out of your forehead. I am." She pulled her hand away, reaching for something out of sight. "And I only have one hand, so if you could cooperate a little, that would be great."

He frowned, watching the collar of her vault suit as she tried to work. She never buttoned the thin flap, leaving the brown skin of her throat exposed. She was so close he caught the smell of salt from her sweat, dust, the metallic scent of blood and... was that melon blossom?

It was uncomfortable, almost embarrassing, having her that close. He didn't make a habit of being within the boundaries of other people's personal space. Though she seemed to have a much smaller personal boundary than anyone else he'd ever met.

There was a stinging feeling in his forehead and he clenched his fists, shutting his eyes. There was a small clinking sound. The pain went away after a moment, and then there was another sharp twinge near where the first had originated, followed again by a clink.

Dollie ran her thumb across his forehead, her touch gentle. "No more glass."

She laid her hand against his cheek, urging him to look up at her. Her skin was soft, though he felt the slightest rub of callouses on the heel of her hand. He met her eye for a moment before glancing away. It felt... intimate.

"Subtract seven from one hundred."

"Ninety-three."

"Again."

He tried at first, but his head felt foggy and dark. It felt as though someone were taking a hammer to the inside of his skull. He couldn't even remember how they'd gotten to the dinky little cabin they were holed up in, why the hell did she want him to do basic arithmetic?

"Why?" He felt his scowl returning.

"Does it hurt or are you just being belligerent?" Her tone was biting.

"It hurts." He growled, glaring up at her.

"Okay, then. You have a concussion." She huffed, stepping away from him and moving across the cabin. "You should rest."

"So that you can defend us with that combat knife?" He scoffed, looking down at the chips of glass in the ceramic ashtray beside him.

"No, I thought the four frag mines I left outside under the foot of snow that's already fallen would do that." She was sorting through her bag across the room. "Can't you just trust me?"

"I don't know. Can I?" He spat without thinking, the pain and his aggravation overflowing.

She turned to look back at him, her features drawn, her voice quieter than before. "What?"

"You're always hiding things, keeping secrets. That report you gave the Elder, that was information I would have liked to know!" He would have jumped to his feet if he wasn't so damn dizzy. "And you went to the Glowing Sea four months ago! And lied about it! Did you think I wouldn't notice?"

She opened her mouth but said nothing.

"For all I know, you already have a damn courser chip and you're just stringing the Brotherhood along for the supplies and the power armor!" He pushed a hand against his face to try and subdue the ache, his pulse racing, breathing harder.

He heard her rustling through her bag, but she didn't speak. She didn't attempt to defend herself. He wouldn't be surprised if she were going to retreat out into the storm, and in the moment he wouldn't have given a damn. He half expected to hear the cabin door slam.

He threw his legs up onto the couch, laying an arm over his eyes and trying to rest. He just laid there, listening to the sound of ice colliding with the building. It was getting colder fast.

He faded in and out of consciousness, his head pulsating with different degrees of pain.

The mission had not gone at all how he'd expected. Being her sponsor wasn't going how he'd expected. He'd never wanted to be her sponsor in the first place. She was difficult, she was inexperienced, constantly saying one thing and then doing another... He hadn't sponsored a new recruit since becoming a Paladin, or was it since...

There were those thoughts again. He'd been thinking about him more and more often. About Cutler. About the things he'd said that had meant they were close, that they were friends— brothers.

We can do anything when we're together, Cutler had told him, and he had felt it. He had trusted in that. Having someone who believed in you, someone who wanted to stick by you, it was something else entirely, and he had payed for it. Painfully.

The way Dollie had smiled back at him over her shoulder, assuring him that she wasn't afraid... it had been familiar. He didn't want to go through that pain again, but the woman refused to be forgotten. He couldn't get her out of his head. Even when she was off helping that Minuteman with settlements, or with the nosy reporter.

It had grown dark by the time consciousness won out. The pain in his head was still there, but it had lessened a fraction. It was cold inside the cabin. They needed a fire, something to keep warm. His flight suit was insulated, but the Knight's vault suit looked thin...

He let his head fall to the side, trying to catch sight of Dollie, wondering if she was still there. The pain from his injuries had caused him to say some things less tactfully than he'd hoped to. He'd been unnecessarily cruel.

His ears registered the sound of a man's voice laughing, but he didn't catch the words. It sounded like there was a baby, spitting and babbling.

He sat up, head aching as he attempted to understand where the sound was coming from.

"Bye, honey. We love you." The voice said and there was a click.

He caught the neon green beam of Dollie's pipboy on the other side of the cabin, low to the ground in the hallway. There was another click and the sharp but distant sound of feedback, then a baby babbling again.

"Oops!" The man's voice came again, laughing.

Danse got to his feet, using the arm of the couch to keep himself steady in case dizziness hit him again. Once he was sure his feet would stay under him he walked toward the light.

"I don’t think Shaun and I need to tell you how great of a mother you are." The man said, then a note of mirth filled his words. "But we're going to anyway."

Her husband, he realized, hesitating as her boots came into view in the hallway, crossed at the ankles.

“You are loving. And kind.” The baby giggled interrupting his words. "And funny. That's right."

His foot hit a loose board and the wood creaked. There was a fast click, interrupting the recording. Danse frowned, leaning around the wall to catch sight of her slumped against it.

“You’re awake.” Her voice was hoarse and lower than usual. She’d lifted her face toward him, glowing green in the pipboy light. “How are you feeling?”

“Not great.”

She didn’t say anything, but glanced toward her boots. Slowly, dizzily, he sat down against the wall beside her. The pain in his side blazed back to life and he winced.

There were more important matters at hand than a twinge of discomfort. He wasn't good at these things, had never been good at these things. He had to put his own comfort aside. He cleared his throat to speak.

"I apologize for what I said earlier..."

"No." She told him simply, not looking away from her boots. "You were right."

He closed his mouth, watching her profile. He didn't know what to say to that. He was too tired to argue. She spoke again before he attempted to rebuke her.

"I haven't been honest." She shook her head. "Not with you, or anyone."

Her breath floated upward as steam, disappearing as it escaped the beams of her pipboy.

"I went to the Glowing Sea alone because I know how... raw a nerve the Institute is for everyone in the Commonwealth. I didn't want to risk my only chance at a lead..." Her eyes were downcast as she plucked at a tear in the thigh of her suit. "I have no idea what I'm doing out here."

She sighed before continuing. "Put me in a court room with a case file and I can argue with the best of them, but I- I'm not a soldier. I'm just a civilian in combat armor... I keep making these mistakes..."

"A civilian wouldn't have gotten us out of that facility alive."

She considered him for a moment before glancing back downward. "That may be true... but... say we find a courser chip and we build that machine in the name of the Brotherhood... can you promise that I'll be the person stepping into it, that I'll be trusted with such a... delicate operation?"

The question took him by surprise. He wracked his brain for the answer, the dull throbbing in his skull making it impossible.

"There are three people I can think of who would tell the Elder that I'm not fit for that mission. And you should be one of them."

"I'll do my best to ensure-" He began, but she interrupted him with a shake of her head.

"No. I won't let you put your career on the line any more than you already have."

"I think you're cutting yourself short." He scowled. She was talking too fast, wouldn't let him get a word in to the contrary, as though she'd already made up her mind.

"I think we're both trying to pretend like this is working." She gestured broadly with her left hand. "If any other soldier had been with you in that factory-"

"They would have left me to die when ordered!" He snapped, raising his voice. "You disobeyed a direct order from your sponsor and commanding officer! And I owe you my life because of it it."

She was quiet, her eyes wide at his change in tone or what he was saying, he wasn't sure.

"You know when to push and when to give. Most soldiers push too far or just follow blindly. I know that I've been guilty of both." He crossed his arms over his chest. "You have integrity, courage, a quick wit... the Brotherhood needs more soldiers like you."

He held her gaze for a moment, letting his words sink in before he glanced downward. She had more riding on their infiltration of the Institute than anyone else. He couldn't... no, wouldn't be the one to stand in her way.

"Nonetheless... I think I understand what you're... trying to tell me, and... The less I know, the better."

Under any other circumstance, he would never even consider... but...

"You get your son back, Dollie." He told her simply. "Then we'll make those bastards pay, side-by-side."

She blinked a few times, before sucking in a sharp breath and looking toward the wall across from them. He stiffened at the realization that she might cry. He wasn't good at offering comfort. It was an area in which he was particularly lacking.

She swallowed hard, a thin and nervous laugh escaping her pursed lips.

"It's... it's cold." She pulled herself to her feet shakily. "I'll look for some scrap..."

He didn't speak, watching as she slipped past him down the hallway. She shut herself in one of the rooms. His mouth was dry. He tried not to dwell on the thought that he'd said something wrong; tried not to feel too relieved that she'd hurried away.

 

There was nothing she wouldn't have given to be curled up on the sofa under Nate's arm, doing a seasonal reread of Sense and Sensibility with the central heating chugging away. He would murmur sweetly to her about holiday plans, they would debate between cocoa or cider, Codsworth would chug away dusting the bookshelves, and Shaun would doze in his father's arms.

She stood alone, instead, in front of a cracked and dirty mirror shivering. Her reflection was gaunt and unfamiliar, flecked with dirt and blood: exhausted, blistered, bruised. Her hair was a mess.

The dark pockets under her eyes were made plain in the sharp trickle of moonlight that stole through the cracked window beside her. They were more severe than she'd realized without the plaster of makeup that had been holding her together like glue. Her appearance was something she'd been able to keep a handle on, something she'd been able to control.

She tugged the zipper of the vault suit downward, easing her right arm out of its sleeve. Beneath her worn tank top bruises had begun to form, blossoming in dark purples and sallow shades of yellow.

She shrugged her left arm free, turning to see how the bruises spilled across her shoulder blades. There would be a matching swath along the backs of her thighs. Another along her ribs in the shape of a hand.

Danse had caught her, just like he'd said he would. She'd stalled letting go too long, and the entire catwalk had come down on them soon after. He'd heedlessly thrown himself into harm's way to keep her safe, not for the first time.

The joint where her collar met her shoulder was swollen, but less than it had been when the bone had jutted out beyond it's socket. She felt faint just recalling the pain of Danse's hand against her injured shoulder as he'd pushed the bone back into place. It had taken everything she had not to scream, swallowing the sounds until they were just pathetic whimpers.

This was all just another setback in the seemingly endless series of setbacks keeping her from Shaun. She thought of the courser chip and the railroad holotape sitting on Valentine's desk back in Diamond City.

Her chest felt hollow. Despite the differences in her reflection, she was the same woman she'd always been. A new century, a new all-consuming obsession. Though this time the stakes were higher than they'd ever been.

Dollie knew there was a difference between dedication and obsession. It was a border that had seemed so paper thin to her once. She'd assumed it of the Paladin. Dedicated to the Brotherhood's cause to the point of being inconsiderate of what his actions meant in the bigger picture. In her mind he'd become a kind of mirror... a reminder of a past self she'd tried to shed.

Every lash against him was an attempt to distance herself from that past, from the part of him that reminded her so terribly of her failures and mistakes. After every error she was making excuses to sever ties completely, and this time had been no different.

She'd been adamant. It would be selfish of her to ask him to pull rank to allow her to get her way. She'd thought this would be their last mission, that he would angrily tell her their partnership couldn't continue.

Instead, he'd turned everything on it's head with unshaken conviction. The expression on his face was burned into the backs of her eyelids, putting her before his obligation as a soldier. It had almost been too much. The words had threatened to tear her open again, the way that Valentine's words had when they'd escaped the depths of Fort Hagen.

She'd been wrong about the Paladin. She'd convinced herself wrongly of him to keep him at arms length. The fewer people involved in her personal tragedy, the better.

Haylen had told her time and again of Danse's kindness. She'd assumed herself some kind of charity case; take in the helpless widow and make her into a soldier. But the tone of his voice as he'd mentioned Shaun, the hellfire in his words as he'd spoken of the Institute... he understood the stakes.

He was a good man, someone she could lean on. Keeping him in the dark was making all of this more complicated than it had to be. She had to stop pushing him away.

She drew in a breath, slipping her arms into the sleeves and zipping her vault suit back up. It was only getting colder. She had to focus on the moment, and in the moment surviving the storm was the most important thing for her to do.

 

Counting up supplies had put into perspective just how dire their situation was. There were only three cans of water between them, and not much in the way of food either. They'd agreed to split one of his ration packs with her can of cram to tide them over that night, leaving one ration pack and half a bag of sugar bombs. She had a box of mac and cheese, but they couldn't spare the water to prepare it.

If worst came to worse they could always melt down some snow and hope for the best. She'd scrounge around in the morning to see if there was an old rad-filter somewhere in the cabin's tiny kitchen. Most people had one stored away in case the bombs dropped.

She'd bundled herself in her General's coat and the blanket from her bedroll. The Paladin had joined her on the floor after insisting they push the couch over to barricade the doorway. He'd made a small fire in a waste basket which they had huddled near to keep warm.

"It sucks there aren't any chickens left." She mused, poking at the reconstituted, 200 year old chicken and rice in the pouch.

He nodded, placing a forkful of cram on a hardtack cracker and pushing it whole into his mouth. She exhaled a quiet laugh, enjoying the frenetic way he ate. It had to be a common trait these days. Most people weren't sure when their next meal would be and where it would come from.

She held her fork in her mouth and offered the pouch out to him. He took it, glancing inside.

"You barely ate anything." He held it back toward her with a frown, but she shook her head.

"I'm alright." She spoke around her fork, hooking a finger into the can of cram and pulling it over.

After a moment he shrugged, plunging his fork into the packet and continuing his onslaught.

The rations were an old pre-war treasure, MRE's, which Nate had always said stood for Meals, Rarely Edible. It hadn't been an over-reaction; they were basically flavorless mush.

She balanced her hardtack cracker on one knee, trying to fork a helping of cram onto it with one hand. She glanced at the remaining contents of the MRE: salt, pepper, non-dairy creamer, instant coffee, two green squares of xylitol gum, and a red packet.

She perked up, pointing her fork at it. "Is that Tabasco?"

Danse looked up from his food, picking up the red packet to look closer.

"Do you want it?" He offered it out and she pulled it excitedly from his fingers.

"Yes!" She smiled, tearing the corner of the packet with her teeth. She dripped a little over the cram, before sucking the remainder of the sauce directly from the packet.

She felt his eyes on her.

"Are you drinking that?" His expression was bewildered.

"Mhm."

"I always just toss them."

"Oh, you should save them for me!" She blurted, before realizing how demanding she'd sounded. "If you don't mind."

He blinked. "You want me to collect hot sauce packets. To give to you."

"... yes."

"That's a waste of pack space." There was the edge of a smile on his lips.

"Would you deny a girl her only luxury?" She teased, batting her eyes.

He shook his head and took another bite from the rations. She feigned a pout, setting the empty Tabasco packet on the floor and eating her cracker.

The crinkle of plastic caught her attention and she glanced back. Danse held a wrapped snack cake out toward her, still rustling through his pack.

"Fancy lads?" She took it uncertainly.

"Just don't tell Haylen I'm sharing." He retrieved his own, pulling the plastic apart. "She's already accusing me of favoritism."

"What?"

"The mod for your pistol. She complained that I didn't give her anything for her birthday." He took a bite of his cake, savoring it. "But in my defense, her birthday is in September and we were in deep recon at the time."

She chuckled at that. Even if the man were capable of showing favoritism, it wouldn't be for her. She'd caused him more grief than anything.

They cleaned up the trash from their make-shift meal, dropping everything that would burn into the fire. Dollie checked her pipboy carefully, trying not to irritate the tendons of her right arm. The pain had lessened with the help of the stimpak, but there was still a deep ache demanding disuse.

She frowned down into the green light of the pipboy. It was 2:30 in the morning. It had been an excruciatingly long day. Though most days were with the struggle for survival and the lack of old world distraction.

"Equal exchange." Danse's voice was a low rumble when he spoke again.

She glanced up, confused. "What?"

"Tabasco for snack cakes. Equal exchange."

It was almost a privilege, watching him struggle to keep his eyes open. It was cat-like, the way he allowed his weaknesses to be seen only now that some kind of trust had been established between them.

A few strands of the dark hair he normally kept slicked back had fallen into his eyes. Something about the planes of his face seemed different, as though she were only now seeing him clearly; like he was coming into focus.

She eyed the scar that cut from above his brow and across his eye, the laceration on his bottom lip, the subtle crick of his nose. All of the details told a story of triumph over struggle.

She swallowed as he turned his face toward her. He'd let his usual stoic mask slip. The warm depth of his brown eyes seemed to go on forever. She could have read his face like a book if there'd been anything but exhaustion to read.

"Deal." She gave him a small smile, her voice softer than intended.

He nodded, turning back toward the fire. "You should get some rest."

"You're dead on your feet."

"I'll keep myself preoccupied." He pulled his rifle into his lap, digging through his pack again.

Gun cleaning would only keep him awake for twenty or thirty minutes. He'd be kicking himself in the morning if he dozed off during watch.

"The snow's kind of garbled up the radio waves, but... I have a few holotapes if you'd like to use my pipboy."

He glanced back over, eyeing the piece of tech with interest. "What've you got?"

She smiled, pulling two of the three tapes she had on her from the front pocket of her bag. "Some music and Zeta Invaders."

"I've never had the opportunity to play any games before." His tone was something like excitement trying to disguise itself as disinterest.

"Try to beat the high score." She held it out for him and he took it, examining the tape.

MacCready would be annoyed if someone overtook him. He'd been a childish brat when he'd beaten her out of first place and she'd had no luck in regaining her title.

She twitched her right arm, trying to reach up to the latch on the device and winced. She dropped her hand closer to the other so that she could actually reach. She'd be thankful to get back to the Prydwen and have the Knight-Captain take a look at her shoulder.

Her wrist felt light without the weight of the small computer and she handed it off to him. He studied it with open interest, forgetting his rifle for the moment.

He glanced upward again as she moved to lay out her bedroll. "Thank you, Knight."

"No problem."

She settled herself onto the bedroll, turning in attempt to find a position that wouldn't hurt her shoulder. Even after six months she hadn't been able to adjust to the discomfort of sleeping on the floor or in rusted out mattresses every night. Despite the hard wood, the thinness of the sleeping bag, and the sorry excuse for a pillow, the burden of the day weighed her down into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Two days in the snow storm left Dollie hungry, cold, and dehydrated. The longer she lived in the Wasteland, the more accustomed she became to the pangs of hunger, to the dryness of her mouth, and the symptoms of radiation poisoning.

They'd run out of things to burn, and she hadn't been at all receptive to the idea of huddling together for warmth. It was a line she wasn't willing to cross, not anything against the Paladin personally. She trusted him not to exploit the situation, honestly didn't even believe he would think to. But she'd never really been physically close to any men beside her husband. Not for anything more than a hug of greeting or farewell.

She'd chosen to push her overall discomfort aside when the sun had poured through the slats of wood boarding the old windows, appearing for the first time since they'd ventured into the Abraxodyne factory. Danse was sleeping, albeit fitfully, on his bedroll. She did her best not to wake him as she edged the couch away from the door enough to get outside.

The sunlight reflected harsh off of the white powder, lighting the Commonwealth up completely new. She was breathless at the scorched trees that hung heavy with snow, the snow capped mountains on the horizon, the gentle stillness of it all. Dot the landscape with a few radstags and it could be an oil painting.

She leaned into one of the porch columns, letting her fingers rest in the snow on the railing. Dragging the nearly unconscious Paladin up the rotting steps had been a hell of a feat. He was a wall of dense muscle, and she'd only had one arm to drag him. The pain had begun to worsen again, but it wouldn't be a problem for much longer with the storm behind them. They'd be able to signal a vertibird.

The sky was blue, adorned with soft wisps of white clouds. She gathered some of the snow into her fingers, compacting it, rolling it into a ball. She smiled recalling the way she and her sister had fought snowball wars as children, the two of them against the other kids from their neighborhood back in Lansing.

It hurt to think of her sister, to think of Sergeant First Class Delilah Bradford who'd most certainly died when the bombs hit D.C. She missed their twice-weekly phone calls. She missed hearing about her girlfriend Madison and the three dogs they'd adopted. The way she'd fawned over Shaun when she'd come up to visit.

Lila had been the fun one, the pretty one. A feisty bombshell with the same hazel eyes as her, the innumerable freckles she'd been jealous of, and short cropped hair that accentuated every sharp feature of her face. She'd been the one to step up and join the military to help support the family the moment she'd turned eighteen. She'd brought Nate into her life.

The creak of floorboards alerted her that Danse was awake, drawing her out of her memories and back into the present. The couch legs scraped against the floor as he moved it. Another creak was that of the door being opened, him stepping cautiously out.

"Think fast." She called over her shoulder, tossing the snowball.

She tried to suppress a giggle at his wide-eyed surprise as it collided with his chest, crumbling to powder. Watching him flinch was just as funny. Apparently friendly-fire didn't figure into his constant vigilance.

He frowned, looking serious as he stepped onto the porch to get a look at the sky. "We should move out immediately. We need to scout an appropriate extraction point before we set the signal grenade."

He brushed what remained of the snow from his chest, turning back into the cabin.

She sighed, feeling foolish. The soldier clearly wasn't in the mood. She headed back inside, gathering her things as quickly as she could.

Danse was waiting on the porch when she stepped back out. "I hope you remember where you put those frag mines."

He'd certainly set the tone for the day.

She sighed inwardly, heading for the stairs. "Follow me."

She waded out into the snow, astonished as it climbed most of the way up her thighs. It had been cold inside the cabin, but plunged into the snow, it was even colder. She tried not to dwell on it, pushing forward. Every rip and tear in her vault suit taunted her, cold needling her skin.

"Clear." She called back once they'd moved beyond the mines.

"It's hazardous to leave them behind."

She gritted her teeth, restraining herself from telling him to dig for them himself. "I'll set a marker and come back when the snow melts."

He was silent for a moment. "Head south."

She turned, stomping through the snow in the direction he indicated. She didn't bother trying to strike up a conversation, focusing instead on things that could make her warm. A space heater, hot chocolate, cider, snuggling up with Dogmeat, chicken soup, a down comforter, a bonfire, toasted marshmallows. Her baby boy, cuddly and tired after a bath in the sink. Nate, Nate, Nate. His contagious laughter, his crooked smile, his flirty charm.

Her boot caught on a tree root under the drift and she teetered, throwing out her good arm to try and regain her footing. She stared at the mound of snow in front of her, at the impression her thighs had made in it as she'd stumbled.

"Your coordination is impeccable."

She tried to rise above it. Tried to ignore the dry sarcasm. Tried to think of some reason he was being so critical. Surely one snowball couldn't have made him that grumpy. She threw him a look over her shoulder.

His rifle was cradled in his hands, but his grip was slack. His nose was red from the cold. His expression was severe, his mouth drawn into a familiar scowl as he squinted against the light reflecting off of the snow.

His head. The harsh light, the exertion. It must have been killing him.

She took a deep breath and pushed on. After an additional ten minutes out in the cold she could scarcely hear beyond the chattering of her teeth. She couldn't feel her fingers or her toes. They'd come across a few snow drifts deeper than the ones on the main path, but none that were much shallower. Some snow had wedged its way into her boots, dampening her socks.

"I don't think we're going to find anywhere clear enough for a 'bird to land." She stopped, turning back toward him. She was shivering, starting to worry about the threat of frostbite that she hadn't taken seriously before. Hunger and dehydration were making it difficult to keep moving.

He scrutinized their surroundings. "Being in the open like this is tactically irresponsible. We should find cover."

"Right." She murmured, glancing toward the treeline. In bright orange and bright blue they were walking targets, but the blackened trees would have to do.

Danse set the signal grenade, propping it in the snow before following her to the trees. They eyed the horizon in the direction of the Prydwen in silence.

The wind stirred puffs of snow into the air, cutting through Dollie's coat and her suit. She tucked her left hand under her other arm, bouncing in place to keep warm. It wasn't working.

She recalled how warm the Paladin had been as they'd leaned into each other for support getting out of the factory. He'd practically been a radiator. She considered shuffling the two steps it would take to be close enough to feel his warmth.

Embarrassment flamed up in her cheeks at the thought. They'd been in danger in the factory. He'd barely been able to stand, not to mention walk in a straight line. But out in the open, after rejecting the thought so vehemently before and with him more prickly than usual...

No. Snuggling up to Danse would be horribly awkward. He was her superior, and most definitely did not strike her as someone who welcomed physical contact outside of survival situations. She greeted her friends with affection: Valentine, Piper, Preston, even MacCready. But him...

She peered over out of the corner of her eye. He was all hard lines and tension: straight backed, broad shouldered, square jawed beneath the scruff. Scarred, dirt streaked, weather-worn. He watched the horizon defensively, eyes narrowed with laser focus. Intimidating and powerful, protective.

She glanced away, her face burning, feeling warmer overall than she thought she should have. She hoped that laser focus would skip right over the blush undoubtedly filling her face. Her brain was at a standstill trying to explain it to herself.

"'Bird incoming." He spoke, breaking the stillness.

She'd nearly jumped out of her skin, her pulse racing. She glanced up, noticing the aircraft as it flew toward them. It grew louder as it neared. She felt apprehensive, hoping it would be able to land despite the snow.

Her ears ached at the roar as it touched down. Powder lept up into the air, swept on the motion from the rotors. Her hair whipped up with it. Danse gestured with a tilt of his head, and she moved forward, following their tracks from before.

Her chin was barely on level with the floor of it. The snow had swallowed up the ladder. Her bones rattled from the hum. The engines threw off a welcome wave of heat.

A Knight in power armor stood braced at the minigun. Another without offered a hand for her to take. She reached up, grasping it. He pulled and she attempted to find some kind of purchase on the smooth metal exterior. A firm hand on the small of her back helped push her upward.

Once on board, she was given a headset to block out the roar of the blades and the engines. She attempted to strap herself in but her fingers were too numb to work effectively. Danse reached across her, fastening her restraints before returning to his own.

Dollie focused her attention away and over the side of the vertibird, watching the ground shrink as they lifted off. The same buzzing excitement from the first time she'd ridden filled her up, enough to block out the lash of the cold air and the persistent ache of her skin.

The Commonwealth was beautiful, glittering as sunlight bounced off of the snow. The air smelled cleaner, all of the bad, the evil, lulled into inaction for now. They flew without incident.

 

Bed rest. Danse had never been particularly good at observing bed rest. The ceiling of his quarters could only hold his attention for so long before he was itching to get up and do something useful. Start writing up that new report. Check the mail on his terminal for anything he'd missed. Submit a formal request for Ingram to begin work on a new set of Power Armor for him. Work on it himself.

It wasn't the first suit he'd had to leave behind. One had rusted out when he was still just a Knight, stuck in the field during a bout of rain that had lasted three weeks. The joints had stuck and the hydraulics had failed. But the suit that had likely been crushed under hundreds of pounds of metal and cement catwalk had been his only suit as a Paladin.

Better it than them, though. Nothing to be sentimental about.

He'd come out better than the Knight had. A concussion and a cracked rib was mild in comparison to the dislocated shoulder that had begun to heal incorrectly, nerves pinched and knitted into the wrong place. As he laid motionless in his bunk Captain Cade was cutting into her and remedying the damage.

The stimpak he'd given her hadn't seemed to have done much to her benefit, though neither had the one he'd taken. He'd glanced the bruising on her shoulders from where he'd caught her before he left sickbay. It hardly stood out against the marred skin on her back that was more scar than anything else.

Those scars were further proof that the world had always been a cruel and ruthless place. Someone as kind and gentle as she was could never be deserving of the amount of pain the scars suggested. Especially not as a child.

In his life, Danse could only recall having one person he considered to be a friend. Plenty of colleagues, a handful of acquaintances. But only one friend: the snarky and charismatic Knight, James Cutler. After his death, Danse had decided that the pain outweighed the benefit. And yet Wallace was navigating his personal defenses just as deftly as Cutler had.

The two were vastly different except in the way they insisted upon teasing him. Where Dollie was trusting, Jim had been endlessly suspicious, and for good reason. He would have questioned everything about the woman. A pre-war vaulty, isn't that just god damn convenient? And yet Danse found himself trusting his gut, believing that she was the most honest person he'd ever met despite everything.

Too soft for a soldier, Cutler would have told him. But she was changing.

Quicker to react, less likely to shy away from conflict. She already had the endurance and perception of a veteran. It was hard to believe she'd been able to drag them both out of Abraxodyne when the hike from Cambridge to ArcJet had been taxing on her when they'd first met.

Her reflexes were sharper, day after day of hostile encounters schooling her quickly. She'd become an excellent shot, rarely distracted and always on guard. They worked in tandem in the field, as though she could read his mind. It was strange having someone looking out for him again, and not just as a fellow soldier.

A pretty little thing, Cutler would have called her, and he'd have agreed. But she was much more than an attractive face.

She was a child saving, death-defying, soft hearted, jumbled mess of a woman. Frustratingly awkward one moment and fiercely confident the next. She could bare her teeth and slam a rifle into a feral just as naturally as she could dance barefooted in a kitchen humming Rum and Nuka-Cola. Just as beautiful covered in dirt with concrete dust in her mussed hair as she was in a laundered dress with her lips painted orange.

She was complicated, and what he thought of her was confusing, making his head ache. Jim hadn't been complicated, hadn't made his head spin. It was exactly the kind of brain activity Cade had urged him to avoid.

None of it mattered anyway, he reminded himself, rolling onto his side in the bunk. She was just another soldier who's blood could end up on his hands. Another person it would hurt to lose. Another nightmare to keep him up at night.

 

According to Cade, a vault suit wouldn't hold up to the winter weather. Funny since she'd been frozen in it for more than two centuries, but he wasn't all that wrong. It was barely insulated and beginning to wear too thin for comfort. More stitch than original fabric. But she found the immediately available alternative a bit intimidating.

There were so many buckles and clasps. It may not have been as tight as the vault suit, but it certainly felt like it. She missed A-line skirts and turtle neck sweaters, tights and oxfords. She'd always shrunk behind her clothing, allowed herself to be swallowed by it, made an effort to keep anyone from looking too closely at her.

She could feel eyes on her now, sporting the standard uniform. Why couldn't she have been a scribe with all the padding? Maybe once she was secured in her combat armor she'd feel better, but that would have to wait. Cade hadn't cleared her for duty yet.

The surgery had been quick. He'd put her under, much to her terror, as he had put things back where they belonged. One day later and her arm was already feeling better and the scar from the incision had nearly vanished. If medicine had worked like that before the war... well she'd have spent a lot less time in the burn ward.

She was anxious to get back to Diamond City, to hear if Valentine had learned anything more. She felt less guilty chasing down leads now that she knew Danse would stand by her decisions.

The chain of events that led from the Vault, to Valentine, to Kellogg, to the Memory Den, snaking back and forth through the Glowing Sea was something she could scarcely wrap her head around. It didn't sound like real life. Like her life. And now there was some secret organization with agents and code phrases. She shouldn't have felt so intrigued, and yet...

Follow the freedom trail, she thought for the millionth time. Join the Railroad.

That was too obvious. It couldn't be the old Civil War monument that skirted Boston Common. Not much of a secret organization if it was called the Railroad and based around the Underground Railroad every American citizen had learned about in primary school. Although what she considered common knowledge may not have been so common in 2288.

Her mind wandered to the old films about secret agents and espionage, speaking in code, sending out secret messages, sneaking through the cover of night. She'd heard they helped synths... synths that wanted to escape. That was a dangerous thought sitting on her bunk on the Prydwen and piecing her laser pistol back together.

If there were synths that wanted to escape then... she cringed to think what it must have been like. Cringed to think of what they were doing to her baby. Her son. Her ten year old son. Almost ten as the days inched her closer to June.

The wavy hair, arranged tidily and combed... medical journals and Tesla magazines scattered around him... he'd looked healthy, well fed, cared for...

"Excuse me, Knight Wallace?" A woman spoke up, yanking her free of her thoughts.

"Yes?" She studied the woman at the foot of her bunk, standing loosely at attention and dressed in the scribe uniform, a few strands of hair falling from her hood into her face. Her eyes were a halting shade of blue that almost glowed in her tanned face.

"Captain Kells would like you to report to the engine room." The scar along her cheek stretched as she offered a small smile.

"Kells?" She blurted, feeling embarrassed when the scribe lifted an eyebrow. "D- did he say why?"

The scribe rocked back on her heels, blinking at the question. "Afraid not. Just asked for you."

Dollie pulled a breath in, trying to steady herself. She needed to act like a soldier, not a civilian. Kells himself had told her that. Had to stop asking so many questions. "Thank you, Scribe."

The woman nodded, pivoting on her heel and heading back toward the metal stairs.

Dollie stowed the pistol and screwdriver back in her trunk, pushing her apprehension aside. What was one meeting with the captain when she'd stared down more judiciaries in a court room than she could count? What was one meeting with Kells when she'd embedded a mini nuke into the chest of the grizzled mercenary that had killed her husband and stolen her baby?

Kells shouldn't have been frightening... But he was another person with the potential to be disappointed in her. To be let down. She'd just have to avoid doing anything that could disappoint him. Simple enough.

She was careful on the ladder, her shoulder still sore. She'd had to be lifted up the rungs when they'd gotten back to the Prydwen, the embarrassment still fresh in her mind. She couldn't help but question who'd designed the ship with sickbay on the upper decks.

The Elder wasn't pacing the floor before the glass panels when she crossed to the stairs that would lead her down to the engine room. She was thankful for that. One less person nearby to make her anxieties spike.

The Lancer-Captain was mid-address when she reached the bottom of the stairs, but he cut himself short to scrutinize her. "Nice to finally see you in uniform, Wallace."

It didn't sound like a compliment.

She realized the soldier Kells had been addressing was none other than the Paladin, at attention with his back toward her. He glanced over his shoulder, his face unreadable. Somehow, his gaze made her more nervous than Kells'.

"You wanted to see me, Sir?" She powered through, her discomfort ebbing calmer in her stomach than the last time she'd been face-to-face with the Captain.

"Correct." He nodded, addressing her and Danse both. "I've received reports that supplies have been disappearing from our supply depot in the airport. I suspect this may be an inside job."

"That's a serious security risk." Danse spoke up, frowning.

"That's what worries me. If there is a traitor, our entire operation here could be in jeopardy." He paused for a moment. "I've spoken with the Knight-Captain and he's agreed to give you both a soft release for the mission."

A soft release? She guessed that meant it would be mostly legwork.

"Report to Knight-Sergeant Gavil at the base. He commands our logistics division. He can familiarize you with his unit and the depot. Beyond that," He looked at the Paladin. "You have leave to conduct the investigation as you see fit."

Danse gave a firm nod in reply. Kells turned back to her.

"Report your findings directly to me. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Sir."

"I expect results, Knight. See that I get them." He narrowed his eyes at her. "Dismissed."

She tried not to be unnerved as the Paladin fell into step beside her, climbing the stairs back to the command deck. This was a second chance to prove herself after failing to bring Brandis back in. Why else would the Captain trust her with such a mission?

Maybe he was trying to weed out two undesirables from the Prydwen's crew.

"You should get your combat gear. Rendezvous on the deck in ten."

She obliged him, climbing back up the metal steps and buckling herself into her armor at her bunk. With her laser pistol only half assembled, she pulled a rifle from her foot locker instead. The one Danse had given her as thanks for her help at ArcJet. She secured it across her shoulders and hurried to meet him.

Sunlight glittered off of the water far below the Prydwen, white clouds hanging close enough that she thought she might be able to reach out and touch them. Danse was already waiting, wearing combat armor of his own, and a brown leather bomber jacket.

He guessed at her question. "It will have to suffice until Proctor Ingram is able to construct a new suit of Power Armor."

Right. Her thoughts returned to his suit, likely crushed flat into a pancake, and she felt guilty.

"Shall we?" He gestured to the awaiting Vertibird.

They climbed aboard, taxi-ing down to the airport. The base buzzed with it's usual activity. The snow had been cleared from within the walls and the surrounding compound, piled into tall drifts beyond the walls. It was still cold, but not as cold as it had been. Her uniform trapped her body heat inside, keeping her warm, though she didn't appreciate the creaking of the leather as she moved.

Danse cleared his throat, calling her attention and she followed close behind him down the wide stairs ahead.

"Knight-Sergent Gavil can be... abrasive." He warned her, knowingly. "Don't take it personally. This is your show, Knight."

Of course. Another 'abrasive' Brotherhood soldier. She'd already resigned herself to the pattern. Rhys, Kells, Maxson... what was one more. Honestly, she'd dealt with worse as a lawyer. She just had to approach things from that angle. Find the truth and use it. If she'd approached life in the Wasteland like that before, things could have been easier.

They approached a surly looking man in an olive uniform. He noticed them coming and set his clipboard down on the desk. It clacked harshly, the sound reverberating off of the concrete walls.

"Let me guess. Captain Kells sent you."

"That's right. You're in charge here?" She inquired, trying to exude confidence through her posture.

"I am. And you're here about the missing supplies." He frowned, before turning his chin in a gesture that seemed a lot like defiance. "Let's take this somewhere more private. Follow me."

He led them through a chain link gate and further into the depot. Heavy metal crates lined the walls, as well as shelf upon shelf stacked to bursting with supplies.

"We've converted this section of the terminal to our primary supply depot. Everything the Brotherhood needs to operate passes through here. Supplies from the Prydwen. Salvage from the field. We handle it all."

"Access is strictly limited to the Logistics detail. And we track every crate, every bullet, every bolt that comes through that door." He stopped, turning back to face them with his hands balled into tight fists. "Which is why I don't take kindly to these accusations."

Ah. Gavil was taking the investigation personally, an affront to his capabilities as a leader. Pride ran high in military types. She'd had to defend a few clients against the U.S. army during her internship in her final years of law school. Keep cool and don't back down, Nate had advised her.

"I know every soldier in this unit. The thought that anyone would question their loyalty makes me sick." He leaned toward her, his gaze blistering. "If you've got questions, ask. Otherwise, stay out of our way."

"Watch your tone, Sergeant." Danse rose to her defense, bristling.

"Sir." He acknowledged, grudgingly.

She lifted her chin a fraction. "Tell me about the missing supplies."

"We're down over twenty crates, if you believe the Scribes. All food. Dried meat, InstaMash, Mac and Cheese. It doesn't make sense. I could see someone stealing weapons or tech. But our thief goes to all this trouble for a lifetime supply of Cram?" He shook his head indignantly.

Twenty crates was a hell of a lot to go missing without someone noticing.

"I need to get back to work. If you have more questions, go bother Knight Lucia or Initiate Clarke. Take my advice. Poke around a little then tell the Captain to let it go. It's not worth your time. Or mine." He dismissed her, giving a pointed look to the Paladin before pacing back to his desk.

Danse's expression was stern and angry. She tried to circumvent it, gesturing toward the rest of the supply depot. She wasn't sure who exactly Lucia and Clarke were, but Gavil was done talking.

"Let's find those personnel."

They navigated the shelves, coming up on a woman searching through a crate in the same olive uniform Gavil wore. She was tall and her dark hair was pulled back in a tight bun.

"Copper wire, copper wire... Could you tell me where..." She turned, realizing they weren't who she thought. "Oh. I'm sorry. I don't think we've met. Knight Lucia, Logistics. What can I do for you, Knight?"

Lucia offered a hand out to shake. Dollie took it.

"Knight Wallace. I'm conducting an investigation into the missing supplies."

"The Captain appointed an investigator? Is it really that bad?" Her dark eyes widened and she leaned back. "I'm not sure I can be much help, but... what do you want to know?"

"Tell me about the missing supplies."

"Not much to tell. I've heard it's mostly food. And... vacuum tubes? ... No, sorry, they just lost those." She shook her head.

"How often are supplies lost around here?"

"Someone just filed them in the wrong place, apparently." She shrugged. "Clarke found them the next day. Little things do happen, but it never amounts to much. The Sergeant may complain, but Proctor Teagan and his scribes are very thorough. One or two crates, maybe. But not this many."

"How's security around here?"

"It's tight." She nodded. "At least two Knights and a Scribe on duty at all times. And we've got the entire base right here. We don't have much to worry about."

She'd assumed as much. It would be impossible for anyone to sneak through with an entire contingent of soldiers standing watch. She offered Danse a look, wondering if they were on the same page.

"Is there any way someone could bypass the security, Knight?" Danse asked, his arms crossed over his chest.

Lucia contemplated the question. "... well, you'd have to be in Logistics. We're the only ones authorized to bring supplies in or out. But then what? There's no way you'd get a full crate of supplies off base. With all the patrols, someone would notice... Why steal anything in the first place? The Brotherhood provides everything we need. No one here has any connection to the Commonwealth. I don't know. None of this makes any sense."

She was doing most of the reasoning for them. With the way she was speaking so freely, Dollie was pretty certain Lucia wasn't involved.

"Tell me about Clarke."

Lucia shifted, glancing beyond them where the soldier must have been. Dollie looked back, noticing a thin man with a shaved head eyeing them from across the depot.

"We joined the Brotherhood around the same time, about two years ago. We've always been friends... well, until recently."

"Why? What happened?"

"I... I don't know, honestly. He's just been... distant, lately. I'm sorry. It's probably nothing. I should get back to work."

Danse gestured away from her with his chin. Dollie held in a sigh.

"Thank you for your help, Knight."

"Good luck." She turned back toward the shelving, rifling through it again.

They took a few paces away from her, stopping short. The other soldier was still keeping an eye on them, glancing away as soon as he noticed her looking.

"We should check with Clarke. He may know something." Danse murmured quiet enough that only she could hear.

"I think that's him over there." She tilted her head in the man's direction, waiting for Danse to see what she had.

His eyes narrowed just a fraction.

She led the way over to the man, calling out once she was close. "Excuse me, are you Clarke?"

"You're here about the theft right? I already told Sergeant Gavil everything I know." He watched them approach warily, already defensive.

She frowned. "What can you tell me about the missing supplies, Initiate?"

"I really don't know anything. I've heard the rumors, same as everyone else. But that's all." He was abrupt.

"What rumors?" She put a hand on her hip, getting a little tired of being disrespected so consistently.

"They say Raiders with stealth boys hit the terminal every night. That supplies disappear faster than we can bring them in. It's a lot of garbage. I usually work the night shift. Believe me, the only thing you risk dying of down here is boredom."

"And what would you say the security situation is like?"

He scoffed at her. "We're in the middle of a hardened military base under constant guard. Nothing's getting in here."

She had an idea, tried to push him for information that would sound less rehearsed. "What about Lucia. Do you think she has something to do with this?"

"What?" His eyebrows shot upward. "You mean Knight Lucia. And there's no way. She'd never do anything to go against the Brotherhood. We joined together two years ago. She'll probably get assigned to a patrol soon. And I'll... I'll still be stuck here."

She watched as Clarke's face fell. He looked away from them, staring hard toward the wall on the other side of the depot.

"That's all, Initiate." She dismissed him.

"Knight." He gave her one last glare before pacing away.

"Gavil seems to be instilling aggression in his unit. None of them have been particularly forthcoming." Danse grumbled, shooting a disappointed look toward the Sergeant at his terminal.

"Thick as thieves." Dollie couldn't help the small smile that tugged at her lips. "Now what? We still don't have very much to go on."

"I know it may not be the preferred course of action, but we are at liberty to search their belongings if need be. The Initiate was duplicitous enough to justify doing so."

She didn't want that. She would hate it if someone went through her things. The right to privacy may not have been an important right in the Commonwealth, but it was to her.

"Excuse me, Knight Wallace?" Knight Lucia called her attention quietly, frowning as she came to stand before them. "I... I know I said it was probably nothing, but... I changed my mind. Ever since the battle for the airport, Clarke hasn't been himself."

"Did something happen?"

"I don't think so. But it's like he's given up. It was our first real combat mission... since then I've noticed him slipping off by himself, once or twice a day. I never thought much of it, but... His shift ends in a few minutes. Do you think you could follow him, see what he's doing? It could be nothing, but... I'm worried about him."

"Your concern for your fellow soldier is commendable, Knight."

"We'll get to the bottom of this." Dollie offered her a smile for reassurance.

Lucia nodded her thanks, turning toward the shelves to her right and busying herself.

"War tempers the strong, and breaks the weak. If that is what happened... he wouldn't be the first. Not much of a lead but let's see where it takes us."

To make the minutes pass more quickly and seem less conspicuous Dollie elected to interview the Scribe on duty with the same questions as the Knight and the Initiate. The woman answered sincerely, but she was only half listening.

She watched from the corner of her eye as Clarke slipped through an open security door.

"No more questions. Thanks for your cooperation." She told the Scribe when they'd finished what they were saying.

Danse's eyes were locked on the doorway. She gave him a nod and he let her lead. She angled herself enough that she could see past the security door, could see as Clarke slipped through a second, heading outside.

The sunlight washed out his figure and she moved into the alcove, attempting to be as quiet as she could. There were a few old vending machines, piles of tires, a few wood pallets, nothing much of note.

She caught sight of him again through the open doorway, standing at the edge of the rocky shore. That wasn't so strange. If he was just slipping off to stare at the ocean he'd be among most human beings who didn't mind the salt spray. Then he shifted and she leaned out of the doorway, hoping she was quick enough not to be caught following.

She glanced back around the doorway, catching his retreating figure as he slipped around the building to the right. There was nothing but wreckage around the airport. She'd looked around once herself out of curiosity. Was he hanging out in the wreckage to be alone?

She counted to ten before following the curve of the cement terminal. She could hear the crunch of the Initiate's boots in the sand, sincerely grateful for the absence of the Paladin's usual clomping armored footsteps. She caught sight of him again as he hesitated beside the metal framework of an airplane.

He began to run then, slipping through the wreckage. She moved as quickly as she could without being loud, watching him appear on the other side. A metal door caught her eye. She hadn't noticed it during her exploration. The Initiate slowed as he approached it, giving them enough time to disappear into the shadow of the plane. The door opened and he slipped inside.

She hurried, catching the door before it closed completely and holding it open with her boot until Clarke's footsteps sounded far enough away. She pushed it open, cautiously stepping inside. Danse wasn't far behind.

They entered into a concrete corridor, pipes lining the walls, and she had a moment of panic, recalling the darkness of the factory and it's ghouls. The flood lights in the airport seemed to be working, though. She took a gulp of stale air and pushed forward.

The corridor snaked right, sending them down a staircase and toward a pile of rubble. It led out into a hallway with a functioning elevator that closed as it came into view.

"Going down." It dinged, the light above it flashing. "Facilities."

"What the hell is he doing in here?" She asked, moving to the left of the elevators and pulling her rifle from her shoulder.

"We'll have to follow him to find out." Danse swept to the right, his rifle already in his hands. "Remain vigilant. He clearly didn't want to be followed."

She hesitated, observing the rubble blocking the way. This was supposed to be a soft release. Neither of them had been deemed fit for duty. She turned back, checking the working elevator. There was a sensor that required a keycard. The Initiate must have had one.

"Paladin, are you feeling up to this?" She spoke hesitantly, uncertain if her rank allowed her to ask such a question.

While her shoulder was sore, she'd regained her full range of movement. Cade had encouraged her to get moving, though this may not have been what he intended. She wasn't so sure about the status of the Paladin's concussion.

"Affirmative." He spoke up, not correcting her. "There's a door up ahead."

The door let out onto a ledge that had been connected to the floor below. Debris from the ceiling had caused the stairs to collapse. She dropped down carefully, avoiding the sharper debris as best as she could.

A pair of travellators stretched out ahead in parallel, obstructed by large slabs of concrete. The lights were dim and far apart. Movement caught her attention and she squinted to see more clearly.

"Straight ahead." She whispered to Danse once he'd dropped down beside her.

"Damn it." He growled, his anger flaring. "They're under the base."

He focused through his scope, sending a beam of laser fire into the chest of the feral. It caught fire, dissolving into ash. The discharge reverberated, making Dollie's ears ring.

"Please watch your step." The PA system chirped, garbled with static.

Another feral crawled from beneath a pile of ruble, alerted by the sound. She took aim, inhaling before squeezing the trigger. It crumpled back to the ground.

She was cautious as they moved forward, her ears straining to catch any sounds. The airport was a big place. It wasn't likely that there'd only be two ferals lurking in the ruin.

Wires and tubes hung downward from the ceiling, the light even dimmer as they moved further along the track. She stepped over the ashes and the limp limbs, noticing a door up ahead.

A throaty clicking drew her attention to the rubble, another ghoul clawing out toward her. Danse laid into it from behind her.

"Another one! Over there!" He barked, jabbing his chin toward the door.

She steadied her rifle, firing on it. Her heart pounded anxiously, waiting for more clicking. Her ears caught the drip of water, Danse's footsteps, her own steady breathing.

"Clear for now." He assured her, squinting into the dark.

She flipped the flashlight on her pipboy on, stepping into the hallway. More concrete barred the way ahead, and...

"Got a body down here." She called back down the hall. She let her rifle hang by it's strap and reached out, tugging the holotags from beneath the man's collar. "A... Knight Rylan."

"I haven't heard any reports about a missing Knight."

"It smells like he's been here a while." She tried not to breathe too deeply, returning back to the main corridor. "No weapon wounds. The ferals killed him."

"His death will be recorded in the Scrolls. He won't be forgotten."

She slipped the tags into one of the pouches at her waist and they continued toward a flickering light. The corridor made a right angle, and the travellators around the corner were submerged in water.

The icy water swished at their footsteps. Her stomach sank as more ferals rose upward. She counted four, reminding herself to stay calm. The key was to take them out before they started running and to keep them at long range.

The ferals didn't even have the chance to move toward them before they'd been dispatched. It was getting easier and easier.

She trudged upward along a ramp of fallen ceiling tiles into the room above. It led out into a stairwell that they followed into a corridor. Another left turn, another door.

A bright light beyond illuminated the old parking structure, illuminated the form of another feral, pushing a small toy car along the concrete ground. She flicked the light off on her pipboy, taking aim. It pushed the car back and forth. She felt sick.

Human once. Not anymore. The laser blast left the feral in a heap on the ground, the little car forgotten.

Cars littered the old parking garage, rusted skeletons of the past. She'd been here. She'd seen it before all this. She tried to push the memories away. There was no time to consolidate the past and the present.

"Select your targets carefully down here. These automobiles tend to explode when struck by weapons fire." Danse moved to the right where the garage dipped downward, inky darkness beginning to steal him from sight.

Dollie started to hesitate, but she drew in a breath, jogging to catch up. Couldn't get separated.

"Could use that light, again."

She flicked it back on, the green wash of color glinting off of tail lights and slick metal bumpers. It was colder the further down they went.

She caught a bit of movement around the corner ahead of them. She paused and Danse followed her lead. She counted limbs, trying to figure out how many there were. Three... no four... was that five?

If they fired on one the rest would come running, already poised on their feet. She eyed the Corvega sitting between them and the ferals.

"Keep clear." She whispered to the Paladin, aiming toward the hood.

Two short bursts and the car erupted in flames. She backpedaled, trying to stay out of the way. The fire illuminated the shiny eyes, the pale, waterlogged skin. The car exploded, the ground shaking. The ferals growled and roared at the impact, their shrieks filling the air.

"We've got incoming!" Danse pulled her attention away from the flames.

Her ears picked up the scraping coming from behind, but a few were breaking away, pulling themselves from under vehicles closer to them. She locked on the closest, aiming for the legs, watching it collapse, still clawing toward them, but unable to move.

She took a step backward, colliding with the solid wall that was Danse. Back to back, they took out the ferals barreling toward them.

Before long, silence was hanging over them again. She surveyed the ferals, at least a dozen littering the ground. One had fallen just in front of his feet. He hadn't flinched, hadn't moved, stood his ground. That was exactly what she wanted to be like.

Cold beads of sweat slid down her neck from her hairline, making her shudder. She'd been spending far too much time in creepy ruins like the one surrounding them. Every muscle in her body felt tense and wired.

"We have to stop finding places like this." She hissed her frustration, starring into the darkness.

"I've still got your back, Knight." His voice wrapped around every vertebrae down her spine, uncoiling tension as it went.

She steadied her breathing again, trying to steel herself, trying to feel as calm as he was acting. She recalled those words from the factory, smiling as she turned to him. "Better keep close, then."

They pushed forward, shoulder-to-shoulder. Three more ghouls, none of them coming close enough to scratch. More rusted cars, one flickering light, another door to move through.

A subway tunnel stretched out before them, ferals lumbering directionless. She flipped her pip-boy light off again, using the darkness for cover. Four more ghouls dispatched.

If she kept her distance, she could pretend like this was nothing, like this was something she'd done every day of her life; like the locket around the neck of the corpse now bobbing on the track had never held the picture of a loved one.

She felt sicker as they stepped carefully through a puddle of gasoline, following the tracks alongside a train that had tipped over. Felt sicker still at the image of the bones dangling through the train's back window, a failed attempt at escape.

A service room, a terminal, a set of turrets. Four more ferals dispatched. She deactivated the turrets again.

"Good thinking." The compliment kept her grounded, kept her moving.

Another doorway. Baggage claim. The same place she'd collected Nate after all three tours. The place he'd swept her off her feet and spun her around. The place he'd first pressed his hands to her stomach, joyful tears gleaming in dreamy blue eyes.

No, no, no. Six more ferals, one coming close enough that she could smell it's rancid breath, sent flailing by the force of the blast from her rifle at such close range.

She tried to focus. Reminded herself what she was doing. They had to find Clarke eventually. Had to be getting closer.

Another stairwell led out into a long hallway. It was well lit enough. She switched her flashlight off again. Tall windows lined the right side. There were fusion generators in the room below, conveyor belts, shipping crates. And ghouls. She struggled to count them.

She squinted, catching sight of the Initiate standing at another window, watching the ghouls.

"... give it a try." His voice carried down the hallway. He was speaking softly, kindly. "That's it. Not bad, is it?"

She struggled to understand what she was seeing. The ferals lurked near a crate, their jaws gnashing... they were eating... the supplies...

"Hang on. I'll get you some more." Clarke told them, disappearing from view.

Cautiously, she followed the corridor, trying to stay out of view of the windows.

"Hold up. If we both go charging in there he's going to panic." Danse kept his voice low. "I'll stay out here and cover our rear. You deal with Clarke. See if you can talk him down and get some answers to this mess."

It made sense. She was a newer face, probably less threatening than the Paladin. Maybe she could reason with him. Figure out what the hell was going on.

"Right." She nodded, turning back down the corridor.

There was a hole in the wall at the end. She turned carefully, avoiding the can chimes that had been hung through it. It was the crunch of debris under her boot that gave her away.

"What? Who's there? Come out."

She stepped around the crates, moving slowly, holding her hands out where he could see them. She watched the panic flicker across his face, watched him reach toward a pistol on a desk near the window. Cans and boxes of food were strewn about all around him.

"You." He glared as they came face-to-face. "What are you doing down here?"

"I could ask you the same question, Clarke."

His fingers neared the pistol. Her rifle could be in her hands, his body reduced to smoldering ashes, before he'd even gotten it in his grip. He seemed to realize it, dropping his hand back to his side.

"Someone was bound to catch me eventually. Can't keep this up forever."

"All this food... are you feeding those ferals?"

"Yes. And it's been working, too!" He gestured back toward the glass.

"Working?" She wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. "I don't understand. Why are you doing this?"

"It's... a long story." He shook his head. He watched her warily. "Are you going to execute me, or are you going to listen?"

Execute...? The word was like a fist closing around her heart. Of course she wouldn't.

"Start explaining."

"I joined the Brotherhood two years ago, and I never doubted our beliefs. Never questioned them. But during the battle for the airport, the ghouls... they just kept coming. I... I killed... I don't even know how many. They started running away. But we... we kept going. I killed them. I killed them all."

She'd be lying if she tried to say it wasn't how she would feel in the same situation. But this was the Brotherhood. He'd joined the Brotherhood and so had she. "You did what you had to."

"That's what Lucia said." He grimaced, shaking his head. "But, damn it, they were people first!"

He considered the pistol again for a moment. She watched him eyeing it.

"I had a friend who was a ghoul, once. He was as human as you or me... But the Brotherhood... the Brotherhood says ghouls are abominations. They all deserve to die. Would you kill him, too? Just because of who he is?"

"No." She spoke firmly, not hesitating. Not even caring if Danse were close enough to hear. It was the truth.

Clarke flinched, his eyes widening. He looked to her pleedingly now, as if she were a different person entirely. "See. You understand! We aren't like them, we get it!"

That sickened feeling was returning. She frowned, gesturing toward the window behind him. "Those ghouls... they're feral, Clarke. They aren't like your friend. Not anymore."

"No, see, if I feed them they'll leave everyone alone!" He waved his hands desperately, trying to make her understand. "They won't hurt anyone."

Exhaling a sigh she pulled the tags from the pouch on her waist.

"I found a body down here Clarke. Knight Rylan. You were feeding them, and they still killed him."

He took the tags from her hand, looking down at them. "Rylan... he worked with me in the terminal... he... he must have followed me..."

He turned back toward the window, watching the ferals. He was silent for a long moment, but she waited.

"As long as they're here more Knight's are going to die. I... I can't be responsible for that." He shook his head. The anguish on his face lodged a lump in her throat. "What's going to happen to me?"

She wanted to tell him to run. She wanted to let him escape. But it wasn't right. A man was dead because of him... "You have to turn yourself in."

It wasn't what he wanted to hear. It wasn't what she wanted to say. But it was what had to be done. It was justice.

"Right." He turned back to the window again, stepping closer to it. "What will happen to them?"

She felt numb. "You already know the answer to that."

He didn't speak, didn't move. He didn't try to fight it.

"I... I need a minute to get my thoughts together. Go on ahead. The elevator's in the next room. Use my keycard. I'll... I'll turn myself in."

She took the keycard, held it in a tight fist. The ferals would be put down. But she wasn't going to be the one to do it. She caught the Paladin's eye where he'd leaned into view beyond the hole in the wall. She gestured toward the next room and he followed without so much as a glance toward the Initiate.

She slid the card and the doors opened. It closed them inside. The elevator hummed around them, rattling loudly, the ancient fluorescent bulb flickering. She looked toward Danse at her side, wondering what he thought of everything, wondering if he would approve of how she'd handled it... if he'd disapprove.

His eyes were screwed shut and his shoulders were tense. That damn concussion. He shouldn't have been down there in the first place. She reached out, laying a careful hand on his shoulder blade. He flinched away and looked down at her. His eyes were dark and pained.

"You should get some more rest." She let her hand fall back to her side. "I'll report in to the Captain."

The elevator dinged, the doors sliding open. They were back near the escalators where they'd come in.

"Thank you, Knight." His words were quiet, almost embarrassed.

"It's not a problem, Sir."

 

Cade had cautioned him not to drink while he had a concussion. But the concussion was gone, it's hammering and the disorienting split of his vision pulled away thanks to the bed rest and the stimpaks. The persistent vice-like grip of headache, though, stayed behind. He considered the brown bottle in his hands a few moments longer, before letting it rest on the bedside table.

'Shield yourself from those not bound to you by steel, for they are the blind. Aid them when you can, but lose not sight of yourself,' He recited the words in his head. 'Lose not sight of yourself.'

He tried to relax his jaw, to release the tension of his shoulders, to let the anger settle back into calm composure. He recited the words from the Codex again in hopes they would let him focus away from the constant whirlwind of thoughts in his mind, to allow his guard to lower.

He was safe on the Prydwen, surrounded by his brothers and sisters in steel. Soldiers that would gladly spill their own blood to protect him, and for who he'd do the same. That had been enough once.

He'd been getting better. Or at least thought he had. The nightmares, the pain, they hadn't found him during recon. He'd been so busy that every chance he had to sleep was utilized to the fullest without a second thought. Now though...

'Lose not sight of yourself.'

He was a god damn hypocrite. He couldn't sleep unless he ran himself ragged, refused to let his mind idle for even a moment, threw himself into every dangerous mission that was offered up. The exact same things he'd been berating Wallace for from the start.

He was supposed to be helping her, teaching her. Her choice to turn the Initiate in was exactly what he would have done, because it was what the Brotherhood dictated. The look of guilt etched plainly on her face had made his guts wrench.

Was it right? Was he just forcing her to make the same choices he had been forced into?

The ache throbbed and he ground his teeth, laying back on the pillow.

'Lose not sight of yourself.'

He was supposed to be looking out for her and yet... Her hand on his shoulder in the elevator... on his shoulder plate when they'd found Astlin... that stop over in Diamond City... Grounding him without a single word, with nothing but the soft pressure of her fingers. How did she know? How did she...

Everything was washed in orange light. His finger flexed on the trigger. The mutant raised a massive arm, reaching out toward him. He had to kill it. It was his duty to kill it. It was just a trick- just the stress of the mission, the stakes were so high.

"Brother!" The beast cried, it's voice throaty, deepened and wrong.

His heart was near to exploding out of his chest. It couldn't be real, had to be some kind of trick, some sick joke.

The mutant rose with agility he hadn't anticipated, hurling itself toward him with frightening speed. It bowled him over like his armor was nothing, sending him crashing to his back. The air was crushed from his lungs and his rifle snapped clean in half against his chest plate.

The mutant slammed it's fists against his helmet, cracking it like an egg. The metal bit down into his skin, slashing upward as it pulled away. He choked on a scream, not enough air in his lungs to produce sound.

Blood flooded over his face and into his eyes. He squinted to see, locking on a taut silver chain embedded in the mutants throat, steel tags glowing tauntingly blue. He was close enough to see the face engraved into them.

"Join me Brother!" It- Cutler... what had been Cutler... roared, shaking him. "Be strong like super mutant!"

He couldn't breathe. He was going to die. He spotted the strained black strap on the beast's shoulder. A rifle still clung to it's back. He grabbed for it desperately as the mutant took hold of his face, squeezing. It's mouth twisted into a wicked grin and it laughed. The sound cut through him, his ears ringing with it—phantom, horrible, wrong.

He cried out at the pain, pressing the barrel of the gun to the side of the mutant's head. He was going to die if he didn't pull the trigger. The weapon discharged. The mutant screamed, sounded almost... almost human.

The mattress shrieked as Danse bolted upward, his fists slamming down hard and gripping at the bed sheets. His throat was swollen shut, air refusing to pass the threshold of his mouth in either direction. He reached up, clutching at his chest, his heart beating so fast that he felt light headed. It was hot in his quarters and his clothes were soaked through. He could feel the cold sweat clinging to his skin.

A tight cough rattled through him and he pulled in a few shallow breaths.

He thought he'd finally shaken the nightmare, escaped the memory. He thought he'd forgotten the agonized scream that still echoed through his skull.

He reached for the bottle on the bedside table, his hand shaking. The cap came off with a twist and he pressed it to his mouth. The amber liquor burned as it hit his throat.

'Lose not sight of yourself, lose not sight of yourself.'

He would never forget.

Chapter Text

Dollie had thought Lexington was bad enough during the day with ghouls and raiders lurking around every single corner. The darkness of night made it somehow worse. Her nerves were set on edge.

If she'd been alone, traveling swiftly through the dark with Dogmeat the way she'd done a few dozen times before it wouldn't have been so nerve wracking. But the thudding footsteps of two sets of power armor echoing out through the night was like having a giant bulls-eye painted on their backs, waiting to get hit.

The Paladin and the Scribe didn't seem to share her concern.

She'd never been on a research patrol before. They'd been assigned to Scribe Porter to retrieve data from the Corvega Assembly Plant.

She'd met the Scribe briefly before. Porter had asked her to report to Kells when she'd been assigned to investigate the missing supplies. She was a petite woman with sun-kissed skin and bright blue eyes. Blonde hair poked out from her hat which she tucked back in periodically, scarcely glancing up from the recorder monitor she held in her hands.

The Paladin was hyper-vigilant, his brow creased in concentration and his resting scowl more severe than she'd seen since they'd found Recon Squad Artemis. He'd commanded her into her power armor before they'd left the Prydwen, an unfamiliar edge in his voice.

The assembly plant came into view over the tops of the crumbling buildings. She'd cleared it back in November for Tenpines, back when the Minutemen had just been the Minuteman.

As they'd awaited Danse's return from Kells' briefing, Porter had informed her about Recon Squad Gladius' run in with the raiders. Danse had lost two squad members there. After so many months, they were likely to be back on their feet with a vengeance.

Porter had advised her to keep quiet about clearing the place, but she wasn't about to let them march up to the front door when she knew there was a safer way to go. They would have fixed the turret. There had been at least thirty of them outside the factory alone.

"Hold up." She stopped, turning to look at Danse. Her voice filtered through the speaker of her helmet. "There's an old drainage tunnel that will lead us into the basement. It's less heavily guarded than the upper entrances."

Porter rocked back on her heels, eyeing Dollie with a mixture of surprise and apprehension. She wondered if it was out of line of her, if she'd spoken out of rank. She didn't exactly have a frame of reference. Danse had never reprimanded her for it before.

He weighed her words for a moment, before nodding swiftly. "Good thinking, Knight. Lead the way."

She swiveled to get a better look at their surroundings, waving a hand to show them where to follow. There was a concrete stairwell that led behind one of the old, ruined apartments that she recalled descending when she'd been there before. Dogmeat's intuition had led her there the first time.

The tunnel was just as she'd remembered it, rusted and red. It may have been a tight squeeze in their armor, but it was better than walking face first into a hornet's nest. She took up the front, Danse at the rear, Porter with her laser pistol at the ready between them.

If it had been hard to maintain a stealth approach out on the streets of Lexington, it was impossible now. Stagnant, murky water sloshed at their feet and the suits thudded, echoing down the pipe.

She kept her rifle at the ready, hoping she could deflect any stray bullets the raiders may fire once they emerged into the basement. A dead feral laid face down in the water, one that had taken a chunk out of her arm if memory served.

As often seemed to be the case with power armor, she chose to engage fast and hard. It was the tactic the Paladin seemed most fond of. Two raider's were waiting, ducked behind sand bag fortifications in front of the corridor that led into the facility.

Their pipe guns spat projectiles that pinged weakly off of her heavily fortified armor, the new chest piece Kells had rewarded her holding strong. The chirp and whir of the turret had her bracing herself to the right of the opening, giving the Paladin and Scribe room to fire from around the safety of the tunnel. She aimed for the turret first, roasting it as quickly as the rifle would let her.

Porter laid down covering fire on the raiders, Danse pushing past her to add support.

The turret tore into her chest plate, the display in her visor flashing onto critical. One last precisely aimed shot of laser fire from the Paladin caused the turret to explode. One raider dove out of the way, scrambling down the tunnel behind them. The other wasn't so lucky.

"For the Brotherhood!" Porter called into the room, stopping the scrambling raider from escaping and alerting any other's of their presence.

Debris floated down to the ground, the sounds of combat returning to eerie silence. Porter holstered her pistol and retrieved her recorder, studying it closely. Danse paced a few steps down the tunnel leading into the rest of the factory, keeping an ear out for reinforcements from above.

"Oh, this terminal should do the trick!" Porter chirped, a bright smile showing on her face as she stepped over a raider that had been dead when they'd arrived.

Dollie turned, watching the tunnel they'd come through. They were in luck if they didn't need to go any further into the factory. It was bound to be difficult with just three of them. It had been hell when it was just her and Dogmeat.

Dollie thought she heard a shout, and turned over her shoulder toward Danse in the tunnel. The set of his shoulders shifted as he brought his rifle back to the ready, focusing into the dark.

"Download completed. Ready to move out." Porter spun wires around her fingers, pushing them back into her bag.

"Outstanding." Danse didn't move his eyes from the corridor. "Head for the exit, I'll watch our backs."

"Affirmative." Porter fell in behind Dollie who strode back the way they came.

She hadn't thought it would be easy. It would have made sense for the raider's to better guard the lower exit after she'd been through, but maybe no one from the initial group remained to learn from past mistakes. Maybe average raider's didn't take the time to learn. Something didn't feel right.

They cleared the tunnel, returning to the dark of the night. She considered turning her head lamp on, but didn't want to give away their position.

Porter took point, navigating them through the city by the device in her hands. "The evac site is just up-"

A thunderous crack echoed through the streets of Lexington. Blood splattered the chest plate of Dollie's armor. Porter hit the asphalt, her words swallowed by the crack of the rifle.

The Paladin's rifle was at the ready, firing into the sniper that had aimed toward them from up in one of the old apartments above the streets. The enraged roar that left his throat bordered on inhuman, colliding with the ruined buildings and bouncing back at them.

Dollie hit the release on her suit before she'd even realized what was happening. She threw herself out, threw herself down to Porter, searching desperately for a pulse. It was impossible to find.

There wasn't so much as a shudder, not a gurgle, no last breath.

There was a small, round crater through her forehead, her blue eyes staring upward unseeing. Blood seeped out around her head, pooling beneath her. A clear shot through the brain.

"She's already gone." Dollie spat out, tucking a strand of blonde hair back into her cap.

Danse growled furiously behind her. His power armor thudded several steps away.

"Ad victoriam, sister." Dollie murmured as she closed Porter's eyes, carefully pulling the recorder from her hands.

White hot anger flickered in the pit of her stomach, choking her as she rose to her feet. Danse's footsteps returned, standing close behind her.

"Back in your armor, Knight!" He barked through his teeth, his voice hard. "We need to move out!"

She complied, realizing how foolish it had been to jump out of her suit before the sniper had even been dispatched. She pushed the recorder into his armored hands before casting a glare at the slick spatter on her chest plate.

The suit closed around her quickly, cutting out the frigid night air that had begun to seep through her uniform, creeping into her bones. The iron tang of blood stayed in her nose.

"We can't leave her out here." She spoke at Danse as he turned rigidly away from her, his eyes locked on the upper buildings.

He said nothing.

She growled to herself, scooping the scribe as gently into her arms as she could, pushing away the nausea and the disgust that tried to override her anger. It refused to be moved, burning all the way into her fingers and toes.

She wanted some kind of assurance from the Paladin. She wanted him to tell her what they should do. He kept silent as they moved swiftly toward the extraction point, sticking close to the sides of buildings and avoiding open spaces.

Doing so hadn't protected them in the first place. That bullet could have just as easily torn through his skull because he didn't wear his damn helmet.

They reached the clearing just outside of Lexington as the vertibird came into sight, descending like a bird of prey. They loaded in, the knight on the minigun turned toward her for a moment longer than she considered necessary.

She kept Porter cradled in her arms, ignoring the blood still dripping down her suit and down onto the metal floor of the bird. She didn't give a damn. She wasn't going to leave her behind for the ferals, the raiders, the mutants to find.

Danse braced himself near the cockpit, barking orders at the pilot on the radio over the roar of the blades, outrage burning in his eyes. She couldn't hear what was said.

She didn't know anything about Porter, save for the cheeky smile she'd flashed at her as they'd left the factory. The way she'd rocked on her heels excitedly. She had to have been young, maybe eighteen. So much life left before her and some bastard with a scope had decided to take it all away.

Dollie wanted to scream.

Docking on the Prydwen wasn't as smooth as usual, the high altitude winds rocking the bird. As the engines cut, a medical team was rushing the bird and Porter was lifted from her arms. She forced herself to release her grip, but she wanted to fight, to hold onto her, wishing there was something she could do. But there was nothing.

Once the medic's had cleared the deck, she managed to haul herself down from the bird. She had no idea where to go or what to do. Danse disembarked behind her.

"I have to report to Kells." He called to her over the roar of the wind, thudding away toward the ship.

She watched him go.

A third thud of armor hitting the deck drew her attention back to the bird. The knight from the minigun disembarked, patting a metal hand against her back and gesturing toward the ship. She didn't know what to do, so she followed their lead.

The Knight followed near her, gesturing her up to the next deck. Other soldier's hesitated before moving out of her way as they headed for the power armor hangar. She tried not to see them, to look past them, tried to forget the limp woman she'd had clutched in her arms as they moved past med bay.

Once they reached the hangar she recognized the man's voice as he told her to step out. She lined her armor up with her station, pulling the release and stepping down. Once it closed she pressed her hands against the back, trying to keep herself steady. Her knees felt like jello.

The open air hit her, sending a chill down her spine. She wiped at the sweat on her face with her shoulder.

"You alright?" Knight Rivera's voice hit her unfiltered as he left his armor in his own station.

She pushed herself up straight and met his eye as he rounded her suit. The pity on his face kept the fire of her anger burning. She wasn't the one who needed pity. She was alive, she was fine.

"I'm fine. I should-" she turned past him, stopping at the front of her armor.

Blood had oozed down the right arm and leg plates and dripped into the joints between. There was grey gunk stuck on the arm, and some splattered across the chest piece. It was thick and sickly in the bright fluorescent light of the hangar. She ground her teeth.

The bullet was embedded into her chest plate. The impact through Porter's skull had stopped it from tearing through her armor, weakened from the machine gun turret. If she'd been in front of the Scribe that bullet would have torn straight through her chest, rattling somewhere in the feet of her armor while she bled out.

"Hey, let me clean this up for you, alright?" Rivera had his hands raised as if he were trying to soothe her like an animal.

"No," She gave her head a sharp shake. "I should do it."

She kept her eyes locked on the armor, glaring through it, imagining what would have happened differently if she'd taken that bullet, if Danse hadn't made her wear her armor. If he'd taken it, straight through his skull... if she'd had to see his eyes, lifeless and empty.

"I think you need to get off your feet, Wallace." Rivera pleaded with her, reaching to lay a hand on her forearm.

She moved out of reach, casting a searing glare on him. "Don't touch me."

His eyes blew wide in surprise and he let his hand fall, struck silent by the venom in her words.

She shook her head, gaze falling down toward her boots. "I'm... sorry. I just... I have to... need to do this myself."

"Alright. No harm done." He frowned, avoiding her eye. "Let me know if you need help."

She didn't wait for him to go as she pulled her gloves from her hands, dropping them to the ground near her station. She found herself going through the motions, filling a bucket and finding a rag clean enough to wash the blood from the suit.

There was nothing Cade would be able to do for Porter. There would be no funeral, too many soldiers died every day. Dollie was lucky that the Scribe was the first she'd known to die. She didn't feel lucky.

 

There was a harsh red glow overhead when Dollie bolted awake. Frigid sweat dripped down her face and her back, and the sound of her heart raced in her ears. Her lungs fought to catch up her oxygen supply. Close by she could hear the snores of the other people around her. Shaking, she pushed damp hair out of her face.

She scrambled for her boots and pulled her bomber jacket on. There was some comfort in the clank and chatter of soldiers awake elsewhere on board. She took the long route to avoid the mess. Her hands felt dangerously weak as she lowered herself down to the deck below.

It was still easy to get lost on the Prydwen, but she knew her way to the forecastle with relative ease. She tried to pull in a steadying breath as she reached for the handle, letting her eyes fall closed for just a moment before she was jolted again.

The roaring wind would drown out the screaming in her brain. The cool air would dry the sweat off of her skin. She could clear her head, she could sort it all out.

She pushed through the door anxiously, stepping out into the cold.

With a new wave of anxiety she realized there was already someone standing at the end of the platform, an unexpected reminder of the nightmare she desperately wanted to shake. She watched his back for too long a moment, her stomach tangling into knots, before she could move to turn and slip back through the door.

She noticed his shoulders fall, noticed him drop his head down. The sharp talons of her nightmare eased their grip, moving aside forgotten for the moment. She stopped, she stayed, she closed the door hard enough for him to hear her coming.

He straightened up, snapping to look over his shoulder.

"Am I intruding?" She asked, trying to sound calm and collected over the wind.

"Not at all." He shook his head and beckoned her to join him.

She hesitated, watching him turn back toward the star studded sky. She joined the Paladin at the end of the forecastle, leaning against the railing and looking down toward the tarmac and the inky black water that surrounded the airport to the East.

The wind pushed her hair into her face and she eased her eyes closed carefully. The flashes of red light in darkness and the sickening pop of limbs thrashing in spite of sockets reemerged, and she swallowed hard. She couldn't shake the cold chill that shot down her spine.

"Difficulty sleeping?" Danse asked.

She scanned him quickly. He was significantly smaller and more vulnerable without his metal shielding. Still broad and tall, but... vulnerable. Her chest began tightening again.

"Yeah." She frowned, looking back out at the water.

He cleared his throat, glancing back toward the stars. "Nightmares again?"

She didn't have to answer; he already knew.

She felt like she might be sick, or like she'd been stuffed into a pressure cooker. The chain around her neck felt like it was shrinking, tightening around her throat like a noose.

She rested her head on her arms, even more exhausted than when she'd laid down for the night in her bunk. It wasn't that it was worse than any of the nightmares before, it was just that it was different.

"Was it your husband?" He asked hesitantly.

Dollie frowned as Nate's vacant face crossed her mind for the first time that night. For the first time in days.

She swallowed the lump in her throat before looking up at the man beside her. His rugged face was painted soft in the starlight and the wind tousled his dark hair. She recognized the smell of him on the wind, registered the gentle concern in his brown doe eyes. He was solid and physically present, the warmth of him rolling off of his body and radiating the few inches between them.

She reassured her brain that what she was seeing was real. He was right in front of her, with her. There was no blood. There were no ferals.

"No." She said steadily. "It wasn't him."

She sighed and leaned farther over the railing, her torso peering over the top. The cold metal kept her grounded. She watched a patrol moving over the ground, small as ants.

How could a memory even begin to compete with the possibility of reaching out and touching and being felt? She was lonely, she assured herself. It was nothing more than that.

"What about you?" She asked, trying not to look at him.

"I..." He began, but faltered. It squashed her attempt and drew her eyes back to him and to the pain now clear on his face. He couldn't seem to continue and shut his mouth. It was rare for words to escape him.

"It wasn't your fault, Danse." She told him softly, remembering Porter, as she was certain he was doing. "It could have just as easily been one of us."

She tried not to enjoy the surprise that widened his eyes and parted his lips just so; tried to ignore the way her pulse quickened.

He composed himself, looking away from her. His voice was low. "Porter was the first soldier I've lost since the recon mission ended."

"I've never," She bit her lip, glancing toward her hands on the railing. "Never lost someone in combat before."

"It never gets any easier." His voice was solemn.

She expected the militant zeal to emerge: the Scribe's sacrifice had been done with honor and would never be forgotten, it would be a disservice to dwell on the loss, Porter knew the risks and so should she.

It never came, and she was thankful. She could respect the loss when pressed, but it all felt so senseless to her. One moment there'd been three of them, and with one flex of a trigger there had been two, for no reason at all.

But then, could she explain away the deaths of those raider's in the tunnel, or of anyone she'd pulled the trigger on? It was a rabbit hole she couldn't afford to fall into.

Danse sighed, and shook his head. "There's something I'd like to discuss... Off the record."

"'Off the record?'" She felt a twinge of panic, wondering if she'd done something wrong. "That isn't like you, Danse."

"Which is why this is going to be difficult to say, so... I'd appreciate it if you bear with me." He caught her eye with sincerity before looking out at the Boston skyline.

"When you were first placed under my sponsorship, I had some serious reservations about it, but despite all that, this has turned out to be a rewarding experience... for both of us." He offered her a rare smile. "At this point, honestly, I don't feel like there's anything else I could teach you about being a Brotherhood soldier that you don't already know. It's apparent from your attitude and your actions that you intend to keep those ideals close to your heart."

Those were words she never anticipated hearing, especially not directed at her about the Brotherhood. The sincerity on his face was accentuated by the pale moonlight. She had been right before. Reading him was like reading a book.

"I'm flattered to hear it, but it seems like you're beating around the bush."

"Is it that obvious?" He looked down, the mock contentment wiped quickly away. "I've... never been very good at these things."

She understood. There was a time when she hadn't been either. Interpersonal discussion could be a nightmare, constantly worrying what the other person was thinking. She offered him a smile for encouragement, surprised when it actually seemed to spur him along.

"Let me start at the beginning..." He ruffled a hand through his hair. "I grew up alone in the Capital Wasteland. Spent most of my childhood picking through the ruins and selling scrap."

Alone? It was a scary mental image if everything she'd heard about the D.C. Wastes was true. She tried to imagine him as a child... Shaun's age or younger... picking through rubble all alone, with no one looking out for him. It made her stomach sink.

"When I was a bit older, and had a few caps to my name, I moved into Rivet City and opened a junk stand." He straightened up, standing taller. He was getting to the point, it seemed. "While I was there, I met a guy named Cutler. We got along pretty well, watched each other's backs and kept each other out of trouble. When the Brotherhood came through on a recruiting run, we felt like it was the best way out of our nowhere lives, so we joined up."

The friend he'd broken his nose defending. Question after question popped into her mind, about Rivet City, about this Cutler. She chose to tease him instead, anything to make it easier for him to keep opening up like he was. "I have a hard time picturing you as anything but a soldier."

He smiled again, this one wider than the last, and she savored the note of humor in his voice. "Clearly I was ignoring my calling. Once I saw what the Brotherhood had to offer, there was no comparison."

She understood that. A lot of people had felt that way about the military before the war, Nate and her sister included.

"Anyway, about a year after we were posted to the Prydwen, Cutler vanished on a scouting op. It took some convincing, but I was able to persuade my CO to let me assemble a squad and search for him." He stared out at the skyline, his expression shifting, becoming hard.

She frowned, realizing quickly where this was going, and why she'd never heard of Cutler.

"It took almost three weeks, but we tracked his team down to a Super Mutant hive. Those wretched abominations had slaughtered everyone but Cutler. He should have been so lucky." All of the hatred, the anger in his words started to make sense.

"The mutant bastards used their FEV to change him into one of their own kind. He wasn't Cutler anymore. I had to... it was my duty to... put him down."

Her heart broke for him, at the pain that was still so fresh, carving into him as his shoulders slumped and he leaned against the railing under its weight. She couldn't imagine... couldn't begin to understand what she would do if she were in his place. She wanted to reach out to comfort him... she had to say something...

"You did what you were taught." She frowned, trying hard not to sound accusatory. What else could he have done?

"Then you understand... why it had to be done." He seemed dazed by her response, like he'd expected her to say something else.

She gave him a small nod.

He sighed. "Ever since Cutler died, I've seen other soldiers come and go. Some were brave, some were honest... hell, some were downright heroic. But I'd never considered any of them to be a good friend, a friend like Cutler was... until now."

He caught her eye, again, leaving her winded at the proclamation. She wasn't deserving of that kind of belief. Her heart kicked against her ribs, beating loudly in her ears. Heat was climbing up her neck and into her face.

"It's a good feeling, but it frightens me all the same. Having a bond with someone then losing them... it changes you. I don't want to go through that again."

Her heart fluttered in her chest.

"It would never be that way with me... I, well, I care about you too much to let that happen." The words bumbled out of her mouth without permission, her throat closing up behind them.

"You can't promise that. No one can but... I appreciate the sentiment." He shook his head, frowning and looking toward the ground far below them. The ease of speech he'd fallen into evaporated, leaving stiff professionalism in it's place. "I just thought you deserved to know how I felt. If you feel that I've overstepped my bounds, I completely understand. Whatever the case may be, I appreciate the fact that you took the time to listen."

He gave her arm a light pat before he turned back toward the ship. "I'm calling it a night. I suggest you do the same."

She nodded, gripping the railing tightly until she heard the door open and close again. She sunk down to her elbows, cradling her face in her hands as heat blazed through her. Embarrassment and shame threatened to tip her overboard into the black waves below.

Why had she said it like that?

She could still feel the weight of his hand on her arm. She desperately wished that she'd stayed in her bunk.

 

"Does it always snow like this?" She asked Piper, staring out into the late afternoon of Diamond City.

Flurries danced downward through the air and the cold wind nipped at her cheeks and ears. They were perched on ancient, creaky lawn chairs atop Home Plate. Dogmeat was napping in the old doghouse, yipping softly through a dream.

"It can be pretty unpredictable. Snows any time between February and late May. Nick said that's different than what you're used to."

Piper took a sip from a Nuka Cherry before pulling the pen from behind her ear and scribbling something down on her note pad.

"You think I could get an interview with one of those Brotherhood soldiers?"

Dollie snorted, trying to imagine Danse consenting to an interview with the press. "Not likely. Only BOS soldier you'll get an interview with is me."

She sighed, scribbling through whatever she'd written down.

A joyful ruckus bounced off of the metal walls of the closed shops and homes on the streets as a gaggle of kids rounded the corner from the Agency. Nat led the group, Nina not far behind her. Peter called after them excitedly, an arm outstretched to reach them. A game of tag.

"You know... I still really appreciate the fact that you're not an idiot." Piper pulled her back out of her thoughts.

"Uhh... thanks? I guess?" Dollie glanced over.

"No! I didn't mean like... I... I could just use some help, is all." She held her gloved hands up in front of her, palms out. "This isn't the sort of thing I'd normally bother anyone else with, but you just seem really good with people and... I've got this issue..."

She glanced down toward the street where the kids were still playing. "With my sister. Nat... becoming me."

A sister issue. That was something Dollie could help with. She smiled as Piper shifted awkwardly in her chair. "Alright. What's the issue?"

"It's just... I'm terrified she's going to start taking up like her big sis." She wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her forearms. "I mean, think about the life we lead. No offense intended, Blue, but personal safety doesn't exactly seem like either of our strong suits."

"I can't have her ending up like her big sister, dodging bullets and running from all the people she pisses off. It's part of the reason I'm on the road so much. Part of the reason I'm out there with you." She sighed, pulling a pack of cigarettes from her coat and shaking one out. "I keep thinking maybe, if I make myself scarce, if I'm not around her enough, she'll cool off. She'll just go back to being sweet, innocent Nat, papergirl, and all around upstanding citizen."

Her eyes lingered on her sister below as she flipped open her lighter, the cigarette burning to life. "What do I do, Blue?"

Dollie thought for a moment, smiling softly at her friend. "You just love her. You don't get to decide who she's going to be, Piper. She does. All you decide is whether you want to be a part of her life or not."

She exhaled a puff of smoke slowly, nodding and leaning back in her chair. Her face relaxed a little. "You're right. She's her own person. She always will be."

Nat's voice carried up to them, dictating the game to the other kids. Dollie smiled, wondering if Diamond City was prepared for more than one ballsy Wright sister. It would have to be.

"Who'd expect wandering off with a stranger to turn out so well?" Piper laughed. "Thanks, Blue. You're a hell of a friend."

"The feeling's mutual, Piper." She smiled, pulling her coat closer as the wind blew harder.

"Ain't that the truth." She snorted. "But hey, thanks for listening. It's a real weight off my chest to be able to talk it out with someone."

"Always happy to help."

They lulled into a comfortable silence after a moment.

She wondered if Shaun would join the kids in the street, or if he'd be more like she had and hide away in his room reading books. Would he play with Dogmeat, would he like the busyness of Diamond City, or would he want to retreat to the sleepy quiet of Sanctuary? Was he shy like she had always been? Would there be anything of his parents in him?

"Something on your mind, Blue?" Piper asked softly.

She glanced up, catching her friend's hazel green eye. She gave her an apologetic smile. "It's nothing, sorry."

"You know you can talk to me if something's bothering you." Piper urged, setting her notepad down on the small metal table between them, offering Dollie her full attention.

"Of course..." She sighed, pushing a few strands of hair behind an ear. "I just... I thought I'd have him back by now."

She didn't meet Piper's eye, not wanting to see the pity there.

"Can't be long now. He'll be home soon."

She nodded, looking down at the jagged tips of her nails. Her knuckles were bruised. Her hands had been so soft once, but they were dry and callouses had appeared, stealing the softness away. She'd run out of her favorite lipstick the day before, a little thing, but another scrap of her old life that she was losing.

She tried to imagine herself sitting at her dining room table, in the front seat of her black convertible corvega, wrapped in Nate's arms... She wouldn't fit there anymore.

The snow picked up, the flakes growing larger. Her pipboy clicked.

"Big day tomorrow. Maybe you should get some sleep."

She sighed, getting to her feet. "You're probably right."

Dogmeat woke at the movement, his ears perking as he looked up at her with big chocolate eyes. The sound of his tail swishing against the wooden doghouse made her smile.

Piper grabbed her bottle and her notepad, heading up the steps toward the ladder. Dollie gave her thigh a pat, encouraging Dogmeat to follow. She hoped it wouldn't snow too much. She didn't want anything else getting in the way of tracking down the mysterious Railroad that now stood between her and her son.

Chapter Text

She exhaled, her breath all steam, as she eyed the man standing on the crest of the hill. She'd thought he was one of the guard in D.C. She'd thought he was just some drifter in that lounger in the Memory Den, too. It made her stomach twist into knots wondering where else he'd been lurking in her shadow. Clearly, she wasn't as perceptive as she'd let herself believe.

"Deacon... right?" She called up to him.

"Like the disguise? It's Wastelander camo." He gave her a smirk before lowering his voice in a growled imitation. "'This is my pile of garbage, asshole. Back off.' Good right? You're lucky I didn't do one of my face-swaps, too."

Face-swaps. Right. The endlessly accessible art of cosmetic surgery. It surprised her the lengths some people were willing to go... He made it sound so mundane. After what she'd seen of Doc Crocker the plastic surgeon in Diamond City, cutting his own throat after murdering a man, she didn't think she'd be sitting in the surgery chair anytime soon.

"Could have fooled me." She let herself admit. She wouldn't have given him a second glance before she'd formally met him... and obviously it had worked for him.

"That's the point. But about the job. Our old base was underneath a Slocum's Joe. We had a pretty sweet setup until the Institute found us."

"Your base was under a donut shop?" She couldn't help the incredulity that flooded into her words.

"It's a lot better than it sounds. Well... it was until it was blown to hell."

"That's... that's a tough break."

"And then some. The survivors didn't have time to grab anything. So we're getting something important we had to leave behind."

"What exactly are we looking for?"

"I'll tell you when we get inside." He gestured behind himself, before lifting his shoulders in apology. "I know that's a bum deal, but strategic ignorance has saved our organization more times than I can count. We got a tourist nearby. He, or she, has intel on the base. So let's pump them for information before we dive in. For now, I'll take point."

He turned toward the ruined concrete, trekking up the slope toward an ancient city bus that had slipped from the overpass. She nearly had to jog to keep up.

"I'm looking for Railsigns. Symbols we use to send messages to each other." He spared her a glance over his shoulder before taking the first step onto the roof of the old bus. "And if you like that, we've got signs and countersigns, dead drops, and even a secret handshake."

"A handshake?"

"Alright, maybe the handshake never caught on." He shrugged. "Anyway, the tourist should have left a trail for us."

She attempted the bus-ramp with apprehension. With a tense bend of her knees, leaning farther forward, she managed not to slip and fall on her ass. It certainly wouldn't do much to impress her rapt audience. She felt nauseous to think of the embarrassing things he'd witnessed trailing her over the months.

"Here we go." He gestured with a gloved hand toward the barrier on the overpass. "Railsign."

She squinted to see it clearly, a series of white chalk lines wrung around an arrow.

"The arrow in the center indicates a direction."

She bit back a sarcastic reply, narrowing her eyes to keep from rolling them.

"Our tourist is up ahead. Let's keep going." He moved on and she followed.

The steep slope of the bent and broken overpass began to level out, the terrain becoming easier to navigate, alleviating some of the strain on her knees. Buildings emerged upward from the thick fog that laid like a blanket over the Commonwealth. The towers and sphere of Corvega glinted in the morning sunlight, power lines and radio towers sagging from centuries of neglect.

She'd always wondered how it would feel to stand on the open roadways, how small she would feel, how vulnerable. Her knees wobbled and she felt dizzy, trying not to sway at the distance between them and the ground.

She reached for her .44 as she caught sight of a figure laying flat in the next lane, adjusting the gun in her grip.

"Got another Railsign. Right there."

A second arrow directed them further along the overpass, toward a makeshift tent and more corpses. Dead ferals she noted, keeping her barrel trained on them until they were clear.

A heap of debris stretched two car lengths beyond it. The scrambling sounds ahead raised the hairs on the back of her neck. Deacon aimed for a ghoul that stumbled around the barrier ahead. She put a bullet through the leg of one a few paces from his shoulder, her stomach turning as the leg detached. Both ferals crumpled to the concrete.

"Nice shooting, General." He lifted his hat in a mock salute, before gesturing to the front of a bus. "Another Railsign. We're probably close."

He eased his hunting rifle onto his shoulder, rounding the bus. She kept a firm grip on her .44, eyeing it warily. They moved past it, her staying several steps behind him, keeping her shoulders angled toward the bus doors.

Her suspicion proved correct, a third and fourth feral moving within the vehicle. She aimed steadily, putting quick bullets through their skulls. The gun barely pulled at all. She had Danse to thank for that.

Deacon waited for her to catch up, gesturing for her to lower her gun.

Around more wreckage she caught sight of a figure pacing erratically toward the end of the overpass. Deacon stopped near a ruined van, laying a hand near a fourth Railsign.

"See the plus in the center? That means there's an ally nearby. Our tourist." He nodded to the figure up ahead. "You take point on the conversation. No matter what he says just say, 'Mine is in the shop.' Trust me."

She had no idea what that meant, but she guessed that was the point.

They approached what turned out to be a gruff and irritated looking man, balding and scruffy, and most certainly pissed. He turned to face them as they stopped.

"Oh thank god. Do you have a geiger counter? Do you have a goddamn geiger counter?"

She stopped herself from lifting an eyebrow toward Deacon. "Mine is in the shop."

"Who the hell is he? HQ said they were sending one agent. Not two." The man growled, glaring toward Deacon.

"Sorry. I'm new. She's just showing me the ropes." He countered, unassumingly.

"Alright." The man shifted his weight, turning back to Dollie. "The Wall as my witness, I thought I was dead. It's about goddamn time you headquarters bastards got here."

"It's alright, we're here now. You're safe." She tried to focus on the man in front of her, fighting her confusion as Deacon left her side, turning back the way they'd come.

"You think I'm goddamn safe? That little Slocum's Joe of yours is crawling with goddamned chrome-dome synth sons of bitches!" The man was baring down on her, nearly shouting as he pointed an aggressive finger toward the ground under their feet. She felt herself shrinking backward. "The front's fortified to hell and back. They've placed mines all over the goddamn place."

"I appreciate all you've done." She tried again to reassure the man.

"I hope it helps. I really do." He huffed, scowling and lowering his voice. "As soon as its safe, I'm getting the hell out of here. So if you need anything else, better ask soon."

"Will do." She nodded, turning to catch up with Deacon. He'd moved out of ear shot.

"You know, you're one hell of a charmer." He offered her a smug smile. "I think I should do the talking from now on. Thought he might chuck you over the side rail."

She felt her face flushing. "Well, he wasn't exactly a ray of sunshine."

"No kidding." Deacon laughed lightheartedly. "You think he's telling the truth?"

"He doesn't strike me as the dishonest type."

"Yeah, that's my read, too. First rule in this business is never go against your gut. So if we take him at his word... the front door has mines, synths, and probably other fun and exciting prizes. So, we're going in through the escape tunnel."

"Gotta be easier than a frontal assault." She agreed, recalling her past encounters with gen ones and twos.

"Easier, but still no cakewalk. You lead us there, pal." He smiled, sliding the hunting rifle from his shoulder. "I got you covered."

She frowned, uncertain as they back-tracked across the overpass, nearly sliding down the roof of the bus to the ground. They pushed through a thicket of dead branches and grass, coming up on a railway and a dead doe.

The area didn't smell any more rancid than normal, and the blood on the gravel was still wet. She kept her pistol handy, and was thankful she had when a low pitched growl met her ears.

She saw the first mut, bony and pocked, it's flesh reminiscent of a ghouls. It barred it's teeth before lunging for her. She fired into it, the force knocking it back. It was flanked by two others, emerging from the brush.

One by one they were put down, the pained whines digging into her stomach like knives. The exact sounds that prevented her from toting Dogmeat along with her most places.

She glanced back a Deacon for an indication of where to go from the tracks. He gestured over the hill before them, where the road began to emerge from the overgrowth. She pushed on, surveying the tilted rail cars and the buckled trees.

They picked through the vegetation, him not far from her shoulder. She couldn't help noticing that when he was behind her, she couldn't hear him. Part of being a spy, she supposed. An eerie contrast to the click and thud of power armor that usually lay in her wake.

"Down there." He gestured toward a sewage tunnel once they'd hit the asphalt.

She grimaced. She'd spent far more time in her life wandering through putrid sewage than she ever imagined she'd have to, all of it since leaving the Vault. She reminded herself what it was all for. The sooner she had the Railroad's trust, the sooner they'd help her crack that chip and get to Shaun.

They eased down the hill toward the opening of the tunnel. It looked as though it were completely blocked, the entrance hung densely with ivy and roots. As they moved around it though, she caught the glow of a red light.

Deacon reached out, pushing the brush to the side and gesturing her forward.

"Ladies first." He smiled.

 

The first part of adjusting his suit was diagnosis. The last thing he wanted to do was tweak the frame for a problem that existed in the plates, or vice versa. He'd worked his way upward, spot checking the ankle joints and then the knees. He'd been certain the problem was in the hydraulics, causing delayed response times, but everything had functioned by the book as he'd tested it.

He'd moved on, testing each of the plates, the torso, the elbow joints, the shoulders. Everything was working as it was supposed to. The plate integrity was still up to snuff. If it had been the HUD system, that was out of his wheel house and he'd need to ask a Scribe.

The more he thought about it, he couldn't exactly remember what the problem had been to begin with. He scratched his head, heaving a sigh of annoyance where he'd crouched in front of the suit. He couldn't exactly take it out into the field, not without anyone to accompany him in case something failed. And there was supposed to be an officer's meeting in a few hours he was expected to attend.

He stood up, crossing to the workbench behind him and grabbing a rag to wipe the grease from his hands. He noticed the armor bay across the hangar, a suit standing empty between the yellow braces.

He wished she'd take it with her, even if she wasn't on Brotherhood business. Though it had been put through it's paces during their battle with the raiders at the assembly plant. Maybe he could take a look at it for her while she was away.

He found himself frowning at the idea, turning back to his own suit and pacing around it. Fixing her power armor for her would fall under the umbrella of favoritism that Haylen had teased him for. It was bad enough that the desk in his quarters had grown cluttered with packets of tobasco to give her. His ears went hot at the recollection. He was still unsure why he'd agreed to put energy and space toward something so trivial.

He tried to make his brain return to the immediate dilemma before him. There was a particularly obtrusive scratch on the left shoulder plate that caught his eye. Normally he'd leave it be, but his hands were desperate for something to keep them occupied.

He removed the plate from the suit, starting the process of buffing it out at the workbench, sanding it down until the plate was smooth as glass. He rifled through one of the tool cabinets until he found the canister of polish he'd stored there, and began polishing it up to match the rest of the suit.

As soon as it was finished he wished he'd taken longer. Her words were in his head again and he pinched a finger reattaching the shoulder plate. He bit back a curse, attempting to shake off the pain in his hand.

She'd said she cared about him.

How she could be so forthright about it was beyond him.

Though... she cared about a lot of things. She was a caring woman. She cared about the Commonwealth and it's people, she cared about her Mr. Handy and the Minutemen. She cared about the Brotherhood, her Brothers and Sisters in steel, but he hadn't considered that he would factor in. That he would be considered specifically, or separately.

He'd cared before. He'd cared too closely. He'd been arrogant because of it and had driven himself into dangers he never should have been exposed to; he'd put other people in danger because of it. He would hate for her to follow the same pattern. He'd hate to be the reason she couldn't sleep at night.

His stomach felt turbulent with regret. He shouldn't have told her about Cutler. It had been inappropriate. He'd hoped to indicate that he valued her friendship, regardless of how apprehensive he was about it. He'd just pushed his problems onto someone that had enough of her own.

It didn't matter how graciously she'd listened, how she'd looked with her face full of empathy, her eyes soft under the light of the stars, speaking to him as more than just Paladin Danse, but as a friend. He couldn't remember the last time someone had spoken to him that way.

She'd said she cared about him... enough to fight against fate, to defy even death? That was impossible, she had to be aware of that.

A hot prickle of embarrassment burned in his ears, taking up camp in his face. He scratched at the back of his neck, not entirely sure why he felt so unsettled. They were just a few words, words said to comfort a friend, that was all. It didn't matter how she'd looked at him as she'd said them, or how the wind had tousled the black waves of her hair... the distracting way her lips had moved as she spoke—

He was all over the place. Her appearance was completely irrelevant to what he'd been considering before. His heart was hammering in his chest. He tried to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat.

"I think that's as good as it's gonna get, Paladin." He was jarred out of his thoughts as Ingram spoke.

"What?" He choked out, glancing up at her, terribly aware of the heat in his face.

"That suit was in top shape when you set in on it two hours ago." She crossed her arms over her chest, raising an eyebrow. "Something on your mind?"

There was, but... he didn't think it suitable to share. "It's nothing."

She sniggered, looking unconvinced. "Looks like something."

He didn't know what she meant by that, standing back up from where he'd hunched to tighten a few bolts he'd loosened before. He considered telling her so, but wasn't sure he'd like the result. She continued, unprompted.

"Wouldn't be about Knight Wallace, would it?"

How had she inferred that? Had he said something aloud?

"No. Why?" He felt relieved when he didn't stumble over the words, but the relief was short lived as his face burned hotter.

"You keep looking at her suit."

"I-, was I? I hadn't noticed." He shook his head, turning back toward the workbench and away from her line of sight. He leaned against it, wondering in mortification if he'd burst into flames.

She didn't speak for a long moment as he opted to tidy up the tools he'd been using, the desire to retreat to his quarters overtaking him.

"You did a good job recruiting her, you know." He heard her shift behind him. "She's a damn good fit. Outpaces most Wastelanders like it's nothing. I'm honestly impressed."

"I'll have to inform her of your praise." He nodded stiffly, not looking back. He could imagine the modest embarrassment on her face already, the genuine surprise that would widen her eyes to the size of armor release valves.

Ingram snorted before he heard her move on. He wasn't sure... what that had been about...

He felt giddy and anxious, just a stone's throw away from nauseous. It was a miserable feeling... maybe he was getting sick... he'd have to... keep an eye on that...

 

When Ricky Dalton had warned them of the danger ahead, he'd under-exaggerated. She hadn't seen so many synths since she'd test-fired the engine at ArcJet. And when Deacon had said the Railroad had a "pretty sweet setup" beneath the Slocum's Joe, he had practically lied.

She'd never imagined there would be some kind of secret government facility under the donut shop she'd swung by on weekends and throughout college. She'd never guessed that the plummet in quality had been a ploy when she'd ultimately decided to take her business elsewhere.

To have seen the Railroad huddled in the cramped catacombs beneath the church, pushing around each other and talking over one and other, only to see where they'd called home just months before... how the mighty had fallen.

If Scribe Haylen had been there, her jaw would have hit the floor. She pushed the thought out of the way. The Brotherhood couldn't know anything about the Railroad. That was in everyone's best interest.

They'd moved into a wide room brimming with synths, Deacon making known his distaste for her fast and loud tactics as she engaged the enemy, ducking behind the door frame to avoid the laser fire that fell upon them.

When they'd thinned the crowd she pushed into the room, taking out a synth raining fire down from the upper floor with a quick focused bullet through it's head.

The bite of laser fire knocked the .44 from her hand. A synth lunged for her from her left. She grit her teeth and kicked out, dropping it to it's knees. Her brain scrambled for the next move: she'd have to wrestle the pistol from it or try to crack it's head against the concrete, she'd-

Three quick bursts of blue laser fire tore past her, colliding with the synth. It toppled backwards, it's chest plating melting inward. It shook in an electrical spasm.

She released the breath she'd been holding, glancing back to where Deacon stood in the doorway. He'd yanked a pistol off of one of the synths.

The pain in her hand throbbed, and she grimaced. The skin had blistered on impact with the super charged beam.

"Ouch." Deacon winced. "That doesn't look good. Need a stim?"

She leaned back against one of the toppled desks. "Surprised you'd offer."

He laid the pistol down on the desk, patting the pockets of his coat in search of something. "The way you charge in everywhere, you'll need it more than me."

He produced one, handing it off to her.

She accepted it, pulling the cap from the needle with her teeth before plunging it into the meat of her arm. "Confidence can get you through a lot of things out here."

"You call that confidence?" He shook his head. "Just because you've been playing solider since you met those Brotherhood goons, doesn't mean you've got the act down. It doesn't suit you."

"Is this a formal critique?" She fixed him with a sharp look. She didn't appreciate his tone. The Brotherhood had done more for her than he could possibly understand.

"There's a few things I could show you, that's all I'm saying." His shoulders slouched, his frown apologetic. "The prototype's in the heart of the facility. We're almost there. You all patched up?"

She sighed, glancing down at her hand. The pain was dulled, but it still looked rough. She reached for her .44 where it had fallen to the ground. The barrel was melted shut. She flipped on the safety and pushed it into her bag, trading it out for the closest gun she found.

Up another staircase and through an array of laser tripwires they found more synths. There were so many, and just two of them. She wanted her power armor, she wanted the comfort of assurances and direction— she wanted...

She pushed her childish annoyance aside, ducking behind a desk as the gen 2's bared down on them. The ceiling was too low for a molotov or a grenade, it would collapse the room and they'd end up trapped. The synths would cut them off at the tunnel if they tried to escape back the way they'd come.

The laser pistol she'd grabbed fired quickly, biting into the synths as they flanked closer.

"Ugh, fighting is so 2077." Deacon complained from her right, dropping another of the synths.

She wasn't sure if she should laugh or feel insulted.

They picked their way through the mess of metal and wires that littered the ground around them, keeping their guns at the ready. The next hall split in two directions, one with a set of double doors at the end. Deacon gestured forward, and the doors pushed open into a room full of workbenches and overturned tables. There was a massive vault door on one of the walls.

She counted three more synths. Her hand ached as she clutched the pistol, the throb of heat deep beneath her skin, familiar and unwelcome.

One of the synths came close enough to swing at Deacon. He dodged out of its way quickly, and she blasted it in the back, watching sparks erupt from it as it crumpled.

She could hear more synths somewhere nearby, and she eyed the door into the hallway warily. Deacon moved further into the room.

"Where's that play button?" He mumbled to himself.

A moment later a voice she didn't recognize erupted into the room. "Carrington. Stanley. Salus aegroti suprema lex."

Dollie watched with keen interest as the vault began to open.

"Open says me." He smiled sheepishly, watching it too.

The massive bolts and pins shifted, before the wheel turned, the thuds of it shaking dust free from the ceiling. A buzzing siren echoed off of the walls before the door swung backward to an overturned shelf and another corpse.

Her thoughts jumped skittishly to Nate, dead in his pod where she'd found him. She pushed it down, focused in on her surroundings.

"So Tommy Whispers didn't make it out." Deacon murmured, leaning down next to the man's body. "He died protecting our secrets."

She'd counted the bodies on their way through the Switchboard. The Railroad had been decimated. She wondered how long it had been. How long it had taken them to get to where they were now.

"Here," He called her attention, pulling something from the man's hand. "Tommy would want you to have his handcannon. Don't let its size fool you."

He held it out to her, a 10mm with a silencer. She could just make out a word etched into the barrel. Deliverer.

"I... I appreciate it." She took it, uncertain that the man really would have wanted her to have it. Wouldn't he have wanted someone he knew to have it?

But then again, maybe everyone the man knew was someone they'd come across already.

"May it serve you as well, heck, better than it did Tommy." She thought she heard a note of sadness in his voice, but she couldn't be sure. He turned his shoulder, looking back into the main room. "Grab Carrington's prototype. You turn that over to Desdemona and she'll have to let you into our merry band."

She glanced further into the vault, stepping around the toppled shelf to one that was still standing, tucked against the far wall. She picked up the box, unsure of what it was or what it did, and slipped it into her bag.

"There's an elevator at the end of the hall. It should be a hell of a lot easier fighting the chrome-domes on this side of the minefield."

She wondered if he needed a moment. If there were any steps he wanted to retrace or goodbyes he wanted to say... but she didn't know him well enough to ask.

They followed the posted exit signs and she loaded up the Deliverer, taking aim on the Gen 1 and 2 that stood between them and the elevator he'd mentioned. The bullet she fired tore through the chrome and plastic of the Gen 2, dropping it in one shot.

She exhaled a startled breath, letting Deacon take care of the Gen 1.

"End of the line." He told her. "Just start up the elevator."

She tried not to notice how he avoided looking in the direction of the woman she noticed laying motionless on the catwalk stairs. She didn't mention it, booting up the terminal and powering the elevator like he'd asked.

They rode upward in silence. When the elevator stopped and the doors opened again she was surprised to be met with a wall.

She caught a flash of blue over his sunglasses as Deacon glanced back at her. It was gone as he turned toward the wall, pushing it forward. It swung, a genuine, secret door.

She ran her aching fingers over the wood grain of the back of the bookshelf as she entered into the kitchen of the old Slocum's Joe.

"Pretty cool, huh." He bee-lined for the stairs. "Thought you'd get a kick out of that."

He paused at the door, turning back to her.

"Why don't you follow my lead, Soldier? We keep low and quiet."

He was teasing, she realized, his tone one she had been familiar with once. She was reminded of the way he'd flirted with her in Diamond City when he was in disguise. It had been a way of distracting her from remembering him.

Maybe he was right. Maybe he did have a thing or two he could teach her.

She nodded, following behind him.

 

Deacon's voice carried down the corridor as Dollie slipped back through the doorway into the catacombs. They'd split up after taking care of the synths behind the mine field at the Switchboard.

"-and the new girl patched me up, put me on her shoulder, and blasted her way through the rest o the complex! Synths everywhere."

She was affronted by his words as he came into view, talking to Desdemona on the platform. He'd changed clothes again.

"Carrying you the whole time?" Desdemona cocked her hip doubtfully, and Dollie didn't blame her.

"Amazing, right?"

"That's one word for it." She grumbled before noticing Dollie. "Deacon told me you single-handedly secured Carrington's prototype, disabled a minefield, and wiped out a hundred Gen 1s. Is any of that true?"

"Well, I did take care of the minefield." She gave Deacon a frown. "And there were a lot of synths, but not a hundred."

"That's what I thought. Deacon and the truth aren't always on the same team." She shook her head.

"Aw, she would have fallen for it, you know." Deacon frowned, crossing his arms.

"Don't flatter yourself." Dez shook her head, flicking the ash from her cigarette. "Nonetheless, I was expecting Deacon to grab a full team, including Glory, to secure the prototype. But instead just the two of you cleared out the entire Switchboard."

"You'd be insane not to sign her up, Dez." Deacon pushed, leaving Dollie wondering again why he was so determined.

"It seems we'd be lucky to have you." She waved Deacon off, extending the offer herself. "You've certainly made an impression on Deacon. He's never spoken about, or lied about, anyone so highly before."

The heat of embarrassment flooded her face and she shifted uncomfortably. She considered the courser chip. They needed it just as much as she did.

"Glad to be aboard." She agreed, a twinge of discomfort in her gut.

Helping synths escape... it was a noble cause, one she could endorse. But... another thing she'd be keeping from Danse. All the faith he placed in her was such a waste.

"Alright. You're in. Now we need to know what to call you. Secrecy keeps us alive. Code names are a part of that. So, what's yours?"

Put on the spot, Dollie couldn't think of anything at all. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"It doesn't work like that. Your life, your name, your choice." She shook her head.

Reflexively, Dollie twisted the ring on her finger, trying to think of something. She'd been deemed a General and a Knight already. What was one more thing? She felt the metaphorical light bulb illuminated in her brain as she glanced at Deacon. He lifted an eyebrow in interest.

"Call me... Charmer."

Chapter Text

He jerked the release, scrambling for it to open. She fell from the suit into his outstretched arms and he hauled her clear, panic stabbing through his chest, making it hard for him to breathe.

He laid her down against the asphalt behind the protection of their armor. She wheezed, blood bubbling from between her teeth.

"Hang on." He pleaded. "Just hang on."

She was paling fast. He searched her for the entry wound desperately, his eyes snagging on the gory crater of her chest. He pressed his gloved hands to the wound, desperate to slow the bleeding. He had to add more pressure, they had to get her to the extraction point, he--

She gripped his shoulder tightly, an agonized sob wracking her frame. She arched off of the ground, blood dripping down her chin.

"Just hold on Knight, hold on." He pleaded again as her chest rose and fell in sporadic bursts, more and more blood soaking his hands.

"I- Danse-" She choked out, tightening her grip on his shoulder.

He tried desperately to take even breaths, but he was hyperventilating. He didn't want to lose her, but she was losing so much blood. It was all happening so fast.

"Danse-" Her trembling hand landed against his cheek, forcing him to look into her face.

Her eyes were distant, her lips trembling as she fought to form words. Her hair stuck to her face, matted there with blood. He didn't want to remember her like this.

"You have to-" She sputtered, her grip on his shoulder growing painful. "Shaun- Please."

"No- We'll find him- together," he forced the words out. "You're going to be okay."

"Please..." Her grip slackened, her hand slipping from his face.

"Knight!" He pressed his fingers against her pulse, searching frantically for her heart beat. It was slipping away as quickly as the light in her eyes.

His fast breathing was closing in around him as her face fell against the slick asphalt. His hands were soaked in her blood. The night spun around him in a flurry. He leaned his ear close to her mouth, trying to hear a breath, but there was nothing.

The reverberating thrum of knocking against steel sent him reeling. His rifle wasn't at his side where it had just been, his hand hitting the flat open surface of his desk. His breathing was rushed. He fought to reign himself in, to take slow deep breaths to bring his pulse back into check.

The neon green of his terminal glared at him, the cursor bar pulsing in the center of the screen, halfway through a word he could no longer decipher, halfway through a sentence that had lost it's meaning completely when he'd abruptly succumbed to unconsciousness.

He dragged his hands over his face trying to mop away the sweat before a bolt of irrational fear cracked down his spine. He held his hands out in front of him, studying them closely.

The knocking thrum sounded again. He turned in his chair, his attention snapping to the metal door of his quarters.

It felt as though his heart were beating out of his chest as he unsteadily got to his feet. He grabbed the shirt he'd discarded the day before, moping it over his face. He tossed it onto the foot of his bunk, reaching for the door handle.

His hands were clammy. He took a steadying breath, trying desperately to compose himself. It was just a dream, he reminded himself.

He flinched at the sight of the woman standing in his doorway.

"Sorry, to bother you, Sir, but-" She stopped, her expression shifting. "... are you okay?"

His jaw felt like it was wired shut. If he'd been in his power armor he would have crushed the door handle.

"Paladin?" She raised an eyebrow.

"It's... nothing to be concerned about." He managed to get his mouth working, clearing his throat and glancing away from her, into his quarters. "What did you need, Knight?"

She hesitated for a tense moment before she moved on. "Did you fix my power armor?"

The armor... He'd known he shouldn't have fixed it, but... He tried to relax his shoulders. "Yes. I had extra time on my hands. I hope you don't mind."

"You didn't have to do that." She frowned.

"It needed to be done." He was relieved to see there was not a gaping wound in her chest. He made sure not to let his gaze linger on the orange fabric of her uniform.

"Are... are you sure you're okay?" She asked him again, lowering her voice so as not to be overheard.

"Fine, Knight." He punctuated his words, hoping she would drop the subject.

She looked at him doubtfully before her eyes fell.

"Coffee?" She cleared her throat, offering the mug from her hand without looking back at him. A soft laugh bubbled from her lips as she glanced down the corridor, away from him.

He was glad for the change in subject but her quick shift in demeanor confused him as he accepted the mug. She clutched her arms in front of herself, and... her face seemed reddened.

"Thank you." He glanced uncertainly down.

Realization hit him, lodging uncomfortably in his throat.

"I have to report to Proctor Quinlan." She spoke quickly, glancing back at him. "I'll... I'll reimburse you the supplies for the armor. Thank you, Sir."

She hurried down the corridor and he was quick to shut himself back in his quarters. He ran a hand down his face, cursing himself silently. Answering his door bare chested hadn't exactly been on his agenda, nor was it particularly professional. It had clearly made Wallace uncomfortable.

He glanced around his quarters. He felt the clutter inwardly, as if the disorganization was spilling from out of his head. His forehead tingled like a limb that had fallen asleep, a familiar symptom from another bout of restless sleep that added up several hours too few. He hadn't had a full night of sleep in... well he'd stopped keeping track.

He took a drink from the mug, bracing for the bitter edge of it. He was surprised by the sweetness that hit his tongue. Sweetener didn't come cheap in the Wasteland and it was a luxury he couldn't often prioritize. He gave the coffee a careful swirl in the mug before taking a deeper drink. It was perfect.

He set the coffee on his desk, beginning to search through his lockers for a clean uniform.

 

Dogmeat had met them outside of Boston. Last Dollie had seen of the shepherd he'd been at Red Rocket, digging up molerat burrows. He seemed happy and excited to see them, unaffected by the blood that matted his fur- from a wound that was clearly not his own.

"Lively mutt, isn't he?" Danse smiled as the dog bounded ahead of them into a flock of crows.

The birds squawked in indignation, taking wing and scattering into the air, seen off with yips and playful growls. Dollie gave a whistle and the pup turned back, his tongue lolling happily as he sprinted to her side, trotting along with them.

They were headed for the Greater Massachusetts Blood Clinic in the township of Fort Hagen at the request of Proctor Quinlan. A retrieval mission for some equipment for Medbay, something she hoped the Paladin would be able to identify once they had arrived.

She'd felt an insistent dread retracing her steps from months before. There was a nagging fear that when she saw the old fort she'd crumble into a million pieces, or at the very least she'd puke in her power armor. She'd already made an ass of herself in front of the Paladin enough for one day.

She was mortified that she'd gawked at him like that. It wasn't like she'd never seen a man without a shirt before. She'd had to pull a bullet out of Preston's shoulder a week ago. Besides, she'd knocked on the door of a man's quarters, what had she expected? Mercifully, Danse hadn't said anything, or better yet, he hadn't noticed.

When they came over the hill into the old township she could feel the phantom swell of fear in her chest. She nearly choked on it. She could almost smell the waft of cigarette smoke and oil, the rub of a San Francisco Sunlight crushed in her hand, could almost feel the blackout rage that had propelled her into the depths of the old fort.

Valentine had been right: the night had gotten longer then, and the sun still hadn't come up. Each time she jumped a hurdle there was another standing in her way.

When she'd had the courser chip decoded it had been on the condition that it was out of her hands. When she'd protested, Desdemona had told her not to let the door hit her on the way out. She'd had no choice.

She couldn't face the Elder without a courser chip. It could take her ages to find another, and she wasn't so sure she'd survive the wrath of a courser the second time. There was a sickening pang of guilt in her chest at the thought. She should have told Danse the truth in the first place...

Late morning sunlight glinted off the back of his power armor as he surveyed the rubble of the clinic. She couldn't let him down, not when he'd placed so much faith in her. It wasn't something he gave freely. She knew that.

Though she couldn't exactly tell him she'd handed the chip off to an organization that was completely at odds with what he believed, either. That wasn't the sort of thing Danse would let fly, and a much heavier door would hit her on the ass in that situation.

It was beginning to feel more and more like she was digging herself into a hole she wouldn't be able to crawl out of. Sometimes she wished she could just put the shovel down.

Dogmeat froze beside her, sinking low to the ground and baring his teeth in a growl, hackles raised. Dollie rolled the rifle from her shoulder, taking it carefully into her hands.

"Bloodbugs!" Danse called back to her. "Keep them long range."

"Right." She acknowledged, taking aim.

The bugs proved difficult targets. They weren't as sluggish as bloatflies, flitting about far faster. Their sinewy appendages didn't make for easy targets, and they tended to scourge together.

She'd wandered across more than one Wastelander or Brahmin sucked flat like a raisin, and she had no interest joining them in their fate.

When the bugs littered the ground in piles of ash Danse turned to her. "Proctor Quinlan said something called bug spray used to exist before the bombs fell. I wish we had some of that now."

She laughed, forgetting the looming Fort behind her, if only temporarily. "I'm not sure it would help us much. Mosquitoes were about the size of a cap."

"You're joking." He flipped the safety on his rifle, staring in disbelief.

"Nope. Flies were barely bigger, roaches were about the same. And scorpions..." She shuddered, recalling her encounter in the Glowing Sea. She'd been lucky not to meet anymore. She'd always feared scorpions, but pre-war that fear had been irrational.

"Keep weapons at the ready. There could be more hostiles lurking nearby."

Dollie followed behind him as they entered the shadow of the building. It looked as though it had fallen after the initial shock wave when the bombs dropped. Parts of the outer wall remained standing, along with a few of the inner walls. Remnants of the upper floor hung above them.

She reached for the door of a cabinet on the first floor, wrenching the door clean off. She stifled a nervous laugh, leaning it clumsily against the cabinet. Luckily, Danse's back was turned and he didn't notice. Dogmeat was at his side, nose pressed against the junk strewn ground.

"I'm going to step out. May be a few locks that need picking."

Danse muttered something she scarcely heard. She took the lack of instruction to the contrary to be a yes and pulled the armors release. She returned to the cabinet, sifting quickly through the contents. Nothing that looked like a blue print for any kind of diagnostic equipment stuck out to her.

They moved from room to room, picking the bones of the old building. The process was uneventful. No more bloodbugs revealed themselves, leaving her particularly bored. She began to count the number of blood bags, some empty and some still full, wondering with some morbidity how long they'd sat out in the open.

Blood had to be stored at cold temperatures, if she remembered correctly from her extensive hospital stay experience. She could only imagine the kind of pathogens that would be swimming in radiated two century old blood. She gave one a curious poke and it was congealed like gelatin. If it had been warm, she would have gagged.

On the far side of the building they found an intact staircase that led them into the remains of the second floor. Most of the upper building had collapsed downward, but one of the centralized rooms still stood, it's security terminal flashing on auxiliary power.

She opened it up with only a brief moment of difficulty, and they moved into the office. Danse stood in the doorway, giving her space to navigate the room.

"Floor safe!" She spotted the metal box beneath the desk, kneeling down and retrieving the screwdriver from her bag.

Gingerly, she unpinned her bangs, bending the bobby pin enough for it to fit into the lock. Her teeth sunk carefully down onto her bottom lip as she focused in on the pull and tug of the pins of the tumbler, turning carefully along the path of least resistance.

The bobby pin met strain and she remembered with some anxiety that she'd forgotten her box of spare pins in her steamer back on the Prydwen.

"Now that's something they don't teach in boot camp."

She exhaled a laugh through her nose, trying to keep her fingers steady as she rotated the screwdriver.

"Or law school, for that matter."

She bit back her laughter, recognizing the flatness of his tone. "Stop it. This is my only bobby pin."

The pin strained. She shifted it to the right.

"I'm sure that safe is just brimming with antebellum relics."

She nearly choked on a giggle as a healthy dose of unbridled sarcasm dripped through his words. Her shoulders shook with it.

The pin snapped.

Her stomach clenched, a prickle of panic stinging her face. After the initial shock she shot a playful glare up at him. "Damn it, Danse! Now we'll never know."

A smug smile quirked his lips.

"There could be ammo in there. Technical documents!" She pushed herself onto her feet, her bangs falling down into her face annoyingly as she goaded him. "Proctor Quinlan would be absolutely scandalized to know we left an entire floor safe untouched."

"Then he can come crack it himself." He shook his head at her playful dramatics.

She stopped before him, rolling her eyes with a smile. She slipped the broken pin into her bag.

"I'd just leave that if I were you."

"That would be littering." She looked up at him, surprised.

"Littering?" He asked, raising an eyebrow and glancing pointedly at the disarray of the building around them.

The absurdity of her comment struck her and she laughed again, her cheeks aching as she pushed a playful hand against the chest plate of his power armor. "Oh, leave me alone!"

She shook her head, swiping her freed bangs behind her ear and moving toward the next room. The deep roll of the chuckle that escaped him drew her eyes back over her shoulder a moment, the sound of it lingering in her ears and leaving a soft smile on her lips.

There was a rusted metal cabinet in the room, the remaining overhang of ceiling casting it in shadow. She pulled the drawers out first, sifting through the contents. There wasn't much to be found, just ancient paper that had been protected from the glare of sunlight long enough that it didn't crumble to dust in her fingers.

She leaned onto her toes to reach the upper shelves. A damp cardboard box held the soggy remnants of files that had long molded beyond recognition. She dropped the box onto the floor near her feet with a thud.

She plunged her hand back into the unknown, her fingertips hitting open space. She shifted along the cabinet, straining to press her fingers to the back panel before giving up. Instead of meeting cold flat metal, her fingers brushed along a cylinder. She retracted her hand for a moment before holding onto the edge of the shelf and pulling her frame upward in attempt to see to the back of the cabinet.

A short brown bottle sat obscured in the long shadows.

She narrowed her eyes, reaching as far as she could and wrapping her fingers around the bottle. It was cool to the touch. The contents clinked melodiously against their glass container.

Dollie landed on her heels, focused firmly on the text of the worn label. The shape and weight of it were familiar, the faded colors and letters knitting together and dropping deep down like a net to drag the depths of her mind.

She grew painfully aware of the thrum of her heartbeat in her ears, slow and agonizing. A prickle of cold sweat bloomed on her neck and down her back, sending a chill through her limbs.

"Anything interesting?" Danse's voice above her shoulder almost drew a yelp from her lips.

She fumbled the bottle into her bag.

"Nothing much. Might sell for a few caps." She turned to face him coolly. "Any luck finding the Proctor's equipment?"

"Negative," he frowned, "Seems like this location is a bust."

"Probably in that safe." She maneuvered past him and back toward the stairs.

"I'll have to put it on record." His voice followed her as she returned to her power armor. "Knight Wallace's failure to breach a floor safe resulted in mission failure.' You'll be on report by morning."

"Kells'll have me scrubbing the deck with a toothbrush for sure." She turned the release, pulling herself back up into the frame. It closed around her securely.

"I remember the last time I had to scrub the decks. Had a crick in my neck for a week."

It was hard for her to imagine Danse doing anything that would warrant more than a verbal slap on the wrist. Then again, he'd been a regular Wastelander before the Brotherhood. It made her smile to consider him younger, rougher around the edges, maybe not so straight laced.

By the time she thought to ask him about it, the moment had passed. They fell into step together on the main road, moving away from the township with Dogmeat dashing ahead once more.

"So we just head back in?"

"Unless you had other business in the area."

She did. Fort Hagen was near enough to the Glowing Sea... but Virgil would have to wait a few days more. Soon she would have her blueprints. Soon she would have her Relay. Soon she would have her son and the night would finally end.

"No, nothing I can think of." She lied.

It was back to the Prydwen. And then a lame excuse to the Elder about needing to meet her contact in the Glowing Sea... Danse would want to go with her. She'd have to come up with a good reason why he couldn't.

Had she been coming up with this many excuses from the beginning? She'd been honest with him at the start, and it had been cathartic. That's all he asked of her. He'd given her a place in the Commonwealth, given her a fair chance of survival. She only had to pay him back in respect and honesty. God, she was failing.

A chill mist rolled up the bank as they passed a lake. She could see water droplets condensing as the mist collided with the sun warmed metal of their armor.

They were friends now, he'd said it. He was putting more faith in her than she could ever deserve... she didn't deserve his friendship. She didn't deserve his trust or compassion. She had half the heart to tell him but—

"I've never been fishing before." Danse pulled her from her thoughts yet again, pausing on the bank of the lake. "I wonder if it's even possible these days."

He certainly had a way of making her feel nostalgic.

"Oh, yeah." She smiled. "You're definitely a fishing kind of guy."

She was distracted as Dogmeat splashed into the water. She grimaced, watching as he resurfaced, paddling around. There was no way he'd be getting any pets from her covered in atomic lake sludge.

"Was Nate a... fishing kind of guy?"

The question surprised her. She snorted out a harsh laugh. "Oh god no. He wouldn't be caught dead on a boat any smaller than a yacht."

She felt his eyes on her and spared a glance over. The confusion on his face spoke volumes, and she realized how what she'd said could have sounded.

"Nate was from a, uh, 'high society' kind of family. He wasn't really a hands on kind of person. But, nothing wrong with being the fishing type." She would have been twisting her wedding ring if she hadn't been in power armor. "It wasn't an insult."

He nodded after a moment, looking back out at the water. "What exactly would that entail?"

She thought for a moment, recalling chilly mornings bobbing on her father's boat in the fog. "Waking up before the sun, sitting in a boat on the water for hours, enjoying the peace and quiet, maybe throwing back a beer or two, watching the world wake up... it required a lot of patience."

"Hm. That does sound nice."

She hadn't seen much in the way of fish in the Wasteland, other than the beached monstrosities that sometimes littered the boardwalk or the harbor. But maybe if they ever got a chance for shore leave they could find a boat and go through the motions. She was rusty, but it would come back to her...

"Did you enjoy fishing?" The Paladin's curiosity was getting the best of him.

She felt a warm fondness for the memories the question evoked. "I did. My dad took me all the time when I was little. I was never very good at it, but it was fun. We always went, just the two of us."

She remembered being small enough to fit between her father's knees with her back against his chest, his hands guiding her own on a fishing pole, reeling in each and every tiny fish they hooked. She had treasured his rare laughter when she'd cried until they released them all back into the water. It defeated the purpose of fishing, but he'd indulged her. She was nearly beaming at the recollection of him singing Something Fishy as they'd swung the empty cooler between them on the walk home.

Danse hesitated, his tone different than before. "Were you close? With your father, I mean...?"

The smile died on her lips.

"No." She spat abruptly.

She saw him flinch out of the corner of her eye. Her throat swelled shut.

The look of wide-eyed panic on his face was jarring. He didn't realize what he had asked. He hadn't meant anything by it. They were friends. Friends were supposed to ask those kinds of questions, she reminded herself. Friends told each other things about themselves... Nate had taught her that.

"I was-" She forced the words out haltingly. "With my mother."

She watched Dogmeat clamber out of the lake, shaking water from his fur. She tried to push the unwanted thoughts back down, tried to focus on better memories.

"She was amazing." She told him, offering him a restrained smile. "Always worked hard to give us everything we needed. Sometimes I still can't believe she's gone..."

He nodded solemnly, waiting for her to continue.

"She died before Shaun was born. Cancer. From the cigarettes."

The cool wind pushed her bangs into her face. The soles of her feet tingled with the temptation to flee the conversation. It felt too indulgent, talking about herself so much.

"We're in the open here. We should get moving." She changed the topic briskly.

The conversation petered out after that.

 

Dollie buttoned the flannel shirt, shifting her shoulders uncomfortably. It weighed like an anchor against her chest, making it difficult to lift her arms.

"It's heavy." She voiced her complaint, shooting a disapproving frown at Deacon.

"Think of it as compact combat armor." He adjusted his sunglasses, sifting through the crate of equipment.

"How am I supposed to move around in this?" She tried to smooth the shirt out.

"Same way I do." He arched a red eyebrow at her. "You didn't honestly think I was just wearing a t-shirt and jeans out there, did you?"

She decided to keep the remainder of her annoyances to herself, tugging at the collar and trying to get the shirt to rest more comfortably. It refused. And it still smelled pungently of it's previous wearer. She tried her best not to fret over the thought of lice.

Deacon shoved a threadbare coat in her direction, shrugging into one himself.

"Why exactly is this necessary?" She grumbled.

"We're less of a threat if we look like regular settlers instead of grizzled mercenaries, or ransom-able Minutemen Generals."

That made sense. "So we're trying not to be recognized."

He exhaled a sigh. "It isn't about getting recognized or not. It's like... raider insurance. If we don't look like a threat, they won't waste their time trying to mess with us."

"Why not just take care of them?" She felt like an idiot asking so many questions, but... fewer raiders were a good number by all accounts.

"Because we have a mission. A package to deliver." He shook his head, gesturing her to turn toward him. "Come on, let's see."

It felt like some kind of bizarre Wasteland fashion show. He'd made her wash her make up away, much to her annoyance. She'd hardly walked through the door before she'd been corralled from Drummer to Des to Deacon in quick succession. Some big important mission needed her attention, her own motivations be damned. So Virgil would have to wait another day.

"Damn. You still stick out like a sunburned mole rat on a beach." He sighed, shaking his head.

"What?"

"You're still too clean. You look like you walked straight out of a women's magazine."

She grimaced down at her clothes. "So what are you going to do? Dirty me up?"

She was met with a brassy chortle.

"Did you kiss your mother with that mouth, Charmer?"

Her ears burned when she realized what she had said. "That's not what I meant!"

He braced himself against the crate, still laughing at her expense. She wanted to disappear as his laughter drew in the attention of other people nearby. It was a surprise when she wasn't reduced to a pile of ash on the floor.

Deacon pressed a hand against his chest, wiping a finger behind his sunglasses as though he'd laughed himself to tears. Her annoyance with him swelled, until he fixed her with an apologetic smile.

"Look, I'm sorry. You take every chance you can get for a good laugh around here." He swiped something from the crate and reached out, his hands on her face in quick, steady motions. "A bit of charcoal should do the trick."

He put his hands on her shoulders, leaning his head from the left to the right as though he were studying his handy work. After a moment he nodded with a lazy smile.

"It'll have to do. Just don't smile. Your teeth will give us away." He dropped his arms.

She wasn't sure if he was joking or not, and she frowned reflexively.

"Alright, so we are going to..." He started and trailed off. After a moment she realized she was meant to answer.

"Bunker Hill." She finished.

"And we're meeting with?"

"Stockton."

"Right. And no matter what he asks, you answer?"

"Mine is in the shop?"

He swung a hunting rifle onto his shoulder before giving her a firm nod. "We'll make an agent of you yet, Soldier."

His little nickname for her felt more and more like an insult. It stung. She felt like a child that had missed marks on a test she'd been expected to pass.

Other agents eyed her skeptically as they passed, heading for the tunnel that lead into the sewer. Deacon shot Desdemona a parting thumbs up to which the woman rolled her eyes and lit another cigarette.

Dollie couldn't pin Deacon down, and it felt like he was relishing in it. He wasn't hopeful and bold like Preston, or confident and stern like Danse. He wasn't like anyone else she'd met in the Wasteland.

But the one thing she had figured out was that more often than not, Deacon was lying.

He was lying whether it mattered or not, about anything and everything he could. It left her reeling, wondering if anything he told her was true. From his idle chatter about having been a teacher once, to the validity of how long and how close he'd been following her before she'd found the Railroad... the only thing she knew for sure about Deacon was that he was full of shit.

She hated it. Annoyance ebbed and swayed in her, leaving her biting her tongue each time he opened his mouth. She wasn't sure why she'd come back to the Railroad if she was being honest. She'd gotten what she wanted, hadn't she? The chip was decoded and she had a holotape full of information to build her relay.

But if there were people out there that needed help, people trapped and born into literal slavery and she had the chance to do something about it, then she had to. The Railroad would need all the help they could get judging by the devastation she'd seen at the Switchboard. Deacon and his abrasive personality were just a part of that. She'd just have to deal with it.

Chapter Text

Everyone in the safe-house was dead. Augusta wasn't the only safe-house that had gone dark. If the report was to be believed, three safe-houses were completely destroyed. For once Deacon didn't have anything to say.

He glowered down at the holotape in his hand, a fire barrel tossing angry orange light over everything. There was a scowl carved into his face, his black shades engulfed in the light from the flames. She felt nauseous.

She couldn't help feeling sorry for him. For all of them. When they found another cart of people riddled with bullets piled high, how many did that make? How many of them did he know by name, by face?

She was beginning to understand the stiff distance Deacon was keeping between them. She would hate to admit it, but maybe it was for the best if it stayed that way.

He sighed heavily, handing the holotape to her to store in her bag so she could hand it over to Des when they got back. Leave it to him to make her the bearer of bad news.

He paced to the right, resting his hands on his hips. She averted her gaze as his head dropped, allowing him a private moment. She tucked the holotape between a copy of Wuthering Heights she'd salvaged and a manila folder bulging with documents for Proctor Quinlan.

An abrupt outcry snapped her attention upward and she was reaching for Deliverer off of her hip as a raider threw them self down from the floor above, crashing into her. She stumbled backward, taken off guard.

The raider was crazed, rearing their arms back to smack the tire iron they were brandishing hard into her face. A pop of gunfire snapped their head to the right.

Blood sprayed into Dollie's face and she flinched hard. The board under her foot splintered, falling away into the pit, and taking her with it. As the now dead raider collapsed she saw Deacon, demeanor cracking as his hand flew up to catch her all too late.

She fell toward the platform, scrambling for the edge as it rushed past her. The splintered boards tore into her palms, slipping through her fingers. Her fall was broken a few short seconds later by a thick sheet of metal paneling, her knee aching as it cracked against it. The metal thrummed loudly as she collided with it, sliding further into the wreckage at the bottom.

Pain tore through her muscles as she came to an abrupt stop at the bottom. She laid her head back against the paneling, unable to suppress the groan that escaped her throat.

"You okay?" Deacon yelled down to her, his voice cracking. "I'm on my way down!"

Dollie pulled in a pained breath, struggling to push herself to sit up. Every muscle screamed in protest and she ground her teeth, tears stinging in her eyes.

The shuffle and scuff of sneakers met her ears. Deacon was in a flurry as he came to her side, offering his hands out to pull her to her feet. She took his hands, groaning as her legs and arms ached with the effort, the torn skin on her palms stinging.

"How do you feel? Anything broken?" He pulled one of her arms over his shoulder, steadying her on her feet.

"Feels like a car crash." She winced, leaning her weight into him.

"Oh, yeah, 'cause I know exactly what that means."

"Like my whole body's a bruise."

"Ah. Makes sense." He pulled her to walk in a direction, and she groaned. "We'll get you to Carrington, he'll fix you right up."

"Right." She grimaced, following his lead.

The bottom of the safe-house was heaped with splinters of the floors above. She wondered if it was the age of the building, or if the raiders had done it... if the Railroad had done it. A rusted towering cage stood bleakly in the center. She tilted her head, considering it.

"Why's there a cage?" She nodded toward it as he readjusted his arm across her back.

He glanced toward it with no small amount of disdain. "I don't make a habit of getting into the psyche of raiders. Better off that way."

They took a few shambling steps, catching sight of the old red exit sign in the far corner of the room. The ground shook beneath them, debris shifting and tumbling. Dust and splinters flew upward into the air accompanied by an ear splitting roar. They grappled to stay on their feet.

They both snapped toward the source of the sound. Her eyes were filled with the gruesome angles of claws and scales, a towering monster the likes of which she'd seen once before, and only once before. Deacon shifted, pushing her behind him.

"Shit." She croaked, her heart plummeting into her boots.

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me."

The Deathclaw, so aptly named, threw it's head backward in fury, the building shaking with the volume as it roared. It sank downward, preparing to charge them.

"Go, go, go!" Deacon pushed her in the opposite direction.

She grimaced as she struggled to move quickly. Deacon grabbed her, pulling her arm back across his shoulders and throwing the other around her waist in attempt to get her moving faster. He was practically dragging her as the crunching sound of floorboards picked up behind them. The building echoed with heavy foot falls as it strode so quickly behind them.

Deacon pulled them into an abrupt zag and Dollie fought to bite back a howl of pain. She didn't dare to look back as the monster crashed jarringly with the wall near where they'd stood just a moment before.

"Anything good in that bag?" He shouted over the roars.

She scrambled through the contents. Her fingers danced over an inactive fragmine and she yanked it free of the other contents, ignoring whatever junk came loose with it. She pressed down the button, chucking the mine like a frisbee toward the Deathclaw.

Deacon dragged her the rest of the way into a walled off corridor, the ceiling still high enough for the monster to follow. He leaned her back against the concrete wall, pulling his pistol to the ready and turning back toward their assailant.

"Look for a switch! A big lever or something!"

She moved to action like a stop motion film, searching the walls and nearby machinery for any kind of switch or lever she could find. It was dark so far from the fire light and she fumbled for the switch on her pipboy.

The Deathclaw had regained it's footing, emitting another bellowing roar. She glanced backward, watching as it drew up to it's full height and launched itself toward them again.

She heard gunfire and soon the Deathclaw was enveloped in an explosion, Deacon having triggered the mine. He turned back to her quickly, gesticulating toward the wall.

"There, there!"

She followed his gesture and laid her hand on the switch, pulling it down. Some kind of mechanism whirred, a few bulbs flickering to life along the corridor that stretched behind them.

Deacon grabbed her, pulling her in the direction they needed to go. She hobbled along with him, the adrenaline that poured through her combating the pain.

A huge chunk of concrete was lobbed over their heads, crashing into the wall in front of them. They struggled to stop, Deacon shifting and pulling her to the left.

Dollie risked a glance backward, watching as the Deathclaw bounded toward them. It's momentum carried it too far and too fast to correct at their speed and it crashed hard into the wall.

"Shit, shit, shit." She cursed again, moving faster still.

"Almost. There." Deacon panted out, pulling them around a corner.

She saw the doors ahead. They nearly collided with them, him pressing his hands against the surface.

"Button!" She squawked, slamming her hand against it insistently. A mechanism clicked, unlocking in slow motion.

The Deathclaw lumbered into view around the corner.

"Come on, come on." Deacon urged the door, banging his hands against it harder. It still didn't budge. He shifted, throwing his shoulder into it, flying through to the other side.

His arm re-emerged grabbing her frantically by the sleeve and pulling her around. The room was shorter, but still not short enough to thwart the Deathclaw for long. The geiger on her pipboy clicked and she could feel the hot prickle of radiation on her skin.

They scrambled up a narrow staircase, the pounding thrum of the Deathclaw thrashing behind them keeping them scared enough to keep running. The green beam of her pipboy flashed around them.

Deacon threw his shoulder into the door at the end of the staircase, turning the knob as he did. It flew open, out into an alleyway alongside the old hospital. He nearly collapsed on the asphalt, and Dollie wasn't far from doing so either.

She braced against the wall, heaving for air. Her muscles pricked with pain. She'd be feeling this scuffle for a few days, but at least she still had those few days to feel it.

"That was a hell of a date." Deacon joked, his hands braced on his knees and his sunglasses askew.

"Take me somewhere with better service next time." Dollie wheezed out, clutching at the stitch that had begun to pull in her side.

He laughed brassily, before straightening up. "Yes, dear."

The distant roar from inside reminded them of the danger still breathing down their necks.

"Come on." Deacon patted his shoulder. "Piggyback."

"More like break your back." She was sure he must be joking.

"Nah. Don't wanna stick around here much longer. HQ isn't far."

She sighed, longing for her power armor, sitting empty once again on the Prydwen. She couldn't help thinking that none of this would have happened if she'd been with Danse.

"Fine." She grimaced with a new twinge of pain as she walked the few steps to where Deacon stood waiting.

He leaned down and she wrapped her arms around his neck. He braced his arms around her knees, hefting her up from the ground and onto his back. There was a moment where she feared they'd both hit the asphalt, teetering backward uncomfortably, but then he steadied them.

"Onward, great steed." Her muttered to himself, leaning in the direction of the church.

"You said it, not me." She laughed over his shoulder.

Back at HQ, Carrington administered a stimpak snidely. Des was there at the desk, demanding a report, and she passed off the holotape with some annoyance. At least the Elder never followed her into medbay, barking about mission reports.

There was an exchange she was too tired to follow about shuffling assets. Deacon was quiet, watching the exchange in stony silence.

She was dismissed by Des and pushed from Carrington's corner simultaneously, and she tried to suppress her scowl as she began the aching process of heading for the exit tunnel. There was always a stiff hush in the corridor that led to the tunnels, crowded with mattresses where various agents attempted to catch some sleep.

She couldn't imagine sleeping in the catacombs, her ears ringing with the rattle of bones at the thought. She was more than happy to go out of her way to Homeplate or the Prydwen.

The corridor was surprisingly vacant for once. She took a moment to draw in a deep breath, closing her eyes and attempting to recenter. A quick stop over in Diamond City for a hot meal, maybe a night of sleep, and then it was back to the Prydwen. She needed to get over to the Castle, talk with Sturges. Hopefully he wasn't too preoccupied with repairing Sarge...

"Wait, Charmer." Deacon extracted her from her thoughts. "Got a minute?"

"Sure. What's up?" The soles of her feet ached as she pivoted to face him.

"You know, I'm kinda used to flying solo." He hesitated for a moment, running a hand over the top of his head. "But I gotta admit, working with you makes me think I've been missing out. Having someone watching your back... is refreshing. Especially since you never know when the Institute is watching."

"It's good to have back up." She gave him a tired smile, which he returned.

"Exactly." He glanced over his shoulder conspiratorially before continuing. "Some people back there are jealous. You took the Big Nap and everyone you knew is long gone-"

Her smile was long gone, but he interrupted himself before she could speak.

"Just hear me out on the silver lining... If a human in the Railroad slips up, then they expose their friends and loved ones to danger. You're safe from that."

"So what? Losing my boy is a good thing?" She straightened up, bristling.

"Aw, Jesus no, I didn't mean that." He backpedaled, lifting his hands in defense. "Look, if the church gets compromised and the Coursers are on our tail... at least you're not putting more people in harms way. That's all."

She stayed on edge. She wasn't so sure that was true. If something went wrong, what about Preston or Piper? What about Valentine? Hell, she could be putting RJ or Danse in danger by association...

"It doesn't matter much to me." He continued on, his shoulders slumping. "I'm a synth. At least that's what they tell me. So I really don't have anything to lose. For Glory and me, and the others, it's easier to dedicate ourselves to the cause."

She was taken aback. She knew about Glory... but him too?

"I- I didn't know..."

"Isn't exactly something I go broadcasting, but... since we're traveling together, I want you to take this." He held out a worn scrap of paper that had been folded in half. "It's my recall code."

The paper was coarse as she pulled it into her fingers. "Recall code?"

"Yep. If you ever need to know something about the Institute, read it to me."

"What's it do?"

"It's a safety net the brain docs put in. An ejector seat to bring back the old synth self. I don't know for certain, but I imagine it's a big ol' wad of trauma and cupcakes. Except... with no cupcakes." He frowned, looking toward the dirt under their feet.

She pushed her thumb along the edge of the paper, moving to unfold it. His voice quickly halted her.

"But don't use the code unless you absolutely have to. It'll wipe my memories. I'm not sure how much of me will even be left." He scratched at the back of his neck before dropping his arms to his sides and stuffing his hands in his pockets. "You know, I'd just feel better if you didn't read it until you need it."

She settled the paper into her palm, unsure of what to say. It probably wasn't something he offered up lightly, and the fact that he'd given it to her... "I won't. Don't worry."

"Enough of this serious crap." He shrugged. "Need someone to watch your back to Diamond City?"

"Oh... no, that's okay. I'll go the stealth route." She offered him another smile before they parted ways.

A frigid rain helped cover her tracks into Diamond City, chilling her to the core. It amplified the ache in her muscles, made it feel almost as if they were contracting back against her bones. She took her time, feeling the sag of relief in her shoulders as she passed the first D.C. patrol.

The drizzle passed as she made her way up the stairs into the old stadium, a few reluctant beams of sunlight bursting from behind the thick clouds and painting the sky pink as the sun began setting. The bad news about Augusta was behind her, and with all the Deathclaw business aside, it had felt like a good day.

She considered the scrap of paper tucked safely in the pocket of her coat. The curiosity nagged, almost audible in her ears, but Deacon had asked her not to read it. Her stomach growled, giving her something else to think about.

Lowering herself down achingly onto the stool at Power Noodles, she gratefully accepted the bowl that was set in front of her. It was the closest to something nostalgic she could get that didn't come out of a box. The steam hit her face, the smell of the broth making her mouth water.

Seared brahmin wasn't quite beef- more gamey and a bit more lean than she preferred, but it was damn good the way Takahashi did it. Razorgrain wasn't quite what she was used to either but when it was all put together, she could scarcely tell the difference.

She let her hunger drag her mind to the old sushi joint on the intersection down two blocks from the stadium. The fish had always been so fresh, and the elderly woman that ran it knew her and Nate by name. The ebi nigiri had been like a gift from Poseidon himself, with just a dollop of wasabi and a quick dunk in soy. Nate swore by the California rolls. It would have complimented the noodles perfectly. She could nearly taste the fish on her tongue.

"Hey, stranger." A warm, familiar voice pulled her from her daydreaming. "You've been staying out of trouble, I hope?"

She glanced up from her chopsticks, placing a hand over her mouth as she slurped the last of a bite of noodles.

"Ellie, hi!" She spoke around her food, hand still firmly in front of her mouth. She swallowed before offering a smile and a bashful laugh. "I used to have a pretty quiet life, you know."

"Hard to imagine these days." Ellie laughed, smiling.

Ellie's attention was pulled away to the robot dishing out the noodles. It took the thermos she held out to it and filled it up.

"Have to run. Paper work." She explained, sighing as she dropped a pile of caps on the counter. "You should stop by the agency soon. I think Nick misses you, not that he'd ever say it."

Dollie exhaled a laugh. "Sure. Soon as I can."

With her new company retreating to the agency, Dollie returned to her dinner. She tried to catch a lone corn kernel between the chopsticks, following it across the bowl a few times.

She couldn't help but wonder what a recall code was like. She'd always been curious about those things. Sleeper cells and the like that the red scare always warned about in the news. The mass hysteria about how your neighbors could be spies without knowing it. It would have to be carefully chosen so it wouldn't come up in conversation, she supposed. A bunch of nonsense probably. And how did the Railroad know what the recall codes were? Were they written into the synth's programming or something?

From what she'd been able to persuade out of H2-22, there was some kind of fail safe implemented so the synths couldn't talk about where the Institute was or how to get there... so how did the Railroad know the codes?

The curiosity nagged away again, digging it's claws deeper. But the newfound trust her partner had offered up... she wanted to respect that and he'd asked her not to read it. He'd sounded so rattled when he'd asked.

She caught the corn kernel between her chopsticks, lifting it to her mouth.

If it was nonsense, it wasn't like she would even remember it. And she wasn't going to use it, not if it meant losing everything that was Deacon. Sure, he got on her nerves sometimes but he was still her partner, maybe, possibly even her friend. He wouldn't be him without the snark and sarcasm, the wit, the graveness he desperately attempted to sugarcoat.

The chopsticks made a soft clack as she laid them across the bowl, pulling the slip of paper from her pocket. She stroked her finger over the coarseness of it, considering the gravity it possessed.

Would she be failing his trust if she read it? Would it be a betrayal, just reading what couldn't be more than a few words? He wouldn't even have to know she'd read it.

It slipped between her fingers, revealing a word scratched messily onto the paper.

She blinked, perplexed.

She unfolded it.

 

The ground was sodden. She was practically up to her knees in mud most of the way to the airport. It was just after seven when she arrived on the tarmac, receiving a series of pleading looks from the initiates she guessed were responsible for scrubbing the landing pad.

She wasn't feeling particularly accommodating, but she unlaced her boots and left them on the concrete, ignoring the bewildered looks as she boarded the vertibird in her socks.

She sucked on her teeth as she was taxied up to the Prydwen. She counted her teeth with the tip of her tongue. She ground her teeth as the 'bird docked.

The word trust rolled around in her head like a loose boulder about to crush a village. She barely stopped herself from laughing bitterly as the word struck another nerve.

Her feet were practically screaming as she attempted not to slide on the slick metal steps on deck. The added tension in her shoulders felt as if it might snap her spine in two.

Trust. Reliance on the character, ability, or truth of someone or something. Trust.

It was a load of bullshit.

She was Mount Vesuvius: billowing smoke, preparing to bury an island under six meters of ash and pumice. That conniving bastard was Pompeii.

She counted the rungs on the ladder, trying not to let her teeth grind at the burn in her forearms. When she reached the upper deck, her brain cried out in desperation, trying to sway her to take the stairs to the bunks— to rest, a solid eight hours, hell two, just fifteen minutes, anything.

A squire posted near the mess turned her face into her shoulder to stifle a giggle as Dollie passed. One sharp glance was enough to silence her.

"- a really nice piece, I'd love to show it to you." Proctor Teagan had a hand pressed to the metal table at Danse's elbow.

"I'm not in the market for anything at the moment." Danse attempted to return to his plate in dismissal, but it was empty.

"Come on, a marksman like you? Always in the market." Teagan winked before giving Danse's arm a rough slap. "I'll even let you haggle the price."

"I'll consider it."

The proctor tipped his cola in goodbye and Danse sighed before he noticed her waiting. His eyes traveled upward from her socks. The slight quirk at the corner of his lips and the arch of his eyebrow ebbed her anger toward embarrassment.

"Where are your shoes, Soldier?" His amusement bounced off of her like a rubber ball.

"The tarmac."

"I see." He frowned.

"I could use a hand, if you're free."

His eyes narrowed as he studied her. A moment later he rose to his feet. "I'll suit up."

Her already long day dragged onward.

Back on the ground she held in a groan leaning down to re-lace her boots. If she sat down, she wasn't so sure she'd be able to get on her feet again.

The warmth from the lights and the fires of the airport soon fell behind them as they headed southwest from the airport. The rain had moved on for the time being and the night was clear and bright. I-90 was the fastest route to the Castle, and she told Danse so. He was uncharacteristically quiet.

It wasn't long before he broke the silence.

"Is there something on your mind, Knight? You seem agitated."

"No." She answered too quickly, too sharp. "I'm fine."

A careful armored hand caught her shoulder, halting her progression. "If something's bothering you, I want to know about it."

She was close to snapping, pleading with him to drop it, but that was no way to speak to a superior. She tried to think of an excuse, a lie, her brain nagged cruelly, but the look on his face scrambled her thoughts.

There it was again, all that sincerity and the determination. Sometimes it felt like she could tell him she'd slapped a child and he'd still trust her judgement. There was that damn word again... trust.

"If someone's causing you trouble-"

"Really, Paladin. I'm fine." She reassured him, fizzling out enough for some of the rage to evaporate.

You can't trust everyone, she remembered Deacon's recall code bitterly. Well, she'd be damned if she couldn't trust the man standing in front of her.

A painful pressure welled in her throat, a flood of words begging to be spoken, every fib, every excuse, every blatant lie, threatening to overflow from her mouth and come undone. I had the courser chip, she should tell him, it's decoded, she should say. I'm building the relay.

His caring eyes dulled with disappointment. She could almost see him pulling back, distancing himself, regretting his attempts at friendship. He let go of her shoulder, and she felt guilty.

They didn't speak again for a long time. She tried to stop letting Deacon get to her, to leave her own hypocrisy to the wayside, to be alert and vigilant the way Danse expected of her. If she could just live up to his expectations, maybe that would make up for her dishonesty.

It felt like an eternity before Fort Independence finally rose from the horizon, the lights offering a faint glow in the distance. She felt beyond weary from a day far too exhausting, physically and emotionally.

They set out on the causeway, a chilled breeze rolling off the ocean and tugging at the hair from under her hat with gentle fingers. The struggle of the day was nearly over. She was so tired, could maybe sleep for once... surely the Paladin would understand...

A smattering of pipe fire bit the dirt a yard in front of her feet. There was no time for confusion as a full on battle erupted around them. A molotov was lobbed hastily in their direction and she scrambled out of the way, her body reminding her of the days previous scuffles.

The shack, she realized, recalling the patchwork shelter that stood halfway down the causeway. There were supposed to be patrols out. To stop the raiders moving in again.

The blinding moonlight lit the raiders up brightly, their silhouettes easily discernible against the landscape. The sharp cutting thrum of laser fire tore from behind her, accompanied soon after by the crack of her combat rifle.

She counted five of them. They had to have been crowded in the tiny shack. They could have just been a scouting party. The thought didn't detract from her annoyance that they were on her doorstep.

Danse split off around the structure. Two of the raiders drew close and she fired through the woman's chest. She hit the ground with a choked scream.

"You bitch!" The other seethed, throwing himself into her.

The hard metal of his shoulder armor collided with her mouth, snapping her head backward and knocking her hat from her head. Her gun slipped from her hands as they tumbled, hitting the ground agonizingly hard.

Her grunt was swallowed as his weight knocked the air from her chest. She struggled to throw him off but he hammered his fist down against her face, reiterating the blow to her mouth.

She shoved her hands against his chest, grappling with the hard metal cage at the front, her gloves protecting her hands from being scraped more painfully raw than they already were. He was heavy, weighing her down hard into the grass. She felt the stab of rocks beneath her.

"Get. Off." She hissed out, thrashing against him, but he hardly budged.

He spit into her face, laughing as his hands closed forcefully around her throat. "Gonna make you regret being born!"

She choked, slapping her hands over his wrists. He tightened his grip, making her head swim, lights dancing in front of her eyes. The gunfire around them left her ears completely, her pulse skipping in a roaring panic.

Her head felt like it was going to explode. She could feel the terrified pounding of her heart low in her chest, her lungs seizing. The raider laughed, throwing his head back, the moonlight glinting wickedly off of his armor.

Dollie searched frantically, her hand landing on her thigh. She wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her combat knife, throwing all the strength she had into slashing through the exposed flesh of the raider's stomach.

His face fell, his eyes blown wide. His grip relented and he gurgled weakly as he crumpled over her. Hot, wet blood and bile spilled across her stomach, seeping through her clothes.

She coughed wetly, every nerve in her body screaming. She spat blood, her lungs still obstructed by the raider's full weight. She wheezed, her muscles protesting desperately as she shoved him away, rolling onto her side.

The world spun around her, her face pressed against the ground. She hacked and gasped, trying desperately to pull air back into her lungs, to her heart, and to her brain. She dug her fingers into the grass, attempting to push herself upward.

Everything tilted as she got to her knees, her body swaying sickeningly back toward the ground. The harsh cutting smell of blood stung her nose painfully, drawing an aching gag from the back of her throat.

Her ears rang. Her vision cut out.

Chapter Text

The raider in front of the Paladin sizzled and fell to ash, crumbling in the breeze that rolled off of the ocean. The night was clear, the causeway falling back into silence as the thrum of his rifle carried over the water.

He'd lost sight of Knight Wallace, but the silence should have meant she'd taken care of the remaining raiders.

"Knight?" He maneuvered back around the unstable shack. The sparse clumps of grass swayed with the wind. She didn't answer.

It was as though she'd disappeared completely. He started a sweep of the area, noting one of the raiders' corpses not far from where they'd split ways.

"Knight?" He called again, his heart rate starting to climb. Was she in the water? Where was the other raider?

Movement in his periphery pulled his attention to the left. He lifted his rifle to the ready before he watched the missing raider slump limply forward. He watched in confusion as flailing hands reached upward from beneath the corpse.

A moment later he understood. He tore across the causeway in three fast strides.

"Wallace?" He tried to ignore his own panic as she sputtered and choked.

She rose to her knees for a moment, but arched sharply downward again almost as soon as she had gotten up. He wasn't close enough to catch her.

He reached out an armored hand for her shoulder before a sharp snarl took him off guard.

He watched, bewildered, as she forced herself upward onto her feet. Her body nearly buckled beneath her. She braced herself against her knees, pulling in a few ragged breaths.

"Are you alright?"

It was as though she couldn't hear him. She was soaked in blood; it was pouring from the lower half of her face, down her chin and onto the white of her shirt collar. The bottom of her shirt, untucked and torn, was blackened with it. The combat knife still clutched in her hand glinted with it.

She let out a frustrated scream and her voice was like gravel, her face contorted with more rage than he'd ever thought her capable of possessing.

She gouged her knife through the air toward the dead raider. "The next bastard that lays a hand on me is gonna regret it more than this sorry son of a bitch!"

She threw the knife downward, sinking it in the sand and giving the body a hard kick.

He grabbed her shoulder cautiously. "Knight, you're bleeding."

She turned out of his reach but grimaced, seeming to just have noticed the wound gushing blood from her upper lip.

"I'm fine." She hissed the words, trying not to move her mouth.

"It looks serious. You should let me stitch it." He insisted, frowning.

Her shoulders were still heaving with rushed breaths as she leaned down and pulled her hat from the ground, and then her gun a few steps away.

"We're out in the open. Should keep moving." She clipped in a growl, stalking toward the Castle without heeding him.

Her shoulders were stiff, her chin high, and her pace brisk; all opposing her usual gait.

Danse huffed, casting a glance toward the shack the raiders had emerged from, before following behind the Knight. He was apprehensive of the behavior her anger might evoke.

They covered the rest of the causeway in record time. There was a pair of guards posted at the doors, and they moved lazily to attention at their General's approach.

She halted sharply and he almost ran into her.

"Carver," She barked. "Dispatch Garvey to my quarters, ASAP."

The man she addressed flinched, his eyes growing wide as he registered her order.

"M-ma'am?" He questioned.

"Now." She hissed back, casting a glare at him.

He fumbled, nodding before stumbling through the sand and along the outer wall of the castle. Danse felt himself scowling at the insubordination. She was their commander-in-chief, not someone they should even dare to question.

Danse followed her into the courtyard, watching the patrols along the walls by the glow of their crude muskets. An older woman stood leaning against the stone doorway into the Castle, taking a drag from her cigarette. A smirk found her face when she saw Wallace.

"Well. What got hold of you, Princess?" The drawling amusement in the woman's voice caused Dollie to visibly bristle.

She didn't so much as cast her a passing glance. Her voice was sharp, caustic. "I don't have time for a dick measuring contest, Shaw."

Surprise wasn't the right word for what he felt. He'd never heard the Knight speak that way, had never seen her behave like that. She hadn't even faltered as she continued her rampage toward her quarters.

He stuck close behind her. It was an uncomfortable fit inside the stone corridors, but the ceiling was further from his head once she'd forced the doors to her quarters open. He stopped just inside, feeling like he was intruding.

She yanked the hat from her head and slammed it down on the table in the room, shrugging her bag from her shoulder and letting it clank against the concrete. A roll of duct tape rolled under the table.

She was tearing her arms out of the sleeves of her coat when he finally cleared his throat.

"That was an interesting colloquialism." He noted the hitch in her movements. "Local I take it?"

Her shoulders sagged and she glanced back at him, embarrassment replacing the roiling anger. She sighed, and it was like watching it evaporate. She gestured for him to come in.

She frowned and then grimaced, reaching toward her face but stopping short.

"You should really let me stitch that." He insisted, deciding the corner was as good a place as any to park his suit.

"It's fine." She moved across the room toward a dresser with a mirror hung over it.

His armor hissed as it released him. He rolled his shoulders and then his neck, pulling his gloves from his hands before opening up one of the compartments on his armor. He had a field medkit stashed in one of them that should do the trick. "Stitches are the best course of action to avoid infection."

The slosh of water drew his attention as she filled a bowl from a pitcher. He wondered who had filled it, if the Minutemen had been expecting their General... It had been a disappointing reception if that were the case.

"I don't want it to scar." She muttered lamely, beginning to mop up the blood with a dampened rag.

"Stitches will minimize the likelihood of scarring." He assured her, threading a needle. What was one little nick? "Though that should be the least of your worries."

She sighed and he finished preparing the tools he'd need to patch her up. After a few moments he glanced up to find her braced over the dresser, her head hung and her eyes clamped shut.

He frowned, some of her anger finding it's way to him. He crossed the room to where she stood, putting a careful hand on her shoulder. She glanced up at him in the mirror, her eyes tired and pained. The laceration on her upper lip was deep, all the way through. It was the bruises ringing her neck that jabbed at him worst, though, the ghosts of violent fingers raised in welts on her skin.

"Take a seat on the table." He instructed. "I'll wash up."

She swallowed painfully, but did as he asked.

The water in the basin was tinged red with muck and her blood. He dunked a dry cloth into the clean water that remained in the jug and wiped his hands down.

"You know what you're doing right?" She asked hesitantly from behind him.

He shot her a look over his shoulder, not sure if he should be annoyed or amused. "I've stitched worse. My preference for power armor doesn't denote a lack of dexterity, you know."

"Is that what you tell all the girls?" He heard her snort.

There was an uncomfortable tug in his stomach and he stopped in the midst of soaping his hands to stare at her. "What?"

Her eyes were wide. She'd clearly surprised herself. "Joke. Joking. Sorry."

She glanced downward to avoid his gaze. He cleared his throat and returned to the task at hand, choosing to ignore it. Once his hands were clean and dried, he began to sort through the kit on the table beside her.

"First we should sterilize the wound." He doused a square of gauze in alcohol, pausing before he set to work. "This won't feel good."

She nodded, solemn, keeping her chin lifted high as he moved to press the gauze to the laceration. She flinched as he added pressure, but was fighting to hold still. He tried to be quick and efficient to avoid causing her any added pain.

"Done." He told her when the wound was thoroughly cleaned. "Now we just need to numb the area."

He took a bit of numbing gel onto his thumb before carefully dabbing it against her lip. It was more uncomfortable than the last time he'd had to intrude so far into her personal space, and her his, but it was necessary. He applied a liberal amount, prioritizing her comfort over rationing.

"It should only take a moment to take effect."

He sterilized the needle with a flip lighter from the kit while awaiting her assurance that the area was sufficiently numbed.

"Ready." She murmured, shifting to sit up straighter.

"Do your best to keep still." He reminded her before carefully bracing her jaw in one hand.

The fluorescent light cast shadows of her dark eyelashes against her cheeks, her eyes scarcely open. There was the strangest feeling in his chest, as if his breath were caught there, unable to fulfill it's purpose and fill his lungs. He could feel her pulse fluttering.

He pushed the needle carefully through her delicate skin, beginning at the top of the laceration and working downward in four tidy stitches.

The heavy heat of the breath that escaped her parted lips brushed across his fingers, chasing a chill down his spine. It was the cool from the breeze back on the causeway, or the sweat still clinging to him from the rush of battle, surely...

A strange tingling took his fingers, phantom pangs of nervousness he hadn’t felt in ages rising to the surface. Was he ill?

Wallace swallowed carefully, agonizingly, and she cringed. He didn’t like seeing the pain on her face; the way it pulled the often upturned edges of her lips into a frown.

He cut the thread with a small pair of scissors, carefully binding it off. He studied his handiwork for a moment before he was satisfied.

He pulled a stimpak from his kit, removing the cap from the end. She reached out, her hand landing over his.

“I’ll do it.” She rasped, giving him a pleading look.

He let her pluck the syringe from his fingers and began to shrug her shirt from her shoulder. He glanced back to the kit and it's contents splayed on the table.

There was no shame in needing assistance, but she certainly seemed to think so. Though, he supposed he wasn’t known for being a cooperative patient when in her position either.

“What exactly happened?” He asked measuredly as he took up the task of repacking the kit.

"Hm?" She plunged the needle into the exposed skin of her arm.

"With the raider."

"Oh." She shook her head, fighting not to scowl. "Just got too close."

"Is that all?" He wasn't one to pry, but something had clearly been bothering her before the battle on the causeway. She'd been fuming since she showed up in the Mess without her boots.

She sighed heavily, before she glanced back up at him. This was the part where she'd give half an explanation and dismiss his concerns. He'd learned the pattern.

The wash of the lighting almost made her eyes look green.

"I just... I shouldn't have to change for people to respect me out here." She moved her mouth carefully, gesturing down at the blood still drying on her clothes. "Blood and guts shouldn't have to be part of my uniform."

He wasn't all that surprised. She was always too caught up in what other people thought of her. It didn't matter. Not to him, at least. Her actions spoke for themselves.

"I can see how that would be frustrating." He tried to level with her.

"And it isn't just here!" She continued talking and he had to bite back his surprise. "My mother paid good money for these teeth. I'm not going to let that go to waste just because some dick in sunglasses says they glow in the dark."

"Who-?" He was having a hell of a time keeping pace with the conversation, but she kept going.

"It's like I'm not enough for these people! Not enough for Shaw and the Minutemen, the settlers. You saw how they treated me. I'm the General!" She jabbed a finger toward the wall in the direction of the Castle doors. "Apparently I'm not rude enough, not tough enough, not scarred enough."

There was something about the way the annoyance animated her face that put a smile on his.

"I'm sorry if my mother raised me with some damn manners. And I have enough scars for two lifetimes! What do they want, a peg leg?" She swept her hand out dramatically in exasperation. "Why isn't Dollie enough?"

The light hit the skin on her neck differently as she shifted and he reached out, studying the bruise closer. There was a laceration he'd missed in his initial examination.

He glanced back up, holding her gaze.

"Dollie's enough for the Brotherhood. And for me." He assured her. "We need to have Cade assess your injuries as soon as possible."

"I'm fine, Danse." She tried to insist, but he could hear the pain in her voice plainly.

"That's an order. And I will haul you back to the Prydwen on my shoulder if I have to."

Her eyes fell, but his attempt at teasing had hit its mark, fixing a small smile at the corner of her lips.

He could kick himself for losing track of her like that, for letting anyone near enough to hurt her. He should have stayed closer, laid down better covering fire, never let the bastard close enough to lay a hand on her.

A frizzed lock of hair slipped from behind her ear, falling into her eyes. His fingers flexed to sweep it back into place, but he stopped, hovering over the gash on her neck.

There was an uncomfortable pressure in his chest, cinched tight and restrictive. He fought to exhale easily, feeling chilled again. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry.

He couldn't do that... or shouldn't... there was something incredibly too familiar in the action he'd nearly taken.

Footfalls beyond the room tore his thoughts away and he focused over her shoulder. Garvey flew in through the door.

"Sorry, General, I was down at the-" Garvey hesitated when he noticed them on the far side of the table.

Dollie turned out of Danse's reach.

"Oh damn." Garvey breathed, leaning his musket against the table as he rounded it. "What happened to you?"

She met her Lieutenant halfway.

"Raider's on the causeway." She told him bitterly, her anger resurging.

"There's supposed to be a patrol." He narrowed his eyes as he examined Danse's stitching, holding her shoulder as he leaned near her face.

"Clearly someone's been slacking off." Danse grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. There was a stabbing pang of annoyance in his gut.

"Who was assigned?" She moved out of Garvey's hold toward the mirror on the wall.

"Carver and Mendoza."

"I want them in here. Now." The venom in her words took them both by surprise.

"Right away, General." Garvey nodded, taking his musket as he hurried back through the door.

He watched as she straightened her hair in the mirror, pulling it free of the elastic band that had scarcely contained it since the scuffle. She didn't have anything more to say to him, and he had the feeling once again that she had forgotten he was there.

It was only a few brief moments before the Minuteman from the front gate and another, slightly older, shuffled into her quarters. The younger, Carver looked apprehensive, while the older had the audacity to look annoyed.

"Paladin, would you excuse us?" She addressed him briskly.

He nodded his silent approval, shutting the doors behind himself. He found Garvey posted dutifully outside.

"Paladin." He acknowledged.

"Garvey." Danse returned the acknowledgement before glancing down the corridor.

He'd found himself in a strange situation, an outsider in the halls of the old fort.

Brotherhood soldiers were rarely afforded station outside of the Brotherhood, and yet his Knight had her own militia, albeit one that scarcely seemed to respect her authority.

It was a conflict of interest, easily. But she'd been honest about her position from the beginning. It was likely the reason the Elder had allowed it. Her position made work with the local settlements easier, made securing aid from local farms easier. He knew from experience how difficult it was to whip the common Wastelander into organized fighting shape. What he couldn't imagine, was how she managed to do so with so little experience herself.

Danse glanced back toward Garvey. He was likely the reason for that. Danse found it strange the man hadn't accepted the position of General for himself. Dollie had explained it to him in the past, but it had just been a series of excuses.

"What about this is funny?" Dollie's voice lifted venomously, loud enough to be heard through the door.

Garvey shifted uncomfortably and Danse found himself doing the same, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back against the stonework beside the door.

"If the raider that wrung my neck had gotten hold of Thomas at Nordhagen, would you still find it funny, Mendoza?"

Her sharp words were followed by a beat of silence. The grating strains of the patriotic music from the radio tower lilted through the late night air. Garvey cleared his throat.

"Well?" He heard her croak.

The Minutemen responded in a muffled jumble. Dollie's words were impossible to discern after that.

His mind wondered. She hadn't specified what they'd be doing when they left the Prydwen, hadn't specified what it was she needed his help for. Maybe they were getting more tech for Scribe Haylen. He hadn't seen the Scribe in a week or so, found himself looking forward to the prospect of checking up on her. Sometimes he found himself missing the companionship of the recon squad. Not just Rhys and Haylen but... Keene, Brach, Worwick... Dawes...

The click of the door opening broke his train of thought, tore him away from an afternoon roasting in the sun months before, from the swing of a supersledge and the splatter of blood on his own armor...

"Those that disregard the safety of others aren't welcome in this organization. Do I make myself clear?" Dollie spoke from the other side of the door.

"Yes, ma'am." The militiamen replied in clean unison.

"I want that shack dismantled immediately. I want the boat pushed out to sea. And at o six hundred hours, you'll clear the mines from under the Castle, understood?"

There was a shorter beat of silence, enough for them to swallow their punishment, before they responded to the affirmative again.

The door opened and the Minutemen were dismissed before the door was promptly shut again. He watched them to see if they'd actually listened to their General, feeling a swell of pride for his Knight as the two turned down the corridor in the direction of the causeway.

Garvey had snapped to action, trailing them to ensure Wallace's orders were enforced, leaving Danse alone outside of the quarters.

It was odd to find himself, a high ranking member of a different faction, left unattended in the Minutemen's home base. Not that he'd abuse that moment. He had no personal qualms with the Minutemen, found their goals admirable, if not somewhat misguided. It was a security risk. He'd have to inform her.

Moments ticked by. He stretched his fingers, popped his knuckles, found himself anxious for something to do. He wished he hadn't left his rifle with his armor, wished to be tinkering, or at least armed.

The door opened again and Wallace reappeared, gesturing him to come back inside.

"Sorry," She apologized, her voice sounding more tired than before.

"It's alright." He waved off her concern, noticing that she'd changed into less bloodied attire and tamed her hair back into a bun again.

He felt himself smile at the recollection of what the woman in the courtyard had called her. Princess. She clearly disliked it, but he had to agree it suited her.

"What was our agenda when we set out tonight?" He asked.

She sighed before leaning back against the table, watching as he sorted through one of the compartments on his power armor.

"We were just checking up on a few things here before we took care of a group of Mutants for some settlers. It's close to a bit of tech Haylen asked me to find."

He nodded, wondering how soon she'd be trying to bend his arm into heading into the field despite her injury. Two hours? Three?

"I wasn't even planning on reaching the Castle until tomorrow." She grumbled.

He found what he'd been looking for, the small kit that would let him tinker with his rifle. He unzipped the kit to find a packet of tabasco sauce had somehow wedged itself inside and fixed it with an unappreciative glare.

"What had you so incensed?" He came to lean against the table beside her, setting the packet of sauce there, since it was for her anyway.

"It's a... conglomeration of things, I guess..." She shook her head.

He was enjoying how talkative she'd been, how open. Strange that it only occurred when she really should have been resting her voice.

"Before... when things got too much... I would talk to Nate... or my sister." She spoke more softly, sadly. "But I can't. And I... I forget and it just hits me all over... that they're gone..."

He knew the feeling, found himself nearly choking on the pain from the instance when he'd first forgotten that Cutler... that he was dead.

"At least with Nate I know... I saw." She shook her head as though she thought she weren't making sense. "But it's been two hundred years. Of course she's gone..."

There was an awkward moment in which he realized if he gave up the thread of conversation, she'd clam up and quit talking. His mind blanked for a moment as he struggled to think of a question, anything that would feel natural in the conversation to keep it going...

"What was your sister like?" He'd heard about her husband, but she hadn't spoken much of her sister.

He worried that it was the wrong question until it drew a strained laugh from her lips and she smiled.

"You would have hated her."

He didn't find himself the type to necessarily hate anyone. "Why's that?"

She shook her head, still smiling. "She played by her own rules and... she was self-absorbed, insubordinate, loud-mouthed, inconsiderate. The list goes on... but she meant well. Just had her own way of going about things."

"Ah." He understood her claim, knew he'd have to agree. "I suppose those are traits I'd find particularly grating."

"Yeah. Anyway it's just... strange imagining a world without her in it."

He frowned, finding that a difficult sentiment to understand. He'd been the only constant in his own life since birth, though he supposed he couldn't quite imagine life without the structure of the Brotherhood, not now that he'd had it for so long. But feeling that kind of dependence on another person... well, it had only ever brought him pain.

"While I'm sure it isn't the same, I'm more than happy to lend an ear when needed." It felt horrifically awkward telling her so, but he meant it. He was more than happy to listen to her problems if it prevented her from losing her concentration and putting herself in harms way. "All that aside, you should get some rest."

He should have known better than to think she'd heed him.

 

"Well, hey there, little lady." Sturges looked up from his work, pushing the welding helmet up onto the top of his head. "What can I do for you?"

Dollie hesitated, gauging the distance between herself and the Paladin. He'd reluctantly agreed to confer with Preston about the new patrol route details. She'd persuaded him with the assurance that it would benefit the Brotherhood.

"How's Sarge coming along?" She returned her attention to the mechanic waiting expectantly before her.

"Easy 'nough. Rough around a few edges, but nothing a bit of elbow grease and a blowtorch can't fix." He smiled, wiping the oil from his hands on a dingy cloth.

"Good to hear." She nodded, casting a glance back toward the Paladin.

His back was finally turned, his attention on Preston.

"Somethin' wrong, darlin'?" Sturges called her attention and she frowned.

"I have a special project for you, Sturges. Your eyes only." She reached into her bag, handing the folder out to him.

She felt sick with anxiety as it left her hands. Everything was riding on this, the future of her family... the future of the entire Commonwealth.

"What's this?" His eyebrows shot clear up his forehead. "Interceptor signals, relays... is this a... teleporter or somethin'?"

"Do you think you can build it?" She winced when he said it out loud.

She knew how it sounded, how completely insane it all was. She wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen it for herself.

"What's this for, General?" He scratched the back of his neck after a low whistle.

"I-" the truth died on her tongue the same way it had when she'd talked to Preston. "The Institute... they killed my husband... I- I need answers."

He considered her for a long moment, frowning deeply before nodding. He focused on the blueprints, muttering out jargon she couldn't begin to wrap her head around.

"This is gonna take a crazy amount of scrap." He pursed his lips. "And there's no tellin' if it'll actually work. I'm a mechanic, not a rocket scientist."

Her heart sank in her chest. She was depending on this. It was the only way to keep it in her hands, to do it on her terms; to make sure she got to Shaun with nothing else in her way.

"I'd say Sanctuary is our best bet." Sturges nodded solemnly, tucking the folder under his arm.

The whiplash she felt made her face tingle.

"You'll do it?" She croaked out.

"I'll do my best." He assured her. "I'm headed back there in two days. I'll scope out the situation, figure out what parts we're missin'. We can get a plan together then."

She reached out, gripping his forearm and giving it a grateful squeeze. It was the best news she'd had in days, no weeks. "Thank you, Sturges. Thank you."

"Now I ain't makin' any promises-" His eyes were wide, and he lifted his other hand defensively.

She interrupted him by pressing a quick kiss to his cheek. "Even if it doesn't- No, it will... I know it will."

He laughed, waving her off. "Alright, alright. I oughta get back to it."

She nodded, letting go of his arm and glancing over the courtyard. The Battle Hymn of the Republic played on the station, drifting downward over the early dawn.

Her attention was pulled magnetically back to the Paladin. She swore she'd seen him turn abruptly back to the workbench. Preston had been pulled away, chatting animatedly with one of the Minutemen that worked on the supply line from Greentop to Hangman's Alley.

Her legs were leaden as she crossed the courtyard. She thought it was funny how a few weeks ago she would have mistaken Danse's confidence for comfort. She knew better now, gauging his discomfort by his stiff posture.

She'd only seen him relaxed at the airport, and for a brief moment when the Prydwen had just arrived, before they'd taken that first Vertibird together.

He was an outsider at the Castle among her militia. He held no sway with the Minutemen. Hell, Shaw would probably resent the value Dollie placed on his advice and his opinions.

"Long night." She remarked tiredly as she stepped to his side.

"That's an understatement." He agreed.

The rows of corn atop the wall swayed in a breeze, pulling both of their eyes to it reflexively.

"The shack is taken care of, traps are rigged up for any more raiders that attempt to move in, and," She gestured toward Sarge in a heap where she'd left Sturges. "We nearly have our Sentry Bot up and running."

"You've gotten quite a lot accomplished." She guessed by his tone that he was holding back.

"But?" She asked, giving him a tired smile.

He looked surprised for a moment, but continued. "You require medical attention. And rest."

"It's just the lack of make up, making me look tired. I'm fine." She lied.

"A poor excuse." He glanced over his shoulder as the night watch processed along the wall. "Though I had meant to ask..."

A laugh made her throat ache with new fervor. She shifted at the discomfort.

"I thought it would help them take me seriously." She grumbled. "Following Uniform protocol is an added bonus, of course."

She thought he'd appreciate that she acknowledged Brotherhood regulations. She found herself hoping for one of those rare, proud smiles he gave her when she'd done something good.

She received a stiff hm instead.

"Hm?" She parroted back, tilting her head in confusion.

"Protocol." He repeated, before lifting an eyebrow and holding her eye critically. "And not the fact that you ran out of lipstick, as you informed Scribe Haylen when we last visited the Police Station."

She blinked, blindsided by his knowledge of a conversation she'd thought had been private, privy only to herself and Scribe Haylen. It ignited deeper rooted fear, her anxiety clawing out from the depths of her pain and exhaustion.

If he knew about that, what else did he know?

"Well," She sputtered, trying to recover. "It's a- a lame excuse, isn't it?"

He shook his head, now refusing to look at her. Her paranoia sounded like an alarm in her ears.

"You care far too much about appearances. I doubt any of them noticed the alteration."

It dug. She was annoyed at his tone, flat and dismissive. He hadn't spoken to her like that in literal months.

"Fine." She huffed. "I ran out of my lipstick, and there's no point doing the whole thing without it."

She turned, leaning back against the bench and glaring toward the radio tower.

"I'd just like to hold onto some part of my life- just once, just something. It made me feel like I was still..." She sighed, crossing her arms. "Forget it."

"You're pouting." He prodded after a moment.

She glared sharply up at him.

The curve on his lips was different. Not proud but... Was he teasing her?

"I paid good money to look the way I did." She murmured defensively, feeling particularly idiotic.

"Oh?" The slight laugh in his words didn't help.

"I was at the forefront of fashion. I was fashionable." She tried to square her shoulders, to justify herself.

He snorted. The sound in and of itself was enough to make her heart stop.

"Fashion was a capitalistic construct utilized to lull the masses into complacency."

She nearly choked, dumbfounded by the ease and speed those words fell from his mouth. She was sputtering, again. "Where'd you read that?"

"The Brotherhood has an extensive historical database. I surveyed documentation on Capitalism and Pre-War America and reached my own conclusions. Consumerism, fashion, and the like were all major contributing factors in the decline of American society."

Some of her annoyance faded and she felt the corner of a smirk on her lips. She struggled not to be derailed, not to agree. God, if Nate had only seen capitalism as something other than a necessary evil, he would have been perfect.

"Maybe so." She conceded, trying and failing not to smile. "But looking back and criticizing something is different than living it.

"The masses are responsible for the systems that they live in. A government is meant to serve it's people, not vice versa. When that government no longer achieves it's function it becomes obsolete and should be dismantled."

She shook her head. "By '77 it was already too late. The masses were rendered completely powerless at the monopoly of businesses that ran the government. We were all just waiting for the bombs to drop, never knowing if we'd live to see the morning."

He opened his mouth to argue, but she pressed her hand against his shoulder, continuing.

"All we could do was make the most of the time we had. Consumerism certainly played a part in our downfall but, at least we could feel something other than fear." She gestured outward. "Everyone had their vices. Alcohol, base ball cards... a tube of Lady Luck's Atomic Orange Lipstick."

He seemed taken aback for a moment, glancing away. She didn't want the banter to end.

"I suppose your first hand experience supports your claim." He cleared his throat, the edge of a smile still tugging at his lips. "I'll have to take your word for it."

"Thank you." She smiled, recrossing her arms and closing her eyes.

"Now, I have to insist you get some rest," He paused. "Princess."

Her eyes sprung open in surprise as she swiveled to look at him again. The rush of things that she felt were too many to count, embarrassment and shame there among them. She couldn't get her mouth to form words, couldn't decide on the ones to form. Her face was on fire. She wasn't sure if it was the word itself or just the way he'd said it, the way it had sounded on his tongue.

"Please. Don't." She clipped, turning to look at the wall on her other side, needing very desperately not to be seen.

He was just teasing. Just another joke. She struggled to compose herself.

"We- we should get going," She started, glancing awkwardly back, seeing his face contort from whatever it had been into annoyance. "if we're going to get back to the Prydwen before Cade is off duty."

His annoyance changed again, into what she thought might be disbelief. He nodded after a moment. "Outstanding."