Actions

Work Header

Refreshment

Chapter Text

OK so if you haven't played Nuka World (or if you have and you just want to hear how it went down for me personally)

I find this transit station, right, and there's this guy named Harvey lying on the floor of it going "ow ow ow," so of course I'm like "how can I help, want a stimpak?" and he's like "nono, I'm fine, it was fuckin raiders man they beat me up and stole my lunch money and kidnapped my wife and kid, they went thataway"

So I'm like "OK cool I'm actually the general of the Minutemen so you're quite lucky I've stumbled across you, please, take this stimpak and then we'll go rescue your family"

And he's like, "haha psych,* actually I'm not injured, but the raiders do have my wife and kid, and they use them as leverage to make me wallow around dirty train station floors luring strangers into their evil clutches."

And I'm like "fair enough, still sounds like a rescue mission to me!"

So I get on the train and immediately some drawly motherfucker starts talking to me over the intercom about how Harvey still didn't tell me the Whole Truth about What Awaits Me in Nuka World. And I'm like, I'm the player character, bitch, bring it. But he continues to yammer for this entire train ride and I'm already ready to murder him the second I arrive at my destination.

And then I get to Nuka World and they have a little obstacle course set up with gun traps and turrets and such like, which is pretty much a regular day in my life because see above re: player character, except that the whole time I'm fighting my way through, this drawly weirdo is commentating it, like it's a spectator sport, because obviously whoever lives here gets entertainment out of watching people navigate "the Gauntlet," and taunting me about how slow I am and how badly I'm doing. Like basically Kellogg taunting you as you approach his lair, but without the, you know, emotional investment or plot importance. So I'm getting pissier and pissier and seriously looking forward to killing this motherfucker with my smallest knife at the end, right?

Then I get to a little room where this intercom is drawling at me all "Psst you did great in there, now do as you're told" which is my very favorite thing to be told by drawlin ass motherfuckers I've been planning the drawn-out stabbing of for however many gun traps now, "pick up that water pistol I've stashed for you and shoot the next boss with it, his electric armor is only weak to water! this is the only way to defeat him!"

Whatever, sure, I beat the boss, and now I am the new supreme ruler of all the raiders in Nuka World, because why the hell not, and Drawly McFuckface is now available to be my companion, because he got tired of the last boss's shenanigans, which is why he enabled me to defeat him. But I better tread diplomatically! Because there are three rival gangs in Nuka World, all equally horrible and gross in their own special ways, and they all must be dealt with diplomatically! Also they all have a bunch of slaves in explosive shock collars doing manual labor and being starved and sleep-deprived and tortured and murdered for kicks!

At which point my dialogue options are, like, a) I've always wanted to be a raider! b) The innocent are worthless and should be tortured and murdered for kicks! c) I bet we can make this place even more disgusting, TOGETHER! and d) Don't forget you're my little bitch too, Gage,** so help me if you cross me...

So that escalated quickly? Like apparently I'm just... evil now. OK?

So I go around and meet the raider gangs, and it's all just super, super gross and upsetting, and the dialogue options are still like "Kiss up to the raiders by promising to a) give them a lot of money, b) give them a lot of slaves to torture to death, c) give them the entire Commonwealth as a hunting ground, d) All of the above!" and I'm just like, what is in the fucking water here*** because I feel like five minutes ago I was a hero? I mean, I understand the concept of dealing diplomatically with evil people who have you at a disadvantage, but-- um, I've spent this entire game so far absolutely wrecking evil people who apparently have me at a disadvantage, and the last time I was polite to a group of sociopaths it was because one of them was my SON,**** so unless one of you assholes is another of my long-lost babies I'm REALLY unclear on my motivation here.

So anyway after I talk to all the horrible raider bosses I go talk to some of the slaves, and I meet one slave named Mackenzie and she's like "sup boss. how's being the boss, boss?" and I'm like "um it's OK I guess" and she's like "listen if you wanted to? you could kill all the raiders and set us slaves free. but only if you wanted to!"

and I'm like "um, that's a bit forward of you missy considering this is literally our first ever conversation and as far as you know I'm a raider boss, but maybe it's the fact that I'm walking around with my JAW DROPPED at all this fuckery. and yes, I'll definitely take it under advisement, but first I think there's a plot to this DLC and I should probably at least try playing through it?"

So I go back to Drawls and I'm like "so what's the plot of this DLC" and he's like "oh well first we're gonna take back the parks! There's five theme parks and three raider gangs, and you'll claim each park for a raider gang of your choice, so no matter what you do at least one gang will end up shafted and pissed off at you. that'll be important later!"

So I take back all the theme parks, each of which has an extensive unrelated subplot associated with it, which range in interest level from "super goddamn depressing" to "unbelievably tiresome," mostly with some shades of both, and then I go back to Gage and I'm like "I just had a bunch of unrelated minigames, it was awful, what next"

and he's like "next we move on the Commonwealth! We'll violently subjugate your settlers you like protecting so much!"

and I'm like... Well, my dialogue options are a) Sounds awesome! b) I've been dying to violently subjugate my loyal Minutemen! c) Fuck Preston Garvey! and d) Don't fuckin tell me what to do Gage, I'LL decide when we move on the Commonwealth.

So I... guess... I pick d)? and he's like "Great, let me know when you're ready to move out."

And I don't know what happens in the plot after that because THE FUCK YOU SAY, so at this point I just take all my combat chems at once and get out my favorite stabbin' knife and stab every single raider in the park to death and strip them all naked so I can bedizen myself in their psychotic clothing.*****

Then I go talk to Mackenzie (the slaves were just standing around this whole time like "whoa, cool") and Mackenzie's like "hey you did it! that thing I said! that's awesome, boss! OK back to incessant ragged shock-collared drudgery I guess"

And I'm like... what

And she's like "well I mean what would we really do differently. just because our raider masters are all dead doesn't mean these concrete floors don't need scrubbing with our tongues, haha"

And all the slaves go back to work. In their rags. And collars.

THE. END.

Oh except then I decided to wander around some places I hadn't been to before and I found a little arcade where you could play games with the tickets and tokens I'd been finding scattered around the place, and the guy running the arcade was like "You must be the new boss! Welcome! First game's free!" and I was like, "haha, yes, I'm the new boss :D"

..........................................

 

*it was a speech check but I was at like 15 charisma so he was just like "oh, mesmerizing stranger, your eyes compel the truth from my very soul"

**Drawly's name is Gage. If he loves you enough he'll eventually tell you his tragic backstory about how he was always super evil but when he was a little kid his parents would never let him brutally torture anyone to death for kicks, so he brutally tortured his parents to death. Something like that, I wasn't really listening because I hate him.

***Speaking of the water here, it's soda instead, because it's a Nuka Cola theme park. I feel like I missed a lot of the cute kitschy charm of it all because I was KIND OF UPSET about SUDDENLY BEING EVIL and also the UNFREEABLE SLAVES EVERYWHERE.

****Actually that happened twice, considering Danse is also my son, and I've only ever joined the Brotherhood because I already knew that.

*****Which X6-88 loved so much he immediately gave me his final approval talk afterwards. So at least it was a nice mother-son bonding experience. Having X6 with me was the one fun thing ever about Nuka World because he was just like his usual "ugh, these people are worthless and this place is gross and inferior to the Institute" self, but for once I was like "Oh my god RIGHT?" and we were in perfect accord.

Chapter Text

It was supposed to be a routine pickup.

The train had gotten activated, with no less than five bodies on it, and bodies meant slaves, and, if they performed well and had a positive, can-do attitude, eventually more members of either the Pack or the Operators. If they did well after that, maybe members of the Overbosses’ own elite enforcer squad.

Sunny had her eye on one of those enforcer spots, herself. She’d worked her way up as an Operator, done good solid work and raked in the caps for Mags and William and Lizzy, kissed a little judicious ass (especially when it came to Lizzy, who had a thing about that, especially if you weren’t too blatant about it, just acted like you couldn’t help herself on account of her beauty and charm) and gotten better and better assignments. Eventually one of the bosses was bound to notice her skill and dedication.

Meeting the train was scut work-- slapping collars on bewildered travelers and would-be heroes who would have been meat for the Gauntlet once, before that had gotten deemed a waste of resources and the Gauntlet repurposed-- but at least she was squad leader now, with three other Operators and three Pack members under her command, and even good scut work got noticed and rewarded eventually.

But it was clear, from the moment the five bodies stepped off the train, that things weren’t going to be routine.

The two smallest were a ghoul-- a freaky motherfucker dressed in a fancy pointy hat and a long red coat, with glittery black eyes-- and a woman with cropped hair and scars on her face. The other three were big-ass bastards, one in power armor-- good loot; the bosses would be pleased-- and another one--

--wearing a dark-grey, padded, knee-length coat. What the--?

No time to panic, though. When she brought the guy in, the bosses could figure out for themselves why he was wearing---

“Hey, guys,” said the woman, with a big, goofy smile. “Welcoming committee? You shouldn’t have.”

“Nobody needs to get hurt,” said Sunny, in her coolest, most menacing voice, summoning up her own toothy, you’re-fucked-just-deal-with-it grin. “Everybody on your knees. Weapons on the ground, hands on your heads. Out of your power armor,” she added to the one guy who was wearing it. "Obviously."

None of them complied.

"I'm Nora Bowman," said the woman. "General of the Commonwealth Minutemen. I'm here to speak with your leader."

"I don't care if you're Princess Fever Blossom of the Flower Kingdom," said Sunny. "On your knees, weapons on the ground, hands on heads. Or brains all over the pavement, your choice."

The men and the ghoul all looked at the woman, who said, “Phasers to stun, guys.”

Then everything stopped making sense.

Screams, blood, and some wet crunching sounds, before Sunny could even clock what was happening, and three of her own-- two Pack, one Operator-- on the ground, one writhing and moaning, two lying silent and still. Her own gun was wrenched out of her hand, leaving a burning palm behind, and her legs came out from underneath her; she hit the bricks so hard it felt like her kneecaps might have shattered, and stayed down, trying to figure out-- the chick’s knife was pulling with a squelching noise out of Baxter’s gun arm, dripping with blood, Baxter was down, making a high keening sound, and the ghoul was clubbing the last standing Pack member in the head with the butt of his rifle and then Santiago was down too, clocked in the face with the fist of the power armor, was that the sound of jaw shattering-- and Sunny, dragged forward by her hair, still on her knees, had the hot muzzle of a gun uncomfortably near her ear, and was looking up at four grim faces.

“You in charge?” the woman asked her, cool as a chilled soda, from between the ghoul and the guy in the gray coat.

Likewise, I’m sure. Sunny tried to smile up at whoever this was-- what name had she given? Nora Bowman, right? General of the something-- tried to ignore the faint whimpering and moaning coming from behind her. It was the other big one without power armor who had her by the hair, had the gun at her head, so that she couldn't see any of the rest of the squad, couldn't tell if any were dead, or how many.

“I was,” she said. “Help you with something?”

The woman-- Bowman-- smiled back, a bit, and spread her hands wide, one open-palmed, the other still holding a bloody knife.

“I mean,” she said. “Here we are on a fun family vacation to Nuka World, me and my husband and my boys, just when they’re at the perfect age to really enjoy the magic of it all, and we get jumped right off the train by a bunch of assholes dressed as--” She looked around again. “Hey, what the fuck are you guys dressed as?”

“Assholes,” said the ghoul. “Pretty straightforward.”

“Yeah, but two different varieties,” said Bowman. “These guys over here are dressed as Snuggle Bunny Assholes, with these little teddy bears and kitty cats sewed onto their clothes, and then these are, what, Capitalist Pig Assholes? With the fancy suits and monocles?"

"They don't have monocles," said the ghoul.

"They look like they should."

“We’re the Operators,” said Sunny, thinking fast. Not too late to salvage the situation, maybe, at least save her own neck. At least part of her squad was still alive-- she hadn't gotten a good enough look at the still ones to be sure. They'd need healing, which would piss the bosses off, and the wounded might end up collared, but with a little luck and a little spin, Sunny wouldn't. She wasn't really hurt; her knees had just been jarred. “They’re the Pack. Two different gangs, but we work together under the Overbosses. I’ll take you to them, OK? The bosses.”

Bowman cocked her head, as if considering. The hand in Sunny’s hair didn’t release, and the gun barrel didn’t leave her temple.

“Normally there's a little, uh, probationary period,” she said, trying harder, “before you get to join a gang, but I think we could probably waive that for you folks. We could definitely use some more tough sons of bitches in Nuka World."

The hand in her hair tightened, the gun pressed a little harder, and a voice behind her said, in a cool, even, measured voice that chilled Sunny's blood with its familiarity, "I would prefer you not call my mother a bitch."

Bowman laughed. “I think she called me 'bitches,' actually. And, to be frank, I'm several bitches' worth of pissed off right now. Listen-- what’s your name, Fancypants?”

This last to Sunny, who said, “Sunny. Sunny Carroll.”

“Nice to meet you, Sunny,” said Bowman. “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I’m Nora Bowman. General of the Commonwealth Minutemen. I am not here to join your Pack, or your Operators. I'm here to speak with your leader-- or leaders-- about my missing sons.”

"I'll take you to the Overbosses," said Sunny again, and smiled, charmingly, or she hoped it worked out that way; she couldn’t really feel her lips. Not that she was scared. Of these guys, or of the bosses. Everything was fine. "No problem. Ready when you are."

"What about your wounded?" Bowman asked.

Sunny shrugged. "Pick 'em up later, if they make it."

"Jesus Christ," said the chick, put her knife away, drew a pistol, and stepped forward. "Step back, Michael."

As the hand left Sunny’s hair and the gun her ear, Bowman put the muzzle of her own gun lightly against Sunny’s forehead.

"Hancock, cover me," she said. "X6, Danse, cover Michael. Michael, make sure none of these assholes die."

Sunny couldn't-- or rather, didn’t think it would be a good idea to-- turn her head to see what Michael was doing, but she heard a few wails and moans, interspersed with some ripping sounds, and, after a moment, smelled piss-damp on wet cloth.

"Do you have enough?" Bowman asked, over Sunny's head.

"I have enough to make sure they don't die," said Michael, in that same terrifying, even voice. "If you would like them restored to full health, ma'am, I will need more supplies."

"Anything that could be permanently crippling if we leave it too long?" Bowman asked. "I get the feeling that's kind of an indirect death sentence around here."

"Losing to us might be a death sentence all by itself," said the ghoul. "You want to patch that up, too?"

Bowman looked down at Sunny, without taking her gun away from Sunny’s forehead. "Are these guys gonna die, Sunny?"

"Probably not," said Sunny. She was sweating now, and shivering a bit, but at least she hadn’t pissed herself. "Bosses don't like to waste live bodies."

"Well, that sounded a lot more ominous than it could've," said the ghoul. "Are they gonna wish they were dead?"

"Fuckups get collared," said Sunny.

"Collared?"

For some reason it was the sudden loudness of Bowman’s voice, the outraged yell, after how calm she’d been acting, that broke Sunny a little; she cowered, heard a faint whine escape her, which, oddly, seemed to defuse Bowman a little. She took a step back, her gun still pointed at Sunny’s head but not touching it any more, and said, more calmly, "What do you mean, Sunny? When you say collared."

"Enslaved," she managed. "It's not-- they can work their way back up, though. Prove themselves again. That was the bosses' idea. Listen, lady--"

"Yeah, what?" Bowman said.

Rivulets of sweat were pouring down Sunny’s face, now, but she didn't dare lift a hand to wipe them away. "You said these-- these guys here-- they’re your-- sons?"

"That's right," Bowman said. "Except him." She nodded towards the ghoul.

OK, well, no way this chick was more than about twenty-five, maybe thirty-five if she'd grown up in a Vault. The big guys looked-- a little younger, maybe, but if they were her sons, she'd given birth to them at a very, very tender age. She was smiling happily, though, and Sunny ventured to joke, “Uh, you look great for your age."

“Thanks!” Bowman said cheerily. “I get that a lot, actually. I’m two hundred and forty-five, so."

Cute. Sunny pushed on, "And you said you're looking for your missing sons?"

"Yep," Bowman said. "They would have showed up here together, dressed like X6-88 here--" She gestured towards the big guy in the coat. "And probably killed the entire welcoming committee. Like Michael and X6 would have, just now, if their old mom wasn't such a spoilsport. Remember anything like that happening?"

Sunny looked at the familiar gray padded coat; thought of the familiar measured tones, words like bullets being loaded carefully, one by one, into a clip.

"Spit it out, Sunny," said Bowman.

Sunny smiled, weakly. "Well. They're, uh-- they’re the bosses now."

A few moments' silence.

Then Michael said, from behind Sunny, "We did consider the possibility, ma'am. Raiders tend to be ruled by the strongest and most ruthless among them."

Bowman nodded slowly. "Yeah, but-- enslaving humans?"

"Why not?” said Michael. “We willingly serve those to whom we owe loyalty, but-- these? What are their lives worth? Nothing. Why should they not serve a greater purpose? Why should that purpose not be determined by us?"

"Good God, Michael," said the ghoul, and Michael's cool voice said, "Not that I myself feel that way, any longer. All human lives have value. To some degree."

"Did you know your bosses were killer robots?" the ghoul asked Sunny.

She hadn't, but-- that made a lot of sense, actually.

Did that mean all of these three-- "But wait, if they're robots, then how is she their--?"

"They're not robots," said Bowman. "They're synths. Androids.”

Synths. She knew, vaguely, what those were. Some kind of bullshit threat in the Commonwealth, everybody was paranoid.

Bowman was adding, sounding dazed, “OK, so. They rule Nuka World. They're raider bosses now."

"Better that than dead," said the one in the boss-coat, in that same cool, measured boss-voice. "We may be able to negotiate with them. I suggest, ma'am, that we should take this-- person-- up on her offer to take us to them. The sooner we speak with them, the sooner we can determine what can be accomplished by this trip. If anything."

"Yeah, OK," said Bowman, who seemed to have pulled herself together. "Up, Sunny."

It took her a couple of tries; her legs were feeling a little wobbly. A few tries.

Michael stepped around her and reached out his hand, and for a split second Sunny considered-- Michael's pistol, his knife, his arm, his legs, how much pressure-- and then caught Michael's expression, which said, more clearly than words, with the same unwavering stare the bosses sometimes fixed you with, Do not.

She let herself be helped to her feet. Didn't try anything. She did glance behind her, at the others from her squad; they were all tied up, hands behind their backs and feet together, with strips of cloth that looked to have been cut or ripped from their own clothing. Some of them seemingly unconscious, some wide-eyed, but she was pretty sure none of them were dead. Baxter was the one who'd wet himself, a dark spot at his crotch; the bloody sleeve of the arm where he'd been stabbed had been cut off altogether, and the wound had obviously been stimpaked, was already mostly healed. It was hard to tell, with the blood all over her, but Santiago's jaw seemed whole again, too.

“Ma'am,” said Michael, and Bowman said, “What’s up, son?”

“For diplomacy’s sake,” said Michael, “since we’re shortly to encounter my former colleagues-- would you find it advisable to leave Hancock behind for the moment?”

“Hey,” said the ghoul-- Hancock, presumably.

“Only until we can establish-- our good intentions,” said Michael. “I’m willing to stay behind as well, since they may know me as a traitor.”

Bowman frowned. “I’d rather we all stick together, son. Unknown territory, and everything.”

“But the sight of a ghoul,” said Michael. “It may create-- will probably create-- a bad first impression. Of our party.”

“Kinda feel like they hit us first with the whole ‘bad impression’ thing,” said Hancock. “What with the gang of slavers meeting us right off the train, and everything.”

“You were willing to stay behind at the approach to Acadia,” Michael said to him. “With me. To avoid creating a bad first impression.”

“Acadia didn’t try to fuckin’ enslave us.”

“But we didn’t know what to expect from them,” said Michael. “That was unknown territory, as well, ma’am, and you had no objections to our splitting the party then. Hancock and I are capable of taking on whatever threats may arise in your absence, and you, X6-88, and Danse can--”

He stopped, abruptly, and looked at the person in power armor, who’d been completely silent this whole time.

“You’re right, ma’am,” said Michael after a moment, looking back at Bowman. “Of course. It will be best not to split the party.”

Bowman nodded. “Come on, then.”

........................................................ 

As they approached the archway into Town, a slave came running out, pelting desperately and making a soft whimpering sound. The soda loon, finally making a break for it. A bit before she would have reached them, she dropped and fell hard to the pavement, her body jerking and spasming.

Bowman ran to her and dropped to her knees, leaning over the slave’s body as it went limp and still, and two other Operators-- Price and Jackson-- came walking lazily out, watching.

“Carroll," Price said, when they were close enough. "You fuck up meeting the train?"

"How the fuck do you fuck up meeting the train?" asked Jackson.

"Gotta be a fucking fuckup." Price gave Sunny a big, nasty smile. "Gonna be fun having you in a collar, though."

"I'm taking them to meet the bosses," said Sunny, tilting her chin up.

"Looks like they're taking you."

"Looks like you lost your gun."

"And your crew."

They’d been meandering closer as they spoke; Price was fairly close now to Bowman, who didn’t seem to notice, and the slave, who was in no state to. Michael moved-- smoothly, but swiftly-- to stand between Price and Bowman, inserting himself into the space between them, and Price stopped, looking up with a quizzical expression.

Jackson was looking at the guy in the boss-coat.

“What the fuck,” she said to Sunny.

“That’s why I’m taking them to meet the bosses, genius,” said Sunny. “They’re related or something.”

“Shit,” said Price, still staring up at Michael, and then peering past Michael’s legs at Bowman, who was completely ignoring both raiders; she’d soaked a piece of cloth in water from her canteen and was squeezing a slow trickle of droplets of water into the slave’s half-open mouth.

Then the slave spasmed again, choking, and Bowman jerked the cloth back and made a little noise of distress; Price had activated the collar again.

Almost as soon as Sunny noticed, Michael reached out and took the shock button from Price, so easily that it looked as if Price had handed it over, except for the stunned look on Price's face. Michael examined it for a moment, then touched it with his fingers and twisted, and the slave stopped spasming.

“Hey,” said Price weakly.

“What the fuck,” said Hancock. “Michael, what is that?”

“An activation device of some kind,” Michael said. “I infer that it causes the collar around this person’s neck to emit sort of disabling pain stimulus.”

No prizes, asshole.

The slave was panting, making little whimpering noises now. Bowman pulled her head and shoulders up into her lap, and the slave clutched at her, fingers gripping Bowman’s armor and sleeve.

“Shhh,” Bowman said softly. “It’s OK.”

The slave said something, too quietly for Sunny to hear, and Bowman said, “We will.”

“OK, let’s get moving,” said Sunny briskly. “Pick up the loon if you’re gonna pick her up, Price. How do you fuck up holding a shock button?”

Price tried to step around Michael to get to Bowman and the slave; Michael stepped to the side, blocking him again.

“The fuck, man,” said Price, but without much conviction.

Hancock chuckled. “He remind you of anybody, punk?”

“Come on,” said Sunny. “Lady-- General-- whoever you are-- call off your son. The slave’s our property.”

“Not any more, she’s not,” said Hancock.

“You gonna fight us over this?” Sunny demanded. “I thought you wanted to see the bosses.”

“We have no desire to fight you,” said Michael. “Or any your associates. But if attacked, we will defend ourselves. You will have to decide whether this particular piece of property, which my mother has chosen to claim, is worth all your lives.”

There was a pause, and then--

Fuck it. Let the bosses deal with this mess.

Sunny said, “Well, come on. Get her up. Come on.”

Bowman put her arms around the slave, lifted her up, and Michael reached down and pulled her up the rest of the way, setting her carefully on her feet. Bowman scrambled up and put an arm around her, supporting her.

"Come on," said Sunny again, and turned, and they followed her silently through the arch into Nuka Town.

Chapter Text

Danse was finding that there were good things and bad things about being back in power armor.

He’d loved it the first time he’d ever stepped into it, not only because it meant he’d earned his rank as a Knight, but for the sheer-- well-- power of it. His body was strong, but the smoothly actuated mechanical force behind every gesture, even every step, in power armor felt fantastic, and the sense of enclosure, of protection from casual bumps and touches and falls (and, of course, bullets and blows) was almost intoxicating. It felt like a better body, the body he’d been meant to have all along.

(The irony being that his real body turned out to be technology too, a construct, but just as frustratingly weak and vulnerable as a real human body. Well, almost.)

There was also the advantage, at the moment, that no one could tell, inside the power armor, that he was trembling and sweating, and probably white in the face.

There were other people inside the archway that said NUKA WORLD, wearing the same metal collars as the woman Nora now had her protective arm around, the red lights strobing on and off. There were also other raiders, some dressed with some odd idea of elegance, like Sunny, in fitted suits and ties or even formal- looking dresses, and some dressed like the other members of her squad, the ones Nora had referred to as Snuggle Bunny Assholes. They were bedizened with children’s toys, feathers, bones, masks--

“What the fuck,” said a couple of raiders-- the collared people kept their eyes down-- but Sunny strode with what was either real or excellent false confidence down a broad, paved street between two sets of buildings, and no one actually tried to stop her, or the rest of them. Even the two raiders who’d been pursuing the collared slave peeled off, leaving Sunny and their party alone.

Danse had never worn a collar-- they hadn’t needed one to keep him docile, he’d accepted his role-- but--

It wasn’t just the slaves, either. He’d just successfully committed his first act of violence against a human since he discovered he was a synth--

And he didn’t know whether he should feel humiliated or cared for or both, about the fact that Michael had clearly changed his mind for Danse’s sake, about splitting the party. Because he didn’t believe Danse could manage without him, or because he was unwilling to let Danse out of his sight for some other reason? Protectiveness-- as if Danse were a scribe Michael was charged with escorting?

All of which made him grateful for the invisibility, and physical stability, the armor granted.

But there were disadvantages to the power armor, too. Ones that hadn’t been a consideration, the first time he’d gotten used to moving in it. For one thing, he couldn’t walk too close to anyone else in it, for fear of stepping on and crushing their feet, and he certainly couldn’t hold anyone’s hand.

He’d grown accustomed, that was all, to being able to walk or stand close enough to Michael to feel the heat coming off him, and when he got that close Michael would often take his hand, and almost always smile at him, and sometimes speak to him, just a few quiet words.

There would be time, once the current crisis was resolved, to discuss this with Michael. Michael obviously had a great deal on his mind-- after all, he’d just learned his former colleagues were the new bosses of the raider gangs here-- and was watching the raider and frowning faintly, not glancing at Danse.

They’d talk about everything later, if they got a moment alone. Surely Michael would make sure they did.

“It’s pretty goddamn tidy around here for a raiders’ den,” said Hancock, as they followed Sunny. “Say one thing for coursers, they clean up the streets.”

The slaves did, of course. Cleaned, tidied. Danse tried not to look at any of them. Tried not to feel-- afraid. He wasn’t in danger.

His gut was still churning, though. He thought, for a moment, that he wished he hadn’t come-- wished he was safely back at the Castle, inside its walls, with his brothers and sisters-- but he didn’t really wish that. He wanted to be useful, and he wanted to be with Michael, and coming here had been the way to accomplish that.

He wished he could-- take a moment, that was all. Curl against Michael, for a moment; let his shaking ease against the heat and strength of Michael’s body.

Later. For now it was contained inside his armor.

 

Sunny led them to a building with a pair of double doors, which she slid open, revealing a small, neat lobby area, with a few chairs and benches, and an artificial plant in a pot.

“You stay here,” she said to their party. “I’ll let the bosses know you’re here.”

She walked to an elevator door at the far end of the lobby, and touched the call button. The doors opened, and she stepped into the elevator, and they closed.

The slave woman said, her voice shaking, “What’s going to happen?”

“I’m not sure, honey,” said Nora, squeezing her with the arm that was around her, then pulling away slightly and immediately taking the woman’s hand. “But we’ll take care of you, OK?”

“Who are you?” the woman asked. She looked a little younger than Nora-- although Nora looked younger than even her biological age, since she’d lived most of her years in a considerably easier, better nourished time period-- and had large blue eyes, with tired-looking bags underneath them, and blonde hair that was limp and dark with sweat. She was wearing a Nuka World T-shirt, and ragged jeans.

“I’m Nora,” said Nora, with a reassuring smile. “Nora Bowman. What’s your name?”

“Sierra,” said the woman, and smiled back, a little. “Sierra Petrovita. Why-- why are you-- helping me?”

Hancock chuckled.

“She already told you,” he said. “She’s Nora Bowman.”

“Because you needed help, sweetheart,” said Nora. “Now, are you a raider, or--”

Sierra smiled a little more, revealing teeth even more badly decayed than the usual wastelander’s.

“No, I’m not a raider,” she said. “I came here to-- I wanted to-- see the park.”

Nora nodded. “And they put a collar on you?”

“It isn't so bad, really,” Sierra said; she'd recovered her spirits remarkably in the past two minutes, under Nora's smile. In her resilient, tentative cheer, she reminded Danse, a little, of Scribe Haylen. “I don’t mind working. I’ve worked all my life. And I like it here."

"Then why were you running away?" Nora asked.

Sierra hesitated, and in the pause, the elevator dinged again, and two men stepped out of it, and approached, side by side. Sierra whimpered, faintly, and shrank against Nora’s side; Nora put her arm around her again.

Not two men, of course: two coursers. Dressed like X6-88, in the gray, padded uniform coat and leather gloves.

One was blond and fair-skinned, with piercing steel-gray eyes and a chiseled jaw; the other had skin close to the umber shade of Dr. Achanta’s, and black hair that would probably have been glossy if it hadn’t been clipped short. Like Michael and X6-88-- like all coursers, possibly, although Danse had only met the two, until now-- they were both physically splendid, with a cool arrogance to their bearing that--

--Danse had always thought of the way he felt about Arthur Maxson as-- loyalty, admiration. Adulation. Nothing more personal than that, or more presumptuous. He’d had little patience with the swooning that sometimes went on among scribes, and even among knights, and he’d admired Maxson’s dedication to holding himself apart from personal relationships.

It was only recently, now that he and Michael had begun such a relationship-- the first Danse could remember having had-- that he was beginning to be willing to admit to himself that he might have had a bit of a crush on Maxson. That arrogance, that self-confidence, that grim jaw. The singleness of purpose, and the dedication to his cause. The warm glow of pride at having earned his sparing praise.

Coursers, though-- Michael, and X6-88, and these two-- made Maxson look like a strutting little bantam rooster by comparison.

He pushed back guilt at the disloyalty of the thought. Maxson had issued an order for him to be shot on sight. You couldn’t feel guilty over disloyalty to someone who had done that.

(He did, though, a little.)

“Hello, X2-71,” said X6-88. “V4-54.”

“What are you doing here?” asked the fair one, including Michael in the question. “With--” His glance swept the rest of the party, briefly. “Nora Bowman? And-- these others?”

"Is there somewhere we can speak more comfortably?" X6-88 asked.

When the two seemed to hesitate, X6-88 said, "We mean you no harm."

“Very well,” said the darker one, after the two had shared a glance. "But the elevator is too small to hold all of us. Come."

The coursers walked past them, and led them back out the double door they’d entered through, and around the back of the building, to a lift like the ones that led up onto some sections of the overpass in the Commonwealth. This one was large enough to fit their whole party, even including Danse in his armor, and when one of the coursers touched a red, lighted button-- uncomfortably like the ones on the slaves’ collars-- it creaked and raised them up to an upper-story room, open on one side to the air, but furnished with a surprising degree of luxury.

There were well-appointed workbenches, a sparkling-clean kitchen area, including a sink for water purification, neatly organized rows and shelves of supplies-- food, water, weapons, armor-- and a raised dais with a double bed, with pillows and a clean bedspread on it. (But coursers didn’t sleep, did they? Maybe they had it for the look of the thing.) There was a sitting area, too, with three sofas arranged in an open-sided square.

Nora, without waiting to be invited, led Sierra over to one of the sofas, and sat down herself; Sierra sat down, so close that she was almost in Nora’s lap. Nora put up a hand to squeeze the collared woman's shoulder reassuringly, and looked up, and said, "Sit down, guys. Danse, you want to get out of your power armor?"

A question, not an order, so he could answer, "I'd prefer not to, Nora, unless you require it."

(The situation was still too precarious. Everyone was still alert, tentatively friendly, but ready to fight if the wrong words were spoken. When he did get out of his power armor, he was going to collapse, a little, and the situation was decidedly not right for that, not yet. Later.)

“OK,” said Nora. “Hancock, come sit next to me, here. Michael, X6-88, you guys sit down over there.”

Hancock, Michael, and X6-88 obeyed silently; Danse followed, and stood by the couch where Michael and X6-88 sat. After a moment, the two strange coursers sat down, as well, on the unoccupied couch, facing Nora, Sierra, and Hancock.

“You obey her, now?” the blond one asked X6-88 and Michael.

Michael and X6-88 exchanged a quick glance, before Michael said, “A great deal has happened in the Commonwealth, since you left.”

"The Institute remnant in the Commonwealth has successfully brokered a peace agreement with Ms. Bowman,” said X6-88.

The blond courser’s eyebrows shot up. "A peace agreement? With her?"

The darker one was still watching Nora, who sat very still, alert and silent, one arm curled protectively around Sierra, whose collar was still flashing red at regular intervals.

"Yes," said X6-88. "You may or may not be aware that, some time ago, X9-21 approached Ms. Bowman on behalf of our human charges. After some negotiation, he agreed to enter Ms. Bowman's service, in exchange for her protection and providence for those of our charges who accepted the bargain."

The blond one said, "Did she honor the bargain?"

"She did," X6-88 answered. "Moreover, X9-21's service proved so valuable to her that she offered me the opportunity to enter her service as well, on the same terms.”

Nora smiled a little, as X6-88 continued, “Three of my former charges are now with the reunited Institute remnant-- with whom X9-21 and I successfully brokered a peace agreement on Ms. Bowman’s behalf-- and two at Ms. Bowman's residence at Fort Independence.”

The coursers looked at Nora, who said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

“And you are here, now, because--?” the blond one asked.

X6-88 said, “Because we found your holotape. And Ms. Bowman suggested we come here-- both to offer you our assistance and protection, should you prove in need, and to address the same potential threat to the Commonwealth-- and to our charges-- that you came here to address.”

Michael said, “We take it, however, that the threat has now been neutralized?"

"It has," said the blond, after a moment’s pause.

“You rule here, now?” Michael asked.

“We do,” said the darker courser. “We defeated the former Overboss in combat, which, we were told, made us his official successors, and we decided to accept the role. We also adopted human-style names, to avoid the confusion our designations seemed to cause. I am known here as Night, and V4-54 as Day."

“Cute,” said Hancock, and both of the new coursers glanced at him for a moment before refocusing on Michael and X6-88.

"Do the humans here believe you to be human?" X6-88 asked.

The blond-- Day-- shrugged slightly. "They had some difficulty understanding, when we tried to explain what we were. We chose not to press the point."

“We do not tolerate hostile action against the Commonwealth,” said Night, “or the incursions into its territory that were considered acceptable by the previous Overboss. Although if traders or travelers come west of their own accord, we deal with them.”

“You enslave them,” said Hancock.

Everyone turned to look at him again.

“Your squad met us off the train,” said Hancock, staring the two new coursers down with his glittering black eyes. “Made their intentions pretty clear.”

“Carroll should have read the situation better,” said Day, coolly, making Danse wonder suddenly where Sunny was. “But, in any case, we would have reviewed her captives before anything worse happened to any of you than collars being placed around your necks. If anyone valuable falls into our power, we have the means and the intention to protect them.”

Night added, “If Ms. Bowman has brokered a peace agreement with the Institute, we, of course, consider ourselves at peace with her and her associates, as well, and we apologize for any inconvenience she may have suffered at the hands of our agents.”

“Although,” said Day, “not having been offered to her service by our human charges, we must decline that particular honor.”

Danse shivered, inside his armor, at the coldness of Day’s eyes. If Michael ever spoke to him that coldly-- his soul, once touched by that kind of icy indifference, might never thaw again.

(If a synth had a soul.)

“Would you like to return to the Commonwealth with us?” X6-88 asked. (Being a courser, of course, he was unafraid of them.) “You could rejoin the reunited remnant at Poseidon Energy.”

“In the absence of any orders to that effect from any authority we recognize--” Night began.

“We’re needed here,” said Day, still in that cool voice. “This place was an inefficient cesspit until we took control. Lives were being wasted with the most reckless abandon, on pointless sport and pointless cruelty as well as lack of basic maintenance. We dealt with the worst offenders-- one of the gangs that shared power here when we arrived is gone, since they proved impossible to correct in any other way-- and reformed the system. Slaves are now fed and rested appropriately, and given the opportunity for promotion."

"And tortured," said Hancock, touching his own neck.

Day made an impatient gesture, barely looking at Hancock. "The collars are used for discipline, and to prevent escape attempts. Not for entertainment. We do not tolerate gratuitous sadism."

There was a pause.

"But-- what is your purpose here?" asked Michael, after a moment. "If it were to protect the Commonwealth, why not-- simply kill all the raiders here, and come home?"

The two coursers looked at each other.

“Because they’re having fun,” said Hancock, his voice harsh and caustic. “Right, fellas? Nice to be the ones giving the orders for a change, ain’t it?”

"We were offered a position of-- responsibility," said Night to Michael, ignoring Hancock. "We accepted it. We have improved this part of the world, rather than laying it waste. Do you disapprove, X9-21?"

"My approval is irrelevant," said Michael, and looked at Nora. So did everyone else.

She looked a little startled, but then she mustered a smile, though not a particularly happy-looking one.

"I'm-- impressed," she said. "Really. With your-- work, here." She cleared her throat. "But, um, what is it you-- If they're raiders, what do they raid? Are there farms out here? Settlements?"

"We've tried to become self-sufficient," Night answered. "We farm-- the slaves work the land-- and the Pack has become somewhat proficient with animal husbandry, as well. The gangs' self-identification as raiders seems contingent primarily on the idea that they are governed by the strongest and most ruthless among them, and that the weak are exploited for their gain. Keeping slaves-- enslaving intruders, and those who prove themselves weak or incompetent-- allows for an underclass that shores up that identity, while the opportunity of slaves to better themselves, and the possibility that any given raider may be enslaved for failure, keeps the population dynamic and prevents restlessness with one's lot."

"How'd you figure that out?" Hancock drawled.

"They're brilliant," said Nora matter-of-factly. "Just like all my-- all the coursers. So." She looked from Day to Night, and back again. "How many collars?”

Day raised an eyebrow at her, but answered, civilly enough, "Thirty-six, that function. We're told the Operators began with fifty, liberated from a government base, but the technology is prewar, and impossible to repair if damaged, at least for the skill levels at our command. And, of course, not all the collars are in use at any given time. If you're asking how many slaves, I believe--- twenty-nine, at the moment. Including the one beside you."

"Why do you ask, Ms. Bowman?" asked Night.

Nora said, “Well."

She glanced sideways at Sierra, the red light blinking on the collar, then gave the little smile again, to the coursers. "I’d like to-- buy them.”

Chapter Text

X2-71’s-- well, Day, if that was the name he’d chosen, though Michael wondered how much thought he’d put into it-- Day’s eyebrows shot up. "You want to purchase our slaves?"

"Not the slaves," his mother said. "Just the collars. What'll you take?”

"They are not for sale," said Day. "As irreplaceable prewar technology, they are literally priceless."

Night said, "May I ask why you want them?"

His mother opened her mouth, then closed it, then looked at Michael, as if hoping he could help. Which--

He said, "Ms. Bowman believes strongly in the right of every sentient being to freedom and dignity. The sight of a person in a collar is viscerally horrifying to her. I expect she will destroy the collars as soon as they are in her possession."

She gave him a little smile, and he felt a bright bloom of pride in his chest, at the knowledge that he understood her well enough to speak for her, when she couldn’t speak for herself.

"If she feels so strongly," said Day, after a slight pause, "why bargain with us? Her usual methods of dealing with raiders are well known."

“Because of the peace agreement,” said X6-88.

Michael said, “And for the same reason she initially attempted to bargain with Father, although his policies with regards to synths were equally repugnant to her. He was her genetic offspring, and she now regards us, the synths whose genetic material was sourced from his, as her sons and daughters. And values us as such."

He left a moment for the coursers to digest this before continuing, "She will not willingly destroy you, or take from you what you have worked to build. Unless you leave her no alternative."

Everyone was quiet, then, for a moment that stretched a bit, until his mother said, “You can still have a-- an underclass. A working class. And even-- use it as a punishment. Like you said-- that’s what raiders-- But you'll have to let people leave, if they want to leave. But if the-- workers-- can work their way back up-- some might leave, but--"

She swallowed; she was in distress, the visceral distress he’d named, and it hurt him to see it. At the same time, he was oddly proud of her, the control she was showing, for the love of these stranger-sons. She’d spoken to him of her regret, that she hadn’t been more patient with Father, her first son. Hadn’t controlled herself better, tried harder to communicate with him, to tell him how proud she was of him and his achievements, and to explain clearly the things he’d gotten wrong.

"It can still work,” she resumed. “What you have here. And there's got to be something I can-- some way I can make it worth your while. Something I can do for you, that will get your people excited and happy enough that they won't mind losing the-- collars. Is there a-- a threat I can eliminate, or--" She smiled a little. “I'm valuable prewar tech, too, you know. And when I put my mind to something-- as everyone here has good reason to know-- it gets done."

Day and Night exchanged another glance.

They-- and X6-88-- were probably thinking of the destruction of the Institute. Danse-- his face invisible inside the helmet of the clanking, unwieldy power armor he was so inexplicably enamored with-- might be thinking of the destruction of the Brotherhood.

Michael was thinking of-- yes, those things, and also of the flourishing of the Minutemen, the salvation of the Commonwealth, the healing of the shattered remnants of the Brotherhood and the Institute. And of himself.

Then Night said quietly, to Day, “The parks…?”

Day seemed to consider.

“That would be-- beneficial,” he said. “For morale, as well as practically speaking.”

“Parks?” said his mother, encouragingly.

Night said, "The humans have expressed interest in expanding-- if they are not to be allowed to trespass on the Commonwealth-- into the various 'parks' that surround this central ‘town.’"

"Are there people living there now?" his mother asked. “In the parks?”

"Unfortunately, our duties here have not allowed us to perform reconnaissance in person," said Day. "The scouting parties we've sent have not returned."

"Huh," said his mother thoughtfully. "Well, that sounds right up my alley, to be honest. How many parks?"

"Five," said Night.

"And thirty-six collars," said his mother. "How about seven collars per park? The first seven you aren't even using right now. So-- free park, basically." She smiled a little, again. "Best case, you get control of all five parks-- that sounds like a big happy compensation for the collar issue, for your guys. Spin it as exploiting some dumb muscly bleeding hearts into claiming the parks for you, in exchange for some fancy-schmancy tech that was mostly a symbol anyway. Everybody wins."

The coursers exchanged another glance.

"Under your plan," said Day, "even if you succeed perfectly, we would still have one collar left."

"Yeah, I'd like one now," said his mother. "As a gesture of goodwill. Recompense for getting attacked right off the train." She touched Sierra’s collar, lightly, with her fingertips. "How about this one?"

Again the coursers looked at each other--- they obviously had some degree of trust in their ability to communicate without speaking.

“Very well," said Day, then. "X9-21, do you have the device you confiscated from Price?"

Reminded, Michael reached into the breast pocket of his shirt, and brought it out, holding it gingerly between finger and thumb.

"The button on top is a dial that can be turned to induce the pain reaction," said Night. "Don't turn it, unless you want her to suffer. To open the collar, hold the device up to the lighted locking mechanism at the front of the collar, and press down on the button."

Michael rose, stepped forward, and handed the device to his mother, who took it and examined it carefully as Michael sat back down.

“Chin up, honey,” she said to Sierra, who was pale and sweating, but obeyed. His mother held the device to the collar, and touched the button.

The collar made a humming noise, then clicked, and the light went out. His mother took hold of it and swung it open. Sierra made a sound, too, a quiet little cry.

His mother held up the open collar, and asked, "How do I break it?"

Once again, the two coursers exchanged a look.

Then Night said, “It isn’t designed to be broken. You’ll have to use force.”

“Danse,” said Nora, holding up the collar. “You wanna do the honors?”

Of course. Danse was in power armor; he had the most brute strength of any of the party at the moment.

He stepped forward, the armor whirring and clanking, nearly shaking the floor with its weight and strength, and took the collar in the armor’s hand. Then he stepped back again, took the collar in both hands, and wrenched.

The metal rasped and screeched; a few sparks flew, then died. Danse held the mess of metal and twisted wire for a moment, then dropped it to the floor.

(What was he thinking? He’d been a slave, too, to the Brotherhood; was crushing the collar satisfying to him, or unnerving, or--? Michael hated not being able to see his face.)

“Nice,” said Hancock. “Good work, Danse.”

“Thanks, Danse,” said his mother, and smiled, suddenly, a big cheerful smile, the smile she'd given the assembled Minutemen when she’d walked out of the Brotherhood bunker, with her hat pulled down over her roughly shaved head.

She added, to the coursers, “Thanks, guys. So Sierra’s free to go, right? Nobody will stop her from leaving?”

“Wait,” said Sierra, before the coursers could answer, and coughed slightly, rubbing at her neck. "I don’t-- Take me with you."

"We can take you back to the Commonwealth," said his mother, "but not for awhile. We're--"

"You're going to the parks," said Sierra, blue eyes fixed on Michael’s mother, wide and pleading. "I know about the parks. I've done research. I can help you.”

“It’s going to be dangerous, though--” his mother began.

Sierra grabbed at her hand, and said, ”Please."

"OK," said his mother, and looked around, defiantly, at the rest of them.

"I mean," said Hancock to Michael, in long-suffering tones. "What did we think was gonna happen."

Michael smiled at Hancock, thinking of the rogue Child of Atom-- Gwyneth-- they’d successfully hunted down together, back when he’d first begun to understand what his mother saw in such a creature as the bizarrely dressed, roughly spoken ghoul. And of other waifs and strays, since.

“She may prove useful,” he said, of Sierra, and if she wasn’t delusional and really had done “research” on the parks, it might even be true. Certainly accepting her as one of the party would save time and energy that would otherwise be wasted on the futile task of persuading his mother to leave her behind.

“In the meantime,” he added, turning back to Day and Night, "perhaps our hosts can instruct us where to find food and lodging. We will need to regroup and rest, and make plans, before setting out into further unknown territory.”

“There is no guest lodging here,” said Day. “We have occasional visitors-- traders who move freely between here and the Commonwealth-- but they do not stay overnight.”

“Where do your slaves sleep?” his mother asked.

“A structure called Fizztop Mountain,” said Night. “Adjacent to this structure. But I hardly think that appropriate housing for-- guests.”

“If you will escort us there,” said Michael, “we can assess that for ourselves.”

 

-------------------------------

 

Fizztop Mountain smelled of blood.

Not fresh blood, and not particularly recent blood, either; no actual blood was in evidence, here, fresh or otherwise. The place wasn’t filthy, like some of the raiders’ dens Michael had been in, both at the Institute’s behest and at his mother’s side. Of course, it stood to reason that V4-54 and X2-71-- Day and Night-- wouldn’t tolerate that kind of filth, in their domain. It was unsanitary and disgusting, leaving body parts and blood lying about, as raiders-- and super mutants, although perhaps they couldn’t be expected to know any better-- were prone to do.

Still, the metallic tang of blood lingered in the air, along with the scents of sweat and fear, as if too much of all three had been spilled here-- and left too long before being cleaned-- to eradicate completely.

The walls and floor were dingy, too, although not actually dirty as far as Michael could tell, in the dim light; there were no windows, and the few electric lights were inadequate to the cavernous space.

The floor was strewn with equally dingy, stained mattresses, and there was a long trestle-style table, or rather several of them set end to end, lined with wooden chairs, and set with plastic plates and cups for-- approximately thirty people.

“During the day, of course, this space is unoccupied,” said Night. “Except for scheduled breaks for rest, and eating and drinking. At night, when the slaves retire, guards are posted here, to prevent conspiracy, as well as any abuse between slaves.”

Hancock gave a rusty laugh. “And who watches the watchmen?”

Day gave him a cool stare for a moment, then said, “Obviously this space is unsuitable for-- any of you.”

“No, it’s fine,” said Michael’s mother, sitting down unexpectedly on one of the mattresses on the floor. “If there’s enough beds for-- well, we just need two extra, one for me and Hancock, and one for Danse. Michael and X6 don’t sleep. Are there more mattresses upstairs? Do they double up? They probably double up, right, for warmth?”

Michael could read Night and Day-- and X6-88-- well enough to tell that, despite their control, they were fairly well scandalized by this display. A human in authority, the leader of her party in unfamiliar territory, ruler of the Commonwealth, flinging herself down onto a stained mattress on the floor, declaring it “fine.”

He wondered if they could read him as well, if they could tell how nearly debilitating the rush of love he felt for her in this moment was, as she beamed up at them all, as though demonstrating how perfectly adequate a slave’s grimy, anonymous mattress was for her needs. His headlong, irrepressible mother, so oblivious to any necessity of preserving her dignity that the impulsive things she did somehow became dignified by her very lack of embarrassment over them.

(How could she be ashamed, her smile asked, to be housed as her sons housed their servants? And, perhaps, very gently and lovingly, asked further: if anyone should be ashamed at this moment, surely it wasn’t she?)

“Well, anyway, it’s not bedtime yet,” his mother continued, and held up her hands; Hancock reached for one, and Michael the other, and she gripped them both, and let them pull her back up to her feet.

She said, with cheery energy, to Day and Night, “How about you two show us around your-- town, here, and we can meet your, your Operators and your Pack, and you can let them know about the park project? Sierra, you can come with us, too! Let everyone know you’re with us now!”

“Very well,” said Day, and Sierra gave his mother a little smile.

Michael said, “Mother?”

She always turned to him with happy attention, when he addressed her, but he didn’t think he was imagining that there was an extra sparkle of joy on her face when he addressed her as mother, instead of ma’am. He should do it more often, but-- there was part of him that feared its becoming commonplace, no longer noteworthy. Although Emily addressed her as mother at every possible opportunity, and it still hadn’t stopped setting her eyes alight.

“With your permission,” he said, “may Danse and I stay here, while you take your tour?”

“Oh, of course, son,” she said, glancing quickly at Danse, or at what was presumably Danse, inside that infuriatingly impassive power armor, and then back at Michael. “You two stay here and guard a couple of mattresses for us, yeah? We’ll come get you when we've figured out what we're gonna do for supper."

.................................................

When they were all gone, Michael said to Danse, “Out of your power armor.”

The power armor whirred, opening up, and Danse stepped backwards out of it, and then forward towards Michael. He was pale, and shaky, and Michael stepped forward quickly, and caught him in his arms.

Danse swayed, slightly, in his grip, and dropped his head down on Michael’s shoulder.

“Oh, my dear,” said Michael, his heart speeding up, beating almost painfully against his ribs. It didn't do that in the presence of mortal danger-- not since his training-- but with Danse in his arms---

“Come,” he said. “Come sit with me.”

He helped steady Danse down onto the same mattress where his mother had sat down, and cupped Danse’s jaw in his hand, tilting the other synth’s face towards his. Danse leaned forward, just a little, and Michael leaned in the rest of the way and kissed his forehead. Danse shivered, quick and all over, the way he often did when Michael kissed his scar, and then smiled beatifically.

“I took pleasure in watching you destroy that collar,” said Michael, still cradling Danse’s face in his hand, stroking his cheek with a thumb. “And you did so well, at the train station. It takes skill and restraint to incapacitate without killing. I knew you would make me proud."

Danse smiled more broadly, and reached for Michael's other hand; Michael took and gripped Danse's.

"How do you like my former colleagues?" he asked, and Danse shivered again, a little, still smiling, and said, "I'm grateful they aren't the ones to whom I must look, for-- gentleness."

"To whom do you look for gentleness, dear heart?" Michael asked, half teasing, and Danse's smile went bright and dreamy, his eyes soft with happiness, as he answered, "You know to whom."

Michael smiled back. "To our mother?"

"To her, too," Danse answered, more seriously. "It's strange. How she can be so-- strong, and ruthless-- and so gentle, too. Like you."

"Thank you," said Michael. "I like to hear that I am like her. But--" He smiled, at the thought of how rapidly she had fallen to her knees over the slave woman. Because you needed help, sweetheart. Now, are you a raider, or-- "I am a little more-- selective-- than she."

"I'm glad you selected me," Danse answered, and Michael leaned in and kissed his lips, once briefly and tenderly, and then again, a little more deeply, letting Danse kiss back.

Then they were quiet for a moment, hands clasped together, until Danse said, “Michael-- is this going to work? Will your--” He hesitated. “Your former colleagues-- will they honor the bargain they’ve made, with Nora?”

“I think so,” said Michael, and added, “I hope so. It would grieve her very deeply, to lose more of her children to their own stubbornness and pride.”

“It would grieve you too,” said Danse, watching Michael with eyes that-- though Michael knew them to be almost golden in the sunlight-- looked opaque in these dim surroundings.

“True.” Michael squeezed Danse’s hand. “But there is no reason to dwell on future suffering that may not-- probably will not-- come to pass. We have our work at hand. Our side of the bargain. Danse, I have a request.”

“Sir?”

Michael smiled as the sensitive skin of Danse’s face pinkened at the cheekbones. He found Danse’s flusterment, on occasions when the honorific slipped out despite Michael’s instructions, ridiculously endearing.

“I dislike not being able to see your face,” he said, reaching up again to touch the heated skin there with his thumb. “Unless we are in a combat situation, I would like you to leave off the helmet of your power armor.”

Danse looked more flustered than ever. “I-- but--”

“But what, Danse?” Michael reached a little higher, traced the scar with his fingertip, and Danse shivered hard, again. “It isn’t an order, dear heart. Only a request. Something I would like.”

“Why--” Danse swallowed. “Why do you want-- that?”

Michael was startled into laughter.

“You’re too modest, Danse,” he said. “Or else I’ve starved you of praise. Should I speak more often of the pleasure I take in looking at you?”

Danse was nearly scarlet now. “I-- I suppose--”

“If you prefer not to expose your scar to strangers,” Michael added, more seriously, “you could tie something across your forehead, as we’ve done before. Or-- if you prefer-- you may refuse my request. I won’t love you the less, if you do.”

“Do you have a--” Danse cleared his throat. “Something to-- tie, there?”

Michael reached into one of his supply pouches, and pulled out a green bandana-- fortunately, they had enough uses that he hadn’t had to foresee this particular eventuality to decide to bring one along-- and folded it carefully into a soft band, then tied it around Danse’s head, covering the scar from view. Then he kissed Danse’s flushed cheek.

“Thank you,” he said. “Can I do you any service in return?”

Danse smiled a little. “Say again that you love me.”

“I love you,” said Michael, immediately, and, remembering one of the poems from a book Emily (encouraged by his quotation from the Wordsworth volume she’d given him) had thrust upon him, one evening when they watched together atop the Castle wall, “‘With a passion put to use/ In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.’” He hadn’t ever been a child, of course, but he’d still liked the lines, and the next ones, too, once Emily explained what saints were. Danse might know; he’d spent more time with humans. “With a love I seemed to lose/ With my lost saints.”

Danse’s lips parted, and he held Michael’s hand so hard it hurt, a little, and then, shyly, moved closer, and leaned against Michael.

Michael wrapped an arm around him, and they sat quietly, each thinking his own thoughts, in the dim light, mingling the warmth of their bodies, until the door to the outside opened again.

Chapter Text

Hancock trusted Nora. He did.

They’d been together through some of the worst shit of-- well, of her life, anyway; she hadn’t been there for the worst of his, if only because his got a whole lot fuckin’ better once she was in it-- and he’d seen what she was made of. She hated tyrants and slavers as much as he did. She’d blown up the son she’d been searching for since she woke up wild-eyed from cryo, because he was a tyrant and a slaver, and she wouldn’t put up with that shit, even for her Shaun.

So even though it went hard against the grain to be polite to these big handsome bastards in their courser coats, walking past slaves in flashing collars, Hancock was trying to have faith, in Nora’s plan.

Because sure, she wanted to give these sons a chance. He didn’t know how hard she’d tried, with “Father”-- he hadn’t been able to get into the Institute with her, until the very end, hadn’t even met Father-- but he knew, from what she said when she cried in his arms sometimes, that she didn’t think she’d tried hard enough.

And, hell. Giving Michael a chance, when he’d shown up to kidnap Emily, had worked out pretty goddamn well. X6-88 was turning out not to be such a bad idea, either.

But. This was different. Showing mercy to a prisoner, showing kindness and better options to a guy who still thought he had to slave for his masters-- that wasn’t the same thing as-- this.

His asshole brother-- no, the synth, it had been the synth by then, his asshole brother was already dead by then-- had said, when John tried to protest about the ghoul purge, beg him to reconsider, Gentleness to the cruel becomes cruelty to the gentle. That didn’t exactly fuckin’ apply to the case of ghouls who hadn’t done anything but make Upper Stands assholes nervous by existing and looking the way they did, but-- the saying itself, when it did apply, applied. Making deals-- negotiating-- with raider bosses who used shock collars on their underlings, Nora’s sons or not--

They weren’t going to walk away from these slaves without freeing them, he knew that-- if Nora’s buy-the-collars plan went south, or Day and Night tried to renege, they’d do what they had to do. But his hand itched to pull a gun, or a knife, and just-- get started.

He didn't, though. He'd wait. He'd trust Nora.

…………………………………..

"This is the Cola Cars Arena," said Day, as they passed a building with those words in neon lights on the front, "where any raiders who wish to engage in a serious fight for dominance can do so in an organized fashion, with an audience.”

“Does that happen often?” X6-88 asked.

“Quite often,” said Night. “We discourage fights to the death, but we encourage challenges, since they seem to be a source of pleasure to all the raiders, and having an accepted method of challenging another’s position cuts down on casual assassination. Slaves are also permitted to fight for their freedom, which they can achieve either by means of successfully challenging a free person for his, or by successfully running what the raiders here refer to as ‘the Gauntlet.’ A sort of-- obstacle course.”

“Do you penalize losing?” X6-88 asked.

“Not beyond any injuries that occur within the fight itself,” said Day. “And any position is subject to challenge at any time. Including ours.”

Night smiled, that barely-there smile that used to be Michael's biggest grin, as he said, “Although we have not been challenged for… some time.”

“I would imagine not,” said X6-88, smiling back, the same small curve of the lips.

Shit. X6-88 was supposed to be picking between living with the family at the Castle and joining the New Institute at Poseidon. Hancock hoped he wasn’t starting to consider the option of becoming the third Raider King of Nuka World, instead. Nora would never get over that one.

Still, it must be nice for X6’s self-esteem to see his buddies running shit like this. And the coursers were being more cooperative and forthcoming than Hancock would honestly have expected.

(It was good that they were sleeping in the slaves’ quarters tonight. He wanted to talk to the slaves, away from the coursers’ presence. Or-- if the posted guards made that impossible-- then at least, when they left for the first park, they’d have Sierra with them, to ask a few questions. Thank God, on this occasion, for Nora’s penchant for adopting the shit out of every random person who wandered by and grabbed at her hand, whether they were her synth kids or not.)

On the main drag, all the raiders who were strolling casually around froze, a little, as they walked by. The slaves didn’t look up from their work.

“Matthews,” said Night, halting, to a raider whose sleek-looking armor had been painted black; several of these were scattered among the bright colors and feverish decorations of the Pack, and the fancy suits of the Operators.

“Sir?”

“We are having guests for dinner,” said Night. “Make arrangements for…” He paused for a moment, then turned to Nora. "Would you like to have Petrovita eat with us, as well?"

"Do you want to eat with us?" Nora asked Sierra, and Sierra said, blue eyes wide, "Oh, I-- I don't know. Should I?"

“Nine people,” said Day to Matthews, who said, “Yes, sir,” turned, and walked briskly away.

“If Petrovita elects not to join us,” said Day, beginning to walk again, “there will be an empty place.”

“Nine?” Hancock asked. “Five of us, two of you, maybe Sierra--”

“There’s one more we would like to invite,” said Night. “You will meet her momentarily.”

Which-- they hadn’t had a chance to consult each other about this, so the way Night had picked up Day’s thought easily enough to explain it with utter confidence was a little eerie. Although Michael could do something a little similar with Nora, sometimes. They were trained to read people, of course, and when it was important enough, when they were paying enough attention-- Scary, but impressive. Like most things coursers did.

“This is the Parlour,” said Night, as they approached a building guarded by two of the fancy-dressed raiders, who came to attention as the coursers approached, and stepped aside wordlessly to let them enter.

Inside it was fancy, like you’d expect. Decorated, with knick-knacks and pictures, and no dust or clutter anywhere. (Did the slaves dust? Do the domestic chores? They must.) Fancy raiders, some lounging around, some practicing knife work on target dummies.

Then a woman came forward-- blonde hair, fitted suit, lip faintly curled in a permanent sneer-- and Hancock had to stop himself from exclaiming her name.

She didn’t recognize him, of course; the last time he’d seen her, he’d had smooth skin, blue eyes, hair, and a nose. She hadn’t changed that much herself, though, and of fucking course she was one of the fancy raiders, just like she’d been one of the fancy Upper Stands assholes in Diamond City. No big shock that Mags Black-- yep, and there was her brother William, skulking behind her, and their best friend Lizzie Wyath, too-- had gone from bad to worse.

“Black,” said Day, “we have visitors from the Commonwealth. Nora Bowman, General of the Commonwealth Minutemen, and her associates. Mags Black, leader of the Operators.”

Mags raised her eyebrows, looking Nora up and down, and then glancing at Sierra, Hancock and, eyes widening, X6-88. For once, Hancock wasn’t the most interesting-looking member of a group that included him; everybody here seemed pretty fixated on X6-88, and his uniform. Hancock could imagine that, around here, Oh, fuck, ANOTHER one? took precedence over Hey, that ghoul’s dressed like a Founding Father.

“Ms. Bowman and her people are here as our guests,” said Day. “Treat them with respect, and see that your people do the same.”

Mags gave a quick nod, refocusing on Day.

“After your evening meal, come to the Grille, with William,” said Night (so she wasn’t the ninth one for dinner. Thank God; she’d take away his goddamn appetite). “We would like to discuss a plan for Nuka World’s future development.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mags.

Damn. Mags Black, respectful? Hancock had to hand it to Day and Night. He would have expected her gang to be another one that-- as Day had put it-- proved impossible to correct.

“Uh, sir,” said Lizzie, from behind Mags, “did Petrovita get promoted?”

Night said, “Petrovita is no longer subject to our authority, or yours. We will discuss why, tonight. That is all.”

Day and Night turned and led the way back out.

“Got ‘em pretty well trained, huh?” Hancock asked them, as they walked away from the Parlour.

“They respect our authority,” Day answered. “We’ve given them ample reason to do so.”

X6-88 said, “You mentioned that one of the gangs no longer exists?”

“The Disciples once occupied Fizztop Mountain,” said Day, “and they were motivated primarily, by their own account, by an enthusiasm for elaborate torture and murder. When we forbade them to continue wasting lives so recklessly, they rebelled, en masse, against our authority. The survivors of that rebellion-- those who surrendered, and begged for their lives-- were given a choice between slavery or exile.”

“More than half chose slavery,” Night added, “and, of those, nearly all have since successfully joined either the Operators or the Pack. They haven’t caused problems.”

“See,” said Nora, sounding a little dazed. “See, you don’t need the collars to enforce-- People will still choose to stay.”

“You may be right, Ms. Bowman,” said Night. “The benefit of your offer-- to buy the collars from us by means of the parks-- is that it will give our people the opportunity to acclimate to the idea gradually, and allow us to study the effect of the loss of some collars, as balanced against the benefit of the new parks.”

He sounded-- taking into account that he was a courser-- pretty enthusiastic. Nora seemed to think so too; she smiled faintly.

At the amphitheater they entered next, guarded by two Pack members, what sounded like a loud, raucous party fell into a rapid hush at the sight of their group. Two people dressed as animals, who’d been circling each other in a central cage, at the center of a ragged group of spectators, stopped and stood still and silent.

(There were real animals, too, in pens: a yao guai, several dogs, and some things Hancock didn’t recognize. Animal husbandry-- they really did have quite a setup here.)

A big guy stood up from a literal throne (a throne, OK) at the back of the theater, and came forward. He had carrot-colored hair and an elaborately curled mustache, and was wearing a necklace of bones; like most of his followers who weren’t wearing masks, he had his face painted in several bright colors.

“Overbosses,” he said to Day and Night, his sharp glance flicking past them to Nora, Hancock, Sierra, and X6-88, lingering on X6-88 before he said, “What, uh, what can I do for you?”

Day repeated, almost verbatim, the introduction and instructions he and Night had given the Operators, introducing the big guy as Mason, alpha of the Pack and instructing him to bring “Ericson” along after dinner, in the same words Night had used. If these two ever disagreed, they must have arranged not to do it in front of anyone else.

The marketplace-- open-air, but closed off by gates and covered over with a wire mesh, presumably in case the slaves could fly or something-- was next. It was being run by slaves in collars, tending stalls and stands, with armed raiders guarding them. A livestock pen of pack brahmins was near the entrance, and there were traders as well as raiders browsing. Nora’s hand slipped into Hancock’s and tightened, as her other hand probably tightened on Sierra’s. This place, too, hushed at the entrance of their group.

“These are our guests,” said Day, his voice clear and raised in volume without the impression of shouting. “Treat them with respect.”

Then he said, more quietly, to Nora, “Would you like to purchase any goods or services now? We have weapons, armor, ammunition, chems, medical supplies, and a reasonably skilled physician.”

“We might have offered you a general discount, as a gesture of goodwill and hospitality,” Night added, as conversation slowly resumed in the rest of the space, “but we hope that having allowed you to destroy a priceless and irreplaceable artifact, and ceded one of our slaves to your possession, will stand as a sufficient example of such a gesture.”

Nora glanced up into his face with a quick grin-- he hadn’t smiled as he spoke, but she obviously took it as a joke, or at least a good-humored remark-- and he did smile back, the tiniest bit. Day smiled, too, an identically microscopic smile, and Nora giggled out loud. Hancock grinned, too, though more at the sight of Nora’s pleasure than at the coursers’ smiles.

“Yeah, thanks,” Nora said. “I can pay full price, no problem. But let me come back later, with Michael and Danse too, and do some shopping. Is there anything else we should see, in the meantime?”

"One moment," said Day, and walked towards a stall with the familiar white-cross-on-red, for a clinic. The woman manning it looked a little older than Sierra, and she stood straight and still, watching, as they approached; she was ragged, unarmed and armorless, like the slaves, but she wasn’t wearing a collar. Her gaze lingered on Sierra's newly bare neck.

“This is our physician, Dr. Bridgeman,” said Day to Nora. "Dr. Bridgeman, report to the Grille, instead of the Mountain, for your evening meal."

Bridgeman looked pale, but said, "Yes, sir."

"You aren't in trouble," said Nora, reassuringly, and Bridgeman glanced quickly at her, and then back at Day.

"That's correct," said Day. "You are not in trouble.”

Bridgeman nodded.

Day turned, without saying anything else, and walked away.

“There is little else of interest to see," he said, as they followed him out of the marketplace and back down the strand. “A food preparation area, called the Cappy Cafe, where you are welcome to purchase food later if you wish, although we will provide your evening meal tonight."

“Is Bridgeman a slave?” Hancock asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” Day answered. “She can tell you herself the terms under which she serves us. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that we will be interested to put your proposal before her, and gain her input. Would you like to see the farms?”

Well, fuck me for askin’.
…………………………...

The coursers showed them the farmland areas, where slaves were working under guard on stretches of tatoes, carrots, mutfruit, corn, and razorgrain, and then took them back to Fizztop Mountain to pick Michael and Danse up; the sun was already getting low-ish.

They found Michael and Danse-- who’d taken off his helmet, and had a bandana rakishly tied across his forehead, covering his scar-- standing by the door, watching the table. Two raiders, both wearing the sleek black armor, were supervising three collared slaves, as the slaves set two large pots of food and platters of what looked like cornbread on the long table.

“They prepare the food elsewhere, and bring it here for the evening meal,” said Michael to Nora. The slaves were dishing out what looked like some kind of vegetable-heavy stew into the bowls that already sat on the table; they hadn’t looked up when the doors opened, though the raider guards had come to attention.

“You and your companions are to eat with us this evening,” said Day to Michael and Danse, who both looked at Nora. She nodded, and looked at Sierra.

Sierra seemed frozen with indecision. “I-- I-- should I--”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Day impatiently, and Sierra gave a little gasp.

“Sierra, sweetheart, look at me,” said Nora, and Sierra obeyed quickly. “It sounds like you know a lot about the parks, yeah? So if you come eat with us, you can help us make plans, right away. But if it makes you nervous to eat with the Overbosses, and you feel more comfortable here with the people you’re used to eating with, then we can make those plans later, when we see you again. No one will be angry or disappointed, no matter which one you choose.” She smiled at Sierra. “I’m so happy you’re with us, and I’ll either be happy you’re with us for dinner, or I’ll be looking forward to seeing you again very soon, when we come back here after dinner.”

Sierra stood looking at Nora for a second, and then she said, “I want to come with you.”

“OK,” said Nora, her encouraging smile unaltered. “Great. Come on, everybody. Let’s eat.”

Hancock caught Michael’s eye, and grinned at him. Their Nora.

He tried not to think too hard about the slaves who were still here, as they left the Mountain, and those who’d be arriving soon, eating here under guard.

They’d be back soon. Soon.

………………………………………..

More slaves, supervised by Matthews from a minute ago, had set out food on a table in the Fizztop Grille-- not the semi-open area that seemed to be the coursers’ private living quarters, but a long, low room just off it-- set with chairs, plates, glasses, and cutlery for, sure enough, nine people. Somewhat to Hancock’s surprise, the food looked pretty much the same as at the slaves’ table: stew and cornbread. Instead of water to drink, though, there were at least a dozen unopened bottles of various kinds of Nuka Cola set out among the empty glasses.

Day and Night sat down side by side at one end of the long table, and X6-88 sat down beside them on one side; Michael sat next to X6-88, and Danse got out of his power armor to sit down next to Michael. Hancock sat down on the coursers’ other side, so that Nora could sit between him and Sierra, leaving the other end of the table unoccupied.

“Dr. Bridgeman should be here shortly,” said Day. “Feel free to begin eating and drinking.”

“I guess there’s just-- tons of soda around,” said Nora, looking at all the bottles. “What’s this one? Nuka-Orange? I’ve never even heard of that one.”

“Feel free to sample as many as you like,” said Day. “As you say, we have quite a bit of it available to us, here.”

“I think Ms. Petrovita would like permission to drink a soda,” said Danse, unexpectedly, to Nora.

Nora looked at Sierra, and said, “Help yourself, honey. What kind do you want?”

“A-- a Quantum?” Sierra whispered, the longing in her voice so intense that it was almost funny.

Only-- it wasn’t. It was no fuckin’ joke not to be able to have the things in life that made life worth living, whether that was chems, power armor, a family that loved you, or fuckin’ radioactive soda. It was even less of a joke to sit at a table spread with plenty of the thing you wanted and feel afraid to ask for any of it, in case it wasn’t meant for you.

Nora reached for a Quantum, twisted off the lid, and handed it to Sierra, who closed her eyes as she took a sip, her expression reverent and ecstatic.

“You don’t give the slaves soda?” Hancock asked Night and Day, sounding maybe a little pissier than he meant to. “Is there not enough?”

They looked back at him with identical cool stares, but before they could answer-- if they intended to answer-- their gazes skipped past him to the doorway, where Bridgeman stood, looking nervous.

“Come in, Dr. Bridgeman,” said Day. “Sit down.”

She came forward and sat at the unoccupied end of the table, glancing around uncertainly.

“Eat and drink freely,” said Night. “We have a great deal to discuss. Let me begin.”

Chapter Text

“You are aware, Dr. Bridgeman,” said Night, “of Ms. Bowman’s destruction of the Institute that created us."

"Yes, sir," said Dr. Bridgeman, somewhat to X6-88's startlement. He'd thought Day and Night had said their nature and origin wasn't generally known or understood here. Although, if this person was their physician, perhaps she knew more out of necessity.

"But according to our former fellow colleagues, X6-88 and X9-21--” Night gestured, “whose word we have no reason to doubt, Ms. Bowman has now formed an alliance with the survivors of that disaster who are still resident in the Commonwealth. She has come here seeking us, in order to make peace with us as well.”

Dr. Bridgeman's eyes widened, and her gaze darted to Ms. Bowman, then back to Night and Day.

“However," said Day, "she strongly objects to our use of shock collars to control the slave population. And so she has set a proposal before us, whereby we agree to turn the collars over to her, to be destroyed, in exchange for her securing the parks of Nuka World for us and our people."

"Seven collars per park," Night added. "We have already allowed her to destroy the collar worn by Petrovita, as a gesture of peace. After we eat, we plan to discuss the details of her project with Mags and William Black, and Mason and Ericson. We hope the prospect of gaining the parks, and the somewhat gradual nature of the project, will offset their indignation at the loss of the collars.”

Dr. Bridgeman, who had been listening intently, suddenly drew in a long breath, and exhaled it in such a rush that it was almost a laugh, and said, “Oh my God!”

“We thought you would be pleased,” said Night, sounding fairly well satisfied himself.

Dr. Bridgeman really was laughing now, the pallor and tension gone from her face. “But I-- Oh my God! I thought I was going to have to-- I thought you were counting on me to head off a war, or something!”

“We would have had full confidence in your ability to do so,” said Day gravely. “Had it proved necessary.”

“You should have at least told me you had good news,” said Dr. Bridgeman. “In the marketplace. Or, I don't know, made a facial expression. I almost had a heart attack, you jerks.”

“Dr. Bridgeman,” said Night, “you should not speak so disrespectfully in the presence of our guests.”

“Sorry,” said Dr. Bridgeman, sobering slightly, but she still didn’t look or sound afraid. “Sorry, bosses. Sorry, guests. I just--” She looked at Ms. Bowman. “What a great plan, though! The parks for the collars!”

“Thank you,” said Ms. Bowman, whose dazed expression was beginning to give way to one of absolute delight, as she observed Dr. Bridgeman’s altered demeanor. “I’m glad you like it.”

“I love it,” said Dr. Bridgeman, and beamed around at the table. “Oh my God. When I heard Nora Bowman was in town, this was not how I thought things were gonna go down.”

“When did you hear that Nora Bowman was in town?” Day asked.

“News travels fast in the marketplace,” said Dr. Bridgeman, who seemed to have relaxed completely. “Carroll remembered the name, and that she was ‘the General of something.’ Said she took out Carroll’s crew without breaking a sweat.” She looked at Ms. Bowman again. “And then I saw you in the marketplace, holding Petrovita’s hand. I thought-- I don’t know what I thought. She was your long-lost cousin, and you’d found her with a shock collar on, and the firestorm of vengeance you were already gonna wreak on Nuka World had multiplied.

“She’s really nice, Mackenzie,” said Petrovita earnestly. “She took off my collar, and she let me have a Quantum, and she’s going to take me to all the parks.”

”What?”

“Keep your voice down, Dr. Bridgeman,” said Day.

Dr. Bridgeman did lower her voice, as she said to Ms. Bowman, “You’re taking Petrovita to the parks?”

“I was going to,” said Ms. Bowman, a little uncertainly. “Should I not?”

“Of course you should!” Dr. Bridgeman smiled at Petrovita. “She’s been dying to see those parks since she first got here.”

“I tried to run away again,” said Petrovita, rather sheepishly, to Dr. Bridgeman.

“Oh, I know, sweetie,” said Dr. Bridgeman, sobering again. “I heard that from Carroll, too. But this is a much better idea, going with Ms. Bowman and her friends. See, this way you won’t die.”

“This way it is less probable that you will die,” Night amended.

“Don’t be such a downer, boss,” said Dr. Bridgeman. "They'll take care of her. I mean, this is Nora Bowman. And her courser friends. I'm sorry, I didn't catch you guys' designations. X-what and X-what?"

"X6-88," said X6-88, and Michael said, "Michael."

"Michael!" said Dr. Bridgeman. "I like that. You like Night and Day? That was mine. Cute, right?"

"Who are you, exactly?" Hancock asked, and Dr. Bridgeman smiled again.

"Mackenzie Bridgeman," she said. "Sorry, and you're John Hancock, right? Ms. Bowman's husband, the ex-mayor of Goodneighbor?"

"How do you know that?" Hancock demanded.

"Marketplace gossip," said Dr. Bridgeman. "The raiders are mostly too goddamn dumb to listen to it, but slaves can pick up a lot, talking to traders."

"So you are a slave?" Hancock asked. "You don't wear a collar."

Dr. Bridgeman reached up and touched her neck, cupping it tenderly.

"I used to," she said. "And that's why I know-- you're right, Ms. Bowman, they have to go, they're just-- not OK. I know. I’m a hypocrite. I should still wear one, because I-- I shouldn’t expect other people to-- bear-- something I can’t.”

“We took yours from you,” said Night. “You didn’t ask us to.”

“And I’m grateful,” said Dr. Bridgeman, with an affectionate look at Night, “but it still wasn’t right. I should wear one while-- anyone wears one. But now--” Her face was alight. “Now nobody will wear one."

"If Ms. Bowman succeeds," said Day.

Dr. Bridgeman made a scoffing sound. "Of course she'll succeed. But what I was saying-- I know the collars are-- awful, Ms. Bowman, and you’re right to-- strongly object-- but-- you should have seen this place before Day and Night got here. The Disciples tortured and murdered slaves just for-- fun. The Pack made us fight each other, or fight their animals, for entertainment. We were barely fed, we barely slept. Slaves died all the time, and new ones got dragged in, crying and bleeding, and the whole thing started over again.

"I was lucky, because I'm a doctor, and those are hard to come by. The old boss, Colter, he took me in a raid on the settlement where I used to live, and then, instead of torturing me to keep me in line, he just told me if I did good work, he'd leave the rest of my settlement alone. So I did good work. But..." She shuddered.

"Then the new bosses came," Petrovita volunteered shyly.

"Yeah," said Bridgeman, smiling at Petrovita again. "The new bosses came. And I was so desperate-- and they seemed-- different. Scary, but different. Not like-- raiders. So I--"

"She approached us," said Night, with a little smile at Bridgeman. "She asked us for help."

Day said, "We admired her--" and hesitated, choosing a word.

"Balls," said Dr. Bridgeman, and Petrovita giggled.

"Daring," said Day. "She told us that, if we chose, we could slaughter every raider in the park, and set the captives free."

"But you didn't," Hancock observed. "How come?"

"It seemed a-- drastic step, to undertake on a whim," said Day. "And without a full understanding of the situation. But we were-- intrigued. We found Dr. Bridgeman's ideas interesting. We spoke with her further."

"You've seen the results," said Night to Ms. Bowman. "Dr. Bridgeman has been an invaluable ally and advisor."

"But she still--" Hancock began. It was sometimes difficult to read his inhuman features. "She's still a slave? She sleeps in the, the Mountain?"

"We have offered to move her to more suitable quarters," said Day, with the faintest hint of irritation in his voice.

"It's bad enough I let you guys take my collar off," said Dr. Bridgeman. "I'm not gonna-- If I'm not with the rest of us, if I'm not one of us, what good am I? How can I tell you how to make things better if I don't know how bad things are in the first place?" She turned to Ms. Bowman. "And things really are so much better now, Ms. Bowman. The Disciples are gone, and we-- we eat, we sleep, we're safe. Collars only get shock-activated for pre-approved situations-- like escape attempts-- sorry, Sierra--"

Petrovita put a hand up to her bare neck and cupped it, giving Dr. Bridgeman a little smile.

"And unauthorized use gets punished," said Dr. Bridgeman. "And the pain doesn't injure-- it's really impressive technology, in a messed-up way. It stimulates the nervous system directly, so it hurts like hell, but there's no physical aftereffect. All the patching up I do now is on jackass raiders whose hobbies are shooting and stabbing and punching each other, not slaves I had to steal the supplies to even treat because nobody cared if they lived or died. And some of the slaves are jackass raiders, who fucked up-- and it's all people who at least came here voluntarily, like Sierra, and-- well, you. Trespassers, sort of. Even if they didn't know exactly what they were getting into. It used to be-- innocents who got dragged out of their beds, and--"

"Like you?" said Hancock.

Dr. Bridgeman seemed to hesitate, startled, as if she hadn't thought of it that way.

"Don't you want to go home?" Ms. Bowman asked. "To your, your settlement?"

"We have offered that, as well," said Night.

Dr. Bridgeman said, "I'm needed here."

"Stop talking and eat," said Night to Dr. Bridgeman, who picked up her spoon and raised it in a mock salute before digging into her bowl. "We should not have planned to have this meeting over a meal. Not all of us will have finished eating before the other bosses arrive."

"I'm done, sir," said Petrovita, tipping up her empty bowl to demonstrate.

Night ignored her, but Ms. Bowman said, "You want another soda, sweetheart? I don't see any more Quantum, but how about this, uh, Quartz?"

Petrovita gasped, gazing at the bottle Ms. Bowman held with something like awe. "That one's-- really rare--"

"I bet none of us would appreciate it as much as you," said Ms. Bowman, smiling at her, and Petrovita gazed back at her, eyes wide with bewildered adoration.

"Why don't you save that one for later, Sierra?" Dr. Bridgeman said gently. "Maybe Ms. Bowman can tuck it away for you and give it to you tomorrow. That'll be something to look forward to."

"Dr. Bridgeman," said Night sternly, and Dr. Bridgeman said, "Sorry, boss," and spooned up another mouthful of stew.

“Speaking of when the other bosses arrive,” said Hancock, as Ms. Bowman looked questioningly at Petrovita, who hesitated, and then offered the faintly glowing soda back to her. Ms. Bowman placed it carefully in one of the pouches she wore at her waist, Petrovita watching closely. “How much do they know about-- your, uh, relationship with Doc Bridgeman, here? Do they know she’s your-- advisor?”

“They do,” said Night.

“Isn’t that dangerous for her?” Hancock asked. “Out there without protection? What if the raiders try to use her as-- leverage, over you?”

“The Disciples tried,” said Day, briefly, and Dr. Bridgeman swallowed, and smiled.

“You’re sweet to worry, Mayor Hancock,” she said.

“I think my husband has a bit of a crush on you, Dr. Bridgeman,” said Ms. Bowman, grinning, and Dr. Bridgeman laughed, and said, “From what I hear, most of the Commonwealth has a crush on him. And please, call me Mackenzie.”

“Mackenzie, I’m Nora,” said Ms. Bowman. “It’s-- really nice to meet you.”

……………………………

X6-88 would very much have liked a chance to catch his metaphorical breath, and absorb everything that had happened in the last few hours, before the next thing-- the meeting with the raider bosses and their seconds-- but such a rest break wasn’t afforded by circumstances.

(He could have asked Ms. Bowman for permission to sit out the meeting, as Michael had petitioned her to be allowed to skip the tour in order to speak with Danse, but he didn’t want to miss the meeting; it sounded important. There would be an opportunity, later, to digest the many strange things that had happened since their arrival here. After the others were asleep, perhaps he and Michael could have a conversation. He wondered how Day and Night spent their nights, when all the humans of their domain were asleep.)

The “bosses” arrived, and were announced by one of the black-armored raiders, and the group around the table went into an adjacent room, this one filled with comfortable seating-- sofas, padded chairs-- like the library at home.

(At the Castle. At Ms. Bowman’s residence. He was still deciding whether it was home.)

Mags Black and William already sat side by side on one short sofa; Mason sat in an armchair, with what was presumably Ericson standing to his side, arms crossed. She was a smallish raider whose shaved head was elaborately painted with abstract designs in bright colors; her face paint seemed designed to accentuate a certain amount of facial scarring.

Ms. Bowman and Hancock took seats on a longer sofa, and Petrovita pressed herself close against Ms. Bowman’s other side. Danse, Michael, and X6-88 sat on the last remaining sofa that looked designed to fit three people, the fit perforce a little tighter considering their size, but X6-88 didn’t mind the proximity to Michael as much as he would have minded being crowded against a human, or a synth he knew less well.

When all the guests were seated, Day and Night seated themselves on another two-person sofa, and without hesitation, Dr. Bridgeman sat down on the floor, between their feet.

“Welcome,” said Day. “You have all met, briefly, so let us move directly to the purpose of this meeting.”

Chapter Text

When Day and Night, speaking in turn in that eerie way they did, as if they were one mind controlling two bodies, making sure to exercise both voices equally (although they were actually fairly different personalities, when you got down to it, under the courser conditioning and profound lack of trust for absolutely anyone in this park except Mackenzie) had finished explaining Nora’s proposal, there was a short silence.

Then Mags Black said, “What’s in it for her?”

“The destruction of the collars,” said Day, even more deadpan than he usually spoke, and Mackenzie had to bite back a giggle.

Mason said irritably, “What’s it to her if we use collars on our slaves?”

“She objects on moral grounds to their use,” said Night. “But we need not agree with her position, or endorse her motivation, to accept her offer. She is offering us a tangible benefit in return. One for which you four, in particular, have agitated for some time.”

“If we don’t have the collars,” said Ericson, “how are we gonna punish the slaves? You gonna let us dock their rations again, like we useta?”

“We have discussed,” said Day, “repeatedly, and at length, the inefficient and self-defeating nature of that system. We have no intention of wasting our valuable time by discussing it further.”

Night said, “Other proposals will be entertained. Bear in mind that one of Ms. Bowman’s conditions is that escape attempts will no longer be punished, or hindered. Rather, those who wish to leave our service will be permitted to do so.”

“You’re shittin’ us, boss,” said Mason indignantly. “You’re settin’ the slaves free? How are we gonna work the place?”

“When offered a choice between slavery and exile,” said Night, “many of the Disciples chose to stay, in hopes of working their way back up. Including Ericson.”

“In any case,” said Day, as Ericson fidgeted, “we have time to consider these matters, and experiment with alternate methods of maintenance. The first seven collars are not in use at the moment, meaning that-- assuming Ms. Bowman is successful-- we will see the positive benefit of at least one park before any of our enforcement methods must change.”

“Who gets the first park?” William Black asked.

“We do,” said Day, deadpan again. “We will consider how best to allocate all the parks, based on your performance. It seems to have been a mistake to place Carroll in charge of meeting the train, but that need not necessarily reflect on the Operators as a whole.”

William went reddish, and mumbled something under his breath.

“Bear in mind, also,” said Night, “that Ms. Bowman has considerable force at her disposal. You will have noticed that one member of her group is wearing the same uniform as ourselves. He was selected and trained by the same Institute that selected and trained us, and so was the-- person-- to his right, although he no longer wears the uniform. Nor are they the only fighters at Ms. Bowman’s command who are approximately our equal in skill and strength. Consider, when you weigh her proposal, the devastation Nuka World would face, if she chose to wage war against us, instead of advancing terms of peace.”

“That’s chickenshit talk, boss,” said Mason roughly, and then, paling slightly under a look Mackenzie couldn’t see from her vantage point at the bosses’ feet, “No offense…”

“If you think us cowardly or weak,” said Day, “you are-- as always-- more than welcome to challenge us in the arena. You, and anyone else who cares to fight at your side. In the meantime, you will speak with respect, and consider our tactical assessments carefully.”

Mackenzie was practiced in controlling her face-- slaves had to be-- and so the big, shit-eating grin she aimed up at Mason, at this point, was completely deliberate. Mason saw it, and she saw his jaw clench, but he didn’t say anything.

Mackenzie, personally, couldn't remember ever having felt happier in her life than she did right now.

 

 

Not that she'd been unhappy back home, just-- frustrated. She'd studied to be a doctor, because it was the most important thing she could think of to do with her life, and it was satisfying, being able to fix people, being the one who knew how. Saving lives and limbs. But she hadn't been able to do anything to protect people from getting hurt in the first place, or from dying for lack of proper medical supplies, or for lack of food and clean water, because the goddamn raiders kept coming in, stealing and destroying everything they'd worked so hard to build.

After she'd been brought here, she'd at least had the satisfaction of knowing her folks back home were safe, but the people she lived with every day were even worse off, and there was even less she could do to help them.

Until the new bosses came.

They'd been-- different-- immediately. Not only the padded, silvery coats and black gloves that were like nothing she'd ever seen before, not only how quiet they were (Gage, Colter's would-be power behind the throne, leading them around, chattering at them a mile a minute, while they said almost nothing), but the quality of watchful attention, as if they were constantly assessing the situation, listening, weighing factors, taking everything into account. She'd been scared shitless of them-- their cool stares, the smooth, feline way they carried themselves, strength perfectly controlled by discipline and will-- but drawn to them, too. They were different.

And something had to change. So.

She knew most of the park assumed she was sleeping with both of them, and she didn't mind on her own account-- she would have let them fuck her, if that had been the price they wanted for listening to her, and she wouldn't have been ashamed, either-- but she wished sometimes, oddly enough, that she could defend their honor. They'd never made a move, never so much as gestured in that direction. Had literally never laid a finger on her, until the Disciples had (stupidly, they were so stupid, she refused to feel guilty about their deaths when they'd done something so stupid) taken her hostage, and even then, Night, leaning over her, blood drying on his face, checking her over, hadn't touched her, until she held up her arms to him. Then, and only then, he'd gathered her up, his coat damp and sticky with more blood, and carried her past the nearly unrecognizable bodies of Nisha and Savoy and Dixie, out into the sunlight.

Even the nights they did spend together, now, they didn't touch, much. They talked.

At first it had been mostly Mackenzie talking-- about the park, about the slaves and their living conditions, the waste and inefficiency of it all, the long-term economic benefits of actually feeding your slaves, and then about her gratitude, their greatness, how much better everything was now, how it was all thanks to them. They listened impassively to all this, sometimes exchanging glances, hardly ever even changing expression, or saying anything at all.

But eventually-- hesitantly, almost shyly, watching her as carefully for her reactions as she'd always watched them for theirs-- they started talking, too.

About the Institute, the Father who'd created them and selected them and trained them and given them a purpose, whom they'd loved (they didn't actually say they'd loved him, not in so many words, but it glowed from them when they spoke of him, a bleak ember of hopeless adoration and loss; Mackenzie knew those things when she saw them, however strangely muted, by the control the Institute had taught them).

And then the Institute's destruction, unbearably sudden, by the woman who'd been Father's mother: Nora Bowman, who'd had a different plan for the Commonwealth. Their struggles, then, to feed and protect the helpless humans who'd survived the blast.

And the scientists' decision, bit by bit, to settle down as Minutemen, in Nora Bowman's well-defended settlements, and make new lives for themselves.

And how X2-71 and V4-54 hadn't been invited to share those new lives. They'd been dismissed, without further orders.

And then-- they'd decided to come here.

("For the adventure?" Mackenzie asked, smiling, and Day said, as if it were daring to say it, as if he half expected a reprimand, even from her, "Yes. For the adventure.")

They didn't sleep-- had been designed not to need to, as if they weren't already insanely terrifying predators, what in God’s name had the Institute been thinking-- and on those nights when they talked, she drank caffeinated soda to stay awake with them, until her eyelids started to fall despite herself. After the culling of the Disciples, if she was too sleepy to walk even the short distance back to the Mountain, one or the other of them would lift her, from the sofa where she curled to listen to them, and carry her to the bed they didn't sleep in, tuck her carefully under the blanket, and she'd awaken alone, with sunlight on her face, cursing and flinging the blanket off, running for the lift and the marketplace and her station at the clinic.

It had been after one of those nights that one of the Operators, irritated at having to wait around for medical attention, had activated the shock collar around her neck, to punish her.

She hadn't meant to tattle, or complain-- she had overslept and been extremely late for work, it wasn't unreasonable for a slave to get punished for that-- just to ask Day and Night please not to do that again, let her stay up so late and then leave her in the morning without waking her up, or at least setting the alarm clock-- and she certainly hadn't meant to ask for anything other than that consideration.

When she finished explaining what had happened, and Day produced the activation device from his uniform pocket, she'd flinched and cowered, thinking she'd finally overstepped, crossed the line into punishable insolence. Instead, the collar-- the one she'd been wearing since Colter had told her his terms-- came off her neck.

(And locked again, not too much later, around the neck of the raider who'd shocked her.)

She honestly didn't know how they actually felt about her, even now. Whether they actually cared about her, the way she understood it, or just-- valued her, in some inhuman way of their own. She knew they trusted her judgement, trusted her enough to confide in her, and that the idea of her getting hurt was unacceptable to them in some way-- and she trusted their word, and trusted them not to hurt her.

She also knew she cared for them, these strange young androids (Day was thirteen years old, Night was eleven), with an odd, almost protective tenderness that existed entirely apart from her gratitude for their more practical protection. She’d felt indignant on their behalf with Nora Bowman (although the Institute sounded like a horrific establishment, the synths no better than slaves, and courser training sounded calculated to break the trainees' sanity far more creatively than any tortures the Disciples had ever devised. But even if she'd been justified in destroying it, couldn't Bowman have done more for the poor scattered remnants, the lost, dispossessed coursers with their human burdens?).

And she’d been indignant with the scientists, too, the ones who'd gone off to new lives without a second thought for the coursers who'd served them so faithfully. She was proud of Day and Night, for the changes they'd made, the transformation they'd wrought in the park, how well they took to authority, after a lifetime of servitude.

And she’d been scared, horribly scared, about what might happen if-- despite the bosses’ care, despite their prohibition on Nuka World infringing on Minutemen territory-- the Minutemen decided to push west.

Maybe she should have been rooting for the Minutemen-- for an all-out war, for the raiders to get wiped out-- but she wasn’t, and not just because of the potential collateral damage, the slaves who might die in in the crossfire.

It was also because she didn’t want Day and Night to get hurt, or-- be defeated. Didn’t want them to lose what they’d worked so hard to build. They’d done so well-- with Mackenzie’s help, yes, but they’d been the ones who decided to listen, to think, to care, to make changes-- and, well, she couldn’t help but feel that they deserved to rule, to be in charge, after all the time they’d spent as slaves. (Worse: things. Machines. They hadn’t even been granted the dubious distinction of having their pain and humiliation found enjoyable. It had just been useful.)

And now-- now!-- Nora Bowman was here, after all this time, and she was--

--friendly, and she had more coursers on her team, ones who knew Day and Night, and at least one of them had a name, and he looked at Nora the way Day and Night looked at Mackenzie sometimes, that intensely valuing stare, like a dragon from a fairy tale contemplating its richest treasure, and furthermore he was sitting on a sofa right now and holding hands with the other big one with the bandana tied across his forehead, which was so fucking cute Mackenzie couldn’t even deal, whether they were dating or best friends or what--

“Which park are you going to try for first?” Mags asked, addressing Nora directly for the first time.

Nora smiled at her, and said, “I was going to ask Sierra, here, what she thought would be best. She seems to know a lot about the parks, in general. Done her research.”

Sierra looked up at Nora as though Nora was the human incarnation of the rarest bottle of soda on the planet-- or John-Caleb Bradberton reincarnated to bless Sierra personally as his most faithful disciple-- and said, “The Galactic Zone is closest.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Nora, and beamed at Mags, William, Mason, and Ericson in turn.

“Are there any serious objections to our current plan at this time?” Day asked.

There were a few moments of silence.

“Excellent,” said Day. “As always, you are welcome to approach us with your thoughts at any time, should you formulate any.”

Nora choked, and coughed violently, and Hancock said, “God bless you.”

“We will keep you informed,” said Night. “If there is nothing else, you are all dismissed.”

Mason, Ericson, Mags, and William got up, slowly, obviously discontented-- but whatever, the bosses could handle it, especially now, with everybody else here on their side, Mackenzie wanted to sing-- and left.

“I think that went well,” said Nora, beaming. Mackenzie beamed back on behalf of Night and Day, who-- she assumed-- were giving her their patented unreadable courser stare, but who would definitely have been beaming if they were in the habit of ever beaming. “Now. I don’t know about the rest of my guys, but I’m exhausted. Mackenzie, you want to take us back to Fizztop Mountain, so we can crash?”

“You’re sleeping at the Mountain tonight?” Mackenzie didn’t exactly leap to her feet-- she wasn’t spry enough for that any more-- but she started scrambling.

“She requested those quarters,” said Day, and Night said, fixing her with a penetrating dark stare as she heaved herself to her feet, “Like you.”

Mackenzie grinned.

“Great,” she said. “I’ll take them there now, then. If I may, sirs?”

“You may,” said Night, and Mackenzie said, “Thank you. Honored guests, if you’ll be so kind as to follow me.”

Chapter Text

Danse had gotten out of his power armor to eat, and hadn’t gotten back in it for the meeting, but he didn’t say anything about it as they followed Dr. Bridgeman back to the Mountain. It would probably be safer with Night and Day than at the Mountain, and he was about to go to bed anyway. He could get it back in the morning, before they went anywhere dangerous. In the meantime, he held onto Michael’s hand, sticking close to Michael’s side, feeling his body’s warmth. The bandana Michael had tied over his scar felt-- the last time he’d worn a bandana there, it had felt conspicuous and precarious, a bandage barely masking a deformity. Now it felt soft and warm, as if his scar-- after having been kissed-- had been tucked in safely for the night.

He felt less afraid of Day and Night-- not that he’d been afraid of Day and Night; maybe intimidated by was a better phrase-- seeing Dr. Bridgeman’s ease around them, her lack of fear. Her unconstrained manner with her masters was a little shocking-- the careless effrontery with which she spoke to them-- but at the same time, it was also shocking to see a human sitting at the feet of synths, even coursers, being owned and commanded by them. Smiling up from the floor at their feet, safe and secure, like a cherished pet.

(If he were to sit at someone’s feet like that, it would be pleasant to have a hand reached down occasionally, to caress him. As Nora had caressed Michael’s hair, when Michael sat at her feet in the library, when he was very tired, and grieving. Danse would like to lean against-- well, of course it was Michael’s legs he was imagining leaning against, Michael’s hand he was imagining coming down to pet him, rub over his hair. He could turn his head and kiss Michael’s fingers and palm.)

His hand tightened on Michael’s, and Michael squeezed back, gently, firmly, making him catch his breath.

...............................................

 

At the Mountain, supper had been cleared away from the long table, the lights dimmed even further than before, and people-- slaves-- lay on mattresses, covered with blankets, some two or even three to a mattress, some alone. Collars flashed red across the room. A low hum of conversation hushed when the group came in; heads lifted up from straw pillows and bundles of cloth that were serving as pillows, collared necks craning to see who had entered.

“It’s just me,” said Dr. Bridgeman, to the room, including the four black-armored, armed guards who sat at the dinner table, playing cards. Apparently they weren’t particularly concerned about an insurrection. “And Sierra. And our guests. Let’s see, where can they sleep?”

She looked around-- there were actually several empty mattresses-- and said to Nora, “Take your pick, I guess!”

Nora picked her way across the floor to the nearest mattress, took off her pack, and sat down; Hancock sat down next to her, and began taking off his boots. Petrovita went off to a dim corner, and came back with a small stack of blankets; she handed one to Nora, who said, "Oh, thank you, sweetheart," and added, to Danse, "You pick a mattress too, Danse. I know you’re tired."

He didn't let go of Michael's hand as he obeyed, and Michael followed him to the mattress, and sat down on the floor next to it. X6-88 stayed standing, looking around.

"You should sit," said Michael to him, and X6-88 sat down on the floor, too, still examining the surroundings.

Petrovita handed Danse a blanket, and sat down by Dr. Bridgeman on another mattress, offering her the last blanket she'd fetched. Danse examined the one she'd given him; it was worn and a little ragged, but serviceable. It wasn't too cold in the Mountain, anyway.

"I'm guessing you don't sleep, either, sir?" Dr. Bridgeman asked X6-88. "Or you, sir?"

This last to Michael, who said, "You need not address either of us as sir, Dr. Bridgeman. We are not accustomed to that kind of deference from humans."

"Oh, well, I'm accustomed to deference to-- coursers," said Dr. Bridgeman, smiling a bit. "So I guess somebody's gonna have to get unaccustomed. I'll try, but I can't make any promises. It might help if you called me Mackenzie. Please. The bosses won't."

"Mackenzie," said Michael. "I would be pleased if you would call me Michael."

"OK, Michael," said Dr. Bridgeman, and gazed from him to X6-88 in apparent awe. "My God. I mean-- they told me there were more like them, but it's just crazy, to actually meet you guys. The way you talk, and-- move, and--" She looked at Michael and Danse's linked hands, and said to Danse, "So hey, what's your story?"

"Ma'am?"

Dr. Bridgeman grinned. "Oh, he called me ma'am! What a gentleman. I mean-- well, they're coursers, and that's Nora Bowman and her husband, but who are you? I don't think I even got your name."

"I'm-- Danse," said Danse, wondering how on earth to answer her question. Who was he? Amnesiac runaway synth, ex-paladin, ex-slave, Nora's adoptive son and her councillor, Michael's dear heart--

"It's kind of a long story," said Nora, coming to his rescue, "and I don't want to keep the rest of your guys awake, talking all night."

"If you mean it's confidential and you don't want to tell everyone here," said Dr. Bridgeman, "that's fine, but if you're actually worried about disturbing people, please don't. You guys are the juiciest piece of gossip to come 'round the Mountain for a long time. I promise everybody here is holding as still as possible hoping you'll raise your voice a little bit so we can all find out what the fuck is going on. Including these guys over here." She waved cheerfully to the card-playing guards, who smiled slightly; one of them waved back. "I'm sure we've all caught each other up on the basics already, but once more for the folks in the back: You're Nora Bowman, the General of the Commonwealth Minutemen, and you showed up here with a guy who's wearing the same kind of coat as the bosses, and had a secret meeting with the bosses, and then walked around the park with the bosses getting the tour, and apparently bought Petrovita? Maybe?" She gestured towards Nora. "You fill in the blanks."

"Oh, well, if you guys want a bedtime story," said Nora, grinning back at Dr. Bridgeman. "It all started in 2077..."

"Lie down, my love," said Michael, very softly, in Danse's ear.

Danse obeyed, as Nora spoke, telling the story he knew: the story of the Institute, her stolen son who'd been its director, and its genetic progenitor, too. He stretched his tired body out on the mattress, on his back, the straw pillow rustling under his head; it felt good to be lying down. Michael spread the blanket Sierra had brought over him, and then moved down to his feet, twitched the blanket there slightly aside, and began undoing the laces of Danse's boots.

"So the synths are my babies," Nora was saying. "Including your bosses. And X6-88-- he's the guy in the coat-- and Michael, and Danse, too. X6 and Michael were the elite, though, the coursers. Like your bosses. The enforcers. They tracked down runaways, and killed anybody who got in their way." Her voice was oddly proud, and continued to be so as she continued, "Danse was a runaway who didn't get caught, and he became a paladin for the Brotherhood of Steel. You guys might have heard of them."

Michael, having removed Danse's boots and then his socks, began massaging his sore feet, pulling lightly at his toes, digging thumbs into his instep. Danse tried not to moan with pleasure. Not here, not in front of everyone. It would be inappropriate.

"Anyway," said Nora, "we came here because we found out your two had come here. We didn't know they'd taken over the whole place-- although, in retrospect, we should have figured, right? But now we're-- negotiating. We don't want to fight. They're my sons. And it seems like they've done well for this park, except for the shock collars, which I have a gigantic fucking problem with. So we have a deal. We're gonna claim those outlying parks, and for every park we give your bosses, they're gonna give us seven of your collars. So they get five parks, and you all get uncollared. Freed, if you wanna be free-- we'll take anybody back to the Commonwealth with us who wants to go, or you can go your own ways. Or stay here, if you want to do that."

There was a brief pause, during which Michael tucked Danse's feet carefully back under the blanket.

"You don't have to trust us, obviously," Nora resumed. "I wouldn't trust us yet either, probably. But we're moving out tomorrow for the first park, with Sierra-- she's gonna be our guide." She paused. "And, uh, that brings us to now."

"Thanks, Ms. Bowman," said Dr. Bridgeman, with a smile in her voice. "Nora. That's given us plenty to sleep on."

"Me too," said Nora, with a yawn in hers.

"Mother," said Michael, "with your permission, may X6-88 and I go out into the rest of the park? I missed the tour earlier, and I would like to speak with X6-88 a little, while the rest of you sleep."

"Sure, son," said Nora. "Just stick with X6-88-- he's the one Day and Night introduced around. I'd guess nobody will hassle you if you're with him."

"Yes, ma'am," said Michael, and leaned over Danse to kiss him, lightly, on the lips, and say softly, "I'll be here in the morning when you wake."

Danse nodded, smiled a bit up at Michael, as Michael pulled away and got to his feet.

When he and X6-88 had closed the doors behind them, Dr. Bridgeman said, "So-- they're boyfriends?"

"Yes," said Nora, and yawned again.

"Well, I won't keep you up any later, asking questions," said Dr. Bridgeman. "At least not tonight. Sleep well!"

Danse closed his eyes, and lay still.

He wished-- well, he could have asked Michael to stay, of course, but it would have been ridiculous of him. He couldn't expect Michael to sit around all night doing nothing but watch him sleep.

The quiet room slowly filled with the sounds of sleep: regular breathing, snores, the faint whimpers of dreams. The light slap and rustle, and low-spoken words, of the bored guards' card game.

Bored guards.

He couldn't be irrational like this, it was pathetic, weak, inexcusable. He was perfectly safe. He wasn't naked, or helpless, or alone.

God, I'm fuckin' bored. How about you, M? You bored? You wanna play a game?

He was being ridiculous. Nora was here (but asleep), and literal dozens of other slaves--

--dozens of slaves, Danse wasn't a slave, he didn't have to submit to anything, if anyone tried to make him he could fight back, scream for help, he had the right--

(but he wouldn't, would he)

Someone's weight beside him on the mattress, and he froze, the way he'd known he would, didn't cry out. Someone's hot breath at the side of his face.

A woman's voice whispered in his ear, "Are you scared?"

He opened his eyes.

In the dimness, he could see her pale hair, her wide, clear eyes. Sierra Petrovita, whose collar he'd destroyed. She was sitting on the mattress, close beside him, looking down at him expectantly, waiting for an answer.

He nodded.

She leaned down again, and whispered, so quietly that if her mouth hadn't been almost touching his ear, he wouldn't have been able to hear, "Nobody's allowed to do anything to us, at night. If anybody tries, just yell."

She pulled back to look at him again. He didn't know how to answer, but she seemed to expect him to. After a moment, he shook his head.

Her face, in the half-light, looked inquisitive, and then thoughtful for a few moments, her brow furrowed as if she had a problem to solve, and then she leaned down, and whispered again, "If you let me stay here next to you, and anybody tries to do something, I'll wake up. And yell. I can."

She pulled back again, watching him to see what he thought of this plan, and after another moment, he nodded.

She looked pleased, and lay down promptly next to him, her back to him, pulling part of his blanket over herself, and then wriggling and nestling until the length of her back and legs pressed against his side. Her smaller, thinner body didn't radiate heat the way Michael's did, but after a little, her warmth mingled with his, and her breathing grew regular and deep.

Danse stayed still, letting himself relax against her, trying to match the rhythm of his breath to hers.

When he slept, he dreamed of Haylen, taking his hand. Knowing he was a synth, the way she must have known, before she died. Forgiving him.

…………………………………...

 

He wakened to another kiss on the lips; stirred, opened his eyes, saw Michael leaning over him. Felt Sierra jerk suddenly into wakefulness against him, with a low cry, and then go still, presumably seeing Michael.

"Good morning, Ms. Petrovita," said Michael, in a courteous undertone. "I trust you slept well."

She made a little squeaking noise, apparently as frozen by Michael's proximity as Danse had been by hers, last night.

"Sierra, sweetheart, come over here," Nora called softly from nearby, and Sierra wiggled out from under Danse's blanket and scampered away.

"All right, losers," called a male voice, louder, and there was a deliberate-sounding banging noise, three rapid slams. "Rise and shine. Let's go, let's hustle, up and at 'em. Don't make us tell you twice."

The words had the rhythm of an oft-repeated litany, with no real interest behind them, and Danse knew they weren't addressed to him, but he sat up anyway. Slaves were stirring around him, groaning, throwing off blankets, rubbing their eyes, adjusting their clothes, pulling on shoes, fidgeting with their collars. The guards were still sitting at the table. Sierra was sitting between Nora and Mackenzie, as Nora and Hancock laced up their boots. X6-88 wasn't in evidence.

"We've got to get you better shoes, for the trip," Nora said to Sierra, eyeing the worn sandals Sierra wore. “That’s probably what we should do, first thing, is go shopping. Get you some decent clothes, make sure we’re stocked up on ammo and supplies.”

Michael said, quietly, close to Danse, "If I had realized you were in need of a bedmate, last night, I would have stayed with you."

Danse looked at him, suddenly uncertain-- was Michael angry? Jealous? Of little Sierra? Had Danse been wrong, to let her share his mattress?-- and Michael leaned in to kiss his cheek, then touch it with his own.

"Forgive me," he murmured, his mouth near Danse's ear. "I'm still learning."

"Where are they all going?" Nora asked Mackenzie, as Danse leaned lightly against Michael. The doors had opened onto grayish early-morning light, and the slaves-- some openly staring at their party, some very carefully not looking, some darting surreptitious glances, none stopping to say anything-- were beginning to shuffle through them, out into the day.

"Some are going to make breakfast for the park," said Mackenzie. "Some are going to get the market set up for the day. They'll all be back here in a bit so we can have our own breakfast, before the day's work really starts. I’ve got to get to the clinic to get set up-- I usually treat slaves before breakfast, if they’re not feeling well. That way, if they’re too sick to work, or they need to rest up for whatever reason, I can get them a pass. You want to come with?”

“Of course,” said Nora. “Lead the way, doc.”

Chapter Text

Their party scattered slightly when they reached the marketplace; Hancock stuck close to Dr. Bridgeman (no, Mackenzie), watching as another slave approached her clinic, while Michael's mother moved towards the clothing store, apparently intent on finding a new pair of shoes for Sierra. Sierra followed her, her expression somewhere between docile and content.

Danse said quietly to Michael, as they moved towards the weapons and ammunition stall, "Where is X6-88?"

"With Night and Day," Michael answered.

He and X6-88 had passed a profitable hour or so replicating X6-88's earlier tour of the park-- although they hadn't actually entered the raiders' dens, only walked around, looking, and talking a little. Then X6-88 had expressed the desire to speak further with their former colleagues, so they'd gone to the tower.

No guards were stationed there. It wasn't necessary, of course; Night and Day never slept, and any hostile action would be more easily dealt with by themselves than by raider guards. Michael and X6-88 took the lift to the patio, where they found Day and Night sitting quietly, as if they'd been waiting for their comrades to arrive.

The four of them had talked for a long time. It was easier, with no humans present, to ask questions, and to make oneself understood. Their faces, too, were easier to read, away from the humans. They spoke of how they'd come to be here, all four of them, what had led them to this place. Day and Night spoke of Dr. Bridgeman, X6-88 of his charges and the Poseidon remnant, Michael of his mother.

When the sky began to lighten, Michael had pleaded his promise to Danse, and excused himself, leaving X6-88 with Day and Night, and feeling relieved: the four of them understood each other, if not as perfectly as might have been hoped, certainly much better than he had feared.

Back at the Mountain, before awakening Danse-- cozily bedded down as he'd been next to Sierra-- he'd wakened his mother, with a gentle, reverent hand on her back, and when she'd rolled over and blinked up at him, groggily, her radiant smile dawning through the sleep-fog as soon as she saw who he was, he'd taken her in his arms and pulled her up into a tight, long hug.

She hugged him back, without saying anything, or asking what had brought this on. She must know how grateful he was, that she was being so forbearing with his-- former colleagues. That she'd come in search of X2-71 and V4-54 (bringing X6-88, too, since he'd asked), and found them like this, and still called them her sons. That she wanted peace as well as justice, and to give them something, in exchange for what she had to (since she was herself) take away.

That he could be hers (as he was, utterly) and one of them, too; that his joy in finding them again wasn't a betrayal of her. That if he ever had to choose, it wouldn't be she who forced him to do so, even though she knew he would choose her. Without hesitation; he wasn't accustomed to hesitating merely because of the prospect of pain.

"I don't have any caps," said Danse, now, hesitating at the counter of the shop, and the slave behind it said, deadpan, "Then you get no guns."

"Our mother will pay," said Michael. "She will buy you ammunition for your rifle in any case, Danse, and extra fusion cores for your armor, but do any of the other weapons here appeal to you?"

Danse shook his head. "I have the rifle and the power armor she gave me already."

"True." Michael eyed the weapons, but he didn't really need anything, either.

"Thank you," he said to the slave, before they turned to join his mother and Sierra at the clothing stall.

Sierra was sitting on the concrete floor of the marketplace, at Michael's mother's feet, lacing up a pair of walking shoes, while his mother felt the lining of a long, padded leather coat between her fingers. Sierra froze, slightly, when Michael approached, looking up at him with wide blue eyes. They weren't as blue as his sister Emily's eyes, or as fearless when they looked at him, but they were steadfast despite her obvious uncertainty.

"Hey, son, tell Sierra it's all right she bunked with Danse last night," his mother said, glancing up from the coat. "She's worried she might have gotten him in trouble."

Michael knelt down on the floor opposite Sierra.

(His mother's kindness and generosity radiated from her naturally, in all directions; her deadliness, on the other hand, she picked up at need and wielded as a tool, to protect her people. Michael, like all coursers, was as obviously dangerous as their mother was obviously tender, wore his deadly nature the way he wore his skin. But he was learning-- from his mother, as well as from Danse, by the instincts Danse roused in him, the need Danse had for his warmth-- how to pick up and wield tenderness, at need. It would never pour as naturally from him as from his mother, but he could surely learn to do it as skilfully as his mother fought, when she had to.)

"I'm grateful to you," he told Sierra, making his voice gentle, as if he were his mother, or as if she were Danse. "For comforting Danse. Thank you."

She smiled more broadly and less nervously at that.

"You're welcome," she said. "I'm glad it was right."

Michael understood that sentiment well enough.

He stood again-- his mother beaming her approval at him, Danse looking a little flustered-- and offered Sierra a hand up; she walked around a few steps in her new shoes, and started beaming, too.

"I like these," she said. "Can I have them now? Or do I have to wait for the first park?"

"You can have them now," said Michael's mother, smiling at her, and turned to the slave behind the counter. "We'll take these and the socks, and-- let's see-- the leather chest piece, too.'

"Ninety-five caps," said the slave.

His mother raised an eyebrow. "Ninety-five?"

The slave-- a dark-haired, tired-looking woman-- swallowed. "Yes, ma'am."

"Seems a little steep," his mother said.

"They're good shoes," said the slave. "Hardly worn."

"True," said his mother, and began counting out the caps.

"Thank you, ma'am," said the slave.

Michael thought he understood. The slaves must collect caps for themselves by inflating the prices for their wares and skimming off the top. His mother wouldn't mind that, but she wouldn't have wanted to pay the extra caps to line the raiders' pockets. But the slave had defended the price as fair when his mother questioned it, instead of shrugging helplessly, as she would have if she hadn't determined the price herself, or if she hadn't had some other reason for wanting to make the sale at that price. Any reason would have done for his mother, of course, as long as it was the slave's own.

She handed the caps over, then looked up at Michael with a smile. She was usually so impatient with subterfuge; she was trying so hard, here, even though everything about dealing diplomatically with a market full of collared slaves must be distressing her. And she was still making the effort to smile at him.

"You boys see anything you can't live without?" she asked, including Danse in the question.

Michael's own answering smile widened involuntarily, and she laughed.

"Oh, you," she said. "Come on, let's go pry your stepdad away from his new folk hero, and then we can stock up on ammo before breakfast."

 

...................................................................................

 

When their party rejoined Day and Night-- and X6-88-- for breakfast, the table was laid for eight. Apparently Mackenzie usually ate with the rest of the slaves. Michael could surmise that-- like her sleeping arrangements-- it was by her own choice. If I'm not with the rest of us, if I'm not one of us, what good am I?

As they ate, Day and Night inquired courteously how the night had passed, and their mother said, "It was fine! Just fine, thanks. And we got in a little shopping, before breakfast. Beat the rush." She smiled. "Got some supplies and ammo, and got Sierra some new shoes and armor, and a little bitty gun, just in case she winds up in a tight spot. So, X6, unless there's more shopping you need to do, we're all set to head out after breakfast."

"As you wish, ma'am," said X6-88.

"Great." His mother turned to Sierra. 'Sierra, sweetheart, can you give us some idea about what we're gonna be up against, at the, um, Nuka Galaxy?"

Sierra swallowed a mouthful of bread, sat up straight, and said, "Now?"

"Yes, now," said Michael's mother. "Unless you'd rather wait until we're done eating."

"Nuka Galaxy, in keeping with the futuristic theme, was almost entirely run by robots," Sierra said, promptly, her hesitant, uncertain manner of speech transforming entirely into a tone of enthusiastic authority. "Specially programmed Protectrons, Automatrons, Mister Frothys--"

"Mister Frothys?" Michael's mother repeated.

"Like Mister Handys," said Sierra, "but adapted for the Nuka Cola brand. John-Caleb Bradberten had a line specially developed, like the U. S. Army's Mister Gutsys. They were designed to entertain and serve guests, advertise special offers and promotions, and keep order when necessary. Nowadays, the emergency protocols are in place, making them hostile to all comers. Humans have tried to settle there, but they've been driven off or killed by the robots."

"So, to secure the park, we will have to destroy all the robots," X6-88 concluded.

"Not necessarily!" Sierra said perkily. "All the robots are controlled by a central mainframe, and if it's functional, or if we can repair it, we can use that to shut the robots down, or even restore them to their original protocols!"

Hancock squinted at her. "Advertising special offers and promotions? For Nuka Cola?"

Sierra beamed. "Doesn't it sound wonderful?"

"Uh, sure," said Hancock. "As long as we can make it so they don't kill us."

"Well, we'll have to reach the central mainframe first," said Sierra. "And access it. Are any of you good with computers?"

Hancock and Danse both looked at Michael's mother.

"I mean," she said. "I've done a little hacking. Here and there. I'm not Zero Cool or anything."

"I don't know what that means," said Sierra cheerfully, "but we won't know what we can accomplish until we try!"

"That's true, sweetheart," said Michael's mother, smiling at her. "Now, if we get you to the park, do you think you can help us find that mainframe?"

Sierra nodded vigorously. "And after we hack the mainframe, we can search for the hidden Cappy!"

She reached down inside the neck of her baggy, ragged Nuka-Cola T-shirt, and pulled out a pair of vividly pink sunglasses, which she put on, smiling broadly. The frames were molded, around the edges, to imitate the ridged teeth of a bottlecap, while each lens was imprinted with the holographic image of a smiling, anthropomorphic bottlecap. The effect was... singular.

"They're very durable," she said, patting the glasses. "I was afraid they'd be broken after I fell down on the ground yesterday, but it just goes to show the quality craftsmanship of Nuka Cola's promotional items as well as their souvenirs! These will help us find the hidden Cappy image in each park, each with a piece of the code needed to unlock John-Caleb Bradberten's secret vault!"

"Great," said Michael's mother, sounding genuinely pleased, although probably more at the transformation in Sierra's demeanor than at the prospect of unlocking John-Caleb Bradberten's secret vault. Although, for all Michael knew, his mother actually knew and cared what Sierra was talking about. In either case, his job was to help her accomplish her goals.

"May I suggest, ma'am," he said, to that end, "that Danse take point when we reach the park."

Danse looked slightly startled. "Me?"

"Since we're anticipating primarily robot adversaries," Michael explained to him, "you won't have any inhibitions to overcome-- in fact, your instinctive hesitancy to harm humans will be useful should we encounter any potential allies in need of rescue-- and your power armor will be useful in drawing some harmless fire, while two of us provide fire support from either side."

"Only two of us?" his mother asked.

"One of us will need to focus on protecting and escorting Ms. Petrovita," Danse explained, having clearly understood Michael's thought, "and another on covering the rear."

"I'll take care of Sierra," said his mother, predictably.

"Let's have Michael on the rear, then," said Hancock. "For my peace of mind. Me and X6 can support Danse up front."

"Does that sound good, Danse?" his mother asked, as Michael savored his stepfather's implicit praise. "You're just now getting back in the game-- I don't want to rush you, if you don't feel ready to lead the charge just yet."

"Michael's tactical reasoning is sound, Nora," Danse answered, not looking at Michael, but the skin at his cheekbones registered a faint flush that Michael thought was of pleasure at the prospect. "I'll try not to let you down."

"I'm not worried about that," his mother answered. "X6?"

"Ma'am?"

"How does that plan sound to you?"

"As you wish, ma'am," said X6-88.

(He was distracted, Michael knew, by so much new information to process. Michael wasn't worried it would compromise his efficacy in combat, though. If anything, combat would refresh him, clear his head. Things always felt so much simpler when one's adversaries were external, and one's problems easily resolvable by the application of deadly force.)

"Great," said Hancock. "As long as I get to take point on at least one of the five. Don't want Danse to have all the fun." He turned to Sierra. "I don't guess there's a Patriotism Park, is there? Constitutional Cola Convention?"

"No," said Sierra. "John-Caleb Bradberten was a great American patriot, but none of the parks are politically themed. There's a Kiddie Kingdom, though!"

Michael's mother laughed; Michael smiled, less at the joke he was fairly sure Sierra hadn't meant to make than at the sight and sound of his mother’s amusement.

"Hey," said Hancock, grinning too. "I'm not just playing dress-ups for fun. This is the uniform of the goddamn revolution."

"Kiddie Kingdom is just for fun," Sierra answered with equanimity. (Neither Day nor Night had reacted visibly to the word revolution.) "Although all the parks are designed to be a fun, safe adventure for kids of all ages!"

"You really have done your research, Sierra," said Michael's mother kindly. "Thank you so much for all this great information. You're already being such a big help, and we haven't even left yet!"

Sierra smiled back at her, but with a slightly puzzled expression mingled with her obvious pleasure in the praise. Understandably. It could be bewildering, to be praised so extravagantly, simply for doing the thing that you took pleasure in for its own sake. Knowing-- and talking-- about Nuka World clearly was that thing for Sierra.

Michael was looking forward to X6-88 experiencing that same disorienting pleasure after the combat ahead. Perhaps Day and Night had already experienced a little of it, when their mother told them she was impressed by all they'd accomplished here.

"Have we all finished eating?" he asked-- impatient, yes, a little, to get started.

Sierra bounced up and down slightly in her chair. "I have!"

"Thank you for your hospitality," their mother said to Day and Night, as she rose, and the rest of the table followed suit.

"You'e welcome, Ms. Bowman," Day answered; he and Night had risen along with the rest of them. "Good luck out there."

"Thanks," she said, looking at them with hard, reliable love in her eyes. Michael remembered, with the sudden vividness he thought of as dreamlike, though he'd never had a dream, sitting before her as a prisoner, as she debated with Hancock whether to kill him.

Is it crazy to think anything good could come from-- keeping him here? Am I just being crazy, imagining some kind of, of possibility, that--

Danse was stepping into his power armor, the helmet slung at his side, for now; X6-88 and Hancock were gathering their weapons; Sierra was adjusting her sunglasses. Day and Night were watching their mother, who looked at Michael, suddenly, as if feeling his eyes on her. Maybe she could.

You weren't crazy. You weren't wrong. Not then, not now.

She smiled at him and gave him a little nod, and then they were on the move.

Chapter Text

"What a shitty fuckin' design for a mainframe," Hancock observed. "'Star cores,' what the fuck."

Sierra looked personally insulted, or he thought she did, through the ridiculous glasses she was still wearing. "I'm sure it was cutting-edge technology. John-Caleb Bradberten wouldn't have tolerated anything less in the park of the future!"

"I'm sure you're right, Sierra," said Nora soothingly. "It's just a little frustrating, having them all scattered like this, and having to go looking for the rest before we can shut down the robots."

"It isn't the design's fault that it's been disassembled for other purposes," said Sierra.

"Oh, did I hurt the design's feelin's?" Hancock heard the scratchy irritation in his own voice, knew he'd been too harsh even before Sierra’s face fell.

"Sorry," he said. "I ain't mad at you. Or at John-Caleb Bradberten."

"He's mad at me," said Nora ruefully.

Hancock shook his head, looking at the love of his life, sitting cross-legged on the floor below the control terminal, as if hoping someone would wander by and sit in her lap. Sierra would have been the obvious candidate, but she was prowling along the bulletproof glass of the mainframe's enclosure, peering out longingly into the park, where Danse, Michael, and X6-88 had vanished in search of star cores. Nora had suggested she and Sierra stay behind in safety, with the mainframe; Michael, protective of Nora as always, had insisted someone else stay with them, and as the least trained killer on the team, Hancock had volunteered. The synth murder brigade deployed, a little breathing space earned, away from the fuckin' park full of flashing collars--

"Not mad at you, either," he said. "Just--" He took a breath. "I don't like it, you know."

She looked up at him, mouth trembling a little, the way it did-- not often. Sometimes. When she'd come back from the Institute the first time; just after she'd been rescued from the Brotherhood bunker. "I don't either, John."

He sat down on the floor beside her, put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him, with a sharp little intake of breath before she relaxed against him. Hell, she was trembling a little. Had she been that scared he was mad at her? Or was it just-- everything?

"They don't know any better," she said, unsteadily, and a little thickly (was she crying? He squeezed her shoulders a bit, and she grabbed at his free hand). "They've never-- Their whole job was catching runaway slaves. And killing-- humans who got in their way. It’s like Michael said, at the station-- they're educated to think of human lives, non-Institute lives, as worthless. And they've never-- believed in anything, that didn't depend on slavery to work."

"They've had Mackenzie," he pointed out. "She told them to free the slaves. They didn't."

"They're trying," said Nora.

"They could be tryin' harder."

"They've done a lot."

"Not enough."

"I know that," said Nora, gripping his hand harder. "But we have to help them. We have to show them a better way." She sucked in a little breath, and added, "What did Mackenzie say? At the market, while I was shopping?"

"Not much." He thought of the doctor’s bright, cheery, optimistic smile. Like Nora's. "She likes the parks plan. She didn't try to recruit me to kill Day and Night for her, or anything. She likes you."

"I like her too," said Nora. "She's so brave. And I-- don't you think she really likes them? Night and Day?"

Sierra, plastered to the glass, said, "Mackenzie says the bosses get why not to hurt her, but not anybody else."

"What's that?" Nora asked.

Sierra turned to look at them, leaning her back against the glass. "When she got shocked one time, they took off her collar. Mackenzie says she tried to tell them that the reason she shouldn’t wear a collar is the same reason nobody should, but they didn't listen. She says they think she's different. Better."

"Well, she is kind of better than the raiders," said Nora. "But that doesn't mean the raiders deserve to wear shock collars, either."

"That thing they said about 'if anyone valuable fell into their power,' they'd protect 'em," said Hancock, with distaste.

"That's Institute talk," said Nora. "Like Shaun. Father, I mean. He talked like that, too. Only I was his version of Mackenzie, that he was gonna save from the surface, spare all the--and I couldn't make him understand that I was-- one of them. Of us. The people." She swallowed. "But if I'd-- stayed with him-- kept trying--"

"Let the synths stay slaves?"

"I couldn't," said Nora miserably.

"'Course you couldn't." Hancock leaned his cheek against the top of her head.

"But what if I'd been able to persuade him?" Nora asked. "That he was wrong. That-- the same reasons he valued me--"

"He didn't value you for shit," said Hancock, squeezing her shoulders again. "He let you go through hell, from the minute he unfroze you, when he could have protected you from everything. If you'd died before you got to the Institute he would've made a note on his little terminal about the unfortunate conclusion of his project. He wanted you, like a tyrant wants anything he gets a crazy whim for. He didn't have you, and it pissed him off not to have something, so he grabbed at you. Like--" Coulton grabbed Emily. No, he couldn't say that, even if it was true-- "To scratch an itch. A mom itch. He didn't give a shit who you really were, or what you wanted, or how you felt. He proved that."

She was definitely crying now; she turned her face against the shoulder of his coat, and he stopped talking for a bit, hoping he hadn't already said too much, gone too far. Sierra had turned around again and was staring out at the park, either to give them the illusion of privacy, or because she really, really wanted to ride all those rides. Probably she was picturing the park in its heyday, wishing she hadn't had to come to it so late, when it was already a ruin.

"It wasn't his fault," Nora got out, finally. "Who knows what they-- did to him-- when he was little-- he was so little--"

He held her, silently.

"And I can't help thinking--" She pulled away, wiping fiercely at her face, impatient with her own tears. "If I'd been more patient--"

"I know, Nor," he said, still holding onto one of her hands. "It's why I haven't fought you on this. Why I keep sittin' down to eat with them. Why we're here, surrounded by soda robots on a murder protocol, with John-Caleb Bradberten's greatest apostle, and your three toughest kids out scouring the place for star cores. Hey, my life ain't been dull since you took up with me, and that's a fact."

She gave a choked little giggle. He loved when he could make her laugh.

“Here comes X6-88,” Sierra reported matter-of-factly, from the glass wall. “Do you think he’s already found five star cores?”

Nora mopped at her face again with her sleeve. “Shit. Do I look like I’ve been crying? I don’t want to harsh his fight buzz.”

X6-88 did look buzzed when he came in, happy, the way Michael always looked after a good fight. Hancock hadn’t ever seen Michael really happy until Far Harbor, and it had been something of a revelation, how much more relaxed and confident he read after getting in a good solid week of violence at Nora’s side. Hancock could relate, a bit-- killing shit that needed killing definitely helped take the edge off, better than Jet or booze, and impressing Nora wasn’t so bad in the feeling-on-top-of-the-world department, either-- but he thought it went deeper than that, for Michael, and probably X6-88, too. Something about fulfilling their function. That training they’d been through, and where they couldn’t help but feel their worth lay.

(He wondered if Day and Night missed getting out there and killing shit. Hancock remembered the restlessness that had driven him out on the road with Nora-- not just his fascination with her, although that had certainly played a part, but the sense that sitting up in the state house, running the show, ruling the roost, was bad for his health, somehow. Making his blood sluggish. He wondered what made Day and Night’s hearts pound, got their blood pumping. If anything.)

As the doors closed behind X6-88, Nora scrambled up from the floor, smiling broadly, and said, “Hey! That was fast!”

“We’ve cleared the Vault-Tec installation, ma’am,” said X6-88; if he noticed her red eyes and slightly swollen face, he didn’t say anything. “I’d recommend that you and Ms. Petrovita not visit it, however. There was some sort of radiation leak-- even with our enhanced immunities, and the Rad-X you supplied us with, we had to depend on the insulation of Danse’s power armor to access one room.”

He reached into the pockets of his uniform and pulled out a “star core,” which he handed to Nora, and then another, and then, from more pockets, more. Six in all.

“Holy shit,” said Nora, blinking at the stack in her hands. “You guys are incredible.”

She set to work placing the cores in their empty sockets across the mainframe, while X6-88 said to Sierra, who was looking disappointed, “I doubt you would find the Vault-Tec installation particularly interesting in any case, Ms. Petrovita. It was essentially an advertisement for a prototype program that no longer has any prospect of existing, and it had nothing to do with Nuka Cola per se. Some of the other areas may be of greater interest.”

Nora was typing, now, at the terminal. “OK. We’ve got enough juice now to shut down one type of robot. What do you think? The Assaultrons? I mean-- Novatrons?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said X6-88. “They’re active in fewer numbers, but with their stealth capabilities factored in, they probably pose the greatest threat.”

Nora hit a key, and turned to smile at X6-88 again. “Not that any of them pose much of a threat to my best guys.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said X6-88, with a very small answering smile. “We’re making an effective team. I should go-- they’re waiting for me at the Starlight Interstellar Theater.”

Sierra gave a little gasp. “The Starlight Theater! Oh, look at the concession stand and see if there are any Nuka-Cola recipes! Unique limited-time mixtures and cocktails were offered to theater patrons, but the official recipes were never released!”

X6-88 looked at Nora, who said, “I mean, if you get a chance. Otherwise-- Sierra, once the park’s clear, we can go anywhere you want and look for recipes. And load up with soda for the trip back, OK? You want one now?”

“Yes, please,” said Sierra, and Nora dug in her pack and brought out a Nuka-Grape. Sierra accepted it with thanks, twisted off the cap, and drank greedily. She’d already had the Quartz from earlier, for breakfast; Hancock was starting to see why her teeth were in the shape they were in. Still, to each their own high.

“One of us will be back once we’ve recovered more of the star cores,” said X6-88 to Nora. “Or if we need more supplies. Do you have any further orders, ma’am?”

“Nope,” said Nora. “Just keep being amazing. I love-- what a great job you’re doing!”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said X6-88 again, and turned to go.

“Should’ve said ‘I love Nuka Cola!’ said Hancock, when X6-88 had closed the sliding doors behind him.

Nora grimaced. “‘I love-- these star cores you brought me!’”

“He’s coming around,” said Hancock. “He’ll be calling you ‘mom’ by the time we’ve taken the third park, I bet. Especially if you let him take point on the next one. Where are we going next, Sierra?”

“North of here is Dry Rock Gulch,” said Sierra. “It’s a western-themed cowboy adventure. The robots there aren’t hostile, but it’s infested with bloodworms.”

”Bloodworms?” Hancock repeated, pulling a face.

Sierra nodded. “According to travelers’ reports!”

“Well, that sounds like a riot,” said Hancock.

“Closer to Nuka-Town, to the north, is Kiddie Kingdom,” Sierra continued. “It’s heavily irradiated, and swarming with feral ghouls.”

“Oh, well, that sounds like a great time, too,” said Hancock. “We’re just spoiled for choice, here.”

“You love it, and you know you love it,” said Nora. “It’s like the good old days, before we ruled the Commonwealth, when we constantly thought we were gonna die.”

“Yeah,” he said. “The good old heart-pounding adventuring days, before you started adopting killer androids, and charging off to Far Harbor, and getting kidnapped by the Brotherhood, and conquering the Brotherhood...”

“Yeah, well, like you said, at least life with me isn't dull,” said Nora. “How about you take point at Kiddie Kingdom, since it’s so irradiated, and we’ll see if Michael or X6 feels like being a cowboy.”

“They don’t even know what a cowboy is,” said Hancock, and, leering slightly up at Nora, “Could feature you in fringed pants and a little Dale Evans tie.”

Nora grinned. “Get along, little dogie.”

“Not in front of Sierra,” he said, play-shocked, and Sierra said, calmly, “Oh, I don’t mind if you flirt in front of me. As long as you don’t flirt with me.”

“Duly noted,” said Nora, sobering, with a little nod at Sierra. “Hey, are you OK with me calling you ‘sweetheart,’ though? Or would you rather I didn’t? Sorry, I probably should have asked before.”

“Oh, yes,” said Sierra. “That’s not flirting. That’s affection. I like affection.”

“Right,” said Nora. “Good to know, Sierra, thanks.”

“Thank you,” said Sierra, smiling. “For being nice to me, and taking off my collar, and giving me soda, and bringing me out to the parks.”

“You’re welcome, sweetheart,” said Nora. “Listen, I know it’s a little soon to ask this since we’ve only been to a little bit of one park yet, but after this is all over, and you’ve visited all the parks and seen the sights, do you think you might want to come back to the Commonwealth with me, instead of staying here with the raiders?”

“I’ll think about it,” said Sierra. “Thank you for your offer.”

Nora nodded. “OK, cool.”

She looked back down at Hancock, who said, “Nora, love, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the Castle can only hold so many bodies before the walls come tumblin’ down. Like the siege of Jericho, but instead of trumpets from the outside, adopted kids from the inside.”

“I know,” said Nora, with a rueful smile. “I’ve been thinking about that-- you know, maybe we need to think about expanding. Especially now that so many people are pairing off. I know we’ve got that little Love Diner set up for Dee and Elizabeth, but maybe something a little like Sanctuary? Or like what they’ve got now at County Crossing? Houses, you know-- little ones, but sturdy, with their own facilities-- outside the walls, but close by? And guards and turrets at the outer boundaries, of course-- we could do another wall, further out, except I hate to block everybody’s view of the Castle.”

“It’s an inspirin’ sight,” Hancock agreed. “Sounds like a good project, for when we get home. Although we can only expand the boundaries so far before you’re just taking in the whole Commonwealth.”

“That’s the dream,” said Nora happily. “Everybody inside my defenses. Everybody safe at home with me.”

“That’s a good dream,” said Sierra gravely.

Hancock said, “Sure, it’s a good dream.”

“But then you wake up in Raider Town,” said Nora. “I know. But, hell. We’ve got the Brotherhood, we’re getting the Institute-- raiders really were the next logical step, weren’t they? To get on our side?”

“Uh, I think ‘logic’ left the building a minute ago,” said Hancock. "Maybe with X6?"

Nora waved a hand. “One step at a time. We’re just hanging out, for now. Waiting for star cores.” She sang, unexpectedly, in a low, slightly husky voice, that he’d only heard a couple of times before, and with a melting, drawn-out twang, “Each star’s a pool of water, cool water…”

“What’s that?” he asked. Speaking of heart-pounding.

She smiled. “Dale Evans! You don't know that one?”

“I’ve just seen the pictures in the old movie mags,” said Hancock. “But now that I know you know cowgirl songs, I’m definitely gonna need you to take point at Dry Rock Gulch.”

"They probably won't have water there," said Sierra, a bit apologetically. "But there'll be soda. And probably stars, if we stay overnight."

"There's always stars," said Nora.

Chapter Text

Mackenzie was daydreaming over her clean bandages, thinking about Nora Bowman and her party storming the Galactic Zone-- thinking, too, about the next park, and which seven slaves might be freed by it, and which one she'd ask for, if given the chance, what an awful thought but there were some who found it harder than others, and they'd all be free eventually, she was sure of it-- when Frost, one of the bosses' own black-armored enforcers, snapped his fingers in her face and said, "Wake up, Bridgeman. Let's move."

He turned away and started walking, taking her obedience for granted, and she pulled herself together and trotted quickly after him.

It was funny-- she'd never seen Frost's face until he got enslaved. He'd been Pack, and one of the ones who wore, not just face paint, but an animal-head helmet. (In his case, a sack hood with a hose that he'd modified to look like an elephant's head, the hose being the trunk. Why a raider who prided himself on brutality would want to look like an extinct animal that, as far as Mackenzie could tell from her reading, had been known for its gentleness, intelligence, and emotional bonding behaviors, was a question for the ages.) When he'd shown up in the Mountain wearing a collar, she'd had to ask who he was.

He'd been terrified, as the cruelest ones usually were, taking the measure of others by themselves. Although as far as Mackenzie could tell-- having no desire to test her theory by becoming a raider-- it was actually a lot more pleasant to be a slave in Nuka Town, these days, than a raider. You worked hard, sure, and the collars weren't exactly fun to have around your neck, as a constant reminder of your servitude (Mackenzie still felt guilty about not wearing one any more, but even if she could have brought herself to ask for hers back, she doubted Night and Day would have agreed), but nowadays, now that you got to eat and sleep, and nobody shocked you unless you crossed particular lines, and nobody touched you without your consent, the nice thing was that most of the slaves were a hell of a lot kinder to each other than most of the raiders seemed to be. If you were scared, someone would comfort you; if you needed something (information, a day of rest, a Nuka Cola), someone would find a way to get it for you. It wasn't quite a family, maybe, but it was-- at least-- a community.

Not everyone agreed, of course, and maybe it was just that Mackenzie didn't have the right temperament to enjoy being a raider. Furthermore, Mackenzie had, now, what most slaves lacked most acutely: the ear of those in power, and their interest, and their trust. If she went to Day and Night, reported abuse or neglect, they would listen. The other slaves knew it, and it made them a little wary of her, even as they made use of her influence, when they needed to. She wasn't quite one of them as she once had been, not quite one thing or the other, but it was all right. It was worth it.

Frost hadn't been a slave long-- he'd fought through the Gauntlet and emerged victorious, gaining the bosses' attention in the process and snagging the promotion to black armor not long after-- but she thought he'd learned something from his brief time in a collar. He was quieter than he used to be, anyway, although maybe that was just the transition from the Pack, who did tend to bellow gratuitously. He wasn’t leering at her either, though, or making any lewd comments about what she was probably being summoned for.

(She'd figured the bosses would be summoning her at some point today, but this was sooner than she'd expected.)

When they arrived at the Grille, Frost motioned her onto the lift with another finger-snap and a point, and she smiled at him as she pressed the button. He scowled, slightly, and turned away.

"Hello, Dr. Bridgeman," said Day, when the lift juddered to a halt at the level of their quarters. He was sitting at the large wooden table they'd eaten at the night before, which he must have dragged back in here, along with three chairs, and painstakingly disassembling a rifle to its constituent components. Mackenzie thought he found that activity relaxing; he used the components to modify other weapons, or had them sold in the marketplace.

Night was standing at the counter that had once been the bar, when this place had functioned as a restaurant; he'd spread out a park map on it, and was poring over it. He looked up at her, saying nothing, and didn't exactly smile. Their facial expressions were pretty subtle, but she knew by now what their glad-to-see-you faces looked like.

"Hi," said Mackenzie, smiling from one to the other, waiting for further instructions.

"Sit down," said Day, pointing to one of the other chairs at his table, and as she obeyed, Night came wordlessly over and sat down in the third chair, across from Day, bringing the park map with him. Mackenzie, between them, glanced from one to the other, waiting.

They both looked at her for a bit, silently, in a way that she’d found absolutely terrifying at first, and then merely unnerving, and now didn’t mind at all. She liked being looked at, the way they looked at her; it was as if she was satisfying a need of theirs, merely by being visible and present. It didn’t make her squirm anymore; she just sat, under their regard, like a piece of art.

Finally Night said, "We spoke with units X9-21 and X6-88, last night. At length."

Mackenzie nodded, folding her hands on the table in front of her, listening.

"It appears that Ms. Bowman has developed a-- sentimental attachment-- to them both," Night continued. "That she regards them-- and us-- as her surrogate children."

Mackenzie nodded again. That was more or less what she'd said, last night, at the Mountain. The part about the children, anyway; the sentimental attachment just glowed off her at every turn.

“We are not children,” said Day.

"Her sons," said Night, correcting himself.

"We are not sons, either," said Day.

Mackenzie cocked her head. "What are you?"

They exchanged a glance with each other, across the table.

"I mean," said Mackenzie, as they looked back at her, "you're not exactly coursers any more, are you? Not by function. And I bet, back in the Institute, you never would have thought you'd eventually be raider bosses. So, you know-- maybe it's possible to-- become something. Like you became coursers. And then bosses."

"You would be in favor of our entering Ms. Bowman's service?" Day asked.

Mackenzie frowned, slightly; the question was unexpected. "Is she asking you to enter her service?"

They were quiet for a moment, before Night said, "No. She asked nothing of us, other than our cooperation in her plan to take the parks and destroy the collars. But I think she-- invites us-- into her service. At any rate, X9-21 seemed eager to extend that invitation."

"We owe her our respect," said Day, "since she has contracted an alliance with the Institute remnant in the Commonwealth. But not our-- allegiance."

Mackenzie nodded. "Well, I mean. Allegiance isn't something somebody can just show up and demand. It's something somebody has to earn, right?"

They exchanged another glance, then looked back at her, saying nothing. At first she'd thought they were dismissing what she'd said altogether when they did that, but then, sometimes, days or even weeks later, they'd bring it up again, tell her what answer they'd come up with. Mackenzie's theory, now, was that they did it when they felt like they needed to give more thought to something she'd said, before either arguing or agreeing with it, but didn't want to halt the conversation to do so. The nonverbal equivalent of Let's put a pin in that for right now.

She continued, "I guess what I'd be in favor of is you two giving Ms. Bowman a chance. To get to know her better. Find out what kind of-- mother-- she might be. What it might look like, to be her son."

"Why?" Night asked, his black eyes laser-focused on her.

"Well--" It still took some courage-- even now that she knew they wouldn't do anything worse to her than dismiss her back to the clinic because they didn't feel like talking any more-- to be completely honest. Not about herself, but about them.

But she had courage. She braced her hands slightly on the table. They were waiting.

"See," she said. "I thought-- until yesterday-- that this was just, sort of, how you guys were? Never really smiling, or-- getting excited about anything. I thought maybe it was the way you were-- created. Or the way you were trained. But Michael, he's-- the same as you. Made the same, right? And trained the same? And the way he smiles--"

Not just the smiles, although they'd been startling enough. The tenderness with which he'd touched-- and kissed-- Danse. And Mackenzie had wakened this morning-- she was a light sleeper-- when Michael and X6-88 came back in, in time to watch Michael lay a reverent hand on the sleeping Nora's back, wakening her, and then gather her up for a tight, long hug.

"Now I think," she resumed, "that maybe you guys aren't happy. Not as happy as you could be. As you-- should be."

"We're not designed for happiness," said Day.

Mackenzie shook her head, frowning. "Day, boss, anything with a capacity for happiness is designed for happiness."

The silence, after that, stretched so long that Mackenzie let her mind wander a bit, to the last letter she'd gotten from home. It was a kindness Day and Night had done her, after they'd offered to set her free, send her back to her settlement, and she'd said no: they'd commissioned a trader who passed by the settlement to take a letter from her, and bring one back. The correspondence was patchy-- traders' routes and schedules were a bit unreliable-- but Mackenzie cherished it: news of how the crops were doing, the occasional birth or wedding or death, the weather. The last letter had said Olivia Green had finally proposed to Ruthie Fieldstein, and the whole settlement had helped build the two of them a house, and even decorate it a bit, with wreaths of fever blossom and dried seed corn, for luck, and prosperity.

Night said, breaking the silence, "Are you happy, Dr. Bridgeman?"

"Yes," Mackenzie answered immediately; she hadn't exactly expected the question, but she'd given the matter a lot of thought, anyway.

"What makes you happy?" Night asked.

"Feeling useful," Mackenzie answered; she'd given this a lot of thought, too. "Like I have a purpose. An important one. Feeling like I'm accomplishing something. Feeling valued, for who I am." She glanced between them. "And, I mean. Maybe it’s different for you guys?”

They didn’t answer.

She said, “But-- well, you guys are definitely accomplishing something, here. Running Nuka Town. Something important. And you’ve done really well, you know I think that. But--" She wished she dared reach out and put her hands over theirs, squeeze them reassuringly, as she continued, "Your-- the Institute humans, they-- dismissed you, right? That had to hurt. The people who knew you best-- who you'd worked hardest for-- and they just, sent you away. Like you didn't matter any more."

"They had no further need of us," said Day. "Once the Institute was destroyed."

Mackenzie said-- she'd wondered it before, but never asked-- "Do you miss the Institute?"

They looked at each other again.

After a long moment, Night looked down at the park map, as if consulting it, and said, "She looks like him."

"She's his mother," said Day. "She shares half his DNA. Of course she looks like him."

"Does she remind you of him in other ways?" Mackenzie asked.

"Yes," said Night, looking back up at her.

Day said, "No."

"She's fierce," said Night. "Visionary. She plans how to shape the world to her vision."

"She's sentimental," said Day. "Weak. She agreed to negotiate with us, even though she had no need to do so."

Mackenzie said, "You would have respected her more if she'd attacked?"

There was a short silence, which Mackenzie broke herself, saying, "I don't think being-- caring-- is the same thing as being weak. She cares about you guys, right? That’s why she didn’t attack."

"Father was destroyed by his weakness for her," said Day. "By his own sentiment. He should never have trusted her."

Night said, “Or he should have trusted her more.” He looked from Day to Mackenzie. “That’s what X9-21 said, last night. That if he had listened to her, he would have understood the errors he had committed, in pursuing his vision. That he was unhappy, in his last days, because he understood that something had gone wrong. That he understood it enough to reach out for her, but not enough to-- change. In the end.”

Mackenzie nodded, looked at Day, whose face was a blank, the utterly expressionless face they so rarely wore any more, when it was just them and her.

“She’s transformed the Commonwealth,” said Night to Mackenzie. “Made it better.”

Mackenzie nodded again. “Seems like it.”

“She’ll return here, if she successfully conquers the first park, to claim her seven collars,” said Day, briskly, in the tone Mackenzie knew preceded a dismissal, “and then again, after each successive park. We’ll have ample opportunity to consider her position, and-- understand what she offers. As you say, Dr. Bridgeman. Thank you for your input, and for your time. You may return to your duties.”

“May I ask you one more thing, before I go?” Mackenzie asked, not moving. It was mostly a rhetorical question-- neither of them had ever said no, when she asked to say more or stay longer-- but of course they might.

“You may, Dr. Bridgeman,” Day answered.

“Why don’t you call Michael by his name?” asked Mackenzie. “Why do you keep saying X9-21?”

They looked at each other, and then back at her, and Night said, slowly, “A matter of habit?”

“That’s his proper designation,” said Day.

“But you two don’t go by your designations any more,” Mackenzie pointed out. “Everybody calls you Night and Day.”

“The humans do,” said Day.

Night said, “He did, too. X9-21. Michael. When we spoke privately.”

“But-- wait, sorry,” said Mackenzie, struck by a sudden new thought. “If I can ask one more thing-- which do you prefer? I mean-- do you miss being called by your designations? We picked your names because the raiders couldn’t be bothered to learn your designations, right? Am I just being lazy, too, to use words that are familiar to me, instead of the designations that mean you?”

Day-- or V4-54-- stood up, so abruptly that Mackenzie jumped, and said, “Thank you again for your time, Dr. Bridgeman. Please return to your duties.”

Mackenzie rose immediately, too, and so did Night; she started to head for the lift, nervous of pushing any further than she already had, and Night, unexpectedly, laid a hand lightly on her shoulder. She stopped and looked up at him, at his mahogany-brown skin and black eyes, waiting.

“Thank you,” he said. “We value you very much.”

She smiled, and answered, “Thank you for saying so.”

She wished she could hug him, but instead she said, a little daringly, “I value you too.” She looked over her shoulder at Day, who was standing very still, blank-faced again. “Both of you.”

Night squeezed her shoulder, very slightly, before he took his hand away, and when neither of them said anything else, she headed for the lift, and pressed the button, without glancing back again.

Chapter Text

“So I guess we’ll have to try and get the power cut back on, too,” said Ms. Bowman, trying to cram another full soda bottle into her already overstuffed pack. They had scavenged bottles of it throughout the park (and discovered a recipe, about which Sierra Petrovita was unreasonably excited) and were carrying most of them back to Nuka Town. “And we’ll have to look around for more of the star cores, because I’ll be damned if we’re not getting you that fancy power armor, Danse.”

The power armor was still locked behind its glass case, despite the nearly thirty star cores that glowed from the mainframe all around them, that X6-88 and Michael and Danse had fought their way through considerable danger and discomfort to bring back to Ms. Bowman.

“Mother, you’re going to break the zipper,” said Michael. “Give me that.”

She handed him the bottle, and he put it in one of the pouches he wore at his waist, attached to his chest armor.

X6-88 had never considered abandoning his uniform voluntarily-- had pitied X9-21 fiercely when he was stripped of his-- but there was no denying that the clothing Michael now wore suited him, and that he seemed to move more easily in it than he had in his uniform.

It had been odd enough to see the other coursers again-- the one at University Point, the ones at Poseidon-- wearing the uniforms that were fading and fraying, just as his own was, no matter how carefully he tried to keep it. Seeing X2-71 and V4-54 ruling a raider settlement in those same uniforms made X6-88 feel extremely peculiar. Were Day and Night besmirching the honor of their uniform? If so, was X6-88 compromising the integrity of his, too, by wearing it to fight alongside a ghoul, a disgraced courser, a runaway synth, and Nora Bowman?

He didn’t feel ashamed, though; he felt-- itchy, a little, and a little hot, as if the uniform had become too small, or overly heavy.

It wasn’t only the uniform that felt uncomfortable; he disliked, somehow, Sierra Petrovita’s open, intense longing for soda, and for the sight of the parks. Her sure knowledge of what it was she wanted, her willingness to ask-- even plead-- for it, and her unabashed joy and gratitude when she received it, made X6-88 profoundly uncomfortable. It was like watching a child play with a loaded weapon. He wanted to warn her that it wasn't safe.

Only it was safe, wasn’t it? She was safe. She’d been adopted by Nora Bowman. Embraced by that all-encompassing generosity.

Ms. Bowman looked up just then, caught his glance, and her relaxed expression turned abruptly into one of dismay. He tried to smooth his own expression out-- what had he been looking like, what had he let show, that she was so upset, that she was saying-- drawing general attention to him-- “X6, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, ma’am,” he said, furious with himself for letting his control slip, even when no one was looking. He shouldn’t have upset her. He was supposed to be proving himself, on this trip. Showing her how well he could perform. Better this time, than when he’d been assigned to her before, and proved so unsatisfactory.

(But what had he done wrong, then? He still didn’t know. Spoken too freely, of his feelings about her precious Commonwealth, her precious settlers, her precious ghoul paramour-- but everyone else was allowed to speak freely around her. Day and Night had her precious humans in shock collars, were raider bosses, and she was still showing them forbearance, still apparently hoping to make peace with them. How had X6-88 offended her so thoroughly that she’d sent him away? Why didn’t he know, still?)

“Are you injured?” she asked, coming closer, her whole face bright and sweet with tenderness and concern, and he felt it again, the tightness in his chest, the swelling in his throat, the wet heat in his eyes. It had merely threatened before; this time it introduced itself with such force that he couldn't help but understand what was happening. He was about to cry.

No. No. Unacceptable.

“No,” he said, too harshly, and, as her soft, open face swirled into hurt and bewilderment, “Leave me alone.”

She opened her mouth, as if to speak, but then just stood, staring at him, until Michael came up beside her and took her arm, and she let him steer her, turn her away from X6-88, saying, “Let’s be on our way, ma’am. We’re all tired.”

Hancock fell into step with his wife, as they walked out of the glass enclosure of the mainframe and towards the park exit. Danse, in his noisy, cumbersome power armor, tried to sidle up beside his lover, leaving X6-88 to bring up the rear with Sierra Petrovita, who peered up at him through her lunatic sunglasses, but said nothing.

X6-88 resented her peering. Resented Michael’s intercession on his behalf-- what business was it of his, handling the situation, since when was he tactful? Resented the backs turned to him, even though he had resented the attention he’d been receiving, a moment before. Resented Ms. Bowman’s forbearance-- why hadn’t she reprimanded him for his insolence? Didn’t she even care enough to correct his behavior?

Obviously not, or she wouldn’t have dismissed him with no explanation, years before.

Why was he feeling so unsettled? So upset? He’d just completed an assignment satisfactorily, alongside Michael and Danse, and been praised for it. He should have felt pleasantly tired and pleased with himself, and that he’d earned the homeward journey, and the evening meal and rest that would be waiting in Nuka Town. He tried to feel all those things, tried to take pleasure in the memory of efficient violence and of praise, to visualize the quiet that would come after almost everyone was asleep, but there was no satisfaction in any of it. He didn’t want to see Day and Night again. He didn’t want to talk to Michael. He wanted to be alone, to sort out-- everything.

As if any amount of sorting out would make sense of Nora Bowman’s whims. The scientists had been right. She was mentally deranged. He should never have come here with her. He should have gone to Poseidon, where things were orderly, where he understood his place.

A few minutes after they’d left the park, Michael fell back from the others and waited for X6-88 to catch up to him. Sierra trotted wordlessly to catch up with the other three, inserting herself between Ms. Bowman and Danse. Ms. Bowman said something to her, and she answered briefly, beginning a conversation.

Michael didn’t say anything for some time, as they walked side by side, but after a few more minutes of silence, he finally said, “Whatever it is, you can talk to her about it.”

“Thank you for your advice,” said X6-88 coolly, hoping to discourage further conversation.

“I do advise you to confide in either her or me,” Michael said. “You are obviously unsettled enough to compromise your functioning.”

X6-88 was aware that his jaw had tightened; he tried to unclench it. “There is nothing wrong with my functioning.”

“Our functioning as a team, then,” said Michael.

“I am perfectly capable of obeying orders, regardless of my--” X6-88 hesitated before even using such an unsavory term as emotional state. “Regardless of what I do or do not choose to confide.

“I’m not questioning your ability to obey,” said Michael. “But her functioning as an effective leader will be compromised by your distress.”

“I am not in distress.”

“X6-88,” said Michael, mildly.

His jaw clenched again. All his muscles felt taut; he was being flooded with adrenaline, as if at the outset of a fight, but there was nothing to fight. He couldn’t fight Michael. He certainly couldn’t fight Ms. Bowman.

“Perhaps I should backtrack, and scout ahead to the next park,” he said, raising his voice slightly, enough to be heard by those ahead. “While the rest of you return to Nuka Town. I’m not at all tired, and I’m sure I can forage some food for myself if necessary. I can clear a few hostiles, scout out the possible dangers, and wait for you at the gates in the morning to give you my report.”

Ms. Bowman stopped, and turned-- the rest of the party halted around her-- and looked at him, and then at Michael, and said, “I’m having Far Harbor deja vu.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, ma’am,” said Michael, as if it were any of his business. “Certainly X6-88 shouldn’t go alone. And as we discussed before, in foreign territory, it isn’t particularly wise to split our party.”

Yes, one wouldn’t want you to have to be separated from Danse for five minutes.

“OK,” said Ms. Bowman. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. You four go on ahead. Me and X6 are gonna stay back a little so we can talk. If you get to Nuka Town before us, just wait for us at the marketplace. Once we catch up, we can report in to Night and Day.”

X6-88 said nothing.

Michael turned, and walked away, the traitor, and Danse followed him; Sierra followed Danse. Hancock lingered a moment longer, but he finally turned, too, and followed the others back towards Nuka town, while X6-88 stood still, looking at Ms. Bowman, while she looked back at him.

She waited until they were fairly far ahead before she said, folding her arms in front of her, “What’s up, X6?”

He stared back at her, waiting. If she wanted to reprimand him, that was her job. It wasn’t his job to help her. As far as he knew, he’d done nothing wrong. He’d successfully completed one task, and volunteered for another. He’d inadvertently had a facial expression. If she had a problem with facial expressions, she should be reprimanding Michael, and Danse, not him.

“Please,” she said, and swallowed, her own face quite expressive of apprehension. “I thought-- I thought things were going OK. If they’re not, I need to know what I fucked up. Did I say something, or-- did someone else say something--?”

“You’re afraid?” he asked, and felt his lip curl, just a little. It was so intensely satisfying that he didn’t even try to control it, this time.

She blinked at him. “I-- yeah. Yeah. I’m-- worried, yeah.”

“That things aren’t going well?”

She nodded, biting her lower lip, eyes fastened on him.

“You’re afraid I’ll decide against coming home with you?” he asked. “That things aren’t working out? That we just aren’t getting along? That we don’t have a lot in common?”

“Oh,” she said, softly.

So at least she remembered her own words to him. He hadn’t been sure she would.

“X6--” She swallowed again. “I’m-- you know I’m sorry, don’t you? I’m so sorry. It was-- it was an awful mistake. I was-- confused, and--”

"And you dismissed me," said X6-88. "You sent me away.”

She nodded again, folding her arms more tightly, as if in self-protection, looking up at him pleadingly. With those eyes.

“Father charged me with your care,” he said. “He chose me. And you didn't-- you didn't even give me a chance, to correct my behavior, you sent me back to him and I had to tell him you were-- dissatisfied, with me, and I didn't even know why--"

The heat and restrictiveness of his uniform, the tightness of his muscles, the itchy discomfort of everything, the disproportionate irritation with everything, coalesced suddenly, and he understood that he was angry. Furious, hot all over with it, with the injustice of it, how dare she, how dare she come fawning back to him talking about mistakes she'd made, about making it up to him, about understanding now-- now that she had X9-21, her precious Michael--

She was saying, “X6, I was-- I was wrong, I--”

"You accepted X9-21," he said, and the heat was pouring out of his eyes, the tightness of his chest and the swelling in his throat uncoiling in hard spasms like death throes, in-- sobs, he was crying, the thing humans did, and pathetic, untrained, undisciplined synths, and it felt good, the release, like the words that were pouring out of him, finally-- "He attacked your Castle, and you took him in, you let him stay with you. You learned to understand him. You gave him a chance. You gave him every chance. And now Day and Night, too. You stay with them, you try so hard-- Why not me? Why wasn't it me? Why didn't you let me stay?"

She was crying, too, silently, tears pouring down her face, but she was standing straight and still, her wet face almost expressionless, her eyes slightly downcast. Like a courser, accepting a reprimand.

"I could have done better," he said, and took off his sunglasses, because the lenses were fogging up, with the steam from his tears, and he wanted to look at her. "You could have helped me. Helped me understand. You didn't care to. You turned your back on me, you-- betrayed me, the same way you betrayed him--"

She knelt, slowly, as if crumpling under a weight that had grown too heavy to bear, supporting herself on her hands, on the dusty ground, in a pose of supplication, or surrender. Head hanging down.

He looked down at her, at her huddled shoulders that shook with silent sobs, as if she dared not cry out loud, and glanced ahead, to the diminishing figures of the others. None of them had turned around, or stopped walking, and she hadn’t called out to them, when she understood how angry he was, hadn’t called them back, or hurried to catch up, turning her back on him again. She hadn't dismissed him, or ordered him to silence. She’d let him speak, although his anger, or her own shame at it, had almost literally knocked her down.

Nothing had changed, of course-- what could change, about the past?-- and she'd given him no answer-- as if there could be a satisfactory answer; what could she have said, but I'm sorry again, and again and again, as if that meant anything. And yet he felt less angry, as if the tears, or the outpouring of words, had washed some of the rage out of him, leaving him tired and shaky.

And it wasn't right-- no matter how right he was, about everything else-- that she should be kneeling before him.

He put his sunglasses in his pocket, stepped forward, sat down on the ground beside her, and put his hand on her back, just for a moment.

She jumped and gasped as if he'd struck her-- or shocked her-- but then she lifted her head, her eyes red and swollen, searching his face with a feverish mixture of hope and fear that almost made him feel ashamed of his tirade. Poor woman, poor human, undisciplined and undefended, so pummeled by his anger.

"You owe me," he said-- still angry, although the force of it had abated; the justice of his anger hadn't gone anywhere-- and she nodded, immediately and energetically. "You owe me a home."

She nodded again, swallowed, cleared her throat as if to speak, but then didn't speak after all. Her eyes were Father's eyes, if Father had ever wept. If X6-88 had ever been allowed to see him weep.

"So I will stay with you," he said, his words measured, as if he were meting out sentence, for her guilt. "I will fight at your side, to help you take the parks, and when we've finished here, whatever happens, I will come home with you, and stay. Because it is my home, too. And you won't send me away again. You did before, when you should have been patient. And so, now, you'll help me. You won't send me away. You dare not. You owe me."

She was nodding and nodding, smiling now, tremulous, her eyes wide, still sparkling with tears.

"Yes," she managed now, "yes, X6, thank you, please--"

He took her in his arms, because she owed him that, too, all the hugs she'd been giving Emily and Michael and the other half-dozen synths (and humans, too, like that wretched Railroad agent) she'd adopted and offered her love and her home to before bothering to come for him, who should have been first of all, and she clung to him as if he were her only hope, her fists clenching in the fabric of his uniform, trembling and sniffling, poor anguished thing. His poor, wayward mother.

Chapter Text

Danse had almost forgotten the exhilaration of fighting well, of losing himself in combat, letting trained reflexes, practice-honed moves and the heightened senses of battle take over so that one was almost in an altered state of consciousness. He'd been a little nervous (as well as flattered) when Michael suggested he take point-- he'd been a soldier, yes, but that had been a long time ago, and Michael and X6-88 had been coursers, whose training made his Brotherhood training look soft and inadequate by comparison-- but he hadn't done badly. He had done well.

He thought. Nora had said so. And they'd accomplished their mission, without loss of life or limb or property, secured the park. He'd have to speak with Michael later about what they could have done better; Michael would understand a tactical conversation of that sort, surely.

(Of the sort Danse had tried to have once with Nora, after their first mission together, that had seemed to abruptly sour her mood and disincline her to speak with him further. He couldn't bear to think for too long of how badly he'd bungled that conversation, how differently things might have gone if he'd done better.)

He hadn't really been aware of hoping for an approving word from X6-88 until it had become clear that X6-88 had something on his mind, and Nora had sent the rest of them ahead so that she could speak with him alone.

"Look," said Hancock to Michael, as they walked, breaking the silence with his rusty ghoul-voice. "Don't take offense. I know he's your buddy. But she's my wife."

"I do not take offense," said Michael, turning to look at Hancock. "I understand your concern. He was clearly angry. But, angry or not, he would die in her defense if necessary."

Hancock said, "I know you would."

"Then you must know I would never have agreed to leave them alone together, if I had the slightest fear that X6-88 would allow her to come to harm," said Michael.

"OK," said Hancock.

"What was he angry about?" Sierra Petrovita asked, a little breathlessly; their collective pace had quickened, and she was trotting to keep up. "Why was he angry at her?"

Michael slowed, slightly, deliberately-- Danse and Hancock matching his pace-- and said to Sierra, "For nothing that need concern you, Sierra."

It might have sounded brusque, even hostile, but it was spoken in the tone of grave, gentle courtesy Michael habitually used towards the ex-Institute humans, and Sierra seemed to take it, not as a reproof, but as a reassurance. She nodded, and said, "OK. Thank you."

Then no one else said anything, each thinking their own thoughts, no one looking back.

 

...........................................................................

 

When their party arrived at Nuka Town, there were a few raiders milling around, who stared, but no one spoke to them as they approached the walled-off marketplace and Hancock pulled open the door.

To Danse's startlement, as he looked in over Hancock's shoulder, the place seemed deserted; none of the slaves were there, only a few black-armored raiders.

“Where’s the doc?” Hancock asked one of them, who answered, civilly, “Dinner. At the Mountain.”

“I guess it is dinnertime,” said Hancock, looking around the deserted market, and then stepping back out and closing its door behind him. They all glanced back the way they'd come; no sign of Nora and X6-88.

Hancock looked at Michael. “What do you think? Should we go back and check on them, or--”

Michael shook his head.

"I think at least one of us should go to the Mountain, to report our success to Dr. Bridgeman, and at least one of us should wait here for my mother and X6-88," he said. "I'll stay here."

"You're not hungry?"

"Not particularly," said Michael.

"Neither am I," Danse lied, and pressed the release to exit his power armor, stepping back out of it and to Michael's side.

"I am," said Sierra.

"Sierra and me will go check in with the doc, then," said Hancock. "What time do you get worried and go back to check on them?"

"When it begins to get dark," said Michael. "If they're absorbed in conversation, that should be the point at which they realize they've stayed out too long, and it's also the point at which they might need backup."

Hancock nodded. "OK, son. See you in a bit. Good work today."

"Thank you," said Michael. "You, too."

When Hancock and Sierra were gone, Michael sat down on the clean-swept concrete, his back against the wall that enclosed the marketplace, and Danse sat down beside him, a bit heavily; he was exhausted as well as hungry. Michael took his hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss to Danse's knuckles that sent a mild electric thrill through his tired body. A passing face-painted raider stared openly at them.

"You fought very well, today," Michael told him, and Danse forgot about the raider, and any other raiders who might be wandering by. "I'm glad you agreed to take point. It's a pleasure to fight at your side."

"Likewise," said Danse, feeling more nourished by the praise than he would have by the meal he was missing. "And with X6-88, too. We made quite an effective team, I thought."

Michael smiled at him, and Danse drank in the smile. Over the course of their acquaintanceship, Michael, once habitually grave, had gradually begun to smile more frequently, and more freely; Danse dared to think that he, himself, had something to do with that. X6-88, too, of course. And Nora, whom Michael adored. And his several beloved brothers and sisters, and even Hancock, with whom he had a quiet rapport that Danse didn't really understand. But Danse, too.

"We did," Michael answered, and added, "How would you have been rewarded, once, for excellent performance?"

Michael had taken to asking these questions, sometimes-- questions about the Brotherhood, the good days of it, when Danse had been an aspirant, and then a knight, and then a paladin. No one else asked these questions, or spoke of those days-- it was something of a sore subject with Nora, of course, and with most of the synths, who knew the Brotherhood had been pledged to eradicate their kind. But Michael was interested, in the commonalities between a knight's life and a courser's as well as the differences, in the training and conditioning they'd both undergone, in the ideals in whose service they would both once have considered it an honor to die.

"Excellent performance was expected of a paladin," he answered. "For exceptional performance, Elder Maxson might have given me some-- official commendation." He hesitated to speak of the less official commendation that meant so much more, the not-quite-smile-- Elder Maxson almost never actually smiled-- that would soften those grim features. As if Danse, by doing so well, by being a reliably excellent and occasionally exceptional paladin in his service, could relieve him of some of the burdens of his vast responsibilities. As if Danse were, not only a resource, but a pleasure to him.

Michael was watching him, saying nothing, but attentive, as if he could read Danse's thoughts as they passed over his face. Danse felt himself go a little hot at the thought, ducked his head as if to hide. Changed the subject.

"Nora and X6-88 are taking a long time," he said, looking up at the sky. Not dark yet.

Michael's thumb stroked Danse's hand, that he was still holding. "Yes. If X6-88 is ready, I imagine they have a great deal to discuss."

"Nothing that need concern me," Danse suggested, wryly, and Michael grinned at him, the quick, almost startled, crooked grin that sometimes made Danse feel, for the first time in his life, witty.

Then Michael sobered, as he answered, "But it does concern you. After all, you have many of the same reasons that X6-88 does, to be angry with her."

"Me?" Danse was shocked, and a little alarmed. “To be-- How could I be angry with her? I'm-- grateful, more than grateful, she's been-- more than gracious--"

"I know," said Michael. "But she destroyed your Brotherhood."

"It was never mine," said Danse, quickly, feeling as if he ought to defend himself from the statement, from the emotion Michael was attributing to him. His free hand moved up in a gesture he'd once made often, compulsively, and now did so seldom that he was surprised to touch soft cloth instead of the scar his fingers had been seeking. He slipped his finger up under the bandana, to feel the skin, the places where the texture changed. He hadn't seen it often-- they'd held him in front of a mirror when it was first done, but it wasn't as if he'd been spending much time gazing into mirrors since then-- but he knew its contours, with his fingertips, by heart. "Not really."

"Yours enough that even after years of abuse and torment, you begged her not to annihilate it," said Michael. "Yours to defend and save, even in your own worst extremity. You loved the Brotherhood, as X6-88 and I loved the Institute. And she destroyed both. Our home, and the cause to which our lives were dedicated. And our--" He hesitated. "Our Father. Her son."

Danse watched his face, the dark eyes. These were dangerous topics, but Michael held fast to his hand.

"He was already very ill," said Michael. "The doctors said he had only weeks to live, if that. He had already resigned as our leader. So it may not be entirely fair to feel that she took him from us. But it was-- hard, for us. The destruction of everything he had built, and the loss of him, in one fell swoop. We loved him, we coursers."

Danse nodded again, wondering what memories he had once had, himself, of the man Michael called Father. It was surreal to think that, when he met Nora for the first time, when she was frantic to find her son, he had already known that same son. Been created by him, ruled by him, rebelled against that rule and fled from it. And remembered nothing.

He wondered, and then asked, daringly, hoping Michael wouldn't think he was questioning his loyalty, "Are you angry with her? For destroying the Institute? And-- him?"

Michael seemed to consider that for a moment, eyes fixed on nothing in particular.

"She said to me, once, that we-- she and I-- were lucky to have met the way we did," he said finally. "She said that after the first thing I did was spit at her face, we had 'nowhere to go but up.'"

"You did what?"

"I hated her," said Michael. "With all my heart. Before I knew her. X6-88 wasn't so fortunate. He knew her first. It's more complicated for him." He looked back at Danse, and squeezed his hand. "It's difficult to know how to-- express-- that kind of emotion, to someone who-- whose good opinion-- whose approval-- one values. Especially for us, who have been trained to unquestioning obedience to those we serve. Were you ever angry with a superior officer, in the Brotherhood?"

What leaped to his mind wasn't an answer to Michael's question, exactly. He thought, instead, of the night he'd given Haylen the order to end their wounded comrade's suffering. Her obedience, despite her obvious desire to keep fighting for the dying knight's life, and then the way she'd wept against his chest, to his shock, and somewhat to his terror. He hadn't known what to do, except hold her, and she'd never said anything, then or later. He still didn't know if he'd helped or hurt her, by his silence, and he could never ask, now.

He looked at the sky again, wondering when it would be dark enough that Michael would want to go looking, but before he could say anything, Michael said, gladness in his voice, "There they are."

There they were, rounding the corner from the archway; Michael scrambled to his feet, pulling Danse up with him.

At first, sinking glance, Danse thought Nora was injured-- she was clinging to X6-88's arm with both hands-- but as they came closer, he saw that she wasn't leaning on him with any weight, only holding onto him, like a nervous, giddy young bride. X6-88 looked impassive as always, but his arm was bent at the elbow and slightly extended towards her, and for the first time since Danse had met him, he wasn't wearing his sunglasses. As they came up to Michael and Danse, Danse could see, further, that Nora’s face was puffy, her eyes swollen and red.

"Sorry," she said, her voice thick with recent tears. "I'm sorry we took so long, I hope you weren't worried. Where's Hancock?"

"At the Mountain, eating with the slaves," said Michael, glancing between X6-88 and Nora.

"You boys didn't have to wait up," said Nora. "Let's all go see if there's any food left for us. And then we have to go see Day and Night, and get those collars. And we have to go to the market.” She smiled, suddenly, radiantly. “To buy X6-88 new clothes.”

“There's no great hurry, ma’am,” X6-88 said, as she began moving towards the Mountain, tugging him gently along by the arm she held.

"New clothes?" Michael demanded of X6-88, sounding as shocked as Danse had ever heard him; he hadn’t moved. "You're relinquishing your uniform?"

X6-88 stopped, stopping Nora, too, and regarded Michael for a moment in silence before asking, "Would you still be wearing yours?"

"I--" Michael hesitated, staring at X6-88, still with shock. "I don't know, I-- You never disgraced yours."

X8-88 looked at him, and then stepped forward, pulling away from Nora, who let his arm go reluctantly, till he stood almost toe to toe with Michael; Michael dropped Danse's hand, standing still to meet X6-88, and Danse stepped back slightly. X6-88's eyes weren't dark, as Danse had assumed they would be from the darkness of his skin, but steel blue, clear and striking above his high cheekbones. Michael stood still as a stone, his own dark eyes fastened on X6-88's face.

"I know now that it should have been me," X6-88 said, holding Michael's gaze. "I should have been the one to go to her, on our behalf, after the destruction of the Institute. If not immediately, then when our need became so great. It would have been-- so much simpler. She knew me. If I had come to her, asking for help--"

"It's my fault," said Nora, behind him. "I hurt you-- I didn't even know how badly, I'm so fucking-- stupid, and careless, and cruel, of course you didn't trust me, of course you didn't think you could come to me, if I hadn’t fucked everything up with you in the--"

"Hush,” said X6-88 to her, not ungently, and she hushed immediately, staring up at him like a puppy that wasn’t sure how much trouble it was in. He turned back to Michael. "The task they blamed you for failing should never have fallen to you in the first place."

“X6-88, you need not--” Michael lowered his eyes, slightly, averting them from X6-88's gaze. “You’re-- kind, to say so. But I did fail. Signally. I don’t-- regret it, not now-- but I did fail, and I deserved--”

X6-88 lifted his arms and placed his hands on Michael’s shoulders; Michael fell silent, his eyes darting back up to X6-88's face.

“I failed a mission too,” said X6-88. “In retrospect, the most vital mission in the Institute’s history. Father chose me to accompany his mother to the surface, where he dared not go himself, and win her to our side. And when I failed, he did not take my uniform. He was disappointed, but I was still his courser.”

Michael was watching him as he spoke, intently, not glancing aside at Nora, even when X6-88 mentioned her.

X6-88 continued, steadily, “You showed courage, and devotion, and resourcefulness in captivity, and you ended by doing what I had failed to do, and winning her favor. They had no right to take your uniform. Father gave it to you, and he, he would have been proud of you."

Michael blinked, and Danse saw what he had never seen before: tears, spilling from Michael's eyes, and down his otherwise expressionless face.

X6-88 saw them, too, and he stepped forward again and put his arms around Michael, who lurched and almost fell against him, his arms lifting wildly as if for balance, before he wrapped them around X6-88 in return.

Danse looked at Nora-- Michael, crying! Had she seen this before?-- and saw fresh tears spilling down her face, too. She looked-- shattered, undone, broken open, with too much emotion, and he thought, irresistibly, of the last time he'd seen her cry like this. At the Castle, on top of the wall, when she'd confessed to him that she'd destroyed the Prydwyn with all souls, and he'd--

--he hadn't forgiven her, no, although he also hadn't not-forgiven her, hadn't been conscious of holding onto anger, or bitterness. It hadn't really occurred to him, at the time, that he could do either. That, as Michael said, he had reason to be angry. He'd still been so bewildered, had barely relearned how to say I instead of it, barely begun to think of himself as anything other than a thing conditioned for radically different service than what now seemed required, Nora's dubiously valuable spoils of war.

So the words he had spoken hadn't been words of forgiveness, or of non-forgiveness. Only of simple truth: that he didn't hate her, wouldn't hurt her if he could. And he'd touched her, because she seemed to be breaking apart, and he knew how that felt, and even in the wild, incomprehensible tangle of emotions between them--

(she was his "mother," he was her property, she was Railroad, he was a synth who still loved the Brotherhood, she'd been tortured by his owners, he'd touched her naked body, she was merciful, he was grateful, she was horrified by everything he said and every way he had been taught to behave, he was bewildered by everything she said and everything she wanted of him, absolutely nothing made sense)

--he'd spoken gently, and touched her, and it had somehow, miraculously, amid all the wrong things he couldn't stop doing, been the right thing, even as she broke open further, into sobs that had brought her family running, nearly frightening the life out of M7-97. Danse.

She looked at him now, catching him staring, and he didn't drop his gaze, feeling curiously devoid of the shyness that usually gripped him when she looked him in the face. When anyone but Michael looked him in the face.

They looked at each other for a long moment, until Michael and X6-88 broke apart, Michael wiping clumsily at his tears with his hand, and Danse stepped back to his side, and X6-88 said, as if nothing in particular had happened, “But yes, ma'am, we should go to the Mountain. I think we are all hungry.”

Chapter Text

Dinner, in the Mountain, was always a bit of a light show. Maybe some of the slaves were used enough to the sight of the collars' red lights blinking on and off, in slow, relentless synchronization, that they didn't notice it. But Lauren did. She never stopped noticing.

When the shock collars went on everyone else, she'd kicked up enough of a fuss that the then-boss had rolled his eyes and shrugged. She was an old lady, after all. Wasn't going anywhere. Why bother forcing the issue.

Day and Night had bothered. They weren't impressed by her feistiness.

So she'd worn the collar, her faulty ticker going a little too fast all the time just from the knowledge that it was on, that if she pissed off a raider, or strayed too far out of bounds--

She didn't know whether the shock would actually kill her, of course, but she didn't think it'd be good for her heart.

Then she'd wondered enough that she'd asked young Bridgeman. Who was the doctor, after all. It seemed good to know.

Bridgeman had put her stethoscope to Lauren's chest, and felt her pulse, and listened to her breathe, and looked serious, and agreed that Lauren should try not to piss off the raiders while she was wearing the collar.

And then Bridgeman had made whatever arrangements she did make with the bosses-- Lauren didn't want to know, didn't listen to coarse talk--

--and Night had come to the cafe, and taken the collar back off her.

It was after that that Lauren had started thinking of Bridgeman as Mackenzie. Young Mackenzie, who did whatever she did for the good of them all. Brave girl.

Now Lauren watched everyone else's collars blink, and watched the ghoul-- Hancock of Goodneighbor, Lauren heard gossip at the cafe, she knew he was some kind of a big shot back in the Commonwealth, although not as much of a big shot as Nora Bowman--

--talking to Mackenzie. About the day he and his party had spent, taking the Galactic Zone.

Petrovita chimed in occasionally. She seemed-- well, uninjured, which was significant in and of itself, considering that she'd been taken along on a pretty dangerous mission. They'd have had to go out of their way to keep her alive, let alone actually unscathed.

Of course, they might have found her valuable enough-- what she knew about the parks-- to take care of her for that reason alone.

But Petrovita wasn't dumb, despite what a lot of people thought; she had good survival instincts, and she was quiet around the raiders these days. The way she was piping up now, breaking in on Hancock's story with rhapsodies about the park's attractions and a recipe she'd found for a nauseating-sounding soda cocktail that she just couldn't wait to try--

--and the way Hancock wasn't showing any impatience, was letting her interrupt, and even giving her what Lauren was pretty sure was his grotesque features' equivalent of a smile as she talked--

Well, it was information. Interesting information.

There were the guards to watch, too. Four of them, as usual: Frost, Elliott, Singh, and Kravitz, this evening.

They were listening to Hancock, too. Interested.

(Elliott maybe a little worried. About how quickly they'd taken the first park?)

There was also Carroll, who was sitting between Shelbie and Ben; Carroll bore watching, too. Newly enslaved raiders were always jumpy, and they usually didn't have the self-discipline to hide it, no matter how much they would have liked to. Carroll-- Lauren didn't even know her first name-- had been less aggressive than some, so far. Which Lauren guessed was understandable. The newcomers might bear a grudge, considering who'd met them off the train.

But the ghoul hadn't seemed to notice Carroll yet, or else didn't care. Too busy smiling, bragging about his stepsons.

Stepsons. Those three big, serious young men. Or, not men. Lauren still hadn't really processed what Bowman had said last night, about these fellows and Night and Day all being the same kind of-- what, robot? Could that be right?

Lauren had always heard Night and Day didn't sleep, but she'd thought it was a myth, an exaggeration of the way you couldn't ever sneak up on them.

And they were-- inhuman, yes. In a different way from most of the raiders, who, when it came down to it, were just particularly shitty humans. Humans without any decency, any basic self-control, any regard for the social contract.

Day and Night didn't seem to have much regard for other people, either-- other than Mackenzie-- but they were controlled, terrifyingly controlled, as if obedient to some different moral law than the ones Lauren knew. The ones good people followed. Good people.

Synths, Bowman had said.

And the three she'd brought with her were-- controlled, too. Watchful, and unrevealing. Especially the one dressed like the bosses, in that dark, worn coat, with the number-name Lauren couldn't remember. The other two, Michael and Danse-- well, they were clearly involved, and tender with each other in a way Lauren couldn't imagine the bosses being with anyone, no matter what their arrangements with Mackenzie. (Lauren didn't think about it, it was none of her business.) Couldn't imagine the raiders acting like that with each other, either. Raiders who were involved didn't act like that, at least not in public.

"You know," said Chip Morse, "if you're looking to get the power switched back on, I can give you directions to the old power plant. Be great to see Nuka World's lights back on."

Sierra clapped her hands with joy. "And the rides functional!"

"Sure," said Chip politely.

"That'd be great," said Hancock. "Uh, you are--"

"Chip Morse," said Chip, with a grin; he'd been campaigning to get the power back on since the days of Colter. Much good it had done either one of them.

"Nice to meetcha, Chip," said the ghoul. "I think we're gonna focus on the parks first-- get those collars off you guys-- but after that, we'll definitely chat, yeah?"

Corbett said, suddenly, belligerently, "So who gets their collar off this time around?"

Everyone turned to look at him, including Hancock, who glanced at him, sizing him up, before he said, "Deal is, we get seven at a time. And there's seven free already, right?"

"Nope," said Corbett.

Hancock turned to look at Mackenzie, who said, smiling weakly, "Um, yes. Update."

Hancock said, "Change of plans?"

His voice and demeanor said, Is someone going back on their word, because I don't take kindly to that.

Lauren was beginning to like him a bit.

"There's been another enslavement," said Mackenzie, carefully not looking at Carroll, which was useless because enough other people did that Hancock's eyes went in that direction anyway. "Since this morning. So, yeah, you get the six free collars, plus, uh, one that's not free. So--"

She trailed off.

Hancock sat for a minute taking the sight of Carroll in, and then said, "Carroll, right?"

Carroll gave a little jerk of her head, her eyes defiant and miserable above her blinking collar.

"I didn't know we were gonna have to pick somebody," Hancock said to Mackenzie. "That's, uh."

"I know," said Mackenzie. "Let's talk about it with the bosses. And your wife."

Lauren held her own hands, hard, in her lap, to keep from slamming them on the table, yelling, Bridgeman, so help me God--

Young Keith shifted beside her. He didn't speak, and he didn't reach out for her-- he wouldn't dare, any more than he'd dare speak up for himself when he was being bullied-- but she was attuned to him anyway, enough that she knew he'd moved, without turning to look.

Goddamnit. At her time of life. Getting attached. How had she been so stupid? Why hadn't she just kept her head down until she died?

Corbett was even dumber than her, though.

"Look, Mackenzie,” he said, too angrily, “it's not fair you and the bosses and these-- outsiders-- decide who goes free. We should get to weigh in. It's our lives."

"Everybody's collar's coming off soon, Aaron," said Mackenzie, in that soft voice of hers. "Look how fast they took the first park. The rest will be just as quick."

"We don't have any guarantee of that," said Corbett. "And if we only get one, we should decide who."

Shelbie said, softly too, "Calm down, Aaron."

"Why should I?" Corbett demanded, his voice gaining more force as no one stopped him. "We've sat back all this time, what has it gotten us? Now we sit back some more, while some outsiders decide who stays in a collar and who walks free? Maybe it's time we don't just sit back and--"

Frost drew his shock button, and the slaves collectively flinched.

"Aaron," said Mackenzie, quietly. "Now the end's in sight, you're getting antsy. I get that. But give it a minute, OK? Give Bowman and her guys a chance. If they don't come through for us, after we've given them a chance, then we can start talking other options."

"That's fuckin' treason talk, Bridgeman," said Elliott, and drew her gun, making everyone tense even further, and Lauren’s stupid heart go into pointless overdrive. "Just because you're the bosses' favorite fucktoy don't mean you can get away with fermentin' a slave revolution."

Mackenzie looked up at her. "I'm doing the opposite, actually. If you'd pay attention."

"Watch your fuckin' mouth, slave," said Singh, but neither he nor Elliott stepped any closer to Mackenzie.

There was a brief silence, during which the doors to the Mountain opened, and Nora Bowman, along with her three big "sons," came in.

She was holding onto Michael's hand, and had her arm looped through the one with the number-name, as if they were all going to play a little kid's skipping-and-singing game. Michael was injured, or-- no, he was-- his face was wet, and puffy--

Mackenzie had popped up from the table as soon as they came in, showing no fear of Elliott’s gun, and was hurrying forward.

She went right up to the four of them, and touched Michael, grabbed his free arm, staring up into his face with effrontery that would have gotten any other slave shocked good and hard if they'd tried it with a raider. Even Mackenzie, indulged as she was in general, didn't just go around grabbing free people's arms, staring at their faces, saying, as she was saying, in a tone of wonder and disbelief and-- what, happiness?-- "You cry?"

Then, as Michael looked down at her, she seemed to realize what she’d done, said, “Oh, I-- I’m sorry, I--” and took her hand off him, and backed up.

Michael was looking a bit dazed, but he didn't hit her or anything, which was good. Aside from Mackenzie not deserving to be hit, no one would benefit if the newcomers got themselves killed over an insult to Mackenzie's honor.

(Unless the five of them managed to kill the bosses instead, and then all the raiders, too-- that might be nice. But, as Mackenzie had pointed out before, a lot of the slaves would probably die in the process of a real violent coup. Almost certainly Lauren would. Very probably young Keith, too.)

And anyway, Mackenzie had a good point, about Michael crying. Because-- apparently-- whatever they were-- and yes, his face was wet with tears, his eyes swollen, and as he looked down at young Mackenzie, he gave her a sudden smile, crooked and strange, as if it had been startled out of him, and sweet, as if he were glad it had.

"It's OK," said Bowman, in answer to Mackenzie's apology; she was still holding onto Michael's hand. "We're having an intense evening, all around." She looked at the table, the empty dishes on it. "Oh, did we miss dinner?"

Hancock stood, and looked up and down the table, and said, "C'mere, Nor."

Bowman came forward, looking puzzled, dropping Michael's hand and the other one's arm in the process. They stood still; so did Danse, still in his power armor, the three of them watching their mother with three identically inscrutable faces as she stepped to her husband's side. Mackenzie stayed where she was, looking up, again, into Michael's face, as if an important secret might be written there.

"What's up?" Bowman asked Hancock, before glancing around quickly; Lauren saw her note the tension on the slaves' faces, the shock button in Frost's hand, the gun still in Elliott's.

"Listen, folks," said Hancock, taking his wife's hand, and glancing from face to face. "I know me and my wife are new in town. You don't know us from Adam and Eve. So I can't ask you to trust us, like the folks at home would, 'cause you don't know us like they do. We can swear by everybody we've ever loved that we'll see the collars off every one of you if it's the last thing we do in this world. That even if one of us dies' tryin', it won't stop the other one from finishin' the job. And I do swear it. You swear it, Nora?"

Bowman, who'd missed the buildup to all this, was looking more bewildered than ever, but she nodded immediately when he addressed her, looking around at the table as she answered, "Yeah, I do. I swear."

"But, shit," said Hancock. "You folks don't know anybody we've ever loved, any more than you know us. Not yet. So you got no real reason to believe us, till you see us keep our word.

"Now some of you're gettin' restless, like the doc said, because you see freedom in sight, for the first time in a long time. Just close enough to be tantalizin'. That's natural." He turned to his wife. "Nora, while we were gone, somebody else got collared. Now one person goes free tonight."

"Oh, f--" said Bowman, and cut the curse off, and glanced around again; her eyes snagged, just for a second, on Carroll. "OK. I see."

"Now, I've heard what a couple of you had to say just now," said Hancock to the table, "and I appreciate your trust, speakin' up the way you did, in front of an outsider like me. If anybody else wants to speak up now, and trusts us enough, I'm listenin', and so's she. And if anybody wants to stick their neck out further, and come with us to meet with the bosses, and make yourself heard, I'm ready to invite you on up, and promise you won't suffer for it."

Corbett, who'd had so much to say a minute ago, said nothing.

Lauren's heart was lurching into an even higher speed. But she did, sort of, maybe, trust this guy. Liked him, anyway. And his wife, too. Liked how they talked. How they looked-- not that Hancock was a picture-portrait in oils, but she liked his lipless smile, and the quality of attention in his black eyes, and she liked Bowman’s open, scarred, earnest face. And she liked how they treated Petrovita. And whatever they’d been doing with their synth-sons, to make them recognizable but-- softer-- versions of the bosses.

"I’ve got something to say," she said.

Everyone looked at her.

"Way things work around here," she said, hoping her straining heart didn't give out mid-speech. "Rules are different, for how they can treat us, and how they can treat each other. And there's no rules yet for how they can treat somebody that ain't one thing or the other. Like Petrovita. Or Mackenzie."

"Or you?" Hancock asked.

"No, not me," said Lauren, once she'd realized what he meant. "I don't wear a collar, but I'm still a slave. And that's another thing. You take a collar off somebody, that don't make 'em not a slave. You're lookin' after Petrovita. Well, you best be prepared to look after the rest of us, too. You come here and change things. You best see it through. All of it. You can’t just take our collars and then not-- look after us. It’s not enough. If you’re gonna do this, you gotta do it right. All the way."

Bowman was nodding.

"Thanks, ma’am," said Hancock, to Lauren. "You’re right, too. Makes me think, too-- I know the doc's your--" He hesitated for a second, glancing over his shoulder at Mackenzie, to where she stood still, with the three synths, and then looking back at the table. "Advocate, kinda. Keeps the peace a bit, yeah? Watches out for you folks. But she can't be up there with the bosses and down here with you at the same time, and I see one guard holdin' a button in his hand and another one holdin' a gun, and-- whatever happens now, happens on our watch. I think--" He looked at Nora, then back at the table. "Think I better stay down here, yeah? With you good folks, while the doc and the rest of 'em meet up with your bosses. Somebody's gotta-- well, be here. Keep an eye out. For the rest of you."

Danse said, from behind him, "I'll stay here."

Everyone turned to look at him, and at the other two synths.

Michael looked at him for a moment before he said to Bowman, "So will I."

Danse turned to him. "You don't have to.”

"I would prefer to," said Michael, and, to Bowman, "With your permission, ma'am. Hancock, you should attend the meeting with Night and Day. As you say, you have heard some of what these people have to say, this evening."

"Well," said Hancock. "OK."

"OK," said Bowman, and drew a deep breath, and exhaled. "OK. So me and X6-88 and Hancock, we'll go with Dr. Bridgeman, to talk to Day and Night. And Danse and Michael-- they'll stay here. Till we get back." She looked down, past her husband. “Sierra, sweetheart?”

“I’ll stay here,” said Sierra placidly.

Bowman nodded, then looked up again. "Does anyone else want to say anything? Or volunteer to come with us?"

No one said anything. Lauren felt exhausted, just from the effort of speaking up to the strangers. If she had to face Day and Night, too, she'd croak for sure.

Besides, she needed to stay with Keith. On his own, he might not have the good sense to stay out of trouble.

But maybe she was glad she hadn't just kept her head down, after all. If she lived to see the collar off Keith-- if it didn't just mean he'd be targeted immediately by raiders, without even the rules that governed slave-raider interactions now, to protect him--

--if the Mountain's light show went out, park by park, collar by collar, and didn’t just leave darkness in its wake--

Might be worth sticking around a bit longer, yeah.

"OK," said Frost, pocketing his shock button again, briskly, and clapping his hands. "Anybody that's still hungry better eat up now. Past time to clear up and get evening headcount done, or your sorry asses are gonna be dragging in the morning."

There was a whir as Danse's power armor opened and he stepped backwards out of it, and then forward towards the table, Michael following.

"Come on," said Mackenzie to Bowman and Hancock, and then glanced up at X6-88, smiling a bit. "Let's go see the bosses."

Lauren wondered, suddenly and oddly, if Mackenzie’s little smile was because she was hoping to make the bosses cry.

That might be worth sticking around to see, too.

Chapter Text

Mackenzie was shaking, a little bit, as she and the newcomers boarded the lift to the Grille. Shaking with excitement. Not fear, not really. It was going to be all right.

Well, maybe a little fear. She had the situation, as it stood, in hand. But the new situation, the new possibilities--

It had been intoxicating to imagine the same joy and tenderness on Day and Night's faces as she'd seen on Michael's. The idea of them crying was-- astonishing, and not entirely in a bad way. That kind of loss of control, though-- what else might it mean?

She didn't know, so-- yes, she was shaking. A little afraid. The way she had been in the beginning, before she'd come to understand them better. Because maybe she didn't understand them nearly as well as she'd thought. And if she didn't--

She didn't know what would happen.

 

Day and Night’s evening meal hadn’t yet been cleared away, and they courteously invited the guests to sit down; they carried the extra chairs in from the adjacent room themselves, while Mackenzie, her knees weak, sank down into the one Night had been sitting in, at one end of the table. He wouldn't mind. Or if he did, he'd tell her, and she'd move.

"They haven't eaten yet," she said to Day, who placed another chair at the side of the table, and said, "Why not?"

"The other slaves are getting restless," said Mackenzie. "Since someone goes free tonight. Yes, I know it's irrational, it's not like they're any more enslaved than they were before just because someone else gets freed, but hey, newsflash, bosses: humans are irrational."

"Sit down," said Night to the others. "I'll have more food brought up."

"How is that statement related to the question I asked?" Day asked Mackenzie, as Night went out of the room, and Nora sat down across from Mackenzie, where Day had been. Hancock and X6-88 sat down across from each other, on either side of Nora, and Day placed a chair beside X6-88, adding, to Mackenzie, "Or is the matter you mention more urgent than answering my question?"

(That kind of thing would have been terrifying, once, asked in that cool voice, but Day wasn't annoyed, just clarifying. And-- not alarmed, but checking to see if there was cause for alarm.)

Mackenzie answered, "Because I wanted this meeting to go ahead and happen, as quickly as possible. Without waiting for them to eat. It's the uncertainty that's getting everyone worked up. And the visitors being there, in the Mountain, wasn't helping. Everyone wanted to put in their two caps' worth, about who should be freed, and how fair it was."

"Where are X--" Day paused. "Where are Michael and Danse?"

Mackenzie had been known to restrain her smiles in their presence, out of deference to their habitually dispassionate manner, but this one she didn't even try to damp down. Day had been the one who'd said "X9-21" was Michael's "proper designation"-- and when she'd asked if that meant he and Night would rather be called by their designations than their names, he'd been the one who had stood up and dismissed her so abruptly, instead of answering. But he was answering now, using Michael's name, pointedly correcting himself when he'd started to use the designation. It might not have sounded pointed to anyone else, but that was the point. He was answering her.

He didn't smile back, not exactly-- not that she expected him to-- but his eyes lingered on her smile, and there was a definite softening of the set of his mouth as she said, with a little emphasis on the first name, an affirming echo, "Michael and Danse stayed downstairs. To keep an eye on things, a bit."

Day nodded, sitting down beside Hancock, at Mackenzie's left hand. "That sounds wise."

A hand brushed against Mackenzie's shoulder from behind, and she jumped, then went still as it-- Night, it must be Night-- cupped her shoulder and, very lightly, squeezed. Just for a moment, before he let go, came around her, and sat down next to X6-88, without looking at Mackenzie.

They didn't normally do that. Either of them. Touch her for no reason.

"Food for you will be here shortly," Night said to Nora. "Have you claimed the park?"

Nora nodded. "Yeah. It was full of hostile robots. Some we destroyed, some we just shut down. None of 'em should give your people any trouble."

Day said, "Dr. Bridgeman has informed you of the development here?"

"Yeah," said Nora. "Which means we're gonna have to address some things sooner than I thought. Like what kind of protections are in place for slaves whose collars we claim. And how we decide what order this goes in. Who goes free first."

"Yes," Night agreed, and then he did look at Mackenzie. Implicit permission to be the one to speak next.

She did: said, to Nora, "Well, my thoughts on the second one kind of depend on the answer to the first one. Are you going to take responsibility for the slaves you free? Like you have for Sierra?"

"We're takin' responsibility for this whole park," said Hancock.

Mackenzie tensed a bit. His voice was permanently rough, just as his skin was permanently scarred and wizened with radiation, but it sounded rougher now, loud and hard. He hated the collars, she could tell, hated them viscerally, hated them more the more he looked at them, the more he thought about them. He'd been getting angrier since he got here, the way a too-tight shoe-- or collar-- was just a little annoyance at first, something you thought you could deal with easily, even ignore, and then, as time passed, and you tried to go about your business, you started to get raw, and it started to get unbearable. It was only going to get worse, the longer he stayed here.

She respected him for it-- liked him, too-- but it wasn't going to make Nora's project easier.

Day said, his own voice a degree or two cooler than his default when dealing with humans other than Mackenzie, "Are you?"

"Yes," said X6-88. "We are."

Everyone at the table looked at him; he looked at Day, and then at Night, his eyes skipping Mackenzie as if she weren't noteworthy.

"Let us speak frankly," he said. "You both remember the destruction of the Institute, as I do. You know Nora Bowman to be a deadly enemy. You rule by fear; your human subjects will readily turn against you, or flee, if they feel their personal safety is at risk. You are two former coursers. We are two former coursers, a synth trained by the Brotherhood of Steel, and a ghoul with years of fighting experience at Nora Bowman's side, and she does not rule us by fear, or fear our disloyalty."

"X6," said Nora uncomfortably. "Where are you going with this? I'm not their enemy."

"I am trying to define our terms clearly, ma'am," X6-88 said to her. "Day and Night don't wish to see your judgement go against them. Do you?" he asked them.

Mackenzie was trying not to panic. This kind of threatening, who-would-win-in-a-fight rhetoric was the last thing she wanted to see Day and Night getting caught up in. For one thing, X6-88 was right; if it came to a fight, she didn't think her bosses would win. Please don't let it come to a fight.

"They don't rule me by fear," she said softly, hoping to distract and defuse, de-escalate what she was afraid was building.

Everyone turned to look at her. She smiled weakly, feeling sweat spring up on her forehead. The racing of her heart reminded her of Lauren, of how she'd asked her bosses please to take off Lauren's collar, please, it wasn't right that she might die of a shock that would only disincentivize someone else, and they'd done it.

"Would you stand at their side against us?" X6-88 asked her.

Before she could think how to answer, Day said, his voice down to subzero temperatures now, "Would you raise a hand against Dr. Bridgeman?"

"No!" said both Nora and Hancock, both almost shouting.

"Then she is your best protection," said X6-88 calmly, to Day and Night, "if she is on your side."

"I don't know why you're being so-- aggressive, all of a sudden," Mackenzie said to X6-88. Her voice was shaking. "We have an agreement. Nobody's broken the agreement yet."

"I apologize if I seem aggressive, Dr. Bridgeman," said X6-88. He had the same quality of attention, Mackenzie noticed, as Day and Night; as if whoever he was speaking to at the moment was the only person in existence. "But everyone here-- except you-- has seen this happen before. Has seen Ms. Bowman arrive at a place ruled by someone she values, and wishes very much to love. Seen her try to refrain from judgement. And fail." He looked at Nora. "I am trying not to repeat my own past mistakes. Since I would prefer she didn't fail again."

"X6," said Nora.

"Ma'am?" said X6-88, looking at her, and speaking with an odd gentleness. Oddly like the gentleness Day and Night used with Mackenzie; she might not have recognized it as gentleness, in fact, if she hadn't learned it from them. Courser-gentleness.

"It wasn't your fault," said Nora.

"No," X6-88 agreed. "That's true." He turned back to the other two coursers. "Do you know why her judgement went against the Institute?"

There was a silence.

"How are we to speak freely," said Night, finally, "when that same judgement hangs in the balance now?"

"Because if things are to happen differently this time," said X6-88, calmly, "we must all understand each other. Better than last time. We must speak honestly. Am I right, ma'am?"

Nora nodded.

“I don’t want you guys to be--” she began, addressing Day and Night. “Afraid to be honest. With me. Yes. Let’s understand each other.”

"Then-- I thought she went against us because the surface dwellers befriended her, before she reached us, and confused her," said Day, to X6-88. "Told her wild stories of the Institute's wickedness, which she believed, knowing no better."

Nora shook her head. "No. No, that's not-- I listened. To him. To Shaun. I did. I tried. I wanted to--" Her eyes were welling up with tears. "God, I wanted to-- I wanted it to be all right. The Institute. I wanted-- everyone to have been wrong. About it. About him."

"So did I," said Hancock quietly.

Night said, to X6-88, "I thought, perhaps, she couldn't understand why-- if Father's cause was truly benevolent-- he had failed to protect her, when she needed it most. Why, if he was willing to offer her your services for protection, he did so only after she had proved her mettle without them." He eyed Nora carefully, and said to X6-88, "That she resented him for wanting her only if she was strong. And not simply-- for herself."

"No," said Nora, tears streaking her cheeks now. "I didn't mind. Fighting for him. He needed to know-- he mattered to me. That I cared enough to-- I didn't blame him for that. Because I did care enough. And I was strong enough. I would have done-- anything--"

She stopped speaking. Hancock reached out and put a hand over hers, and she clutched at it, and swallowed.

At that moment Keith Dawkins came in, collar flashing, carrying a tureen in the crook of his arm. White as a sheet, the way you'd figure a shy guy like him would be if he were sent into the bosses' den alone. Lauren must have sent him, probably over his own protests, when Night called for food; Mackenzie knew Lauren wanted Keith's collar off, desperately and urgently, the way Hancock and Nora wanted all the collars off. Lauren must think that putting Keith forward, calling the newcomers' direct attention to him, would work-- might work-- the way they'd freed Sierra first because they'd almost literally tripped over her on the way in.

"Hey, Keith," she said, as casually and easily as she could. "Put it on the table. Right here."

He came between Night and Hancock, set the tureen down, but his arm twitched nervously as he did, and he knocked the tureen so that it tilted precariously at the edge of the table, and would have upended itself into Night's lap if Night hadn't swiftly caught and righted it. Keith flinched and whimpered aloud, cringing away from Night's sudden movement, eyes down.

"It's OK, Keith," said Mackenzie, quickly.

Night said, to Keith, "Thank you. You may go."

Keith almost ran out of the room.

"I'm not hungry," said Hancock grimly.

Nora swallowed. "Yeah, I'm OK."

"Look at her," said X6-88, to Night and Day. "That's how she looked at me, after Libertalia. After I used B5-92's recall code. And after that, whenever I defended the Institute's treatment of synths." He turned to Nora. "Say something."

“Yes, say something,” said Day. “Why are you disturbed, Ms. Bowman?”

"Because he’s a person," said Nora. "Keith. Just like you two are people. And me."

"But these people belong to us," said Night, as if stating something utterly self-evident. "We came to this place, and earned our right to rule it. They're ours."

“As we were Father’s,” Day added. “Because he made us. But we discharged our responsibilities to him, and to his people. Now these people are ours.”

There was another silence. Everyone seemed to be looking at Nora.

Nora looked down, then back up at Day.

"That--" She took a breath. "That means something different to me, I think. 'Our people.'”

She paused for a moment, and when no one else spoke, she said, “For me, my people are-- not the ones I-- c-control. They're the ones I'm-- that I take responsibility for. My Minutemen, my family-- and you. And anyone who-- who needs protection. And that's-- that includes-- your people here. Because they need help. And I can help. And that makes me-- responsible. Like Hancock said. I-- take responsibility. We do. I can’t help it. I think it’s-- I think it’s the right thing." She took another deep breath. “And X6 is right, too. This is hard for me. For us," she said, lifting Hancock's hand. “I’m not-- I’m not threatening you two. I know we have a deal, a-- timeline-- and I'll stick to it if that's what you need me to do. But-- yeah, it's hard for me. Like the Institute was hard for me. And Libertalia. And--” She looked up at X6-88, and then reached out, and he reached back to her, and took her hand in his, his face expressionless.

“Yeah,” she said, to him. “Hearing you defend the Institute. Which is why I chickened out, and sent you away, like a fucking coward." She swallowed, looking back at Night and Day. "You're my children. My sons. I'm trying. But it’s-- yes, it's hard."

"What do you want?" Night asked.

"I want all the collars off," Nora answered, immediately. "I want the slaves free."

"Now?" asked Day.

"Yes," said Nora. “Now.”

Night and Day looked at each other, for a long moment, and then-- oh, dear-- at Mackenzie.

Mackenzie took a breath, glancing from Night to Day. They were looking at her because they wanted--

“Do you want me to--” She hesitated. “Should I say what I’m thinking?”

“Now is the time for plain speaking,” said X6-88.

Mackenzie waited, until Night said, “Yes, speak plainly, Dr. Bridgeman. We want to hear what you have to say.”

“Yes,” said Day.

“OK,” said Mackenzie, her throat tight, blood roaring in her ears. She looked from one of them to the other-- their faces. Her bosses. She'd taken responsibility, for them, hadn't she? Hers, then.

She did what she had never done before, though she had wanted to, often; she reached out, for the coursers on either side of her, for their hands where they rested on the table, and clasped one of theirs in each of hers.

Night gasped-- he was already badly unsettled, or he would never have reacted so unguardedly-- and both of them, oh, both of them clasped her hands back, Night lacing his fingers through hers, Day's thumb bridging all of her fingers and pinning them to his palm.

“You're right, Day," she said, to his cool gray eyes. "You discharged your responsibilities to the Institute. Both of you did. And it sounds like you did-- really well. It was hard to be a courser, and you both-- lived up to the honor. Right to the end.” She looked at Night. “And yes, Night, I think you’ve-- earned authority, here. You’ve tried hard, to do what’s right. As you understand it. As you-- learned it. From the Institute. And your Father. But you’re--”

She hoped they wouldn’t take offense to her bringing up what they’d confided to her alone, before these others; Nora must know already, and X6-88--

“You’re young," she said. "Very young, by human standards. And-- very strong. And you’d never been-- free-- before. To make your own choices. And you’d never-- You’ve had responsibilities, that were given to you by your Father, but they were mostly about-- obedience. Following orders, and making sure everybody else did, too. So you came here, and-- and you were free for the first time, and stronger than anybody else, and-- but you listened to me, both of you. You cared what I had to say. You cared about making things better. And you did.”

They were both watching her, as if she were the only person in the world.

“But,” she said. “Do you think maybe Nora can-- help? Like how I helped? Do you think maybe you guys can let her? Help you be better? Even better?"

They looked at her, in their resting-their-eyes-on-her way, and she breathed deeply, and tried to relax into it.

After a moment of that, Night squeezed her hand, and she immediately squeezed both of their hands; when she did, Day squeezed back.

Then they both turned to look at Nora.

"If we did free them all now," said Night, "would you still hold up your end of the bargain, and take the rest of the parks for us?"

Nora caught her breath, leaned forward, her eyes widening. "Yes! Oh, God, yes, son-- yes, Night. I swear. I swear I would."

"X6-88 has observed," said Day, "accurately enough, that the raiders obey us out of fear, not out of loyalty. That may pose a complication, if we take action of which they strongly disapprove. Would it offend your-- sensibilities-- if we destroyed them?"

"I mean," said Nora, and hesitated, and looked at Hancock.

"They're raiders," said Hancock, to Night and Day. "They chose that life. I don’t know about Nora, but I don’t give a damn if you kill every last one of them."

"I mean--" Nora said, again. "I try to give people-- a chance. As much of a chance as I can. Because you don't know-- what people have been through, what might have driven them to-- or not so much that, I guess. That doesn't matter, not as much as-- what they might need. To help them be better. Because if I can give them that, or help them find it, instead of killing them, then-- then there's more of us. Instead of just less of them."

She looked around the table, and tried to smile.

"It's-- it's sad, when people die," she said. "Even raiders. Because every raider that dies is one less person that could have been-- wonderful. But-- we have to protect ourselves, too. You have to protect yourselves. If this is their breaking point-- that you free the slaves-- then, yeah. You do what you need to do.”

“They are ours, too,” said Night. “The raiders.”

Nora nodded. “OK.”

Day sat up even straighter than he had been, squaring his shoulders, and squeezed Mackenzie’s hand again. She clutched at his, hard.

He said, “Here is my proposal, Ms. Bowman.”

Chapter Text

Unit X9-21 had always known he was going to be a courser.

It was entirely possible for units whose designation began with X not to qualify as coursers, certainly, just as it was possible for units whose designation began with some other letter to turn out to possess the requisite strength, intelligence, and determination to complete the training process. But from the moment X9-21 had awakened and begun processing his surroundings, giving the proper verbal responses to his creators’ questions and obeying the commands that allowed them to assess his mobility and compliance, while also processing the information that had been downloaded into his head before his sentience awakened, he had known he would be a courser.

So he had never really made friends with the other synths. Not before he was selected for training, and certainly not after. He’d been set apart, first by his ambition, and then, of course, by his rank. The lesser synths had feared him, as they should, and resented him, as was perhaps natural.

If he had ever really been an ordinary synth, he might have known what to say in a situation like this, where a group of systemic subordinates were gathered together.

Danse shouldn’t have known, either, since his memory of his time as a synth had been erased, but perhaps there was some residual memory, stored at a level deeper than conscious cognition-- as memory-wiped synths often retained characteristic physical mannerisms, speech patterns, and even affective responses to once-familiar things and people erased from their conscious memories. It had been a point of interest for the scientists.

Michael hadn't known M7-97 in the Institute, not really, but watching Danse now, Michael could almost glimpse the synth he had once been. Quiet, not a revolutionary, but with a steel core that had led him to risk everything and run away when whatever precept he held inviolate was threatened. Liked and trusted, surely, by his fellow synths, at least the ones with the good judgement to notice his sterling qualities.

He’d offered, after everyone was finished eating, to help the slaves who had moved to clear away the dishes, and when they’d said no thank you to his offer and left the Mountain with the dishes, he’d helped move the tables and chairs instead, up against the wall, to make more room for the mattresses. Michael had helped, too, and then, when Danse sat down on one of the mattresses, followed suit, pressing his shoulder against Danse’s. Danse took his hand, as Sierra plumped herself down on the other side of Danse. Slowly, the other slaves began to follow suit, sitting down on their own mattresses, or lying down (despite the relative earliness of the hour), pulling blankets over or around themselves. The guards sat down again at one of the tables, but they didn’t start playing cards again; they seemed a little on edge. Two of them had weapons drawn, and sat with the guns resting nervously against their thighs.

(Michael had already assessed the potential threat, which was… minimal, even with only himself and Danse available from their party, and even accounting for the possibility that Danse’s visceral unwillingness to harm humans might cause some sort of complication. The real problem would be avoiding collateral damage. He wasn’t sure whether or not these raider guards had a firm enough grasp on the situation to realize a human hostage would be valuable, from their perspective.)

Danse said to Sierra, not loudly enough to seem theatrical, but clearly enough to be heard by everyone in the room, “Where do they take the dishes?”

“Cappy’s Cafe,” said Sierra. “Lauren runs it, and Keith helps her, so they’re always on dish duty, and then the rest of us take turns.”

“Are the turns assigned by the guards, or do you manage them yourselves?” Danse asked.

“Us,” said Sierra. "A lot of these guys already had jobs before the raiders took over. Lauren and Keith always ran the Cafe, and everybody always helped. Just, now it's more organized. And you get punished if you don't work."

Danse nodded. "But presumably many people would choose-- if they could choose-- to stay here and continue to work, without force, or threat of punishment. For the good of the community."

"If the raiders were still here?" asked the heavyset, balding man Dr. Bridgeman had addressed as Aaron. He shot the guards a contemptuous look, to which none of them reacted visibly.

"I'd stay," said a dark-haired, tired-eyed woman whose name Michael didn't know, the one who’d overcharged them for clothing and armor, in the marketplace. "I don't work any harder here than I did back where I grew up. And there was raiders there, too, except you paid 'em to keep 'em off you, and then you went hungry. At least we don't go hungry here. And nobody shoots at us."

"Working for raiders," said Aaron darkly.

The woman shrugged. "It's not the worst place I could be. By a long shot. Not with the new bosses in charge."

"Nuka World is the best place to be," said Sierra, with conviction.

Danse turned to her. "Will you stay here, then, when we leave?"

"Do you have to leave?" Sierra asked wistfully, gazing at Danse.

"I'm afraid so," Danse answered gravely. "I have responsibilities in the Commonwealth."

Sierra nodded. "I don't know. Maybe when I've seen all the parks-- I do like it here, but I like your mom, too. And you."

"Thank you," said Danse. "I like you too."

(Michael didn't often, even in his thoughts, use words like adorable. However.)

Lauren and the other slaves who'd helped carry the dishes out came back in, without the dishes, and looking flustered. Well, all but one came back in.

"Ask him," said Lauren to the others, jerking her head at Michael, and then immediately asked him, herself, "Anybody I sent up to them would be safe, right?"

"Yes," said Michael readily. It was the shy-looking young man who'd been seated next to her who was missing, and any slave, but particularly any shy-looking one, would have his mother's unconditional protection. If Lauren had sent him to openly plead for his freedom, it wasn't a bad gambit.

"And them that get set free," said Lauren, still addressing Michael, as the other slaves she’d come in with began settling down on mattresses, "she's gonna see they're safe? We can't all be tagging along on all your, your adventures, like Miss January Cola Calendar here. And if everybody who goes free has an unfortunate accident while you folks are out claiming the next park, that's gonna put a little bit of a damper on the project."

"I'm certain my mother will do everything in her power to protect your collective interests," Michael answered. "If you feel freedom will render its recipients more vulnerable, she will set in place whatever additional safeguards may seem necessary."

Lauren stared at him, rigid and wide-eyed, like a questioned synth. He wasn’t sure why; he’d intended to reassure her.

Danse slipped an arm around him, leaned lightly against him, and said, to Lauren, "Will you sit, ma’am? You must be tired.”

Cautiously, Lauren sat down, on one of the mattresses, watching Michael and Danse. Michael had automatically wrapped his arm around Danse in return, squeezing lightly, and that seemed to relax Lauren slightly, for some reason.

“Damn but you sound just like the bosses,” she said to Michael, with a forced-sounding chuckle.

He wasn't sure how to respond to that-- apologize? He hadn't meant to frighten Lauren, but he wasn't exactly sorry about his speech patterns. His mother had never reproved him for them. Had praised him for them, once, long ago, before he had his name. I love how you always pick the exact right word out of the unabridged dictionary they obviously programmed into your head, because you care about accuracy and truth.

“Your ‘bosses’ and I were created and trained by the same Institute,” he explained to Lauren, although he was fairly sure his mother had already explained that to all the slaves. Perhaps Lauren hadn’t been listening. Or had already been asleep?

“But you decided to join the Minutemen?” Lauren asked.

Michael considered that.

His sister Emily was an ardent member of the Minutemen, and Danse had taken with surprising readiness to his position as a member of their mother’s advisory council, but Michael himself didn’t feel any particular loyalty to the Minutemen as an organization, except insofar as they belonged to his mother. As he did.

“I offered my service to their General,” he said.

“How come?” asked Lauren.

Everyone else in the room was quiet. Listening. Slaves, guards. Sierra was looking at him, blue eyes large and interested, from the other side of Danse.

“Because she offered me something in return,” he answered. “Something I valued.”

“What’s that?”

He wasn’t a raconteur by nature-- at least, he’d never thought of himself as one-- but he could give a clear and detailed report on events as they’d transpired, beginning at the beginning (his attempt to storm the Castle and seize the rogue unit) and describing, clinically, what he’d done wrong, how he’d badly underestimated the Castle’s defenses, how he’d managed to survive but not to retreat, had been taken prisoner--

(At this point, the shy-looking young male slave came back in, milk-white and trembling, and came to sit beside Lauren on her mattress. Lauren gave him a quick up-and-down look, and then put her arm around him, pulling him close for a moment, and returned her attention to Michael.)

How the very rogue unit in question had pleaded for his life. How he’d been held under guard, how she (the woman, the enemy, the mother) had spoken with him before she let him go. How he’d returned to the Institute humans, given his report, and...

“And what?” Lauren asked.

You showed courage, and devotion, and resourcefulness in captivity. They had no right to take your uniform.

He’d always known he was going to be a courser, and he’d known the training would be hard but it had been so much worse than he could have possibly imagined, and he’d persevered, excelled, finished, been given his uniform-- the uniform X6-88 still wore, that Day and Night still wore, that all the coursers at Poseidon wore--

It shouldn’t matter now, it really shouldn’t. He belonged to his mother now, and she was proud of him, found him valuable and worthy. Loved him, dearly and in particular; had a sweet, tender smile just for him. Called him son, with warmth; called him by the name he’d chosen, and made it sound like praise. What did he care for the judgement of a handful of ungrateful, spiteful, pettily cruel humans who'd--

-- taken his uniform. The uniform Father had given him. All he had left of Father, who was gone, lost, who would never look at him or speak to him again, the exact cadence and timbre of whose cool, authoritative voice he already struggled sometimes to remember. And then did remember, in flashes of hallucinatorily vivid memory where he stood before Father and wished the memory-courser hadn't kept his eyes deferentially lowered so that Michael couldn't gaze and gaze, the way he listened and listened to the remembered voice. Anything else to add?

No, Father. All his mistakes, everything he'd do better next time, catalogued carefully, despite his mission success; awaiting Father's judgement.

Well done, unit.

And Unit X9-21 had dared look up then, so Michael could see, in memory, the tired face with its light webbing of wrinkles, skin sagging the way human skin sagged with age, the stern mouth momentarily curved in approval of X9-21, the dark semicircles of fatigue underneath the eyes, the eyes--

They had no right to take your uniform. Father gave it to you, and he, he would have been proud of you.

"Michael," said Danse, sounding as panic-stricken as Michael himself would probably have been if Danse had been the one to begin crying, for the second time in an hour, with no warning and no apparent provocation, in the middle of a conversation with strangers.

Michael couldn't speak. Or breathe properly. Crying was terrible, why hadn't the Institute done something about it, the way they'd spared synths other weaknesses, like aging and sleeping-- why would they even have made him capable of crying-- or grieving--

Or loving. Why did they make us capable of loving?

Michael leaned against Danse, clinging to him, and put his face against Danse's neck, where it was warm. His ragged inhale brought with it Danse's familiar skin-scent, the faint salty tang of dried sweat (he sweated inside that ridiculous power armor, even more than in the winter coat he insisted on wearing at home, even when it wasn't cold) and of pheromone (why had they built pheromones and pheromone receptors into synths, it wasn't as if they were capable of reproducing, why did Danse smell so good...).

Danse’s strong arms were around him, holding him tight and close, supporting him as he shook with almost-silent sobs that were the only sound in the room. Tears he’d never wept for his losses when they happened-- he hadn’t had time, when the Institute was destroyed, and Father died. He hadn’t had anyone to cling to, when his uniform was taken away. And he would have been ashamed to weep, then, even alone, even in the moments when, walking the wastes, scavenging and hunting to keep the humans alive, he’d looked down at his own arm, the bare skin of it naked and unprotected below where the short, flimsy sleeve of his ragged T-shirt ended, and been stabbed through with such agony that it seemed he might die of it. Even then, he would have been ashamed to sit down, against the crumbling brick wall of another abandoned building, and give himself over to tears.

There was the sound of his weeping, and the silence of the room, and then the sound of the door opening.

Michael sat up, quickly, pulling away from Danse, swiping at his wet face with the heel of his hand, in a gesture that felt oddly familiar (because, he realized suddenly, he’d seen his mother do it, when she’d been crying, pushing her tears aside to clear her sight) and looked up to see X2-71 and V4-54-- Day and Night-- entering the room.

He heard another faint sound, the sharp intake of many individual breaths in unison. The guards stood, quickly, coming to attention, the chairs they’d been sitting in scraping hard against the floor as they knocked against them in their haste.

Behind Day and Night, as they came further into the room, Mackenzie Bridgeman appeared, and then X6-88-- Michael felt a rush of affection and gratitude at the sight of him, in his familiar uniform, his familiar impassive face. He’d always liked X6-88, trusted and valued him as a comrade in arms and as a possible brother, but he had never exactly loved him until now-- and Hancock, and Michael’s mother, who had six of the slave collars strung on her left arm like oversized bracelets, locked and flashing.

Her eyes sought him and Danse out swiftly, and when she saw the tears on his face, was on her knees beside him before his smile could even finish forming, the collars clacking and flashing, ignored, on her arm.

“I’m all right, mother,” he said, aware that the room was silent again except for his voice, that everyone had watched her come flying and stumbling towards him, dodging mattresses and blankets and humans, and fall down next to him, anxiety and love all over her face. He remembered something she’d said, once, when she’d been crying. “Just-- sprung a leak.”

She laughed, the startled, hiccupping laugh he loved so much, and put her arms around him, as if they were the only two people in the room, hugging him tight for a long moment before she let him go.

Then she set down the six collars on the mattress next to him-- she’d want his and Danse’s help destroying them, presumably-- and stood back up, went back to the others who’d just come in. Hancock slipped his arm around her waist, and she smiled and stepped closer to him, looking up expectantly at Night and Day.

Night pulled something from the pocket of his uniform, and there was another collective gasp, a few slaves whimpering faintly with fright. Night turned to survey the slaves, his eyes sweeping across the rows of mattresses.

“Carroll,” he said.

Heads turned, as Sunny, her collar flashing, looked up like a startled radstag.

“Come here,” said Night, and Sunny pulled herself to her feet and came forward, on legs that were obviously knock-kneed with terror.

Night reached out and touched Sunny’s chin, tilting it up, and touched the device he held to the red-flashing lock at her throat, in the same gesture his mother had used when unlocking Sierra’s collar. The collar’s light went out. Night opened it, removing it from Sunny's neck, and turned to hand it to Michael’s mother, who took it and looped it on her arm, as she’d held the other six.

“You may sit,” said Night, and, as Sunny stumbled back towards her mattress, Day pulled his own collar-manipulating device from his own uniform pocket, surveyed the crowd, and said, “Chase.”

It was Michael’s turn to look up, startled-- Chase was the name of his sister in Far Harbor, and he’d never heard of a human named that-- but the woman with the tired eyes, who’d said she wouldn’t mind staying here even without force, jumped, and then stood, uncertainly.

“Come,” said Day, with a hint of impatience now, and this Chase wobbled forward and stood before the coursers.

Day tilted her chin up, touched her collar with his device until the light went off, removed it, and handed it to Mackenzie; she snapped it shut again, and slid it onto her own arm, as Michael’s mother had done with the other collar.

“Sit,” he said to Chase, and, as she stepped dazedly away from him, Night said, “Corbett.”

Aaron stood up, slowly and stiffly, and walked forward.

It was Night’s turn to touch his chin and unlock his collar; this one, too, he handed to Mackenzie, who slid it onto her arm beside Carroll’s.

"Dawkins," said Day, as Corbett retreated, and the young slave beside Lauren collapsed twice before he could get to his feet, but stood still, without flinching, under Day's touch, and then walked unsteadily to the mattress where Lauren sat, and sat down beside her, glassy-eyed.

They alternated in this way through twenty-five more names, in what seemed to be alphabetical order, until Mackenzie’s arms were covered with collars as if with gaudy jewelry, flashing red in syncope, and the last slave (“Sykes”) knelt on his mattress, collarless.

Then Day said, turning to Michael’s mother, “As we agreed, you have cleared one park, and earned seven collars, to destroy, or otherwise do with as you like. The remaining twenty-eight are still ours, for the moment, until you claim the remaining parks.”

“You are all free to leave Nuka World, if you wish,” said Night, to the slaves. “Or to stay. If you stay, you will work, and eat, and rest, as you have been doing. You will be protected, as you have been. You will have the opportunity to improve your position, as you have had, through the arena or the Gauntlet, or by otherwise impressing us.”

“For those who choose to leave,” said Day, “Ms. Bowman has offered to escort you safely wherever you wish to go. You should speak to her if you wish to arrange for such an escort.”

They both turned to Mackenzie, each holding out an arm, presumably for the collars she held.

But instead of handing the collars over, Mackenzie flung her collar-bangled arms wide and wrapped them around the two coursers, one arm around each of them, pulling them both close and burying her face between them, the lights still flashing on the collars that stood out sharply as spines along the arms she had pressed so tightly against their backs.

It only took a moment before both of their outstretched arms went around her in return, and they held her close, saying nothing, as if they were the only three people in the room.

Chapter Text

Everyone was in high spirits as they left Dry Rock Gulch. Even Hancock, and high spirits, in this case, not functioning as a double entendre. This was one of those mornings-- vanishingly rare in his life before Nora-- that didn't seem to call for chemical enhancement. Or, more like it, chemical cushioning, from the harsh edges of reality.

They'd been up late talking to the slaves-- ex-slaves-- in the Mountain, about the Commonwealth, about where those who might come with them might want to go-- and then up again before dawn, before most of the ex-slaves were even awake, hustled out of the Mountain by a sleepy-eyed Mackenzie, who'd apologized for pushing them out of the park, explaining that "the bosses" wanted the newcomers out of the way and actively claiming another park before the two of them met with the raider bosses about the mass uncollaring. That might have struck Hancock as suspicious, a potential occasion of double-cross, if not for Mackenzie's obviously overflowing joy. As it was, it had been a good start to the day-- her beaming happiness and gratitude, the hugs she'd given all of them before they set out, starting with Nora and ending with Danse in his power armor.

They hadn't run into anything worse on the way to the Gulch park than what Michael, X6-88, and Danse could kill without anyone else getting involved, which put the synths in a good mood because they were proud of themselves, Nora in a good mood because she was proud of them, Hancock in a good mood because it was a nice enough change to sit back and let someone else do the killing, and Sierra-- well, she'd already been in a good mood at the prospect of heading to the next Promised Park, but being protected from monsters by a trio of strapping young men probably hadn't worsened her mood. She trotted along between Nora and Danse, chattering about the park's attractions--

--which turned out, miraculously, to be pretty much intact, down to a bunch of roleplaying Protectrons that transported Sierra into the seventh heaven of delight by addressing her as "deputy" and giving her a series of cowgirl games to play. When she found a cowgirl outfit on an animatronic dummy, she peeled off her ragged Nuka World T-shirt and jeans so quickly that even Danse barely had time to avert his eyes, and wiggled into the fringed suede pants, blouse, leather vest, and broad-brimmed hat with utterly unselfconscious glee. Hancock wouldn't have minded seeing Nora in that getup, but he had to admit Nora probably wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much.

As if to avoid boring the non-Sierra members of the party, there were hideously mutated giant worm monsters to kill while she played, and they'd cleared the park, including finding Sierra’s "hidden Cappy," all before what Nora referred to as "high noon." Even the few dead bodies they'd found hadn't dampened their collective spirits; it wasn't as if they'd expected to find survivors.

Now, having eaten a picnic lunch of packed rations, they'd decided to push on for Kiddie Kingdom, try for a twofer. Wouldn't hurt to show Day and Night their appreciation, Nora pointed out, for last night's grand gesture; wouldn't hurt either, X6-88 added, if Day and Night were trying to convince the Blacks and Mason they wouldn't lose out by the deal. Besides, no one felt tired.

Nora was teaching Sierra some song about a cowboy, to which Sierra, still in all her cowgirl-dressed glory, was already singing the chorus.

"You boys should sing along," Nora said. "If you have any of your father in you-- not Father father, I mean, I mean my husband, Nate. Father's father. God, I wish you could have known him. Anyway, if any of you take after him, and I bet you do, you can sing. Your stepdad will join in, won't you, Hancock?"

"Dunno how I feel about that," said Hancock gruffly. One more way not to live up to Saint Nate's Blessed Memory.

"C'mon, I've never heard you sing," Nora coaxed. "Even when you're drunk. And you've got that sexy whiskey voice."

"Sounds like something you might rather hear in private," said Hancock, with a sudden flush of pleasure at the idea that she found his voice-- his rasping, gravelly ghoul-voice-- appealing, and not just something to put up with.

Nora grinned. "I'll try to contain myself. Sons, this is a song your father used to sing-- that your dad used to sing to your Father. Sing with me and Sierra. 'Good night, you moonlight ladies, rockabye sweet baby James--'"

None of the synths joined in with the two women; they all looked painfully self-conscious, torn-- probably-- between the desire to obey Nora and their absolute, bone-deep conviction that they weren't designed to sing. Hancock did join in on the next line; he liked it. "Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose, won't you let me go down in my dreams--"

"Oh!" Nora clasped her hands and swooned theatrically; Hancock grunted, embarrassed and pleased.

 

……………...

 

"Look!" said Sierra, with utter joy, peering into Kiddie Kingdom from where they'd halted just outside the archway. "There are the misters! Oh, I wish I could run through the spray!"

"Honey, that's a really bad idea," said Nora, and Sierra said, "I know that, I didn't say I was going to. But wouldn't it have been amazing to be here when they really were filled with pure cola, instead of that irradiated stuff?" She smiled. "Of course, if they'd put Nuka Cola Quantum in the misters, it would have been a little irradiated anyway! You'd go home with a glow!"

Nobody seemed to have the heart to point out that you'd go home sticky all over with sugar and feeling miserable, with a lot of ruined clothes, if you were sprayed with misters full of soda. Sierra probably wouldn't have minded that either. She was the dream audience for this whole fucked-up theme park. Too bad she'd been born too late to meet John-Caleb Bradberton himself and share her appreciation.

It was lucky for them, on the other hand, that they'd gotten hold of an expert, someone who'd been able to warn them about the misters in time not to wear any clothes they treasured, until they could get the misters switched off or scout out a route around them.

To that end, Hancock had already stripped off John Hancock's original 500-year-old clothes and tricorn, after lunch-- the others, except Nora, had turned aside politely, not that Hancock particularly gave a shit who saw him naked-- and stowed them in Sierra's pack. He'd put on, in their place, the ragged Nuka World T-shirt and jeans she'd taken off earlier, which fitted him-- well, not much worse than they'd fitted her, anyway.

Danse, of course, would be in his power armor, which he said, with only a small note of worried uncertainty, was more than tough and insulated enough to withstand enemy mister fire.

"Ready, Danse?" Hancock asked, and Danse nodded and put on the helmet to his armor, which sealed in place with a clank.

"Be careful, you two," said Nora.

Hancock saluted her. "We'll be back soon as we've done some scoutin'." As a ghoul and a guy sealed hermetically inside a tin can, they were the best two to scout out a highly irradiated environment. Rad-X could only take humans-- and even synths-- so far. Besides, Sierra said the park was full of ferals, and ferals would be less likely to attack Hancock than they would the humans or the synths. He hated using their instinctive trust of him as an advantage, but it was no real kindness to leave them alive; God knew if he lived long enough to go that way, he'd want someone to have mercy enough to-- how had Michael put it? Lay him to rest.

He stepped into the park, Danse clanking beside him, and the misters activated.

It didn't feel bad, not to him. It was a little like Far Harbor, in fact-- what the Children of Atom had described as "the Glow," only stronger. Like how sunlight, or a cool breeze, had felt on his human skin. He didn't really feel those things any more, not the same way-- the burn scar tissue he had instead of skin these days wasn't sensitive the way human skin was, it didn't have a whole lot of little hairs to ruffle almost imperceptibly, he didn't get actual physical goosebumps any more, even when Nora trailed her fingers along his skin. But that was how the radiation felt-- the way gentle touch used to feel. Tingly.

But they'd have to get these misters turned off before the others came in. It wouldn't do them a bit of good. Thank God, for that reason too, that Sierra was along-- without a vulnerable person by her side to be mindful and protective of, Nora was more than a little prone to be incautious when it came to barging into danger and toxicity. He still winced at the memory of how she'd stuck her whole head into that fuckin' irradiated spring in Far Harbor, the Children's holy water, and then apparently lost her goddamn mind and charged off, while he tried desperately to keep up, wondering if she'd skipped the ghoul phase altogether and just turned into a feral human.

Danse presumably wasn't feeling anything, inside that suit of his, and they were walking and clanking along in cautious silence when a theatrical voice from nowhere and everywhere (another tidbit Sierra's surviving explorers and gossipmongers had let them know about ahead of time, the mysterious voice on the park amplification system that taunted you as you went along) suddenly said, "Ah, more special guests for my magical kingdom! Don't worry, little raiders, we'll have plenty of--"

Then, as Hancock lifted his head, looking around for the source of the voice, it cut off abruptly, and said, in completely different tones, "Rachel?"

Hancock stayed still.

"Rachel!" The voice was sweet now with joy and excitement. "Wait, wait right there, stay still, you don't know all the traps I've put in. I'll come and meet you. Friends, you remember Rachel!"

Hancock glanced around in time to see three or four ferals-- big, hulking ones-- shambling towards him. Not only big and bulky, but multicolored, which might have thrown him off worse if that hadn't been one of the tidbits Sierra had known ahead of time. She hadn't known whether it was an extra mutation or just an odd bit of self-decoration. Or maybe decoration by the owner of the Mysterious Amplified Voice.

"Don't move," he said, not moving himself. "Don't fire. Hold still. I've got a hunch if we don't-- hey there, fella."

The ferals weren't attacking, just circling them, curiously. He could see now that the gaudy colors were paint, and applied artistically enough that either these guys were more intelligent than most ferals, or the Mysterious Voice Guy had done it for them.

Danse had done as he asked, and was standing still as a statue inside the armor-- and without motion, the armor wouldn't register as a threat. No scent, no heat. Not organic heat, anyway.

One of the ferals butted up against Hancock, not aggressively, but the way a cat rubbed up against your legs, wanting to be petted.

"Hey, pal," he said quietly. He stifled the impulse to reach out and touch its misshapen face, run a hand over its sparsely haired, gnarled head. Good way to lose a finger, even if it didn't mean him any harm; it wouldn't know any better than to snap, playfully, like an animal. "Sorry I ain't Rachel."

It made an oddly mournful sound, a quiet whimpering growl, and then lay down on the ground and went still. The others wandered around them a little longer-- poking a bit at Danse, who didn't move-- and then followed suit.

(Hancock didn’t know if ferals slept, exactly, or just-- laid down sometimes. No way to ask them.)

Either way, they roused at the running approach of--

--a glowing one. Hancock had never actually seen a sentient glowing one before, but there was no doubt that the greenly luminescent ghoul pelting towards them was sentient, to judge by his natty dress sense. Hancock felt an unreasonable pang of regret that he wasn’t his usual well-dressed self, in the face of a glowing one in evening clothes, with a top hat on his head, who came to a screeching halt at the sight of Hancock, his face falling.

Now the pang was reasonable.

“Sorry,” Hancock said again.

The ferals were agitated now, circling, snarling in confusion, but not attacking. Yet.

“Who are you?” the glowing one asked.

“John Hancock,” said Hancock. “From Goodneighbor, in the Commonwealth.”

No reaction. The glowing one nodded towards Danse. “And the tin man?”

Hancock grinned a bit at the description. “My stepson. Saul Danse.”

“What do you want here?” asked the glowing one. “If you’re raiders--”

“We ain’t raiders,” said Hancock, although truth be told they were a little more closely associated with raiders at the moment than he would have preferred. But-- “We don’t mean you any harm. You here all by yourself?”

“Obviously not,” said the glowing one.

Hancock eyed the ferals. “Wouldn’t think they’d be much company.”

“Perhaps not,” said the glowing one, “but they’re quite effective in terms of defense, I assure you.”

Hancock nodded. “Like I said, we don’t mean you any harm. Mind if I ask your name?”

“Oswald,” said the glowing one, and added, with a small dramatic flourish, “the Outrageous!”

Hancock grinned again at that.

“So we found the Wizard,” he said. “I got Dorothy and Toto and a couple of lions outside the gates. All smoothskins, though. There any way you can turn off your Emerald City here long enough for us all to sit down and chat?”

Oswald seemed taken aback. He glanced from Hancock to Danse, and then back again, and then at the ferals, one of whom, just at that moment, ran into Oswald at a slow walk, then backed up and ran into him again. He reached up absentmindedly to cup the back of its neck, and a pulse of green energy made his hand momentarily glow brighter; the feral made a sound, a small pleased mutter, and lay down at his feet.

“Give me an hour,” he said finally. “I’ll turn off the sprays, and the-- rides. And gather my friends. Meet us in the theater of King Cola’s Castle. But if you mean us treachery-- beware!”

“Noted,” said Hancock.

Oswald made a theatrical gesture with his arms, and, with what sounded like a small thunderclap, vanished.

The ferals turned and shambled away, all in the same direction; the one that had lain down was slow to get up, but when it did, it went the same way the others had.

Hancock looked up at Danse.

“Well,” he said. “That’s new.”

………………………………………….

It took most of the allotted hour for Hancock to try to explain to Nora and the others what had happened, in between her surprise and her and Sierra’s speculations.

“I mean, I knew ferals could kinda, uh, feed off glowin’ ones,” said Hancock. “You and me’ve seen that, Nora. Lots of feral nests’ve got one, hidden away, and it can kinda-- power ‘em up, I guess. Fix ‘em, even, if they’re hurt. It even works on me, a little bit. Being close to a glowin’ one. Same as it hurts you. But I’ve never seen a glowin’ one that wasn’t-- you know.”

“Bestial,” said Danse, who’d gotten out of his power armor when they’d all sat down.

Hancock nodded. “Bestial, yeah, that’s a good word for it. These guys-- the ferals-- seemed kinda-- tame, though. Like-- not just not attacking me-- which, you know, Nora, they mostly don’t, till I start tryin' to pull 'em off you. But kinda-- friendly.”

“He called them his friends,” Danse agreed. “Perhaps he knew them before they turned.”

“Yeah,” said Hancock. “Maybe before he turned. And then there’s Rachel-- I didn’t get a chance to ask about her.” He sighed. “Anyway. You smoothies should take your Rad-X. Even just being around Oswald-- even if he does turn off those misters--”

Nora nodded, and handed around the bottle. Sierra made a face, and washed it down with a soda she’d brought in the little beltpack Nora had gotten her.

"OK," said Nora, standing. "Follow the yellow brick road, I guess."

……………………………………………..

True to his word, Oswald seemed to have assembled his “friends” somewhere out of sight, and turned off both the radiation misters and the rides. The park would have been eerily quiet, as they made their way through the maze of rides and attractions, if Sierra hadn’t been giving a running commentary on everything they passed.

Once they’d reached the theater, though, even Sierra fell silent.

Every seat was filled by a painted feral, all of them sitting awkwardly in the decaying plush seats, some slumped over onto each other or forward onto the seats ahead of them. Oswald sat on the edge of the stage, cross-legged.

“Ah,” he said, without any particular dramatic emphasis. “My guests have arrived. Don't worry, my friends won't attack, unless I give the cue. Now, which of you is Dorothy?”

“I guess that’s me,” said Nora, stepping forward, down the aisle between seats. X6-88 and Michael followed, deliberately checking their pace to match Nora's, watching either flank. Sierra lingered between Danse and Hancock, watching the sea of ferals with fascination. “My name’s Nora Bowman. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Oswald.”

“Just Oswald,” he said. “And what brings you to my little kingdom?”

Nora stopped, a few feet away from the edge of the stage, and so did Michael and X6-88, on either side of her.

"Well," she said. "It's a bit of a long story."

As she began to tell it, Hancock came forward down the aisle, Sierra at his side, and Danse on the other side of Sierra, too big in his power armor, forcing Hancock so far to the side of the aisle that he could feel the warmth and smell the stink of the ferals he passed.

Nora didn't make the story too long, after all. Oswald tensed at the mention of Nuka Town and the raiders, but listened intently as she explained their deal with Night and Day.

“I’m not gonna kick you out of your home,” she finished. “Obviously. But aren’t you lonely here? How long has Rachel been gone?”

That startled him, and then he seemed to slump.

“More than a year now,” he said. “I suppose-- if she were still alive-- and hadn’t fallen to the affliction herself-- she would have come back by now. If only--”

The glow on his face pulsed brighter for a moment, and then faded again.

“She your wife?” Hancock asked quietly.

Oswald shook his head.

“I never married,” he said. It was hard to tell, in his glowing face, where his eyes were pointed-- Hancock knew it was sometimes hard to tell where his own solid-black eyes were pointed, too. “The stage is a jealous mistress! But we were-- close, yes. She was very dear to me. I have to believe that if she could have returned to me-- to us-- she would have. Why I should be the last-- But you, friend,” he said to Hancock. “Have you found a cure, for this mind-affliction that plagues my friends?”

He gestured out into the auditorium, at the ferals.

“A cure for feral?” Hancock asked. “No such thing, far as I know.”

“But there has to be!” Oswald pulsed brighter again, and the ferals stirred in their seats, some of them making soft noises of agitation. “It can’t be that-- If not a cure, you must know something, something of why I alone-- I and Rachel-- and yourself-- how have you been spared the affliction?”

“Nobody knows, brother,” said Hancock. God, imagine being here, not knowing what was happening, never having seen another ghoul, besides you and your friends-- “Some of us go straight to feral, without ever turning into folks like you and me. Some of us live hundreds of years without turning-- I know prewar ghouls, who’ve been around since the bombs first fell, still-- themselves. Nobody knows why.”

“The Brotherhood made some effort to study the phenomenon, I believe,” said Danse, from inside his power armor. “But they never reached any conclusion.”

“The Institute also studied the phenomenon,” said X6-88. “To an extent. I was occasionally assigned to bring back tissue samples from ghouls. Both feral and sentient ones.”

Nice. Always nice to be reminded how many of your kind your stepson had murdered in his day.

But just think how far he's come. The little voice in his head was Nora's.

“Did they figure anything out?” the real Nora asked.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” said X6-88. “I would hardly have been informed if they had.”

Nora nodded. “We could check with Dr. Li and her guys at Poseidon. And if they didn’t, we could ask them to keep studying. Without, uh, the murdering sentient ghouls part."

Hancock nodded, and then looked up at Oswald. He wished he could offer him a slug of whiskey or a big hit of Jet right now, soften the edges of reality. Just for this next little bit.

"Would be nice, if we could figure out why it happens," he said, gentling his voice as much as he knew how. "Maybe even figure out how to stop it. But even if they can-- it's already too late for your friends, Oz. Look at 'em. They're gone."

"They're not gone," said Oswald, glowing a bit brighter, and making the ferals moan. "They're right here."

"Their bodies are," said Hancock. "But their minds?"

"Sick." Oswald stood up, abruptly, and the ferals began to stand up, too. "Not dead. They know me, they-- respond to me. They remember me. I know they do."

"Is this what your friends would want?" Hancock asked. Maybe it wasn't smart to keep pushing, but he didn't know how else to make his point. What was he supposed to do, lie to this guy? Send him off on some kind of quest for an imaginary cure? "This kind of a life? Do you even know which ones are which, any more? Their names, who they used to be? Are they still here, even that much?"

A luminescent green glow gathered and thickened at Oswald's eyes, swelled, and oozed down his cheeks, leaving two phosphorescent trails.

Nora said, quietly, "Oswald, I lost my husband. My first husband. And for the longest time, I just-- left his body where it was."

Hancock wanted to step towards her-- she hardly ever talked about this-- but stayed still, letting her go on, with a shiver, "It was cold, so it didn't-- it kept." Her eyes were fixed on Oswald. "I just couldn't-- the idea of burying him-- of putting him in the ground-- I knew he was dead, I knew he wasn't coming back, I knew his-- his soul was in Heaven-- if there is a Heaven, if souls are a thing-- but-- I loved his body, too. Even if it was empty now. I didn't want to bury it. I didn't want it to-- rot."

Oswald sat back down on the stage, and buried his face in his hands.

As the ferals settled back down, too, Nora stepped forward-- the Geiger counter on her Pip-Boy already clicking frantically-- but Hancock got to her first, put a hand on her arm, said, “Let me.”

She looked puzzled, but stood still, while he reached up for the edge of the stage, pulled himself up onto it by his arms, and sat down next to Oswald.

Felt good to be close to him, yeah. In a different way from how it felt good to be close to Nora. She was sunlight, fresh air, clean water, sweet laughing sex and a good fight, a rescue. The glow coming off Oswald was the strong undertow: Jet, whiskey, the thick perfumed dark, the teasing purr of someone who didn’t love him, and never would. The warmth, too, that came when he’d bled too much, and part of him wanted to let it keep on till he couldn’t see any more, didn’t have to. The cocktail he’d taken the last night of his human face, when he couldn’t stand it any more.

"I'm sorry," he said. “But you’re here alone, brother, in a haunted graveyard. You can’t stay here. You shouldn’t. You’ll lose your mind. And it’s worth keepin’."

"Even if you’re right--" Oswald lifted his face from his hands. Radioactive waste clung to his palms. Part of Hancock wanted in the worst way to lean forward and lick it off-- but Nora was watching. “What am I to do? I can't go among humans like this."

“You can,” said Hancock. “Just gotta pick the right ones. Fact, I can think of a place you’d be a downright blessing. Everybody fighting to soak up your Glow."

"The Nucleus--?" said Nora, from below.

He nodded. "We're overdue a visit, anyway, to check on the family. Might as well bring the Children an angel."

Oswald said, piteously, "But Rachel--"

"You can leave a message for her," said Hancock. "In case she does come back. Let her know where you went. How to find you."

"But our friends--"

"They need to rest," said Hancock. "We can make it quick for 'em."

"Kill them, you mean!"

"Let them rest," said Hancock again. "You'd want somebody to do the same for you, wouldn't you? I would."

"No," said Oswald, not angrily, not even really in contradiction, but with such sorrow that Hancock's heart ached. Would Oswald's own heart glow, Hancock wondered; did it glow, inside his chest, where no one could see it? "No, no, no, no, no..."

Because it was the only way to keep Nora from climbing up here and doing it herself, Geiger counter be damned, Hancock put his arms around Oswald, pulling the glow-- ah, the glow-- close. Close against his body, that pulsed for it, ached for it. Ached and ached, worse the closer it came. Couldn’t ever really be satisfied, any more than by chems, or booze, or anything short of death. You couldn’t let it get this close. He held on. Sunshine, fresh air, Nora.

"Not yet," said Oswald, tears glowing onto Sierra’s castoff shirt, as the ferals came forward-- moaning softly-- like a rotting tide, flowing around the humans and the synths, clambering slowly up onto the stage, surrounding them, keening.

"OK," said Hancock, holding on. "Not yet, then. When you're ready, brother. We can help, when you're ready."

…………….

"Well," he said, trying for cheer, as they headed back to Nuka Town. He was dressed again, in his clothes, the ones that made the man. Sierra’s glow-stained T-shirt lay discarded before the arch of the Kingdom, half a mile back. "At least we got one today."

Nora nodded, and said something under her breath that he didn't catch.

"What's that?"

She looked up at him-- pink-cheeked again, from the Refreshing Beverage he'd made her drink, still wan-eyed-- and sang, in her sudden, low, sweet alto, "Maybe you can believe it, if it helps you to sleep, but singing works just fine for me…"

"Good night, you moonlight ladies," Sierra piped, on cue. "Rockabye, sweet baby James--"

Unexpectedly, a baritone voice-- not Hancock’s voice, he couldn’t have sung now if his life had depended on it, not even in the rusty whiskey-voice Nora liked, and this was more like what Nate’s must have sounded like, clear and sure, if without the slight drawl Nora affected when she imitated Nate-- joined in.

Danse, his face flushed crimson as everyone looked at him in astonishment, his own eyes lowered, was singing, “Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose--”

Michael’s voice was huskier and less certain than Hancock could possibly have imagined. “Won’t you let me go down in my dreams--”

X6-88 didn’t join in, not yet, but it was enough, enough yet, as Nora’s hand slipped into Hancock’s and held on tight, the voices, together. Not in harmony, not exactly, and not complete, either. But together, and enough.

Chapter Text

“Night?”

Night turned to Mackenzie, who was sitting on her examination table, looking around the marketplace staffed by no-longer-collared people, waiting for the raiders, and, feeling-- buzzed. Like the caffeine buzz of Nuka Cola, only that was a chemical reaction, and this was a reaction to actual events. She was happy, insanely happy, and terrified, and so proud of her bosses, and smug, and worried, which was separate from terrified.

She said, "You really don't need to stay with me, boss. Nobody's gonna be dumb enough to target me. Not after what happened last time."

Night raised his eyebrows at her, and she giggled, startled; it was an unusually-- expressive-- expression.

"OK," she said. "You're the boss."

"That's correct, Dr. Bridgeman," he said. "And since you insist on being here--"

"I'm the doctor," she said. "And I think you're scaring off my patients."

It was true that the few raiders who were here in the marketplace, stocking up on supplies, were avoiding her little clinic like the plague. No one gave her excessive trouble in the ordinary way of things, but they didn't usually hesitate to come over with a dog-bitten leg or bullet-grazed shoulder or knife-slashed cheek or trembling hands from radiation sickness and chem addiction, and demand to be repaired. She didn't mind fixing them. Even raiders had a bit of doctor-awe, if not actual respect, and even the ones who used to be troublesome had gotten a lot quieter when she became Day and Night's unofficial-- whatever she was.

"How unfortunate," Night said, and she giggled again. It was the buzz, she was overstimulated, and his deadpan combined with the way he was so determinedly standing guard-- sweet might have seemed like an odd descriptor for an android raider boss poised to brutally murder or cripple anyone who made a move on her, but it was just so goddamn sweet.

The marketplace was actually pretty quiet. Quieter than usual, even. Mackenzie had expected-- well, she hadn’t known what to expect, exactly, the day after all the slaves suddenly got unilaterally uncollared. There was a lot of quiet, whisper-pitched discussion between-- well, not between slaves, any more; between ex-slaves. Discussing the future, Mackenzie guessed. Only two had left last night: Aaron Corbett and Mark Miller. Some were planning to wait until the visitors had taken all the parks, and ask them for safe escort back to their former settlements, or to the Commonwealth, where they intended to settle down. The rest were either planning to stay, or hadn’t decided yet what to do.

There seemed to be more ex-slaves in the marketplace than usual-- most had gone to work as usual, but some had taken advantage of their new freedom to stay here and talk and plan-- but fewer raiders. If Mackenzie had to guess, she’d say there was probably some furious discussion going on in the Pack’s Amphitheater and the Operators’ Parlor. She hoped the furious discussion would burn itself out, or channel itself into fights and arena challenges between raiders. Day and Night hoped so, too, but they’d still wanted to secure her at the Grille in case anyone was stupid enough to try to take her hostage again. She’d protested that she was needed here, and they’d given in, on condition that one of them stand here and guard her. One of them for Mackenzie, and one for the rest of the park. It was a bit flattering, when you thought about it that way.

But look, she’d been right that she’d be needed here: Keith Dawkins had come into the market and was standing across the way, eying Night like you'd eye a deathclaw sunning itself right next to where you needed to go. Mackenzie caught his eye and smiled encouragingly, and he came closer.

"Hey, Keith," she said, and, seeing that he had a wet cloth wrapped around one hand, "You hurt?" If violence had erupted at the Cappy Café--

"Burned," he said, in a hoarse, nervous rasp, still eyeing Night. "Went to clean the stove-- didn't know it was still hot."

"Let's see," said Mackenzie, and he uncovered the hand. She'd expected a second degree burn at least, to bring him to the clinic despite Night's fearsome presence, but the skin of his palm was only red, not even blistered.

Oh.

"Mmm," she said, and slid down off the table. "Better sit down, Keith. This could take a minute."

Keith sat obediently down on the table, and held out his hand to her. She examined it very carefully (yep, it was a very mildly burned hand, all right), and said, without looking up from it, "Everything OK over at the Café?"

"Uh, yeah, fine," said Keith, and cleared his throat. "A little-- crowded."

"This time of day?"

"That hand does not require medical intervention," said Night, looking over her shoulder, and Keith froze.

Mackenzie glanced up at Night, surprised-- not at his diagnosis, which hardly required a trained medical professional, but that he'd bothered to speak up about it. What did he care how burned Keith's hand was?

"You don't think?" she asked, trying to read his face. It was blank, stony, as he said, "No," and, sternly, to Keith, "Enough malingering. Return to your duties."

"Wait, please, sir," said Mackenzie to Night, grabbing Keith's wrist and stepping in front of where he sat, to keep the poor guy from bolting immediately. What was up with Night, he hadn't seemed to mind the slaves-- ex-slaves-- who'd skipped work altogether today, why was he scolding Keith like this? "He isn't malingering."

Night looked at her. "He is wasting your valuable time with an extremely minor injury."

"He's not wasting my time," said Mackenzie, trying to pitch her voice low enough not to be overheard but not so low as to sound like she was trying not to be overheard. Nobody was very close by, anyway. "He was just about to tell me how things are going at the Cappy Café. You might be interested, too. Since it's part of your park."

Night seemed to absorb this, and then said, at a pitch that matched hers, "If he is here to give information, there is no need for you to hold his hand."

Wait, did-- did he think Keith was flirting with Mackenzie? Or taking advantage of her, making her touch him just for the sake of it? Maybe enough malingering was courser-speak for beat it, creep, the lady doesn't want to talk to you.

"It's OK, boss," she said, touched and amused at the idea that he was trying to protect her even in such a small and unnecessary way. "See, there's a big difference between being seen going to the doctor with an injured hand, and going to the bosses' pet with information. I'm going to bandage his hand, and meantime he's going to tell us what's going on in the Cafe that was urgent enough he burned himself to tell me about it."

Keith made a weak, wordless sound of protest, and Mackenzie, leaning down to get out a few supplies, gave him another encouraging smile.

"Go ahead," she said. 'It's OK. He's on our side, now."

Keith licked dry lips and looked up at Night.

"Do as Dr. Bridgeman says," said Night, as if he shouldn't need telling.

Keith managed, as Mackenzie poured a little purified water on his palm, then dabbed delicately at the reddened skin with a cloth, "The Operators-- they're, they're talking about t-taking down the v-visitors. They say they're gonna ambush 'em, on their way back here. Kill 'em all. Get things back to n-normal, around here."

Night said, "How regrettable for the Operators."

"But, sir, that's bad," said Mackenzie, carefully wrapping Keith's hand, and trying to keep her face as neutral as Night was keeping his, for the benefit of anybody who might glance over at the three of them. "Do you think-- can you stop them?"

"I am not sure that would be the wisest course of action," said Night. "The best way to demonstrate to the raiders that it's unwise to attack the Bowman party will be to allow it to happen. Just as we allow challenges to ourselves in the arena."

Mackenzie bent over Keith's hand, as if the bandaging were a delicate operation. "But what if Nora thinks you and Day are the ones who sent an assassination squad after her?"

"Surely she would think no such thing," said Night.

"She might." Mackenzie was thinking about how X6-88 had spoken up last night, how worried he'd seemed. And Night and Day had come through so beautifully, met Nora more than halfway, they were trying so hard, Mackenzie was so proud of them, and what if a misunderstanding wrecked all that? "You are in charge here. And she doesn't know you that well, not yet."

"X6-88 and X-- Michael-- know us," said Night. "They would never believe we would be so dishonorable. Or so stupid, as to send humans against them."

"Mmm." Mackenzie was thinking. "Keith, since you're injured, Lauren's gonna need an extra pair of hands at the Café. Once we're done here, go to the tato field and grab somebody from there, to help out at the Café. And hey, while you're out there, tell Jennifer Adams to come check in with me. She stepped on a piece of glass the other day and she was supposed to check in this morning, for me to look at the cut and make sure it hasn't gotten infected. Tell her it can't wait. If she waits until the end of the day, she could lose a foot."

Keith nodded.

"That is not how infections work," said Night.

Mackenzie grinned up at him. "Hey, boss, you know so much about medicine, maybe you should be the doctor around here."

"I am beginning to feel being the doctor around here requires more than one skill set I lack," said Night.

Mackenzie tied Keith's bandage neatly in place.

"You're all set," she said. "Check back in tomorrow."

Keith nodded, and fled.

"What do you want with Jennifer Adams?" Night asked.

"Somebody to run a message to Day," said Mackenzie. "Let him know what the Operators are planning, and get him to weigh in. So you don't have to leave me alone."

"Why could Dawkins not have taken a message to Day?"

"Raiders are pretty oblivious, as far as what's going on with us, but it's not smart to count on them being that oblivious," said Mackenzie. "Harder to put the pieces together when it's a different person going to talk to Day than the person who came here from the Café after the third person showed up from the Parlor. Which I assume is where somebody heard the Operators discussing their super secret plans. Because they're oblivious." She smiled at him. "Plus, poor Keith already had to talk to one of you today. If he had to go talk to the other one he might just keel over."

"He seems extremely timid," said Night, in agreement.

"A person doesn't have to be extremely timid to be scared of you and Day," Mackenzie pointed out. "Everybody here is. I was too, at first."

"You were not too scared to approach and speak with us," said Night, and she smiled.

"True," she said. "But Keith got himself here, just now. That was pretty brave. And smart."

"His cover story was unconvincing," said Night. "His injury was so minor as to be negligible."

"Yeah, well, he's only human, boss," said Mackenzie, amused. "I mean, I don't think he would have made it very far into courser training."

"He certainly would not have," said Night.

"Plus, maybe he didn't want to waste my medical supplies," Mackenzie said absently. "Night, you really don't think this is something to worry about, this--"

She broke off, startled, as Night deliberately made a fist, very lightly knocked his knuckles against the examining table, and then uncurled his fingers and held out his hand to her.

"I've injured my hand, Dr. Bridgeman," he said.

Mackenzie laughed so loudly that several people looked up curiously; some kept staring, some looked away, as Mackenzie took Night's proffered hand between her palms.

"You know," she said, "you don't have to be injured for me to hold your hand."

"No?" said Night, his fingers curling around hers. His hand was very warm. Both of theirs were. She'd noticed before.

"No," said Mackenzie, her voice coming out a little breathless for some reason. "You just gotta ask."

"I'll bear that in mind," said Night. "You were saying?"

She couldn't remember.

"You asked whether I am worried about the Operators' plans," said Night. "I am not taking the information lightly, but-- I think any action Day and I might take to prevent the attack, given our limited information, would do more harm than good. For one thing, I would prefer not to give the raiders the false impression that the visitors need our protection. It will be more effective to allow them to see for themselves how ill-advised an attack on the Bowman party will prove."

Mackenzie nodded. Before she could put words to her worry, Night added, "And for another, given Ms. Bowman's softhearted nature, and her apparent concern that Day and I are ruthless tyrants, I think it will be better diplomacy to allow X6-88 and Michael to be the ones to take action to defend her."

Mackenzie nodded again; it kind of made sense when he put it like that. If it seemed like Nora and her family would be in danger from this attack, she'd beg Night to take action, no matter the possible tyrannical implications-- but Nora was already traveling with two coursers.

"Yeah," she said. "If you're right that Michael and X6-88 will trust you not to be behind a murder attempt, and that she'll listen to them when they tell her so, so she doesn't take it as a declaration of war and come back in guns blazing."

"I think she will listen to them," said Night. "I think X6-88 would not have spoken to her as he did, last night, if she were not in the habit of listening to her s-sons."

She wondered if he'd started to say a different word (servants? subordinates? synths?), or just stumbled a bit because of the unfamiliarity of the concept. Either way, the uncharacteristic stutter made her squeeze his hand, and he squeezed back, and brought up his other hand to wrap around hers.

"But we should consult Day, as well," he said. "It's only by happenstance that I am the one here. He is an equally interested party in this matter."

She nodded. He was still holding her hands tightly, in both of his, and she was having a little trouble keeping track in her mind of what the matter was, exactly, but they definitely needed to bring Day in on the discussion. He was definitely equally interested.

The Operators moving on the visitors. Right.

"When Jennifer gets here--" she said.

"You'll send her to Day with the intelligence Dawkins brought," said Night. "And she can either relay a message back through whatever arcane means of communication you are accustomed to using, or he can come here, and we can discuss the matter further."

She nodded again. “OK. Sounds like a plan.”

His dark eyes were fixed on her face. She looked back into them, seeing light reflected there.

"It's gonna be OK, boss," she said. "If she does come back pissed, you and Day can just get behind me while we explain the Operators acted alone. I'm ninety-nine percent sure she won't shoot you through me."

Night gave her one of his very small, very rare, very dear smiles.

He said, with apparent irrelevance, “Day and I first came here-- without knowing what we would find. Or even what we hoped to find. Adventure, I suppose.”

Mackenzie nodded, still looking into his eyes. With anyone else-- anyone else, rather, other than Day-- it would have been awkward, this prolonged, intent staring at each other; she would have felt the need to fidget, look away. But it wasn't awkward for them, and so it wasn't for her, either; she could look and look. “And is that what you've found?”

“It would appear so,” said Night. “More than we bargained for, perhaps.”

“But not more than you can handle,” said Mackenzie, and he gripped her hands tighter for a moment, and then let go.

“That remains to be seen,” he said. “But I appreciate your confidence.”

“Anytime, boss,” said Mackenzie, and sat back down on her examining table. She’d been standing too long-- maybe she’d locked her knees accidentally, what with all the tension in the air-- and she was feeling a little light-headed. "Anyway. I'm glad you're here."

"So am I," said Night. "Thank you, Dr. Bridgeman."

Chapter Text

They hadn't done badly, considering, X6-88 thought, putting his gun away and glancing around. Fourteen raiders in the attacking party, a surprise attack, relatively unfamiliar terrain, but they'd responded quickly and smoothly, worked together well. Even Danse, with his conditioned disinclination to harm humans, had distinguished himself.

(X6-88 himself was somewhat disinclined to approve of a synth who hadn't completed the courser training program taking up arms against humans, but the circumstances were exceptional, and X6-88 wasn't unreasonable. Danse had completed a training program-- the Brotherhood's, designed for humans, but he'd apparently distinguished himself within their ranks-- and was utilizing his skills at the behest of his human superior, for her protection. It was an unorthodox situation, but so was everything, these days.)

Thirteen raiders dead, one face down on the ground, whimpering, with Michael's handgun to his head. Sierra Petrovita on the ground, too, the costume shirt she'd acquired at the "Western"-themed amusement park covered in blood, but sobbing loudly and rhythmically enough that it was clear she was breathing well, and Ms. Bowman was already there, rummaging in her bag for medical supplies. Danse, who had stepped out of his power armor as soon as the threat seemed to have been eliminated, was hurrying to Sierra's side as well.

Hancock had suffered some damage to one leg; he was tending to his own injury with a stimpak. X6-88 wasn't sure about Michael; he certainly had some blood on him, but it was hard to tell whether any of it was his own. If he was injured, he considered it less important than holding a gun on the raider.

X6-88 had been given a number of medical supplies at the outset of this journey, with no indication that he would be required to account for how he had used them. Ms. Bowman seemed occupied with Sierra, and he didn't like to interrupt her to ask permission to use a stimpak. He was fairly sure he knew how she’d answer, anyway. He took one from an inner pocket of his uniform, slid the thick fabric aside slightly, and stabbed the needle efficiently into the skin beside his wound.

"It's OK, honey," Ms. Bowman was saying to Sierra. "It's OK, I'm just gonna give you a little shot, OK? It'll make you feel better, I promise."

She injected Sierra's shoulder, through the shirt, with what looked like Med-X. Sierra's sobbing quieted, but when Ms. Bowman produced a knife, Sierra cried out in protest.

"Sweetheart, it's OK," Ms. Bowman said. "I just need to get the bullet out before I use a stimpak, and the easiest way without taking your shirt off is going to be to just make this hole in your shirt a little bit bigger, OK? Just so I can see?"

Sierra shook her head, crying too hard to speak. Ms. Bowman looked up helplessly at Danse.

"We can clean and repair your shirt, Sierra," said Danse, reaching out to smooth Sierra's hair back from her forehead. "Or, failing that, I noticed two other animatronics wearing similar clothing. I will go back to the park and obtain them for you. With Nora's permission."

He looked up at Ms. Bowman, who said, to Sierra, "Yeah, sweetheart. We'll get them for you. Every shirt in the park. And I wouldn't write this one off just yet. I've got some tips and tricks for getting blood out of fabric. But I'm a little bit more worried about you right now, OK? Can I please cut your shirt? Just a bit?"

"OK," said Sierra, and, to Danse, as Ms. Bowman transferred her carefully into Danse's arms, "You promise?"

"I promise," said Danse.

Sierra relaxed against his chest, her head lolling onto his shoulder as she seemed to succumb to the influence of the Med-X. Ms. Bowman extracted the bullet, without eliciting any more cries from Sierra, and used a stimpak on the wound, then checked Sierra's pulse, pulled up an eyelid gently to look at the pupil, and got to her feet, leaving Danse to hold Sierra.

"Is everybody else OK?" she asked, looking around. She was spattered with blood, but X6-88 was fairly sure it all belonged to the raiders she’d just stabbed to death.

"Fine," said Hancock, and X6-88 and Michael said, more or less in unison, "Yes, ma'am."

"Fuck," Ms. Bowman said, and, louder, "Fucking fuck!"

She dropped to her knees again, this time beside the raider, across from Michael; she gripped the raider's shoulder, roughly yanked him over onto his back, and yelled directly into his face, "What the fuck is your problem?"

"Bosses said to take you out," the raider gasped.

Michael said coldly, "He's lying."

"You sure, son?" Hancock asked, still sitting with one leg curled, the other one extended in front of him. "I know it's what you'd rather believe, and I don't blame you. But let's face it, it'd sure make Day and Night's lives easier if we disappeared off the gameboard after clearing them a park or three."

"Of course I am sure," said Michael.

Ms. Bowman was wiping sweat and blood off her face with her hand, and then, abruptly, she slammed her hand onto the ground beside the raider's head. He jumped and whined.

"I swear to fucking God, you guys," she said. "I have just about fucking had it with being jerked around like this."

She wasn’t actually looking at any of them.

"Fuck!" she shouted again, and grabbed the raider's chest armor, jerking him up by it. He wailed in fear, and maybe in pain, too, as she yelled, "What the fuck is wrong with you, huh? You need slaves this fucking much? You need the people who work for you in fucking shock collars, you need it so fucking bad that you gotta try to kill the people who want them free? You and your bosses?"

"Day and Night did not send these people," said Michael, with quiet urgency.

"If they didn't make it happen, they let it happen," she said, and let the raider drop back to the ground; the air went out of him in a sharp whoosh as he hit, and struggled for breath a moment. She paid no attention. "Roll the fucking dice, right? See how it goes. If I get past the raiders, great, less raiders for them to worry about opposing their plans. If I don't, also great. Free parks, and they don't have to worry about some bleeding heart human fucking up their nice little dictatorship."

Michael was silent, still. Had he ever seen her like this before? If he had, it hadn’t been about anything he felt the need to protest; he obviously didn’t know what to do.

Hancock had seen her like this, and had egged her on, no doubt. Fed her righteous fury. No reason to think he would be helpful this time.

X6-88 hadn't known what he was watching happen, the first time, but he knew it now. Had seen it coming since they arrived here. Had thought maybe he'd managed to avert it, by speaking up last night, by daring what he'd never dared before, by forcing the issue, and Day and Night had taken heed, and X6-88 had thought maybe, maybe this time was going to be different, that she wouldn't--

"I mean, haven't I been trying?" she demanded, looking up at Hancock. "Haven't I been making an effort? I find my kids running a fucking raider gang-- two raider gangs-- with a bunch of slaves in shock collars, and don't I make a fucking effort to be understanding? Don't I offer to do them a fucking favor? A pretty big one? Run errands for them? Work for them? For fucking slave owners? And for what? So they can hustle me out of the way, so their asshole raider buddies can ambush me on my way back? Try to fucking kill me? And my family?"

Impossible to speak now, impossible, too late; she was angry, ranting, one couldn't interrupt a human in full storm like this. She would dismiss him if he tried, send him away again--

No. She'd said-- she'd promised-- she'd agreed that she owed him--

He took two strides forward, dropped to his knees beside her. She had been taking a breath to say something else, and it went out of her in a sudden sharp exhale, like the fallen raider's, as her startled eyes fixed on his face. He opened his mouth to speak--

He couldn't. Couldn't say what he needed to say. Any more than he'd been able to, last time.

If he could have brought himself to ask, before, to plead, when she sent him away, when he'd seen her face drawn with that terrible bleak exhaustion that he'd watched drain the light and life from her eyes, little by little, every time he said or did something wrong. Something so terribly different from what she expected, or wanted, or hoped--

If it had seemed possible to say, then, please no, please, ma'am, I'm sorry I've displeased you, please let me try again. Please let me stay--

If he had said it then, and she had relented-- and he knew her well enough by now to know she would have relented at that, might even have taken him in her arms then for the first time, apologized, promised to try harder, too--

--would it have been possible to say, later, at the crucial moment, please, you don't understand. You don't know him the way I do. I know you don't know how to talk to him, any more than you know how to talk to me. I know you're so disappointed. I know you're so frustrated. I know you're so tired of trying.

I know. I'm sorry.

But please.

But if he'd had the capacity to have said any of that, he might not have needed to; he would have satisfied her better, been more like what she wanted, from the beginning. Father would have been different, too, a Father who could have trained him to be able to speak like that to his mother.

A courser didn't make demands, a courser didn't question the decisions of its superiors, and a courser didn't beg. One obtained what one needed, or endured the lack of it. Accomplished one's goal, or suffered the consequences. One didn't say please.

She was looking at him, though, as he knelt before her in helpless silence, and she said, her voice still ragged with the torn edge of her anger, trying to find its way back to gentleness, "What, son? What is it?"

(One didn't have a mother, either.)

She was still angry, he could see it on her face. Not with him, though, not yet, and as if to prove it she held out her hand to him. He caught it so quickly he startled her, but she didn't pull back, or try to pull her hand away.

Like the other coursers he’d seen who still wore their uniforms, he had abandoned his gloves long ago-- there was no longer any way to replace them when they grew ragged enough to flap distractingly from his fingers, even if there had still been anywhere sufficiently clean that stripping off his gloves before touching anything mattered. But even without the gloves, his uniform covered so much, and so thoroughly. When she had been in his arms yesterday, he had felt the heat and wetness of her tears against his face and neck, but when she took his arm, he could only feel pressure, not touch. Not really.

He liked feeling her hand in his. The warmth of it. Knowing she was feeling his skin, too. There was something-- luxurious-- about it. It reminded him, somehow, of the rainy day when he'd arrived at the Castle, and she had not only made him sit down, but gotten down on the floor at his feet, to take off his wet, muddy shoes and socks.

If she did try to pull her hand away, he decided suddenly, he wouldn’t let her. He would hold on. And she would remember-- he hoped-- what she had promised. To be patient, this time.

She was waiting, patiently, for him to speak.

"Day and Night asked you, yesterday evening, whether it would offend your sensibilities if they destroyed the raiders,” he said. Facts, facts were solid and reassuring. “You said no. I should have interjected at that point in the conversation--" but he'd been tired and shaky already from so much boldness and interference in her affairs and he couldn't think of everything, all the time, he hadn't been programmed or trained to meddle like this-- "to ask you to clarify to what extent you would be comfortable helping them with that task."

"So this is, what?" she asked, her glance roving from Sierra, bloodied and drowsy in Danse's arms, to the carcasses of dead raiders scattered around them, to the one left alive, lying on his back and breathing shallowly, Michael's gun at his temple. "Outsourcing?"

She was still angry.

"If they did not take steps to protect you," said X6-88, "it was because they did not consider that you needed their protection."

But that was a misstep, he knew that as soon as he'd said it, he wasn't good at this. He'd meant it as praise of her toughness, but it was something Father had done too, that she'd tried not to mind, and now it made her make some kind of a face, rolling her eyes and jerking her head sharply to one side. She didn't try to take her hand back, though.

"They know you have my protection, and Michael's," he pointed out. "And they were right. None of us were injured beyond what could easily be repaired by our available supplies."

"They fucked up Sierra's new shirt," she said, and then made a different face, a violent twist of the mouth that straightened itself out quickly. He hoped it meant she understood and recognized the absurdity of what she'd said.

(He refrained from commenting on her inexplicable emotional investment in a grubby, hapless human she'd randomly tripped over the day before yesterday. That never went over well.)

“They," he said instead, and, correcting himself, "we, we were shaped by the Institute. Its values. We do not-- instinctively-- share your priorities.”

She was silent, as he stumbled on, “But they are trying. They did so much, that you asked. Last night. They want to understand. But they need your forbearance. Your patience." And he could say it, finally, holding her hand and her gaze and her promise, "Please-- mother---"

She tried to pull her hand away, and he held on tighter, no no no, and she stopped trying, and then got up onto her knees and pushed her upper body towards him, put her free arm around his neck.

Oh. A hug. He hadn’t expected a hug. Another one, so soon.

He let go of her hand, then, so she could put her other arm around him, and so that he could wrap his arms around her in return.

Did this mean it had worked? It might just be-- an attempt to comfort him, or to reassure him, like the offer of her hand. It was comforting, being hugged by her, but if it didn't also mean he'd actually succeeded in defusing her anger and disappointment with Night and Day, he couldn't succumb to the comfort like Sierra to the Med-X, he had to keep thinking of things to say. How did he ask whether she had relented?

"Mother?" he said, and she said, next to his ear, "Yeah, OK. OK."

“OK,” he said. It was all he really had the breath, or the presence of mind, or the audacity, left to say.

She hugged him tighter, and then let him go, and sat back on her heels.

"OK," she said again, and leaned over the wounded raider. "You're one of the fancy ones. Operators, right?"

He whimpered.

"Yeah, pull it together, shithead," she said. "I have some questions, and if you're too sleepy to answer, we can start thinking of ways to wake you up. Who sent you?"

Chapter Text

Sunny was one of the first to see who'd come back.

She'd been sweeping the cobblestones near the park's entrance, sort of. She wasn't very good at it-- the broom kept twisting in her hands, as if it were trying to escape, and the dirt either ignored her efforts or dodged and scurried away from them, and a couple of Pack members had already tossed trash directly at her as they walked by, laughing. But pushing the broom like a slave, keeping her head down like one, meant no one really looked at her, or wondered why she was lingering by the archway. Besides, it passed the time, while she kept an eye out for the next thing to happen. Which, depending on how it shook out, would determine some of her own plans going forward.

One thing was for sure, she was done taking orders from Mags, who had slapped a collar on her for what had happened at the transit station, without the slightest regard for the fact that two of the newcomers turned out to be from the same place, and the same kind of murder robot, as the bosses, meaning Sunny and her crew had been up against even more of a challenge than would have been required to make Sunny Overboss. Fuck Mags, and William too.

But she wasn't looking to paint her face and join the Pack, either. Which meant that-- now that fucking collar was off-- she could either get the hell out of here, start over somewhere else with a new gang and work her way up, or she could make a try for black armor, the bosses' crew.

She hadn't decided which yet, but it wouldn't hurt either way to try to get on the bosses' good side; to that end, she'd taken certain precautions.

She watched with interest as the dark-skinned one in the boss-coat-- X-something, she couldn't remember the numbers-- and the ghoul in the red coat walked back through the gates, flanking Decker, who was bloody and bruised, and seemed to have his hands tied behind his back. Where was everybody else? Had the Operators' squad managed to take out Bowman and the other boss-looking guy and the one in the suit of armor, as well as Petrovita, before getting taken out themselves?

She wasn't sure how she felt about that, actually. She hadn't-- entirely-- decided how she felt about Nora Bowman. It was confusing, the way she acted. Kicking the asses of Sunny's crew, and then treating and bandaging them so they wouldn't die. Acting all smiley and cheerful, like she wanted to be friends, but not scared, like people usually were when they tried to get you to be friends. People who weren't scared of you were either stupid and needed to be taught a lesson, or had plans to teach you a lesson of their own--

--but then, Bowman and her party hadn't targeted Sunny, either before or after Sunny got enslaved. Sunny had been uncollared with the rest. Nobody had backed her up against the wall, before or after, and told her to watch herself. Nobody had hurt her.

She'd always thought "decency" was a word for losers, weaklings who wanted to guilt you out of doing what they couldn't stop you from doing, but these people were stronger than her-- had proved it, right away-- and they'd still treated her with more respect and consideration than her own goddamn leader she'd worked and sweated and bled for.

It would be sort of a bummer if Bowman was dead, actually. She'd been making things interesting around here.

"You," said X-whatever, and, startled, Sunny realized he was addressing her. "Carroll, yes?"

"Yes," she said, and, after a moment's hesitation, added, "sir."

"You were one of the Operators?" X-whatever asked, and Sunny tried not to show fear (or should she show fear? Would that be smarter? If the Operators had just killed his boss/mom-- She went for a balance, nervous/brave) as she said, "I was, yeah. Sir."

"This a friend of yours?" the ghoul asked her, jerking his head at Decker, who kept his eyes down.

"Uh, no sir," said Sunny. "Definitely not."

Decker looked up at that, shot her a look of burning hatred. She sneered back, very slightly. Fuck Decker.

"Where are Night and Day?" X-whatever asked.

"At the Grille," said Sunny. Decker had dropped his head again. She wondered why they'd brought him back alive. To make an example of him, she guessed. The bosses weren't big into torture in general, tended to make their kills quick and clean, but they might make an exception for this. Sunny wasn't going to shed any tears. Decker was a stupid asshole, who'd underestimated Sunny as badly as Mags had, just like the rest of those assholes who'd volunteered to try to take out the Bowman party. As if Sunny had just botched the job, the first time.

"The doc there too?" the ghoul asked.

"I think so," said Sunny.

"Go fetch Mags Black," X-whatever told her. "Tell her to report to the Grille."

"Yes sir," said Sunny, suppressing her satisfaction until the three of them-- Decker in the middle, stumbling slightly-- had walked on, towards the Grille.

 

.......................................................

 

She suppressed it at the Parlor, too; hung down her head, acted humble, like a slave, as she told Mags who'd come back and what they'd said to her.

Mags listened silently, looking calmer than Sunny would have expected, and said, "All right, then. William, Lizzie, come along."

"Mags--" Lizzie looked panic-stricken.

"Both of you follow my lead," said Mags. "We can still get out of this."

Not if I can help it, thought Sunny, and followed them from the Parlor as if she'd been ordered to escort them to the Grille. She planned to claim those were her orders if they questioned her, but they didn't.

Raiders-- Pack and Operator-- and ex-slaves watched their little group silently as they walked to the Grille; the black-armored guards at the doors to the Grille stepped aside for them silently, and the elevator ride up was silent, too.

The bosses were waiting in the room where they usually held meetings-- Sunny had been here before, when she was in good with the Operators, not long ago-- sitting on a couch, on either side of the doc, who was on the furniture instead of on the floor like a good little bitch. Finally getting something out of her position, maybe, the way Sunny would have a long time ago if she'd been the bosses' favorite fucktoy, instead of using up her leverage on things like eight-hour workdays for the rest of the slaves. Not that Sunny envied Bridgeman the gig; the bosses were pretty good-looking, and kept themselves clean, but they were creepy, with their expressionless stares and low, even voices and the weird way they talked, which made more sense now that it turned out they were actual robots.

(Did robots even fuck? They must, or what the hell had Bridgeman been doing here all those late nights? Making conversation?)

The ghoul and the X-guy sat in chairs on either side of the sofa. Decker, hands still tied behind his back, knelt on the floor in front of the bosses' couch, facing away from them, towards the door, so that all six of them were staring accusingly at the Operators as they entered.

"Do you have anything to say for yourself?" Night asked Mags, without preamble.

Mags headed for one of the other couches, and Day said, "You are not invited to sit down."

Mags stopped and gave a puzzled little frown, a pretty good one. "Is there a problem, Overboss?"

"You were informed that the members of the Bowman party were our guests," said Day, "and instructed to treat them with respect."

Mags tilted her head in apparent confusion. "Yes, sir, we were. Have we offended your guests in some way?"

"Their party was attacked by fourteen of your Operators, on the way back from clearing a park for us," said Night.

Mags widened her eyes. "Attacked? By the Operators? Decker?"

"We were out on patrol, ma'am," said Decker, showing more wit than Sunny had ever credited him with. Maybe this had been the agreed-upon story before they headed out; Sunny hadn't heard their actual instructions. "As soon as they saw us, they attacked. We had to fight back."

"Oh, no, Decker," said Mags, her voice breathless with dismay. "Fuck. How many casualties?"

"I'm the only one left," said Decker.

Mags closed her eyes, grief-stricken-- Sunny was almost tempted to applaud-- and then opened them and looked back at the bosses. "And their party? Is this-- all--?" Her glance took in the ghoul and the X-guy.

"You claim you did not send your people expressly to attack the Bowman party?" Day asked.

"To attack your guests?" Mags sounded appalled. "Overboss, why would I do such a thing?"

"To 'get things back to normal around here'?" Bridgeman suggested sweetly.

Mags went white under her tan.

Sunny had to bite her lip to keep from grinning.

"I beg your pardon?" said Mags, after a moment, but her voice wasn't quite steady enough to carry it off.

"The jig's up, Maggy," said the ghoul in a lazy drawl.

X-whatever said to the bosses, "I would like to be the one to kill her. What is the protocol?"

"Now hold on just a damn minute," said William, speaking for the first time since they'd all entered the room. "Nobody's gonna kill my sister."

"Your sister tried to have me and my companions killed," said X-whatever. (Tried to? Not "killed my mom"? Then where was Bowman?)
"If you feel it will be too difficult to go on living without her, I'll be more than pleased to help you do otherwise."

The ghoul laughed. "Damn, X6."

"Do I challenge her in the arena?" X6 asked the bosses. "Is there some sort of formal request to be submitted?"

Night said, "You can challenge her if you wish to become the new leader of the Operators."

X6 frowned slightly. "Is that a position I can delegate? I'm busy."

"Aren't we all being a bit hasty?" Mags asked, her voice smooth and calm again; she'd recovered pretty quickly. "Overbosses, you must know I have no intention of questioning your authority or your decisions, but I am the Operators' leader. Unless you plan to obliterate the entire faction--"

"We plan to deal with threats to people under our protection," said Day. "If it seems necessary to eliminate another entire faction to do so, we certainly will not hesitate. However, I hardly think you have inspired such undying loyalty in your followers by-- most recently-- getting thirteen of them killed to no purpose."

"I'll stand with her," said William. "And so will Lizzie."

"Well, I'll stand with X6-88," said the ghoul, sounding, if anything, thrilled at the prospect. "We do this now? Or is there a waiting period?"

"You and X6-88 would like to challenge the Blacks and Wyath to an arena fight?" Day asked.

"I would like to kill the woman who gave orders to have me and my companions murdered," said X6-88.

"Yeah," said the ghoul. "I mean, Sierra's cowgirl shirt's never gonna be quite the same. She's pretty broken up about it."

God damn-- thirteen Operators dead and not a single fatality on the other side, not even Petrovita? Sunny seethed, again, with the injustice of Mags having enslaved Sunny for getting her ass slightly kicked by Bowman and her literal asskicking machines. In fact--

"I'll stand with the newcomers, too," Sunny said, not loudly but clearly, and everyone looked at her.

"I should've come straight to you, Overbosses," she said, trying not to let her teeth chatter, fuckfuckfuck this was terrifying, but exhilarating, too, like fighting in the arena on a big hit of Psycho, everyone's screams in your ears-- "But I guess you did get my message? Or Bridgeman did, anyway. I was hoping Dawkins would get it to her, when I talked to him at the Café."

"You talked to Keith?" Bridgeman asked, sounding-- not incredulous, exactly, but definitely surprised.

Sunny nodded, blood roaring in her ears, keeping her eyes on Bridgeman, who was the least frightening person facing her right now.

Then she heard the schick of a blade being drawn, and Lizzie hissed, "You treacherous bitch--" and the ghoul, X6, and both bosses all stood up, fast.

Lizzie's knife was a nasty one, one she'd picked up from one of the Disciples' corpses, and whose serrated blade she coated with substances she cooked up herself in her little lab at the Parlor. Sunny put up her weaponless hands-- Lizzie had been the one who'd taken her weapons from her, when she got put in a collar-- and backed up a step. They'd taken her armor, too. She had nothing to fight with, she was defenseless.

But the room was on her side, she could feel it, the way sometimes the crowd was on your side in the arena, except they turned on you the second you were weak, or looked weak, just like your so-called gang did. Just like everyone did. Except not now, not here, she was weak but--

"Put that away, Lizzie," said Mags, sounding coldly enraged, although Sunny didn't know if it was at her or at Lizzie, or both.

"Carroll betrayed us," William protested, "and you're just gonna--"

"Lizzie," Mags said, and Lizzie seemed to realize, too, which way things were going. She glanced around--

--and lunged, knife still out, for Bridgeman.

Then it was like it had been at the transit station, like it used to be in the arena when people used to be dumb enough to actually challenge the bosses: it happened so fast, the knife clattering to the floor, a sickening crack and a thud as Lizzie fell too, Sunny feeling herself jerked away to the side by a hard arm around her waist, losing her balance and falling, instead of down, against one of the bosses, still supported by his arm in its gray coat.

She'd never touched one of them before. It almost made her panic, being held by someone so strong, she couldn't fight back, he'd snap her in half-- but he wasn't hurting her.

Lizzie was dead on the floor, eyes wide and staring. Day had snapped her neck and dropped her dispassionately in front of Decker, who was staring at her body and making a little whimpering noise, like a hurt puppy. Night stood by Bridgeman, his own knife out; she had pulled herself a bit behind him on the couch, and was watching the scene, wide-eyed.

(Then who was holding Sunny? She looked down at the arm in the coat-sleeve, saw the dark-skinned hand. X6.)

Mags and William were both holding very, very still.

"Let us go," said Mags, finally, her voice shaking; it was an intensely satisfying sound. "We'll leave the park. We won't make trouble."

The ghoul, on Decker's other side with his own pistol still in his hand, gave a quick bark of laughter, as X6 moved his arm from around Sunny, but didn't move from her side. "Now, why don't I believe that?"

"Why don't you?" Day asked him coolly.

"Because these two have been nothing but trouble for anybody dumb enough to trust 'em since they hit puberty," said the ghoul. "And after they made too much trouble in Diamond City for their parents' caps to hush up, and got kicked out, they came back to rob and murder their own ma, before they came here to make worse trouble. Maybe Lizzie was the bad influence all along, but I don't think so. She was mostly just a grifter and blackmailer, till she took up with the Blacks."

"Who the fuck are you?" William asked, his own voice as hoarse as the ghoul's.

"Breaking my heart here, Bill," said the ghoul, and, to the bosses, "If you let 'em go, they're gonna make trouble for you. Fair warning. Or for somebody else."

"If they voluntarily resign from authority--" Night began, and Mags said, quickly, "We do. I do. I resign. William?"

"Yeah, I resign," said William.

"--then, I think, by Ms. Bowman's terms, we are required to let them leave freely," said Night. "As we are now required to let any-- laborer-- here, leave freely, if they wish to do so. Is that correct?"

He was looking at X6. Sunny looked up at him, too. She couldn't read his face, but when he spoke, he sounded-- longsuffering.

"Probably," he said. "It's all right. I'll seek permission to hunt them down later." He looked at Mags and William. "Take your dead with you when you go."

William stepped forward and picked up Lizzie-- her body still limp, not yet stiffening-- and threw her, clumsily, halfway over his shoulder, staggering slightly under the weight, although Lizzie had been slight. Dead weight.

"Sir," said Bridgeman, and Night and Day both turned to her. "At least one of you should-- escort them out. There's trouble they could make between here and the park gates."

"I'll go," said Night, and followed the Black siblings from the room.

Day looked at the ghoul, and then at X6, and nudged Decker lightly with the toe of his boot. "We have yet to discuss this person. What would you like done with him?"

"I don't give much of a shit," said the ghoul. "X6? You wanna file a deathmatch request against this guy?"

"Not particularly," said X6. "Send him back to the Parlor. He can give them valuable information about the advisability of attacking our family in the future."

Day nodded, and turned to Sunny. "Speaking of valuable information. Carroll, you provided information that proved valuable to us in establishing the Blacks' guilt. Why?"

"Mags put me in a collar," said Sunny, heartbeat hard in her ears again-- but she was still standing by X6, he'd moved to protect her instinctively, as if she was part of his team. "Sir. And you-- and the Bowmans-- took it off."

"You demonstrate a firmer grasp of reality than most humans," said Day. "Would you like to be the new leader of the Operators?"

Chapter Text

"This is kinda nice," said Nora.

Danse, sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up and his back against the wall, glanced around at the grimy concrete and rusty steel of what must have once formed the backstage area of the "fun house." Oswald had brought them here, showed them how to terminal-lock the security door, promised they'd be safe for the night.

Two beds-- on one of which Nora was sitting-- a few shelves on which Danse and Michael had carefully stacked everyone's weapons and armor and packs. Musty and smelling of damp and decay, and faintly warm. It should have been unpleasantly reminiscent of the bunker where he'd spent the worst years he could remember, where Nora had spent a bad twenty hours or so, but--

"It is nice," he agreed. "Cozy."

Nora smiled at him.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd been completely alone with her. Unless it was that time on top of the Castle's wall, when she'd confessed that she'd been the one who'd brought down the Prydwyn.

He'd been less afraid of her after that, oddly enough, and he was even less afraid now. He felt, in fact, a bit protective of her. In much the same way he'd felt protective of the poor broken Railroad agent on the bunker floor, before he'd seen her face. He could have hurt her so easily, then, been only a little rough, to get his share of punishment in, if he'd wanted to. And even now, if he wanted to, he could hurt her: with a few words, with a cold look, even. He could make her cry, and beg his forgiveness.

He didn't want to, though. Not now. There were things he'd like to say to her eventually, conversations he'd like to have, about the ruination she'd wreaked through her impatience and headstrong stubbornness, about the squires aboard the Prydwyn, about Haylen-- but not now. She was tired, bruised already, it had been a hard few days. He'd be gentle, let her rest. That was within his gift, that small sanctuary, that he smile at her when they were alone, show her his trust and affection.

Which were, after all, just as real as his anger. More: if he hadn't trusted and liked her by now, he wouldn't have dared let himself be angry. It wouldn't have been safe.

And he did feel safe, now, with her. It was a little surprising to realize it, and brought with it a perverse stab of fear-- if he felt safe, he should probably check his defenses again-- but he'd seen her sorely tried, seen her in the throes of pain and anger and grief, and seen the lengths she'd gone to, amidst all that pain, to keep from hurting her children. Including him.

"What do you think they're all doing, back home?" she asked, unexpectedly, and he smiled at her, and at the image of home. The Castle.

"Reading aloud," he said. "In the library."

"Who do you think is there?"

"Everyone," he said. "Emily and Shaun, and Max, and Kasumi, and Cog and Victoria, and Dee and Elizabeth, and Leah. All your children."

"I love having so many," she said, "but it's hard, too. Thank goodness you take care of each other." She smiled at him again. "Like how you take care of Michael for me."

He smiled again, too, amused at how she'd misspoken. "He takes care of me, you mean."

"That too," she said. "But you've been so good for him. I was kind of scared, you know-- well, not that I didn't trust you, but I didn't know you as well as I did him. My fault," she added quickly. "But I'd never seen him so-- vulnerable-- as when he started falling for you. It scared me, for him, you know? He's so stoic, and he's been hurt so bad-- when the Institute demoted him-- and I don't think he'd ever been in love before. But he's so happy with you. He just-- glows, you know? Every time he looks at you."

Danse thought he might be glowing a bit himself, the flush of heat at his face feeling incandescent. "I--"

"Well, maybe you don't know," said Nora. "It's not like you see him when he isn't around you. So you wouldn't see the difference. But trust me." She grinned. "Or tell me you didn't notice how much he hated that power armor helmet. He kept looking at you and not being able to see you? I thought that's why you took it off."

"He asked me to," said Danse.

"Oh!" Nora sounded pleased. "Good for him. That's what I mean. He's getting more confident, I think, since he's been with you. About asking for what he wants."

Danse didn't know what to say, except-- "I'm glad."

"Me too," said Nora. "That's what I mean, about you all looking out for each other. Look at X6, looking out for Night and Day, when I lost my shit today. And you figuring out what Sierra was so upset about-- that shirt. How'd you know?"

How had he known? No one had ever given him credit for being particularly insightful, but it had seemed obvious to him, and not to Nora.

"I understand the-- attachment-- to clothes," he said, slowly, considering. "Uniforms, as it were. Sierra was happy to be wearing clothing associated so closely with-- something larger, that she cares deeply about. Something that gives meaning to her life. I understand that."

Nora nodded thoughtfully. "I don't, not really. I mean, I get what you're saying, and it makes sense, and I think a lot of people feel that way. Hancock, with that frock coat, and-- well, that courser uniform, you know. But I don't feel that way. I just like clothes that are practical, you know. Cover me up."

"You're not much of a joiner," said Danse, echoing the words she'd said to him when she declined his invitation to join the Brotherhood, and she looked-- startled, even a little frightened perhaps, searching his face. But he gave her a smile, to make it into a joke between them, and took pleasure in the relief he saw in her answering smile.

"I guess not," she said. "Still. I wonder if Preston-- if that's why he made me the General. Of the Minutemen, I mean. Instead of asking me to join up. Maybe he knew me well enough, already--" She fell silent for a moment, then resumed, "When we get back to the Commonwealth, I want to swing by Sanctuary, before we go home. I wonder-- I'll ask him, if he'd think about moving to the Castle. And Ronnie, too. For the council. The bigger everything gets, the more I think about that council."

Danse nodded. "I think you're wise to seek counsel, Nora. The best leaders do."

"I try," she said. "Thanks, Danse."

A silence fell-- a comfortable one-- and then they heard the doors to the "funhouse" opening, and the familiar heavy tread of power armor.

It was a bit surreal to see Michael coming up the stairs side by side with Danse's own power armor; it was like seeing himself from the outside, except that it was the Danse sitting on the floor whom Michael's gaze sought out. He didn't quite smile, but Danse thought he might see what Nora meant, about the glow.

"I forget how to get out," said the metallic voice from the power armor, and Danse said, "Press and hold the release on your left palm."

The armor opened at the back, and Michael moved swiftly to intercept Sierra's backwards fall out of it. She giggled as he righted her, and pushed her sweaty hair back out of her flushed face. She seemed in excellent spirits, despite the still-ripped and bloodstained shirt she was wearing.

"Did you have fun?" Nora asked her, and Sierra said, stepping around the power armor towards them, "It was wonderful! Like real magic! I wish you guys could've seen-- and I learned so much about the park, in the old days!"

She tumbled suddenly to the floor by Danse, held up her arms; he was puzzled for a moment, and then realized she was nonverbally asking permission to hug him. He lifted his own arms, and she fell lightly into them.

"Thank you for lending me your armor," she said, nestling her smaller body against him with utter confidence, as if they'd been best friends for years. It was strange-- but he'd held her, earlier, when she was hurt, and she'd curled close against him before that, when he was afraid, and why shouldn’t they touch now, when nothing was wrong? Neither Nora nor Michael looked disapproving, anyway. "It worked perfectly. I didn't feel sick a bit. Not even as sick as when I drink a lot of Nuka Cola. And Oswald was so sweet to me! He said it was so good to have an appreciative audience again!"

"You're welcome, Sierra," Danse said. "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself."

Michael, standing before Nora at the position of strict attention he tended to assume when he was giving her information, said, "I secured the inside of the main door with chains and a bar, ma'am. With the terminal lock on the other door, we should be safe enough for the night, even in the event of further attempts by the raiders to rebel against Day and Night's authority and attempt to eliminate our party."

Nora nodded. "And X6 and Hancock will be safe?"

Michael said, "We discussed this, ma'am."

"I know," said Nora, with a winsome smile up at her son. "But I'm human. Tell me again."

"Day and Night have already proved capable of eliminating one entire faction," said Sierra, from inside the crook of Danse's arm, her slight weight still resting against his torso. Her tone wasn't quite mimicry of Michael's low, precise voice, but it had the same cadence, and she was quoting exactly. "Even in the unlikely event that it proves necessary to eliminate two more, with the help of X6-88 and Hancock, and any of the raiders and newly freed slaves who choose to fight alongside them--"

"OK, OK," said Nora, laughing.

Michael was eyeing Sierra with interest. "You have a good memory."

"I know," said Sierra. "I always did, for sentences. It's true, too, what you said. And that it's far more likely that most of the raiders will be discouraged by the failure of this attempt, and lose faith in whoever ordered it, rather than rebelling on their behalf. Or come here to attack us."

"I'm glad to hear that you agree," said Michael. "You have spent more time among these raiders than any of the rest of us."

Sierra sat up slightly, still leaning on Danse's arm, so he didn't take it away.

"I have," she said slowly, "but I haven't paid very much attention to them. They're not very interesting."

Nora laughed again. "No, I guess they're not, are they? Not like the parks."

Sierra nodded. "I love the parks."

"Sit down, son," said Nora to Michael, and as he sat obediently down next to her on the bed, "What do you love so much about them, Sierra?"

Sierra brightened at the invitation to talk about her favorite subject. Danse had the impression that she hadn't often been encouraged to hold forth about it.

"I love them because they're all about Nuka Cola," she said. "Because, back then, there was so much of everything, they could build whole big places like this just to have fun and enjoy things you love. Everything wasn't so-- broken, and worn out, and ruined. I wish I'd lived back then. When they made more Nuka Cola every day. They made more-- new things-- everything was new, and bright, and people wanted you to have fun, and enjoy yourself, and things tasted good. Sweet. Everything wasn't so ugly and mean, and-- broken."

Michael turned to Nora.

"It was-- easier, back then," Nora answered his look, and glanced from him to Sierra and Danse as she spoke. "In a lot of ways, yeah. But there was bad stuff then, too. The laws-- the rules-- were-- complicated, and-- they were supposed to protect people, but it depended on who you were. Just like now. Just like-- anyplace that has rules, and people in power."

She paused, glancing at Michael, and then at Danse. She didn't actually say like the Institute, and the Brotherhood.

"People are people," she said, instead. "And some of them are mean. And back then, like you say, Sierra, there was so much of everything, but sometimes that just meant people could spend time thinking of more and more ways to be mean. On a-- a bigger scale. I mean-- that's how the war happened. That's why it all ended."

Sierra nodded, looking pensive, but said nothing.

"But the parks are cool," said Nora, smiling at her. "I'm so glad we're here with you, Sierra. I know I wouldn't have appreciated how great this all is, if I wasn't here with you. To see how happy it makes you. I'm glad this is all here, even if it's just to make you happy."

"Most people don't care if I'm happy or not," said Sierra; it didn't sound like a complaint, just an observation.

"Where are you from?" Nora asked, which must have been her slightly tactful way of asking what Danse was wondering, do you have any family, any friends, anyone? Although surely, if she did, they wouldn't have let her come alone on a harebrained excursion like this.

"The Capital Wasteland," said Sierra, startling Danse a bit-- he almost said, So am I, but of course he wasn't. Or-- he'd certainly been in the Capital Wasteland. With the Brotherhood. With Cutler. Cutler was real. They'd joined up together. Memories with Cutler in them were real.

"Whereabouts?" he asked, and she said, looking up at him, "Girdershade."

"I lived in Rivet City," he said. "And then I was with the Brotherhood of Steel."

She nodded. "I remember the Brotherhood. Project Purity. Some Brotherhood people brought some of the water to Girdershade. I didn't take any, though. I had enough Nuka Cola then that I could still only drink that."

"You remember Project Purity?" It had been one of the Brotherhood's great successes, under Elder Lyons, before Danse's time, in-- what, 2277?

"You can't have been very old," he said, looking at Sierra's smooth, youthful skin, the bright blond of her hair, without a thread of gray. Aside from her teeth-- whose decay could easily be accounted for by all the soda she drank-- she didn't look much older than Emily did. "Eight years old? Ten?"

She giggled. "Oh, no, it was only-- fourteen years ago? I was twenty-six. I guess I'm forty, now."

A brief silence fell, as everyone looked at Sierra, who sobered under their stares, her gaze darting uneasily from face to face.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing's wrong, sweetheart," said Nora, recovering first. "You just look-- a lot younger. I mean, you definitely don't look old enough to be older than me."

Sierra nodded, still glancing around uncertainly.

Funny. Danse had felt, momentarily, a sick falling lurch of panic on Sierra's behalf, at the sudden suspicion in the room. He'd forgotten where he was, and with whom, and thought no, thought not Sierra, please, the way he would have before, if someone for whom he felt some measure of responsibility and attachment-- Haylen, say-- might be--

"It's interesting, see," Nora was saying, carefully, casually, not showing any undue excitement or emotion, for once in her life, "because synths-- like Michael and Danse, and Day and Night-- don't age the way humans do. Institute tech, I guess."

"But I'm not a synth," said Sierra, apparently more puzzled than alarmed or offended by the implication. "I was born in the Capital Wasteland. I had parents, until they died."

"I have memories, too, of being a child in the Capital Wasteland," said Danse, speaking just as carefully as Nora had. It couldn't be pleasant to contemplate the possibility that the greater part of one's life had never actually happened, even if that possibility wasn't presenting itself concurrently with a death sentence, as it had for him. Even if you were safe. "Apparently it's possible to plant fabricated memories in the mind of a synth, so that they-- we-- believe ourselves to be human. So we can live more easily among humans."

"But--" Sierra's brow furrowed, as she tried to formulate a counter-argument. Danse had done the same, once. But I remember--

"I mean, I'm not--" Nora hesitated. "We can't know. Maybe you're just really young-looking for your age. Maybe so much Nuka Cola slows the aging process. Maybe it's your upbeat attitude."

"We could ask your friends who worked for the Railroad," Michael suggested, to Nora. "As we did with Kasumi. Find out whether they have a false identity on file that matches Sierra's."

"Sure, when we get home," said Nora. "But Sierra hasn't even decided whether she wants to come back with us."

"What if I am a synth?" Sierra asked. "What does it mean?"

"In either case," said Michael, "you'll be looked after. If you choose to stay here, we'll see that you're protected and provided for before we leave. If you choose to come with us, we would all be pleased to welcome another sister home."

"Sister?" Sierra repeated, sounding even younger than usual. "Your sister?"

"And Danse's," said Michael. "Our mother’s daughter."

Sierra was quiet for a little-- they were all quiet-- and then said, "But what if I'm not?"

"It doesn't matter," said Nora. "I mean, it doesn't change anything Michael just said. We were going to look after you anyway. If you're a synth, it's just-- all the more reason."

"Am I still your sister if I'm not, though?" Sierra asked, looking at Danse.

Danse thought of the Brotherhood again, how he'd been called brother and called his fellows brother and sister and meant it every single time, meant it with all his hungry orphan heart, it had never become perfunctory, it had meant everything, every time, and how he'd been punished, ground down to the dust without mercy, for his unwitting presumption in speaking so to humans--

"Yes," he said to Sierra, and she smiled, showing the teeth grayed and pitted by her insatiable craving for every remnant of sweetness she could wring from the broken, worn-out world. Smiled right at Danse.

Chapter Text

Michael lay still in the dark, eyes closed, muscles relaxed, resting.

The others had fallen asleep quickly. Tired out, no doubt. The last days had been eventful, and the Mountain probably wasn't secure enough to be conducive to deep, restful sleep. Michael should have realized, that first night, and not left Danse alone, or as good as alone, in need of comfort that had had to be provided by a stranger. Even if she did turn out to be a sister.

Now Danse was wrapped around Michael, one leg and an arm flung over him, head pillowed on his shoulder, emanating warmth and the occasional faint snore. Their mother was nearby, too; Michael could hear her breathing, and Sierra's, the distinctive breathing of sleep. If any of them awakened, he'd know, from the way the pattern of their breath changed.

He was trying to remember the exact wording of a few lines of poetry from one of Emily's books, one of the ones she copied out in the notebook where she wrote her own verses, too--

I wonder can it really be that you
And I are here, and something and the night
Is full of hours, and all the world asleep--

The benefit of being indoors, or course, was the warmth and security of being out of the wind, and that the doors here were barred and chained and sealed against intruders, so that it was safe for everyone but Michael to sleep soundly. Still, he wished he could see the stars. Emily would be watching them at home, from the top of the wall. She lay on her back, the way he was lying on his back now, and looked up into the sky, and saw patterns in the scatter of tiny lights against the darkness. They had names, ones their mother had taught her-- Orion, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Pleiades-- and stories to go with them. The hunter, the queen, the captive princess. The sisters.

He thought of the first story his mother had told to him, and only to him, that dizzying week at Far Harbor when he began to understand that she wasn't just talking in her scatterbrained, fanciful human way when she talked about loving him, that she listened when he spoke and took time to understand when he seemed strange to her and laughed with joy when he dared tease her and held onto him, trusting to his strength, her praise pouring out as if he could never be spoiled by too much of it, never be made too happy--

No one had ever told him a story before. Not like that. Not for pleasure. The children, brother and sister, in the park, making little worlds together. He'd heard his name then, for the first time, from her lips, before it was his name: Michael sees a buttercup petal on Jane's hat--

Buttercup, the name of a flower that didn't exist anymore. What's up, buttercup? she said sometimes to Emily, making Emily laugh and answer with nonsense: Peachy keen, jellybean. He hadn't understood, or hadn't been willing to admit he understood, once, how their silliness together made him feel. Not dismissive incomprehension of the meaninglessness of the ritual, not carefully controlled contempt for the human who owned him and the synth she made a pet of, but envy, he'd been jealous, almost sick with it, for the ease of being Emily, the beloved.

His mother had known before he had, she'd been the one to put it into words. You don't ever need to worry about competing with Emily's emotional skill set. There's absolutely nothing wrong with yours. She'd said I love you then, too, and I adore you, and is that perfectly clear, son?

He listened to his mother's breath, now, picking it out from the sounds of Danse's, close by, and Sierra's, close to her. Sierra slept quietly, not stirring; his mother made soft sounds every so often, her breath puffing out between her lips in a noise like frustration. She had nightmares sometimes that woke her, brought her looking for her sleepless children, up to the top of the Castle wall, shivering; if Michael happened to be there, she'd curl against him for warmth, put a cold hand in his, Emily close on her other side, and they would talk about homely things, until she was comforted enough to go back to bed.

She didn't wake now, though; she slept steadily through the hours, like Sierra. His new, odd sister, of whom Danse had so quickly grown fond. Danse had such a gentle, affectionate nature; it was hard to imagine him in the Brotherhood, avowing hatred towards all synths, declaring them abominations worthy of destruction. Michael supposed they must have played on his protective streak, persuaded him that humans needed defending from the Institute's malicious creations. He might have done well as a courser, convinced he was rescuing runaways from their own folly, if he hadn't run away himself.

He slept more restlessly than the other two, occasionally shivering against Michael, or whimpering very faintly, and when he did, Michael moved a hand and stroked his hair or his back lightly, hoping to soothe him even through the layers of sleep and dream that separated them. Once he came awake altogether, clutching at Michael and dragging in a deep, long breath, as if he were breaching the surface of deep water. Michael hugged him close, and Danse shuddered briefly, and then calmed against him, holding on tightly. Michael's lips found Danse's scar and pressed against it; Danse's breath caught, then sighed out, the barest edge of a voiced cry, before his own lips sought out the hollow of Michael's throat and lingered there a moment. Then he settled back to stillness, and, not too long after, to sleep.

How did the others manage, the ones who slept, without this time to be still and quiet and awake, learning to bear the immensity of their happiness? When did they have time to know how happy they were? Did they know?

....

He roused, finally, at a noise-- footsteps-- outside the terminal-locked door. Possibly nothing, possibly one of Oswald's ferals, or Oswald himself with news, but he moved anyway, hoping his movement would make Danse roll over and away from him. It woke him instead. Swiftly, Michael kissed his forehead again, as had become his habit when he was there at Danse's waking, forestalling Danse's habit of touching his scar himself when he woke, to remind himself-- he said-- what he was. Mine, you're mine.

"Shhh," he whispered. "Stay here."

Danse obeyed without question as Michael got up quietly-- much as Michael had grown accustomed to, and even fond of, the company of humans and synths who questioned and argued and insisted on explanations, it was incredibly refreshing sometimes to be around someone who just did as he was told-- and moved by memory in the dark to where his combat knife lay on the shelf at the right of the room. After a moment's trepidation, his hand hovering over his mother's Pip-Boy- but he was allowed to touch it, just last night she'd offered to teach him to play some sort of game on it, it's gonna be so boring for you while we're all asleep, which was ridiculous and dear of her, but she wouldn't have offered if she minded him handling it-- he picked it up from the shelf as well, and went to the door, where he could hear tapping noises at the terminal on the other side. Not a feral, then. Either Oswald, with the password, or an enterprising hacker of a raider.

The door made the thunk noise of unlocking, and Michael, knife at the ready, pointed the Pip-Boy's screen at the door and activated the flashlight, as it swung inward--

--and the bright beam illuminated X6-88, squinting in its glare, and, behind him, Hancock's radiation-scarred face. Michael switched off the flashlight, and, in the dim green light of the usual display, saw X6-88 smile. A small, brief smile by non-courser standards, but X6-88 was a courser. Michael was smiling too, with relief.

"You guys slept in, huh?" Hancock asked softly, coming past X6-88 into the room, moving to his wife's side, where she slept on the outside edge of the bed, Sierra closer to the wall. Michael turned the Pip-Boy towards him so that he could see his way by its faint light.

He knelt down beside the bed and smoothed a hand over her forehead, and before her eyes were even open, she smiled, reached up, and wrapped her arms around her husband's neck, putting her mouth up to kiss his.

"Hey," he said to her, when the kiss was broken, and she smiled again, sleepily, and said, "Hey, you."

Then she sat up further and peered over his shoulder, smiling even wider when she saw X6-88 standing next to Michael.

"My boys are back," she said, sounding as happy as Michael felt, and swung her legs over the side of the bed, but didn't get up. Just sat, and smiled.

At the movement, Sierra murmured and woke, and, as she woke, held her breath for a moment, staying very still. Michael could imagine that, she might have some of the same feelings on waking as Danse did: where am I, when is it, who's with me, what's real? Am I safe?

"Good morning, Sierra," he said, no longer whispering now that all the sleepers were awake, but speaking gently and quietly nevertheless, to avoid startling her. "I'm about to turn on the light."

He did so, reaching across X6-88 to flick the switch by the door that illuminated the dim overhead fluorescent lights. Sierra sat up, looking around-- at their mother and Hancock, at Michael and X6-88, over at Danse, who was sitting up now, too-- and then, suddenly, broke into an enormous grin.

"Hey there," said Hancock, looking up at her from where he still knelt by his wife's feet. "You're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning."

Sierra leaned against their mother, looking happy and relaxed, and their mother put an arm around her.

"Well," said Hancock. "Good. We were a little short on daughters. Just Emily and Victoria. And Leah, if she stays."

"Well, and Kasumi and Elizabeth," said their mother.

Hancock grinned. "We countin' Elizabeth already? Her and Dee haven't been together but a couple weeks."

"There 's no probationary period," said their mother. "If she breaks his heart, we'll cross that bridge. But speaking of our many sons, what about Day and Night? Tell me what happened. You dealt with the Operators?"

Hancock looked at X6-88. "You tell it. You got that concise thing goin'."

"We dealt with the Operators," said X6-88 to their mother, who laughed out loud. X6-88's lips twitched. Michael wondered whether he enjoyed making her laugh as much as Michael himself did. She laughed so happily. It was wonderful to be the cause of such happiness.

"A little less concise than that," she said. "Are they all dead?"

"No, ma'am, " said X6-88. "Only one, Ms. Wyath, who unwisely attempted to attack Dr. Bridgeman. The Black siblings confessed, abdicated, and were allowed to leave the park. Their replacement is Sunny Carroll, the leader of the squad that met us off the train, recently enslaved and then freed. None of the other Operators chose to leave with their erstwhile leaders, or protested Ms. Carroll's new leadership role."

"Aw, good for Sunny," said their mother. "Well. And you just let the Blacks go?"

"Yes, ma'am, " said X6-88, sounding very faintly aggrieved. "Night argued that by the terms you set, anyone who expressed the desire to leave the park and their authority should be allowed to do so."

"He said that?"

"Yes, ma'am," said X6-88.

"That's so sweet," said their mother. "Oh my God, X6, you were right. They really are trying. But--" She bit at her lip for a moment. "But, Hancock, from what you said yesterday, those two are-- bad news. What if they head back towards the Commonwealth, try to make trouble for my settlements?"

"X6 thought of that too," said Hancock. "He tracked Mags and Bill last night, while I slept at the park, just to see. They didn't head for the transit station. Went west, and south. Buried Lizzie, then met up with some folks Day and Night have heard a bit about, call themselves Hubologists. Some kinda religion, I guess, or--"

He looked up at X6-88, who said, "I had no opportunity to evaluate their belief system. I stayed until morning to see whether the Black siblings would act aggressively against the Hubologists, but they did not do so. They spent the night, and rose in the morning, at which point I was able to overhear the Hubologist leader's request that the Blacks obtain for them some sort of prop clothing available at Nuka Galaxy. The Blacks demurred, but asked permission to stay with the Hubologists and learn more about their beliefs. At that point, since the Hubologists did not seem to be in any immediate danger, I returned to the park, and Hancock and I came here." He was focused, cool, giving his report, awaiting evaluation. "I thought you would prefer that I report in to you, ma'am, and receive your instructions how to proceed."

"Perfect," said their mother, "you did perfect, X6." She was focused, too, bright-eyed and intent on X6-88. "Thank you so much. For handling all this for me, and for checking in before you did anything drastic. That was perfect. You did so well."

X6-88 stood very still, head slightly bowed, the way one used to in the Institute when receiving either praise or reprimand. It was a moment before he said, "Thank you, ma'am."

"Question is, what do we do now, " said Hancock. "X6 wants to take 'em out, courser-style."

"It's dangerous to leave them alive, ma'am," said X6-88. "They're a potential threat not only to you and your interests, but to Day and Night's. Dr. Bridgeman pointed out that, for example, her own hometown could be at risk."

"Day and Night sent a few of their black-armor guys there last night, for extra security and to give 'em a heads up, " said Hancock, when his wife showed alarm. "But point is, the Blacks are a threat out of all proportion to anything good that could come of leaving 'em alive. Plus which X6 hates 'em like poison for tryin' to kill us and frame his brothers, and it's gonna give him all kindsa joy to stomp 'em like the nasty radroaches they are. You want X6 to be happy, don't ya?"

Their mother smiled a bit, then sighed.

"Maybe they'll join the Hubologists and settle down," she said hopefully. "They're bound to be grieving their friend. Maybe that and a little religious structure is just what they've been needing to give their lives a better direction."

Hancock cast his black gaze ceilingward. "Give me strength. C'mon, X6, give her the puppy eyes. Call her 'mother' again."

"I would very much like to kill them," said X6-88 calmly, "but I will abide by your decision, ma'am."

Their mother seemed to consider for a moment, and then she looked over at Danse, who had stayed quiet and still since first sitting up.

"Danse," she said. "You're my councillor, too. Hancock votes they die. What do you say?"

Danse didn't answer right away. He regarded their mother with eyes that looked dark in the dim light. She waited patiently; no one else spoke, either. Michael experienced a memory: Ticonderoga safehouse, the negotiations with X6-88's charges, his mother's voice, X6-88, which would you prefer? and Dr. Loken's, He can't cope with that kind of question, Ms. Bowman. His mother's helpless laughter, and X6-88's face, as she laughed, as she apologized, and laughed more, anyway, X6, what would you prefer?

No one suggested, now, that Danse was incapable of answering their mother's question. No one here present would consider doing so. The silence was respectful, awaiting the results of Danse's rumination.

Finally he said, "My instinct is to agree that they're an unacceptable risk. But my instincts were trained and honed by the Brotherhood, which also taught me that the mere existence of synths was an unacceptable risk to humanity."

"This is hardly the same thing," said X6-88. "The Black siblings forfeited their lives not by existing, but by making an attempt on our lives."

Danse flushed slightly. "I realize that, sir-- X6-88. I'm simply explaining why I hesitate to trust my immediate reaction in this case. And I don't think Nora is wrong to suggest that some people who have taken a wrong direction in life and fallen into bad company may redeem themselves, given better people with whom to surround themselves."

"Mags and Bill are the bad company," said Hancock. "They ain't just some hapless henchmen that got locked in with the wrong leader. They were runnin' the show with the Operators."

"Authority may have its own corrupting influence," said Danse. "Now that they've been removed from it, they may take this opportunity to mend their ways."

"Or take over the cult and get authority right back!"

"That is another possibility," Danse agreed calmly; he seemed less disconcerted by Hancock's opposition than by X6-88's. "And it wouldn't be right to value the possibility of their redemption over the responsibility of preventing harm to innocents. If we're to give them another chance, we'll have to take measures to protect others from harm, and that will mean dividing your own resources, Nora. As Night and Day have already divided theirs, to protect Dr. Bridgeman's hometown. Do you feel strongly enough about sparing the Blacks' lives to allocate your own resources --" He flashed a quick, shy smile. "Meaning us-- your sons, your husband, yourself-- to monitor the situation?"

"What, you think we should all go join the fuckin' Hubologists?" Hancock demanded.

"Not all of us, of course, " said Danse. "It would hardly take so many to deal with two humans, if it became necessary. One or two of us, at most. But you must decide, Nora, whether you wish to divide our forces and our focus on that way. What you must not do is leave the Blacks to their own devices and put others at risk through your inaction."

Their mother was nodding earnestly, showing no surprise at the force and lucidity of Danse's argument. Michael wasn't exactly surprised either-- he had known Danse would be a good advisor to their mother if he could overcome his shyness in her presence, his unwillingness to put himself forward-- but he was very, very pleased.

"OK," their mother said. "OK, that's a really good point. Thank you, Danse. So." She considered briefly. "Let me do it this way, then. Does anybody volunteer to go hang out with the Fancy Siblings and their new cult for a bit and see how reformed they seem? If not, I'm not gonna order anybody to do it. X6 can just head back and kill them, quick and clean. Like he says, they forfeited their lives when they had us attacked."

"You ain't gonna volunteer to go join the Hubologists yourself?" Hancock asked. "Not that I'm complainin'. Last time we tried to infiltrate a cult, you ended up gettin' visions and prophesyin' peace and deposin' high confessors and I don't know what all."

Their mother grinned, but shook her head. "No, I want to stick with Sierra. I feel a lot more responsible for her than I do for the Blacks. And she wants to see the parks. I'm not going to drag her somewhere else in the hopes of redeeming her former slavers."

"Thank you," said Sierra.

"I prefer to stay with Sierra as well," said Danse, a bit apologetically, and Sierra beamed at him.

Michael said, "I prefer to stay with you, ma'am, and with Danse."

"You already know how I feel," said Hancock. "So I guess --"

"I volunteer," said X6-88.

Everyone looked at him.

"I'm certain that the Blacks will shortly prove to be a threat to some innocent person," X6-88 explained, "so I'll have to waste very little time before killing them. But doing it this way will ease your mind, ma'am."

Their mother stared, and then laughed.

"Oh my God, X6," she said. "I love you so much. Can I have a hug?"

"Yes, ma'am," said X6-88, adding, "of course," as she stood up, wobbling slightly after her long night's stillness. He stepped forward to meet her and put his arms around her as hers lifted to go around him.

"I love you so much," she said again, her cheek against the shoulder of his uniform. It occurred somewhat irrelevantly to Michael that she had never hugged him while he still wore his uniform. Only after it was gone. How raw and peeled and helpless he had felt when she first touched him after his disgrace --

you did nothing wrong. They had no right to take it from you--

--her hand on his bare arm, he'd actually gasped at the sensation, flinched away from her as if she'd burned him.

He'd stood inside the circle of her arms, pressed close, because she asked it of him. Not understanding, not yet.

X6-88 didn't answer, now, that he loved her too, but he held her close and rested his cheek for a moment against her hair, and he looked peaceful.

Two of the lines of poetry Michael had been trying to remember came back to him suddenly, clearly as if spoken in the clear voice of his first sister:

Has your life too been waiting for this time,
Not only mine the sharpness of this joy?

Chapter Text

Mackenzie came awake slowly to sunlight, warm and bright on her face. She was at the Grille, then, in the big bed where Day or Night must have tucked her, late last night, and she was late, why hadn't Day and Night woken her up, she'd asked them not to leave her here asleep--

But surely they hadn't left her. One of them must be here; they wouldn't leave her alone, not after yesterday, not after they hadn't let her go back to the Mountain to sleep, because they said it wasn't safe.

They'd chosen not to wake her, then.

She wanted to accept the indulgence, turn back over and sleep more. She was tired, bone-and-sinew tired, the shocks and constant overexcitement of the last few days (and yesterday, yesterday had been especially... eventful) catching up with her.

Just a few more minutes, she told herself, holding herself still, trying to summon the strength to sit up and get up and begin the day, and then a shadow blocked out the sunlight on her eyelids and Day's voice said, "Good morning, Dr. Bridgeman."

She opened her eyes and looked up, seeing him as a shape limned in golden sunlight. As her eyes began to adjust, he sat down on the bed next to her, and said, "How are you feeling this morning?"

"Who's the doctor here?" she asked, smiling, trying to pull herself together. (Yesterday--) "I'm fine. I'm late. Why didn't you wake me?"

"Because you needed rest," said Day. "Sleep longer, if you like."

"I can't do that, boss," said Mackenzie, as much to herself as to him. "I'm the doctor."

"If anyone is ill or injured enough to be in danger of dying without your services," said Day, "Maddox can stabilize them until you are available."

"Maddox is a chem dealer."

"Fatigue will only compromise the quality of your work and your judgement," said Day. "We agreed, this morning, to let you sleep until you awakened of your own accord, and to make sure you ate a proper breakfast."

She blinked, imagining the two of them soberly discussing her while she slept, making plans to look after her, and suddenly her eyes were stinging, her lungs seizing, and Day was frozen, staring at her, and she took a breath to try to speak, and the tears overflowed instead.

"It was not my intention to--" Day began, holding himself preternaturally still, the way they both did when they were unsure. "To make you cry."

His voice broke slightly downward on the last word, and Mackenzie would have spoken, to reassure him, to promise him that he hadn't done anything wrong, but she couldn't speak.

Instead, she reached for him, lifting herself up towards him and holding up both arms, the way she did sometimes when she was half asleep and one of them went to lift her, to carry her to bed. The way she'd reached up for Night amid the smell of the Disciples' blood, the first time she'd touched either of them, and just like Night had then, Day leaned down and took her in his arms, gathered her up against his chest and pulled her close, and she laid her head on his shoulder and began to sob.

He was warm, and strong, and he held her tightly, but not tightly enough to hurt her. She could feel his hands, fingers spread out to support her more carefully, curved around her shoulderblade and her ribcage. She let herself cry with abandon, hoping that the way she clung to him, let herself rest against him, would reassure him until she could speak coherently.

When the tears were still spilling, but her breath was coming more quietly, Day said, without letting go, "Is there anything we can do? About-- whatever is upsetting you?"

"Oh--" She caught her breath in a half-laugh, half-sob, and tried to pull away from him. He loosened his grip carefully, bit by bit, and steadied her into a sitting position with his hands, as if she might veer wildly out of control without his assistance and fall off the bed, or out the window. "Oh, Day, that did help, thank you. Just-- getting it all out."

Day looked at her silently: her no-doubt blotchy and swollen face, her eyes still leaking tears.

"Really," she promised him, and, wiping her face with her hand, "Do you cry? Ever? Can you?"

"Synths are physically equipped to do so," said Day, precisely. She knew he'd been required to give reports to his human superiors in the Institute, and-- although she was the opposite of his superior-- wondered if his manner, then, had been something like this. Accurate, dispassionate, answering without questioning. "Our tear ducts, like yours, lubricate our eyes for normal function, and water more freely in response to physical irritants. It isn't unheard of for them to do so in strong emotion, but it is-- was-- considered--" He hesitated; she listened, watching his gunmetal-gray eyes, almost silver in the morning light, as he chose his next words.

"Not a malfunction, exactly," he said finally, "but an-- instability. Like-- the flickering of a lightbulb, perhaps. Or an increased noise output, in the course of normal function, from a mechanical array. One wouldn't necessarily be reprogrammed for an isolated incident of that kind, but it would be noted." He gave her a small, wry smile. "It would certainly disqualify one from even being considered for courser training."

"Oh, Day." Mackenzie's heart squeezed painfully. She'd privately concluded long since that, no matter how Day and Night felt about it, the destruction of the Institute had probably been a good thing. Now, at this moment, she blessed Nora Bowman with her whole soul for blowing the place to kingdom come.

"But humans cry," Day added. "As I understand it, as part of your normal functioning. A normal response to-- distress."

"Ha," said Mackenzie, still leaking tears. "All this time in Nuka World, boss, you still think there's anything normal about human functioning?"

That made him smile, broadly for him, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I take your point, Dr. Bridgeman."

"We cry for all kinds of reasons," she assured him, wiping at her face again. "It's like a release, for emotional overload. But sometimes we're scared to, because it's-- showing weakness. And it isn't safe, to be weak. To be less than fully functional. In the world, any more than the Insitute." She smiled at him. "Not with most people, it isn't. When you find someone you can feel safe crying with, well. That's -- good. Really good. Wonderful."

He nodded, watching her intently, considering that.

"I would like to know the nature of your-- emotional overload-- on this occasion," he said finally.

"Oh--" She smiled at him again, and breathed in deeply, deliberately, telling her body to be calm now, the crisis was over. "Day, everything's happening so fast! Good things, wonderful things, but-- I mean, just a few days ago, we had this sort of secure status quo locked in. It wasn't ideal, but a person knew more or less what to expect when they woke up in the morning." She laughed a little. "It'd been ages since anybody tried to stab me."

"You were frightened," Day said. Or asked, Mackenzie wasn't sure.

She started to say of course I was frightened, Lizzie Wyath came at me with a knife, but then she looked at his face more closely, and--

"It's-- an autonomic response, boss," she said. "Being scared. I don't have courser training. Knowing with my rational mind that you and Night would eliminate the threat doesn't mean I didn't experience physical fear in the moment. In my-- my body." Although the storm of tears really had helped; she felt pleasantly tired and relaxed, and even a little hungry.

Day said, "We thought you might feel-- that you might wish to reproach us. With our summary action, in the face of the threat." He paused. "I should say, my summary action."

"No," she said, smiling yet again, to reassure him. Her poor bosses, worried both that she'd been frightened because she hadn't trusted them to protect her, and that she might prove angry about the prompt ferocity with which they had protected her. Nora Bowman, bursting in with her promises and demands and wild, unforeseen emotions, disrupting the carefully controlled, well-honed quotidian of their regime, had shaken them badly, even if their conditioning had prevented them from having a crying breakdown over it. "No, I don't want to reproach you. I'm glad you killed Lizzie. I'm not glad she's dead-- I wish she hadn't attacked me-- but since she did, I'm glad it was her instead of me. Thank you. For saving my life."

"I'm glad you see it in that light," Day answered, and he did look relieved. "I would be unable to apologize in any case, since I would have found it necessary to save your life whether you liked it or not."

Mackenzie giggled. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," said Day, the echo sounding almost playful, and Mackenzie laughed, and, carefully, got up. Day rose quickly, poised to steady her if she swayed, but she didn't.

One of them had set her shoes carefully, neatly, beside her bed, ready for her feet to slip into, and there was food and water and a Nuka Orange on the table, next to a piece of armor Day had evidently been mending while he waited for her to wake up. The food was a filet of radstag meat, enough to be chopped up and spun out over quite a large pot of vegetables. Indulgent, overly so, special-occasion food, or food for an invalid whose strength needed to be built up.

She managed not to burst into tears again. Emotional catharsis was healthy, but enough was enough for one morning. Maddox couldn't hold the fort forever.

She ate and drank, instead, because she did need her strength. Day sat at the table, at the side adjacent to hers, and watched her eat. It should have been unnerving, but instead somehow helped, as if she were nourishing him as well as herself by eating what he and Night had provided for her.

"Do I still look like I've been crying?" she asked Day when she was done, and he gave her a careful glance before he answered, "To an attentive observer, yes."

"Lord knows what people will think you've been doing to me," she said, looking around for a reflective surface to try to assess the damage, and then-- alerted by Day's sudden stillness, the hush of his breathing-- back at him. "Day?"

"What will they think?" he asked.

"Oh, well--" Mackenzie felt a bit uncomfortable. She'd never actually discussed with the two of them the assumption that the whole park shared, about the nature of her bargain with them. She hadn't said it, at first, because she'd been counting herself lucky every minute it didn't happen, and now--

Now she was oddly reluctant, not out of any kind of fear, but because-- well, because they'd never mentioned sex to her, not even glancingly, not in all their descriptions of the Institute, its day-to-day life, and their lives since its destruction. Which, maybe it just hadn't ever been part of their lives, but-- more recently, they had said absolutely nothing to her about Michael's obvious romantic relationship with Danse, even to marvel at the idea of a former courser doing such a thing. If they weren't completely unfamiliar with the concept, they were at least unwilling to speak of it to her. Shouldn't she follow their lead?

Day said, "Will they think I hurt you?"

Shit, this was awkward.

"They might think you were-- rough with me?" she said, her voice automatically pitching upwards as if to soften the implication. "It doesn't matter what they think, boss. I know you'd never hurt me."

"But do the other humans think we are in the habit of hurting you?" Day asked.

Was she really going to have to give him the facts-of-life talk? She couldn't think of any other way out of this conversation.

"I think, um," she began carefully. "I think they're used to-- raiders, especially-- seeing the world in a certain way. The raiders wouldn't-- listen, the way you listen to me, and protect somebody the way you protect me, unless there was something in it for them. And the slaves, a lot of them, nobody's ever listened to them or protected them. Not somebody with-- power. So they think you and Night must be-- taking something from me, in return. Um. Beyond my-- my good company."

Day was staring at her. She couldn't tell if it was horror or just incomprehension on his face.

"Sex," she said, finally. The hell with it. "They think you're having sex with me. In, um, in exchange for-- everything."

No change to his struck-dumb expression. So maybe it hadn't been incomprehension. He had to know the word.

"It doesn't matter, boss," she said. "I don't care what they think. What do you care?"

"They believe--" Day took a breath. His voice was strained, as close to unsteady as she'd ever heard it, and his fair skin was stained with a slight flush. "And they let this go on?"

Oh, goodness.

"It doesn't matter," she said again, helplessly. "Day, it's not true."

"You are the one who brought the problems of harassment to our attention," said Day, still with that barely contained-- something-- in his voice. "You prompted us to institute the prohibitions on casual physical contact with slaves. You are the one the slaves trusted enough to report abuses and violations, and you reported them to us in turn so that we could act accordingly, to protect them. And after the Disciples rebelled, you are the one who suggested all the slaves sleep together in one space, with four guards and no one else allowed inside."

True enough, all of it, down to the carefully euphemistic language she'd used and they hadn't questioned: harassment, physical contact, abuses, violations.

"And the park believes," said Day, "that all this was at the cost of your own routine violation? They simply-- accept this? That you should pay the price, with your body, for the safety of theirs?"

"Day--" Mackenzie felt shaken by his outrage, even though it wasn't directed at her. She'd never seen him so angry. She'd seen him kill people, but even that he did calmly, with efficient precision and no wasted movement. Now he was-- still composed, mostly, controlled, anyway, not throwing things or punching the wall or even raising his voice-- but he wasn't calm.

"Boss," she said softly. "What could they do? They're just-- trying to get by. You're stronger than them. It's just-- how the world is, for them."

He refocused on her, with a laser intensity that was hardly reassuring.

"You have never asked us for anything for yourself," he said. "Only for them."

Day and Night had never made much of a secret of how little they thought of most people-- she'd had the impression for awhile now that ruling the park was, for them, an endeavor less like running a settlement than like playing an elaborate game, the kind children played, with sticks and stones outlining their territory. She'd made her earliest suggestions accordingly, in terms of how they could maximize their resources, reduce their dependence on scavenging and raiding, stabilize and legitimize shifts in power, sustain a balance between indulgence and control. They'd played along, not so much because they cared about the humans unexpectedly placed in their power, but-- she theorized, as she came to know them better, what they were and where they came from-- because it was fun for them. Fun to be in charge for once, fun to see if they could make this work.

But they'd never seemed outright hostile to the humans under their control. The cold contempt, even disgust, in Day's last word-- them-- terrified her.

She spoke instinctively, as if stepping in front of them-- Keith, Lauren, Shelbie, Maddox, Chip and Jennifer and every other formerly collared human in the park. Between them and sudden danger.

"They're mine," she said. "My people."

"By what standard?" Day demanded. "What have they ever done for you?"

"They're mine because I decided they were important to me," said Mackenzie steadily. "Mine to protect. Mine to look after. The way I'm yours."

Day stopped breathing.

Not for long, but long enough for Mackenzie to hear the echo of what she'd just said-- I'm yours-- consider whether to retract or qualify it, and decide not to.

Instead, she reached for him again: just his hand this time, where it lay on the table. Just with her hand.

His fingers were curved in a rigid half-fist that jumped open at her touch, at the same moment his breath restarted with a sudden, quick intake and quieter exhale. He took her hand, and looked down at it, his thumb moving over the back of it, slipping lightly along the ridge of her knuckles. It sent a pleasant shiver through her. Neither of them had ever-- what was the word, for touch like this? Caressed her.

He kept his eyes fixed on the back of her hand as he said, "Tasks in the Institute always came with assigned priority levels. It was never necessary for us to-- decide. How important something was."

"It's hard for us, too," said Mackenzie, keeping her voice quiet and calm. "And sometimes we don't even really decide. Not on purpose. We just-- realize. What's important. Sometimes-- all of a sudden."

He looked up at her then-- those piercing eyes-- and then glanced away, aside, at nothing in particular. If Night were here, she thought, they'd be exchanging one of their lingering glances, during which they so often seemed to gain some kind of new certainty.

"Where is Night?" she asked, and, teasingly, in response to his quick, startled look, "Yes, boss, I can read your mind."

"In that case," he said, mouth curving very slightly, "you already know where Night is."

"Mmm, I guess I do," she said, smiling back at him, relieved that he seemed to have relaxed a bit. Night would be walking the paths of their territory, of course, keeping an eye out for trouble, and letting his watchful presence be known. "Should we go find him?"

"Yes," said Day. "Since I watched over you while you slept, now that you are awake, Night will stay with you at the clinic, to ensure your safety there."

Mackenzie grinned. "So I get Day by night, and Night by day?"

"We can reverse the order, if you prefer," said Day seriously.

She laughed. "No, no. Just a dumb joke. I just--" She looked up at him, and squeezed his hand; he squeezed back. "Thank you. For everything. You never have-- asked anything. In return."

"If you ever owed us any debt of gratitude," Day said, "you should certainly consider it discharged now."

Mackenzie cocked her head. "How's that, boss?"

"Your influence," said Day. "Without the changes you persuaded us to make, when Nora Bowman arrived, I doubt she would have found herself willing to compromise with us at all." His hand tightened momentarily on hers. "And without the thought of your pleasure in her proposal, I doubt we would have been inclined to hear her."

Mackenzie refused, she refused to start crying again.

"She destroyed the Institute with a scant handful of under-equipped human fanatics," Day added thoughtfully. "With two former coursers at her disposal--" He shook his head. "We might have taken one or two of her party with us, but-- once she had a son or a husband to avenge-- It's almost certain that we owe you our lives, Dr. Bridgeman."

"Then we're even," said Mackenzie, her vision blurring slightly again despite herself, smiling at Day.

"Yes," said Day. "Are you ready to begin your day?"

"Yeah," Mackenzie said, and they both stood at the same moment, hands still clasped tightly together, steadying each other. "Let's go."

Chapter Text

X6-88 walked with a spring in his step.

He remembered-- not long since-- setting forth with Michael in search of their scattered fellow coursers, remembered the relative sluggishness of his own tread compared to the energy of Michael's, remembered choking back a swell of unseemly and unwarranted jealousy.

Now he went over the conditions for success on this mission as he traveled. No innocent bystander casualties, either at his hand or the Blacks'. Quick, clean deaths for the Blacks, if and when it became necessary to kill them.

(If his mother hadn't specified, X6-88 would probably have made a point to draw things out a bit, for Mags at least-- she'd dared attack X6-88's party, she'd almost succeeded in ruining everything, X6-88 had been afraid, she should suffer-- but he would, of course, obey orders. He'd kill her brother first, though, all other things being equal. His mother wouldn't be displeased about that, surely.)

He didn't take pains, as he had last night, to approach the Hubologists camp stealthily, make sure no one saw him. As a result, a ragged human saw him some way off, and came to meet him.

"Excuse me, gentle sir," he said. He was dressed oddly-- a hood over his head, of some stiff, multilayered material that supported itself in a rectangular shape around his head, instead of conforming to the shape of it; wires and tubing with no obvious purpose attached to his coat with duct tape-- but not as oddly as many of the raiders at the park, who wore stuffed toy animals sewn to their clothing, or dressed as animals themselves. "Would you say you are happy? Truly happy?"

The question took X6-88 by surprise, and so did the smile that stretched his face, almost without his realizing it. But why shouldn't he smile? He didn't owe this person control or decorum.

(And his mother liked it when he smiled.)

"Yes," he said, and then that seemed inadequate. "Hell yes."

The human looked taken aback. He examined X6-88 for several moments before he said, "You may believe yourself to be happy, when in reality you are merely resigned to your state. Because you have never known true happiness."

X6-88 laughed out loud.

"You may be right," he said, feeling giddy and expansive. "Take me to your leader."

The human blinked at him, as if he weren't used to this particular response either, and then said, "Well, all right then."

He walked infuriatingly slowly.

"Hurry up," said X6-88. "I'm eager to learn how to be truly happy."

The human peered at him curiously, but he did pick up the pace a bit.

"I've heard you have some other new recruits," X6-88 added. "Acquaintances of mine, from the raider camp."

"Are you from the raider camp?" the human asked. "Your friends seem somewhat unwilling to embrace the truth of Hubology. Perhaps you can encourage them, Mister--?"

"You can address me as X6-88," said X6-88. "What is your name?"

"I am Cleansed," said the human. "For I have been cleansed, of the neurodynes that polluted me."

"Ah," said X6-88, mildly interested. Human delusions were sometimes wildly creative. "What are neurodynes?"

"They are... kind of like ghosts, that get into your brain," said Cleansed. "They can cloud your thinking and hold you back from your full potential."

"Oh," said X6-88. "What is the cure?"

"The path of Hubology will teach you," said Cleansed. "Dara is much better at explaining. She's an AHS-9. I'm only an AHS-6."

"Then I will wait to speak to Dara," said X6-88. "I'm sure her explanation will be extremely enlightening."

"It's unusual to have so many new recruits in such a short space of time," said Cleansed, sounding slightly ill at ease, and then, more optimistically, "If you can persuade your friends to help us with our plan--"

"What is your plan?"

"Oh, I can't tell you that."

X6-88 fell silent, since they were close enough to the camp now that he could see the Blacks, and, if they looked up, they could see him too.

In terms of watching Mags suffer, the look on her face as she sat on the ground, with her knees pulled up to her chest, while a young female Hubologist talked to her, was a good start. William lay on the ground nearby with his eyes closed, as if he'd already lost the will to live.

The look on Mags' face when she did look up, in response to the young woman's sudden silence, and saw X6-88, was fairly satisfying as well.

"William!" she shouted, as she scrambled to her feet, and William sat up, startled.

X6-88 put his hands up. If they attacked him with his hands up, he would be completely justified in killing them, even by his mother's ludicrous standards.

They didn't, though, dammit. Mags had a gun out and pointed at him, but she didn't fire. William, beside her, had his hand on his own gun, but didn't even draw it. The Hubologists stood around, visibly disconcerted, but not interfering.

"I'm not here to harm you," X6-88 said to the Blacks, not bothering to keep the regret out of his voice.

Mags said, "Then why are you here?"

"To make sure you don't harm these people," said X6-88. "Or anyone else."

An older woman came forward. "Cleansed?"

"I don't know what's happening," said Cleansed, his voice shaking, beside X6-88.

William said to X6-88, "You said, you said you were gonna get permission to hunt us down--"

"I have hunted you down," said X6-88. "It wasn't very difficult. But, as we surmised at the Fizztop Grille, my mother prefers that you live. She more strongly prefers that no innocents come to harm. I'm here to try to see that she gets what she wants."

Mags didn't move. "Why should we trust you?"

"Because if you attack me, or any of these others, I will definitely kill you," said X6-88. "If you don't attack me, I may not. Do the math."

After a tense pause, Mags lowered her gun.

She said, slowly, "So what-- what happens now?"

"I was hoping you would shoot at me, so that I could kill you immediately," said X6-88. "I suppose I'll have to learn more about Hubology, instead."

 

….....................

Hubology, according to the older woman, who proved to be the leader of the group, Dara Hubbell, consisted of the unsubstantiated assertion that if outsiders would pay the Hubologists caps for "alignments," they would become... better, in some nebulous way.

X6-88 was tempted to accept an alignment just to see what all the fuss was about, but he didn't actually have any caps on him, and his mother probably wouldn't approve of the methods he would have to use to secure a free alignment.

"Have you been aligned?" he asked Mags.

She shook her head. "No, we're still, uh, learning. About the-- neurodynes."

"If money is a concern," said Dara, "you can always earn those two hundred caps by picking up those space suits for us."

X6-88 raised his eyebrows.

Mags sighed. "There are fake prop space suits in the Vault-Tech display at the Galactic Zone. These people want them for some reason. They want to pay us to retrieve them."

"That should be simple enough," said X6-88. "The threats at the Galactic Zone have been neutralized."

"They have?" interrupted the young woman who'd been talking to Mags when X6-88 approached, and who had been hovering nearby, listening to Dara's speech. "Dara--"

"Hush, Tula," said Dara. "It's safer if our new friends go."

"Your guys claimed the park for the Overbosses," said Mags to X6-88. "If we show up there, we'll be trespassing, and we'll be shot on sight."

"I believe your Overbosses have not yet allocated control of the secured parks," said X6-88.

Mags shook her head. "Not taking that chance."

"Fair enough," said X6-88.

"I'll--" Dara cleared her throat. "I'll let you all-- discuss this. Let me know if any of you would like to retrieve those spacesuits for us. Or receive an alignment. Come, Tula."

She hustled the girl away, and X6-88 sat down on the ground. After a moment, Mags and William followed suit.

"Do you intend to settle down with the Hubologists?" X6-88 asked them.

Neither of them answered immediately. They looked tired. Too tired, perhaps, to attempt to lie to him, because Mags said finally, "I don't know where else we're supposed to go."

"We thought we'd wait it out here," said William, her subordinate, who obviously took his cues from her. "See how things went down. If Bowman dies, or she and the bosses have a falling out--"

"Neither of those things is going to happen," said X6-88. "Especially with the two of you removed from the equation."

"You're probably right," said Mags, sounding despondent. "So what are we supposed to do? Nuka Town controls this whole region."

"Which was great," said William, "until your fucking 'mother' showed up. Now we can't even build up a gang from scratch-- the second we got big enough to be worthwhile, the park would come crush us. We're just gonna have to starve, I guess."

"Do you expect my sympathy?" X6-88 asked irritably. "You would still be ruling your faction, if you hadn't attempted to kill me and mine."

"Our days were numbered, anyway," said Mags. "As soon as Bowman and Hancock rolled into town." William nodded. "Everybody knows what they've made of the Commonwealth. Raiders don't dare show their faces. All the great gangs-- Corvega, Quincy, the Forged, Libertalia, even Zeller's fucking Army. All obliterated. And every time a new one starts getting traction, here come the Minutemen. We can't go back there, and now we can't stay here, either."

"Why don't you join the Minutemen?" X6-88 asked.

Mags made a derisive sound.

"Why is that ridiculous?" X6-88 demanded. "If you want power, or even security, you should join the most powerful faction in the region."

"Because they're a bunch of bleeding-heart goody-two-shoes farmers," said William, with venom. "Spend half my life digging in the dirt and the other half running to rescue every pathetic loser that can't take care of themself? Me and Mags, we were meant for better things."

"How do you know that?" X6-88 asked curiously. He knew what he was meant for, but the question seemed less clear for humans in general.

The question apparently startled William. He didn't answer.

Mags said, "Anyway, what makes you think the Minutemen would have us?"

"The application process isn't particularly rigorous," said X6-88. "And, at the moment, you do both still have a pulse. I'd say your prospects are bright."

Mags grinned at that, and sat up a bit, looking at X6-88 with more interest than before.

William said, "You mean, before we made our move."

"No, I mean now," said X6-88. "It would give Ms. Bowman genuine pleasure to welcome the two of you as members."

"I bet her husband wouldn't say the same," said Mags.

William looked up suddenly. "Say, you might know. Who the fuck is he, anyway? I mean, who was he? He talked to us like he knew us, but I've never seen him before, that I know of."

"His birth name was John McDonogh," said X6-88, who had put in a request for the Institute's file on Hancock as soon as he'd gotten back from the Libertalia assignment.

"Oh, shit!" William exclaimed. "That's John fucking McDonogh?"

"How on earth did he become a ghoul?" Mags asked.

"Chem overuse," said X6-88.

William snorted. "I can believe that. But, shit. I had no fucking idea. I figured John was dead in a ditch somewhere by now. OD'd, or drowned drunk in a puddle, or-- I dunno, eaten by some of those ghouls he loved so fucking much."

"He is now one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth," said X6-88. "Certainly the most powerful male human. Which of you was 'meant for better things,' do you think?"

"Oh, fuck you," said William, extending the middle finger of his right hand. "Listen, even if you're right that she'd have us, I'd rather starve to death than join Nora fucking Vault-ass popsicle Bowman's redneck army."

"If that's the case," said X6-88, feeling suddenly hopeful, "would you object if I killed you now? I'm instructed to make your deaths quick and clean, which you might find preferable to the longer and more painful process of starvation."

They both just stared at him, as if he'd said something startling. Why were humans so terrible at thinking things through to a reasonable conclusion?

"Excuse me," said Cleansed, startling Mags and William, who were apparently not only irrational but incredibly unobservant, since they hadn't seen him skulking back to eavesdrop on their conversation. "I couldn't help but overhear you talking about where you belong, and where you're meant to be. After the alignments begin to clear the neurodynes from your system, you'll see more clearly that those feelings of confusion and resentment are the result of--"

"Oh, Christ," said William.

"Sit down, Cleansed," said X6-88, looking at the odd human with a certain interest. "What are these feelings the result of?"

"Well," said Cleansed, sitting, a little nervously. "Dis-- displacement. This world isn't-- it isn't really our home. Not the place where we belong. We are all, truly, meant for better things. For another place altogether."

"Where?" asked X6-88.

"Well, I, um, I can't -- tell you that," said Cleansed apologetically. "Not until you've had a few alignments. You wouldn't be able to understand, with all the neurodynes clouding your understanding of who you truly are."

"I see," said X6-88, and he did, in a way. It wasn't really humans' fault they were so lost and foolish, most of them. How could they be otherwise, not knowing who had made them or why, not knowing whom to obey, whose vision to serve? The wonder was that so many humans found such a clear, driving purpose anyway: to shape the world to their own ends, to remake it as a place they could live as at home. His Father had been one of those humans, and X6-88 had been created to serve his purpose. His mother still was.

Perhaps Mags and William were, too, with their talk of being meant for better things, their determined ambition to live the life they imagined for themselves, on their own terms. But they couldn't be allowed to harm and tyrannize over others, as was their preference. His mother didn't wish it.

"Are you ready for your first alignment, then?" Cleansed asked eagerly, and X6-88 smiled at him.

"But I don't need an alignment," he said, with as much gentleness as he had at his disposal. Poor hapless human. "I already know who I am. And where I belong."

"You may think--" Cleansed began, but X6-88 interrupted, "I really am very sure, Cleansed."

"Oh, well," said Cleansed, with a taut small smile. "Maybe-- maybe your natural, um, vibrations are already better aligned than most people's."

"But that can't be the case," X6-88 objected. "Not if alignment results in greater happiness. Until recently, I was extraordinarily unhappy."

(The long days of scavenging and hunting, with no rest and no commendation at the end of them. No one to talk to. The grinding, wearing hunger, with no respite in sight, as the humans complained about the food. Nothing to report but the slow, inevitable onset of failure. No relay home, no moment of stillness, waiting for the familiar voice, to see if he'd earned a well done, unit. Knowing he would never hear that voice again.)

"Some kind of spontaneous electromagnetic event," Cleansed offered hopefully. "You should speak with Dara. She understands these things better than I do."

Perfect, you did perfect, X6. Thank you so much. That was perfect. You did so well.

It was like the first full meal after long starvation; it was all his, to savor, and it sang in his bloodstream, the energy of it.

And this mission, he'd volunteered for. It was almost like having gotten it right again, already, in advance. I love you so much, X6, her arms around him again, sounding so happy, so pleased. With him.

He hadn't thought-- when she promised to let him stay, this time-- he hadn't even hoped for praise, so soon. He'd hoped for guidance, this time, for reprimand and correction and even punishment, anything but that sad, worried face she used to make, her pensive silence, the glances she exchanged with others, everything he'd finally realized (but not until it was already too late) she did instead of just telling him when he'd displeased her so he could learn.

(He'd speculated-- after the first scalding humiliation and shock and misery of his failure had had time to subside; after he'd presented himself to Father for discipline, fearing the worst, and gotten off with a very mild reprimand; after he'd faced the silent pity of the other coursers, who'd once envied him the honor of being chosen for this strange assignment-- that she hadn't ever reprimanded him, or for that matter praised him, because he hadn't actually belonged to her. Because he'd been on loan, as it were, from the Institute, protecting and serving her on its behalf, and so she hadn't thought she had the right to modify his behavior, only to dismiss him if she found him unsatisfactory.)

But now-- now that she'd come back to claim him, now that she'd promised not to send him away again, to help him learn how to be what she wanted--

Perfect, you did perfect, X6. You did so well.

"Why are you smiling?" Cleansed asked.

X6-88 looked at Mags and William, who looked as if they were wondering the same thing. He was remembering something Michael had said to Dr. Loken, what seemed like an eternity ago, though it had been less than a month.

I am a son of this house, and you are the object of my mother's charity.

These humans had tried their best to ruin everything-- to kill him and his precarious new family, or, failing that, to turn his mother against Night and Day-- and they'd failed utterly, because of X6-88. Because he'd not only done what he was trained to do and helped to fight off the attackers, but done what he wasn't trained to do and pleaded successfully with his mother not to blame Day and Night.

He'd won, and these had lost. They might matter to his mother, but not as much as he did. He could afford to be generous. And his mother might be pleased, that he'd gone out of his way to do so.

Oh my God, X6-88, I love you so much.

"If you dislike the idea of joining the Minutemen," he said, to Mags, "and if you would like to make money without hard work, and without being-- as you put it-- crushed by the Nuka Town faction, I think you should consider the possibilities of Hubology."

"Oh, fuck you," said William again, but Mags said, "To be honest with you, I thought about it. Could be quite a racket, in the right hands. But we're broke. We can't afford to climb their ladder."

"Then you need the two hundred caps, and the prestige, of bringing them those spacesuits," said X6-88 decisively. "Let me help you. I know where they are. And if I accompany you to the Galactic Zone, even if Day and Night have already sent agents there, no one will harm you."

Mags stared. "What? Why? Why would you--?"

"You just want to get us killed," said William pugnaciously. "Get us off alone somewhere, away from these crackpots, and you'll either shoot us yourself or get us shot by the bosses' guys."

"I certainly won't mind killing you, if it comes to that," said X6-88. "But Ms. Bowman has a genuine preference that you live, if you can do so without harming others." He looked at Cleansed. "Is there anything painful or unpleasant about alignment? Or about any aspect of your life here? Are members physically prevented from leaving, if they wish to?"

"No," said Cleansed. "Hubology has given me true joy and purpose, for the first time in my life. And we don't want members who don't want to be here. Their neurodynes could be infectious."

"You would have to preserve those aspects of the religion," said X6-88 to Mags. "Otherwise we'll destroy you. But if you can do that, this seems to be a harmless... racket."

Mags looked at William, and said, quietly, "How much would Lizzie have loved this? Imagine the alignment techniques."

"Yeah, she would've," said William gruffly, and then they both looked back at X6-88.

"What the hell," said Mags. "Let's go get some spacesuits."

X6-88 nodded, and stood. So did the Blacks, and Cleansed, who seemed bewildered by the whole conversation. X6-88 gave him another smile.

"Thank you," he said. "For wishing to make me happier. It was a kind thought."

"You're... welcome," said Cleansed.

"This way," said X6-88 to the Blacks, and they followed him.

Chapter Text

Hancock found Oswald in the theater, surrounded by the sea of his feral friends, most of them lying down, on the floor or on the stage, a few wandering restlessly, stumbling occasionally over the prone bodies of the others. Oswald was sitting in the center of the stage, cross-legged in his bedraggled tuxedo, staring down at one of the ferals that lay on the floor before him, still as a corpse.

"Hey, brother," said Hancock, picking his way carefully across the floor, towards the glow of Oswald. It was easier to deal with now that he knew what to expect. "Just wanted to let you know we're headin' out. And say thanks, for lettin' us stay here. Anything we can do, in return--"

"I'd like you to find Rachel," said Oswald, immediately, as if he'd been waiting to be asked. "Or at least her body." He looked up at Hancock, glowing faintly. "If she were still alive, she would have come back by now. If she-- if she remembered to."

"You think she might be--" Hancock gestured to the feral.

"That's what I-- fear," said Oswald. "If she is--" He hesitated. "I'd-- I'd like to say goodbye."

Hancock sat down; this didn't feel like a conversation to have standing over the guy. "You know which way she went?"

"She was going to try all the settlements in the region," said Oswald.

"OK," said Hancock. "But you know, even if we do find her, we might not know her. Even her clothes might be--" He cleared his throat. "Uh, well, you know."

Oswald nodded. "I know. I'd just like to you to-- look."

"OK," said Hancock again. "We will."

"Thank you," said Oswald. "I'm nearly ready, I think. To say goodbye. When I think of Rachel-- like this-- and if there's truly no cure--"

Hancock's mind, through sheer habit of empathy, tried to imagine-- what if Nora--

--and skittered back, adrenaline spiking, from a glimpsed abyss, nonono, we're not gonna think about that.

"I'm so tired," said Oswald. "Of-- hoping. Pretending to hope. And for whose benefit, but my own. Since the alternative is--"

"We'll look after you, brother," said Hancock, quietly, still shivering a little inside. "Stick with us, OK? You ain't alone. Not any more. And lettin' go ain't the end. Not unless you let it be."

"You're very kind," said Oswald, "but I've lost the energy for new starts, I'm afraid."

Hancock put out his hand-- reshaped, burned out, remade, by the cocktail he'd taken when he'd thought life might be more livable as someone else, something else, anything but his useless self-- and put it on Oswald's hand, where it lay on his tuxedo-clad knee. Oswald's skin hummed and sang under his touch, tasted almost; something in Hancock was ravenous for it. That glow.

"You got energy," he said to Oswald, who was looking up at him curiously. "I can feel it. You just gotta figure out how to use it. Make it work for you."

"I'm tired," said Oswald again.

Hancock nodded.

"I get that," he said. "I do. But-- wait. Hang in there. Till we find her. Can you wait?"

"Of course," Oswald said. "Since Rachel left, it's all I've done."

.............

 

In the arch of the gate, his party-- minus X6-88, who had headed off to the Hubologists' camp to wait for the Black siblings to do something fucked up, which Hancock privately hoped they'd do quickly, since now that X6 wasn't the minion of an evil underground institution that was fucking with Hancock's people, he was turning out to be the kind of guy you really appreciated having around to watch your back-- was waiting.

He went to Nora with a kind of blurred rush, dizzy with needing her, as if the few minutes they'd been parted had been years, and put both arms around her. She was solid, strong, real, the realest thing in the world, and she went soft and relaxed against him, tipping her face up to his with a sunshine smile. He kissed her mouth-- only lightly, not the time or place to get into anything heavier, although he wanted to, wanted to shoo the kids off to play on the giant teacups and carry his wife (his wife, she'd married him, she'd let him slide his ring onto her finger, how in the name of all that was miraculous, and he still remembered the words she'd told him to say, with a twinkle as if she knew how true they were, with my body I thee worship) back to that little room and lay her down on the bed and bury himself in her beauty, her warmth, the tangle of her strong arms and legs--

"Everything OK?" she asked, when he'd managed to bring himself to pull away.

The kids were watching. He saw, startled and amused, that they'd switched clothes. Or, not clothes. Armor. Sierra's blonde head was peering like an unexpected flower from atop Danse's power armor; Danse himself was wearing Michael's combat armor breastplate (and the rakish folded bandana tied across his forehead that covered up his scar), and Michael had on the girded leather chest piece Nora had bought for Sierra.

"We decided to redistribute our protective gear," said Michael, as the party began to walk north, Sierra moving with the heavy clank and stomp Danse usually contributed. "Sierra is the most vulnerable member of our party in terms of both combat training and physical durability, so it made sense for her to have the heaviest protection. Danse was generous enough to lend her his power armor."

"Sure, makes sense," said Hancock, carefully refraining from mentioning the other obvious benefit from Michael's point of view of having Danse out of the power armor; their hands were already laced together as they walked. Hancock sympathized; he used to hate it when they found a suit of armor while out scavenging and his pack rat of a wife insisted on getting into it to bring it home, waste not want not, and wound up clanking along out of his reach. Now, of course, they'd pretty much cleared the Commonwealth of random abandoned suits of power armor. Thank goodness.

"You talked to Oswald?" Nora nudged, reaching for Hancock's arm and curling her strong fingers around it. He tugged her closer, wanting to feel her warmth.

"Yeah," he said. "He's pretty down. He wants us to try to find his Rachel for him. I said we'd try."

"Of course we will," said Nora. "Let's clear the parks first, and if we don't find her at any of them, Day and Night might be able to give us directions to some other settlements around here. Or Mackenzie could, or the others. Some of them must have come from some of those settlements, originally."

"The problem is," said Hancock, "he thinks that if she hasn't come back to him by now, she's gotta be either dead or feral."

Nora nodded somberly. "We can check out places that are known for having feral ghouls, too."

"There's a town up north of the bottling plant," Sierra volunteered. "The town of Bradberten. Many of the park employees used to live there, but I've heard that it's full of feral ghouls now."

"Great," said Nora. "I mean, not great, but-- we'll check it out. Thanks, Sierra."

"You're welcome," said Sierra.

"That where we're headed now, the bottling plant?" Hancock asked, and Sierra answered, "No, Safari Adventure. Nora said we could save the bottling plant for last, since that's the one I'm most excited about."

"The bottling plant?" Hancock asked, bewildered.

Sierra nodded eagerly. "You go down a river and learn all about the history of Nuka Cola's development! Chronological, regional-- there's special displays devoted to the intended demographics for each variety!"

"Well, it definitely sounds like Safari Adventure would be a letdown after that," said Hancock, grinning. Sierra was a trip. "What's waitin' to kill us at Safari Adventure?"

"Some kind of extra deadly deathclaw," said Sierra absentmindedly. She was eyeing Hancock curiously, as if she'd just noticed him for the first time. "You're Nora's husband?"

"Pleased to meetcha," said Hancock, amused.

"So if Danse and Michael and X6-88 are my brothers," said Sierra, sounding like she was doing math in her head, "and Nora is my mother, then are you my father?"

"Stepfather," said Hancock, and it almost didn't sound weird anymore at all.

"How many brothers and sisters do I have?" Sierra asked.

Nora's face went soft and luminous, the way it did when she contemplated her children. They-- and home, and Hancock too, maybe-- she said, anyway-- were the chem that made the shitty, jagged-edged world livable for her.

(Hancock still liked that chemical blur of Jet and booze, the same way when he was a kid he'd liked spinning around in circles until he fell down on his back, but now it was Nora who made the minute-by-minute business of living seem like something a person could actually stand, if he tried. Nora, and the kids, and home.)

"There are three female synths and-- including Danse, X6-88, and myself-- six male, currently in residence at the Castle," said Michael to Sierra. "As well as one male human and two female whom our mother also claims as family."

"There's other synths who live other places?" Sierra asked.

Nora nodded. "Lots of them. Some of them would rather live other places, and some don't know about the Castle, or don't even know they're synths."

"OK," said Sierra, seeming deep in thought, and then, as if she'd come to some conclusion, "Tell me about the ones that live at the Castle."

"Oh!" Nora was as pleased as if Sierra had given her a present. "Oh, OK-- well, starting at the beginning, there's Shaun, he's my baby. As far as I know, the only child synth the Institute ever made. He's a sweetheart-- he loves all his brothers and sisters like crazy. And he's really smart. He likes to build things, mechanical things, and weapon mods-- he can fix anything that's broken, and improve anything that's not. He looks kind of like me, but littler. He's based on my first-- my human son-- I don't know how that works exactly, but he looks the most like me-- and my first husband-- of any of the synths.

"And then there's Emily, she's my first daughter. She's part of my council too, like Danse and Hancock-- she loves the Minutemen, and she's crazy brave, and she loves her brothers and sisters, and she loves poetry. She writes it, too. And she has a girlfriend named Kasumi, who also lives with us, she's one of the humans. She --"

"Look out, ma'am," said Michael, just before Hancock, too, heard the buzzing noise that signalled one of the giant flying ant swarms that made this western hellscape so very goddamn exhilarating. Sierra popped Danse's helmet over her head, as the rest of them drew weapons.

"She has freckles," Nora resumed, when they were stripping the ants for meat (waste not, want not). "Emily. And beautiful red hair. She's tiny but she's fearless, and she loves to look at the stars."

She smiled up at Michael, who was reaching to help her to her feet, and said, "And then Michael, you've met, he's my superhero."

"Thank you, ma'am," said Michael.

"And then there's Max," said Nora, as they walked on. "He came to us when he read about us in the paper, when Emily decided to go public. He's kind of quiet, around me anyway-- he talks a lot more to Dee. Dee's another one of my humans, he's a friend of mine from the Railroad. Max is-- well, he's a reader-- all my kids like to read together, but Max is one who reads a lot on his own, too. Not stories so much as science stuff, stuff about how the world works. It's funny because he's not really a tinkerer, like Shaun and Kasumi, but he just likes to learn about everything. Plants and atoms and muscles and stars and--"

"Ma'am," said Michael, pointing his gun at a rustling in the long grass, and Nora said, "--sorry--"

When the fucking giant crickets had been dispatched, Hancock said to his wife, who was looking incredibly beautiful, flushed with fighting and happiness, "Maybe you tell her all about the rest of them after we're in for the night."

"Oh, well, maybe," said Nora, smiling. "Sorry, guys. Getting a little distracted."

"The other synths are Cog, Victoria, Leah, Danse, and X6-88," said Michael to Sierra, who'd popped her helmet off again when the danger seemed to be past.

Sierra nodded. "And the humans are Kasumi, Dee, and Elizabeth?"

"That's correct."

Sierra was quiet for a moment, and then asked, "Why doesn't X6-88 have a name?"

"He hasn't said if he wants one," said Nora. "Michael didn't for a long time."

"But--" Sierra seemed concerned. "He shouldn't be the only one who doesn't have one."

"X6-88 could be his name," Danse suggested.

"It's not a name," said Sierra. "It's a--"

"Alphanumeric designation," said Michael.

"He could choose to be named after his designation," said Danse. "So he doesn't forget it."

That baffled Sierra for a moment, and then she giggled, a happy, giddy sound. Danse looked incredibly pleased. So did Michael and Nora, and so, by extension, did Hancock, probably. Well, he wouldn't be with Nora if he didn't appreciate the joy a dumb joke could bring to the world on occasion, and apparently Danse had been making one. Good that somebody could tell.

"Who named me?" Sierra asked, pursuing the subject with more interest than Hancock had seen her show in anything not directly pertaining to Nuka Cola. "I mean, if I am a synth."

"You probably picked it out yourself," Nora told her.

"Sierra Petrovita?" Sierra considered for a few moments, frowning. "Funny name."

"You must have liked it," said Danse. "I wonder, sometimes, about mine. I don't seem like the kind of person to have named myself 'Danse,' do I?"

"I'm a funny person to pick being," said Sierra pensively. "If a person was going to pick."

"Me too," said Danse, a little sadly, it seemed.

"You chose an identity that would be satisfied by simple, harmless pleasures," Michael said to Sierra, and, to Danse, "And you chose to believe as few lies as possible, while maintaining your identity as human."

"You sound as if you approve," said Danse, with a small smile, to Michael. "Of runaways?"

Michael smiled back. "I've had to become much more broadminded. Associating with so many of you."

"Look, there it is!" said Sierra, staring raptly ahead at the park that had come into view.

"Who's taking point this time?" Nora asked. "Is it my turn yet?"

"You went first at Dry Rock," said Hancock. "And my last turn didn't count. We didn't even have a fight."

"You should put your helmet back on," Danse told Sierra. "At least until we're able to establish a secure rendezvous point inside the park."

"OK," said Sierra, and put the helmet on.

"Good call, Danse," said Nora, as they approached the gates of the park. "Sierra, do you happen to know where the nearest building with a secure-- oh!"

As she exclaimed, Michael moved like lightning and hooked an arm around Hancock's waist, lifting him bodily off the ground for a moment as he spun, Hancock and all, to one side and out of the path of a giant scaly deathclaw-looking thing that had leaped from behind the gate and landed, snarling, in the spot where Hancock had been a moment before.

Nora and Danse were firing on it almost immediately, but before Hancock could even begin to do the same, Michael had shoved him, not overly roughly but very firmly, behind him, in almost the same gesture in which he started shooting at the deathclaw thing himself. Between the three of them, before the thing had time to regroup, it screamed and was dead.

"Holy shit," said Nora breathlessly, as Hancock stepped out, a little unsteadily, from behind Michael. "What the fuck was that?"

"There's probably more inside the park," said Sierra's metallic voice from inside the power armor, as she angled her neck and stepped forward to peer down at the carcass.

"Oh, good," said Hancock, trying to sound normal and sarcastic, not as dazed as he felt. Being physically picked up and swooped aside to safety-- even if it was only because he'd been the one in the most immediate danger-- was a first in his experience, and it had felt pretty surreal. "Something to look forward to. Next time I get a piece of the action, though, yeah?"

"I apologize for-- handling you-- without permission, Hancock," said Michael, standing at the kind of stiff, eyes-lowered attention he fell into when he thought somebody might be mad at him. And cared if they were. "And for-- pushing you."

"And here Nora was worried she'd get treated like a helpless damsel, with two ex-coursers and an ex-paladin along," Hancock joked, and when Michael didn't relax, "You're OK, son. Took me by surprise, but I'd a hell of a lot rather you picked me up without permission than that thing did."

(And the pushing part had clearly been reflexive, part of a trained set of actions. Later he'd be giving Michael shit about treating him like a runaway synth in need of rescue, but not until Michael stopped actually feeling bad about it.)

"Hey," he added, since Michael still looked tense. "Look at your mom."

Michael did, and the goofily proud grin on Nora's face did it, made him draw a quick breath and loosen his shoulders even before she went in for the hug.

"What's that move called?" she asked, arms around his neck, standing on her tiptoes and smiling up into his eyes. "Pas de bourrée? Grand jeté? I haven't taken death ballet since I was a little girl."

Instead of answering, Michael lifted her lightly against him, and she kicked up one foot, demurely as if she were wearing ruffled skirts and silk slippers instead of her favorite battered army fatigues and combat boots, before he set her back down.

Danse said, as Nora let go and came towards Hancock, "It looked like a highly useful move for a number of situations. Perhaps, Michael, you'd show me how it's done. Later."

"Hey, save it for the bedroom," said Hancock, from inside Nora's arms, and Danse went pink, but smiled when Michael laughed.

Nora pressed her lips lightly to Hancock's mouth, and he held her, sipped her mouth just lightly, savoring her kiss, drinking in her closeness, the way she clung to him. Whatever embarrassment he might have momentarily felt at being so ignominiously rescued, it paled in comparison to her joy that he was safe. She loved him. It wouldn't ever stop being a miracle, how much she loved him. How she'd chosen him, out of the whole Commonwealth, for her own.

"There's no bedroom at the Mountain," said Sierra, her helmet still making her voice resonate oddly. "Maybe the bosses will let you use their private room, though."

Everyone laughed at that, and then everyone saw Michael go still again, the first to notice what the rest of them, following his gaze, saw quickly enough: in the arch of the park gate stood a tall, muscular, shaggy-haired man, dressed more or less like Grognak the Barbarian, with an aluminum swatter over his shoulder, watching them in intent silence.

"Hi there," said Nora, stepping away from Hancock, squaring her shoulders and tensing up a bit, the way she did with strangers. Not aggressive, not yet, but ready.

(He'd seen it so many times since that first one: the way she'd faced down Finn, the split second of what looked like sadness on her face when she understood the threat, and then the determination. She'd been genuinely ready to kill Finn, but when Hancock had done it instead, she'd shifted seamlessly from you're-gonna-regret-that to hey-thanks-mister, in a way he'd never seen before, or since, in anyone else. He'd imagined, once he knew more about her, her having the same reaction to Nate, in their sunny, safe, clean prewar house, if he'd unexpectedly done some unpleasant chore she'd been bracing herself for. Oh, you already took out the trash! Thanks so much!)

"Hi there," the stranger in the park gate echoed, and then, suddenly, broke into a brilliant, happy smile. "This your family?"

"Yeah," said Nora, who'd never met a brilliant, happy smile she didn't immediately return. "This is my family."

The man nodded, beaming.

"Strong family," he said. "Very good. You come. Meet Cito family."

Before they could answer, he'd turned and walked away, back into the park.

"Well," said Nora. "What are we waiting for? Let's go meet the family."

Chapter Text

"What is that noise you're making?" Night asked Mackenzie, startling her and making her laugh. She hadn't been aware that she was humming to herself.

"Sorry," she said. "Just humming a tune."

"I've never heard you do that before," said Night.

Mackenzie smiled at him. "I guess I'm in a good mood, boss."

And she was. Her transfer from Day's protective custody to Night's had been accomplished with more than one significant glance between them, in addition to the actual words they'd exchanged--

Dr. Bridgeman awakened feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the eventfulness of the last few days. She feels better now.

Well enough to work?

She says so.

Night had examined her very closely then, and apparently whatever he'd seen-- which included a big smile, because they were being so sweet and adorable and she couldn't manage not to smile about it-- had satisfied him, because he'd nodded, and said, to her this time, You ate your breakfast?

He didn't seem to mind when she laughed as she said, Yes, sir, although he did exchange another lingering glance with Day before he stepped to her side to escort her to her clinic.

Now she'd been caught humming. On the one hand, she still felt like it was a little silly to have one of the bosses with her at all times; on the other hand; she wished it was both of them. It was sort of unfair to Day that she'd had her cry out on his shoulder and then been transferred to Night once the relief of it, and the good mood, had kicked in.

"Not a lot of Operators in the marketplace this morning," she remarked, to Night. "I wonder how Sunny Carroll's doing."

Last night she'd agreed with them that-- given that the Blacks' most loyal and trusted adherents had probably all been chosen, or volunteered, for the mission to assassinate the Bowman party-- the remnant was likely to be grateful they were alive, and ready to obey the bosses' handpicked leader, who was at least one of them. Or had been.

"Taking steps to make allies, no doubt," said Night. "And intimidate potential enemies."

"Pretty much what raiders do, right?" Mackenzie joked, and Night smiled slightly, and then Mackenzie saw her first patient of the day approaching: a Pack raider, face-painted and hair-spiked.

Rare, since the Pack mostly patched each other up, taking pride in not needing outside help; if one was hurt or sick enough to need her, they mostly had to be half-carried to the clinic by one or two of their packmates. Or else-- if they were bad off enough, or high enough in the Pack's hierarchy-- they sent for Mackenzie instead, had another slave come fetch her to the amphitheater.

She hated going there. It was full of dogs, trained to be vicious, that growled and barked at her, and there were other strange animals there that the Pack called "ghoulrillas," and there were the Pack raiders themselves, who barked and snarled and howled at her, although they didn't touch her, not since she'd become Night and Day's-- whatever she was.

The raider-- Mackenzie thought her name was Hill-- came up to Mackenzie's table, and said, gruffly, "Overboss. Doc."

(The raiders didn't usually bother with a greeting before producing their symptoms, but Hill couldn't exactly ignore Night.)

"Hill," said Night, and Mackenzie said cheerfully, "What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"Alpha wants to see you," said Hill. "At the amphitheater."

Mackenzie was startled. "Is he sick?"

"No," said Hill, sounding offended at the suggestion, and then added grudgingly, "It’s Ericson. She don't feel good."

Before Mackenzie could answer, Night said, "No."

"Boss," Hill protested.

Night said, his voice low and flat and cold, "I don't recall inviting argument, Hill. No."

Hill blanched under the layers of face paint, and took a step backwards.

"OK, boss," she said. "Didn't mean no disrespect."

"If Mason wants Dr. Bridgeman to treat Ericson," said Night, "he can bring her here."

Hill nodded, and said again, "OK, boss. I'll tell him."

She turned and walked away, at a brisk pace.

"Thanks, boss," said Mackenzie quietly.

Night didn't answer for a moment, and then he said, "Is that a usual kind of summons for you to receive?"

"It doesn't happen a lot," said Mackenzie. "But this definitely isn't the first time. Although usually it's a slave who comes and gets me, not a raider."

"And you usually go, when you're summoned?"

"Well-- yes," Mackenzie said, puzzled. "Of course."

"Why?" Night asked.

Mackenzie almost laughed, it seemed like such an odd question. "Why not?"

"You tensed visibly at the prospect of accompanying Hill," said Night.

"Oh--" She hadn't been aware of doing so. "I mean-- I don't like it, going there. But, hey, we all do things we don't like doing. That's just life."

She smiled at him. He didn't smile back.

"You asked us to take Plummer's collar off," he said.

"Sure, boss," she said, puzzled at the apparent change of subject. "Because she's got a medical condition. Do you--"

"You asked that Dawkins be allowed to keep his job in the cafe, instead of being reassigned to crops," he interrupted.

"Lauren looks after him. It was better for them both--"

"You have repeatedly asked us for soda for Sierra Petrovita," said Night.

"It's her one joy in life, boss," she said. "Well, was."

"It never occurred to you to tell us you disliked going to the amphitheater?"

Oh, well, it-- hadn't, actually.

But now she remembered Day, this morning, saying you have never asked us for anything for yourself, only for them. Had this been something they'd been discussing?

Before she could ask, Violet Lewis appeared with a hand gashed by a rake, and Mackenzie disinfected and bandaged the cut, and gave Violet a shot of antibiotics, and told her to keep the bandage clean and take the rest of the day off and check back in tomorrow.

Violet nodded, and hurried away.

Night remarked, as if he'd forgotten what they'd been talking about before Violet approached, "We may have control of another park by this evening. Or even two."

"It's so exciting," Mackenzie agreed, beaming. "Have you and Day thought about how you're going to allocate control of the parks?"

"Time enough to discuss that once they're ours to allocate," said Night.

"Two of them already are!"

"And we have already paid for them all, in advance," said Night. "After matters have stabilized somewhat, we can consider how to allocate territory to the survivors." He gave Mackenzie a small smile. "Don't worry, Dr. Bridgeman. We'll do nothing definite without consulting you."

Mackenzie giggled. "OK. Thanks, boss."

She had a couple more patients-- both ex-slaves, who seemed shy around Night, but not absolutely paralyzed with terror, which was progress-- before the market around her suddenly hushed almost to a dead silence, and, looking up, she saw why. Headed towards her clinic was Mason, the Pack "alpha," who almost never left the amphitheater except when explicitly summoned by the Overbosses, and who certainly never frequented the market.

"Don't be afraid," said Night, quietly, for only her to hear.

Mason came to a halt a few paces away from them.

"Overboss," he said. "Doc."

"Speak," said Night, coolly.

"Well, doc," Mason said to Mackenzie, his manner unexpectedly courteous. "Fact is, Ericson's woke up this morning feeling mighty poorly. I'd like to have you take a look at her right away."

Before Mackenzie could answer, Night said coldly, to Mason, "An attempt was made on Dr. Bridgeman's life only yesterday. Surely you understand that we are still inclined to guard her more carefully than usual."

"Well now, surely," said Mason. "I respect that, boss. Man's gotta protect his valuables. And by the same token, if you take my point, Ericson's my good right hand, and if she was to die, why, it'd be a powerful loss to me."

"If she's unable to walk," said Night, "have her carried here. You have enough able bodies at your disposal. Having lost none yesterday, that I know of."

Mackenzie had been hesitating to speak up-- she didn't want to seem to undercut Night's authority in front of the Pack leader, and she didn't much want to go to the amphitheater, either-- but her duty as a doctor came first, and she said, quietly, "Sir-- if she's really so sick--"

Night looked at her, the speed of his head's turn suggesting surprise, and gazed at her for a long moment-- she stood still, waiting-- before he said, gently, "Ericson's life is not in danger, Dr. Bridgeman."

"You ain't seen her this morning," Mason protested.

"I know a transparent ploy when I see one, Mason," said Night.

(Mackenzie could feel her heartrate increase. Ploy? But why--?)

Mason rubbed at the patch of ginger hair on his chin for a moment, and then sighed.

"OK, boss," he said. "Just outta curiosity, how long you planning on sticking so close by the doc?"

"Until we no longer consider it necessary," said Night. "Is there some reason you would like to see her less closely guarded?"

"It ain't that," said Mason. "But if a man wanted to have a word alone with her, how'd he fix that to happen?"

"Why would he want to?" Night asked.

"Now, boss," said Mason, "if I could tell you that, I wouldn't have much need to get the doc alone, would I?"

(He couldn't be planning to harm her, or take her hostage, he wasn't stupid. What on earth? But whatever it was--)

"Sir," she said to Mason, keeping her voice soft and submissive, "whatever you have to say to me, don't you think the Overboss will mind hearing it less than he'll mind-- not hearing it? Now that he knows it's there to be said?"

Mason scratched his beard again, giving her an appraising look, and then said to Night, "I don't suppose you'd consider lettin' the doc come to the amphitheater if you come with her."

"No," said Night. "I am, of course, capable of killing everyone in your amphitheater singlehandedly, should it prove necessary, but Dr. Bridgeman might be harmed slightly in the process, and I'm unwilling to incur that risk."

Mason nodded thoughtfully, not seeming to bridle at Night's estimation of his own abilities versus the Pack's.

"Well, I guess I'll speak my piece here," he said, "though I'd take it kindly, boss, if you'd use your words to let me know if I should cross a line. Public discipline of sass is a practice I hold with myself, ordinarily, but this ain't ordinary times and I'll pledge my own word I don't mean anythin' I'm about to say as sass. In fact, you might say as I don't mean to say any of it to you at all. Just to the doc, whilst you make sure no harm comes to her."

Night considered that seriously, and then said, "Very well."

Mason turned back to Mackenzie, who was privately marveling that the Pack's Alpha wanted to say anything to her enough to risk "public discipline." Although Night and Day weren't prone to randomly strike other people for "sass." Not that Mackenzie knew of, anyway, and she had a hard time picturing it.

"Lizzie Wyath's dead," said Mason, his deep-set, slightly bloodshot hazel eyes peering at her from between the stripes of carefully applied face paint. "Mags and William Black are gone. Nisha and her sergeants died awhile back. That makes me the last boss standin'. Of those that were here, when the Overbosses came."

"OK," said Mackenzie, puzzled. "I mean, yes, sir."

"Nisha came to me before the Disciples made their move," said Mason. "Wanted to bring me and my Pack in on it. And I might've said yes." His eyes flicked to Night, whose expression hadn't changed, and back to Mackenzie. "But, one, I didn't have any real problem with the way things were bein' ran around here. Not like Nisha did. I ain't sayin' I didn't used to enjoy watchin' a slave fight a dog or a ghoulrilla, but it wasn't my whole pleasure in life, like it was Nisha's, watchin' a slave die slow. I'd just as soon watch two of my Pack go hand to hand-- it's good exercise for 'em, anyways, keeps 'em fightin' fit, and keeps the peckin' order fresh and up to date."

He paused, as if expecting Mackenzie to agree, but she wasn't expecting the pause and before she could think how to respond, he continued, "And, two, Nisha said she was gonna use you for leverage. Well, that didn't sit right with me. Fight's a fight, and, who knows, maybe the Pack and the Disciples together could've took on the bosses if we'd tried--"

He glanced at Night again, whose face was still completely blank, unreadable.

"But, whether or no," he resumed, to Mackenzie, "I didn't take to the idea of doin' it like that. Not my kinda fight. So I stayed out of it."

He paused again, and Mackenzie nodded.

"Now Mags didn't come to me about this latest cute little trick a' hers," he said. "Maybe that's 'cause she figured I'd turn her down, like we both did Nisha, or maybe she was hopin' the Operators would be comin' out on top, bein' the ones to take down the outsiders. Maybe she figured the bosses'd be glad to have the outsiders off their backs, and pin a little medal on her, or toss her a sack a' caps, for fixin' everything up so nice. Didn't play out like that. Which I coulda told Mags for free, if she'd'a come to me, because if the bosses didn't take to the newcomers they'd'a taken 'em out their own damn selves. Which they didn't."

Mackenzie nodded again, and stole a glance at Night, who hadn't changed his facial expression by so much as a twitch, as far as she could tell, since Mason started speaking.

"So by my lights," said Mason, "Nisha and Mags both went down 'cause they thought they'd outsmart the Overbosses. Now, I ain't ever claimed to be no Oppenheimer when it comes to smarts. I'm a tough son of a bitch, and my Pack are tough bitches and sons of bitches, and when a couple of the toughest goddamn sons of bitches I ever seen roll into town and fuck up the old Overboss and start takin' all comers in the arena and beating the goddamn hell out of anybody who steps to 'em, I got no problem following along."

He glanced at Night again. Night still didn't move a muscle; he was behaving as if he couldn't hear Mason, or as if anything Mason was saying was none of his concern. Mackenzie wondered, in a brief flash of resentment against the Institute, whether standing still and expressionless while others spoke in front of you-- and even about you-- was something he'd learned there. Here it functioned as a bit of a power move-- it was definitely flustering Mason a bit-- but there--

"Now," Mason resumed, to Mackenzie. "I'll admit I didn't know what to think of these Commonwealth folks, at first. They hadn't ran the Gauntlet, and the bosses didn't want to fight 'em, and I wasn't altogether sure why, and that rubbed me up the wrong way, as you might say. But I'm ready to say now, what with two parks cleared and the rest on the way, and half the Operators dead, the bosses made the right call. Makin' a deal. The collars for the parks. Fair trade, and we stay whole."

He paused again.

Mackenzie said, "Well-- well, good, then."

"Yeah?" said Mason, tilting his chin slightly at her. "So we good?"

Mackenzie hesitated, taken by surprise. "We-- good?"

"Yeah," said Mason. "You and me. You and the Pack. We good?"

"I--" She looked up at Night, who was still doing his best impression of a piece of furniture that happened to be standing near a conversation between two humans, and then back at Mason. "I don't have any-- problem-- with you. Or the Pack."

"OK then," said Mason, with a quick nod. "Glad to hear it. I should be gettin' on back to the amphitheater. Check on Ericson. May bring her by in a bit, have you check her over."

"OK," said Mackenzie dizzily. "Yes, sir."

When he was gone, she looked up at Night, who said, "Sit down. You look-- unsteady."

Mackenzie obeyed, sitting down on her own examining table. She did feel a little wobbly.

"What was that?" she asked Night, and Night said, with the slightest possible smile, "I believe that was Mason pleading for his life."

Mackenzie laughed breathlessly. "With me?"

"So it seems," said Night. "He must have planned carefully what to say. Possibly even rehearsed it. I don't believe I have ever heard Mason wax so eloquent."

"But why to me?" Mackenzie asked.

"Why not?" said Night, as if echoing her answer to him earlier. "He knows many of the changes we've made-- if not all the significant ones-- were at your behest. He knows the bosses who-- as he put it-- are no longer 'standing,' are the ones who posed a threat either to your physical safety, or to your vision for the park."

Mackenzie laughed weakly. "You make me sound like some kind of-- mastermind."

"The power behind the throne," said Night, apparently in agreement, and added, "You sound surprised."

"I never--"

She trailed off.

She'd never felt powerful, was what she meant, and she'd certainly never thought of herself as having a vision for the park. She'd just been trying her best to make everything a little less awful.

Although maybe that was a vision.

But she was just a slave who was bold enough-- desperate enough, really-- to ask for things. Being given what you asked for didn't make you powerful, it just made you lucky.

Although luck was a kind of power, too, wasn't it? Especially if it held, if it was reliable. She wasn't afraid, and if she needed something she could get it. That was power, wasn't it?

She thought of Day saying it's almost certain that we owe you our lives. And you have never asked us for anything for yourself.

"Night?" she said, feeling-- not nervous, there was nothing to be afraid of. Shy, maybe.

Night looked at her. "Yes, Dr. Bridgeman?"

She felt even shyer under his intent scrutiny, and to make herself feel better she held out her hand to him, and he took it immediately, with a quick, definite smile.

"What is it that you would like to say to me?" he asked. "Or ask of me?"

He sounded-- hopeful, maybe, almost eager, and she said, watching him, "After this is all over-- after the-- the dust settles. After the Bowmans are gone, and all the slaves who want to go, and we've figured out how the park is going to work, going forward--"

She paused, dismayed. The hope-- if that was what it was-- had gone out of Night's face, and his voice, when he spoke, was expressionless.

"We will see you safely home," he said.

"See me--" Mackenzie blinked up at him. "Boss, what do you mean? I am home."

His hand tightened on hers, but he said, "You've stayed here because you wanted to make things better. They are better. The slaves are free. Just as you always wanted. After-- as you put it-- the dust settles, there will be no reason for you to stay here."

"That isn't what I was going to say," she told him.

He nodded, still blank-faced.

"I thought you might feel-- hesitant-- to ask," he said. "Since you know how much we-- value you. I wanted you to know that we have discussed it. That we'll see you safely to your settlement. And we'll see that it's well protected." He paused, and then added, "And we'll see that the lines of communication remain open, in case you need-- anything-- at any time. We would prefer that you not-- that you be well provided for."

"Oh, Night," Mackenzie said, holding still, the way they did, understanding why they did, when they were afraid of doing something wrong.

Night was very still, too, as he said, "What were you going to say? If there is something else you want--"

She took his free hand with hers, and pressed it to her cheek, cupping his fingers around the curve of her jaw, leaning into the warmth of his hand, still clutching the other one. She didn't give a damn who saw.

"There is," she said. "I was going to say, after everything's settled, I don't want to sleep at the Mountain any more. I want to sleep at the Grille. Every night."

Night's hand tightened again on hers, almost to the point of pain. She squeezed back. He said nothing.

"I know you've offered," she said. "You even offered to give me my own room at the Grille, even though you don't even use that big bed, you don't even sleep. But I didn't want to." She took a breath. "I mean, I did want to. But I didn't think I should. I thought I should-- I should stay with the others. My people. To protect them, to-- to show you, and Day, that I was still one of them. That if I mattered, so did they."

"We know," said Night quietly.

"I know," said Mackenzie. "I know you know. Now I know. Because you've done-- everything you've done. So now I can--" She smiled up at him. "I can do what I want. I want to-- I want to fall asleep with you two in the same room, maybe talking to each other still or just-- breathing, in the same room, and I want to wake up and know you're-- there, in the same room, as soon as I open my eyes, at least one of you has to stay with me while I'm asleep, you still can't-- leave me alone-- please, OK? Wake me up if you have to leave, I don't ever want to wake up without-- without at least one of you with me, OK? That's what I want. That's what I'm asking for. OK? Please."

Night wasn't breathing, the way Day hadn't been breathing this morning, just for a moment, until he stepped close enough to her-- one hand in her hand, one cupped around her face-- that she felt the heat of him, caught the familiar scent of his coat, and then they both breathed together.

Chapter Text

It was after retrieval of the last spacesuit, when X6-88 had almost stopped expecting it, that Mags and William finally made their move. They were on their way out of the park, in fact, when Mags pressed her gun to the back of his head, that he'd turned to her because they were being so infuriatingly cooperative he'd decided there was little hope of their betraying him.

"OK, listen up, asshole," she said, and he did, because he was curious about her rationale for putting a gun to his head. He'd been, he felt, incredibly helpful and sympathetic, considering.

William was pointing a gun at him now, too, as Mags said, "This park is ours now. Tell Nuka Town that any raiders who don't want to live like fucking Minutemen can come to us here."

He didn't bother to ask her what made her think it would be more difficult for his party to retake the park from two humans than from swarms of hostile robots. Probably she planned to reprogram the robots to do her bidding, but in any case, he was tired of her.

He couldn't quite manage to kill them painlessly, under the circumstances, but he didn't draw it out on purpose, and it didn't take too long. Ms. Bowman wouldn't mind that, surely, not when Mags had put a gun to his head, when they'd both responded to her original merciful forbearance by threatening her property.

(Her son. Threatening her son.)

He considered seriously, afterwards, what to do with the bodies. Raiders in the Commonwealth often used corpses as decoration, and for the first time X6-88 somewhat understood the impulse-- these humans' fate might serve as a useful example for any other raiders who felt like threatening his family, or their tentative alliance with Day and Night-- but he didn't have to think about it for long before concluding that Ms. Bowman would almost certainly disapprove. He thought about leaving them where they were, or else burying them outside the entrance to the park, and then decided it would be neater-- and possibly suit her sensibilities better-- to bury them, instead, beside where they had buried their friend, about halfway between Nuka Town and the Hubologists' camp.

It also occurred to him, looking at the now somewhat bloodstained spacesuits, that he might as well take them back to the Hubologists and collect the two hundred caps, to bring to his mother.

(She'd been lavish with her generosity to him and his, and he hadn't questioned-- it would be insupportably insolent to question-- her financial status, but it couldn't hurt for him to contribute a bit. Especially since he'd asked her for different clothing. He shouldn't cost her more than he could help.)

He piled the Blacks onto a makeshift sledge (fashioned from the tin roof of a flimsy little stand that Sierra Petrovita had said once sold food and drink), dragged them to the spot where he'd seen them bury Lizzie, and dug a grave for the two of them with the edge of the same erstwhile roof.

Once they were buried, and he'd taken a short break to eat and drink and rest and savor his success a little, he started for the Hubologists' camp again.

.............

They seemed disconcerted to see him.

"Where are the other two?" Dara asked.

"Dead," said X6-88. "Here are your spacesuits."

"Oh!" Dara's concern was superseded by happy excitement. "Perfect! Here is your payment."

She counted over the two hundred caps, and X6-88 pocketed them, and started to turn away. She grabbed his arm. He controlled his reflexes and didn't punch her in the throat.

"Now we can proceed with the next step in the plan," she said, face alight. "I'm counting on you to help us with it."

X6-88 frowned. "Why?"

"I can make it worth your while," Dara answered confidently.

X6-88 shook his head. "My time is not my own." Or his strength, or his skill, or the ammunition and other supplies with which he'd been entrusted. "My mission concerned the disposition of the Black siblings. I only took time to bring you the spacesuits because I had no use for them, and a possible use for two hundred caps."

"I can offer you something else you'll have a use for," Dara insisted. "A precious artifact. A weapon."

"A functional weapon?"

"Of course," she said, and, seeming to take his question as assent to her request, turned aside, crying out, "Everyone gather! Form the wheel!"

The Hubologists-- Tula, Cleansed, and the other three whose names he didn't know-- did gather, in a circle around her, and said, in near unison, "I am the rim. The spoke and hub support me."

X6-88 had been on the point of walking away, but he lingered, intrigued by the image their ritual words evoked. I am the rim. The spoke and hub support me. It would once have been a descriptive metaphor for his own existence, and that of his fellow coursers. Tracing the outermost limits of the Institute's control, suffering the hardships and dangers of the surface, but sustained by the Institute that remained constant at the center of their lives, and the trained loyalty that connected them to it, meant they were never truly separate from it.

The Castle would be his new hub, then. A new center for his life. Sustaining him.

Dara was tossing the spacesuits she had taken from X6-88 at her followers, one by one, and they caught them, with looks of wonderment on their faces.

"The time has come!" she cried joyfully. "The Hub's grand plan can enter its next, important phase. All of your hard work has borne fruit! We can liberate the junkyard and take control of what we need!" She clapped X6-88 on the shoulder, startling him so much that he almost flinched. "Thanks to Mr. X, we have the spacesuits to protect us from the robot guards!"

"These suits will not--" X6-88 watched, appalled, as the Hubologists began to strip off their clothing and pull on the flimsy "spacesuits." "These are not protective gear."

Everyone ignored him, except Dara, who said, seizing his arm again, "Mr. X, are you ready to lead us into battle?"

X6-88 felt as if he'd stumbled into the middle of a children's game and been declared "it." Something that had happened to ordinary synths in the Institute, sometimes, though not to coursers.

He could hardly feel Dara's grip through the padding of his uniform. It made him imagine how thin and permeable, by contrast, the prop "spacesuits" must be. If they intended to "liberate" the junkyard in question from anything more dangerous than a gang of day-old kittens, they were doomed.

Dammit. He hadn't intended this, when he brought them the spacesuits. Had he saved them from potential destruction or subjugation by the Blacks, only to accidentally kick off a plan that would get them all killed? That was frustrating.

But he couldn't waste time following them on whatever hare-brained mission they were about to embark on. These people were none of his concern. He had to--

Or did he?

He was on an open-ended mission, when it came to time, and it had finished efficiently enough. The rest of his party almost certainly wasn't back at Nuka Town yet, for the day, and so she wouldn't be wondering where he was.

He wouldn't consider lying, of course, even by omission, even when she had no way of reading his chip data, it was his duty to give her all relevant information on his behavior so that she could correct him if necessary, but--

After completing my assigned mission --

--no, after completing the mission for which I volunteered, ma'am, I had initially intended to return to Nuka Town immediately, to wait for you. But then I noticed a small band of exceptionally ridiculous humans about to go get themselves killed because they believed wholeheartedly in the protective power of glorified tinfoil, and they asked me to help them.

He couldn't imagine her saying, coolly, and, in your judgement, this was a necessary expenditure of time and ammunition? Or and did you have permission for this detour?

He could imagine her saying oh my God, X6. Spacesuits? What?

He could imagine her saying and you just decided to go with it?

He could imagine her laughing. She laughed often, it seemed, when she was happy.

"Explain where I would be leading you," he said to Dara. "And into what type of battle."

"I can't tell you about the details of what we seek," said Dara. "You are not yet one of us."

"I don't care what you seek," said X6-88 impatiently. "How far is the junkyard? What do the robot guards look like? To what degree can any of you fight?"

"Who put you in charge?" complained one of the men whose name X6-88 didn't know.

"You're certainly under no obligation to answer my questions," said X6-88, "just as I'm under no obligation to help you. If you prefer to refuse my help, I won't force it on you."

"No, Mr. X is right," said the woman who wasn't Dara or Tula. "He's a mercenary. He has more knowledge of worldly dangers than we do."

"I am not a--" X6-88 broke off. "It doesn't matter. You can answer me, or you can do without me."

He'd never uttered such a phrase in his life. It was incredibly satisfying.

So was the fact that, after a pause, a little shuffling, and a few exchanged glances, they answered him.

If they were being accurate, the junkyard sounded dangerous enough that these people shouldn't go there alone, dressed in costumes instead of armor, but not so dangerous that X6-88 wouldn't be able to negotiate it successfully, without any real risk to himself. It was debatable whether he'd be able to protect the six of them while doing so.

"Would you need my help on the return journey as well?" he asked. "Transporting whatever it is that you 'seek' back here?"

Dara smiled at that, for some reason. "No, we won't need help transporting it."

"So you'll need nothing more from me once I've seen you safely to the junkyard and neutralized the threats there?"

"That's right, Mr. X."

"Dara," said Cleansed, and, when she looked at him, "We may need help getting the-- the craft-- fully functional. A power source--"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Cleansed," said Dara.

"Here's my proposal," said X6-88, who didn't like the idea of crossing unexpected bridges while surrounded by humans in costume spacesuits. "I'll go alone to the junkyard, neutralize the threat, and return here when I'm finished. Then you can do as you like with whatever you seek there, on your own time."

They all exchanged glances again, and Dara said slowly, "Very well, Mr. X. We'll await your return here."

"If we tell him what we seek," said Cleansed to Dara, "he may be able to assess its condition for us. Even help repair it."

"He isn't one of us," objected the same man who'd asked why X6-88 was in charge. "We can't trust him with our secrets."

Cleansed stepped forward, closer to X6-88, fixing him with an intent stare.

"He won't betray us," he said, over his shoulder, to the others. "I can feel it. Can't you feel it, Dara? The Hub connects him to us. He's meant to be one of us. The universe has drawn him here, not only to help us, but to fulfill his own destiny."

X6-88 shrugged. "As I said. Trust me, or don't."

"Very well," said Dara again, after a long moment. "I'll tell you what we seek."

 

.................................

 

He reached the junkyard without encountering anything more dangerous than what seemed to be a variation on the Commonwealth's molerats-- Sierra Petrovita had called them "rad rats"-- and spotted quickly the thing Dara had spoken of as a "spaceship." It looked like a ride, the same kind of flimsy amusement park attraction that had abounded at the park where the spacesuits had been, but as he'd told Dara, he didn't care what the Hubologists wanted with the junkyard. They might be disappointed to discover that the "spaceship" wasn't real, but at least none of them would die trying to reach it. As Dr. Weston had once been fond of saying, where there was life, there was hope.

He enjoyed the fight that ensued, against sentry bots and protectrons, amid the wilderness of perilously piled wrecks. Putting his skills into practice, bringing them to bear against a genuine challenge. He was good. He'd forgotten how good he was.

(He was better, too, now that he was eating regularly and more than adequately. According to Michael, Ms. Bowman didn't consider calorie restriction an appropriate practice even as a disciplinary measure, and he could feel the difference, already, to his energy levels, his strength, speed, and stamina.)

And he wasn't even being evaluated, except by himself. He was doing this for no reason except that he'd been oddly attracted to the idea. He'd wanted to.

It didn't matter what a courser wanted, of course, other than to serve the Institute to the uttermost limits of its capability. And X6-88 had served the Institute, to its end and past its end. He'd fulfilled that obligation, to the absolute best of his ability. Now--

Now it did matter what he wanted. She'd made that clear. She'd been offered authority over him, and she'd had leverage, too, in the form of her resources and his need, the protection and providence she'd lavished on him and his. But she hadn't used her power, or his debt, to bend him to her will. When he'd said to her, at the Sunshine Tidings settlement, testing the incredible hypothesis--

I believe that, rather than have me enter your service out of a sense of obligation, you would prefer that I repay you by choosing the way of life in which I believe I will find most personal fulfillment--

--she'd nodded, weeping, as she'd nodded and wept when he finally took her in his arms the day before yesterday, finally rewarded her long effort, her long, shy, eager wooing of him to be, not her courser, but her son. To be hers, not because he had to be, or ought to be, or couldn't afford not to be, but because he wanted to be.

It mattered what a son wanted.

He would have to practice. Wanting things. He would try to be good at that, too.

 

........

"You'll need three fusion cores to power up the spaceship ride," he told Dara when he got back, the other Hubologists clustering around eagerly. "Goodbye."

"Wait," said Dara. "Don't you want your reward?"

"Oh, yes," he said, remembering, and she handed him an oddly shaped weapon, and a case of ammunition. He'd have to test it out a bit on the way back to the park, see if it was worth anything before he handed it over, along with the two hundred caps.

"I told you," said Cleansed. "He didn't do it for the reward. He did it for us."

Dara nodded, and looked at X6-88.

"Mr. X," she said, "I think you must sense that we have the answers you need, the resources to cleanse your spirit of its heavy weight of neurodynes and give you clarity of purpose and identity. I have great hopes for you. Perhaps we should postpone our journey until you have taken at least a few steps along our path." She leaned forward confidingly. "If you can bring us the necessary fusion cores to power up the spaceship, I can offer you your first alignment free of charge."

"That's hardly 'free of charge,'" X6-88 pointed out, halfway between amused and annoyed. He was reminded of the Commonwealth settlers whose endless, recursive demands had driven him to distraction, when he'd first been assigned to Ms. Bowman, and all she ever wanted to do was look after them and cater to their whims. Although, he supposed, these people at least believed they had something of value to offer in return. "Fusion cores are expensive."

"Your first two alignments, then," Dara bargained. "One now, and one when you return with the cores. That should give your system time to recover between treatments."

"Time to recover from what?" X6-88 demanded, looking at Cleansed. "You said the process isn't harmful."

"Cleansed has an extraordinarily high resistance to the unfortunate side effects of the alignment process," said Dara serenely. "It's why he's risen so quickly through our ranks. That, and his commitment to cleansing his spirit and achieving true self-knowledge."

"What unfortunate side effects?"

"The electromagnetic fields that drive forth the neurodynes, unfortunately, also temporarily weaken the body," said Dara. "But at the first few levels, it's hardly enough to notice. By the time you've progressed further, of course, you will be feeling much too joyous and fulfilled to mind your body's reaction to the radiation."

X6-88 wasn't sure what to think of that. It would have sounded nonsensical, if it hadn't tallied somewhat with his experience of training: once he'd gotten to the seventh month, he'd been too proud of how far he'd already come to be daunted by things that would have seemed unbearable if they'd happened in the first or even the fifth month.

He could certainly stand anything a human could, and he was curious about the alignment process, but he shouldn't allow himself to be damaged or weakened to any degree without consulting Ms. Bowman first. He had a feeling she would approve of that less than she would approve of his unauthorized junkyard detour.

And he couldn't promise Dara any fusion cores, either. He was almost sure Ms. Bowman would say yes to that, if he asked-- she loved helping ridiculous, pitiful humans like these-- but not sure enough to say yes in advance, on her behalf. She had other concerns at the moment, after all.

"No, thank you," he said. Better not to promise anything, even provisionally, with an implicit request that they wait for him to return; he might, or he might not. It wasn't up to him. "I have to go."

Dara looked disappointed, but said hopefully, "The Wheel will bring you back to us, Mr. X."

"That isn't my name," said X6-88, and then paused, startled at himself; he didn't have a name, and it didn't matter what strangers called him. But the appellation these people had chosen had been grating on him.

"I'm sorry, Mr.--?"

"Not 'mister,' he said. "Just--" It was probably too much to ask that these people remember three digits, even with one repetition, as well as a letter. "X6."

"X6?" Dara repeated, and even though she was only parroting back what he'd said, hearing it in her voice-- something about the emphasis she put on it, ecks-six-- struck him unexpectedly.

That's what my mother calls me.

"Yes," he said, smiling, and she smiled back, puzzled, as he turned away and started back towards Nuka Town.

Chapter Text

Danse was unprepared for the sight-- and smell-- of Cito's "family."

Were they animals? The interior of the building where Cito had led them-- with its dirty concrete floor, and barred enclosures on either side, whose doors seemed to have fallen (or been ripped) away-- had a rank, animal scent. The-- things-- were hairy and fanged, and went on all fours. But they had human-looking hands, and oddly intelligent faces. The effect was profoundly unnerving. Danse thought of Cutler, of the monstrous thing he'd become, although these didn't look much like super mutants, except in the blending of humanlike and bestial features.

"Gorillas," said Nora blankly.

"Ghoulrillas," Sierra corrected, standing very still inside Danse's armor. "The Pack has some. You saw."

Cito was facing the foremost creature, making a beastlike hooting noise, at the same moment that he held up both hands in front of him, index fingers extended and curved, and curled the two fingers around each other, first in one direction and then the other, repeating the gesture twice before extending his arm in a wide, exaggerated sweep that encompassed the Bowman party.

"Not worry," he said to Nora. "Cito family not hurt Nora family."

"This is your family?"

As Nora spoke, she gestured with a similar wide sweep of her arm around the small crowd of ghoulrillas, then pointed at Cito, and lowered her left hand, folding down her last three fingers and extending her index and thumb, at the same moment she lifted her right hand, also crooked into a somewhat similar shape, to her forehead, and moved it down to meet the left in front of her chest.

Cito's face lit up, and he made a flurry of gestures.

"Just a little," said Nora, pinching her thumb and index finger together. "Baby talk." She cradled an imaginary infant, then tapped the thumb of her hand to its her chin, extending the rest of its fingers in a fan shape. "Mommy--" She moved the thumb to her forehead. "Daddy--"

One of the ghoulrillas loped forward-- Danse tensed, but Michael didn't make a move, so it must be all right-- and reached up to Nora, tapping her elbow gently, as if to get her attention. Nora immediately sank to her knees on the dirty concrete floor of the house and faced the ghoulrilla, which pointed at itself, then at Cito, and made the thumb-tap finger-fan gesture to its out-thrust chin.

"Oh!" Nora said, and imitated its gestures as she said, "You're his mother?"

The ghoulrilla, unmistakably, nodded its head.

Nora pointed to herself, then gestured with the same exaggerated sweep of her arm, this time encompassing Michael, Danse, and Sierra, and made the same sign with her thumb to her chin.

The ghoulrilla made a guttural noise that could have been a chuckle, nodding again, and then reaching out one of its big, hairy arms to Cito. Cito dropped to the floor and scampered towards her on all fours-- not on hands and knees, but on hands and feet, his rear thrust up by the length of his legs-- rolling over onto his back just as he reached her; she placed a big paw on his stomach, above the waistcloth that covered his unmentionables, and dug her blunt black fingertips lightly into his abdomen, wiggling them around. He giggled, a bizarrely silly and light-hearted noise from such a muscular and intimidating-looking man, and squirmed, and she moved to pull him up, gently but firmly, against her hairy breast, where he went limp, his face peaceful. The ghoulrilla looked up at Nora.

Nora looked up towards where Danse stood between Sierra and Michael, watching.

"OK, I won't tickle any of your tummies," she said, "but will one of you guys please come sit with me? I think we're establishing what we have in common."

Michael moved, without hesitation, to her side, and knelt in the dirt beside her. She put out an arm to pull him close, and he relaxed, just as Cito had, against her, nestling into the crook of her arm and laying his head on her shoulder.

"Oh perfect," she said softly. "Michael, perfect, thank you--"

"Yes, ma'am," said Michael calmly. Danse marveled how even in such a seemingly ignominious position-- clasped like a child, like a cub, imitating an animal's uninhibited gestures-- he didn't look undignified, or silly. He lounged against Nora, not like a child, nor like an animal, but like a warrior, with the same controlled grace he used in combat. No wonder Nora compared him to a dancer.

Then Sierra, unexpectedly, exited Danse's power armor, and scampered to Nora's other side. She dropped and curled herself up against Nora, who reached out her other arm to pull her in.

Danse wished she hadn't done that. He didn't want to, and now it felt as if he should, as if he were putting himself outside the family, even possibly annoying or offending Nora, by not joining in this strange, uncivilized ritual. But he didn't have Michael's innate, inalienable dignity; he would look ridiculous. He couldn't. Even if he should.

(He was trying not to think of the miserable humiliations inflicted on him by his Brotherhood masters, the things they'd made him do, to teach him his place, or for their amusement. Watch, I've taught it a new trick. C'mere, M. Things he'd done, because he'd suffer worse if he didn't, and because he had no right not to, because dignity was something he had no right to, was the last feeble, squirming remnant of the arrogance and hubris for which the rest of his life-- he'd thought then-- would be a punishment.)

He owed Nora his obedience, of course, owed her everything, but-- she didn't like him to suffer. Surely, if she knew how much he didn't want to do this, she wouldn't be angry that he hadn't.

Hancock was stepping forward now, to kneel just behind Nora and Sierra. Danse stood still, and then Michael turned his head, to look at Danse, and Danse's heart dropped with momentary, sharp misery, anticipating Michael's look of disappointment in him, in his weakness and cowardice.

Instead, Michael smiled at him-- a lazy, blissful smile, of absolute ease and contentment-- and held out a hand.

Danse stepped forward-- the first step almost unconscious, because there was Michael, gorgeous and perfect, happy and safe, and what possible response could Danse have but to come nearer, clumsily, half blindly, like a moth to a light-- and then stepped forward again, and knelt, and Michael reached out and pulled him in, all the way, close against his warmth and strength.

The ghoulrilla made a hooting noise, gesturing with her free hand, and the rest of the ghoulrillas gathered around her, pressing up against her sides and back.

Then the mother ghoulrilla pulled Cito up, nudging him away from her. He sat upright on his haunches, smiling at Nora.

"Strong family," he said again, and, turning to his ghoulrilla mother, signing as he spoke, "Help stop monsters."

The ghoulrilla gave a thumbs up. Nora laughed with delight.

"OK, I think we're OK," she said. "Thanks, guys." She moved to free her arms-- Michael moved slightly to help, still pressed lightly to her side, his own arm still around Danse -- and said to Cito, signing at the same time with a flat palm drawn down from her chin, "Thank you. For letting me meet your family. Cito, how-- How do they know how to sign? Did you teach them?"

Cito shook his head. "Family teach Cito."

"When you were--" Nora paused, "Cito, do you remember when you first met your family?"

Cito nodded.

"Cito remember," he said, signing intermittently as he continued. "Cito remember first family. First family look like Cito. Teach Cito talk. Cito dig, Cito help. Mama and Papa love Cito, Cito love Mama and Papa." He paused before he added, somberly, "First family die. Monsters come. Papa and Mama hide Cito, say Cito be quiet, not move."

"Oh, my God," said Nora.

Cito nodded gravely. "Papa die first. Mama tell Cito, take food, water, take note. Be good. Then Mama die. Cito take thing Mama say take, Cito go outside. Walk and walk."

"You must have been so scared," said Nora, her voice unsteady.

Cito nodded again. His brow furrowed momentarily with the memory, and then he smiled, suddenly, the smile he'd lavished on them at the park gate.

"Cito find park," he said. "Find new family. New family help Cito, give water, give food, hold Cito like Mama. Teach Cito hand talk. New family love Cito, Cito love new family."

After a moment's silence, he added, obviously struck with a happy notion, "Nora read? Book, paper? ABC?"

"Yes," said Nora, in an even smaller, more wavery voice. "I can read."

Cito bounded to his feet with astonishing agility and speed. "Cito show Nora Mama note! Nora read to Cito!"

He charged off, and Nora, rising more slowly from between Michael and Sierra, followed him. Hancock got up and followed both of them, to a far corner inside one of the barred enclosures that must once have restrained the animals.

Danse took the opportunity to surreptitiously wipe his face with his sleeve. Michael noticed, and tried to tilt Danse's face up towards his, but when Danse resisted, Michael stopped, and brushed his fingers lightly, caressingly, against the line of Danse's jaw instead.

"What's wrong, Danse?" Sierra asked, sounding upset. The mother ghoulrilla had followed Cito, Nora, and Hancock, and the other ghoulrillas had mostly dispersed, wandering off about their ghoulrilla business, except for one who still sat, watching the three of them. Cito was saying something, just outside Danse's field of vision, when Michael's deep voice answered Sierra quietly, "That was a sad story Cito told us."

"But it had a happy ending," said Sierra. "Cito found a new family."

"Yes," said Michael, his hand cupping Danse's upper arm. "But he must have been very tired, and suffered a great deal of pain and deprivation, both mental and physical, before he found his way to safety."

Danse put his head down on Michael's shoulder, and listened to Nora's voice from where she stood-- reading, it must be--

--I'm begging you to please take him in and see that he gets the food and shelter he'll need in order to survive. Tell our little Cito that his parents love him, and that if he's looking for us, we'll always be inside his heart.

There was a pause before Cito's voice said, "Again. Please."

Nora began again.

If you're reading this note, then you've met Marcosito. His father, Marcos, was killed in a super mutant attack on our settlement, and I'm afraid my own wounds will be taking me as well. I don't have much time, and I'm terrified to send him out into this world alone, but I don't have any choice. I'm begging you--

Nora had to read the note aloud three more times before Cito was satisfied, and even then he said, plaintively, "Again, later?"

"Yes," Nora agreed, her voice hoarse and thick with tears. "As many times as you want."

"First, Cito have other thing show Nora," said Cito, his own tone suddenly brisk. "Thing maybe help fight monsters."

Then Cito, his ghoulrilla "mother," Hancock, and Nora-- Nora with red eyes, tears still on her face-- were coming back towards them, Nora holding a holotape, Cito saying, "Wrinkly man bring. Wrinkly like Nora hus-band." He gestured towards Hancock.

"A ghoul," said Nora, nodding.

"Bring shiny thing," said Cito. "Say help fight monsters. Very sad, cry. Then die."

Nora was wiping her own eyes, popping the holotape into her Pip-Boy, sitting back down on the ground by Michael and Sierra, and they all listened in silence to the gravelly, panting, pain-filled voice that emerged.

This is Dr. Darren McDermot, last known survivor at the Safari Adventure Replication Facility. This is my final recording. I've done something horrible...

"God," said Nora, when it was finished, and cleared her throat. "Shit. OK, so we're definitely gonna need to shut that replicator down. Cito, can you show us where to find the building that he's talking about?"

Cito nodded. "Big triangle house. Door there, Cito not know how open. Nora family help?"

"Of course," said Nora, wiping her face again. "But can Sierra stay here with your family? So she'll be safe from the monsters, until we can help you put them down?"

"I don't want to stay here with the ghoulrillas," said Sierra immediately. "Not by myself."

Cito looked offended. "Cito family not hurt Cito friend."

"I don't want to," Sierra repeated, her blue eyes wide with alarm.

"I'll stay with Sierra," said Danse, very quickly.

(Not recognizing, until after he'd spoken, the same irrational panic on Sierra's behalf that had seized him when it seemed likely she might be a synth. In this case, panic that she might be about to openly defy a superior-- a human-- by saying not only I don't want to, but I won't. Of course he didn't really believe that Nora would punish even outright disobedience from a synth with anything harsher than a mild scolding. But there was a difference between what you believed and what your heart and sinews and cringing flesh had been taught, hard, over and over.)

"If I may," he added, to Nora. "Please."

"Of course," said Nora readily. "If you're sure you don't mind being on the sidelines for this one."

"No," said Danse, and then worried that, in his attempt not to allow undue, unbecoming emotion into his voice, he'd inadvertently sounded unduly and unbecomingly terse. "I don't mind."

"May I--" Michael began, looking up at Nora, but Danse interrupted, "Michael, you're needed at Nora's side. Sierra and I will be fine."

Michael put his hand on Danse's chin and tilted Danse's face towards his own, and this time Danse didn't resist. He looked into Michael's face, almost forgetting himself-- as he always did, when he was looking at Michael, at his perfect face, his eyes--

Michael leaned forward and kissed Danse's lips, and, while Danse was still shivering, kissed the folded bandana that covered his forehead.

"I love you," he said, and Danse nodded, not wanting to speak for the momentary tightness of his throat, and Michael smiled at him again, and stood, and turned to his mother.

..............................................

"See," Danse said to Sierra, when the others were gone. The ghoulrillas seemed to have lost interest in them, and had wandered off, to groom one another or nibble at some kind of food stores in other parts of the enclosure. "They aren't even paying any attention to us. They won't harm us."

"I'm glad you're here, anyway," said Sierra, still looking a bit tense.

Danse smiled at her. "As I was glad, my first night in the Mountain, that you were with me."

Sierra didn't smile back. He noticed that her nervous attention wasn't actually focused on the ghoulrillas right now; she was eyeing Danse, in a skittish way she hadn't demonstrated around him before, that he'd noticed.

Then she blurted out, "Do you want to kiss me?"

"No, thank you," said Danse, which probably wasn't the most tactful way he could have responded, but he was too startled to think what else to say.

Sierra laughed.

"OK," she said. "Good. Me neither."

Danse nodded, relieved, though a bit bewildered, too.

"Just," she said, after a moment, fiddling with her fingers in her lap, not quite looking at him. "Just, there was a man, back in Girdershade, who was nice to me, and-- took care of me. And I liked him a lot. But it turned out he wanted to-- well, it turned out when I didn't want to-- do things like kissing, with him, he didn't-- really--"

She stopped, and then resumed, "I didn't think you would want to, because you already do that stuff with Michael. But I just wanted to make sure. That that wasn't why you were being so nice to me. Because--" She looked up at him; she looked sheepish, and shy, and stubborn. "I just don't want to."

"That's all right," said Danse, feeling hideously awkward, but now that the topic had been broached, it had to be put to bed. As it were. "That is, even if I did want to, you wouldn't be in any way obligated to reciprocate. But in any case, I'm not interested." He hesitated, because that sounded slightly rude somehow. "Not that you aren't-- that there's anything wrong with the way you look."

She didn't seem offended. She said, looking at him very intently now, "So you really just-- like me?"

Danse smiled again. "Is that so hard to believe?"

"Most people don't," said Sierra frankly. "They think I'm stupid. Or they think I talk too much. Especially about Nuka Cola."

"Well, that's ridiculous," said Danse. "You're obviously very intelligent, to have learned and retained so much information about Nuka Cola, and the parks. And your willingness to share that information in such detail has been extremely useful to us."

Sierra nodded, her eyes still fixed intently on Danse, as if hoping he would say more, so he did.

"You're brave," he said, because it was true, she was. Even in the limited time he'd known her, she'd consistently demonstrated that. "And kind. And-- cheerful. Enthusiastic, and upbeat. Even in difficult circumstances. It makes it pleasant to spend time in your company."

Sierra nodded again, seemingly satisfied.

"I like you too," she said, and then they were quiet for a while.

It was pleasant to be left-- not alone with his thoughts, but undisturbed with them, as he thought over recent events. Like being on guard duty. Performing useful service-- setting Sierra's mind at ease-- but with most of his mind reasonably free to wander.

He thought of the foolish instinct that had led him to try to shield Sierra from Nora's nonexistent wrath. Ridiculous, of course, an irrational impulse. But not so different from the unreasoning desperation-- he'd had absolutely no reason to think she would listen-- that had led him to beg a far more necessary mercy for the Brotherhood. And she had listened. He remembered her bruised, bloody face, the way she'd tried to smile up at him through lips cracked with thirst, her swollen eyes blinking out a Morse-code pattern: I'll try.

He thought of the Brotherhood delegation walking away from the Castle, as he watched from atop its wall, as Nora said, They're all right. OK? Are you glad? I hoped you'd be glad.

He thought of Paladin Cooper shaking his hand, at the gathering to which she'd been a delegate, thought of the scribe at the newly Minutemen-supported Brotherhood settlement who had hugged him, said he'd saved her baby's life. Called him a hero.

He thought of the mark his synth-siblings had all painted on their foreheads, the scarlet word each had worn with a smile and head held high, in solidarity with a brother they hardly knew as yet. He thought of Michael's warm lips, pressed to his forehead.

"Who did that to you?" Sierra asked, and Danse realized that-- without noticing what he was doing-- he'd pushed back the bandana at his forehead, and was fingering the unnaturally smooth lines of his scar, worrying it like the talisman it had, in some ways, become. The constant of his new life; the reminder that nothing would ever be the same.

"The Brotherhood," he said, to Sierra. "After they discovered what I was."

"Does it hurt?" Sierra asked.

"No," he said, and smiled at her. "Not any more."

Chapter Text

The sight of the entrance to Nuka World stirred an odd feeling in Michael.

Not quite the feeling of approaching an unknown destination, or a familiar destination with a new, unfamiliar threat inside, with caution and reasonable confidence in his ability to meet the threat.

Not the Institute feeling, either, the mild physical shock and pain of the relay telling every cell in his newly remade, reassembled body that he was back in the place where he'd been made the first time, where he belonged, even more than he naturally belonged wherever his Father ordered him to go.

Not the exhausted, braced feeling of coming back to the safehouse where he'd lived with X6-88 and A9-82, and then just X6-88, and their quarreling, hungry, hopeless human charges.

Not quite the feeling of approaching a Minuteman-allied settlement, an outpost of his mother's, where they knew and admired her, where his approach, by her side or otherwise, would be welcomed, harbinging help and sustenance.

And not the feeling of home-- it couldn't be that feeling without his mother, either by his side, sweaty and tired and happy, or safe inside and soon to come running with joy to meet him.

But a little of all of those.

V4-54 and X2-71 were here-- Day and Night, rather, named by their Dr. Bridgeman. Michael didn't know what might have been happening in the park today, what the human rabble they ruled might have been doing by way of rebellion or sabotage, but he did know Day and Night were his brothers, shaped by the same Institute that had made him, and his mother's beloved sons, as he was. And everything was going to be all right.

Day came out to meet him, blond head held high, tension in his movements.

"It's all right," said Michael. He kept his face controlled, expressive only of calm. The smile that would reassure his mother, or Danse, would only unnerve Day. Michael had seen how it startled X6-88 at first, at the Boston Bugle building, that first time they'd seen each other in so long. Coursers didn't grin at each other.

"Where is the rest of your party?" Day asked.

"Safe," said Michael.

"Then why are you here alone?"

"May I speak with you and Night in private?"

"Of course," said Day.

 

Dr. Bridgeman-- Mackenzie -- looked nervous when Michael and Day arrived at her clinic in the marketplace, and so Michael did smile at her, and it made her relax and smile back at him, so quickly that it must have been only he who was making her nervous. He, and whatever news he might be bringing. That was good. If anyone had her finger on the pulse of the park, it was she.

"Michael would like to speak to us in private," said Day to Night.

Night said to Michael, "Would you prefer we exclude Dr. Bridgeman?"

"Not if you prefer to include her," said Michael. "I trust her if you do."

"Thank you, sir," said Mackenzie. "I mean, Michael."

"Of course, Mackenzie," said Michael, mindful of the courtesy she'd done him by addressing him by name, even though it felt slightly odd to address her in turn as she'd asked to be addressed, instead of the way Day and Night addressed and spoke of her. Dr. Bridgeman might technically be more respectful, but not if it wasn't what she preferred. After all, Danse never sounded less than respectful when he addressed their mother by her given name, as she'd told him to when he first asked for instruction. He made Nora sound as deferential as the grandest title imaginable.

(Michael could have brought himself to address her that way, by name, if she'd told him to. Of course. But he was glad she never had. Her name had been the first thing he'd ever said to her, Nora Bowman, and he'd said it with hatred, flinging it at her like an epithet, to hurt her. He was glad to have another name to call her now, as she had one to call him. He loved how she glowed when he said mother.)

 

 

At the Grille, in private, sitting around the wooden table, Michael said, "We found Safari Adventure occupied by two opposing forces, one embattled by the other. We befriended the one, and eliminated the other. My mother's concern is now for the first group. They would prefer to stay at the park, and I'm assured they would pose no threat to your people. The question is whether you could guarantee the reverse-- that your people would pose no threat to them. Either to their safety, or to their happiness."

"If not?" asked Day.

"We may ask for your help in finding an alternative solution," said Michael. "First, my mother asks for your honest assessment of how safe her friends would be, at a park controlled by your interests, but where you don't directly preside."

"Why did she not come herself to ask us this?"

"We trust you," said Michael, "but yesterday's events demonstrated that we would not necessarily be wise to trust everyone in the park. My mother didn't want to leave our new friends undefended, in case rogue interests from among your people made another move, to attack either us, or territory they knew us to have cleared." He allowed himself a small, wry smile. "She would have come herself, and left the rest of our party to defend Safari Adventure if necessary, but I was able to persuade her--"

The door opened, and Night and Day both looked up, instantly on high alert-- obviously it was a matter of both surprise and alarm that anyone would dare enter this room without knocking -- and then relaxed when they saw X6-88.

X6-88 himself looked tense, no doubt because the raiders wandering the park would have reported to him that Michael had returned alone and immediately cloistered himself with the Overbosses in thair headquarters. Michael rose, smiling, from the table, and saw the flash of X6-88's answering look of relief before both stepped forward, met halfway, and put their arms around one another.

It was good, good, good to hold X6-88-- his brother, his companion, his superior, his friend-- and feel him grip back tightly, eagerly, as if it meant just as much to him to have Michael this close.

It was even better when X6-88, having let go and stepped back, asked him, "Where is our mother?"

"Safe at Safari Adventure," Michael said. "Where are the Black siblings?"

"Dead," said X6-88. "Why are you here without the others?"

"Sit down, X6-88," said Night. "Michael was just describing the situation at Safari Adventure to us. It seems Ms. Bowman has forged a new alliance there."

"Not one that threatens her alliance with you," said Michael quickly, hearing a certain tautness in Night's voice. "Any solution we reach to the problem of Safari Adventure will only be satisfactory to her if it is also satisfactory to the two of you."

"That is good to hear," said Day. "Especially considering that Ms. Bowman's loyalties have been known to shift unpredictably, within all our memories."

X6-88, who had taken Michael's seat at the table as Michael dragged over another chair for himself, said easily, "You need not worry about that. We have all learned from our own past mistakes. And from Father's."

Night and Day both stilled at that. Michael might have, too. Michael had come to terms long since with Father's fallibility, but he hadn't known X6-88 had, too, to the point where he could speak so casually of learning from Father's mistakes.

(No one had ever said it, of course, and Father hadn't made it obvious, had never been openly affectionate or overly indulgent, but everyone had been aware that X6-88 was Father's favorite. X6-88 must have known it, too. Did that make it easier or harder? To have lost him? To have learned to doubt him?)

"You're in a good mood, sir," said Mackenzie to X6-88, surprising-- Michael thought -- all the former coursers. Though Mackenzie had lived in close proximity to two of their kind-- and under their authority -- for long enough that it wasn't entirely surprising she'd learned to read their moods better than most humans could.

"I am, Dr. Bridgeman," X6-88 agreed. "Although I'm disappointed not to find my mother here. I was looking forward to giving her my report."

"She gave you permission to kill the Black siblings?" Night asked.

"On certain conditions, which they quickly fulfilled," said X6-88.

"Nice," said Mackenzie, and then became somewhat flustered when the four of them all looked at her in startled amusement. "I mean, I just mean, that's one less loose end for us to worry about. For the bosses to worry about."

"It's a bit late in the day for you to claim you don't also concern yourself with the park's welfare, Dr. Bridgeman," said X6-88, and added, to Michael, "What happened at Safari Adventure?"

Michael described it as concisely as he could: Cito, the ghoulrillas, the "gatorclaws" created by some misguided scientist at the facility, the replicator they'd had to figure out how to shut off, the hunt for the remaining gatorclaws, and finally his mother's insistence that she had to keep Cito and his family safe, and her concession to Michael's request that he be allowed to return alone to Day and Night. The others listened with interest.

X6-88 said, when Michael was finished, "I confess I'm disappointed to have missed a park. The variety of ways humans find to keep themselves amused, without making themselves useful, never ceases to amaze me."

He was in a good mood. Relaxed, expansive, jokey. With the others here, it reminded Michael of some of the most enjoyable moments of life in the Institute: the brief times when, after giving a report and receiving a favorable evaluation, one had been dismissed to shower and change into a clean uniform and give a less formal report to those of the others who had the momentary leisure to listen, and compare their own past experiences and evaluations.

But X6-88 hadn't received that favorable evaluation yet. He was "looking forward" to giving their mother his report. Which could only mean he really was beginning to trust her. Not only in the sense of trusting her word, but in the sense that Michael trusted her, trusted in her love and her joy in him, her delight that he was what he was. Who he was.

"Tell us about the other parks," said Night, with a sudden similar lightness and ease of manner, at the same moment that he put his hand over Mackenzie's on the table. "The two that are now ours. If we control now, we should know-- not only that the dangers have been neutralized, but-- what are they? What is there?"

"Why do they exist?" Day agreed, his own hand covering Mackenzie's other hand. She was smiling, more broadly than either of them, looking down at the table, her already suntanned skin slightly darkened with a rosy flush.

"As far as we can tell," said Michael, preserving his own composure with an effort, "humans used to pay money to come and observe them. And-- participate in them, to some extent."

"Participate in what?" asked Night.

X6-88 said, "Each park has a kind of-- scenario. Each one apparently once had paid employees who playacted at being characters in its particular setting."

"At Nuka Galaxy, the notion was that the park's paying guests were participants in space travel," Michael said. "Bold adventurers, testing their mettle against the unknown. At Dry Rock Gulch, members of a-- specific kind of society, I suppose--"

"'Prospectors,'" said X6-88. "'Saloons.' 'Cowboys.'"

"Yes," said Michael. "Less focused on fighting -- on tests of skill and strength-- and more on imagined participation in a particular type of civilization, I think."

"And at Safari Adventure?" Day asked.

"I think they interacted with animals, ones who were usually encountered in the wild," said Michael. "Or not at all. In a safe environment, with the animals caged, or trained not to harm humans."

It-- the park in general, and Cito's story in particular-- had reminded him of the Jungle Book that he and his siblings had read together. He missed them badly, even after only a few evenings away, missed the nightly ritual, the coziness of the little library, his brothers' and sisters' faces dreamy or intent with listening, a familiar, beloved voice conjuring some other reality than the real one.

Like the parks, in a way. Each park was meant to tell a story. To carry its audience, temporarily and enjoyably and perhaps educationally, to a different world.

"Speaking of tame beasts," said Night. "Dr. Bridgeman, Day and our former colleagues haven't yet heard what happened in the marketplace today."

"Boss!" Mackenzie said, sounding like Emily when their mother said something she found both scandalous and funny.

"Mason approached us at the clinic," said Night, to the rest of them. "He wanted to speak to Dr. Bridgeman in private, but she persuaded him to speak in front of me."

"To speak about what?" Day demanded.

"He wanted to assure Dr. Bridgeman that he had never joined forces with either Nisha or the Blacks in their respective rebellions against our authority, that he admired and respected us as leaders, and that he had no serious objection to the changes taking place," said Night.

Day took this in for a moment. "And what did she tell him?"

"That she had no problem with him, or with the Pack," said Night.

"You're magnanimous in victory, Dr. Bridgeman," Day observed, and Mackenzie laughed. "Well, it may not be too early to allocate the two parks we do now control. Giving one to each faction now should send a strong signal to Carroll that we have confidence in her new leadership, and to Mason that Dr. Bridgeman accepts his show of submission."

"Oh, my God," said Mackenzie, laughing again. "'Show of submission'? Is that really what happened?"

Night said, "Perhaps you don't have enough experience with surrender to recognize it when it's offered to you."

Mackenzie blushed more deeply than before, smiling down at the table, and then up at Night, and then at Day.

"Can I--" she began. "May I make a suggestion?"

............................................

 

Sunny Carroll was looking-- her clothes were--

--well, Michael didn't really know very much about human styles of clothing. He'd loved his uniform, and he'd always supposed vaguely that the Institute humans loved their lab coats in a similar way, that they felt completed by them, proud to present themselves to the world dressed in them. But it seemed that, while some surface humans took pride in their self-presentation, the majority simply wore whatever clothing protected them from the elements and made them what his mother called "decent."

The raiders here went in for an elaborate clothing style, with distinctive aesthetics for each of the two factions. He remembered his mother saying, at the train station, What the fuck are you guys dressed as? After having observed them more fully, he felt that they might have replied that they were dressed as Operators and as Pack members, respectively.

The last time he'd seen Sunny Carroll, she'd been clothed in worn, faded, and not particularly well-fitting clothing, that had presumably been given to her when she'd been demoted to the status of slave. Now she was wearing-- as she had been at the train station when he'd first seen her, although then her clothing had been somewhat obscured by her body armor-- clothing that fitted her very closely and tightly. Michael was reminded of his mother's friend Magnolia, who sang at the Third Rail in Goodneighbor, and who also wore clothing designed to accentuate the shape of her body. The material of Sunny's clothing was dark green threaded with a grid of black and white, instead of bright red and glittery, and her trousers and jacket were probably easier to fight in than Magnolia's dress, but the effect was similar. She clearly took pride in her appearance.

Mason, of course, was dressed even more eye-catchingly, bedizened with a necklace of bones, his face painted in wide stripes, bold colors, like the colors of his clothing. He had brought his second-in-command Ericson, who was also decorated in bright colors. Sunny had brought another woman, who was dressed similarly to herself, except in black, and with longer, more elaborately styled hair. The other woman had also painted her mouth a bright, unnatural red.

The four of them were seated in the room where Night and Day seemed to be in the habit of holding audiences with their subordinates. Night and Day sat on either side of Mackenzie, on the sofa facing the others. Michael stood at Night's end of the sofa, and X6-88 at Day's.

(Under the circumstances-- lined up like this, and everyone, as it were, in uniform-- it was hard for Michael not to feel acutely self-conscious, conspicuously out of place, without his. But he conjured up-- like clothing, to protect him from exposure; like a story-- shining fragments of memory. Arms around him: X6-88's, his mother's, Danse's, Emily's, Shaun's. Danse's scar, and Danse's lips, at his lips. His mother's laughter, her weight on his neck as he lifted her. And, in how many hundreds of echoes down the time since he'd chosen it, Michael! Just that, just the name, bright and tender, meaning mine, meaning beloved, meaning him.)

"First," said Night, "we would like to say how pleased we are with both of you."

It had been Mackenzie's idea, to begin this conversation with praise; none of the former coursers had thought of it. Odd, considering that praise had always meant so much to them. More than the Institute humans had ever seemed to realize. Perhaps that was why the idea of praising their own human subordinates hadn't come naturally to Day and Night; it simply didn't seem as important to humans.

Judging from the way Sunny and Mason both sat up straighter, almost coming to attention, at those few words of it, they might have been wrong.

"Carroll," said Night. "Your record as an Operator has been impressive. You have consistently shown that you have skill, daring, and the ambition and ability to lead others. In the last few days, you have also shown admirable loyalty to us, in the face of the Blacks' treachery, and courage in taking charge at our request. We have great hopes for the future of the Operators under your guidance."

"Thank you, sir," said Sunny demurely.

"Mason," said Day, and Mason tilted his chin slightly upwards, perhaps to signify that he was listening. "You alone, of all those who were in power when we arrived, have consistently demonstrated both loyalty to our leadership, and control over your followers. What we hope for Carroll's future career, you have already achieved, and we have every expectation that you will continue to prove of great value to us."

"Don't mention it, boss," said Mason, but he seemed pleased.

"We would like to reward both of you for your loyalty," said Night. "Of course, we also expect you to use the rewards we grant you to our profit."

Mason said, "Wouldn't be the Overbosses, otherwise."

"That's correct, Mason," said Day. "To that end, we would like to discuss the disposition of the parks we now control, and what we expect you to do with them."

"Could be quite a racket," said X6-88, and, when Michael turned to look at him, he showed his teeth in a grin.

Chapter Text

Mackenzie listened happily as Day and Night explained the proposal for the new parks.

It took a little while before Carroll and Mason and their seconds seemed to fully grasp the concept, and then they had questions.

Carroll, first, skeptically: "People would actually pay for this?"

"We believe so," said Night. "Apparently they used to. That's why the parks were built. To make money."

"Yeah," said Ericson, "but people got a hell of a lot less to throw around than they did back then."

"They still often choose enjoyable experiences over prudent ones," said Day, slightly rephrasing something X6-88 had said earlier, during the discussion between the four ex-coursers and Mackenzie. "It would be up to you to make this experience enjoyable enough to inspire them to pay."

"We would like you to experiment," said Day. "To that end, we're granting you each a park, and establishing certain parameters for how you'll run them. If the results of the experiment are unsatisfactory, we can reconsider the parameters."

Night said, "Since this is an experiment, you won't be punished for unsatisfactory results. But if you violate the parameters we establish, we will have to reassess your value to us as faction leaders."

"What parameters?" Carroll asked, and Day and Night explained: clear rules and safety guidelines for visitors to the park, no killing visitors unprovoked, etc.

Carroll and Mason both took issue with that, and with the concept of "unprovoked," but Day and Night stayed firm, and specific.

Mackenzie stayed quiet, half listening, mostly just enjoying sitting between Day and Night, Michael and X6-88 at either side. Daydreaming a little, remembering the morning: resting against Day's shoulder, in his arms; Night's closeness in the marketplace, his touch. What she'd asked. Thinking about tonight. Planning.

"OK," said Carroll finally. "Thanks for the, uh, opportunity, sirs."

"Mason," said Day, and Mason tilted his chin again. "In light of your consistent loyalty, for all this time, we would like to entrust you with additional territory, and an additional charge."

"On certain conditions," Night added. "Listen carefully."

 

After the raiders were gone, Mackenzie said, "I think that went well."

"We'll see," said Night. "It's contrary to their inclinations, to treat visitors gently."

"But it's right up their alley to exploit suckers for caps," said Mackenzie, grinning. "Especially the Operators. And the Pack likes to get people's blood pumping-- they'll just have to figure out how to stop while the blood's still, you know. Inside people. And they can do it, if they know their own asses are on the line. Which I think you made clear, sirs."

Day nodded, then looked up at Michael and X6-88.

"It's approximately time for the evening meal," he said. "Would the two of you like to stay and eat before reporting back to Ms. Bowman?"

X6-88 and Michael looked at each other, and then Michael said, "Yes, thank you."

"Sirs," said Mackenzie, "may I please go eat at the Mountain with the others? They'll be dying to know what's going on."

"I can accompany you to the Mountain, Mackenzie," Michael offered. "If Day and Night will entrust me with your protection."

Day and Night looked at each other, and then Day said, "Very well. X6-88, is that what you would prefer, as well?"

"I'll defer to your preference as our hosts," said X6-88.

"Then we'll entrust you, also, with Dr. Bridgeman's protection," said Night, after another quick exchanged glance. "Please bring her back here before you leave the park."

"Thank you," said Mackenzie, to Night and Day, and she left between the two tall ex-coursers, one in the familiar coat, the other in shirt and jeans.

"Thank you," she said to them, as well, when they were in the elevator that took them to the ground floor. "For looking after me."

"You're welcome, Mackenzie," said Michael, smiling at her. She'd been watching him and X6-88 since they'd arrived, of course, studying them, these ambassadors from her bosses' world, their long-lost brothers, and now she said boldly, "May I ask you something? Both of you?"

"You may," said Michael, as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor.

"You may," X6-88 agreed, as they all stepped out and headed for the Mountain.

Mackenzie said, "What makes you happiest?"

They looked at each other over her head, and she thought of how strange she must seem to them, to all of them, the Institute-bred and -trained coursers. How good it was, that they had each other.

Michael said, "The company of my--" He hesitated slightly. "Of those I love. Their happiness. And that I can add to it."

It was a little longer before X6-88 said, "A job well done."

"Thank you," said Mackenzie again.

Michael said, "Why do you ask?"

"Because I want Night and Day to be happy," she said. "And you come from the same place. And you both seem happy. I just wondered. "

"Why do you want Night and Day to be happy?" Michael asked, courser -serious, that uninflected voice that had seemed so terrifying before she came to know her bosses better. She remembered how frightened she'd been at first by their seemingly expressionless faces and voices as they questioned her, how she'd trembled as she answered them, her voice shaking, thinking her life might depend on whether they liked her answer to any given question.

Now she answered, shy but unafraid, "Because I care about them."

"I'm glad," said Michael, and then they were at the Mountain, where the tables were being set for the evening meal.

 

The others were shy, at first, in front of Michael and X6-88, until Mackenzie started the conversation with a cheerful, "So guess what the Overbosses decided to do with the first three parks?"

As Mackenzie had guessed they would, the former slaves had a lot of questions about how the new territories would affect them.

"Well, you only go if you want," she said. "And the rules will be the same as here. Nobody hurts you or touches you without permission, you get fed, you get to rest. Anything else-- I guess you can negotiate, if they want you. What work they want you to do, what perks you might get for moving."

"But who's gonna enforce the rules?" Shelbie asked. "If you're not there-- and the Overbosses-- what's gonna stop them from-- from being the way they were before?"

"Well, that is a chance you'll be taking," said Mackenzie. "I mean, the Overbosses will be checking in on the new parks from time to time, but they won't be there all the time like they are here, and when they do visit, you'll have to talk directly to them about anything shitty going on, because I won't be there. So, you know, factor that in."

Because almost everyone looked nervous, she added, "Don't be scared, though, guys. You can talk to them. They're a lot nicer than you think."

"To you, they are," said Keith.

"Have they ever harmed any of you?" Mackenzie asked, and a brief silence fell, before Violet said, "Because you don't want them to."

"Well," said Mackenzie, still cheerfully, "I still won't want them to, if you're living at a different park."

A longer silence fell this time, everyone eating without speaking for a bit.

Then Lauren said, "Mackenzie, you're gonna stay here?"

"Yes," said Mackenzie.

"You OK with that?" Lauren asked.

"Yes." Mackenzie smiled at her. "Thanks for asking."

 

Michael and X6-88 didn't say much, either during dinner, or when they dropped her off back at the Grille, with Night and Day-- Day sitting at the table, cleaning a gun; Night standing by the window, where he could look out over the darkening park-- and declined their invitation to spend the night.

"We should report back to our mother," said Michael.

"Very well," said Night. "Are you in need of any supplies or resources for your journey?"

"No, thank you," said Michael, and X6-88 shook his head, and that was about that, as far as farewells went.

Once they were gone, Mackenzie stood still by the closed door where they'd left her, as two pairs of eyes-- one gray, one black, like the colors of their uniform-- watched her intently.

She came forward, stood behind Day. He didn't turn to look at her. She laid her hands on his shoulders, and he sat very still under her touch. Night was watching, very still, too, from the window.

Mackenzie lifted one hand from Day's shoulder and held it out to Night, and he came to her, without speaking, and took her hand in his, lacing his fingers through hers. Day turned his head then, not enough to see Mackenzie's face, but enough to see Night, and their hands, and he put his own hand up to cover the one of Mackenzie's that still rested on his shoulder.

They stayed like that for a long few moments, before she said, "I'm so happy."

Night said, "Why?"

"Because of the two of you," she said. "Because I'm here with you. And because of everything you've done, and are doing, to make the parks better. You've done so well."

They were quiet, and then she said, "And because I get to stay here with you. Day, did Night tell you that's what I want? He said I could stay here. With both of you. Is that all right with you, too?"

Day turned in his chair to look up at her. She had never seen such a look on his face. They never showed anxiety openly, though she had learned to read the subtler signs that they were feeling it. Even among humans-- the raiders covered anxiety with a sneer or a snarl or, at best, like Mason in the marketplace this morning, a show of being reasonable, having a point to make. The slaves, too, tried to mask their fear, when they could, in case it made things worse for them.

Day's face was as open with its worry as a loved child's, as he said, "We'll look after your friends, Dr. Bridgeman. And keep the peace. Everything will be-- as you would like it to be, here. Even if you go home."

 

"I am home," she said, to him this time as well as Night, and, on an impulse, moved her hand from his shoulder to run it over his short, bright hair.

 

He made a sound, a little shocked noise, almost like a whimper, but he held still under her touch.

"Is this OK?" she asked, repeating the caress, and he said, a breathless edge to his voice, "Yes."

Letting her hand come to rest at the nape of Day's neck, she looked up at Night, who was watching, still holding her other hand. He said nothing.

"I have another favor to ask," she said, looking from Night to Day. "If you aren't tired of indulging me."

"Not yet," said Night, and Day smiled, the smallest upward motion at the corners of his mouth, as he sat still with her hand cupping his neck.

Mackenzie smiled back. "Will you both-- please-- call me Mackenzie?"

"Why?" Day asked.

Night said, "Yes."

"Yes," Day echoed. "But why?"

"Because--" She hesitated. "It's-- Dr. Bridgeman is so formal."

"We were trained to use titles and surnames as a form of respect," said Day.

"Oh, boss, I--" Mackenzie was almost stammering, the way she'd stammered out her answers when she first dared speak to the two of them, when she was deathly afraid of them, afraid for herself and for the other slaves, not knowing what she might say to set the new Overbosses off and make everything even worse. She was nervous now, but it was a different kind of nervousness; she didn't want to make a mistake and hurt them.

"I know it's out of respect," she said, to Day. "And I appreciate that. I really do. I like knowing you respect me. But humans who are-- closer-- like friends, and family-- we call each other by our-- our given names."

"Which are you?" Day asked.

"Sir?"

"Our friend or our family?"

"I'm your--" She hesitated. Both. Neither. She remembered how Day's breath had caught, this morning, when she said I'm yours. "I'm your-- your Mackenzie."

Day smiled again, his eyes wide and soft and fixed on her.

After just a moment's hesitation, pronouncing the word as if it were both difficult and important to pronounce correctly, he said, "Yes, Mackenzie."

And then, "Mackenzie? Why do you want to stay here?"

She thought, He wants to hear me say it.

"Because I want to be with you," she said. "With both of you. I want to be-- close. It feels good to me when we're close. Even just knowing you're nearby, but the best is when I can see you, and listen to you, and--" She squeezed, very lightly, as if they were fragile, the curve of Day's neck, the mesh of Night's fingers. "Touch."

She looked up at Night. "The first time you picked me up-- when the Disciples had taken me, when you came to get me, and picked me up. I was so scared, and then you were there, and I saw you, and I thought, it's OK, I'm safe. And then you picked me up and held me, and I knew I was safe. I knew-- I felt it--"

She looked back down at Day, and continued, "And this morning. When you held me. While I cried. I felt so safe. So happy, just to be so close to you."

Night said, "Mackenzie."

She looked up. "Sir?"

"Nothing," said Night, and smiled at her, that same tiniest curve of his mouth. "I was-- practicing."

Mackenzie laughed, a laugh that turned into a surprised, delighted shriek as Night suddenly, in one swift, easy motion, leaned to put one arm behind her knees and the other at her back, and swooped her up in a bridal carry.

She thought maybe he was carrying her to the bed-- as he'd done before, as they'd both done before, often, innocently and gently as if she were their sleepy child, laying her down and covering her up with the blanket-- but he carried her to the sofa instead, and, instead of putting her down, sat down himself and settled her on his lap, holding her close against him.

"Is this OK?" he asked, as she'd asked Day, and her voice had the same edge of breathlessness in her own ears when she said, like Day, "Yes."

Day got up and came to the sofa, sat down next to them, his body turned towards her. He looked at her, and she sat still, held in the crook of Night's arm, resting against him, pinioned by Day's steel-gray gaze, for a long few moments.

Then Day said to Night, "She looks happy."

Mackenzie laughed. "You had to check?"

"We have to be careful with you, Mackenzie," said Night. "Your happiness is a very high priority for us."

"Yours is for me, too," she said, looking at Day, who'd propped his elbow on the back of the sofa and leaned his cheek on his hand, watching her, and who answered gravely, "We know, Mackenzie."

"Tell us how dinner went," said Night.

She laid her head down on his shoulder, eyes on Day's eyes, unselfconscious in their attention to-- and liking for-- her face. She breathed in the scent of Night's neck-- cleaner than most humans' smell, less rank with sweat, despite the heat his bare skin exuded. An Institute improvement, maybe. She wondered how she smelled to them. She tried to keep herself clean, but she was only human.

They didn't seem to mind.

"It went well," she said. "I explained the plan. People had some questions, of course, but--" She breathed in again, smiled at Day. "I'm-- optimistic." But that was inadequate. "Excited. Happy. I think everything is going to go-- really well."