Actions

Work Header

Rot, Dust, and Steel

Chapter Text

Goodneighbor’s alleys were alive with that special, homey odor of souring booze, raw ozone, and rotting garbage, a fine sparkling of dew blanketing the cobblestones and sleeping drifters alike. Unaffected by the droplets clinging to her dusky chassis, the Assaultron K-L-E-O hawked bullets to a vagrant who looked like he could barely afford them. The general store’s shopkeep gave directions to a traveler, wiping down her counters with mottled, pocked hands. And The Third Rail’s stoop lay silent. Strangely, no one had started a proper bar fight yet today. Of course, it wasn’t even noon—but this was Goodneighbor, after all.

Still, the quiet in this town never lasted. Its mayor was on edge, a silent, electric storm following him through dark alleys—none of the usual kindly smiles on his face nor the easy chems in his hands as if he was a leprous Santa Claus for the addicts of few means.

Trouble was in the air. Whether it was the good or the bad kind remained to be seen.

“Hancock?” Fahrenheit grunted to his left, her armor clinking as she adjusted her assault rifle.

“Hm?” He tried to relax his jaw, teeth grinding. His morning dose of Jet had already run out—it could have been his distorted sense of time, but for the last few days, his highs had felt like they kept getting shorter. It was probably a problem in the chem purity, and it grated. Ultra Jet wasn’t the easiest to come by out here.

His bodyguard nodded to a corner a short walk away from the main gate. There stood full-time drifter and part-time fighter Finn, twitchy, eyes jerking this way and that. Veins popped in his neck.

Hancock knew a man who’d had a fresh dose of Psycho when he saw it. Either that, or Finn had found out about the weak-ass Jet batch flooding the town too. I feel ya, man. Today sucks.

Perfectly aware of the problem Finn presented, however, he sighed aloud. Most of the addicts here didn’t go for Psycho, but when they were feeling spicy enough, they usually shot up in isolation. Chem-fueled brawls weren’t really smiled on. It wasn’t, after all, the best thing for unity if folks decided that drifters were something to fear or hate.

Again.

But here goddamn Finn lurked, like he was ready to jump bad with the first person that looked at him wrong.

Well... if he didn’t start shit, there wouldn’t be shit. “Keep an eye on him,” Hancock whispered to Fahrenheit.

“Have been,” his bodyguard grunted. “Daisy already complained. Says he’s been heckling people coming in. They keep skipping her shop, trying to get past him as quickly as they can.”

A headache pulsed behind the mayor’s eyes. “He threaten anyone yet?” Finn could hold his own in combat, and if all that violence was spoiling for somewhere to go today…

“Not that we know of.” Fahrenheit clenched her fingers around her gun grip. It was clear she was thinking about aggressive prevention tactics. It was bad enough that the super mutants outside had escalated their little turf wars, mighty too close for comfort. If traders got spookier about even entering Goodneighbor because of the threats within, it wouldn’t go well for any of its people.

This place was a sanctuary and needed to act like it.

“Alright, alright.” Hancock sighed. “I’ll deal with it after breakfast. Maybe Finn’ll stay in the attic for a few days. Get this out of his system.” Even this guy wouldn’t be dumb enough to start trouble under the mayoral roof.

What a pain.

But then, the front gate opened with a war-weary creak. The air shifted. Finn’s twitchy body leapt at the sound.

Hancock snapped his gaze to the town’s newest visitor. How disappointing: it wasn’t the chem trader he'd been expecting. It was some tall, muscled guy in a vibrantly blue Vault suit of all the damn things—and he looked fresh. Clean. Plus, in addition to whatever extraordinary laundry-based secrets the guy was keeping in his skull, he was sporting two rifles, three pistols, and a bag that looked as heavy as a Brahmin.

He also had a Pip-Boy: a working one he was fiddling with.

K-L-E-O’s servos in the shop nearby pitched into higher gear, as if with glee. They could be heard well outside her door. That, more than anything else, made it clear that a big storm was coming in that gate.

“Goddamnit, there he goes.” Fahrenheit waved a hand at Finn.

“There who goes?” Hancock took in the delightful smell of salisbury steak wafting from a nearby apartment window. Mmmm. Breakfast.

Fahrenheit sighed.

Unfortunately for breakfast, Finn wasn’t going to let anyone forget him nice and peacefully. He was, in fact, squaring up. He was… ah, hell. He was yelling at the Vault guy to pay for protection—in broad daylight. In full view of half the town. A Vault guy who could barely walk for all the guns he was carrying.

Psycho is a hell of a drug.

Well, shit, this was it, wasn’t it? Everyone being welcome was sort of the whole deal with the mayoral speeches, and definitely the deal with the whole… violently hanging the last mayor. Finn was burning down his final chance before he’d even known he’d had it.

“I got him,” Hancock grumbled, feeling like he’d been asked to wash some particularly grody dishes. Christ, this Jet. Why you gotta do this to me today, Finn? He began to trundle on, feeling every bit of the weight of the red coat on his back.

Fortunately, it seemed like the newcomer had things mostly handled. Something the man was saying was clipping through Finn's red Psycho haze—he was backing up.

“Woah, woah. Time out,” Hancock muttered. The Vaultie’s gaze tore from the drifter to meet him—that face held glittering, hunted, weary eyes beneath a mop of black hair—and his was the kind of stare that had been through hell on its way here and would very much like to clap itself onto a bed. His pale skin was burned from sun. His broad shoulders were taut with exhausted tension. What was surprising was that his stance held little disgust or anger. For now, this stranger seemed content to simply size up Hancock’s approach.

Not some nut or a ghoul-hater then. Good.

So Hancock kept a respectful distance and informed Finn of his offense, knowing he had to go. This, of course, would be nice and instructional to the growing crowd… and to the newbie. Travelers had to know, after all, that Goodneighbor didn’t tolerate extortion at the gates.

But of course, cheated Finn the Psycho’d-up asshat just wanted a new punching bag. He looked about ready to start swinging. “You're soft, Hancock. You keep letting outsiders walk all over us, one day, there'll be a new mayor.” Those twitchy fists clenched and unclenched. Those eyes lolled.

Why the hell was this guy always like this? Always one goddamn stupid day away from mutiny.

Just not a neighborly fella. Not at all.

Hancock extended his arm, no longer hesitant about what needed to be done. His smile was a rictus grin. “Ah, come on, man. This is me we're talking about.” Here boy. Come on. “Let me tell you something.Think about that food I gave ya over the winter. There ya go. Remember the hits I gave you when you were out of caps and luck, ya ungrateful asshole. All the while, Hancock reached into his coat where he kept a bit of his personal stash. A crowd was starting to gather, and they knew what was coming. They were silent in the dew, a vigil.

Finn didn’t or couldn’t see. Hunger sprang up in his eyes: hunger for Jet from that lovely red coat. He stumbled closer.

He didn’t even cry out as the breath hissed from his lungs, the knife sinking deep into his shriveled frame.

Hancock stepped back, knowing by now just how to keep blood off of the white frills at his wrists. Finn fell gracelessly to the stones, never to move again.

Someone would clean that up. Probably Fahrenheit.

Vault-Boy was, in fact, much tenser now. Can’t imagine why. He was staring in a tight-lipped way at Goodneighbor’s citizens as they quietly, peacefully dispersed. Of course, for them, this was business as usual. Problems had been corrected.

Summoning up his very ghoulish best, Hancock flashed a pleased smile. If you didn’t know me before, you do now, buddy. “So. Welcome to town.” The tension eventually leaked like hot air out of the stranger’s frame—even if his hands didn’t stray far from his pistols. This was especially true when the mayoral knife was put away and Fahrenheit started heaving the body out of the road. Just to make certain he’d made his point, however, Hancock added, “This place is of the people, for the people, you feel me? Everyone’s. Welcome.So play nice. You know I’m here if you try fucking someone up.

The man stared, processing, stiff, but seemingly not allowing himself to show fear. What a rare thing. His back was straight and proud—a fighter, that much was for sure. Maybe a merc? A soldier? Finally, he nodded, green eyes piercing. “I feel you.”

Well then. No matter what he was, with a reply like that, he might fit in just fine.

Huh. And under that stubble, he wasn’t so bad to look at.

Alright. Enough of this. I’ve got a box of Mentats with my name on it and I need a breakfast to chase it down.

Hancock turned away, moving on. Those speeches weren’t going to give themselves, and people really responded well to a little public rally after an execution. It was a good reminder for any other problems to get their shit together. Goodneighbor, after all, wasn’t going to stand for it.

And maybe… maybe this town could use some new guy who liked lugging around more bullets than words.

 


 

Nate, the sole survivor of Vault 111, was certain of only two things as he sagged inside Goodneighbor’s gates: first, he was going to pass out from heat exhaustion, and second, politics in the Commonwealth involved quite a bit more direct action than they used to.

Like stabbings.

No big deal. Just… just a quick bit of murder before brunch and speeches.

And there the mayor emerged now, on the state house balcony. Hell, this guy was popular. His folk were cheering him on like he was throwing them money. Back in Diamond City, Mayor McDonough had barely managed to get butts into comfortable chairs so they could listlessly stare while he reassured everyone his town’s papers were full of baseless lies.

This John Hancock lived up to the whispered, fearful rumors Nate had heard in the alleys and bars. The ghoul was terrifying. He looked half-dead—though that wasn’t his fault—and in that dramatic, sweeping frock, he’d come out of those shadows to lay judgment on that extortionist like a demon of vengeance. Those black eyes… it was impossible to tell what they were thinking, but one might be fooled into assuming they lacked a soul.

Especially when the guy smiled like no one was bleeding at his feet, like it was a lovely day and he was in charge of the town’s tourism and welcoming committee.

That vagrant might have had it coming, and maybe harsh sentences were how someone survived in a harsh land, but damn, Nate did not want to know how they dealt with anyone else in the way here… like a loiterer. He forced his feet to press on. When I get Shaun back, this is not going on the list of places to raise a family.

Carefully, he placed his son’s return in terms of when, not if. Doing so would make his heart wail less with uncertainty and grief when night came.

Nate wearily crossed the dusty cobblestones and peeked around the door of the general store. It was manned by what seemed to be another one of those ghouls Preston spoke of. In fact, this place ran thick with them, all sunken eyes and zombified scowls—this settlement was utterly unlike Diamond City. Nate had left those walls not three days prior, and being there, he’d gotten the impression that perhaps ghouls just weren’t that common—one more thing he guessed he was wrong about.

The proprietor of “Daisy’s Discounts” eyed him with a glinting, opaque glare. Not soulless eyes. Don’t think of them like that. Her muscles were tense and wary under that withered flesh.

Nate knew better than to ask his burning questions about either her condition or her kind. He’d survived deployment in the war, and he knew there were very few people in this world that wanted to talk about their scars. “Hey,” he mumbled instead. “I’ve got some things to sell.”

She licked her puckered lips, so dry, the action was an audible whisper. “I can see that.” Her rasp sounded amused. “Well, you aren’t running away screaming, so sure. Name’s Daisy. What you have?”

A smile broke across Nate’s face. That was a hell of a name attached to such a pack-a-day voice. Slowly, he wrestled down his apprehension. Just some ordinary folks who look different, like Preston said. Treat them like it. “I’ve got all the junk I could grab from some dead mercenaries a few blocks from here.” His bag hit the counter with a resonant THUMP, his entire spine cracking as it sprung back into its normal shape. “This town… it’s not in any danger, is it? It’s an active combat zone out there.”

“Nah. We’ll be fine. We’ve got the walls, and we’ve got Hancock.”

Nate’s eyebrows lifted. “Ah. The guy I just met.” Senator Stabber.

Daisy’s uneven teeth glimmered in wide amusement. “Goodneighbor’s no stranger to excitement, kid. Not with him around.” She made a pleased, appraising noise as her nimble fingers started to dig in his hoard. “No shit. Energy weapons? Not a bad haul. Ooo. And cig cartons! Whiskey! Someone wanted to prop up those Gunners real nice.”

Nate gave a nervous laugh. “Didn’t seem to stop the big green guys from tearing through them like tissue paper. I barely had to fire a shot to finish them off.”

“Yeah, I swear, those super mutants don’t seem to care if you’re packing lasers or a pea shooter. Thank god they’re dumb as bricks.”

Super mutants. Nate tongued the inside of his cheek, soaking up the information, stomach fluttering nervously as he remembered blood-freezing war cries from bloated green maws. Preston sure gave him a lot to absorb in their short time together with the Minutemen in Sanctuary, but there was just so much he still didn’t understand. “Where’d they come from?”

“Who?”

“The super mutants.”

Daisy blinked, then shrugged, as if to say, where does air come from? “I’d care more about when they’re gonna leave. Minutemen kept them in line sometimes, but I haven’t seen those do-gooders in ages… Hey. Tell ya what. I like you, so I’ll give you a little extra for this lot. Three hundred caps. And if super mutants don’t freak you out, well, I’ve got a bit of a job I could give you too.”

Nate perked up. Three hundred caps was infinitely more than he had after Diamond City. Nothing seemed to be cheap there, not even supplies to survive. Hell, he’d only left that sanctuary in the first place to earn a few caps for food that night, maybe get a roof over his head. It was supposed to be a quick job: retrieving some paint.

Just a stupid can of paint.

And after fifteen minutes in ruined Boston, he’d gotten lost. His Pip-Boy map had started to blinker and lose track of his location. The screen was already cracked, and it was getting intermittent about responding. It was possible there was water in it—the device had been smashed into a rock a week before when a rabid mongrel knocked him into a stream.

Lost, wandering, trying to fix his malfunctioning map, he’d then gotten shot at—and he’d had the nerve to shoot back. In answer, two green freaks the size of silverback gorillas started charging at him out of a hollowed storefront while brandishing beeping bombs, blowing up anything in their way, including themselves.

Even a career soldier knew when the fuck to get out of dodge.

And so Nate never found his way, dodging and weaving through desecrated, shattered streets, leaping over broken glass and burning rubber, eyes stinging and heart racing so hard that he nearly blacked out from how badly he was winded. He was lucky when the merc outpost he’d had to tear through to get to this new settlement was already decimated.

Needless to say, he hurt. He still didn’t know the way back to Diamond City, he had no goddamned paint to bring back anyway, and all his stimpacks were used husks in a ditch.

“Three hundred caps sounds fantastic,” was what he managed to say. “And yeah, I’ll do that job. But I might need a bit of a break…”

“Hotel Rexford’s up the way. Pretty cheap. If you ask for Fred, he’ll hook you up with some calm-downs.”

Nate smiled, warm satisfaction welling up in his core. I’m going to hug that mattress like it loves me. “Anyone in town good at fixing tech?” He tapped the Pip-Boy, nervous. This thing was his one godsend, his advantage in this fucked-up Bostonian future.

Daisy shrugged. “It’s beyond me… though, you could ask the doctor at the Memory Den. Someone’s gotta maintain those slick pods of theirs. It’s right across the way too.”

“Thanks Daisy. I’ll come by tomorrow about that job. Really appreciate it.”

She cracked that unsettling, jagged smile, a bit of a dangerous edge there. “Ha! Don’t thank me yet. What I need is for someone to clear out the super mutants that’ve set up a nest in the old library outside the wall.”

Nate stiffened, blood freezing.

More super mutants? Holy shit. Could he really agree to do that…?

Well… maybe.

If they were screaming and trying to blow themselves up, it wouldn’t be easy, but the others, without the bombs… they’d seemed terribly slow. Quick to anger; easy to distract. If picked off from a reasonable distance… throttled down tight hallways…

He ran a palm across the reassuring solidity of the sandalwood grips on his new revolvers, pulled from a dead mercenary not an hour ago.

Three hundred caps.

“Yeah,” he said, coming at the problem logically, preparing himself. “I think I could handle it.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow, soldier boy.” She gave him a knowing look, carting off his freshly sold junk.

Nate’s stomach twisted. Two hundred years later, and everyone could still see the army in his back and shoulders. Preston did too. No wonder everyone kept asking him for help on the road.

I signed up to protect my country. He sighed. And I’ll be damned if this place doesn’t need a whole lot of that too.

So it was. He just couldn’t say no when his training was the difference between someone’s life and death… and that included his own.

Nate began the slog to the Hotel Rexford. Even exhausted, he could pick up on Goodneighbor’s atmosphere; it exuded a grit, a realness that Diamond City seemed to have scrubbed away years back. Instead of whispers, rumors, and fear, everyone seemed very ready to look him in the eye and size him up. It felt like he’d strolled from a flock of protected, clean, yet highly agitated sheep, and right into a den of wolves.

He couldn’t help but like that a little. It was better to see threats in the open, where they could be handled, rather than jumping at every little shadow. Maybe it said something that the mayor had stabbed that guy in the front instead of the back.

But the spot between Nate’s shoulder blades suddenly burned, just for a moment. Leery, he turned, casual, as if he thought he’d dropped something.

Someone was staring at him from high above. The mayor was a splash of blood against the sun at high noon, his ancient tricorn hat tipped at a jaunty angle. Upon his balcony, the man was surveying his people, the sunlight sending into pitch the garish dark hollows of his scarred flesh.

Nate was suddenly certain that this keen gaze was watching him in particular.

His body flushed, nervous adrenaline readying his muscles. Determined not to let on how that black gaze rattled him, he turned and wandered toward the Rexford, pretending nothing was wrong.

That politician wanted something with him.

It might have something to do with more murder.

If that’s the case, this guy might just have to get in line.

Chapter Text

It was another day, another hit.

And in fact, both were much better than the last.

Hancock cheerfully sorted through his newest Jet batch. Alright. Now we’re talking. The liquid within the vials filtered light cleanly, no debris. The fresh-faced trader who owned it all shifted nervously from foot to foot. No doubt he’d heard all the legends about the big scary Ghoul of Goodneighbor.

“You want one?” Hancock offered an inhaler, wishing he’d chill out.

“Not supposed to sample the product,” the young man said softly.

Hancock shrugged. “Eh, that’s fine I guess. One sec.” He took one and huffed, letting his eyes roll back in pleasure. Light and color surged and glowed at the ends of his neurons. The world became good and slow, easily manageable, and wonderful to touch. Under his puckered fingers, the old pseudo-suede of his chair’s upholstery was suddenly as downy as a baby rabbit. “Oh. Yeah. That’s what I was missing. Yeah, if you sell this stuff? I’m buying from you to supplement our cooks from now on.” The merchant finally relaxed, smiling in relief. Hancock understood why. He was known, frankly, for buying up a lot of chems.

Town’s hungry. We do what we have to do.

And he loved what he did. Relaxed, mellow, he handed over the remaining caps in the bargain. “You tell ‘em at the Rexford that I’ll pick up your room bill, yeah?”

When the trader was gone, there was only Fahrenheit, looking down at him with her usual bemused, somewhat annoyed expression, and he already knew there was no way she was going to take anything to relax that pinched face. Man. You might be my kid, but you take after my grandpa. “Something up?”

“Yeah. That new Vault guy.”

Her words were processing a little slowly, so it took him a moment. “Oh. Yeah. Vaultie. Pip-Boy. Pretty Eyes.” He smiled, slouching happily into the suede, rubbing his fingers together. His own skin was actually kind of soft too… what was left of it.

She squinted, like she was wondering if she ought to wait to continue until after he came down a tiny bit. Then, she just shrugged and plowed on, which Hancock decided was a good call. He wasn’t going to be coming down anytime soon. “He left this morning after visiting K-L-E-O… was carrying just a shit-ton of bullets and grenades.”

“Oh.” Hancock sighed, disappointed. The trouble was gone? But… he might have been good trouble. Interesting trouble.

Goddamn it, he was restless this week. Finn had gotten him all riled, too. Running off to shoot some bullets and toss some grenades sounded like a great way to let off some steam. Mayor he might be, but it wasn’t easy on his nature sometimes—after all, how long had he parked himself here in this office again? How many months?

…Years?

Oh god. Was he…

…Getting comfortable?

“Oh no. I’m dusty,” he complained, feeling as if a layer of sediment and moss was growing over his sedentary frame.

“Then take a bath,” Fahrenheit snapped. “Why’d you even want me to tell you what Vault Guy is up to? He had a few guns, but he looked like he was all about minding his own business. Not some troublemaker.”

Hancock grunted. “I’m a troublemaker,” he argued, by dint of reason that he would know another when he saw them. I am still a troublemaker, right? When was the last time I really got out there and did something? Geez. Everything’s going to hell outside of Goodneighbor, and I’m just sitting here, shouting off my balcony and getting in people’s business.

…Did I even handle Finn right?

“Yeah, ok.” She patted the top of his hat. “Look, like I said, nothing worth writing home about with that guy. Passed out breakfast to some kid drifters. Chatted up Daisy. Bought weapons. Left.”

Something burbled in the depths of Hancock’s memories, like a submarine attempting to surface. Daisy… Daisy… “He gave away food? To the drifters?” So soldier boy was kind. It was good to know that could still happen.

“Yeah. But he’s gone. With that firepower, it was for a journey. Probably won’t be back.”

Hancock slouched further in his chair, feeling the dust settle in his nostril hollows, disconsolate.

Fahrenheit turned to leave.

That thought… it kept burbling. Daisy. A flicker of it emerged. “Waaaait,” he managed. “Didn’t… didn’t Daisy have some job she was trying to foist off on you earlier?”

“What? You mean that crazy thing about returning her two-century-old library books to a super mutant nest?” Fahrenheit barked out a laugh, one that didn’t meet her eyes. “No one’s dumb enough to do that.”

Hancock stared.

Fahrenheit stared back.

“Oh,” Fahrenheit said. “Oh.”

A slow grin started working its way up Hancock’s lips. “I bet you twenty caps that’s just what that troublemaker did with those grenades.”

She shrugged. “Well, that changes things. He’s definitely not coming back.” 

 


 

Nate had always been a confident man, sure of his skill. It was why he’d made sergeant so quickly in the army, why his people trusted him with their lives over and over. He would fight proudly beside them, and he never shied from the risky parts of the job.

Nate was realizing that in this new world, he was now slightly full of shit, and he’d grossly overestimated himself.

Or put too much trust in his goddamned, broken-ass, son-of-a-bitch Pip-Boy.

“GRAAWWRRGHHH!” a super mutant howled as it vaulted from a ledge two stories above, swinging a sledgehammer to splatter his brains into the grout.

Nate threw himself out of the way, the hammer shattering stone floor. Scrabbling back, he ducked into a nearby hallway, backpedaling as fast as he could, firing every bullet he had at the monster. It was like shooting at a walking barn, impossible to miss. Chips of bone went flying from the thing’s dog skull helmet.

The V.A.T.S. in his Pip-Boy flickered and shorted out. Five bullets sunk into the mutant’s nasty chest, missing anything vital. It didn’t even slow down.

“Shiiiit!” Nate flung himself through an open door just as it barreled past, taking the door off its hinges, shattering it into splinters.

Here, in this little archive room, there was no exit.

Blep. Something sticky and cold dripped down his neck. Above, there was a rotting, leaking sack of bloody, dismembered body parts—like a larder. Nate’s hands didn’t tremble as he reloaded his gun. The adrenaline kept him present. He held in his breakfast. But by god, when he got out of here, he knew this was going to be his new nightmare.

The super mutant backpedaled, it’s ugly body squeezing through the door frame as it lunged. Nate let his Pip-Boy open V.A.T.S., let it light up his target like a Christmas tree and steady his shot. Thank god; the computer was finally back online!

That sledgehammer rushed back as the mutant howled in fury. “EAT YOUR SKIN! EAT YOUR EYES!”

Good night, ugly.

CLICK.

The world slowed as Nate realized… his gun was jammed.

His arm exploded in blinding fireworks of pain. A distant place in his ears could hear the bones crunching. The force flung his whole body back like a rag doll, slamming into the wall, his vision going white.

Suddenly, Nate was in the past. A jungle: hot, wet wind was in his nose. A grenade went off, slamming him into a tree. His power armor went offline just long enough for him to realize it wouldn’t save him.

In the present, the super mutant grinned hungrily overhead, raising the sledgehammer one, last time. Its mistake was thinking its prey, even when maimed and barely present, hadn’t been in this situation before.

BANG!

The five bullets in the thing’s chest hadn’t slowed it, but the one in the brainpan finally made it pay attention. Nate let out a sigh of relief as, when the mutant fell, it didn’t fall on him.

There he sat for a long minute, clutching his second pistol. That was the last bullet in the chamber.

Have to… have to keep moving.

There weren’t any more, right? No, no, stupid. That’s what got him into this, thinking there weren’t any more. That’s how their leader got the drop on him. His only saving grace was that the hallways the way he’d come were empty at least—their walls smeared with green flesh and fury, courtesy of K-L-E-O’s grenades.

Thank god for bottlenecks.

Slowly, he cradled his flopping, screeching, shattered arm to himself, jabbing it with Med-X from his bag. That would numb it for a while, but the bone would need setting… god, it should not be bending that way… couldn’t stimpack it until it was set…

Nate screamed as he stood, the pain finally slicing through his adrenaline.

And there before him, right under the hanging bag of filleted corpses on the ceiling, was a blinking terminal.

Nate stared. Book Drop, a sign said helpfully.

He stepped over the super mutant at his feet, its body squishing unpleasantly under his heels. Daisy’s book, which he withdrew from his bag, was unreadable now. Covered in blood. Only some of it was his.

The machine accepted the delivery with a pleasant ding. A few prize tokens fell out of the slot.

Nate stared at his reward, the silence of this graveyard howling through his ears.

 


 

The best doctor in Goodneighbor was Doctor Amari, and everyone knew it. But she didn’t see just any patients. Her expertise was the field of the mind. Traveling medics that could sometimes be found here or there… they handled the rest.

Which was why Doctor Amari was probably not impressed when a bleeding, broken man fell through the door of the Memory Den in the middle of a rainstorm, the sky turning black with night and thick clouds.

Nate was, at least, fairly certain her glare was not that of a woman impressed. He couldn’t be sure. He was long past fading.

It was in the Rexford where he next opened his eyes. Even with the lights off and the curtains shut, the world was far too bright. His throat was devastatingly dry.

He tried heaving himself up from his scratchy mattress, but his left arm howled in pain. Dizzy, frightened, confused, he finally realized… his arm was in a sling. Thick bandages and braces held it together. He recognized the numb tingle of Med-X and stimpacks as he gingerly pressed the skin.

A note lay on the nightstand. He peeled it open.

Your medical bill was deducted from the caps found on your person. You’ve still got a few left; don’t worry. Try not to tear yourself up and bleed all over the Memory Den’s floors again. There are other people for that.

Nate swayed, trying to remember what happened, then realized very quickly that recalling didn’t make him happy.

How’d I even get back to Goodneighbor in the first place?

That was a sobering question—too sobering, since he had no easy answer. Everything was a blur. It must have been an overwhelming survival instinct.

Thirsty, hungry, and feeling sick, Nate made an executive decision. It was time to stagger down to the Third Rail. The world be damned; he needed a drink. He deserved a drink.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a long stagger. When he arrived, the bar’s bouncer nodded him on, deep into the thick, smoky depths. For the first time since he’d awoken in this time, sweet, sweet music curled around his ears, the kind that wasn’t from a crackling radio. Someone was singing… absolutely belting her heart out. She was good. Mind-numbingly good.

Nate’s pains started to ease already. He stumbled to the bar, seeing the room packed. A shined, agile Mr. Handy was polishing glasses, filling them again, keeping the good mood flowing. On the robot’s side, an old Union Jack decal was stuck. Nate chuckled. But a guilty pang reminded him to visit Sanctuary again soon: Codsworth. His poor former robotic assistant had seemed so fractured. Nate had hated leaving Codsworth where he’d found him, but he couldn’t imagine pulling him away from his home or his prized geraniums, not after two hundred years.

Still, it would be nice to talk to a familiar face after all this. The guy probably missed him terribly and was worried sick—after two centuries of spiraling, Nate was certain the Handy’s programming was quite capable of worry and fear.

Yeah. A visit was in order.

Even if Codsworth would ask again where Shaun was, and Nate wouldn’t know what to tell him yet.

The woman on stage winked at him as she crooned through the smoke. He smiled back dumbly, distracted, watching her pretty dress sparkle and swish.

Wow. Painkillers were really great.

He almost didn’t care when a certain mayor popped into focus not two feet away, his coat the sort of red that poisonous frogs took on. No, in the low light, with a beer in hand and an easy slouch, Hancock didn’t look like a guy capable of gutting anyone at all.

That might have been the Med-X talking.

“Heeeey,” the ghoul greeted, using two fingers to do a little salute, a chummy arm around Nate’s shoulders. His eyes scrunched up into the easiest of smiles. “It’s my favorite Vault Boy, back from battle. You lived!”

The bartender Handy grumbled, “Sure this guy doesn’t need to scrub off the blood before sitting down?”

Nate examined himself. Actually, the robot might have been right. He was a dirty, frazzled mess, so tired and sore he hadn’t even thought about the blood before wandering in. The doctor hadn’t changed his clothes.

Why the hell the bouncer hadn’t stopped him, he had no idea.

But now, he was here, and he was too unsteady to leave. The Med-X bubbled its magic under his skin.

“I’ve been almost blown up, flayed, and eaten,” Nate said, flopping into a stool. “By super mutants.” God, no more super mutants. “I think I should have a beer.”

“Coming up,” the Handy replied. One could almost hear the eyes narrowing in its vocal synthesizer.

A mellow throat cleared to Nate’s right. There, Hancock was sitting too. Those coal-black eyes were blinking at him, slowly, painfully slowly, as if waiting. “So let me see if I got this right. Your arm is smashed to hell… you almost got your skin torn off… you fought a whole family of super mutants who wanted to eat you… ’cause I was right. You wanted to return a book to the library. For Daisy.”

This guy was unsettlingly informed.

“Yep,” Nate managed, face starting to burn. “Three… three hundred caps.”

Hell. The mission really did sound stupid if someone wanted to say it all like that.

Suddenly, Hancock’s face split wide open in a roaring, rolling laugh. It almost silenced the bar. The singer paused between her sets just to stare as the mayor started pounding the table, whooping and pointing, “This guy! Holy shit! This guy! Oh man!

Nate stared. God, so help him, it was kind of funny. And so, so dumb.

Chuckles scraped out of his throat, face screwing up painfully, lungs aching. The bar eventually slid its attention elsewhere, but he couldn’t stop. Nate’s snickering at his own madness, his own stupidity, only died down when Hancock finally pulled himself together a full minute later, rubbing his eyes, an actual honest-to-god tear coming away on his fingers. He reached in his coat, then slapped down what looked like two asthma inhalers and a tin of mints. “Here you go, buddy,” he wheezed. “You earned it. Don’t ever change.”

Wait… are those…?

Goddamn. Those are Mentats!

The mayor was slinging drugs in the bar?!

…Oh hell. They probably weren’t illegal anymore, were they? Who the hell would enforce those laws? Nate’s head spun. Christ, this country was fucked up now. This whole town.

But compared to outside its walls, he supposed it could be a lot worse.

“Those,” Hancock giggled, leaning in and tapping the tin, “Are for you to take if Daisy asks you to do another job for her, and you need a couple extra brain cells to rub together to say no. She not tell you about the super mutants or something?”

“Oh no, she told me.” Nate grimaced. Not wanting to cause offense, he nodded a thanks and slipped the chems into his bag. His first instinct was to wonder where he might discreetly dispose of them. His second instinct, a new, sharpening one, wondered how many caps he could get for them instead. Fishing in his bag, he realized the doctor had taken quite a lot of his funds indeed.

“Then why’d you go?” Hancock blinked in wonder. “It can be done, sure, but by yourself? You got some crush on her or something? You, uh…” The space where his eyebrows should be wiggled suggestively. “You into that?”

Nora’s wedding ring felt cold on its chain against his collarbone. “No! No, nothing like that. I just needed the money, she seemed nice, and I thought I could do it. And I did,” he added pointedly. “I’d probably not even have this broken arm if my gun hadn’t jammed.”

“Yeah, dummy, that’s why you don’t travel alone. For when shit happens.” Hancock shook his head. “Well, probably did her some good, so that’s not so bad. You know how pre-war ghouls get. They gotta keep focused on something for a lot of years to keep their heads together, and she’s always going on about how things used to be,  and that library, and whatever. You did her peace of mind a real favor. Me? I’m always a fan of people helping my people.”

Nate blinked. He let his voice drop to a whisper, tired of feeling lost in the dark. “Pre-war ghoul?”

“Yeah, she is.” Hancock sounded like he was just going to leave it at that, happily tilting back his beer and chugging.

“I… well, look. I’m really new to being out here, and to ghouls, and a lot of things, so sorry if this is a really stupid question, but what makes one of you pre-war?”

Hancock set down the beer with a clink, startled. “They’re… from back then? Oh. Geez. You probably got knocked in the head pretty hard, huh?”

Nate sighed. “No.” He fiddled his fingernails into the deep scratches in the bar’s old wood, the fine grooves trails of violence gone by. “They’re really from before the war…?”

Daisy was as old as he was. He’d heard ghouls could live longer lives, but… how could that…? He couldn’t even fathom it. The radiation, did it make them… functionally immortal…?

“Yeah…?” Hancock was squinting very hard now, as if he was starting to question someone’s basic education, intelligence, or both.

“How is that even possible?”

“Brother… you from one of those anti-ghoul settlements? Did they not even tell people about us?”

Nate chuckled. “No, no, nothing like that. I… honestly don’t know if you’d believe me if I told you where I’m from.”

“Try me. No. Wait.” The man extracted another tin from his coat, popped it open, and let a tab dissolve on his tongue. From the way his eyes glazed, Nate knew he was right about the Mentats. “Alright. Shoot, man. My mind’s wide open now. Heh. Heh heh heh. Tell me your story.”

This is surreal.

But hey, he was the one with no one to talk to other than a junkie historical re-enactor with a knife and the complexion of a dusty raisin.

“There’s not a lot to say.” Nate sighed. “I was cryogenically frozen against my will before the war in one of the Vaults. I woke up literally two weeks ago, and, well, things are kind of different now, if you can imagine.” His throat backed up. He couldn’t even speak Nora’s name. “My son Shaun, he was kidnapped. So, I’m just trying to find him and stay alive.”

Hancock simply stared, eyes flickering, preoccupied. Nate didn’t know if he’d heard at all.

And then, after twenty seconds of pure silence, it was as if the world just collapsed back in on the ghoul’s head. Hancock gaped. “That is the exact opposite of not having a lot to say. In fact, give me a second.” He reached into the inner lining of his hat and popped another something in his mouth before putting it back on his head. He shut his eyes, his entire body doing a little shudder. “Holy shit. Cryosleep. Before the war. Damn. Damn! Vaultie, you are really livening up my whole week!”

You believe me…? Nate sighed. Not like you’ll remember this conversation much later anyway.

“I’m sorry to hear about your family, man… wish I could say anyone’s come through here with a kid in the last couple weeks. I definitely would have known, and I would never fucking help kid thieves. Most of the children we get are drifters. How old’s your boy?”

Nate blinked, a hint of berries enveloping him on the mayor’s rapid-fire breath. “Just… just a baby. He’s barely a year.”

Hancock’s brows went rigid, a deep frown marring that oddly slack, easygoing face. “Baby snatchers? Christ. I’m real sorry to hear that. I really am.” He slouched, and Nate unwound a little, not expecting such earnest sympathy from someone so full of drugs and sharp objects. Perhaps this guy wasn’t all bad… as long as he wasn’t crossed. “Look. I’m the last person that recommends anybody going to Diamond City. Ever. But you seem like a good guy. You helped Daisy out. So I’m gonna tell you: you should talk to Nick Valentine. He’s an old acquaintance, runs a detective agency through there. Just ignore all that town’s talk about non-humans. Other than Valentine, those people don’t know shit about anything going on outside their walls, and they usually don’t care.”

Nate wrote the name Valentine on his heart and wrapped his hand tighter around his bottle. Gratitude squeezed at his words. “…Thank you! Thank you. I appreciate the help more than you can know.”

“Anytime, brother.”

A companionable silence stretched. Nate even started getting a little into his buzz, relaxing. It started to stop registering to his brain that he was drinking with a murderer who had the face of death. After all, he’d been surrounded by so much death this week, so much of it at his own hands, that it occurred to him… maybe he ought to reserve judgment until he knew the whole story.

And yet, something about this conversation didn’t entirely sit right, flitting back and forth in his skull. Diamond City. His great-great-grandfather had told him long stories about the second World War, the demons he’d fought then, trekking through Europe. Diamond City reminded him of something from those stories. He remembered that Mayor McDonough harassing a journalist at the entrance… that man cared desperately about his image, a far cry from the ghoul lounging just an elbow away, knocking back booze, his people cheering his name when he so much as stepped out on his balcony.

Anti-ghoul settlements.

Diamond City wanted to be so, so perfect. So clean. So uniform.

So afraid.

Places didn’t get that way easily.

It put Nate on edge, thinking about returning. He was starting to read between the lines, though he’d never been as skilled at it as Nora. “Did Diamond City do something… bad to ghouls?”

Hancock went very, very still. His Adam’s apple bobbed, his jaw tensing. “Yeah. You could say that.”

“They aren’t allowed to live there, are they?”

“Perceptive, ain’t ya?” The words came as a growl, but a little wink let Nate know that the anger wasn’t personal. “And here I thought you were just a pretty face with a pistol. Yeah. Years ago, Mayor McDonough, on the night of his election, had all the ghouls run out of town. ‘Mankind for McDonough,’ he ran with. Christ, what a crock of shit. He pretty much signed those peoples’ death warrants. So. When you’re there, you might not want to mention it was this sexy beast that sent you, alright?”

Nate shivered. “That’s horrifying.”

This got him a cheerless smile. “Yeah. It was.”

Casually swallowing another sip of beer, Nate warily observed the sag in Hancock’s slouch, the hard press of his brows. Those pitch-black eyes looked like they were staring past him. That’s the voice… the look… of someone who was there. Shit. In that moment, unable not to see this man’s humanity, Nate appreciated Hancock’s assistance even more. To send him right into the heart of some place that could drive its own off to die, to tell him to ask its citizens for help, to give them money… it no doubt it left a foul taste in the guy’s mouth.

Nate drummed his fingers, unsure. Despite the unease of the conversation, he had a lead: the first one in ages. It made his exhaustion fizzle away. In fact, he realized that if he wasn’t careful, despite his injuries, his buzz might just convince him to slog back to Diamond City right then and there, no matter its dark side.

But practically speaking…  he couldn’t. He couldn’t just go do that with barely any caps. Not even the payment from Daisy would do more than replenish his current lack of supplies. He couldn’t even afford enough beer to get drunk. “Mayor… before I make the journey to go see that Valentine… you know anyone else that needs help around here? At least, any work that doesn’t involve super mutants while my arm heals?”

Hancock shrugged. “I’ve got some jobs to hand out, but you’re gonna need to be in one piece. Sorry… uh…” He squinted. “Hell. I never got your name.”

“Nate.”

“Nate. Good luck. You’re welcome around here anytime. Heal up, alright? If anything comes up, I will let ya know.” With that, the ghoul tipped his tricorn. “And now, my people need me.” He gave Nate a good-natured pat on the back, one that was unnaturally warm. It was like the friendly handprint took an extra second or two to fade from the skin after the palm itself had gone.

The mayor sauntered away to the music’s rhythm, swaying happily to and fro, a veritable fount of smile and charm. Several citizens immediately mobbed him, exchanging pleasantries, and he seemed delighted to see them all. In fact, he was passing out more chem inhalers.

Huh. This guy isn’t… what I first thought. Nate chuckled. Still, so help me if I piss him off. He passed some caps forward to the bartending Handy, who saluted him. “Night then, guv’ner,” the robot said.

“Night,” Nate returned, shuffling away and through the doors to the outside, the world weighing on his mind. As nice as it might have been to lose himself like Hancock, dance to that singer’s breathy, honey-rich voice… he just couldn’t afford to. Under the night bright with stars, in the quiet, he paused, letting the beer and Med-X work their mild songs through his veins. There was a chill starting to set in—autumn was well on its way, wasn’t it? That meant rain, and all the joy of travel that went with it.

How polluted was the rain? Was it radioactive?

If he needed to hole up in one sanctuary or another during bad weather, would he rather be here in Goodneighbor or there in Diamond City?

Here, he realized.

But this Valentine was there, so there he was going to go.

His feet started to wander, lost, his head starting to dream.

His baby boy. He and Nora… they had been betting which one of them Shaun would take after. A warrior, physical and athletic? Or a warrior of the mind, finding his passion in law or medicine?

What if he was an artist?

He could be anything, anyone. He was so beautiful: infinite possibilities that they created, that they could help soar.

“He still will,” Nate promised out loud, touching the ring around his neck, letting the cold metal make him shiver. It was Nora’s ghost that he felt touching his heart in return.

“Hey.” A rough, whispered voice next to his ear suddenly made him snap to attention. He reached to brace his pistol against his palm.

Shit, I can’t space out like this!

The voice belonged to a woman, a ghoul woman, peering at him from behind a slot in a door. Nate realized he’d wandered right into an alley, no one around, just a safe nook to stand and think.

“You here for the job?” she said, clipped and curt, “Or is there another reason you’re talking to my door?”

“Job?” Nate stood even straighter. “…Sure. Yes. Ma’am. As long as it’s not super mutants. Got an arm on the mend, though my gun arm’s fine.”

She chuckled. “Eh. I can work with that. Pay’s two hundred caps if you don’t ask a lot of questions. Also, there’s a… sizable bonus when the work’s done.”

He blinked. Well, this wasn’t shady or anything. But then again… this town had a certain vibe. Were there any people here that weren’t a tiny bit shady?

Hmmm. It wasn’t like he couldn’t just book it if things started going south.

“Alright,” he said. “I’m in.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” The door slid open all the way. Yellow teeth smiled there in welcome. “I’m Bobbi. Bobbi No-Nose. You can start right now.”

 

Chapter Text

Hancock woke the next day with a headache ringing out like the Liberty Bell behind his eyes. He lay face-down in a sketchbook on his couch, graphite smeared across his cheek. Wiping off the black on his palm, he squinted.

What did I do last night?

His sketchbook offered some hints, even if he was a terrible artist. He’d drawn a little Whitechapel Charlie ‘bot. The doodle was just like the bartender in a basic “couple of floating circles and flailing arms” sort of way, bobbing with three little metal eyes, offering a beer. “Booze of the people, for the people!” Charlie was saying.

There were also three badly-drawn dicks floating in the margins, a confused, “What’s 111 mean anyway?!” and a sketch of a face. Hancock paused, peering. Wow. Must have have done this one when the Mentats were still going strong. He almost never drew anything so detailed when sober, or when he was on anything else.

It was that Vaultie—the uptight look was recognizable from a mile away.

It was also an awful, unsatisfying work of art, no beauty, no style, none of that dark-eyed thousand-yard stare or aura of danger. Clearly, Party Hancock had gotten frustrated at his own lack of technical skill, and he’d straight-up scribbled a bunch of lines over the top, as if trying to blot the attempt out.

“Okay. So if Charlie’s here… I got a wee bit fucked up at the Third Rail. And the face… ah. I talked to Vaultie. Got pretty interested in whatever that was about, I guess.” He squinted at the dicks again. “Aaaand the Mentats wore off. Not even detailed. Why do I bother?” He tossed the sketchbook aside. “This better be a rewarding hobby in fifty years like you said, Fahr.”

Thinking about it, she probably had meant for him to pick this up as a way to nurture his mind and keep him from going feral, as well as to make sure he stayed observant… and likely a host of other things. It probably wasn’t intended as a way to communicate between Party Hancock and Morning Hancock.

“But it’s so good at that,” he grumbled, reaching for a Jet inhaler on a nearby table. One puff, and the day was coming at him a lot less quickly. He was cleaned up and dressed before he knew it. What was even better was that he was able to dig most of his evening out of his memory crags. Nate. That was the Vaultie’s name. Right. What a crazy, sad story.

Of course, there were a lot of sad stories out in the Commonwealth, but what startled him was that somehow, this well-armed weirdo wasn’t doing bad things in exchange for all the wrong done to him. In fact, he was going the extra mile for a pittance, just because some strangers asked.

Maybe it was the way people were raised before the war.

And Hancock respected that immensely. Damn it. He’s probably gonna book it to Diamond City before I get the chance to talk to him again, convince him to stick around after he finds his kid. One could only sigh. Maybe he’ll be back. Guy like him… he won’t be able to stand Diamond City for long.

 


 

While speaking to Bobbi, Nate had to force his gaze to stay on her sunken eyes. It took everything he had to hold back the line, “Isn’t your name a bit… on the nose?”

God, it was a terrible idea to get buzzed before getting hired.

At least the work she had in mind for him involved little fighting upfront, and it was sending him right where he wanted to go anyway: Diamond City. Perhaps No-Nose was finally some good fortune in his life. The journey back wasn’t nearly as fraught with her directions.

His Pip-Boy map was still intermittent, of course. The doctor at the Memory Den had given him a weary glare when he’d gestured at her high-tech pods and asked if she knew someone who could fix old Vault tech. She’d just pointed at his sling, then let him know that her business wasn’t a one-stop shop for everything that broke.

Of course, when Nate finally did reach Diamond City, walking weary and sore into those safe baseball stadium walls, the detective Nick Valentine was out of his office.

He was fucking missing.

Because of course he was.

Supposedly, Valentine had gone out to poke in a nearby emptied Vault that might’ve been a hideout for some gangsters—one more thing to look into. But if the detective could help… then on the to-do list, his disappearance went.

Perhaps, Nate thought, he might hire a backup gun to investigate with the caps from No-Nose’s job.

Observing the guards at Diamond City’s jail, the refrigerator-shaped men patrolling every alley with thick baseball bats, ready to smash heads… Nate thought of the ghouls that were killed and exiled from this sunny, manicured place. He wondered how many of these guards had turned on those they were supposed to protect. How many people had they brained on that fresh-washed concrete? How many families with prettier skin had moved right into their neighbors’ newly empty homes, or stolen the possessions that were left behind? That was, after all, usually what happened in situations like this.

Nate felt no qualms whatsoever about springing Bobbi’s friend out of from behind bars like he’d been asked, especially not when the warden was so very, very bribable. So they were both xenophobic and corrupt. Lovely.

One more city where I’m not raising Shaun once he’s back in my arms.

No-Nose had allowed, after prying, that her aims were to rob Diamond City’s Mayor McDonough blind. She’d almost seemed surprised when Nate actually grinned. This was no longer a shady job with a few caps at stake. This was shady, brilliant, karmic justice: his kind of work, with a bonus he could believe in.

Of course, this city’s paper would probably blame No-Nose’s heist on synths, on the “Institute” lurking in the shadows, replacing people with androids like a conspiracy theorist’s fever dream. This seemed to be Diamond City’s answer to everything from why the generators broke to why it rained at bad times. Nate honestly wondered why so many people believed it.

In fact, while he ate noodles for lunch in the market square, some citizen pulled a gun on his own brother, accusing the guy of being an synth who wore his kin’s face. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.

The guards blew the accuser’s brains out all over the corrugated aluminum when the situation turned violent.

Jesus, this city.

 


 

“Hancock,” Fahrenheit intoned from the doorway. The mayor lifted his head from its slouch, his feet on the desk, his chair at a relaxing angle as he rocked back and forth.

Why was Fahr always holding her gun, anyway? Was she incapable of relaxing at any time? Did she hug her weapon in her sleep? “What’s up?” He smiled, hoping his chill might reach her just a little. In fact, he wanted to talk to her—about Goodneighbor… about Finn… about how he was.

He wanted to talk about what happened when John Hancock was the man always dispensing deadly justice and keeping the town in order.

If it made him a dictator by default.

If he was really turning into everything he’d tried to destroy.

But his chill was not the least bit contagious. Fahrenheit stomped inside, pre-empting any kind of philosophy from entering the conversation. “Been keeping my ear to the ground. Finally figured out why Bobbi No-Nose bought that damn back-alley storage four months back.”

Hancock sighed. “Oh no. Is she storing things in there?”

“Yeah. Like a fucking heist scheme.” Fahrenheit slammed her gun on the desk, and it seemed that it was for the sole purpose of making him sit up straight. It worked. “Apparently, she’s as awful about paying her help on time as ever. Had two guys skip out on her, and she was dumb enough not to kill ‘em. They went down to the Third Rail, bitching and trying to find work. Sang pretty quickly when I pressed ‘em.”

For a moment, Hancock wondered exactly what Fahrenheit had done to “press” them. Probably something best not asked. That was his Fahr: a bulldog with a bone. When her instincts told her something was going on that she didn’t like, she was almost always right. And she’d never liked Bobbi.

“You’ve got me on the edge of my seat. What’d you find?”

“She’s digging a damn tunnel under Goodneighbor.”

Slowly, he blinked. “Why’d she wanna do that?”

“They say she wants to rob someone, and she’s being real tight-lipped about who. But you know Bobbi; she doesn’t have the patience to dig a freaking hole from Goodneighbor to, where, some ruin outside? Diamond City? It’s inside the walls, that’s for damn sure.”

“Alright?”

Fahrenheit pressed her palms conclusively to the desk, leaning in, triumph of the kill in her eyes. “So, best bet: she’s gonna rob you. The storehouse.”

Hancock’s jaw dropped. “What? Bobbi?” For one, fleeting moment, he couldn’t believe that. Bobbi was a Diamond City ghoul… probably why she was so angry all the time. And sure, she’d taken to stealing like a rat to cheese when she was forced to hit the road from that place. But when he’d gotten in charge of Goodneighbor, and she’d cropped up on his radar again, he’d offered her a place to be.

She’d still rob him?

The moment of sad shock passed, and he wondered why he was always surprised—hurt?—when someone stabbed him in the back. It wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last, not in his line of work.

But this was cold.

Frigid, grim fury started to creep up in place of his initial disbelief. Fahrenheit smiled, probably knowing she’d gotten ahold of just the man she wanted to see in that moment.

She would be absolutely right about Bobbi’s plan. No doubt. There was no other man in Goodneighbor worth robbing in a multi-month heist.

“Where’s Bobbi now?” he whispered, poison edges in his words.

“Hiring a new squad. Oh! Guess who she made contact with?”

“Not in the mood for guessing games, Fahr.”

“That Vault guy that strolled in recently.”

Hancock’s stomach dropped.

Somehow, hearing that was so, so much worse than hearing about Bobbi’s betrayal. He’d had such high hopes for Pip-Boy, after all.

 


 

“Come on! We’re almost there!” No-Nose was getting excitable. Not an hour had gone by since Nate had returned to Goodneighbor with her sprung jailbird before she’d driven them all into her tunnels, almost salivating for her score. Nate wondered if she’d been one of the Diamond City exiles—the closer she got to her prize, punching through earth and old subway, the less she wanted to talk. It was all constant urging and anger at any slowdown.

Luckily, her tech-man’s little digger-bot was a marvel, and they never slowed down for long.

 


 

Fahrenheit was gliding in her combat boots across the state house floor, a prowling cat. “Vault boy came back through the door an hour ago. He was with some Irishman and an Eyebot… drifter identified the new guy as a small-time thief and big-time tech named Mel. This ain’t his first rodeo.”

“Let me guess,” Hancock muttered, letting the sunlight catch his knife. “They went right to No-Nose’s?”

“Finally in the mood for guessing games, eh?” Fahrenheit gave a wild grin. Hancock didn’t return it, though he allowed a bleak chuckle. “Well, you’d be right. Look, that storehouse door of Bobbi’s is thick fucking steel. It’s not going down without explosives.”

“And I ain’t blowing it up.” Hancock growled. “People live around there. Damn, Bobbi. She would know I wouldn’t do that.”

“So we wait for them to surface in the strongroom and we take ‘em out. I’ve already got my team moving into place. I’m going down there now. You want to help?”

Bless her, she was eager. Hancock couldn’t work up the energy to be excited. There was no satisfaction in the reminder of being betrayed. All that was left was to clean the blood off the ground and keep walking forward.

“No,” he muttered, “All yours.”

Nate had seemed decent. He really had. What the hell had he been thinking? And that kid of his… geez. Now that baby would have no one, nothing coming to save it. Bobbie was one thing, a dyed-in-the-wool crook, but…

Fahrenheit turned to leave, thick boots stomping, the hunt on.

Hancock rose, sheathing his knife. He gave a long, scattered sigh. “Actually… hold up.”

“What? Change your mind?”

“Kind of. You remember you said that Bobbi’s other help, the ones you questioned, weren’t getting told everything?”

“…Yeah?”

“Bobbi’s dead to me. But Vaultie and the other guy… make sure they knew what they were getting into. Test ‘em. No good killing people that ain’t earned it. And Vaultie… even if he knew what was going on? I want to talk to him before anything else. That one’s personal. He’s mine.”

She grumbled, but of all people, she knew when he stood firm. “What, he owe you some caps?”

“Fahr.”

“…Fine. Whatever.”

 


 

“I’ve been doing the calculations,” Mel whispered, staring at the freshly blasted tunnel that led upwards to a building’s foundations, shaking his head. “Something’s not right. Bobbi’s math is all off. There’s no way we’ve made it all the way to Diamond City by now.”

As charged up as Nate was, as tense as it was looking for deadly mirelurks and tragic ferals in this old slice of the underground… something about the tech-man’s observation rang very true. “I did think Diamond City was a farther walk,” he mused, knowing the ache in his feet and calves. Besides, he’d known that last subway station they’d passed through, and it was placed in the wrong direction to get to the old baseball field… wasn’t it? They’d been through so many loops and detours…

Mel nodded like a bobblehead on crack.

And Bobbi, angry lights in her dark eyes, didn’t want to answer any more questions.

Nate’s stomach started to drop. Suddenly, he wondered if it was too late to run. But Bobbi was climbing through the cracked foundation, to her target.

Not our target.

Hers.

 


 

Hancock sat alone in his office, trying to remember the last time he’d been so on edge about one of Fahrenheit’s hunts. The drink in his hand was barely helping, even though the fumes made his nostril hollows burn.

John Hancock isn’t a dictator. I’m not a guy who orphans a baby needing his dad to rescue him. Right?

That father fed drifters. Helped ghouls. Got next to nothing in return.

Hancock hated the idea of being so poor of a judge of character. Something about what Nate seemed to be spoke to him, was helping him articulate everything that’d been making him uneasy for years as his reputation grew and he’d had to grow to match it. Frankly, wandering the wastes, helping people… it set off a fire in his dusty heart. Made his feet itch to go do. Live. Kill some bad guys. Help the people that needed it.

Like he’d hung his whole hat on in the first place.

Defending Goodneighbor was great and all, but, the funny thing about a town full of independent misfits was that they mostly took care of themselves. John Hancock was the spirit of the place, but did that mean he had to sit tight and be their figurehead or they’d fall apart? Did they really need him to keep everyone in line?

Was what he built even real if it couldn’t endure on its own?

Maybe it was time to go answer that weird little song in his heart—the thing that made him Hancock in the first place—that guy that had nothing, came from nothing, and couldn’t stand by when someone needed to stand up for the other nobodies too.

He wanted to remember. Needed to remember.

Troublemaker. Freedom fighter. A guy worth being and remembering.

And what about Fahr?

Actually, she would be fine on her own. She didn’t need him. She had the chem distribution under control, and she certainly had security down. The Triggermen would fucking stay in line on her watch. She might not be friendly about passing out necessities, but she’d do that too. After all, she believed in Goodneighbor as much as he did.

He really could do this. He just needed to give himself permission.

Of course, a man trying to find himself… he couldn’t launch his ship by his lonesome, either. He still needed someone he could trust. Someone who believed in the journey and didn’t mind getting his hands dirty.

It was stupid to travel alone.

Hancock opened the doors to the balcony, staring up at the moon. A tingling Mentat slowly dissolved under his tongue.

 


 

Nate thought the warehouse’s spotlights felt like getting caught in a cop’s high beams—specifically, that of the cop he’d met after taking his father’s pickup for a joyride in high school.

After he’d crashed it into a ditch.

He nearly dropped his gun on seeing Fahrenheit standing proud and tall in the spotlight’s glare, defending this storehouse like a lioness ready to kill. “Bobbi,” she grumbled with some disdain. “You really think Hancock wouldn’t get wind of this?”

Mel’s yip was shrill. “Wait! What? We’re robbing Mayor Hancock?

Nate’s spine froze, dread blossoming up the base. Oh shit. “You said we were stealing from McDonough,” he hissed.

“So she left you all in the dark then?” Fahrenheit glared as if they were all what she’d found on her boot that morning. “Real classy, Bobbi. Last warning. Get out of here, and maybe we’ll forget all this.” She let that pause hang like it was an opportunity that wouldn’t last for long.

The first thing Nate thought of was how red the blood was on the cobblestones after Goodneighbor’s mayor coldly executed a man. No hesitation. No wasted movements.

The second thing he thought of was the chummy, helpful, laughing ghoul at the bar, handing over the first hope he’d felt in weeks.

“He holds grudges like you wouldn’t believe!” Mel hissed.

Nate believed it. “Bobbi,” he whispered.

“What?” she snarled.

“Get back in that tunnel and get the fuck out of here.”

She whirled on him. “What? We can take them! So what if it’s Hancock? This is a lot of money!” But Nate saw her eyes inching to Mel, the realization that he was shaking, looking like he wanted to throw up. Mel sure as hell wasn’t throwing in for a fight.

“You’re in over your head. You get your life this way,” Nate whispered, drawing his pistol, making his stance on this very clear. “You should take it.”

With a strangled whine of frustration, she holstered her gun. “Fine!” she barked. “Worthless cowards.” And with that, she stormed off. Mel looked as if the mayor’s vengeful knife was halfway to his ribs already. He quickly scampered after.

Nate remained, steeling himself. “Fahrenheit,” he said, letting his voice carry. “We good then?”

She looked down on him archly from her perch, and now that his sight was starting to clear in the light, he saw she was wielding an absolutely wicked-looking submachine gun, ten thugs lurking at her back. His team would have gotten mowed down while they were half-blind. It wasn’t, perhaps, Hancock that Mel should have feared. “Yeah. You didn’t know.” Nate let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been caging. “We’ll pick up No-Nose later. But you’ll want to talk to Hancock directly. After all, he’ll want to thank you for your loyalty.”

Nate tensed. He was a soldier. He knew a suggestion when he heard it… and he knew an order. “Will do.” Straight-backed, neck prickling, he left that place. It wasn’t even worth it to mourn the lost caps or time.

Bobbi and Mel, of course, were both long gone.

 


 

Sometimes, Hancock thought, things worked out for the absolute best. It was like the universe contorted for a fleeting instance, and everything made sense, everything beautiful and glowing at the edges.

He grinned at the banged-up Vaultie like a cat with cream, coming down off his evening Jet. Remarkably, the poor guy was stoic as anything, his back as stiff as a fresh coffin. Probably had something to do with the armed watchmen guarding the door.

“Easy.” Hancock drew out a bottle of vodka and poured it, wishing he had a little something fruity to add. But, he’d drank all that last week. Shame. All the same, soldier boy here could probably handle this shit just fine, and it would loosen him up a bit. The glass was offered.

Nate took it without question and partook in a sip. His nostrils flared.

Hancock cackled. “Yeah, pretty strong. Anyway. I’m not mad. We’re good. You did the right thing, turning on Bobbi like that.” And you let a guy keep the tiny bit of faith in humanity he has left. “But I have got to understand. Instead of hauling ass back to Diamond City to find your kid, you took up with Bobbi No-Nose to dig a giant freakin’ tunnel and have a little heist adventure?”

The Vaultie sighed. “She told me the tunnel was going to Diamond City, that we were going to rob Mayor McDonough. I needed the caps, needed to go to town anyway, and that asshole sounded like he needed some comeuppance.”

Hancock gaped, a delighted fire starting to burn in his brain. “She told you…” The giggles erupted from his core. “Ohhhh… oh damn. That you were gonna rob Mayor McDonough! Bobbi, you little backstabber, you are either really smart or really stupid!” And either way. you ain’t ever coming back. Fahr would see to that. He knocked back some more vodka, unable to stop smiling at his new catch. “McDonough totally would have deserved it,” he decided. I tell you about Diamond City, and that week, you decide just to go be the big bad agent of karma they deserved. By god, you are a guy I need to figure out.

“Actually, there’s something else you should know.” Nate sighed. “Valentine… I checked into him. He’s missing.”

A speck of frost flowered inside Hancock’s good humor. “Missing?” A thousand possibilities took ugly root in his mind. Lots of people went missing from Diamond City. An obvious synth like Valentine? Any one of the citizens he tried to protect could have done it… awful batch of people.

Or the Institute.

Or any one of the other enemies the detective made while relentlessly trying to nail justice on the Commonwealth’s non-compliant back.

“Tell you what,” Hancock announced, and it wasn’t in a way that brooked argument. “I’m going with you.”

Vaultie’s eyebrows went to his lush black hairline. “What? Wait. Aren’t you the mayor? Of this city?”

“Yeah, and it’s time for me to hit the road. Sharpen the ol’ killer instinct. Besides, you’ve been looking like my kind of trouble since you blew in here, and you really need someone to watch your back.” Hancock pointed at the arm sling, chuckling. “Don’t worry. I do this sometimes.”

“Are you… sure?” It was clear the real question was, are you high, and should I point that out, or will you get violent?

A palm slammed onto the desk. Oops. There was Fahr. “Are you serious?!” He’d… forgotten to mention his train of thought on this to her, hadn’t he?

Hancock grinned. “Hell yes, to both of you. And don’t worry!” He tried to look apologetic, though it seemed to bounce right off Fahr’s armor. Her eyes only narrowed, her mouth pinching in fury. “I’ll be here in spirit. I’ll pop back in to check up on things from time to time. I promise. Goodneighbor’s in a great place, and this is just what a guy like me’s gotta do, or I’m not gonna deserve being its mayor at all.”

She clenched her grip around her gun like it was his ornery neck. “Christ,” she bit off.

Well, she wasn’t arguing. Maybe, on some level, she’d sensed this coming. Perhaps he had been distant. But you know me, kid.  I ain’t changing my mind, and you’ll keep this place under control just fine.

“I… I guess I could use some help,” Nate admitted warily, looking quite knowing that he wasn’t in a great position to refuse.

“Damn skippy!” A Berry Mentat perked up Hancock’s brain in a fruity little burst, slipping under his tongue. Yeah. This was working out just fine. “Time to let the public know!” He whirled before anyone could think of arguing, heading off to the balcony, shouting for the gathering that would mark his departure. He’d been in Goodneighbor’s politics long enough to know when to press an advantage.

His people would be surprised. Maybe they’d be disappointed. But, they would live.

Besides, absence made the heart grow fonder and all that shit, right?

It felt like a coat of dust and paperwork was lifting from the frock on his back. The air was sharper, crisper, full of possibilities. Electricity infused his words, lightning behind his eyes.

It was time to go make some differences in the world.

And Hancock knew, without totally understanding why, that this was exactly the right decision: this was what the whole damn universe needed him to do in order to fall into place.

Or maybe that was just the Jet talking.

But god help whoever stood in his way.

 

Chapter Text

“In conclusion, new friend, I think you travel a little too light.”

Nate grunted, annoyed, reloading his gun. “Get down!

Hancock ducked, and Nate’s bullet cleared that tricorn by half an inch to slam into the side of a giant, naked prairie dog from hell. It bared four fangs too many and screeched, burrowing back into the earth.

“How the hell didn’t that kill it?” Nate shouted.

“Molerats are made of tough stuff. But, like I’m saying, we wouldn’t have riled them up if you’d used my campsite.

“I’m not going to sleep in the rain!” Nate bellowed, standing up, firing shots over and over into the mud a foot away. Pink, gnarled paws were bursting through. The molerat, or whatever the fuck it was, finally stopped moving. But that left one other one. Shit! Where did it go? Where is that son of a—!

BANG!

Nate whirled to see smoke lilting from the barrel of Hancock’s shotgun. There at the ghoul’s feet lay the second molerat, dead, wrenched at an ugly angle from where it had been preparing to spring at the back of Nate’s head.

His heart slowly, slowly started to wind down from its fervent double-time.

“If you carried a tent,” Hancock said matter-of-factly, not even looking at the beast, “You wouldn’t have to worry about sleeping in the rain.”

Nate scowled. But, he shoved his temper down, knowing his new companion had just earned his keep. “It’s Boston,” he said tightly, weather drizzling uncomfortably in his eyes. “There’s buildings and shelters everywhere. A tent felt… redundant.” And there’s not exactly a local army surplus I can just trot down to, so…

“Boston? Nah, brother. This is the Commonwealth. These shelters are full of bad roofs and bad shit more often than not. Shit that wants to eat you.”

“You’re not carrying a tent, either.”

In fact, Hancock was carrying very little in his bag, though it seemed to jangle and clink in suspicious ways when he shifted, like a number of vials and tins were nestled at the bottom. To this observation, the ghoul only gave an elegant, inscrutable shrug. “Hey, you said you were with the Minutemen while I was packing. I assumed you were, ya know, prepared.” He blinked up at the sky, as if noticing for the first time that he was getting wet. “Maybe that’s why we don’t see many Minutemen anymore…”

Nate ground his teeth.

But after a long sigh, he let his anger go. Hancock… wasn’t wrong. I’ve been traveling alone for a while… and getting used to someone new isn’t easy. It never was. Everything good about a man was magnified on the road, and so were all the little annoyances.

For example, Hancock was clearly an addict. He wore a damn American flag as a hip sash and would wipe the blood from his knife on it like that was a remotely acceptable thing to do. He intruded on the silence too, the space once filled with Nate’s haunting memories and hopes, his distractions on the long road. It jarred Nate, put his teeth on edge.

But Hancock was also a vengeful hellspawn in combat situations—more than one merc blocking their path from Goodneighbor could attest to that, if they were still alive. He hadn’t yet failed to carry his weight and often offered to take more. He was prone to humming pleasantly and muttering quips to himself that were, admittedly, funny. So far, he was even sympathetic and friendly to every traveler they’d met.

Nate also hadn’t missed how the man was sheltering homeless addicts in his own state house. They’d peered carefully enough from the upper levels as their guardian waved goodbye.

“Well,” he said softly, deciding to focus on the good. “Maybe we’ll get a tent later, yeah? The farmhouse here seems clear.” Hancock gave a happy salute and trotted inside.

Nate took a moment to collect himself and breathe. Not a day prior, the first thing Hancock had asked they do was to help find the missing Valentine, his acquaintance. It was this request that solidified Nate’s resolve—maybe dragging the volatile mayor around wasn’t so bad an idea after all. Their interests in this were aligned.

Fortunately, the intel collected from Valentine’s assistant in Diamond City bore fruit. Hancock, when told, had said with a wink, “He disappeared in a Vault? Aw hell. This one’s in the bag then.”

“Just because I came out of a Vault doesn’t mean I understand all Vaults. I saw mine for… maybe twenty minutes. In two hundred years. Plus, this one might be filled with a crime gang.”

Hancock had still swaggered on as if Nate’s experience clearly gave them an immense edge.

In all honesty though, for Nate, seeing the Vault door creak open when they’d arrived… hearing the way the air circulated underground… listening to those metal floors echo beneath his standard-issue sneakers…

…It was like coming home to a bad dream that kept replaying every single night. Run! the dream would scream. Bright, blinding fire would consume the world above as Vault doors sealed forever… and Shaun would be crying… Nora would whisper to soothe him, voice cracking, trying not to break down…

Nate’s hands shook the entire time he was underground, but Hancock proved frighteningly competent and more than happy to pick up any slack. Fortunately, the mobsters in the Vault were no super mutants. It didn’t take more than a bullet or two to take each one down. In fact, they were so disorganized, caught so often alone and off-guard, that it took less than twenty minutes to eke a way to the back where they’d locked Valentine up. Neither Nate nor Hancock even got grazed.

And that was when Nate realized, as the cell door opened, as he peered at glowing metal eyes and rubbery, faux skin… the detective they were after wasn’t exactly a man. Maybe, in fact, it was humanity that was the dying breed in this new time.

Maybe Diamond City’s synth fixation wasn’t so insane.

In the present, outside the farmhouse, Nate let the rain wash his face clean. It seemed safe enough to rest a moment. His Pip-Boy’s Geiger counter wasn’t whining and his healing arm wasn’t aching in its sling. For now, he just wanted to be in the silence.

Hours ago, as evening fell, Diamond City had shockingly let Valentine back in with open arms. Not so shockingly, that wasn’t the case for the rest of the weary band.

It stays out here,” the guard had snapped, pointing his heavy bat Hancock’s way.

“Is that Curtis?” The ghoul squinted. “Oh man. How’s the wife?”

The guard’s face turned a husky maroon. “Don’t get familiar with me, zombie.” Nate stepped between him and everyone else, startled by the vitriol.

Sighing, Valentine stuffed his hands in his coat’s large pockets, like he found it all embarrassing. “Sorry about this.”

“Nah.” Hancock bared his teeth, eyes locked on the gatekeeper. “It’s what I expect.”

Nate stepped in closer to Valentine, his voice hushed, eyes flickering to the heavy steel door barring their path. He wished desperately that he could have this conversation in the detective’s private office. He’d managed to relay most of his memories on the journey, but… “Mr. Valentine. Before we have to go… what do you think?”

Valentine bit his pale, almost-human lip, cybernetic gaze unblinking and uncanny. His voice, however, was remarkably lifelike, a working man’s gruff timbre there, none of the strange echoes or strains of a standard vocal synthesizer. “From everything you’ve told me… I need to think this case over before I give you anything definitive. And, there’s something I need to look into here. Can you meet me in a couple days?” His pupils burned an almost radioactive yellow in the approaching darkness. “It’s best if you find shelter. And soon. I’d pay for your hotel here if… well…” He let out a heavy sigh. “If some people’s policies weren’t so regrettable.”

“If McDonough wasn’t such a bigoted, cowardly asswipe.” Hancock chuckled. “You can say it, Nick.”

Valentine stood there, gaze flickering, expression neither confirming nor denying this accusation. But—and this might have just been Nate’s imagination—perhaps there was a ghost of a crooked smile in the right corner of his lips.

Damn. This robot… this synth… this man? Whatever he was, he was actually kind of likable.

“We can probably make it to the outskirts if we head out now,” Nate said to Hancock. “Get out of super mutant and Gunner territory. I know a safe place we can reach by tomorrow where we can hole up and resupply before heading back.”

Hancock blinked at him, inscrutable, like he was a little stunned. “Alright,” the ghoul finally said. “If you’re sure you don’t wanna go in and get some rest. I’d be fine overnight.”

Nate just shook his head. His new companion was capable, but no responsible soldier would leave their own without backup in hostile territory for that long if it could be avoided.

Valentine nodded. “See you soon, then.”

Curtis the guard sneered. His bat swung to and fro, like it was ready to knock a man’s skull over the stands. “Guys like you, Vault-boy, should be more careful of the company you keep.”

The impenetrable gate to Diamond City’s core sealed on Nate with a weighty, final clang.

In the present, outside the farmhouse, Nate let out a long sigh. He wondered why, when the world was already so unfriendly, people would work so hard to make it worse.

 


 

Over the farmhouse’s threshold Hancock stepped, feeling it creak under his boots, letting the electric tension in the air lift his senses. Lightning was coming; he didn’t doubt that. Thunder was already rolling in.

There were no tell-tale skitters of radroaches inside, no wet buzzing from territorial bloatflies. Part of the roof was gone, but fortunately, the mattress in the bedroom wasn’t exposed. This wouldn’t be a pretty bed, but it wasn’t full of mold, and that counted for something.

Ah! An old lantern. Hancock lit a match and dropped it inside. The light flared as it hit the wick and burned.

I bet I can get a real spooky face going with this thing. He chuckled drily, holding it up.

Nate, of course, probably wouldn’t laugh. He was clenched up tighter than a deathclaw’s asshole, watching for threats. Geez. He should have just gone inside to Diamond City, gotten a room. I’ve roughed it just fine in the past. It’s only for a night.

But the Vaultie hadn’t even acted like that was an option. No, he’d stood between the guard and the ghoul like he didn’t even need to think about whose side he was on. Hancock couldn’t help but manage a tired little smile at that, the warmth of the fire kissing his scarred face.

Speak of the devil… Pip-Boy’s boots clomped further back along the hallway now. The yard must have been clear, then.

“Got a lantern,” Hancock announced, peeking outside the bedroom, letting the light reveal him so he wouldn’t be a surprise. It really wouldn’t do to be mistaken for a feral pouncing from the shadows, whether or not Nate’s heart seemed to be in the right place. His new companion nodded his way.

Oh. Speaking of dry, shriveled, ghoulish husks… it probably was prudent to clear out the skeleton that was also on the mattress. As Nate started to pivot towards the bedroom door, Hancock popped back inside, picked up the bleached, dusty bones, and quietly deposited them in the corner. “Fresh and new digs,” he said with satisfaction. “Time for a downer.”

Reaching in his bag, he found a nice, relaxing dose of Jet. It went down as smooth as an aged, aerosol whiskey.

“Ohhh yeah,” he breathed, content. The world slowed and mellowed. The lantern turned into a dancing, happy fire sprite. God. He could look at fire forever on Jet.

But with the slow-down came the ability to speed up.

Nate’s boots echoed like the footfalls of an elephant underwater. He was entering the bedroom.

He was over 200 years old, right?

Wow. That was really old.

Hey, these bones were pretty old, too. In a prewar house.

Maybe Nate knew this dead guy on the floor? …Or dead lady. It was hard to tell.

Shit. Hancock slumped off his coat, let it fall and conceal the skeleton. There. Crisis averted.

Oh. Hey. This mattress wasn’t too big. Things were gonna get cozy tonight.

There were those pretty, dark eyes, rounding the corner, blinking slowly, so slowly. Nate’s full lips were parting, saying something, tongue flicking out to lick his chapped skin.

Oh yeah. This was why I wanted to sketch your face, huh?

Also… hrmm. Clean bed. Happy, charismatic ghoul disrobing. Lantern light. This was either gonna be real fun or real awkward in the next ten seconds.

The Jet chose then to collapse.

“Tatos,” Nate said.

“…What?” Hancock blinked, bleary, and vaguely aroused. He flopped down on the mattress, body torn between peacefully sleepy and a little too warm.

“We’ll have to pack as much as we can carry,” Nate continued, and as he entered, Hancock finally saw his hands were muddy. The poor weirdo had been digging. His good arm was full of rain-washed vegetables that had gone half wild. “Sanctuary doesn’t have a food source yet. Preston—you’ll meet him soon, he’s in charge of the Minutemen right now—he needs crops so badly up there. He’ll finally be able to feed his people!”

Oh boy. I’m in here puffing up, and you decided to go and feed the hungry.

Hancock smiled, feeling more sure than ever of his decision to accompany Nate. “No problem. In the morning, we’ll dig up as many of those dirty, radioactive, edible baseballs as we can carry. But maybe we wanna get some rest first?”

“Oh! Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Where’s…?”

Hancock could see the guy’s wheels spinning. Where’s the rest of the bed, right? Grinning, he fell back, newly used traveling muscles sore and happy. “Hope you don’t mind body heat! Don’t worry. I’m not feral yet, no matter what they say. I don’t bite.”

Nate blinked, looking somewhat unsure of how to respond.

Hancock just let his canines show, grinning harder. “And if you don’t want to sleep in the rain or with me… next time, bring a tent.”

 


 

Nate readjusted himself, sighing, irritated. This wasn’t the first time he’d been at close quarters with a companion-in-arms—personal space wasn’t exactly a high priority in his platoon. And humans, social animals, always warred with their instincts to reach out and touch, to acknowledge the presence of others… to find some solace while missing a sweetheart back home. Relationships were common, even if they were against regs. Alternatively, in the night, sometimes a bunkmate’s back might press lightly against another’s, as if to remind both that they were in this together.

Knowing this hadn’t prepared Nate for the mayor of Goodneighbor, a stone-cold killer ghoul (who also seemed stoned cold,) to feel almost comforting in the night. It defied reason. The man’s body was like a space heater, and not always in a good way. His legs kept twitching and chasing something in a chem-laced dream. He even snored. Without a nose. He managed.

But Nate kept drifting off over and over, only for his brain to wind down… thoughts unspooling…

…Recognizing he wasn’t alone, that there was warmth and a body right there, and that was good…

…Nora?

He awoke.

Not Nora.

Sadness stabbed at his heart.

Ignore it. Get to sleep.

His brain would start to shut down.

Warmth. A companion. Good.

…Nora? Love?

And the cycle would repeat. Once, he came dangerously close to hugging his bedmate, and had to jerk away like he was about to touch a hot stove.

What the hell’s wrong with me?

As the sun broke the sky, he’d woken tangled up in a blanket and alone, his heart beating too fast and his skin too sensitive. His confused, exhausted body wasn’t grieving in synch with his heart. What a goddamn punch to the gut.

The love of his life wasn’t there. This time, he was never coming home from the war to her smiling face. There was no safe place. Nora was just a ghost in the night, imagined arms around him in his dreams, whispering that she loved him from memories that were still so raw and fresh.

Nate’s hands shook as he wiped his face down with a cool rag wet with dew. Jesus. The morning was cold and damp, urging on a massive headache. His clothes itched like hell. They desperately needed to be washed.

Even getting through today felt like a challenge too great to overcome.

Of course, he had to get through: for Shaun’s sake, if not for his own. Nora’s ghost rallied him on. He was going to bring their little boy home if it was the last thing he ever did.

Boots shuffled just behind him and to the right. Nate jerked his head up, glancing to see Hancock happily desecrating the flag by retying it as his sash. The ghoul let out a huge yawn, cracking his jaw, his black eyes bleary in the morning light. He gave a little wave. “Mornin’ Sparky.” The space where eyebrows ought to be waggled, his smooth rasp picking up a sleep-filled hint of gravel and smoke.

“Hey Hancock.” Some men were just called by their last name, and this guy was one of them. Hell, it wasn’t a difficult habit to fall back into, given the military.

…Wait, was that a skeleton in the corner?

Hancock sat, putting on his boots over fraying socks. His tone upturned into a drawling chuckle. “So you always sleep with your gun poking in a guy’s back, or were you just happy to see me?”

It was like all of Nate’s muscles were injected with ice at once.

“I mean, I’m obviously the most handsome ghoul on the eastern seaboard, so I can’t blame ya, but you should probably buy me dinner before getting all—”

“Woah, hey.” A claw of mortification dug out of Nate’s chest. Stinging heat found his cheeks.

Hancock only tipped up his hat and smoothed back his mottled scalp like it was imaginary, luxurious hair. He leaned languidly on his elbow on the mattress, lighting a cigarette, eyes aglow with teasing. “Sexy, sexy jerky man. That’s me.”

“I… uh… I… no… I’m not—”

Hancock just roared with laughter, puffing out a cloud of smoke. “I’m just yankin’ your chain, brother. You didn’t do anything.”

Quiet relief settled down like soft rain on Nate’s heart. “I… if you could not tease me about that… it’s nothing personal, I just…”

He was met with a cocked head and an amused smile. “I know, I know. Ghouls are only for people of very refined tastes. If you want to admit to not being classy enough, that’s good. I’m not hurt.”

“Hancock,” Nate said, worn thin and weary, “My head is in a bad place. I know you mean well. I’d probably think it was funny at a different time. It’s just… I… I lost my wife. Not long back.”

The lazy smile evaporated. Eyes widened. “Oh… uh… shit.” He licked his lips. “Sorry.”

“You couldn’t have known.” And indeed, he couldn’t have. Hancock had been taking point while Nate was relaying his full story to Valentine the other day, those words cascading out in a hushed emotional torrent.

“Maybe… maybe I should, though.” He took another puff from his cig, then sighed and smashed it into the wall, like it wasn’t doing it for him.

Nate blinked, startled.

“You don’t gotta spill all your feelings all over the floorboards if you don’t want to, man. It’s good. It’s just… if we’re gonna be close, I don’t mind knowing your story. So, you know… I don’t make myself an ass while we’re traveling together. Some more.”

Nate didn’t realize he was holding his bag close to his chest like a shield until his fingers started to ache. He gently set it down, averting his eyes. He wasn’t sure if the emotions he was feeling were sorrow, rage, loneliness, or just pure, utter, vacuous nothing, the kind that gnawed at a soul until it was gone. It was everything at once, and he had no idea who he was feeling it all at.

It only occurred to him, in a quiet, soothing, small voice under the flood of emotion, that his companion was waiting, listening intently.

I can’t believe he even believes me about the cryosleep. Nate pursed his lips, unsure. Hancock’s look seemed so earnest. And he wants to know the rest of my problems. Because, for some reason, he cares.

“My wife… Nora…” His voice cracked. Oh god, it wasn’t easy. But he could say her name today. Getting it out with Valentine had dulled the blow. “Nora and I were both recruited for the Vault. And our son. Shaun. We’d just celebrated his birthday when the air sirens went off. No one… no one actually thought the bombs would fall. It was all insurance, you know, the Vault stuff? We were picking out new wallpaper. We were starting up a fund to pay for his college… God.” Nate had to stop for a moment.

There probably was no such thing as college anymore either, was there?

With a heavy sigh, he continued. “…They didn’t even tell us we’d be frozen. I thought I was going into that hole and I’d never even see the sun again. But we’d be safe down there. We’d live. My son… would live.”

“Jesus,” Hancock muttered.

“Getting frozen was… a shock. Horrible. Frightening. Painful. Everything just went dark. And when I woke up, there were men in the Vault with me. I thought they were scientists. I thought maybe, I don’t know, a couple days had passed. And… and they unlocked Nora’s pod. I started banging at the door. Just banging, wanting to get out… I hate tight spaces. I hate them. It was like being in a goddamn coffin. I just wanted to get out, breathe, and make sure Nora and Shaun knew everything was alright.” Nate shuddered, wrapping his arms around himself.

Tight spaces reminded him of his power armor in the war. Somewhere in his memory, a grenade went off. He was slammed into a tree. The soldiers were coming for him. Oh god. Oh god, the armor was malfunctioning. He couldn’t move or get out. He couldn’t get out! Going to die…!

Breathing rapidly, Nate fought the memory off. No. No, you are here. You’re telling a different story now.

Hancock seemed content to let him have a minute. Finally, voice steady, he started again.

“Then they tried to tear Shaun out of her arms. I knew something was wrong. Nora wasn’t having any of it. She’s a Mama Bear, let me tell you…” A tear streaked down his clenched jaw, hot and angry. He wiped it away immediately. “They just… they shot her. They goddamn shot her for wanted to hold onto her son. And then they left, put me back into sleep. Took my boy. They left her there, just bleeding out, eyes staring at nothing.”

“Holy shit.” Hancock leaned in, voice gleaming sharp like the knife in his pocket. “Were they Vault people? Did you see their faces?”

“Hell if I know. The one who shot Nora… he was a mean looking motherfucker. Like a soldier or something, but not in a uniform. Maybe some kind of mercenary or security. Jesus. I don’t even know.” Valentine had been very interested in those details, too. “I just know that by the time I woke up again, when my pod spit me out… they were long gone. And I’ve been trying to find some trace of them ever since. There’s so many things going on… so many people needing help… and maybe Valentine knows something… but god, maybe he doesn’t.” Nate finally gave up, burying his face in his hands.

He heard boots shuffling, a man standing. Finally, he felt body heat right by his side, the mattress shifting with new weight. A companionable arm went around his shoulder. “It’s alright. I mean, it’s not, but… let it out. Whatever you got in there.” Nate quietly did, refusing to look, stooping over and just letting the tears run through his fingers. “Everyone’s got some horror story out here. I already knew yours was bad. But… that was worse, brother.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Get up. No time to be weak.

Nate sucked in a stabilizing rush of air. “I’ll be fine. Once I get Shaun back, I’ll be fine.” This was a lie, but what else was there to be said? “Thanks. For listening.”

“Hey, if we’re going to roll together, that’s what I do. If you’re chasing them, then so am I. I’ve got your back.”

“…That means a lot actually.” Nate found it in himself to even give his newfound…friend?… a smile. “I confess, I don’t know why you wanted to come along so badly. It’s not that I mind the company—maybe I needed it. Hell, I might’ve bit the dust freeing Valentine without you there. I just don’t get why you skipped out on your life to go tearing up the wastes with me. Why care about what happens to me at all?”

“Nate, let me tell you something.” Hancock scooted away to face him better, adjusting his hat in a roguish way. “You aren’t just tearing up the wastes, right? It’s… got purpose. The Minutemen drafted you to carry their good name and hope to the hopeless within, like, fifteen minutes of knowing you, if the way you tell it is any sign. I’m out here to make exactly your kind of trouble, brother. The Commonwealth needs that kind of trouble. You feel me?”

Nate chuckled. “I can’t just say no to people that need help! They all act like…”

“Like no one else is saying yes? Yeah. No one is. It’s why yours truly got so famous for clearing the rats out of Goodneighbor.” He sighed. “But then… I became their mayor. And to protect the people, sometimes, you gotta play nice—with the mob, with business-types, with all kinds of assholes. Everyone’s watching you, trying to get in on the power. Before you know it, you can’t just openly do the right thing for your own folks anymore without tipping over a dozen other things they need, without some schemer using it against you. It’s fuckin’ exhausting. You start questioning yourself all the damn time.” Hancock’s shoulders rolled as if they were a million times lighter now. “I needed some perspective. And out here? Hell, the first thing we sorted out was that asshole Skinny Malone threatening my old friend. His influence in the Triggermen coulda made my life hell if I’d taken him on openly a week ago. But now, his crew’s thinned out or running. I doubt he’ll ever be anyone’s problem ever again—and it’s all in a day’s work. You’re taking care of problems like that, doing all these things, plus trying to chase down your kid. Acting like a damn hero. I wanted in, Nate. So now, you’ve got me, and I’ve got your back.”

Nate blinked. This new companion of his was… intense… and perhaps, unexpectedly, a good man. “Then… you have my word I’ve got yours too, as long as you’re along for the ride.”

A cheery smile lit on the ghoul’s prominent cheekbones. “Warms my little black heart. Now. I’ve got a box full of Sugar Bombs and a head full of chems. Why don’t we eat a really gross breakfast and get this freak show on the road?”

Nate couldn’t help but nod affably. The puffy cereal even settled his stomach before the journey was on again.

Time passed more easily in this new morning, no problems, no threats. Hancock seemed content in the ice that had broken between them, humming an absentminded rendition of “It’s All Over But the Crying,” one that didn’t quite resolve, looping back in on itself. And Nate realized: he actually sort of liked this—the silence shattered. It had almost been irritating yesterday, but now, it made him content too.

It was stopping him from losing his thoughts down a dark, depressed hole.

“You like music, huh?” he finally said, finding the wherewithal to converse.

Hancock trailed off immediately. “Oh! Sorry, heh. Yeah, I usually have the radio on back home. Makes it… I dunno, easier to focus.”

Nate raised his Pip-Boy. “I think this thing has a radio built in. If you’d like to listen while we walk…”

Hancock stopped. Nate, startled, blew right past him and had to turn around. The ghoul’s eyes were wide. “That thing has a what?

“A radio.”

“On your wrist?” A delighted grin was starting to split Hancock’s face. There were fewer teeth bared there than when the man had been waving around a knife days back. Without that violent edge, his smile was almost charmingly boyish.

If one could overlook that it rested right beneath where a nose ought to be (and very clearly wasn’t.)

“Yeah!” Nate laughed, fiddling with the knobs and dials. “I guess Pip-Boys aren’t too common out here…?”

Suddenly, the frantic beginning rhythms of “Butcher Pete” piped from the device’s speaker. Hancock looked like it was Christmas come early. “Hell yes. This, I can walk to, brother.” His gait became a steady trot. Every now and again, it’d stutter into a two-step, back-then-forward dance, which he sometimes punctuated by crunching down on a leftover Sugar Bomb or two. “Hackin’ and whackin’ and smackin’!” he chanted along happily.

It took Nate a good thirty seconds to work up the grudging strength to pitch in for the next chorus. “…Chopping that meat.”

A friendly shoulder bumped up against his. “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! Sing with me!”

“I…”

“Ah, come on.”

The grin was infectious. The little jazz hands were even more so.

And Nate found some tiny part deep down in his soul that could manage chanting two minutes of Butcher Pete, if only to keep his companion happy.

The two of them paced down the road to Sanctuary together, waving their hands, telling the world just whose wives needed to watch out when Butcher Pete was in town.

And by the end, Nate realized, he was smiling.

 

Chapter Text

Hancock was pretty certain the Minuteman Preston Garvey knew exactly who he was when they strolled into Nate’s vaunted home settlement in the cool morning. It was the way the man’s eyes lingered just a shade too long on the signature red coat instead of the charming face above it, like that was what was worth writing home about. It was how his copper-brown hands tightened on that rifle… how he squinted and frowned as if someone just brought a yao guai through his door, and he didn’t know yet if it was tame or not.

“You’re back,” Garvey said cheerfully to Nate, clearly smart enough to know not to stare for long.

So this was Sanctuary, eh? Where the Minutemen had all gone to lick their wounds.

Hell. All Hancock could see was this guy—as stiff and soldierly as his new buddy Nate, no wonder they got along!—and a mechanic, plus an old lady in a chair. She was waving goodbye to some trader with large, opaque sunglasses.

“This is it?” he couldn’t help but ask.

“This is Sanctuary,” Garvey said, not answering the question. “And with any luck, this is going to turn into one of the most thriving settlements in the wastes.” He practically beamed when Nate shoved forward one dirty backpack full of muddy vegetables.

Hancock sighed and passed his rucksack over too. “Tatos are yours, buddy. But don’t touch the stash.”

Garvey gave him such a startled look that Hancock knew his chems were safe as houses. This man was as straight-laced as they came, what with that shiny, healthy look to his skin. Still, Garvey gratefully collected the packs. “I’ll bring these to the settlers, then bring the bags back to you. We have some farmers now. Thank you!”

“I can help dig if you need,” Nate offered.

Garvey shook his head. “There’s actually something else I need to ask of you. But why don't you take a rest first? We’ve got some beds built since you’ve been gone.”

Indeed, those nice, soft beds were right past the old lady in the chair, who grinned at them as the trader took his leave. “Kid!” She reached out, tugging at the tail-end of Vaultie’s shirt.

Nate broke out into a grin. “Mama Murphy!” He kneeled down, offering her a short hug.

“And who’s this handsome face?” She beamed at Hancock like she wanted to offer him a fresh-baked plate of cookies.

“John Hancock.” He reached down and shook her hand. The way she accepted it, all warmth and sunshine, Hancock suspected maybe her head—or her eyes—going.

“I thought so,” she said, and that only made him do a double-take. “I saw you coming here. Good. Good, you’re on the right track then.” She patted Nate’s cheek. “I hope those super mutants didn’t hurt anything you can’t heal.”

Nate laughed. “I’ll be fine. I have enough stimpacks and Med-X that I’ll be all healed up by tomorrow morning. They didn’t even get my primary shooting arm.”

Hancock felt his face scrunch, but he couldn’t help it. “Wait. How did you…? I mean, you must have some really fit legs, lady, to get the gossip in Goodneighbor and make it back here before us.”

“Oh no.” Mama Murphy tapped her fingers together. “I’ve got the Sight.”

“Yeah, she sees things,” Nate added, as if it made perfect sense.

“With chems!” Her widening smile was infectious. Nate winced. “Sometimes I see things happening now. Sometimes things in the future.”

Hancock cocked his head, not sure if he was buying this—and yet. Yet. This was a story about a chem trip he wanted to hear.

A secretive little chuckle bubbled in her throat. “I think,” she said, “If you’ve got some Mentats, I could see something for you too. And Nate, I’m certain the Sight can tell you some new things. I’ve been waiting for you to come back, hoping it could.”

Hancock decided to err on the side of good times and found himself grinning. Man. I like this old kook. He decided then and there that this was how he wanted to spend his dotage: chilling in a chair, shooting up, and demanding payment if anyone wanted to hear about his sweet visions.

Nate squirmed. “Sorry, Mama Murphy. I don’t have anything on me.”

She shrugged, eyes still bright. “Don’t worry about it. You rest then. Everything’s gonna work out just fine.”

 


 

It was several hours later when Preston gently knocked on the door. Nate sat up to greet him, head fuzzy, jaw cracking with a yawn. Perhaps he and Hancock had only been traveling for a few hours since the sun rose, but after this week, he was more than capable of dozing in a safe place while he still had it. His new friend seemed to have agreed, and was peacefully snoring on another bed in this pseudo-dormitory. The ghoul’s tricorn was tipped over his eyes to keep out the daylight.

Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, it struck Nate that this house was where the Bukowskis once lived. Hancock was sleeping right where their television used to be.

Like he was in a dream, he caught a whiff of the grill smoke from their last barbecue before the bombs fell, heard an echo of Lily’s awful puns and Barbara’s shrill giggle. His eyes suddenly flooded with stinging wet.

No. No. Stay here.

He quickly shook his head, wiping his face, as if he was only sleepy. He didn’t want another breakdown, not where Preston or anyone else could see.

There. This was only a decrepit, decaying house frame now. Barbara and Lily had been gone so long, it was like they’d never been there at all.

Eager to get outside, Nate softly padded to meet the Minuteman. His and Hancock’s tato-less bags had been set in the doorframe near Mama Murphy, where she snoozed in her chair. The afternoon was clear, the rain and dew evaporated, and the wind carried a hint of sweet mutfruit being roasted over a fire.

“Picked up a friend, I see.” Preston smiled as they matched their stride heading away from the porch.

“Yeah. I made it to Diamond City, then Goodneighbor. I think I found a detective who can help me track down my son.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

Something in Garvey’s voice was oddly guarded. Nate narrowed his eyes. “Everything alright?”

“You trust him?”

Nate blinked, knowing from Preston’s head toss that his companion was the subject at stake. “Yeah. Sure, why?”

The man adjusted his rifle. “We can’t be too careful. There’s some factions out here that… well, if they knew where the last of the Minutemen were…”

“Hancock’s alright. Don’t worry.”

“So it is him.”

Startled, Nate shifted. “You know him?”

“He’s got a certain reputation. And, apparently, a bag full of chems.” Garvey sighed. “Not that I was trying to find them…” His eyebrows raised. “There were just sort of a lot.

Sighing, Nate shook his head, prickling with a sort of secondhand embarrassment. Of course, Hancock himself didn’t act ashamed of his addiction in the least. But all of what a man did reflected on his friends, and Nate tried to swallow his unease down. “Yeah, he uses. But from what I’ve been able to tell, he seems to be able to keep himself together when it’s needed. And… honestly… we’re probably not close enough for me to me rag him about getting clean. What have you heard? His people really seem to love him.”

“Is that so?” Garvey quirked his eyebrows again, lips pursed. “Well, I don’t pretend to have the full story. I wasn’t there. All I know is that the news out of Goodneighbor, some years back, was that some ghoul held an uprising, staged a coup on the democratically elected mayor, lynched the guy in the streets, and went about being as violent as possible to anyone that didn’t like it.”

Nate stared, throat dry.

Preston nodded to the dormitories in the distance. “He didn’t happen to mention anything about that, did he?”

“…Only something about getting the rats out.” Nate stared at his feet quietly, processing. He wasn’t sure of the unsettling churn in his gut. The story didn’t sound good, no, nor the least bit implausible given Hancock’s violent streak. Yet, despite this, Nate was nearly overwhelmed with the instinct to intervene on behalf of his traveling partner’s honor—even though, less than twenty-four hours ago, he himself had regarded Hancock with a healthy survivor’s amount of fear and caution. He’d known Hancock was unpredictable. Easily capable of quickly premeditated murder.

Then they’d talked about feelings and trotted through the wastes having a singalong.

Nate realized that either he was getting alarmingly desensitized to red flags or his new buddy was preternaturally charming. Perhaps it was a little of both. 

In the end, what won out in his heart was the fact his companion had unfailingly had his back so far, and in unexpectedly kind ways. He truly seemed to give a damn. Yes, Hancock was perhaps a lot of things, but Nate just couldn’t shake the notion anymore that a good man was one of them. The only alternative was to think he was a manipulative sociopath, and that didn’t feel right at all.

There had to be more to his story.

“Might be something to ask about,” Preston said, tone deceptively mild. “Anyway. That aside. Careful with anyone hooked on chems, alright?”

“…Understood. But you should give him a chance. I’m not regretting having him along at all.”

Preston bit his lip briefly, like he was reconsidering his stance. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be this paranoid. I just… I want to make sure you’re taken care of. You bringing back this food? This hope? It’s meant a lot around here. I’d really like to get you more involved in the Minutemen work, if you’re up to it. Someone like you could really make a difference.”

“You know I’ll help. I need to help make this a home to bring my son back to. God knows, everywhere I’ve been out there isn’t exactly a great place for kids.”

A twinkle lit in Preston’s warm brown eyes. “That’ll change. And with a little extra work, I can see this place being amazing for families.”

“You still getting that water filtration system working?”

“Could always use another hand on it.”

Nate smiled, feeling his disquiet fall away so long as he had something useful to put his mind to. “Lead the way then, Minuteman. I’m on the job.”

 


 

Hancock stretched, roused by the familiar music of someone setting down a whole heap of chems outside. Oh hey. My bag’s back. He caught the tail end of a brown ranger’s coat ushering Nate off into the day. What, no jobs for little old me?

That suited Hancock well enough. He wanted to get the lay of the land.

But first things first…

Peeking outside the door, he saw Mama Murphy’s snoozing expression turn into a sly smile. She quietly opened one eye, watching him. “Done with your nap, huh?” she whispered.

“You heard the rooster too?” Hancock chuckled, nabbing his knapsack in one hand, jingling his chems as he trotted over, taking a seat next to her. Happily, he kicked up his boots onto a nearby tattered Ottoman. “Yeah, I know that look.”

She laughed. “Don’t tease an old lady.”

Me? Never. So what’s your poison, sister? I remember you said something about Mentats.” He started to dig in the pockets.

“Preston lets you keep all those?”

“I woulda liked to see him try to take ‘em. He ain’t my boss.”

“He means well.” She smiled thinly, sighing. “And he needs the Sight. We all do, these days. He just… worries. So much.”

“So what is there to this Sight thing?” Hancock reached past his sketchbook and nimbly extracted one of his favorite tins, popping two Mentats loose and passing one to her.

She gave him a mischievous pat on the hand, like he was her favorite grandson. “You want to find out?”

“Oh, you know it.”

 


 

Nate had never seen a robot tremble with joy before, but he did now. Codsworth outright dropped his gardening spade. “Oh, sir! You’re back! It’s you!” It was like they were meeting after the bombs fell for the first time. Nate, no longer suffering as heavily from the shock of the new world, ran forward, leaving Preston to wait for just a minute. To hell with it. This poor machine was getting a hug.

Codsworth didn’t say anything, but eventually his servos stopped whining so shrilly inside the embrace. His motor fell into a lower gear. A little claw patted Nate’s back in return. Only when it released did Nate pull away.

“You’re looking terribly thin!” Codsworth managed, back to stable ground. “And I see you’ve been into fisticuffs with some brute. Were you the victor?”

“Yeah.” Nate laughed, smoothing back his hair, embarrassed and numb thinking about the super mutant as it fell dead. “Yeah, the other guy got it worse.”

“Excellent. It won’t do to make the missus worry.”

A bolt of ice lodged between Nate’s lungs. “Codsworth…” he said hoarsely. “Remember? She’s…”

“Oh!” The gears kicked into a high whine again. “Oh dear. I… I… my sincerest apologies, sir. I… I just can’t keep things straight…”

“It’s…” Nate breathed out, long and slow. “It’s okay, buddy. We’ll get better together on this.” He hesitatingly patted the Handy’s rusted metal chassis. The fact was, he wasn’t really one to talk—he couldn’t even look at his old house right now, let alone go inside it. The last time, he’d had a horrific panic attack that brought him to his knees. He’d then all but fled.

Codsworth’s eyes drooped, but he rallied. “I’ll prepare you a fine welcome-home meal, sir. Are… are you staying long…?”

“We can stay for a few hours at least. But don’t worry when I leave again. I have a lead on Shaun. You sit tight, and we’ll all be back before you know it.”

“We? Are you not traveling alone anymore, sir?”

Nate paused. “Met a friend.”

“Excellent. No one should be alone.” Codsworth trembled again. “It is dreadful, to be alone.”

Hollow pain hung in the air, too much to be ignored.

Chewing his lip, Nate looked over the piecemeal houses getting cleared out, the farmers planting a new crop: a settlement forming, the lives taking root. “I’m glad you’re not alone anymore, buddy.”

“Me too, sir. Me too.”

 


 

Mama Murphy’s eyes rolled back in her head. Hancock watched her, letting his own Mentat dissolve on his tongue with a minty bang. An odd, cold shift spiked the wind. The crows in the trees started to caw.

“It’s dark,” the old woman said, her voice suddenly very small.

“Um. You’ve got your eyes shut, Miss Murphy.” Did one have to know her for a while to call her Mama? Was there some etiquette there?

“No… no. It’s not me. It’s… her. She’s lurking beneath. She’s… she’s sleeping now… in her dark kingdom… but she’s hungry.” The old woman’s head shook back and forth, her vocal pitch scraping. “I don’t understand… she’s not human. But she’s going to come for something you’re looking for. Something you’ve been looking for… for a long, long time.”

Hancock’s heart beat a little faster, but he forced a chuckle out of his throat. “What’s that? A suitcase full of the purest Ultra Jet?”

“No… it’s something… something to make you whole again…”

Hancock stared, chest twinging.

“There’s old stones. Broken. A place where brave men and women died. Oh…!” She doubled over.  “There’s… there’s so much blood.” Her hand shot out, frail, but suddenly iron-strong around his own. “You’re going to find it there. What you’re looking for. You’re going to almost lose it again. But you can’t.” Her words came rapid now. “You can’t. Can’t. Under the crates… where the guns are. Where no one can reach. You can’t lose it. You won’t lose it if you can make it there. You hear me?” Both hands gripped his now, almost beseechingly. Tears squeezed from her closed eyes.

“Holy shit… uh. Okay. Under crates. Where the guns are. What I need. Got it.” Cold shivers squirmed under Hancock’s skin.

Mama Murphy fell quiet, gasping for breath like she’d come up from under water. “I’m… oh my word. I’m sorry. I thought the Sight had something happy for you. I… I don’t know, maybe it is. If you look at it right.”

Hancock could only swallow. “That was real unsettling.”

“Sometimes, yeah, it’s that way.” She slowly pulled away, letting go. Hancock’s mottled hands were throbbing from being clenched so hard. Breathing long and slow now, Mama Murphy seemed to calm herself. “If it’s any consolation, I do think it was something good I saw. It’s just… you’re really going to have to fight for it. Fight tooth and nail.” She wearily winked. “Got plenty of time, though. Thanks for the chems.”

“You know sister, I’m usually just happy when the Mentats let me pronounce indubitably.”

She laughed. “You… you’re a good kid. I’m just gonna lean back, alright? Shut my eyes for a moment.”

“Sure thing, tiger.”

In less than a second, she was already snoring again. Hancock leaned back too, deciding it was best to watch over her until she woke up.

Good god. He kind of wanted to forget about this. That wasn’t a trip he would ever want to experience for himself.

And yet…

An uncomfortable shiver kept rattling his ribcage. It was weird enough that she’d known about the super mutants that laid waste to his companion’s arm. Weird too that she claimed to have predicted his arrival. But this new vision of hers…

She could have said he was looking for anything. Money. Chems. A complete, undamaged set of Playghoul magazine.

No, she said the one thing that hit a little too close to home for comfort.

Something… to make you whole again

He reached for a Jet inhaler, his go-to for a quick shot of peace.

Ah hell.

It fell back into the bag. His stomach was too unsettled. For some things, the chems wouldn’t do any good.

 


 

Nate returned to the central dormitories several hours after, grease under his fingernails, hair wild with sweat and tangles. Preston was much the same by his side, companionable, the both of them snarking about how many toasters they’d need to scrap to get proper lighting in every home. There on the porch was Hancock, fumbling with some pencil over a sheet of paper. Mama Murphy was on his right, looking well-rested in the approaching afternoon, like she’d recently awoken from a nap. She said something, and the two started laughing uproariously.

“What have you two been up to?” Preston asked. Nate was fairly certain he didn’t imagine the hint of disapproval and suspicion in the question.

“Raisin’ hell.” Hancock gave them a devil-may-care grin. “Aren’t we Mama?”

“Nate!” she seemed overjoyed. “This one’s a real charmer. Where’d you dig him up again?”

Nate snickered. “Goodneighbor.”

“At a bar,” Hancock added. “I bought him a beer, and one thing just led to another…” His ghoulish brows waggled suggestively. Mama Murphy cackled.

Preston made a questioning, uncomfortable grunt.

“You did not pay for my beer,” Nate jumped in to complain. “And if by one thing leading to another, I think you mean you threw yourself at me on my way out of town, apparently looking for a good time.”

Hancock saluted, snickering.

“Oh! Nate.” Mama Murphy clapped her hands together. “The Sight’s still telling me it’s got something for you. I think it’s something real important.” She licked her lips. “And I think I’ll need some Jet.”

“Mama Murphy,” Preston groaned softly. “No more chems. You know this. We’ve talked about this.” He glared at Hancock. “Have you given her anything?”

The ghoul raised his hands as if in self-defense, though he said nothing.

“No!” Mama Murphy waved Preston off. “He just kept an old woman company with some good talk and drawings for the whole morning. This one’s gonna be an artist, I’m telling you.”

The sketchbook closed. Hancock rubbed the back of his head in an embarrassed way. “I’m really awful. Don’t listen to her.”

Serenity welled up in Nate’s core. This was such a calm, cool day now that it was like he was back in time, chatting it up with his neighbors while going for a walk, having a few laughs. It almost put to rest his painful memories of the lives that used to be here.

“Come on, kid.” Mama Murphy reached out her withered hand to him, though her voice was kind and slow. “I know you gotta go soon. Let me tell you what you gotta know.”

At that, Nate’s pleasant daydream stalled. “I. Uh. Don’t have any Jet.”

“Sure ya do!” Hancock stood, still grinning, shoving his book under his arm—perhaps so no one could see his art. “I gave ya some at the bar, remember? Unless you’ve already burned through it. I guess I did give ya only two… ah man. You must be really jonesing for more by now. My bad.” He was already rifling through his own bag.

“I think what he means,” Preston said, “Is that you really shouldn’t have any more Jet, Mama Murphy.”

“Just give her what she wants.” Hancock shrugged. Preston’s nostrils flared. “Hey, it’s her life. Besides, she’s right. The Sight seems like it could be useful. Not that I’m jealous of it.”

The old woman nodded her aged head, looking weary to her core. “We need it. Nate needs it. You know that, Preston.”

The Minuteman frowned, and Nate felt a sting of concern at how drawn-in his face slumped. There was something bigger in those brown eyes than one hit at stake. “Fine,” Preston whispered. “But after this, Mama Murphy, you’ve got to get clean. This is going to kill you. And I can’t stand by and watch that.”

Adjusting his rifle strap, the man turned on his boot heel and left. Nate stared after, mouth dry.

“Okay, awesome, the party crasher’s gone. Let’s do this.” Hancock grinned and snagged an inhaler from his bag’s depths, flipping it over to face Nate. “This one’s on me. Hopefully the thing she’s gotta say to you is actually nice.”

Suddenly, Mama Murphy let out a wracking, wet cough. She leaned forward to contain it and catch her breath. “Are you okay?” Nate kneeled, putting his hands on her bony shoulders, seeing how the skin hung from her frame, how her eyes were starting to sink into deep, dark hollows.

She affixed him with a smile as bright as sunshine. “I’m fine, kid. I’m fine. Just being an old lady.” She held out a frail hand expectantly. “I can help you now. I think it might be about your son.”

Cold stones sank into Nate’s gut.

She’s been right before. And she knows something more about Shaun?

Will one hit make a difference?

“It’s her choice,” Hancock said quietly, a firmness in his tone. “She wants to help.”

Slowly, Nate wrapped his hand around the inhaler’s hard plastic, realizing body heat had warmed it to an almost comforting temperature.

Mama Murphy was still patiently holding out her hand.

Nate passed it over, biting his lip, holding his breath. This was selfish. So terribly selfish. He could barely breathe, but he couldn’t stop.

She huffed the chem expertly, her eyes rolling back. “Mmm. You got the good stuff.”

“You know it.” Hancock’s chest puffed out.

“There it is. I… I can see…” She fell quiet for a moment longer. “You’re going someplace far, kid. Someplace no one can get to. But you will. People… people disappearing in lightning…! But not dead. They’re one place, and getting moved to another…” She licked her lips. “The people where you’re going have minds like metal… and your son is there…”

“You see him!” Nate gasped. “Where is he? How do I get there, Mama Murphy?”

“I…” Her brows wrinkled in consternation. “I don’t know… but you’re going to, I can promise you that. You’re going to walk through a dead, glowing ocean, and you’re going to find out how. But your son… he’s… he’s all sharp in the darkness… there’s something big he wants… He’s not angry. He’s not even scared. He’s… he’s waiting for you, though. He’s waiting for…” Another scraping cough swallowed her whole. When she recovered a minute later, her pupils were bleary and dilated, the whites turning red. “I’m… I’m sorry. That’s all I got.”

Nate leaned down, enveloping her in a hug. She sniffled into his shoulder, lightly returning it. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I can never thank you enough. I’m going to go see what that detective has to say… and with this, maybe I’ll get on the right track. I’ll find him.” Minds like metal. People disappearing in lightning. A glowing ocean. It sounded like nonsense, but with context, maybe it would mean something.

Her eyes were serene as he pulled away. “Can you help me go lie down? This takes a lot out of me these days.” She rose, shaking. “You will find him. I know it. I’ll sleep easy with that.” Nate bowed his shoulder down, letting himself be a crutch so she could shuffle to the nearby cot. I’m going to carve her a cane. Or fashion a walker… after she gets better.

I’m never passing her a hit of Jet again.

When the time came for him and Hancock to leave for Diamond City, he wasn’t sure if the tension in his shoulders was about to break his bones or if the elation might. A soft, cooling wind tingled his skin. The air was charged; even the birds in the trees were fluffing their feathers and bracing themselves.

Hancock clapped his shoulder. “You’re gonna find him,” he said.

An airy sound escaped Nate’s throat. He needed that solidarity, that too-warm hand, that reassurance that everything would be alright. Though most of his creature comforts had been stripped away, and the road ahead looked long and hard… this was, for today, the only thing he needed to keep moving. “Yeah,” he said. “We will.”

Chapter Text

Valentine was already waiting outside the gates when Nate and Hancock returned. Sunlight gleamed through the flesh gap in his neck, shining off his inner workings. The way he stood was strange—an odd slouch to his spine and an uncomfortable shuffle to his feet, like his old bones ached in the cooling weather. It wasn’t anything like a stiff or efficient mechanical stature.

Just how human are you, Nick? Nate wondered. A German Shepherd, paws muddy from the road, barked at the synth curiously from his side. The dog had appeared at an abandoned gas station not a few hours previous, honing in on what was apparently radstag jerky in a certain ghoul’s pockets. For some reason, he hadn’t left.

“I see you keep picking up strays,” Valentine greeted.

“Yeah,” Hancock said, scratching the dog behind the ears. “It’s my charisma.”

The detective stared. “I wasn’t talking to you.”

Hancock snorted and grinned. “Ouch.”

Nate was overwhelmed with snickers. “I’m glad you’re already out here, Mr. Valentine. I wasn’t sure the guards would tell you that we’d arrived.”

The detective nodded stoically. “A friend of mine was keeping an eye on the road to let me know when you were coming. And I think I’ve found something. So maybe… maybe we should have a seat.” He gestured to a few old crates he’d apparently and thoughtfully dragged into a little circle.

Step into your office then. Alright. Nate sat, and Hancock followed after. The dog settled at their feet, placing his chin on Nate’s knee and staring up with pleading eyes, gradually wiggling his butt closer. It felt almost cruel not to give in and toss over an extra piece of jerky that Hancock had shared. That disappeared in a flash of happy teeth and tongue.

“Cute find.” A strain of amusement colored Valentine’s tone. “What’s his name?”

Hancock fluttered his eyes as if he still had lashes. “John, silly. You know that. And you think I’m cute?”

The detective rolled his vibrant yellow gaze up to the clouds. Nate sniggered again, shaking loose a little of the nervous tension in his chest—it was hard not to imagine these two bonding over a beer and a pint of motor oil back in Goodneighbor in the past. “Name, huh?” He hadn’t thought about it. The dog probably wasn’t long-term; it might even flee by morning. No use getting attached. “Uh. Dog, I guess.”

“That,” Valentine mulled, “Is the pinnacle of thousands of years of humanity’s linguistic developments.”

Hancock grinned and started digging in his bag. It was about his usual time for a chem break, wasn’t it? “Sometimes, you gotta call a spade a spade. Get down to brass tacks, man. You got something?”

The synth clenched his jaw, his metallic fingers humming as he drummed them together. Nate was startled to realize Valentine was dispensing pleasantries to soften the blow of something no one was going to like.

“The insights I have…” the detective began. “…They’re complicated. You don’t have an easy case.”

Hancock’s eyes narrowed. The Jet inhaler he’d found paused its journey to his mouth. “It’s the Institute, isn’t it?”

Valentine gave him a look of surprise, but from the grim pursing of his lips, he clearly wasn’t saying no.

“…The Institute?” Nate found himself leaning in. That old bogeyman again? All the supposed kidnappings, that fear that the Institute sent out android spies wearing the faces of trusted community members… it was all what he’d thought was a conspiracy theory until, well, one of those synths decided to walk right into his life, fedora and all. “So… the paranoid Diamond City papers… are right.”

Hancock bobbed his head in a dreamy nod as he puffed in his morning medicine.

“Believe me, I wish they weren’t,” Nick grumbled. “This attack on you was targeted. Well-funded. Your attackers were willing to kill to get what they wanted, to break into a Vault sealed by top-notch tech for centuries… yet they left everyone to die except your son and you. ‘The backup.’ Can’t be the Brotherhood of Steel. They’d just want the tech. Raiders would have stolen everything shiny. No, if anyone has the power and will to do something like this, it’s the Institute. The real question is…” He shrugged. “Why.”

“You don’t know?” Nate almost stood, teeth grinding. How could you, of all people, not have a guess? But he stopped himself, putting a leash on the temper that wanted to hurl itself into combat and tear Shaun back from his captors.

Clearly, if Nick was sitting here, not all synths were on the Institute’s payroll.

“The big lead you have,” the detective continued softly, “is actually the murderer you described. I know that man. His name is Kellogg. He blew through Diamond City not long back—and he’s known for a lot of mercenary work, small-time and big-time. He happened to have a young boy in tow last time he was here. That’s what I was looking into while you were gone.”

Dog whined. His keen nose seemed to know there was more jerky afoot.

“A kid?” Nate growled, ignoring his new admirer. “He’s kidnapping more of them?”

Valentine’s mouth was a thin line. “He might be.”

Now Nate did stand, unable to contain his nerves and anger. Dog scooted quickly back. “Where can I find him?”

“Good question. Yesterday, I investigated where he was living and kept an eye on it. Just like my intel said, no one’s going in or out. It seems abandoned. But it’s been abandoned for little enough time that no one’s sold the place to anyone else, either. There might be some clues left—I’d like to get your eye on it. It’s quite possible you might see something I’d miss.”

Fire was in Nate’s hands. He curled them into fists. In his mind, he saw a mercenary’s arm extending slowly, taking aim at a defenseless woman strapped in a cryopod.

Nora’s death was a goddamn execution.

“It’s inside the city?” he whispered, mentally leveling his gun sights.

“Don’t even worry about me.” Hancock waved a hand, smile beatific, eyes glazed. “Seriously. Get in there. Hunt down this scumbag. I’ll be out here when you need me, and I’ll be fine. Raiders aren’t gonna be jumping at the chance to walk up to Diamond City’s gate.”

Nick Valentine nodded, also rising. “I would put a bag over your head, Hancock, sneak you in, but it won’t fit over that hat of yours. Or your ego.”

“What?” Hancock giggled. “The hat and ego are non-negotiable, man. They tie together the outfit.”

Nate shook his head, laughter dying. Raiders weren’t what he was worried about out here.

“The guards’ll likely behave,” Nick added softly as they turned, a hand settling on Nate’s shoulder. “My acquaintance is watching them. And Hancock… I’ve known him a while. He can handle himself—it’s not like this is overnight.”

Stilling, Nate allowed himself to nod. He’d have to trust that was true. There was no way in hell they could let this murderer, this Kellogg slip through their fingers. “Alright. Stay safe.”

His ghoul friend gave a merry little salute, then kicked his feet up on the nearest crate, lying down and bathing in the sun.

Nick beckoned onwards, and Nate followed. As the gates opened with a heavy clink, he almost missed a sharp-tongued reporter—Piper, right?—standing inside the entrance, nodding at him over her shoulder as she read the guard on duty the business. He barely even noticed Dog trotting after them all too, claws clicking and nose snuffling. All he saw was an ugly face in his mind’s eye, a scar slashed down one cheek… a man leering at him through glass and icy chill.

Kellogg.

He was going to blow that goddamn face to pieces.

 


 

Hancock hummed for a few minutes in the sunlight before getting bored. Jet was a lovely feeling, but it never lasted long—not for ghouls, especially. It didn’t take much time before he popped out his paper from his bag, contemplating a new, blank page. Mama Murphy had talked him into a few doodles, and it was so hard to tell that encouraging, wrinkled smile no, especially when he was blissfully wrecked. Now here he was, unfortunately getting somewhat sober, and he was thinking about sketching some more?

Geez. Fahr would be so proud.

If that was an emotion she was capable of.

He managed a somewhat competent dog-shaped blob with a big, toothy, smiling mouth asking for jerky. Heh. Not bad. Deciding he liked the idea enough, he popped a Mentat too, letting it light up his mind and bring back the little details. There we go. Perky ears. Happy tail. Shaggy fur. Trot trot trot, after your old buddies Hancock the jerky man and Nate the do-gooder Vault Boy.

Heh. Nate picking up another stray… good one, Valentine.

Absently, he scratched his neck. Wait, did he have fleas again? Damn it.

And should the Nate-doodle be smiling? The guy had grinned so wide when Dog started prancing after, even if he kept trying to be gruff about—

He never finished the thought or the drawing. The air suddenly filled with crunching against gravel. Someone was coming up behind.

Thwup, thwup, thwup went a baseball bat against a palm. “Got a lot of balls showing up here again,” a guard hissed. His voice… Hancock remembered it well, given they’d just spoken the day before yesterday.

Goddamn it, Curtis. You’re harshing my mellow. “Yeah. Somehow, I got more than all of Diamond City, and you literally live in a shrine to balls.” Hancock rolled to his feet, sizing up the challenge. It was just the one man—good. He was sized like a bull Brahmin, his face a disconcerting shade of puce, his ragged beard streaked with silver. Clean movements indicated he probably wasn’t hitting the chems for a bit of pizzazz in his punch. This was just good old-fashioned anger.

Valentine was a shrewd man, usually unsurprised when seeing the worst in people, but he didn’t know all these guards that personally. Whatever he thought would keep them in line had failed pretty quickly.

Hancock couldn’t really remember exactly what he’d done to Curtis here—if Curtis even knew who he really used to be. Maybe the guy just liked to jump at any ghoul that got within swinging range these days.

I wasn’t one of the people to sleep with that girl he was trying to marry… what was her name again… Christie? Yeah, Curtis and Christie. Things were a little fuzzy from his life before. He did remember she used to be a Red Mentats kind of girl. Wild. And that he had made a lot of poor choices way back when.

Curtis spat on the ground. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “No ghouls are allowed within a hundred feet of this gate. So I’m telling you to get the hell out of here. It’s all in my job description, if that shitty reporter eyeballing everything wants to talk like she’s threatening.”

“Okay. And?” Hancock crossed his arms.

“Asshole. Everyone back there thinks you’re not gonna listen to me, and you’re gonna get violent.”

“Wow. They taking bets? Getting their stories straight?”

“I’m gonna cave your face in if you talk back one more time.” Curtis turned redder. “No one in Diamond City will care what Piper prints. You’re just some goddamned zombie.” He raised his bat, then opened his mouth to deliver what was clearly another epithet most foul before swinging.

BANG!

Curtis stared, wide-eyed, shocked. His furious face opened up to howl as he keeled over, blood spilling from his shoe.

Smoke trailed from Hancock’s hidden pistol. That lovely red coat could hold a lot of secrets. “You anti-ghoul people always wanna rant before taking a swing. Like I’m just gonna let you kick the shit out of me.”

Curtis only began to swear, clutching his bleeding foot, shouting for backup.

“Also? Buddy? We’re, like, a hundred and twenty feet from your stupid gate. Take that to the press.” Sighing, he holstered his gun, letting dumbass Curtis live. Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for ya, Christie. Huh. Wonder if she’s still a blond? Hancock then tipped his hat and jogged off, whistling to himself. The Mentats were starting to wear thin, but he knew how this situation would play out, and he figured someone else in umpire uniform might be smart enough not to bring a bat to a gun fight.

Hopefully Vaultie wouldn’t be too pissed when he got back.

He dropped a few jerky bits at intervals behind him just in case. Somehow, he sensed, the dog would know what to do with that kind of trail.

It had been a long time since he’d wandered these roads. They hadn’t changed much. Oh, sure, it looked like some of the danger spots had moved, some of the merc outposts, but the landscape was the same old incorrigible garbage pile it’d always been. Not like anyone picked up after themselves out here.

His only constraint a desire to remain relatively close to the gate, Hancock let his wayward feet decide his turns at random.

Oh. Hey. There was a looted storefront he’d never explored. Hubris Comics. It looked sheltered and relatively intact—too tiny for most bad guys to take much interest. Maybe it had a few bits of prewar entertainment left on the shelves? Not bad.

The door creaked open almost painfully. Hancock ducked low, shuffling in, quiet on his toes.

A snatch of movement caught him out of the corner of his eye. Shit! He immediately drew his shotgun.

It was a feral ghoul ambling out of a closet, perhaps to inspect the noise from the front entrance’s rusty hinges. Well, there was the reason why this place wasn’t occupied by mercs, then. The feral stared, wandering closer, closer. It was a pitiable creature, naked save for tattered blue trousers clinging to its waist. Once, perhaps, it had been a very tall man, and now, it was more of an angular scarecrow. It’d clearly survived a long time on ambient radiation. Its withered mouth worked, a baffled, gravelly whine coming from deep in its chest.

Hancock hesitated. Ferals didn’t always turn immediately hostile near him—what could he say, must have been his charming eau d’ghoul cologne—and a gunshot would bring any others here crawling out of the woodwork.

Thump. The feral’s forehead bumped down into Hancock’s chest as it leaned in, like some kind of overenthusiastic puppy.

He sighed, making sure not to touch it back and rile it up. “Easy there, bud. Don’t got much jerky left.”

A frustrated, angry growl resonated through it as it looked up, piercing Hancock’s gaze with its milky cataracts. Its thin fingers seized his lapels. Its nostril hollows whistled and wheezed with furious scenting.

Shit. I don’t smell right anymore. Hancock stayed solid as a rock. He cut low into his vocal cords and imitated the raspy growl ferals seemed to sport, then slowly, slowly removed his coat. The maddened ghoul kept the cloth in its grasp as the sleeves shrugged from his shoulders. It drooled over the front, bit the fabric a few times, and then dropped the frock entirely. Disinterested, it finally seemed to forget why it was there and turned away.

A tight, relieved exhale escaped Hancock’s chest. Gently, he picked up his frock, frowning at the wet spot now on the front, and hung it off a nearby magazine rack.

The rest of the shop looked to mostly be a good naptime spot for various ferals, and most of them remained sleeping as he snuck by, giving them as wide a berth as he could. It was only when he reached the top level, as he found a place unlike anything he’d ever seen, did a little thrill of treasure-hunting excitement truly light in his heart.

Kent Connolly’ll probably dedicate his whole goddamn radio station to me when he finds out about this.

 


 

Kellogg’s home, if it could be called that, was austere, reeking of old cigars. The lock gave way easily under some quick tinkering. Nate realized, as he picked his way across the stained rug, that his lips were curled back just like a hound’s when taking in a scent. Dog kept looking up at him, tail sinking, ears going back.

“Even less here than I thought there’d be,” Nick Valentine grumbled, sinking to a crouch, peering at the dust on a nearby shelf. There was a near-inaudible clicking and whirring coming from his body.

Dog snuffled and trotted forward, nosing a dirty chair parked at a grimy desk. Under one of the legs was a torn corner of yellowed paper, only an inch-long stub. Printed on this was a smattering of ancient ink: the bright greens and blues of scenery. It was from a child’s comic book, perhaps carelessly left on the floor until the occupant moved the furniture and caught it.

A little kid had been sitting here, reading at the feet of a killer.

Nate didn’t like the feelings that this set off in the recesses of his brain… a frightening, helpless idea. How long was it really, between when Kellogg put me back to sleep, and when I woke up again…?

He shoved the notion down. No. There was no point in wondering. Kellogg was going to tell him everything.

“There was a child here,” he whispered, breath shifting the light film of dust on the chair’s seat. “But not for a while.”

“Kellogg didn’t leave town that long ago,” Nick said. “This is weird. Everything’s dustier than it should be. Not by much, but… enough, if he was using this place. That’s the only chair in this house. There’s not even anything in this desk.”

Suddenly, looking over the bit of comic paper, Nate noticed something strange—a switch inside the desk’s recesses. It clicked softly under his thumb.

The wall responded a short walk away: a small, hidden room was revealed. Inside rested a bookshelf, gun rack, and table. None of them were dusty. Nate’s eyes narrowed, and he prowled inside, the detective already ahead of him. It wasn’t surprising when Dog padded to the room too, going for the strongest reek there: an ashy cigar laying in a tray on the table.

It didn’t look too stale.

“Where’d he go, huh?” Nate whispered to the canine. “What was he doing here?”

Strangely, Dog looked at him almost as if he understood. His nose went straight from the cigar to the ground, and his tail started to wag. He snuffled through the dust, lips curling back, heading straight for the door again.

“You think…?” Valentine muttered.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think.” Nate’s heartbeat was a double-time march, roaring in his ears. He patted Dog’s back, opened the door, then let him burst out like greyhound at the races. “Let’s get him, boy!”

The chase was on. Dog led them rapidly through the markets and streets, all the way back to the central gate again. But the guard station there was eerily quiet. Its occupants were all clustered together, grumbling. One could slice the air with a switchblade and make it bleed.

Dog paused, suddenly seeming nervous. Piper moved to greet them, standing in the middle of it all, looking sly.

“Piper…?” Valentine intoned.

“Why, hello, detective,” she said.

“What happened?” he pressed.

The gate was currently wide open. Nate stared.

“Nothing much…” She rubbed her palms together. “Though if you’d be willing to be an expert resource… can you measure something?”

“Measure?” Valentine narrowed his clockwork eyes. “We’re in a hurry, but…”

“There’s this splash of blood outside of the gate. If you could maybe verify how far it is from here, so, I don’t know, a journalist of truth could compare it to the guard duty rules and regulations…”

“Blood?” The synth was already hustling outside.

Nate started jogging after, realizing the guards were staring daggers at him. Dog was on his heels. “Wait. Where’s Hancock?

No one answered.

There in the mud, not far from their morning meeting crates, was a patch of kicked-up dirt and weeds. A smeared puddle of viscous red lay in the center.

Nate’s brain started to whine, his heart threatening to skitter out of his chest. “What the hell happened?”

“Hundred and twenty feet, Piper.” Valentine said. “And if you can explain?”

“Great. A hundred and twenty feet. Perfect. Oh! And your friend’s fine. Went off somewhere… after the head guard started drinking on the job, got stupid, and broke regs to go try and kill him.”

What?” Nate glared. “Wasn’t someone supposed to be preventing that from happening?”

“Yeah, me.” She shrugged. “Turns out some people don’t stop for silly things like reason and public image. But your guy can take care of himself. He’s fine. And justice? Will be done.”

Valentine looked about ready to discover if synths could develop a drinking problem. “You do know that if you run a story about this, half this town will say a ghoul would deserve it.”

“And half will think a guard getting sloshed and running from his post—and then getting his ass kicked—means they hired a pretty shitty guard.” She smiled. “I work with what I can. Mr. Regent’s days on the job are numbered. He’ll never heckle a ghoul at the gates again.”

“Where the hell did Hancock go then?” Nate said, exasperated, worried. Dog whined, still prancing, unhappy no one was following him. Suddenly, his stance changed. He snuffled about in the dust, then began gnawing at something dropped in the mess and debris.

A bit of jerky?

“Hey,” Piper said. “Your dog—”

The animal made a joyous yip and started to bound off into the ruins, ears alert, sniffing happily. “Hey!” Nate called, but the beast was off like the rocket adorning the gas station he’d once called home. Confused, fretting, and hopeful, Nate could only follow, Valentine on his heels once more. It was only after a convoluted turn into a ruined comic store where he could finally start to breathe properly again. There on a magazine rack hung a telltale red coat. Hancock was sitting on one of the glass cases, an ancient, yellowed issue of Grognak the Barbarian in his hands. He ruffled Dog’s ears.

“Hey pooch!” he laughed. Nate felt every muscle in his back go slack in relief. “And look what you dragged in! You won’t believe this weird place, Nate. Oh!” He suddenly made a shushing gesture. “Stay… stay there. It’s actually kind of full of ferals. Just, you know, gettin’ shut-eye.”

Nick froze in the door and backpedaled out very quickly. Nate followed suit. Hancock collected his things and shuffled to join them, rolling up the issue of Grognak under his arm.

“So,” Nate said, teeth grinding. “Are you alright? There was kind of a pool of blood?

He didn’t know why he was so angry then; everything had just worked out, and no one was hurt that didn’t deserve to be. He just… he hated the idea of his companion getting thrown in mortal danger the second he turned his back. It wasn’t even because this was the mayor of a whole town, and Nate knew he needed to take care of him for that alone. No, he’d decided he liked this man.

This reckless, impossible, high-as-a-goddamn-kite man.

Hancock chuckled. “The guard thing was self-defense. I’m fine, I just, you know… made myself scarce.”

“In a store filled with hungry ferals?” Was this why that Fahrenheit woman often looked about ready to choke something?

“Ferals don’t smell me as quickly as you, brother. I’m like ghoul-family. All nice and homey.” The mayor gave an easy grin. “And don’t think I don’t see you eying my find. One of many, I might add—found some cool clothes, too. Hey, you a fan of the Grognak bat baby story? It’s pretty wild.” His eyes made a telltale, slow blink of chem enjoyment, not entirely in synch with each other. “These old magazines are so colorful. Like sunsets. Like paint exploding everywhere.”

Nate bit back another sigh. Clearly everything was dandy if this was the Hancock he was getting. “I was just… concerned. I didn’t like leaving you out here by yourself in the first place.” His stomach twisted, jittery and heavy.

“But then you wouldn’t have gotten Grognak, issue number thirteen.” Hancock danced the magazine under his nose. “And what’s mine is yours, brother. Now. What’d you find?”

Nate immediately straightened. “I… Kellogg’s scent. We’re going to find him. We’re… going to kill him.”

Dog pranced around his two best friends, seemingly delighted. It was like he thought the fresh-as-a-daisy scent of a stoned ghoul was exactly as welcoming as the ferals thought—it was either that or the sweaty soldier with murder plans. A 50/50 tossup.

“We need to get this puppy back on the trail.” A little smile lit Valentine’s face as he spoke. “Let’s bring him back to the gate, get him started over. Hopefully, he won’t run across any more jerky-based distractions.”

“Alright then! I get to help after all!” Hancock reloaded his shotgun, an excited bent to his frame. The joy in his eyes broke through the chem haze.

Like that, all the irritation, all the confused anger evaporated from Nate’s mind. “Thank you. For backing me up on this. This guy, he’s probably pretty dangerous, and—”

“Don’t gotta sell me on it. I told you. I’ve got your back. He’s a bastard; he’s gonna pay. That’s that.”

Grateful, Nate felt his muscles tensing, readying for the hunt. He was coiled. Excited. Furious. “Alright. Yes. Let’s make a bastard pay.” He strode out that door, ready to burn down everything Kellogg was or stood for. Hancock was right behind, then Valentine’s more reserved stride, and then Dog’s playful pad.

Nate hadn’t expected to run into so many ragtag souls who were also so willing to set the world on fire. The apocalypse wasn’t supposed to be filled with helpful and generous sorts. But as he heard them all follow, ready to lay down justice on his behalf, he realized… right now, this was the closest thing he’d felt to his old self in a long time.

That almost scared him.

Chapter Text

Hancock felt there came a moment in every ghoul’s life when they had to be ready to die for something worth doing. His past had been a series of these snapshots, each crystallized like stained glass windows in his cathedral of memories, stretching on and on.

In most of those moments, he’d run. He’d failed. People had died because he’d let them down—until he put on this coat, of course, knowing what it meant.

So when a helpful, kind, and dangerous soldier told him they were about to hunt down a kid thief, a mercenary, a murderer of families?

John Hancock was ready to throw the fuck down.

Dog scrabbled over the crumbling asphalt, barking, tail wagging like this was a game. Every so often, he’d pause to make sure his less-swift companions were keeping up. Sometimes, he’d dance in place. But as soon as they got within range, he’d take off again like a shot.

Hancock laughed, shotgun already slung from his shoulder, ready to let loose at a moment’s notice. Whoever the hell had trained this mutt, they’d lost solid gold.

“There! He’s found something!” Valentine called out. He leveled a finger that glimmered in the sun.

Skidding to a stop, Hancock brought down his weapon, wary. The dog was wagging his tail in front of a little shack hidden in the trees.

Nate ran up. It seemed abandoned. “More cigars!” he called. “San Francisco Sunlights!”

Valentine hrmmmed. “We’re on the right trail. See if you can get him to keep going.”

While Nate knelt and ruffled Dog’s fur, speaking softly and telling him what a good boy he was, Hancock kept watch, making sure the merc didn’t come back and get the drop on them. It would have been easy in these ruins. While keeping vigil, though, he nudged Valentine with his shoulder, happy to talk and work at the same time. “Hey. This is fun. Why’d you stop coming around Goodneighbor, man? I was bored. Until, well, recently anyway.”

Nick raised an artificial eyebrow. “If a case had brought me back, I would’ve come. I haven’t forgotten your help on the last one.”

That got a chuckle. “I hope not! Laced chems. Brahmin thieves. Lemon robots. Good times.”

“I suppose it was.” The detective snorted as Dog began to snuffle afresh around an abandoned plastic chair. “So, did you come out here just because you were bored?” That machine gaze narrowed almost imperceptibly, like he was weighing a matter of character judgment in the question. “Or did Kellogg cross you?”

You wanna know why I’ve latched onto tall, blue, and handsome, huh? Hancock could only shrug and give the truth. “Hey, you know me. I help people that need helping. Hurt people that need hurting. It’s not hard.”

“That’s not… really an answer.”

Hancock paused, startled. Of course it was an answer. He was a simple ghoul with simple whims.

Valentine just stared, silent, waiting.

Suddenly, Dog launched off again, Nate right behind. A questioning noise cut off in Nick’s throat as Hancock jerked away to follow, abandoning the conversation.

There would be time to talk more later if Nick really wanted, but Hancock didn’t know what else to tell him.

And something deep in his chest twinged.

It was true that he wouldn’t risk his neck like this for just anyone, sure. But Nate had a… special something. That was it. His heart seemed good. His companionship seemed honest. Hell, he’d needed someone out here, so, Hancock reasoned, why not me?

“You’re running after him now, too,” he finally said between breaths, keeping a quick stride.

Valentine didn’t answer. Maybe he needed to think on that.

Yeah. There was something about Nate that drew a man in. Even the dog seemed to know it. And, Hancock had realized, it was definitely more than that nice smile and chiseled frame.

Hell, Nate. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve got something real good going on here.

 


 

Nate the soldier, husband, and widower, in that long, harrying chase, felt like far more of a machine than his new detective acquaintance. He couldn’t stop. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t rest.

He didn’t need to.

Kellogg was all that mattered now.

His Pip-Boy rang with a quiet chime, and Nate, breath stabbing his chest, spent a precious second to look. Fort Hagan, his map said.

As he registered the implications of arriving at a military installation, his ears caught the grinding whir of a weapon of war spinning up.

“WOAH!” Arms slammed into his midsection as someone tackled him—someone he could only tell was Hancock from the flash of red in his peripheral view, a tricorn hat flying. A turret unloaded twenty rounds of burning steel into the dirt where he’d been standing not a moment prior. Chunks of dust and grass exploded in Nate’s eyes. His back hit the ground hard behind an old car. A pained gasp burst from his lungs.

That red coat was sprawled over him like a shield. Hancock crouched low, getting himself up, but not into the turret’s line of sight. The mayor grabbed his tricorn and jammed it back over his bald head, crouching low against the car frame. “You alright?”

Nate came up too, answering by squeezing a thank you into his companion’s shoulder.

“We’re in luck!” Valentine’s voice came from behind a nearby rock. Dog was pressed into his side, ears down. “There’s a lot of turrets, but only one of them can hit us from this approach angle!”

That turret hummed high above, wrath at the ready. Alright. If Nick was correct, if they kept to a narrow line, none of the others would be able to hit them. “I’ve got a grenade,” Nate panted.

“Say no more.” Hancock dove from behind the car in a fire-red flurry right on down the turret’s sights. A trail of bullets lit up at his heels.

You crazy—! Nate panicked, throwing the grenade as hard as he could. The distracted machine couldn’t spin back to him in time to stop the pitch. It exploded in a brilliant flash of shrapnel.

One turret: toasted.

“Nice.” Hancock brushed himself off, grinning.

“Are you sure there wasn’t a… safer way to handle that?” Valentine deadpanned.

Hancock shrugged. “It worked, didn’t it?”

Nate stared, heart pounding. In all honesty, he’d been thinking they might throw a stick, see if that caught the motion detector. It might not fool the targeting systems, but it seemed better than the first plan being human sacrifice.

“Hey, I knew you had my back,” Hancock said, mellow as anything, giving him a chummy, one-armed hug about the shoulders. “You got biceps like you’re on Buffout. Of course you were gonna make that throw.”

Heat flushed Nate’s cheeks, and he wasn’t sure if it was from the compliment or from frustration. “Please be more careful.”

Dog bounded forward now, favoring a leg, but clearly trained not to show fear. At Fort Hagan’s barred doors before them, he scrabbled his paws and let loose an unhappy howl.

Nate rushed forward too, kneeling to inspect his canine friend. Shit. The turret had winged Dog’s right foreleg and back in its initial volley. Blood streaked and matted his fur. Thank god it didn’t look like the bullets had entered or caused serious damage, but this was one hurt animal, and he wasn’t going much further.

Dog’s eyes met his, huge and moist as he panted with exhaustion. He kept looking sorrowfully back and forth between his new masters and the locked door, almost like this was his fault and he wanted to apologize. Hancock came up, offering him a premium chunk of jerky, but he only turned away, releasing another heart-wrenching whine, head sagging.

Fear fluttered cold fingers through Nate’s chest. If Kellogg wound up killing this incredible, affection-starved animal in addition to everything else, they were going to make the mercenary suffer.

“I knew he’d sniff our man out.” Nick Valentine hobbled forward. His shoulder was hit too, a green fluid leaking from a crumpled hole that went clean through his coat. The arm it was attached to ground as he moved it in a slow, jerky manner. Guilt sent another pang through Nate’s chest—why the hell should everyone here be risking death over a revenge that had almost nothing to do with them in the first place?

I can’t protect all of you. There’s just one of me. Nate swallowed back bile. He hadn’t expected to be responsible for so many others’ wellbeing so soon.

“Hey Nick—you and the good dog oughta rest.” Hancock took the words right out of Nate’s mouth. “Vaultie and I got this asshole. If you head back, maybe you can get the pooch some medical help. And you can find yourself a mechanic or something.”

Nate gestured to the ugly wound. “Yeah. That looks like your gun arm.”

Valentine’s rubbery lips pressed into a stubborn line. “…Fine. I know a guy in Diamond City who’ll patch Dog up.” He jerked his head upward to the fort. “There might be an open entrance on the roof, you know. Someone has to get out to maintain those turrets.” Nate nodded in agreement, spotting a rickety ladder leading up. “Send word when you come by. I want to hear all about what Kellogg had to say.”

“We will.” Hancock reached out, dropping the rest of a jerky bag into the confused synth’s hands. “Make sure the furball pulls through. I’m starting to really like him. You too, man. Don’t skimp on the coolant.”

 


 

Getting into Fort Hagan’s central building wasn’t hard. Moving forward was a different story. Nate hadn’t really expected Kellogg to be a guy that could keep around friends—but, if a man couldn’t make them naturally, it seemed enlisting dozens of killer synths was a viable alternative.

What a great day to learn something new.

Returning the favor from the encounter with the turret, Nate pulled Hancock’s collar back, yanking his companion’s head down as a laser blast arced through the space where it once was. A new scar scorched the wallpaper. The ghoul grinned his thanks, black eyes alight with the fury of combat. Another synth went down from one of his well-placed shotgun blasts. This place was swarming with the things, though there wasn’t a human in sight. It was all Nate and Hancock had been able to do to dive behind an overturned table before those lasers started firing.

However, they were making headway. And as his companion took another shot at their enemies, a gravelly voice suddenly began to float to them—a voice that haunted Nate’s nightmares. “Well, well. If it isn’t my friend, the frozen TV dinner. Last time I saw you, you were cozying up to the peas and apple cobbler.”

Nate roared, popping up out of cover to look for Kellogg, activating his Pip-Boy’s V.A.T.S. “You bastard!”

But no one was there—the voice had come from an intercom. Two more synths took aim at Nate and fired. Their marks didn’t find home, burying into the wall as he charged, sending bullet punctures sparking out of their joints and necks. Nate didn’t remember firing everything in his guns’ chamber, but nonetheless, they clicked, empty. Ducking down again, he reloaded.

“He’s trying to get to you,” Hancock hissed, on his heels. “To make you do something stupid.”

Nate’s hands shook. “He… he knows we’ve got a chance, then.”

Hancock clapped his shoulder, taking point. “Yeah.” He prodded the two downed synths with his toe. That was it for this wave. “These guys weren’t so tough.” He knelt, rooting around. “So weird. They’ve got brains shaped like human ones. But metal.”

Nate stared at the damage he’d wrought, somewhat transfixed. No blood here, or faux flesh. Just coolant and chrome. They didn’t even have clothes—it was almost easy to think of the dead as broken vacuum cleaners instead of downed soldiers.

Almost.

Nick Valentine’s face floated in the back of his mind.

Hancock threw him one of the strange energy guns the synths were using. “Let’s see how they like these, huh?”

Grimly, Nate nodded.

On and on they went. Each room, each floor was crawling with the androids, but though they were deadly, they were simple, easy to predict. In his enemies, Nate saw none of the originality of humanity—unlike Valentine, these were like turrets with legs. Their artificial voices snapped monotone orders to each other. They tried the same strategies over and over. He could see how these things might be a serious threat in sufficient numbers, a firing line of lasers and unsettling eyes, but in these tight spaces, for a trained soldier who knew how to use his environment? No. No, they weren’t.

Kellogg seemed to know that, too. Every now and again, his voice would float from an intercom, taunting. One would have to be a fool not to hear how his tone grew sharp and urgent, demanding they turn back.

Nate simply shot the last intercom out before Kellogg could finish. He hoped that sent his message perfectly well.

And finally, there was only one final door. Laser fire had left its scorched tracks across Nate’s clothes, and Hancock’s as well. Kellogg’s hated voice rang through the air again. This time, it was tinged with… resignation.

“Okay. Fine. You’re here. My synths are standing down. Let’s talk.”

You already know how this is gonna end, you son of a bitch. Good.

“I’ve got you,” Hancock said. “He probably has backup, but leave ‘em to me.”

Sure enough, the ghoul was right. There Kellogg stood in the middle of a huge command center, terminals active, a skeletal synth task force at his back. “There he is,” the mercenary greeted, face pale, but unmoved. “The most resilient man in the Commonwealth. Funny, I thought I had that honor.”

For Nate, this was the sound of a bell at high noon, the way they both stood twenty paces apart. “You murdered my wife. Took my son. You’re a dead man.”

Kellogg’s tongue clicked. He didn’t yet draw his weapon. “Ah. Your wife. That was… a regrettable accident.”

“Accident?! You executed her!” Nate saw red. He clenched his grip around his revolvers until he couldn’t feel his fingers. “Where’s my son?”

Kellogg showed two unarmed palms, gruff voice oddly calm, that robotic death squad at his back. And he told Nate exactly where Shaun was—that he was older than what maybe Nate expected, that at least he was in a loving home.

The Institute. A place no one knew how to get to, or even where it was.

Blood freezing, Nate tried not to let the tide of rage consume him, the hopelessness on its heels.

He’d goddamn known it. He hadn’t wanted to believe it. But he’d known, from his investigation in that house, from the horrible, sinking sensations in his gut. A hot tear snaked down through his stubble, dripping from his chin. “I’ll find him no matter where he is. Nothing will stop me.”

“God, you’re persistent. I give you credit. It’s the way a father should act. The way I’d—”

BANG. Nate’s draw was quick, sudden, and final. Kellogg slumped to the ground, skull blown open—too chatty until the end, too convinced Nate would care about anything he said once Shaun’s location was granted.

A couple seconds. That was all revenge took.

Hancock pitched a grenade before the body even hit the floor, blowing the synths off their feet just as they began squeezing their triggers. His shotgun and Nate’s revolvers claimed the rest, their robotic forms jerking, sparking, malfunctioning from the blast. It was easy.

Hell, it was almost like Kellogg had been waiting to die.

It’s over.

Nate, crying, unloaded the rest of his gun’s chamber into Kellogg’s dead body. It had been too short. Too goddamn short. No bullets were left for him to fire. Nothing was left for him to do.

A hollow hole yawned wide in his chest. Here lay Kellogg, and a few miles away, there lay Nora.

He wasn’t happy. He wasn’t even sad.

He was just ready to lie down too.

Nate slumped, the wedding ring cold against his sternum. He’d never before felt a part of himself dying so thoroughly from the act of taking a life, despite all the people he’d killed in the past. “Nora used to tell me something,” he whispered, almost to no one at all. “That when you go out for revenge, you dig two graves. Do they… do they still say that?”

Hancock shuffled up behind as Nate bowed his head, lost. “No. I think I get it, though.”

Lifting his gaze, Nate watched as the ghoul holstered his shotgun and sat next to him. It was a quiet, companionable aura emanating to his left, like he was keeping watch.

Codsworth had been right. Being alone in this moment… Nate didn’t know where his thoughts would have taken him.

“Not to make this about me,” Hancock intoned, rubbing his chin, “But I do have a story. Maybe it’ll help.”

“Go ahead,” Nate whispered. He felt like he couldn’t move, so he had nothing to lose. Was Nora looking down on them right then? He’d wondered if maybe he’d feel her presence in this moment, if he’d know she was happy to be avenged. But he felt nothing. Nothing. Just blood and burns. His body didn’t even feel like it was his own.

“You remember when Bobbi No-Nose told you that you were gonna go rob Mayor McDonough?”

“…Yeah?”

“She wasn’t entirely lying. McDonough in Diamond City… he’s my brother, see. I was the other Mayor McDonough.”

Nate finally dropped his shaking pistol. “…What?

“Clearly, I got all the good looks, I know.” Hancock sighed. “But here’s the story. I told you what my brother did to the ghouls when he was elected. It was horrifying. Fires were burning. I ran up to his office that night, still human myself. I begged him to call it off. But he just looked at me… and he smiled. This awful thing. I never saw him smile like that when we were kids. He just said, ‘It’s finally mine, John.’ That he was giving the voters what they wanted.”

Nate swallowed, numb and unsure of what to say, brain spinning. He stared Hancock fully in the shriveled face. One couldn’t be blamed for not seeing the family resemblance.

“I left town. Couldn’t stand it there anymore. Wound up in Goodneighbor. Guy in charge there then, Vic, he wasn’t much better. I mean, he wasn’t anti-ghoul, but he’d let his thugs blow off steam on anyone convenient. You didn’t have a locked door, well, good luck. And us drifters? We got it bad. I had a friend die… the guy stood up to them, and they cracked his head open on the pavement like a can of Cram. I didn’t do anything about it. Just ran again.”

“Shit,” Nate whispered.

“My face now? Did this on purpose. There was an experimental drug—hell of a high, by the way.” He chuckled. “And a hell of a drop. But I didn’t want to look in the mirror and see John McDonough anymore, the coward, the goddamn runner, so it seemed like a no-brainer.”

“You made yourself a ghoul?” Heart thudding, Nate could barely imagine it. Surely a transformation like that was agonizing.

“And I never regretted it. But… I didn’t become John Hancock because of that. I was still the same guy, problems and all, even if I didn’t have to look at myself anymore. So I blacked out for a while. I hit the hard stuff. And when you’re a ghoul, you can really hit the hard stuff. My wish only came true, to kill John McDonough, when I woke up in the state house after one of Vic’s rampages, after a pretty nasty bender. And you know what was in front of me?” He straightened his red lapels. “This coat. Belonged to the original John Hancock: America’s first troublemaker. Like some kinda sign.” He took a long breath. “I decided I wasn’t gonna to run anymore. I finally did something about a guy hurting people. I rallied the other drifters; I hit up K-L-E-O for hardware; I made a goddamn army. I took over Goodneighbor, yeah, and I killed Vic, let the bastard swing, and I buried the shit out of John McDonough. A bunch of people found something they could count on to keep them safe. Someone they could believe in. A town that was of the people, for the people.”

He leveled one mottled finger at Kellogg. “What I’m saying is, sometimes, it’s goddamn fine digging two graves. Fuck Vic, and fuck this guy. He deserved what he got before he hurt anyone else. I’m glad I could be here helping you do it. And you? You got things to do. Maybe you’re not gonna be the same after this, maybe part of you dies, but if you’re like me? That ain’t a bad thing at all. You can be something better now. Someone who’s gonna keep carrying on through these wastes to get your kid back. And you know what? Hang all the evil bastards that get in your way. They deserve it.”

It was like he was going to try reaching out and dragging Nate from of that hollow hole of despair whether his friend wanted it or not. That strikingly warm hand settled between Nate’s shoulder blades. Those black eyes reflected solidarity through the pain.

“Maybe,” Nate said. “Maybe you’re right.” Sniffling, wiping his eyes, he stood. It was time to walk out of this place. It was time to rise again. And it wasn’t like Kellogg deserved a burial. “Alright. Yes. You’re right. I’ve got things to do.”

“Then you know I’m with you.” Hancock also rose. “So let’s get it done.” He kicked Kellogg over, looting his pockets. Nate found he derived some tiny, dark happiness from that act. “Hey. What the hell is this?” Hancock turned the mercenary’s head to the side.

“Holy…” The bullet had entered and exited quite cleanly, taking a decent chunk of skull with it. It was wholly unpleasant to look at. But a tiny something was also buried in the fluid and filth, something shining chrome. Nate reached out with shaking fingers, prying it loose. A flashback from his school days showed him a plastic model of the brain, all the little pieces.

Hancock squinted. “What is that, silver?”

“I… I think it’s a cyber… brain… thing. Like in the synth heads.”

Hancock pursed his lips. “Weird.” Nate’s fingers shook, unable to quite put it down. “Hey, someone’ll want to look at that, with all the interest in synths. People want to know how the Institute operates. Maybe this dickhead’ll finally do some good.”

Nate didn’t smile, but he slipped the bloody metal into a cloth in his bag, a little nauseous. What were you, Kellogg?

A few minutes later, they were a few bullets and caps heavier. While his companion made pew pew pew noises, pretending to fire an Institute laser pistol, Nate finally tossed his head to a blinking elevator button down the way. “Want to bet that was his exit?”

“Definitely.”

Together, they boarded the lift, and in silence, they rose. And when that door opened, when the sunlight finally cracked through, for Nate, it was like emerging from all the weight of the world over his mind. The sky was open and vast. The horizon was calling him from this grave.

The outward-facing turrets before them on Fort Hagan’s rooftop spun down, perhaps thinking they had nothing to worry about from within. Nate came up carefully behind one, gently tugging at its combat inhibitor. He needed some decent assurance that, when they left, they weren’t going to become Swiss cheese.

It was good for him to do this, as it always was to feel the dry whisper of wires under his fingers, to dig down into grease and the gears. Machinery was simple. The world was simpler while he was working on it. It was why he liked helping build so much in Sanctuary, why he didn’t mind Preston’s latest request to carry that forward to other places.

There was so much destruction that sometimes it was a healing act to tinker and create.

Or disable a deadly machine of war.

Either was good.

“Hey. Uh. Nate.” Hancock’s voice was strained. He tapped Nate’s back with the butt of his shotgun.

“Gimme a moment.” The combat inhibitor was almost loose. Once Nate had it, it would be easy to disable the whole device, but one of the screws was stripped, a cloud had moved over the sun, and—

Nate.”

“It’s almost—”

“NATE.”

Finally, Nate spun.

Hancock was gaping at the sky. In that moment, Nate wondered if insane Jet flashbacks were contagious.

It wasn’t a cloud that had moved in front of the sun. It was a blimp coming up behind them: a machine so monstrous, it blotted out the sky. In its wake, a voice began to roar across the wasteland, like the harbinger of the Old Testament God.

“PEOPLE OF THE COMMONWEALTH! DO NOT BE AFRAID. WE ARE THE BROTHERHOOD OF STEEL.”

Despite what the voice said, Nate was suddenly terrified speechless.

“Holy shit,” Hancock said. “You’re seeing this too, right?”

The city-sized zeppelin bore on, descending on the Commonwealth in all its wrath and glory. Vertibirds flanked it left and right, engines roaring a paean of might and death.

“WE HAVE COME TO SAVE YOU,” the war cry bellowed. “STAY OUT OF OUR WAY, AND YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR.”

Nate could only sit, watching as the thing swallowed the sunlight, as its masters screeched their warnings of doom, of salvation.

“Holy shit,” he agreed.

 


 

The erstwhile mayor of Goodneighbor jittered, a never-tiring engine jogging forward. He set a grueling pace through the brush and ruins. Every so often, a Vertibird would whoosh overhead, and he hit the dirt, jamming his hat low so they couldn’t, on some off-chance, see his face.

The Brotherhood’s warhawks would only barrel on.

Those goddamn metalheads were just showing off. They weren’t tearing things up yet, though they would soon. People like this would be itching to show off their power on some scapegoat, just to make an example so no one would try any funny business. No one fucking zipped machines like that around just to never use them.

“…Hancock!” Nate gasped, stumbling into the dirt beside him as they hid from another Vertibird pass. He was heaving in air. Like a good soldier, he hadn’t complained once.

But Hancock could see the man was wrecked. His emotions were shot. His endurance was sucked dry. Exhaustion would drop him soon.

Damn.

Now that he was distracted, Hancock’s own weariness slammed into him. Even with his ghoulish enhancements… they’d been running like this for miles, and that was after the massive trek to Fort Hagan in the first place. He could barely stand back up from how his own legs were shaking.

“We have to rest,” Nate managed. He put a hand to Hancock’s shoulder, as if he was trying to keep him laying down, seeing how he was struggling to rise.

“We can’t,” he said, desperation winding his voice tight. “The Brotherhood… if they try to roll through my town…”

“Goodneighbor is too far!” Nate shook that shoulder like it might force in some sense. “What do you think you’ll do if you get there and can’t even stand?”

Go feral and bite their faces off! Hancock’s rage insisted.

But no. That was stupid. He was being stupid, and Nate was right.

“You really think they’re a threat to Goodneighbor?” his friend prodded.

The dirt was cool and dry, the dust exacerbating Hancock’s parched throat. He struggled for his waterskin. Overhead, the Vertibird’s propellors were fading. They were moving on.

Digging themselves in deeper.

“Well… when you’re a mayor, you pick up stories,” Hancock whispered, choking some water down. “From travelers. And the Brotherhood? They’ve got lots of stories following them around. They’re great if you’re, how they put it, human. Mostly. I mean, they might march on your town, demand tribute. Take all the tech in a region. Raze to the ground places that won’t roll over. But they’ll probably let ya live, maybe kill some bad guys to make themselves seem worthwhile. On the other hand… if you’re a ghoul or mutant or whatever?” He laughed bitterly. “They’ll shoot ya as soon as look at ya. And Goodneighbor…” Hancock knew he didn’t have to finish that sentence. Vaultie had good enough sense to know that a place like Goodneighbor would happily launch itself to the top of any Brotherhood razing shortlist.

Maybe it would be because it was full of undesirables.

Maybe it would be because they were all damn ornery.

“I’m not gonna stand by,” Hancock rasped. “And let them march all over my home.” A tremor resonated in his core. I left with you to find my purpose again, huh? And after a few days… I gotta call it off. Right when I realized we might have something special. You’ve got other things to do, so I guess… off you’re gonna go. Disappointment and an odd, hollow feeling weighed down his heart. “Dammit. I think we’ll need to—”

“Set up camp,” Nate said. “And to bury some of the guns and armor we found so we can travel lighter. We can come back for it later. If we go off-road tomorrow, keep up the pace, we can cut our travel time back to Goodneighbor by a third.”

Hancock blinked. “No. Hey. I know what this means, alright? You’ve got a kid to find.”

Nate’s eyes hardened. “Shaun’s with the Institute. Somewhere I don’t know how to go to yet. Just like Mama Murphy said.” He let out an exhausted hiss as he shoved himself off the hard-packed dirt and weeds. “So until I can figure out the rest, I sure as hell am not going to let you go back there by yourself. I’m not going to abandon Goodneighbor to these guys. Alright?”

In wonder, Hancock blinked, unsure of what to say. Why would you…? How could the wastes spit out something this generous? Even after you just had to hunt down your wife’s murderer? Gratitude seeped into his vocal cords, unable to be held back. “Thanks, brother.” Those words didn’t even begin to cover it.

Nate nodded, like it was all understood. “You need help up?”

“I dunno. Nah. Probably not. Just give me a few—oof!”

Nate was already there, strong arms under his, lifting him to his feet. Ooo. They were… real warm. Man. It was just not fair that smoothskins got to have all those glands making all those pheromones. Smelled nice.

“I think your weight’s 50% hat,” Nate joked once they stabilized, slowly letting go.

“It’s what happens when all the unimportant bits rot off.” Hancock laughed, feeling his mood buoy up. Knowing he wasn’t going back alone was what gave him enough energy to drag himself the rest of the way to a nearby sheltered overpass. It was ideal for a camp. He even managed to kneel and break off some tinder for a fire from a dead, dry bush.

“You alright?” Nate called over his shoulder at the pause.

“Nah, you’re gonna have to carry me the rest of the way.” Hancock grinned as Nate turned to look. “I’m kidding! Kidding.” But I wouldn’t mind.

Once they settled and the evening started to press on, however, Hancock’s good humor started to ebb. His companion was looking grim as he roasted bits of lizard over the fire. The man’s eyes were far away—probably thinking about his son and the Institute, and of war zeppelins and Vertibirds. It was hard not to.

“So what are we going to do?” Nate finally said. “When we get back to Goodneighbor?”

Chewing on a dry stalk of grass, Hancock mulled. “Fahr’ll have a plan.”

“Yeah?” Nate turned the spit.

“Yeah. She always knows what’s going on.”

The truth was, Hancock could only hope she did.

The truth was, his answer was only a better way of saying, I have no goddamn idea.

Chapter Text

Nate hadn’t expected much help from Diamond City’s guards after their last encounter, but it seemed, as he approached the gate, that the roster had changed. Thank god. Perhaps Piper had managed to shake things up. If these guards didn’t know him and Hancock, they might actually be useful. 

Indeed, they were. Nick Valentine and a happier, bandaged Dog emerged from the city only minutes after, though their band wouldn’t be afforded rest for long. After all, they weren’t all welcome inside.

So to Goodneighbor, they were bound—and not only because of the Brotherhood’s encroachment. Valentine concluded that one of the only people in the world who had known how to get in the Institute had been Kellogg—at least, if the man was handing off children there to and fro. Therefore, Dr. Amari of the Memory Den needed to question the metallic hunk of brain in Nate’s bag.

Hancock looked happy indeed to take care of all kinds of hometown business as they stormed into the familiar gates. Valentine and Dog wandered towards the general store, but the mayor and Nate marched right to the state house, scaling the stairs and busting into Fahrenheit’s office. The Neighborhood Watch certainly didn’t try to stop them. They only shuffled in a cursory way, like they really ought to say something, but would rather not.

“Hey! Fahr!” Hancock roared, red frock billowing out behind him, arms wide in his own personal announcement of arrival. She stood up from behind the mayoral desk, barely even blinking. It was like watching a bear rising in its den. For a long moment, there she stared, tilting her head as if she didn’t know whether to bellow and make a challenge or to extend an invitation.

A black-haired man wearing large, opaque sunglasses shrunk in his chair off to the side, clearly the unfortunate casualty between two personalities. He seemed oddly familiar. Where have I seen you before? Nate wondered.

Fahrenheit said to the man, “You. Out. Shut the door.”

“Yes ma’am.” The guy bowed his head to Hancock as he went past. “Sir.”

As soon as he was gone, Hancock continued. “Brotherhood.” His smooth growl hit a guttural note. “You’ve seen ‘em?”

“Who hasn’t? They’ve been flying Vertibirds low everywhere, all day.” She came out from behind the desk and walked up, arms crossed. “What have you seen?”

“Their war zeppelin,” Nate intoned, feeling extraneous.

“Vaultie,” she growled, “I don’t know if you can stand anywhere in the Commonwealth and not see that… thing.”

Hancock edged in and pressed his palms onto the desk. “Have any of them tried approaching us?”

“No. But I’ve got eyes on Diamond City. I’ll bet anything that’s who’ll be contacted first. You can bet your ass I’m thinking of contingencies if they try muscling in this way.”

Hancock frowned, face unusually grim. “Fahr… we’re not real equipped to…”

“Yeah. I know.”

There seemed to be a lot unsaid between these two that had been understood perfectly well, and neither of them looked happy. “You all look like your asses are kicked,” Fahrenheit eventually grumbled. “Energy burns on your clothes? The hell were you fighting?”

Hancock brushed lingering dust from his coat. “Oh. Them. Institute.”

Institute?!” Her eyes went wide and angry as she leveled a furious finger. “The hell you mean, Institute? Why would you pick a fight with—”

“Hey. The guy we were after is dead,” Hancock assured. “Brotherhood of Steel’s kind of the big problem right now, right? Look. What do we need? We’ve got to need something done.”

Fahrenheit clenched her hands into fists, then wandered back to the chair. There, she simply collapsed. “Guns,” she said quietly. “Goodneighbor’s gonna need a lot of guns. More than even K-L-E-O’s got. More than probably the whole Commonwealth’s got to even attempt to keep out these fuckers if they get nasty.”

Not for the first time, Nate thought back to Preston and the others in Sanctuary. That mechanic… Sturges. After the power armor they’d fixed had gotten utterly thrashed by that Deathclaw monster—though it had certainly done its part—Sturges had promised to try and get it operating again. Last Nate saw, it was really a work in progress.

God I wish we had that right now.

“I don’t see any reason why the Minutemen wouldn’t help out if needed,” he contributed.

“Oh yeah!” Hancock pointed excitedly. “Look, the Minutemen are back, and—”

“Why the fuck would they care about Goodneighbor?”

“—Lemme finish! They… aren’t doing great now. But! They’re a possibility, especially if Nate keeps making them happy. That’s guns, Fahr. They used to have a whole lot of guns. Artillery. All kinds of crazy things. At least we could make ourselves less of a target, right? Until we can figure out what to do next?”

She tilted her chin into her chest uneasily. “That’s a lot of ifs and maybes.”

“It’s something.”

“We can go talk to Preston,” Nate said. “I can do everything possible to persuade him for a little help. We’re on great terms.”

Regarding them speculatively, Fahrenheit nodded, but not in a way that said she had a great deal of confidence that this Hail Mary pass was going to come through. Nate could understand why—it wasn’t like she really knew him from a hole in the ground. “Alright. If you can. Won’t say no. But I won’t sugarcoat it. If the Brotherhood marches in here with heavy guns and power armor? We don’t stand a chance.”

 


 

It was a disconsolate pair that went to reunite with Nick Valentine at the Memory Den. A light, cold rain started to drizzle down as the day passed to dusk, the drops slicking off Hancock’s tricorn. Nate’s own hair was soon soaked.

“I don’t like feeling helpless like this,” Hancock grumbled in a whisper, baring his teeth. The garish red neon of the signage threw his sunken black eyes and pockmarks into high, shadowed relief. The effect was deeply unsettling. “We ran all this way. Minutemen might even hang us out to dry when we get to them. But that’s it? All we can do?”

Nate just shook his head. The more he heard about the Brotherhood, the more he didn’t like the Minutemen’s odds either. A shiver from the rain wracked his spine.

“I was starting to worry you got into trouble.” Valentine emerged from the shadowed alley where he’d been talking to a ghoul stranger, who bowed his head and moved on. Dog pressed to Nick's legs, looking cheerful despite his bandages. “Of course, if you made the journey back from Hagan with all that’s going on now, I suppose Fahrenheit isn’t so bad.” The synth smiled and flicked a cigarette butt into wet garbage.

Nick smokes…? Nate’s brain froze up at this detail. Why on earth would he smoke? What does that even do for him?

Hancock nodded. “Fahr’s news is that the Brotherhood hasn’t tried smashing in any doors yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time.”

“…Yeah.” Nick’s voice hushed. The rain clattered harmlessly off his exposed metal. “You know, with all these air shows, you’d think they were afraid people didn’t notice that monstrosity up there, all their loudspeaker screaming.”

“They sure as hell knew how to make an entrance, didn’t they?” Nate rubbed his hands in the damp chill.

“And they might make travel pretty difficult in the coming days for some of us.” Valentine made a circular gesture encompassing his almost-human face. “We should hurry.”

“Bunch of tin-can assholes,” Hancock growled. “No offense, Nick.”

“None taken.”

The inside of the Memory Den, on Nate’s first hazy and painful visit, had put him more in the mind of a boudoir than a place of medicine or technology. Now, the plush red surfaces and scented candles made him want to take off his armor and sleep. His body quaked with cold and exhaustion.

“Oh god. You again.” Dr. Amari stood over a client’s pod, looking up from her clipboard.

Hancock squinted at Nate and Nick. “Is one of you a regular here?”

Embarrassed, Nate mumbled, “I bled all over the carpet once. I think. It’s fuzzy.”

Amari glared. “I have no interest in whatever lacerations or broken pre-war tech you’re dragging in. This is a place for memory clients only.” She leveled an accusing finger at Dog. “And get that animal out of here!”

“Hold up,” Hancock intervened.

“Hold on, doctor,” Valentine added.

The group stared at each other for a moment. Hancock finally shrugged, as if to say, go ahead, and Nick took the lead. “Our friend here has something a bit special. Something only you can really help with, given your… expertise. It’s about… well, the Institute.”

She froze. Then, she glanced down into the client’s pod to her left, but the ghoul in there was far gone, off in his dream. “Don’t even say that out loud!” she hissed. Rushing forward, she locked the doors against the growing storm and potential intruders, closing the blinds. It was a long moment while she paced and grabbed a cigarette with shaking hands.

Finally, after she took a drag—the smoke puffing into the back room as she turned her head—Dr. Amari turned to face them again. “Okay. I’ll listen. But keep yourselves very quiet.”

Nate withdrew the cloth-wrapped, brain-soaked chunk of chrome and wires from his bag. Looking at it, her eyes widened with both fascination and fear. Gently, he passed it to her waiting hands.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, unsure if he had all the hope in the world or none at all.

She did know, and as she told him what he needed to do, he began to wonder how many nightmares he would need to experience to find his son.

I guess at least one more.

 


 

Close to an hour passed. Nate had lost himself in visions of Kellogg’s past, sealed up in one of Amari’s little chrome eggs, visions pumping into his eyes. The images were torn from that recovered chunk of metallic brain, routed and stabilized through Valentine’s cranium, then blasted through the pod’s viewer. Hancock heard the process was something about cyber-science and neurons and feelings.

What he saw, however, was that Nate got to experience a dead sociopath’s memories up close and personal.

And god, he was starting to think that his companion was the last man on earth that should have volunteered to be in that chair. Even he couldn’t get over watching those brainwaves from further off. Over Amari’s shoulder, everyone got to see Nate from another man’s eyes, beating against cryo-coffin glass… everyone got to watch his wife get blown to hell in brilliant, vivid technicolor.

The mercenary hadn’t even hesitated. He was a fucking piece of work. Christ.

And Nate had to watch it all again—trembling in his memory chair, heart rate pounding off the charts. Dr. Amari asked him to calm down. Calm down. Like that was going to happen!

Hancock had already thought there was no question why his companion dragged himself halfway to hell and back to gun Kellogg down. Now he was kind of wishing the mercenary was still alive in order to get murdered all over again.

Of course, the memories tumbled on after that too. The “Shaun” Nate spoke of so wistfully wasn’t even a baby anymore. The kid was some brainwashed Institute adoption case—already walking, talking, and excited to see his favorite foster mercenary again one day. And there was still no obvious way into the Institute—apparently, they used some kind of lightning thing to teleport in and out.

So of course, Nate was now just lying there in the pod, the cover open. The memories were done. So was the damage. He looked up at nothing, and Hancock made the executive decision that the guy could do that for however long he needed. Dog eventually crawled in the pod too, curling around Nate’s feet.

Amari, temper or not, just let him sit there. Surprisingly, she refrained from blowing up about animal fur on her equipment… although her assistant seemed to be finding lots of distractions to keep her away. Irma was really a good sort.

Hancock paced unhappily in the foyer now, not knowing what else to do. On the bench nearby, Nick Valentine stared dazedly off into nothing. It must have been a poignantly filthy experience to muck Kellogg’s head through his own, a living conduit. Gross.

“Selfless thing you did there, man,” Hancock whispered.

Nick’s held tilted as he squinted with cloudy yellow eyes. Something in that eerie, piercing stare chilled Hancock to the bone. “I can’t believe you killed me,” he hissed. Static overwhelmed his vocal synthesizer—and something more, something growling and furious, though his body just calmly sat there, expression slack.

Hancock backed up. “Woah. Hey. Nick? You alright man?”

Valentine suddenly shook his head. “Sorry. What did you say?” His voice returned to normal. “Amari said I might get some mnemonic echoes from the remnants of Kellogg’s brain. I’m sitting here until it sorts out.”

“Nemmonick?” Hancock smacked his lips, skin crawling. “Gonna have to take some pity on a poor ghoul needing to restock on Mentats, friend.”

Nick chuckled. “Bits of his memories. Voice. Personality.”

“Shit. That was fucking Kellogg? I was literally just wishing I could shoot him again.”

“…It’s not him. Just… echoes. Don’t worry. It’ll fade with time, the doctor thinks. So… refrain from shooting me.”

“Alright. If you insist.” Hancock collapsed on the bench too, elbow to elbow with the synth. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that creep’s anywhere near your circuits.”

Nick nodded, looking like he wanted another cigarette.

“So, what do you think about what we saw? That final memory, about Kellogg’s last contract—to hunt down that escaped Institute scientist out in the Glowing Sea. Think that sounds like a good lead to get some info on these bastards, maybe use it to get to Nate’s kid?” Hancock himself didn’t think it seemed like much… just that it was the only thing they had. And, he recalled Mama Murphy’s prophecy, promising a jaunt through a glowing ocean to find what they needed.

“Honestly, I don’t remember it.” Nick drummed his metallic hand carefully on his knee. “The Glowing Sea? Talk about the guy being hard to reach. But people who have walked in and out of the Institute are vanishingly rare. Are you actually thinking about running into that cesspit to find out about him?”

“Look, we couldn’t go right away.” Hancock heaved a sigh. “Nate couldn’t go at all. But people like you and me? We could. We could help him out on this.”

“It’d be risky even for us.” Nick uncomfortably shuffled his feet. “I certainly couldn’t take a deathclaw, and they swarm that area. And you—I’ve heard stories about what happens to ghouls that overdose on radiation. Lights them up from the inside. Heals you for a while… but you certainly wouldn’t be allowed back into polite, non-radioactive society any day soon, given you didn’t lose your mind first.”

Hancock slouched lower. “…Yeah. Yeah, I’ve heard about that too.” Scrunching his brow, he put his chin in his palm. “I just hate not being able to do shit. Not about the Brotherhood for Goodneighbor. Not about Nate, who I promised I’d help. The Institute is just wrecking his life—for no goddamn reason.”

Nick shrugged. “That’s what they do: they take what they want and throw everyone else on the garbage heap. I mean, look at me.” He shrugged. “All you can do is be his friend.”

Hancock paused. Of course! Of course. I’m an idiot. He chuckled. “Alright. Yeah. Maybe there is one thing I can do. Geez, Nick, slinging profound wisdom over here. Thanks.” He rose.

“Where are you headed off to?”

“To get Nate trashed.”

Synthetic eyes blinkered. “What? That’s… that’s not what I said. At all.”

“Sure it is.” Hancock swaggered to the back. “Thanks man! We’ll talk later. Kick it at the state house if you need to rest up, alright? Tell Fahrenheit I sent ya.”

Behind him were only grumpy grumbles, but Hancock didn’t care. This was one thing he understood: Nate was spiraling, and it was time to medicate.

 


 

The Third Rail probably didn’t know what was about to hit it. But, it sure as hell seemed to after its mayor swaggered in like the ghoul everyone should know, shoving along one dog and one shuffling, dead-eyed Nate—who felt like his head was a cracked coconut and that he’d never win.

Hancock just put him in a chair and told the robo-barkeep from before to give them one of everything on the menu.

“We’ve only got one thing on the menu,” the Handy scowled, which was quite a feat for a creation with no face. “Beer.”

“Then Charlie, give me one of everything you got off the menu, too.” Sudden motion seemed to catch Hancock’s eye: the singer making her way to the stage. The ghoul whirled to face her, a dervish of red coat. “Mags!”

She smiled like she’d been accosted by a delicious chocolate cake. “Oh, Mr. Mayor,” she breathed huskily. Nate couldn’t help but widen his eyes. “It’s you! Back in town, sugar?”

“Sure as hell am. And my buddy? He needs you to sing your best work tonight.”

She laughed, the sound tinkling like little bells—it managed to cut through even Nate’s dark fog. “You got it. I remember him. And you know what? I’ve been working on some new numbers just for this occasion.” She sashayed off, blowing a kiss to them both over her shoulder, all hips and seduction. No one could accuse her of not knowing how to put on a show.

When the music finally started, Nate was already numb. Hancock shoved him drink after drink, and to him, that was fine. Some of it was weak and bitter. Some of it was so strong, he could feel his nose hairs burning. At least one glass might have held actual cleaning polish.

He took it all.

By the time the music ended, both Nate and his “best friend in the WHOLE wasteland, I mean it, you’re the BEST,” were cheering for an encore. When the singer obliged—Magnolia, Nate finally learned—he was ready to sing along. They all did. The whole bar joined in like the world was rediscovering karaoke. By the time Nate left, head full of smoke and ears ringing, he could barely walk, but he was pretty certain he danced alright.

Hancock slung one arm around his shoulder for balance, singing still. In his other hand, a corked bottle of wine hung that he’d managed to weasel off of someone. Now he was swinging it like a conductor’s baton when he wanted to punctuate his notes. “Good to be a good, gooooood neighbooor…”

He sounded a bit like a dying animal. Dog, in fact, howled as he skipped at their feet, like he wanted to join in.

“Gooooood goood neighboooor,” Nate joined in, not sounding that much better.

The Rexford receptionist just waved them upstairs to a room, probably happy to get them both out of the lobby. There was only one bed in their lodging, a single, into which Hancock gently helped Nate before he flopped on the floor beside the mattress, back propped against the wall, uncorking his bottle.

“So whush the deal with Fahrenheit?” Nate slurred. “She’s real scary.”

Hancock nodded enthusiastically, words mushing only a little in return. The ghoul held his booze well. Of course, he’d taken more than just alcohol, and it had probably helped. “She… she threaten you already?”

“No, I—wait. You expectin’ her to… to… threaten me?”

“…Sounds like something she’d do.”

Nate huffed and rolled onto his stomach, feeling like an abused sack of bricks. “How’d ya end up with her anyway?” Part of him wondered if she was some kind of girlfriend. The relationship had a weird vibe—but wouldn’t it be like Hancock, to go on-again-off-again with some terrifying mercenary type?

Or maybe he was with the Magnolia lady. She’d given him the VIP winks, that was for sure, enough to make the whole room jealous. Even Nate himself had been squirming a little with discomfort, though he wasn’t sure why.

Hancock tilted his head. “Well…” he hedged.

“If that’s not… ya know, personal,” Nate added. He suddenly wasn’t so sure why this man’s love life seemed like a great thing to pry at.

“Oh, nah. Nothing like that. I was just thinking about whether she’d care if I told you or not. It’s not common knowledge around here, I don’t think.”

Head still sloshing, Nate couldn’t help but prop himself up on his elbows to look on curiously.

“Yeah,” Hancock decided, nodding to himself. “Yeah, she’d probably be fine with it, ‘cause I know you’re good people—ya’are good people, Nate—and you’ll keep your mouth shut. So. She’s actually my kid.”

And there went Nate’s train of thought, cheerfully derailed into a ditch. “What?” was all he could manage. “You’re…” You’re a father? Like me? How is that possible…? Something inside his chest softened, a maudlin wave swelling out from his aching heart. Do you… do you understand what I’m going through?

Hancock laughed. “Yeah, my daughter. She’s how I really got to know Nick Valentine, too! Ohhh, this is actually a good story. Wanna hear it?”

“Definitely.” Nate leaned in far enough that he almost tipped face-first off the bed.

Hancock took a long draught from his bottle, like he was fueling up for the verbal journey ahead. “Augh. Oh man. That’s awful stuff. Like… like grapes and feet.” He shook his head, clearing it, then took another, bigger swig. “Alright. Alright. So, after I left Diamond City, all screwed up, apparently I left a surprise behind.” He laughed. “I had no idea. I mean, no one told me. Fahrenheit grew up with her mom. Probably not… not a great mom… but hell. Who am I to judge? Not like I was around.” A bitter sigh followed, the bottle clinking on the floor. “Anyways. Fahr got fed up with things there too. When she got old enough, she stomped over to Valentine’s, asking him to track down whatever good-for-nothing asshat left her and her mother in the lurch. He came up with yours truly, and that I’d left town—and some rumor that I was drifting around Goodneighbor. Fahr marched all the way out here with Nick just to find me, right? Maybe to read me the business. So one day, I was out of my head on a dirty floor—couldn’t even get off my back—when suddenly this girl just busts into the shack where I was crashing. Behind her’s the damn robot cop that would give me talking-tos as a teenager. I thought they were hallucinations. Screaming and flailing were involved. Totally incoherent.”

Nate winced, vision blurring. “That must have been a pretty… pretty raw first impression.”

“Right?! Especially since the whole reason I was out of my gourd was because I’d just started ghoulin’ up.”

“Seriously? You’d just taken that… the drug thing?”

“Yep. And… I dunno, I guess Fahr felt bad. Maybe I was more of a loser than she’d expected, or maybe she didn’t want me to die before she could smack me around a little. She wound up dragging my ass here to the Rexford, then taking care of me for a while, until the worst was over. We talked a little when I came out of it. Played chess. And she hung around Goodneighbor for a couple months, but… well, I was still John McDonough, ugh, and I think I really disappointed her. She took off eventually. I felt bad for myself again.” Hancock smiled, tilting his hat haphazardly. “Vic’s boys raised hell that night too. Got totally blitzed. But wouldn’t you know it… that’s the night I decided to turn things around.”

“And she came back?”

“Yep. When I took over, she just… I don’t know, I guess she heard about what I pulled here. She stormed into the state house a week later, slammed her gun on the desk, and told me she was going to have my back with whatever the hell I was doing since she didn’t trust me to take care of myself. I think she mighta been a tiny bit proud of me after all! Ha. And she never went back to Diamond City again. She hired herself right then and there, told me where I could stick a ‘no,’ and the rest… is history.” He spread his arms wide as if to say, Ta-da!, slouching further into the floor.

Nate grinned, warmed to the core, feeling like a sucker for happy endings. “Hell of a person. That’s… that’s incredible you were brought back together like that! You finally got to know… know you were a father.”

“Thanks man… but honestly though… I’m not a father. I didn’t raise Fahr a day in her life. She sure as hell doesn’t call me Pop.” His eyes clouded with happiness. “But she turned out alright! Smart. Tough. A lot more on top of things than I ever was. Can’t say it hasn’t been good times or that I don’t think she’s awesome.”

Something in Nate swelled stronger than his inner turbulence. “Glad you have her either way. That’s a good story.” He stilled. “I guess… it kind of makes me think… maybe even though I wasn’t there for Shaun for… you know, for a few… well, years… maybe… maybe he’ll still want to know me, right? It’s not too late.”

Hancock turned, serious, gazing at him fully. “Of course it ain’t too late! Your boy’s still just a kid. He needs you.”

The corners of Nate’s eyes stung. “Yeah. I… I hope so.” He rolled to his side, disconsolate and now certain he was going to cry, and he just couldn’t stop it. The bubbling river of alcohol in his blood had buoyed him, distracted him, but its tide was turning into something that might drown him instead. “I hope that he…  that he recognizes me…” That he wants to see me at all. “That I can even figure out how to get to him…”

“Sure you will! You remember what Mama Murphy said, right?”

Nate’s eyes snapped open. He shuddered, but he did remember.

Minds like metal. People disappearing in lightning. A glowing ocean. You will find him. I know it.

Her vision was falling into place.

“I’ll find him,” he whispered, hope rallying.

Hancock was silent a long minute as he took another draught from his bottle. “You mind if I just crash on the floor?” he said. “I don’t think my legs are on speaking terms with me right now. And you look like you need company.”

Nate lifted his head. “Of course!” Both the offer and the reminder of Mama Murphy yanked him back from the brink of depression. “You can use the bed too if you want.” He said this remembering how closely they’d already slept while traveling, not really taking in how small the mattress actually was.

But Hancock burbled with chuckles, his eyebrows waggling. He didn’t even need to elaborate. Nate realized the only way they were both fitting was if Hancock hugged him all night to hold on. “Trying to take advantage of a poor, drunk ghoul! Should be ashamed of yourself. I’m not a… not a floozy.”

“You know,” Nate said, “Maybe I shouldn’t say things unless I’m totally awake. And sober.”

Hancock kept giggling. Nate cheered slightly, but it still wasn’t easy to laugh.

It would be simple to fall silent, turning over the memory of his son’s face over and over again, not a baby, not anymore. Eight or nine years old? Looking up to Kellogg?

Well, the night was here. He’d have plenty of time for his nightmares to tell him about it.

Hancock took off his coat, contentedly folding it and propping it under his head, putting his hat over his eyes. “You mean it though? From the bar.”

“…What?”

“That I’m your best friend?”

“Best friend,” Nate slurred. “Best.”

This seemed to bring a pleased smile. Hancock began drunkenly singing again in a soft voice, like his own personal radio. “I do the boys a favor… with all my manual laboooor…”

“It’s good to be a good, good, good, good neighboooor,” Nate finished, voice cracking and off-key.

“Yeaaaah it is!” A ghoulish fist raised sleepily to the sky before flopping back onto its owner’s chest. Sloppy snores began to ring.

Despite his burgeoning emotional storm returning, the tide in Nate’s blood was dragging him down too. Sleep would come whether or not he was willing. And tonight, perhaps because his brainwaves had been so busy at the Memory Den, he had a dream so vivid and different, he knew right away it wasn’t real.

Still, he desperately wished it was.

For he was home.

Everything was just as it used to be, sunshine and the smell of freshly cut grass coming through an open window. He stood in the shining doorway to his bedroom, looking out on the pristine, fluffy bed, smelling the heat of the just-run vacuum and the delightful new sheets from the dryer. Behind him, Shaun gurgled from his own room. A tide of instinct told him to go check, to see that little baby face that would be happy to see him too, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t move.

Before him on the bed was Nora. Her hair was down, an auburn curl around her chin and shoulders as she turned the pages of a thick law book. She was studying. Getting ready to throw her hat back in the legal ring. Her body was utterly bare under the comforters. He could tell; it made his entire being shudder with heat. Her book blocked any kind of view, but he wanted it to fall.

Suddenly, her keen, intelligent eyes flickered up over the top of the pages. Her face split into the perfect white grin he’d fallen in love with years ago—the one that spoke of bright fun and a little danger.

“You’re here,” she said, her voice the sweetest music.

Tears were already running from Nate’s eyes. He knew it was a dream. He knew it.

He still ran to embrace her.

She jerked in surprise, barely able to put down her studies before she was swept up, the kisses in her hair mixing with tears. “I, I miss you… I miss you so much…” He shuddered and wept and held, unable to do anything else.

“Shhhh. Shhhhh.” Her soothing hands rubbed a circle in his back. He never wanted to let go. “It’s okay, babe. You’re okay.”

I’m not! his brain screamed. As she held him close, the wedding ring around his neck burned heavy and hot into his skin. Indeed, it was gone from her hand.

She watched him sadly. “Don’t cry, beautiful.” He gave her a watery, glad smile, hearing that name. It was strange; not many would call a man beautiful, but she always did—for his eyes and his cheekbones, for the way he apparently grinned—and he loved it. “Don’t be sad. I’m always here with you.”

She reached out and softly touched his cheek, caressing it.

Nate awoke with a start, his heart breaking.

Something smelled of souring wine and mildew. He knew with every fiber in his being that he wasn’t home. He started to shake.

But something stopped him from shattering entirely, something that sang a soothing song to his aching head and chest. A warm body was pressed closely against his back. He wasn’t alone. Soft breathing was rising and falling behind him.

He stilled, confused, uncertain, keeping his eyes closed and pretending he was still asleep.

Hancock had really squeezed himself into the bed? Just… just to keep him company? Was I… oh, god, tell me I wasn’t crying in my sleep. Of course, maybe the guy just didn’t want to be on the floor anymore. But he stayed last night… because he knew I needed company… because he knows I’m not in a good place…

Having Hancock pressed this close was weird and vaguely uncomfortable, but only to Nate’s brain. To his body and heart, it was a minor salvation. It felt good. Right. Like he was still being held, even though he wasn’t. It prevented him from tumbling into a free fall of emotion. Slowly, he embraced the feeling. He tried to think of what to say, how he could handle this when he formally “woke up”—because he was heart-achingly grateful, but he didn’t want Hancock to think he was… well…

Nate had never, in his entire life, been given a positive reaction when he expressed enjoyment of the physical company of men—which, historically, he valued as much as that of women. Sometimes, if he said the wrong thing, even if a touch wasn’t sexual, it ended badly. There was disgust. Friendships ending. Violence. Sorrow.

If he played his cards wrong… for Hancock to shove him away after everything… it would cut deep. There was a fragile bond there, something… something that was really starting to matter.

Jesus, why is this so hard to talk about? Why am I thinking about this now?

But Nate really didn’t have any more time to consider his words, his need for touch, or his readiness to be held by anyone that wasn’t Nora. Because at that point, Hancock started licking his ear.

Nate’s eyes snapped open.

It was not Hancock pressed close, now staring down at him.

“DOG!”

Flailing, Nate startled his bedmate, who went up in a flying scrabble of playful, happy paws and low whoofs.

Hancock started cackling as he fried up some Cram at a little kitchenette. “Morning, sunshine.” He was fully dressed and rubbing his temples. “Man, I feel like I got stomped between the eyes by a Brahmin. How are you holding up?”

“Okay!” Nate’s voice was an octave too high. His body flushed with embarrassment and shame, his head pounding, and he couldn’t help but curl his knees into his chest, wrapping himself up in a protective blanket. “I’m okay.”

Dog fell to the ground and bounced back and forth, tail wagging, like he thought it was time to wrestle.

“I think he needs to go out,” Hancock said. “Was gonna take him so he didn’t wake you up, but he wasn’t getting outta that bed for anything.”

Dog popped up on the blankets again and licked Nate’s face. “Hey!” Something about that happy stance broke through the dark cloud. “Okay, okay. Good to see you too.” The animal leaned joyously into Nate’s hand, delighting in his scruff being ruffled and his ears scratched.

He and Nora had been wanting to get a dog. Now Nate remembered why.

Finally, still feeling awkward but not quite as bad, he flashed a smile Hancock’s way. “That smells like the best damn pseudo-meat in the world right now. Thanks for staying with. And for making breakfast.”

“You bet.” Hancock flashed the grin right back. “After all, what are best friends for, right?”

Best friends? Nate’s mouth dried, his chest fluttering. He had said that, hadn’t he? But I’ve known you for what? A week?

Still, he thought about it. And he realized: it was actually pretty true. Even if his other friends hadn’t died centuries ago… Hancock was more than earning his place.

“You bet.” Nate hugged Dog, nursed his hangover, and smiled at his brother-in-arms. For the briefest of moments, he experienced the tiniest flicker of the feeling he’d had while standing at the threshold of his home before the war. You belong here, the feeling said. These are your people.

This wasn’t perhaps the family he’d asked for.

But now? This was his new normal. His support. His most trusted.

This was the family he was starting to love having around.

Chapter Text

After breakfast, Hancock eventually managed to drag himself from the Rexford, making a beeline to the state house. It was at an urgent pace. The sun? Was deafening.

That made sense, he was certain.

But he needed to restock on some creature comforts. It took him only a few minutes to find and raid his usual chem stashes. Unfortunately, he wasn’t going to make it through his errand without cost—knee deep in junk inside a supply closet, he heard the tell-tale, heavy, shock-trooper boots behind him.

He knew for a fact Fahrenheit could walk quietly when she wanted to. This was how she reminded him that she could snap him and anyone else here in half if she wanted.

“Hey Fahr.”

“Hancock.”

He resumed digging through towels, bullets, and old cans of pork and beans. Fahrenheit leaned in so she couldn’t be ignored, giving him a look. “You didn’t come back here last night.”

Hancock raised a brow. It wasn’t like her to ask where he was sleeping. “Didn’t want to wake the whole state house up. Got preeeetty toasty. There was singing involved. Hey, did Nick Valentine crash here?”

She snorted. “Yeah. Sorta. Just kinda… sat in the corner until the sun rose. Staring. Yellow eyes in the dark.”

“You two catch up?”

“Said hello before he headed off for Diamond City. Seemed happy I was doing alright. He also said to get a message to him if your ‘case’ turns up anything. So. Is that what you’re getting up to with that new fling of yours? And is he reliable out there?”

“Yes and yes. Also, he’s not my… fling.” Not that Nate doesn’t have some damn fine looks in front of all of the good intentions and damage.

“Whatever. That’s all I need to know—that you’re protected. With the Brotherhood, it’s only gonna get worse.”

Usually, this might be twice the words they might share in a day. Yet, Fahrenheit leaned against the wall, pressing on. “What are you even doing here this morning?”

“Would you believe Nate isn’t carrying a tent?”

“So? Neither were you.”

“Yeah, well, if we’re gonna be heading out again, I want one. Can’t fight raiders and molerats for a hovel every night, you know?”

“You don’t even own a tent, Hancock.”

“What? Of course I do. You remember…. uhhh… that one time… with the… uhhhh…” Hancock paused, rubbing his chin, thinking back through the haze to earlier adventures.

“That was my tent. You always got stoned and wormed your way into a corner to sleep before I could do anything.”

“Oh yeah! Well, it was a really big space, so no harm done.” Grinning, Hancock turned. “So, can I borrow our tent?”

She crossed her arms. “My tent. I got rid of it.”

“Whaaaat?”

“It was old. Breaking. Bought a different one. For me. Fixed it up.” She glared.

“Ahhh come on.” Hancock slipped one of his more fruity Mentats, letting it tingle in his language centers, desperate to wheedle. “You’re not using it right now, right? It’d make sure I can stay out of the rain on those dangerous wasteland nights. The weather… it’s been real crazy lately, you know?”

Fahrenheit scowled like she knew exactly what he was doing, and yet, she didn’t have an argument against it. “I don’t know,” she said, “If this tent’s gonna work for you.”

“Why not? Are you saying you didn’t fix it up good enough? Will it not keep my frail ghoul self safe from the elements?”

Her frown deepened, a glint in her eyes. “No. It’s built great.”

“So it’ll work!”

Her hands flexed like they were giving strangulation a trial run. “Fine! Fine. Take it. I warned you.”

He slung his arm around her massive shoulders. “You’re the best, kid.”

It wasn’t until they were several miles out of Goodneighbor, a misty rain starting to set in, did Hancock realize what she’d been hinting at.

“Is that… uh… are you sure that’s the right tent?” Nate stared. He’d asked this several times during setup. Hancock was just certain that by the time the last stake went in the ground, the whole shelter would suddenly transform into what he’d wanted. “It’s just… it doesn’t really look like you could get three people and two Brahmin in there.”

No. No, it did not. In fact, it looked like it was exactly the perfect size for its owner and her sizable pile of armor when she went to sleep.

“I think,” Hancock mumbled to himself, “She mighta been trying to tell me to get my own tent.”

Nate stared.

Shrugging, Hancock started to shove his bedroll and sleeping blankets inside. “Ah well. You’ll just have to tone down those giant biceps of yours. No flexing, and we’ll fit just fine.”

“…Noted.”

Shockingly, they did fit, in the technical sense of the term.

The structure collapsed, however, when Dog jumped in too.

 


 

A cool yet humid night came, a gentle rain spritzing. Nate was glad for Fahrenheit’s loan. Even if it was probably gifted to teach someone a lesson, smelled a little stale, needed to be set up twice, and was extremely tight… it was dry, safe, and kept out the radroaches. Dog eventually figured out he wasn’t going to fit and happily squeezed under the makeshift tarp stretched above outside, pressing into the tent’s wall. It seemed like he just wanted his new people to know he was still there, that he was watching out for them.

Between the animal’s warmth through the fabric and Hancock’s high body heat, the tent grew even cozier than Nate had first imagined it could. That was saying quite a lot.

Hancock was attempting to give him as much space as was technically possible in their quarters. The ghoul hunched in the corner with a lantern by his side, pencil carefully scratching the page of his sketchbook. He’d popped something into his mouth that came from the depths of his hat’s inner lining, and it wasn’t hard to guess what. His foggy stare and slack look spoke of someone miles away on the tide of chems.

“What do you draw?” Nate tried from his blankets, certain his insomnia was not about to improve. His dreams were full of the dead.

“Huh? Uh. I don’t know. Stuff I see.” Hancock waved a hand at the tent walls. “It’s more fun than watching the ceiling.”

Nate smiled. There’d been an aspiring artist in his old platoon too, always scribbling on whatever he could dig up after fusion core inspection. It was like a compulsion. If Hancock was anything like that… “Can I look?”

“Hell no.”

Yeah, Hancock was just like that.

“I won’t make fun of it. It’d just be nice to look at something creative after a long day of kill-or-be-killed.” Nate made a sly, disinterested shrug. “…Buuuut you don’t have to. Doesn’t matter.”

Yep, there it was. Those brows scrunched thoughtfully in consideration. If there was anything artists hated more than showing their work, it was letting a curious party lose interest. Hancock thumbed back a few pages. “It is shit,” he said. His glare added, I’m allowed to say that, but if YOU do, I’ve got a knife.

Nate accepted the proffered paper. On it lay a field full of what might have been dismembered molerats before a farmhouse. And in the middle was a rough scribble of man with “111” on his chest, holding high a mound of misshapen lumps covered in dirt. “I AM THE TATO KING!” he cried to the sky.

Nate tried to squash the giggle in his chest, but he couldn’t. “If I had a refrigerator to put this on,” he said. “I would.”

Hancock gave him a sidelong grin, clearly pleased. The tension in his slouch vanished. He took the paper back. “What? Why would you put it on a refrigerator?”

“It’s just what you… when you’re proud of a drawing…” Why DO we put them on the fridge? “Oh, never mind. But I like it.”

“It captures you perfectly,” the ghoul said, slurring a little. “Tato man… with a tato plan… to save the world.”

“Preston was happy.”

“That Garvey guy would be.”

Nate snickered. It was as if Preston deserved healthy suspicion on account of tato enthusiasm. “I’m thinking about helping out with some other Minutemen business on the way. That alright? Good to bring him back some good news if we’re gonna ask for help in the future.”

Hancock shrugged elegantly, resuming scribbling. “The better off they are, they better off we’ll be. Helping’s cool. I…I’m a good neighbor like that!” Clearly still riding the wave, he let out a happy giggle, humming the bars of Magnolia’s song. Then after a few minutes, apropos of nothing, he blurted, “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“You ever think about the sky? The way it’s all just… empty. Just birds and clouds and nothing in all that empty. Why don’t we figure out how to use it for something nice?”

Nate chuckled. “Can’t say I think about it that much.”

“Maybe,” Hancock said smugly, “You should.”

Soon after, the ghoul fell asleep, hat over his face. As Nate decided to help Dog with first watch, he couldn’t help but think about the sky too: a dozen soothing cloudscapes and starry fields painting in his mind’s eye.

That night, he managed a handful of nightmare-free hours when his watch ended.

The next day, a dense fog flowed over the countryside. It would only take a little more time to reach the Oberland homestead, though they had to take a few detours around rivers and slopes too sleep to scale down. Nate’s Pip-Boy flickered unhappily in the damp, gloomy air. But arrive they did. Fields of corn and mutfruit blossomed before them, looking well-ready to harvest.

The low visibility didn’t look like it was stopping the difficult work inside the farm’s chainlink fence at all. Several people were toiling in the dirt. A woman’s head snapped up from her mutfruit as Nate attempted to open the gate. “Oh! Oh shit! Wayne! Ferals! Ferals at the fence! I—” Suddenly she cut off, easing her hand from her gun. A new man rushed to join her, pistol in his hand. She squinted harder into the fog. “I… oh, shoot. I’m sorry.”

Nate froze, still looking for the ferals. He didn’t understand what was going on until Hancock said, in a low, tight voice, “It’s okay, ma’am. It happens.”

The woman’s companion slowed his jog, uneasily lowering his handgun.

They… they could have shot Hancock. Nate instinctively moved in front of his companion, deciding to take point whenever they approached an unknown house in the future. Like that guard at Diamond City should have taught me. “Hello? We’re with the Minutemen. We heard you needed some help.”

The woman finally smiled. “My goodness. You’re him, aren’t you? The Vault guy.”

Nate blinked, unable to answer.

 


 

Hancock staked out a perimeter around the farm, on edge, but deciding he was too professional to be petty.

Yet.

Christ, lady. You really think a feral could hang onto this bright red coat and giant hat? People sometimes. Swear to god.

The Oberlands seemed happy to talk to Nate, at least. The guy did have that sturdy, reassuring way about him that seemed to say everything was going to be fine. And he was building up a reputation! Good for him. “Vault guy.” Heh. Wears that blue getup and is surprised when people know him for it.

Hancock busied himself with scouting, but the fact was, he didn’t need to hear the farmers’ woes personally to know their petition for help. Silently, he stared down at a pair of massive burrows at their fence’s edge. The freshly upturned soil bent away the chainlink like it was tissue paper. Hard, merciless claws had tunneled through this hard-pack and rock.

Radscorpions trying to set up house, eh?

Nate trotted up behind him, tapping his shoulder. “Hey.” Immediately, Hancock knew something was wrong: it was in the way the man bounced on the balls of his feet, eyes flicking from side to side.

“Hey. What’s going on?”

“Scorpions the size of motorcycles. Please, please tell me scorpions the size of goddamn motorcycles aren’t a thing right now. I am keeping my cool so the nice people don’t see, but if you tell me—”

“What are you talking about? What size are scorpions supposed to be?” Hancock tilted his head. “What the hell’s a motorcycle?”

Nate made a quick, boxy gesture with his hands to indicate a rough size.

“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, that’s about right. Though if they arch the stinger up… they get about as tall as your head.”

Nate paled. He put his entire sleeved forearm right in his mouth. A muffled groan escaped that might have been the latter end of a suppressed yell. Then, he let go. “Okay. I’m okay. With this being a thing now. Right.”

Hancock could only blink. The Oberlands seemed to be watching Nate with a certain amount of reservation.

Nate turned and waved. “Don’t worry!” he said, his voice carrying a whole wheelbarrow of confidence on over. “We’re on it!” They seemed to relax.

“Are we?” Hancock whispered. “You’re jumpy.”

Turning back, his companion seemed resigned to stare at the burrows in the earth, swallowing visibly. “We have to do something. They… they had a daughter out here, helping with the harvest. She was stung, and… well…” Hancock gave a nod as Nate bowed his head, sighing sadly. Radscorpion venom would easily kill a child. “It sounds like these things keep getting closer to their house. They’ve got a newborn in there, and two other kids… they’re really scared.”

“Yeah.” Hancock cocked his shotgun. “We’ll take care of it.”

Nate kneeled. Dog trotted over from where he’d been sniffing in the dirt. “Stay here, boy. They need a friend to help out if any nasty bugs come back. Alright? Stay.”

Dog sat, cocking his head. To his credit, he didn’t move a paw.

“That is one well-trained pooch.” Hancock tipped his tricorn at the Oberlands and started to walk. “Look, it’s not that hard if we can get the drop on the things. You got any grenades?”

Nate’s nostrils pensively flared. “Two.”

“Two’s enough… probably. Alright. Radscorpions don’t travel far when they burrow, so if we stay quiet and look out there?” He pointed behind the marring in the fence. “We’ll find them. They’re not big on the wet, so they might not be too active. Could be lucky today.”

“Lucky,” Nate echoed. “I don’t know if that’s the word for a day I find out about these things.”

“Take what you can get, brother.” Hancock smiled. “The wasteland’s got a lot to throw.”

It pleased Hancock to have knowledge someone needed, someone who was already an able and accomplished fighter. He went over how it was critical to step lightly and slowly when seeking out radscorpions without provoking an attack—that these were beasts highly sensitive to the vibrations in the earth. He showed Nate the caustic damage in a tree’s side where a stinger had rested not so long ago.

And Nate was a fast learner. “Do they prefer to stay underground or over it when resting?”

“Under.” Then, he grabbed Nate’s shirt before the man could peek over a nearby outcropping. Something about its configuration screamed to Hancock’s instincts that it was a potential burrow point. “Hold up. Let’s do this real slow.”

They bent over the ledge together.

What awaited could turn the stomach. Into the slope, a large den was scraped out, piles of dirt flung haphazardly to the side. Blood and chunks of flesh dotted the tunnel down, seeping into the soil, reeking. It was so deep, so dark, that one couldn’t even begin to guess how far it went.

But from its depths… rustling. The whispering of chitin. The clicking of legs and armor.

Hancock bit back a hiss. This burrow was beyond just a few bugs. It was seething. This was the kind of den that could overrun entire settlements if it was left to fester.

“Grenade,” he whispered, holding out a hand. “And then we run like hell.”

Wordlessly, Nate passed one over, palming his own. “Both at once?”

“Both at once.”

There was no point in talking about it further. Solemnly, they pulled their pins. With quick snaps of their wrists, their gifts clattered down into the bloody earth.

Hancock took off like a shot the second he let go, letting his feet pound loudly with abandon. He heard Nate’s boots behind him. It would be nice to see how much damage the grenades might do, but if he was right—!

The earth shook with an ear-ringing explosion. A tree behind them cracked and fell, roots destabilized.

And suddenly, pincers erupted from the earth. A massive radscorpion belched out from below, hissing violently, throwing loose rocks and soil in its panic. Its tail was halfway severed from the blast and the cave-in it was trying to escape, but it swiped with its claws, almost rending Hancock in two. He threw himself to the left. Pincers smashed into a tree.

On Nate’s right, another one burst from the earth. “Shiiiit!” Nate’s guns sounded with ear-shattering cracks. Distracted, busy with his opponent, it looked as if he didn’t even hear the third radscorpion scrabbling its way to air behind.

“Behind you!” Hancock roared. He dove from his own attacker, which was launching itself at him again. Pulling the trigger on his shotgun, Hancock punched the one sneaking up on Nate with scattershot. It reared up and screeched like he’d only slapped it with a soft glove. “Urk!” The first radscorpion slammed into his side. He toppled. The bug’s injured stinger lolled uselessly above his head. Furious, it slammed its claws down to catch him as he rolled to his back, the pincers trying to gouge his eyes.

BOOM! sang the shotgun a second time. An explosion of chitin and bug bile erupted from its backside as the blast punched through its belly. The thing fell. Hancock tried to scrabble out from beneath, but his bag—it was pinned under the scorpion’s bulk.

“Holy shiiiit!” Nate screamed again, firing shot after shot at the two remaining radscorpions advancing on him. The bullets dented their hard shells. Only one of them staggered away, recalculating its attempt. The other rushed.

And another set of pincers erupted from the earth behind Nate.

He was going to walk right into that hole, the beast ready to drag him in.

Hancock often joked at the Third Rail that he was the fastest draw in the Commonwealth—but not for guns. Never that.

For Jet.

He needed it now.

It went from his coat and to his mouth before he even had to think. The air, supercharged, sucked into his lungs. The inhaler fell empty from his fingers.

The ozone-soaked fog began to glitter and curl.

The radscorpions click-clacked forward, horrific machines, shells glinting with savage, shining beauty.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Three shots tore from his shotgun as he braced himself while prone and pinned, superhuman in his speed and ability to reload. To him, the blasts were roaring vibrations passing through thick pudding.

The radscorpion coming up in the earth behind Nate fell, its face nothing but green goo. One in the front lost its pincer to the second and third shots, then its life to Nate’s pistols, its backside exploding in a rapid bullet hail.

Hancock licked his lips as, in slow motion, Nate leapt over the second scorpion’s dead body like some avenging angel before smashing the final, staggering beast’s stinger right into the earth with his boot, his leg a powerful, graceful arc.

Damn. That ass is tight.

BAM BAM! BOOM! Twin shots erupted from Nate’s pistols, singing a duet with Hancock’s shotgun.

Silence bellowed over the battlefield. This fight was done. These were just the stragglers—the rest were dead in their hole.

Nate hopped from the final scorpion’s back, panting heavily, face flushed and slick with sweat. He was still talking in slow motion. Every bright glisten against his skin hit the sunlight like a shower of little crystals. His hair caught the breeze. His perfectly white teeth sparkled in an all-too-charming smile.

And then, reality shattered. Time fell back into place with a grinding collapse.

Nate was dirty, sweaty, looking slightly confused, and saying something—god knew what. He helped to heave the radscorpion off Hancock’s back.

“That,” Hancock decided, bleary, swept up, “was stunning.” He kind of wanted to take a second hit of Jet just so he might enjoy that a little while longer.

“Are you okay?” Nate panted, finally understandable. “We should get out of here.”

“Don’t mind me.” Hancock chuckled. “Just… admiring the view. Don’t worry. If there were more, we’d have heard about it by now.”

Nate blinked, nodded, and turned away, edgily scanning the dirt.

Hancock sighed. He was starting to get the hint here. Nate was happy to be besties, but he was just not a flirty guy. Enterprising ghouls believed a man ought to test the waters, but maybe there just weren’t any fish in this pond.

And yet…

…Yeah. All the jokes that could be made about fishing rods in this metaphor cheered Hancock considerably. For example, perhaps he just wasn’t slinging his rod around in a way the fish noticed. Perhaps the fish were just hiding deep, deep below.

So his rod? It would need to go deep.

“What are you laughing about?” Nate grumbled. “We almost died.”

“Nothing.” Hancock tried turning his giggle into a cough.

“Uh-huh.”

Buoyed, high, and flush with the happy adrenaline of a fight gone well, Hancock habitually reached into his bag, sorting through his stash. He needed a come-down before talking to the farm folk again. Especially whats-her-name—

“Agh!”A sharp, burning stab greeted his hand. When he pulled it out, it came back wet, an acrid, sour smell rising with it. Blood smeared his palm: a glass cut.

“You alright?” Nate snapped his head to him, alarmed.

“Yeah, I…” Hancock stared, opening his bag farther. Ah no… come on… shit.

All his backup Psycho vials and Jet inhalers were smashed to bits from the radscorpion’s fall.

 


 

Nate wasn’t sure who was more surprised upon their victorious return: himself, still reeling at the existence of radscorpions, the Oberlands, seeing their purported rescuers had survived, or Hancock, blinking as the farming family gratefully invited them for dinner. Perhaps after how things had started off, the ghoul had expected more of a cold shoulder.

Nate wasn’t sure now if he could get the image of the remaining Oberland children out of his head, two kids hellbent on wearing down his friend’s defenses. Perhaps it was because Hancock was new and strange, and perhaps it was because he’d taken vengeance for them in the name of a sister they’d lost. They were full of questions as only children were though, and by the end of the night, Nate found his friend hiding out with them on the porch. Hancock was trading stories of the world beyond their tiny farm for Sugar Bombs, and they seemed all too happy to listen.

For a second, Nate’s heart almost hammered out of his chest, thinking of Shaun, wondering if he’d like stories like that now too.

His friend tried to be all stoic about it afterwards, but Nate had seen a sympathetic sparkle in the depths of those eyes. These two kids had needed all the distraction they could get.

Unfortunately, the house was full, so he and Hancock wound up hitting the road and setting up camp not terribly far away towards their next destination: a place called Graygarden. Supposedly, it held some agricultural resources Preston thought would be useful.

Their campsite was nestled next to an overhang for protection at their backs, just over an easy-to-scan valley. It was remote and secure. The fog lifted, and now Nate could watch the gnarled trees and their handful of struggling leaves turning fire-red and brilliant orange, settling in the glow of the sunset. It wasn’t much, but life in the wasteland was desperately trying to go on.

It was such a pocket of peace, it seemed like Hancock didn’t even need his evening Jet to enhance it, just a cigarette. So they laid there, side by side, sharing warmth and a box of snack cakes, watching the stars come out.

The next morning, however, they were still sore and filthy from the Oberland farm. A river ran not too far away. To take one day of rest, of real recovery before throwing themselves into a new crisis? It wouldn’t hurt.

And by the stream, Nate took a moment to pause. “You know, you almost never take that coat off. I’m surprised to see you clean it.”

Hancock laughed, gently working out radscorpion scum on the sleeve with careful thumbs. “It’s a historical piece! I gotta make sure it holds together. Also, I don’t want it to stink like it’s been in bug juice for the last few hundred years.” The frock was showing a great deal of wear at the seams. Thick stitching seemed to indicate that someone had already caught at least the sleeve from falling off.

Without his coat, his shirt clinging to his frame, Hancock truly seemed smaller. More vulnerable. Were all ghouls so… diminished…? He’d always seemed almost athletic, full of energy and life…

Nate blinked, realizing he was staring, and suddenly was painfully aware that his companion realized this too.

“What?” His friend flexed his bony shoulders under his white shirt. “You see something you like?”

There was no graceful answer to that question, and especially no answer Nate wanted to examine. He held up his hands in defeat, blocking the view of his heating face. “Next you’ll be telling me your hat isn’t actually fused to your head.”

Hancock barked a laugh. “Nah, I really can’t take that off. It’s where I keep all my secrets.”

“Your spare Mentats?”

“Now you’re getting it.”

Nate grinned, kneeling. “Seriously though, that coat of yours is going to fall apart. You’re putting it through hell, and it was centuries old by the time I was born. We could probably get you something else at a caravan. Keep your coat for when you’re making appearances.”

“I dunno, man. It’s gonna have to be something seriously sexy. I’ve got a reputation to keep up.” The chuckle tapered into a sigh. “You’re not wrong, but this coat, it reminds me who I gotta be. Reminds everyone else not to shoot me right away either.” He winked. “Maybe you wear your getup for the same reason, right?”

“What?” Nate looked down at himself. His blue outfit was clearly meant to withstand a lot, but at this point, it had been through enough that the stains were never coming out, not with all the Abraxo in the world.

Yet… Hancock was right. This Vault suit was insinuating itself into who he was. Why’d he keep wearing it, day after day, settlement after township? It was as if he’d wanted everyone to know where he was from. He’d certainly wanted Kellogg to look him in the eye and understand just whose husband was about to gun him down.

Now it seemed liked people were starting to catch onto his reputation, and the Vault suit was preceding him, like it had at the farm.

“Hell,” he said. “We’re like superheroes. Signature costumes.”

Cackling, Hancock gently lifted his coat from the stream, looking satisfied with it at last. “Like in those old comics? The Unstoppables? You gonna give the dog a little mask?”

“Maybe I will!”

Dog yipped happily from the shore. He rolled in the dirt, then trotted off, probably to find game. Perhaps later, Nate realized, their pet might be convinced to help in hunting food for everyone. His dinner of Fancy Lads last night had left him ravenous.

But for now, there were other matters. Nate stood, taking off his gun belt and his Pip-Boy, kicking off his boots, and fiddling with the zipper of his suit. “Alright, move over. You’ve made me realize I’ve got way too many radscorpion guts on my pants.”

“See, that’s how I know this coat’s ready to wear again. One look, and you’re already throwing off all your clothes at me.”

Laughing, Nate waded into the stream, wiggling out of the bodysuit, leaving on his underthings. His skin relished the open air and the refreshing, cool flow of the water. It occurred to him with a dull pain in his chest that he shouldn’t feel this way, joking with a friend, splashing around, acting like nothing was wrong. He’d just slaughtered his wife’s murderer in cold blood, and his son was still missing and growing older, and scorpions were bigger than German Shepherds.

Everything should be wrong, right? Everything.

But here he was.

And maybe not everything had to be wrong in the world. He’d already drunken himself stupid about it all. Maybe he could allow himself a few minutes now just to exist and pretend. “God, I needed a bath.” He sunk into the river up to his neck, letting his suit catch the current and soak as he held it with one hand.

Hancock’s gaze flickered. Nate knew the ghoul had just seen all of his war scars, those nasty, thick marks up his back and ribs. But, he figured this man, of all people, probably wouldn’t ask. “A bath’s a good idea. You know it’s bad when even I can smell ya, and I don’t have a nose.”

Can you smell?” Nate decided his curiosity probably wasn’t a step too far. After all, Hancock had been opening up. Sharing.

“Sure I can. It’s not as, well, vibrant as before? But I can sure smell your crusty hobo self.”

Nate grinned over his shoulder. “Then hand over that Abraxo.”

“Alright, Pip-Boy. Show us post-war folk how it’s done.” The box was held out expectantly.

Nate resurfaced, taking it, pouring out the powder into his wet hands and scrubbing it into a thick paste. Soon, with determined wringing, his suit was a sudsy ball. After he washed it out and threw it on the thick grass of the bank to dry, he gave himself just the same treatment. Almost immediately, the itching on his scalp vanished. The dried film on his skin broke away.

Clean.

It felt like all the blood of the last few weeks was washing down the river now too, gently carried away… maybe to where it couldn’t hurt him anymore.

Hancock was doing all the same a few feet to the left, sans the skin scrub. Perhaps the chemical wasn’t exactly approved for use on ghoul flesh. That aside, oddly, Hancock didn’t have an unpleasant odor following him around, despite everything they’d been through. On his shirt and trousers, which he was washing while they were still on his body, there were few stains. Perhaps ghouls just didn’t sweat as much?

When he was done, the runaway mayor simply trudged to shore, laid out his clothes, and picked up his tattered flag sash that had been resting in the grass. As it unfurled, he started to dry himself with it like a beach towel.

Nate’s teeth hurt. “Really? Do you have to?”

“Have to what?” Black eyes blinked widely at him.

The little hollow space in Nate’s chest ached again.

I fought under that flag. A lot of people I know died under that flag.

And for fucking what, I guess. We blew ourselves to hell.

“Back in my day,” he sighed, knowing he sounded like an old man, “We had to be really respectful of flags. I… I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter anymore. I sometimes keep forgetting it’s… not the same now.”

“Brother.” Hancock tied it like a battered cape around his neck, over his sopping, billowing shirt and all. “I respect this flag too. Promise.”

Nate turned down his eyes. In a weird way, the guy was probably right. At least he wore it with pride… he seemed to mostly understand the symbol it was supposed to be, even if he was mistreating the cloth itself left and right.

So Nate nodded, feeling like he was giving permission—perhaps to himself, letting himself be okay with it. Perhaps in remaking Goodneighbor, Hancock really was the soul of what that flag was meant to stand for, anyway.

It wasn’t until the ghoul rapidly trotted off that Nate wondered why the man had been so insistent on even bathing with his clothes on. He slept in them constantly. Even when the day was muggy or the work was hard, he wouldn’t remove a single layer to give himself relief. Him letting the coat dry out away from his body was the most nude he’d ever been.

Maybe he had scars he didn’t want to talk about either.

Nate slipped off what remained of his underwear and finished washing, sighing in the coolness of the stream. No use lingering on those thoughts. Right now, it was time to be at peace. To be right.

No matter what, here, for just a few minutes… he was almost okay.

Chapter Text

Hancock took a while to dry out, but this was made a lot shorter by his constant motion. After maintaining the camp, he coaxed Dog to play a few rounds of fetch, then hunted down a passing radroach. Molerat probably would have been best to catch, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Scrounged boxes of Instamash were only going to go so far. They needed protein.

Yech. The wet cloth draped over his body itched as he carved up his kill’s thorax, getting a sizable chunk to bring back and roast. Slime squished between his remaining nails. The roach’s legs cracked off like dead twigs, and Dog happily snatched one to gnaw and hold between his paws.

This would have been much easier, Hancock knew, if he could have left his outer clothes behind to dry in peace. But most people had precisely two reactions to undressed ghouls: at worst, disgust and fear, and at best, a sort of pitying shock, like they were witnessing a medical emergency and needed to deploy bandages at the earliest opportunity.

And that was if they didn’t just outright shoot for the head.

Telling Nate all those stories about his past… it left Hancock feeling a little raw. Vulnerable. He didn’t want to be left vulnerable in any other way right now, not in his companion’s eyes. A lot of those McDonough things, he hadn’t talked about in years… that was about a John long dead, never mourned. Just because the ghost sometimes rattled its chains in the night didn’t mean everyone else had to be reminded of that loser.

But Nate had been hurting. Nate had needed those stories so he could remember life went on.

Hancock just didn’t know yet if he regretted tearing open those old scars to help with that… if, maybe, they were a bit too ugly for his new buddy to actually handle… if, maybe, now wasn’t the best time for himself to examine all that stuff again either. Whenever he thought too hard on the past, he needed a few drinks to facilitate the process, and they were a long way away from The Third Rail. That radscorpion had also firmly crushed a lot of his other coping methods.

Thanks to all that openness with Nate too, there were now some strong feelings burbling in Hancock’s chest about this beautiful, chill alliance. This friendship was good and enticing, and this was the best he’d felt in years—but it was a warm fire that could also burn. A thread of unease kept tugging at him, made him creep on eggshells. In the mornings and nights, his habitual Jet was becoming a craving more sharp and desperate. If he could just slow down the world, he could make this all last just a little bit longer… and then, maybe he wouldn't think about all those other good times that ended too goddamn soon…

Anyway, there was no room in this delicate way of things for Nate’s pity or disgust because his ghoul ass was caught hanging out during bathtime. No sir.

Fortunately, neither of those emotions was on display when the fresh radroach hunk got sploshed into the cookpot. Nate’s eyes were more… mutinous. “What the hell’s that?”

“Meat.” Hancock prodded it with a stick, turning it over as it started to sear and burble.

“…What kind of meat?”

“…The meat kind.” The faraway look in Nate’s gaze said that he probably missed pre-war cooking pretty desperately right about then. Silently, the Vaultie reached in his bag, then crumbled a tiny salt block he’d obtained from some trader over the cooking juices. “Good call,” Hancock said. “This’ll be a fancy dinner tonight.”

“I’m trusting it’s safe?”

“I’ve eaten this tons of times. Drifter’s special.”

“But you’re not going to tell me what it’s from.”

“Nope.”

“Alright then.” Nate kicked back, scraping mud from his boots. “Should have washed these in the river,” he sighed.

“Why? Just gonna stomp on things again tomorrow.”

“It’s…” He waved his wrist, like the amount of cultural knowledge he needed to impart across the gap was far too great. “It’s a thing from the army. Clean boots are good boots. Keeping yourself sharp shows you care.”

“Well, I guess, if you’re going around repping the Minutemen, that’s not an awful idea.” The radroach popped and sizzled. The yellow goo those things called blood turned a pale, almost pleasant white under heat. Mmm. It was starting to smell like good eating already. Dog was pricking up his ears, jowls wet. “So. Whose tatos we delivering tomorrow?”

“Some farm called Graygarden. Last place on Preston’s list for now.”

Hancock nodded, watching the fire dry out Nate’s hair. It was relaxing into soft, lush whorls. A loud sizzle-pop sounded from the pan, and distracted, he almost dropped his meat-prodding stick… then, he did, his hands shaking with a tremor.

“You okay?” Nate glanced up.

“…Yeah. Just a little chilly out here, aint’ it?”

Slowly, the shaking passed. The weak feeling in his stomach didn’t.

Let’s hope this Jet shortage doesn’t become a problem. He had exactly one inhaler left—the chems in his coat pockets had been spared the fate of all the rest of his stash. That would be best taken in the morning to tide him over for the journey.

Nate shook his hair in the breeze. Damn, it would probably be soft as a cloud under Jet… but that wasn’t ever going to happen.

Swallowing a growing headache, Hancock told his hands they just needed to wait a little longer for their fix. Graygarden would probably have someone selling, or knew someone nearby who did. Any settlement worth its salt would. His buddy’s hair… that would probably always be a no-no. But chems? There was always tomorrow.

 


 

The mysterious dinner eaten, Dog curled up watchfully outside the tent, Nate knew it wasn’t long before he needed to sleep. Graygarden was quite a hike.

But rest didn’t come easy for the sole adult survivor of Vault 111. It never did.

That night, he drifted painfully through darkness and dreams. His stomach kept cramping. At the edge of his consciousness, he heard whispers. He reached out endlessly through the shadows to find their source, hoping to find Nora again—but, as if he was a ghost, he could never touch anything.

Never hold on.

Every time the haze cleared, only thoughts of dead eyes waited for him. Dead bodies. Nora. Kellogg. Gunners. Super mutants. The darkness would take him again only after he greeted them each in turn.

His skin prickled with heat and fear as he cried out in the endless black, alone, desperate not to be.

Finally, Nate awoke in a haze, coughing. He was superheated. His flesh crawled. Everything ached, confusing and raw—wanting to be touched, never wanting to be touched, abdomen aching, throat parched. At first, he thought the tent was overheated by his companion, but looking around, he could only let out an unhappy whimper.

Like in his dream, he’d been left by himself once more. Hancock’s bedroll was cold and empty.

Some part of Nate realized he wasn’t thinking clearly. But it didn’t matter. His body shivered violently, his stomach wrenching, fighting to get out.

There were no doctors out here. No medicine.

He collapsed, tangled and sweating in his blanket, heaving, vision blurring.

And in that instant, he wondered if he was fated to die too, like everyone else he’d ever loved.

Helpless. Suffering. All alone.

  


 

The night was cool and fresh on Hancock’s skin. It was a relief, sometimes, to be out in the open helping Dog keep watch—nothing to do, nowhere to be, and a whole lot of stars overhead.

Especially when some people started rolling back and forth, getting the absolute gall to moan, whisper across a man’s earlobes, and tug at all the blankets and shirts. In that tent, there really wasn’t anywhere to get away. The most decent thing Hancock felt he could do was leave Nate to whatever pleasant dreams he was having, taking his own body’s response outside.

This was the second night in a row.

His traveling partner was kind of repressed and really needed to sort that out. Gave a guy certain notions… or more of them, anyway. Not that Hancock didn’t know where he stood; though light flirty humor seemed fine, maybe an occasional fishing for fun banter, Nate had, after all, just lost a wife. He might not have been the coiled, uptight creature he’d been when they’d first started traveling together, but… still.

At least I don’t need as much sleep as you do.

His jaw cracked in a yawn anyway. Of course, when dawn came, Nate would get up like everything was fine, looking askance at people’s sunrise-and-chem breaks, pretending he needed nothing extra at all to get through the day healthy and well. He always turned down the friendly offers of Buffout and Med-X… which was too bad. They really put a pleasant band-aid on the nasty bits of hurt that a man couldn’t do anything about. Made the world feel a lot less sharp.

Well, if his friend didn’t want to medicate, that was his choice. Hancock knew he gave into temptation enough for the both of them, probably.

Gazing at his trembling hands now, the shakes slowly getting worse, he decided it was time for just that. He was resisting far too many things at once. Replenishing his Jet supply was Future Hancock’s problem—they’d be at Graygarden by the afternoon.

The puff filled up his lungs and slowed his world to a blistering, delightful crawl, sending bursts of red and oranges through the sky as the sun rose. His entire being transformed into a shuddering, happy antenna for pleasure and warmth. Oh yes. These were the moments that made morning worthwhile. In his memories, images melted and bubbled too, slow and easy, tingling. Mmm. Big, strong, flexing biceps. White teeth in that perfect little smile. Nate really needed to kick more of their enemies, show off that backside of his. It was just... hell. Damn fine. What can I say? A few impure thoughts never hurt nobody... and you should always appreciate what you've got while you've got it.

As the campfire’s ashes finally burned out, as Hancock came to, Nate still wasn’t there, rolling out into the morning, ready to eat an Instamash breakfast and get moving. Buzzing, content, Hancock wondered if his companion might just need another hour or so. But peeking into their tent, he realized… Ah shit. I fucked up.

The tent was humid and musky with the reek of sweat. Nate wasn’t thrashing anymore—but his skin was red with the heat. His forehead was slick.

Hell. That wasn’t, like… a good moan he was making.

“Nate?” Hancock kneeled, a lightning bolt of worry striking cold in his stomach.

No answer.

He put a hand to Nate’s head, registering the roaring fever under the damp.

Immediately, his friend’s eyes flickered open, but the man behind them didn’t arrive. His gaze just leveled blearily off to the left. His lips parted in a pained whimper. His breathing came shallow and quiet.

Shit. Was it the radroach? Did he drink from the stream? Not knowing what else to do, Hancock seized his waterskin, soaking down a cool cloth. This he draped over Nate’s head. The effect was instantaneous. His friend started to breath a little more strongly. His eyes closed again, though—the storm in his body looked to be far from over.

Hancock pinned open the tent flap to allow in fresh air. And there he sat, hands wringing in a guilty vigil.

Non-ghouls were terrifyingly frail.

The hours went by as Dog watched their perimeters, whining in concern. Nate was peaceful for a while. But then, he started to moan listlessly again, thrashing. The cooling cloth slipped away. “No. Don’t… don’t,” he cried.

“Hey. Brother. Don’t you worry. You’re okay.”

No.” The word was a pained, upturned plea.

Hancock fiddled with his flag sash, one nervous eye to his companion, the other to the glen beyond. A dusty, half-remembered lilt of his mother’s voice nagged at his brain. Feverfew. They’d been so poor, she’d never been able to buy it when her boys got sick. But she’d padded outside Diamond City all the same, knife on her hip, braving the elements and raiders.

Hell. Why couldn’t he have paid more attention to his mother? He barely had any idea what feverfew looked like; he’d probably bring back a bunch of fucking daisies.

“No!” Nate cried out, pushing away Hancock’s hand as he tried to right the cooling cloth. Tears squeezed from the man’s eyes, lolling, afraid, and utterly unseeing.

“It’s just me.” Hancock tried to whisper, to soothe the defensive, swiping claws. Nate’s flesh was burning to touch. The man finally just collapsed back, unable to even fight anymore. There he wheezed, twitching. He weakly turned to the side, knocking off the cloth again, then dry heaved before going slack.

Christ. How long before the guy’s brain cooked? He’d been like this for something like three or four hours… Hancock ran a nervous hand across his scalp, tossing his hat in the corner. He could nudge a person through withdrawal sickness easy enough; goodness knew the addicts living in the state house never felt well. But this was uncharted territory.

And it was getting worse, that was certain. The day was growing warmer too. This tent was suffocating.

But there was a cool stream not a hundred feet away.

Alright. He stood, cracking his knuckles. I’m not letting you suffer like this. Not if I can help it. Marshaling his strength, he grabbed the edges of Nate’s bedroll, slipping it out of the tent with its passenger still on board, breathing hard.

Smoothskins were so damn heavy. What was this guy? Two hundred pounds of muscle?

Yeah. God yeah, he was.

Nate didn’t even respond as the sunlight hit his face. He just lay there as he was hauled over grass and rocks, like he already had one foot in the grave. Hancock stopped feeling the strain. He barely even realized they’d reached the stream until his boot splashed at the edge.

Getting a grip under Nate’s arms was harder than moving him to the riverbank. His clothes were slippery with sweat, and the guy was uncooperative as a sack of Garvey’s goddamn tatos.

Snarling, knowing no time could be wasted, Hancock made an executive decision. He usually didn’t like to mix his chems without a little planning, but these were desperate circumstances. In his bag were two capsules of Buffout. Damn it, he might pay for this one later—but they went down like a rush of sunshine and euphoria. His back’s pain instantly vanished. He could suddenly pick up Nate and throw him if he wanted.

Not that he would.

He tossed his boots by the riverside and unstrapped Nate’s Pip-Boy, just in case. Then, as delicately as he could, he engaged his supercharged body to pick up his friend, grunting, backpedaling into the stream. The water washed over his trousers, soaking up his white shirt once more, soft and soothing. Nate sunk dreamily down, the coolness flowing over his form, growing lighter as his body buoyed. All Hancock had to do was brace himself, pulling his companion’s head to his chest so it would stay above the flow.

There he remained, letting the water carry away their mutual sweat, though he had far less. The Buffout made him a veritable rock in the storm. He was going nowhere, no matter the current.

Even if he hadn’t had the chem, just seeing Nate’s feverish face ease… it would have given him the strength.

A minute later, those eyes opened, for real this time, someone at home, even through the haze. “Hancock…?” Nate started to jerk, as if realizing he wasn’t in bed, his body about to panic.

“Don’t move.” Hancock braced Nate’s warm head closer, getting drenched up to his elbows. “You’re good. You’re in the water, but I’ve got you. Trust me. Okay?”

Startlingly, Nate relaxed. “Okay.” He fell still, staring vacantly at the sky. “Why are we in the water?”

“You’re real sick, brother.”

“Oh.” A little sigh of relief puffed up across Hancock’s chin. “You didn’t leave. I’m glad.”

A fist struck down into Hancock’s heart, squeezing it, almost like that was an accusation, like his leaving was expected.

Runner. Coward.

He fought past that. No. Something about the way Nate said it… it was like a little boy reaching for reassurance. He’s really out there right now. “Hey, I’m not going anywhere. I don’t skip out on people I care about. Okay?” At least, I don’t anymore. “I’ve got you.”

Nate’s eyes were drifting shut. “Good.” He made a weak sigh. “You’re a… real good guy.”

Hancock’s heart beat a little harder. Don’t always know about that. “Thanks. You too.”

Tuckered right out from that, that giant, scruffy, gunslinging soldier dozed off like a sleeping baby in his arms.

Hancock tried not to enjoy that feeling. A pleasant upswell of warmth rattled through his chest anyway.

He was never great at resisting temptation.

Been a long time since someone just let me hold them. Since someone trusted me like this. After all, he was John Hancock, and while he possessed no lack of charisma, it was never warm, cuddly hugs he was ever accused of recklessly dispensing.

It’s necessary, the cold voice of reality tried to wheedle through the Buffout. When he’s healed up, it won’t happen again.

Hancock turned from the voice, letting the chem hold him steadfast, just as he needed to be. This could be nice and necessary all at once. As long as Nate pulled through to flash that perfect smile at him another day, who the fuck cared?

Whatever it is we’ve got, what we’re doing out here, it matters. So I’ve got you, man. I’ve got you. For as long as you want to keep me around.

 


 

Nate eventually awoke, gently wrapped in blankets on an unfamiliar bedroll, resting in his underwear alone. His throat was swollen and parched. Though he was weak and shaky, he was no longer on fire, that heavy fog keeping him from reality.

He shot upwards in the tent. When did I…?

Hancock was snoozing right on the ground by his side—a thin strip of tent fabric the only insulation between him and the dirt. His face was slack, regardless of the sun rising high. The way he was sprawled under his blanket, all odds and angles, he looked exhausted.

As Nate rose, Hancock woke, just enough to crack open a black eye. His words slurred into a mess. “Ya ‘ight?”

“I’m okay.” Nate patted his companion’s mottled, bony shoulder, warm affinity guiding the gesture. Everything was a blur. But his clammy skin remembered a cool stream. He remembered looking up, as if it was a dream, feeling someone holding him through the storm and keeping him safe and secure as heaven-sent water washed away his pain and fever. He’d thought it was Nora. But when he really looked, he saw just a void-dark gaze, staring off to the horizon, keeping watch.

That same stare peeked up at him now. Hancock’s eye slowly drifted closed again, a tired smile on that face. Weariness seemed to ride him into the ground. It was clear from the sleepy emergence of his shoulder and bare calf that their clothes were probably all drying outside. Already with a few conclusions about how his friend felt about undressing, Nate knew things had gotten rough if he was just too tired to care.

Hancock’s leg slipped back under the blanket as he pulled it tighter and drifted away.

Dog whined happily in greeting as Nate emerged from the enclosed space. Thank goodness this had been a peaceful night. Or day. Or… How long was I even out? Well, no matter how long it was, Nate didn’t get the feeling that the wastes usually spared a guy much time to be unwell. Suddenly ravenous, he dug into his pack, finding water and bits of squirrel jerky to ease his belly.

Dog licked his chops.

“Hey,” Nate rasped, glancing at a slight red stain on his new pet’s maw. “You can hunt, buddy. I need this.”

Dog wiggled closer, crossing his paws, resting his chin and looking up. His gaze gleamed with dejection and mourning.

“Oh fine.” Nate flipped him a chunk. The dog made a happy prance and gulped it down.

The food didn’t rest easy in Nate’s belly, a dull ache meeting it, but it didn’t come back up. On snagging his blanket and staggering around a little, he discovered a heavy track through the soil, leading away from the tent—and there was his bedroll at the end of it, laying by the stream. It stank of sickly sweat and bile, even now. Nate just rolled it up, too drained to wash it. Later.

So Hancock really had carried his sick, heavy ass all the way here and stood with him in the river until his fever dropped. Damn. No wonder he was exhausted. Not just anyone would have done that—not even in his old platoon. Most people would have let him lie there and nervously hope.

Nate collapsed in the mud for a short breather. The stream burbled soothingly by. Though... it could have been what made him sick, if he’d accidentally swallowed any of the water while washing. Or…

…Or that goddamned mystery meat Hancock had made from last night.

Clearly, I need to ease my stomach into whatever passes for a drifter’s diet out here now.

Back at the camp, Nate snapped off some dead and drying brush and began to start a new fire, knowing they’d likely need to stay put for another day. The flames’ heat kept back a little of the encroaching winter in that cold afternoon sun. He turned their clothes carefully from where they hung on a nearby tree branch, helping them dry faster in the warm.

With Hancock’s coat, he couldn’t help but be extra gentle and almost reverent with those fraying seams. The mantle clearly meant the world to his friend.

Hancock. He was… something else. He always seemed to do his absolute damnedest to reduce suffering in the world, even when suffering was unavoidable. Nate realized that was what he’d done over and over again now, and not just in offering perspective over Kellogg’s broken body, or getting him drunk when he despaired, or helping his fever to stabilize.

A carrion crow high in the laundry tree cawed, peering down with hungry, beady eyes.

“I’m not dead yet,” Nate snapped at it. “And neither’s he. So find something else to eat.”

The bird flew off, gaze glinting. Nate watched it soar. Something deep inside ached. It was like they were following him. Like they could smell the death on his hands and all the ghosts in his heart.

Every day, though, that grief was hurting a little less because a kind hand kept extending to take his, to pull him onward, ever onward. For all that reputation, killer instinct, and rough edge, Hancock was truly a man who was loyal, kind, and brave.

Nate finished hanging the red coat and staggered back to the tent, set on taking his own turn standing vigil by his sleeping compatriot now, helping to tuck his blanket tighter, more secure. The ghoul burbled something unintelligible and soft, leaning towards the touch as it pulled away. Something in Nate’s chest wavered at that.

I’m glad you’re here, Hancock. I… His heart trotted faster, unsure, straining still under the idea of getting so attached to others when it was so easy for them to be taken away too. I’m more glad you’re here than maybe you’ll ever know. Though maybe… maybe you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for soon, and you’ll want to head back home.

But I hope it’s not for a while. I think I need you with me.

Best friend. That was the word he’d chosen to use, the one his drunkenness had thrown out into the world, no regard for things like time or boundaries.

It both felt right and it didn’t. Whatever it was in this bond, it wasn’t just shooting the breeze and listening to each other’s woes. It wasn’t just knowing the other would be there to handle what the world threw, though that was becoming more and more apparent.

It was… something else. Something Nate didn’t have words for.

And whatever it was, he was realizing, he would put his life on the line to keep it.

Chapter Text

Sweat clung sticky to Hancock’s frame—an accomplishment for a man with few such glands left. His breathing fell harsh and labored. His insides sizzled, and it wasn’t a matter of the sunshine or the ambient radiation.

Honestly, he was ready to sit the fuck down. Instead, he was getting a gun waved in his face by a punk-ass mugger.

“Gimme your caps and chems, ghoul.” The young man’s eyes bugged cagily from his head, old scars lumped across his nose and cheeks. His leg was a stumbly, twisty thing, supported by a walking stick. It looked like he’d used it to kick the business end of a landmine.

“Easy.” Hancock raised both hands, palms empty. He could only thank his lucky stars this wasn’t a raider or some other monster big on bloodlust and low on mercy. Christ. What a goddamn way for the mayor of Goodneighbor to go—done in by a little weasel during scouting—because he couldn’t pay attention, because he saw that cane and thought to help instead of not. “Don’t have much on me. Just some Mentats. They’re yours, though, if you want ‘em that badly.” He couldn’t help but growl. “You know, I woulda given ‘em to ya anyway if you’d just asked.”

The man snarled. “Fine! I…” His gun wavered. Oof. He was jonesing for a fix, that was for sure. “Shit. Just… just hand them over!”

Slowly, Hancock removed his hat, fishing the chems out of the lining. His hands quavered too. It wasn’t because he was afraid.

The robber reached out, snatched his bounty, then scampered back and away, keeping his gun out and leveled. “Sorry. I’m… I’m sorry.”

And with that, he broke and ran.

Hancock stared and sighed. Just… fuck it. Fuck it, let the desperate wreck have it. Sometimes the price for helping meant getting bit now and again. He could get more supplies soon. They had to get to Graygarden eventually, right? It had been days. Days.

His companion was staggering back to health, but it was slow. The territory they were walking through had turned dangerous, forcing them to hide and wait often before pressing forward. Scavenging became hard, their surroundings picked clean. Hunting was almost impossible. Food and purified water were running desperately low, not to mention the chems. The chems!

Hancock eventually managed to make his way back down the road and ducked into an empty little gas station. Nate waited there, their bags and caps guarded at his feet, his back pressed against the wall. It looked like he’d gotten his breath back. Good. His skin, though, was waxy and dull. He’d needed to sit every hour or so on their march, get his wind—he probably should have slept even longer at their last camp, but he’d demanded they keep going.

Hancock refused to blame him for any of that and didn’t complain no matter how many times they stopped. He didn’t mind taking point either, making sure matters ahead were clear… even when he got robbed for the trouble. But as he joined his companion, turning his gaze through a broken window to the sky, he found he had to take a long, steadying breath now too. With quaking hands, he fished his last morsel of dried molerat from his pocket and chewed weakly. “Road’s clear,” he grunted.

Nate nodded, closing his tired eyes for just a moment longer. Hancock tried to mentally rally himself. They couldn’t both be sick.

Of course, they were. There was a pretty good reason why Pegleg back there had gotten the drop on him.

Ignore the burning. The shaking. Sure as hell ignore your stomach doing… ugggh… that. What the hell are you, some amateur?

This was, of course, all his own damn fault: getting lazy in Goodneighbor, puffing up twice a day like clockwork for… for how long was it? The fact that he didn’t know wasn’t great. At some point, he’d just stopped worrying where his next hit was coming from—his one true mayoral perk was that he was provided for. Goddamn it, of course he’d gotten a bit of a dependency going, even with his high tolerance and ghoulish metabolism. Of course his body was pissed off.

And for it to be this bad, this soon… it was that damn Buffout. Hulking up was known to get a system to burn through itself a little quicker.

Knew that would bite me in the ass eventually. He scowled at his bag, lying useless and near-empty at Nate’s feet.

It also wasn’t helping that he’d been pretending not to be jittering like the junkie that robbed him. Nate needed to know any companion of his was reliable, trustworthy… that he was being watched out for. But tremors quaked Hancock’s knees regardless. Turning his gaze at his feet, he fumbled a cigarette to his lips and lit it with a wobbly match. The nicotine wasn’t going to do shit, but for some reason, sucking in that smoke was still soothing. A placebo? Yeah, whatever it was, he’d take it.

Nate simply rubbed at his cheeks like he was waking himself up, flushing his tanned skin pleasantly under his stubble. It was funny. He still looked like a damn chiseled snack cake even when he was a mess.

Fuck. Stop that. Hancock looked away. Remembering how it felt to hold someone and be soothed by the sensation… to be needed like that… it had been the absolute worst part of waking up from the Buffout haze. After all, how many years had it been since that had been on the menu? It shoved his physical attraction to Nate right back in his face, made the harmless fun and banter something sharp and angry.

And that thread of unease rattling him… it had tugged stronger.

Ugly ghoul. Coward. Runner.

Nate’s friendship, in some ways, was still a notion that kept clobbering through his defenses like a super mutant suicider. Being a best friend… that was not something people threw at him every day. It’d been a damn slice of poetry handed to him on a silver platter alongside all that booze back at The Third Rail. He didn’t know if he really deserved it, though he liked it. He and Nate, they’d taken care of each other. Of course they had.

And yet… when was the other shoe going to drop, really? That was what the harsh light of withdrawal in the morning kept asking.

Would it be the tenth time they were inconvenienced by some ghoul-hating asshole?

Would it be because Nate finally decided that, between the history and the chems, maybe there’d be more trustworthy companions that could come along for the ride?

Maybe it’d be because he’d notice Hancock was only sort-of-kind-of kidding with the flirting. Being both into guys and into ghouls was a bit of a bad set of odds, after all, especially when what the man really seemed to be into was his mission.

And Hancock was starting to realize he’d do anything for Nate to never send him packing, to never look at him, sigh, and say, “Well, it’s been real, buddy, but…”

Damn. There was really no winning today. Hell, this Buffout, this whole entire week… it had just screwed him over physically, then cracked his emotions wide open like rotten eggs and forced him to take a big ol’ whiff.

And in conclusion: fuck.

“You alright?” Nate nudged him with an elbow, standing.

“Yep,” he muttered, gruffer than he’d intended.

“You just seem… really tired. This has been a hell of a walk.”

“Yeah,” Hancock agreed, taking another drag on his cig, rising as well, collecting his things.

“Map says Graygarden’s coming up in fifteen minutes. If… uh… if the Pip-Boy’s working right.”

Smoke consumed Hancock like the haze behind his eyes. “Good.” That promise really helped.

“I guess we best get moving then.”

“Yeah.”

As Hancock walked again into the sun, he saw spots, his stomach turning. This… this was not going to be easy.

 


 

Nate carefully kept an eye on the road, his friend in the corner of his vision. Strained tension seemed to snap from the ghoul’s frame. He wasn’t sure if it was personal or not… but it felt personal.

Almost every attempt at conversation fell flat. Every joke was met with snippy, one-word grunts. The guy didn’t even want to listen to the radio; he just sucked down cigarettes like he needed the smoke to keep breathing.

After Hancock had broken Nate’s fever days ago, held him close and safe in the stream… Nate had felt like some unspoken agreement of no-questions-asked solidarity had been forged between them. He began to wonder if he ought to embrace this—or at least try to learn how. Maybe, instead of being afraid it could be taken away at any time, he could try just accepting whatever this new bond was growing to be.

And then… this.

“Hey… are you sure you’re alright?”

“…I’m fine.”

The growl left a snapping, baffled ache in Nate’s core, and he didn’t know what else to do except leave his proclaimed “best friend” alone.

At least his Pip-Boy was functioning… mostly. Though it lagged on commands, the map cheerfully blinkered their location, and it was spot-on. Eventually, as they crested a final hill, a shining greenhouse fell into view—Graygarden, a sign announced.

An excited spark in Nate’s chest lit again. Something about this place seemed so familiar.

“Finally,” Hancock grumbled.

“They’ll probably have someplace for you to rest,” Nate offered.

In return, he saw the first little smile he’d gotten all day, making his stomach relax. “And we can resupply. Thank Christ.”

Entering the greenhouse was like diving into an oxygen tank. The fresh, bright odor of plant life assaulted Nate’s senses, burning away the musty tang of the wastes. Handy robots of all types hovered here and there, tending, watering, pruning. One’s eyes immediately snapped upwards, and it drifted closer, observing them carefully.

“Hey,” Nate greeted. “We’re here from the Minutemen. I’m Nate, and this is Hancock. We need to speak to whoever made a request for us?”

“Ah!” The robot’s rich, elegant voice made Nate do a double-take. This… this wasn’t a Mr. Handy. It was a Miss—the first he’d ever met. “I thought no one would ever come! It was I who sent the request. My name is Supervisor White.”

Off-balance, Nate decided what the hell and offered his hand as he would to any other person. The Handy extended a claw gamely and shook.

“Wait. Are you… in charge?” Hancock squinted.

“Why, yes. Graygarden is the first and only fully self-sustained agricultural operation run entirely by robots!”

The excited spark in Nate’s chest flared higher. “Hey! I remember hearing about this place! It was getting talked about before the war, when—”

“…Waaaait,” Hancock interrupted. Nate whipped his head to stare. “Before we start this job, are there any, uh, accommodations for non-robotic people here? Like, well, traders? Supplies?”

“Some, yes. I suppose Supervisor Brown can sell you some of our produce. This is all we have, however.”

“Produce. Okay. Thanks.” Hancock steepled his fingers, nodded, and walked away.

Nate blinked. “Huh. Sorry about that. I don’t think he’s feeling great.”

“He is lying down outside,” the robot said, peering over Nate’s shoulder. “He appears to be screaming into the dirt.”

Spinning, Nate followed her gaze to the thick, clear windows. “Will you excuse me? I’ll be back to talk to you about that job in just a moment.”

“Of course.” The Handy floated back to her shrubs, cheerfully slicing away dead growth.

 


 

There were some people who would say—regarding withdrawal—that with the right attitude and determination, anyone could win.

According to Hancock, most people were full of shit. Right now, he felt like a broken-down component in an uncaring machine, shaking, rattling, overheating, full of a sickness with no end. Damn Buffout to hell, give it a shovel, and tell it to fucking dig to oblivion.

Grinding his teeth, done screaming into the ground, he decided to pull himself together. A professional wouldn’t let the trap of self-pity lure him in.

But god, he wished he had something else in his bag right now to take the edge off, give his brain that little spark of happiness. Any user worth his salt knew better than to switch out to Psycho though, unless they were aiming to join the nearest raider band—one vial had survived in his coat, and he wasn’t touching that. Otherwise, there was no more Buffout. No more Jet. No more Mentats now either! And his cigarettes? Ha! So helpful so far.

Maybe one more shout into the mud would be fine, then. His fingers pressed deep into his hat’s brim, drawing it down like a shield against the grinding sun.

Chill out. You’ve done this before. It’s fine. Going cold turkey. This’ll be over in no time.

No time.

Shit, he couldn’t even lie to himself. He could barely think about getting up.

“Are you okay?”

Great. Just great. There was Nate, his voice doing that little concerned upturn again, his feet rapid on the fertile soil. Here went all the respect and rapport they’d painstakingly built up. Here was the other shoe falling—Hancock had guessed right. The chems. That was going to be what did it. It was all gonna detonate for real now, in three… two…

“Hancock! Hey!” Nate kneeled, friendly palm between his shoulder blades. The touch was jarringly warm, and suddenly, Hancock realized it had been ages since any other non-ghoul had just reached out, totally sober, and put a friendly hand on him.

Goddammit! You don’t have to be so damn nice to me! I know how this ends!

He barely understood the thought even as it crossed his mind.

“Sorry about that in there.” Scraping himself into something resembling the vertical, Hancock pulled away and jammed his hands inside his coat. “Just getting punished for some personal stupidity. Don’t mind me.”

“Are you sick? Are you hurt? Jesus, was I contagious?”

Wheezing with exasperation at himself, Hancock almost laughed. He wrestled with how to frame the conversation—of course, what choice did he have? Nate would figure it out eventually; even he couldn’t hide his symptoms forever. “Yeah. Sick. Sorry. I know you’re relying on me. I just…” He shrugged. “Lost some of my medicine, you see, in the attack on that farm.”

“Your… medicine.” Comprehension started to dawn on Nate’s face. Hancock couldn’t say he cared for the hard squint that followed. “I… see.”

“I’ll be fine soon. It’ll get a little worse. Then it’ll get controllable. Got the whole ghoul thing in my favor, ya know? Pretty damn hardy.” He knew his stare was burning into Nate’s, but he couldn’t help it. He needed to see the moment when trust left those eyes, like it had a long line of others. He had to know.

But to Nate’s everlasting credit, not a single word of judgment slipped past that frustrated frown. “What can I do to help? And can you do this mission? Be honest.”

Hancock hesitated, but he plowed on, buoyed a little, resolved. “Yeah, I got this. I’ll be fine.”

“You were face-down in the dirt.”

“That was then. This is now.” As if to prove it, Hancock brushed dust from his chin. “Not like I need precision aiming with a shotgun, right? And not much we can do about this anyway, unless…” His heart skipped, and he shivered at the hope. “Unless you never used that Jet I gave you back in Goodneighbor?”

Oh god, even the thought of a tiny sniff of Jet made his toes curl.

Nate hesitated before saying, with utter finality, “I sold it.”

“Whaaaat? Sold it?” The hope crashed into the earth and buried itself. “Why would you do that?”

“We needed more water that wasn’t swimming with disease,” Nate said. Hancock sagged. He’d rather have the dirty water. His stomach could handle it just fine. “I do have Addictol, though.”

That straightened Hancock’s spine, a cold shot to his heart. “Wait. What?” Oh, Christ. There it was. His nausea lurched with apprehension. Of course Nate would have something like Addictol lying around. Of course he did. The guy didn’t use, but he sure as hell had a junkie friend, didn’t he? Maybe he’d just been waiting for this day.

“No,” Hancock said flatly. “Thanks.”

“…No? I… what?” Nate blinked, like he’d just been popped between the eyes. “Come on. It’s… Addictol. It’s perfect for this. If you’re this bad, you really need to take it.”

Hancock’s mood dug itself into a deeper, darker pit from where it had crashed. “Don’t want fucking Addictol,” he snapped. “I’m fine.”

Nate smoothed back his hair. It was a gesture dripping with exasperation. “You’re sick. This’ll make you feel better. There were guys in my platoon who weren’t supposed to get dependent on Psycho, though it sure as hell was on offer enough to make that happen. Addictol? Would set them to rights in less than twelve hours. Some water, some aspirin, and they were fine.”

“Oh yeah, ‘cause you’d know just what it’s like detoxing, I’m sure.” Hancock growled. “I don’t want it. I don’t need it. I’m capable, you can depend on me, and I can pull through on my own.”

“It’s just a shot! This’ll speed up your recovery to next to no time—”

Good god, Nate was a babe in the woods with chems. “Like hell it will. Just… trust me. Okay? I can do this.”

Nate swelled up for a moment, like he wanted to force the issue. There it was. He didn’t trust, not fully, not one-hundred-fucking-percent.

“You gonna make that an order, soldier boy?” Hancock pressed, feeling saltier than his radroach steak from three days back. His stomach quivered and turned. “You wanna make me?”

Nate looked like he’d been slapped, Then, he just closed his eyes, taking a calming breath. “…No.”

“No?” Hancock almost pulled back, surprised.

“No.” Nate spun, sending an opaque stare over his shoulder. “You can rest here, or take the Addictol and come with me. Be sick, or have my back. Your fucking pick.” And with that, he returned to the greenhouse, only a little stumble in his clearly still-weak legs.

Hancock’s teeth ground as he hugged his shuddering, freezing hands to his chest. Come on, Nate! You don’t know anything about chems or Addictol… and… and… what, we’re not even gonna talk about how YOU’RE still too sick to do this too? It’s just ME that’s the problem? The breeze was all that answered, carrying a bit of disgustingly cheerful birdsong. Shit. Well, I sure as hell ain’t letting your dumb ass go do whatever that robot wants alone.

Slowly, Hancock re-entered the greenhouse, trying to stow his nerves and queasiness somewhere safe, all to be dealt with later.

The nerves, at least, got managed.

The flower pot by the doorway, on the other hand, was very convenient for when his breakfast came back up.

 


 

“Thank you, Supervisor,” Nate said, voice hushed. In the corner, Hancock was sprawled, resting on a bed of folded frost blankets meant to shield the plants from winter. Occasionally, he would moan and struggle before resuming his impression of an inert starfish.

White whirred, processing. “Most unfortunate your colleague has fallen ill. We will, of course, care for him while you do your work for our request?”

Nate bit his lip. If there was one thing he’d learned, it was that it was dumb to rush headlong into a possible den of monsters with no one watching his back. “One moment,” he said. To Hancock’s side, he trotted and kneeled. “Hey.” His voice was only a whisper, but his companion certainly heard him. Weakly, those black eyes pivoted to lock on.

“M’still alright,” Hancock slurred. “M’fine. This’ll pass in a few hours. Be upright again in no time.”

Nate’s jaw clenched. He didn’t want to restart the argument. He didn’t want to. It didn’t feel fair.

But goddamn it, he had to, for both of their sakes.

“Uh-huh. And when will this sickness come back? Or the shakes? We don’t know what’s gonna be at the water treatment plant they need back online. Mutants? Raiders? Bloodbugs? What’s the odds, when you’re neck deep in bloodbug larvae, that your bowels just decide to—”

Shaddup. I get it.

“Alright then. You’ve made it really clear you don’t want any Addictol. I’m not even going to pretend to understand why. But, see—I’ve never bothered you about your chems. Ever. They aren’t my business. Today, they are. We’re Minutemen, and—”

You are.”

“Fine! I’m a Minuteman, and you’re being a prick,” Nate hissed. He swallowed back a waver that threatened to infect his voice. This guy probably felt like shit, and when people felt like shit, they wanted to fight—it wasn’t personal. At least this damn well explained the past few days. “You know we have to go to that plant. We pledged our help to Preston—you know Goodneighbor needs his help now too. The last thing I want to do is leave you here and do this alone. I… I need you with me. I need you if I don’t want to risk too much.”

His friend’s dark eyes burned with something stricken, and Nate had no idea if it was rage, hurt, or something else, something deep.

“We just can’t wait for you to get better on your own,” he trudged on. “Dr. White has told me they need all their resources as soon as the weather shifts—as in, two days from now. A frost is coming. That means this job is getting done tomorrow at the latest. So unless you can guarantee me that you’re gonna be in walking and fighting condition in less than a day without Addictol…”

“Wait,” Hancock groaned. “Ask…ask if they’ve got a chem cooking area.”

Really?! Just brew up some Jet instead of getting well?

White interjected quickly from the doorway. “My programming does not permit usage of our stations for the synthesis of anything but treatments for the plants.”

The ghoul balled his hands into fists. When he spoke, it was almost a spit. “Fine. Fine! Hand me the goddamned Addictol. But don’t give me that shit about it being a magical cure. This ain’t my first rodeo.”

Nate’s eyebrows went up. “Thank you,” he whispered. He wasn’t a medic, but he did know that when addicts went to the doctor with a problem, this worked. Hell, if they took it outside of medical care, their withdrawal symptoms almost vanished so they could function for a little while until they could rest. If that wasn’t magical, he wasn’t sure what was. He fished the package from the bottom of his bag, right where Preston had insistently pressed it, just in case.

I owe you a thank you, Garvey.

Hancock snatched it. His quaking hands struggled to open it, and when he did, the syringe clattered to the floor. Nate reached to assist. But his friend moved to block his helpful hand with his body. “Can do it myself. You even know how to find a ghoul’s veins?”

Nate helplessly shook his head and put his hands back on his knees, squeezing the fabric into bunches.

Just let me help you. You’ve helped me… so damn much.

Hancock struggled to sit up and brace his back to the wall, just shaking his head over and over as Nate tried to open his mouth or volunteer to do something, anything, really. Though his grip was unsteady, Hancock managed to roll up his sleeve just fine. His delicacy in tapping his skin, finding a proper injection site, was almost like watching a determined artisan at work. Nate almost wondered if Hancock thought assistance in shooting up was some kind of professional insult.

The man softly hissed as the syringe went in, as the cure found his bloodstream.

“Now,” Hancock said, “I’m gonna ask you to go until it’s done.” He leveled his serious gaze. “And you should probably understand, it’s not because I’m mad, cause I’m not. Not at… not at you.”

“Alright?” Nate stood, voice tight. A complicated emotion was at war in his chest, fury and helplessness and worry.

Sighing, it was like Hancock read his mind. All the growling, all the snapping tension, it evaporated. “I’m asking you to go ‘cause… all this… it’s real ugly. It’s gonna get worse. I don’t want you thinking less of me than you probably do right now. Alright?”

Nate blinked. “Everyone gets ugly sometimes,” he rasped, steadfast in that knowing, remembering just how he’d been since he’d awoken two hundred years past his expiration date. “It doesn’t matter.”

Hancock smiled sadly. “Thanks, brother. But seriously. Nothing you can do for me. Just… scram, okay?”

“I…” Nate swallowed. “Fine. Okay. I guess… just ask Supervisor White to get me if you need me.” The words left him uneasy, but he knew he ought to respect Hancock’s wishes, even if he didn’t like them. Reluctant, he began to pad away.

His friend’s groans of pain began to follow him as he rounded the corner.

He’d never heard that at the start of an Addictol recovery. Never. A chill ran down his spine, his fists clenching. His feet froze.

Stay or go. Honor the request—or provide safety and help to a man who might not want either from him at all. Maybe he never did and never would.

Nate closed the greenhouse door behind him and slumped against the slick glass. There. Now he was out of sight, but not far at all—the moment he was needed, he could come.

I’ll be here for you whether you want me to be or not. That’s how this works.

I’ve got your back, man. That’s what best friends are for.

Chapter Text

Nate kept away but kept watch. White, for her part, never hovered over to get him. Multiple Handies would drift through that door, and he noted they were carrying a nonzero number of serious cleaning supplies. Sometimes, they left with blankets that were wretched with sick, taking them to be washed.

They were all drones, and none responded when he tried to press for updates.

As each hour of the expected twelve passed, Nate struggled not to feel increasingly useless and put-out. He dug in the dirt nearby, helping Graygarden by collecting carrots and repairing windows. He ran radiation tests on the soil with his Pip-Boy. He made some damn fine vegetable soup, which made him feel halfway healthy again. Then, finally resigned, he scouted out the road to the water treatment plant, making notes, observing the outside of the target building through his rifle’s scope.

He tried not to think of Hancock’s body tearing itself apart while he could do nothing more. He tried not to feel utterly alone.

But Hancock had wanted it that way. Goddammit, he’d demanded it be that way.

He doesn’t need me like I need him.

So as night came, Nate set up his tent for just one.

Though he had more elbow room, without his companion’s presence, the air was too cold, the silence too heavy. His body tossed and turned. In that empty space, he felt as if no one else existed in the whole of the universe.

The dreams came for him then: dreams of the dead. Dreams of the fire in the sky. Of a baby crying.

Of Nora telling him everything would be alright.

Dazed, the world a restless blur, he dragged himself from his blankets the next morning at exactly the same moment that Hancock emerged from his hermitage. Nate hadn’t even heard him coming; it was like he’d just known. And Hancock didn’t even see him at first. The ghoul’s stance was stiff as he squinted grimly at the sky. Nate hustled over, eager to be reunited, glad beyond words.

But his friend’s voice… it rasped with extra sandpaper and grit. “Hey.” He was only now putting on his hat, his hands steady and sure.

“Hey!” Nate fought the urge to reach out, to touch. “You made it through. Welcome to the other side.”

Hancock didn’t look like he wanted a hug or anything remotely resembling it. Watching the sun rising on the horizon, he expelled an absent sigh, like a man did when missing someone or something back home.

Nate hovered, still feeling… deficient. It was hard not to default into parade rest as he struggled to figure out what to do with his hands. “Are you… alright?” He almost kicked himself remembering that was likely the tenth time he’d asked that question in twenty-four hours.

The ghoul only blinked slowly, resentfully at the clouds. “I’m really, really sober.”

An awkward silence rolled before the evasion. “But…” Nate tried. “…the worst of it’s passed?”

“I didn’t say that.” The articulation was bitingly exact. “But I can most definitely promise I’m not throwing up in any more flower pots today. And my trigger finger? Real steady. Real ready to kill something.” As if to demonstrate, he patted the shotgun’s grip over his shoulder.

“Okay then.” Nate withdrew, cautious. For the first time since they’d met, the looming field of personality that surrounded this ghoul was stripped away. He was thin. Frail. The easy laugh, the smile, the quips—they were gone.

Something in those eyes was hollow.

And as they began their walk, nothing improved. Hancock was quiet as the grave. No humming. No little observations. He didn’t even light a cigarette this time.

“You want the radio on until we get there?” Nate asked.

“Doesn’t matter. Whatever you want.” Dog made a whine, nipping at Hancock’s fingers, only receiving a short scratch behind the ears.

A few more minutes passed. “You’re angry,” Nate finally managed.

“…Yeah.”

The next question sank Nate’s stomach into his shoes. “You sure you’re not angry at me?”

“…No. No, god no. It was just… rough. I…” For just a second, a raw sadness flitted across that face, those black eyes shining wide in the sunlight. It crushed back into neutrality a moment later, that stare flickering, like whatever it was Hancock was going to really say, he thought better of it. And before Nate could ask, his words hurried on. “Addictol isn’t always the same for ghouls, just so you know. Especially when they’ve been dependent for a long time. Hell, I might be allergic to something in it. But all that aside… it honestly leaves a guy feeling worse than he did before he took it, you feel me?”

“…How?” What about this are you hiding?

His companion sighed, looking off into the trees and ruins. “Some of it, I’m not sure I could tell you in a way you’d get, not being a chem connoisseur yourself, brother.”

It was clear he intended to drop the conversation there. Nate grimaced, again feeling as if he’d forged a connection with weight and meaning, and now the other man was doing everything in his power to cut it off, to shut him out. “Try me,” he challenged, an edge bleeding at his tone as he fidgeted with his Pip-Boy. The markers he’d placed for good observation points around the treatment plant blinked before him. They were coming up on one soon.

“Alright… alright. Fine.” Hancock closed his eyes momentarily, sighing, like he was too exhausted to refuse again. “Okay. Let’s say you have a room. Everything in it’s the way you want it, right? Everything’s in place. It’s home. Maybe it’s messy. Maybe there’s some things you know need fixing. But it’s yours. You like it. You can picture that?”

“Yeah?” Nate wasn’t sure where this was going.

“Alright. Now, one day you come home, and someone’s been there. You don’t fucking know where anything is; it’s all been stolen or moved. The lights are all wrong. You can see weird stains and holes and shit that you can usually ignore. Suddenly, it’s not your safe place. It looks like your home, but it’s not.”

“Uh… okay…”

“That’s Addictol, man. Fucking goes in there and cleans you right out. Can’t even recognize the place when it’s done.”

Nate blinked, processing.

“I guess… what I’m trying to say… look. I had some mess I shouldn’t have had, alright? Mess I’m usually too smart to have. But I wanted to be the one to clean it up.” Hancock growled as he unslung his shotgun, taking off the safety. “So now? I’ll cope. You don’t gotta worry about that. Just watch out when I get back to civilization, ‘cause I’m gonna fuck up my house again. Until it’s home. Until it’s something I recognize.”

“…Noted,” was all Nate could say, a little stunned. Hancock… hated being sober? What the hell? How long had he been drugged?

And yet…

Maybe without the cloud of chems in the way, Hancock could see reality, could see the past, present, and future all too clearly. And maybe… maybe he didn’t like what they held.

Whatever it was he didn’t want to talk about… if it made him look at the world like that

Dog affectionately rubbed up against Nate’s side, panting at him with a canine-smile. Ruffling his scruff, Nate steadied himself and drew his focus.

Alright. The mission first. Then he could wrestle with why, again, he felt like he was sinking, empty and incomplete.

 


 

The road crackled under Hancock’s boots, the patchy grass and weeds there getting a head start on death before the creeping cold front. One eye he kept out for hubflowers, those sweet little miracles that might be coaxed into a tea that might even make him feel human again.

His mind’s eye, however, was faced firmly inwards.

Yeah, he was in a lousy mood, sure, and Addictol sucked. But beyond that… well, staring up at a ceiling for twelve hours, alternating between dozing and suffering system purges… it had given him far too much time to think.

He’d thought about how he’d been choosing to do his chems over and over again, because he loved them, because they made him happy, because they made the world a lot easier to handle. It was a choice. Until, apparently, it wasn’t.

He’d thought about what Mama Murphy had told him: that sometime, somewhere, he’d find the thing that’d make him whole. It was funny; he’d never really thought of himself as missing anything, save one toe. But the more he tried puzzling it over, the more it made something in his chest ache, something he didn’t have a name for. Whatever it was, that thing had been hurting for a long time… long enough to make him sometimes forget the pain wasn’t just how things were supposed to be.

He’d thought about who all would miss him if he never came home. Fahr might. The town’d grieve, he guessed. But how many friends did he really keep that weren’t just booze and chem buds, or enthusiastic supporters of the cause? How many people really knew him, would miss, say, his sense of humor, or the way he could maul a good drinking song?

Would Nate?

He’d thought about how his life had changed this last week—there were so many threats out there staring him down now, and yet, he’d never felt so free and capable, like he was just where he belonged, doing what he needed to do. Hell, he felt like he was just getting started—one nasty merc was down for the count, and a few settlements were happier and healthier, so bring on the real challenges! The idea that his new friend might see this whole thing with the chems, might cut him loose over it…? It made him want to put a fist through a wall—because he had no idea he’d been so goddamn unhappy before all this, that he’d just stopped feeling alive. Every day had bled into the next, and he’d been hanging on, finding humor in everything he could, but… goddamn it, that’s all it had been. Hanging on.

He wasn’t ready to go back to that.

I need YOU with me, Nate had said. Those words had reached right into Hancock’s soul and dug there deep furrows of guilt and loneliness he hadn’t looked in the eye in decades.

Supervisor White had checked in on him now and again, but friendship wasn’t exactly part of her programming. She tended to him like a plant. Gave him some water. Dropped a little bag of fertilizer within reach. And it had made him so mad, that he was alone in all that, so furious, but reaching out for Nate, it made him angrier, and—

And that’s when it hit him, a bolt from the blue. Suddenly, he knew what all this was.

Why he’d needed to push Nate away.

A stab of regret flooded his heart.

Look at me, getting all wound up over some pretty eyes, trying to prove I don’t need him before he realizes he don’t need me either.

What a dumb McDonough thing to do.

Goddamn it. Get back in your grave, you dead bastard.

He sighed, traipsing down the trail. “Hey,” he finally said, weary of himself.

“Yeah?”

“Is it too late for the radio?”

He knew he’d made the right call when Nate offered a little smile in answer, fiddling with his Pip-Boy. The smooth tones of “Worry, Worry, Worry” began to croon softly in the morning air.

Heh. Calling me out, you lousy DJ?

Nate laughed. “You know, I can’t help but wonder…”

“What?”

“If that guy who runs the radio station… if he’s got the vinyls for all of these artists, why doesn’t he play more of their songs at some point?”

Hancock, who had never even beheld a rare or valuable music disc, blinked. “Wait. What?”

“The other songs. On the albums.” Nate’s brow scrunched. “You… do know there’s usually more than one song on a record, right?”

Hancock felt a bit like he’d been smacked by a super mutant wielding a fire hydrant on a stick. “Wait. Are you serious? How many songs are there?”

“Like, at least five, usually. Sometimes ten or so. Hell, you can usually flip them over and play more.”

“Son of a…! Are you shitting me?! I have been listening to the same songs on Diamond City radio for years!” Hancock couldn’t help but clench a fist. “I even asked Magnolia to go there a couple months back, to record new music—because we gotta put up with Travis, even in Goodneighbor! Years! Why would he keep this from us?” Nate’s eyes were full of both amusement and sympathy, but Hancock wasn’t sure it was the amount this situation deserved. “No, Nate, you don’t understand! He’s had new music all this time?!

“Maaaaybe his records are all singles,” Nate said, a strangled laugh caught in his throat. His eyes said it wasn’t likely. “I thought you liked singing along to all the hacking and whacking and smacking.”

“Choppin’ that meat!” Hancock bobbed his head with enthusiasm. “But sometimes, a guy wants more!”

Nate laughed again, just a little shyly, and Hancock felt perhaps some of their bond had been repaired. Good. This might have been the worst he’d felt in ages, but he didn’t want to damage something that he… well, that he liked a whole lot. He’d done that enough in his lifetime.

He fidgeted his thumbs discreetly, hopeful and nervous both. I better not have fucked this up.

“So up ahead,” Nate finally said. “There’s some super mutants that have moved in around the outside of the plant.”

“…Oh boy.” Hancock winked, finding it easy to lean into a familiar rhythm of charm. “You didn’t try taking any of ‘em on yourself this time, did ya?”

“Of course not. That’s why I’ve got someone to watch my back.” Nate was still smiling, face flushed in the morning sun. There was a friendly nudge against Hancock’s shoulder as they brushed up against each other, pausing their hike, the man showing him some good observation locations marked on his Pip-Boy’s flickering map. “I only watched through my scope. But they’ve set up a fairly intricate position around the place. Quite a group.”

“Hrm.” Hancock scratched the back of his head. “Alright, I’m not on my Mentats right now, but I’m thinking maybe we lure a few out into some mines, yeah? Scatter ‘em with the explosion, then pick off the rest trying to charge through the fence at us.”

“I don’t even need to be on Mentats to think that’s solid.” Nate offered a chummy back pat, hand lingering, lighting up the skin beneath the coat. “Alright then. Let’s get to it.”

  


 

Hancock was pleased to find his idea mostly worked. The few remaining mutants that dug in and refused to give chase through the mines fell after a half hour of careful lurking—and the delivery of bullets wrapped in sweet nothings from behind cover.

Yes, dealing with the mutants was the easy part. Small blessings. The hard part was bopping around the plant’s administrative levels while absolutely ravenous, keeping watch as Nate rifled through drawers for supplies.

Usually by this time, coming down from his morning Jet dose, he would have been pleasantly hungry and thirsty, but he hadn’t recognized those usual rhythms, so he’d forgotten breakfast. A migraine had taken up residence in that void. And on top of that, for some reason, everything itched! It hurt to swallow. He knew he was allergic to Addictol. Something in it turned his body into a foreign country whose customs he needed to relearn.

Again, his bobby pin snapped in a locked door. Why the hell couldn’t he…? Ugh. Alright, sure, his head was pounding like someone had let loose a nest of deathclaws up there, but he wasn’t unfamiliar with that as a working condition.

Then, an urge tugged at him. Oh. Jesus, he really was out of it; no wonder he couldn’t concentrate. Hancock stood. “Gimme a minute.”

Nate cocked his head in a confused way as Hancock left to find a bathroom. Into a supply closet the ghoul went, closing the door to relieve himself in a cleaning bucket. “Ahhhhhh.”

“…Oh,” he heard from behind the door.

Hancock peeked back out, zipping up. “Unrelated, but man, do you got any snacks or anything from those drawers?”

“Really got a craving for the two-hundred-year-old food, huh?”

“Fancy Lads never go bad. The rads are tingly.”

Nate cocked his head. “They really do go bad. They all did. You just haven’t had them fresh.”

“They don’t kill ya.”

“You know, that’s about what you could say about them before the war too, so I’ll give you that.” Nate extended a can of water to him. “Hands.”

Sighing, Hancock extended his fingers, letting Nate fulfill his strange ancient rituals and pour the water over them. The man passed over a soap bar he’d apparently dug up now too, watching as Hancock cleaned up, pouring just enough water to rinse away any dirt.

“You do know we’re just gonna be touching all kinds of gross things here after this, right?”

“Washing your hands is about periodically getting rid of germs. You think we need to get sick again after the last few days?”

“…Fair.” It occurred to Hancock that maybe that was why this guy always smelled pretty good. Obsessive cleanliness. Maybe there was something to it, then.

Getting his fingers scrubbed, it also dawned on him then how nice it was having a grip that didn’t fucking shake at least. That came in handy as he finally succeeded in picking the door lock before them, opening a route to the treatment plant’s true core.

It, of course, was so backed up and broken that only a vast sea of filthy, algae-laden water could be seen in any direction. Nate busied himself with a nearby control panel. Ancient motors spun to life. The water in the treatment room beyond began to drain and move through the system.

Squinting, Hancock pressed his forehead to the glass. He might have been wrong, but he could swear he saw something… moving…

A shiny shell in the dark.

“Mirelurks,” he hissed, shotgun cocking.

“…What?”

“Get ready to come out shooting.” Hancock swung open the control room’s door and burst out before the monstrous crustaceans could realize what was going on. BOOM! One exploded as it stood and turned its soft face his way. It was like announcing dinner had arrived. Another mirelurk instantly charged, skittering hellishly across the rusted, dripping platform.

“How the hell am I supposed to kill these?!” Nate came up behind and unloaded shot after shot into another rushing, massive, armored predator. The bullets dented and crumpled the surface of its mottled plating, but never went through.

“Like this!” Hancock charged from the side at it and kicked as hard as he could. The thing tilted, legs scrabbling, belly and face exposed. BOOM! The shotgun tore into its soft flesh beneath. With a splatter and a crack, it reeled before smashing into nearby shelving. Tools rang from its dead carapace as they fell.

Soft pops and splashes in the water announced that their scuffle had alerted the entire clutch. Here we go.

And if that wasn’t enough, out of an exposed wall panel to Nate’s left, freshly-hatched babies started to swarm. Two of the slimy crawlers were up the man’s leg before he had time to react.

“OH GOD!” Nate swept his arm wide, trying to fling them off. He stomped another under his heels in what looked like a panicked flail. Hancock flipped his shotgun over, then brought the butt down on each of the little ‘lurks in turn, their still-forming exoskeletons snapping beneath. Nate finally dislodged his scuttlers by throwing himself into a wall. They popped away, hissing, falling. Torn, bloody strips of Vault suit went with them.

BANG BANG! Those pistols ended them for good. Nate panted, eyes wide and whites showing.

“I hate it when they do that,” Hancock grumbled. “You know, they don’t make a bad cake, though. You ever have mirelurk cakes?”

“That was disgusting! People eat them?”

“Well, yeah.” Hancock swung around just as the surface of the water erupted again with pincers and puckering hisses.

The fight wasn’t clean, and it was far from dry. By the time Nate and Hancock were done, their boots were squelching with slime, their clothes soaked. Everything reeked of mildew. Mirelurk goo dripped from places Hancock would really rather it hadn’t gone.

“Any chance that throwing myself in that water treater would clean me up?” he rasped.

“Nope,” Nate said, giving him a long stare, “But at least you know I’ve got plenty of soap.” He holstered his pistols with finality.

Supervisor White was as ecstatic as a Handy could possibly be when they returned. She even reached out with her buzz-saw arm, patting them each on the shoulder with its side so it wouldn’t cause lasting harm. In bags, she cheerfully handed them loads of vegetables and seeds, expressing her fondest hopes that they would take Graygarden with them no matter their destination.

As Nate left, arms utterly laden with more goddamn tatos, Hancock gave White a thumb’s up. “Hey, before I go… thanks for everything. I mean it. I was in a bad way.”

“Of course. It was the least we could do, given all you were about to do for us.” Her central eye pressed forward with earnestness. “You and your friend will be welcome here no matter what. And so will the Minutemen.”

Hancock grinned, heart skipping slightly higher. Being welcomed to a place with open arms was a beautiful feeling—one he’d thought he’d never experience again outside of Goodneighbor. This was now the third new place in a week. Kindness was extended only rarely to ghouls, and the sensation… it was starting to get addictive.

Not as nice as a Jet hit would be, but hey, it was pretty nice.

Maybe if Nate was restoring people’s faith in humanity, he himself was restoring their faith in ghoul-kind. Maybe the whole world would be kinder down the road.

It was a nice thought.

“Take care of yourself, White.”

“We will, Mr. Hancock. You too.”

  


 

Their camp was sparse, only a fire and the tent. No food cooked and crackled; dinner had been fresh carrots and exhausted looks. Hancock had bitten right into a tato. Just… crunched the whole thing down, raw.

Nate sighed softly, still hungry, but too tired to do anything more about it. “You want me to take first watch tonight? So you can rest?” I know I’m still recovering, but you’re more messed up than me right now.

Hancock only stared at the fire. “Honestly, Nate… I can’t even tell if I’m tired right now or if I need something else. It’s a weird feeling. I mean, usually, I don’t get tired the same way since I became a ghoul. I take something, I mellow out, and sleep happens. Right now, I feel sick.”

Vaguely, Nate remembered the last man in his platoon to get clean. The guy had insisted on taking double the watches. He’d trudged around like a grim automaton, doing every possible job for almost three days before utterly collapsing—and Nate, at the time, had just thought the soldier felt like he had something to prove. Like he needed to show he was still reliable so his sergeant would know the addiction was in the past.

It cleans you out, and you don’t feel like you’re at home in your own head anymore.

Nate shivered. The news often talked about Addictol having high recidivism rates. Some would call it a problem of morality or willpower, but they probably had never lived through it. Perhaps it had been naive, thinking it was as simple as an injection and that was that.

“Hey.” He sat next to Hancock, shoulder to shoulder, a gesture of solidarity. “I’m sorry you feel like shit. I’m sorry all that went down. I shouldn’t have been so hard on you.”

“No, no man. I was sick and being a dick about things. You were right.” His friend sagged, staring into the flames. “It had to be done.”

“You can count on me while you rest up and heal. Let me keep watch. And I promise: if we can get you some chems soon, enough for you to feel like yourself, I’m totally fine with it. Just as long as you… don’t get to where you were. If I can ask that. That was…” Frightening. I was scared for you. “Bad.”

He got a look in return like those non-existent eyebrows were about to rise all the way to a non-existent hairline. But soon, Hancock’s face split into a broad smile. “Thanks for caring about little old me. I… I don’t think I want to be quite like that again either, to be honest. You mean it though? You don’t have a problem with the chems?”

“I’m smart enough to eventually figure out that I don’t know everything. I’ve trusted you; you’re my best friend out here, right? So yeah. If you need me to trust that you know what you’re doing, then I do. Besides. I like you. High as a kite and all.”

The pleased look spread across Hancock’s face, his dark eyes glimmering, warm and glad. He even looked down and away then, like he was happy enough that he was almost embarrassed about it. “You keep surprising me.” A dry chuckle followed. “I mean, not many people would even travel with a ghoul as it is, but you put up with me, and that’s, like, twice as much charm you gotta tolerate.”

Nate laughed. “Of course I like traveling with you.” Rubbing his hands by the fire, he paused for a few moments, then his smile faded. “I think we’re a lot alike. At least… well, the way you are, you kinda gave me something to aim for. You came from an awful situation, and you got a handle on it. You stood up and fought. You’re doing what’s right. Giving people hope. That’s what I’m trying to do, too. Who cares if our skin is the same? Who cares if you pop a pill here and there? I’ve decided I shouldn’t, so I won’t.”

Hancock straightened like he was stricken. Then, as if returning the gesture of solidarity, he silently leaned heavier into Nate’s shoulder, nodding. He was so warm. “That… really means something. Thanks.”

“Maybe… you can tell me more about chems,” Nate added, not really wanting him to move yet, happy to feel like a combined, larger presence in that empty, cold night. “You don’t have to, and I probably won’t use any, but… hey, if you want to help me understand, then shoot.”

“Mmm. Yeah, I could try.” Hancock nodded, slow, closing his eyes as if reaching into a beautiful memory. “Maybe a little. But some things are better experienced. You won’t get it, not totally, without that.”

Nate swallowed. “I’m not entirely a virgin on the subject.”

One eye opened, a gleeful spark in its depths. “What? You act so clean that you squeak when you walk.”

Nate laughed. “It was a long time ago.” In the flames, he saw the crackling sway of trees in a jungle. “I told you about the soldiers taking Psycho in my regiment. Said it would give them an edge. Totally against regs without a medic overseeing it, but it happened a lot anyways. When I was a private… well, once, at our camp, I let someone talk me into trying it out to see how it’d affect me.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I just… Jesus. Everything went red. The guy who gave it to me started being an ass, and I… I lost it. I beat the shit out of him. Our commanding officer showed up, and we all ran. Not a damn person ratted me out at least. No one wanted to get inspected for their off-duty habits, I guess.” Nate sighed. “Haven’t touched that shit since. I don’t like not being in control of myself. If I’d had that shit under fire… I might have hurt friends. Civilians. God knows.”

His friend considered this for a long moment. “Psycho’s rough. It’s why raiders are… like that. I’m not real big on it myself. Although…”

“…What?”

“Sounds like he gave you way too fucking high a dose. Lucky your heart didn’t stop.”

A little quiver worked its way up Nate’s spine. Now that he really thought about it, he’d probably been getting hazed. He remembered tearing through his camp, a drum in his chest that felt like it was going to burst from its case. It was everything in him not to wreck anything he could get his hands on. In the morning, he’d been so goddamn dizzy and sick that he was relieved he was on latrine duty, just so he could vomit in peace. “Well, glad you’re not too into Psycho, anyway.”

“Nah. But look. A little bit? It can be good. Fire in your blood. Charge through a few extra miles of super mutant territory. Find the edge you didn’t know you had in you when your back’s against the wall.” Hancock chuckled. “It’ll even let ya go a few extra rounds if your, uh, partner likes it rough. Yeah. It can be fun. But fucking moderate it.”

“…Noted.” Nate’s face bloomed with heat.

“What, you thinking about trying it again?” the ghoul teased, nudging Nate’s ribs with his elbow. “How about Buffout? Ever had that?”

“No. The people I knew that took that…” He shook his head.

“Meatheads?”

“…Yeah.”

“Pffft. Amateurs. Look, Buffout makes you real solid. Powerful-feeling. Warm and nice, like nothing can touch you. When you were sick, I couldn’t have gotten you to the river and held you there without it. Relying on it a lot’s shit, though. Screws your reaction times after a while. Makes you feel small.”

“And Jet?”

Hancock smiled widely, like he was thinking about an old friend. “Beautiful. It’s like art.”

“It just makes you faster at things, right?”

“No, man. It makes the whole world slower. Important difference.”

“…How?”

That you need to feel to get. And you really should, like, at least once before you die. If you ever do? Do it while looking at a sunset.”

Nate let that sink in, the world already peaceful and still. If it stopped altogether? He imagined plucking a dragonfly from the very air, wings mid-swing.

“Or try it when you’re banging someone,” Hancock added. “Great feelings all around.”

Nate’s voice clipped a half-octave higher as the heat in his cheeks returned. “Okay then! Right. Mentats?”

Hancock laughed. “What flavor? One for every need, my brother. But all of them make everything make sense. Every word, every idea you ever had is yours, no fog, no waiting to grab it from your crappy old brain. Mentats are my favorite… makes me feel intellectual. You wouldn’t even believe it.”

“What? It’s not like you’re stupid.”

Snorting, Hancock grinned. “And I’m especially not stupid if I hit the right buttons in the old noggin. That’s all chems are, Nate. Hitting the right buttons. Use ‘em well? You won’t become a fuck-up. You won’t wreck yourself.”

“Or you might.”

“Or you might! But hey. We’re all gonna die in this hellscape one day anyway. Might as well be free to do our best. To feel our best. Yeah?”

It put a butterfly under Nate’s ribs when he realized he found nothing at all disagreeable with the thought. “I guess so.”

“All this doesn’t even cover what some chem wizards can cook up. Knew this one guy: Paulie. Gunmaker. Bastard loved to shoot up this mix of Mentats and Psycho. Genius at killing things, let me tell you what. God, him and K-L-E-O got on like a nest of super mutants on fire.”

“…What happened to him?”

“Died! Something about… setting a nest of super mutants on fire…” Hancock yawned like he would swallow the world. “You know… it’s kind of… a funny story… thinking about it…”

And suddenly, he slumped forward, chin falling from the palm propping it up. Nate grabbed his collar before he managed to pitch into the flames.

“…Wait, what’s going on?” Clear black eyes blinked their confusion.

“Hancock! You just fell asleep!”

“Oh. Huh. Yeah, guess I really am tired.”

“Sorry to keep you up.”

A dazed, weary grin bloomed. “Keep me up anytime.” The heat already in Nate’s face burned higher. Was he imagining it, or was there the slyest bit of innuendo in that voice?

But Hancock simply hopped away, giving a little wave goodnight as he made his way to the tent and vanished within. It wasn’t long at all until the soft, even breathing of slumber could be heard underneath the sounds of the crickets and crackling fire.

And Nate himself? He had no idea how he felt. His pulse was up like he’d been running. That, of course, could have been the proximity of another. The heat. He didn’t like being alone anymore, he was realizing. At all.

Between his screwed-up emotions and all the chems-and-sex talk… he was psyching himself out.

Breathing steady, Nate let his exhale try to carry away his nerves, turning his gaze to the black night beyond. Dog’s chin came to nuzzle on his knee. “Good boy,” he mumbled, scratching behind his furry friend’s ears.

He knew from his weariness already that it wouldn’t be an easy night, but this was what friends were for: watching each other’s backs while sleeping, destroying giant crabs, and talking about drugs in the wilderness. He smiled, not really sure what he’d be doing without Hancock there anymore.

And yet, his smile dissolved soon after. They’d felt like an incredible team over the last week; hell, it was hard for Nate to believe it only had been a week since Kellogg’s death. The world had fundamentally changed, like its color had returned.

They’d been two halves of a whole, and even if the last few days were hard… here they were again, better than ever, stronger for it.

But Nate was already half to another whole, and that had been ripped from him forever, leaving him shattered. As he sat, contemplating the quiet, he could literally feel something like a void in his chest, something aching and pulsing and crying out.

Jesus. Hancock had left for five minutes, and here he was, already sinking into depression again, staring up at the stars and feeling lonely.

I’m… I’m really fucking broken, aren’t I? There’s no way he can’t see that. I’m needy. I have nightmares. There’s things in my head that just aren’t okay anymore. I don’t even know where to begin, how to stop all these… these cracks in my mind from spreading.

Maybe Hancock had been right to keep a little distance at the greenhouse. Maybe he knew this all couldn’t last, and he saw an unstable man’s growing attachment barreling at him like a freight train off the tracks.

Slowly, disconsolate, Nate turned to his Pip-Boy for a distraction, fingers seeking the radio dial. He was pretty certain he’d picked up on a classical music station earlier. It probably would help to keep him focused for his watch—the air was getting cold now, and he kept getting distracted by his torn and thinning Vault suit.

The familiar glowing numbers at his wrist glitched for a moment. Nate narrowed his gaze. The screen didn’t look good. Perhaps it had been in the scuffle with the mirelurks, but an ugly crack had opened in the glass, breaking out from a corner and slicing the visuals in two.

As he gently worked the dials, suddenly, the signal began to cut out. Nate cocked his head and tried to readjust the settings. It didn’t help. The broadcast thinned into a staticky keening before spluttering out entirely. Silence rang.

“Well, shit.”

No matter. Nate changed the channel.

Nothing. Next channel, then?

No, nothing.

“What the hell…?”

The visuals suddenly began to gutter and flicker. The glitching effect was heavier now, like the screen was a dying candle in the wind.

“No no, come on, don’t—”

It all disappeared. Only black remained.

“Shit!”

Nate frantically tapped and hounded the switches and knobs, hoping for a response, but nothing happened. Nothing worked. His one luxury and advantage in this world was gone.

His Pip-Boy had finally died.

 

Chapter Text

When Hancock and Nate arrived late the next evening, Sanctuary was a welcome sight. Candles glowed softly from stoops. Leaves crackled pleasantly underfoot. Someone had hollowed a melon shell and carved into it a smiling face, a light within burning bright.

Hancock hadn’t seen anything like it since he’d been a kid. In fact, it called to mind something he hadn’t thought of in decades: his mother smearing flour on his face and charcoal under his eyes on an autumn night long ago. She’d been making him her little monster-in-training. His brother had been the bigger creep, of course, stealing most of their meagre candy haul from a trek around the waterfront shanties. But hell, shuffling around, pretending to be a ghost and hassling the neighbors… it had been pretty fun, hadn’t it?

See, ma? I turned undead, just like you predicted. Aren’t ya proud?

Who knew; maybe she was.

“Is it October?” Nate asked.

“Could be.” Hancock shrugged. “Sounds right. But I’ll be honest with ya… Fahr usually keeps track of stuff like that.” Goodneighbor didn’t have a lot of kids with homes and autumn traditions were sparse. It was funny; it was almost as if people didn’t think it was a family town.

Nate didn’t say anything else, just looking around his settlement listlessly. Hancock frowned. The journey hadn’t really been a chipper one—no more Pip-Boy; no more radio. And we’ll never get to see if that thing can play Red Menace. Shame. Still, Hancock could take losing the little miracle device in stride; he’d barely gotten used to it.

But this big, bad soldier of yesteryear looked almost vulnerable now without the powerful Vault-Tec on his wrist to ease his mind. All the fidgets he’d been channeling into messing with the gizmo were surfacing in other ways—hand-wringing, finger-snapping, thigh-tapping. Sometimes, he’d roll a bullet back and forth between his palms, just back and forth, like he needed his hands to be active or he’d eat the damn thing.

His shots weren’t as unerringly good as they usually were, either. He’d actually missed a pissed-off feral. That had been corrected two seconds later by a second bullet, but still, ferals weren’t exactly clever most days, and it had been just thirty feet away.

Maybe that Vault-Tec doodad really had been helping him out.

Sorry, Nate. The wasteland gives, and the wasteland takes away. It had only been a matter of time, really.

Down the main road, towards them, a man and a Brahmin were walking. The guy must have been feeling pretty confident to leave town at night—from his good boots and his beast’s laden back, it was clear this was a trader.

Hancock absently scratched his cheek and glanced at his friend. “Hey, you need anything?” Sulking aside, Nate really was getting a little worse for wear. Through the slashes in his blue outfit, one could see the thin scars where the baby mirelurks had torn him open, where stimpacks had worked their purpose. It didn’t take Mentats to notice the guy had been shivering all day with nothing but that sliced-up getup. Hancock had offered a coat—the Silver Shroud thing he’d looted from the comics store. But even after Nate wrapped it around himself, he still shook, the cold wind nipping at his legs.

At least now he was perking up, seeing the chance to barter sauntering their way. “Hey!” He waved, showing palms open and unarmed.

“You boys looking for supplies?” The merchant arrived, popping a pink bubble of gum through his lips. Suddenly, it was quite apparent why he was fine traveling at night—over his shoulders was slung an entire missile launcher. His steer placidly huffed and snorted, one head sniffling at the air as the other took the opportunity to gnaw weeds.

Hancock hopefully peered at a blue cooler stuffed under the rest of the Brahmin’s packs. “Any chems…?”

Nate’s teeth chattered. “Need new clothes.”

The caravaner shrugged. “Clothes, yeah, I’ve got those. Check that pack on the right. But I’ve got just one Jet left, friend. Need to make my way further down the route to resupply.”

“It’ll do.” Hancock sighed, holding out a hand. And here he was, looking forward to civilization, if Sanctuary could be called that.

Nate started to dig in the Brahmin’s bag, smiling. “We’ll get you your stash back soon, Hancock. Promise. Hey, got any needle and thread?”

The trader nodded, rustling in another bag for the supplies. “My partner Heather’s still in town. She probably still has some pick-me-ups if you need more.”

A Jet inhaler finally in hand, Hancock almost missed that Nate was tossing something at him—a thick bundle of leather. Baffled, he caught it. It was a coat, and actually pretty nice—radstag hide that was stained a rich, dark, siltbean brown, supple and thick. Hell, it was the kind of quality one might see in Diamond City’s Upper Stands, though none of those snobs really had the backbone or the swagger to make this look good. “Try it on,” Nate urged. “Too small for me.”

Hancock chuckled. “Not really my style?” He lifted his shoulders as if to somehow make his red coat more prominent.

“That’s going to fall apart if you keep bringing it into fights.”

“It’s stayed together so far.”

Nate pointed. Hancock followed the finger. Oh. At his right shoulder, the remedial stitching attaching his sleeve was splitting open again, gouged. Could have been a radscorpion, mirelurk, or some mercenary’s bullet that had started it, but it was certainly not looking like it was going to end well. “Keep taking hits,” Nate warned, “And it’ll disintegrate. You won’t have anything left to flash around when giving big speeches.”

Grumbling, Hancock acknowledged the point. Yeah. Falling apart kind of cramped his frock’s sexiness factor. It needed a lot more now than the patch jobs he’d been scraping out to pull it through. Rueful, indescribably disappointed, he shrugged his mantle off. The new coat slipped on in its place like some kind of smooth-talking pretender to the throne.

But it gave him some decent mass and fit him well. His silhouette was sharp and clean.

“Fiiiine,” he grumbled. “But I’m not taking off my hat.”

Nate’s eyes twinkled. “A tricorn and a leather coat. It makes it look like you’re about to join a motorcycle gang, but in the 18th century.”

“A what gang?”

Clapping his shoulder, Nate laughed. “Before the war… they were these two-wheeled vehicles with roaring engines.” He made a sizing gesture with his hands. “About as big as a radscorpion, like I said back at that farm? Great to tear down the highway with. Everyone used to think bikes were just for big tough guys looking to start trouble, but…” He blinked. “Actually, now that I say it like that, yeah, the jacket totally suits you.”

Hancock grinned wider, imagining the wind against his face as he flew over broken roads. “I’m a big tough guy looking for trouble, huh? Alright, alright, you sweet-talked me into it—but my signature outfit’s still coming out when we get back to my part of town. Can’t risk people, like, not knowing who I am. The Sexy King of the Zombies.”

Nate bit his lower lip in a way that made Hancock wish the title had some merit in his eyes. “That’d be a hell of a band name, you know that right?”

“You bet it would be.”

Nate turned back to collect clothes for himself, a soft grin on his face. “You know, I’m pretty sure you could smile your way into any place, anytime, coat or not. Don’t get too hung up on it.”

The remark heated a little ember in Hancock’s heart, startling him. Dare he believe it? Vaultie was really taking a crack at casual flirting? Well then! Like hell I’ll be outdone. “Not gonna lie; I’m a charming bastard, and you know it. But don’t sell yourself too short there, brother. You’re a pretty persuasive guy too, what with those thighs that look like you could crush a super mutant between ‘em.”

The trader coughed, shifting like he was deeply uncomfortable, and that just made the moment even sweeter. Nate chuckled, ears almost glowing with flushed red, and said nothing more. Instead, he busied himself with tugging his clothing choices right over his old ones—the Vault suit wasn’t getting any warmer, after all. His new cotton shirt, combined with the Silver Shroud coat, looked like it’d keep out the autumn chill much better. His pants were now a tough and sturdy leather, though in the back, Hancock was glad to see they still properly accentuated what he thought of as the goods.

“Lookin’ like a real scavver now,” he said approvingly. Hell, his friend might also be able to fasten a few armor pieces over the getup. With the Pip-Boy absent, Nate’s transformation was almost complete.

The former Vaultie made a thoughtful face, passing over some caps to the merchant, and Hancock folded up the red coat like it was sacred, tucking it away in his bag. “Guess that’s what I gotta be,” Nate whispered, almost sadly, like he was letting something go. Something… perhaps important.

Hancock frowned, then hazarded to pat him on the back. “Yeah.” There was nothing much else to say. He got it. The wastes gave, and the wastes took away.

 


 

That night, as the freshly-dressed mayor of Goodneighbor dozed off on a clean dormitory mattress, Nate found himself digging in the man’s bag. Hancock didn’t seem to mind or even notice. He was happily snuggled in the embrace of a Jet puff. Thankfully, this seemed to also encourage him to lay off the cigarettes; the smokey reek that had been following him around was finally starting to dissipate.

Ah. The red coat. It carried with it a whiff of dust, gunpowder, and a soft musk: a strangely comforting thing. It was what their cozy tent smelled like on nights Nate almost found sleep. It was security, laughter, and adventure.

He tried not to think about it and dug in the pockets. Alright. There was his friend’s knife. Perfect.

Nate slipped it out and into his own belt. Hancock didn’t even seem to notice, eyes closed, contentment so prominent on his face that it was like he’d found nirvana. “Sleep well, bud,” Nate whispered, patting his arm. He wished he could stay here and doze alongside his friend where it was halfway warm.

He was so tired…

…all the time…

Still, he needed some privacy.

Most of the houses in Sanctuary were yet unoccupied, just dark, messy ruins. It wasn’t hard to get one away from prying eyes. Though it was unpleasantly frosty, inside one of these rotted old house frames, Nate set up a borrowed lantern and stripped down. This time, he removed his Vault bodysuit, that ragged undergarment underneath his new clothes.

Jesus, the cold and nudity were a match made in hell. He was man enough to admit nature had him beat on this. Swiftly, he tugged his new shirt and pants back over his freezing skin, leaving the Vaultwear behind—Christ, he could see white puffs in front of his breath now.

The complete absence of the blue suit was an alien feeling. There it lay now at his feet, dirty, tattered: his signature costume, as he’d put it. It was barely proper insulation anymore.

But it was really what people were starting to know him for—the Vault guy, coming to town to save the day.

Slowly, he kneeled. With Hancock’s knife, he cut a square from that cloth, directly around the numerals. Once the fabric he wanted was free, he folded the ends up and pressed them together so they’d never fray. Then, he took the needle and thread he’d bought from the trader into his shaking hands, and he began to stitch his new “111” patch onto his jacket’s back. It wasn’t easy. The wool was well-woven and thick, and it was clear this homemade needle was only barely suited for getting through it. His stitches weren’t that pretty either. Still, he was determined, and he managed… after stabbing himself in the fingers a few times. It wasn’t like he had the luxury of being afraid of getting a little blood on the cloth.

Vault 111 had changed his life. It—and this suit—they weren’t the very core of his identity, not like Hancock’s coat, an emblem of life and creed. But they had marked him forever, and the sooner he embraced them, the sooner he might rebuild himself into someone worth being again.

Now, everyone would be able to look at his back and still know: here comes the Vault guy. Here comes help.

“You know what I’m not going to miss about you?” he whispered to the discarded blue pile. “Going to the bathroom.” Yeah. There hadn’t exactly been a graceful way to take the suit off when he needed to pop a squat. The zipper in the front had to come undone, then his whole torso had to be wriggled out before he could pull the fabric down and… well, being half-naked in this cold was pretty awful. Nate, on the road, had often been haunted by the thought of bandits sneaking up on him in those situations. Most likely, he’d have just gotten surprised, tripped, and died with his pants around his ankles.

This was a good thing, getting rid of it—never mind that it was fused to the worst day of his existence.

By the time he was done sewing, he was smiling. His new jacket, back around his shoulders, pressed life and heat into his trembling body.

He turned to leave.

A flashlight beam and rifle barrel greeted him, blinding him, throwing him off-guard. Surprised, he reached for his weapon, then saw who his visitor was.

Preston lowered his gun. “Nate? What on earth are you doing still up? In here?

Chagrined, Nate picked up his dim lantern and the knife, blinking away the spots in his eyes. At least he wasn’t naked for this. “I just needed to do a bit of a sewing project. And think, I guess.” He smiled. “I should ask you the same thing. Do you ever sleep? Every time I come back, you’re on patrol.”

“Hey, I’m doing a pretty good job of it. Caught you, anyway.” Garvey chuckled. “I’m supposed to be asleep, I guess. But walking clears the mind. Needed a bit of that myself.”

Nate nodded in understanding. He couldn’t begin to imagine the weight of responsibility on Preston’s shoulders. Even now, despite the easy attitude, he could see that frame was taut with brittle tension, the space under those eyes seeming almost bruised—Garvey wore the look of lifelong stress. Between keeping this place safe and attempting to rebuild the Minutemen, no doubt there were problems eternally in this man’s hours.

“How’s it going?” Nate asked with no small amount of genuine feeling. He wasn’t looking for a fine, and he wanted Preston to know it.

His compatriot sighed. A little more of his inner exhaustion came to the fore, glittering in those tired eyes. “Good days. Bad ones. We’re surviving. We always do.” He nodded. “I’ve been glad for the good work you’ve been doing. I can’t tell you how important you’ve been. The Oberlands know a lot of other settlements, and I’m getting all kinds of notices now from them. Soon, once we start planting the food supplies you secured for us from Graygarden, we’ll have enough that we can send extra supplies and seeds to hungry settlers elsewhere. Nate, you’re doing nothing less than changing the face of the Commonwealth. I hope you know that.”

Even in the cold, Nate flushed with embarrassment and pride. “Don’t mention it. Anyone decent with my skills would have done the same.”

“That’s a lie, and you know it.” Preston’s white teeth flashed in a friendly way. “I’ve rarely ever seen anyone get so much done so quickly. And actually, you’re perfectly suited to another job I might have for you. It’s going to sound like a big thing, but it actually won’t require you to do much. And it will mean a lot. It’d mean everything.”

Nate rubbed his hands together, warming them. Well, he supposed the chill had woken him right up, so he was alright to listen. “What kind of job are we talking about?”

“I want to put your name forward as the new General of the Minutemen.”

Nate blinked. His mouth opened. A strangled grunt came out, easily drowned by the soft breeze wafting through the dead gardens.

“The truth is, it’s a very practical choice.” Preston pressed forward as if to deliver a closer he’d been working on for days. “First of all, every Minuteman here knows who you are. They know what you did to get us here. For morale? You’re the obvious pick. You’ll inspire them.”

“But you’ve gotten them most of this way. Not me!”

The warm look in Preston’s eyes accompanied a pleased chuckle. “I’ll take credit where it’s due, but so should you. I’m not the one able to go everywhere like you are, actually spreading the name, helping people who need help—becoming the first face people see and think of. And I’ve got my hands full managing the connections and news between settlements… and sending along word of our return. I confess… I might have told a few people about you, heading in and out of here. Figured it’d help you get a bit of a reputation.” A faint glitter of mischief lit in that expression.

Nate laughed. “Ahhh, so I do have someone to thank for that.” Perhaps Preston had been eyeing this proposal for some time.

“Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all!” Nate’s heart beat faster as he thought. Everything in his military background screamed that General was a hell of a skip in the ranks, even if this “army” consisted of less than ten people—he was vastly underprepared to handle any sort of duties that might accompany that position. I… I just got here! I still don’t feel like I know shit about this new world.

“Will you think about it, at least?” Preston said softly, expression as serious as a heart attack. “Usually, being appointed a general would require a bit of ceremony… a vote… but honestly… there’s no one left around to tell me no. There’s just us, Nate. And I’m convinced it’s the best possible move.”

Breathing slowly, Nate calmed his anxiety.

Can I accept this? Should I? What do I even want to accomplish here?

The answer was: he wanted what he always wanted. To find Shaun. He wanted his family.

Perhaps the Minutemen, they could help with that in ways he hadn’t conceived. Preston was getting news from all over. Surely there would be resources he could take advantage of to help find a kidnapped boy, people he could uncover to help crack the riddle of the Institute?

And wouldn’t this help Goodneighbor, too? Wasn’t influence what Nate had promised Fahrenheit—and not just her, but those worried, strained, frustrated eyes of his companion, his companion who’d been grappling with the thought that his people might be marked for slaughter?

Hancock and those like him deserved safety. Shaun deserved safety—a home he could really grow up in once he was rescued. They all needed a world that was better than what came before, a place where people weren’t afraid to leave their walls, where a boy or a ghoul might find a chance to just be happy.

That was why, Nate knew, he’d joined the Minutemen in the first place. If they needed him for just a little inspiration… he could more than do that.

So, he accepted Preston’s offer the only way he knew how. With a straight snap of his wrist and elbow, he saluted, stiffening his back. “To be the General of the Minutemen, sir… it would be an honor.”

He hoped the yawning feeling under his feet wasn’t responsibility about to swallow him whole.

 


 

Morning came to a sleepy settlement, the cold dew long turned to frost. Crows bunched together in the naked trees for warmth. Mama Murphy sat on the front porch, watching them, bundled up with a turquoise blanket in her usual chair.

Hancock leaned down to lightly hug her, wondering where his favorite companion had gotten off to. “Hey, there’s my porch buddy. How you holdin’ up?”

“Wonderfully.” She chuckled, smiling, rubbing her frail hands together under the blanket, clearing her throat as a cough tried to bubble up. “Could be better, I guess. But that’s age for you. And the weather’s turning.”

“Yeah. Sure is.” He winked at her sly grin. “I take it you’ve got some ideas about how things could be better. And I’m happy to help! But first, you got a grocery list? I’m gonna track down a trader I was told might still be in town.”

She shook her head. “You’re such a nice young man. But I couldn’t ask you to spend your caps on me. Goodness knows, I can’t pay you back.”

“Nah, it’s on me. Garvey’s runnin’ Nate ragged out there. The scavving ain’t bad money.”

Her eyes brightened with cheer and appreciation. “You don’t have to, but I love orange candy. If you saw any… if it’s not too much…”

“Good choice. Original flavor good if they’re out?”

“Always.”

Hancock went on his way. It was strange; Nate was already gone when he’d woken up, and the sun was barely rising. Perhaps Garvey had snagged him for more chores and repair work. That’s what the guy got for having such talented, clever-looking hands.

The merchant Hancock was looking for was parked on the west end of town, partially packed up already. Atop her cart she sat, a two-Brahmin team pulling her wares, a black bandanna keeping sweat from her eyes. She chatted amicably with two other settlers while peeling sunburn from her neck. “Yeah! Covenant’s a beautiful place. Like what it must have looked like before the war. Prosperous. Looking for folks just like you.”

They all fell abruptly silent as Hancock got close. His gut tensed slightly. Oh boy. He knew how this went.

The trader’s face and tone were flat. “What you need?”

“What’s your chem stock like?”

She shrugged noncommittally, then jabbed her thumb at the back of her cart. Hancock didn’t bother thanking her, feeling the static of her stare and the customers as he went around. Before him, there was a little blue cooler. It opened with a pop.

Sure enough, Orange Mentats were in stock. How rare was that? Maybe the Sight told Mama Murphy all about it. He snagged a couple varieties for himself, refreshing his supplies. It may not have made his hands shake to see five Jet inhalers too, but by god, he was happy all the same.

We’re gonna take it slow and easy for a while though, he promised the bundle. We just got too intense, loves. We need to get to know each other again.

The trader accepted his money easily enough, extending a collection bucket for his caps. Hancock noticed how she allowed the other customers to pass their money right into her hands, their skin making contact. Soon, she resumed speaking to the others in a hush, as if he wasn’t there anymore at all. “But yeah. You all should really check out Covenant. It’s southeast of here. They don’t let just anyone in.”

It didn’t really get to him anymore—the grating background noise of anti-ghoul bullshit was near constant out beyond Goodneighbor. The old chestnut about his kind spreading disease if touched was crap, but it didn’t stop folks from believing it.

Either that, or they liked being assholes. That wouldn’t exactly be surprising.

Slowly, he returned to Mama Murphy. She was gazing up at the sunrise-kissed sky, a little smile in her eyes. “So,” he said, pulling up the chair to her left, passing over his bounty. She patted his hand like he was her best grandkid again, unafraid, unjudging. You’re a good soul, Mama. “Should I brace myself for some sweet-yet-spooky omens? Or should I bust out the art supplies?”

She laughed, tossing back her head. “I don’t know yet. We’ll just have to see!”

 


 

Nate forlornly looked on at the power armor in Sanctuary’s jury-rigged machine shop, half disassembled, tools surrounding it in an explosive scatter. Sturges blinked owlishly. “I really hope you’re not looking to take this thing out today,” the mechanic said.

“I… not exactly.”

Sturges breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay. Just about gave me a panic. I can get it operating again in maybe two days? I was replacing some of the guts… you would not believe the stress fractures some of these parts took. You’re real lucky that old gatling gun did the damage it did against that deathclaw, because a few more hits…”

Nate shuddered. He remembered the decision to get into the armor to help the people that needed it—after all, out of any of them, he definitely had the experience to operate it, and he sure as hell had the drive to get a band of innocents out of a war zone.

But he didn’t remember a lot afterwards. It was all snippets. Claustrophobia. Hyperventilating. He remembered firing a gun with too much kick, the armor’s rusted frame creaking under the blowback. He remembered drooling, dripping, carnivorous teeth thrashing up against his helmet, a monster’s maw so wide, it could have consumed three footballs at once.

Nate was content leaving those fragments in his dustbin of trauma, along with many of his other recollections of power armor. All the same… even if he didn’t enjoy stomping around in it… if any bit of equipment could sustain the radioactive hellhole he’d been told the Glowing Sea was, it was that. Mama Murphy said I’d find a way. “How’s the radiation resistance looking?”

Sturges winced, and Nate’s heart sank. “Don’t get me wrong. This thing’ll be able to provide a lot of protection and strength when I’m done. But it’s not environmentally sealed at all. I had to remove a lot of cracking, failing bits. Want to take out some bad guys or monsters? Great. But wetwork or radiation? No.”

“What kinds of things would you need to fix it all the way? It’s pretty urgent, Sturges.”

A low whistle went out from between the mechanic’s lips. “As much as I wanna say different… this isn’t a thing some few scrounged parts’ll fix. You’re gonna need to find almost intact pieces… maybe talk to those Brotherhood guys? I, uh, couldn’t help but notice they like tech like this quite a lot.”

If it was possible, Nate’s heart would sink lower. His stomach burbled uncomfortably. “I doubt they’ll be interested in helping out.”

“You never know.” Sturges shrugged. “Actually, Preston’s been keeping a pretty close eye on that situation. You could ask him if he knows anything.”

Nate nodded. “We’ll see.”

 


 

A few hours passed, and Hancock wasn’t feeling any pain, grinning from the porch as Nate meandered his way over. “Hey there,” he drawled. The intoxicating suggestions of Berry Mentats smoothed his rasp. One of his favorite people in the whole wasteland had finally rolled up to say hello, and a guy would have to be crazy not to look in those pretty eyes for the next hour. Sea-green. But sharp, like… like broken wine bottles in the morning sun after the best party of your life. Fuckin’ poetry. Those eyes brightened. Nate was chuckling, a genuine note of contented mirth. He even sees I got my fix, and he’s happy for me. Be still, my heart.

It was only bad luck, one might guess, that brought Garvey strolling up at almost the exact same time, expression uneasy, like he had things to take care of and mellows to harsh.

“New hat, Garvey?” Hancock said from his chair, palm lazily holding his chin. “Looking good.”

“Hancock.” Preston’s expression seemed carefully neutral, like he still wasn’t sure if the yao guai had claws or not.

“You brought my bestie back in one piece—thanks man.” Hancock stood and slung a chummy arm around Nate, happy to keep him close. His friend stiffened, like he still wasn’t used to such hugs. Those pretty eyes went wide. But then, he relaxed as if he was good with it—his spine doing a little slump like he was relieved. Hancock hung off him, swaying, happy.

“I thought I was your bestie!” Mama Murphy laughed, gaze sparkling.

“Nate’s my smoothskin one. You’re my wrinkly one.”

Her grin stretched wider.

“Wait, isn’t ‘smoothskin’ ghoul-talk for…” Preston blinked, paused, then shook his head, starting to frown. “You know what, never mind.”

Mama Murphy stretched a hand out to the German Shepherd by Nate’s side, who started wagging his tail so hard, his whole body quivered. “Goodness! I just noticed. You brought Dogmeat back.” The animal headbutted her hand like it was made of the purest bliss.

“Dog-what?” Nate stared. “You know him? Is he yours?”

“Dogmeat! No, no, he’s his own man. But he’s a good boy. Aren’t you?” The dog barked playfully, licking her fingers with no small joy.

Preston pursed his lips. “Hancock.”

“Yep?”

“How many chems has she had?”

He smiled, face feeling like it knew no other way. “You don’t count ‘em, brother. You do ‘em. And we’ve been doing ’em all morning. It’s been pretty great.”

Mama Murphy giggled again. “John’s a good man, Preston! Stop heckling him. And it’s not the chems! You just can’t argue with what a dog names himself.”

“You really can’t.” Hancock was lost, but he didn’t have it in himself to care. Dogmeat? Ha. If I was a dog, that’s just what I’d call myself. Hey! Maybe he named me Ghoulmeat when he found us. And… that would make Nate…

A wave of snickers burbled out of his chest. It was everything in him not to erupt, “Manmeat! Manmeat!

Mama Murphy was pushing on anyway. “But look! I saw something! Something really important for us.”

Preston’s face shifted decidedly for the grim. “Tell me it wasn’t Jet. Her lungs do not sound great right now.”

“It wasn’t Jet.” Hancock nodded, feeling pure and honest. He also didn’t feel inclined to share what all it had been.

“Listen!” Mama Murphy snagged Preston’s hand gently. “I saw a woman. Stern. Angry. Or… well, I heard her. I think she’s connected to you.”

Garvey inched forward, back stiffening. “Who?”

“I don’t know. The Sight wasn’t… precise. But she’s from the Minutemen; I could see her beret! And I do know she’ll be at the Castle.”

“The Castle?” His tone turned sharp, alert. “Beret?”

“There will be fighting there. There will be blood. I could smell the sea…” Mama Murphy closed her eyes. “It’ll be time to go there soon. Not yet. But you’ll know when.”

Hancock smiled obligingly at everyone, waiting for Preston to put his jaw back. In truth, his ears were pricked too. He’d been there, after all, when Mama Murphy popped those Orange Mentats, as she started to wheeze out what her mind’s eye was seeing in a rush of citrus breath. It had been short. She said the vision hadn’t been for him—apparently she’d kept some of it to herself to deliver now.

But it had begun in a way that was terribly familiar, before she’d fallen quiet, snapping out of her haze soon after, coughing and breathing hard.

“Old stones. Broken. Down in the dark… there’s something standing guard there still.”

It sounded much like her last omens, telling him to remember something about crates and guns and the thing he’d find there. “So,” Hancock said, carefully keeping his voice easy and light. “What’s the Castle?”

Preston’s eyes were flickering back and forth, as if he was lost in deep and potentially frightening thoughts. “I’ll need to do some recon work,” was all he mumbled. “Perhaps, General, we can talk about it later.”

“General?” Hancock looked to Mama Murphy, utterly gobsmacked. “Do I gotta salute you, Mama?” She giggled.

“Preston means me,” Nate whispered.

“Congratulations, kid.” Mama Murphy warmly patted his side.

“Whaaaat?” Hancock jerked in surprise, off-balance, arm falling. “Wow, Garvey. You must have really liked those tatos.”

To this, the Minuteman actually let out a bark of laughter, his wincing look starting to fade. “Can’t argue with that.”

“Hey!” Hancock gave his best grin. “What about me? I’ve been a vegetable partner-in-crime for all of ya too. Do I get a sweet title?”

“Only if Goodneighbor joins the Minutemen and donates lots of tatos.” The cheeky look in Garvey’s eyes said this was obviously a joke, that he was certain the town was contemplating no such thing.

He has a sense of humor after all! Yes! An important memory nagged at Hancock, one that looked suspiciously like Fahrenheit’s pinched face. “Well… you know, funny you should bring that up.” This earned him two raised eyebrows. But, the Mentats in his bloodstream were still concentrated, berry-flavored and bright. They notched his charisma higher, whispering exactly what he needed to say to break through that incredulity and surprise. “We were just talking about supporting the Minutemen when we were there. You tell him about that already… General?”

Nate’s eyes went wide, and he gave an awkward laugh. “…Not yet. You don’t have to use the title, you know.”

“Oh, I know. It just rolls off the tongue. I like it. General.”

Was Nate flushing? Good lord. He was. These Mentats had his number! Do that as much as possible. Noted.

“Anyway,” Hancock continued, aware of Preston’s heavy, laser-focused stare. “The big problem we’ve got right now? I mean, other than the Institute—it’s the frickin’ Brotherhood of Steel. I’m sure I don’t gotta tell a Minuteman his business, but you know how they are about ghouls, right?”

“I’ve… heard some disquieting rumors…” Preston admitted.

“Yeah, and the Commonwealth doesn’t need more of that shit. I should hope you remember what happened in Diamond City. And now there’s some new settlement, Covenant or whatever, that sounds like it’s screening out undesirables too. Anti-ghoul talk is already real prevalent—hell, that trader you got here wouldn’t even take my caps directly. Had to put ‘em in a can. Brotherhood can tell people like that a lot of things to make ‘em worse.”

Garvey shifted uncomfortably. Good. And Nate’s fists clenched, his nostrils flaring.

“What I’m saying is, a place like Goodneighbor, we don’t get to exist in a world that the Brotherhood wants to run over. We’ll be a target. So if we can kick a bit of support your way? Hell yeah we will—if you’ve got our backs. If you’re willing to stand up for the people getting knocked down the same as you’re willing to stand up for everyone else. Is that what you’re about, Garvey? I’d really like to know.”

This really did seem to be just the button to press. Preston stood tall. “The Minutemen stand for everyone who needs it, Mayor Hancock. Everyone.”

“Then maybe… maybe we can work something out, you feel me?”

The Minuteman gave a stoic nod full of duty and purpose, his eyes glinting. “We are still rebuilding. I can’t make big promises I can’t keep. But the Brotherhood of Steel… if their intentions are to hurt the innocent, then they’re invaders of the entire Commonwealth, Goodneighbor included. General…? What do you think?”

Nate perked up from where it seemed he was perhaps stewing about the trader who’d given his friend crap, glaring daggers to the west end of Sanctuary. The poor guy looked utterly unprepared to take charge in that moment, for Preston to answer to him. “What do… what do I think? I think… I mean… we should help, obviously. That’s what I’m going to do. I think we should protect Goodneighbor and any place like it the best as we can, once we’re strong.”

Hancock’s chest flared with something he thought might be pride. Something in Nate’s eyes reminded him of the first time he himself had truly stepped up, taken on the weight of leadership.

Of the people. For the people. In his mind, he stood out over a balcony for the first time, speaking, a battered town gaping up at him and the guns at his back… and at the tyrant choking out his last down below. Only he and Dr. Amari knew that, on the rare occasions he went to the Memory Den, this was what he would relive: the moment when his life became worthwhile.

He patted Nate’s back, hoping that this moment would stand out for him too one day, even if it wasn’t so grandiose.

“I’ve heard,” Preston was saying, “That the Brotherhood has a team of their ‘paladins’ holed up at the Cambridge Police Station southeast of here. They’ve been there since before that ship of theirs came. And from what I can tell, no one’s come to get them.”

Nate made a pensive grunt. “Think they’re an outpost of some kind? Recruiters?”

“Perhaps. Maybe scouts. Either way—if someone could establish contact with them, perhaps ask some questions… the fact is, we don’t know the hows or they whys of their operation. We don’t know who they’re allying with or for what reason. Any information would be a blessing.” Garvey was gazing with eyes full of an unspoken question and hope.

“I can do it,” Nate said.

Hancock expected nothing less. “Me too.”

Garvey let out a sigh of relief, though he gave Hancock a confused glance. “Are you sure? If the rumors are true…”

“If he goes in there, I go. That’s just how it is now.”

Preston’s lips pursed, like he was feeling rather assured about some decision he’d made. “The Minutemen thank you and Goodneighbor for your support. And you can be assured of ours.”

Good. Garvey, I admit, you ain’t all bad.

Hancock and Nate eventually took their leave, walking away, bearing south. And as they did so, Hancock couldn’t help but nudge his friend in the ribs. “So. General. You’re gonna need a hat to go with that title.”

Nate flustered. “I… I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“A real big one.” Hancock considered. “Maybe with a feather.”

“It’ll get me shot!”

“It’ll get you fashionable.” A friendly, level sense of clarity filled his mind even as the Mentats left his bloodstream. He didn’t feel the urge to take another one yet, oddly. He was just… happy. He’d gotten a little wrecked, enjoyed it, and now, it was over—but he didn’t feel lost and needing, hazy in the head.

Maybe all that Addictol bullshit… yeah. Maybe it had been a long time coming. Or maybe… well, maybe he just liked what he was looking at more these days, when he came out of it.

Nate finally loosened up. “You just want us to look alike.”

Hancock grinned and winked. “Well, yeah. What can I say? Something real attractive about a man in uniform.”

Nate flushed, stuttering some half-formed retort. Seeing that again? It made volunteering to go scope out the Brotherhood all worthwhile. That’s what you get for opening up the flirting can of worms, brother. And you know what? I ain’t ever gonna let you forget it.

Chapter Text

The road wasn’t long to Cambridge… or it wouldn’t have been if they’d had a proper map. Nate rubbed at his wrist where his Pip-Boy once lay. “We’ve walked down this street before,” he sighed, putting a tired hand to a battered, weathered signpost. The street names had long since been scratched out and faded.

Hancock shrugged, seemingly unaffected. “That drifter’s directions got us turned around… well, it happens. At least we’re probably still in the right neighborhood.”

Nate wasn’t sure being sort of right was good enough to survive out here. His stomach contorted in stressed knots as he peered past shadowed eves and to treacherous-looking ruins seeking danger. So far, the newly christened Dogmeat—and his powerful nose—had kept them safe and well-alerted. Mostly.

They’d still had to hide in a bush today, waiting for a massive, roving band of super mutants to stomp by. Nate had crouched there silently, covered in spiky dead brush with bile in his throat, and he’d remembered how he’d nearly gotten killed when his V.A.T.S. shorted out during a fight with a mutant before. Without the gadget at all? If they were discovered…

He hated this. Where death had once been a safe distance down the road, a fine Vault-Tec advantage keeping it back, today it was trailing him like a shadow… like if he made one single wrong move… that was it.

And he truly didn’t want to die.

It was strange being able to say that. His grief for his wife clouded his heart so often, it hadn’t been easy to look to tomorrow with something like… anticipation. Hope.

But here it was—a quiet, small hope, yes, but one that had been trailing in his shadow too, like all he needed to do was look down and notice it was there waiting.

Later, he needed to waste some ammunition practicing, scrubbing the lingering rust off his soldier skills. The Pip-Boy… it had made him complacent. He couldn’t travel like this forever, choked with paranoia because it was gone.

As Nate stood by the mangled road sign and finished off a tin of purified water, sudden banging noises made him jerk his head to watch the thoroughfare to the right. Liquid dripped down his chin. Pops of gunfire were scattering through the air.

“I’m going in front,” Nate said, tossing the tin back into his bag, mind whining into high alert. “Stay behind me.”

“Aye aye… General.”

Hancock’s teasing chuckle wormed its way under Nate’s skin. Something about the tone rattled him… and not in a way that was wholly unpleasant. Just the title alone made him self-conscience and nervous still, but the way this man deployed it… Jesus, it reminded Nate of a game he and Nora used to play, the kind of game he would never, in a million years, tell to anyone but a lover. It hooked right into his limbic system, made him recall all kinds of things that stabbed him in the gut as much as they made his brain light up with very confused electricity.

Of course, Hancock would just smile when he said it, one brow slightly raised, tongue flicking roguishly across his upper lip. Nate’s heart would do a wary little stagger.

This was highly unstable teasing ground.

“I’m serious,” he finally said, trying to find a way to gracefully divert conversation. “If that’s the Brotherhood, I don’t want them accidentally shooting you.”

“You do know that if they shoot me, it’d definitely be on purpose.”

“More reason for you to let me go in front.”

Hancock smiled, shrugged, and fell in behind Nate’s careful crouch. Dogmeat stayed alongside, ears perked, tail stiff and horizontal. The gunshots were all coming from two blocks away, and they weren’t migrating. Covering the ground towards the noise was quick work—the streets may have been full of rusted cars and buses, but they were clear of trash, hostiles, and too much debris.

Almost too clear. Where the hell was—

A shriveled arm suddenly burst through a blocked-up bus’s ancient, grimy window. It latched onto Nate’s hair, tearing out a chunk by its roots, slamming his head into the vehicle’s side. “Augh!” Fuck! He hated being right!

BOOM!

Hancock’s shotgun tore through the glass, catching the trapped, withered feral square in the face. As the man hustled to his companion, his mouth moved, but Nate could only shake his vision free of stars, hearing nothing but a low ring. He pulled blood from his scalp as he put up his hand to check his injury.

His friend patted his shoulder to draw his attention back.

“I’m okay,” he said, hoping he wasn’t shouting. His voice rumbled hazily through his skull. “Can’t hear.”

Hancock’s mouth made an, “Oh.” He pointed at his shotgun and sheepishly mouthed an apology.

Nate shook his head again, and slowly, his hearing started to return, muddy, off-key. “Okay. I can kinda understand. Might take a while. Tap me if something’s urgent.”

Hancock leaned in close so his words couldn’t be mistaken, but they were dull and cloudy. “Something’s got these guys riled up. That one was trapped, but the rest…”

“…Definitely followed the gunfire.” Nate nodded and kept moving, knowing there wasn’t time to recover.

Fortunately, as they turned the corner, they finally found what they were looking for: a sign. Cambridge Police Station. Inside that patched, brick-and-steel courtyard, all hell was breaking loose.

Ferals swarmed by the dozens through the entrances. A man in power armor, helmet missing, was taking them down with extreme prejudice. Laser blasts punched the air from the station windows behind him. It was clear he was about to get overwhelmed—for every feral ghoul he crushed or shot, three more took its place.

Nate ran in on instinct, gunning down an attacker that was biting the man’s steel arm like a rabid beast. The thing fell to the ground, dead. The soldier saw Nate and saluted in thanks.

“Shit!” Hancock’s frocked back pressed into Nate’s as he covered their rear. “They’re circling around behind us! The way we came in!”

The man in power armor looked extremely surprised as he took them both in, but he didn’t lift his guns their way. Indeed, it seemed he had enough trouble. Five ghouls launched at him from the east.

Nate went away to a foggy place, like his hearing had. It was the place he always went in combat: a place of blood, gunfire, and hazy adrenaline… a place he could neatly tuck away later, try and forget. His pistols took down two of the maddened ghouls before him, clean blasts to the skull. Hancock’s shotgun laid waste to the ones behind. Together they spun, able to find each other’s rhythms. Sometimes, Hancock mowed down a feral Nate didn’t notice and couldn’t hear. And as Hancock reloaded, Nate unfailingly had his back.

Finally, the tide started to turn.

Nate didn’t know how much time passed, only that when the world came into focus, his ears were still ringing, his heart was pounding, and a whole mess of bodies littered the bricks. Hancock was whipping one last straggler in the face with the butt of his gun. The pitiable ghoul went down with a sickening crack.

Chest aching, Nate put a hand up to find warm blood trickling down his front. Blearily, he looked down. A huge gash had been rended across his torso. Had he gotten bitten? When?

Damn it. Now he remembered through the haze: it had been when he’d forgotten his Pip-Boy was gone. He’d tried lining up a shot, then fumbled it, hesitating, two ferals suddenly lunging into him—shit, what happened then? He didn’t know, not for sure; it was a hazy cloud of teeth and fury. Hancock had pulled his attackers off and ended them. He must have managed to get back up.

How could he space that out…?! It had just happened…!

Nate’s chest heaved as he panted, skin stinging, suddenly wondering if something deeper was going wrong in his brain.

“Thanks for the assist, civilian.” The man in the power armor spoke in a commanding baritone. This was a handsome, black-haired soldier, looking about Nate’s age and height. Of all things, it was his foggy words that made Nate lock up: civilian? Really? They’d done all this, and in the middle of it, here was the first person in the entire Commonwealth that didn’t immediately peg him for a soldier? “What’s your business here?” the man continued, tone flat.

“You’re Brotherhood…?” Nate pulled himself together enough to remember his purpose. The soldier’s eyes narrowed, taking him in fully. And Nate, he just hoped he wasn’t staring at those stoic lips too much in his effort to read them and compensate for being half-deaf. That might make this awkward. “If you’re Brotherhood,” he hurried on, “I’m here to see what you’re all about.”

The man smirked. His thick black eyebrows rose. “Ah. You’re from one of the settlements, then?”

“Yeah… just trying to survive.” Nate sized up the building before him. It was heavily fortified. The shimmer of gun barrels in the sun reflected from multiple windows. “Are you always this suspicious of people that endanger themselves to help you?” And are there others here, besides the ferals, making you feel unwelcome?

The soldier, to his credit, actually paused. “Forgive me. Since we’ve arrived, our mission has been… difficult. We’ve been heavily under fire.” He gestured to the yard. “These… creatures… were the least of it.”

Hancock hissed what seemed like a subtle, “Is that so?” next to Nate’s ear. Nate, however, was certain that if he’d heard it at all, it wasn’t actually that quiet.

The Brotherhood man’s face sunk with deep frown lines. “I’m Paladin Danse. And you are?”

“Nate. This is my backup, John.” The last thing this soldier needed to do was light on a well-known name.

Hancock himself gave a wide, unsettling grin. “Those ferals don’t really seem to like you, huh?”

Danse ignored that, keeping his eyes to the non-ghoul in the conversation. “I’ll be honest. Our supplies are low. We could use a capable hand.”

It took a moment to process the speech. “We’d be happy to help,” Nate finally said.

Regardless of his stern demeanor, Danse looked about ready to sink straight out of his power armor and into the nearest mattress from the weight on his shoulders. His eyes gleamed with relief. And as he began going over the basics of the good his people did and what they might need—food, medicine, and the like—Nate took in his polished weapons, his reforged, smoothly whirring armor, and the peering glares of his associates not far beyond in the doorway of the police station.

At least one of those people had fingers covered in grease. A mechanic? She had to know what she was doing with a set of power armor for Danse’s to be in such good working order, despite their tight situation. How many of these things do they have? No wonder Sturges told me to go to these guys. If this was common, next to those Vertibirds… the Brotherhood of Steel had to control major pre-war tech factories somewhere. Military installations, maybe.

And where might those be? How far away was the source of their supply lines…?

Perhaps far. Maybe struggling to stay connected. This group was having a hard time, running short on basic needs—this “Danse” truly might have gotten hurt if it hadn’t been for the kindness of passing strangers. There was weakness here. Perhaps overextension… perhaps bad information about the actual territory they were trying to… “save.”

Perhaps arrogant leadership.

“Alright then civilian,” Danse said, gesturing Nate on. “As a thank you for your assistance today, and hopefully in the future, let’s get you patched up inside. We can talk more about details.”

Only an idiot would turn that down. Nate started to walk through the door, fingertips coming away red as he gently prodded his chest. Hancock’s boots weren’t far behind.

Danse’s throat cleared. “…Although I’m afraid,” he added, pressing his steel-clad arm between the two of them, “That your, er, backup will need to wait here.”

Nate knew he shouldn’t be surprised. Not the least bit.

He still was.

Hancock only shrugged. “Don’t be long, bestie. I’ll be… uh… a few blocks from here. On the road back.” The sly jerk of his head seemed to add, Out of range of these bozos. He gave a little salute and a wink, skipping back down the stairs.

Going through the doors, tacitly letting the slight against his friend slide… Nate’s skin crawled, though he knew the necessity of the act. “Do you often travel with ghouls?” Danse fell into lockstep to his right. Dogmeat trotted close by his left as the doors clicked shut behind them all. The man’s question seemed casual, of course. But not casual enough.

“It depends on the ghoul, doesn’t it?” Nate evaded. “John’s a good man. Always has my back.”

“You never know,” Danse muttered, “When they’ll snap. Keep that in mind. Anyway. I see you know how to take care of yourself, or I wouldn’t have asked for your help. You haven’t even asked for anything in return. The Brotherhood always needs good people like you around.”

And just me, I take it. “I’ll be considering that,” Nate said diplomatically, pushing his mission to the forefront. New faces were greeting him in the front room. These looked like soldiers all. One, the woman with grease-stained fingers, seemed eager and open. Another man, however, held a glare hostile and angry, chin deep in his chest as he leaned against a wall.

Every last one of this group looked flabbergasted that a stranger had been allowed in their midst.

Well. Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

 


 

“Good, good neighboooor,” Hancock sang softly under his breath, swaggering down the road, kicking a stone. It clattered against an abandoned storefront’s door. No one was home. He wasn’t surprised. Like he thought, all the ferals in the area had gone straight for the Brotherhood’s little hidey hole in that wave.

What he wondered was… why? If Garvey was right, those soldiers had been there a while, but these lost, hungry souls had only recently decided to attack. What would provoke so many of them at once? It wasn’t uncommon for ferals to group up—almost like they were lonely, the poor bastards—but a swarm that big was truly rare.

“Alright,” he decided. “If I was really jonesing to eat a guy’s face… where would I have come from…?”

A splash of red caught his eye on the cobblestones. Aha. He hadn’t seen it before, but now that he was paying attention, it wasn’t hard to catch a line of blood spatters running straight down the middle of the road—leading to the police station.

Hancock looked closer. What the hell was under that car nearby…?

Ah. A molerat leg. It was fresh and bright with crimson. But no gnaw marks? Huh.

Hancock laid down and experimentally tried swiping at the severed leg. It lay just out of his reach beneath the car’s undercarriage. He pressed in a little farther.

And just in time, he pulled back. Underneath that hunk of meat and bone was the barest hint of a red glow.

Well, son of a bitch. Someone had set a mine. It wasn’t hard to guess what for—only a feral would have tried so hard to reach that raw meat, or, well, a guy pretending to be one to figure this shit out. Hancock pulled out from under the vehicle, standing and brushing off his trousers, righting his hat. It sure was nice not being blown to bits.

He didn’t have to wander far to follow the blood trail in the opposite direction. It splattered off at odd spots—for example, leading to another mine underneath the remains of a molerat’s head, or to a foreleg hung on a string, ready to trigger a grenade. There were plenty more.

There were also quite a few suspicious burn marks down the alleys, all surrounded by ghoulish severed limbs. Some of the traps looked like they’d worked.

Alright. A picture was forming. The Brotherhood had come on out with a bucket full of trapped treats for the neighbors. The ghouls here liked it—though plenty probably got killed—and eventually, they followed their feeders on back to a killing box.

Clearly, the Brotherhood had also lured back quite a few more than they’d planned, if that battle had anything to say about it.

“Well, don’t know how far I can fault them for not wanting to get eaten while on patrol,” Hancock mused aloud, shrugging. “It’s a pretty… uh… proactive approach, wiping all the ferals out. But… hm.”

Suddenly, a weak, rasping breath rang through the silence. Hancock spun. He knew just what a dehydrated, rattling ghoul gasp was any day. It was coming from the alley beyond. He drew his shotgun just in case, though he knew the creature likely wouldn’t bother him much.

Then, the gasp changed, began to form new sounds.

“…Help…”

Ah shit.

Jogging, he rounded the bend. There lay a small-framed, withered woman in a torn T-shirt and ancient jeans, her leg curled up under her body as she pressed into a wall. Perhaps she was a drifter. Opposite her lay a dead man… or maybe a woman. Whoever it was had been gnawed to pieces. The fabric of a Brotherhood uniform was the only identifier.

The drifter’s hands went up to hide her face. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I’m not…” Then, suddenly, she really seemed to see him. “Oh thank god. You’re a ghoul too.”

“Last time I checked.” Hancock kneeled. Her outstretched leg had been punctured by two bullets. She’d fashioned some kind of tourniquet from her T-shirt fabric, but it didn’t look great. “Name’s John Hancock. From Goodneighbor. Who’re you?”

She laughed. “John Hancock? Don’t pull my leg. Hurts too much already.” Her chuckle was cut short with a snort of pain. “I’m Rachel. What are you doing out here? Those bastards down the way’ll probably think that flashy hat of yours makes a good target.”

“Got a smoothskin buddy talking to ‘em.” Hancock reached in his bag, pulling out a Med-X injector. “They’re holding off on shooting me for now. Hold still, okay?”

“A smoothskin? Helping us?” She winced as the needle entered her flesh, but she didn’t complain. Her face sagged with relief as the painkiller kicked in. “Thanks, friend. So. What’s your real name?”

“John Hancock. What, can’t a mayor have a walkabout now and again?” He examined her injury with inexpert hands.

“If you’re serious… then it’s an honor.” Rachel coughed again. “Don’t worry. Bullets went through. Just… just needed to stop the bleeding.” She sighed wearily, resting her head back against the bricks, closing her eyes. “I got pretty lucky.”

“This guy shoot you?” Hancock jabbed a thumb at the dead soldier.

“Yeah.”

“Why? ‘Cause you’re you?” If the Brotherhood was actively going after people like her today, they sure as hell were moving up to a higher spot on his shitlist.

“I don’t know. Probably. He found me disabling his traps and giving the food away. Maybe he thought I was wild too. Doesn’t matter. Evil bastards, wiping the ferals out. It wasn’t right.”

Hancock blinked. “You were risking your life to disable booby traps… so you could give away the food to… were you feeding the ferals…?” He trailed off, realizing the many reasons someone might do that. It was an easy decision to give her one of his few stimpacks. “I’m sorry. Did you know someone who turned and was wandering in that pack?”

“No. But I don’t have to. They’re just sick people, Mr. Hancock. Someone’s gotta look out for them. I may just be passing through, but I don’t gotta stand for this shit.” She rubbed her leg appreciatively, smiling as the bleeding stopped. “Got any irradiated water to pour on that? Man, I could use a rad kick right now.”

“You bet.” Hancock withdrew a tin, washing out the wounds as they closed.

“Thanks, Mr. Mayor. I am real glad I ran into you. Or. Uh. That you ran into me.”

“Of course.” He extended an arm, helping her as she tried to stand. This was one tough little firecracker. She still looked like she might be staggering a bit, but she bent and collected a pistol and a beat-up ballcap from the dirt, pressing the hat over her bald head.

“I heard a bunch of gunshots earlier,” she said. “At that police station. Did any of the ghouls get away?”

Hancock found he didn’t want to elaborate that he’d been one of the people firing. “Sorry, Rachel. They did not.”

Her shoulders sagged. A heavy sigh deflated her. “It’s my own damn fault. They were protecting me.”

Protecting you?”

“Yeah. They saw I was helping them out these last few days. That guy who tried to shoot me? They went ballistic when he did that. They’re what stopped him before he could finish the job. That’s when I think the pack got sick of being treated like this, so they charged off to the station. Ferals aren’t totally gone upstairs. You know that, right?”

“I, uh… I don’t know about that…”

“Really? You’re a ghoul—from a whole town full of ghouls—and you don’t know that? Doesn’t anyone there try helping them? Any doctors? Scientists? Hell, amateur vets?”

“Not… exactly…”

Oh wow. She actually looked angry at that, fists curling, words spitting. “Well, you should!” A reckless, wild snarl suddenly burst from her chest. Her eyes widened, and she clamped her hands over her mouth, buttoning up and taking a calming breath. “Sorry, I… I just can’t believe that in this whole damn waste, I am literally the only person out here looking for a cure!”

“A cure? For… for going feral?” In all his years, Hancock had never once heard of anything like that, though the specter of brain rot hung over every ghoul he’d ever known. He just tried not to think about it much. By ghoul standards, he was still quite young. If that growl had been any indication though, Rachel here was on a clock. Christ. It was best not to bring it up. No one deserved losing their mind, and less to be reminded of it.

She pointed to the horizon. “Yeah. Looking for a cure. Maybe you can tell your people that. Maybe give them some hope that if they ever changed, got sick, some ghouls out here would give a damn. Both Oz and I do. And we’re going to find out how to fix the disease. It’s our life’s work.”

“Sister.” Hancock found himself removing his hat in respect, holding it to his chest. “I hope to god you do.”

Her eyes softened. She holstered her pistol, taking a deep breath. “Sorry. I… I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I get fired up. Especially when I get shot at by genocidal bastards looking to put a notch in their rifles.”

“Happens to everyone.” The hat returned to its honored place. “You need an escort…? Goodneighbor’d be pretty happy to have you as a guest.”

She smiled sadly, and Hancock could see that she was, in fact, pretty cute, rotten teeth or not. It was probably all that inner fire. What was happening to her… it truly wasn’t fair. “If the cure isn’t there, then there’s nothing for me either.” Looking around, she sighed again, a woman who seemed to know it was time to move on. “I… I think I know where I’m gonna head next. I know a few paths out of this place. But I can’t thank you enough for helping with my leg. If you ever wind up around Nuka World, you let my Oz know you helped me out. He’ll treat you well. It’s really good to know there’s some people out here who aren’t awful.”

Hancock nodded, considering. He hadn’t head of Nuka World, and it seemed like an odd name for a town. “I’ll keep that in mind. But helping pretty damsels is its own reward.”

“‘Pretty damsel?’” She threw back her head, laughing. “Heh. Keep dreaming, buddy.”

 


 

Nate emerged from the station some time later to find Hancock kneeling quietly outside in the square. The man was examining one of the dead ferals, turning its head this way and that, as if trying to find if someone was still at home in those glassy, still eyes. From the gaze, Nate almost thought his friend was lost to a fresh round of Mentats.

But as soon as Nate approached, Hancock blinked and looked up, letting go of the corpse’s chin. With uncharacteristic feeling, he brushed the feral’s eyelids closed as he stepped away. A Brotherhood soldier walked up to him, gave him a hostile look, and hefted the dead body into a fireman’s carry to get thrown into a rapidly growing pile at the far end of the station. Nate could already smell the ashy odor of firewood burning for the pyre.

“You okay?” he tapped Hancock’s shoulder.

“Hm? Oh yeah. I’m fine. Just… just was given a few things to think about, is all.”

It was spoken so quietly, Nate had difficulty picking it up. He frowned. His hearing still might take a few days to fully return. “We should head out.”

“Sure.”

It was a silent trudge for long minutes, the air still, the police station fading further and further at their backs. Dogmeat trotted happily on, but Hancock still seemed lost in thought. Nate was about to pester his brother-in-arms, but it was then the man chose to speak—louder this time, like he remembered Nate’s problem.

“You ever think ferals could be brought back?”

Blinking, Nate swallowed. “I don’t know. I mean, you’d know a lot more than I would. I just got here, really. Why?”

“Met a girl out here who was looking for a cure.”

“What? When?”

“Hm? Oh. When you were inside.” Hancock filled him in the details, and when he was done, Nate didn’t know what to say. “I guess I was just thinking. If there was a cure—would people change how they are towards us? I mean, if they couldn’t use going feral as an excuse to get a head start on throwing us out of places. You think those Brotherhood assholes would change their tune? What did you think of them?”

“I don’t know,” Nate whispered. But, he did know his world history. “In Diamond City… when they did what they did… were there people that liked their ghoul neighbors just fine, but went along with it so they weren’t rocking the boat? Were there people that did it just because they’d get property or power? Was it all really all about the risk of people going feral? Or was it about other things?”

Hancock sighed. “Yeah…” he grumbled. “I know. Excuses were pretty much flowing like beer.” He spit into the dirt. “The folks living up in the stands? I’m not convinced they didn’t do it just to improve their view.”

“That’s how I think the Brotherhood is, too. Maybe some good people are in there. I talked to quite a few of them, and they seemed decent… but they’ve been… I don’t know. Incubated. That’s the word. Incubated around some pretty awful excuses.”

Hancock’s lip curled. “So we’re gonna just let ‘em rot, right?”

“Actually… I think we should help out, because I’ve got an idea. Probably a bit of a stupid one.”

“What? A stupid idea? From the General? Of the Minutemen?

“…John, I was a nothing in the Minutemen literally 12 hours ago.”

Hancock grinned slyly, dark eyes alight in the afternoon sun.

“And I’m pretty sure,” Nate continued, not understanding the look, “that I’m a figurehead right now. I mean, hell—in the army, before the war, I topped out at Master Sergeant, and that was a bit of a field promotion. Sure as hell wasn’t a… a strategist. A general. What I’m saying is, it’s a title of convenience, my idea is really dumb, and it could very well get us killed. You shouldn’t even call me that.”

Hancock only kept smiling, black gaze twinkling. “…You’ve started using my first name.”

Nate blinked, breath stuttering.

“You can do that. I like it. Now lay that sweet, stupid brainwave down on me, brother. I’m all about it.”

“I…” Drawing in a fresh lungful of air, Nate held it for a long, long moment, startled that he suddenly felt nervous and warm. Then he let it whoosh out, feeling the bracing, cold breeze of autumn going south. “Alright. Yes. We’re going to help them. They’ll show me around, maybe give me some more jobs. Then, we’re going to steal as much as as we can get our dirty, savage Commonwealth hands on. Especially their convenient, environmentally sealed power armor. Because fuck their excuses. They’re going to get people killed.”

A full five seconds passed before an absolutely delighted cackle erupted from Hancock’s chest. “Well, General, if they did put your title to an election…” He grinned. “You’d get my vote. Power armor for the people. That’s a good campaign slogan, I think.”

General. There it was again.

Nate braced himself against the tingling, happy feeling it traced down his spine.

So help him, he was starting to like it.

 

Chapter Text

Hancock squinted into the fog, a tingle in his gut that wasn’t his lunch. “Some asshole,” he whispered with creeping surety, “Is following us.”

Nate paused, though only briefly. He wasn’t amateur enough to blatantly react and give up the game. Instead, he casually let his hands drift to his guns—almost like he was stretching his back. The scrape of his boots fell softer and lighter.

Hancock appreciated that response and sensed his companion’s unasked questions. “Mighta been since Cambridge,” he provided, popping his last Sugar Bomb, savoring its chalky sweetness. “I’ve been getting the heebie-jeebies for ages. Thought he finally pissed off last night. But… hell. There he is again.”

A startled crow took flight fifty feet back, breaking the dead quiet with agitated squawks. A brief split in the fog revealed moving shadows on the ground, a person adjusting their position around a corner. Nate’s eyes flickered. “Catch any glimpses?”

“Yeah.” This had been three days back, a flicker of sun gleaming off a bare head. It was a drifter in the distance, kneeling by a stream and collecting water to boil. But the man had taken too long to do his business. Every time Hancock had turned away, he’d felt those damn eyes in the back of his head again, the same creepy sensations he’d been feeling for a while.

Nate nodded, voice but a whisper. “Think he’s from that raider band?”

“I think he woulda tried jumping us long before now if he was, but… you never know.”

The last few days had been a continued tour of Minutemen duty while they kept an eye out for good scrounging for the Brotherhood. Traveling by word-of-mouth directions, they’d passed through three settlements. It was a relaxed turn, mostly exterminating pests and rebuilding generators and gardens, but one pitstop had offered a more dangerous problem. A family traveling to their new home—and the caravan accompanying them—was rumored to have been torn apart by thieves… the sorts of beasts that used charred human bones to decorate both their jewelry and camps.

The raiders were easy to find. A bunch of chemmed-up fools howling and firing flamethrowers at the moon weren’t so easy to hide.

No survivors left that reckoning. None deserved to. The medicine and scrap those monsters left behind… it was poor consolation for the pain they’d caused.

Hancock patted his pistol in his new coat, making sure it was nice and secure in its hiding spot. If this was some raider straggler on their tails, they’d send the bastard to meet his buddies soon enough.

But as the hour passed, the day turned to twilight, and nothing more happened. The rippling chill on the back of his neck subsided eventually.

Their follower, it seemed, had taken a break.

Maybe if they camped nice and hidden-like, the guy might not pick them up again in the morning. It was worth a shot. Indeed, Nate was already making a beeline for a rundown house with half the roof missing. It was ugly, poor shelter, and sure to be extra shit in the cold if they didn’t light a fire. In other words, most assholes might pass it right on by—didn’t even look like a good place for scrounging, let alone a place to find targets.

Between Nate and Hancock, they set up their tent well away from any windows. They didn’t need to talk; they’d made an understanding of each other’s rhythms and subtle nods long ago. A few non-mutated bugs and rodents scattered into the floorboards as they passed, focused on their dance. As one man set up defensive positions, the other checked for nearby salvage. As one counted out rations and checked supplies, the other smoothed down blankets and bedrolls.

Being synched with Nate like this, as the days had marched on… it was almost serene, rhythmic. But that was only on the surface. Actually, unstable was a beautiful word for it, Hancock thought, and he’d been thinking about it a lot lately. It was like an undetonated warhead, see? Might just sit there, all quiet and easygoing for the next decade, growing moss, becoming part of everyday life.

Or it might get a little push if someone danced a bit too close. Then, something sure as hell was gonna burn.

As Hancock brushed Nate’s shoulder to get his attention, the act left a tingle on his skin. All he had to do was point at the window, make an articulate flutter with his hands, and his companion just knew. He gave Hancock’s back a friendly pat as he went by and carefully began drawing shut the curtains, laying down two extra guns they’d picked up within easy reach—in case trouble came knocking and they needed to quickly fire from that vantage point.

Little touches between them were so common now. They still made Hancock’s pulse skip.

“Look at the two of us, setting up house together,” he finally whispered, settling down by Nate’s side twenty minutes later in their tent. His friend’s breath puffed white into the dark as the man took the opportunity to lean fully into him, clearly glad for the body heat. “Aw,” Hancock couldn’t help but rasp. “You’re a cuddler. Who knew?”

This was met with a playful snort and a chattering of teeth. “Oh sh-shut up John. You’re warm.” Nate wrapped his blankets tighter around his body, his nose and ears tinged red with chapping.

It was still startling, hearing that first name on someone else’s lips again. The way Nate spoke it, it was like a little thrill, a warm and close secret they shared. It didn’t even make Hancock cringe and think of the other John that used to live in his aging bones. A grin split his face. “Yeah, well, get any more on top of me, and you’re gonna have to take some Rad-X, so watch it.”

He started laughing quietly at his own joke. Couldn’t help it. But then, of course, common sense rolled up a bit too late, shaking its head and reminding him: Oh. Huh. Maybe I shouldn’t say shit like that.

His companion only blinked, whispering in that delightfully baffled manner of his whenever something hit him just so: “Wait. You’re radioactive?”

It took precisely one second for Hancock to consider this—you didn’t know that?!—and his brain almost overloaded. What was he supposed to do now? Walk Nate through a sex joke? Oh hell no. Sometimes, his friend’s newness to the wasteland hit a guy like a sucker punch. “There’s really no more rads coming off me than the food out here. Not glowing yet. But… uh… no doubt you’ve noticed the nice tingle whenever I’m around.”

Alright, maybe he shouldn’t have hit the Jet before taking a seat. The effects were mostly gone, but his brain was still a little wobbly-woozy and full of colors… definitely having trouble engaging his filters.

Oh god—if he got really toasted, could he trust himself not to make an outright pass at this guy?

No, Hancock realized. He could not.

Maybe that was another good reason to go a smidge easier on the chems for a little while longer.

“So I don’t actually need to take a Rad-X around ghouls,” Nate said, chuckling as if relieved, not moving away.

“…Well.” Goddammit. A squirm lodged under Hancock’s skin. He wasn’t big on self-incrimination, but Nate was just unconscionably ignorant of certain aspects of life out here. A true friend wouldn’t let that stand. Finally, his two warring instincts landed on an answer: “Tell you what. Ask me again if Daisy back home ever starts making eyes at you. Then maybe we’ll revisit this subject.”

Oh. I. Uh.” Nate squirmed. Yeah, he finally got the drift.

Hancock tried to make his face chill and passive—just one-hundred-percent unable to give a damn. But his teeth clenched, waiting for a stronger reaction, for Nate’s pre-war brain to fully consider ghouls as actual creatures of desire in relation to his beefcake self. It probably hadn’t occurred to the guy before, to be honest. Sure, the two of them had friendly little flirting jokes here and there, and sure, Nate still tossed and turned in his sleep, burying himself in the nearest warm body. But none of that was serious. He just needed someone. He always pulled far away come morning.

Most people considered ghouls to be a wholly different species, and… not exactly an attractive one. With all that extra baggage on Nate’s back? Yeah. Hancock knew it was best to take the disinterest with as much grace as he could.

Which was to say, he tried to ignore the growing, lonely ache in his chest. He’d never fit in like this with another man in his entire life, unjudged, valued—two crazies just trying to make the world a little bit better.

Wasn’t easy, finding a possible match he thought he’d never find, only to start realizing every day it still wasn’t there.

“That’s probably not gonna be a problem,” Nate eventually said, voice light. “I’m not uh, into Daisy… not that she hasn’t been nice to me.” He suddenly started gathering his things and lying down, making his bed, leaving his friend sitting and blinking, stomach doing something bubbly and unrecognizable.

What… what does that mean? Was it like, nah, ghouls aren’t my speed? ‘Cause that’d kind of be an asshole thing to say. Or was it like, nah, Daisy ain’t my speed, specifically? Or, was it like, hey, bro, it’s not DAISY that I’m into, wink wink?

Maybe it was door number four: I am uncomfortable with this conversation because my wife is dead; please stop being like this John.

Hancock decided it was best for everyone involved if he called quits on this talk of his own accord. “Gonna take first watch,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll let ya know if I see any sign of our secret admirer.”

Nate let out a huge yawn in response, bundled inside his cocoon. “Alright,” he said, bloodshot eyes slowly closing. “Wake me up… when… ever…”

Aaaaand he was out. Hancock shook his head, a weight of concern sagging in his chest. Nate really needed sleep. Good sleep—something all too rare. He’d started getting spacey sometimes as they walked, started getting twitchy about sounds that might not be there… things Dogmeat didn’t react to at least, and the mutt had the best hearing out of all of them.

So here a ghoul and a dog would sit, quiet and still at the tent entrance. By god, they’d make sure nothing disturbed their tired, broken best friend for as long as possible.

Dogmeat curled into Hancock’s side, like he too enjoyed the extra bit of warmth—he tilted onto his back, baring his belly. “You’re a cuddler too, huh?” Hancock whispered, rubbing that fluffy underside.

Canine teeth bared in a smile as Dogmeat’s tail thumped enthusiastically against the ground. Those brown dog eyes flickered between him and the other bedroll. It was almost as if the pooch was asking how long it would be before Nate would be up and about again—after all, it didn’t take a lot of time for the man to start crying out in his slumber, to get too spooked to continue sleeping. And in that moment, Hancock couldn’t help but feel his mood sink lower, an ember of resentment flaring that he just couldn’t protect his companion from himself. He couldn’t be what Nate needed, whatever that was.

Well. More like whoever that was. Nora. That ghost that followed him still.

And that fact was slowly starting to set off the troubling hurt in his chest again.

You really make me forget how things are, don’t you, you damn beautiful troublemaker? Of course you weren’t flirting back. Goddamn it. I really gotta get my head on straight around you.

He really wanted a cigarette, but didn’t light up, lest the dog leave too. This high when he and Nate teased each other—like the Jet before the Addictol—it was too alluring, starting to ride him rather than the other way ‘round. If he didn’t watch it, his mouth would get him into trouble. Usually fucking did.

Gotta be a friend. A best friend. Nate needed that, and he needed it too. Right. Putting a goddamn lid on the warm fuzzies. He never should have let them fester this far.

By the light of the full moon through the ceiling holes, Hancock pulled out his sketchbook, trying a few exercises with stiff and cold hands. The drawings didn’t come easy that night. The more he tried to be good, the less it worked. Now he was just doodling dicks and rude caricatures in the margins, hoping for his brain to sort out its shit. Wistfully, he crunched down on a Mentat. It made the stars brighter, made the ratios of the world defined, made beauty and sense out of the poor symmetry in his scarred fingers.

What it didn’t do was help. Maybe the old think-box just needed time, too.

And too soon, a pained whisper suddenly cut through the night. “…No…”

Shit. Nate’s nightmare noises: absolute clockwork. Hancock wasn’t going to stand for that, awkward feelings or not. So, he rolled up and into the tent, leaned inside, and gently shook his friend’s shoulder. “Hey.”

Nate sat straight up with a gasp, clammy, taking a blanket-covered swing. Hancock was starting to learn to be just outside of arm’s reach for these moments. “Wha…? I… I… oh. Oh. Is something wrong?” It only took this born soldier a moment to mask that panic, to become the ridiculously capable and fierce creature he was.

“It’s probably nothing,” Hancock said nonchalantly. Hoo boy. Just two hours, man. Not great. “I thought I heard something. Dogmeat doesn’t seem too worried, but I wanted to check it out. Can you get my back? Sorry to bug ya.”

Nate gave a genuine smile, his eyes dull. Dark patches had long since bloomed beneath them. “It’s no problem. I’ve got you.”

Together, the two of them marched the perimeter. Hancock used the business end of his shotgun to rustle a few suspicious bushes in the house’s decrepit old garden. He’d made the mistake once of asking if Nate wanted to talk about the dreams. The guy had just gotten embarrassed and sad, and then, for an hour, clutched the ring around his neck that matched the one on his finger.

Like a talisman.

So the fiction of the perimeter checks worked for now. Nate always seemed grateful for these moments that would let him calm down before trying sleep again. Hancock just wished there was a better way.

Snff snnnnnff. Dogmeat suddenly began taking long, measured whiffs of the air by Hancock’s side. The canine’s wide jaws opened, his head bobbing as he fully took in the world, his tail rising. His ears began to go back.

Hancock stiffened. “Hrm.”

Nate perked up from his half-awake sag. “What is it?” He looked almost ready to fall down into bed again, the fiction played out.

“The dog smells someone. Something. I dunno yet.” Hancock snapped his head to the right. He was picking it up too—the barest catch as the wind changed. “Smoke,” he hissed. “Someone’s got a campfire nearby.”

“Our secret admirer.” Nate’s brow turned stony. “You know what I think?”

Hancock could tell exactly what he thought from how his shoulders lifted into tense lines, how his chest swelled. “We finally find this fucker and tell him off? Yeah. I’m for it. This song and dance is really cramping my beauty sleep.” And yours.

Nate adjusted his pistols and kneeled down, massaging Dogmeat’s scruff and sides. “You wanna go get him, boy?” That tail started to wag. Those front paws started to make antsy little skips. “Go on! Go get him!” The dog didn’t need to be told twice. Off he bolted, like this was what he’d been born for.

It was a grim journey through the rubble and refuse of a world gone by. Their feet picked lightly over loose stones and trash, pressing down on the dry weeds in just such a way that ensured they wouldn’t rustle. Dogmeat seemed to know how to do this on instinct, and he was much faster than they were. He bounded forward like a ghost, cold puffs trailing from his excited nose. Then, he’d wait, his brown, watery eyes gleaming in the shadows and starlight.

The fire was coming from another house a few blocks away. Whoever it was seemed to dislike being seen much too. If he hadn’t known what he was looking for, Hancock might have missed the faint light past drawn curtains, the soft, thin smoke trail coming up through a mangled chimney.

Over the threshold they went. Nate stepped carefully, close to the walls. Hancock followed his lead.

And it was just who Hancock thought it was—the drifter from before, reclined on an ancient sofa, breathing easy and slow. Asleep? Hell. That made this easier, didn’t it? He was wearing a simple set of flannel caravaner’s clothes now, good for traveling and cold weather. A heavy pack lay at his feet. His head was bald and bare, and dark sunglasses shielded his eyes from the firelight.

Something about this man’s appearance made Hancock’s brain burble and hiss that there was some memory he needed to have, that this was important. He reached haphazardly for the fading trail the remnants of his last Mentat was leaving behind. But then Nate tapped his shoulder, a weird expression on his face, leaning in.

“John…” he whispered. “This guy look familiar to you too?”

Suddenly, the memories snapped into focus, crystal clear. “He’s that trader that was talking to Mama Murphy in Sanctuary last week!”

“Wait… wait, he’s that guy that was talking to Fahrenheit in your office in Goodneighbor!” Nate added.

The man in the sunglasses suddenly spoke, wide awake. “You’re both surprisingly perceptive.”

Nate’s pistol arm tensed as he raised it, leveling in surprise. Hancock followed suit with his shotgun.

The stranger only smiled, palms open and up, as if to advocate his defenselessness. “I was starting to think you’d never say hello. Anyway, it’s freezing out there, and you both look a little worse for wear. Why don’t you pull up a seat? Let’s talk.”



 

“Why are you following us?” That was the first question Nate had for the stranger, and he wasn’t moving an inch or lowering his gun until he had a satisfactory answer.

The man’s lips quirked into a smile. “The name’s Deacon. And I’m not following you; we just always happen to be going in the same direction. Don’t worry—I’m not with the Institute or a raider band. Or whoever else you’ve made your enemy this week.”

Hancock peered. “Sassy, ain’t ya? Who the hell are you with?”

“Oh. You know. Railroad.”

Nate tried not to look entirely ignorant of that answer. Out in the dark, a cricket chirped.

Hancock cleared his throat as if to draw Nate’s attention. “The Railroad? That outfit that’s supposed to free synths from slavery?” Bless John; he’d understood.

Deacon sat up a little straighter. “The one and the same.”

“And we figure in this how…?” Grudgingly, Hancock lowered his gun. Nate trusted his judgment and followed suit.

The stranger kicked up his shoes, gesturing again to the other chairs in the living room around the fire. “I’m just going to come out and say it. The Railroad needs you. I’ve had my eye on you all for a while. Come on, you really want to stand there this whole time?” He smiled. “I have some leftover steak if you’re still hungry.”

Nate’s unnerved heart pattered like a nervous rabbit. All the same, he did settle down. His stomach growled, his body desperately glad to be near the fireplace’s embers. “Why didn’t you approach us earlier if you wanted help? Why follow us all this time?”

“I was getting a sense of you. Your leanings. And these past few days? I was really just curious if you’d be able to pin me down. Don’t worry, though. From what I’ve seen, you’re just who we’re looking for.”

Then, Deacon began to explain. He spoke of the synths, of the Railroad’s mission, of the lives they’d saved.

He spoke of two do-gooders wandering the world doing the best they could, giving a damn and helping making the Commonwealth better for all its citizens, no matter the smoothness of their skin or the caps they could afford to pay.

Nate listened, untensing, starting to worry that he hardly looked the part of the General that Deacon had apparently heard him to be—this guy was quite the well-informed stalker. As Nate ran an embarrassed hand over his chin, he caught patchy and scratchy stubble under his fingers. He was fairly certain his hair was sticking up at crazy angles, his face still sweaty and twitchy from nightmares.

He knew in his heart he didn’t look like a leader. He looked like a man who was barely able to manage.

That didn’t change his answer to Deacon, however. “If you are who you say you are, then yes, helping slaves—synths or not—is something I would gladly do.”

Hancock only watched quietly, letting loose a tiny, warm smile to assist. The fire reflecting in those black eyes mirrored what Nate knew burned in the ghoul’s heart—Hancock was, without a doubt, always down to help the helpless and knock tyrants from their thrones. Getting slaves the hell out of dodge? Of course he’d be in, whether or not they truly had the time and energy.

This was the kind of man Nate strove to be too. How he ever found those opaque eyes to be so unreadable once, he didn’t know.

“Great to hear.” Deacon’s stare was, of course, still a mystery behind those glasses. There was something odd about him, something difficult to put a finger on. Was it possible synths worked for the Railroad too? Was this man one, with mechanical eyes like Valentine, making it irrelevant if he wore sunglasses in the dark? Nate didn’t ask these questions. Deacon’s voice was articulate, strangely lighthearted, and didn’t always go where one expected—like when he spoke, he wanted to make it partly entertainment. This was the kind of person that could make anything the truth if it was spoken in just the right way.

Well. They’d find out if this was all on the level soon enough.

“I’ll be honest with you.” Nate helped himself to a little of that steak that was promised, scraping some chewy, greasy molerat bits out of the bottom of Deacon’s cooking pan. “I’d lend a hand to what you’re doing any day, even if I didn’t need something in return. But I do.”

The man nodded, growing a touch more serious. “Yes. I’ve heard about your son.”

Nate almost dropped his food. “You have?”

“I don’t know anything you don’t know already.” Those hands raised as if they might be used to gently lower Nate’s expectations. “I only learned it’s what’s been driving you through the Commonwealth.”

Nate sighed. “Oh. Yeah. I guess that would come up… if you’ve been watching.”

“To be clear: if your boy is being held captive in the Institute itself, very, very few synths we rescue have a chance of knowing their masters’ location or how to get back in. That data is locked down when they leave, made inaccessible even in their own heads. It’s how the Institute preserves its secrecy if its agents are captured.”

Nate was about to say that he wasn’t looking for help getting in—he already knew of a scientist who could perhaps show him the way. But he swallowed it back. That information felt… need-to-know.

“However,” Deacon added a moment later, “I think working with us would teach you a great deal about how the Institute operates… and if opportunity knocked, of course, to learn more…”

“That’s good enough for me.” Nate nodded. He extended a hand to seal his agreement.

Deacon reflected on the handshake offer, almost as if he thought it quaint. But, he accepted. “I’ll see you on the Freedom Trail, then. As soon as you can come.”

“Freedom Trail? Is that where your base is? Where is…?”

“You’ll figure it out.” The man smiled. “Just watch out for any swans, alright? Now, why don’t you head on back to your camp? I’m sure you don’t want to leave it unguarded for long.”

Nate nodded, feeling uneasy at staying any longer himself. It was only when he and Hancock both were sitting in the cold and dark in front of their own shelter, Dogmeat pressed securely against his leg once more, that he dared speak plainly again. “So,” he said.

Hancock wearily stared at him. “Yeah… did he really just give us a riddle and tell us to fuck off?”

A little laugh scraped out of Nate’s chest, and he leaned his chin onto his hands thoughtfully. “Yeah. Yeah, he did. Weird guy! At least it wasn’t some damn raider trying to put our heads on a platter after all.” Seeing nothing but peace in the night, he scooted closer to his companion’s warmth as he had earlier. The need for sleep clawed at his gut, his vision blurring.

He wasn’t ready, though.

“Aren’t they asking us for help?” Hancock chuckled and shook his head. “Coulda just said what he meant. Not like there was anyone else around except the damn crows and radroaches. Well. Whatever. I know where that Freedom Trail is if we’re gonna give them a look, so we’ll figure it out. Man. This is cloak-and-dagger shit reminds me of that radio show: the Silver Shroud. You’ve heard it, right?”

“Yeah.” Nate squinted. Mulling over Deacon was going to take Morning Nate’s brain, not Insomnia Nate’s, and what Hancock had just said… “Wait. How do you know about the Silver Shroud?”

“You do realize I gave you that guy’s coat to wear when you were cold, right? Like, you’ve had it on all this time?”

Nate balked, looking down at himself, stunned. It was just a coat, he’d thought; in the wasteland, one didn’t really question the history of nice, warm clothes. But on second look…

Holy shit. Holy shit. This really was the same coat from the television. He’d peered over Nora’s shoulder often enough to the screen, pretending he thought the theatrics were a little silly, even though they both knew it was exactly his kind of ridiculous.

“My guy Kent in Goodneighbor—prewar ghoul—he loves it,” Hancock continued. “Like, really really loves it. Keeps it on the air. You remember when I found that comic shop outside Diamond City?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I found a bunch of Silver Shroud things in there. I crammed a few in my bag… figured Kent would like ‘em. He practically lives in the Memory Den, you know? Could use something in the here-and-now to make him happy. But last time we were in town… I kinda forgot to give it all to him. A lot was going on. And now you’ve kind of made that coat your own.”

Embarrassed, Nate, reached over his shoulder and ran his fingers over the 111 patch sewn into the jacket’s back. A pit in his stomach yawned open as he realized he’d vandalized a perfectly preserved piece of prewar memorabilia that had just been handed to him as a gift.

Fortunately, Hancock didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve got the hat too. If you wanted to, like, wear it and say a bunch of dramatic lines at Deacon when we crack his damn secret spy codes—I’d support that. Just so you know.”

Nate, still in awe of his coat’s origins, suddenly imagined what Hancock was proposing—Worry not, good synths! I will save you! For I… am the Silver Shroud!—and started cracking up. It felt good to laugh, full from the belly. Would anyone at the Railroad even get the centuries-old joke? “You… you don’t really have…?”

A withered hand went into a bag and extracted a crumpled black fedora with a silver band. Hancock fluffed it out, popping the inner frame back into place, smoothing the brim. “Good as new! Uh. Might smell a little like spilled chems, though, after that whole radscorpion accident.”

“Oh my god.” Nate reached out, taking the hat in his hands. “This really is the same hat from the television. Someone must have been a huge fan to make this.”

“You gonna try it on or what?”

Nate rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t resist. The woolen fedora settled around his crown like it had been custom-fit. A little spark of glee shuddered through his weary heart.

Hancock’s eyes squinted with delight. “Oh wow, that’s great. You wear that thing into Goodneighbor, and Kent’s gonna get the vapors. Hey. Can you do the voice?”

“I… no! I mean. I could. If I wanted to. But…”

Hancock’s easy smile was infectious. It warmed an insistent part of Nate’s core, made his heartbeat canter and run. He’ll laugh if I do the voice. Alright. To hell with it.

“Beware, evildoers!” he said, booming his vocal cords, channeling the words he’d soaked up while curling around his wife in front of the TV, loving every second… those words he’d also heard on a hot Asiatic night, bunched with his squadmates around a pirated holotape player. One fist, he dramatically raised to the sky. “Death comes for you, and I am its Shroud!”

Hancock collapsed in on himself, snorting and giggling. “Oh man. You really can do it!”

Nate puffed out his chest, happy. His old unit had loved his impressions, and so had Nora… and right now, thinking about that… for some reason, it didn’t hurt, sharing this part of himself with someone else, making a new memory. “Those who laugh in the face of justice,” he announced, leveling a dramatic finger at his friend’s chest, “Will scatter before my fury!”

“There is no way…!” Hancock sniggered with glee. “… No way you can’t do this at the Railroad…! If Deacon can’t hear ya from here already!”

Blinking, Nate shrunk in on himself, removing his hat like a child with one hand caught in the cookie jar. Oops. Yep, in this silent neck of the woods, those lines had probably… carried. Well.

His friend didn’t seem too worried though, coming up for air, winding down his happy snickers. An arm fell around Nate’s shoulders, embracing him. Hancock had been doing that a lot lately. It was getting to be… nice. Comforting and friendly, all at once. “I see that worried face,” the ghoul said. “You know, you don’t gotta be a superhuman who, like… can’t even make jokes around people like Deacon… or ask for help when you’re hurting.” Nate stilled in that heated proximity, the space where Hancock’s theoretical nose would have been only an inch from his own. “One, anyone who minds you doing an awesome Silver Shroud impression ain’t worth knowing. But two, you gotta take care of yourself, and… I’m trying to help with that, alright? That’s part of my job here. To help take care of ya.”

Bringing one palm up to rest between his friend’s pointy shoulder blades, Nate gingerly returned the half-armed hug, uncomfortable in the vulnerability. Yet, he knew he was safe. His chest slowly filled with solidarity and contentment.

Hancock’s breath smelled like berries and that nice seasoning from dinner. It was almost pleasant, puffing over his face.

A flush of heat bloomed over Nate’s skin. They were so, so close… it would take almost nothing to reach out and touch that strange, almost alien skin, to see what it really felt like… to truly hold. Why did that sometimes seem… like such a fascinating idea…? His stomach rumbled, his core heating.

Too close. I’m too close and staring.

He dropped his arm, looking down at his knees. “Uh. Thanks, man,” he mumbled, trying to rein in his galloping heart.

Hancock sighed, arm also falling, and for a moment, Nate wondered if his friend had seen the surge of unwieldy emotion in his eyes: those thoughts of Nora… and those thoughts that hadn’t been about her at all.

His core shuddered, unsure, warm—almost regretful, wondering at a moment that had just passed, Nate’s lips tingled too, his eyes starting to sting.

“Now, you still got a little time before your watch,” Hancock said slowly, his tone and face utterly mellow. “You gonna get some shuteye?”

Nate needed it. By god, he knew he needed it. But he wasn’t going to get it at this rate; he had too many thoughts, too much chaos between his ears. At least… well, if he had to be awake, then Hancock could get some peace. “Actually,” he whispered, “I can take over from here for tonight.”

“Alright, if you want to.” The man made a gesture of refusal as Nate tried to pass him back the hat. “Come on. What if we need the Silver Shroud to protect us from evildoers?”

Chuckling, Nate saw no other option than to pop the fedora back on his head. “No evildoing on my watch,” he managed, scraping up a smidgen of gusto. His friend nodded with approval and went to go lie down. Dogmeat stood, stretched, and nuzzled Nate’s hand before curling up to sleep at his feet again as well.

All there was now was the night, a new hat, and a cold ring against Nate’s chest. He sighed, feeling as if the ground was shifting under his feet, something in the air changing. The world keeps moving, he thought, clutching the ring. But you’re not here. I don’t know what I’m doing without you, love. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it wasn’t me who died. I’m sorry I’m afraid to dream about you. I’m so sorry that I… even just for a second, that I…

A tear ran down his cheek, all the thoughts not dealt with, all the loneliness and shame and grief.

Maybe it felt like it was the world around that was unstable. But, Nate knew, it was really just him.

 

Chapter Text

“SON OF A BI—!”

This was all there really was to say at a house-sized super mutant behemoth, and Hancock said it, clinging for dear life to the swan-boat tied to the thing’s back.

“GRAWRRRGGGGGGHHHH!” The mutant swung its mighty body, whipping him clean off.

“—IIIIIIITCH!” Hancock kept screaming all the way to the pond from where the colossal beast had come. His hard, liquidy crack of a landing made his vision go white. Water flooded his nostril holes as he sank. It poured down his throat, into his lungs. His chest seized with agony. Flailing, panicking, his palm seized hold of the muddy bottom—somehow, he managed to clutch it, dragging himself up and forward, kicking back to the surface.

The air rushed against his face in a freezing blast. Coughing, choking, he flung himself onto the shore, a deafening scream and the cracks of gunfire assaulting his ears. The water finally flushed from his airways, and he turned, eyes burning, head pounding. Not far off, Nate was scrambling back, the blue-skinned mountain bearing him down. The bullets only seemed to be making it angrier. Dark blood rushed from its arms and face, but it still charged, unheeding.

Watch out for goddamn swans, Deacon says!” Hancock drew his soaked shotgun. Thank god the gunpowder inside was fine. Both shells lit up the super mutant’s backside. The thing didn’t even turn. It howled and thrashed at Nate with its tree-trunk arms, looking intent on grinding its annoyances to powder. Nate vaulted over a huge chunk of upturned concrete, diving into cover where several slabs made a nook of debris. The super mutant hit the barrier with its skull. A painful cracking resounded.

This did not stop it. It just picked up a whole entire anchor nearby and proceeded to start vaporizing the concrete wall blow by blow, bellowing with cheated fury. The rusted weapon screamed into its target, sending a huge chunk of cement toppling down to where Nate was holed up. The mutant swung again with its other arm, onto which an entire canoe had been tied, using it like a battering ram.

“Fuck,” Hancock muttered softly, with true feeling.

Nate was pinned behind that wall—no way out.

Dogmeat was in a scattered heap not far away. He was unmoving. Unconscious? Gone? When had that happened? Hancock’s lungs choked with fear. He could barely move from that near-asphyxiation and pain. He didn’t have any grenades left. One smack from that mutant, and he was dead. The only smart thing to do in this situation—the only thing that would probably end in his survival—was to run out of range and regroup.

The thought didn’t even occur to him.

He’d run from a million things in his life. Diamond City. Old friends. Himself. His emotions. Responsibilities.

But running from Nate… facing down that super mutant’s anchor, John Hancock realized he would rather die.

Nimbly, he fished a Psycho injector from his coat—his special one, his last one, one he'd hoped he’d never have to touch. It went through his trousers and into his thigh with a burst of bright torture, chased with a harsh stream of burning fire and red haze. His throat began to swell with a caged scream.

And he was gone.

 


 

Nate, injured and bleeding, hunched low behind cover as a concrete slab almost brained him on its way down. Shit! Shit!

The area he’d dove into—like a rat into its hole—was unexpectedly pinned against another heap of cement and a pile of ancient wood. When he’d landed, his ankle had burst through the rotting oak. His foot made a teeth-grinding snap as he yanked it out now, howling. Pain shot up his spine. His vision shorted. Only as he came back to himself, gasping, did he feel warm blood dribbling down his chin from biting his own lip in agony.

His skeleton rattled with each crack the mutant took at the barrier wall, shaking his brain and leaving a migraine behind. There was nowhere to go, debris on all sides. Putting weight on his foot made him scream again. His vision blurred.

Shit! Where the hell had Dogmeat and Hancock gone? Hancock could swim, right? Jesus, he better be able to swim.

The behemoth beyond didn’t even speak, mindless, salivating fury spraying before it as Nate watched it through a crack. It just kept hammering. Too big to reach around and pry its prey out, it was going to apply brute force at the problem until it worked out in its bloody favor.

From the disintegration showering over Nate’s body, it was about to.

Suddenly, with a wail, Hancock came out of nowhere—vaulting up through the air from off a pile of decay, a dervish of furious ghoul. He leaped into the swan boat on the behemoth’s backside again, looping his arms and legs around the bird’s neck like a chimpanzee. The unholy shriek he roared sent chills spiking through Nate’s heart. The super mutant’s eyes went wide. A dagger lifted, sparkling in the sunlight. Hancock began to stab through that leathery backside like he was carving up a Christmas turkey. Horrifying amounts of blood erupted around the blade. Finally, the one-mutant wrecking ball spun away, flailing, gurgling. He swung his body, trying to dislodge his attacker, but he couldn’t reach, even with his freakishly long arms.

Hancock dug himself in even tighter around swan boat’s neck like an octopus from hell. He shrieked again, a blood-covered banshee, and started firing his pistol with one arm. One of the shots went wide into the sky as he was knocked back and forth, but Nate saw the mutant flinch in fury and pain at the second.

Nothing in Hancock’s expression showed a hint of self-preservation, or even thought.

He was vacant. Gone.

A horrible realization slammed into Nate, forcing the breath from his lungs.

Feral?

Stinging tears forced their way out of his eyes. “Oh shit. Oh shit.”

The truly horrific thing was, he had no time to help, to stop it. All he could do was save his friend from getting thrown to his death and hope for the best. Dragging his screaming foot along, Nate took the distraction, crawling out of cover through a decayed crack. He reloaded and took aim at the thrashing mutant, fanning the hammer of his revolver, sending six slugs rapid-fire into the behemoth’s boulder-knee.

Its leg, flailing already, buckled. By sheer force of luck, the mutant toppled in a crushing heap, face-first into the concrete barrier it’d been attempting to mow down. There it lay, stunned from the fall, teeth tumbling down its bloated lips.

Hancock took that instant to surge up, somehow landing gracefully. He roared, a sick, rasping, furious aria, leaping to the mutant’s prone neck. The knife rose again, then fell, twenty times in rapid succession.

Nate wasn’t even sure when the super mutant stopped moving. It was certainly far before his friend did.

“…John?” The cracked words floated across the broken shore, across the too-still waters of the placid lake. The ghoul’s head jerked up, arm raised mid-stab. His teeth were bared in a riotous snarl. Nate’s gravity fell through his stomach and sucked out his heart. A nauseating hollowness remained. Don’t you dare make me shoot you. Don’t you dare. I am not putting you down, John Hancock. “John?” He tried again. “Hey. It’s over. We’re okay.”

Slowly, the burning heat in those black eyes began to dim. Hancock’s harsh breathing heaved like he was running a race, but it began to slow.

A near unintelligible groan burst from his throat: “F’kin’ hell.”

And he tilted, collapsing onto his side on the asphalt.

Nate staggered up, hovering over him, hands shaking, frightened. What was he supposed to do, if Hancock really did go feral? Did it happen all at once? Was talking a good sign? Would he try to take a bite if—

Then, a discarded Psycho injector on the ground caught his eye, twenty feet away.

“Oh shit,” he said, relief collapsing over his brain like a burst water balloon. “Thank god! John! You’re alright!” He reached down, rolling his moaning friend over, checking for injuries. The man was soaked in blood and pond scum.

Alright?” Hancock choked out, voice still rasping and angry. “Feel like… like I’ve been hit by a whole goddamn boat…!” Yet, in the end, he sounded sane, though the chem rage left him wriggling on the ground, spitting what sounded like vile curses involving a yao guai’s mother.

Holy shit, John.

Nate kneeled down, scooping him up, hugging that thin frame close. He didn’t even know how to convey the horrific loneliness and fear that had torn him open when he’d thought, even for a minute, that his companion was about to be lost to him forever. “Psycho, huh?”

“Yuh.” The man’s body was still stiff and tense. It felt like it might squirm into another dimension.

“Thought you, I don’t know, got hit in the head or something. Maybe started going feral.” It sounded stupid, now that Nate thought about it, really thought about it.

An achy-sounding chuckle scraped out of that throat. “S’what I always ‘magine goin’ feral’s like.”

That pulse pounded against Nate’s own, twice as fast and hard as it ought to be going. “How much did you take?” He drew back, taking in the fact that under his hands, Hancock was kicking off warmth like a damn furnace. He’d never seen someone quite this far gone. “Is this—”

“S’not overdose.” Hancock shook his head urgently, like it was hard for him to stop moving. “I c’n handle more’n you. Ghoul.” He set his jaw and bared his teeth like he really was the ravenous zombie some people thought him to be. The knife came up, almost threateningly, and then, Hancock seemed like he forced it back down. “Sorry. Wouldn’t stab ya. Promise.”

“I know.”

“Gimme a minute.” He wriggled away, turning his back and curling up into a tense, squirming little ball.

Nate nodded and scooted back, letting him have his space. Good god. Never thought that chem would save my damn life. He dragged himself away, right foot still useless. His first order of business was finding a stick to lean on so he might walk; then, he checked on Dogmeat. Thank god, the canine was only unconscious, but needing help. A stimpack into the poor pup’s neck, and he was breathing a lot easier. Nate next scooped up the discarded Psycho injector nearby, squinting at the thing—it really wasn’t normal. Someone had taped a label to it, and there in messy, chicken-scratch scrawl lay the message, “Emergency Only!” This was followed by a crude smiley face. The syringe itself had a tank twice as large as any other vial of Psycho Nate had ever seen—twice the amount he’d been given in the army, the amount Hancock had said put him at risk for stopping his heart.

And, holy shit, it was empty.

You’re, what, two-thirds my weight? Nate curled his fingers around the vial, tense, angry. Hancock knew what he was doing with chems, but goddamn. There had better be something to his notion that ghouls handled this shit better than other people, or he was playing with serious fire.

 


 

From his swatch of dirt and mud, Hancock was in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the primal urge to scream and burn the world down. It felt so, so good.

Too good.

Luckily, the initial rush was starting to wither. There was still a bonfire in his belly, but higher-order thought was starting to seep through the cracks, wisps of rational smoke.

Psycho was not his ride of choice.

The last time he’d done something like this was years back. He and Fahrenheit had been out for a walk, chatting up some nearby settlements, making deals. A chance deathclaw encounter had ended that. Christ, that’d been one ugly demon, even if it’d only been a whelp: one eye in its head and a whole lot of hatred in its heart. At least Fahr’s minigun gave the thing a lot to think about.

She’d shoved her mayor out of the way, forcing him to roll to safety—but the deathclaw had charged her. He had to watch his kin get knocked to the dirt, watch as the beast latched its jaws around her gun and tried to tear it out of her hands like a dog with a bone. Its dagger-claws had gone up. Fahr was going to get sliced into stew meat.

The next thing he’d known, she was pulling him from the monster’s back. Its head was blown clean off. He’d been running it through with his knife so many times that its hide was a pincushion.

She never did fill him in on everything that’d happened, and he knew better than to think he’d done all that damage himself. But, that night, after he’d washed the blood off, she’d actually shared a personal story with him at their campfire. It’d been about her mother and her life in Diamond City back before. She’d never done that, and she didn’t make a habit of doing it since.

But he’d known he’d accomplished something in that Psycho-haze to earn back a tiny sliver of her respect.

So he hoped it would be the same with Nate. Maybe the guy might just forget how they’d gotten in this mess. Just had to hop in that boat, huh? “Nate, look at this cute little swan thing! Maybe we’re supposed to row it to the Railroad! Maybe that’s what Deacon was talking about! Watch out for swans, he said!”

Then he’d done a little jig, starting up a sea shanty.

Fuck you, Deacon.

Hancock opened his eyes, more present, though his body was entirely too hot. He also wasn’t feeling any pain, and that meant he wasn’t anywhere near level. Still, he felt in control. Mostly.

And beside him, the behemoth’s bread-loaf-sized fingers suddenly twitched. It wasn’t… wasn’t fucking dead?!

“Nate?” Hancock decided, peeling himself up from the ground.

“Yeah?” His friend hobbled up.

Hancock pointed. “We should go.”

Nate’s eyes went wide. What the hell? he mouthed. “Yes.”

 


 

Piling into an old church nearby for shelter seemed the brightest idea. Nate peered out of grimy, broken glass, pressed into the wall by the door.

Somehow, some way, that towering mountain of a monster down the road stood, looking around. It lumbered right back into the water until it was gone. The little swan boat on its back was all that was left—other than the blood and teeth on the concrete.

Hancock was breathing hard, coat dripping, eyes squinting harshly into the dark. Nate suspected the Psycho still raged in his blood. The ghoul had been able to carry Dogmeat with them though, who was resting nearby, stimmed and weary.

A wave of dizzy nausea swept Nate up, and he heaved.

“Whoa, hey. You okay?” Hancock twisted to stare.

“M’okay.” Nate leaned back, exhaling, a throbbing, grinding pain pulsing up his leg. “Just… just coming down. Think I broke my foot.”

“Hell. Alright, lemme get the stimpacks back out.”

Nate groaned. He leaned over, unlacing his boot. If the bone was snapped… “I need something to bite.”

“Like, in a sexy way, or in a snack cake way?”

A pained chuckle vented through Nate’s nose. “So I don’t scream and bring some monster in here.”

“Oh. Right, right, sorry.” Hancock shook his head and looked up, stimpack in one hand, Med-X in the other. Setting them on the ground, he offered his knife handle, the thick sturdy wood likely ideal for the task. However, it was still covered in super mutant blood, just like the rest of him. “Wait. Uhhh.”

There wasn’t enough Abraxo in the world that would convince Nate to put that in his mouth. “…I’ve got it.” He opened his own bag, shuffling through, finding a balled-up shirt. This he stuffed between his jaws.

“Ready?” Hancock braced the ankle. Nate nodded. When the boot came off, Nate let loose a muffled scream, face burning, pain rocketing into his brain—his friend pressed into the swollen spots, seemingly looking for the bone out of place, and Nate knew he couldn’t be medicated for that, knew it needed to hurt so they would know where the problem was, but god, he hated it, hated the way time slowed and curled into wretched fire in his nerves.

“Alright… ain’t bad,” Hancock finally ruled. “Prob’ly just a bad fracture. Don’t need a brace; it’ll set. Hold still.”

Finally, Nate was able to tear out his gag and pop the Med-X. The stimpack slipped under his skin almost sweetly. Slowly, his muscles unclenched. The pain fled. His world stopped flaring red. “Alright,” he said after a minute. “I’m gonna get on my feet.”

“…You ready for that?”

“Gotta. We don’t know what the hell else is around.” He could only hope Hancock was ready too. At least the guy was making fully formed syllables now.

As Nate tried to get up, using the window frame as a brace, it turned out his plan had a fundamental flaw. He couldn’t feel his leg at all now. It slipped out from under him, pure jello.

Hancock quickly rose and caught him, bracing his flailing, fish-legged body, getting tangled around his front, almost falling too. They eventually stabilized, wrapped up in each other.

“Sorry!” Nate apologized, mortified at almost needing to be carried, ashamed he couldn’t control his goddamned limbs. “Uh. Also. Thanks.”

Hancock’s rasping chuckle dipped low, puffing warmth against Nate’s neck, sending a nervous static through his spine. The ghoul was still breathing very hard. “Oh, it’s my pleasure.” Those black eyes narrowed to heated slits. “You know I’ve always got you, Nate. Right? For anything.” His presence was a rolling wave of warmth. Both his palms rested now on Nate’s chest, grips bunched up in the jacket leather.

It was when he seemed to forget to step away—and Nate did too, lost in that deadly serious, unblinking stare—that the moment shifted. And in that split second, the almost-vibrating, chem-fueled tension under Hancock’s skin seemed to rise and seize its host fully, tugging roguishly at his lips, baring one incisor in a lopsided, hungry grin.

“I know,” was all Nate could think to whisper in the face of it, words almost stolen, brain like a rabbit that had just noticed a circling eagle.

“…But do you?”

That black gaze held a strange inner glow as it refused to move, surrounded by scars and weathering. It was the kind that burned through anything in its path, a head-held-high, righteous promise of something boiling and barely restrained.

That look sang into Nate’s chest, kidnapped both lungs, and squeezed his core with fire. He wasn’t prepared for it or the reaction it wrought. He didn’t know what to do with it. He wasn’t supposed to react this way. Hancock wasn’t supposed to look at him this way.

The Psycho. The aggression. That was it. There was no harmless flirty humor anymore in those eyes, and it had to be from—

Ohhhh. Oh. One of those hands was slipping into the small of his back, pressing softly into… into a very tender spot, the one that made him stop breathing… and through Nate’s core, pleasant, warm numbness spread, liking this, liking everything from this man that he’d almost thought lost. It was all the loose, happy wonder that Med-X could wreak, drawing thick clouds over pain and common sense both.

So Nate wondered, in some far away place… was this feeling real? How far gone was he?

It didn’t matter. It was still happening.

“What do you want, Nate?” Hancock whispered as if he was almost in pain, frame snapping-stiff, like a loaded spring-trap. “Tell me.”

Nate’s heart again nervously cantered—that awful, lonely, aching thing kept flooding him with heat, reminding him how badly his skin had ached for human contact. The Med-X wrapped up inside it, sending its tingling fingers through his veins, laying needs bare, freezing his will. It didn’t seem to care at all that this was a man, a ghoul, a not-Nora. It just wanted to lean in… to share another’s air… to be soothed… to feel

He swayed, their foreheads touching. Their eyes locked. The world slid away into damp musk and spice—Hancock’s scent as those eyes fell gently half-lidded, his breathing soft, like he was scenting Nate too. A tangible static preceded him as he pulled closer…

And Nate, silent, stunned, warm… he barely heard the groan from the church’s dark depths.

Hancock stopped. “Oh, hey. That wasn’t me.” Suddenly, he let go and swayed away. With an elegant movement, his shotgun was snapped open and new shells were pressed into the chamber. His eyes still burned like hot coals. It was clear it was a very short tumble in his brain to again uncork all that caged fury.

What just… I…?

Nate fought through the Med-X haze, and in his efforts, he was stricken with a raw wave of embarrassment and shame. It was all he could do to lean haphazardly on a nearby bannister, reloading his own pistol.

Oh. Oh shit.

Again, his wedding ring weighed heavy on its chain: a reminder, a warning that something inside him was slipping and breaking, that there were lines not to be crossed.

He hadn’t even been cognizant that there was a line there until ten seconds ago, never thinking…!

Pull yourself together, goddamn it. He’s not… He’s just…

Jesus. Think about it later.

It was a good thing he cut his distraction short, because four ferals were staggering out of the dark. Beyond them, Nate could see more bodies shifting in the shadows.

“Mornin’ citizens,” Hancock snarled, raising his weapon. “I ain’t a guy for killing ghouls that don’t need it. So. Don’t suppose you wanna just get back to sleep?” They charged. And he ran in, blasting the legs right out from underneath two of them—the third ghoul, he kicked in its knee when it tried to lunge and bite. It was like someone had dumped gasoline on his inner fire.

Nate aimed carefully and shot twice, incapacitating the fourth attacker. His friend knocked down another with an elbow to the face. Grabbing hold of the bannister, Nate snatched up the walking stick he’d carried in—with this, he was able to stagger on. It was just in time. Six more vacant-eyed shamblers were dragging themselves over pews, desperate, it seemed, to make the intruders pay who’d interrupted their lonely vigil.

And all six, despite being able to see Nate perfectly well in his injured, staggering glory, dove for Hancock like he’d personally called their mothers zombies.

Psycho-laced spittle flew in front of Hancock’s face. “You think you’re enough to take me?!” He reloaded and ran to meet the challenge.

Son of a—!

Hobbling forward, Nate tried to help. Hancock could only get two shots off before they piled on him, no time to reload more bullets. He went down swinging and hollering like a madman. He was such a demon about it that they struggled to get close enough to tear him to pieces. Nate fired again and again in the crowd, hoping Hancock was present enough to stay down.

He wasn’t, and Nate had to stop shooting again as he sprang up, shanking one of the last two ferals still standing, whipping the final one in the face with his gun. He reloaded and finished the job in one smooth motion. “Shoulda stayed down,” Hancock spat at the corpses, fresh blood on his hands, wiping his knife on his jeans.

Nate let his pistol drop. How the hell was his companion even standing? “Are you alright?” he panted frantically, hobbling up. “They always go for me. What the hell? Didn’t you say before that you smell like them?”

A little shiver seemed to take Hancock’s body. He laughed, like he was in no pain at all, though he was bleeding and swollen. Strutting forward, he leaned right back into that far-too-close space he’d been before, no hesitation, no preamble. Nate’s back hit a wall. Arms trapped him in place. His body braced, lips tingling. But Hancock didn’t touch him, didn’t try to… to kiss.

Nate might have let him. Jesus, he might have let him.

Instead, the man took a long, lazy sniff at the corner of Nate’s neck, sending every last hair on his body standing on end.

“Uh, I…!”

His companion withdrew. “Thought so. Yeah. See, ferals, they don’t pick up on me as quickly. But I’m really starting to smell like you. Walkin’ around with you, sleepin’ in your pheromone cloud.” That slow, seductive smile oozed across his face again, his canines bared, his chin jutting in defiance as he wiped a dead ghoul’s blood from his cheek. “Can’t say I’m complainin’, mind you. It’s got a certain kinda magnetism.”

Nate mumbled, mind scrambling, “Or… it’s all the mess you’re covered in…”

“Could be that.” The hunter’s smile stretched wider, his knife coming up, fixing his tricorn hat at a puckish angle. The sheer languidness of the motion, the half-lidded look… there was no mistaking what it really said. I know what we want now. I know. And you can’t take that back.

Nate suppressed a shudder, his knees wobbling. Goddamn.

But they were both drugged out of their gourds—walking in dreams. This didn’t have to mean anything. This feeling… it wasn’t his own. It was Med-X. And John wasn’t himself. He might not even remember this in time if it was bad.

Still grinning, spine slinky, Hancock edged forward into the dark away from Nate, as if inviting him to chase, and Nate’s stomach already felt like it was tumbling out to follow. He’d seen the man do a lot in their time together, seen him take down quite a few enemies… but seeing that quick, predatory gait, he realized he’d never really recognized how dangerous John Hancock was before, not since the first day they’d met, not until the light shifted ever so slightly now and revealed the sharp-edged razor under that smile.

That fine point of desperate, angry drive that reached out into Goodneighbor all those years ago and made his will be done.

This is why he jokes about people thinking he’s feral.

Nate swallowed, then quietly stumbled after with his makeshift cane, trying to cage his body’s confused and wayward wants. Hancock had disappeared around a corner, and he didn’t really want to be left alone in the dark for any more maddened ghouls to pick off. It seemed the ferals might have come from a passageway in the church’s back, something that led down into a… what, a basement? It was flooded, a series of narrow, pitch-dark corridors. Just out of reach, Nate could make out the bobbing, dim, fading glow of Hancock’s freshly lit lantern.

Beneath his limping boots, water splashed. Dank, musty air filled his lungs. Down in these ancient brick halls, there were large, damp, broken hollows, endless twists and turns.

Like catacombs.

A minute passed. Nate began to shiver, leaning on his walking stick, peering into the black, inching on. Every second that passed made him miss the presence of Hancock’s heat even more keenly. Fear started to edge in. He’d lost track of the faint light. Where the hell was his friend? Did he just run the fuck off? Would he really just leave me behind, injured, to go start shit with—

“Rarrrrr!” Gnarled hands suddenly popped out of a hall to his left, grabbing his midsection, yanking him back.

Shit—!” Nate drew his gun, only to level it at a laughing face. The hands around his waist fell. Hancock sat there, cackling like a maniac, illuminated with the lantern he’d hidden in his coat. Nate burst with anger. “I could have shot you!”

“Aw, you wouldn’t have.” The ghoul sloppily straightened his hat again, eyes merry and glazed. The dangerous, seductive glint in his gaze was gone—like someone had hit a damned light switch. Now John was spreading his arms wide like he merely wanted to act cute and huggable. “C’mon! What feral says ‘Rarrr!’ and has a sweet hat like this?” He collapsed back, splashing the water with his hands. “You gotta admit that was funny. C’mon!”

In Nate’s experience, he found things were less hilarious the more people tried to convince him of it. “Could have shot you!” he hissed again, holstering his pistol, frustrated as hell. A cagey ball of nerves, tension, and need inside screamed for an outlet and found none.

His companion rolled up, swaying as he stood, dripping, eyes watery. “Wouldn’t have shot me, Nate!” He collapsed into a damp one-armed hug against his buddy’s side. It was warm and close, but entirely different from what it had been above ground. “M’your best friend. Best.” The other hand gently patted the space over Nate’s heart. “No way m’best friend would mistake me for a feral. Ever. I mean, I mean that’s gotta be true at some point, right?” The words suddenly cracked, turned almost frantic and sad. “You care about me, right? You’d never not recognize me, right, Nate? Even if I didn’t have my hat. You can tell the difference?” Hancock’s head suddenly buried into Nate’s shoulder, like the world was too much. A keening noise came from him, a saddened, fearful moan.

Nate had never heard anything like it. Well… shit. But when he opened his mouth to finally deliver some reassurance, reaching out and gently touching his friend’s shoulder… he realized Hancock had started dozing, braced between him and the wall. “Hey!” he said, shaking the other man. All he got was an annoyed grumble. “Hey.”

A blurry whisper floated back. “M’sleepy. Come back tomorrow.”

Really?! Well then. They’d finally hit the chem’s drop. So this much Psycho fucks you up a little harder than you like to admit. Got it. At least whatever primal shit was buried in Hancock’s brain seemed to have finally defused. Nate braced himself, let his painkillers absorb any problems, and lifted his companion into a carry over his more stable shoulder. His foot ached badly, though it complied, the stimpack and the walking brace keeping it in line. Hancock’s hat even managed to stay on, which was a blessing. Nate didn’t really want to come back for it.

Don’t you worry though, John. I’ve got you. No matter what.

Even if all that up there was… goddamn.

A rush of wooziness flooded him. His leg threatened to collapse—thank god for the stick, or he wouldn’t be able to carry such extra baggage at all. But sighing, determined to move on, he picked up the discarded lantern from ground, glad it hadn’t gotten too wet. It flooded the world before him with illumination. He hadn’t seen any more ferals yet. Perhaps that was the last of them. Sleeping things off in the church upstairs might be safe, and they needed to get back to Dogmeat.

As he turned to hobble back, his light passed over a gleaming, golden disc on the wall. Boston Freedom Trail, it read. Beside it, someone had chalked out an insignia of some kind… a little candle in the dark.

Nate squinted, brushing the chalk with grimy fingers. It came away, as if it were fresh. When he shifted his balance, touching the gold disc for support, he almost toppled over—it slid! It moved! “Cloak and dagger,” he whispered, stunned. “You wish you were awake right now, buddy.”

There at the top of the insignia was an arrow, something inside the mechanism clicking as each letter in the trail’s name passed it—like a safe’s lock. And the eagle in front, it could be pressed, like a button!

Nate kneeled awkwardly, settling his friend down into the muck—Hancock would have to put up with that for now—and started testing the dial. When he reached the “R” in “Freedom,” he heard a subtle pop.

“R,” he whispered. “For Railroad.” Sure enough, each of those letters could be found in this graven lettering. He moved to highlight them all. And when he was done clicking each, the wall before him slid away, a secret passage revealed.

This was where six angry gun barrels were waiting, now pointing at his head.

“Oh,” Nate said, holding up his hands.

Hancock grumbled from his spot in the mud. “Hey. C’n ya keep it down? Some guys are tryin’ to sleep.”

 

Chapter Text

For John Hancock, the world was a jumbly, happy slur, carrying him dreamily along like he was a babe rocking gently in his cradle. Of course, every now and again, there’d be a bad shift, a tilt a bit too far danger-ways.

A shot of vertigo would hit, a nasty, thudding feeling in the old gut.

But once he drifted back to sleep, it usually wasn’t so bad.

He dreamed of startlingly gentle hands, friendly intentions aiming to make his body nice and comfortable, pressing him into a soft bed. Almost no one had touched him liked that in years. Usually if anyone got close enough to hold, their desires were all power-plays, aggressive or favor-seeking types looking for a roll in the sack with the legendary mayor. This touch… it reminded him of a river and fevered skin under his hands. It just said, I’ll take care of you. Promise.

He didn’t want it to go.

Later, he dreamed an alien with a head full of antennas and lenses was peering down at him too, poking the space between his eyes. “Hey brother,” Hancock greeted.

“There’s robots in your blood,” the alien said.

“Oh. That sucks.” Hancock blinked at the ceiling. Was this outer space? The walls were crumbling brick, and everything smelled like mud and must. He tried rolling over, and it all started to spin his head like a bad batch of Brobov’s Best.

“The Institute is using the robots to spy on you. But I can help,” the being said, urgently patting his forearm. “I have a serum that’ll kill them.”

“Cool.” Hancock tried swallowing back a nasty lump of dehydration. “Cool. Hook me up.” He was cognizant enough to remember the Institute was bad, after all.

“You got it.” The being patted his shoulder softly. “You understand. Good. Good. Relax.”

Something bit into his neck, and Hancock fell away into nothingness.

He dreamed his blood was on fire sometimes after that. It was like the fire in Psycho, which he dreamed of too, but instead of confidence and lust and righteous knowing, it just burned, burned him up from the inside out. He dreamed of wandering then as well, of staggering through unfamiliar rooms, nauseous, alone, brain tilting into oblivion.

When he opened his eyes next, he was curled in a nondescript corner on a hard floor, hidden under a table. Both his arms were tightly hugging his red coat, which had been taken out of his bag and balled up into a pillow under his head. It was covered in drool, but it smelled like familiarity, like good memories, like all the things he loved.

The room he lay in was an odorous cloud of ozone and melting rubber. A robot was standing overhead, quietly processing.

“Hi,” he said, reaching out, patting the robot’s leg.

“You only had an 18.56% chance to both arrive here and survive,” it said, its voice decidedly female. “Your presence is causing me to redraw a number of probability vectors.”

Hancock rubbed his eyes, wondering why they itched so badly. “You some kinda fortune teller? Like Mama Murphy?” The words came out in a choked rasp. “Hey, you got any water? I’m dyin’ over here.”

“Your chance of receiving adequate care in the next fifteen minutes is 98.7%.” Something clicked in the robot’s head. “Running analysis on name: Mama Murphy. Likely human. Chem addiction. Claims oracular tendencies. Last known affiliation: the Minutemen. Location unknown following Quincy Massacre. Survival odds at 4.06%.”

“Oh, she’s lucky. She got out of Quincy just fine; she told me about it.”

“Explanation of analysis—probability of her escaping Quincy was 42.4%. Likelihood of survival to the present due to old age and addiction: final estimate of 4.06%.”

“Well, now you’re just bein’ negative.” Struggling, Hancock tried to heave himself up. He couldn’t. So, he just leaned into the idea of the world being his bed. “Hey. Hey, she gave me a prophecy too, when I last saw her. Said I’d find something I’ve been after… in some place with old rocks and blood.” He gently massaged his Adam’s apple, wondering why his throat hurt so much. “What do you think that’s about, Fortune Bot? What’s the thing that’ll make a guy like me whole?

The robot simply processed. After a full minute, she chimed, “Chance it is your missing toe: 0.33%.”

Hancock blearily stared at his feet. Oh, hey. Someone had taken off his boots. The absent pinky on his right foot was pretty noticeable through the giant rips in his grimy socks. “Alright, but where is my damn toe, if you’re so smart?”

A sudden sound of stomping boots came from around the corner. A head popped through a door: a young man wearing a newsboy cap. “He’s in here! I found him!”

Nate’s voice floated after, deep concern marring it. “How the hell did he even get in there?”

“Your adequate care has arrived,” the robot announced. “Updating probability matrices.” She turned, her legs chugging and carrying her away.

The footfalls echoed like gongs in Hancock’s skull. “Hey Nate,” he whispered as his friend burst into the room, his throat throbbing, his eyes drifting shut. “Did you see… see the alien…?” A can of purified water made its way to his lips, cool, pleasant. A sturdy, warm, calloused hand propped up his head, helping him drink. It revived him just enough stay in the present. Nate was staring down at him, gaze watery, unblinking. “Hey man… what’re you lookin’ so serious about?”

“You’ve been out for a week.”

Hrmm?” The noise burbled up through Hancock’s throat, almost making him choke on a new sip of water.

“You were so damn wrecked after all that Psycho, and then Tinker Tom got in the recovery area and shot you up with, I don’t know, some serum he’s got that apparently is full of goddamn battery acid—”

“It’s the only way to make sure.” A new voice in the doorway made Hancock shift his eyes. There stood the alien with antennas and lenses coming out of his head. Deacon was beside him, and it was much clearer now that this alien was actually just some guy in a funny hat. “He said it was fine.”

Hancock massaged his pulsating temples. “Did it kill the… what was it…”

“The robots,” ‘Tom’ whispered. He nodded gravely. “You’re safe now, Mayor Hancock. As long as that water you just had was properly treated.”

Nate’s teeth looked like they were grinding. “Yes, Tom. The water is properly treated. There are no robots.” He turned his worried stare back to his friend. “Then I came back and found you’d up and wandered off two hours ago when I was off on a mission. I about thought you got back into the catacombs to go stab more ferals. Or god forbid, that Swan monster.” He looked up at the prediction automaton. “Thanks for, uh, watching over him, P.A.M.”

The robot did not respond, clicking and whirring.

“Sorry to worry ya.” Hancock wasn’t even sure if he wanted to look Nate in the eyes. The words had piled out of his friend’s mouth so rushed, so worried, that he couldn’t help feeling like garbage for making himself so bad off—even more garbage than he already felt. A week? Christ. That Psycho had hit him a lot harder than he’d thought it would, and his memory was all snippets chopped up and tossed in a salad. “Really sorry. I’m glad to see you’re okay, though.” Nate’s hands were warm and solid around him, one holding his head, the other, resting over his heart. It was… almost tender. Kind. Like some of Hancock’s dreams. The thudding in his chest ran faster, like some stomach-dropping recollection was bobbing just out of reach, and he couldn’t help but feel he didn’t deserve to be propped up so gently. “Hey. What’s this about goin’ on missions without me, now?”

“Later. Come on. Let’s get you somewhere where you can actually rest.” Nate didn’t wait for compliance; he seemed pretty aware his friend wasn’t moving far under his own power.

“Woah hey.” Up and over Hancock went, onto Nate’s terribly sturdy shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Well. At least it was comfy. It even afforded an up-close-and-personal view of certain people’s backsides. Vaultie started walking him out, red coat under his other arm, and Hancock was too weak to really do much about it.

It was then the robot called P.A.M. reached the end of her deep thought. “Likelihood John Hancock’s missing toe is under his sofa: 65.43%. Investigation is advised.”

Hancock giggled into Nate’s back. “Yesssss.”

What?” he could hear Nate hiss at someone. “Why is she… what… John’s toes?

Deacon’s incredulous voice joined the conversation. “If P.A.M. is spending the processing power on that, it’s likely an important consideration. I guess.”

The trailing edge in his tone seemed to add, Damned if I know why.

 


 

Nate’s head whirled, his sense of balance slightly swaying, like he was walking on a ship at sea. He locked it down hard and stood straight. He was fine. He had to be fine.

Again, he scratched at his wrist where his Pip-Boy’s absence still grated.

The last week had been crushingly demanding. Getting the Railroad to trust him turned out to require more than Deacon’s invitation. It had meant visiting dead drops, finding supply caches, and passing information between operatives so synths could travel safely through hostile territory. The Railroad judged actions instead of words. He could appreciate that. But, there had been a great deal of walking involved—on a foot that had been on the mend!—and most of it was spent on edge.

Deacon, who often accompanied him, turned out to be a good man, a likable man. He was an extremely witty sort, with an impeccable, endless wardrobe of disguises. They’d bonded a little. But one couldn’t be sure when Deacon spoke fact or fiction; his personas seemed like an ongoing game meant to test and train. It certainly made shooting the breeze engaging, made Nate step up his critical thinking game, but it felt impossible to really get to know the spy on a meaningful level.

And Nate was so used to Hancock’s rhythms, that genuine, honest, no-questions-asked camaraderie, that the absence was like waking up to an amputation. He missed the humming and the casual arm slung around his shoulder, getting drawn into that aura of gunpowder, bad decisions, and casual adventure. He missed late night chatter about everything and nothing, the little doodles about their day. His brain kept expecting Hancock to be there, kept placing his likely position in combat or noting an observation he’d think was funny, and kept being surprised and disappointed when he was gone.

Nate was even habitually stashing the bullets and chems he knew Hancock would have picked up, hoarding for two. Deacon, to his credit, never bothered him about why.

In the dark nights, back at the headquarters, Nate would lay awake, listening to Hancock’s restless breathing on a nearby mattress, glad to be there, though he made himself sick with concern. The ring would weigh heavy around his neck. He’d want to draw in closer to his friend’s presence, just to exist, to summon those memories of solidarity and peace. Hancock was familiar and safe. And that really kept him awake at night, for the dreams that would sometimes creep in through the cracks alongside the nightmares… the ones where his back was to a wall and steady hands kept him standing, where cocksure black eyes told him they knew what he denied himself…

Nate’s stomach would pitch and yaw and burn with fire, and he’d realize he wasn’t on Med-X anymore. It wasn’t responsible at all for how he felt in those moments.

He hadn’t been looking for this. No.

But the confused, wailing, guilty heartache paced in his chest anyway, always mourning, always empty, and now, always asking: please, please don’t let me be alone. If someone wanted me… if, for some impossible reason, HE wanted me… what if… what would I…?

The worst part was that, for many days, Nate had needed to live with these swelling waves of feeling alongside the horrific possibility that Hancock was never waking up again. Between the Psycho dump and Tinker Tom’s serum… his brain might have been fried.

His best friend.

His support.

The man he’d grown to admire, to emulate, to breathe like the very air.

Gone.

Finding him in P.A.M.’s room two days back had felt like a miracle.

And then Nate had looked into that tired stare, that simple, light smile, and his heavy heart had known all the emotions and baggage dragging it down were all his own inventions. John didn’t remember shit about what had happened. The guy had no damn idea what had been done, the storm shaken loose. It’d all been that chem.

That was a wake-up call. A punch right in Nate’s solar plexus. Back the hell up, it said. Whatever this is you’re feeling now.

So he kept busy. He kept his eye on his goals, finding happiness in knowing simply that Hancock was alive and recovering. He kept burning himself down into slag from overwork and exhaustion, because that was how he’d survive, how he’d cope another day and get over himself.

“It’s best if I do this,” he volunteered at the Railroad’s meeting table, drawing Desdemona’s eye.

Their leader’s stern face pinched in disapproval. “Nate—you’ve been a huge help, so far. You’ve saved lives. Our safe houses. You and Deacon both. But you look like you haven’t slept for…” She gave him a once-over. “…A year.”

“This is just how I look,” Nate said drily. “I sleep every night.”

For two hours, his brain reminded him. If that. With the nightmares. With checking on John. With fretting about Shaun. With realizing we’re no closer to getting into the Institute than we were a month ago.

The leader of the Railroad might not have known what was keeping him awake so much, nor all what drove him. Still, she seemed to know he was putting on a front. “I don’t think it’s wise.”

“You need someone to get information on the Brotherhood. You want to make sure they’re not gunning for you. That’s something I’m working on already,” Nate insisted. “I have a whole bag of supplies one of their paladins asked for, and good rapport from helping them out with a feral incursion. Hell, I’m pretty damn sure this soldier wants to recruit me. Tell me there’s anyone else in a better position here.”

“What about your partner?” She jabbed a sardonic finger to the back, where beyond a few doors lay the beds. “Is a ghoul getting into the Brotherhood?”

Nate bit his lip. “I’ll get him to head back to Goodneighbor—he can probably help make things easier for you, running your routes in and out.” The suggestion left a roiling pit in his stomach even as it left his lips. His heart warred with his logic—his need for Hancock’s specific companionship with the powerful opportunity to save lives.

He knew which one was more important, but it hurt.

It’s not forever. And John will recover faster and more safely at home. Get your head on straight, soldier—for God’s sake.

“Fahrenheit has been difficult,” Deacon interjected. “She’s a cautious woman. I’m sure a good word from her boss might secure us additional resources.”

Desdemona considered. “Fine. You’re on it. And Deacon will be keeping an eye on you. You’re valuable—if you run into any trouble…”

“Don’t worry,” Nate said. “I’ve made it this far. The Minutemen’s General isn’t letting anyone down.”

It was with a weary trot he made it back to the bunking space. His mind was a slurry of plans and speeches—just how he would win over Paladin Danse’s trust, the buttons he’d need to press, the notions of how he would form an exit strategy. Outright infiltrating the Brotherhood was risky. Very risky. But if he succeeded, the Minutemen, Goodneighbor, the Railroad—hell, the entire Commonwealth—might be safer.

And maybe he’d get his damn power armor.

Plus Desdemona would owe him. This, this would be what would make her really pay attention. He wanted more information on the Institute, and he was starting to get ideas on exactly how the Railroad might be useful.

Back in the recovery room, Hancock absently sipped a cola, resting, reclined against the wall on a mattress. Dogmeat was curled nearby under a table. The man still looked like a jumbled puzzle with a missing piece. “Oh! Hey, Nate.”

Nate’s giddy smile floated to the surface, seeing him up and about. A flutter rose in his chest. No. Stop that. Nate tried to bury it, tried so hard. “Hey.” He sat alongside, bracing their shoulders together like there wasn’t anything wrong, like this was just the easy solidarity from their travels not so long ago.

Hancock smiled. “Wanna hear something cool?”

“Sure.”

The man closed his eyes happily, sipping his caffeine juice. “I had this one dream. Real peaceful.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I was on this beach. And it wasn’t gross; there weren’t mirelurks and garbage and rusty knives hidden in the dirt and shit. You could hear the water going in and out. It was like the docks where my pop used to take me to fish when I was a kid, but… nicer, I think. Sun going down. You ever been any place like that?”

Nate’s heart gave a throbbing ache. “Yeah.” Long ago. When I married Nora. It was perfect, like a postcard. Seagulls croaked in his memories: flashes of smooth shells in the water, tables with soft, buttery pastries, and a brilliant smile under a white veil. He habitually clutched at his necklace.

“You ever wanna go somewhere like that again? Just find somewhere to unwind, brother. You and me. Take a break. Catch something to eat from the bay. Play some cards.”

A weary noise came out of Nate’s chest, one that was close to a laugh, but not quite. God, how good that idea sounded. It was dangerous too, that idea—all the implication that you and me rattled loose. Closeness. Fun. A drugged friend’s breath mixing with his own, offering temptation and fire.

It incited emotions he still didn’t fully understand, things that a buddy road trip would make worse. And this wasn’t the time or place to talk about all that, if there ever was one—why dredge it up? Why make this hard? Besides, he couldn’t afford to be distracted by whatever it was his brain was unraveling into. Not when he was needed. 

“Can’t stop. Can’t rest. Shaun, man.”

“I know.” Hancock sighed. “I know. You just seem… like you could use something as a pick-me-up. Before you crash.”

“I’m fine.”

A hard squint answered him, a challenge. Hancock didn’t even need to say anything to be heard: bullshit, the look roared.

“There’s something I need to do,” Nate said, and he didn’t want to talk about it like this, but he had to change the subject. Had to. To do anything different invited examinations of his feelings.

“…What’s that?”

“I have to go back to the Brotherhood. I’m going to get in their good graces. We need their power armor, and we need it now to get to the Glowing Sea. The Railroad’s going to lend me some support—I’ve been spending all week giving them a hand, and now they want to know what the Brotherhood’s up to as well.”

“So you’re what? A triple-agent now? You really don’t do things half-assed.” That easy, warm smile crinkled up Hancock’s eyes. Nate squeezed his fingers together, trying not to fidget at the warm updraft of feelings it gave him, turning away, sagging with guilt. “Alright, so when we heading out? I’m more than ready to hit the road. Tinker Tom’s cool and all, but…”

The guilt and sadness spiked harder in Nate’s heart. “I’m heading out. You’re going home for now.”

Hancock blinked. “…Think I misheard ya.”

“No, I… so here’s the thing. This job is the one task it’s better for me to do alone, given the Brotherhood’s feelings about ghouls.”

Hancock scowled, voice rising. “Now hold on just a damn minute. It is stupid and dangerous to do shit alone out here. You forget that already after just a few days of me being laid up?” He leaned in, peering deep into Nate’s eyes, like he was trying to uncover some secret. “I… look. Just lay it on the table. Did I do something dumb?”

Nate swallowed. “What?”

“You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been avoiding me since I woke up. All this, ‘I gotta go talk to Deacon,’ ‘I gotta go clean my gun,’ ‘I gotta help unload this cache; we’ll catch up later.’ This is the first time I’ve really seen ya in two days. Come on. I know what’s up.” He tilted his head aggressively, forcing Nate to catch his eyes and not look away. “Look, when I’m on that much Psycho, I know I get… augh… hard to handle. Now, from my end, it’s hazy. I remember a lot of blood and a real ugly super mutant… bunch of weird smells. I feel like I’ve been punched a hundred times. I got cuts and shit I don’t remember getting. It’s kind of hard to piece together so it makes sense. But if I did something that, I don’t know, pissed you off—”

“Oh,” Nate breathed. Well, here it was. Confirmation, proof positive that Hancock had lost the recollection. It should have been a relief—now things didn’t have to be awkward. Yet, it was like getting hit with another fist to the lungs. “No. Look, you were… definitely different. Dangerous. Aggressive. But that’s Psycho. It’s… whatever. I’m not pissed off.”

A dry, unhappy chuckle rasped out of Hancock’s throat. “M’always dangerous. But that stuff kills my damn common sense. I like to think I wouldn’t cross any lines too far, but… I just need to know if we’re good. This is gonna sound like I’m going soft, but…” He sighed, the sound falling heavily. “You’re truly one of the best things I’ve got out here. Wouldn’t do anything to endanger that.” It looked like he was about to reach out, before his hand fell, as if he was thinking better of it. “I wouldn’t do anything to put you in danger, Nate. I have got your back. So just give it to me straight: are you telling me to hit the road because of something I did? Are you avoiding me because of that?”

Nate breathed in, quickly, quietly. Raw, earnest honesty was beaming at him; it cut a keen age into Hancock’s voice, made his own heart spill over with feeling. His friend’s fingers fidgeted with some invisible thread in his jacket.

This had been eating him alive. Both of them. And god, John deserved truth. He’d earned it.

But he was right. Nate was a bundle of jittery, confused fireworks, and being around Hancock was like striking a match—directly because of all that had happened. They couldn’t afford to talk about it now, for all that it might do to them.

I need some time to calm down. Some space… to put these feelings to bed. And I just need you to be safe while I do what I need to do.

Aloud, Nate said, soft, “We’re fine. I one-hundred-percent promise.”

Hancock’s scowl only deepened, his lip curling. “No. You’re lying. I know your tells.” He stood, a tense, angry angle, his finger jabbing in Nate’s chest. “Don’t you lie to me. Not about shit like this.”

Damn it. Shoving his hands in his pockets, Nate stood and backed up. Please. I don’t want to fight. I don’t have the strength right now. Let me protect you from this. He couldn’t help squaring his stance though, lowering his chin, a defensive instinct taking over. “You’re imagining things,” he said, and it was far too gruff in his ears, even if it masked his fright. “Just… just go back to Goodneighbor for now. Please. The Railroad could use your help with some resources there. And when I’m done with my mission, as soon as I can, I’ll swing by and we’ll talk.”

The way Hancock’s eyes widened, Nate realized that somehow, some way, he’d managed to say precisely the wrong thing. “Oh. You’ll swing by. When you’ve got the time. I see. Well.” He made a mock salute, eyes burning. “Aye aye, General.” That nickname, sarcastically hissed, stabbed a knife under Nate’s heart and twisted. “Now that I’ve got my marching orders, I guess I’ll fuck off then, until I’m convenient for you to deal with. Glad that, while I was sleeping off the after-effects of the life-risking chem I took to save your ass, you found a bunch of people you clearly trust more to have at your back. People you can actually be honest with.”

“Hancock! Its not… they won’t even let you in the door at the Brotherhood—”

“What, you think I don’t know that? You think walking in that door is the only way I can help you out?” He shrugged. “What does that matter though, right? You know what’s best. I mean, why talk to me about it? Where else would I go, except to be at your beck and call? Clearly I’ve got no place in your busy-ass, gonna-kill-yourself schedule, so yeah, just… just finally cut me loose, right? Order my messy, inconvenient ass to head on back home, where you can visit me eventually. When you feel like it.”

That was it. The weeks of exhaustion, of insomnia, of fear and fighting and loss, they all burst through Nate’s brain at once, circuits overloading, language centers grinding to a halt. He didn’t know how to deal with this. He didn’t know how to deal with anything!

All he could do was put a hand on both of Hancock’s shoulders, swaying, and try not to be hurt when the man flinched away, not consenting to be touched.

Dogmeat let out a disconsolate whine. His tail went between his legs, and he looked back and forth between Nate and Hancock like his parents were fighting.

Nate let his fists fall to his side, staring at his shoes. “I can’t do this right now. Please. Go home. Stay safe. You’re my friend. I’ll be back from this as soon as I can. I’m not trying to be a jackass. I’m really not.”

An exasperated puff blew between thin lips. “Then what the hell are you trying to be?”

Nate swallowed, throat hard and aching. “I’m… I’m trying to protect you… and I… I gotta go for now. I’m sorry. Deacon’s gearing up.”

An uncomfortable chasm of silence yawned between them.

“Good luck then, I guess,” Hancock said grudgingly.

Nate nodded, his voice just a whisper. “…Thanks.” That reluctant blessing meant more to him than maybe his friend would ever know.

A moment’s more silence passed through the room, both of them turning from the other, and Nate realized he had nothing else he knew how to say. It was time to go. He just had to gather himself, find his words, and apologize later.

When there was time.

“Be safe,” he added as he turned and walked away. Dogmeat whined again. “C’mon, pup.”

But Dogmeat didn’t come; he backed further under his table and sulked. Nate didn’t have the willpower to convince him out. He just had to keep walking.

Almost as he was out of range, though, something else did float after him. They were words: soft, low.

“Yeah. Safe. You too.”

 

Chapter Text

It was a slow, subdued journey back to the Cambridge Police Station. Deacon followed Nate and his meandering line forward through the ruins, but from a distance, creating the plausible deniability that they were walking together. His was the guise of a stranger. Really, Nate journeyed with only his thoughts by his side, a creeping sadness in the silence. He tried to use the time to mentally go over the Railroad’s dead-drop locations and other miscellaneous intel Desdemona had asked her new spy to memorize. But focusing didn’t come easy.

The sinking feeling of something important missing… it kept tugging his mind away.

When he did arrive, Paladin Danse’s thick eyebrows almost pushed to his bodysuit’s scalp lining. It was clear he hadn’t wholly been expecting this particular Vault escapee’s return. Proffering a huge armful of first aid, scrap, and non-perishable food however, Nate did his best to smile a greeting—but his face hurt. His entire body felt like a shuddering wreck. “Hope you still need this. Wasn’t all easy to come by.”

“Hell yes we do.” Danse took the offering, chuckling with relief, though his expression remained stony serious. “Was starting to worry the wastes had eaten you alive.” He called over his shoulder, “Haylen! We’ve got some supplies coming in!”

“I’m only sorry it took this long,” Nate added. “It’s hell out there.”

“Where’s your…” Danse keenly glanced around the station courtyard. “…Backup?”

“Off doing whatever it is he gets up to.” Nate felt again the weight of his last conversation pressing on his heart. You better be safe, John. “We’ve parted ways for a while. I have to tell you though, it’s not easy traveling alone.” Truer words were never spoken.

“It never is.” Danse nodded in sympathy. “And a reliable man who can get things done shouldn’t have to travel without reliable friends.”

Nate sighed. “Yeah. How are your people holding up? You all need anything else done? I’m happy to keep helping. I’ve been hearing good things about the Brotherhood for a while.”

This had just the effect he knew it would. Military recruitment was often the same: show them the opening, a soul looking for a home, and they latched on. Danse smiled, clapping him on the shoulder. “Actually, yes. Your timing is perfect. We’re looking to acquire a radio signal beacon to restore our communications, and you might be just the man we need to make that happen. Why don’t you come inside? I think someone like you has more than what it takes to join us, if you’re interested. No more wandering around, trying to scrounge up caps, not knowing where the road ahead goes. You’d be making a real difference. And we’d have your back—always.”

Hancock’s earnest, similar pledge echoed in Nate’s guilty conscience.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I would be really interested, if you’ve got room for me.”

“Of course!” An earnest, close-lipped smile finally broke that stoic demeanor. It was the kind that said that even if this family was struggling, it always had room for another true heart to the cause.

It was as Nate turned from the courtyard, heading inside those heavy police station doors, that he saw the pale sheen of Deacon’s head down the road—the man was done up as a caravaner again, and he’d left his hair behind. This time, he’d also even managed to scrounge up a real Brahmin. The spy nodded, those dark sunglasses bobbing far off.

You really aren’t alone, Deacon’s look seemed to say.

But as the heavy doors slammed shut, Nate felt like that was another lie.

 


 

The Brotherhood, as it turned out, didn’t come with training wheels. This initiation was going to be a baptism by fire.

A burst of plasma turned the steel over Nate’s head into slag. He rolled out of the way as the rotted ceiling above started to screech and fold into a collapse.

“Their right flank!” Danse called out, pinned behind a decayed wall. The man only emerged to return fire on a team of advancing synths.

It always comes back to the fucking Institute. Of course, who could have predicted that the other major power in the Commonwealth would set itself at odds with the Brotherhood’s goals? Nate knew he was an idiot to be surprised that his newest mission’s destination was crawling with herky-jerky, deadly androids. He could almost see the algorithms spinning in those metal brains as their eyes clicked to focus on Danse. After all, the man was a hulking, threatening soldier in full power armor. They ought to be concerned.

And as they concentrated fire on his companion, Nate ran for their right, vaulting through the gloom over overturned tables and debris. For a moment, laser fire singed across his long jacket. A powerful odor rose of burning wool.

But he didn’t return fire yet, his gun undrawn. The synths eventually stopped targeting him, resuming their onslaught on the bigger threat.

Their calculations, however, were faulty. Nate knew he himself was more dangerous by far. He popped a grenade, pitching it before reaching cover, then dove behind a wall at the last moment. Hancock’s rasping, warm voice rose unbidden in his mind: “You got biceps like you’re on Buffout. Of course you were gonna make that throw.”

The concussive blast vaulted the synths off their feet—and after that, Danse cleaned them up like he was firing on plastic ducks at a carnival booth. “I hate these things,” the paladin snarled, shooting each of them in the head as he passed, as if just to make sure they stayed down. “Good work, recruit. Reckless charge, but effective.”

Reckless. Yeah, Hancock had rubbed off a bit. That would have been his strategy, through and through. “I’ve tangled with synths before. Models like these, they don’t seem that sharp. My gun was holstered; they probably calculated I was running away.”

The commander nodded with approval. “Observant.” If this was an evaluation of ability, Nate liked to think he’d just passed muster. Danse motioned to the chaos scattered through the building’s control room. “Fan out and check the synth remains. They may have been after the transmitter as well.”

The two of them moved together like they’d worked as a team for far more missions than they had. For Nate, his growing scavenging expertise and his old military knowledge were grafting together like they were always meant to be. Sure enough, one of the downed machines held a strange collection of technology in its metallic grasp, clutched close, like it was trying to protect it even as it fell. “I think I’ve got the radio beacon.”

“Excellent!” Danse’s relief was audible, happy emotion finally cracking through his stoic officer’s tone. “We’ll finally be able to restore the relay. Recruit, I hope you know what you’ve done here today. It’s been a vital mission for the cause.”

Nate nodded. He knew. In that bit of circuits he’d just salvaged, he was allowing the Brotherhood to connect communications across the entire Commonwealth. They would have done it anyway, he reminded himself, keeping his face relieved, pleased: the face of a job well done. It was always going to happen. But now they’ll trust me, and the rest of us will have an advantage because I’ll know what they’re up to.

He hoped that was true.

Nate missed Hancock every day, kept imagining what trouble he was getting into, what he might say at any given opportunity.

He couldn’t help but imagine that right now, his closest friend would have told him where to take his hopes and stick them.

 


 

Another day rolled in. Another mission went sour.

Nate flinched down as a pipe rifle’s blast tore out the wood and wall plaster behind him. Inside this tiny room, there were few places to run. The exit was blocked by a roaring super mutant. The shots kept coming as he ducked and rolled behind an overturned refrigerator, the mutant with the rifle screeching his berserker fury. “KILL YOU! KILL YOU ALL!”

Nate returned a few shots, trying to keep the thing at a distance. The last thing he needed was a nine-foot monstrosity getting close and pulverizing him.

Again.

And shit, the bullets were barely making it flinch. He needed a headshot! God, he missed his Pip-Boy.

“It’ll be easy, Rhys says,” he grumbled mockingly, ducking down again, remembering the distrustful glare of his mission assigner. “Just a couple mutants, he says.” Goddammit, that man really didn’t like him, if this was the kind of job that got dispensed to new recruits. Thank god Paladin Danse had his back out in the hall beyond, keeping the rest of the mutants occupied. When they’d begun, the commander had barked orders, kept Nate close and in control, but after a while, he’d begun to trust him with considerable free rein.

Now they might both regret that. The mutant clan leader loomed in the doorway bearing Nate down, advancing, running out of patience as shots peppered its hide like angry bees. It threw the pipe rifle down as its ammo ran out and began to launch into a charge.

Nate pulled the pin on a grenade, threw, then opened the refrigerator door in front of him, rolling inside for shelter.

And just before he closed the door, he saw a streak of red and white fluttering in the corner of his vision. A scrap of American flag—a sash darting away.

Oh shit! His senses howled, wanting to scream at Hancock to take cover, to—

But the world roared in an explosion, the fridge flinging itself into the wall with an ear-wrenching boom. Smoke and splinters clogged the air. Nate—stunned, ears ringing—lay still in the dark, horror bleeding over his mind.

The fridge was pushed back again, grinding against the floor. The door clicked open with a pop.

Paladin Danse peered down at him, frowning. “Are you alright, soldier?”

“I’m fine,” Nate croaked, scrambling from his shelter, eyes darting frantically. The super mutant was dead against the wall, blown to hell.

“I’m starting to suspect that ‘high risk, high reward’ is part of your M.O.,” Danse said, tone arid. “But you got their leader. Good work.”

Nate’s heart wouldn’t slow. His eyes stung. He’d… he’d seen Hancock, right? Before the blast?

Then, he saw it, saw it truly this time. A little scrap of a United States flag was draping from a bookshelf on the wall, now singed from the explosion. Its ragged end fluttered in a cold wind.

Slowly, his breathing eased, and he closed his eyes, dizzy and unsure. The world tilted oddly under his feet.

“Let’s get you back to the station.” Danse came up alongside, helping to brace him. “I think we’ve earned a rest after this one. The infestation was… slightly bigger than I suspect Rhys thought.”

“Yeah,” Nate whispered at the master understatement before making one of his own, head buzzing and slurring. “I think I need sleep.”

He always needed sleep now. This… hadn’t been his first mistake.

Hallucination.

Whatever it was.

But, another thing caught his eye as he nodded, acquiesced—when he’d rolled back out of the refrigerator, he’d brought some of the contents with him. On the floor now rested a few inhalers of Jet and a vial of Psycho. Unable to quite stop himself, he kneeled, picking them up.

The Jet container reflected a shining blood-red in the rays of fading daylight. Hancock’s advice rose in his mind unbidden, reminding him that everyone ought to try the drug at least once in their lives. And if you ever do? Do it while looking at a sunset.

“Didn’t take you for a man with an interest in that.” Danse’s tone wound a little tighter, more wary. Startled, Nate realized he’d just walked right into a test.

“I’m not,” he whispered, fighting the urge to put the chems in his pocket. “People just… they buy them, is all. No waste in the wasteland.”

Danse shook his head. “Remember, soldier. You’re not a scavver anymore. We’re trying to make this world better.”

Mouth dry, Nate nodded, feeling much like a sagging bobblehead, weary, bleeding, and sore. What was he going to do with these, anyway? Make a little bouquet, bring them on back to his buddy like an apology gift?

…Would that work?

It hurt Nate’s heart to let them fall back to the ground, tinkling and unused, wasted… to think he wasn’t a scavver anymore, that he wasn’t an anything anymore that he’d been at his friend’s side.

That maybe he might not get to be ever again, if things all went wrong.

But under Danse’s stern eye, the importance of the mission in his mind, there wasn’t much of a choice but to walk away.

 


 

The days crawled on, became a week. A vicious radstorm came and went, confining the Cambridge Brotherhood unit indoors for electric, tense hours. Nate, exhausted and rattling through his work, managed to get some rest here and there… but it was fraught with nightmares. The atmosphere made his hair stand on end, made him awaken at the slightest sound. And the station, despite their new communications, was constantly on watch for new threats—of which there were plenty.

Not long after the radstorm, a few super mutants tested their luck at the perimeter. Maybe they sought revenge, or maybe they just had attitude problems. Either way, it was bloody work.

And the day after that, the team was so on edge that they nearly fired on a sick old man trying to scav some medicine for his grandson.

Paladin Danse assisted the old-timer without question once everyone calmed down. His stoic kindness and earnestness… it truly gave Nate pause. Danse reminded him in that moment of one of his commanding officers during his second deployment—one who went out of her way to assist civilians in need. Most soldiers had their idealism burned out of them long before getting handed a gun and being thrown to the uncaring jaws of war. But somehow, a few gracious souls always seemed to make it through.

Danse truly cared about people. Most people, anyway. That somehow made Nate feel both more guilty and assured, fighting by his side.

And Danse wasn’t the only thing that was reviving Nate’s old and tattered memories. Running with the Brotherhood was like fitting into a worn, comfortable pair of jeans. All of the regimentation, the drive—Nate fell into it like he’d never left the army at all. It almost made the last months by Hancock’s side feel like a fever dream, though one he held close to his heart, desperate to not let it disappear. Sometimes he still saw flashes of what his brain thought was a red coat or a flag sash in the corners of his eye, but it was getting to be less and less.

Often, he’d realize he was absentmindedly polishing his boots like he had before bed on deployment. He’d find himself standing at parade rest while thinking. His lengthening hair constantly itched at his neck, a burning instinct reminding him of long-dead uniform regulations.

Scribe Haylen finally let him borrow her scissors for his hair. She was perhaps the most merciful of the lot, the only one who—other than Danse—seemed peaceful with his outsider presence. With her dimpled smile, she was a damn sight more pleasant to deal with than Knight Rhys, at any rate. Nate made sure to prioritize her missions to salvage tech from ruins nearby. It sat easier with him than the rhetoric of “cleansing abominations” that buzz-cut Rhys seemed to favor.

He was doing the job like he’d been born into it. And soon, before a debriefing, Danse even sat up and took note.

“Recruit,” he said, in that no-nonsense tone.

“Sir.” Nate automatically saluted, a clean snap of his elbow, two fingers brushing his brow.

“That. What you just did. It’s not the first time you’ve recognized me that way.”

“I…” Embarrassed, sleepy, Nate let his hand fall. “I was in the military before, sir. I guess old habits die hard. I suppose I don’t know the Brotherhood variation yet.”

That sturdy face nodded thoughtfully. Danse even allowed a patient smile. “Here. I guess I’ve been working you so hard, I didn’t even teach you the basics.” He placed a firm fist over his heart. “Ad victoriam. It means, to victory.”

Nate imitated the motion, keenly aware of how it made his core feel strong and sure.

Danse seemed to hesitate. “I believe perhaps I owe you an apology.”

“You… do?” Finally Nate’s salute fell.

“I’ve been hard on you. But you’ve adjusted well to our beliefs, and have handled everything thrown at you with excellence and dedication. The way you carry yourself… you have respect. Honor. Tactical logic. Far more than most mercenaries or scavvers. You care about your appearance, and even more importantly, your teammates. And anyone can see you’re an outstanding fighter.” This was punctuated by an encouraging chuckle.

Nate swallowed, weighing his words. He’d long considered what he would say when his past was inevitably questioned. Ultimately, he’d settled on the truth, or at least part of it. It was so outlandish, after all, that it almost deflected a man looking too close.

“I’m not from around here,” he said drily. “I’m out of a Vault.”

“I saw your designation.” Danse gestured forward, as if to point through Nate’s chest and to the yellow numerals beyond. “But Vault-dwellers, when they do crop up… they usually aren’t known for their military accomplishments. Civilians that’ve lived their whole lives underground sooner get torn to shreds in front of one of those synthetic abominations or mutated monsters than pick up a weapon and fight back.”

“I don’t know how other Vaults raise their people.” Nate let out a bitter sigh. “But mine put us on ice before the war. As far as I can tell, I’m roughly two hundred and thirty years old. My old unit was part of the United States Army.”

Danse stared, unblinking, for a long, long minute.

“Yeah,” Nate said. “It’s a bit much to think about.”

The team had a lot of questions for Nate after that. They first wanted to establish he wasn’t some odd variant of ghoul—but as soon as Nate really got into the specifics, their eyes seemed to collectively light up.

“The kind of technology needed to support a sizable human population, frozen, for centuries—” Haylen began.

“The Vault’s dead,” Nate said flatly. “It all failed. I doubt there’s much worth salvaging. I’m the only one who made it through.” He didn’t know if perhaps Kellogg’s invasion had something to do with the tech failing, or if, perhaps, it was the lack of Vault personnel. There’d been a lot of skeletons on the ground.

But he didn’t want anyone near Nora’s body. That place, it was her mausoleum.

For the first time, he was stricken with the realization that he needed to go back and find her, give her a proper burial. She wouldn’t have wanted to be frozen for all of time in front of whoever wandered in, like some kind of horrible science show. Why had he never thought of it? Sure, almost every time he closed his eyes, he’d see her lying in that pod, her shining, intelligent eyes forever closed and dulled, but… but actually taking her out… giving her rites…

His stomach squeezed and churned. He was truly starting to acknowledge his life would no longer have her in it… and a burial would make that real in a way nothing else ever could.

Knight Rhys finally broke the silence. “So you come out of the blue, a soldier from another time, and blazed a trail all the way here to help us out?” His voice was marred with suspicion and challenge. His eyes bore sharp warnings above his stubbly scowl. Nate, throat swelling from his sudden burst of emotion, paused to collect himself.

“Knight,” Danse warned.

Rhys inclined his head, as if to say that he would acknowledge his superior’s rebuke, that he knew he was out of line, but he wasn’t going to apologize unless ordered. And Nate understood. After all—Rhys was absolutely right. He was a threat.

“You want to know why I suddenly decided to throw in with you, huh?” Nate managed. “Why I didn’t just go crazy in some bar in Diamond City, freaked out by what’s become of the world?”

Rhys’s eyes gleamed. “Yeah. Yeah, I’d like to know just that.” He walked in, chest puffing, almost touching Nate’s.

So Nate told them about the Institute, about his kidnapped son, about all the honest pain and rage that resided in his soul. When he was done, Danse clapped a hand on his back, full of solidarity and welcome. Rhys could do nothing but stare, processing, baffled, and wander off, Haylen’s eyes rolling after him in disappointment.

“I think,” Danse said, “It’s well past time for you to speak with our Elder.”

 


 

The Vertibird destined for the Brotherhood’s war zeppelin barreled through the sky, propellers beating out a furious roar. Far below, all the ruins and roads passed, the ones Nate had to pick through so carefully weeks before. It was hard not to relive the hours of lying in wait, of watching for a safe route… all the bullets, jokes, stims and adrenaline. He was a mile above it now. It was like looking down at a fake little model in a movie, blurring and warping out of focus in his exhausted stare.

“I wish everyone down there believed in our cause,” Danse said to his left, gazing out over the Bostonian wreckage. “But they’ve been blinded by rumors and misinformation. They don’t realize the Brotherhood of Steel is the Commonwealth’s last hope for survival.”

Nate digested this, and this time, it was Deacon’s voice that clawed out of his memories. On one mission, that man had also claimed his organization was the only true line of defense between the Institute and the innocents outside.

Deacon was, of course, just feeding him a line, a pretty lie, because that’s what he did—but it had held a point. “There’re other organizations out there,” the man had urged. “And in time, I’m sure they’re going to spoon-feed you their own patented form of bullshit. Ignore the verbiage, and look at what they’re doing. At what they’re asking you to do. At what sort of world they’d have you build… and how they’re gonna pay for it.”

Nate had seen seen a lot of good in the Brotherhood—in the individual people, in their drive and potential. But he knew Knight Rhys and his ilk’s effort to cleanse “abominations” from the land. He knew from his own time in the army that painting oneself to be a savior was an easy trap… it usually ended in being surprised that a people that never asked for saving would find it unwelcome.

He could say nothing to Danse’s comments. He had nothing to say. Danse believed fervently in his people’s cause—what really could be offered to convince him, or anyone like him, to truly take a second look at both the Commonwealth and an entire belief system? That was a question Nate knew he’d never be able to answer. He was one man, one spy, not a capable force of philosophical revolutions. He could barely take care of himself, unable to properly process small things like the lapse of time or the fact that his targets kept splitting into fuzzy, weary afterimages.

“I think I need to sit down,” he said.

Danse nodded, taking over the guns. “The motion sickness of flight will fade with time.”

Nate collapsed in a corner, braced against the craft’s dips and yaws, lost, with precious little to ground him anymore. These past months, they were starting to seem like only a quiet dream. And his life before the bombs? It was all starting to feel like it happened to someone else entirely, someone from another dimension who cared about the chips in his car’s paint job and diaper sales at the store.

Ugh. He swallowed down bile. Vertibird flight had always made him nauseous, but this feeling was even worse, borne from his critically poor sleep, his constant paranoia from all the threats around him, and of his scrambling to hold onto things he couldn’t even touch. He knew he was starting to lose his grip on reality. He could only sag his head back, closing his eyes. His brain sloshed in his skull like he was drunk.

His eyelids just… they just wouldn’t stay open…

The sway and roar of the Vertibird, the rumbling of the engine… it was so far away…

Taking a sharp breath, he forced himself to sit up.

But the world had changed.

All he could hear was the breeze, crisp and cold, dust in his nose. The familiar fabric of his tent bunched in his fingers. Dogmeat was snuffling around just outside. A lantern was on, and Hancock was happily doodling in his sketchpad close by, eyes glazed and content. Nate squinted, strangely overwhelmed with relief. Was this where he’d been all night? What was this squiggly unease in his gut…?

A quiet dream.

Where had that thought come from?

“Oh hey,” Hancock said, looking up. “You’re awake. Cool.” He got up and scooted over, taking a spot on Nate’s bedroll, leaning chummily into his side. His aura of warmth and safety washed over every last pore in Nate’s skin as he held up his latest drawing. “Check this out!”

Nate tried to see, but the lines were fuzzy, kept swimming in his eyes.

“What is it?” he mumbled.

But the voice that answered wasn’t John’s: it was a woman’s, tone firm and teasing. “Me. You’re forgetting what I look like already?”

Nate whipped his head up to see Hancock was gone. Nora was sitting there with him in this tent now instead, her arms wrapping around his waist as she let the sketchpad fall. “I wouldn’t!” he pleaded, voice cracking, taking in every detail. “I will never forget what you look like.” She pushed him down onto his bedroll, straddling him, embracing him tightly, and he let her, flooded in her scent and her auburn hair. “I love you. I miss you so much.”

Somewhere, far away, a baby was crying.

Her sweet voice was a warm whisper in his ear. “I love you too, beautiful. Always.” She sat up, caressing his cheek. “Do you remember Ocean City? When we got married?”

“What?” Nate didn’t have time to understand. As he tried to rise, she suddenly shoved his shoulders down. His back hit the hard earth, his eyes closing, teeth jarring.

And when he looked again, he was in a dark church, pinned to a rotting wood floor. A warm body still straddled him, just like a lover would, grinding close, but it belonged to a man, a man with a dangerous smile and scarred flesh, obsidian gaze piercing. Hancock’s knife was at his windpipe. “Do you trust me?” the ghoul hissed, mad Psycho lights in his eyes. “Or not?”

Nate squirmed. “I—!”

Ferals began to emerge from the shadows—a shambling horde, drawing tighter in a ring, groaning, hungry.

“I always told ya I got a sexy, king-of-the-zombies kinda look,” Hancock cackled, an edge of hysteria there, tossing his hat at the nearest ghoul. It bounced off the creature’s mindless chest. “What do you think, bestie? Maybe your new friends know what they’re talking about. You can never tell when we’ll just snap, right?!”

The ring of ferals drew even tighter. They started to kneel, to work their hungry jaws, saliva splashing to the floor in excited ropes.

One was carrying a baby swaddled in blue. It was crying—in terror, in hunger, in loneliness.

“You don’t want to do this!” Nate cried, trying to struggle away. His pulse fluttered in his ears like a frightened nightingale. “Please, I can’t hurt you, I can’t—”

Hancock roared in answer, drawing back the knife to strike Nate in the chest, to let the old wood run red.

“Knight!”

Nate jerked, back slamming into hard metal. The dark church, the mildew, the breeze—it vanished. His head was pounding, vision blurring. Paladin Danse had a firm hand on his chest, tapping it. “Whuh?”

“We’re here. Don’t worry; when you get aboard, after your examination and meeting the Elder, you’ll be able to rest again.”

The rosy setting sun seared into Nate’s brain. “If it’s all the same with everyone else, I think I’d rather be awake.” And really, was he awake now? The world still sagged and blurred, hazy at the edges. His stomach took a turn.

“Eager.” Danse laughed. “Don’t worry; Maxson’ll have work for you. But you need to take care of yourself. You haven’t slept easy out in that combat zone—I get it. But this? This is the Prydwen. Safest place in a thousand miles.”

The open sky blazed overhead as Nate exited the Vertibird, a headache pounding his brain so hard that he was seeing spots of color. Above loomed the mountainous, docked zeppelin of war. It swayed like it might fall over and crush the entire Commonwealth at any moment. Safety was not the word it projected. It was might.

Finally be able to rest. How? How could anyone rest here in this thing’s shadow?

It wasn’t just the blimp’s mass. The sheer energy of activity around it charged the air. Soldiers ran to and fro, coordinating missions, shouting orders and confirmations. Supplies ran up the docks on pushcarts; armaments and fortifications came down, securing the area. Dozens of steel boots marched, hydraulics hissing, steps pounding, the sound of drums: the music of war. The song vibrated through Nate’s bones, clenching his fists, making him remember all he’d been before in wars, all he’d done. That part of his past, at least… that felt horrifyingly real.

Ad victoriam, brother.” Danse saluted, gaze damp and proud as he watched his people, his cause growing stronger by the moment.

Nate pressed his fist over his heart too, hollowed and grim. “Ad victoriam.”

When he said the words, they felt like his eulogy.

 

Chapter Text

“‘Ey.” An ungentle hand patted Hancock’s head through his hat. Like awakening to a dusty old dream trod a thousand times before, he opened his eyes to see Fahrenheit looking down at him.

“Fahr.” Hancock shoved his hat down over his gaze. “You here to turn the sun off?”

Her toe nudged his side. It was as hard as the awful floor. Where’s the damn couch? The hat wasn’t coming off so he could check. At least the familiar air currents and creaks told him this was the state house. He’d made it that far.

His pillow was warm and furry though, and more than a little rank. “Dog…?” he croaked. A tail started to thump against the ground.

“Get up,” Fahrenheit grumbled.

“Not ready.”

“The mayor isn’t gonna be in the freaking lobby smelling like Gwinnett’s piss-poor excuse for ale and acting like an ugly rug.”

He squeezed the hat tighter against his face. “I do what I want.”

“No, you don’t. This is my state house, Hancock. You clearly haven’t gotten back yet. Now get the fuck off my floor.”

Hancock didn’t budge—until, suddenly, there was a telltale rustle of paper by his side. Fahrenheit was in his bag, messing with his sketchbook! “Hey!” he growled, dropping his hat, lunging for it.

She easily turned and deflected his hungover tackle, sending him flopping uselessly. She never even looked up. “My god, you draw a lot of dicks.”

“Only when I’m trying to think! Now give that back!”

“Get into my office and we’ll talk about it.”

Dogmeat kipped up excitedly, perhaps thinking this back-and-forth was the start of a game. Hancock could only glare, full fury of a thousand-pound stone on his skull. A dry cough and a shuffle behind him, though, made him realize they were actually making a bit of a scene in front of the three watchmen guarding the place.

Hell. They’ve all seen me at my worst. Whatever.

Though…

Geez. He did look pretty rough. Discreetly, he sniffed himself. Yeurgh. Okay, clearly some of that Gwinnett’s had ended up on him instead of in him.

Fahrenheit hrmmmed. “I see you’re getting a lot of practice sketching asses, too. This one, it looks real familiar for some reason…”

“Fine!” Hancock threw up his hands, storming into the office. She stomped after, let the dog follow, then shut the doors behind them.

This place… it was like he’d never left. Old air and dust hit his nose hollows in a wave. Expectantly, he held out his hand for his book. Fahr did not fork it over. “I said we’ll talk about it.” She collapsed in his chair behind his desk, kicking up her feet, seeming real comfortable. “You know, in all actuality, you are getting better at drawing. Good job.”

He grumbled a few choice nonsense syllables, not sure of what else to say.

“Clearly someone needs a pick-me-up.” Fahrenheit sounded amused. She didn’t offer anything.

“What the hell did you mean, I ‘haven’t gotten back yet’? Get outta my chair.”

“Oh? Are you staying?”

Hancock’s chest sagged, a dull pain there. “I… I don’t know.”

“Didn’t think so. Alright. So, welcome to town. Things are going well. No incursions by the Brotherhood, though we’ve heard they’ve sent representatives to Diamond City, so we’re bracing ourselves. You’ll be pleased to know that the Neighborhood Watch has, in your absence, taken to painting your ugly face like some kind of symbol on patches and walls and shit. Tons of people signed up. The Brotherhood certainly won’t get the carpet rolled out for them, that’s for sure. Or super mutants. Or anyone else.”

Hancock blinked. Finally, he eased himself into a seat, rubbing his temples to clear his haze. “My face?”

“Yeah.” She rolled her eyes. “Who on earth gave them that idea?”

Startled, Hancock suddenly realized… her armor had changed. In white paint on the chest piece, there was indeed a grinning ghoul in a tricorn. It was terrible, like something a toddler would make. In fact, it… it was…

“I drew that!” he said, stunned. “Ages ago!”

“Yeah. Found it under your mattress. So shoot me.”

“People are wearing that shitty doodle?” His jaw dropped, and yet, it was with awe. “You passed it around? And they wanted to wear it?”

“Hey, you said you were gonna be here in spirit. And people needed some kind of symbol so they’d stay calm, with everything going on.” She reclined, looking pleased with his reaction. “Just be glad I didn’t make your logo a badly drawn dick.”

In spite of himself, Hancock realized he was grinning.

“Anyway,” she said, “You left Pip-Boy behind, huh? Then came home to get wasted after?”

He snorted at that, smile fading. She blinked and waved her hand, inviting him to speak, but he could only scowl. “It’s nothing. He’s traveling on his own now. Whatever.”

“Uh-huh. Any particular reason for that, or…?”

But he only pursed his lips, refusing to say more.

“You know, you two became a minor legend. Like, you would not believe the shit I’ve heard.”

Tilting his head, curious, Hancock moved over to the sofa, making like he simply wanted a place that was more comfortable to rest his delicate tuchus. “What kind of stories?”

“The Demon of Goodneighbor and the Sole Survivor of Vault 111, roaming the land, dispensing justice. Killing monsters. Stopping bandits. Bringing the Minutemen back from the dead, getting some righteousness going in the Commonwealth. Starting a Deathclaw circus. Daisy has been real keen on getting rumors from visitors, and then starting some of her own. Hell, I’m sure it’s all bull, and you’ve been under a rock puffing up, but—”

“Deathclaw circus?” Hancock paused, pulling victory from the couch cushions: a beautiful Mentat. In a minty burst, suddenly, his mind was clear. His headache receded. “You know, that’s an idea.”

Fahrenheit glared, raising an eyebrow. “Alright, what about Daisy’s story about the army of hundred synths? Where you summoned your ghoul brethren lurking under the ground and dragged them all to the center of the earth?”

Her eye was twitching, bless her heart.

Hancock considered this for a long, long minute. “It’s all true,” he finally decided, shooting little finger guns at her.

She snorted, cackling. “Oh man. You are so full of shit.”

“You know it.” Hancock finally felt himself relax.

“Well, you and that Survivor With The Ass, if he comes back around, better come clean with whatever the hell you’ve been doing. I want to know the real story.”

Aaaaand Hancock nearly spit his Mentat back up. “Do not call him that to his face.”

“This book just makes someone wonder.” She twirled her finger over his sketches. “Come on. Am I gonna have to set up security against a scorned lover coming looking for you?”

The words choked in Hancock’s throat along with his chems, the fragments of his good mood flying out the window and right off the balcony. “Shaddup and give me my book. He’s not my lover, and he’s not coming back, alright? He’s on his own.” Every word made him feel smaller.

“What happened?”

“What do you care?” The sting in his heart tilted his words into cracking, angry things. “We got tired of each other. He pissed off to go do some stupid suicidal bullshit infiltrating the Brotherhood. Whatever, right? He does it, good for Goodneighbor. If he doesn’t, well, he’s dead, and we ain’t any worse off than before. He says he’ll, ya know. Swing by. To let us know how that goes. When he gets time.” Hancock bit off his words like he was starving for a good meal.

Fahrenheit did a thing with her expression he knew well—when all her facial muscles completely disengaged, as if she wasn’t impressed enough to bother using them to convey her thoughts.

“I don’t fuckin’ need him around anyway,” Hancock added, in part to fill the silence, because behind that mask of neutrality, there seemed to be some kind of judgment going on. Like she thought this was his fault. Or, like she knew he was lying, that he was torn up inside, reeling that he was down one best friend, one only friend, who he might never see again. He reached over, finding a half-empty bottle of Brobov’s Best. It didn’t smell too stale—and he wound up draining the whole thing. “Don’t need him or his stupid hangups or his nice ass or his bossy orders.”

“Are you about to get drunk again…?” Fahrenheit’s hands made an aggressive, baffled shrug. “Because I’m going to have to say, that’s a hard no in this office. Why are you acting like this wasn’t just some temporary vacation? Because it was, you know that, right?”

The world was screechingly loud. Hancock tugged his hat down, his insides swooning.

Yeah. Temporary. It’s all over now, ‘cause I’ve got a big fuckin’ mouth on Psycho and a hell of a drive, and I know what I did to you Nate, even if it’s blurry and patchy in my head. I know myself too goddamn well… been starting to want you so damn bad, I can barely stop from saying it sober. And you won’t even look me in the eye. Why the hell would you? Some scarred-up ghoul getting fresh when you’re still dreaming of… of that Nora. Whoever the hell she was, I bet her ghost wants to slap the shit outta me.

I shoulda just been your friend. I tried, man. I’m so sorry. I tried. I don’t know why I’m like this. Why I couldn’t let you go and bury this shit deep.

Why being by your side all this time has felt like the first real thing—the first RIGHT thing—I’ve done in years.

Why you mean so goddamn much.

But you shoulda been honest with me about how it affected you. Haven’t I earned that? Didn’t I… didn’t I save your life, over and over? Weren’t we friends? Best friends? And the moment I fuck up, you’re just gonna shove me into being one of your soldiers instead, not even your equal, let alone your buddy, not even deserving a talk about where I’m gonna go, what I’m gonna do.

You’re the one thing I promised I wasn’t gonna run from. For once in my life.

And then YOU leave.

Shit.

All of this and more had been lancing through his brain since he’d left the Railroad and meandered back into Goodneighbor’s gate. He’d thought about it, twisted it up and unraveled it, drowned in it with a lake of ale.

He still didn’t understand.

“I can’t believe,” he said aloud to the wall, “That he wanted to take the dog with him, but not me.”

Dogmeat whuffed at nothing from the balcony, content to people-gaze.

Hancock rolled over, laid his face down in the couch arm, and came to rest. This sofa had been his bed many a night when he couldn’t be bothered to walk down the hall, as the days bled into each other. It was probably more often his sleeping place than it wasn’t. It still had the nasty little hard spot where the spring was poking through, but otherwise, it was perfectly formed to his body, comforting as cold sadness leached into his chest.

“Alright then,” Fahr was saying. “Why don’t you just sleep this off some more, and we’ll get back to work when you’re up.”

“M’not sleepy,” he groused. “I slept for a week before this. Had to take the damn emergency Psycho.” She made a curious noise. “Super mutant behemoth.”

Her eyebrow raised, though she didn’t look up from whatever paper she’d started reading. “Good job not dying.”

“Thanks. Yeah, after the Addictol, it really kicked my ass.”

“After the… excuse me, the what?

Hancock grumbled, not really feeling like explaining. Suddenly, though, he had a brainwave regarding what small consolation might help salvage something about his life getting turned upside down again… other than another beer. He slumped off the couch and flopped to the floor, pressing his ear to the baseboard and peering. “Huh. Don’t see it. Kinda dark, though.”

There was the clattering of a pen being thrown down. “Don’t see what, Hancock?”

“My toe. A fortune-telling robot said it’d probably be under my couch. Telling ya, Mama Murphy’s way better at prophecies and shit.”

“Oh my god. Again with the toe.” Fahrenheit stood and stomped over. Her knees popped as she squatted; then, with her biceps bulging, she gripped the couch and lifted the whole thing. It swung over Hancock’s head like it was going to brain someone. She thunked it down at the far wall. “Been looking to move this anyway.”

Hancock stared up at her from his prone station. “Redecorating the place to suit ya?”

“Is your damn toe down there or not?”

He squinted at the pile of debris left in the seat’s wake. “No, just fuzz, old Mentats tins, and… wait.” Slowly, he pulled himself to his knees, scooting closer.

There in the wood was a hole—something just big enough to hook a few fingers in and pull. Hancock tested it.

A hidden hinge creaked angrily. The base board swung upwards. A secret compartment was revealed.

“Holy crap,” he said, getting an eerie chill. “Mama Murphy, you’ve got a robot twin! Wait ‘till you hear about this…!” Reverently, he sorted around in the dark compartment, his fingers meeting ancient papers and a stack of pre-war paper money.

Oh, and a mini-nuke.

“Holy shit!” Fahr kneeled, picking it up, like one might cradle the most delicate of eggs. “This thing, this thing could have blown up the damn town! If it had… goddamn! How the hell did this get here?” Suddenly her scoundrel smile began to crack across her face. “Oh, we are going to put this to good use, I can feel it.”

Hancock smiled, reaching to the side of where the nuke had rested. There was his toe: perfectly preserved, like all ghoul bits tended to be.

Reunited at long last.

“Do you think,” he said, happily holding it close, “That I can just tape it back on?”

Fahrenheit, holding her new, dangerous baby, heaved an exasperated sigh. “No. Also. Almost forgot. There’s one other thing you should probably know. I found out Marowski down at the Rexford was an Institute informant. So the Institute tried to take me out last week. You know. No big deal.”

Hancock stared. “What.”

 


 

Shuffling through Goodneighbor’s morning streets, the familiar scents of grime, people, and need washing over him, Hancock was like a man in a dream. Fahrenheit flanked him. She kept him from wavering down alleys to rub shoulders or pop a few pills with old chem buds. She certainly kept him from falling ass over teakettle into the nearest beer at the Third Rail.

His mood was hard to pin down. He loved home, and it loved him. Everyone kept waving and smiling. Being here was usually like fitting into those worn grooves in the sofa, or breathing in the scent of his mother’s mutfruit pie. But despite that, nothing felt the same for some reason, like all of Goodneighbor had been shifted an inch to the left, and it wasn’t quite molded to him the way it used to be.

“Hey, Hancock!” A cheerful drifter saluted as he passed. “Welcome back, brother!”

“That’s our mayor!” An excited woman pointed, a child in her arms. Hancock knew her, but the kid was new.

“Hancock.” A ghoulish Neighborhood Watchman tipped his cap respectfully in passing, a glad light in those milky blue eyes. “Got those caps I owe ya. I’ll send ‘em on up.”

Everyone who greeted him switched on the holotape recorder in his skull, the one that tugged his face into a familiar easy smile, the one that reached out and gave shoulder pats and replied, “Hey, brother. How’s it going?” and “Sister—looking sharp today!”

He meant it as much as he always did; his charm wasn’t an act. His love for his people was warm and easy to rekindle, and the way they looked at him, a few flaunting that silly caricature of his face—like it was reminding them who they all were—well, it made him feel a lot less like leftover radroach steak oozing in the back of the fridge.

But it still didn’t stop that empty spot in his chest from aching, that keen instinct of this isn’t where I’m supposed to be right now. He swayed and smiled his way on, apathetic, directionless despite having a destination.

“I can’t stay, Fahr,” he finally said.

“I know.” She adjusted her gun. “But where’re you going to go?”

He blinked in surprise. Of course she’d figured his mood out before even he had—she was always smart. “The Commonwealth is about to get set on fire. Armies rolling in everywhere. No matter what Nate ends up doing… I think after I get my toe on straight, I’m gonna go help the Minutemen up in Sanctuary some more. Someone should.”

“Fine.” Her voice said she didn’t care one way or another, though her rigid stance disagreed. “As long as they come through as backup like you said they would. But we have to clean house first.”

The Rexford loomed high before them now. Every so often, people in pinstripes would nervously move aside a curtain and peer out. The Triggermen, Hancock knew, had seen him and his bodyguard walking this way, and they were frantically attempting to get their shit together.

He paused, amused. She’s right. And that’s what this little visit to the Rexford is about, isn’t it? Beyond just tidying up Marowski and his Institute mess. The Triggermen as a whole are always gunning for their own interests, and right now, they’re in the way.

He said none of this aloud, but Fahrenheit blinked clever eyes, like she understood very well. “As long as there are two kings on the chessboard,” she said, “the armies are at war.”

Hancock smirked. This town had been a mob outfit for as long as anyone could remember, but times, they were a’ changing. “Goodneighbor doesn’t need two kings. Needs one people. United.”

She serenely reloaded a new round into her minigun as if each movement was an exercise in mindfulness. “Glad to see we’re on the same page.”

There they stood on the curbside, unmoving, patient, allowing the Triggermen more time and courtesy than they probably deserved. It wasn’t like the gangsters had anywhere to go. Their chem-slinging boss was currently rotting in a basement-turned-cell. All his money, all his power, it was stripped from him now—though it probably had saved his own damn hide for the time being. After all, if he’d been anyone else, Fahrenheit would have executed him without hesitation.

But the mob and Hancock’s administration… well, they had been carrying on with a certain understanding.

At present, that understanding was now that Hancock was real fucking sick of getting stabbed in the back.

Finally, a stiff and pale man exited the hotel, his gun absent, his palms open. He was thick around the shoulders and runny around the eyes. Stan. The boss-man’s bodyguard who failed. Wonder how well he’s doing in there right now.

Stan stopped a good few feet away, eying them both nervously—but especially Fahrenheit. The whole left half of his face was bruised and swollen. It looked like her handiwork, that was for damn sure.

“Mayor.” Stan swallowed what seemed to be a huge lump in his throat.

“Hey.” Hancock let his easy grin stretch wider. There were times when people didn’t like him smiling this much, and this was probably one of them. “You speaking for everyone in there?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I don’t want there to be any… miscommunications.” Another man in a pinstriped suit peered out a window on the second floor. He was holding his gun, as if braced for trouble. Hancock wondered how many innocents were currently booked in those rooms, people who didn’t really need a shoot-out on their front stoop that day. “You wanna talk about what your boss was doing behind everyone’s backs?”

“I’m sure I don’t know anything about that.”

A dry, morbid chuckle rasped from Hancock’s throat. “I’m sure ya don’t. I mean, selling the town out to the Institute… I don’t think Marowksi would have involved you too much in that, now would he?”

There it was. The flicker of wide eyes. The shiver in that sturdy frame. Stan was afraid this was his last day on earth, and he’d had no idea why. “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding,” he offered.

“Fahrenheit’s got all the proof you need. So, this is going to end one of two ways. Either we’re throwing every last Triggerman out of Goodneighbor, which’ll be bloody, awful, and give us all a nasty migraine, or you’re gonna send a group to my office to work this out like civilized people do. That group is gonna speak and act for all of you. You got that?”

One could almost see the cogs churning away in Stan’s head, weighing the options. Any smart man would know fighting or barricading themselves in the Rexford wouldn’t work long-term. Goodneighbor was, after all, home to them too—and home to their families, as well as the place where many of them had been born. More than a few of them were also ghouls who knew that if they fled, their lot for shelter would become cold, dreary ruins or vaults, like the one where Skinny Malone’s crew had died.

Not to mention… there was a huge amount of caps to be made, and right now, no one was making it.

Stan bowed a little. “You’ve always been a friend to the Triggermen, Mayor Hancock. I’ll bring my top three associates before the day is out.”

“Good. You’re leaving your weapons behind.”

Stan swallowed. “Mr. Mayor, I—”

“Non-negotiable.”

The Triggerman again rigidly inclined his head. “Very well.”

 


 

Kent Connolly’s radio station was small, cluttered, and dim, probably because it used to be a storage room off the side of the Memory Den. A good five minutes of knocking had been necessary to get its owner to even answer. Hancock had started to wonder if he really should be bothering doing this favor today before his appointment with Stan; his mood was far from particularly charitable. Last night was still catching up with him. He’d really cozied up to that Gwinnett’s, hadn’t he, worrying, thinking about the future? One bottle had easily become two, and then his lonely thoughts required a third. And the thing was, misery really liked company, so why not add a fourth…

His head hurt, was what he was saying.

“Sorry, Mayor.” Kent’s cornflower-blue eyes averted as he twiddled with a stray thread on his shirt. He looked askance at the huge dog pressing into Hancock’s legs, panting and smiling. “I was mid-broadcast. Very… important. Um.” He made a little popping noise with his lips, clearly at a loss.

“Kent, brother.” Hancock massaged his temples, wondering why in the world radio jockeying seemed to attract the most socially inept weirdos in the wastes. “There’s something… something about opportunity and answering the damn door, but I’m too hungover to remember it. I’m gonna sit now.” He collapsed into a chair, the only one available. The other ghoul stood wavering in the doorframe. It was as if he really wanted his seat back, since there wasn’t another one, and he didn’t like an animal near his equipment. But because he wasn’t going to get his way on either point, he was just going to slouch awkwardly and hope the silence would make anything inconvenient leave of its own accord.

Hancock rifled in his bag and pulled out a smattering of holotapes. “Mazel tov. Haven’t been able to check these out really, but I think they’re Silver Shroud.”

Connolly held out his hands and accepted the offering. His face underwent a startling journey. It began at your very presence is crushing me and ended with I would gladly die for you.

“These… these…” he stuttered. “They’re the… oh my goodness… early script readings… lost episodes…!” In a flurry, he was burrowing into his radio equipment, rearranging wires and unburying an old holotape player.

Hancock didn’t really know what the guy was on about, but at the end of the day, it was nice seeing him happy. That had been the whole point. Even if he was sometimes a little hard to engage with, Connolly was a harmless and kind soul that liked spreading old-world ideas of virtue, and Goodneighbor needed a little of that still. “Wish I coulda brought you the hat and coat too,” Hancock continued. “Found ‘em in an old magazine store. Nate’s got them now… I guess…” The headache throbbed angrily between his eyes. No way Nate was wearing that getup with the Brotherhood. They probably hated the Silver Shroud, hated his impressions—hated any kind of fun.

Those gifts were probably crammed into the bottom of a bag or in the garbage pile.

“Hat? Coat?” Kent’s shy whisper sliced into his thoughts. Those blue eyes were suddenly very, very keen. “Who’s Nate?”

“…Just some Vault lunkhead I know. Sorry, man.”

Again, Kent’s expressive mug twisted, this time like he’d been handed the grand prize in the lottery. “The Vault man? He has them? He’s wearing them?”

“…Maybe…?”

“I’ve heard the stories! Irma brings back so many stories when she goes shopping at Daisy’s—about what you’ve been doing out there adventuring with the Sole Survivor of the Vault. The synths. The deathclaws! Oh goodness—a real hero in the Silver Shroud outfit again! If he’s wearing them, if he’s out there helping people in that outfit, that’s great. That’s wonderful! I can work with that! Oh, thank you, Mayor!”

Hancock blinked, grumbling. Yeah, yeah, he’s a real big hero, whoop-dee-doo. “You can work with what now?”

But Kent was hunching over his holotape player, popping in one of his gifts to play. His eyes went all misty as the dramatic introduction music began, like he’d just huffed the finest Ultra Jet. There was no point talking to him when he got that look.

And according to the tape deck, this was going to be a doozy of a half-hour recording.

“Alright then. You’re welcome. You keep doing you, bud.” Hancock sighed, showing himself out. Maybe on a different day, he might have listened, but right now, he couldn’t really banish the image from his mind of Nate belting out those lines, charmingly embarrassed that he was having fun.

“The world probably could use a Silver Shroud like you in it, huh?” Hancock’s soft admission was nothing more than an airy whisper as he wandered the lobby.

Damn it. The guy had taken off but was still right beside him, shadowing his every step.

Maybe things would be better after hitting the road. There was a whole world of unfinished business before him now, one Nate had torn wide open, and Hancock would be damned if he’d just let himself rot here ignoring it. Yeah, part of him still desperately wanted to go rooting in his chem stashes, get a head start on digging a comfortable, familiar hole to fall into… but he wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Not and go back to how it all was before—taking a puff in the morning, governing his little oasis as the world kept rolling into the dumpster, then taking a puff at night to forget how many years were ticking by, something inside clawing for more.

Everything was different now. Everything had changed.

Except… well, one thing.

It was still stupid to travel by himself.

Dogmeat whined from his side. “Yeah, yeah, I know, buddy. Got you, I guess.” But that perky tail didn’t wag. Those eyes leveled at the Memory Den’s door. Dogmeat had been doing this since Hancock had returned, looking at him expectantly, then glancing at exits, as if getting impatient about his missing packmate, demanding they go find him. Hancock scratched his fluffy neck. “Bet you miss him too.”

Shit. He’d just gone and admitted that out loud. That some people were missed.

Well, whatever. Who wanted to make something of it anyway? I’m John Hancock, and I’ll… I’ll miss him if I want, damn it.

“Glad you’re here, pooch.” Dogmeat perked up. “But the things we gotta do are a bit much out there for just a ghoul and his dog. Still… don’t you worry. Your old buddy the jerky man? He’s got plans to fix that.”

A smile lit on Hancock’s thin lips, a glinting bit of mischief in his heart. First, he needed to pack, then patch up his red coat. It was long past time that he become Goodneighbor’s demon again—the one they hissed fearful stories about in Diamond City’s dives, the one that made the entire Commonwealth sit up and pay attention.

Perhaps he was abandoned, but he was far from out of this fight. 

He hadn’t gotten to be mayor of this goddamn ornery neighborhood for nothing, after all.

 


 

Gathering the group of Triggermen under Marowski, that was easy. Convincing them, Hancock knew, was harder. They were loyal to a fault, family men to the core… and they truly hated outsiders telling them what to do.

So he had to make himself family.

And that meant making Marowski less so.

Good thing the gangster had done a fine job of that all in his own. Sharing the incriminating logs the man had left in his wake? Delightful. Fahrenheit had, after all, ripped his whole damn terminal out of his wall and relocated it when she’d nabbed him. He’d given up the password after only three broken fingers.

Fahr wasn’t a gentle soul, no, but Marowski’s suffering wasn’t keeping Hancock up at night.

“I like you Triggermen,” he said in his office, sipping a glass of vodka and mutfruit juice. Four pairs of tense eyes stared back—two rheumy ghoul-blue, and two steel grey and human, each flicking over the records in turn. “I like teaming up with you from time to time. I like your enthusiasm protecting the town and investments. I like the poker nights at the Third Rail. But some things are kinda hard to turn a blind eye to. You all know Marowski and I, we didn’t always see… eye to eye. But delivering intel to the Institute? That’s a pretty big oopsie-daisy.”

He could see their Adam’s apples bobbing with nerves. Gazes flickered to Stan in the middle, trying to take cues from the de facto leader who truly was no leader at all. The former bodyguard just scanned the transcripts and notes, over and over. He clearly wasn’t going to give anyone anything he didn’t have to, not even a grunt.

“I get why you’re quiet. I know a thing about family,” Hancock wheedled. “Especially you ghouls—we need family, we need people watching our backs. But, see, Marowski—he wasn’t watching your back, I don’t think. Selling the town out—you’re the town too, you know? He was hanging all of you out to dry for caps. Then he tries to kill Fahrenheit and get her replaced with a synth? Hell. Guess he thought starting a war with me was also a great thing to throw you in the middle of.” He spit out an angry laugh.

Fahrenheit knew her cue. She slammed open the door, sending the gathered gangsters jumping, even iron-faced Stan. Behind her, she dragged two bodies—one, a woman, her head smashed in. The chrome inside glittered amidst the blood. That dangerous Institute motherfucker had apparently given Fahr five new scars before she’d finally died—a real homegrown killer.

And her face?

Fahrenheit’s own.

The other body belonged to one of the Institute’s older, robotic wind-up toys. It was missing an arm and leg, the stumps fused with blast marks.

Stan, pale and teeth gritted, finally conceded to look Hancock fully in the eyes as he turned from the grisly delivery. The rest of the Triggermen covered their noses or nostril hollows and stepped back. The more organic of the two corpses wasn’t terribly fresh. Bright suspicion and fear were starting to cloud their gazes—more than one was glancing at Fahrenheit’s weighty minigun on her back. Probably everyone here was remembering how fast she could draw that thing. They’d definitely noticed how many Neighborhood Watch guards they’d passed on the way up, all the stern glares gathered just outside that mayoral door.

Gazes then flickered one by one to the shotgun in Hancock’s lap.

Retribution. It was the way of their world. Their backs were stiff as if they were getting a head start on rigor mortis, but they wouldn’t beg. They likely understood the whys, if Hancock chose to kill them, and they had dignity.

“I’m gonna hang Marowski,” Hancock said flatly. “No discussion. He brought this on himself. But you’re Goodneighbor citizens, right? I know you. You’ve been here forever.” He rose, setting aside the gun, going to the nearest man and patting him on the shoulder. This was a ghoul he’d actually enlisted to help Diamond City escapees years back. The man flinched before looking up with surprised relief. The next man Hancock reached out to was someone who’d been a drifter as well back then, and the next was a ghoul who’d sold chems to him when he'd first rolled in. Good on Stan for picking these old-timers for this job. “That makes you also my family. You all know I’d protect you with my life. I’ve done it before.” Visible relief swelled through the ranks. “So. Who’s stepping up, huh? I don’t want to run Marowski’s chem business for you; I just want it run.”

Confused, but pleased looks passed between them. Of course they’d expected he was making a caps-and-chems grab by taking out their boss. If he’d tried, of course, they wouldn’t have trusted him. What Hancock wanted was a lot different, anyway.

“Ernie’ll send someone in,” Stan finally spoke. “And I know some of the business from watching the boss. Mayor, between me and a couple others, we can probably figure out everything he was doing, go over the books, and make sure distribution isn’t interrupted while the house gets put in order. And the rest—”

“Ernie?” Fahrenheit interrupted. “Eager Earnie? He’s dead. Got word two days ago. Killed in some damn stupid standoff at his racetrack. What timing, right?”

It almost looked like the temperature in the room had gone up twenty degrees. Many of the Triggermen started fussing with their collars, sweating.

“Jesus,” was all Stan managed.

“Well. That sucks.” Hancock sipped a bit of water, deciding not to ask if Fahrenheit had been going to the races lately. “Your bosses seem to be dropping dead left and right. Huh. Wow. Who’s even left anymore? Your whole organization is either falling apart or getting known for being Institute scabs. Right when the Institute and the Brotherhood of Steel look about ready to stomp all over the Commonwealth, too! And with all those Neighborhood Watch reps out there wondering where your loyalties lie? Yeesh. Hope you got someone good in mind who can protect you from that.”

He shrugged, reclining back in his chair, letting them marinate. Yeah. They had nowhere to go. They’d come to the best solution on their own.

Not a day later, a small cluster of Triggermen left the town in the dead of night, off to find their fortunes, perhaps to find their brethren still remaining.

But most of them remained, especially the ghouls, donning new badges, pledging new loyalties. After all, Goodneighbor, their home—it held fortunes too, ones that now needed defending.

It was soon that a revitalized Neighborhood Watch began cleaning their guns with hunger, speaking in eager whispers of survival, of new causes, of new members. They talked of new rebellions needed outside the walls, a fight necessary to keep themselves, their families, and their investments prosperous and alive.

Goodneighbor was of the people, for the people—and slowly, it was coming together to defend itself one last time.

When Hancock emerged on his balcony that evening, it was to a growing army waiting.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m going to ask you a series of questions, Initiate,” the Brotherhood medical officer said, as if it was a speech he’d given a hundred times. “And I’d like you to answer to the best of your ability.”

“Alright.” Nate put his hands on his knees as he sat, trying not to tilt too far in one direction or the other as the room gently rocked in his skull. This was Knight-Captain… what had Danse said again? Oh! Cade, the desk nameplate reminded him, though it quickly blurred out.

After this, maybe, he really should try to sleep.

Maybe.

“As a child, were you ever exposed to radiation for an extended period of time?”

Nate gave a pointed look at the man’s clipboard, as if to ask if his record was posted there. “Um. Short answer? No.”

The doctor seemed to catch his drift—he went over the chart, then visibly paled. “Well! I confess, I haven’t really dealt with anything like this before. Alright! Alright. You’re from before the war.” Cade chewed on this idea for almost a full minute. “No wonder Maxson is expediting your acceptance. The sheer amount of knowledge you possess…” Then he paused, as if embarrassed, and shook his head. “My apologies. Back to the exam?”

“Please.”

“Have you come into contact with anyone carrying a communicable disease?”

“Not that I know of. It’s pretty rough out there, though—I’ve killed quite a few people, and came into contact with a lot of blood.”

“I’ll put you down for a couple tests. Now. I’m sorry, but I am required to ask: have you ever had any sexual relations with species considered non-human?”

Nate’s shoulders coiled and locked themselves. “…Come again?”

He’d heard perfectly well. He didn’t need the man to repeat it; Cade did though, and gamely, with an apologetic look.

But Nate wasn’t there at all on the Prydwen, just for a moment. He was wound up with a friend, in careful, articulate, bracing hands, blood full of Med-X, desperate to touch and feel and be. Hancock’s tongue was running over a lip slowly, carefully, his eyes full of burning and knowing.

“No,” Nate said, wishing he could reach in his own chest and hold his racing heart still.

“Of course not,” Cade said airily, ticking off a box on his checklist. “As if any recruit of Danse’s would voluntarily engage in such acts.”

Nate suddenly hated Cade then, hated from a deep, burning hole in his gut. There weren’t enough niceties in the world to make up for how people like this medic viewed the closest thing he had to family now—subhuman. Unclean. Unnatural.

Plenty of people had treated Nate’s past attractions like this—when they were men, when they weren’t the same race, when they weren’t just the right type society demanded of him.

He, of course, hadn’t settled for Nora to make his life easier. Nothing about Nora had been settling.

But he would always carry what-ifs and could-have-beens if people like Cade hadn’t made him afraid. And now… with John haunting his dreams…

There were other questions, and then some prodding, some poking. Nate accepted it, but wound up drifting through it like he was in someone else’s body—as if he’d left his own in that church, forever paralyzed by confusion and regret.

“Are you alright there, recruit? You almost look like you have radiation sickness. Dull stare. Slow responses.”

“I’ve been awake for an extended period of time.” His voice felt like melting butter as it reverberated inside his head. He wasn’t even sure where the words came from; it was like another Nate had switched on the holotape holding his vocabulary.

Cade’s concerned eyes squinted, bearing into his own. The man finally was giving him his full attention, and he didn’t like that at all.

“I’m fine,” Nate insisted. “Just need to sleep.”

“You are tilted at a forty-degree angle to the left, and your eyes aren’t blinking in synch.” Cade peered deeply into his gaze. “Under normal circumstances, you would have been ordered to proceed directly to the Elder upon entering the Prydwen, but you were ordered to me, and I’m starting to see why. Your pupils are dilating. I’m going to need to run some bloodwork…” Nate swallowed. He’d been so damn certain he’d been sitting up straight. “Answer honestly. Are you on any substances?”

“I don’t use chems. And I haven’t had any alcohol for three days.”

“Why have you been awake so long? I wasn’t given any indicator that there was a particular mission Danse’s unit was directly returning from.”

“I…”

It was then that a memory creaked in the back of Nate’s skull—an old army medic. “Slow down there, buddy. You’re not fit to return to duty until you pass a psych eval.”

Nate tried to smile. “I guess I’ve been a little too excited about signing up. Big life change. Kept me up a bit at night.”

“Mmm.” It was hard to tell if Cade believed him. “Why don’t you lie down? You don’t need to be awake for the bloodwork. I’ll draw it, and you can get a little nap here while I analyze the results. Maxson wants to see you, pending this, so it’d be best if you don’t look… quite so strung out.”

“Okay.” Nate didn’t have a single fighting bone left in his body to argue against closing his eyes and lying back on the examination cot, even if he knew he wouldn’t like his dreams. He could only hope he didn’t talk too loudly in his sleep, that he wouldn’t give away the spreading cracks in his mind.

The needle pierced the vein in his elbow crook as black pooled around his consciousness. Nate was filled with a quiet peace as his life force was drawn into a little vial.

For some reason, all he could think of was Hancock administering Addictol to himself back in Graygarden in that same spot, hands determined and sure. The ghoul’s sad smile had belied that surety though, hadn’t it? “I’m asking you to go,” Hancock said in his memory-daydream, “‘Cause this is gonna to get real ugly. I don’t want you thinking less of me than you probably do right now. Alright?”

“I should have said no,” Nate whispered. “Should have stayed. Should have made sure you knew I’d never leave you behind for good.”

“What?” Cade’s voice echoed through the half-dream.

Nate couldn’t reply. The black consumed his sight, and he was gone.

When he awoke, it was almost twelve hours later. His body felt stupid and sluggish, his eyes burning, his throat parched.

“Your bloodwork is clean,” Cade spoke, though his gaze held a warning. “I’ve reported that you’re free to go; however, I recommend more rest as soon as you are able. I gave you a mild sedative to ease your… restlessness while you slept. This time. But you need more opportunity to heal. I’d demand it if it wasn’t Maxson himself requesting you.”

Nate nodded, woozy. His stomach churned and growled.

He hated sleeping drugs. This… this always happened. At least, he supposed, he hadn’t dreamed. “D’ya have any food around here?” he mumbled, desperate to wake up fully.

A trip to the mess yielded what they called razorgrain porridge, sweetened with tarberries. Nate wolfed it down and tidied himself up in a bathroom mirror. As he washed his face, enjoying the soothing sensation of real running water in the pipes, he almost wept again for the world before. The mirror was also a minor miracle. He hadn’t really seen his own reflection for weeks—the streams had been flowing too fast, and any other candidates for reflective surfaces were too grimy. Most actual mirrors were broken, and god knew, nobody out in the Commonwealth seemed to be making more.

Now there was a fine business idea.

Still, he didn’t entirely recognize the man looking back at him. He had to blink a few times, then contort his expression, watching the reflection match his movement before his brain would accept it. The man there had the rich tan of outdoor life, but his gaze was haggard and a little hunted, dark pools spreading under his eyes. His facial hair was mostly trimmed, but one could tell it was a job done by touch alone.

Most of all, he looked like a desperate mercenary, one who got a bit lucky in the clothing department. Even his fancy overcoat was starting to show too much dirt and wear.

Nate fished in his bag for anything that might help his appearance, and his heart sank as his palm brushed a hard hilt—a blade wrapped in cloth. Hancock’s knife. Damn it. He’d borrowed it again back at the Railroad while the man was sleeping, then forgotten to return it. He’d just needed it to cut some wire, and Hancock had always kept it sharp and cared for… like everything and everyone else he valued.

Sighing, muttering a silent apology to his friend, Nate lifted the blade to his face and began to tidy his beard as gently as he could using only soap and water to ease its passage.

When he was done, he finally started to see Nate in the mirror, and that helped more than words could ever say.

Still, he needed some extra confidence. Gently, he pulled the Silver Shroud hat also from his bag, settling it on his crown. “Bringing justice to evildoers,” he whispered to the man he saw. It was ridiculous, but by God, it helped. The hunted look began to fade. The Silver Shroud, after all, didn’t know fear.

Perhaps this was an odd coping mechanism. Still, there was no one else here who would get the reference, and he could at least feel secure in that.

Now, it was time make the trek to the ship’s bow, to see the vaunted and dear leader himself.

The command deck was filled with a heavy hush, a respectful silence making way for powerful words. In the windows beyond, the clouds of the Commonwealth billowed and churned, a storm on the way. The ship swayed uneasily, but under Elder’s Maxson’s feet, the steel seemed undefeatable. The leader of the Brotherhood was exactly Nate’s height, but he loomed in the way mountains did. His gaze was clever and vibrant like a hunting hawk’s, and his thick beard and poise were reminiscent of a Viking warrior bound for glory and Valhalla.

Nate learned most of what he needed to know about Maxson before the man even opened his mouth. All he needed to do was look in his people’s eyes. The crowd here stood straight-backed and proud in their Elder’s presence, chins high, as if this man was the sun and they were the mighty oaks he’d grown from seed. Their gazes shone, but in a way that wasn’t entirely there, as if being in their leader’s presence allowed them all to look into tomorrow instead of today.

This was love. These people adored Maxson. They would die for him without question, without fail.

And in this room, surrounded by the sheer power and dignity of the Elder’s rallying call—a plea to bring order to the Commonwealth, a fiery war cry to exterminate the Institute that threatened mankind—Nate wondered if this was a force too primal for the Minutemen to ever hope to quell. So help him, when Maxson bellowed “Ad victoriam!” and the assembled soldiers roared back their answer, his own heart hammered as fiercely as it would have if he too stood for their cause.

Perhaps, he supposed, he did, if the Institute was their true target. Just not their other leanings.

“Initiate,” the Elder greeted, motioning he stay behind, the words driven and articulate. “I trust you’re impressed by the Brotherhood so far.”

“Very much,” Nate said, and it wasn’t a lie.

Maxson shifted, taking Nate in. Though he clearly must have far more important things to do, his voice was measured, as if time with his newest soldier was just as critical. Nate barely knew what to think—in the army, he’d never even spoken to a general. His opinions had been far too beneath the notice of such important men. “I’ve read Paladin Danse’s reports,” Maxson said. “Seeing as he’s one of my most respected field officers, you couldn’t get a better recommendation. Therefore, from this moment forward, I’m granting you the rank of Knight.”

The world almost fell away under Nate’s feet again. Apparently, he’d just stumbled into bonding with and impressing one of the Elder’s most important and trusted men.

General and Knight both in a month. If only his old commanding officers could see him now.

“I’m honored,” he croaked.

“Befitting your rank, we’re granting you a suit of power armor to protect you on the field of battle. Wear it with pride.”

Nate couldn’t help but let his jaw hang. Just like that, and he had his armor. Just like that! “I’ll do my best to live up to it, sir.”

“I’m certain you will.” That keen gaze bored him through.

This isn’t just because of Danse, Nate realized, putting two and two together, remembering what Cade had said. I’m a valuable prewar asset. He knows that. As a higher ranking member, it’s easier for him to keep a direct conversation with me… and an eye on my actions.

“Welcome aboard the Prydwen, soldier.” The Elder lightly braced his fist over his heart in a salute, the way one might casually nod to a friend. His other hand gave Nate’s shoulder a firm brace, as if welcoming a brother home. “Make us proud.”

And with that, Maxson turned, a clear dismissal. Nate, spine electrified and stiff, hurried from the bridge and into the hall feeling like that if he stayed even a moment longer, he would be found out, that the hawk’s gaze would tear him in two. He wouldn’t be left alone for long, however, to process. There was no being alone on the Prydwen. In every tight corner, a soldier paced.

And in his corner right now was Paladin Danse. “Come on,” the man urged, nodding in a new greeting. “There’s someone you should meet.” Despite his exhaustion, Nate caught a little glimmer in his sponsor’s gaze. Not long after they’d boarded, Danse had taken him aside out of ear shot of the others, speaking in low tones. “I hope you realize that I’m taking a risk by bringing you into the fold this quickly,” he’d said. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you screw up, we both go down.”

And here Danse was now, a ghost of a smile on his lips. It was like he was hopeful his charge would come back with straight A’s from his first day at school—and he probably had, becoming a knight!

The Brotherhood was Danse’s entire life, and he was hanging it all on what he thought he saw in a fellow soldier’s heart.

Nate’s stomach twisted into a dangerous knot. He’d wanted to hate this man ever since their first meeting, for saying what he had about ghouls.

He still did a little.

But he’d started to wonder if that could be changed. Could a paladin’s stance on mutated people be softened, rehabilitated once he got to know a few? In so many other ways, Danse was resolute, honorable, and loyal—Nate wanted to instinctively get his back, because he was often everything a good man and soldier should be… because he was almost starting to be a friend.

And every second looking at him was a reminder that he’d come here with the explicit intention of stabbing him in the back.

This was why he’d never been cut out for being a spy.

All the same, he trotted after his sponsor dutifully to the Prydwen’s repair bays, trying not to let his inner turbulence show on his face.

Proctor Ingram was a towering, no-nonsense sort of soldier, though perhaps part of that impression came from her conducting business in almost full power armor. Around her lay the scattered debris of the grease monkey condition—bolts, wrenches, sensor modules, and the specialized mounts on which armor frames were pinioned, waiting for tuning.

Suddenly, Nate understood more of the thread of excitement he’d been reading from Danse, and he almost laughed. Ahhh, I see. Baby gets his first power armor, and he wants to be here for that.

Ingram puffed a strand of her bright red hair from her eyes, her severe mouth not returning the smile of greeting. Nate saluted her then, realizing it was probably expected. This, she did return.

As they greeted each other, as she gave him the rundown of her work here, Nate couldn’t help but shift from foot to foot. Nerves coiled in his belly. Surely, now was when it would happen? When someone would peer at him a bit too close, realize he was a fraud?

No one did. She assigned him a hulking T-60 set, fresh enough off inspection that one could smell the tang of WD-40 and polish. He reached out, putting one hand to its shined shoulder, and she moved on.

“Well, soldier?” Danse said, that almost-there smile still dancing at the edges of his lips. “You need a refresher on how these work?”

“I’m just impressed! They only gave me a T-45a back in the war. T-60s were a bit above my rank. Give me a minute; let’s see if I’ve still got it.” The hatch opened with a smooth hiss. As Nate stepped inside, the suit closed around him, snug and fit, smelling a little like old leather and sweat. That would fade, in his experience. The amber-and-black HUD flickered to life, and with a pang, he remembered it gave a lot of the information his old Pip-Boy once did. Slowly, he flicked through maps and assessments of the suit’s health, desperately relieved. Finally, he knew where he was in the Commonwealth! He’d lost all track of where this place existed in the Vertibird trip.

Holy shit. They were right across the channel from Goodneighbor.

Nate’s mouth dried as he absorbed this. Okay. Okay. That was fine. Hancock and Fahrenheit were probably already aware that Maxson could stage an invasion as easily as going out for groceries. The man just… wasn’t yet.

There was time.

As Nate began to march, thinking, taking the armor through its paces, he noticed the left leg actuator was a tiny bit sticky, but this armor had been cared for with true discipline. It would serve well.

I’m going to steal this, he told himself. It didn’t entirely feel real.

And then, his pleased-seeming comrade said something that almost made him misplace his gait and tumble over like a rookie. “You know, I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot when we first met.”

Nate marched in closer, allowing Danse the option to lower his voice. Was this about… Hancock? How he’d been treated? Did Danse have regrets about how a Brotherhood officer was expected to act in front of his team?

“I noted earlier that I’ve been hard on you,” Danse continued. Nate nodded. “When I was an Initiate, my sponsor was a man named Paladin Krieg. Toughest squad leader I ever served with. He was a model soldier… embodied the values every trainee strove to achieve. Fiercely loyal, secure in his beliefs, and brave to a fault. And from the moment I was assigned to his squad, I felt like he was singling me out, pushing me harder than the rest of the team.”

Nate blinked. “I just assumed you wanted me to catch up to everyone else. I might be a career soldier, but the rest of your squad has been part of the Brotherhood for a long time.”

Danse actually did smile then, a brief, warm lift from his lips to his eyes. “Maybe in part. Krieg, though—we served together for years, and he never told me why he treated me that way. And I wanted to tell you: it’s because I believe in you, and I don’t want to see any of your potential go to waste.”

Nate didn’t know what how to respond. The genuine, emphatic sincerity of those words… all his heart could do was pound, knowing that all the acts of thieving and sabotage he committed were going to ruin this man’s life.

“Thank you sir,” he managed.

“Keep up the good work, soldier. I’m proud to call you brother.” Danse gave his shoulder a light touch, steel tapping steel as he marched away, leaving his star knight alone with his thoughts.

 


 

That night, Nate dreamed again of Hancock and the church, of lying on his back, that knife to his throat. “I can’t hurt you,” he pleaded. The ring of feral ghouls drove ever closer again. “I would never hurt you. Please. Don’t do this.”

Strangely, in this iteration of the dream, Hancock’s expression wasn’t so full of rage and hysteria. “Bullshit you wouldn’t hurt me.” His words rasped slow and sad, his eyes dull. “But I’m not gonna do the same to you, you know? Never would.”

“Please,” Nate breathed softly, delicately, as the knife clattered to the stone harmlessly by their sides, as the approaching ferals paused.

Hancock just bent down this time, wrapping him up in a warm, desperate embrace. Scarred lips fluttered against his windpipe, sending a bolt of wanting into Nate’s core. His spine arched into that lean frame like a dying man in a desert diving into a pure running stream. “Ohhh.”

He awoke with a start, sweat hot and sickly, breathing like he’d been locked in another nightmare. Clean Brotherhood sheets wrapped him up on his new bunk, a strange spot of normalcy in the crushing darkness. A warm, fuzzy lump softly mrrrowed against his side. The ship’s cat—Emmett—blinked sleepily as he shifted. Slowly, very slowly, Nate managed to stop breathing so loudly, drawing his heart rate down. Idly, with one hand, he let Emmett happily rub his scent on his fingers before he settled back in. The feline had taken a shine to this broken soldier, and Nate wasn’t going to discourage that. He needed all the friends he could get.

For a while, he just listened to the rest of his brothers in this shared dormitory. They were all sleeping, breathing even and slow. No one hissed at him or asked him why he was flailing around in the middle of the night.

Thank god. If he’d moaned out the name of what was probably the most famous ghoul in the Commonwealth, it probably wouldn’t have ended well.

This recurring dream and all the feelings it brought with it was like on oncoming train barreling Nate down, and he had no idea how to get off the tracks. It was almost becoming normal—sometimes, dream-Hancock was rage-mad with Psycho, echoing Nate’s deepest and most shameful fears of ghouls, chems, and the threat of going feral. Sometimes, Hancock was instead the kind and loyal friend he’d always been, and they both were in danger from the surrounding hordes. And sometimes… sometimes he was just terribly sad, like he’d been at the end of his real-life Psycho kick, like he half-expected Nate to cruelly lash out in some way.

Then there was once where he just slammed the both of them into a wall and drove his tongue past Nate’s lips, stealing air and words and senses.

Always, he was hot as a furnace, grindingly close, unable to ever be ignored.

It had happened so often that Nate had started to try to cope with it. He tried to distance himself, like he was his own psychoanalyst, forgiving himself for how it made him feel as he explained it away. Alright. Yes. I’m attracted to the one person who’s been there for me without fail since I woke up here. I’m broken as hell and he makes me feel halfway together. Nora’s… she’s just not here, and I’m lonely. All of that at once… it’s a misplaced attraction. It’ll go away on its own.

He’d seen this before. He’d seen people get so torn up with trauma that they just wanted to touch and fuck and feel real. He was certain he knew this for what it was, and if he didn’t pull himself together, when he left the Prydwen one day, he wouldn’t be able to repair the friendship he’d nearly detonated on his way out the door.

I’ve never even… even been with a man. Not seriously. 

When the sun rose and he was out of bed, this logic would win out again. It always did.

But it was still night now, and his heart was a traitor to his cause. But I used to think about men before Nora, it would whisper.

Not enough to matter, he’d argue back. I never—

That doesn’t mean anything, his heart would whisper again. But this man? This man does. Did he make it back to Goodneighbor alright? Is he safe? Is he still angry with me?

Nate’s logic would spin its wheels, no answers to give. It gave his heart just enough leverage to barrel on.

If he saw me with my nightmares right now, he’d come ask if I wanted to take a walk. He would laugh and snap me out of it. He’d puff a Jet, make that doofy, dazed smile, and tell me to think about clouds. He cares about so many people, doesn’t he? But he singled me out, and he took care of me.

And I miss him.

God, I miss him.

Nate could barely take it. He thought time apart would help, but this strange infatuation, a betraying, fickle thing, it only grew.

So he fell back into the dream of the church over and over, every time he fell asleep—like hitting a reset button on a film, each rewind throwing the images in a new light. Perhaps he was just never fully awake anymore, so the dream never quite ended. Perhaps this was the price he paid for only letting himself sleep a handful of hours at a time.

Slowly, eventually, as Emmett purred into his side, his eyes began to close again, shutting away the dormitory night…

…And they opened.

He was in a dark church. Mildew flooded his nose.

“Please,” he whispered to his friend overhead, not knowing what he truly deserved.

 


 

Lance Captain Kells seemed an officer born and raised. The man moved with distinction and grace, the gold trim of his cap glinting in the dim Prydwen lights, and when he spoke, it was clear he would tolerate nothing less than his orders being followed to the absolute letter. Nate realized he was subconsciously correcting his heels to line up better as he stood at attention in Kells’ presence. He even straightened his hair before those eyes turned his way.

Army habits died hard. And Kells… he’d made it quite clear Nate could expect no inkling of favor. An outsider needed to earn his respect. If the Elder was the Brotherhood’s guiding voice, Kells was Maxson’s firm hand. Under the man’s keen oversight, Nate knew he would fall again into a routine of service and duty.

When could he try contacting the outside world again? How would he flee? What all would he take?

Nate rehearsed answers mentally every minute of his waking hours. Security was tight and soldiers were never more than an arm’s length away, so he almost lived in his power armor, always wanting it with him should he have to run at a moment’s notice.

It was a massive relief when Kells gave him leave to conduct a supply depot investigation—he desperately needed some time to himself. It seemed a ration thief had taken up residence at an outpost in the old airport nearby.

Still, the nearest Railroad dead-drop is miles from there. That fact alone made Nate’s heart sink. For days, he’d used his bathroom breaks—one of the only spots of privacy on the ship—to write down all he’d learned and seen on bits of scrap. His power armor, under almost every available surface, was filled with scribble-covered papers. He needed to divest of them, and soon.

Thank god for ration thieves. Maybe now was his chance to get the lay of the land, even if slipping away too far might be out of the question.

The Boston Airport outpost lay directly in the Prydwen’s shadow, and Nate managed to extricate himself from the zeppelin without even Danse in tow. His sponsor seemed content to allow his favorite new knight some well-earned leeway. Alone, Nate left to do his duty. But as he did so, before his march, he secured his own supply pack to his armor’s back. Around this was tied a bright red cleaning cloth. He’d agreed with Deacon that this would mark him if he had to leave and needed the Railroad to reach out, so they might watch his comings and goings.

How would they contact him, though? How could they do it here?

Nate walked all the way to the airport, and no one came. When he entered, he resigned himself to proceeding with the mission, interrogating the Knight Sergeant in charge of logistics.

Treason. Kells’ words haunted him. Whoever they found responsible for stealing rations—twenty entire crates, enough to feed a unit for weeks!—would be sent up to the Prydwen for a trial. They would likely die. Quietly discharging traitors didn’t seem to be the Brotherhood way.

Which was why Nate wasn’t sure what he would actually do with the thief when he found them.

Later that morning, he did, of course. He was good at his job.

Blended inside a shadow, Nate crouched inside a disused and dark airport terminal. Before him was a young Initiate who was using the crates to feed a secret population of feral ghouls. Clarke was his name, and he hadn’t been hard to track down. The man was now looking out over his group of gathered, shambling wrecks in rags, ghouls perhaps long incapable of speech or higher thought. Clarke’s mouth was upturning in a gentle smile.

“There,” he whispered to his charges, staying at a healthy distance as they plied through the offerings with frantic fingers. “Not so bad, is it? There you go.”

Nate’s stomach sank into his shoes. Everything in his body and heart told him to just… run. Take this misfit boy with a kind heart, shaved head, and shivering frame, then leave, never looking back. But he couldn’t. He had a job to do—people counting on him to gather intel.

When he cleared his throat, he thought the young man was about to leap out of his uniform. Expressions torrented after—surprise, dismay, anger.

“Why?” was all Nate could think to ask. The word broke the chill in the air, turned it to lightning discharge.

“I had a friend once,” the young man challenged, nostrils flaring. “He was a ghoul. As human as you or me. But the Brotherhood says ghouls are abominations! That they all deserve to die. Would you kill him too? Just because of who he is?”

“Clarke… these ghouls, they—”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re feral! They’re still people!” His eyes were growing damp, his stare unfocused, like he was looking back into something else, something not entirely there.

And finally, Nate understood. From the reports, this airport had been seized earlier from hundreds of ferals, cleared out by the friendly neighborhood logistics team. One of that team was this man—so young he still gangled, moving like he hadn’t quite finished figuring out how long his limbs were. Barely out of his teens, he’d probably gunned down dozens of ghouls, as was expected of him.

“Clarke,” Nate said softly. “My best friend’s a ghoul too.”

Just like that, the fight in Clarke’s body evaporated. His mouth opened and closed. He wrapped his arms around himself, nodding, swallowing. “I… if I reported the ferals… they would have all been wiped out. If I ignored them, they’d attack the airport. I had to feed them. They just… they stay here. They’re safe. We’re safe. No more… no more killing.”

Nate came up close to him, put approving hands on his shoulders. Clarke leaned into the touch like no one had done that in years.

And Nate’s decision was sealed, heart breaking for this too-young soldier who would also be haunted by nightmares for the rest of his life. “You need to run,” he said. “You did the right thing, but the Brotherhood is going to ask you to kill ghouls again and again and again. Do you understand? You need to leave. I’m not turning you in.”

The weight of that secret seemed to crush on them both in those dark, empty tunnels. Nate’s skin prickled, and he fought the urge to look over his shoulder. He knew they were alone.

Clarke’s eyes were wide. “But… you’re a knight.”

“I’m a terrible knight. Look, I’ll make up some story about the supplies. Just get out of here. Diamond City would be safe enough for someone like you, but even better is Goodneighbor. You’ll need to find a way around the channel to get there—I don’t know if there’s boats—but Goodneighbor’s full of ghouls and other people just trying to make their way in peace. Not a lot of prejudice.”

“Goodneighbor…” Clarke whispered. His eyes were flickering like his world was crumbling. “Thank you. I don’t know how I’ll pay you back. I… I don’t have anything anymore.”

Something inside Nate hurt, thinking of using a near-teenager the way he knew he was about to. But this was war, and here was a soldier, so here was his best chance. He stepped back and out of his power armor, finding his papers, folding and binding them up with an old wire laying on a console nearby. “Here’s how you pay me back. Take these. Don’t read them—they’re kind of personal. Just give them to Goodneighbor’s mayor when you get there. His name’s Hancock. He’s my friend—best damn man in the entire Commonwealth. Let him know I sent you and what you did, and he might help you out. And let him know to pass on my thoughts to Deacon. Okay?”

Clarke’s head bobbed as he accepted the bundle. “Lots of, uh, personal letters for Mayor Hancock in Goodneighbor. Okay.”

“…Yeah. Uh. Personal.”

The young man nodded like he understood. “I… I don’t judge! That kind of relationship. Not at all. Just… thank you, Knight. Really. If you can see that the ferals aren’t hurt after I go… please try.”

Nate flushed, but realized Clarke’s conclusions would make him even less willing to read the missives. “Right. I will.”

And off the initiate left for the supply room again, secrets safe in his pockets, off to arm himself and flee in the dead of night. Nate could only watch this young man go, hoping he’d made the right call, that this was unexpected luck he’d found and not a curse.

It had to work out. Clarke was young, but he was a trained soldier. He could make this journey.

Delivering the investigation report to Kells was the surest test of lying Nate ever faced. “I’ve discussed the matter extensively now with Sergeant Knight Gavin and his logistics team,” he spoke back on the Prydwen. “The security down at the base is airtight. The soldiers have all been vetted thoroughly and are loyal to the core. I verified their shifts, patrols, and measures, and saw nothing even remotely suspicious. The Scribes’ reports of inventory irregularities seem to have perhaps been subject to an error—which I confirmed with the Sergeant Knight.” Indeed, the head of logistics had despised the idea of suspicion on his team, and had readily offered to fling the blame at inventory management without any provocation.

Kells let out a breath of air almost like relief. Nate had been gambling on that. If there was one thing an officer liked hearing, it was that everything was just as it should be, and he could safely ignore the bean counters a little while longer.

When Clarke’s disappearance was discovered… maybe in a few days, there might be more questions about the missing supplies.

But not Nate’s own involvement. After all, he was only reporting what he’d seen and heard. At worst, Kells might think him incompetent as an investigator, not treasonous. The hammer would come down much harder on the Knight-Sergeant down below.

Unfortunately, however, there was no rest in Nate’s future, because the Commonwealth never slept. Before he could even ask to lie down, his afternoon had apparently been scheduled, and he was sent to aid in the elimination of all the super mutants at a place called Fort Strong. He was marched aboard a Vertibird and placed on the guns, the vibrating autofire blowback punching into his gut as he tried not to be nauseous. The agile aircraft darted to and fro under his feet. Mobs of green-skinned titans scattered and fell in his bullet hail. They were almost small down there, no longer the monsters that could tear off his limbs if he got too close. They bellowed. They thrashed.

They died.

It was like killing ants under a magnifying glass.

He couldn’t stop thinking of a young man at the airport who was about to run, haunted by a past mission to wipe out another outpost full of abominations. The super mutants… horrifying as they were…

Initiate Clarke’s scared logic was forcing Nate to look again. The mutants were distorted, yes, and full of anger problems and disgusting eating habits but… they spoke limited English. They flexed hands with five fingers, made armor and weapons and tools.

Were their nests… their bands… were they family units, like humans had? Were they just trying to survive too, to protect their own?

Were they once humans themselves?

At the end of the day, Fort Strong’s inhabitants lay slaughtered—just like the ones Nate had killed alongside Danse not so long ago, like the one’s he’d blown up on Daisy’s behalf in an old library not long before that. He’d never learn anything more about them.

Nate’s comrades went celebrating, many inviting him to join them in the mess room before bed, but all he could do was shake his head, let them leave, and say he wasn’t feeling well.

He spent his evening alone, clutching a bucket, throwing up, and crying for the kind of soldier he had to pretend to be. Emmett the cat curled into his side and refused to leave.

 


 

“Reporting for duty.” Nate’s fist leveled over his heart for the hundredth time.

Lance Captain Kells inclined his head in a subtle nod, arms tight behind his back as he regarded the ship’s controls. He continued scribbling calculations on a spare sheet of paper, letting his subordinate marinate. Nate understood. An officer was ready when he was ready.

Today, Nate’s armor hid that he looked as sick as he felt: pale, waxy, and drawn. His nightmares hadn’t allowed him much rest again. He’d been doing missions alongside Danse on autopilot, keeping his eyes and ears open, trying to seem the successful, eager military man. But the phrase crisis of the soul had needled into his thoughts—who had introduced him to that phrase, that perfect summary of feeling split open, nauseous and needing? It wasn’t something that really came up in everyday conversation.

Nora. That’s right. It had been Nora, during his PTSD therapy…

“Knight,” Kells finally spoke, arms stiff behind his back as he turned. “What do you know of the Railroad?”

Nate’s brain froze into a molasses ooze. He had to force himself to process Kells’ expression—the man didn’t seem angry, exactly. But he rarely showed any emotion. For all he let on, Kells could be raging. “I… heard of the Railroad while traveling through Diamond City. Rumor was they were a pro-synth organization.”

“Then you’re informed. Good. Our mission against the Institute is our top priority; however, this Railroad is rumored to be capable, if small. It’s a misguided lot trying to liberate synths, sending them running all over the Commonwealth into new lives, infiltrating communities. As you can imagine, they have few allies.”

An airy balloon of relief lifted in Nate’s chest. This wasn’t about him at all. “A real bunch of crazies, then.”

“That may be so. But they use subterfuge and guerilla tactics to harass their enemies. Our tactical analysis says they could possibly hamper our operations—and I need more data. Your familiarity with the layout and dangers of the Commonwealth makes you an ideal candidate to help with this effort. According to Paladin Danse, you’ve traveled extensively through the areas we suspect are Railroad hotspots.”

That bubble of relief in Nate’s chest… it started to pop and deflate.

“Our people captured one of their synths en route to one of their safehouses. I want to deploy you to the site, assist the paladin there with his intelligence efforts, and report back here.”

Nate had no other option but to salute. “I’m on it, sir.”

“Good. And Knight?” Nate paused, looking into that piercing gaze. “I want results.”

 


 

When Nate stepped into Paladin Irving’s makeshift base, he’d come to a decision. Letting Initiate Clarke go had been an act of conscience—he couldn’t betray his own personal morals, or he’d be ripped apart inside more than he already was. He could barely even think about looking Hancock in the eye if it came to that.

Maybe he wasn’t done with what he set out to do here. And maybe, some men could commit atrocities they didn’t believe in and tell themselves it was for the greater good.

But Nate wasn’t one of those men. He knew it now. He was no more a proper spy than he was a proper knight.

And so, he knew from the moment he set foot into this mission that he was going to sabotage it. Not wait and see. Not gather intelligence.

Fuck. Something. Up.

Then he’d pray Desdemona would forgive him if that made this mission go south. He flashed around his red cleaning cloth on his bag like it was an S.O.S. flag when leaving the Prydwen—still had it tied there. But no Railroad member came. None had contacted him at all during this long heartache of a week—and yes, they’d warned him they might not be able to, that his best bet was to sneak out and find a dead drop… but it was really fucking hard not to feel alone in this mess.

He could only be grateful that Danse had agreed Cambridge Police Station could use his own attention for a short while. Nate would handle this mission alone too.

Irving seemed to have settled on an old bar with blown-out windows for his base, right near the Commonwealth’s center. A silence lay thick over the dark ruin, one that made Nate’s neck hairs tingle, and he couldn’t figure out why. The dust on the ground was freshly disturbed, the linoleum beneath scratched by the passage of heavy, metallic boots.

Yet no one else was here.

Wine cellar, maybe? This place looks like it used to be upscale. Indeed, there was a staircase leading down in the back.

At the bottom lay a dusty room with overturned wine racks jammed along the far wall. And there rested a long table as well, two men beside it—one was leaning against his power armor, sipping from an old green bottle. His pale head was shaved and his bare arms were traced with scars. The other was scrawny, clothed in an orange-and-white jumpsuit, and secured firmly to a chair with a chain.

“Welcome, Knight.” The scarred man nodded, barely looking up from his wine. His power armor was hulking and strange, full of little modules Nate had never seen before.

“Sir.” Nate raised his fist to his chest, certain this must be Irving. “Lance Captain Kells ordered that I meet you here and assist.”

“I know.” The man nodded approvingly. His voice was sharp gravel. “Was wondering if I’d be waiting forever. Now get out of that armor and be at ease, for God’s sake.”

The prisoner in the chair weakly lifted his head to see what was going on. As Nate exited his suit and took him in, his heart rang loudly in his ears. This had to be the synth—his face was purple and swollen, eyes squinting through battered lids. Blood seeped from one corner of his mouth, tears dripping down his cheeks. There were no visible marks of chrome or gears, not like Valentine or the other androids Nate had seen so far.

In those eyes, there was only fear.

“This is a synth…?” Nate whispered, adjusting his revolvers to rest properly on his hips again. Sure, he’d heard they could appear perfectly human, but… “He… how do you know…?”

“One, it’s still wearing its fucking Institute rags. Fresh out of the factory, it seems. Two.” Irving snorted. “It told me.” Nate saw then that the paladin’s knuckles were smeared with blood, but from no injury of his own. “And you’re just in time, because this thing fortunately decided to cooperate. Now, Kells told me you’ve got some savvy with this locale. That so?”

“Yes, sir.” Nate’s gaze couldn’t help but flicker back to the prisoner, over and over. The young man’s head was starting to sag again, like he was resigned… ashamed… or simply in a great deal of pain.

“Good.”

Irving waved at a second bottle next to a lantern on the table, a smile dancing on his lips. Clearly, he’d liked everything he’d heard from the interrogation. Nate thought to reach for the alcohol, just to go along and get along while he processed, but found that littered around the booze was an assortment of metallic instruments: sharp, blunt, and spiked… quite a few stained red. The turn in his stomach made him realize liquor would be a poor idea.

“It seems the Railroad keeps their toys in the dark when they’re schlepping them from spot to spot,” Irving continued. “It says something, that even they don’t trust these things. But, this one caught glimpses of people and places.” The paladin picked up a map resting on the table as well, unfurling it, securing the corners with other bottles. It was a yellowed, prewar thing—full of redrawn lines demarcating the big changes in the last two hundred years. “Apparently, this synth was once offered the option of—get this—going to a doctor ‘nearby’ that’d download new memories into its ugly head.”

Nate stopped breathing.

…New… memories? A doctor nearby?

…Oh shit! Amari’s Memory Den!

“Of course, it doesn’t fucking know exactly where that doctor is, because the Railroad has some goddamn opsec at least. But only a few places could possibly have access to that kind of tech—it has to be a town with a minor electricity grid, or a building sustained on its own generators, reasonably protected. I’ve narrowed it down to a small area, based on where we picked this synth up and what it’s said since.” He drew a circle over a two-mile radius. In its boundaries was a place Nate knew very well. “I haven’t shared all my thoughts on this with the Elder yet, though. There’s something I’m unsure about—this Goodneighbor place.” He pointed. “It’s supposedly a dive, a fucking nest of mutated freaks. Shoe fits that they’d be synth sympathizers, too. Railroad’s headquarters may very well be in this area as well—good spot for it—and I bet that if this supposed memory doctor is in this town, we just tug that thread, and they give up where the rest of the operation is.”

The man in the chair made a tight, choked noise. His shoulders shook.

A low whine was building in Nate’s ears. It felt like he was dissociating from his body. Yet, his voice was calm, tight. “…What do you need me to do, sir?”

“I need you to take me there. I want to do some investigating, see if the rumors are true.” Irving laughed, coming up alongside and slapping Nate’s shoulder. “Hell of a good feather in a new knight’s cap if you do well. We find something, we call in the forces. We take the tech this doc’s got, and we repurpose it to actually help some humans. Maybe do some good. Then we wipe out these Railroad assholes. Get a drink!” He held his wine bottle aloft in a toast. Blood still on his hands smeared the glass.

Nate watched the lantern light hit Irving’s prize, sending dappled green spots across the floor and wall. “We’ll be wiping out most of those… mutated freaks… in Goodneighbor too, right?”

“If they’re sheltering this group? Probably sooner rather than later. Hell, the Elder might think Goodneighbor’d be a decent outpost if the infrastructure is sound.”

“Yes, sir.”

Irving turned to roll up the map, smile still on his scraggly face.

Nate drew his gun and shot him: a clean blast to the temple. The paladin crashed onto the table and toppled to the floor.

A cry came from the synth in the chair. His head rocketed up.

The roar in Nate’s ears began to fade. As he lowered his shaking hands in the still air, blinking, he only now began to understand the repercussions of what he’d just done.

“…Oh. Well. Fuck.”

 

Chapter Text

A storm was coming.

Hancock could feel it deep in his bones, a snapping, seething electric current. So too, he expected, could the grim noseless faces staring up at him below his balcony, and so too could the ghoulish Watchmen by his side, bayonets forward, digging tight into Marowski’s wincing backside. Their prisoner balanced haphazardly on the statehouse balcony railing. A thick rope hung ‘round his soft neck, tied to a post.

Radstorm? Yeah. That was this feeling lighting up Hancock’s skeleton. It’d hit in a few days, and it’d be a big one. One no one here was going to forget.

“You know,” he bit off, voice floating jagged over the hushed, angry crowd. “We haven’t had to hang a single person in Goodneighbor since Vic.” A wash of hissing and booing rippled through the ponderous silence. Some memories ran deep. “What I’m saying,” he said, lighting a cigarette, soaking in the placebo calm-down, “Is that you gotta fuck up pretty badly to end up like this, man.”

“SHOVE HIM OFF!” someone down below bellowed. A rotten tato exploded across Marowski’s sweat-soaked button-up in a cloud of sickly-sweet red. More in the crowd started to jeer. “Kidnapping Institute prick!” A cabbage burst into a leafy shower on the man’s shoes. Marowski’s Adam’s apple bobbed in a panicked dance as his knees shook, as he almost lost his footing. The bayonets kept him from tipping backwards, though they drew a line of blood under his shoulders for their trouble. The former Triggermen boss didn’t even seem to notice. He was transfixed by the sea of rage waiting to embrace him down below.

It was near certain the entire damn town had turned out for this moment.

Well, the guy always had wanted to be a big-shot.

“So.” Hancock smiled. “What’re we gonna do,” he asked the crowd, all pleasant and mellow, “When he’s dead? About the Institute, who he sold some of us out to? About the damn Brotherhood?”

They all visibly hesitated. Someone actually lowered their cocked rotten produce and blinked. Now these questions, they weren’t really in the script for this part of the afternoon. This was where he was supposed to just order the deed finished. This citizenry showed up for some justice, all riled up and righteous, and when it was done, they’d disperse, feeling properly revenged.

But that wasn’t how it was gonna be today. Justice wasn’t gonna be done until Goodneighbor finished getting shaken awake—until everyone fucking knew what this meant.

“I’m serious!” he roared, putting out the butt on the balcony edge. “What’s the plan, citizens? We didn’t ask for a war, but it sure as hell showed up, didn’t it? And it was always coming! Marowski mighta just invited it in a little bit sooner.”

We’ll fight then!” someone bellowed in answer, and a raucous cheer took root. Another tato hit Marowski’s shoulder and erupted in a splatter of rancid goo. The man trembled and flinched.

A little flare of warmth curled up through Hancock’s proud heart. Of course they’d fight. He knew that. “Hell yeah we’ll fight!” he cheered with them, helping their voices rise higher. “Hell yes we will!” And as the clapping finally started to dim, he leaned forward, palms gripping the wood. “But are we gonna fight dumb?

“HELL NO!” the crowd answered.

He pressed himself out even further, watching Fahrenheit edge in, like for a second, she was worried he would pitch forward and off. “And are we gonna fight alone?

“We ain’t alone!” a woman yelled—nice, Daisy! She could always be counted on for good audience energy.

“Got each other!” another ghoul yelled. This was meant with a chorus of cheers.

“Damn skippy!” Hancock replied, pointing at each of them in turn. “And you know what else Goodneighbor’s got? For the first goddamn time?” He let them marinate in anticipation. “We got friends, people. Friends fighting for us. The Minutemen are back, and they’ve pledged their guns to give us a hand in these dark times.”

Surprised murmurs billowed in a wave.

Yeah, he knew. No one had ever fought for Goodneighbor except her own. They’d need a minute to process.

“But we can certainly take care of our problems by ourselves if we have to—can’t we?” He laughed. A near delirious wave of affirmative cheering came back to greet him.

“This is insane,” Marowski hissed. “Hancock—you can’t take on the Institute. You have no idea the kind of power they have. There is nothing in Goodneighbor that—” He yelped as a bayonet pressed in closer, cutting off his remark.

It was better to pretend the guy hadn’t spoken at all. He had nothing of value to add to this. Hancock bellowed: “You wanna all show the Minutemen we can take care of ourselves? Show the whole Commonwealth no one fucks with us?”

Ecstatic whoops answered.

Well then, we need to clean up our town so they can see that, can’t we? Because how the hell are we gonna win any battles if we can’t even throw out the mob, the Gunners, the mutants, and the raiders blowing up our front yard and draining us dry?!

The folk of Goodneighbor erupted into a fervor—and it was fine that they didn’t know yet what they were going to do about all this, only that they were going to do it, that they had to do it. They were going to survive, and they were going to fight, and they were going to win, by god, because they were tough and angry, and they weren’t going to put up with anyone trying to snuff out their ornery selves.

Hancock sliced the air with a hand.

The Watchmen shoved.

Marowski shrieked.

And the crowd roared out its victory bellow.

It was quick. A clean snap of the neck. No dancing. No dragging it out.

But the witnesses of that death, they began to chant, and Hancock knew they’d all needed that push to mark this place’s new birth.

“Goodneighbor!” they cried. “Of the people! For the people! Goodneighbor!

Hancock hopped up on the railing then too, winking at Fahrenheit so she’d stop that lunge for his coattails to make sure he wasn’t going to crowd surf. There he balanced, on that thin precipice, looking down just like Marowski had. But the rage was gone now in his audience. No, now it was righteousness. It was rebellion.

That he could get behind. That gave him joy. “Alright then! Goodneighbor! I’m gonna need some volunteers!”

He needn’t have even asked. Hancock knew the soul of this town. He would receive their fiery pledges in abundance.

 


 

Days and nights fell away under busy hands and dirty boots. Business owners shored up supplies while fighters cleaned their guns. Even sturdy-hearted drifters with nothing but the clothes on their backs lent a hand to shore up the walls of their greatest refuge. Very little could unite this motley, but a huge helping of fuck-you spite against the world did a fine job.

And above them all, storm clouds slowly collected.

Miles away from Goodneighbor now, the voltaic sky rumbled too, black and foreboding.

John Hancock underneath it? Well. He felt alive, a red-cloaked specter of revolution. The roots of his teeth lay tingling, his blood humming electric. Sitting up against a rotted old car, the ozone all around was making him giggle deep in his chest. He couldn’t stop. “Pass me some joy, Philly.”

“You got it, boss.” The ex-Triggerman sitting at his side handed over a grenade, straightening his tie with thin, scarred hands. Philly clung to his pinstripes yet, like many of his confederates—always room for a little classiness in war. Three other ghouls crouched behind another car not far away. Bright lights danced in their mutated gazes, the mad charge of the coming weather giving them rictus smiles.

The grenade went up and over Hancock’s head.

A Gunner crouched around the car opposite took off as she saw what was hurtling her way, but it was too late. The wastes, at least, blessed her with a quick death. Her friends didn’t take that too well. Another mercenary just beyond leveled a few potshots at Hancock’s cover, blasting out the remains of the car’s windows.

Another wave of thunder then vibrated the sky and earth, making the mercs sit up and pay attention. Sickly brown-green clouds rushed from the south, monstrous, shaped like thick anvils. They might have been easy to miss for all the other storm signs rolling in… unless one knew they were coming.

Hancock cackled again. Yeah. Right about now, the Gunners were realizing just why this assault on their little outpost was from an all-ghoul squad, why they’d been herded so their position was turned from the approaching weather front.

“Fall back!” their commander screeched.

“Not gonna make it,” Hancock taunted quietly under his breath, the moisture in the air freezing on his skin. “Not unless you run.”

An instinctive countdown sang under his mutated flesh.

…Four. Three. Two. One.

And the clouds burst with a surge of white.

Rad-blizzard.

Chaos erupted as it began to fall fast and thick. The humans dotted along the ridge might know logically that they could last in a radstorm for some time. Sure. But snow was dangerous. It got inhaled where it could eat lungs from the inside out; it lingered and whipped at unpredictable directions into eyes…!

And it probably did a little more than just tingle.

Three low-ranking soldiers almost dropped their guns as they broke formation from the retreat, losing their cool, abandoning their job of laying down cover fire. Two of the ex-Triggermen surged up and made them pay for that mistake.

The rest of the Gunners started hauling ass, all the way back to the farm where they’d been holed up. Hancock wasn’t of a mind to let them get that far. These scumbags had “appropriated” three caravans heading to Goodneighbor now, and there wasn’t going to be a fourth. He didn’t even need a Jet—when he ran out from cover, the snow soaking him through, his legs were swift and his body was singing. Unslinging his shotgun, he lit up the earth at the heels of one of the squad, herding the man closer to the rest of his people.

Maybe it was seeing Hancock’s grinning, ghoulish face gunning for him, and maybe it was the horde of his well-dressed ilk also descending through the flurrying white, all screeching and roaring like they’d gone feral—but the man clearly panicked. It was infectious. These Gunners were now a stampede.

They didn’t even notice the mines that had been laid in their escape route. The mayoral coffers were good for at least one Stealth Boy, and the fifth other ghoul in Hancock’s party… well, he hadn’t yet decloaked.

The road exploded, and the Gunners went with it. Those that didn’t were so startled and dazed, it was easy to mop them up.

Not bad. Hancock picked through the remains as the dust cleared. Maybe all that chess with Fahrenheit was starting to pay off. And hell. One of the dead had a whole bandolier of shotgun shells. He grinned, wiggling eager fingers. To the living… go the spoils.

It was as he turned over the commander’s body did Hancock notice something truly interesting. This man was carrying a beautiful set of revolvers, the grips carved from bone, roses etched into the surface. They’d been chipped a little in the blast, but miraculously, they were in one piece. Hancock couldn’t help but turn them over in his hands, admiring how they felt, the smooth balance like an extension of his own arm. Man, these are way better than Nate’s. He’d probably light up if he saw—

“Boss.” Philly’s gruff voice smashed into him. The guy was bandaging up a deep, bloody graze on his forearm as he talked, though the radiation was already starting to make it knit. “The farmstead. We checking it out for… uh…?”

“Survivors?” Hancock nodded. “Yeah. Kill any more mercs you find.” Someone had to have owned that place before the Gunners had set up shop, and from what he understood… well, they weren’t real big on teaching recruits to work the land. Supposedly, this place had been an independent settlement once, according to Preston Garvey’s notes. Real family location. These thugs had needed food though, to fuel their little paramilitary machine.

Only two mercenaries had been left behind to hold down the fort. It was easy to flush them out. With their commander gone, they were nothing. And as Hancock strolled through an empty barn, eying a lone, half-starved Brahmin shaking in the corner, Philly came to find him again.

“There’s a farmer,” he said. “She’s… uh… just kind of sitting out there. Real close to the storm.”

From the concern Hancock heard, this farmer sounded like a non-ghoul. He was right. A woman was hunched in the dirt under a tool shed’s awning, her strong harvester arms wrapped around her knees—slouch so still and meek, anyone looking for a threat might pass her right by. He cleared his throat from a distance, shooing his boys back. The snowflakes flitted not inches from her skin. “Hey. Miss?”

She turned to look at him with a gaze wide and hunted. There was steel in that stare too—the look of a survivor—though from her proximity to the weather, it was clear that perhaps she didn’t value her own life that highly right now. “What you need?” she croaked.

Ah. His boys had… seemingly taken over the farm. She wanted to know what he needed. That was probably how she’d survived the Gunner occupation too, being accommodating.

Something inside his bleeding heart cracked a little, but he could tell from a hundred yards those eyes didn’t want his pity. “Ain’t gonna hurt ya,” he said. “Come on. You should get inside, away from these rads. We’re just here because the Gunners are sons of bitches.”

Her head rose fully now. Slowly, slowly, she stood. “…Yeah,” she said, voice cracking. “Yeah, they are.”

Her name was Rosy, though she looked more cut from dirt and rock than some kind of delicate flower. Hancock backed his people out of her personal space, and like a wraith passing through a graveyard, when the snow paused, she passed into the farmhouse and floated through the empty spaces that were now hers and hers alone. It was later, when he checked the shed where she’d been found, did he find she’d been crouching before a collection of little tombstones buried in the nearby yard.

The Gunners’ bodies, he ordered dragged off the property and burned.

That night, the storm fully ended—a white coat still blanketing the earth—and Rosy came by as they set up camp, offering her barn as a roof over their heads until they were ready to move on. Hancock hadn’t expected the bowls of molerat stew left thoughtfully in the doorway. But, he appreciated it nonetheless.

“Looks like this place grows mostly tatos and corn,” Philly noted as the evening drew in, as the lone surviving Brahmin snuffled in the barn’s corner, calmer now. Since the storm had settled, four non-ghouls Hancock had also been traveling with had come from their shelter a mile back, meeting up with the main group at this homestead. They’d brought along, of course, one pooch who was delighted to see his best buddy.

“Tatos and corn, huh? Good,” Hancock absently scratched behind Dogmeat’s ears, spooning out a little stew for him too. Reclining on a bundle of grain, he then took a half-puff of Jet, leaning into that good, deep slow. He’d been tense for so long, and it was starting to hurt. “Minutemen, they like their tatos. You’re gonna learn that, Philly.”

“Uh. Why, boss?”

The fraction of a high didn’t last for but a moment. Just enough for him to remember how to unwind his shoulders. “I’ve told you, just Hancock’s fine. Of the people, for the people. I ain’t above you.”

“You’re… you’re kind of in charge, though.”

“Well, yeah.” Hancock decided to chase his dose with a Mentat. Sometimes, one just had to actively work at wrapping one’s head around the logic of grunts. “And don’t forget it. But I’m on your level. First among equals, see? Anyway, sauntering around being heroes is hard work. Minutemen gotta eat something. For them, it’s tatos. Tatos all the way down.”

“Huh. I… see? Also. If you don’t mind me asking, Mayor… Hancock… sir,” Philly said as they finished their dinner, holstering their weapons. “This… this is getting pretty far from home. I still don’t get how this bloody patch of dirt’s gonna be all that great for us. I mean, yeah, driving off the Gunners from around town, sure, that’s good. And yeah, this is their closest big food source. But won’t they just take it back? We can’t stay.”

Hancock inclined his head. They had been out for days now, roughing it, trading out tired volunteers for fresh ones with each push as they cut a bloody swath from their home. “Drop those titles you keep trying to put around my name, and lemme see if I can put this in Triggermen terms. You like people owing you favors, right?”

“Yes indeed… Mayor… boss… goddammit.”

“Well, there ya go. Minutemen got a deal with us. We’re racking up favors, and when the big bads come to town, the kind we Neighborhood Watch folk don’t have the guns to handle alone… that’s what we got. A big fat favor they owe. We’re heading up to Sanctuary to tell their people all about it, a guy who’s all about protecting farms and settlements from people like the Gunners. It’ll be their concern then.”

“And the Minutemen, they’re not just gonna try and muscle in on our territory later, huh?”

“They’re not about that. Trust me. Real virtuous types. If they’re gonna stab you in the back, it wouldn’t be for your caps or chems. It’d be because you got too friendly with ‘em, maybe made some passes you shouldn’t have, and maybe they won’t go drinking and traveling with you anymore. Then they decide to run off and infiltrate enemy armies without you.”

“Uh.”

Hancock turned away as Philly grappled with what appeared to be an oncoming existential crisis. Dusting off his knees, he decided to catch a bit of an evening walk to shake the lingering antsiness out of his brain. Dogmeat quickly finished slurping up his stew and trotted after.

The moon cast a pale light overhead through dissipating clouds, sparkling off snow that would be gone by morning. In Hancock’s mind’s eye, he saw another farmstead—the Oberland’s. He couldn’t help but smile, thinking of a little girl tugging at his sleeve and asking, “Mister, if ghouls don’t have noses… do they still gotta sneeze sometimes?” God, her mother’s face had been horrified, and he’d loved that.

And Nate had been there too, all proud and smiling and kicking radscorpion ass.

His stomach sank into his shoes. Goddammit. Nate should have been here too.

In fact, during the Watch’s last volunteer exchange before this latest skirmish, Fahrenheit had sent word that they’d heard from tall, dark, and Vaultie. Hancock had bounded up and nearly torn the letter in half from caged energy. But it turned out, all Nate had sent had been classified spy shit. Fahrenheit just wanted to know if she ought to forward things to the Railroad like the guy had wanted.

There wasn’t anything in there… personal.

And that had made Hancock feel like spitting fire.

Yet, he’d still stuffed that Gunner’s fine revolvers in his bag like he was really gonna gift them to his ex-companion later. He kept doodling his day-to-day in his sketchbook too, like he was gonna tell a friend some good stories about what he’d been up to around the campfire. His stomach was turning with burning fury, and yet…

He missed him.

So fucking much.

He wanted that flash of too-perfect-for-the-wasteland smile. That quiet, steely confidence and drive, pushing every last mission to be a success—that no-words conviction between them of what was necessary and right. The burning will to spread kindness just because.

Nate would have known how to talk to Rosy too, maybe give her hope for tomorrow. He may have been lost in his head when it came to his own demons, but when it came to everyone else, he just beamed out some kind of subliminal it’s gonna be alright feeling. It’d been a balm to Hancock’s soul, wrapped up in its quest to find itself. And Rosy? She really looked like she’d needed that right now.

Like the Oberlands, the farm’s new and only owner would have to pick up the pieces and soldier on. Whoever her people used to be, she was all alone now, in this place of ruins that looked like it once hosted acres of cattle and growth.

A throat softly cleared some feet away. Hancock snapped his head over—there was the woman herself standing awkwardly in the front yard, clothes still stained and torn like earlier. Speak of the devil.

“I’m glad for what you’ve done,” she said, hands wringing. Her speech was almost halting, like she hadn’t had a conversation in a long while.

Hancock tried to smile non-threateningly. “You’re welcome.”

“I also suppose,” she added, nodding to his feet, “that anyone who’s got a dog lookin’ at him at like that can’t be that bad of a guy.”

Snorting, Hancock glanced at Dogmeat, who was gazing up at him, head cocked. The mutt was balancing on his back legs, paws curled against his chest. His face said, Look at me, see what I can do! Now, treat? Treat please?

“Oh, fine,” Hancock grumbled, forking over a bit of jerky. It was happily snatched. “So. How are ya holding up?”

“As well as I can.” Rosy shrugged. Eh, that’s what her type usually answered with, even if they were missing a leg and most of their blood. “The Gunners were here for months, you know. Just rolled in like they owned the place.”

“After that bad business at Quincy.”

She took a long, shuddering breath. “Yeah. After Quincy.”

An awkward silence threatened to take root. Hancock headed it off at the pass. “Minutemen, what’s left of ‘em anyway, actually were the ones who told me about this farm.” That was mostly true. Garvey’s maps and papers in Sanctuary, at least, belied a certain fixation on the Gunners’ movements.

She stood straighter, eyes glittering in the moonlight. “You working with them?”

“Yeah. Bit of an initiative, ya see, trying to make the Commonwealth suck less.”

A true laugh barked from her throat. “You know, you dress a little crazy, but I like your style, ghoul.”

He decided that was meant as a compliment, so he’d take it like one, smiling. “Name’s Hancock. From Goodneighbor.” Deciding to go all-in, he offered a hand to shake.

Surprisingly, she took it, even though she hesitated. A little smile bloomed on her face as her grip grew firmer. “You think the Minutemen are gonna keep the Gunners back this time?”

I think the Gunners might be the least of your worries when the real fighting starts, but I hope so. “The Minutemen are getting stronger again, so they just might. You know, I’m headed up to see their main guy in a few days. He keeps scrounging up settlers and farmers and such… you want me to ask if he should send down a few hands? Place like this, you look like you could maybe use some help. And one or two extra guards.”

She stared at him, stunned. It reminded him of a conversation he’d had with Nate on one of their first mornings together—that no one out here expected help anymore. “Yes… yes! If you’re able to. I’d be happy to share harvest with the Minutemen, of course, like we used to, in the old days. And if I get help, I’d be more than happy to set up a supply line to your town, too.”

Hancock’s grin stretched wider, genuine. If there was one thing his people always needed, it was more fresh food sources. He wasn’t doing this for the prizes, but hey, if they came, he wasn’t turning them down either. “Alright then. Sister? You’ve got yourself a deal.”

 


 

As Hancock rolled into Sanctuary, Garvey gave him a salute like he was a visiting general from another army. The Watch shuffled by his side, watching. It was like they too were thinking they were supposed to have some kind of secret organization signal. Nah. Fuck that. Hancock went up to Preston and clapped him on the shoulder like they were old friends. “How’s it going, brother?”

The man blinked, as if startled. Finally, though, he relaxed. Hancock knew he wasn’t imagining the little sparkle in the guy’s eye. “You know, maybe you should tell me. I’ve been getting some interesting reports about the Gunner holdings to the east of here. Why don’t we talk in the command central?”

“Command central? Fancy.” Hancock sauntered away from his team. “Alright, ladies and gents, take a chem break! After this, we’re headed home.” They seemed all too happy to comply, exhausted and relieved bodies scattering.

The house where Garvey took him was perhaps the cleanest on the block, a hub of activity. A blue flag hung proudly across the back wall. Codsworth floated in after them, toting along a few cups of hubflower tea in his claws, and it was sorely welcome. Best thing in the world after my celebration march here. Killed some assholes, had some beer; good job, me. The sweet and spicy steam drifted up pleasantly from his cup, easing his slight hangover.

Sturges was tinkering with a radio in the corner, the kind that could both transmit and receive. It looked like quite a project, one far from done. On the meeting table, a huge, hand-drawn map of the Commonwealth was laid, little marked stones denoting what might have been factions, locations, and events. Hancock recognized blue stones at Graygarden and the Oberland farm, as well as more at other locations he and Nate had helped—and some they hadn’t. They were growing in number.

Garvey moved to stand behind this tableau. Hancock couldn’t resist pointing and give a cheeky grin at Goodneighbor on the map, also occupied by a blue stone.

“That doesn’t mean it belongs to the Minutemen,” Garvey was quick to say. “Just, you know, friendly. Oh! Have you heard from the General?”

Hancock’s mood fell frigid, like his soothing tea held a bitter poison. There was a dizzy sensation in his feet, like the floor was yawning open. He set his cup down. It wasn’t easy to keep his voice and expression neutral. “We’ve heard some things.”

“He managed to get some information to us—through a caravaner who came by a few days ago.”

Hancock turned and pretended to regard the flag on the wall. In all actuality, he closed his eyes, sucking in a quaking, furious rush of air. But a little ember of angry hope burned in his heart alongside that. Maybe… maybe he sent something else to Goodneighbor, too. Maybe I just missed it, being out here. “Wait. The caravan guy who told you—dark sunglasses?”

Preston sounded like he was shuffling with some papers. “…Yes, actually. How did you know?”

“Lucky guess.” So the Railroad was providing support like they’d promised, passing on the good word in Nate’s letters after Fahrenheit passed it all to them first. Great to see they were holding up their end of things.

“I like this Brotherhood less and less, from what I’m hearing. Their Elder’s the most dangerous kind of warhawk, with complete conviction. His people think he’s some kind of legend. It sounds like they really do intend on taking out the Institute first and foremost, but…”

“Yeah. You don’t send in this much power just fuck off again when you’re done.”

“Not to mention the sheer collateral damage that will result in the aftermath of the weapons the Brotherhood seems to possess. If the Institute can match any of it… they’re two titans.”

Hancock narrowed his eyes. “And that’s why Goodneighbor’s getting involved. Two giants stomping around like that usually just means all the little people are about to get stepped on.”

Garvey nodded sternly. “If we’re going to be in any position of strength in this, then it’s time for us to retake the Castle. I’d prefer to have the General here for this, but I have no way of knowing when he’ll be allowed off that warship without a leash.” His hand fell to a section of the map along the coast, a heavy black stone looming. “The old armory is there. And with the work you and he have been doing, we’re finally strong enough to make our move.” Preston worried the large rock under his fingers. “It was the true headquarters of the Minutemen once. Looking back… when we lost it… it was when everything started going downhill.”

Heart stuttering and pausing, Hancock swallowed. The Castle. It had been such a loaded thing, looming in his future, ever since Mama Murphy dropped those omens. “So what’s holed up in your old HQ, anyway?”

Preston sighed. “I wasn’t there when it fell. I was halfway across the Commonwealth, helping to kick some Gunners off another farm. But the way the old-timers talked about it?” His white teeth flashed. “A monster.”

“A… what? ‘Scuse me?”

“A creature from the sea. But look, I’ve had some reconnaissance scoping the place out. Looks like it’s just overrun with mirelurks these days. A nasty fight, but nothing too outlandish.”

“Garvey, if the only thing standing between your mortars and us is a good old fashioned ‘lurk bake, you know I’m there.”

A relieved salute came up. “We’ll be meeting at the Castle in two days, actually, when the sun rises. Perhaps you still want a Minuteman title, Mayor Hancock?”

Despite his inner turmoil, Hancock grinned too. “What, and have to ‘yes sir, no sir’ everyone? Why would I—”

It was then the front door slammed open. Mama Murphy staggered inside, weaving, her cap and shawl in disarray. Her eyes were wide and shiny, her breathing labored and harsh.

“Mama…? What on earth are you doing up…?” Preston rushed to her side. Hancock scanned her wobbly stance, concerned. This was a woman who usually clung steadfast to her porch chair, not someone to go staggering around without assistance, enough spring in her step to swing a door like that.

She certainly wasn’t able to keep it up. She leaned everything she was into Garvey’s strong arms, closing her eyes with weary strain as helped her onto a nearby stool, her back to the wall. “Preston…” she said, swallowing, her voice a harsh whisper. “John. I needed to… needed to talk…”

“Hey, you found us, tiger. Catch your breath.” Hancock kneeled, brushing her hair from her brow. Her skin was freezing. Hell, what was she doing out in the winter with just her usual clothes? She was frail. Old. He shrugged off his coat and draped it over her frame. “Sorry if it smells like the road.”

She nodded appreciatively and pulled it close, a small smile tugging at her lips before it was consumed with desperation again. “Something’s wrong,” she finally managed.

Preston’s brows knit together with concern. “What’s going on? Did you see something?” His hand edged up, as if ready to unsling his rifle.

“No, it’s…” Her thin fingers went up to rub her temples, like she couldn’t quite pin down the words.

Hancock patted her shoulder, stomach starting to churn. It had to be bad if she hadn’t even tried to get help before finding them. “It’s one of those Sight things, right?”

“Yes,” she finally burst, starting to breathe faster again, frantic. “There’s something very wrong. I need… I need Psycho. It has to be Psycho.”

Preston drew back like he’d been burned. “Mama Murphy, you’re not in the condition to even think about something like that.”

Hancock hated to say it, but he had to agree. That was a rough chem on the healthiest of bodies; he would know. And Mama? She was fighting for air. Her eyes were sunken in her head, dark bags underneath them.

She’s sick. There was something very wrong inside her, wasn’t there? He’d just been trying not to notice it.

He really tried not to dwell on the mortality of people he cared about.

“No,” she said. “No, Preston, this is important. I can feel it. Please.” The man just kept shaking his head. But the way her hands trembled, it was like whatever her brain was trying to fixate on was consuming her as surely as the rot trying to take hold deep inside. Her frantic stare passed now to Hancock, bright like an exploding star. She reached out, taking hold of his mottled fingerslike he and her were family, like she’d so much rather give him cookies and play board games until the sun set. “Please,” she whispered. “I know what I’m asking for. I know… and I’m asking anyway.”

Garvey didn’t understand that look she had, Hancock knew, or he wouldn’t have said what he did. “I’m going to get Jun. He usually takes care of her. Give me a minute.”

And he left—left Hancock there, holding an old woman’s hand as she silently pleaded with him to let her likely die for something neither of them fully understood.

“It’s like something’s clawing at me between my eyebrows,” she whispered. “There’s only one other time that’s happened… I didn’t listen…”

“But it turned out alright though, right? You’re still here.”

It was Quincy. For most of us… no… they didn’t make it.”

The weight of death, loss, and regret pressed down on them both. Breath caught inside Hancock’s lungs. “Why…” he said, “Why does it have to be Psycho?”

“It’s just the way the Sight works.” She shook her head. “I know it’s bad when it feels like it needs to be this. The Sight when I have Psycho, it’s always full of… bad things. Blood. Monsters.” She started to cough, covering her mouth, but fought it down, tears pooling at the corners of her eyes. “I don’t like it. But it… it’s what I do. How I save us. Please. Let me. I can’t let Quincy happen again.”

For the first time in his life, when it came to handing over chems, Hancock hesitated.

She clutched his hands tighter. “Please,” she said. “If someone dies because of this, and there was something I could have done, I will never, ever forgive myself.”

This was the last thing in the world he wanted to be party to right then.

But the freedom to choose… it meant the freedom to risk life and limb for something worth fighting for. Even if the chooser was old… frail… cared about. Even if her methods were what some might think crazy.

He had no right to take that from her, did he?

“In my coat,” he sighed, voice rough. “Right inner pocket.”

She was shaking, but her willpower was rock solid. She dove into the frock wrapping her up and keeping her warm, pulling out the injector without hesitation or fear. She didn’t even need help rolling her sleeve or finding a vein that hadn’t collapsed under her thin, fraying skin.

Mama Murphy was a true professional, after all.

“If I make it through this,” she said, letting the needle sink in, “it’s just Mentats for me from now on, alright?” The joke didn’t quite reach her eyes. Her voice was quavering. Afraid.

“You know it. And I’m here with you, okay? No matter what happens.”

Mama nodded, sighing appreciatively through her nose. In went the plunger. The chem started to take hold. He knew from the flush suddenly reddening her cheeks that she was now drifting, letting go of her body’s reality. The rush was cascading after. It would be hot, fierce, snarling through her like a yao guai defending its den. Her eyes rolled back in her head, her neck lolling. She let go of his hands as her fingers started to gnarl into fists. Her teeth started to grind, her muscles spasming.

The injector fell to the floor, only half-used, but it was more than enough.

Quincy,” she hissed, voice scraping with what sounded like pain. “This is Quincy.”

“We’re in Sanctuary,” Hancock said, trying to keep her grounded. “You got away from there. You and all the other Minutemen here did. Almost back on your feet again, right?”

“No,” she rasped. “It’s Quincy. The Gunners. The murderers. Angry. So angry. They know what we’ve done. They’re coming from the south. Coming to finish the job.”

Suddenly, she pitched forward, and even though he was trying to brace her, her body wasn’t having any of it. She hit the ground hard, convulsing, gasping for air. He struggled to keep hold, to not let her head smack the wood as she flailed.

“They’re here!” she cried, tears streaking her face. “They’re here!

 

Chapter Text

As Nate marched a double-time towards Sanctuary, his heart pounded a frantic drum. A subconscious beacon was telling him to return home—even if he didn’t understand, even if his home was gone forever.

His entire mission was about to fall apart.

But it couldn’t have been any other way. Maybe he’d been near sleep-delirious when he’d pulled that trigger on Irving, not even considering anymore the usefulness of staying incognito—but his choice had surged from terror for a place and person he couldn’t stand to place in the crosshairs. And when he’d destroyed a prisoner’s chains with a quick yank of his steel arms, he’d known he’d done the right thing.

“He was finished with me… he was going to kill me,” the synth had chattered, frightened tears spilling over. “Thank you… thank you…!”

“I’m with the Railroad,” Nate said softly. “Are there any more soldiers around?”

“No, he sent them away already. He wanted to get his information back to wherever these people came from…” The man wiped away his weeping, smearing old blood across his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I told them everything I knew.”

“It’s not your fault. No one trained you to resist torture.” Nate was mentally floating in a faraway place, a part of him fixating a contingency plan. Irving had said Maxson hadn’t been told everything yet, verification being needed, so maybe… maybe some intelligence was still safe. Like Amari. Like Goodneighbor.

But one had to act as if none of it was.

He put out a gentle hand to brace his new friend’s shoulder. A violent flinch rocked the man back. No. Of course not. This battered soul probably wouldn’t want to be touched for a long time.

“It’s okay…” Nate said, still hushed. “I have some stimpacks. And I’m going to get word to my people. We just need to get you somewhere safe. Is there anyone else who might come after you?”

“The Institute,” came the hollow reply. “A C-Courser.”

Nate stilled. Of course! The Institute. A plan was forming in his mind. Perhaps he could keep his cover after all.

The first thing he pulled from the room was Paladin Irving’s body. Bullets weren’t the Institute’s style, and if he wanted to make this attack look like a Courser’s doing, make a report to Kells about it, then he couldn’t leave evidence. A corpse was easy enough to hide in the ruins, trash and debris concealing a shallow grave.

Nate’s pulse still beat a guilty and frightened cadence as he dug out every last scoop of dirt to do the deed. After all, Irving hadn’t been a chemmed-up raider or a charging super mutant. He’d offered a drink and shown Nate his back. Maybe he was still a monster for all he was planning to do—but Nate had never been able to entirely suffocate the pain of seeing the whites in his enemy’s eyes before gunning them down, the constant reminder of fear and humanity and murder.

Still, he knew he would find a way to live with this killing. He’d found a way to live with everything else he’d done in war.

It was for a good reason.

The second thing he dragged away was Irving’s power armor. He squirreled it away under a debris collapse, pulling concrete chunks free with his own armor’s strength, burying his prize back beneath. He wished he could take it alongside his own suit, seeing all of its experimental-looking bits and bobs—but his new friend certainly wasn’t in the condition to pilot, even if he knew how. So it was something to come back for. Nate, at least, sure as shit wasn’t leaving it to be claimed by any random asshole just happening by.

…Though he did take the terrifying gatling laser it’d been shouldering.

The synth—Paul was the name this man had chosen—was left to recover while Nate worked. He seemed grateful just to sit and sip purified water from a tin while wrapped up in a blanket. His glassy eyes flickered, processing the clouds.

And as Nate finished concealing his new armor, he saw shadows shift slightly around a corner, heard the soft scrape of shoes. Jerking upright, he pulled his gun.

“Easy,” a voice came. “Just a humble trader passing by.” A man slunk around the bend.

A man wearing sunglasses and an amused smile.

“Oh my god. Deacon.” Nate almost broke in half from relief. “You’re here.”

“Of course I am. I told you I’d keep an eye out for you.” Deacon gestured to the supply pack fastened to the back of Nate’s power armor, to that bright red signal cloth.

“You saw it?” Nate whispered, almost hollow, happy and shattered both. “I was starting to think I was alone.”

“You never were, even when I couldn’t get near that zeppelin. Just letting one of my few partners bite it on a Railroad mission might get me a rap on the knuckles, you know?” Deacon’s smile was easy. Here was a friendly face—a person that Nate didn’t have to lie to—and he almost wanted to hug the man. But he decided against it. He was still in power armor, and didn’t want to crush. Besides, Deacon wasn’t exactly that kind of friend, anyway. “We got your letters,” the stealth agent continued, leaning casually against a concrete wall. “Fahrenheit passed them along.”

“Fahrenheit?” Nate blinked. Not Hancock? Something niggled in his gut, alarm unspooling, wondering if John was alright, if he was…

“I sent your Minutemen friends a few bits too. I figured you’d like that.”

Nate seized on that, grateful for it, knowing there wasn’t time to ask for all the news. “Thank you. I’m glad I got through. And I’m sorry to endanger my mission like this—but I’ve, uh, got an urgent package to deliver… right now, it seems.”

“That you do.” Deacon jerked his head to the bar. “I can take it from here. I bet Desdemona will be happy to know this has been handled.”

“He talked,” Nate croaked. “I don’t know how much. The paladin here knew about the Memory Den.” If Deacon was surprised or dismayed at that, he didn’t let it show. “He also figured out the general area where the Railroad HQ is. Like, within a two-mile radius. You need to get out of there. I killed the paladin, but he’s already sent his knights back to the Prydwen with information, and I don’t know how much.”

An unreadable nod was his answer. “Understood. You did good.”

Something inside Nate shuddered with relief. I did good. “Is… is the mission over?”

He would do anything for this nightmare to be over.

“If you want it to be.”

Nate sagged under the awful weight of that hesitating, ambiguous reply. No. It wasn’t like Deacon or the Railroad just to show him a door and outright tell him to walk through it. He had to decide.

“We might have to go into hiding again,” Deacon continued. “No more support for a while. You can come with us, or you can wait for us to contact you again, if we can.”

Nate stood there, teetering on a mental precipice.

He knew the Railroad could bring him an advantage.

Yet, he was fighting too many wars at once. He had too much investment and heart to be a spy, to not utterly break while doing it. These last weeks alone had torn open every last bleeding scar his years of therapy had knitted—he was shaking apart, making mistakes, and taking so, so many risks. Something inside was empty and numb and screaming, and he didn’t know what to do about it anymore.

“I need to think on what I’m going to do about Maxson’s army,” he said softly. “But I’m going to head up to Sanctuary for a few days, if you think you’ll be alright without me. I need to… need to get ready. We all need to get ready.” Kells would have to be content with the idea that this fledgling knight ran off for a few days trying to track “Institute agents” who’d ransacked this base. Nate’s first stop, of course, had to be Preston to share all the latest discoveries—the Minutemen’s guns might be needed in Hancock’s hometown very soon. Which made the second stop… Goodneighbor. Goodneighbor, in all its glory, and the man there in all of his.

“I’m sorry…” Nate whispered. “I’m going to have a lot on my plate. I’ve learned so much about the Institute from all of you… and we’ve done a lot of good… but it might have to be the tourist life for me with the Railroad after all, friend.”

Even if that meant closing an avenue for finding Shaun.

Even if it meant that.

Nate realized there were causes he’d inwardly pledged his life to, one of which being his best friend in the Commonwealth—and he would never leave his people in danger. For his boy, he would always find another way. He had environmentally-sealed power armor now, after all.

The Glowing Sea awaited.

“Need me to fire a laser pistol a few times at that wall in the bar?” Deacon’s pleasant smile didn’t waver. “Make the whole murder coverup convincing?”

Jesus. This guy was quick on the uptake. “If you can.” Nate let out a weak chuckle. “And Deacon? You know I’ll always help if it’s needed.”

The man saluted with two fingers to his brow, a wave goodbye more than anything else. “Good luck, partner.”

“You too.”

And with that, he was gone.

Again, Nate really was alone.

His journey to Sanctuary was fraught with uneasiness, a keen eye to the sky for Vertibirds and other watchers. Get home. Go. Go. Move faster, soldier. Rest when you get there. Most bandits, fortunately, seemed inclined to give his steel-clad self a wide berth, but that didn’t make the journey go faster. He was exhausted. Stumbling.

Eventually, he pushed himself so hard, he drifted off to sleep while still inside his armor, lying in wait to see if the road ahead was clear. He came to minutes later, jarred awake by a bird call. And the first thing he realized was that he was surrounded and trapped in a tight case—get out get out get out get out!—struggling, hyperventilating…!

Nate managed to hit the release and fall back to the earth, heaving air, barely able to move or get up.

If he didn’t make camp, he felt as if he was going to die.

That was when he stumbled onto an oasis. It was the old farmhouse he and Hancock had shared on their first night together: a mattress a shade too cozy, a yard too full of molerats. The vermin colony, fortunately, was still gone. No one else appeared to have settled inside the rickety, abandoned home, either.

Safe.

Nate flopped on that mattress as if his journey was done, even if Sanctuary was still hours away. Regardless of the danger, despite the fact that he had no one to watch his back… he was asleep before his head hit the cushioning. He’d driven himself too hard for too long. Here was his mandatory shutdown.

In ten hours, he would wake again to continue on his way—bleary, parched, and aching, knowing he dreamed, but unable to remember what. In ten hours, he would find an empty tin of Mentats on the floor, something left behind after a shared breakfast of Sugar Bombs not so long ago.

Holding it to his chest, he’d finally realize what John would have done in his shoes if faced with Paladin Irving—if he’d been the one confronted with a choice between endangering an important lie or doing what was right.

Nate would shudder with reassurance, and then, he’d hurry on.

 


 

Mama Murphy quaked quietly in Hancock’s arms now, coughing, weeping.

Garvey!” Hancock roared. “Anyone!

Another minute passed, and no one came. Of course, there wasn’t anything to be done for her now; either she was going to pull through or she wasn’t. But he didn’t want to let her fight alone—didn’t want that any more than he wanted her life-risking vision to go unheard.

No one was answering. Why the hell was no one answering?!

She clutched his fingers tightly, shivering, fighting for her air. Her eyes didn’t open. “Go,” she whispered. “You have to go.”

“I’ll make sure everyone knows.” This seemed to bring her some peace. Hancock pulled his coat tighter around her shaking body so at the very least, she might be warm. He gently, quickly kissed her forehead.

Then, as she wanted, he went.

The world outside the command center was quiet. Goddammit, of course Garvey had to set it up on the other end of town from the dormitories, where everyone would be gathered—no wonder no one was running back.

Yet there was no sound of attack or alarm, either.

South, she’d said.

Hancock stormed his way to that end of the settlement, unslinging his shotgun. A little guard tower rested there, like it did at all corners of this safe haven, a volunteer placidly watching the woods and fields. A little alarm bell rested at the man’s side, ready to ring in case anything went wrong.

But it wasn’t.

Yet, Dogmeat rose from where he’d been dozing in an old doghouse and crept close to Hancock’s flank, ears back. His lip curled as his darting eyes watched the trees.

Bad sign.

Hancock could make out the guard’s blue newsboy cap getting pulled low over his eyes as the man kicked up his feet on a nearby table. The hell? Was he about to try and get some shuteye? “Hey—” Hancock started to shout.

The quietest of snnnks hissed through the air. The guard slumped off his chair, quiet as the grave. One could see the red splatter from fifty feet.

LIKE HELL YOU WILL!” Hancock bellowed, then tore for the bell himself, slamming the ringer two, three times before another bullet sliced pain across his shoulder, barely missing its target. He dove behind the cover of a Brahmin trough.

The sounds of frantic shouting and rallying started to fill the air. Thank Christ, his alarm had gotten through. Preston Garvey was the first to burst around the bend half a minute later, his laser rifle spooling up, though no enemies had directly appeared. The man Jun was with him.

“Get down!” Hancock shouted. “Sniper!” The two men lurched behind the side of the command center as a blast shredded the earth where Garvey’s feet had been just a moment ago.

And suddenly, the southern guard post exploded. Hancock barely ducked back down again in time—wooden splinters and shrapnel embedded themselves in the dirt and walls. Four more grenades detonated in its wake, a cloud of dust and destruction along the perimeter. Fire belched to the sky. Smoke billowed black and angry, like an omen of what was to come to the rest of the town.

And through the smoke, through the trees, the Gunners came, camouflaged in dirt and green. Before them, flamethrowers started to spew, threatening to burn the settlement alive. Two stomped in on re-rigged power armor frames, whirring pistons sounding anger and war as they lifted miniguns to mow down their enemies.

At least thirty had rallied here, to wipe the Minutemen and all their friends from the face of the earth.

And Hancock realized… The Sanctuary Massacre was about to become Commonwealth’s latest tragedy.

 


 

Nate crested the hill, woozy and dehydrated. Sanctuary. He’d made it. He’d made it home.

Of course, it wasn’t that, really—nowhere was truly home. He realized this for the hundredth time as he sent his eyes picking through the cleared debris and house restorations to find something intangible to latch onto, something his, something he wouldn’t have to let go of again.

But Sanctuary could be close enough for now. The smell of wildflowers and the soft rustling of young razor grain… if this wasn’t home, then at least, it was a promise of peace.

Perhaps he’d want to get out of the power armor soon, though. Preston would call the whole garrison out if a supposed Brotherhood soldier just strolled on up the road, and he didn’t want to be responsible for sending up an unnecessary alarm if—

A clarion bell cut through the foggy and cold afternoon quiet.

Nate cursed himself. They’d probably seen him already. Well, nothing for it then, but—

And a blast of gunfire cracked.

Black, ugly smoke started to rise at the settlement’s far end.

Good god. An assault? Here? Someone was attacking a population of civilians?

Nate snarled and began to lift his steel boots higher, raising his deadly gatling laser in a declaration of battle. No. No matter how badly he was wrecked and how much more rest he craved…

…he would never just stand by and let that happen.

 


 

The Gunners advanced, quickly, deadly, the two in power armor kicking apart the southern guard post. All in their path fell to wrack and ruin. Garvey sent out a concentrated burst of red laser flurries, testing those armors’ defenses—but those chest plates glowed and cooled as if nothing had struck them at all.

Behind that pair came their squad of grim arsonists, protected as their tank-like compatriots drew fire. Their flamethrowers lost no time setting the dry, dead fields alight. If it hadn’t been for the recent snowmelt, Hancock knew their blasts would have raged through the grass in seconds and caught hold of the house he was using as cover. Shit! A team of assholes with assault rifles soon followed them too, keeping the Minutemen pinned as the fire-squad advanced.

Ain’t gonna be nothing left if they get past this line! Hancock snarled as a spatter of bullets chewed out the wood where his head had been, then crawled behind the old house to the command center’s left. He threw open its door and ran inside, concealing his position. The entranceway had no windows, and the dining room pointed to the north… there! The living room had two southward lookout spots, and through them the marching Gunners were clear. He came up under a sill, aiming his pistol through a halo of broken glass.

They hadn’t seen him yet. Good.

Two shots, and one of the rifle-slinging mercs fell in a tumble of blood and limbs. Serves you right, dickhead! Garvey took the opportunity outside to surge up and find a better position, his own rifle lighting up the front ranks. Between him and Hancock, in that moment, two more Gunners fell, a clear break in the formation.

Cracks and pops began to thunder fully through the town. More Minutemen were stampeding to the frontlines—and with them, the Watch. Dogmeat bounded forward, all furred fury and teeth, and shredded a Gunner’s leg. As the man toppled, an ex-Triggerman ran forward and swung a bat at that merc’s skull like it was the best way to say hello.

A shattering crack rang out as it connected. The Watchman roared.

Psycho was almost definitely involved.

Dogmeat quickly pranced up and darted into a bush, his compatriot ghoul running after. A retaliatory gun blast tore up the earth on their backs—a few of the Gunner’s friends were moving to give chase. But Hancock took care of that. He wasn’t gonna leave his people hanging.

Unfortunately now, the Gunners were very aware of his gutsy self chewing up and spitting out their right flank through the window. An angry machine gun blasted out the remaining glass over his head, forcing him to hit the deck. Bullets tore through the wall’s rotted frame. A trail of burning agony ripped across his back and shoulder, drawing hisses of shock. “Shit! Shit! Goddammit!” Hancock crawled away. But the shots kept coming.

Answering gunfire responded from his allies.

It was farther away than he liked.

Fuck! Are we losing ground?!

It was then, as he still hugged the floor, a torrent of bullets pinning him overhead, that the bitter tang of smoke met his nostril hollows.

The Gunners had made it to the house.

It was now on fire.

He finally managed to wriggle away from his trapped sprawl, getting to his feet. Smoke had begun burning through the wall in the dining room. Flames licked up the old, dry wood, decimating it like paper. Bubbling, oozing chemical rank surged out and wrapped around his brain—he could only stumble, dizzy and coughing in the haze as he staggered back.

Fire was ripping across this skeleton of a house like tinder. It would vaporize in fucking seconds.

He dove for the door. Abandon this place and find new cover. That was the only option.

But when he turned the corner into the hallway, there loomed a Gunner in camo with a rifle. The fucker had almost snuck up behind him. A thick boot connected with a bone-grinding thud into Hancock’s ribcage—the breath punched from his lungs. He fell into a heap against the wall, stunned, hacking, unable to breathe.

The man could have shot him. He could have advanced, beat the shit out of his paralyzed ass. Could have.

Didn’t.

The man just left, closed the front door, and laughed. And behind that door, a whole chorus of cackling rose.

Holy shit. They wanted to burn him alive.

Fuck! Fuck! Another guttural hacking fit wrenched from his core, his eyes watering as he fought to breathe.

Window. Window. He had to…

The remaining glass in the living room started to burst and shatter in the heat, as the flames surged on. Fire roiled overhead as he forced himself back and low again, crawling the way he came, out of the thick and poisonous miasma billowing up high. Embers began to smoke at his sleeves. He made a mad scrabble for the back of the house, where the fire hadn’t fully caught hold, where he could still catch his air…! A rafter collapsed behind him as he rolled for safety—and with it fell a huge part of the ceiling. A cloud of ash and dust blinded him.

Trapped in the house’s back now. Trapped unless he could move!

Hancock staggered to his feet, picked up a rotting chair, and flung it through all that was left of one last, grimy window. One could only pray there weren’t Gunners on the other side of that too.

Eyes swelling shut, asphyxiated mind starting to tip into oblivion, Hancock flung himself through his only exit.

 


 

Nate dove into the fray, cranking his gatling laser, sending two inattentive soldiers screaming into the dirt. A third dealt back death in kind with a fully automatic rifle—but the lead bounced off Nate’s armor, even as it sent his ears ringing, echoes of steel reverberating angrily through the plates. Nate charged and threw his attacker into the air. The man’s body hit the side of the burning house with an audible crack, and there he slumped, unmoving.

These nutjobs were running rampant through the town’s south end, sending up a row of houses into a brilliant, burning wall. The fire couldn’t be allowed to spread. This entire settlement would go up…!

But this part of the merc unit clearly hadn’t been expecting power armor resistance. They scattered. Nate charged after, intent on chasing them all away from their arson or killing them in the process. His gatling laser lit up the earth at their jackboots. A precious few still stood their ground and fought.

They didn’t last for long.

And finally, Nate reached the final house in the burning lots, his heart sick and sore. Holy shit. A new group of flamethrower-carrying soldiers, they looked up at him, and he realized they’d been jeering and laughing at their bonfire, standing watch at the door.

Like there was someone inside.

It was a boiling inferno. If he tried to get in there, he’d only get roasted alive in his own personal, armored oven.

A building whine in Nate’s ears swallowed him. And, he was gone.

He screamed, and he fired, and they fell, and it was all anyone could do.

But a burst of glass forced him to turn and remember himself. A chair flung through that blaze, tilting through a window. A man’s body heaved itself after.

John Hancock crawled shaking from that decimated opening, white drywall dust and ash settling over his tricorne like powdered sugar on a donut. He was coughing and heaving, gasping for life.

Oh my god.

What are…?

Why are…?

You…?

These less-than-ten incoherent words made it out of Nate’s stunned brain and onto his lips before he realized his mic was off. And after that stumbled an upswell of incoherent joy, all the relief of knowing, yes, John was alive and alright—he was standing and walking out of that fiery nightmare, like nothing had ever gone wrong. The universe had split open and caused him to materialize, answering the mental call of a friend in need.

Meanwhile, Hancock stared back as if Nate’s appearance was brought on by a bad flashback.

Then he raised his gun, lip curling, and Nate realized: in this suit, John had no idea who the hell he was.

 


 

Hancock shook his head clear of smoke, hacking his lungs up, scrambling into the light. More Gunner boots bore him down from the side, looking to finish the job. And before him stood a hulking, armored warrior holding a gun bigger than he was, pointing it right at his face.

In a microsecond of alarm and paralyzing confusion, as the Gunners closed the distance, his brain finally provided that, surely, these mercenaries wanted to kill him, but this giant armored galoot wasn’t pulling the trigger for some reason. The person was just… standing there. Staring, like that fusion core had sputtered dry.

Hancock knew he was either very lucky or very dead.

He hit the dirt at those metal feet and rolled as the Gunners opened fire, bullets tearing up the earth and weeds. The hulking tin-can soldier came alive then too, leveling the gatling laser and pumping the crank as Hancock scrabbled around those legs and behind. He could only thank Lady Fortune when the searing red bolts arced right into the charging mercs and he was near ignored.

They fell, and they did not get back up.

But because the enemy of an enemy did not make a friend, Hancock began to rise, ready to run again if he had to.

And he heard something new, something that stopped his heart.

The click of a microphone.

Are you okay?!” the man inside the armor bellowed, his roar crackling discordantly through his suit’s speaker.

Hancock froze, a rolling thunder in his chest, his nervous, labored sweat dripping salt into his burns. That voice…! It was like… like tripping over a hidden treasure in the dirt. A stash of unexpected and glittering hope.

A relieved, choked bark of laughter fell out of his chest. “Nate…? Holy shit? I’m… I’m fine! They’re here to wipe out the Minutemen! I think they pressed Garvey further in!”

You’re okay. Holy shit, you’re okay, and you’re… you’re here…?!

That helmet nodded, and Hancock could swear he could feel his friend’s fury at their enemies, a crushing tingle right in his chest and toes. As he cleared his lungs one, final time, he couldn’t help but put his hand to his heart and make sure he could feel its beat, that he hadn’t just blacked out and was dreaming all this. Christ, these Gunners had better hope they could do better than his bestie in full-fucking-power armor with that absolute monstrosity of a gun. Hancock knew soldier boy could decimate angry hordes on far less.

Elated, fresh wind in his lungs, he charged back into the fray. Furious, metallic footfalls roared behind him.

This was just as the world was fucking meant to be.

The Minutemen and the Watch had held their own. More Gunners than them lay in the dirt, and that was damn fine. But as Nate’s gatling laser sounded the charge, it looked like it was going to be a much bigger casualty imbalance in about ten seconds. Nate was a well-oiled killing machine; from the snaps of his deadly-quick arms around that gun to the shouts of rage as he pressed forward, it was clear he wasn’t standing for his own getting attacked like this. And clearly, these merc dickheads hadn’t been expecting this kind of pushback. They paled as they saw the tin-can knight and the ghoul barreling them down. A few even fled. Those that didn’t, died.

And finally, Hancock and Nate found the heart of this war, now that the arsonists had been put to bed—a fierce battle erupting in the town’s center. A rush of panicked settlers blew past them both as they made their way forward. Preston Garvey was returning fire against a man in full power armor too, a man who, every time Preston peeked out and got in a shot, would raise his minigun and fill the wall beyond with twenty more holes. Garvey’s face was grim.

He has to know he can’t take that guy!

But Hancock understood: the rush of settlers that had just fled past. Preston had bought them time to escape.

No. This ain’t your last stand, Garvey! Not by a long shot!

Nate charged past them all and fell on the armored asshole pinning Preston down, a rabid wolf on a molerat. And clearly, whoever the Gunners had gotten to fix up their power armor wasn’t as strong of a welder as whoever had done Nate’s. He just ripped the minigun out his enemy’s noncompliant hands, then wrenched off the man’s entire shoulder pauldron. As the merc rolled and kicked, trying to get out of this unexpectedly one-sided brawl, Nate stomped his leg in the knee joint. Something clicked and whined and gave. That was it. The power armor fell, broken. The man inside quickly jettisoned the back, intent on running.

But as soon as he was clear, a Minuteman’s laser musket fired a bolt into his spine. Garvey had risen, panting, nursing a wound on his arm. His aim was utterly true.

 


 

Losing one of their armored and their flamethrower squad, the Gunners’ morale withered. They fell back.

But Nate didn’t let them. Neither did the Minutemen. After this, to let these thugs escape to go lick their wounds… it invited another attack. Another burning.

In the end, sometimes, war demanded no survivors.

Finally, when the deed was done, silence reigned. The air sung faintly of smoke and char. Feet began to pound, not towards dead enemies, but to living friends. Minutemen grabbed buckets at the water pumps, endeavoring to put out the remaining fires, and more soldiers began to surround Hancock, raising their weapons against what Nate knew was the biggest threat remaining—him. He was a towering question mark of steel and fury. And so slowly, not wanting to set off any nervous trigger fingers, he began to lower his gatling laser to the earth.

Hancock spoke softly, waving down the rifles. “No, no, take it easy. He’s with us.” But there the ghoul’s words seemed to lose themselves as his stare narrowed, bearing Nate down with silent questions, arms falling slack.

And Nate suddenly noticed the entire bandolier of shotgun shells across Hancock’s chest under his grim face and cocked hat. The soldiers at his back weren’t Minutemen, either. They were a score of ghouls and humans alike, their scavenged, fragmented armor showcasing a cheerful caricature of their mayor’s face—like a personal guard. Quite a few were wearing Triggermen business suits too, badges bearing the insignia over their hearts. All were standing ready to defend their leader and the civilians of Sanctuary.

This was the John Hancock Nate had pictured guiding an army to overthrow the last mayor of Goodneighbor: the man, the myth, the revolutionary. His eyes couldn’t help but blur, a happy stinging in the corners. God. No matter what had gone on between them, this man had found a way to raise hell, get shit done, and make a difference. Nate was so fucking proud to know him. In fact, he’d do anything to be one of those people standing tall by his side right now—gun in hand, daring the world to be better than what it was. He felt his lips start to shake, stretching into an overwhelmed, ecstatic smile, one too charged to stay buried for long. He almost forgot to move, the hollow hole in his chest filling with sudden warmth.

Nate loved him.

That was all he knew in a shining, clear, brilliant moment.

Love: for those fathomless, rebellious eyes, for that easy smile, and for those articulate, bracing hands so ready to drag him, the Commonwealth, and everyone else living there into a brighter future.

He’d tried to ignore it, run from it, bury it whole. Make it tamer, make it manageable, make it something he could look in the eye.

But all his roads were going to come back here: to what he’d wanted to be home, because he needed a home, and the fact was, right now, it suddenly was home—because here was where John’s boots were standing. He’d killed for this man. Would die for this man. Was living in part because of him, too.

He had no other word for that feeling but love, no matter how terrifying that was.

And if he couldn’t run from it…

Suddenly, he was all claustrophobia and frantic, stunned urgency. He disengaged his suit, let the pistons hiss, and opened the shell as he crawled out the back. Hands over his head as he came around, armorless and vulnerable, he couldn’t help but shyly beam a smile right into that dumbfounded black stare. “…Hey.” The word fell soft and unsteady, but gleamed with hope.

Hancock’s stern demeanor wavered, just for a moment, an unsure bent crossing his brows. “…Hey.” Nate could see him slouch a little, his gaze still flickering with questioning and hurt.

Nate didn’t want their last conversation to matter. He wanted a do-over. He wanted his loyal wasteland companion back where he belonged, and he wanted to laugh and crow about their adventures, and he wanted to sleep again, some semblance of safety and peace by that side.

His feet were barely his own. They started to walk, then trot, then run.

He knew things were going to be alright eventually when Hancock sighed and spread his arms, not stopping him, just letting the hug happen.

I love you.

Nate’s face buried into that thin, warm shoulder, his brain electric with happy fire.

Not everything in the wasteland had to end in tragedy. Sometimes, beauty waited in unexpected places.

Sometimes, broken old souls got their second chances.

 

Chapter Text

Hancock was so certain that when he saw Nate, he’d know just what to say. His back was gonna be stiff and proud. And Nate could look at everything his buddy could accomplish, everything this ghoul was, and then he could take that high-horse bullshit and shove it up his ass. And maybe, maybe, after they’d yelled enough and said their pieces, Hancock decided he might be magnanimous and get the band back together again for a trial run. None of this diving into how things used to be, acting like nothing mattered. They’d have some real talk. Set some healthy lines in the sand.

But Nate had stood there and had the absolute nerve to stare at him, John Hancock, like he was the sun rising in the goddamn sky, eyes bright with pain and joy. That perfect, guileless white smile had bloomed on those teeth, able to disarm a man faster than any argument or punch.

Now, here Hancock was, getting lifted off his damn feet as Mr. Biceps hugged him like it was going out of style. What was this guy, half giant?

God, he was warm, and he smelled like that good soap, and…

Oh, to hell with it.

Hancock hugged him back, closing his eyes, enjoying being surrounded by the tight embrace of someone who was happier to see him than even Dogmeat when he got a fresh bag of jerky. I’m… I’m so glad you’re okay. This was like flying on the nicest, stomach-warming cloud.

After a few seconds, someone cleared their throat, as if uncomfortable. Probably one of the Watch. Oh fuck off, man.

But Nate hastily put him down, as if coming back to himself, like he’d just realized he’d gone and picked up the leader of the surrounding militia like an attention-starved yao guai.

“So,” Hancock quietly said, clearing his throat, patting Nate’s shoulder. “You… you look like you lived. Came back without missing anything… crucial.” He hated how much the fact that he cared warped that word into something tender. Everyone within earshot would know he’d gone soft now.

“You too.” Nate’s eyes were still aglow with that happy light.

This left Hancock at an utter loss. “I’m still mad!” he hissed, poking a finger at Nate’s sternum.

“I’ll make it up to you. I promise. I promise that on anything and everything I ever cared about.”

“Well…!” Snorting, Hancock, tried to hold onto his rage, but it kept slipping through his damn fingers like sand under the awesome, near-embarrassing earnestness of that megawatt smile. “Fine! Good!”

“…Good?”

“Yeah! We’ll… goddammit. We’ll talk later.”

A gleeful yip rang through the air. Dogmeat bounded into view, rearing up on his back legs to do a little dance. It was like he was going to pee from excitement. As he dropped, Nate rushed in, ruffling his fur and scratching behind his ears, burying his face in the dog’s neck. “Good boy, taking care of John for me,” he said. “Oh? Whaddya have there, buddy?” He glanced to where Hancock had tied a little bandanna around the pooch’s neck, which also seemed to bear the grinning-ghoul stamp of Goodneighbor’s militia. “Excellent fashion choice,” Nate announced. “Preston might be disappointed it’s not the Minutemen insignia, but I think he’ll understand.”

Dogmeat snuffled, taking in all the smells from where Nate had been, and licked his hands with abandon.

“I thought that was your dog,” Philly muttered to Hancock.

“Kind of? Dogmeat’s…” Mama Murphy’s words came back to him. “He’s his own man. Philly, look, I gotta go check in on someone. I need you to direct the rest of the Watch here—help the Minutemen put out the fires and shit, and get the wounded set up for medical attention.”

“You got it, boss.”

Hancock didn’t even have the energy to correct improper usage of boss. He jogged back to the command center, heart antsy and heavy still.

Mama was there, as he knew she would be, curled up in a tiny ball inside his coat on the floor.

She was so, so still.

Sighing, he kneeled, straightening her cap, gently closing her eyes. No one was around to see him cry for her, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been. It was fine, now and again, to be a little soft.

Mama Murphy deserved that much.

 


 

“It’s my fault,” Hancock said. “And I know that.”

Nate glanced over to his friend in surprise. They stood in the command center together, where Nate had staggered not long ago. His companion had been kneeling over Mama Murphy there, silently weeping—and all that could be done was to help him to his feet. She was taken away to be gently wrapped in sheets, prepared for burial. Hancock’s coat was returned, and now… now they stood together in this space, a vigil, looking at the floor where a kind old woman had once been.

Preston Garvey stood between them, his head bowed, a solemn statue. A cold, wet fog was frosting his rifle barrel. It was a long minute before words dragged out of his pressed lips. “When you say it’s your fault… you mean the chems?”

The edges of Hancock’s grimace lifted into a silent growl. “No. She took them knowing what she was doing. She wasn’t after a score; she was looking to save us, and she did. I mean the Gunners. I came charging up here, killing every last one I could find to make the Commonwealth safer. Raiders too, when I saw ‘em. Thought I was doing us all a favor, getting them out of the way. But apparently they got my message, and they fucking found you at the end of it. They follow me? Maybe. And maybe she wouldn’t have had to die if I hadn’t done that.”

“It’s not your fault.” Preston sighed, turning away. “Actually… this isn’t their first attack.”

Nate whipped his head up, eyes wide.

“It’s the second one,” Garvey elaborated. “Hard to keep a thriving settlement hidden for long, you know? And they’ve always… always had a grudge with us. The first time, it was only a few of them. We must have missed some, and word got back.”

It looked as if Hancock had needed to hear those words more than anything in the world. His shoulders almost creaked as they sagged, angry tension deflating.

He thought he’d killed her. Nate realized with a cold rush that he’d been too holed up in his own internal battlefield to ask what had even happened here, why the Gunners were crashing the gates, why Hancock looked so goddamn guilty about it. He’d just been thinking about how much he loved himand also that he never got to say goodbye to Mama Murphy, who had helped him so much. He’d never get to make her that cane now, or tell her that her prophecies had given him so much hope.

And John had been thinking it had all been his fault.

Nate swallowed and shoved his quaking hands in his pockets, trying to wrestle down his own fear and grief so he could help with his friends’. He tried to forget that the ground on which he stood also held the end of more than one life. This was the second time he’d been inside his old home since the bombs—after seeing Codsworth that first time, he’d gone inside of course, full of shock and disbelief. The fixtures were in the right places, but the smells, the pictures, the traces of family… they’d been blown out hundreds of years ago.

Nothing was there for him anymore. Nothing that mattered. The world had moved on.

At the time, he’d collapsed in the living room, had a panic attack, and hadn’t returned. Thank god the Minutemen had hauled out the broken furniture so he might pretend it was someplace other than what it was.

“Hey. Are you alright?” Hancock’s soft whisper to his left made him jump. “You’re, uh. You’re shaking.”

Nate stared, open-mouthed. He managed, “Of course. Don’t worry about me. Are you alright?”

The man just snorted a long sigh through his nostril hollows, a clear no.

“Mayor Hancock… if she hadn’t seen them coming, if you hadn’t gotten to the alarm and forced their hand…” Preston edged, “…Then maybe we wouldn’t have won today. Maybe they would have set half the town on fire before we realized they were there. Hell. Maybe we’d all be dead.”

That perhaps got through a little. The ghoul nodded tightly.

“I don’t…” Garvey’s voice twisted and choked. He closed his eyes, breathed, and came back down to try again. “I don’t blame you. For what happened to her.” Hancock nodded again. Preston’s mouth drew into a thin line for a long moment. “And she… was fighting some kind of sickness. At the end. It wasn’t just the chems. It made her want them more, though. Her time…” He sighed. “Her time was coming. I guess maybe she wanted it to be on her own terms.”

The light was starting to enter again into Garvey’s eyes. A horrible and sudden end in their lives was turning into a story they could all live with—and maybe it was just true enough to go down easy. Hancock rubbed his hands together in the cold. “She was a fighter.”

“A true Minuteman.” Preston nodded and plodded to the command center’s desk, looking to be fighting gravity.

Nate’s hand closed on Hancock’s shoulder. It was the same solid and warm it had always been, though the touch seemed like it made the man almost jump out of his skin. Hesitatingly, though, a hand came up, patting at the gesture in quiet thanks.

“General,” Garvey finally spoke. “Will you attend her memorial?”

“Of course,” Nate breathed in a rush. “You don’t have to ask.”

“I don’t know when you might be expected elsewhere.”

“The Brotherhood doesn’t even know I’m alive right now. It’s… whatever. They can wait.”

Hancock remained terribly silent. Nate felt him shift under his hand, a small squirm, what felt like the residual anger of so many words left unsaid—and here, now, when emotions were already high…

“Excellent.” Preston worried his hands together. “Also. One more thing.”

The uneasy twist fell right back into Nate’s gut. “Sure. What’s up?”

“This house… I hope you don’t mind what we’ve done with it. Codsworth mentioned it was…”

Oh. Swallowing back his pain, Nate nodded. “It’s much better that this place is used for something like this. I couldn’t really live here anymore, anyway. I can barely get through the door.”

Hancock’s mouth made a little oh of comprehension as he looked around.

Preston nodded, looking grateful. “I’m sorry to drag you through any bad memories. I hope I’m not about to again. You see… we found some things, when we were doing repairs.”

Nate’s ears perked. “Things?”

“Yes. Our best guess is that they might have been yours. Don’t worry; we didn’t go through it all… but if you wanted them…” Awkwardly, Preston reached under the table, withdrawing a small box. It was frighteningly light in Nate’s hands, clearly containing very little—but how much could have survived after all this time?

“Thank you.” Nate stepped forward, gratitude straining his voice. “This means more to me than you might know.” A solid hand fell on his own back now: John. The ghoul patted between his shoulder blades, a look of understanding in his gaze.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” Preston whispered, gesturing to the box. “Have to make preparations now… for the dead, for all the injured… and for the Castle.” With that, he spun on his heel, and he left. Despite this being the Minutemen’s command center, and the fact that Preston’s dull eyes said he wanted to be alone right now too, more than anything in the world—he probably wouldn’t dream of kicking Nate out of his old home to get that.

Nate and Hancock were left by themselves, one of them clutching an itty bitty box that contained all that was left of an old, dead life. And in between them lay mutual grief, words unsaid, and an argument that still felt raw.

Nate tried to remember that what also existed between them was gratitude and warmth, friendship and understanding—and something else bursting, full and new under his skin.

Hancock just slouched, looking at him sidelong, like he was uncomfortable, prickly, and having a hard time staying in place. Maybe he didn’t know what to say either. And sometimes, there really wasn’t any room for words. All Nate knew how to do was walk into Hancock’s space, setting the box down and opening his arms a little, the offer clearly there, if the man still wanted it. He knew that’s what he’d need to put the world to rights again.

“I don’t want another hug,” Hancock grumbled, crossing his arms, glaring at Nate’s knees. “I want… ah, fuck. I don’t know what I want.”

Nate sat in one of the stools, not sure what to do with his hands now. Of course that was a bad move. Of course it was. But he was at a loss for any other action, and words… they’d just abandoned him.

Wait. No. He had a couple. Maybe they were even the right ones.

“I’m sorry,” he rasped.

Hancock’s black gaze snapped up, widening slightly.

“For everything,” Nate added. “I’m sorry for everything. I shouldn’t have left like I did. Shouldn’t have treated you like that. I had a reason, but it was a stupid one. I was overloaded, really out of it, and barely able to explain myself too, but that’s not an excuse.”

“…Yeah… well…” Hancock mumbled. “M’sorry too, I guess. I don’t… I don’t got a lot of close friends. I mean, friends, sure, but not like I thought you were. So… I knew you were exhausted and maybe not… maybe not saying what you meant. So maybe I shoulda tried talking to you more before I blew my lid.”

Nate bowed his head. Not many friends… not like I thought you were. That phrasing sliced him open inside. “You really weren’t that out of line.”

“I probably was out of line on the Psycho, though, wasn’t I?” Heat suffused Nate’s cheeks. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Look, Mama Murphy wouldn’t want us fighting. So…”

“…So why don’t we talk for real this time?” Nate managed to look up and pinch a smile from his own face, an olive branch.

Though Hancock’s thin lips didn’t part, they upturned in a weary smile too. “Yeah.”

Neither of them said anything for a long minute.

“Who goes first?” Hancock awkwardly wrung his hands. “Like, me, then you, then…?”

“Um. You can if you want.” Because if I start, Jesus, I’ll probably tell you exactly how I’ve missed you while I’ve been away, and that’s probably too much.

“Christ. Okay.” Hancock’s hand went up, rubbing the back of his neck as he looked for his words. “So… I think I was pretty clear with you from day one. I’m all in, here. We go, we help people, we make bastards pay that deserve it. But I didn’t say anything about you deciding things for me. I’m following your lead out here, but I’m not yours to order around or to lie to when it’s convenient. Because we are friends, yeah?”

“Of course we are!” Nate’s voice almost broke, thinking even that was under question. “And what you’re saying… that’s all… that’s totally fair. I should have talked to you before just deciding for you.”

“And what about you? Come on. You were avoiding me back at the Railroad. Clear the air, man.”

Oh, damn. Nate croaked something unintelligible, then shut his eyes, forcing his brain back to square one.

The Psycho. It always came back to goddamn Psycho.

“When you took that chem, back at the church,” he said softly.

“Yeah… I know. I got kinda fresh. I know that’s not how things really are between us. Won’t happen again.” He gave two thumbs up.

That was like a slap in the face. “No,” Nate bit out, and now he didn’t know how to address the hole in his heart at all. Hancock had just pre-empted that talk entirely, acting like it of course didn’t mean anything, and it was probably uncomfortable for everyone to think about. Thumbs up. Nate could only reel to another hurt, one he knew how to look in the eye while he processed. “…Look, that’s not all there is to say there. But I’m going to let that rest for now. I was also avoiding talking to you in part because, for a week, I had to watch you somewhere between life and death, thinking you might just stop breathing or be a damn vegetable. And I was really angry about that.”

Hancock made a little protesting noise in his throat. “Yeah, I know, but… it was to save your life!”

“Believe me, I appreciate that. I do. It’s just… you’re reckless sometimes, you know that? All it takes to kill you is one bad decision, one bad hit!” He gestured to the empty space on the ground where a sweet old lady used to be, a face he’d never see smiling again. “I just…! I don’t want anything happening to you! Not after I lost Nora. Not after Mama Murphy. Not after everything. Do you know how hard it is, keeping someone as close as I do you… when you know how quickly they’ll get taken from you? If I lost you… I’d… I’d probably fall into some hole, John, and I don’t know if I’d get back out this time.” He put his hands to his temples, wanting to shake his companion by the lapels. “I just… I’m afraid, because I care. I care so goddamn much. I don’t think less of you for chems, I’m just…” He sighed. “Goddammit. I’m afraid all the time out here. I keep losing.” His voice cracked and faded.

Oh god, this talk had really gotten away from him. He’d managed to avoid talking about any of the physical attraction, but his heart… it was the one thing that wouldn’t be denied a voice anymore, no matter how much it frightened him to let it have that. What the hell was he even expecting Hancock to do with this knowledge, anyway? Promise to wear proper safety headgear when flushing out raider nests?

Shockingly, though, his friend didn’t ask him why he was saying these things, wondering how it all fit or what he could even do. Instead, he just looked like he’d been smacked between the eyes with a two-by-four.

“I…” Hancock finally managed, eyes flickering, apparently at a loss for words for once in his life. “I, uh…”

“Sorry,” Nate whispered, dropping his eyes to the floor. “That probably came out a bit awkward and sad-sounding.”

Hancock just sat in the stool next to him, slouched, fingers wringing a nervous squirm. It was the most disquieted and unsure Nate had ever seen him in his life. “It’s not sad, brother. I just… I don’t know if I expected you putting the thought of losing me anywhere in the same vicinity as your wife, is all.”

Nate shrugged, chest full of straining aches. “I don’t know what I am to you, John. But to me, you… you’ve been acting like the family I lost. And maybe it’s not right of me to put that on you, but I’m not entirely in control of my headspace right now. So… yeah. You’re important. And maybe that’s why I overreacted and wanted to send you home while I went off to do some dangerous shit, right after I thought I almost lost you to that chem. It was part of the reason, anyway.”

Perhaps this was where his friend drew some boundaries, backed him up. Nate braced himself for the worst.

But Hancock’s shoulder pressed softly into his. “Graygarden.”

“Hm?”

“When I was in Graygarden, and I wouldn’t let you stay with me while I was burning up from that Addictol? It’s because I really wanted you there. Fucked up, sure. But I didn’t want you to notice how much you suddenly meant when I was pretty certain you’d be telling me to hit the road after that. I wasn’t really dealing well either, with getting this close to someone so quickly. Surefire way of not getting hurt by someone, right? Chase them off before they get a chance.”

“I…!” Nate’s guts twisted up in painful nerves and warm curiosity both, in the realization that he’d truly meant something to this man then, and a rush of desperate need followed it: to be forgiven, to still mean that something, to salvage anything lost. “I... I guess... shit. No wonder we get along, huh?”

“Yeah, we’re fucking stupidity twins.” Their sides pressed together closer, their eyes not meeting. “You still want me with you? I… I can keep doing my own thing out here either way, you know. If I’m too much to keep around. But I’d be a lot safer with you watching my back, I bet. A lot happier, too.”

I don’t want you to ever leave, Nate’s heart replied. “There isn’t another person in the entire wasteland I want more with me.”

A snort and a smile crept into Hancock’s voice. “Not sure if that says something nice about me or something really awful about everyone else.”

Playfully, Nate bumped his side with his elbow. “It’s a compliment. I… I want you with me. I just… want you there.” His ears began to burn, forearm brushing his friend’s, his eyes everywhere but. “I’ve missed you like hell, John. You know, they gave me a locker on that war blimp, and I’ve fucking stashed it full of chems and shit I’ve picked up that I’m never going to use. I figured I’d smuggle them back to you sometime.”

Despite the grim, grief-stricken air in the room, Hancock choked out a laugh, one that appeared like it had to fight its way through a tight throat. His eyes shone. “…Really? You squirreled away away a shit-ton of chems for your ghoul bestie on a Brotherhood ship?”

“I’m just kind of glad no one’s inspected it, actually. It’s against regs.”

“Goddammit. I can’t… can’t stay mad at you. I just can’t.” Hancock finally turned and leaned in, accepting that awkward embrace still on offer. Nate’s entire central nervous system lit up with warmth and dizziness as a scarred cheek brushed against his own. He’d shied from contact from others for so long, and he’d craved this one man, this… this whatever it was they had.

It was funny. Here, in the presence and lean, strong arms of the very real John Hancock, Nate’s mind could barely scrounge up the tatters of that hungry, hysterical dream that had devoured him for so long. He didn’t really want to either, not for that moment. For a few, precious seconds, he was safe, stable, and glad.

There were still matters of the heart he was sorting through, but this, this was an incredible start.

“Will you come with me to the Glowing Sea?” he whispered as Hancock pulled away, the warmth the man had left in Nate’s core refusing to leave with him. “I got that power armor now, like we planned.”

“So, we’re headed to the beach after all. Or something like it.” The tricorn tipped roguishly, and god, that easy smile was all Nate had wanted for weeks. “Can’t say that doesn’t sound fun. You’re gonna have to teach me how to drive those bad boys.”

That sounded like a yes. Nate’s eyes stung with happiness.

“But,” Hancock added. “I gotta take care of something else important, first. Minutemen and the Gunners are, as best as I can see, at war now. Garvey told me about this joint, the Castle, that’s got their armory—maybe’ll give the Minutemen some real protection, right? Promised I’d help out. Thinking it’d be kind of rude to skip out on that, you know?”

“Then you know I’m there with you,” Nate said, an echo of what Hancock had told him over Kellogg’s body what felt like a lifetime ago. “I’d never skip out on Preston either. And... we might need the Minutemen at full strength very soon. The Brotherhood could be eyeing Goodneighbor.”

“…Well. Shit. Wish I could say I was surprised.”

“Yeah. We’ve got a lot to go over… but as for me getting back to the Brotherhood… some detours are fine. I’ve got a cover story.”

“Alright then! That’s what I like to hear!” Those blacks eyes gleamed. “So if that’s settled… let’s help get this place back in order, yeah? Let’s give Mama Murphy some real proper honors, too. Then go we kill some mirelurks, make it a lunch, see what we can do about Goodneighbor, and get us some sweet rads down south once it’s good.”

“Together, then?”

Hancock smiled wider this time. “Yeah. Together.”

 


 

The grave they chose for their beloved oracle was near where she’d spent her final days, just beyond the dormitory stoop. Perhaps, Hancock thought, it was so everyone here might think she was still watching the horizon for them, that twinkle in her eye. Someone had carved a lovely little marker from wood, painted it a bright, fresh white. Mama Murphy was what it said. She saw our future here.

The entire settlement had gathered, or at least, those who weren’t still recovering. It was dawn, and this was sixth of the Minutemen funerals. The thick clouds had parted, the barest ray of light reaching down to kiss them from the open sky. Five other graves rested at the town’s east, a quiet plot where, come spring, the grass would grow and the songbirds might perch. Five hats rested over those markers. And over each, Preston had stood tall and sure, telling the stories of brave men and women, his eyes clouded, but his words true.

But this spot stood alone, because it was hers, and it would never belong to anyone else like it had to Mama.

Wordlessly, she was brought. Quietly, she was buried.

And as the deed was done, the soil laid fresh, a wavering, reedy voice spoke: Jun. Now was when they would honor her, let her walk with them one last time and smile on them in memories shared.

“She was always good and kind,” Jun said, staring resolutely at his feet. “We’d never have made it here if it wasn’t for her.”

“We all owe her our lives,” Preston added. “Some might have called her old or frail, but she was stronger than me sometimes. Always kept me going.”

“Gave me hope,” Nate added, voice almost a whisper, but then, growing stronger, until all could hear. “I was so afraid of the future, but she was one of the first people to give me something to look forward to. I… one day, I hope to bring my son here. Tell him all that she did for us. For the Minutemen.”

A chorus of assent swelled. These people, they knew what they were about. Hancock didn’t want to interrupt.

“She always enjoyed a bit of tea before bed. Always gave me something to do,” Codsworth chimed in. “I believe we should plant tulips here. There are some about the same shade as her hat. If we can contact Graygarden…”

The world fuzzed out a little in Hancock’s ears. He wasn’t high. He’d just wandered into his own head. People were talking, sharing, adding thoughts of their own to the Handy’s suggestions, and much of it felt like a conversation he was an outsider to. After all, he didn’t call this place home, and he didn’t call himself a Minuteman. Some of this was for them and them alone.

Maybe… he thought. Maybe I oughta reconsider being sober for this. A commemorative chem trip. Maybe it’ll finally open my third eye, huh, Mama?

The thought was good and all, but if he took anything, it’d have to be Med-X. Something to dull pain was built for funerals.

Nate nudged him with an elbow. Swallowing, he realized several minutes had passed. People were looking at him like they were expecting something.

Oh. Right. He hadn’t spoken. Hadn’t realized they’d want him to.

Maybe it had meant something to them though, that he’d been with her last.

Awkwardly, he cleared his throat. It was funny. Public speaking, even if he could really draw a crowd and work it… well, it still twisted his gut, and that was before it was this personal.

“You know…” he began, then swallowed a near-crack in his voice, starting again. “You know how certain people hold a place together? Place feels like home when they’re there. Doesn’t anymore when they’re not.” By his side, Nate stilled. He tried not to make eye contact. Truth was, Nate was one of those people too for him. If his companion hadn’t been here, restored by his side, he’d be hard-pressed to want to remain in Sanctuary for long. “Mama Murphy was like that. I’d see her checking in with everyone as they’d walk by. Good soul like her, she didn’t care who you were, what you looked like, or what you did. She cared. She listened. She gave advice.” The man Jun was nodding emphatically. Many others were too. “I didn’t know her as long as everyone else here, but I knew that. A week after I met her, I was calling her my wrinkly best friend.” He shrugged, trying to smile and cast off some of the weight on his shoulders, but it wouldn’t budge. “What I think is… she wouldn’t want everyone to mope over her. She’d want everyone to step up and be like she was too. Welcoming. Kind. All that good stuff. Probably the best way anyone here can honor her, I think.”

Hancock kneeled. His hand touched the earth over Mama Murphy like he was putting a friendly pat on her shoulder. “Hey,” he said. He didn’t care who heard, or if it sounded silly, talking to the air. It felt good to talk, to have some last words. “Sorry I wasn’t there for your last moments. You really went out like you lived, huh? Hope that last trip was something else.”

Death: the great final ride. He’d always promised himself that when it came, he’d be enjoying himself too much to notice. He truly hoped she’d let her fear go and leaned into the chem’s call, letting it dull the pain, passing the same way.

“We’ll do ya proud,” he managed. This wasn’t a loss that unshackled and destabilized his whole world. But she’d been an encouraging light in the darkness. “Maybe I’ll even find that thing you were telling me about.” That thing that’ll make me whole.

The strange part was, here, in this moment… he again didn’t entirely feel like anything was missing. The Mama-Murphy-shaped spot in his heart he’d already figured out how to fill with resolve, knowing how he’d keep her memory alive in what he did.

And Nate was here too, just like he ought to be, making the way forward clear and bright as sunshine.

“Anyway, sometime, I’ll come back here and tell you all about it. Oh. By the way, if Fred ever cranks out anything new back home that’ll make people really see things? We’re naming it after you.”

Nate made a weary laugh to the left. It warmed Hancock to the bone to know his remarks weren’t meeting with disapproval—at least, from the one whose opinion he valued most.

“I think that’s all I’ve got to say,” he finally spoke, sighing, winding down. “I’m just glad everyone here really appreciated her. She deserved that.”

Only the sound of the soft breeze was bothering to answer, though people here… they seemed lighter. They’d drawn inward, some even with small smiles in the corners of their mouths. Slowly, he turned to Nate, feeling sheepish. “Anything else, General?”

Nate shook his head. He kneeled down too, put a hand as well on the grave. “Thanks, Mama.”

One by one, so did the rest of the gathered, an impromptu rite.

Then, they dispersed, feet weary, hearts probably sore. Work in a new settlement never waited for long. They all had to pick up and move on, extra weight on their souls and all.

And though Mama Murphy hadn’t been the first Minuteman they’d had to bury that day… at the very least… she was the last.

 


 

Nate hovered by the gravesite for a few minutes longer, wanting to keep Hancock company for as long as he’d need it. It was strange. Doing this… it had eased some of the hurt and shock. It had done up his time with Mama Murphy with a little bow and made the ending real.

Nora deserved this too. Perhaps after the Castle. Perhaps then, they’d have the time.

He was lost in this thought for a while longer, so much so that he was eventually startled to realize Preston was the only other one who remained with him and his companion now, silent and still.

Garvey looked so small there, head bowed over the grave, brown eyes far, far away.

I just keep losing. Nate’s own words came back to him, and he realized… Preston might feel the same way. He’d lost his brothers and sisters in arms, so many of them, if what Nate had heard about Quincy was true, and then more today. Who knew how many others the cruel reality of the Commonwealth had claimed? Now, he’d lost another bright spark in his home, a woman who had left her mark.

Nate looked at that soldier by a grave, all alone, and he saw himself if he’d never had Hancock… skin losing its luster and the fight in his eyes bleeding out.

Slowly, he placed a hand on Preston’s shoulder, and the Minuteman turned slowly, like gravity was much too heavy. His damp gaze didn’t quite lift from his shoes. “Yes, General?” the man said softly.

“I’m sorry,” Nate said, and he pulled Preston into an embrace. The man didn’t seem to understand what was happening at first, but he leaned into it, chin resting on Nate’s shoulder, arms slowly coming up to return the hug. “Feeling like this,” Nate whispered, “it hurts so fucking much. Like there’s holes you can’t fill.”

Preston was silent, but Nate heard the soft catch of breath. A spot of wetness landed on his skin, under the back of his collar.

“We’re going to get through it together. Alright? I promise.” Those words were as much for this other man as they were for himself. “Every day is hard. But you aren’t alone, my friend. Everything you’re doing is so, so important.”

Preston held him tighter, like he’d desperately needed this, needed something to squeeze his pain into until it stopped. Nate knew it wouldn’t yet… but eventually, maybe, it might.

“Just know,” Nate said softly, “That I’m here.”

Finally, after a long minute, Preston straightened. With a flick of his sleeves, his eyes were dried. His back was a little straighter, his expression slightly less like that of a man with a foot willingly in a grave of his own.

“Thank you,” he said, warmly squeezing Nate’s shoulder as he passed, heading once more to his duty, to his people.

It would take time. It would take community… family. But they’d all get through this, day by day.

Nate turned to Hancock, who was quietly waiting for him, face unreadable but friendly in the setting sun.

Day by day. It was all anyone could do.

But before they could walk away together, another throat cleared behind them. Nate turned to look. It was that young man that had been taking care of Mama Murphy. Jun, wasn’t it? He was peeking from the dormitories, a serious downturn to his lips.

“She, uh… she had some things,” the man said. “She didn’t really leave them to anyone… and I don’t know what to do with them all. But there’s something you might want. Maybe.”

They went inside. Jun had piled a couple objects onto Mama Murphy’s bed before darting out again. It turned out, like Nate suspected, that the old woman didn’t have much in the world: a handful of clothes, a few bits of scrap, and… and a piece of paper. Nate turned it over, sighing heavily.

“John,” he whispered. His friend trundled over, brushing his shoulder with his own.

“Oh hey,” Hancock said, all pleased confusion. “She kept it.”

There on the paper was a pencil drawing of two chairs on a porch. The people that sat in them weren’t rendered too well, only a few levels above stick figures. But they smiled and laughed, clearly having a grand old time. One was in a woven hat, an old lady winking. The other was a wrinkled, black-eyed man in a tricorn, smile so wide it took up half his face.

Above them, the sun shone bright, the sky was open, and everything looked like it was okay.

“This was…” Nate’s voice caught. “She had it all folded up and protected, man…”

“Ah, gimme that.” Hancock took it gruffly. But Nate could hear the little crack in his words. He didn’t say anything else, but Nate never saw the ghoul handle anything so carefully and respectfully in his life as he folded that paper back up, slipping it into his sketchbook to protect it for their journey.

Nate knew he too might be leaving this place with little sentimental objects. He hadn’t yet gone through the box Preston had left him, the one with his belongings from before the war. It sat untouched by the foot of his dormitory bed, pressed gently against Hancock’s bag. Knowing he needed to sort that out, see if he had room in his pack to keep it all, he took a seat on the mattress. John settled by his side. “Uh, hey,” his friend said. “You want me to clear out for this?”

“…No. If that’s okay.”

“Then here I am.” A shoulder pressed warmly again into his.

Nate smiled, feeling his eyes sting already. There were too many emotions in this space, too many trials happening all at once… and he knew whatever he would find in the package Preston had so thoughtfully created, it would hurt too. He would love it, but he would suffer for seeing it.

Though waiting would hurt more.

Off came the lid.

There wasn’t much. On top was an issue of Grognak the Barbarian.

“Oh hey!” Hancock said. “Number fourteen! Cool. I can finish the storyline. You really were into that, huh?”

“It had just arrived in the mail,” Nate said hoarsely, thumbing the yellowed, curling cover. It felt as if it might crumble. “I was going to give a speech at an event, then come home, kick off my shoes, and read the hell out of it. I set it down right before the Vault-Tec man knocked that day. Before we had to flee our home… and the bombs fell.”

Hancock was silent, bearing witness. Nate eventually shook his head, letting a pent-up pair of tears fall. Slowly, hands shaking, he proffered the magazine to Hancock. “Keep it safe with the other one, okay? I want to finish the storyline too. God knows, I’ve had to put it off for two centuries.”

“You know I will.”

Comic book dealt with, Nate looked down to what was beneath that. It stopped his breathing. “You’re SPECIAL!” a child’s book declared. “Shaun’s first book,” he said, feeling like he owed the world an explanation. It was a little warped under his hands, but remarkably well preserved, colors bright and happy. “Nora loved reading it to him. We, uh. We were pretty enamored with the idea that he could grow up to be anyone. Do anything.”

“Hey, when you get him back, maybe you can show it to him. Remind him of that.”

Nate jerked his head up. He hadn’t even considered that. “You’re right!” He wiped his tears into his sleeve. “That’s a great idea, actually. Sorry. I’m being a basket case.”

“You don’t have to apologize for anything, man. Sometimes shit hurts. And today… yeah. It hurts.”

Nate didn’t have anything he could say to that, but it was one of the bluntest statements that ever soothed him. This did hurt. Yeah. And that was okay: it was just how it was.

The third and final item in the box was a holotape. “…Oh god.” His fingers lifted it, trembling. He knew this tape. Codsworth gave this to me in the garden, right? After I left the Vault? Nate remembered coming in the house after that… it was all a blur. The panic attack—the worst he’d had in his life. The tape was at its epicenter. He must have dropped it. The world had come at him so quickly, borne on his wife’s sweet voice, and he’d just staggered off, head bleary, heart bleeding, in too much internal agony to realize he’d left it behind.

“Woah hey.” Hancock’s voice tinged with concern. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Nate bit his lip, hard. He didn’t have a Pip-Boy anymore. He couldn’t play it. “It’s…” His chest ached as he sought for words. “A message. From my wife, before the bombs.”

Oh.” Hancock’s head dipped, his body curling inward a little, almost like he didn’t know what to do with his hands or feet all of a sudden. “Alright, now I’d really get if you’d want me to give you some space, if you want to listen to it.” With one hand, he gestured to a bed across the room.

Nate shook his head, about to mention the absence of his Pip-Boy, but then, he spied the possessions Hancock was pointing to. There was no doubt they were Sturges’. An explosion of electronic scrap lay at the bed’s foot, bits of radios and pressure cookers shoved in every cranny.

And, in the midst of this junk was a holotape deck.

Nate swallowed back fear. “I… I do want to hear it again.”

Hancock stood. “Got it. I’ll—”

“No. I… I don’t want to do it alone. Can you stay? I’m going to… probably not going to be good. But I need to hear it again. I don’t think I really heard it the first time.” His voice dropped to a whisper. It was true. Through the panic, he barely registered what his wife had even been saying—only that she was gone.

Slowly, John nodded and closed the door before taking his seat.

Nauseous, feet and hands feeling like weights, Nate kneeled, slipped the tape into the deck, and let it play.

In an instant, the grime and the peeling wallpaper vanished in his mind’s eye. He was two hundred years younger… because there was Nora’s joyous, beautiful voice. “Hi honey! It’s us!” Shaun burbled happily in the background.

It was such a silly little thing, that message, nothing deep or profound there, no poetry, no critical moment—no marriage or anniversary, or a unique memory labored to be preserved. Just a silly little hello of love.

He slumped right into the ground, shaking. Hot, ugly sobs broke free from his chest where he’d caged them for so long. He didn’t care when his knees began wincing in pain against the hard floor. He didn’t care that Hancock could see, that the door wasn’t locked, that anyone could walk in and find their General having a sudden, nervous breakdown.

Here was his wife telling him what a good man he was. A good father.

He cried, and he couldn’t stop.

Nora was reaching the end, after several minutes of saying how wonderful he was, how they loved him so. “…Everything we do, no matter how hard, we do it for our family.” A heart-stopping pause broke her voice. “Now say goodbye Shaun… bye bye? Say bye bye?”

No, Nate’s heart wailed. Don’t say goodbye!

“Bye honey!” Nora’s ghost intoned, countless years gone. “We love you!”

The tape clicked off. His link to her was severed.

He cried harder, clutching his arms around himself, hollowed out with loss.

All he wanted then, all he craved, was to flee to that foggy place in his brain—that place he usually only went when the strains of combat droned too shrill. But he couldn’t. Not this time. All he could do was slump and bawl and feel, until a pounding headache forced his eyes shut, until time lost meaning, until his throat was parched and raw.

He shuddered and curled onto the floor, gone in a new way now. Empty. A wreckage of a man.

Eventually, he stopped being able to tell if minutes passed or an hour. But when he did manage to open his eyes again, Dogmeat had arrived, resting his chin on one of his master’s legs, his eyes moist in watchful concern. His tail started to thump against the floor as Nate lifted his head to look around, voice creaking with a formless question. Hancock was companionably pressed against his back now too—just sitting right on the floor with him. Nate wasn't entirely sure how long he'd been there.

“You’ve been keeping that in for a while, huh?” his friend said softly.

Nate couldn’t vocalize an answer. He could only nod.

“It’s alright, you know.”

“S…sorry, I…” Nate pushed himself up, shaking and weak.

“Don’t gotta say you’re sorry. Your situation sucks, man. What can I do for you?”

You’ve already done everything you can. Nate saw that even the SPECIAL book and Grognak had been packed carefully into his open bag. A Gwinnett’s Ale was pressed against his other knee next to Dogmeat.

He really might hug John again after he remembered how to stand.

“Thanks,” he whispered. “I needed that. The entire time I was burying Mama Murphy, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how I never got to say goodbye. To her or Nora.” The Gwinnett’s went down easy and cleared his tight throat, as if it was carrying away a small bit of his sorrow. He was deeply grateful.

“You… uh… you okay, relatively speaking?”

“No. But yes. I… I will be. All of that… it just all suddenly feels real now. I… can’t get away from it.” His voice couldn’t reach higher than a whisper. “Coming back to the house. That tape. I know Nora’s gone now. I mean, I knew? But I didn’t… I didn’t know, I guess, if that makes sense. I’m not okay, and I’ve got a lot to think about, but I’m not going to let it stop me. After we take care of everything else, I’d like to bury Nora, I think. Would you mind helping?”

Hancock blinked, black eyes going wide. And Nate, he desperately hoped his friend would say yes, because he didn’t want to be alone for that, needed his best friend to keep him pointed towards tomorrow. “Yeah!” Hancock finally spoke. “Of course! Anything you need.”

“Thank you.” Nate sighed, eyes finally dry. “That means more to me than I think I’ll ever have words to say.”

The dormitory was quiet, only the sounds of their breathing and the sipping of beer… remembering two mamas that were gone. The other residents might not return for some time. It was a good moment to just be. To exist. To try to heal. Nate relaxed against John as the minutes passed, listening to the wind through the window, letting his heart feel everything he’d kept from it. His companion was a steady rock, and that was what he needed.

After some time, the ghoul suddenly engulfed him in a half-armed embrace, affectionately leaning into his side. This made the smile eventually come back to Nate’s face.

They didn’t say anything more after that.

They didn’t have to.

That night, he and Hancock slept side by side on two dormitory mattresses, just a friendly distance apart. Nate listened to his companion’s steady breathing, comforted by its presence, mind and heart bubbling with emotion. The crows cawed softly outside the window as the wind disturbed their roosting tree.

The world felt emptier now.

But clearer, too: as if the road ahead was starting to come into view.

He reached up, unhooking his necklace, plying the heavy ring from where it rested against his collarbone.

Bye honey. Nora’s voice rose unbidden in his mind. We love you.

“I love you too,” Nate whispered, watching the platinum gold glint in the moonlight. “Everything you said… about what kind of father I am… patient… kind… all that. That’s the kind of mother you were too. And wife. And I love you so much.” He was surprised when his voice didn’t break. “I know I’m taking a lot of detours, but I’m getting Shaun back. We’re getting closer every day.”

Hancock made a burbly noise in his sleep, then snorted and rolled over. Nate smiled.

“Wish you could meet John,” he said to the dark. “You’d say he’s a bad influence, but I think you’d like him anyway. He’s a hell of a great guy. I…” His voice caught with guilt. It suddenly didn’t feel right to talk to her about this. He shifted uncomfortably against his mattress. “Thanks for making that holotape,” he decided to say instead. “I know you probably didn’t think much of it. Just something you did on a whim. But it means everything now. Everything.”

The thorn of guilt wouldn’t leave his heart. “Nora, love?” he questioned the night. “What would you do? If it had been you, and not me who made it?”

A part of him knew that he would have wanted her to be happy. He would have found the idea of her wandering alone through this hell abhorrent. She was too good a woman for that. She was extraordinary, smart, resourceful, and wise—someone who utterly deserved love and companionship, even if it wasn’t from him.

He couldn’t say the same for himself, though. It seemed wrong somehow.

And John… he…

“I know that’s not how things really are between us. Won’t happen again.”

But could it be how things were? Would John soberly and truly want that, if it could?

Why was he even thinking about it? Was it just the concept of maybes starting to haunt him? Was this what letting go was? And was he supposed to be this angry and guilt-ridden for thinking about someday setting down some part of his heavy, aching grief? For… for wanting to?

For finding love he never thought he was meant to feel again?

Nate didn’t have the answers for his questions. But he quietly reached out, slowly removing the wedding band from his own finger, and setting it on the chain next to its mate. That night, he fell asleep for a precious six hours, two brilliantly gold rings buried into his palm—held close. Kept warm.

But for the first time, neither of them lay fastened to both his body and soul.

Nate slept, and his other hand lay open, tired, reaching out.

It found its home softly on another mattress, brushing knuckles gently against his companion’s own.

 

 

Chapter Text

The next day rose in its time, the weather twisting frigid. Sunlight had come sluggishly late, as it would for the rest of the season. Now, in the winter afternoon before Hancock, the Castle stood stark and lonely—it had been a long walk since before dawn, and the fragile tension of the freezing air left the world brittle and sharp in his throat. Ignoring his tired feet, he hefted the familiar, comforting, and iron-final weight of his shotgun. Here’s hoping this would be quick and clean.

The Minutemen were gathered at the foot of the hill leading to their old home, circling protectively around the man they’d named General, joined with Goodneighbor’s Watch. Their hands were heavy with weapons too. Their eyes were clear.

This was for Quincy, for Sanctuary, for Mama Murphy—hell, for everyone they’d lost, and for everyone they’d gain in the days to come.

All Nate had to say, as they braced themselves, was this: “For the safety of the Commonwealth.” Those simple words rolled with a force that might inspire a man to move mountains.

“For the Commonwealth!” the other Minutemen uttered, taking up the call.

Hancock grinned, shoulder to shoulder with them all. “That’s what I like. For the people! Now, folks, let’s have a good ol’ fashioned ‘lurk bake.”

Their faces, walking up to that crumbling ruin, were easy and light, though their feet were quiet, their guns ready. Philly had even bought some butter from a trader, bless his heart, kept it wrapped and secured in that bag of his. The guy had skipped breakfast—said he’d wanted “plenty of room.”

“We draw them out,” Nate ordered at the front of their line. He’d changed back into his thick, warm Shroud coat and scavving gear with some added light armor for the occasion. Still, Hancock couldn’t help but lament the lusciously tight bodysuit that came with the guy's new fusion-powered duds (now parked in Sturges’ garage.) The Brotherhood had to be good for something, he supposed—and that something was expertly presenting the goods. “I’m going up first to set mines. They’ll give chase. Everyone will fan out and make this a firing range. Got that?”

A smile happily tugged Hancock’s lips. This was just like how they’d dealt with a super mutant band not so long ago—except the mirelurks were going to be a lot dumber, and that was saying something. “Neighborhood Watch!” he rasped, and his people snapped their heads up from where they flanked him. “You don’t gotta do much, but what we are doing—it’s important. Destroy any egg clutches. Last thing we need is those little fuckers skittering up our pant legs and snip-snipping something we’ll miss.” Someone groaned softly. “Yeah, I know. Gross and messy. Still time to get outta that nice suit if you want! Or, you know, just throw a molotov cocktail on those nests, keep your hands clean. Sound good?”

The guy actually grinned at that suggestion. “…Sounds good, Hancock.”

Thank god; they were finally getting the hang of using his damn name. “Everyone?”

A chorus of “Sounds good!” rose to meet him.

“Good! Then we have lunch and you head back home. Tell Fahr about all the hell we raised. Take your fat and shiny new bonuses, hit up Fred, and have a party.” This put the happy, scheming glimmers back in those eyes. Hancock secretly suspected he wasn’t going to be able to convince these volunteers to take another tour outside Goodneighbor for a good long while. He’d run them far more ragged than any of them had thought they’d need to go.

Luckily, there were even more waiting on the call as these brave ones recovered.

And dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. There might be snow on the way. The breeze didn’t have the bone-deep tingle of a radstorm rolling before it, but something about its snapping quality made him frown. Hopefully, they could wrap this mirelurk bullshit up quickly, call it a day’s work, and get to securing shelter.

Their plan, fortunately, worked like a charm. Notoriously territorial, the moment the invasive crustaceans saw Nate’s pretty black hair bobbing up the way, they began to weave and scuttle out of the Castle’s front entrance. All the guy had to do was finally throw a rock and make a racket, and out they charged.

Mines slaughtered the first five. Bits of shell and hunks of scorched meat flopped into the dirt.

The tremors summoned the rest.

Garvey hadn’t been kidding—this place was seething with the damn things. Fifteen more began to jostle with each other, charging down the hill, pincers clicking in enraged challenge. The Minutemen lay down fire from their low ground, laser muskets whining as burning crimson erupted from their barrels. Hancock waved his task force on, slipping along the creatures’ burning flanks, taking advantage of their tunnel-vision to get behind. Nate’s handsome self easily had this part under control. In the back, only a few mirelurks had remained to guard the clutches, and they were easy to kick over and blast open with a bit of creative teamwork. Boots stomped mercilessly down on dozens of their slimy eggs. Philly lit up two of their nests with molotovs as instructed, and the shells of the tiny critters inside screeched with hissing steam as they cooked to death.

The air in Hancock’s nose hollows reeked of saltwater, sulphur, and rot.

Ugly job.

But an easy one.

It was strange, he was starting to think, that the Minutemen in their heyday had lost this place at all. Of course, owing to the disaster laws of the universe, that was when he heard it:

A shrill, puckering shriek.

A thudding, cracking of claws against stone.

An earthquake starting to brew under his feet, tremors in his foot bones as it approached from the north—where there was a sheer drop into a black and stormy sea. What the FUCK…?

A something, an enormous something was coming.

And finally, a car-sized claw crested the sky. It dug into the earth, mottled and blue-black and scarred, and behind it dragged the truest form of the word monster that he’d ever seen.

Holy shit. In that moment, Hancock realized just what was scaling that cliff, answering the dying screams of her butchered brood.

 


 

The final member of the mirelurk vanguard fell to Nate’s pistols. Garvey had kicked it from the side and exposed its belly just like his truest companion had shown him well not so long ago. He was almost about to smile and ask if anyone had brought lemon juice—or if mutfruit juice would do just as good. All in a day’s work.

Which was when he heard an incoherent holler from inside the Castle itself, something that sounded suspiciously like John unable to summon the right set of syllables.

Alarm dropped into his stomach, cold and manic.

He bounded over the crustaceous corpses, boots squelching through mud, snow, and blood as he charged headlong into the courtyard. Three ex-Triggermen blew past him, tearing around a corner, fucking booking it. A horrific scraping screech hissed through the air, like rusted iron dragging on concrete.

And as Nate burst into the central area, dodging around a corner of crumbling granite, he found his dearest friend, stunned and backing up.

He found the source of that noise.

An ugly, clicking face and a humped, thick shell had emerged from the waters, a thing dusky and shiny, lichen clinging sharp to its frame. It was a mirelurk climbing to answer the call of war—hauling itself up over the cliffside, belly scraping the rock and leaving gouges in the earth.

Four feet tall.

Six feet.

Eight feet.

It kept going.

It was funny when memories would strike. Nate was here in the Castle, but even as his mind keened in disbelief and terror, something inside him was falling back through cool autumn air and remembered moonlight. A drive-in. A high-school friend’s rusty-ass truck. A girl, snug in her gaggle of senior-year friends—auburn curls and clever eyes, her lofty dream to study law.

Kaiju had raged on the screen before him and Nora, back-to-back King Kong and Godzilla. Behemoths. Titans. Monsters. And he’d sat there, hoping for a pretty girl to freak out a little and find an excuse to cozy up.

It turned out, she’d been looking for an excuse too.

The Castle was extremely short on either lovely women or popcorn. But John, his warmth bloomed across Nate’s side as they both stood and gaped. “The fuck is that…?!” Nate cried, pointing up at the twenty-foot-high mottled crustaceous creature, something that scuttled, clicked, and looked out on her annihilated young with blood-mad beady eyes.

It’s a Queen!” Garvey yelled, the way one might announce the arrival of a vengeful act of a god. His people scattered.

She stormed up reeking of salt-air and decay, hissing, spitting. A stream of viscous green goo spurted from her face. It hit one of the fleeing Minutemen who fell shrieking at Nate’s feet, a pungent chemical tang curdling the air.

Nate would never be able to explain why his first impulse was not to run, but to level his pistols and fire at the advancing behemoth’s belly and face. She didn’t stop. She didn’t even seem to care.

But at least Hancock stood by his side and did the exact same thing.

And when their chambers were empty, when it was clear they were accomplishing nothing, only then did Nate grab up the fallen soldier and run for it. The queen mirelurk drove her claws into the stone where they’d been a moment prior, hard enough to make the foundations crack. Nate ran to Preston, following the flood of soldiers suddenly greatly outclassed: all scurrying inland with the apparent instinct that maybe, just maybe, the queen would be reluctant to go far from the water.

She wasn’t. Her carapace dragged quickly after, a ghastly, screeching wail against the rocks. Preston’s laser musket left black scorches against her armor as he attempted to cover their retreat. The queen seemed to care about that as much as she had the bullets.

Suddenly, Hancock shoved a handful of grenades into Nate’s free hand and split from the group. Three of his people followed as he ran perpendicular from them all, away to a crumbling staircase, to—

“Where are you…?!” Nate barely had time to see what his love was doing, but in his heart, he suspected it was something extremely reckless. And he had no choice but to finish getting the acid-drenched soldier to cover so he could be treated. He and the Minutemen ducked under an ancient stone arch and into one of the Castle’s narrow corridors as the queen rapidly closed the distance. Her pincers jammed into the door after them as she screamed.

Nate almost collapsed. He shifted the Minuteman off his shoulder and to the floor, a medic taking over. Preston fired on the burrowing claw, eventually forcing it to withdraw, smelling suspiciously like an expensive coastal restaurant.

Nate staggered up. “That’s what a mirelurk’s broodmother looks like? It’s… it’s…!” He didn’t know what else could be said; looking at the monster’s mass made his brain break.

“They’re supposed to be a myth!” Preston croaked. “Damn it. Damn it!”

“We’re trapped!” a Minuteman called. “The only exits go right back into the courtyard!”

Suddenly, the very distinctive noise of a ghoul’s gruff, guttural bellow filled the air: “Hey! Hey you!” floated through the door. “Yeah, fuck you!” The smashing of glass followed—and the queen screamed again.

Nate tore for the entrance to see. The queen was withdrawing. Balanced on one of the parapets was one of the Watch—clearly an ex-Triggerman with his pinstripes—and before him, the queen was wailing and turning from the Minutemen’s warren, her left flank on fire.

The ghoul held aloft a second molotov cocktail ready to join the first.

Moxy. That was the only word Nate had to describe it.

The queen began to charge, rearing up to her full height, towering over the wall, ghoul, and his little bottle all. His fuck-you stance abruptly melted, and he screamed shrilly, throwing the second cocktail and hightailing it. Fire roared up the queen’s lower legs, but it burned too quickly and left little on her armor. Furious pincers crushed the rock where the man had been a half-second prior. A stream of acid wash followed.

Nate had no idea if that ghoul made it out. A flash of red, however, caught his eyes, bright against the falling snow and muddy gray sky—Hancock was on the parapet opposite the queen. He was hiding behind a precariously balanced, boulder-sized bit of crumbled stone with two of his other people.

He was pushing.

Holy shit, that could actually do some damage!

But the queen wasn’t cooperating and staying put so she could be crushed. Instead, she was trying to climb onto the wall where her target had vanished. Her body writhed out of direct range.

Nate caught Hancock’s eyes across the distance, then held up a grenade and nodded. His companion’s jaw dropped with what looked like a sort of Now hold on there! panic. But it was too late. “Hey you!” Nate screamed at the queen.

He pulled the pin and threw.

The blast punched into her left side, cracking armor, sending black blood streaming. Surprisingly limber, she wrenched around with a hiss, sliding from the walls. Her legs clicked like machine guns in scurried chase.

Nate ran as fast as his breath would let him, past her, under Hancock’s rock, back through the opening in the Castle’s defenses and towards the road.

And her claws caught him just when he thought he might have made it. Something in his back was pummeled with the blinding force of an oncoming train.

The world just sort of… ended. Gone.

Went black.

Then he was staring at the sky, ears ringing, extremely aware that he possessed a skeleton and that it was in agony. His cheek was ground into the dust. Coughing, trembling, he tried to stand just as a resounding crunch and another unearthly wail of pain sang through the sky.

She’d knocked him almost twenty feet.

But she couldn’t follow.

Her legs flailed and skittered at the Castle’s entrance. Her abdomen was mangled beneath what might have been a half-ton of rock. Goo gushed from the injury.

The Minutemen were descending on her now, laser muskets lighting up the courtyard.

It didn’t take long. Soon, the Queen of the Castle hissed her last, and then, finally, she lay still.

 


 

Hancock gasped for air, slapping his compatriots on the back. Holy shit.

That… that stone. It hadn’t moved easy. He hadn’t even had a Buffout to do this with—gave them all to his helpers—and he was probably going to need to need an extraordinary massage to pop all his tendons back into place. His fingers, shoulders, and back were wailing something fierce.

But it had been worth it.

Nate was staggering back up the road to the courtyard, nursing his side. Alive. In one piece.

Thank fucking god.

It had been worth it.

Hancock slumped to the ground, wheezing. He would have done this for Garvey and his lot any day, but… he didn’t know what he would have done if anything had happened to Nate. Not here. Not now. I just got you back… dumbass.

Something inside creaked and churned, roiling and unhappy and needing all at once. Things still unsaid. It was… best to ignore it.

And as it turned out, the seeping insides of a mirelurk queen smelled a lot like rotting fish. Maybe it’d be best too to come down from the wall… to get away from the carcass a little. Hancock rose again as soon as he could.

Snow was starting to really whip down, the world dim, the waves roaring. Dark clouds kept barreling in over the horizon. Minutemen were staggering from their hiding places, torn up, but alive too, all suddenly realizing that now that they’d survived this monster, they’d have to survive a freezing storm.

But in the center of the courtyard next to a ruined broadcast tower, Garvey was yelling, white flecking his clothes and starting to pile on his hat. “…Radio!” was the word Hancock caught as he limped past, ankle acting like it was sprained. Hell, his whole body was bruised and starting to get a seeping chill, and his hips were wrenched into a weird place.

Didn’t seem like a time to worry about radio signals to him.

But Garvey was beckoning to his general while hooking together wires. Nate visibly paused, then dragged his feet to divert from his beeline to his sagging best friend.

A tiny part of Hancock regretfully wondered what he might have done if they’d come together in that moment, full of post-battle adrenaline—it was everything to see that smiling face, to know they’d survived everything the world threw, to know they still had each other.

He tried not to resent Nate’s duties for stealing that from him.

But as he was slouching there alone, covered in gashes, mirelurk goo, and feeling cold, wet, and miserable—a sudden rush quieted his mind. He finally understood what Garvey wanted—and why it was so important.

Nate was scaling the wrecked radio tower like some hero of old, securing bits of machinery in the lashing snow. When he dropped to the earth again, everyone was watching him, waiting, mouths hanging open like the entire world was hovering on the tips of their tongues.

The general gave the nearby generator a good kick.

The lights turned on at that command. Preston slammed a holotape into the console.

The radio started to broadcast.

The Minutemen are here, was what the words said in so many ways. We’re here, we’re alive, and we’re fighting for everyone out there. We’re here, and it’s okay to have hope again.

The Minutemen held up their rifles, letting loose the cheer of drowning men finding land when they thought all was lost. Their home was returned.

And their joy was contagious, because Hancock knew what it meant. He stood tall and let loose a caged roar, raising his fist to the sky too. This was victory. This was knowing what the Commonwealth could be now that a whole bunch of someones was finally standing back up to defend it—and was even getting the means to succeed. This was the bellow he’d screamed as he’d charged into Goodneighbor to liberate it long ago, his small army in tow. It was the fury he’d belted out as he’d kicked the legs out from under Vic to leave him swinging by the neck.

And his town was just the start—even if it was a brilliant, beautiful one. But the whole ‘wealth?

Now this time, instead of everyone looking up at him, these soldiers were all grinning at Nate, who was abashedly smiling back, looking half ready to collapse, certainly not ready to give some kind of speech. Still, their general’s broad shoulders held fast under the weight of their revere, the man that never ran away except to draw queen mirelurks to their doom, the man that never looked like he was afraid. His perfect teeth glistened white as the snow washed him clean.

Looking at him was sheer euphoria, wasn’t it?

Goddamn it, Nate. You’re the man I want to be too. The one I always want to stand with.

Quietly, softly, Hancock realized he was holding his palm over his heart again. It was beating fast—at least, fast as was natural for a ghoul—and seemed to be seeping warmth, even enough to keep back the cold. The little empty spot inside that he’d carried for so many years… well… it was gone, because he and Nate, they’d been two, but they were also one—here, now. Their dreams. Their goals. Their fire.

How the hell had he been lucky enough to find this? And then to get it back after he thought he’d lost it?

It was all filling him up inside him, nice as you please, giving him strength he hadn’t even known he’d had. Making him greater. More.

The Minutemen couldn’t have seen as Nate made a tiny stumble, but Hancock knew the signs. He darted forward, coming up under one arm, bracing him, smelling the cold empty snow, the salty musk, and the coppery blood. “Come on, hero,” he whispered. “Let’s get you looked at. Unless you want to yell ‘By the people, for the people’ at them a little.”

Nate barked out a genuine, rolling laugh, one that pleasantly burrowed right into Hancock’s chest before the sound bottomed out into weary coughing. “Guess I am turning into you.” The man kept chuckling quietly, right past the exhaustion.

Flattered warmth swallowed Hancock whole again. Don’t do that. Wrong way ‘round, fella. “Come on,” he urged, tugging him onward as gently as he could, something inside still shaking, unable to totally look away. Finally, his friend gave in and followed, leaning all the way into his side. It wasn’t easy to keep them both standing, but he’d be damned if he let a little thing like a bad ankle plant them both into the grime and muck.

Fortunately, the castle lent plenty of shelter, even if it smelled like six-hundred-year-old mildew. The Minutemen medics were busy with the critically injured. Hancock didn’t even bother them, calmly setting Nate on the dry stones, taking off the red coat so he could perform their standard post-battle injury check without heavy wet fabric slowing him down.

I’d follow you into hell and back, and I’ll take care of you. You’re the best person I’ve ever met. I just… I don’t know what I’d do without you anymore.

Even when sometimes, you’re such a dumbass with a grenade.

But then, he frowned. There was a bright red stain in Nate’s side, under the armor he’d donned for the occasion. The man’s eyes were giddy and relieved, but Hancock was starting to wonder if it was shock. Urgently, he prised him out of the bits of metal, undoing the straps, and finding the bleeding only got worse.

“Shit,” he hissed, seeing Nate just sit limply, watching him with that dazed hero’s smile. The buttons to his shirt were slippery and tricky and wet. Hancock growled, withdrew the knife strapped to Nate’s side, and just cut them open. Fuck it. Time was of the essence.

And what the hell? This was his knife. Was this where it had gotten off to?

“You know,” Nate said, voice almost sing-song bleary. “If you wanted to undress me, you could have just asked.” His eyebrows waggled like they had when play-flirting weeks before, his neck listing to one side. His face lit up with a burning flush. It all landed like a hard punch to Hancock’s chest. But he had to stare instead at the bright red streaming down Nate’s ribs where the queen’s claw had slashed him wide open.

“I’ll give you a pass for teasing a ghoul and stealing his knife on top of it,” he growled. “If you’ll just stay still.” Nate obeyed, watching him with warm, dilated, and rather out-of-focus eyes. The stimpack went in nice and easy. Nate barely even winced until Hancock started pouring his moonshine flask on the wound to disinfect it before bracing the flesh together, helping it knit closed so his companion might avoid stitches.

The man convulsed back, groaning. The many bruises across his bare chest started to fade.

It looked like the tear in his side was going to hold together, even if it was still an ugly, bloody gash.

Maybe. If he’d gotten to this in time…

Still will feel like he’s been hit by a truck come morning. A cursory inspection of the rest of Nate’s body revealed no further horrific injuries, which was a miracle, considering how the queen had punted him like a fucking kickball. The armor came off all the way. Nate responded to each piece falling to the side with a relieved, satisfied sigh. He was clearly shutting down, needing to sleep as he healed. His pulse was strong enough, though. Good sign.

“Sorry. Not a lot in the way of beds yet, brother,” Hancock whispered. “Even if no one deserves one more than you.”

“Should have thought of that before taking off my clothes,” Nate whispered, eyes shut. “I’m not so easy that you can just throw me on the floor and do whatever you want.”

Hancock snorted, unsettled by how that made his heart wince—how much it sounded like one of his own jokes. Nate sure as hell was something whenever he was on the mend. “C’mere.” Sighing, he leaned up against the wall to the man’s left, nudging him with an elbow. His companion dutifully slumped over onto his shoulder, possibly even asleep before he made contact. “Don’t you worry, hero boy,” Hancock whispered, gun in his hand, ready to blast any mirelurk spawn that got within a hundred yards if there were any left. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you. I promise. I’m on watch.”

Only the soft, warm whispers of breathing across his collarbone answered him, his heart beating harder, a skittering double-time.

“Throw you on the floor and do whatever I want.” Hancock snorted. “Really. I’m a classy ghoul, Nate. Classy. I’d throw you on a table, at least. Get it right.”

There was no answer, and he wasn’t expecting one. His companion lay dead to the world as Minutemen rushed by on their ways to plug up windows and cracks, to get some warmth into this little ruin before they all froze.

No one asked why the General was cuddled up against him like a sleeping kitten. It was, Hancock decided, no one’s business.

And it was hard to tell if the paradise-feeling this left behind was because of his poor sleep the night before, or if it was the adrenaline and hormones, or if it was just Nate—beautiful, scruffy, savior-of-everyone Nate, all cozy and happy—the man who’d been looking at a lonely old ghoul like that was all he wanted for Christmas.

Sure, he’d been suffering blood loss, but whatever.

Hancock’s heart still pounded giddily like parade drums, full and happy with meaning and purpose.

He was squeezing Nate’s arm so hard his hands started trembling again. Self-conscious suddenly, he stopped. But he didn’t want to. Because in this whirlwind in his mind, seeing Nate spearhead another revolution of his own, then dedicating himself to it wholly and completely with not even a single thought about why he wouldn’t… Hancock had done the same, and then, he’d suddenly known.

Here was Mama Murphy’s prophecy, right here in this shitty old castle, with all the rocks and blood and dead, just like she’d said. Here it was: his heart finding home.

He felt united with all he was and all he wanted to be.

Whole.

And his hands kept quavering; his core shook. Thoughts kept ringing, terrifying and constant, beautiful and paralyzing. Because now… now he was sure. This wasn’t just an adventure fling like he’d tried to make it to be, like he’d announced to the world. It wasn’t an infatuation he’d found here, either—not even a deep, extraordinary friendship and brotherhood, though it was that too, and that sure as hell was no cheap thing.

This was something he’d kill to never lose.

It was the equivalency of the sun rising and the world settling properly on its axis.

…This is the thing I told myself never to do.

Well, shit. That was that. It was written in the goddamn sun parting the gray clouds and hitting that stubbly jaw rubbing rough against his shirt. It was in that plush dark hair puffing against his cheek. It was in every soul in need that they saved and every pledge to make the world better. And now, it’d be there every time he looked his companion’s way—during breakfast over a skilletful of Cram, or when they pressed their backs together behind cover in some new and fresh hell. It’d be in their triumphs, and in their retreats. Their arguments. Their embraces.

Not just an appreciation for that damn-fine ass.

But love.

That was the name for this sullen, bright need that kept turning his gaze back, that was making him gape and stare and long-for when Nate wasn’t looking, that wanted to touch and feel and be. Clothes on or off. Didn’t seem to matter in his brain, as long as it was with this man, this handsome, dangerous, frustrating, goddamn gorgeous man.

What the hell did he think he was doing?

He really wasn’t a ghoul that built much of his life around that word. He’d been so angry at Nate before, then so lonely in his absence, and then, almost wary when the man had returned, because hell, no matter how he wanted to spin it, some storm of emotion had been brewing under his irradiated skin for a while, one he didn’t know how to deal with… one that would make him risk his life, no questions asked, one that always stood watch and stood with. Now it was filling him up and bursting from his seams, like it needed to be heard, like it would spill out from his lungs and seep from his fingertips if he’d just let it.

This was love.

And that… that was terrifying.

Because what he had with Nate was about to be very, very easy to fuck up.

And what was more… the more carefully he watched his companion sleep, the more he realized the man’s breathing was still strained… the more he thought of a queen’s claws covered in vengeance and rot and disease.

The more he remembered what Mama Murphy promised: that he would need to fight to keep this, and that it could very easily be lost.

 

Chapter Text

The general of the Minutemen woke to the sound of soft creaks settling wood and stones. The dark night air lay crisp and chill in his nose. He was burrowed deeply in thick blankets, only his face exposed, puffing out thin white bursts. His body was numb and tingling.

Med-X? The thought spiraled through Nate’s mind like a daft bumblebee. It plonked a few times into the sides of his skull as he rubbed his fingers together, unfeeling.

The next thing to occur to him was that someone had promised him cakes. Mirelurk cakes. He had none. He was hungry.

And… wow. He had to go to the bathroom.

His feet hit the frigid stones. The dirty old mattress he’d been laid on squished and heaved as he forced himself to rise, a nearby candle giving the room meager light. Where was he? Oh. Oh. Castle? Now… when was he? Echoes of guns and thrashing carapaces replayed through his skull like he was watching a movie on a faraway projector, the sound fuzzy and dull.

An empty chair was by his bedside. Where was everyone? They’d won, right?

Yeah, he was pretty sure.

Nice.

Nate staggered around the bare stone room, running his fingers curiously against a new, red, and ugly scar across his torso, almost a foot long. His stomach sloshed in seeming rhythm to the sound of waves breaking against a shoreline. Where was the noise coming from…?

Ah. A window. It was plugged up with garbage and cloth, a mere hole in the stones. Nate burrowed through it, piling the debris on the floor, suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to get a peek at the sky. Wintery chill sliced across his skin, the heat in the room sucking right out. The night was like a dream. A thousand stars glittered overhead, as if he were all alone in the world—the last man standing, holed up in his castle at the edge of the universe. White glittered on the rocks outside, snow caked up like thick fudge, and the sea rocked the world into a peaceful sleep.

Maybe he was dreaming. If so, this was the most pleasant nightmare he’d had in a long time. Maybe… maybe if he tried walking up into those stars, he might fly. He might find other travelers lost in the constellations.

Nate giggled and relieved his bladder right through the porthole, drawing a smiley face into the snow.

Jesus it was cold. His hands shook. His toes curled and cramped. When he was done, he tucked himself away and haphazardly shoved all the garbage back in the window again. The room’s temperature had been mauled beyond recovery.

But even as he realized he was quaking bitterly, the actual sensation of temperature seemed to fade to almost a cloudy, faraway thing.

Oh… hey… there was a tricorn hat in the corner by his bed…?

Love burbled up through his heart.

Maybe… maybe he better find John, if John existed in this dream. Yes. John would make sure he had everything he needed. He always did.

Nate adjusted his briefs, threw a blanket around his shoulders, and staggered on. Beyond his door, there were other beds, other bundled people resting in the shelter the Castle’s stones provided. Was all this real? His empty loneliness was just glad the world wasn’t as abandoned as he’d thought. He shifted to walk on the balls of his bare feet, quieter, not wanting to disturb the wounded. For some reason, the fact that he couldn’t even feel his extremities anymore didn’t seem alarming… they ached in only a hazy sense, letting him press on.

He didn’t get far. Just beyond the recovery area lay the path out into the courtyard, and from there came the scraping of boots on granite. A bobbing lantern faded away in the opposite direction, a flash of a Minuteman’s uniform. A security patrol, probably. Good idea.

And right then, a hand fell on his shoulder, one achingly warm.

Nate spun, woozy, trembling, full of hope, already smiling. And he fell, into what he prayed was an embrace, into a grasp sure and tight and warm and—

 


 

On that silent, frigid night, Hancock was wending up and down shattered stairs and broken halls under black sky and moonlight. An antsy pacing had settled in his feet, never mind his sore hips, ankle, neck, and every other piece of his body that had a movable joint.

It’d been a fucking day.

But it didn’t matter. No one and nothing was threatening him and his. Not now. Not ever, ever again. He was drowning in love, and he’d never been a man to make bad decisions in half measures.

Now, here to soothe all his aching body and soul was a particularly aged bourbon, claimed from the supplies they’d dug up in the Castle’s armory. Call it a finder’s fee. He swung it by his side, the cork long since discarded.

That morning, as he’d been pacing and fretting near Nate’s still-sleeping form, another group of former Minutemen had come marching through the snow, claiming to have heard a certain broadcast. They were headed by a lady named Shaw—a real stern face under cropped black hair and a beret. A do-er, or at least, someone who could tell everyone else what she wanted done.

And at her heels had tagged a lanky doctor.

Well, Hancock certainly wasn’t going to waste access to someone carrying real medical supplies. Nate had been moaning in pain all throughout the night. Of course, when the medic was informed of their general’s usual inclinations, he’d dug up enough Med-X to knock out a Brahmin and administered it straight. Frankly, even the faintest strain of someone in need floating down off the horizon would have made the Vaultie fuckin’ bolt to go help out, to hell with getting better.

Hancock cherished that.

Shit. Every time he recognized one more facet in his thundering earthquake-heart of what he cherished, it was like running into a steel wall, sending a flash of stunned insight cracking through his thick skull. He was starting to suspect he’d been head over heels for a long while.

Hence why he’d already near walked a hole into Nate’s recovery room floor.

“So you stimmed him right away?”

He’d nodded gruffly in response once the doctor had started his poking and prodding around noon. Christ. It was like the reedy little guy was someone’s grandma, checking if the butcher’s special was still fresh. “Something wrong?”

Nate had no reaction, sprawled and silent on his new mattress. The Minutemen had finally set up some sleeping areas in the most preserved rooms of the Castle after the storm set in, luckily discovering a stash of bedding that hadn’t been fouled by beastly squatters. It all still kinda smelled musty and sour, but hell, that was just this place’s chic.

The doctor hummed. “Actually, you did a fine job. Did you use disinfectant?”

“…Alcohol. High-proof.”

“Better than nothing. Alright.” The man began to gingerly re-secure his general’s wounds in fresh bandages. “Wish we still had antibiotics, just in case. There’s some nasty infections that can come off a mirelurk.”

“…Yeah? What kind?”

The man taped off the wrappings and gathered his things. “Well, I’m on my way to amputate a woman’s foot now, so… that kind. I mean, the limb was already injured beyond recovery… but it got worse fast. The general also seems to be running a little warm. If you can keep an eye on that, let me know if there’s any change…?”

Hancock had blinked, stomach twisting. A whole wheelbarrow of questions tried coming out of this throat, but what got to the front was, “Yeah, sure…?”

“Excellent. Thank you. These things, they move quickly.”

Hancock tried to figure out how to ask what they’d do if something went wrong. But he could already see in the doctor’s eyes that the answer was fucking nothing. This laceration was right down Nate’s torso. One couldn’t just cut it off if infection set up shop inside.

So he simply helped the doc bundle this treasured, fragile man back up in blankets, then laid a hesitant hand on his forehead. Yeah. Pretty damn warm.

In twenty-four hours, they were meant to get outta here, go have a greasy breakfast in the courtyard. Everyone was gonna salute and cheer. Laugh. Show off new scars. And then, Hancock was going to pull Nate aside, help him to find that AWOL scientist holed up in the Commonwealth’s radioactive armpit—make a real vacation out of it. Run off adventuring like it used to be.

There weren’t supposed to be complications. No more than the ones already in his loopy, hungry heart.

And in that vulnerable, wrecked place in his chest, an old woman’s warnings had echoed. “Under the crates… where the guns are… where no one else can reach… you’ll find what you need.”

His insides constricted, like a fist was crunching them tighter, pulping them into juice. Omens always had to be fucking riddles, didn’t they?

After his conversation with the doctor, he’d spent the next hour slowly sucking on three minty thinking-helpers at a time, backtracking over Mama Murphy’s words, nursing an approaching migraine and nosebleed (but not really giving a shit about either.) And finally, he’d squeezed his slumbering companion’s shoulder before sweeping out into the new day. “Don’t worry,” he’d sworn. “I’ve got you.”

Shaw would know what was going on in these old stones; that was for certain.

“You,” he’d greeted her, urgent and harsh after she finished dressing down some new recruit in front of the radio beacon.

“Yeah?” She raised an eyebrow—direct. To the point. That was real respectable.

“There’s some place where guns and supply crates are kept around here. I need to know where.”

She barked a peeved laugh. “Who the hell told you about the armory? You aren’t one of—”

Armory. Okay then. You keep things like antibiotics there too?”

Her mouth twisted. “…I… hm. Why?”

“Your doc’s talkin’ about amputations and infections and shit from dealing with those mirelurks. Your general’s got a bad injury. Seemed a good question to ask.”

Those lips became a thin line. “I see. Yes… the new general Preston mentioned. Well, there’s a problem. Our predecessors blew the armory to hell—or at least the entrance. We’re trying to devise a way in, but our explosives expert is under sedation. I’m told it may take a few days before they’re back in action.”

Hancock wondered if this expert was the woman with the foot needing to be cut off, or if this was the man doused in acid. This place was just a fuckin’ cornucopia of conditions. “Few days my ass. How much dynamite you got? I’ll set it up.”

She, strangely enough, seemed to get less hostile the more brusque he became. “So you know your way around explosives?”

Well, sure. Yeah. He knew how to light a string and run like hell. “I’ll get it done.”

“Alright then! Call me pleasantly surprised. I was starting to wonder why Garvey thought some politician’d be useful for anything around here other than wasting time and jerking off egos. Get Smith’s explosives pack, and I’ll take you to the collapse.”

Hancock was already on the move. The nurses didn’t seemed too concerned with him borrowing their patient’s bomb bag, which told him they either didn’t know him very well or had no idea what he’d just taken. When he returned, cargo in tow, his new guide beckoned him down the stonework halls. A cave-in of speckled granite rested at the end in a massive heap under an arch, the sort of landslide a Brahmin team would take weeks to clear. No wonder the powers that be just wanted to blow it open. He dug deep into the pack’s mines and grenades, trying to remember the things Fahrenheit used to grunt at him when she’d worked with such items in the past.

“The armory,” Shaw said, “is at a good distance, so it’s safe to use as many explosives as we need—unless it’s an amount that’ll decimate the foundations. If you do that, I’ll have to kill you.”

Her eyes said she was quite serious. Fair. Hancock’s enterprising fingers teased out a bundle of good old-fashioned dynamite. Fantastic—three sticks. He popped another Mentat from his hat’s inner lining, wincing as his frontal lobes really started to pound. The angles and weight of the debris slowly began to make sense in a way they hadn’t before.

The work was easy and quick, and it had to be, for the Mentats couldn’t run out before he was done. And despite the growing headache, it was hard not to feel like a million caps when the explosion went off just as he planned. Enough debris vaporized in such a way that a place to squeeze through came clear.

Down he and Shaw shimmied, past the door, down a narrow staircase into the silent, musty dark. Urgency kept them quiet. His guide’s lantern bobbed an eerie glow at their side.

Wonder if Garvey’ll let Goodneighbor borrow one of those mortars. Bet this is where they’ve been keeping ‘em locked up—

But the black air suddenly drowned in neon red.

TSEWWW!

Hancock’s hat was blown clean off, a laser blast scorching into him from across the room. He hit the deck, rolling behind a fallen pile of stone, ankle sending up a dull roar of pain as it twisted again. Shaw cursed and dove behind cover of her own. A furious machina of death suddenly burst from the shadows of the Castle’s deep, eyes glowing, joints screeching with rust. Its vocal simulator rasped with gravel and static: “DESTROY HOSTILES!” The steel tank lurched along, slamming a glowing mine against a wall to cover one flank.

Little red pinprick lights were peppered all along the hallway ahead. Oh holy fuck.

Sarge?” Shaw croaked. “Shit! Shit… ah… shutdown code! X456… 891!”

“EXTREME PREJUDICE!” the robot roared back, scorching the wall just over her head.

“So,” Hancock yelled from behind his cover. “Did, uh, your old guard not really have a lot of confidence it’d be you coming to get your shit back?”

Shaw said nothing, wincing, scanning the situation. Not a banterer then. That was fine. Hancock fished deep in his new joy-bag, withdrawing a chunky incendiary lump full of protruding wires. He had no idea what exactly this was, but it sure as hell looked meant to be tossed. Even had a nice little activation switch.

He flipped it and flung the thing forward.

Sarge made a clear flinch as whatever-it-was soared close. Servos whined as the automaton rerouted its course, staggering back.

The present hit the ground and rolled a little too far, landing directly on one of the mad robot’s mines.

The chained blast was catastrophic. Concussive heat forced Hancock and Shaw back to the floor as he covered his ears.

And then, only ringing silence reigned. Dust showered from the stones above. The Castle resettled on grievously abused foundations.

Hancock peeked back up over his cover. Sarge was toppled, scrabbling to right itself, limbs grinding against the rock. Its left side was torn open, like a yao guai had peeled back the steel with its claws and tried to feast on the wires beneath.

A compartment started to rise on its back.

A missile launcher.

“Oh fuck no,” Hancock said, hitting the deck again.

But instead of a deafening blast… clicking.

His eyes widened.

The missile mechanism was failing, rattling in anger.

Shaw bounded forward, obviously cottoned to the notion that only those who were quick to take advantage of a situation got to live—she dove over Sarge’s crumpled body and dug into his exposed core. Something made a desperate pop. The lights in the robot’s murderous mechanical eyes finally dimmed.

Hancock brushed dust from his now-aching knees, putting his hat back on, slowly rising. “…Christ. Good work, sister,”

“Ain’t your sister. Keep moving, or you’re losing my vote, governor.” She wheezed, the barest shadow of a smile on her face, and dropped a fistful of wires.

Shaking his head, chuckling, Hancock fished a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it with subtly shaking hands. At least she seemed to think his being a mayor was far less respectable than being either a ghoul or a generally well-dressed rapscallion, and that, he could agree on. So, he trotted after, carefully eyeing the dim glow of the few remaining still-active mines Sarge had left in its wake. They walked real lightly through this place. Fortunately, Shaw also seemed to know a thing or two about deactivating the little incendiary shits. That was good, because he didn’t.

The treasure they sought lay just beyond the robot’s murderous guard. But the front room protecting it still was a lot sadder than anyone could have expected.

It was a grave.

His guide stood still, then stiffly saluted a corpse crumpled in the corner, a man whose body had long since fallen prey to the sea air. He was dressed in a thick wooly coat, part of a Minuteman uniform decked out to the teeth in little spangles and bits. His final resting place lay surrounded by wine bottles and empty ration cans—a victim of the slow dehydration behind that rock collapse… and perhaps the pistol sagging from his near-skeletal grip.

“General,” Shaw whispered, voice wrenched. Her palm came up, wiped her cheek briskly, eyes going low.

Hancock stilled. Oh. This dead man… this was Nate’s predecessor.

The reason why Shaw had seemed to reluctant, perhaps, to say that title in relation to anyone else.

“Must have activated Sarge to guard the armory from thieves,” came the whispered explanation as the woman finally turned. Her gait was unsteady as she moved on, eyes cloudy. Hancock decided not to bother her. She walked up to a terminal at the far end of the room, resting by a thick steel door.

And he himself… well, he had a hard time taking his eyes off the desiccated mummy, maybe just as hard a time turning away as Shaw seemed to have turning back. Something in his chest was uneasily fluttering and thrashing again. The last general had died in the name of duty here, alone and miserable in the dark and chill… probably even desperate to turn wine into water after the first few days.

The general upstairs was sick and cold and alone too. Injured, maybe lethally, in the name of duty and what was right. Probably also wouldn’t have regretted a damn thing.

The Minutemen sure knew how to pick them.

Hancock sighed, finding a half-empty bottle, and poured the rest out onto the ground in respect. “I’m taking care of the new guy,” he promised. “Mayor’s honor.”

The last general was quiet, a dark nothing in his decayed eyes.

The behemoth of a door at the far end of the room finally opened with a hiss and a clang. Hancock eagerly left behind the dead and the dust, hungry to go find the miracle he’d been promised.

And truly, a miracle it was.

The Minutemen hadn’t done their weapons in half-measures. Hell: in this little vault at the Castle’s core lay missiles… the plans and parts for those legendary mortars… a mini-nuke launcher. Guns and bullets were stacked up high like they were going out of style. More unfocused ghouls might have gone shopping and gotten Fahrenheit a Christmas present. But his concern was for one thing and one thing only: a little crate underneath one of the gun shelves. It was, after all, the only thing in this room that didn’t look designed to kill. As Shaw took stock, he pulled it out, dusted it off, and popped it open.

Stimpacks. Radaway. Medical kits.

Jackpot.

He lifted a big blue bottle, something inside rattling.

“Antibiotic tablets,” Shaw said almost reverently over his shoulder, letting out a low whistle. “We haven’t been lucky enough to have these for our people in—hey!”

Hancock was already staggering out the door and up the steps. He could barely even feel the pain in his ankle. It was worth it.

“Use these,” he’d urged the doctor when he returned to the treatment area, pressing the medicine into startled hands. “Hurry.” Fortunately, the man seemed to know just what to do. Together, they roused Nate enough to get him to swallow a tablet with some assistance, massaging his throat.

When done, the doctor had offered Hancock a startled, thin-lipped smile of gratitude. “He’ll need these three times a day for a week. I don’t know how these have been stored, so it’s possible they… look, we’ll just hope for the best.”

“He’s going to be fine now,” Hancock said with conviction, taking Nate’s hand.

“He…”

He’ll be fine.” The sentence was a warning growl. Hancock wasn’t letting a single damn other prophecy make its way out into the universe on this matter. There was one dead general below, and there sure as shit wouldn’t be another above.

So, finally, the doctor just nodded and let them be, off to administer miracles to all the rest. And Hancock made himself comfy on the ground by Nate’s side, not letting go of his companion’s hand. It was warm, but in a good way—pulse strong and full of life.

I’ve got you. Like always: for as long as you want me around.

One could only hope that’d be for… well, for a long damn time.

Before long, though, his chin had started to droop forward into his chest. Jesus. Everything hurt. Everything. And there would be no rest for him until Nate opened those big beautiful eyes of his. Oughta drag a chair in here. Keep watch while nursing his aches and pains.

It would be fine. The entire world would be fine. He had his love’s hand in his own, an indulgence he wasn’t going to even try to talk himself out of now. The complication had been handled. He’d mowed it down before it’d even become a problem, and hell, maybe that was a little anticlimactic of him. Maybe he’d gone off and done it all before he’d even been sure there was a threat in the first place. Nate might have pulled through easy as pie.

…It hadn’t yet become something that… that Mama Murphy could have gotten that terrified bent to her voice over. Those grasping, desperate hands. That harsh urgency.

Something about that still clawed at him… like this was good that he’d done, but it wasn’t quite what she’d meant. Like he was missing something important about it.

It was enough to make a man eventually resume pacing a hole into a recovery room’s floor. Enough, as a cold and mean night set in, to make him seek out a wee bit of a pick-me-up, too. His head was full of dead generals and battles that no amount of fighting could win.

Now, under the heavy weight of night and old stone, his heart stuttered as he turned a corner, keeping a brisk circuit to maintain some semblance of warmth in his body. The bourbon slid a ball of fire into his core, smooth and smokey and good. He turned a corner, happy to let that boozy flame help him heal.

Which was when, in the center of the corridor leading to the courtyard, he spied a naked beefcake in a toga.

Hancock squinted, rubbing his sleepy eyes to be sure. Yeah… naked, muscle-y fella… a probably-hallucination…

Wrapped up in a… blanket?

Thing was sagging pretty quick.

And Hancock knew those scars, knew that beautiful black hair.

Alarmed, seeing feet and hands that were already turning blue, he rushed forward, reaching out—

 


 

—and Nate toppled just as he'd desperately wished, right into his companion's arms. His nose planted into a pointy collarbone beneath a red mantle and brocaded blue waistcoat, the sensation flooding over him of companionship and safety. “Mrrm,” he greeted, bubbled in peace. He hadn’t doubted for a moment who had found him. It was like he was tied to a string, always knowing what was connected to the other end.

There was John, head tilted, a bottle of bourbon loose in one hand, the other righting him quickly, pressing him back.

“Nate?” the man rasped, squinting, clearly a little out of it. “The hell you doing up?”

“Looking for you.” Nate turned his attention from the booze to stare his friend in the face and appreciate it. His world wasn’t entirely right without this man in it. “You saved me,” he whispered, that singular realization cutting through his thick cloud like the sharpest sword—and he really wasn’t talking about just his injuries fighting the mirelurks. The whole of their journey was piling up in his mind’s eye like a home movie. It was suddenly occurring to him that without John Hancock there, he might have been dead so many times over, so, so long ago. You saved me.

“Yeah, and don’t make me do it again. How often are ya gonna end up like this?” John chuckled, rubbing his bald head as if in disbelief, then gingerly patted Nate’s shoulders. “Get back to bed. Geez. You do realize you’re wandering around in the winter—in the dead of night—in only your underwear, right? Just…” His hairless brows rose high, his voice crawling up an octave to match, stare glued to Nate’s abdomen. “Just no… no damn proper clothes at all. Nice abs hanging out all over the place. Uh. How much goddamn Med-X did they give you again?”

“It feels like… like all of it.” Nate looked down too, blearily tracing the fine trail of hair sinking beneath his navel. Huh. Yeah, this blanket wrapping wasn’t really working. But the chems tingled their magic, and he couldn’t care. Pleasant little shocks went up his spine as Hancock fully grasped his shoulders, gently urging him to make an about face and get out of the corridor. It made him sway with cheer. He wanted to lean into that touch, cherish the contact of skin on skin. Body heat washed over him in a safe bubble. So did the familiar scent of his companion, musk and soft smoke. He wanted the arms that held him in a river until he was well. A hand holding his in the night.

Hancock got him back into his recovery room, pulling back the blankets over the mattress, shivering violently the whole time. “Christ. Did you open the window…?” Nate glanced at the pile of debris haphazardly stuffed back into the porthole. He staggered and nodded. Hancock chuckled tightly. “Brother, you are stoned. Better than being in pain, I guess. Well, can’t light a fire in here now… so you better get real warm and cozy. Go on. In bed with you. You’re turning, like, some crazy shade of blue. Fuck. I’m glad I’m a ghoul right now.”

Nate blinked, calculating his numb, uncooperative feet through the haze. He stumbled and fell into a sit at the mattress’s edge, looking up forlornly at his friend.

Warm. Hancock was very warm. Warm was what he needed, or he felt like he might rattle apart.

The blankets were coming down, a wall between them.

No. He wanted nothing to ever come between them again.

Nate reached out, wrapping his shaking arms around Hancock’s legs, pulling him in. His cheek buried into a pointy hip edge as he lifted and strained, trying to bring his personal heater to lie down with him—Hancock was truly very light for a grown man, even if he was deceptively sturdy. Still, the guy went unwieldy as he froze, his feet staying just where they were. Body heat rushed over Nate in a pleasant wave, everything his indulgent, medicated, broken heart wanted. “Stay.”

His companion made a funny noise in his throat, staring down.

“You’re cold too,” Nate managed blearily. Something in his mind uncovered an old survival instinct, his platoon huddled together for warmth. It wasn’t entirely… entirely selfish.

“Uh. I.”

“Freezing. Stay under blanket. Don’t want… ghoul-sicle for a friend.”

There was tremor in Hancock’s tone, like he couldn’t settle on a laugh or a protest. He wiggled, trying to back out of Nate’s firm hug, syllables taking a rollercoaster slide between a near-squeak and a low rasp. “Uh. Wow. I. You’re sure something on Med-X, brother. Look, sober Nate probably wouldn’t be alright with that with, uh, everything, so we’re just gonna… come on now… just gonna let me go…”

Disappointed, heart a sinking submarine, Nate dropped his arms. The blanket came up and over, bundling him tight. He shivered desperately and alone beneath it, laying down, curling up into an unhappy ball.

Hancock was shaking now too, and he walked around, settling into a chair nearby. He sat there for several minutes, silent also, watching the wall. Probably wanted to make sure the highest-ranking patient here didn’t go wandering off again.

“Sorry,” Nate mumbled into his folded-jacket of a pillow, unable to read that unblinking, thoughtful stare into nothing.

“It’s okay.” John’s words were oddly gentle, even if his eyes were distant. “You’re real hopped up. Say no more.”

“…You’re… you’re not cold?” Nate’s teeth chattered bitterly. It felt like an edge of the Med-X was starting to wear off, and the winter was creeping in with a threat and a promise for daring to ignore it. His feet began to feel again—aching, cramping, terrible cold. And in that sobering chill also came reminders of the can’ts and shouldn’ts of his relationship with Hancock, all the sharp little pangs of desire and…

…And love.

The ones it was so hard to speak aloud.

Nate wondered if he was about to weep again. Something in his dizzy sinuses and stinging eyes felt dangerous.

“I knew a ghoul once,” Hancock was whispering, forcing him back to reality. “This guy, he literally froze for a week during the blizzard of ’78. At the end, he just kind of thawed and went on his way. Hooray for mutations, right?”

Nate’s chest thrummed nervous and loud. Every time he thought he had a handle on what Hancock was, something like that would come up, make his insides turn upside down. “But… aren’t you cold?

Yeah, brother, I’m cold. It just… it ain’t gonna kill me, okay? Just makes me kinda… slow. It’s unpleasant as fuck. But I’m alright.”

“I feel like it’s gonna kill me. Seriously.”

Hancock tilted his head, leaning in, concern lighting in his gaze. “I… damn it, it’s my fault. I leave for a few minutes for a cigarette and a drink, and you go wandering. You beat monsters, are getting past infection, but almost fucking freeze to death.” His fingers delicately massaged what was left of the bridge of his nose. “Makes me glad I decided no chems tonight. Look… are you… are you warming up in there?”

Nate shook his head, his stomach clenching as he trembled.

“I… okay. You really need me?” The words seemed to contain careful, neutral edges.

Nate’s heart skipped a nervous beat. “…Yeah. It… it would help. We’ve slept this close before, you know?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” He straightened, face unreadable. His tone seemed to warn that even though they’d done this before, everyone here knew damn well this was different, and for a lot of reasons they hadn’t discussed, things that had happened in a dark church, things that weren’t really that way between them. But he kneeled, laying down on the mattress too, tugging the blankets from Nate and over them both. Instantly, the space started to warm. Unable to be even a little self-conscious about it, Nate drew close, stopping just shy of wrapping his arms around John’s very ribcage.

When Hancock shifted to face him, to really look at him, one could see those ribs were quite bony and rigid, distinguishable even through his cotton shirt. It hadn’t really occurred to Nate that under all that cloth, his friend probably did look much the same as some ferals. He almost seemed like a different species.

And though this was interesting information, ultimately, Nate didn’t care. His heart, it beat contentedly. His body started to quell its shaking. His brain sparked with a happy, soaring skip, almost like a contact high, except… it wasn’t that. They were close enough that this was everything but touching.

It had been so goddamn long. He’d been so goddamn lonely.

Here love could be.

If he really did close the distance…

His fingers trembled, wanting.

“This good?” Hancock said, voice gruff and low, guarded. His fingers came up, scratching lightly at his collarbone through the throat of his ruffled collar.

“Yes.” Nate basked in their blanket cocoon, unable to stop drinking in even that small, meaningless motion if it was coming from those hands.

Hancock remained stiff, silent, rolling slightly inside their blankets so he was square on his back. His eyes wandered to watch a middle space somewhere. His body was there, but his mind was behind some kind of wall.

The Med-X had some strong suggestions for Nate about what he wanted, how to break that wall down.

It wasn’t right, Nate knew. It wasn’t right.

He wanted it anyway. He wanted to be pressed down into the mattress, to have those lean legs straddling tightly around his hips, to hold and to touch and to savor. It was a short drop, knowing he loved… to wanting to be loved back. To know he wasn’t alone in needing to be felt, heard, and seen… to know the one he wanted would want him too, that this feeling wasn’t so cruel and pointless as to not be returned.

The yearning for that left him quivering, until he didn’t know whether all of his shivering was from the cold anymore.

He’d dreamed of lips. He was too far gone to be ashamed of that now. In his dreams, they’d been pebbly, delightfully textured, and so, so warm. And he wanted them to press into his entire being and remind him he wasn’t truly alone here or ever.

He didn’t move to take them. He couldn’t just… couldn’t just jump John like that, his brain on a haphazard chem rollercoaster. Hell, for all he knew… John had mentioned women sometimes, the ladies liking his outfit, so what if… what if all the flirting was just a joke, not real, because sometimes men did things like that regardless of their true leanings, and… and…

And he could barely string a whole sentence together. He couldn’t ask.

It was then it actually hit him that he was almost entirely naked, and he needed to roll over so the blanket couldn’t shift and give the world an eyeful of how friendly his body was really feeling.

Oh Jesus. What if… how long had he been staring? Like this? 

Hancock blinked, long and slow, jaw tense and unhappy.

Nate reeled back like he’d been decked, the rush slamming his heart into the ground like a downed Vertibird. It crumpled into unrecognizable debris. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, mortified. His eyes stung. Oh God, he was just leaning into his friend’s side like a barnacle, and he needed to move now, and—

“Wait. What’re you sorry about?”

“That I…” Nate trailed off, unable to finish. The words bubbled in his brain like a stew, melding together, unable to be picked apart so they could be said. “I have feelings,” he finally managed. “So many feelings. Can’t… words. I’m sorry.”

“Hey.” A gentle hand finally closed the distance. It tapped Nate’s shoulder, like a playful, man-friendly arm punch writ small. “It’s okay. Don’t let the Med-X get too far into your head, alright? This’ll pass. By morning, you’ll be able to get to your words just fine. Ain’t got nothing to be sorry for right now, that I know about anyway.”

Head still spinning, Nate managed to nod and retreat just a hair from that addictive presence of home. He rolled over, hiding his front and all his confusion, uncertainty, and arousal. His back lit up happily in the heat instead.

Well, this was a mess.

The medication eventually pulled Nate’s thrashing brain into its dark arms. Hancock’s soft breathing nearby did the rest, his presence as wonderfully soothing as it was distressing.

Maybe, if he was lucky, Nate thought, he might forget this train wreck. Though the feelings wouldn’t be gone. They’d remain, prodding him from the shadows, dragging him in.

Eventually, he’d need to talk to his friend about it all.

A true disaster for a sober man to handle, that.

 


 

Hancock lay quiet, a watchful guard after Nate drifted off. A full ten minutes passed before he realized he kept forgetting to breathe. His heart hammered in his throat, and as he reached up, he found his eyes were leaking. That was not the right thing for them to do. Furious, he wiped them dry.

Nate was here. He was alive, safe, handsome, and incredible, and that sure as shit was an unexpected gift, to be lying beside that now. Hancock kept reaching up with one hand, wanting to touch that smooth, chiseled back, daydreams coiling around his baser instincts, wishing that drugged, touchy-feely slur of Nate’s mood was true interest.

But it meant nothing. Never did… no matter how close they’d been in the tent in nights past… no matter how close Nate would try to burrow in his sleep, wrapped thick in nightmares.

He always rolled away come morning.

Hancock was, in fact, unsure if he was exhilarated at being here now or really depressed about it.

This companionship—full of justice and hope and light, the best, most beautiful and fantastic bond he’d ever experience—it wasn’t enough anymore. His insides, they were fucking greedy things, squirming, never content to only have the best thing he’d ever had. Ghostly tingles lit up his fingertips and the pits in his stomach again, wanting to touch, to pull close, to have more.

Always more. Too much more.

Hell, he didn’t know love was ever this angry. It was just… there Nate was! Right there, mostly naked in a bed with him, and he’d been all leaning in and swaying, woozy and grinning like this ghoul bod was a life-saving campfire. Like he just wanted to roll his buddy up into his arms and never let go. Hiding his hips like he was frisky! Making a guy have to pretend like he didn’t wanna look!

But a man could get hard buying spare sensor modules. Bodies never needed a reason. And Med-X… well… sometimes, it gave reasons.

So it didn’t mean anything.

A delicious charge had snapped up the top of Hancock’s head regardless, all the way down to his toes, threatening to drag a growl from his chest. Fuck. Someone could just crack an egg on Nate’s sharp abs, couldn’t they?

In that moment, he would have killed anyone and anything that might have stood between him and that soft, incredible skin brushing up his arm and side. He wanted to tear off every last scrap of fabric keeping them apart, and he wanted to taste it, savor it, lose himself forever in it and never come back.

And he also had desperately wanted to fess up: to everything, to the damn soft feelings shattering open his chest and defenses, to the fact that for him, this wasn’t a for now, this was an always, to effectively hand over the knife that could gut him wide open and pray Nate wouldn’t use it. To pull close, to give his body what it cried out for. To kiss deep and frantic against those lips like he was half a step from going feral. To…

Hancock’s hand involuntarily bunched up the fabric of the blanket. He puffed a snort of disbelief and raw frustration into the frigid night, muscles coiling tense in cheated pleasure. It had taken every last ounce of his willpower to lock down his limbs and keep their boundaries.

He still kind of hated that he’d managed.

But in the long run, even if Nate had accepted his advances willingly, the fact that it all had happened during a chemmed-up fugue… his companion wasn’t the kind of man who would think that right. It might always cast a pall over…

Over what? Their “relationship”?

Bit early to be thinking about that word, wasn’t it?

Now Nate was asleep, his chest expanding evenly, slowly.

Mostly naked, right there in the same bed, and not a damn thing had changed.

Hancock shifted and twisted miserably in the electric warmth. This was probably the last thing their restored friendship needed… to be love. Because at the end of the day, even if they did roll a few benefits into this bond… for all the delirious good that would have been, if it was even remotely possible… which it wasn’t; Nate never truly made a pass when he was in his right damn mind

It wasn’t enough.

I have to stop this.

Maybe he ought to move. His companion wasn’t shaking anymore. This space, it’d be just fine now with bog-standard human body heat, no infusion of mutated metabolism. But he didn’t budge. No, he lay still in that cloud of pheromones, that soft, soapy scent of cleaned-up, beautiful, recovering Nate, eyes drooping.

Never good about temptations, was John Hancock.

Maybe, in spite of all this, he might find sleep. He might dream some good dreams.

He eventually did. They were the kind that snaked down his stomach and pooled deep below like molten fire, led by calloused, clever fingers, so good at fixing everyone’s problems except his own. There were lips, soft, ambitious ones, the sort that could tug on a heart’s deepest desires well before they found their physical mark—and once they did, the game was well over. But none of these flashes in his darkness could stay.

Come morning, he awoke to find that Nate had rolled deep into his side. His betraying arms were wrapped tight around the man’s chest to boot—whose breathing was so peaceful, whose slumber had wrought a soft smile onto that serious soldier face. They’d made a ball of true warmth, keeping back the chilled dawn.

Hancock’s heart stammered out poor attempts at lies, trying to spin a story.

And his body was hard and burning and even angrier, near shaking in want again—pining after a pretend-man with an available heart that could treasure his twisted-up flesh and his chemmed-out soul and every last one of his past failures and future hopes. That would tie a kid to that, to boot, if the guy ever got his son back in his arms.

So he extracted himself, wrapped his companion back up in blankets, and kept his distance, thoughtful and morose. That morning, without Nate snug against him still… it was somehow more cold and lonely than all the winter storms the Commonwealth had ever sent forth.

Hancock tried to pack without complaint, get them ready for the road ahead. Every shuffling step belied his frustration and tension.

Yet, he did notice something he hadn’t before. Something that made his belly twist in curiosity and pain and guilty hope. It was the wedding ring necklace Nate always wore—that strange talisman from an old world, a time where precious metals could be given as bonding-gifts with any regularity.

Both rings lay together now, far away from Nate’s constant fidgets and lonely stare, discovered packed away in the bulky travel bag at the foot of their bed.

Two rings, one ghost—placed out of sight, seemingly unchained from a man’s body and mind.

 

 

Chapter Text

Nate swallowed, throat parched. His still-healing side ached and burned miserably as he chugged down the road in his softly whirring armor.

Nuka Cola… ice cubes… fresh from a real fountain machine… as Nate watched the wispy, dehydrated clouds, that was his daydream. Despite the winter, it felt like his suit was trapping far too much heat. And this road had been a long one—a trek from the Castle to Sanctuary, then back through the Boston interior again, a zigzag that would eventually wend down to the so-called badlands in the southwest.

“You sure you want to be out here with me for this whole thing?” he rasped to his companion, unsure. He couldn’t help but feel all these endless hours were selfish, a family matter that ignored everyone else’s needs.

“I already said yes,” Hancock snapped by his side, puffing his cigarette. “Stop askin’.”

Taken aback, Nate sighed, worried, and continued his march. Again and again, the armor’s interior padding brushed his ribs, sending another stinging ache through his core. He’d need another break soon. He could barely even lift the gatling laser from his back now, armor or not; it hurt too much to contort that way.

But to take another Med-X? Hell no. Not with how those made him feel… how they made him act.

Deep in a wide stretch of abandoned, weed-consumed ruins, their route was meandering farther and farther from Goodneighbor. Back in John’s neck of the world, the Minutemen were on the job, building mortars across the holdings—bringing with them weapons and aid, hope and security. Even the Prydwen and all her Vertibird pilots would have to hesitate once the Neighborhood Watch unveiled one of those babies on the rooftops.

Nate had asked his companion if it would be more mayorly to return home alongside those war machines too, to help to set up the defenses.

And shockingly… John had just shook his head. “Nah. Got a promise to keep, you know? Nothing I can do except boost morale back there, anyway—no attack yet. So you and me, we got a priority date with some radioactive real estate.”

Nate had laughed and nodded, something in his chest wincing, his smile straining too wide. “Right. You and me.”

And as their journey got underway, his fractious good mood would falter even more. He would find much of his time wishing his companion might lose that tension around his eyes… that they would talk and joke and not feel awkward and sharp… that John might stop lighting up Gray Tortoise cigarettes like it did anything for his stress except keep people out of his immediate smoky bubble. Even Dogmeat wouldn’t have gotten close if he wasn’t back in Sanctuary.

Despite their heart-to-heart after Mama Murphy’s death, it still felt like something opaque and unscalable was looming between them, greater with each passing hour. When Nate had awoken again back at that Castle recovery room, the Med-X long since fading, John had been perched once more in his lonely chair, far away. Nate immediately curled his entire inward self into a crumpled and embarrassed agony. He still didn’t know for sure if he’d let his feelings on. The awkward silence over breakfast was maddening. All he could do was keep pushing forward, trying to pretend things were fine. Off they’d set soon after—after Nate had insisted to the doctor he was alright—not wanting to let daylight burn. And all the while, he’d wondered if he’d dreamed the arms around him in the night. The reassuring embrace.

His eyes stung, wanting that still.

What I’m feeling…

As much as it frightened him to speak of it out loud, he was starting to wonder how he would.

Because it had to be done, didn’t it? Whatever this prickly, itchy, in-between limbo was choking their air, it couldn’t last.

Which meant the best thing he’d found out here, the thing he’d finally gotten back and sworn to never lose again… he was about to lay it out and vulnerable, then swing at it like a goddamned bat to a hornet’s nest. It would go to hell. Because he was more a collection of nightmares and unmanaged trauma than a stable human most days. He was making dangerous enemies left and right. He might be charging right into an early grave with his guns and his hopes and mad need to take on the world. And if he didn’t, at the end of his road, he’d have a little boy—a child that he’d be dragging into this life too.

Maybe John Hancock was his best friend, one of the greatest men he’d ever known… but to imagine that good-humored, freewheeling, revolutionary soul might want a… a… a deeper partnership… with this bisexual wreck when all was said and done?

He’d have to be as crazy as me.

But for some reason, he still hoped. It made him curl even deeper into his inward torture every minute, a soft, mournful whisper inside saying that maybe… just maybe…

Just… just keep it together. For Christ’s sake, you’ve asked him to help you bury your wife. Maybe… just wait to think about it until you’re a little more together…?

God. As long as there were no other Brotherhood agents crawling around Paladin Irving’s old base, he might grab a drink from off that wine rack. It would help. “So,” he tried, another effort to keep conversation going, trying to find his way out of his hungry, crying heart. “I’ve got some wild stories about what the Brotherhood believes. You know, they’ve got some serious propaganda about ghouls and mutants.”

A toothy, wary grin answered. “That so?”

“Yeah. You won’t believe what they say about—”

“Oh, I know what they say. But ghoul dicks didn’t get to be twice the size of theirs from the radiation. Common misunderstanding.”

Nate balked, coughing. Hancock was giving him the most inscrutable face, innocent in its blank serenity. “That wasn’t what I… I mean… the thing… ah…”

His friend snickered, a tiny bit of edge collapsing from his shoulders. “C’mon, brother. Just yanking your chain again.”

Nate finally let a genuine laugh seep out of his lungs, relieved. Jesus, this is a minefield.

“But I mean it! They’re just jealous!”

Nate’s chuckle gave way to a guffaw. And he felt better, because this was just how Hancock was—he could put anyone at ease with his jokes eventually, appropriate or not.

And he loved that.

“Seriously though, what do those assholes say?” His companion stepped a little closer as they kept moving. “I’m kinda curious, now.”

“Well, for one… some guy claimed ghouls can live off radiation, no food needed. I mean, that’s bullshit, right?” It’d seemed a hell of an uneasy line, something engineered to persuade the rank and file that these were things they dealt with, not people.

“Oh. The rad-absorbing. Yeah, you know, that one’s actually true.”

“What?” Nate managed another unsettled laugh. “C’mon. I’ve seen you eat all the time. You love my molerat.”

“Hell no, your molerat’s awful!” Unable to deliver a playfully insulted expression, Nate gently flipped him off instead, and Hancock grinned wider, cackling. “Look, man… eating and shit, it keeps you healthy and your brain human. Heard of some ghouls going for years without a real snack… but, uh, usually not without getting real damaged, you know? In a not-coming-back kind of way. Unless they do that weird hibernating thing some of them manage.” He gave a cheeky raise of his hairless brows. “You know, I can tell from your quiet that you’re making your ‘you-must-be-shitting-me’ face.”

Nate blinked. Actually, yes, under his helmet, he probably was. “Okay, guilty, but that is a little nuts.”

“Not arguing. Honestly, I still run into things ghouls can do that surprises me. Usually after I do ‘em.” It was hard to tell how he felt about this. He kept looking down and away.

“So… so… okay. You can eat radiation. Wow. Jesus. Okay. But… going in the Glowing Sea isn’t going to be, like, nourishing. There’s consequences.” Nate tried to move past the sheer biological enormity the mutation must have been, wanting to reaffirm and understand.

“Eh… might be fine. Might not. They say tons of rads sometimes egg on whatever brain-tilt ferals get.” John shrugged. “Unless it doesn’t. Who knows! Gotta say though, I ain’t one to tempt fate.”

Yes, you are. But I’m not going to lose you. “Well then, I’m glad this trip is for more than just protecting you against deathclaws. We’re here.”

The repurposed bar was just the same as it had been when Nate fled it before, when Deacon had taken the synth Paul to another, hopefully better life. Fortunately, it was still abandoned. And now, less heightened and desperate, Nate noticed a little antenna welded onto the building’s roof.

Irving had been building communications, though they didn’t seem done. Of course! So his squad could eventually radio back to the Prydwen!

“Hey,” he considered aloud. “I’ve got something to do here, besides grabbing the buried treasure—my cover story for the Brotherhood.”

“What? Why? You thinking about going back already…?” Hancock’s friendly tone squirmed into a tense spring.

“No! No. Not now. But someone needs to see if that intel about Amari and Goodneighbor made it to the Elder… and when they’re gonna be showing up on your town’s front stoop if so. And hell, when they intend on invading anywhere else. I’ll have to go back eventually, you know?”

This did nothing to ease the grinding coil of stress winding up Hancock’s shoulders. Like clockwork, he lit another cigarette. “Yeah… guess that’s so,” he bit off. “But…”

Nate shook his head, wishing he wasn’t in his armor so he could put out a reassuring hand and not accidentally leave a bruise. “Hey. It’s okay. It would not be like it was before. Honestly, I couldn’t take it.”

Hancock paused in lifting the cig to his thin lips. His gaze did a wary evaluation of Nate’s helmet. “…Oh yeah? I… ah… hm.” He swallowed carefully. “What do you mean?”

Honesty: that was all Nate knew would make this damage heal. “This’ll sound silly. But… it’s much better for me when you’re around. You’re pretty much my favorite person. Don’t laugh.” Hancock wasn’t, though. Just staring, wide-eyed. “I told you. You’re family to me now, and you being with me helps me in ways I don’t even know how to explain. My head’s not in a good place. I’m the worst spy in the Commonwealth. So I can’t just trot back to that base for another few weeks and expect to pull things off a second time. Like I said before… I… well, I need you with me.”

“…Oh…” Hancock said softly. He seemed to have forgotten all about the nicotine fix between his fingers.

“But you know,” Nate said, trying desperately to move past the awkward rawness he’d laid bare. Favorite person? What the hell was he thinking, saying that? Was he five? “I, uh, also left a big locker of loot on that ship too… if you remember…”

“…Your chem stash you hoarded just for your bestie.” A chuckle finally rasped out of Hancock’s throat. He snorted, then stuffed the Tortoise back in its pack. “Alright. Alright. This is me, accepting all that’s necessary, chilling out about it. But we’ll plan it together this time,” he said softly. “Deal?”

“You know it.” Nate breathed a heavy sigh of relief. And into the bar they finally went, together. Down in the tavern’s basement, there was in fact a little radio setup he’d missed—just a mic and some dials, all the real labor on the long-range antenna jury-rigged to the roof. “Give me a few minutes. I’ll need some quiet to get this communication through.”

Hancock made for the table. “Got it. No shouting for ghoul rights in the background. You won’t even know I’m here.” He sat on the table’s edge, staring leerily at the bloody instruments of torture still lingering, then popped open a half-drunk bottle of wine and took a long swig.

Nate exited his armor, desperately relieved to feel the cold air on his sweat-soaked skin. Even with his thin piloting bodysuit, over the last day, he’d been boiling in there. The pangs of weary nausea in his core started to ease. It didn’t take long to connect the remaining wires and activate the console—Irving had been well on his way to getting the base fully operational, after all. Now, thumbing the dials, Nate considered his gambit carefully. He couldn’t call Kells or Maxson; they’d just order him back to the Prydwen. But… Danse. Danse may his senior, but he’d listen without judgment, and, most of all, hesitate to deploy the order. He trusts me. Gives me a very long leash. Out of everyone, Nate knew he could ask this man to catch a little heat on his behalf.

He switched open the channel. The Cambridge Police Station’s designation was easy to recall; it only took a moment to send through a few Morse beeps, wait for someone on the other end to respond. Mouth dry, he finally heard the scuffle, the static of a new voice. Nice! It worked!

“This is Paladin Danse speaking, Cambridge Station.”

Nate almost fumbled his mic. He didn’t expect to get ahold of the man directly at first—maybe Scribe Haylen—and was off-guard enough that he forgot the formalities. He’d still been working up to actually speaking with his sponsor. “…Hey! It’s me!”

“…Nate?!” Danse’s gruff voice collapsed, a glad, shocked upturn in his vocal cords. Wow. Guy was happy enough that he’d fallen off proper protocol too. “It is damn good to hear your voice, soldier.”

“Sir,” Nate saluted, a smile fading as he heard the clear concern and upset underlying that tone. “My apologies for being unable to contact anyone for so long. My mission’s gone a bit belly up. My radio also isn’t fully operational, and it looks like I can reach you, but I can’t reach the Prydwen. Can you get a message to them?”

“Of course!” Danse’s inflections evened as they fell into business. “What’s happened? Rumor has it that Irving’s base was hit by unknown hostiles. I was informed you both were M.I.A.”

“It’s true. The Institute came for him and his prisoner. I couldn’t stop them. Paladin Irving… he’s been killed. Did his knights make it back safely to the Prydwen with their intelligence?”

“Yes,” Danse replied, and Nate grimaced. “Actually, there’s been a lot of chatter about forming a squadron to find you and Irving both—the higher ups seem to think he was investigating something crucial to our upcoming strategies. They’ll be damned glad to hear you’ve pulled through.”

Nate almost wheezed with relief to think not all the intel had made it. “I’m afraid I don’t know what else Irving had to say. The firefight that killed him seemed to have begun shortly before I arrived. However, I’m pursuing the synth responsible, and I may have a lead to the location of the Institute themselves. I need a few more days to investigate.”

Danse fell into a long silence, almost as if he was astounded. “You need backup.” It wasn’t a question.

“Negative.” Nate swallowed down a dry lump in his throat. “If a bigger team arrives, the target will notice.”

“Then where will you be?”

“I have reason to believe this communication may not be entirely secure, so I shouldn’t say. However, I’m not going to try anything stupid—I’m observing and will report back to the Prydwen as soon as I can. I know this falls outside my mission parameters, and I understand if I’ll be disciplined. But… this seems too big and important to let go.”

A long silence extended on the other end. The man was weighing his arguments, his gut instinct to kibosh an unplanned scheme, but… Nate knew he wouldn’t. They’d worked together too much, and Danse knew when his knight took big risks… there was a big reward. The possible location of the Institute was a mouth-watering carrot. “Understood. I’ll report this back to the Elder. And Irving’s death. However…” His voice twisted into an exacting thing, like he wanted to lift Nate by the lapels and stare sense into him. “Exercise the utmost caution, Knight. Maxson may send a team out to that base anyway, if something like this is going on. Either way, return as soon as you are able. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Nate swallowed, breathing with relief. “I’ll be back in no time. Thank you.”

Ad victoriam, brother.”

Ad victoriam.” Nate saluted at nothing again with one hand and cut the feed with the other.

“Wow,” Hancock said, still reclining amidst wine bottles, laughing in his eyes. “Just… wow.”

“What?”

“You’re real talented at all that, is all. Damn.” He waved his drink in the air. “So much brotherly concern and respect… had no idea you were that good of an actor. They… they should call that guy Paladin Dense.”

Nate stiffened. “He’s… Danse… he’s not all bad. And while I was there, I found other people too that care more about protecting others instead of power or orders. Some don’t… but…”

“Mmm, so they weren’t all drinking blood and cackling about ghoul genocide, huh? Well, in that case, d’ya think they’d warm up to me if we played some cards? Or not?” Hancock lifted a knife from the table conversationally, the synth’s dried blood still caked on its surface.

Nate wound up tight. Knowing the answer, distressed, he busied himself by finding another unopened bottle of wine stashed in the corner. One truly couldn’t blame Hancock getting… ah… pointed about it. A torturer had, after all, been gunned down in this very room who’d been joking about wiping out people just like him.

If things had been different, and Danse had been the paladin who’d capture the synth rather than Irving… Nate wondered if he still could have pulled the trigger so quickly.

Would Danse have even done things like Irving in the first place, though? This was a man, after all, that would stoically salute the Prydwen’s resident mouser and give him a proper “Ad victoriam” when he thought no one was looking. Then a scratch behind the ears.

Nate unscrewed the cap on his bottle, poured a little into a dusty glass, and took a draught. It soothed his throat and softened his nerves. Of course, Danse would never change all he was and believed in, because his beliefs were who he was. He was a man of pure loyalty and conviction, and if he rejected any of the Brotherhood’s tenements, it would be the same to him as rejecting them all—the same as rejecting himself. And so long as the Brotherhood ordered him to do these things…

That was that, then. Understanding and possible friendship or not, Danse was unlikely to be saved from any ultimate betrayal, and Nate knew he had to stop killing himself over it. To defend him to Hancock, of all people, who had everything to lose here? That was probably a little fucked up.

“Sorry. You’re right,” he finally rasped.

“Thought so. I mean, you do know that when they decided to go after the Railroad… they’re even hurting their own cause, fighting the enemies of their enemies, right? But they don’t care. They’re drawing lines.” Hancock tossed his now-empty bottle over his shoulder, letting it shatter on the wall. “Anyone giving aid to those they don’t think are human enough… they’re gonna get wiped out. Not driven off. Not frowned at. Exterminated. You feel me?” He was uncoiling off the table, head tilted, a guarded frown of concern tugging at his eyes and lips. It was the faintest echo of that smooth, dangerous slink from inside the church. Not the one that was seductive… the one that kept hidden knives. Come to think of it, the one he’d been holding had disappeared.

And Nate felt the words tilt into his solar plexus like a finely sharpened lance. “I… I know. But… John. You don’t have to tell me how it is. I mean…” He sighed, feeling all the conflict and storm inside from the last several weeks swelling up again. He took another drink, then opened his armor once more. “I know now I’m not the kind of person that should be a spy. I wind up empathizing. Seeing the good side of people. But… I still know the Brotherhood absolutely cannot be allowed to tear through the Commonwealth. I am not on their side. I never will be.” He sighed again, long through his nose. “Hell. If I’m on anyone’s side at all, I’m on yours. Even more than I’m on my own, I think.” And I’ll be by your side as long as you’ll have me.

Hancock’s frame creaked into a relieved sag. “Good. Sorry. You just…” He laughed. “You did some real good acting over the radio, is all.”

The armor sealed around Nate. “Maybe next time I’ll do my Silver Shroud persona.”

“Oh, please do. I was happy to see you kept the outfit.” Those black eyes finally crinkled up again with laughter. He sidled up, all friendly again, slinging his arm around Nate’s massive steel shoulders—though he had to stand up on tip-toes to do it. “Right. M’sorry. You finally ready to get this freak show on the road, then?”

“Hell yes. I’ve been ready. And John?” Nate scaled the creaky stairs of the bar’s basement one, last time, drawing his friend on. “You’re gonna love the new gear I got you for this.”

 


 

Hancock had always figured that piloting power armor for the first time probably wasn’t easy.

Learning to pilot while sloshed was… maybe… harder.

“Whoop!” He pivoted wrong for the fifth time and gravity ate him alive. His shielded face planted straight into the Commonwealth dust. It didn’t hurt, per se, except his pride. But it definitely jarred all the achy bits that were still on the mend. He shook his head and got back up again, the sand and gravel tinkling out of his helmet nooks.

It felt like that fall wasn’t entirely his fault though. Every time he brushed this one part of his gloves’ interiors with his hands… it felt like there were some toggles in there… and the armor would get… vibrate-y from the back. It was really distracting, but not like, a fun distracting, and—

“Careful!” Nate snickered, outside his own suit, sitting cross-legged on an old bench not far away and taking a sip from another bottle. Hancock was pretty sure that “confiscating the liquor so you can focus” didn’t mean the guy was supposed to drink it all himself, but hey, he couldn’t really judge. “You… you’re not trying to dance in that thing, man. Just focus on walking.”

“Dancing?” Hancock prepared to try again, in better humor now, seeing Nate smiling so unreservedly his way. Made a guy feel like he was walking on air. “They call me Paladin Dance, don’tcha know. Got the music in my soul!”

His companion responded by laying down on the bench, eyes glimmering, cackling even harder. Yeah, Nate was welcome to all the wine, if it’d help him loosen up like that. He’d been like a spooked cat all journey—jumpy, quick to change subjects, never quite making eye contact. Defensive about the weirdest things. And then when he’d gotten that armor on, another literal barrier went up, and Hancock, without a face to look at, had to fall back on interpreting any expressions from that distant, tinny, distorted version of a voice. After their night in the Castle… that feeling of desperate loneliness bookended with quiet, persistent hope… this was starting to make that hope part a lot dimmer. That brief spell with Nate in his arms, it seemed so goddamn far away now, and kept getting farther the more the man pulled back.

So could his companion ever want…?

Why did he have to keep coming back to it? Why couldn’t he just… just get fucking used the answer being no, like it always had been?

He grit his teeth and tried to walk again, tearing himself from that heartache of a thought. Was goddamn useless, this moping.

“Come on, man,” Nate rallied warmly, swaying just a tad. His face was flushed red—maybe he’d had a bit more wine than Hancock had noticed. Hm. “I know you’ve got this. We have to get you going before anyone starts getting ideas about sending Vertibirds out here.” As he sat back up though, he flinched, curling and wincing towards his left side. His smile stretched wider as if he was trying to hide the pain reaction. Didn’t want anyone to notice how much he was still babying that mirelurk gash, huh? Stubborn bastard. Hell, convincing him he needed constant antibiotics was hard enough. Nate was always the type to insist he was fine, because he had to be invincible to get the job done—sure had sung a sweet song to that Minuteman doctor too about how great he was feeling, how he absolutely didn’t need any more rest and care.

Now he was constantly needing to take breathers on their journey. Not that he’d admit that. Checking the map was his usual excuse.

Hancock paused his unsteady gait, irked now. If this hadn’t been about the guy’s son, he might have imposed some serious opinions about it. As it was, though… he knew they’d bounce right off. “You take your pill yet?”

Nate’s chin tilted sullenly into his chest.

“Take your damn pill.”

“Alright, alright.” Nate fished an antibiotic from the red mantle, right now draped on the bench too. It went down with a chasing of liquor. Fine; if that’s what it took, then that’s what it took. Might have to force him to let me take a look at that wound again later myself. Last he’d seen, it’d been inflamed still, and Nate just wouldn’t stop fussing with it.

Geez. Asking a guy to take off his shirt for inspection was supposed to be fun. Nate’s chest was, after all… whew. An experience.

Flexing his fingers, he resettled himself back into the suit’s fidgety controls, trying not to think, and instead walk with the slow, regular rhythm that his tipsy tutor had instructed. Again, he accidentally brushed the whatever-it-was that made his armor creak-shudder, but he managed to back off it in time before it sent him into the dirt again. This wasn’t easy or natural, letting those pistons and locomotive joints set his pace and momentum rather than the other way around. But he bit his tongue and tried. Wouldn’t do for anyone here to think his brain was losing its edge, after all, one too many tithes given to chem  journeys long past.

…And… huh! As long as he kept himself moving to an internal rhythm—and his personal anthem, “Sixty Minute Man,” was that rhythm, to be clear—it really was kinda like dancing. His cadence evened out. As long as he didn’t spin around too abruptly… yeah, he could see himself staying upright.

“Good work,” Nate finally said after another swig, looking—and this touched Hancock’s shriveled heart—both good-humored and proud.

Made him take a steadying breath, slightly flustered.  “Hell yeah. Told ya I’d get it. Just one question for ya though.”

“Yeah?” Nate cocked his head.

Hancock gestured up and back, pointing to his shoulders and the humming doodad fastened there. “What’s this thing? You don’t got one of these.”

A set of coiled steel pipes was what it was, open ends facing the earth. “I don’t really know,” Nate said, squinting. “That model has all kinds of weird bits. Maybe some kind of special exhaust system? Robotics aren’t really my—”

“It kinda vibrates funny, those pipes, if I wiggle this one thing—” He flexed that fiddly part inside his gloves. He wasn’t even certain that device was entirely responsible for his armor’s here-and-there thrum, but—

Smoke suddenly belched around him. Something in the suit clicked and set. And a roar filled the air like a plane taking off.

Hancock was launched.

Straight into a collapsed wall.

He heard the violent crunch. Saw, for a brief moment, stars as his neck jerked in the impact. His chest and head buried in the wood.

Hilariously, it didn’t hurt. So he just sat there, stunned, and stared at crumbling building frame for a good while.

“It’s a jetpack…!” Nate’s breathless wonder and alarm floated from behind. Armored hands helped pull him up and out of his new digs. Oh, had Nate suited up? How long had he been stuck?

“Geeeez. You, uh…?” Hancock breathed. “You see what happened?”

“I’d heard the military had been working on some prototypes, but I’ve never seen one…!” Debris clattered around Hancock’s armor as he got entirely free. More dust had to be shaken free from his visor. “Uh.” Nate swallowed down what sounded like a nervous laugh. “Maybe you shouldn’t wiggle that thing that makes that happen. Ever.”

“…Okay then. No wiggling. Loud and clear.” His fingers were already as eased as far away as they could possibly get from those toggles. “Actually… how fast you think I was going? You think, like, a deathclaw would still stay upright if I just… whooooosh! Right into him?”

No!” Nate sounded like he’d proposed they both turn raider. “No whoooosh! I think I know what that thing can do, and I don’t think you want to play with it.”

Hancock shook himself, dust falling free. “Okay, fine. No wiggling. No whooosh.”

Inside, he grinned, knowing he’d absolutely be trying this again someday.

“Do we need to switch suits?” Nate’s sounded like all the amusement had leaked right out of his frame forever and ever. Oooo, Vaultie could see right through him. Damn.

“No, no, it’s good! I’m good. We’re good. Not gonna do it.” Hancock tried to sound quite committed—definitely not a guy with a thrill-seeking streak getting notions.

“You sure?”

“…Yeah. Totally. One hundred percent. Absolutely no whoooosh outta this ghoul today. Mayor’s honor.”

“…Okay then.” That sigh still sounded unsure, but it was resigned. “We’ve spent a lot of time here already. We should probably get moving before it gets dark. Nobody wants to walk to the Glowing Sea at night.”

Hancock smiled and nodded, swallowing his buzz, still managing to march straight. He even delicately picked up his coat and tied it over his metal shoulder like a fun little half-cape. His hat he’d stowed with his bag in the storage compartments in the armor’s back. “Yeah, nobody wants that. Of course… you ain’t never been like anybody else, I don’t think. So who knows where the night’ll take us, right?”

Damn heart kept trying to fling itself into the big wide open like a super mutant suicider. Shit.

His companion paused, and behind that armored helmet, his expression was a total mystery. Then the answer came, soft, almost easy to miss. “No one else like you anywhere either, John.”

Hancock froze, then sighed, relaxing. Maybe he never would have a true chance with this man, but still… still, he had that. Respect. Affection. And as they started to move out, he knew that reply was gonna keep him warm for the rest of this journey in the winter air.

For a very short time even… maybe it could be enough.

 


 

Their endless road had to end eventually. A long walk later, two travelers crested a craggy hill, looking out on the world before them with apprehension and dread.

And there it was.

The Glowing Sea was no ocean, but a neon wasteland of heart-wrenching, gnarled, alien nothingness as far as the eye could see—the kind where the silence was so profound, one could hear the ghosts screaming. A thick, luminescent miasma seethed around Nate’s power armor, flowing over soil deprived of even the barest of plant life. It coiled around the few remaining vestiges of concrete rot from yesteryear. This desert, to the wastes surrounding it, was like how walking on the moon would be to earth.

Deep inside of the November of 2287, the Sole Survivor of Vault 111, having fought through a hostile waste, war, and far too many years, had finally arrived at a place foretold to him by those now gone:

By a mercenary he’d gunned down, whose shade had spoken to him while he lay drowning in nausea and technological fever dreams.

By a woman on chems, eyes lolling and body slowly collapsing.

This place had promised to bring him everything he’d wanted then.

And all he wanted now was to turn back around. Even speaking almost clawed at Nate’s ears, like it was disrespectful to the spirits long lost here.

Hancock’s voice drifted to him nonetheless, an eerie, distorted timbre over the power armor intercoms. “Always thought there might be some kind of treasure out here. Pre-war things no one could get at anymore.”

“Yeah?” Nate ducked his head into a blasted-out and abandoned house’s door, scanning the rotted frame and collapsed floor. It creaked angrily under his heavy feet, and he backed away. There weren’t even scorched bones here, let alone anything useful.

“Yeah. Now, though, I’m pretty sure it’s all just ash, monsters, and depression.”

Nodding, Nate agreed. How in the hell did this Virgil they were looking for even find a place to exist in all this? “He has to be underground. Maybe in an old Vault or other shelter. That’s the only way he could keep this kind of radiation out.” The suit was giving him regular environment readings, and they were enough to make a person sick just via imagination. He was glad this hellhole was far from Sanctuary.

Though it wasn’t… wasn’t that far.

And as he sweat unhappily in his armor, the tang of ozone and perspiration pungent around his nose, a memory slammed into him: a sky on fire. A screaming, frightened townsfolk hugging close to what remained of their neighbors as they descended into a Vault.

This was it—where the bomb had hit that sent him fleeing underground. This was where the chain reaction started that ended his world.

Suddenly, he hated the Glowing Sea’s air with a rage so thick it curdled in his heart like rotted milk.

But the red fury coiled, dissipated, and moved on. He blinked, surprised he couldn’t hold onto it. It had nowhere to go, so it was burning itself out.

There was no one left to hate anymore.

They were dead. He wasn’t. He had a life to remake, another life to save, and things to cherish. After all, he’d truly gotten off lucky, hadn’t he? This fate, where he might rebuild his family, was far better than being burned alive in an instant or left to rot in pain. And Nora would have wanted it that way.

Maybe Nora would have wanted it too, that he might one day find…

Nate hazarded a glance at his companion, heartbeat thrumming in his ears, even louder in the eerie silence.

Here they stood together, him and this man against the world, poised to get his son back, or at least learn where that road led. And if he succeeded… what then? What would he do after? Would John stay? Would he ever think about…?

Nate let himself imagine, for just a second, a home in Sanctuary anew, a little fence to keep a boy and a dog from wandering too far. Maybe painted white. And in the kitchen, there he’d be, trying to figure out if a man even could eat the rind on a mutfruit, or if it was poisonous or something stupid—trying to feed his hungry boy a breakfast that would help him grow strong, even if it came from this nutrient-blasted, irradiated soil.

And there was John, standing awkwardly by him, not knowing how to really cook either. Not knowing about kids or fences or safety, but smiling in his cheeky, handsome way, polishing his knife, coming down from his latest hit. An empty Jet inhaler on the table. An empty bottle of beer beside it.

Holy hell. Nate swallowed, dizzy. How would this even work, if it was possible? It… it didn’t. Shaun and addictive chem paraphernalia were not compatible things.

This was… too much. He wanted too much. Hoped for too much. His heart was going to get broken again, hoping like this.

He could never—would never—change who his best friend was. Loved him just the way he existed, right here, right now.

But as a father… was he even allowed to chase that happiness, desperate as it made him feel?

“You okay, man? Kind of spacing out there.” Hancock gently shouldered him, armor to armor, gazing out into the barren, gleaming nothing.

“I don’t think so,” Nate said, deciding on some more things he could stand to be honest about right now. “But I’ll figure it out. Let’s go find Virgil.”

Hancock gave the fusion core of his gatling laser an experimental spin to charge it—Nate’s side hurt too much right now to properly manage the weapon at all anymore, so he’d handed it off. Eerie red light began to seep from the chamber. “You got it. One Institute escapee coming up. And I’ll vaporize anything else that gets in our way.”

Nate would gladly put his life in his hands. The way he swung that gun, it was like he’d been piloting armor for years now.

John was so much smarter than some people might think, seeing him knocking back drugs or weaving cheerily through a street. He’d never needed the same correction twice in their lessons earlier, either. Frankly, Nate was starting to suspect the Mentats were just a conceit.

Smart, loyal, headstrong John Hancock, so goddamn warm and comforting in the night.

Nate wished he still had that wine bottle.

 


 

Hancock grimaced. The Glowing Sea was worse than he’d imagined. Not a soul in the Commonwealth knew fuck-all about about these dregs, no one cared, and no one was dumb enough to change that.

Except them.

Nate better never say he didn’t take him anywhere nice, right?

Hancock admitted though, he’d been curious. After all, he’d heard tales of many a twisted and odd beast in his time: albino deathclaws, rare malformed radstags with just one head, bald yao guais, three-eyed molerats… the Commonwealth had a lot of shit to throw, and that didn’t even touch on the real legends like Ol’ Peg, the ghoul blue whale of the wilds past the shore.

He’d expected to find even more deeply corrupted creatures out here in Massachusetts’ radioactive heart—things that would truly break his hold on what reality could and couldn’t allow. Things that would shock and amaze the most jaded of souls.

Things that’d make for damn good stories at the Third Rail in their time.

And after two hours of wandering, watching for any signs of life, he found one.

But that this inexplicable and disturbing creature would take the shape of a bearded, half-naked, wandering hobo… he didn’t expect that.

Nate’s voice wavered to Hancock's ears in the still, stunned quiet, taking in this new stranger’s glinting, steely eyes, dirty rags hanging loose around ribs as the man crouched atop a hill peering down. “Am I having a chem flashback?” Nate rasped.

Ain’t that my line? “No… I… I see him too.” Hancock cleared his throat. “Also, man—all you take is Med-X. You’re not going to have flashbacks from that. Come on.”

His companion looked on dumbly at the figure in their path. The old guy was digging into a Cram can with his bare fingers. “But he’s not a ghoul,” Nate hissed. “He’s just… just sitting there. In eight grays of radiation. Breathing air that’s literally glowing.”

“Yep.”

The stranger just quietly watched, sizing them both up—comparing two whole-ass juggernauts in power armor against his raggedy and bony self, like it’d mean something.

“What are you doing here…?” Nate finally said, louder, seemingly still at a bit of a loss.

“Eating,” the man rasped, “Not that it is any of your concern, outsider.”

That seemed to be cause for throwing armored hands in the air. Nate probably couldn’t be blamed for doing just that. “But how… how are you… in this…?”

Yeah, why weren’t this guy’s brains just leaking out of his ears? Was he 50% Radaway? Much too ornery to die? A mass hallucination?

“…I don’t know you. I don’t owe you any answers. Why are you here?” Iron laced that gritty old tone.

“Are you Virgil?” Nate burst. “That’s who we’re trying to find.”

Hancock really hoped this wasn’t the Institute man. Something about this kook didn’t scream reliable source or escaped genius—probably because he’d clearly forgotten to steal a spoon for his lunch on the way out.

“No,” the man said flatly. “But if you are seeking someone… perhaps it is best you talk to the leader of our home. At least then you may find what you’re looking for and leave us be.”

Hancock didn’t like that either, the way this guy said leader. Made his skin crawl. Could just be, though, his natural distaste for authority. Or the authority of reality-improbable hobos.

“There are more of you?” Nate really was starting to sound like he needed a sit.

“You will see,” the stranger said. “And maybe, if you aren’t blind, you will learn.”

It turned out the old man’s hill was one of several, a rippling set of waves in the land pushing out from a crater punched into the rock. And in the center of that hole, a shanty town had risen. Hobbled shacks pocked the earth, the eerie yellow mist seeping through them openly. The population of this suicidal real estate venture was gathered in the center of all this, amidst the pools of glowing toxin that passed for groundwater in this graveyard.

They were kneeling.

They were praying.

Worshippers were positioned around the heart of this literal hellhole like it was the center of their universe. Hancock passed a woman whose eyes were rolled back so far in her head that only whites remained. A rapid litany hissed from her lips, over and over, a mad spiral. The old man, now their guide, waved Hancock forward, looking peeved he was staring.

But the woman’s chant followed them. “Atom bless us, keep us in your light, Atom bless us, keep us in your light…”

Oh goddammit. Cults. He hated cults. Had never even been much for bog-standard religion either, but devoted types like this, that was what gave him the true heebie-jeebies. Prayer rugs and beads and amulets… that was fine; gave people hope and didn’t usually culminate in lives ending. The Church of Atom, though, that was sometimes a real different story.

Each of the worshippers seemed to be wrapped up in the same fervent ardor as the chanter, like every hour of their day might be best spent determining how to best prostrate themselves before a force that could wipe them out without a thought. How fun. And at their fore was a woman with bitter, suspicious eyes, ones that made their guide look downright welcoming.

“Caleb? You’ve brought outsiders.”

“They’re looking for Virgil,” the man grumbled. “I assumed you’d want to deal with them.”

“Of course. Return to prayer.”

He bowed his aged head and shuffled off again. Hancock popped his lips, glad for his armor, which was going to make it real hard to be dealt with.

“We do not get many outsiders here,” the woman stated flatly.

I’d imagine not,” Nate finally burst. “And I have a lot of questions. But—you know Virgil? Please. I need to find him.”

“He wishes to be left alone. So we do. Sometimes he comes to trade with us, though—and then, he returns, back to his shelter to the south and east, up in the hills. Not far at all.” Though the words were gruff, thankfully, they weren’t actually hostile. Hancock relaxed a hair. Alright. He could live with not hostile.

Nate brought his hands together, made a little bow. “Thank you. Um. And… if I can ask. What is this place? How are you all living like this?”

An unnerved chortle wound out of Hancock’s throat. “Yeah… I’d like to know that too, sister. I mean, I’m not even risking this air, and I’m a ghoul.”

The woman paused, staring with her jaundiced gaze. “You… you’re a ghoul?”

Oh. Right. His face was hidden. “That’s what I said.”

Her expression underwent a startling transformation then, as if she had more expected these sets of armor were piloted by sentient Brahmin.  “Leave this place!” She finally backed away, gaze lolling. “You are an unworthy one! Leave! Atom has rejected you, twisted your body. We won’t have you here, befouling this holy crater and those he’s accepted!”

“What? Are you sayin’…?” Hancock threw up his hands. “Wait, seriously?”

Leave!

Then she picked up a fucking rock and threw it. It tinked off his helmet.

Nate tensed, coming closer as the air began to crackle and split with tension. Several worshippers heard the ruckus and began to congregate. Though they wore only rags, their eyes were that special sort of fanatical that meant they would absolutely test their luck if they had to—if the head woman asked.

“Well, that’s just great,” Hancock growled, glaring at Nate. “We’re out in the middle of the goddamned Glowing Sea, the asshole of the entire wasteland, a place no human is supposed to even be able to go, and there are still anti-ghoul nutjobs throwing me out.”

The gathering of nearby worshippers knit tighter, more aggressive. Nate brushed his friend’s shoulder, like he was getting antsy. “Do you really want to stay? I mean, they can’t hurt us, but…”

“Hell no, I don’t wanna stay.” Hancock started to stomp through the muttering, hostile crowd. This whole fucking nonsense parish could piss right off into whatever radioactive waste barrel they were drinking from. “Crazy better not be contagious,” he muttered. “I’ll start my own damn church crater, invite all the ghouls, yeah? And we’ll have Jet and orgies at our crater, see how you like me then.”

Nate made a choked noise into his microphone, bless his heart.

Fortunately, the gathered let them through without any trouble. Insanity only kept them moving so far; the rad load in their bodies probably was preventing them from getting too frisky.

Another rock still clunked off his backside just as he thought they were clear.

“Fucker!” Hancock hissed. He raised a middle finger to the sky in response, not even bothering to turn around. No one else tried anything.

“They’re just standing, watching us,” Nate observed, sounding baffled. Oddly, his voice was a little breathless too, like he was winded. “One of them tried to follow—got pulled back.”

“Whatever,” Hancock groused. “They can go to hell.” He set to work on starting to climb the rocky slopes just beyond the settlement. “Everything okay with you?”

Nate’s rhythmic gait slipped a little. “Yeah… I… I’m fine, I’m just a little dizzy all of a sudden is all, hurrying out of there… going up this hill. This armor, it’s really hot. Aren’t you… aren’t you hot?”

“Uh, no? Except, you know, in the smokin’ looks category.” It was winter, after all. There was no heat source in these things. “Nate, you sure you're okay?”

“Yeah… I…” Nate managed a minute later, “Uh… those people… were really unsettling. We should go around them entirely on the way back.”

“…Yeah.” Hancock frowned. “Couldn’t agree more. Might have been worse, though.”

“What?”

“Bomb worshippers. Sometimes attack outsiders on sight. Big into… ah… the purity of their message, I guess. We’re lucky these kooks were willing to chat instead of shooting first.”

What? They worship… the what?! WHAT?

A crackling snigger wove out of Hancock’s chest, easing some of the angry tension. “Yeah.”

“Why aren’t they dead already?

He just shrugged. He preferred not to think about it. After all, that would mean it was possible their “Atom” really did give them some kind of power, some purpose… that the thing that had torn open the wastes and wrought all the mutants and ghouls from humanity’s bloodline was tweaking with people’s destinies, even now.

And his destiny? He much preferred it as it always was.

His own.

So now? His and Nate’s fate was to go up this steep, rugged path to try and find some crazy-ass scientist-hermit who was also a shade too keen on the ol’ nuked real estate. His destiny was never looking back at that gross-ass pitstop fading behind him. So it would be. His armor’s footfalls came down heavy on the shards of gravel and loose rock, progress churning away on up that peak.

Always forward, never back.

Can’t believe she was throwing rocks like it’d do a fat lot of anything.

Well, Atom-people weren’t the most observant. Hell, they were too wrapped up in their teachings to notice they were probably dying, that their fate was what they’d made for themselves the second they’d come here. Divine intervention? Karma? Bullshit. He was walking proof. Despite everything he’d done in his past—and everything he’d failed to do—here he was alongside the best man he’d ever met. A man he’d throw down his life for any day. A man he loved. They sure as shit didn’t have that, and he did.

Sure, his odds for anything more weren’t great, he supposed. Nate could have anyone really, once everything was said and done, though he’d probably want no one at all ever again.

And he himself was a troublemaker who’d probably never learn how to be indoors… an addict… a damn fool of a scarred-up ghoul who didn’t have the sense not to fall in love in the first place, let alone not to fall for someone like this, with every shred of his soul.

But he still had part of this man. He still had something special. So he’d keep his silence for now about the rest. Keep things uncomplicated and tight, a friendship that’d never waver.

Even if the thought made him want to kneel and wheeze, like his lungs were being squeezed by an invisible fist.

He’d get through. Always did. Having Nate at all was more important.

And speaking of Nate…

His gait was distinctly uneven all of a sudden.

The man’s left foot wrenched suddenly, slipping on another loose stone. The rock clattered free, taking a huge slab with it. Nate snapped back to attention and jumped up, avoiding toppling over, the gravel cascading down the slope.

“Careful there, twinkletoes,” Hancock murmured. His eyes followed the minor avalanche of debris on its way down, as it picked up more detritus, as it lurched and clattered…

…Onto a massive, mottled boulder about fifty feet away that didn’t make the right noise, when those rocks hit.

More like a soft thuck rather than a crash.

He peered closer. The boulder was starting to… starting to move in response. Starting to uncurl.

Ah, shit. Maybe there was a reason those mad settlers hadn’t dared to follow them out here.

In the gleaming radioactive haze, it was terribly easy to mistake craggy, scaly hide for stone from a distance… until its teeth were bared, until its horns crested against the sky.

The eight-foot deathclaw peered up at them from its sunning spot, and then, it howled. And a chorus of bellows answered, sounding off the slopes, an alarm blare shattering the silence.

Well. Fuck.

There was a whole pack nesting in these hills.

And it was then, without warning, that Nate suddenly toppled and collapsed entirely.

 

Chapter Text

Nate gawped woozily up at the sky, drinking in its poisonous yellow. His body was wrenched from a fall, heavy, hazy, and sore. Swirling around him was the familiar sweaty tang and cushioned pressures of his power armor.

How had he… gotten down here…?

Every last part of him felt like it was buried under an ocean of weight.

A breathless, rasping “SHIT!” suddenly collided into his ears. Hancock’s helmet thrust into view, a furious gasp coming over the speakers as he grabbed Nate’s metallic shoulders and tried hauling him to his feet. A thick clang reverberated through them as frantic steel met steel. Nate could only make a croak of protest, perplexed and ungrounded, struggling to re-engage his wobbly knees.

“Hrghhh?”

“Get up! Get up! GET UP!

Nate sort of did—made it into a sit, anyhow.

Then he saw the unnatural demon hurtling up the mountain, about to peel their armor open like tins of Cram.

Oh.

Nate barely managed to fall gracelessly to his side and roll himself out of the way—the deathclaw catapulted past him, whipping its tail and contorting itself as it landed to face them in a growling, chittering attack stance. Those horrifically stretched limbs made a slashing snatch, missing Nate by inches as he scrabbled back and away, the world blurring and shifting as if he was dreaming.

A furious roar broke from John’s throat. The ghoul threw himself between the monster and its target—his armored foot kicked out and drove hard into the creature’s shin. Something audibly cracked. The thing screamed. But then, as Hancock stepped back, it pivoted to the other leg with the grace of a hellish ballet dancer, lunging and slamming into John with one arm, sending him staggering off balance. Those dagger-claws made a ghastly shriek against his torso. John went down, and the beast fell on top of him, bellowing in challenge and sure triumph. Its teeth came down with a crunch around the ghoul’s struggling head.

Nate screamed and reached out. “JOHN!” Spots burst in front of his eyes. Tortuous pain wrenched through his body, emanating from his injury. The world dribbled past in slow motion.

But the deathclaw’s jaws screeched away from his companion’s skull. John had seized it by the jaw and snout, fighting to keep its mouth from biting down any harder and crushing his helmet, a tongue lolling rabid slaver over his gloves. That ropy neck vibrated and strained as the monster kept lunging and trying to snap, broken leg or not.

“Cave!” John’s shout reached Nate just as the beast began to swing with his claws one last time, trying to fight and get free.

Behind was a crevice-entrance in the hillside, dark and narrow. Salvation.

That’s where Hancock wanted him to drag himself… to safety.

While his best friend was eventually ripped apart.

No. No!

The beast took its shot with its knife-tipped grasp, barely missing in its addled fury, driving down into the rock. John let go of its face, this time shoving his entire forearm forward in a block, right into its open jowls when it pressed in once more. A whining crunch filled the air as it bit down again.

But on that gauntlet, its teeth got stuck.

Furious, frustrated saliva sprayed as John clenched his other hand around the deathclaw’s windpipe. It bit off a gargling, strained shriek, still unwilling to let go of his arm, trying to whip its jaw as if it might tear it from its socket. But Hancock tugged it in closer by its neck, its body losing momentum in that awkward slouch, leg unstable, its lithe limbs not made for hugging range. They scrabbled furiously at Hancock’s back, too close to its own face and eyes for it to tear and rend.

Finally, the deathclaw started to try and struggle away, choking, seething.

And additional roars spiked the breeze. Five more sets of horns were cresting the rocky ridge: the pack. Down the slopes those lightning-fast lizard-devils came, pounding up dust in their impossibly long-armed sprints. They seemed to instinctively loop into a tight noose as they joined the hunt.

But that was when Nate finally arrived too. He didn’t truly attack the deathclaw—he more fell on its tail, then proceeded to make himself as heavy and painful as possible, weighing it down so it couldn’t back out of John’s chokehold, grabbing and squeezing until his gloves groaned and the scaly hide under them started to burst.

The thing screeched an octave higher, thrashing, trapped. For just a moment, it didn’t seem to know what to do.

And Hancock had an opening. He kicked the beast’s broken leg again, then released its throat, sending it staggering away in pain, dropping his arm in surprise. As John rose, he then unslung his gatling laser and started to crank it at point-blank range. Eye-searing red erupted from the barrel into the deathclaw’s ribs. It bellowed in pain and rage, then finally, lost its balance on its smashed limb and mangled tail. The rocks beneath it tumbled loose. Unable to keep its footing, momentum snapping in the wrong direction, the monster cascaded down the slope in a pointy, screeching ball. Nate barely managed to roll off before it took him with it.

Not that it mattered. Its siblings were almost on them now.

Hancock rocketed up and ran towards his companion in an unstoppable rush of fusion-powered steel, and that was all Nate knew for a long moment—sure hands grabbing his pauldrons and dragging him, heaving him to safety. They fell together into the cavern’s mouth, end over end, the front of the pack howling and diving for them too late.

His vision went white, teeth and brain jarring painfully as he hit a rock wall. The lead deathclaw, of course, tried to hurtle after, but its massive shoulders jammed inside the narrow entrance. It wrenched its head in though, snapping, snarling, spraying spit. Its spindly arms came next, desperate to reach and savage its prey.

Thank god it fell just an inch short. Its scythe-claws screamed against the rock as black eyes burned with rage and blood-hunger.

Nate sucked in a shallow gasp of disbelief.

And the whirring, clicking anger of a gatling laser started to spin up once more. Hancock’s weapon sang shrilly as he blasted at the cave mouth from a sitting position, sending beam after beam of sizzling light into the stone and the deathclaw’s ugly face. It screeched, extracted itself, and vanished. Cheated howls echoed from the ridges and valleys.

Nate slumped back on the soil and didn’t move. John joined him in simply, quietly breathing.

“Well… that was shit,” the man finally said after a good, long minute. His gun barrel was flickering and dimming, stored energy evaporating.

Nate breathed an “Mmm,” in solidarity to that statement. He didn’t even have the words for it. Jesus Christ. “Thanks.”

John was finally rising. But, Nate knew he himself wasn’t yet ready. He closed his eyes in the silence, trying to stabilize, trying to think as his overheated brain tilted and spun.

“So, what the actual fuck was that out there?” Hancock’s sudden, urgent, spear-point snap hit him like a bus.

Nate bristled and shrunk into himself. Somewhere nearby, a bloodcurdling wail resounded again, still furious… still waiting.

“Sorry,” he managed to whisper. “I think I’m okay now.” By that, he meant he was feeling he could get up and probably walk. Soon. He didn’t want to throw up. And he was still burning, his body aching like hell, especially his side. At least adrenaline had cleansed his sudden bout of dizziness away, and he wasn’t yet tipping back into whatever had made him black out.

For now.

He started to sit up, and then, feeling balanced enough to do so, managed to stand. Might not have stayed that way, however, without engaging the lock on the armor’s knees. His head felt so light, like it was a blimp, rising higher…

Hancock clearly wasn’t having it. “Like hell you’re okay!” he hissed, words ballooning out and becoming crushing forces in this tiny, dark space. “We are not doing this! I know you’ve got a ‘just suck it up’ complex, but for crying out loud. You could have died. So what the hell was it that happened?!”

Nate’s heart pattered faster, frightened.

He… he didn’t know. Or didn’t want to think about it. His son was waiting—and this father had been forced to sit tight too goddamn long already to find him.

Still… he was sick. Very sick.

More than he’d wanted to consider.

Yet, a string of tin cans hanging nearby caught his attention. They would have been near invisible if he hadn’t had the suit’s night vision in this cavern dark… a makeshift alarm lying in this nowhere place on this nowhere hill.

“Hey… I think we’re where we need to be,” he said, peering into the black.

“Oh no, you don’t get to change the subject that easily again, bud! What the hell is your problem right now, that—”

“…Virgil…?” Nate tried, weak voice fading and looping through the cave.

No voice answered.

But a grisly green face slowly pulled forward from shadows around a bend, teeth bared in a snarl, a new monster looming over them both as it grew closer.

They’d fallen from a deathclaw’s sunning rock and into a super mutant’s nest.

 

————————

 

“Ah, crap.” That was really all there was to say. Hancock lifted his gatling laser one more time.

“Don’t you move,” the mutant hissed.

Hancock’s arms froze in their heft. Those words were spoken so quietly. It was the softest, most articulate threat he’d ever had the pleasure of receiving from super-mutant-kind.

Yet, he still doubted the guy’s punches would land half that gingerly when it came time to dance.

“Uh.” Nate’s nervy, unfocused tenor sliced through the air in a way that suddenly made his friend very worried that if this gatling laser went off, one of them might not have the presence of mind to stay out of the goddamned way.

Shit.

But the mutant wasn’t advancing anymore. Wasn’t roaring.

Was just… standing, a passive, ripped, seven-foot monster.

“I know you’re from the Institute,” the hulking being growled, thick jowls vibrating. “So where’s Kellogg? Trying to sneak up behind me while you distract me? It’s not going to work!”

Hancock’s face scrunched in confusion. Whole lot of grammar on this one. And a real comfy-looking scarf. It was plush and wooly green, unsettlingly like the ones his mother used to cobble up for the winters. Actually, the more he stared, the more he realized this mutant looked like… well… just some guy who happened to have gotten into the wrong skin that morning. There were reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.

“Are… are you Virgil?” Nate stuttered.

Oh holy hell. Wait. This was…?

“You know damn well I am!” the mutant spat. “What’re you doing here?”

Okay then. Right. Okay. Hancock slowly lowered his laser-powered joy-toy. “Really?” he whispered. First the Church of Atom was kicking around out in this radioactive asscrack. Now scientist super mutants. Fine. Alright. If that’s how it had to be.

Stupid crazy Glowing Sea.

But no wonder the guy was able to live in this neck of the world. Damn. Look at us—like Nick Valentine, solving the world’s worst goddamn mysteries.

“I’m not with the Institute.” Nate insisted, opening his steel palms non-threateningly. His voice was getting stronger again, but only an idiot would buy that he was well. “I’m looking for answers. Kellogg killed my wife and kidnapped my son. And I… I killed him. That’s how I found out about you… his final assassination orders. So… I mean, if you’re on the run from the Institute… I’m on your side.”

The mutant’s gaze drifted warily to the huge gun. “Yeah,” Hancock contributed, deciding to lower it just a scootch. “Fuck those guys.”

Virgil’s keen eyes weighed them both, his incredulous sneer firmly remaining. He seemed to be judging exactly how much of a fight he could wage if he had to—power armor, gatling laser, and all. But finally, his shoulders lowered a centimeter. “Very well,” the man growled, deep voice resonant. “In the depths of the cave, you’ll be more shielded from the radiation. Rest your fusion cores there. And perhaps we’ll talk.”

Deeper below, as the tick-tick-ticking of the suit’s Geiger counter dimmed in that tiny, damp, and rocky home this mutant had settled, Hancock finally disengaged his armor and let himself stretch unhappily. Bruises had formed under the inner padding’s chafe points, raw and unhappy spots he could add to his tally of injuries from the mirelurks and the Minuteman’s guard ‘bot. The guy who’d piloted this suit last had to have been a much bigger man—it fit poorly, and now, every last one of this ghoul’s bones felt its years and all of the radiation twists that had changed them. He was not looking forward to getting back into that shell.

Nate was standing silent in his own armor still, at the base of the tunnel into this sort-of living room, the makeshift and largely rock-based furniture illuminated by a dull battery lamp. Virgil was sighing and crossing his arms, leaning against the wall in a looming tension. He looked unbearably crowded with so many guests.

If it had been any other time, this awkward super mutant introvert in a scarf and glasses would have been the funniest thing anyone could have possibly imagined being out here. Almost better even than the hobo priest and his Cram.

Right now, though? Ohhh, right now, as soon as Virgil was done drilling Nate for information, Hancock had words that were gonna be said, and it might get knock-down, drag-out bad, but he didn’t fucking care. His companion had looked those doctors in the eye in the Castle—and him!—and told them all he was well enough to travel. The guy had made a damn show about it, smiling and standing strong. It’d fooled the best of them.

Especially certain ghouls who’d been feeling so goddamn proud that they’d found the miracle pills that had helped so much.

And then Nate had just kept stomping on down the road for days after, slowly getting worse—without talking about it; without letting on how much he was crashing. There was no way he hadn’t know! All of the goddamned signs would have been obvious if they hadn’t been kept all clammed up behind Nate’s stupid fucking armor, because the guy didn’t say a single word about—!

Which meant he’d been lying about his health every goddamned day. Lying to his best friend, after everything that had happened. Or, at the best, he’d gotten so obsessed with moving forward that he’d subconsciously offered up his own wellbeing as a willing sacrifice.

Either was enough to make a man mentally capsize under a towering swell of rage.

I risked my life to get you those antibiotics, and here you are, apparently sick as dog, not letting ‘em work right because you can’t take a GODDAMNED break!

How close did I have to come to… to fucking losing you today?!

Those thoughts got chewed up and spit out over and over like hot tacks as they all waited for Virgil to start saying his piece. Hancock didn’t even know how they were going to get back at this rate.

“Why did you come here?” the mutant finally demanded, wary and sullen to the last.

Nate said nothing, his armor softly shifting.

Virgil unrolled his massive shoulders, standing to his full height, something that brushed the cave ceiling in an impressive way. “Well? Do you have some kind of game here? Am I funny to you?”

Nate was silent.

And just as Virgil began to advance, fist curling, Hancock came forward, cold alarm spiking through his temper. “Hold up. Hold up. Nate? Your mic on? You in there, man?”

Nothing.

“Shit.” Hancock darted behind him, feeling the lightest of tingles in his spine from the negligible rads still floating on the air. He began to spin Nate’s release hatch. “I need somewhere to put him!”

“What—?” Virgil snapped, but it suddenly became very clear exactly what Hancock needed as a big muscled Vaultie fell back through that hatch, collapsing in a feverish mass into waiting arms. Nate seemed to have locked his armor’s knees and just… conked out again. His bodysuit was soaked through with delirious sweat. His skin was waxy and ghostly pale. Hancock swallowed back his anger and terror. “I… I see.” Virgil straightened and gestured to a table, quickly sorting and removing the papers and implements in the way. Back throbbing in pain, Hancock managed to drag Nate over, and Virgil grabbed the man by his ankles, lifting him up, helping him to settle back down.

Nate’s eyes twitched rapidly, his head lolling in a fitful thrash, like he was trapped in another awful dream.

“Radiation leak?” Virgil hazarded.

“I don’t think so.” Hancock unzipped his friend’s piloting bodysuit at the front, dragging it down to expose shoulders, chest, then abdomen, fearful, but desperate to know. And when it all finally came free, all he could do was lean in, fists clenching, fury burning even brighter.

The red inflammation had spread well past the original gash, skin tight and vengeful, shining with wet exertion. The swell was now as wide as his hand and twice as long. Gingerly, he reached out, brushing it with two fingers. The mass burned hot, even under his relative body temperature. “Gahhh!” Nate cried out in his sleep. His right foot nearly kicked Virgil in the chest.

Infection. It was so goddamned full of infection it was almost going to burst.

“…I see.” Virgil’s measured tone was about two shades too neutral for Hancock’s blood not to boil.

“He made himself like this,” he spat, “Because he’s a father trying to do the best thing for his kid. And also because he’s a fucking idiot. So that’s why we’re here. And… and if you’ve got…” His hands shook helplessly. “Literally anything that can help right now, some medicine, some…” His voice finally cracked.

The antibiotics. They hadn’t been enough. He’d figured out that prophecy, and he’d gone through that ordeal, and it was supposed to be over, but it wasn’t, and his heart was twisted up in an agonized knot, and he wanted to just throw up in the corner, and—

“Hey Nate?” He whispered gently, squeezing his companion’s hand, feeling like he was back at the Castle, desperate then for the man to just… just open his eyes. That’d be enough. To think he was still well enough to fight this.

Because if he didn’t open his eyes…

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. I can’t lose you. I can’t. I CAN’T. Not now. Not now.

And the last thing he’d said to him… holy shit. Holy shit. “What the hell is your problem?”

This, to the man he loved.

“He’s in septic shock,” Virgil said flatly, as if he was stating that the sky was blue and the grass was brown.

Hancock’s heart galloped at a rate he hadn’t felt since his ghoulification. Sepsis. The demon of the fucking wastes. Worse than any other goddamn thing put together. Nate was supposed to be invincible, larger than life. Nothing could touch him. Nothing could take him away.

But hell, it had been the same for Mama McDonough too once, long ago.

For just a moment, he saw her shining, flaxen hair in his mind’s eye, just like his own back before the change. She’d loved to show him how to braid it and comb and preen. My little heartbreaker, she’d called him sometimes.

At the end… she’d survived mercenaries, the scavving life, and even bearing two chucklefucks she’d had to call children for the rest of her time on earth—and she still laughed all the time, stood straight and proud every day—but what ended it, what tied up her story with a cruel little bow, was a rusty nail while they were fixing their roof. Tiny cut. Two weeks later, he’d been holding her hand, weeping openly as his brother just festered in the corner. She couldn’t even speak, seized up, feverish, and wasted.

Until her organs just kind of stopped.

Nate twitched and cried out under his touch, burning like his brain was going to melt. Dead to the world, lost in whatever dreams plagued him.

“…I might have something to help,” Virgil finally cut in again, thoughtful, low.

His rumbling tenor tugged Hancock’s mind back from its dark spiral. No fire in hell burned hotter than the phoenix of hope uncoiling in his chest. “What?”

“I took some first aid with me from the Institute. It might help him pull through long enough for you to walk out of here, get to a doctor.”

Virgil didn’t move. He said nothing more at all, staring pointedly.

“Oh.” Hancock rose to his full height, a growl slicing through his vocal cords. Nate made it easy to forget, sometimes… he’d been spending a lot of time lately with the most generous and kind person that had graced the Commonwealth in two hundred years, and other people just weren’t made like that anymore. “Right. What do you want?”

“My condition… becoming a super mutant… I did this so I could hide in this place, safe from the Institute’s agents. Fortunately, Kellogg’s dead now, but there’s… a problem.”

Hancock squeezed Nate’s hand harder. He’d had no idea such a transformation was possible… but hey, super mutants had to come from somewhere, he supposed. “Get to the point.”

“I’m slowly losing my mind. Becoming like…” Virgil shook his head, then simply bared his massive teeth. For just a moment a subtle mad shine was revealed: feralness, but of a different breed.

“…I see.”

“You say this man’s son was taken. I’ll tell you how to get into the Institute and how to get him back. I’ll give your friend something to pull him through today. But I need you to bring me my own medicine: my old lab has research on a cure. I want your word that when you go to the Institute, you’ll get it and bring it to me.”

Hancock blinked. “Oh. That’s it?”

Virgil’s sneer stretched wider.

“Man, you could have just asked, and Nate here would probably have agreed to it in two seconds. So fine. Yes. You’ve got yourself a deal. Just… come on.” His voice coiled tight, cracking. “Hurry this up.”

Virgil left. When he returned, it was with a stash of ripped old clothes and a small medical kit. The ruined cloth he braced under Nate’s side before taking a knife from the little box. And then, without another word, he tore into Nate’s scar, a long, clean incision. Hancock wound up, instinctively ready to protect or help. But his companion didn’t even awaken, though he cried out again in his fever, jaw clenched and teeth grinding. His blood seeped out of the fresh slash in a rush, a noxious ooze alongside it, something that made Hancock curl his palm over his nose hollows, eyes stinging. Then, after the wound was drained, Virgil administered a dose of some strange serum from the kit. “This will give his immune system and his adrenaline a lift. Enough to stave off some problems temporarily. He’ll relapse as it wears off. You need to get him to care before then.” This the man followed by administering a stimpack, letting the drained mess knit shut all over again. Hancock reached forward and helped to brace the flesh with a softer, more articulate touch than those sausage-fingers could manage.

And while they worked, Virgil shared too that secret knowledge that so many in the Commonwealth would kill to gain: the riddle of the Institute, and the only door inside.

Finding one of their best killers, murdering them, and hijacking the teleport technology locked in their synthetic skulls.

Another Tuesday afternoon, really.

Now, as it was done, both of their hands wet with blood, Hancock leaned over the table, just listening to Nate’s breathing, holding his fingers softly, smearing blood on his knuckles—because he refused to let him try to check out again. I’m not letting you go, dumbass—you know I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep ya. I’ll offer myself up if I gotta. I just… I’m not letting this world not have you in it. Not ever again.

Minutes passed, turning into an hour. The companion of his heart slowly began to inhale easier. Color returned to his washed-out cheeks.

An affectionate, desperate ghoul-thumb rose to meet that hopeful sign.

And Nate’s eyes opened.

Hancock jerked back like he’d been burned, then regretted it. Because he’d just… just been given a second chance here. He had to make all this right. He had to… to keep Nate, in all the ways he could try.

Even if he made himself look like a fool.

“…John?” The raspy, weary sigh came.

“Hey, you.” Hancock just wanted to curl up in the way Nate said his name, forehead to his, and never leave that touch again.

But every last second counted.

“What’s…? What’s happening?”

Lifting a purified water tin to his lips, John helped him drink, hoping it would help clear his head. “You’re in the Glowing Sea. We gotta get you up and get home. Now. You need a doctor real bad, okay? Virgil here’s given you a, an immune system boost? But it’s not gonna last that long. We have to go before your infection gets worse again… or the docs, they might not be able to treat you… and…” He couldn’t even finish the thought.

“I… what? I…” Nate whispered, a tear forming at the edge of his eye, running down his temple. “Oh my god… I’m sorry, I just thought… I had to get to Shaun, I—”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. You weren’t thinking about yourself. And you’re a dumbass. But I’ll… I’ll yell at you later. Whatever. I got the info on the Institute. Okay? How to get after your kid. Virgil even gave me a holotape. So now we go.”

Nate swallowed, eyes still unfocused and strange. He fought his way up, clinging to Hancock’s shoulder, then buried his nose in his chest. “Thank you,” he managed, all the desperation and need of the world coiled up in those two words. A soft wet spot lit into Hancock’s shirt under those eyes. “Promise me that’s the first thing we go do… once I’m better.”

“Of course it is.” Hancock sighed and hugged him tight. “As soon as you’re better. Hey. Do you think you can stand? Home’s waiting.” He meant Goodneighbor, of course—he knew as well as anyone that Nate was as stateless as they came.

But his companion inched forward, allowing himself to be braced. Lightly, an arm around Hancock’s shoulders, he patted at the space where a heart rested under the red frock. “Home,” he whispered softly, as if in agreement.

Hancock wondered if Nate could feel his shriveled old ticker stuttering and skipping. “…Yeah. Home. Come on.”

“Home…” Nate trailed off, managing to stagger forward and on.

You know it. Because you’ll always have a home there. And around me. Always. As soon as Nate had enough braincells again to rub together, Hancock didn’t know if he was going to yell at him or kiss him first. Maybe the latter. Then Nate could yell at him.

That’s fine. I wouldn’t even care anymore if you did.

Still overheated and heavy, his wobbly companion went up and into his armor, slowly seeming to get a little more present and strong.

“I’m gonna need you to follow my lead out there, alright?” Hancock said. “Real… real dangerous, man. We’re gonna have to do some sneaking. You’re not really all here right now. So if you can follow…”

“Follow,” Nate sighed through the mic. “Yeah… I… I’m foll