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Learning to Carry On

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***

 

“Nate. Nate. Wake up. Please, Nate.”

 

Nate frowned as the voice began to filter through the fog in his brain, trying to decipher what the words meant. A shiver ran through him, and a familiar hand came to rest on his forearm. He barely managed to pry his eyes open to a slit and recognized Nora, despite her only being a blurry outline. Nate blinked a few times, clearing his vision, and his memories suddenly snapped back.

 

Nora was wearing a vault suit, identical to the one he had put on before stepping into the pod. She looked scared and exhausted, with dark circles under her eyes, and her vault suit looked darker than it should, as if it was wet. Her grip on his arm squeezed a bit, and he realized he had lost track of time while staring at her. It was enough to remind his heavy limbs how to move, and he clumsily lifted his arms to clutch at the edges of the pod to stumble out. He tripped on the edge and would have hit the ground if Nora hadn’t caught him and wrapped her arms around him, bodily holding him upright in a tight hug. Nate clutched her back as a hard shiver passed through him, and managed to regain his feet, but didn’t let her go.

 

“What— what happened?” Nate’s teeth were chattering with cold. He realized his vault suit was also wet, and the air was freezing.

 

“I— I think we were frozen.” Nora was trembling as well, her voice cracking. “I just— I just remember getting in the p-pod, and then Shaun—”

 

Shaun. Just hearing their child’s name set off another series of memories, but these ones were blurred and muffled.

 

“Someone took him.” Nate said slowly, dread filling him until he thought he’d choke on the feeling. “I— I remember—- I wanted to stop them, but—”

 

“I know, it’s okay.” Nora’s voice was choked with emotion as well. “I couldn’t do anything, either. We’ll just have to find him. We will find him.”

 

They clung to each other for a long moment, and Nate tried to believe that it would be possible. He did vaguely remember a face looking in at him, a bald head and thick scar. It was something, a place to start, at least.

 

“You said we were frozen.” Nate blearily looked around, and noticed their pods were the only ones that were open. “How long? What about the others?”

 

“I checked the terminal,” Nora gestured with her head towards the terminal by her pod, “and if the date on it is right, and I think it is, it’s been— Nate, it’s been over two hundred years.

 

Nate stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment.

 

“What? That can’t be— no, that can’t be right.” Nate laughed nervously, searching her face for the signs of a joke. It had to be a joke. “That’s not—”

 

But Nora was shaking her head, expression grim. “I’m not kidding. Not about this.”

 

Nate forced himself to let her go, and moved his numb feet to stagger to the next closed pod. He recognized their neighbour, Sherry, slumped over inside, but she had a thick layer of frost covering her.

 

“Oh, my God,” Nate thought he was going to be sick.

 

“I checked everyone else in here while waiting for your pod to cycle you awake.” Nora said grimly. “They’re all dead.”

 

Nate numbly looked at the other pods, trying to process that.

 

“You— you’re sure?” Nate could have kicked himself as soon as he said it. Of course she, the military field doctor, was sure.

 

“We need to get out of here.” Nora said after a moment. “If we’re going to find Shaun, we need to get moving and figure what’s happened.”

 

“In the last two hundred and some years.” Nate said, just to hear it said out loud again. He still couldn’t wrap his mind around it.

 

“Yeah.” Nora gave him a frail smile. “You ready?”

 

Instead of replying, Nate held out his hand and she took it. They walked out together, past another room of powerless pods full of half frozen corpses, and down the hallway towards the vault entrance. The last door was locked securely, but they found another way through the empty vault, carefully checking all the rooms for signs of life and picking up supplies as they went. They both stopped dead when they encountered the first skeleton, still dressed in a ragged and dusty vault suit.

 

“Where is everyone?” Nate’s voice quavered as he looked around, unwilling to acknowledge what they were seeing. “We can’t be the only ones left.”

 

“What the hell is that?” Nora suddenly hissed, shaking her hand out of his and grabbing the security baton she had picked up earlier. Nate turned to see what she was looking at, and stared in stunned horror at the giant cockroach that was racing towards them. It leapt at Nora, chittering wildly, and she swung the baton with both hands and knocked it to the ground before stomping on it, splattering green bug guts on the concrete floor.

 

“What is going on?” Nora stared in disgust at the dead bug, still clutching the security baton.

 

“I have no idea, but we need to get out of here.” Nate folded his arms across his chest, tucking his cold hands in and shivered again. He was so cold it hurt.

 

“You’re right.” Nora nudged the dead bug one more time with her boot and started walking again. “Let’s go.”

 

They encountered two more giant bugs before getting to the Overseer’s office, but Nora was able to dispatch them quickly and easily with the baton. There was another human skeleton on the ground in the office, this one wearing a lab coat, and Nate uneasily stepped over it to set to work on the desk terminal.

 

“Here, Nora, there’s a 10 mil and ammo on the desk. You better take it, you’ve always been the better shot.” Nate called over his shoulder to where she was rummaging around in the security gated closet.

 

“Okay.” She replied absently. “I’ve got some more ammo here for it, too.”

 

Nate took a moment to read through the Overseer’s notes, and finally had to sit down, staring blankly at the screen as he tried to process it all. Nora wandered over.

 

“What is it?”

 

Nate started, knocked from his revery, and gestured at the screen. “We weren’t ever supposed to live here in this vault.” He shook his head, still trying to figure out why Vault-Tec would do such a thing. “It was always meant to be a cryostasis experiment, kept secret from the people that were to be frozen.”

 

Nora gaped, her face gone pale.

 

“Why?” She finally demanded. “What possible reason could they have for stealing our lives?!”

 

“As far as I can see, just to see if it could be done.” Nate said bleakly. “But something went wrong. They never got an all-clear to release anyone from the cryostasis, and almost everyone that was supposed to be here watching over the cryopods rioted and left only a few months into the experiment. That’s likely why so many are dead. We’re lucky we survived.”

 

Nora skimmed through the journal entries herself, her expression becoming more and more grim as she read. Once she was done, she grabbed the gun off the desk and popped the clip to check that it was loaded, and slammed it back in.

 

“If I find anyone from Vault-Tec out there, they’re gonna have some explaining to do.” She growled. Nate blew out a breath and nodded, and used the terminal to open the Overseer’s office door to the vault entrance.

 

There were even more giant bugs in the hallway, but Nora quickly and expertly dispatched them with her new found weapon. Nate had the security baton now, but Nora was on a mission and there wasn’t much that he could do other than follow her to the elevator that would take them to the surface.

 

It was a relief to be on their way up, even if they had no idea what they were heading into. Nate clearly remembered what had happened that day they had come down here; the distinct mushroom cloud in the not-so-far distance, and the shockwave that had washed over them just as the elevator had begun it’s descent. Would there be anything left? Or had the world recovered and gone on into the future without them? Would they be killed by the nuclear fallout within hours of surfacing?

 

Nora must have been having similar thoughts, because she took his hand again and squeezed it tightly as the elevator rose.

 

They both gasped as sunlight suddenly fell over them, blinding them both for a moment as their eyes adjusted. They silently took in the view once they could, stunned.

 

Formerly rolling green hills were now brown, littered with dead trees and bushes that seemed to claw at the sky with their brittle, leafless branches. The small buildings and vehicles that had gleamed with newness what seemed like yesterday were now rusting, rotting shadows of themselves. Strange flowering plants poked out of the dead grass here and there, the only sign of life that Nate could see.

 

Sanctuary Hills sat at the bottom of the hill, the streets empty and houses looking lopsided from this distance.

 

Nora let go of his hand and took a step forward before stopping again, her hands opening and closing reflexively as she stared.

 

“Maybe… maybe there’s someone down there. We should go see.” She finally said. “They might have seen who took Shaun.”

 

Nate absently nodded as he put a hand over the stitch in his side. He wasn’t sure why he had a stitch in the first place, as they hadn’t been moving all that fast, but he had other things on his mind.

 

“I wonder what happened to Codsworth.” He mused out loud, and winced when the stitch in his side suddenly became shooting pain. He looked down at himself, and slowly peeled his fingers away from his side to find them coated in something dark, glistening red. He stared blankly at the growing stain on the right side of his vault suit.

 

Nate.” Nora was suddenly there, grabbing his wrist and looking at his side. “Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?!”

 

“I’m hurt?” Nate said dumbly, just as his knees decided to give out. Nora grabbed at him, but was only able to slow his fall as he sank to the ground. He grimaced in pain as she clamped a hand down on the stitch in his side.

 

“This is… This looks like,” Nora started, stopped. She had her doctor face on, intent on examining him. He couldn’t stop looking at her. He was suddenly reminded of why he had fallen for her, and how lucky he had been that she had reciprocated.

 

“I didn’t want them to take Shaun.” Nate felt like his tongue had gone numb, making it difficult to speak, but he needed to tell her, now that he was remembering. “I tried to stop them…”

 

“Don’t try to talk, Nate.” Nora ordered, but her voice was shaking. “Just stay still.”

 

“I thought, I thought it was a bad dream,” Nate said dazedly. “Why would they want our baby?”

 

Nate grimaced and couldn’t help the whimper that escaped him when Nora did something that hurt. He remembered now— somewhat clearly— clinging to a wailing Shaun as someone tried to gently but forcefully pry him from his arms, remembered shouting at them to stay away, remembered the sudden crack of a gunshot and the jolt to his middle, scarily close to where he clutched Shaun. He had loosened his grip then, only out of terror for Shaun’s life, begging them to please, please, don’t hurt his child. They had shoved him back in the pod, closing the lid again, ignored him as he banged on the glass and yelled uselessly.

 

Then everything had gone cold and dark, until Nora had woken him again. Beautiful Nora, with her dark hair and brown eyes, her warm smile and quick wit that he had fallen in love with.

 

Her mouth was moving, as if she was saying something, but he couldn’t hear her. She looked desperate, shaking his shoulders, but he felt detached from his body. He tried to lift his hand, barely felt his fingers twitch instead, but she grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly.

 

“I’m sorry,” he breathed, and he was. He was sorry he had let Shaun go, sorry he couldn’t hear what she was saying, sorry that he was leaving her, sorry that he was leaving her to find Shaun in this strange new world on her own. “I love you, I’m sor—”

 

Everything went black, and Nate felt himself slip away.

 

***

 

There was movement, and noise, and he thought he recognized Codsworth’s voice before everything went dark again. Then someone was shouting nearby, startling him into prying his eyes open to stare up at rusted and falling apart ceiling for mere moments before blacking out again. Time passed in fits and bursts, and his surroundings never seemed to stay the same or become any less confusing.

 

Finally, Nate came to himself, blinking up at that dilapidated ceiling. He weakly turned his head, and stared blankly at the thing that sat silently beside him. It took a long moment to recognize the washing machine, as rusted out as it was and from the strange angle. He managed to lift his head for a second, catching a glimpse of the dryer and the rest of the room, confirming that he was indeed laying on the floor in their laundry room, which looked every bit like 200+ years had passed with little to no maintenance. He wasn’t lying directly on the floor, he realized next. He could feel the texture of a mattress beneath his hands, even if it felt crustier and rougher than it should. Nate tried to move his arms to push himself up, but didn’t even have the strength for that, weakly squirming around where he lay instead.

 

The faint hiss of a Mr Handy’s propulsion system came drifting down the hallway, and Nate winced when Codsworth’s voice all but erupted nearby, the robot nearly shouting in excitement and making Nate very aware of the headache that gripped his skull.

 

“He’s awake! Oh, I knew he would be fine! Come quickly! Mr Nate is awake!”

 

Footsteps came hurrying down the hall next, and Nate found himself blinking up at a stranger in confusion. He opened his mouth to ask where Nora was, but all that came out was a croak as his throat felt like it cracked with dryness.

 

“Hey, hey, take it easy,” the strange man said, crouching down beside him as he coughed and reaching for something out of his line of sight. “Here, lets get you up so you can drink.”

 

Nate tried to help sit himself up, but his twitching limbs likely only made things more difficult, but he was soon up and drinking down the water that was offered, nearly choking as his dehydrated body tried to take it in faster than he could swallow. It was taken away all too soon, and he heard the man gently chiding him to take it slow or he’d lose it all. He became aware that he was leaning heavily on the man, but his aching muscles were grateful for the added warmth and he was reluctant to move away from it.

 

“Who… who are you?” Nate finally managed to get out.

 

“Preston Garvey.” The man said. “And you must be Nate.”

 

Nate frowned in confusion, squeezing his eyes shut as he clutched at his side where he had been shot. It was sore, but the sharp pain was gone, and he didn’t feel any fresh blood under his hand. How long had he been out?

 

“How do you… Where’s Nora?” Everything was too confusing for having just woken up. Nate opened his eyes and looked around, as if she’d materialize out of nowhere and help him make sense of it all. Preston Garvey had a grim look on his face when Nate finally looked at him again. “Where is she?”

 

“She came down to Concord and found us, helped us out of a tight spot and asked for help for you. We almost made it, too, but there was a Deathclaw… We didn’t see it until it was too late.”

 

Nate stared at him blankly. A Deathclaw? What did that mean?

 

“She died saving us. The last thing she told us was where to find you.” Preston said carefully, watching him closely. “Your wife died a hero.”

 

Nate tried to process that. He slowly pulled away from the other man, shaking his head. “No, that can’t—- she wouldn’t leave—”

 

He was breathing too fast now, unable to get enough air. The room felt stifling all of a sudden, but he still couldn’t even struggle to his feet like he wanted to. He needed to get out there, and find Nora, so they could go together and find Shaun.

 

“I’m sorry, Nate. We buried her by the old church in town. Gave her the best send off we could, considering we’re just a rag tag bunch that had only just met her.”

 

“No,” Nate said numbly, unable to wrap his mind around the thought of Nora not ever being there again, but he could already feel a gaping emptiness in his chest. He tried to get up again, feebly struggling against Preston, “No, no, this isn’t— Nora! Nora!

 

More footsteps came running, but Nate didn’t recognize that person either. All he could think about was Nora, and how he needed to find her. Strong arms held him easily despite his struggling, and he felt like he was burning up, but he needed to get out there and find her. They had to go find Shaun. He couldn’t do this without her, didn’t they understand?

 

Something pricked his neck and he heard a faint hiss below his ear just before everything started going hazy, his limbs feeling even heavier.

 

“That’s it, just relax. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

 

“No,” Nate still tried to struggle, needing to get up to find Nora. “Nora, please—”

 

A sob wracked his chest, sudden enough that it startled him, and all the fight drained out of him in a rush. Preston was still holding him, and froze in surprise for a moment, but his grip shifted to more of an awkward embrace as he began rubbing soothing circles on Nate’s back as he continued sobbing. He couldn’t explain how, but he knew Preston was telling the truth, no matter how much he didn’t want to believe it.

 

“It’s okay. I’m sorry, man.” Preston’s voice was a warm hum above Nate as the thick darkness kept slowly but inexorably drifting over him. “It’s gonna be okay.”

 

It didn’t feel like it would be okay, but Nate couldn’t explain that before everything went away yet again.

 

***

 

7 months later

 

Nate sat on the roof of the Red Rocket, looking out over the Commonwealth as the sun began to set. Work was done for the day, although he could still hear someone stubbornly hammering away on something metallic up near the houses in Sanctuary. Everyone else would be at the campfire, either cleaning up or putting the final touches on supper before they sat down to a meal together.

 

Even knowing that it was possible he’d miss out on eating until the morning, Nate stay seated, fiddling with the locket he had carried around for the past six months. He enjoyed being with the others for meals, but he had enough on his mind that he knew he wouldn’t be good company, and he wasn’t hungry enough to force himself to be.

 

“Hey,” Nate started at the voice, and leaned forward to peer over the edge to where MacCready stood below, looking up at him. “You mind if I join you?”

 

“Oh, hey.” Nate ran his hands through his hair, and winced at his roughened voice. While part of him wanted nothing more than to be alone right now, his heart still skipped a beat as he realized MacCready had come looking for him, specifically. “Um, sure. Can’t promise I’m good company right now, but come on up.”

 

It didn’t take MacCready long to clamber up the ladder that Nate had installed some time back, and he dropped a bag in Nate’s lap before plopping down beside him, kicking his legs out before crossing them and leaning back on the heels of his hands. Nate opened the bag to find a roast brahmin sandwich and a Nuka-Cola. He realized he was smiling, for what felt like the first time that day, and looked over at MacCready, who studiously pretended not to notice while he took in the view of the Commonwealth.

 

Nate tucked into the food, and silently offered to share the Nuka-Cola once he cracked it open. MacCready accepted the bottle and took a swig before handing it back, and they sat in comfortable silence while Nate ate.

 

“Noticed you seemed kinda distant today.” MacCready finally started. “You wanna talk about it?”

 

Nate considered it, washing down the last bite of sandwich with a drink before passing the bottle again. Another long moment passed before he could bring himself to speak, but MacCready waited patiently.

 

“Today would have been her birthday.” Nate finally managed, looking down at the locket in his hand again. “I still miss her, you know?”

 

What he said finally registered after a moment, and he guiltily looked over at MacCready, but the mercenary was just looking at him with an oddly soft expression.

 

“Yeah, I know.” MacCready finally said, tearing his gaze away. “Wish I could say it gets easier, or that it’ll hurt less someday. But it doesn’t, not really. You just get better at carrying the hurt.”

 

Nate turned his own gaze back to the horizon where the sun was now sinking, considering that bit of wisdom. While he didn’t like the thought of possibly always feeling this way, he found the words comforting too. The hurt he felt was real, and would always be a part of him, just like Nora had been in life.

 

The more he thought about it, the more he realized he didn’t want it any other way. Her memory deserved to live on, even if it was only in his memories, and in the memories of the people she had saved in her final day.

 

The sun was nearly fully set when MacCready laid back, folding his arms under his head while he looked up at the emerging stars.

 

Nate only hesitated for a moment before lying back beside him, close enough that their sides touched.

 

“Look, you can see the Little Dipper already.” MacCready pointed, tracing it out in the air. “Lucy told me that people can find north with that constellation.”

 

“Hmm, yep. The Little Bear.” Nate hummed in agreement. “Polaris, that bright star there, is called the North Star.”

 

MacCready squinted at Nate sceptically. “The Little Bear?”

 

“Yeah, Ursa Minor, Ursa Major: Little and Big Bears.”

 

“Those are definitely dippers, not bears. Actually, now that we’re on the topic, what is a dipper anyway? They look like pots, like what you cook with. We should call them Little Pot, Big Pot.”

 

“You can’t just decide to change the name of constellations.” Nate sputtered. “And look, here, watch where I’m pointing, that’s why they’re bears.”

 

As they devolved into the petty squabbling, both grinning as they made their arguments which only escalated into more and more outrageous points, Nate realized that while he had lost what felt like his whole world to get here, he wouldn’t trade this moment with MacCready for anything.

 

***