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The Fates That Drew Us Together

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The catacombs under the Old North Church were horrifyingly pungent in a way that even nuclear fallout hadn’t been fully able to remedy. Perhaps it was just the all-too-familiar cool undertone of mouldering bones mixed with the piquant tang of raw sewage from the escape tunnel, but the place really could use a few air fresheners.

Still, the battered and broken band of synth’s rights activists who called the facility home could have done worse. At least some of them were still alive, and there was enough space for what little equipment they’d managed to salvage from their old base. It wasn’t quite as cush of a setup as what they’d so recently lost, but it would do for now until they were able to rebuild their infrastructure.

Deacon peered over the top of his current literary treasure, The Albatross Anthology of Russian Poetry (and wouldn’t you know it, not one of the poems felt like it was written by an albatross!), to survey his peers as they continued getting the new HQ as livable as possible.

Dr. Carrington had managed to salvage a new lab coat, which was for the best, as his old one was so soaked in blood that even a metric ton of Abraxo would never get it gleaming again. He was currently attending to a pretty severe cut on the head of one of the newer agents -- what was his name again, Roachy? Poor bastard needed stitches, and they were all out of stims, so he was going to have to heal the hard way.

Good ol’ Drummer Boy was helping place a few additional mattresses down between the tombs. Ugh, it still looked like they’d have to double up. At least the questionably-stained beds they’d been able to scavenge would be more comfortable than sleeping in the actual coffins, though Deacon was still determined to try that at least once, if only to horrify the others.

Glory was nowhere to be seen. The feisty synth was probably stuck running concurrent ops again. It was hard enough with only a handful of heavies, but now… it was a good thing she rarely needed sleep.

Tinker Tom, of course, had commandeered several of the newer agents to help him sweep the facility, even though they had already checked for every bug, nanite, and other tiny double agent possible in every mannequin, junk pile, and suspicious puddle of goo they could. He couldn’t exactly fault the eccentric genius. After all, they’d thought the Switchboard was secure, and look how that had turned out.

As he turned his head slightly to look for her, Desdemona was suddenly right in his face, her toffee-brown eyes fierce. The leader of the Railroad was a stealthy one, he’d give her that. Though, typically, Deacon was a hard man to sneak up on. Perhaps the trials and defeats of the past few days were finally impairing his abilities.

“Deacon, I need you to head to Concord right away,” barked Dez, peeling the book from his hands while he gasped in protest. “We’ve gotten word that a raider gang has recently been spotted in the area. We’re pretty sure they’re looking for synths to capture. Normally, we’d tell our operatives in the area to lie low, but we don’t have anyone up there right now. Worse, still, that group from Quincy has been spotted nearby.”

“You mean Garvey’s group, the one with the catch-and-release from a few years ago in it? Shit. They’re in real trouble if the raiders catch wind of them there, especially with a mind-wiped synth with them.”

“Exactly. So I need you to go make sure our asset is safe, and get them out of there if you can.”

“Sure, Dez, but isn’t that usually a heavy’s job?”

Desdemona sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. How long had it been since any of them had gotten a full night’s sleep? After the Switchboard fell, there had been little time for such luxuries.

“You’re absolutely right. Normally, we’d just eliminate the gang and move on. But, honestly, we don’t have time to spare for Glory’s schedule to open up, and with Tommy Whispers missing... Look, I need you to get up there, pull some recon, and do whatever you can to ensure the safety of any synths you encounter, known or unknown.”

“What about Preston’s safety? I mean, the guy’s kind of a killjoy, but he means well. He’d be an excellent ally, especially if he felt like he owed us one.”

“Deacon...the synth’s your priority. We don’t have time to worry about anyone else right now. You know that.”

Typical. Deacon gladly followed Dez, most of the time. She was a good leader, passionate and convicted. But he often found himself wondering if the Railroad could do more for the other denizens of the ‘Wealth, not just the synthetic ones. It was one area they’d never seen eye to eye on, and he was sick of fighting the same losing battle over and over again. It was easier just to smile, nod, and do what he was going to do anyway.

“Ok, boss. I’ll do my best.”

“Oh, and Deacon?”

“Yes, Dez?”

“Don’t get killed. I can’t afford to lose anyone else today.”

“Aww, you do care!”

He did his best to ignore her frown as he darted from the catacombs and into the pungent escape tunnel.

 


 

The trip north was long, and after another 4-hour stretch of hiking, Deacon decided he needed a break. Finding a fairly secure spot within a tight cluster of trees, he sat down to rest and have a bite to eat. It wasn’t much, but the squirrel bits he’d palmed off a sleeping scavver the night before would be decent cold, and he still had some purified water in his canteen that would help to ease the gamey flesh down.

He’d ended up north of his destination, but this had been by design. The main road into Concord had been heavily guarded by rough-looking raiders, who he presumed were part of the gang Dez had been so concerned about, so he’d decided to find another way into town. Perhaps the road from the northwest would be less protected. As far as he knew, fewer people travelled it. Why would they? There was nothing up here but an old abandoned subdivision and a dead vault.

It was just downhill from this vault that he now sat, struggling through his gristly meal. The abandoned trailers and storage containers that surrounded the vault entrance would have provided more shelter from the late autumn chill, but less from prying eyes. If he was wrong about the placement of another raider patrol, he would have found himself very exposed indeed trying to leave the area. So instead, he made due in his natural blind, keeping his sniper rifle close by in case he spied any unusual movement.

Deacon pulled his tan duster tighter about himself as the cool October wind blew off the naked hilltop towards the river, piercing through his worn navy button-up shirt. Damn this wastelander camo. He’d kill for an actual coat. Well, at least he’d had the foresight not to wear his typical stained t-shirt.

Still, Dez hadn’t given him his book back, something about “results first.” Well, he’d give his leader credit for one thing, she sure knew how to motivate people.

Or did she?

He smirked, pulling an identical book from his coat pocket. He had these bad boys stashed in all sorts of fun places. Thank God for informants and small bookstores with basements, that’s all he had to say.

As he reveled in depictions of sleigh-rides and lost love, he suddenly heard a distant grating rumble from the direction of the hill’s summit. The ground shook under his feet as the huge elevator buried in the hillside surged to life like an ancient beast roused from its slumber, roaring and churning in primordial ire.

He rose to his feet, poetry and squirrel meat all but forgotten as he pressed the scope of his rifle to his face.

“Well, that’s interesting,” he mused out loud. “Guess that dead vault isn’t so dead after all. Damn. I owe you those 50 caps after all, Gouger.”

Or, he would, if the raider hadn’t been shot in a bar brawl at the Combat Zone what, three months ago, now?

“Wow. Time flies when all your friends are being brutally massacred. Guess I’ll just have to have a drink to your memory instead, buddy. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

He smiled to himself before turning his attention fully to the vault at the top of the hill. Vault 111. Now there was something worth investigating, not that he would have suspected it.

Deacon’s contacts in the scavving community had written the damn thing off as a salvage destination years ago. There wasn’t even anything of value in there, as far as he knew, only corpses and clipboards. Well, there had been rumors of some sort of organ-harvesting operation being run out of the joint, but that had seemed a little far-fetched to him.

Now, however, the rumble and whir of long-stagnant machinery made him suspect that there was more to the place than any of his informants had suspected. What secrets were now fighting to be revealed, he wondered?

Through the streaked scope of his sniper rifle, he spied a lone woman emerging from the ground at the crest of the hill, clawing her way into the sun. Striking white hair billowed behind her as the late fall breeze caught it, sending strands dancing. Another snow-haired woman. Glory was gonna be pissed someone else was copping her look.

She was tall, taller than most women he’d met, and even some men, come to think of it. But then he’d heard that nutrition in the vaults tended to be a bit better than what they got on the surface. Her skin was almost as unnaturally pale as her hair, rendered even more blindingly white by the dark blue of the vault suit that clung to her curvy form in ways that would be much more alluring were she not in obvious distress.

The vault dweller was nearly hunched over, one hand wrapped protectively around her stomach and the other clutching a security baton for dear life as she trembled so violently he almost thought her body would split in two. She took one slow, staggering step forward before collapsing in a heap on top of the vault entrance.

Without giving it more than a moment’s thought, he slung his rifle over his shoulder and ran to her unconscious form. Deacon usually preferred the hands-off approach, but he knew of no one else around for miles, no one else who could help. And besides, it wasn’t like she was conscious anyway. His cover was hardly going to be blown.

“Come on, little cicada. I know it’s a big scary wasteland out here, but that doesn’t mean you’ve gotta pass out on me,” he muttered as he gently eased her over onto her back, exhaling sharply as he saw the red marks already forming on her left cheek. Oh, that was going to bruise.

She was cold as ice, so much so that he feared she’d died already until he held his hand near her mouth and nose, sighing in relief as he felt warm, shallow breaths against his skin. Well, that was the first bit of luck he’d had today.

Even from a cursory glance, it was obvious that she had a small dose of radiation poisoning and was likely close to hypothermia. Her limp frame was littered with radroach bites, angry and dark against the exposed skin of her hands, neck, and face. He cursed under his breath, pulling a pouch of Radaway from his pack and applying the IV to her forearm.

“Damn,” Deacon sighed, “These vault dwellers never have any tolerance for radiation.” He supposed that hardiness was one of the few gifts the rest of them had been blessed with. Frankly, he’d rather have had the creature comforts, the libraries, the decent food. But, hey, everyone had their perks, as well as their curses. Whatever had happened to the young woman at Vault-Tec’s hands was probably… no, definitely not worth having access to a few more books and a wider selection of tv dinners.

If it weren’t for her present condition, he might have found her quite beautiful. Her face was unblemished by the ravages of the wastes, a smattering of freckles radiating from her narrow nose like blood splatter on snow. A pair of streaky eyeglasses obscured her eyes, but he could make out soft, feathery brown eyelashes and matching, well-groomed eyebrows underneath. He wondered if her hair was supposed to match them. Who knew what horrors she’d witnessed in her time below the earth?

Vault dwellers didn’t survive long in the Commonwealth, at least not alone. There was a reason he called them cicadas. They burst out of the ground after a long time in hibernation, made a lot of noise, and died quickly. So getting the chance to actually meet one and ask them about “Your Future, Underground!™” wasn’t exactly a common occurrence. Most that made it past the first few months of life in the wastes quickly learned not to discuss anything that would single them out.

But the few hardy vault dwellers that Deacon had met all attested that these purported havens were anything but cozy. Whether these survivors were intentionally trying to protect their plush lifestyle from being plundered by wastelanders or they genuinely had lived through the sadistic experiments they described, he couldn’t say for sure. But there was something about the unconscious woman in his arms that gave him pause, that made him think that his acquaintances had been more honest than he’d given them credit for.

“Well, princess, let’s get you someplace warm,” he muttered, scooping her limp body against his chest and carrying her down the hill to the ruined cul-du-sac below. It wasn’t ideal, but there were probably some threadbare blankets or curtains somewhere in one of the old houses, and he’d heard rumor of a Mr. Handy nearby who could probably look after her well enough. He didn’t have time to babysit her, not with so few agents available and so many synths in play.

As he neared one of the houses, his information was proven correct. A silvery ball of flustered British charm drifted towards him, limbs flailing.

“Unhand my mistress at once, you ruffian!” it scolded, three mechanical eyes boring into his soul.

“Your mistress?”

“Miss Myra! Oh, what has happened to you?” continued the robot, pointedly ignoring Deacon’s question.

It’s her robot, he realized. Of course it is. That’s two in the win column. Maybe I should hit up the Red Rocket down the way and look for some old scratch-off tickets. I’d love to see Stockton’s face if I tried to trade those bad boys in.

“I found her by the vault entrance,” Deacon explained, “She’s extremely weak and cold.”

“Oh, that won’t do! That won’t do at all!” the robot tut-tutted dramatically. “Sir will be so worried when he gets home. He always tells her that she needs to take better care of herself… you haven’t seen Sir, have you?”

Deacon shook his head. “No, she’s the only person I’ve seen in hours,” he replied honestly.

“Oh dear! Well, perhaps he and young Shaun are out buying a present for her. It is Miss Myra’s birthday, today, after all. Over 200 years, and I still remember the date! How’s that for General Atomic engineering?”

“200 years? That’s impossible. I mean, look at her.”

Deacon stared down at the woman in his arms in surprise. She wasn’t just a vault dweller. She was an original vault dweller. But how?

“She does look remarkably well-preserved, doesn’t she? Well, her hair’s gone white, but old age will do that, I suppose.”

Not her natural color. Called it. Damn, I’m on a roll.

“Now, please, bring her inside,” continued the Mr. Handy, sweeping past him. “The bed’s not made, I’m afraid, so we will have to let her rest on the couch for now. I’ll find some blankets, and then perhaps I’ll whip up a nice cup of hot cocoa for her. I do think I have a tin of the stuff saved away…” the robot continued, muttering incessantly to himself as he puttered about.

Deacon sighed heavily, following the butler inside the ruined house.

He eased the unconscious woman down on the couch, brushing a few stray white hairs from her gentle face. His body heat had warmed her somewhat on the journey, and a faint pink glow had begun to rekindle in her freckled cheeks. She was probably going to live. Good.

He looked through the paneless windows, noting how low the sun was getting. As novel as getting to play white knight to an actual pre-war housewife was, it had caused a heck of a delay. He needed to be in Concord hours ago.

“What’s the harm?” he asked himself under his breath. “Dez can wait.”

Dez cannot wait, his better judgement chided. She’ll kill you if you let anything happen to that synth, you idiot.

Deacon sighed. When he was right, he was right.

“Excuse me,” he called towards the back of the house, where the Mr. Handy was now feverishly rummaging through drawers, muttering something about blankets.

“What is it, sir?” chirped the bot in reply.

“I’ve made her as comfortable as I can, but I really need to get going. I have to make it to Concord before nightfall.”

“Of course, of course! Miss Myra is in the best of hands. I will guard her with my life, as is my duty and pleasure. But please, may I offer you some reward for bringing her home safely? I’m afraid we’re quite low on cash at the moment, but I would be remiss in my duties if I did not thank you in some way for your heroic actions.”

“You don’t owe me a thing. It was on my way, honest.”

“Oh, but I insist! And I do hope you’ll forgive my tone when we first met. The people I’ve had the misfortune of meeting as of late have not been of the most savory nature, if you get my meaning.”

Deacon rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses. Wow, this thing was persistent. Time for the cunning backstory for his cunning disguise.

“Of course. This might seem like an odd request, but do you have any spare clothes? I’m a clothing merchant, you see, and I’m always looking for new stock.”

“Ah! Splendid! Yes, I know just the thing!” chortled the robot, floating over to the second bedroom.

Nailed it.

The Mr. Handy returned with a very handsome navy blue suit coat, freshly laundered and immaculate, with two silver buttons and a small white handkerchief folded in the top pocket, as well as a matching pair of navy pinstripe slacks, both perfectly folded. Deacon inspected the clothes admiringly. Not exactly subtle, but he could probably find a use for it next time he needed to gather information in the Stands of Diamond City.

“Sir never wears it any more,” sighed the robot, dejectedly, “claims the cut doesn’t suit him.”

“A shame,” replied Deacon, folding it carefully in his pack. “It’s a really nice outfit.”

Hmm. Maybe I could get some good use out of it in Goodneighbor.

“Indeed it is, sir.”

“Well, I suppose I should be going. Take care of her, all right? I’ll try to swing by on my way back to check on her if I have time.”

“Oh! Forgive me, but I nearly forgot! What is your name? I’m sure Miss Myra will want to know the name of her hero when she wakes up.”

“The name’s Billy...Billy Stitches.”

“Well, then, Mr. Stitches. A pleasure. Thank you for your help. You may call me Codsworth, and I wish you the best of luck in your venture.”

“Thank you, Codsworth. Goodbye.”

Deacon took one more glance at the young woman on the couch before heading out the front door, down the broken pavement that lead to Concord and the synth he hoped he wasn’t too late to save.

 


 

“Ugh!” Deacon muttered under his breath. “Stakeouts are so boring sometimes! I knew I should have brought a word search.”

Ordinarily, he wouldn’t mind the quiet. It meant he had more time to read, plan new pranks, or ignore all the things he’d rather not think about. But he had to stay alert with so large a pack of raiders underfoot, and that level of concentration made every minute feel like at least six.

It was at times like these he almost wished he had a partner again. At least then he’d have another set of eyes, and a sounding board. Talking to himself was only fun for the first few hours of any mission. Then, even he got sick of him.

So far, he’d gotten nothing interesting from the group of raiders, apparently led by the ever-so-imaginatively-named Gristle, a brainless sack of sinew and brawn if he’d ever seen one. Well, he found out that some upstanding member of the gang named Hunk had been cheating on a raiderette called Slasher Debbie with another girl they called Vix, but that was hardly something worth reporting to Dez unless the girls decided to settle their dispute in a particularly violent or creative fashion. Unfortunately, the charming young women seemed content to just howl low-level insults at each other, which was hardly worthy of his attention.

As far as he could tell, the raiders had pinned the synth, his favorite sad-looking minuteman, and a few bedraggled settlers in the museum at the end of the street. But the idiotic raiders hadn’t been able to agree on what they were going to do with their prey, and so the hunt had devolved into a rudimentary siege on the top floor of the building. If Tommy Whispers were here, Gristle’s gang would all be dead right now, but Deacon was no Tommy. Hell, no one was.

“If these guys don’t start talking business or killing each other soon,” Deacon whined, “I’m going to rip my own ears off. It’s been almost three days. Make a damn move already!”

Suddenly, he heard movement outside the raider’s sandbags. They must have heard it too, because they all started commenting on it. Loudly.

A few well-placed small-caliber shots rang out over the din, and he watched as two of the raiders fell in the street. A tall figure bent over them, rifling through their pockets for ammunition and caps.

“Is that the cicada?” he whispered, eyes wide. “No way.”

She had traded in her vault suit for a green and black flannel shirt and jeans, and her long white hair was wound in a tight bun that hung low on her neck beneath a filthy newsboy cap that even Drummer would have probably burned rather than worn, but there was no mistaking it. Myra, the girl from Vault 111, was here in Concord. But how? What had drawn her here?

She wasn’t alone, either. Sometime since he’d left her asleep on the couch, she’d acquired a large German Shepherd who stood stalwartly beside her, a green bandana tied about his neck.

Deacon watched her from his perch on the top floor of the hardware store as she conversed animatedly with Preston, who addressed her from the museum’s balcony.

“Vault dweller, vault dweller. Wherefore art thou, vault dweller?” Deacon muttered mockingly, his mouth curling into a cat-like smile. Man, he cracked himself up.

At Preston’s request, Myra grabbed a discarded laser musket and stormed inside the Museum of Freedom, her fluffy companion at her side, and Deacon was alone with the increasingly agitated surviving raiders again.

It had been, what, three days since Deacon had found her? That was hardly enough time for her to recover, and yet here she was, already on her feet and carving her way through raiders like they were made of butter. Now that was something worth noting.

Who was she, anyway? As far as he knew, most pre-war women from the suburbs weren’t well known for their shooting skills. Had she been a criminal of some sort? No, that didn’t seem to fit. If she’d been on the wrong side of the law, she would have probably tried to join up with the raiders, rather than helping the trapped refugees.

Was she ex-military? She certainly had the skills, but she didn’t carry herself like a soldier. Was she really just that adaptable? Unlikely. There was something off about this Myra, and he was going to uncover her secrets if it was the last thread he ever pulled at.

He continued his watch on the museum, his thoughts racing as he tried to piece together a puzzle with most of the pieces missing.

Suddenly, a loud thud shook him from his reflections as an ancient suit of power armor landed on the street below, minigun blazing as the armored figure mowed through the remaining raiders.

What the hell? Did they just jump off the roof? How did I miss that? I really am getting rusty.

The power armor wasn’t as flashy as some of the better-maintained suits he’d seen in his younger days, and the person inside wasn’t particularly great at walking in it, but it was at least a full set, more than what most people found scattered around the ‘Wealth.

“I we could get Glory in one of those,” Deacon mused, “we might not even need another heavy.”

The armored figure made short work of Gristle and his band of merry men, leveling them in a spray of bullets. They lowered the gun at last when they reached the far side of the street before turning around and slowly, awkwardly stomping back towards the museum.

An unholy roar resounded in the crisp October air from behind them as the sewer grate on the end of the road exploded. An enormous, grey, scaly arm tipped with vicious talons erupted from the opening, followed swiftly by the rest of the hulking, reptilian monstrosity to which the limb belonged.

“Shit! Deathclaw!” Deacon yelled, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be hidden.

That suit wouldn’t help whoever was inside much, he feared. He’d seen deathclaws open the metal armor like a can of sardines, and this one seemed particularly peckish.

He shifted positions, bringing his sniper rifle to bear on the giant lizard. He watched in horror as the creature rounded on the armored fighter who hastily struggled with their minigun, trying to aim the heavy equipment. The combatant got a few good shots off, but the impact of the minigun rounds only seemed to enrage the beast more. It picked them up like they were a doll, slamming them into the ground with a force so great that they probably felt it back at HQ. The helmet popped off the suit, and all he could see was white hair streaked with blood, large green eyes wide in terror.

“Really, Myra?” he moaned. “Am I going to have to do everything for you?”

The deathclaw’s arm swiped towards her skull, and Deacon heard her shriek in horror right as his finger gently pulled back on the trigger.

The creature’s head exploded in a splash of viscera, and her cry of horror turned to disgust as the gore rained down on her, the cold-blooded beast’s fallen corpse tipping her over and pinning her in her suit like a turtle.

The doors of the museum flew open as Preston’s group ran towards their fallen rescuer, who was using all the strength the suit afforded her to try and lift the deathclaw off of herself.

“Jun, Sturges!” barked Preston, pushing futilly at the deathclaw corpse. “Help me get this thing off of her!”

“You heard the man,” replied the man in coveralls. Between the three of them, they managed to push the heavy corpse far enough to ease Myra out from under it.

She wiggled free, accepting a hand from Preston who helped her to her feet as best he could.

“Thanks,” she managed, struggling to catch her breath.

“It’s the least I could do, seeing as you saved all our lives,” Preston replied, a bright grin on his typically melancholy face.

Deacon shuddered. It was unnatural. He’d never seen the man happy, not once.

“Well, I’ll be, ma’am,” drawled the synth apparently now known as Sturges. “How’d you pull that one off?”

Myra scanned the buildings, but Deacon shrunk back from the window, cursing as her eyes found him. Had she seen him? Did she know?

“Just got lucky,” she replied in a husky voice.

“Well, lucky or not, we owe you our lives,” replied Preston, clapping a hand to her ironclad back. “We’re headed to this place Mama Murphy knows about, Sanctuary. You’d be more than welcome to come with us if you wish.”

“I’ll do that,” she chirped, “but first, I need to get this suit off. Can’t say I’m a fan of brains in my bra.”

Deacon could feel their flustered expressions from his nest. Well, she definitely wasn’t the demure housewife he’d been picturing when he’d first encountered her. Dez had told him to report right back when the raider situation had been dealt with, but maybe he should keep an eye on this girl for a while instead. The Railroad could do worse than recruiting her. With those skills and her brash personality, she’d be an excellent asset and a welcome diversion.

“Oh, Carrington’s just gonna hate you,” he snickered to himself, the wheels of his opportunistic brain already spinning out of control. She’d be a hell of an agent, even with her seemingly endless death wish. Besides, whether she realized it yet or not, they already made a hell of a team.

Chapter Text

With Dogmeat scouting ahead of them, Preston Garvey’s weary band of refugees made their way slowly down the road, pausing every once in a while for Mama Murphy to catch her breath. He noticed that the enigmatic old woman had taken a real shine to the newcomer, but he wasn’t yet convinced that the feeling was mutual.

Myra Larimer, the young woman who’d saved their hides, had been injured a bit more than they’d initially thought in her battle against the deathclaw, and limped along as best she could on a swollen, possibly sprained ankle. The left side of her head had taken quite a beating when the deathclaw had torn her helmet off, leaving her with a deep gash across her hairline that almost looked like a coronet of blood. They had managed to slow the bleeding with one of their remaining stimpacks, but the wound would probably still scar. Fortunately for her, besides severe bruising, these were the worst of her injuries.

Unfortunately for her, her unsteady gait put her near the back of the group, so there was little she could do but try to politely listen to Mama Murphy as the old woman kept rambling to her about energy and children and other things Preston couldn’t entirely overhear from his position at the front of the party.

Preston still didn’t quite understand Mama Murphy’s “Sight,” but he couldn’t deny that the old woman’s visions had saved his life--hell, all their lives--more than once since the attack on Quincy. And given their situation, he couldn’t exactly afford to be skeptical. He needed all the help he could get.

But Myra had not lived through what he had. She had not lost the lives he’d lost, or been forced to carry the guilt of an entire militia on her shoulders. He couldn’t expect her to embrace the old woman’s counsel the way he had.

Myra kept looking around the wilderness that surrounded the fragmented roadway anxiously, as though hoping the wastes would conjure her a distraction, some excuse to peel away from the group. She idly ran her thumb down the stock of her little black 10mm pistol, having passed the laser musket she’d picked up to Sturges along with her other, heavier gear.

The great ox of a mechanic didn’t seem to mind wearing the battered suit of power armor as he bounded along next to Preston, chattering about all the improvements he wanted to make to the set.

“... and I can adjust the frame so it fits her better, too,” rambled Sturges, his voice tinny and almost robotic from within the battered helmet. “Poor girl could barely move during that fight, you know. I wonder if we can find some paint after I clean this thing up. What color do you think would look the best?”

“I don’t know, Brian,” replied Preston. “Maybe you should ask her yourself, once things settle down. It’s her suit, after all.”

As Preston stole another glance back at the young woman, her brilliant emerald eyes caught his.

“Save me,” she mouthed, and he suppressed a small chuckle.

“Keep an eye on the Longs, ok, Sturges? I need to go check on something. Just keep following this road for now.”

“You got it,” he mechanic’s familiar drawl echoed.

Preston slowed his pace, allowing Mama Murphy and Myra to catch up with him.

“Hey, Mama, how much further is it to Sanctuary, do you think?” he asked the older woman, glancing at Myra in his peripheral vision.

The white-haired young woman winked at him before quickly looking away, pretending she hadn’t noticed his arrival. So that’s the way she wanted to play it.

“Not far now, Preston,” croaked Mama Murphy, her bleary blue eyes staring into the distance. “I can almost see it… just past the gas station.”

“Excellent. Then we might make it there before nightfall. Listen, can I borrow Myra for a second?”

“Of course you can! I see a long and fruitful partnership between the two of you, you know, Preston. You’d do well to keep her close.”

He frowned as her words sunk in, pondering them carefully. Mama’s visions were usually quite cryptic, but there were only a few ways he could interpret what she’d said. She was either suggesting a romantic partnership or a business partnership. Possibly both. Either way, perhaps Myra was exactly what he was looking for.

The old crone turned to Myra, weakly clasping her narrow fingers in her leathery hand like an owl grasping a tree branch.

“I’ll talk to you later, kid,” she murmured with a weak smile. “Maybe after you bring me some Jet…”

Preston sighed, pulling Myra away. “Stop trying to get drugs from everyone, Mama.”

“Ah, Preston, I told you, we need the Sight. She needs it, too. Why do you insist on saving the life of an old woman at the possible cost of your own?”

“Someone has to protect you from yourself.”

“Mama Murphy was looking after herself long before you were even born, don’t you forget it.”

Preston sighed. There was no reasoning with the old woman sometimes.

“We’ll talk about this later,” he muttered, leading their savior away.

He helped Myra along as she hobbled painfully beside him, offering his arm to steady her.

“Easy, hero,” he soothed. “I’ve got you.”

“Thanks, Preston,” she replied, her hand gripping his forearm tightly as she leaned into him. “I thought I was going to have to start claiming psychic powers of my own, just to get her to leave me alone.”

“Don’t mention it. It’s not like I don’t owe you one.”

“Just one? Come on, man. That lizard was worth at least four. Not to mention the raiders.”

He smiled down at her warmly.

“Well, you’re probably right about that,” he replied, “But I paid you for the raiders, remember?”

“Which I explicitly asked you not to. And, by the way, you paid me in bottle caps, so, not exactly a fair trade.”

He stared at her, confused.

“Did I not pay you enough? It seemed like a fair price to me.”

“It’s the bottle cap thing I’m having trouble with,” Myra replied. “Is that really the currency people use now? Talk about one man’s trash.”

“What do you mean?”

He stopped walking, turning his full attention to the young woman. He gently parted the hair around the savage gash in her scalp, analyzing the wound carefully. Maybe her head injury was worse than he’d thought. Did she have a concussion?

She hissed in pain as his fingers grazed a particularly tender spot, flinching away from him with wounded eyes.

“Hey! That hurts, Preston!”

“I’m sorry. I’m a little worried about your head. We’ve used caps as currency since the Great War.”

“I...I’m sorry. There’s a lot about this world I don’t understand. I only got here recently.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m from Vault 111.”

So she was a vault dweller. That made a bit more sense, and explained the Pip-Boy strapped to her wrist. He’d assumed she’d looted it at some point.

“Well, for a vault dweller, you definitely fight well,” he managed. “I wouldn’t have known.”

“Thanks, I guess,” she replied with a smirk. “But like I was saying, the world’s just so different now. It’s a little overwhelming. How do you deal with all the criminals and monsters all the time? I don’t suppose there’s an abundance of jails.”

He thought for a moment. If he was being honest with himself, he wasn’t dealing with the horrors of this world particularly well. After all, he was the last of a group of so-called “good guys” who had turned their backs on the people who needed them the most. Sometimes, he felt like the only person in the world who still gave a damn about other people, and that horrified him.

He hadn’t expected them to survive Concord, and he honestly wasn’t sure he even wanted to. What was the point? His group would make it to Sanctuary, and then what? How long would it take before they were run out of there as well? There were no safe havens, and no one who could protect them. At least, that was the case if Preston Garvey was the best thing the Commonwealth had to offer. He was a failure, and he would never be more than that.

But how could he tell Myra that? She was already so alone in this world. Preston couldn’t really save anyone, not even himself. But she was new to the Commonwealth, and had already proven her salt as far as he was concerned with how she’d handled that deathclaw. Maybe, if he told her what she needed to hear, he could save her from the fear that already consumed him. And, if he was very lucky indeed, she would save them all.

“Well, I just do the best I can,” he managed. “Help people when I’m able. And protect people who need it, if I can. Sometimes, though, all I can do is slog my way through another day, and just be grateful that I’m still here.”

“Sounds like a hell of a way to live,” Myra muttered.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Preston replied. “But you’ll see. I still believe that there’s more good than bad out here in the Commonwealth, if you know where to look for it. I mean, it brought us you when we needed you.”

Myra blushed slightly, turning away from him and limping towards a small trail that emerged from the underbrush nearby.

Preston wasn’t sure if she’d believed him. He wasn’t particularly accustomed to lying, and frankly, he wasn’t wanting to pick up the habit. Life was hard enough when you could trust the people around you. Quincy had taught him how much worse it was when you couldn’t.

“Come on,” she called to him over her shoulder. “You said you wanted to reach Sanctuary by sundown, right? I know a shortcut.”

She whistled loudly, and Dogmeat came barreling down the road toward them, barking excitedly.

“Come on, boy!” she exclaimed. “This way!”

“Do I even want to know how you already know about Sanctuary?” asked Preston, eyeing her curiously.

“I used to live there, before the War. Come on, I’ll show you!”

“Before the… hey! Wait! Before the War?”

He motioned to the others before following her down the trail towards what he hoped would become home.

 


 

As they entered the dilapidated subdivision, an old Mr. Handy unit rushed towards them, its motor whirring frantically.

“Miss Myra!” scolded the Mr. Handy. “You promised if I let you go alone you would take care of yourself! What do you call this?”

“I’m alive, aren’t I, Codsworth?”

“Oh, tut-tut, mum. You know as well as I do that survival is hardly the baseline for a successful venture. And who are your new friends?”

Preston removed his hat in salute to the robot.

“I’m Preston Garvey, Commonwealth Minutemen, and these people are settlers, under my protection. We are… well, we were hoping to live here, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not! If Miss Myra trusts you, then I shall trust you. It will be good to see the old place full of life again. It’s been so quiet since everyone went away, you know.”

“Thank you. I promise we’ll take good care of the place.”

“You had best, or you’ll have me to deal with, sir.”

The robot swiveled its eyes back to Myra, clicking in annoyance. “Well, come on inside, then. Sit down on the couch, and let’s tend to those injuries, shall we?”

“I’m fine, Codsworth. Stop fussing.”

“You can barely walk! Oh, and your poor head! I really must insist you let me tend to you.”

“Oh, all right,” Myra sighed, “but I’m not waiting for a clean bill of health from you. I’ve got other things that need to get taken care of. These people need a place to sleep, for starters.”

“Whoa, there, young lady,” piped Sturges, “your robot’s absolutely right. You need to rest. Don’t worry. I can get started on the repairs to our little settlement without you. It’ll take long enough just to get the debris cleared.”

Preston nodded in agreement. “Trust me, there will be plenty for you to do once you’re back to full strength. You’re no good to anyone if you aggravate that ankle of yours.”

Myra sighed, rolling her eyes. “Fine. But I’m helping you first thing tomorrow, no matter what.”

Preston nodded. “Well, I’ll hold you to it, then. Good night, Myra.”

“Good night, Preston.”

 

 


 

 

The next day, Preston awoke to the sound of hushed cussing and heavy dragging from beyond his room. He slipped out of his sleeping bag, grabbed his laser musket, and quietly stalked into the living room of the derelict house he’d laid claim to.

“Stupid piece of shit,” muttered Myra, grunting in effort as she tried to move a pile of twisted metal and fabric that had once been a couch towards the second bedroom of the house. Her face screwed up in pain as a piece of rebar fell from the pile, smacking her on her already sore ankle, but she stifled her scream of pain by biting her bottom lip.

Preston flung his musket over his shoulder and rushed over to her, lifting the far side of the junk pile fairly effortlessly.

“Here, let me help you with that,” he offered.

“I’ve got it, Preston,” she replied coolly, glaring at the minuteman. “Please. Just...just let me do this.”

“And let you keep hurting yourself? Come on, Myra. What are you trying to prove?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to build you and your friends some proper beds. I don’t need your help. Nor did I ask for it. Please, just leave me alone.”

He sighed heavily, lowering the pile of scrap to the floor. So this was how it was going to go.

“Fine,” he replied. "But sooner or later, you’re going to realize that you can never have too many friends in this world. And I hope you won’t have burned every bridge still standing by the time you figure that out.”

He stormed out of the house and went to find something to eat. He’d need all the strength he could get if they were going to make this settlement secure.

As Preston moved towards the cooking fire, Brian Sturges caught his eye. His friend jogged towards him, concern darkening his handsome face.

“What mole rat broke into your storeroom this morning, Preston?”

“Just that damned vault dweller. I’ve never met anyone as frustrating as her in my entire life.”

“That bad, huh? What did she do this time?”

“She’s just… I don’t know. I don’t understand how someone can care so much about other people, but still be such an asshole. She woke me up trying to rearrange the furniture in my house, and then bit my head off when I tried to help her.”

“Well, did she want help?”

“No, but she needed it. She’s going to hurt herself, trying to do that alone with her leg still messed up like it is.”

“Well, did it ever occur to you that maybe she’s scared of being seen as weak?” asked Sturges.

“I...what?”

“Think about it. She’s out of her element, here. The world’s not the same as what she’s used to. I’d bet she’s terrified that if she shows weakness, she’ll be picked off. Hell, even people who have lived in the Commonwealth their whole lives are afraid of that. Don’t you think that might be a possibility?”

“But she doesn’t have to be scared of us! Doesn’t she understand that?”

“No offense, Preston, but she just met us yesterday. And with the reputation the Minutemen have these days…”

Preston rubbed his eyes with a sigh.

“You’re not wrong, Brian. But we need her. And that means we need her to trust us...to trust me.”

“Then give her some space, and let her get to know us before you start barking orders at her, ok? Being pushy will just alienate her more. Let her come to you.”

Preston nodded.

“You’re probably right. Let’s see what’s cooking, and then you and I can get to work on fortifying the main road. I’ll let Myra figure her own schedule out for now.”

 


 

Several hours passed in sweat and strain as the refugees from Quincy labored to turn the derelict subdivision into a passable home. Marcy and Mama Murphy had begun planting crops along the riverbank. Jun, for his part, was hard at work sorting through the rubble of the ruined houses for useful materials, which Preston and Sturges then used to build fortifications. Any extra goods were added to the storage room in Sturges’ house to be used later. It was a long, hot, exhausting process, even in the chilly October air.

Preston and Sturges had just finished building the frame for a large gate near the entrance to the island when Jun ran up to them, breathless.

“Hey, um, did you guys hear that scream?” he asked in his soft, sad voice, his dark eyes wide with fear.

They looked at each other, shaking their heads.

“Well, um, it came from one of the houses, I think,” he continued. “Do you think it’s ghouls or something?”

Preston wiped his grimy hands on his pants before sliding the strap of his laser musket off his shoulder, readying the weapon.

“I’ll go check it out,” he reassured the shell-shocked man. “Jun, stay with Sturges until I say it’s safe, ok?”

The slight asian man nodded in reply, and Preston shot a gentle smile of reassurance at him before heading deeper into the cul-du-sac.

He found the source of the noise quite quickly, thanks to Dogmeat. The large german shepherd paced frantically outside one of the houses, whining and scratching at the wall repeatedly with his paw.

“What is it, boy?” Preston asked. “What’s in there?”

“Um, hey Preston,” sighed a familiar voice from inside the house. “Don’t laugh, but I could really use some help.”

“Myra? What’s going on?”

“Quicker would be better,” she hissed in reply.

He entered the house carefully, looking around the living room for her. She was nowhere to be seen.

“Um, hey. Up here.”

He turned his gaze towards the roof, and had to stifle a deep chortle at the sight before him.

The vault dweller’s entire lower body dangled from the ceiling like an embarrassed chandelier, her chest firmly caught in the twisted wreckage of the roof. Her injured leg dangled uselessly while she kicked at the air with the other, desperately trying to knock herself loose to little success.

“What the hell happened to you?” asked Preston.

“I was going after a duffle bag up here and I slipped,” her voice rang out from beyond the ruined roof. “Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous. Can you get me free or not?”

“Are you saying you’d like my help?” Preston asked, grinning at her.

“Yes, please.”

“I don’t know… maybe I should just make you wait it out for a little bit.”

“Please, Preston! I don’t want anyone else to see me like this.”

“Okay, Myra. Here’s the deal. I’ll get you out, but you have to promise me that you’ll take a lesson from this. You can’t do everything on your own all the time. There’s no shame in asking for help.”

“I don’t know about that,” she muttered angrily. “I’m feeling plenty of shame right now.”

“Or I can leave you there, and we’ll see how Mama Murphy likes her new ceiling decor. Personally, I think it’s a pretty interesting piece. Lots of drama.”

“Will you shut up and get me down?”

“Will you agree to stop being such a jerk when someone’s trying to be nice to you?”

Myra stopped kicking for a moment, contemplating his offer.

“No promises. But I’ll try,” she added.

“Then I’ll try to get you down,” he shot back.

He thought for a moment. It would be little trouble for him to grab the ladder Sturges had made that morning and use it to reach the roof, or he could ask Myra how she’d gotten up there. But that still left her stuck in the ceiling. There was really only one solution. They had to widen the hole.

“Hang on, Myra,” he called to her. “I’m going to go get a mattress.”

“What? Why?”

“Just… just hold on.”

He headed to the bedroom, grateful that they’d at least gotten a basic mattress finished for this place, and hauled the lumpy rectangle back to the living room, placing it under Myra.

“Ok, now, this is the hard part,” he said, readying his laser musket. “I’m going to need you to stay very still.”

“Why? What are you… did you just crank your stupid musket? Are you crazy? Preston, no! You’re going to kill me!”

“Only if I miss. Now hold still.”

The laser blast was deafening in the enclosed space. The crash that followed was a little more so.

“Oww! What the hell?” cried Myra, rubbing her midsection gingerly as she lay sprawled out on the mattress, covered in debris. “I think you singed me a little!”

“Well, if you can whine, I know you’re alive,” replied Preston cooly. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

He knelt beside her, peering into her angry green eyes.

“Look, Myra, I’m sorry for earlier. I know I should have asked if you needed help before I tried to intervene. But I wasn’t meaning to imply that you were weak or anything. I just wanted you to take better care of yourself, and let the rest of us pick up some of the slack. You saved our lives, and helped us find a home. We owe you.”

“I know, Preston,” she replied with a sigh, glancing away from him to study the floor. “I’m sorry for snapping at you. I just… it reminded me of something Nate would do, helping me without asking, like I was made of glass.”

“Nate?”

“My husband. He...he died. In the vault. Someone murdered him, right in front of me. He was always so strong, so brave, and they just… He wasn’t even able to fight back. I guess I…”

“You’re afraid of the same thing happening to you.”

“Ever since I woke up, I’ve felt like I’m not in control of my own life. I barely remember even leaving the vault, do you know that? I remember seeing the sun, then waking up on my couch with Codsworth fussing over me. Apparently, some wastelander brought me home. I could have been killed, or worse, and I wouldn’t have even known.”

“That sounds pretty awful. I’m sorry.”

“Then, I got to Concord, hoping to find some help, and I found you guys instead. I had to help you, but I had no idea what I was doing. I killed people, Preston.”

“They would have done worse to you if you hadn’t.”

“I know that. But still...that’s not me. I’m not a fighter. I’m Myra Larimer, fresh out of law school, wife and mother. I’m not...I’m not cut out for this.”

“Myra,” Preston soothed, placing a hand on her shoulder, “do you really have a choice?”

She stared at him in surprise. “A choice?”

“The Commonwealth is brutal. You need to either continue adapting to it, or it will kill you. And you don’t seem like the kind of person who’s ready to die, not yet. Trust me. I know that kind of person all too well. So there will be times that you have to become more than what you think you are. And that’s not something to be afraid of. It’s just something that has to happen, like you killing that deathclaw.”

He saw a flash of something like guilt in her eyes, which she quickly swallowed away.

“So it’s fight or die?”

“Exactly. Which are you going to choose?”

She thought for a long moment before hauling herself off the filthy mattress, using his shoulder as a handle. She stared down at him with defiant eyes, her mouth set in a firm line.

“Well, then, I’m going to fight.”

“Excellent. That, I can work with. Now, let’s find a way you can help that takes weight off your leg, okay? At least for a couple days. Then, when you’re feeling better, I think I have a job you’d be perfect for.”

 

 


 

 

A week passed quickly, and Sanctuary was swiftly becoming a functional settlement. With Myra’s help, the former residents of Quincy had managed to clean up much of the surrounding area. The houses that were beyond their ability to repair had been dismantled, and most of the other dwellings had been repaired to habitable condition.

At Preston’s insistence, they had built enough beds to house three or four people in every house, save one right by the main gate which Marcy Long, Jun’s wife, had turned into a bar and mess hall. It had given the fearsome woman her own domain, keeping her busy and the rest of the settlers safe from her ire. Preston thought this was for the best.

They were making steady progress on a wall around the island, punctuated every twenty feet or so with a guard post and turrets. Sturges had designed the whole defense system, and he made sure everyone knew it.

Myra’s leg had healed to the point at which she could put her full weight on it again, and she was restless. Preston could see it in her eyes as she threw the switch on the settlement recruitment beacon they had set up that afternoon.

“Excellent work, Myra!” he exclaimed, beaming at her. “With a little luck, our settlement can grow into a nice little town now!”

“We’ve certainly accomplished a lot. Sturges says the water purifier's almost up and running, so we won’t have to keep boiling the crap out of the river water and hoping for the best.”

“That’s great news.”

“Isn’t it? Well, hey, if you don’t need anything else right now, I thought I’d take a walk, check on the farm.”

“Actually, I do have something else for you,” he replied, “if you don’t mind.”

“I’m listening.”

“I got word from a settlement nearby, asking for help from the Minutemen. And right now, that’s just me. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind running over there and finding out what they need.”

“You know I’d love to get out of here for a few days,” said Myra, “but why can’t you do it?”

Preston’s heart dropped.

“I...I can’t. After what happened at Quincy, I can’t look those people in the eye and tell them they can count on me. But you have a way with people. Maybe, if they see you instead of the last remnant of a failed militia, they’ll be more inclined to trust the Minutemen again.”

She stared at him silently, her face blank, so after a moment, he continued.

“Look, I’m not asking you to lie to them. But we need to start gathering allies, or our little settlement here isn’t going to survive very long. We can build all the walls we want, but if no one’s out there to help us when we’re under attack, we’ll die. And the same goes for all the other settlements out there. The only way we all can stay safe is if we work together. I just need you to remind them of that.”

Myra sighed.

“And you want me to, what, unite them under your flag again?”

He shook his head.

“For now, I just want you to find out what they need and help them, if you can. Will you do that for me?”

“All right. But if they make me do something weird, I’m blaming you.”

“Noted.”

Myra dashed to her house, returning a few minutes later with a backpack full of supplies, her pistol resting comfortably on her hip. She grinned at him widely.

“Ok, I’m ready to go.”

Dogmeat plodded up to her, his tail wagging enthusiastically. She leaned down, scratching the large german shepherd behind his ears.

“Keep Dogmeat with you, Preston,” she requested. “I’ll feel better if I know someone’s looking after him.”

“You’re sure?”

She nodded vehemently.

“I can’t bear the thought of him getting hurt because of me. He’s a good boy, and I’ll miss him, but he’s safer here in Sanctuary.”

“Well, I won’t complain about having him nearby, that’s for sure,” Preston replied, a worried smile on his face,” but what if you need help?”

“Relax, Preston. I can handle myself.”

“If you say so. Look, Myra, I have to be honest with you, if there was anyone else I could trust, I wouldn’t be sending you out there. After what you went through for us in Concord, no one would blame you if you said no.”

“But you said it yourself, Preston. There is no one else. And those people need help. I’m not so vulnerable that I’ll turn my back on someone who needs me.”

“You’d make a fine minuteman, you know.”

“Well, let’s just see if I come back in one piece first, okay, Preston?”

“Sure thing, Myra.”

She waved goodbye lazily with one hand as she made her way to the bridge. He watched her for a few moments before pulling the gate shut behind her, obscuring the young woman from view.

“Well, I’d say she’s a keeper,” crooned Sturges, walking up from the side of house he was refurbishing.

“She’s certainly something,” replied Preston, smiling grimly at his friend. “Now, let’s go see what we can do about fortifying the northwest side of our new home. I have a feeling that the old trail there is a bit of a highway for wild animals.”

“I was just about to suggest that. Well, add it to our to-do list, at least. Even with Myra’s help, it’s going to take a lot more work to make this place a real home.”

“Here’s hoping we actually have the time to make it one.”

 


 

 

A few days later, Myra appeared at the gate, caked in blood and gunpowder, her hair blown loose and wild about her filthy face. She shot Preston a thumbs-up, smirking up at him.

“Honey, I’m home! Please tell me we have clean water finally.”

Preston tore down the guard post steps and opened the gate hastily, ushering her inside.

“What the hell happened out there?” he cried. “You look like death.”

“The good news,” Myra piped, “is that Tenpines Bluff has agreed to support the Minutemen again. The bad news is that they wanted me to clear a huge automotive factory full of raiders before they’d agree to it.”

“Damn,” he cursed. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought they might need help scaring some raiders off, but they sent you after the gang at Corvega instead? I wouldn’t have agreed to that if we had a whole squad at our disposal! This is why we used to ask people to tell us what their problem was before we sent troops out.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have changed anything,” Myra replied. “I mean, I was the only one you could send anyway, so what difference would it have made?”

“I could have at least made you take a bigger gun.”

“But I like my gun. It’s compact, yes, but it’s comfortable and accurate. I don’t need anything else.”

“Or maybe I could have encouraged you to wear some actual armor.”

“What? And cover up my lucky shirt? I love this shirt.”

“Myra,” he warned, “can you please take this more seriously? You could have died.”

“But I didn’t. And most of this blood isn’t even mine. Okay, well, some of it isn’t mine. Are you just going to lecture me, or can I get a bath first?”

He sighed heavily.

“Fine. Go ahead. But you and I need to talk when you’re cleaned up.”

“If you insist,” she muttered, stalking off towards her house.

Preston eased himself down on the steps of the guard post, resting his head in his hands. He had begged and wished for someone to help him, to save the Minutemen. And whatever twisted powers governed such things had sent him Myra Larimer. He wasn’t sure who was more insane, her for being so willing to throw herself into danger, or him for deciding to rely on her. Maybe it was better to give up now, to recognize that the Minutemen were really gone for good. At least then he wouldn’t be leaving their fate in the hands of a half-crazed vault dweller.

But was he really ready to let the dream of a united Commonwealth go, when he’d finally found another person willing to die for it? Boston itself was steeped in the stories of great men and women who had attempted even more ambitious things than that. How many of those powerful figures of the past were considered just as foolhardy as he now saw Myra? Perhaps she was exactly what he’d been looking for.

Either way, he knew he couldn’t wait around for someone else to lead them, and he certainly wasn’t up to the job. He could barely keep himself together, let alone the whole Commonwealth. But there was something about her that told him that she might be able to pull it off, if he just gave her the right guidance.

Myra returned to the gate a while later, her brilliant white hair once again tucked into a messy bun under her cap. Her favorite shirt was missing, probably soaking, and she was instead wearing a tattered brown leather jacket that was way too big for her frame, along with a ratty pink skirt.

“Well, I feel worlds better. Thank God for Sturges, and thank Sturges for clean water!”

“It’s definitely a luxury,” he agreed. “Now, do you have time to talk?”

She nodded, saying, “I’ve braced myself for more lecturing. Let’s do this.”

“I wasn’t planning on a lecture. Unless you think you deserve one.”

“Nope. I’m good. What did you want to talk about?”

“Well, first, I wanted to give you this,” he said, handing her a flare gun and a few flares. “We used to use these to signal to other Minutemen when we needed backup. It’s not much use now, but hopefully it will be in the future.”

“You mean when there are more Minutemen again?”

He nodded, studying her face. What would she say, once he asked her? Was she ready? Would she ever be?

“Myra, I...I wanted to ask you for another favor. I know all I’ve done is ask for help, but I promise that, if you say no, this will be the last thing I ever ask of you.”

“What is it, Preston?” she asked, her rich emerald eyes shining with curiosity as she palmed the flare gun.

“I… The Commonwealth needs the Minutemen, Myra. I think you already see that. But I can’t bring them back. Not alone. People need someone they can trust to rally behind, someone brave and strong and compassionate who can really give them something to believe in again. And I think… I hope, that that’s you.”

“Are you asking me what I think you’re asking me?”

“Myra, please, will you rebuild the Minutemen? Will you lead us?”

“Did you hit your head while I was away? Why on earth would you ask me to do that? I don’t know the first thing about leading an army.”

“I know. I know. But I’ll help you.”

“Then why can’t you do it yourself?”

“Because… because I don’t have what it takes. The aftermath of Quincy proved that. I’m not a leader, Myra. I’m a footsoldier, an advisor at the very most. But we need someone who can be more than that. I believe what we need is you.”

“Can I think about it? This is… this is a lot to take in.”

“Of course. Take as long as you need. And no matter what you decide, know that you’re always welcome here.”

“Thanks, Preston. I mean, I’d hoped so. This is my home, after all.”

And with that, she wandered back towards her house, leaving him alone again.

“I really hope this works,” Preston muttered to himself. “I don’t know what we’re going to do if she says no.”

Chapter Text

As Deacon slunk across the rooftops of some of Cambridge’s surviving apartment buildings, he wondered how Myra was adjusting to life in the Commonwealth since he’d last seen her. Thanks to the Railroad keeping him occupied with intel-gathering missions, it had been nearly a month since the last time he’d shadowed the young woman after her gore-filled romp in the Corvega plant.

He had to admit he’d missed watching her work. Deacon didn’t have much of a stomach for violence, but the way Myra weaved through the scaffolding on the roof of the factory like a vengeful spirit, laying waste to her targets…it was almost like art. Of course, he still had to cover her back a few times. The young woman may have gotten better at the dance of death, but she was still pretty awful at checking her corners.

But what had really impressed him was what happened afterwards, when she returned to Tenpines Bluff to tell them that they were safe…well, safer, at least. She had won them over to the Minutemen -- no, to her -- so easily with her calm reassurance. He doubted that any of them had even noticed she was covered in blood and filth. She was a natural. He had to have her on his team.

The enigma that was Myra Larimer had proven to be a tough one for him to solve. For someone adapting to life in the Commonwealth for the first time, she had taken a lot of its creatures and pitfalls in stride, which surprised him. He’d expected a lot more screaming, and a lot less precision firing.

The snow-haired cicada didn’t seem overly squeamish, but she also wasn’t very practical. She still wore the same threadbare flannel she’d sported in Concord with no armor, still carried the same old 10 mm -- though he noted with some interest that she’d modded a larger magazine on the weapon. Maybe the old girl could learn some new tricks. Not as useful as, say, how to sneak rather than just rain bullets on everything that got in her way, but it was something.

With her insistence on running at her targets with no regard for cover and not even having the decency to wear defensive gear, Deacon was honestly amazed she hadn’t died yet. She was either the luckiest woman in the world, or she had actual guardian angels backing her up. Having one incredibly charming spy with a sniper rifle watching her back probably didn’t hurt either, though, and he had to wonder if her luck had run out in his absence.

Deacon decided that he’d run up to Sanctuary after this next job, check in on her and Preston. He was certainly curious how the two of them were getting along. From what he’d seen on his last visit to Sanctuary, he couldn’t imagine that such a partnership was going smoothly. Still, she had agreed to be the General of Preston’s non-existent army, so either she was playing an extended prank on the minuteman or they got along better than he assumed.

Only time would tell if the Minutemen would fare any better under Myra’s leadership. Deacon had always wanted to like the militia more than he did. After all, they had been the main unifying force in the Commonwealth, and some of their members even seemed to care about the everyday people who lived there. But he was inherently mistrustful of any organization whose members had too much power, and the Minutemen were no exception. They claimed to be defenders of the people, but recent events had proven that most of the old guard were only in it for themselves.

Preston had proven himself one of the few exceptions to the rule, at least for now. He’d risked his life for the people of Quincy, had saved the ones he could. Deacon could respect that. Hell, he’d even like the guy if he’d learn to loosen up a bit. But one good soul did not sanctify an entire organization. He’d learned that the hard way back in University Point, and it was a lesson that kept him on his toes, even as he worked tirelessly for the Railroad.

“No group of people’s perfect,” he muttered. “And we’re sure as hell no exception.”

His current mission was certainly evidence of that. After all, he could be out saving synths, or helping people rebuild their lives. Instead, Desdemona had tasked him with tracking down a distress signal in Cambridge, with orders to destroy the people who sent it.

According to what he’d been told, a number of tourists had reported sightings of a Brotherhood of Steel patrol in the area. Now, with this distress signal, it was pretty obvious that the rumors were true.

Deacon thought it would have been crazy for the Brotherhood to send another team after what had happened to the last one a few years ago. Fortunately, he hadn’t been involved in that ambush, but the operation had Railroad written all over it. Thanks to the organization’s paranoid obsession with secrecy, he’d never know for sure, though, and spending too long speculating on it wasn’t doing him any favors.

He stopped on a rooftop near the Cambridge Police Station, the source of the broadcast, and peered through his scope at the scene below him. Deacon’s heart sank at the sight of the old gears and blade on the barricades outside. Part of him had been hoping that the reports were wrong, that the signal was an elaborate ploy by the Institute, that Dez was messing with him. Anything but this.

Unfortunately, the Brotherhood recon patrol was real. And now, he’d have to kill them before they compromised Railroad operations in the area. Damn, he hated these kinds of missions. He usually refused them, but these days, there weren’t a lot of other agents available. Besides, he’d done worse in the name of protecting his allies in the past.

“If you’re already going to Hell, what’s a few more murders on the old conscience?” he mused, chuckling bitterly to himself. “Might as well recruit some willing women and finally schedule that night of endless debauchery Hancock keeps pestering you about while we’re at it. Vary it up a little bit.”

He shook the thought from his head as quickly as it had arrived. Now was hardly the time to berate himself. Whether he liked it or not, he had a job to do. Now he just needed to figure out the best way to do it.

Deacon scouted the compound from his perch, watching for each sign of movement through his scope. There seemed to only be a small patrol in the station, just a paladin in a suit of T-60 power armor, a wounded knight, and a scribe who was tending to the injured man as best as she could. There were possibly a few others inside, but it was difficult to tell. The place was built like a fortress, with hardly any windows he could aim his scope through.

Even if a handful of Brotherhood soldiers lurked inside the police station, there were hardly enough to constitute a threat… yet. And it looked like they were running low on ammo and medical supplies. If Deacon could just coax a large enough pack of feral ghouls through the barricades, he might be able to wipe them out entirely before they became a problem.

And they would become a problem, he knew, even if he didn’t want to admit it. The current policies of the Brotherhood of Steel would hardly allow the militant order to be anything less.

As he often had before, Deacon wished that the East Coast Brotherhood of Steel would return to the way they’d been under Elder Lyons. The man was still deeply flawed, to be sure, but the Brotherhood had been almost a positive force back then. This new Elder was trouble for all non-humans, not just the really dangerous ones. And that made him trouble for the Railroad as well. It was in everyone’s best interest that the Brotherhood not gain a foothold in the region. The Commonwealth had enough dangerous bigots without adding highly trained soldiers with advanced technology to the mix.

At least Cambridge had a particularly large feral population. It would not take him long to attract a fairly sizable pack of the irradiated former humans. The only problem was organizing them. Feral ghouls weren’t particularly known for their ability to take direction. He needed to the right motivation for them to follow him.

There were three main ways to predict human behavior, he knew. But these did not apply to ones whose brains had been melted by radiation. Rather than caps, beliefs, and ego, ferals were motivated by food, pain, and noise. If he could generate those three things, he could turn himself into a feral-collecting machine.

Food was the easy part. He already had about 170 pounds of premium-grade Deacon at his disposal. Pain could be produced by hurling rocks and other debris at the shambling horde as he ran. The real question was how he was going to generate enough noise without immediately alerting the Brotherhood squad to his presence.

Noise was definitely not Deacon’s specialty, at least not in the field. Since a majority of his missions required him to slip by unnoticed, he had cultivated an almost-silent way of walking. But there was one method he could think of that, while not being particularly subtle, would be incredibly fun. Perhaps that would take his mind off of the reality of what he was attempting to do.

He rummaged through his pack, extracting a battered piece of silver metal that he’d found a few weeks prior -- along with a few other choice goodies -- when he’d stumbled upon the remains of an old joke and novelties store downtown. He’d mostly been using the kazoo to annoy Carrington, but he had a feeling that the ferals would be very curious if he started playing it. Besides, such instruments were not common in the wasteland, so even if the noise carried farther than he thought it would, the Brotherhood soldiers still would probably not be able to identify the source of the ominous buzzing.

Deacon clambered down from his perch, taking note of the building’s stairs and fire escapes, just in case he needed to return there to avoid his pack of ferals. Once they discovered the Brotherhood buffet, they would probably ignore him, but it was better to be prepared.

He crept towards College Station, where a large group of feral ghouls frequently hung out. There were easily fifteen in the immediate area, but he needed to find more, just to be on the safe side. After all, why kill when you could overkill?
It took him a few minutes to devise the best route through the blocks surrounding the station. He needed quick, efficient routes that also were mostly debris-free so the ferals wouldn’t get trapped behind any rubble as he lured them. Eventually, he found such a route, and headed to the far end of it, preparing his kazoo.

“Here goes…something,” he exclaimed, humming into the small metal device. He hoped the ferals liked Bing Crosby as much as he did.

To his delight, his mad kazoo skills seemed to do the trick, sending a snarling mass of ferals darting towards him. He continued to play softly to keep them interested as he ran through the streets of Cambridge, gathering more and more irradiated shamblers as he went.

“I’m like a pied piper of death,” Deacon mused, pleased with himself. This was going to make a hell of a story. It was a shame that no one would believe him.

Part of him would have preferred to just put a bullet in the soldiers’ heads, at least spare them a certain level of pain and horror before their inevitable demise. But he knew that an execution would be more suspicious, and would mean more interference. The Brotherhood might even send another recon team, like they had after the last one. No, an unfortunate incident would be better for everyone.

When he was within a block of the police station, he put the kazoo away, instead relying on the persistent hunger of the ferals to keep them on his heels. This was working. He was going to pull this off.

As he neared the compound, however, his heart clenched. There, standing beside the paladin in charge, was Myra. Her pistol was raised and ready, blood from a few stray ferals who’d gotten there before his horde already staining her shirt.

“I know I scouted this area thoroughly. How the hell did I miss her?” he moaned to himself, doing his best to stay out of her line of sight. “Three weeks without a sign, and she has to show up now?”

Deacon had to act fast. He’d been prepared to follow Dez’s unsavory orders. After all, he owed her quite a bit, and trusted her to keep their neurotic little family safe. But this was different. Myra wasn’t guilty of atrocities against synth-kind. She was an innocent bystander who couldn’t help herself when someone needed her, no matter who they were. That was a rare trait in the ‘Wealth, and he’d be damned if he let her die just because she’d chosen to assist the wrong people.

Images of another young woman from a lifetime ago flashed through his mind, her soft honey-colored hair stained with blood, hazel eyes wide with terror. Her skull smashed open to reveal the horrible truth beneath. His beautiful, gentle Barbara, reduced to a nightmarish memory, her broken body forever etched in the back of his mind.

Although the two of them were different in their looks and personalities, he had to admit that Myra reminded him of her. They shared that same quickness of smile, that same empathy for suffering souls, that same strange ability to see beyond people’s sins and into their hearts.

Deacon frowned, trying to quickly analyze his options. He couldn’t let it happen again. He couldn’t let another good woman lose her life because of him. He had to do something, anything, to keep her safe, even if it meant defying the person he’d sworn his loyalty to.

“Ferals!” he yelled, alerting the recon squad to their impending destruction as he ran the other way. It wouldn’t help much, but he had to give Myra a chance to escape.

Deacon dashed off towards the river, shouting and carrying on, drawing some of his ghoul army away. But many, too many, continued to shamble towards the police station. Towards Myra.

Well, it was too late now. Hopefully she’d have the good sense to run. He tried to ignore the screams and the hail of laser and gunfire from the compound behind him, to ignore the guilt that gripped his chest like a vise. It was bad enough that Dez had ordered him to kill those soldiers. Losing Myra, the vault dweller he’d spent so long trying to protect, was a prospect he could scarcely bear.

It took him longer than he cared to admit to shake the last ghoul from his tail, and he was halfway to Bunker Hill by the time he figured it was safe to turn around. One thing he could say for the rad-crazed ferals was that they were persistent. Maybe it was the fact that they had once been human that made them so stubborn, so deadly. After all, what in the Commonwealth was more dangerous than humans?

Deacon crept quietly back towards the station, hoping Myra was still alive. If she wasn’t...he didn’t want to think of what he would do to Dez over this. Or what he’d do to himself.

He climbed back to his sniper nest across the street from the building, easing the strap of his sniper rifle off his shoulder. As he watched breathlessly through his scope, he was pleased to see a flash of green flannel entering the police station. Excellent. At least one thing had gone his way today.

But that was where his luck seemed to have run out. The good news was that Myra was alive. The bad news was that she seemed to have made some new friends in the heat of battle. A battle he’d forced her into. Damn it.

Minutes later, he watched in dismay as Myra and the paladin emerged from the stronghold and charged off together, towards God knew where. He thought about following them, but decided against it. He’d done enough damage today.

Besides, he was going to need to tell Dez that his mission was a failure. That was going to be a new one. Deacon never failed. Maybe he could just spin a lie, tell her that the recon squad was taken care of. Like that wouldn’t come back to bite him on his shapely ass.

He could slip into the station while the paladin was away, perhaps sabotage the squad’s remaining equipment. But he had no way of knowing how many Brotherhood soldiers remained inside. Was it just the two, or were there others? He was willing to bet it was just the two. Otherwise, why would the paladin have left with a complete stranger?

No, it wasn’t worth the risk. Even with his best disguise, the chances of discovery were too great. Especially if there were only the two soldiers inside. The old “I’m you from the future” trick never worked quite as well as he’d hoped.

Deacon sighed, easing himself from his perch and working his way down the apartment building’s fire escape as quietly as possible. He could leave Myra out of his report, at least. Maybe that would keep her off Dez’s radar until he had a chance to recruit her. That part of his mission was now more important to him than ever.

As General of the Minutemen, Myra had already gained a valuable position that could greatly benefit the Railroad. If she joined up with the Brotherhood of Steel as well? As much as the idea sickened him, he knew exactly how to spin that to appeal to Desdemona’s ambition. Myra could be their girl on the inside of two of the other factions in the Commonwealth. If he sold her to Dez correctly, the leader of the Railroad would be crazy not to sign the vault dweller up.

Once she was a member of the Railroad, then Deacon could work on molding her into the perfect agent. And maybe, just maybe, the Railroad would have the edge they needed to survive their war against the Institute.

But first, he had to pique Myra’s interest, and that was a challenge that was going to be infinitely more complicated if she was under the watchful eye of the Brotherhood. He needed a foolproof plan, something that Myra would be unable to ignore, but subtle enough that her new friends wouldn’t notice.

“This is going to take some planning,” he muttered to himself. “And at least three new disguises. Maybe even four.”

He had better get to it.

Chapter Text

Paladin Danse stood at the monitor in the Cambridge Police Station, trying to catch up on the mission reports from the past week. Ever since she’d arrived at the station, Myra Larimer had been keeping him quite busy. The two of them had managed to check off quite a few items on the Recon Squad to-do list, from collecting pieces of pre-war technology for Scribe Haylen to clearing out some of the more dangerous areas around Cambridge.

As Danse tried to discuss why he’d granted Larimer the rank of Initiate, he had to admit that he was struggling to express his impressions of the young woman. There was something deeply worrying about her behavior, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was that bothered him so much. It wasn’t because she couldn’t follow orders, which was normally the issue with the civilians he’d had to utilize in the past. It wasn’t even her surly tone, which was unpleasant but no worse than anything he’d dealt with before.

No, it was her complete lack of any self-preservation instinct that troubled him the most. Larimer didn’t seem like she was trying to die, not exactly. It was more that she had a nasty habit of running in first and analyzing the situation second.

He’d learned this when they’d cleared out the old Arc-Jet Systems facility, their first mission together after they’d survived the attack on the police station. Scribe Haylen had sent them to find a deep-range transmitter that would allow Recon Squad Gladius to boost their distress signal enough to hopefully reach the rest of the Brotherhood’s forces. It was a simple retrieval mission, easy enough for two soldiers to handle. Or it would have been, had the Institute not gotten there first.

The place had been crawling with synths. Fortunately, they seemed to be a salvage team comprised of the more obviously mechanical generation 1s and 2s. Danse wasn’t looking forward to his next encounter with the human-like generation 3s. There was something so disturbing about those abominations, the Institute’s sick crime against the sanctity of human life. Fighting them set him on edge in a way he rarely felt on the battlefield.

Danse and Larimer had cleared the first few floors with relative ease, even if her pistol was not nearly as effective against the synths as it had been against the horde of feral ghouls the day before. She proved herself to be a decent shot, though she seemed to waste a lot of ammo filling her enemies with holes rather than doing the same amount of damage with a few precision shots as Danse had been trained. However, she more than made up for her wastefulness by picking the locks to storage rooms and filling her pack with all the ammo she could find. He had been amazed by how much she was able to acquire with the use of just a few bobby pins.

This was why Danse sometimes kept company with mercenaries, even though he found their practices distasteful. There were just some things he didn’t have the skillset to handle on his own, and lockpicking was one of them. He’d never had the aptitude for it, even as a street urchin.

When they had finally reached the bottom of the facility, they were stopped by a power outage in the main elevator, so he had sent Larimer to reroute power in order to continue their progression. That was where the trouble began, and where Danse first realized how foolhardy his new ally could really be.

As Larimer had powered up the generator, Danse’s position had been overrun by synths, far more than they had previously encountered. She’d dashed back to help him without a moment’s thought, even though the number of hostiles was completely absurd for her to try to handle.

Danse had seen the trap coming, which was why he’d sent her ahead. Synths always used such insidious tactics, and he’d wanted to protect her. After all, she wasn’t wearing any armor, just a worn flannel shirt and that stupid hat that couldn’t even keep rain off her.

He’d expected her to lock the blast doors and wait it out, or hopefully cycle the jet engine perched ominously above the room, blasting everything inside with a massive inferno. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea of being cooked alive, but he knew his suit would take the brunt of the damage in that case. And, at least then, she would be safe from all the laser fire. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d put himself in harm’s way to protect someone weaker than himself. Knowing the world he lived in, it would hardly be the last.

Of course, Larimer never considered the tactically wise choices she had at her disposal, choosing instead to take down a horde of gen 2s with her tiny pistol and sheer bravado alone. Yes, they had both survived, and they retrieved Haylen’s transmitter. That was hardly the point. It was sloppy, unnecessarily dangerous, and completely counter to the spirit of the order he had given her.

Danse had given her his favorite laser rifle after that mission, less as a reward and more as a safeguarding gift. If she wasn’t willing to use good tactics, then she’d at least carry a decent gun. Thankfully, she seemed to adore Righteous Authority, and never used anything else so long as she had ammo for it. Because of this, their next salvage operation had gone considerably more smoothly, though Larimer still managed to take a bullet to the right shoulder as she charged a nest of raiders. After that incident, he’d finally been able to talk her into wearing a few pieces of leather armor.

He wasn’t sure what possessed him to offer her a place in the Brotherhood of Steel, but he had to admit that, in spite of her impulsivity and sloppiness, he was damn glad to have her in his squad. While there was plenty in her personality that bothered him, there was something beneath all the foolhardiness and sarcasm that resonated with him on a deep level. There was a spark in her, a fiery passion that he knew would make her an excellent soldier someday, as long as it was properly disciplined.

Danse sighed, finishing his reports, then powering down the monitor to conserve energy. The generators Recon Squad Gladius had rigged wouldn’t last forever, and they needed all the power they could get for their distress signal to reach headquarters in time.

He’d come no closer to understanding Larimer’s impulsive behavior. In all other respects, she seemed quite competent. So why was she so determined to throw caution to the wind?

Danse got the chance to ask her when they were camped out on the roof of the Police Station on watch later that night. He’d been reluctant to post the two of them together, preferring to have each of his men take their own watch. After all, more watches meant that everyone got more rest, and with so few of his squad left, Danse was more concerned about his soldiers’ wellbeing than ever.

In spite of this, Scribe Haylen had suggested that he spend more time with the new recruit. Not only would having watch together provide them an opportunity to talk, but it would keep Initiate Larimer and Knight Rhys separated before they murdered each other through dirty looks alone, which every day seemed like a greater possibility. So, against his better judgement, he agreed.

He suspected that Haylen just wanted an excuse to spend more time alone with the disgruntled knight, but he’d never press her on the issue. Danse had seen how Haylen looked at Rhys when she thought no one was watching. It would have bothered him if there had been any indication that Rhys was interested in her. Although the Brotherhood’s fraternization policy wasn’t as strict as its pre-war counterparts had been, it was still incredibly dangerous for people in the same unit to become romantically entangled. However, there were worse things than unrequited longing in this world, so Danse tried to pretend he didn’t know about Haylen’s interest in Rhys. As long as no one was breaking any rules and no one was neglecting their duties, he could care less what his soldiers spent their limited free time doing.

Regardless of Haylen’s motives, he was grateful that she’d convinced him to spend some time alone with Larimer. The Initiate needed to change her ways, and he had a feeling that an official reprimand was not going to get the results he wanted. Perhaps a friendly chat, as much as he dreaded struggling through one, was the way to go.

“Initiate,” he began, “I’d like to ask you something, if you don’t mind.”

She stared up at him with suspicion in her brilliant green eyes, but she took a few steps closer to him on the rooftop.

“What is it, Danse?” she asked.

He ignored her casual drop of his rank. He had bigger issues to deal with. Now, he just needed to broach the subject gently, ease her into a casual conversation...

“Why do you always charge in headlong when you are entering a combat situation?” he blurted. “I’ve tried so hard to teach you how to use your surroundings, how to win a battle in your head before you even begin fighting. But you seem to disregard everything I say.”

She bit her lower lip, her eyes dropping to the courtyard in front of her.

“I’m sorry, Paladin,” she replied softly after a long moment. “I really don’t mean to cause you trouble. I just can’t help myself when something awful is happening and I know I can do something about it.”

She was already putting up walls. Danse had to fix this, and soon, or the whole mission was a bust. He thought for a moment, trying to find the right words to say what he needed to say.

“If you know it’s a problem,” he asked as gently as he could manage, “why don’t you try to fix it?”

Larimer bit her lower lip anxiously as her hand traced the markings on his…no, her laser rifle, the name he’d carved on its stock when he’d built it. How many times had he used the same gesture to ease his mind and calm his thoughts before battle? Was that how she saw this exchange?

“Why do you care, anyway?” she snipped. “I get the job done.”

“That doesn’t matter if you get yourself killed!” he exclaimed. “How can you help anyone if you’re dead? You take too many risks.”

“What I do with my stupid, fucked up life is my business, Danse.”

“Yes, but you agreed to serve under my command. That means it’s my business as well. And I am not about to watch one of my soldiers die just because she refuses to take basic precautions.”

“I’m wearing this stupid leather armor, aren’t I?”

“Larimer,” he replied, his eyes meeting hers, “I’m not trying to reprimand you. I just want to help you. If something’s wrong, I want you to be able to talk to me about it. It’s part of my job as your commanding officer to be there when you need me.”

Larimer laughed bitterly. “Right, because you can totally help me with what’s wrong. Sorry, Paladin, but I think my issues are above your paygrade.”

“Try me,” Danse retorted. “I promise not to judge.”

“I’m like this because…because I don’t know how to do it by myself, ok? As long as I can remember, I’ve always had someone with a cooler head nearby to keep me grounded. My family, Nate...my husband...well, Nate was the best impulse decision I ever made, and he kept me from making a lot of other ones. And now they’re all gone, and I’ve got no one watching my back, and I can’t…I can’t...”

She trailed off, her voice shaking. Obviously, the trauma of waking up 200 years in the future had done quite a number on the Initiate. Danse couldn’t begin to imagine what she had gone through, waking up to find her entire world gone. It was hard enough losing his best friend, his mentor, members of his squad. How would he cope if everything he knew was suddenly stripped away from him?

“You’re wrong,” he managed, looking anywhere but at her. Her gaze, once hard and defiant, was too intense, too vulnerable after her confession. If he returned it, he might see more than he wanted to. He couldn’t afford to get sentimental.

“What am I wrong about?” she muttered dejectedly.

“That you’ve got no one watching your back. I’m here, aren’t I?”

“But you don’t even like me!”

He stared at her in shock, his nervousness about meeting her gaze all but forgotten at the absurdity of her statement. Was that really her concern, whether or not he liked her? How ridiculous.

“That’s…”

Larimer snorted in derision. “Don’t. I know I drive you nuts, Danse, I can see it on your face, even now.”

He sighed, shaking his head as he tried to finish his thought.

“Listen to me,” he barked in a commanding voice. “Whether or not I like you is irrelevant. I don’t have to like you to fight by your side, Initiate. You’re one of my soldiers now, and that means that I will gladly do all I can to train you into the strong, disciplined warrior I know you can be. But I can’t do that if you refuse to trust me.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, her brilliant emerald eyes fixed on his deep brown ones. For what felt like an eternity, neither of them spoke, each of them analyzing the other. Danse could feel the pit of his stomach twist as he felt her gaze bore to the heart of him, plumbing depths he tried to keep locked down. It was invasive, unsettling, like everything he was being laid bare. There was only one other person in his life who had that kind of effect on him, and even Maxson’s intense glare seemed easier to endure than Larimer’s gentle, probing gaze in that moment.

Danse was not the sort of man to easily surrender, however. He took the Brotherhood motto, “Ad Victoriam,” to heart. He would always press on to victory, and this contest of wills was no exception. He returned her look pointedly, studying her eyes and the secrets that he knew must lie beyond them. He could see the pain and heartache in her eyes, scars of loss that he knew must be echoed in his own. There was a quiet, defiant rage that burned just beyond, that spark of will he’d hoped to find there.

He knew from personal experience that pain and anger, if trained properly, could be the fuel for true and genuine strength. The secret was ensuring that the darker sides of these emotions were properly tamed. If one failed to control their heartache, their need to destroy, it could very easily tear them apart. A certain defiant strength of will was necessary to prevent this, and from his interactions with Larimer, Danse believed that she might possess that trait.

Everything he saw reaffirmed his belief that Larimer could be a great soldier. Possibly even one of the best, if he could just figure out how to get through to her, to convince her to learn, to adapt to the Brotherhood way.

Larimer was the first to look away, a faint blush rising on her pale, freckled cheeks as she bit her lower lip anxiously.

“How about this?” she asked finally. “I’ll try to be less of a pain in your ass if you agree to cut me just the tiniest bit of slack every once in a while, ok? I may have married a soldier, but I sure as hell am not one.”

“Yet.”

“Yet,” she agreed. “Well, Paladin?”

He thought for a moment before replying. “Very well. But I hope you’ll at least try to refrain from getting us both killed. And stick by me. You shouldn’t run off on your own all the time. That’s how good soldiers become dead soldiers.”

“Is that why you didn’t want to leave Rhys and Haylen alone when I asked you to come to Diamond City with me yesterday?” she asked.

He nodded slightly, and she smiled back at him, her eyes suddenly warm.

“I understand,” she continued. “Perhaps, if you don’t mind, I could leave tomorrow, head on to Diamond City by myself.”

Danse sighed. What had he just said? Did she have any idea how dangerous it was to be out on her own like that? He had to remind himself that she’d been alone when he met her just over a week prior, had been on her own for who knew how long. Perhaps, just this once, he could let her bend the rules.

“I’d prefer it if you’d stay here with the rest of the team,” he replied, “but if you must, I won’t stop you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Perhaps Initiate Larimer was willing to adapt after all. If he could reason with her, he could train her, could help her reach that potential he believed she possessed. And he had just the thing to start with.

“Initiate, if you don’t mind, I need to go below for a moment. I’ll return promptly.”

“Already eager to get away from me, huh, Danse?” she replied with an impish grin, the vulnerability she’d allowed him to see already concealed again.

He sighed heavily, hoping his eyes conveyed his displeasure at her tone. “Just...Just don’t blow up anything before I get back,” he muttered impatiently. “Is that clear?”

“If God didn’t want me to blow things up,” she chirped playfully, digging around in her pack, “why did he give me so many grenades?”

He didn’t dignify her question, instead turning on his heels and walking steadily down the narrow stairs of the police station to his temporary quarters. If she wanted to get a rise out of him, she was going to have to try much harder than that.

Danse knelt by his footlocker, extracting a worn chessboard and a few handfuls of bullets in different calibers. He missed his chess set, he reflected as he counted out the appropriate numbers of each caliber. Hell, he missed his quarters. As hard as it was for him to sleep in general, it was so much harder to rest out in the Commonwealth without the noise from the engines humming beyond the walls like a mechanical lullaby. But most of all, he missed having someone he could confide in.

He wondered how Arthur was getting on without him. His friend had grown into a fine leader, strong and confident, but the quiet squire he’d first met when he joined the Brotherhood still peered nervously out of those steely eyes when he was in private. Danse had spent almost a decade by his side, doing his best to support the young man who bore the weight of such a tremendous legacy on his shoulders.

Before Danse had been assigned to scout the Commonwealth, they had rarely spent more than a month away from each other. Now, it had been the better part of half a year. He wondered if Arthur missed him as much as he missed the young Elder.

Not that it would matter much either way. Either the bulk of the Brotherhood’s forces would arrive soon and he’d be reunited with his friend, or Recon Squad Gladius would be wiped out before that happened. Sentimentality would only lead to the increased likelihood of the latter option. Danse needed to think about the task before him, and that was all.

He looked down at his collection of bullets and shells and nodded to himself, pleased. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. If Larimer refused to learn tactics the traditional way, perhaps he could trick her into learning them. Besides, he was itching for a match.

A slight smile spread across his rugged face as he closed his footlocker. Larimer didn’t know who she was dealing with. One way or another, she’d become the soldier she was born to be.

When Danse returned to the rooftop, Larimer was sitting on the edge of the concrete roof, staring out across the courtyard of the police station. Her eyes scanned a distance beyond the farthest ruined skyscrapers, as though watching for some sign to pierce the starry sky.

Danse wasn’t particularly stealthy in his power armor, one of the few disadvantages to the suit, in his opinion. Yet Larimer hardly seemed to notice as he sat down beside her, heaving himself down on the roof’s edge with a clang and a sigh.

She didn’t acknowledge him for so long that he’d honestly thought she’d fallen asleep with her eyes open. No matter. His new Initiate was still not used to their sleep cycles, and, from what Haylen had told him, was a loud and restless sleeper when she did attempt to bunk down. She would adjust to their watch cycle in time. They all did.

The night terrors would be a more difficult matter to resolve, but it wasn’t as if he didn’t have personal experience with that problem. There was a reason he frequently took the more difficult watches at night, and it wasn’t just to be kind to his fellow soldiers. If he wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyway, he might as well let someone rest who would actually benefit from it.

As Larimer’s eyes continued gazing beyond the horizon, Danse took the opportunity to study her face in closer detail. When they had first met, many of her features had been obscured in blood spatter and ash, and he wasn’t exactly the kind of man who could be caught staring at someone under his command, even if it was merely fueled by curiosity.

Larimer’s hard, fierce eyes that he knew so well by now were a hard juxtaposition to her soft features, which seemed to glow and shift in the firelight as shadows danced across them. She had high cheekbones, obscured by fleshy cheeks that gave her an almost impish look in the half-light, a scattering of freckles encircling her thin but noble nose.

She reminded him of a shrike, one of the birds of prey whose pictures adorned that old field guide Arthur had once let him borrow, a present from the West Coast Elders. He’d always found the species fascinating, if deceptive.

The shrike was a simple-looking bird, songbird-like in its build and mannerisms, with only its hooked beak and tiny talons betraying its true, predatory nature. It would use its mundane appearance to lure weaker birds, lizards, and rodents into underestimating it, seeing it as no threat to them. But it was a vicious hunter, and was known for impaling its victims on thorns to eat later.

He supposed that quiet viciousness he saw in her was what made him recruit her in the first place. Yes, she was a vault dweller, and before that, a housewife. Hardly the most dangerous fighter in the Commonwealth. But underneath, he knew there was a fierce warrior just waiting to be unleashed. Larimer’s enemies would underestimate her at every turn, and she would utterly destroy them. All she needed was the discipline and training to use her gifts, and Danse was more than willing to teach her.

Of course, first he had to keep her alive.

“Like what you see, Danse?” Larimer mused, her intelligent eyes flitting over to meet his.

He felt a slight heat kiss his ears as he looked away from her quickly. How long had he been staring?

“I didn’t want to disturb your reflections, Initiate. I apologise.”

“That’s ok. I wasn’t thinking about anything important anyway. Just trying to remember how mint chocolate chip ice cream tastes.”

One of those pre-war treats. He’d heard of it.

“I’d assume it tastes like mint,” he mused. “And chocolate, if I’m not mistaken.”

She chuckled slightly at his observation. “You’re a real comedian, you know that, Danse?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Her gaze turned to the object in his hands, and her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Seriously?” she asked. “Is that a chess set?”

He nodded. “It is. Do you play?”

“Checkers was always more my game of choice,” she replied, grinning. “Similar concept, way less involved rules. But yes, I’ve played before.”

“Well, then, you’re at least familiar with the basics,” he said simply.

“I was, like 200 years ago. It’s safe to say I might need a refresher.”

He set the board down between them, placing the bullets he’d gathered on either side of the square plank of faded wood.

“We obviously have to make due with the materials we have, so you can use this game to learn your bullet calibers as well. Now, we’ll use these shotgun shells as our kings,” he added, placing them in their appropriate squares.

“I know what a shotgun shell is, Danse.”

He pointedly ignored her, continuing to set up the board.

“We’ll use .50 calibers for the queens, .308s for the bishops, .45s for the knights, .44s for the rooks, and your beloved 10mm rounds as pawns.”

“But they’re all the same color,” she pointed out. “How will we tell whose pieces are whose?”

Danse extracted a small pot of orange paint and a fine brush from his pack. He didn’t want to waste the paint on something trivial, since he’d only been able to find a few pots of the stuff since arriving in the Commonwealth, but Larimer was right. Once they started playing, it would be impossible to tell the pieces from each other. At least the paint was thin, and wouldn’t affect the ammunition too much if they had to use it later.

“I use this to touch up the paint on my armor,” he told her, popping the plastic bottle open. “It dries pretty quickly, so if we apply it to one set of pieces, the first ones should be dry by the time we’ve finished.”

Larimer took the paint from him, a faint and mysterious smile on her face. He wondered what was so interesting about a little container of paint.

“I know this brand,” she said, smirking at him. “Danse, is this hobby paint?”

His eyes narrowed in confusion.

“I don’t know what that is. Something from before the War?”

She smirked. “Oh, Danse, if you only knew. Nate, my husband had tons of this stuff, in all different colors. Honestly, I’m amazed it hasn’t dried out by now.”

Danse wanted to know more about this “hobby paint,” but he decided not to pursue this line of questioning for the time being. Right now, he had one thing on his mind, and that was getting the board ready so they could play. True to his word, the bullets on his side of the board were soon marked and dry enough to touch.

“Now, you’re black, which means I’ll go first,” he mused, moving one of his pawns towards her side of the board.

She retaliated almost immediately with a pawn of her own, and the match began.

It wasn’t the worst chess match he’d ever played. That dubious honor belonged to Aspirant Reinhardt a few years back, who’d managed to lose the game by default when he knocked his own king through a crack in the floorboards, losing it forever. It had taken Danse almost three months to replace that piece, and he was still angry about it. It wasn’t the only reason why he’d kept advising Maxson not to promote the young man, but it certainly had contributed to his negative assessment of the Aspirant’s abilities.

It was an admittedly low bar, and Initiate Larimer managed to ease just above it. As she was in real combat, her movements were sloppy, impulsive, and imprecise. She sacrificed pieces unnecessarily, giving him the advantage so often that he would have found it insulting if there was any indication that her moves were deliberate. Within the span of fifteen minutes, most of that time eaten up by him planning his moves, it was all over.

“Checkmate,” he said blankly, trying and failing to hide his disappointment.

“I swear, Danse, I’m going to win next time,” Larimer exclaimed in frustration. It was obvious that she didn’t like to lose.

“Are you certain about that?” he asked bluntly. “If your skills this match are anything to go by, I think it’s safe to say that you have your work cut out for you.”

“Absolutely,” she shot back. “If not next time, I’ll beat you eventually. And when I do, I’m going to make you regret not believing in me.”

He sighed, carefully collecting the ammunition from the board. “If that’s what it takes to motivate you to actually try, fine.”

“Then let’s bet on it. We’ll play as many matches as you want for, say, the next year. If I don’t manage to win any of them, I promise to never question you again.”

“And if you win a match?”

“Then you’re going to have to do anything I tell you to for a whole day.”

“For winning a single match in a year?” Danse retorted. “That’s unacceptable.”

“Fine. Then I’ll just make you take off your power armor.”

He stared at her in confusion. What was this woman’s problem? Why on earth would she consider that a reward?

“Very well,” he sighed. “But I will raise the stakes on my end to compensate. For every match you lose, you will have to cook one meal for our squad.”

“Enjoyed tonight’s dinner, did you?” she asked, smirking at him.

He had, but that was hardly the point.

“Just utilizing your skills to our advantage, soldier. It is my job as the commanding officer of this unit to use every strength of every soldier to the benefit of the others. As you yourself said, you were a housewife, which makes you the best cook in our unit by far.”

“Don’t let Haylen hear you say that.”

“Actually, Rhys was the one who made most of our meals before you arrived. I think we’re all grateful to have you, if only for a reprieve from Cram Surprise.”

“What was the surprise, exactly?” Larimer asked.

He smiled slightly. “More Cram.”

“Oh, that’s unfortunate,” she chuckled. Larimer stuck out her hand for him to shake. “Okay, you’re on, Paladin. Hope you’ve got something nice on under that hulking metal suit.”

He returned her handshake firmly. “As if you will ever see it, Initiate. Now I’d better take this board back downstairs.”

She nodded. “Do you need help?”

“Negative. One of us needs to remain on watch. I’ll be back in a moment.”

The one problem with sitting in power armor was getting back up, but their spot on the edge of the roof made it surprisingly easy. Danse gathered the board and ammunition before pushing himself off of the ledge, landing on the courtyard below with a bang that he was sure would startle Rhys and Haylen. No matter. He could just tell them that he’d been testing the shocks in his leg armor for wear again. They’d never question it.

They spent the rest of their watch in relative silence, scanning the area for hostiles and listening for suspicious noises in the night. However, the air seemed lighter, somehow, than it had been, as if a storm that had been bearing down on them had changed direction, the pressure fading like mist in the morning light.

 


 

The next morning, Danse put the finishing touches on his report on Larimer. After their discussion the night before, he realized, he needed to add something.

...In conclusion, I believe that Initiate Larimer will be an excellent addition to the Brotherhood of Steel, and I would like to formally request that I be allowed to oversee her sponsorship. With how well Larimer and I have been working together, I believe that I would be the ideal candidate.

Outstanding. He could submit his reports when the Prydwen arrived, and then it was all up to Elder Maxson. He hoped that his old friend would honor his request. After all, Danse had rarely asked him for anything before.

After he shut down the monitor once more, Danse paced the area behind the reception desk, his mind racing. He couldn’t believe he’d agreed to let Larimer go off on her own. He was her commanding officer now. He could have easily ordered her to stay put. So why had he allowed her to leave so easily?

“She’ll be fine, Top. She got here alive, after all,” muttered Knight Rhys, his eyes narrowing as Initiate Larimer appeared behind him.

“Aww, is Danse worried about me?” she asked, grinning. “That’s kind of sweet.”

“That’s Paladin Danse to you, Initiate,” growled the knight, his face ablaze with fury. “I won’t tolerate you disrespecting our commanding officer. Do you understand?”

She rolled her eyes, but nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Rhys huffed in displeasure before storming back to the side office he’d claimed as his own. Danse knew the young man was volatile, but he really wished that Larimer would at least try not to irritate him. Basic decorum really shouldn’t have been too much to ask.

“Do you have everything you need, soldier?” Danse asked her.

“Yes, sir,” Larimer replied. I even packed the extra fusion cells I found outside my door this morning. I assume those were from you.”

He nodded slightly, doing his best to ignore the pointed look Haylen was giving him. He knew they were rationing ammunition, but they had a fairly secure base. Larimer was going out alone, with no backup. It was only logical that she would need the ammo more.

“Outstanding!” he exclaimed. “I just wish I had a spare man to send with you, Initiate. I’d feel far less concerned if I knew you weren’t travelling alone.”

“You could go with her, sir,” managed Haylen, a slight blush darkening her cheeks. “We’re more than capable of holding this position ourselves for the time being. And besides, if we can’t help one woman find her kidnapped child, do we even have any hope of protecting the Commonwealth?”

He turned to his newest team member, his mind reeling. Kidnapped child?

“What is she talking about, soldier?” he asked Larimer, who seemed to melt under his gaze.

Haylen gasped. “You haven’t told him?”

The taller woman shook her head, brushing a rebellious strand of white hair behind one ear.

“Look, Danse,” she stammered, “I...Before I got your distress call, I was looking for someone who could help me find my son. My baby boy, Shaun. He’s less than a year old.”

“Is that why you are so determined to go to Diamond City?”

She nodded. “I was told that there might be someone there who could help me find him.”

“Why didn’t you inform me of this sooner, Larimer?” Danse asked angrily. “I would have...”

That changed everything. No wonder she had been behaving so erratically. He had thought that it was simply grief over her late husband, her lost world. But if her son was out there, alone, held captive by some unknown person, well, could anyone blame her for behaving as desperately as she did?

His eyes misted slightly as he thought about what his own parents may have been like. Were they like Larimer, determined to protect their child at all costs? He hoped that his own mother had possessed My-Larimer’s tenacity, had fought for him until the end. He feared that his parents had instead given him up willingly to the streets. At least Larimer’s son was wanted, even if he was lost.

As he shook away the thought, Larimer stared up at him with cloudy eyes, her hands nervously clasped together.

“I… I’m sorry, Paladin,” she murmured, crestfallen.

And now she thought he was disappointed in her. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was proud of her resilience, her dedication to her family. How could he be upset with her, knowing what she was going through?

He placed a hand gently on her shoulder before turning towards Rhys’ door. “Knight!” he barked. “Can you come out here for a moment?”

Rhys strode back into the room, avoiding eye contact with Larimer. “What is it, sir?”

“Knight Rhys, I’m leaving you in charge of this outpost. If anything goes wrong, you or Haylen are to radio me immediately, understood?”

“Yes, sir!”

Danse turned back to Larimer. “If we leave now, we can be in Diamond City by the time the market opens tomorrow. It’s as good a place as any to look for information.”

Larimer stared at him, her mouth agape. “You mean you’re coming with me?”

“I’ll escort you at least as far as Diamond City. I told you yesterday that I would watch your back, correct?”

“Well, yes,” she replied nervously, “but this is my own personal problem, sir. I’d never ask you to…”

“Then it’s a good thing you didn’t think to ask me, soldier,” he glowered. “In case yet another of my lessons has failed to penetrate that thick skull of yours, I will remind you. You’re a member of the Brotherhood of Steel now. You are part of our family, and I will gladly do all I can for one of my brothers or sisters.”

He leaned down, whispering in her ear. “Besides, we will be doing Knight Rhys a favor, giving him a temporary command. He might finally get himself a promotion.”

She nodded, struggling to keep a straight face.

“Well, Danse, It’d be nice to have backup,” she replied. “Just as long as you honor our agreement.”

He tried to ignore the look Rhys and Haylen passed each other as he gathered his belongings. He didn’t want to even think about how they might interpret Larimer’s words.

“Affirmative,” he commanded. “Let’s move out.”

“Ad Victoriam!” cried Haylen and Rhys.

“Ad Victoriam!” Danse and Larimer echoed as they left the station, heading south towards the best lead they had to find the Initiate’s missing son.

Chapter Text

The journey from Cambridge into the resurrected remains of downtown Boston was a long one, even though they appeared fairly close together on Larimer’s map. The natural hazards of the post-apocalyptic world ensured that even a simple trek across the river was a difficult task. There were only a few bridges that had survived the nuclear hellfire that had forever scarred the Commonwealth’s landscape, and the local waterways were so contaminated with radiation that swimming from bank to bank was not a viable option.

Had Danse chosen to, of course, he could have worn his helmet and walked across the riverbed from one side to the other, as his complete suit of power armor was airtight. But the thought made him shudder. He knew what water did to power armor, and he was not prepared for the hours of deep-cleaning it would take to undo that kind of corrosion. Besides, Larimer did not have a suit of power armor with her, and there was no point in abandoning her to fend for herself.

The safest route took them west of Diamond City across a relatively narrow part of the Charles River, so the pair ventured through the labyrinthine streets of southwestern Cambridge, battling feral ghouls and small bands of raiders along the way. Fortunately, they had cleared out quite a few hostiles from the area in the weeks prior, so it was not as slow going as Danse had anticipated. He was pleased to note that they’d arrived at the bridge far earlier than he’d hoped. At this rate, they would enter the heart of the city in no time.

Larimer began to walk across the concrete bridge, but Danse grabbed her arm, holding her back. “Careful, soldier,” he admonished. “Look at the way those cars are arranged, obscuring our sightlines. I’m willing to bet that there are traps all over this bridge. We need to take it slow, and keep our eyes open for mines or tripwires.”

Larimer nodded. “You’re right. I’ll take point, since I’m more agile.”

She started forward again, this time making sure to check her feet and surroundings as she slowly maneuvered her way through the wreckage. Danse followed behind her at a safe distance, far enough to avoid any detonations she might trigger but close enough that he could provide additional visual support.

As they often were, his instincts were on point. The bridge was littered with fragmentation mines, presumably left by settlers to defend themselves from Cambridge’s feral ghoul population should the abominations decide to cross the river. Larimer deftly avoided most of these traps, and was almost to the other side when a shrill beeping pierced the air. She turned to look at Danse in horror.

“Move, Larimer!” he yelled, his heart in his throat. “Run!”

She shook her head, instead dropping prone on the bridge, fiddling with the active mine in front of her. After what felt like an eternity, he heard a small click, and watched as she held the mine aloft, waving it at him.

“Got it!” she exclaimed. “Just like turning off a smoke alarm.”

Danse cleared his throat as he came up beside Larimer, helping her to her feet.

“Damn, it, soldier!” he muttered, “I told you to run. That was extraordinarily dangerous. What if you had failed to disarm that mine?”

She stared up at him, the cold December wind off the river playing through the loose strands of her silvery hair. Her eyes were still wide with fear, her skin paler than he’d ever seen it.

“What did you expect me to do, Danse?” she whispered almost reverently. “If that mine had gone off, it would have triggered all the others, and I counted at least a dozen on my way across. Power armor or no power armor, that explosion could have killed you. I couldn’t let you get hurt.”

“That is a risk I take every morning when I get out of bed, Larimer,” he replied. “Just like you. It was foolish of you to risk your life for mine.” Danse paused for a moment, waiting for her eyes to meet his. “But it was also incredibly brave. Thank you.”

“Any time, Paladin,” she replied, a faint smile playing about her lips.

“Hopefully not. I’d prefer it if we could both avoid getting nearly blown up in the future.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” she retorted, her grin wider now, more mischievous.

Danse sighed heavily before continuing across the last few feet of bridge to the safety of the bank beyond. Even after their discussion the night before, Larimer was still Larimer. At least she was feeling better.

The pair continued without further incident until they arrived at a small settlement based out of an old train station. There was little there save for a small tato farm and a handful of settlers, but Larimer seemed to have a keen interest in the site.

“Danse! I think this is Oberland Station! I need to stop here.”

He gave her an odd look. What could the Initiate possibly need to do at such a small, impoverished settlement? Still, he followed her as she strode up to one of the civilians, a dirt-encrusted young woman with dead eyes and a somber frown.

“Is this Oberland? I heard you folks needed help,” Larimer said with a lazy drawl Danse had never heard from her before.

“Oh, thank God,” the woman replied. “We didn’t think anyone was going to come! There’s a big nest of feral ghouls nearby. They haven’t been much of a problem yet, but we’d feel much better if someone cleared them out for us.”

Larimer smiled warmly. “Not to worry. Those ghouls are as good as dead.”

After the settler thanked her and returned her attention to the tatos she was cultivating, Danse pulled Larimer aside.

“Do we really have time to help these people, soldier?” he asked. “And why are you talking in that absurd accent?”

“First of all, it’s not absurd. It’s just a more casual way of speaking. I find it works wonders to set people at ease if they think they’re smarter than you. I used the same technique back when I was a lawyer to convince witnesses to tell me all sorts of things.”

Danse didn’t know what a lawyer was, but he didn’t feel like asking was going to help him understand. “That’s all well and good, Initiate,” he continued, “but my first question stands. Do we have time to clear out a horde of ghouls right now?”

She smirked at him. “Are you telling me that the Brotherhood of Steel doesn’t have time to exterminate some, how have you put it, ‘godless heathens’? Who are you and what have you done with Paladin Danse?”

“I’m simply suggesting that finding your son is our priority.”

Larimer gestured to the settlers laboring in the fenced-off field. “That’s true, Danse. But look at these people. They’re terrified. If we don’t help them, who will?”

Danse sighed. Larimer was right, of course. Normally, he’d be the first to suggest that they help the settlers, not just to sow good will for the Brotherhood in the hearts and minds of the Commonwealth, but also because it was simply the right thing to do. However, there was something in Larimer’s desire to assist these particular people that didn’t sit right with him. She wasn’t telling him everything, he was sure of it. Why would a mother, supposedly desperate to find her child, take so much extra time to help others?

That particular question had dogged him since he’d found out about her son’s kidnapping. Before, Danse hadn’t questioned why Larimer had decided to remain at the Police Station and join the recon team. She was eager to help, and she was competent, so he was glad to have her. Yet, knowing that her child was missing, Danse couldn’t help but feel like something in her behavior was off. Why would someone in her position waste more than a week helping a team of people she didn’t even know?

“That bleeding heart of yours is going to get you killed someday,” he muttered.

“Don’t forget that my bleeding heart is one of the reasons you’re alive right now,” Larimer retorted. “And don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing in my position. I’m like, 80 percent sure there’s a big softie under all that armor.”

Danse analyzed her reply carefully. She was doing nothing except dodging his questions, offering no defense except an appeal to his better nature. It left him conflicted, and more than a little hurt. He was proud of Larimer for being the sort of person who would stand up for anyone who needed her help, but he just couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t being completely honest with him. There was nothing that bothered Danse more than being lied to.

Still, they were wasting time, and if he couldn’t get Larimer to be honest with him, he could at least help her do right by the civilians she’d agreed to protect. Perhaps if they completed this task quickly enough, the delay would not set them back too far. They might still reach Diamond City before dark.

“So where are these feral ghouls?” he asked.

“Over at Fiddler’s Green. I know it’s a bit out of our way…”

“A bit?” he retorted. “Larimer, Fiddler’s Green is west of here. We’re headed east. Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Positive, Danse. Don’t worry. We’ll be back on the road before you know it.”

 


 

When they returned to Oberland, the sun had already set. The ghouls had not put up much resistance, but neither of them had counted on the three radscorpions they’d stumbled upon on their way back.

“You don’t have to worry about those ghouls any more,” rasped a slightly-poisoned Larimer to the settler who’d given her the mission as she wiped a grime-covered hand across her brow.

“That’s great news!” exclaimed the young woman. “Thank you! If there’s anything we can do…”

“Well, do you mind if we camp here tonight?” asked Larimer. “We’ll head off in the morning, I promise.”

“Of course! Of course! Here, come sit by the fire! You two must be freezing!”

Larimer eased herself down on the ground by the firepit, her legs crossed, and held her hands towards the flames to warm them. Danse, not wanting to go through the struggle of standing back up, stood nearby in his power armor, watching carefully as the Initiate made small talk with the young woman and a few of the other settlers.

He was glad that they’d taken the time to help this settlement. The relief on the faces of the handful of people who lived at Oberland was palpable. They had been afraid for so long, but now, because of Larimer, they had hope again. That was an incredible gift she’d given these settlers, and he was honored to have been involved. At the same time, however, his unease from the morning had continued to gnaw at him. Something was wrong. Where was Larimer’s sense of urgency?

His concern about Larimer’s behavior was compounded by his own growing dread about having left Rhys and Haylen behind. The longer Danse was gone, the more risk there was to the rest of his squad. What if the station was attacked, and neither of them were able to contact him? He should have insisted that Haylen check in every few hours, instead of the standard twelve.

“I think we should head out, soldier,” Danse said to Larimer softly. “We’re wasting too much time.”

“What are you talking about?” Larimer replied. “We can’t travel at night. It’s too dangerous. We can leave in the morning, can’t we?”

“What about your son? Can he really wait that long?”

She sighed. “If I thought that us pressing on to Diamond City tonight would really help us, Danse, I’d already be on my way there. But it’s been two months since I woke up, and I don’t know how long I was asleep before that. It might have been months between when those bastards took Shaun and when I left the vault. Any leads there were are cold by now. We can afford to wait a few more hours until it’s safer to travel.”

“Two months?” Danse asked, his eyes wide. He’d never considered that she’d been in the Commonwealth for longer than a few weeks. With her impulsiveness and distaste for armor, it was hard to believe she’d managed to survive that long. Not without help.

“Yeah. I was laid up for a lot of the first month with injuries, so I wasn’t able to really begin looking for Shaun until last month. Then, well...then I met you, and you needed my help, so I stayed a bit longer than I meant to.”

That explanation still didn’t satisfy him, but he knew her well enough by now to realize that it was the best explanation he was likely to get. He knew for certain now that she was hiding something, but he had to trust that whatever it was, she’d tell him when she was ready. For now, he decided to keep his promise and cut her some slack.

“Very well,” he said. “I suppose we can wait until morning. But then, we really should get going. Try to get some rest. From what I’ve heard, the road to Diamond City is fairly treacherous.”

“Will do. Good night, Paladin.”

“Good night, soldier,” he replied before walking into the darkness to patrol the settlement’s perimeter.

As the night wore on, Danse paced around the small settlement, his mind not allowing him any rest. He had a hard enough time sleeping, but the problem was substantially worse when he was on the road, especially in a settlement like this. The perimeter of the small farm was completely unsecured, and there was only the tower of the old train station to provide any real shelter. Larimer had bunked down in her sleeping bag next to the fire, completely exposed to the elements and any hostiles that might ambush their location. He almost envied her ability to ignore the obvious danger of remaining at Oberland overnight. Almost.

Given the lack of any real protection, they were almost better off travelling through the night after all. At least then they had a chance of reaching Diamond City sooner, of hopefully finding out what had happened to Larimer’s son. How could she rest easy, knowing that answers could be only half a day’s walk away?

Danse returned to Larimer’s slumbering form to find that he had perhaps overestimated how easily she was resting. Yes, the Initiate was asleep, but as he drew closer, he realized that she was muttering to herself and thrashing in her sleeping bag.

“Nate…” she murmured, “Where am I...so cold… I can’t… no. No, no! Stop! Not my...no!”

Her moans turned to frantic cries as she tried to kick her way free, her movements restricted by her sleeping bag. The tight grip of the insulated fabric only seemed to panic her more. Her breathing quickened to shallow gasps as she flailed, and Danse was worried that she would roll into the fire if she didn’t calm down. He had to do something.

Danse quickly unzipped her sleeping bag and freed her as fast as he could, scooping her into his arms before dragging her bedroll a few feet away from the fire. It wasn’t ideal, but he could at least prevent her from hurting herself.

“You bastards!” she wailed, her freed arms smacking aggressively against his torso plate as he carried her to a safe distance. “Give him back!”

“Shh, shh,” Danse soothed, doing his best to calm her. “It’s ok, soldier. You’re just having a bad dream. None of it is real. You’re completely safe.”

Larimer muttered something unintelligible as he laid her sleeping bag back down and gently placed her on top of it. Then he unrolled his own bedroll, opening it up and spreading it on top of her restless form like a blanket. Perhaps having fewer restrictions on her limb movement would help her sleep more peacefully. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was going to get any rest tonight.

Gradually, her breathing slowed, and as he withdrew from her, she smiled gently in her sleep, one hand snaking out from under the makeshift blanket to capture his own. Danse froze at the contact, trying to decide if he should pry her fingers free or just remain where he was. Eventually, as her breathing continued to deepen and she faded into a more restful sleep, her grip relaxed and her arm dropped to the ground, rendering his dilemma irrelevant. He tucked her arm back under the blanket before he continued his rounds, making a mental note to check in on her more frequently when they were on the road. For now, at least, Larimer was at peace.

 


 

“Ready to go?” Danse asked as the morning light filtered through the skeletal trees that surrounded Oberland.

“Almost,” replied Larimer, yawning groggily. She looked him over appraisingly as she finished off her cup of coffee.

Oberland Station was a poor settlement in many ways, but their scavvers had managed to obtain several tins of the pre-war beverage, which had greatly warmed Larimer’s spirits. She insisted that it tasted better before the War, but was still grateful when the settlers had gifted her with a tin as payment for killing the nearby ferals.

Danse had tried a cup, but the bitter, metallic flavor was not particularly palatable to him. Larimer told him that it was an acquired taste, but he wasn’t sure it was one he wanted to acquire.

“Did you sleep at all?” she asked him. “No offense, but you look like shit.”

He sighed. “I’m just fine, soldier. Give me an hour on the road, and I’ll be completely alert.”

“If you say so. But please, if you need to rest, just let me know.”

He was about to reply when an elderly man, one of the settlers they’d met the night before, gestured to them from his mattress under the stairs.

“Excuse me, soldiers?” rasped the old man, his weakened body quaking with effort as he waved them over.

“What is it?” asked Larimer, smiling sweetly down towards the man.

“If it’s not too much trouble, could you…could you deliver this letter for me?” he asked, holding an envelope out to her with a shaking hand as he coughed into the other, leaving the telltale stain of blood behind. “I’m not sure I’ll make it to the next caravan, and I want to make sure it gets to my boy.”

“Your boy?” asked Larimer, instantly invested. “What’s his name?”

“Finn. He lives…” the man’s coughs intensified, wet and deep. “He lives in Goodneighbor, last I heard. Haven’t spoken to him in years. But he…I want him to know I still love him...that I forgive him.”

“I think we can manage that. Danse, how far is Goodneighbor from here?”

“Goodneighbor is on the other side of Diamond City,” Danse replied. “I recommend we stop there after we find your son.”

“But, Danse, won’t it be too late by then? Look at the state he’s in. No, my problems can wait. If there’s a chance he can see his son again before he dies, we have to help him. It’s the right thing to do.”

“Larimer…”

Her emerald eyes bored into his soul, entreating him. Danse sighed resignedly.

“Very well. But we cannot keep neglecting our mission like this. Just this one errand, and then we are going to Diamond City, finding your son, and returning to base.”

“Thank you, Danse! You won’t regret it!”

He already regretted it, but what else could he do? If she only knew how much power she held in her gaze, the woman would be unstoppable.

 

 


 

 

The moment they arrived in Goodneighbor, Danse was ready to leave. Corruption clung to the town like cigar smoke, thick and nauseating. Even the buildings seemed to steam like bloated corpses in the brisk December air as fog caught the light from garish neon signs, their muted colors casting strange putrefying illusions against the grey winter sky.

Every person who passed by gave the pair an appraising look, as though they were deciding how much the newcomers’ lives and belongings were worth. Danse tried to avoid eye contact, mentally checking that he was prepared for battle should anyone start something.

The most unsettling of the onlookers was a man who leaned lazily against the side of the general goods store, trying to look inconspicuous as he watched Larimer from behind dark sunglasses. Something in the way the man looked at her set Danse on edge, and he pulled the Initiate back towards the town gates.

“I know we agreed to help that old man, but I don’t think we should stay here,” he whispered, glancing around furtively. Heaven help the drifter who tried to sneak up behind him and remove his fusion core. He wasn’t ever going to let that happen...at least not again.

“What are you talking about, Danse?” Larimer replied. “I get that this place is sketchy, but we can’t leave without trying to find Finn. Don’t worry. I won’t let anyone steal your wallet.”

“That’s not exactly what I’m concerned about,” he muttered, but he conceded, allowing her to steer him back towards the market.

As the pair continued into town, a young man in a leather jacket approached them, his eyes calculating, snake-like, as he neared their position. Danse pushed Larimer behind him, ignoring her squeak of protest as he glared at the stranger.

“First time in Goodneighbor?” the man crooned, shooting them an evil grin, “Can’t go walking around without insurance.”

“Really, civilian?” Danse warned. “You’re going to try to extort a Paladin of the Brotherhood of Steel? I think you might want to reconsider.”

The man didn’t reply, instead flicking his tongue lazily across his top teeth as he cracked his knuckles. Danse huffed in annoyance, stepping closer to the street punk. In his power armor, he easily towered over the man. The thug would be a fool to press the issue.

“Well, now, look at this,” mocked the would-be mugger. “Soldier-boy thinks he’s tough. I’ll bet you won’t think insurance is such a bad idea when something happens to your girl, now, am I right?”

Danse felt a burning rage descend on him as the man leered at Larimer with hungry, dangerous eyes. How dare this lowlife threaten one of Danse’s soldiers? Threats to himself he could tolerate, but not threats against his newest sister-in-arms. He clenched his left fist, reaching for the man’s collar with his right hand.

Before he could do anything more, however, he was interrupted by a quiet, rasping voice.

“Whoa, whoa! Time out!” a man in a red frock coat called as he approached from behind Finn, hands raised in a passive gesture.

Danse’s eyes narrowed as he got a better look. No, not a man. A damn ghoul. Just what he wanted to deal with today.

“Someone steps through that gate for the first time, they’re a guest,” continued the ghoul as he stared the heckler down, his black eyes glinting dangerously.

“What do you care, Hancock?” the man replied angrily. “They ain’t exactly from the neighborhood.”

“No love for your mayor, Finn?” the irradiated monstrosity hissed. “Let them go.”

Larimer gasped. “Wait! You’re Finn?”

The man ignored her, too busy squaring off with the ghoul.

“You’re soft, Hancock. You’d better watch yourself, or someday there’ll be a new mayor.”

Hancock shook his head sadly as he pulled a long knife from behind his back, stabbing Finn repeatedly until the young man lay crumpled and bloody in the street.

Larimer screamed in horror, running to Finn’s side. She cradled the young man’s body in her arms, checking for any indication that he was still alive. Danse suspected that she would find none.

“No!” she cried. “No, damn it! What the hell did you do that for?”

The ghoul eyed her in confusion. “That might be the first time anyone’s yelled at me for stabbing the guy who was mugging them. Not that it happens often, just probably more often than you’d think. Name’s Hancock. I’m in charge around here. I hope you won’t let this unfortunate incident taint your view of our little community.”

“As if my opinion of this hellhole could be any worse,” muttered Danse as he approached Larimer’s side.

“Hey, man, don’t be like that,” crooned Hancock. “Goodneighbor’s of the people, for the people. Everyone’s welcome here, just as long as they don’t screw around with the only rule we got: don’t let your shit interfere with anyone else’s shit. You feel me?”

Larimer looked up at Hancock with teary eyes. “What the hell is wrong with you? Finn’s father is dying! We came here to bring him home, and you just killed him in the street! I’d say that’s interfering with someone else’s shit.”

Hancock’s pitch black eyes widened. “Damn. Of all the coincidences…”

Larimer placed the letter the old man had given her in Finn’s jacket pocket, folding his hands lightly over his chest as she knelt above his lifeless body, her eyes closed reverently. After a long moment, she stood, wiped her bloody hands on her pants, and walked past Hancock towards the town.

“Come on, Danse,” she barked, “I need a fucking drink. This town better have a good bar.”

He followed her in silence, unsure of what he could say to ease her pain. It might not have been just Finn’s death that was bothering her, but he had no easy way of broaching the subject. Instead, he would try to just be there when she was ready to talk.

When they arrived at the local bar, a dive called The Third Rail, she stopped, looking up at him with deadened eyes.

“I think I’d prefer to drink alone, if that’s ok with you.”

“Are you certain?” Danse asked. In his experience, drinking alone was never a great idea.

“Do you even drink, Danse?”

“Not often,” he admitted. “But if you need to talk, I…”

“I just want to be alone, ok?” she snapped. “Just…I don’t know, buy some ammo or something. I’ll come find you when I’m ready to go.”

Danse clenched his jaw as he looked at Larimer, displeased with her tone. He was tired of his advice being pushed aside in favor of her self-indulgences, but he knew this was not a battle he could win, not currently at least.

“Affirmative,” he replied bluntly. “Just...be safe, soldier.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” she quipped bitterly, skulking down the stairs into the bar.

Danse waited by the door for almost an hour before one of the town guards told him to stop loitering. After that, he begrudgingly explored the wares at the local shops until they closed for the night. As he’d suspected, there wasn’t much in Goodneighbor for a man like him, not unless he wanted to start an all-out war with the vice-ridden flea heap of a town.

Finally, Danse leaned against one of the metal shacks near the bar with a sigh, just daring the guard to do something about it. Instead, the ghoul shrugged before turning his attention elsewhere.

It had been almost four hours since Larimer had entered the bar. Should he go in after her? Was she in trouble?

His thoughts were interrupted by a tipsy giggle from the bar’s entrance as Larimer tumbled out, arm in arm with a man he’d never seen before. He stood a few inches shorter than the Initiate, his thin frame wrapped in a ragged duster that had definitely seen better days.

What truly set Danse on edge, though, was the faded army green of the man’s scarf and weathered military cap. Larimer’s new friend was a Gunner. Outstanding. As if her judgement could get any worse.

“Are you serious?” she asked her companion, still unaware that Danse was watching her. “Man, that sucks! You know what you should do? You should just kill those guys. Hell, that seems to be how everyone else solves their problems around here.”

The man shook his head, smirking at her. “If it were that simple, boss, don’t you think I would have done it already?”

“Well, grow a pair, then, Mac...MacCribbley,” she slurred slightly. “Because you’re a pretty cool guy, and those guys are losers.”

“It’s MacCready, boss. I told you.”

Danse cleared his throat angrily as he approached the pair, and Larimer turned to look at him with bleary eyes.

“Initiate,” he growled.

“Paladin,” she replied, smiling tipsily at him. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Do you know what time it is, Larimer?” asked Danse harshly. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours. And who’s this civilian?”

The scrawny man she’d dragged out of the bar after her smirked, his piercing blue eyes analyzing Danse before rolling dismissively.

“Great,” whined the civilian. “And you’re with the Brotherhood. Thanks, boss. If you’d have told me that, I might have passed on your offer.”

“Don’t mind him, MacCreaky,” Larimer soothed. “Paladin Danse was just leaving. He’s needed in Cambridge.”

“What?” barked Danse, frowning. “That’s incorrect. We have not yet arrived in Diamond City, soldier. I promised you I would take you at least that far.”

“And I know you’re worried about the rest of the squad, Danse, so I’m letting you go back. I can take care of myself.”

“You call getting inebriated and consorting with strange men taking care of yourself? Have you completely lost your mind? Do you really think you can trust him? I mean, look at him.”

“Hey!” piped the smaller man, “I’m right here!”

“Danse,” warned Larimer, “remember what I said about cutting me slack?”

“I had assumed that was in reference to your difficulty adjusting to a military lifestyle, not your terrible tactical decisions or drunken shenanigans.”

“So you’re not going back to the police station?” she asked.

“Affirmative. I will not be leaving your side until you safely return to Cambridge.”

“Hey,” piped MacCready, “that’s nice and all, but the lady hired me, and I’m not going anywhere with a Brotherhood Paladin.”

Larimer turned to the smaller man with a dramatic sigh.

“I’m sorry, MacCrispy. I should have known he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Listen, I’ll let you keep the money…”

“For the last time,” he huffed, “it’s MacCready. Also, heck no! I don’t take charity. You hired me, and I work for you now.”

“Well, I don’t need a hired gun right now… but how do you feel about going to help a settlement for me?”

“So I’m an errand boy now?” he asked, his eyes narrowed. “Great. No one will ever take me seriously again after this.”

“How about an extra 50 caps, and I promise to help you with those two guys who were harassing you in the bar sometime?” Larimer asked, her green eyes wide and pleading.

Danse knew that look. In their brief time working together, he’d seen it many times. By his count, it had only failed twice, and both times were with Knight Rhys. He took back what he’d thought at Oberland. Larimer knew damn well how powerful her gaze was, and she had no problems using it to get what she wanted.

“I guess, but you’d better not wait too long to make good on that promise. I’m not a patient man.” The scrawny mercenary sighed, holding out a hand for Larimer’s caps. “So, boss, what’s the job?”

“I need you to go to Sanctuary and check in with the minuteman there, Preston Garvey.” she instructed, handing over the caps. “Tell him that everything is fine, and that you work for the General. Make sure he knows I’m still alive, and I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch. Oh, and I took care of Oberland. Also that he has a nice ass.” She reflected for a moment. “No, sorry, don’t tell him that last part.”

“Wait,” said MacCready, staring at her. “You’re the General of the Minutemen I keep hearing about?”

“Apparently,” she replied sarcastically, flinging her hands in the air. “I haven’t really done much. There aren’t exactly a lot of Minutemen to be General of.”

“Well, I’ll be. Always figured the General was some old fuc...uh, I mean, guy. Fine. I’ll head to Sanctuary. But I hope you know I’m not thrilled about this.”

“Take it out on Preston,” she giggled. “He’s used to it.”

“From you?” MacCready replied, rolling his eyes. “No, I would never have guessed.” he shook his head, muttering under his breath as he left Goodneighbor behind.

Once the mercenary was out of sight, Danse rounded on Larimer, barely able to control his fury.

“What the hell is going on here, soldier?” he interrogated. “Why are you trying to get rid of me? And when were you going to tell me about you being the General of the Minutemen? That is information that I should have had at my disposal, Initiate.”

“Danse, please,” she pleaded with glassy eyes. “It’s not like that.”

“Then explain. Why would you try to send me away, after I promised to help you find your son? Why would you hide things from me?”

“I was going to tell you about the Minutemen eventually,” she whined. “I just never found the right time to bring it up, honestly. It’s not really a big deal.”

“Yes, Initiate,” he stated plainly. “It is. It is highly unusual for members of the Brotherhood to hold positions in rival organizations. It’s a conflict of interest. I might not have accepted you so readily into our ranks had I known.”

“The Minutemen aren’t your enemy, Danse. I promise. They’re just good people trying to take care of the little guy. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

He shook his head. “You obviously don’t understand my concern, Larimer. Think about it. What if your Minutemen decided to attack our outpost? Who would you side with? Or, let’s not even go that far. What if they asked you to share dangerous technology with them, that you knew would help them fulfill their mission. Would you offer it to them, or follow the Brotherhood tenets and refuse to give them technology?”

“I mean, it would depend…” Larimer started.

“That is exactly my point,” Danse interrupted. “If you remember one thing I try to teach you, remember this: there’s Brotherhood, then there’s everything else. Nothing in-between. The Brotherhood and our rules come first. No exceptions. Can you definitively say that you agree with that sentiment?”

Larimer rubbed her eyes. “I don’t think I’m sober enough for this conversation, Danse. Let’s talk about this later.”

He thought for a moment. Danse needed to know that Larimer really was committed to the Brotherhood, to his team. They needed to have absolute trust between them if they were going to survive, and at this moment, he wasn’t sure which one of them trusted the other less. At the same time, was a park bench in the middle of Goodneighbor really the place to discuss her allegiances?

“Very well,” he sighed. “You’ve already proven how terrible your decisions are when you’re inebriated. However, don’t think I’m going to forget that we need to further discuss your commitment to our cause, Initiate. And I still want you to tell me why you thought it was a good idea to replace me with a mercenary.”

Larimer looked up at him, her eyes struggling to focus on his face. “I know you regret leaving the police station, Danse. You think it was a terrible decision, and you’re worried about Rhys and Haylen. I was trying to give you a way out.”

“That isn’t your call to make, soldier!” Dance replied, exasperated. “I am in charge of our squad, and I stand by every order and every decision I have made. It is not your place to question that or undermine my authority. Do you understand? What did you expect me to do, return to the station without you?”

“Why not?”

“What would I tell the others? That I abandoned a member of our team? Or that I let a subordinate order me around? Don’t you think that would make me look incompetent? Or foolish?”

“I...I didn’t think…”

“That’s the problem, Initiate! You never think! You just do whatever you feel like doing, rushing into situations you haven’t even begun to understand! If you can’t learn to trust that I know what I’m doing, I don’t know if there’s a future for you in the Brotherhood. At least not under my command.”

Larimer’s eyes brimmed with tears as she stared up at him, her lower lip quivering slightly.

“I’m...I’m sorry, Paladin. I’m really, really sorry.”

Danse sighed once more, digging in his pack for a can of purified water, which he popped open and handed to her.

“Drink.” he commanded. “If you aren’t going to be responsible, you at least need to stay hydrated.”

She nodded, taking a large swig from the can.

“I...thank you, Danse. I really am sorry.”

“I know, and I wish I didn’t have to be so hard on you,” he replied, shaking his head as he led her to a nearby bench, which she slumped on dejectedly. “However, this is an important lesson, Larimer, and I want you to understand it. You’re a member of the Brotherhood of Steel. Your actions reflect on all of us. I know it’s been an awful day, but the answer to that isn’t getting inebriated and making a fool of yourself. There are certain things that are simply not appropriate.”

She gulped down the rest of the water, her eyes tearing up. “I’m sorry for embarrassing you, Danse. And for not telling you about the Minutemen. And for trying to send you away. I’m sorry for everything, really.”

Danse’s gaze softened. “You don’t have to be sorry for everything, soldier. Don’t be sorry that you were affected by the death of another human being. Don’t be sorry that you were trying to be considerate of my feelings, even if you were woefully misguided.”

“I really was trying to do the right thing,” Larimer sniffed.

“The right thing to do is to trust me, Initiate. I promised you that I was going to help you find your son, and I will, no matter what it takes. But it’s more than that. You’re my sister-in-arms now. Whatever battles we fight, we should be fighting together. You have to stop trying to shut me out or send me away. And you have to be honest with me. Understood?”

Larimer nodded. “Understood.”

“So, are you ready to tell me what is really going on with you, or do I have to pry it out of you? Why are you really delaying our arrival in Diamond City? You can’t hide it from me. It’s obvious that you’re stalling.”

She stared up at him, her damp eyes panicked like those of a cornered radstag.

“I...Danse, please, don’t ask me that.”

“Too late, soldier. Now, please, trust me enough to tell me the truth. I promise to hear you out.”

“Even if it’s stupid?”

He nodded. “It can’t be that stupid if it’s bothering you so deeply.”

She took a deep breath, holding back her emotions as best she could.

“What if he’s already dead?” she whispered, as if speaking the words aloud would make them true. “What if they killed my baby, and I’m just chasing a ghost?”

Danse stared down at her, the pieces finally starting to click together in his mind. “Is that why you’ve been trying to avoid finding your son? You’re afraid he’s dead?”

She nodded as tears fell heavily from her eyes, and she wiped at them in frustration. “It wouldn’t surprise me. I mean, look around you. Even if the people that...that took him didn’t hurt him, anything else in the Commonwealth might have. And I don’t know if I could survive that, Danse. Shaun’s...he’s all I have left.”

Danse moved a few inches closer to her, placing an armored hand on her shoulder. She leaned against it,resting her head on his forearm as she wept. He remained quiet for a long moment, just letting her cry against his arm. He contemplated brushing her rebellious hair out of her bloodshot eyes with his other hand, but he hesitated, his arm remaining at his side. It was inappropriate enough that he was allowing his drunken subordinate to cling to him, particularly in the middle of a public square. Anything more was just inviting scandal.

Finally, Danse broke the silence. “So in your mind, it’s better not to know what happened to your son, so you can cling to the hope that he’s alive?” he enquired. “Larimer, you have to know that what you’re doing is crazy. Isn’t it better to know, one way or the other?”

“Is it better?” she sobbed. “Think about that old man, Finn’s father. Is it better that we let him die in peace, hoping his son is on his way home? Or is the kinder thing in your mind for us to return to Oberland and tell him the truth, that his son was stabbed to death right in front of us? He’ll be dead soon either way. Isn’t leaving him in the dark a mercy?”

Danse frowned slightly. “I don’t know which option is the more merciful. But I do know that the truth is one of the most important things in the world. I don’t believe in concealing it, no matter how much it hurts in the short term. It is always better to be armed with the truth than to be burdened with a lie.”

She snorted. “That’s naive, Danse.”

“Is it? Just look at us, Larimer. How much worse has it been for both of us because you concealed things from me? If you had just been honest from the beginning, I could have helped you more. Instead, you kept me at arm’s length. Now, you’re doing the same thing with the truth about your son, and all that’s doing is hurting you.”

Larimer sighed, sitting up straighter on the bench as she shrugged his hand off. “You’re probably right, Paladin. I’m sorry for dragging you into my bullshit. You’re a good man. You deserve better from me.”

“I do,” he agreed, “but I’m still here for you. Just say the word, and we’ll go to Diamond City and finally get you some answers.”

“You still want to travel with me?” she asked, surprised. “After everything I’ve put you through today?”

“Of course,” Danse replied. “I promised you, didn’t I? Why would I leave you behind, now that you’re finally starting to be honest with me?”

“And if I decide not to go?” she asked, gazing into his eyes plaintively.

“Then we will return to Cambridge, but I know that’s not what you really want. You are a relentless fighter, Larimer. This is just another skirmish, even if the battle is inside yourself. Don’t forget, you are a member of the Brotherhood of Steel. You will not retreat from battle, no matter the odds. And I will fight by your side until the day is ours, I promise. Ad Victoriam, sister! We will find your son, I promise.”

She chuckled sadly. “Well, how can I resist when you put it like that, Danse? All right. Let me just sober up a little more, and we can be on our way.”

“No more delays?” he asked.

“No more delays.”

“No more lies?”

“No more lies.”

“Outstanding! Then let’s find you a place to rest. We can leave in the morning.”

She nodded, standing up slowly, and the two of them made their way towards the Rexford Hotel.

“Hey, tin man,” hissed a familiar voice from above, “Wait. You can stay at my house. Unlike the Rexford, the locks actually work.”

They looked up to see Hancock peering at them from the balcony above their heads.

“Why would we ever accept a favor from you, you murderous monstrosity?” growled Danse in reply.

The ghoul shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I deserve that. But look, I’m sorry about the kid, I really am. I liked Finn, even if he liked to run his mouth. Can you at least let me apologize for the trouble by giving you a safe place to sleep, maybe some breakfast? My state house is your state house.”

Danse drew in a deep breath, but Larimer touched his arm gently, stopping him from replying.

“Thank you, Mayor Hancock. We appreciate your hospitality.”

Danse leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Are we really going to trust that freak?”

“No,” she whispered back, “but I think he really does want to help. And if he’s not lying about the Rexford, I’d prefer to limit my chances of being stabbed in my sleep, wouldn’t you?”

Danse sighed. “Very well. But if anything happens, this is on your head.”

“Noted,” she replied, as they cautiously entered the Old State House.

Chapter Text

Deacon watched as Finn, that smug lowlife, approached Myra and her companion. “Well, that’s a mistake,” the spy muttered under his breath. He hoped the young man’s error wouldn’t come at too high a cost.

As Deacon observed their interaction, he mentally flipped through the imaginary dossier he’d compiled on Myra’s soldier friend: Paladin T. Danse, head of Recon Squad Gladius and trusted advisor to Elder Maxson. In the art of non-human extermination, the man was a prodigy, his record filled with the blood of ghouls, super mutants, and synths alike. Deacon shuddered to think what would happen if he were ever to find the Railroad. It had probably been a mistake to let the Paladin live.

He overheard Danse threaten the interloper, “I think you might want to reconsider.” The soldier’s dark eyes fixed on Finn as he towered over the young man, sheltering Myra behind him protectively.

Keeping his head down, Deacon slipped out of Goodneighbor’s gate once the commotion started. Thank God for Finn and his idiotic extortion scheme taking the heat off of him. He wasn’t sure he could have taken much more of the Paladin’s scrutiny.

He sighed as he skulked down the last leg of the Freedom Trail towards the Old North Church, kicking the top half of a shattered beer bottle idly with his left foot as he walked. His worst fears about Myra’s involvement with the Brotherhood of Steel seemed to be coming true. There was no way a man as protective as her companion would let her out of his sight for a moment, and Deacon couldn’t afford for Danse to catch wind of the Railroad’s activities. The spy’s job was about to get much, much harder.

Of course, first he had to deal with his actual assignment, which was gathering intelligence on the Institute’s activities in the Commonwealth. He suspected something truly terrible was about to go down in Goodneighbor, something that would make the town’s usual petty crimes look like a neighborhood bake sale. Something that, for now, trumped the danger presented by the Brotherhood of Steel.

For months now, he’d had the sneaking suspicion that the Institute was finally beginning to get bold enough to infiltrate the seedy settlement. If he was reading the situation right, the Railroad’s whole operation was likely in jeopardy.

The mind wiping procedures run by Dr. Amari out of The Memory Den were a crucial part of the Railroad’s synth liberation process. Without the ability to implant new memories into the synths they rescued, the risk of their operations being exposed increased tenfold. If the Institute recaptured a synth with memories of which safehouses they were processed through, the Railroad would certainly find themselves under attack again. This time, they might not survive.

The signs of Institute infiltration were always subtle. A strange glance from an old informant here, a relationship between two drifters suddenly on the rocks for no reason there...anyone without a trained eye might miss the writing on the wall. Deacon, however, had seen this all before when they’d lost University Point a few years back. If the Institute’s infestation was left unchecked, it was only a matter of time before Goodneighbor, too, would fall.

“Dez is going to lose her mind over this,” he muttered to himself. “It’s not like we have enough agents to spare to protect Dr. Amari if Kellogg comes calling.”

Conrad Kellogg, faithful attack dog of the Institute, had long been a thorn in the Railroad’s side. The fearsome mercenary had led the massacre of several prominent safehouses and friendly communities over the years, including University Point. His actions sent a clear message: if you side with the Railroad, your entire family, everyone you know, will die. No wonder recruitment was down.

More than ever, the Railroad needed numbers. More than ever, they needed agents like Myra Larimer, fearsome fighters with nothing to lose. If they were able to recruit her, maybe they stood a chance. If not, there was a pretty good chance that the Railroad was in for rougher weather than they’d ever seen.

As Deacon hauled the door to the church’s escape tunnel open, trying not to gag on the noxious fumes emanating from the old sewer, he cocked his head, listening intently to the faint mumbling of voices from inside HQ. For him to be able to hear them from this far away, there must be quite the argument going on in there.

“...If we don’t establish more…” Desdemona’s voice resounded.

“With what personell? We are completely...to spare!” exclaimed Carrington.

Deacon sighed. The old safehouse argument. Ever since the Switchboard massacre, the Railroad had been down four safehouses -- two which had been definitively wiped out and two which had gone dark -- leaving their infrastructure severely weakened. It had been a sore spot between the Railroad’s leaders for months, and Deacon knew that it wasn’t going to get resolved any time soon. He approached the door to the main crypt, sliding it open quietly.

“You know as well as I do that we can’t continue operating like this,” Dez shouted. “I don’t care what we need to do, Carrington. Something’s got to give.”

Deacon cleared his throat as he entered the room, drawing Dez’s attention to him. “You guys know this is supposed to be a secret hideout, right?” he asked playfully. “I could hear you arguing from the street.”

“Deacon. Where have you been?” replied Dez, her brown eyes sweeping over him. “And what the hell are you wearing?”

“Like it?” he asked, taking a slow turn to show off every angle of his new outfit. He’d picked up the greaser jacket off of a caravanner a few weeks before, but it was his first time wearing the disguise at HQ. “I think it makes me look tough.”

“I think it makes you look ridiculous,” muttered Dr. Carrington. “I don’t understand. If the point is for you to blend in, why are you dressed like you’re on your way to a back-alley brawl?”

Deacon shrugged. “Hey, I wanted to spice up the rotation. The lab coat gets boring sometimes. You should know.”

Carrington fumed under his breath as he went to check on his supplies. Deacon knew it was probably a bad idea to piss off the Railroad’s main physician, but it was just too damn easy...and too much fun.

Desdemona sighed. “Thanks for that, Deacon. Now I’m going to have yet another crisis to deal with today.”

“Sorry, Dez. I just can’t help it if Carrington still refuses to grow a sense of humor. At this point, I think he just likes being angry.”

“You might be right. All the same, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop antagonizing him and fill me in. So, I ask you again, and I do expect an answer: where have you been?”

“I was in Goodneighbor, taking in the sights. Gotta say, Dez, things aren’t looking great there. Lot of potential Institute spies in play. We may need to pull Amari out.”

Dez’s eyes hardened. “Shit. You know she won’t evacuate. She’s too well-known, has too many important clients.”

“Well, if you have any better ideas,” the spy shot back, “I’d love to discuss them with you. But the way I see it, we got three, maybe four months tops before Goodneighbor’s no longer hospitable to our cause.”

“I…” Dez frowned, her brow furrowed in concentration. “Damn it! We need more agents. That’s the problem, no matter how we look at it.”

Deacon nodded. “That, I might be able to help with. I’ve been following a lead on a pretty promising recruit. She’s fearless, smart, charismatic, and best of all, doesn’t have any family to speak of. You’d love her. She’s pretty much the perfect candidate.”

“I’m sensing a ‘but’ here,” Dez replied coldly. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s… well, she’s a vault dweller, so I’m not sure she’s met enough synths to care about them one way or the other. And she’s made some interesting friends since she emerged, not all of them Railroad-friendly. It might be hard for us to approach her.”

“A vault dweller? Which vault?”

Deacon understood Dez’s hesitation at bringing in a vault dweller. There were several known vaults in the Commonwealth, but most of them were destroyed or abandoned. Some had simply never been found, their locations lost to time. Then, there were the ones like Vault 81, known for being so xenophobic that they didn’t even trust other humans, let alone synths. Not exactly Railroad material.

“She’s from Vault 111. You know, the one up by Concord. I saw her emerge myself.”

Dez sighed heavily. “Deacon, you haven’t been following this woman since your mission in Concord, have you?”

“Maybe...I mean, just to gather intelligence on her.”

“So every time you take off without a word, you’re stalking her? You know how creepy that is, right? It’s been months. Why haven’t you approached her yet?”

“Like I said, some of her friends aren’t exactly the sort of people I’d invite to my next dinner party.”

Dez frowned, her eyes glowing dangerously. “If you really want to bring this woman in, I think it’s time you elaborate on who these ‘friends’ are.”

Deacon gulped. This was a can of worms he didn’t particularly want to open. So many of his decisions in the past few months had been entangled with his choice to recruit Myra. But Dez deserved to know, even if it was going to come back to bite him in the ass.

“Well, the good news is that she’s the new General of the Minutemen,” he replied. “We still tolerate those guys, right?”

Desdemona thought for a moment. “We’ll see. You know as well as I do that the Minutemen have traditionally had a fair number of anti-synth bigots in their ranks. Still, it could be very useful for us to have their General on our side. But I know what you’re doing, Deacon. Tell me the bad news.”

“She...may have also joined the Brotherhood of Steel.”

Dez stared at him in shock, the surprise in her eyes slowly morphing into anger as the implications of his words set in. “Deacon. You didn’t happen to fail your mission because of her, did you?”

“Does that sound like something I’d do?”

“Deacon…” Dez warned, “you told me that you weren’t able to eliminate that recon team because they were too well-armed.”

“Well, that, and I figured a double agent in the hand was worth more than three soldiers in the ground.”

“But she’s not ‘in the hand,’ now, is she?” cried Dez, prowling towards him angrily. “Christ, Deacon! Do you have any idea how bad this is?”

Deacon retreated until his back was pressed against the wall, Dez inches from his face as she leaned up on the brickwork with one hand. If there was one thing Deacon hated more than anything else, it was being cornered. But he had done this to himself, and had no one else to blame.

“I...I can fix it,” he said, his mouth set firmly. “You know I can fix it. All I have to do is convince her to work for us. I swear, Dez, this one’s worth it. I can feel it.”

For a moment, he was terrified that Desdemona was going to punch him. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But she just inhaled sharply, staring past his sunglasses, her fist clenching and unclenching at her side. Finally, she heaved off the wall with a sigh before turning away from him, heading back to her post.

“You’d better be right, Deacon,” she hissed over her shoulder. “Because if you’re wrong, you may have just put the final nail in our coffin.”

“I promise, Dez. I won’t let it come to that.”

He collected himself as best he could before going to chat with Tinker Tom. The man was crazy as a suitcase full of bloodworms, but he was damn good at high-tech solutions for absurdly difficult problems. If anyone could help him figure out the best way to get to Myra, it was Tom.

“Hey, Deacon! You’re just in time,” called the eccentric inventor. “I’ve been testing out a new version of my anti-nanite vaccine! I really think that this one’s gonna be the one, man!”

“Well, I knew you’d figure it out, buddy! What’s in this one?”

Tom eyed him cautiously. “You really expect me to tell you? How do I even know you’re the real Deacon?”

He chuckled. “You got me. I’m a clone of the man you know as Deacon, sent to my past to protect your future. The world is in grave danger, Tom! And only you and I can stop it!”

Tinker Tom grinned. “I knew it! I fucking knew it! So what do you need me to do?”

Deacon almost felt bad for stringing the older man along. Almost.

“There is a great warrior from your time, a woman named Myra Larimer. She is the most important part of our mission. But she is guarded by a powerful enemy. I need to get a message to her without her guard noticing. Can you help me?”

“Well, future Deacon, you came to the right guy! I’ve got all kinds of bugs and gizmos I’ve been dying to try out. Take anything that you think will help.”

Music to his ears. Deacon rummaged about in Tom’s footlocker for a moment, picking out a few bugs, a receiver, and a few other things he couldn’t quite identify but looked like they’d be fun to play with.

Tinker Tom snatched one of the whatsits, a small box wrapped in copper wire, out of Deacon’s hands.

“Sorry, that’s not ready yet.”

“What is it?” Deacon asked.

“You’re kidding, right? Aw man, I thought for sure these things would be everywhere in a few years. It’s an adapter for those old decontamination units, nullifies the mind control serum the Institute pumps into them before your skin can absorb it...or at least it’s supposed to. You’re sure you’ve never seen one?”

“If I did see one,” Deacon countered, “how would I know it was working? I think you’d probably put them somewhere discrete, right?”

Tom thought for a moment. “You know, you’re absolutely right, Deacon! Aw, man, now I’ve got to redesign the whole mounting system! Now where did I put those blueprints…”

Deacon snickered to himself as he quietly slipped away from Tom’s station to his own locker, retrieving a few important items of his own. Diamond City Security uniform? Check. Railroad recruitment holotape? Check. Taxidermied owl he’d found a couple years back and had affectionately named Constable Snickers? He patted the lifeless little guy on the head before closing the locker.

Well, it was time to get back on the road. If he was going to have enough time to set his plans in motion, he needed to beat Myra to Diamond City. Desdemona was right: If the Railroad was going to survive the coming war, he absolutely couldn’t afford to fail.

Chapter Text

After a harrowing night in the Old State House, Danse was more than ready to leave Goodneighbor in the dust. Larimer’s room was right above his, and the thunderous echoes of her alcohol-induced snores had made it quite difficult to sleep. This was further compounded by Hancock’s incessant humming as the ghoul wandered the halls of his home. It was a miracle that Danse had managed to get any rest. As he thought over the events of the past 48 hours, the Paladin realized that he hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in days. No wonder his head was killing him.

“Morning, trash can!” exclaimed Hancock as Danse emerged from the room he’d been offered for the night. The Paladin groaned, squeezing his temples as he tried to will the pain away. Hancock paused, looking Danse over appraisingly. “Migraine, huh? I have something that might help with that, if you’re interested.”

Danse glared at the ghoul. “I don’t require chems to handle a simple headache. I will be fine once I’ve left this wretched town.”

The mayor sighed, his beady black eyes narrowing at the Paladin. “Now, now, I know you’re hurting, crewcut, but let’s be civil here. It’s not Goodneighbor’s fault your head hurts, is it?”

Danse shook his head. Hancock was right, but he wasn’t about to share medical information with the freak. He was grateful that Larimer had been given a safe place to sleep off her overindulgence of the night before, but that had only earned the ghoul so much good will.

“Is Larimer awake yet?” the Paladin asked in a low moan. “We really ought to get back on the road.”

Hancock shook his head. “Haven’t seen her. You wanna go check on her, or do I get the pleasure?”

“She’s my responsibility,” barked Danse. He didn’t much care for the lascivious look in the ghoul’s eyes. It was bad enough that he and Larimer had been separated for the night. Though it was more appropriate for them to have separate rooms, he was nervous about leaving her alone in her impaired state.

He walked up the weathered spiral staircase to an ornate wooden panel with delicate carvings of vines that neither time nor the apocalypse had managed to destroy. The Paladin knocked gently a few times, but received no reply.

“Larimer,” he called, “I’m coming in.” With that, he swung the door open, his eyes widening in surprise at the sight before him.

To say that her room was nicer than the one he’d had would be quite an understatement. When Hancock had offered Larimer this particular room for the night, the ghoul had let slip that he usually used the room for entertaining, and it was easy to see why. As Danse crossed the threshold, he could have sworn he was transported back in time.

The windows of the large bedroom were boarded up, beams of early morning light filtering in past the barricades, and everything in the room was as worn and battered as any furniture which had survived the war. Thanks to Hancock’s decorating choices, however, it was easy to look past all that and see a little glimpse of what life had been like, what Danse hoped life would someday be like again.

The room was painted in light blue, with a large four-poster bed taking up much of the far wall. There was a small end table on the left side, holding both Larimer’s glasses and a teal vase of hubflowers, which gave the space a comforting, old world charm. Sheer drapes that must have once been white hung about the bed, swaying gently in the breeze from a nearby window.

There, dwarfed by her surroundings, lay Larimer, her head cushioned by the softest pillows Danse had ever seen. Her face looked more at peace than he’d ever seen it, her pure white hair framing her features in a silvery halo. She was still sound asleep, it seemed, and Danse backed out of the room quietly, closing the door behind him. He could give her another half-hour. After all, accommodations like these were rare in the Commonwealth. It would be a shame not to let her enjoy them.

As he waited for her, Danse began re-packing their belongings. Larimer had a terrible habit of just throwing everything into her pack without regard for what was already in there, and he was tired of finding bits of circuitry and plastic embedded in their provisions. Fortunately, Hancock elected to give the Paladin some space, and remained out of the meeting room while Danse carefully sorted his and Larimer’s belongings.

Danse managed to clean up both their packs, taking care to place most of the heavier items in his bag. His power armor greatly increased the load he could bear, and he knew from basic training how terrible it was to have to march with a full pack while nursing a hangover. There was a reason why the Paladin only infrequently indulged in alcohol.

While he was returning the last few items to Larimer’s pack, he caught sight of a small, leather-bound book, which he picked up. Danse held the small volume in his hands for a few moments, trying to decide if he should take a peek inside or not. He wasn’t the sort of man who enjoyed prying into people’s private affairs. At the same time, however, he found himself filled with a burning curiosity that needed to be sated. He opened the cover, his curiosity getting the best of him.

Danse’s eyes widened as he took in the contents of the small book. It was not, as he had feared, a diary. Instead, it appeared to be a small album of faded color photographs, a rarity even before the war. Either Larimer’s family had been quite wealthy, or...these were wedding photos.

His curious eyes met Larimer’s own as she smiled off the page, her rosy cheeks and full, red lips blossoming in sharp contrast to the clean, white lace dress she wore. Her hair was a rich chestnut brown, pulled into a sophisticated updo that twisted elegantly behind her head before being hidden beneath a delicate white veil. He almost didn’t recognize her without the deep sadness that now rested behind her stunning eyes.

Danse couldn’t help but want to see more. He had always wondered what life had been like before the war, had always secretly wished that he could have seen it. What hints he’d found in advertisements and stories painted a picture of an ideal life of peace and quiet prosperity, of strong, loving families and clean, airtight homes. He found himself torn by a deep nostalgia for a world of picket fences and strawberry lemonade he had never known. But Larimer...that had been her world. Perhaps her life could give him a clearer window into the past he’d never know.

He turned the page, his eyes glued to the album. There was a small chapel, its red brick exterior clean and warm beneath a gentle sun. Against its wooden doors stood a small cluster of people, all smiling brightly. In the center of the group was Larimer again, this time with her head thrown back, laughing. Beside her was a tall, copper-haired man in dress blues, his arm wrapped tenderly around her waist. This must be Nate, Danse realized. He studied the man carefully. Larimer’s husband was the model of a pre-war soldier, all lean muscle and strong posture, his tanned, clean-shaven face alight with pride as he watched his new wife with steely blue eyes.

On the opposite page, a yellowed newspaper clipping caught his eye.

“Myra Isolde Taylor and Captain Nathaniel Sebastian Larimer were married May 20, 2076. Their wedding mass was held at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Nahant, MA. The bride is the daughter of Sheriff Martin Taylor and the late Harriet Taylor of Nahant. The groom is the oldest son of Dr. Walter and Anna Larimer of…”

As Danse read the wedding announcement, he heard the door to the meeting room open with a low creak. He hastily closed the small album and quickly shoved it back into Larimer’s pack. He did his best to shake off his guilt from intruding on her private life as the Initiate entered the room.

“Good morning, Paladin,” Larimer said softly, her deep green eyes gazing up at him cautiously. Something was different about her this morning, but Danse couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Perhaps it was merely his imagination, stray ghosts of the woman he’d seen in her photographs coloring his view of her.

“Good morning, soldier,” he replied. “I’m glad you’re awake. I was starting to think you’d be unconscious all morning.”

“Well, I did get pretty drunk last night,” Larimer mused. “Nate always used to tease me about how low my alcohol tolerance was, and the stuff we drank before the war was pretty tame compared to the moonshine you have now.”

“I hope you’ve learned your lesson, then,” Danse said gently, not wanting to berate her further. “A good soldier knows their limits.”

Hancock walked into the room, his scarred face broken by a cheeky grin. He was followed by a menacing woman, her eyes cold and calculating as she glanced at Danse and Larimer. The woman set a large metal tray loaded with packaged food and a pitcher of dark violet liquid on the meeting room table before retreating, clearly eager to be elsewhere.

“Breakfast is served,” the mayor announced. “I hope you’ll forgive the spread. We’ve been having some trouble getting meat lately. Our usual hunters haven’t stopped by in a few days. But the mutfruit juice is fresh, hand-squeezed by Clair down at the Rexford.”

“Thank you, Mayor Hancock,” replied Larimer quietly, pouring a glass of juice. She handed it to Danse without making eye contact before pouring another for herself.

“You can just call me Hancock, gorgeous,” the ghoul replied. “I’m not the sort of guy who gets off on titles, unlike some people I’ve met,” he added, eyeing Danse with a smirk.

The Paladin grimaced as he choked on the tart juice. He wasn’t sure he liked what the ghoul was implying.

Larimer snagged a few snack cakes from a yellowed ceramic plate, passing two of them to Danse. “Here. These are super gross, but the sugar will help your headache, I promise.”

“How did you…” he started, and she greeted him with a hollow chuckle.

“I used to get really awful headaches all the time when I was pregnant, probably from all the vomiting. Trust me, I recognize that corpse-like pallor from the mirror. What you really need is sleep, but the sugar and fat in those things are a good temporary fix.”

“Thanks,” he replied sincerely. Why was she being so nice to him all of a sudden? Larimer had never been hostile towards him exactly, seeming to delight more in getting on his nerves than in deliberately causing him trouble. But this was different. She was acting like she actually cared about him, or perhaps worse, like she was afraid of him. It was unnerving.

Mercifully, Larimer and the mayor ate their breakfast in relative silence, presumably out of respect for Danse’s pounding head. He wondered at Larimer’s own resilience. She’d been three sheets to the wind when they’d arrived at the Old State House, and yet she didn’t seem to bear the faintest trace of a hangover. Either she’d been faking how inebriated she was the night before, or she had one hell of a metabolism. Seeing the way she threw back her breakfast, Danse found himself leaning towards the latter explanation.

Finally, Larimer’s hunger was sated, and she stood from the table, stretching lazily. “We should probably get going, shouldn’t we? Thank you again, Hancock.”

The ghoul nodded to her. “Don’t mention it, sweetheart.” His black eyes flashed dangerously as he grinned at her. “Seriously. Don’t mention it. I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”

Larimer nodded. “Listen, is it possible for us to arrange a caravan to Oberland Station? I’d like...I’d like to get Finn home, but we don’t have time to head back right now.”

Hancock smiled gently at her. “I’ll talk to Daisy and see what we can do. That’s...that’s really fucking civil of you.”

“It’s the right thing to do. We’ll cover the expense. Danse and I did promise to try and bring him home. It’s not the way we wanted, but…”

Danse listened on in surprise. He’d hoped Larimer had taken their argument the night before to heart, but he hadn’t expected this. With everything on her mind, she was still determined to do right by the old man they’d met at Oberland. The gesture frankly amazed him.

Hancock waved a hand at her dismissively. “No deal. I’ll pay for the caravan. I mean, I’m the one who killed him. Consider it one last apology, if you want.”

“You’re actually a pretty nice guy, Hancock,” replied Larimer, offering a hand to him which he shook firmly.

“Like I said, please, please don’t mention it.”

She smirked, nodding as she grabbed her pack. The Initiate frowned slightly, bouncing the bag in her hand for a moment before looking over at Danse with questioning eyes. “Danse, did you take anything from my bag?”

He felt his cheeks burn slightly as he nodded. “Affirmative. I apologize for taking such liberties, but your pack was quite overloaded, so I transferred some of the heavier items to mine. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, it’s ok,” she replied quickly, her eyes flitting away from his. “Just maybe ask first next time, okay? I almost accused our host of petty theft.”

Hancock grinned at her. “Trust me, beautiful, it wouldn’t be the first time.”

“All the same,” Larimer replied, “If I’m going to yell at you again, Hancock, I’d prefer that you deserved it.”

The ghoul chuckled. “Well, then. I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

Danse grabbed his pack, eager to get back on the road. As calm as their morning had been, he still wanted to leave the stench of Goodneighbor behind them as soon as possible. Besides, if he had to watch Larimer charm the foppish ghoul any longer, he might be sick. Kindness notwithstanding, Hancock was still an unknown variable, and the Paladin worried that Larimer’s trusting nature might lead her to reveal more than she should to someone they’d just met.

“We should be on our way,” the Paladin grumbled, trying to ignore the throbbing in his skull, “The earlier we arrive in Diamond City, the more likely we are to find someone who can assist us in our mission.”

Larimer’s eyes met his, “As long as you’re up for it, Paladin,” she replied, her voice thick with concern.

Danse nodded. “I’ve marched farther in worse pain, Initiate. I can handle a headache.”

“If you say so…” she mused, waving to Hancock as she and Danse exited the State House, heading out of town and into the ruined streets of Boston.

 


 

As Danse and Larimer passed through Boston Common, Danse found his mind wandering. He thought back to his argument with Larimer the night before, how she had tried to get him to return to Cambridge. She was right, after all, when she’d questioned him. What was he doing, splitting his team like this? Would he really be able to protect Rhys and Haylen if things went sideways? What would they do if something happened to him, and he never returned to base?

They weren’t exactly taking the safest route to Diamond City. Every map of the Commonwealth Danse had ever seen had a big red X over this sector. He wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but it couldn’t be good. With his focus impaired and Larimer’s unnatural talent for finding trouble, he was quite nervous.

For her part, Larimer seemed strangely reserved, quietly walking next to him with an unreadable expression on her face. The brash, confrontational Initiate Danse was used to had seemingly melted away in the night, as though all her fight had evaporated with the dawn. He should have been pleased that she seemed to be taking his words from the night before to heart. Instead, he found it deeply worrying.

“Larimer,” he asked quietly, “is everything all right?”

She glanced up at him quickly before her gaze returned to the road ahead. “Everything’s fine, Paladin. I’m just thinking.”

He sighed. It was as he’d feared. Rather than using their argument as a reason to be more open with him, she was instead retreating farther away. Was she really that afraid of him being angry with her?

Danse was about to reply when they were interrupted by a hail of bullets and guttural screaming from above. Of all the times for them to stumble into a pack of Super Mutants...

“Get to cover!” he bellowed to Larimer, who was already sprinting towards the ruined skyscraper full of hostiles, Righteous Authority spewing red laser fire into the massive green torso of the nearest mutant.

Danse cursed under his breath, racing after her. When would she learn not to charge headlong into danger? He caught up with her quickly, grabbing her arm roughly and forcing her behind a ruined wall.

“Super Mutants aren’t like raiders or ghouls,” he admonished as a hail of minigun fire blazed past them. “They pack far more firepower and are far harder to kill. Aim for the head, and stay in cover if you can. If you can’t, at least stay behind me so my armor can protect you. Do you understand?”

She nodded, rubbing her arm as she stared up at him, terror in her eyes. “I...I understand. Let’s go.”

Together, they plunged into the building, Danse carefully clearing each floor as Larimer picked off each super mutant she could from behind cover. Within minutes, the group was dead, the floor slick with blood and brains. Fortunately, it seemed like the building had only housed a small patrol, and none of them had mini-nukes.

Danse found his way back to the Initiate, who smiled at him warily as he approached. Larimer touched her right cheek, chuckling under her breath. “You got a little something there, Paladin,” she teased.

He reached up, wiping a glob of viscera from his face with disgust. “Thanks. How is your arm? I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

She shook her head. “It’s not as bad as a minigun burst to the skull, that’s for sure. You saved my life. I’m sorry for putting myself at risk. I didn’t realize how tough those things were.”

He smiled slightly before turning towards the stairs. “Well, now you’re aware. Next time, I know you won’t make the same mistake. Come on. We’re still a few blocks from Diamond City, and who knows what else this place has in store for us? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are worse things than Super Mutants hiding in these ruins.”

Larimer started down the building’s skeletal staircase, her eyes glued to the steps in front of her. Danse followed behind her carefully, trying to find a way to clear the air between them before things got any more uncomfortable.

Fortunately, as they continued towards Diamond City, Larimer gave him the perfect opportunity. As she clambered up a debris pile to get her bearings, her boot got stuck under a piece of rebar and she lost her balance, twisting backwards.

Danse ran to her aid, catching her just before her back connected with a pile of broken glass. “Careful, soldier,” he said gently, as he helped her up “this terrain is quite uneven.”

“I… Why are you being so nice to me?” she hissed. “Shouldn’t you be lecturing me about what a liability I am or something?”

It pained him to see her like this. “I just…” he began with a sigh. “Look, Larimer, I’m not intending to lecture you. I just want to make certain that you are alright.”

“I told you, sir,” she replied, “Everything’s fine. I’m just…”

“Just thinking,” he finished. “I know. But you’ve been behaving abnormally all morning. I’m concerned that you might be having difficulty, in light of our discussion last night.”

“You mean our fight,” she replied with a sigh. “Look, Paladin, I’m really sorry for how I behaved. I’m sorry for acting like your advice and opinions don’t matter to me. I was just...I’ve just been...I didn’t mean to take that out on you.”

“You’ve apologized enough,” said Danse solemnly. “Elder Maxson, our leader, says that Brotherhood soldiers don’t apologize. They accept their punishment, learn from their mistakes, and move on.”

“So, what’s my punishment, then?” she asked, her voice a tired attempt at her usual snarkiness. “Do I have to shine your armor? Carry a backpack full of rocks?”

Danse shook his head. “I was considering assigning you to a full day of intense physical training. With Knight Rhys supervising you.”

Larimer’s smirk didn’t make it to her eyes. “If you wanted to kill me, Danse, it’d be easier just to shoot me.”

“Damn it, Larimer, I’m trying…”

Danse’s reply was cut off by the sound of frantic yelling from the next block over. It sounded like a woman in distress, her high-pitched voice carrying through the ruins.

Danse and Larimer glanced at each other before running in the direction of the voice, their weapons drawn.

A short, black-haired woman in a red trench coat stood outside the Diamond City gate, screaming at the intercom and waving her hands about wildly as she berated the security guard on the other end. The guard was clearly following orders, and Danse felt more than a little sorry for the man as the woman’s wrath enveloped him.

“Protecting Diamond City means keeping me out, is that it?”, the woman fumed. "’Oh look, it's the scary reporter!’ Boo!”

“I’m sorry, Piper,” replied the man on the other end, exasperated, “but Mayor McDonough's really steamed. Saying that article you wrote was all lies. The whole city's in a tizzy.”

“Damn you, Danny Sullivan,” she screamed, “you open this door right now! I live here! You can’t just lock me out!”

After a few more minutes of pointless yelling, the woman turned with a sigh, her eyes meeting Larimer’s. Suddenly, her face brightened, her piercing hazel eyes shining with crafty intention.

“Hey,” she rasped, “You want into Diamond City, right?”

Larimer nodded. “Yeah, I’d like to get in.”

“Just follow my lead. I’ll get us all in, just you watch,” the shorter woman whispered, smirking. She turned back to the gate. “What’s that? You’re a trader, up from Quincy? With enough supplies to keep the market going for a whole month?”

Larimer grinned. “No, ma’am,” she exclaimed in her affected drawl. “I came down from Concord. Found a whole lot of medical supplies just sitting around up there. Stims, blood packs, bandages, you name it.”

Danse frowned at the Initiate, disappointed in her choice. Lying to local law enforcement? Was there any action that was beneath her?

The woman in red, however, nodded with a mischievous smile that almost matched Larimer’s. She was clearly impressed at Larimer’s capacity for lying. “Well, well, I’d hate to be the guy who turned away that kind of supply.”

The voice on the intercom sighed. “Fine, fine. I’m opening the door. This better not be a trick, Piper, or I swear…”

In a moment, the gate began to rise, creaking and clanging as its metal shutter lifted on rusty hinges.

“Good job. Better head inside quick before ole' Danny catches on to the bluff,” the reporter said slyly, gesturing at the gate.

Larimer, however, stared up at the wall in trepidation. “What is this place?” she asked.

“Oh, the ‘green jewel’?” The reporter asked. “She's a sight. Everyone who's anyone in the Commonwealth is from here, settled here...or got kicked out of here,” she added, gesturing to herself with a smirk. “A big wall, some power, working plumbing, schools, and some security goons are what make Diamond City the big monster it is. Heh. Love it or hate it. You'll see for yourself, soon enough. Let's go. We need to get in there before the…”

As she was speaking, a short but well-fed man in a grey suit stormed in next to the security desk, his rat-like eyes honing in on the young woman’s face.

“...mayor shows up,” Piper finished in disgust.

“You devious, rabble-rousing slanderer!” cried the man, who Danse presumed was the mayor. “The...the level of dishonesty in that paper of yours! I'll have that printer scrapped for parts.”

“Oooh, that a statement, Mr. McDonough?” she shot back, her hazel eyes flashing dangerously. "You want my next headline to read: ‘Tyrant mayor shuts down the press?’ Or maybe we should ask the newcomers. Do you support the news? Because the mayor here’s threatening to throw free speech in the dumpster!”

Danse’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what problems the two of you have,” he growled, “but I’d prefer it if you left my companion and myself out of it. We just want to enter the city, handle our business, and leave.”

The suited man smiled at him, the sort of saccharine grin that belonged to salesmen, con artists, and their ilk. Danse instantly disliked the man. There was no honesty in his face.

“Of course,” the mayor crooned, either not recognizing or foolishly ignoring Danse’s rising annoyance. “I’m sorry to drag you into the middle of this. I’m Mayor McDonough. Welcome to Diamond City! You seem like exactly the kind of upstanding, level-headed people we like in this town. Please, do come in, visit our market, maybe settle down.”

“We’re not planning on staying long,” Larimer offered. “We just need information.”

Larimer’s statement seemed to intrigue the reporter. “Information?” she asked. “On what?”

“We’re trying to find my son, Shaun,” the Initiate replied, her voice breaking slightly. “He was kidnapped. He’s less than a year old.”

“Oh.” replied the woman, her eyes softening. “That’s terrible. I’m so sorry. Hopefully, the mayor here will get off his ass and, you know, do his job and help you.”

The mayor sighed heavily. “Piper, you know as well as I do that we don’t have the manpower…”

“Are you kidding me? This woman’s baby is missing, and you can’t spare one security guard to help her?” Piper threw up her hands in disgust. “And you wonder why your popularity in the lower field is worse than ever. Fine. If you won’t help, then I will. And I’ll make sure the whole town knows that their mayor did nothing when children went missing.”

Piper turned back to Larimer. “I know a guy who can help you. His name’s Nick Valentine. He has a detective office here in town, and specializes in missing person cases.”

Danse sighed. “At least someone here is willing to help.”

The reporter smiled back at them. “Hey, don’t mention it. If you want to return the favor, though...After you see Valentine, if you don’t mind, you and I should have a little chat. I’ll bet you two have one hell of a story to tell.”

“We’ll see.” Larimer replied, waving at the young woman as she climbed the steps into Diamond City proper, ignoring the blistering glare the mayor fixed on her as she passed. Danse felt his hackles rise as he passed the mayor, following Larimer into Diamond City. Something really unnerved him about that man, and his instincts had rarely steered him wrong.

He wished that he and Larimer had gotten the chance to finish their conversation before they entered Diamond City. She kept insisting that she was fine, but he could tell just by looking at her that she was frightened and hurting. If she wouldn’t let him help her, there was very little he could do, but Danse was determined to be there for her in any way that he was able. She was his subordinate, and she was in trouble, whether she’d admit to it or not.

Perhaps he should have done what she’d wanted and left her in Goodneighbor with the mercenary. He was taking quite a risk leaving Haylen and Rhys on their own, all for the sake of a woman who didn’t seem to even want him around most of the time.

But as Initiate Larimer walked ahead of him into the shanty town, tucking a stray strand of white hair back into her cap, he knew he’d made the right choice. There was something about her that just made him want to stay by her side, no matter how foolhardy it was. And while that terrified him, he also felt strangely at peace with his decision to help his newest soldier. Perhaps…

“Danse!” cried Larimer, turning to look at him with childlike awe on her freckled face, “Look! The bases are still here! I’m gonna try for a home run, finally check that off the bucket list!”

She was deflecting her feelings again, he realized. He had to get her to open up, and quickly, before the small chink he’d made in her armor the night before closed up again, sealing her away with her misery somewhere he could not follow.

“Larimer!” he replied, “Wait! We have to…”

Before he could stop her, she was off, laughing breathlessly as she tore through the market. He sighed before bounding after her, his heavy armored footfalls beating the ground as he ran. Before he knew it, his cares and worries seemed to break free, Larimer’s infectious energy easing his troubled mind.

One thing he had to say for Larimer was that she constantly surprised him, which should have irritated him far more than it did. He was a man of order and routine, concepts she hurled out the window at every turn. But maybe, just maybe, he was beginning to enjoy Larimer’s brand of impulsive chaos. Perhaps there was more order to her chaotic nature than Danse had seen before. Maybe there was also more chaos in his ordered life than he’d realized.


Either way, he was curious to find out what they could learn from each other. Something told him that choosing to help Initiate Larimer find her son would be the most important decision he’d ever made in his life, and he couldn’t wait to find out where the road would take them, or who they both would become along the way.

Chapter Text

Deacon, disguised as a Diamond City Security guard, couldn’t help but smile as Myra blew past him, tearing through the market at breakneck speed. He’d hardly noticed it in Goodneighbor, his investigation taking precedence, but the past few months had changed Myra from the weak, frozen vault-dweller he had stumbled upon and rescued into a force to be reckoned with.

Myra’s pale skin had tanned like a peach ripening in the sun, pale scars from scrapes and skirmishes creating a map of experience on her face. The vault-dweller’s signature flannel was now accentuated by mismatched pieces of leather armor. Her pistol still hung at her hip, but it was now joined by a large laser rifle slung across her back, as well as a variety of knives tucked into her belt and boots. She no longer looked like a fragile pre-war housewife. She looked like a warrior.

Deacon’s smile soured when Paladin Danse stomped past a few moments later, fighting to keep up with Myra as she rounded second base. The soldier seemed almost relaxed, his dark eyes shining with something akin to mirth in spite of the scowl he wore like a badge of honor.

“Slow down, Larimer!” the Paladin exclaimed.

“And...let you...catch me?” Myra huffed with a cheeky grin. “Not...on your...life!”

Deacon lost sight of them as they veered past the town’s mutfruit farm and turned down Third Street. He slowly walked back towards the gates, curious to see how Myra’s run would pan out. He’d run the bases himself once, a lifetime ago. The look on Barbara’s face when he’d…

Myra reappeared in his vision, breathless as she crossed home plate, Danse only inches behind her. She collapsed to the ground, laughing. “That was awesome!” she exclaimed.

Danse frowned down at her. “Come on, soldier. You’re causing a scene.”

“You’re just upset that I beat you,” she wheezed.

The Paladin scoffed. “Hardly. I’d like to see you try that again with 300 pounds of metal strapped to you.”

“Oh yeah? Well, challenge accepted. But not today.”

Danse nodded, helping her up with a warm smile. “Affirmative. Today, we need to go speak to that detective.”

Myra’s face fell. “Yeah. I guess we do. But can we please swing by a few of the shops first? We’re running low on stimpacks, and I’d like to sell some of the extra gear we’re carrying.”

The Paladin thought for a moment. “Very well,” he said finally. “I suppose we can wait just a little longer.”

As they talked, Deacon quietly vanished into the crowd, making his way carefully towards Valentine’s Detective Agency. He had to admit, he was impressed. Was there anyone Myra couldn’t win over? From the looks of things, Paladin Danse was almost as charmed by her as Preston had been, and the dedicated soldier seemed like a much harder person to win over. How long would it be before Myra was ruling the whole damn Commonwealth with that infectious smile of hers?

Myra was adapting -- no, thriving -- and Deacon wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it. He’d seen what the Commonwealth could do to good people. The place was a meat grinder, chewing up the kind and compassionate and spitting them out raw, bloody, and jaded. While a certain amount of toughening-up was important if one wanted to stay alive in the wasteland, he’d seen too many people completely consumed by their drive to survive, and it saddened him to think that the same thing could happen to Myra. She was special, a radiant light in a dark world. What was the point in her survival if she lost her soul along the way?

Furthermore, Deacon was concerned that the Brotherhood’s influence on her might be too much for even his ample charm to break. If Myra was going to be of any use to the Railroad, he needed to do something. And he needed to do it quickly. It was time to enact the first phase of his plan.

He slipped into an alley, trading in his guard outfit for one of his scavver disguises. When he emerged, he meandered casually down Third Street towards the detective agency, looking around for an excuse to be there. Andy Gaines, one of the town’s maintenance workers, knelt by a corner of the wall with a portable blowtorch, trying to repair the pitted metal. Deacon smiled. Andy was a tourist, one of the Railroad’s many informants in the Commonwealth. In other words, he would more than likely be willing to play along with whatever scheme Deacon cooked up.

“Hey, man, how’s it going?” Deacon asked casually.

Andy looked up at him briefly before returning to his work. “Do I know you, scavver?”

“That depends. Do you have a geiger counter?”

“Mine is in the shop,” the man muttered, replying with the appropriate countersign. “So you’re from the Railroad. I should have known. You probably shouldn’t be seen around town. You know the Institute’s got eyes here.”

Deacon rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses. “Well, yeah. Where don’t they? Look, I could use an assist, if you’re up for it. Nothing big, just recruitment stuff.”

“Sure. I mean, I’ve got a fair bit of work to do here. I wouldn’t mind a casual conversation while I do it.”

Deacon grinned. “Good man. But I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that. There’s a Brotherhood of Steel Paladin in play. I need to get him out of the way, or we risk exposing the whole operation.”

Andy nodded. “Hey, I’ve got you covered.”

He knocked twice on the wall, and Deacon heard movement within. A moment later, a small, bedraggled girl pulled herself around the corner, her brown eyes bright with curiosity as she noticed Deacon.

“Yes, dad?” the child asked.

“Rachel, my friend here needs a distraction. Do you think you can be a brave girl and help us like you did before?”

She nodded, a bright grin lighting up her round face. “Can I keep what I take?” she asked.

“Only if you don’t get caught. Otherwise your uncle Danny will be very upset with you.”

Deacon glanced from Andy to his daughter in concern. “You’re really willing to put her at risk like that?”

Andy nodded. “She’s a smart kid. It’s not like we’ve never done this before.” He turned to the child. “Ok, now. You go wait around the corner, and when you hear daddy say ‘I wish we’d get more rain,’ it’s your turn, ok?”

The girl nodded, slinking off down the narrow street.

Andy turned his attention back to Deacon. “I heard a rumor that Takahashi recently changed the recipe for his Power Noodles. People say they don’t taste as good as they used to.”

Deacon smiled slightly. “Really? That’s a shame. I really enjoyed them.”

The two gabbed on, covering about the state of the wall, prices of brahmin meat, and other safe but boring topics as Deacon waited for Myra to show up.

Finally, he caught sight of her, skin still slightly flushed from her turn around the bases, hair windblown and tangled as she furiously tried to brush it out of her face with one hand. Danse walked a few steps behind her, his watchful brown eyes scanning for threats.

Deacon looked towards Andy, clearing his throat quietly. “Man, I can’t get enough of all this sunshine,” he said with a yawn. “It’s beautiful out. Makes you just want to take a long nap, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Andy replied. “All this sun’s bad for the crops. I wish we’d get more rain.”

“Well, don’t plants need both? At least, that’s my understanding.”

As they continued debating the matter, Deacon caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye as Rachel ran past, swiping Myra’s pack from her shoulder and taking off through the winding streets.

“Hey!” yelled Danse, “Get back here!”

“Did that really just happen?” asked Myra, her eyes wide. “Danse, I...I need that back. There’s things in there I can’t replace!”

“Wait here,” Danse replied. “I’ll get your belongings back, I promise.” He stomped off after the girl, scowling.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Deacon said under his breath.

Myra sighed, glancing around for a moment before finding an empty patch of wall to lean on. “Well, I guess Boston hasn’t changed that much after all,” she muttered. “Damn pickpockets.”

As she sulked, Deacon turned back to his companion. The hook was set. All they needed to do now was reel her in. Easy as lying. “Hey, you hear about the Railroad?” he asked the repairman.

“You mean that secret organization that supposedly protects synths?” muttered his gruff companion, rolling his eyes as he returned to his repairs on the side of the building. “Aren’t they a myth?”

“I dunno, man. My friend’s cousin says he found their headquarters or something. Apparently they’re the real deal.”

Andy laughed. “Yeah, and next you’ll tell me the West Stands are haunted.”

“I’m serious. He even told me they have some sort of code sign: if you want to find the Railroad, follow the Freedom Trail.”

Deacon glanced up at Myra, but she didn’t even look his way as she stared off in the direction Danse had gone, her lips parted slightly. The joy he’d seen on her face earlier had evaporated, leaving behind a hollow shell. Something more than the theft had happened, he realized. Something that he had not been party to.

After what felt like ages, Danse reappeared, Myra’s pack in his hand. The Paladin offered it to her with an apologetic smile. “Sorry I took so long. That street rat abandoned your bag on the other side of town and vanished. I looked for her, but she knows this city far better than I do. I’m sorry.”

“That’s ok, Danse,” Myra replied. “You got it back. That’s what matters. Thank you.”

“I checked to see if anything was missing,” the Paladin continued. “Besides that gold watch you found last week and a few other small items, I believe that everything is where it should be.”

Myra smiled. “Well, I have to admit, that took guts. I think the kid deserves whatever she took, don’t you?”

Danse stared at her for a moment, his eyes wide. “You...what? She stole from you. Most people would want justice for that.”

“Hey, all I’m saying is she was desperate,” replied Myra. “That means she probably needed what she took more than I did. I think we can leave it at that.”

Danse smiled gently at her. “Larimer, you really are an unusual woman.”

“And proud,” she replied with a grin. “Now, since you so graciously returned my bag to me, I suppose I can repay the favor by not dragging my feet. Let’s…” she sighed softly. “Oh, come on, let’s go see the detective.”

“Outstanding,” the Paladin replied, and the two of them continued towards Valentine’s office. Danse held the door open for Myra, gesturing her inside.

Deacon turned back to his companion with a heavy sigh. “Well, I’m pretty sure that was a bust. Thanks for trying, though.”

Andy nodded. “Any time. You guys saved my sister’s life when everyone else in town tried to kill her. It’s the least I can do.”

“Here’s a little something for your kid, too,” the spy added, handing the repairman his kazoo. “She more than earned it.”

Andy smiled. “Rachel will love this! Thank you.”

Deacon nodded in reply before continuing down the narrow street back towards the noodle stand. The stall was well-situated in the heart of the Diamond City Market, providing an excellent vantage point in several directions. Myra would not leave the city without him knowing about it, so long as he paid attention.

A few minutes later, Deacon watched as Myra appeared from around the corner, her disappointment palpable as she shuffled towards the town gate once more. She worried her lower lip between her teeth, trying to keep her composure.

“So now we have to go back the way we came,” Myra sighed to her companion. “Great. I knew getting help wouldn’t be that easy.”

Danse smiled grimly, placing a hand gently on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, soldier. We’ll find this Valentine, and he’ll be able to help us. If not, we will find another way to locate your son. We’re not going to give up until you know the truth, I promise.”

Myra stiffened at the contact, her eyes brimming with tears. “I hope you’re right, Danse. I just hope we’re not too late.”

Deacon wondered what would happen if they did find Nick Valentine. He was reasonably sure that Danse wouldn’t take the detective’s identity well. Perhaps the man’s own prejudices would do Deacon’s work for him and get the soldier out of his way. But he was getting ahead of himself. First, he needed to find out exactly where Myra and the Paladin were headed.

The spy slipped quietly into the detective agency as they walked away, easing the door closed behind him gently. The detective’s secretary, a bright-eyed young woman named Ellie Perkins, eyed him warily.

“I’m sorry, but the office is closed,” she said sternly.

“So I’ve heard,” Deacon replied. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to bother you. I was just wondering if you could tell me what you told the woman who just left.”

Ellie frowned. “You’re not a raider planning on ambushing her or anything, right? Nick always warned me not to give too much information away.”

Deacon flashed a charming smile at her. “I promise, I’m not up to anything of the sort. See, Myra’s a...my...well, she’s very special to me. I know she’s been having a hard time coming to terms with her husband’s death, and I...I’m worried about her. I just want to make sure she’s not going to get herself hurt. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to watch someone you care about put themselves in harm’s way like that, but if you have, you know why I want to help her.”

The secretary’s face softened, a bright glow in her eyes. “That’s...that’s incredibly kind of you. And I know exactly what you mean. If I could have talked Nick out of...oh, hell. They’re headed for Park Street Station if you wanted to meet her along the way.”

He couldn’t believe that angle had actually worked. “Thank you!” he replied eagerly, shaking the woman’s hand. “You’ve helped me a lot, Miss! I won’t ever forget it!”

“Good luck!” she replied, smiling back at him. “Bring her home safe, ok?”

Once he was out of the secretary’s sight, Deacon grimaced. It wasn’t that he minded lying, exactly. After all, misrepresenting the truth in order to get information was his life’s work. More than that, his lies were all he had left. There was nothing else in his life that he could really call his own. But he’d played with a more open hand than he normally did when he’d talked to Ellie, skirting the line between truth and fiction a little too well.

The core of every good lie, in his experience, was a kernel of truth, some detail or nuance that was so authentic that it gave the one weaving the story the same degree of trustworthiness. The best lies, told by the best liars, were so convincing that even the person weaving the story believed that they were true. And Deacon was an excellent liar, really in a class of his own. What made him special was that he was always able to believe his own lies, no matter how far-fetched. His sincerity was his greatest weapon, and his greatest enemy.

Telling lies so colored by the truth was a dangerous game, especially when the pieces on the board were all so very precious. And the more true the lies were, the harder it was to avoid getting caught up in their web. He had to be careful, and his conversation with Ellie had not been careful.

Deacon tried to ignore the memory of Barbara’s homemade floral perfume as he almost caught a hint of it in the air. Even now, after all this time, he could still smell it, a ghost of his memories hanging about him like the faintest hint of smoke on a winter’s day. He shook his head. It wasn’t real. Nothing that really mattered was part of this world anymore. He had to stay focused on his mission. He could let the guilt set in again later, when he stopped by for his monthly visit to The Memory Den. He didn’t need the memory loungers to remind him of all he’d lost, but at least in the twisting corridors of his memories, none of that heartache had come to pass yet. He could still pretend to be a simple farmer, and the woman he loved would still be by his side.

After doing his best to set aside his melancholy, Deacon headed for the town gate. He’d given them a good head start, but now that he knew where Myra and Danse were heading, he’d be able to track them fairly easily. It didn’t take long for him to catch up with the pair.

Deacon did his best to stay out of sight, but still tried to stay close enough to catch snippets of their conversation. If he’d learned anything in his long career as the Railroad’s intel guy, it was that any piece of information he could gather might prove useful in the long run. He couldn’t count the number of times his life or the lives of other Railroad agents had been saved by overhearing something as mundane as someone’s shopping list.

“...wondering if I could get your advice,” Deacon heard Myra say to the Paladin. The spy inched nearer.

“Of course, soldier,” Danse replied. “What’s troubling you?”

“Oh, no, it’s not like that,” Myra protested. “I’m fine. Well, as fine as can be expected, given the circumstances. I was just wondering what you think I should do about Knight Rhys.”

The Paladin frowned at her. “Why are you asking about Rhys all of a sudden?”

“It’s been bothering me, ever since we left the station. I know it probably seems silly, but if we’re going to be working together, I suppose I was wondering if you had any idea how I can make him less...I don’t know, mad at me for existing, or whatever his problem is?”

Danse sighed. “First of all, perhaps the two of you would get along better if you didn’t assume he was out to get you. I’ve worked with Knight Rhys for years. He’s a good, fair man.”

“Then what’s his problem with me?” Myra asked.

“I’m not entirely sure. Have you thought about asking him yourself?”

She snorted. “What, and give him another excuse to yell at me?”

Danse shook his head. “I won’t pretend that I understand Knight Rhys, but I think you should give him a chance. Maybe he’ll surprise you. I think that he might just be confused by you, and things that confuse him make him upset.”

“What’s confusing about me?” Myra asked. “I’m as normal as they come.”

The Paladin stared at her in disbelief. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”

“What are you talking about, Danse?”

“You’re… um… how to put this…” he muttered, lost in thought for a moment. “You’re a very intense and challenging person. I can certainly understand why a man like Rhys might find that confusing, or even threatening.”

Myra stopped walking, her eyes meeting Danse’s. “Tell me, Paladin. Do you feel that way too?”

“I…” he began, trailing off as his gaze dodged hers, a faint blush staining his cheeks. “I guess I haven’t given it much thought. I’m just speculating, that’s all. If you want to know what Knight Rhys thinks about you, you really ought to ask him yourself.”

“Uhuh,” muttered Myra, smiling slightly as she resumed her walk. Danse trailed behind, watching her for a moment before following.

Deacon smirked as Myra and Danse continued on their way. That was definitely an interesting conversation. It was obvious that neither Myra nor Danse were completely comfortable with each other yet, and that was something Deacon could use to his advantage. There was still time for him to drive a wedge between them and save Myra from the Brotherhood’s influence. He just had to make the right move at the right time.

Myra hesitated as she and Danse entered the area around the Swan Pond, her eyes distant as she glanced around the small park. Her movements were slow, deliberate, as though she were walking through a dream, or… living a memory. Deacon knew that trance-like look well. Myra may have been standing in 2287, but her mind had traveled centuries back to a time before her world had ended. She walked calmly towards the edge of the pond, a ghost of a smile gracing her face.

Deacon bit his tongue, forcing himself to remain silent. He wanted desperately to warn her to stay away from the water’s edge, to slowly back away before she could awaken the terror within. However, to do so would expose him, undoing all his preparation and hard work. He had no choice but to watch from a distance, his sniper rifle readied at a large mass of debris in the center of the pond.

“What are you doing, soldier?” he heard Danse ask, concern coloring the Paladin’s gravelly voice.

Myra turned to look at Danse, smiling wistfully at him. “Nate and I used to come here, before the war. I swear the pond was bigger then. On summer evenings, when the weather was right, bands would play in that gazebo over there, and people would come and ride the swan boats and dance on the shore.”

Danse smiled at her softly. “That sounds ideal, Larimer.”

Deacon had to agree. He tried to imagine what Boston Common must have been like before the war, full of happy families and picnics, businessmen and statesmen going about their business, unaware of how quickly everything could be snatched away from them. What was it like, living in a world without constant radiation, a land of green trees and cleansing rain? He imagined that such a world would be a place of exquisite boredom. Would he have thrived there?

“It was pretty wonderful,” Myra replied. “I remember, Nate...he never liked being out on the water. I suppose that’s why he didn’t join the Navy. On our fourth date, we rented one of the boats. He was terrified the entire time, gripping the sides of the boat with white knuckles and probably hoping I wouldn’t notice. But he wanted to make me happy, and so he pretended he wasn’t scared out of his mind. It was...it was one of the sweetest things anyone has ever done for me. I never asked him to take me boating again. Instead, we would sit on the edge of the water and skip stones.”

She reached down, grasping something from the dirt, brushing it off in her hands. Deacon’s stomach clenched, his daydream forgotten. She couldn’t seriously be considering…

Myra’s arm stretched behind her as she twisted at the hip, slinging a palm-sized stone towards the water. The spy watched in horror as the rock skipped cleanly across the ruined pond, heading directly towards the center. He winced as he heard the stone connect with the debris pile.

“That was quite impressive, soldier,” he heard Danse say. “Perhaps someday you’ll teach--”

The man’s words were cut off by a loud splashing, a deep bestial roar rending the peaceful scene. The debris pile shuddered and creaked as it rose from the pond, a massive green hand reaching from the water towards Myra and Danse.

“Behemoth!” yelled Danse, readying his laser rifle. “Larimer, get to cover immediately!”

“What about you?” she cried.

“I’m right behind you! Go, now!”

The Paladin fired round after round into the giant Super Mutant, doing his best to draw the monster’s attention and allow Myra time to escape. The young woman fled towards Park Street Station, desperately scanning the area with her eyes, presumably looking for adequate cover. She darted into the gazebo, heaving her pack down next to her as she rummaged inside.

“Damn it, Danse! Where did you put my grenades?” she bellowed.

“They’re in my pack!” he shouted in reply. “Stay there, and cover me!”

The Behemoth hoisted a large, jagged rock from the pond, readying it in his massive hands as it glared at Danse. The creature cried out in rage, drawing its arm back to hurl the car-sized projectile at the Paladin.

Time froze for a moment as Deacon inhaled deeply, training his rifle at the Behemoth’s hand. His mind raced as he considered his options. On the one hand, he was under no obligation to help the Paladin. He could let Danse be crushed, possibly even killed. It would be in the Railroad’s best interest for him to not intervene, after all, and it would make it far easier for him to recruit Myra if the soldier were out of the picture. The man was an enemy to synth-kind and to all those who helped them.

However, there was something about the situation that gave Deacon pause. Looking back, he could never be entirely certain what it was that compelled him to intervene. It might have been concern for Myra’s well-being if the creature came for her next. Maybe it was the sheer bravery and gall the Paladin showed in that moment as he stared death in the face defiantly. It could have even been as simple as Myra’s gentle smile as she reflected on long-distant summers, and Deacon’s desire not to ruin another happy memory for her. There were so very few of those left in the world.

Deacon exhaled slowly as he squeezed the trigger, cursing himself under his breath as the bullet found its mark. The Behemoth roared in anguish as the flesh of his thick, green thumb ruptured in bright spurts of blood. It dropped the massive boulder with a splash that sent a circular tidal wave rushing towards the pond’s shores, covering Danse with a deluge of irradiated, filthy water.

The Paladin growled in disgust, wiping water from his eyes with one hand as he trained his rifle at the gargantuan monster once more. The beast swung down with his other arm, knocking Danse from his feet and into the side of a large dead tree. The soldier groaned in pain, dropping to one knee as he fell.

“Danse!” cried Myra from the gazebo as she laid down cover fire for her companion, “Are you ok?”

“I’ll live, soldier!” he hissed. “Aim for the eyes, if you can! Let’s take this bastard down! Ad Victoriam!”

“Ad Victoriam, sir!” she shouted in reply, correcting her aim.

The Behemoth roared as bolts of red laser fire hit him from two directions, burning his face. Within the course of a few minutes, the creature wobbled and fell, one final groan of agony wheezing from his body as he succumbed to his injuries.

Myra ran to Danse’s side, her pack forgotten. Her eyes burned with righteous indignation as she stood over him. “Are you fucking kidding me, Danse? What happened to being right behind me? Don’t you ever do that to me again! You could have been killed!”

“Fortunately, I was wearing power armor,” he replied, using the trunk of the tree to hoist himself back to his feet, “and someone needed to draw his attention. I made a calculated choice, and it paid off. You and I both survived.”

“That’s not the point, Danse! How could you put yourself in harm’s way like that?”

“I would gladly spill my own blood if it meant that my brothers and sisters were safe, soldier. I had hoped that you’d understand that by now. If you refuse to wear adequate protective gear, I --”

“Don’t you dare put this on me! I’m not the one with a fucking martyr complex! Get over yourself, Paladin. You’re no good to me dead.”

“I can’t believe that after…”

Deacon crept towards the gazebo as Danse and Myra argued, their voices falling out of range. He almost felt bad for Danse, being on the receiving end of the young woman’s anger. Still, the Railroad agent couldn't’ have asked for a better opportunity. Deacon sneaked a recruitment holotape as well as one of Tinker Tom’s bugs into Myra’s bag before slinking back into the overgrown hedges around the park.

Eventually, Myra sighed, throwing her arms as far around Danse’s torso as she could manage, her fingers gripping the battered metal tight. He hesitated for a moment, staring down at her with wide eyes. Then he wrapped his arms gently around her, letting her settle against him.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you, sir,” Myra said, her voice hoarse from her outburst. “I’m just glad you’re ok. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d died because I made a stupid mistake.”

“I should have realized,” Danse replied. “I’m sorry.”

She pulled away from him, blushing slightly as she turned away. “Well, I guess we should get to the station, huh? Though after all that, I think a surprise attack is out of the question.”

“Larimer, I…” Danse started to say, his words failing him as she turned back to look at him. He cleared his throat. “You’re right. Let’s get moving before any other threats get drawn by the noise.”

Deacon rolled his eyes as the two of them walked towards the station. The gap he’d noticed between them seemed to be closing, and swiftly. One thing was for certain, next time he followed the two of them, he was going to bring popcorn.

He waited for a long while after Myra and Danse descended into Park Street Station before moving out of cover. Hopefully, Myra would find and listen to the holotape without Danse nearby, and she’d be intrigued enough to find her way to HQ. It wasn’t the most precise plan, but his decision to help the Paladin had left Deacon with limited options.

Just to be on the safe side, Deacon activated the protectron near the back side of Park Street Station. The robot had been programmed to draw attention to the Freedom Trail, the historic path that would lead interested parties straight to HQ, if they knew the right code.

“It’s all up to you, Caboose,” he muttered as the yellow, cone-headed robot hissed out of its charging pod and began patrolling the area, looking for visitors to greet.
Something told him this latest plan wasn’t going to work either. Myra was too focused on -- or perhaps too distracted by -- her mission to notice Deacon’s subtle attempts to intrigue her. He needed to be more direct, but he couldn’t approach her with Paladin Danse always by her side.

The best he could hope for was that his bug wasn’t detected and he’d be able to keep an even closer eye on Myra’s activities until he had a chance to recruit her directly. The Paladin couldn’t really be around her every hour of every day. If Deacon got lucky, he’d find the window he needed. Otherwise...well, it wasn’t helpful to dwell on that.

With a final glance back at the station, Deacon tightened the straps on his backpack, heading northwest. It was a long walk to Stanwix, and the sun was already dipping below the horizon, the cityscape devouring its light with crooked concrete teeth.

Chapter Text

 As the sun set over the patchwork roofs and skeletal trees of Sanctuary, Preston Garvey patrolled along the palisades surrounding the small island, his eyes trained on the fiery horizon. The fortifications had been finished nearly a week ago. The fearsome ramparts and guard towers built of wood and steel stood as a proud reminder of everything the Minutemen and the settlers under their protection had accomplished.

Since Preston’s group had arrived in Sanctuary, the once-deserted subdivision had begun to grow into a small town, complete with a marketplace, farm, and even a school for the handful of children who lived there. Sturges had converted one of the buildings into a full-blown garage, and had made great strides towards building an electrical grid to provide power to the whole community.

Marcy Long’s bar and hotel, The Last Minuteman , had become a popular stop for locals and caravans alike, and the formidable woman had taken to her new role as a business owner remarkably well. Though her fierce personality hadn’t changed much, at least her brimstone eyes ensured that everyone always paid their tabs on time.

Sanctuary was no Diamond City, but they were holding their own up in the northwestern corner of the Commonwealth. People seemed happy and secure. It was more than Preston could have hoped for.

Yes, Sanctuary was thriving. But Preston knew that his job was far from over, not if the Minutemen were to gain a foothold in the Commonwealth again. They needed more settlements to ally with them. Tenpines Bluff alone would not provide the support they would need.

He wondered--as he often had over the last few weeks--where the General had gone. Was she even still alive? He’d heard nothing from her since she’d left for Diamond City, and he had to admit that he was anxious and more than a little upset. If she’d gotten herself killed, he was going to have to find a new person to lead the Minutemen. If she was alive, Preston was concerned that she’d abandoned their cause.

As he was contemplating who could fill Myra’s shoes, the alarm bell near the gate rang twice, the settlement’s code for “stranger at the gate”. Preston ran back along the ramparts, laser musket at the ready. Only rarely did good news arrive at dusk.

He situated himself in one of the watchtowers, warily eyeing the newcomer who stood below. The man was dressed in what looked like the remnants of a Gunner uniform, tattered green and grey fatigues offset by the remains of a light brown duster. Preston gritted his teeth as he aimed his musket at the stranger.

“What are you doing here?” the minuteman demanded. “This is a peaceful settlement. We don’t pay tribute to Gunners.”

The stranger held his arms up in surrender, his eyes wide. “Whoa! Whoa! Hey, I come in peace. I’m just looking for Preston Garvey. The General sent me, said you needed help.”

“The General? Where is he?” demanded Preston. “We haven’t heard from him in ages!

“You mean she?” the man asked, confused. “Unless that bit… I mean, that woman lied to me…” The newcomer’s face paled as the implications sunk in. “Oh, God, did I really come all this way on the word of a drunk?”

Preston’s curiosity was piqued. “A drunk? What did she look like?”

The stranger thought for a moment before answering. “Long white hair, pretty green eyes, kind of a frustrating disregard for other people’s feelings? That sound like anyone you know?”

Preston smiled slightly, lowering his musket. “Good. Sounds like you’ve actually met the General. She’s…not the easiest person to get along with.”

“I’m getting that impression,” the man replied. “So why did you pretend your General was a man?”

Preston chuckled. “You’d be amazed how many people have tried to get in here by saying they ‘know the General’. Very few of them seem to know she’s a woman, let alone what she looks like. I guess that makes sense, when no one’s seen her in more than a month.”

“Yeah, I certainly hadn’t expected someone like her to be in charge. Frankly, I was surprised to see the General of the Minutemen paling around with the Brotherhood of Steel.”

“Hang on,” Preston replied. “The Brotherhood of Steel?”

“So you didn’t know?” asked the stranger. “Huh. I guess she really is like that with everyone. I’ll tell you what I know, but only after I have a chance to talk with Preston Garvey. The lady said it was important. Now, are you going to let me in, or not? I don’t like being out in the open like this.”

Preston nodded to Frank Harris, the town’s gatekeeper, who stared at him incredulously. “Ya sure you wanna let him in, Colonel?” muttered Frank, his mouth drawn in a tight line. “Like they say, where there’s one radroach ya see, there’s ten ya don’t. How do we know he ain’t got buddies nearby, waitin’ to jump us?”

“You’re not wrong,” Preston replied. “But if the General really did send him, we ought to trust her judgement.”

“No offense,” the older man continued, rolling his mud brown eyes, “but I ain’t never met the General, and I don’t give two shits about her judgement. But I trust yours, Preston. If ya think lettin’ vermin like this in’s the right thing to do, I ain’t gonna argue. If he so much as looks at me funny, though, that’s another story.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Frank,” said Preston before turning back to the stranger. “You heard that, right?”

The man outside the gate nodded. “Hey, I get it, I do. If I were you, I wouldn’t trust me either. But I promise, I’m only here to help.”

“Well, we can always use more help,” mused the minuteman. “Open her up, Frank!”

Frank muttered under his breath as he unlocked the gate and swung the huge doors open. Preston climbed down from the watchtower to greet the newcomer properly.

“I’m Colonel Preston Garvey, Commonwealth Minutemen,” he said, offering the stranger his hand. “And you are…?”

“Name’s MacCready,” the man replied, shaking Preston’s hand with a tight grip that betrayed the lean boniness of his fingers. “Gun-for-hire, currently working for your General.”

Preston’s eyes narrowed. “See, that’s where I’m confused. If you’re a hired gun, why did she send you here? Wouldn’t she want you to, you know, protect her?”

“It’s that fuc...that stupid Paladin she’s with,” MacCready fumed. “She hired me to go with her to Diamond City, but then the guy just refused to leave, so she sent me here instead.”

Preston frowned. “Did she seem like she was being coerced? I’ve heard rumors about the Brotherhood of Steel. From what I’ve heard, they sometimes force people to work for them.”

MacCready shook his head. “Seemed more like a spat than her trying to get away from him, honestly. Far as I could tell, she was in Goodneighbor by choice.”

Preston’s eyes widened. “What in the hell was she doing in Goodneighbor?”

“Like I’d know,” the mercenary scoffed. “It’s not like we read each other’s diaries or anything. She just hired me to watch her back, then changed her mind and sent me here when that Brotherhood toolbelt got upset about it.”

That was concerning. What had forced Myra so far off track that she’d wound up clear on the other side of Boston from where she was supposed to be, and with the Brotherhood, no less? Preston puzzled over the possibilities as MacCready continued telling him about the mercenary’s encounter with the General. If she hadn’t been coerced, that meant that she’d joined up with the Brotherhood willingly. Did she know their stance on non-humans, their insistence on hoarding technology for themselves rather than using it to better the lives of everyone around them? Did she agree with their rhetoric? Was that why she’d abandoned the Minutemen, leaving Preston to fend for himself for weeks?

“Anyway,” MacCready finished, the tone of finality drawing Preston’s attention back to the man, “she told me to tell you that Oberland Station is clear, whatever that means.”

Preston sighed in relief. Myra had taken care of Oberland? Well, that was better news than he’d been expecting. Maybe she hadn’t abandoned the Minutemen after all, at least not completely.

“So, when she sent you here, did the General tell you what she wanted you to do?” Preston asked.

MacCready shrugged. “She just said to report to you and offer you any help you need.”

“Well, are you any good with that sniper rifle you’ve got there?” asked Preston, gesturing to the battered old gun that hung on a thin braided strap from the man’s shoulder.

MacCready’s eyes glinted dangerously. “Any good? Are you serious? I’m the best shot in this wasteland.”

“Well, if that’s true, we could always use someone to man the walls here. But I’ve got a different sort of task in mind. How do you feel about helping me establish a new settlement?”

MacCready thought for a moment. “I’m not sure...I mean, I don’t really know anything about building settlements, but if you think I can help, that’s what I was paid to do. And I always finish the job, long as I’m getting paid.”

Preston smiled warmly at the shorter man. “Good enough. I’m actually really glad to have the extra help. See, a few weeks ago I sent a couple scouts out, and they found a perfect spot for a new settlement just down the road from here. Apparently, there’s a pretty bad mole rat problem there, though. So I’m thinking we go there, clear the place out, and then help a few settlers get started there.”

MacCready nodded. “If things need to be killed, I’m your guy. I’m not a huge hammer and nails man, but if you agree to do most of the building, I can manage most of the shooting.”

“Sounds like a plan, then,” replied the Colonel. “We’ll head out first thing in the morning. There’s a free bed over at the bar there, and Marcy’ll feed you if you’re hungry.”

“Better than sleeping out in the open again,” MacCready replied gratefully. “Thanks for letting me in, and not...you know, just blowing my brains out.”

Preston’s eyes narrowed. “We Minutemen aren’t usually the shoot first, ask later type.”

The mercenary nodded. “I know, just...I heard what happened at Quincy. Made me glad I made the right choice and quit the Gunners when I did. I’ll do just about anything if the pay’s good enough, but...I don’t know how anyone could look at themselves in the mirror after something like that.”

Preston stared at the young man for a long moment before replying. “I...I was at Quincy,” he said softly. “Only a handful of us made it out. Only five of us made it here.”

MacCready’s face paled. “Well, thank you even more for not shooting me, I guess. I don’t know if I would have waited for an explanation before I pulled the trigger if I’d been on your side of the fence.”

Preston watched as the man nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He wanted to reassure him, to let him know that his past didn’t matter, that if the General trusted him, so did Preston. But he couldn’t lie to MacCready, even if it was a comforting lie.

“See you tomorrow,” Preston replied, watching cautiously as the mercenary made his way to the bar. Could he really trust this man, who’d freely admitted that he’d been a Gunner? It was hard for him to believe that Myra would really have sent someone like that to Sanctuary. But, if the man was telling the truth about seeing her with the Brotherhood of Steel...maybe Preston didn’t know his General as well as he thought he did.

After all, how long had he really known Myra Larimer? She had only been in his life for a couple of weeks before she’d vanished into the Commonwealth. Until MacCready’s arrival, no one had even heard from her. She had saved Preston’s life, of course, which was about the closest bond that could be forged between people in this chaotic world as far as Preston was concerned. The way she fought to help rebuild Sanctuary, the swift justice she’d dispatched in the Corvega Plant, how easily she’d won over the people of Tenpines Bluff...Preston had been so sure that she was the General he’d been looking for. But now, as the last gasps of December’s biting cold brought longer, darker nights to the Commonwealth, he began to doubt himself.

He hadn’t asked Myra to be the General of the Minutemen because she was the perfect candidate. He had asked her to lead them because he was desperate. Preston knew someone had to be in charge, and he firmly believed that anyone would be a better choice than he would be. Now, however...Myra was consorting with ex-Gunners and Brotherhood soldiers, freely partnering with people who Preston considered to be some of the largest threats to the Commonwealth. Had his desire to remain out of the spotlight put the Minutemen that remained even further at risk?

 


The next morning, Preston blinked the remaining weariness from his eyes as he walked towards the Last Minuteman to find his new companion. The early morning sun bathed the street in a golden glow, illuminating the last traces of icy dew that clung to the remains of the subdivision, casting everything in shimmering light. He smiled softly as he took in the sight. Even in the bleak wasteland, there was beauty to be found.

As he entered Marcy’s bar, Preston spied MacCready perched on a bar stool, looking out through the window at the settlement beyond. The mercenary seemed quite refreshed, his deep blue eyes glinting with interest as he watched the people of Sanctuary go about their day. A curious smile played about his lips as he sipped on a glass of water. When he saw Preston approaching, MacCready greeted him with a bold grin.

“Well, Garvey, this is quite a place you’ve got here!” the man exclaimed. “You must be proud.”

“I am,” Preston replied. “These are good people. The Minutemen gave them a chance, and look at what they’ve done with it. It’s pretty amazing.”

“And this is the sort of thing we’re gonna build at your new settlement?” MacCready asked.

The Colonel nodded. “That’s the hope. It won’t be quite like this, but I’m hopeful that with the right help and a lot of hard work, we can make a settlement there that’s just as safe as this one.”

MacCready’s eyes returned to the window, their gaze distant. “Well, hey, I mean, if the rest of the Commonwealth looked like this, I’d bring…” he trailed off, frowning.

“What’s wrong?” asked Preston.

MacCready looked back at him with a shrug. “Look, I think your idea’s good. I’m just not sold on the execution. Do you really think these settlers will be able to protect themselves against, say, a hive of Super Mutants? That wall of yours is pretty intimidating, but it doesn’t mean much without the firepower to back it up.”

“Ideally, our settlers wouldn’t have to fight on their own,” Preston replied. “The Minutemen will come and help whenever they need us.”

“Ideally,” MacCready fired back, smirking, “I’d have a million caps and all the ammo I could need. How many Minutemen do you have at your disposal, exactly?”

Preston thought for a moment. “Well, there’s me, the General, Frank, Sturges, those two new recruits from Tenpines...and you.”

“Hey, I don’t remember pledging myself to your cause,” the mercenary sputtered. “I’m just doing the job I was paid for. That’s it.”

“Then where’s the General?” Preston retorted. “If I’m recalling correctly, didn’t she actually pay you to watch her back?”

“That’s…” MacCready started to reply, his eyes widening as he realized that Preston had a point. “I...ugh! Fine,” he sighed. “You’re right. But I’m still not joining your stupid militia. I’ve had just about enough of working for someone else for one lifetime. I work for me, and that’s that.”

“No offense,” replied Preston with a faint smile, “but you work for whoever’s paying you. That’s sort of what being a mercenary is all about.”

“Well, yeah,” MacCready conceded, “but at the end of the day, I take the jobs I want to take. If I work for someone else, I have to take the jobs they order me to take.” His deep blue eyes shone with pride as they met Preston’s. “See? There’s a difference, and it’s an important one. At least to me.”

The Colonel stared at him, curious. It seemed like such an arbitrary difference to Preston. He’d never been particularly fond of mercenaries, seeing them as merely thugs for hire who’d do anything for a quick cap or two. But there was something about MacCready that seemed earnest, different than what Preston expected from a hired gun. Was this what Myra had seen in the scrawny fellow, some spark of humanity that set him apart from others in his profession? Or had Preston gone soft in his desperation? Was he placing virtue where there was none just to feel better about using MacCready’s services?

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” the Colonel said finally. “Huh. Well, I can respect that. But, if you ever change your mind, I’ve got a uniform with your name on it. All you’d have to do is agree to work exclusively for the Minutemen.”

MacCready grinned. “Does it come with one of those funny hats you guys wear? Because if so, that’s kinda tempting.”

“I’ll have to keep that in mind as a recruiting tool,” Preston said dryly. “Now, come on. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us, MacCready, and a lot of work to do when we get there.”

 


The sun was high in the frozen sky when Preston and MacCready arrived at the old Starlight Drive-In. Preston had to admit that he was impressed with the site. His scouts had done exceptionally well.

The parking lot was full of rusted old vehicles, the last moviegoers lost forever to the radioactive dust that clung to the seats. Preston wondered what had been playing that night, the night before everything came to a fiery end. Did any of these people suspect as they sat in their cars that this would be the last film any of them would watch?

The rows of metal wrecks gave way to a large, weathered screen in one direction. An old diner and projection booth capped the other side of the site. Both buildings were remarkably well-preserved. Though the screen had lost quite a few panels over the centuries, its steel frame buckling and twisting as radstorms and vandals took their toll, the structure that supported it was mostly intact. It would be fairly easy for them to convert the old storage rooms into dormitories while work proceeded on the small family homes Preston hoped would someday litter the lot. He could see it now, a fully-formed trading settlement sending supplies all over the northern part of the Commonwealth. It could be the envy of Bunker Hill, if the Minutemen played their cards right, a caravaner's dream destination.

MacCready, on the other hand, looked around the remains of the old drive-in with displeasure. “This is your great location for a new settlement? You’ve got to be kidding me. Look at this dump.”

Preston frowned. “What’s wrong with it? Look, once we clear all these old cars out of here, there’s going to be so much open space! We can build anything we want here. There’s even a water source right in the middle of the lot! Do you know how rare that is?”

“I’d be more concerned about defense if I were you,” the mercenary replied. “Look at this place. There’s hardly any cover here.” He gestured towards the old movie screen which towered over the crumbled parking lot. “All someone would need to do is to get on top of that screen there, and boom, your whole ‘wonderful new settlement’ is a shooting gallery.”

“So we’ll post our own guards there first,” retorted Preston. “I know it’s not much to look at right now, but trust me. I’ve got a plan. When we’re finished with it, this place is going to be incredible.”

“If you say so,” muttered MacCready. He walked between a few of the cars, glancing about warily. “So where are those mole rats you brought me along to kill? One of their burrows has to be around here--argh!” he yelped as his left foot vanished into the ground, his body falling backwards as he lost his footing. His head connected with the side of one of the cars with a resounding clang.

“Are you ok?” cried Preston, rushing to the mercenary’s side.

“Hey, would you look at that?” hissed MacCready as he rubbed his head. “I found one! Fortunately for my foot, looks like no one’s home.” He pulled himself off the ground, dusting off his rear with a few quick slaps.

“Is your head--”

“I’ll be fine, Preston,” the man interrupted sourly. “My friends always said I had a thick skull. All the same, though, I think I’ll be charging your General for hazard pay after this.”

Preston watched him, concerned. “Let me know if your vision gets blurry or anything. I’ve seen plenty of folks killed from less severe blows than that. You can never be too careful.”

“I appreciate the concern,” replied MacCready, “but right now, we’ve got a rodent problem to take care of.” He pulled a frag grenade out of his pack, arming it and tossing it down the mole rat burrow. “I’d run, if I were you,” he continued, sprinting for the edge of the lot.

“A little warning, next time, please?” cried Preston, darting after him.

A small explosion rocked the site, tossing dirt, chunks of concrete, and bits of meat in the air. As the dust settled, the two men glanced at each other, grinning.

“Well, that’s one way to take care of mole rats,” Preston said with a laugh, clapping a hand on MacCready’s back. The man stiffened, shying away from the contact.

“I wouldn’t be so sure it’s over if I were you,” MacCready replied, readying his rifle. “Place like this, there’s bound to be--”

He was cut off as the ground beneath their feet seemed to rumble and convulse, cars shuddering as the terrain shifted violently beneath them. Before either of the men could do or say anything more, swarms of large, hairless rodents poured from underneath a few of the cars, squeaking in fear and rage as they charged towards them.

“Well, this is pretty damn terrifying!” cried Preston, firing his laser musket at one of the mole rats, decapitating it mid-leap as it flung itself at him.

“This is why I usually don’t take exterminator jobs,” replied MacCready, frantically firing and reloading. “Sure, it’s easy to kill a few mole rats, but there’s always more of them than you think. If you don’t get them all, you have the same problem next month when they breed again.”

The quivering mass of bare, wrinkled flesh and yellowed incisors seemed to hardly notice as members of the horde fell, each rat clambering over the corpses of its fallen comrades without a pause. There must have been over two dozen of the massive rodents remaining, and they were skittering ever closer, red beady eyes filled with rage and hunger.

“So you decided to get all of them to charge us at once instead?” Preston hissed, cranking his laser musket as fast as he could. “Are you insane?”

“Hey, I didn’t see you coming up with a better plan,” snarked the mercenary. “At least now they’re all out in the open. Now stop bit...I mean, stop complaining and keep firing at these things while I get to the top of the screen!”

“You’re leaving me here? Are you serious?”

“Remember what I said earlier about a shooting gallery?” MacCready asked, firing into the fleshy horde. Another rat fell in a cloud of blood and brain. “I’m gonna show you exactly what I was talking about. Once I start shooting again, follow me up, ok? I’d tell you to come now, but if we don’t keep them focused on something, those little jerks will just go back underground, and I only had one grenade on me.”

“For the record,” replied Preston as he drove the butt of his laser musket into the open maw of a mole rat, breaking its teeth, “I hate this plan.”

“Just shut up and shoot, Preston!” yelled MacCready. “I need that cover fire!”

The Colonel watched out of the corner of his eye in dismay as MacCready retreated, his rifle slung over his back, the cracked wooden stock bouncing against his pack as he ran. Preston didn’t have time to waste in hoping the mercenary wasn’t about to betray him and leave the drive-in altogether. He was severely outnumbered. Whether MacCready was planning on resuming shooting or not, Preston had little choice but to keep fighting.

After what felt like a lifetime of shooting, bashing, and stabbing, Preston heard a shot ring out from above, then another. One by one, the dog-sized rats fell, spurting blood. The ground was slick with gore and viscera, and Preston nearly slipped as he placed a shot through the abdomen of one last rodent, which fell with a horrific, gurgling shriek. He ran for the stairwell, a half-dozen or so mole rats still hot on his heels.

When he reached the top, he spied MacCready perched below the railing, continuing to pick off the remaining creatures. The man’s eyes glinted dangerously as he fired, each movement as natural as breathing. He hadn’t lied to Preston. The young sniper was one hell of a shot.

“You made it,” MacCready called between shots as he reloaded his sniper rifle. “I was starting to think you were rat food. Quick, grab that metal sheet over there and use it to seal off the stairs.”

Preston did as the man requested, covering the narrow opening with a large panel from the movie screen. It wasn’t quite heavy enough to act as a barricade, but the noise it made might be enough to warn them if any rats were smart enough to use the stairs and sneak up behind them.

“So what’s the plan now?” he asked, returning to the mercenary’s side. “How long do we stay up here?”

“Until we’ve killed every mole rat we can find,” replied MacCready, shooting one of the remaining creatures through the left eye socket, “and then we should wait a few hours just to be sure we got them all. Last thing you want is some over-sized mouse taking a bite out of your butt just because you didn’t wait for an all-clear.”

“But how will we know when they’re all gone? We can’t blow one of their tunnels again. Didn’t you say you were out of grenades?”

The mercenary grinned at Preston, tossing him a bottle of whiskey. “Found this up here. If you have a lighter and some cloth, we should be good to go for round two. It’s a shame, though. Looks like a pretty good bottle.”

Preston glared at him in disbelief. “Is that why it took you so long to start shooting again? You were looking for scrap?”

“Hey, I checked on you first. Looked to me like you were holding your own. Besides,” he added, gesturing to a wooden box by his feet, “I only checked that one. Feel free to look around, see if there’s anything else useful up here.”

“I’ll do that,” replied Preston, shaking his head as he walked towards a small patio table on the right side of the screen roof. “Unbelievable,” he muttered under his breath.

There wasn’t much to salvage on the roof, but Preston did manage to find some scraps of cloth and another bottle of liquor. He returned to MacCready, his temper having cooled somewhat during the course of his search. The man was frustrating and impulsive, but he had managed to keep them both alive so far. If Preston had come alone, there was a fairly good chance he would have been overwhelmed by mole rats long before now. Even if he hadn’t had to face the horde at its full strength, he probably wouldn’t have lasted very long without someone watching his back.

By the time he returned to MacCready’s perch, the man had lowered his weapon and was relaxing, leaning up against the steel railing with a wistful look on his face. Preston cleared his throat, startling him back to reality.

“Oh, hey,” MacCready said hastily, his cheeks reddening slightly as he stood. “Find anything good?”

Preston held the bottle out to him. “Not much, but there was some vodka over by that skeleton.”

“Awesome! That shi...I mean, that stuff burns really well. Maybe we can keep the whiskey.”

“You know,” said Preston, watching the man curiously, “I’m not going to get angry with you for swearing.”

“I know. Look, it’s not about you. I just…” MacCready trailed off, a deep sadness resting in his eyes.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” the Colonel continued, cracking the cap on the bottle of vodka and stuffing the opening with cloth. “I’m sorry for prying, it’s just, well…”

“Well what?” asked the sniper, watching him with curious eyes.

Preston set the Molotov down beside him before leaning on the rail next to MacCready. “I’m not sure why you came to help us,” the minuteman continued. “You’re not exactly the type of person I’d expect to be willing to travel halfway across the ‘Wealth just because a drunk woman told him to.”

“You mean I don’t look like a sucker,” replied MacCready with a slight chuckle.

“Something like that.”

“Well, I’m not. Not normally, anyway. I guess…” MacCready sighed, his eyes scanning the horizon. “Look, I don’t really know you, or your General. But you’ve got that thing, you know? That fire, or something. Both of you have it. You’re the kinds of people who really seem to care about what happens to other people, I guess.”

Preston nodded. “That’s how I got involved with the General too. She saved my life, the lives of everyone I brought with me from Quincy. Hell, she killed a whole group of raiders and a Deathclaw to protect us within an hour of meeting us.”

“What?” asked MacCready, his eyes wide in disbelief. “Really? That’s insane! Why would anyone take a risk like that for someone else?”

“Well, she did. And I’m here thanks to that, so you can say she’s earned a little faith from me. But you said you met her in a bar. Why do you care what happens to her?”

“That shi...that sort of thing you’re talking about is rare these days,” the mercenary replied with a sigh. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel like if I help her and her friends, maybe that makes me a good guy too. Or at least a better one. And I have someone...someone who I want to see me as a better guy, ok? Maybe that’s why I’m here. I don’t know.”

Preston eyed the mercenary carefully as he thought about what the man had said. So far, he hadn’t acted like any of the Gunners Preston had had the misfortune of meeting before, brash and sadistic warmongers who cared for nothing except how much they were getting paid. MacCready seemed...human, he supposed. It was easy for Preston to demonize the people who destroyed his life and snuffed out so many others. After all, only a group of monsters would slaughter innocents the way the Gunners had done at Quincy. To see one of their former members like this, trying to be a better person for someone he cared about, gave him pause. How many of the mercenaries and raiders he’d killed had been like MacCready, just trying to survive the only way they knew how? How many of them might have also quit working for the wrong side if they’d been given a chance to get free of that life? How many of them had families to protect, children to provide for?

Preston cleared his throat, calming his thoughts as best he could. He couldn’t afford to think like that. If the men and women he’d put down had wanted to, they could have stopped raiding settlements at any time. MacCready was proof of that. The world may have been blown to hell, but there were still such things as right and wrong. No matter what, killing innocent people was wrong. Protecting innocent people, even if that meant killing those that threatened them, was right. There was comfort in that simplicity.

MacCready sighed, cracking open the whiskey. “Well, I’m parched. Think we can make due with one Molotov? I can’t imagine there are that many more mole rats under this place, or it’d be a sinkhole by now. Besides, if we aim it right, those cars will do most of the work for us.”

Preston smiled over at him. “Yeah, I could use a drink myself. It’s not every day I end up forty feet in the air covered in rat blood.”

The mercenary chuckled, taking a swig from the bottle and passing it over. “It’s not? Well, you’ve been missing out, haven’t you?”

Preston sipped from the dusty glass bottle, rolling the amber liquid around in his mouth as he enjoyed the slight burning sensation it left behind, a smoky tingle coating his tongue. He swallowed carefully, feeling the warmth permeate his frozen flesh. “I can’t say it’s how I’d prefer to spend an afternoon, no,” Preston replied. “But once we get this place cleaned up, I know it’ll be worth it. To give people a place they can really call their own...I don’t know if there’s anything worth more than that.”

“So long as you’re not using it as an excuse to control people,” MacCready countered, taking the whiskey back. “Land’s not the important thing. Neither is safety. The most valuable thing we have, I think, is freedom. I’m all for turning the Commonwealth around, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sold if it’s at the cost of our freedom.”

“Well, you can’t have freedom without some form of law and order, MacCready,” Preston retorted. “Otherwise, it’s just anarchy, and there’s enough of that in this world. Freedom’s only useful when it’s tempered by justice.”

MacCready shook his head, taking another deep swig before offering it back to the minuteman. “Hey, I get it, I do. And I’m not sure you’re wrong, but just...I dunno, Preston. From what I hear, the Minutemen haven’t really stood for justice in a long time. If you and your pretty General are really determined to change that, well, maybe I’ll stick around. But if you start down that road to tyranny again, I’m walking. I had my fill of living under a so-called benevolent regime in the Capital Wasteland.”

The Colonel sighed. “Honestly, MacCready, if the Minutemen ever head down that road again, I’ll gladly leave with you. I joined up to help people, not to push them around. We’ve got a chance here to rebuild the Minutemen again, to learn from the last few decades and avoid making the same mistakes. I just hope it’s not too late.”

“Me too, Colonel,” the mercenary said with a sad smile. “It’d be nice to know that there really are some good guys left in the world.”

They stood, leaning against the railing on the top of the movie screen for a long while, sharing their ancient whiskey and the quiet that came with the close of the day. As the hours passed without a squeak or whisker from the parking lot below, the sun began its descent into the western hills.

“Well,” said MacCready with a tipsy smirk, “You ready to torch this place?”

“Hell yes!” Preston replied. “Just, you know, not the buildings. We need to get rid of the cars anyway, so aim for those.” He pulled out a lighter from his duster pocket as MacCready held the vodka bottle steady. The alcohol-soaked rag caught fire quickly, and Preston watched as the mercenary drew his arm back to throw the homemade explosive.

The glass shattered against the hood of one of the old cars, and fire spread quickly across the front of the vehicle, illuminating the area around it in warm light. Preston smiled as he watched the flames. It would still be a pain to remove the smoking chassis after the fact, but for now, this felt good, and maybe that was worth the hassle.

After a few minutes, the car exploded, starting a massive chain reaction across the parking lot. MacCready whooped in delight like a child, bouncing eagerly on his heels as the fire consumed the remnants of the drive-in lot. Preston watched him, bemused, as the younger man laughed uproariously. Before he knew it, he was laughing too, gasping as his sides began to ache from the strain. How long had it been since he’d last had the chance to genuinely laugh?

The flames slowly died down, leaving behind nothing but twisted metal and ashes. No new rodents had emerged from the ground.

“I guess we’re good to go, then,” chirped MacCready, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Man, that was pretty incredible.”

“It was,” Preston agreed with a slight sigh. The fun was over. Time to get back to work. And with the day now mostly behind them, there was a hell of a lot to get done before they could sleep. “We’ll deal with the wreckage tomorrow. Let’s clean out these storage rooms and see if we can pull together a few beds, start making this place a home.”

“Sounds like a plan,” MacCready replied. “But first, we should eat. Mole rat sound good to you?”

Preston groaned. “Ugh, I mean, I guess we should. Seems an awful waste of meat otherwise.”

MacCready nodded. “Grab that metal sheet we used to block the stairs so I can toss it on one of the cars and make an oven. Trust me, by the time I’m done with those bas...um, those rats, you won’t believe what you’re eating.”

The Colonel nodded warily as he pulled the sheet from the stairwell. He wasn’t sure if that was a promise or a threat, but either way, he was starving. If they were going to get anything else done tonight, they’d need their strength and sobriety. The town of Starlight, as he’d taken to thinking of the future settlement, was going to be an incredible place, but that wasn’t going to happen overnight. It was going to take weeks of hard work, and Preston was eager to get started.

Chapter Text

Deacon didn’t dare follow Myra and Danse back to Diamond City. He usually tried to avoid spending too much time in a particular place, as the longer he stuck around, the easier it was for people to identify him. The bug he’d placed in Myra’s pack would provide him with more than enough intel, and he wouldn’t even have to stay nearby for it to transmit information to him.

One of Tinker Tom’s more brilliant innovations, the small bug transmitted using a series of transmitters that had been placed throughout the Commonwealth by Railroad agents over the past few years. As long as he remained in range of one of Tom’s transmitters and the weather remained clear, Deacon would be able to listen in on Myra from almost anywhere. His current destination was Stanwix Safehouse, tucked in one of the mausoleums up in Wildwood Cemetery.

“What is it with the Railroad and dead people, anyway?” he pondered as he made his way north through the wilderness. “Couldn’t we just once build a safehouse somewhere nice? Like, open a small bed and breakfast on the coast? ‘Hey, buddy, your life’s in constant danger, but at least we’ve got pancakes.’ Definitely gotta drop that one in the suggestion box next time I try to convince Dez that we have a suggestion box.”

Normally, Deacon’s idle banter with himself worked wonders on his mood, helping him take his mind off of the harsh reality of the world he inhabited. His usual jokes fell flat, today, however. As much as he tried, he couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that welled in his stomach. The Railroad had been walking the fine line between survival and utter annihilation for as long as the organization had existed, but the tightrope was fraying, now. One wrong move, and the whole thing would collapse. If Deacon failed…

He would not fail. He couldn’t afford to.

As Deacon drew in range of the safehouse, the receiver in his hand crackled to life. He popped his headphones on, doing his best to hear past the residual static.

“And then,” he heard Myra explain , “I told him, ‘Hey, asshole! Just ‘cause you’ve got a fancy uniform doesn’t mean you own the place. Get your goddamn feet off my bar before I call the cops.’ So anyway, that’s how I met Nate.”

“I never thought of you as a bartender,” Paladin Danse mused. “I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, seeing how well you seem to know your way around a liquor cabinet.”

“Hey, I had to pay my way through Law School somehow,” Myra retorted with a laugh. “Nate said one way or another, I’d always be working for the Bar. He…” Myra’s voice trailed off. For a moment, Deacon was afraid that he’d lost the signal before he heard a gentle sniffling from the receiver. Was she crying? “He had a great sense of humor,” Myra finished, her voice cracking. “God, I miss his laugh.”

“Easy, soldier,” Danse’s gravely voice soothed. “I...I’m sorry if this line of inquiry is too painful for you. I wasn’t expecting that a question about the scar on your forearm would lead to this.”

“No! It’s...it’s alright, Danse,” she whimpered , “It’s good for me to talk about some of these things. In a way, I guess it keeps Nate alive for me if I talk about him.”

“So did he end up getting arrested?” Danse asked .

“Nah. I just told him my dad was the Sheriff, and he ran out of the place like I’d lit his coat on fire. Came back the next day with flowers and an apology. We got married six months later.”

“That seems...abrupt,” the Paladin said, a faint hint of concern in his voice.

“It was wartime, Danse,” Myra replied sullenly . “You of all people should understand that. We didn’t have the luxury of a long courtship. As it turned out, we didn’t even have the luxury of a long marriage. If we’d waited...well, the world might have ended before we’d even said our vows.” There was another long pause as Deacon heard what sounded like a chair scraping across a floor. “I…” Myra continued, softly now, “hell, Danse. If Nate and I hadn’t gotten married when we did, I probably wouldn’t even be alive right now.”

Deacon removed his headphones, as he knocked on the door of one of the mausoleums. Part of him really wanted to keep listening in on Myra and Danse’s conversation. He wanted to know everything he could about her, find just the right angles to win her over. But some other, deeper part of him found the idea of using her dead husband’s memory against her unconscionable. Hearing her spill her fondest memories to the Paladin felt less like espionage and more like a severe violation of her privacy. Deacon wanted to know everything about Myra, yes. More than that, however, he wanted her to tell him about her past herself. For once, listening in wasn’t a valid substitute for a real conversation.

Deacon shook his head. He’d worry about the specifics later. For now, it was time to check in on Stanwix, if he could find the damned place. He searched the cemetery carefully for the right building, a small mausoleum with the image of a downturned angel carved above the door. After checking four of the crypts, he finally found the right one, the name WILLIAMS emblazoned on a scroll in the angel’s hands.

He pushed the wrought-iron gate open, entering the musty, silent chamber. The walls were cool gray granite, names of the supposed occupants of the crypt barely legible under centuries of grime. In the center stood a large stone sarcophagus, chipped and cracked, bus somehow still retaining its shape. Deacon pressed a small button hidden behind a vase of mummified flowers in the far corner of the mausoleum. A small speaker crackled to life above him.

“Um, do you have a hammer?” a soft, feminine voice called from the other end.

Deacon laughed. “Nah, but I got a bell. Trailblazer, come on. That was two code phrases ago.”

“What, really? Oh, shit. Hang on, I know I…” there was the sound of papers rustling. “I’ve got it here somewhere…”

“Don’t tell me you wrote the code down!” the spy exclaimed. “You know how unsafe that is?”

“Well, if you HQ bastards bothered to check up on me more than once every few months, maybe I’d use it enough to remember,” huffed the woman. “Now...ah. Here it is. Do you have a geiger counter?” she read stiffly.

“Mine is in the shop,” Deacon replied, easing his sunglasses off and rubbing his eyes. Every time he’d come to Stanwix since Trailblazer had taken it over, it was like this. He was fond of the younger operative, truth be told. She was a passionate agent, and would have made a fantastic spy if she’d been able to maintain her focus. As it was, however, she was simply too disorganized, too caught up in her own thoughts to protect herself from the threats that field operatives faced every day. If Trailblazer’s reassignment to the remote outpost hadn’t been presented as a punishment, Deacon would have assumed that Dez had posted the younger woman to Stanwix just to keep her out of harm’s way.

But Trailblazer’s exile hadn’t been about protecting her. It had been to set an example. She had broken one of the most important rules the Railroad operated by, and it had cost her dearly.

There was a pneumatic hiss as the coffin beside him slid against the wall, revealing an old metal staircase that vanished into the darkness. Deacon sighed. “Trail. You want to turn some lights on?”

“Oh! Oh, yeah! Sorry!” The lights in the secret passage flickered to life, and Deacon descended the stairs into the musty hallway below. As he reached the bottom, the coffin slid shut behind him.

Deacon entered a large, well-lit room filled to the brim with pre-war surveillance equipment. Stanwix had been a small counter-espionage station before the War, and the Railroad had been thrilled to find its equipment intact when they’d stumbled across it six years ago. From here, they were able to monitor nearly all the radio signals in the Commonwealth, even a few of the stronger broadcasting signals from beyond its borders. It was an important job, but such a damn waste of talent.

In the midst of a sea of old terminals sat Trailblazer, curled up on an old office chair with her back to him. Her long black hair was pulled into a high ponytail, cascading down her back in raven waves. She fiddled with a few of the switches in front of her before spinning around at the sound of Deacon’s approach.

“Hear anything spicy?” Deacon asked, grinning at her.

Trailblazer’s dark brown eyes lit up as she pulled her headphones off, tossing them on her desk. Then she launched herself out of her chair, throwing her arms around the spy. “Boss! I thought I recognized that voice! I’m so glad you’re not dead!”

“Trail...I...not a hugger,” Deacon gasped, struggling to breathe as the young operative crushed him. He flailed his arms slightly, hoping she’d get the picture.

Quickly, Trailblazer pulled away. “Sorry. I forgot. It’s just been a while since anyone came out this far. The only interaction I’ve gotten lately has been by dead drop.”

Deacon chuckled. “With how much you like to talk, kiddo? That’s gotta suck.”

“You’d better believe it.” Her grin faded as she glanced behind Deacon at the emptiness beyond the door. “You came alone?”

He nodded. “Been running solo for a while. Besides, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but HQ’s spread pretty thin these days. I’ll bet Dez is kicking herself for sending you out here.”

Trailblazer bit her lower lip. “I...I heard about the Switchboard from one of Drummer’s messages,” she said softly, as if speaking the words out loud would make them true. “I’m glad you made it out.”

Deacon sighed. “Me too, Trail.”

“Have you heard from...anyone else? Everything’s been quiet, so I don’t…”

“Carrington made it out. I know you were worried about him.”

She snorted. “Oh, yeah. Totally. Come on, Deacon. You know what I…” The young woman’s cheeks reddened in embarrassment. “Have you heard from Tommy? He hasn’t checked in with me since I got reassigned.”

Deacon shook his head. “I’m sorry, Trail. No one’s seen Tommy since we escaped. But hey, you know him. He’s probably holed up somewhere, living the high life and laughing at us suckers cleaning up the mess. We’ll find him. Tommy Whispers always comes back, the sneaky bastard.”

“Yeah,” she replied, the ghost of a smile not quite making it to her worried eyes. “I sure hope so.”

Deacon frowned. This was exactly why he’d sworn off relationships. He didn’t ever want to put anyone in this sort of position, waiting for months for news that might never come. It was rare for Railroad agents to live long, fruitful lives, and rarer still for them to die with any sort of dignity. There were just too many ways for a relationship in the Railroad to end, and almost all of them were messy as hell. It was the main reason why Desdemona had forbidden fraternization when she’d taken over.

Of course, there were always people who broke the rules, who either thought that they could hide their relationship or that they were above such regulations. Tommy and Trail had done their best to keep their relationship secret, only confiding in their respective handlers. Deacon wasn’t sure who’d turned them in. He sure as hell hadn’t, and Glory swore she’d never rat out Tommy to Dez. In the end, it didn’t matter. The damage was done.

His thoughts were interrupted by Trail smacking him on the arm gently. She dragged him towards the dining area, trying to hide her worry with a bright smile. “Hey, you’re probably hungry. Can I make you some dinner?”

The spy smiled back at her. “I don’t suppose you’ve learned how to make pancakes since the last time I visited.”

She shook her head. “Nope, sorry, boss. But I have mole rat chili going on the hot plate, if you’re interested in a bowl.”

“Sounds...delightful,” Deacon managed with a grimace.

Trailblazer chuckled, the bright sound filling the small cavern. “Come on, Deacon, it’s not the worst thing you can eat.”

“True. But I’ve had so much mole rat over the last few months that it’s a miracle I haven’t gone bald like one of them.”

“I hate to break it to you, but…” her voice trailed off as she turned to the small portable stove, filling a pair of chipped mugs from the pot.

“What?” he cried, dramatically rubbing the top of his head with both hands. “Aw, damn it! What’s next, whiskers?”

They both cracked up, smiling warmly at each other. At last, the final traces of Trailblazer’s concern had retreated back inside herself. It wasn’t a solution, but for now, Deacon had done what he could for his former trainee.

She handed him a mug, and he sniffed cautiously at the contents. For mole rat, it smelled pretty decent. Deacon was always amazed at what a little seasoning could do to even the most wretched meat. He took a careful sip, his lips tingling as the hot, chunky soup met them.

“So, how is it?” Trailblazer asked, watching him.

“It’s...spicy,” he gasped, reaching for his canteen. “How did you make it so spicy?”

She pointed to a small baby bottle full of red sauce sitting on the table between them. “There were a few bottles of old hot sauce in the MREs we found down here. I used those as a base, and added a few ingredients of my own. That’s the last bottle, though. I’m gonna have to find a way to cultivate peppers if I want to make any more.”

“Well, if anyone can figure it out,” he replied, his eyes watering, “I know you can.”

“It’s not too much, is it?” she asked, her deep eyes wide in concern.

He shook his head. “No, no. It’s delicious, really! See, I’m eating it!” He took another sip of the chili. Fortunately, it seemed that the first taste had managed to burn off most of his taste buds. It was easier the second time around. He had to admit, once he got past the pain, Trail’s cooking really was pretty tasty. He’d missed it.

As they ate, Deacon fiddled with the buttons on his receiver idly, his headphones sitting crookedly over one ear, the other speaker pressing into his temple.

“Anything good on?” Trailblazer quipped. “What’s the Silver Shroud up to today?”

“Believe it or not,” Deacon replied, “it’s for a mission.”

“And here I thought you were on vacation or something.”

He chuckled. “Oh, yeah. Secret underground corpse bunkers are the best vacation destination! If I close my eyes and make ocean noises, I can almost pretend I’m at the beach!” He imitated the sound of surf with a few quiet whooshing noises.

“Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it, boss,” Trail replied, grinning. “The first few months being cooped up alone in the darkness is maddening, but eventually you get used to it. Then, it’s actually kind of pleasant.”

“Said every desperate crazy person ever,” he retorted. “Seriously, first thing when I get back to HQ, I’m gonna ask Dez if we can get anyone else out here with you. How long can she seriously keep you isolated like this?”

Trailblazer rolled her eyes. “Yeah, because that’ll go over well. Remember what happened the last time you stuck your neck out for me?”

Deacon nodded, rubbing his jaw. It still ached a little, even after all these months. “I just wish there was more I could do for you. You’d think, after all the time we took to train you...”

The younger operative sighed, patting his hand gently. “I know. And thanks for trying. But I’m ok, really. Tommy and I knew what we were getting into.”

Deacon pulled his hand away. “You say that, but…”

Before he could continue his thought, Deacon’s attention was drawn back to the conversation playing in his right ear. Something Myra had said about one of the people who’d killed her husband seemed eerily familiar.

“Hang on a minute,” he whispered to Trailblazer, pulling the other speaker back over his left ear and listening intently.

“You didn’t hear the name Kellogg at all, did you?” he heard Valentine ask.

“Yeah,” replied Myra sarcastically. “We had a nice conversation over coffee before they put me back on ice.”

“All right, all right, calm down,” muttered the synth . “Look, it’s way too big of a coincidence. Ellie, what notes do we have on the Kellogg case?”

“The description matches,” replied the detective’s secretary. “Bald head, scar…”

Deacon’s eyes widened. Conrad Kellogg was responsible for tearing Myra’s family apart? If that was the case, then she already had more in common with many of the Railroad’s agents than she could possibly know.

“He bought a house, here in town, right?” the detective continued.

Something wasn’t right. Why would Kellogg, a notorious ghost, have made as large a blunder as putting his real name on a deed? Deacon’s eyes narrowed as he contemplated the possibilities. Either the dangerous mercenary had finally messed up, or he was setting a cunning trap for Myra. Deacon knew which one he’d bet caps on.

Deacon’s stomach clenched. If it was indeed a trap, there was no way that Kellogg would be stupid enough to still be living in that house. The cold-blooded mercenary would have left some time ago, found a more fortifiable location to lay low in, farther from prying eyes. There were just too many places in the Commonwealth where he could be. If Myra was going to find Kellogg, she was going to need a good tracking dog. And Deacon knew just the one, so long as the pup was still at Sanctuary.

“Thanks for the food, Trailblazer,” Deacon said, hastily re-packing his bag.

“No problem, Deacon,” the surveillance agent replied gently, handing him a small canvas sack from the table. “Here’s some of the jerky I made last week, for the road. It was good to have company again. You sure you can’t stay longer?”

“Sorry,” he replied, taking the sack with an earnest smile. “Something urgent came up. That escape tunnel of yours still operational? If I remember correctly, doesn’t it spill out behind Bedford Station?”

She nodded, pointing to a small hatch nearly imperceptible behind a pile of old radio components. “Be careful, Deacon. And please, if you see Tommy…”

“I’ll tell him to come see you,” he replied with a sad smile, “promise.” Deacon opened the hatch carefully, crawling into the tight tunnel. The narrow space was illuminated with emergency lights, but they didn’t help much in the musty darkness.

After crawling on all-fours for what felt like miles, he found himself approaching another hatch. He eased the metal door open slowly, glancing around the old train yard. It appeared empty. Excellent.

The spy loped carefully through the underbrush, heading northwest towards Sanctuary. If he used the direct route, he could easily get there and back to Diamond City in a day, as long as he managed to avoid detection. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the easiest feat in the world. Something had unnerved the creatures of the Commonwealth, as though they could feel the tension hanging in the air, the silent footfalls of impending doom that weighed down on Deacon as he ran.

As Deacon neared the bridge to Sanctuary, he slowed, hugging the far side of the minuteman statue. He pulled a small whistle from his pocket and blew into the device, its sound imperceptible to human ears. Hopefully, it worked on canine ones.

Within moments, there was a commotion at the gate as furious barking emanated from beyond the barricade. Dogmeat forced his way out of the gate, pushing past the guards, and dashing across the bridge, his green bandanna flapping in the wind as he rounded on Deacon’s position.

The spy placed the dog whistle back in his pocket as he lowered his eyes from the angry dog’s in submission. “Hey, boy,” he said calmly. “I promise, I’m not here to cause trouble. Myra needs our help. You remember her, right?”

The dog growled, sniffing warily at Deacon’s hand. The spy offered the german shepherd a piece of Trailblazer’s jerky, which he gobbled up greedily. Dogmeat barked happily, wagging his tail as he nudged Deacon’s hand, begging for more. The spy sighed. “Well, bribery it is, then.”

Dogmeat cocked his head, coppery eyes warm as they stared up at the spy. He nuzzled his head against Deacon’s leg, nearly knocking him off balance. “Hey!” Deacon yelped. “Easy! You come with me, and you can have all the treats you want, ok?”

The large dog seemed to smile, his tongue lolling lazily. Deacon hoped that meant that he was on board with the spy’s offer.

“Ok, Dogmeat,” Deacon said. “We’re going to Diamond City. Myra’s there, and she’s going to need you. You pull this off, and I’ll feed you whatever you want.”

The dog barked once before bounding down the road, headed southeast. He ran until he was nearly out of Deacon’s sight before stopping, glancing back at the Railroad agent as if to say, “Are you coming, or not?”

Deacon followed the dog, shaking his head. He really hoped that this would work.

 


 

As Deacon and Dogmeat arrived outside Diamond City, the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. The spy huffed, breathless. They’d run most of the night, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d jogged so far. But they had made it, and from what he could gather over the receiver, they’d made it back in time.

Unlike Deacon and the german shepherd, Myra and Danse had taken the evening off, renting a pair of rooms at the Dugout Inn . From the sound of things, they’d only just returned from the mayor’s office with the keys to Kellogg’s house.

“Well, Danse, any bets on what we find in there?” Myra asked, the bug lending a metallic note to her voice.

“I’d say we can be reasonably sure that we won’t find Kellogg inside,” the Paladin replied. “A man of his reputation would not wait for us to locate him. Hopefully we will obtain some clue as to his whereabouts from whatever he left behind.”

Deacon heard a clicking noise, which he presumed was a key turning in a lock. He yawned, leading Dogmeat into the city. No matter how tired he was, he didn’t have time to waste. They needed to get to the West Stands and in position before Myra and Danse came back outside.

The spy hid beneath the walkway, waiting for Myra and Danse to emerge from Kellogg’s house. He nibbled on one of the last pieces of jerky that Dogmeat had failed to con from him, savoring the rich flavor of the dried meat. What was it, radstag? He’d have to ask Trail the next time he saw her, whenever that would be.

After a while, the door to the house opened with a rusty creak, and Deacon heard Myra gasp. The air filled with the pitter-patter of canine claws on the metal walkway as Dogmeat ran to his friend, barking excitedly.

“Hey, boy!” Myra exclaimed, “What are you doing here? I was just about to head home for you!”

The dog barked again, circling her. She chuckled, scratching the top of his head.

Danse stared at the german shepherd, his expression difficult for Deacon to parse from his position beneath the group. Was he upset? Suspicious?

“Is this your dog, Larimer?” the Paladin asked.

She nodded. “Well, he’s not mine so much as I’m his, I guess. Dogmeat’s got his own agenda, or so I’ve been told.”

Danse cleared his throat. “Dogmeat? That’s quite a morbid name for such a handsome animal.”

“Don’t look at me, Danse,” muttered Myra. “I didn’t pick it. But he doesn’t seem to mind it, either way.” She leaned down towards the dog, holding out a half-burned cigar. “Here, boy!” She called. “Think you can track this?”

Dogmeat barked once before loping down the old metal staircase and winding his way through the Diamond City market towards the front gate. Myra and Danse followed him quickly, not so much as glancing in Deacon’s direction.

Deacon waited for a few moments before slinking out after the trio, taking extra care to keep himself hidden as they headed west towards Kellogg, towards answers.

Their trek was long and treacherous, and Deacon found himself gasping for breath as he fell further and further behind. It wasn’t that he was out of shape. Hell, he was all lean muscle, built for hard labor and tracking over long distances. But between the trip to Stanwix and his overnight run to Diamond City, the spy was completely exhausted.

“Man, I’m really starting to feel my age,” the spy muttered to himself. “Not to be that guy, but I’m really getting too old for this.” He tried to remember how old he was supposed to be. After all the lies, who could remember any more?

Fortunately for him, Dogmeat seemed to notice that his new buddy was falling behind the rest of the group, and kept slowing down every few miles. He’d whine and prance about like he’d lost the trail, forcing Myra to find some new clue to restart the chase. Deacon reminded himself to buy that dog an extra large radstag haunch once they’d found Kellogg.

After a few hours of hard tracking, Dogmeat finally stopped before an imposing brick structure, still decorated with the tatters of patriotic flags from a nation that no longer existed. The dog howled once, pawing at a large wooden barricade that covered the front door of the building.

All at once, the air was thick with a hail of gunfire from the roof of the building. Deacon cursed as he ran for cover, hoping that Myra and Danse had the good sense to do the same.

“Ad victoriam!” Danse bellowed, and the sound of laser fire tore through the air, followed by several small explosions.

Deacon wasn’t a fan of the Paladin’s whole shock-and-awe way of approaching a problem, but he had to admit that it was effective. Still, any hope of them sneaking up on Kellogg was basically dead now. If the mercenary hadn’t known they were following him before, there was no way he’d missed the explosions.

Deacon eased himself down among the rubble of an old cafe across the street from the large fort with a sigh. He’d gotten Myra this far. From here on, though, she and Danse were on their own. Deacon couldn’t follow them inside without risking exposure, nor was he particularly keen on the idea of being a target for Kellogg. The spy lay flat on his stomach with his scope trained on Myra, watching her clamber up a set of scaffolding next to the building. The young woman hopped effortlessly onto the roof, searching about for any remaining threats.

Danse appeared beside her, and Deacon saw her gesture towards a hatch on the roof in front of them. Even from a distance, Deacon could see the young woman trembling as she reached for the handle.

The Paladin stopped her, cupping her hand in his own gently, seemingly unaware of how intimate a gesture it really was. She squeezed his armored hand gently, her eyes locked on his. For a moment, neither of them spoke.

Deacon tuned in once more to the bug he’d planted in Myra’s pack as he watched her and the Paladin through his scope. Beside him, Dogmeat circled the ground before lying down at his feet with a contented sigh.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this, soldier?” said Danse, concern permeating his gruff voice. “We don’t know what kind of hostiles are waiting for us in there, not to mention Kellogg himself. I… I can take point, if you want me to.”

She bit her bottom lip, staring up into his deep, liquid eyes. Deacon rolled his own eyes in response. Danse was built like a tank wearing a fucking tank. He had no business having those doe-like browns. How could anyone resist that face? No wonder Myra was so attached to the guy.

“Danse,” Myra replied, her voice trembling, “I don’t have a choice. You said it yourself. I need to find out the truth. And I don’t care how dangerous it is, I’m going to get answers.”

He nodded solemnly. “Very well. But proceed carefully. You’re no good to your son dead.”

Myra smiled sadly at her companion, squeezing his armored hand before releasing it. “Thanks, Danse. For everything. I...I’m glad you’re here with me.”

“I hope you aren’t disappointed, soldier,” Danse murmured, so softly that Deacon only caught the message through careful lip-reading. So the tin man did have a heart. Well, that was something, Deacon supposed. He watched as the pair vanished into the fortified building, listening for laser blasts long after he stopped hearing any.

Deacon glanced at the sky, observing the movement of the sun with a bored sigh. How long had it been? Hours? He began to get ancy, idly picking at the crumbling mortar of the building he was surveilling from until his fingers were raw from the grit. Had something gone wrong? Why hadn’t Myra and Danse come out yet?

Even Dogmeat looked disturbed, whining cautiously as his ears perked up. The german shepherd rose to his feet, pacing nervously, his eyes fixed on the southern sky.

Just as Deacon began contemplating throwing subtlety to the wind and charging in guns blazing after Myra and Danse, he was distracted by the throbbing of propellers in the distance.

“What the…?” he muttered, his eyes drawn back to the sky.

Approaching steadily from the south was a hulking monstrosity of canvas and steel, humming through the air like a perverse and wingless bird. Bright searchlights swept across the earth below as the ship birthed vertibirds from its underbelly like a parasite leaving eggs behind in its host.

“People of the Commonwealth!” bellowed a commanding voice from the ship’s loudspeaker, “Do not interfere! Our intentions are peaceful.”

Oh, that was definitely not good. Dez was going to have his head for sure if he didn’t report this right away. He was in enough hot water as it was, he reflected as he scurried off towards the east, keeping to the shadows as much as possible.

Myra Larimer would have to wait. The Brotherhood of Steel had arrived in force.

Chapter Text

The silence that cloaked Fort Hagen’s command center weighed down on Paladin Danse as he sat halfway up the steps, his arms wrapped loosely around Larimer’s trembling form. She had finally stopped crying, he realized, and the lack of her pained, devastated wails made the basement chamber feel more like a forgotten sepulchre than an old military base. The tang of ozone from laser fire permeated the air, filling the room with a stormy scent that the Paladin would have ordinarily found comforting. But after the events of the last few hours, he feared that comfort and peace were even farther from his grasp than they usually were.

Larimer’s 10mm pistol lay under one of the weathered workstations, a small, black, lifeless thing abandoned in the aftermath of the young woman’s showdown with the man who’d murdered her husband and stolen her child. Danse made a mental note to retrieve the weapon before they left, but decided to remain where he was for a little while longer. There was no rush. Not now. The man they’d been tracking was dead.

Conrad Kellogg was sprawled on the floor nearby, his dark eyes wide, unblinking. It had been a clean kill, Danse noted. The laser round that had pierced the old mercenary’s head had cauterized most of the damage as it had passed through, leaving little in the way of mess behind. Most of the blood had come after, when Larimer had apparently removed Kellogg’s cybernetic implants. These sat next to the body where she had piled them, along with everything the man had been carrying.

Larimer stirred in Danse’s arms, lifting her tear-stained face from its resting place against his armored torso. She seemed smaller, somehow, more childlike as she looked up at the Paladin with bloodshot eyes. Danse had often thought of Larimer as someone he needed to protect during their missions together. He did his best to keep her from harm’s way, knowing that his power armor suit would protect him more than her leather armor would shield her. But even in those times, he knew that Larimer was capable of taking care of herself, was strong and defiant in the face of danger. Here, on the filthy steps of the command center, was the first time Danse really saw her as vulnerable.

The young woman in his arms seemed so defeated, so utterly crushed that the Paladin wondered if he would ever see her smile again. He wasn’t sure exactly what had transpired before he’d arrived on the scene, but he knew that it hadn’t been pleasant. The last time he’d seen her, when Larimer had ordered him to stay behind in the hallway, she’d seemed nervous, but still completely the woman he’d spent the last few months with. Now, if she hadn’t been wearing the same clothes, he might not have recognized her.

There were smudges of grime across Larimer’s cheeks where she’d rubbed against the cold metal, making her look as though she’d spent the last few hours working on machinery instead of bawling her eyes out. Danse reached into his pack, withdrawing a carefully folded handkerchief and presenting it to her.

“Here, soldier,” he said softly. “Let’s get you cleaned up. We still have to find a way out of here.”

The Initiate nodded, taking the square of cloth from him. “Thanks. I’m sure I look like shit,” she muttered, wiping at her swollen eyes. The storm of emotions that surged through her had quieted, though it was probably exhaustion that had tempered her outburst rather than any real resolution. Well, it was something at least.

Danse hauled himself up using the railing, helping Larimer to her feet as he did so. “I’ll check through Kellogg’s effects,” the Paladin offered. “Are you up to looking through the files on that computer over there?”

Larimer bit her lower lip, her eyes distant. “I guess I don’t really have a choice. It’s our best chance to get out of here.”

“Very well. Let me know if you find anything.” Danse was nervous about leaving her on her own, but he knew from experience that giving Larimer a task would be far more beneficial than him doing everything for her. The Initiate wasn’t the sort of woman who relished being coddled, no matter what condition she was in.

Besides, he was only going to be a few feet away. If she...if she got any ideas, he’d be within range to stop her again. Danse quickly scooped up her pistol, secreting it away in his pack. He’d return the backup piece to her once they’d cleared the fort. For now, Righteous Authority , still slung across her back, would be sufficient protection.

The Paladin turned his attention to Kellogg’s belongings, sorting through the pockets of the dead man’s clothes. He wasn’t sure what he hoped to find--a code, perhaps, or some clue to where Larimer’s son was being held. She’d told Danse very little after he’d found her, but he’d gathered enough from the words she choked out between anguished sobs to know that the boy was alive.

There was nothing in Kellogg’s pockets save a crumpled cigar and a few loose bullets, which Danse collected carefully. He wasn’t sure how much of the mercenary’s belongings Larimer would want to keep, so he erred on the side of caution and packed up all of it. If nothing else, he knew the Brotherhood would have an interest in the dead man’s cybernetic enhancements.

After Danse finished packing up the gear, as well as a few interesting pieces of scrap he thought Larimer might like to have, he returned to the young woman’s side. She was staring blankly at the terminal, her clammy skin taut around her clenched jaw.

“What is it, soldier?” Danse asked quietly, hoping not to startle her.

“Take a look,” she replied flatly, giving him room.

Danse frowned as his eyes scanned the words on the screen, a simple journal entry. So Larimer’s son, Shaun, was with the Institute. It was as he had feared since that ridiculous synth detective had suggested the possibility. Danse had told Larimer that knowing the truth, no matter how horrible, was better than not knowing. Now, he wasn’t quite so sure. Whatever the Institute could want with a young boy, the answer was probably deeply disturbing.

One thing was for certain: Danse and Larimer needed to find a way to contact Maxson and the rest of the Brotherhood. The need for reinforcements was more pressing than it had ever been. Hopefully Haylen had managed to repair the squad’s communications while they were away.

With a few quick commands, the Paladin canceled the facility lockdown, and the heavy metal security doors that had trapped them swung open. Danse led Larimer to the elevator at the end of the hall, hoping that it would lead them to an exit.

Larimer smiled sadly at the Paladin as they left Kellogg’s tomb behind. Her fingers lingered on Danse’s arm just for a moment, her touch so feather-light that he sensed rather than felt the contact through his armor. He turned to look at her, an unspoken question clinging to his tongue. She bit her lip, fighting back another wave of tears, giving him her answer. He sighed, tucking her under his arm as she clung to him silently.

As the elevator doors opened, Danse pulled away from the Initiate, perhaps a little too abruptly. They found themselves in a small chamber, completely bare save for a terminal by yet another closed door.

“Well, we haven’t been here before,” Larimer managed. “I guess that’s progress.”

“More than progress, soldier,” replied Danse. “I think this is the way out.” The Paladin typed a few commands into the terminal next to the corroded blue metal door. In moments, the hatch swung open, sunlight filling the small room.

Larimer stood beside him, clutching the Paladin’s old, tattered handkerchief to her puffy face. Danse had done what he could to comfort her, narrowly skirting the lines between supportive commanding officer and the unthinkable. As he watched her wipe another errant tear from her bloodshot eyes, he just hoped what he’d been able to offer was enough.

As Danse held the door open for Initiate Larimer, he heard her gasp in astonishment. Following her eyes, he felt a surge of pride overwhelm him, distracting him from their circumstances.

There she was, the Prydwen, a floating wonder of steel and hydrogen, her proud bow cutting across the Commonwealth’s sky like a beacon of hope. Finally, reinforcements had arrived. More than that, Maxson had arrived. With their leader on site and the immense power that the Prydwen carried with her, the Brotherhood could now begin making a real difference in the Commonwealth.

Our intentions are peaceful, ” boomed Captain Kells’ voice proudly from the ship’s loudspeaker. “ We are the Brotherhood of Steel .”

Larimer flashed a surprised glance at her companion, her despair overwhelmed by her curiosity. “Um, Danse, is that your giant airship?” she asked, her eyes wide.

The Paladin beamed at Larimer, his concern for her mental well-being temporarily pushed aside. “Well, I claim no ownership over her, but she does belong to the Brotherhood. More specifically, she belongs to Elder Maxson. And since he’d never let the Prydwen leave the Capital Wasteland without him, we can reasonably expect to see him on board. Finally, we’ll have what we need to take down the Institute and save your son. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.”

Larimer allowed herself a wistful smile. “The Prydwen. Arthur’s ship full of knights. What spoils do they seek from this hell?”

He stared at her in disbelief. “How did you know Elder Maxson’s given name was Arthur?”

“Oh my God. Is it really?” she asked, blowing her nose into the handkerchief he’d lent her. “Well, someone’s full of himself.”

Danse rolled his eyes. At least Larimer was feeling well enough to crack wise. That was a good sign. “Don’t be crass,” the Paladin reprimanded her gently. “Elder Maxson is the one in charge of this branch of the Brotherhood of Steel, and as a member of the Brotherhood, you owe him your allegiance.”

“So what’s this King Arthur of yours like, Danse?” she asked in reply. “I have to admit, I’m curious.”

“You’re to call him Elder Maxson, soldier,” Danse sighed, thinking how best to describe his friend. “He’s young, even younger than you, but don’t let that fool you. Maxson’s a brilliant strategist and a strong leader, with one of the Brotherhood’s most treasured bloodlines to his name. If he’s here, then I know we will be victorious.”

Larimer smirked. “Does he have a cool sword, too? How does he feel about sleeping eternally in caves? Oh! Does he have an evil son, and a best friend who’s a wizard? Inquiring minds want to know.”

She was building walls again, but Danse wasn’t about to stop her. Right now, Larimer’s defensive mechanisms might be the only thing that could get her back to presentable. He couldn’t very well introduce her to Maxson in her current state. The young woman beside him was paler than pale, her eyes inflamed, her face stained with streaks of tears and mucus. Her long white hair was stuck to her skin in strange patches where the moisture on her cheeks had trapped it, her normally neat bun hanging messy and loose just above the nape of her neck. The sobs that had wracked her body had ceased, but the fatigue and embarrassment of a good cry had left her hollow.

If Maxson saw her now, would he find the same defiant spark in her that Danse had seen, had fought to cultivate? Or would he see a broken, empty shell of a woman, barely able to lift a gun? Danse couldn’t take that chance. He needed Arthur to see the young Initiate the way he saw her, someone worth trusting, worth investing effort in. Otherwise, there was no way she’d be allowed to stay under his command.

“I have no idea what you’re babbling on about, soldier,” Danse retorted, trying to calm his nervous thoughts. “You’re starting to sound like that reporter.”

Larimer sighed, smiling weakly up at him. “I’m sorry. I forget that not everyone was raised by a librarian. My mother used to love Arthurian mythology, so I practically grew up on it. The Prydwen was King Arthur’s ship in a few of the stories.”

“I see,” Danse replied. “That’s fascinating. I wonder if that’s why Elder Maxson picked the name.”

The Paladin often wished he was as cultured as Arthur was. To be fair, one of them had grown up on the streets of the Capital Wasteland, and the other had been the prized son of Brotherhood nobility. It shouldn’t surprise him that their experiences as children would have been radically different. At times like this, however, he realized just how different their lives still were.

Danse had always loved learning, memorizing every manual, history book, and codex he could get his hands on, no matter how dry. But he’d never been able to enjoy fiction the same way. It just seemed like a waste of time when there was so much practical knowledge in the world to gain. Besides, it wasn’t like he’d had access to tutors or the vast libraries of the Western Brotherhood of Steel growing up. When Arthur Maxson had been receiving the best classical education available, Danse was a guttersnipe whose only ambition in life had been selling enough scrap to avoid starving to death.

Danse tried not to think about his past too much. His childhood may have been difficult, but as a young man, he’d found the Brotherhood of Steel. The Brotherhood had given him purpose, a true family, a real home. The past -- as Arthur had pointed out to him when Danse had first met the wide-eyed young Squire -- did not matter nearly as much as what he did from then on as a member of the Brotherhood.

He nodded to himself as he exhaled slowly, letting the lesson sink in again. “We need to get moving back to the police station, on the double,” Danse continued. “I have to make my report in person, and I’d like you to come with me so I can present you to Elder Maxson myself. He’ll be interested in what you have to say, I have no doubt.”

“Right away?” she asked quietly. “I was...I was hoping to rest when we got back.”

Danse nodded. “I believe we can spare a couple hours, soldier. Let’s get back to base, then you can wash up and take a nap while I debrief Rhys and Haylen. Is that acceptable?”

Larimer worried her lower lip between her teeth once more as she reflected on his words. “As long as that’s ok with you, Danse,” she replied. “I do want to see what that airship looks like up close, but I think I’ll be...better equipped to handle it after a rest.”

“Outstanding,” Danse said gently, leading the way back down the scaffolding that had gotten them to the roof mere hours before. Had it really only been a few hours? It felt like a lifetime.

 


 

 

Arthur Maxson stood on the command deck of the Prydwen , looking down at the Commonwealth below, his hands tightly clasped behind his back. He turned as Danse and Larimer entered the deck, his steely eyes studying them.

“You’re late, Paladin,” he chided. “You just missed today’s briefing.”

“My apologies, Elder,” Danse replied. “Circumstances prevented us from catching the first vertibird from Cambridge. We arrived as soon as we were able.”

Danse studied his friend’s face. Arthur was always so difficult to read, so it was hard to tell if he was genuinely upset with them or just taunting them. The past half a year had definitely taken their toll on the young Elder. Though his gaze still commanded respect, there was a weariness about him that Danse had never seen before. Arthur Maxson had always borne the weight of the world on his shoulders, but this was the first time that Danse genuinely worried that his friend might be overburdened.

Maxson nodded curtly at him. “It’s good to have you back, Paladin. I’m pleased to see that your mission was a success.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Danse. “Although we sustained heavy losses.”

“I’ve read your reports. Your squadmates died with honor, Danse. The Brotherhood will remember them as heroes.”

Danse nodded. “Thank you, sir. They were good men.”

Maxson turned his attention to Larimer, who hastily saluted, her right fist connecting firmly with the left side of her chest as Danse had taught her. The Elder returned the salute, his eyes analyzing her carefully. Danse watched his friend, trying to glean some insight from the younger man’s face. Was he impressed? Concerned? As always, it was impossible to fully tell what Arthur was thinking, his emotions as heavily guarded as a well-maintained checkpoint.

“You must be the Initiate Danse was raving about in his reports,” Maxon said finally, apparently satisfied with his assessment. “The so-called General of the Minutemen. I have to say, you’re not what I was expecting.”

Larimer’s brow furrowed. “And what were you expecting, Elder?”

“I…” Maxson thought for a moment. “I didn’t think you’d be so young, I suppose. Most of the other leaders I’ve met have been, well, older.”

“I’m sure you get that all the time, too,” Larimer retorted with a slight smirk. “From what Paladin Danse tells me, that doesn’t make you any less of a formidable leader, does it, Pendragon?”

Danse stared at her in trepidation as the tension in the air grew. He couldn’t remember a time he’d ever seen Maxson speechless, not in a long time, at least. It filled him with a mixture of pride and apprehension. After all he had recruited Larimer. It was his neck on the line as well if Arthur didn’t take kindly to her blunt attitude or inappropriate nicknames.

To his relief, the Elder’s eyes softened, and he allowed himself the faintest hint of a smile. “Just so, Initiate,” Maxson replied. “I apologize for any hasty judgments on my part. I trust that you will, given time, prove yourself to be quite a formidable soldier yourself, particularly given Danse’s recommendation. He’s actually never requested to sponsor anyone before, did you know that?”

“No, sir,” Larimer said, her gaze darting to Danse’s face before returning to the Elder’s.

“Well,” Maxson continued, “although that may not carry a great deal of weight with other senior members of my staff, it does with me. Therefore, I’m granting his request, and promoting you to the rank of Knight, effective immediately.”

“Thank you, sir!” she exclaimed.

“You can thank me by proving yourself worthy of the title, Knight Larimer. Now go, introduce yourself to the others. And take Danse with you. I think he’s about to pass out, he’s so nervous.”

The sudden snide remark his way startled the Paladin, and he took a step back, heat rising in his cheeks. “Sir, I…”

“Relax, Paladin,” Arthur retorted dryly. “She’s not going to embarrass you too badly, are you, Knight?”

Larimer beamed at Maxson, clearly delighted to meet someone who also enjoyed tormenting Danse. “Not unless the perfect opportunity presents itself, Elder.”

“There, you see, Danse? Nothing to worry about.”

Danse sighed. Maxson didn’t know her the way he did. It was everything to worry about.

“Oh, and Knight?” Maxson continued, addressing Larimer.

“Yes, sir?” she replied.

The Elder’s eyes narrowed, hardening once more to cold, commanding steel. “I know you may see us as equals, given your position with the Minutemen. But on this ship, my authority is absolute. You are not a General here, merely a Knight in service to the Brotherhood of Steel. I hope you won’t be so informal with me again while under my command. I might not be so tolerant next time. And I know you’d hate to see what happens to anyone who loses their seat at our round table.”

Larimer looked like she was about to choke with excitement, even in light of his warning. “ He knows! ” she mouthed to Danse before turning to face the Elder again.

“Understood, sir.” she replied, saluting once more. “Ad victoriam, Elder.”

“Ad victoriam, Knight,” he replied, returning the salute.

As they left the meeting room, Danse could hardly contain his elation. Larimer had impressed Maxson, albeit not in the way he had hoped. And what’s more, she’d been allowed to remain under the Paladin’s command, a prospect which pleased him greatly.

If he had been asked to put into words at that exact moment why he was so pleased, Danse would have struggled. After all, Larimer wasn’t exactly the easiest soldier he’d ever had the privilege of commanding. Yet, when he looked at her, he saw more than just another insubordinate wastelander, more even than the naive vault dweller he had met a few weeks ago.

There was the potential for real history-making greatness in Larimer, and he knew he wasn’t the only one who saw it. That minuteman of hers had seen it, for sure, or he wouldn’t have asked her to lead their misguided band of idealists. Maxson must have seen it, given how quickly he’d promoted her. All she needed was a firm hand and some actual discipline, and she could be an incredible soldier.

The woman standing by his side, rolling her eyes at Proctor Quinlan, was not that soldier yet, however. And, as he watched her charm and snark her way through the crew of the Prydwen , he realized that she was not even acting like the woman he’d come to know and respect. He had hoped that the change in venue would help ease her troubled mind, but something was still terribly wrong. The distraction of a new environment, of new people to meet, was not helping quiet her demons.

Larimer’s distress presented itself in subtle ways, and Danse might have missed them if he wasn’t so used to finding the same tics in himself. After all, she was an excellent liar, and very good at hiding her true feelings behind humor and anger. Danse was also not particularly adept at reading emotional cues, one of his faults that he was keenly aware of. If he could tell that Larimer was in trouble, her emotional state must have been truly dire.

The Paladin wasn’t sure what tipped him off, exactly. It may have been the dead look in Larimer’s deep green eyes that failed to reflect her cheeky grin, or the way that her hand gripped the butt of her rifle a little bit too tightly as she played with it nervously during her conversation with Proctor Teagan. It could have been the slight breathiness that permeated her voice. But she was struggling, and she had been since before they arrived on the Prydwen, before they’d even left Fort Hagen.

“That’s everyone, soldier,” Danse said gently, trying to gauge the full extent of the problem. “Come on, let’s get you settled at your bunk, and then we can go find something to eat in the mess hall.”

“I’m not hungry,” she murmured.

That was definitely a bad sign. He’d seen her put away a good two pounds of brahmin on the road more than once. If she wasn’t even up to eating, she was doing worse than he’d thought.

“Very well,” he responded. “Then may I speak to you in private? I...I wanted to discuss something with you, off the record.”

She nodded simply, following him towards the forecastle, one of the few genuinely private places on the massive airship. As they approached, however, Danse heard boisterous laughter from beyond the hatch. That damned Aspirant Reinhardt and his equally useless friends, probably daring each other to climb over the safety railings again. Well, that was a no-go.

His mind raced as he tried to come up with another place on the ship where they could find a moment of peace. There weren’t a lot of private spaces on the Prydwen , as space was a luxury on such a vessel. Well, there was one place, but…

Oh, hell. What kind of choice did he have?

“I guess we’re going to my quarters, then,” Danse said with a sigh. “I apologize for the breach of decorum, but unless I’m reading you completely wrong, soldier, you need a quiet place to decompress after our last mission. Am I correct?”

She nodded. “Yeah, sorry. I’m just…all this is a bit much for me right now. You understand.”

“Affirmative. Come on, then.”

Before he had a chance to panic, he ushered her into his quarters and eased the door shut behind them. His heart pounded nervously in his chest like a wild animal trying to break free. He’d never thought he’d let another person into his private space, particularly not a woman. Definitely not a subordinate.

Hopefully Arthur hadn’t settled into his room for the night yet. Due to the way their rooms had been constructed, he knew that the Elder could hear everything that happened in Danse’s quarters. This lack of privacy was useful when Danse’s nightmares acted up, but in the present circumstance, it was worrying. He couldn’t afford any misunderstandings.

“Make yourself at home,” the Paladin offered, trying not to groan in displeasure as Larimer flopped down on his bed and stared up at the ceiling.

“Well, this is a pretty shitty mattress,” she quipped. “No wonder you’re so uptight.”

“I meant the chair, Knight,” Danse replied with a heavy sigh, “but I suppose I should have been more clear.”

Larimer sat up, patting the bed next to her. “Relax, Danse, and come join me. Just pretend it’s a backless couch.”

He shook his head. This was a terrible idea. What had he been thinking, bringing her here?

“I said relax, Paladin,” she repeated, smirking. “I promise, I’m not after your virtue. Goodness.”

“I’m grateful for that, Knight,” he replied gruffly, “though I’m also horrified that you felt the need to clarify such a thing. No, I’m going to stand, if it’s all the same to you. I’d have to take off my power armor, and we’re technically still on duty. Besides, you still haven’t beaten me at chess, so I have the right to refuse to remove my armor.”

Larimer shook her head. “You’re such a stiff sometimes. Fine. But I’m gonna get you out of that armor one of these days, you’ll see.”

“I very much doubt that.”

Larimer chuckled hollowly, and the sound chilled him. Did she really think her laugh right now was convincing? “Anyhow,” she chirped, “what did you want to talk with me about? Or was that just an excuse to get me alone?”

Danse chose to ignore her latter question. “Actually, I did have something to discuss with you, about my early time in the Brotherhood. I think my experiences might...help you understand some things you might be feeling. I trust you’ll keep this just between us.”

“Well, if it’s real juicy I might tell Dogmeat,” she replied, “but other than that, Danse, your secrets are safe with me.”

“Very well,” he said. “Let me start at the beginning. I grew up alone in the Capital Wasteland…”

Larimer sat on the edge of Danse’s bed, her eyes studying his face as he told her about his early teenhood in Rivet City, about joining the Brotherhood of Steel at the tender age of fourteen. His eyes teared up as he told her about losing his mentor, Paladin Krieg, the year he’d turned 21. The Knight didn’t ask questions or offer any comments, just watched him. It was oddly comforting, in a way. How rarely had anyone just listened to him, had given him the same quiet reflection he gave everyone else?

But it was out of character for Larimer. Either she wasn’t really listening to his story, or the olive branch of personal information she would normally fight him tooth and nail to get was simply not enough to reach her in this miasma of pain and self-doubt that threatened to swallow her.

He knew that dark cloud well. It was the same he bore under his power armor like a second skin, hidden away from the rest of the world as much as possible. And he knew, if she wasn’t able to master it, that fear and pain would destroy her.

“I’m sorry about your mentor,” she eventually murmured, her eyes finally darting away from his face to study his grey wool blanket, which she picked at idly. “I’m sure you miss him terribly.”

“Every day,” Danse replied. “They say it gets easier, but it’s been almost a decade, and I keep waiting for that to happen.”

“I know what you mean,” she said softly. “With Nate gone...what if I...what if the pain never goes away?”

Danse smiled sadly at her. “Well, then we both keep doing what we’ve been doing. We keep moving forward, keep fighting, honoring the memories of the people we’ve lost by refusing to give up, no matter what this wretched wasteland throws at us.”

Larimer stared at him blankly. “That might work for you, Danse. But I think I’ve already demonstrated today how easy it is for me to give up.”

Danse cleared his throat awkwardly. “I was actually hoping we could talk about that. What happened in Fort Hagen was--”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Paladin,” she snapped, cutting him off.

“And I don’t want to pressure you to disclose anything you aren’t ready to tell me, Knight. If you would prefer, we could get a match in,” he offered, gesturing to the chessboard that rested on the desk, a tattered green velvet bag flopped over next to it. “We finally have access to actual pieces, so you might even be able to keep them all straight. Who knows? Maybe you’ll win our wager this time.”

Larimer nodded simply, and he placed the board next to her on the bed, pouring the pieces from the bag. They were not all from the same set, unfortunately, but at least there were enough pieces. Only Maxson’s own board had matching pieces, forged in steel and iron, a gift from some officer or another hoping to get into the young Elder’s good graces. Everyone knew that Arthur would be High Elder someday. It was in his blood, after all. While Danse had long envied his friend’s chess set, he certainly didn’t envy the pressure that such a precious gift represented.

Besides, he had no reason to complain, given the history of his own board. The Paladin’s personal chessboard was one of the few luxuries he owned, a gift from Arthur after Danse had saved his life for the first time. It had been the day they officially became friends.

The young Elder had never given him another present, so it was unlikely that giving such items to people who saved your life was a typical response. Or, perhaps, it was because he only needed one chessboard. Where would he have even put the other three he was apparently owed? Either way, Danse figured it was hardly worth the time to speculate over Maxson’s motives. He turned his attention back to the board, now fully set up on his bed.

“White or black?” he asked.

“I’ll take white,” Larimer murmured.

“Very well,” Danse replied, rotating the board so Larimer’s pieces were closer to her. “That means the first move is yours, remember?”

She nodded, her hand nearly automatic as she moved her king’s pawn forward two spaces.

“A classic start, Knight,” he mused, mirroring her move. “I expected more ingenuity from you.”

“Says the copycat,” she snarked, hand already reaching for her knight.

Knight to F3.

“You began the dance,” he shot back, eyeing the board before carefully selecting his own knight. “I’m merely following your lead.”

Knight to C6.

“You never follow my lead, Paladin.”

Bishop to B5. Interesting.

“I do have more tactical experience than you, Larimer. I had hoped you would learn from it.”

Pawn to A6.

Larimer bit her lower lip, sucking the tip of it between her teeth as she concentrated. Finally, she moved.

Bishop to A4. A tactical retreat. Fair enough. Bishops were valuable pieces, not to be sacrificed lightly. At least she’d already learned that much.

“Nothing to say for yourself, Knight?” Danse asked. It was unusual for her to let criticism slide off her back.

Knight to F6.

“What do you expect me to say?” Larimer snipped. “I know you’re right. I just wish you’d listen to me sometimes.” She castled to the right, slamming her rook down a little harder than she needed to.

Right Castle.

“I do listen to you,” he muttered, picking his bishop off the board as delicately as he could with armored hands.

Bishop to E7.

They fired off the next few moves at each other in rapid succession.

Larimer moved her rook to E1.

Danse countered with a pawn to B5.

Bishop to B3.

Pawn to D6.

After Danse’s last move, Larimer paused, eyeing the board carefully.

“If you listened to me, Danse, wouldn’t I be dead right now?”

She slowly slid her pawn to C3.

His eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about, Larimer?” He mirrored her castle, searching her face for answers. He knew full well what she was talking about, but he needed to hear it from her mouth.

Left Castle.

“I asked you to wait outside Kellogg’s command center,” she replied coolly, fingers hesitating over her rightmost pawn.

Pawn to H3.

“And I did as you asked, until…” Until the shooting stopped. Until all the noise in the control room had stopped. He’d raced into the room, expecting to see her face-down in a pool of her own blood. What he’d seen instead was somehow even worse.

Knight to B8.

“You should have left me there,” she murmured. “It would have been easier.”

Pawn to D4. Her last three moves had been pawns. Was that a subconscious message? Did she see herself that way, just a weak pawn in the hands of forces much larger than her?

“Do you mean I should have let you kill yourself, Knight?” Danse asked coolly.

Knight to D7.

“I...I don’t know,” she whispered. She stopped playing for a moment, her glimmering green eyes boring a hole in the board. Finally, she reached for a simple knight carved from driftwood.

Knight to D2.

“Then what do you mean?” he replied, sliding his bishop into position. “Forgive me, I’m not quite following you.”

Bishop to B7.

Bishop to C2. She didn’t meet his gaze.

Rook to E8. He didn’t press her.

Silently, she moved her knight to F1.

Danse countered with his bishop to F8.

Larimer’s fingers trembled as she reached for her knight.

Knight to G3.

“Please, Myra, answer me?” Danse prodded gently, and her eyes flashed to his in shock.

He realized with a start that he’d called her by her first name. He had always prided himself on maintaining proper decorum. What the hell was he doing, alone in his room with a subordinate, using familiar terms with her? If he wasn’t so shocked, he’d have been horrified.

Quickly, he moved his pawn to G6.

“Danse…” she said softly, almost reverently as she placed her bishop at G5.

“I’m sorry.” he muttered, flustered. “That was unacceptable of me. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s ok,” she replied with a melancholy smile. “I won’t rat you out to Maxson for daring to be familiar with me, or whatever it is you’re so worried about, I promise. Just… I’m having trouble putting this into words, ok?”

He nodded, eyes returning to the board.

Pawn to H6. He’d be damned if her bishop would even think about stealing his knight without a fight.

She pulled her bishop back next to her other one. Predictable.

He took her central pawn with his. First blood.

She immediately retaliated, a vicious gleam in her eyes as she pulled his pawn from the board.

“Be careful, Knight,” Danse warned. “Revenge is a hard fire to control.”

He moved another pawn to C5. Would she fall for it?

“I know. I’m not an idiot,” she muttered.

Pawn to D5.

“I never said you were,” the Paladin offered. “But sometimes, when there’s a fire like that raging inside of you, it can make you lose control. And a good soldier needs to stay in control. Always.”

Knight to B6.

Her fingers trembled as she reached for her left bishop, moving the weathered pine churchman three spaces diagonally to the upper left. “I would have done it, Danse. Lost control, I mean. If I’d been alone, if you hadn’t stopped me…”

No one would have blamed her for shooting herself, he realized. Not after what she’d been through. Though Danse would have mourned her, he never would have blamed her. He would have only blamed himself for not being able to talk her out of it.

“No, you wouldn’t have,” he shot back. “You’re stronger than that. Yes, you lost a major lead, faced down the man who murdered your husband. But you know your son’s alive. You know where he is. Now we just need to go get him. And we can’t do that if you’re dead, so I refuse to believe that you wouldn’t have had the foresight to stop yourself.”

He moved his knight to D7, fingers tracing the walnut steed’s elaborately carved bridle. It was one of his favorites. He hoped he’d find the rest of the set someday.

“But still,” Larimer retorted, “I can’t say what would have happened. Hell, maybe if I hesitated, he would have killed me instead, and you would have been stuck in the hall, unable to get there in time.”

Danse nodded solemnly. In fact, it was the thought that Kellogg had killed her that made him abandon his post. If Larimer had failed, he knew he couldn’t just let the man who destroyed her family escape. But seeing her there over Kellogg’s body, as much of a relief as it should have been, was tainted by the look of utter loss in her eyes.

“But do you know what the worst part was?” Larimer continued, her eyes swimming with unshed tears as she moved her pawn to B3.

The Paladin shook his head.

“He smiled at me when I blew his brains out,” Larimer continued. “I think he wanted me to kill him. Like, for him, that was the best possible outcome. And that’s what pushed me over the edge. How did someone end up like that, Danse?”

Was Larimer going to end up like that? Her unspoken question hung in her eyes, and he sighed, pulling back from the board before placing a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. He hoped it was the right thing to do.

“You saw the evidence for yourself,” Danse said softly. “All those cybernetic augmentations had left him more machine than human. Perhaps he was simply tired of being a plaything for the Institute.” He smiled gently down at her as her eyes softened. “Trust me, soldier,” Danse continued, “I’ve fought and killed my share of deeply troubled individuals. And it never gets easier if you let them play with your head. You have to just let what he said and what he did go, or it will consume you. You’re better than that.”

“I’m a killer now,” she whispered in horror, “just like him. I mean, I’ve killed people before, but not like this. I shot an unarmed man, Danse. He hadn’t even drawn his gun before I… the synths put up more of a fight.”

His eyes widened. So that was the reason she was behaving this way. Larimer hadn’t gunned down the mercenary in self-defense, as Danse had assumed. She’d murdered him. Whether or not she’d been manipulated into such a heinous act didn’t matter. Larimer had crossed a line, and nothing Danse could do or say would ever make it better.

In most circumstances, Danse would have reprimanded one of his soldiers for such a dishonorable action. Slaughtering someone who had no intention of fighting back was a horrible offense, deserving of severe punishment. But there was something about this situation that gave him pause, something Larimer had said earlier. Kellogg had wanted her to kill him.

Was that true? He couldn’t deny that it was possible. From his experience with the shadowy scientific organization, the Institute was not known for leaving loose ends. It was probably only a matter of time before they came for the mercenary and put him down. The man had probably known more than his share of their secrets. If Larimer had been able to track him down...anyone could have. So Kellogg had decided to kill himself, and use Larimer as the weapon. Did that make her less culpable?

A gun was not responsible for the people who used it to kill. No one called a pond to trial after someone drowned in it. The noose around the neck of a disgraced man was never clapped in irons. But these were inanimate, unfeeling things. No one bothered to think about what the gun felt as it fell from the grip of a dead hand. Had anyone ever wondered if the waters wept, or if the noose tried desperately to forget its part in the snuffing out of a life once its form had returned to mere rope?

Of course not. That would be absurd. But for Larimer, there was no comfort in being another tool of destruction. Unlike these dead, unthinking things, she was human. She was alive. And she was overwhelmed by the horror of what she’d participated in. Danse couldn’t bring himself to blame her. He just had to stop her from continuing to blame herself, before what transpired in the fort happened again.

He cursed his lack of eloquence as he tried to find a way to express everything he was thinking, to offer her words of comfort and advice. Danse had always struggled with translating his thoughts to words. There seemed to almost be a disconnect in his brain that made him unable to express himself the way he wished. Every once in a great while, he was able to push through, to offer counsel. Most of the time, he was fortunate if his thoughts and feelings came across at all.

“Larimer,” Danse replied finally, his warm brown eyes fixated on her face, “listen to me. You won’t become like Conrad Kellogg. I… you simply won’t allow that to happen.”

Larimer stared at him for a moment in silence, her haunted eyes probing his, seeking certainty. “I guess I never realized you cared that much,” she mused after a long moment.

How could she not realize? After everything they’d been through together over the last few weeks, all the time they’d spent talking, did she still not know him at all? Danse felt a sickening pang somewhere deep within himself, an old wound stinging under the pressure of a new hurt.

“Of course I do,” he replied simply. “I’m your sponsor. I might not always react positively to your actions, soldier, but when have I ever given you the impression that I don’t care about what happens to you?”

Before he could react, Larimer grabbed the handles on the front of his power armor, hauling herself up from the bed and pressing her lips to his. The chess pieces scattered as she brushed past them, the game forgotten. It was an abrupt, almost violent impact as her body swung against his, the momentum of her rushing into him causing Danse to stumble backwards. Without thinking, he wrapped his arms around her waist and upper legs, trying to regain his balance and avoid crashing to the ground.

Larimer’s lips were unexpectedly soft and slightly cooler than he thought they would be as they met his, like the touch of dew on the world in the early morning. His startled eyes scanned her face, proximity distorting her features. His mind raced to process what was happening, to quantify it somehow. How had this happened? Why was it happening? And, most importantly of all, how did he feel about it?

He’d been kissed before, of course. It was hard to become one of the Brotherhood of Steel’s top soldiers and not gain the attention of some admirers -- though he knew most were more interested in using him to get to Arthur, whose jealous streak was well-known. But this kiss wasn’t all hungry and desperate like most of the ones he’d received in the past. It was almost a thank you, almost a plea of consolation, almost a…

Danse suddenly realized that he was kissing Larimer back, his chapped lips parted slightly as they pressed gently back against hers. His eyes, at last, slid shut as his concerns seemed to drift away, the consequences of this moment temporarily set aside. They would have to deal with this, he knew. But for the moment, all that mattered was Larimer’s warm breath against his skin, her long arms wrapped around his neck like a loose scarf. For the first time in a long time, he felt seen, no longer burdened by words or decorum. In that moment, he wasn’t Paladin Danse. He was just Danse, and she was just Myra. If only things could always be this simple. If only...

However, as abruptly as the kiss had started, it was over. Larimer leapt from his embrace as though he were made of fire, her cheeks burning, emerald eyes were wide in shock and horror at what had transpired between them.

“I…um...shit,” she sputtered, looking away. “I’m so sorry, Paladin. I can’t believe I did that.”

He coughed awkwardly, the heat rising in his own cheeks as he tried to think of the right thing to say. Part of him wanted to pull her close and kiss her again, to never let the feeling of her resting in his arms fade away. But the moment had faded, and reality hummed ominously in the sound of the Prydwen’s engines. For all he might wish that it were otherwise, he was still Paladin Danse. She was still his subordinate. It would foolish for him to try and make them anything else. The whole thing was a mistake borne of grief and pain, nothing more. He released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, his eyes not quite able to meet hers.

“It… it’s quite alright, soldier,” Danse said, his voice almost mechanical as he locked down his emotions as fast as he could. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it. Just please try to contain yourself next time you have an emotional outburst. Not everyone on this ship would let such a blatant display go so easily.”

Larimer snorted, trying to hide her mortification. “Well, maybe next time I’ll give Elder Maxson a quick smooch out on the main deck,” she teased. “I do like to embarrass myself the maximum amount possible when I’m not thinking clearly.”

“That would be ill-advised,” Danse replied, trying not to visualize it and failing badly. He frowned, desperately trying to think of something else. Armor maintenance, battle reports, anything.

“Obviously,” Larimer muttered. “It’s called a joke.”

The Paladin sighed. “I don’t understand why you always use humor to deflect your emotions.”

“Well, sir, some of us use humor. Some of us use a stuffy adherence to decorum. It’s really all the same beast, don’t you think?”

Danse tried to hide his surprise. Was he suddenly so easy to read? “Perhaps. I honestly can’t say I’ve ever thought about it before.”

Silence descended over Danse’s quarters, which suddenly seemed too small. No words remained to bridge the awkwardness between them, and the Paladin found himself filled with a desire to clean, to wander the deck, anything but remain so close to Larimer.

“I should go,” the Knight finally said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “I still need to unpack and settle in, if we’re going to be staying here for a while.”

“I…” Danse started to reply before thinking better of it. “Do it in the morning, soldier. You should try to get some sleep.”

As if on cue, Larimer’s bleary face cracked open with a yawn so wide he thought she’d dislocated her jaw. “You’ve got a point,” she mumbled. “I’ll leave you be.”

She stopped just shy of leaving his room, her hand hovering over the handle. “Oh, and Paladin Danse?”

“Yes, soldier?”

“Thank you. For everything.”

He nodded awkwardly. “Any time. Just as long as you don’t feel the need to kiss me every time we speak in private.”

She smirked, the lovely rose of her blush returning. “No promises,” she murmured, and then she was gone.

Danse eased out of his power armor with a sigh, the sensation of her gentle lips still clinging to his own. He touched a few fingertips to his lower lip idly as he puttered about his quarters, collecting the scattered pieces of his chess set and generally trying to keep himself busy to give his mind time to catch up with the events of the day.

At least Scribe Haylen had possessed the good sense to kiss him on the cheek when she’d broken down. That hadn’t been so bad.  Of course, he reasoned with himself, this was the same thing as what had happened with Haylen all those months ago, after he’d ordered her to euthanize Knight Worwick. She had cried in his arms, had kissed him on the cheek, and they had never spoken of it again. There was no need to.

This incident with Knight Larimer was just more of the same. It had to be. She was having a difficult day. It hadn’t meant anything more than that. Nothing whatsoever had changed between them.

Still, it took him far longer to fall asleep than he was comfortable with, and once he did, his dreams were plagued by the image of Larimer… no, of Myra standing over Kellogg’s body, her white hair unbound from its usual neat bun, wrath and despair fighting for purchase in her cold, green eyes as she raised her backup pistol to her own head. She bit her lower lip, her hand trembling as her finger slid to the trigger, her eyes never leaving his.

Only this time, he hadn’t been able to talk her down, hadn’t pulled her gun out of her loose grip as she collapsed, weeping, into his arms. This time, he’d failed.

Every time the shot rang out, he gasped awake. Every time he fell back asleep, the scene replayed.

There was no saving her.

Chapter Text

MacCready yawned heavily as he leaned against the side of the shack he’d just finished building. When he’d told Preston that he wasn’t a huge fan of manual labor, the Colonel had seemed to take that as a challenge rather than a statement of fact. At least the Gunners had never made MacCready spend an entire day tying chicken wire to fence posts to make a brahmin pen. His fingers still ached from yesterday’s project, and he hoped that the pain wouldn’t affect his ability to shoot too much. After all, a sniper was only as good as his hands and his eyes.

Still, the mercenary had to admit that they’d accomplished quite a lot over the last week or so. The first few days were just dedicated to the two men hauling burnt-out husks of twisted metal out of the parking lot. Then, they’d set up a few rows of tato plants and carrots near the future town’s workbench. Now, finally, they had completed a few simple buildings to provide shelter for any settlers who decided to live there. It wasn’t much, but it was definitely a start. MacCready was beginning to understand Preston’s enthusiasm for Starlight as a settlement site. It really did have a lot of promise.

Preston wandered up next to him, grinning. “Well, Mac, I guess you’re more handy than you let on. Good work.”

“I really need to start charging by the hour,” MacCready replied with a dramatic groan. “Between you and that General of yours, Preston, I’m feeling really taken advantage of.”

The minuteman laughed. “You know, Myra said the same thing when we started working together. I suppose next you’ll be telling me that you’ve got to go find your missing son, and then I won’t see you again.”

MacCready frowned. “Missing son?”

Preston’s eyes widened. “Oh, damn. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s...well, it’s the General’s business.” 

The mercenary thought back to the woman he’d met in Goodneighbor. She hadn’t struck him as the maternal type. Then again, if the rumors he’d heard about her were true…

“You’re right,” he replied with a shrug. “It’s none of my business. I was just curious, since you brought it up.”

Preston sighed in relief. “For a second there, I thought you were going to drag it out of me.”

MacCready rolled his eyes. “What do I look like, an old woman? Come on, pal.” He pulled a can of purified water out of his bag, taking a large gulp from the white canister. “I’ve got enough problems without worrying about anyone else’s,” he continued, offering the can to Preston.

The Colonel shook his head, respectfully refusing the offered beverage. “No thanks, Mac. I’ve got to run down to Lexington. Last time I was there, there was a pretty good scrap heap that might have what we need to finish the water purifier. I’d like to get the recruitment beacon active by tomorrow, and we can’t be asking people to move here without a source of water.”

“Do you want me to come with you? Lexington’s not the safest place to travel alone.”

Preston shook his head once more. “No, you need to stay here. We can’t leave a site like this unguarded, or someone might take it over before we get back. I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on someone else taking credit for all our hard work.”

MacCready grinned. “Well, if that’s how you want to play things, then sure. I’ll try to get a few more things done while you’re gone, maybe find some straw for bedding.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be back in a few hours.” Preston tipped his hat to the mercenary before pulling his pack back over one shoulder, his laser musket slung across the other. “If anyone from Sanctuary comes looking for me, you can tell them the same.”

“You’d better be back before that happens,” MacCready shot back, “or they’ll probably just assume I shot you and took your stuff.”

The minuteman chuckled. “I’ll do my best.” He took one last look about the future settlement with a satisfied smile, and made his way down the road, the shattered buildings in the distance marking his way.

MacCready wasted little time in getting to work. With Preston off his back, he was finally able to get things done without worrying that every little thing he did would be scrutinized. To say that the minuteman irritated him would be going a bit far, but MacCready certainly had never been a fan of being bossed around.

Still, he’d met more than his share of micro-managers over the years. Hell, his best friend was the queen of micro-managers. She’d been ordering him around since the day they’d met. But there was respect there, an understanding that their friendship was always more important than pride. MacCready hadn’t gotten there with Preston, at least not yet. As far as he was concerned, the minuteman had yet to prove his salt.

All the same, MacCready didn’t dislike Preston. The guy seemed sincere, and that was a rare trait in the people that the sniper usually found himself working for. If Preston could just learn to let other people have their own opinions, their own ways of solving problems, he would actually be a pretty decent guy.

The mercenary took one more swig from his can of water before setting it down on the counter of the old diner. He climbed the steps to the projection booth where he’d squirreled away bits of electronics and other more valuable salvage. It was never a smart idea to leave that stuff out in the open.

Once he’d gathered what he needed and shoved the scrap into a large canvas sack, MacCready dragged his components with him across the parking lot towards the old movie screen. It’d be easier to move the turrets into position now before they were assembled, and he was determined to finish fortifying the top of the screen.

“That can wait, he says,” the mercenary muttered under his breath as he attached the bundle of scrap to a pulley system he’d rigged on their first full day at Starlight. “We’ve got to build the farm first, he says. Well, no time like the present.”

With the pulley in place, it was easy for him to lift the heavy sack of steel and electronics to the platform above. He tied off the rope quickly, then raced up the steps, snagging the bag from the railing with a triumphant grin. It looked like all of Joseph’s stupid science classes actually ended up teaching MacCready something useful. Who knew?

Even though MacCready knew his way around most guns, turrets proved to be another beast altogether. A few times, he came pretty close to blowing his arm off as he wrestled with a few of the more temperamental components. How had those idiots in the Gunners managed to make this look so easy? Most of them couldn’t even tie their own shoes without Winlock or Barnes telling them how, and the two commanders weren’t exactly a brain trust either. So what secret knowledge did they have that the sniper didn’t?

Eventually, after hours of jury-rigging and near-cussing, MacCready managed to build a few functional heavy gun turrets. He placed them at regular intervals along the top of the screen, wiping his greasy hands on his trousers as he stepped back and admired his handiwork. By the time he was satisfied with their placement, the sun had almost finished its descent. MacCready frowned. Preston should have been back by now. Something must have happened.

With the turrets operational, MacCready rationalized, it would probably be fine for him to leave Starlight for a while. The sniper climbed back down from his perch on top of the movie screen, grabbing a few extra bullets from an ammo container on his way and tucking them into his pack, just in case. He hated traveling at night, but he couldn’t ignore the growing worry that gnawed at him as he loped towards Lexington, his eyes scanning for any sign of Preston’s whereabouts.

If something terrible had happened to the Colonel, MacCready knew that he’d be blamed for it. All people would see was one more Gunner who decided to turn on the Minutemen. Whether he liked it or not, Preston was his responsibility.

It didn’t take long before MacCready caught the scent of smoke on the air, and his pulse quickened as he noticed a flickering glow on the horizon, dancing flames in the darkness outside Mystic Pines Retirement Home. He clung to the shadows, creeping around towards the back of the building. As he drew closer, he began to hear angry voices from the front of the structure.

“They’re fucking synths, man!” cried a gruff, masculine voice. “Don’t you know what that means?”

“I swear, we’re human!” whimpered another, softer voice. “How many times do we have to tell you, we weren’t spying on you. We didn’t think anyone else was living here.”

“But this is our property!” spit a furious woman. “Which makes you synths and trespassers.”

“You don’t have any proof that these people are synths, and they haven’t actually taken anything from you,” urged a familiar voice. “Everyone just calm down, lower your weapons, and let’s talk this out.”

“Like hell!” growled another voice, feral and hungry. “We don’t answer to you, minuteman. This is a free settlement, and we got every right to defend ourselves from these...things.”

MacCready had climbed up the fire escape and now carefully stretched prone on the edge of the roof, looking down on the scene below. Two young men, neither much older than twenty, lay on the broken pavement, bound and beaten. One was barely conscious, moaning in pain with his eyes scrunched shut. Blood oozed from a large cut hidden among a tangle of dark curls, painting ghoulish patterns across his tanned face. The other stared up at their attackers, his deep brown eyes wide in terror.

Six or seven people stood in a semicircle around the pair, torches and various makeshift weapons clutched in their hands.  In front of the small mob was a large man, bear-like in his posture. And there, his laser musket pointed directly at the massive man’s chest, was Preston. The minuteman glared at the apparent leader, barely-controlled rage burning behind his eyes. “I said back the hell up,” Preston snarled, “and put your weapons down so we can talk about this!”

The man’s face twisted with malice as he spat his reply at Preston. “It’s too late for that, you bastard!” the man howled, and MacCready recognized him as the first voice he’d heard. “We’ve gotta kill them. It’s the only way to be sure.”

The crowd shouted in agreement, brandishing their weapons.

“You gotta help us,” whined the conscious prisoner to Preston. “Please. I swear, my brother and I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Don’t worry,” said Preston, as calmly as he could manage. “We’re going to get out of this.”

The giant laughed, brandishing a large tire iron with a knife attached to the crook. “I’m only going to tell you one more time, minuteman. Leave, and let us handle this, or you’re gonna die with them. ‘Cause I don’t know how you all feel, but I think the only thing worse than a fucking synth is a fucking synth sympathizer.”

The crowd pressed forward, screaming insults at Preston, who glared back at them defiantly.

“Well,” the Colonel retorted, “I’ve almost died before for worse reasons. I’m warning you, though. Unlike these poor kids you beat up, I know how to fight back. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and if you go home now, I promise, I won’t come after you.”

MacCready rolled his eyes. Of all the stupid...was Preston seriously trying to bluff his way out of this? Couldn’t he see that these people were beyond reason? To his surprise, however, a few of the crowd lowered their weapons. Their leader seemed to be as shocked by this development as MacCready was.

“What, losing your fucking nerve already?” the huge beast of a man bellowed. “You really think we can’t take this guy? Well, fine. I guess I’ll just finish the job myself.”

As the man raised his weapon, preparing to slash town at Preston, MacCready gently eased back the trigger on his sniper rifle. The giant toppled backwards, a crimson flower blossoming on his forehead as he thudded, lifeless, to the ground. A few of the crowd screamed, and several people fled, tearing through the night back into the city.

Preston took aim at another man as he charged at him, catching him square in the chest with a laser round. The man gasped in pain as his body disintegrated, leaving nothing but ash. That was enough to convince the remaining members of the crowd to leave, and they dispersed quickly like rats into a sewer.

MacCready reloaded his gun, aiming for one of the stragglers.

“Let them go, Mac,” Preston commanded, looking up at him. “They’ve learned their lesson.”

MacCready sighed, lowering his weapon and hopping down from his perch, dusting himself off. “Maybe they have. But have you?”

“If you mean that I shouldn’t go scavving without backup,” Preston replied, offering his hand to MacCready, “then the answer’s yes. Thanks for showing up when you did.”

MacCready shook the Colonel’s hand with a smirk. “Hey, I told you, if I let you die, I’m the one who your guys are gonna blame. I don’t need another bounty on my head, that’s for sure.”

Preston turned his attention to the captives, hastily cutting their bonds with his knife. “Hey, are you ok to walk?” he asked the more conscious of the pair.

The young man nodded. “Yeah, I think so. But Dov...he’s not.”

“No problem. We can carry him. It’s not that far back to our settlement.”

MacCready frowned. “Preston, are you sure? I mean, what if they really are...you know…not human?”

Preston sighed. “Does it really matter? Look at them. They’re hurt, scared, and they need our help. You said you wanted to learn how to be one of the good guys. This is what good guys do.”

“Maybe that’s why there are so few of them left,” the mercenary replied, hoisting one of the unconscious man’s arms around his shoulder. “Grab his other side, will you? We’re gonna have to move quickly if we want to get out of here in one piece.” He turned to the battered young man, tossing him a pipe pistol. “You ever fire one of these, pal?”

The young man shook his head. “I’m not really a fan of guns,” he said nervously, holding the improvised weapon as if it were about to bite him.

MacCready rolled his eyes. “Well, one of us has to be ready to fend off an attack, and unless you’re up for lugging your brother, that’s gonna have to be you. Seriously, it’s easy. Point the shooty end at your target, not yourself or us, and pull the trigger. A baby could use that gun.”

“Uh...um…” muttered the young man, quivering.

Preston glared at MacCready before turning his attention to the frightened man. “Hey, it’s ok. What’s your name?”

“Zev,” managed the younger man. “Zev Stern. I’m...I’m sorry. I’m not used to all of this. Dov’s always been the fighter.”

Preston nodded, grabbing the bladed tire iron off the ground next to the massive man’s corpse. He wiped the blood off of it delicately before handing it to the young man. “Here, use this instead. It’s not pretty, but it’ll be enough protection for now. You can give that gun back to MacCready, if you want.”

The mercenary shook his head. “No, keep it. When your wounds heal, I’ll teach you how to use it. I can’t believe you’ve gotten to be this old without knowing how to use a gun. No wonder those guys thought you were a synth.”

Zev blushed, sliding the pipe pistol into his belt. “Thanks. I’m really sorry about all of this.”

MacCready snorted. “You can apologize when we’re safe. Come on, Preston. I’d prefer to get back before the local ghoul population gets curious.”

Preston grabbed Dov’s other arm, and the four men began to move slowly but steadily back towards Starlight.

 


 

A few hours later, after he’d thrown together some food for the others, MacCready entered one of the makeshift huts he’d built. Preston had temporarily converted the small wooden shelter into a clinic for the Stern brothers as he did his best to patch their wounds.

The minuteman knelt beside a lumpy straw mattress, wringing his handkerchief out in a small pot of boiled water. He gently wiped the blood and filth from Dov’s face. The young man groaned as the hot, wet cloth brushed over his wounds.

Zev sat nearby, his doe-like eyes a thousand miles away. The man’s lips were drawn in a tight grimace as he wrung his hands nervously, the bladed tire iron laying unused by his feet. They’d gotten lucky.

“How are they, Preston?” asked MacCready. “Are we gonna need to amputate anything?”

“Well, they’ll both live with all their limbs still attached,” the Colonel replied, “so that’s the good news.”

“And the bad news?”

Preston sighed. “I’ve done what I can for Dov, but they really did a number on his shoulder. I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to lift his arm all the way again.”

Zev whimpered at the news. “Damn it, Dov. I’m so sorry. You should have left me behind.”

Preston placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Zev, your brother obviously loves you a lot. I’m sure he’ll just be grateful that you’re ok.”

The young man’s shoulders slumped. “But it was all my fault. I’m the one who said we should set up camp in that building. Dov said we should keep heading north, towards that Sanctuary place we’ve been hearing about on the radio. I was tired, and just wanted a place to rest. If I’d only been stronger, none of this would have happened.”

MacCready felt a pang in his heart as he watched the young man struggle with the consequences of his own frailty. How many times had the mercenary felt the same way, watching the lives of the people he cared about most in the world run like dust through his fingers? If he’d have only kept a closer eye on Zip...if he’d have taken the time to adequately scout those metro tunnels...if he’d spent more time playing with Duncan instead of letting him fend for himself while the sniper drank his pain away…

The mercenary frowned, eyeing the battered young man next to him. “Come on, Zev. I could use your help with the stew.”

The young man eyed him in shock. “But shouldn’t I stay here?”

MacCready shook his head. “Your brother’s resting. Come on. I want to talk to you for a minute, and I really could use an extra hand.”

Slowly, Zev followed him out of the hut and over towards the cooking fire. It was a simple setup, just a large iron pot hanging over a carefully-maintained campfire, but MacCready was proud of it. It had been a long time since he’d had a hearth even this nice to work with. Maybe he’d add a little clay oven eventually, if he could find enough clay to make it. It’d be nice to have bread again.

MacCready eased the lid off the pot with a hooked piece of rebar he’d fashioned, smiling to himself as the rich, bubbling stew came into view. It wasn’t his best work, just a simple mix of molerat, tato, carrot, and the last of his supply of salt. He’d need to find more soon, but like hell was he going to make stew without salt in it. He wasn’t a monster.

MacCready handed an empty bowl to Zev, ladling a portion of the stew into it. “Taste that,” he said, “and tell me if it needs anything.”

The nervous young man pulled a small sample of the rich red broth to his mouth, blowing on it gently before tasting it. His eyes widened in surprise, and he quickly grabbed another mouthful. “Holy crap, this is good!”

“So it doesn’t need anything?” MacCready asked.

“You made this?” Zev asked. “Really?”

The sniper nodded. “It wasn’t hard. I could teach you, if you want.”

The younger man smiled nervously. “I’d like that. No offense, I just…you don’t really look like you’d be a good cook.”

MacCready sighed. “Everyone always says that. I’m not sure why. I’m pretty great at a lot of things. Why’s it so strange that cooking’s one of them?”

Zev chuckled nervously. “Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but...I mean, you’re kind of…thin?”

“You mean I’m scrawny,” MacCready muttered grumpily. “Yeah, I know. Hey, if you’d spent the first sixteen years of your life living on cave fungus, you’d be small too, ok? It’s not my fault.”

“I really didn’t...sorry for bringing it up,” said Zev.

MacCready shook his head. “Hey, no. Don’t get upset. I asked. I just wish ‘scrawny’ wasn’t the first word people used to describe me, ok? It...it gets old.”

Zev smiled shyly at him. “I understand. I get tired of people calling me useless, too. People always tell Dov that, and I guess it’s true, but it still bugs me. Bugs him, too, I guess, since he usually punches whoever said it. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t found a place to stay in a long while.” The young man sighed. “I guess I really am just a burden to him after all.”

“Look, pal,” MacCready said softly, “what happened with your brother...these things happen. The important thing is that you’re both alive. If you’re still alive, then there’s still hope, right?”

Zev thought for a moment, fiddling with the clasp on his threadbare jacket. After a while, he nodded. “You’re right. We’ll make it through this. We always do. Even after our parents died, Dov always managed to keep us going. ‘Sterns don’t give up,’ he says.”

“Yeah, sure,” muttered MacCready in reply. “Just, if you feel like you aren’t doing enough to help your brother out, maybe this is a wake-up call. If you’re tired of being weak and useless, change it. You can be someone he can depend on, right?”

Zev sighed. “Look, I know I’m pretty useless. I always have been. If it wasn’t for Dov, I’d be dead.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” MacCready chided. “If there’s one thing I learned early on in my life, it’s that everyone has some way they can contribute. You might never be a good farmer, or a strong leader. You might not be good at building things, or fighting monsters. But there’s gotta be something you’re good at. You just have to find it. The only really useless people are the people who never try.”

“I guess you’re right,” the young man said with a sigh. “But how can I figure that out?”

“You can start by helping out around here,” called a voice from behind them. Both men turned, startled, to see Preston watching them. “I’ve got to say, Mac,” the minuteman continued, “I never took you for the inspirational speech type.”

“Didn’t I tell you, Preston?” he replied, “I used to be a mayor.”

“I really can’t picture that,” Preston replied. “Who the hell would ever put you in charge of anything?”

“Well, my constituents were all under the age of 16, so…”

Preston chuckled. “That makes a hell of a lot more sense.” He turned to Zev. “Anyway, what do you say? You and your brother are welcome to live here, as long as you promise to work hard and help anyone who needs it.”

“Really?” asked Zev, his dark eyes brightening. “You mean it?”

“Well, Starlight’s not much of a settlement without settlers,” Preston replied. “Besides, I have a feeling that the two of you would make excellent minutemen.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” said Zev, “what’s a minuteman?”

MacCready groaned, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his duster pocket and lighting one. Preston really had his work cut out for him with this one, that was for sure. “You hungry, Preston? There’s plenty of stew.”

“What’s in it?” the minuteman asked, frowning. “You’d better not say mole rat, or I swear…”

“It’s the last of it, ok? After this, we can eat something else. Besides, the kid says it’s good.”

Zev nodded. “It’s really tasty, actually.”

Preston heaved a great sigh, sitting down by the fire and warming his hands. “Fine. But after this, I don’t ever want to even see another mole rat, is that clear?”

MacCready chuckled. “Hey, I’m not the one who hired me to kill a couple dozen of the hairless bas...um, jerks. Next time, you could pick a settlement with a radstag infestation, you know.”

“And give you an easy day’s work?” snorted Preston. “Nah. I’m thinking yao guai next.”

“You son of a…” moaned MacCready, scowling as the minuteman laughed heartily. “Don’t even think about it. Squirrels, or no deal.”

“You sure you want to hunt squirrels?” Zev asked. “They’re really fast.”

MacCready smirked. “I’m faster.”

“That...that must be from all the...running away you’re always doing,” Preston retorted, breathless from laughter. Zev cracked up, reaching for the ladle to pour more soup in his bowl. MacCready smacked his hand away playfully.

“If you two are just going to make fun of me,” he replied with a sardonic grin, “then I guess you’ll just have to find your own food. I’m sorry, Zev, but that’ll probably be your job. Preston here believes in ‘delegating,’ which really means that he makes other people do his job for him.”

Preston rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on, MacCready. You can do better than that.”

The three of them traded barbs and stories until the fire began to die down, at which point, MacCready stood, filling a clean bowl with stew and handing it to Zev.

“Here, take this to your brother. Even if he can’t eat it yet, I’m sure he’ll be glad to have you close by.”

The younger man nodded, walking carefully back towards the hut. MacCready turned to Preston, frowning slightly. “So how bad is his brother, really?”

Preston sighed. “It’s hard to tell. I’m not a doctor. But with the stimpacks, we shouldn’t have to worry about too much. I’m just worried about that head wound. Those can be...tricky.”

MacCready groaned. “Great. What do we tell Zev?”

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” Preston replied. “If we’re lucky, everything will be fine, and Dov will be exactly the way he remembers when he wakes up.”

“And if we aren’t?”

“I’m not sure,” sighed Preston. “Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.”

MacCready nodded, clamping the lid back on his cooking pot a little more forcefully than he’d intended. “Yeah. Here’s hoping.”

Chapter Text

Danse awoke with a groggy moan to a gentle but insistent pounding on the metal door to his quarters. He rolled out of bed, nursing his aching back. The worst part of being in his thirties had to be the constant back pain. Maybe Myra was right, and he should look into trying to get a better mattress from Proctor Teagan.

He screwed up his face in disgust as the tight fabric of his flight suit moved with him, damp from sweat. His nightmares, as they often did, had left him soaked through.

“I’ll be there momentarily,” he called to the person beyond the door. The Paladin quickly slipped into a fresh uniform before climbing back into his power armor. He sighed in relief as the suit closed around him, sealing him inside its comforting embrace.

He opened the door, his bleary eyes taking a moment to adjust to the bright florescent light of the hallway. There, nervously hovering about the threshold, was Myra. She’d traded her green flannel for a Brotherhood uniform of her own, the bright orange fabric partially hidden under her leather armor. She’d also elected to wear a pair of dark jeans over the suit, which Danse had to admit was an improvement over the original design, albeit not strictly regulation.

“Good morning, Paladin,” she said softly, her eyes boring into his armored torso.

“Good morning, Knight,” he replied, watching her carefully, searching for any sign of further emotional turmoil. She seemed to be fine, all things considered. And unlike Danse, Myra looked like she’d had a fairly restful sleep. Still, the Knight’s eyes would not meet his, a faint blush staining her freckled cheeks.

“The uniform suits you, Larimer,” the Paladin added.

Myra smiled slightly. “I ran into Elder Maxson this morning, and he not-so-subtly recommended that I wear it, at least as long as we’re on board the Prydwen . Something about maintaining discipline, I guess. Has he always been such a hardass?”

“Do you think he can afford not to be?” Danse replied. “He’s the youngest Elder in history, and a Maxson on top of that. Every action he takes is under heavy scrutiny from the Council. You would do well to remember that.”

“Sounds like you’re worried about him, Danse.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ve just known him for a long time, and I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of him. Elder Maxson is...intense. But underneath all that protocol is a good man, a man I have absolute confidence in.”

Myra’s eyes met his for a brief moment, her bright green gaze soft and warm. Danse felt his ears burn as she studied his face, her lips parted slightly as if she were about to speak but was unable to find the words. He tried very hard not to think about her lips, about how they’d felt pressed against his, cool and soft against his skin.

“Danse, I…” Myra stammered, her voice trailing off as she looked past him. Her blush deepened as her eyes connected with something behind him. “About last night…”

The Paladin frowned. This wouldn’t do, not at all. They were both distracted, and such distractions could lead to careless mistakes on the battlefield. If they couldn’t even share a normal conversation, how could they survive a firefight? He needed to do something to diffuse the awkwardness that had begun to build between them before it had dire consequences.

“Look, soldier,” Danse said with a heavy sigh, “don’t worry about it. I know that you were having a difficult time, and you weren’t behaving rationally. We can just forget that anything transpired at all, if you’d prefer.”

Myra’s eyes returned to his as they widened at his words. “Is that what you’d prefer?” she asked quietly.

Danse wasn’t certain if it was or not. But it really didn’t matter what he wanted, in the end. He was her superior officer, and he had an obligation to keep their relationship professional. He nodded. “I think that would be for the best. There’s no sense in letting something like that come between us, especially when we both know it didn’t mean anything.”

There was a flash of something he didn’t quite understand in Myra’s eyes. “I…” she began, a harsh edge to her voice. Her eyes fell for a moment, and when she looked back at him, whatever emotion had darkened her gaze was gone. “Ok. Well, that’s not the reason I’m here, Danse. Elder Maxson has asked us to join him for breakfast. He sent me to collect you.”

Danse winced slightly at her abrupt change in tone. Once again, he feared that he’d just managed to make everything worse. “We shouldn’t keep him waiting, then,” he replied. “The Officers’ Club is on the top deck.”

Myra followed him quietly as he made his way up to a large overlook in the back of the airship. The small space was enclosed in glass, making it appear larger and more open than it actually was. It was a masterful design, efficient and beautiful in its way. There were a number of tall, round tables in the space, each one surrounded by four or five bar-stools. At one of these tables, Arthur Maxson sat, gazing out over the airport with a wistful look on his face, a glass of milk half-empty in his hand.

As they approached, the Elder turned to look at them, standing up abruptly from his seat as he placed his glass on the table. “Ah. Paladin Danse. Knight Larimer. Thank you for joining me. Please, take a seat.”

Myra obliged, slipping onto one of the high stools with relative ease. Danse carefully moved another stool aside, electing to stand. Once they were situated, Maxson returned to his seat, calculating eyes observing the pair. Danse felt the hairs on the back of his neck tremble slightly as his friend’s eyes met his, holding his gaze for what felt like minutes. He knew that scrutinizing stare all too well.

A nervous-looking mess officer approached the table with a cart of food, drawing Elder Maxson’s attention. “Excellent!” the Elder exclaimed. “I took the liberty of asking Steward Gardener to prepare one of the old world recipes we’ve salvaged. I’m afraid he had to substitute some ingredients, but I trust you’ll find it more familiar than most of the food the Commonwealth has to offer, Knight.”

“You didn’t have to do that for me, sir,” said Myra, her smile colored by trepidation.

“Of course not,” Maxson replied gruffly. “But, as Paladin Danse has doubtlessly informed you, I believe in rewarding those who’ve earned it. Consider this a thank you for everything you’ve done for Danse. I doubt he’s thanked you properly himself. He’s always been quite hopeless at things like that.”

Danse frowned. As far as he was concerned, Myra’s rapid promotion to Knight was reward enough. What exactly was Arthur up to?

“Thank you, sir,” Myra said cordially. “I’m sure it will be delicious, whatever it is.”

The mess officer set a plate in front of each of them. Danse eyed the food suspiciously. It seemed to be some sort of bread topped with a thin strip of Cram and a radscorpion egg. The whole thing was covered in a strange, fuschia-colored sauce. If this was what people ate in the old world, Danse was almost grateful for the apocalypse.

Myra, however, smiled in delight at the dish. “Elder, is this what I think it is?” she asked in wonder. “Eggs Benedict is my favorite breakfast food! How did you know?”

“What a fortunate coincidence,” Arthur replied. “It just happened to be one of the recipes we had most of the ingredients for. I know the sauce is a bit...off-putting, but lemons have been extinct for centuries, so Gardener had to use mutfruit juice.”

“I look forward to trying it,” she replied. “Thank you, Elder, for trying to make me feel more at home. It means a lot to me.” Myra bowed her head, crossing herself before muttering a quick prayer under her breath as she had at every meal she and Danse had shared. He’d grown used to the behavior, so he stood quietly next to her, waiting patiently for her to finish before sampling his breakfast.

Maxson, on the other hand, seemed fascinated by her actions. “I wasn’t aware you were religious, Knight,” he said before carving into his meal with delicate knife cuts.

Myra nodded. “I was raised Catholic, as was my hus...I mean, my late husband. Nate...he was quite devout.”

“Well, I can certainly understand his devotion,” Maxson replied. “Having faith in something greater than ourselves to guide us, to define our moral code, is extremely important. In fact, it’s something we have in common. Has Paladin Danse taught you any of the Codex yet?”

She shook her head. “He mentioned something about a code of ethics the Brotherhood follows. Is that what you’re talking about?”

“Well, that is one way to look at the Codex. But there’s quite a lot more to it than that. I assume, given your...unique background, that you can read, Knight?”

“Yes, of course,” Myra replied.

“I’ll have a copy sent to your bunk, then,” Maxson continued. “I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it. Even though you’ve already decided to join us, I think it would be best if you understood exactly what the Brotherhood stands for, what each one of us is dedicated to upholding. I fear that we’ve grown lax recently when it comes to the training of our new recruits. We’ve been so eager for numbers that we haven’t been requiring our soldiers to pledge the Oath any more.”

Danse scowled at his friend and leader. “Elder, if I may, does this mean that you expect Knight Larimer to formally pledge her allegiance to the Brotherhood?”

Maxson shook his head. “Not yet, no. I understand that her circumstances are somewhat...nuanced, given her position in the Minutemen. For now, I simply want her to get an opportunity to learn about us, before she makes that final decision.”

Myra smiled warmly at the Elder. “I’d love to read it. Thank you, sir.”

“I wish all our soldiers shared your enthusiasm, Knight,” Maxson replied. “A copy will be waiting for you when you get back.”

“Back?” the Knight asked. “Back from where?”

“That’s the other reason I wanted to speak to the two of you. I have a mission for you.” Maxson gestured out the window towards a crumble of ruins in the distance. “Take a look over there. That’s Fort Strong, and as Danse already is aware, it is infested with Super Mutants.”

The Paladin’s heart leapt. It was about time that he had a rematch with those green bastards. He knew that once Arthur had read his report on the area that he’d want to take action, but given what had happened the last time Danse had visited Fort Strong, he wasn’t certain that he’d be given control of the operation. “It’ll be a pleasure to exterminate that mutant filth!” exclaimed Danse eagerly. “How many men are we taking with us?”

Elder Maxson frowned. “You misunderstand me, Paladin. You and Knight Larimer are to clear out the fort alone. You’ll have the use of a vertibird to get there, of course, but then you’ll be on your own.”

What joy Danse had felt was abruptly snuffed out. Instead of a quick clean-up, Maxson was sending them on a suicide mission. “But Elder--”

“Those aberrations of nature are sitting on a massive stockpile of Fat Man shells, Paladin,” Maxson interrupted. “If we send a full squad, the mutants might panic and we’d risk losing the entire stockpile. The two of you have a better chance of both eliminating the threat and securing the shells if you work alone.”

Danse thought for a moment. Arthur wasn’t wrong. A full squad would be seen as more of a threat, would lead to a larger-scale retaliation than two soldiers would. The pair of them could move faster, could kill more efficiently. It really was the best play, even if Danse didn’t like the idea of them being thrown into a hornet’s nest with no backup. “I understand, sir,” the Paladin replied. “We’ll head out immediately.”

Maxson’s eyes softened slightly. “Danse, one more thing.”

“Yes, Elder?”

“If you two pull this off, I think we can finally sign off on that promotion. Between your hopeful capture of Fort Strong and the results of your long term recon mission here in the Commonwealth, no one should have any more objections.”

Danse’s heart pounded wildly, and he grinned at his friend. Finally. He’d been waiting for promotion to Senior Paladin for the better part of a year. After all, he’d had all the duties and the quarters that came with the position for some time now. However, due to his friendship with Arthur, there had been accusations of favoritism from other high-ranking members of the Brotherhood. No matter how many times Danse had proved himself worthy of the title of Senior Paladin, someone was always there to stand in his way. If he really was one successful mission away…

“Then I’ll definitely give it my all, sir,” Danse proclaimed.

“I hope you were planning on giving it your all anyway, Danse,” muttered Maxson, his eyes narrowing.

“Of course, Elder,” the Paladin replied. “When have I ever given you anything less?”

Maxson turned his attention back to Myra. “Knight, I hope you understand the stakes here.”

“I do,” she replied. “I promise, I won’t let either of you down.”

“I’ll be holding you to that,” the Elder said firmly. “Now, please, enjoy your breakfast. You’ll need all the strength you can get.”

 


 

 

A few hours later, Danse stood inside a Brotherhood vertibird, his eyes distant and contemplative as he watched the ocean swell beneath them. He’d missed flying. There was something so peaceful about watching the world from above. If he didn’t look too closely, he could almost forget how much death and destruction lay below.

Myra stood on the other side of the craft, manning a minigun that was almost as large as she was. Although Danse had done everything short of ordering her to wear her power armor, the Knight was still woefully under-armored. She’d changed into her flannel as soon as they’d finished breakfast, claiming that she wasn’t comfortable fighting in unfamiliar gear. Frankly, Danse was amazed that Arthur had been able to convince her to wear a uniform for even a few hours. As stubborn as Myra was, Danse knew that the Elder was more than a match for her. The fact that the two of them had managed to reach a compromise on anything was impressive. Danse would have to ask Maxson how he’d managed it.

As the vertibird neared Fort Strong, Danse stared over the site with a mixture of eagerness and dismay. Super Mutants again. If only he had the ability to wipe every one of them from the face of the earth with one operation. He’d spent years of his life mowing down hordes of the stinking green beasts, and it seemed as though he’d come no closer to his goal.

It was hard not to think about Cutler before missions like this. Danse could still see his best friend clear as day in his mind’s eye, his age forever frozen at twenty-three. He could almost hear Cutler’s throaty laugh, his whoops of glee as he charged into battle, laser rifle blasting away in his strong hands. But those were sounds he’d never hear again, not really. Those mutant bastards had seen to that. He’d…

Danse glanced at Righteous Authority , slung over Myra’s back as she manned the vertibird’s minigun. He wondered if she felt the echo of Cutler’s last moments in her hands as she held the rifle, the way he always did. No. That was ridiculous. The gun didn’t carry within it the weight of the Paladin’s actions. Danse did.

The Paladin’s melancholy was broken by a cry of fear from the Lancer-Captain in the cockpit as a massive boulder sailed past within inches of their right wing.

“We’ve got a Behemoth!” the man exclaimed. “I’ll try to keep him in your sights, Knight. Take him down before he crashes us!”

“You got it!” Myra yelled, swiveling the large mounted gun and letting loose a hail of bullets.

Danse leaned out the other side of the small aircraft, picking off secondary targets with his rifle as best as he could. The more mutants they were able to exterminate from the air, the better chance they’d have to survive ground combat.

The vertibird jerked wildly as the pilot tried to navigate around another humongous projectile, and Danse was nearly flung from the craft. “Easy, flyboy!” the Paladin barked, gripping the safety bar so tightly that he was sure he’d dented the metal.

“Sorry, Paladin!” the man shouted over his headset. “Just hang on a little longer. Once that Behemoth's down, we’ll be safe to land.”

Danse grimaced as the craft pitched again, bracing himself as best as he could. “Affirmative, Lancer-Captain. Knight, if you could hurry up, that would be ideal.”

“I’m doing my best, Danse,” Myra retorted, her whole body shaking as hot lead sprayed from the massive weapon in her grip. “Unless you want to take over.”

He was about to reply when the craft jerked again, its erratic movements accompanied by a sickening tearing noise as something massive tore into the underbelly of the craft.

“Fuck!” cried the pilot. “We lost the landing gear. You two better be prepared to bail out. I can’t promise that we’ll be airborne much longer.”

“Larimer!” Barked Danse, his eyes wide. “Come on!”

“Just...hang on…” Myra cried, her voice almost completely drowned out in a blaze of gunfire.

Finally, the enormous mutant let out a final cry of pain as it tumbled forward, crushing a fellow mutant under its enormous girth. The smaller creature screamed, its body broken by the weight.

“Whoohoo!” cried Myra. “Bonus points!”

Danse shook his head. She really did have the strangest way of dealing with things sometimes. After the events of the day before, he hadn’t expected her to welcome more violence with open arms. Perhaps it was easier, he reasoned, killing monsters rather than men. He’d certainly always felt that way.

“Well, that was definitely something, Knight,” the pilot called. “I’m gonna have to head back to the airport for repairs, so you’ll have to bail out quick.”

“Affirmative,” Danse replied.

Myra nodded. “I guess that is one of the advantages of power armor, isn’t it?”

“That’s correct,” he replied. “Perhaps now you’ll consider actually wearing yours.”

“Not a chance!” she fired back.

“Well, there’s no way you can survive that drop, Knight. Not on your own.” Danse sighed, picking her up and holding her tightly against his chest. She stiffened in his arms, squeaking slightly in protest. “This is probably going to be very jarring on your body, Larimer,” Danse muttered, pressing her head into his armored torso. “Keep your face protected, and hold on as tightly as you can. I’ve never done this before, and honestly I’m not certain if it’s even safe.”

“Wait, if it’s not safe, are you--”

“Ad victoriam!” the Paladin cried, leaping out of the vertibird, eyes trained on the ground. He landed with a heavy thud, staggering slightly at the impact. Damn, he was out of practice.

He set Myra down gently, checking her over for signs of trauma. She trembled slightly, her face paler than ever. “Well, that was...intense,” she managed. “Let’s not do that again.”

“Wear your power armor, and we won’t have to,” he replied gruffly, readying his laser rifle as he charged towards the ruins. “Come on, we need to clear out the stragglers before we head to the armory.”

“Oh, goody,” Myra snorted, pulling Righteous Authority off her shoulder as she followed him. “You really do always take me to the best pl-- Danse, watch out!” she shrieked, pivoting to her left. Danse turned, coming almost face to face with a Mutant Hound. The beefy green dog-beast almost appeared to pause mid-leap as time seemed to slow. Danse heard his heart beating heavily in his ears, felt his stomach drop as he struggled to get his rifle up in time to block the attack. He heard Myra shouting...something, then a series of blood red flashes crossed his vision.

The beast’s muscular neck rippled as laser fire connected with its sinuous flesh, the hound’s malicious eyes widening in confusion. Then, the creature exploded, a hail of stinking viscera raining down on the Paladin and the surrounding area. He groaned in disgust as Myra ran to his side, her eyes wild and terrified.

“Are you ok?” she cried.

“Absolutely,” he retorted, peeling gore from his suit with a frown. “I hate those things.”

“I wasn’t expecting it to explode like that,” Myra offered. “I guess I should rethink that beam focuser.”

Danse glanced down to the gun in her hands. He hadn’t noticed it before, but Righteous Authority did look different. The beam focuser hadn’t been her only modification. She’d lengthened the stock, and was that a new capacitor? How had he missed that before?

“On the contrary, Knight,” he said almost reverently. “You’ve done beautiful work. I have to say, I’m impressed. I didn’t know you knew how to modify weapons. When did you manage to do all this?”

Myra blushed slightly, brushing a stray strand of white hair out from behind her glasses. “I had a bit of trouble sleeping last night, so I spent a few hours in the armor bay with Proctor Ingram. She showed me a few tricks. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Why would I mind?” he replied. “It seems like you’ve made significant improvements to my design.”

She bit her lower lip slightly before replying. “But it was a gift. I didn’t want you to think I didn’t value it.”

Danse couldn’t help but chuckle slightly, shaking his head. “Trust me, Knight, that’s the furthest thing from my mind. Now let’s get moving. These mutants aren’t going to destroy themselves.”

Myra nodded. “After you, Paladin.”

They ran for the armory, eyes searching for any additional Super Mutant activity in the ruins as they went. Fortunately, it appeared that they’d already killed most of the abominations from above, so they made swift work of the survivors.

Myra pushed the armory’s massive door open, leading them into the large brick building. As they entered, Danse glanced around at the foul, rotten meat bags that decorated the lobby in disgust. Filthy monstrosities. He didn’t know how any creature, no matter how repugnant its nature, could stand to live in these conditions.

The Knight tried the door to the right, frowning when she found it locked. “I guess we’re going left.”

Danse nodded. “Don’t forget to check your corners.”

Myra rolled her eyes. “No, I was just gonna let the big, angry, green guys sneak up on me.”

He brushed her sarcastic jab aside. While it was good to see her back to her old self, Danse didn’t really have time for Myra’s snark right now. She might be feeling confident in the wake of their success outside, but he knew that the real trial was just beginning. He shuddered slightly as they passed a particular mound of festering meat, the unmistakable scrap of Brotherhood orange fabric still wrapped around a bony hand. It must be Knight-Sergeant Dawes. Danse made a mental note to come back and search for the man’s holotags after he and Myra had cleared the building. It was the least he could do.

As they approached a fork in the long, narrow hallway, Danse could hear muffled voices from the room beyond. He tapped Myra on the shoulder. “Take the right side,” he whispered hoarsely. “We can trap them in the cafeteria if we hit them from both directions.”

Myra stared at him in confusion. “How do you--”

“There’s no time for that now. Move out, soldier.”

She nodded, slinking quietly down the hall as Danse turned down the other fork. It was hard to be stealthy in power armor, but he did his best. Once he was in position, he waited, counting slowly down from te to give Myra time to reach the other entrance. Then, he stomped into the room through the broken wall, rifle blazing.

A second burst of laser fire joined his, and he glanced over to see Myra dash into the cafeteria, her eyes narrowed in concentration as she hit the Super Mutants from the other side. Danse couldn’t help but smile as he turned his attention back to his own targets. It was great to have a partner he could depend on again. In spite of their arguments and setbacks, he and Myra had always operated well as a unit. Now, after the past few weeks on the road together, they were even more in sync. As her sponsor, Danse couldn’t be prouder of Myra than he was at that moment.

As the last of the mutants in the cafeteria fell, Myra glanced up at the Paladin with a wide grin, sweat, dirt, and blood streaking her face in strange striations. He felt his chest clench as she beamed at him, though for the life of him, he couldn’t explain why. Just, the way she looked at him...it seemed so familiar, so comforting in its way.

“Earth to Danse,” Myra called. “You ok, Paladin? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He nodded, turning back towards the hole in the wall. “I’m perfectly fine, soldier. Let’s clear out the rest of this floor. Then we can look for those mini-nukes.”

“If you’re sure…” Myra replied, her voice anxious.

Danse did his best to ignore the nagging twinge in his skull as he pressed onward. Of all the times for a headache… “Larimer, this door’s locked. Can you open it?”

“On it!” she chirped, though concern still colored her chipper tone. She knelt next to him, pulling a pair of bobby pins from her hair. She absently placed one between her lips as she opened the other, her green eyes sharp as she analyzed the lock. Danse watched her with rapt attention as she slid the pin into the lock, wiggling it about as she sought the sweet spot. The pin in her mouth bobbed up and down as her lips moved slightly. It was strangely alluring, and he found himself hypnotized by the rhythmic movement.

Mara cussed under her breath as the pin in her hands snapped, and she pulled the backup from her mouth. This sudden change drew Danse back to the situation at hand, and he blushed deeply as he realized that he’d been staring at her lips again. What the hell was wrong with him? Here they were, in an active combat zone, and he was daydreaming about something so incredibly frivolous. Anything could have snuck up on them while his concentration was broken. He hadn’t made an error like that since he was a Knight himself.

Fortunately, they had gotten lucky this time. Within a few moments, the door clicked open, and Myra stood, her rifle already pointing into the room beyond. “It’s just another office, Danse,” she said softly, rummaging around in one of the desks for scrap. “Not even anything worth taking, I’m afraid.”

Danse sighed. “I was sure this was the right way. From this point onward, I’m afraid the I have no idea where we are supposed to go. Maybe we should return to the elevator behind us.”

Myra frowned, standing between him at the hall back to the elevator. “Ok, Danse. Spill. You’ve been here before, haven’t you?”

He nodded. “A few months back, Recon Squad Gladius came here to look for valuable salvage. We hadn’t expected the site to be infested with Super Mutants. One of my men died here when we were ambushed. It was the second time since we’d arrived in the Commonwealth that I had to order a retreat. We didn’t even have time to grab his holotags. Quite frankly, we were fortunate that the rest of us made it out alive.”

Her eyes softened. “I’m so sorry, Danse. Is that why you were so concerned about us handling this mission on our own?”

“Exactly,” the Paladin replied. “I couldn’t secure this position with almost an entire squad of highly trained Brotherhood soldiers. For Maxson to suggest that we attempt this with just you and I...but I see the wisdom in it now, don’t you? We’ve been able to get further than Recon Squad Gladius, at least.”

Myra hesitated for a moment before grabbing his hand, giving it a tight squeeze. “Well, I’m not satisfied with that, are you? Let’s keep going. We’ll see this through, for you and the man you lost. What was his name?”

“Knight-Sergeant Dawes,” Danse replied. “I...I really appreciate you taking the time to listen,” he added. “I haven’t said his name since I filed my report on the incident. At least not out loud.”

“I understand,” she replied with a sad smile. “That can be the hardest part of losing someone sometimes. Believe me, I know.” She cleared her throat as she released her grip on his hand, turning back down the hall. “Come on, Danse. Let’s kill these sons of bitches. For Dawes.”

Danse nodded. “For Dawes,” he agreed. “And everyone else these abominations have slaughtered.”

After a fairly quick elevator ride, Danse and Myra stormed the lower floor of the armory, picking off a few isolated Super Mutants as they pressed forward down a series of stairwells connected by short, cramped corridors. The stench of rotting flesh and pungent mutant funk grew ever more oppressive as they continued downwards, to the point where Danse was almost tempted to put his helmet on. But if he was having difficulty breathing in the noxious fumes, he knew Myra would probably be faring far worse. He glanced over at her in concern.

What he saw almost made him laugh. Myra had pulled Danse’s handkerchief from her pack and tied it loosely over her mouth and nose like a bandana, the stained gray fabric acting as a weak barrier against the brutal stench. She looked like a small child playing at being a raider, her emerald eyes watering as she pressed onward down the hall.

Finally, they reached a large engine room, filled to the brim with flesh and garbage. Mutant Hounds picked through the offal, growling and fighting over scraps of unidentifiable remains. Beyond the nauseating sight, Danse could see what appeared to be a weapons bay. That was probably where the mini-nukes were stored. They were so close.

The Paladin touched Myra gently on the arm, gesturing to a walkway on the other side of the room. She nodded, slinking slowly down the catwalk and making her way to the area he’d pointed out. With two directions of fire, the hounds would be fairly easy to take out. As long as no surprises waited for them, they should have the area secured in a matter of minutes.

Myra disappeared into an office that connected the two walkways, and Danse quietly waited for her to reappear, his rifle trained on the largest of the muscular hounds. So far, the fort had proven easier to capture than he had been anticipating. Perhaps the recon squad had just gotten unlucky.

A muffled scream pierced the air, and Danse’s blood froze in his veins. He’d know that cry of terror anywhere. Something had happened to Myra.

The Paladin dashed across the catwalk, paying little heed to the baleful baying of the hounds in the room below. If Myra had been captured, he had bigger worries than a few oversized mutts on his tail. He entered the room, his eyes frantically searching for the Knight.

Myra hung limply against the far wall of the office, held in place by a massive green hand. Her face darkened almost to indigo as the Super Mutant’s fingers tightened around her delicate throat, dragging her unconscious body roughly along the wall. Her glasses lay crushed on the floor beside her, their frames bent irreparably.

The monster chuckled to itself, a feral grin revealing broken, decayed teeth as the creature turned to look at Danse. “Stupid bucketheads fell for trap!” the horrifying mutant bellowed, its eyes swimming with bloodlust. “Now both of you die!”

Danse held his laser rifle steady, doing his best not to let his rage overwhelm his reason. “Let her go, you bastard,” he spat at the creature, “and I’ll make your death quick.”

The Super Mutant shrugged, releasing its grip on Myra’s neck. She crumpled to the ground like a ragdoll, her limbs resting at nearly unnatural angles. The skin of her throat was crimson from the creature’s abuse, and Danse feared that her windpipe had been completely crushed. Was she even still alive?

“Lady not much fun anyway,” the mutant growled. “She not scream enough. Too puny, too weak. No challenge.”

Danse barely registered the creature’s taunts as his eyes darted between the mutant and Myra’s body. He was fairly certain that her chest was moving, though her breathing was shallow. If he acted quickly, maybe she would be ok.

“I think I’ll be more than enough of a challenge for you,” he hissed as he pulled the trigger of his laser rifle, sending round after round into the Super Mutant. The first shot caught the beast across the temple, and it bellowed in agony as it rushed him, huge meaty fists swinging downwards. The next few shots were better-placed, clustered tightly around the mutant’s heart.

The creature’s eyes burned in rage as it closed the distance between them, catching Danse in the shoulder with a massive fist. The Paladin staggered under the assault, nearly forced to his knees by the creature’s weight. Still, he continued firing, point-blank, into the mutant’s muscular body. He continued firing long after the creature’s fists stopped denting the metal of his pauldrons, even after its last raspy cries of pain and fury faded. It wasn’t until his clip was empty that the Paladin ceased fire, his breathing ragged as he heaved the monster’s body off of him.

Danse ran to Myra’s side, kneeling next to her still form. As he had hoped, she was still breathing, even if she wasn’t conscious. There was still time. The Paladin pulled a stimpack from his bag, injecting it into her upper arm, as close to her ruined throat as he dared. An eternity passed as he waited for the stimulants to take effect. He took the time to ease her body into a recovery position, placing her pack under her head to keep it elevated. Danse wasn’t a medic, but he’d seen Haylen and the other scribes patch people up enough that he had a vague idea of what he was doing.

He fiddled with his com unit. “Scabbard, this is Danse. Requesting emergency extraction from Fort Strong.”

“Copy, Paladin,” a tinny voice replied. “Vorpal proceeding to extraction point. ETA five minutes.”

Myra’s eyes fluttered open, and she glanced up at the Paladin with a weary smile. “Am I dead?” she rasped, wincing as the words spilled from her mouth. “Oww…”

“I’m afraid not, Knight,” Danse replied, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You shouldn’t speak just yet. Your neck took quite a beating.”

Myra frowned at him, but nodded. She pulled herself slowly to her feet, retrieving her rifle from where it had fallen. Myra gestured to the door, her eyes narrowed in determination.

Danse shook his head. “No, I’m sending you back to the Prydwen . Don’t worry. I can handle the rest of the cleanup by myself.”

She shook her head angrily, pointing towards the catwalk and the weapon storage beyond. “I...oww...can still shoot, Danse,” Myra rasped. “The mission’s not--”

“Larimer, that’s an order,” Danse interrupted. “You almost died. Take the elevator back to the surface. I’ve already called in a vertibird to meet you there. I’ve done what I can to prevent your injuries from getting worse, but Cade needs to take a look at you.”

“I’m not...damn it...I’m not leaving you here,” she argued, her eyes brimming with tears of pain. “What if…”

The Paladin sighed. “I’ll be right behind you, I promise. I just have to secure the ordinance, and make sure it’s safe for a team to come in and retrieve them. Don’t worry about me, soldier.”

Myra stared at him for a long moment, her mouth a tight line. Danse could tell that she desperately wanted to protest further, to do whatever she could to finish the mission. It almost broke his heart to see how frustrated she was. Was it really fair of him to send her away? If he were in her position, would he be able to understand why he was being forced to leave?

Danse frowned. Fair or not, it was the right thing to do. Myra had nearly died, and he hadn’t been able to protect her. He had nearly lost control of himself when he realized she was in danger, had opened himself up to risk in order to save her. It would be better for both of them if she returned to the Prydwen . At least she would be safe there, and he would be able to concentrate on the mission.

“Now, soldier,” Danse ordered. “I’ll see you back at the Prydwen .”

Myra nodded. “Please, Danse…” she whispered, “be safe.”

“You too,” he replied, watching as Myra left the room by the door he’d entered through. He watched the empty threshold for a long while, straining his ears to catch the sounds of her progress. Once Danse heard the familiar ding of the elevator in the distance, he continued through the other door. He still had the hounds to contend with.

 


 

Danse sighed in contentment as he returned to his quarters, a fresh uniform resting against his clean skin. There was nothing like a shower after a day slogging through filth, especially after the baptism of viscera he’d received at Fort Strong. It was nice to finally be clean. Showering hadn’t exactly been a priority for him over the last few months, not with the limited resources available at the Cambridge Police Station. It was one of the many things he’d missed about serving aboard the Prydwen .

As he opened the door to his quarters, he noticed a small envelope on his desk, his name emblazoned in Proctor Quinlan’s pretentiously neat handwriting. He smiled as he opened the yellowed envelope and saw the form inside, signed by the proctor, Captain Kells, and Elder Maxson. Finally, a formal recognition of his promotion to Senior Paladin. He’d expected a ceremony, but perhaps Arthur had been forced to promote him quietly. Danse scowled. He hated politics.

The Paladin had honestly been surprised that Maxson hadn’t debriefed him when he’d returned from Fort Strong. Was it because Myra had returned first? Still, Danse had expected that his old friend would have wanted him to file a report of the incident in person.

Danse sighed, hopping back into his power armor and pulling the door to his quarters open once more. He’d take the initiative and go report to Maxson himself. After all, that was what a Senior Paladin would do.

As he turned the corner, Danse felt a hard thwack against his armor, followed by a slight whimper. He looked down to see arguably the smallest squire he’d ever met, even smaller than Arthur had been when they’d first been introduced. The boy must have not hit his growth spurt yet.

“S-sorry, sir,” the boy said his eyes widening as he realized who he was talking to. “Senior Paladin Danse! Perfect! I have a message for you!”

“Who is it from, Squire…”

“Wallace, sir! I mean, I’m Wallace! The message is from Knight Larimer.”

He rewarded the boy with a salute, taking the note his small gloved hands offered.

“Thank you, Squire Wallace. Ad victoriam!”

“Ad victoriam, Paladin!” the boy responded, beaming from ear to ear as he quickly darted down the hallway.

Danse leaned against the bulkhead, opening the letter carefully. It was hastily written in tight cursive on the back of an old scavver’s note.

 

Senior Paladin Danse,

Congratulations on your promotion! From the sound of things, you really deserve it.

I’m fine. Cade gave me some painkillers and told me to lay off the screaming for a few days, but otherwise I’ll be ok. Thanks for saving me. Again. One of these days, I’ll get you back, I promise.

I’m on my way to Sanctuary to resupply, and then I’m going to get answers. I’ll only be gone a few days, I think, but I’ll be back as soon as I can regardless.

Don’t worry, I’m taking MacCready with me, so I’ll have backup. I’d say you’ve earned a break from me, so enjoy it.

-Knight M. Larimer

 

 

Danse scowled, crumpling the note in his fist. No. She did not just leave him behind. What the hell was she thinking? What if another mission came up, and he’d have to explain to Maxson why the Brotherhood’s newest Knight had gone AWOL?

The Paladin’s heart sank as he thought about the dreams that had so tormented him over the last few nights. What if something happened to Myra? What if she tried to hurt herself again, or took unnecessary risks? Was MacCready really strong enough to stop her if she was determined to die?

Danse was overwhelmed by worry as possible outcomes flashed through his mind. This wasn’t right. He should be with her, doing his best to keep her safe. Why had she thought it was wise to leave him behind?

He charged straight into Maxson’s private quarters without even knocking. The Elder sat at his computer, his back to the door, but he turned around at the intrusion with a furious glare in his eyes. This look softened as he realized that it was Danse.

“What can I do for you, Danse?” he asked. “It’s not like you to barge in here like this.”

Danse waved Myra’s note in his hand. “Did you know about this, Arthur? Please, tell me you knew about this.”

“Is that from Knight Larimer?” the Elder asked.

Danse nodded.

“Yes, I knew she was leaving the Prydwen ,” Maxson continued. “She asked for permission right after Cade cleared her. Something about finding her missing son?”

“And you just let her leave without me?” the Paladin fumed. “Why didn’t you tell her to wait for me to come back?”

“Watch your tone, Paladin,” Maxson replied. “We may be friends, but I’m still your superior.”

“My apologies, Elder,” Danse said, doing his best to control his panic. “I am just curious why you allowed Knight Larimer to go off on her own, especially given her close call today.”

“She explicitly asked that you not be informed until she was away from the station,” Maxson said, arching a brow at his friend. “I asked her why, but all she would tell me was that she thought you’d earned a rest. Frankly, given this medical report I have here,” he continued, gesturing at his computer screen, “I’m inclined to agree with her. How long has it been since the last time you had a good night’s sleep, Danse?”

“I hardly see what this has to do with --”

“Larimer is worried about you, Danse,” Arthur continued. “And frankly, so am I. What you’ve been through over the last few years would take a toll on anyone, and every time you’ve been up for leave, you’ve turned it down. I think you should take this opportunity to get some rest. Go see Cade, get treatment for your headaches. Knight Larimer is a very capable soldier. I’m certain she’ll be fine.”

“But I…” Danse’s voice trailed off as he tried to come up with an excuse, any reason to delay the inevitable mandatory rest that Cade would certainly recommend. How could he even begin to explain what a terrible idea it was to leave him alone with his thoughts? Danse needed to keep moving, to keep burying his worries in the corpses of the Brotherhood’s enemies. If he was forced to stand still…

“Don’t make me order you, Danse,” Arthur murmured, his steel blue eyes fixed on his friend, “please. Just until Knight Larimer comes back.”

The Paladin sighed. It might not be as terrible as he imagined, being confined to the Prydwen . How long would Myra even be gone? A few days? A week, maybe. He could handle a week. He just had to keep busy until she returned. There was more than enough to do. Danse needed to do some maintenance on his power armor, after all. And he could reorganize his quarters, since they had gotten a little dusty in his absence. Maybe Proctor Ingram could use some help, or he could assist in teaching the squires a thing or two.

Yes, everything was going to be fine, as long as he kept busy. Myra was safe. Foolish, but safe.

“Very well,” he replied. “But as soon as Knight Larimer returns, I expect to be sent back into the field.”

Maxson nodded. “Of course. You’re one of my best field officers. We need you out there.”

“Outstanding!” Danse exclaimed, saluting. He exited the Elder’s quarters with a heavy sigh. Now, to find something to do. Perhaps he would organize Myra’s power armor station for her.

As he neared Myra’s station, however, his heart sank. That absolutely infuriating woman! Of all the ill-advised, tactically irresponsible…Her suit of power armor sat in its station, as hollow as the pit of his stomach.

Just like everything else he’d… everything else the Brotherhood had offered her, she had left it behind.

Chapter Text

Darkness cloaked Sanctuary, wrapping the settlement up in the starry blanket of night. The days were short this time of year, though soon that would change. Winter’s iron grip would weaken, and the warmth of Spring would bring new life to the thriving community, along with longer stretches of sunlight. For now, however, the chilly air and long nights left the streets almost vacant as settlers hunkered down in their homes, doing their best to stay warm. Among them was Preston Garvey, who sat on the weathered red couch in his living room, a simple blue afghan wrapped around him to stave off the winter chill. Mama Murphy had gifted it to him, a thank you for bringing the former residents of Quincy safely to their new home.

Preston loved quiet moments like this, when the only sounds left in the world were the hums of the generators and the last quiet protests of children being ushered off to bed. He was grateful, not for the first time, that he’d claimed one of the abandoned homes on the far side of Sanctuary. Things were more peaceful by the cul-du-sac. The bustle of shops and the steady murmur of a dozen conversations from the bar were all but silenced by the distance. Preston’s home was a place where he could think, could perhaps even unwind.

Of course, it wouldn’t be like this forever. Someday, when there were more than enough minutemen in Sanctuary, he would renovate the rest of the house into a barracks and command center. Ideally, the outpost at Sanctuary would serve as a regional headquarters for the northwest corner of the Commonwealth. Whether he remained as the Colonel in charge or not, he wanted the troops in Sanctuary to be organized.

A large shape darkened his doorway, and Preston looked up to see a familiar snout nudging the screen open.

“Dogmeat!” the Colonel exclaimed, his eyes wide. “Where have you been, boy? I was worried sick!”

The large dog panted happily at him, plodding into the living room. The german shepherd didn’t answer Preston’s query. Were Dogmeat human, Preston would have accused him of being evasive. After all, the dog had been missing for weeks. Preston honestly thought that he’d never see Dogmeat again, that he’d been eaten by a yao guai or taken by raiders.

The german shepherd wasted no time in clambering up on the other side of the couch, laying his head on Preston’s knee with a contented sigh. The Colonel patted Dogmeat’s head affectionately as the large canine sat beside him, scratching gently behind his ears. He normally would have shooed the german shepherd off the furniture, but he was so happy to see the dog alive that he decided to make an exception. Thank God he didn’t have to explain to the General that her dog had taken off.

“Don’t ever do that to me again, ok, boy?” he pleaded. “The General would never forgive me if you got hurt.”

Dogmeat whined up at him, his large brown eyes bright with what Preston supposed was remorse. He smiled, scratching the dog’s neck.

“Good boy, Dogmeat,” Preston said softly. “I’m not mad. I’m just happy you’re home.”

The dog smacked his tail happily against the faded red fabric of the couch, and he laid his head back across Preston’s knee. The minuteman smiled contentedly, continuing to shower the wayward pup with affection. There was something so calming about the presence of a dog, he thought. It almost made him forget how much work needed to get done.

In the month since MacCready’s arrival, Preston had finally had a chance to rest. It was amazing what one extra set of hands could do. With the mercenary’s help, the Minutemen had managed to secure a trade route between Sanctuary and Oberland Station, finally bringing Myra’s work there to completion.

The new settlement at Starlight was well on its way to becoming a bustling town in its own right. Zev Stern had taken an active role in the small settlement’s development, working alongside Mac and Preston to create the skeleton of what would become a thriving community. As more settlers arrived, the need for additional houses grew. The dormitory under the screen was full, and the shacks Preston and MacCready had built were not sufficient to house the booming population. Thus, much of Starlight’s development was residential in nature, and Starlight’s construction team worked tirelessly to accommodate the growing population.

Dov, Zev’s twin brother, was still recovering from the injuries he’d sustained at the hands of the Lexington settlers, though he had made remarkable progress. As Preston had feared, the young man’s memory and coordination had been impacted by his injuries, but through it all, he continued to persevere. He and Zev opened Starlight Discoveries, a small shop near the water purifier, where they provided a curated selection of scavenged goods at reasonable prices to the other settlers. Tending the shop seemed to suit Dov, which gave Zev piece of mind. Preston knew that Zev still felt responsible for Dov’s injuries, but as the days wore on, he seemed to mope less. There was too much to do to stay depressed, the minuteman supposed. After all, Preston had found that to be true in his own life.

All in all, Preston had high hopes for the growing community. Soon, however, it would be large enough to be self-governing, a process that concerned him deeply. The Colonel was a big believer in democracy, of course, but he always worried that the voting populace of a town would not consider all the nuances that came with choosing elected officials. Too often, such positions went to whoever bellowed the loudest or bribed the other settlers the most. Preston had seen it over and over in his time with the Minutemen. Perhaps it would be better for the Minutemen to appoint a mayor themselves and be done with it. Then he could be sure that the most qualified person held the position.

As he contemplated the fate of Starlight, the alarm bell at the front gate rang out, its shrill tone unmistakable even from this distance. Two rings. Another nighttime visitor. Who could it possibly be this time?

Preston shoved Dogmeat’s head off his lap and ran for the entrance to the town, laser musket in hand. The sound of raised voices reached him even before the gate came into view.

“I’m General Larimer, damn it!” Barked a commanding voice. Was it really Myra? The voice did sound like what Preston remembered, but it had been so long... “Let me in!”

“How can I be sure ya are who ya say?” Frank shot back. “I ain’t never seen the General. I’m afraid Colonel Garvey’ll hafta approve it.”

Preston sighed as he dashed up the watchtower steps to stand next to Frank. None of this would be a problem if Myra came home every once in a while and let the newer settlers get familiar with her. He couldn’t blame the gatekeeper for being cautious.

The Colonel peered over the edge of the tower, a grin spreading across his face as he took in the sight beneath him. The visitor was Myra after all, her signature green shirt barely visible under a set of leather armor. A laser rifle was slung over her back by a braided strap, its box-like frame almost longer than her torso. Her striking white hair had been roughly chopped at the base of her ears, ragged strands barely visible under her khaki cap. The lower half of Myra’s face was obscured with a green bandanna that matched the one she’d given Dogmeat. Her glasses were missing, he noted with some concern. He’d have to talk to the traders and see if they could scrounge up a replacement.

“General!” Preston called, waving down at Myra from his perch. “Hang on. We’ll let you in.”

She glanced wearily up at him. “Hey, Preston,” she replied, her voice partially muffled by the bandanna. “I like the welcoming committee. Not sure he likes me, though.”

Frank huffed in displeasure as he opened the gate. “It ain’t my fault. Ya coulda told me what she looked like, Colonel.”

Preston nodded, patting the older man on the shoulder. “Yes, Frank. You did the right thing. Thank you for being careful.”

The gruff old minuteman nodded. “At least somebody’s gotta be around here,” he muttered under his breath. Preston barely caught the words as the gate opened with a rusty grinding noise. Ouch. They were going to need to oil the damn thing again. He’d remind Sturges about it in the morning.

“Welcome home, General,” said Preston warmly as Myra stepped through the gate. He raced down the steps to meet her, taking her bag. It was lighter than he’d been expecting. More than two months on the road, and this was all she had? “I’m glad you haven’t completely forgotten about us,” he continued with a sarcastic edge to his voice.

“I’m sorry, Preston,” Myra replied. “I didn’t mean to be out of contact for so long, honestly. A lot of things happened on my way to Diamond City.”

“So I’ve heard,” he retorted. “What’s this about you joining the Brotherhood of Steel?”

The General’s forehead creased in displeasure. “Like I said, a lot of things happened.”

Preston waited for a moment for her to continue. Once he realized she wasn’t going to, he frowned, placing a hand on her shoulder. Myra looked up at him, a flash of something like anger in her eyes as she stiffened under the contact. He quickly backed off, following her into town with a heavy sigh.

After a few steps, Myra paused, glancing around the town cautiously. “Anybody new come by in the last couple days?”

Preston shook his head. “We don’t get a whole lot of visitors this far north, and most of the new settlers have been staying in Starlight. Did you happen to see it as you arrived?”

“The old drive-in?” Myra asked. “No. I...didn’t come that way.” She took a few more steps, eyeing the wall. “And the wall’s been holding? No breaches?”

“No one’s reported any. Our security team’s very thorough.” Preston watched her carefully. “General, is everything ok?”

“Hmm?” she asked distractedly. “Oh! Yeah. Everything’s fine. I’m just making sure things are secure.”

“Right.” Preston frowned. Myra’s behavior was extremely strange. Something was obviously troubling her, but he knew better than to pry when she was already skittish.

Myra sighed. “Seriously, Preston, I’m just making sure Sanctuary’s safe. I know it probably seems crazy, but it’s been a hellish couple of weeks and I could really use a hot meal and a good night’s sleep in a safe place. I’ll be back to my usual self in the morning, promise.”

The Colonel decided to let it go. If Myra wanted to tell him the truth, he’d be there for her. Until then, he’d just have to keep an eye on the General, make sure she was really her and not a synth replacement. “I’m sorry for prying,” he said. “How about we get that hot meal together, and you can tell me what you’ve been up to -- the parts you’re comfortable sharing, at least -- while we eat?”

She nodded at him. “I’d like that. Any idea what’s on the menu tonight?”

“Well, our hunting party took down a couple radstags this morning, so I’m assuming Marcy’s making venison.”

Myra gasped in delight. “I thought I smelled something rich and meaty in the air! Excellent. After we eat, I’d love to see what you’ve done with the place while I’ve been away.”

“I’d be happy to give you the tour,” Preston replied as they headed for the bar.

The Last Minuteman was busy as always, the booths and tables in the main room full of families, caravanners, and laborers coming off their shifts. The tantalizing smell of freshly grilled meat hung in the air, causing Preston’s mouth to water as he looked for a place to sit.

“Well, look who it is!” cried Marcy Long, her arms heavy with plates of food as her eyes swept over Myra. “Didn’t think we’d ever see you again, General.”

“What can I say, Marcy?” Myra muttered. “I missed your winning personality.”

“Just come in and shut up, will you?” barked the fearsome barkeeper. “You’re letting all the warm air out. Should be a table still in the back room, if you want it.”

“Thanks, Marcy,” said Preston gently as he led Myra towards the back of the converted house. “Do you have to antagonize her like that?” he asked Myra in a harsh whisper. “She’s been doing so much better.”

“Sorry, Preston. Old habits.”

He sighed as they entered the back room, heading towards a battered old table by the window. Preston pulled Myra’s chair out for her, and she nodded graciously at him as she sat down.

“Well, well,” she crooned, “aren’t you the gentleman?”

Preston snorted. “If I knew you were going to react like that, I’d have let you get your own chair.”

Myra chuckled. “Aww, come on. You know you missed me.”

“I did,” he replied sincerely, his eyes meeting hers across the table. “It honestly hasn’t been the same since you left.”

Myra blushed slightly, turning to glance out the window towards the river and the farmland that Sanctuary’s residents had cultivated along it. Preston frowned as he noticed a large burn across the back of her neck. Was that why she’d cut her hair off?

“General, you’re wounded,” he said. “What happened?”

She sighed softly, her fingers gently touching the back of her neck self-consciously. “Oh, this little thing?” she asked. “I got caught in the middle of a fight with some Super Mutants, and just barely avoided one of those suicide bombers they have by jumping into the bay. Unfortunately, my back wasn’t submerged all the way. It’s not as bad as it looks,” she clarified. “Well, it was as bad as it looks, but it’s a few weeks old now, so I’m used to it.”

“You’ve been fighting Super Mutants?” he asked, his eyes wide.

“Like I said, Preston, a lot has happened since I left.”

Marcy entered the room and walked over to them. She placed a plate of radstag steak and carrots down in front of each of them. This was followed by two earthenware cups as well as a bottle of what Preston sincerely hoped was wine and not vinegar. About half of the bottles they’d been able to salvage from around the settlement were completely undrinkable, the ravages of time making swift work of the alcoholic beverage.

“Looks great, Marcy,” Preston said with a smile. “Thanks.”

The woman nodded, retreating back to the main room with only a cursory glance in Myra’s direction. Preston wasn’t entirely sure why the two of them disliked each other so much, but he hoped they’d resolve their issues someday.

Myra removed her bandanna carefully, folding it neatly next to her plate. Preston’s eyes widened as he saw a series of relatively fresh bruises around her jawline, angry and purple against her pale skin. “I suppose that was Super Mutants too,” he muttered.

She shook her head. “Those are from the Gunners I ran into a few days ago,” she replied. “There’s a lot more where that came from, I’m afraid. I was a little outnumbered. At least the bruises are healing nicely. I can’t say the same for the Gunners.”

“Myra,” Preston said softly, his eyes full of worry, “what the hell have you been doing?” It seemed to him that she’d been throwing herself at every enemy she could find, collecting bruises and scars as quickly as she could. Was she punishing herself, or was she really just that reckless?

“Staying alive, I guess,” she replied, “despite my best efforts.” The General pulled a corkscrew from her belt and opened the wine, smelling it carefully before pouring some in each of their cups. She held hers up, beaming at Preston. “To the Minutemen,” she said halfheartedly, “and all the people we protect.”

“To the Minutemen,” Preston echoed, clinking his cup against hers before taking a sip of the dry red wine. He grimaced slightly. It wasn’t vinegar, but it wasn’t exactly good either.

Myra snorted, turning the bottle over in her hands. “Oh, Mr. Whitfield. Who would have thought that your wine cellar would outlive you? He was always so proud of this crap. All those bottles, and I’m not sure he ever even drank any.”

Preston watched her carefully. He always wondered how she felt, living in the ruins of her old life. It couldn’t have been easy for her. Was that why she hadn’t come back for so long?

“So, General,” he asked, “are you going to tell me what the hell’s going on? Or are you going to play coy all evening? What have you been doing for the last few months?”

“Let’s see…” she trailed off, thinking. “About a day into my trip, I found a distress signal from a Brotherhood recon team. I helped them fight off a horde of feral ghouls, and made a few new friends that way. Then I stayed with them for a while.”

“Which is how you ended up joining the Brotherhood?” Preston asked, carving into his steak haphazardly. Marcy’d been forced to dull all the knives in the bar after a drunken brawl between a caravan guard and a scavver from the east had nearly ended in tragedy. Her precautions made for a safer Sanctuary, but a substantially more difficult dinner service.

“Yeah,” replied Myra with a shrug. “I was getting tired of travelling alone, and they seemed nice enough. Well, some of them,” she added. “Anyway, after a couple weeks, I decided to continue on to Diamond City, and took the team leader with me at his insistence.”

“Is he the Paladin Mac saw you with in Goodneighbor?”

“Mac?” Myra asked, confused for a moment. “Oh, you mean MacCready.”

Preston nodded.

“Aww, you guys call each other nicknames already?” the General crooned, grinning at the Colonel. “I thought you’d get along.”

Preston rolled his eyes. “Yes, because I’m well-known for my love of Gunners. Fortunately, he’s actually a pretty good guy, once you get used to the sarcasm and childish antics.”

“My point exactly,” Myra replied. “You could use a little more of both in your life, Preston.”

He rolled his eyes. “He’s a poor substitute for you, General. But I’ll admit, it has been nice having him around. He should be back tomorrow, actually, if you’re staying that long.” Preston paused for a moment, studying her carefully. “You are staying, aren’t you?”

“At least until MacCready gets here, sure,” she replied. “He’s the one I’m here to see, after all.”

Preston grimaced. “Ouch. I see how it is.”

Myra snorted. “Oh, come on, Preston. I did miss you. I’m just here on business, and I’m hoping MacCready can help me. I’d ask you to come instead, but you and I both know that you’re still needed here.”

The Colonel sighed. “I suppose. But is it really too much for me to hope that you might be staying longer? There’s so much going on right now. I could really use your help. I’m not the only one the Minutemen need, you know. I’m no General.”

Myra shook her head. “I think you might surprise yourself, Preston. Look, I’m sorry that I can’t stay this time. But I need to find my son, and I promised Elder Maxson that I’d report back in as soon as I could, so I really don’t have that much wiggle room in my schedule. I’ve already been away for too long. After the thing with the Super Mutants, I had to lay low for a while, you know?”

“Damn it, Myra,” Preston growled, his temper rising as she made excuses. “Don’t you get it? I’m worried about you! I don’t understand how you can just--”

Myra stared at him with wide, hurt eyes, her lower lip trembling. That was unlike her. The General, at least in Preston’s experience, loved a good argument. So why was she looking at him like he’d just killed her best friend right in front of her?

“General?” he asked softly, his anger subsiding as concern took over. “Myra? Are you all right? What happened to you?”

She shook her head. “I...I don’t want to talk about it,” Myra said softly, her voice cracking. “I’m sorry, Preston. I know I’ve let you down. I’ll make it up to you when I can, I promise.”

He sighed. It was clear that something was deeply wrong with her, but Preston wasn’t a stupid man. He knew a dead end when he saw one. If he wanted information, he’d have to try a new tack.

“Well, then, how about you finish telling me about your trip to Diamond City?” Preston asked, refilling her wine glass. “You were telling me about this Paladin?”

“Yes, his name’s Danse,” Myra replied with a soft smile, a faint blush coloring her pale cheeks. “You’d like him, I think. He’s a gentleman, like you. Very serious, but a good man.”

Preston frowned. He wasn’t sure he liked being compared to a Brotherhood Paladin, but he knew that Myra probably didn’t mean anything bad by it. The smile on her face when she said the soldier’s name concerned Preston more than anything else. It was almost bittersweet. Was he the reason she was acting this way?

“So how did you end up in Goodneighbor, anyway?” he asked. “Weren’t you going to Diamond City?”

Myra leaned back in her chair with a sigh. “Well, Danse and I made it to Oberland and took care of their ghoul problem, but then this old man wanted us to pass on a letter to his son in Goodneighbor…” She continued, regaling Preston with the story of Finn’s death and her subsequent encounter with MacCready.

“I’m sorry you had to go through all that,” Preston replied, placing a hand on hers. “I should have gone with you.”

She shook her head. “You needed to stay here, Preston. Sanctuary needed you. And besides, Danse and I handled the situation pretty well, all things considered.”

“Even so...I wish I’d been there.” He squeezed her hand affectionately. Myra smiled softly at the contact, though her eyes were still far away, lost in a sorrowful place he couldn’t bring her back from. “But there’s more to the story,” Preston continued, curious. “You said you found the man who killed your husband?”

Myra nodded, biting her lower lip as she inhaled deeply. “I’m not sure I’m ready…” Her voice trailed off, and she gazed out the window once more with distant, unreadable eyes.

Preston stroked the top of her hand with his thumb, doing what he could to soothe her nerves. He’d never seen Myra like this, not even at her worst. Whatever had happened had been incredibly traumatic, he realized. “It’s ok, General,” Preston soothed. “I’m here for you. No matter how bad it is.”

Myra shuddered, her voice almost imperceptible when she did finally speak. “I killed him, Preston,” she whispered. “Kellogg. I found out what I could, and then I killed him.”

“Good,” replied Preston coolly. He almost had to laugh. All her moping and misery, for the life of a known mass-murderer? He’d known Myra was a kind-hearted person, but who mourned a man like Conrad Kellogg?

The General stared at him, her emerald eyes narrowed in confusion. “Good? I just told you I killed a man.”

Preston nodded. “It’s not like he didn’t have it coming. You got justice for your husband, for all the other people that man murdered,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

She shook her head. “Preston, justice is a fair trial in a court of law, not a bullet to the head.”

“Maybe back in your time, General,” the Colonel explained. “But these days, the best we can usually hope for is revenge. Hell, if I could get an army and go take Quincy back from the Gunners, you can bet that I’d feel nothing but satisfaction watching those bastards die.”

She pulled her hand away from his, her eyes flitting once more to the window. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this world. Every time I think I might be able to tolerate it...”

Preston sighed. “I know, General. Trust me, I wish things didn’t have to be this way. Maybe someday, when the Minutemen have more power, we’ll be able to create a new government and bring back some of your old world values. Nothing would make me happier than to see a legal system back in place. But we aren’t there just yet. For now, we just have to do what we can to protect the innocent, and that sometimes means that we have to kill the guilty.”

Myra bit her lip once more, staring down at her mostly-untouched meal. She sat there for a long while before looking back up at the minuteman, her eyes damp with tears. “Well, if Kellogg deserved that fate,” she mumbled, “I guess I do too. After all, isn’t every life valuable, even his?”

“Of course,” the Colonel replied. “So why the hell do you keep trying to lose yours?”

The General stared at him, her eyes wide. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

“I’m talking about…” he said, gesturing to her, “about this. This whole lone renegade thing you’ve got going on. You’re not acting like someone who values their life, Myra. It seems to me like you’re just daring the Commonwealth to kill you, and I want to know why.”

She sat quietly for a moment, pushing a few slices of carrot around her plate half-heartedly with her fork. “I just wish it didn’t have to be like this,” she said finally, glancing up at Preston with dead eyes. “I want to help people, not just buy them more time. If all I can do is hope that I can keep the people I care about alive for a single extra day, what’s the point? They’ll be dead tomorrow anyway, or worse. It never ends.”

“But isn’t that worth sticking around to find out?” Preston asked. “Damn it, Myra, none of us are immortal. Well, maybe ghouls are, but they can still be killed. And as far as I know, it’s always been that way, even in your time. Did you constantly tempt fate like this before the War?”

She shook her head. “But it was easier, then. I had...I had Nate, and Shaun, and my dad. I had friends, neighbors. Now what do I have? They’re all dead, except Shaun, and he’s so far out of my reach that he might as well be dead. I’ve got nothing, not really.”

The Colonel scowled. “Are you serious? Do you hear yourself, Myra?”

She stared at him, self-pity and confusion twisting her face. “Everything and everyone I love has been taken from me. I...I’m so scared that if I let myself care about anything again, I’ll lose that too.”

“But you can’t help yourself from caring, can you?” he asked with a heavy sigh, taking her hand again. “I see the way you are with people, even strangers. You do care for so many people. And you know what?”

Myra shook her head, biting her lip to hold back her tears.

Preston sighed. “Those people need you. The Minutemen need you. We need someone leading us who really cares about the good of the people, not just her friends, but the whole Commonwealth. We need you out there, helping the downtrodden, bringing hope. I...I just hope you understand that.”

Myra nodded, squeezing her eyes shut. “I think so, Preston,” she said, her voice shaking as she fought to regain her composure. “And I’m sorry. I’m sorry for acting like a child. I’m sorry I put our cause on the back burner. You know I want to help you, or I would never have agreed to be the General.”

“I do. And I forgive you. But I won’t if you keep putting yourself in danger like this.” Preston frowned, trying to find the words he needed. “Look, General. I...I know how it feels to be hopeless. You saved me from that. Please, just try to hang in there for all the people who care about you.”

“I saved you?” she asked. “How? I can’t save anyone. I can’t even rescue my own child.”

“Well, I’m living proof that you’re wrong, so stop beating yourself up and get your act together, ok? The Minutemen need their General, the brave woman who’s always there to help the people who need her. Frankly, there’s no time for you to sit around and mope. Too many people are counting on you.”

“That’s…” Myra protested. Then she stopped, her eyes thoughtful for a moment. “That’s actually a good point. I guess I never stopped to consider the people I need to stay strong for, how selfish I’ve been.”

Preston smiled kindly at her. “That’s the spirit. I’m not saying that you aren’t allowed to be sad. Just...try not to let it hold you back. Not until the job’s done. At least that’s what’s kept me going.”

“I can’t promise that I’ll be able to do it,” she replied.

“That’s fair. I’m not asking you to promise me anything. I’m just asking you to be careful. And to be better at staying in contact. Until Mac showed up, I thought you were dead.”

She laughed bitterly. “Don’t bury me just yet, Preston. I’ll try to send you letters once in a while.”

“That would be great, actually,” he replied. “Or, barring that, you could always send me more men. Your mercenary friend’s been quite helpful, actually.”

“I’m not sure you could call him a friend, Preston. I’ve only met him the one time.”

“Well, you certainly made an impression on him. It’s not every day a man hikes across the Commonwealth on the suggestion of a woman he just met.”

Myra snorted. “It wasn’t a suggestion. Don’t forget, I paid him. Probably more than he’s worth, actually. I was pretty drunk at the time.” She thought for a moment. “He did tell you I paid him already, right?”

Preston nodded. “Don’t worry. I haven’t given him any more money. But you may want to talk to him about his expenses. He keeps mentioning something about hazard pay.”

The General sighed. “I really wouldn’t expect anything less. He seems like a pretty cunning guy.”

“That’s one way of putting it. But like I said, he’s been a great help around here. Hell, he saved my life a few times. I never realized how useful having a sniper around would be.”

“If you’re saying that I should pay him more…” Myra’s mouth opened in a wide yawn, and she shook her head. “Damn. I hate to cut this short, Preston, but I think our tour will have to wait for the morning.”

He stood quickly, walking around the table to help her up. “Of course. You must be exhausted, after all you’ve been through. Let’s get you to bed, General.”

She snickered softly, waggling her eyebrows at him. “I didn’t realize being the General came with those sorts of perks, Colonel Garvey, or I would have come home ages ago.”

He stared at her for a minute before her words sunk in, and he blushed awkwardly. “I...That’s not…” Preston sputtered, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Damn it, Myra.”

The General cackled, her eyes tearing up. “I’m just teasing, Preston. You make it so easy.”

He sighed heavily, refusing to make eye contact. “Go to bed, General. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night, Preston,” she replied, taking his hand in hers and giving it a gentle squeeze. “And thank you for dinner.”

“You’re welcome,” Preston replied to her retreating form as she left the room, heading for her house.

Preston sunk back into his chair, cupping his face in his hands. Had things always been this difficult, or was it just Myra who complicated everything? There was something about the General that just...the woman was maddening. How was she even still alive?

He sighed, pouring himself another glass of terrible wine and heading out to the bar’s patio. Preston looked up at the stars, bright against the dark winter sky, and tried to remember a time when he hadn’t felt so lost. He’d done the right thing, asking Myra to lead the Minutemen, hadn’t he? When she did her job, she did it incredibly well. But if he couldn’t rely on her, if she got herself killed...was there anyone left in the world he could rely on?

Well, there was MacCready, he supposed, but the small sniper was hired help. Would he even give a damn about the Minutemen if Myra hadn’t paid him to do so? What would happen once Mac’s contract was up? Would he come back to Sanctuary, or would he vanish into the ‘Wealth to seek another contract? Preston wanted to believe that the man he’d spent the last few weeks working with wasn’t just another mercenary, that he really did want to help people. But there just wasn’t enough evidence to support that belief, not yet. Only time and circumstance would tell if MacCready was the man Preston hoped he was.

Preston threw back his drink with a melancholy sigh before setting the cup on the railing. He thanked Marcy again for the meal before wandering off into the night towards his house. If he was lucky, a good night’s sleep would fix his mood.

 


 

 

The morning found Preston feeling less melancholy and more determined. Myra might not have been planning to stick around long, but he was going to make excellent use of her time while she was in Sanctuary. He still wasn’t completely sure why she’d been putting herself in harm’s way, but he was determined to remind her of all the reasons she still had to stay alive. If anyone knew how important it was to find those little reasons, it was Preston.

He whistled a jaunty little tune to himself as he walked to her house, Dogmeat plodding beside him with a bright canine grin. Part of him had thought that the german shepherd would have returned to Myra’s side when she’d returned, but the dog had been waiting at the foot of Preston’s bed in the morning as he usually did, his heavy body curled up on the Colonel’s feet. Preston didn’t know whether it was because he was the one who fed Dogmeat, or if the dog had taken a real liking to him, but he didn’t care. It was nice having him back, and if the dog preferred the minuteman’s company to that of the General, he wouldn’t begrudge the creature that.

“How about we go wake the General up, hmm?” Preston asked. Dogmeat responded with a happy bark, his large black tail wagging furiously.

“Who’s waking whom up now?” Myra’s voice called from above. Preston looked up to see the General perched on the roof of her house, her eyes bright with wonder and just a hint of mischievousness over her green bandanna. Her roughly bobbed hair hung loose around her ears, the wind catching it and sending sparkling white strands dancing across her face. “I see Dogmeat finally managed to rouse you,” she continued. “Lord knows I wasn’t able to.”

“How long have you been awake?” Preston asked. “I thought you’d still be asleep, with how...tired you were last night.”

“It’s been a couple hours,” Myra replied with a shrug. I’m used to Danse’s schedule now, I guess. I’m not sure when that guy sleeps. He’s always up at the weirdest hours.”

“I guess that makes sense. But why are you on the roof? I thought you’d never go up there again, after the last time.”

She chuckled softly. “It’s pretty nice up here, actually. Now that all the holes have been patched, it even might be safe.”

Preston shook his head, laughing as he remembered the last time Myra had climbed a roof in Sanctuary. “And here I was, thinking you’d need me to save you again.”

“You really should come up,” she replied. “You can see all the way to the gas station from up here. It’s pretty incredible.”

“Maybe some other time,” Preston responded. “Right now, I’ve got plans.”

Myra cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Well, a pretty girl asked me to show her around, and I’d say that takes precedent,” the Colonel said, hoping he wasn’t obviously blushing. Had he crossed a line, calling her pretty? She was pretty of course, more than pretty, but…

Myra laughed hoarsely, rising to her feet and dusting her hands off on her pant legs.  “Well, you’d better not keep her waiting, Colonel. I’d hate to mess up your plans.” She walked towards the back of the house before vanishing from sight. Moments later, she emerged from the front door, pulling her cap back on as she walked. “So, breakfast first, or are you saving that for after you wow me with your tour guide skills?”

Preston’s eyes narrowed. “How did you get down here so fast?” he asked.

The General beamed at him. “There’s a ladder in the back,” she whispered. “Sturges must have left it there when he fixed the roof, and I’ll never look a gift-ladder in the rungs. Don’t tell anyone. I want to see if I can convince some of the new settlers that I’m magic.”

“Well, it’s good to see that you’re feeling better, General,” Preston replied. “You’re sounding a little more like yourself. I’ll admit, you had me worried there last night.”

Myra scoffed. “Like it’s hard to worry you. No, Preston, I’m fine. A night in my old house was just what I needed to center myself. Now I’m ready to kick ass and, well...at least kick ass.”

“If you say so,” Preston replied. He wasn’t quite convinced. But if Myra said she was doing well, who was he to question her? She knew herself better than he did.

He started their tour over by his house, showing off the school and some of the new farm plots they’d cultivated since Myra had left. She hung on to his every word, asking him questions every once in a while. Preston happily answered them, regaling her with funny anecdotes and stories about some of the new settlers. After a while, however, he noticed her attention begin to wane. She kept glancing over toward the gate, her eyes more nervous every time. After the third or fourth time he caught her, Preston stopped, clearing his throat.

“Looking for MacCready, General?” he muttered.

Myra blushed sheepishly. “Sorry. I just...you said he’d be back by now. Where is he, exactly?”

“He’s been helping the settlers at our new settlement, Starlight. They were supposed to be building a defense system along the roof of the old diner. Maybe it took longer than he anticipated. We can head that way, if you’d like.”

Myra shook her head. “No, sorry. I was being rude. Please, show me around the marketplace. I’m curious to see what people are selling.”

Preston sighed. “It’s all right, General. I know you’ve got your son on your mind. If you’d rather stop and wait at the bar, we can do that. Mac’s bound to roll in sooner or later.”

“I’ll be good, I promise,” Myra protested. “You’ve had to handle all this without me. The least I can do is take the time to appreciate the work you’ve put in.”

“Well, if you mean it” Preston replied with a bright grin, “then I’d like to show you something.” He walked towards the bridge, squinting as the sunlight reflected off the river and nearly blinded him. “Damn, it’s bright today!” he exclaimed.

Myra stopped, fiddling in her pack for a moment. “Here, I got these for you.” She handed him a pair of black-rimmed glasses with slightly tinted lenses. “You’re always standing out in the sun, and your hat can only do so much.”

Preston smiled warmly at her as he accepted the glasses trying them on. “These are fantastic! Where did you get them?”

“I may have liberated them from the Prydwen, ” Myra replied. “They’re surprisingly nice sunglasses, right?”

Preston frowned. “You stole these? From the Brotherhood of Steel?”

Myra’s eyes sparkled. “Well, they weren’t using them. Seriously, Preston, you’d be amazed how much crap they have on that ship that no one uses or needs. I know they’re all about preserving technology, but I honestly think they might just be an army of hoarders.”

“Normally, I’d be the first one to lecture you about stealing, General,” Preston replied, “but I appreciate that you were thinking about me. I’ll treasure them.”

Myra snorted. “They’re just sunglasses, Preston. Nothing to get all sentimental about.”

“Maybe so,” he said, “but still, thanks. Now come on, I want to show you what I’ve been working on.”

Preston led her across the bridge towards Concord, Dogmeat bounding out ahead of them. The last time the three of them had been together like this was just after Myra had rescued the Quincy refugees. Had that really been back in October of last year? With Myra back at his side, it seemed like only a few days had passed.

One glance at the General, however, betrayed the passage of time. Something had shifted in Myra over the past few months, her bravado tempered by experience. She stood a little taller than he’d remembered, walked a little more confidently. In spite of the pain that lurked in her eyes, in spite of the weakness she’d shown the night before, she was stronger somehow than he had remembered. Preston wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it.

They arrived at the old Red Rocket gas station, and Myra glanced about, confusion in her eyes. “What are we doing all the way out here?” she asked.

“I’ve…” Preston started, suddenly nervous. What if she didn’t like it? “I’ve been working on something for you, when I have a spare moment or two. It’s not finished yet, but…”

Myra opened the bay door to the station’s workshop, her eyes widening in delight. Preston had cleaned out the bay as best as he could, creating a clean space to work in. Stacks of reclaimed planks and metal sheets filled one corner of the room, the best canvases anyone could salvage. A large handmade easel sat in the center of the room, along with a container filled with a large selection of pigments. Here and there, he’d hung a few of the paintings he’d found in the Sanctuary ruins, half-burnt landscapes, mostly.

“Preston, this is amazing!” The General exclaimed. “How did you find time to do all this?”

“Like I said, I’ve just been working on it a little bit at a time,” he replied. “So you like it?”

“I love it! How did you know I liked to paint?”

He blushed sheepishly. “I...I found your old studio, out in the woods. That’s where I got a lot of the supplies. I didn’t know who had done the paintings at first, until I found this one.”

Preston led her over to what had been the office, which he’d converted into a small bedroom. There, hanging on the wall, was a large portrait of a man with steely eyes and a vibrant smile. He was holding an infant in his arms, beaming down at the child. The painting was far from finished, many of the details only lightly sketched in. But the moment he’d found it, miraculously untouched in the back of the small building, he’d known who was responsible...and who the two figures were.

“I…” Myra whispered, her eyes brimming with tears. “I can’t believe, of all my work, this managed to survive.” She threw her arms around Preston, pulling the embarrassed minuteman close. “Thank you for doing this. I...I never dreamed that I’d have anything that was really mine again.”

“Well, it’s yours, General. And any time you want some peace in the middle of all this chaos, it’s here for you. Here,” he added, pulling away from her and fiddling in his uniform pocket. He extracted an electronic key, handing it to her. “I found this in the old office. You should be able to lock all the doors when you’re away, so no one takes anything.”

“I can’t believe you did this all just for me,” Myra continued. “What did I ever do to deserve something like this?”

“Well, I mean, you did save my life,” Preston said. “And I know what it’s like to feel lost, to need an outlet for your pain. Making this place helped me, too. I just wish I could have brought you here weeks ago. Then, maybe…” He cleared his throat. “But you’re here now.”

Myra nodded. “I’m here now,” she replied softly.

Preston stared at her for a moment, his mind racing. It was so good to see her happy about something again. Her eyes shone brightly under the fluorescent lights of the old office, her gaze soft and warm as she stared up at the unfinished portrait. She was absolutely radiant, her face as peaceful as he’d ever seen it. It thrilled him that he could give her a gift like this.

He moved a step closer, placing a hand gently on her shoulder. She stiffened slightly at the contact, but placed her own hand on top of his, squeezing it gently. They stood there like that for a long moment, her eyes on the painting, his eyes on her profile.

“Myra…” Preston said softly, fearful of breaking the silence. “I…”

“Hello?” called a voice from outside. “Hey, is anyone in here? The door’s open.”

Preston pulled away from Myra with a frustrated sigh, his ears burning. “Yeah, we’re in here, Mac.”

MacCready bounded in to the gas station, grinning up at the two of them. “I stopped by Sanctuary, and they said you and the General had just left,” he explained. “So, how does she like it?”

“I love it!” Myra replied. “Did you help?”

MacCready scoffed. “Did I? Who do you think scavenged all that wood and stuff for you to paint?”

“Well, thank you,” she said sincerely. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It was that or hear Preston complain about how much work it was getting this place fixed up. I don’t know how you put up with him bit...uh, I mean, whining all the time.”

Myra snorted. “Why do you think I left?”

The two of them laughed, shaking each other’s hands warmly.

“Well, boss," MacCready said after he caught his breath, "I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to see you again. I figured either you’d drink yourself dead or you’d be stuck on that stupid airship forever. Did you know the Brotherhood basically destroyed a whole town to build that thing? What a waste.”

Myra shook her head. “I haven’t heard about that. I’ll have to ask Danse about it when I get back. Anyway, it’s good to see you’re still the same as I remember. I’m amazed Preston hasn’t made you into a minuteman yet.”

“Well, it sure wasn’t for lack of trying. Every other day or so, he’s like, ‘wouldn’t it be great to serve a cause bigger than yourself, Mac?’ or ‘you know, you’d look good in khaki.’”

“No!” gasped Myra sarcastically, turning to look at Preston. “I can’t believe that at all!”

Preston rolled his eyes. “Great. I’m beginning to understand why you thought it was a good idea to send MacCready here instead of you, General. One of you is fine. But can you really unleash the two of you on the world together? Maybe I should go with you instead.”

“Where are we going?” Mac asked.

“Diamond City. I’ve got a lead on my...on some important information, and I need backup.”

“Is it about your missing son?” The mercenary replied.

Myra stared at him in shock for a moment before flashing an angry glare at Preston. “What did you tell him?” she interrogated.

Preston held his hands up in surrender. “Nothing! I swear. I only might have let it slip that you were looking for your son. I didn’t tell him anything else, General.”

Myra sighed. “I guess I might as well tell you the whole story, MacCready. I mean, it’s only fair, since you’re part of this now.”

Mac eyed her carefully. “Well, if you think that’s best...I’ll admit to being a little curious. After all, you hired me, but I don’t really know anything about you.”

“Can’t exactly do many background checks in the apocalypse, huh?” she replied with a smirk.

“Well, I mean, you can, but I found that it’s usually easier just to ask people stuff you wanna know,” MacCready said. “Not that I’m nosy. I usually try to not ask too many questions. Easier not to get killed that way.”

Myra chuckled. “Well, that’s probably a smart decision. But I’m not going to kill you because of what you know, promise.”

“Well, that’s comforting,” the mercenary replied.

“I guess since you’ve been helping Preston with this project, you already know that I’m over 200 years old,” she began.

“Wait. What?” MacCready laughed. “Come on, boss, I thought you were being serious. Man, you really had me going there for a moment.”

“She’s telling the truth, Mac,” Preston replied. These paintings? She made them.”

MacCready’s eyes widened. “Holy shi...er, wow. Well, that’s not something you hear every day. How come you’re not a ghoul, then?”

“Oh, I am,” Myra joked. “I’m just a really, really well-maintained ghoul.”

“You do look pretty good for your age,” the mercenary replied. “But something tells me that now you really are pulling my leg.”

Myra nodded. “Well, you see, when the bombs hit, my family and I ended up in Vault 111, just up the hill there…”

MacCready watched the General with rapt attention as she told him about the vault, about her husband’s brutal murder and the kidnapping of her son. His eyes teared up as she explained her search, though he kept trying to pass it off as allergies.

Although Preston was familiar with her story, hearing her tell it again was almost heartbreaking. It was obvious that, although the bombs fell centuries ago, that day and the horrors that followed were still very recent for her. No wonder she’d been struggling. He could kick himself for not seeing it earlier.

“...and now, I’m going to tell Detective Valentine what happened, and see if he’s got any ideas,” she finished.

“Wow,” was all MacCready could manage. “I...wow. I’m so sorry, boss.”

“Thanks,” she said flatly, “but I’m getting tired of sorry. And I’m definitely getting tired of blaming myself. I’m going to find the bastards who did this to my family, and I’m going to destroy them. Are you still interested in coming along?”

“Well, you’re the one holding the purse strings,” the mercenary replied.

“Yeah, but I’m not a total asshole. I know that going after the Institute is probably a suicide mission. You can stay here if you want. I won’t be upset.”

MacCready thought for a moment, his deep blue eyes looking past her. After a long while, he sighed, flashing her a cheeky grin. “Well, I agree that going after the Institute’s a pretty stupid plan. But going to Diamond City’s not a suicide mission, not unless you’re planning on drinking the moonshine down at the Dugout Inn . Man, I haven’t been there in ages.”

“So you’re coming with me?”

“I guess I am,” the mercenary replied. “At least until we know what our next step is. Besides, you still owe me the other half of my fee, remember? You promised to help me kill Winlock and Barnes.”

Myra’s eyes widened. “Oh, shit, you’re right! I did, didn’t I?” She groaned. “I’m never drinking again.”

MacCready snickered. “Well, more for me, then.”

“I guess we’d better get going,” Myra said. “It’s a long walk to Diamond City from here.”

MacCready nodded. “It’s a long walk to anywhere from here. Do you have any idea how long it took me to get here from Goodneighbor the first time?”

Myra chuckled. “I suppose you’d like me to pay your mileage, is that it?”

The mercenary grinned. “Well, if you’re offering…”

“We’ll see,” Myra said. “Get me to Diamond City in one piece first, ok?”

MacCready nodded, pulling his backpack over his narrow shoulders. “I guess that’ll do. But if you fall behind, I’m leaving you.”

“Honestly,” Myra replied, “the same goes for you.”

The mercenary grinned. “As long as we’re on the same page. Now, boss, can we go? If I stand still any longer, I’ll remember how tired I am.”

“Fair enough,” she replied, turning down the road towards Boston. “See you around, Preston. Take good care of things for me, will you?”

Preston stopped her with a hand on her arm. “No way are you getting off that easily, Myra,” he said softly, with just a hint of warning in his voice. “I know you’ve got to find your son, but you also have responsibilities here. And if you’re going to take MacCready with you...It’s hard enough running the Minutemen with the General absent all the time. You can’t just take my best worker with you and expect me to be able to keep everything together.”

“What do you need, Preston?” Myra sighed.

“There’s a farm called Graygarden which happens to be on your way,” the Colonel replied. It’s an interesting place, or so I’ve heard. Apparently the whole thing’s run by robots?”

“Robots?” asked Myra, curious. “You mean like Codsworth, or like synths?”

“I’m not sure, but I’d assume the former,” Preston replied. “I think the settler who told me about it would have been far more upset if they were synths, don’t you?”

Myra nodded. “Synths are...disturbing, to say the least. Who would have thought that the future would be full of machines that appeared human? It’s enough to make you think that maybe we didn’t use enough bombs.”

Preston frowned, but decided that the synth debate was a fight for another day. “Regardless, I want your word that you’ll convince Graygarden to supply us. We need to get a few more farming communities to trade with the Minutemen if we’re going to sustain the population we protect.”

Myra nodded. “Well, yeah. If it’s on the way, of course I’d be happy to do what I can. Like I said, I believe in what the Minutemen are doing, or I wouldn’t have joined up in the first place.”

“So you believe in what the Brotherhood of Steel is doing, too, huh?” muttered Preston.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Myra replied, scowling. “Why does everyone hate the Brotherhood so much?”

“They’re nothing but bullies, General,” hissed Preston. “They don’t care about freedom. They don’t care about the citizens of the Commonwealth. The Brotherhood only cares about power.”

“That’s not true!” Myra snarled, her eyes flashing dangerously. “Have you ever met anyone in the Brotherhood, Preston?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have to. I’ve heard all about their abuses.” Preston sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Look, Myra, I don’t want to fight you. I’m not condemning you or anything. Just...be careful. If even half of what I’ve heard about the Brotherhood is true, they’re incredibly dangerous. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Myra sighed. “I know, Preston. But I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. I know you mean well. Just...trust me, ok? Even if you can’t trust the Brotherhood, at least trust my judgement.”

He thought for a moment, his eyes fixed on hers. Finally, he sighed. “I do trust you, Myra. And I’m here for you, no matter what you decide. All I ask is that you come when I need your help. You might be just another Knight to them, but you’re my General. I need you.”

Myra hesitated, her green eyes carefully searching his face. Finally, she nodded. “Ok, Preston. I promise. No matter what I’m doing for the Brotherhood, if you need my help, I’ll be there. Just get in touch with me, and I won’t hesitate.”

Preston smiled warmly at her. “I’ll hold you to it, then. Good luck, General. I hope you find your son.”

Myra pulled him into a tight hug, her chin barely clearing his shoulder. “Thanks, Preston. Good luck to you too. I’ll try to come home more, I promise.”

He returned the hug, his arms lingering on her back just a few seconds too long. “Stay safe, ok?”

“I’ll have MacCready with me,” she replied, pulling away with a smirk. “I think I’ll be fine.”

The mercenary chuckled. “Yeah, Preston. Come on. You know I’ve got this. Now if you two are done with all the touchy-feely crap, boss, I’m ready to go.”

Myra smacked the bill of his military cap, and MacCready snarled as the brim fell over his eyes. Preston smiled warmly at the two of them. A few months ago, he’d been effectively alone. Now, he’d finally found friends again, people he could love and hopefully trust. It was a good feeling, one whose warmth would linger long after the two of them were gone, their figures fading down the broken road that meandered like a snake towards Boston.

Chapter Text

The warm summer sun filtered in through the slats of an old farmhouse, casting bright beams down on a young man’s slumbering face. He moaned in protest, ice blue eyes squinting against the intrusion of dawn.

The sound of amused laughter filled his ears, and he turned his head towards the bedroom door, following the pleasant sound. He smiled sleepily as his groggy gaze met the soft hazel eyes of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She leaned against the door frame, a vision in a simple blue dress. Her long honey blonde hair hung loose about her shoulders like a veil of sunlight, dancing brightly as she laughed. He could never get tired of the sound. At that moment, so completely drunk with love, he vowed to do everything in his power to make her laugh for the rest of her life.

“What’s so funny?” he asked groggily.

“You were talking in your sleep again,” the young woman replied. “It sounded like you were having a really good dream.”

“Hmm...how could I not, when I get to wake up to you every morning?” he asked.

“That’s if you wake up, and it’s barely morning. The sun’s been up for hours. Don’t you have to go ask Henry about that brahmin calf? You know a few other farmers were looking at it.”

The young man shook his head, waving her lazily over to the bed. She complied, walking over to him cautiously, a knowing smile on her perfect face. Still, when he grabbed her around the waist and hauled her on to the bed, she shrieked in surprise, kicking in feeble, practiced protest as he burrowed her head in her golden hair. Her scent was intoxicating, sweet and floral from the perfume she’d taken to wearing. He smothered her in playful kisses from forehead to collarbone, reveling in the essence of her.

“Mmmm,” he murmured, “I could do that, or we could just stay here all day. I know which one I’d rather do.”

She playfully smacked his arm. “You always want to do that. We’d starve to death if you had your way.”

“Yeah, but we’d die happy,” he replied, renewing his assault on her delicate skin. She gasped as his fingers ran softly down her spine. “Would that really be so bad?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Come on, sweetheart. I’ll tell you what. If you leave now, you’ll be home sooner. And when you get back, you can do whatever you like. It is your birthday, after all.”

“Well,” he replied, a cheeky grin lighting up his face, “since it’s my birthday and all…”

“Just get out of here,” she chided. “I need to get the tatos watered before this sun gets much hotter, and I’m still trying to decide what to make for dinner. I’ll see you when you get home.”

The young man sighed, releasing her. “Fine,” he muttered, throwing his clothes on, “but don’t think I’m letting you off the hook that easily, gorgeous. You owe me…” he thought for a moment, counting on his fingers, “...at least four kisses. With interest.”

She laughed, pressing her soft lips to his forehead. She ruffled his copper curls before pressing a wide-brimmed hat over them. “Well, there’s the interest. I’ll pay you in full when you get home, promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” he replied, pulling her into a tight embrace. After a long moment, he released her and headed for the door.

“Hey, hun?” she called after him. He turned to look at her, and she beamed at him, her hazel eyes shining with happiness. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Barbara,” he replied, grinning like a fool. Then, he walked out the door, and into the void beyond, the glaring white of a television screen his only guide.

 

 

 


 

 

Deacon hauled himself out of the memory lounger with a heavy sigh. He hated to leave, to return to the harsh reality of his life, but he had a job to do. After weeks without any feedback from the transmitter he’d slipped into Myra’s bag, the bug was finally active again. It seemed Tom had managed to fix the feedback loop that had blown out a few of the signal receivers earlier in the month. It was hard enough placing the receivers in the first place. It must have taken a whole team of runners to locate and repair the broken ones. Dez was not going to be happy about the Railroad diverting resources like that.

At least the device itself was still intact and hadn’t been confiscated by one of Myra’s allies. That had been the spy’s chief concern. After all, it had gone dead within moments of Myra’s arrival on the Prydwen . Deacon had thought for certain that Brotherhood security forces had destroyed it.

Once the device came back online, Deacon had listened intently for any indication of where Myra was. Was she still on the Prydwen , being taught God knows what by the Brotherhood propaganda machine? Had she gotten herself in trouble somewhere where he couldn’t help her? Eventually, the familiar calls of shopkeepers in the background placed her in Diamond City.

Then, the night before this one, Deacon had caught the end of a conversation between Myra and Nick Valentine. Apparently, she was headed here, to Goodneighbor. And since Deacon was planning on spending some time in the seedy town anyway, things couldn’t have worked out better for him. The spy knew Myra had adopted the wasteland practice of traveling during the day, so he’d settled in at The Memory Den to kill a few hours while he waited for her to show up. Hopefully, Deacon had timed his trip to the past as well as he thought he had.

He placed a small pile of caps on the table next to Irma, who oversaw the recreational loungers in The Memory Den while Dr. Amari worked below. Deacon always felt a little dirty after using the device, like he was spying on himself somehow, or at least the naive young man he’d once been, so many years ago...the young man who’d left his house that day, not knowing that it would be the last time he’d see his beloved wife alive.

They were Deacon’s memories to relive, he knew that intellectually. But his heart was never quite convinced that reliving the past didn’t cheapen it somehow. Was he helping himself get closure, or was he just whoring his past out for the comfort of his present self? It was hard to tell.

“Always a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Deacon,” Irma crooned in that silky rich voice of hers as her cherry red lips parted in a practiced smile. “I hope you won’t stay away so long next time.”

“Well, I guess it depends. If Kent ever finishes that Silver Shroud simulation program he keeps bragging about, I might just have to swing by more often.”

Irma laughed. “Don’t encourage him.”

“No promises,” Deacon replied. “Hey, did a certain friend of yours stop by while I was out?” he asked, pressing an extra few caps into her eager hand.

Irma nodded. “Nick’s just downstairs. I have to say, he brought the most interesting young woman with him. Very pretty, in that warrior lady sort of way. A girl might worry she was being replaced with a newer model.”

Deacon grinned at her. “As if anyone would ever replace you, Irma. I’m sure she’s just a friend.”

“All the same,” she crooned softly, “You’ll let me know if you hear anything, right?”

“Of course,” he lied. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a date with a tall glass of whiskey that I can’t be late for.”

“You never change. Say hey to Charlie for me,” Irma requested.

“I will,” Deacon replied, making his exit.

Goodneighbor was, at its core, a town built for running away. No one who lived in the settlement was actually from there. People just...arrived when they needed to, and left without too many people raising a fuss. It was a place to remember, to forget, to disappear. And every business in town catered to one of those forms of escape in their own way.

Deacon, having had his fill of remembering, was now on his way to forget. At least, that’s what he wanted anyone who was watching him to think. He knew he wasn’t the only one who made their living in the shadows, and not all observers were as benign and dashing as he was. It was better to catch any Institute spies off guard, if he could. If they thought Deacon was just another desperate drunk, trying to feel like a whole person again, he could more easily surprise them and turn things to his advantage.

It was this he had in mind as he wandered down to The Third Rail , hoping to catch the beginning of Magnolia’s set. When the evening crowd poured in to hear the soulful singer, the noise would provide an excellent cover for any quiet conversations. And, if he was extremely lucky, Myra would be among them, so rattled from her encounter with Kellogg’s past that she wouldn’t have much choice. Now that would be an adventure, visiting someone else’s memories for a change.

He nodded to Ham the bouncer before veering off to the bathroom. He stood on one of the worn-down toilets, reaching up into the vent for the cache he’d left there weeks ago. Deacon smiled as he pulled the canvas-wrapped bundle free. Thankfully, it was still there. In this town of gangsters and thieves, one could never be too careful.

He unwrapped the immaculate blue suit coat, shaking it loose and hanging it from the edge of the stall door while he stripped down. He quickly pulled on a crisp undershirt and slacks before turning to the shattered bathroom mirror, grinning as a dozen Deacons grinned back. The spy washed his face, wiping away the dust and grime he’d carefully painted on with an old rag. Finally, he extracted one of his many pompadour wigs from the bundle, brushing it to glossy perfection with just a hint of grease before securing it to his shaved head.

Once all this was complete, he pulled on the suit coat, admiring his handiwork. No one would suspect that he was the drifter who’d wandered in earlier. He was an elegant man of the world, looking for excitement in a town that asked no questions.

“Lookin’ good, hot stuff!” Deacon joked, pointing finger guns at his shattered reflection. “No pre-war woman’s gonna be able to keep her paws off you tonight. Which is probably not the best plan in a town full of lady ghouls, but, hey.”

Deacon folded his spare clothes back into the canvas parcel, returning them to the vent for later use. Then, he left the bathroom quietly, making his way downstairs to the bar. He found a couch near the VIP section and eased into it, his eyes analyzing the crowd behind his sunglasses.

It was the usual crew tonight, a few female ghouls gossiping about the men they were involved with sitting around one table, a few grimy addicts swapping tales at another. A handful of travelers were scattered throughout, some of whom Deacon recognized from other settlements. Any of them could be a threat, but for now, things seemed pretty safe. Deacon almost let himself relax.

He could tell by the hush that fell over the normally chatty crowd of drifters that he wasn’t the only one whose eyes were glued to Myra as she entered. There was something magnetic about her tonight, he thought as she leaned over the bar, asking Whitechapel Charlie if he had anything to drink besides his normal swill.

It wasn’t that she looked any different than she had the last time he’d seen her, save for a shorter head of hair. Her body was still armored in leather and green plaid flannel. Still, something had changed in her. She seemed livelier somehow, more genuine and confident. He couldn’t help but wonder what had happened since he’d last seen her, frightened and emotional, on the roof of Fort Hagen.

Danse wasn’t with her, the spy realized. She’d finally traded that angry rustbucket for Deacon’s favorite surly mercenary. Curious. Last time he’d seen them, she and Danse were practically glued to each other. What had changed?

Deacon watched with interest as MacCready found a seat near the jukebox, his deep blue eyes scanning the lounge for any sign of danger. Well, Myra could do worse. At least with the Brotherhood off her back, Deacon finally had a chance to make his move.

The spy made his way to the bar, sliding onto the stool next to Myra’s. She ignored him, tapping her long, ivory fingers on the bar in time to Magnolia’s voice.

“Hey there, gorgeous,” Deacon offered with a calm smile.

“I’m married,” Myra retorted, still not looking at him.

He smirked. Was that response a reflex from her old life, or did she really think that being married would stop someone from hitting on her in the Commonwealth? People weren’t exactly scrupulous about that sort of thing these days. In fact, many men would simply find it an extra challenge.

“Don’t worry, I’m not looking for a good time,” he replied. “Not that kind of good time, anyway. I’m always up for a game of jacks, or are you more of a kick the can kinda girl? I’m really more of a hide and seek man, myself, but lady’s choice.” Damn it, he was rambling again. “Can I get you anything? Iguana bits? Some water?”

She turned to look at him with annoyance, but as her eyes met his sunglasses, a slow recognition set in. Myra analyzed him carefully, sizing him up, before a faint smirk set in in the corners of her mouth. Deacon suddenly felt more exposed than he’d ever felt in his whole life as her eyes took every detail in.

“Do you know a clothing trader,” she mused softly, her voice honey and smoke against his ears, “goes by Billy Stitches?”

Deacon gulped. “Can’t say that I do.”

“Well, isn’t that funny?” she replied, her smirk widening as she brushed a trace of dust off of his navy lapel. “Because that’s my husband’s jacket, and Mr. Stitches is the last man who had it, as far as I know.”

The spy chuckled, leaning closer to her. “Maybe I stole it off some guy’s body,” he whispered conspiratorially.

“Or maybe you’re a hell of a sniper,” she replied, her warm breath tickling his ear. “How many yards was that shot back in Concord? Right through the brain of a deathclaw? You could have warned a girl.”

Deacon felt his pulse quicken, though outwardly he remained the picture of blissful charm. He knew he’d been spotted back then, but he hadn’t expected that she would connect the dots so easily. “And you could have tried harder not to get killed,” he whispered back. He pulled away from her, beaming from ear to ear. “I knew you saw me!”

“I’m nothing if not observant,” Myra replied softly, her smooth voice tinged with just a hint of warning. “And I know I’ve seen you around before. Diamond City...Boston Common...is there anywhere I’ve been you haven’t been watching me?”

How had she noticed him? Deacon had been so careful. He’d rotated his disguises and everything. Hell, the only reason he knew she’d notice him this time was that he’d deliberately worn her husband’s old suit coat to get her attention. Was he losing his touch?

“I mean, there’s a few places,” he replied. “I haven’t watched you sleep or anything. Well, there was that one time, but that was more unconscious than asleep, really.”

If she’d realized that Deacon was joking, Myra didn’t give any indication. She gripped the pistol at her hip, her eyes narrowing. “Well, I’m getting damn tired of it. Are you going to explain why you keep following me everywhere, or do I need to call my bodyguard over?” she murmured.

Deacon sighed dramatically. “Oh, that bodyguard?” he asked, gesturing over to the scrawny mercenary waiting on the couch. “Hey, Mac,” he called, “get over here! I think your boss wants to sic you on me!”

MacCready groaned, easing himself up and wandering over to the bar. “What is it this time, Deacon? You know I hate it when you drag me into your sh...crap.”

Deacon slapped him warmly on the back, and MacCready flinched at the contact. “Still giving up swearing, buddy? Good for you.”

“You two know each other?” asked Myra, looking between the two men in mild disbelief.

“Well, yeah,” Deacon replied. “You could say we occasionally run in the same circles. Sometimes, we end up with the same target. It’s pretty embarrassing when that happens, huh, Mac?”

“I guess. We’re not exactly friendly, though,” MacCready shot back, scowling, “no matter what he’s led you to believe.”

“Well, we aren’t unfriendly, Mac,” Deacon crooned, grinning at the younger man. “We’re like frenemies, right?”

MacCready sighed, rolling his eyes. “I told you, that’s a stupid word.”

“Anyways, it’s good to see you, and looking even more grumpy than usual!” exclaimed the spy. “Come on, buddy, drink with us! Let loose a little!”

“I’m not your buddy,” the mercenary replied coolly, “and I’m working.”

Deacon shook his head in disapproval. “Well, your boss is drinking, right boss?”

“No,” Myra replied. “I’m working too.”

Deacon huffed, slouching against the bar. “So now I’m drinking alone. Again. Wow. Way to thank the guy who saved your life, like, a bunch, both of you.”

Myra groaned. “You too, MacCready?” she asked.

The mercenary kicked at the leg of the empty barstool next to him with a scowl. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Myra turned back to Deacon. “So, Deacon, or Billy, or Scavver Dave, or whatever you’re calling yourself--”

“Ooh! Scavver Dave!” he exclaimed. “That’s a good one! I’ll have to use that sometime! You know, you have a real talent for codenames. That might come in handy, sooner than you think.”

“What exactly do you want?” Myra asked, a dangerous glint in her stunning eyes. Whatever patience she had for Deacon’s antics was quickly wearing thin. “Why have you been following me?”

“All business, aren’t you?” Deacon replied with an apologetic smile, trying to regain control of the situation. “You should learn to relax a little. I’d hate to see that pretty face get all wrinkled. Of course, if that does happen, come find me. I know a guy who--”

“Just answer the question,” Myra replied, her mouth tight.

Deacon sighed. “You’re no fun. Look, it’s like this. I happen to work for some people who could really use someone like you. So I guess I’m offering you a chance to show them what you’re made of?”

Myra seemed to relax a bit, her eyes softening as curiosity took hold. “I’m listening.”

“All you need to know right now is that if you follow the Freedom Trail, you might find some new and very helpful friends,” the spy continued. “Friends that have a vested interest in taking down the Institute. That’s all I can say.”

“I already have friends who want to take down the Institute,” she replied. “Basically everyone in the Commonwealth wants them gone for one reason or another. Well, mostly the one that involves replacing people with robots. What’s so special about your friends?”

“Tell you what,” Deacon said, pulling a cigarette out of the pack he kept tucked in his pocket and rolling it between his fingers. “How about you go find out?”

Myra pulled a lighter from her pack, offering it to him. “Deacon,” she soothed, “I know a thing or two about playing hard to get. You’ve been following me this long, so you obviously need my help. Why don’t you just tell me what I need to know, and I’ll see if I feel like helping you.”

He accepted the light, shaking his head at her. “Tempting, but no can do, gorgeous. That’s not how this works. My friends value their privacy, and they have a darn good reason to. What we do isn’t exactly the safest activity in the current climate, ok?”

“I guess what I’m saying, Deacon, is it doesn’t really matter to me what you’re involved in,” Myra replied. “I’m spread thin enough as it is. Unless you’ve got a damn good reason why I should care...”

Deacon chuckled. “Ah, yes, with everyone’s favorite historical reenactors on one side and the buzzkill brigade on the other, I suppose you would be a little overwhelmed,” he joked. “But I promise, what we have to offer is going to interest you. Look, just play along, and I’ll tell you everything when I can, how’s that sound?”

She sighed. “Sounds like bullshit to me, but whatever. I’ve got a day to kill tomorrow. I suppose I might find myself near Boston Common again.”

“See you at Journey’s End,” Deacon replied. “It’s gonna be fun, promise.”

Myra rolled her eyes as she slid off her barstool, heading for the exit. “I guess that depends on your definition of fun. Come on, Mac. I told Hancock I’d go say hi before we turned in for the night.”

The mercenary nodded. “I’ll meet you over at the State House.”

Myra shrugged, heading for the stairs at a leisurely pace, her steps just a little wobbly. Deacon smiled slightly. The memory loungers were a doozy for first-timers under normal circumstances. He wouldn’t be surprised if she had a mental hangover in the morning, given her abnormal use of the device.

MacCready hesitated a moment, his deep blue eyes lingering on the door. “Hey, Deacon?” he asked softly, turning to the man next to him.

“Yeah, what is it, Mac?” Deacon replied.

The mercenary frowned slightly. “Whatever you want with Myra, just...don’t. Please.”

Deacon chuckled. “Why the hell do you care? She’s just a client, right?”

“A client who’s a pain in the as...um, the rear, yeah. But she’s been nicer to me than most. She really seems to care about everyone she meets, actually. Myra’s not...like us. I guess I’d prefer to keep it that way. You and I both know what happens to people like that when they get mixed up with people like us.”

Deacon nodded. He knew exactly what happened to people like the cicada he’d rescued all those months ago. Kind, beautiful, delicate souls had no place in the Commonwealth, much less so in the company of sinners. Barbara had paid the price for her association with him. The last thing he wanted was to see that happen again.

Still, Myra wasn’t that cicada any more. She’d made noise, caused waves, and found herself in all manner of dangerous positions since she’d emerged cold and feeble from Vault 111. But she hadn’t died, hadn’t broken --not completely, at least. Myra had adapted, had grown, had overcome. She’d made allies who would die for her, even when she neglected them. There was power in her kindness, not weakness.

“Look, Mac,” Deacon replied finally. “I get it. I do. And I promise that I will do my best not to let anything happen to her. But I don’t think Myra’s as delicate as you think she is. Look at how much she’s accomplished already.”

MacCready glared at him. “Deacon, you and I both know that’s not enough. I’ll be watching you.”

“Well, that we can agree on,” the spy retorted. “Because I’m always watching you.”

 


 

Deacon did his best to stay out of sight as Myra and MacCready wandered through the streets of downtown Boston, following the meandering red line that would eventually lead them to the Old North Church. Myra’s words from the night before loomed over his thoughts, forcing him to step even lighter, to maintain even more distance between him and the pair as they approached HQ. There was no particular need for him to hide, not anymore, but he’d be lying even more than he usually did if he said his pride wasn’t a little bit wounded. This was less about being secretive and more about proving that he could still get one over on Myra.

Of course, Myra still didn’t know that she was bugged, Deacon thought, grinning as he slipped his headphones on over his wig. He could stay blocks away and still know about their progress.

“So, Mac,” Deacon heard Myra say, “You know Deacon. What’s his deal?”

“I wouldn’t say anyone really knows Deacon,” MacCready replied with a slight chuckle. “That’s sort of his whole thing. Fancies himself some kind of super spy or something. If you ask me, it’s pretty annoying. Is it really too much to ask for people to just be straight with you? I mean, if you want to shoot me, just shoot me. Don’t spend all day lurking around pretending you’re not holding a gun.”

“So this is a trap, is what you’re saying.”

MacCready sighed. “I don’t think so. Not this time, at least. I think Deacon’s being sincere, or as close to that as he ever gets. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he seems pretty desperate for your help.”

“That’s what I got from him too,” Myra replied. “He was trying pretty hard to sell me on these friends of his, but if they’re so great, what does he need me for? And why won’t he tell me anything about them?”

“I think I can answer that for you, at least. Deacon works for the Railroad.”

Deacon groaned. “God damn it, Mac.” See, this was why he wasn’t ever straight with anyone. You never knew who would spill your secrets to the first pretty face they came across. What if Myra had been an Institute plant? MacCready might as well have been filling out death warrants for the entire Railroad with how loose his lips were.

Deacon had never intended for the mercenary to find out about the Railroad. After all, MacCready wasn’t exactly pro-synth. But a few months back, circumstances had forced his hand. There were only so many lies Deacon was able to tell the younger man before MacCready had stopped believing him. The spy had intended to kill him to protect the Railroad’s interests, but Deacon just hadn’t been able to bring himself to eliminate the sniper for some reason. He really hoped that wouldn’t come back to bite him just yet.

“What’s the Railroad?” Myra asked, curious.

“They’re a secret organization that wants to free all the synths from the Institute,” MacCready replied . “They seem to believe that they’re people or something.”

“Huh.” Myra thought for a moment. “Well, I haven’t met very many synths, but the ones I’ve seen certainly act like people.”

“Yeah. Act. See, that’s the problem. They’re not humans, are they? Look at Nick. He’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong. But he’s a machine, and he knows it. You don’t see him trying to pass as human. He freely admits what he is. But the Railroad seems to want synths to be treated exactly like humans, at least those creepy gen-3s.”

“I don’t think I’ve met one of those yet,” Myra said.

“How would you know? They look just like regular people, except they’ve got a chip in their head,” MacCready explained. “It’s really freaky. Anyone you know could be a synth, and you’d have no way of knowing for sure until they died.”

“Well, if that’s true,” Myra mused, “maybe the Railroad is on to something. If they’re organic and have free will, even if it’s controlled by a chip in their heads, aren’t they just mind-controlled people at that point?”

“No, it’s different,” MacCready replied. “I’m no good at that science crap, but I do understand the difference between people and machines. Treating them the same is wrong.”

“I don’t -- Mac, on your right!” Myra screamed, the rest of her thought forgotten as gunfire echoed through the ruined streets. Deacon heard the taunting cries of Super Mutants through his headphones, and he raced towards Faneuil Hall, his desire to stay hidden all but forgotten. He scrambled up the fire escape of a nearby building, doing his best to find a good vantage point to set up.

Myra and MacCready stood back to back in the square, blazing red laser bolts matched by rifle fire as they did their best to clear a path.

“We’ve got to move, Myra!” yelled MacCready. “I’m not exactly a fan of close combat.”

“Here!” she replied, tossing him her pistol. “At least use something made for close range, you ninny!”

MacCready shook his head in frustration, slinging his rifle over his back as he struggled with the pistol. “I’ll do what I can,” he replied, “but this really, really sucks.”

“Less whining, more shooting, Mac!” Myra chided, laying waste to a mutant hound.

“Aw, bite me!” he hissed.

“Maybe later, if we get out of this,” she replied with a grin.

MacCready scowled, firing deliberately at one of the Super Mutants as the creature closed in on him. Through his scope, Deacon could see a deep blush spread across the mercenary’s lean face.

Deacon slowly released a breath as he aimed for what looked like the leader of this Super Mutant patrol, a large hulking beast in makeshift armor who stood near the top of some scaffolding, a missile launcher trained directly at the pair. Deacon’s shot took the mutant in the right eye, sending him plummeting off the scaffolding to the ground below.

“Thanks, Deacon!” yelled Myra over the din, her eyes still fixed on her target.

Deacon smiled as he dropped another Super Mutant. It was nice to be thanked. He could get used to it, if he let himself.

In a few minutes, it was all over, the mutant patrol reduced to heaps of green flesh and glowing piles of ash. Myra offered MacCready a high-five, her green eyes flashing in blood-soaked glee. The two of them laughed, the thrill of survival lifting their spirits.

Deacon clambered back down the fire escape, vanishing into the alley beyond. At this rate, Myra would reach HQ in no time, and he wanted to prepare.

 


 

Spooking new recruits was one of Desdemona’s favorite little rituals, and this time was no exception. Deacon had begged her to skip the formalities, since he’d already vouched for Myra, but the fierce redhead refused.

“You know how important a first impression is, Deacon,” she’d argued. “I want her to remember that no matter how good she thinks she is, we’re better.”

“Fine,” Deacon sighed. “But I can already tell you that her patience for bullshit is pretty damn thin. Jerk her around too much, Dez, and she’ll slip the line.”

“I get it now!” exclaimed Glory, polishing her minigun. “That’s why you didn’t want to approach her directly. No way she’d put up with you for more than a few minutes. I know I can’t.”

“Well, we can’t all have your winning personality, Glory,” Deacon replied with a smirk. “I’m always amazed when one of your new kids sticks around. How many potential heavies has Drummer Boy stolen from you now?”

“Not enough,” the baby-faced runner muttered. “I still don’t have half the runners I need, and that’s with the reduced number of safehouses.”

“See,” Deacon mused, “that’s why I keep my department small. While you two are squabbling over who has the hardest job, I get to visit all sorts of fun and interesting locales. Mostly the dumpsters in those locales. You’d be amazed how comfortable dumpsters get after a while. And I don’t have to share the credit with anyone. It’s really the best.”

A red light suddenly illuminated the catacombs, casting everything in a warm glow.

“Will you three shut up?” Dez growled. “That’s the alert for the hatch. Someone’s started to enter the code. We’d better get up there. Deacon, don’t wait too long for your entrance, ok? It was a little overdone last time.”

“Come on, Dez,” he replied with a cheeky grin. “I’m always right on time.”

The leader of the Railroad rolled her eyes before heading out the door, Glory and Drummer Boy in tow. Deacon waited a few minutes, listening to their conversation through his listening device. Finally, when he heard the formalities come to a close, he stashed his headphones and crept through the door, sneaking up behind Dez.

“You’re having a party,” he crooned. “What gives with my invitation?”

Dez turned to him. “You’re late,” she mouthed. “Deacon. I need intel. Who is this?”

Deacon turned to Myra, flashing her an easy smile. “Whoa, boss, you mean you haven’t heard of her? This lady’s kind of a big deal. She’s the General of the Minutemen. As in, the main reason there even are minutemen any more?  And if that wasn’t enough, she’s also a member of the Brotherhood of Steel. From what I’ve heard, she’s one of their top Knights or something. Definitely someone we want on our side.”

“I see. Thank you.”

“Any time, boss,” Deacon replied, heading down the uneven staircase towards Myra and MacCready. He retained a fair amount of distance between himself and the pair, choosing to lurk in the shadows beside the stairs.

“Deacon says you’ll be an asset to us, and from what he’s said, I’m inclined to agree,” said Dez, turning to Myra. “Still, I have to ask you a question. The only one that matters. Would you risk your life for your fellow man? Even if that man is a synth?”

Myra thought for a moment. “Well, I probably already have, and just don’t know it.”

Dez sighed. “I’m sure there are many people who have, but that doesn’t answer my question. What if you knew for sure that the person in front of you was a synth?” She pressed. “Would you risk your life to save theirs?”

“I...I guess it depends,” Myra replied. “I mean, I probably wouldn’t put my life on the line to save someone who was my enemy, whether that person was a synth or not. But a stranger, or a friend? I’d like to think that I would, depending on why they were in danger. It’s the sort of thing you don’t really know until the time comes, though, is it?”

Desdemona frowned. “There’s no room for shades of gray here. Either you would, or you wouldn’t.”

Myra scoffed. “Well, gee. No wonder you guys need help, if that’s how you handle ethical questions. Look, lady. I was a lawyer. My whole life’s work before I woke up in this fucked up place was in shades of gray. Can you honestly stand there and tell me that you’d give your life up for another person, no matter the circumstances?”

“I believe in sacrificing myself for the greater good if it comes down to it, yes,” Dez replied.

“Well, good for you. But that’s crazy. And if my answer isn’t good enough for you, I guess you don’t need my help as much as Deacon said you did. Come on, MacCready. Let’s go. I should be getting back to the Prydwen anyway.”

She turned and headed for the hatch. Deacon groaned. How had he not seen this coming? Myra and Dez were both so stubborn, so full of their own convictions. He should have realized that there might be trouble if their ideals didn’t quite line up. And now, the Railroad was going to lose their most promising asset in months, all because Dez asked the impossible of literally everyone.

After Myra had taken about three steps, however, Dez stopped her. “Hey. Wait.”

Myra turned, and Deacon caught just the barest flash of a self-satisfied smile before it faded. Of course. Myra knew exactly what she was doing. She always had. Damn, she was good.

“I’m sorry,” the young woman said coyly, “did I misunderstand?”

“Look,” said Dez, “there’s nothing wrong with your answer, not really. It’s just that these are very dangerous times for us. We’ve lost a lot of agents recently, and that means we’ve lost the luxury of half-measures. We definitely could use your help, but given how chaotic everything is right now, we just don’t have the time or the resources to train a new agent.”

Deacon frowned. “But, Dez --”

“What we can use is a new tourist,” Dez continued, ignoring Deacon’s protest.

“A tourist?” Myra asked warily.

“Tourists do a lot of things for us,” Desdemona replied. “They pass on information, keep us supplied, little things like that. Talk to Deacon. He’ll tell you what you need to know.”

With that, Desdemona turned and vanished down the hall with Drummer Boy, leaving Glory behind to guard the entrance to HQ. Deacon tried to keep his balance, the strength ebbing from his legs. After all his planning, all his months of hard work, how had it come to this?

He sighed, shaking his head at Myra. “I can’t believe after everything I went through to get you here, Dez is just willing to toss you aside like this. A tourist? Is she crazy?”

“I’m sorry, Deacon,” she replied with a sympathetic smile. “Hey, at least you don’t have to stalk me any more now.”

“That would be a nice change of pace,” he agreed. “But there’s got to be something we can do. I’m not wrong about you. I know I’m not. I just have to find a way to prove it to everyone else.”

“What about that operation you tried to blackmail me into running with you a few months back?’ MacCready offered. “I mean, it sounded like a terrible idea, but --”

“Robert Joseph MacCready, you brilliant son of a bitch!” Deacon cried, his face lighting up. “I could kiss you!”

“Please don’t,” MacCready objected, a faint blush coloring his cheeks. “And never use my full name like that again. You’re not my grandmother.”

“That’s what you think,” the spy replied ominously. “Could you ever really know for sure...sonny-boy?”

MacCready glared at him, frustrated. “You really are the worst, Deacon.”

“Don’t I know it?” Deacon laughed, turning to Myra. “What our adorable little sniper here’s talking about is a mission I’ve had sitting on the back burner for months. Too big for just little old me, but with the three of us, I’ll bet we could pull it off.”

Myra’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of mission?” she asked cautiously.

“Asking all the right questions, aren’t you?” Deacon replied with a grin. “It’s nothing too bad. Just going to pick up a little something, maybe shoot a few Institute baddies along the way. And I can almost guarantee that if we pull this off, Dez is never gonna want to let you go. So, you game?”

“I mean, I guess,” Myra replied, “if it’s really the best way to get Desdemona’s approval. I didn’t come all this way with you just to get basically tossed out on my ass by someone like her.”

“Perfecto!” Deacon exclaimed. “I’ve got some things I need to get ready. How about the two of you head out first? I’ll meet you by the old overpass outside Lexington. Mac knows the place.”

MacCready frowned. “Of course I do. It’s right by a Gunner camp.”

“Well, I guess we’ll have something to do while we wait for Deacon, then, won’t we?” Myra asked, touching the pistol at her hip. “It’s been a while since the last time I messed up some Gunners. I’m still mad about what they did to my face.”

The sniper nodded. “I’m never going to turn down a chance to kill a few of those bas...I mean, those scumbags,” he muttered. “I guess we’ll see you there, Deacon.”

“Not if I see you first,” Deacon replied, “and you know I will!”

He watched Myra and MacCready as they headed for the secret entrance, following behind them to reset the mechanism. Deacon really hoped this plan would work. If it didn’t, well, the three of them would probably all be dead by this time tomorrow.

“Now,” he said to himself as the hatch slid shut, “what to wear?”

Chapter Text

Paladin Danse knelt in the armor bay of the Prydwen , wearing an old pair of Brotherhood Fatigues stained with grease and machine oil. He scrubbed at the knee joints of Myra’s power armor furiously with a handful of steel wool, cursing under his breath at the stubborn spots of rust that clung to the metal. He’d managed to fix the sticking problem in the right leg a few days ago, but the wear and tear on the old suit was proving a bit harder to handle. Whoever had owned this armor before Myra had been a complete slob about power armor maintenance.

The first week without Myra had been difficult, but manageable. As the days dragged on, however, it was harder and harder for Danse to keep his mind off of her. Where was she? Why hadn’t she contacted the Brotherhood at all? Was she even still alive? Anger, worry, and guilt filled him in equal measure. He was frustrated that he’d been left behind, especially with the state Myra had been in when she’d left. What had she been thinking, running off on her own? They were a team. They were supposed to stick together, no matter the circumstances.

Danse’s head throbbed, and he grimaced as his vision swam. Damn it, not again. He’d have to report to Cade, to tell him that this latest treatment wasn’t working either. That would mean more tests, more bed rest, more being treated like he was damaged. What if there was no cure, and the Paladin was pulled off of field duty permanently? He’d rather take the long dive off the forecastle without his armor than face that possibility. Danse belonged in the field. It was all he was built for. Deskwork just wasn’t his style.

He wiped his hands on a nearby rag before easing himself to his feet, wobbling a bit more than he’d anticipated. This headache was a particularly bad one, he realized with a frown. Danse followed the side corridor towards the medical bay, his hand firmly grasping the railing to keep him steady.

Knight-Captain Cade looked up at him as he entered the medical bay, the medic’s pale eyes wide with concern. “Paladin! Lie down right this instant! When was the last time you ate?”

Danse frowned, lowering himself onto the offered cot. “I...ugh...I’m not certain. I believe I had breakfast.”

Cade glared at him. “Well, no wonder you’re so pale. It’s nearly dinnertime. Didn’t I tell you that fasting would only make the situation worse? Your brain needs food and sleep if these treatments are going to work.” The medic sighed. “I suppose you haven’t been sleeping, either.”

Danse shook his head. “I’m sorry, Cade, but the pills you gave me haven’t had a significant impact on my ability to sleep. They’ve only succeeded in making it harder to control my emotional responses. Honestly, they might even be making the nightmares worse.”

“Well, if that’s the case,” Cade replied, “I’m afraid we don’t have many options left. If this next drug doesn’t make a difference, I’m not certain what we’ll be able to do for you. One thing’s for certain, Paladin. I won’t be able to allow you back into the field until this is resolved.”

The Paladin grimaced as another wave of pain and nausea overwhelmed him. “Just...argh! Just make it stop!”

Cade nodded, pulling a syringe from the counter and filling it with a fluid from an unmarked bottle. “I’ve been doing some research, and I think this might work,” he said as he squeezed the air from the syringe. “You’ll need to take regular shots until I can synthesize a pill form, but if it works, we just might be able to get you back on your feet.”

Danse nodded. “Very well.” He clenched his fist as the needle pierced his arm, the liquid tingling slightly as it entered his bloodstream. He didn’t dare ask what was in the concoction. He probably wouldn’t be able to make sense of it in his current state anyway.

Still, when the tingling turned to burning in his veins, Danse began to get nervous. “Is it supposed to…” he started, his voice wavering as his vision began to darken.

“Oh, shit!” he heard Cade exclaim. “Stay with me, Paladin. Easy. You’re going to…”

The Paladin tried to fight back against the darkness that surrounded him, but he was quickly overwhelmed, falling endlessly into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 


 

Danse groaned as he came to, his eyes adjusting to the bright light of the medical bay as they blinked open. Cade sat at his desk, watching him.

“You’re finally awake. Welcome back, Paladin.”

“How...how long was I…?”

Cade smiled apologetically. “Almost a full day. I’m sorry. I didn’t measure the dose correctly. To be fair, I was going off your medical charts and, well, they haven’t really been updated since you left for the Commonwealth. You’ve lost quite a bit of weight, it seems. I’ll make sure to take that into account with your next dose. How do you feel?”

Danse thought for a moment, sitting up slowly. “The pain in my head has subsided,” he replied, “but I still seem to be somewhat out of sorts.”

“That’s to be expected. You’re not completely awake yet. Give it time. Other than that, does everything else seem ok?”

Danse nodded. “Thank you, Cade. I think you may be on to something this time. Naturally, however, I’d prefer it if you’d find a way to administer this new drug without rendering me unconscious.”

“I’ll certainly do my best,” the medic replied. “No offense, Danse, but if I never have to see you in my infirmary again, I’ll count myself lucky.”

“You and I both, Knight-Captain,” the Paladin replied.

“Here,” said Cade, offering Danse a small capsule and a glass of water. “I’ve been working on these stimulants that should help you stay focused during the day. They’ll counteract the sleep medication. I’ll expect you to take both at alternating times until your body regains a natural sleeping pattern. Hopefully you’ll be off them in a few weeks.”

“A few weeks?” Danse exclaimed. “Cade, I don’t have time for this.”

The medic shook his head. “Danse, I’m the one who decides when you’re ready to resume your duties in the field. Until then, you have nothing but time for this. It’s really in your best interest not to resist me.”

Danse sighed. “Very well.”

Just then, the Paladin heard familiar, measured footfalls and looked up to see Arthur Maxson approaching, his hands clasped behind his back as he strode purposefully into the medical bay.

“Excellent,” the Elder said, a flash of relief in his eyes as they met Danse’s, “you’re awake.” Maxson turned to the medic. “Cade, have you come up with a solution to Danse’s condition yet?”

“I believe so, sir,” Cade replied. “I was just telling the Paladin that I’m hopeful that this latest treatment will work much better than the last one. It’s difficult, since we can’t seem to figure out what causes his symptoms or why. The initial thought both Scribe Haylen and I had was stress or combat fatigue, but if anything, bedrest seems to be making the problem worse. I’m not sure we can send him back out in the field in this condition, sir, but I’m also not sure it would be a good idea to keep him on rest.”

“What do you suggest, then?” Maxson asked.

“I’d say start him off with light duties, sir. After that, if the treatment seems to be helping, I’ll see about clearing him for field work.”

Maxson nodded. “Very good. If you’re done with him for now, I’d like to speak to Danse on the command deck. There’s some information we’ve received that I believe he needs to hear.”

“Of course, Elder.” Cade turned to Danse. “If your headaches return before it’s time for your next dose, please come back right away.”

“Affirmative,” the Paladin replied, easing himself off of the cot. He followed Maxson, his mind racing as he tried to guess what information was so urgent. All he could think about was Myra. Had she returned? Had something happened to her?

When they arrived on the command deck, Danse’s eyes widened in surprise as a pair of green eyes met his...just not the ones he’d been hoping for. The man in front of him was older, more haggard than he remembered, but he’d know those world-weary eyes anywhere.

“Paladin Brandis!” Danse exclaimed. “You’re alive?”

“Well, it was touch-and-go there for a while, but yes, I suppose I am,” the old man muttered. “It’s strange, being back. I never liked this ship, you know.”

“I can’t believe it,” the younger Paladin said, shaking Brandis’ hand. “Three years without contact, everyone believing you had fallen, and yet here you are. Outstanding.”

Brandis stared at Danse, his eyes narrowing slightly. “I wish I shared your enthusiasm, Danse.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “Tell Senior Paladin Danse what you told me, Brandis. About your angel.”

Brandis’ face brightened as he smiled. “Senior Paladin, eh? Well, you’ve done well for yourself, boy. Can’t say I’m surprised, really. You always were...dedicated.”

“Thank you, Brandis,” Danse replied, bowing his head slightly.

“Paladin. The story?” asked Arthur, clearly impatient.

“Hmm? Oh! Yes,” the old man replied. “It was a few weeks ago. I was in my bunker, Recon Bunker Theta. That’s where I’ve been living the last three years. Alone, so horribly alone…” The man trailed off, his eyes haunted.

“Stay with us, Brandis,” urged Arthur. “What happened?”

“Well, I was minding my own business, working on some lunch for myself, you know, when the door opened,” Brandis said. “Someone…they must have had the code somehow. I kept that bunker locked down, took every precaution. So I trained my weapon at the door, hoping to catch whoever it was off guard, and this beautiful creature appeared before me, urging me to lower my weapon.”

Danse frowned. “Was this some sort of hallucination?” he asked cautiously.

“No! She was real, I swear it!” Brandis exclaimed. “She must have been an angel, with that unearthly white hair, those wide, soulful eyes so full of light. She said she needed help. The poor creature had a terrible burn on her back. It was where they’d torn off her wings, I suppose, whatever monsters knocked her from the sky. I did my best to help her, put ointment on her wounds, fed her, let her rest. She barely spoke a word to me for days.”

Danse sighed. Poor Brandis was obviously delusional from everything he’d been through since his squad had vanished over three years ago. But his description, the white hair...could it be Myra? “What happened then, Paladin?” he asked.

“Well, eventually, she told me that she’d been tracking a group of feral ghouls and stumbled on one of our team’s distress pulsers,” the old man continued. “She...she brought me the holotags of the rest of my squad,” he added, his voice cracking. “Dead. All dead. I failed them, Danse.”

Danse felt his heart clench. He knew the pain of losing soldiers under his command all too well. But the entire squad? He couldn’t imagine how agonizing that must be. At least he, Haylen, and Rhys had endured. To be the last man standing, everyone who’d trusted and depended on you gone? No wonder Brandis’ concept of reality was so fractured. “They died with honor, I’m certain,” Danse said softly.

Brandis nodded, his eyes bright with tears. “That’s what my angel said, as well. She said I needed to come back, to honor their memory by returning to the Brotherhood. So I did.”

“Where’s this angel of yours now?” Danse asked.

“I’m...I’m not sure,” Brandis replied. “She said something about a sanctuary, which makes sense, I suppose. That’s where you’d expect to find such heavenly creatures. Oh, you should have seen her, Danse!”

The Senior Paladin smiled slightly. “I’m fairly certain that I have, Brandis. Your ‘angel’ matches the description of one of my soldiers who has been out of contact for some time now. It’s good to hear that she’s alive.”

“One of yours, hmm?” Brandis said softly, thinking hard. “No, she wasn’t wearing our uniform...perhaps you’re confusing her with someone else.”

“Thank you, Brandis,” Elder Maxson said. “That will be all. Please report to the infirmary. I know Cade was eager to give you a full examination.”

“Of course, Elder,” Brandis replied, saluting. “Ad victoriam.”

“Ad victoriam,” the other two men echoed.

Once Brandis was out of earshot, Maxson turned to Danse frowning slightly. “Danse, Knight Larimer said that she was going to Sanctuary,” he said softly. “but the pilot who took her back to the Commonwealth said that she requested to be dropped off near Nahant Wharf. And now, if Brandis really did see her...What possible reason could she have had to lie about where she was going?”

Danse thought for a moment, puzzled by this development. No one had told him that she’d deviated from her initial course. Why would Maxson have withheld that kind of information from him?

The Paladin tried desperately to ignore the nagging in his gut as he sought an answer to Maxson’s question. Wasn’t Myra originally from Nahant? Had she decided to return home? But that didn’t make sense. The small village hadn’t survived the War. According to patrols, there was nothing in the area but raiders and feral ghouls. She shouldn’t have had a reason to return there, and definitely didn’t have a reason to lie about it, at least not any reason that Danse was party to. It concerned him when he thought about it, how little he still knew about Myra.

“I’m not certain,” Danse replied finally. “But knowing Larimer, I think that she probably changed her mind mid-flight. I refuse to believe that she deceived us intentionally. She’s impulsive, careless even, but she’s never lied to me about anything important. And Brandis said she was on her way to a sanctuary when they parted company. Recon Bunker Theta isn’t that far from Sanctuary, if I recall.”

Maxson sighed. “Even still, the fact that she neglected to tell either of us what she was doing out there…” he thought for a moment, his steely eyes scanning the room. “Well, in spite of her deception, she did manage to bring Brandis back. I suppose that’s something. Perhaps Knight Larimer simply went where she was needed, whether she knew it or not.”

Danse stared at the Elder in surprise. “It’s not like you to get so fatalistic, Elder. The chances of her ending up exactly in the right place to lead her to Brandis are astronomically small. Unless you’re claiming that she really is an angel, which having traveled with her, I can say with certainty is extremely unlikely.”

Arthur’s steely eyes seemed distant as he returned Danse’s gaze. “Of course I’m not suggesting that, Paladin. I’m merely pointing out that, for whatever reason, Knight Larimer is extraordinarily lucky. Perhaps she’s one of those people who really can accomplish the impossible. We will have to keep a closer eye on her once she returns. People like that can be incredibly valuable, but if they aren’t controlled...” The Elder trailed off.

Danse frowned. He knew that look all too well. “You’re thinking about Knight Gautier again, aren’t you?”

Maxson nodded. “After everything Gautier did for the Brotherhood, risking her life to bring Project Purity online, taking on the Enclave, it’s still hard to believe that she just...vanished, right when we needed her the most. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we’d kept a tighter leash on her. If she’d been around when Sarah…” Arthur sighed, his eyes regaining their focus. “But speculation is worthless without facts. The important thing is that we know Knight Larimer is alive, and hopefully where she’s supposed to be. I aim to keep it that way. Send word to Knight Rhys to have his patrols keep an eye out for her, so we know what she’s up to. They aren’t to interfere unless she’s in immediate danger.”

“Arthur, may I have permission to search for her myself?” Danse asked.

The Elder shook his head. “Absolutely not. You’re not cleared for field duty yet. Until further notice, your orders are to guard the armor bay. I’ll let you know if or when that changes. Is that understood?”

“But, sir --”

Maxon’s eyes turned to ice. “Is that clear, Paladin?”

Danse sighed. “Yes, sir.” He saluted half-heartedly, leaving the command deck with his heart heavy and his ego bruised. He stormed into his quarters, slamming the heavy metal door behind him.

The Paladin sat on the edge of his bed for a long moment, trying to calm his thoughts. This was unlike him, getting so worked up. That damned medication Cade had given him had really done a number on his self-restraint. He needed to be more careful.

“A Paladin of the Brotherhood must be as purifying fire,” he murmured, the passage from the Codex calming him. “He must temper his brothers and sisters, those bound to him by steel. As paragon of our ideals, he upholds the wisdom of his Elder. In this way, he and the Brotherhood will stand unbroken .

Upholding the wisdom of his Elder...Elder Maxson was right. Danse was in no condition to lead in the field, not until he could regain control of himself. The Paladin sighed, running a hand distractedly through his messy black hair. He just needed to keep busy, to perform his current duties well. If he could prove to Arthur that he really was doing better, the Elder would be more likely to return him to the field. Then, he could find Myra and fix everything.

Yes, it was a good plan. Danse stood, his mind finally clear of the worry that had clouded it, and changed into his normal uniform. Once dressed, he returned to the familiar comfort of his power armor before heading for the armor bay. If his orders were to stand guard, he was going to be the best guard he knew how to be. Nothing, not even the smallest infraction, was going to get past him.

 


 

A week passed with little deviation. Danse slept, his rest facilitated by the drug Cade had given him. When he awoke, he took one of the stimulants, which kept him focused during his duty shift. His meals were filling but uninteresting, his working hours long and productive. If Myra’s face appeared in his mind, the Paladin threw himself into one task or another until it left, exorcising his worry the best way he knew how. It wasn’t the most interesting week of Danse’s life, but it certainly wasn’t the worst.

As the Paladin reorganized the scrap that littered the armor bay shelves for the third time that day, he heard measured footfalls behind him. Turning, he caught Arthur’s calculating stare. Danse saluted stiffly, a gesture Maxson reciprocated.

“What can I do for you, sir?” he asked the Elder.

“Danse, may I speak to you for a moment?” Maxson asked, gesturing back towards his quarters.

“Of course, Elder,” Danse replied. “Is there something the matter?”

“I think this is something we should discuss in private. Leave your armor here, if you would, and meet me in my quarters.”

Danse frowned. It wasn’t the first time Arthur had asked him to join him in private, but the Elder’s tone did not suggest a friendly chat or game of chess was on the horizon. This felt more like a reprimand, and that was deeply concerning. He’d been so careful not to do anything wrong. Why did he feel like he was in for an interrogation?

Maxson opened the door to his quarters, gesturing to a conference table in the center of the room. “Have a seat, Danse.”

The Paladin obliged, his eyes studying the Elder’s troubled face. “Arthur, please. Have I done something wrong?”

“You tell me,” Maxson sighed. “Your behavior has been… erratic as of late, and as your commanding officer and your friend, I’m worried about you.”

“Erratic in what way? Have I not been completing my duties satisfactorily?”

“No, that’s not the issue. As always, you’re one of my most dedicated and competent soldiers.”

“Then what exactly is the problem?” Danse asked.

Maxson sighed. “Look, Danse. I’m going to be frank with you. You’re driving everyone on the ship crazy with your incessant fussing. I know you’re unhappy that you’ve been confined to the Prydwen , but you have to ease off the nitpicking. It may not be affecting your work, not yet, but it sure as hell is affecting everyone else’s.”

“Is this about yesterday?” Danse asked. “Sir, it’s not my fault that Knight Adams doesn’t know the first thing about power armor maintenance. I was just instructing him on which kind of cloth is best for polishing the elbow joints. I don’t know why he was so unwilling to listen to my advice.”

Maxson groaned, rubbing his eyes with one hand. “Danse, advice is telling someone how they can improve, not dismantling and cleaning their entire suit of power armor for them while reprimanding them in front of the whole armor bay. And I’m not just talking about the incident with Adams. You’ve been acting out ever since Knight Larimer returned to the Commonwealth without you, and even more so since I ordered you to wait for Cade to clear you before going after her. Are you going to tell me why you’re taking this so hard, or do I need to drag it out of you?”

“Perhaps, if I was actually allowed to do my job, I wouldn’t be so irritable,” Danse muttered.

“Is that all this is about?” Arthur asked. “Danse, you’ve been on medical leave before, and you were never this temperamental. Something else is bothering you, and I intend to get to the bottom of it.” Maxson strode to his liquor cabinet, extracting a very fine bottle of bourbon and two glasses. Danse eyed him suspiciously.

“What exactly are you up to, Arthur?” the Paladin asked.

“I remember how honest you can get when you’re a few shots deep, Danse,” Maxson replied. “Consider this a truth serum.” He poured out a good two fingers for each of them, handing one glass of the amber liquid to the Paladin.

Danse tilted the glass, admiring the way the light played through the liquor. Still… “I’m still on duty, Arthur,” he said, setting the glass down on the table. “Perhaps this isn’t such a good idea.”

“Not any more, you aren’t,” the Elder said, his eyes ablaze with triumph. “I had Paladin Bailey take over your watch before I came to get you. How long has it been since we had a drink together, anyway?”

“Not since I left for the Commonwealth,” Danse replied. He should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. When Arthur wanted something, no matter what it was, he had a way of getting it.

“So, it’s been too long,” Maxson said. “Come on, old friend. Don’t make me order you to spend time with me. That would be extremely embarrassing for both of us.”

Danse sighed. “Very well. But one drink, and then I really do need to get back to work.”

“I think the shelves in the armor bay can wait for the morning, don’t you?” Maxson asked, setting the bottle down between them. “Like I said, you’re off duty tonight. For once in your life, can you please try to relax?”

“Very well,” Danse huffed, taking a careful sip of the liquid in his glass. He swirled the smooth whiskey over his tongue, letting the smoky flavor fill his mouth before swallowing. It burned slightly as it went down, warming his whole body like a gentle flame. It amazed him how much he’d missed the sensation.

“Well, this brings back memories,” Arthur said. “Do you remember that time I convinced you to steal that bottle of bourbon from Sarah’s secret stash?”

Danse nodded. “I still can’t believe you talked me into it,” he muttered. “I’d never seen Sentinel Lyons so furious.”

“And she interrogated everyone, trying to find out who did it,” Maxson continued. “Except you. Even back then, you were so damn law-abiding that she couldn’t even fathom that you might be the culprit. Anyone might have stolen from her, but never Knight Danse.”

The Paladin frowned slightly. “What I remember the most from that evening was how ill you were,” he replied. “You consumed the whole bottle in one night, as I recall.”

“A bold and foolish feat for a twelve year old,” Arthur agreed, nodding. “You turned yourself in the same night, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did,” Danse replied, a slight smile playing across his face. “I thought you were going to die. I’d never seen anyone vomit so much before. I was convinced that I was going to be executed for assassinating the last Maxson, but I knew someone needed to take responsibility for your demise.”

“Well, fortunately, we both survived that misadventure,” Maxson mused. “And here we are, sharing the last bottle from that same case. It’s strange how life works out sometimes, isn’t it?”

“Affirmative,” Danse acknowledged as he sipped his drink. He could already feel his muscles beginning to relax as he and the Elder reminisced about those early days of their friendship. In spite of his intensity, Arthur had always had the strange ability to set the Paladin’s mind at ease. Danse supposed that was one of the things that made Maxson such a capable leader.

Arthur refilled Danse’s glass, his eyes searching the Paladin’s face carefully. “Danse, I know you’re not exactly forthcoming when it comes to your inner life,” he said quietly. “But I hope you remember that you can always talk to me, even now that I’m the Elder. We’re still friends.”

Danse nodded. “Of course, Arthur. But I…” he sighed, taking another drink. “I’m not sure what’s wrong. If I knew, I would inform you immediately.”

Maxson’s eyes met his. “Well, perhaps I can help. Let’s start with what we know. This all became much worse after Knight Larimer left. Does your foul mood have something to do with her, perhaps?”

“I suppose,” Danse said, thinking. “I just… I’m worried about her, Arthur. She’s supposed to be under my care, and I don’t even know where she is or what she’s doing right now. What if something terrible has happened to her, and I wasn’t there to protect her?”

“Danse, you need to relax,” The Elder countered. “I’m sure Knight Larimer is doing just fine. She’s a capable soldier, and she has all the equipment she needs.”

The Paladin frowned. “That’s incorrect. She left her power armor here. What if she gets into a firefight and is unprepared? You heard Brandis. She was injured quite badly when he encountered her, and that was weeks ago! I should be there, helping her, not trapped on this ship.”

“You’re hardly trapped, Danse. Once Cade’s cleared you, you can leave at any time.”

“But then, it might be too late!” Danse exclaimed. “Don’t you see, Arthur? She’s already been hurt. Who’s to say she won’t be killed before I’m able to track her down?”

Elder Maxson’s eyes widened in surprise at the Paladin’s outburst. “Didn’t we agree she was most likely heading for Sanctuary?” Arthur asked. “From what I hear, it’s a bit of a backwater, but not exactly the sort of place she’s likely to have much trouble. Besides, she said she was picking up backup there.”

“Yeah, some filthy little mercenary she hired a while back,” Danse muttered. “MacCready, I think it was? I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. Though, admittedly, that would be a pretty significant distance, given how small he is.”

“MacCready?” Maxson asked, curious. “Scrawny, rat-like fellow? Swears like it’s going out of fashion?”

Danse nodded. “You’ve heard of him, I take it?”

The Elder sighed. “I can’t believe that ingrate’s still alive. Yes, I’ve heard of him. You and I both met him years ago, actually. I’m a little surprised you don’t remember, Danse. He certainly made an impression on you at the time. What was it you called him, ‘the most infuriating, self-assured reprobate in this trash heap of a town,’ or something to that effect?”

The Paladin thought for a moment. His face fell when he realized that he didn’t recall the encounter. Such lapses in memory had been happening to him more frequently lately, not quite enough to be a real problem, but certainly enough to be concerning. He’d assumed it was a side effect of the headaches, but with those being treated…

“I...I’m afraid I don’t remember that,” Danse said softly. “Well, at least my opinion of the man hasn’t changed much.”

Arthur sipped on his bourbon thoughtfully. “Regardless of your opinion,” he replied, “if he’s the one Knight Larimer is traveling with, she’ll probably be perfectly safe. From what I remember, he’s a deadeye shot, even if he brags about it incessantly. Larimer could certainly do worse.”

“But she could have done better,” Danse muttered into his glass. “She could have had me with her.”

He swore, if Maxon were anyone else, the Elder would have laughed. As it was, his steel blue eyes glinted with just the barest hint of self-satisfaction, his lips twitching ever so slightly in amusement. The dreaded Arthur Maxson smile. Danse was in for it now.

“Danse, are you…are you jealous?” Maxson asked.

“What?” Danse replied, his eyes widening. “No. That would be highly inappropriate. I just think that she has made a severe tactical error in her choice of companions.”

“In other words, you’re jealous.” Maxson leaned forward in his chair, placing his elbows on the table as he stared across at the Paladin. “Look, I can certainly understand your interest in Knight Larimer. If your reports are to be believed -- and I’ve never known them not to be -- she’s a remarkable woman. If I wasn’t already spoken for, I might think about throwing my hat in that ring as well. Still might, if I’m being honest. Arranged marriages can be unarranged, or so I’ve been lead to believe. Having the General of the Minutemen as a more...permanent ally would certainly benefit our continued presence in the Commonwealth.”

“Arthur…” Danse warned with a throaty growl, “you can’t be serious.”

“And what if I am serious, Danse?” Arthur asked. “Would that bother you?”

The Paladin frowned. He wasn’t interested in playing this game. “Do you really think I would let myself be compromised by something like petty jealousy? I think you know me a little bit better than that.”

“Yes, yes. I know,” Arthur said, waving his hand dismissively. “The Brotherhood of Steel is incredibly grateful for your zealous devotion to our cause. But it is perfectly acceptable to have other interests, Danse, so long as you respect the chain of command and continue to do your duty to the best of your ability. To that end, I can move Knight Larimer to another sponsor if she’s a distraction. Or if you want her to become one. Seriously, you can make this so much easier on yourself. Just say the word, and it’s done.”

Danse felt his heart stop. This had been exactly what he’d been afraid of once the conversation turned to Myra. How much did Maxson know about what had happened? Was he aware that they’d kissed? Was he going to force Danse to send Myra to another sponsor? That prospect was unacceptable. They were too good of a team to be split up over a misunderstanding. And that was all the moment in his quarters had been, just a combination of strong emotions and circumstance.

“That won’t be necessary,” Danse replied, trying not to sound too frantic. “My concern for Knight Larimer is that of a sponsor for his charge. Nothing more. I’m just worried that she’s gotten herself into yet another dangerous situation. It’s been almost a month and a half since she left the Prydwen , weeks since any of our patrols have spotted her. She should have been back by now, or at least have been found.”

Arthur sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Well, if that’s what you believe, Danse, I’ll trust your assessment for now. But please, do me a favor, before the whole ship mutinies, and go find Larimer. I can’t have you pacing about and traumatizing all the Squires, all right? I heard your impromptu lesson on mission readiness from three decks up, you know. Was it really appropriate for you to tell them about the incident at Corvega? I don’t think I’ll ever get those gory visuals out of my head.”

“Is that an order?” Danse asked coldly.

“Does it have to be?” Arthur retorted, his steely eyes flashing dangerously.

“What about Cade?”

“I’ll deal with Cade. With how you’ve been lately, I imagine he’ll be happy to get you off this ship.”

Danse sighed. He knew when he was beaten. “Very well. I’ll leave in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Maxson replied with a slight nod. “You may go, if you wish. I’m sure you have plenty of things you need to prepare.”

“Yes, Elder. Thank you.” Danse stood up from the table a little faster than he intended, his vision slightly blurry. It really had been a long time since he’d gotten even slightly inebriated, and Arthur liked his liquor strong.

“Oh, and Danse?” the Elder continued.

“Yes, sir?”

“Think about what I said. All I’d need to do is sign a form, and you’d be free to pursue any sort of relationship you want with Knight Larimer.”

Danse scowled. “Like I said, that won’t be necessary, Arthur. Thank you for the drink. Good night.”

Maxson sighed heavily. “Good night, Danse.”

As he walked across the hall to his own quarters, Danse’s mind clouded with worry and doubt. Was it really that strange that he would be worried about the soldier he was sponsoring? Wasn’t that his duty, to be concerned when he felt that she was making unwise tactical decisions?

Or was Arthur right? Was his worry more a sign of personal affection than of professional concern? Danse certainly couldn’t remember being this uncomfortable when Rhys and Haylen were on their own while he and Myra were running solo missions. But then, he hadn’t been quite as responsible for them. They were members of his squad, but he hadn’t sponsored them.

He’d never sponsored anyone before. There was no other data to compare his current behavior to. Danse contemplated asking one of the other sponsors for advice, but he knew that every new soldier and every sponsor was different. There was a good chance that such information would be absolutely useless to him, and the question that had begun to eat at him would burn even more relentlessly in the back of his mind.

“What the hell is wrong with me?” Danse whispered to himself. He frowned, crawling into bed with a weary sigh. “Just try to sleep, Paladin,” he muttered. “One thing at a time.”

Chapter Text

Deacon stood next to a collapsed overpass, the collar of his coat turned up against the cold rain. Thank goodness he’d chosen one of the disguises with a wide-brimmed hat instead of a wig. Nothing was quite as disgusting as a moist clump of wet hair, especially since the damn things never dried right. No, he was much better off with the hat.

All the same, he’d been waiting for the better part of an hour for Myra and MacCready to show up, and he was getting annoyed. Deacon shivered, pulling his drenched coat tighter around himself as he tried once more in vain to find a part of the bridge that wasn’t leaky to stand under. He really hoped the tourist they were supposed to debrief was still nearby. Ricky Dalton was known for being a twitchy little bastard, even as informants went. The rain certainly wouldn’t improve the man’s mood at all.

The spy watched as Myra and MacCready finally made their way down the slope on the other side of the broken highway, their distant voices bright with laughter. The sound of gunfire had long since faded from the ridge behind them, the small Gunner outpost presumably populated now only by corpses.

“Well, there’s Deacon,” Myra said cheerfully as they came within earshot. She, at least, didn’t seem to mind the rain. Her ragged locks clung to her face and skin like white feathers, framing her pale face like a helmet under her tan cap.

“Shh!” MacCready replied, trying to suppress his laughter. “Pretend you don’t recognize him. Trust me, he gets really whiny if you tell him you knew who he was the whole time.”

“No I don’t,” Deacon huffed, walking towards them. “It’s not my fault the two of you are eerily observant. Trust me, this disguise works on basically everyone else.”

Myra smirked. “Really? Are people actually that dense these days?”

The spy sighed. “Not dense, no. But they’re usually so focused on their own survival, their daily concerns, that they don’t ever really look at anyone else too closely. The only reason the two of you are different is because you’ve learned to survive outside the herd.”

MacCready frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Mac, you’re a sniper,” Deacon continued. “You’re constantly scanning for details to find your target no matter what the conditions are. You’d be terrible at your job if you didn’t notice things.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” the mercenary replied, “but then what about Myra? You’ve seen how she fights. She’s no sniper.”

Deacon turned to the young woman, cocking his head slightly as he looked at her. “No, she’s not. But she’s still trained to observe her surroundings. Her father was a police officer before the War, isn’t that right, Myra?”

Her emerald eyes widened slightly, but she quickly regained her composure. “That’s right,” she replied softly. “He taught me a lot about people, growing up. How to spot people I could trust...and people I couldn’t.”

“Oh?” said Deacon with a slight smile. “And which am I?”

Myra frowned, studying him. “You want me to say that I can’t trust you,” she mused. “But I’m not sure that’s true. I think I just need more time to figure you out.”

MacCready snorted, his deep blue eyes sparkling with amusement. “Oh, that’s gonna be a heck of a challenge, boss. You’ll never meet anyone more in love with his own secrets than Deacon. Trust me, I’ve tried.”

“Well, at least I can keep secrets, unlike you,” Deacon muttered. He rolled his eyes as the mercenary laughed. So much for stealth. Half the Commonwealth could hear them coming now. “The point remains,” Deacon continued, “that the two of you think my disguises don’t work. And that just hurts, right in the professional pride. So I’m proposing a small bet.”

“Oh really?” asked Myra with a grin. “And what are the terms?”

“Boss…” cautioned MacCready, shaking his head. “Don’t. He cheats.”

Deacon held his hands up in surrender. “I won’t cheat, I promise. The bet’s simple. Our tourist up ahead, Ricky Dalton, has worked with me for years. But I’ll bet you...hmm...how about Mac’s hat, that he won’t recognize me in this outfit.”

MacCready shook his head. “You’ll get this hat over my dead body, Deacon. I’ve told you that.”

The spy shrugged. “Well, it’s the only thing you have that I want. What about you, Myra?” he asked, taking a few steps closer to her. “Do you have anything worth wagering? What about that old vault suit of yours? I bet I’d make a pretty sexy vault-dweller. What do you think?”

Myra rummaged in her bag for a moment, pulling out a battered leather coat, silver armor pieces glistening in the midday sun. “It’s not very discrete,” she said, “but I have a feeling you want it anyway. Only one like it I’ve ever seen.”

MacCready frowned. “Did you take that off Kellogg? Gross.”

She nodded. “I don’t know why I took it, exactly. Maybe I just wanted a reminder of my...of what I did.”

Deacon knew exactly what she meant. It was the same reason he kept his old knife from when he’d run with the UP Deathclaws, the very one he’d slaughtered the gang with after they’d murdered his wife. The coat wasn’t a trophy. It was a reminder of her sins. And, knowing that, it was probably the most precious thing she had to offer.

For a moment, he was tempted to accept her deal. But something in the way she held it out, her hands trembling slightly, made him hesitate. She wasn’t ready.

“No deal,” Deacon said with an exaggerated shudder. “I’m not a fan of dead guy cooties. Especially dead creepy old cyborg cooties.”

“So the hat’s a no-go, and you don’t want Kellogg’s outfit. Then what do you want, Deacon?” Myra asked.

The spy thought for a moment, a range of ideas from the serious to the utterly absurd filling his mind. “How about a dance?” Deacon asked finally. “If I win, Myra has to agree to dance with me the next time we get the opportunity.”

Myra chuckled. “Oh, Deacon, you have no idea what you’re asking. I’m all left feet.”

“What a crazy mutation!” he replied with a grin. “But I suppose that would make me look bad, having a partner that can’t dance...Huh. Guess MacCready will have to do.”

“What? No!” MacCready exclaimed, his cheeks reddening. “Are you fuc...I mean, are you nuts? Why would we ever agree to --”

“Deal!” Myra interrupted, smiling mischievously. “Absolutely yes. And if we win?”

“You won’t,” Deacon retorted. “But if you do, by some miracle, I’ll let the two of you design my next disguise.”

MacCready. “That doesn’t seem like a fair--”

“You’re on, Deacon!” interrupted Myra again. “And when you lose, which you will, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy rubbing it in your face.”

Deacon shook her hand eagerly. “Well, let’s see if you’re as lucky as they say, Myra,” he crooned, leading them up the collapsed overpass, “Or I’m pretty sure Mac’s gonna kill you in your sleep tonight.”

MacCready groaned. “I can’t believe you dragged me into the middle of this,” he muttered as he fell in behind Myra.

“Will you calm down?” Myra replied. “You really think we’re going to lose? I mean, look at him. The only way he could be more obvious is is he was wearing a sign around his neck that said ‘Hi, I’m Deacon’.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” the mercenary muttered. “You don’t know him like I do. I’ve never seen Deacon play a game he didn’t already know he could win.”

“Well, he’s not the only one,” Myra said, beaming over her shoulder at him. “Don’t you get it, Mac? If we win, Deacon loses. If we lose, only you have a penalty. No matter who loses, I win.”

Deacon chuckled as he heard MacCready sputter, the sudden realization hitting the younger man like a ton of bricks. Damn, Myra was good. He couldn’t help but admire her chutzpah. It was one thing to manipulate a situation to her favor. But openly admitting to an armed man that she’d played him for laughs? Not very many people were that brave.

“I can’t believe you!” the mercenary exclaimed as Myra laughed, wheezing like a dying animal. It wasn’t exactly a beautiful sound, but it warmed Deacon’s heart all the same. It was good to hear her laugh, after everything he’d overheard. Perhaps she was finally learning how to face the horrors that surrounded them, rather than simply letting them wash over her.

“Hey!” Deacon called, gesturing to his two companions. “Look here, on the wall. It’s a railsign, one of the markings the Railroad uses to send messages. The arrow indicates direction. If this is accurate, our tourist should still be nearby.”

“Well, then,” Myra said, “Let’s go find out who won.”

 


 

As the trio entered an old drainage pipe, the secret entrance to the Switchboard, Deacon felt his pulse quicken. He hadn’t been back here since the massacre. How many bodies were still inside, left where they fell by the retreating agents who had once been their friends? He knew intellectually that the people he’d known were gone, that the corpses within were just piles of meat now, but it was difficult for him not to feel as though he’d failed them somehow. Would the air still carry the emotions of the battle, the fear, the confusion, the rage? He wanted to do anything besides face what lay ahead, but the mission had to come before his own comfort. It always did.

He choked back his trepidation, turning to look at his companions instead. Myra stepped delicately across the slimy, sodden metal floor of the pipe, one hand on the wall to keep her steady. Beside her, MacCready trudged begrudgingly through the muck, his mouth twisted in a disgusted snarl. Poor Mac. This just hadn’t been his day.

“I can’t believe Ricky didn’t recognize you,” the mercenary grumbled. “How stupid is that guy? Are you sure you can trust his information?”

“Don’t take it too hard, Mac,” Deacon soothed the petulant mercenary. “I’ll be gentle, I promise.”

“Myra,” MacCready grumbled, “next time you want to involve me in one of your schemes, don’t.”

She sighed, placing a gentle hand on the mercenary’s shoulder. He flinched at the contact, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Oh, Mac,” Myra replied, “You know I can’t promise that.”

“...I hate you,” he muttered. “You know that?”

Myra snickered. “No you don’t.”

“Shh!” hushed Deacon as they drew near a locked-down door. “This might be the emergency exit, but that doesn’t mean it’s a synth-free zone. And they have like, really good hearing.”

Myra nodded, pretending to lock her lips with an imaginary key. It was a surprisingly childlike gesture, and Deacon couldn’t help but smile slightly as she pretended to throw the key behind her.

MacCready, for his part, rolled his eyes and sighed, but at least he kept his mouth shut.

After finally hacking into the lockdown controls, Deacon led them into the tunnels that connected the Switchboard to the outside world. As he’d anticipated, they encountered several bodies along the way. He made a mental note of the casualties as they went. Dez would want a full list of who had been lost when they got back. Some of the dead agents had already been confirmed casualties. Others had only been presumed missing. He felt his heart sink every time they encountered one of the latter. Far fewer people had escaped than the Railroad had hoped.

Resistance in the tunnels was minimal, and the three of them made fast work of the handful of Institute synths that attacked them. It seemed that Ricky was right, and the front entrance had received most of the defensive countermeasures. Maybe they’d get lucky after all, and Carrington’s prototype would still be in the Research and Development vault on the lower level of the facility.

“What is it with you guys and secret tunnels?” Myra whispered as she crawled into yet another pipe.

“Well, the whole secret thing’s a big plus,” Deacon replied softly. “I’m personally not a fan of the sewer aesthetic either, but in this business, you take what you can get and learn to live with the smell.”

“I changed my mind,” she murmured. “The Railroad’ll have to make due without me.”

“Aww, really?” he asked jokingly. “But we’ve got an awesome dental plan! And unlike the other guys, we’ll even numb you first!”

“As tempting as that is,” Myra chuckled, “I’d prefer not to smell like a week-old dumpster.”

“I think that might just be all the rotting corpses,” MacCready whispered. “It’s a pretty distinct smell.”

“Not helping, Mac,” Deacon replied. “Come on, you wimps. We’re almost at the main part of the facility. I promise, it smells way better in there. The place is ventilated and everything.”

“Well, that I can get behind,” Myra replied softly as she left the pipe, staring through another locked gate at the cavernous room beyond.

Deacon didn’t have to look to know where they were. He’d been in the main hall discussing an upcoming extraction with Songbird when the attack started. At first, all they heard was screaming from the front part of the facility, punctuated by laser fire. Before they’d had a chance to react, they were surrounded by flashes of blue light. Dozens of synths teleported directly into the large chamber, firing away at the unprepared agents. It was only by sheer luck that any of them had escaped. Sheer luck and sacrifice.

He rubbed his shoulder as he remembered the sting of impact as Songbird had pushed him behind a desk, crying in agony as her body was ripped apart by laser fire. He would never forget the fear in her eyes as she drew a final, painful breath, her pistol lying uselessly next to her right hand. It was so strange, watching someone he barely knew die like that, saving his life only to lose her own. Why had she done it?

Deacon caught movement out of the corner of his eye as Myra walked over to a nearby terminal and began typing furiously, the sound drawing him back to the present. There was no sense in living in the past, not when they still had a chance to preserve the future of the Railroad. He couldn’t save the agents they’d lost, but Deacon would be damned to an even worse hell if he let them die in vain.

In a matter of moments, the gate swung open, and Myra smiled in satisfaction.

Deacon softly whistled in appreciation. “Nice hacking skills. Your dad teach you that too?”

She shook her head. “Nah. Nate did.”

“Sounds like your husband wasn’t such a good little soldier after all,” Deacon replied. “You’ll have to --” He yelped as a bolt of blue laser fire zipped past him, narrowly missing his right ear. Three synths stared back from the top of a set of stairs, glowing eyes full of malice. “Damn it!”

Myra charged forward, throwing herself behind an overturned desk as she drew their fire. “Come on, you clockwork assholes!” she cried. “Is that the best you can do?”

Deacon sighed. Stealth. They definitely had to work on stealth. He and MacCready took opposite sides of the doorframe, rifles aimed at the stairs. Wordlessly, they fired, each felling their target almost simultaneously. It felt good to be working with the young sniper again, Deacon mused. For all his bitching, MacCready genuinely knew his craft, and was intuitive in combat to a degree that was almost frightening. It wasn’t all that surprising that the mercenary had spent most of his life behind his scope.

The two men advanced on Myra’s position as she took down the third synth, and together they charged the stairs and the office beyond. They were close to the vault now, Deacon knew. Only a few more obstacles, and they’d know if this whole operation had been for nothing.

When they reached the storage room, Deacon breathed a sigh of relief. The hatch was closed. Someone had managed to seal the Railroad’s most valuable experiments away, and the synths hadn’t yet figured out how to open the heavy vault door. There was still hope.

He rummaged in his pack, pulling out a small holotape recorder. MacCready looked at him questioningly.

“What’s that for?” the mercenary asked.

“Prepare to be astounded, Mac,” Deacon replied, holding the recorder up to a sensor next to the door. As Dr. Carrington’s voice droned out his command code, the door slid open with a pneumatic hiss, revealing the room beyond. “Open says me,” the spy joked. “Guard the hallway, Mac, just in case those synths send another patrol down here.”

Myra followed Deacon into the new room, her eyes scanning the shelves in disappointment. “This is your big secret? Look at this crap.”

“Hey, not all of us get the flashy tech the Brotherhood of Steel has,” Deacon replied. “Our stuff’s not fancy-looking, but it’s way, way cooler. Trust me.”

“Whatever you say,” she muttered.

Deacon’s eyes fell on a body, partially obscured by debris. Unlike the others in the facility, this one was remarkably well-preserved, probably due to the temperature controls in the vault. The young man seemed almost peaceful, his light brown hair falling in his pallid face the way it often had when he slept. There were no wounds on his body, as far as Deacon could see. He’d been alive when he’d closed the doors. It looked like poor Tommy had simply run out of air before anyone had been able to come back for him.

“So Tommy Whispers didn’t make it out,” Deacon murmured, kneeling next to the deceased operative. “He died protecting our secrets.” Damn, what was he going to tell Trailblazer? The man she loved, the person she’d risked everything for had died a hero, but he knew that wouldn’t comfort her, not now.

He searched Tommy’s body, hoping to find some token to ease her loss. As he’d hoped, Deacon found a small note, carefully folded, tucked into one of his jacket pockets. Part of him knew he shouldn’t read it, but the spy in him hoped there was a secret message somewhere, one last bit of information from the fallen agent. Deacon unfolded the scrap of paper, his eyes scanning the rough, uneven handwriting.

 

Talise,

I’m sorry for everything. I wish I’d fought harder for you, for us. I wish we’d met some other way. But some things are bigger than us. I know you believe that too.  All I can think about is how glad I am that you’re not here, that you’re hopefully safe. Please, just know, if this really is it for me, my last thoughts were of you.

Yours Forever,

Harry

 

Deacon sighed, his heart heavy. Damn it, Tommy had been a true agent to the end. But there was nothing to be found in this message. That much had been clear when he’d used their real names. No Railroad correspondence would have been written that way. Deacon would have to find some way to get this letter to Stanwix, but there was no way he could deliver it in person. How could he ever face Trailblazer again?

He stiffened as he felt a hand on his shoulder. Deacon looked up to see Myra’s soulful gaze, her green eyes deep with concern as she smiled sadly down at him. She didn’t say a word, just stood there for a while, her warm touch penetrating his soaked shirt, comfort seeping into his skin. He was grateful for the silence, the stolen moment of grief for a man he’d failed.

Eventually, though, it was time to move on. Deacon sighed, reaching for Tommy’s holster and pulling his gun free. He offered the piece to Myra. “Here, take Tommy’s hand cannon. Don’t let its size deceive you. It’s a pretty amazing piece of engineering. Tinker Tom designed it.”

Myra stared at the weapon for a moment. “Are you sure? It seems wrong.”

Deacon nodded simply, continuing to hold Deliverer out for her. “Tommy would have wanted you to have it. That was the kind of guy he was, always looking out for everyone else. If Deliverer keeps you safe, I know he’d be happy.”

“You must have been close,” Myra replied gently, taking the pistol. She pulled her 9mm free from its holster, placing it gently beside Tommy’s body before holstering Deliverer in its place. It was a simple gesture, but one that Deacon appreciated. Myra didn’t see Tommy as a body to loot. Instead of simply taking from him, she offered a trade. It was sort of beautiful, in a morbid way.

“Close?” Deacon asked, shaking his head slightly. “Not really, I mean, I guess we were, by my standards. Probably not by most people’s. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I don’t exactly have a lot of people I’m close to. It’s easier that way. But Tommy was something else. The guy just had a way of getting everyone to trust him. He was one of our best agents. Damn. I really had hoped he’d made it out and was just lying low somewhere.”

Myra smiled sadly, watching him with her warm green eyes. “I’m sorry, Deacon,” she murmured. “I really am. I promise, I’ll do everything I can to live up to his memory.”

“Stop,” he teased, desperate not to let her see the pain hidden behind his sunglasses. “You’re making this weird. Just get the prototype, and we can get out of here.”

“Whatever, Deacon,” she teased back. “I know there’s a beating heart under all that bullshit. I’ll prove it, eventually. Just you wait.”

“Oh, wow, are you going to be disappointed,” he shot back with a grin, grateful that she’d given him an easy way to slide back into his unaffected persona. “Haven’t you heard? There’s only one thing under my bullshit, and that’s more bullshit.”

“Right,” she sighed. “Okay. If that’s what you need to believe.”

It wasn’t. But it sure as hell was what Deacon needed Myra to believe. There was no chance that he could let her get closer to him than this. Myra was warm, kind, and insightful. She cared about him, wasn’t fooled by the walls he threw up to keep people away from his true self. That alone made her incredibly dangerous, a real liability. If she managed to find out the truth about him, everything he’d worked for could be lost. He’d have to be even more careful in the future.

“Let’s go,” he replied, ignoring the pain in his chest as he looked at her. “MacCready’s probably restless, and you know how he gets when he’s been kept waiting.

Myra laughed. “Fair enough. Besides, this place is creepy. The sooner we get back to the crypt, the better.”

“Oh, yeah,” moaned MacCready from the doorway. “It’s so much nicer there. The dead guys are way less fresh, so it’s better.”

“How long have you been standing there?” Deacon asked, startled. He wasn’t used to people getting the drop on him. He needed to focus.

“Long enough to know that you guys need to hurry up,” the mercenary replied with a sigh. “In case you forgot, this whole area’s still crawling with synths. Let’s go.”

 


 

Deacon slipped away from Myra and MacCready while the two of them fought the last remaining synths in the donut shop ruins. As much as he wanted to stay and help, he knew it was in all their best interests for him to prepare Desdemona before Myra returned.

Dez glared at him when he waltzed in to HQ, her russet eyes narrow and cold. “And where have you been?” she fumed.

“Just checking something off the old to-do list,” Deacon replied. “The new girl and I just cleared out the Switchboard.”

“Just the two of you?” Dez asked, surprised.

“Well, MacCready helped a little.”

She rolled her eyes. “Great. So you took both your pet projects with you. How many times have I told you to keep that mercenary out of our business? He’s a liability. You know he’d sell us all out if the caps are good enough. Why haven’t you killed him yet?”

“Contrary to the Desdemona Guide to Running a Covert Organization ,” Deacon countered, “not every problem needs to be solved with a bullet to the brain. Trust me, Mac’s more useful to us alive.”

“I’m starting to think your leash has gotten a little too loose, Deacon,” Dez hissed. “I know you get results, but we can’t risk all these leaks in our operations, not now that the Brotherhood of Steel is closing in. With them and the Institute breathing down our necks, we can’t afford mistakes. Don’t make me regret bringing you back on board.”

“Never,” Deacon replied, choking back his nerves. Handling Desdemona was a dangerous, delicate game, one he’d been playing for a long time. He wasn’t about to lose now, not with so much at stake. “I promise, MacCready’s not going to be a problem. If he is, I’ll kill him. I know the rules.”

Dez sighed. “Fine. I’ll hold you to that, Deacon. Now what can you tell me about the Switchboard? What did you find in there?”

As Deacon regaled the Railroad’s leader with a slightly-exaggerated version of events, he noticed Myra and MacCready slip into the chamber. He grinned as they drew closer, raising his voice. “...so then the new girl patched me up, put me on her shoulder, and blasted her way through the rest of the complex. Synths everywhere. You should have seen it.”

Dez frowned. “Can you confirm Deacon’s report?” she asked Myra. “He says there were over a hundred synths in the Switchboard, and that the three of you managed to kill them all.”

“Oh, yeah. Totally,” Myra replied, flashing Deacon a grin. “Just waves and waves of synths, pieces of metal flying everywhere. It was quite the spectacle.”

“You’d be insane not to sign her up, Dez,” Deacon continued.

“After what you pulled off today, I’m inclined to agree,” Desdemona replied. “Welcome aboard. Now you just need a code name. Secrecy, more than anything else, is what keeps us alive,” she continued, staring pointedly at Deacon. “So what do we call you?”

Myra paused for a moment, thinking carefully. Deacon watched her as he tried to predict her choice. With her charisma, something like Charmer would make sense. Then again, she was a hell of a shot. Bullseye, maybe?

“Call me Whisper,” she said finally.

Dez stared at her in shock and confusion.  “After Tommy?” she asked. “Or…”

Myra locked eyes with Deacon, offering him a gentle smile. He felt a surge of something like anxious pride in his chest as he realized the meaning. The promise she made in the Switchboard hadn’t just been for show. She chose the name for him, for the almost-friend he’d lost. But Dez didn’t need to know that.

“The name’s ironic,” Deacon chuckled. “Stealthy, she is not.”

MacCready snorted. “Sounds about right. Have you seen the way she just barrels around in the open? I’m…”

“...Amazed some sniper hasn’t blown her brains out,” the men said in unison, grinning at each other.

“So I’m not the only one who’s noticed,” MacCready continued, chuckling.

“It’s pretty hard not to notice her, the way she stomps around,” mused Deacon. “You can totally tell she’s been spending too much time with Paladin Danse. She’s picked up his walking habits.”

Myra glared at them both. “Hey. I’m sorry that not all of us are sneaky bastards. Now are you two going to keep teasing me, or can we get on with it?”

Desdemona rolled her eyes. “If you’re all done acting like children, I have another assignment for you, Deacon. And Whisper.”

The spy stared at her, slack-jawed. “What do you mean, Dez? You know I work alone.”

“Yes, but someone has to teach Whisper the ropes, and you’re the one who brought her in, so she’s your responsibility. I’d advise you to get used to partnering up with her. What you two pulled off at the Switchboard...you’re a hell of a team.”

Deacon sighed, offering his hand to Whisper, who shook it firmly. “Well, partner, I guess you’re stuck with me now.”

Myra smiled, her brilliant green eyes alight. “Well, damn. And here I was hoping I’d never have to deal with you again. Pity.”

“Ow, right in the self-esteem,” Deacon whined jokingly, clutching at his chest. “Why must you wound me so?”

MacCready rolled his eyes, heading for the door. “Well, you two be careful, I guess.”

“Mac, wait!” cried Whisper, grabbing his arm. “I haven’t helped you with your problem yet. I promised I would once we’d taken care of my business in Goodneighbor.”

His deep blue eyes softened. “I’d thought you’d forgotten.”

She shook her head. “Hardly. I just figured that this whole Freedom Trail thing was nearby, so we should get that out of the way. But I’m ready to go when you are.”

Desdemona cleared her throat. “Whisper, your assignment--”

“Can wait,” the new agent retorted. “I’m sorry, but this is really important. I promise, I’ll be back to help as soon as I can.”

Dez’s eyes flashed angrily, but Deacon stepped between the two women, drawing the fearsome redhead’s glare. “Dez, it’s ok,” he soothed. “I can take care of whatever it is on my own. Whisper can catch up with me later, isn’t that right?”

The white-haired woman nodded. “I promise, I won’t let you down. I just have to keep my promise to MacCready first.”

Dez sighed. “Fine. But only because you pulled off such a great operation at the Switchboard. I expect you to give us the same consideration you give the other groups you work for.”

“Trust me,” muttered MacCready, smirking, “she definitely will. Ask the Minutemen how that’s turning out for them, and you’ll see what kind of help you can expect.”

Myra smacked him gently on the arm. “Let’s get out of here before I regret partnering up with you.”

“Whatever, boss. You’re just mad because you know I’m right. Would it kill you to check in with Preston more often?”

Deacon watched as Myra and MacCready headed towards the surface, their jabs and laughter echoing down the brick hallway. As their voices faded, the light in the catacombs seemed to diminish somewhat, the quiet of the grave settling in over HQ once more.

He and Dez stared at each other for a long moment before the woman spoke. “You’re certain we can trust them?” she asked softly. Her previous intensity had faded. Now, she just looked tired.

“I’d bet my life on it,” Deacon replied.

“You already have. All our lives.”

With that, she turned and headed for the door to HQ proper. Deacon followed behind, his mind filled with the events of the day.

It had taken him months, but he’d finally brought Myra in, and she’d agreed to join the Railroad. He’d expected to feel thrilled, or at least relieved. But what he really felt was closer to disappointment. In spite of the confidence he’d shown to Desdemona, he wasn’t entirely sure he could trust the young woman he’d rescued all the way back in October.

Deacon knew so much about Whisper, so much of what made her tick. But in spite of all that intel, did he really know the woman he’d recruited? The new agent was unpredictable. She was a wounded beast with a charming smile, just as likely to bite as she was to grin. He’d hung the entire future of the Railroad around her shoulders, in spite of the risk. But was that really his choice to make? What about everyone else?

Pulling his book of Russian poetry from his back pocket, Deacon settled into his favorite chair near the wall, opened the volume, and withdrew a folded piece of paper. He re-read it carefully, pouring over every word as he had a hundred times. When he’d finished, he placed the note back between the pages, glancing over the top of the book to observe his colleagues.

Dr. Carrington stood by the stove, butchering meat and sliding bloody chunks into a small stewpot. Deacon could already feel his mouth watering. Carrington might be the most pompous, disagreeable man in the world, but he made an excellent stew.

Drummer Boy paced up and down the corridor, muttering to himself as he checked the clipboard in his hands for notes on the most recent dead drops. Deacon wasn’t sure how the young agent managed to keep his unique shorthand straight in his head. The one time the spy had tried to read over his shoulder, his brain had nearly exploded at the patterns of lines, dots, and other shapes that Drummer scribbled. Still, the fact that he wrote in a language that only he understood meant that the information Drummer Boy kept in his head was arguably the most secure thing in the Railroad.

Deacon caught sight of Glory’s back as the heavy returned to the Old North Church basement to close the coded hatch and cover the Railroad’s tracks. He knew it was a necessary precaution, on the off-chance that anyone had followed him, MacCready, and Whisper home. Although most of the HQ agents had done security sweeps before, Glory was the most thorough, probably because of her superior vision.

Tinker Tom let out a long string of near-curse words as sparks flew from his station, drawing the attention of several agents. Hunter, one of the newer members of the organization, rushed in with a fire extinguisher, only to be waived off by the eccentric inventor.

His eyes met Desdemona’s as she stared at him from her desk. The fearsome woman cleared her throat. “If you’re quite done lounging around, Deacon, I believe you have an assignment. Get to the Back Alley Apparel dead drop immediately. The details should be inside.”

He sighed, closing his book and returning it to his back pocket. “Geez, mom. I’m going.”

The Railroad’s leader nodded. “Don’t forget, Deacon. I’m holding you responsible for Whisper’s behavior. You remember what happened the last time one of your agents thought she was above the rules. I’d hate to see that happen again.”

Deacon froze, his sardonic smile fading. Of course he remembered. How could he forget the look of hurt and betrayal on Trailblazer’s face as he’d tossed her out of the Switchboard with nothing but a week’s supply of provisions and a crude map to Stanwix Safehouse? He was amazed that Trail had ever forgiven him. If Tommy hadn’t explained to her what Deacon had gone through to keep her alive…

The spy nodded. “Don’t worry, Dez. I haven’t forgotten.”

“Just to be sure you haven’t,” Desdemona hissed, her reddish-brown eyes burning dangerously, “Whisper’s your responsibility. If you can’t get her to fall in line, or if her connections become a liability…”

Deacon rolled his eyes. “I know, I know. I’ll have to eliminate her, and everyone she might have leaked information about us to. Trust me, I got the message.”

“I’m counting on that. Our whole organization is. I really hope you made the right call in trusting her.”

Deacon nodded. “Me too, Dez. Trust me, me too.” With that, he pulled his pack over his shoulder, heading for the emergency exit and whatever new horrors the wasteland had in store for him. He hoped, not for the last time, that Whisper’s blood on his hands would not be one of them.