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Angela kneaded the heel of her palm into her forehand as she ducked out of the bright red door to the Memory Den. Her head was still clouded with those sharp, intermittent static flashes from the monitor inside the memory lounger. The grimy nail of her middle finger dug into the tender skin of her temple as she felt her hands begin to shake again.

She had been inside that bastard, Kellogg’s, head. She had lived his life through his eyes. Felt his fear when his father pounded on his childhood bedroom’s door. Stood in the kitchen with his wife and held his infant daughter in her arms. If she closed her eyes, the sensation almost felt like she was holding Shaun in her arms again… Rage had boiled the blood in her veins as Kellogg hunted down the monsters who had ripped his family apart. She tasted the alcohol on her lips as those two men hired him to destroy yet another innocent family. As Kellogg saw the Institute for the first time, so did she.

And then… Oh God, Nate.

The door behind her opened again and Valentine strode through, stopping to lean against a busted street lamp to her right. The synth detective sighed deeply and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, flipping up his zippo to light the end of one before offering her the battered old pack.

Angela declined with a shake of her head, her gaze still fixed on their surroundings. Night had fallen while they’d been unconscious inside of Dr. Amari’s science projects, and the mismatched lightbulbs strung along the wires that stretched from building to building gave the makeshift town of Goodneighbor an eerie, mesmerizing glow.

Nick sighed again. “Look, Kid, I’m sorry about…” He paused, as if he couldn’t think of just one thing that he could apologize for, “… all this.”

Angela inhaled deeply, the dusty air catching in her throat and stinging her lungs. He might not have been able to pick just one thing, but she still knew what her highest priority had to be. “If this ‘Institute’ really has Shaun,” she began slowly, determination behind each one of her words, “then we need to find a way in as soon as possible.”

His yellow eyes flashed in the night, shining as brightly as the lit end of his cigarette. “That Institute Courser said something about a scientist named Virgil,” Valentine muttered in his gravel deep voice. “He’d have to know how to get in. It’s possible we could get him to talk to us.”

“Right,” her lips pulled into a bitter smirk. “Now all we’ve got to do is track him down in the middle of the Glowing Sea, no big deal. I’m just gonna need about every Rad-X I can get my hands on.”

Somehow managing to chuckle darkly as he took a drag on his cigarette, Valentine nodded. “You know, Synths like me don’t take damage from radiation.” He shrugged with the shoulder that wasn’t leaned against the street light, “I’ve come with you this far and I can’t see why I’d turn around now.”

Angela let out a weary breath before shaking her head. “You’ve done enough for me, Nick. Thank you, really, but I think I’m going to do this one on my own.”

Smoke rose from his torn, synthetic lips and up into the night air as he shrugged again. “Suit yourself. But drop back by Diamond City before you head out. Piper would never forgive me if I let you go without saying goodbye.” He flicked the butt onto the sidewalk and ground it out under his heel. “And, Kid, if you’re really planning on taking on the Institute… you’re going to some need help. You can’t do it alone, so don’t be a hero.”

She knew Valentine was right. He often was. But then she heard Kellogg’s voice play through her head again: “I should have killed you while you were still on ice.” Those words had also come from Valentine’s mouth. How could she be sure that she could trust him after that? But, he had said he was fine. It was… probably fine.

“I promise,” Angela mumbled, her eyes distant as she raised her hand in farewell and the detective made his way back down the street. The synth might not mind walking through the night back to Diamond City, but Angela was both physically and emotionally exhausted. They hadn’t stopped moving since they tracked Kellogg from Diamond City to Fort Hagen. Digging through the man’s brains (which she had rightfully splattered against the walls), Nick had discovered the cybernetic neural interface and immediately thought of Dr. Amari at the Memory Den—all the way in Goodneighbor. Nearly a week on the road and she was ready to absolutely collapse.

But then those images came… Those memories, his memories flashed through her mind again and again, making her head spin.

Unconsciously Angela ran a hand through her brittle, dirty blonde hair, tugging at the roots if she were trying to literally rip the thoughts out of her head. Pain shot through her scalp. She gritted her teeth for a moment before forcing herself to take a deep breath. Gathering her shoulder length hair at the nape of her neck, she tucked it back into a small bun with the bit of elastic she had salvaged from her own home not long after emerging from Vault 111.

A drink. Yes, she needed a drink. Luckily enough, bars were one of the few constants she’d found in settlements while traveling the Commonwealth. It wasn’t like the barhopping she’d done in downtown Boston before the war, but there were always people willing to fork over money to forget their problems for a few hours. An old saying flitted into her head, perhaps ironically: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

~

Angela pulled open the door of The Third Rail—a converted, underground metro station that she and Nick had passed on their way into town earlier that day. A ghoul, who seemed to be some kind of bouncer (though he wore a pre-war tuxedo with a matching black fedora), gestured for her to go in. As she made her way down the stairs, a sound she had not heard in a long time echoed through the tile tunnels and into stairwell.

“Like an earthquake starting to roll, I felt my world shake out of control.”

That voice, full of body and utterly alive, sounded nothing like any of those old, scratchy records that had barely survived the blasts. And the poor boy who hosted Diamond City Radio, Travis, played many songs she remembered from before the war, but this wasn’t one of them. This was something new.

“Like a World War starting to brew…”

Her feet seemed to glide down the stairs as the song drew her further into the metro station. This place did serve alcohol, as advertised, but just to the left of the bar was a small, makeshift stage. The woman’s skintight red dress glinted under the low lights as she shook her hips in time with the beat and leaned into the microphone. As she opened her ruby lips, that voice rang throughout the room once more.

“Baby, it’s just you.”

Even before Nate proposed, Angela had known that their relationship would be difficult. They both had. She thought she had prepared herself. But then, not long after their wedding, Nate got word that his battalion was being reassigned to train soldiers at a base overseas. With Angela still in law school, they were being forced to say goodbye for nearly a year. They would be spending their first anniversary apart. Nate had brooded around the house for days, muttering under his breath about trying to talk to someone, trying to fix this. But she knew there was nothing they could do. He couldn’t stay here, and she couldn’t go with him.

The a few nights before Nate left, he took her out on the town. They’d gone to a club, had drinks, and listened to music. A woman, her dark skin smoother than cream in coffee, had crooned on stage as her bandmates slide their fingers across ivory keys and spun an upright base between their legs. Nate had pulled her out of her chair and onto the dancefloor. He had danced with her for the first time since their wedding reception. When she’d leaned her head against his shoulder, he’d held her tightly. He had held her so tightly that she thought he would never let go.

“Like a cyclone, wild and extreme, I got my mind blown, stalking your dreams. Waking up without a clue…”

Angela sunk onto one of the stools at the bar. The hint of a familiar smile pulled at her lips as she recognized the bartender as another Mr. Handy. She remembered, with a half chuckle, the day that Nate had come home with Codsworth—completely out of the blue. He’d claimed that it was to help them out with Shaun, give them a little free time. Maybe they could go out again, like they did when they were younger? Before the pregnancy, before things got more complicated. They could drink a little, they could dance. He had reached out and took her hand, holding it in his much larger one. Okay, she’d told him. They would go out tomorrow night, to the Veteran’s Hall.

But then, when tomorrow night came, the world they had once danced in was gone forever.

“‘Cause Baby, it’s just you.”

When WhiteChapel Charlie introduced himself, Angela realized that this Mr. Handy was very much unlike the one she had left behind in Sanctuary. Beer was the only thing he served, so she ordered one.

“You leave me breathless, weak in the knees... I’m feeling reckless, pardon me please!”

Angela took a large swig of her bottle, her eyes never leaving the woman on stage. The drink was bitter, but it burned in that familiar way, letting her know that she would be forgetting her problems for at least the next few hours.

“The fallout’s blowing through…”

Before the war she only had the occasional glass of white wine at night, though she used to drink more back in college. Now she didn’t mind much what form her alcohol came in. Just as long as it was strong and in her mouth.

“But Baby, it’s just you.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Angela saw two figures making their way down the stairs.

“Help me! Help me! Rescue my heart... Save me! Save me! From falling apart…Take me! Take me! Baby, I’m sure. You’ve got the power. You’ve got the cure…”

It was two men, both dressed in ragged green fatigues and boots, as if it was some kind of bastardized version of a military getup. But what caught her attention were the guns strapped to their backs and the bullets strung across their chests and thighs. When one of the female ghouls lounging on couch beside the bar saw the pair of them, she rolled her eyes. “More of you mercs looking for MacCready?” The ghoul nodded back toward a doorway to their right, “He’s in the back room.”

“Like a train wreck jumping the track, or a card deck missing a jack.”

What did two guys like that want here if it wasn’t to drink or listen to the music? Were they really looking for whoever that MacCready was? And even if they were, what did that have to do with her? Angela took another long drink from her bottle, feeling the warmth spread through her chest as it went down her throat.

“What’s the Queen of Hearts to do...?”

The alcohol was just starting to buzz on her tongue as she hesitated for a moment. Just one second. In the next she was chugging the rest of her beer and getting up from her stool. There was a plywood sign nailed above the doorway where the two had disappeared through. Three shitty letters were scrawled onto the rough surface: VIP.

Angela snorted through her nose, feeling the bitter hops in the beer burn her nostrils. Yeah, right.

“‘Cause Baby, it’s just you.”

 


 

Goodneighbor hadn’t exactly been his first choice to settle down in. The idea of settling down in general wasn’t his first choice either. But with the Gunners still on his back, those “choices” were becoming more and more limited. Everyone in the Commonwealth knew that Hancock had his fist up this town’s ass and only an idiot would try to fuck with that crazy ghoul. And MacCready was no idiot. He’d struck a deal with the mayor, who let him sleep and work out of the back room of his bar in exchange for a few caps upfront and the occasional troublemaker dealt with.

It had been a sweet gig, until Winlock and Barnes had shown up, like they always did, a few weeks back.

MacCready leaned forward in his chair, checking the magazine in his sniper rifle again. It was still full. With those 7, the 20 between the two belts on his left thigh, the 14 in the ammo pouch strapped to his right, and the 2 stuck under the band of his hat, he had 43 bullets left. He was used to counting rounds, but this was different. He hadn’t shot his gun in over a week. No one wanted to touch him after they learned he used to run with the Gunners. Those goddamn bastards just couldn’t leave him alone. Lately he’d had to resort to selling ammunition just to get a bite of food every now and then.

He sighed and tilted his head back, letting it hit the wall with a dull thud.

The Third Rail was underground. Not by much, but it was enough that you could feel the slight change in the air if you tilted your head back and closed your eyes.

MacCready didn’t close his eyes.

Little Lamplight had been underground. He hadn’t realized it at the time, too busy patrolling the town for mungos with his finger itching on the trigger of his assault rifle, but he had felt safe there. And it was the last place he’d felt safe. When he turned 16, he’d been forced to leave that place. He didn’t argue. How could he? Those were the rules and he’d lived his life by those rules.

But then he met Lucy…

MacCready gritted his teeth and jerked his head back against the wall behind him, disappointed when the band of his gunner hat took the brunt of the blow.

That goddamn, motherFUCKING metro station. They never should have stayed there in the first place. It was too hard to secure. He should have known better. He should have swept the tunnels. He should have protected her. He should have done something. But they’d been running all night and Duncan was falling asleep in her arms. When Lucy looked up at him, he could see the desperation in her eyes. His family needed to rest.

MacCready hit the back of his head against the wall again, with a bit more force this time.

And now here he was, holed up in a station just like that one, just trying to earn enough caps to get the Gunners off his back for good. Except… that wasn’t what he was supposed to be earning caps for. None of this was what he was supposed to be doing. It was all for him, Duncan. His son. And MacCready needed to get his shit together if he ever wanted fight his way into Med-Tek. He’d tried to make it alone, but there were too many of those fucking ferals crawling the place for him to even breach the door. He’d been lucky to escape with his life, but what did that matter if he couldn’t get the cure? God only knew how many days his son had left before…

He pushed the thought out of his head as he heard footsteps approaching from the bar. If this was a job, then there was hope. There was hope for him, and for his son. But the two men who walked through the doorway were definitely not there to hire him.

“Not surprised to find you still holed up in this dump, MacCready,” Winlock sneered as he stepped into the room, his dumbass lackey Barnes just a step behind.

MacCready felt his grip tighten around the barrel of his rifle, but he remained seated, keeping his words light as he smirked up at them, “I was wondering when the two of you would grace me with your company again. Took you long enough, I was getting a kinda lonely down here by myself.” He lowered his voice as his eyes flitted back and forth between them and the various guns they had strapped to their bodies for the sake of intimidation, “Do we need to take this outside?”

“We’re just here to deliver a message,” Winlock assured him, though Barnes seemed much readier to in fact ‘take things outside’.

“Well, you can take your message somewhere else,” MacCready waved his hand in dismissal and leaned his head back against the wall again as if he were relaxing, tilting his hat down to cover his eyes. “I don’t take orders from the Gunners anymore.”

Anger flared across Barnes’ face as he snarled, “You son of bitch! I’d fill your fucking body with bullets if we didn’t—!” Winlock cut him off with a sharp elbow to the gut.

MacCready cocked an eyebrow under the brim of his hat and smug smile twitched at his lips. Nobody wanted a war with Goodneighbor. As long as Hancock supplied this town with enough beer and Jet to make them see cross-eyed, they’d follow him into their graves. The Gunners would never risk the ammo and manpower it would cost to take down this place just for one cheeky sniper who wasn’t interested in being in their little club anymore.

“Help me! Help me! Rescue my heart...” In the midst of the tense silence, Magnolia’s fervent voice wafted in through the doorway.

“You can play this ‘tough guy’ part all you want,” Winlock cut through the song, his jaw clenched as he glared down at MacCready, still lounging in the stuffed chair. “But keep taking jobs inside Gunner territory, and we’ll be coming back with more than a message.” He jerked his head toward the doorway and turned to leave.

Barnes was still scowling, his palm resting too closely to the holster of the gun on his hip. He leaned in closer, keeping his voice low as he hissed, “Hancock can’t protect you forever, pussy. Sometime soon, you’re gonna catch a bullet you can’t dodge.”

His knuckles were white around the barrel of his rifle, but MacCready refused to flinch. “I’m more agile than you’d think.” He winked.

Barnes opened his mouth, as if to make another threat, but seemingly couldn’t think of anything else. He finally turned around and followed the other Gunner out the doorway.

“You’ve got the power. You’ve got the cure…”

MacCready let out a sharp breath, still feeling the adrenaline in his blood and the flutter of nerves in his stomach. How in the FUCK was he supposed to get himself out of this one? It was a few moments before he realized that someone else had walked into the room during his ‘conversation’ with the Gunners.

“Like a mushroom cloud in the sky, I felt my world start—.”

It was a woman, but she wasn’t one of the drifters he’d seen around. Maybe she was new in town.

“… waving goodbye. Radiating through and through…”

MacCready might not have known her, but he did recognize that half-drunk look in her eyes and the lever action rifle slung across her back.

“Baby, it’s just you.”

A faded, red flannel button-up shirt poked out from under her dark blue, armored chest piece. At first glance, there only appeared to be a singular white star painted across the center, but when she moved into the light he saw several other, smaller white stars surrounding it in a circle. MacCready had seen the symbol before, but he couldn’t remember where at that moment.

“Radiating through and through…”

The more he noticed about her, the more he realized there was something just a bit different about her. She wasn’t quite like many of the other women he’d met in the Commonwealth, or even back in the Capital Wasteland. Maybe it was her hair, gathered back around her neck instead of cropped short. Or the skin on her face, which although the woman couldn’t have been younger than he was, looked remarkably smooth to the touch.

“Oh Baby, it’s just…”

It was only when the woman stepped closer that MacCready realized what it was. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he found his eyes drifting below her pouched leather belt. Torn and patched-over blue jeans clung to her thighs and hips, tightening over her thick curves in ways he’d never seen before. When she moved, the ripped denim shifted against her thigh, barely revealing a thin strip of soft skin. Even Magnolia in that tight, lowcut dress shaking her hips on the stage in the other room could not make the blood rush through his veins like that.

“Baby, it’s just…”

His stomach felt as queasy as when he’d seen those Steel Fuckers in the sky the other day, flying into the Commonwealth. Like having the Wasteland under their goddamn thumbs wasn’t enough for them? But this was neither the time nor place for him to think about the Brotherhood of Dipshits or what this woman would look like bent over his chair. Or that table over there. Or pressed against the wall. Or straddling his coc—.

“Baby, it’s just you!”

In his attempts to keep every one of those thoughts at bay, MacCready had gripped his rifle tightly before realizing that his body language could possibly be sending the wrong message. He let go of his weapon, leaning it safely against the table before looking back up at the woman with an awkward half-smirk. “Haven’t seen you around before,” he remarked, trying to regain some semblance of a thought structure. “First night in town?”

The woman didn’t answer, glancing over her shoulder toward the doorway that the Gunners had finally disappeared through. As she turned back around, there was a fleeting hint of concern in her moss green eyes. When the woman spoke, her voice was lower and more guarded than he would have thought with the half-drunk way she’d stumbled in, “What did those guys want?”

Oh, of fucking course. Winlock and Barnes wouldn’t be satisfied until the entire Commonwealth knew he used to be their little bitch. MacCready shook his head, chewing on the inside of his cheek as he thought quickly, “Those two morons? Dick measuring contest.”

The woman cocked her head to the side, a confused smile pulling at her impossibly pink lips.

“They lost,” he followed up with a wink.

“Is that so?” she chuckled under her breath as she strode further into the room, her hips swaying again in the way that he hated to admit was just a tad bit distracting to him. “Because, to me, it looked like they had enough firepower to start a war.”

“Who? Them?” MacCready laughed, though it might have sounded a bit more nervous than he’d meant it to. “Naw, they’re all talk. They just like asserting their masculinity to anyone within earshot until they feel better about themselves.”

An amused smile played across those sweet lips. It yanked at something deep within his chest, but MacCready preferred to think business with the head in his brain not the one in his pants. His smile faltered for a moment as he remembered. Right, business. He had a job to do.

“Hey, if you’re looking for a conversation partner, the bars’ that way.” MacCready jerked his head toward where WhiteChapel Charlie was serving drinks. “But if you need a hired gun…” God, he hated how optimistic his voice sounded. “Then maybe we can talk.”

Rage flashed across her face, completely catching the sniper off guard. What had he done? Was she mad that he’d brushed her off? He just needed the caps, honest! Maybe she’d been trying to hit on him? Because if she’d been trying to hit on him, then maybe they could still talk if—

“You’re a hired gun?” she asked with a strained voice.

“Best shot in Goodneighbor,” he bragged, still unsure of how to react to her sudden shift in attitude. “250 caps, upfront, and you can get yourself a whole lotta sniper.”

The woman refused to look up from her leather combat boots, but MacCready just barely caught of glimpse of her eyes. Their soft green was clouded over again, but with thought instead of alcohol this time. She was obviously conflicted about something, he just didn’t know what.

“Well…” His voice trailed off for a moment. He should have remembered that optimism always came back to bite him in the stones. “I’m MacCready. And if you ever need a little help, you know where to find—”

“My name is Angela,” she interrupted, suddenly straightening up to look back him, “and my friend told me that…” She took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter, but he was right. He’s always right. I can’t do this alone. And…” There was the faintest hint of that smile he’d seen on her lips earlier. “I could definitely use a little help.”

MacCready nodded slowly, trying to moderate his reaction. No need to appear too eager. Jumping the gun had never helped him with a goddamn thing. First, he needed know what the hell this Angela woman wanted him for.

“But if I’m really going to be considering hiring someone like…” She bit her bottom lip in thought and goddamn if MacCready didn’t have to glance away for more than a moment, “… you, I’m going to need another drink.” Angela turned on her heel and headed back into the bar.

He didn’t move. Someone like him? Someone who used to be in the Gunners. That’s what she must have meant, right? Fucking Winlock and Barnes. How many different ways were they going to screw him over on this?

Sensing his hesitation, Angela popped her head back into the room. “I’m buying.”

Oh, fuck yeah.

“Coming!” He scrambled up from his chair, leaving his rifle leaned up against the table but taking the empty whiskey glass he’d been nursing all night. By the time he reached the bar, Angela had already taken a seat on the furthest stool—the one closest to the stage.

“He asked me what’s your flavor. I said I need a favor…”

While Magnolia drawled into the microphone, MacCready sat down on the stool next to Angela. When she didn’t look away from the stage, he flagged down WhiteChapel Charlie. “Nukarum,” he ordered, deciding on a mixed drink rather than his usual cheap whiskey. These weren’t his caps after all.

“I’m a little short on caps, but I’m a good, good neighbor.”

Hearing the robot mix his drink seemed to catch Angela’s attention for the first time since he’d sat down, dragging her curious gaze back toward the bar. Her eyebrows shot up in surprise as she watched MacCready take his first sip. The blend of soda and alcohol fizzed delightfully across his tongue.

She scoffed, glaring back at WhiteChapel Charlie, “Oh, so do you sell other drinks!”

“Not to outsiders like you,” the opiniated Mr. Handy quipped back.

“But.” Her bottom lip pouted out just the slightest bit. “You said that there was just beer…” she trailed off.

MacCready chuckled into his drink, glad when he didn’t feel soda shoot up through his nose. Did she seriously think pouting would work on a robot? Or was she really just that pathetic? Either way, he grinned up at the bartender over his drink. “Come on, Charlie,” he implored. “Make the lady a drink. She’s the one paying after all.”

WhiteChapel Charlie conceded with an exasperated British sigh, popping open another Nuka-cola for her drink. Angela shot him a quick, grateful look before reaching out to take the glass from the robot. She took a larger sip of it than he had, humming appreciatively at the taste before turning back to watch the performance.

“Took a dive with the Swans… Out in the Commons with nothing on…”

A few drifters whistled and hollered around them and MacCready thought he heard his new drinking buddy chuckle low under her breath.

“The mutants stop to savor all my bad behavior! It’s all in a day’s work when you’re a good, good neighbor.”

“So…” he began, trying to start up the conversation that they needed to have, despite how much more interested she seemed in the music. “It sounds like you could use an extra gun.” He hoped she could, especially if her plan was to keep buying him drinks. “What’s the job?”

“The job?” She repeated quietly, her gaze still fixed on the stage as she took another big gulp of her drink. “That depends.”

MacCready sipped at his own, savoring the taste of free alcohol and trying to prepare himself for what was shaping up to be a painfully slow negotiation. “And what would it depend on?”

“We can shake it up a little. We can kick it up a notch!”

Angela hummed quietly in thought, still not looking at him and as she lifted her glass to her lips again. Her drink was already over half gone. “On whether or not I can stand to be around you, I guess,” she finally replied.

“We can put it on the griddle, better get it while it’s hot!”

He rolled his eyes at her matter of fact tone but let out a silent breath of laughter before retorting. “Sounds like that might be a struggle on both ends.” She shot him a quick glare, only taking her eyes off the stage for a moment. “Besides, what if you’re the one who’s trouble? Say I come to work for you, how do I know I’m not going to end up with a bullet in my back?”

“Well,” she paused, as if fumbling to defend herself before pointing out, “I’m not who has fake military assholes harassing me.”

“I’ll meet you in the middle, you can show me what you got! If you’re feeling lucky tonight…”

MacCready’s jaw clenched, as he failed to come up with a counter for that one. His eyes fell back to his drink on the counter. He took a large swallow of the burning, but sweet liquid. When he looked back up, he realized that Angela had already finished hers and was ordering another. WhiteChapel Charlie seemed irritated at her constant bothering, but at least pleased for the business. MacCready downed another spiteful gulp.

“Stupid…” he mumbled into his glass, “I should have known better than to get involved with the fu-freaking Gunners.”

She tilted her head slightly, still facing the stage but paying more attention to him than before. “The Gunners?” Angela asked, with what was apparently completely sincere curiosity.

“Uhh…” Was she serious? “Yean, they’re the one of the gangs in the Commonwealth. They’re really just a group of raiders with a rep for being wound crazy tight, like a freaking cult.” As he spoke, she turned to face him more and MacCready could see that she was listening intently. “They’re nutjobs who would do anything for a pile of ammo. I, uh…” He hesitated, voice catching briefly before he covered it by taking another sip of his Nukarum. What was the point of trying to hide it after she’d walked in on all that? “I actually used to run with them,” he confessed. “I made good caps, but it… uhh… wasn’t a good fit.” He finally glanced up at her and let out a nervous chuckle. “Needed a clean break, I guess, so I decided to fly solo for a bit.”

Angela said nothing, but her eyes were no longer fixed on the stage. They were trained on him, their deep green unreadable as they appeared to contemplate his very soul.

“Not a good fit?” She repeated his words in a voice barely above a whisper, but still somehow audible over the music.

MacCready tore his gaze away from her captivated stare. He took another long drink, desperate to see the bottom of his glass so he could order another one. Something stronger.

“You said 250, right?”

When he looked back up, she was already digging through her caps pouch.

“Uh,” MacCready blinked, realizing that the negotiation had taken a sharp, unexpectedly positive turn. Too fast for him to even get too optimistic again. “Yeah?”

Angela began counting out caps on the counter, arranging them in rows of ten before sweeping them to the side. Her fingers darted quickly, counting out enough caps to feed him for weeks.

“I do the boys a favor, with all my manual labor!”

This time the song didn’t seem to distract her.

“How about 200 just for the next few days?” she asked, still not looking up from the neat rows she was forming. “I’m heading back home to Sanctuary in the morning and I could use an extra hand traveling the Commonwealth.” Looking satisfied with herself, she arranged one last row—making it an even 200 caps. “If you don’t get yourself killed along the way, then I might have a bigger job for you.” Angela finally looked back up at him before nudging the entire pile his way. “Think of it as a job interview.”

“It’s good to be a good, good, good, good neighbor...”

MacCready gaped, wide-eyed at the mountain of caps she’d meticulously counted out on the counter in front of him. This was... He stuttered for a moment, trying to force the damn words to come out of his mouth. “I-I... uhhh.”

“Best shot in Goodneighbor, huh?”

Her voice cut through his awkward, indecisive stammering. His head jerked up, tearing his gaze away from the dented caps that could mean the difference between ‘dodging’ his next bullet or not. Angela was staring up at the stage again, her drink raised to her lips.

“Yeah… I do the boys a favor, with all my manual labor!”

She took another sip, her eyes still fixed on Magnolia. “But… what will happen when I take this fish out of its little pond?” Angela mused, too loudly to be to herself.

MacCready chuckled under his breath, his eyes darting down to her lips for a moment as her the tip of her light pink tongue dipped to lick up drop at the corner of her mouth. “Goodneighbor isn’t my pond.”

Her quick eyes shifted over to him for a spilt second before returning to the singer.

A slight smirk pulled at his lips as he thought of a play on words. “And the world is my oyster.” Someone had told him what that phrase meant once, but he wasn’t positive what exactly an oyster was. Only that it was something that lived underwater, like fish.

“It’s good to be a good, good, good, good, good, good neighbor…"

His bright blue eyes lit up as she let out light, cute giggle and that smile he had seen when they’d first met finally spread across her face once more. MacCready raised his glass, gesturing to her. Angela rolled her eyes, but still extended her arm to tap hers against his with a louder than predicated clunk.

MacCready grinned, taking a sip of his drink at the same time she did. “Looks like you just bought yourself a mercenary, boss.”

And just like that, her smile was gone again.

“Yeah…” Angela stood abruptly from her stool while tossing back the rest of her drink and ordering a third, that he knew of at least. “I’m going to go… listen to the music.”

Something dropped deep in the pit of his stomach as he felt his own grin disappear.

“So… yeah,” she continued, like she was stalling for time while the robot finished mixing the alcohol. “I’ll see you in the morning.” Taking her glass with her, Angela left MacCready alone at the bar and wandered over to sit on one of the couches with a more direct view of the stage.

“Yeeahh…” Magnolia crooned into her microphone to the sound applause and approval from the audience, which included his new boss who was apparently her biggest fan.

What in the actual fuck was that?

He rolled his eyes, turning back to the bar and coming face to face with the pile of caps again. Biting the tip of his tongue before he could curse under his breath, he quickly shoveled the small fortune into his caps pouch. MacCready let out a loud sigh and downed the dregs of his drink before raising a hand to catch WhiteChapel Charlie’s attention. He ordered a whiskey, no mixers this time, but not that cheap shit he normally got. His new boss was still paying.

But, just who in the hell was this woman?

“I see you lookin’ ‘round the corner.” Magnolia’s familiar voice drifted through the air from the stage in the corner. “Come on inside… and pull up a chair.”

Whoever she was, she was goddamn confusing; that much he could be sure of. Because how were you supposed to judge someone’s character when their mood seemed to change at random? One minute they were flirting, or at least he though they were, and the next she couldn’t wait to get away.

“No need to feel like a stranger…”

Then there was her utter fascination with the music, not to mention the sheer amount of alcohol the woman had consumed just within their conversation. He hadn’t seen someone drink at a pace like that since his first few weeks in the Commonwealth. And that person had been him.

“‘Cause we’re all a little strange in here.”

MacCready went very still on the barstool for a moment, gazing into the brown liquor in front of him as his fingers tapped idly on the glass. Finally, after much contemplation, he took a sip.

“Have you got a history that needs erasing?”

Those weeks had been hard. The daylight hours were spent franticly searching for any hints of the cure to the bastard illness that had made the mistake of infecting his child, but the long, lonely nights were so empty. Every hour was an aching desperation to numb. To not long for his family, back before it was shattered. To stop seeing Lucy’s sweet, mutilated face every time he closed his eyes.

“Did you come in just for the beer and the cigarettes?”

MacCready had lived in and out of bars, his clothes reeked of booze, until the moment his hands shook too much to line up a shot. It was that promise he made to Duncan that finally dragged him out of the deep well he was falling into. The promise to shape up, to be a better person, and most importantly, to find him help. He had to find a cure. Having a purpose gave him a light on the horizon to follow each time he found himself getting lost.

“A broken-down dream… you’re tired of chasing.”

Tilting his glass, he let the room temperature whiskey pour down his throat until he felt the burning liquid hit his empty stomach. MacCready closed his eyes. He inhaled, feeling the dank underground air against his stubble covered cheek.

“Ooh… Well, I’m just the girl to make you forget.”

Before he could get the cure, he needed to deal with Winlock and Barnes. His new boss wouldn’t be much help considering she had seemingly never heard of the Gunners to begin with. How was that even possible? Didn’t all kids in the Commonwealth grow up telling ghost stories about them at night? In the Wasteland they’d had nightmares about the Brotherhood, but maybe it was different here. Maybe, if she hadn’t heard accounts of what the Gunners had done, maybe she wouldn’t look at him with as much disgust as the others did.

“So, we’re glad you dropped by. Come in, loosen up your tie.”

But then why didn’t she trust him? And that sudden shift in attitude. Why? Plus, she was only hiring him for a few days, but had still paid him nearly his full rate. Why?!

“Have a drink or… or maybe just one more…”

MacCready took another sip of his whiskey as he thought, letting his eyes lose focus and his eyebrows furrowed slightly. A job interview. That’s what she had called it. Did that mean she wanted him to prove himself? Was that it? All that little fish in a big pond nonsense was just a pretentious test? And what about the ‘if she could stand being around him’ crap?

Snorting at those ridiculously bitchy words, MacCready smirked at the concept. As if he weren’t an absolute pleasure to be around. Not that it would matter, because it’s not like he was interested in her company or anyone’s in general. He was perfectly happy being on his own.

“But if you’re searching for something…”

MacCready did not at all mind being alone. Or lonely.

“… to bring you comfort.”

And he was a thousand percent not thinking about having a conversation with her. Talking about his feelings, listening to her thoughts and opinions, and getting to know her as a person did not appeal to him in the slightest. It’s not like she was the most intriguing person who had wandered into the Third Rail since he’d lived there or anything.

“Ooh well, I’m the one you’re looking for.”

Because MacCready was NOT lonely. He was just… brooding. That was it. Despite his own assurances, MacCready glanced back over his shoulder to where Angela was sitting on the couch.

It was a mistake.

She was leaning over the ripped arm, the grimy stuffing from the ancient couch falling out into her lap, talking to some sleazy guy MacCready recognized as a regular of the Memory Den. Nothing about her body language or facial expression, a drunken half-smile, was recognizable as the guarded, moody person he’d been talking to earlier. When Angela let out a soft laugh, barely audible over the swell of the music, he turned back around to face the bar.

Listening to the music, huh? During their conversation, she’d only had eyes for Magnolia, but now she wasn’t even looking at the stage, for God’s sake! How did that creep deserve eye contact and the man she’d just hired to watch her back and literally keep her alive didn’t?

“Now, is your motor running close to empty?”

MacCready let out a sharp, frustrated breath and looked down at his glass of whiskey. It wasn’t empty, but he didn’t care. Gesturing to WhiteChapel Charlie, he pushed his drink toward the robot with a brusque request, “Top it off.”

She was still paying.

“Or are you running from yourself?”

Even if the whole rest of this job was a shitshow, at least MacCready would be able to go to be tonight with solid buzz and more than a few caps in his pocket.

“You’re thirsty for a brand-new kind of pleasure…”

He was only half-listening to Magnolia at this point. But living in and working out of the Third Rail ensured that he’d heard every one of her songs at least 500 times. The lyrics were branded into his skull.

“… or are you hungry to be somebody else?”

In a different life, in a different world, maybe MacCready could have crossed the room to talk to her. He could have told her how fucking hot she was and they could have ducked back into the VIP room for a while. They could have spent the night together. Maybe in a world where guys went to bars to pick up girls and take them home. Maybe in that world, he would have stood up from his barstool.

“So, sit down your pretty face. You came to right place.”

But MacCready didn’t live in that world.

He lived in a world that had taught him to sleep with one eye open. Where if you weren’t on edge at all times, always aware and attentive, bad shit happened. Like a knife in your back, or your wife being torn to pieces in front of you and your infant son.

“Ooh, where every night it starts once more.”

His world was in the Third Rail, where MacCready counted bullets and caps, wound tight and ready to spring the moment he had the opportunity. And this job was an opportunity to get out from under the Gunners, which put him that much closer to Med-Tek for the cure. The cure for his son. That’s what was important.

Everything else needed to be put aside.

“I’m telling you friend: your search is at an end…”

And Angela didn’t seem that bad. They had gotten through one conversation without totally wanting to kill each other, so that was a start. As long as she had his back, there shouldn’t be a problem. Yeah, this job could be good. They could be professional.

“‘Cause I’m the one you’re lookin’… for.”

Now all MacCready had to worry about was popping boners every time she bent over in those jeans.

He groaned internally, not realizing, this is until WhiteChapel Charlie, busy tending to someone else at the end of the bar, shot him an annoyed look, that it has also been manifested externally. Dammit. This whole thing was going to be a disaster. And it was just his luck too! Some attractive girl walks into the bar, actually looking for someone to help her, and what does MacCready immediately do? Sexualize her, then alienate and piss her the hell off.

The “topped off” whiskey was nearly half gone before he set down his glass again. When he did, MacCready reflexively checked over his shoulder again. Just to see if she was still talking to that same guy. But the couch Angela had been lounging on was empty and that guy was leering at someone else across the room. MacCready jerked his head around, blinking away his surprise and surprise at his surprise until he finally spotted her at the foot of the stage talking to Magnolia

Oh. So maybe she was interested in the music after all.

But whatever Angela said was lost on him. Her words were too soft for him to make out over the chatter of the bar and the recorded background music that played whenever Magnolia wasn’t singing. But it made the singer smile, the hint of the laughter he couldn’t hear on her lips, as she reached out to just barely touch Angela’s hand.

Oh...?

Reacting much unlike how MacCready suspected she would if he had tried to hold her hand, Angela did not pull away. In fact, her face had turned a light pink. Magnolia leaned in, evidently whispering something for the other woman’s ears only. A bright grin, completely unlike even the first smile she’d shot him in the VIP room, spread across her pink lips.

MacCready watched as their fingers entwined. They walked right past him on their way to the stairs, with Magnolia in front, her red dress making her look her usual stunning, leading Angela behind by the hand. Goddamn, how did a pair of worn, patched jeans somehow make her ass the most fuckable sight in the Commonwealth?

Jerking back around to face the bar when he realized he was staring, MacCready contemplated what he’d just seen while staring hard into the dark brown liquor in his smudged glass. That look on Angela’s face had been unmistakable. It was the same one on every person leaving a bar anywhere tonight with a person they thought was way out of their league. (It was the same look he would have had if he’d been the one walking out with Angela instead of the bombshell lounge singer.)

But she had left with a different dark-haired beauty working out of the Third Rail. Which meant…?

OH!

So, it was possible that MacCready had slightly misjudged his new boss. She had definitely not been flirting, at least not with him. Got it. That would, oh. That would take some… adjusting to. Thoughts like the ones he’d been having about her were even more pointless and inappropriate now. Besides she was his new boss. Yeah, that 100% made thinking about her legs wrapped around him a bad idea. Everything about that needed to be shut down before they met up in the morning.

Even if he never got to find out how far down her body those cute freckles on her face spread.

Dammit…

Or see what those freckles looked like when his cum was splattered across her face.

FUCKING CHRIST!

MacCready finished his drink in the next two swallows and raised his empty glass to alert the bartending robot to this obviously urgent issue. It was resolved by a more than irritated Mr. Handy, leaving him with another double of the “nice” whiskey. Taking a sip of the fresh drink, he appreciated the freeness of the beverage over the taste. At least she was still paying. All around MacCready, the once somewhat crowded Third Rail was thinning out. Magnolia’s set had ended and so most people, except the hardcore alcoholics as well as prostitutes and people hoping to hire a prostitute, were calling it a night. How did he fit into those architypes and what did it say about him…?

That he was celebrating, MacCready decided. It might be an odd situation, but a job was a job. Just because his new boss was a lesbian who seemed to change her mind about him every other minute didn’t mean that he couldn’t still make the best of things. And bright-side, maybe that’s what Angela had meant by the whole “stand to be around you” thing. He’d take it less personally if that comment was directed toward his penis rather than his personality.

But something, something that felt like a hollow pang deep in his stomach, told MacCready that her cold attitude toward him had nothing to do with her sexuality.

His brooding was interrupted by WhiteChapel Charlie, who was hovering impatiently in front of him and quite obviously glaring at him from behind the bar. Glancing up at the robot from under the brim of his hat, MacCready stared back in mild confusion and inconvenience.

“Uh,” he started when the Mr. Handy still wouldn’t go away, “I’m good.” MacCready raised his all but full glass for the robot’s inspection. “You just filled me up, remember?”

“The bill,” WhiteChapel Charlie said with even less amusement than usually.

“Oh, yeah.” That made sense. “My boss is going to—” MacCready spun to look over his shoulder, stopping midsentence when he realized how very much Angela was not there to pay for anything and how very much fucked he was. Biting the inside of his cheek to resist the strong urge to curse up a radstorm, MacCready paid the tab for both his and her drinks out of the 200 caps Angela had just given him.

And she would be refunding him every last cap the second he saw her in the morning.

MacCready savored the last sips of his whiskey, each swallow only serving to add to the fuming irritation building within him. Who’s to say that she was even still going to honor their agreement? She’d seemed pretty conflicted to begin with and she’d had a fair amount to drink. Maybe when the sun came up, Angela would also come to her senses and split. Maybe she’d leave town before he woke up and he would never see her again.

And maybe it was for the best, MacCready thought as he staggered up from his barstool. Oh, so that was how drunk he was. He hadn’t been sure before, but now he was. Stumbling from the bar to the back room where all of his possessions (except his rifle, which was still leaned up against the wall where he’d left it earlier) were neatly tucked away in the far corner, he glared in annoyance at his rolled up sleeping bag. Rather than fumbling through all the straps and bullshit, MacCready slumped into his favorite (and only chair). The springs and cushion protested, but he truly could not have cared less.

Maybe it was all for the best. Even with her drinks added to the bill, he was still up on caps for the night. That was certainly an improvement. Not only was he closer to paying off that idiotic gang, MacCready could probably even afford to get a real hot breakfast the next day. And alcohol numbing every inch of his body was certainly not wasted on him.

The band of his Gunner hat was knocked to the side by the way his head had drooped onto the back of the chair. MacCready reached up, grabbing blindly for his hat and placing it safely in his lap as his eyes finally slid shut. He let out a deep, barely audible sigh. The air smelled damp, underground. Safe, like home.

Maybe that’s what optimism was. He had wanted to make the best of it and seize this opportunity for him and his son. But at that point, imagining his newest job going well involved both faith and hope— two things MacCready had long given up on. The only things he could rely on were what he could see. The concrete, physical things. Things like the stone ceiling above his head and the dented caps filling the pouch in his pocket.