Cass' liver was failing. She knew because there's no other smell quite like it. Sickly sweet and just so slightly tinged with death, it was unmistakable. She'd been lying to herself for months, half joking, half pleading to Cass that she ought to "lay off the Sarsaparilla".
Punctuated by the nervous half giggle, trying to hide her concern, adding that if Cass wasn't careful, her teeth were going to rot. Veronica had always had a particular tendency towards rose-tinted glasses when looking at the things she loved, even as they began to falter and fail her.
Frankly, this had been coming for a while. Now that she thought about it, that creep Mortimer in the Ultraluxe, what had he said to Six? Something about Cass being just fine to serve the White Glove society so long as they skipped the "whiskey marinade".
His exact words echoed in her ears now: "from the smell of her, other than her liver, she seems to be in working order". It had been early in the day, just after dawn when Six had roused them at the camp to start the trek down the mountains from where they'd slept the night before at the Followers' safe house.
Much to Cass' chagrin, they hadn't stopped anywhere to get more liquor yet, and even she wasn't desperate enough to try what was offered by the "pretentious cannibal fucks" of the Ultra-Luxe. And Cass never had any left over from the night before.
Shit. She tried to bring it up, but Veronica had never been good at proving she actually cared. Everything she said got refracted by forced flippancy and joking nonchalance. Especially admissions of guilt for the strong sort affection that knocked this hollow ache into her chest, which she guessed might be love.
Six had asked her, not five minutes after meeting her at that outpost if she'd ever been in love and she'd be taken aback. Not just because of Six, disarming presence that they were in every way she could never put into words, but because she'd always felt such a disconnect with the concept she'd found in old Brotherhood archives of pre-war tales of romance.
She didn't have roses or serenades or candlelight gondola rides. All Veronica had was the dull thudding of dread when she remembered how she'd fucked up what she had with Christine, and now, when her mind aimlessly wandered at night as she sat staring at Cass' sleeping form in filtered moonlight about the very real possibility of losing her the same way.
Truthfully, that was something she admired about Cass: she didn't mince her words. People called her a bitch for it, yet she held her head high; wore it like a badge of honor. Yet here she was, unable to admit she cared even enough to try and save Cass' life. Too afraid of what that might mean about the future, like ignoring it would mean it wasn't bearing down on her like a cloud of impending doom.
Scribe may have been a role she resented but truthfully, it fit Veronica more than she'd like to admit. On the second page of the diary she'd kept since Christine had gone and left her with no one else she could even begin to consider telling the whole, ungentled truth to, she'd written, "I can write words, I can just never say them".
And damn, she hated that teenage angsting still managed to ring true. Cass needed someone and Veronica stood just north of 20-20 hindsight, cracking jokes: truth cloaked in sarcasm every time she admitted how she felt only to follow it up with "kidding, kidding". Like that made it any less of a white lie.
Hell, maybe she loved Cass and everyone knew. She'd never been a good liar and Arcade's eyebrows had shot up into his hairline the first time he saw how funny Veronica got when she was tipsy. Declarations of undying love for whoever brought her more vodka, that she'd marry the next person through the door of the Lucky 38's Presidential suite, fully aware everyone able to get inside was already there, apart from Cass who was gone on a liquor run.
She remembered slurring Cass' name when Six asked her again what she knew about that night when they'd had to help her into bed, and maybe she loves Cass truly, deeply, endlessly, that epic, spans-the-ages tale kind of love. Like Romeo and Juliet. But people can't live with that kind of love for long. Love like that, it's a manic act of defiance, that either plunges itself fatal into your ribcage, poisons your sleep. Or both.
Like wandering into a Deathclaw nest or a hotel full of cannibals armed with nothing but a 9mm. True, she and Six and Cass had done both and lived to tell, but here she was, worrying about what Cass thought of her school-girl crush, rather than the inevitable fallout on the horizon. "Forest for the trees, Veronica", she berated herself.
After all, what did it matter if she loved Cass if she kept letting her kill herself? In the same way, she'd let fear of abandonment push Christine away, hoping it would force Christine to stay and prove she truly wanted Veronica no matter the consequences, ignoring this would inevitably hurt everyone she cared about. Love doesn't survive love in the hands of liars, she knows this, and knows Arcade wasn't wrong when she overheard him telling Six to forget what Veronica had told them earlier because she was more refitter than purveyor of truth given her ties to the last remnants of the Brotherhood.
At the time, the words had stung, especially coming from a man like Arcade, brilliant if cynical, who she considered a close companion, but really, he was more right than he knew. She was more storyteller than girl these days, spinning tales to blindfold herself out of discomfort. Telling herself these litttle white lies: Cass is just a friend she admired, Cass knew when to stop drinking, Cass would always be around. And Veronica had no problems with objectivity when it came to Rose of Sharon Cassidy.
Adoration and desecration are two sides of the same knife Veronica had so long tried to convince herself was, in fact, sustainable love. Love becomes a weapon in the hands of fear and Veronica has always been terrified of the truth. That's what Christine had said when she had wanted them to leave the Bunker together to start something new. Back then, Veronica had always insisted Christine just didn't understand, that she wasn't unwilling to change, but rather, that Christine was wrong for insisting things needed to change at all.
Ironic, she now realized, that the argument she'd been trying to show the Brotherhood her side of, that times changed and they simply had to adapt and change accordingly too, was exactly what Christine had tried to convince Veronica of in the first place and she was too dense to get it through her thick skull. But Veronica has never been stupid.
She realized now she'd been half right in the first place: she wasn't unwilling to change. Rather, she was so petrified of looking her terror dead in the eyes, to give it a name before became so much a part of her identity that it stole hers, that she sat completely still trying to remind herself how to breathe. Which is to say, Veronica wasn't unwilling to change, just terrified that she wasn't capable of it; that stagnancy left her permanently a limbo of a person.
Her favorite story from the Archives when she was young, told the story of a hero named Odysseus' journeys across lands of wonder and his feats of bravery. She'd like to imagine herself like that out in the Wasteland one day; equal parts cunning and courageous. As she got older, Veronica realized the story was much more shifting with contradictions, Odysseus, the hero, wasn't who she was destined to be.
After all, she'd been offered the chance to leave the Brotherhood's secure mundanity she had so long balked under the reigns of, and instead, let Christine take that journey to fight the good fight outside the security of their home alone. What did that make her? Back then, she fancied herself, Penelope, loyal lover of another's heroics, just as cunning in holding down the homefront while waiting for her love Odysseus' return.
Stupid of her to treat life like a story, really. The Wasteland isn't where the Odyssey takes place, and wherever Greece used to be, it's either gone or smoldering in ruin as it's people fight for the scraps of the old world in the smoking remains of it's streets, just as those outside the Brotherhood did over every blasted scrap of resources in the Mojave.
Truthfully, she had changed a lot since that time. After all, Veronica had found Six. She'd sought out someone to travel with, even if it was only after being shunted off to the side, demoted to errand girl in charge of Nuka Cola runs by the rest of the Brotherhood. Together, they'd crossed the Mojave 10 times over, and had enough adventures that they'd live on in Mojave folktale legend for decades to come.
Or rather, Courier Six would. She was simply a companion to the hero; nameless, faceless, and ever-shifting like a ghost that haunts the tales that keep the Wastelanders rising in the morning despite curling in on themselves and calling it quits on this shit existence more akin to survival than living every night. That truth of this, of her impermanence, wasn't much of a shock. In fact, that's the part played by the Brotherhood, by scribes like her; faceless pillars of humanity that protected it from itself.
The fact that she would fade long before the stories of the time she spent with Six didn't really bother her, actually.
But someone like Cass, brave, brutally stubborn Cass, who refuses to let the Mojave bend her spine into submission, who's spent so many years daring the Wasteland to come any closer to the things she holds dearly, pretending the only reason her hands still shake is because she's clutched so tightly in her hands clench and ball themselves into fists protesting death when she tries to set it down.
Cass. Who uses those same hands to cling to the a neck of whiskey bottle like it isn't a crutch in a fist protesting death for failing to catch up with her yet, despite outpacing every person she's ever loved and picking them off one by one like Boone snipes Caesar's boys as though one more dead could make up for what was done to his wife.
Veronica has never mourned the fact that she will be forgotten because she came to terms long ago with the truth of the matter being that she isn't a hero. Yet she's coming to realize people like Six, true, story-book heroes of legend deserve to be remembered, but how unfair that the Mojave demands that sort of price in order to not grind a person's memory into dust and blow it away on the breeze. As though the cost of love is blood, sweat, and agony to right the wrongs of others, and accepting every gut-wrenching unintended consequence of trying to do what's right when every option is wrong enough to destroy someone's life.
Six will be remembered for their intelligence and kindness, and they should be, but more often than not, fate is a cruel mistress. Veronica knows it's cliché but her jaw and fists clench every time she remembers the Wasteland is filled with people like Cass, good, brave people drowning themselves in whiskey rather than admit the toll soldiering on takes on the body, on the mind;
people who should be remembered.
The best translation of the Odyssey Veronica ever found in in the hours she spent pouring over archived files on her monitor, the translated called their Odysseus man of many twists and turns; the man of pain. That is part of his bravery, Veronica had learned during her time out in the Wasteland.
His journey wasn’t one of exploration and new frontiers like she had always longed for, but one of return from Troy; the city he felt should have been his grave like all those he cared about who’d died there. And for what? Nothing. She wondered now if the island of the Lotus Eaters, had the same appeal to Odysseus and his men as bars do on Cass? She seemed to be pulled towards them as if by some powerful invisible force. They say Odysseus wanted to stay in that place because the flowers were the only way he could sleep. Or maybe that's just what they told themselves to get through the day.
Everyone has their vices.
In some ways, Cass bore more resemblance to Odysseus than Six did, but then what did that make her? Desperately wishing she would stay, but well aware she was constantly leaving. Six and Cass had that in common. They constantly had to be on the move, flitting from one place to the next. Constantly shifting, rearing at the borders of their own bodies every place they stop that doesn’t feel like home. And Veronica was too afraid to ask if she could be at home with them anywhere they wanted to roam in case they said no.
Veronica knew where she wanted to be, and with who, but also knew that doesn’t mean much of anything in the Mojave. What was it Cass always said? The gun is willing but the barrel is empty? Christine, Father Elijah, she told herself things would work out if they were meant to but it came out too forcefully bright and left the taste of copper in her mouth.
Letting things be meant letting Cass keep drinking herself into an early grave. Maybe she can’t stop her entirely, but damn it if she can’t try. It wasn’t until this moment she’d understood why Arcade has stuck around so long.
She’s seen the way he looks at Six and imagines its the way she looks at Cass, but he has a place to go, a purpose, the Followers. Instead, he holds Six’s hand and explains in the same patient tone during the steadily more frequent moments of panic where they forget who they are and where and why. Explains who each of them is, and always saves himself for last beginning, “I’m Arcade. I’m a doctor. I’m….” pausing for several seconds until continuing, “a friend”.
Maybe he’s more like Veronica than she considered, is trapped in between a hard place and the sea, on an island in between two points on the journey home of Six and Cass. Somebody forgettable, like the king of Phaecia or Calypso, trapped on magical islands that appear only long enough for Odysseus to get back on his feet on the path to something better; an asset to heroic catharsis until the hero has grown enough to leave.
She wished once upon a time to be Penelope, undying love of a hero, even a siren, deadly and beautiful and alluring enough to be worth noticing, but she just wasn’t. Pretending to be wouldn’t mend Cass’ liver, or patch the ever-widening holes in Six’s memory or help either of them sleep.
God knows they need to sleep. They all do.
She’s struck suddenly by memory, all the weight of what she hadn’t seen before crashing down around her at once. Arcade was creeping out of Six’s room, having finished his latest fruitless attempt to return Six’s memories even as the bullet continued to chip away at them.
He closed the door behind him with a click, carefully ripping along the cardboard seam of another empty box so he can hide the logo before throwing it away so they can all keep pretending not to see the Mentats Six pops like candy, as though regaining the pieces of themself that keep slipping away is as simple as gaining a few IQ points.
Too engrossed in her thoughts, as she idly ran her fingers over the half-empty bottle of whiskey she’d wrenched from Cass’ sleeping hands. Cass always looks so beautiful bathed in the beam of moonlight slipping through the gap in the curtains, but so dangerously fragile when she’s sleeping.
Veronica tried to pretend like she was looking out the window like Arcade hadn’t caught her obviously staring as Cass’ across the room where she slept. He gave her a curious look, opened his mouth as if to say something then closed it as if he thought better of it and said nothing. Instead, she broke the silence.
“Any luck tonight?”
And he just sighed and shook his head. He pauses, then looks at her. A familiar kind of sadness in his gaze even behind his glasses in the dark.
He asked her, “Veronica, do you know what the word ‘pharmakon’?”
She pauses, looks at him carefully before answering, “It’s Greek, for medicine.”
He nods, “Also poison. The line between them is so subtle, sometimes, it’s impossible to know the difference.”