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Death Notwithstanding

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She's – so small. Lou fits in both Sam's palms, a warm, fragile thing, so much more breakable now that she's outside her bullet proof shelter. Lou is – she is… so, so small. The most fragile, most breakable thing he's ever held. If he lets go of her for one moment, she's going to die.

And she's cold. He can feel it almost inside his own skin – the chill creeping into her small body, into her tiny limbs and fingers and toes, how small they are, how badly they hold onto warmth. She wrings her little hands and then curls her fingers in, writhing a little in his palms, and the happy look on her precious face gives in to discomfort and confusion. Lou whimpers and Sam realises, in hindsight, that he's been holding his breath – and she's going to cry.

"Hey, hey, sh-sh-sh, it's okay, it's okay," Sam says quickly, as reality catches up with him in a rush of cold air and he realises – she's an infant, younger than an infant, a premature basically and she's naked, and there is no heating in the Incinerator. Lou isn't inside a pod anymore, protected by its well maintained biosphere with its regulated temperature and everything – she's out, and she's fragile.

And he has nothing to put her into, nothing to put on her, no clothes, no – he doesn't even have a scarf

"It's okay, it's okay," Sam says, looking around, but that's stupid – there's nothing in the Incinerator, nothing but concrete and death and – nothing –

Lou lets out a cry, piercingly loud now that she's not being muffled by amniotic fluids and bullet-proof casing – it echoes like a gunshot.

Smothering a curse, Sam rips open his jumpsuit front, wringing the straps of his harness off to get the suit open. His shirt underneath is skin tight, synthetic and timefall proof – which makes it anything but comfortable. So, balancing between holding her and stripping, he gets rid of it until his torso is bare, and he can hold her against it, warm against bare skin.

Lou whimpers, the Quipu she's still holding scratching across Sam's skin as she flails with surprise, but lays her cheek on his chest – seeking warmth.

"There you go, shh-shh, it's okay, it's okay, I'll keep you warm," Sam babbles, taking the Quipu from her hand and shoving it into his pocket. At first going to close the jumpsuit over her to keep her warm that way, trapped against his chest under his clothes – but no, that wouldn't work, she'd slip down with nothing supporting her, and she's so small and fragile, he can't just hook her in and expect her to stick anymore, he needs to be holding her

It's an awkward move, to keep one bare arm around her with a hand holding the back of her head, holding her to his chest, while using the other hand to zip up the suit over his arm and her, trapping both under the timefall proof cloth and leaving him with one usable hand, and no real way to pull on his cargo harness.

Lou mumbles, her little face just visible past his collar, and sticks her thumb in her mouth.

Worth it, Sam decides, and leaves the cargo harness there, on the incinerator floor with her broken pod and his burned cuffs – his broken bonds.


 

DOOMS does funny things to your head. Sam's always known it, though it's harder and harder to tell where the line lies these days – when it's just that he's being a generally surly bastard with trust issues, or if it's some psychological thing caused by his condition, paranoid delusion caused Chiral Contamination.

Either way, he decides he can't go back to Bridges.

For as long as he's been part of Bridges, they had been trying to get rid of Lou, to dispose of her as a broken, malfunctioning equipment. And sure, Sam knows why BBs are the way they are, and why they are treated the way they are – Death Stranding left them all fucked up in the head in a way that made it all almost make sense. But, fuck… Lou was never anything but a baby. And now she's his baby, and not just a Bridge Baby. She's his.

And he's not risking her life with Bridges. Not when he went against executive orders to dispose of her – twice now, really. Knowing his history and hers… there's probably something there to study, too, now that she's out and alive despite all the odds. Something might be going on, something they could figure out about BBs and Death Stranding and probably repatriates too, just by dissecting her. Who knows what her blood and body fluids could do, considering the stuff his does.

He's not taking that risk. He's not going back to Bridges. And he can't run deliveries with her anymore, either. No to Bridges, and no to being porter.

"Just Sam, now," Sam murmurs to Lou. And just Sam doesn't know what to do. He knows what he wants to do, for once that's real damn clear, but where and when and how

For the last who-the-fuck-knows-how-long he's been in so deep with Bridges that everything he has ties back to them. His tech, his connections – that he has connections at all, really, is all because of Bridges. In bringing people together under the umbrella of the country-wide chiral network in order to save them all or whatever, he'd tied it all back to Bridges, too, to the UCA. In light of that…

Where the hell can he even go, where the chiral network with all the ties that bind won't reach?

Sam runs his free hand over the bulge made in the front of his suit by his arm and by Lou – who is snuffling quiet breaths against his sternum, limply asleep against him. She weighs almost nothing, but she's still the heaviest burden he'd borne. And she is… She's going to need things. Babies need things.

Fuck, there was time he knew something about this. About babies. He'd – they'd been expecting, he'd…

Sam bows his head and then shakes it. Long gone, that. Whatever.

There's only so many things he can do here, he just has to pick and choose. Lou needs things he can't provide without help – fine. Can't go to Bridges out of fear of bringing righteous wrath of Die-Hardman on him, fine. That leaves one and half options. Or, one, really. He's not turning to fucking Mules for help.

There's one prepper in the area, not even that far away, who Sam thinks appreciates him enough to not sell him out to Bridges instantly. Maybe it would do.

And if not then… fuck. Sam doesn't know what then.

All there's left to do is try.


 

It's raining, when he makes it through the mountain valleys, from the Incinerator to the side of the ridge, where the Ludens Fan has made his hideout. There's a new Watchtower near it and the lights are on, so it looks like the guy is still around, and maybe even getting out. Or else, other porters are moving in the area more – people have been going out more, despite everything.

They brought America together again, or whatever the fuck it was they did, but that doesn't actually make BTs less of a threat. Timefall still falls, and voidouts are still a thing. What happened didn't… didn't stop things, just stalled them, and definitely not infinitely. But people, they feel things are better. They feel braver.

They're getting stupider.

There's no one outside when Sam limps his way to the entrance of the shelter and out of the rain. The shelter doesn't react, there's no welcoming AI voice identifying him with Bridges or Fragile Express ID, he has neither of them now – the place is completely quiet. It's kind of eerie.

The terminal doesn't raise for him either.

"Damn it," Sam mutters, looking around in the completely blank and inactive entrance and then turns to the door, leading in. He's spent a night or two here with the guy, he can't remember – it was weird, but it was warm and dry and he got a hot meal and everything. Ludens Fan seemed – cool with it.

"Hey," Sam calls and then bangs his fist on the door. "Hey, Ludens – it's Sam. Hey, anyone in?"

Lou makes a noise against his chest, waking up and kicking him in the belly scar – maybe it's a lingering connection or maybe he just can tell by her voice, but she feels cranky.

"Hey, Ludens Fan!" Sam calls, rocking Lou awkwardly, and bangs his fist on the metal door again. "It's Sam – I brought you shit – come on, open up!"

It's a moment before there's a reaction, and a hologram pops up by the still slotted-in terminal. "What – Sam!" the guy says, whirling around. "What are you – the system didn't register you. Where did you come from, man?"

"Outside, and it's raining buckets," Sam says, impatient and awkward. He hates dealing with people in the best of times, and this is not the best of times. Having to ask for help, too… "I need to hunker down for the night, can you –"

"Oh, yeah, for sure, man," Ludens Fan says, still seeming baffled, and waves his hand. "Come on in – and don't mind the mess, I've been, ah –"

Sam ignores whatever he was saying and steps in, out of the cold and into the more hospitable temperatures inside. Lou is making a sort of distressed keening noise now, wringing her arms and legs at his chest, and Sam just knows she's going to start crying any moment. Inside would be better than out.

The shelter door closes automatically while in the corridor inside lights turn on. The whole corridor is a mess of boxes and cargo containers – Ludens Fan has to jump over some of them, when he comes to greet Sam.

"Sorry, sorry – I've been ordering more stuff, with porters travelling more between Capital and Port Knot," the guy says, "Wasn't exactly expecting company – and shouldn't you be in the Capital, anyway, with the Inauguration and everything –"

And that's when Lou lets out her first cry – and a moment later Sam feels – something run down the inside of his suit. Ah. Shit.

Ludens Fan freezes with surprise and Sam hesitates between awkwardly ignoring what's happening and dealing with it before deciding that, fuck it, Lou is more important. "Can I use the shower?" he asks.

"Y-yeah, man, of course," Ludens Fan says, looking between him and the crying, flailing lump of his chest. "Um – is, is that a – that's a –"

"Yeah," Sam says. "I'll – explain. After shower," he says, turning to see if he could find the thing, and then hesitating. "Can you – not tell anyone?" he asks. "Don't send messages about me, to anyone. Okay?"

"Okay?" Ludens Fan says. "I mean, yeah, for sure man, not a word. Owe you that much at least, for the stuff you've gotten me – but Sam, man, that's a baby, right?"

"Yeah," Sam says again. "Shower?"

"Yeah," Ludens Fan agrees and points. "Thataway."

Sam goes. The feeling trickling down his belly is bad enough that he doesn't even care to check if Ludens Fan's shower has more or less privilege than the Bridges one – he just wants to clean up and see what's wrong with Lou.

Lou is full on wailing by the time Sam manages to strip enough to see what it was dunning down his stomach. It's probably shit, though it doesn't really look the part. "The fuck, Lou?" he murmurs and then, like a memory of a dream, recalls. Lou's never done a shit. Or a piss. This is the first. Because technically, Lou was just born. She hasn't eaten or drank anything. "Right."

Lou wails on as Sam struggles out of his jumpsuit and kicks his boots off – getting into the shower doesn't calm her down much, at first, she just cries harder. But she's also a mess and that's not so good, so Sam braves through it enough to get them both clean – by which time she goes number one on him, too. "Seriously?" Sam mutters, holding her against his chest with one hand and rinsing her off with the other. "Well, I guess better in a shower than in my clothing. Gotta get a diaper for you, Lou."

It's almost a joke, except… it isn't. Babies do need diapers. Diapers are for babies. Shit.

"Shit," Sam says out loud and then, as Lou's wretched wailing starts quieting down to tired whining and grumbling, he falls to sit on the bottom of the shower. "Shit," Sam says again, and looks down at her. "Lou, I got no idea what I'm doing."

She looks at him with that look that knows him and trusts him, and Sam feels a moment of utter abject horror at the thought that she really thinks he's got this, that she can trust him with everything. With her life.

"Fuck," Sam murmurs shakily, closing both arms around her, and for a moment he just sits there, under the downpour of warm water. She's so small, she feels like nothing against his chest, she's so light, so tiny – 28 weeks, wasn't it? When she was in the pod it was so easy, he just had to carry her, make sure nothing damaged the pod, occasionally soothe her, it was easy. Now, now she's got bodily functions going on, and there's no more pod to protect her. Now there's just him, and he's probably already fucking up. Shit, shit, shit…

Lou makes a noise, quizzical, and Sam tilts his head up to let the shower wash his face clean before looking down. She's got water running over her, and her thumb is in her mouth again. She's still looking at him, eyes huge and so damn smart, and still so trusting.

Sam opens his mouth, not sure what to say but thinking he has to say something to her, to tell her that he will try not to fuck this up but he's not sure he can't – when there's a knock on the door.

"I, ah, I got you some towels here?" Ludens Fan says through the door. "The airdryer is busted up, sorry, and probably not good for a baby anyway. I would've gotten, like, baby clothes and diapers, didn't look like you came in with much, but I wasn't sure about the size –"

Sam wipes his hand under his nose and then goes to stand up. "Just get the smallest you can print," he says roughly and then, awkwardly, adds, "Thanks."

"No problem, man," Ludens Fan says, sounding a little relieved. "I'll just leave these here and see what I can get out of the printer – and maybe some, like, formula?"

Formula? Sam blinks, confused. "I'm sorry?"

"Or did you bring some with?" Ludens Fan asks through the door. When Sam doesn't answer, he adds, slowly. "For the kid. Food?"

"I – yeah. No, I didn't bring any. Make some, yeah, if you can. Thanks," Sam says, his shoulders slumping. The fuck is formula? "Thanks. Again."

"No problem, really. Take your time," the guy says. "I'll be in the kitchen."

Sam nods, despite the fact that the guy can't see it, and waits until he hears the man's steps leading away before going to grab the towels. Lou makes a discontent noise as he towels her off, making him to go about it gentler and gentler until he finally just wraps her up in the towel and holds her, which she seems to prefer. "There we go," Sam murmurs. "That's not so bad, yeah?"

Lou coos in agreement, and lays her head to his chest again, so… that's good.

His jumpsuit is in baby shit, so Sam makes the risky decision of trusting Ludens Fan's washer with it, before slipping on his travel worn boots and wrapping a towel around his waist. It's not the most dignified way of going about but… better than covered in baby shit.

"Sorry," Sam says to Ludens Fan, after finding his way to the kitchen. "Lou did a number two on me. Had to clean it off."

"No problem, man," Ludens Fan says, turning around, and then drops the bottle he is holding, shouting "Holy fucking shit!"

Sam, shifts his footing awkwardly, coughing. On the floor, the bottle rolls away, unbroken – plastic, it looks like.

"Shit, sorry – oh man, that's – wow," Ludens Fan babbles awkwardly, fiddling with his hands and then turning away. "I mean I knew being a porter was something else, but damn. Sorry – um, I got you some stuff."

He had. There's a handful of freshly printed packages on the ceramic kitchen table, sitting amidst various statues, figurines and what looks like some sort of painting kit which had been pushed aside to make room for them. Around the table the kitchen is a mess – Sam's remembering it now, it had been that way the last time too. Mess of posters and figurines and stuff, with books and whatnot strewn about. Ludens Fan spent the whole night babbling about some book or something, Sam can't really remember the details.

Preppers. They're all their own breed. And isn't this a turn of events – parcels for him, rather than the opposite.

"Thanks," Sam says, gruff, and steps forward to check them. They're familiar in that way chiral-printed equipment look like fresh off the printer, but they're also like nothing Sam's ever printed. There's a mostly resin printed clear package of clothes, it looks like – tiny little generic baby clothing, all of them grey. Another is a package with print of Nursery Essentials Package No. 1 written on the frame. It's full of tightly packed little cloth squares, with four canisters of – something on the side. The last is a case of bottles with white stuff in them – it looks like a case of beer from the Timefarm, but definitely isn't.

Sam has the weirdest déjà vu about all of it. Like he knows all of it, but doesn't at the same time.

Ludens Fan looks between him and the packages and then coughs. "Um, there's diapers, clothes, food – did, did you need something else? If the kid needs medicine, man, I'm sorry, I can't print that,"

"No, this – this is fine," Sam says and hopes it is. "Where can I –"

"Oh, right, right – the bed in the guest room is clean, you can use that," Ludens Fan offers.

Sam nods and goes, figuring that there's nothing to it but to figure it out. It all looks like Bridges issued stuff, which should make things easy, anyway – Bridges build their stuff absolutely idiot proof. And that's what Sam feels like, right now – like an idiot.

Lou makes a face at him as he lays her in her towel cocoon on the bed, but she seems as curious about the packages as he is, turning to look as Sam sits down to check them over. And, thankfully, there's guides on the packages, explaining how to use everything in them. You don't even need to know how to read to figure out how to use the thing – there's cartoony pictures to go along with the explanations.

Sam looks over the guide on how to change diapers, how to check for diaper rash, how to apply powder to prevent it, all of it, before turning to Lou. "I think we can figure this out."

She coos in agreement, and then endures his fumbling about with mostly curious expression, watching him and then giggling as Sam tugs her legs this way and that to get the diaper on. It's the size XS according to the package, and it's still so big that he has to improvise tightening it a little so that it won't slip off her. "Well. Got room to grow," Sam mutters, tucking the diaper until he's sure both him and her are satisfied with it, before turning to the clothing. At least those don't need guides.

It's… weird, how alien this all seems. It isn't, in a way – but it feels like he should remember more. There was a time when he was going to be a dad. He learned this stuff then, he was – he remembers being terrified but confident. Thinking he got this. You'd think it would stick better.

At least Lou is patient as Sam figures out what he's forgotten somewhere along the way. They end with her in a fresh diaper and a little grey bodysuit, over which Sam tugs on a little pair of pants and shirt with longer sleeves – it's cold out, after all. There's even little socks, which Lou makes a face at, but lets him put on.

"Gotta keep you warm," Sam murmurs, tugging on the clothes here and there to make sure the fit is good and not too tight on her anywhere. It really isn't – they're all so big she's pretty much drowning in them. But it's definitely better than nothing. "Don't got a pod doing most of the work for us anymore. Can't have you getting a cold."

Lou makes her opinion known by taking hold of her own foot and trying to stick the new sock in her mouth. Sam watches her and then snorts. "Cute," he says, before picking her up. She coos and lays against his still bare chest like it's exactly where she belongs.

And it is.

Sam draws a breath and then turns to head out and back to the kitchen, where Ludens Fan is fiddling with the formula bottle, and what even Sam can tell is meant for feeding babies – it has a nipple thing.

"Package said lukewarm to skin temp," the guy says and holds the bottle out. "Think I got it about right, but you better check."

Sam checks – the formula, Baby Formula, is also Bridges make. It too has all the instructions written on the package. "Seems okay," Sam says, awkward – like he knows any better. "Thanks, man. Appreciate it."

"No worries," Ludens Fan says, sitting down. "I mean – it wasn't even four kilos of materials. That's like, nothing compared to the stuff you've hauled for me."

"Still," Sam says, looking at the instructions for a moment longer and then turning to Lou. "Hungry?"

She blows a spit bubble at him.

Sam snorts. "I'll take that as a yes," he murmurs, and sits down to figure out how to do the thing. Ludens Fan watches him, looking torn between amazed and horrified – looking between him, Lou, and his BT marked skin. He obviously wants to ask.

Sam glances at him. "BTs," he says and shrugs. Easier to say than explain the truths, anyway. It's not like many could contradict it, anyway.

"Yeah, um. I thought so," Ludens Fan says and coughs. "Just, damn, man. Looks rough."

Sam shakes his head, watching Lou trying to figure out the baby bottle. "You said there's more porters going about?"

"Yeah. I mean, not at the speeds you were going when you were in the area," Ludens Fan says, waving a hand. "But yeah, there's some porters running between Capital and Port Knot now pretty regularly, and they got those delivery bots – I think you were taking part in developing them? Read something about it. Anyway, we got stuff moving about more these days, it's pretty cool."

Sam nods. "People come here often?" he asks warily.

"Not like every day, but I can pretty much trust someone to come around every week at least," Ludens Fan agrees. "And most packages get where they're going too."

Sam eyes Lou fixedly as she tugs on the bottle with little hands, wondering how much traffic there would be out there. Ludens Fan's shelter isn't that far from a BT area, but people have weapons against BTs now…

His host looks at him and hums. "I'm thinking you're not here for a pit stop, exactly," he says slowly. "And without any ID… Are you aiming to go underground, Sam?"

Sam glances up sharply.

"Hey, you'll get no judgement from me, man," Ludens Fan says, holding his hands up. "I mean, look at me, where I'm living – got no leg to stand on. Just – makes a guy wonder. After all you've done, it kind of looks like you're maybe… on the run, here."

Sam shifts where he sits, holding Lou a bit more securely to his chest. "Not – exactly," he says. "I just – I've done my part. Figure I could… do what I want, now that the part is done."

Ludens Fan hums. "I get ya," he says. "And I mean, you did kind of – everything, from what I've heard, so doubt anyone could deny you getting to take a break. Or even retire," he muses and looks at Lou. "Looking to settling down, maybe?"

"Not here," Sam says, reflexively – Ludens Fan has always been good to him, but the man's place is a mess and staying this close to Capital Knot City…

Ludens Fan laughs. "Don't blame you – you must've seen so many better places," he says, a little wistful. "No, I hear you. I wouldn't settle here again, if I had better options. You thinking somewhere west?"

"Yeah, maybe," Sam says, noncommittal. He doesn't really know. There's… options, out in the west, but…

Lou's figured out the bottle now, and is chomping down on the teat with toothless gums, making smacking noises and a mess. "Almost got it," Sam says fondly, and she frowns at him, little nails scraping on the bottle as she concentrates on figuring it out. Looks like he will have to wipe her down, after, with the spills she's making.

Ludens Fan looks between him and the baby and coughs. "Well. You're welcome to stay here for as long as you need," he offers, generously. "Least I can do, really – and you can get in touch with other preppers from here, if you'd like. I mean, hush-hush like," he says and winks. "I might be UCA, but once a prepper, always a prepper, am I right? We got a community of our own. And I know you've done favours for a lot of preppers."

Sam looks up hesitantly. "You don't – mind?" he asks, glancing towards where there's a Bridges terminal installed in older systems of the Shelter.

"Mind? Dude, you are like a living legend – and I mean that in a literal sense," the guy says enthusiastically, making Sam smother a grimace. "Sam, man, they're going to write books about you – stories, histories. I bet there will be comic books, and movies once people get around to making those again! Hell yeah, I don't mind – I actually kind of want to take a shot at writing down your story myself!"

Sam smothers a sigh. Great, just great, he thinks and turns to look at Lou who giggles at his no doubt obvious discomfort.

Well, at least someone's happy.