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The Valor of Charlemagne's Court

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“If I see another mirelurk, it’ll be too soon,” Nora grumbled, cautiously rolling a shoulder and wincing at the building ache. Her supplies, already depleted beyond a safe level, could only be for truly dire needs and a stiff shoulder wasn’t one of them. Trudging through the sand, Nora disdainfully skirted the half eaten carcasses of monstrous porpoises and fish heads.

“Need I remind you this was your idea,” a husky voice muttered behind her.

The sole survivor of Vault 111 tilted her head to glimpse Paladin Danse shaking an armored hand free of mirelurk mucus with a disgusted furrow to his brow. She smiled weakly at him, but feared to admit her mistake aloud.

Stupid prewar logic . She stomped a bulbous fish head beneath her boot. After all the roadside attacks from raiders, super mutants, and insects the length of her torso, she sought the open beaches of the coastline. That logic had brought about additional trouble with mirelurks, more mirelurks, and a few raider bands. Her initial hopes were dashed the moment the great view, intended to help them avoid needless trouble, allowed a raider passe bull rush their position. By the time the fight was won, mirelurks sprung from the depths and left them scrambling for higher ground.

Inhaling the sharp briny air, she glowered broodingly out to sea. The world she had awoken in was no longer her home and even though she did her best to accept every experience at face value, the truth burrowed deep. Even the Paladin, a soldier through and through, complimented her endearing acceptance to the new and it made her want to laugh with despair. How else could she survive without losing her mind? A piece of her begged to curl up and cry at the living nightmare. On most days, sheer maternal instinct hardened her into an unforgiving, stubborn bitch.

Perhaps the reason behind her comfort in the Brotherhood was due to the law and order presiding over them - a familiar force standing proud amidst the chaos. It explained her near obsessive need to please and impress Elder Maxson. The Paladin at her back was additional consolation when very little could overtake them.

“What do you see Knight?”

Nora blinked, realizing she had stopped a moment too late. Digging the toe of her boot into the sand, she resisted the urge to ignore Danse’s jab with one of her own. Although his brisk tone suggested the question as an order, she understood Danse’s sponsorship was very little more than monitoring her behavior and decisions for the Brotherhood. Danse was still her superior in every facet, but he gave very few orders off the Prydwen and allowed Nora the freedom to lead. Only after a few hours of travelling, she found solace in the thunder of his footfalls at her heels.

“Nothing I recognize,” she admitted, watching light refract off the waves. Puffing up her chest, she swiveled to examine the poor state of Danse’s armor. Both of them were smudged with dirt and grime, but the blood and acidic mucus from mirelurks would be detrimental to the power armor’s joints if unattended. Pulling the Pipboy to her face, Nora wrinkled her nose as she sifted through the menus until the map gurgled to life.

“According to that trader, there should be some abandoned museum along the coast ahead of us. If we reach that by nightfall, I bet that’ll be a good place to call it for the day.” Nora referenced the marker with a quick tap as Danse’s towering frame leaned over hers.

“Looks like a good enough spot,” he agreed absently. “And we’re here?” He motioned to the arrow a few miles south of their goal and she nodded.

“Let’s hope there’s no commotion between us and it.” She knew it to be a hopeless prayer, but felt worth being said.

“The sooner we’re done here, the better.”

Without further prodding, Nora set off with the map still burning in her skull. Since her waking mere weeks ago, she had taken it upon herself to search every building for Shaun and the Institute that took him. After losing her way twice, Nora began monitoring each location as a small blip on the map. Such a simple act assisted with the unknown and kept her from walking into the same raider ambush more than once. But then… those hazy, lime blips became reminders of past failures in her hunt and rose questions against her own ethics.

“Am I raider?” She asked, finding a voice to her shadowed thoughts. To Nora, categorizing herself into their subgroup made too much sense to be ignored. If any companion could chase away the doubts, it would be the driven soldier.

“Interesting turn of subject,” Danse snorted. “Where are you going with this?”

Keeping her eyes on the ground before them, she couldn’t resist the snarl curling her lip. “Think about it,” she chided. “I charge in, kill - no, murder the ones against me and then take what I want from the spoils. Is that not what the raider groups do daily? How can I consider myself better than them?” The pounding against her ribs served as a warning of the sheer panic struggling for release.

“Easy. You have a code you follow,” Danse stated indifferently. In a few easy steps, he approached until he matched his gait with hers. A heavy gauntlet rested firmly on her shoulder and she grimaced at the unintentional flare it caused in sore muscles. “You might not see it, but everyone else can. If you had a choice, I know you would rather negotiate your way out. The enemy doesn’t give you that choice.”

“Doesn’t make me feel any better,” she grumbled, but knew the lie. In fact, his confirmation of her morals gave confidence in her actions, but it still left a vile taste in her mouth.

“Killing someone, in war or otherwise, is never painless,” he said gently, giving her shoulder a soft squeeze before relinquishing the hold entirely.

Nora peeked over at the Paladin and caught the pained memory flicker over his features, knowing the past was haunting him as well. Even though they spent only a bit of time together, she found herself wondering the history Danse kept hidden. Behind the stiff and fierce soldier persona, she sensed a good-hearted man with his own set of principles. Perhaps one day she would ask him of it, but knew now was not the time nor place.

Together, they walked in silence toward the distant horizon; drowning in thoughts of a too distant past with no hold on the present. Nora kept her feet moving, even if her legs begged with fatigue, and pushed forward up yet another hillside. Contrast to her dainty and cautious footing, Danse’s nonplussed, heavy steps paved his own path through debris. She smirked and slowed enough to let him charge ahead until she was enveloped by the hulking shadow left in his wake.

Unlike her companion, Nora preferred silence and stealth in combat. The rifle slung over her shoulder was proof of such preference and her skills were for a single shot to be enough. Danse, alternatively, was literally a walking target. Their first mission together, against synths, had been rocky. Without a doubt, Danse attempted to play by her rules until he was spotted. The loss of surprise forced them to counter the onslaught and left her scrambling until Danse shifted tactics. In mere seconds, they became a cohesive group with him running interference while she picked off synths one by one. It was dangerous work, but had held up surprisingly well, much to her disbelief.

“That it?” He asked suddenly, pointing out toward the east and the wooden building nestled within a copse of rotting trees. Nora’s eyes flickered down to the bright screen of the Pipboy before nodding. As it slowly came further into view, she was surprised to see the museum largely intact. Most buildings they stumbled into were too decayed or destroyed to warrant safe rest. However, the lone decrepit museum in the dimming light held a sense of foreboding she couldn’t shake.

“What kind of museum is this?” She whispered and the hair on her arms stood on end.

“Museum of Witchraft,” Danse read, approaching the battered sign leaning against a bent iron fence. “Seems abandoned,” he continued, stepping back to crane up at the peaked roof.

Ignoring him, Nora squinted to the bushes and unconsciously pressed a firm hand against rifle slung across her shoulder. Something isn’t right , she thought grimly. It’s too quiet . Her stomach quivered from something beyond hunger. Leaving Danse to investigate the entryway, she carefully tracked the iron fence looping the grounds. If someone did indeed call the museum home, she intended to find out.

Skirting the decayed remains of brushland obscuring her view, she winced at the sudden rancid smell of decay. At a narrow break in the fence, Nora slipped through and nearly tripped over the remains of a human. The body was sunken, grey and missing a head. Nora gagged against the bubbling bile and covered her mouth with a gloved hand. She was used to seeing monstrosities, but it was difficult to shake the disgust from witnessing a body. Even if it wasn’t caused by her trigger. Focusing her inner strength, whatever of it was left, she bent down and began rifling through pockets with her free hand. I didn’t know her… it’s just a corpse; an object like socks or bullets.

“Paladin Danse!” She barked, quickly covering up her mouth again to avoid the sour rot. On cue, she could hear the heavy thump of each step before he rounded the fence’s corner.

“The front door’s barred, but I- what happened here?”

In pure strength, he pushed the fence clear of his way to kneel next to her. The sound of metal against metal rang her ears and Nora gritted her teeth against it. Unlike the discomfort she showed, Danse’s eyes narrowed as he looked beyond the possessions to the evidence of injuries.

“There’s not enough here to identify the remains,” he began gruffly. “His head’s been ripped clean off and see there, tearing across the spine through the leather.”

Nora pocketed the find of bullets into her own pouch before looking around. “No sign of the head,” she announced. “But look here…”

Nora clung to the familiar angles of the tape strewn with the body, hesitating only briefly as she exchanged it for  the one in her Pipboy. With tender gentleness, she slipped the used tape in her pocket and ignored Danse’s curious glances. Huddled together, they listened at the recording fizzle to life, pockets of white noise dotting the dialogue.

- - “Jefferies! Lee got the recorder working. So, this the sorta detail ya had in mind when you signed up for the Gunners? Hauling luggage from Lynn Woods for some robot butler? What was his name? Welliton? Wellingham?” - -

Nora snorted, the name conjuring up mercenaries who already fired at her once or twice.

- - “Not now, Private. Where's Connors? He's not as his post. - -

- - “Oh, uh, sorry sir. The lieutenant said he'd found some tracks, wanted to check them out.” - -

- - “Tracks? What track... what the hell is that?” - -

- - “Oh my... C-Conners? Where- where's the rest of him?” - -

- - “Jesus. It found us. Sergeant Lee, grab the case! Do not let that thing out of your sight! Everyone inside the museum! Now!” - -

- - “Major. Major! What found us!?” - -

Nora’s skin prickled and she tried to quell the shudder of dread tingling her spine. Danse snorted, straightening from her and his eyes roved over the landscape.

“Well, whatever happened here, we missed it.”

“Good,” she replied stubbornly and slowly stood, flinching at her muscles’ protest. Wiping her hands to chase the chill of touching a human corpse, she absorbed what remained to their survey. The museum’s windows were boarded up or too discolored for scouting out the interior, leaving the building as an enigma yet to be explored. The iron doors leading the cellar were discolored copper from rust, but Nora hesitated in her reach for the handle.

“Should we keep moving?” She asked, looking behind her at the Brotherhood’s Paladin. He was standing, his hair rustling in the upswept breeze, with a hardened gaze observing the sun’s final descent. At the start of their adventure from the airport, long before the sun slipped above the horizon, she had insisted he remove the ridiculous cowl strapped to his head. Whether he appreciated her encouragement or felt embarrassed by her taunting comments, the next time she turned to him, the cowl was gone and they acted as though it never existed. Without it, he appeared more human and helped cement the person beneath the Brotherhood of Steel’s code.

“Too late. We need to call it, whether we like it or not. The building’s in good shape and seems abandoned,” He said quietly, his deep russet eyes turning to scorch hers with a firm glare.

“Well then, let’s get in there and find a good place for a nap,” Nora shrugged, yanking open the cellar door and slipping inside. Danse followed close behind and gently lowered the door behind them until they submerged in darkness. The vault survivor paused only long enough to allow her eyes time to adjust. Keeping hands firmly on the rifle, she scurried down the few steps deeper into the basement and nearly leapt out of her skin at the sound of very large footsteps above them. Nora froze and watched in horror as dust sprinkled from the floorboards overhead with each stomp.

“Those footsteps are too heavy to be human. Be ready for anything,” Danse hissed behind her and mimicked her crouch. She sucked in her lower lip and debated about turning right around. They necessarily had no place to be there to begin with, but… Dammit, curiosity is going to kill me one day . Staying crouched and quiet, Nora shuffled across the room with her back following the cool brick of the outmost wall. Not as quietly, Danse followed her.

At the door’s threshold to the next room, she registered the hole in the floorboards before realizing the head and arm of a body dangling from it. It was a man and like the body outside, his skin was pale with sunken cheeks. Ignoring it for her stomach’s sake, she focused on the battered burgundy chair further into the room. It was the only surviving furniture besides the storage crates stacked neatly along the wall behind it. Just as she was about to move on, the body squirmed and the sound of crunching flesh and bone came overhead. Blood seeped through the cracks to drip around skeletal remains of the original prewar inhabitants. Gasping for breath, Nora scrambled backward and bit off a startled yelp. A metal hand swiftly wrapped around her waist and yanked her into the curve of Danse’s armored chest.

“Stay close!” He growled out, his eyes never wavering from the twitching corpse and guttural sounds. Nora tucked herself even further beneath his crouched form and tried calm the tremble in her knees. The body suddenly slid from view and with a final crunch, the horrible noises stopped. Still they waited, huddled together in the basement for any other frightening surprises.

Nora carefully turned in Danse’s grasp and his dark eyes met hers. How come he doesn’t look afraid? How does he do it? Instead, his hazel eyes were sparking dangerously and she sensed the storm. With reluctance, Danse’s hand slipped away and he tapped her arm to continue. A final brief shake of her shoulders and Nora once again slipped through the maze of rooms toward the staircase leading upward.

Every crackle of wood beneath their feet became too loud for her ears as she edged closer to the stairs. We should stop here , she thought dryly. I should be relying on my instincts, not burying them . Even her incessant desire to collect every item not nailed down (against the vocalized complaints of her companion) had been dulled in the increasing impulse to flee. Licking split lips with an equally parched tongue, Nora stalled at the bottom stair with a quivering trigger finger.

“Move,” mumbled Danse, giving her back an unceremonious shove with the head of his pistol. Nora spun on the balls of her feet and scowled at his own stubborn frown. Unimpressed with the silent banter, the Paladin raised his eyebrows toward the main floor and impatiently motioned for continuation.

Her eyes rolled and she shoved him back. “Did you not hear the maneater upstairs?”

His snort made her twitch and she pushed him again in a demand for silence. “ Think ,” he murmured. “We either have an unknown, a behemoth, or a deathclaw. Nothing else is large enough. Fight through the fear, Knight.”

Frowning at the pull of rank, Nora began working up each individual step. Behemoths were pigheaded and easy to handle when cornered. The lumbering giants often got confused or maintained enough distance to throw the oversized rocks strapped to their backs. After that first blow nearly knocked her senseless, Nora had found it better to dodge and roll through the battle. However, they weren’t her main concern: a deathclaw was.

Since Vault 111, Nora’s experiences with the fearsome beasts were limited to two encounters. The first was also her initial experience in a power armor suit in a desperate attempt to defend Preston. She had screamed and near ran for her life as the towering beast rammed and battered the metal exoskeleton until Preston toppled it. The second had been a stumble into a showdown between a deathclaw and three radscorpions. If Dogmeat hadn’t barked an alert, she would have waltzed right into the ongoing battlefield. As it was, she barely slipped out of sight to witness the overgrown arachnids get ripped apart.

At the top of the stairs, Nora resisted her disappointment at the museum’s layout. Unlike the open expanse she initially anticipated, this room was walled off and filled with odd baubles for storage. Her stomach caved inward and without much thought, she rounded the doorway and into the museum.

Streaks of light slipped through splintered windows to cast long shadows on broken mannequins, exposed wiring, and faded back drops of starry nights. The vaulted ceiling was crumbling with timber littering the ground in piles of ash and sharp beams. Abandoned campsites - mattresses and personal effects - were pushed up along the walls in a hasty attempt to clean up. Stepping further into the room, Nora’s eyes narrowed when the menacing beast never showed. The room was surprisingly empty with only the main entry hidden from view by a cracked wall. No growls, not even a heavy footstep.

“Well, this is anticlimactic,” Nora sighed, straightening and her spine popped in protest. Rubbing out the kinks in her neck from keeping one position for so long, she continued deeper into the museum. Paladin Danse grunted and holstered his pistol before approaching the nearest of sets where naked mannequins leaned against a black cauldron. Upon closer inspection, anything of value was already long gone; leaving charred and broken leftovers.

Picking stable footing over wooden beams, Nora began meandering toward the main door with every intent on fresh air. Her gaze roved over the sets and marveled at the stories they must’ve told, but became lost in the turn of time. Turning the corner for the doors, she stiffened at the heavy hiss of huge lungs exhaling heat. With mouth agape, she flung herself backward to escape burning amber eyes brimming with beastial fury. She landed hard on her back and crawled toward the far wall. Nora wanted to scream and hide, but a squeak barely slid through her constricted throat.

Mere inches from her, the reptilian snout of a deathclaw rippled with growing rage. The slender nostrils flared to absorb her scent and the upper lip curled to expose a neat row of fangs. Nora resumed to scoot herself backwards, too frightened to even quake in terror. Its gurgling snarl elevated into a high piercing roar and the sound shattered the silence strangling Nora’s voice. She matched the scream in pitch and knew, no matter the circumstances, her life was about to end.

I’m leaving Shaun, alone, in a nightmare .

The deathclaw dropped low and pounded a threatening claw, splintering the floorboards beneath its weight. Nora challenged the stare-down and whipped the butt of her rifle against a shoulder. The click was familiar, but held a sense of finality as the bullet slipped into place. Her rifle stood no place against the slavering maw before her.

At first, the thoughts surfaced, unbidden, to her consciousness and her eyes shimmered. She always anticipated her life, what little she had experienced, to summarize in a flash of images. The few times she knocked on death’s door, it had been through a surge of adrenaline and stempacks, graciously avoiding any dreams of her past. Now, with her heart pounding against her ribcage, something was different. A single face rose from memory; one she fought to keep buried.

Nate .

The last of her happiest times.

His smile was encouraging with that little bit of sass she always admired. He was holding Shaun close to his chest, bouncing the squirming babe like he used to. Nora’s lower lip quivered and she sucked in another shaky breath. With her husband’s memory, she purposefully pulled the trigger and the weight of the rifle thrust against her bruising shoulder.

In that moment, an armored body plowed into the deathclaw’s muzzle and her bullet buried deep into the plating of Danse’s side. From the paladin’s momentum, both creature and man collided into the wall and shook the very foundation. Nora blinked and took Danse’s opportunity to clamber back toward the storage closet, fumbling for the laser pistol holstered at her side. At the doorway, she spun and fired blindly into the deathclaw’s hindquarters.

Through disturbed silt from the scuffle, it roared in distress and struggled against its aggressor. With one forearm shielding his unprotected face from dangerous canines, Danse braced himself against the deathclaw’s brute force. His pistol, rammed against the hardened hide, fired round after round while the beast chewed on the offered arm. Nora, ignoring the tears streaking her face, reloaded with the efficient ease of a true soldier just as the deathclaw shoved into the paladin. In a crash, Danse dropped onto his back and the beast tore to reach him through the armor.

Nora refused to have Danse’s life for her own, even if he intended it so. Galloping into the fray, she plunged the barrel straight into the creature’s neck and fired. Flesh gave way in a splattering rain and the deathclaw wailed in agony. Pinned, Danse mimicked the gesture from below until its tissue and bone was a seared and bloody pulp. No longer with the will to fight, the deathclaw staggered and shuffled sideways before collapsing in a jumbled heap.

Breathing with effort, she quietly approached the still body to nudge with a foot. When no response came, she rounded to her companion, who remained on floor. Nora leaned over him and forcibly clung to the collar of his power armor.

“Are you fucking stupid?!” She snarled and gave him a hearty shake. He clinked back to the ground and blinked up at her in astonishment.

“Watch your tone, Knight,” He bit back.

“Don’t you dare pull rank!”

“I saved your life,” Danse snapped, his eyes crackling with fire.

“You were an idiot! My life isn’t your sacrifice,” Nora jostled him again, for what little it was worth. The paladin scarcely budged and with a solid grunt, knocked her away to stand. Scratches, punctures, and dents dotted his armor’s landscape; an obvious reminder of his close encounter. Taking a careful, steady breath, Nora’s piercing stare studied her fellow Brotherhood soldier. A surface wound at his left temple oozed along his cheekbone, but the rest of the gore didn’t belong to him. Even through her frustration at his actions, she breathed a sigh of relief at his safety. Fucking lucky idiot .

“I would have done that for any one of my team. Don’t assume you’re something special.” Danse pointed an accusing digit at her chest and Nora considered realigning his nose slightly to the left. Her delicate brow wrinkled and a burst of laughter escaped her throat to startle them both. The paladin’s lips pursed and she discreetly covered her mouth with the back of a hand to nullify the giggles.

“Oh hell, we just took on a deathclaw ,” Nora motioned in the direction of the felled beast as if the physical proof exemplified her statement. “I may not be special, but I’m sure as hell unique.”

The fierce rebellion in Danse’s ochre eyes abated and she caught the gentle twitch at his mouth before she found herself grinning all the same. “No one will believe us,” he grunted as he studied the stupid smile on her face. It soon became contagious as they shared a chuckle at their sheer dumb luck and Nora privately appreciated his participation.

While strange to compare a man to a canine, Dogmeat’s companionship was one of mutual understanding and patience. Her reliance and pure dependance on his instinct kept them out of enough trouble to survive. However, conversation was limited to the few commands Dogmeat understood. On the opposite end, Codsworth never muted himself for an extended period and his reminder of the past became too much to bear. Instead, his permanent residence at Sanctuary Hills provided additional assistance to Mama Murphy as needed and allowed Nora to work in peace.

Danse turned from her with the sole purpose of utilizing the strength his suit provided, and with a firm grip on the deathclaw’s tail, began dragging it for the front door. Nora observed his efforts quietly and knew any comments would be unwelcome, even in jest. Paladin Danse was frustratingly different from her former companions and she wasn’t entirely sure the change was worth it. Whereas Codsworth was obsessively chipper, Danse barked out disapproving remarks whenever he could, which led to enough arguments in their short time together.

With a growl and a final yank from Danse, the deathclaw’s head slipped behind the wall separating the foyer and the rest of their museum until only a crimson smear reminded her of their work. Nora smirked faintly and chewed on her lower lip, glancing around at the supplies abandoned in the beast’s wake. The squirm in her chest at the thought of sleeping on a soft surface was involuntary and she went about finding the least distasteful of the pile.

Every fiber, each muscle, screamed at the additional effort of dragging the yellowing mattresses from behind exhibits. So deep in her wrestle against the heavy material, Nora didn’t notice Danse’s approach until he was standing directly behind her and observing her pathetic struggle. Straightening and rubbing the tenderness out of her spine with a wince, she playfully patted the hardened metal protecting Danse’s shoulder.

“You, man,” she announced in the bravest caveman voice she could conjure. “You carry. Me, woman. Get firewood.”

Danse arched a brow and his mouth twitched as he fought against her ill attempt at humor. “Very well, Knight. Mind your footing out the door.”

Nora blinked at him and couldn’t bother to find the enthusiasm, reply, and complete her task all in the same evening. Instead, she left him to his assignment and made a mental note to clean up his bloodied face before it worsened. Whether she would remember said note was an entirely different and difficult challenge. Nora kept her mind in a pleasant haze as she wandered through the building to gather the cluttered timber. Through everything, sometimes the numb served as a temporary reprieve from the nightmares constantly plaguing her waking hours and kept her from going mad.

Each armful was brought faithfully to their budding campsite in the museum’s center and each time the two companions mingled in the same space, very little was uttered; too exhausted or uninterested for further conversation. Nora didn’t mind the silence as she worked outwards and into the lobby, but her mind cleared momentarily to blink out the front door, still ajar from Danse’s previous work. Unlike her initial assumption of disposing the deathclaw, the paladin made the museum a temporary safe haven through a clever ploy.

In the dying light, just beyond the entryway, laid the creature’s corpse in the expected curl of slumber. Each talon was tucked gently beneath its hulking frame and the tail curved just enough around the head to hide their killing blows. Any traveller spotting the beast at a distance would not hesitate to avoid the place entirely. Nora grinned broadly at the prank and tapped her fingertips together in a silent clap at the very thought of a proper night’s sleep. Suddenly, she couldn’t wait to finish her chores.

Her mood brightened and skipping back into the foyer, she continued to gather strips of lumber with a little more enthusiasm until the harsh buzz of static rushed her ears. Frozen with an outstretched hand toward another plank, Nora cocked her head to listen, her eyes narrowing as the muffled noise started again. Uncertainty tugged at her as she cautiously crouched, eyes roving over the closed door to the lobby privy, each footstep light and efficient to close the gap. Spreading a palm along the smooth surface and cradling the recovered wood in the crook of her arm, Nora pushed against the door and blinked.

Locked. Her lower lip caught against a tooth and she gnawed at the tender skin. Stubborn curiosity triumphant, Nora’s jaw set and she returned to drop off the load in her arms. Danse loomed over the growing embers of a fire, already dancing shadows across the walls. Mattresses for two were placed at a safe, but warm distance and appeared so inviting, Nora was tempted to collapse right then and there. In her approach, there was a whir from Danse’s power armor and like the petals to a flower, the encasement opened and a broad shouldered man stepped out. The locked lavatory forgotten, she openly gawked at the much smaller figure outside the confines of the suit.

In the bright orange jumpsuit all Brotherhood wore beneath the armor, he appeared… too thin. Although, for male physique, he was well built from the livelihood guiding him. The entire change made Nora shift uncomfortably and wonder if he felt wholly different himself. Danse turned slightly, his profile shadowed from the light, and Nora caught the quiet arch of his brow as he stood, fists clenched before the fire.

“Something to report, Knight?”

Blinking off her shock, she plastered an encouraging smile for him. “Nope,” she hummed. “Just dropping this off and grabbing some equipment for a locked door.”

He tilted his head, eyes narrowing. “A door?”

Dumping her armload atop the pile, Nora nodded, reaching toward the satchel near her designated mattress for the lockpicks stored there. “The only room we haven’t opened. Thought I’d clear this whole thing.”

The corner of Danse’s mouth twitched. “There wouldn’t be enough space for another deathclaw, would there?”

She laughed. “I just tried imagining a deathclaw sitting on a toilet.” Her laughter continued and Danse watched her, nonplussed. She clutched at her stomach, the twinge in her muscles aching, but couldn’t seem to find a way to calm the giggles.

“I’ll take that as a no,” he supplied.

Nora’s mood soured at the condescending tone and their eyes met in a flash of frustration. These are the jokes, boss , she sighed inwardly, and rummaged through a small pocket of her bag for a stimpack. She clicked her tongue triumphantly when fingers brushed against the syringe case, withdrawing it into the light. Nora knew a time existed when she squirmed and whimpered at the thought of spearing herself for healing, now, it was as mindless of a task as breathing. She didn’t know whether it was a good or bad thing.

“Before I cause any more trouble, c’mere.” Tapping the mattress next to her, Nora settled down cross-legged and waited expectantly for him. Danse tilted his head, eyeing the needle warily and a defeated sigh whistled past his lips. Nora’s grin widened at his cautious acceptance and watched him settle down directly in front of her. His face was twisted in a scowl when her free hand clutched his chin to still him, the bristles of his shadow tickling her palm. The other immediately drew the syringe into the cut, injecting the clear fluid directly into the injury. While she knew to anticipate the soldier in him to accept treatment without the fearful twitch, the mother in her completed the maneuver automatically.

Danse hissed at the scalding heat as the medicine spread beneath his skin, his jaw clenching against Nora’s hand. “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” he ground out.

Focused on the task at hand, Nora applied more medication with a narrowed gaze. “Yeah? Does it have anything to do with the Brotherhood?”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that. This isn’t a formal meeting,” he clarified quietly.

“I hope not. Spearing you with a needle isn’t exactly formal,” she remarked, drawing away as the injury took on a clear shimmer. In a few hours, the stimpack would seal it completely with fresh skin. Until then, the area resembled plastic that could only fade with time.

“I… simply want to clear the air,” Danse continued, brushing the dried blood on his cheekbone with the back of his glove. “I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot when we first met and I feel like I owe you an apology.”

Nora’s nose wrinkled. “What for?”

“Expecting you to embrace the standards of the Brotherhood without having a history with us was unfair. And given that you’ve adjusted so well to our beliefs, I don’t think I needed to push so hard.” He rubbed the nape of his neck, his gaze unfocused on the flames beside them, and Nora grinned at the boyish behavior.

“So there is a human being under that power armor after all,” she teased, batting his shoulder.

His lips curled into a smirk. “Sometimes I need a reminder, but yes… there is.” Danse inhaled sharply and Nora settled against her palms to await the incoming story. He propped one knee to support his elbow and examined her with a hardened gaze. “When I was an initiate, my sponsor was Paladin Krieg. Toughest squad leader I ever served with. He was a model soldier, embodying the values every trainee was striving to achieve. Fiercely loyal, secure in his beliefs and brave to a fault.”

Danse’s eyes shadowed from the memories, “From the moment I was assigned to his squad I was singled out… It felt like he was pushing me harder than the rest of the team. I fought by his side for ten years and we had some serious close calls, but he never explained to me why I was treated that way.”

Nora leaned in, her fingers plucking at the fabric of the mattress. His tale had a familiar ring and she couldn’t resist comparing her current predicament to his past. “Did you ever ask him why?” She asked curiously. The motives behind the question were more for her own benefit rather than the regaled past. In a rare moment, Paladin Danse was simply…. a man, and if she learned the cracks in his stoic exterior, the arguments they seemed to have would fade. Perhaps he would even find the compassion not to rail on her so when she followed through on difficult decisions.

Not aware of her purpose, Danse shook his head “I’d considered it, but unfortunately, I never had the chance. After I was promoted to Paladin and I had moved on to my own squad, I received word that Krieg was killed at Adam’s Airforce Base.”

Nora bowed her head, listening with regret. His gaze moved on, returning to the golden flames, but the remorse didn’t waver in his tone. “The news was like being kicked in the stomach. I mean, I’d lost some of my brothers and sisters before, but his death… well, it really got to me.” Nora studied Danse stabilize his own mind and regretted her scrutiny the moment he turned back to her. Like all other times, his dark stare was unforgiving and pierced through her, leaving her to shift in discomfort.

A gentle smile spread across his lips, and even though his eyes spoke of the soldier, the encouraging smirk allowed her to relax. “It’s taken me a long to realize it, but the reason Krieg was so tough on me is the same reason I’m so tough on you. It’s because I believe in you and I don’t want to see any of your potential go to waste.”

A bubble coiled in her chest and she resisted another silly grin at him. “I’m flattered you have so much faith in me.”

Danse’s eyebrow rose, the one with the scar that left her wondering its history. “You’ve earned that faith by your own hand.” Relying on the mood, Nora placed a hand over the one Danse was using to support his lean, giving it a squeeze of mutual friendship.

She watched in amazement as color flooded his cheeks and wondered, very briefly, if it was her own imagination at work. Paladin Danse isn’t one to be emotional, she rationalized and chalked it up to the pure honesty dwelling in the room. Danse drew his hand away, tucking it into his lap, “I… trust you’ll keep this in confidence of course. Some of that information was of a personal nature and well, I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Don’t worry Danse, I’m going to shout it from the mountain tops.” Nora blinked sweetly at him, grabbing her pack to find those pesky lockpicks.

“Of course you will,” he sighed, a cough masking his chuckle.

“You would kill me, wouldn’t you.”

“Without hesitation,” Danse affirmed, but Nora spotted the playful sparkle and shelved the attitude for a later time.

Grasping the thin necks of her lockpicks, she withdrew them with a successful squeak to only wave them in her companion’s face. “Care to join me on another adventure then? Never know, I might show some extra potential.”

Danse shook his head. “The power armor needs some work before I agree to anything more.”

“Then I hereby claim any loot as mine. You’re missing out,” she taunted, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Oh no, I’ll miss out on the hundredth ceramic mug you’ll insist we need,” he retorted dryly and threw up his arms. Scratching his face, nearly grazing the healing wound, he waved her away. “Don’t worry, I’ll carry anything you might find.”

Like the twist of a key, Nora felt their conversation open something between them. Their budding camaraderie, misshapen and half made up, was finally beyond snapping at each other's throats. His confession was now her secret and she only felt compelled to do the same, to keep equal ground between them.  The sole survivor brushed a few loose dark strands from her face, her expression growing solemn. There is only one secret to share… Nora’s chest tensed, squirming in her seat for the sake of something to do. Not yet… If ever.

“Danse,” she began and he tilted his head to regard her. “Thank you for talking with me. When I’m ready, I-”

Paladin Danse stiffened. “I don’t expect something return and I hope you don’t see it that way.”

Nora shrugged, a groan slipping past her lips as legs protested against more body weight. He watched her go and only when she rounded the corner of the wall to disappear from his view did he bother to stand. There was truth in his words - he made certain the sincerity was there - but Danse still sensed the rollercoaster he had hoped to quell.

Approaching the power armor, he began the tedious task of cleaning the joints with the oil and rags from his own equipment. Even in the few hours of travel, the mirelurk acid had caused serious damage and would take some time to repair. Nevertheless, Paladin Danse was one of experience and let his mind wander while he tinkered.

Nora. He sighed at the mystery left in her wake. Their initial meeting at the police academy, through a flurry of gunfire against ferals, had been a mutual recognition of talent. Like a fabled hero, she waltzed into the firefight with a dog yapping at her heels and rage blazing her path; her presence a concoction of confusion and awe, creating tension for both parties. Nora’s sharp witticisms began there, fuel for future disagreements, but Danse knew it served as a mask to hide a simple truth.

She was alone and very afraid. The snappy remarks and ill-timed humor were barriers in place for when the world became too overwhelming. His training made him quite observant and nothing close to stupid. Nora was sympathetic, empathetic even, to the settlers cultivating what remained of her homeland. It left her exposed to betrayal and manipulation, something he intended to monitor with a sharp eye. As a vital part of the Brotherhood’s mission, nothing could stand between their little party and the company they aimed to dethrone.

With all things considered, Danse only had certain pieces: she was a vault survivor and her son had been stolen by the very Institute he hunted. Even those little factoids were complicated, more so than he could probably imagine. Danse gritted his teeth against the stubborn muck and furiously scrubbed, easing the tension from his neck and shoulders. Smoothing the oiled cloth along the suit’s side, he paused when his fingertips dipped into the surface, Nora’s bullet buried deep in the gap behind the outer lining. A muttered curse growled from his throat, rocking back on his heels to consider the limited options left.

The suit’s casing would need to be replaced or patched, something he couldn’t complete on the road. If she had aimed a little higher, the rifle shot would have caught the arm’s mechanical gears and put the entire appendage out of commission. Even still, the damage was enough to weaken the protective shell - he would need to be careful for a while.

“Ow, dammit!”

Danse paused, a smile ghosting on his lips, and casually glanced over to his ever-talented partner. Nora was balancing on one foot, rubbing the calf of her elevated leg and glowering at a piece of pipe she clearly overlooked. Giving her a onceover to verify the injury was simply a stinger, he stiffened at the sight of the cream oval nestled in the crook of her elbow.

Impossible .

Spinning toward her, he closed the gap between them and glowered as reality sunk in. “Nora,” he groaned disdainfully, anticipating the earful about to ensue as he pinched the bridge of his nose. It was obvious Nora thoroughly enjoyed testing his patience and he knew how often she nudged the limit, but now she seemed to blatantly skip over it. She was trying the leg, applying a little more weight and ignoring his disappointment.

“Look what I found,” she began, holding the speckled egg in his face. It was the size of an infant and warmth radiated from the shell.

“Nora,” he repeated firmly, watching the challenge flash in her eyes. “No…”

The egg was elevated against his nose, pressuring him to retreat a step. “They stole it Danse. They took it right from the nest.”

“And they paid the price. Leave it,” he commanded, dodging the egg and shadowing her petite frame with his. Paladin Danse was an intimidating figure inside the armor, but he was also aware the soldier in him equally terrified Nora; the way she ducked her head, straightened her shoulders, or paled when he snarled. He utilized her fear too, when their spats escalated and left them both trembling with rage. His technique didn’t guarantee him a win, but certainly never left him scrambling.

“There is a deathclaw out there hunting for its baby!” She continued, her voice rising as she tucked the egg against her chest.

“If that egg stays, it will be hunting us ,” Danse snapped, pointing roughly at the offending object hugged in her arms. He blinked in disgust when Nora twisted her body to keep the egg from him, protectively shielding it with her shoulder and her eyes narrowed.

“It’s a living thing Danse,” she insisted, giving him a wide berth in her attempt to reach the mattresses.

“Don’t you see what you’re doing?” He growled, chasing after her in long quick strides. “You’re blinded by the loss of your son into doing something stupid ! You’re a soldier now, not a mother.”

The Brotherhood Paladin blanched at the sharp strike of his own words, nearly plowing into her when she stopped short and the jolt of regret swirled his insides. Nora bowed her head over the curve of the egg and as Danse sidestepped around her, she kept her face buried behind locks of hair.

“Nora-” he whispered, his fingers curling tightly into his palms.

“I was becoming a lawyer,” she said quietly, her voice thick with despair, “and a mother… and a wife. I didn’t want this.” Nora choked, gasping for air as a heavy sigh burdened her slender frame. “I didn’t want any of this !”

Danse paused at the new information, a hand hovering just above her shoulder in comfort and he closed his eyes in silent reprimand. A lawyer? She never served? He inhaled and studied her a bit more thoroughly with a new set of eyes. From her secrets, he always assumed with the way she wielded her weapon, she had been military. It was the observation which encouraged his constant berating of her character to harden the soldier within. But if it wasn’t there to begin with

“Nora, deathclaws are vicious creatures and don’t deserve our compassion,” he reasoned, his voice heavy as he listened to the quiet breathing. Inhaling slowly, Danse placed a firm hand on her back and near leapt out of his skin when she suspiciously stiffened.

“Is this the Brotherhood talking?” She snapped, raising her reddening face and spinning toward him. The egg was hugged ever tighter against her chest, but purpose fueled each menacing step. “Because I’m getting awfully sick of you spewing their expectations.”

He bristled, feeling the low blow exactly how she intended. “The Brotherhood follows-”

“Don’t you ever think for yourself?” Nora challenged, stifling his voice with her own. “Tell me Danse, when did you forget to be human and become a mindless soldier?”

“I’m using logic! Something you’ve clearly forgotten in our time here.” The Paladin grit his teeth and shifted swiftly into the defensive. This wasn’t one of their usual arguments; the cold, calculating glare from her was barbaric.

“No Danse,” Her eyes narrowed. “I haven’t forgotten who I am. In fact, I think you’ve lost a bit of humanity being so high on that damn airship. One brief conversation doesn’t let you off the hook for being a condescending ass!” Nora marched solidly to her mattress and sat, cross legged with the egg nestled there. She wrinkled her nose, but the triumph shone brightly on her face. “We have no right to judge an individual because of our experiences with others.”

Danse’s jaw ached as he fidgeted, struggling to grasp the conversation at hand. There had never been a need to question his judgement in the past - he led his own team for a reason. The Brotherhood concluded his strategy and decisions adequately and the effort to get to his post had been grueling alone. Now, a woman from another time was ripping him apart and he was close to smashing his face into a wall to relieve the ache.

“You said you saw potential in me, but clearly you doubt it yourself,” Nora sneered. “If you hate my decisions so much, get the fuck out!”

“Fine,” Danse ground out. “I’ll leave in the morning.”

Foolish witch . He mock saluted her and quickly left their shared space, storming for the foyer and fresh air beyond. If the option remained, he would have left immediately - even if she viewed it as the coward’s way out. Away from the mutual disdain, Danse rubbed his face with a gloved hand, lingering as he mulled things over. When he left, she would be alone and still miles away from any decent sort of civilization. The chivalrous side scolded him for his behavior, but his honorbound duty to the Brotherhood prevailed with its thick pride.

Frustration ebbed like the tide and left a hollow void in his chest. He knew his stance on the argument was valid, even if both sides held ground, but Nora’s fanatical breakdown unnerved him. Danse stepped out into the cool night air and scanned the area for potential dangers. Sometimes, the most basic of procedures proved to be the most comforting. Shouts called in the distance, but too far to be dealt with. Like wild dogs , Danse mused, focused out toward the source of the noise.

“C’mon Danse, let’s go see!”

Nora certainly caused plenty of adventures, leaving him to scramble after her. Before their spat, he would have never viewed her as a lawyer. The voracious stares were definitely supportive of the claim, but the calculating control with her rifle caused doubt. If she wasn’t military, who taught her? The Wasteland was unforgiving and brutal to the innocent and helpless; Nora didn’t qualify. Yet, if she trekked alone, he couldn’t be sure she’d survive. While they agreed to disagree, Nora was unfortunately his responsibility - at least until the Institute laid in ruin.

“Shit,” Danse grumbled, retreating into the museum with a mental scolding at his character.

Nora was curled in on herself when he returned to their fire, using the crook of an arm as a pillow with the egg nestled against her stomach. His defensive anger soothed as he watched her sleep from afar and Danse wondered if her dreams also remained in the past. It wouldn’t surprise him in the least.

A groan escaped him as he settled onto his own mattress. Collapsing onto his back, he draped an elbow over his eyes and basked in darkness. The fire’s heat soothed away the chill and left the museum in a comfortable calm. Even with the peace, sleep eluded him. His thoughts continuously led him to Nora and the mystery enveloping her. The concept of withheld information bothered him, and affected their partnership especially. Yet, there was very little he could demand and she was willing to share even less.

A soft whimper disrupted the stillness and Danse poked an eye from beneath his arm. Beyond the flames, Nora twisted on her mattress. The serenity on her features shattered as she grimaced, flinching away from an unknown assailant. Beside her, the egg shifted in compliance to her twitching and he paused in his movement to stand. If the egg accidentally cracked from her dream, Nora’s mission would inevitably be abandoned and the wounds from their feud would fade. Alive, the egg served as a firm reminder of the chasm between their beliefs and his potential failure in protecting her.

She floundered in the dream and the egg shifted ever closer toward the fire. With a list of curses under his breath, Danse rolled to his feet and skirted the flames toward Nora. There was little to no plan once he got there, but even from a distance, he caught her eyes flickering from the depths of a nightmare. He knelt at her back, the mattress creaking under his weight, and placed a careful hand on an arm to stir her from slumber.

“Nate!” Nora screamed, jolting awake from his touch. She visibly flinched, sweat trickling down her brow and soft hazel eyes searched his. Privately stunned at the horror plastered on her features, Danse squeezed her arm. He half anticipated her to cry as she struggled to separate reality from the nightmare. As she came to her senses, he caught the loathing disgust directed at him before it transformed to genuine confusion.

Preventing himself to question his own sanity, Danse moved his hand to the egg and caught it from tumbling away with her squirming. Beneath him, Nora stiffened and he resisted the sarcasm rising, unbidden, to his tongue. He understood her concern considering his past distaste for the creature, but knew there was no retreat now. Danse smiled weakly and carefully edged the egg back into its niche against her stomach.

“Change of heart?” Nora challenged, but returned his uncertain smile with her own.

“No. My opinion still stands,” he replied, watching her face fall at the news. “But your dreams shouldn’t condemn it.”

Danse moved away, realizing he held onto the egg longer than planned. Nora, in her movement to wake, propped herself up onto an elbow and nearly knocked heads with him. He retreated, attempting to give them both comfortable space.

Rubbing the exhaustion from her eyes, Nora chuckled awkwardly, “Sorry.”

“Who’s Nate?” He interjected, observing closely for any hint to the truth.

“Apparently a nightmare,” she replied darkly, avoiding his scrutiny and instead smoothing a hand over the egg.

“Nightmare?”

“Only when I’m on the road,” she clarified quickly. “I don’t need you judging my mental stability now.”

“What I don’t understand is why only when you’re travelling,” he arched his brow, encouraging her with a soft smirk.

“At Sanctuary Hills, it’s safe, but you can always hear someone; patrolling, grabbing a bite, or sharing pleasantries,” her gaze grew unfocused at the egg, becoming more pleasant as memories surfaced. “You know that you’re not alone. But out here? Not the same.”

“So… you have nightmares because you feel alone?” He clarified, his eyebrow reaching even higher.

Nora scowled playfully, masking her embarrassment with humor; something he was beginning to recognize. “Har-har. You say anything, know that I’ll have to kill you,” she insisted, mockingly solemn, “painfully.”

Danse groaned to his feet, feeling her gaze on him as he rounded the fire back to his own mattress. Clutching the corners, he dragged the entire thing to the empty space alongside hers. It was his peace offering and honestly, the only thing he could come up with. He wasn’t entirely certain how she would respond or if it was a complete waste of his time. His thoughts cleared the moment the plan registered and her face rosied with delight.

“I don't snuggle,” he warned her, dropping back onto the mattress and into his previous position. Swallowed up once again in the darkness of his elbow, his ears perked at Nora shifting alongside him.

“Let me guess,” she teased. “You snore like a deathclaw too.”

He snorted, but caught the subtle sigh beside him, knowing he made the right choice. Soon, her breathing slowed into the rhythmic beat of slumber and left him to consider their future. Whether she liked it or not, her secrets would have to reveal themselves. Either that or the partnership they built would turn to ash. And Danse had every intention of discovering them himself.