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One If By Land

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Another day in the Commonwealth, another disaster. At this point, Nathan can't rouse surprise from its den where it hibernates beside normalcy.

For three days he and Danse have tracked south from Listening Post Bravo in a strategically convoluted fashion. It's always a trade-off; Boston offers more cover, but it also offers more opportunities to get your clock cleaned. Skirting the edge of Cambridge is a risky, yet unfortunately necessary, move. Tonight's hidey-hole conceals them from passersby and the evening breeze but little else. The ruined apartment is three stories up—high enough to avoid wandering ferals, but not so high they'd be pinned in this position. Also gives a decent view, for whatever that's worth these days.

Nathan peers around the crumbling wall to scan the street below. Hardly a peep from a pile of rubble. Just the way he likes it. The sun has since slipped under the horizon with barely a show—only a pale band of blue along the western sky—and abandoned them to the fickle mercy of the nighttime chill.

Danse has wrangled their makeshift campsite to something that might almost pass muster, if you squint. Two tins of Cram sit warming by the fire that offers just enough light for Danse to take inventory. The man’s always been reserved but now he's barely present, merely cycling through the motions necessary for survival. His eerie calm from the bunker leeched away in the hours after Maxson retreated, unsatisfied, but Nathan doesn’t know if this blankness is an improvement.

He lowers himself beside Danse. “Hey.”

Stretching his legs towards the fire, Nathan bumps their shoulders together. Danse pauses in his task, turning his head just enough to glimpse Nathan out of the corner of his eye, then continues counting ammunition. But he shifts so they’re pressed more firmly side-by-side.

Progress.

With Danse on one side and Nathan's laser rifle on the other, they sit in the soupy, gray quiet with too much to say. No matter how hard Nathan tries, even with his front-row seat to the whole shitshow, he can’t imagine what Danse is going through. But Danse's ribs press into his side with every breath, his weight heavy and, more importantly, alive. After Danse’s recent near miss, he’s taken to counting Danse's heartbeats and thanking any deity that might be listening. One-two three-four...

When Nathan closes his eyes, he can still see Maxson's pistol arm extending.

Giving Danse's shoulder a squeeze, Nathan ducks his head to kiss his temple. Danse briefly leans into his side, and Nathan almost thinks they can have a moment of peace.

Then Danse's hand flexes and curls into a fist, and he breaks away to pack all nonessentials. He won't look at Nathan. “If we expect to move out at 0500 hours, we need a plan.”

“Whatever the monster, we face it together. Beyond that I'm fresh out of ideas, buddy.”

With the Brotherhood cementing their hold on the Commonwealth, a task made easier by their uncontested control of the air, it’s now damn hard for two well-known soldiers to get by undetected.

And then there’s the Institute—and Shaun.

Closing his eyes, Nathan pinches the bridge of his nose. Maybe Danse isn't the only one who's lost these days. Their enemies are stacking up, and there are few who would extend a hand to a synth. But he knows this much: Maxson, the Brotherhood, the Institute—they can all go to hell if they look at Danse and see a machine.

“Something’s troubling you, soldier.”

“It’s fine. You’ve got enough on your plate.” Whatever Nathan’s problems, they don’t hold a candle to Danse’s—

Not a candle—a lantern. Danse’s problem, he might just be able to help after all. Or rather, he might be able to find someone who can do what he can’t. “Don’t hit me, but I had an idea.”

“Just how ludicrous is it, that you’re prefacing this with a request I refrain from violence?”

Nathan clears his throat. “I know some, uh, people that might be able to help. With your… situation.”

Danse scoffs. “And who would assist a machine?”

“The Railroad.” There. He said it.

It's not often Danse is shocked into silence. His face slackens and the whites of his eyes bold in the dark while mouth works soundlessly for several moments until he reclaims his voice. “You can't be serious! They are dangerously misguided, liberating machines that are convinced they’re people. Their naivete would kill us all!”

Nathan’s heart twists behind his ribs. “Given the circumstances, don’t you think you should reconsider your stance on ‘machines that think they’re people’?”

“And what do you know about it?” Danse snaps. “I just learned my entire life is a sham. I can’t even trust my own damn memories! Everything I fought for in the Brotherhood—and I was the enemy the whole time.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Nathan draws in a breath and holds it a moment. “Sorry. You're right, I have no idea what must be going through your head right now. I just—” he stops, collects himself. “Human or no, you're a person, Danse. Please don't doubt that.”

A muscle in Danse's face twitches. “The next time you're on the Prydwen, could you... do something for me?”

“Whatever you need.”

“Check the honor roll for Cutler. I need to— to know that he was real.”

Ah. Nathan swallows. Nods. “Sure thing, buddy.”

Danse stares at the wall. His eyes flicker, but his expression remains inscrutable. “Why do you believe contacting the Railroad would be a viable strategy?”

Nathan spreads his hands. “If anyone in the Commonwealth can help you, it would be them. Hell, they’ve seen a lot of confused synths. They could have answers for you.” Seeing he isn't convinced, Nathan sighs. “Look, Danse. If you don’t want to talk to them, that’s your decision. I’ll shut up about it if you want me to. But the Railroad is an option.”

Danse sighs, and it carries a weary edge. “Do you honestly believe they’d help me? The Brotherhood is their enemy.”

“You don’t have to be.”

He hesitates. Then his gray eyes harden, flash with steel. “No. If I can never again step onto the Prydwen alive—” Danse's breath catches, then he grits out, “fine. But I won't betray the Brotherhood or Elder Maxson.”

The man is too damn loyal for his own good.

“Or maybe I could also make some delicate inquiries at the Institute, see if there's anything we can learn there?” Nathan should probably do so regardless if only to investigate the genetics involved, considering the Institute's primary subject.

“Don’t put yourself in danger,” Danse rumbles. “Not for me.”

“Danse—” But from the way he looks to the fire, his face opaque, it's clear he doesn't want to talk about it anymore. So Nathan changes tracks. “Come here, you.”

Grabbing Danse's hand, he curls their fingers and they roughhouse for a few moments. Before Danse can claim his latest victory, Nathan squeezes his hand. “You know, all this explains why you’re the Prydwen’s undisputed arm wrestling champion.”

Danse makes a noise somewhere between a snort and a scoff. “Is that a consolation prize?”

“If we're ever short of caps, we could set up a betting pool in some bar—”

Then Danse goes tense. Holds up a hand. “Shh. I heard something.” He cocks his head, eyes sharp on the vacant space that gives them an open-air view of the street. Then he’s on his feet, stamping out the fire with rifle in hand.

Nathan leans out around the broken wall, the stock of his rifle pressed into his shoulder. Danse's senses outstrip his own—for obvious reasons, in hindsight—but he catches a ghostly shimmer of white at the end of the street.

“Hostiles sighted. Haven't detected us yet.”

From the way Danse's eyes glimmer in the dark, there's no question whether they’ll engage.