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Paladin of Recon Squad Gladius

Chapter Text

It was finally happening. Myself and my strategically composed reconnaissance team, comprising of Field Scribe Haylen, Knights Rhys, Keane, Worwick, Brach, and Knight-Sergeant Dawes, were making our way through to the northern section the Citadel where Elder Maxson was waiting to debrief us one last time before beginning our mission. The orange glow of the sun was shining through the chipped, and in some cases completely broken, windows of the Citadel. Each soldier was carrying a pack and completely armed to the teeth. Recon Squad Gladius was birthed for two reasons. First was because of the increasing threat coming from a territory to the north that liked to call itself ‘The Commonwealth’. The sector had claimed a previous reconnaissance team, Recon Squad Artemis. This brings us to the second reason; investigate the failure of my predecessor, Paladin Brandis. The seasoned Paladin was the last of the men I would have considered my mentors. When the Brotherhood had lost contact with him and the rest of his squad months before, I was the first to volunteer myself to lead a search party. I felt it was solely my duty to find him myself. To my dismay it took months of constant debate with Elder Maxson before he approved our mission.


The reverberating sound of five soldier’s boots and two sets of T60 power armor going up the Florentine stairway leading to the helipad was defining. Scribe Haylen, in her excitement, was first to the door. This was her first major mission after being ranked form Scribe-initiate to Scribe. I had the great privilege of co-sponsoring her through her initiate training. She was sharp and devoted. There was no doubt in my mind, when I took up the responsibility of being one of her mentors, that she would make me and The Brotherhood proud. Haylen threw the door open and we all filed out onto the roof behind her. The recon team all stood at attention while Elder Maxson finished conveying his orders to the Lancer-knight. When he finally laid eyes on us his face was stern. I couldn’t help but notice his eyes were plagued with dark circles which dulled his blue eyes. His jaw and chin were covered in two day old stubble which was very unlike the Elder. He was usually pristine in every aspect of his life, even his appearance. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for him. I had seen some of the former members of The Brotherhood Outcasts become more restless as of late. It may have been three years since the reunification of The Brotherhood but I know there is still a large enough number of soldiers who don’t trust the former Outcasts. On the other side of that coin, prior members of The Outcasts were beginning to feel that Elder Maxson was going back on his word. There were whispers that our Elder was no better than Elder Lyons. That Elder Maxson was soft and putting more effort into helping civilians then securing technology that threatened The Capital Wasteland. I could not disagree more. The mere fact that he had decided to send Recon Squad Gladius to The Commonwealth showed that he first and foremost put the Brotherhood before all else.


I was pulled out of my own thoughts when the Elder cleared his throat. “Lancer-knight Monrow will fly you to the northern most part of the Capital Wasteland. From there you will trek to The Commonwealth. Once there your mission is to scout and learn the whereabouts of Recon Squad Artemis and investigate The Institute and their technology. Scribe Haylen,” His eyes flickered to the only female in Recon Squad Gladius “has been given all of the resources, by our Head Scribe, which are needed to stay in contact with The Citadel. Paladin Danse,” I didn’t move as he addressed me, my back and shoulders already rigid from standing at attention. “you are to make sure that past mistakes are not repeated. This mission is vital to The Brotherhood. If our intel is correct, this ‘Institute’ is a threat we can not allow to exist anymore. So, make The Brotherhood proud! Ad Victoriam!” Elder Maxson brought his fist to his chest in standard salute. There were seven “Ad Victoriam!”-s said in return as we saluted our leader.


Knight Keane and I both fastened our helmets to our power armor as the rest of the recon team began to file onto the vertibird. I watched as Knight Keane manned the minigun. I was about to make my way into the vertibird when Elder Maxson moved to block me from going further. He looked much older than his nineteen years. The last few months had aged him terribly. His brows seemed to be permanently furrowed and harsh lines were beginning to make their permanent home across his forehead. “You’re my most trusted Paladin. Take care of yourself. I expect to hear back from you Danse. That’s an order.” He quickly and quietly said to me so that none of my team could hear him over the rotors of the vertibird. Maxson gave the right shoulder of my power armor a hard pat then retreated to a safe distance, pulling his coat more tightly closed around him as the vertibird began to lift off of the helipad. I took two quick steps then jumped easily into the cockpit then turned to look at our Elder as the vertibird began its ascent. Maxson’s face was concealed in a veil of virtue. I just so happened to see his mask slip as we began to turn to the northeast. It felt like frigid led had replaced my stomach when the realization of the Elders doubt hit me. He didn’t believe in us and even if he did, he didn’t believe that we would be a success.


The Capital Wasteland began to shrink beneath us as we gained altitude. Although the wind might have been whipping around us freely, the tension in the air was so thick and suffocating it was almost as if I were trying to breathe in oil. For a few members of our team it was their first time leaving The Capital Wasteland. There was a good chance that not all of us would make it back home. It was a fact that didn’t need to be verbalized but was just understood among the team, but it didn’t make anything elementary. I could hear my heart thumping away in my ears. My head began to swim. I took a substantial breath to curb the panic that was threatening to engulf my chest. It was my responsibility to lead these soldiers. I had to be confident for them. Well, if anything, I had to fabricate the illusion that I was.


The flight seemed shorter than expected. It was a rather uneventful ride other than a few Super mutants who waved their boards at us. Knight Keane put them down quickly. The minigun he wielded did not even draw enough bullets to inaugurate glowing of the barrels before they were all euthanized. “Outstanding!” I shouted over the wind. I was returned a thumbs up by the Knight. I looked back over the edge of the cockpit as we flew over the ruined patchwork of The Capital Wasteland that’s when I genuinely began to feel melancholy. The Capital had been home my entire life and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would never return to see her scarred landscape. This is where I had met and lost my best friend. The Capital is where The Brotherhood had saved me from a life of digging through oddments to possibly earn enough caps just for food from the scrap I found. I silently thanked her for all of the contingency she had offered me.


We then began our decent. Lancer-knight Monrow brought the vertibird down in a field a few miles north of The Republic of Dave. Knight Worwick was the first one out of the vertibird. He hurriedly took a few paces before landing on his hands and knees. His usually golden olive skin was tinted green. Scribe Haylen, who was off next, hurried over to his side with a can of purified water just as he began to dry heave. As if that were his queue, Knight Rhys snickered and said “Oh, this is how we’re going to start our mission is it Knight Worwick? Man the fuck up, we need to move out before the locals come and investigate.”


“Knight! That’s enough!” I rebuked. The last thing our recon team needed was any strife before we even had the opportunity to begin our mission. Scribe Haylen ripped off her goggles and gave Knight Rhys a sharp look as she handed Knight Worwick the can of water she had hastily opened for him. She was undeniably going to give Rhys a run for his caps. The rest of the team disembarked for the vertibird expeditiously. I turned to Lancer-knight Monrow and gave him my thanks and saluted him with an “Ad Victoriam, brother!” before I stepped out of the cockpit. The lancer had the vertibird in the air and was making his retreat back to The Citadel before Knight Worwick had even had a chance to sit up.


“Paladin, the report I read said that the trek to The Commonwealth will take two months. My calculations say we should be there in nine to twelve days. Could the report be wrong?” Knight-Sergeant Dawes asked me while giving Worwick a hand and pulling him up. Worwick had dark wet circles on the knees of his flight suit from kneeling on the wet ground. He efficiently removed the dry grass that had plastered itself on the bottom half of his uniform. Rhys was still giving Worwick a disgusted look, his arms crossed and his upper lip curled.


Before I even had a chance to inhale enough air for a response Haylen answered for me. “The straight path to The Commonwealth would just take nine days but we would only take that way if we want to die Knight-Sergeant. We need to bypass both the Philly and New York ruins. Not to mention something that Scribe Farris called ‘The Glowing Sea’ which is where the bomb that took out Boston was detonated. From what I read in the report, the Glowing Sea is massive. The diameter is at least a hundred miles wide. I have mapped out the safest route, given the intel the brotherhood has of the land between us and The Commonwealth.” The scribe quickly shrugged off her pack and began to rummage through the main compartment. Haylen pulled out an aged manila envelope and began to hand out copies of a detailed map. She had taken the time to outline on each one a route of the trek we were about to undergo. She wasn’t wrong. We were about to do a wide arch to the west, completely avoiding the east coast.


Knight Brach groaned loudly and pinched the bridge of his crooked nose. “All the things that will try to kill us on the way there won’t make it any easier, but I guess animals are better than raiders…” At that I couldn’t help but nod in agreement. Haylen then started to pass around waterproof bags for everyone to place their copies of the map in. I watched as they all folded the papers and stuffed them into the safety of the plastic container and place them into the front chest pocket of their corresponding uniforms. Haylen then walked up to me and handed both me then Knight Keane each a holotape. I nodded at her then placed it in the jack located on the side of my chest plate. There was a quiet whirring sound then the details of our mission flashed across my visual screen along with the map of our course. Haylen replaced her pack on her back and pulled her goggles back down over her eyes. I gave the signal for everyone in the squad to equip their weapons.


“Well soldiers, we better get moving. Safeties off.” I said as I raised Righteous Authority and turned to the north marker on the visual compass on the bottom corner of my power armor screen and began to slog through the tall grass in the direction of The Commonwealth.

Chapter Text

We were painfully close to our first journey marker. After twelve long and hot days of hiking, I could almost feel the coolness of the alabaster marble. The afternoon sun beat down on us relentlessly. Pools of sweat staining our already filthy uniforms. I felt eager as the burgundy brick houses parted way for the Harvey Taylor Bridge. It was the only bridge still standing that connected the east and west banks of the Susquehanna River. Dore was just on the other side, formerly known as the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex.

I was the only member of our team that had been to Dore before. It was over eight years ago. I partook in a civilian escort mission. We were responsible for the safe escort of Brotherhood personnel and their families to Dore. Since then I had heard the numerous rumors that had spread around the Citadel about Dore. They were all true, every single one.

I had to push back the guilt that then tried to overshadow my good mood. There was no doubt in my mind that this was probably going to be the only good experience they would have during our expedition.

“We must be attentive. The Brotherhood has placed mines on and around the bridge. Most of Harrisburg may be uninhabited but precautions have been taken. Stay vigilant.” I cautioned the group before sidestepping around a dilapidated car and onto the cracked pavement.

North of the bridge were multiple islands that partitioned the river. From where we were I could see three mirelurk nests nestled on the bank of the closest island. I pointed to the left and put up three fingers, the signal for everyone to be on alert. The last thing we needed was to be surprised by a queen while on a bridge dredged in mines.

Of course, that’s when Scribe Haylen was knocked off of her feet by a sonic projectile. The shock wave ripped through the air, stunning me and the rest of the team. There was a loud cracking noise from Haylen’s goggles as she fell, face first, onto the concrete.

The horribly mutated frog like creature had waited for the opportunity to emerge from its hiding space under the bridge. It jumped up onto the cement railing and began its attack from behind. Just like any true predator, calculating and strategic. It was rapidly closing in on Haylen, shooting multiple projectiles in our direction to try and keep us away from its target.

“Everyone bound for the end of the bridge! Wait for us there!” I directed to those of the crew who were not suited up, then nodding at Knight Keane to get ready.

Knight Rhys had pushed past us and ran over to Scribe Haylen, popping off rounds in the direction of the mirelurk king, his ten millimeter glinting wildly in the severe afternoon sun. Rhys knelt down to scoop her up quickly yet assuring to be mindful of her injuries. “For the love of steel, watch your step!” I shouted at him as he raced by us, gallantly carrying Haylen away from danger.

I jumped onto the nearest rusted car, supplying Knight Keane with elevated fire support. The Atomic V8 creaked violently under my weight. A streak of red light from Righteous Authority hit the grotesque animal in the arm. It then abandoned its attack on Keane and turned to me. The mirelurk king opened its mouth wide, ringlets of intensely compressed air rocketed from it. My choice of perch was turning out to be a mistake. I stumbled backwards. My foot then sank through the paper thin metal.

I still managed to get a few of my shots to make direct contact with the creature’s chest. The sound of its sizzling flesh could be heard over the laser fire. A well aimed shot from Keane incinerated the creatures head. The laser fire cauterizing, what would have been, the gaping neck wound. So, to my disappointment, there wasn’t a shower of blood. Its heavy body anticlimactically fell to the ground with a thud.

“Let me guess, ‘outstanding’… right?” Keane joked as he turned away from the carnage to face me. I couldn’t help but chuckle. It may have been just twelve days but the comradery was starting to flourish amongst us and the rest of the team.

“Come on soldier. We have a team waiting for us.” I said, taking the hand he offered and pulling my leg out of the roof of the Corvega.

As soon as we were within ear shot of the rest of the recon squad, Knight Keane called out “Is she doing okay?”

We were rewarded with a “Yeah” from Knight Worwick as he jogged up to meet us before we made it to the edge of the bridge. I could see over his shoulder that Knight Rhys still had Haylen in his arms. “We should really get her looked at. How much further Paladin?” He inquired. I could see in his eyes as they shone in the afternoon light that he was barely concealing his excitement.

“We are approximately six blocks from Dore. If we hurry and aren’t ambushed again we should be there fairly soon. Let’s move out.” I replied as we assembled with the rest of the group. “Knight would you care for some assistance?” I asked, turning to Rhys. His arms were hooked behind her knees and around her waist. She was conscious but rested her head on his left shoulder. Her broken goggles had been removed and were in the hand that was draped over Rhys right shoulder. There were signs of bruising starting to form around her right eye.

“Negative, Paladin. I’ve got this.” Rhys said, turning and walking away towards our destination, but there was a strange emotion he was giving off as he walked. Pride? Satisfaction… maybe?

We had made it almost the entire six blocks before I was pulled out of my own puzzlement about Rhys by a loud gasp and a “No fucking way!” by Knight Brach. In front of us was a tall cement wall and two metal barricades painted with the brotherhood seal of wings, gears, and sword blocking our path. A power armor clad Knight stood watch over the entrance with a minigun in hand. Two soldiers paced on walkways perched atop the adjacent buildings for extra auxiliary. The wall wasn’t tall enough to shield the fortress from view. The building closest to the entrance was, at one point, white and a wide cylinder shape. Behind the building a dome was visible with a gilded statue at its peak. That is where someone, probably a squire, had climbed up and fastened a brotherhood flag.

“Are you Paladin Danse?” The armored Knight asked in a gruff voice.

“Yes and this is my recon squad. We are here to camp for the night.” I informed him without elaborating on why.

“Yes, Star Paladin Rojas is expecting you. You’ll find him in the rotunda.” He said matter-of-factly before stepping aside with several loud clunks and letting us pass. I felt the guards watch the parade of my disheveled soldiers march towards the capital building.

We were hardly out of ear shot before Knight Brach had power walked to catch up with me, trying to be conspicuous but failing miserably. “Did he just say rotunda?” he asked, his voice several pitches higher than usual and coated in awe. I just pointed over his head at Dore as it came into view. The dead shrubs had been hiding everything but its marble and light chartreuse tiled dome. Brach turned his head so fast it looked like it hurt. “Damn…” he breathed, barely audible. Brach brought his hand up and began to rub his neck but I knew the quiet exclamation was more for the building than the pain in his neck. I wondered if the crumbling Capitol Building back in the Capitol Wasteland had been anywhere near as impressive as Dore during its prime.

Rhys led the climb up the many steps leading towards the entrance, a revolving door situated under the middle of three arches. Excited chatter amongst my squad began to crescendo as I let them pass by so that I could bring up the rear. We may have been among other Brotherhood soldiers at this outpost but I still felt the need to keep my guard up. Maybe the transition was only difficult for me because of the many days of constant vigilance.

I look down the street, taking in our surroundings. That’s where the gothic style steeple of the Presbyterian Church stabbed at the sky. It was difficult for me not to notice the structure. The building clashed with its colonial neighbors. The widows of the former place of worship were dark. As the wind blew and dried vegetation rolled across the road you could almost see the prewar families filing out of the building after Sunday service. The ghost of the church bells ringing in the air. I looked back at Dore and pondered reasons why this place was so well preserved. Years ago, the last time I had been here, there had been hills of debris in the streets from the rush of people who fled the city when news of the bombings made it to the city. The trash and cars had been cleared by the Brotherhood since then. Yet, under all of the trash the architecture was pristine.

I pulled off my helmet and tucked it safely under my arm before scaling the marble steps. When I walked through the entrance and onto the mezzanine I had to pause behind the group who were gawking at their surroundings. A hush had settled amongst them.

At the top of the imperial staircase, waiting for us, stood Star Paladin Rojas. He was sporting a black officer flight suit. His straight, shoulder length salt and pepper hair was pulled into a tight pony tail at the base of his neck. Pitch black eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled down at the dumfounded group.

His eyes finally found me “Welcome to my humble abode.” Rojas quickly jaunted down the stairs two at a time. He walked up to me with arrogant pride and without hesitation he reached up and playfully clapped my cheeks between his rough hands. “William, my boy! How the fuck have you been?” I could feel my face warm considerably. The Star Paladin either didn’t notice my embarrassment or just didn’t care. His smile was so wide it quite easily could have pushed his eyes closed. His white teeth showed through his lips. A great contrast to tanned leather skin.

Before I could compose myself Knight Rhys cleared his throat. In the middle of all the excitement everyone seemed to have forgotten Haylen. “Star Paladin is there an infirmary that I can send my Scribe. We encountered some wildlife. I’ll explain later.” I finally was able to stutter out.

“Of course! Boy, go up the stairs and take a left. It’s hard to miss, it used to be the senate chambers.” He nonchalantly waved his hand in the direction he needed to go.

Rhys ‘yes sir’-ed him but I noticed the faint line between his brows as he reigned in the fury I knew had flared up at the use of the word ‘Boy’. He climbed the stairs wordlessly, which was for the best. Worwick was at his heels. Haylen hadn’t moved her head from its resting spot. I hoped her injuries weren’t more than a quick stimpak and a good night’s rest couldn’t fix.

Star Paladin Rojas then turned to the rest of the group. “Go ahead, wander around. I know you want to. I have some boys outside of the east wing entrance getting your camp ready. I would have made sure to have some rooms for you but we’re at capacity.” He grabbed the left shoulder of my power armor and shook it, trying to get me to loosen up. “Go on kids, you’re dismissed. I have some much needed catching up to do with your Paladin.”

I hid my eye roll by pretending to read the script that was nestled within the crown molding. ‘There may be room there for such a holy experiment. For the nations want a precedent. And my God will make it the seed of a nation. That an example may be set up to the nations. That we may the thing that is truly wise and just.’ Rojas took the lead and began to ascend the steps to the second floor. I followed suit. The sun was the only source of light in the rotunda. Daylight shone through the twenty or so rectangular windows lining the circumference of the dome.

Star Paladin Rojas ran his hand along the smooth marble banister until we were facing the door in which my team and I had just entered through. Everything, from the ceiling of the hallways leading off of the second floor landing and up to the apex curve of the dome, was either covered in chipping gold leaf or expertly crafted murals. Across from where we stood was a mural of ships crossing an ocean led by three angels in white. I imagined the idealistic and wasteful men who designed and built this extravagant building, expecting never ending glory for their country.

“The medallions around the base of the dome may be allegorical but the people before the war used to call them the ‘four forces of civilization’ Art, Science, Justice, and Religion.” Rojas pointed to each one around the base of the dome in turn. They were perched proudly atop four pillars that gave the dome integrity. “Every history book that I have ever read, clearly states that this former country had everything right. But I guess it doesn’t matter, look at where we are now… Well, enough about that. Tell me. How has your journey been?” he wiggled his eyebrows at me expectantly.

“May I remind you Star Paladin, prattle goes against decorum.” He hadn’t changed at all. I had never met another high ranking officer who completely disregarded formality, protocol, respect, decorum… etcetera, etcetera. He was a trouble maker and that’s why Elder Maxson had sent him here, to keep him out of the way. All of that being said, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was nothing less than great tactician and exceptional leader. He ran a tight ship and hadn’t lost a single Brotherhood soldier under his charge his entire career.

“Come on William. I am isolated in my big castle with nothing to do. Humor me.” He nudged at my armor with his elbow.

“What do you want to know?” I really didn’t like how he used my first name. I had barely tolerated the Star Paladin while he was at The Citadel. We had done a few technology runs together so I did respect him as a commanding officer, but not as a person. I could deal with his indifference to personal space, but no one was to use my first name, not since Cutler… Even to this day I can’t say or think his first name without… Without what? I didn’t even know anymore. I wouldn’t let myself think about it long enough to find out.

“Tell me about your division. Who are they?” He asked leaning back onto the banister. He folded his arms, getting comfortable, and the leather of his flight suit creaking from the strain at his shoulders. It seemed I was going to be his entertainment for the afternoon.

I complied because I knew he wasn’t going to let it go but I was only going to give him information that was available in our public records.

“Well, there is Knight Keane. He was the one in the power armor. He volunteered because Paladin Brandis was his sponsor. He’s older than me but not by much, thirty-six. He joined the brotherhood later than most. He and his late wife had moved to the Capital Wasteland after hearing about Project Purity. She sadly passed away during a super mutant attack on their settlement. Knight Keane joined the Brotherhood shortly thereafter. He’s exceptional with a laser rifle and has adopted the core values of the Brotherhood fairly quickly for someone who joined so late.” Images of the times I had caught Knight Keane’s almond eyes gazing into the distance unseeingly flickered across my mind. I knew he would be thinking of her, his wife, Michelle. He was a great soldier but I could tell that he lived day to day out of routine. The fire in his life was gone and it would probably never return.

“Then there is Knight Sergeant Dawes. His parents were prior Brotherhood so he grew up in The Citadel and went through the Squire program before his initiation. You might have known them. Head Scribe Dawes and his wife Dorris.” Rojas nodded. “It’s been interesting traveling with him. This is the first time he has been under my command. He’s particular about the food rations we have brought with us, insists on hunting game while traveling. I guess fresh meat would be a luxury we wouldn’t have had if he had stayed back in the Capital. He’s an exceptional sniper. He took out a wild Brahmin bull out with one shot through the eye.” We were about a week into our journey when Dawes had perched himself in a tree. His mocha skin covered in pebbles of sweat as he steadied himself. The shot was glorious. The creature never saw death coming for it.

“And there is Knight Worwick. He’s the one who accompanied the Knight and Scribe to the infirmary. He’s Sentinel Worwick’s son, from the West Coast Chapter. Do you remember when West Coast officers were sending their adult children to the Citadel to try and bait Elder Maxson?” Rojas shook his head and his brows knitted in disapproval. “Well, not to long after Maxson was named Elder there was this influx of young adults from the West Coast Chapter of the Brotherhood who were arriving to The Citadel. Since Elder Maxcon had never publicly courted anyone in the past, quite a few officers had tried to allure him with their children, who were at least an appropriate age for him. Even officers at The Citadel tried their hand at it. It was a disaster. He may be young but he knew that the suitors were only used to try and sway him into doing what these officials wanted. They expected him to be a subordinate just because they waved a treat in his face. Elder Maxson is a natural born leader, not even a pretty face was going to keep him from his duties…. Well, that’s why Knight Worwick is now one of us. He never had any interest in any of that diplomatic farce. From what I understand, he has become rather close to Scribe Quinlan, Proctor Quinlan’s son. Though I don’t know how true that may be. Every time I have ever seen them together they are absolutely professional and dignified.” This is the opposite of how he acts around Scribe Haylen. I have had to reprimand them multiple times thus far. They constantly play pranks on each other or in some cases gang up on Knight Rhys. It was like dealing with two children.

“Knight Brach, the blonde man, was actually recruited by a squad of Brotherhood Knights in the Mojave chapter. Most of his file is classified. All I know about his past is that he is a former NCR Private. I’m not even aware why he came to the Citadel in the first place. He hasn’t said anything about it and I haven’t asked. He’s very adverse in combat but prefers hand to hand and melee weapons during engagement. I usually would have strongly recommended that he use his laser rifle more but his hand to hand is impressive to say the least. Brach has been tremendous for morale. Did you notice the mandolin strapped to his back?” Rojas shook his head. “Well, he plays for us every evening while we set up camp or cook chow. He’s probably doing it to get out of work but it’s very pleasant. He says the style he plays is called bluegrass and that he learned it from a mercenary back west.” I honestly enjoyed Knight Brach’s company. He was humorous when it was appropriate and an excellent soldier when needed. His bluegrass music was growing on me as well.

“You know Knight Rhys. You were there when we found him as a child. Well, he’s turned into an outstanding soldier. He lives and breathes the Brotherhood-”

“You mean he’s just like you.” The Star Paladin teased, unfolding his arms just to poke me in the chest piece.

“You could say that…. Finally there is Scribe Haylen.” I quickly changed the subject to keep the attention off of myself because I wasn’t completely sure if his statement was a complement or not. “She was injured today by a mirelurk king. We were attacked on the Harvey Taylor Bridge. I would recommend sending a team out to clear the nests that have accumulated in the area.”

“We are out there once a week trying to rid the banks of those foul creatures but they keep coming back. I have a theory that there is a Queen up the river and some of her eggs float on down and we have to then start the process over. But I will send out a team to scout up north to try and find the source. But go ahead, you were telling me about Haylen.” He tried to keep me on topic.

“Knight Rhys recruited Haylen two years ago. I helped him mentor her during her training, though not for long. She is a complete natural. If I may be frank, she is at the very least just as good as Scribe Peabody.” At that Rojas’s eyebrows were threatening to join his hairline. “So, enough about my team. How are you? How’s Isabel and little Maxine?” I was hoping that he wouldn’t have noticed that I didn’t offer any information about myself.

“You actually just missed them. They are currently on the way to visit Isabel’s sister in The Citadel and little Maxine isn’t little anymore. She’s fifteen.” He seemed to enjoy the shock on my face. I clearly remembered the seven-year-old little girl who used to sit on my tool box and watch me work on my power armor for hours. She would ask me questions, ranging from prewar trivia to what my favorite snacks were, all while handing me tools. I had missed her companionship for months after the Rojas’s had moved to Dore. “Yeah, remember she used to climb all over your power armor station when she was a little girl. As we get older time just seems to fly by, doesn’t it William? Come. Walk with me.” He said walking towards the east wing entrance.

He filled me in on the everyday workings of Dore. Recently a scouting team had found Vault 6. Its entrance had been hidden under a caved in basement of the local hardware store. It seems that this is where the majority of pre-war residents of Harrisburg had gone.

Knights had found huge aquarium tanks full of skeletons. From console entries they came to find out that the vault was experimenting with a form of FEV that was meant to give their test subjects the ability to breathe under water. Obviously it was a failure.

Documentation was also found regarding Vault 0 in Colorado, the one that had been previously discovered by the, now nonexistent, Midwest Chapter of the Brotherhood. New files had also been located from the ‘Secret Vault’ located in Los Ybanez. This information was very important since the Texas Chapter of The Brotherhood had blown up the Vault in 2208, before recovering any technology. Rojas didn’t elaborate further because it was classified information on a need to know basis.

Star Paladin Rojas had escorted me out onto the east wing grounds. Multiple beige canvas tents were erected around what used to be a water fountain. Someone had built a wooden pyramid in the middle for a bonfire. Rojas was always one for throwing a party for any occasion. He had walked me over to a Power armor station and dismissed himself but not before pointing in the direction of the shower facility “Go get cleaned up William. I can smell you through your exoskeleton.” His shoulders pump up and down as he laughed at his own joke as he retreated back into his castle.

I stepped into the middle of the power armor station. The hydraulic hiss as my suit opened was almost erotic. I stepped out carefully then pulled the hatch closed. The immediate relief I felt after pulling off my hood sent goose bumps running down my spine. I ran my fingers through my hair to push back what had fallen into my face after its liberation. It was greasy from not being washed in a several days. I ran the pad of my thumb across the tips of my fingers to validate the extent of the filth. It was unacceptable. In order to rectify my situation, I quickly secured the chains from the station onto the shoulder plates of my suit before pulling my pack out of the cargo compartment. Then, I marched towards the showers.

Chapter Text

The sun began to dip down to the horizon, painting the sky with ineffable shades of orange and pink. Music weaved its way around smoke and laughter. Rojas had indeed set out to throw a party. The fire was roaring, the drinks were flowing, and someone had managed to roast an entire Brahmin. As ever, he went above and beyond. It even seemed as if everyone who was not on duty that night had turned up on the east lawn.

Haylen had returned half an hour earlier from the clinic. She must have received a Stimulation Delivery Package while in the infirmary. Instead of a swollen and plum colored eye, the skin around Haylen’s eye socket was stained yellow. The bruise was almost completely healed. It looked like it could have been over a week old, not only a couple hours old.

She was sitting on a red picnic blanket that was laid out in front of the fire. Knight Brach and Knight Worwick were keeping her company. They were talking animatedly about the interior and inhabitants of Dore. Snippets of their conversations could be heard “did you see-“ and “I thought I was ballsy-“. Haylen hushed them and the two men doubled over, clutching their sides, laughing hysterically.

Rhys, Keane, Dawes, and several other Brotherhood Knights were all situated around a large wooden table, playing some kind of card game. Rhys was obviously winning. His heap of bottle caps was substantially larger than anyone else’s. By far the most impressive thing was the amount of empty beer bottles that the group of men had piled in the middle of the table. Frequent sounds of gas escaping from bottles and caps clinking down onto the table could be heard coming from the table of cigar smoking soldiers.

Dawes won the next hand. He scooped the small mound of bottle caps towards himself with a triumphant smile. Bottle caps weren’t the only thing he received from that round. Rhys and a couple other Knights had also given him the finger as a bonus prize.

I found myself sitting on a metal stool facing the roaring fire. The accumulated heat from the day and the bonfire were both too much for me to cope with. I had unzipped my flight suit and tied the sleeves around my hips to alleviate some of the discomfort.

I was concentrated so intently on the leg plate in my lap that the conversations, laughing, and music had just turned into white noise in the background of my thoughts.

As I tightened down a microscopic screw, I felt hot breath on my neck, “Why aren’t you enjoying the party with everyone else?” A woman whispered into my ear. She was so close that her bottom lip brushed my ear lobe as she hummed those words. Her fingers softly ran down the skin between my shoulder blades, over the Brotherhood insignia. I knew that voice intimately. I’ve thought of that voice and those fingers late at night in my private quarters. I flinched and dropped my screw driver in surprise. The hairs on my neck standing at attention at the sudden rush of adrenaline that coursed through my veins. Fight or flight in full force, and flight being the more appealing choice. By the time I had collected myself and opened my eyes she was already seated crossed legged on the marble edge of the fountain. Paladin Laura O’Donoghue.

“I knew that this is where Elder Maxson sent Star Paladin Rojas. I didn’t know that this is where he was sending all of the trouble makers.” I smirked, slowly swiveling the stool to look at her.

“Is that sass I am hearing come out of your mouth, Danse?” Her blue eyes glittered like the sparks that jumped out of the fire behind her. Her jet black hair was braided tightly to her scalp. It pulled at her face, making it more angular than it naturally was. She wore a small leather pack that was strapped to her shoulders. Her tight flight suit was casually zipped down around the collar, the sleeves rolled up past her elbows. She bit down on her dahlia red bottom lip to keep from smirking.

I took a deep breath to try and control myself. I felt the influence she had over me as it tightened its grip on my trachea. As if she had never walked out of my life over a year before. All I wanted to do was drop the steel armor and cross the distance between us. I could just feel my fingers wrap around her braid, yanking her head back. If I could just run my teeth along the pale skin of her jaw…

“I just didn’t expect to see you O’Donoghue.” I said as calmly as I could around the lump in my throat. It wasn’t a lie. I didn’t think I would ever see her again.

“Didn’t expect to see me here or at all?” She asked, releasing her plump lip that had been caged in between her teeth. Either she read me like a book or possibly saw me try to swallow the mounting pressure on my larynx.

“Would you like to go for a walk with me?” she asked as she had gracefully got to her feet and held her hand out to help me up. I placed the armor and my screw driver on the ground before accepting her hand and pulling myself up. I quickly released it because the feeling of her skin awoke something at the base of my spine. I untied the sleeves of my jumpsuit and put it on correctly, pulling up the zipper fully.

O’Donoghue pretended not to notice my haste to conceal my previously exposed body.

We walked a lap around the large complex. Each step we took fueling the ever mounting electrical current that threatened to strike me down. We caught each other up on the events of our last year, avoiding everything in our personal affairs. I filled her in on my mission to The Commonwealth. She told me about the recent Enclave sightings. Eventually we made it to the Presbyterian Church. O’Donoghue quickly looked around to make sure we weren’t being watched. She darted towards the ornately carved wooden front door and pulled it open. She then turned to me and waved her hand, signaling me to follow her. This was dangerous. I knew better than to follow her into the dark church but all of my resolve melted away into the early evening air when she turned to cross the threshold and I caught a glimpse of her from behind. I followed her inside, my legs moving of their own accord.

O’Donoghue was already at the altar, lighting candles that were still perched on bronze candlesticks. The firelight danced across the dark wooden panel walls and across her luminescent skin. She beckoned me closer. My boots caused tiny clouds of dust to escape the musky carpet with each step. My heart was thumping loudly in my ears. A cocktail of hormones were pumping erratically through my veins. I was an addict and she was my vice.

Laura propped herself atop the tall long table that had once been used by a preacher during his sermons. She pulled the small pack off her back and drew out a couple of tumblers and an old bottle of Oban scotch whiskey. I could feel myself slipping back into her gravitational pull when I leaned back against the table and took the glass she was offering me. I slowly tipped the amber liquid into my mouth, the taste of citrus, honey, and oak burning my throat sensually. I sighed softly at the pleasant sensation of the alcohol.

“I’m sorry, Danse. I should have told you that I was leaving. I just thought that that would have been best to leave on a happy note. Oh God, it had been such a good note.” She said quietly, placing her glass down on the table slowly. She wouldn’t look at me. She just ran her index finger around the rim of her cup.

I sure wasn’t expecting her to apologize. That just wasn’t something that she ever did. Laura was the kind of woman who lived her life with no regrets. She was a powerhouse, a hurricane that swept up anyone who was in her way. Three years ago I found myself in her path. She threw me around and consumed my being until the very morning she disappeared.

She left The Capital Wasteland over a year ago. She left me still asleep in my room aboard The Prydwen, laying in the sheets that she had warmed for me. She left me to fight off demons that she didn’t know I had, haunting memories that she had unknowingly kept me safe from. She left me alone to pick up the pieces that I should have picked up the day I killed Cutler.

“Hey, I mean it Danse. I really am sorry.” She carefully placed her hand in mine, squeezing softly.

“You have nothing to apologies for Laura. You did what was best for both of us.” I finally looked into the oceans of her eyes. I should have been the one to seek forgiveness. I never loved her. I had used the whirlwind that was her life, to self medicate myself. I had used her. Not the other way around as she thought.

“You were always too good to me.” She smiled delicately, her thumb tracing circles on the back of my hand. I could feel the pull, I was a sad little bottle cap and she was a neodymium magnet. I was swiftly falling back into old patterns. Her current was washing away the levees I had constructed in her absence.

And before I knew how it happened, I had reached up to caress her cheek. O’Donoghue closed her eyes and leaned into the palm of my hand. I could feel her gentle sigh caress my wrist. It sent chills running down my entire body. I stepped closer to her, standing between her legs that dangled off the edge of the table. She slowly opened her eyes before giggling at our sudden closeness. She handed my drink back to me, trying to defuse the situation.

I knocked back the rest of my scotch. She refilled my glass. The habitualness of it putting us back into what seemed like an ancient ethos of when we used to do this every night. I placed both of my hands on the top of her thighs. I felt her mussels flex momentarily at my brazenness. She sipped her scotch as casually as she could but there was no hiding the fact that we had both gradually leaned in closer to each other. The silent drinking only fueled the electrical charge in the air.

“Danse.” My name on her lips was my undoing.

I grabbed her hips and sharply pulled her towards me, the suddenness of my action sending alcohol spilling across the table. We were nose to nose. I waited silently for permission as I always had. My heart was thumping vigorously with excitement. Her eyes bore into mine as her fingers curled tightly into my hair. “Yes, Danse.” I kissed her desperately, our teeth crashing together in my haste but it only feed my hunger. She tasted better than I remembered alcohol and just her personal sweetness. She was nectar reserved for Gods in Greek mythology.

She moved her hands down to unzip my flight suit.

I froze for a fraction of a second before stepping back, shame washing over me like a tsunami. O’Donoghue slowly blinked at me in confusion, her arms still hanging in the air where I had been a moment before. I couldn’t look at her. She was my chem of choice and I couldn’t throw away all of the progress I had made. Being around her a moment longer and I would be a lost man.

“Paladin O’Donoghue.” I curtly dismissed myself, leaving behind the church and the Paladin inside.

I wiped my mouth over and over again, unable to rid my lips of her intoxicating taste. I knew I had made the right choice but as my feet carried me back to camp I couldn’t help but feel guilty for not confessing my own fault in our… Relationship? But it was never anything close to a relationship, not in the traditional sense. We had spent every hour of our liberty time either drinking or tangled in my sheets on the Prydwen. We never talked or tried to have an emotional connection, we only enabled each other. Lust and gluttony are deadly after all.

The party had raged on in my absence. The tables had been cleared away and someone had rolled out a tall tool box that was the perfect height for arm wrestling. A crowd had formed around the two scribes as they fought for bragging rights.

I knew that the party was going to impair our departure in the morning. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to break it up. We had over a month left before we would reach The Commonwealth. It didn’t matter if we made it there a few hours or even a day later than planned. Though I would say differently if someone asked because I knew Elder Maxson wouldn’t agree with my lax view on timing. We would make it there when we could.

Instead, I picked up my previously discarded piece of power armor and put it back in its place. I knew wouldn’t be able to concentrate enough to finish the modification.

“Was that O’Donoghue you left with earlier?” Haylen asked quietly, as she sat down on my tool case. Her feet were bare, she had removed her hood and her footwear. She crossed her legs and looked at me with a stern look, her lips pressed so forcefully together all that was left was a small line. She had seen me with Paladin O’Donoghue many times before while she was still stationed in The Capital Wasteland.

“Affirmative.” I couldn’t look at her. The ill repute I felt for many months after the Paladin had diapered crashed down on me. My responsibility over Rhys, Haylen, and the rest of my team at the time, was the only issue of importance that was capable of bringing me out of the fog and despair that had left me almost immobile after Laura had left. Part of me knew that Maxson had made her leave. I had skipped out on my duties as Paladin just to live in the bliss that O’Donoghue had left in her wake.

“Danse, you know she’s bad news. Good thing we’re leaving in the morning. She’s the last thing you need right now.” Haylen was not incorrect. I knew that in my core. The Paladin had been my crutch. I had lived months of my life feeling compelled to put myself in her gravitational pull.

“You always have my back Haylen. Thank you.” Was all I could manage to mutter. I knew she had my best interest at heart but she didn’t know the whole story. I had run away from myself. I had thrown myself into the most consuming distraction I could find. O’Donoghue made the pain go away... But I knew alleviating my pain wasn’t what Laura actually had done. I knew it was an interference that I had sought-out. I had given up and stuck my head into the sand even though part of me knew I had wanted to continue to fight. I knew I had wanted to continue my path with the brotherhood after I had killed Cutler but I was so distraught and riddled with remorse that I couldn’t see it. Instead I had pushed away my anguish and the Brotherhood. I had almost ruined everything Cutler and I had worked so hard for.

I felt Haylen pat my shoulder softly before returning to her comrades.

I retreated into my tent and laid down on my bed roll. I watched the light of the fire dim as the hours passed by. The laughter and music died along with the bonfire. Silence engulfed me like a cocoon until the crisp light of dawn illuminated the canvas above me.

I rolled into a sitting position and roughly rubbed my face before pushing my hair back. I reached over and grabbed my hood, placing it back on my head. I then finally laced up my boots and slipped my gloves back on before packing up my bed roll and the last few of my things that were scattered on the floor of the tent.

I had managed to make coffee and breakfast for my team before the first of my men had emerged groggily from their tents. Camp was broken down and belongings packed away between sips of chicory java and quick bites of tato and Brahmin hash. I had just put an unflattering amount of tato into my mouth when I saw an armored Knight and Paladin made their approach. The Paladin holding a gatling laser and the Knight held a modified laser rifle.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” I managed to ask around the large amount of food I was trying to swallow.

“Star Paladin Rojas has assigned us to escort you to Wilkes-Barre. Coincidently that is where our data collection has indicated a possible Enclave listening post. We will complete our reconnaissance there and return back to Dore.” Each word felt like a five millimeter round from a minigun. Haylen was immediately at my side. I could feel the waves of hot anger roll off of her.

“Well more guns the merrier.” Knight Brach said happily as he threw his pack over his shoulder and gave the Female Paladin a wink.

Laura pulled off her helmet and pointed to the Knight next to her “This is Knight Jones and I’m Paladin O’Donoghue.” Introduced herself to Recon Squad Gladius.

“I’m Knight Brach. That’s Knight Rhys, Knight Keane, Knight-Sergeant Dawes, Knight Worwick, Scribe Haylen, and Paladin Danse.” Branch excitedly introduced us.

“Alright, we’ve wasted enough time this morning. I expect you all to be ready in five minutes.” I finally found my voice and used it to barked orders at my team. They all scurried away. I didn’t even look at O’Donoghue before I turned to the power armor station where my suit was located.

Exactly five minutes later Knight Keane and myself were suited up and everyone else had packed their gear and all stood together, waiting to be briefed before continuing on our way.

Haylen stood near me like a guard dog. “Since we have two more soldiers, the amount of time to reach Wilkes-Barre should be cut significantly. Knight Jones, Paladin O’Donoghue I will personally make sure your mission is a success. Let’s move out. Ad Victoriam.” I saluted the soldiers before me, scanning each face in turn. When Laura finally caught my eye she quickly pulled her helmet on and secured it into place. Hiding herself from me.

Haylen gave my shoulder a quick knock. I looked down to see her frowning deeply “Let’s go, Paladin.” She said quietly. I didn’t respond I just placed my helmet on. All of the markers flashed to life on my visual screen. I pulled Righteous Authority out and then signaled to move out.

One hundred and three miles, that’s all, I could do it. One hundred and three miles of time spent with O’Donoghue, I could do it… I could do it…

Chapter Text

Twelve days. Twelve days of not speaking to each other. Twelve days of avoiding eye contact. Twelve days of pretending she wasn’t even there. Unfortunately twelve days of blissful denial was all I was given.

I was well into my night watch when reality finally decided to stab me in the back. Hours after the sun had set and the last of the group had gone to sleep, Paladin O’Donoghue finally gained the courage to emerge.

I was pacing back and forth in front of the abandoned barn where we had decided to camp for the night. My only amenity came from the crunching of dry pine needles under each step of my power armor. The cool night air shifted as the barn door swung open with a squeak to announced Laura’s presence. I didn’t turn to look at her. My every nerve was aware of her as I continued my watch, scanning around the dead trees for any possible danger. O’Donoghue walked up to me slowly, as if trying not to scare off a skittish animal. Each one of her steps were calculated and slow. She placed herself in front of me, blocking my path, forcing me to halt my pacing. She firmly pulled Righteous Authority out of my hands. I caught the wary look in her eyes before she turned away from me and sat down on the fallen tree before us.

Laura traced her fingers along the barrel of my laser rifle before finally speaking. “It’s been four years, Danse.” Was all she offered. I don’t know what compelled her to talk to me about it but the anticipation of what she would say had me frozen in place. I should have known that I wasn’t the only one to dread when midnight came this evening.

Four years ago, I can still remember the screaming and shouting. The chaos, armored soldiers and scribes running up and down the halls of The Citadel, it was a panicked frenzy. Vertibirds could be heard deploying to spread the terrible news to other Brotherhood outposts. I had been at The Citadel to deliver reports from The Prydwen. A Knight in power armor had slammed through the doors that separated the courtyard and the steel gate that protected The Citadel from The Wasteland. The Knight ran past us and crashed through the double doors leading to the laboratory. He was carrying Laura, his armor painted with her blood. I could hear the clinking of the hand full of holotags she still had clutched in her hand over the loud pounding foot falls of the Knight.

That night we lost Elder Lyons and the entire Lyons’ Pride.

“Can you sit with me, please?” her voice shook slightly with every syllable. Laura didn’t try to look at me. She just continued to examine my gun.

I walked over to the door of the barn. My armor hissed as the hydraulics were released. I stepped out and pulled the latch close with a loud clunk. I had made sure to use it as a safety barricade for our sleeping team. I then made my way back to her and sat down, avoiding any physical contact.

“Did you know that Sarah was the first Brotherhood member I ever met? She didn’t even give me a second glance, even thought I saved her life that day.” O’Donoghue laughed sadly. “Then when she realized that I wasn’t just some incapable wastelander looking for caps, she fought for me in a way that I didn’t think anyone else would. She was the last person I had on my side that knew my father, especially after Madison disappeared. I loved Sarah, Danse.” She finally looked up at me. Her deep blue eyes were oceans of turmoil. “I’m leaving after this mission is complete. I don’t belong here anymore. Honestly, I don’t think I ever belonged here in the first place.” She looked back down at her hands that still caressed the laser rifle.

I knew trying to convince her to stay with The Brotherhood would never work. When Laura made up her mind nothing would change it. So all I did was ask “Why?”

“Danse, do you not see what The Brotherhood has turned into? Sarah’s death was the end of Owyn’s legacy. His vision is gone, and that was the only reason I agreed to join in the first place. That… and I was never the kind of person who stayed in one place.” The corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly. “Elder Maxson sent me here to rot and I just can’t be put in a box.” O’Donoghue put Righteous Authority down next to her before squaring her shoulders and looking at me.

It was true, you can’t trap a hurricane but I didn’t understand how she didn’t faith in The Brotherhood anymore. “Do you not believe in our Elder?” I honestly wanted to know why she would want to leave our family. They had done so much for me. Maxson was a strong and compassionate leader. In my personal experience he was a more capable leader than Owyn ever was.

She huffed angrily at what I said. “Arthur isn’t who you think he is, Danse. -Hey, let me explain.” She held her hands up at the noise I made in protest. “It’s no secret that Arthur was in love with Sarah. He was never friendly towards me after what happened at the Jefferson memorial. He blamed me for the radiation poisoning that put her into a coma. He thought that since the GECK was taken from me, it should have been only my responsibility to rectify my ‘mistake’. That was understandable for a ten year old to think. Then, when Sarah and I became close after Adam’s-“ She tapped softly on the Paladin insignia on my arm. “He grew downright cold.”

“Should you be telling me these things?” I asked cautiously. I could sense that we were soon going to be treading into very personal things, not just about her but the entire hierarchy of The Brotherhood.

“Danse, you need to know. I may be leaving but I can’t stand for you to be in the dark… I can’t let you blindly follow someone. You can make up your mind after you know everything.” The stern lines on her forehead became more pronounced as she defended herself.

“Okay, I’ll listen.” I hated seeing the worry in her eyes but I hated the way she was painting our Elder in a bad light even more.

“After Owyn died and Sarah became Elder our focus turned to The Outcasts. Sarah was adamant on still leading the Pride, ultimately that was her downfall. We went in thinking it would be an easy sweep but we were ambushed… We didn’t have a chance. They only spared me to deliver a message. The next thing I remember is stumbling up to The Citadel and passing out in front of a Knight. I woke up the next morning to Rothchild telling me that Sentinel Maxson wanted to speak with me and then he left to go fetch him. When Arthur walked into the infirmary I could see in his eyes that he wanted me dead. I expected him to pull out a gun and kill me while I was still in my cot but he didn’t. He asked me to tell him everything that had happened. I did and I told him Casdin’s message. That he had Outcast soldiers who were spies in The Citadel and that he had said that he was going to take Owens place. Maxson of course didn’t believe me.” My stomach turned. If that was true and Arthur had listened to her he could have stopped the dark events that occurred the next nine months.

“The next day, Rothchild and a couple of Paladins dragged me into a vacant room.” The Paladin then unzipped her flight suit and pushed it down to her hips before pulling off her under shirt. She leaned forward, exposing the two brands on her back. The Brotherhood of Steel seal between her shoulder blades, in the same place as my tattoo, and the Paladin insignia right under it. The edges were uneven on both from where she had obviously struggled in protest. “Afterwards Rothchild told me that I was promoted to Paladin by Sentinel Maxson.” Laura pulled her under shirt back on and tied the sleeves of her flight suit around her hips. “It wasn’t a reward; it was punishment for living when Sarah didn’t.”

I didn’t know how to respond to what she had told me. The tension in the air was so suffocating that expected her to stop there but she continued.

“Elder Cross was assassinated three months later. Then, we went through more Elders then I can remember before Casdin walked into The Citadel like he owned the place… but I guess he did, didn’t he? After a few months into Casdin’s reign is when Maxson challenged him, litany or whatever. Yet, it didn’t change the soft spot he had for The Outcasts. He integrated us shortly thereafter.” She said as she pinched the bridge of her nose in aggravation.

“But the integration was a positive move to make for The Brotherhood. Unification has made us stronger.” I didn’t understand how she could possibly think that Arthur had completely thrown away everything Owyn had taught him. He would be proud of the Elder and what he had done for us. We were the leading force in the wasteland because of him.

“Danse, don’t you see it?” her aggravation was turning into exasperation. “The Brotherhood completely took over Project Purity. It isn’t something that is openly available to everyone, non-feral ghouls for one. Free, clean water for everyone was what my father had intended. The Brotherhood has bottlenecked his dream. Owyn and my father had seen eye to eye when it came to his project. Now The Brotherhood has turned from White Knights who helped civilians to Dark Knights who horde technology for more power. For fuck’s sake, look at your power armor. It’s black and red, just like The Outcasts. Sarah is probably rolling in her grave right now over what he has done to The Brotherhood. Arthur was manipulated by The Outcasts and the West Coast chapter… and his hatred for me didn’t help either.” Laura huffed angrily.

I couldn’t argue with her about the uniform change. Elder Maxson had explained it to me that it was because of the merger. There was obviously no symbolism behind it though. There couldn’t be. It was just this conspiracy she made up to cope with her losses.

“I was able to keep my nose clean and off of Maxson’s radar, until you walked into Moriarty’s Saloon that night. As soon as he found out that I was the one responsible for you not showing up to duty, he sent me straight to Dore.” She chuckled under her breath. It was a laugh that didn’t reach her eyes. I was the last nail in the coffin of The Brotherhood part of her life. The fact that I had sought refuge in her was the reason she was leaving.

“I wanted to give you this. It’s everything I know on The Institute and The Commonwealth. It’s a book I co-wrote and a bit of information I added to the end that I never gave to anyone else. You should have it since you’re going to deal with all of it firsthand. Maybe it can help.” She pulled out a small leather bound notebook out of the cargo pocket on her right thigh.

But before I could reach for it, there was a loud growl that came from behind the trees. A Yao Guai had been drawn in by the sound of us conversing. It roared loudly as it charged towards us. “Get in my power armor, NOW!” I yelled at Laura. I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to suit up before it would reach us. She would be killed and I was not about to allow her to die. I grabbed Righteous Authority from the trunk as Laura bounded towards the armor. I fired multiple rounds of bright red light towards the hideous creature. The flashes of red laser illuminated the beast and dead trees around us.

Before I had even managed to deplete a cell, the irradiated bear had pounced on me. My entire field of vision was obscured by black scabbed skin that was sparsely covered in course hair. The smell of rotting meat came from the Yao Guai’s hot breath as it opened its jaws wide before biting down with immense force. The sensation of its teeth as they sank into my shoulder was like the popping feeling of stabbing through the casing of a Brahmin sausage with a fork. I could feel and hear the crunching of bone and the snapping of tendons as it clamped down its jaw.

With my left hand, I managed to fire the last two rounds in the cell. The first one missed wildly, hitting a patch of dirt behind the bear. The second one scorched the flesh of its back leg.

Self preservation took over at that point. I kicked and punched wildly at the creature as the vice of its jaw tightened on my shoulder. It dug its front claws into my chest to give it leverage to tear away at my body. I could feel my arm beginning to be pulled away from its socket. The texture of its canine teeth seemed to have turned from sharp daggers to sticks covered in gritty sand paper as it irritated my exposed flesh even further. Every putrid breath the Yao Guai took sent trails of yellow saliva farther down into my flesh.

I felt the tip of a long combat knife pierce my already shredded flesh as Laura plunged the dagger through the top of the bears scull and into its mouth cavity where the majority of my right arm and shoulder were located. Even in death the Yao Guai didn’t loosen its grip. I could smell more than feel its blood gush and mingle with my own in its mouth. The stench of copper filling every gasp of air I took.

Laura placed her armored foot on the neck of the creature and pushed down as she pulled her knife out of its scull. There was a disturbing crunching and squelching sound as the blade was drawn from its victim. She had then stepped away, expecting me to retreat with her. “Laura, I acquire more assistance.” I said as evenly as I could muster. The entire upper part of my body felt on fire.

She hadn’t placed my helmet over her head in her haste to clamber into the power armor. So, I saw her eyes widen in shock when she realized that I was unable to free myself. The ground shook as she threw herself on the ground next to me. Cool metal hands slipped between the teeth of the dead bear and pried them apart with the sounds of loud cracking as she broke the bones of its jaw in her urgency to free me.

The release of pressure from its jaws was just as horrible as the ripping and crunching of the initial bite. My vision flashed with the intense pain as the teeth pulled away from my body. I grunted loudly as I pulled my arm out of the monsters mouth. The rusty iron smell of my own blood filled my sinuses. White hot pain threatened to engulf the rest of my vision. I was barely aware that the entire group had rushed out of the barn, guns raised.

Haylen’s face filled my field of view. “Paladin, Sir, we’ve got you. Stay with us.” She pleaded with me as she stabbed my upper right quadrant with multiple dull needles. Immediately the Med-X caused my head to swim and the world around me went dark.

Chapter Text

It took longer than normal for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Light hadn’t yet filtered in through the crumbling walls of the barn. I must not have been inanimate for long. The only source of dim light came from a lantern somewhere to my left. It took me a moment to realize what had pulled me out of the realm of unconsciousness. A heated argument was coming from two people standing a short distance away. The flickering light cast half of the group in shadow. Knight Keane had braced himself between Knight-Sergeant Dawes and Paladin O’Donoghue, trying with all his might to defuse the situation. Knight Jones was doing his best to try and pull the Paladin away but he was no match for her fury. She kept breaking out of his grip, yelling and stabbing a pointed finger in Dawes’s direction. The rest of Gladius were standing behind the Knight-Sergeant as he raged on, not even attempting to interfere, obviously in agreement with him.

“Enough.” The pain that accompanied that two syllable word, as it scraped its way past my lips, caused stars to erupt across my vision. The shock of my lucidness was as if ice water had been dumped on the inhabitance of the barn. The argument ceased instantly but to my dismay the stunned silence only lasted a moment.

“Sir!” Haylen dove for the side of my bedroll, knocking over medical kit that had been on a crate by my side. “Try not to move.” She warned as she picked up a scrap piece of fabric that had been sitting in a shallow basin of water and gently wiped it across my forehead. When she pulled it away it was stained with blood and dirt.

Dawes was right behind Haylen. His chest was rising and falling quickly with rage.“Sir, Paladin O’Donoghue should be reported to Star-Paladin Rojas immediately. She completely disregarded protocol and almost got you-“ He stopped when I held my hand up. Irritation flashed across his face. I should have known that this was the subject of the argument. O’Donoghue hadn’t ignored protocol. I had and I was the one who had suffered the consequences.

“Dawes, go stand watch.” I gave my soldier the order without breaking eye contact, a warning.

“But, Sir-“ His deep mocha skin flushed with anger, hands balled into fists in attempt to sedate his rage.

“That’s and order, Dawes. If I ever catch you talking to a superior officer like that again I will personally make sure you are stripped of your rank. Consider yourself on notice.” Guilt filled the parts of my chest that weren’t already screaming with pain. I knew that Dawes was only trying to look out for me but I couldn’t allow discourse. If he was ever to gain the rank of Paladin he would have to understand that a good leader would take the heat for those under his command and give credit to them for any accomplishments. Tonight wouldn’t just be a lesson for me, but one for him as well.

He stood up straight and nodded once. “Yes, Sir.” He said before turning and walking out of the barn.

Everyone watched the Knight’s retreat. Complete silence as every eye lingered on the door in which the Knight-Sergeant had departed through.

Knight Jones jumped in surprise when I called his name. “Jones, please escort O’Donoghue. She needs to take a walk and cool down. As for everyone else, get some rest. We head out in the morning.” Jones nodded and placed a hand on Laura’s shoulder. She glanced back at me, her eyes pleading for forgiveness. I gave the slightest of nods. She turned back and let Jones lead her out of the barn.

“Sir, we won’t be able to travel with you in this condition.” Rhys said folding his arms across his chest. I knew he wasn’t trying to be condescending but the man really needed to learn to carry himself differently.

Haylen made a strange noise next to me. Rhys’ eyes flickered over to her. Redness crept up his neck before he looked back at me.

“I’ll be fine. My armor will give me the needed support. We can’t let this delay our mission, any setback isn’t acceptable. I won’t let it happen. Now off to bed, all of you.” I ordered. Brach, Keane, and Worwick turned to their bed rolls without a word. Only Rhys and Haylen lingered behind, a silent conversation occurring between them. Soon Rhys nodded, his eyes flicked to me before he turned and went to bed.

Haylen stayed where she was. “Sir, if moving out first thing in the morning is your goal then at least let me administer more Med-X and another stimpack. I cleaned your wounds as best as I could but I am afraid that it will become infected. Who knows what kind of bacteria that Yao Guai had colonizing its mouth.” I nodded in agreement. She then turned to go through her medical kit that she had collected off of the floor. She carefully pulled out the medication then reached over to undo my dressings.

A white film of new skin cells covered the deep wounds caused by the beast’s teeth and claws. Haylen carefully injected around the more severe areas on my shoulder. Her hands were steady as she changed the dressings, wrapping gauze around the socket of my arm and around my chest to cover the deep claw gouges. She worked in comfortable silence before standing back up and packing away her supplies. She stood up and walked over to her bedroll before picking it up and moving it closer to mine. “I’m going to stay right here with you to monitor you throughout the night, Sir.” She said matter-of-factly. She crawled, somewhat awkwardly, into her sleeping bag.

I woke in the early morning to Haylen checking under my dressings. When she noticed that I was awake, she then stopped to wipe my sweat covered brow with a damp cloth. I had become feverish in the night.

“No, it’s not infected. At least, it doesn’t seem infected. The fever is more likely your body still in shock.” She answered my unspoken question. My worry must have been more apparent than I had expected.

The pain had gone down substantially. So much so, that I easily sat up. Haylen’s eyes were in danger of falling out of her skull. She quickly placed her hand on my left shoulder to keep me steady. She gauged me intently before letting go when she was positive I could hold myself up. I patiently waited while she took my vitals. “Can you show me the range of motion you can manage with your right arm?” She watched as I lifted my arm. I couldn’t get it past shoulder height without wincing. “You know, we could wait another day before heading out.” She lowered her eyes to the stethoscope in her hands.

“Thank you Haylen but I think if I stay in my power armor while we continue I should be fine.” I said as I scooted out from under my unzipped sleeping bag and stood up. I could feel her eyes bore into my back as I began to pack up my bedroll. Haylen didn’t try to argue. She just packed up her things in silence.

By that point, the rest of the group had gotten up and were getting ready to continue onward. I quickly pulled on fresh flight suit and placed my hood on before moving to my power armor, which was located close by, where Laura had left it the night before. I packed my things into the luggage compartments with some struggle. It was even more difficult to pull myself into the suit but as soon as the latch closed I could feel the armor accommodate the strain on my shoulder, lessening the ache.

I walked out of the barn with relatively little pain. Paladin O’Donoghue and Knight Jones were waiting several paces away from the barn, ready to depart. Laura turned to look at me when she heard my approach. She didn’t have her helmet on yet, it was tucked safely under her arm. There were dark circles under her eyes. Her lips were split in several places where she had bitten away at them with worry. Her hair wasn’t in its usual tight and neat braid but pinned up in a messy bunch on the back of her head. She walked towards me and as she got closer I could tell how much of a toll the last night had taken on her. Her usually unblemished skin was patchy with gray from lack of sleep. She really looked terrible.

“Laura, before you say anything, you don’t have anything to be sorry for. I’ll be fine. It was my mistake but it’s best to just focus on the mission ahead. We should be at Wilkes-Barre in two days. We will find those Enclave traitors and then you can move on with your life.” I expected her to be comforted by my words but she looked even more worried then when she first looked over at me, maybe even sad.

“Understood, Paladin.” All traces of familiarity from the night before, gone. She placed her helmet back on and walked back over to Knight Jones and picked up her Gatling laser.

Soon the rest of Gladius joined us and we began our journey northeast.

__

We made our way up the sluggish Susquehanna River and into the Wyoming Valley. Rounded mountains cradled the river from all sides. Crumbling buildings could be seen towering over the dry trees. They were white and beige bones protruding from the earth. Everything that could be seen were all shades of brown, even the late afternoon sky. The air that blew through the valley smelled of dead trees and soil heated under the intense summer sun.

Laura hurried her pace and pushed her way to the front of the group. I heard her approach and turned to her, Haylen following suit immediately after. Her eyes were daggers as she watched Laura approach us.

“There are two places of interest, Paladin. The first one is the airport, half-way between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. The other place of interest is The River Slope Mine. That is located south west of the airport. The coal mine should be easy to reach first if we continue up the river.” She was as professional as ever. I had given her more than enough space over the last couple of days to collect herself or do whatever she needed to be comfortable again. It hadn’t been a success. She continued to avoid anything that wasn’t related to the mission, not just with me but with Squad Gladius and even Knight Jones.

“Lead the way, Laura.” I said letting her pass me to lead the group. Haylen shot me a look that was hard to miss, even with her goggles obscuring most of her face.

We were only attacked by a couple of bloat flies as we trekked towards the coal mine. Worwick and Brach had both fought each other over who had shot the second one, continuing their ongoing bet on who could kill the most wasteland animals. Raucous laughter echoed off the banks of the river as the two men roughhoused with each other. Brach was winning their bet buy a large margin.

It was obvious when we were close to the coal mine. The sand along the bank of the river turned from sandy terracotta to black. O’Donoghue gave a signal then she and Jones ran ahead of us, their combined heavy footfalls caused the ground to shake in their wake. They swept across the narrow street that separated the mine from the river, with lethal precision, and trudged quickly across the onyx dust field. Gladus came up behind them quickly, crouched low and firearms raised.

My recon squad split into two teams to secure the border. Keane, Dawes, Worwick, and Haylen went north. Keane leading the line of soldiers as they scanned the edge of trees and fanned out. Brach, Rhys, and myself took the south. There were fewer trees so we managed to spread out quicker than our counterparts.

Laura gave the signal, two short whistles, and Jones followed her down the mine shaft at the center of the black terrain. As soon as they made it below ground I held up two fingers and then Gladius began to shrink the circumference of the boundary line. I continued to hold up Righteous Authority and scanned our surroundings as we retreated towards the entrance of the coal mine. When we were finally back together as a group, did I finally lower my weapon ever so slightly.

“How long should we expect the sweep to take?” Brach asked without turning away from scanning the edge of the field. I felt a rush of pride as I watched him stay vigilant. He was always a skilled soldier when it was expected of him.

“About half an hour, most of the mine was washed away in a freak accident before the war. Not much should be left down there but it is a good hiding spot in this area, which is why we’re here.” Haylen filled him in. She had lowered her weapon and pulled her goggles up to her forehead.

“You like to do book reports? Don’t you, sweet cheeks?” Worwick looked down at her from the corner of his eye. A dazzling smile crept across his lips as he teased her with a small wink.

“Don’t call me that!” Haylen punched him sharply in the kidney which made him grunt loudly and almost caused him to drop his laser rifle. Branch and Keane snickered at the interaction between the Scribe and the Knight.

Rhys, on the other hand, shuffled his feet uncomfortably as his ears glowed bright red.

The sun was beginning to set when Laura and her Knight emerged. She had removed her helmet, coal was smeared across one of her cheeks. She wiped at her brow with an armored hand before saying “Found some things down there that are of interest but no one was down there and it looks like it’s been a couple of weeks or months since anyone inhabited the mine. Jones and I came across some roaches but that’s it. We should make camp here since it’s getting late.” Jones nodded in agreement as Laura patted him on an armored shoulder. His helmet was also off as well but he had managed not to tarnish his face.

“Affirmative. Let’s get in and get set up.” I held my hand out, guiding the non-armored crew in first. Knight Keane and Knight Jones went in before the Paladin and I brought up the rear. From what I could see of the mine that was still intact it was structurally sound. Haylen’s research must have been correct, only some sort of freak accident could have destroyed the pristinely built caverns. Thick twelve by twelve beams supported the slate walls and ceiling. O’Donoghue led us into the first open room in the mine. There were multiple large pieces of abandoned equipment that filled half of the space.

I walked over to an empty wall and exited my power armor. I left the hatch open and pulled out what I would need for the night, a bedroll, hygiene products, and a change of socks.

Brach played upbeat music on his mandolin as we set up camp and while chow was being cooked. After all of the food was consumed, Knight Keane started his first watch as the rest of us worked on the maintenance our gear desperately needed.

Haylen was fussing over the task of changing my dressings as I tinkered with the right arm piece of my armor. “Sir, can you stop for just one moment. I can’t clean the grooves when you’re screwing with your armor.” Rhys couldn’t help but look up from his ten millimeter at the curse that escaped Haylens mouth.

I gave her a sideways look. She wasn’t going to apologies but continued pouring vodka on my healing wounds. She then wiped it dry before securing gauze in place by wrapping it with a compression band. “So we can go two ways with this. One; we continue with the Stimpacks and Med-X like we have been, which will only help with the pain and discomfort. Or two; since there isn’t any infection and your fresh skin has closed and created a complete barrier, we can stop and let you heal naturally. The internal damage wouldn’t be healed by what we have with us, only time will heal that but you would have to work through the pain. Do you want to stop to conserve medical supplies or continue for pain management, Sir?” She was leaving the decision up to me.

I could tell that she wasn’t happy with the options we had. On the one hand, she wanted to treat me properly but didn’t have all the needed supplies. On the other hand, we were low on the supplies we had and my injury was healed enough to be functional.

“That won’t be necessary, Haylen. We should save what we have for emergencies.” I gave her as much of a reassuring smile as I knew how. She seemed to take well to it and returned the smile.

As soon as she was done I thanked her and pulled up the zipper of my flight suit and returned to my armor. I was pulled from my work as the first lamp was extinguished. Rhys was the first to go to sleep since he was the one responsible for tonight’s second watch. I pulled my lamp closer to me as I continued to work. Then one after another, lamps were being extinguished as the rest of the group turned in for the night. Eventually there were only two lamps on, it was just Laura and I that were still awake.

Chapter Text

The last time I had a shower was longer than I would like to admit. I needed to get clean. Immediately I thought of the river that was only a fifty yards away. My geiger counter had hardly ticked as we trekked across the Susquehanna River, there must not have been much radioactive runoff in the area. The gritty feeling of my hair plastered between my scalp and hood was enough for me to risk it.

I felt her eyes on me as I packed up my things. They pulled at my attention like a fisherman would at his catch. I gingerly placed my pack over my left shoulder and picked my laser rifle up off of my bedroll. Before I turned to leave the mine I looked over at O’Donoghue. She was staring at me, her bottom lip caged between her teeth. I tilted my head a fraction of an inch to the side, a silent invitation.

I didn’t stay long enough to see if she would come. I quickly walked out of the mine shaft and exchanged nods with Keane as I passed the Knight on watch.

The moon was full and bright in the clear night sky. The blanket of stars I had become accustom to, were washed out by the lights of a settlement on the other side of the river bank. The green glow of my sights on Righteous Authority caused the black sand beneath my feet to glitter. No matter how careful I was when it came to picking up my feet, the sand still crunched loudly with every pace. Eventually I made it far enough up the river where the sand was clear of pollutant.

There were a few trees that had fallen into the river that made for great cover, especially when I would be unarmed. I placed my bag down on the section of the trunk still on the river bank and sat down to unlace my boots. The only sound was of gently bubbling river. So, the crunch of her footfalls was unmistakable.

I couldn’t help but smile to myself

Aren’t you worried about loose lips, Danse?” Laura finally asked as soon as she was within earshot. I gave her the quickest of glances before returning to my boots. It was a reasonable question but Knight Keane was a good man who didn’t gossip.

She stepped carefully around the tree in front of me and sat down, watching me pull off my boots one-handed. “If you cared so much, Paladin, then why are you here?” My question was slightly muffled as I pulled the glove off of my left hand with my teeth.

She shrugged and pulled matches and cigarette out of her front pocket. She carefully put the butt in her mouth and ignited it. She didn’t flinch as I continued to undress. A red glow reflected in her eyes from the embers of her cigarette.

I carefully unzipped my flight suit, making sure not to over exert my shoulder. Laura hadn’t moved an inch by the time I was down to my briefs. I rummaged through my bag, willing myself not to look at her. I knew it would only take a glance and I would lose my self control. I found the bar of lye soap at the bottom of my bag and pulled it out before turning and walking slowly into the water, each step was calculated to keep from slipping or cutting open the bottoms of my feet.

The water was warm and more translucent than I thought. I stopped when the water was up to my knees before slipping off my briefs. I turned my torso and tossed them over my shoulder, onto the bank, then waded deeper into the water. The radiation was so low that I couldn’t differentiate if I was able to feel it or if it was just the slow flow of water over my skin. By the time I was waist deep in the water I turned to look at the paladin that was now standing on the shore.

O’Donoghue took another drag from her cigarette, her eyes never leaving mine. She exhaled slowly, sending a plume of smoke high into the night air. Her smirk was visible in the dim moonlight as she paced up and down the bank, trying to make a decision, to get in or go back to camp. She flicked the remainder of her cigarette on the ground and crushed it under the heel of her boot.

I began to wade deeper into the slow moving water, making sure not to get my bandages wet. I could see her tapping her foot impatiently before she reached up to her zipper and pulled it down. Putting more space between us seemed to be the little nudge she needed to make up her mind.

She quickly pulled off her boots without untying them. She then hastily pushed off her flight suit. Standing in the clay sand in just her tank top and panties, she raised her arm and made a stirring motion with her index finger. “Will you please turn around?” she called out, loud enough for me to hear.

I obliged and scanned the landscape on the opposite bank. The mountains in the distance were outlined carefully by the light of the sinking moon. The soft sloshing of water behind me were the only sounds that broke the still night. I felt the heat from her body before any words were said. I closed my eyes, taking in the feel of the skin on her hand as she reached for the bar of soap I was still holding.

“You saved me, again. You have a knack for that. Don’t you, Paladin?” her words sounded even sadder than she had looked over the last few days. The wet soap glided across the skin of my back with ease. She pressed down with enough pressure that the network of muscle knots began to loosen. She then carefully ran a wet hand across my cleansed skin, wiping away the reminder of the suds. She worked in silence, moving from one arm to the other, carefully avoiding my bandages.

I had been so immersed in the sensations she was causing to my aching body that I was not prepared when she stepped in front of me. I thought that over the last year I had romanticized how immaculate her body was. Yet, there she was, in all of her glory. I could feel my lips part slightly in surprise. Her skin called to me and my hands greedily answered. I firmly placed my hands on the sides of her waist and pulled her in, close but not enough. I waited for permission to continue, my thumbs caressing her skin of their own accord.

“I wish we could have had more time, Danse. You deserved much better from me.” Her eyes were full of sorrow that was meant for more than just me. And in that moment I wanted nothing more but to be close to her in a way that we never had been. I wanted to heal her pain. Reignite the flame in her eyes that were there the first time I saw her march into the Citadel. I want to give her what I had taken from her without her knowledge.

“You don’t owe me anything, Laura.” I lifted one hand from her waist and clutch her cheek in the palm of my hand.

“One more time; Please, Danse.” Her voice quivered and her eyes fell as she looked down at the water flowing between the minuscule gap between our bodies.

I cupped her face between both of my hands, forcing her to look up at me. “Of course.” I said, reassuring her.

Her lips were on mine and her body was pressed against me.

That was all it took. The euphoria consumed me like a wild fire. I was lost to the world. She engulfed my entire being but it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted her to have everything in that moment.

No matter how hard I had clung to her and held her tightly to my body, I still couldn’t quite achieve the connection I wanted to feel towards her. A slur of curse words were exchanged in the heat of the moment.

Pressure mounted. Flesh was grasped by hands and teeth.

Her waves of pleasure were my undoing.

By the time we caught our breath did I finally notice that we were no longer in the water but pressed against one of the trees. She always had a way to cause tunnel vision. I was a prewar launching pad and she was the coordinator of the rocket launch. Nothing else mattered but the success of our planetary exit.

She kissed me form the corner of my mouth, across my jaw, and down my neck. She prolonged the intimacy as long as she could. I was happy that she was able to feel the connection I wanted to achieve even thought I didn’t.

She didn’t dismount form my lap but laid her head on my left shoulder as she panted, trying her best to catch her breath. I kept my hands on her thighs, not wanting to rush her. Eventually her racing pulse slowed and she stood. Her walls back up but not to their fullest capacity.

Not s single word was said as we replaced our clothing. By the time I had gathered my things and slung my pack over my good shoulder, she was already ready and waiting. We walked back to camp in silence. I was relieved that she wasn’t trying to keep her distance. Her arm or hand would even brush across the side of my uniform from time to time.

I had to stifle a small curse when we got close enough to the mine. Watch turnover had happened while we were out. Rhys stood at attention at the entryway of the mine shaft. His narrowed eyes showed that he didn’t miss anything. The Knight didn’t say anything as we walked past him.

The inhabitants of our camp were all blissfully asleep. Laura squeezed my hand before walking over to her bedroll and climbed in, leaving me to get ready for sleep on my own.

--

This wasn’t the first time I had been left behind for a recon mission because of an injury. Yet, this time felt different. I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread as the hours ticked by.

Knight Brach and Worwick had both agreed to stay behind with me as the rest of the recon squad joined with O’Donoghue and Jones to search the nearby airport. The two men were trying to get me to join their third consecutive game of modified charades when the sounds of many footsteps echoed down into the chamber. We all jumped to our feet as they began to file into camp. Each one of our soldiers had returned safely, mostly. Dawes had a sizable cut on his bottom lip.

What caught my attention was the fact that Jones and Haylen were speaking furiously and barking orders at the rest of the team. That’s when O’Donoghue walked in, last. She was holding something that was wrapped in a rust colored blanket… No, holding was not correct. She was cradling it.

Keane and Dawes were gathering all of our communications equipment and hurriedly moving it outside. Haylen yelling behind them to be careful as they all practically ran back out of the mine.

“What happened?” I heard Worwick ask Jones as I made my way closer to Laura.

Time became viscous as I heard Jones say. “A clan of raiders got to the base first. It became apparent immediately that they were cannibalistic. The bones of the dead Enclave were cleaned of flesh and placed decoratively across a table. That’s when Paladin O’Donoghue found the infant, laying on a butcher block. We managed to clear the place just in time.”

A tiny hand rose from the bundle and reached towards Laura’s face. An Enclave child.

She finally tore her eyes from the child in her arms and looked immediately at me. I had stopped walking towards her, frozen in shock.

“As soon as your scribe has relayed the message back to Dore, we need to move out. We have to have everything ready to go. All of the technology we’ve found at the airport needs to be rounded up. We only have a few hours once they get the message.” The urgency in her voice snapped me out of the trance I was in.

“Yes, Ma’am.” I nodded once before turning and hurriedly packing everything I could get my hands on.

We had all managed to pack and get suited up just in time. Haylen came barreling into the chamber, her hair escaping from under her hood. “The message has been relayed and our equipment repacked. We should move out. Now.” She picked up her pack and another duffle bag of supplies and turned to walk back out of the mine, the rest of Gladius following suit.

Laura didn’t let go of the child for four hours. Not until both vertibirds were filled to capacity and the Knight-Captain, who had been specifically sent because of the child, had to ask her to hand over the infant for an evaluation.

The Knight-Captain boarded the closest vertibird with the child, Knight Jones following closely behind.

Laura visibly shook as she turned and addressed Gladius. “Thank you all for helping make this mission a success. I wish you nothing but good fortune as you continue on your mission. Ad Victoriam.” She brought her fist to her chest and saluted us. In unison we all saluted her back with pride. She climbed into the cockpit and the rotors began to pick up speed.

The two vertibirds took off and flew in the direction of the setting sun. I watched until the two dots disappeared behind the horizon.

Chapter Text

There was a loud thunk as something hit the back of my helmet, followed by the sound of solid particles raining down my armor. I spun around with Righteous Authority raised, only to be bombarded by an explosion of laughter.

Gladius was in complete disarray. Knight Worwick had his hand to his mouth, face as red as a tato, the obvious culprit. Everyone else had doubled over in fits of hysteria. Dawes went so far as to actually drop his sniper rifle to clutch his sides. Haylen had to push her goggles up to her forehead, as they had started to fog up from the tears or laughter streaming down her face.

“Worwick! What did you throw at me?” I barked at him, yanking off my helmet. The visual screen had started to flash from the impact. I flipped it over and inspected the back. A sizeable dent was square in the middle of the back plate. I couldn’t help but be impressed though. He must have thrown it with massive force.

He dropped his hand from his mouth and hurriedly stammered “I apologize, Sir. I wasn’t aiming for you. Rhys ducked faster than I anticipated.”

“My question, Knight, was ‘What did you throw at me?’” I repeated. I hated repeating myself.

Worwick stuttered a few times before managing “A clump of dirt, Sir.”

Haylen and Brach howled with laughter.

I tossed my helmet at Worwick, “You’re fixing this.” Everyone else collected themselves as I turned to look at them directly. “We need to cover as much ground as possible before it gets too late to set up camp. So, let's move out.”

I had taken only a few steps before I heard Rhys cry out and then shout “Damn it! Worwick!” I spun around just in time to see Worwick with his foot still out and Rhys picking himself up off of the ground, the front of his uniform now a dusty shade of terracotta. Worwick’s smug grin slid off of his face when he saw me scowling at him.

“That’s enough! I brought Knights on this mission. Not squires! If I wanted to babysit children I would have transferred to the Citadel.” I could feel my temper beginning to get the best of me. I huffed loudly and pointed in the direction we needed to travel. “Since you all obviously need to be monitored, I'll bring up the rear. Now, move soldiers!” My chest plate rattled under the boom of my command.

-

Day fifty of our two month trek was coming to a close. The horsing around by the squad hadn’t stopped. On the contrary, they became stealthier with their jokes. An unfathomable amount of pent up energy was in desperate need of release. We had walked ten days without coming across anything. Not a single deathclaw, blood bug, or even raiders. The squad was getting restless with the lack of action.

We came across a clearing that was ideal for camp. There was a silent agreement among the squad that it would be where we would stop for the night. Knight Brach made it to the center of the clearing first and dropped his bags with a loud huff.

Knight Keane and I both disembarked from the safety of our power armor. My armor unlocked with a hiss and I carefully stepped down onto the dry brittle ground. I took a deep breath, enjoying the feeling of my freely expanding ribcage. The tightness in my shoulder was my reminder of the tradeoff; being confined for support of my healing shoulder. I rolled my arm in its stiff socket, rubbing the tight muscles at the base of my neck. I watched Haylen take a quick inventory of all the bags that had been haphazardly thrown down with Brach’s. Dawes and Rhys had already set off in search of firewood. Brach and Worwick were setting up bedrolls and tents for the night.

I hadn’t realized that I was only standing there, absentmindedly rubbing my shoulder, until Haylen pulled me from my unfocused stare into the distance. “Sir, if it’s still bothering you this much… I have what I need to make a numbing cream. It will only take a few minutes to make. Please, Sir. We need you in peak condition. We aren’t far from the Commonwealth. It has already claimed one Brotherhood reconnaissance team and the only reason any of us volunteered is because of you. You are the only person who could possibly lead a successful recon in that treacherous place.” Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she voiced her concern.

“You can feel it too?” I asked under my breath. The ever increasing feeling of unease had become suffocating for me the last couple of days.

She shuffled uncomfortably and nodded. “It’s been to quiet, like we’re heading towards a place that should be avoided.”

“Alright, Haylen.” I didn’t know what compelled me to do it but I reached over to her and squeezed her arm in reassurance. She looked up at me and visibly relaxed. This issue must have been weighing on her heavily. I let my arm drop awkwardly and Haylen pretended not to notice. She quietly dismissed herself and walked off to go looking through her medical supplies. So, I began working on setting up a space for her to work.

I sat down on my unrolled sleeping bag like a short stool and unzipped my flight suit just enough to slip out my right arm out of its sleeve. Haylen then returned with a ceramic bowl full of dried flowers she had collected over the span of our trek, along with some water, a bright green mushroom, and a sprig of razor grain. She sat down in front of me on a box of ammunition and then pulled out a black pestle from her front chest pocket.

Knight Worwick pulled up a seat near us when he completed his task in helping set up camp. My T-60 helmet was in his lap and a small bag of tools by his feet. Haylen explained to him that she was making Herbal Anodyne for my shoulder. She skillfully muddled the carrot flowers, melon blossom, and thistle in the bowl. She then pulled off the top of the water can and placed the glowing fungus and razorgrain inside to rehydrate.

“You could have been a chems lord if you never joined the Brotherhood.” Worwick joked and braced himself as she gave him a well deserved punch in the arm but her eyes sparkled with humor. She then fished out the fungus and grain and added them to the bowl. Once the contents were fine enough for her approval, she added the contents of the bowl back into the can of water. She placed the top back on it then held out the canister to the Knight.

“Want to do the honors?” She asked as if it was some great feat to shake up the contents.

He rolled his eyes at her but took the can from her anyway. I couldn’t help but smirk as he shook it as hard as he could. The sound of sloshing water quieted into nothingness. With a confused look on his face he handed the can back to Haylen. She peeled the top off to reveal a thick brown gel clinging to the sides of the container.

“Seriously Haylen, you would have been one hell of a chems dealer. How did you even learn all this stuff? I can’t even make a Dirty Wastelander.” He stuck his finger into the gel and brought his hand up to his face to inspect the substance.

Haylen looked up at me and smiled. “Knight Rhys is an excellent sponsor. Whatever I didn’t learn from him or the archives at the Citadel, I learned from Paladin Danse.” She said, pride thick in her voice.

I beamed at her but could still feel the heat in my cheeks from such a direct complement.

Worwick chuckled and crossed his arms in front of his chest, completely abandoning my helmet in his lap. “Well he has been Paladin for a lifetime. How does one become Paladin anyway? I’ve never heard your story. But what I’ve heard from other Paladins in the Capital and back on the West Coast is that you have to do something impressive. So, what did you do, Sir?” He asked, kicking his legs out and settling in.

“Gunning for a Paladin position, Worwick?” I asked him jokingly. Worwick gave a slight shrug of his shoulders, entertaining the idea. Haylen began to place the gel all over my shoulder with a slight eye roll. She had heard the story before and she wasn’t impressed with some of the other people involved.

“I gained the rank of Paladin right after the battle at Adams Air Force Base. I was part of Sentinel Tristan and the late Paladin Krieg’s assault team, at the time Tristan was Paladin. Tristan sent O’Donoghue to infiltrate the Air Force Base through the Presidential Metro, while the rest of us waited in position on the other side of the photonic resonance barrier. Sentinel Tristan and the Lyon’s Pride flew in on a vertibird, that we had acquired during the start of Project Purity, and retrieved O’Donoghue once she had programmed the orbital strike on the Enclave Mobile Base Crawler.” I was cut off by Worwick as he threw his hands up in the air.

“Hold on! We did a reconnaissance with the person who brought down the Enclave?” His voice was loud enough to gain the attention of the rest of Gladius.

“You have got to be kidding me, Worwick. You are dating a Scribe. Do you ever read any of the archives or books he works with or are you to busy drooling?” Haylen shot him a stern look as she closed the gel container. The Knight returned a little wink.

Brach cleared his throat and plopped down next to Worwick. “Did I hear something about that fox from Dore?” He chuckled until he caught me staring him down. I couldn’t stop the sudden wave of jealousy that hit me like a monsoon at his blatant expression of attraction towards Laura.

“She’s an officer, Knight. Watch yourself.” I barked at him. I clenched my jaw and waited until Haylen was finished wrapping my shoulder, giving myself time to compose myself before continuing. By that point Keane, Dawes, and Rhys had come over to where we were sitting and distributed chow before settling in with the group.

“Sentinel Tristan was ordered last minute by Elder Lyons to accompany Sarah and the Lyons Pride, leaving Paladin Krieg in charge of our squad. Our cue to storm the base was the destruction of the Mobile Base. As soon as the first missile hit the platform, the barrier went down. We rushed the remaining Enclave on the ground. It went by quickly, they were rightfully distracted.’

“We split from the other teams and went for the far end of the base. Our team cleared the vast majority of the southern half by ourselves. That was, until we made it to the Adams Storage Facility. We were immediately surrounded by Enclave Hellfire Troopers and sentry bots as soon as we entered the building. Paladin Krieg didn’t have a chance. He was first through the door and received a laser round to the head before anyone had the opportunity to see the Enclave Troopers inside. I managed to get behind a sentry bot and set off its fusion core. It caused a chain reaction with the other two sentry bots and the explosions wiped out the Hellfire Troopers.’

“We did a sweep of the facility and that’s where I found the plans for The Prydwen. Then, we got back to the Air Control Tower just in time to help finish off the last of the Enclave.” I paused to put my sleeve back on and noticed that Dawes, Worwick, and Brach were all staring at me, open mouthed. I then became painfully aware that everyone had finished their dinner and my arm was still out of my flight suit and my food untouched. I hurriedly dressed then took my first bite of crab cake. I was still receiving looks of awe as I chewed my food awkwardly. The slack jaws of my crew-mates made me feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally Brach broke the silence. “So you’re the reason the Brotherhood has the Prydwen?”

I shook my head and swallowed my food before answering. “It was luck. There would have been a scribe or someone else who would have come by and found it after the Brotherhood took over the base and did a thorough sweep.”

I immediately felt Haylen’s glare before she even spoke. “That’s not true. Ingram herself told me that you finding it was an impossible feat. She said you walked back and forth in one spot then bent over and pulled up a loose tile and there was the plan.”

“You call that luck?” Brach blurted.

“It’s important to use all of your senses and be perceptive, but it was luck that the plans were there. It could have easily been nothing.” I told them.

“When we got back to the Citadel, I gave the blueprints to Rothchild and he almost had a stroke. I had never seen him so flustered, even when he got the bad news about Liberty Prime. Then, not to long after that, Elder Lyons ordered Kells, Ingram, and I to assemble a team to start building the Prydwen. Then, next thing I know he’s leading me to a set of Paladin armor and told me that I had been promoted.” That day had been the proudest day of my life but also the most emotionally exhausting day of my life up to that point. That was, until Cutler.

Reliving that day had made me mentally tired but the Herbal Anodyne had a caffeine effect, causing a restless buzz all over my body.

I took an absentminded bite of food.

“Well, that’s it then. I’m never going to be able to make Paladin.” Worwick joked. “Sir, you really set the bar high.” There was a murmur of agreement among the group.

“Everyone in the Brotherhood of Steel has it in them to make it to the rank of Paladin. We are responsible for the noblest cause in the Wasteland; protecting humanity from itself. If you respect your fellow brothers in steel and the ideals of our organization, then you have a solid chance.” I thought my motivational speech was quite moving but I only received skeptical looks from my team.

To all of our surprise it was Knight Keane who spoke up. “If we’re being honest, there is a lot more politics that come into play then just hard work earning a higher rank. You, Sir, for instance, are Elder Maxson’s favorite CO. –Please don’t look at me like that, Haylen. It’s the truth and everyone in the Brotherhood knows it and for good reason. You are the embodiment of what it means to be Steel but ten years as a Paladin is unheard of. You’ve been shouldering the responsibility as a Sentinel for the better half of a decade, especially after the completion of the Prydwen. If you were right and it did come down to just duty then I would agree with you… if you were Sentinel.’

“Elder Maxson either doesn’t want to show favoritism or it comes down to blood. Dawes and Worwick are the only two of us who are part of legacy families. If we look at who does become Paladin, Paladin-Commander, Star Paladin, Sentinel, or even Elder; they are almost all of legacy families. There are very few exceptions to this, you being one of them. In my honest opinion, Sir, you should be Sentinel. Even if you are the Elder’s favorite or that you were recruited, you’ve gone above and beyond to earn the rank… As for the rest of these bastards-“ He looked at the other men in the group “Good luck trying to fill Danse’s boots.” He smiled as the rest of the group chuckled at his last statement. It was the first time that I had actually seen a smile on his face that warmed his dark eyes.

“I appreciate your support, Knight.” I reached forward and gave him a thankful pat on the shoulder.

He looked me in the eyes “Play the politics, Sir. Don’t let them play you.” He said as if it were some simple fact. I could feel my face begin to heat again. This sudden exhibit of emotion from Keane had thrown me for a loop. That kind of speech could have been expected from Rhys but with a lot more swear words. Knight Keane was the last person I expected to feel so strongly about something I had regretfully thought about many nights.

Haylen yawned and I took that as my opportunity to make sure that my squad turned in for the night. “Alright, enough banter for tonight. It’s time to turn in. Except for you Worwick, I want my helmet in brand new condition by the time I wake up in the morning.”

I gave him a stern look and he quickly picked it up off of the ground. The Knight and the rest of Gladius disappointedly dismissed themselves and went to their separate tents.

I unrolled my sleeping bag onto my thinning bedroll and gingerly crawled into the threadbare fabric. I fell asleep long after the muttered curses from Knight Worwick had faded into the night.

_

The air was thick with radiation. Jade lightning flashed across the sage colored sky. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention as I felt eyes on me. My heart raced and my breaths came in sharp gasps. I slowly turned to look over my shoulder. There, among the trees, were two glowing red eyes. Hot breath escaped through white dagger like teeth and swirled into the frigid air.

I turned to face the creature and reached for my laser rifle but my hand found nothing but air. I looked down in shock. I had nothing to defend myself with. I looked up in time to see the mutated bear charge. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the impact. My stomach was pushed up into my chest as I felt my feet leave the ground and was thrown backwards. My breath was knocked out of my lungs as the impact crushed my ribcage.

The hot breath on my face wasn’t that of putrid death of a Yao Guai but of the sweet bubblegum that Cutler constantly chewed. His hands came around my neck as I opened my eyes. His green eyes flashed with hatred as fierce as the clap of thunder from the storm raging around us.

“It should have been you.” He said through gritted teeth. Then the man on top of me changed. His body swelled and contorted, never loosening his grip on my larynx. The mutant laughed as the world around me began to go black. “You’re going to wish it was you.”

-

I shot up in my sleeping bag, my heart and lungs working in overtime. Waves of cold sweat rolled down my face and neck. The turmoil I had experienced stood in blinding contrast to the beautifully painted sky in the early dawn around me. The smell of bubblegum still lingered in the air.

Chapter Text

Sunlight glinted off of the crumbling granite plaque a few yards from where we were. The top left corner was gone, blown off probably decades ago. As we continued our hike under the never-ending overpass of the Cambridge Turnpike, the words that were carved into the slab of stone came into focus. “-ome to Sudbury.”

“There it finally is…” Knight-Sergeant Dawes lifted a hand and pointed off towards the East. The Boston skyline could be seen jutting out of the horizon.

As if on cue, a deep male’s voice boomed from down the hill. “Come out you fuckers! I can hear you!”

Immediately my entire squad raised their fire arms and looked at me for instruction.

“Brach, Dawes, Worwick, quickly go down through the grove here and circle to the south. We’ll drive them towards you. We’ll take them out like fish in a barrel. Move out!” I said quickly. I could feel myself go into autopilot. Years of training with the Brotherhood made almost every encounter with Raiders completely by the book. Easy.

The three soldiers ducked into the trees as Keane and I led the attack from the north. Power armor made us easy targets, a distraction for the other squad members to get into striking position. As we came to the ridge of the hill we could see some kind of prewar military outpost that seemed to be converted into a Raider den. A makeshift canopy was erected over the majority of the compound and two wooden lookout posts were erected on the north and east sides of the bunker and a prewar guard hut was still intact to the west.

A raider began to shoot at us from the northern shack, the one closest to us. Keane shot two rounds from his combat rifle, hitting the bald man in center mass just as a man in power armor came around the east of the brick building. I signaled Keane to follow Rhys and Haylen around the west side of the compound, towards the guard hut.

Bullets began to ping off of my chest plate as the armored Raider made his way up the rocky face, towards me. I inhaled a deep breath of ozone as high wavelength photons shot from the end of Righteous Authority. First his right arm plate was blasted off, followed by his helmet. I took a steadying breath and pulled the trigger as I exhaled. The red light hit right between his eyes, incinerating his skull, the armor swayed mid-step and toppled down the five feet he had managed to climb.

There was a loud explosion from what seemed to be a fragment grenade somewhere below.

I heard a panicked yell to my right, over the sound of rapid fire from the machine turret. It swiveled in front of the federal bunker and continued its assault on Knight Keane in his obliterated power armor. His movements were excruciatingly slow as the power assist had been compromised by the direct grenade hit.

Rhys crouched behind a stack of industrial tires and shot angrily at the turret until it erupted, flames threatening to reach out and lick his face. The Knight narrowly avoided the fireball by throwing himself down beside the mound of rubber he was using for cover.

Haylen and I both charged for where Keane had completely stopped moving.

“I can’t get it open! This piece of shit release lever is gone.” Keane could be heard hyperventilating under his helmet.

I quickly turned the release valve and the suite popped open with a high pitched squeal of metal on metal. The Knight fell backwards out of it and fell at Haylen’s feet. I quickly pulled him up and dragged him back to where Dawes, Worwick, and Brach were keeping cover inside of a green shipping container loaded on the back of a rusted semi truck. Rhys had run up to Haylen who had half of her body inside of Keane’s power armor, loud cursing could be heard where I was standing.

There was a loud ping as a bullet ricocheted off of the shoulder of the ruined power armor. One last raider was shooting at them from a wooden shack on the other side of the compound. Rhys cursed at Haylen and yanked her out of the armor and threw her over his shoulder with ease. I raised my laser rifle and covered their retreat back to the rest of Gladius. Within a matter of seconds the Raider was dead, slumped over the wooden railing.

“Fuck! It’s gone! All of our communication gear is gone. It was smashed all to hell!” Haylen was screaming as Rhys placed her back down on her feet. The scribe ripped her hood and goggles of, letting out cries of frustration. Keane grabbed her arm and was about to apologies but Haylen held up her hand. “No. Don’t say anything. I know it wasn’t your fault. We were caught by surprise and outnumbered. It’s just… we don’t have a way to get back in contact with the Citadel or the Prydwen. That radio was our only lifeline to the Brotherhood back in the Capital.”

Brach cursed under his breath. The rest of the team shuffled uncomfortably. We were on our own. Unless we found some way to communicate back to our home base, we would have to write off the mission as a failure and head back but I couldn’t let that happen.

“Let’s just get to Artemis’s last known location and then decide on a plan.” Dawes finally said after a long moment of silence. He picked up his bag and slung his sniper rifle over his shoulder. “According to Haylen’s map in her initial report the Police Station should be reachable before dark. The Charles River should be south east of where we are. If we follow it then we should be able to make it to Cambridge. Keane, take my laser pistol.” He handed the unarmed Knight the gun that hadn’t left its holster the entire trek.

“Let’s go.” I jumped off of the back of the trailer and walked through the grove of trees down the hill. We were almost immediately rushed by a raider and his pet sentry bot from a small storefront nestled into the rock. Rhys and I went after the sentry bot, the bigger threat of the two. He took cover next to me as we rained laser fire down on the heavily armored robot. We were soon joined with the rest of Gladius, the raider splayed, bloody on the pavement behind them.

We continued on and came across a crossroads, we headed east, towards a four story gray and orange steel building. As we got closer, a vertibird styled monument could be seen across the street of the now legible ArcJet building. The Massachusetts Turnpike could be seen to the south, standing tragically graceful behind the monument.

Another crossroads was upon us and the continued feeling of detachment clung to me like cigar smoke. Turning south I had to throw my hand up to shield my eyes from the blinding sun as it reflected off of the Charles River.

A pack of raiders could be seen emerging from beneath the Mass Pike overpass. I was puzzled on how so many raiders got a hold of this technology. A laser hit the ground by my feet, shot by a, I couldn't even tell what kind of robot it was supposed to be. It looked like it had been pieced together from spare parts and there were multiple units with the gang of hostels.

I was stunned to see the raider that had come into range, wearing an assaultron head as a helmet. His body covered in robot parts like a makeshift suit of power armor without a frame. It was so foreign to see such a practice but it was working for them. My laser fire just bounced off of his chest plate with loud pings.

Dawes and Worwick both managed to put down the junkbots on their own. With Brach’s help we put down the heavily armored raider. What was most impressive was the grenade thrown by Rhys that landed directly in front of the three remaining men, causing an impressive cloud of pink mist that rained down on the dry dead grass, sending the scent of rust into the air.

Haylen took the lead, almost jogging down the steep street that led under the overpass. She skillfully shot down two bloodbugs that were hovering over a sizable amount of stagnant water on the east side of the road. The bank of the Charles River was where we came to a T in the road. Haylen continued east along the river. We followed without question.

A group of houses stood crumbling under the shadow of the turnpike that ran along the river. Ahead was a railroad crossing that spanned the length of the river and led to a large facility on the other side. ‘Beantown Brewery’ could be seen written across a diamond shaped red sign in white blocky letters.

There was movement by the railway bridge. Two people emerged from a makeshift tent by the water. As soon as the woman began to fire at Gladius, Keane put them down easily and we continued. There was a broken down city bus sitting in the shadow of an unrecognizable billboard and a few yards away stood a platform with several sad excuses for nuclear shelters.

“Cambridge, that’s it! You see the buildings on the other side of that intersection! We’re almost there!” Haylen began to sprint in her excitement. Rhys tried to call her back as he spotted a ghoul emerging from under a broken down car in the middle of the intersection. Soon several more appeared from behind the road barricade.

“Ferals!” Worwick called after Haylen, sprinting full speed towards the intersection. Rhys and Keane began shooting at the abominations. One of Rhys’ shots missed wildly and hit the cold air intake at the front of the car. Immediately the hood of the car began to glow hot red.

My heart constricted in panic as I ran full speed towards the Knight and Scribe. I felt the reverb of the impact as I ran into the closest ghoul, the loud crunch of its skull barely registering. Haylen’s eyes were wide as she braced for my impact. I lifted her over my shoulder without slowing, Worwick was caught by surprise as I lifted him as well.

The sound of the explosion caused my ears to ring, the world around me was muffled. Haylen beat on the back of my armor, her legs kicked under my hand as I kept her in place on my shoulder.

“Behind you, Danse!” Her yell could have been a whisper, barely audible. I swiftly turned around as a ghoul slammed into my chest. I staggered back a step but quickly used that momentum to push myself forward again, kicking forcefully at the chest of the disgusting filth. It fell backwards and I quickly stomped on its head. Every movement almost silent, the sound of ringing and blood pumping past my ear drums was all I could hear.

I placed the Knight and Scribe down again. Both of them were moving their jaws, trying to pop their ears after the shock wave. I pulled off my helmet, trying to see if that could help my hearing but as Dawes, Keane, and Rhys ran up to them, their voices were no more than murmur.

Dawes quickly began to sign with Haylen, she nodded then gave the signal for us to follow her. I placed my helmet back on and brought up the rear. Haylen led us into what looked like a college square, then down a road. And there it was, Cambridge Police Station, situated between what could have been apartment buildings. The feeling of dissociation vanished and was replaced by relief as I scanned the front of the building
“Let’s sweep this place first.” I said, but from the jump that Brach made, I must have said it louder than intended.

Dawes and Keane entered the building as the rest of us swept the perimeter of the building. The station seemed to have not been touched in quite a long time. There was nothing to find so we all filed in after our quick patrol.

Dawes and Kean had already finished their sweep as we made it inside. Every surface seemed to be covered in dust. There was no way that Artemis had ever even made it here. Cups of coffee still sit on the receptionist desk from before the war. My heart dropped. We had no leads, no means to communicate back to the Capital. It was just the seven of us in this Police Station in the middle of a city engulfed in chaos.

Chapter Text

I sat quietly on a half broken chair in the lobby of the police station, waiting patiently. Haylen, on the other hand, shot me a series of annoyed looks from her chair on the other side of the table. Rhys was bent over her, gripping her ear as he administered a small dose from a stem to the thin skin behind her earlobe. Worwick had already been cleared for duty and was with the remainder of Knights, searching the police station for barricades and other materials to fortify our new home base.

Rhys placed the empty stem on the table and leaned back on the tabletop, his arms folded across his chest, a stance he only used while being defensive. His brow was furrowed as he listened to her. Haylen’s lips moved fast enough to be unable to read, her hands gesturing wildly, nerves and venerability showing in her less than fluid movements. Rhys calmly responded, causing Haylen’s face to fall. She looked down at her hands, nodding slowly. Her response was low enough that I couldn’t feel the vibrations in my chest anymore from the conversation. She stood up, not giving me or Rhys another look, disappearing around the doorway to the left of the receptions desk.

He slowly turned to me, gauging my expression. The tightness at the corners of his eyes loosened with relief once he realized I was still oblivious to what just transpired. The sounds of his footsteps traveled through the floor and rumbled up the legs of the chair I was sitting in as he walked around the table towards me. He pulled Haylen’s medical bag closer to him from across the table and pulled out another prepackaged stem. He prepared the syringe without looking me in the face again. The carefulness he showed while Haylen was in the room was gone, along with the tension in his shoulders.

I reached up and undid the clasp of my hood and pulled it off of my head. I crunched the material in my hands as Rhys pierced the skin behind my left then right ear. He had been less careful with me then he had been with the scribe, the needle digging deeper than necessary. After a moment, the intense feeling of sand paper rubbing on my eardrums began to ebb away. The sounds of Rhys breathing and the old wood of the building straining against the wind were finally audible.

“Haylen looked upset when she left.” I simply stated my observation.

Rhys neck flushed and he cleared his throat before answering. “She could have gotten herself and the rest of the squad killed. She needed to understand that her justification was invalid.” He shuffled his feet uncomfortably, he may not have been lying but he was withholding information.

Silence stretched between us until Brach entered the lobby carrying a crumbling piece of folded up paper. He set it down on the table between Rhys and me. “I found this in what I assume was the Police Captain's office. It’s an old map of Boston. I understand we are in dire need of supplies and I thought this would help us find the closest location with possible supplies.” He scratched the stubble on his chin, waiting for a response.

I reached over and pulled the map in front of me. Carefully I unfolded the brittle paper. When it was finally splayed out, it covered almost the entire small table. It was finely detailed, reaching as far north as Salem and as far south as Plymouth. This was exactly what we needed. Multicolored dots scattered the map. Some meaning local and federal buildings and others meaning industrial complexes. The list of colored dots was so extensive that it continued to the back of the map. This was excellent. It was exactly what we needed to immediately resupply.

I looked up from the map and addressed the Knights in front of me. “Go get everyone. We need to plan a supply run.”

“Yes, Sir.” Brach said before turning to leave, Rhys following suit.

I examined the map even further. There was a good possibility that the majority of these buildings were still intact. The bomb fell south of Boston, well outside of the city limits. The landscape that we had seen so far was vastly different than The Capital. Most of the damage done to all of the infrastructure had been because of age and lack of maintenance, not the blast from the bomb.

As I took a closer look at the list of locations, it became clear that this map was meant for government officials. Military installations were labeled all over the map. One especially caught my eye. Listening Post Bravo was located to the north of the National Guard training facility, well away from other populated areas of the map. I made a mental note to let Haylen know that it would be a great fall back point if Gladius succumbed to the same fate as Artemis.

I was pulled from my train of thought by the sound of voices and many feet on the stairs. My team filed in, Brach still talking animatedly about the map. He walked straight up to the table and jabbed his finger at our location. “So, we’re here. There is a list of locations that are all color coded, Red for prewar military locations, blue for manufacturing, and so on. If a few of us stay behind to fortify the police station, I honestly think that we could go resupply today. There are a lot of locations within a short distance of where we are that look very promising.” His blue eyes flashed with excitement.

Dawes pointed to a green dot to the north east of us. It was the closest location to us. “We should look into that Hospital. We are running low on medical supplies.”

“The likelihood that that hospital hasn’t been ransacked by raiders in the last two hundred years is really slim. I on the other hand think that the Corvega Plant to the north is a goldmine for technology. There is some equipment on the roof, here, that I think I can rig into a long distance radio. We need to get back in touch with the capital as soon as possible.” Haylen looked at me, knowing she was right.

“I agree... but you’re not going Haylen.” Rhys said, his brow pulling together in a frown.

“What?” Haylen spun around to look at him.

“You heard me.” His voice was stern.

I sighed. I needed to put an end to whatever was happening between them before something happened in front of the whole squad. “Rhys, Keane, you two will stay here and finish setting up base. Dawes, go scout the location. The rest of you, suit up. We’ll meet back her in one hour. You too, Haylen.” I stood from my chair and quickly exited the room. I couldn’t stand the tension between them or the hostility rolling off of Rhys. I could still feel where he had burned holes into my back because of my order to stay behind.

I let my feet lead me, wandering aimlessly. I passed interrogation rooms and holding cells, eventually I pushed my way through a door to find myself in a garage. The corner of my lips lifted at the sight of a bright yellow power armor station. There was a beige cabinet set that was arraigned into a working area. The drawers were heavy when I went to pull them open. My heart skipped a beat and excitement filled every vein in my body. Fusion cores laid neatly in several rows inside of the drawer. I pulled open a cabinet door to find several tool sets and multiple full ammunition boxes. The cabinets were fully stocked. Before I knew it, I had planned half a dozen modifications just for my chest plate.

A small red toolbox still lay open on the floor next to the armor station. I picked up a tool that I had only seen once before, a scribe had been using it to separate ball joint on Liberty Prime during its disassembly. It was a wedge on a handle that was hollowed out in the middle to create a U shape. The Squire that had been taking a lesson, laughed uncontrollably at the name. “Pickle Fork? You have got to be kidding!” The child clutched his ribs in his mirth. The Scribe smirked but reassured the Squire that that was indeed the proper name for the tool. Neither of them had noticed me watching. Becoming Paladin after being lower enlisted had been and wasn’t used to the constant jumping to attention that I had began to receive when entering a room. It was a relief to be able to just watch the interaction the Scribe was having with the child. It was so mundane, a rarity in the Brotherhood.

The door to the garage swung open faster than Worwick had intended. He tried to reach out fast enough to catch the door knob but it just slipped through the tips of his fingers and banged loudly against the wall. He quickly dropped his arm to his side; there was no way to save the situation. “Um, Sir, we’re ready to go. We’re just waiting for Dawes to return.” His face was as red as the muzzle on freshly fired energy weapon.

“I’ll be there in a moment.” I informed him, watching the look of relief spread across his face. I could feel Worwick’s embarrassment leave with him as his back disappeared around the doorway. I spun the tool in my hand once then placed it in the toolbox and closed it before following the Knight back to the lobby.

Ray Smith was playing from a small radio on the receptionist desk. Rhys was busy boarding up the windows. Keane came up behind me, carrying a box of empty sand bags. The rest of Gladius stood by the short staircase leading down to the front entrance. I picked up my hood that I had left on the table and secured it onto my head before entering my armor that still stood in the corner from earlier in the afternoon.

Dawes entered through the front door of the station, slightly out of breath from running. “Sir, the plant is being held by a large force of Raiders. I didn’t even have to get close to see that they were crawling all over the facility.”

“We are five highly trained Brotherhood soldiers. Everything we have done has led up to this mission in the Commonwealth. Let’s go ahead with the operation. We’re moving out.” I ordered. The Knight Sergeant looked nervous but that was to be expected with what we had just encountered.

We made our way out of the Station and through the College Square fairly quickly. The Corvega plant could be seen looming behind the collapsed Turnpike as we made our way through the last few buildings of the campus. I led the way across the fallen overpass, gravel crunching loudly between the pavement and our boots. A short distance away was a driveway that led up to what used to be the shipping and receiving area of the plant, a prewar cargo trailer still parked in front of rolling steel door. We hiked up the steep lane. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as chills ran down my spine despite the heat of the late afternoon.

Movement from the structure on the roof caught my eye just before a bullet caused the concrete to explode in front of my feet.

“Hostiles on the roof!” I shouted, adrenaline flooding my system as I waved for the others to take shelter below the huge blue S-shaped pipe that ran along the corner of the building.

Another bullet hit the shoulder of my armor with a loud ping.

I gripped Righteous Authority and aimed in time to take down the Raider that was targeting Brach. One more raider poked his head through the railing, waving a pipe pistol in my direction. My first shot missed, hitting the stairs to his left with a loud ping. I cursed under my breath and took aim again, this time hitting him in the upper chest, incinerating him instantly.

The rest of the team was already engaged with more Raiders on the other side of the building. Worwick and Haylen were shooting at a Raider that was standing by a couple of trailers. Brach was in the middle of hand to hand with a Raider that had come out of a small office on a fenced platform. Dawes was on one knee and sniped down a raider that was shooting at him from an aerial walkway.

Brach had managed to pull the combat knife out of his boot holster and jabbed up through the Raider’s Mylohyoid, the blade popping out of the top of her skull. He pulled the dagger out, causing blood to shower down the front of his uniform. The woman crumpled to the floor just as Worwick’s shot hit center mass of the second Raider. Dawes didn’t look away from his scope as the third Raider fell behind the window frame.

The feeling of calm dissociation never came. Dread pooled in my stomach, heavy and cold. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake. We needed to take cover before we could be ambushed again. I looked around wildly and spotted a door, leading into the Corvega building, not far from we were standing. I ran to it and threw it open. “Hurry, before we are detected by more Raiders!” I shouted, holding the door open for them. It led into a room that was no larger than a closet, another door on the opposite wall.

Worwick pushed open the door and entered the main assembly warehouse. It was to quiet. Our footsteps echoed loudly. Mechanical beeping sounded from the observation offices. Bright flashes accompanied rapid gunfire from two machinegun turrets.

Worwick was thrown back, blood splattering the floor and wall.

“FALL BACK!” I roared at the team as I dived for the fallen Knight, bullets ricocheting off of my armor. I scooped him into my arms, images of Cutler’s dead team flashed across my vision. My ears rang loudly as I followed my team down the closest set of stairs. On the landing below, voices were heard behind double doors. Brach was already heading the opposite direction.

We entered what must have been the management offices. Two Raiders emerged from an office, curse words and battle cries bounced off the walls. Brach was lethal. He sliced cleanly across the throat of the closest Raider. Then, jabbed swiftly up the abdomen of the next, the Raiders bowels spilled out of the newly gaping wound. We continued onward, following Brach through another pair of double doors.

The lobby of the plant was only lit by a single oil lamp on the receptionist desk. A concept Corvega still sat untouched on a platform by the front entrance.

Brach was almost to the doors when there was a loud click. Time seemed to slow and the air became suffocating. The Knight looked down at his feet then back to us, his eyes wide with shock. Knowing what was going to happen only made the realization that there was nothing that I could do even worse. I only just managed to turn my back and shield the rest of the team from the mine explosion.

Haylen was the first to move, running over to what was left of Brach. She pulled her pack off of her back and tossed a couple of stems to Dawes before turning to Brach.

Brach wasn’t going to make it. Both of his legs were gone. Extensive burns and lacerations covered the rest of his body. Haylen whispered soft reassurances to him. It didn’t take long. His grip on her arm loosened and his arm fell to the floor, his ragged breathing turning into silence.

Flashing pain racked my temples and my breathing became impossible.

Dawes walked around the desk after administering the stems to Worwick. He placed a hand momentarily on Haylens shoulder then bent down and picked up Brach. Haylen picked up her bag and placed it back on her shoulders before walking over to the front doors and opening them for us.

There was a Raider on the stairs right outside of the door. Haylen raised her automatic laser pistol, killing him out of pure rage. We managed to get to a road that led us south, under the turnpike, without any more incident.

I still couldn’t bring myself to look at the knight in my arms. The world around me began to blur with my past. I knew that if I looked down that it wouldn’t be Worwick that I would see, but Cutler. The smell of blood filled my sinuses and I was pulled back to Vault 87. I was fighting the asphyxiating tension in my chest all the way back to the police station.

Haylen cleared off one of the only beds left in the deputy’s quarters. I placed Worwick down on the mattress before retreating out of the room, giving Haylen the room to work. My power armor was suffocating and I couldn’t stand to be in it long enough to take it to the garage. The hiss of the hydraulic release didn’t bring the relief that I had been seeking. I needed more air.

I stumbled down the few steps that led to the front doors and threw myself through them. I was greeted by the cool air of night. It took more control than I thought I had to not fall to my knees. I teetered dangerously on the edge of losing myself to the mayhem of my own mind.

Chapter Text

Despite having been awake for thirty-six hours, my senses were in overdrive. Every single droplet of sweat felt like fire on my skin. My retinas violently protested the dull late afternoon light. The hot late October wind grated what little skin that was exposed. The odor of sun bleached vegetation overpowered almost every aroma of the Commonwealth.

Righteous Authority felt substantially weighted in my aching hands. Each step along the roof of the Police Station was laborious. I paused to survey the Knights below as they continued working on the fortifications and the looming cremation ceremony.

Rhys carefully wrapped Brach’s body in a white tablecloth, securing the material with strips cut from Brach’s uniform. The Knight stood slowly as he finished. He rubbed his knees, aching from kneeling on the pavement. Holotags clinked softly in Rhys’ hands before he placed them into his front chest pocket for safekeeping.

Knight Keane brought down his ax with a deep grunt. The log split cleanly down the middle, sending splinters flying. He continued tirelessly until the tree he had cut down was a neat pile of usable wood. With a huff, he propped himself up on the handle of his tool and wiped away the sweat that was rolling down his brow. Rhys strode over once he saw that Keane was finished chopping wood. He placed a hand on Keane’s shoulder before turning to the pile of wood and moving them piece by piece to the middle of our fortification. The two knights worked in silence, a funeral pyre slowly being erected.

Dawes worked wordlessly on the fortifications. He had worked quickly; almost every piece of equipment that was available in the station was set up. He finished securing the stairs to the walkway and collected his tools. His hands visibly shook as he placed his wrench into a small bag, the zipper sticking halfway. He didn’t even try to fight with it. He just tucked the contents under his arm and hurried into the station, not giving a single glance towards his teammates.

I turned to pace the edge of the roof again. With each step I took, the sun would sink lower in the sky. The pale blue sky melted away to make way for a fire stained atmosphere. Hot wind blew the away the clouds and exposed the speckled stars of the cosmos. My attention was drawn back down to the ground below me. A long ray of light spilled out onto the pavement as Rhys and Keane retreated back into the station. My ability to breathe diminished with every minute that ticked by.

The double doors swung open, flooding the cracked concrete steps with light. Four members of Squad Gladius filed out of the Police Station, only the sound of footsteps and the door closing could be heard. Haylen and Keane slowly walked over to where Brach’s body still laid. They placed their hands under him with care and lifted him. Rhys was standing by the Pyre with a rolled up newspaper in his hands. He lit it with his gold flip lighter as the Knight and Scribe placed Brach on the wooden platform. Rhys dropped the makeshift torch at the base, igniting the kindling.

Flames licked their way up the pile of wood. Dawes reacted for the first time. He quickly walked up to the pyre and placed Brach’s mandolin on top of the fallen Knight’s body. He managed to step back just as the fire engulfed the fabric that cocooned the body.

Haylen let out a small sob, causing the Knights to turn and look at her. She covered he face and hurriedly abandoned the group and raced back inside the building. Rhys had taken a few steps in her direction, his arm outstretched. His brow furrowed and his jaw clenched. He let his arm fall back to his side slowly, before turning his back to the open doors. Dawes reached up and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, still staring at the doorway that Haylen had disappeared through, unable to bring himself to look at the blazing pyre. Keane placed a hand softly on his shoulder and said something to the Knight Sergeant that was so low that it was inaudible. Dawes nodded slowly once, and then followed Haylens departure.

Rhys and Keane stood side by side, neither one saying a word, watching the fire rage on.

The sharp pain in my right temple began to intensify as I watched the two Knights below. Memories of the last funeral I had attended came flooding back.

The tattered Brotherhood flag her father had first flown over the Citadel upon its capture, laid over her body. Cutler placed a hand on my shoulder as a young Arthur lit her pyre. His barely sixteen year old features were twisted in pain as he took his place back among the ranks of his brothers. It was silent. The only noises were the crackling of the fire and the slight breeze blowing through the courtyard. I looked around and there was one face missing from the crowd.

Her words echoed in my head, “Rothchild told me that I was promoted to Paladin by Sentinel Maxson. It wasn’t a reward; it was punishment for living when Sarah didn’t.”

Arthur was visibly distraught for weeks after Sarah’s body was retrieved. She wasn’t just his mentor; she was the love of his life. He had locked himself in his quarters for days after the funeral. I and several of his team had tried to talk to him through his locked door, every attempt was met with silence. When he finally emerged, he looked years beyond his age. The childish roundness of his cheeks was gone. His usually bright eyes were shadowed. He had suffered in solitude and it had changed him not just physically but to his core. He had become more passionate about his role in the Brotherhood, leaving behind his naive goals of personal glory for utter leadership. O’Donoghue was wrong about Maxson. She didn’t know him.

Despite my confidence in my Elder and friend, I couldn’t shake Laura’s words.

The door to the roof opened, pulling me back to the present. I must not have noticed that the last two Knights had retired for the remainder of the night. I was surprised to see Rhys approaching and the subtle glow of early dawn.

“Sir, I’m here to relieve you from watch.” Rhys announced, he stood stiffly with his hands behind his back.

“That won’t be necessary. You need to be inside, make sure Haylen has every resource available. Helping Worwick is our priority. You’re her mentor. She is going to need you more than me.” I tried to dismiss him but the Knight didn’t move.

“I don’t think there is much more we can do for him, Sir. He’s in really bad shape.” Rhys turned to look down at the Commonwealth, not wanting to look at me anymore, his stiff stance never changing.

“How bad?” I asked, dreading the answer.
Rhys shrugged his shoulders sharply. “I’m not sure. Haylen isn’t talking. She just keeps saying to give it time, that’s all.” I recognized the tone of a man who felt hopeless.

“Haylen is a very capable scribe. We should trust her and give her time and anything else she needs.” I said flatly. I trusted Haylen but I also knew Rhys. He wouldn’t be acting the way he was if he wasn’t sure.

“Yes, Sir.” He muttered quietly before he turned and left me alone on the rooftop.

The sun silently rose and moved slowly across the sky as the day wore on. Both Keane and Brach tried to come by and relieve me from watch but I dismissed them each promptly. My team didn’t need me imposing. It was difficult enough to grieve a fallen teammate without a commanding officer looming over them.

I let my mind wander, in hopes to lessen the pain in my feet from standing and the tightness of the skin across my cheeks from the severe sunburn I was receiving from standing watch for almost two consecutive days. Memories of Cutler made the hours tick by like minutes. I replayed a particularly fond memory of us during initiate training.

Cold rain had beat down on us in the courtyard of the Citadel. I was about to finish my fifty-second set of suicides when Cutler had stepped on my loose boot lace. I tumbled face first onto the muddy concrete, splitting open my eyebrow. The ringing in my ears was so loud that I didn’t hear our commanding officer blow his whistle. I hadn’t noticed anything else going on around me, just my palm that was covered in my own blood.

Cutlers hands wrapped around my shoulders and pulled me up until I was standing unsteadily on my feet. I had to blink hard as blood ran down my face and blurred my vision. He must have gotten permission because he was suddenly walking me to the Med-bay. The ringing in my ears was disrupted by his chuckles. As we walked in, a scribe jumped up from her desk. She was firing questions at Cutler while fumbling with a box of supplies. He sat me down on a cot and waved away the scribe as she tried to tend to my bleeding brow. He pulled the suture tray, which she had brought out, closer to his chair and began to stitch the deep cut.

“Do I need to teach you how to tie your shoes?” he giggled.

“Do I need to teach you how to watch where you’re walking?” I retorted.

“Oooh, is that sass I hear from our soft-spoken Brotherhood initiate?” He was really enjoying himself.

I went to punch him in the shoulder but missed because of my vertigo. This just made him laugh harder. The sound warmed my chest. It was deep and genuine. The corners of his green eyes crinkled with mirth. His joy had always filled me with something I could only describe as comfort, like coming home after a long journey.

The door banged open and I was brought back, Cutler’s ghost of a laugh was shattered by the reality of my current situation. I turned to see Haylen standing a few feet away from me. Her uniform covered in crusted blood, her hair escaping her usually tight ponytail. Her eyes were red from lack of sleep and her complexion was blotchy.

“Update?” I asked. The look of pain on her face was like a dagger to the stomach.

“He lost two quarts of blood but I managed to extract the bullet shrapnel. He isn’t doing well. He suffered a lot of internal damage and one bullet was lodged in his spine. If he makes it, he will never be able to use his limbs again.” She looked down at her hands in defeat.

“What are the chances of him surviving?” I asked, swallowing the lump that had formed in my throat.

“Five percent chance, at best. He’s suffering. You should take a look for yourself, Sir.” She desperately looked everywhere but at me. That’s when I noticed Rhys standing by the door; he was suited up for watch. He looked at me with almost a pleading expression.

“Lead the way, Haylen.” I muttered, shouldering my laser rifle.

I followed the scribe down the stairs and through the lobby until we were standing in the room with Worwick. His usually golden olive skin was now chalk white. His breathing was labored and slightly gurgling. His torso and left leg were wrapped tight with blood stained bandages. He was clinging on by a thread, one that would drag him through agony till death. He wasn’t going to make it. I had seen it enough before to know for sure. I turned to Haylen who was visibly shaking.

“Give him 300 CC’s of Med-X” I said flatly. I knew that if I wasn’t cold about the situation, that I would lose my mind. Two Knights in one mission. This had never happened in my entire career.

“What?” Haylen’s hand flew to her neck. She struggled to breathe for a moment, as if the wind had been knocked out of her.

“You heard me. There is no reason to put him through more pain when he isn’t going to make it. It would be a disfavor to him if you tried to prolong what little life he has. He won’t have any quality of life if he does make it through.” I said sternly. Regretting my tone immediately as her face crumpled.

“Yes, Sir. I understand.” She wrung her hands together.

I turned to leave and found myself face to face with Keane. He looked at me like a disappointed father. I pushed past him, unable to stay in the room any longer. I took the stairs two at a time and pushed open the door.

“You’re dismissed, Knight.” I barked, causing Rhys to jump.

“Yes, Sir.” He said hurriedly. He saluted me and ran back into the building, sensing the urgency to be back with Haylen.

I paced the roof, fighting the panic that threatened to collapse my lungs. The pain in my head was excruciating, it stopped me in my tracks. I dropped to my knees. Pain shot through my legs as I made contact with the helipad. I clutched the sides of my face, flashes of Worwick laughing with Haylen flashed across my vision. I couldn’t breathe. I let go of my skin and dug my fingers into the textured floor.

I didn’t move until I could feel air fill my lungs again. Standing up was agonizing. My chest felt like it was replaced with led. My legs shook in protest as I began to pace the roof again. Every heartbeat took effort. My body felt weak. I was exhausted.

I was startled by the light that was cast by the suddenly opened door. I turned quickly to see who had come to try to relieve me from duty but there stood Haylen, still covered in Worwick’s dried blood.

“Wha-“ I didn’t manage to finish my question because Haylen threw herself into me. She frantically held onto the front of my uniform, hard sobs muffled from her pressing her face into my chest. I automatically stiffened up, not expecting the sudden intimate contact. Haylen didn’t notice, she just continued to sob loudly into my uniform. I slowly wrapped my arms around her shoulders, unsure if it was what she needed. She wailed, her entire body shaking violently. I held her tighter to my chest to support her weight as her legs gave out.

I had pushed her to hard. I forced my worst experience onto her. I made her join this twisted club. Killing Cutler had almost destroyed me and now I was holding onto Haylen’s crumbling remains. I mourned with her. I continued to mourn the loss of my best friend and now my team mates.

I nuzzled my face into her hair, rhythmically rubbing her back. I don’t know how long we stood like that. I didn’t stop until her sobs had subsided and she carefully pulled away. Her hazel eyes met mine. She slowly reached up and caressed my face, understanding flickering across her face. She stood on her toes and kissed my cheek.

“Thank you, Danse.” She said with a hoarse voice. Her hand lingered on my face for a moment then she turned and walked away.

I hated myself for putting her through that experience. The mounting storm of self loathing mounted until Rhys emerged onto the roof at daybreak. I didn’t protest when he told me that I should get some sleep. I knew that if I was up any longer that I would start to cause myself some serious damage. Something we couldn’t afford. I took my bedroll into the Captain's office and closed the door. I climbed into my sleeping bag and passed out as my head hit the fabric.

*.*.*

The darkness was disrupted. Cold crept into my nervous system, or had it always been there? I began to shiver violently. The sound of an alarm began to crescendo. I managed to open my eyes but my vision was blurred. The pod door opened and I fell forward, my knees and hands painfully slapping the linoleum floor. I took a big gasp of air before my memories all came crashing back.

“Oh God… Nate… Shaun!”

Chapter Text

A vast emptiness of dull white light. The echoes of footsteps were muffled by soft sounds of flowing water. Air lacked the distinct aroma of the Wastes, just crisp and purified. I closed my eyes. Green light flashed through the thin skin of my eyelids. My stomach began to churn as the loud crackle of thunder rumbled through my chest. A large cold droplet hit my cheek, burning the skin. Rainfall escalated, soaking my entire body. I opened my mouth to scream but no sound escaped.

His hot breath was on me before his hands were. Large strong hands encircled my neck, squeezing down with immense pressure. My eyes flew open. My field of vision was filled only with shades of green.

I shot up in my bedroll. Cold sweat plastered my hair to my forehead and my uniform to my body. It took me a moment to realize that the wheezing sound was coming from my own mouth. I held my breath and began to count backwards from thirty. I slowly let out a puff of breath once I reached zero. Then, I quickly looked around to check if anyone had noticed but most of my team was still blissfully asleep, undisturbed by nightmares.

I pushed my damp hair back and scrambled out of my sleeping bag. I could feel that the opportunity for rest was now firmly behind me. So, I made my way into the lobby of the police station and put a kettle of dirty water on a hot plate. Soon the whole station was filled with the aroma of chicory coffee, arousing my sleeping teammates. I sat at the round table with my black coffee in a chipped mug, and carefully unfolded the map of Boston.

A month of only scouting. A month of not taking risks. A month without resupply. We ran out of purified water the day before and Rhys was chewing on the last supplement bar.

Haylen was the only one making any kind of progress. Keane was always by her side, helping as much as possible while she worked endlessly on her equipment. The list of parts she needed were decently simple enough; screws, a military grade circuit board, and one high powered magnet. With all of the hard work she was doing, something was still wrong. She was avoiding Rhys, drowning herself in her work. She seemed to think that no one had noticed. She was wrong.

I looked up sharply at the sudden bang as the front doors were thrown open. Dawes climbed the short staircase in two rapid steps and covered the distance across the lobby just as quickly. “There is a caravan outside.” He grinned from ear to ear, his left foot tapping repeatedly in excitement.

I shot out of my chair, causing the legs to protest loudly as they scraped across the antique floor. I followed Dawes out of the double doors, Rhys at my heels.

It was abnormally hot for an early afternoon in late November. The humidity index was staggering. Each breath felt like being on the edge of drowning. I heard them first, a loud snort from a Brahman, then low chatter from the crew. They came into view as we walked through the barricade. Four people were standing around a beast that was hauling a payload as large as itself. Three of the men were obvious caravan guards. Then there was the trader. She was a sickly thin woman whose hollowed face exaggerated her sharp cheekbones as they jutted out severely under her bloodshot eyes.

“So, you're the man with the caps?” She asked, rubbing her nose on the filthy bandages that covered her forearms. “So many guns, so little time. You just gotta buy them.”

“Yes, I want to barter. What do you have?” I crossed my arms across my chest as she pulled some things off of the Brahman.

“If it can chamber, cock, and spit out lead-- then I sell it. I sell slashers and clobbers, too, for those maniacs that like it up close.” She mumbled quickly as she unrolled a blanket that she had been storing her long barrels in. “But hot death flying faster than the speed of sound… Oh, my knees are getting weak just from thinking about it.”

A man in sunglasses let out a snort that everyone else ignored.

She pointed at a rocket launcher that one of the guards was pulling off of the back of the beast. “Just think how damned good it’ll feel holding one of… these.” She giggled scratching at one of her arms.

I took my time looking through the many compartments on the Brahman, setting aside amo and other supplies. I was surprised that she even had energy weapons. I made sure to clean her out, it wasn't wise to allow wastelanders to acquire such technology.

We still needed more than this junkie had to offer. My expression must have given away my disappointment. As I handed over the caps needed to buy most of her inventory, the caravan guard in the sunglasses took a step forward.

“Didn't find what you need? We always need extra guns when heading to Bunker Hill. So, let's make a deal…” He inspected me through his dark lenses until I nodded for him to continue. “You and your handsome teammates help us to get there in one piece, and we'll show you to one of the biggest training posts in the Commonwealth. How does that sound?” he raised a surprisingly light brow.

“On one condition, CIVILIAN… if anything goes sideways, we take the lead and you do exactly as we say.” I felt like it was a simple enough request but the other two caravan workers shifted uncomfortably.

“You got yourself a deal Soldier Man.” the trader stepped forward. “Names Kricket.” she said quickly as I shook her outstretched hand.

“Paladin Danse. That's Knight Rhys and Knight Sergeant Dawes.” both men nodded ever so slightly.

__

Knight Keane insisted on staying behind to guard the police station. Haylen had thrown him a wide eyed look, not of concern but of betrayal. Dawes snickered into the sleeve of his uniform as Rhys pretended that everything in front of him wasn’t happening.

The team stood together, fully armored up, except for Dawes. He had insisted again not to wear his helmet, claiming that it hindered his ability to use his scope properly. I just shook my head before placing my own T-60 helmet on.

“You guys read to go yet?” one of the unnamed caravan workers asked, shouldering their assault rifle.

Rhys made an angry noise.

Dawes wisely placed himself between Rhys and the caravan worker.

“Lead the way.” I raised my new and, to my disappointment, better modified laser rifle.

The quick hike through the college campus was uneventful; Rhys had cleared it of ghouls on multiple occasions. We rounded the corner of the last village building and a cathedral came into view.

“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. Father Gabe is a piece of work.” The guard in the glasses piped up as we walked past the Catholic Church.

A couple of ghouls tried to ambush us as we walked through a shopping center and into another neighborhood. Kricket suddenly veered off of the road and walked between two collapsed houses.

“Wait. Shouldn’t we stick to the road? That’s always the safest bet. We’ll be less likely to be snuck up on.” Haylen asked one of the guards.

Kricket stuck her head out from around the corner. “I love to shoot things more than the next person but I don’t have a death wish. Go ahead sweetie, go take a look. I on the other hand I’m going to take the way around the north edge.”

Haylen scoffed loudly and walked ahead to see what Kricket had eluded to be a great danger. Haylen stopped in her tracks and quickly turned back, “Yep, follow Kricket.” She brushed past us and between the two houses, following the strung out trader.

“It can’t be that bad.” Rhys followed the Brahman as it followed its owner.

“It’s a sinkhole with a thirty to fifty foot drop, crawling with ferals… dozens of them.” From where I was I could see Haylen physically shiver at her own words.

The rest of the trek was fairly uneventful. Gladius did enjoy a short encounter with a clan of super mutants inside of the Mass. Chemical construction sight. The dusty and blood splattered group chatted animatedly as we pushed through the last few buildings before reaching our destination. The tall marble obelisk, not much different from the Washington Monument, stood higher than the grand fence around it.

“Welcome to the great white phallus of the commonwealth!” The guard in the sun glasses made a grand sweeping gesture with his hand.

Haylen giggled.

The guard’s smirk fell from his face as Rhys cleared his throat loudly. Kricket on the other hand, continued right up the concrete steps and through the open gate.

Gladius dispersed as soon as we were within the trading post walls, like squires in a mock recon drill. The familiar feeling of walking on marble in my power armor brought on a strong wave of nostalgia. I couldn't help but grin as I walked across the makeshift marketplace.

Behind a counter stood a woman in a pair of Red Rocket coveralls and dainty short dark hair. She leaned hard against the countertop; her flexed wrists were turning red from the pressure. “Load a little heavy there? I'll buy anything you don't need, and sell everything you do. Name's Deb.”

“Let's take a look at what you have.” As I combed through her stockpile, Deb’s obvious unease began to grate my suspicions. She picked nervously at her nail beds as I counted out all of her fusion cells. I looked up at her as I placed the last of the ammunition back in its metal box. Her eyes had been focused on something behind me. Her eyes darted back to my face; a smile forced its way back onto her face.

I finished our transaction and as I put away the last of our fresh supplies, a single shot was fired.

With years of drills and real scenarios under my belt, arming myself was a quick reflex. I rounded the wall separating the marketplace and the makeshift bar. The scene was chaos. Dawes was on top of Rhys, who was face down in the dirt, his arms pinned behind his back. A monochromatic woman with blonde hair still stood with her ten millimeter pointed to the sky, it had been a warning shot. The caravan guard stood back a few paces with his hand over his nose, blood ran profusely down his lips and chin, staining his undershirt and leather jacket with blood. Haylen stood in the distance between the two men, her face as red as I have ever seen it, humiliation written into her features.

I lowered my weapon at once.

The caravan guard looked in my direction as I made my way closer and chuckled. “What can I say? I have a thing about red heads.”

The blonde woman rounded on the guard, an air of authority about her. “YOU should know better! And don’t you dare think that I’m not going to report this to your supervisor!” His face paled as a lens popped out of his sunglasses. One crisp blue eye finally exposed.

“And YOU!” She rounded on Rhys as Dawes lifted him to his feet, his hands now cuffed and secured behind his back. “You are to never set foot inside these walls ever again.” She mumbled something that suspiciously sounded like ‘Brotherhood trash’ as she turned away from the group, signaling armed guards to step forward.

“I think it’s time for you to leave.” One woman said in a strong voice.

“I agree,” I was mortified. I thought the years of mentorship and training had sanded down Rhys’ temperament. I was very much in the wrong.

I turned to look at my team. Rhys wouldn’t even look in my direction. “Let’s move out.”

We made our way through the gates and down the concrete steps. As soon as there were at least five buildings between us and Bunker Hill, I opened my chest plate and pulled out a bag. “I got you something.” I handed it to Haylen, who jumped. She must have been deep in thought. Her hands shook as she took the bag from my armored hand.

She peered inside. “No… You found one?” She asked, looking slowly from the bag to me, her eyes glittering with relief.

“I’ll help you install it as soon as we’re back at the station. You-” I turned to look at Dawes. “Do I need to know what happened back there or is it taken care of?”

“No, Sir, just disorderly conduct. Rhys has formally been arrested. As soon as we return, I will secure him in a cell and update his file.”

“Good.” I shot Rhys a look. He hadn’t said a word, just continued to stare at the ground in front of him.

__

We sat together, enjoying the cool evening breeze. I held the heavy magnet as Haylen wired it then bolted it into place. The radio we had wired up to test the antenna, buzzed. She stopped mid-bolt and crouched next to the radio, tuning it.

The buzzing turned to crackling as she twisted the knob. Then, clear as day, a shaky and cracking voice came over the speaker.

“Time for some news, I guess…. Sure, why not. So, there’s that saying that, uhh, sometimes truth is better… No, stranger than fiction.’

“Well, you know… the, uhh, the radio plays that I air sometimes? Usually in the right order? You know, the, uhh, Silver Shroud.’

“It sounds like, uhh, someone takes them really seriously. Like maybe too seriously…. There are, uhh, reports, I guess, about sightings of the Silver Shroud in the Commonwealth.’

“In, uhh, in Goodneighbor. Or near there, at least. Anyway, I guess… Oh, man, this is so weird… I guess this Silver shroud is, like, cleaning up the town or something?’

“One of the, uhh, residents… a guy named Kent (who’s name I shouldn’t be saying on the air)… he was supposedly rescued by the Shroud. Or at least that’s what I heard’

“So, now there’s a, uhh…. There’s a superhero out there, defending justice, I guess…. Or at least killing people that hopefully deserve it…. And now here is some Dion, with ‘The Wanderer’.” A happy tune started and Haylen switched off the radio.

“Well that’s interesting, but at least it works.” She picked up her wrench and finished tightening the last few bolts.

I couldn’t help but think about the radio segment. Vigilantes, people who take what they perceive as justice into their own hands. If our mission had allowed it, we would be out in the field, putting an end to this nonsense.

*.*.*.*

“You should probably go to Diamond City and get your nose fixed before you head back to headquarters and get your ass handed to you by Dez.” John Hancock chuckled through a thick haze of Jet. His warm raspy voice reminding me of a past life.

“You really didn’t catch his name or where he was from?” I asked.

“Nope.” Deacon pushed his sunglasses farther up his crooked and purple nose.

Liar.

Chapter Text

“Is anyone there? Come in Prydwen. This is Scribe Hayden of Recon Squad Gladius. Can you hear me?” Haylen lifted her hand off of the coms. button and waited for a radio response from the Capital. The few seconds that ticked by as we waited, felt like hours. The pounding of my own heart was defining in the silent room.

A light indication flashed on the control board.

“We read you. This is Communications Specialist Knight Captain Scabbard of the Prydwen.” His voice was as clear as if he were standing in the room with us. Dawes punched Keane in the shoulder out of excitement as Keane clapped his hands together in appreciation of Haylen’s outstanding work.

The three of us listened in excitement as Haylen transcribed our findings back to the Capital. Out of what appeared to be excitement; Proctor Quinlan took over the other end of the frequency. Haylen’s growing more pink as the two intellectuals fired off protocols that the rest of us in the room couldn’t comprehend.

“-Of the secondary… What- Yes, Sir.” The grin on Haylen’s face slid off as the Proctor was cut off mid-transmission. Light static and dead air was one, the quickest way to fill a room with dread.

“This is Knight Captain Scabbard, requesting a private transmission with Paladin Danse. Please hold for Elder Maxson.” Haylen’s eyes met mine. Eyes of child being reprimanded for an offence committed by their peer.

Why was Maxson on the Prydwen? I could only recall a handful of occasions that he had ventured out of the Citadel as Elder.

I took a step forward. Everyone else scrambled for the door.

I pressed down on the coms. button under the microphone. “This is Paladin Danse of Recon Squad Gladius.” The apnea following wasn't long but it was heavy.

“Danse?” The tight bands of ever present anxiety loosened at the sound of his sonorous voice. I sighed, expelling the chest crushing apprehension that had built since leaving the Citadel. That look on his face as we took off had haunted me.

I pressed the button again, enjoying the click as mechanism connected the microphone. “Affirmative, Sir.”

His sigh was short, like his request, but filled with relief. “Report, Danse.”

I told him everything; from our casualties, to the situation at Dore. There was no response from Maxson until I finished informing him about our impending reconnaissance.

Maxson didn’t respond. I began to panic, checking all of the wires, making sure they were still plugged into the control board. I spoke into the microphone again. “Sir? Can you hear me?” His response was immediate and not what I was expecting.

“She’s gone, Danse. O’Donoghue made it back to Dore but was gone before morning. She seriously injured two Knights on her way out... She took the child. They gave up the search a week ago.” My mind immediately jumped to the journal she had given me. I had to find it.

I knew that Arthur was gauging my reaction, and to his benefit, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. All that I could manage was a mumbled “I see.”

“What’s your take on the situation? Gladius was the last team she went out with. Were there any signs that she wanted to desert her post or that she was going to steal the child?”

That’s why he wanted to talk. He wasn’t concerned with my team. It was all about her. His loose end. I felt heat creep up my neck, my left hand balling up into a tight fist on the table. My loyalty was swinging like a pendulum.

“She was unhappy. That’s what I know, Sir.” I tried to say as evenly as possible, anger pushing the words through my teeth.

“Very well, put the scribe back on. Quinlan wants a word with her.” He very well knew Haylen’s name. He was just angry that I wouldn’t say anymore, distancing himself from his subordinates, pushing himself further into his throne like an angry child.

That’s what stopped me mid-thought. He was a child, barely out of his teens. He was still not in control of his emotions. I couldn't bring myself to reply, to give him the validation he wanted. My team deserved better.

I pulled open the door. My ancillary squad mates straightened up on the other side of the doorway. The fact that they were eavesdropping was painfully obvious.

“All yours, Haylen.” She nodded and pushed her way into the office. “You two. Get ready. We have a week long mission ahead of us. Move out.” The three of us clambered down the stairwell and into the lobby of the police station. Dawes led the way to the round table. In the middle was the unfolded map of the Commonwealth. Haylen had carefully overlaid a grid the map as a visual aid. Dawes jammed his finger at a spot right along the coast, area A113. It had been high up on our list of priorities to investigate. Now that we were restocked, I didn’t see a better time to go then now.

“Like Danse said, we have seven days to get in and get out.” Dawes said, walking his fingers between the Police Station and area A113. “Two days to get in and two to get out. That leaves us a day at each location and a day of leeway to get from point A to point B. I've scouted almost the entire way. The best course of action is to just bunker down and make a straight shot.”

“Sounds good, Dawes. We'll muster outside in fifteen minutes.” Both men nodded and returned to their racks to pack up the last of their belongings.

I grabbed my bag that I had packed the night before and headed down to the garage. I pushed open the door and there she was, chained up in the power armor station. I ran my fingers over the polished chest plate before opening the compartment. I was about to cram my bag into the inadequate space when I noticed something at the bottom.

I reached in and grabbed it, recognizing the texture of the fabric immediately. It was my spare hood. I could feel that something hard was wrapped inside of it. I pulled it out of the compartment to examine it better. A corner of smooth distinguished leather peeked out of the graying fabric. I quickly unwrapped it and flipped open the cover.

Wasteland Survival Guide.

1. Farming the Waste. Page 2

2. Insect Repellent Special. Page 12

3. The Bright Side of Radiation Poisoning. Page 27

4. The Scrapyard Home Decoration Guide. Page 40

5. Guide to Diamond City. Page 52

6. Commonwealth Coupon Spectacular. Page 65

7. Water Aerobics for Ghouls. Page 70

8. Self Defense Secrets. Page 81

9. Hunting in the Wastes. Page 95

That's where the absurdity ended. Written under that, in her sharp lettering:

10. What you actually need to know. Page 101

Then written at the very bottom was a list of names with no explanation.

Dr. Zimmer, Victoria Watts, Horace Pinkerton, Harkness.

I closed the leather bound book, wrapped it back up in my hood and placed it back at the bottom of the compartment before loading my duffle bag on top.

My hand slipped down the smooth surface of the chest plate as my vision began to blur. The sensation of white hot needles spread from my optic nerve to temples. The ground began to sway as loud whooshing filled my ears. I took a knee before I could fall and injure myself. The pressure of my palms as they moved across my face eased the pain. I ran my hands across my eyes and through my hair in a rhythmically.

I hadn’t heard the door open. She stood there watching for what could have been the entire episode or just a second. Haylen took a step forward and kneeled down next to me. She placed her hand over mine and pulled it away from my head before asking “How long has this been happening?”

There was no way to hide it anymore. She had caught me. “On and off for two years. It’s getting worse.”

“How many hours of sleep are you getting each night?” She knew the answer, it was all over her face.

“The last time I slept was two days ago.”

“You should push back this mission and rest for twenty-four hours. That is my professional advice.” She stood up and crossed her hands defensively across her chest.

“You know I can’t do that.” I left it at that and she didn’t push it.

She stood and watched me unchain my armor. Her eyes following every movement I made. It wasn’t until I opened my armor to climb in that she shrugged and left the garage.

I let out a breath I hadn’t noticed I had been holding. Air hissed past my teeth as the armored plates descended, engulfing my body in comfort and power.

I could hear her yelling at Dawes from up the stairs, “So, help me-! If you don't take that helmet with you again, I will report you!“

__

Flames licked the evening sky, sending sparks into the air to glitter with the stars. The crunch of sand under my boots was muted in comparison to the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. I flipped through the rough pages of Laura’s book, looking for clues. With each rustle of a turned page, his name would creep back into my mind. It was the only one in the list that I recognized.

Harkness. What did he have to do with Laura? She never mentioned knowing him. On the other hand, neither did I.

I was pulled from my thoughts by a massive roar in the distance. Dawes came sprinting down the beach, sand flying with every step, his weapon held loosely, a sign that we weren’t in immediate danger. I took my finger off the trigger of my laser rifle and bent over to pick up the book that I had dropped in reflex.

“Sir, you should come see this.” This peaked Keanes interest, who sprang up off of a large tire where he had been lounging.

We followed Dawes down the beach. He didn’t have to point at what he had seen. Beams of flashing red light could be seen across the harbor. A massive Mirelurk Queen had emerged from the ocean and was carrying out an assault on what I could only assume was Fort Independence. Faint yells could be heard across the water as the battle continued on.

“Should we go help them?” Keane asked

I shook my head, watching as blue light joined the red. Whoever was there had an arsenal of energy weapons. If they were even alive by the time we reach them, there would be no way of knowing if they would turn their guns on us as well.

Dawes raised his sniper rifle and peered through his scope, Keane and I followed his example. The three of us stood on the beach in front of the Boston Airport and watched. Keane began a string of commentary as the group of civilians continued to fight on. It looked like the Queen had sprayed every surface of the compound before a well aimed blue light struck it where its head should have been. The body fell with a crash that could be heard from where we were standing. Dawes began to cheer and reached past me to give Keane a high-five.

I lowered my laser rifle and turned to walk back to camp, only looking back once more across the now dark water, leaving my team mates to excitedly talk about the events that just took place. I walked back into the abandoned luggage receiving area of the airport and propped my rifle against the wall next to my bed roll. I climbed in between the thin sheets of my sleeping bag, letting my thoughts wash over me, expecting a sleepless night.

The last three days had been a waste of time. The airport was barren except for the skeletons of several Skylanes and the handful of ghouls that we came across inside of the control tower. Fort Strong had to redeem this mission. I couldn’t stand by and let any more failures happen.

I woke with a start, completely unaware I had fallen asleep. Keane was leaning over me with his hand on my shoulder. “Sir, it's your turn for watch.” He said in a soft voice as to not wake up Dawes.

Both men slept soundly as I added more driftwood to the fire on the beach. My thoughts were focused on the day ahead. The notion of needing to vindicate this mission gripped me tightly.

The sun had barely peeked over the horizon by the time Keane and Dawes emerged from the crumbling airport, fully packed, and joined me for breakfast. The only sounds were of the ocean and dying fire as we sipped the black chicory from our mugs.

The trek to Fort Strong was just that, a walk on the beach. Clouds began to fill the sky and by the time we reached the first bridge, large raindrops falling heavily on the hot ground. The pavement opened up like a flower, its bloom emitting the sweet smells of ozone, organic oils, and spores. Keane mumbled angrily and pulled the visor of his helmet down. Dawes on the other hand, he tilted his head back, letting the rain hit him in the face and run into his hair.

We passed a small farm. A young boy standing in a paddock dropped his shovel as we passed, gaping at us as we continued down the road. Keane ducked into the security checkpoint that stood between us and the bridge leading to Fort Strong.

“I found some ammo that you are going to need-” He handed a small box to Dawes. “There is also a suit of armor in a cage but it’s locked.”

“We don’t have time right now to break it open but we should stop on our way back and see-” I trailed off. Something in the distance, over the bridge, had caught my eye. Something lumbered between the crumbling buildings. I raised my rifle, both men flanked me, their weapons raised as well.

Dawes shot first, he watched through his scope as his bullet made contact with his target. “Mutants.” He muttered just loud enough for us to hear him. There was a loud yell as another Super Mutant stumbled upon his dead brother. Keane and I charged in while Dawes kneeled down by the iron arch at the entrance of the fort, his sniper rifle ready.

Keane’s angry yells could barely be heard over the rapid fire of his laser pistol. A Mutant stepped out of a crumbling building, a sledge hammer raised in its large hands. It narrowly missed my shoulder. My armored hand came up to block it on the backswing. I pulled the trigger and a bright round burned its way through its torso, hot sizzling blood splattering the front of my armor.

That’s when the ground shook. A behemoth. We were not prepared for an engagement of that magnitude.

“Fall back! Now! Go!” I yelled, the heavy rain masking the volume of my command.

Keane managed to get ahead of me, running straight across the bridge, not looking back. Dawes hadn’t moved he was still kneeled, shooting past me. The ground shook harder as the behemoth charged towards the bridge.

I was thrown forward, a large chunk of cement collided with the back of my armor. Pain shot through my shoulder as I flung out my arm to break my fall.

I looked up and time slowed. Dawes was so focused on aiming at the behemoth behind me, his eyes glued on his scope, that he didn’t see the mutant charge up to his left. The mutant swung its super sledge. The sound was the worst part, like stomping on a pile of leaves. The head of the sledge hammer smashed completely through his skull, fragments of flesh flying as the hammer continued its arch until finally hitting the stone pillar Dawes had been using as cover.

The ground shook again as a chunk of wall landed to my right. I pushed myself up and sprinted for the bridge, Keane could be seen already on the other side. I couldn’t bring my legs to slow. Each time a boot would hit the ground would only send another shot of adrenaline through my system. I had almost made it across the second bridge before the sound of my own name pulled me from my panic. Gravel and water sprayed the road as I skidded to a stop. Keane came jogging up to me, clutching his side.

“They aren’t following us anymore.”

I ripped my helmet off and squeezed it between my steel hands, the frame bending slightly under the pressure. Agony erupted from my chest and escaped my lips in a roar. It took every ounce of self restraint to not throw my helmet. Keane looked shocked. He stepped back a few paces and waited for me to collect myself. I cursed and placed my helmet on, the fit now more snug than before.

My grief was immediately replaced with raw unfiltered rage. I took point, blasting every single obstacle out of our way. Not a single soul that stepped in my line of sight had a chance. The many buildings passed in a blur. The rotation of the earth moved as if someone had pressed fast forward. Time was no longer relevant, until it was.

Even in the dark of night, I could tell that something was wrong as the police station came into view.

Plooms of smoke could be seen behind the knocked over fortifications. The damage looked to be more extensive as we made our way closer. The radio tower was split in half, its top was dangling off of the roof, only held on by a few wires. The front doors hung crooked on their hinges, like something had hit them with immense force. Small fires scattered across the front of the property.

And there they were, sitting on the edge of the roof of the police station. Their feet hanging over, swing in a laissez faire manner, their thighs touching. Rhys puffed on a lit cigar, passing it to Haylen after a moment. The smell of tobacco mixed with the smell of burning debris. Haylen waved halfheartedly as Rhys called down to us, the single word I didn't want to hear and his explanation for the disaster “Mutants.”

Damn it.

“Sir, I think it's time for the distress frequency, even if it’s only short range.” A puff of smoke escaping her mouth as she waved her hand in the direction of the destroyed radio tower.

I snapped, ripping my helmet off of my head and throwing it as hard as I could at the brick face of the police station.

“Fuck!’ I cursed loudly and marched inside, kicking the doors open wider with as much force I could muster. The hydraulics in my armor protested as the left door caved in.

*.*.*

RJ huffed in annoyance as I struggled to keep up.

I was beyond stupid to lug my weapons back from the Castle. Taking back Fort Independence had left all of us with varying degrees of injuries. The skin on the front of my thighs itched from healing nerves, thanks to that nasty bitch. The added weight of two gauss rifles, only slowing me even more. At least Mac was nice enough to add my minigun to his payload; by nice I mean I had to pay him fifty caps.

My Pip-Boy ticked. It was a different pitch than the geiger counter, obviously that would peak my interest. I looked down and there it was, right under Diamond City Radio.

Military Frequency AF95

With a quick flip of my thumb, The Ink Spots were replaced with a woman's voice.

“Automated message repeating… This is scribe haylen of reconocince squad Gladius, to any unit in transition range...authorization arcs fero nine five… Our unit has sustained casualties and we are running out of supplies… We are requesting support or evac form our position at Cambridge police station… Automated message repeating.”

Chapter Text

Keane laid dead on the pavement, mere steps from the front doors of the police station. His murderer gurgled on it's own blood as the life drained from it's body. Its rotting hands clawing at the deep charred wound that stretched across its concaved chest. I turned my laser rifle back to the breached fortifications, letting the ghoul suffer in it's last moments of life.

Haylen stood guard over Rhys, who was clutching his side. His bleeding arm hung awkwardly by his side.

Anger traveled through my hands and exploded from the end of my laser rifle in a shower of hellfire. Each ghoul that skittered through the fortifications was met with a red flash of death. An unnerving pattering sound grew in volume as a wave of abominations crawled under and around the abandoned semi just outside of our reinforced position.

The unmistakable sound of a minigun centrifuge could be heard up the street. Bullets pelted the hood of the semi-truck, engulfing the vehicle in fire. I threw my armored hand up to shield my head in reflex as the fuel-cell became critical. A ball of fire shot into the sky, smoke was so thick that it obscured the sun like a marigold overcast.

That couldn't have been music. Who would ever think that was tactically appropriate? Yet the unmistakable rockabilly arrangement of Ray Smith grew louder as a man and woman came running into the compound. The man in a duster ran up the steps of the fortification with his sniper rifle. And the woman…

“Civilian in the perimeter! Check your fire!” I yelled over my shoulder to Haylen. There was no time to check if she had heard me as all of our attention was drawn back to the woman with the minigun.

It was impressive to watch anyone wield not just one but three big guns the way she did, and outside of power armor. There was a loud click halfway through the third wave of ghouls. She dropped her empty minigun at her feet and unstrapped her fully customized gauss rifle with such agility. Blue twenty-two millimeter rounds mixed into the chaos of red micro fusion rounds.
It was over just as quickly as their arrival.

The man walked quickly back to his partner's side. He grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her to each side, checking over her body for wounds. The material of her shirt began to wrinkle under his grip. A silent conversation passing between them.He looked over her shoulder and straight at Gladius before saying to her in a low voice that still carried across the compound. “With the Brotherhood here, you can be sure that the Commonwealth will turn into a war zone.”

I was unable to see what she had done with her back turned but it was something that cause the man to blush. His exasperated sigh was accompanied by the shaking of his head. She reached up and placed her hands on his forearms and removed his hands from her shoulders. I flinched as she dropped her weapons on the rough pavement, unloading everything she was carrying with a grunt. Her backpack was last. She rummaged through it for a moment before the music stopped. An old radio commandeered from pre-war armor, no doubt.

Then there she was, standing in front of me, her possessions discarded behind her. Her road leathers were just as ragged as her companions duster. She donned a mosaic of mismatched armor, and sunglasses. Sunglasses that gave me a strange feeling of deja vu. They covered her eyes but were unable to conceal the dark bruises across her face. Her mousy hair was pinned up high enough to expose four gold decorative stars on her lapel.

“‘Hi.” Her breath was smooth.

Her calmness was off putting, considering the dozens of bodies at our feet. A red flag and a reason not to trust her. “We appreciate the assistance, civilian. But what’s your business here?”

“You’re welcome, name’s Smith, pest exterminator. I heard you had a feral problem.” The corner of her mouth lifted, exposing a hidden dimple in her cheek.

Not giving a straight answer, yet another reason not to trust them. There was much to lose and I had to protect what was left of my team. “Evading my questions is a surefire way of getting yourself ejected from the compound. Are you from a local settlement?” I was not in the mood for a smart mouth.

The question melted the smirk off of her face. “Don’t really have a home.”

Like most of the people in the wasteland. “An answer that I hear often. Whether it holds truth or not remains to be seen. If I appear suspicious, it’s because our mission here has been difficult. Since the moment we arrived in the Commonwealth, we’ve been constantly under fire. If you want to continue pitching in, we could use an extra gun on our side.” It surprised me that her candor had brought on my own forthcoming honesty.

“That all depends. How much are you paying?” Of course, I should have seen that coming.

Attention was drawn back to the man in the duster. His sniper rifle still ready. “I don’t know… caps or no caps, I don’t trust these guys.”

Great, both of them… “So you’re a mercenary. Typical. Fine. You help us, and I’ll see you’re compensated for your services. I’m Paladin Danse, Brotherhood of Steel. Over there is Scribe Haylen and Knight Rhys. We’re on recon duty, but I’m down a man and our supplies are running low. I’ve been trying to send a distress call to my superiors, but the signal’s too weak to reach them.”

“Sir, if I may?” I was surprised Haylen had waited so long to speak up.

“Proceed, Haylen.” She was going to bring up our conversation from that morning.

“I’ve modified the radio tower on the roof of the police station, but I’m afraid it just isn’t enough. What we need is something that will boost the signal.” I already knew this. Haylen’s passive aggressiveness knew no bounds. Rhys was down and Keane's body was still warm but this mission had to be completed. A civilian was not my first choice and she knew it.

“Our target is ArcJet Systems, and it contains the technology we need… the Deep Range Transmitter. We infiltrate the facility, secure the transmitter and bring it back here. So, what do you say? You willing to lend the Brotherhood of Steel a hand?” Of course she would. I was going to pay her. I waited with clenched teeth. She wouldn't have agreed if she could see the annoyance behind my helmet.

“It’s a good plan, if we make it back.” Her sarcasm could still be heard over the man's disgusted noise.

“I can assure you that I wouldn’t undertake this mission unless I had confidence in your abilities.” I wasn't confident in anything in that moment. I turned and walked up the steps to my teammates. “Haylen, take Rhys inside and bind his wounds.”

“Yes, sir.” She was more formal and crisp with civilian eyes on her.

I looked down at the stark white knight on the ground. “Rhys, once you’re on your feet, I want you to make sure that the perimeter is secure.”

He nodded once. “I’m on it.”

“All right, civilian… it’s time to prove your worth. Head into the police station and resupply yourself, then let me know when you’re ready to begin. Move out, people!” I reached for the door and wasn't even fully inside by the time Rhys and Haylen began their banter.

“Alright big guy, let’s go.”

“Yeah, yeah… I’m commin’.”

The woman, Smith, must have stayed behind to talk with her companion. Haylen and Rhys were the first through the door. Their light mood grated on my patients. How could they be so?- Before I could finish asking myself that question, I knew the answer. Shock. I felt shame drape over me. I had failed them again.

I pulled my helmet off. Even with two straight days of working on it, it wasn't up to standards. Keane had stood over my shoulder and chuckled at the absurdity of the whole situation. He had said “At least it still works. They are made to take a beating. And, Sir, that was one hell of a beating.” Little did he know, he would never wear one again.

My experience in the field had taught me to vigilant at all times. All it took were a few seconds. Haylens screams were the only indication that something had gone wrong. I turned just Haylen stood over the dead ghoul. The tip of her laser pistol still smoldering. Rhys was dragging himself back to the brick wall of the station. Keane had saved Rhyse, with his own life. If I had only...

I watched Haylen and Rhys from behind the receptionist desk. I moved boxes of ammo aimlessly, pretending to be busy as I waited for Smith to get ready to go. The sound of laughter drew my eyes to Rhys face.

“I don’t know, your prognosis looks pretty grim. Might be more humane to just take you out back and shoot you.” I knew she was making light of the situation but there was no doubt that there was an underlying jab at me with that statement. She hadn’t forgiven me for Worwick and now I knew.

Rhys chuckled, a rare expression from the Knight. He must have been experiencing the effects of the Med-X. “You’re all heart, doc.”

“Just quit squirming so I can get these bandages on.” Haylen swatted his hand away from hers before he could try to bandage himself.

“I don’t know what the hell’s going on. If reinforcements are coming, they sure are taking their sweet time.” I couldn’t help but agree with him. An emergency vertibird could reach the Commonwealth from the Capitol Wasteland in three hours.

Haylen had informed me of the orders from the Capitol. While staying behind during my last mission, Haylen had witnessed a spike in activity on her research equipment. Energy readings we had never witnessed before. We were given orders to hold our location and wait for reinforcements, but that was before the super mutant attack. Now we had no communication, just blind faith in our brothers and sisters.

What Haylen said brought my attention back to her. “Hey, if Paladin Danse says they’re coming, then they’re coming, We just need to hold out a while longer.”

“I don’t know, Haylen… we’ve lost half our squad already. Even with this new guy helping, I hope we can stay alive long enough for them to get here.”

“We’ll make it, big guy… we’ll make it.” Haylen held out her hand to help Rhys up.

His hand held onto hers as he changed the subject. “Man, oh man… that was a hell of a fight, wasn’t it? Watching those ferals get blown apart was the best thing I’ve seen in weeks.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a bloodthirsty maniac?”

“Has anyone ever told you that you have the cutest little smile when you try to get angry?” That was a bold statement that I wasn't expecting but it seemed that Haylen had.

“Nice try, Rhys. Nice try.” Haylen playfully swatted at him.

The doors opened and everyone in the police station turned watch Smith walk up the steps. Her load lighter, large guns and partner gone. Rhyse made a beeline towards her, leaving behind a stunned scribe. I knew that I should have stopped him. I also didn’t like her smugness but I didn’t have the energy to put her straight. Rhys, on the other hand, looked more then happy to do me the favor.

“Think you’re some kind of hot-shot?” He barked at her.

Smith placed a hand on her hip and a delicate eyebrow rose from behind her sunglasses. “You should pay attention, you might learn something.”

“Listen smartass, I don’t take advise from anyone except Top. You’re hired help, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Hired help or not, I got the job done.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have let a Knight do my job. Five small words had impressed him. Rookie. “Got some backbone? Good. You’ll need it if you keep hanging with us. Now why don’t you run off and see if Top needs you to do anything else.” He turned to walk away but not before adding. “Why are you standing around here like there’s nothing to do? Paladin Danse is waiting for you.”

This left only Smith and Haylen in the lobby.“Sorry about the other guys.”

“Why are you cutting me so much slack?”

I watched as Haylen deflated. Her body began to slump as she sat down on a chair by her console. The exhaustion on her face was a tall tail sign that she was coming down from her adrenaline rush. The inappropriate laughing replaced by a heavy sigh. “I uh… I joined the Brotherhood not too long ago. I used to be like you… wandering alone. So, I know what it feels like when every single person you bump into sticks a gun in your face. Look, it may not seem like it, but Danse is a good man. He’s just all soldier… protocol is his bread and butter. And Rhys… well, let’s just say he’s as hard-headed as a Mister Gutsy. But you know what? I’d trust both of them with my life, because they’re good people and that’s hard to come by nowadays. You better get a move on. It’s not a good idea to keep Paladin Danse waiting.”

Rhys came back into the lobby, carrying boxes of ammo. “Haylen might only be a scribe, but she can kick some serious ass. I wouldn’t mess with her if I were you.” He said, completely unaware of the friendly conversation that had occurred between the two women.

Her annoyance reverberated across the floor with each stomp of her boots. “Paladin…”

I picked up my helmet when I was hit with with an irrational urge. “You ready to move out?”

“Ready.”

“Outstanding.” I felt my stomach drop as the heavy metal left my hands. It soared into the air in a slow arch. My helmet rotated smoothly back into my hands. I was horrified at what I had just done. Judging by the small smile on her face, it did not go unnoticed. I crammed my helmet on, concealing the heat that instantaneously flashed across my face. “ Follow me and try not to lag behind.”

She kept up easily as we made our way out of the police station. I escorted her through our emergency escape route. “We’ll take this alley. Follow me.”

“ArcJet is a short hike to the west. If we take this road, we should be able to avoid the larger packs of ferals infesting Cambridge.” As we bypassed Harvard's quad, the Charles River came into view. Light From the late afternoon sun bounced off the water like millions of flashing spotlights. The sprint westward was only met with glare. “Traveling this far from the police station is a risk, but getting that transmitter up and running needs to be our top priority. If it was up to me I’d relocate my team, but Scribe Haylen detected some disturbing energy readings in the area that need to be investigated. We don’t know much about them, except that they’re short-lived and broadcast on a frequency only obtainable with a high level of technology. We’re concerned that whoever or whatever is creating those energy readings might be a potential threats, so it’s our job to investigate.”

Squatters had taken residence under the rail bridge. The three of them wielded crude weapons as they charged from their campsite. Then there it was again, that irrational urge. I threw myself between her and the hostile scum. “Not getting passed me!” It wasn’t even much of a fight. I looked over my shoulder to make sure she was okay. “Target eliminated.”

She gave a small nod. The parts of her face that weren’t concealed behind sunglasses, were void of any reaction. Disappointment sat heavily in my stomach.

Embarrassed that I had even expected a response, I turned and continued on. “It might surprise you to learn that my recon team isn’t the first to visit the commonwealth. Over the last seven years, two other teams were sent here by the Brotherhood to gather technology. The first team's mission was a huge success. They came back with crates full of pre-war artifacts and historical documents. The second wasn’t so fortunate.” If the deep range transmitter didn't work or it wasn't even in ArcJet, I feared we would meet the same fate. “Shortly after they arrived, we lost contact with them and they haven’t been heard from since. As far as my team goes, we’ve lost four good men to this godforsaken wasteland. We’ve been a target from the moment we arrived. But despite our setbacks, I don’t intend to give up and head home… or end up missing.” That’s when my only hope came into view. The metallic walls glinted in the sunlight, calling to us like a beacon. “There it is… ArcJet Systems. There shouldn’t be any exterior security, so we’ll head in through the front.”

She followed me to the door before uttering her first words since we left the station. “Paladin Danse?”

It was like a switch had flipped. The urge to impress her had changed into bitter anger. I didn't want her on this mission. My patients had dissolved and just the sound of her voice pricked at my resolve. “Listen up. We do this clean and quiet. No heroics and by the book. Understood?”

She whipped her sunglasses off, “This isn’t my first rodeo.” I couldn’t help but wince at the extent of bruising on her face. Purple graced most of her forehead, her right eye socket was fading to a deep burgundy, and the left side of her jaw was swollen slightly, a yellow and green tinge spread almost to her chin.

I clenched my fist, doing my best to reign in my anger. Her eyes darted down, catching the movement. A small part of my brain told me what I didn’t want to hear, I became more annoyed with myself. There was no time for any of this. I shook my head, forcing my duty to my team to the forefront.

“I understand that. I’m simply offering valuable tactical advice. You’d do well to listen. Remember, our primary target is the Deep Range Transmitter. Stay focused and check your fire. I don’t want to be hit by stray bullets.” The weight of her gaze vanished as the door closed behind me. A void as cold and as empty as the building I found myself in, swallowed me.

*.*.*

I watched him clank through the front door. How did he manage to fit into that T-60 with a head that big? The scribes voice echoed in my head. “You better get a move on. It’s not a good idea to keep Paladin Danse waiting.” He was about to learn that I may agree or disagree but I absolutely did not take orders, from anyone.

Chapter Text

The italicised strontium font of the ArcJet logo glowed in the dim emergency light. The smell of mildew and rust seeped through the respirator filters in my helmet... The stench of unchecked capitalism. Debre crunched under my armored boots as I made my way across the foyer. A flash of light filled the room, distorting the overlay in my visor, before the bang of the front door echoed throughout the building. Her boots banged across the linoleum floor as she marched in behind me.

“It was corporation's like this that put the last nail in the coffin for mankind. They exploited technology for their own gains, pocketing the cash and ignoring the damage they’d done.” There was no response from her as she followed me into the only hallway leading out of vestibule.

A cave in forced us to turn into the only door in the short corridor. A console desk and a couple of filing cabinets stood untouched next to half a dozen destroyed protectrons. I turned to see her standing in the doorway. Her brows pulled together as her eyes scanned the crumpled robots. “Look at these wrecks. It appears as though the facility’s automated security’s already been dealt with.”

 “I see that.” She balanced on the balls of her feet, the denim of her jeans strained across her thighs as she held a deep crouch. Her backpack was open between her knees as she emptied the ammunition stores into her bag. Dozens of micro fusion cells fell haphazardly into the main compartment. She zipped her bag and stood. I watched her as she straightened up and walked over to the desk. With only a few keystrokes she was able to scroll through the console.

 The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, bringing my attention back to the chaos at my feet. They must have been in the building, or at least had been. “Damn it. I was hoping to avoid this. Look at the evidence. There isn’t a single spent ammunition casing or drop of blood in sight. These robots were assaulted by Institute synths.”

 “I’ll be on the lookout.” She turned away from the computer and pulled out an antique. I grimaced when I saw the small ancient semi-automatic handgun. She might as well have pulled out a Winchester. The silenced prewar gun was insufficient and would get her killed.

 “Roger that. Let’s move out.” I took point as we took the hallway leading off of the security room.

 She kept close as I used my armor to shield her while we entered the facade of a business office. Filing cabinets and paper were toppled all over the floor. Smashed computers sat lifeless on molding desks, chairs knocked over as a ghostly reminder of their occupants last moments. Wires that hung from the ceiling were absent of their electrical buzz. A memo board still dawned interdepartmental flyers and takeout menus.  “This place is a mess, but I still see a few pieces of salvage that the Brotherhood might be interested in. After we’re done here I’ll have to mark this place for sweep and retrieve.”

 Another short hallway turned and opened into a server room. A desk sat in the middle on a short platform facing a pair of double magnalock doors. A green glow was emitting from the console on the desk. “Looks like a dead end. See if you can find a way to get that door open. I’m going to reconnoiter the area.”

 But I didn’t. I watched her, my laser rifle pointing uselessly at the wall. The green glow washed out the discoloration of the bruising on her face, giving a glimpse of what she might look like without them. A slight sheen of sweat had developed across her forehead. Two small premature lines were starting to form between her brows as they pulled together in concentration. Her eyes darted back and forth across the screen as she continued looking for clues. Her lower lip trapped between pristine teeth.  A small scar creeped up from under her chin...

 She jumped up, her miniature gun held firmly in both of her hands as the doors opened. A gust of hot air made the papers on the floor tumble away. If it wasn’t for the recoil, I would have never known that she had fired her pistol. I turned my own rifle towards the door. A first generation synth was crumpled on the floor, decommissioned by Smith’s bullets. A second one blew through the open doors, a black baton raised in its skeletal hand. Simple hydraulics moved its thin metal limbs with quick jerking movements. The plastic components in its torso exploded, sending sparks into the air as it fell to the ground.

 I lunged into the doorway. The fight response caused an all too familiar adrenaline induced tingling in my fingertips. Each pull of the trigger was instinctual, a result of the rapid fire of concrete connections in my hypothalamus. I plowed through the river of androids spilling through the gaping hole in the west wall and followed their short retreat through the small cavern as it led into a secondary atrium.

 “You must die now, human.” Rang down the rafters by metallic voices. Blue and red light struck like repeated lightning. I wasn’t sure how it had happened, I aimed my rifle to take down the repulsive abominations on the landing and Smith was already there. She was fighting off a synth with a baton, blue sparks jumping from its end. A nasty expletive came out of her mouth before she hook kicked the top of the unit. It tumbled over the banister and fell into a broken pile on the first floor.

 I ran up the collapsed walkway to reach her just as a synth emerged from an adjacent room. With its back to me, I grabbed the machine by the head, crushing the aluminum frame in my armored hand. “Damn synths have compromised most of the facility.” I murmured, dropping the android at my feet.

 I signaled for her to follow me as I entered the room from where the synth had come from. The floor had caved in, creating a ramp back down to the first floor. I followed the labyrinth of decrepit office rooms until the distinctive beeping caught my attention. I held my hand up to halt her advance. “Remain vigilant… we’ve got turrets ahead.”

 I peeked around the corner and before the turret had a chance to calibrate a target Smith darted out into the hallway. Two quick shots from her ten millimeter put it into decommission. She looked over her shoulder and smirked, that delicate dimple gracing her cheek.

 The hallway ahead of us caved in again. Luckily it lead us straight to the staircase I had been looking for. We were so close. I pushed open the door with my free hand. It exposed a pitch black hallway. I tapped the inside of my glove with my middle finger and my headlamp ignited.“Engine Core’s ahead. Should be our final stop. Watch your footing… looks like the power’s out in this section.”

 The hallway was short. At the end was brief staircase leading to a steel archway. Impressive wasn’t a sufficient word to describe the silo. A rocket engine was suspended in front of us, halfway down the cavern. Frost clung to every metallic surface. My breath plumed out of the respirator in my helmet, the temperature was thirty degrees lower according to the interface in my display. A feeling of regret settled into my stomach. Haylen would have loved this. “Look at this place. Scribes would have a field day in here.”

 I led the way down the stairs. “The transmitter should be in the control room at the top of the core but it looks like the elevators are dead. We’ll have to keep heading down for now and find a way to get the facility’s power back online.”

 Each step in my armor made the metal staircase vibrate violently. I let out a sigh once I reached the bottom, completely unaware that I had been holding my breath. Gravel cracked under my boots as I looked around, spotting a pair of unpowered elevator doors inlaid into the concrete wall next to an observation window. “There has to be a power backup system somewhere. scout the maintenance area off of the main chamber. I’ll remain here and watch our backs.”

 She didn’t follow my order at first. Instead, she tilted her head up, a look of awe glittered across her eyes, kindled by dim red light emitted through the observation room window. She seemed to have caught herself after a moment, her shoulders straightening before she dashed through the crumbled wall and into a hidden hallway.

 I was alone. The cold had long since seeped through the T-60. It seemed to be radiating from the walls themselves. The hue of my headlamp even taking on a cool tone in the darkness.

 A cool woman's voice sounded from invisible speakers.“Engine Core power restored. Thermal Engine fueled, primed and standing by for your command.” My relief from the ArcJet Mainframe announcement was short lived.

 I heard them before I could see them. A wave of plastic on metal, like giant ants emerging from their colony. The sudden streaks of bright blue beams burned my retinas, the tint of my visor was no match to the sudden change of lumens. It was an army and Smith was nowhere to be seen. That’s when frantic banging rang through the silo. I looked over on instinct only to be hit in the shoulder by a microinfusion round. “Do something… anything!”

 The cool woman's voice filled the chamber again.“Command accepted. Commencing five second countdown. Five…” No! What was she thinking?

 I was cornered with no way to get to safety. My heart was pounding so hard that I couldn’t hear the countdown or the repeated hits to my armor. “Four…” I kicked the closest synth to the ground. “Three…” Another hit to the shoulder. ” Two…” Righteous Authority clicked, it’s empty cartridge ejecting automatically. “One…Engine firing.”

 The force of the rocket made it impossible to stand. I was thrown to the ground, only managing to catch myself. Alarms were flashing red across my display as the metal encasing my body began to glow from the immense heat. The worst was the heat seeping through the cracked gasket at the back of my helmet. The overlay on my visor flashed one last time before turning black.

 The back of my neck was all but exposed to the steady blast as the heat continued to intensify. I clenched my teeth against the force exerted on my suit. Pain ripped down my neck and across my shoulders as I waited for what felt like an eternity.

 The smooth voice sounded again.“Test firing completed with an efficiency rating of ninety-six point seven percent“.

 The announcement didn't match what I was experiencing. The ghost of the engine still roared in my ears. The temperature inside my suit maintained dangerously high levels. I wasn't able to move, my muscles locked from shock.

 The only thing I could tell about my surroundings was that I wasn't being shot at. By some miracle it had worked and I was still alive.

 “Oh my god. Are you alright?” The panic was evident in her voice.

I tried to turn my head to look at her but pain shot down my spine.“Got… cooked by those flames, but… thanks to my power armor I’m still in one piece. The important thing is that we’re still alive… and we have a way to get to the transmitter.” The sound of protest my armor made as I stood hurt me more than the burns across my shoulders. “Let’s go.”

 Her boots echoed in the void left behind by the engine. The slap of her palm on the call button echoed off of the concrete walls. “Keep the noise down, this place is crawling with hostiles.” She opened her mouth in response. I held up my hand as the elevator doors opened. I stepped aside so she could enter first. “Keep moving we’ll talk later.”

 The elevator was small and the doors had closed before I had the chance to take the second lift. I pushed myself flush with the wall, or as flush as possible in a two thousand pound suit could be. This left her with enough room to stand in the back corner. The zipper of her leather vest scraped my chestplate as she took a deep breath.

 “Going up.” The announcer called, causing the elevator to lurch. Her hands flew up and grabbed the handles on my chest plate. I felt the small pull as she steadied herself. I glared at her, only able to conceal my annoyance by the grace of my helmet. She was undisciplined, uncoordinated, compulsive, and… She let go of my armor, a flush spread across her cheeks as she checked the chamber of her gun.

 The elevator dinged before the doors opened and we stumbled over each other trying to escape the enclosed space. The sound of steady feet could be heard from the hallway leading out of the top of the silo. “Shh. I heard something.”

 I took the last of the stairs four at a time. Shadows danced across the hallway labeled with a large number four. The vibrations of steel on steel ceased as I crossed the threshold. My damaged headlamp barely made any difference as I walked through the short dark hallway. The machines targeting systems had a long enough lag that I had a chance to count them while reloading my laser rifle. I felt her body press against my armor as she peered around my elbow.

 It was over before a single shot was fired from an Institute rifle. Smith stayed crouched by my leg for cover.  The smell of gun powder and melted plastic filled the the control room. Broken units littered the floor among the mess they had made.

 I did a quick scan of the room It was turned upside down. We weren't the only ones looking for what ArcJet may hold. “Damn it. I don’t see the device anywhere. Fan out and check the synth remains. They may have been after the transmitter as well.” I waved her into the room.

 Smith must have taken the direction I gave her as an okay yo loot the androids. She piled Institute weapons on her shoulders as she stuffed microfusion cells into her pockets. She was bent over a pile of ashes when her arm shot straight into the air. An aluminum box in her hand, the Deep Range Transmitter.

 “We’ll take the service elevator to the surface.” I called to her as I pressed the call button in the far corner of the control room. She continued to dig around as the elevator opened. I stepped in and watched her as the doors closed between us. She was bent over the desk, typing fast on an illuminated console before she was hidden from sight.

 The surface must have been right above us as the ride was a short one. The door opened with a ding. The light from my helmet spilled onto dark walls. I held Righteous Authority up as I scanned the room. It was a bunker just like the many others scattered across the Commonwealth. Once I reached the front door, I heard the second ding as Smith caught up. “The Bunker looks clear. Let’s move out.” I called over my shoulder as I walked out into a small gated area with a forklift and a couple of barrels that made my geiger counter tick angrily. The moon shone bright enough to wash out most of the stars. A splatter of clouds were illuminated by the moonface.

 I heard her footsteps come up behind me. I turned to her, “Well, that could have gone smoother, but mission accomplished.”

 Her expression turned sour, “I don’t need an evaluation.”

 I took a step forward, forcing her to take a step back.

 “Accepting constructive criticism is the best way to improve ourselves both physically and mentally. However, this doesn’t diminish your role in the operation. Without your assistance, it could have been in jeopardy. That being said, I believe we have two important matters to discuss. First and foremost, if you’ll hand me the Deep Range Transmitter,” I held out my hand in which she placed the transmitter into my palm. I wrapped my fingers around the small object and held out my favorite laser rifle. “I’d like to compensate you for your assistance during this operation. I think you’ll find this weapon useful, it’s my own personal modification of the standard Brotherhood Laser Rifle. May it serve you well in battle.”

 I felt a pull from right under my ribs as Smith slipped the rifle into her own hands. Her brows scrunched together before she looked back up to me. “Don’t you need to keep it?” She asked, half holding it up for me to take it back.

 “Brotherhood soldiers always carry a backup.” I pulled out a small bag filled with bottlecaps and dropped them into her outstretched hands. She looked at the bag with a blank expression until understanding dawned across her face.

 “Now… as far as the second matter goes, I wanted to make you a proposal. We had a lot thrown at us back there. Our op could have ended in disaster, but you kept your cool and handled it like a soldier. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ve got what it takes. The way I see it, you’ve got a choice. You could spend the rest of your life wandering from place to place, trading an extra hand for a meager reward. Or, you could join the Brotherhood of Steel and make your mark on the world. So, what do you say?” I knew that if I took my own annoyance out of the equation, she would be an outstanding soldier. She was talented.

 She pocketed the caps but continued to hold Righteous Authority in her hands as she looked back up at me. “What would be expected of me if I joined?”

 “You’d be under my command, and I’d expect you to follow orders. No more mercenary work… this is the real thing. You’d have access to advanced military weapons, as well as your own personal suit of Power Armor. Most importantly, you’d have the Brotherhood at your back… ready to spill its own blood to keep you alive. Offer still stands. Can we count on you?” There was no doubt that Arthur would like her enough to grant her Knighthood and power armor was always the biggest selling point for wastelanders.

 She bit her lip as her eyes darted down to the ground. “I don’t know.”

 “It’s a big decision, so I understand your hesitation. If you decide you want to become one of us, you know where we are.” She nodded as she listened to my words.

 I couldn’t help but feel disappointed as she turned to walk away from me. Her pockets heavier. Maybe she was only in it for the caps. Though her reaction when receiving them spoke volumes of the contrary. She did a little jump, shimmying her cargo back into place. Then she stopped as she reached the gate. “Danse?” She turned slowly back to me, her lip still caged between her teeth.

 “There’s still a place for you in the Brotherhood… if you want it.” I reassured her. Despite everything, hoping that she would say yes.

 “I’d be honored to join.” That made me  smile bigger than I had in months.

 “That’s what I wanted to hear. Meet me back at the police station, and we’ll discuss the details.” She gave me a very sloppy outdated salute before turning away again and striding towards the road.

 She didn’t stop as she yelled over her shoulder, “I’m only in it for the spiffy uniforms.” before slapping the side of her backpack.

 I watched as the newest recruit to Gladius walked away, the piano melody of The Ink Spots retreating with her profile. The story of possibilities disappeared into the darkness… ‘Maybe’.

 She was another soul under my command, another life I was responsible for. I couldn’t fail my squad again. I would die before losing another person.

 The laser rifle I had bought off of the violent obsessed junky was unholstered and in my hands before I had finished my train of thought.  I looked down at the weapon in my hands and etched my name on the capacitor, Resolute Protector .

 *.*.*

 Weathered hands slapped down on the oak table. “You’re not seriously thinking about joining the Brotherhood, are you” He caught himself before finishing, “… General?”

 “I know what I’m doing.” I said as smoothly as I could muster. Hancock raised a canister of jet to his lips in response. Preston looked to Mac, that fucking tattle-tale. He shrugged, doing his best not to look in my direction.

 “I know the Brotherhood has all the fancy toys, but don’t forget about your responsibility to lead the Minutemen.” Preston finally said as no one jumped to his aid.

 “Preston… I’m doing this for the Minutemen.”

Chapter Text

The latch crumbled in my hand. The heat caused an irreparable brittleness. My hands gingerly grasped both sides of my helmet. The cool night air graced my burns with much needed relief. I looked around the garrison. Rhys or, more probably, Haylen had dragged the ghoul corpses out onto the street. The embers of Keane’s phire still smoked in the early morning darkness.

I had missed it. A ton of bricks had suddenly appeared in the pit of my stomach. Keane was gone. His body indistinguishable from the ash and burnt logs in front of the Police Station.  I stood there and watched the smoke curl into the air. He had been the the most levelheaded man I had ever met. Every mishap along our way had been smoothed by his calm paternal demeanor. Yet under the calm waters of his personality, we knew it held depths of sorrow that none of us would be able to comprehend. But he was with her once again. His pain now part of a life passed.

I turned away from my fallen comrade and walked up the brick steps. My suit suddenly losing its feeling of security. The front doors didn’t move as I placed my hands on their surface. They had barricaded themselves inside. I rapped my knuckles on its splintered surface. My suit feelt substantially tighter as I stood and listened to someone moving something heavy behind the door.

Haylen’s head peered through the small opening. Her eyes lit up and she pulled both doors open. “Paladin Danse, glad to see you alive and well, Sir!”

She stepped aside to let me enter the station. As I made it into the lobby, Rhys stood from his chair. His hand clasped his bandaged ribs as he crossed the wood floor. “Are we in luck, Sir?”

“Mission accomplished. We have the transmitter.” I pulled open the stiff compartment door on my leg plate and  fished out the small box. Haylen excitedly held out her hand. Her fingers flexed around the component as if it were the last can of purified water in the Commonwealth.

Rhys shifted his weight to the other foot, his arms came up and crossed in front of his chest.  “Finally, some good news for a change. Nice work sir.”

“I didn’t do it alone. Had some help from our new friend. Haylen, Rhys… You will welcome our newest recruit to the recon team. She shows a lot of promise, and with the proper guidance, I think she has the potential of becoming one of the best.” As the words left my lips, I knew they were true. The amount of talent she had with no formal training was almost astounding. The only person I could think of who was more impressive as an initiate was…

“So she decided to stay, huh? I expected her to take her payment and run. She can play it however she wants. It’s going to take a lot more than completing one mission to impress me.” It was good to see that the ghoul hadn’t taken his snark.

“Rhys, that’s enough. Like it or not, you’re going to have to learn to work with her. And she’ll need to understand what it means to be a part of the Brotherhood.” I could almost hear the restraint as Rhys kept himself from rolling his eyes.

“I’m going to go to the roof and install this. You know where to find me, Sir.” Haylen practically skipped out of the lobby.

I turned to Rhys “Let me know when Smith arrives. I’ll be in the garage.” The Knight nodded once, annoyance caused his upper lip to curl. I knew it was going to be a nightmare until I could separate the two of them into different divisions. It was important to know when it was possible to beat two soldiers into cooperating with each other. This would not be the case. The hostility rolling off of Rhys filled the Police Station like phosgene gas. I wasn’t granted assuagement until the garage door was securely closed behind me.

I winced as the lock disengaged and my suit screeched in protest as it opened. As I stepped down, the skin across my neck and shoulders seared with the sudden lack of support. I carefully maneuvered my suit into the power armor station and hooked it into place with chains.

I turned to the workbench and flipped on the radio before opening the far right drawer. A stimpak rested on top of a familiar can with a peeled label. I picked up the medications, carefully pulled back the safety shaft on the syringe and lifted it to my neck. The affected area began to itch as tissue began to make connections with my nervous system. I unzipped my flight suit and carefully tugged my arms free from my sleeves. With my uniform secured at my hips, I picked up the can again. The top came off with a satisfying pop.  Gratification only continued as I scooped the Herbal Anodyne out with my index finger. Goosebumps erupted all over my body as I slathered my skin in pewter slime.

I picked up a shop rag that had been resting on the workbench and absentmindedly wiped my hands as I inspected my tarnished armor. It was a mess. I had hours of work ahead of me. I dropped the dirty towel onto the small red toolbox on the floor next to the armor station, then unholstered Resolute Protector. I placed my laser rifle carefully on the workbench before turning back to my suit and opening all of its compartments. Unloading my belongings was a daunting task. I had begun to hoard ammunition and other necessities in every available space.

Ella Fitzgerald played softly in the background. I couldn’t help but think of Brach as I organized my microfusion cells in the cabinet. I longed for the nights where he would pluck at his mandolin as we would set up camp. I could almost smell the fire burning… Then his fire burning. I would never hear him play bluegrass or be filled with his affection for his homeland.

My fingers brushed something hard at the bottom of my chestplate compartment. I knew what it was before I wrapped my fingers around its spine. She had still been there, ever present in the corner of my mind. I added the rag that it was wrapped in to the growing pile in the corner of the room. I opened the book to one of its middle pages and brought it to my nose. It still smelled of her, earthy and sweet. A tingle erupted at the base of my spine  as I thought of my fingers wrapped tightly in her obsidian hair. But she was gone, just like everyone I cared about. Sorrow frayed the hole in my chest, making it burn. I took one last sniff before setting the book into the pile of items I would take back into the station

The Billy Ward song that had been playing came to an end. It was replaced by the now familiar shaking voice of Diamond City’s radio DJ. “Well, here’s a, uhh, I guess you’d say… unexpected bit of news. I heard a group of soldiers… Is it knights? Soldiers? Constabulary? What are we calling them now?... Eh, soldiers from the Brotherhood of Steel were spotted in the Commonwealth. Sounds like they were, uhh… heh,  well, they were kind of in trouble. At the Cambridge Police Station… They were in pretty bad shape for a while. But then… the, uhh, the Vault Dweller showed up and gave them a hand. Or a gun, or some-. The Vault Dweller helped them, is what I’m trying to say…. Guess they’ll probably be on their way soon, then… Right?... Heh… Oh! We’re goinna’ die! Oah!”

That little…. I hastily pulled my jumpsuit back on and picked up my laser rifle. The door was thrown open with a bang as I sprinted to the lobby. It was empty. I jogged down the steps and out the front door of the police station. The sun was bright, brighter than I anticipated. My hand  instinctively flew up to shield my eyes from the afternoon sun. I was dazed, unaware of the actual time. As my eyes adjusted to the light I could make out his shape. Rhys stood in the street outside of the fortifications. His gun held aloft as he stared into the college square.

“Sir, you should come see this.” he called faintly, his focus on the street ahead didn’t waver.

I jogged up to his side, my laser rifle held at the ready, only to let the barrel drop as I spotted what Rhys wanted me to see. A group could be seen in formation as they swept the commons. Distinctive twangs could be heard as they fired their laiser muskets. We watched as ghouls were thrown back to the ground and boots marched onward.

Rhys crossed his arms over his chest, watching as the men marched towards College Square Station. “Smith came by about twenty minutes after you did.” He offered as an explanation.

“I told you to inform me when she arrived.” The chided remark went unnoticed by the knight.

“She walked in, wearing that vault suit, and acted like her time was to important. She asked for assignments and left. Then an hour later they arrived.” He pointed to the group of men who had reemerged. “She must think the tasks we gave her were below-”

“Maybe if you had done your job, you wouldn’t be envious of her delegation skills.” I rounded on him, causing the Knight to go rigid. “Now, go back to your post Rhys… Before I strip you of your privileges.”

Rhys’ lips disappeared into a strained white line. He stood in front of me a fraction of a second longer then I liked. “Yes, Sir.” The words were muffled with restrain.

I looked away from the retreating Knight and brought my attention back to the group of men as they approached. They had stowed away their weapons and a man came to the front of the group, his hands were in front of his chest and palms faced me in a gesture of peace. I held my rifle at my side but did not sling my weapon.

As they came closer I could tell that they were all wearing colonial period style clothing. The man at the front wore a leather military slouch hat and a decorative dark blue vest under his coat. He walked right up to me, bold and confident. He held out his hand to shake mine, “I’m Lieutenant Garvey of the Commonwealth Minutemen. We heard you needed help.”

His voice was as warm as the skin under my fingers. “I’m Paladin Danse of the Brotherhood of Steel. Thank you for helping but clearing the area was Initiate Smith’s responsibility.” He flinched at her title and pulled his hand away first. His demeanor flipped like a switch.

“It’s our responsibility to ‘protect the people at a minute’s notice’, even if it's a group of tourists.” He stood straight at that declaration, shoulders broad with pride and indignation.

“We didn't need your help civilian.” I took a step forward, intruding on his personal space. I was met with unflinching eyes.

“The Minutemen is the largest organized militia in the entire Commonwealth. I am not a civilian, I am second in command. You are nothing but an intruder. We aren't threatened by three struggling members of the Brotherhood. Tell me Paladin, when did you realize you couldn't manage without a Bostonian? Was it before or after Louise saved you?” His nose flared as he huffed in my direction.

“Smith is a grown woman who made the right choice in joining the Br-”

“You don’t deserve someone like Louise. She’s better then all of you bigots put together.”

I saw red. His lapels were in my hands, his face mere inches from mine. I didn’t let go as five laser muskets were pointed at me. Rhys ran out of the barricade, his own weapon drawn. I barely heard the threats he shouted when the Minutemen refused to lower their weapons. My focus was on the man in front of me. The corner of his lip curled in smug triumph. He raised a hand and the men behind him lowered their weapons at once. I shoved him away from me and turned to Rhys. He hesitated, his pistol still aimed at Preston. I gave a sharp nod and his weapon was lowered.

“They were just leaving.” I told my squad mate. My eyes traveled back to the the Lieutenant. He tipped his hat once at me then at Rhys before pushing past, the Minutemen drawing their weapons as they made their way down the street and out of Cambridge.

“Rhys, Paladin!” We both turned in surprise. Haylen was on the roof, waving her arms in the air to gain our attention. We jogged back inside of the fortification only for her to shout at us again. “What are you doing? Get up here, quick. Knight Captain Kells wants to talk to you!”

We sprinted into the building, up the stairs, and onto the roof in record time.  Haylen had a table set up by the radio tower where her equipment was laid out in a neat array. She held up the microphone for me and pressed the transmission button.

I reached out and grabbed the microphone, “This is Paladin Danse of Recon Squad Gladius, can you read me?”

There was a short pause before a familiar voice came over the small speakers. “We read you. This is Knight Captain Kells, Captain of the Prydwen. We are in rout to your location.”

Haylen pressed the transmission button again. “I’m sorry, Sir, I don't understand. You're in rout?”

The voice that responded wasn’t Kells. “After the information transcribed by Scribe Haylen, we could no longer stand by. The moment we lost contact again, I put in the orders to arm the Prydwen and disembark from Adams Air Force Base. We’re going to take down the Institute, Danse, and secure the Commonwealth.”

“How far out are you, Elder?” I watched as silent conversation passed between the wide eyed Scribe and Knight.

“If Kells’ team is correct, three hours. We just need an all clear on a location to dock.” Haylen shrugged her shoulders but I knew the place.

“The Boston Airport. It’s centrally located yet close to the Atlantic. We would be less likely of being surrounded if the Institute were to plan an attack.”

“Get your team ready. They will command that outpost and train scouts on lay of the Commonwealth. But, I need you back on the Prydwen, Danse. We have important matters to attend to.”

“Affirmative.”

“Ad Victorium, Paladin.”

“Ad Victorium, Sir.”

The three of us stood on the roof of the police station, completely dumbfounded by the situation we found ourselves in. Haylen jumped when I spoke, pulled from her thoughts without warning. “Haylen, do we have any way to send our consol files to the Prydwen with the D.R.T.?” She nodded. “Good, send everything. Rhys, help me bring the console up here. We only have three hours.”

We worked tirelessly on accommodating the Police Station for an unknown number of Brotherhood members who would soon call Cambridge home. With only fifteen minutes to spare, Rhys and I returned to the roof. The sky begun to darken as the sun neared the horizon. Light was refracted through the atmosphere, transforming the scattered clouds into wispy coral shapes that embossed the lapis sky.

We heard her first, a hum that crescendoed into thunderous vertibird rotors. She was coming in low, making a statement, showing the Institute that we were bringing this war to their front door. Scabbard’s voice boomed from loud speakers as we got at full view of her glorious underbelly. “People of the Commonwealth… Do not interfere. Our intentions are peaceful… We are the Brotherhood of Steel.”

*.*.*

That bastard!

Nick and I watched as the monstrous zeppelin floated lazily across the sky, escorted by a flock of vertibirds.

“Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing.” I turned to Nick. He stared at the ship, deep concern etched in his silicone feachers.

“Edgar Allen Poe?” I asked him, nervous at his sudden lack of confidence.

He nodded then slowly turned to me, his eyes glowing in the dim light of dusk. “Flying that ship into the heart of the Commonwealth. Mark my words, the Brotherhood’s here to start a war.”

Chapter Text

“Repeating… This is Paladin Danse on frequency nine five. All Brotherhood of Steel units are to return to the Cambridge Police Station immediately for reassignment.” I was sick of hearing my own voice ring throughout the compound. Orders were made and plans were set. All that was needed was one secret keeping vault dweller.

The Cambridge Police Station was filled to the brim with Brotherhood personnel and a fresh stockpile of supplies. I was met with salutes and words of encouragement at every turn. The new Brothers and Sisters were briefed by Haylen the moment they landed by vertibird. Maxson and I had agreed that the Police Station would be a strategic launching point for our mission. Rhys and Haylen would be staying at the station and would run the whole operation; training, ops, and intel.

Smith on the other hand, she was coming with me. I wasn’t surprised when Haylen had taken the liberty of writing a report on the new Initiate. It was sent to the Prydwen under the pretenses that it was completed by me, her idea of course. She was unapologetic about it as well. The report, on the other hand, had some details that I personally would have left out. There was no way of changing it. Its contents managed to get enough people’s attention, Maxson’s especially.

I requested to be her sponsor as a response. Smith didn’t understand the politics played at the higher ranks of the Brotherhood. She didn’t stand a chance if Kelles or Maxson got a hold of what she had to offer…

Which was what? Yes, she was excellent in combat but there was more. She wasn’t yet willing to disclose those matters with me but I hoped that in time she would. Yet, I had a feeling that I would learn about her in more surprising ways.

A vault dweller. What was the likelihood of that happening again? I needed to remind myself not to have expectations of her. She wasn’t predictable. In all probability she may not have anything to offer the Brotherhood but her experience in the Commonwealth. Loyalty was expected of her but…

The voice of a Sentry Knight, right outside the doors of the Police Station, caught my attention. “Paladin Danse is waiting for you inside, recruit.” He was gruff with the orders given, a soldier who didn’t have time for games. I understood but a part of me despised the way he spoke to her.

Afternoon light was cast into the Police Station as the double doors were opened. Thankfully my armor ceased its auditory distress, after depleting my oil rations. As I turned to see her… and Garvey, it was quiet except for the small thud of my boot on the hardwood floor and my droning voice repeating itself on the radio.

I turned my back on Smith and reached over the receptionist desk. Silence, sweet silence met my ears as I cut the transmission and turned off the radio. I took a moment to enjoy the quiet before turning to my subordinate and her friend . “Cavalry’s arrived and it looks like they sent in the big guns.”

Her teeth were brighter than her vault suit. “The Brotherhood isn’t exactly subtle when it makes an entrance.” A long fingered hand came up to rest on her hip, under a questionable piece of chest armor.

“There’s no reason to be subtle when you have that in your arsenal.” Garvey shuffled uncomfortably at the subject. So, I pushed on. “ We call our ship The Prydwen . She’s loaded with enough troops and supplies to mount a major offensive. If she’s here, Elder Maxson’s here. And that means we’re going to war.”

Her smile slipped, the dimple in her cheek disappearing. “Elder Maxson?” Honest cluelessness was apparent in her voice.

“Maxson is the commander of this division of the Brotherhood of Steel. He’s the model of what every Brotherhood soldier hopes to become. If we’re going to war, I can promise you that he’ll be leading the charge. That being said, you’re about to get to know the Prydwen up close and personal. I’ve received orders that we’re both to report to her immediately.” I saw both pairs of eyes light up but it wasn’t an open invitation. I pointed a finger at Garvey. “He’s not coming.”

A second hand came to rest on Smith’s hips as she brought her shoulders back, a power stance, a commanding posture. “Lieutenant Garvey is here as a diplomat for the Minutemen.”

Garvey took a step forward. “I’m here to broker some ground rules for both of our organizations. That is, unless you want the General of the Minutemen to march down here and knock down your doors.”

I didn’t have time to argue with both of them. We were expected on the Prydwen several hours earlier. If Garvey thought he could tell Maxson to do anything, he was out of luck. “Follow me up to the roof of the police station… we’re going for a little ride.”

They wore matching grins as they followed me through the berrics and up the stairs. The thundering of boots brought on a sense of deja vu, but it was just the three of us and this wasn’t the Citadel. We passed Johnson, a Brotherhood Aspirant, on the way up, his eyes landing on Smith. “Don’t despair, sister! We’re here to save the Commonwealth.”

I stepped out onto the roof of the Police Station and Smith's chattering stopped for all of a moment. Heat and light assaulted my senses as the December afternoon exhibited its oppressive tendencies. Every reflective surface of the vertibird beckoned the attention of every person in its line of sight. The doors behind me opened and I was met with more conversation. I could say that I ignored them as I boarded the vertibird but that would be a lie. I wanted to know more.  

“...But I haven’t given up on you, if that’s what you’re asking.” Garvey’s eyes glittered as he placed a hand on the smooth metal surface of the aircraft, holding his other hand out to help Smith climb inside. “On the bright side, nobody’s going to be sneaking up on us.” He continued to as he hoisted himself onto the cockpit and chose a seat next to my Initiate. “Allright! I’ve always wanted to see what this was like.”

I clapped our lancer on the shoulder and the rotors roared to life, positioning lights flickered on the bottoms of the twin mock two engines. I signaled Smith to stand. My price for compliance was a thrown glance and double the number of shrugs then I usually approved of.

“That minigun in front of you is loaded and ready to fire.” She warily shuffled closer to the edge of the cockpit, letting out a ridiculous noise as the vertibird lurched. Smith’s hands flew out and grasped the handles of the minigun to steady herself as we took off. I held onto the frame as we began to gain altitude.

“If you spot anything hostile during the flight, I suggest you put it to good use. Make sure you properly identify your targets before you start shooting. We don’t want to have any mishaps and fire on the locals.” Cambridge began to shrink below us. The buildings opened to us, revealing the Charles River and our route to the Boston Airport.

“The Commonwealth looks different from up here, doesn’t it?” I watched the marble husk of the CIT building glare up at us as we followed the curve of the Charles. There was structural damage to multiple exterior walls and the end of the west wing was completely collapsed into a massive pile of rubble. Rhys and his new team would be sweeping the building any moment. When I told him that Kells and Maxson had put together a team for him to lead he had responded in the way that was appropriate, at first. The moment he was out of sight he had yelled an excitedly obscene expletive.

For a moment it all seemed possible. The Commonwealth below us was domesticable. It was nothing but a dog infested with fleas. “It never ceases to amaze me how drastically your perception of the battlefield changes from the air. We’re going to need that edge when we take on the Institute. They’ve already proven that they’re technologically superior, which means there’s no telling what types of weapons they have in their arsenal. Hopefully, our air superiority and tactical know-how will make the difference. Now all we have to do is find them… and I’m betting that Elder Maxson will have a plan ready in place by the time we arrive.”

As we flew closer to Downtown Boston, the buildings began to reach higher into the sky, mementos of a life long past. It’s people still as naive as they were then. I could count the number of people of the Commonwealth who understood and one of them was in the cockpit. ”I wish everyone down there believed in our cause but they’ve been blinded by rumors and misinformation.”

“They don’t realize that the Brotherhood of Steel is the Commonwealth’s last hope for survival. Every man, woman and child below is in mortal danger.  If we fail, it’s only a matter of time before the enemy overwhelms the population. Cleansing the Commonwealth is our duty and I will gladly spill my own blood if it ensures our victory.” Bunker Hill reared it’s head from behind the labyrinth of skyscrapers.

I found myself suddenly swallowed by my own thoughts. The Great White Phallus of the Commonwealth… Those sunglasses. I turned to Smith, watching her as she held tightly onto the minigun. The frames were the same, Horn Rimmed, a popular prewar style that was abundant in the wastes.

As the bird’ began to tilt towards the southeast my eyes were drawn to the flash of gold peeking out from beneath her chestplate. Stars adorned the collar of her vault suit. A small part of my mind was fixated on what they were, nagging me for not remembering a passage in Citadel textbook.

The larger portion of my brain was fixated on Garvey. Well, Garvey’s relation to Smith. Their familiarity was evident. He used her first name frequently. The part I didn’t understand was the way he talked about her, ‘I haven’t given up on you’... and, ‘Bostonian’. What a strangely outdated word to use….

“We’re on final approach to the airport… the Prydwen should be coming into view just ahead. We’ll be meeting Lancer-Captain Kells on the Flight Deck. Just stick close to me and answer all of his questions.” Secretly I was hoping that she would indirectly answer some of mine as well.

We turned along the Charles River and as we entered the Boston Harbor the buildings cleared, revealing the Boston Logan International Airport and my home floating above. Even as we gained altitude, it was still possible to see my Brothers and Sisters below us as they continued to fortify our new base. A vertibird perched at the ready, waiting for personnel to travel between the airport and the Prydwen.

Her name and the Brotherhood insignia were pristine and white against the rusting feldgrau haul of the Prydwen. As we got closer people could be seen on the flight deck and there he was, waiting for us. “There she is. It’s been far too long since I’ve been aboard. All right, soldier… this is the moment when everything changes. I hope you’re ready.” The bird’ hovered for a moment by the dock as  a stabilization arm descended. We were snached from the air and pulled into the pier.

Garvey, Smith, and I disembarked from the Mark Two before it’s engine had a chance to shut off. I could hear Garvey say “You ask me, freedom’s always worth fighting for,” but Smith’s response was muffled in the high altitude breeze.

Captain Lancer Kells stood at attention at the end of the pier, his hands clasped tightly behind his back.

I pressed my armored fist to my chest plate. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”

He nodded once.“Permission granted and welcome back, Paladin. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on a successful mission.” He held his hand out and we shook hands. I carefully squeezed his hand, trying to make sure to be firm but not hurt my CO. He winced anyway. “And is this our new recruit?” His dark eyes fell on Smith.

I couldn’t control the urge and took a protective step forward. The impending interrogation was not the first impression I wanted to give my neophyte. “Yes, sir. I’ve field promoted her to Initiate and I’d like to sponsor her entry into our rankings personally.”

“Yes, we’ve read your reports. You’ll be pleased to know that Elder Maxson’s approved your request, and placed the recruit in your charge.” His arms sprang free from their position behind his back only to settle across his chest as he continued to size up Smith.

“Thank you, sir. And my current orders?”

“You are to remain on the Prydwen and await further instructions.” He pointed to the door.

Her stance became rigid and when I looked at her, I was met with wide eyes. I had promised to stay by her side and now we were being separated by the Lancer Captain. A mixture of betrayal and desperation would be the last look I would see on her face before turning around and breaking my word. All for duty and politics...

“Very good, Sir. Ad Victoriam, Captain.” I brought my my fist back up to my chest. The thump of metal echoed the cold contempt I felt towards Kells. He knew better than to separate an Initiate and their Sponsor when transitioning to a new command. It was going to be her first time truly engulfed in the Brotherhood. For those of us born outside of the organization, it was detrimental to have someone show us the ropes before expectations were implemented. They knew that in the short amount of time I had spent with Smith wasn’t substantial enough to teach her our ways and code of conduct. I was at a loss of what they were anticipating from her.

“Ad Victoriam, Paladin.” And just like that, I was dismissed as if my position on this ship or in this mission meant absolutely nothing.

I cringed as his voice followed me across the flight deck. “So, you’re the one Paladin Danse has taken under his wing. Humph. You don’t look much like a soldier to me.”

She was quick and sharp, everything that I came to expect from Smith. “Looks can be deceiving.”

I paused half way up the steps to listen. “Which is precisely why I personally insist on scrutinizing every recruit who boards this vessel. I’ve read Paladin Danse’s reports. He seems to think you’ll make a fine addition to the Brotherhood. You might expect an endorsement like that to grant you a great deal of latitude with us, but let me make one thing clear. The Brotherhood of Steel has traveled to the Commonwealth with a specific goal in mind. As the captain of this vessel, I won’t allow anyone to jeopardize our mission no matter how valuable they think they are.”

The armored Knight held open the door as I made it up the final steps. “The elder is waiting for you inside.”

I gave him a stern nod before crossing the threshold. The door closed behind me and I stood on there, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. The man standing on the other side of the command deck was almost unrecognisable. If it wasn’t for his uniform I wouldn’t have known that Maxson was the one waiting for my arrival.

Chapter Text

Of all the things that hand changed about Arthur, from his unkempt hair to his new high and tight, it was the extent of the dark circles under his eyes that caught my attention. They were so calamitous that it was unsettling. When was the last time he had slept or the last time Cade had done an evaluation? I surely couldn't have been the only person who had noticed. I let my legs lead me to where he was standing. All of my attention was devoted to taking in the features of my closest friend.

“Danse.” My name was a question on his lips. Lips chapped with dehydration. A result, I assumed, from the now countless bottles of liquor sitting on every table.

I entered the command deck without requesting permission and walked right up to Arthur. He took a moment to scrutinize my appearance before reaching out and grabbing the pliable protective kevlar on the inside of my elbow. He gave it a firm squeeze. His eyebrows unfurled as his lips lifted at the corners.

“It’s good to see you.”

“It feels good to be back on board, Sir.”

He let go and placed his hands behind his back, straight to business. “You should go get ready to recieve Smith as soon as I’m done with this briefing-” A Brotherhood soldier cleared his throat and we both turned to see a group forming outside of the command deck. Maxson gave a sharp nod and they began to file into the room. ”You two are going to Fort Strong as soon as she’s introduced to the crew. We don’t have much time, Danse. They can’t continue to have those shells. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Dismissed, Paladin.” his solute was quick before he turned away and strolled towards the windows overlooking the Commonwealth.

I didn’t even bother trying to solute back, not with how swiftly he had distanced himself. Instead I left the Command Deck and climbed the ladder leading to the main deck. I hoisted myself through the small opening with some difficulty but the sight of my own quarters made it worth the scuffle.

I fumbled with my holotags for a moment before managing to get them over my head. One key accompanied my tags, bronze and indistinguishable. Slipping it into the lock was harder then I remembered doing in my power armor, to the point of frustration. Yet with all the effort, the lock disengaged with a satisfying click and I pushed myself through the door.

I quickly disengaged the hydraulics and slipped out of my power armor and threw myself down on my single bed. The hard slam of my body onto the mattress sent a small cloud of dust free from my comforter. I couldn’t help but smile. No one had been in my room since I left. It was still mine, still my sanctuary. I ran my hand slowly across the gritty fabric before pushing myself back up into a sitting position.

I inspected my armor and took longer than necessary to get up from the bed. It wasn't the appropriate time to relax. So, instead I opened the leg compartment of my suit and pulled out my duffle bag. A  few tools fell to the floor as I set the green bag onto my desk. It didn’t bother me because I was too busy looking fondly at my bed. If I only had a chance to curl up in my own sheets.

Instead, I forced myself back into my armor and out into the hallway, locking the door behind me as I left. My hand clenched around precious cargo in immediate need of being delivered. My heart jumped into my throat. Building pressure with each beat. I passed the med-bay and turned right into Quinlan's office.

“You can just leave the papers on on my desk.” His back was to me as he rifled through a filing cabinet. Words had escaped me as I closed my armored glove around the glowing tag. The silence stretched, thickly across the room, until Quinlan turned in curiosity.

The question slipped off of his face as realization dawned in its place. He reached up to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose. His sad eyes magnified under its lenses. “Paladin, It’s good to see you.”

“No, It’s not Quinlan.” I took a step forward, leaving my own uncomfortable feelings behind. He reached out as I held out my hand to him. The chain dangled in his fingers as his eyes began to swell with desolation. “I should not have been the person to walk through this door. A much more caring man who has left a hole in all of our lives should have. Worwicks family is a continent away and I think he would have wanted it to go to you instead, anyway.”

The Proctor said nothing. He didn’t need to say anything. He didn’t need to thank me, I didn’t deserve it. I was the reason Worwick was dead. So, I took my leave, turning away from the proctor and leaving him alone to grieve.

The hallway was empty but with my luck, the mess hall was not. My footfalls caught the attention of Proctor Ingram. Of course it did, she constructed my suit. My stomach was suddenly a cold bolder as I began to worry about the future conversation I would have with her. She was bound to murder me.

Heat immediately rampaged across my face as she yelled my name. Each of the two dozen or so heads in the mess turned in unchoreographed unison. Cade brought his hands up and began to clap. My brothers and sisters joined in at once. Teagan, who was leaning against the Nuka Cola machine brought his hand to his mouth and blew a celebratory whistle.

I cleared my throat and waved down the crowd. Clarification was needed. “Our mission is far from over. Sacrifices have been made and will continue to be made until the Institute is no longer a threat to the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. There will be a time for celebration but now is not that time. Prepare yourselves Brothers and Sisters, war is upon us.”

“You heard the man. If you aren’t stuffing your face, get out of the mess hall!” Ingram waved her armored arms, causing a group of initiates to scurry in fear.

Cade clapped a hand on my shoulder, “It’s good to see you.”

“Likewise, Cade. It feels good to be home.”

His smile lines softened into understanding. “I read the report from Haylen. I’m going to need you to come to my office tonight, when you get back.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

His brows cinched together. Haylen must have written a thorough report for Cade. There was no way of getting out of it either, and I had made the mistake of poking the bear in a vain attempt. So, I prepared myself for the incoming threat. “Danse, don’t make me go to someone and turn this request into a command.”

“Understood.” He gave me a short nod but continued to eye me.

“Excuse me, Paladin Danse?” We both turned to see Smith standing behind us, Garvey still glued to her side.

“Tonight, Paladin.” Cade nodded to the three of us and quickly dismissed himself.

Once the Doctor was safe in his office, I turned back to my Knight. “There you are. How did it go with Elder Maxson?”

She rubbed the toe of her boot on the back of her calf as she leaned on the counter. “Maxson seems so young compared to everyone else. You okay with that?”

A question the I should have expected. “Don't let his age fool you. Maxson’s a brilliant tactician, a formidable warrior and possesses an idealistic vision for the future of the Brotherhood. I’d follow him anywhere, without question.”

She chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment before asking,“Why are you so confident in his abilities?”

“A decade ago, the Brotherhood had almost gone completely astray. The Elder before Maxson sent us down a path that was leading nowhere… he was more concerned about charity than the preservation of technology. But when Maxson took over, he single handedly re-prioritized the Brotherhood from the ground up and put us back on the path to glory.” I opened my hand and made a sweeping motion with my arm, showing her everything around us. “This ship and its crew are a testament to his leadership.”

“I was very impressed with him. He seems to know what’s best for everyone.” Something about the way she held her shoulders made me question her honesty.

“Exactly. without his determination… we’d be lost.” I would be lost. “I just hope you appreciate how much of a chance I’m taking bringing you into the fold this quickly. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you screw up… we go down together.”

She brought her arms up to cross in front of her chest, using her hip to prop herself against the counter. “So what’s all this about you being my sponsor?”

I could hear Garvey grind his teeth in disapproval. “Elder Maxson is understandably particular when it comes to new recruits. He believes in order to keep the Brotherhood strong, we have to bond as brothers. As your sponsor, it’s my duty to travel with you throughout the Commonwealth to ensure that our ideals are being observed. That’s why I’m so concerned about your performance in the field.”

Her right eyebrow shot up and threatened to disappear into her hairline. “I’m not comfortable being watched so closely.”

“Well, you better get used to it. If you want to remain a part of the Brotherhood of Steel, you’re going to have to adjust to the military way of life. Now, I know you’re eager to hop into a suit of Power Armor and take the fight to the Institute, but first thing’s first. In order to be an effective part of the team, you need to learn your way around this ship and get to know its crew. Since I’ve been officially assigned to you as your sponsor, I’d recommend taking me along with you.”

She exchanged a quick glance with Garvey, understanding passing between them. Her head slowly swiveled back to me before she asked, “Do you need to come with me now?”

My stomach dropped in disappointment. “It might help if I tagged along with you. On the other hand, you might want to make your first impression without a Paladin standing over your shoulder. It’s up to you.”

“I’ll go it alone for now and come find you when I’m ready.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll be in the mess hall if you need me. I’m pleased we were assigned to the same team. I think we can learn a lot from each other.”

I looked to Garvey. His nose was flared with annoyance, on the verge of saying something. He reached out and placed his hand on Smith’s elbow. “Do you have a minute?”

Smith nodded and moved her arm out of his grasp, only to place her hand on his shoulder. She steered him from the hall but his voice still trailed behind him. “When we first met, I admit, I had my doubts about you. But you’ve done nothing but impress me. You’re just who...” His voice lowered and I wasn’t able to hear the last of statement.

“Thanks. That means alot coming from you.” Her voice was genuine, something I hadn’t heard from her before. It aggravated me.

“You’ve probably realized by now how important the Minutemen are to…” The pair turned into Quinlan’s office and out of sight.

*.*.*

The Prydwen was just another military base. Just like the dozens of others I had been to in my life. I noted the different uniforms as we walked back into the mess hall. I still didn’t understand their ranking system. It was a hodgepodge of a minimum of three different branches of the military. At least the Minutemen still used Army ranks.

He was nowhere to be seen. Again, not keeping his word. Thankfully the Knight on chow duty pointed us in the right direction. He was kneeling down next to his suit. The orange sleeves of his flight suit pushed up to his elbows and his gloves laid neatly on top of his toolbox. It was strange seeing him out of his power armor and the sight of his bare hands did something unexpected to me.

He must have heard us walk up. “The food in the mess hall isn’t bad… well, as long as you don’t smell it before you eat it.” He turned his head to look up at us, a smile on his lips from his own joke. He stood up and roughly dusted his hands off on the front of his thighs. “ Ready to continue our mission, soldier?”

Preston shuffled uncomfortably next to me but he knew it was time. “Ready.” I told the unusually tall man in front of us.

Preston took a step forward, placing himself between me and the Paladin. “Remember… the Commonwealth belongs to all of us, Paladin Danse.”

His response was a jab to Preston’s ego. “Don’t worry, Garvey. There shouldn’t be a problem… as long as the Minutemen don’t get in my way.”

I placed my hand on my Lutinets shoulder. “I’ll see you soon.” He nodded, taking his leave. I watched his retreat until Danse brought my attention back to him.

“Your suit is in bay three and I took the liberty of getting you a new uniform and boots. I hope they are the right size.” He lead the way over to a fully painted suit of T-60 Brotherhood armor. A new orange flight suit sat neatly folded on the workbench next to it the armor bay. Holotags gleamed on top of the fabric. My new designation stamped into the aluminum.

He looked at me expectantly. “Do you mind.” I said, waving my hand for him to turn around.

“Oh.” Was all he said before swiftly turning around, blocking me from view with his own body. How modest.

I stripped off my backpack and Righteous Authority before, finally, my armor. Once I was sure he wouldn’t peek and that no one else was paying attention, I stripped off my vault suit and hurriedly pulled on my new Brotherhood of Steel uniform. “You can look now.” I told him and when he turned around his cheeks were still crimson. I couldn’t help but snicker as I opened the empty metal crate next to the workbench and stowed away my blue jumpsuit and armor.  

I sat down on the box before opening my backpack and pulling out a small ammo box, my Pip-Boy, and a clean pair of socks. I felt him watch me as I finished dressing. His eyes didn’t leave me as I stored my backpack behind my new armor’s chest plate or when I loaded my stash of Micro Fusion Cells into the quick dispensing belt on the armor.

It honestly was a very underwhelming suit. I had at least three that were better equipped than the one that stood in front of me. I walked around it, giving it one last look over before unchaining it and disengaging the hydraulic lock. I shimmied myself into the frame before letting the suit close around me, enjoying the cradling pressure of a thousand pounds of aluminum and steel.

He was still staring at me, a dumbfounded look plastered across his face. Did he not expect me to know what I was doing? Of course he didn’t. The only person who knew who I was was probably on a vertibird to the airport.

He shook his head and strode back to his own suit and jumped into it much faster than I had. Of course he would, he had years of practice. He scooped up his laser rifle that was propped up against his work station.

“Wait, where’s your helmet?” The only part of him that was visible was his face under his worn hood.

His lips disappeared into an annoyed line. “It was destroyed at ArcJet.”

I felt my face go hot but thankfully it was hidden under my own tin can. I would make it up to him and I knew exactly how.

He turned and escorted me across the ship then down past the command deck until we were eventually out on the flight deck once more. I expected to return back to the vertibird but he continued onward. Maxson was waiting for us under the fantail, overlooking the Boston Harbor.

His steel eyes cut through my armor. “Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the Prydwen’s crew, are you ready for your next assignment, sister?”

“What sort of assignment are we talking about?” Skepticism, my forte.

“The kind of assignment where all of the training you’ve done finally begins to pay off.” Training? From who? The cookie cutter soldier that I had only spent a few hours with? These men still had no idea.

He began to pase, a stress response I was all too familiar with. “Let’s get right to it then, shall we? Take a look over there.” He waved his fingerless gloved hand over the railing. “That’s Fort Strong, and it’s infested with Super Mutants. Having those aberrations of nature close enough to smell is making me sick to my stomach. To make matters worse, they’re sitting on top of a massive stockpile of Fat Man shells we could use in our campaign.”

He pointed at me, daring an insubordinate response. “I want you to head over there, wipe out everything that moves, and secure that stockpile. Understood?”

I decided to play dumb. It’s what they wanted to hear. Any opportunity to show that they knew more than a savage wastelander. So, I threw the twenty year old a bone. “What do these shells do?”

His expression was the equivalent to the coin collecting noise in the Red Menace game sitting in my Pip-Boy. Mission accomplished, ego stroked. “The Fat Man Launcher is an essential part of the Brotherhood arsenal. It’s a miniature nuclear payload in a man-portable format. A squad of troops armed with one of these is virtually unstoppable. If you have the pleasure of firing one of them, allow me to give you a word of advice. Don’t fire one of them in close quarters, or there won’t be enough of you to bury in a shoebox. That enough to go on?”

No shit.

“Super Mutants? I thought the enemy was the Institute.” I was actually curious about why they were so keen on crushing out mutants. Yes, almost all of them are a huge pain in the ass but who actively goes out just to get their rocks off by killing mutants?

“Super Mutants are no better than synths. They’re a reminder of man’s folly-” Blah blah blah, I tuned him out. It was just more of the same I had heard before. I watched as he continued to talk more with his hands then with his words. “ So, can I count on you to get the job done?”

“Consider it done.” I mean, what other choice did I have?

“Look, I realize you’re eager to take the fight to the Institute, but it will have to wait. The Brotherhood cannot allow those abominations to have a nuclear arsenal at their fingertips.”

“It’ll be a pleasure to exterminate that mutant filth.” I had completely forgotten the Paladin standing off to the side. So, true to my nature, I almost shit my pants when he spoke up.

“Now.. we have a vertibird on standby, fully armed and ready to depart. Use it to carry our message to Fort Strong and wipe those dirty mutants from the face of the earth. Dismissed.” He brought his hand up to his chest and Paladin Danse did the same in return. They both looked at me, the sudden electricity of anticipation in the air zapped me into a response. I brought my hand up to my chest.

Paladin seemed smug with himself as he made his way back up the catwalk. I stumbled behind him. Super Mutants weren’t my favorite thing in the world but as we made it to the awaiting ‘bird I realised that it was the only one and we were the only ones getting in.

“Wait. It’s going to be just us?” How were two people supposed to take out the biggest super mutant stronghold in the Commonwealth?

“It’s just us, Knight.” He climbed in then held out his armored hand to help me awkwardly climb in with my power armor. “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.”

He smiled, an air of excitement billowed around him as the rotors began to rev.

Chapter Text

“Welcome aboard, Knight.” Knight-Lancer Torres spoke to us through the vertibirds short range transmission, hijacking the coms in our suits as soon as we boarded. She sat in the pilot's chair, checking the controls on her dash. She sported so much combat armor that hardly a sliver of russet flight suit could be seen underneath. Torres was ready for whatever happened next.

Smith nodded once to no one in particular, before taking position at the mounted minigun. Waves of apprehension could be felt rolling off of the Knights armor. The groan of metal on metal could be heard as she squeezed the steel handles of her automatic weapon. I held onto the frame next to her and braced myself.

Our pilot's voice sounded once more as the arm descended. “Instruments are green… and we’re cleared for release.”

Disembarking from the Prydwen by ‘bird was a more jarring experience than docking. As the arm disengaged, my organs were forced into my chest cavity. Blood filled my ears with pressure, muffling the roar of the engines. It was unpleasant but we were rewarded by an outrageous noise emitted by the armored Knight standing by my side. I chuckled at the absurdity of it as the aircraft caught itself mid drop.

Smith’s helmet swiveled in my direction. I would have given all the caps I had if I could have seen her expression. She turned to watch as we circled the airport. Her body language was hard to interpret in her suit but I could sense her mounting question  I decided to answer her as she leaned forward to watch the fortifications pass below us. “Having the Prydwen moored above the airport keeps the Brotherhood within striking distance of the city.”

She didn’t respond. Instead, she turned her attention towards the bay as we began our low altitude skim over the water. She pointed the minigun at a small island between the airport and Fort Strong. The centrifuge began to rev before a shower of bullets exploded out of the end. The Mirelurk King was dead before I could locate her target. Her shoulders squared as she swiveled the gun and aimed it towards our approaching drop.

Perturbation seeped into my brain as past events began to flash before my eyes. Dawes was down there. His bones doubtlessly picked clean and discarded. He would never get a proper funeral, become a Paladin… see his family. The odds were stacked against us then, and now.

An Early American Balad began to resonate from Smith. It snatched me out of the diverting thoughts racing through my mind. I opened my mouth to demand her to turn it off but was silenced by her whiring minigun. The vertibird shook violently as a massive block of cement collided with its exterior.  A tremendous roar of dominance echoed off of the many dilapidated walls surrounding Fort Strong as a two story behemoth stepped out into the open.

“Target acquired! I’ll try and keep him in your sights.” Torres’s voice rang clear through the speakers in our helmets as the vertibird tilted on its axis, buzzing the giants head like a furious mother bird.

The angry beast waved an uprooted fire hydrant through the air as Torres brought us low. Smith’s aim never faulting. Each bullet sending blood spraying into the air along with enraged roars from the Behemoth. I aimed Resolute Protector and began to fire shots at the mutated sycophants below.

My efforts didn’t make a difference. Mutants easily dodged behind walls. The altitude and angle of the projectiles were easy to track. I made a mental note to seek out Teagan and see if he had any modifications in the Prydwen inventory.

Smith on the other hand had managed to blast off half of the Behemoth's face. The glowing barrels of the minigun began to cool as the monster staggered forward. Gallon sized droplets of blood fell away from its green flesh and stained the ground at its feet. He swaid  dangerously. Gravity was winning the desperate battle of wills. Its hands clutched the peeling layers of remaining flesh and skin as something began to seep out of the dark hole where its eye and sinus had once been.

It fell in a glorious heap, causing a chain reaction of angry screams and yells from the other mutants in the compound. “Primary target down! Look at that thing bleed…” Torres’s voice sounded amazed as she brought the ‘bird higher, steering us closer to the bridge as vengeance filled bullets peppered the cabin. “I’m going to find a place to set her down then hightail it back to the Prydwen for repairs.”

I could feel my chest heaving and hear my own breath as it raked past my lips but I had no control over my frantic hyperventilation. The music and roaring from the engines only fueled my paranoia of us being an easy target. I wasn’t about to let another squad mate die in this forsaken place. So, I threw myself from the cockpit and gave them an easier objective.

The ground came up to meet me and my boots were shoved upward until I was kneeling, finally stopping the momentum of my body. Bullets whizzed by, narrowly missing my exposed head. I shoved myself away from the pavement and began to shoot as rapidly as my finger could pull the trigger. Shot after shot bounced off of the nearest mutants uninsulated metal chestplate. The smell of burning flesh increased with each yell that escaped its jagged mouth.

The click of my rifle as it ejected an empty microfusion cell signaled me to reload but I was yanked backward, the blare of music at my back. The vertibird had landed and taken off during my ramage and Smith was there, insistently pulling on my armor.

“Run to the bridge, now!” She shouted the order at me as she pulled the pin out of a smoke grenade she held tightly in her hand. She reached her arm back like a loaded crossbow and snapped her arm forward. A loud grunt of effort rang across the compound as the grenade was launched into the air. Its arch was high and far. It disappeared behind the many crumbled buildings and landed somewhere in the middle of the base. A large pillar of gray smoke rose up into the sky and the music coming from Smith ceased.

Smith turned to run. A growl of anger rang from her helmet when she saw me still standing behind her. She grabbed my hand and yanked me along with her. “You need to fucking move!”

A second voice sounded from her suit, coming from her radio. “Got your coordinates. Fire incoming on the target.”

I finally got my legs to move in my confusion. We sprinted together, not quite making it to the bridge when the first whistle of a rapidly flying projectile made me stop and turn. The explosion was so forceful that it easily knocked both of us off of our feet. Smith was standing over me before I could understand what had happened. She grabbed my arm and roughly pulled me to my feet just as the whistling started again.

Smith pulled us to the bridge and we turned and watched as Fort Strong was bombarded repeatedly. I hadn’t seen anything like it since O’Donoghue destroyed the Mobile Base Crawler at Adam Air Force Base over ten years before. Once the pelting was finished it was unsettlingly quiet. The smoldering wreckage left behind was lifeless. Not a single soul was left after the artillery attack.

The silence ended with the same male voice from Smith’s radio. “Ceasing fire. Goodluck, General.” The music started up again before she had a chance to turn it off.

I felt like a rug had been pulled out from under my steel boots. My surprise instantly turned to rage as I rounded on the Knight. She gasped as I took her by the handles and shook her violently and her suit rattled dangerously. “What the hell was that? What kind of game are you playing, General?” I put as much venom I could into her true title.

Her hands came down hard on mine, slapping me away. “We have a mission to complete. We can talk about this later.” She hissed through her teeth like I was a child misbehaving in public. She turned away from me and began to march towards the, still intact, main building at the end of the peninsula.

I was fuming and completely unaware of how to conduct this sudden reversal of echelon. She had withheld crucial information and this stunt had not just put us in danger but had also made a complete fool out of me. I was a respected Paladin of the Brotherhood of Steel. I was supposed to know and lead my subordinates. And, for the second time, she showed me that I was incapable of either.

Anger fuelled my sense of duty. This was a Brotherhood mission and would be completed by the books. I would not allow any more deviations from our orders. So, I pushed past her and lead the way into the Fort Strong’s storage facility.

Everything was demolished on the other side of the double doors. The air was thick with smoke and the stench of decomposing organic tissue. A net hung ominously from the ceiling, dripping globs of congealed blood onto the floor. Part of the second story had collapsed into the entrance hall. The rubble haphazardly sloped into the center of the room. A worn trail was the only evidence that the Mutants had used it to climb to the upper floor.

“Watch your step. There’s quite a bit of debris here.” I warned her as she moved to flank me.

Suddenly there was a loud crash from the hall to our left and a gruff voice rang throughout the small building. “I’ll wear your guts around my neck!”

“I’m not going to make this easy for you!” I shouted back, storming through the doorway and into battle.

Three hulking mutants charged out of the corner office. Their crude pipe firearms sparked and popped as they aimed to terminate their intruders lives. The exchange of fire was only fueled by hatred and fury. There was no room for fear. Bodies sizzled and fell until all that was left in the hallway was justice.

Another voice boomed from the corner office, enticing another wave of rage that vailed my vision in crimson. “Where’d you go? Huh? Gonna find you… Gonna KILL you!”

It was standing behind the Colonel’s desk. Its rifle pointed at the door, waiting for death. Its head flung back violently, blood and brain matter splattered the wall behind it. I spun around to see Smith behind me, only hearing the mutant as it hit the floor in a muffled thump that still managed to vibrate across the wooden floor.

Smith was standing right behind me, her hand raised, in it the small black ten millimeter. She slowly lowered it before placing it back in its holster. She then began to rummage through the desk, turbulently throwing open the drawers before inevitably finding what she was looking for. She examined a keyring with a single key on it before turning to the fallen mutant and kicking him aside, exposing the safe behind it.

I stepped around the clutter to get a better view. “Alright, hopefully there’s something useful here.” From my own personal experience with military installations, safes usually had valuable inventory. As Smith opened the door, I was only disappointed. “Nothing. just a pile of junk.” She ignored me. Instead, she pulled out some of the items and stowed them away in her chest plate compartment.

I then led the way back into the hallway. Another group of mutants flooded out of the cubicle filled office. The familiar zing of Righteous Authority brought a smile to my lips. Smith charged straight for the horde, firing on them point blank. A bulging canine bounded into the fray. Smith was unaware of her would be attacker. Her attention was on the hounds master as it wielded a sledge hammer high above its head.

I sprinted towards the mutant hound. My boot collided with its ribs and it was shoved off its projection. The abomination was forced to the floor where I brought my boot down on its neck, pinning it to the hardwood. I fired my rifle and cauterized a baseball sized hole into the beast's skull. Its struggling ended abruptly and I turned the barrel towards the abomination threatening to smash my Knight to pieces.

Smiths armor made a terrible grinding noise as she reached up and blocked the hammer from making a third connection to her shoulder. The familiar tingling in my lips and fingertips were starting to break through the fog of adrenaline. I was scared. I was scared to loose another team mate. I was scared of what the death of the General would mean for the Brotherhood. Most of all, I was scared of watching her die. I was scared of losing her.

I emptied my microfusion cell. I quickly reloaded and advanced on the last crumpled mutant. My finger pulled on the trigger over and over again, filling the air with the stench of burning flesh. I watched as the blisters turned into char, as the muscle peeled back and exposed bone. I was going to reload once more but she grabbed me. It was then that I realised she had been screaming my name.

“Danse! It’s dead. You can stop.” Her voice was stern but held no judgement.

She lead me over to the elevator and pressed the call button. The green glow reeled me back into that vault, back to Cutler. She pushed me into the small chamber of the elevator. The doors closed behind us with a small ding but all I heard was the definitive crash of the vault door.

I was no longer in Fort Strong. I was in Vault Eighty-Seven.

I pushed apart the elevator doors as soon as we reached the lower level. I could hear the tick of my geiger counter and the continuing Vault-Tec alarm cautioning us of a radioactive leak. Centaurs and Mutants escaped their confines to seek out blood and fresh meat.

Their lifeless bodies littered the halls in our wake.  

“We stay here too long, we’re going to get sick.” Ingrams words echoed through my own lips.

“Hostiles re-acquired!” I shouted in warning as more of them swarmed out of the illuminated contamination. Laser fire filled the enclosed space as we dodged projectiles and crude hand wielded weapons.

His voice rang out, evolved and twisted, yet still recognizable. “You can’t kill us all!”

Panic tightened my throat as I opened fire at the landing below. My geiger counter popped away in the same manner. The click and ejection of my empty ammunition matched the quick ticking inside of my helmet. The Vault was gone and I was back in the empty reactor room of Fort Strong.

“Target eliminated.” My own breathy voice made my face hot. I felt vulnerable, exposed by my own demons.

Smith emerged from a doorway on the level below me. Her face shining with sweat and relief. Her eyes scanned the room before finding me on the ledge above. “It’s all clear down there. Maxson was right. The stockpile is massive. We should head back and let them know it’s done.” She took the stairs two at a time, stopping right in front of me.

I surveyed the room before turning back to her. “Look at this place. You must hate these mutants as much as I do.”

Her brows shifted closer together. “Why do you hate Super Mutants so much?”

“Hate’s too gentle a word.” I could feel my chest heave as she asked the one question I wasn’t willing to divulge the truth to. “These monstrosities are just another example of man blindly taking a step forward only to wind up stumbling two steps back.”

I had to divert away from the intimate topic. So, I picked one she seemed more keen to chase. “ I’ve been fighting for years trying to put a stop to this madness and just when I thought we were getting the upper hand, along come the synths.”

I shifted my right foot back, almost giving a quarter turn, shielding my exposure from an unknown variable. “ I’ve seen what these Super Mutants do to people… Can you imagine what the synths would do to us if they ever got the upper hand? It would be armageddon, repeated. And maybe the end of everything we hold dear.”

She looked unconvinced but I couldn’t stop myself from my backpedaling momentum. “Look, I don’t mean to bore you with my rhetoric. I just want you to understand how important these missions are. If the synths reached the point where they outnumbered mankind… How long would it take for them to decide we were no longer necessary? They certainly possess the capability to make more of their own kind, so we’d become expendable. And with Institute technology on their side… nothing could stop them. Not even the Brotherhood. It’s a nightmare scenario almost to terrible to contemplate.”

I managed to inhale but the knowing in her muted olive eyes brought on a flight response I had never felt before. “Anyway, that’s enough of that. What’s important here is that you got the job done and secured these warheads. You should head back up to the Prydwen and talk to Maxson. I’m sure he’ll want to debrief you as soon as possible. Dismissed.”

She said nothing at my ill concealed retreat. I had no dignity left, just a shroud of shame. I left her in that reactor room. Her eyes burned into my memory. The slight movements of disbelief on her face mocked me as I threw the Vertibird grenade down where Torres had left us. It wasn’t until the ride back to the Prydwen that I realized I had a helmet on. I reached up and ripped it out of its seal. The Knight rank was crisply painted on the back plate. It was Louise’s helmet.

*.*.*

“What were you thinking little lady? Showing them all your cards like that wasn’t smart.” I watched the plume of smoke escape his mouth.

“I know John.” I lifted my palms to my eyes and began to grind them into my skull but the look on his face as we entered the elevator remained tattooed on the back of my eyelids.

Chapter Text

I knew the knock on the door could only be one person. I hadn’t gone to the med bay upon returning to the Prydwen. Instead, I had marched straight for my quarters, ignoring questions that were thrown at me, and barricaded myself inside.

The hard rapping of knuckles on the door shook dust free from the metal beams across my ceiling. They floated down like ash from a wildfire. His gentle voice carried through the steel door. “William, I know you’re in there. I have your prescription and when we’re done here, Arthur has ordered for you to meet with him down in the Command Deck.”

Of course he would. I hadn’t had my ass chewed by a superior in years but that streak was coming to a close. That tightness in my stomach cautioned me but duty forced me to stand and open the door.

Cade stood waiting for me on the other side. His hand outstretched, holding a small bottle of pills. He pressed them into my chest, forcing me to grab the container. “I understand if you’re not ready to talk about your mission but your health is at risk. You need to sleep and break this cycle or you’re going to get yourself and the people around you killed.” To the point. Always his style.

“I know. I was planning to cash in my liberty days and recoup.” I told him, stowing the bottle into my hip pocket, looking down the hallway to make sure our interaction was private.

“You may have to wait. Arthur has other plans.” He turned, giving me one last knowing glance before striding into his office.

I forced the breath I was holding out of my nose and rolled my stiff right shoulder. I inhaled deeply to clear my aching lungs before striding over and climbing down the latter leading to the Command Deck. My head had barely cleared the landing before my name was shouted at me. There was no point in making him wait for me to finish my climb down. I let go of the bars and jumped to the floor below me. The shock of impact made my knees pop but I straightened myself  before turning to the open room that was flanked by two armored Knights.

I could see his jaw twitch as I crossed the threshold. His hands clasped in their permanent place behind his back. “Close the doors.” He commanded.

The Knights obliged silently. The bang of closing doors would have caused me to flinch if it wasn’t for the blue eyes scanning my features. I waited, silently, until the young Elder decided to speak, “Did you know?” His voice was accusatory.

I shook my head. It was the only truth I was willing to divulge. He began to pace, walking circled around me like a moon stuck in orbit. “She hasn’t returned to the ship or the airport.” He finally decided to inform me. I stood my ground, waiting for any more information he was willing to offer.

Silence stretched on for what felt like an eternity until he came to a stop before me. I half expected the young Elder to grab me by the front of my flight suit but he kept his distance. “The Minutemen have a power that we weren’t expecting. I need you to bring her back. This is a critical matter.” He let go of his own wrists and brought his hands up to his temples, his fingers moving in tight circles across his skin.

“Yes, Sir.”  I expected him to dismiss me, instead he crossed the room and surveyed the Commonwealth below.

“Do you even know where to start looking?” He asked, the anger gone from his voice.

“I believe so.” There was only one place I knew she might be and if she wasn’t, someone there would know where I needed to go.

“William, can you handle this?” His question brought my thoughts to a halt.

“I don’t understand your question, Sir”

He turned his back to the window and began to pace again. “She’s dangerous and a liability. If we can’t control how she operates her militia, I am going to need you to make her a non-issue. The Institute is why we are here. We can’t afford to go to war with two armies of the Commonwealth.”

“She could also be a great ally and asset.” She may not have been forthcoming but what she had done for Gladius and the Brotherhood so far, it was worth defending.

“You said the same thing about Laura but where is she now? Look, Danse, I hope you’re right, for all of our sakes but we won’t know until you find her.” He placed his hands back into their rightful position. “You’re dismissed, Paladin.” There was no salute, no wish for my victory. He made it clear that I was solely responsible for cleaning up this mess. My mess.

-------

The vertibird landed in the parking lot of a dilapidated diner right outside of Fort Independence. I waved to the lancer, giving them the allclear to take off and return to the Prydwen.  

I turned to inspect the considerable fortress before me. Minutemen paced the upper level and manned five massive artillery cannons. Dark azure flags hung from almost every surface, announcing the headquarters of the Commonwealth's Militia to the world. It’s mammoth granite walls reminded me of the Citadel. The previous damage was replaced with what seemed like large concrete panels, making her impregnable from the ground.

I began to hike around the perimeter, searching for the entrance. It was hard to ignore the laser musket following my steps from above. It was to be expected. An armored Paladin of the Brotherhood of Steel was about to knock on their front door.

The entrance was facing a long walkway that curved through the shallow water, creating a small saltwater pond. A lone militiaman stood in the open archway, a laser pistol held lofty in his hand. His smile was warm and friendly as if I was just a trader making his rout. He tipped his leather hat in my direction before saying in an energetic voice, “Welcome to the Castle, home of the Minutemen.” That same folky music could be heard as it was broadcasted behind him. “What can we do for you?” He shifted, blocking me from entering.

“I’m looking for Knight Smith.” I announced with my hand hovering over my holstered laser rifle.

He shrugged and shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t know anyone by that name.”

He damn well knew but I wouldn’t get the information I needed unless I played his game. “I’m looking for Louise Smith. I need you to tell me where she is.”

The guard wasn’t going to let my refusal of using her title slip past him. “Oh, you mean the General. She’s in an important meeting. You’re welcome to wait until she’s done.”

“That won’t be necessary.” I shoved past the man, causing him to stumble into the wall. I could hear him shouting profanities as I walked into the massive courtyard.

A seventy foot radio broadcasting tower was erected in the very center. Around it was the most well kempt farm I had ever seen. Sections were separated by walkways in a clock pattern. The compound buzzed with activity. Vender stalls were staffed and settlers attending to their work. Four other archways lined the walls. The far left was shut with a door that could rival a vault. Two more archways flanked a working station on either side.

The most tractable approach would be to start closest to where I was and work my way around to the fortified door. The likelihood that she was in there was very slim. So, I stepped around a chugging generator and into the concealed corridor within. Two to three beds were neatly placed against the granite walls in each section of the hallway, personalized nightstands nestled between beds. The beds were immaculate compared to any I had seen on the Prydwen or in the Citadel.

I came to a dead end, it’s only occupant was a large communal bathroom. I turned around and made my way back up the passage, past more beds. Then, in the first corner of the pentagon, I found closed ornate double wooden doors. She was inside. I knew it. I pushed them open and they swung with ease on their hinges until they crashed into the wall behind them.

I was met with a strong smell of cigarettes as smoke wafted into the hallway. Garvey sat at the end of a long antique mahogany table that took up most of the center of the room. He slumped over maps and paperwork. He stood quickly when he realised I was the one standing in the doorway. He hastily walked over and blocked me from entering any further.

But I had seen her. I had seen her with her head on the ghouls lap. I had witnessed his scabbed fingers touch her hair.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, man. You need to leave.” Preston had placed his hand on my chestplate and tried to push me back.

She shifted to sit up and that’s when I noticed the man in the sunglasses sat with her feet on his knees. The caravan guard. “You!” I pointed an accusatory steel finger at him. His light eyebrows shot up from behind the dark frames as his hands went into the air, quickly pulling away from her boots that still remained on his lap.  

“It’s not what you think.” Was the man in the terrible wig and sunglasses automatic response.

Garvey was failing at holding me back as the ghoul chuckled. “I don’t know about you Deacon but it would look like what he thought he saw if I had the chance.”

I saw scarlet at the ghouls words. “Enough! Knight, outside, now!”

“You don’t get to bark orders here.” A fourth voice rang out. I turned to see a man in a army duster pointing an expensive sniper rifle at my head. The same man who had accompanied Smith to Cambridge during our first meeting.

Smith finally managed to untangle herself from the couch and stand. Her navy blue coat exaggerated the dark circles under her eyes. She signaled for the man in the duster to lower his weapon then to Garvey to stand down. “It’s fine. You guys can finish without me.” Her words were slow, as if saying them took immense effort. Her strides contradicted her physical state. They were steadfast and poised. Her strut could have rivaled Maxson’s. “Let’s go for a walk.” She waved me to follow her out into the passageway.

I expected her to just move out of earshot. That wasn’t the case. I followed her out into the courtyard and through the entryway, until we reached where Fort Independence met the Atlantic Ocean. She stopped and sat down on the sand where she began to shed her clothing. First her boots, then her jacket, until she was only wearing her jeans and and her button up white dress shirt. She continued to look out at the darkening horizon as she began to pull bobby pins out of her neat hair. She stowed them away in the pocket of her neatly folded coat. Her delicate fingers tucked her loose golden brown hair behind her ear before she finally turned her head to look at me. “Go ahead and ask your questions or yell at me, because this will probably be the only opportunity you get.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” The anger that had been simmering under the surface, since the artillery strike, began to subside. Exhaustion began to percolate from my extremities and settle heavily in my chest.

She turned her gaze back to the ocean. Her voice was calm and soft but her words sliced through me. “The same reason you wouldn’t tell me why you hate Mutants.”

My first instinct was to get defensive. To put up walls. Instead, I disengaged the lock on my suit. I carefully climbed out and closed the back. I pulled off my hood and gloves before draping them over the shoulder of my suit. She didn’t look at me as I settled down next to her on the sand. She only continued to look over the water with glossy eyes. We sat together in silence until early evening stars began to freckle the horizon.

I inhaled the salt air and Smith turned to me at the sudden noise. Her eyes were clear, as if seeing me for the first time. It made me uncomfortable and I nervously ran my hands through my hair before finally speaking. “Why did you agree to join the Brotherhood?”  

She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, debating on how to word her answer. “Boston has always been my home, even when I lived elsewhere. I met my husband here. Started a family here. I lost everything here. All I had left of my life was this city. Preston offered me a home when I had none. The Minutemen are my adoptive family and I would do anything for them and the settlers they protect.”

Louise paused for a moment, taking in the features of my face. I felt exposed even though it was her who was disclosing personal information. “We’ve all heard stories of the Brotherhood of Steel. I had to find out if they were true for myself, for the Minutemen.”

”And what do you think you found?” I asked, hesitant about her answer.

“Some things are true. Others aren’t. In the end, the Brotherhood thinks it’s doing what is right for the people of the world, even if the people they are trying to protect don’t agree.” She pulled her knees up to her chest, shielding herself either from the cool night air or whatever consequence she was expecting for her words. I wasn’t sure which one.

“The Minutemen remind me of the Brotherhood when Elder Lyons was in charge.” I turned to look at the rustic fort behind us. “Unfocused and far too charitable for their own good.” I turned back to her only to see that I had offended her. She moved to grab her boots but I reached out and grabbed her forearm, stopping her from trying to leave. “The Brotherhood has one goal, to protect people from what destroyed this planet. That doesn’t dismiss the fact that the Minutemen also have a noble cause. Ours are just not the same. Elder Maxson sent me to find you. It is crucial that the Brotherhood of Steel and the Commonwealth Minutemen form an alliance if the Institute is to be brought down.”

“So, you came here for the General. Not me.” She rolled her eyes and moved to gather her things.

“That’s what Arthur wants… But I came for my Knight, the woman who put her life on the line to save not just me but my entire team.” She was capable of so much more than what the Minutemen could offer. She was only looking at the small picture, only at the Commonwealth, not the entire world. She was the kind of person that all of  humanity needed.

“Then what’s the plan?” She asked. A question I was hoping for but didn’t expect her to ask.

“We go talk to the Elder.”

*.*.*

I road once more with Danse to the Prydwen. The flight was shorter than the one from Cambridge and the docking was much smoother. And, just like the time before, Danse was called away by Lancer Captain Douchebag as soon as our boots hit the catwalk. I wondered what the hell could be so important so early in the morning. When everything in the Commonwealth was asleep, even the things that go bump in the knight.

Danse threw me an apologetic glance as he was practically shoved into the vertibird adjacent to the one we had arrived on. I stuck my tongue out at him to show my annoyance and enjoyed the sudden flash of red on his face and reached up to his loose hair. Yeah, I stole that ugly thing while he wasn’t looking. I reached into the pocket of my bomber jacket and pulled out the graying fabric. I ran my thumb across the worn fabric before stowing it back in my pocket.

I walked into the ship alone. The sentry Knight said some nonsense about ghouls as I shoved open the heavy metal door. Despite the time, he was still on the Command Deck, pacing like a tiger in a cage. There weren’t any guards, just him. His steel blue eyes locked onto me as I walked as calmly as possible into his throne room.

“Outstanding work at Fort Strong, Soldier.” No tiptoeing around it then. He needed me to understand that I was his soldier and nothing else.

“So, what happens at Fort Strong now?” Genuine curiosity got the better of me.

“Paladin Danse is supervising the transfer of the fatman warheads to the Prydwen.” Because of course he was. “They’ll provide quite an edge to our arsenal. I’ve also ordered a detachment to occupy the location and using it as a staging area to protect the eastern side of the airport. All in all, you handed us quite a valuable location.” I tried not to roll my eyes but it was turning out to be pretty difficult.

“It was an honor fighting for the Brotherhood.”

He didn’t catch my sarcasm or chose to ignore it. “I’m glad you feel that way because our mission here has only just begun. In order to bring the Institute to its knees, we need to use every weapon at our disposal. I try to supply my soldiers with the best. That’s why I’m giving you these.”

He turned to the closest liquor filled side table and picked up a small tin box. “Signal grenades can call a vertibird to your location when you need aerial transport. Simply throw one to the ground and the Vertibird will hone in on a unique electromagnetic smoke it emits. Once you’re abroad, use the map on your Pip-Boy to interface with the pilots navigation system. So, he’ll be able to take you wherever you need.” He handed me the box. I think it was the closest I was going to get to a truce.

I decided to throw him a bone and play along. “Thank you, Elder. I’ll make good use of them.”

“I expect it you will.” He began to pace again. His hands clasped behind his back once more. “Now, I’m sure you’re aware that Fort Strong was simply the first step towards the liberation of the Commonwealth. An even greater task lies ahead. By now I’m sure you deduced that our arrival to the Commonwealth wasn’t coincidental. We are here because of a unique energy reading recorded by Paladin Danse’s recon team. According to our scribes; the reading indicated a level of technology that only the Institute could achieve. The moment this information came to light, our mission became clear. The Institute and everyone responsible for the creation of the Synths must be eliminated at all costs. To accomplish this goal, we need to locate the Institute's headquarters. I’ve had our scribes meticulously searching the Commonwealth but they have come up empty handed.”

I knew that Gladius had picked up the readings of a Courser teleporting either into or out of the Institute but I wasn’t yet willing to offer them that information. I couldn’t risk them finding out where the Institute was or how to get inside before I did. If genocide was what was on the agenda I couldn’t risk letting them know anything until I found Shaun first.

“Where do I start?” I let him humor me.

“I want you to get out there and become our eyes and ears on the ground. You seem to have a vested interest in finding the Institute before we met. So, I’m confident you’ll travel in the right circles. If you discover a way in, I need you to report it to me immediately. Any questions, Knight?” Everyone in the Commonwealth had an interest in the boogie man that was the Institute but the way he looked at me made me feel like he knew a lot more about me than what I had divulged to Danse or anyone in the Brotherhood.

I tried to fish for what else he may know. “Aren’t there any pre war records about the Institute that might help us?”

“Our records indicate that the Institute was born from the reminisce of a prewar educational facility; The Commonwealth Institute of Technology. The ruins of the facility are at the center of the city but we’ve already searched them thoroughly. The location appears to have been abandoned long ago. So, it appears the trail ends there. Anything else, Knight?” The trail ends there. He knew. He knew where they were but not how to get in. How was that possible?

Fuck. I was screwed. “Not right now, Elder.”

“Very well then. Dismissed.”

Chapter Text

The prescription bottle said to take two with food before bed . Well, I guessed a liquid dinner had to suffice. I twisted open the plastic cap and slowly tipped the container over my hand. Two small white pills slid onto my palm with the weight of cinder blocks. I popped them into my mouth and a strong basic chemical taste coated my tongue. The glass of scotch poured past my chapped lips. The amber liquid concealing the tablets as I swallowed.

I sat down on my bed, finally alone in my own quarters. My freshly washed hair plastered itself uncomfortably across my forehead. I pushed it back absentmindedly before taking another sip of the oaky liquor. Warmth began to spread through my chest as I finished the contents of my glass. Carefully placing it on the floor at the end of the bedframe, I climbed back into my bed and into my warm awaiting sheets. The light switch above my headboard clicked off with minimal effort. The overhead lights extinguished and I was left alone with my thoughts in the darkness.

The retrieval of the fatman shells could have gone smoother. By the last shipment, fatigue plagued every single personnel involved. It had taken hours to count every individual piece of hardware and log them in the official inventory. Then, packaging the cargo and managing the shipment had taken at least twice as long.

I had returned to the Prydwen late in the afternoon with the last of the consignment. Once  inside the ship I took a moment to scan the Main Deck but Smith was nowhere to be seen. My eyes stung with strain and exhaustion. So, I chose to clean up before retreating back to my quarters.

As I laid in my bed and let my thoughts wander to Smith, combed through what she had revealed to me about herself and what she may have done in the many hours alone in my absence. Guilt oozed into my thoughts as I began to regret my harshness towards her. She was still on the Prydwen somewhere, despite my failed promises and high expectations. Expectations I had no right to have. She didn’t know our codex, she barely knew the people I forced her to be alone with. She was strong and could accomplish so much if I could just have the time to properly mentor her.

The liquor and medication gripped my consciousness. The last though I had before the shadow of slumber lulled me into a dreamless void was; I had to find a way to apologize and explain to her my past behavior. Not as an excuse but as a way to offer a part of myself the way she had during those twilight hours we spent alone in the shadow of the Castle...

I awoke with a start. Confusion clung to my skin like morning dew. I was clueless on when I must have fallen asleep or what had abruptly brought me back to consciousness. That was until there was a second knock on the door.

I groaned as I forced myself out of bed and flipped the lights on. The artificial light tightened the band of tension around my skull. I rubbed my eyes forcefully before stumbling to the door. I pulled on the steel hatch and almost jumped backwards when I came face to face with Smith. She was dressed in the same outfit she was wearing from our first meeting. Her hair was pinned neatly once more and a backpack was strapped to her shoulders.

I became aware of my own attire. I could feel my cheeks rise in temperature as I folded my arms across my chest and tried to make my bare feet less noticeable under my sweatpants. “What are you doing?” I asked, my voice raspy with sleep.

“Come on, big guy. We have work to do.” She said cheerfully, slamming a cantine into my forearm. I reluctantly grabbed the aluminum canister and opened the cap. The warm aroma of instant coffee made my mouth water and I took a quick sip of the boiling hot liquid before looking at the Knight in front of me once more.

“What time is it?”

A dimple appeared in her cheek as the corner of her mouth lifted. “It’s six in the morning. You’ve been asleep for over twelve hours. I tried to knock on your door as soon as I found out you had returned but Cade stopped me before I could and threatened to confine me to the ship if I woke you up before morning… Well, It’s morning and we have a lot to do.”

I sighed then took another sip of coffee. The warmth filled my body and the caffeine began to jumpstart my nervous system. “Give me five minutes and I’ll meet you in the Chow Hall.” I stepped back into my room and closed the door.

The fog of somnolence burned away by the heat of the java in my hands. I swallowed the last dregs before finally suiting up. I was packed and striding onto the Mess Deck within my allotted amount of time.

Smith was sitting at a table facing my direction but her attention was on her Pip-Boy. I placed my duffel bag down in a chair and sat down across from her. She didn’t look up from the screen as she pushed a bowl of oatmeal towards me. “Thank you for the coffee and breakfast.” I mumbled, feeling embarrassed that she even had to procure them for me.

“You’re not a morning person are you?” She finally let her arm fall to the table.

As she sat in front of me, watching me prod at the gray mush in the bowl, I knew I had to apologize. I had to before we left the Prydwen. “That’s not the case but there is something I would like to talk to you about.” I let go of the spoon once I realized my hands were visibly shaking and I quickly hid them under the table.

“Does it have anything to do with the Brotherhood?” She looked back down at her Pip-Boy as if she knew yes would be the answer.

Somehow her lack of eye contact made my heart thump louder and sweat begin to bead along my hairline, “I wouldn’t necessarily say that. This isn’t a formal meeting. I-” I began to stumble over my own words. “Simply want to clear the air. I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot when we first met and I feel like I owe you an apology. 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.”

“I’m here, aren’t I? Or are you still worried that I’m going to quit?” The knob on her Pip-Boy clicked away.

“No, I just felt it was the right thing to do.” I wished I had poured myself more coffee before sitting down. At least I would have had a reason for my hesitation by taking a sip. Instead I decided to shield her from my own truth and hide the added possibility of watching a mentor die.

“When I was an Initiate, my sponsor was Paladin Krieg. Toughest squad leader I ever served with.” I shifted and brought my hands above the table once again. I intertwined my fingers to ensure stability.  “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.” Diving head first into battle was his downfall after all.

He was the man who trained Cutler and I from the moment we walked through the Citadel doors together. “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 years and we had some seriously close calls, but he never explained to me why I was treated that way.”

She placed her hands down on the table once more. Her eyes scanned my features once again, eyes that were uncanny and flecked with the same green his once held. “Did you ever ask him why?”

I was caught in the arches and valleys of her lips and an uncomfortable amount of time passed before my response. My cheeks rose several degrees with embarrassment. “I’d considered it, but unfortunately, I never had the chance. After I was promoted to Paladin and had moved on to my own squad, I received word that Krieg was Killed at Adams Air Force Base.” A blatant lie that felt gritty on my skin but I couldn’t bring myself to make her worry about that same possible outcome. Even if it was just a part to be expected by being in the Brotherhood. “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.  It’s taken me a long time 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.”

“What happened at Adams Air Force Base?” She reached forward and pushed the bowl of oats closer to me.

I reluctantly reached for my spoon and took half a bite. My taste buds were bombarded with a warm spice that immediately made me think of- “Did you put a Fancy Lads in here?” I asked.

Her face lit up like Diamond City at nightfall. “No. It’s just some ground cinnamon.”

“What? Where did you procure such a spice?” I shoveled a large spoonful of oatmeal into my mouth.

“First tell me about Adams Air Force Base.” She folded her arms across her chest. A smug smile plastered across her lips.

I took another bite to buy myself enough time to map out my next thought. “Back in the Capital Wasteland, The Brotherhood was at war with a traitorous group of rebels who called themselves ‘The Enclave’. They maintained a mobile command post at the remains of Adams Air Force Base, Just outside of Washington D.C.”

On a cruel day I could still smell the flamer fuel, ozone, and death. Cries of agony echoed off of the buildings as explosions deafened those outside of the blast radius. Krieg was dead and Cutler was with my sister division on the other side of the base. I don’t know what compelled me to take lead. I didn’t have the rank but as soon as his body had hit the tiled floor, I knew if I didn’t step up we would all die. If he hadn’t pushed me for years, we would have.

“The Brotherhood spearheaded an assault on the command post which was ultimately successful but costly. Quite a few soldiers died in that battle, and Paladin Krieg was among them. He made his mark on history, and whether you chose to believe it or not, you have the potential to do the same.” I scooped up the last of my breakfast and shoved that last spoonful into my mouth.

Smith cocked an eyebrow before her teeth peeked out from behind her velvetine lips. “Well, it took you long enough to notice.” Her dimpled cheeks pulled at something dormant deep within my chest.

“What can I say? Maybe I’m becoming more like Krieg that I realized.” My words were muffled by my full mouth.

We sat in comfortable silence for a moment as I worked on swallowing my food but it didn’t last long. An emotion flashed across her face that I couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t negative but it shone a light on my vulnerability. I swallowed hard and cleared my throat of the building lump of awkwardness. “Well, I’ve said what I had to say and I hope that it meant something to you. 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.”

“That’s fine. I have a lot to fill you in on too but we’re on a time crunch. We should have been on a ‘Bird a while ago. If you’re done we need to head out now.” She got to her feet and placed her arms through her backpack straps. I followed her lead and gathered my dirty dishes and placed them into its proper receptacle and followed her without question.

---

“Ghouls? You brought me all the way out here for Ghouls ?” I couldn't believe it. This wasn't a job for a General and there were Minutemen stationed right across the street. I turned and saw them watching from the road. This entire scenario was unacceptable.

“We aren't here just for Ghouls. Preston got a report that seemed like it needed further investigation.” She lifted her tiny gun up and aimed for one of two turrets perched above the entrance. I lazily aimed my rifle at the second and both exploded in a delightful cascade of debris.

“What could possibly be that im-”

“Danse, just stay here okay. I'm going to make sure the property around the building is clear. I don't want any surprises on the way out.”

“Alright.” I huffed, annoyance sharpening the two syllable word.

I stood guard by the door as she disappeared behind a downed vertibird. Every noise pricked my ears for attention. Growls and screeches turned into yelps and gurgling. Then there was a long stretch of silence that went on for much more than I was comfortable.

A chill began to spread throughout my body. My fingertips and lips began to tingle as anxiety settled deep into my chest. Wind rustled through the distant trees and the dried grass around me. A small flock of crows landed together in the street. Their loud caws ripped shrilly through the air. The sounds of my own pulse and erratic breathing grew in volume, threatening to silence my reality.

That's when I heard it, a rolling beep before a robotic voice sounded. “Engaging hostile.” A machine gun began to fire. The cracks of bullets echoed forcibly off of the brick walls.

I deserted my post and sprinted towards the commotion. Dried grass crunched violently under the weight of my armor. The hydraulics in my plated arms hissed in protest as my rifle slammed itself into my shoulder repeatedly. The whizzing beams of blinding red light exploded from the tip. Bullets rained down upon me like a summer torrential downpour on a metal roof. Hulking plates of steel rolled effortlessly across the yard while changing directions.

This gave Smith an opportunity. She crouched low and sprinted towards the rear of the machine. She traded her ten millimeter for her shouldered SMG. The intense splash damage caused the Fusion Cores to overheat and triggered the robots self destruct procedure. Smith was knocked backwards off of her feet, landing hard on the helipad pavement. A pressure wave of heat and force washed over me as a small mushroom cloud shot into the crisp blue sky.

*.*.*

I could feel the blood drip down my mouth and chin like a fountain but I pushed his armored hand away anyway. “I’m fine. ” His eyebrows shot up as he retracted his hand. I looked away from him and down to the heavy piece of tech on my wrist. I must have bumped a dile during my fall. It’s green screen flickered silently to life.

“What happened back there?” He asked as I continued to flip through my options on my Pip-Boy. “Damn it, Knight! I’m talking to you.” I looked up at his furrowed brows and absentmindedly wiped the blood with one of my leather sleeves.

“I went inside that rear building to see if it was coming from there but got caught up with that bot on my way out.” I tried to explain as another wave of hot liquid spilled down my face.

“Wha-” He stopped as I selected the frequency. The color left his face as the lines in his forehead peaked above the bridge of his nose. The pulsating beeps of the distress signal were distinctive and by the look of shock on his face, was exactly what I thought it was.

Chapter Text

Dust swirled in the subdued light as it filtered through the grimy boarded up windows of the National Guard building. Rubble piled almost to the non-existing ceiling and an unmistakable smell threatened to knock me off my feet. It seemed that we had walked into a foyer. The indication of a once prideful institution was evident in the broken empty display case in the corner of the room. The luxury of displaying an object was ultimately an old world practice. The wasteland did not offer us such indulgence. The doors leading into the waiting room ahead were blown off its hinges, a stark reminder that this was our reality.

The room was unexpectedly filled with red light and the twangs of laser fire. Blood sprayed down on us like a punctured bladder. Followed by the bare-skinned ghoul who fell from the edge of the collapsed second floor, landing in a heap with a muffled thunk. My visual HUD was sprinkled with droplets of thick congealing blood but Smith received the worst of the splatter. The ghouls blood mixed and smeared across her already bloody face. A wickedness flashed across her eyes, crimson in parallel with the gore covering her body.

Smith brushed past me, Righteous Authority held firmly in her delicate hands. “Keep close.” She whispered as she stepped lightly over the debre.

I stepped cautiously around the edge of the room, trying desperately to avoid the wreckage littering every square inch of the floor but to no avail. A can crunched loudly under my boot and reverberated off of the filthy crumbling remains of what were once walls. l froze, listening for the inevitable sign that I had alerted hostiles of our presence. On cue, my ears were met with the sounds of scurrying and the ragged breaths of decaying airways.

I took point by grabbing Smith by the jacket and pulling her close to my side. That same ridiculous noise escaped her lips the way it did at the start of our mission to Fort Strong. My steel frame hovered over her in a defensive stance, shielding her from my mistake. I assumed her lack of protest meant she understood my nonverbal command to take cover. I was incorrect.

A ghoul in a torn and abused dress had emerged from the corner office. Its finger nailless hand gripped the door frame as it blindly searched for movement. Then a scuffle sounded from behind the receptionist desk as a second ghoul rose from its nest. Leather armor hung loosely from its emaciated body. Both ghouls were hairless and utterly revolting. Without hesitation, Smith took point, stepping forward with Righteous Authority held tightly to her shoulder. The solar winds of her fury filled the building with blinding heat and my ears with roars. Air was stolen from my lungs as my own pulse gripped my throat with excitement. For the first time since entering the Commonwealth, carrying out an assault was exhilarating instead of utter trepidation. Even if I was babysitting in insubordinate Knight.

“Send them back to hell!”

A dimple appeared on her cheek as the headless cadaver fell with a heavy thud. Something shiny slipped from the ghouls chest plate and rolled with a distinctive metallic sound, across the floor and into the office ahead. “Just like a fuckin’ pinata.” She chuckled to herself before darting into the office in pursuit of loot.

My glee was quickly traded for anxiety in the unforeseen realization that she had left me.

The closest ghoul charged towards me, ducking past my first shot. It’s chest then face sizzled inward with my second and third shot. The stench of burning flesh filled the air as the boiling lymphatic liquid seeped out of the scorching tissue. The body hadn’t manage to hit the floor before the second ghoul launched itself at my legs.

My suit tremored as it collided with the solid metal plate of my left leg. Revolted, I instinctively stomped down with my right boot. The way the flesh and bone gave way to the weight of my leg was utterly satisfying. A terrible high pitched noise escaped its open mouth as air was forced past its atrophied vocal cords. Its hands reached up and pulled at the knee joint of my armor, trying to free whatever it could from beneath me. It pulled with such force that its torso began to separate from the flattened flesh below my foot. “Ugh!” I brought my left boot down, harder than was necessary. The struggling ceased instantly.

The sounds of my hammering heart and erratic breathing was all I could hear, I was still alone. She hadn’t returned, even with the loud scuffle that just then occurred. I followed where she had chased the ten millimeter round and stopped dead in the doorway of the office.

Knight Smith’s back was to me. The round of ammo she was chasing was still on the floor by her feet. Propped against the back wall, was a body in a Brotherhood jumpsuit. “Wait. That’s… Knight Astlin.” Numb realization clutched my brain in a vice. Smith jumped and turned at the sound of my voice, her eyes wide with surprise. She quickly crossed the room and placed her hands on my chest plate, pushing me back to no avail.

“Danse, I’m so sorry. Look, You don’t have to be in here. Let me take care of this. Just keep guard for more ghouls.” Desperation laced itself into her words as she continued to push me as hard as she could.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of Astlin, what was left of her. She was part of my recruitment division and would kick mine and Cutler’s ass when it came to target drills. “She was in my company, years ago. Best marksman I ever saw.”

I looked down at Louise, her pleading eyes cleared the daze that intended to asphyxiate me. “Alright.” I told her softly, taking a few steps back until I was back by the receptionist desk. She pulled a handkerchief from an inside pocket of her leather jacket and vigorously wiped the sweat and blood from her forehead. “We need to talk.” She nodded and stuffed the material back into her pocket and crossed her arms in front of her chest in anticipation for what I said next. “My recon team wasn’t the first to be sent to the Commonwealth. The last squad went in three years before Gladius. They never reported back. Officially, they’re missing, presumed dead.” Not presumed any more.

“And she was a member of that team.” Smith threw a glance back into the office before turning back to me.

“Yes.” I began to pace. This would not be a report I would look forward to writing. “Yes, she was.”

Smith waited patiently as I paced the ground like a caged animal. “We have a responsibility to find out what happened to them, if we can.” Stage two of grief began to bubble to the surface.

“Where should we begin?” She asked. She was never briefed about the intel we had. I reminded myself of that. If it had been Haylen or Rhys I wouldn’t have been able to suppress the abrupt rage that licked the inside of my chest.

“Their insertion point was in the hills near Malden. If we want to pick up their trail from the beginning, we should start there.”

“What do you want to do about her body?”

“Burn it.” The surprise on her face was expected but she recovered quickly.

“Alright. Let me take care of… what’s in there. Just, just stay here and keep guard.” She left me once more, giving me some space and relieving me of the task of packing her body and belongings. Her knitted brows gave away her concern.

I was suddenly filled with regret. I should have been the one to take lead. It was my responsibility to find Artemis and I wasn’t able to do that. Louise was the one picking up my responsibility. She was a true leader and here I was feeling sorry for myself, her commanding officer. This place was stripping me of my ability to persevere, my identity. By then end, I didn’t know what would be left.

“Knight Tara Astlin. Brotherhood of Steel, Recon Team Four-two-nine Alpha. Serial number Three-four-three-one.” Her voice was labored and defeated. I turned to where it was coming from and saw Smith return. Astlin’s holotape playing from her Pip-Boy. She was carrying a small bundle wrapped in a red and white striped flag. Astlin’s voice continued as Louise carefully set down the bundle on the receptionist desk.

“It’s been three hours since I set my distress pulser. There’s been no word from the Paladin or Faris. Their objective was the satellite array on the coast. They may be out of range. My orders were to hold this position at all costs. The entire site has been overrun. The door won’t last much longer. Paladin Brandis, sir. It’s been an honor, sir.” The defining click of the end of the holotape left us in silence. Smith was the first to move. She walked up to me and held out her hand. A glowing holotag resting in her palm.

Sorrow washed over me. Astlin was the last of my mother division. No one else knew me and Cutler from that early on in our career. “A soldier to the end. Well done, Knight.” The words were barely a whisper as I battled to restrain the wells that threatened to fill my eyes. I blinked them back as forcefully as I could without bringing more attention to myself. It was futile. Smith was scanning my face with a look of pity on her grimy features. I felt my face heat to the temperature of the surface of the sun.

“They should have fortified their camp, made it a proper outpost. But they must not have had time. And Astlin paid the price.” I awkwardly stammered over my words. It was the first point I could think of to deter from what Knight Smith thought she saw. I began to pace the floor once more, a line of splintering wood now noticeable through the clutter. “We’re missing something. How did the recon team end up here? What happened to the rest of their unit? We need to go back and look for clues.” My head was suddenly filled with questions that needed immediate answers.

Smith was quick to answer at least one of them. “Well she did mention a satellite array on the coast. There is only one in the Boston Commonwealth. I just so happen to know where it is.” She uncomfortably adjusted her backpack. It’s contents clanging heavily.

“Then we move out.” I stepped aside to let her take the lead.

“I don’t think so, big guy.” Her she shifted her feet shoulder width apart, bracing herself.

Insubordinate little… “That was an order, Knight.”

“You seem to forget that I am here to clear this building of ghouls.” Her arms locked themselves across her chest as the tendon in her temple flexed.

“Then send Garvey to do it! You’re not his apprentice.” She was his General for God’s sake.

“You mean like I’m yours?” She spat back.

“You know that was not my intended meaning.” She was being ridiculous. We were wasting time. The rest of Artemis could still have been out in the Commonwealth. They needed our help.

“Look, you thick tin can, I have responsibilities that will come first. You need to lay her to rest, anyway. I’ll meet you across the street. The settlers in County Crossing will help you with whatever you need.” She turned to look for a way through to the other building.

“You can’t clear this building by yourself.” She was being reckless. She barely made it into the building on her own.

“Watch me.” She sneered, typing quickly into the terminal next to the chain link gate. The magnalock slammed open with a defiant bang.

*.*.*

My IV bag was almost empty by the time he showed back up. The smokestack now indistinguishable against the night sky. His strides were slow, his arms swinging loosely, exhaustion wafting off of him as a cool night breeze danced across the grass. Nothing was said as he sat down next to me on the log. The fire illuminating hard lines and scars scattered across his handsome face. His stubble was on the verge of becoming a beard and his hair was clumping together with sweat and blood.

When I arrived back to County Crossing, Toby had let me know that Danse was still gone. He had only requested an ax before disappearing without his armor. It was standing in the armor bay, coreless and unuseable to anyone but him. I had taken a moment to wipe its exterior clean, the only gesture of apology I could offer without him there. I felt so horrible for being rude to him in a time like that. Finding out a friend was dead was a hard loss to anyone but to find her body… and in the condition it was in. I was a bitch and I knew it.

Danse was the first to speak. “It’s good to see you didn’t get severely injured.” He was inspecting my swollen eye from a safe distance.

“I told you I could handle it.” He chuckled at my statement then fell silent, his eyes drifting back to the fire.

We were sitting by a fire pit where a whole doe was spinning slowly on a spit connected to a small humming generator. The rest of the settlers were cleaning up from a long day of hard labor. A line was formed outside of the bathhouse, others were still storing equipment or trying to wrangle a stubborn brahman into its pen. The way the Minutemen could build a community with just loyalty and kindness was astonishing.

My dad had always talked about how it was before the resource war… How neighbors would just walk over and ask for a cup of sugar because they forgot to get some while at the store, only to come back and share the fruits of their labor in return. Growing up, people weren’t as inclined to help. Resources were scarce and inflation had driven food prices into the triple digits. The wasteland was much harsher. Yet, the people found a way to be hopeful. Hope… The only reason to continue in a place like this.

Hope… Shaun. I would find him. I knew nothing when I left the vault and now we knew where to find Doctor Virgil. He was the key to find my son. I would hold him in my arms once more, kiss his precious face and smell his thick dark hair. He looked so much like Nate in Kellogg's memory... I felt a pang of loss at the fact that I had missed out on so much of his childhood.
“Who’s Shaun?” Danse was looking at me with a puzzled expression. I must have said his name out loud.

Telling Danse about Shaun was not in my agenda. Keeping an eye on the Brotherhoods moves was the only reason he was here with me. I had no strategy to deter questions about my past and now he knew my sons name. Fuck.

Chapter Text

Smith had refused to answer my question. Instead she had hurriedly excused herself, disappearing until morning where avoided eye contact and noodles were what was served for breakfast. I understood that the topic was one of a personal nature and opted for professional inquiries. Ultimately, I was ignored.

She made a great effort to place distance between us, striding towards the caravan we were scheduled to escort. It was quite a large convoy. The usual Commonwealth caravan consisted of one Brahman and half a dozen workers for whichever merchant or specialist was moving merchandise. The caravan we were navigating greatly outmatched what I expected was their competitors typical size. Smith stood amongst three Brahman and fifteen civilians. All in which carried loads that would make the trek dangerously tedious and likely make the party a targets for those who wanted a quick way to make a fortune.

A merchant with dark, tightly curled, hair and a faded leather jacket was quietly speaking with his associate before he turned his attention to Smith. His hushed voice was barely audible over the hum of conversations and the frequent snorting of restless brahman. “Do you have a geiger counter?” His question struck me as strange. The sun shone uninterrupted. Crows cawed from their perches atop drooping powerlines. There was absolutely no indication of a radiation storm looming in our near future or the glow of a radioactive spill anywhere in the vicinity.

Smith looked down at her Pip-Boy, disinterest smoothed the frown lines I had caused as she spun a dial absentmindedly. “Mine’s in the shop.” Again, the bizarre behavior did not go unnoticed. It was unlikely that Smith would speak to a Minutemen affiliate in such a blasé fashion. Much less, lie while looking directly at the device.

He suspiciously glanced in my direction, the squint of unease pinched the corners of his dark eyes before returning his gaze back to Louise. “The cargo is ready for transport whenever you are.” He wiped his hands nervously down the front of his pants, eliminating the evidence of his restlessness.

“Good. We’ll get you to Finch Farm where Chase is waiting to transport the cargo to Maine.” She glanced over her shoulder, gold glinting like daggers in the bright sunlight before turning back to the merchant. “Things are going to get hairy. So, move quickly. We don’t want to damage the valuables.”

His attention was drawn back to me as I trudged closer, my armor shook the ground aggressively. The beads of sweat across his forehead were prominent at a close distance. He nodded sharply in my direction once, causing Smith to glare over her shoulder once again. “Yeah I know.” She huffed in exasperation and waved a jaded hand at him, dismissing the Merchant.

“My understanding was that we were accompanying them until we reached the satellite array.” The lack of communication was becoming typical behavior for Smith.

“We are. The farm has been having trouble with the mutants at the array for a while. We’re going to clear them out while the caravan sneaks past the danger. Come on big man. We’re taking point” She waved that indifferent hand once more.

“And where is the location of the Satellite Array?” I inquired, relieved she was even acknowledging my existence. She pointed a finger to the satellite structures just on the other side of the small grove of trees lining the Minutemen settlement. “EXPLAIN YOURSELF, KNIGHT!” For a moment I expected my teeth to shatter as my jaw snapped shut. My words still pushed past clenched teeth with immense force.

A machine gun was suddenly pointed at my face but not by Smith, by a woman with alabaster hair that was striking against her deep skin. “Just say when.” Her words were directed to Smith, who didn’t respond immediately. Her weapon began to rev its centrifuge, the chain of bullets fed themselves into their chambers. That’s when Smith decided to step in.

“Save your ammo. He won’t do anything.” Her eyes bore into mine with heat that ignited fiery pin needles down my spine. “Because he has orders.”

Who the hell did she consider herself?

“LET’S MOVE OUT!” Smith shouted over the crowd around us, unstrapping the submachine gun from her pack.

Crimson tinted my vision as I furiously mulled over the rapid sequence of events. Accompanying this caravan was indisputably more important to her than aiding her commanding officer in locating Recon Squad Artemis. Had I miss read her? Did her greed for wealth outweigh her sense of duty and righteousness? How could she call herself a leader if this was the way she conducted her responsibilities?

Silence drew long gashes across my patience as she strutted arrogantly ahead of me. ‘We’re taking point.’ Of course we are. Every single step she took, every moment she actively ignored the urgency of our mission, tightened the bands of anxiety around my chest. Breaths came in sharp waves as if I was winded by Kells drills. As we crossed the distance between settlements it became clear that finding anyone from Artemis alive at the array was nonexistent.

Smith signaled for us to stop before reaching the crossroad. She spoke quietly over the hushed crowd. “Go quickly and stay low.” She waved them on and held a slender finger to her lips to encourage silence from the travelers. Some patted her shoulder in passing while others averted their eyes but all managed to stay muted. The woman who threatened my life with a minigun brought up the tail end. She glared at me with a hatred I could not understand and passed without saying a single word.

“Here, hold this for a sec-.” Smith shoved her submachine gun into my hands before carefully unstrapping her gauss rifle. She peeled off her backpack and gently placed both onto the ground. The rummaging didn’t last as she pulled out a few mines and small metal box with dials and a leather shoulder strap.

Smith picked up her tattered backpack and rifle and secured them into place before picking up the box and securing it across her torso. She ran her hand across her holster to check her minuscule black ten millimeter then gathered up the mines she had procured from her inventory.

My anger was diluted by confusion. She hadn’t shown any indication that a strategy had been planned. Even as she readied herself in front of me, there was no intent to disclose her approach. “Soldier, what are you doing?” How did she expect me to accommodate her actions if she would not divulge any information.

“Hold on to S n’ P for me and be careful, the bullets are ballistic… Oh, and stay right here.” She vanished, leaving a shimmering haze in her wake.

The impressiveness of a new generation of Stealth Boy was easily overshadowed by my outrage. How did I find myself in a situation like the training yard again? She was going to get herself killed and for what? From where I was standing I could see the compound was crawling with abominations. Snipers scanned the landscape from nests atop derelict staircases. Guards patrolled the ground and the distant beeps of a suicider could be heard over the howles of the mutant hounds. Rusted dishes reflected the harsh sunlight and the stench of colossal hoards of rotting flesh wafted across the dried grass.

Anxiety surged across my skin like electricity. The stench of blood and my own fear filled my lungs with fire. I watched the compound for a sign that they had been alerted of her position. Panic pooled in the pit of my stomach as Brach, Worwick, Dawes, and Keane flashed across my mind. My incompetence was going to lead to her death. I was unable to control even my subordinates. How could a single person expect a completed mission from such disgraceful leader?

I loaded a new fusion cell into my rifle, preparing to rush in after her, when the air began to shimmer once again. She flashed in and out of sight before fully materializing. Relief was fleeting as annoyance reared its ugly head. “Do you wish to perish before nightfall?”

With her arms now empty of mines, Smith picked up her submachine and tucked the stock tightly into her shoulder. “Alright. Just- uh- just shoot everything that comes out of the compound. Ready?” She acted as if she didn’t hear me. Her behavior couldn’t continue in the manner it had been.

Before I could reprimand her further, she brought up her free hand and pressed two fingers to her lips. A shrill whistle erupted from her mouth, sweeping across the landscape like a shockwave. A hound somewhere in the bowels of the ruin responded in turn, howling for its master. The beeping of a detonator grew louder as its handler emerged from a battered trailer.

Three explosions happened simultaneously at the breaks in the chain linked fence. Heat rolled across us as Smith's geiger counter ticked with the detection of radiation. They kept coming. Repulsive animals, unphased by the plooms of radioactive debris. It was utter chaos with yells of pain and rage, twangs of laser fire, and the demonic humming of Smith’s overcompensated weapon.

A mutant wielding a sledgehammer had fought through the assault. Long streams of yellow saliva hung from his lopsided scowl. My shots bounced off of the corrugated metal that covered most of its body, red hot angry marks dissipated as quickly as I could deliver them. My heart dropped as the micro fusion ejected itself from Resolute Protector. That’s when his first blow made contact with my shoulder causinging me to stumble sideways. I managed to grasp a fresh cell when the second swing collided with my knee, knocking it out from under me.

He brought his hammer high with coiled energy to deliver a devastating blow.

A snarling umber blur erupted from the tall grass. Snapping jaws clamped down on the exposed underside of the mutants arm and dragged the beast to the ground. The German Shepherd shook its head aggressively, ripping open the flesh within the grasp of its jaw. I reloaded as the mutant swung its free hand wildly, trying to knock the dog off. A shot of fine tuned light to the neck and the mutants head detached from its body, sparing the canine from serious injury.

Another large explosion shook the ground around us. A large mushroom cloud stretched high into the air, illuminating the ground below it with orange radioactive light. Louise had shot the suicider, causing a chain reaction and setting off its nuke. She didn’t wait for it to dissipate. Instead she dashed past the fence and into the compound, the dog chasing after her. My stomach dropped as I attempted to reach her. If something would have happened-

I could hear her before the rotors emerged from behind the summit of the highway. Beams of laser fire rained down like the burning sulfur of Gomorrah. I cheered loudly as my brothers and sisters annihilated abominations from the heavens. Bodies began to fall from their perches when I reached Smith. I curled my armored body over her as a mutant fell like a boulder from the south east tower. As I turned I saw that the mutant had fallen on its closest comrade. A small hand holding her black ten millimeter poked out from behind my arm and fired into the pandemonium.

Three armored knights leapt from the vertibirds cockpit. The ground reverberated underneath my feet with the force of their collision with the earth. Flashes of crimson, the stench of rotting flesh, pings of bullets ricocheting off of objects, and the deafening roars of the vertibirds rotors assaulted my senses. Adrenaline rushed through my veins like Jet. My breath was labored but the only thing to ground me to the present was the sound of my name in her voice.

“Danse! Up here!” She called from the banister where the mutant was positioned before it fell. I looked down to where she had been only a moment before. I was astonished with my own inability to keep simple tabs on her location. She waved furiously for me to join her in the wooden shack that was perched in a way I had never seen mutants use. It became apparent that it was built with Brotherhood survival techniques... Artemis…

I held Resolute Protector high as I backed my way up the staircase. The Knights below us were holding the attention of the last two mutants, yells for victory and twangs of laser fire dominated the battlefield. The staircase circled back around the superstructure until the plywood shed came into view once more. She was kneeling by the body when I managed to squeeze through the door frame. “Field Scribe Faris. He was with the recon team.” I knew the body laying on the floor of the hut even if most of his face was missing. His scribe uniform was ripped open and his chest cavity was empty. They had kept him alive only to harvest his organs whenever the need suited them. A death I wouldn’t wish on my enemies.

Smith was crouched over the body, searching it for clues. First she retrieved his holotags. Some spare ammo found its way into her bag before she pulled out a blood encrusted holotape. She wiped it with her shirt before she slipped it into the tape deck in her Pip-Boy.

“This is Faris. It’s been… two hours since the Paladin left. My leg… I can’t stanch the bleeding. Bullet must’ve hit an artery. Brandis… if you get this… I hope you made it back to Astlin in time. There was nothing you could do for me. Get to the bunker up north. You’ll survive. That’s all that… all that matters…” The tape cut off his labored voice. I looked back down at what was left of his body. A rough tourniquet cinched his upper thigh. He didn’t die the way he had expected, poor soul. Glory would find him in the afterlife.

“They must have come to the satellite array for the comm system. Probably trying to send word back to the Prydwen but they were ambushed. Faris was wounded, couldn’t walk.” Smith picked up Faris's distress beacon and switched it off. “They got a distress signal.” Astlin’s burning remains flashed across my vision. “And Brandis left him behind. He broke the first rule of small-group tactics. Stick together. Always stick together.” I threw her an angry glare. How could she be so irresponsible? How could Brandis have been so irresponsible? Where was he and the rest of Artemis? “We’re missing something. We need to retrace their steps and determine what happened to the rest of the team.” And I would deal with Brandis if he managed to stay alive.

*.*.*

We stood together as the vertibird took off with its Knights and the remains of Scribe Faris. Instead of growing steady, the air around us began to congeal. Dogmeat being the only soul unaware of the tension. I knew he was angry with my tactics and lack of communication. I couldn’t put the Railroad in the middle of his radar. I would willingly take the blunt end of his fury.

We stood there and watched as the ‘bird flew down the coast, disappearing behind the freeway. A soft sigh escaped his lips and as I turned to him he shouldered his rifle. He turned and began to walk away from me, his shoulders visibly slumped even under his suit.

“Hey, where are you going?” I called after him.

I was met with silence as he continued his march to the road. I jogged to catch up with him but he was still unresponsive. “Danse, stop.” I grabbed his arm plate.

His eyes were dark once they finally landed on me. “You’re dismissed Knight.” He turned to continue trudging through the grass. Dogmeat barked and whined as he placed his body between me and Danse.

He thought he could just wave me away? After holding his hand while looking for his people? “Look, you can dismiss me as a Knight but you can not dismiss me as the General. Like it or not, I’m going to find Artemis for you but on my terms.”

Chapter Text

I looked down at her white knuckled hand as she held onto the vambrace mount below my elbow. The sharp stabbing annoyance that was fueled by adrenaline ebbed away as my eyes scanned up her arm. A large dent in her polished armor told me of the fire she undertook during our sweep of the Satellite Array. The collar of her shirt was drenched in blood but I was unsure of who it belonged to. Bruises seeped to the surface of her skin like red wine on a tablecloth, staining her complexion. Her nose was still swollen from her battle with the ghouls and even more inflammation graced her soft jaw from her efforts to campaign her way through hell to find one deceased scribe. The green in her eyes filled me with shame. Louise had risked her life, twice, and I had no right to speak to her in that manner.

“Danse, why would Artemis be in Medford?” The split in her lip threatened to bleed as she spoke.

“According the intel in our records, the only objective in the area would have been Med-Tek Research to the north west of our current location. It was a pre-war medical and pharmaceutical company.

The documentation, collected by the first recon team sent to the Commonwealth, indicated they had produced a product called Prevent. A disease has been impacting the child population in the Capital Wasteland for some time now and Prevent would be our best chance of saving them. We are the only organization that has the means to replicate the drug, especially after-”

Louise violently shoved my arm away as a long stream of profanities escaped her lips. “Danse, I know what Prevent is and it’s not at Med-Tek, at least it’s not anymore. MacCready had a caravan ship it down the the Capital Wasteland weeks ago.”

“MacCready, the former mayor of Little Lamplight? How do you know this? How do you know him?”

“Danse, he was with me in Cambridge!”

“You mean the same man who pointed his rifle at me at the Castle? You know, I would appreciate if those kind of interaction with your associates would cease.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She waved that dismissive hand at me before she turned around and sighed, her shoulders visibly sagging under her padded armor. “There wasn’t any sign of the Brotherhood inside of the facility, just more feral ghouls then I’m comfortable with. If we get moving we can check the surrounding district before searching for this ‘bunker’.” She pulled her blood splattered sunglasses from the collar of her shirt and placed them gingerly on. “The road to Med-Teck should be cleared. Preston has ordered more frequent patrols of the area as more farming settlements agree to join the Min- Damn it, Dogmeat! Leave that Mister Gutsy alone!”

I followed as she jogged up to the road where two broken down tanks sank into the pavement and overgrown grass like deflated balloons. She upholstered her ten millimeter as a yelp rang out into the late morning air. Scarlet beams of light shot out from behind the armored vehicles. An olive dome bobbed into view with it’s three cameras focused on the canine. Knight Smith let out a battle cry as she pulled the trigger with a quick repetition.

As soon as the unit fell to the pavement the dog trotted out of the tall grass, its tongue lolling happly. She embraced the dog on the edge of the road. Their reunion was innocent and childlike. Smith dug her fingers into the fur on the scruff of the Shepherds neck as the dog lapped up the smudged blood across her face.

“We should return the canine to its owner and continue on. We have a large area to cover which includes finding a secure area to bivouac before nightfall.” My suggestion was met with the flash of her white teeth.

“Dogmeat doesn’t have an owner. He’s a free spirit. Isn’t that right? Good boy. Yes, you’re a good boy.” Her voice swelled with admiration as her attention turned to the dog.

“It would be ill advised to bring the dog.”

“It would be ill advised to bring the dog.” She mimicked in a whiny voice that grated on my thin patients. “Come on, Danse. Do you want my help or not?” She stood and scanned my face with perceptive eyes. The fact was, I did need her, no matter how much it pained me to admit it. I felt my shoulders sag in defeat.

“That’s what I thought, big guy.” She said as she reached into the pocket of her leather vest and pulled out a scrap of beige denim, a piece of Faris’s uniform.

She was right. Each decision she made was sound and unbiased. I just couldn’t see the conclusions as quickly as she could. Maybe my own failures as Paladin were narrowing my field of view… Maybe I wasn’t mentally prepared to find Artemis. As I followed her, I began to think about the circumstances leading to their disappearance. Had the climate in the Commonwealth changed between the Brotherhood’s first recon mission and squad Artemis? What had caused the influx of our mortality rate? Was it our training or was it something about this untamed land?

A Louis Jordan song began to play loudly from the sizable device on the General’s left arm. My attention was pulled back to her as she strode in front of me. She was holding her over-sized ghaus rifle at the ready, scanning the way in front of her canine.

Derelict remains of vehicles littered the road. Smith maneuvered her way through them without taking her eyes off of the path ahead. I on the other hand peered around our obstacles, checking for lurking danger. Years of training and ingrained paranoia had kept me alive this long…

The road began to slope before the first remanence of a Minutemen patrol came into view. Carcasses were scattered across the T intersection. Char blackened the rotting flesh but did not burn deep, the effect of lower power energy weapons. Smith and her dog continued onward without giving their surroundings a second glance.

A desolate city bus stood as warden over the looming oak ahead of us. Dogmeat let out a loud whine before picking up his pace. The shadow of the tree seemed to grow in the early afternoon sunlight or maybe the darkness was my own dread. It soon became apparent that Smith had lead us around the rear of Med-Tek.

A soft singular tick interrupted the broadcasting of Diamond City Radio and Knight Smith came to a stop to check the interface on her Pip-boy. “I’m picking up a distress signal.” She turned to me as she continued to spin the dials on her device. “One-oh-seven.” The music stopped completely, replaced by the now utterly recognizable signal. Untold sorrow filled her eyes.

I hung my head, focusing on the laser rifle in my hands instead of her. The pity in them caused stones of shame to collect in the pit of my stomach. “That’s the right frequency. It’s the recon team. Let’s trace the signal and see if we can locate its source.”

A loud bark drew our attention back to Dogmeat, who had made it across the traffic circle and was pointed towards the road leading into the development around the research facility. As we followed him the signal became increasingly clearer. Anxiety about the inevitable began to tingle the rims of my lips with each pace. The blood in my veins ran ice cold as the first structure along our path came into view. The remanence of a building was set back a ways off of the road. Desiccated trees obscured most of what could be seen from the road but as we came upon the cracked pavement driveway, the chirping of the Knights Pip-boy increased in volume.

“Hold up. Let’s assess the site.” She nodded in agreement and we both slowed our pace, creeping up the drive, our weapons at the ready.

There was nothing left. “An explosion tore this building apart. Some kind of high-yield detonation.” The gravel… the pieces of pummeled brick, crunched under my armor. As we breached the building, there was nothing to block our view of the destruction. They were there... “Look at the blast crater. It’s Brotherhood Power Armor. Look, you can still make out the insignia. The recon team was here.”
One Knight lay face down on the burnt earth. The handwheel and fusion core port were gone, most of the back plating and frame were gone as well. The edges were melted away, exposing the black char inside. “The damage… It’s deliberate. They set the fusion cores in their armor to overload. That’s what caused the blast. But why?”

Smiths Geiger counter ticket ominously as she stepped down into the crater. It didn’t seem to stop her as she crouched and inspected the first Knight. I watched her hands delicately trace the seams of the power armor frame. “It’s fused solid…” She moved to inspect the next one, putting the same amount of care into her inspection. “This one, too… What happened here?” She stood, her eyes filled with that same sorrow.

I was unable to hold her gaze, my own composure was in danger. I instead swept over the scene. One particular suit was slumped against an overturned desk, the damage to it was less substantial in comparison to the others. I stepped closer. “Over here. Look.”

Smith looked over her shoulder from where she was crouched over some items that had survived the explosion. She stood and crossed the space before crouching once again. She gently began to pry open compartments within the suit. She pulled off her pack and placed it between her knees as she began to empty the suit of its contents, ammunition, holotags… She stood and held up a holotape between her index and middle fingers.

I nodded and she carefully placed the holotape into the tapedeck of her Pip-boy. A sudden gust of wind brought along with it the scent of an impending storm. Earthy humidity filled my lungs as the tape began to whir to life.

Gun shots. Shouting.

Paladin Brandis spoke from Knight Smith’s Pip-boy. His words were winded but full of urgency. “... ambushed on the road. We’re outnumbered five to one! Varham, report!”

“Core’s down to five percent!” Knight Varham shouted over the continued gun shots.

“We’ll have to scuttle the armor. we can’t let them-” The shouting… the gunfire...

“Varham!” My blood ran cold as Astlin screamed.

“Dammit! Astlin, set the self-destructs! Faris, fall back! We’ll head for the old military base, then try to make it to our holdout. The code will be our callsign. All right, move! Move! Move!” The tape cut on Brandis’s last command.

Smith was frowning as she pulled the tape from her Pip-boy.

Dissociation laced its fingers through my consciousness as I scanned the wreckage of what was left of Artemis’s hideout. I could feel my lips moving and the rumble of my voice through my chest but the sound of my words sounded distant, farther than the impending rain. “What a choice. With no armor and no supplies, their odds of survival were low. But that was the right decision. Technology must be protected. No matter the cost. That just leaves Paladin Brandis. He always was a survivor. But after all this time… The holotapes mentioned a bunker. I think I know the one. It was part of my original mission brief. Let’s move out.”

My words even sounded detached, rehearsed even. I wasn’t in control as my body took point. I vaguely knew where my body was taking us and even less certain without my helmet’s visual HUD. Instinct and training pushed me to complete the mission even if I was a numb passenger in the process. Heavy droplets began to hit the pavement as we wound our way through the small town surrounding Med-Tek Research. I watched as Smith and my hands took on a Deathclaw outside of the Elementary School and then a Radscorpion outside of the General Atomics Galleria. Numbness only intensified as we ventured into the rural landscape. A small part of my psyche told me that I was cold and wet, and as the road we were on turned into a dirt path, it told me that we had reached our destination.

*.*.*

“Recon Bunker Theta. This is the holdout site. Stay vigilant.” Danse’s demeanor had changed. He was cold, distant, and distracted. It was off putting and dangerous. So dangerous that he had narrowly missed two mines while walking up the pathway to the bunker and part of me worried if traveling with him outside of power armor was wise. He had violently grabbed me before and as he stood waiting for me to walk up to the terminal to unlock the door, I couldn’t help but flinch as he shifted.

I pushed the strands of plastered hair off of my forehead before I placed my hands onto the slick keyboard. The magnalock slid back with a satisfying thud and I led the way into the dimly lit bunker.

I found myself looking down the barrel of a laser rifle. The man holding it was wearing a Brotherhood issued black under armor. He was an officer. “Brandis…”

The fear in his blue eyes, I had seen it countless times. In that moment I was no longer looking at an estranged Paladin. I was looking at Nate. His stance, the fear in his wide eyes. The way he couldn’t process if his surroundings were real… Or if I was his enemy.

“Freeze! One more step and I’ll… I’ll blow your damn heads off!”

Chapter Text

The fog in my brain began to dissipate as adrenaline filled my veins like a breached dam. An electrical hum from the three drawn weapons filled the small space with a frequency that pricked at the back of my skull. The barrel of Brandis’s laser rifle continued to switch aim between Smith and myself, which caused the German Shepherd to growl ominously. Brandis was... filthy. His hair was long and greasy, dirt was smudged across his scabbed skin and his uniform gave of a putrid smell that reminded me of Knights who would return from a mission with gangrene.

Smith took initiative and shouldered her weapon. She held her hands up in front of herself, palms facing Brandis in a defensive yet calming stance. Even with the removal of one firearm, his eyes were wide with terror. His chest heaved mercilessly with panicked gasps, threatening hyperventilation.

I lowered my rifle and took a step further into the bunker. “Paladin Brandis?” Even to me, my words sounded unsure.

He turned to me. The stock of his weapon pressed into his shoulder for stability. His finger on the trigger. “Who are you? Who sent you? How’d you get in here?” His questions tumbled over each other in a hurried frenzy. They pained me deeply.

Smith took a slow step forward. She was almost to the barricade that Brandis was using for cover when he noticed she had moved. The barrel of his gun was suddenly flush with the center of her forehead. She came to a halt, both hands retreating to the sides of her head in surrender. “Danse?” She said, distress thick in her voice.

How could he not realize we were here to help? How did he not know who I was? “It’s Danse. Paladin Danse. Don’t you recognize me?”

His brow furrowed as he lowered his gun. Skepticism etched on every inch of his soiled face. “...Danse? No… no, no, no that can’t be. Why… Why are you here?”

He was half of the reason why the Brotherhood was in the Commonwealth. Half of the reason I had lost most of my team. Did he lose faith in us? Did he think we wouldn’t come looking for him? That I wouldn’t look for him? “I was dispatched to the Commonwealth on a recon mission, Paladin. Just like yours.”

His shoulders slumped in response. “How did you find me? I’ve… I’ve been alone. All alone for so long.” Brandis’s yellowing eyes darted down to his hands as they held his laser rifle.

Smith spoke up, her voice was collected once again but her body was still stiff with anticipation. “We followed the distress beacons left by your team. Their holotapes led us here.”

Surprise caused the Paladin to take a step back in shock. “The others! What… what happened to them?”

Smith reached into the inside pocket of her weathered leather jacket and pulled out a fist full of clinking tags. Sadness filled my chest at the sight of a light blue glow between her fingers. “They’re dead, Paladin. I recovered their tags.” Her voice was surprisingly soft. Kinder than anything I had heard from her before.

“You… you did?” She held them out as an offering, relinquishing them to their commanding officer. Tears began to fill Brandis’s eyes, threatening to spill over. His face crumpled in anguish as he bowed his head. He slowly held them to his lips, inhaling deeply, before looking up to Louise. “Thank you. This… this really means a lot to me. I… I tried to go back for them, you know. There was nothing I could do, not alone. But… I had hoped…” He hurriedly wiped away a liberated tear. “ You’ve been through a lot to find me. I should… I should give you something. I’ve collected a lot over the years. Technology. Odds and ends. If you see anything you want, take it, take it.”

Louise refused to move and take him up on his offer. Instead she placed her hand on his slumped shoulder, comforting the man she barely knew. They looked at each other for a moment. Understanding passing between the two of them.

“Come back with us. You’re still a member of the Brotherhood, Paladin.” The words I spoke didn't hold as much weight as her willingness for physical compassion. I felt utterly inadequate in the situation.

He wasn't convinced by my proposition “What? No, no, I couldn’t. Not after everything that’s happened.”

Her words were soft but her suggestion held a note of authority. The material of his uniform bunched as she lightly squeezed his shoulder. “The Brotherhood needs you, Paladin. It’s time you reported in."

He looked away from her. His brow furrowed with shame as he retreated from her touch. “I… can’t. It’s been too long. I… I wouldn’t be of any use.” He stammered over his anxiety.

“No one knows the Commonwealth better than you. We need your help.” Her plea sounded genuine but I wasn't sure which ‘we’ she was referring to. Up to this point, she had shown very little interest in what the Brotherhood's mission was. I wasn't sure if she had spoken to anyone else on the Prydwen about Brandis or our missions because she never mentioned anything along those lines. In hindsight, we hadn't spoken much about anything...

“I’ve been here too long. I’m… I’m not myself. Would they still take me?” His doubts showed promise. Maybe she would get him to come home. The Brotherhood needed him to come back so that healing could begin.

“The Brotherhood will honor the memory of your team. Shouldn’t you be the one to tell their story?” She knew just what to say… She knew just what to say because she knew what it was like to be a leader. Realization rammed me in the chest like an angry Brahmin and I suddenly saw her for what she was, the leader of the Minutemen. The person spearheading the almost impossible campaign of taming the Commonwealth.

I was a moron.

But Brandis wasn't, because he listened to her. “Unless I go back, their sacrifices… everything we went through… it’ll be forgotten. I… I can’t let that happen. I’ll do it. For them. All right. I’ll… I’ll get my things, head to the airport. Thank you. Thank you for everything."

She embraced him. Brandis stood rigid for a moment, his arms held away from her body before he melted into her. Her frame seemed so much smaller than a moment ago as his arms wrapped around her. Louise whispered something into his ear and Brandis nodded in return, tears spilling freely from his agonized features. As her hand soothed him with rhythmic circles, bands of pressure gripped my lungs, stealing the air from them. The sensation of falling wouldn’t leave my stomach. I was overwhelmed by such a foreign feeling of…

I cleared my throat.

Brandis snapped away from the embrace, face flush and eyes swollen, before turning to collect his things. I tilted my head towards the door, indicating my need to speak with Louise in private. She obliged, her dog following on her heels.

Rain was falling in warm heavy droplets. The dirt at our feet released the intoxicating aroma of ozone and petrichor. My armor plinked loudly with each drop but it all seemed dulled as I looked at her bruised face and then into her eyes.

Her eyes… For so long I had just assumed they were brown. They were anything but. Even in the defused gray light filtering through the heavy rain clouds, molten gold swimming in pools of emeralds looked back at me. Their fathoms were immeasurable as I felt myself fall into them.

My stomach was abruptly in my chest.

“Danse?” My face grew hot at the sound of my name on her lips.

“You handled yourself well, Knight.” That was an understatement. I wouldn’t have done nearly as well as she did inside the bunker. My chest swelled with pride. She had gone above and beyond my expectations. I was lucky she was here.

She shrugged, exhaustion laced tightly into her words. “I did what had to be done.”

How could she be so dismissive about what she had just done? “You did more than that. Paladin Brandis is a good soldier. I’m glad to have him back. It’s going to be months before he’s fit for duty again. But even now, he should be an asset to us. Captain Kells will want to hear about this. Let’s report in.”

She shook her head. “Actually…” She bit her lip before continuing. “We should go our separate ways.”

“Where are you going?” I asked before I could stop myself.

“I have some things to take care of, Danse. Personal things.” Her walls were instantly back up. The way she said my name was different, distant once again.

“We have to get Brandis back to the Prydwen. If you weren’t even planning on accompanying us back then why start this mission with me in the first place?” They were words fed by the feeling of abandonment that filled my chest like ice.

She looked down at her Pip-boy and sighed impatiently. “Look, I have to meet someone before a certain time. Despite what you might think, I have other responsibilities than taking orders from you. I have to go, alone. I’m sorry.”

A groan of disappointment escaped before I could compose myself. “I’m not going to lie to you. I think this is a foolish decision… but it’s yours to make.” We stood there for a moment. Her face was wet and her usually neatly pinned hair was sagging under the weight of the now torrential downpour. Something flashed across her features before she turned to leave. “Come back alive, soldier.”

I didn’t think she had heard me but right before she turned the corner and disappeared from sight, she called over her shoulder. “I will... because you have my dog.” I could hear the smile in her words.

I looked down and sure enough, Dogmeat was sitting at my feet, soaking wet. I called out for her to stop but she was gone already… Kells was not going to be happy about this… “Come on boy. Let’s get inside.”
_______________

A small Section of Minutemen were waiting for us on the main road. According to them, the General had passed their checkpoint and requested an escort into Cambridge. It was well into the night once we were within Brotherhood territory. The Minutemen bid us a farewell and returned to their posts. A passing Brotherhood patrol retrieved a gurney for Brandis and carried the exhausted Paladin back to the Police Station.

Haylen was absolutely beside herself as she spotted us crossing the threshold into the Police Station. She fussed over Paladin Brandis the entire time the Lancers were readying the vertibird and insisted that she tag along, telling us something about having to talk to Ingram about a project and that she would have gone to the Prydwen in the morning but that since we were going now... I hadn’t kept up with her words as she talked animatedly with Brandis. I was drained.

It wasn’t until we were boarding the Vertibird that Haylen finally spoke directly to me. “I didn’t know you got a dog, Paladin.” Laughter crinkled the corners of her eyes.

“He’s not mine… Knight Smith left him in my charge.” I wasn’t minding his company if I was being honest with myself. He had followed silently behind us the entire trek back to Cambridge, only darting ahead when he would catch a scent.

“Where is Knight Smith?” Haylen asked, a wicked grin stretching across her face.

I felt my face grow warm as the engines roared to life. “I don’t know.” Was all I could muster. Haylens face fell with disappointment. I knew she wasn’t as disappointed as I was about the fact. As the Commonwealth began to shrink below us, I couldn’t help but wonder where she was and when I would see her again.

*.*.*

Swelteringly nauseating heat seeped into my nuclear hazmat suit. The chartreuse glow that had surrounded me for hours was at its brightest as I stood at the edge of its source. I couldn’t move as I stared into its depths. This is where it happened. This was where that flash of light had happened. This is where my world ended. This was why I was all alone. It was ugly, a mirror of what my life had become.

“Are you ready to find your son?” Piper’s voice sounded through our coms systems embedded in the suits.

I nodded.

Chapter Text

Thick radioactive fog blocked out the night sky, disturbed by the flashes of emerald lightning that they reached across the horizon. The chartreuse glow and scorching humidity clung to my skin and filled my lungs with acidic bitterness. Thunder and panic rumbled through my chest as shapes began to emerge in the distance, moving slowly across the desolate expansive landscape… People.

They trudged closer. The course sand crunched under their boots. Trepidation rose into my throat as more figures appeared through the haze. I tried to move, to run, but I couldn’t lift my feetfeet off of the ground. My heart was racing, thundering. Thundering louder than… Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the multitude as they came closer.

Worwick, Keane, Brach, Dawes, Faris, Varham, Astlin, Krieg, Owyn and Sarah… I knew he was there. He always was. He pushed his way through the group of people. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t speak. I was petrified, frozen to the spot. His hands reached up and his fingers laced themselves around my neck, squeezing the life out of me. His green eyes bore deep into my soul.

And he said what I always feared. What haunted me every moment of my life.

“You didn’t do enough.”

I jumped violently, alarmed and disoriented with my abrupt change in environment. It was dark and cold, with a metallic tang to the air. A hot body was molded to my leg and when a wet nose pressed itself into the palm of my hand, did I realize that the dog was in my bed. I reached for him in the darkness. His scruff was coarse and thick. I ran my fingers through it, grounding myself to the present.

Once my heart rate slowed and my breaths were less erratic, I untangled myself from my sheets and stood from my bed. The Terence Fisher-esk glow from the alarm clock on my desk was the only source of light. O’Five-hundred blinked at me through the darkness. I attempted to ready myself as I reached for the plastic switch beside the bed and smiled at the simultaneous groans that filled the cold confines of my quarters. By the time my eyes had adjusted to the light, Dogmeat had leapt from the bed and was waiting attentively for whatever would happen next.

I could get used to this , I caught myself thinking as the soft patter of feet followed me around the room as I dressed and readied myself for the day ahead. Since paperwork took up most of my itinerary for the day, I stepped out into the corridor in my officers uniform, its integrity was of higher quality than the standard under armour I used while in my suit.

The hull of the ship was already beginning to fill with the aroma of coffee and breakfast. I ducked behind the peninsula in the galley and rummaged through the cabinets before finally coming across a can of Pork N’ Beans. The Knight that was stuck on chow duty looked over his shoulder from his sizzling skillet of something that vaguely smelled of corned beef hash and nodded towards the end of the bartop, “Quinlan’s spare cat bowls are over there, just don’t mention it.”

“Mention what?” The familiar voice made the Knight jump. Haylen was leaning over the bar, craning her neck to see what I had in my hands.

“I have to feed the dog.” At that point, Dogmeat crawled out from under the closest table where he had been vacuuming up crumbs from midnight rations.

“Why don’t you get a squire to look after him? You know they’d love it!” Humor twinkled in her eyes because she knew her assumption was correct. “And anyway, Maxson wants you down at the Airport. Trust me, you’re going to want to go see it.”

“Then you feed the dog.” I went to hand Haylen the can but she pulled away.

“Nope, not a chance. I just came to let you know that your presence is requested. I have to get back right now and report back in that I completed my turn of Telephone .” Her brazenness made me smile. It was good to see her in such high spirits.

As Haylen turned to retreat back down to the flight deck as a small group of Squires entered the mess hall. “Cooper.” The tallest boy stood at attention. “Take this, and this,” I handed him the bowl and can of food. “The dog will need to go down to the airport for a walk in twenty minutes. We don’t need a mess on the Command Deck, do we?”

The boy shook his head, “No, Sir!”

“I’ll be back for him after chow.” The giggles were audible as I turned to follow Haylen down to the flight deck.

_____

Initiates were running their morning laps around the airport and duty stations were readying for turnover when I arrived. The higher level of activity was substantial compared to the Prydwen. Armored footfalls echoed off of the barricades. The twang of laser fire could be heard in the distance as morning target practice progressed uninterrupted. As I climbed down the stairs leading away from the landing pad, Proctor Ingram came to view on the first floor. Her face lit up as she noticed my approach.

“Paladin.” She greeted, waiting for me to join her.

“Ingram, what’s this about?” She would know, or at least I thought she would be willing to brief me on the matter.

“Oh, you’ll see.” Her smile was contagious, things hardly ever excited her.

Her armored steps shook the ground below my feet as she led me to the opposite end of the airport from the supply depot. She leaned down to the terminal that was mounted on a wall next to an industrial steel roll down door. With a few keystrokes the door to the storage bay began to open. I knew what was behind the door before what was inside was revealed. The sublevels of the Citadel filled my sinuses with a comforting pungentness.

His head lay on a workbench. His visor peering at those who cross the threshold. I couldn’t tell much from my first glance around the workshop. The protective armor was already installed on most of the pieces, obscuring their progress. To be fair, robotics was not my field of expertise. Even if Ingram cracked open a chest piece, I might be able to only label a handful of parts. Liberty Prime was a majestic piece of technology and I had no doubt that Ingram and her team would restore him to his former glory.

As I was scanning the room, Haylen jumped out from behind the dismembered torso that took up most of the garage. “Ta-Da!” Her splayed out fingers wiggled in excitement. Her hands immediately retracted to her sides as Maxson stepped into view with Quinlan, scribbling furiously on his clipboard, on his heels.  I felt the corner of my mouth tug as I watched color flood Haylens face. She began taking minute side steps, scooting quietly out of the Elders line of sight.

“There you are, Paladin.” I felt a pull behind my navel at his first syllable. It snapped my body to attention, shoulders back, spine straight, and head held high. Quinlan took a moment to look up from his clipboard and nod his acknowledgement of my presence before returning to his paperwork diligently.

“Yes, Sir. I was told my attendance was requested.” I glanced at Haylen who was dangerously close to matching her hair color.

“Yes. We need to discuss quartermastery missions.” He walked up to me with purpose and placed his hand on my shoulder, forcing me to turn around and guiding me out of the storage bay. “You’ve done an excellent job, Danse.” He said as soon as we were out of earshot. “Cade tells me that Brandis is recovering as expected. Though, it will be quite a while before he is signed off and approved for duty.”

“That’s excellent.” I nervously clasped my hands behind my back, uncertainty ringing in my ears. There had to be a reason the Elder wanted privacy, it sure wasn’t because of Brandis or legestics. I waited patiently as he led us out onto the busy tarmac and past the barricades until pavement turned into sand and the waves of Boston Harbor muffled the busy hum of the Airport.

“I’ve noticed Knight Smith hasn’t been around in a while.” He spoke.

A several dozen ton vertibird crashed in the pit of my stomach as mortifying flames scorched my ego. I had been dreading when the topic would arise… It just had to be Maxson… “She’s taking care of some personal business.” I somehow managed to say.

“I see.” He reached up and absentmindedly stroked his beard. “Did she say what that would entail?” His question seemed loaded.

“No, Sir.” The lump in my throat made it hard to swallow.

“Did you ask?” He had cut the formality and became direct.

“I, uh… No. I did not.” I could feel the temperature of my face begin to rise.

“And why is that?” He continued to stroke his beard.

“I… I’m finding it difficult to…” I searched desperately for the right words to explain my actions. “I find it difficult to assert authority over her, Sir.”

His hand stopped mid stroke before he asked, “Is that so… Do you need me to transfer her to a different sponsor?”

My heart plunged at his suggestion. “I don’t... believe that is necessary. She likely won’t take direction from anyone. Her sense of responsibility for the Minutemen is… admirable but also a hindrance.”

As I spoke, a grin began to spread across Maxson’s face, melting away the Elder and revealing Arthur, the young man who was still filled with life. “You like her.”

The temperature of my face was nearing catastrophic levels. “I’m her sponsor.”

His shoulders began to jump up and down with laughter. “That’s not a no, Danse.”

The mounting pressure pulsed at my temples. Panic threatened to obscure my vision at the sudden personal confrontation. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to respond either way.” I winced at the sound of my forced denial.

“She’s good looking, but you know me, I like older women.” He was enjoying himself, the only silver lining to the situation. It was good to see my friend again, not my superior, not the Elder. It had been months since I had seen him without furrowed brows and tense shoulders. I almost didn’t notice the twinge of jealousy at his declaration.

“Don’t be so uptight, Danse.” He chuckled, slapping me on the shoulder.

“I thought you wanted to talk to me about quartermastery?” I was in danger of dying of humiliation if I didn’t change the subject.

“Right.” He laughed. “You’ll meet up with Knight Rhys and his squad tomorrow afternoon and assist in a recovery.”

“I could be ready first thing in the morning.”

“No you won’t because you’re having drinks with me tonight. We have a lot to celebrate, Danse.”

_____

I swirled the amber liquid just served to me in a crystal tumbler. I watched as Arthur discarded his battle coat, it fell with a heavy thud onto his neatly made bed. He undid the clasp at his collar as he settled into the chair across the table from me. “I spoke to Rojas.” He reached for the cigar box on the table. He examined one before slicing of the tip with his combat knife and held it out for me. “He said you wouldn’t partake in the festivities. That didn’t surprise me but I’m curious, when was the last time you relaxed, Danse?” He held his gold lighter up to his freshly cut cigar and puffed until his was shrouded in smoke.

“I’m not sure.” I took the lighter that was offered to me. The smoke was smooth and coated my tongue in a sweet earthiness.

“Morale is important to keep a ship afloat.” An old saying that still had some merit.

“Isn’t that the whole point to tonight?” I asked before taking another pull from the the cigar.

“Yes.” He held up his glass. “What should we cheers to?” Arthur asked.

“To Victory.” I smiled, how appropriate. I clinked my glass to his and took a large gulp.

“And the pussy it brings.”

I almost choked to death.

“Don’t be such a prude, Danse.” Arthur chuckled before clearing his glass. He reached for the decanter and poured us another drink.

“You’re in a good mood.” I coughed, wiping the whiskey that managed to dribble into my beard.

“Of course. You’re alive, we’re going to take down the Institute, and Lancer Torres was able to procure my favorite accoutrements.” He waved his cigar before gripping it between his lips.

“You mentioned Rojas... that reminded me of something.” I wasn’t sure how much of what I knew could be freely given. I chose my words carefully. “Do the names Doctor Zimmer or Victoria Watts mean anything to you?”

“I don’t know a Doctor Zimmer but we killed Victoria Watts before I became Elder. She was an operative for an organization called the Railroad.” Arthur emptied his glass again.

“The Railroad?” I wondered why this was the first time I was hearing about it.

“They are an organization based here in the Commonwealth. They work in secret and smuggle synths out of the Institute and hide them amongst the populus.”

“That's disgusting.” My lip curled in disdain.

“That's why we're here, Danse. Between the Institute sending infiltration synths and the Railroad just letting them loose… It's dangerous chaos and it must be stopped.” Arthur poured himself another glass and doubled mine.

I downed my double in a single swig and winced at the burn. “Why did you really ask about Smith?”

My head may have been swimming but it was impossible to miss the smirk that flashed across his prematurely aged face. “She's our ticket to get in.”

*.*.*

“Just when you thought you’d heard everything, folks… There are tales being told about a very strange looking machine being built out there in the Commonwealth… Your friend Travis here has yet to learn what this thing is for, but I can tell you imaginations are running wild. Wackiest version I’ve heard so far is that this… thing, is supposed to somehow contact the Institute. Now I don’t believe that, but… If it’s true, and whoever’s building it can hear me? Put down the wrench, friend. It’ll only end badly. Anyone else out there knows what that thing does, you come see your old friend Travis ‘Lonely’ Miles. I’ll keep you up to date. As always. Coming up next, Betty Hutton.”

“That stupid fuck better shut ‘es mouth or ‘es gonna’ end up gettin’ ya killed!” Cait slammed her hand down on the radio, silencing it.

This would probably kill me anyway.

Chapter Text

“Did you see how that ghoul popped like a balloon?”

Ruckus laughter echoed off of the crumbling brick walls lining the dingy alleyway. We spent a fortnight out in the field, two weeks of standard scouting and retrieving items on the growing list of tech for Liberty Prime. Habitualization was beginning to sink in. There were even moments while fighting mutants where I would forget that I was five hundred miles from home. Comradery and seeing Rhys begin to develop true leadership skills, brought me pride and hope for the first time since arriving to the Commonwealth.

But it was all coming to an end. The Prydwen’s girthy underbelly loomed over us as the roof of the Airport began to peek out from behind dilapidated buildings. The group picked up its pace at the sight of our destination. Hydraulics hissed in protest with every overencumbered step. Bets of beers and packs of cigarettes were made on who carried the most inventory and as the barricade and sentries came into view, most of them devolved into sprints.

“Paladin.” The Knight on duty held his armored hand to his plated chest as I brought up the rear of the squad.

“Knight-” I trailed off, distracted by a distant shout.

Quinlan had come running out of the Airport terminal. His uniform billowed behind him as his mounted magnifying  glass bounced awkwardly on his chest.

“Paladin!” He huffed on his approach, his glasses in danger of falling off the tip of his nose.

“Quinlan?” His usually composed manner was shattered by his winded wheezing.

“It’s urgent, Paladin. If it hadn’t blown our communications system, we would have called you back days ago.”

“What happened?” I waved for him to follow me into the storage bay.

“That’s what the Elder wishes to speak to you about.”

I held onto my questions as we caught up with the rest of the squad, most of them in the process of unloading inventory. Except for Rhys, he was leaning on one of the workbenches, a smug grin plastered across his face as Haylen spoke to him animatedly. The Proctor waited impatiently as I cleared out the chest compartment of my suit. By the time I had unloaded the last high powered magnet, Quinlan was on the verge of hysteria. The grip on his clipboard was turning his knuckles white and fog began to creep across the lenses of his glasses.

They had apparently waited days to speak to me but the short moment I needed to complete my mission had the petite man unraveling. “Lead the way.” How exasperating.

“This way, Paladin.” I followed him down the corridor and up the stairs leading to the helipad.  

My stomach churned as every lancer on the platform came to a momentary stand still at the sound of our approach. Lancer Torres broke the spell by hurrying over to the radio. The other Lancers followed suit, hustling to prepare transport up to the Prydwen. Dread oozed down my spine, leaving prickling heat in its wake. The matter must have been grave if he had my Brothers and Sisters on alert for my arrival.

No one spoke as we boarded. As soon as Quinlan was seated, the aircraft revved its engines and we were airborne. The seconds felt like hours. An insufferably hot breeze whipped around us like a cocoon of humid dread. My own pounding heartbeat muffled the roar of the rotors. What should have been an over stimulating experience was dwarfed by crippling dissociation. I stepped out of the cockpit as soon as I felt the arm catch the vertibird, not waiting for it to come to a stop, and ignored Quinlans protest as I ran up the catwalk.

I was plunged into darkness as the hatch closed behind me. My eyes were habitually drawn to their silhouettes, dark against the bright observation window. It couldn’t be... They both turned upon my approach. Kells was holding a power armor helmet in his hands, her helmet.

My breath was stolen and replaced with a tidalwave of despair.

“What happened?”

“Paladin-” I could tell Kells was going to avoid the matter at hand with formalities. So, I cut him off.

“What happened?” I demanded.

The confines of my suit was suddenly overwhelming. The stifling heat that dripped heavily down my skin was suffocating. I could feel sanity slip through my fingers as the irradiated fog of my nightmares threatened to devour me.

Maxson stepped forward, his hands clasped behind his back, as if unaware of my fractured demeanor. “It seems Knight Smith is MIA or possibly AWOL...” A third option hung, unspoken, in the air.

“You said she was on a mission for you.”

“I believed so as well, until the communications system was fried by a massive energy pulse.” He leaned forward on the balls of his feet as he spoke. A technique he used whenever he needed to defuse a situation, visually looming over his subordinates.

“The same as the ones Haylen picked up?”

“No. The charge was higher and less tuned. Quinlan-” Maxson held his hand up as the Proctor shuffled as quickly as he could onto the observation deck. “was able to pinpoint the emission of the pulse. It seems like Knight Smith has been using the Minutemen to build this technology on the very outskirts of the Commonwealth. Far enough to hide it from us. Danse, you need to track her down and convince her to come back, if need be, before she gets herself or civilians killed.” If she wasn’t already dead.

“How do we know that she won’t come back on her own?” If she wasn’t already dead.

That’s when Kells held out her helmet. “We searched her foot locker and this was in there with a note… for you.”

The note was tucked inside the helmet with my name printed clearly on the outside. The paper was crumpled from being unfolded and re-folded numerous times. Annoyance bubbled up from my chest at the lack of respect, making itself known to the room with a guttural growl. I unfolded it, elegant calligraphy tore my heart from my chest with two simple words.

I’m sorry.

“I know where to start.” If she isn’t already dead. I turned away from the three men, ignoring their protest about not being dismissed.

I threw open the hatch, taking the stairs two at a time. Torres was still in the cockpit when I reached the vertibird. The surprise on her face was quickly wiped away and replaced with determination. “Where to, Paladin.”  

I secured Smiths helmet to my shoulder mounts. The HUD flashed on seamlessly. “Take me to the Castle.” A terminal-green highlighted path appeared on the interface. I couldn't help but grin at the modification and wonder how many more there were. “Torres, are you receiving this?” The pilot had placed on her own helmet.

“Yes, Sir.” Her voice came across the internal communications clearly. She revved the engine in preparation for release.

The vertibird flew low over the water, leaving the harbor disturbed in its wake. The strong aroma of the salt air seeped through the filters, it was crisper than the Chesapeake. The afternoon sun glittered off of the surface of the channel. As we made our approach I could see militiamen patrolling newly fortified walls. Their laser muskets following our flight pattern.

“Where would you like me to touch down, Sir?”

“Don’t. Pass right over the compound and then return back to the Prydwen. I’ll return on foot.” I held onto the frame of the cockpit, preparing for my decent.

“Yes, Sir. Goodluck. Ad Victoriam.” We breached the airspace over the Castle. The Minutemen below were frozen midtask, ogling our sudden appearance.

Torres hovered over the radio tower positioning us over a clear area. “Ad Victoriam, Torres.”

I stepped out of the cockpit. The ground came racing towards me as my stomach was shoved into my chests. I heard a shout as the vibrations of my landing knocked the closest Minutemen off of their feet. I moved to stand and found myself staring down the barrel of a laser musket.

“Weapons down!” Garvey's voice boomed throughout the fort.

Having guns pointed at me by Minutemen was becoming outmoded.

“A well mannered man would have knocked at the door first.” A gruff female voice sounded behind me.

“Paladin, what do you want?” The armada of Minutemen that had appeared made way for the Lieutenant, his own musket in hand.

“Where is Louise?”

Garvey’s eyebrows furrowed at my demand. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s none of your business. I would suggest you head back to your warship and tell your Elder that it’s time to go home.” He stood up tall, shoulders back and chin tilted upwards.

“Do you think it would be wise to take on the Institute and the Brotherhood of Steel, Garvey?” It took every ounce of my resolve not to throw the man to the ground.

“Did you come here to single handedly ruin the amnesty between our organizations?” His words were sharp and daring.

“Where is she?” I took a step closer to him and felt thirty people lift their makeshift weapons.

“Obviously she’s not here or else she would be the one making threats.” I turned to the gruff woman who spoke earlier. Her scowl deepened her already lined face.

“Look, she didn’t come back. If she did, she didn’t reach out to us. We’ve had patrol keeping an eye out for her and have been in constant communication with our settlements. There is only one place she could be but if she made it out… but if she did, it doesn’t seem like she wants visitors.” Worry slipped past his stoicism and settled deep within my chest. If she was still alive.

“Where, Garvey?” My words were barely an audible rumble.

“Diamond City.” He said as he took an involuntary step back.

An illuminate pathway appeared on the interface as Garvey spoke, along with an estimated time and distance. With my newfound determination I turned to leave only to have someone grab the arm plate of my armor. I looked back and was surprised by the strength of the elderly woman whos tight grip matched her tight lips.

“If you come here uninvited again, we won’t be as accommodating. Do I make myself clear?” She was stern and there was no doubt that there was truth behind her words.

Damn it. “Affirmative.”

She released her hold on my arm. “You better bring that girl back in one piece.”

“Yes ma’am.” Her eyes crinkled with the ghost of a smile.

___

The two hour hike to Diamond City started off smoothly, that was until I reached Boston Common. The most direct path had me fighting my way through the waring horads of super mutants that claimed inner city Boston. By the time I had made it safely past the Boston Public Library, my suit was peppered with dents and sprayed with massive amounts of congealing blood. The first Diamond City guard that I came across regarded me with caution, not lowering his weapon.

I had to restrain myself from running through the gate as it came into view. Frightening the guards posted at the front was to be avoided if I wanted clearance to enter the city. As I approached, two guards emerged from behind the ticket counter, one was adjusting his chest padding as the other took point.

“What’s your business here?” There was no masking the underlying threat, typical misguided distrust.

“I seek refuge within the walls of your city… and I have caps to spend.” If there was anything that was consistent, it was that the wasteland was still governed by capitalism.

He regarded me skeptically, his nose wrinkling as he took a step forward. “The Dugout is where you can get cleaned up and rent a bed. They have food there but I’d suggest Power Noodles in the middle of market. Just don’t start any trouble, we don’t tolerate Brotherhood shenanigans, ya hear.”

“You have my word.” We stood there awkwardly as I waited for him to step aside and let me in but he didn’t at first. Instead he continued to look me up and down with a nauseated expression. It wasn’t until the third guard, that was still standing behind the ticket counter, cleared his throat loudly that I was allowed to pass.

The temperature dropped drastically as soon as I made it within the concrete walls. The corridor leading to the inside of the stadium was long, the smell of roasted meats and burning trash wafted past me as wind funneled into the tunnel. As the walls opened up to the interior of the stadium the market blow came into view. It was a sprawling village that reminded me of the makeshift buildings of Megaton.

A child was standing on a box near the entrance of the market, soliciting the local newspaper. “Hey mister! An exclusive interview with the Sole Survivor is in this issue of Public Occurrences. Want to buy a copy? It’s only three caps.”

I reached up and pulled off my helmet, exposing myself to the unadulterated smell of the city. “I’m actually looking for a friend. Do you think that you can point me in the right direction?” I half expected her to be as wary as the adult security but she boldly held out a copy of the newspaper.

“Three caps for the new issue and I’ll tell you whatever you want.” She gave the paper a little wave.

I smiled as I popped open my arm plate. “Alright, kid.” She held out her hand, her little fingers waving in anticipation. “Where does Louise Smith live?” I exchanged my caps for the paper.

“Red door by the power armor station. You can’t miss it. It’s right by Takahashi’s.” The little girl pointed her finger towards right side of the flashing ‘Power Noodle’ sign.

“Thanks, kid”

“It’s Nat.” She corrected. “And when you see Louise, tell her it’s our best selling issue so far.” She held up her tiny thumb and returned the gesture with a smile.

Murmurs followed me into the market but the civilians kept their distance. Shopkeepers continued to shout their exclusive deals, enticing shoppers to stop and peruse their stock. Power Noodles took up the center of the marketplace and right next to Chem-I-Care was the power armor station and the red door.

If she’s there.

My stomach was in danger of dropping out of the bottom of my suit as I reached up and knocked on the wood with metal knuckles.

It wasn’t Smith who answered the door.

“There’s nothing quite like the smell of power armor grease and testosterone.” The fiery red head leaned against the doorframe, twirling the sash of her robe.

“The aroma is rather… pungent.” A giggle sounded from within the dwelling. I tried to lean around her to peer inside. “I’m actually looking for Louise. Is she here?”

“That’s none of your business soldier boy.” That was a yes.

I pushed the door the rest of the way open and side stepped her. I stepped into what I assumed was a workshop. Another giggle came from the rickety platform above. Relief flooded my system as her voice drifted down to us. “Cait, tell Mac I won’t be able to make it.” I pulled my release lever and jumped out of my armor frame.

The woman called Cait had grabbed a pair of pants that was hanging on the arm of a mannequin dressed as the Nuka Cola mascot and was shimmying into them. “That’s your loss. Vadim just got done bottling his new batch.”

The front door slammed as I made it up the stairs and to the loft above. The small bedroom was empty the only other place to check was the half level above. Obscured by a display case was a small bathroom.

And there she was, soaking in a freestanding tub. The milky water gave off an intoxicating scent that filled the humid air. Louise’s head was resting on a folded towel that was draped over the edge of the porcelain. Her arms rested delicately on the sides of the tub.  It was then that I noticed the bruised track marks on the inside of her elbow. Her eyes were glossed over as her vacant stare fixated on the ceiling above her. I knelt down next to the tub, alarms sounding off in my head and fear pulsing through my veins. I said her name. Her head snapped in my direction, eyes suddenly clear and pupils dilated. The blackness of them were consuming, observing. It made me feel exposed, vulnerable to her sudden perceived alertness.

“Damn it, Louise, what did you take?” She lifted her slender hand and pointed to the display case. I stood and looked inside to see multiple empty syringes of Med-X and a half empty inhaler of Jet. What was she thinking?

I had to flush her system.

I bolted down the stairs and wrenched open the chest plate of my armor to fish out my medkit. There at the bottom was what I was looking for. I didn’t even try to put my supplies away, instead took the stairs two at a time to get back to Louise as fast as possible. Her eyes followed me as I made my way back to her side. I slipped the protective sleeve off of the end of the inhaler.

I held it out for her. “Two puffs, now.” She managed to roll her eyes at the order but reached out and took the Addictol anyway.

The bruises that usually adorned the contours of her face were gone. The injection site was her only blemish. They didn’t harm her... but why did they heal her?

“Why didn’t you tell me that you were planning to go to the Institute?”

A smile pulled at the corner of her lip. “I didn’t have your phone number.”

“What?”

She brought her arms back into the tub, agitating the water. “Danse, who do you think I am?”

A loaded question that I knew I was unqualified to answer. I walked over to sit on the stairs, thankful for the shelter that the display case gave me from her gaze. “Louise Smith, Knight of the Brotherhood of Steel and General of the Minutemen… Originally from Vault 111.”

“I’m not originally from a Vault 111.” There was a long pause as water sloshed around in the tub. The silence was broken by her sigh. “Actually, I wish Vault-Tec never offered us a spot.”

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. If they had offered her a spot in a vault, that would mean… but that was impossible. “What?”

“I was adopted in the state of Hawaii in December of 2049 by Admiral Bryce Walker and his wife, Kelly Walker.”

She was from before the war. She was alive from before the Armageddon that ended civilization and gave birth to the endless wastes. “How?” I winced at my inability to form a complete thought.

“How am I here now? My husband was offered a spot for himself and our family because he was a decorated Master Sergeant. Well, that’s what they told him…” The hesitation in her voice told me that here was more than she was willing to share. “Once the bombs began to fall, we evacuated to the vault… we witnessed the bomb drop on Boston just as the elevator brought us into the vault. There, the scientists told us to get into decontamination pods. It got very cold... We were frozen for two hundred years.”

“Where’s your family now?” I wanted to take back the question as soon as I had asked.

There was more sloshing and the distinct sound of a plug being pulled. Water rushed down the pipe that lead to somewhere on the first floor. She walked past me in bare feet and an oversized white shirt, leaving wet footprints in her wake. “The Institute came into the vault and unfroze us, stole my son, and killed my husband before putting me back on ice.” Her explanation was so matter-of-fact and devoid of emotion.

“I’m sorry.” It was all I could manage.

She pulled back the blanket on her bed before crawling in, hair still sopping wet. “Yeah, me too.”

I sat there and watched from the stairs as she laid her head down. “Did you find your son when you went to the Institute?”

“Yes.” She closed her eyes, nuzzling into her pillow like a child.

“Where is he then?” I looked down at my hands, unable to ask such questions while looking at her directly.

“Still at the Institute.”

“Why?”

“I… am not sober enough to talk about that right now.” Addictol had had enough time to work… She just wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.

“I want to talk to you about something, off the record.” I looked up at the lack of response. Her chest was rising and falling slowly under her blanket. I decided to let her rest.

By the time I had scoured her entire home for more chems, it was late in the evening. I disposed of them down the drain of the kitchen sink before retiring to the couch in her living room.

I ran my hand over the plush burgundy cushion as I stared at the dark ceiling. I would bring her back to the Prydwen in the morning where she could be monitored around the clock. I was never going to let her out of my sight again. I couldn’t lose her.

*.*.*

“No!” The word was filled with terror as it reverberated off of the cinder block walls. Ice filled the pit of my stomach as the single syllable continued to echo in my head, long after his yelling had stopped. Except it wasn’t my commanding officer’s voice, it was my dead husband's. My thundering heart beat wasn’t what filled my ears but the pounding of my fists on frozen borosilicate glass.

The lights had come on and I could hear the faucet turn on in the kitchen down below. I sat in my bed until I could feel reality grip my fingertips. The water continued to run.

I got out of bed and slipped my feet into ancient slippers before heading down the stairs. I found him, hunched over the sink in the kitchen, water spilling down his forearms as he filled his cupped hands. He brought the water up to the top of his head and let it run through his hair, droplets falling heavily onto his face and shoulders.

“How long have you been having them?” I asked softly as I leaned onto my kitchen counter.

He jumped. I had spooked him. I had seen what he had been hiding, the pain he kept to himself. He didn’t turn to me but held my gaze in the mirror above the sink. Unnecessary shame painted the hard lines of his face with glowing heat. I stood still, consumed by our silent purgatory, expecting him to bolt like a frightened deer.

Chapter Text

“How long have you been having them?”

I jumped at the sound of her calm voice and caught her gaze in the mirror above the sink. Blood poured from every orifice in her face, spilling violently onto her stark white shirt. It sizzled away the flesh underneath, exposing the blood drenched bone underneath. The smell of burning hair curdled my stomach with a bitter aftertaste.  The effects of my nightmare lingered into my consciousness. I bowed into the basen of the sink, desperate to wash away the surge of unwanted emotions that had me teetering on the edge.

Her hand appeared next to me, a small folded towel in her grasp. “My husband used to have them too. That’s where I got this.” Her words were calm and even, unfazed by the exposure of my demons.

I looked back at her in the mirror to see her pointing at the small scar on her chin. I turned around to look at her more closely, gratefully accepting the towel she continued to hold out for me. “What happened?” I felt off kilter by her sudden cander.

“It happened the first weekend after my husband was discharged. I tried to wake him when he started thrashing. I didn’t know he had started sleeping with a combat knife under his pillow.” She pushed herself away from the counter and walked up to the shelf next to stove and pulled down two tumblers and a glass bottle. The clinking of glass on the countertop made my mouth water as she poured the amber liquid.

Louise held one out for me, comfortable with my lack of response. Her fingers brushed mine as I took it. Her touch sent electricity up my arm and buzzed in ears with static. She took her own glass and settled into the couch I had slept on. She sat cross legged. The hem of her oversized shirt pooled between her legs modestly keeping herself covered but it was becoming painfully obvious that the shirt was far from modest. The almost sheer material obscured almost none of her body. I fought the fluttering in my stomach and forced myself to continue to look her in the face as I sat down on the edge of the coffee table.

“Why did you invest so much in the Minutemen?” She frowned and I realized I had stepped out of line.

“Do you mean instead of looking for my son?” She asked.

“No. I mean…” Heat rose up my neck as I fumbled to explain myself. “The Brotherhood has the means to help you. You didn’t have to rebuild the Minutemen to find your son.”

“Danse, the war was over two hundred years ago for you... but for me... it’s only been a few months. I couldn’t just give up my values when I stepped out of Vault 111.” She took the first swig.

“What do you mean?” I followed her lead and sipped the amber liquid, surprised she had selected brandy to drink.

“My dad had been one of the many men in charge of keeping the world powers balanced. He probably shouldn’t have been as open about his work at home but he always wanted my mother and I to be informed and ready for anything. He not only protected his family but the entire country… for as long as he could. I wanted nothing more than to live up to his legacy. There was no other path for me.” Her eyes were glossy and focused on a spot somewhere over my shoulder. Her vulnerability kept her from looking at me. It was a level of intimacy that neither of us could manage. It was a barrier that allowed me to take in the information she was finally willing to give.

“I studied law in Cambridge, determined that I could change what was wrong in society and protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. My short stint as a public defender made it clear that the government had stacked the odds against its own people. I joined the Union to fight the government directly.” She took another sip, wincing at the burn.

“The Union?” I was only understanding half of what she was trying to explain.

“They refused to change the name after the annexation of Canada and Mexico. Most people believed it to be a war crime… Oh, you don’t even know what I’m talking about. Sorry, the American Constitutional Liberties Union  was a nonprofit organization of lawyers whose sole purpose was to protect the public’s rights. The rapid inflation caused nationwide poverty and blatant discrimination. While lobbying in D.C., for the protection of food assistance programs, I became close with my senator. I told her I felt like I needed to do more and she suggested to try to fix it from the inside. So, I collected the signatures needed and applied to run for the fifth congressional district of Massachusetts. I was supposed to announce my campagne at the veterans hall the night the bombs fell.” She tucked her loose hair behind her ear.

My stomach dropped through the floor. She’s Enclave… Not only had her father been but it was her plan to be as well. My hand flinched towards my laser rifle as it rested on the table next to me. I had to suppress years of training to not kill the woman in front of me. Killing her is what I should have done but would I have even been able to?

Louise continued her story, oblivious to my internal struggle. “I emerged from the vault and my home, my community, the world I had known was destroyed. The people left behind were the great grandchildren of my friends and my neighbors. I couldn’t not do anything when I was asked for help. I feel guilty . I was meant to change the past but was then thrusted into this future. My family was gone. I had no idea where to start. Then, I met Preston and I knew that the kindness of my world was still alive and If I was to ever find my son, I needed a community of people like him to bring Shaun home to. The more I helped the Minutemen, the more I came to understand that there were a lot of us out there. Those of us who care about each other and give what we can. It’s been what has kept me going, giving me hope that I would find my son. I would die for them as quickly as I would for him.”

“Why is Shaun still in the Institute? What happened while you were there? How did you get in? How did you find them? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have helped. Going in alone was dangerous. You should have had backup.” The words came spilling out of my mouth, digorging the thoughts that filled my frontal lobe in a jumbled disaster. I took a swig to hide my discomfort.  

She opened her mouth as if about to speak but then lifted her glass to her lips instead. Louise finished her drink then placed it down on the table next to me before getting up and retrieving the brandy bottle from the kitchen. She held out a pack of cigarettes that seemed to appear out of thin air. “Want a smoke?” She asked, flicking the carten open with her index finger.

I reached up and took a thin paper cylinder from the box. “Thank you.”

“Want a top up?” She picked up her own glass and refilled it.

“Sure.” I held my glass out and watched the way her bottom lip found itself caged between her teeth as she focused on not spilling.

“Shaun can’t leave because he has cancer.” She threw the rest of her drink back and reached for the bottle again. “I am the first person to find the Institute since it’s conception and I still couldn’t save him.” She took a swig directly from the bottle. “Those bastards put me back on ice after murdering Nate and ripping Shaun out of his dead arms.” Her voice cracked.

I still wasn’t following but the sudden insight to her past made it clear that I would never… could never fully understand. “How did you find him?”

“I tracked down the mercenary who kidnapped Shaun. The Institute had implanted some kind of enhancement in his brain. I cut it out and had the data analyzed. It showed that a researcher from the Institute had defected. I tracked him down and acquired the plans I needed to get in.” She secured the cigarette carefully between her lips. The flip lighter ignited with a small spark and she brought the flame up to the exposed end. A thin trail of smoke came out of the small ember at the end just as she exhaled a small puff. She then passed the lighter to me.

I lit my own cigarette and mulled over what she had told me up to that point. She watched me intently, waiting for more questions. I could feel my face begin to heat as her eyes scanned my expression for any indication for what I would say next. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have helped you. I understand that the sensitivity of your situation may call for some discretion…” I swallowed the nervous lump in my throat. “Did I give you a reason not to tell me?”

Louise let out the breath she had been holding. “You can be a real dick sometimes and the Brotherhood makes my Minutemen feel uneasy. It was just better this way.”

“I thought I made it clear as to why I’m so tough on you.” I would be lying if I said her words didn’t sting.

“Yeah, well… A giant zeppelin threatening the Commonwealth not to interfere didn’t settle well with the locals.” She grabbed the yellowing ashtray off of the side table and placed it on the arm of the couch. The flick of her cigarette deposited ash into the basin.

“Public relations isn’t a priority. We have a mission to accomplish which leaves no room for courteousness.” I took a sip of brandy to disguise my irritation.

“That’s why I didn’t tell you.” I felt like a scolded child under her glare. “Our interests don’t align, Danse. I know I told you that I would join the Brotherhood but I can’t see that being an option anymore.”

“The Brotherhood of Steel isn’t a technology based Theocracy hell bent on world domination, Louise... I know that’s what people think but that’s not the case. If you would just give me a chance to explain, I think you would understand.” I leaned forward to ash my own cigarette and watched her eyes dilate at our close proximity. I felt my face heat up as the awkwardness curdled in the pit of my stomach. She made me nervous which only made opening up almost impossible.

“I’m listening” She finished off her glass, wincing at the burn.

“This is off the record.”

“All right,” She nodded, taking another drag.

I thumbed the rim of my glass, searching desperately for a way to form words out of the jumbled mess I needed to get across to her. Alcohol hummed in my veins, making it hard to seperate my nightmares from reality. Green haze threatened to pull me under the surface. “Forgive me, this is difficult.”

She said nothing but continued to watch me through a haze of smoke.

“When you were first placed under my sponsorship, I had some serious reservations about it.” I hated that there was no other way to put it.

Louise made a rude noise but I continued on.

“Despite all that, this has turned out to be a rewarding experience… for both of us.” I could feel my mouth begin to dry.

“Is that so?” She asked.

I nodded, gulping down the rest of my drink. “At this point, honestly, I don’t feel like there’s anything else I could teach you about being a Brotherhood soldier that you don’t already know. It’s apparent from your attitude and your actions that you intend to keep those ideals close to your heart.”

“I feel like I’m about to get some bad news.” She folded her arms across her chest, guarding herself from what I had to say.

I realised that the conversation was going in a direction I didn’t intend it to. “No, not at all. I’m just not very good at these things.”

“I don’t see how my ideals fall in line with the Brotherhoo-”

I held my hand up to stop her. “Let me start at the beginning.”

Louise pressed her lips together and reached for the bottle, filling our glasses again.

“I grew up alone in the Capital Wasteland.” Vivid hunger and pain flashed to the forefront of my memory. “Spent most of my childhood picking through the ruins and selling scrap.” I could feel the sun brand my skin and smell it bake the broken concrete. “When I was a bit older, and had a few caps to my name, I moved into Rivet City and opened a junk stand.”

Louise noticed my hesitation but I was already lost to the memories. Cutler was haggling Flank my first day as a resident. I entered the market through the main hatch. A commotion held most of the patrons attention. Without asking what was happening, I walked up to the two men and placed my own pipe rifle on the table. Cutler’s crooked smile was worth covering the difference . “While I was there, I met a guy named Cutler. We got along pretty well, watched each other’s backs and kept each other out of trouble.” Except for the many fights we encountered at The Muddy Rudder. “ When the Brotherhood came through on a recruiting run, we felt like it was the best way out of our nowhere lives, so we joined up.”

“Rivet City? Must be post-war, because I’ve never heard of it.” Louise pulled out another cigarette to smoke.

“You’re right. It was a settlement built inside the remains of a beached aircraft carrier.”  The distinct smell of led paint that covered the rusting hull would always accompany my thoughts of Rivet City. “One of the safest places to live in the Capital Wasteland until the Brotherhood arrived. It was the perfect location for me to try my hand at being a merchant.” I was never good at it but I wouldn’t let her know that.

“I have a hard time picturing you as anything but a soldier.” She mused.

I chuckled softly at her amusement. “Clearly I was ignoring my calling.”

Louise held out the ashtray for me to put out the smoldering butt I seemed to refuse to put down.

“Anyway, about a year after we were posted to the Prydwen, Cutler vanished on a scouting op.” Dread had filled my soul when his squad had missed check-in. I was reassured over and over that I was overreacting, that he would return….I knew they were wrong. “It took some convincing, but I was able to persuade my CO to let me assemble a squad and search for him. It took almost three weeks, but we tracked his team down to a Super Mutant hive.” Bags of rancid rotting flesh littered every horizontal surface. Merciless taunting boomed with pride of the atrocities they had committed against our brothers.

The weight was suffocating. Warm blood was seeping through the gaskets of my armor, soaking into the fabric of my uniform like parched earth after a long drought. His eyes were still open, unfocused and empty. The green ocean of his irises were slowly being engulfed by the lifeless abyss of his dilating pupils. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t yell. I was pinned by the shock of my sudden loss and the weight of his body.  

“Those wretched abominations had slaughtered everyone but Cutler. He should have been so lucky. The mutant bastards used their FEV to change him into one of their own kind. He wasn’t Cutler anymore. I had to… it was my duty to… put him down.” I clenched my fist. A line of angry red crescents appeared on my palm.

“Are you sure there wasn’t anything you could do to change him back?”

“The FEV effect is irreversible. There was nothing anyone could do.”

“You did what the Brotherhood taught you.” She sighed.

“Then you understand why it had to be done. Ever since Cutler died, I’ve seen other soldiers come and go. Some were brave, some were honest… Hell, some were even downright heroic. But I’d never considered any of them to be a good friend, a friend like Cutler was… until now. It’s a good feeling, but it frightens me all the same. Having a bond with someone then losing them… it changes you. I don’t want to go through that again.” Overwhelming emotions threatened to bubble to the surface as I reflected on my most recent nightmare.

“It would never be that way with me… I care about you too much to let that happen.” Her demeanor changed as she said it. Her expression was sheepish and her posture slouched in a protective stance. She was protecting herself, bracing for the repercussions for being vulnerable, for being honest.

My face was hot and I stuttered like a squire before an officer. “I… I didn’t know you felt that strongly about our… Well, about us. I’m sorry if I seem… confused. You’ve certainly given me something to think about. I just thought you deserved to know how I felt. If you feel that I’ve overstepped my bounds, I completely understand. Whatever the case may be, I appreciate the fact that you took the time to listen.”

Smooth.

Louise jumped up off of the couch, satisfied with my response. “Well, There goes my dream of being reborn as a Super Mutant.” She picked up our glasses and purposely bumped my shoulder with her hip as she passed.

I chuckled at the intense relief I felt. ”Glad to have changed your mind.”

*.*.*

I watched him from behind the counter as I dried our glasses. If only he knew… The vial that could have saved the man he loved was sitting in my night stand…. He wouldn’t believe me even if I told him. I had to show him.

Danse walked up to the wall where I mounted my most used weapons and pulled down Righteous Authority. My stomach clenched as his thumb ran across the blood splattered barrel. “Not cleaning your rifle could lead to a malfunction in the capacitor.”

Obtuse was the best way to describe him sometimes, or maybe I was just expecting him to understand something only I could. “I killed Kellogg with Righteous Authority. I’m just not ready to was away the evidence.”

He looked up at me with sudden clarity. “The Institute mercenary?”

I nodded as he carefully mounted the rifle again. “It’s almost morning. Would you like a cup of coffee before we head out?”

“Excellent. Maxson will be pleased you’re back.” He rubbed his hands together in excitement.

“We aren’t going to the Prydwen.” I said bluntly.

His brows lifted in surprise. “But I thought-”

I held up my hand to stop him. “We’re going to the Glowing Sea. You wanted to be involved… Well, now you are.”

Chapter Text

It was obnoxious. Mica reflects sparked in the sunlight like fire. It was over polished, garish, and borderline vulgar. The sweeping lettering was stark and white hot. And, as I watched her manage a bounce to her step, encased in a half a ton of profane capitalist marketing, I was jealous. I wanted it.

Louise was blaring Dion in what must have been an external sound system in her suit… or she was damaging her own hearing for the opportunity to stride to the tempo of The Wanderer. There was no doubt that everything within a quarter mile radius could hear her one person blowout. 

It made me anxious. She made us a target.

I was nervously sweating under the weight of our mortality and the stifling added precautions to our journey. Louise had spent half of the morning adding multiple modifications to our suits. Her fingers nimble and quick as she hunched over her working station. The way she held her lip between her teeth drew my eyes to her like gravity.  She would wave me away each time I was caught looking over her shoulder and every time I would stammer an embarrassed apology.

 When she pulled out a phlebotomy kit I was reluctant to allow her to put in a direct line. She didn’t press it, instead she left the kit on a surgical tray by my armor before packing Radaway, Stempacks, and other medical aids into the autodespensers that both suits had very recently acquired.

I took the tray with me to her kitchen and sat on the bar stool inspecting the kit. I unzipped my under-armor and freed my left arm from its sleeve. I secured the latex tourniquet around my bicep before piercing the most prominent vein in my forearm. Louise placed a folded orange suit down on the table next to the surgical tray, then an orb like helmet on top. 

“You’re going to want to put this on.” She said, patting the helmet for emphasis. Her own port was already taped securely to the back of her hand. 

“Brotherhood issued suits are already capable of keeping out high levels of radiation.” I informed her. From the reports that I read about the glowing sea It would be unwise to venture far inside the radius but as I inspected the suit under her hand I realized the extent of our expedition. 

“The levels of radiation in the Glowing Sea, according to Haylen, are the highest of any place on the east coast.” Yes, I had read the reports. I crossed my arms across my chest as I listened to her advocate or possibly convince herself to follow through with her plan. “It affects our weather patterns, sending radiation storms hundreds, possibly thousands, of miles from its epicenter.”

 I scanned her face, gauging her confidence in her own words. She was nervous and then slowly but surely is became apparent that she couldn’t hide it any longer. 

 She mistook my stunned silence as defiance and threw her hands in the air. “But please, by all means, let your suit be your only protection from radiation when we come across a Glowing Deathclaw.” I could almost hear her eyes roll as she turned away from me and back to her workshop.

As we walked under the rail crossing just outside of the city, that very hazmat suit was beginning to ride up in uncomfortable places. The extra helmet hung by a clip next to my sidearm, clinking obnoxiously with each step. I was beginning to notice the strong odor of latex less as pools of sweat made the material inside my suit stick to my skin, like I was vacumesealed inside. 

Louise didn’t seem to be bothered by the heat, weight, or my bad attitude. She continued to sing as the song faded into a Sheldon Allman tune. That was until we turned the corner around Milton General Hospital. She turned down her radio, her Gauss rifle at the ready as she cautiously approached the intersection.

“We can’t go that way. We need to go south.” I could hear the frantic clicking of her hud as she flipped through its interface.

“But wouldn’t following the interstate give us much needed cover?” From our position it seemed like the best option, fewer places to be ambushed.

The silence that followed left a sour taste in my mouth. When she turned to me I flinched away from waves of passionate anger. She reached up and pulled her helmet off. I found myself doing the same, relieving myself of the asphyxiating regret I felt upon opening my mouth.

“I never told you how I met Preston, did I?” The anger that had flared so suddenly, dissipated just a quickly. Her armored shoulders sagged, wilting like the pre-war flower that she was.

“No.” 

She chewed on her bottom lip tentatively for a moment before deciding to continue. “The number of Minutemen had been on the decline over the last decade. The city of Quincy had reached out to the Minutemen with a request for backup regarding a group of Gunners who had been causing trouble. The usual, shaking down the townspeople for caps they obviously didn’t have.” Louise replaced her helmet, taking point once again.

“After a while the Gunners got the upper hand, with help from a Minutemen defect. They killed almost everyone. Preston and a small party escaped but the Gunners followed, killing more people in Jamaica Plain. Almost everyone was dead by the time I found him in Concord… Quincy is down that road which is why we’re going around.” She lead us around the corner of a coolant station.

“Do they still occupy Quincy?” I look down my scope, scanning for any possible danger along the highway. 

“No. I just can’t stand the smell.” They were all dead. 

The shock of her words hit me like a tsunami. If it wasn't for the large fireball, I would have thought that the ground shaking below my feet was caused by my own surprise. Her words shattered my preconceived notions about not just her but the Minutemen as well. My thoughts scattered across the road along with the debris from the blast.

“Stay here!” Louise shouted over her shoulder, charging into the remains of the smoldering shack. 

I secured my helmet just as a rocket flew past me, sending the coolant station sign into the air. The explosion had woken up a nest of gunners. They scurried out of their stronghold like a swarm of angry ants. 

The air lit up in green and red. Projectiles whistled, peppering my armor and causing the asphalt to explode at my feet. With nowhere to seek cover, I knelt down, peering through my scope. Blue light had streaked across my field of view, Louise had come bounding to my side.

“For the Brotherhood!” I shouted as my shot landed its target, sending a shirtless gunner skidding across the pavement.

“Eat shit you greedy bastards!” Her voice rang out above the chaos.

It was exhilarating, having her at my side, taking down an entire platoon of gunners. Her shots were precise and lethal. Her ferociousness could easily challenge the best knights in the Brotherhood. She made me feel young again. Like, back when I believed righteousness was simple. She moved as if everything's black and white, but she turned my world into technicolor. 

As the last Gunner fell, Louise slung her rifle over her shoulder. She reached into a compartment and produces a flare gun  and a can of spray paint. I follow her to the heavily fortified Plaza where she marked the outer barrier with crimson. A matching flare was shot into the sky, calling on reinforcements.

“Let's keep moving.” She took point once more, guiding us past Gunners Plaza.  She lead us to the west where the skyline was gone and the tick of our geiger counters warned us of danger.

  We hiked to where the road ended, to the bank of the Charles River. To a cul-de-sac filled with parked cars and high school lovers still inside. The sun was now low in the sky, painting the clouds in pinks and oranges. The setting sun reflected off of the water,  like dancing fire. The gravel below our feet glittered under the light of our headlamps,

“Are you ready to take a dip?” I could hear her smile, amused by correctly guessing my reaction.

"This isn't the navy, you know?" I cringed as she stepped into the water. I knew that wading across the Charles River would not cause us any physical harm but I but the damage to my suit would take days to repair. I gritted my teeth against the coldness of the water dreading the rust and squeaking joints in my future. Maybe Teagan would have some steel wool and his inventory. 

By the time I reach the other side, Louise was standing over the carcass of a mirelurk, her gauss rifle still pointed at its shell. “We're almost to the glowing sea. It's just passed this grove of trees.”  she beckoned me to follow with the tilt of her head.

 The ticking of our geiger counters grew louder as we pushed forward. My stomach began to churn at the familiar heat as it clung to me. The ridge ahead of us was backlit with a glow, the glow. Flood lights were Illuminating something embedded in the ridge. The sound of an assaultron caused Louise and I to crouch low to the ground, both of our headlamps clicking off at the same time. Louise crept forward,  her scope almost touching the interface of her helmet. 

“More gunners. They still haven't noticed us, come on.”

I placed an armored hand on her shoulder. “We should clear them out.”

“Danse, it's a Vault. It’s best if we try to get by unseen. We have no idea how many are in there. Are you really willing to sweep the entire compound with just the two of us?” Her voice was so low I could barely hear her over the mechanical ticking of the turrets outside of the Vault.

I  look down my scope I could see the gear shaped door was half open, the number 95 half obscured behind its frame. At least a dozen Gunners patrolled the outside. Louise was right, we had absolutely no idea how many more could be inside. 

I reluctantly nodded.  Louise took point once again. She led us up the steep embankment, our armored boots sinking into the soft claybed, muffeling our climb. It was laborious, even with our mechanical privilege. I knew we were close. I could feel it as we reach the ledge. But, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see.

The frozen lead of terror replaced all of my internal organs. The deafening  ticking of our geiger counters became muffled as if there was a sudden change in elevation. Adrenaline was ringing in my ears. I couldn't move as Louise crossed the freeway ahead of us. My eyes were transfixed on the landscape. 

Rolling mountains, invasive to the natural geography, ebbed and swelled across the horizon. Buildings to big to be obliterated were half submerged, swallowed when the blast turned the earth below their foundations into a non-newtonian fluid. Huge trees were stripped down to the trunk, all of them leaning or fallen over in the same direction, their bark blackened by the blast. Pools of glittering topsoil illuminated the valleys with radiation.  I had seen my fair share of blast sites and this was nothing like the others. The greens, golds, and oranges… I had only seen this much uranium byproduct once before. When I had found Cutler in Vault 87. Louise had led me into Hell.

*.*.*

“Don’t shoot at anything that isn’t attacking us. Trust me, we’re going to need to save our supplies for the stuff that does try to kill us.”  I looked over my shoulder. Danse was still standing at the edge of the highway, his head swiveled in every direction, but still, he didn’t move. “Come on, big guy!” His head snapped in my direction but he said nothing.

‘Whatever’ I thought to myself before trudging forward. I didn’t have to check if he was following, his lumbering strides were loud and echoed off of the broken pavement. Luckily I think he heard me, at least he didn’t start shooting the sleeping ghouls as we passed the Pentecostal church Nate’s parents used to attend. 

The Paladin continued his silent brooding, not saying a single word as we passed a submerged Super Duper Mart. He at least continued to follow me, skirting past busted open carcasses of Radscorpions without a single sound. It was just like the subsurface levels of Fort Strong all over again.

I hate silence, so I filled it. I explained to Danse that the bomb that fell south of Boston caused a complete meltdown of a nuclear power plant to the west. I told him about the Children of Atom using the crater as a sight of pilgrimage. That they baptize themselves by collecting nuclear waste from the plant and carry it back to the crater. This tradition of destroying what little containment was left after the bombs caused continuous fallout in the area.

He said nothing, just followed.

The winding landscape ushered us to the south west. Our geiger counters ticked dangerously as we bypassed ground zero. Gamma radiation shot straight into the sky in a pillar of periwinkle. My stomach began to churn but the cold rush through my IV drip helped me continue to put one foot in front of the other. 

As we climbed the mountain side where Dr. Virgil was waiting, a roar ripped through the night. Danse was the first one to shoot. I was rooted to the spot, shocked by the sight of him charging past.  A monstrous Deathclaw glowed, like uranium under ultraviolet light. Its fierceness was dwarfed by the Paladins war cry. He was terrifying. His yells ripped my chest with sorrow and grief. His pain echoing from the night before. 

How could I have been so stupid...