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Hanged Our Harps Upon the Willows

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Joshua doesn't look surprised to see her again. Then again, Joshua's whole face is covered in bandages, which really cuts back on the kinds of expressions he's able to make. His eyes say a lot, but most of that is serious, and the rest is slightly amused by her. Anyway, they're a pair today, since she's got bandages on too, though hers are all over her skull. She raises a hand to waive to him. "Joshua!"

"Courier." He greets her. Joshua looks more at ease than the last time she spoke with him. Gone are the stacks of pistols and the plans for war. She can see he's armed, but of course he is, this is the wasteland. Only an idiot would walk around without something on hand. But the gun's on the holster on his hip, and there's a book in his hand.

She comes over and takes a seat by him and takes her pack off, dropping it beside her. It's good to get that weight off her back. "Reading a good book?"

"The only one there is." He says, in which she suspects is a joke she doesn't get. That's okay. Eventually she figures them out, or she doesn't. There's a little shade here, and she takes her hat off, setting it on one knee. Joshua looks at her head. "I see trouble found you again."

"Trouble and me are good friends." The hair's starting to grow back in on her head, under the bandages, and it itches something awful. She can't wait for it to finish growing out, and for her head to finish healing entirely. It's nearly there, there's just a little more to go. "Want to go on a trip?"

"Not particularly. But I expect that if you're asking, then you must have a destination in mind for me." His voice is so even, and so unsurprised. Courier just grins. "When do we depart?"

"Whenever you're free. I don't have anywhere I need to be anymore." And she doesn't. It's a bit weird. All she has for clear memories are the last six months. Everything before then is indistinct, mostly blurs, or out of context scraps. So, for as much of her life as she can remember, she's been at war.

The war's won now. The Legion's crumbling. The NCR's retreated. Yes Man sits silent in the Lucky 38 and Securitrons keep the Mohave safe. Courier's got nowhere in particular to be. That's left her plenty of time to just go wandering around, just to see what else there is to see. And there's all kinds of things. Poison gas. Strange aircraft. Dogs playing poker.

Joshua turns the page of his book. "How does peace feel to you?"

Courier sets her hands behind her head. "Weird. I don't remember being at peace before. I'm not sure if this is always how I feel about it. It's not bad. Just weird."

Joshua nods ever so slightly. "I can't remember what peace used to feel like either. I suspect it was different than this."

"Probably." Courier sets a hand on her head and feels her skull. "Not remembering is a real bitch sometimes. But it's got upsides. Oh, speaking of upsides, I don't have migraines anymore."

"The Lord is kind to his servants." Joshua says it so sincerely that Courier has trouble not laughing. He believes, really and truly, and it's remarkable. Is this something you're born with? Or is it something you learn? Would it be rude to ask? Probably. She'll save it for later. He's got a lot of patience for her questions, but she doesn't want to drive him off before he comes with her.

"That's the place we're going. They've got the best auto-doc I've ever seen." Courier looks up at Joshua, and at the bits of him she sees peeking from his bandages. The scars are deep and thick, and they spiral out in little fractals. "It got rid of my migraines, and a bunch of other stuff. They even took out my brain and spine."

Joshua finally looks up from his book to look at her, as if he’ll be able to confirm it by looking at her. Which he kind of can, honestly, she does still have the bandages on her skull. "Your brain and spine were removed from your body."

"Well, they got put back. Same with my heart." She thumps her chest lightly. "I wasn't entirely without them. I just had some other stuff in there. Replacements made out of machines, I think. I never asked any questions. Maybe I will when we head there."

Joshua stares at her before his eyes slowly return to his book. When he doesn't speak, she does her best to gently bait him.

"They can do all kinds of stuff there. I'll be honest, the people are weird. But they're brilliant. They're old world scientists. You probably won't get along with them, so we'll just avoid having you talk with them, and you can talk to the machine instead. The Auto-Doc's the guy we're going to see. He can do anything" And she carefully avoids actually touching Joshua as she nudges his shirt slightly. "Probably even help you."

She waits for a response. It's a long time coming. Joshua isn't ignoring her, and she can see that when she looks at him. He's clearly thinking about it, very, very deeply. She understands. Courier's promising him the impossible - and it might still be impossible. Auto-Doc seemed convinced he could help but he hasn't seen Joshua yet. Hell, Courier hasn't either. She just knows the story, and she knows how carefully he holds himself, aware that any point of contact between himself and the world is a painful one.

Finally, Joshua speaks. "How many days is the journey?"

"No days." She reaches for her pack and undoes the flap, pulling it out and showing the gun. "This is a transportalponder. It teleports me to the Big MT - that's where the Auto-Doc and the other stuff is. But last time I was there, I asked them to make it bigger, and it is, so now I can take two people with me. We can leave now, and maybe be back in a few days. What do you say?"

She hopes he says yes. But it's not a surprise when he looks away and the answer is a long time coming. Courier waits. She knows how to be patient, when it suits her. She lays the transportalponder against her leg and waits for him as he thinks it out.

At least it's nice to wait here. There's a good breeze going and the sound of water as it runs through the streams. She likes the valley here. It's very lush. Everything's alive. It's beautiful. But it's nowhere she could stay for very long without going stir-crazy. Something about the mohave speaks to her in a way that greenery never does. What have you even done with yourself if you're not shaking dust out of your clothes when he bed down for the night?

The sun shifts a little in the sky. Courier ignores the itching her skull is feeling right now. She's supposed to leave those be to heal up, no matter how much she wants to pick at the incisions. After a bit, she watches the sky to see if she can spot a cloud. There's a few thin little wisps, like strands of cotton pulled out to their breaking point. She tries to imagine what big fluffy clouds look like. Some part of her remembers them, big thick white ones, with black underbellies. Where was she when she saw them? North? West? East? Maybe even south. A courier goes everywhere, and she was a courier before she was the Courier.

Joshua is thinking. It's funny how this is a tough decision for him. He hasn't even heard what it can do exactly, except make things better. Maybe. Might make things better. Maybe that's the fear he has? That she'll take him there, and he'll get his hopes up and nothing will happen?

No. That doesn't seem much like Joshua. He's a man of action, and he prefers to confront things head-on. Not like Daniel. Daniel is the one who would be afraid of knowing for sure. Joshua wants that knowledge.

Maybe it's something to do with his Lord? Joshua does seem to have many opinions on what the Lord does and doesn't like.

She's nearly lulled herself into a nap in the warm afternoon sun when Joshua speaks, and her eyes snap open. "Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow? Sure." She sits back up and shakes herself off. "We'll go in the morning. You need anything taken care of before then?"

"Go speak with Stays-True. There's always something that needs tending to, and many hands make light work." Joshua stands then and takes his book with him, leaving Courier to her own devices. She watches him go. If she knew why he was so bothered, maybe she could find the words to give him comfort.

But words have never been Courier's strong suit. She stands as well and heads off to finds Stays-True and to see what has to be done.

--

Courier helps and eats and sleeps well in the Zion Canyon. She wakes with the dawn and heads down to the campfire, now little more than coals. While she gets it burning a little more, she settles a coffee pot in the coals and gets to brewing something nice and strong.

She hears Joshua before she sees him, knowing the way his boots grind the ground as he moves. Courier pours him a cup and offers it to him. "It's warm."

He sits by her and takes the cup. After a moment, his fingers seek a little at his bandaging, finding the end of one. She does her best not to stare at him as he unwraps his mouth, just enough to drink. It's not a pretty sight, even not looking head on. His lips - or what were his lips - are thick with scar tissue, even more fleshy spiderwebs that cover them. He carefully sips at his coffee. She wonders if his tongue burned when he burned, or did it stay safe inside his mouth? It must have. He speaks clearly when he talks.

Courier drinks her own coffee. It's nice and dark and bitter, the kind of thing that kicks your ass and wakes you up. She could take something else instead, but she's trying not to take too many drugs lately. Just coffee. There's only so many times you can take a fixer before that stops working, and she's seen enough people living outside of New Vegas to know that anybody can end up there.

When her cup's gone, and so is his, she turns to him. "Ready?"

Joshua nods. Courier lets the fire die back down, and she empties the grounds out in the waters, letting it float away and rot somewhere downstream, where it won't attract any yao guai. Then she takes the transportalponder from her pack, and offers an arm to Joshua.

"Hold on." She tells him. He does. It must hurt, but his grip is always firm. Courier pulls the trigger-

-and like that, the world around them changes, dirt and rock giving way to metal, from a cave to the inside of the Sink. Her feet land on solid ground. His do too, and neither of them rocks much. She checks Joshua to make sure the transporting hasn't bothered him any. He seems okay, though his eyes are very wide, and very blue as they look around. Huh. Funny how a change in lighting can point something like that out?

"Welcome to the Sink." Courier gives him a smile and motions for him to follow her. "Don't mind everyone."

Right on cue, Muggy comes rolling through. Courier takes off her pack and opens the flap, sorting through as Muggy spots her and comes rolling over. "COURIER! Hey hey, got any mugs?"

"Yep. Found some more in need of processing." She digs them out and starts handing them over.

"THANK YOU MERCIFUL ANGEL! I'm going to go break these down right now!" And with that, he begins dragging them over the floor of the Sink, taking them off to a corner to do what he will with them. She stacks a few more on the floor for him to find, and begins digging out other items.

"A miniature securitron who requires mugs." Joshua isn't really asking a question, but she nods anyway to confirm. "Not one of the scientists you were speaking about."

"Those people are much weirder. Muggy was programmed to find and clean mugs, in a place where nobody makes dishes anymore. I make a point of dirtying extra ones while I'm here. Make sure to use extra mugs too." She hands Joshua a few mostly-rotted books. "Do you mind holding that for a moment? I'll be quick about it, but I've been carrying them for a while, and the book chute's over there."

And she's she's making space, she digs out the broken camera and spare toasters, tucking them under her arms. Joshua looks, but remains quiet, clearly waiting to see what she's doing with them. Observation is something she needs to do better about. She's still likely to barge in and only realize she's stepped near a mine when she hears the beeping underfoot, and then the panic as she throws herself off it before it rips a leg off.

The Toaster cackles soon as she steps into the bedroom, "Ahahaha! Tremble, Courier! Tremble before me! And I see you've brought me a disciple!"

"Sorry Toaster, this one worships something else. But I brought you more toasters." And she hands them off one by one, while Joshua remains silent as he watches them dismantled piece by piece.

When the pile is done, Toaster cackles one more. "That's right, scream! Scream for Toaster! Quake in fear, both of you! Soon, you will have no other Gods but me, Toaster, once I burn the world to ashes!"

Joshua looks at her. She carefully whispers to him. "Don't mention the world outside."

"What was that?" Toaster seems to glow some. "You were speaking under your breath!"

"She was advising me to show you the respect you are due." Joshua doesn’t even hesitate to play along, and Courier has to bit her lip not to laugh. He is very convincing. "I see it was wise of her to warn me of you."

"Yes! Bow before me! Bring me toasters and other appliances! I'll see their gutted, empty husks surrounding us! A taste of what's yet to come for you both!" And with that, the Toaster starts cackling again.

While he laughs, she feeds the book deposit, and finally, she comes to stop in front of the Auto-Doc. "Hi Doc. This is Joshua Graham. I was telling you about him."

"So you were. Well son, you look more like a mummy than a man. Step over here, where I can take a good look at you." Courier steps to the side and motions for Joshua to step in. He does so, moving somewhat reluctantly. Auto-Doc scans him. "Hmm, let's see. Full body burns to- goddamn, how the Hell are you even standing? Courier mentioned you'd been burned badly, but you must be a tough son of a bitch to have survived this fire."

"I had reasons to live, even if only to spite those who sought to see me die." While Joshua gets the once over, Courier leans on the Sink's Central Intelligence Unit.

"Does Sir need something?" Sciu asks, and Joshua's head turns to see who's talking now.

"Just resting here." Courier assures him. "I won't stay too long."

"You can stay if you like, sir. But you may be more comfortable with a chair." Sciu gives her a heavy hint, but she just smiles, staying put.

"Thanks, but you come pre-heated." She teases him. And she gives Joshua an encouraging smile. See? Everything's fine. No need to stay so tense or so worried. "Joshua, this is the Sink's Central Intelligence. If you've got questions, he's got answers. Sciu, help Joshua out."

"Of course, sir." Sciu doesn't chide her about the name this time. He's trying to look professional in front of Joshua and that's adorable honestly.

"Well, from what I'm seeing here, everything's healed up. Plenty of scar tissue, and that's something we could do something about. I can't promise you'll be handsome again, but you won't look like a ghoul." Auto-Doc makes his recommendations. "How'd the nerve damage? When you move around, how's it feel?"

Courier gives Joshua an encouraging smile. She's going to rat on him if he won't tell Auto-Doc first, but she's going to give him a chance to do it. That's why she didn't already tell Auto-Doc it all, other than that he had a lot of burns that needed help.

Joshua answers, thankfully, so she doesn't have to torch that bridge. Metaphorically speaking anyway. "I change the bandages every day. The process is… very painful. It feels like I'm burning again."

"Hmm. What kind of painkillers are you taking for it? Med-X, or something recreational?"

Joshua shakes his head slightly, his movements careful and reserved. "I'm immune to their effects."

"Well ain't that a kick in the ass? In that case, we've got a few things that might work, but in your case, I'm going to skip straight to surgery. I won't make any promises, but I should be able to get your pain down to something that won't leave you feeling like screaming and clawing that skin off." Auto-Doc's door slides open, revealing the inside. "Get those bandages off, then climb on in. We'll get started, and see if I can't figure out what's blocking those painkillers from working."

"I'll step out-" Courier jumps off the SCI but Joshua holds out a hand to stop her.

"I'm afraid I'll need assistance for this." He's apologetic, and isn't that kinda fucked?

"Sure." Courier stays standing, and ready to help Joshua. She's not sure what he needs exactly. Does he have someone from the Dead Horses help him get dressed? Or just help with the bandages? That's a question she probably doesn't need the answer to.

She doesn't even help that much. Joshua takes off his gloves, and then his vest, getting the straps loosened. Once it's off, he untucks his shirt and starts on the buttons- oh. No. The buttons don't actually slide out. They're more like snaps and his shirt pulls open, revealing the bandages wrapped tight to his chest beneath. Courier takes the vest from him, and the shirt, and watches to see if his jeans are the same way.

Joshua gets his belt open on his own, and he doesn't pull it out of the loops, just letting it sag open enough that the rest is easier for him to pull apart. There's a button on his pants, but it's a big one, so that must be easier for him to manage. She never thought too much about how maddening it must be for him to try manage small tasks.

Oh, yes. And with the shirt in her hands, she can feel the buttons to figure out the trick of it. There's something sewn in underneath the button, and where the button-holes were some time ago, they've been sewn shut and there's something hard there too. Courier brings them close, and feels them snap together on their own.

Magnets. That's clever.

Joshua steps out of his cowboy boots and his jeans at the same time, and he's down to the bandages wrapped around him. Courier takes his jeans and flops them over her arm, and picks up his boots in the other. "I'm going to set these in the other room, and I'll be right back. And I'll get you something for when you step out."

"Hmm. Don't be too long." Joshua starts on the bandages around his face, and while he does that, she walks to the bedroom to stow his things in a chest she isn't using. Hmm… she forgot to check if he's okay splitting a bed. She can't imagine he'd have a problem. But if he does, she can sleep in one of the chairs.

"Hey Joshua-" She starts to say as she steps out, and sees that he's started on his chest. His face is fully uncovered, and it's the first time she's really seen him. The flesh is very pink, and rife with thick scar tissue. The only part that hasn't burned badly is right around his eyes, and the top bridge of his nose. He must have protected that when they covered him with pitch. Or maybe Caesar had left it uncovered on purpose, so he could look Joshua in the eyes while he burned alive. That seems like the kind of thing that Caesar would have done.

Courier's not really sure. She only spoke with him once, and after she got her weapons back, she killed her way right back inside the camp so she could blow his head off. Maybe he had some sorta philosophy to explain everything, but all she needed was one quick chat with Siri to know everything there really was about the Legion.

Joshua is still looking at her, waiting for her to finish her sentence. Right. "There's only one bed but it's a two-person. You're okay with splitting, right?"

"Where I sleep isn't something I'm concerned about at this moment, but no, there should be no problem with sharing." Joshua sounds annoyed. Which is fair. So she heads over to help again, which mostly consists of speeding up the unwrapping process. He's always tense and sits like he's the one with a rod where his spine should be, but she can see it get worse and worse as he's unwrapped and his skin's exposed. The scars are thick and creep over each other. It reminders her a little of the centaurs, the way the flesh just lumps and clings to it other, and how it gets thin and spiderwebs out over and under other masses. It all looks very very light pink, which makes sense. It's probably never seen the sun. There's almost no pigmentation anymore, just lumpy flesh full of blood.

The scars continue down his body, over his thighs and ass, along his calves. She isn't peeking, she has to help him unwrap his legs, so she sees his penis when she does that. It's been badly damaged by the fire. The same's true of his testicles. They probably packed the pitch on thick here. Humiliation was something the Legion took a great deal of satisfaction in doing to anyone who went against them. Even the soles of his feet have burns, but they seem to be less worse than other parts of him. Anything that had fuel to burn had burned badly. And by the time he's naked, she can see how much pain he's in just by being exposed to the air.

"Here." And she's careful to help him inside. "I'll be out here when you're done!"

Joshua doesn't speak - maybe can't speak. They say he didn't scream when they set him on fire and threw him in the canyon. It probably took everything he had not to speak. Or maybe the pain causes silence for him. You never know with people. She just gives him an encouraging smile as the door shuts on him.

And, once it's shut, she asks the Auto-Doc. "So? You think it'll work?"

"Only time will tell. Now don't bother me, I've got surgery to do, and a man who needs focusing on. Go see if you can find me some other kind of painkillers, since the med-x won't work on him. Check Y-17, see what they've got down there." And, with a task given, she salutes him and goes to grab her holorifle, and to empty her pack out of the rest of the stuff she's brought for the Sink's inhabitants.

--

A few hours later, she comes back with some jars of experimental painkillers and feeds them to Auto-Doc, and upon being told that surgery is still underway, she heads out to check on Dr. Mobius, and to do a few more repairs to the Forbidden Dome. It's better than sitting around waiting aimlessly.

"Oh hello young lady! Back again so soon?" Mobius wobbles over to see her soon as he spots her in his field of vision. "Did you bring that friend with you?"

"I did, thanks for the help with the gun. Oh, shit, hold still." She quickly ducks around his eye-panels and checks the bolts. The one's looking far too droopy. And while she gets that tightened back up, she asks him, "Are you doing okay?"

"I'm right as drain! I've been doing those puzzles you brought me. They're wonderful! I can feel my brain enbigorating! No, no- envigorating?"

"I think that one's right." The liquid in his brain dome is still a little too cloudy for her tastes, but she's not sure she can do much about that. She's great with repairing things, but she's not exactly a medical kind of person, and she's worried that she'd be just as likely to kill him as to help him. At least she can keep his body in good repair. "You should really let me try replace your other eye. You already can't see out of it, what's the worse that can happen, I don't fix it?"

"I don't mind it. It gives me a roguish look. Don't you think?" And he twists to try look at her, making Courier have to very quickly finish tightening that bolt, and to let go. He turns to face her, and she can't help but grin. He bobs. "Just like a pirate!"

"Just like 'em." She agrees, not really knowing what a pirate is exactly. "So, what else needs fixing while I'm here?"

His interface is a little sticky, probably because he keeps spilling mentats on it, so she pops the keys out and cleans it, and then tightens up some of the bracing on the wall, and fixes the missing step on the stairs even if he just floats over it, and by the time she's done fiddling, it's been a few hours. Maybe that'll be enough? Mr. Mobius makes sure to give her a fresh tin before he sends her on her way, and she sticks it in her bag, making a reminder to herself to tuck it with all the rest he's given her.

But when she gets back, Joshua still isn't out yet. "Any problems, Auto-Doc?"

"Nope."

"Are the new painkillers working?"

"So far."

"So… how much longer?"

"As long as it takes."

She tries to wait him out, but she's not as patient as a machine, and she gives in after fifteen minutes, heading over to fiddle with the Biological Research Station. She's still not entirely sure what she's doing, but she's reasonably sure that if she just puts her mind to it, she can figure out something useful. Maybe she can work backwards and figure out how to make more of the other painkillers. If they're working, then that's important. After all, this might not fix anything. Or it might just turn the pain down to tolerable from miserable. Auto-Doc couldn't promise anything more than a reduction in pain.

"Baby, hello, long time no see. You got any new seed for me?" BRS just purrs at her and she snorts a little under her breath. "I know you're packing plants in that pack of yours."

"Yeah, yeah, hold on, I'll get you what you need." She gets to work feeding him plant life and getting salient green in return. So, the med-x didn't work. Joshua said chems didn't work, but she's not sure which ones he tried, but she knows for sure med-x is on the list. Now, med-x is an opiate, which makes sense, because in order to work, they'd need to bind to the receptors in Joshua's brain and convince his body that he's not feeling pain anymore. And obviously that isn't working, because his nerves are all fucked up from the fire, so just telling them to be quiet wasn't going to work. Now, the stuff she fished out of the Y-17 must be something other than an opiate. What's left?

Well, Joshua's ex-Legion, maybe he used to take Hydra? What goes into that? Antivenom and… right, cave fungus. Huh. Did he eat cave fungus? Or, use healing poultices? There were cave mushrooms all over Zion. If he'd had them added to his meals, that might have helped him through the worst of things, and it wouldn't have been just suppressing the pain, it would have been helping directly heal the nerves. The problem is just that there's too many to do at once, and probably a few mushrooms on their own weren't potent enough. This would be easier if she knew if he actually did eat mushrooms, or if she's barking up the wrong tree.

She nearly stands up to ask him, but… maybe not. He's in surgery and Auto-Doc doesn't seem eager to relay messages for her.

Her stitches itch. Courier lets herself pick at them a little. But only a little. Then it’s back to work, back to figuring this out.

Courier makes a little progress, but the actual components are just beyond her reach, and what she's left with is a mushroom and antivenom brew which is basically just like a somewhat more intense Hydra, but that might not be what he needs. She's going to have to go back out there to Y-17 and dig around some more. Maybe she can find notes to load into the Auto-Doc.

"Courier, come on over and give us a hand." Auto-Doc interrupts, and she's off her chair in a moment, leaving the BRS without giving him time for his usual sultry goodbye. "Now, how clean are those sheets on that bed?"

"Pretty clean?" She glances back at the room. "I think? I don't know if I've ever seen a second set. I figured one of you was cleaning them when I was gone."

"Well, can't say that I know the answer to that or not, but beggers can't be choosers. He's flagging so when I open up, you get him over there and you set him down and let him sleep this off. When he's awake, I'll want to take another good look at him, see how well everything's taken. Ready?" And, before she can do much more than nod, the door's opening up-

Joshua's still covered head to toe in scars, but she blinks, because it's all different. Instead of thick spiderwebs and big lumps and scars, everything’s smoother and smaller? He still looks like he got burnt for sure, but he doesn’t look like his skin could have been peeled off a mutant’s pet. The spiderwebs are smoothed down now, and he looks… well, better. He looks better.

Shit, he's swaying. She's quick to get her arms in to grab him and steady him. "Hey Joshua. C'mon, bed's this way."

He's dazed and out of it, and he doesn't say a word as she helps him walk to the other room, and to the bed. Courier shoves the blankets off and gets him seated on the sheets. He can barely sit up either, so she helps him get settled, tucking the pillow under his head.

"Do you want the blankets on?" She asks, peering to see if he can near her. His eyes fix on her. So he's still in there. She can't help but smile. "Wow, the chem I found really fucked you up, huh? Hey, do you usually eat mushrooms."

"Courier." He croaks out, his eyes closing after a long moment. "Be quiet."

Courier snorts, but she does her best to follow that terse order. After some debating on what's worse, sheets on his skin, or bare air, she splits the difference and sets a sheet over his waist and legs, since he seems like the kind who cares about modesty. She leaves his chest bare and sits on the nightstand a moment, waiting to see if he looks like he's in pain. But it doesn't seem to be any more than usual.

So she lets herself stare at him while he's sleeping. She likes doing that, though anytime she's caught, her companions yell at her for a bit. But they also don't like when she stares when they're awake, so as far as she can tell, nobody's ever happy no matter how she does it. So, asleep is better, since the chance they'll wake up is lessened.

Auto-Doc did some really amazing work. It's hard to believe this is the same man she saw in front of her this morning. The worst of the scar tissue has been taken back to a pathwork of burn tissue rather than a series of almost mutant growths. It's easier to see the muscle that was always there before, but underneath tangled scars and thick pitted flesh. And she can see where some of the fat has come back, filling back in where it was burned away and never managed to fill in again before. He has a healthier look to him, rather than seeming like he's just a bad case of dehydration away from looking like a full ghoul.

Courier very, very carefully reaches forward to touch the tip of one finger to his skin, just to feel it. He's warm, and still very pale. It’s a little bumpy.

"Courier." Jousha says. Oh, he's not asleep.

"I'm here." She takes her finger off of him, since it’s probably rude to keep poking him. "You're smoother than before. They won't be able to call you the Burned Man anymore. You're more like a Well-Done Man."

He must find that funny, because he lets out a wheezing chuckle. "How long have you been waiting to use that joke?"

"Since I realized I could put you in an auto-doc." The nightstand's uncomfortable and she's tired enough that it's not sensible to stay here. She stands and walks around the bed to the other side, toeing her boots off and dropping her trousers in a pile. She keeps the shirt and flops on her side of the bed. "I mean, how couldn't I after thinking that line up?"

"A merry heart does good like a medicine. But a broken spirit dries the bones." Joshua says. Sounds like more of his book's words.

Courier’s still grinning to herself. Sure, it’s not belly laughing, but it counts, it all counts. "I'll take that as approval for my jokes, because you're in for more of them. If you're going in there a second time, then I'm going to break out a few jokes about you being medium instead. You're the first steak to cook backwards. How's that for undrying the bones?"

Joshua lets out another soft wheeze that’s probably a laugh. He lies a hand on his chest and Courier can't help but turn to watch. He never seems comfortable touching himself. It really must be a lot less painful, even after surgery, for him to just rest a hand on himself like that.

"What drives you, Courier? What compels you?" Joshua cracks an eye open, turning his head ever so slightly to look at her. It's weird staring at his face straight on, instead of seeing him only through the slit in his bandages. His lips are still badly damaged, but they seem to be a little more filled in than before, and the scars aren't as bad as they were. She can almost see the face underneath them, and the way he must have looked before he burned.

"What do you mean?" She mimics him, setting a hand on her chest as well. "Are you asking it in sort of the whole philosophical sense, or more like… the physical sense. Because from a physical sense, I guess it's a mix of curiosity and boredom. I don't like sitting still."

"My mother liked to say idle hands are the devil's workshop. Let us both be grateful that the Lord has seen fit to give you many things to occupy yours with." Joshua says it so seriously and Courier can't help but laugh.

"Is that the answer you wanted?" She doubts it, but you never know. "I could try another if not."

"I think it's a very revealing answer on its own. You don't care much for the thought of a higher power, or the appeal of a reward waiting beyond your life. Yet you live your life in the service of God, and you choose kindness, even though the only reward you'll be given is gratitude."

"Not true. Sometimes people have caps, or ammo, or clothes." She teases. He's not laughing this time. She said the wrong thing. Well what else is new? She wouldn’t be herself if all her jokes landed. Courier shrugs. "I… like doing the right thing. I don't know. I guess I'm compelled by that. I don't think it's your God. I don't think it's any Gods, or anything like that. "

Courier's fingers slide up to her forehead, under the bandages and she seeks out the scar there. Not the new one, and the stitches, but the old one. The first one that’s hers, and not whoever had this body before her. There's a little circle in her hairline that's always bald. She's figured out how to comb her hair to hide it, but when she touches her scalp, she can feel it there, soft scar tissue. Soft as Joshua's chest. Maybe when the other stitches heal, she’ll be bald there too. Yikes. Time to find a new hairstyle.

"I guess I don't see a point in doing the wrong thing. The first thing I remember clearly is Doc Mitchell helping me sit up and getting me fixed up. He didn't have to help me. Just because Victor dug me up and left me on his doorstep didn't mean he had to help. It probably would have been easier for him to leave me and wait to see if I pulled through on my own, and then to just toss me out afterwards. But he didn't. He was very kind…" All of Goodsprings had been kind, offering to help her remember how to shoot and survive when she couldn't remember her own name, or the direction she'd come in.

She shrugs again. How can she even explain it? It didn't really occur to her that she could do terrible things until much later. And it's not that she doesn't do terrible things, because depending on who you talk to, she's absolutely done terrible things. She came into the Legion camp on their good will and murdered Caesar, and she let herself into the basement of Mr. House's casino and cut off his life support after two centuries of survival. And then she had Yes Man pitch General Oliver off the walls of the Dam, which was probably pretty evil, but also? Pretty hilarious. What a dick.

"You are quite kind, both to those with power, and those without. After you left, the Dead Horses and Sorrows both spoke of the small things you did for them, how eager you were to help even when the work was hard and the rewards were nominal." And he looks at her with those blue eyes of his. Something about the colour feels familiar, like she’s seen it before. Which, she has, she’s met Joshua before but- it’s weird. It’s weird. Don’t think about it. Joshua’s still talking. "You have been extraordinarily kind to me."

"I like you. I like being kind to people who are nice to me." She shrugs again. Courier knows she's probably gone above and beyond here, but it's really not that much beyond what she would do for other people. She's walked halfway across the Mohave to grab someone broc flower when she couldn't find it nearby. Honesty, the more effort, the more she enjoys herself sometimes. "Plus, you know it would drive Caesar insane to see you getting better."

That gets a snort from Joshua, and a big grin out of her. Maybe by the time it’s all done, she’ll make him really laugh. "Perhaps you should add 'spite' to the list of what compels you."

"Spite, and pettiness. Those can go hand in hand with kindness. Even your God must have been petty or spiteful sometimes." It's easy to imagine. A lot easier than trying to imagine a god that's kind. Anybody with that much power would have hard time not abusing it.

"Yes, many times. God can be forgiving, and God can be wrathful. But other times, God can be petty in a way his creations could only dream." The fingers on his stomach curl. She wonders what it would be like to hold his hand.

He lapses in to silence, and after a few long moment, she peeks over. His eyes are closed, and his body looks relaxed. She's pretty sure he's sleeping this time.

"Hey light switch?" She calls out quietly. "Please dim the room."

"Sure thing sweetie." And as the lights dip, Courier closes her own eyes, and does her best to sleep. It's a little easier drifting off when she hears someone breathing beside her. She just wishes she knew why. Maybe there was someone else by her side, a long time ago. Back before that 9mm round smashed through her skull and left her with nothing but cobwebs and the occasional migraine.

Hopefully whoever it was isn't waiting for her anymore, because there's nothing of whoever she used to be to go back to that person.

--

When Courier wakes, she's alone in bed. The blankets have bunched by the end and her legs and feet are chilly. She lies there for a while, just listening to the sound of Muggy's tire as it drives back and forth though the Sink, and the familiar hum of machines. It's soothing. She could very nearly fall asleep…

But Joshua is gone, and though she knows he's capable of taking care of himself, she really, really doesn't want him speaking with the Think Tank. There's a zero-percent chance of that going well. She sits up, shoves her legs in her pants and gets her boots on, going to see where he's gone off to. His clothes are where she left them in the chest, but she can see that the surgery gown's gone, so he's probably wearing that.

"Hey Sciu, where's Joshua?" She asks the central intelligence as she walks into the main area.

"Your visitor has stepped onto the balcony, sir." Sciu's got answers and Courier gives the AI a pat as she heads to the balcony's doors. "Sir, perhaps while the visitor is here, you may consider disabling the personality matrices. They are terribly rumbustious and have never learned how to behave in polite company."

"I promise you, Joshua's put up with a lot more annoying people, me included. But thanks for looking out for my crispy friend." She throws him a thumbs-up and lets her out through the door, peeking around to see where Joshua's gone off to.

The sun's come up over the Big MT and you can see pretty far today, all the way to the fence keeping everyone roped in. Joshua's sitting so he's facing the X-66 Hexcrete archipelago. "Hey, good choice of view. Those things are crazy looking, right?"

He's not wearing bandages. That's good right? It has to be if he's sitting out here without them on, in just a gown. Joshua looks over at her, and without his faced wrapped up, she can see some of the more subtle expressions that cross his face. He seems slightly amused by her - or amused at her - and maybe a little happy too? Maybe he’s glad to see her.

"They are rather unique." He agrees. Courier joins him on the bench and leans forward, resting he elbows on her knees. "What is their purpose?"

"No idea. Something sciencey. Maybe it's special storage?" She tries to remember if she ever saw anything out there… "Mostly it's just full of night stalkers and robo-scorpions when Dr Mobius decides to play at being a bad guy. OH! And the Y-17 trauma harnesses! I'm really going to have to show you them, they're gruesome! So apparently before the bombs, someone had the bright idea to make suits that, if the person wearing them with hurt or killed, could walk the person back to medical help, or even keep fighting. Well, guess what happened, and why I keep getting attacked by skeletons."

"There's not much point in guessing when you've already told me the answer, but that does sound 'gruesome'. Even in death, there is no rest." Joshua looks out, as if seeing if he can spot the walking skeletons.

"Not in this place anyway. There's a lot of stuff shambling around in here that can't really be called life anymore. Oh, like the lobotomites! You'll see them wandering around if you keep an eye out. You know how I told you they scooped my brain out?" She taps her head. "The gunshot wound protected yours truly from becoming yet another wandering lobotomite. Everyone else who came here the same way as me had their brains scooped and they got sent out to just wander around and fight each other, and the night stalkers, and the trauma harnesses, and the berserk securitrons. Or the cazadors. Which by the way, you can blame the Big MT for those evil little bastards. Okay I'm not letting you meet the Think Tank but that's entirely because you'd get sick of them immediately, but Dr Borous is responsible for them, and for night stalkers, and honestly, it's amazing how one man can ruin so many people's lives."

"I see." He says. She can't help but grin. She's probably talking too much but it's hard not to. She's excited. He's sitting there, and he's not tense all over, and he's not covered in bandages! Even if this is all that can be done, that's so much more than he had before. "This place suits you well."

"It does. I like it a lot. I like all of them a lot." Courier looks out over the Big MT and she can't help but smile to herself. "I guess this is my Zion. Yours is prettier, but this place suits me best. I feel like it's all about as off-kilter as me, you know?"

"Yes, that seems like an accurate way of describing things." Joshua lifts a hand to look at at it, and the softened scars along the back.

"So… how does it feel? Better right? You don't look as tense anymore."

"The pain is manageable. Yesterday, as with every day since I was burned alive, the pain was a constant agony that I could not grow numb to . Today, it is only an irritation that never ends. Perhaps in time, this will become too painful to bear. But for now, this is bliss." His hands drop to his lap, fingers lightly laced together. "Thank you, Courier. You have been far too kind to a sinner such as me."

"You changed." She reminds him. "Who you are now isn't who you were then. Just like how I'm not whoever I used to be. The difference is that you know your crimes, and you know how much you've got to do to make things square with your God."

"There is nothing I can do to wash the blood from my hands. But I can be a better man today than I was the day before, and the day before that." He stares out over the Big MT. "When I was young, I failed to grasp the story of the prodigal son. Like many, I could only imagine myself as the older brother. I had not yet been lost, had not yet known what it was like to wander in the wilderness and to be certain that even God could not love what you had become, only to find that His love would never been so fickle."

Courier tries to imagine what that feels like. She understands feeling lost - she's felt that more than anything else. No matter how much she jokes, or how flippant or reckless she is, most of what she feels is the quiet uncertainty that comes with not knowing anything. It was easy to throw herself into a quest for answers, and for vengeance. Benny had stolen her name from her, and all of her memories, and he very nearly took her life. The least she could do was repay the favour.

And at some point along the way, things had just… snowballed. Favours done in exchange for information quickly became favours done because people needed help, and no one else seemed to be able to lend a hand. Allies of convenience had become friends. New Vegas had become a home, and then the Big MT became a second home for her. Everywhere she went, she met someone who needed a helping hand, or maybe just a hand up. Then before she knew it, she was at the front of a war. She killed a would-be tyrant and a genuine dictator and drove out another, milder flavour of authority. Courier could crown herself queen of the mohave at this point and maybe half a dozen people would dare tell her that it was a bad idea, and all of them are her friends.

But here she was instead, sitting in the Big MT beside Joshua Graham, the both of them unrecognizable to any who might know them by name. And she wants to stay that way. A crown is just a target. She likes helping people. It feels good to save other and stop their agony. When she's busy with a task, she doesn't feel lost anymore…

Omnipotent love is a little stranger, but it brings him comfort, so she doesn't see much of a problem with it. Courier smiles over at him, and gently bumps their shoulders together. It’s a bit of a thrill to touch him and to know it won’t hurt him too much. "You used to be a- what was it? A missionary? You went out there and told people about your God? Maybe you can do that again. But you could tell people about forgiveness instead. Even the worst people can change, if they want to."

"I'm afraid my missionary days are long behind me. I have a place in Zion, and a people to care for." Joshua is firm on this, though he lets up a little near the end. "I appreciate the suggestion all the same, and I'm certain the Lord does as well. I assume you still have no interest in converting."

"Not really. I have a hard time believing in anything I can't see with my own two eyes. But if I meet anybody looking for something like religion, I'll send them your way, and you can convert them in Zion." It's a fair compromise. He must find it funny because Joshua lets out another of those low chuckles. It's a nice sound. Hopefully, she can make him laugh a lot more, now that he's got time to laugh instead of always being in pain.

--

The Auto-Doc performs two more surgeries over the next few days. Each is long and Courier's left to fill her time with her own experiments. When she still can't figure out how to figure how what in the painkiller is making it work, she goes downstairs to ask the Think Tank for help. It goes about as well as she expected, which is to say that it all becomes a shouting match between Dr. Zero and Dr. Borous, and then Dr. 8 jerks off into her gun again, even though she's pretty sure it didn't need that. But well, it's not her job to stop brains in floating tanks to stop jerking off in front of everyone. The rest of them should have figured out some way of stopping that before now.

Dr. Dala helps some at least, and she gives Courier a few places to start looking, which she does. She's still not entirely sure what makes the medicine work, or how to recreate more of it, but she's closer by the time Joshua's done his second treatment, and by the third, she's got a few things growing in the soil that will hopefully be the base components she needs. And it means she gets to be there to help Joshua when the Auto-Doc lets him out.

The second time, he came out looking more or less the same, but with less pain, but a little numbness. The third time-

He looks like a person again. Still burnt and scarred up, still clearly somebody who lived through hell. But he looks like he just got his ass kicked, not like he nearly burned to death and was thrown off a cliff and left to burn and then slowly drag himself out of the valley. The scars are faint and mild, more of an impression of where they used to be than large growths that clustered together tightly. He has lips, actual real lips, and a full nose, and on his chin, she can see a shadow of hair starting, faintly grey and black. There's the same stubble on his head, not quite hair yet but… the potential has started. Joshua has hair follicles again. He has fingerprints, as she sees when he sets a hand on her as she helps him over to the bed.

"You look like a real person now." She tells him, excited to see how much has changed in such a short time. "I bet you could go walking into the mohave and nobody would even know who you were."

"Let us hope that's true. I doubt things would go well for either of us if I was recognized. You may have turned back the NCR and the Legion, but there are still plenty of people in the Mohave with ample reason to put a bullet in my head." Joshua says, cheery as ever.

"See, I hear that you're immune to that." Courier sits on the side of the bed while Joshua settles down to rest. He always looks so exhausted after surgery. Which makes sense. It is surgery. It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park to crack her head open to put her brain back in it. "I chatted with a NCR sniper who said that you were the most reported confirmed kill they had who just kept showing back up."

"I had a number of very close calls, but the Lord was watching over me. At the time, I thought it was proof that I was following His plan…" Joshua gets that distant look in his eyes that he always gets when talking about what he thinks his God wants, or thought. "I suppose it was. Sometimes, the paths we take are unknowable to us, until we reach the end of them."

"I like how you said that one. It's true. You really only see where you were going after you get there." She never started down this path to fight two armies and send them both back to territory wounded, but that's what she did. Courier certainly doesn't regret it, but it is sorta funny how it all turns out. Joshua regrets some of it, but honestly, it would probably be pretty bad if he didn't regret the Legion bits. She likes him, and she feels he's changed, but changing now doesn't undo what you did.

There's a lot of angry, hurt people out there. Sooner or later, some of them will come for him. But there's a lot of angry, hurt people out there mad at the Courier, and she doesn't worry too much about them. She got shot in the head and buried, and then dragged out of a shallow grave to become a whole brand new person. Maybe the person she was before was as bad as the person Joshua was before he was burnt and thrown in the world's deepest grave. Just because she doesn't remember it, doesn't mean it's forgiven. Just means that someone might come find her one day with a gun and bullets with her name on ‘em.

Courier slides into her usual spot on the bed, sitting against the headboard. Her fingers lace over her belly. She can't help but think about her past some more - and Joshua's past too…

"Did you ever have someone?" She glances over at him. "Lovers, or close friends, or people who weren't Caesar and the Legion?"

"There was a time when Caesar was my friend, but by the time he went by that name, that had begun to change. Before then, I would say we were friends. We all encouraged one another in the ways that young men do, until we were stuffed to the brim with overconfidence, and a lack of common sense. Before then, there were others I called friends." Joshua sighs, and it's still so strange to look at him without the bandages. She can see all the small expressions he makes that she missed before - the way his lips twitch when he's thinking of something unpleasant to him, or how his jaw shifts ever so slightly when he's second-guessing what he wants to say.

He continues after a moment, and even if she couldn't see the look on his face, she would surely hear the ways he has to strain to force the reluctant words through his lips. "I hesitate to call any of the people I shared a bedroll with 'lovers', but there were a few among the way. I was a young missionary then. We were meant to spread the word of the Lord, but wild oats were often sowed along the way. Once I became Malpais Legate, everything I did was in the service of the Legion."

It sounds lonely. But, she of all people knows how purpose can fill your days and make you forget that you are alone. "No one else then."

"My family was waiting. I returned to them, as all do when they have lost everything else." He looks at her. She wonders if the auto-doc is making them bluer too, or if it's just the lights. The shade seems familiar, but in a way that doesn’t have to do with him. "Perhaps one day, you'll be guided to yours."

"I think I have been." She ends up gesturing to the room - and to the rest of the Sink. "They're like a family. I take care of them, and they take care of me. They fight with each other some, and with me, but in the end, we all still look out for each other. That's family, at least from what I've seen."

Joshua smiles, ever so slightly. Funny. He's kind of handsome when he does that. "It's a familiar enough description."

Courier opens her mouth, nearly asking him if he misses his family-

But she can guess the answer. After all, she misses something she might not have ever had in the first place. If she can do that, then Joshua can miss the family he actually lost. "I know New Canaan is gone, but will you go where the other New Canaanites went?"

"In time. For now, the Dead Horses and Sorrows need more time to finish securing Zion and establishing defenses. As the Legion crumbles, those from the tribes it subjugated and exterminated from existence will splinter and form anew. Raiders will return to Arizona, and in time, they will head north and west." Joshua speaks with the same even, rumbling tone as before, but he looks more weary. Even as he's tired, he simply pushes through it. He's probably got a lot of experience with that.

I should probably tell Yes Man too. He should get New Vegas and the area ready." Goodsprings will need defending, and so will Novac, and Primm and all those small towns that didn't have enough people in them to hold off an influx of raiders. "And you should sleep."

Joshua's mouth twitches and he fixes her with look that could maybe charitably be called 'unimpressed'. "I do very little except sleep."

"And surgery. Which is what tires you out." She makes him a show of good faith, kicking her boots and pants off. "Here, I'll bed down too."

"Your sacrifices are deeply appreciated." Joshua says, completely deadpan, and Courier can't help but crack up. She rests above the sheets and picks up her book where she left off, leaving Joshua to sleep soundly, as he should.

And not too long after, she ends up sleeping as well.

--

It's not the first time she's woken up closer to Joshua than she should be. Courier has a bad habit of rolling into whoever she's sharing a bedroll with. Luckily, nobody complains much at night in the Mohave, not when it gets cold. It's not cold in here, but Joshua seems to have slept through it. She's fairly sure that if he's uncomfortable, he just gets up and moves.

The surgery's taking a lot out of him though, and he's still sleeping. Most of him anyway. There's a part of him that isn't sleeping, pressed against her thigh. Huh. Well that's new. She's never asked him for details, mostly because he seems like the kind of person who doesn't share, but she's pretty sure that part of Joshua hasn't been working since he took a pitch and flame bath.

She'll have to tell the Auto-Doc he did a great job of getting all the stuff hooked back up. Will Joshua be glad to have his prick working again? It didn't sound like he spared much time for fucking even before the plumbing stopped working.

Joshua stirs a little. She shifts away to give him a little room, and then sits up. It's half tempting to wake him up and offer to test that hard-on out. Not that she has much experience herself. She’s spent more time using robots and machines to get her off than people. Actually she’s spent all her time doing that. Would a man be that different? Probably. When it’s Joshua, absolutely. Scratch that thought then, she can already see a dozen ways that could go wrong. And she doesn’t want to spook him off, or think he’s only here for that. It took a lot just to get Joshua to come to the Big MT. He's not done yet, and she knows if she says or does the wrong things, he's going to want to go back early and not finish it.

Maybe later. Maybe down the line. Maybe maybe maybe. She sighs. Courier takes a good look at his bare face. Feels weird seeing him like this. She kind of misses the man in the bandages. This one looks like a dozen others she's seen, maybe just more banged up than most. He doesn't look like the Burned Man, and he doesn't look like the Malpais Legate. He just looks like anyone else.

Courier hasn't told anyone what she was doing. She knows they wouldn't approve. Boone would be livid that she would do this for anyone who used to fight for the Legion, especially someone as brutal as Joshua used to be. Cass would thinks he was an idiot. Veronica would too, but in a softer way. She understood doing stupid things out of fondness. Arcade would absolutely call her an idiot, and ask her what she was really trying to accomplish here. Raul would probably say something passive aggressive, but his opinion's always the same, always a shrug and a whatever you say boss.

Lily would probably ask if she wanted a sweetie. Courier can't help but smile a little. Ah Lily.

"Hey. Psst. Got any mugs. Please tell me you've got mugs. Oh god please, please-" Muggy hisses up at her. Courier glances over at him and shakes her head. "But I neeeed them!"

"Shhh. Joshua's sleeping. If it makes you feel better, I'm pretty sure you've gotten rid of every mug in the Big MT." She reaches down to pat his head. "You're doing great buddy."

"You think so? You really think so? God, just thinking about all those mugs, cleaned up and dismantled it… it…" He starts to cry. Honestly, Dr. O was such a dick. Courier just pats Muggy again and sends him on his way. Maybe she should open him up sometime and see if she could at least turn down the anxiety in his programming, maybe up the amount of satisfaction he feels when he knows mugs are all cleaned? Or, maybe if he wasn't aware of the entire wasteland, and only knew about the world directly around him, he'd feel better?

Hmm. Questions questions. She glances over-

Joshua's awake. So much for being quiet. She gives him a smile. "Sleep well?"

"I can barely remember a time when I slept this well. I may regret it if I get used to sleeping in a bed, and have to relearn sleeping on the ground." Joshua, ever practical, focuses on the most boring aspect. Courier just can't help but shake her head.

"I sleep in plenty of beds and on the ground all the time. When you're tired enough, you can sleep anywhere. One time, I had to sleep in the Recon facility, that was a weird one. I mean, part of that was because I had a migraine at the time- I told you I don't have those anymore, right?" She's pretty sure but she can't remember for sure.

Joshua's lips tip up ever so slightly into the barest hint of a smile, even as his tone stays neutral. Has he always been smiling a little when he speaks with her? "Yes, it was one of the first things you mentioned when you convinced me to come with you."

"Good. Because it's a miracle. One of these days, I was going to get a pick and spike my head open if they didn't stop. Auto-Doc says I probably won't have them again, but he can't guarantee it. But, it's gone from one every few months to none, so even if it ends up being one every few years, I can live with it." As long as she can get to safety, she can live with it. But the mohave is getting safer and safer by the day and by the blast of her rifle.

Joshua nods. "It's remarkable what we can live with, or live through. No matter how terrible the pain, we find a way through."

"You said something about it once. The fire in you burning hotter than the fire around you, and that's how you made it through. That really stuck with me." It put into words something she had been struggling with. Benny had shot her point-blank in the head and buried her in a shallow grave, and she had survived. Parts of her had been lost forever in the process, but here she was, still alive and still thriving.

And here he was too, only she'd found a way to give Joshua back some of what he lost. That felt pretty good. Her own memories were probably long gone, or worse, if she got them back, she'd forget who she was now. Call it selfish maybe, but she wanted to survive as the person she was now, not who might have been here before.

And speaking of the things lost- "How's the pain?"

"Incredibly mild. The Auto-Doc doesn't believe he can entirely stop the pain without affecting my ability to feel any pain from wounds or sickness as well. For the moment, we've found a very generous compromise." Joshua sits up, subtly shifting his legs to disguise the problem he has at the moment. "After the past few years, anything less than searing pain feels like a godsend."

"You can always come back here too. The Auto-Doc might have more ideas in the future. I keep trying to track down modules for them, and I was thinking maybe I could help them figure out how to make their own?" It's mostly been an exercise in fun for her, but with the Mohave without any real enemies, this could be her new project to work on. Maybe she could even figure out how to make more Auto-Docs to set up all over the place. Arcade was always saying that the Followers were feeling stretched thin. If they had some machines to help, that would mean the doctors could rest up or focus more on researching things. "What do you think about building a bunch of Auto-Docs to help everyone out? It worked really well for you. And there's a lot of people who have pain a lot less worse than you."

Joshua's eyebrows both raise ever so slightly. And she's favoured with another of those small smiles. "Are you sure that you aren't one of the Lord's flock?"

"Sorry Joshua. Maybe whoever I used to be was, but-" She mimes shooting herself in the head. "That's all gone. And none of this ring a bell. Is doing something nice really all that religious?"

"Kindness is found among all things, even the beasts. But it is remarkable how you tend to want to help above all else, even when it may cause you pain, or even just inconvenience you. Many will help when they have nothing to lose. Few will be so kind when they will bear the cost of a good deed." His eyes are almost soft when he looks at her. It's making her feel a little flustered to look back at him. She's used to those eyes being cold and severe. Is she just seeing that because she wants to see it? Or…

"I don't know." She shrugs. "I don't know. I don't think I was religious. I don't think this is religion. I just… I like doing the right thing. The work doesn't matter."

How can she explain this to him when she doesn't know it herself? Why do the right thing? Because. Because. That's why. That's all she has. Why does she insist on the right thing? Because the choice is there, and that's the one she takes. It would be easier to do the wrong thing a lot of times, and quicker for sure. It's not like she doesn't think about doing terrible things. Whenever she talks with people, there are moments when she can clearly see the other option right in front of her - the choice to lie and tell an innocent person to cross into an open minefield, the choice the draw her weapon and steal from a person who doesn't know the value of what they hold, the choice to kill because she can, and because no one can stop her.

No one can stop her. Fucking no one in the whole land could stop her. Especially not now. If she wanted to, she could turn the Think Tank rogue and tear down the surrounding fences and send them out to do her bidding. The option is always there.

She just never chooses it. So… in a way, there is someone stopped her, and it's herself.

Courier looks back at Joshua. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I did have Yes Man throw General Oliver off the dam, and that was absolutely not necessary, so I don't always choose the 100% best choice-"

Joshua laughs softly. "I wouldn't say that. I may be biased, but I encountered Oliver at the first battle for Hover Dam. Had he alone lead the troops, our victory would have been secured. Hanlon was the one who saw my forces broken, and who won the day for the NCR. When I heard that Oliver was leading the forces this time, I thought that surely this would be the end of it. And instead, you come to visit me, and tell me that you won the battle for New Vegas, and pitched him from the side."

"Yes Man did the throwing. I mostly just pointed, and watched." And she can't help but smile as she has a funny thought. "If I had the army then, I should have rolled into the Legion camp, grabbed Caesar and did the same with him."

"An ambitious plan. I'm sure he would have hated every moment of it. But I am confident that he would have hated that you simply abused his invitation and used that as a way to kill him instead." Joshua looks wry and that's just delightful. She wants to write down all the different expressions she didn't know he was making under those bandages. Courier almost wants to find people who knew him before, and ask them if he always made such small facial expressions back then too.

Wait they're all dead. Oh well.

Courier brings her knees up to lean forward on them. Joshua's not getting up to get changed. Neither of them are moving. It's a bit odd to have a conversation naked, right? Honestly she's not sure. Courier is regularly naked. Other people usually aren't though.

She can't read Joshua the way she can read other people. It's all those small expressions and the religion talk and the careful vengeance. It all adds up to something she has a hard time fully understanding. She really wants to kiss him, just to see if his eyes would get big with surprise, or if he'd push her away, or if he'd know what to do better than her. He’d know more, right? They both don’t exactly have deep wells to draw from. He's a lot older than she is, though Courier has no idea how old she even is. Those empty spots in her memory are so big sometimes, just gaping holes where a history should be but isn't and never will be again.

Normally by now, one of the others would ask her why she was thinking so hard, or make a joke about it. Arcade always says he can smell the smoke coming out of her ears. Joshua doesn't though. He's so quiet and so patient when he has nothing he needs to say. And he seems like he only really needs to speak when she has questions for him. It makes her a little- not nervous. Nervous isn't the right word for it. She wants to keep talking and asking him questions so she can hear him speaking. But she's not really afraid of disappointing him. It seems like no matter what she does, she can't upset him. He thinks the things she does are in the service of his God.

"Hey." She says as something occurs to her. "Do you have a name for people who just do good stuff for you God by accident?"

"Not by accident, but we don't believe that anything is an accident. We all do as God intends for us to do. All of our mistakes, all of our triumphs, every good and every bad choice, all are done on behalf of the Lord. But, there is a name for those who do good work. We have a story - the parable of the Good Samaritan."

"Tell me." She wants to hear. Courier always wants to hear the stories, no matter who tells them.

"In days of old, a man was traveling between the Holy City and a place to the north, where his people dwelt. There on the road, he had the misfortune to encounter bandits who robbed him, stripped him, beat him, and left him to die on the side of the road." Joshua is a wonderful storyteller, his voice delightfully even and gravely as he tells it to her. "By chance, a priest was going in the same direction. When he saw the man dying by the side of the road, he crossed to the other side and turned his face away, passing by without any assistance. Again, an hour later, a man who practiced the same religion as the beaten man came across him. As the priest before him, he passed by on the other side and pretended not to hear the man's cries for help."

Maybe she could find a way to create a Sink creature who read books to her in his voice…

"But then along came the Samaritan. In those days, the Samaritans were a great tribe who dwelled in the same region as others, and were often as war. When he saw the man lying on the side of the road, he was moved with compassion. He knelt by the man and gave him water, and treated his wounds, binding them tight with bandages, and feeding him wine. He even helped the wounded man sit on the man's donkey, and let him travel on it while he walked alongside them. He brought the beaten man to an inn and took care of him. When he was healed enough, the Samaritan gave him two denarius and said-"

"He was Legion?" Courier can't help but interrupt here.

"No, not of the type you know. They were living in the Holy Land, which was occupied by the Romans - the real Romans, not Caesar's recreation. Edward borrowed heavily from the Romans of old, including their coin." Joshua shakes his head a little. "My apologies, I should have used a different term."

"No, it's fine, I was just a little confused. Go on." She question motions for him to continue. "The Samaritan was paying him?"

"He was paying the innkeeper - the man who runs the place they took shelter at. He pays the innkeeper and says to him, 'Take care of the man I brought here. Whatever you spend beyond this, I will repay when I return'. And so he departed." Joshua opens his mouth, and then seems to catch himself, letting out a soft huff of laughter. He seems to make up his mind about something. "Now, which of these three seemed the most like a neighbor to this man who was set upon by the raiders?"

"Is there always a test that goes at the end of the story? The Samaritan, obviously. But why's there a test?"

"In the Bible, this is a parable. That means it was a story told to illustrate a point, and in this case, Jesus was asked by a lawyer what he must do to inherit eternal life."

Courier thinks about Mr. House. He had eternal life, or something like it. She doubts that's the kind of eternity that Joshua's talking about. Something more religious, something about the parts that live on after death, which again, is not the kind of parts that she's used to seeing live on after death, like ghouls or the Think Tank. Of course, they're both alive, but she's not sure if calling them alive is entirely right anymore either.

She doesn't really understand religion, but it is kind of funny how much she does what Joshua's God wants people to do.

"Do you look forward to it?" Courier glances at Joshua. "Eternal life?"

"When I was young, I did. My family dwells there now, as do the others of my tribe who have passed on. When I die, my soul will be taken for judgement. I will stand before God and His host, and they will judge me." Joshua glances down at his hands, and at the scars on the surface of his healing skin. He seems very pensive. "I have repented in every way I can, and so the Kingdom awaits me."

He doesn't sound happy about it. Courier waffles for only a moment more, before she reaches over on impulse to grab his hand and squeeze it. She's never really felt comfortable touching him before, but… the pain is low, and she can do this and not worry that she's hurting him. At least, not hurting him badly. His hand is very warm. Her heart thumps in her chest, like she’s about to fight. But it’s just holding a hand.

"That's good. I bet your family will be happy to see you again." She doubts very much that anything is waiting after you die. Courier is fairly certain, being as she doesn't remember anything, and she got shot in the head. But hoping to see your family again is a good thing. She can't think of any reason why she shouldn't let him think about it - or look forward to it. "They were happy last time. They'll be happy again."

Joshua's hand is slack in hers. Then, he slowly curls his fingers closed, and squeezes her hand back. It feels so nice, and she can feel colour creeping up her cheeks. Is she warm? A little. He speaks so softly. "Thank you, Courier."

"Anytime Joshua." She kind of wants to kiss him again. The impulse is really tempting to just lean into. But… it's a bad one. It's like seeing his morning wood. Tempting, but a very bad idea if you actually think about it.

Since when did she think about anything? What a pain in the ass.

But she's holding his hand, and that's really nice. She just leaves their fingers twined together, resting her shoulder against his too. And for a long time, Joshua lets her do it.

--

He has another surgery. Courier leaves him to the Auto-Doc. Her bandages need changing and she takes them off, and finds that she probably doesn’t need new ones. There’s a whole field a stubble on her head, half an inch long now. She looks at herself in the mirror, and touches the place where the new scar is. It’s not so bad. Her hair already’s hiding it some. Once it’s long, it’ll disappear entirely. Only she’ll know where it is, and how to find it.

The plants in the BRS are all spouted so she harvests them all, and then sits down with the chemistry set and gets to work. She’s not a doctor, but she can follow instructions, and okay, she keeps her books handy and maybe she puts on a coat and some glasses. It makes her feel smarter, and maybe it’s just dress-up, but she still manages to make a small vial of painkillers that she promptly feeds into Auto-Doc.

She’s not sure if he’ll respond right away, but he does, the outer panel lighting up. “Well I’ll be damned, you made yourself a match. I’ll get him a dose of this. You just feed that recipe into the Sink's Central Intelligence Unit and see if they can whip up some more.”

“Nice!” And with that, Courier does just as Auto-Doc says, and Sciu whips up some fresh painkillers, and there, she’s solved it! And it’s something she can easily get for Joshua, since she can just keep growing as much as she could ever need in the BRS.

To celebrate, she goes out exploring the crater and finds Roxie, and a whole nest of cyberpuppies, which makes no sense at all, but it's so delightful that she doesn't care. She just shares some rations with them and pets a few of the little pups. None of them look much like Roxie or Rex, but they are ever so adorable. Maybe when they're old enough, she'll bring Joshua one. Would he like them? She's not sure, but a gift is a gift after all.

When Joshua's done surgeries and he's healed up entirely and not exhausted, she's going to show him the crater. It's dangerous here, but no more so than anywhere else. And Joshua isn't a wilting flower. She saw him when they went to war with the White Legs. Joshua was an expert shot with his pistol, and when he was low on ammo, he was also quick to use the butt of his pistols as a blunt weapon. Between the two of them, the Dead Horses really only needed to handle the clean-up. So between the two of them here, things will be fine. What's a few crazed securitrons, or some lobotomites, or the nightstalkers?

Okay, the cazadors might be a little much, but that's just because they're so hard to hit, and by the time they're close enough that accuracy doesn't matter, they're close enough to sting and kill you. Fucking cazadors. At least with a deathclaw, you can sit yourself up somewhere high and shoot at them, and have enough time to knock down even the big alpha ones before they figure out a way up the stack you're sitting your ass on. Cazadores mostly involve you running the fuck away or eating a ton of anti-venom, and anti-venom makes her so gassy.

Wouldn't that just be a nasty little ending to all this? Joshua gets healed up and Courier defeats the Legion and the NCR, only for them both to end up rotting in the Big MT while a couple of cazadors fly around them? Oh well. Could be worse. Could be a lot worse. She's got lots of anti-venom anyway. And stims, and there's nothing that you can't do when you've had a hit of turbo. Or rocket. Now there was something to knock your pants off.

Well, not Joshua's pants. He's not one for chems. At least the new painkiller's working, that's good. Hopefully it's not addictive. That would just be a cruel joke.

Enough time's passed that she can go back now, and he’ll probably be out of surgery. She slides off the roof of the Signal Hills transmitter and hits the ground with a soft grind of her boots. On the way past, she flips off the old world flag, as she always does when she's out this way, and wanders back to the Sink. She glances up to the balcony on the way over, and she can't help but grin when she sees Joshua standing up there in a medical gown.

"Joshua!" She yells up to him, and when she sees the figure move, she waves her arms at him. "Hello! My head’s fixed!"

She points to her now-unbandaged head. It’s a good sign. Joshua’s leaning on the rail and for a moment, she’s sure she sees his hand move to wave back - or maybe to readjust? It feels like a greeting. She's going to go ahead and count it as a wave.

Of course, she just yelled in the Big MT, so a couple of dumb lobotomites come scrambling up to shoot at her. She takes them out with the holorifle, ducking around the fence to buy her time to reload between blowing one's head off, and melting the other, which she does when her second shot hit. The person crumbles into a pile of ashes, which she promptly heads over to poke through with her foot. Not that she's expecting much-

Oh sweet, caps! She scoops those up and blows them clean as she wanders back to to Sink's elevator.

Joshua's waiting upstairs for her when the elevator's open, and he's dressed up in his clothes and… wow. Auto-Doc really cleaned him up this time. He's got mostly smooth skin. There's some scars here and there, enough to make it obvious that he went through some hell but… he looks like any other person in the Mohave.

"If I passed by you on the Strip, I'd have no idea it was you I was looking at." Courier tells him, leaning her rifle again the wall and slowly emptying her pack and pockets. "The Auto-Doc did great work - hey Auto-Doc! Nicely done!"

"It's been a long time since I was put through my paces. What can I say, this old machine's still got it." He sounds so proud of himself and Courier grins, giving him a pat.

"Can it feel it when you do that?" Joshua asks and it takes her entirely too long to realize he's asking about her patting the machinery.

"Oh, no idea. I'm assuming not. It just feels right to do it." She shrugs. Courier doesn't think much about it. Yeah, she knows machines aren't people. But she also has a hard time thinking about them as if they aren't people either. Yeah they're machines, but they talk to her and some of them wander around and it's weirder to think about forcing herself to not be a little affectionate with them. "I guess it's like being around a domesticated bighorner. They just feel like they need you to pat their backsides."

"I can't say I've ever felt the urge to do so before now. When I return to Zion, perhaps I'll give it a shot." He's so deadpan and she can't help but laugh now that she can see all the little ticks and tells of his face. Yeah, he's still pretty good at not giving anything away, but compared to what she's used to seeing when talking to him, it's just a whole other set of clues.

Oh right- “And! Painkillers!” She quickly grabs the supply of them to show Joshua. “This has to be enough for a couple of months! You can take them back and use them as you need them!”

Joshua takes one of the vials and looks at it, turning it between his fingers. He’s got a handsome look to him. Fierce. People talk a lot about what a monster he was, but nobody mentions any of this. Well maybe the Legion used to praise him, before they turned on him. Honestly, now that she’s thinking about it, it’s not so strange that nobody ever mentioned it. Nevermind.

"So, how are you feeling? Must be good if you're in your clothes instead of that gown." And she jerks a thumb behind her back. "Do you want to go see Big MT proper? If you're not tired, we can wander out."

"No, I'm afraid I must decline your offer." He set the vial down, and… he looks almost regretful. "The Auto-Doc feels that I've completed all the surgery worth doing. My pain levels are barely noticeable, and anything beyond this would be purely cosmetic, and of diminishing returns. As such, I'm ready to return to Zion. Thank you for the painkillers, and for all of your help."

"Oh!" Courier says. She feels like she's rounded a corner and walked straight into a lakelurk. "That's- good! Auto-Doc's done really, really good work, so I'm- yeah absolutely. Uh, right now? Do you want me to get the transportalponder right now? I've got it on me here somewhere-"

"Take your time. I know you just came in." He just stands there, waiting as Courier makes her way to her room, dropping her stuff on the table. She feels a little… weird about it. Maybe a lot weird. She really should have seen this coming though. Of course he's ready to go back. It's been a bunch of days, and she did swoop in and take him off without much warning.

"Another time, then?" She calls out a little hopefully as she stands her rifle up against the wall and dumps the spare caps into a can. "Maybe in a couple of weeks? It's easy, now that you've seen the transportalponder working. Real quick, you know, I can just pop in and grab you, and then we can be back the next day."

He's slow to answer. She can't see his face from the other room. It's familiar in the worst way. She tries not to let it bother her. When he does answer her, there are no surprises there. It's what she knew she'd hear in the end. "A kind offer, but one I must decline."

"Okay." She says, and leans against the desk. Courier feels a little fucked up. It's a bad feeling. But what did she expect? She didn't really think this through, did she? She just got excited at the idea of helping Joshua, and she just… didn't think further than that. But Zion needs to be guarded and protected. It needs a leader. And that's Joshua, and he clearly feels obligated to help them, and okay, he gets that, he does. He does.

There's a bump against her leg. She glances down and finds Muggy there.

He looks up at her with that eternally smiling face. "Hey… you got any mugs?"

"Sorry." She tells him, and he just gives her another bump before he rolls away. Knowing him, that's probably him trying to give her a little pick-me-up, as much as his programming allows. Robots try. They've got programming in the way, but they try.

Courier's got programming in the way too.

She grabs the transportalponder and heads out to see Joshua. Courier does her best to put a smile back on her face. "Okay, I've got it. I'll drop you off, easy peasy, and head back."

"Thank you." Joshua holds himself very stiff and his face is unreadable. Is that relief? Regret? Or nothing? She’s so bad at this. "I will never forget thing. You're a good woman, Courier."

She's not sure how much of that is true. Courier might be good, but that's only by accident. Right now, she doesn't feel too good. She just smiles and tries to keep that bad feeling from bubbling up any further. "If you say so, then it's got to be true."

All she's got to do is offer an arm and hit the trigger again, and they'll go back to where they started. Courier means to offer her arm but-

-she steps in instead and throws her arms around Joshua, giving him a tight hug. She can do that now. She can hug him and know it won't hurt him. He's already stiff and he lets out a soft hhhn sound, clearly surprised. He's very solid, very warm. It's easy to just press against him and hug him. It feels even better than it did to hold his hand, or to brush up against him. Finally, she can just… just hold him. Just hold him.

"I'm glad it worked." Courier tells him. "I'm so relieved that it did."

After a long moment, his arms come to rest on her back before they tighten. His grip is firm and strong, and warm. He’s warm. It feels good to hold onto him. It feels even better than she figured it would. Joshua doesn’t say anything. He just holds her.

She wants more. Courier wants to keep holding him like this. She wants to bury her face against his skin. She wants to kiss him. And more, so much more. Courier doesn’t want to let go. But she knows she can't have more than this. What would they even do anyway? Fuck, right here in front of the Sink personalities? Is that why she healed him, just so she could fuck him?

It's not. She wanted him to be able to feel things ago without it hurting. Joshua wasn't always a good person, but he didn't deserve to spend the rest of his life burning over and over again. He was a better person now. Courier was too. Whoever she had been before, whatever she had done before, the who she was now was a good person, and she was pretty sure the same couldn't be said about the Courier who she was before Benny exploded part of her skull.

The problem with not thinking before acting is that you get all the way to the end before you realize what you want. And knowing what you want isn’t the end, it’s just the start. At least she knows now. She wanted this. She wanted to touch Joshua without hurting him.

Courier gives him one last tight squeeze, and then pulls the trigger on the gun.

They land on rocks and dirt. The moment she breathes in, she can taste the way the air's changed. It's fresher out here. Also, no lobotomites. Courier’s grip loosens and she lets go. His arms do the same. She steps back from Joshua, tucking the transportalponder into her belt. Joshua’s looking at her. It’s so hard to read his face, even though he has one now. But he looks-

He looks-

Courier doesn’t have the words for it. But she’ll keep that look tucked close to her heart. Something soft and inscrutable.

She runs a hand over the fuzz on her head. They’re a matching pair right now, both stubbled. Courier finally says something - another stupid joke. “You think they'll know who you are without the bandages, or should you wear a little sign?"

Joshua's mouth twitches ever so slightly. "I expect there may be some confusion at first, but they will know me by the sound of my voice and the strength of my convictions."

"Well, if you're worried it’ll be a shock, you can put the bandages back on. Then just slowly put fewer and fewer of them on, until somebody asks what’s going on." She mimes it, and then rocks back on her heels. "Well! I'm going to go wander a little bit, actually. It's been a while since I was here, and I might go see how the beasts are."

"Without a weapon?" Joshua's eyebrow twitches up ever so slightly. Courier digs through the back of her belt and pulls her her pistol - one of the 45's she got from him. He lets out a soft huffing laugh, a real laugh, all for her. All because of her antics. "You're always prepared."

"Always. Don't worry though. If it's something this can't handle, I've got my run-away gun." And she points to the transportalponder clipped to her belt. "Or I'll scream for help. There's always someone here to hear me yelling. You'd come if you heard me."

"I would." He promises. His eyes are oh so very blue. Like the sky in her memories. Oh. That’s why it’s familiar. Skies that blue. She used to always see a sky that shade of blue…

Courier gives him a nod and gets moving, heading out into the wilderness. It's beautiful here, real beautiful, and lush. Maybe she'll spend a few hours exploring. There's lots to see and do. Maybe she'll find something to bring back for the Sink personalities, they always need new stuff, like old books, and toasters, and mugs. Always mugs.

She glances back once. Joshua's still watching her. He looks strange from this far away without his bandages on, and he looks familiar too, the way that only someone you've started to know well can from this distance.

He raises a hand and waves, the motion kind of stiff. She laughs, and shoves her own hand in the air, giving him a big wave back. Okay. Yeah. She feels better again. She can't even explain why, but she just feels her stomach unknot itself looking at him waving.

Next time, she's dragging him back to Big MT and she's showing him around. And he'll say yes to it then. Courier's sure of it.