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Not the Fall That Kills You

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Her name was Nora, but Deacon was doing his best to forget that. Not that he'd be able to, obviously—mind like a steel trap, that was his curse to bear—but the more he pushed it out of his head the safer both she and the Railroad would be. Whisper was her name when she was out here with him (when she burst a feral's brain open like an overripe melon from a hundred paces down the scope of her rifle, when she knelt next to a sleeping raider's bedroll and cut his throat without flinching, when she grinned across the room at him in the moment before he popped a Stealth Boy) and Whisper was the name he was going to use.

He knew... well, he knew a few things about her. It hardly counted as stalking when you did it for a good reason, he liked to tell himself.

She had a dog and a Mr. Handy and a family member she'd lost to the Institute. She came from somewhere up near Sanctuary, that broken wreck of a pre-war town with the dark and silent vault set high into the hills above it, and when she wasn't out here with him she liked to spend her time organizing supply patrols and fixing buildings for the little settlement that had sprung up there. She liked reporters, but not being interviewed; power armor, but not the Brotherhood; running missions, but not talking strategy.

And someone somewhere hated him, because Whisper absolutely loved heights.

Right now she was peering over the edge of the crumbling overpass, ignoring the hundred-foot drop and the nice solid ground waiting for her at the end of it as she fiddled with some device of Tinker Tom's. Deacon was smack-dab in the middle of the overpass, as far from the edge as he could manage to get in any direction—well, any direction but 'both feet planted on terra firma', but who really liked not having to worry about imminent death, anyway?—and torn between rushing out there and dragging Whisper back to relative safety and not letting go of the rebar he was clinging to ever again.

It was a nice piece of metal. Sturdy. Interesting shape. Deacon was going to become a scrap metal connoisseur at this rate.

"Whisper," he called out, wincing behind his glasses as she leaned even further out over oblivion, "you maybe want to set that thing already? We're a little exposed out here."

She flashed him a smile over her shoulder. "Come on, Dee, this is the life! Nothing's going to be sneaking up on us up here."

"Yeah, nothing but gravity."

Whisper gave the device she was holding a smack, staring down at the screen. "Well, gravity's going to have to wait a minute. This thing's still not cooperating."

Without another word, she slipped the gadget back on her belt and clambered up the warped frame of a nearby car that had crashed into—and then partially through—the guardrail. The metal creaked and groaned as she slid farther out onto the hood, and fuck were Deacon's palms sweating.

"You know, we keep climbing buildings and crawling up ruins placing these gizmos for Tom and soon I'll be out there myself, doing cartwheels across the edge of the overpass"—even saying the words out loud made him tense convulsively, white-knuckled, around his new favorite piece of rebar—"and won't you feel pretty useless then?"

"You assume I'm not planning to replace you first." Whisper worked as she spoke, trying to read some signal off the gadget, barely even paying attention to the world around her. Or under her, for that matter. "I've been watching your impressions, you know. Shave my head, get some glasses... I'll have the Railroad calling me Deacon before you know it."

Even up here, Deacon couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah? I'd like to see that, actually. Never really thought I'd be into bald, but the idea's kind of doing it for me."

"Well, I'm not quite at the level of the master himself, but..." Whisper scrambled back into a sitting position and scrunched her nose up, looking around at the rubble with a faint expression of horrified disgust. "I have to tell you," she said, in admittedly-pretty-good impression of a Vaultie's stuck-up cadence, "this is my first time up to the surface, and if this is how it's going to be I'm eager to get back home."

Deacon stared at Whisper—Whisper, whose face was marked with overlapping scars; who had her favorite tricked-out combat rifle slung over her back; who was perched on the top of a car's rusted out skeleton with her feet dangling into the abyss below them, completely unaware how bad it freaked Deacon out to be up here in the first place—and said, "Well, you sure convinced me."

Whisper burst into laughter. "What, no good? Uh, wait, how's my caravaneer?" This time it was a long, slow, sleepy drawl, the end of her words slipping away into nothing: "I'm just out here enjoyin' myself, friend, I've got no clue what you're worryin' about now."

"Aw, man, Whisper, now you're just getting me depressed. You're going to have my job within the week, and then where will I be?"

"Doing cartwheels, wasn't it? You can follow your dreams, Deacon, I believe in you." She glanced back down at the device's screen, then said, "Oh, fucking finally," as she smacked it triumphantly against a dent in the hood of the car.

It clung there, a near-undetectable green light glowing at the tip of its antenna. Probably if he walked close enough to check there'd be some kind of success message flashing across the screen, but... well, he didn't really need to do that, did he? He trusted Whisper so much, after all. First competent rookie he'd had in ages.

"Great," he managed, swallowing around the lump in his throat and forcing himself not to break down out of sheer relief just yet. "You maybe want to get down now? And by now I mean, uh, now, I've got some super-secret Railroad business I need to attend to. Very urgent, very much not in the air."

"All right, all right. Come on, let's get to the ground."

This time when Whisper glanced his way, she actually looked worried. Like maybe it was starting to hit her that Deacon's little freakout was more than a comically-exaggerated affectation.

And that—that couldn't happen. Deacon wasn't supposed to be the sort to be scared of something like this. A fear of of the old-model synths would be excusable, at least, some good old-fashioned combat trauma, and being terrified of super mutants or ferals or deathclaws was just called being sane. But no, Deacon had decided to bypass all those and go for a phobia associated more with Vault Dwellers or sheltered Upper Stands folks than any proper wastelanders.

"All right, sounds good." Deacon plastered a smile back onto his face, trying for casual and probably hitting somewhere around Jet Addict, and let go of the rebar he'd been holding.

His fingers twitched. Nothing more.

What the hell, Deacon thought, caught between horror and some sort of distant, detached acceptance. Of course this was going to happen to him now.

There was some strange disconnect between his brain and his body: whenever he thought, Okay, time to let go, I'm headed down now, a subconscious instinct-driven part of him would respond, Well, actually, I don't want us to die, so how about we keep holding on? and his sweating hands would clench even more tightly at the hunk of metal he had apparently decided was the only thing keeping him from certain death.

"Deacon?" Whisper asked, taking a step towards him. She sounded more worried now, not less, which was literally exactly what he'd been trying to avoid in the first place.

"Look," he said, "just—start on down without me, okay? I'll be right behind you, promise."

"Right. Split up in the middle of dangerous territory, why didn't I think of that?"

She really was starting to sound like him. Scary. And here he'd thought synth doubles would be the only thing he had to worry about; the last thing the Commonwealth needed was an extra Deacon running around.

"Whisper."

"Deacon," she echoed.

Deacon tried to breathe. He wasn't doing a great job of it. He wanted to wipe the sweat off his brow—it was dripping into his eyes and really starting to sting—except that required hands and he was a little short on those at the moment.

He could try another lie, see if she'd give him some space to have his embarrassing little freakout in private. Or...

"I—fuck, look. I can't get down."

"You can't—?"

"Move. At all." His words came out rapid-fire, like maybe some part of him was hoping this would be less humiliating if he got them out quickly. (So far? Not working great.) "I am about as frozen as... a really frozen thing. Uh, ice, I guess. Or snow? I'm not sure which of those is more frozen, honestly."

"Huh. You know, when you're having trouble spouting off bullshit, that's when I know it's bad." Her tone was casual, but her eyes were tight with worry.

"So, you know, if you want to just give me some space, we can keep this to a minimum of mutual embarrassment..."

Whisper scowled at him. "I'm not abandoning you, Deacon. For fuck's sake."

"You were the one telling me about how safe this place is! Come on, two minutes, I'll have a good cry and I'll be right as rain. The non-irradiated kind, even."

She ignored his babbling—rude, really—stepping carefully forward until they were face to face. Not even an arm's length away—she'd be close enough to reach out and touch if he could actually reach right now.

This close, he could see the fine patterns of all the scars that criss-crossed her face. One was from a deathclaw, she'd told him; he wanted so badly to believe she was lying about that, but the deepest of the scars that crossed her cheek did look ragged enough to have come from some nightmarish monster-talon. Others were cleaner: knife wounds, teeth marks, one that Deacon was pretty damn sure had come from going face-first through a pane of glass. (He'd had one just like it a few faces ago. Way too distinctive, but fun for parties.) There was an odd sort of asymmetric beauty to her face that he found almost soothing—I've survived worse than this, the scars seemed seemed to say, and there's no way I'm letting you die up here.

Oh. huh. Maybe he was going crazy.

"If you touch my glasses, I'm not going to forgive you," Deacon said.

"I'm not going to touch your glasses," she said, in a tone that suggested she'd maybe been kinda thinking about doing just that.

Instead, though, she just sucked in a breath. (Deacon breathed with her, deep and steady. Felt better than the hyperventilating he'd been doing, at least.) One of her hands wrapped around his where they were wrapped around the rebar. The other came up to rest on his shoulder.

"Look," she said, voice pitched low and not quite steady enough to sound calm, "don't worry. Just... it's going to be okay, okay?"

Deacon opened his mouth to say something smart—and then he froze, stunned, as she leaned in and kissed him.

Her lips were... warm. Dry. He could feel, against his skin, the spot where that biggest, jagged scar cut through her upper lip. Probably he should be thinking about other things beyond just the sensation of it—things like, What? or, Why? or, Fuck, when did she get replaced by an obvious synth double, and how did I not notice? For all the old pre-war pulp serials liked to portray the life of a spy as being a non-stop parade of daring rescues and dramatic kisses, he'd found it was disappointingly lacking in either.

...Until now, apparently.

Because, okay, sure, the two of them casually flirted back and forth sometimes. But that didn't mean anything; it wasn't the kind of extremely fucking hard to play off that an actual kiss was.

Deacon's hands loosened around the rebar—coming up to push her away, is what he'd claim, and he was a fantastic liar—and, quick as lightning, her hands clamped around his wrists and tugged his arms away from the metal.

"There," she said, "that wasn't so bad, was it?"

Deacon blinked. He had, for the first time in about as long as he could remember, absolutely no idea what to say. "I.. wait. That was your plan?"

Whisper flushed. "I mean, it worked, didn't it?" She pulled his hands upward, showing them to him as if to say, Look, see?

"I mean, okay, yes, points for effectiveness"—he had to be as red as she was right now, his cheeks were burning—"but..."

He needed to stop, needed to get this conversation back on solid ground as quickly as possible. (Solid ground, ha.) Between the kiss and the fact that he was still approximately too fucking many feet up, all his well-honed defenses were falling away; one more kind word from Whisper and he'd be babbling, all So this is kinda weird, but I think that might be the first time in a decade that someone touched me like that while I wasn't in disguise, and also I think I'm kind of into it so maybe if you ever feel like doing it again—?

Absolutely not. He had a reputation to maintain, and that reputation might involve things like being a terminally-dishonest pain in the ass but it definitely didn't involve acting painfully, pathetically needy. Whisper deserved better than that.

Deacon took a deep breath, forcing back the terror and the desire alike. He could unpack those later—or never, really, never sounded good. Right now he just needed to get down from here.

"All I'm saying," he said, "is that if you wanted to take over all my top-secret seduction assignments, you could've just let me know."

The corner of Whisper's mouth quirked upward knowingly, but she didn't call him on the sudden change of topic. "Seduction assignments?"

"Oh, sure, I've got half the Commonwealth in my pocket. Or in my—well, you know."

Whisper snorted out a laugh. "Don't have a clue. Please, enlighten me." As she spoke, she took one small step backwards, guiding him a matching step forward with her movement.

Deacon knew what she was doing, but he decided magnanimously to let it slide. (And to try and pretend he wasn't jealous of the fact that she could walk backwards up here, not even looking where she was going, without crumpling into a blubbering, white-knuckled heap of misery.)

"I'm serious! I can't release my list of confidants, of course, but let's just say one of them rhymes with Barthur Axson."

"Okay, see, now you've taken it too far, expecting me to believe that kid's ever had ten minutes of fun in his whole life."

"Aww, see, you think I'd be fun in bed—I'm flattered, Whisper, really."

"Ten minutes worth of fun, anyway," she said, grinning. "I'm not sure I'd take that as too much of a compliment."

As they talked, Whisper kept them walking down the overpass: taking deft, careful steps, always managing to avoid the worst of the rubble or gaps without so much as glancing over her shoulder. Already they'd made it off the flat topmost piece of the crumbling highway—here, it sloped, heading towards a patch of ground that Deacon could set his eyes on.

"Okay," he said finally. "I think—I think I'm good now." He said the words more quietly than he'd meant to. God, already he couldn't believe he'd embarrassed himself this much.

To her credit, Whisper didn't prod. She just gave him a quick nod, gentle in its brevity, and released his hands.

Thank fuck, Deacon thought, wiping his sweat-soaked palms on his pants. If it were anyone else from the Railroad on this mission with him, he'd already be getting a lecture about sharing mission-critical information and psychological weakness. Whisper, though, didn't so much as give him a pitying look. Just, Okay, that happened, let's move on. Sometimes he had to admit he loved her style.

(He thought, then, again, about how her mouth had felt, and—nope, fuck no, not doing that. Dwelling was for people who didn't have anything better going on in their lives, and pining was just pathetic.)

"Well!" he said, offering Whisper a bright grin that didn't even shake a bit. "So that was fucking fantastic. I say we do that again, as soon as possible. Maybe tomorrow? Later this evening?"

For a moment Whisper looked like she might say something serious—Please don't, Deacon thought, I'm begging you—but at the last second a smile to match his stretched its way across her face.

"Deacon, come on. If you want another kiss, all you have to do is ask."

"I—" Deacon said, stopping stock-still. "Okay, wait, hold on—"

Whisper burst into laughter; before he could so much as get his thoughts together—and seriously, how did she manage to do this to him over and over?—she was already breaking from his side and rushing down the last of the overpass's sloping concrete, headed for the ground below.

Daring him to follow.