Mason had been waiting almost an hour for this, just lingering around the marketplace, making the traders uncomfortable. Especially that one mousy one who sold a bunch of random crap. He didn’t even have to try. Flash her a grin and a wink and the poor thing nearly had a stroke. Of course that got boring after a couple rounds, and now that the Operator boss had finally shown up, the real entertainment started.
He could have tried to be subtle, act aloof, but that was his quarry’s style, not his. As soon as William was preoccupied with talking to Maddox, the Alpha strolled over to stand just off to the side.
“Out? For how long?” the Operator was saying, the tension already creeping into his voice.
Mason couldn’t even be bothered to hold back his grin. He shifted out of the way of a browsing wastelander, causing his shoulder to bump one of the scaffolding poles supporting the upper walkway. After giving it a little wiggle to test how sturdy it was, he used it to lean against, folding his arms and watching.
“...Then you should have refused the goddamn order, Maddox. We take priority, it’s that simple,” William said, his voice low and threatening.
While his client was oblivious, Maddox had spotted the Alpha looking behind him, and glanced helplessly at him. An obvious plea.
Mason gave him a curt nod.
“Technically, yes. But that extends to all three gangs’ leaders,” Maddox said, relaxing again. “And I know the Overboss doesn’t want any favorites being picked.”
William shook his head, fist clenching at his sides. “Don’t give me that crap! Since when do those other clowns want anything but Jet and Psycho?”
He was met with a shrug. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got a standing order for another week. You’ll have to ask him if you wanna know more.” The chem dealer then jerked his head towards Mason, and the Operator turned.
Mason winked. “Hey, pretty boy.”
“...You have got to be kidding me!”
William had never, in the nearly ten months he’d known him, seemed anything but self-assured and bored. Until now. That alone almost made this whole thing worth it.
The Operator stepped over to him, clearly making a very conscious effort not to acknowledge any of the raiders who’d started to take notice of the scene. “Outside. Now,” he growled, stern but quiet. He looked so much smaller when he wasn’t wearing all that heavy armor.
“Don’t see a roof over our heads here,” Mason drawled.
The tension in William’s entire body wasn’t just visible; it was palpable. A living energy all its own. “You know what I mean.” He was speaking through gritted teeth now.
As delightful as it would be to keep pushing the matter here, it wasn’t really smart. They were liable to start a shoot-out in the market if they let the others see their bosses arguing. So, after letting William wait for a response just long enough to agitate him further, he relented. “Where to?” he asked, quirking one eyebrow.
No actual answer was given, not that he’d expected one. He followed the other’s rigid steps with long, easy gaits of his own. It was enough to note that the few Pack members on patrol in the marketplace saw their Alpha had the upper hand. Obviously, the Operators saw this too, and were unhappy. No one was stupid enough to follow, however.
William, like all his Operators, prized being discreet above all else. The small scene they’d just made was unquestionably driving him mad, and there was no way Mason was going to get more out of him in public. That was fine. Nuka Town was full of old, run-down little buildings that once served as shops selling useless crap. Any that hadn’t collapsed inside were repurposed as living and sleeping areas for the raiders, and some for travelers. William ducked into one of the latter.
The switchknife he found at his throat the second they were out of sight was far too predictable to be of any consequence. “Am I supposed to believe you’re stupid enough to use that?” he scoffed.
“Not unless you try something.”
“I’m already winning here, Will. I know I got something you want.” He paused, looking the Operator over. Through cracks in the walls, streaks of light came through, striping across his face and highlighting the beads of sweat on his brow. “Scratch that. Something you need, I think.”
“What do you want?” The man’s dark eyes were a bit too wide, and bloodshot around the edges.
“I want a lot of things. I want the goddamn parks I was promised, I wanna stop living practically on top of a bunch of narcissistic pricks in ugly suits—“
“We’re all fucking miserable, Mason! Get over it. Taking my chem order isn’t going to get you those parks.”
“Nope, but it is entertaining.” Not to mention how wonderfully predatory this felt. “Maybe if my boys stop goin’ missing, so will your chems.”
“Of course that’s what this is about.” William shook his head, already pulling the knife away and tucking it back in his coat. Just like that, his dismissive attitude was returning.
“What the hell else would it be about? I lost five of mine to your stupid target practice!”
“They were deliberately getting in our way,” the Operator replied. “Your crew are all a bunch of inbred mongrels bent on self-destruction. If they’re going to act like rabid animals, don’t blame us for putting them down.”
It always ended like this. Every damn time. No matter how far ahead Mason got, the Operators still managed to piss him off. Really it was William’s own fault that he now found the rival raider’s hand around his neck, pushing him back up against the wall.
To his credit, he still managed to maintain that air of detachment. “While I do believe you’re stupid enough to try and hurt me, these temper tantrums of yours really aren’t that impressive.”
Mason was not, in fact, foolish enough to do any real harm to William. Not because he feared his gang as a whole, or Gage, or even Colter, but because he knew that if he ever had to take out the Blacks, he’d damn well better get them both at once. If he tried anything here, Mags might just prove even more sadistic than Nisha in her revenge.
“God, just fuck you!” Mason huffed, letting go and stepping back. His voice sounded just a touch too defeated for his tastes. “You know, I was gonna let ya buy the shit off me - plus interest, of course - but I think I’ll let you stew a bit longer.”
Finally. Finally there was real, genuine fear in the bastard’s beady eyes.
Mason understood, of course. He’d had his share of chem problems. He couldn’t touch Psycho again, even after getting clean. Once an addiction got bad enough, no amount of treatment ever fully cured you. If William had been hooked for a while, he already knew what withdrawl felt like.
“Define interest,” William managed, speaking with his jaw clenched.
“I dunno yet. Gotta think about it now. Maybe if you come back beggin’, I’ll go easier on ya.”
“Mason,” he hissed. “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
“No. It ain’t. And neither am I.” Someday they were going to realize that. In the meantime, he was going back to his Amphitheater. Sure it was a dump, but it was his.
“Don’t walk away from thi— Mason. Mason!”
The near-desperation in his tone as he left him behind made up for the insults to the Pack. Somewhat. No, his gang wasn’t the smartest. They did a lot of dumb shit, and for the most part Mason was willing to see them pay for the stupidest things with their lives. But they were still his gang, his family. They were mean, and tough, and loyal. They didn’t need to be clever. Most of the time, anyway.
Those bastards in the Ops, they were the joke. Almost all of them came from privilege of some kind, not just their upper stands leaders. Most of the guys he knew didn’t really choose to be raiders; it just happened. It was the only real path open to them in their shit lives. But Mags and William and their lot had gotten to choose this. Spoiled little shits who got bored and decided to play raiders, then sulked when it wasn’t as posh as they’d hoped. They had no right to judge him.
“Heya, boss!” The current Pack member on guard, a dark-skinned fellow called Talon, beamed at him, all of four teeth left for a grin. He wore a bird’s beak mask with his colors, proud and full of fight like all his boys.
Mason gave him an approving pat as he headed inside. The familiar creaking and clacking of the gates was the most welcoming sound he could ask for.
Loud, a little on the dirty side (and okay, yeah, it smelled kinda ripe most days), the old Amphitheater was home to his rowdy gang and all of their animals. The mongrels and cats were part of the family, but they had plenty of other creatures. Animals just made more sense than humans ever had to Mason, and he’d never turned one away if he could socialize it. Granted, that meant even with their basement, Pack territory was getting crowded. Fights broke out more often, and not inside the fences where they were supposed to be. Slaves couldn’t keep it clean, and some of them were going missing. Mason was pretty sure he knew where they had gotten to, but he chose to ignore it for now. People could only get by on radroach and stale funnel cakes for so long, after all.
When he’d gotten rid of the idiots before him, Mason had made a promise to himself that they were finally going to have better. He was going to make sure of that. At the time, Nuka World seemed like a brilliant plan, and one the old Alphas were going to ruin. Now he wondered if he’d been wrong. What they had here was a lot better than the shitholes they had in the wastes, but it wasn’t enough. Tensions were running high, and while the Operators’ territory was a nice buffer from the real psychos up by Fizztop, they were still insufferably close by. Something had to change, and soon, or Calmex would be the least of their problems.
Up until precisely that moment, William would have said things were going better for him than ever. True, he would have added that they were in fact shit, but everything was relative. At least insofar as his seven or so year addiction was concerned, he had been secure. Thanks to Maddox, he’d only been in real withdrawl once in the last eight months. William had never admitted it to anyone, because it was a particularly stupid and childish thought, but it had almost been like a sign to him when they collared these traders and met Maddox. To think, in all the wastes, they’d found one of the tiny handful of chemists who could make Calmex. It had been a huge relief for all three of them, and tenfold more for him. Not having to listen to Mags’ berating anymore had been a reprieve in itself.
From day one she’d ripped into him; of course while he already had a hangover from a few bottles that didn’t really help to drown out the cravings.
“Of all the fucking shit to get hooked on, William! Do you know how hard that shit is to find? Not to mention the caps involved—“
“Aw, come on Maggie, give Bill a break,” Lizzie had said, her tone far too demeaning to actually feel particularly supportive. She was seated backwards in one of the crummy old school desks, straddling the chair and oblivious to the concept of decorum in her green skirt.
They still went by their childhood pet names then, and Lizzie still wore pigtails. She thought they tricked folks into thinking she looked innocent. William was fairly certain they did not.
“Stay out of this, Lizzie!” Mags snapped. She was starting to pace.
Lizzie made a fake pout with her lips and proceeded to do the exact opposite of her request. “Calmex is a tranquilizer. Developed prewar, and just started trial runs in diluted formulas to help soldiers focus and deal with trauma.”
William ignored the pointed glance in his direction. Lizzie knew. She would have known even if they had tried to keep it a secret from her. Which Mags had not.
“It is hard to find,” the self-taught chemist continued. “Mostly because the formula is hard to crack. Anyone who does break it down and is able to replicate it is, naturally, very stingy with the recipe.”
Mags watched her girlfriend closely, and William knew she saw it, too. The Wyath girl had one tell. As cliché a term as it was, William could think of no other way to say it. Lizzie’s eyes truly did light up when she had an idea. It was typically risky, dubious, and had a mediocre probability of success.
“So we find one of the chemists who knows how and we persuade the information out of him,” Mags guessed. She continued to pace in the old classroom.
William could feel the impact of her feet, the vibrations traveling up the legs of the desk he had his head on. He did his best to ignore it.
“An excellent plan, honey, but I don’t think even Solomon has it. Maybe someone in Goodneighbor—“ She paused as Mags let out a sound of disgust. “But you’d have to deal with the ghouls.” Lizzie shrugged. As far as she was concerned, they were just fascinating prospects for test subjects.
“I doubt their shriveled up brains could break it down if it’s so hard,” Mags grunted. “We need a genius.”
“Challenge accepted!” Lizzie finally blurted out, grinning. She must have been waiting for a cue, and deemed that one close enough. Lizzie leaned forward, hanging over the edge of her chair back.
“No.” William’s mouth had opened, but Mags’ voice said it first.
“Awe come on, guys!”
“Lizzie,” Mags began, as she always did, in a tired but patient tone laced with affection. “Your tests focus on harming or otherwise debilitating people. I have to admit it was fun to toy with those stupid lower stands brats, but you’re not touching my brother!”
“...Here’s to that,” William finally grumbled.
“He’s just going to have to ride this through.”
William groaned, a small spike of panic battering his chest. He’d only just started messing with the Calmex a week ago, but it was perfection. All the stuff in his head he wanted gone just got quiet for a while. He could focus, and relax, and not have to process any of the things happening to him.
The other woman was unfazed. “Nah, Bill needs this. And I’m gonna get that formula!”
Of course she never did. William appreciated her efforts. Mostly, anyhow. Less so those couple of times she was convinced she’d figured it all out, and come to him demanding he try it immediately. When new recruits to the gang started coming, they were the new unfortunate testers. To date, no matter how hard she tried, Lizzie couldn’t get Maddox to talk, either. More extreme measures were not an option; they didn’t need Colter getting involved.
Maddox was still back at his post, rattling off his sales pitch, when William made his way back to discuss things further. Of all the traders, he was the only one who seemed content with his slavish role. Probably because he ate more Day Trippers than he did food. Raiders were always familiar clientele for chem dealers, anyway. Things probably hadn’t changed much at all for the poor loser.
“So how much is the Alpha ordering?” William asked, behaving as though he’d never left. His head was threatening to split open and he didn’t have the energy to rehash.
“What—? Oh. Hey man, I dunno what’s going on between you two bosses but I don’t want to get in the middle,” Maddox insisted. A bit of his typical laid back, happy to please attitude was chipping away to unease.
“Just answer the question,” he pressed.
“He wants two a day,” Maddox answered nervously. He seemed ready to say more, but clamped his mouth shut.
“Same as me,” William supplied.
The trader just nodded.
There were other raiders everywhere, from all three gangs. No matter how badly he felt the urge to grab the junkie by his collar and remind him who owned his miserable life, he couldn’t afford a scene. Couldn’t let anyone see his weakness. The Operators had an image to keep, one that outbursts damaged. If one of his crew did something to cause drama, he would probably send them out into the wastes. Or let Lizzie play with them. As one of the gang’s bosses, he had to adhere to even higher standards.
William took a deep breath, all too aware of the eyes on him. He spoke low, voice strained and betraying his rage even as he made an effort to stay calm. “And how the fuck did the Alpha find out my usual order, Maddox?”
“William, please, take it easy! I ain’t said anythin’.” Maddox glanced around, helplessly trying to catch someone’s attention.
His line of sight was blocked by William moving closer. “Listen, you worm, I’ll give you double the cost for it.” Anything was better than actually paying Mason. “Just get me my damn chems.”
“Look, I can’t. That stuff is hard to come by because it’s hard to make. It’s hard to get the ingredients and... William your order wasn’t standing. I can’t play favorites... Colter— the boss... He’ll...”
Maddox was starting to panic. Short of grabbing one of the collar controls from someone on patrol, he wasn’t getting anywhere. As tempting as that was, it would only draw more attention to his plight.
William sighed, running a hand back over his hair. The heat on his back as the sun pushed higher over the open marketplace was becoming more than an annoyance. It soaked into his dark suit, spreading under the thicker material. Everything felt heavier. He would have been grateful he hadn’t bothered with his armor, but now he just felt vulnerable. Was it the sun or the eyes he knew were on him that burned so much? Every time he looked, no one seemed to be paying much attention, but he knew better. He could feel it.
“I- I can get you some Day Tripper,” Maddox was stammering.
William had to get out of there. They knew. Someone was watching. Maybe they had always been watching. Mason had spies everywhere. They all did, he reminded himself, so that wasn’t unusual. He pushed aside a wastelander, some rough old lady with a dusty wanderer’s coat. She started to snap at him, but it was cut short as she must have realized he was one of the raiders. Wise move on her part, because he wasn’t far from taking out his anger on the next random nobody who looked at him funny.
It wasn’t as if this was the first time he’d gone without. Even as he threw aside the marketplace doors and stormed back around the walls, he was reminding himself of that fact. William had gone through the symptoms more times than he could count (though he would not be at all surprised if his sister had a tally stashed somewhere). The voice of reason he was clinging to kept him stable, for now. It was impossible for everyone there to know what was going on, or even to notice anything was amiss at all. The Pack always made lewd gestures and howled when he walked by. It had nothing to do with his argument with their idiot leader. The Disciples always sneered, his own gang always stumbled over themselves trying to look more useful than they had been being. The only difference was in his head, in his nerves.
But that difference was hell.
He longed for his room in the Parlor and one of his books. Unfortunately, space was limited, and that same room was also Mags’ room. His sister had a way of looking at him and immediately determining every little thing about him. It wouldn’t matter if he said nothing, it wouldn’t help that major physical signs of withdrawl were still hours away. One look, and she’d pinpoint his mood, his health, and what he’d eaten for breakfast. For the record, that last bit was “nothing”.
Without any other options, William opted for the true last resort in Nuka Town: Cappy’s stupid fucking Cafe. Sure, it wasn’t that awful some days. Depended how fresh the Disciples’ current decorations were. The dumb old hag who ran it seemed unfazed by the stench. Probably couldn’t smell anything at all. Lucky for her. Between the corpses and the Pack, eating anything labeled as food from there was out. But there was booze, and that was his only hope for the moment.
William’s stomach churned the second he opened the door, but he hid any reflexive actions. As with all the neutral areas in the park, all the gangs held a presence here. At least this early in the day, only four others were inside. Even in raider territory, happy hour didn’t start before noon. Usually. There was only one Operator, a woman whose name he didn’t recall - not that he cared. She gave him an obligatory nod as she sucked on her cigarette. Two Disciples paused playing cards to glare at him. The Pack member drooling on the table nearest the door didn’t wake up, even when William slammed the door behind him. What a sorry bunch of assholes he was joining.
The promise of inebriation pulled him through the rabble and filth to the counter, where he threw some caps down and ordered “whatever burns the most on the way down”. In this dump, that translated to what worked the fastest. He had been intending to mind his own business, but upon turning around, the female Operator pulled out the chair beside her.
“Make yourself uncomfortable, boss,” she offered, tone dry.
Having no particularly good reason to refuse, William took a seat. Great, now he was going to have to get to know her, or some facetious nonsense like that. He took a long swig of... whatever the hell Lauren had given him. Some kind of moonshine, probably. It definitely burned. He looked to his companion, not at all interested but knowing he had to at least pretend.
The woman seemed to catch on to his mood, smirking faintly as his gaze caught hers. “Yumi. And don’t worry, I’m way too fuckin’ sober to not be working.”
A barely perceptible tilt of her eyes towards the two Disciples seated a couple of yards away was all the explanation needed. William just nodded, letting out a faint grunt. He ought to have guessed. The bar was far too disgusting for most of their crew to be in there for any reason other than to keep an eye on the other gangs. It was a testament to just how pathetically desperate he was, and how much more he needed to drink.
Yumi proved to be precisely the sort of company William didn’t mind. She didn’t say much, shared her cigarettes, and wordlessly paid the caps for his next drink. That, and she was pretty. Though looks tended to improve with alcohol, an hour or so in he was fairly certain that she’d been attractive before he started drinking. Not that he was of a mind to do anything about it. He suspected what he was drinking was meant to be taken in shots, and he was too far gone to perform.
The Operator boss was a quiet drunk, the sort you saw brooding in the shadows all night and somehow still walking home in a relatively straight line. Alcohol paled in comparison to Calmex. It didn’t clear his head or ease his stress. All it did was numb his brain, and it would come back up tasting worse than it went down. It was barely adequate as a temporary fix.
“...How important is this one?” he asked after a while.
“Why, you got something more important for me, boss?” The slight raise of a slender black eyebrow conveyed her meaning well enough.
“Probably not what you’re hoping for. Unless getting puked on is your thing,” he admitted. “I’d take a raincheck.”
Yumi snorted softly. “That bad, huh? Might wanna make that your last. Shit’s toxic.”
He nodded, but took another swallow. “Need someone to dig around. Find out the Pack’s top infer- information gatherers.” William cringed, but he was probably fortunate his speech wasn’t far more slurred.
“Oh, that’d be Fetch and Brady,” she answered quickly, scrutinizing his half-empty second bottle. Noting his surprise, she went on. “None of the Pack are exactly subtle, but those two radbrains are so absurd that it sort of works to their advantage. No one suspects they’d actually be competent enough to relay anything to Mason.”
William stared at her. Or tried to. She was getting blurry. “You can’t be serious. That actually works?”
“Sadly, yes,” Yumi sighed. “I don’t think even they realize what they’re doing half the time. Why? They get something important?”
“Very. But I’ll handle it.”
That was to say, as soon as he was sober. Which wasn’t going to be today.