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Freedom Trail

Chapter Text

“Watch yourself, friend,” the merchant says. She hands over his purchases: five shotgun shells, a single box of .38 rounds, one precious Stimpack, no Radaway. “You and your puppy. He’s a cutie, isn’t he? Better not take him east, if that’s where you’re headed; the forecast says radiation storms in a day or so. Not much cover around here.”

“Thanks.” His purchases get carefully stored in a rucksack that looks too empty, even to him. “But we’re headed for Diamond City.”

“Yeah? You got business thereabouts? Looking for work?”

“Looking for someone.”

She glances down at his left hand and smirks. “Wife run off with a raider? You wouldn’t be the first, honey, not even close. I hope she’s worth the trouble.”

“Thanks for the supplies,” he says flatly, turning away to avoid having to school his face calm. This stranger isn’t worth the trouble. Not many people are, from what he’s seen so far.

His rucksack slings easily over one shoulder. Lighter than he was hoping. The economy’s changed beyond recognition; he hasn’t yet learnt the value of his ever-meager caps stash, any more than he knows when a wandering merchant is trying to stiff him.

Dogmeat comes to heel when whistled to, tail wagging. They make their way past the caravan line. Brahmin, weighted down, dirt-smeared and stinking of unwashed pelt. The guards that watch him over raised shotguns.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m leaving,” he says before he can stop himself. “Try not to get eaten out there; I hear it can really ruin a guy’s day.”

Two of the men ignore him. The third grins, sharp and sudden. His teeth are shockingly white.

“Just speaking for myself, I’m not too worried,” he says cheerfully. “All I have to do is run faster than everyone else. Not that I’m much of an athlete, but I’ve definitely got Buttercup here outpaced.” He pats the Brahmin’s shaggy side. “You should invest in your very own meat shield. Does wonders for the peace of mind.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”

“Atta boy.” The guard tilts his head. His expression is hidden behind outsize sunglasses, ridiculous in the fading sunset. “Hey. Watch yourself once you hit the City outskirts, you hear me? Security’s good, but the super mutants have been real bold these last few months. You hear shooting, don’t go investigate. Just run.”

“Thank you.” It’s the first kindness he’s seen in days, and true gratitude forms unfamiliar on his tongue. “I’ll be careful.”

“You got it. Watch the skies, traveler, and all that.” The guard salutes lazily. He wanders off; a saunter without a care in the world. Must be nice.

Dogmeat perks up at a pat on the head. His ears twitch; the warm wind ruffles his fur. “Let’s go find this city everyone’s talking about, huh, boy? Shouldn’t be too far. And I bet Shaun will be there waiting for us. At the gate, maybe. Bet he’s all set to go home already. I bet he’s been looking forward to it.”

He talks as they tread the broken asphalt, and with every step his boots crunch and his gun gets heavier in his hand. Far off in the distance, he thinks he sees lights.

The night is long and lonely.

Chapter Text

The woman’s name is Piper, and he knows without needing to be told that she’s a troublemaker. Brash, irreverent, stubborn as stone; his wife would have liked her. It’s with this in mind that he bites his tongue and lets her lie for him at the gates of Diamond City.

“Got a merchant here, says he’s from Quincy. You should see this guy, he’s all loaded down with supplies and everything, and he looks like he means serious business. The number of Brahmins he’s got with him! I don’t think this is the kind of person you want to keep waiting, Danny, I really don’t. Right, Mister?”

He makes a noncommittal sound when she raises her eyebrows at him. Dogmeat gives a sharp bark, tail wagging.

“Good enough,” she mutters, then raises her voice again. “You hear that? Merchant and his guard dog, and they’re getting really impatient waiting for you to open this gate. You want them to decide they’d be better off selling to the settlements up north?”

She might be outspoken, but she knows her craft; the gates rise before she’s finished smooth-talking the intercom speaker, and from the twist to her lips, he thinks she might actually be disappointed. But she bounces back in seconds, hooking her arm through his and dragging him up to the turnstiles.

“Welcome to Diamond City, stranger! Home of the glorious functional plumbing system, fairly reliable power, people that might not shoot you on sight, so long as you’re not a reporter. So long as you keep your pretty mouth shut and don’t ask too many awkward questions, otherwise you might find yourself locked out of your own home. Isn’t that right, McDonough?”

Whatever he was expecting from this Diamond City, an encounter with the Mayor ten seconds after arriving wasn’t high on the list. He’s grateful for Piper’s presence. Faced with a suit-and-tie bureaucrat, he’s mentally catapulted back a few hundred years, trying to remember his manners. Formal occasions; bane of his existence, and his wife’s too. While she was still alive.

Just let me in, he thinks, already twitchy. Come on, I got places to be. Shaun’s just over the other side of the fence. Somewhere.

At least Mayor McDonough has the decency to give him a lead: Valentine, private detective. And Piper wants an interview before that; he has to wonder if she’s willing to pay him for it. He can’t afford a detective. Isn’t even sure he can afford dinner for himself and Dogmeat, for that matter.

He lingers after the other two vanish into the city. Tries to convince himself it’s curiosity, a genuine interest in how the landmarks of yesteryear are faring in the present. If he focuses on the cracked flooring and rusted gates, he can ignore the way his stomach churns with nerves. He’s faced with the idea that maybe, just maybe, Shaun isn’t actually waiting for him just up ahead.

It’s easier to stall, and play the tourist in the lobby.

One of the guards catches him staring. “What’re you looking at?” he snaps, scowling under his sunglasses.

“Sorry, I-“

“Ah, don’t mind me, I’m just fucking with you.” The man’s frown breaks into an abrupt smile, as carefree as it is unexpected. “Jesus, you make it easy. It’s just asking for some unscrupulous rascal to come along and push your buttons.”

“Consider mine pushed, then.”

“What? I haven’t even touched the fun buttons yet! Good-looking guy like you, someone should.” The teasing turns unexpectedly flirtatious, turns into a playful grin and a light punch to his shoulder. “In case I’m not being clear enough: I volunteer as tribute.”

In the circumstances, this level of familiarity is discomfiting, to say the least. “I… I’m flattered. But I really need to go find this Valentine detective. And I don’t know you at all.”

“Don’t go breaking my heart,” the guard tells him, lifting a hand to his chest for effect. “I’ll cry for days. I’m the sensitive kind, you have no idea how much this hurts me.”

“Heart’s on the other side.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your heart.” He reaches out and prods the man’s chest. Doesn’t know why he does it; he’s pretty sure it won’t get him shot, though, and this jackass needs some schooling. “It’s on the left. Not the right. Might want to consider taking a few night classes in between getting paid to hit on strangers who don’t know any better.”

Ouch.” The guard’s grin doesn’t falter. There’s something familiar about it, and the shape of his shoulders. The way he stands with his weight on one hip, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. “You bite! That’s not fair, you should come with a warning or something. Head for the market, turn left, then right, then look for the neon signs, you can’t miss it.”

“What-“

“Valentine, buddy, you want to find him or stand around here all day so I can stare at your ass? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. That Vault suit doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that. The guard gives him an appreciative once-over and then meanders over to the turnstiles, lighting up a cigarette, turning his back pointedly. Conversation over. Feel free to fuck off any time now.

Those shoulders sure are familiar.

“No way,” he mutters to Dogmeat as they make their way towards the rusted Diamond City gates. “Maybe he has a…brother. One guards merchants and the other one guards the city, and they’re both weird as hell. Acting like they know me. I don’t even know me anymore.”

Dogmeat doesn’t have anything to say to that. They pass unhindered through the gates and out into the city.

The lights are a blinding burn, and for a moment it’s almost like nothing’s changed. And then his vision adjusts.

Chapter Text

“Oh my god,” he says blankly, as the ghoul in full pirate getup shivs a man not two feet away from him. “What is this place, and where’s the nearest exit?”

“Ah, that’s what everyone says when they first arrive,” says the ghoul. He tips his hat; it feels almost friendly. The knife in his free hand drips blood a carefully measured distance away from his boots.

“And how many of them actually follow through?”

“Not enough to dent our little community. Welcome to Goodneighbor, friend. Of the people, for the people. The name’s Mayor Hancock; you need to earn a few caps around here, you come to me first.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’ll be wanting me to stab people?” Dogmeat picks that moment to wander up, tail wagging. Hancock gives his ears a friendly scratch.

“Good boy,” he says. “You have real good taste in people, I like you. Feel free to stick around however long you want. You and your master. And if you get hungry, tell Daisy I said to put your meals on my account. Enjoy your stay, yeah?” He leaves with a nonchalant wave, red coat billowing behind him.

Dogmeat whines.

“Any idea if he meant my meals as well, or just yours?” There’s no answer to that short of chasing after the stab-happy ghoul- the Mayor, and asking. And he’s not that desperate just yet.

Goodneighbor is packed full to bursting with outcasts, drifters without homes. Mattresses dot the sides of the road; campfires burn in barrels, stinking of cheap fuel and grilled molerat. He doesn’t know how to handle this kind of squalor. The ruins of civilization. Part of him wants to just look away, pretend he can’t see it. A more primal side of himself is curious. Wants to see how these people live. How they can handle surviving day to day without a roof over their heads.

There is a three-wall shack at the end of an alley, lanterns burning bright outside it. Night’s coming on; he can’t afford a hotel room. He’s a drifter himself these days. But the shack has a roof, and maybe it’ll have an occupant friendly enough to share some food, or local gossip at the least. He pokes his head into the shadows.

There’s a man stretched out on one of the mattresses.

Even in the darkness, he’s wearing sunglasses.

“You have got to be kidding me.” There’s no response from the man, and Dogmeat is off on his own somewhere, probably begging dinner off anyone gullible enough to give him any. No backup here. Anyone with sense would leave. Maybe come back when the shadows aren’t long enough to hide his corpse until morning.

He marches up to the man and gives him a nudge in the ribs with his boot. “Hey. Wake the hell up. I have questions for you, mister.”

There is silence for a long moment. He’s not sure how he knows that the man isn’t sleeping; a sense of tension, maybe. Muscles coiling in the dark. Like prodding a serpent with a stick.

“What the hell, man,” the stranger says irritably, and some of the tension dissipates. “I’m a little busy right now. Trying to catch some zees. You want a tour guide or a fuckbuddy or whatever, try the Third Rail, ‘cause I’m neither of those things. Obviously.” He pulls his tattered coat over his head, pointedly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got nothing more to say to you. Jackass.”

They could have this conversation in the morning. Only, it’s more likely they won’t; the stranger won’t be around by then. Just like he vanished in Diamond City, leaving behind an irritated boss and a bunch of coworkers who either didn’t know his name, or all called him by something different.

There’s a merchant caravan headed north right now, and it’s probably missing one guard. Because apparently the guy’s decided his time would be better spent stalking a random Vault dweller across the Commonwealth.

Enough is enough.

“Quit pretending you’re asleep, because you’re not,” he says coldly, digging the tip of his boot into the other man’s ribs. “We need to discuss you stalking me. I’m getting really uncomfortable with it.”

The man gives a groan. “Ow. Go ‘way, I haven’t slept in almost two days.”

“No shit, asshole. You’ve been too busy following me all around Diamond City. That’s the only way you could have known I’d be coming here, and then you must have scrambled to arrive first and get a disguise sorted. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“You weren’t supposed to recognize me.”

“Wow, really? That’s what you’re going with?” He feels his temper fraying. Nudges the man with his boot again, less gently this time. “You do disguises about as well as my dog.”

“Excuse you, people don’t normally spot me unless I want them to.” The man sits up, rubbing his eyes under the outsize sunglasses. “You were a lot nicer way back when you had no idea what to do with yourself. What happened? Someone crap in your Sugar Bombs?”

“I acquired a stalker out in the wasteland, and now he’s being evasive and I’m seriously considering punching him until he starts talking.”

The man flinches back, raising his hands in defense. “Aw, come on. What have I done to hurt you, huh? Literally nothing. And believe you me, I could have made your life pretty damn difficult in a whole variety of creative ways, if I wanted to. You’ve gotta learn to start keeping night watches. Or find better camping spots. You want to know how many times I’ve saved your life while you were sleeping?”

“How do I know you’re not lying?”

“Because it’s me,” the man says, and his cheerful grin is back, flicking on like a light bulb. “I’m the most honest man you’ll ever meet, trust me on this. Cross my heart and hope to die. Listen. You got questions? Fair enough; I’ve got your answers. But I seriously wasn’t kidding about the two days without sleep, and I can’t do this conversation without caffeine, so…”

Strange he might be, but the man doesn’t seem too dangerous. Tired, yes; his shoulders are slumped, and he leans on the shack’s metal wall like it’s the only thing keeping him upright. But the earlier feeling of impending violent death is long gone, almost a memory. Wiped away by the grin and the lack of visible weaponry.

He caves in. “Okay. Look, there’s a street vendor out there, I know he’s got coffee. I’ll be right back.”

“You’re an absolute angel, babe,” the man says. “No wonder I’m getting so attached.”

“Don’t you dare go anywhere.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

The vendor is half way down the street, and his prices are fair, if nothing else. Coffee isn’t much of an affordable luxury, but coffee in exchange for information is something he’s willing to fork out for. It’s only once he gets up to the counter and the vendor asks him how he wants it that he realizes he never checked.

“Uh,” he says awkwardly. “That’s a really good question. Hold up a second, let me go ask him.”

The shack is just how he left it; three walls, one shaky, leaky roof. One mattress, still indented. Still warm where someone was asleep, and isn’t anymore.

“Well, shit,” he says to the empty building. “Alright, that’s on me. I’m an idiot.”

Dogmeat finds him half an hour later, stretched out on the mattress. Staring up at the ceiling.

It’s a long time before he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Bunker Hill’s marble pillars are visible from half a mile away; in the midday sun, they shine like beacons. A closer look reveals rusted tin roofing, active turrets and wooden market stalls, one single, sorry flophouse. The Brahmin cluster in herds while their owners do business. By today’s standards, it’s practically bustling.

There’s a man in the shadows by the entrance, leaning on a wall. Watching the visitors pass. He nods to a few of them, ignores the rest; most of his expression is tucked away behind outsized sunglasses. Those shoulders really are quite distinctive.

They make eye contact, and Dogmeat gives a happy bark.

“That’s it, boy, that’s the one. There’s our stalker. How about you go bite him on the ass, teach him to vanish on me, huh?” Predictably, Dogmeat’s attention wanes the moment a worker passes by with a newsprint-wrapped parcel of fried mirelurk. Someone clearly isn’t bothered by their tagalong.

“Okay,” he mutters under his breath. “I’ll deal with this myself. Fine. Whatever.” He leaves his traitor dog to beg for scraps of other people’s lunch, and marches over to the problem at hand.

The man gives him a wary nod as he approaches. “What’s up?”

“Please tell me you’re not going to try playing dumb.”

“Sure am,” the man says. “Wow. What a day, huh? Check out this weather we’re having. That’s some weather, for sure.”

“It absolutely is. That cloud, for example. If you tilt your head and squint a little, it looks almost like me dragging you behind this fence and punching you repeatedly until you tell me what the fuck is going on.”

The man actually looks up. “I don’t know,” he says uncertainly. “Not really seeing it. Your Mom ever tell you that you have an overactive imagination? Or…anger management problems? You should see someone about those, they can really cramp your social life.”

Talk to me.”

“That’s kind of what I’m doing right now. Welcome to Bunker Hill, my angry friend! It’s pretty great. Sure love trading here. For trade stuff.”

He can’t believe this guy. “Just. Stop. Your disguises suck, you’re nowhere near as subtle as you think you are, and I’m all out of patience with being followed. And- ‘Trade stuff?’ Do you even bother to do basic recon before you infiltrate a mission area or are you just relying on sheer dumb luck to keep your cover intact? Doesn’t intel mean anything to you?” He doesn’t mean to let loose; on the long list of stupid stuff he’s done since waking up, educating a stalker on how to be more discreet about his creepy behavior is definitely breaking the top ten. But he can’t help himself. A few hundred years in the Vault hasn’t done much to erase basic military training from his bones.

The man grins at him. Leans in, closer than is safe, close enough to make it clear that the disguise is surface level only. His clothes are scuffed, dirt-smeared; underneath, he smells clean. Soap and skin. He might be dressed like a caravan worker, but he’s done none of the actual work.

“You want intel?” he murmurs. “Not even going to buy me dinner first? Fine. There’s a guy standing over by the columns; yeah, that’s the one. The ghoul. Name: Deegan, Edward. Purpose? Your guess is as good as mine, but if you twist my arm I might tell you that he’s private security, working for someone with big secrets and bigger stashes of caps. Deegan’s here to hire; he’s seen you, and he’s thinking about making an offer. I’d accept, if I were you. The pay is seriously decent.”

“I’ll…keep that in mind.” The ghoul in question doesn’t seem to be paying them any attention. But his clothes scream military and everything about his stance suggests that it’s not just for show. This is a guy who knows how to handle himself.

“Next up on the intel list: the blonde lady over there, poking about in the corn? Looks like your average farmer, and if you ask her she won’t tell you any different. She is, though. Name of Kessler. She runs Bunker Hill.”

It might be a lie. On the other hand, it also might not; he’s met some pretty unusual people these last few months. Ghouls in pirate costumes, robot noir detectives, an old-fashioned sailing ship manned by implausibly patriotic machines. The blonde woman might be just another farmer; she might also be the boss.

“I’m willing to accept that as possibly being true,” he concedes. “I can’t disprove it, at least, and I’ve met stranger settlement leaders. Me, for starters.”

“You are pretty weird,” his stalker agrees. “Okay, numero tres. That old man sitting at the bar, the one in the hat- grumpy old guy, seriously, I wouldn’t waste time talking to him if I were you-“

“Someone being mean to you is a decent character reference, as far as I’m concerned.”

“I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that. Anyway, old dude, weird hat, name’s Stockton, if it matters. Fact: by day he’s just another member of this sterling community, but by night…well, let’s just say he moonlights as a member of a certain infamous underground organization dedicated to smuggling liberated synths far away from their Institute oppressors.”

He can’t help himself; he laughs, and takes a half-hearted swipe at the other man, who dodges it with ease. “Just when I was starting to actually believe you, you go and blow it.”

His stalker lifts his hands in defeat. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he says seriously. “Next thing you know, he’ll be trying to rope you into escort missions for a shifty organization you don’t know anything about.”

“Tell him to get in line behind Brotherhood Paladin Danse and Minuteman Preston ‘Actual Saint’ Garvey.” He sighs. “On a more serious note, why are you doing this?” He keeps his voice low. And it’s getting awkward standing out in the open; he ducks into the shadows, leaning on the metal shack next to the other man.

“That’s better,” the man tells him. “You think I stand out, you should see yourself. That Vault suit draws the eye like neon lights, and that’s even before you turn around and let everyone in the vicinity get a good look at your ass…ets.”

“At least I’m not trying to stalk a total stranger.”

“Do you have to keep using that word? Come on, man, I swear it’s not like that. There are definitely important reasons for me following you around.”

There definitely could be. The worst among them is him being paid to follow a bright blue target for an enemy that doesn’t want to be seen. The worst is him being an Institute spy. A synth in human clothing.

All in all, a bit of good, old-fashioned stalking might not have been so bad.

“Look,” the man says. He shifts restlessly, unfolding and refolding his arms. Their shoulders bump against each other. Neither of them moves away. “I’m…less than okay with keeping you in the dark. You’ve gotten scarily good at spotting me, and that’s a sign that I should report back to base and get someone else to take over- but I really don’t want to do that. Not in the least because it’ll be embarrassing as hell.”

“I bet.”

“And I’ve gotten pretty attached to you, you know? You and your dog. He’s cute, by the way. Makes me want a puppy of my own; I could dress it up in a little ninja costume and take it with me on stake-outs…but I digress. The truth is that I want to tell you the truth. I really do. But I can’t right now. It’s just way too early.”

“Too early for what?” He nudges the man with his shoulder. “How long until it stops being early? I’ve been asleep two hundred years, if that’s not enough time for you then I don’t want to know what is.”

The other man whistles, impressed. “Shit. That’s way too long to spend stuck in one place. Under ground, no less.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Can’t do that, champ. It’s more than my life’s worth, and also my boss is scary when she’s mad. She goes full Deathclaw on people that piss her off, it’s not something you ever want to see. I have scars. Remind me to show you sometime.”

The gender slip is a tiny one; nothing he can make any use of just yet, but it’s something. A chink in the armour. A clue to keep in mind. Maybe Nick Valentine can make something of it, back in Diamond City. Covert organization, stalkerish spies, female leader. It’s a start.

“How long until you vanish on me again?” he asks quietly. Keeps his eyes fixed on the surroundings, rather than his companion. Kessler in her cornfield, having a whispered conversation with a man twice her size, whose slumped shoulders and obedient nods all point to deference. Deegan, the ghoul soldier, who catches his eye across the compound and throws him a lazy salute. Old man Stockton is nowhere to be seen. “I’m guessing you’ll be gone pretty soon.”

“Yep. Now would be good. I’ve crossed the line, talking to you. Might have said a little too much. I definitely shouldn’t have let you get such a good look at me; not that you ever had a problem spotting me anyway, so I guess I can let that slide. But, yeah. I gotta move. I get twitchy if I stay out in the open too long.”

“You don’t have to hide next time.” He doesn’t know why he says it. He can’t seem to help himself. “Just come over and say hello. I don’t have a whole lot of- people I know, out here. And I’d like to talk to you some more.”

“That’s a seriously bad idea.”

“Oh.”

The other man shrugs. “But common sense is overrated, so I’ll probably do it anyway.”

He’s almost relieved to hear it. Or maybe ‘relieved’ isn’t the right word; he’s not sure what is. It can’t be a good sign that he’s looking forward to their next encounter.

“I need something to call you,” he says. “You know my name by now. I don’t exactly hide it. But that makes things a little one-sided, don’t you think?”

“It does, doesn’t it?” the man agrees. His grin is still in place; he drags the silence out, making no secret of the fact that he’s enjoying this.

For a spy, he sure is fond of being the center of attention. But he’s not the only one who can wait indefinitely. They stand there, silent, while around them Bunker Hill carries on with its business, and anyone who glances their way probably assumes they’re doing the same. Just business. The truth is a whole lot stranger, as it usually is these days.

“Tough crowd,” the man says abruptly. “I was so sure you were going to start threatening me again; you’re adorable when you get mad. The name’s Deacon.”

For a moment, he doesn’t know what to say. Wasn’t actually expecting an answer. “Is that your real name?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

“Bullshit.”

“What, you thought I was actually going to tell you? Nah. But if it helps, not even my…coworkers know that. These days, it might as well be my real name.” The grin twists unexpectedly, changing into something a lot more bitter. “There’s nobody left alive who knows the name I was born with. Now I think about it, I’m not even sure I remember it myself. It’s been a while. Huh. Isn’t that just tragic.”

It might be a lie, or another convoluted joke; doesn’t feel that way though. For a moment, the carefree mask is gone. What’s underneath is a lot more complicated. A dangerous thing to share with a stranger. A risk Deacon probably didn’t mean to take.

He tries to lighten the mood. “’Deacon,’ huh? What, you work for some kind of holy Illuminati? Stalker monks? Should I avoid taking the lord’s name in vain?” He offers the other man a tentative smile, and gets one in return.

“Jesus fucking Christ, no,” Deacon tells him, carefree mask solidly back in place. “It’s a code name, man, it doesn’t actually reflect the organization I represent. And may the lord forgive me for my dishonest ways, amen, etcetera, cue icky self-flagellation.” He pushes away from the wall, stretching lazily. “Time to leave, I think. Now I’ve successfully blown my cover and given you way too much of an insight into the inner me. Awkward.”

“But appreciated.”

“Always nice to be appreciated,” Deacon agrees. He waves. “See you around, my angry blue friend. Now go talk to the nice ghoul soldier and tell him you want in on the work he’s offering. Someone has to keep that dog of yours fed. You could probably use a few square meals yourself.”

He steps into the passing crowds, and vanishes.

Chapter Text

Two months after waking up and starting a desperate quest to bring Shaun home, his progress is brought to an abrupt halt by the lack of restraint he exercises with oversized guns. In hindsight, there might have been better ways to take Kellogg down than going full missile launcher on his ass.

Well, as his wife used to say: you live and learn.

“This is damaged,” Nick’s scientist friend tells him when he hands over the necessary…equipment. “Assuming I can even repair it, this kind of project will take weeks. Months maybe. If we’re unlucky. I have other work to do as well, you know, and some of it is even more important than this.”

“But you can fix it, right?”

She sighs. “Probably. You will have to wait and see; preferably not around here. I don’t work so well with people staring over my shoulder.”

Thus dismissed, he steps out into Goodneighbor’s streets, the filth and unexpected friendliness, and goes looking for something to keep him distracted in the meantime. Earns a few caps with basic jobs; raider clearing, fetching, guard duty. Work is easy to find with Mayor Hancock’s approval. Dogmeat makes things easier still. Even in this wasteland, people find it hard to believe that anyone with such a happy dog could be anything less than decent. They hire him; he fetches, guards, kills on command. For the first time, he has spare caps in his pocket.

He lets himself relax a little. Buys rad-free noodles instead of mirelurk meat, stocks up on ammo and Stimpacks, and even makes a bit of an attempt to get along with the locals.

Nobody recognizes the description he passes around, of a man in outsize sunglasses, drifter outfit, nice shoulders, easily liked. He wasn’t honestly expecting them to; it’s been almost two weeks since he ran into Deacon in this neighborhood, and he doubts the man likes to spend too much time in the same place. Still, even a clue would have been nice.

He supposes it’s possible Deacon might have other commitments that don’t actually involve him. Like maybe a Vault dweller with few friends and no riches might not be center of his existence. Or, hell, maybe he’s just vanished for good. Maybe his boss found him someone more interesting to stalk.

Three days after Doctor Amari tells him to fuck off until he’s needed again, he finds himself shooting up a brewery.

It’s not even the strangest thing he’s done this month.

Dogmeat is a vicious blur, blending into the faded wood floor and darting up to gnaw on exposed legs like a particularly happy shark. He seems to love it; the raiders, not so much.

There are more of them than he’d expected, for what was supposed to just be a simple bot retrieval for the Hotel Rexford. “Light resistance,” he was told. “I’d go myself, but those super mutants out in the streets…know what I’m saying? I’ll leave it to the professionals.” As the tenth raider jumps down from the mezzanine and aims a baseball bat at his head, he starts to wonder what light resistance even means. This bot had better be worth the pretty meager reward he’s been offered for bringing it back to the hotel.

He’s just starting to run low on shotgun shells (and the cost of restocking once he gets back to Goodneighbor is pretty much going to wipe his profits out completely, he can already tell) when the door to a side room swings open. He turns, bracing for assault, trying to keep his head down where the raiders can’t snipe at it.

A Protectron shambles out, arms raised. “Security breach,” it states. “Beep. Boop. I. Am. A. Robot. You. Must. Die.” It staggers over a fallen beam on the ground. “Son. Of. A. Bitch. That. Hurt.”

Abnormal though it might be, the Protectron comes armed, and armored on top of that. It turns its lasers on the closest raider, and then the one after that. Between the two of them and Dogmeat, they have the building cleared in minutes. Aside from a couple of splinters, he doesn’t even take any damage. It makes a nice change.

“Thanks,” he says to the Protectron, kneeling by Dogmeat’s side and gently checking his head for injuries. Eyes are clear, ears aren’t bloody, he’s panting like a happy dog who just chewed up five people and went back for seconds. Good boy.

“You’re. Welcome.”

He hesitates. There’s something…not quite normal about that. Not Dogmeat; he’s clearly fine, and already impatient to get moving. But the robot is a different matter entirely. It stands a few feet off, eyeballing him- and that’s not right, it should have opened fire by now. He didn’t hack it. There’s no reason it should identify him as any more friendly than the raiders.

“Are you feeling okay?” he asks it. Standing slowly. Reaching for his shotgun.

“Ab-so-lutely. This unit is undamaged and ready to serve you. Beep. Beep. Whir.”

It sounds less like a robot and more like a man pretending to be a robot.

On a hunch, he walks up to the Protectron and raps sharply on its face panel with the butt of his shotgun.

“Open up,” he orders. “Or I swear to god, I’ll shoot your kneecaps out.” There is a long moment in which nothing happens; doubt starts to form, and he wonders if maybe he’s just made an idiot of himself. If the robot’s about to decide he’s the new threat here and shoot him dead.

Then the face plate lifts.

“Okay, now that’s just uncanny,” Deacon says. “How the hell did you know?”

He stares at the other man, disbelieving. Even inside the robot, Deacon is wearing sunglasses.

“Uh,” he says when the question registers. “Maybe because you can’t act for shit? How did you even get in there, shouldn’t the casing have things inside it? Hydraulics and stuff?”

“Nah, the raiders gutted this one ages ago.” Deacon shrugs as best as he can. “It was mostly hollow, and I’m good at making a disguise out of anything on hand, if I do say so myself. Pretty sure this one gets into the top ten. It’s right up there with Deathclaw and ghoul hooker.”

“…Christ.”

“There’s an idea. Haven’t done that one yet, I should totally give it a try.”

“No, don’t, I just-” he shakes his head, trying to focus. “I can’t believe you’d do something that insane. And even if the hydraulics and wiring were removed, there’s still the joint reinforcements, and all kinds of stuff on the inside to strengthen the limbs. I know. I’ve killed a fair few of these things recently. Doesn’t wearing that hurt?

“My elbows will never be the same again,” Deacon says gloomily. “And there’s this weirdly unnecessary pointy thing digging right into my-”

“Don’t need to hear it.”

“I was going to say ‘shoulder’, but then you had to go and make it dirty. Congratulations! Now I can’t repeat this otherwise hilarious story to any children I might come across. You know, out in the wasteland. Where there are loads of children scampering around looking for people to tell them stories.”

“You are the strangest person I have ever met. Just…the weirdest. Can you please take that Protectron casing off, it’s making me really uncomfortable.”

“I can’t do it while you’re watching me,” Deacon protests. “And I’m not just saying that because I’m totally naked underneath. Changing disguises, it’s… it’s an art, you know?”

“Nope.”

“Fair enough. Look, just turn around, or go into another room or something. I might be a few minutes, but I promise I am definitely one hundred percent okay and not kind of stuck in here. You go corpse-squat. I’ll catch you up. Just, uh, maybe don’t go too far. And if you hear me yelling for help, I’d appreciate you checking up on me.”

“Come on,” he says wearily to Dogmeat, turning his back on the madman in the Protectron skin. “Let’s go see if we can scrounge up our travel costs from these raiders. Go on, boy. Fetch.”

Dogmeat gives a happy bark and runs off to investigate the most interesting corpse he can find.

The brewery is pretty bare of interesting loot, bar an audio tape labeled Gwinnett lager recipe, which he pockets on the off-chance he can convince Preston back at Sanctuary that a bit of home brewing might bring in the settlers. The rest of the place is bedraggled; probably hasn’t seen an actual customer in two hundred years or so. The floorboards groan under his weight. The whole building tremors with the wind. It’s a shame; with the mezzanine and the wood paneling, the booths and open dance floor, he thinks the place must once have been pretty popular. Somewhere he’d have liked to go on a Friday evening. Not many places like that around anymore.

Eventually he finds the stairs leading down to the basement. There, he pauses.

He could just go. Dogmeat is waiting impatiently at his side, tail beating a bruise into the back of his left leg. Between them, they can easily handle anything that’s waiting down there. They’re a team. And he doesn’t owe Deacon anything.

Goddammit, he thinks. “Stay,” he says to Dogmeat. “Guard…the stairs. I’ll be right back, I just need to check on idiot number three.”

He finds Deacon mostly free of the Protectron disguise; he’s down to a metal right leg and foot that he can’t seem to remove. Though it’s pretty entertaining to watch him try.

Turns out he was lying about being naked underneath. Figures.

“Feel free to come lend a hand whenever,” Deacon says without looking up. He gives the metal leg an impatient tug. “Not that I can’t do it myself. Just seems like this is more of a team thing, you know? Think of it as a bonding activity; you, me, and this useless piece of metal that won’t fucking come off.”

“Probably rusted closed.” He’s tempted to stay where he is, leaning against the wall by the doorway. Deacon’s annoyed him more than enough to deserve it. And it’s a bad idea to get too close to a man he’s still not sure he trusts; he shouldn’t have done it in Bunker Hill, and he definitely shouldn’t do it here. Deacon isn’t his ally.

“I have a screwdriver in my rucksack,” he says, already regretting the words as soon as he speaks them. “Give me a second, I’ll see what I can do. And stop tugging on it like that. You’re just going to sprain something.”

“Have I told you recently that you’re my favourite person ever?”

“Nope. But we both know you’d be lying anyway, so. Don’t worry about it.” He digs out the screwdriver and kneels at Deacon’s side. Touches the metal leg confining his real one, turning it this way and that to get a good look. “Wow, this is pretty solidly jammed. How’d you get in here in the first place?”

“Talent,” Deacon says. “Also an excess of curiosity and the fact that I’ve wanted to be a robot ever since my Mom took me to a manufacturing plant when I was a kid and I-”

“I’m calling bullshit.”

“You’d be totally right, my friend. But it’s not like I can do much else right now.” He’s telling the truth about that, at least; the metal casing goes halfway up his thigh, and the joint around his knee is rusted solid. It’s a wonder he could walk at all. Force of sheer determination, maybe. Determination to be as strange as possible.

“You owe me for this,” he says irritably, digging the screwdriver into an unmoving screw and trying to wrestle it into obedience. “I need backup. When I get you out, you’re coming down into the basement with me.”

“Well aren’t we domineering. Not a complaint, mind you, I kind of like it. Kinky.”

“Could you not make this weird, please.”

Deacon sighs. “Next you’ll be telling me I can’t make terrible screwdriver puns. You used to be fun, man; what happened?”

“The world ended.”

There’s not much anyone could say in response to that, and even Deacon is no exception. He goes abruptly silent, his mouth tight. Stares up at the ceiling instead. At least he has the sunglasses to hide behind. Must be nice to be able to keep everyone guessing; some people aren’t blessed with that kind of deceptiveness.

An absence of Deacon talking leaves behind it a creaking brewery. A tap drips somewhere out of sight, and the screwdriver rasps on unforgiving metal.

His hands aren’t as steady as he’d like. Battlefield adrenaline. He pauses, taking a deep breath. “Sorry,” he says. “Trying my best here. You can go ahead and keep monologuing if that’s what you’re into. Or sing some show tunes or whatever it is you do for fun.”

Deacon grins at him. “Could do you one better, if you wanted. ‘Tis the season, and all that; I can manage a decent Silent Night. Or…Deck the Halls? My old partner loved that one, right before his ears started bleeding. I did jazz it up a little. Made it a bit more modern, you know? I’m pretty sure I can remember most of it. Deck the halls with bits of Deathclaw, something, something. What the hell did I rhyme with claw?”

“Beats me,” he mutters, and one of the screws finally throws in the towel. It’s the first domino in the line, as it turns out; after that, things start getting easier.

Deacon doesn’t stop talking. He’s background noise; no real meaning in anything he says, but he has a pleasant, soothing voice, and he’s easy to listen to. Doesn’t seem to require much in the way of encouragement either. And bless the man, but he doesn’t actually start on the Christmas carols. Maybe he knows better than to try his luck on the man holding a screwdriver near his kneecap.

“Got it,” he says as the last screw gives way and the metal casing peels away from Deacon’s leg. “Next time you look at a Protectron and think ‘I should totally get inside that’, do me a favour and don’t.”

“Since you put it like that.” Deacon stands slowly, wincing. Staggering. It’s just easiest to wrap an arm around his waist and hold him upright until he finds his balance; even after that, he doesn’t pull away. There might be problems with circulation, after all. Pins and needles. Numbness. Someone’s got to look out for this crazy man, because he clearly isn’t all that inclined to do it for himself.

“Mm, check you out; the muscles on you. That’s just cheating.” Deacon gives him a blatant once-over, unsubtle even with the sunglasses in play. “If you want to princess-carry me out of the building, I for one am ready and willing.”

“Maybe later.” He pulls free, taking a careful step out of reach. Trying not to miss Deacon’s weight against his side; he has work to do. Caps to earn. And Dogmeat is still waiting for him by the stairs. “Now hold up your end of the deal and come back me up. This robot isn’t going to fetch itself.”

“You’re the boss, Boss,” Deacon sighs, and follows him down to the basement.

The robot downstairs is an odd piece of machinery; rusted green-brown, with all kinds of buttons on its chest. The name says Drinking Buddy. Hopefully that’s not a euphemism for, ‘die, humans’.

“Hi,” he says uncertainly, as it whirs into wakefulness. Behind him, Deacon has a rifle trained steadily on the robot. Didn’t even need to be asked.

“Greetings, buddy,” the robot says. A metal hatch in its chest slides slowly open; it withdraws a shot glass, brimming with bronze liquid. Holds it out like a present. Against his better judgment, he takes the glass.

It’s beer. Cold, chilling his fingertips numb; the smell sends a wave of nostalgia flooding through him.

“You’re not seriously going to-” Deacon begins to say, and then stops when he does. “Oh. You just did. Well, forget I fucking said anything. If you’re just going to go around ingesting liquids handed to you by random robots, when you have no idea where they’ve been or what went into them or what kinds of side effects we’re talking here-”

“How would you describe the testing sample?” the robot asks.

His mouth tingles. There’s an ache in his jaw; he tensed up when the beer hit his tongue, and all he could think was oh god, it’s just like home.

He swallows hard. “Cold and refreshing,” he croaks.

“Very good. I appear to be operating at an optimal level.”

“Hey, no, wait,” Deacon says. He lowers his rifle. “If you’re handing out free alcohol samples, then you should definitely get them checked out by an expert. That’s me, by the way. I’m talking about me. Come on, buddy, cough up.”

“Request parameters not recognized. Please try again.”

“Looks like Drinking Buddy here thinks you don’t need any more.”

“I have been stone cold sober for months,” Deacon protests. “Because this guy I’m supposed to be following never goes anywhere fun. Seriously, man, would it kill you to visit a bar occasionally? Stop off at a tap house? Put your feet up for an evening and stop rushing around all over the place helping people? I get that you want everyone to think you’re the strong, silent type, taking on the world with your dog, but it wouldn’t kill you to socialize every now and then.”

The man has a point.

“Dogmeat is pretty good company,” he says lamely. Hearing his name, Dogmeat sits up and barks.

“Dogmeat is perfect and nobody’s saying anything against him,” Deacon agrees. “But he’s really not a substitute for human interaction. There. End of lecture. Now be a pal and talk this nice robot here into giving up the goods, yeah? I’d be ever so grateful.”

“I’ll consider it.” He turns back to the patient robot. “So, I was supposed to be fetching you for the Hotel Rexford,” he says.

“Affirmative.”

“Right. That was the plan. But I’m thinking I might have changed my mind. I mean I definitely have, I’m keeping you.”

“Understood,” Drinking Buddy says. “Would you care to designate a location for HOME?”

“I nominate my organization’s top secret base,” Deacon volunteers. “If anyone’s looking for suggestions.”

“Location not recognized. Please try again.”

“He really doesn’t like you. Can’t think why. Okay, uh…” And it’s a risk, he knows it is. A long way to walk, especially at the pace this robot moves. He might be attacked. Might get lost. Might get claimed by less scrupulous parties who just want to exploit him for the free liquor. But then again. He might actually make it- and what Sanctuary needs most of all is something new to get excited about. Something that’ll encourage new people to stop by for a look. He makes his choice. “There’s a settlement up North-West, name of Sanctuary Hills. It, uh, used to be a small community, I don’t know if you-“

“Location accepted,” Drinking Buddy says. “Saved as HOME. Do you wish this unit to proceed directly to the designated HOME?”

“Maybe not just yet. Follow me, I’ll walk you to the city outskirts, at least. Keep you away from the super mutants.”

“Understood.”

“This is just turning out to be the worst day ever,” Deacon says gloomily. He clicks his fingers by his side, and Dogmeat comes over to have his ears rubbed. “You and me, boy, we should just blow this joint and go find somewhere that actually appreciates us.” But he follows Drinking Buddy up the stairs to the brewery.

It’s dark outside. Late, too; a quick glance at his Pip Boy reveals that they somehow managed to spend several hours inside the dilapidated Shamrock. It’s past midnight. A whole new day.

“Huh,” he says, when the date catches his eye. “December 25th. I completely forgot.”

“Seasonal occasion recognized,” Drinking Buddy says. “Today is Christmas. Merry Christmas.”

“And a partridge in a pear tree,” Deacon agrees. “Whatever that means; never found anyone who could explain it to me.”

“Is Christmas even a thing anymore?” He turns to Deacon, raising his eyebrows. “Or just not your thing?”

“Not much of a one for festive occasions,” Deacon tells him. “Though I’ll take any excuse to sit back with a beer and let the work wait for a day or so. What, does the ‘Christmas’ thing mean a lot to you?”

“Not anymore. It was always more about the family for me; don’t really got much of that left these days.”

“Shit,” Deacon says eloquently. “Sorry I brought it up.”

“Don’t be. I’m going to have to let go someday soon.”

“Doesn’t have to be today, though. Takes time to get over that kind of damage.” Deacon hesitates. “Hey. You maybe want to go get a drink somewhere?” He gestures vaguely out at the street in front of them. Together, they both turn to take in the empty roadway, newspapers wafting about in the breeze. A couple of dead raiders smeared all over the cobblestones. In the distance, something howls.

“Sure,” he says. “Where?”

“That,” Deacon says gloomily, “Is a good fucking point.”

Glass clinks behind them.

“Cold and refreshing,” Drinking Buddy rasps. It stands still, arms held straight out in front of it; there’s a bottle of beer in each one. Visibly cold, beading already.

“I’m just putting this out there,” Deacon says. “I helped you rescue this guy. That means we have joint custody.”

“Can’t argue with you there.”

“You and me, friend, we’re going to be the best parents an alcohol-dispensing robot could ever ask for.”

They return to the brewery with their beers, Drinking Buddy shambling along happily behind them. Dogmeat settles down in the doorway, head on his paws.

There’s a booth maybe halfway in that doesn’t look too damaged; Deacon takes one side, settling down into the faded fake leather with a sigh. He lifts a hand up to his sunglasses. Holds still for a moment, like he’s considering. Then he lowers it again with a smile that looks almost apologetic. Not this time.

It’s hard to hold a grudge on his first Christmas in two hundred years.

“So this is nice.” The beer is just as cold as promised; it goes down easy, the yeasty aftertaste lingering on his tongue like sacrament. “Merry Christmas to us.”

Deacon lifts his beer in a toast. “And may the coming year be less shitty than the last.”

“That too.”

“Can I offer you a refill?” Drinking Buddy asks. It hovers by the booth, apparently uncertain of what it should be doing with itself. “Cold and refreshing.”

“We really need to broaden your vocabulary,” Deacon says thoughtfully. “Few days on the road with me and my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary should do the trick. I’d consider it a service to all mankind.”

“Request does not compute. Would you like to hear a joke instead?”

“Naw, we’re good, thanks. Oh, hey. You see that bar over there, Buddy? There’s a box of chalk behind it I noticed earlier, back when I was considering maybe drawing rude pictures all over the place to entertain myself while I waited for our hero to show up. You mind fetching me the green stick?”

“I am happy to serve,” Drinking Buddy says, and shuffles off towards the bar.

They watch its progress.

“You think it can even see colours?”

“This place is called The Shamrock Taphouse,” Deacon says. “You’d better believe they taught their robot all about the colour green. How else is he supposed to recognize a leprechaun when it comes by with pockets full of gold?”

True to prediction, Buddy comes back with the requested green chalk. It hands the thing over to a grinning Deacon, and then stands by their booth, clicking its metal fingers together. “Cold and refreshing?” it asks hopefully.

Deacon ignores it, but one of them still has a sense of pity.

“Sure,” he says. “We’ll take a few more. And that’s it for the night, we still have to work out how we’re getting back to Goodneighbor after this.”

“The house special,” Drinking Buddy says, and produces the beers.

Deacon doesn’t even notice his. He stands, climbing up onto the booth cushion for the extra height it gives him; stretching, he reaches up to sketch something green on a wooden beam above their heads.

He actually bothered to remove his boots before doing so. For some reason, that’s a lot more endearing than it should be.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Can’t you tell?” The green blob starts to take shape, leaves blooming out against the woodwork. “It’s mistletoe, duh. Can’t have Christmas without it.”

“I’m not sure it counts if it’s chalk.” He wouldn’t have known what it was if he hadn’t been told, but now that Deacon mentions…it’s not so bad. If he squints and makes allowances for the fact that Deacon’s probably never seen mistletoe in his life.

“There. Done.” Deacon drops back down onto his side of the booth, leaning into the leather with a triumphant gesture. “Check that out. That, my friend, is art.”

“One word for it.” But he dutifully admires the sketch, and it’s worth the effort for the way it makes Deacon’s grin widen.

“Now,” the other man says. He reaches for his second beer, taking a long pull from it. The liquid glistens on his lips. “If I know my Old World lore, there’s a certain custom we’re supposed to observe right now. Assuming we’re on the same page here.”

Deacon is a lot of things; a mystery, an annoyance, not quite a friend. But more than anything else, he’s a fount of charisma, overflowing at the edges and soaking into anyone who gets to close. When he wants to be looked at, he’s the star of the show. When he wants to be seen, it’s impossible to look anywhere else.

There are worse people to be with on this particular day.

“Yeah. There’s a custom. Uh.”

“Right,” Deacon says, nodding. He pushes his beer aside; rests his palms on the wooden table between them and leans forward. Lowers his voice. “I’ll send Drinking Buddy out to find the human sacrifice.”

That brings things to an abrupt halt. “What?”

“You know. The sacrifice under the mistletoe? So you have the red of their blood and also the green, and that’s where Christmas colours come from? What, you didn’t do that? Huh. Maybe it was more of a local custom.”

“I have no idea where you’re getting your information,” he says flatly, and then Deacon laughs at him, and he understands. “Oh, you bastard. I fell for that one.”

“You absolutely did, and it was amazing” Deacon says between chuckles. He doesn’t lean back, though. This close, it’s almost possible to make out his eyes behind the sunglasses.

“Won’t happen again.”

“Lies.”

“Liar.”

“I am,” Deacon says. The laughter stops, but the smile stays in place. “We lost a lot of Old World knowledge after the war, but some stuff never goes out of style. Like mistletoe.”

“Figures.” He makes the mistake of looking up again, at the leafy green scrawl above their heads. When he looks back, Deacon is inches away. Reaching out to touch his hair, his fringe; cupping the back of his head with one hand.

“Made you look,” he says softly, and leans in.

Chapter Text

He runs into the merchant caravan on the south side of Concord later that week. Dogmeat spots them long before he does, barking his most enthusiastic “I FOUND FRIENDS!” and charging off through the shrubbery. He’s fond of Trashcan Carla; for a merchant, she’s mighty generous about sharing food with frequent customers and their ungrateful tagalong pets.

She’s also vital to Sanctuary’s almost nonexistent economy. She knows this, and doesn’t exploit the fact. That makes her a friend in his books.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she says when he reaches the caravan. Dogmeat is on his belly at her feet, chewing a strip of Brahmin jerky. “I heard you were further south, down by Diamond City-ways.”

“It’s always nice to come home every now and then.” Hanging around Goodneighbor wasn’t doing him any favours. He’s almost certain Doctor Amari is a woman of her word, who won’t take advantage of his absence to let the work slide. And his decision to trust her has nothing to do with the fact that Deacon knows the woman; nodded when her name was mentioned and said, “Yeah, she’s an old friend. And I’m not being sarcastic about that, you’d better be nice to her.”

Deacon himself disappeared four days ago. Or maybe that’s the wrong word for it; he didn’t disappear so much as wander off down a different street, waving goodbye before he turned a corner. Promising he’d show up again soon, though Deacon’s promises are worth about as much as pre-war currency these days. Still, he probably meant it this time.

They’re not quite friends yet. But they could be. Could be even more. And that’s….something, alright.

“Been an interesting week,” he says to Carla. At her feet, Dogmeat gnaws happily at the jerky. “Anything I might have missed?”

They don’t bother with trade talk; she’s headed for Sanctuary, and so is he. Plenty of time for business when they get there. For the moment, they take the time to catch up.

“Had to get in a replacement for Dave,” she tells him with a sigh. “Real unfortunate; poor bastard stepped on a mine, right in the middle of the road! Not much of him left after that, so it’s lucky he didn’t have family that might want him back. Here’s hoping this new guy’s up to scratch.”

He looks over at the guard she’s indicating; sunglasses, swagger, lovely broad shoulders. Deacon blows him a kiss. It takes every ounce of his self control not to wave back.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t count on keeping him,” he says to Carla. “He’s not the type to stick around. Bit of a wild card.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” she says gloomily. “You know him? Small world. Ah well; maybe we’ll pick someone up in your Sanctuary. Hear you’ve had a few more settlers stopping by recently. I sure hope that works out for you, it’s a nice place. You heading back?”

“I am, yeah.”

“Stick with us, then. We’ll be slower than you and your puppy alone, but a couple extra guns at your back is always nice.”

“Thanks. I’d appreciate that. Hey, how about I have a word with your new guy? See if he’ll tell me what his plans are, so you know when you need to start hiring again.”

“That’s mighty kind of you,” Carla says. “I suppose it’s too much to hope for, that the next one will be a bit more reliable. Where do I need to go looking if I want to hire someone like you, or that nice Preston Garvey? They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Such a shame.”

The caravan starts moving again; he takes his place at Deacon’s side.

“You’re not even trying this time,” he says in a conversational tone. “Reusing old material? I’m disappointed, I expect more from you.”

Deacon shrugs. “Everyone’s a critic. For your information, wise guy, I have a vast range of disguises at my disposal, each more convincing than the last. There’s just no point putting a new one on if you’re going to spot me anyway.”

“And you wanted me to spot you.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny any allegations made against me. Or I could deny them, but I’d totally be lying.”

“What? No way. You never do that.”

“Any statements to the contrary should be treated as, like, the worst slander ever.”

They exchange smirks. And it’s funny, how fast they’ve settled into each other, how companionable it feels to walk side by side. The broken asphalt road is an easier tread with Deacon to annoy, and be annoyed by. The wasteland is a little less lonely.

“This is nice,” he says, as they make their way into Concord’s littered streets. Guns drawn. 43 days since the last Deathclaw incident. “Way better than running into you all over the damn place.”

“I for one appreciate the lack of scary threats,” Deacon agrees. “Violence isn’t always the solution, tiger. Alcohol is a completely different story. Which reminds me; for intel purposes, I need to get you really fucking wasted. I’m talking, ‘hung over for days afterwards’ plastered here. You’ll do that for me, right? In the name of intel?”

“Oh, sure,” he says wryly. “If it’s for intel, who am I to argue? Bring on the moonshine.”

Deacon actually reaches over to pat his shoulder. “I knew you’d be a good sport. And I swear this has nothing to do with me wanting to see which of us wins at Gay Chicken.”

“I’m going to tell you right now: it’ll be me. I don’t need the liquor for it.”

“Plot twist,” Deacon says. “Neither do I. Which puts a few things into perspective now, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it does.”

He’s been awake two months, and the world is an unrecognizable place; ravaged, radioactive. Nothing like what he left behind. And there’s a lot he left. Friends, family. Secrets.

He misses his wife, but missing her doesn’t come with a side of feeling guilty for letting an attractive new acquaintance flirt with him. Kiss him on Christmas morning. He married his best friend. They both knew what that meant, and what it didn’t mean. She wouldn’t mind; hell, knowing her she’d be telling him to go for it. Telling him to find someone wiser to look out for him, since she couldn’t do it anymore.

She’d have…maybe not liked Deacon, but she’d certainly have tolerated him. Or left the two of them together to drive each other nuts, while she went off and rescued Shaun. If she’d been the one to survive, chances are the treasure hunt would be over and done with already. She was always the efficient one. Always seemed to land on her feet.

He’d certainly have appreciated her advice on how to handle this man who isn’t exactly his stalker and isn’t exactly his ally, and still won’t take his sunglasses off for as much as a second. His own judgment is unreliable; he’s honest enough to recognize how desperate he is for connection, with anyone who makes him feel human again. There aren’t many other people he can ask for an opinion. Dogmeat can’t talk. Preston likes anyone who’ll help out the downtrodden, and Deacon is probably smart enough to pick up on that and find an appropriate disguise to wear. Danse isn’t even worth bothering with. Piper and Valentine are back at Diamond City; he hasn’t quite convinced them that Sanctuary is worth a visit. That’s a shame. Those two aren’t so easily deceived.

“You’ve gone real quiet all of a sudden,” Deacon comments. “I’m not sure if you’re doing a mental victory dance or contemplating running for the hills. Or…both, maybe? Victory dancing your way off to the hills? That’d be pretty hilarious, I’d pay to see that.” His attempt at a nonchalant tone has a note of tension to it.

“I’m not running anywhere.” It’s true; he knows without a doubt that Deacon could find him however far he went. There’d be no point. “Just…thinking.”

“Scary stuff.”

“Remind me why I let you hang around again?”

“Because of my good looks and charming personality,” Deacon tells him. “Also because I’m a stealthy soul who can dish the dirt on pretty much anyone you care to name, and handy with a gun when the local ferals get a bit feisty. You ain’t never had a friend like me.”

He lets Deacon sling an arm around his shoulders, and doesn’t elbow the other man in the ribs like he deserves. Ignores the incredulous looks Carla is throwing them both. Ignores how much his feet are killing him after days on the road, or how awkward it is to keep up a steady pace without breaking contact. He’s not too sure why he does it. He has an inexplicable feeling that Deacon isn’t either.

At least this way he knows where his stalker is.

“By the way,” Deacon says a while later, as Sanctuary’s houses rise into view on the horizon. “Any idea what happened to Buddy? How’s our shared robot child doing these days?”

“On his way, I guess. I saw him off on the city outskirts; he has his own lasers and everything, he’ll probably be fine. And he’s in a prime bargaining position if he ever gets kidnapped. If not…we should be seeing him in a day or so. He doesn’t need to sleep.”

“That robot is a national treasure,” Deacon sighs. He steps away, widening the distance between them, which only serves to hammer home just how close they’ve been walking. Up ahead, there’s a welcoming committee on the bridge. Preston stands at its head, gun hanging by his side. Danse is at his shoulder, armoured up, weapon raised; Marcy Long is on his other side with a pipe pistol, and it’s hard to tell which of them is the most intimidating.

“Welcome home,” Preston calls. The weapons are lowered. The path is cleared. A weight seems to lift from the entire convoy.

It’s always good to come home.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Preston says as they step off the bridge. “One of those new turrets we installed is…kind of temperamental. Taking pot-shots at Codsworth, we can’t work out why. You maybe want to take a look? I’d ask Sturges, but he’s gone to sort out some decent defenses at Abernathy Farm. Sorry to throw this at you as soon as you arrive…”

“Sure. I’ll handle it.”

He makes his way over to the offending turret, rolling up his sleeves. Flips open the back panel and shuts the whole thing down before he starts playing around with friend-or-foe settings. Shouldn’t be too much of an issue; something to do with Codsworth being a robot, probably. Some kind of default Sturges forgot to change when he installed the thing.

Deacon stands at his shoulder, watching him work. “Check you out. The robot-whisperer. I knew you were handy with lockpicking, but this is something else completely.”

“We learnt some weird stuff in basic training.”

“Looks like. That must be why I like you so much, what with me being a synth and all.” He says it so casually; the statement takes a few seconds to sink in.

His fingers go still on the turret’s wires. “You never mentioned.”

“Nope. Not exactly the kind of thing you want to go around broadcasting, you feel me? People tend to get a little trigger-happy. Never mind that I’m pretty much the most harmless dude you’ll ever meet; nothing murderous about me at all. And I swear I don’t have a secret kill-mode you might trigger at any second with a careless phrase. Beep. Boop.”

He tilts his head up, squinting to try and make out Deacon’s expression behind the sunglasses. “I don’t know if I believe you.”

“That’s totally your prerogative, my robot-whispering friend,” Deacon tells him. “And if you ever happen to notice me walking a little jerkily, or…making random whirring noises, I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know. Our lives might depend on my cover never getting blown.”

That does it. “I call bullshit. You’re not a synth.”

“What makes you say that?”

He turns back to the turret, the delicate wiring and sockets. “If you were, you’d actually be good at your job. I’d never have spotted you. Hey, pass me that screwdriver over there?”

“I should just walk off in a huff,” Deacon comments, but he fetches the screwdriver. Kneels by the robot and watches the repair take shape. It should be awkward having an audience for this, a tricky job he’s not entirely sure he’s doing right- but oddly enough, he finds he doesn’t mind.

“You planning on staying the night?” he asks as the last screw comes loose, allowing him to remove another square of metal panelling and access the screen underneath. He starts scanning code. “Sanctuary has beds to spare. Good ones; we’ve been looting the Vault for supplies. The mattresses are actually decent.”

“I’m a sucker for a good mattress,” Deacon agrees. He accepts the metal paneling when it’s handed to him, holding it gingerly between thumb and forefinger.

“If you’re not in a hurry to leave, you could even stick around. We have space.”

“I make a pretty terrible farmer,” Deacon says regretfully. “I mean, I can fake it well enough to fool anyone apart from maybe you-”

“Never seen a farmer with sunglasses like yours.”

“Hey, man, don’t knock my trademark, those things look great on me. Nah, it’s not that I can’t be a farmer for a bit; I just can’t be a farmer, if you take my meaning. Too much hard work. I’d ruin my manicure. And I’d be bored out of my mind, however hard I tried to convince myself that this was what I really, really wanted…” He trails off.

The story sounds a lot more like memory than speculation. “So you’ve actually tried it? Settling down?”

Deacon doesn’t say anything for a moment. Then he clears his throat. “I’m just gonna change the subject now, if that’s alright with you. And, fair warning, if you push the issue then I won’t be mad, but I will get up and walk away and also be very disappointed in you. You don’t want that on your conscience, right?”

He can’t make out Deacon’s expression; those damn sunglasses are in the way again, and he has a feeling he just missed something important.

But he also gets what it means to have things you can’t just talk about on a whim. Skeletons in the closet; skeletons in the Vault. He gets it. “We can talk about something else. Give me that panel, it’s not going to bite you. I need to put it back.”

Deacon hands the panel back; he very intentionally makes their fingers brush as he does so.

“Here you go, Asimov. Teach that turret to protect humanity, or at least the parts of humanity we decide should get to not be shot. It’s cool how you can do that. I really wish I could bring you back to the Switchboard- dammit, I totally shouldn’t have said that. Forget I said anything. Please. You don’t want to know what my boss will do to me.”

Switchboard. One more clue. Need to ask Valentine about this, and soon. “I could promise to forget it,” he says casually, sealing up the turret’s back panel as he does. “I’d be lying, though.”

“You’re a bad person; I have taught you well.”

“You should stay with me.”

He doesn’t mean for it to come out so fast, so soon. Figured he might tactfully broach the subject after a good dinner, maybe over beers scavenged from Buddy before they parted ways. In the sunset, when the hills turn rusty gold, the closest they ever get to beautiful these days. He’s spent the last few days planning the invitation. He’s aware that it’s crossing a line. But he also knows that he has to ask, because there’s no point pretending they’re strangers anymore.

“We’d make a good team,” he amends carefully. “We already do. And you could spy on me a lot more efficiently if we were…”

“Partners?”

“Why not? Everyone I’ve worked with this century has a one hundred percent survival rate, your odds are pretty good.”

“I am a big fan of staying alive,” Deacon agrees. “Oh boy. I…totally saw this coming, just so you know. I had contingency plans and everything. I just- dammit.”

“You’re allowed to tell me ‘no’,” he feels obliged to point out. “I get it. The places I go, the places I’m going to go, they’re not exactly fun. Or safe.”

“Yeah, that’s really not the issue here.” Deacon scuffs at the ground with a boot, then twitches back as the turret whirrs to life and turns to scan him. Its lights flicker for a second, yellow to heart-stopping red and back again, before it decides he’s a friend.

“Guess it doesn’t like synths,” Deacon says with an unconvincing laugh.

“You’re not a synth. We’ve established this already, it’s time to move on.”

He stands, dusting his knees off. Gives the turret a friendly pat on the head. It should function just fine for a good while, or at least until his next visit home from wherever he ends up.

At his side, Deacon gives a frustrated sigh. “Okay, look,” he says rapidly. “I am totally not allowed to be doing what I’m about to do. If Dez finds out, she’ll douse me in honey and hang me naked over a fire ant pit. And she’ll be right to. I’m putting a lot of lives on the line here, and if you’re not the kind of guy I think you are, we’re going to have problems. But here’s the thing- I trust my instincts. And I don’t think you’re going to make me regret this.”

“I’m not going to hurt you-”

“I know that, hero, but for once this isn’t actually about me.” Deacon gives him a wry smile; it’s almost convincing. “You don’t know my people, and they don’t know you. Hell, you don’t even know what we stand for. So just…accept that this is a risk for me. I’m breaking more rules than we even have. But I also think you’re totally right, and we should work together. So. Yeah. Guess I’ll try sticking around for a bit, see where that takes me.”

The outcome is so unexpected, he’s not actually sure how to react. He’s almost certain there’s an idiotic grin spreading across his face; he’s a lot happier about this than he should be. When Preston joined him, he was relieved- glad not to be alone again, grateful for a chance to expand his social circle beyond one semi-sane robot butler and a dog. Piper and Valentine were a similar story. None of them made his insides lurch with something that feels suspiciously like hope. Among other things.

“You should come meet the others,” he says quickly, grabbing Deacon by the elbow and tugging him towards Sanctuary central, such as it is. “They’re mostly nice, apart from Marcy, but I swear she won’t try anything. They’ll like you.”

“Everyone likes me, I’m an absolute delight to hang out with,” Deacon agrees. He lets himself be dragged.

True to prediction, everyone likes him, bar Marcy and Danse, neither of which is unexpected. Preston shakes his hand and asks him if he’s ever heard about the Minutemen, and is he aware that they’re recruiting? Sturges shows up in time to tell him approvingly that he looks like a guy who can handle himself, and assign him some work on the spot. Codsworth likes that he offers to help with grilling the Brahmin steaks. Carla rolls her eyes and tells him she won’t take it too hard when he quits.

Deacon takes it all with good grace; gets the crowd around the campfire laughing with stories about weird adventures he’s had in the wasteland, and while they’re definitely all lies, they’re still pretty funny. He fits in so easily. It almost feels like he was never not there.

“That’s quite some skill your young man has,” Mama Murphy says, too soft for the others to hear. “Anyone can turn a gun on raiders and ghouls, but how many could just wander into a camp and convince people he was home? That’s a rare thing. You look after him, you hear? He’s necessary.”

“Deacon’s not mine,” is his automatic response, and then the rest of it registers. “Wait. Did you have a vision?”

Mama Murphy nods slowly. “Not as strong as normal, mind you, what with Preston rationing my supplies.”

Good.”

“You need to know, kid,” she tells him, soft voice fervent. “That man has a lot of secrets. More than you or I or anyone. They’re all mixed in with the lies, and then he adds glitter and smoke to make it all blur together, so you never really know which is which. But you’re still going to need him. And I think he’s going to need you too, so that’s nice. Always nice when these things balance out.”

He looks over at Deacon, who’s somehow managed to coax Preston and Danse into a discussion on the merits of energy weapons versus good old-fashioned bullets, and kept the entire conversation from turning into a shouting match. Danse is actually engaging. The whole thing looks almost civil.

“Deacon is…kind of a worry,” he says quietly. “I don’t know what game he’s playing. What side he’s on.”

Mama Murphy shrugs. “For now? Who can say? But it’ll be your side, in the end. Not that the change will be an easy one, mind you; there’s tragedy coming. I can’t make out when, or who. Just a lot of flashing blue lights, and some images. A train. Or maybe train tracks, that part isn’t clear. A church. None of it means much to me, but you’ll work it all out eventually. Just hope it’s not too late when you do.”

“You and me both.”

Over by the campfire, Deacon turns and catches his eye. The firelight reflects in his sunglasses, but his smile is easy to see. It looks real. He looks happy where he is.

Maybe that’s the honest truth.

Chapter Text

“So let me get this straight. You’ve never heard of the Silver Shroud?”

Deacon raises his hands in defeat. “Hey, cut me some slack, man. That franchise is over two hundred years old!”

“But you know Grognak.”

“Ah, but that’s because Grognak came with some real smart producers. After the war, he got reinvented as a nuclear survivor. And then they made him part super mutant, only they kept him sane and nixed the wrinkles and the creepy green skin thing. Helps that his comics have a sense of humour, too. I don’t think your Shroud can say the same.”

“Because the Silver Shroud didn’t need cheap gags to carry his plot for him. He had…style. Gravitas. He had- oh, hey, awesome.” The lock he’s been picking gives way with a click, allowing the door to Hubris Comics to inch open. “We’re in.”

“I never get tired of seeing you do that.” Deacon nudges past him, gently pushing the door in with the muzzle of his shotgun. He doesn’t need to lift a finger to his lips; by now, they’ve rehearsed this part to perfection.

Keeping low, laser rifle held close to his chest, he follows Deacon into the store.

They’ve had some pretty strange jobs thrown their way since they partnered up. If he didn’t know better, he’d say it was some kind of karmic punishment; more likely, Deacon’s sense of humour encourages the weirdoes to come out of the woodwork and hire them. People like Deacon. He makes them feel at ease. Two minutes of talking with him, and they’re all but convinced they’ve known him for years.

It’s certainly bringing the work rolling in. Unfortunately, some of that work is pretty goddamn…unusual.

It’s not that he objects to hunting down a centuries-old Silver Shroud costume; in most other circumstances, he’d be bursting at the seams with excitement. A part of him still is. It’s the Shroud. The actual Shroud, and he can’t even remember the number of evenings he tuned in to that show. With his black trench coat and silver submachine gun, that guy was the coolest thing to ever come out of Hubris Comics.

Unfortunately, tracking him down is involving a lot less heroism and a lot more feral ghoul slaughter. Such is life.

“Behind you,” he snaps, as a particularly fresh ghoul makes an appearance in the doorway Deacon has his back to. “Move, I’ve got this.”

“That’s what she said.” Deacon dives to the left and the ghoul dissolves into a shower of red sparks.

“Jackass. Next time you can kill your own goddamn monster.”

“I could,” Deacon agrees. He prods a fallen ghoul with his shotgun, mindful to keep well out of grabbing distance. “But then you wouldn’t get to be all heroic and rescue me, and you love doing that. Okay, I think we’re clear on this floor.”

“Two more to go. Hope you didn’t have anything else planned for the day.”

“Trust me, there’s nowhere I’d rather be on a Sunday than here with you in this absolute dump of a building, mainlining Radaway like it’s Nuka-Cola.”

“Speaking of which. Catch.”

Ghouls, he thinks, digging in his rucksack for a second syringe of rads-reducing medication, Are the worst thing ever to happen to the world. Aside from super mutants, giant roaches, radiation storms, and the total absence of TV. Oh, and the Institute. Jesus. Should have just stayed in the Vault.

“Oops, sad face alert,” Deacon says. “I feel you, man, this building is the worst. Sooner we grab that costume and get back to Goodneighbor, the better. You all good? Need a moment? I’m not really a huggy kind of guy, so if that’s what you’re after then you should have brought the dog instead.”

“Maybe I should have.” And yet. Dogmeat is back at Sanctuary, enjoying a well-earnt rest, and he’s spent more time with Deacon these last few weeks than he has with any of his other companions. Usually he does a job with someone, then gives them a break to go do their own thing. Keeps fatigue from setting in. Keeps them all from getting sick of each other.

Deacon is the exception to the rule. That’s happening a lot these days.

They find the Shroud costume on a mannequin upstairs, and because life hates him, it’s guarded by a Glowing One and some ghoul buddies. The fight takes a nasty turn; by the time it’s over, he’s shaking so bad he can barely dig out the Radaway.

Deacon suffered a bite from the glowing green monster. He’s on the ground already, retching as radiation does a number on his intestines. He barely twitches when the needle presses into his arm, and it’s several minutes before the spasms pass. Longer still before he can lift his head and smile blearily.

“Thanks,” he mumbles. “Gonna need a bit more time before I can get up. Fucker got me real good.”

“Yeah, I saw. That might leave a scar.” He’s on the ground too, sitting at Deacon’s side, rifle resting across his knees. He reaches over to squeeze the other man’s shoulder gently. Purging radiation is never a fun process, even for someone who’s grown up having to deal with it. And as for the fight…well, they’ve had some close calls. None as close as this one, though. He’s a quick shot, years of military training keeping him calm and clear-headed in battle, in a way not many people can manage these days. He has a feeling that if Deacon had been out with anyone else, there wouldn’t be much left of him by now. A scar is a lucky break.

“Nah,” Deacon says. He lies very still, forehead pressed to the dusty wooden floor. “I’ll get it removed next time I take a trip to the surgeon for a new face. Which should probably be soon.”

“I’m gonna miss you. I like your face.”

Deacon smiles faintly. “Oh, you charmer. Relax. It doesn’t come with a personality transplant; I’ll still be your favourite guy.”

“Actually,” he says, “That’s Paladin Danse. You don’t even make top five.” He touches Deacon’s shoulder again, just to check that he’s stopped shaking. Letting him know he’s not alone. “You stay there, I’m going to get the looting sorted. Then we can leave as soon as you’re ready. Less time we spend in here the better.” He’s acutely aware of the dead ghouls, the husk-like Glowing One’s corpse on the other side of the room. This place is a radioactive hot zone. They can’t be here.

The Shroud costume gets shoved unceremoniously into his rucksack. And then, on the other side of the room, he strikes gold.

“Holy shit,” he mutters. “You have got to be kidding me.”

He stuffs the second outfit in with the first, and goes to drag Deacon upright and out of the building.

“I got you a present,” he says that evening. They have a hotel room in Goodneighbor (and it’s such a novelty being able to afford one, and even more surprising to find that he’s become well-known enough for the hotel staff to lend him a second mattress free when he asked).

Deacon doesn’t look away from the cracked mirror, where he’s trying on the Silver Shroud hat and admiring his reflection. “Ooh, I love presents,” he says. “Is it flowers? Chocolates? Sweetheart, you shouldn’t have.”

“Oh, I definitely didn’t. Catch.” Deacon turns just in time to make a grab for the bundle of clothing before it hits him in the back of the head. He separates it out with an incredulous expression.

Grognak the Barbarian doesn’t really have much outfit to him. Boots, gloves, trademark green loincloth, and it’s a mystery as to why Hubris Comics had a real life copy of it just floating around- but they did. And the look on Deacon’s face makes the effort of carrying all the pieces around worthwhile.

“Seeing as how you’re a Grognak fan,” he says. “Kent wants me to be the Shroud, and that’s fine, I can do that. But I figured it might not be fair if you didn’t have an outfit too. We’re a team, yeah?”

Deacon looks up at him. The sunglasses do a very good job of hiding his eyes, which makes glaring pretty ineffectual. Still, he gives it a shot. “Is this a challenge?” he asks. “Really. Do you even remember who you’re talking to? I’m the master of disguises! A thousand people in a single skin, and you think I’m going to back away from this?”

He shrugs. “It’s, uh, pretty revealing.”

“I’ve done worse,” Deacon tells him. “This one time- you know what, fuck it, I don’t have the energy. Turn around, I can’t put this on with you watching.”

It’s a familiar request. He does as he’s told, turning to stare at the opposite wall, the pock-marked plaster and cracked corners. Deacon has this…thing. Nobody gets to watch him switch disguises. His reasons for this are countless: it spoils the magic; makes it hard for him to get in-character; ruins the surprise. Gives him performance anxiety.

Most likely it’s because he has to remove his sunglasses to change.

“Done,” Deacon announces, and he turns around.

“…huh.”

“Pretty good, right?”

“It’s not too bad.” He’s aware that he’s staring, and can’t muster the energy to stop. Nobody could possibly blame him, he’s sure. It’s quite the view.

“I’m a fan,” Deacon declares, turning to admire himself in the mirror. Doing so reveals the smooth expanse of skin across his back. Muscles more defined that they seem under the disguises he usually chooses for himself. The guy looks…good. Better than good.

He swallows hard. “Yeah? I, uh, didn’t actually think you’d go for it.”

“Nah, this is perfect. There’s so much skin on display, nobody’s gonna be looking at my face. It’s so loud it’s actually stealthy! And, you know, I look pretty goddamn fantastic. Grr. Hell yeah.”

“…right. Hell yeah.”

And so, Silver Shroud and his scantily clad sidekick Grognak step out into the night and go fight some crime.

The first time he uses the Shroud voice, he can feel his face growing hot with a mixture of embarrassment and the knowledge that Deacon is cracking up right behind him.

Your crimes have gone unpunished for too long?” he tries.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” snaps the villain, Wayne something. “You some kind of crazy person?”

“Do we look crazy to you, asshole?” Deacon asks. “Wait. Don’t answer that, I can probably guess. Man, this loincloth is kinda chilly. I’m just saying.”

Today you face the Silver Shroud,” he tries, and Wayne starts reaching for his gun. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Die, villain!

A minute later, Wayne is dead on the cobbles, riddled with bullets. Silver bullets, no less, though the paint is flaking slightly. It’s the thought that counts.

“You know, the Shroud thing suited you better when you just got mad and shot him,” Deacon says. He crouches by the corpse, shoving a hand into a pocket and coming back with a bag of caps. “Check it out! Payday. Or is your hero above this kind of petty looting?”

“Uh.” He tears his eyes away from the muscles in Deacon’s thighs. “It never really came up.”

“Awesome. In that case I vote we follow Grognak’s excellent example and steal anything that isn’t nailed down. You’re going to have to carry it all though, I’m a little low on pockets. Or clothes in general.”

“You…really are.”

“Hey, buddy, my eyes are up here.”

“Sorry-”

“Nah, just fucking with you. Go back to ogling my ass, it’s doing good things for the old ego.”

“Just stick this damn calling card somewhere on the body. We’re on a schedule. Murderer, drug peddler, then interrogate Whitechapel Charlie for the whereabouts of some villain named Kendra. Come on.”

Deacon takes the calling card and shoves half of it into the corpse’s mouth, which is…simultaneously disgusting and also kind of perfect. The Shroud would have done the same. He’d have been a bit less irreverent about it, but still. This is good. This is in-character.

Deacon stands, stretching ostentatiously. “Tell you what,” he says. “I’ll be a good sidekick and take you straight to our next target, seeing as I already know where he deals his goods. But you gotta do the voice. You know the one.”

It’s impossible to keep a straight face with Deacon leering at him. “You’re terrible. Fine. Ahem. Come, my trusty friend! There is justice to dispense, and peace to restore; this neighbourhood is ill, and we are its cure!”

“Christ, I’m learning some interesting stuff about myself today,” Deacon says. “Alrighty then, lead on, Mister Shroud. Let’s go…cure people. With bullets. And the healing sight of my perfect abs.”

The drug dealer goes down in a hail of bullets when he foregoes the chance to reach for his gun in favour of laughing at the two costumed idiots calling him a plague upon these peaceful times. Whitechapel Charlie gives up the goods as soon as he works out they actually want to murder Kendra. Kendra herself makes the mistake of trying to scare him off with idle threats. At least she takes the Shroud voice semi-seriously. That makes a nice change.

He’s getting pretty good at it, if he says so himself. Can’t help the grin that spreads across his face every time he has a chance, because here’s the thing-

This is actually all kinds of awesome. He’s a hero. Better; he’s the Shroud. And he has the best sidekick a vigilante could ask for. Deacon is still refusing to shed the Grognak outfit, insisting it gives them a tactical advantage. He might be right. Or he might just be loving the attention. Possibly neither. Probably both.

They even manage to acquire a nemesis.

The Bad Guy’s right hand woman, Smiling Kate, opens fire without pausing for conversation. The Shroud guns her down. Then he guns her friends down, and then he has to work out which corpse is the right one among the five or so lying around in the overgrown grass. It’s pretty anticlimactic, all in all.

Deacon catches him standing over Kate, silver calling card in hand. “Hey,” he says. “Why the long face? That’s one more villain brought to justice by our hero! Come on, you should be celebrating.”

“I guess. I just…okay, swear you won’t laugh at me.”

“Cross my heart,” Deacon says solemnly.

“Last I checked, that didn’t involve crossing your fingers behind your back and hoping I wouldn’t notice. Fine. It’s just that I was hoping to do the thing again. You know. The voice. She started shooting before I could get a word in, that’s not fair-” He gives up when Deacon starts laughing at him. “It’s really not that funny. I was looking forward to it and everything.”

“No, you’re totally right, that is the least funny thing ever. The mean lady and her friends started shooting at you before you could do your awesome superhero voice? That’s just uncalled for. Baby, I am so sorry this went all wrong for you. Maybe next time.”

“Jackass,” he mutters. “Alright, let’s just head back to Goodneighbor, maybe crash for the night. You must be freezing in that outfit.”

“I absolutely fucking am,” Deacon tells him. He’s still laughing. He shows no sign of wanting to stop. “The amount of skin I’m flashing here, you’d think people would at least try shove a few singles down my top. Oh, wait. I’m not wearing one. That’ll be why I can’t feel my nipples.”

“Oh god. Come here, you can have my coat-”

“Uh, no, that’s the Silver Shroud’s coat, you can’t take it off while you’re on duty. It’s in the rules. Didn’t you read the rulebook? What kind of superhero are you?”

The Shroud has no need of rulebooks,” he intones, shrugging out of the heavy grey coat. “His gun is his bible, and Justice his goddess. Or god. Or…deity of uncertain gender. Goddammit. Take the coat before you get frostbite, I’m all out of Stimpacks and I’m not kissing anything better if it turns blue.

“If this was a comic book, there’d be a thought bubble over my head right now, and it would say something along the lines of, ‘Not now, boner.’ Alright then, I’ll take the coat. For the sake of my nipples.”

Somehow, they make their way back to Goodneighbor without being seen. The next day brings with it another gunfight, another win for Team Justice, and then the underhanded kidnapping of a defenseless friend. A hostage situation is declared, an invitation to meet is delivered via the Shroud’s own radio station; he arms himself with his trusty silver machine gun and braces himself for almost inevitable tragedy.

“Yeah, there’s no way we’re getting Kent out alive,” Deacon says as they approach the run-down hospital rendezvous. “What a shame. For such a giant nerd, he’s kind of lacking in narrative awareness. Duh, the hero’s helpless friend is gonna get kidnapped. That’s what happens. And then, because this is the real world and you’re not actually the Silver Shroud, the helpless friend gets his brains blown out and the hero has to deal with a hospital full of armed and angry raiders. It’s not too late to turn around and leave.”

“I can’t. Kent is the one who started all this. I’ve had more fun this week than…I don’t even know. I owe him for putting the plot wheels in motion.”

It’s hard to tell behind the sunglasses, but he’s pretty sure Deacon rolls his eyes. “You’re the boss, Shroud. I’m just your bootylicious sidekick. And poor Kent would have a better chance of surviving if he was a hot, scantily clad young lady; then he’d have love interest immunity, and you’d be guaranteed ‘thank you’ smooches. It’s a shame you’re missing out.”

“Sure is.” He throws Deacon a tentative smile. “Guess you’ll just have to be the understudy, huh? You’ve got the outfit already.”

“Oh, you can understudy me any day, baby, trust me.”

They kick the door in simultaneously, and start laying waste to the raiders.

Their nemesis has the good grace to let the Shroud give a speech before trying anything regrettable. It’s a damn fine speech, too; he stares Sinjin down, and his voice wavers about as much as his gun, which is to say not at all. He thunders. He lays down the law. He gives the irredeemable bastard a taste of what’s coming to him after the reaper claims what’s left of his soul, and by god, he does it with gravitas.

You are craven,” he roars. “And you shall fall before me. I have cut a dripping path through your thugs, those worthless pups you sent to die in your stead. I am the instrument of justice! Cower, brief mortals!

Most of Sinjin’s men surrender on the spot. Sinjin himself is wavering, staggered by the onslaught, and Kent…is mostly too terrified to appreciate the moment. His loss.

“Holy shit,” Deacon whispers in his ear, as Sinjin tries a final bluff. “Where did that come from?”

“No one screws with Sinjin,” the nemesis blusters.

He takes a deep breath. He can feel the grin split his face in two, and flashes his teeth at his enemy to drive home just how fucked he is.

Death has come for you, evildoer,” he intones. “And I am its Shroud.

A few minutes later, they release a shaking Kent from his handcuffs. And honestly, aside from a little bit of bruising, a missing finger or two, and some totally reversible bone breakage, the guy is fine. There is absolutely no reason for the accusing looks he throws at his hero, the Shroud, though it’s possible sidekick Grognak could have waited a bit longer before getting started on the looting. Still, it’s always good to be eager about these things. Enthusiasm is the hallmark of a good vigilante.

“I’m going back to Goodneighbor,” Kent mumbles. “Thanks for saving me, but I’m done.” He staggers for the door.

“Um…okay then. Safe travels? Sure you don’t want to wait a few minutes, we could walk you back, make sure nothing-” but the door slams in Kent’s wake, leaving behind a corpse-ridden hospital and two victorious caped crusaders.

Well. Deacon doesn’t really count as caped, he supposes. Or even really…clothed. Not that it seems to worry him at all.

“Aw,” says the man himself, rising from Sinjin’s body. He’s stuffed the last of their calling cards in the villain’s mouth, as has become traditional. He’s also found what seems to be a veritable sack of caps in a pocket somewhere. Deacon’s great at that kind of thing. “Did your designated damsel in distress leave you high and dry? That’s just uncalled for. For what it’s worth, I thought you were pretty fucking spectacular back there, which is why I’d like to present you with this prize money, to be divided up with your sidekick at a later date.”

“And also because you don’t have anywhere to keep it.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

The Shroud thanks you for your assistance in this battle against the forces of evil.” He stuffs the caps into an inside pocket in his coat. When he looks over at Deacon again, the other man is watching him with an indecipherable smile. “What?”

“You,” Deacon says. “You’re just…so much more fun than I’m used to. Normally I’m the most entertaining guy in the room, but you? You go above and beyond, my friend. The way you jumped on this crazy quest and turned it into something actually good? The sheer lengths you went to. Hell, you managed to save Kent! You risked your life!”

“Sure I did. He’s a friend.”

“He’s also a ghoul.”

He stares at Deacon. “Does that count for anything?”

It’s hard to tell, as it always is with the sunglasses in the way, but he gets the feeling Deacon might be matching his bewildered expression. “Some people would say so. But you really don’t give a damn, do you? I bet you’d even save a synth if it asked you for help.”

“Absolutely,” he says defensively. “Already did, when Nick needed a hand, and I’d do it again any day. I don’t understand where this is going. Does it matter?”

“More than you know,” Deacon says. His mood shifts, lightning-fast; he was stunned before, and now he isn’t. Now he’s almost triumphant. “Makes all the difference in the world. And, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna have to play love interest stand-in now, because someone really needs to. And given that your options are me or Sinjin over there-”

“Yeah, uh, Sinjin’s not really doing it for me.” He clears his throat and hopes he isn’t coming across as too eager. Or not eager enough. He’s over two hundred years out of practice in flirting, and this time there’s no fake mistletoe to force the issue at hand. “I mean, the Shroud doesn’t actually have a love interest, so we’re really going against canon here. Not that I mind or anything. Just some general knowledge in case it ever comes up in a pub quiz.”

“You,” Deacon says, stepping in close enough that he has to tilt his head to avoid the Shroud’s inconveniently wide-brimmed hat. “Are a giant, hopeless nerd. And that makes two of us. Kiss me before the writer decides to kill our moment.”

“On it.”

His heart is already racing, adrenaline giving his hands a tremor the Shroud’s gloves don’t quite hide. He compensates. Reaches for Deacon, resting a palm in the crook of his neck, the other cupping his cheek. He can’t read the other man’s expression. Can’t tell what he’s thinking behind the sunglasses. But he feels him swallow hard, throat convulsing under his thumb. Some things, even the king of lies can’t disguise.

Their mouths brush, tentative, wary; he catches Deacon’s lower lip between his own, nips it lightly and lets go. Does it again. He can feel when Deacon’s breath turns uneven, and then suddenly there’s a hand grabbing him by the scarf.

“You’re holding out on me,” Deacon says against his mouth. “Don’t do that, man, it’s insulting.”

He feels Deacon’s lips curve into a smile against his own. Deacon releases the scarf in favour of reaching around the back of his neck and stroking his hair, or as much of it as he can get to under the hat. He did that last time, too; must be a thing of his. Or maybe he’s just checking his partner hasn’t been replaced by a wig-wearing impostor. Either seems likely.

He gives in to impulse, sliding the tip of his tongue between Deacon’s lips and then pulling back. He’s teasing; he knows it, and it’s not like him at all…or maybe it is. Maybe there’s just never been anyone who brought this side out in him. He repeats the action, brushing Deacon’s tongue with his own, stroking the other man’s cheek as he does. You’re pretty fucking special, he thinks, and hopes Deacon can read it in him, somehow. Don’t vanish again. He deepens the kiss, makes it passionate; catches Deacon’s tongue between his lips and sucks on it gently. The hand in his hair goes tight, fingertips pressing in just short of painful.

“Jesus,” Deacon whispers, when he can. They don’t quite step away from each other; pull apart just far enough to have something resembling a conversation, and definitely not far enough to stop him from reaching down to drag a knuckle across Deacon’s bare stomach. God, that outfit looks good on him.

“Okay?” he asks, openly breathless. Deacon grins.

“Absolutely,” he says. “That right there was the perfect ending to the most perfect job in the history of jobs. You and me, man. We really make it work. I don’t even do teamwork, but you just make it all feel…right. Jesus, we’d be fun in bed.”

He looks at Deacon, in his goddamn Grognak costume and the sunglasses he wears even while sleeping. Can’t come up with a convincing reason why they shouldn’t.

“Yeah,” he says. “You know, we just might be. Might have to put it to the test. For intel purposes.”

“I like the way you think,” Deacon tells him. He nods towards the door. “What say we head back to Goodneighbor soonish? Unless you want to make out some more. We could do that. I would definitely be down for more of that thing you do with your tongue. Rrr.”

They make it to Goodneighbor as the sun is setting greenish behind the buildings. Deacon holds the door open for him; smacks his ass playfully as he walks past. The Shroud coat kind of gets in the way, but he appreciates the intent nonetheless.

“Not a bad day,” Deacon says as a few Goodneighbor guards come over to blockade the entrance closed behind them. “What say you and me head over to The Third Rail for a drink or two to celebrate? First round’s on me if you promise you’ll reprise that amazing speech you did. You know, the one where you called yourself the Shroud of Death and then screamed like some kind of fucking banshee and blew Sinjin’s head off? That was all kinds of hot. And then afterwards I was wondering if you might be interested in-”

“Excuse me? Sir?” It’s a drifter, appearing from the shadows, the grime on her face and clothes blending her in with the brickwork. She glances between them, clearly uncertain of who she should be addressing. Ultimately the Silver Shroud costume proves a little more confidence-inspiring than semi naked Grognak; she turns his way. “Do you have a Geiger counter?”

“Yeah, I have one on my Pip Boy, why do you…” he trails off when he sees the frozen expression on Deacon’s face.

“Mine’s in the shop,” Deacon says clearly. “But my friend here definitely has one, so we’re gonna need to go someplace else to discuss this kind of radioactivity. You don’t mind, right?” He turns, raising his eyebrows. “I shouldn’t be too long. You go on ahead, save me a seat at the bar.”

“Uh…okay? Unless you want to tell me what’s going on? Do you need help?”

Deacon shakes his head. Turns his back, gesturing for the drifter to lead the way. “Not for this. It’s…shady work stuff, I can’t let you in on it yet. I would if I could. But that’s just not my call to make right now.” He walks off without a backward glance.

A few of the gateway guards throw him pitying looks. Stood up; abandoned in favour of a dirt-smeared drifter. He turns away from their unwanted sympathy.

The Shroud costume suddenly feels a lot less fun, a lot more ridiculous without Deacon there to share in the adventure. He yanks the hat off irritably. Figures he’ll head back to their shared hotel room and change before showing up to the Rail and waiting for Deacon to meet him. Maybe he’ll get some answers. Some of them might even be true.

He’d forgotten about Deacon’s primary directive. Erased the reason they met in the first place; the whim of an organization he doesn’t even have a name for. Erased the fact that Deacon doesn’t spend time with him just to be friendly. Like everyone else in the Commonwealth, he has ulterior motives. He’s a spy for an invisible enemy. And this thing between them, the tension and the fondness and the fooling around in superhero costumes just to make each other laugh…

None of this is real.

The Third Rail is lively, bustling with people come to talk about Goodneighbor’s new vigilantes and the still-cooling corpses of the neighborhood’s worst offenders. Magnolia has a crowd already. The bar is packed three deep. He has to push his way through to order his first whiskey, and then fight his way back out to look for a seat. Rinse and repeat for the second, third, fourth. He quits after the fifth, but by then it’s halfway to morning anyway.

Deacon never shows. When he finally makes his way back to the hotel room, the door is locked like he left it. The lights are out. His belongings are in their usual disarray, the way Deacon loves to complain about. Guns all over his bed. Armour on the floor. Ammo in boxes on the bedside table, waiting to be sorted.

Deacon’s things are gone. There’s no sign he ever existed at all.

Chapter Text

“I need you to help me find someone.”

The door to Valentine’s Detective Agency swings closed behind him. He steps into the semi-ordered clutter and tries to make himself at least look calm. Behind the desk, Nick’s eyes widen slightly. So maybe the ‘calm’ thing isn’t working out so well. Maybe he’s too far gone to even pretend.

“Hello to you too,” Nick says. “Sit down, take some of the load off. It’s a lot easier on the old spinal column if I don’t have to keep craning it to look up at you.”

“Right.” He sits. It’s the last thing he wants to do right now, but he does it. He’d do almost anything if it would just fix this. “Can you help me? Someone’s gone missing, and I really…really need to find him. Please. I don’t know what to do here.”

“Another one? Losin’ people all over the damn place, aren’t you?” Nick says lightly.

“Yeah.” He tries to laugh as he says it; fails in spectacular fashion.

Nick’s smile fades. “That serious, huh? Is he a friend of yours?”

“I…yeah. Yeah, he is.”

“Kidnapped?”

“No.” This, more than anything, is hard to admit. “He just left.” And, when he sees the pity on Nick’s face, he makes himself say, “It’s not like that, we didn’t…argue or anything. He does this a lot. Vanishes. Because he works for this real shady group of people, and it’s like he’s allergic to staying in one place too long, you know? I got used to it. And then I asked him if maybe he’d like to stick around, and he said, yes-

“But now he’s gone,” Nick provides. His eyes are still far too understanding.

“It’s not what you think.”

“You’ve said. And for the record, I believe you.” Nick taps his pen on the notepad in front of him. “So how ‘bout you tell me how it actually was?”

“Okay.”

It takes him a minute to gather his thoughts. Nick is patient, unnervingly still. Like a statue. He gives off the impression of having nowhere else to be, like he has all the time in the world. He blinks occasionally; an unpredictable rhythm that doesn’t quite mimic the human variety.

It’s comforting, in a way. It’ll take something more than human to find Deacon if he doesn’t want to be found.

“Okay,” he says again, when he’s ready to talk. “So I told you that he used to vanish a lot. But the thing is, he stopped doing that when I asked him to partner up with me. After that, I always knew where he was. He had my back. I wouldn’t have worked with him otherwise.”

“Got it,” Nick says, scribbling on his notepad. “So, flighty to start off with, maybe a little distrusting?”

“Definitely.”

“But once he agreed to work with you, he turned into the very soul of reliability. I suppose because he promised he would-”

“No, that’s the weird thing. He’s not a promises kind of guy; he’s the exact opposite of honest. Lies all the goddamn time, I never really know if he’s messing with me or not. If he’d promised to work with me and then kept disappearing occasionally, I wouldn’t have been surprised. So long as he didn’t do it while we were on a job, we could have…worked something out. But I never needed to.”

“Uncharacteristic loyalty then,” Nick says. “Maybe he liked you.”

“I hope so.” That comes out more fervent than he’d meant. He clears his throat, acutely aware that he may have just laid all his cards on the table. But it doesn’t- shouldn’t matter. Nick doesn’t strike him as the judging type. “I sure liked him. Like. Present tense.”

“Which is why you’re trying to find him,” Nick says.

“Exactly.”

“Alrighty then. So you asked him to join you, which he did, and you were surprised to find that he actually stuck around- until suddenly he didn’t. You want to tell me about that?”

That’s a question he has to work his way up to. He takes the long way; talks about Kent and his Silver Shroud obsession. Finding the costumes. How it started off as a joke, finding a disguise Deacon couldn’t possibly agree to wearing- until he took it and ran with it, and suddenly they were actually heroes. Helping people. How good it felt to have fun for once in his second life.

“We were fooling around, mostly,” he admits. “And it was great, you know? Deacon, he’s…real easy to have fun around. Even when he’s lying to your face, you can’t really hold it against him.”

“Certainly sounds like quite the character,” Nick agrees.

“So we headed back to Goodneighbor to celebrate. He’s the one who suggested it, he said we should get drinks and...see where the night took us. And then this stranger comes out of nowhere. And she says-“

“Hold up a second,” Nick says. “Can you describe her?”

He racks his brain. “Uh. Drifter. Wasn’t wearing anything special, I didn’t really notice any of it. Dirty. Standard drifter casual. And- yeah, she didn’t know Deacon personally. She came over like she knew she should be talking to one of us but she wasn’t sure which. Passing on a message, I guess? She thought I was him, at first. Asked me if I had a Geiger counter. Turns out it was some sort of code, because I told her I did, and then Deacon said something different. Then he told me to go wait at The Third Rail while he talked to the drifter. But when I got back to the hotel room in the morning, all his stuff was gone. And that’s…pretty much it. That’s how I lost him.”

Nick nods slowly. He doesn’t look up from where he scribbles unintelligibly on his notepad. Must be getting something out of the story. At least he’s dropped the pitying expression.

“Sounds like we have a case,” he mutters as he writes. “This was three weeks ago, you said?”

“Pretty much to the day. If it was anyone else I’d have come sooner. But Deacon is…Deacon.”

He clenches his fists on the desk in front of him. A little unsteady. He suddenly sees himself as Nick must; another shaken wastelander with more desperation than caps, hoping the synth detective can magic them up a miracle. Doesn’t matter that he and Nick are friendly. Doesn’t matter that they work together.

First time he asked for help, he saved Nick’s life first. Got him out of a rough situation unharmed and brought him back to Ellie like she’d asked. First he found Nick, then Nick started helping with Shaun. It was fair. He was a friend, not a client.

Once he crossed the detective’s doorstep and begged for help a second time, their whole dynamic changed.

Nick’s eyes feel like X-rays; cutting right through to truths he might have just overlooked before.

“I wasn’t sure who else to ask,” he says quietly, when the scratch of the pencil becomes too much for him to handle. “I just don’t know that many people these days.”

“Ah, but you know the right ones,” Nick tells him with a smile.

He hears the soft tap of footsteps on the stairs behind him, and turns to find Ellie carefully carrying a tray down from the second storey.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she says, “But you look like you need it. Careful, it’s strong. The best brandy for a friend.” She places the steaming cup of spiked tea in front of him, and a plate of cookies off to one side. Nick gets a cup of his own; he accepts it with a resigned nod of thanks.

“Now stop being nosy,” he tells her. “The client’s a friend, but this case sounds real personal. Even more than tracking down Shaun.”

“Oh, I see.”

He wants to tell her that she really doesn’t; she’s got things about as wrong as Nick did to start off with, getting sidetracked by first appearances and not stopping to look for the truth. Deacon would have found that funny. Probably would have taken advantage of their assumptions to entertain himself, and ended up confusing everyone. Only, he’s not here right now. And that’s the whole problem.

Ellie heads back upstairs, thankfully, and he wraps his hands around the mug of tea he has no intention of drinking. At least it gives him something to look at.

“Can you help?” he asks Nick. “I know it’s almost nothing to go on.”

Nick shrugs. “Could be worse. From what I can tell, the key lies with your friend’s employers. They recalled him, seems like. And then, for some reason, he didn’t come back.”

“I don’t know who he works for.”

“Sure about that?” Nick asks. “He never let anything slip around a guy he trusted?”

“No, Deacon’s too smart to-“ And he stops.

It’s true. Deacon is far, far too intelligent, and too paranoid besides. Keeping secrets is his job; he lives and breathes deception. And there’s no way in hell that he ever let anything slip. Not unless he meant to.

“There were some things,” he says slowly, and Nick nods.

“Thought that might be the case,” he says briskly, flipping to a fresh page in his notebook. “He likes you, see. Enough to change his habits, stick around when he’d much rather vanish. Probably broke more than a few personal rules. If he went that far, seems to me he might also want to take precautions, in case something like this happens. Just in case he ever has to vanish for reasons he can’t control. He might be wanting you to find him. Might miss you.”

Nick’s right. He is, and suddenly it’s a lot easier to talk. “The Switchboard,” he says rapidly. “It’s a place, I don’t know where, but I think it’s his headquarters. They do something shady there, he said he couldn’t tell me about it. And he mentioned his boss a few times. A woman. He called her Dez.”

Nick’s pencil stops moving abruptly. When he looks up, his face is machine-blank.

“Aw, hell, kid,” he says softly. “That’s the Railroad you’re talking about.”

It’s a name he’s heard a few times before. “Synth rescuers, right?” he says hesitantly. “Doesn’t sound too bad to me.”

“They were the synth rescuers,” Nick says. His voice is still eerily soft. Slowly, he closes the notepad.

If he’d pulled a loaded gun out of his coat, it would have been less frightening than that.

Nick lays the notepad aside and leans forward, resting his chin in clasped metal fingers. “Two weeks back, I started hearing the stories,” he says. “People saying that the Institute’d finally found those folks at the Railroad. Sick of them stealing synths away and setting them up with new lives. Sick of having its slaves rescued. The Railroad must have slipped up somehow, gotten careless; from what I hear, the Institute hit them at home, and hit them hard.”

“Wait, you mean-”

“Synth soldiers, yeah. A few people mentioned Coursers too, which isn’t something you ever want to hear if you like living. Whatever the Institute sent, it was enough. Word on the grapevine is that the Railroad is finished. Their headquarters got smashed wide open. And this is coming from people I trust to know their facts.” Nick’s tone softens from factual to gentle. “I’m not sure if there were survivors. Never heard of any.”

“No. No, that’s not possible-“ but he’s remembering Mama Murphy now, her warning about a tragedy. Something about trains. Not trains, Mama Murphy, he thinks numbly. The Railroad. She never really sees anything clearly enough to be useful. She knew Deacon would be on his side ‘in the end’; looks like that end came a lot sooner than expected.

Were you thinking about me when the Institute stormed in? Wishing you could send me a message? Planning a surprise reappearance? An apology?

“Oh god,” he says distantly.

Nick’s expression is weary. “I’m so sorry. If I’d known you had friends in there, I’d have let you know as soon as word started to spread.”

“Not your fault. It’s fine, it’s…fine.” He stands abruptly, barely noticing when his chair tips over and hits the ground behind him. “Thanks, Nick.”

“Now just a second, I’m not sure you should be heading out quite so fast. The shock-”

He doesn’t hear the rest of it. Turns away from Nick’s pity, his understanding, and fumbles for the door.

He vanishes without another word.

Chapter Text

With nothing else left to him, and still no word from Dr Amari, he does the only thing he can: he goes home.

He builds. Sturges is happy to offer him work, teach him the things he doesn’t know and then stand back and let him learn from his own mistakes. Preston comes by with missions; locations they could settle, existing settlements that could stand to have a bit more in the way of defenses. But even he gives it up after a few days, when it becomes clear that anything further out than Abernathy Farm just isn’t happening right now. If the Minutemen need work done, they’ll have to find someone else.

Preston accepts this, and doesn’t ask what the problem is. Danse doesn’t ask why their training sessions have been cancelled indefinitely. Codsworth doesn’t ask why group meals have suddenly become intolerable. Piper would ask, if she was nearby; thankfully, she’s back in Diamond City, printing the hope-filled interview he gave her a lifetime ago.

Nick is around, doing his bit for the growing number of Sanctuary residents. Taking down notes on missing family members, absent friends, potential Institute abductions. He doesn’t need to ask what the problem is; he knows, and never mentions it. Maybe he’s told the others to do the same.

Dogmeat is a constant shadow, clearly confused by the fact that his friend is wounded somewhere he can’t see. It’s touching, in a way. It’s also sad as hell.

A settler caravan arrives around midday, two weeks into his self-imposed Sanctuary exile. Five of them, milling around like little lost lambs. Preston puts on his most welcoming Minuteman voice and takes charge of finding them all beds, food, showers, a measure of comfort. It’s not the first such group they’ve dealt with. Won’t be the last. Two women, two men, a grubby child of indeterminate gender. Fresh scars; radiation burns and semi-starvation. One of the men has a bandage covering half his neck, and god only knows what’s rotting underneath that. His cracked sunglasses hide the inevitable blasted expression.

Just another tragedy, and the Commonwealth sees a lot of those. He turns away when it looks like the bandaged man might try talking to him. Turns his back on the settlers and leaves them in Preston’s capable hands.

Nightfall takes its time in coming. He eats the evening meal alone, avoiding the new arrivals and regular Sanctuary dwellers alike. Eventually even Dogmeat decides to go try his luck with Mama Murphy, who always has scraps to spare for him. Eventually, it’s dark enough that he can justify calling it a day.

They’ve done some good work on the building side of things, at least. Given Sanctuary’s limited land area, the logical solution was to go for height as opposed to width. He’s claimed himself the third storey of a structure near the river. The roof barely leaks, after the week he’s spent sealing it. The balcony is sheltered, and looks out to the south, to Concord’s bleak silhouette and further. On a clear night he can make out lights in the distance. Diamond City shines sickly greenish-white, and soon he’s going to have to make the trek back to its walls and tainted memories. This time, he’ll do it alone.

The wooden ladder creaks behind him as someone makes their way up from the second floor. He sighs, irritable. A new settler, maybe, lost or just curious. A friend who means well but can’t read the signs.

“Whatever it is, I’m not in the mood,” he says. He’s surprised by how cold it comes out. Hardly sounds like him at all.

“And here I was thinking I’d do a running jump into your arms,” says a familiar voice. Slightly raspy; strained like it’s aching. “Think about it for a second. You could spin me around while I shriek for mercy, and everything would be just…super. Sure you don’t want to give it a try?”

His insides turn to jagged shards, like wasteland desert storms. He turns.

Deacon steps out onto the landing and spreads his hands. “Ta-da?” he says. “Miss me? What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this? Man, I don’t even know, the look you’re giving me right now is kinda freaking me out.”

“Where-“ his voice breaks apart mid-way. He swallows and starts again. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Deacon’s smile fades. It was never all that convincing in the first place. “Right,” he says slowly. “Yeah, I bet you’re full of questions. It’s been…what, just over a month? Kinda lost track of time.”

“I thought you were dead!”

“Funny, that.” Deacon lifts a hand to his neck, the bandage covering his skin. “For a while there, I thought the same. Look at us! A month apart and we’re still on the same wavelength. We should get ourselves a beer each and hang out, pretend like things are just fine and dandy and the world didn’t end while we were busy looking in the opposite direction.”

His sunglasses are spiderwebbed with cracks; he stands stiffly, tense, looking around the room like he’s counting all the plausible exits and then some.

But he’s here. He’s alive.

“Oh god, Deacon. I thought- I heard about the Switchboard, the Railroad, I heard you got attacked, and Nick couldn’t find anything about survivors.” He steps forward, reaching out. Stops with his hands inches from Deacon’s shoulders. Suddenly not sure he’s allowed to touch, and his fingers tremble on empty air. “I should have come looking. Fuck. I just- I’ve been in mourning-”

Deacon’s shoulders slump. “I wasn’t sure if you’d worked it out,” he says. “Forgot I’d mentioned the Switchboard to you, actually, what with everything. Christ, you thought- that explains why you’re such a mess right now. You didn’t even recognize me earlier.”

“The settler.” He inhales sharply. “I’m so sorry, I just ignored you-”

“Look. How ‘bout we just…” Deacon stops. He doesn’t seem to know what he was going to say, and that in itself is frightening. He’s not himself. He’s like little pieces of the man, put back together in a shape that doesn’t quite match the original. Held in place by wonderglue and sheer determination. This is not what Deacon should be.

A sensible wastelander might jump to the immediate conclusion: synth impostor.

A military man two hundred years out of his time sees the change and thinks, trauma. Do something.

“Can I hug you?” he hears himself asking. His hands still hang helplessly in mid air. “Would that be okay?”

There is a long, frightening moment in which he thinks Deacon might actually back away from him. Then, the other man caves in.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “Not normally a huggy kind of guy, but right now? Yeah. That’d be good.”

He wraps his arms around Deacon’s ribs (more prominent than they were last month, when the absence of shirt on that Grognak costume left him flaunting the kind of muscle that stopped pedestrian traffic in its tracks). Presses his palms to Deacon’s back and holds him. It’s too late to worry about whether he’s revealing too much about himself, about his feelings for someone he’s barely known two months; revealing the nights he’s lost sleep to wishing he’d stayed in the Vault. Stayed back in time, in a world where he never needed to meet this man and suffer his loss.

Deacon’s head comes to rest on his shoulder; he exhales slowly, and the strength seems to leave him. With the weight he’s lost, it’s not a problem to hold him upright.

“It’s going to be okay.” He’s not sure why he says it, other than knowing that something needs to be said.

Deacon laughs hoarsely. “Don’t fuck around with a champion liar, my friend. This one’s gotten pretty good at seeing through other people’s bullshit; comes from being so used to dealing with his own.”

“You’re alive. That’s a good start.”

“Yeah,” Deacon says quietly. “And a lot of other people are pushing up daisies where our safehouses used to be. Institute hit the Switchboard, but that wasn’t enough for them. They went for everything they could get. We lost…so much. Synths. Agents. Fucking tourists that came running to lend help, ‘stead of legging it in the opposite direction like they should have. Hundreds of people, dead.”

“Shit. I’m so sorry.”

Deacon shrugs. “Wasn’t your fault. Wasn’t even mine, though I’m having a rough time convincing myself of it just now. Dez recalled me because we had anomalies showing up in our systems. Weird shit. Should have triggered alarms way back, but we’d already been infiltrated. It was too late when she sent for me. Too late when I got there, even. But I did show up in time to witness the total destruction of everything we’ve worked for, so that was nice. Didn’t miss the whole party.” He lifts a half-hearted hand to his neck, gesturing at the bandage. Drops his arm again limply.

The bandage looks clean by wasteland standards, which means it’s already stained, faded, and his instincts are screaming at him to remove the thing and find something fresher. To dose Deacon up to the gills in Radaway and Stimpacks, make him eat something. Make him sleep.

“How many people survived?” He strokes his palms up Deacon’s back, rubbing slow circles into his skin. Hoping it helps.

“Not enough. But the right ones, if you exclude me. I shouldn’t have made it.”

His hands tighten on Deacon’s back. “Don’t say that.”

“True story,” Deacon says. “We’d have been a lot better off if Tommy Whispers had made it. Or Maven. Or…anyone. Literally anyone deserved to make it out more than me. But the attack came, and Dez just shoved me towards the escape tunnel and told me to run for it, and I did. Never even tried to argue with her. I was so fucking scared for my own skin, I never even thought about staying back to try save a few more people.”

“If I ever meet this ‘Dez’, remind me to thank her.” He doesn’t stop stroking Deacon’s back. Soothing him like he would a wounded animal. “For knowing that you’re not expendable. You’re important.”

“I’m also tired as hell, and my feet hurt,” Deacon mutters into his shoulder. “You mind if I sit down? Been guarding that settler family across half the Commonwealth. They were looking for someplace safe, and this was the only one I trusted. Sorry.”

“We always have room for people who need it. Here,” and he gently turns Deacon towards the bed, which is a lot more reliable than the only other chair in the room. Three stories up, his furniture is somewhat limited.

Deacon sinks down onto the comforter, running a hand through his hair. “That’s better,” he says. “Thanks.”

“Did you eat?”

“Sure did, mom,” Deacon says, and his wry smile looks almost natural. “Preston’s pretty thorough about the welcoming committee thing, though his observation skills could use some work. Didn’t recognize me at all. And he also didn’t notice how blatantly unconvincing my token backstory was. Seriously. There were so many holes in that thing it practically leaked. But our Minuteman friend just hands me a bowl of spaghetti and tells me he hopes I’ll be very happy here. I mean, I could have been anyone.”

“Preston sees the best in people.”

“And it’ll get everyone here killed if he accidentally lets in an Institute spy.” Deacon shakes his head, laughing to himself. “Listen to me, lecturing like I know anything. My paranoia did fuck-all to save the Switchboard.” He pats the bedspread at his side. “C’mere. Sit down, tell me something happy. Has anyone managed to remove that stick from Danse’s anal cavity yet?”

He settles down onto the mattress next to Deacon, nudging him gently with one shoulder. “You know that’ll never happen, it’s jammed in way too deep.” He forces his tone to lighten; he feels like he’s walking on glass. Part of him still can’t believe Deacon’s actually here. Alive. Damaged, but breathing. “Been pretty quiet. Not many things to laugh about recently.”

“Yeah, that…that’s on me. Sorry I made you think I was dead.”

“I’m still scared you’ll turn out to be a dream,” he says. His smile fades a little.

This time, Deacon’s the one nudging him with a shoulder. “I could be a synth, you know,” he says. “For real this time. How great would that be? Deacon, the synthiest synth spy that ever synthed. I’d be synthtastic! Synthcredible! Synthly sublime! Seriously, you should be asking me questions to make sure I’m real, and not just an incredibly handsome copy of my former self.”

“Okay. Uh. How do I make sure you’re not…synthtastic? Short of the obvious?”

“Well,” Deacon says. “I’m so glad you asked. You would not believe how freakin’ easy it is to spot us synths, there’s, like, hundreds of ways. Make us take a bath and watch out for sparks; apply a battery directly to our tongues and see if our eyes light up orange; see if we can sing the Star Spangled Banner all the way through without suffering a software meltdown. Oh, make us dance to polka music. Synths are allergic to the stuff, believe it or not.”

It’s a relief to see a little of the life coming back into Deacon’s tone, his body. The way he gestures to emphasize his point, and then rests his hands on the bedspread behind him and leans back. Relaxes. He looks like he’s coming back to himself after a long time away.

“I don’t believe you at all.” God, he’s missed saying that. “Which means you’re probably not a synth. An actual synth would be able to spin a convincing lie.” He can’t help himself; he leans over and kisses Deacon’s temple, ignoring the way the sunglasses dig into his chin. “Dogmeat missed you; he was pretty much inconsolable.”

“I’m away for a month and you change your name to ‘Dogmeat’ and start referring to yourself in the third person? Man, that’s pretty fucking sad. You need an intervention.”

I missed you, then. Went to a detective to try find you and everything.”

Deacon snorts with laughter. “So that’s what old Nick Valentine’s doing hanging around here. Good choice; that man’s the best you could hope for, and he’s not even a man.”

“Better than. He’s a friend.” He stares down at his hands, trying to get his thoughts into a semblance of order. They’re not okay; that much is obvious, however easily they slip back into their usual banter. Deacon is clearly skirting around something that hurts him badly. The ubiquitous carefree smile is a shadow of what is should be, and those bandages stand out stark against his skin. Why is he even here? A message left in Goodneighbor or Diamond City would have been safer, if his organization needs to lie low right now. Trekking all the way to Sanctuary Hills is the opposite of smart.

He twitches, surprised, when Deacon throws an arm around his shoulders and pulls him closer.

“Missed you too,” is muttered into his hair, Deacon’s lips pressing hard against his scalp. “So much, I can’t even say. It’d come out sounding all mushy and then you’d tell me I was lying- and the kicker is, you’d be wrong. I still have that Grognak costume. Carried it with me everywhere I went, just in case.”

“Deacon. What are you doing here?” He doesn’t lift his chin from where it’s come to rest on the other man’s shoulder. Kisses the thin fabric of his shirt, and the too-prominent bone underneath. “Are your people safe now?” A thought occurs. “Did they send you?”

“Nah,” Deacon says. “I lied to our glorious leader. Told her I was headed north to find some answers, maybe scout out locations for new safehouses. She was pretty happy to see the back of me, honestly. I get really fun when I’m cooped up with a bunch of people I can’t actually stand. End up changing disguises every five minutes or so. Breaking out the really heavy stage makeup. I almost made Drummer Boy cry with my super mutant impersonation…but I guess everyone’s a little fragile right now. My bad.”

“So you have to go back?”

“Soonish. I was kinda hoping you might want to come with me.”

“Yes.” This time he raises his head, pressing kisses to Deacon’s jaw. Mindful of the bandages. “Wherever it is you’re going, we both are. Just give me a day’s warning to get everything sorted here.”

“No rush.” Deacon takes his chin in one hand, angling his head for a proper kiss. It’s rougher than the last; they don’t have the patience to be careful with each other. Teeth clash. Apologies are muttered. He slides his tongue between Deacon’s lips and sets about staking his claim there. He’s gripping the front of Deacon’s shirt in one clenched fist, and he doesn’t care how desperate it must look.

“Been thinking about this a lot,” Deacon says in between snatched kisses. “Thinking about you, it’s…kept me sane. Not gonna lie, I want you pretty fucking bad right now.”

“You have me.”

“Sure about that?”

“Yeah,” he says, and he is. Maybe it’s not the best time, but it’s what they both need right now. He needs everything Deacon is willing to share with him. “Whatever you want, I’m here. All yours.”

“I could tell you the number of times I’ve thought about you saying that, but then things might get awkward. Okay. Great. Since we’re being all share-y and intimate, I gotta tell you,” and then Deacon’s hand is under his shirt, grabbing it by the hem and dragging it up over his arms, his head. Tossing it aside. “I have this amazing fantasy that involves me getting naked with my favourite person- that’s you, by the way-” and his hands don’t stop moving while he talks; yanking his own shirt off, throwing it across the room. “And then we pick an exciting and implausible position, and you give it to me so good I end up crying my eyes out and offering you all my deepest, darkest secrets. How’s that sound, champ? Sound good?”

It does. God, it does, and even better is the way Deacon yanks his belt open and shoves a hand down his pants like it belongs there, like they’ve done this a thousand times before.

“Are we skipping the first time awkwardness?” He closes his eyes, sucking in a breath as Deacon gets to work on coaxing his cock to attention. Rough hands, rough strokes, exactly how he likes it.

“Pretty much,” Deacon says. “Fake it ‘til you make it, right? Now get those pants off. I have this, like, dire need to get my hands all over you. Which, by the way, isn’t anything new; been wanting a taste of you for a long time, it’s super distracting.”

“Is that why I was going through so many Stimpacks when you kept getting shot?”

“I am absolutely guilty of getting sidetracked by your amazing ass in the middle of fights. My name’s Deacon, and I’m an addict. My substance of choice is you. If you’re not naked in the next ten seconds, I’m gonna start suffering from withdrawals.”

“Race you.” Ten seconds turns into twenty, thirty, and then it’s a game; he shoves his hands down the back of Deacon’s pants, grabbing his ass, his hips, palming his hardening cock, sabotaging his attempts to strip. Deacon is no better. They wind up on the bed; wrestling with no real violence. He lets Deacon overpower him. Lets himself he pushed onto his back, arching lazily into the other man’s hands as they pull his pants down to mid-thigh, stroke his shaft and squeeze his balls gently.

“Looks like I win,” he goes to say, as Deacon drags his pants and underwear off, shoving them to the floor. Only, he’s wrong, and at some point in the struggle he completely missed Deacon stripping off his remaining layers. “That’s…impressive,” he says instead, eyes on Deacon’s silhouette in the shadows. “I didn’t even notice.”

“That’s the point, young grasshopper,” Deacon says. “Stick with the master, and maybe he’ll let you in on a few of his secrets.” He leans in. His lips are soft, tongue insistent. The sunglasses are a minor inconvenience.

Then, Deacon pulls back. “So, while I’ve got you nice and vulnerable,” he says. “Will you do the Shroud voice for me?”

At this stage, it’s not even a surprise. “No, you weirdo. Seriously?”

“Come on. Please?”

“Uh. Okay, um. You look upon…the Silver Shroud. Prepare yourself for a most thorough ravishing, the likes of which-“ He doesn’t get any further before he chokes, laughter bubbling up in his throat. He bites his lip. Makes the mistake of glancing up at Deacon, and sees him already laughing, his shoulders shaking silently. “You bastard,” he gasps, and loses the fight against hilarity.

He brings a hand up to cover his face as he laughs; embarrassment, an instinctive gesture he can’t help.

It means he misses Deacon leaning close, until the other man starts kissing his neck. Sucking gently on the skin over his collarbone in a way that’s guaranteed to leave a bruise in the morning.

“I’m going to have to hide that,” he mutters behind his hand.

“I can show you how.” Deacon’s teeth scrape over his jugular, nipping just sharp enough to sting, before he soothes it with another kiss.

He feels Deacon’s nose brush against the underside of his jaw, and there’s something…weird about that. He drops his hand to look.

The sunglasses are gone.

“Yeah, yeah,” Deacon says. “Let’s not make this a big deal, because it’s really not.”

“It kind of is.”

“Is not.”

“Is too.”

“Lies,” Deacon says. “Just skip to the part where you tell me I have beautiful eyes, and I blush and tell you, no, stop, there’s nothing special about them etcetera, etcetera. I’ve been waiting for that bit.”

“I can’t even see your eyes, it’s too dark.”

“Bingo,” Deacon says cheerfully. “And you can stop being so careful with my hair, it ain’t coming off. It’s not a wig.”

“Oh, bullshit it’s not.”

“Nope. Pull it all you want, it’s real. And if you’re good, I might consider telling you how I manage it. Or…maybe not. Hey, if I said I was seriously into having you fuck me right now, would you be interested in doing that? Just talking hypothetically. I’m asking for a friend. In the sense that I am my own best friend, and I totally have my back.”

Deacon’s hand is back on his cock, teasing the tip, playing with his foreskin. As if he needs the extra encouragement. The voice alone is doing plenty for him, as is the heavy weight of the other man’s erection on his leg. Deacon thrusts up against him, practically humping his thigh, and his mind is made up for him.

“Yeah,” he says hoarsely. “Christ. Do you have…lube or something? Because I’m gonna have to say a definite no to gun oil. We can’t use that.”

“Fear not, my primitive friend,” Deacon says. “The wasteland provides. Also, I kind of came up here planning on having wild, life-transforming nookie with you, so, yeah. Give me a second to find my pants.”

“When you say ‘the wasteland’-“

“Baby,” Deacon tells him, handing over a small container, “Do not ask. Trust me on this.”

He opens the container dubiously, dipping his fingers into something oily and reassuringly unscented. Next to him, Deacon settles back onto the covers, adjusting a pillow behind his head. Turning to look at him and grinning.

“C’mere, tiger” he says, his voice gone low and encouraging. “I never bite on the first date. Or, hey, maybe I do. Guess you’ll have to wait and see.” He spreads his legs and beckons.

Knelt between Deacon’s thighs, he hesitates. Still can’t quite believe this is going to happen; a part of him is waiting for Deacon to laugh and declare the whole thing a joke.

A part of him still can’t comprehend that Deacon is here at all.

“What’s up?” Deacon asks. “Is this you teasing me? Am I being tormented for disappearing on you, because that’s cruel and totally undeserved. You wouldn’t do that, right?”

“I just… Is this okay? You’re hurt.” The bandages around Deacon’s neck are paler than the evening shadows, and it’s not quite dark enough to hide what looks like some mammoth bruising on his chest. There might be more. He’s certain not all of it is visible. And he is, abruptly, worried he might be making a wrong move here. “God, you just got here today, you were a mess before. Are you sure about this? Because I’d be happy to-”

Deacon groans. “Seriously? What, you need me to draw you a diagram of all the ways I want you to touch me? Submitted thirty days prior for approval by committee? Yes, I am abso-fucking-lutely certain I want your dick inside me, and…yeah, maybe this is part of the shock thing, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea, you know? Please.”

It’s the plea that does it, the plea and the way Deacon’s legs wrap around his waist, ankles locking in the small of his back. He strokes up Deacon’s thigh. Rubs the hairs the wrong way, and makes up his mind.

“Just keep talking to me. Stay with me.”

“Can do, boss.”

“And definitely don’t call me that while we’re naked. Jesus. Okay.” Fingers slick with oil, he reaches for Deacon’s cock. Strokes him, gentler than he’d do for himself, mostly for the reassurance. Deacon makes a breathy, pleased sound, pushing into his fingers. He’s rock-hard, hot; wonderfully sensitive.

Encouraged, he strokes his index finger down Deacon’s length, reaching behind his balls to nudge his perineum. His own hands are steady, and he breathes in deep to keep them that way.

It’s been a long time. Centuries, if he wants to be depressing about it. And he needs to not fuck this up.

He presses a thumb against Deacon’s entrance, and sucks in a sudden, shocked breath.

“Oh my god. Is there anything you don’t plan ahead for?”

“Nope,” Deacon says gleefully, and he’s laughing, abruptly full of humour. “Bet you didn’t see that coming. Convenient, right?”

“God damn.” He rubs his thumb through the lube, dipping it shallowly into Deacon’s entrance, and it’s so easy. He has to bite his lip to hold in a pained groan. Withdraws his thumb and replaces it with a finger, sliding in up to the first knuckle. He thinks of Deacon doing this to himself; swift, probably. Businesslike and unembarrassed. Like scoping out a raider camp before attacking. Planning ahead.

“I wish you’d let me watch while you did that,” and he tries two fingers, flexing them, crooking them upwards and grinning as Deacon’s cock twitches in response. “I’d be begging for you by now.”

“Now there’s an idea,” Deacon says lazily. “Remind me to add it to my list of very sexy things I’m going to do to you. I actually do have a list, by the way. I keep it in my diary, next to the sappy poems about how you give me butterflies and mini nuclear explosions and- okay. Okay, point taken, I’ll stop talking, and if we could please hurry this up, I’ve had a crazy long day and I’m all out of patience.”

It’s still not the easiest thing, not as smooth as he’d like; two fingers are meeting some resistance. He scissors them apart, and Deacon goes tight around him. Tensing up.

“You’re gonna have to relax,” he murmurs.

Deacon’s ankles dig into his spine. “Nothing you need to worry about, I’ll get there. ‘s just a little weird right now. You know how it is, the safer I’m supposed to feel, the more paranoid I get. Like that. How about we just skip to the main event, and I swear I’ll get used to it.”

“Sure?”

“Absolutely,” Deacon tells him. “I know you. You’re safe. And unless that’s your gun I can feel against my leg, you’re pretty much dying to get in me already. Wow. That’s…kind of impressive, actually. Awesome.”

It’s true. He’s so turned on it’s almost painful; smearing lube all over his cock sends little sparks of heat through his insides. He doesn’t need any more encouragement. Deacon provides it anyway, unlocking his ankles, settling them on the bedcovers on either side of his hips. Arching his back and saying, “Come on, come on, I’m ready, let’s make this happen.”

One-handed, he lines his cock up and starts pushing in. And it’s…not easy, though he’s trying so fucking hard not to go too fast, to let the lube do the work. Deacon is abruptly tense around him, muscles clenching tight. The tip of his cock slides part way in, and he stops.

“Oh god,” he breathes. Swallowing hard, trying to keep his head together, while instinct roars at him to move. “You’re way too tight, I can’t- I’m really scared I’ll hurt you. Am I hurting you?”

Deacon gives a ragged laugh underneath him. “You have no idea; I don’t think I’ll be walking for days after this. You’ll have to carry me around like a princess, while I royal wave at everyone and make them all jealous as hell-“

Not the time, Deacon.”

“Yeah, you might be right. Look, it’s fine. You’re okay- I’m serious, don’t you dare pull out on me. I can handle it.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. “Did I go too fast? We can slow down, if you need to.”

“You’re fine,” Deacon repeats. “I’m just tense, it’s nothing to get your panties twisted up over. I don’t trust easy, you know what I’m like. Just…take it easy. I’m right here with you, I swear.”

“Feels like I’m forcing you open.” He braces a hand on Deacon’s hip, inching forward. The strain on his thighs is unbelievable; he feels his muscles quiver in protest. Won’t be able to hold this still forever.

Deacon grabs his wrist, squeezing tight. “You’re doing good, babe,” he says, and it’s nonsensical that he’s the one offering reassurance, but here they are. “The way you put up with all my weird, that’s just incredible, and it’s one of the many, many reasons why this is happening. It shouldn’t be. I don’t let people get this close. But you, you’re something pretty special, and right now should is taking a back seat to, fuck it, I really, really want to. I’m just gonna need you to override my instincts. Don’t go too rough, take me slow…Yeah. There you go. That’s it.”

Guided by the gentle press of Deacon’s fingers into his wrist, he starts to move. Slow, measured in centimeters; he eases his cock in deeper. Pauses when the head is fully sheathed, and then starts to withdraw. Abruptly, Deacon’s fingernails bite down.

“Hey, come on, right when you were getting to the good part?”

He has to laugh at the petulance in Deacon’s tone. “Who’s doing all the work here? Relax. I really don’t want to hurt you.” He strokes his thumb over Deacon’s hip bone, and starts to push in again. And, god, it’s almost agony. Deacon is a vise around his cock, unbearably hot, and the lube is working against him; it would be too easy to just slide all the way in, snap his hips forward and deep.

Breathing slowly, he rocks his hips shallowly. Deacon gasps under him.

Shit. Wasn’t expecting that, but I absolutely can’t fault your aim, it was perfect. Do it again.”

“Bossy.”

“But delightful.”

“Yeah. That too.” Bracing on Deacon’s hip, he pushes forward. Trying to angle his thrusts. Must be getting something right, because Deacon makes a choked sound and shudders, his fingernails digging deep enough to hurt.

“Like that?”

“Yeah,” Deacon gasps as he does it again. “Oh fuck, fuck, you can probably go a bit faster- yeah, that’s it, that’s perfect. You’re perfect. I am going to write a…sonnet to your dick, or maybe a dirty limerick, something freaking everyone will remember because they absolutely should. It’s of vital national importance that everyone is aware how great you are. I’ll tell ‘em, babe, I’ll paint giant signs all over the Commonwealth, just so they know. Oh god. Oh god, yes, keep doing it like that.”

He leans his forehead against Deacon’s, breathing against his mouth as he moves. Smooth, shallow thrusts that bring him right to the edge of withdrawing completely before he pushes back in. He gasps a little every time; feels Deacon do the same. Between them, Deacon strokes a lazy hand up his own cock. Unhurried. He might have his eyes closed.

“You okay?” He kisses the bridge of Deacon’s nose, his forehead, nuzzles his hairline.

Deacon’s mouth finds his collarbone. “You have no idea,” he says, and his lips are gentle. He sounds almost dazed. “Been so long since I let this happen, and I just…forgot. How it felt. I spend all my time thinking ‘cause I got no time feel, and feeling is dangerous, and now here you are, and you’re in me, and I can’t think at all-” His head falls back onto the pillow with a soft thump.

“Not much thinking required for this.”

He rests his weight on one hand, freeing the other one up to stroke Deacon’s chest. His ribs, which stick out more than they should, and quiver in time with every thrust. He finds Deacon’s hand where the other man is jerking himself off. Wraps his own hand around Deacon’s, squeezing down on his knuckles. “Touch yourself,” he whispers, and feels Deacon shudder. “I want to know how bad you want this, how much you like it.”

Deacon actually chuckles. “Babe, I don’t know how many times I’m gonna have to tell you.”

Deacon’s hand pulls free under his, wrapping around his wrist and tugging. Obedient, he lets himself be guided. Brushes the tip of Deacon’s cock playfully. His fingertips come away wet. Deacon drags his hand further down, onto his abs; his palm comes into contact with the drips of pre-cum smeared across the other man’s skin.

He strokes his fingers through the slick and moans softly.

“Oh my god.”

“Pretty much,” Deacon says. He’s gratifyingly breathless. “Jesus Christ, what you’re doing to me right now. You’re fucking driving me crazy here. I’m trying to maintain my cool and mysterious exterior, trying to- oh god- trying to take this like a champ, and here you are fucking taking me apart, and it’s just- dammit. There is absolutely no way you’re still gonna respect me in the morning.” He lifts his hips, thighs parting further.

The near-painful tightness has eased; each thrust is a smooth, fluid glide. They’ve got some real friction building up. Deacon’s skin is hot against his own, and his palms are starting to prickle with sweat. He thrusts in deep, abruptly rough, and this time Deacon is the one moaning.

Fuck.”

“Working on it.” They share a ragged laugh. Then Deacon has a hand on one of his thighs, pushing him gently.

“New plan, tiger. Not that this isn’t awesome, but I was hoping for a big finish, you know? Something real spectacular. Missionary just doesn’t pack the kind of punch I’m looking for here.”

They renegotiate; Deacon takes the lead, rolling over onto his stomach and then rising up onto hands and knees. Changing his mind and grabbing the rough wooden headboard to balance himself. Even in near-total darkness, the intent is clear. He’s totally exposed like this.

An act of trust from someone who can’t afford to; it makes his mouth go dry with want. His hands come to rest on Deacon’s hips. He leans over far enough to lick the other man’s nape, just below the bandages.

“Uh, gross?”

“Like I couldn’t feel what it did to you.” He strokes up Deacon’s inner thigh, easing a couple of fingers back inside him. They slide easy on the lube, but he can feel the tension coming back, and that’s not something he’s willing to allow. Christ, he was getting so close. He’s almost hurting, an ache in his balls and the base of his cock that’s growing less minor by the second.

“You ready?” he asks. Deacon gives a frustrated sigh.

“Yes, I’m fucking ready, you sadist. Would you just get inside me already? I’m dying here, this is turning into an actual health risk, I- oh, oh god, fucking yes.”

Deacon shudders under him as he pushes back in, going as deep as he can. Ending the thrust with an upwards snap of his hips that almost has him seeing stars.

“Wow,” Deacon says shakily. “You know, ‘totally defenseless’ thing aside, I like this position, it’s seriously working for me. I’m getting all kinds of good, fuzzy feelings. Like picnics on a sunny day, only more orgasmic. This is good. I like this.”

He leans over and kisses Deacon’s neck through the bandages. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Deacon reaches back, grabbing a handful of his hair and tugging gently. “I’m actually a natural ginger.”

“Okay, what-“

“I said, hold me down and give it to me ‘til I cry. Come on, babe, I’m hurting here. A man has needs and right now your dick is pretty much top of that list.”

There’s not really much he can say in response to that. And if he could, he still couldn’t, not the way he is now. Heating up, sweat starting to form in his hairline. His thighs are almost shaking from the effort of taking it slow, fucking Deacon in the careful way that seems to drive him out of his mind, if the sounds he’s making are anything to go by. Even the jokes have stopped. They’re down to wordless pleading and the slick sounds of his thrusts, the headboard creaking every time he moves.

He rests a hand between Deacon’s shoulder blades and pushes him down, until the other man’s back is an inwards arch and he’s either swearing under his breath or praying to every god known to man and a few he just made up. Fumbling one-handed to jerk himself off. He’s tensing again; going shockingly tight, only this time it feels a lot more intentional.

“Oh, you bastard,” he gasps, fingers pressing into Deacon’s back. “That’s not fair.”

Deacon laughs, or maybe he’s sobbing; at this stage there’s no way to tell the difference. His face is half pressed into the pillow. It’s a wonder he can breathe at all. “I’ll apologise later.”

“Yeah, but will you mean it?” He slides his hand up Deacon’s spine and abandons all pretense at self control. Fast and shallow, friction building on the sensitive tip of his cock. Angling his thrusts so they go right where they’re wanted. Underneath him, Deacon presses his forehead into the pillow, groaning incoherently every few seconds.

“I’m- oh god, I’m pretty close to done, are you-” and Deacon’s wordless nod is all he needs. He grabs the other man’s ass, digging his fingers in, splaying a palm over his tail bone. Pressing a thumb to the edge of his entrance, where it stretches to accommodate his cock. He presses harder, and Deacon moans. For a second, he considers seeing if it’ll fit. If Deacon will let him.

He would. It’s a dizzying thought; he closes his eyes, suddenly short of breath. He’d give me anything I wanted right now.

It’s the thought that tips him over the edge.

He comes hard, his mind wiped briefly blank, his body operating on animal instinct. Snapping his hips forward a last few jerky times. Doesn’t make a sound; doesn’t have the breath to do so. He’s distantly aware of Deacon shuddering in response, muscles tightening spasmodically around his cock, and if that’s not a sign of good team work then he doesn’t know what is.

He pulls out gingerly, hyperaware of having left Deacon marked, come trickling down the backs of his legs.

“That’s disgusting,” Deacon mumbles; he sounds almost cheerful about it.

“Yeah, I, uh…hold on a second, I’ll clean up.”

They make do with rags and water from the pitcher on the desk. Hard to see in the dark, but he finds himself entranced by the sight of Deacon’s silhouette, briskly cleaning come off his inner thighs. There’s something inherently erotic about the moment; he swallows hard and turns away.

“Hey,” Deacon says, minutes later, as he settles back down onto the covers. “Go team. We did great.” He lifts a hand for a high five, and it’s just easier to indulge him than point out that kisses are more traditional. “Damn, we need a catchphrase or something. A victory dance, just you and me. Or…code names. We could be the Death Bunnies, and our enemies would underestimate us right up until you started feeding them their own spines.”

“Your pillow talk needs work.” On his back, he reaches over to slide an arm around Deacon’s shoulders and tug him close, mindful of the mystery bandages. Deacon’s head comes to rest on his collar, dark hair tickling the base of his chin. He sighs, contented.

“Yeah,” Deacon agrees. “But your Honor, in my defense, I can’t actually remember the last time I needed it. Never really been one to stick around.”

“Word of advice: dismemberment isn’t generally a good conversation starter. Also, I have never fed anyone their own spine. How would I even- no, never mind. I’m changing the subject.” He kisses the top of Deacon’s head. “So that was…freaking awesome.”

Deacon finds his chest with one hand, rubbing idle fingers through the hair there. “I don’t know, I’m not sure ‘awesome’ really covers it. We need something more. Spectaculawesome? Mind-blowingly fantaxcellent? Damn. Wish I hadn’t used my favourite thesaurus to make Danse’s bed just slightly uneven. Even if it is hilarious. You know he still hasn’t checked to see if maybe there’s a reason one corner is a bit higher than the rest? I did that over a month ago, it’s still there.”

“I’m getting rid of it tomorrow.”

“Buzzkill. And here I was about to tell you that you’ve managed to max out our relationship, thus unlocking my dark and tragic backstory. See if I tell you about my traumatic past life now. You’re missing out on some high quality pity fodder, I spent all month working on it.”

“I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, whenever you decide to tell me.”

They fall silent. Not uncomfortable, not even close; he cups Deacon’s shoulder in one hand, closes his eyes and settles into the closeness. The intimacy of a quiet night and a man breathing soft into his neck. And there’s more going on here than just the physical: his insides glow golden, and he’s tried to avoid putting a name to that, but maybe it’s time to just accept it.

Deacon came home, after all. Maybe it’s safe to try loving him.

He feels Deacon draw in a breath, like there’s something he wants to say. “Hmm?” he asks, when it’s not immediately forthcoming.

“Just thinking.”

“About?”

“You. Me. What I’m even doing.”

“What do you mean?” He opens his eyes.

“Think I came here to try and find a way out of the guilt,” Deacon says quietly. “Which is pretty crazy. Might have had better luck in a bar with a bottle of bourbon; that’s the time-honored tradition. Sometimes it even works. I don’t know why I came here instead, I mean, it’s not like you know anything about what happened, aside from what I tell you. And still, somehow I feel better.”

So they’re doing introspection now. This, at least, he knows how to handle.

“Maybe you just needed to hear that none of it was your fault.” He strokes Deacon’s bicep. “Sounds like it really wasn’t.”

Deacon is quiet for a while after that. He lies still, breathing slow, barely responding to careful touches, kisses to the top of his head. Then, abruptly, he speaks. “I saved lives.”

“Yeah?”

“Yup. The emergency tunnel, that was me being super paranoid. Nobody else really thought we needed it, but I hassled Dez and kept stealing all her chalk until she caved in and let me sort it out. Everyone who survived? They made it out through that tunnel. That was me. I did good.”

“Too fucking right you did. That’s incredible.”

“And then when the survivors were out, wandering around like they had no idea what to do, I saved us again. I mean, Dez called us all together and gave a speech about how we’d make it if we stayed united, but then she looked at me to find us a place to go. I had the backup safehouses planned out. Some of them, only I knew. I was the only one prepared for what happened to us. That’s pretty great, right?”

The pleading note in Deacon’s voice is heartrending to hear. “I bet they’d have been ruined without you. Your escape tunnel, your safehouse; it’s lucky you made it out, because it sounds like there wouldn’t be a Railroad without you. I hope your organisation appreciates that.”

Deacon chuckles against his collarbone. It’s soft, but it’s there. “Not a chance.”

“You’re really selling these people to me, they sound great.”

“They’re the absolute worst. I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to turn my emergency safehouse into a functional headquarters, complete with mowing down the local ghoul population and organizing scavenging runs and trying to get in touch with the tourists- and every goddamn time I report back in, it’s always, ‘Deacon, what took you so long! You’re late to the meeting! Have you been stealing my chalk again, because I can’t find it anywhere I look!’ What a nightmare.”

In the dark, one of Deacon’s hands finds his. They twine their fingers together, thumbs stroking over knuckles and skin.

“Tell me more,” he says, squeezing Deacon’s hand tight. “I want to know what you’ve been doing.”

“Coping, just,” Deacon says. “It’s been hell. Tinker Tom’s lost it completely; barely talks to anyone, and when he does it hardly even sounds like English. He’s been adding a new conspiracy theory to the pile on Dez’s war table every few hours.”

“Shit.”

“Drummer Boy doesn’t know what to do with himself, poor bastard. He’s way too young for this. I don’t think he’s realized exactly what happened yet. Just hope it hits him when I’m not around, is all. Glory keeps punching walls. That asshole Carrington is going around blaming anyone and everyone except himself. Mostly me, as usual. Never mind that we think the mole was someone he vouched for in the first place. And Dez, well. She’s gone all stoic. Snaps at everyone, hands out lists of orders all over the place, doesn’t have any patience for jokes. I told you she practically kicked me out, right? Yeah. She’s angry all day, and then at night she hopes nobody notices her crying into her pillow. Not that she’s the only one.”

“I can’t believe you stuck it out for three whole weeks. Sounds like you’d lose it.”

“That’s the thing,” Deacon says with a low laugh. “Everyone’s wandering around traumatized, bawling their eyes out whenever they have some privacy, wallowing in guilt. And then there’s me. I spent most of my time thinking about how I couldn’t wait to get the safety stuff sorted so I could track you down again. Coming up with all these amazing new disguises to show you. Planning out some awesome stories to explain where I’d been. You were like…my happy place, you know? At one point, Dez started giving this super dramatic speech about staying strong in troubled times, and I imagined you doing it in your Shroud voice. And then I started laughing, and Carrington punched me, and Dez got this real judgmental look on her face and made me go sit in the naughty corner for a while. Spent a good half hour giggling, and then she came over and told me I was freaking people out.”

“Think I can kind of see where she was coming from.” He nuzzles at Deacon’s hair, kissing his scalp and breathing in the vaguely berry-like mutfruit shampoo Mama Murphy keeps leaving in their communal showers. The scent has become so strongly intertwined with Sanctuary in his mind: wooden homes with hand-carved doors, exposed light bulbs and campfires. Rads-ravaged leaves in the wind and the bluest skies he’s ever seen, in any life. It hits him hard, and abruptly so. The smell of home on Deacon’s skin.

He swallows down the lump in his throat. “You should stay here,” he says, muffling the rasp in his voice with kisses. “Get some sleep. I can stay awake if you don’t feel safe, or I could go somewhere else; you don’t need to share if you’d rather be alone.”

“Thanks,” Deacon tells him. “But my ‘alone’ meter is completely full right now, and I’m getting this feeling like if I try to add more, I might snap and start painting faces on rocks and talking to them. You have guards on duty at night, yeah?”

“Of course.”

“And this building’s so creaky we’d probably wake up if an ant decided it wanted to explore the exciting career opportunities available on the second floor. Great early warning system, by the way. Five gold stars. Now squish over, you’re hogging all the leg room.”

“I’m taking up half the leg room,” he complains, moving over. It should be an uneasy fit; somehow, they make it work. His back ends up pressed flat to the wooden wall. He prefers it that way. It feels like a safety that was drilled deep into his skull, some two hundred years ago: keeping a wall behind him so nobody can catch him unawares. It’s funny, in a way. He has the feeling Deacon gets the same kind of safety from sleeping closest to the exit.

He runs an appreciative palm up Deacon’s back. “This okay for you?”

“The accommodations are fine, but there’s no way I’m going to fall asleep if you keep molesting me.” Deacon wriggles his shoulders, tugging the blankets further over to his side as he does. “And, just so you know, I don’t sleep too well, ever. Couple of hours at a time, then I get twitchy. You’ve seen it.”

“I always thought that was just because we were travelling.”

“Nope. One hundred percent pure, unadulterated Deacon paranoia. I’ll try not to wake you when I gotta go stretch my legs. Just…don’t be offended if I’m not here come morning. I’ll be close. But the whole ‘waking up in each other’s arms’ thing just isn’t going to happen with me. Sorry.” He sounds sincerely regretful about that. It’s touching to hear. Touching that he bothered to say it at all.

“I’ll forgive you if you bring me breakfast.” He presses one last kiss to the nape of Deacon’s neck. “Night.”

“Sleep tight, babe. Don’t let the giant mutie bed bugs gnaw your toes off.”

The night is long and peaceful.

Chapter Text

Sanctuary’s bird population hasn’t mutated beyond the habit of waking way too early and starting up a pre-dawn chorus. The sky is just barely starting to lighten when he opens his eyes. Blinking in the near darkness. The bed is warm, though he seems to have lost most of the covers, and one of his arms is cramping up from hours spent cradled against his chest. The other is draped across Deacon’s ribcage.

Still here? he thinks blearily, flexing his fingers with a wince. He can feel Deacon’s ribs rise and fall with every breath; deep and even, untroubled sleep.

It’s tempting to just stay where he is. But he’s an early riser, and most of Sanctuary’s people know that. Codsworth will come looking if he doesn’t at least trek down to the communal kitchen for tea. And he’s still not too sure where Deacon’s at inside his own head, but getting woken up by a flamethrower-wielding robot probably isn’t going to help matters any.

He eases out from under the covers. Deacon barely twitches. His breathing stays steady, eyes closed, and he looks impossibly vulnerable without the sunglasses.

“Be right back,” he mouths at the sleeping man, and goes to dig a pair of pants out of a storage chest.

Thankfully, Codsworth is pottering around on the ground floor, wiping a bench that no amount of wiping can ever really clean. The robot looks up at the creak of the staircase; he doesn’t have a face to smile with, but his eye stalks visibly perk up.

“Good morning, sir! You’re up early, and looking rather cheerful, if you don’t mind my saying so. How did you sleep?”

He lifts a finger to his lips. “Hey, Codsworth. Keep it down a little, yeah? I, uh…” he trails off, glancing up at the ceiling, and when he looks back, Codsworth’s three eyes have widened to full capacity. It’s actually almost funny.

Someone fetch the robot a fainting couch, he imagines Deacon saying, and has to hold in a laugh.

“Sir?” Codsworth asks tentatively. “Do you mean to say you had company for the night?” The way he says company reveals an inner war between curiosity and pre-programmed discretion.

“I did, yeah. He’s still asleep, I don’t want to wake him up if I don’t have to. He’s had a rough time of it recently.”

“This wouldn’t happen to be the personage you asked Mister Valentine to look for, would it?”

Looks like everyone knows. He’s not sure why he’s surprised; no doubt Nick was suitably tactful in spreading the news, and it saves him a lot of explaining.

“That’s the one. He’s alive,” and his voice cracks slightly as it really hits him. “A lot of people died, but he made it out, and then he came home.”

“I see,” Codsworth says gently. “Well, let me be the first to express my heartfelt relief, if I may. We’ve all been terribly worried about both of you. Now, you stay right here, sir, and I’ll see if I can’t rustle up some tea. No, no, it’s no trouble at all!” He heads for the door, before pausing and swiveling back. “Do tell Master Deacon that I am so terribly pleased to see him again, and I hope he plans to make his stay a long one.” He ducks out the door with a haste that almost looks embarrassed.

Seem like there’s nobody Deacon can’t win over.

He settles down on the bottom step, leaning back. Closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them, Codsworth is hovering tactfully a few feet away, clearing a throat he doesn’t actually have.

“Your tea, sir,” he says, offering a thermos and two cups. “Might I suggest you refrain from pouring it until Master Deacon is awake? Saves having to reheat. Also, breakfast will be ready in an hour or so, at the usual time. I’ll bring some up, shall I? I dare say you both deserve a bit of a lie-in.”

“Thanks, Codsworth.” He stands, wincing as his spine protests. “I’ll go see if Sleeping Beauty’s decided to rejoin the land of the living.”

He finds Deacon still asleep, most of the covers wrapped tight around him. Outside, the sky is getting just light enough to reveal details; crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, stubble shadowing his chin. It’s impossible to know how old he is, and pointless to ask something he’d just lie about. Still, he could well be in his forties. Which…depending on how you look at it, makes them both the older man. Seems like something Deacon will appreciate hearing, when he wakes up.

The tea gets set aside on his rickety, much-repaired desk; with a sigh, he pulls a pile of Minutemen reports towards himself instead. They’ve started stacking up. He hasn’t been able to deal with them just recently. Now, with the sun rising behind him, he gets to reading.

Half an hour later, Deacon finally wakes.

He does it without warning, like he does everything else. One minute he’s passed out, blankets drawn up to his chin, and the next-

“The light. It burns.”

“Sure does, if you’ve been asleep for about ten hours.” He lays the Minutemen reports aside and reaches for the thermos. “Morning, sweetheart. You want tea?”

Under the blankets, Deacon throws him a baleful look. “I freaking knew it. You absolutely don’t respect me anymore. Like, at all. All the mystery is gone.”

“Nah. I still think you’re plenty mysterious.” He brings a chipped cup of tea over to the bed, waiting for Deacon to sit up before handing it over. “Handsome, too. Did I mention that you have amazing eyes?”

“Figures,” Deacon says. “You’re a sap. I might have known. So, wait, what’s this about ten hours? No way. I’m physically incapable of sleeping that long, it never happens.”

“It did this time. But you were kind of a mess.”

“That I was.” Deacon sips the tea, closing his eyes briefly. “Thanks.”

“Codsworth made it.”

“Not what I was referring to, wiseass.”

He brings his own tea over to the bed, sitting cross-legged on the covers at Deacon’s side. They toast each other with their mugs; he sees the humour in Deacon’s eyes, and relaxes. “You don’t have anything to thank me for. I’m just glad you’re alive.”

“Yeah, well. You and me both. I’m pretty attached to my own skin, however often I get it changed.”

“You and me both.” He pats Deacon’s knee through the covers. Lets his hand linger. It’s not that things are…tense, exactly, because they never are. He’s just not too sure of where the new boundaries are. If they even have any.

“You’ve got your thinky face on,” Deacon tells him. “Please tell me we’re not about to do the awkward morning after dance, because that’s not in my job description and I’m totally unqualified to handle it.”

He looks up. “No, uh-“

“Great. Awesome. C’mere and kiss me good morning, I hate feeling all weird around you. We’re better than that. Right?”

“Right.” He leans over and surrenders. Deacon’s lips are warm, taste of weak tea, and they meld with his like this is something they’ve been doing for years. He can’t help but sigh. Feels Deacon smile in response.

“That’s nice. Could really get used to that. Which is a terrible idea and a giant safety risk and we’d probably better keep it on the down low to keep us both from getting Institute-napped, but…yeah. We could work something out. Just make sure Dez never hears about it. Or Carrington, that son-of-a.”

He sits back, getting comfortable against Deacon’s legs. “That won’t be a problem, seeing as I’ve never met either of them.”

“About that,” Deacon says, abruptly serious. “Think it’s long past time you did.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. I’m not saying it’ll be the easiest thing in the world, and you’ll have to do the actual finding yourself, though I’m totally prepared to come with you all the way up to Diamond City and then draw you a map or something. Better bring Dogmeat, thar be sea monsters. By which I mean lots and lots of ghouls.”

“My favourite thing.” He sips his tea and smiles. It’s good to have a mission. A direction. A secret Deacon’s finally ready to share.

“Nothing you can’t handle,” Deacon says. “Most of the problem’s finding us in the first place. Ever heard of the Freedom Trail?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Better for us, then. The less people know, the safer we are.” Deacon finishes his tea, holding the mug loosely in his lap. His eyes are soft; it’s a shock, still, to actually see them. An intimacy that threatens to take his breath away. “It’s pretty freakin cool, actually. You have to blindly follow a red line on the ground, past a bunch of interesting and educational historical structures- and you’d better stop and read those goddamn plaques. I polished every single one of them, and they’re just super. Totally factual. You’ll learn so much.”

“Follow red line, read plaques, learn history, subdue sea monsters. Got it.” In the distance, Sanctuary’s bell starts to toll; the morning call for communal breakfast. They’ll move past that someday, in a year or two, when households are able to cook their own meals. It’ll be a sign of independence. But it’ll also be a loss of sorts. Them’s the breaks, he supposes. The cost of progress after the apocalypse. “This doesn’t sound too tricky.”

Downstairs, he can hear Codsworth moving about, calling up a greeting. Coming up with breakfast. Unasked, he reaches for Deacon’s sunglasses where they lie on the bedside table. Hands them over.

“Thanks,” Deacon says. And the sunglasses are back in place, but the sense of companionship lingers, and they don’t go back to being strangers. “You, you won’t have any issues walking the Freedom Trail.” He grins, sudden and bright. “You’ve been walking it for a long time now.”